RUN

By

Dayspring

Friday

"Got any plans for Spring Break?" Pete asked me as we headed for our lockers between classes.

"Other than the usual Ďget the farm ready for springí ritual? Nah. What about you?"

"My brother said I could come stay with him in the dorm, see if Iíll like going to Met U. Wanna join me? Franklin wonít mind."

I thought about it for a minute. Being in Metropolis for the week could be fun. But what if Lex had something planned--or even just came looking for me? Pete was a buddy, but Lex was my best friend--whether Pete liked it or not. "Dad really needs me but I expect you to tell me everything when you get back."

"You got it, bro."

"Clark!"

Pete and I both turned around. "Chloe, whatís wrong?"

"You havenít heard? Someone shot Lex Luthor!"

"What!" Oh, God, no. "Is he--" I felt the world graying around the edges. Another special power? No, just shock.

"I donít think itís too serious. They didnít call an ambulance or anything--Security just whisked him back into the building."

"What building?"

"The plant. He was walking out to his car and a sniper just shot him! My dad must be freaking!"

Chloeís dad was a manager at the fertilizer plant. Maybe she could--no, I had to know for myself. The warning bell sounded, telling us we had three minutes to get to class. But I knew I could be--would be--somewhere else by then.

"I have to go," I mumbled as I slung my backpack across a shoulder.

"Clark, man, youíre going to get in trouble," Pete warned.

And heís not worth it. Pete hadnít said the words, but heíd made it very clear how he felt about Lex. It was only because of my quick interference that he wasnít a suspect in Lexís shooting. "Save it, Pete."

"Thereís nothing you can do," Chloe argued as Pete stomped away.

"Heís my friend."

"Securityís going to be tight. They probably wonít let you see him."

"Iíd like to see them try to stop me."

"Clark," Chloe tried again, then she shrugged. "Good luck."

I nodded distractedly. "Talk to you later."

Getting off the campus without being seen was easy, but I stopped in front of Argentís Appliances when I saw the pictures on the 52-inch television screen that everyone craved but no one could afford. Lex. The companyís website picture of him. What did that mean? I urged my ears to pick up what the television was saying.

"The Luthor heir is said to be resting comfortably at Luthor Castle. A doctor is in attendance."

"Why isnít he at the hospital, Phil?" an anchorwoman cut in to ask.

"Apparently, security is a big concern, Rachel."

"So they donít think this is an isolated incident?"

"Well, when Luthors are involved, anything is possible."

I resisted the urge to make a quick stop at the television station to show him just what was possible, and hurried toward Lexís home. An honest-to-goodness castle airlifted stone by stone from Scotland and set up in the middle of Kansas should have been the biggest joke in the Midwest, and it had been for a while. But when Lex had taken up residence there, after having been "exiled" to Smallville, suddenly the manor had become less of a joke and more of a fact. Lex and the castle were a perfect fit.

After dropping down to walking speed, I eyed the crowd milling outside the castleís gates. Vultures. Not a single one of them truly concerned about Lex. I felt a rush of anger in defense of my friend. Whatever Lex had been prior to coming to Smallville, heíd shown nothing but respect for the town and its people. Heíd increased the workforce at the plant, improved safety conditions, and instituted a liberal family leave policy. And while keeping himself isolated would have been par for his role as the local lordship, instead he had a favorite table at the Beanery, ordered produce from my familyís farm, and gave his patronage to the shops on Main Street, making huge purchases and sending local wares to all over the world.

Damn it! He deserved better than just media hounds and security at his door. He deserved people who actually cared. I walked up to the guard at the gate.

"Hi, my name is Clark Kent. Iíd like to see Mr. Luthor, please."

"So would the world, kid. Get lost."

"If thereís some list of approved visitors, Iím sure Iím on it," I tried again. "Or if you just tell Lex that Iím here--"

The guard fingered his gun. "Iím telling you for the last time, kid--get lost!"

I glared but walked away. I circled the perimeter of the estate until I found a gap between security officers. Well, at least they were taking Lexís welfare seriously for a change. The poor guy had been assaulted more in Smallville than he had his entire life. At first, all the strange forms of life that freely roamed the streets of Smallville seemed to focus on Lana, but apparently they were just using her for target practice until they discovered Lex was in town. Even that stupid-looking plant had sent everyone after Lex before it tried to kill them. Dad had told Lex off, Lana had tried to seduce him, and Pete, well, Pete had seriously tried to murder him.

Leaping the electrified fence with ease, I streaked across the lawn and through the kitchen door. The room was empty, and with my X-ray vision, I determined so was most of the rest of the castle. But Lexís room was occupied.

"Lex."

His upper arm was being carefully wrapped by a man wearing a stethoscope. "Clark! Come on in. Donít look like that--Iím fine. The bullet went straight in and straight out, bypassing anything important. Just tissue damage. Thank you, Dr. Patel. Security will see you out."

"I will write prescriptions for antibiotics, and for the pain that will return as soon as the injection wears off. Shall I leave them with Security?"

"Yes. Theyíll probably want to scan the contents before Iím allowed to take them." Lex sighed. "Death threats can be so time-consuming."

"You say that as if this isnít the first time," I said as the doctor repacked his black bag and walked out.

"Itís not. Being Lionel Luthorís son has its disadvantages."

"You think this has something to do with your dad?"

Lex carefully laid back against a tower of pillows. "Perhaps. But I probably have my own set of enemies now."

"This wasnít just a threat, Lex. It was an actual attempt on your life. What happened?"

"Someone was on top of the plant with a high-powered rifle. When I went to get into my car--pop! The only thing that kept the shot from being fatal was that I couldnít find my car keys. I was turning to go back into the plant to look for them, and thatís why my arm was hit and not my heart."

I shivered as I realized how close it had been.

"And donít you dare say youíre sorry," Lex ordered. "Weíve had that discussion before, remember?"

I nodded, remembering his words about messiah complexes and enemies. "Can I feel sorry for the fact that youíre hurt?"

Lex smiled. "You might want to save that for later when Dr. Patelís injection wears off. At the moment, Iím still quite numb."

I stared at the white bandages until they disappeared. I saw the path the bullet had taken and the destruction left in its wake. Thanks to the fluke electrical storm that had given Eric my powers, I knew what pain really felt like. How did Lex stand it on a weekly basis? "Whereís your dad?"

"South Korea."

"Heís on his way?"

His eyes closed. "Since we donít know the motive behind the attempt, and the shooter got away, itís prudent that we donít accidentally give the party or parties a double target."

In other words, his dad was staying safe on another continent while his son played the bulls-eye. Typical behavior for Lionel Luthor. Just like the hostage situation at the plant. "Someone should be here with you. I didnít even see the staff on my way up."

"The security team Dad hired sent everyone home until they pass another background check."

I didnít like it. The tactic was isolating Lex from anyone familiar. "Iím staying the night," I decided.

"Your parents might have problems with that. Youíve gotten into enough life and death situations because of your proximity to me."

My parents had problems with everything having to do with Lex. "Iíve told them that I wonít cut you out of my life, Lex. Youíre too important to me."

Before Lex could comment, a man came into the room. "Lex, your--" He spied me and pulled his gun.

I immediately moved between him and Lex.

"Get away from Mr. Luthor!" he cried, aiming his weapon.

"Drop the gun!" I growled. Lex was not going to get shot twice in one day.

"Both of you stand down," Lex said calmly. "Clark, this is my head of security, Jim Butler. Butler, this is Clark Kent, my friend--who, I take it, didnít go through security to get into the manor?"

"They wouldnít let me pass," I said defensively.

"Nonsense. I know for a fact that you are always allowed through security. Isnít that right, Butler?"

Butler quickly slipped the gun back into its holster. "Your father has hired on extra men. Perhaps--"

"I thought I was paying you to be the head of my security, not my father. Perhaps you should be out there doing your job rather than in here pointing a gun at my friend," Lex said, his voice a soft warning.

Butler backed toward the door. "Yes, sir."

"Butler."

"Sir?"

"I assume you came in here to tell me something?"

"Your P.R. people have arrived. Theyíre setting up in your office."

"Have they been checked out?" I asked.

"Listen, kid," Butler began.

"The Ďkidí has saved my life a hell of a lot more than you have."

I watched the man flush with--fear? Well, it was true that this quiet-spoken Lex was way more scary than a yelling one. Actually, I could never remember hearing a yelling-in-anger Lex. Lex usually saved yelling for dire, life-endangering situations.

Iíd heard Lex yell too often.

Butler sighed. "Iíll go double-check their credentials and equipment."

"You do that."

I watched the man leave, then turned to Lex. "Now I know for certain Iím staying."

Lex smiled and got to his feet, wobbling as he reacted to gravity. I was beside him in an instant, wrapping a supportive arm around his waist. "Youíve been shot, you idiot," I said with a glare.

"I need to get dressed for the press conference," Lex explained, shaking off my arm and moving toward his closet. "Maybe a navy suit this time instead of black. Less funereal, wouldnít you say?"

I plopped down on the bed. "Donít say stuff like that. This isnít a joke, Lex. Someone tried to kill you."

"I know itís not a joke, Clark." Lex pulled out a navy suit and a stark white shirt. With his good arm loaded, he forgot his injury and moved to shut the closet door with the hurt one. He muttered a curse as I took the clothes from him and guided him toward the bed. "But I canít let it affect business. I may just be the heir, but LuthorCorp stock will react to this. Our stockholders need to see that Iím alive, healthy, and have the situation under control. Dad probably thinks Iíve waited too long already."

I wanted to say, "Fuck what your dad thinks," but I figured Lex had had enough shock for one day. Instead, I helped Lex into the shirt. "I suppose you have a speech writer working desperately downstairs."

"Look in the box on the dresser and hand me a pair of cufflinks. Any of the silver ones. And no, no speechwriter. I donít trust anyoneís words but my own."

"You donít trust a lot, do you?"

Cool gray eyes, just this side of blue, looked up from where he was inserting the cufflink. "No."

"Good." A pale eyebrow climbed. "Someone just shot you--I donít want you trusting anyone."

"Except you?"

I blushed and shrugged. "You know I mean you no harm."

"Yes, I do. After all, what would you do with your spare time if you didnít have me around to save?" Lex said, grinning.

"Youíve done your share of saving, too, Lex. That means a lot to me."

"Anything to protect my friends, remember? And speaking of that--go home."

"No." I took the other cufflink and attached it. Then I started buttoning the shirt. Being a camp counselor three summers in a row paid off as I accomplished the task with minimal fumbling.

"Just a few hours, Clark. Go home, get your parents permission to stay the weekend, then return--in your secret way."

"Lex--"

Lexís lips quirked a little. "Itís okay. I donít want to know how you get onto the estate. There were places where I would slip to when I was younger, places no one knew I could get into. SometimesÖsometimes I wish I still had those places."

My heart broke for him. "If you ever need to escape, come to the loft."

"Thatís your refuge, Clark."

"I donít mind sharing it--with you."

Lex turned and took off his pants, using the tall bedpost for balance. "Thanks for the offer," he said as he slipped into the navy pants. "You might regret it one day when you come in and find me huddled in a corner trying to block out the world."

"No regrets, and if the world comes for you before youíre ready, Iíll just tell it to keep the hell out. ĎKay?"

Lex sat heavily on the bed. "Do you know how hard it is to spoil an already spoiled rich kid? But somehow youíre managing it. You work all kinds of miracles, donít you?"

I shook my head. Lex had had everything money could buy, but he wasnít spoiled because he knew--maybe more than the average person--that everything came with a price. Lionel had made sure of that. "Friends take care of friends. Youíd protect me from the world, wouldnít you?"

"With everything I have." He looked at the hanger on the bed. "You do the valet thing quite well. Want to help me with this vest?"

I removed the vest from the hanger, then reached around Lex to help guide his arms through the appropriate holes. "Summer camp counselor. Mainly T-shirts and shorts, but for Community night--button-ups and long pants. Six-year olds have limited eye-hand coordination with things like buttons." As a visual aid, I buttoned the vest.

"Big Brother Kent to the rescue, huh? So how do I look?" Lex asked as he shrugged into the long jacket.

"Well, you need to fix your hair, but--"

Lex grinned and punched my arm.

"Ouch! We both donít need to be handicapped at the same time, you know."

"I didnít even bruise you, crybaby. So, do I look far removed from my deathbed?"

I eyed the long lean figure who had a style that was definitely all his own. "You look like Lex Luthor, Master of All He Surveys." And he did. No evidence of injury--or fear. I picked up my pack. "Iíll be back as soon as I can."

"If--if you canít make it, Iíll understand."

I reached out and squeezed Lexís shoulder lightly. "Iíll be back."

Lex nodded. "Well, in the meantime, my public awaits. See you later, Mr. Kent."

I opened the bedroom door. "Count on it, Mr. Luthor."

~*~

"Howís Lex?"

I let the screen door slowly close behind me before answering my motherís question. "Shot, but in good spirits." I slid the backpack from my shoulder. "You know?"

"The school called when you didnít show for your last two classes. I told them that it was my fault, that I was supposed to call and get you excused early."

I sat down at the table across from her. "I had to go, Mom. After Chloe told me, I had to go."

Mom nodded. "I know, honey. Thatís why I covered for you."

I could always count on my mom, and I knew I could share my fear with her. "It was because he misplaced his keys," I said softly, staring at my hands.

"What?" She got up and poured me a glass of milk.

"He was turning back to go find his car keys. Thatís why the bullet hit his arm and not his heart."

"Oh, Clark." She set the milk down and leaned over to hug me from behind. "His father must be frantic."

"Heís in South Korea, and heís not coming back--just in case the gunman would prefer him to Lex."

"No, sweetie, not even Lionel Luthor would be that heartless."

"Itís true, Mom. Thatís why Iím going to stay with Lex for a while. Security has even gotten rid of his normal staff. Thereís no one up there who cares if heís in painÖor just plain scared."

Mom bit her lip. "I donít know what your father is going to think about that, Clark."

"Oh, Dad made it very clear what he thinks of Lex when he was infected with that flower, but I--Dad canít choose my friends for me. I know Lex schemes and lies on occasion, and I suspect he knows more about Dr. Hamilton and his research than he let on. But I lie, too. A lot, Mom."

"For your protection," she protested.

"Yeah, maybe thatís what Lex thinks, too. Anyway, I canít expect him to cut me some slack if I canít do him the same favor."

She ran her hands through my thick hair. "I miss my little boy, whoís biggest worry was when that twister came through and knocked down the television antenna. Couldnít get the PBS channel for a week."

"Every kid needs their Sesame Street fix."

"But I wouldnít trade the dedicated young man I have sitting in my kitchen right now for anything in the world. Lex Luthor is your friend. Dad and I are just going to have to accept that."

"Iím sorry, Mom. I never wanted to disappoint either of you--"

"Weíre not disappointed."

"--but I canít abandon Lex. I canít do what his dad has done."

"Your dad will understand." She gave me a smile. "Iíll make him understand."

Have I said how much I love my mother?

I glanced at the clock on the wall. "Wanna see Lex on TV? Heís doing a news conference."

"Shouldnít he be resting?"

"Heís trying to reassure LuthorCorp stockholders and keep his dad off his back. You know, Iím starting to understand why Dad doesnít like Lionel Luthor. I just donít get why that hatred has to trickle down to Lex.."

"A man has to prove himself in your fatherís eyes," she said as we moved to the living room and the television.

"No, a man has to prove himself good in Dadís eyes; heíll just take it on faith that heís bad."

"Clark!"

I slumped onto the sofa. "Sorry, Mom. Shh. Itís on."

Lexís office looked different on television, more businesslike and imposing. Still, it made me feel funny inside that I knew the room so well. It was like--everyone was impressed to be in a place where Iíd eaten Oreos, been tutored in history, and knocked over an expensive blue bottle of water. Cool.

Lex walked into the room as he walked into every room, confident and relaxed. A podium had been set up opposite several rows of chairs. All the chairs were occupied. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I know you all have news rooms waiting for you, so letís get on with this. As you know, a shot was fired at me as I was leaving LuthorCorpís Fertilizer Plant Number 3. The shooter is still at large but I have every confidence in the Smallville Police Department as well as the special security force my father has employed."

"The Smallville Police?" I muttered. "The same yahoos who arrested Dad? I know youíre not that dumb, Lex."

"Mr. Luthor!"

"Please, call me Lex."

"Lex, Starr Davis of KSMV. Can you tell us how badly you were injured?"

Lex smiled and stepped away from the podium. "Apparently not too badly as you can see, Ms. Davis. I was treated by my personal physician and he predicts a complete recovery."

"Perry White, the Daily Planet. Will your father be arriving soon?"

"I love Smallville, Mr. White, and Iím starting to consider it home, but if my father stops by every time I get a scratch while Iím here, he may as well move in," Lex said laughingly. His audience tittered politely. "My father is out of the country on business. There is no cause for him to return."

"Chloe Sullivan, the Smallville Torch." I suppressed a groan. "Do you think the hit was personal or business?"

"Oh, Chloe," I said, shaking my head.

Lex just smiled. "I can always count on you to be straightforward, canít I, Ms. Sullivan? To answer your question, I would have to know the shooter and his or her motivation. Since I know neither, I truly cannot respond with anything more than speculation."

The questions went on for ten more minutes before Lex turned it over to the Smallville Chief of Police. Mom aimed the remote control and cut the TV off.

"It was nice that he allowed Chloe in," she said.

"I keep telling you heís a nice guy. Iím going to get my chores done, so I can get back to the mansion by the time the press clears out."

"Do you want me to pack you a few changes of clothes?" she offered. "Just for the weekend to start, and Iíll talk to your father about longer."

"Iím out of school for the whole week."

Mom sighed. "Letís just get through the weekend. Deal?"

I nodded and bent down to kiss her cheek. "Thanks, Mom."

"And youíre going to eat dinner before you leave. Lex probably isnít going to be too hungry and I donít want someone having to cook just for you."

I headed for the door, and stopped. "I love you, Mom."

Mom smiled and waved me away. "I love you too, son."

*****

"Nice job, son."

I looked to my father, then back at the freshly organized barn and shrugged.

"Your way of asking for a favor?" he continued. "I saw Peteís father downtown. He mentioned Pete was going to Metropolis for spring break. You want to join him?"

"Lex was shot today." I continued to stack the hay.

"I know. Saw his press conference. He said it was just a scratch."

"I know this wonít come as a surprise to you--he lied. The bullet went through his arm. Thatís why Iím going to stay with him during break."

"And what if I donít approve?"

Silence.

"I know I didnít raise an insolent and disobedient child."

I arranged the last bale and sat on top of it. "You raised me to be kind, loving, and loyal, Dad. Iím not turning my back on that. Someone tried to kill my friend and that same someone is still out on the loose. How can I be true to what you taught me to be if I donít try to protect him? You know Iím in no danger."

"Lionel has sent a security force."

"Lionel Luthor probably kept the best men for himself." I knew Dad couldnít argue with that; heíd probably had the same thought.

Dad joined me on the bale. "Youíve been lucky so far, son. Only that cop Phelan has discovered our secret. And you know how badly that turned out. Luthor--Lex--is going to be watched closely. By the press, the cops, his security people. Someoneís bound to notice something."

I looked at him incredulously. "Iím supposed to let Lex die to keep our secret? Now that sounds like a thought worthy of Lionel, not you. You hate the Luthors so much that youíre willing to become one?"

"Darn it, Clark! Why is he so important to you?"

"Because I donít have to hide who I am around him."

Dadís arm shot out to grab mine. "What. Does. That. Mean?"

"Not what you think." I sighed. "Iíve gone through changes--big changes lately, physically and mentally. God, Dad, I found out I came to earth in a spaceship."

"I know, son."

"But do you know how much that has screwed me up inside? I donít--I canít think the way I use to think. I canít act the way I used to act. Itís impossible to see the world in the same way. With Pete and Chloe I have to fake that Iím still just an ordinary all-American teenager because if they know Iíve changed, theyíre going to want to know why.

"Lex never knew the old Clark. He has nothing to compare me to, so I can be who I am with him. If I say Iím interested in the quantum physics of time travel, he doesnít look at me like Iíve lost it. He just points me in the direction of his library or finds some site on the internet that he thinks will be useful. Do you know what we talk about when weíre together, Dad? Literature and philosophy and history. If anyone was trying to listen to our intimate conversations, you know what they would hear? Not Lex plotting to destroy the world or me confessing to being able to save it. All they would hear would be two geeks discussing the universe, two freaks just trying to make sense of an alien world."

"I--I didnít know you felt this way, Clark."

"Thatís because I canít be me with you, either."

"Thatís not true."

How could I make him understand? "If I wanted to talk to you and Mom about sex or Lana or drugs, youíd both be caring and understanding. But when I want to talk about me and where I come from, you tense up. I was even mean to Chloe because thereís something youíre hiding about my adoption. Youíre always warning me about the Luthors. But, Dad, honesty is not our family motto, either."

"We just want to protect you."

"I get that. We lie for a good cause. The Luthors lie just because they can. But in the end, lying is still lying, Dad."

"Dinner!"

We both looked toward the house.

"Best not to keep your mom waiting," Dad said, standing and brushing off the straw that clung to him. "Promise me that youíll be careful?"

"Always, Dad."

Dinner was strained, but we all tried to ignore it. Dad didnít say anything when I slung my pack on my shoulder, but I could feel his disapproval battering against me. Mom must have felt it too, because she stepped between the two of us and blocked it. Then she tugged me into a hug and whispered that everything was going to be fine. I nodded, more in appeasement than agreement. As long as Dad was against Lex, we were going to have problems.

By the time I made it back to Luthor Castle, Lex was sprawled across his bed asleep--jacket off, shoes on, one cufflink in his hand. Handling the press must have been exhausting. I slipped off the shoes, removed the other cufflink, and spread a blanket across my battered friend. Then I took a book out of my backpack, lay across the other half of the bed, and kept watch.

Saturday

Lex jerked awake.

"Youíre okay, Lex. Take it easy."

"Clark?"

I smiled reassuringly and put my hand on Lexís chest so he wouldnít make any sudden movements. "Yeah, itís me. Lie still so you donít hurt your arm."

"My arm?" Lex blinked and his eyes focused. "Fuck. It wasnít just a dream, was it?"

"No."

"How long have I been out of it?"

"Itís after midnight. I was going to wake you but I thought you needed the sleep."

"Anybody know youíre here?"

"No, no oneís come to check on you all night." I wasnít happy about that at all.

"I was completely wiped after the press conference. I might have made threats about being bothered. But Iím sure they would have told me if theyíd caught the guy, so I guessÖ" He struggled to sit up and I helped him. He grimaced. "I need a shower, pills, and more sleep. And not necessarily in that order."

"Sounds like a pretty good order to me. Wouldnít want the pills knocking you out in the shower." When I was sure Lex was balanced on the bed, I reached over to the nightstand. "I stopped by the kitchen, just in case." I held up a roll of plastic wrap.

Lex smiled and reached for the buttons on his shirt. "Be careful, youíre starting to know me too well."

"Just try to keep the arm from any direct spray," I cautioned as I helped remove the shirt, then wrap the bandaged limb.

"Yes, Mommy."

I made an obscene gesture, and Lex laughed as he disappeared into the bathroom, leaving the door ajar.

"You comfortable where you are, or do you want one of the other rooms on this floor?" Lex called.

"Iím good." I listened to the sounds of Lex brushing his teeth.

Lex rinsed. "So is this with or without parental permission?"

"With."

"Both? I know you can sucker your mom into doing anything for you."

"Is it so difficult to believe she actually likes you, Lex?"

"Given your fatherís feelings for me, yes."

"She has her own mind, you know. In fact, if you go to her and just suggest that she has to agree with Dad about everything, Iím pretty sure youíll find out just how independent she is."

"So sheís the one responsible for your stubborn streak?"

"Ha. She blames Dad for that."

"Ow!"

"What!"

"Relax, Clark. Just tried to turn on the shower with the wrong arm."

I heard the water start and picked up my book. I had three pages left in the chapter, and then Iíd go down to the kitchen and make up something light for Lex. Afterwards, Iíd turn off the light and pretend to get some sleep.

Just as I flipped to the correct page, I thought I heard Lex coughing. I turned my head to listen, but the sound was muffled by the beat of the water. "Lex, you okay?" Silence. "Lex?"

I stood and went to the bathroom door. Easier and a lot less of a headache than using my X-ray vision or turning up the gain on my hearing. "Lex? Lex, Iím coming in." I stepped inside and looked around.

In a blur I moved to the shower. Lex lay just within the glass enclosure, his body keeping the door from closing. "Lex!" At first I thought the day had caught up with him and heíd just passed out, but as I opened the door to get better access, I smelled an odd bitterness coming from the steam that had built up inside.

I didnít have to have spent my formative years on a farm to recognize the scent of poison.

I picked up Lex and raced into the bedroom, laying him on the plush carpet so I could examine him. Pulse, yes. Respiration, no. I quickly bent over him, and began breathing into his mouth. Three puffs later, Lex was coughing and breathing on his own.

Lexís eyes opened slowly, but they were focused and aware as they looked up into mine. "People are going to start talking," he rasped.

In my relief, I grinned stupidly. "They already are. I need to go turn the water off."

Lexís hand gripped my arm. "Itís not safe."

"Iíll be okay." I left and, holding my breath, went back into the bathroom. I turned off the tap and stared at the shower structure with my X-ray vision. There was some kind of device just inside the showerhead. I could--

"Clark!"

Thinking that Lex was getting worried about me, I headed back to the bedroom. "Iím okay, Lex. Thereís--" I stopped because Lex wasnít paying any attention to me. Lexís eyes were staring at a particular spot beneath his bed.

I dropped to the floor to have a look myself. My eyes widened as a line of red numbers slowly ticked off: 00:03Ö00:02ÖI snatched Lex up into my arms and headed toward the window.

The explosion sent us sailing through the glass.

*****

My only thought as we flew through the night air was to protect Lex. I wrapped my body firmly around his and made sure that I took the brunt of the impact as we hit the ground. Over and over we rolled, but I determinedly held on to my precious burden.

"Lex!" I cried as soon as we stopped moving. I peeled my arms away and sat up to inspect Lex.

Lex opened his eyes, blinked, then closed them again. "Iím not particularly fond of hats, but if I stay in Smallville much longer, I have to get a football helmet."

I winced. "Another concussion?" My hands traced Lexís skull until I found an area that was hot and swelling. Damnit. Iíd tried so hard to protect him.

Lex laughed and I could see moisture leaking from beneath his closed lids. "This just isnít my fucking day, is it? Fucking bullet, fucking poisonous gas, fucking bomb. Goddamnit! Iím fucking tired of it!"

"Lex." He was just really pissed, right? And not seriously neurologically damaged?

Gray eyes opened, fury burning bright in their depths. "I donít fucking want to hear it, Clark. If I fucking want to have a fucking meltdown in the middle of some fucking--" He looked around him-- "What the fuck is this?"

"Wheat, Lex. You donít recognize it?" I asked worriedly. How much head trauma could a typical human take?

"In the fucking daylight, I can fucking recognize fucking wheat, Clark. But this is the middle of the fucking night and thatís my fucking castle burning in the distance like some fucking inferno--and why the fuck are you laughing?"

Lex was fine. I should have known Lex was in no way a typical anything. "Because weíre alive, Lex. Weíre alive."

Lex blinked. "There is that. Help me up." He looked at the castle. "The explosion must have provided quite a bit of thrust for us to end up this far away."

I didnít reply.

"We should be dead."

Shit. Here it is, Mom and Dad. Iím so sorry. A hand brushed against mine and I looked down into eyes that seemed to understand--something.

"I have a concussion in a long series of concussions. Iím losing blood from a gunshot wound--" Lex held up his hand when I made to check the bandage-- "and a sundry assortment of cuts. Whatever I think I see or hear or experience is inadmissible and highly suspect."

I looked at Lex to make sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing. "And how long will this concussion last?"

"For the duration of this suddenly volatile situation weíve found ourselves in."

I quickly accepted the terms of the offer, then noticed the fine shivers attacking Lexís body. I hurriedly removed my sweater. "Youíre shivering!"

"Iím wet, Clark. And naked. And in a wheat field. After three murder attempts. Of course Iím shivering!"

"I need to get you home," I said, draping the sweater across Lexís shoulders to keep from disturbing the arm.

Lex hissed as the wool rubbed across several cuts. "You know in a perfect world, Iíd be in shock right now and incapable of feeling pain. That settles it--lifeís a bitch."

"Shut up, Lex, and let me take you to my house. Mom can--"

"We need to think about this, Clark. We need--"

I picked him up and whisked him to the loft.

"--to plan--" Lex closed his mouth, looked around the barn, and down at the old sofa he was lying on. A blanket draped across his naked form. One low lamp was lit.

"Better?" I asked cautiously.

"Um, sure. As I was--" Lex eyed me suspiciously, then continued. "As I was saying, maybe it isnít a good idea to let anyone know I survived the explosion." Sirens could be heard cutting through the countryside.

"You want everyone to think youíre dead?"

"I want the chance to figure out who has gone to so much trouble to kill me."

"We can hide out here," I offered.

"Bad idea. You were seen with me yesterday. If Butler is any good, heís going to come over here looking for you. That would only-- Where are you going, Clark?"

"To get the first aid kit and some sweats for you."

"Good, because I think I have wheat up my ass." Lex wiggled and reached down, pulling up a stalk of the stuff. "See?"

I started laughing and couldnít stop. I was so relieved that Lex--was Lex. How in the world could Dad think Lex was anything like Lionel? I could picture Lionel in this situation: heíd be stomping around the loft, ranting and throwing around empty threats. The air would grow heavy and the situation worse as Lionel continued to be loud, overbearing, and obnoxious. It was definitely a good thing that Lex had been the one whoíd confronted Earl in the plant, or else there could have been a lot more injured than just Whitney. And without Lex, the entire class would have been in the locked down facility and I wouldnít have had the chance to stop the methane leak and--

"Clark!"

The sharp tone caught my attention and I realized Iíd been laughing too long. "Sorry, Lex. Let me--"

"Sit," Lex ordered, drawing up his legs to clear an end of the sofa. "Sit and take a few moments to breathe."

"Iím--"

"I donít care what youíre physically capable of, Clark, youíre still in shock. Just take a couple of minutes to deal with whatís happened. We have time."

I sat and looked at him in amazement. "How can you be worried about me?"

Lex shrugged. "How can I not be? Youíre my friend."

I took a few settling breaths and used the back of my hand to wipe away the tears that my laughter had caused. Okay, I could do this. I could be like Lex--composed, thinking, controlling the fear instead of being controlled. Three assassination attempts, and he was plotting and jokingly pulling straw from his butt. That took a special kind of courage that I longed to mimic.

Iíd already learned a lot from Lex about how to handle a crisis. Iíd grown used to using my abilities against the meteor mutants, but Phelan had been just an ordinary, everyday monster, and Iíd been confused and so very scared with Dad in jail. Iíd almost lost it, had almost used my strength to harm someone normal. Instead, I took a page from Lexís book and out-thought and outwitted Phelan at every turn. Because I knew it could be doneÖand maybe because I knew if I failed, Lex would have my back.

Maybe that was why heroes always had sidekicks.

I had to smile at that thought. Lex could never be anyoneís sidekick. Sure, he seemed to always end up with the crap beaten out of him, and I winced as I remembered the borderline concussion Iíd given Lex myself, but Lex wasnít ever a victim. I flashed back to Club Zero as Lex had given his thorough and very precise report to the police. Yes, heíd been stalked for several days. Yes, heíd been kidnapped from the Kent farm. Yes, heíd been hung upside down in a straitjacket. Yes, heíd been threatened with a gun and physical harm. Yes, heíd been beaten and shot at and perversely fondled by not one man, but two. No, he didnít need medical attention, just a phone so he could call his driver to come and take him and his friend Clark Kent home. And just what was Clark Kent doing there? A hell of a lot better job of saving him than the Metropolis P.D.

How many times had Lex protected me like that, so carefully that no one even knew that something was being deflected or covered up? Heíd made up a story as to my presence when Jeff Palmer had attacked. Heíd covered for Whitney and me when the police had asked about the tattooed freaks. Heck, heíd saved me from them with a well-placed taser. And who else could I have run to with an injured felon in my arms? Lex hadnít even asked--just directed me to a bedroom and got on the phone to Toby. "Iíll do anything to protect my friends, Clark." Lexian truth.

"Thatís it, Clark. Youíll looking much better."

"Youíre good to have around in a crisis."

"After so many, you get used to them."

I didnít like thinking about how many crises Lex had weathered since coming to Smallville. Or before. "Let me get those clothes for you." I started up, then froze. "Uh-oh."

Lex tensed. "What?"

"Mom and Dad are up. Theyíre in the yard looking at the fire. I guess the sirens woke them. They think--"

"Go. Show them that youíre fine."

I stared at him. "They wonít believe me if I say I donít know how or where you are. And Mom is a lot better with the first aid routine than I am."

Lex groaned. "Fine. Weíll do it your way--for now."

A limited concession. I knew to act on it before it was rescinded. I ran down the steps and out into the yard. "Mom, Dad."

"Oh, Clark! Youíre okay. We heard the sirens and saw--"

"Whatís happening, son?"

"There was a bomb in the castle, Dad--beneath Lexís bed."

Mom gasped. "Lex?"

I partially turned and pointed toward the barn. "Heís sorta okay. We were blown out the window and he has some cuts and stuff, not to mention the bullet hole from earlier."

Dad swore softly. "Whoever this is must be determined. Two attempts in one night."

"Three. They put some kind of gas in Lexís shower. Iíd just started him to breathing again when he spotted the bomb. Thatís why Lex is naked."

"Naked!"

I thought my fatherís eyebrows were going to climb right over his head. Parents freaked about the strangest things. "Well, heís in a blanket now."

"None of that matters," Mom said, stepping towards the barn. "Get the first aid kit, Clark, and Jonathan, go up to the attic and look in the trunk. There are some of your old clothes there--from before I started fattening you up."

"Iím not fat," Dad muttered.

"No, honey, but youíre not starving like you were when you were trying to survive on your own cooking. Go on, both of you."

I sped through the house and made it back in time to climb the loft steps beside Mom. "Hey, Lex," I called so as not to startle the dozing man. "I brought my mom."

Because I knew Lex so well, I was at his side to help him sit up. Always so polite. "Sorry to disturb your rest, Mrs. Kent."

"I thought weíd gone beyond the Mrs. Kent stage, Lex."

"Forgive me my error."

I rolled my eyes and opened the first aid kit. There was a kit in the barn, too, but the house one was much more complete. "Turn over, Lex, and let Mom have a look at those cuts. And Dad is getting you some clothes."

"I need more light, Clark."

I turned on the barnís main generator and heard Mom hiss. I did, too, when I saw the cuts and scratches decorating Lexís upper shoulders and neck. And the goose egg on his head looked bigger too.

"Itís okay," Lex mumbled, his face buried in his arms. "I heal fast with no scarring."

"What about your lip?" I questioned. Mom stared at me, and I wondered what part of it was more wrong--mentioning someoneís imperfection or noticing the tiny scar in the first place.

"A pre-meteorite injury. Everythingís been different since that."

"Clark, open several packs of the antiseptic wipes. Lex, this may sting a little."

"Itís okay, Mrs--Martha. I donít mind a little pain."

"So I read in the National Tattler."

"Mom!"

Lex laughed. "Itís okay, Clark. Didnít know you read such things, Martha."

"Grocery store lines can be long and boring."

"So can the Tattler if they wrote the complete truth."

"So, everything was a lie?"

Lex lifted his head and winked at her. "Not everything."

They both laughed, and I understood. Mom was distracting him from her vigorous cleansing of his cuts. Still, I had no idea she read the Tattler. Wonder if Dad knew. Wonder where Dad--I focused my hearing and frowned. "Back in a second," I said and went into the house at record speed.

My dad stared at me when I pressed the button to disconnect the call he was making. "Clark?"

"Lex doesnít want anyone to know heís alive."

Dad frowned. "What the heck is he up to? Just think about the firemen who could get hurt trying to rescue him, Clark."

I shook my head, seeing the castle in my mind. "Thereís no way theyíd think there was someone to rescue, Dad. And what heís up to, is trying to stay alive. Youíre the one who said the killer is determined."

"But--someone needs to know heís alive. What about his father? Even Lionel--"

"Left his son to go through this alone. If he cared, heíd be here."

"What does Lex plan to do?"

I shrugged and gathered up the clothes Dad had placed on the table. "We havenít gotten that far in our plans yet."

"We? Our? Whoa, son. I donít--"

"Weíve had this discussion, Dad. Iím not letting him go through this alone."

"He doesnít deserve someone like you as a friend."

"And Iím sure his father has probably told him the same thing."

"Heís going to hurt you, Clark, and betray you. Can Lionel Luthor say the same thing about you?"

"Depends on what you consider betrayal, Dad."

He shook his head. "Youíre even starting to think like him."

This was getting us nowhere . "Lex is probably tired of wearing that old blanket."

"Sorry there were no designer duds in the chest, nothing with a hint of purple."

"Low blow, Dad. What happened to not judging a book by its cover? Or let your works prove your worth?"

"How about the apple doesnít fall far from the tree?" Dad challenged.

"Then Iím doomed because I have no idea what the tree even looks like," I answered sadly, picking up the clothes and zipping out of the house.

"Clark!"

Mom and Lex stared at me when I ignored Dadís call. "Hereís the clothes, Lex. Jeans and flannel." I held up each piece as I unfolded them. "Nice cotton T-shirt--um, red. And yes, an unopened pack of Fruit of the Looms!"

Lex, sensing the tension, played along. "If I click my heels together three times, do you think Iíll wake up in some place other than Kansas?"

"Just think of it as going native."

"Iíd rather do so in a more tropic environment--Tahiti, Jamaica, Hawaii."

I shook my head and grinned. "With your skin? I donít think so."

"Clark." Dad topped the stairs. "You know I didnít mean it like that, son."

I continued as if he wasnít there. "But you might look kinda cute with a flower stuck behind your ear," I said deliberately.

"Until a coconut falls out of a tree and conks me on the head," Lex replied laughingly. His eyes questioned mine. I just gave a small shake of my head. Nothing he had to concern himself with.

"I can ask Whitney if Fordmanís stocks helmets." I avoided looking at Mom because her eyes wouldnít take no for an answer. "Is it okay for Lex to get dressed now, Mom?"

She nodded. "I think the plastic wrapping helped to keep the stitches from tearing, but there was a little bleeding, so be careful moving the arm around. And Iím sorry, Lex, that we donít have anything stronger than Tylenol for the pain."

"Iíve lived with worse. Thank you, Martha, and just as soon as Iím dressed, Iíll be out of your way."

Mom put her hand on his forehead, feeling for a temperature. Then she cupped his cheek in a light caress. Lex blushed, and I wondered how long itíd been since someone had touched him like they actually cared. "You shouldnít be traveling, honey."

"I canít stay. My friendship with Clark isnít a secret. If they discover I wasnít in the mansion, this is the first place theyíll look and I donít want to put your family in danger. I also need to find out whoís after me, and thatís going to take resources I donít have here."

"So where do we need to go, Lex?"

He looked quickly to Mom and Dad before answering. "I have a contact in Biggertown. If you would allow Clark to drive me there, heíll be out of the line of fire in less than three hours."

"Youíre not ditching me, Lex." Why was it that everyone thought I could be talked out of seeing this situation through. Yes, I was a legal minor, but I wasnít a child or an idiot.

Lex raised his head and looked me directly in the eyes. "I donít want to come between you and your parents."

"I donít want you to, either. But itís their choice, Lex. Iíve already made mine."

Lex gave a sharp nod. Heíd tried, failed, and was now moving on. He didnít even whine like rich kids were supposed to. "Well, if I could have some privacy--"

I grinned. "Iíve seen everything you got, Lex, so Iíll just stay and make sure you donít pass out as you dress."

"Ah, right. My personal valet ala kiddie camp."

Mom tugged on Dadís arm and guided him from the loft.

"I respect your parents."

"I know. So do I, but youíre still not going off on your own," I said as I ripped open the pack of underwear. White briefs. Not exactly what up and coming billionaires wore. And-- "You ever worn anything off the rack?"

"No. Why?"

"These havenít been washed and some people react badly to the starch and stuff."

"React how?"

"Um, itching and hives where it touches their skin."

Lex looked horrified. "I have not been uncommonly cautious in even my wildest days just so I could suffer the effects of a STD because of unwashed underwear. God, how do you people live like this?"

I snorted in amusement. So maybe sometimes he was a spoiled rich brat. "Just go commando for now, and Iíll wash out a pair for you later."

He nodded and pulled on the jeans. They were quite loose.

"Momís right; youíre too skinny."

"Iím not. When did she say that?"

"Right after the first time she met you. ĎThat boy needs some meat on his bones,í she said."

"Iím at my target weight," he said huffily. "Just because Iím not all bulky like you."

"You calling me fat?"

"If the cow fitsÖ"

"Just for that Iím going to get my camera and take a picture of you in Wrangler jeans and flannel," I threatened as I guided his arms through the T-shirt.

"Sadist."

"And Iíll sell it to the Tattler. ĎBoy Billionaire Buys From Wal-Mart--Says He Couldnít Resist The Yellow Smiley Face. Kmart BlueLight Crushed By Rejection.í Great headline, huh?"

"Oh, you definitely have a future in journalism. Do your parents know how much television you watch?"

"Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?" I sang defiantly.

"And I thought I was the one who was hit on the head."

That chillingly brought back the terror of the night. "Let me watch your back on this one, Lex," I pleaded softly.

"Youíre a blow to my ego."

"Why? Because you think this means I donít think you can take care of yourself?"

"No, because I canít seem to refuse you."

I was winning all kinds of concessions tonight. I wondered how long it would be before Lex got mad at himself for that. "So why Biggertown? Talk about nowhere. They donít even have a fertilizer plant."

"Which is why the guy I know is hiding out there."

"Oh." If youíre going to play with the big boys Kent, you need to think like them. "You think he can help you find out whoís behind all these attempts?"

Lex shook his head, and groaned. "Youíd think by now I would have figured out thatís not a smart thing to do," he said, smiling sheepishly. "No, his area of expertise is in identity management."

I blinked and then it hit me. "He makes fake I.D.s."

"I have several standard ones which will secure the funds I need for this venture." He looked down at his feet. "I know it might be the latest trend in hick couture, but Iím a firm believer in shoes."

I stared at his feet. Slender and long. Much like he was. "What size do you wear?"

"I donít know. When I want a new pair of shoes, the guy comes, measures me, and two days laterÖ"

I shook my head. "Welcome to the real world."

"Where new underwear gives you mock clap, and feet are numbered. What other mysteries will be revealed to me in this strange and confusing place?"

"Good thing you have me as a guide."

"Itís always good to be in your company, Clark."

Another thing I liked about Lex; he made me feel special--which was way different from feeling alien. "Letís go ask Mom about the shoes."

"Hmm. Maybe itís your mom I should have as a guide. Weíve turned to her for all our solutions."

"Yeah, but sheíll be checking your forehead every two minutes to see if you have a fever, and if you donít go to bed on time, sheíll call you by your full name."

"Well, then, I think Iíll stick with you. Lead on, Sacajawea."

"Hey, there were boy guides. There was, uh, uhÖ"

"Donít ever tell anyone I tutored you in history."

"Somebody named Jim was a scout, wasnít he?"

"Clark?"

"Yeah?" I replied as we walked down the stairs. I took the lead so I could scour the ground for any dangers to Lexís feet.

"Shut up."

I laughed all the way to the back door.

*****

Iíd always rolled my eyes when I read the words "the tension was thick enough to cut with a knife." But there it was, hovering around the four of us as we sat around the kitchen table. Mom had made coffee, liberally lacing Lexís with sugar. I guess he seemed too pale to her, too.

"All this sneaking around doesnít sit well with me," Dad said, getting up to lean against the sink where he could look at the faint glow on the horizon. The castle was definitely totaled.

"I wish it didnít have to be this way, Mr. Kent. But I canít put a stop to whatís happening until I find out whoís causing it to occur--and to do that I need to be dead. Considering the extensive damage to the castle, I can assume that the lack of a body wonít be noticed too quickly."

"Sure you didnít blow it up yourself?"

"Dad!"

"Jonathan!"

Lex smiled as if heíd expected the comment. "At the time there were other options open to me. Perhaps if Iíd gotten a tad bit more desperateÖ"

Maybe Lex could be gracious, but I certainly didnít have to be. "Do you know how close he came to dying, Dad? If I hadnít been thereÖ Think what you want of him, Dad, but you know heís not a fool. Only me being who I am saved him, and since he didnít know at that time--"

"At that time?"

"I still donít know, Mr. Kent." Lex tapped his skull. "Repetitive brain contusions."

Dad didnít relax. "So what is this going to cost us?"

I growled. He was no better than Lionel Luthor!

Lex grabbed my forearm and squeezed. "Nothing but a ride to Biggertown."

"And the loan of our son."

Lex shook his head. "Thatís not part of the deal. Iím not asking anything of Clark."

"You donít have to ask, Lex." I glared at my father, who was making me more and more ashamed by the minute. "Friends should never have to ask. And they shouldnít have to make deals in order to prove that theyíre trustworthy. I trust you, Lex, with or without the concussion."

Lexís eyes were bright when they looked at me. "I hope I can live up to the faith you have in me, Clark."

"You already have."

Mom cleared her throat. "I think Iíve figured out the shoe dilemma. Clark, remember those high-tops Grandma Kent bought you about five years ago? Theyíre on the upper shelf of your closet."

I frowned. "Mom, those things areÖ" I searched for the right word. "Hideous." It was bad enough that they were just plain canvas without any of the neat support things, but they were tie-dyed or something, a lot of colors just bleeding into each other. No one had been more relieved than me when I discovered they didnít fit.

"Clark, Iím already in flannel. One more indignity wonít matter," Lex teased.

Even when he laced up the shoes and stared at the total effect in the mirror, Lex had the presence of mind not to shudder--so I did it for him. "Nobody will ever accuse you of being Lex Luthor," I mumbled.

"ExceptÖ" He brushed his hand across his head.

"Here you go, Luthor."

Dad plopped his old fishing hat atop Lexís head. It was one of those floppy cotton hats with fishing lures attached to its contrasting band.

"Youíre too kind, Mr. Kent." Lex tugged the hat lower, completely covering the fact that he was bald. "The appropriate phrase for a moment like this is, ĎI wouldnít be caught dead in an outfit like this.í But since thatís exactly what Iím supposed to beÖ"

I squeezed his shoulder. "Donít, Lex. Itís just beenÖtoo close to joke about right now, okay?"

He nodded. "Sorry. My standard reaction in times of great fear."

I knew it took a lot for him to admit that, especially in front of my dad. "Youíre going to make it through this, Lex. I promise you."

He looked at me solemnly, those sharp eyes bypassing all my usual defenses and heading straight for my soul. What he found there must have reassured him because he gave me a tight smile. "Itís nearly light outside. If we want to leave without attracting attentionÖ."

"Youíll be coming back here after your business in Biggertown?" Jonathan asked.

"Probably not. Why?"

"I was just thinking. If the truck is gone for a while, someone might get suspicious."

"Tell them I drove it to Aunt Maryís, Dad. Since Uncle Frank is in the National Guard, theyíll just think Iím there helping out during my break."

Lex shook his head. "License plates are traceable. Iím not thinking too clearly. We canít take your truck, Clark, because theyíll be able to track us every step of the way." He snorted derisively. "When I was making all my glorious backup plans, I never considered the possibility that all my cars would be destroyed."

"Back up plans? Youíve made plans for something like this?" Dad asked with a sneer.

"When you inhabit the world I do, yes, Mr. Kent, you make plans for something like this. I know you donít understand, and that greatly pleases a part of me. At least thereís hope for some part of society."

"Clark doesnít belong in that world," Dad argued.

"Donít you think I know that!" Lex took a deep breath. "I donít want him in it, Mr. Kent, but I respect him enough to know that itís his choice. Besides, you have a very stubborn son."

I watched him standing--no, literally swaying from exhaustion and stress--there defending me to my father, supporting my choices, and it all clicked together in my head. I loved Lex Luthor. I was in love with Lex Luthor. I hadnít known before. I knew Lex was my best friend. I knew I trusted him as much as my parents. I knew saving him was always a top priority. But I hadnít understood why. I had to wait until the moment he was about to keel over from physical and mental exhaustion, with my mother and father staring on, to recognize my feelings for him. Me and timing had always had a lousy relationship.

"Dad, stop picking on Lex. I told you what I was going to do, yesterday in the barn. Nothingís changed." Everything was changed. But that was something Dad didnít have to know until much, much later.

"Is there some form of public transportation to Biggertown?" Lex asked.

"You mean a bus?" Mom asked. "Yes, but, honey, I know somebody would recognize you at the bus station. Itís never really crowded and Sam Tomlinson who works the ticket counter is a notorious gossip. Itíll be better if you just let me drive you to Biggertown. Iíll stop by the nursery thatís between there and Smallville and pick up some plants as an excuse."

"Iíll do it," Dad said reluctantly.

"Jonathan?"

"Itíll be okay, honey. Letís go." He grabbed the keys to the truck from the rack next to the door and walked out.

"Youíll need food," Mom said and hurried to put together a couple of sandwiches. I ran upstairs and dug my old backpack out of the closet. It was battered, tattered and stained, but it would do for now.

See, Mom? Told you we shouldnít through it out.

While I tucked Momís sandwiches into my backpack, on top of the extra clothes for both Lex and me, and next to the bottle of Tylenol and most of the first aid kit, she disappeared. When she returned, she forced something into my hand. A small roll of money.

"Mom?"

"Be careful, honey. And if you need us, just call. No matter what." She gave me a hug.

"Iíll take care of him, Martha. I promise," Lex said.

She smiled and pecked him on the cheek. "You worry about taking care of yourself, Lex. You should be in a hospital."

"Maybe one day, when Iím old and--" he removed the hat and rubbed his bald head, "--and gray."

"Smartass," Mom murmured fondly. "Take care of each other, boys, and keep in touch. Some of us do have hair that can go gray."

I gave her a final kiss, then followed Lex to the truck.

*****

Both Lex and I drifted as Dad drove. Dadís favorite country station played in the background, reminding me of fishing trips and family vacations. Had it only been, what, less than a year ago that such things were the highlights of my life? But all that had changed in a moment of fate. A stray roll of baling wire. A sports car traveling at a high speed. A body undamaged despite a head on collision with said car. A life saved. Eyes opened, mine included. I was an alien from outer space, and Lex was an alien on his own planet. No wonder I loved him.

"We should get him to a hospital."

I blinked slowly, my eyes dropping to look at the figure leaning against me. His continued limpness assured me that he was completely out of it. Heíd taken a handful of Tylenol before weíd left Smallvilleís city limits. The dose had apparently eased his pain enough to sleep. "No. We stick with his plan."

"Even if it kills him?"

"At least thereís an Ďifí involved. The other way, itís pretty much a given."

"He can be protected."

"Not if he canít figure out where the danger is coming from. Thatís all he wants to do, Dad--find out whoís after him."

"And then eliminate the danger. You know thatís how itís going to end."

I shrugged and resisted a strong urge to kiss the smooth skin pressing against me. Why, out of the choices of Lanaís lovely dark tresses and Chloeís blonde spikes, I was turned on by pale skin? "I might be able to change the outcome. Or maybe not. I canít think about that now, Dad. My only concern at the moment is keeping Lex alive."

"Does he have any suspects in mind?"

Did he? He hadnít said anything, but Lex wasnít big on sharing. Probably the same "only child" thing I had going on. Of course, there could be a more sinister explanation. But I would leave that spin for Dad. "I donít know. He told me that LuthorCorp had a number of enemies."

"And we all know he has some of his own."

"You donít have to be evil to have enemies. Even you have some, Dad." Or else we wouldnít have to hide everything so much.

"You think I should give up, donít you? Just sigh and say, ĎDo what you want.í I canít, I wonít do that, son. Youíre too important to me."

"And heís too important to me for me to listen to you." Had I said that out loud? Apparently, because it was too quiet in the cab.

The silence continued untilÖ "We just crossed the Biggertown city limits."

I opened my eyes, squinting in the bright sunlight. "Lex," I said softly, jostling him just a little. "Lex, you need to wake up. Weíre here." If I hadnít grabbed him, he would have sat straight up in a rush. Boy, he was tightly wound. "Itís okay. Weíre in Biggertown, and we just need to know where to go from here."

He moved slowly until he was sitting primly between me and Dad. "Take a left at the second light."

It was daunting watching him "Lexifying" himself. In seconds, the dazed look in his eyes was gone. The startled stiffness in his body melted away, leaving someone who appeared calm, cool, and utterly in control.

"Stop here."

We were in the middle of nowhere. "Lex?"

"Itís not very far from here. I donít want to risk someone seeing the truck. Thank you for the ride, Mr. Kent."

"If something happens to my son, Luthor--"

"Yes, I know, Mr. Kent," Lex interrupted him wearily. "But you wonít have to worry about killing me, because the only way that will happen is if Iím already dead."

Even Dad was stunned. He pulled out his wallet and handed me what was in it. "Keep in touch, Clark. We donít want your mom worrying."

"Yes, sir."

My heart gave a curious flutter as I watched the truck disappear down the road. Iíd gotten what I wanted, so why was I feeling abandoned?

"This way, Clark."

I followed Lex to a dilapidated cabin a few hundred yards off the main road. I would have thought it abandoned except for the weird assortment of antenna and satellite dishes that stuck out from its roof. I was surprised it hadnít collapsed under the weight.

Lex rapped his knuckles against the door five times, waited, then rapped three. I heard someone on the other side of the door approach, bolts being slid back, then--

"Bloody hell! Youíre supposed to be dead!"

Lex elbowed the man out of the way and walked inside. Ever the faithful companion, I barreled in after him. The place was a pigsty of assorted material. I refused to try to sort it out. "Quaint as ever, Cecil."

He gave the name the British pronunciation-- "Cessí cil"--as opposed to the Americanized "Ceeícil--which was okay because the man had an English accent, but the sneering drawl that accompanied the name was about as condescending as Iíd ever heard from Lex. Whatever the two of them were to each other, Ďfriendí wasnít one of the options.

"Why are you alive?"

Lex laughed. "Because Iím not dead. What do you know about this?"

Cecil paled. "Nothing but what Iíve heard on the telly."

"What you do not want to do, Cecil, is piss me off today. Trust me on that one. Iím only asking you one more time. What do you know about the hit on me?"

"Itís worth one million."

My mouth dropped to my knees. Lex didnít even blink. "Whoís behind it?" he asked sharply.

"I donít know."

Suddenly, Lex had Cecil pinned against the wall, his forearm pressing against his throat. And I thought I moved fast. "Donít fuck with me, Cecil," Lex hissed. "Iím not in the mood."

"Iím not fu-fucking with you, Lex, babe. I donít know any thing. Itís all on the QT, the hush-hush, Bondish with a hint of Mission Impossible, donít you know, guv."

"Another mind ruined by cable," Lex said with disgust and stepped back. Cecil slid halfway down the wall before his knees gelled enough to stop his descent. "You better be telling me the truth."

"I am. I swear it on me mumís grave."

"Your mother is alive and well, Cecil. In fact, shall I tell you her exact address?"

Clark knew a threat when he heard one. So did Cecil. "Everyone knows you have a soft spot for mums, Lex," Cecil said, regaining some of his composure.

"Yes, and I shall send her a sympathy card for the loss of her eldest son."

Cecil paled. "You know I have always been yours to command, Lex. Ever since London. What do you want me to do? I have your profiles on disk. It will take but just a moment--"

"And how long before those profiles are on the open market for a percentage, Cecil? Iím neither dead nor a fool!" Lex looked at me. "Watch him. If he so much as shivers, sit on him."

Lex stalked off to the back rooms. I heard things, many things, breaking.

"Lex! Donít!" Cecil wailed.

The breaking sounds came faster and louder. Then there was silence. Lex returned with a camera and pointed it in my direction. "Say peaches," he ordered. As soon as the picture was taken, he disappeared again.

"Such a pretty boy," Cecil said, and I was alarmed to see he was staring at me. "When heís dead, I know of someone who might be willing to keep you in the style to which youíve become accustomed. Heís definitely ruined you for street trade. Of course, Iím assuming this flannel nonsense is part of the cover, yes?"

Street trade? He thought that I--that Lex--that we-- "Shut up."

I didnít think Iíd spoken extremely loudly, but Lex was back in the room in a flash. "Something wrong?"

I shook my head. Lex was stressed enough. He didnít need to deal with something so petty. That tattooed gang Whitney had hung out with had certainly called me worse than Lexís whore. And I could do worse than be Lexís whore. At least Iíd be well-dressed and get to ride in great cars. I laughed at the image. "Everythingís cool, Lex. Cecil is just worried about whatís going to happen to me after youíre dead."

"Cecil should be more worried about whatís going to happen to him," Lex said dryly. "Our IDs should be ready. Give me a minute to trash the computer--"

"No! No, Lex! I canít afford--"

"You were going to have to sell it anyway. You couldnít travel with a big desktop like that."

"Travel?"

"Yes, because I think it would be a good idea for you to be gone by the time Iím resurrected."

"From Biggertown?"

"Biggertown. Kansas. The U.S. Hell, letís just say North America, to be thorough. Iím sure thereís some shack calling your name in, say, Hong Kong. Oh, and if Iím prematurely Ďresurrectedí, you donít have to bother with leaving. Because I will find you wherever you are."

"Itís hard to take a dead manís threats seriously."

Fool, I wanted to yell. Couldnít he tell how angry Lex already was? Why was he taunting him?

"Almost as hard as it is to convict a dead man of murder," Lex replied smoothly. He went to the back and returned quickly. "Here," he said, handing me a warm, freshly-laminated rectangle. A driverís license with my picture and a new name. Clint Kinsey. Close to the real thing, but not too close. Apparently Cecil wasnít the only master of identity management in the room.

Cecil continued his foolish behavior. "Iím going to dance on your grave, Luthor."

Lex froze. "Iíll meet you outside," he said to me softly.

The only reason I didnít protest was that I knew walls wouldnít stop me from making sure Lex was safe. I focused and two skeletons came into view. They were so entangled that I couldnít make out who was who. I thought it was Cecil on the floor and Lex on top of him, but I focused my hearing just to be sure.

"Stupid, stupid, Cecil," Lex hissed. "Let me give you a lesson in my personal history. At age seven I had a mop of red hair that any clown would envy, but my mother loved it, so I just dealt with anyone who had a problem with it. At age nine I was completely bald. Do you know that once people find out youíre just bald, and not dying of cancer, youíre fair game for every bully or wannabe bully? But Iím a Luthor, and what I learned at age seven got kicked into a much higher level. Do you know what a pissed off, bald son of a billionaire does with his allowance, Cecil? He hires several of the worldís most proficient killers to teach him the tricks of their trade. Armed, unarmed, it doesnít matter. I can hurt you, maim you, or put you out of my misery with just a--" Cecil screamed-- "twitch of my hand. Youíre already testing my patience. Donít go ruining an already shitty day by becoming my first kill. I really would be pissed then."

I kept my attention focused on the skeleton on the floor while Lex walked out, just to make sure Cecil wasnít a complete idiot.

"You donít have to look like that, Clark. Heís alive," Lex said as he joined me, tugging his flannel shirt into perfect wrinklelessness.

"I know." We started walking back toward the highway.

"Oh. You got the whole package deal of superhero goodies, huh? So, are you going to fly us to Metropolis?"

"I donít fly."

"Pity. Guess weíll have to take the bus. Do you know how to go about getting passage aboard one?"

I laughed. "You go to the station and buy tickets, Lex."

"Do we have enough funds? I grabbed what I could from Cecil." He handed over a small wad.

My eyes widened at the roll of twenties. "That should do it. Why are we going to Metropolis? Isnít that--"

"The last place anyone would think to look for me. At least in the part of town weíll be--" A fit of coughing interrupted him.

I braced him worriedly as the attack continued. Then just as suddenly, it was over.

"Damn, Cecil needs to clean. Itís a wonder his equipment wasnít choked up from all the dust," Lex said as he wiped his face with a tissue.

"You okay?"

"Fine, Clark. I survived a lot worse in my asthmatic days." He started walking toward downtown.

"Back in the day when you Ďhad a mop of red hair that any clown would envyí?"

"Itís too bad Iím not going to remember any of this. I would be a lot more careful with what I said in the future."

I knew I could trust Lex. "Lex?"

"Yeah?"

"If youíre so well-trained, how come you didnít take on those tattoo boys?"

"They could walk through walls, Clint. And yes, we need to start using our aliases."

He handed me his ID. Alex Kinsey. "Weíre brothers? Obviously not full brothers."

"Full brothers. Just one normal and the other--not."

Something in his tone made me turn to look at him. Walking beside me was not Lex Luthor, but Alex Kinsey, my mentally-challenged older brother. How the hell had he done that? It was more than just the slump of his shoulders and the dullness in his eyes. It was--God, it was just-- "And with the rest of your allowance, you hired the best actors in the world to teach you the tricks of their trade," I guessed.

Alex shrugged and became Lex again. "When you inhabit a world full of false faces, itís a handy skill to have."

"Looks like youíre not the only one whoís going to have things to forget once this is all over."

"Your choice, Clint. But before you start forgetting, want to tell me what Cecil said to you?"

"It was nothing."

"You raised your voice."

Dad never told me that not yelling could be used against me one day. "He offered to find me someone capable of keeping me in the style that you do."

For the second time in one day I was wondering how he moved so fast. I had to jog to keep up with him as he headed back the way we came. "No, Lex--Alex," I called, grabbing his uninjured arm. "Just let it go."

"I will not have my friends insulted."

"I wasnít. Well, maybe a little when he implied flannel was just part of a disguise." I smiled, trying to ease the tension in him.

Gray eyes searched mine. "What are you saying?"

"That I could do a lot worse than be kept by a billionaire."

"A male billionaire."

"Yeah."

Just as quickly we were moving toward downtown again. Forget using my superspeed to save the world; I needed it just to keep up with Lex. "You didnít think this was information I needed to know?" he muttered.

"Have you ever slept with anyone who wasnít using you, Lex?" Lex was silent. "Itís my intention not to join that number."

"Of people Iíve slept with?"

He could be deliberately dense at times. "Of people who've used you."

We walked a bit further. "You could have asked the question in another way. You could have asked had I slept with anyone without using them."

"I could have, but I didnít."

"So youíre going to wait until youíre sure youíre not using me?"

"Thatís the plan."

"Um, you may have failed to notice that Iím sorta under a death sentence."

"Um, you may have failed to notice that Iím doing my best to keep you alive."

Lex grinned and picked up his pace.

I grinned and kept by his side.

*****

"This is a gas station."

I nodded. "And also the Biggertown Bus Station. See the sign?"

He squinted at the faded marquee. "How could I have missed that?"

"Youíre a snob."

"And proud of it." Lex pointed at a pair of wooden benches. "Iím going to sit out here while you buy the tickets, Clint."

I tugged at his hat. "Be a good boy while Iím gone, Alex."

The childlike smile he gave me sent chills along my spine.

He wasnít at the benches but by the door when I came out after making my purchases. "Alex?"

He pointed to a display window. "I want."

Gone was the smooth, cultured voice I heard in my dreams. This was the voice of a kid even younger than Ryan. I looked at the display. A bright blue plastic truck sat next to a silver Trans Am. "You want the truck?" I asked. He scowled. Ah, there was my Lex. "The car?" He smiled. "But itís domestic, Alex."

He kicked me in the shin.

So it was that I spent the next two hours of my life sitting on a bench, with Lexís head in my lap and his arms wrapped around a plastic Trans Am. It was immediately obvious that buying the car was a brilliant move. The toy instantly cued people passing by that Lex wasnít "right." When I urged him to put his head on my thigh and take a nap, no one thought anything bad about it. Fellow passengers took the other bench; one elderly woman smiled at us, and a man totally ignored us as he read the paper.

I wasnít sure Lex planned on falling asleep, but he was too exhausted to do otherwise. Under normal circumstances, Lex could probably go for days without collapsing, but there wasn't anything normal about the past twenty-four hours. Sure, Iíd been up as long as he had, but I wasnít injured. I hadnít cheated death three times. I wasnít in the pain that I was sure Tylenol was not helping. I honestly didnít know how any of them, standard earth humans, functioned as well as they did. Dad was always sporting a bruise or a cut from some small farming incident. Mom burnt herself in the kitchen sometimes, or nicked her fingers with a knife. And Lex, Lex was thinking about buying a helmet. Yet, none of them ever stopped. They just kept going and going, just like the pink rabbit in the TV commercials. I wasnít sure my battery was as strong.

The sound of air brakes in the distance alerted me that the bus on its way. With reluctance, I woke Lex.

He was restless as we headed toward Metropolis, fidgety in a totally non-Lex way. At first I thought it was just the role of Alex, but when I saw him clamping down on his lip, I knew it had to be the pain.

"Squeeze my hand," I whispered. "Is it your arm?"

He nodded, refusing to get out of character even enough to swear through the pain.

"Can we get Toby to meet us when we get to Metropolis?"

He shook his head. I wasnít surprised; I already knew Toby could be bought for a small brown packet. The fact that Lex was alive would go to the highest bidder, or maybe just to the first. "You need help. A quick trip to the E.R. to get what you need, then zip, weíre out."

He shook his head again, and I didnít bother to make another suggestion. He couldnít go on much longer; Iíd just take him to the E.R. after he collapsed. Nothing he could do about it then.

I grinned. How Lexian of me.

We had a half hour layover in Crystal City. The bus station was a real station. We went to the rest room, and I convinced Lex to let me re-dress his wounds. The topical analgesic helped take the sting out of the minor cuts and abrasions but did nothing to alleviate the deep throbbing agony of the gunshot wound.

"A nerve was exposed but not damaged," Lex finally admitted.

"You need a doctor."

"Iíll score something for the pain in Metropolis," Lex argued.

That was when I realized how intense the pain must be. Lex thought our friendship rested on the fact that I didnít see his faults as clearly as everyone else did, so he told lies or cleaned up the truth, trying to buy himself a little more time before the inevitable, i.e., I discovered the truth about him and kicked him out of my life. So for him to baldly say he was planning on scoring drugs in Metropolis was not in character for him at all.

"I donít know if you can make it to the city, Lex."

He lifted his head. "Iíll make it."

I was helping him back into his T-shirt when I heard someone approaching the rest room door. There was no way we could rush the process. "Someoneís coming," I whispered.

"Group home abuse," he managed to say before slipping into the role of Alex Kinsey.

A middle-aged man with his jacket slung over his arm and his business shirt rolled up at the cuffs entered the room. He walked straight toward us. "You were in here so long, I thought something might be wrong," he said.

I stood defensively in front of Lex. "Nothingís wrong."

"I saw you get on in Biggertown, and I watched you on the bus. Your friend--"

"My brother."

He nodded. "Your brother is hurt."

"Heíll be okay."

"What happened?"

I knew Lex would have told the man it was none of his business and stalked off. But this was my role to play, and I knew I had to play it to my strengths. "He was abused at the group home heís been staying in. Iím taking him to live with me."

"Youíre awfully young."

"Iím a student at Metropolis University. Weíll get along okay."

"What about your parents?"

"Theyíre the ones who put him in the home."

The man pulled a card from his shirt pocket. "My name is Jim Tillman. I run a shelter in Metropolis. If things getÖtough, you can get food and a roof over your head for a while."

I wasnít expecting such generosity. It made me feel bad for the deception. "Thank you, Mr. Tillman--"

"Make it Jim."

"Thank you, Jim, but weíll be okay. I promise you."

Jim smiled, but it didnít reach his eyes. "Keep the card, just in case. I--I had someone special in my life, and I wasnít brave enough to do what youíre doing. God bless both of you." He smiled at Lex and left.

"Damn it, Lex," I said softly as we finished getting him dressed. "You might find these games amusing, but--"

"None of this is to my amusement, Clark. None of it. My arm feels like itís on fucking fire. I have perfect strangers pitying me. Someone has placed a million dollar bounty on my head. Iím in flannel and plaid, for Christís sake, and riding public transportation. Stop me when I get to the fun part, okay?"

By the time he finished his hushed tirade, he was trembling. Then he started coughing, and the attack was as bad as the earlier one. "Youíre sick," I accused.

"Just my bodyís reaction to the pain. It thinks if it complains enough, Iíll feed it drugs. Trust me, if we had more cash, Iíd fix the problem right now."

"Here at the bus station?"

"Yes, Clint, here at the bus station," he said impatiently.

I pulled out the money Mom had slipped me. "Just donít go buying something that will kill you," I warned. My mom would kill me if she knew what I was doing.

Lex pocketed the money. "Iíll pay it back. You know that, right?"

"Nah. Iím thinking a billionaire is going to stiff me for a hundred bucks," I said with a snort. "Youíre going to have to hurry, though. The bus pulls out in five minutes."

"I only need two. Stay out of Tillmanís sight until I get back."

True to his word, he was back in two minutes. "No luck?" I asked.

He smiled and held up his hand. A small plastic bag dangled from his fingers. I was appalled and awed at the same time. How had he known who or where? I knew I could be oblivious at times, but this was getting to be ridiculous.

"Iím only going to take a single tab now," he said, and I could see there were five white tablets in the bag. "Itíll take the edge off, but keep me sharp enough to handle any unforeseen circumstances. Be a good responsible brother and buy me a bottle of water, would you? And a pair of shades. Something big and gaudy. My pupils have a tendency to give me away."

So I obediently trotted off to the tiny shop to aid my best friend in his drug use. Me. Clark Kent. Chloe would subtlely warn me that Lex was perhaps a bad influence. Pete would say that Lex was totally screwing up my mind, just as he figured a Luthor would. Lana would look at me and gently remind me of Lexís past. My mom would sit me down and give me a stern talk. My dad would just send me to my room and kill Lex.

As for me, I opened the water for Lex and took the price tag off the shades as we stood in line to reload the bus. I wasnít an advocate of drug use, and I felt sick every time I thought of the risks Lex had taken as a teen. But the pain Iíd experienced when Eric took my powers made me too sympathetic to Lex to deny him the relief of the little white tablet.

I monitored him as we continued the ride to Metropolis. The pill worked quickly, reminding me that Lex hadnít eaten in over twenty-four hours. Iíd bought chips and junk food in Biggertown and a roll of Oreos in Crystal City, but Lex had refused all offers. For a bodyguard, I was doing a lousy job. "Alex, please eat a cookie. The sugar will at least give you an energy boost."

Lex shook his head. The ambient noise level on the bus was high , as it usually was when we left a station, so he risked answering me as Lex. "My stomachís really not in the mood right now. Maybe once the pill kicks in a little more."

I looked over at him and found he was right; his eyes were a dead giveaway. "How are you feeling so far?"

"For the first time in way too long, Iím feeling no pain. Itís niiiice," he drawled.

"Youíre not going to freak out on me or anything?"

"On one tab? Hell, I used to pop these things like candy."

"Key phrase: used to. And your stomach was completely empty."

Lex put on the huge, star-shaped shades Iíd bought. "Iím not going to drop dead on you, but I think Iím going to crash for a bit. Just turn my head if I start to drool." With that, he leaned against my shoulder and faded out.

We made stops in what seemed like every town between Crystal City and Metropolis, and I was doubly glad that Smallville wasnít one of them. Lex never moved during any of the stops and a couple of times I caught myself listening for his heartbeat. He really did mean a lot to me, more than I thought before hearing that he was shot yesterday. Maybe--maybe it was becoming clearer to me that if something was to happen between us, that maybe I wouldnít be using him. MaybeÖmaybe whatever it was would be mutual. Maybe the whole Lana/Chloe thing had made me face more than I knew. I think in the back of my mind I knew Chloe had a crush on me, but I hadnít been willing to deal with it because of the other stuff it would make me deal with, too. Like my growing disenchantment with Lana. The closer I got to her, the more I felt fraternally protective of her. Or maybe that also had something to do with my being closer to Whitney. The guy had had a rough couple of months, yet heíd been willing to be honest with me at odd crunch times, like with the tattooed freaks. I was starting to like Whitney for Whitney, and that sorta cramped my desire to take his girl.

Examining my feelings for Chloe also made me face the depth of my feelings for Lex. I was already so different from everyone around me. I didnít want to add gay, or bi, to the list. I floated above my bed and ran so fast that it was almost like flying. I didnít need the term "fairy" in connection to my name.

Not to mention this was Lex Luthor I was having feelings for. A billionaireís son who didnít hesitate to admit heíd slept with the population of a medium Midwestern city. What the heck would he want with a virgin, other than maybe the sense of accomplishment in popping my cherry. According to the guys in gym, that was one of the greatest achievements in the life of a male. It made you a real man.

Except Lex probably knew he was a real man several times over. Probably as many male cherries popped as female ones. Which led to the question why Lex would want me at all. I knew how to do a blow job--in theory. At times I screwed up my own masturbation routine, throwing myself out of rhythm at inopportune moments. My kissing technique sucked--and I meant that in a bad way. There was nothing I could give Lex that Lex couldnít get ten times better someplace else.

Therein lay my fear that I would be using Lex. Because Lex would be giving me everything--what teenager wouldnít want his first time to be with someone so experienced--and I would be giving Lex a body that not only didnít quite know how to behave in close quarters, but was alien to boot. What if I lost control in the throes of ecstasy? What if I squashed Lex or broke a bone or, God forbid, gave him another head trauma? What if--what if Lex was fucking me and my ass muscles contracted too much andÖ.

Okay, so maybe my fear wasnít of using Lex, but of harming him. As far as I could tell, my equipment worked pretty much earth normal, but again, that was only in theory. What if I could only mate safely with one of my own kind? God, was I going to be a virgin for the rest of my life?

And wasnít that a typical teen thought? Iíd just have to share it with Lex, and then heíd hurt himself--laughing. Iíd survived all the other adolescent rites of passage. A razor could defuzz my face. I masturbated in the shower without destroying the tile. My jeans had survived a million and one hard-ons. Iíd peeked into the girlsí locker room and not attacked in some lust-driven frenzy.

Back to using Lex, then. I already used him. When I wanted something, heck, even when my friends wanted something, I turned to Lex. Movie projectors, conference tickets, football tickets, football teamsÖ. I was a mooch, pure and simple, and Lex thought that was okay because for all he knew that was what friendship was about--his friends taking from him. He "paid" for friendships--and that wasnít right. Did he even know that he could turn down my requests and still keep the friendship? Did he know he could tell me "no" and Iíd still be his friend? Would he have sex with me not because he wanted to, but because he thought he had to? Would I just be another Victoria, and all the while I was fucking him or he was fucking me heíd be wondering when I would betray him?

The idea that everyone was going to betray him was fucked up, but it was what heíd learned at his fatherís knee, and I knew from experience that a fatherís words stuck with you. Wasnít I still following Dadís dictates about keeping what I am a secret? Even from non-Luthors like Chloe and Pete. I trusted them. I trusted Lex. Yet I couldnít even tell the secret when it wasnít a secret anymore. Lex knew, and I still couldnít say the words; I couldnít just come out and confess. And being the friend he was, taking whatever shit I dished out, heíd agreed to label it as brain damage. I was as bad as Lionel, manipulating Lex into accepting me on my terms.

Bend over and let me fuck you, Lex, but remember, tomorrow it never happened.

"Metropolis Station. Connections to Chicago, Detroit, and Ontario. Through routes to Philadelphia, Gotham, and Boston."

I shook Lex awake.

*****

Metropolis from a bus station at night is far removed from the Metropolis Iíd seen on earlier visits. I was basically invulnerable, and the place scared me shitless. Too many shadows. Too much movement in those shadows. At home, the dark was simply the dark. I even considered it protective because in it I could be me, without having to make up lies. But here, the darkness was something malevolent. It had eyes. It waited. It painted targets on my back. I knew I'd never be totally comfortable in the dark again.

Lex, on the hand, very obviously vulnerable and a bit strung out, walked the dark streets of Metropolis like he owned them. The minute hesitations he had in Smallville as he searched everyone and everything for motivations and hidden agendas were gone. Here, he seemed to know what the shadows held and why, and the way he held himself told them that he knew--and he just didnít give a fuck.

Lex was home.

I finally had to remind him that he was undercover, even if he had crammed the toy car into my pack at the station.

"The clothes are enough of a cover for now," he explained. "To pull an Alex out here on the street would be an invitation to get my ass kicked. Although that had a certain appeal in the past, Iím already in enough pain to know that Iím alive."

Well, that was telling, wasnít it? "Where are we headed?"

"Chinatown."

"We gonna ask for Caine?"

"Not this time, Grasshopper." He grinned at me. "Thought I wouldnít get the reference, huh? I watched both versions of the shows. Liked the corny philosophy in the first version and in the second, I could relate to Peterís struggles with his father."

I couldnít imagine living Lexís life. It was just too damn complicated. "Keep this up and Iím going to take away your lovable snob status and start thinking of you as a regular human being."

"Oh, the horror."

He could make me smile so easily. "What next? An admission that you attended public school?"

"Bite your tongue! Couldnít you just see me getting all angsty over some girl whose locker was next to mine?" His eyes twinkled as he turned to me and said, "Oops! Hope I didnít step on too many toes."

"Well, at least my school has girls."

"True. Hmm. No wonder I turned out bi."

"Bi. Is that how you classify yourself?"

"When Iím in the company of those who need classification."

"You think Iím bi?"

"I think youíre too young to know what the hell you are."

"I truly like Lana and Chloe."

"I know."

"And I like you." Silence. "Iíve had dreams about you."

"Dreams or nightmares?"

"Fantasies."

"My, we are in full confession mode, arenít we? Tell me something, Clark. Have you always been into torture, or is it just a habit you picked up since knowing me?"

It was like Iíd never had that conversation with myself on the bus. "Iím sorry, Lex. Not exactly the best time to get into this, is it?"

"No." He pointed to the gaudily-lighted area we were approaching. "Chinatown awaits."

"Weíre going to see another Cecil?"

"God, I hope not."

As we blended into the crowded neighborhood, I watched Alex emerge, and he didnít so much as tell me where he wanted to go, but gestured silently. I thought maybe Iíd misunderstood when we ended up in a dark alley, but he just rapped some sort of code on the door we found there, then sorta slid partially behind me. What did that mean? That something unfriendly was going to open the door? I braced myself.

An Asian man stood in the doorway. He was old, at least fifty, and had a short gray beard. "How may I be of service to you?" he asked formally, bowing at the waist.

"By losing that fake, old country greeting," Lex said dryly. "You were born and bred in Boston, and an alumni of the same fucking boarding school that I am, Harry."

Black eyes widened in shock. Before I knew it, the old man was past me and wrapping his arms around Lex. Were my powers draining or was I just so far out of my element that even with my special abilities, I just couldnít keep up.

"Lex! Youíre alive!"

"Broadcast it to the whole neighborhood, why donít you?"

Harry shrugged. "This is Chinatown. Whatís said here, stays here."

"Even for a million dollars?"

Harry ushered us inside. It looked like the office of a store or a warehouse. "So, you know about the hit?"

"Sort of hard not to when someone blows up your house with you in it."

"Theyíve put off the search for your remains until the fire cools down and the structure is deemed stable enough for dogs."

"Wouldnít want Rover to get a splinter on my account."

"You look like fried shit."

"And Iím feeling just as crispy. I need information on whoís behind the hit."

"Which is information I was seeking as well. I was going to do the whole retribution thing for you, my friend. Search, destroy, and salt the earth."

"Nice to know I would have been remembered, Harry. But if you donít have the information, Iím going to have to find it myself."

"How may I help?"

"I need money."

"What? No contingency plan?" Harry asked as he opened a desk drawer.

"Had one, but it didnít work out."

"Only one?"

"Youíre the second."

Harry smiled. "Iím honored. Ten thousand enough? Thatís all I have on hand."

"Thatís fine. Just need enough to get me some equipment."

"And a bed. You really do look like shit."

"I was shot."

"Oh, right. Sorta forgot that after I heard you were dead. How are you set up for pain management?"

"Iím good."

Harry shook his head. "No, youíre not."

Harry was so persistent that I took a good look at Lex myself. Saying he was a cast member in Night of the Living Dead wouldnít have been descriptive enough.

Harry touched Lexís forehead. "Youíre burning up. Let me give you some antibiotics. Better yet, let me call Toby."

Although Lex hadnít deigned to introduce us, I was starting to like Harry.

"Name a cheaper whore than Toby."

Harry nodded. "Iíll get you the antibiotics. You need a place to crash?"

"Youíre involved enough."

"Fair. But if you need anything, anything at all, just let me know, okay? Especially when you find the party or parties responsible for this."

"Iím not the squeamish thirteen-year-old I was when we first met."

"No, but I refuse to give Lionel the satisfaction of seeing the last of the goodness in you destroyed."

"Harry, it was a lost cause from the beginning," Lex said as if it was an old argument between the two of them.

Harry looked at Lex fondly, and there was a flash of something there. LongingÖor maybe even love. Was Harry one of Lexís exes? Yuck. And my parents thought we had an age difference.

"Youíre not one for giving up, Lex Luthor. You donít have to go along the path of your elders. Youíre stronger than that. I mean, look at you. Most of those lowlifes you used to hang around with are either dead, institutionalized, or just bums, still living off their daddiesí money. But you have advanced degrees and from what I hear, are doing an outstanding job as a plant manager."

"From what you hear?" Lex asked, rolling his eyes. "Still keeping an eye on me, huh?"

"Always. You are my hope. Thatís why these people who have caused you so much pain will die."

"Donít say things I may have to testify to."

"Youíre a Luthor; no one will believe anything you say anyway."

Lex gave a sad smile. "True. Much as I would love to stay and chat, we have already established that I look and feel like shit."

Harry put the money in a paper bag, folding it neatly before handing it to Lex. Then he disappeared from the room for just a second, coming back with a plastic bag. I could see more pills inside and a couple of syringes.

"Shoot the antibiotic first, chase it with the narcotic, and alternate the blue and white pills every four hours."

"Got anything that might help keep them down?"

Harry looked worried. "Damn it. I donít own any doctors I trust your life to."

"Youíre a degreed pharmacist. I trust your judgment."

Harry gathered another bunch of pills. "If youíre not feeling any better by tomorrow, call me. Iíll get you help."

"Harry." Lex stepped forward until he was mere inches from the man. "Donít do anything rash. Iíll be okay."

Harry reached out and brushed a finger across Lexís lip. "Now whoís being the worrier?"

"I know you."

Harry gave a sharp nod and backed a couple of steps away. "Let me lend you some muscle?"

"No. Your men are too well-known. Besides, do you really think anyone will recognize me dressed like this?"

Harry smiled. "I never thought youíd be caught dead looking like that."

"Thatís exactly my intention, Harry--to not be dead looking like this." Lex slid the "gifts" into his pockets and turned toward the door. "Iíll keep you informed of my investigation."

"Lex, if I was your second contingency plan, who was your first?"

"Cecil. I told him I wouldnít come after him if he left North America."

"Your word is your bond, not mine."

"Iíve never interfered in your business, Harry. Iím not going to start now."

I followed Lex back into the alley, wondering if I should be shocked at what Iíd just heard or maybe angry. I actually felt neither. Cecil had betrayed Lex first.

Lex Luthor is Hell-bound, and heís dragging you with him, son.

Maybe Iím not being dragged as hard as you think, Dad.

"So Harry seemed like a nice guy," I said conversationally since Lex was being oddly silent. I wondered if the white pill had worn off completely.

Lex laughed, but it quickly turned into another coughing fit. Just when I was on the verge on running back to the alley, Lex recovered enough to smile at me.

"Clark, your Ďnice guyí is the most powerful drug lord in Metropolis, if not the entire region."

Oh. Iíd thought he was a black market pharmacist, much like Toby was a black market doctor. Then again, he did peddle drugs. "You like him. You trust him."

"Harry and I go way back."

"I think the age of thirteen was mentioned."

"I was precocious."

"And Harry was your mentor?"

We continued walking. "I went in search of Harry because he was the one man my father didnít own. Harry was amused by my audacity and sort of took me under his wing. He made me promise never to buy from anyone else because I wouldnít be sure of what I was getting, but heíd always have the best for me."

"Sweet in a sick sorta way," I couldnít stop from commenting.

Lex shrugged. "He knew he couldnít stop me. So he did the best he could."

"He said you are his hope. What does that mean?"

Lex snorted. "Sometimes I think Harry sampled his own products a bit too heavily in his youth. He thinks his personal redemption is dependent upon protecting me from becoming totally like my father."

"You told Cecil you didnít want him to become your first kill. You meant that literally, didnít you?"

"Welcome to the evil world of Luthors that your dad warned you about. Thatís why I didnít introduce you to Harry, by the way. Without an introduction, you werenít there, you didnít exist. It seems like little protection, but Harry is an honorable man."

Mom and Dad protected me all the time, but that was to be expected because I would always be their little boy. But Lex protecting meÖthat was different. "Thank you."

"I promised your mom. How about here?"

I stared at the place Lex indicated. The MountainView Motor Lodge. Of course, there wasnít a mountain to be seen. And any self-respecting mountain wouldnít want such an establishment beside it anyway. I wasnít as much a hick as I let people believe. I knew what kind of clientele this kind of place handled. "Lex, they probably rent by the hour."

"Yes, and with me looking so extraordinarily fuckable tonight, Iím sure theyíll understand why we need the room till morning."

He was so pale that he almost glowed in the wash of the streetlights, and his clothes actually had the audacity to be rumpled. But stillÖ "You always look fuckable, Lex."

Lex stopped. "Clark?"

"Yeah?"

"Make sure you repeat that remark when Iím in sound body and mind--just so I know it wasnít part of my ongoing head trauma event."

"Okay."

Sunday

I left Lex sleeping and went out to the mini-laundromat the motel had. I washed and dried Lex some underwear, then headed down the street to where I had spotted a pair of golden arches. Laden with a bag of McMuffins and assorted items, along with a tray of orange juice and coffee, I returned to the room where Lex was just now waking.

"Breakfast in a bag--yum," Lex said, wincing as he tried to raise himself into a sitting position. I dropped the bag on a tiny, wobbly table and helped him.

"You arenít feeling any better?"

Lex smiled reassuringly. "Quite the contrary. I feel much better. Iím just a little stiff. A word of advice from the travel-wise: if you have a choice between bus and limo, choose the limo."

"Iíll do my best to remember that, Yoda."

"Youth appreciate nothing. You wouldnít happen to have a danish in that bag, would you?"

Good. He had his appetite back. "No sweet stuff until youíve had something of nutritional value."

"Youíre channeling your mother."

"Better than my dad."

"Point."

"And I have something for you." I pulled out a pair of the white briefs from my pocket. "Ta dah! Freshly laundered."

"Thank you. I was beginning to chafe."

I struggled between a frown and a grin. I was sure chafing hurt, but the thought of what was hurt, well, that was a little funny. "I could get you some diaper rash ointment," I said, settling on the grin.

"Fuck you, Clint."

"So, weíre still Clint and Alex?"

"Yes, but today weíre two nerds in search of a slamminí computer system. And we need to check into a hotel with dataports. I hate my PDA was destroyed. I guess we can ask someone-- "

"Or we could use the telephone book."

"For what?" Lex asked, his confusion evident on his face.

"To find a hotel with dataports. Itís usually in their ads." The poor guy was way out of his element. "Thereís a Best Buy about two blocks from here. Saw it when I went to McDonaldís."

"A Best Buy? Let me guess--you buy computers there for the best price?"

"Thatís right."

Lex looked pleased with himself. A bus ride, now Best Buy. How educational.

Lex showered and dressed, while I made us a reservation at the Embassy Suites. Not only would it give us an extra room to set up the computer, but free breakfasts were included! I just hoped weíd have enough money left after Lex met Best Buy. Ten thousand dollars wasnít a lot to work with when computers were involved. Or a Luthor.

The Best Buy transaction was a smooth one, however, once I explained some basic tenets to Lex. Waiting in line is a standard practice. Expensive items are kept under lock and key, and yes, usually only a manager has the key (no wonder security was so lax at the castle). Yes, certain denominations of bills are checked for authenticity. No, the salesman canít stop what heís doing and install your part for you; you must go up to the service desk and, yes, wait in line again. Yes, I was positive that this was how most of the world did their shopping. And no, it wasnít legal to ban anyone under ten years of age from entering the store.

We settled on a laptop which, to satisfy Luthor standards, had to be configured with additional everything--RAM, video card, CD burner, and mobile storage. We also bought what looked like a small upright suitcase to carry it all in, and as we sat on the curb outside the store and unpacked our purchases, I explained to Lex that we needed to keep all the paper work just in case something didnít work. He truly thought I was pulling his leg when I broke down the boxes and put them into the various pockets of the carrier. Poor guy. I donít think he ever fully grasped the concept of a bad out-of-box-experience.

The notebook bag/suitcase turned out to be a good idea, since no one looked at us strangely as we checked into the hotel with no luggage. The suite was nice. Two queen-sized beds. Two televisions. A microwave and mini-fridge. I loved those two items and decided I had to have them in the loft. The next time I was in Best Buy--alone--Iíd check their prices.

I was designated the gatherer of our small tribe and went out for snacks and dinner. By the time I returned, Lex was happily computing. I had to threaten him with a loss of power (the battery had to be charged for twelve hours before it was useful) to get him to eat and take Harryís pills. After dinner, he headed back to the computer, and I played video games that could be downloaded to the television for a small fee.

Eventually, I threatened Lex again and we both went to bed.

Monday

Lex wanted to compute. I wanted breakfast. He sulked but obediently followed me down to the atrium.

"More lines?" he asked in exasperation, before fixing himself a piece of toast and looking for an empty table. There must have been some kind of convention or something going on because the place was packed. But Lex took it as a challenge and gleefully grinned when he snatched a table from the very grips of a mother and her three screaming children. Firmly in control, he nibbled daintily on his toast.

My breakfast was considerably more substantial, and I coerced him into sharing part of it. I was worried that heíd lost his appetite again, but he assured me it was just his eagerness to get back to tracking down his would-be killer. Forgetting my fatherís admonishments about lying Luthors, I believed him.

Being a complete unknown in the big city, I was free to explore Metropolis at will, and that was what I did after Lex kicked me out of the suite. He said my looking over his shoulder bothered him, but after stomping out of the hotel I realized that he had some hacking to do and didnít want me nearby. Yes, he was protecting himself, but he was also protecting me. Just like he had at Harryís.

What kind of vibes did I give off that everyone wanted to protect me? I was over six feet tall and muscle-bound. Definitely not dainty in the size department. Therefore, it must be in the brain department that they thought I was lacking. No, not Lex. Lex respected my brain. Just like I told Lana, Lex liked to challenge people, and he did so with me without holding back. Yet, he was as bad as my parents. They seemed to think I was oh, so innocent. But Smallville wasnít at the dark end of the world, and even if it was, it had the internet and video stores with back rooms--or so Iíd heard. I knew there was evil in the world that had nothing to do with meteor mutants. I knew not to take candy from a stranger and to count my change and to ignore the man with the bare legs wearing a raincoat on a sunny day. I wasnít naive; just inexperienced.

And proud of it, actually. Because I wasnít sure who Iíd be if Iíd gone through what Lex had. He was strong enough to survive it, to stop and take his life in a whole other direction. None of that had anything to do with being exiled to Smallville. There was trouble to be found in my hometown, and with the way Lex drove, Metropolis wasnít that faraway. No, Lex had made a conscious decision to be who he was now. He ran the fertilizer plant with crisp expertise. Iíd watched him doing paperwork, saw the pride in his eyes when the numbers fell into place or the report showed incremental improvements. Lex at sixteen had been the ultimate rich brat. Lex at twenty-one was the ultimate young businessman. No, that wasnít right. Because the ultimate young businessman would have jumped at the chance to work directly under Lionel. Lex decided to follow his own destiny in Smallville, running a crap factory. That was an astonishing display of self-awareness and inner strength.

Which would be good to mimic, Dad.

There were no guidelines for me to follow in my life because no one had ever lived a life like mine. I was an alien, perhaps the only alien on earth. Dad didnít get that. He kept pushing his ideals and his precepts onto me, and while they seemed to work for him, I wasnít him. Like Lex wasnít his dad. I needed to follow my own destiny. And that destiny included Lex, hopefully as a friend or even more.

Giving up on the soul-searching for a while, I wandered in and out of museums most of the day, getting a better understanding of my adopted world. I came out of one of the galleries to see the latest edition of the Daily Planet, its headline: Luthor Heir Presumed Dead. I tossed the vendor the appropriate coins and found a seat in one of the parks. Beneath a company file photo of Lex were the words:

Lex Luthor, 21, only heir to Lionel Luthor and billion-dollar company LuthorCorp, is presumed dead after an explosion decimated his home in Smallville, Kansas. The explosion occurred in the early hours of Saturday after the young entrepreneur had survived a shooting attempt Friday afternoon. Arson is suspected but officials are hampered in their investigation by the devastation of the site. Scott Davis, Fire Chief in Smallville, reports that it might be several more days before the wreckage is stable enough to be breeched. FBI and ATF agents are also on the scene.

Born Alexander Joseph Luthor, Lex Luthor lived a troubled life marred by scandal, drug use, and an admitted wild lifestyle. In the past year, the scion seemed to have settled down in the sleepy Midwestern town where he managed a LuthorCorp holding.

Luthor is survived by his father, billionaire Lionel Luthor.

See page 3 for a related story.

I flipped to page 3.

MY SON IS NOT DEAD

Seoul, South Korea. Amidst speculation that his son was killed in an explosion that demolished his residence in Smallville, Kansas, billionaire Lionel Luthor remains adamant that his son, Alexander Joseph Luthor, is not dead.

"Luthors only die when theyíre ready, and Lex still has a lionís share of hell to raise before he lets death take him for a final ride. Mark my words, my son is not dead."

The search for Alexander Luthorís remains has been halted until the ruins can be combed safely.

I carefully folded the paper, stuck it in my back pocket, and headed back to the hotel.

*****

"Well, it looks like everyone is buying the story except your father," I said as I pocketed the key card Iíd just used. I looked up and the sofa where Iíd left Lex was empty. "Lex?"

I walked into the bedroom. He was curled up on his bed, but I could immediately tell something was wrong. His breathing was loud and shallow. "Lex!" Touching him was like touching a furnace.

Glassy eyes opened. "Clark," he wheezed. "I think Iíve been poisoned."

When? "Harry," I said flatly. He was just a dirty, double-dealing drug pusher, and I was going to enjoy taking him out.

"No. Before. The shower. I inhaledÖsomething nasty. Delayed effect."

What? Okay. Wait a minute. If the initial gas didnít kill him, and the explosion didnít kill him, the hit man arranged for a delayed-effect poison to get him? Fuck, the man was thorough. Scarily a lot like Lex. "Iím calling 911."

I reached for the phone, then withdrew my hand. It was a sure bet Lex would be recognized in Metropolis. Maybe even the killer was counting on him trying to get medical help here in the city. Would I be abetting Lexís murder if I called?

Fuck it.

"Lex? You think you can fake being okay just until we get out of the hotel?"

I helped him sit up. "We Luthors have been faking it since birth. Whatís another couple of minutes?"

I kept a firm grip on him until we left the room. Then I released him and stayed within a step of his every move. True to his Luthor blood, he made it through the lobby looking merely thoroughly buzzed. No one looked at us twice.

As soon as we were out of the way of prying eyes, I scooped Lex up into my arms andÖran. My plan was to find the nearest hospital outside of Metropolis, but when I finally stopped at a blue and white hospital sign, I discovered Iíd run all the way to Indiana.

"Lex, you okay?" I asked belatedly. Iíd never tested what my speed could do to a human. Iíd never tested anything. That wasnít smart. It was past time I stopped playing ostrich with my powers. I could hurt someone and not even realize it.

"I wouldÖsay that it was a breath-takingÖexperience. But I thinkÖat this pointÖitís probably a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg."

He was joking--and turning blue at the same time. My Lex.

He made me put him down before entering the ER. It was a small, community hospital, much like the one back home, but the ER was busy. I helped Lex sit and went up to the desk. "My friend is having trouble breathing," I said, pointing at Lex.

She glanced at the bald head. "Have you contacted his oncologist?"

"Heís not a cancer patient. He canít breathe."

"What AIDS treatment is he on?"

"He doesnít have AIDS. Itís his lungs."

She handed me a clipboard. "Fill this out and bring it up here when youíre done. Weíll call his name when we have an opening."

I was furious when I plopped down in the seat next to Lex. "Bitch," I muttered.

Lex roused enough to smirk. "Youíre the one who saidÖwaiting in line wasÖthe American way."

"Not when youíre fucking dying!"

A hand landed on my forearm. "Donít lose it now. I need you, okay?"

I nodded. I could do this--for Lex. "Okay. Name." I reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the fake I.D. "Drug allergies?" He rolled his eyes. With his history of drug use, any allergies would have been known in a hurry. The rest of it I fudged, then quickly returned the form to the desk.

To be honest, the wait was less than ten minutes, but it felt like hours. Lex was giving off heat like a glassmakerís oven and his breathing was even painful to me. I found myself matching him breath for breath, terrified that one time I was going to breatheÖand he wasnít.

"Alex Kinsey."

I all but carried Lex to the back cubicle. The doctor came in as I helped him up onto the waiting gurney. He seemed barely older than Lex.

"Iím Dr. Portman."

"Iím Clint Kinsey and this is my brother, Alex. Heís burning up and having trouble breathing."

He pulled a stethoscope out of his pocket. "Letís take a listen."

I helped Lex off with his shirt. He flinched when the cold stethoscope touched his chest, but didnít say anything. That was so totally unlike Lex that I trembled.

The doctor frowned and immediately started yelling orders to the nurse I hadnít even seen come into the cubicle. "What have you been huffing?" he asked me as he raised the head of the gurney and gently shoved Lex back.

Huffing? "N--nothing."

"Iím not the law, kid. I just need to know how to counter this."

Lexís hand wrapped around his wrist caught the doctorís attention. "Poisoned. PhosgeneÖmaybe aÖderiÖvative."

The next minutes were a blur as Lex was intubated, put on oxygen, and sent to X-ray.

"Follow me," Dr. Portman ordered. We went to a small office, and I stood there as he typed phosgene into a database. He scanned the results quickly and called in the changes to Lexís care. Then he turned to me. "Whatís going on? Phosgene is not a recreational drug in anyoneís imagination. Has there been an industrial accident? I need to know so I can alert the other area emergency facilities."

I shook my head. "It came out of his shower."

Portman slapped the desk. "I donít have time for this. Do you think Iím stupid? Do you think I canít tell a bullet wound when I see one? Your brother was shot, and now he claims to be poisoned. I need to know what happened so I can save his life!"

Dad was right; none of this was worth Lexís life. I pulled the newspaper out of my pocket and handed it to the doctor.

"Heís--"

I nodded.

"And this--"

"The mansion blew up right after I dragged him from the shower. WeíveÖweíve been running ever since." God, I hoped I was doing the right thing.

"Why? The police, the Feds--"

"Thereís a million dollar price on his head. That can buy a lot of people. In fact, Iím risking his life just by telling you. But if youíve never listened to a warning before, Dr. Portman, please listen to this one: Lex lives in a very morally screwed up and dangerous world that you donít want to get mixed up in. Just treat him, and keep everything else to yourself," I said as earnestly as I could. I didnít want him to get hurt by Lexís world, by Lex, or by me--which was a possibility if he betrayed Lex.

Portman paled and looked at the newspaper again. "You look like a good kid. How the hell did you get mixed up in it?"

I shrugged. "Heís my best friend."

Tuesday

I needed my mother.

Iíd spent the night in a chair next to Lexís bed, listening to the machines as they breathed for him. According to Dr. Portman, his lungs were a mess, raw abscesses filling full of fluid. I wanted Lex to wake up so I could tell him; I knew heíd get the irony of me watching him drown again.

Some hour early in the morning the antibiotics had kicked in and his fever dropped. Now, all that was left was for his lungs to heal. Simple, really.

I called home.

"Mom?"

"Clark!"

"Go to the pay phone outside the Beanery." I knew its number by heart; at the Talon, I just asked Lana to borrow the phone. "Iíll call in fifteen minutes."

As soon as I hung up, I realized she was going to be pushing it to get all the way downtown in fifteen minutes, but she was there to answer on the first ring.

"Clark?"

"Mom."

"Where are you, baby?"

"I canítÖ."

"Are you okay?"

"Lex is in the hospital. The gas from the showerÖit stayed in his lungs and turned to hydrochloric acid. Machines are breathing for him."

She gasped. I slid to the floor beneath the hospitalís bank of phones.

"Just tell me where you are, Clark. Iíll be there as soon as I can."

I wanted to tell her. I wanted my mom to wrap her arms around me and tell me everything was going to be okay. But I had made my choices when I left with Lex. "Itís okay," I said, sniffing and wiping my nose on my sleeve. "I think I just needed to hear your voice. Howís Dad?"

"Frightened for you. I didnít even stop to tell him youíd called."

Good. I didnít think I was in the right frame of mind to listen to him blame all this on Lex. "Tell him not to worry about me. Lex takes care of that. Heís gone out of his way to protect me. He says he promised you."

She sniffed, and it was like a shot to the gut. I blinked my eyes rapidly to keep from crying. "He did, son. Take care of him, okay? Despite what your father says, I think Lex truly cares for you."

"He does."

"WhatÖwhat has the doctor said?"

"That he should recover, but its going to take a while for the soft tissue to heal which means heís going to have to take it easy for several months. Iím sorta glad Lex wasnít conscious to hear that part."

"Lex is unconscious?"

"He was. Now, heís just sleeping. His doctor says he might not wake up until tomorrow, that his body is trying to catch up on its rest."

"You know how tired your father was when he got out of the hospital after the Nicodemus fever."

"I know. Itís so hard sometimes, Mom. I can do so many things, but when it comes to saving the ones I love..."

Even in my misery I noted the slight pause before she answered. "You have saved them, us, Clark. Maybe one day you wonít be able to, maybe one day fate will run out for us, but it wonít be because you didnít try. And weíll understand, honey."

Why didnít that make me feel any better? I switched topics before I lost it completely. "Do you believe in destiny, Mom?"

Another hesitation. "Yes, baby."

"Then you know my destiny isnít to stay on the farm." I didnít say how I really felt; that even if I couldnít do half the things I could do, I couldnít picture myself as a farmer. It just wasnít--me.

"Your dad and I have both come to grips with that."

How parentally supportive. Now, for the kicker. "Can you come to grips with the fact that Lex is part of that destiny?"

My mom was no liar. I could hear her scrambling for a truthful, but positive, answer. "Honey, weíll love you no matter what."

I gave a sad chuckle. "You, maybe."

"Donít sell your father short."

The thought of my father finding out that Lex and I were going to be more than friends, after the way he treated Lex when we were merely that, wasnít helping to brighten my day, but if I was honest, I knew only one thing would--Lexís intriguing gray eyes looking up at me. "I should hang up now, just in case someone has noticed you talking on a public phone."

"Honey, itís only a little after six a.m. Thereís no one around to see me."

I didnít know it was so early. I never even thought to look at my watch. "So how come Dad didnít ask you where you were going?"

"He was already out in the fields. Heís been having trouble sleeping."

"Since Iíve been gone, or since Iíve been gone with Lex?" The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. This wasnít a fight I should be having with Mom, nor was this the time to get into it. I couldnít leave Lex alone too long, although I could see the door to his room from where I sat. "Iíll try to call again, maybe tomorrow. See if you can find out the number on the phone outside Miltonís Gas Station or any public phone. When I call just give me the number and how many minutes you need to get there. Okay?"

"Okay, honey. You boys take care."

"Bye, Mom."

*****

Lex woke at 9:47 p.m.

I was in my chair, watching the television above his bed. When I felt someone watching me, I turned my head and familiar eyes blinked at me. I immediately hit the call button.

Ninety minutes later, he was machine-free.

"Clark," he said after I fed him some ice chips, "we have to doÖsomething aboutÖyour viewing habits. That showÖsucks."

"Lex!"

"You rememberÖmy name. Apparently the showÖhasnít completelyÖdestroyed your brain cells."

Dr. Portman was obviously not amused. "Mr. Kinsey, Iím going to ask you to refrain from speaking for a while. Itís somewhat of a miracle that I could take you off the breathing apparatus so soon, but youíre far from well."

"ThroatÖhurts anyway," Lex conceded in Lex fashion.

The medical staff left, and I settled into my very familiar chair.

"What day?"

"Youíre not supposed to talk."

"Then donít make meÖrepeat myself."

I looked at my watch. "Tuesday, for the next three minutes at least."

"You okay?"

"Iím indestructible, remember?"

"NoÖyouíre not."

I should have known not to try to put anything over on Lex. "I called Mom. But I was careful. I was only connected to my home phone for less than fifteen seconds. I told her to go to the pay phone outside of the Beanery. I know it was a risk, but--"

"YouÖneeded her."

"Yes. I told her--about us, I mean."

"Clark, there isÖno us."

"Well, no, not yet. But I have a new plan."

"God help us."

"Quiet. Youíre not supposed to be speaking. Anyway, I didnít have anything to do all day, so I did some thinking."

"Note previous comment."

"I can get Dr. Portman to come in here and shove another tube down your throat." Oops. That brought up another confession. "He knows, by the way."

"About us?"

I rolled my eyes at his lame sense of humor. "No. About you. He realized that was a bullet hole in your arm, and he started to get suspicious. I figured what we didnít need was a call to the local cops. But I'm not too worried; I think my own sense of terror connected with his." God, his eyes spoke more than his mouth could ever say, and I rushed to continue. "No, Iím not really terrified. I would be if you werenít with me, but I trust you, Lex, in everything."

Once again his eyes were quite eloquent. They spoke of the love he felt because I trusted him, the fear he felt because I trusted him, and the determination never to betray that trust. If only my dad would look--really look--into his eyes, he would know we had nothing to fear from Lex. "Okay, back to the plan, because I know youíre curious."

"Oh, yeah."

"You see, I realize Iíll never be the more experienced in our relationship." He opened his mouth, and I closed it with a glare. "But to be honest, I do need some experience. To quiet the nay-sayers who will undoubtedly cast you as a villainous seducer of young men." He twirled an imaginary moustache and leered. I laughed.

"And to quiet you, who will no doubt wonder at times if you really are a villainous seducer. Have I ever told you that youíre too quick to believe your bad hype, Lex? Also, I want to be sure, too. I mean, I am sure, but youíre Lex Luthor. You arenít just some guy off the street."

"Or girl."

"Or girl. Paparazzi--"

"AssassinsÖ."

"Yeah. A relationship with you canít be a quiet, personal affair, and even if we could manage that, itís not what I want. Lex Luthor shouldnít be hid." I grinned when I caught a faint blush outline his cheeks. No, nothing that beautiful should ever be anywhere other than in the spotlight. "So, if you think Lionelís going to throw a fit about us, just kill him now and get it over with--" I jumped up and got him more ice chips as he started coughing. Heíd broken into a sweat by the time he regained control. "Shit, Lex, it was just a joke. I donít want you to kill your father." A deliberate pause. "Iím not a hypocrite; if I killed your father, mine would have to be next on the list."

He spat ice at me. "YouíreÖtrying to kill me, right?" Lex rasped.

I shook my head and wiped his face with a tissue. "No. You were looking so somber, I just thought you could use a littleÖlevity. Donít worry; weíre not killing anyone."

"Good."

"Weíll have Harry do it." A glare with a little twinkle in the center. "Fine. The plan is that Iím asking Chloe to the Spring Dance."

The twinkle disappeared. "Oh."

"And if there comes a chance with Lana, Iím going to take it." I placed a finger on his lips to keep him quiet. "Iím going to go to college and maybe there will be a girl there, or a guy. Just one, maybe two, because as I said, thereís no way Iím going to catch up with you. And, Lex, Iím going to truly care for them because Iím not you. I wasnít raised like you. I canít just accept it as a game. I canít ruthlessly separate the physical from the emotional. You understand that, donít you?"

He nodded, his eyes closing.

"I have to do it this way, Lex. When I come to you, itís going to be forever. I wonít be able to let you go, and you--"

"I donít even know if I can let you go now," he whispered, twisting until his mouth was free of my hand.

"But you will. We both need to know that when I come to you, itís because I want to be there. It wonít be because of your name, your greater experience, your manipulations. When I come to you, there will be a balance, a sense of equality."

He stared blankly at a wall. "What if you never come to me?"

I laughed softly, and the hand that had covered Lex's lips trailed down to his chest, over the gentle thump of a heart that I knew, one that I recognized better than my own. "Thatís not a possibility. But Iím not ready for you, Lex. We both know that. If we started something now, you would totally consume me. You wouldnít be able to help it. Itís your nature. One of the things about you that your father fears."

"My father doesnít have any fears."

"Even you donít believe that. You know heís worried about you becoming his competition, although he's the one who groomed you for the position. Have I ever told you that you and your father are--"

"Sick? Depraved? The poster family forÖabortion activists?"

See? You just have to root for someone like Lex. Just off a ventilator and poking fun at himself. No true villain could ever be that cheerfully self-deprecating. "I can see itís going to be fun at the Luthor house during holidays."

"Maybe you should reconsider and stick with Chloe or Lana or someoneÖother than me."

I shook my head. "No way."

"What if IímÖotherwise engaged?"

"It doesnít matter. Youíre the one who said it first, Lex: we have a destiny. We are bound in ways others canít touch. We could be mortal enemies, and it wouldnít change what we are, what we will be to each other. Canít you feel it, Lex? Your father, my father, your Victorias and my LanasÖthere is nothing they can do to separate us." I patted the soft cotton beneath my hand. "I will come to you, and you will welcome me home."

"Leave it to meÖto get involved withÖa romantic." The gray eyes that had been soft with sleepÖor something else grew hard. "Indestructible or not, if you break my heart, I will kill you."

"If I break your heart, I deserve to be killed."

The fierceness in his eyes melted, but pain burned just below the surface. "So Iím supposed to be your friend and just wait for you to come to me? What do I get out of your so-called plan?"

"What you need: something to believe in, something to have faith inÖsomething to fight for when your dad is messing with your head."

Lex snorted, and promptly started coughing. The attack was brief, but weakened him. His eyes fluttered to stay open. "You think a lot of yourself, donít you, Kent?"

I smiled and leaned back in the chair. "No, Lex. I think a lot of us."

Wednesday

I jerked awake as the door to Lexís room opened. My eyes slid back closed as I recognized Dr. Portman.

"Sorry, guys, but I need you both awake." I opened my eyes to see Lex was alert. This trip had taught me that he was a very light sleeper unless under the influence of powerful drugs.

"Whatís wrong? The poison--"

Portman put down the large paper bag he carried. "Someone has been checking the system to see if there have been any requests for treatment of phosgene exposure."

Lex was swinging his feet to the floor even before Portman stopped speaking. "Clothes," he ordered.

"I havenít had time to clean them," I apologized as I went to the locker-like closet.

"Not exactly a reason to write my epitaph."

Portman reached into the bag. "I brought you each a set of scrubs. Itíll make it easier for you to slip out of the hospital."

"What? No lectures on leaving the hospital so soon after my recovery?" Lex asked dryly.

"Actually, you havenít recovered. But I know your reputation, Mr. Luthor, and your friend here has informed me of the seriousness of your situation. Opposing you would mean I wouldnít even get a chance to examine you before you left. But since Iím willing to go along with your planÖ?"

"If you can do it while I dress, fine."

"In the bag are some things I gathered for you. Antibiotics, pain relievers, an inhaler, thermometer--if his temp goes over 103 degrees, you get him to a hospital," he said to me. "I donít care who is on your ass, okay?"

"Okay."

"Mr. Luthor, I need you to take the deepest breath you can."

"Lex."

"Okay, Lex. Can you do it again?" Portman frowned and shoved his stethoscope into a pocket. "Your lungs sound clearer than I expected. Still, I want you to take a hit from the inhaler before you leave. You know how to use one?"

"I suffered from asthma as a child."

Portman nodded. "When did you grow out of it?"

"When I was nine."

Lex made it all sound so normal. Sure, kids grew out of diseases all the time, but they usually didnít have a meteor storm as a catalyst.

"Youíre probably not going to want to eat much--I have you on some pretty strong antibiotics, and they tend to raise hell on the stomach--but you have to be very careful of dehydration. I tossed in some sample bottles of Pedialyte. I donít know how youíre traveling, and I donít want to know, but I suggest you get a cooler and some ice. Cold, that stuff goes down real easy." Portman finished his examination and stood back. "I left my girlfriendís number in the bag. If you need me, call her and sheíll get a message to me."

Lex looked surprised. "Thank you, doctor. I assure you, Iíll be fine."

Portman smiled. "I guess itís like your father said, ĎLuthors only die when theyíre ready.í Good luck, guys." He left the room.

"How does he know what my father says?" Lex asked suspiciously.

"Itís in the newspaper article."

"What newspaper article?"

"The one I was going to show you until I found you collapsed in the suite."

"Oh. Speaking of the suite, think you can find your way back?"

I rolled my eyes. "So we ended up in Indiana. Big deal. I was a little preoccupied with the half-dead body I was dragging around. Tell me, do you always moan and groan like that?"

Lex licked his lips and actually leered. "Maybe one day youíll discover the answer for yourself."

I had to remind myself why my plan was such a good idea. "The Kent Express is leaving the back alley in five minutes. All aboard." I crammed our other clothes in the bag and hefted it into Lexís arms.

"Excuse me?"

"I canít carry it and you. Well, I could but I think youíd prefer it if I didnít."

"You know, my post-traumatic self is going to like not knowing anything about you, because super-Clark has an insufferable ego."

"Yeah, but you love me anyway. You good to walk?"

Looking a little shell-shocked, Lex nodded. "Itís pretty simple. You put one foot in front of the otherÖ"

I laughed. "No! Donít tell me you watch the Christmas Ďtoons. ĎSanta Claus Is Coming To Towní has to be one of my favorites--even though you have to search the TV Guide to find out whoís going to bring it on each year."

Lex looked at me smugly. "I have it on DVD."

"Yes! Sometimes it pays to have a billionaire as a best friend."

"I knew you loved me for my money."

"Nah--just your DVD collection. And your mega-sized television. And the Dolby digital sound system. And your carsÖ."

*****

I didnít overshoot Metropolis.

Thank God for honest maids because we had left everything out in the open--the laptop and assorted expensive equipment, not to mention Harryís bag of money. Yet, the beds were made, the floor was vacuumed, and the dirty towels replaced.

It took me all of three seconds to dirty the new set.

As I let the hot water rain down on me, I couldnít believe it was just Wednesday. So much had happened since Chloe said that Lex had been shot. Heck, so much had happened since I last stood in this shower stall. Lex had almost died--again, and I had confessed my vision of our future. It reeked to high heaven of romanticism and there had to be some purple prose thrown in there somewhere, but it was everything I believed. Maybe it had something to do with me being an alien. Maybe this was the way my people approached relationships. I just knew that when I finally got Lex, I was not going to be willing to let go. If I gave myself to him now, there would be no turning back, no sowing of wild oats, no anything but him. And I didnít think that would be fair to either of us.

But was all this too much for Lex? Did he truly understand my plan or was he thinking that I was trying to have my cake and eat it, too? It wasnít like that. I wasnít putting Lex aside as my fallback boyfriend. He and I would be together--eventually. But the truth of it --and why was I hearing my motherís voice--was that I was too young for Lex. Not just in years, either. He deserved to have a partner who was a full adult, capable of independent thought and intellectual debate. Iíd just had a glimpse of the world Lex lived in, and I knew it was no place for the weak or naive. Lionel Luthor alone would chew me up and spit me into a bloody pile at Lexís feet. I couldnít allow that to happen. Lex would blame himself, and for a selfish bastard, he had some real self-image issues.

I dried myself off and wrapped a towel around my waist. "Lex, I donít think you should risk standing in the shower. Want me to run a bath for you? Get rid of all that glue from the monitor pads they stuck to you. Lex?"

He was asleep. One ugly sneaker on, the other sitting on its side on the carpet beside the bed. Poor baby. I grinned, knowing how he would react to that sentiment. But he did look adorable, all flushed and tuckered out. I took the blanket from my bed and spread it across him. Since it was still early morning, I stuck the Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob and crawled into bed myself.

*****

When I woke, it was early evening and the other bed was empty. Scratching my head, I went out to the main room and saw him working on the computer. "Hey."

"Hey."

"Been up long?"

"Unfortunately, no. I already lost yesterday; I didnít need to blow another day sleeping."

I sighed and pulled the dirty clothes out of the bag. "You were--are--sick, Lex. Sleeping is not only expected but required."

"Yeah, yeah."

Spoken like someone who hadnít been sick in twelve years. Of course, I understood him perfectly. Maybe Eric hadnít been an accident. Maybe losing my powers to him had been a lesson I needed to learn. "Iím going to go do laundry. You want anything to eat?" He shook his head, his eyes never leaving the computer screen. "You take any of the Pedialyte?"

"Not yet."

I rolled my eyes and put the bottles in the tiny refrigerator. He was not going to be an easy patient, but what he didnít know was that I had observed my momís techniques with my "when Iím sick Iím bitchy" father. "Iíll pick up dinner while Iím out. When was the last time you took your medicine?"

"When I got up." I stared at him. "Itís the truth. I didnít feel too well so I--"

"What do you mean you didnít feel too well? Did you take your temperature?" I fished around in the bottom of the bag and found the cool ear thermometer Dr. Portman gave us. Well, that answered my question.

"Clark!" he griped, as I grabbed his head and stuck the thermometer into his ear.

"Just a second, Lex." The instrument beeped, and I looked at the reading: 101.45. The medication seemed to be working. "The next time youíre feeling bad, you tell me--even if Iím sleeping!"

"Geesh, Martha, look how youíve changed," Lex snarled.

I kissed the top of his head and let him go. "I know youíre not feeling well, dear," I said serenely, earning myself the finger. I emptied my backpack and crammed the dirty clothes inside. "When I return, Iíll bring you a nummy treat for being such a good boy," I said as I opened the door.

But the remark was wasted as Lex was once again focused on the computer.

*****

Because of Dr. Portmanís warning, I brought Lex some frozen yogurt. After I threatened to unplug the laptop, he ate it and drank half a bottle of the Pedialyte. I devoured a medium pizza and two-liter Coke Iíd picked up at the local Dominoís. Finally, I was starting to feel like myself again. Wonder how much of that had to do with the call Iíd made while I was out. Mom was good for my soul.

I played a few video games in the bedroom and was just coming out to snag the package of Oreos Iíd bought when I saw the laptop sail through the air. Glad that Lex knew all about me, I moved quick enough to save the electronic device. Lex blinked, stunned for a second, then glared angrily and threw himself supine on the sofa.

"I have designs on this, you know," I said conversationally as I placed the laptop safely away from Lex. "Thought it would make a lovely Ďthank you for being my bodyguardí gift, and really, I donít think Dad could argue too much about it."

Lex didnít say a word.

"Tell me," I demanded.

"I know who put out the hit on me."

The enemy had a name. "Spill."

"Hardwick. Father, daughter, maybe both."

Well, that was justÖfucked. "The bitch. Why? Because you screwed her over in business, or because you screwed her over in bed?"

"Doesnít matter. The real question is whoís backing her. I didnít leave them a million dollars worth of shit."

"Maybe she earned the money on her back like the whore she is."

Lex lifted his head and smiled at me. "You really donít like her, do you?"

"She set out to deliberately hurt you, Lex. Thatís unforgivable in my book."

I could tell he was startled by my declaration.

Oh, Lex, youíve never been as cherished as you should have been. Lionel Luthor has a lot to answer for when I claim you for my own.

"I need to know where the money came from," Lex explained. "Thatís the true threat."

"And you were going to destroy the computer before you found out? Bad planning, Lex."

"Donít forget to add, ĎI thought I taught you better than that, son.í"

Shit. "Lex--"

He sat up. "Forget about it, Clark. And youíre right; it was bad planning. Iím just so tiredÖ."

"You need to sleep."

"No, I need to find out whoís rich enough to--"

He paled. No, I mean, really paled--to a pallid shade just on the other side of green. He raced to the bathroom and barely made it to the toilet before he lost the yogurt, Pedialyte, and assorted other matter. When he finally stopped heaving, I handed him a glass of water and wiped his face with a damp towel. Whether it was sweat or tears that decorated his face, I never asked.

"Let me find those nausea pills Harry gave you," I said, standing back as he drew shakily to his feet. I was close enough to catch him if he faltered, but he didnít, although he looked as fragile as a dandelion in a windstorm.

"I have something to show you," he said distractedly.

I followed him to the main room where he retrieved the computer from its safe spot. While he logged back in, I found Harryís pills. I hoped they would help because Lex was already pounds thinner than heíd been Friday night when Iíd carried him through the wheat fields to the loft. When I returned, he was on the internet at an online archiving site. I thought that was strange.

"I keep important stuff online in case of--well, in case my residence gets blown up," he explained with a shrug.

Oh, right.

"But this is a public site. I would have thought--"

"LuthorCorp has its own servers. But this is for things I donít want LuthorCorp to have. And quite frankly, no one would ever expect me to keep information on a site like this, so they wouldnít go looking for it." He took the pills and the bottle of Pedialyte from my hands. "Iím going to bed."

"But what about--"

He tilted his head toward the screen, then walked away.

It took me a moment to figure out what I was looking at. No, I wasnít quite that innocent, but seeing your best friendís dad fucking your best friendís girlfriend wasnít exactly something that took on the first glance. No, I had to look at it, tilt my head a little, look away, take a deep breath, then look at it again. Nothing changed. It was Lionel Luthor and Victoria Hardwick doing the nasty. Before, during, or after her affair with Lex? Did it really matter? It had to hurt Lex on some visceral level even though he claimed Vickie was just a game. No one expected a toy to turn on them like this. With his own father. That was-- That was-- That was--

No! Lex wasnít thinking that-- Even Lionel wouldnít-- Sure, he was a billionaire, but-- It wasnít the only option. And it might not even be true. But the fact that Lex could think-- That Lex knew that Lionel was capable of betraying him, of maybe evenÖ.

I brushed away tears as I powered down the computer, cut off the lights, and made sure the door was secure. Lex pretended to be asleep as I stripped down to my boxers, studying the still figure in the bed. A glint in the corner of my eye revealed the inhaler sitting on the table between the beds. I couldnít imagine the pain he must be in. I couldnít imagine how alone he must feel. To think that about his only parent.

I pulled back the covers and slid in beside Lex.

"What are you doing?" He didnít move.

"Holding you." I wrapped my arms around him and drew him close against me.

"Fuck me."

It was an invitation, an order, a desperate plea. I could only answer one way. "No."

"Then get out."

"No."

"Damn it, Clark. If you wonít--" He squirmed in my arms.

I didnít allow him to move. "You know how strong I am."

"You would force me?"

"To sleep? To accept my comfort? To accept the fact that yes, there is someone in this world that loves you, thatís not thinking about betraying you or belittling you or conquering you? Yes, Lex. Those are things I would force."

He stopped struggling, but the form I held was far from relaxed. "Iím never quite sure what lessons he wants me to learn from his actions," he admitted softly.

"Trust no one."

"I donít think he ever watched the X-Files."

My sweet Lex. If only I were strong enoughÖ. I settled for kissing the back of his head. "Fight him, Lex. Even if he isnít the one funding Victoria, still fight him."

"Iím trying," he whispered.

"I know."

It didnít take him long to fall asleep, but it was hours before I settled enough to drift off.

Thursday

I was alone when I woke. I found Lex in the other room just putting down the phone. He was dressed in the freshly laundered clothes and lookingÖanimated.

"Good, youíre awake. Want to go have breakfast before we check out?"

Check out? "Sure, whatís going on?"

"I just got through making our reservations."

"Reservations? Weíre changing hotels?"

"No." He gave me a sunny smile. "Weíre going to South Korea!"

A few days of Sick!Lex and Iíd forgotten how often he was six or seven moves ahead of me. "Why?"

"To beard the lion in his den."

I leaned against a counter. "Is thatÖwise?"

He shrugged and picked up the fishing hat. "Itís how the game is played, Clark. You told me to fight, and thatís what Iím doing."

"But are you playing his game or yours?"

"Thereís a difference?"

I hated how icy he became in his fatherís presence--and the man wasnít even here. "Yes, Lex, thereís a difference."

"You can head back to Smallville now, if you want."

I could scream. It would probably scare the shit out of everyone in the hotel, and Lex wouldnít even flinch. He was in battle mode. Maybe it was what he needed. Maybe he was playing his game. "Do we have passports?"

"I was very thorough with Cecilís equipment."

Of course he was. I sighed. Looked like I was headed to South Korea.

I was headed to South Korea.

Well, hot damn!

I was so excited I didnít remember eating breakfast, checking out of the hotel, or the cab ride to the airport. But I do remember the airport, an imposing place that was more like a mall than a plane terminal. Because Lex had reverted to his Alex Kinsey--Special Person, role, he had to whisper instructions to me as we went through the process of getting the tickets, etc. We made it through security with surprising ease, considering we had little luggage. Since 9-11, that was one of the profiles that was supposed to set off a whole series of ID and background checks. However, my dear brother Alex gave the guards a sweet, childish smile and they were putty in his fiendish little hands. None of them even looked a little annoyed when his hat set off the metal detector.

As a "reward" for his antics, I dragged him into the bookstore with me and made him stand by my side while I fanned through all the Korean guidebooks. I figured while he was battling his father, I could be absorbing the culture of a foreign land. Then maybe my parents wouldnít kill me when they found out Iíd left the country.

I finally found the book I wanted to buy, only to turn around and discover Iíd lost Lex. Fuming, I paid for the book and stalked out of the bookstore. Lex was just out front, on the floor racing cars with a five-year-old, whose mother stood next to them. She didnít seem pleased to see me. What had the scheming shit told her?

"Alex, I thought I told you to stay with me," I said, softly scolding like I thought my mother would.

"Tired," Alex said, not even bothering to look up at me. The Trans Am went zoom-zoom toward the little boy.

"You have to watch them closely," the real mother admonished me. "This place is so big."

"Yes, maíam. I truly thought he was right behind me." I was going to kill him. Slowly. I needed to check the book to see if South Korea had extradition laws.

"Youíre awfully young for so much responsibility."

So now I wasnít even old enough to take care of the devilish doofus? "Heís my brother, maíam, and since our parents passed awayÖ" I looked away, batting my eyes as if holding back tears. "Iím trying. I really am." Ha! He wasnít the only actor in the relationship.

She patted my back. "Iím sure youíll do fine. Adam, itís time to go." The little boy stood and took his motherís hand. "And, Alex, you mind your brother, okay?"

"Yes, maíam."

"He really is a sweet boy," she said as she led hers away.

"You are so dead," I hissed as I bent over to scoop up the toy car.

He grinned, snatched the car from my hands, and shuffled toward our gate.

It wasnít long before our flight was called. I had fussed when I discovered heíd booked us in first class. Not exactly low-key travel. But when I peeked back into the economy section I knew my long legs wouldnít have survived more than twenty hours in those cramped seats.

He smirked when I confessed that to him, leaned against my arm, and went to sleep.

I read my guidebook for a while, then joined him.

Saturday

Friday got lost somewhere over the Pacific and as we landed in Seoul, I realized I was in serious danger of not making it back in time for school on Monday. Right then, I vowed to make the best of this trip since I was going to be grounded for the rest of my life.

Alex Kinsey was shed again as Lex made the arrangements to be taken to his fatherís villa. He, of course, spoke perfect Korean, and when I asked him about it, he told me that heíd spent three years here as a child while Lionel stormed through Asia. When I asked why he didnít care that someone would recognize him, he shrugged and said that if it was safe enough for his dad, it was safe enough for him.

And that made me think, as the private car he hired carried us to the Luthor residence. Sometime during the night, Wednesday night, that is, heíd crossed Lionel off the suspect list. So what we were actually doing here was not bearding the lion in his den, but going into the den for protection. Lex was going to his father for help. Just like I would.

God, Dad, they are human after all.

Of course, I was glad I figured that out before we got to the house because if I relied on visual and aural clues I got later, Iíd still be thinking they were at war.

The car took us out of the city and to what could only be described as a plantation. First a castle, and now a plantation. The Luthors apparently couldnít grasp the concept of a plain house. As we reached the wide wrap-around porch, the door opened.

"Sam! You still around?" Lex asked jovially as a short Asian man with white hair stared at us.

"Seems I should be asking that question, Lex, considering youíre the one whoís reportedly dead."

"I thought you knew everything in the American press was a lie. Where is he?"

"Breakfast."

"Good. Bring settings for two more, would you?"

I followed Lex inside, and he headed straight for the dining room. "Morning, Dad," he said casually, slipping into what I assumed was his usual chair at his fatherís right hand.

Lionel finished chewing his bacon. "Hello, son. Am I to assume this resurrection means youíve taken care of the situation?"

"I know who tried to kill me. I know who hired him. I donít know who paid for the hit." Lex motioned for me to sit across from him. A girl came and put plates in front of both of us.

I figured the lack of a re-introduction was on the same principle as with Harry; Lex was keeping me a non-entity for my own protection.

"So why the premature and unnecessary reunion?"

Oh, yeah, this had the biblical prodigal son story beat by a mile.

"Because my resources are currently smoldering in the ruins of a castle."

"Shouldnít put all your eggs in one basket."

"Believe me, Dad, I have eggs hidden everywhere."

Lionel gave his son a dubious look. "Who?"

"A gentleman by the name of Silent Sam."

He knew the hit manís name? Why hadnít I heard about this?

"Hmphf. A big ticket purchase."

"Yes."

"And?"

"Heís been taken care of."

"You?"

"A friend."

Lionel frowned. "Quan spoils you."

"Harry is Harry."

"What about the rest?"

"The Hardwicks."

"Must have been Victoria. The only one in the family with balls."

"You would know, Dad."

Lionel ate the last of his toast. "I wonder where she got the money."

"In the same place the family got the money in the first place."

"Victoria is not half as good at it as her mother was."

"But sheís young, and she fakes really well. Iím sure thereís some old fool out there who would fall for it."

"Undoubtedly." Lionel sipped his coffee and motioned for the serving girl to refill his cup. "She would have been better off spending the money on securing her future rather than on revenge. But thatís always been the Hard Wick flaw--too emotional. Remember that, son."

"I will, Dad."

If I hadnít been so hungry, the conversation probably would have turned my stomach. Instead, I continued to eat and learn why my Lex was as fucked up as he was. In the brief time I observed them, I noted Lexís subtle digs and his fatherís not-so-subtle putdowns. I was unabashedly pro-Lex, so I accepted that his behavior as rightfully defensive. Self-protection from the constant battering he was under. But I couldnít find an excuse for Lionelís combative attitude toward his son. What was it supposed to accomplish? Why would you want your heir to hate you? Why would you want to alienate the one person who should idolize you?

Yet, Lex did idolize him. Loved him, too. That should have been--sad, yet, as I watched them, I got the distinct impression that Lionel loved Lex as well. It would have been interesting to see how the two of them would have turned out if either Mrs. Luthor or little Julian had survived. Maybe they would have learned how love was supposed to be.

Or maybe there would have been four screwed up people instead of two.

Lionel stood abruptly. "I have a meeting. You look like shit. You never did international travel well."

I thought he looked pretty good for someone whoíd checked out of the hospital prematurely only to take an international flight twenty-four hours later. Of course, Lionel hadnít asked about any of the murder attempts, not even the gunshot wound that I knew he knew about.

He also hadnít asked how Lex escaped the castle. Maybe it was time to stop whining and count my blessings.

"Come on, Clark. You can have the room across from mine."

"You have a room here?"

"Told you I lived here for three years."

"Yeah, but I thought that was a while ago."

"It was."

Okay. See this was where all the assumptions about Luthors broke down. The two men were, for want of a better word, estranged. But Lex not only expected to be welcome wherever Lionel was, Lionel apparently had a room set aside especially for his son. His old room. Like nothing had changed. Detached, yet attached closer than some of the families back in Smallville who turned their childrenís rooms into sewing rooms or guest rooms as soon as the kids left for college. There was no way I was ever going to fully understand the Luthor psyche.

I wasnít sure I wanted to.

The guest room was everything I expected a Luthor guest room to be. Elegantly appointed. Private bath with towels thick enough to soak up a small pond. A mattress that could have been on a showroom floor. Yet, five seconds after I laid down in a clean pair of boxers, I was up, across the hall, and tapping on the door.

"Come in, Clark."

I opened the door. Lex was sitting on the edge of his bed wearing black pajama bottoms. He had clothes here, too? My head started to hurt. "Howíd you know it was me?"

"Because youíve been tucking me in for the past week."

"Does that bother you?"

"Iíve been told that adaptability is one of my more desirable traits."

"Who told you that? Your dad?"

"Actually, he thinks I roll over too easily." He shrugged. "We have differing styles."

"Thank God," I muttered.

He flashed me a familiar smirk.

"Have you taken your medicine?"

"Iím much better, Clark. See?" He peeled back the bandage on his arm. The angry mark of the bullet wound was now just a pink outline. "Courtesy of the meteors," he reminded me.

"Glad they were good for something. But you didnít answer the question."

Lex sighed. "Youíre going to make someone a good mom one day."

I gave a smirk of my own and looked around the room. The servants had of course assumed the computer bag was Lexís. I got the meds from one of the pockets. "The doctor said it would take weeks for you to completely heal. Even if you do have an accelerated healing rate, youíre not well yet."

I got him a glass of water and watched him down the pills. Then I sat on the side of the bed after heíd climbed beneath the covers. I didnít want to leave, but I knew I should.

"Iím safe here, Clark."

"I know."

Without another word, he lifted the covers as an invitation.

*****

"Spencer Martin."

I tugged a pillow over my head. Then I realized it was Lionel Luthorís voice, and I was in bed with his son. Aw, shit.

"I donít know a Spencer Martin," Lex said calmly beside me.

"Heís somebody I should have put down years ago. But your mother was fond of him. He was always weak. Definitely not a challenge for Victoria."

"Mom wasnít particularly fond of weak people. What was her relationship with Martin?"

Well, I knew Lexís mom and Lionel had to have something in common, but I didnít think it was a mutual dislike of people deemed weak. Then again, my impression of the late Mrs. Luthor came from the son who worshiped her memory. Still, I couldnít picture her as being as ruthless as Lionel.

"He was her first cousin." Lionel paused for a second. "I tolerated him out of loyalty to your motherís memory. But even she wouldnít have tolerated this."

"What about Victoria?"

"Not your concern. Her last liaison was with me. Therefore she answers to me."

Lex didnít look like he had any quarrel with that.

Vickie, Vickie, Vickie. You should have stuck with Lex. Cuter, and a lot less deadly.

I snorted my disgust for her stupidity.

Cold eyes pinned me to the pillow. "Is he legal?"

Oh, hell.

"His parents know where he is."

Well, technically. They knew I was with Lex. Who knew Lex would end up in South Korea?

"I wonít need the car tonight." He closed the door behind him.

"Wait till you see Seoul by night," Lex said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Spectacular doesnít even come close. Tomorrow Iíll take you to some of the places youíve probably heard about in history class."

It was over. All the running and hiding. It was over, and Lexís hands were clean. Blood was everywhere but not on Lex. One of these days, I knew that was going to hit me. The doubts that my dad so diligently cultivated were going to bloom, and I was going to have to face them and face the knowledge that I loved Lex despite of them, that I loved him enough to let it go. Harder to face would be was what that said about me.

But there was a more immediate problem, one which questioned my innocence in a more tangible way. "Lex?"

"Yes, Clark?"

"Your dad thinks weíre, umÖ"

"Fucking."

"Yes."

"Does that bother you? I mean I could deny it, but he probably wouldnít believe it anyway. I mean, I can barely believe that Iíve had you in my bed and Iíve done nothing but sleep. Iím heading toward sainthood thanks to you."

"Um, that would be an awfully long trip for you, wouldnít it?" I asked, innocently blinking my eyes. If Lex wasnít worried, then neither was I.

I was answered by a barrage of pillows.

Sunday

I was in love with a foreign country. That might have something to do with South Korea being the first foreign country Iíd ever been to. I hadnít even made it to Canada or Mexico yet, and here I was on another continent in another hemisphere, having the time of my life. Lex had taken me to the Seoul Tower last night for dinner in the revolving dining room at the top. The view was spectacular, and the underground aquarium below was well worth the hours we spent there.

After another night in bed together, we headed out to see Seoul in all its glory. I knew that studying the Korean War would never be the same for me as we toured parts of the demilitarized zone, descending into the tunnels and bunkers where people had hid and fought and died. It was eye-opening and heartbreaking. I knew that whatever I became in the future, I had to have a hand in keeping people from going to war. Whatever the cause, it just wasnít worth it.

I think Lex could tell the DMZ depressed me, so after lunch we toured the ruins of ancient places like Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces. Lex joked that he was glad his father hadnít seen these places first or else there might be an even bigger eyesore in Smallville. I told him I was kind of fond of the mansion and I used the Kodak disposable camera Iíd purchased to capture the look of wonder that had crossed his face.

My tour of South Korea officially ended with a dinner cruise on the Hangang River. Next was a trip back to the plantation and packing. Lex had arranged for the LuthorCorp jet to take me back to Smallville and if everything went according to plan, I would make it back in time for school.

Lex, on the other hand, would be staying for a while longer with his dad. In fact, as I packed my bag, he and Lionel were on a conference call to Japan.

"Ready?"

I turned toward the door where Lex lounged. "Ready."

"Got room for this?" He held out the plastic Trans Am. I hadnít even realized he still had it. "Itís probably the only vehicle your dad wonít make you give back."

I grinned. "Youíre probably right. And just in case--the laptop will have a good home if I have to put it up for adoption?"

Lex nodded. "But it will always be for your use only."

"Thanks."

"No thanks necessary."

That wasnít true. I learned so much about myself by being on the run with him. I would never be the same. I would never see the world in the same way. And I would never not question anything again. No wonder Dad hadnít wanted me to go with Lex.

"Youíre sure you have to stay?" I asked as Lex guided me to the gates reserved for private jets. The ride in the limo had been filled with thoughtful silences and goodbyes which refused to be spoken.

"Dad wants me to meet someÖpeople, and I owe him, Clark."

Was that the reason Lionel had helped Lex, to have something to hold over his son? The son who had refused to obediently heel when the master called. The son who was becoming his own man in a town heíd been exiled to, someone with power of his own.

I was starting to understand the Luthors too well.

"Do me a favor?"

"Anything, Clark."

"Keep fighting the good fight?"

He laughed. "Donít worry. Iím very focused on the long-term. Seizing the day is all well and good, but seizing the future is better."

I glanced around and saw no one. I leaned close to him and brushed my lips against his scalp. My lips were becoming fond of that part of his anatomy. I had a feeling they would become fond of all his anatomy--eventually. "Our future," I reminded him.

"You know, adolescent humans of the male persuasion arenít supposed to possess the amount of self-control you obviously have," he said, frowning. "Or have the ability to formulate a long-range plan for the future."

"You planned your future when you were a teenager."

"Iím a Luthor."

"And Iím not human. Guess we both have an excuse."

"What!"

I laughed, seeing the LuthorCorp jet waiting ahead. A jet. Just for me. "My rideís here. Gotta go. Guess the next time we see each other, that nasty head trauma will be a thing of the past."

He glared at me. "I never thought Iíd be saying this, but you are an evil person, Clark Kent."

"Must be the company Iíve been keeping," I said cheekily. "Anyeonghee Gyeseyo."

Lex smiled. "Goodbye to you, too, Clark. Iíll see you in Smallville."

My last sight of South Korea was Lex illuminated against a dark background.

God, I loved that country.

Monday

Thanks to the peculiarities of time, I arrived in Metropolis when Monday was merely a few hours old. One limo ride later, I was home.

Mom was up fixing breakfast when I entered the house. The spatula dropped to the floor when she saw me.

"Clark!"

"Hi, Mom."

"Jonathan!"

My father came thundering down the stairs. "Martha! Whatís wrong?" He followed her stare and saw me.

"Hi, Dad."

He didnít say anything. He just stepped forward and hugged me. Then Mom was there, getting in her hugs, too. Maybe I understood the Luthors, but I wouldnít trade what I had for anything.

"We hadnít heard from you in so long."

"Why didnít you tell us where you were? I would have come to get you."

"Whereís Lex? Is he okay?"

"Did Luthor just dump you in front of the house and slither away?"

Okay. Maybe I wouldnít trade them, but there were some changes that could be made. "Lex is fine, Mom, and he didnít dump me in front of the house, Dad, his limo did. And while I have a ton of things to tell you, I need to shower and get ready for school."

"Clark," Mom said plaintively.

"Iíll tell you everything as soon as I get home from school," I promised. Well, not everything, but I was pretty sure they didnít want to hear everything. "Lex went to a lot of trouble to make sure I got to school on time. I donít want to disappoint him."

Dad muttered something, but I didnít stop to figure it out. I sped through my shower, jumped into clothes that I, gratefully, hadnít laundered myself, and repacked my backpack with school supplies, not life supplies. I only slowed down once, and that was when I removed the plastic Trans Am and placed it lovingly on the shelf across from my bed. It would always be a treasured souvenir--along with the laptop that Iíd placed just inside the door when I got home. Another explanation to make when I got home from school.

Mom had my breakfast stuck between two slices of bread when I got to the kitchen, and I ate it on the way to the bus stop. A horn honked and instead of riding the bus, I joined Pete and Chloe in her car.

"Before Pete starts regaling us with his week in a co-ed dorm--and please remember Iím a female, Pete, and I can so hurt you if you start to describe body parts in too colorful terms--let me ask you how your break was, Clark," Chloe said as I climbed into the backseat.

"Boring," I lied.

"I guess itís a good thing you have exciting friends," Pete said, laughing.

Yeah, it was.

Epilogue: One Month Later

Metropolis

Jim Tillman sat staring at the stack of bills in front of him. Keeping the shelter open was getting harder and harder, and with most of the local charities losing money to the 9/11 incident, they werenít going to get the funding they usually got. Probably meant they were going to have to stop the day care theyíd set up so that the homeless women could go to work. No day care, no work. No work, no money. No money, no home. It was a vicious cycle.

He sighed and sorted through the mail. Electric bill--pay now. Grocery bill--maybe he could haggle with the store owner for a bit more time. A fine linen envelope made him pause. The LuthorCorp Foundation? His hands shook. The shelter was on LuthorCorp property. Were they being kicked out? He closed his eyes, ripped open the envelope, andÖstared at the check that fell out.

When Jim Tillmanís assistant came to check on him, he was crying.

Indiana

Dr. Michael Portman yawned as he entered the ER for his nightshift. The waiting area was empty at the moment, but he knew that wouldnít last long. Someone should do a study on why people were more clumsy when the sun went down than they were in the middle of the day.

"Congratulations, Mike."

He stared at his colleague, Dr. Alyssa Hunter. "For what, Hunt?"

"You havenít heard? You won the prestigious Luthor Award. A plaque for the hospital and a cash bonus for you. A double win."

Portman was speechless.

"Sorry there arenít any balloons or anything, but the nurses are kinda bummed, and we didnít think we should be celebrating right now."

"Whatís going on?"

"One of the nurses who mans the station in the evenings, well, it was just discovered that she has a record for drug trafficking. It happened more than twenty years ago, but thereís no way the hospital could keep her after the information was made public. Funny how things work out, isnít it?"

Portman nodded and draped his stethoscope around his neck. "Yeah, funny."

Smallville

What the heck was I doing? I barely got past learning to tie my shoes and now I was attempting a bowtie. Hearing someone come into the barn, I called out. "Mom, can you help me with this?" No answer. "Whoís there?"

To my surprise, Lex topped the stairs. "Itís me, Clark. Are you all right?"

Lex. Iíd only seen him a few times since heíd gotten back to town. It hadnít been deliberate. We just both had busy schedules. His father was playing his sadistic games and I was going forth with my master plan. "Yeah, Iím fine."

"Really? You seem a little... tense."

Leave it to Lex to get to the heart of the matter. "Itís just the dance and everything."

"Címere. Iím sure Iíve tied more of these than your mother."

It seemed so natural standing close to him, allowing him to take care of me. Was it wrong of me to keep us apart? I had asked him about it, after his return, and he said that it was my call, that I had to do what I thought was best for me. Such a thoughtless, selfish man. How could I possibly be deluded into thinking he loved me?

How could I not?

"Thought you were holed up in the mansion with the renovation plans?" Thankfully, the only part of the mansion completely destroyed was the wing that Lex had occupied. The rest was marginally inhabitable.

"My father is driving me nuts with his insistence that all the brick and stonework has to come from Scotland, so I needed to clear my head. I took a drive, and I ended up here. I didnít mean to bother you on your big day."

"I got a little time. Chloeís picking me up."

"Thatís very progressive. What happened to the truck?"

"A farming accident. You know how it is."

"You should be more careful."

"Things happen, Lex."

Lex nodded and pulled back, inspecting his work. "Perfect. Chloe will instantly know sheís a lucky girl."

He said it with barely an inflection, but I knew him. "Iím not doing this to torture you or myself."

"I know." Lex sighed. "Thatís one of the reasons I came over here. I thought you might be worried about how I was feeling about tonight."

"I was."

"Donít be. I want you to enjoy yourself. And if you donít think about me at all tonight, Iím good, okay? You deserve this. You have a right to it."

"Lex--"

He motioned for silence. "You arenít fit to live in my world as you are, Clark, and I mean that in the nicest way. My father--we have a complicated relationship. My father wants me to believe itís built on trust, but itís not. Itís built on lies and deceit. Any relationship with that foundation is destined to fail." He paused, then tapped the side of his head. "Lucky we donít have that problem."

Since heíd gotten back he hadnít mentioned anything that happened out of the ordinary while we were on the run. "Lucky us."

Lex reached for my cheek, then pulled back. "I want you to know that whatever happens tonight or in the future, Iím still your friend and thatís never going to change. And I hope you feel the same way."

"I do," I said quickly. Then I looked at Lex and I wasnít sure if we were talking about the same thing. I thought we were talking about relationships and sex, butÖ "What do you think is going to happen?"

"I donít know. I just have a bad feeling. Like the way you can smell the air change before a big storm."

I shivered. I still wasnít sure of the complete roster of "gifts" the meteors had bestowed upon Lex. If he had a bad feelingÖ "Storms are a way of life around here, Lex. Trick is, not to get caught out in the open." God, I sounded like my dad.

Lex must have thought the same thing because he gave me a bemused smile. "Look after yourself." He turned and started down the stairs.

By the time I moved, he was at the bottom of the stairs. "Lex," I called, leaning over the railing. "I do love you."

He paused and looked up at me. "Clark, do you know why Iím going to so much trouble to repair the castle?"

"No."

"Because when the time comes, I want you to know where to find me."

I grinned and felt ten feet tall. "Iíll always know where you are, Lex."

He waved and walked out.

I turned back to the mirror I had dragged out to the loft just for tonight. For a high school kid going to his first dance, I looked pretty good. But as far as being someone who could saunter into a room on Lex Luthorís arm, I had a long way to go.

But I was going to get there.

And then the world better watch out.

THE END