It's Not Easy Being Mean

by Teaphile


To everyone at TWoP.


"So, which one should I keep?"

Clark closed the door behind him and walked deeper into the garage to stand beside his friend. "Which what?"

Lex swept his hand through the air in front of him, encompassing his row of cars. "Which car? I can't decide. They all have their good and bad qualities. You see, the Ferraris are older, so they don't have quite the resale value that the Vantage has. However, being newer, the Vantage will last longer before it needs repairs. I'm on the horns of a dilemma, and they're starting to poke into some very sensitive places."

"Lex, you're being deliberately obtuse again." Clark leaned against the Spider, facing the other man. "Why are you getting rid of cars?" He crossed his arms, and put on his best stern face. "You're not thinking about buying the entire line of 2003 Porsches again, are you?"

"Don't be absurd. I'd have had to order them months ago." Lex leaned beside Clark, and looked at his feet, his expression sobering. "With Dad in the hospital the board approved the buyout." He spread his arms sacrificially. "I had to give up most of my stock and a large portion of my trust fund." He chuckled, sneaking a glance at Clark. "I am officially a poor man. Thus, I must sell all but one of my cars in an effort to build up my capital again."

As he'd expected, Clark snorted. "Lex, you'll be poor when I'm a woman. You still live in a castle with a full staff your father pays for. You run a plant, earning what, a six-figure salary?" At Lex's nod he continued, "And if you truly thought you were poor you'd sell all the cars and buy something domestic and cheap to repair." He pushed off the car and headed for the door to the house. "Keep the Vantage. It's more you."

Lex followed. "You don't think I'm dark and dangerous?"

"No. You're sleek and pale." He grinned. "And shiny." Clark stopped abruptly when Lex grabbed the back of his shirt.

"Shiny? You think I'm shiny?"

The look of outrage on Lex's face caused Clark's grin to widen. "Yup."

"I'll have you know I am not shiny. I may be polished or lustrous, and I am definitely brilliant, but I am not shiny." He swept past Clark and into the house. "And if you dare refer to me in such plebian terms again, I won't let you drive one of the Ferraris to the dealer in Metropolis."

Clark raced ahead and dropped to his knees. He held his hands up in a begging gesture. "I'm sorry, oh great one, for being so bold as to comment upon your person in such a fashion. Your forgiveness--and the keys to the Spider--are all I ask."

Lex's mouth twisted into a delighted half-smile. "Clark, what are you reading right now?" He held out a hand to help Clark up.

"Chloe gave me 'Pride and Prejudice'. She said it would help me understand rich people." Clark stood, and they continued into Lex's office.

"Obviously in her scenario I'm Mr. Darcy. The question is, are you Elizabeth or Bingley?" Lex prowled his office as Clark made himself comfortable. Satisfied that no emergencies had sprung up while he'd been contemplating his fleet, Lex relaxed and reached into his bar fridge.

"Actually, I think you're supposed to be Lady Catherine and I'm Mr. Collins." Clark accepted the bottle of water Lex handed him and continued, "She sees herself as Elizabeth, and me as a bumbling fool."

Lex sat neatly on the couch beside Clark. "I am not Lady Catherine. My father is Lady Catherine. That means I'm Darcy again, defying her when it counts most."

"How is your father?"

Lex shook his head. "He'll recover. He's conscious, and not pleased with his 'incarceration' as he calls it, but eventually he'll walk again." Lionel was calling him hourly to complain about the small town hospital. Lex was ready to do something drastic, like bribe the orderlies to disconnect the room phone.

"I'm glad." Clark gazed around the room. "I can't believe they got this place repaired in two weeks."

"It's amazing what throwing money at a problem can accomplish. So how about you? Did you get everything cleaned up from the storm?"

"Pretty much. With Dad laid up for a few days I've had to do a lot of it myself. That's why I couldn't get over here sooner. So why do you have so many boxes in here? Still moving everything back in?" He snuck a peek in one of them, one that Lex was pretty sure held nothing interesting.

"No." Lex sounded surprisingly bitter. "No, I'm moving out. Dad expects me out of the castle by the time he's discharged. Something about betraying family loyalty."

Clark laid a hand on Lex's shoulder. "Where will you go?"

Lex shook his head and leaned back. "I don't know. You were right, I do still have a lot of money, but it's not like there are apartments available every day in Smallville. I might have to buy a house."

"Wow. We'd have to give people tours, you know, 'see the amazing domesticated Lex, making do with only one servant'." Clark's smile was generous yet sympathetic, his tone gentle.

Lex didn't fall for it. "I am perfectly capable of caring for myself."

"You can buy a cow."

"You're really enjoying this aren't you?" He was rewarded with Clark's biggest grin, the one that seemed to light up a room. Lex stood and paced the room in mock anger. "I knew it; you get off on other people's misfortune. Have you met my father? I think you have a lot in common."

"Lex?" Clark's moods were like summer weather, changing in an instant. He leaned in to study his friend's face. "Are you really okay with all this?"

Lex met his gaze steadily. "Yes. I surprise even myself, but I am okay. I wanted a chance to start my life over and do it right this time, and now I have it." His smile returned. "I'm almost excited at the prospect of starting from scratch. I've never done that before. This is the moment when I win or lose everything; if I can keep the plant going and get the Talon making a profit, it looks like I might win. My father built his empire from the ground up, there's no reason I can't either."

Part Two

Lex paused slightly before entering his father's hospital room. He'd heard the booming voice from down the hall; obviously Lionel was feeling well and was ready to get back to business. Lex pitied the nurses assigned to care for him. They deserved flowers, he thought, or maybe Hawaiian vacations for putting up with that. Lex set his face and pushed open the door with all the confidence he didn't feel.

"Son!" Lionel spread his arms wide as if to embrace Lex from his bed. A flock of his personal assistants scattered before he hit them.

"Father." He pointed at the assistants. "Lackeys. Glad we've got that cleared up." He approached the bed and the lackeys, all four of them, left the room. "I take it you're feeling better."

"Much better, son. In fact, they're discharging me tomorrow." Lionel beamed in a way that made Lex distinctly nervous.

"Good. Then you'll be going back to Metropolis?"

"Oh heavens, no." Lionel waved a hand vaguely in the air. "I still have months of physiotherapy ahead of me. I'm going to move into the castle, and you, Lex, are going to take care of me in my hour of need."

Lex turned away from the bed and examined a particularly dull print on the wall. "Because I'm such a good and dutiful son."

Lionel's expression clouded. "Because nothing is more important than family, a lesson you have yet to learn. I'm giving you this chance to prove that you are worthy to be my son. I've forgiven you for stabbing me in the back, Lex, because you planned the coup well. But if you want any more support from me, you'll do what I tell you."

"And why shouldn't I just move out, find a place in town and live my own life?" Lex moved towards the door as he spoke. He wasn't sure how much more posturing he could take.

"Because I still own Smallville. I can still destroy you and all your workers. I have power, Lex. You don't. If you want it back, you know what you have to do. Think of your future."

This time Lex made it to the door. "As always, it's been such a pleasant conversation. I'll be back tomorrow with the limo to take you...home." He left without looking back at what he was sure was a smug smile on his father's face.

Clark was waiting at the end of the Kent driveway when Lex pulled up. "Sorry," he said, climbing into the passenger side, "Dad's still mad about Roger Nixon. He'd go nuts if he actually saw you."

Lex maneuvered the car back to the road. "I guess I can't apologise enough, can I?"

"Not to him. I'm just glad he's letting me see you." Clark pulled a newspaper out of his backpack. "I found some places for rent, if you want to look at them."

"Actually, I don't need to. Dad has this idea that we can both live in the castle without killing each other." Lex arched an eyebrow as he looked at Clark. "I'm taking care of him 'in his hour of need'."

Clark grimaced. "It'll be a really long hour, won't it?"

"You have no idea."

"But hey," Clark said, "at least you get to keep the cars."

"Maybe." They pulled into the castle grounds. "I still need money." He caught Clark's glare and amended, "Relatively, that is."

"So what are you going to call the new company?"

"I was thinking of going with Fuck Off, Dad."

"That's charming. I'm sure you'll get plenty of investors with a name like that."

"I can think of quite a few people who would invest solely because of that name. As well, the company wouldn't get any bad press, or any press at all, because journalists aren't allowed to say 'fuck'. I like the idea more every time I picture it." As they entered the hallway Lex cornered his assistant and gave instructions about his father's visit. Clark hung back, still slightly amazed at Lex's ability to order anyone around.

He tuned back into the conversation in time to hear Lex dictate which room his father would stay in. The assistant left, and Lex turned back to Clark, who stood staring at him. "What?"

"You're putting your dad in the war room?"

"Oh, I agree it's not without its symbolism, but really, it's the only large, ground-floor room that's available. I'm not giving up the library to him." Lex paused, then looked around at the heavy stone walls.

"Problem, Lex?" Clark looked, too, trying to see what his friend saw.

Lex shook his head and almost sighed. "I just have a feeling I'm going to spend every waking moment I'm not at the plant, here. Staring at these walls, waiting for him to shout, 'Lex! Come talk to me. These hicks don't know anything,' or 'Lex! Get me another book. You should have put me in the library, son. You just don't plan ahead.'"

"Want to go to a movie, instead?"

"Desperately."

Lex punched down the frustration he felt. His father had been discharged only a half hour ago, and already he was making a deliberate nuisance of himself, demanding that Lex personally push his motorized wheelchair up the makeshift ramp into the house ('You need a better handyman, Lex. This ramp is flimsy and won't last a day.') Lex idly wondered how much damage he could do to his father if he rigged the ramp to collapse. Unfortunately, he decided, not enough damage to risk being disinherited yet again. He continued to push, glad that Lionel couldn't see the expression on his face. They reached the hall and were met by a middle-aged man in a nurse's uniform. "Dad, I'd like you to meet William, your caregiver."

Lex leaned against the wall as his father grilled Michael about his qualifications. He bit back the impulse to say, 'But Dad, don't you trust me?' knowing that it would only add to his misery later. Michael was the best home health care worker he could find; he'd paid well to ensure his father's quick recovery. The three men continued down the hall to the war room, which had been made up with a large bed in the centre, and books and entertainment units lining the walls. A solid partition cut a third of the room off; William or his relief would sleep there, so as to be always at hand. A sitting area took up the other end. Lionel had two phones, a computer, and everything else he needed to run Luthor Corp from a bed in a small town. Of course, running a company that size was rarely hands-on; he had his assistants and vice-presidents to rely on for the day-to-day jobs. Lex hoped he'd thought of everything; keeping his father entertained could be a full-time task.

Part Three

The cell phone rang and this time Lex seriously considered not answering it. For a whole ten seconds (a personal record) he stared at the shrilling phone and prayed it would explode, or dissolve, or spontaneously combust. But it was a Luthor phone, and, like all Luthors, it stubbornly refused to cooperate. He hit the talk button.

"Lex!" sounded out of the speaker before he even got it to his ear.

"Yes, Dad." If nothing else, Lex was learning to fake patience.

"That nurse you hired for me is incompetent! Find a new one."

"This is the third one you've fired. I'm not sure Smallville has any more."

"Well find a new one somewhere. This one's trying to kill me." The dial tone sounded and Lex put away the phone. He turned back to his conversation with Martha Kent, who was grinning.

"Now I see where Clark gets it from," he said wryly.

"Gets what?" She leaned over the bed of the truck, sorting through crates of flowers and produce for the one she was delivering to the grocery store. Luckily for the Kents, their greenhouses had survived the tornadoes.

"His ability--perhaps one could even say his need--to laugh at me. This is a fresh kind of hell my father's putting me through, and all you Kents can do is laugh."

Martha smiled gently and handed him a card she'd fished out of her purse while he was talking.

"Irene McPhail?" he asked.

"The only home health-care worker your father hasn't fired." She tapped the card with a finger. "If you'd asked me I'd have recommended her in the first place. She has a way of making you feel healthy, just being with her. And you'll especially like this: her clients have the fastest recovery rates in Kansas."

"Thank you, Mrs. Kent. I'll talk to her right away. Can I give you a hand?" He gestured to the crates on the sidewalk.

Martha looked pleased, but disbelieving. "No thanks, Lex. Clark's waiting for you in the Talon. Go on."

Clark was waiting for him, at a table against the back wall, one they used so often these days that other patrons avoided it. As he sat down opposite the teenager Lana came over, order pad in hand.

"Lana, good to see you up and about."

"Thanks, Lex. And thanks for the flowers. I hate hospitals, but the attention is nice." She smiled weakly, as she always seemed to around him. "What can I get you?"

"Iced tea. Clark?"

"Coke, please."

Lana wrote the order and turned back to Lex. "You need to talk to your father about the Talon," she said.

"Why is that?"

Lana's brow creased. "Because he keeps calling and asking questions."

"What have you told him?"

"Just that you put up the money for the renovation." She tapped her pad with her pen. "But if he gets my aunt on the phone...."

Lex nodded, understanding. "I'll talk to him."

"He keeps pestering Chloe's dad, too," Clark added.

Lex turned to Clark and met his gaze seriously. "Would you think any less of me if I had my father killed?"

Clark frowned. "I think you'd be fully justified in this instance. Besides, there's all that historical precedent you keep talking about."

Lana smiled, genuinely this time, and left the table.

"What'd he do this week?" Clark asked.

"Fired another nurse, made my assistant cry--although she denied it--" Lex started ticking items off on his fingers, "sold my entire collection of Monty Python DVDs, and bought a dog."

"You watch British comedy?"

"Some."

"I thought it'd be too frivolous for a businessman."

"A good businessperson has to know trends. Keeping up with pop culture is important in predicting and following trends. Our entire culture is based on the entertainment industry. But that's not the point. He bought a dog. I hate dogs, Clark. They're weak and servile with no instinct for self-preservation."

"Which is exactly why your father likes them."

"Right." Lana returned with the drinks, and Lex sipped his, adding more sugar after he did. "Maybe if I'm lucky he'll leave all his money to the dog and ignore my existence."

Clark grinned inexplicably.

"What?"

"Have you thought that if you irritate him enough he might get fed up and leave?"

Lex stopped stirring. "You have something specific in mind?"

Clark just grinned again.

Part Four

"Lex!"

Lex allowed himself a smile at the pique in his father's voice. He quickly smothered the expression as he entered the makeshift bedroom. "Good morning, Dad." He nodded at Mrs. McPhail, who smiled back.

"What's that?" Lionel pointed to the corner of the room closest to the door.

"A wheelchair."

"I know it's a wheelchair! It's my wheelchair. What happened to it?"

Lex studied the chair. "Looks like someone painted it hot pink. With flames."

"And a Power Puff Girls sticker," Mrs. McPhail kindly pointed out. Lionel glared at her, but he'd given up trying to seriously intimidate her after the first week of her appointment as his caregiver.

"And that someone would be?"

Lex looked thoughtful. "Hmm...maybe it was Clark. Possibly Chloe, too. They were expressing concern for your state of mind the other day. Perhaps they thought this would cheer you up."

"In the future, Lex, keep your little friends away from my possessions. Now, get me a new chair. I can't go out in this one."

"It might take a while." Lex pulled out his PDA and started making notes that had nothing to do with ordering a new wheelchair and everything to do with how to sound imperious while still in bed. "I had to special-order that one, and it could take a week or more to get another."

Lionel's glare could melt stone. "Suddenly I'm feeling much better. Crutches should do."

"I have to get to the plant. I'll bring crutches when I come back." Lex left before Lionel could stop him. Suddenly, his day was looking brighter.

Later that afternoon Lex got a call from Lionel's physiotherapist. "There's a slight complication," she said. "He was doing very well with the exercises; I thought he would recover faster than we first predicted, but he seems to be getting worse lately. His coordination has stopped improving, and his muscles don't seem as strong as they were a few days ago."

"What would you suggest?"

"Just that you call his doctor. Make sure he hasn't damaged his spinal cord again. He moves around far more than he ought to at this time."

"My father is nothing if not active, Miss Sutton. Thank you for the warning. I'll be in touch if anything changes."

Lex had just set the phone back in its cradle when it rang again. "Lex Luthor."

"Son?" If anyone had asked, Lex would have said his father sounded scared. "Meet me at the hospital as soon as you can."

"The hospital? Miss Sutton just called; she didn't say you needed to be hospitalised."

"It's not my back, Lex." He paused for a moment. "I've gone blind."

Lex's reflexive, morbid sense of humour kicked in, and only his good sense kept him from responding with, 'At least you don't have to look at the wheelchair now.'

Lex arrived at the hospital just as the doctor was finishing Lionel's exam. Lionel looked shrunken, and Lex realised that he really was scared. He should have known that infirmity would frighten a man who relied so much on intimidation. He suppressed a smile as he approached the bed. "Doctor?"

The slim brunette woman looked up at him, then back down at his father. "Okay Mr. Luthor, you just wait here until the tech comes to take you for your MRI. I'll fill your son in." She gestured to Lex and he followed her out of the room.

"What's going on?" Lex asked, unable to wait any longer.

"I'm Doctor Snow. First of all, there's nothing organically wrong with his eyes. Not that we can see from standard tests, anyway. The MRI will show us more." She lowered her voice sympathetically. "It's possible he has a blood clot that's disrupting the visual cortex, or that his optic nerve has degenerated somehow. We'll know for sure in about an hour."

Lex frowned. "I know it sounds farfetched physiologically, but his PT said that he's stopped responding to treatment, that's he's lost some of the ground he's gained. Could this be related?"

The doctor nodded pensively. "I suppose there could be a third, contributing, factor. I'll do some research into it."

"Thank you." He watched as they wheeled his father to the elevator, then turned back to the waiting room in search of Irene McPhail. She was sitting near the window, calmly reading a magazine. They passed the time chatting, and Lex discovered that his father had been having vision problems for the last two days, but hadn't admitted it until he'd gone completely blind. He also learned more than he ever wanted to know about a career in nursing.

After the promised hour--plus about twenty minutes--was up, Doctor Snow came back in. "We're finished with the tests, and you can take your father home. We want a specialist to look at the results; so far we can find nothing wrong, but we could have missed something."

"When will you know for sure?" Lex stood as he spoke, eager to get out of there.

"Tomorrow evening, maybe the next morning. I'll call when I have a diagnosis."

"Thank you. Is he ready to go?"

"He's been ready since he got here." They shared a smile, and Lex gathered up Mrs. McPhail on his way to his father's room. The limo ride home was quiet and short. Lex, unable to deal with his father's weakness, went directly back to work and stayed there.

Lex shook with silent laughter. He knew he shouldn't be enjoying this, that he should pity his ill father, but the whole situation struck him as incredibly funny. He called Mrs. McPhail into his office and put on a straight face, the one he reserved for incompetent extortionists. She entered, and Lex wondered again how such a little, middle-aged woman could manhandle his giant of a father.

"Mrs. McPhail," he started. She interrupted him with yet another request to call her by her first name. This time he relented. "Irene, I've just had a call from Dad's doctor."

She moved forward a few steps, worried. Lex suppressed another smile. Yes, she was genuinely worried for the bastard. "What's wrong with him?" she asked.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Doctor Snow's final diagnosis is hysterical blindness."

"Oh dear. Will he be seeing a psychiatrist about it?"

"Probably not, knowing my father. But if you can convince him to, I'd appreciate it." Lex thought for a moment. "Better yet, convince him to go back to Metropolis."

Irene shook her head disapprovingly. "I can't do that. He likes it here so much that it just may do him harm to move."

Lex carefully did not throw his Waterman at the wall. "Of course. I suggest you go tell him what Doctor Snow said, and start working on him. It could be weeks before he agrees to talk to a psychiatrist." Irene left, and after the door closed behind her Lex finally let the laughter out.

Part Five

Weeks passed and Lionel agreed to get help. Lex bugged the library during the first session, snickering to himself over the sound of his father lecturing the doctor on the history of psychiatry. When Lex tried to listen in on the next session he found that his devices had been removed. Obviously Lionel had corrupted someone on his staff. Either that or Irene was more useful than even Lex thought. Even so, Lex found the whole concept amusing, despite the disapproving glances Clark threw at him periodically.

One day, however, Lex had had enough. Lionel, obviously bored, was making a particular pest of himself, so much so that Lex was having problems keeping his plant managers and board members happy. Lionel called them at all hours of day and night, attempting to bribe them for information or poison their belief in Lex's worth as a CEO. He'd had to call an emergency meeting to outline his projections for the plant, just so they'd remember that he was on their side, no matter what his father told them.

Lex sought respite, as he did so often these days, in Clark. They'd stopped meeting at the Talon; if Lex ignored his cell long enough Lionel would eventually call the cafe, and the wait staff was too meek to tell him off. So they got their coffee to go and sat in the park, hidden in the shade of a small grove. It intrigued Lex that he could open up to Clark, and that Clark seemed to understand his current problems. Of course, it helped that Clark had more than once been the victim of Lionel's need to pry into his son's business. After being grilled for an hour on everything from his shoe size to the state of his parents' farm Clark was more than willing to agree with Lex that Lionel had to be dealt with. Even so, his better nature led him to kindness.

"Lex, you can't just have him kidnapped and dumped off in Metropolis. He's blind and he can't walk yet. That's cruel."

"And he has my ass in a sling. So we're back to making him leave on his own." Lex looked at Clark, paused for a moment, and then smiled.

Clark knew that smile, and the brain that was behind it. "What evil plan have you concocted this time?"

Lex leaned back on the bench, crossing one ankle over the opposite knee. He looked relaxed, which was another danger sign Clark knew very well. "I'm thinking of having a party. A very loud, obnoxious party. Isn't your birthday next week?

"Um...yeah." Clark rested his elbows on his knees and looked up at Lex through his long bangs. "Should I be nervous?"

"Very. I'm hosting your birthday party Clark, and I won't take no for an answer."

"Okay. Thanks, I think."

Lex matched Clark's posture, patting his knee as he did. "Don't worry. You won't hate it. I promise. Dad, on the other hand...."

"Will want to leave. Right?"

"Let's just say that I'll be putting all the paper-thin crystal in storage off the property."

"I don't know if I like being a pawn in your scheme to get rid of your father."

"Don't worry about it, Clark." Lex rested his hand on Clark's knee again and left it there. "I was planning to have a party for you anyway. Your mom's already agreed."

"And Dad?"

"Has agreed with the caveat that he and your mother attend. I have a feeling they won't stay long, though. As I said, it'll be a very loud party." Lex, excited at the prospect, pushed his feet on to the seat of the bench and raised himself to sit on the back.

"Tame, though, compared to what you're used to."

"There will be no drunken debauchery until all the parents have left." He waggled a finger down at Clark, imitating his father's manner.

"All the parents? Just how much of the town are you inviting?"

"I'm thinking of just putting up flyers in all the public buildings. The ballroom can easily handle five hundred."

"Five hundred people? At my birthday party? What makes you think that many'll come?"

"Really, Clark, five hundred is a conservative estimate. It's less than two percent of the population, after all. And they'll come for two reasons," He held up a finger, "One, because it's a chance to see how I live, and two," a second finger joined the first, "because everyone in Smallville loves you, Clark. It's like you have this ability to put people at ease. Even Dad's noticed it."

"Really?"

"He wants to give you a job in PR as soon as you graduate."

Clark looked startled, and vaguely disgusted.

"I told him you'd only work for me. That led him to make some extremely tasteless jokes at our expense."

They both turned as the long grass rustled behind them. "Like what?" Martha asked, her face stony.

"Ah, Mrs. Kent," Lex swung around off the bench and faced her, followed closely by Clark, "you don't want to know. It was nothing important, anyway."

Martha frowned at him. "Lex, if your father is making lewd comments about my son I think I need to know."

"But Clark doesn't. Besides, he meant to disparage me more than Clark. I think he actually likes Clark."

Clark cleared his throat melodramatically. "Thank you for talking about me as if I was a five-year-old who's not here."

Martha relaxed a little, but remained cold. "He called the farm today, looking for you, Lex."

Lex looked at the ground briefly. "I'm sorry. He's been pestering me, so I'm screening my calls."

"You're just lucky that I answered the phone and not Jonathan. Lex, have you thought that maybe he just wants to talk to you?" Martha stepped forward and laid a hand on Lex's arm. "That maybe he's scared of losing touch and wants a little support?"

Lex met her eyes to find them warm and caring. "No. I hadn't thought of that."

"Mom, Lionel's never been sick before," Clark spoke up, as always defending Lex, "this is new to both of them."

Lex looked from one to the other and made a decision. "I'll give it a shot. But if you find my phone smashed on the street somewhere don't come looking for me."

His father must have had spies stationed in the driveway, because he knew exactly when Lex arrived home. Lex fortified himself with a drink before heading into Lionel's room, ready to try Martha Kent's advice. As he entered the room he managed a smile for Irene and a pat for the Rottweiler (whose name he had never learned) and then sat in the armchair opposite his father's.

"So, Dad, how've you been?" The dog trotted across the floor and laid his head on Lionel's knee. Lionel patted him absently. Lex noted with amusement that at least someone loved his father, and was loved back. Then he noticed Lionel's position in the chair, slightly forward in the seat, not touching the back. "I'm glad to see you can sit up unassisted."

Lionel smiled the kind of smile that told Lex he'd done something wrong. "Indulging in small talk, Lex? I didn't think you'd been so corrupted by country life."

"What can I say? I've come to appreciate the simple things; big fish in a small pond and all that." Lex allowed his amusement to show in his voice. He'd learned how to keep his father a little off-guard.

"But not the biggest fish."

"No, not at all." Lex finished his drink and motioned for Irene to leave. "So, Dad, why did you call me in here if not to make small talk?"

Lionel pointed to a book on the table next to him. "Read to me. Irene is a wonderful asset, and good with poetry, but she can't do justice to a subject she doesn't understand."

Lex picked up the two-inch-thick hardback. It was a high-level treatise on economics. "Where should I start?"

Lionel smiled that smile again. "At the beginning."

"So what can I do to help?" Martha barely gave Lex a chance to greet her before getting down to business, as it were.

"Well, this is Clark's party, but he doesn't want to have anything to do with the planning." Lex ushered her to a chair in the library. "I figured you know him better than anyone else, so I'm going to let you make the decisions I'd normally ask him to make. Such as what kind of food to have, who to invite personally, what kind of decorations, et cetera."

"What do you have so far?"

"I've got a popular Metropolis deejay booked; he's very good at judging a crowd. The caterer is ready to do anything; we just need to tell her what. I think we can skip specialized decorations."

"I agree."

Lex leaned forward, elbows on the planner across his lap. "First, food. I'm sure that anything I have in mind would not suit Clark at all. So I'd like your input. What do you usually serve at birthday parties in Smallville?"

"Well, usually we have Clark's party outside, so we barbecue."

Lex flipped a page in his planner and started taking notes. "We could move the whole thing outside, to the back garden. Set up lights; clear the terrace for dancing. The pool wing opens out on to the terrace, so we could have swimming as well."

Martha smiled. "I think that's a wonderful idea. That'll keep it more casual, and keep the kids out of your house."

"So the caterers do barbecue." Lex continued to write as he spoke. "Steaks, burgers, chicken, vegetables, salads. Roasted corn?" He looked up.

"The season's over. Anything left isn't worth eating off the cob."

"I bow to your superior knowledge. Anything else?"

"I'll give the caterer my potato salad recipe. Clark loves it, and it's become traditional."

"Good. Now, cake?"

"Absolutely. Any flavour."

"Several kinds, then. Ice cream, drinks, fruit...." His voice trailed off.

"Sounds like a feast."

"Alcohol for the adults?"

"I don't think anyone would mind if you didn't have any. The party's for the kids, after all."

"Okay. Let's flesh out the guest list. Chloe gave me the names from school, so you tell me who else to invite." Lex turned another page, pen poised above it as he heard the door behind him open.

"Mr. Luthor!" Martha exclaimed.

Lex tapped the pen against his lip. "I don't think he'd come, but you can ask."

"Don't be snide to Mrs. Kent, Lex. It's unbecoming of a gentleman." Irene guided the wheelchair to a position beside Martha's seat. The women greeted each other, and Irene left. Lionel held out a hand. "Martha, I'd say you look lovely today, but it would obviously be a lie." Martha shrugged slightly at Lex and put her hand in Lionel's. He squeezed once, and dropped it. "I hear you're planning a party."

"Yes, it's Clark's seventeenth birthday next week," Martha replied.

Lionel nodded to himself. "Seventeen. And yet he's just starting his sophomore year. How did that happen?"

"Surely you remember, Lionel. When we adopted Clark at age four he didn't speak any English. We had to hold him back until his language skills were more developed."

Lex joined the conversation, intrigued. "Where was he born? Clark doesn't talk about any of this."

Martha frowned. "We think he was born in Romania, but there was so much upheaval in Eastern Europe in those years that we can't know for sure. So many records were lost that we don't even know his real age."

"And you may never know," Lex replied pensively.

Martha turned quickly back to Lionel. "You seem to be improving."

"I am. We expect my sight to return once the swelling in my brain goes down."

Lex hid his smile. He'd gotten out of the habit since his father went blind, but the reminder that his sight could come back at any time strengthened Lex's resolve to make him leave.

Part Six

The Friday of the party was hot and dry, and the evening promised to be pleasantly warm. Lionel was in a crabby mood, which only served to elate Lex when he got home. He changed into black jeans and a grey long-sleeved shirt--as casual as he would ever get--and went downstairs to where Helena was directing the setup in the back, and the maintenance workers were putting up torches and fairy lights throughout the garden. The majority of the guest list had responded positively, and Lex wondered once again how Clark, with his looks, brains, and charm had managed to garner only admiration throughout the town, instead of resentment. Lex swallowed the momentary sharpness of jealousy he felt and devoted himself to the preparations.

Six o' clock rolled around and Chloe arrived first, her father in tow. Martha had agreed with Lex that people would feel more comfortable allowing their children to come if they came too, if only for a few hours. They were right--far more students were coming tonight than had come to Lana's party, and if Nell hadn't been the nominal host of that party perhaps even fewer would have shown. This party, however, had his name on it, and would either endear him to the townsfolk or complete his vilification. To that end he'd removed all the liquor in the house to a locked vault, and had a small but thorough security team on the lookout for illicit substances.

The Kents arrived shortly after the Sullivans did, and Chloe hustled Clark upstairs to give him his gift. They reappeared a few minutes later, Clark having shed his blue button-up for a form-fitting scarlet knit T-shirt. Lex grudgingly noted that although Chloe's fashion sense with regard to herself was abysmal, she knew how to shop for a man. For Clark. That fact bothered him more than it should have. He shook it off and ushered the five out the back. Helena would take care of the rest of the guests.

With Lex's reappearance on the terrace the deejay started what would be about seven hours of work. Immediately Lex's phone rang. "Yes, Dad."

Anyone listening--like Clark--would have heard a succession of 'Yes Dad's followed by, "You could move to the front room for the evening," a silence, and then, "I do recall warning you." He snapped the phone shut and tossed it to Helena, who was just ushering out Nell Potter and Lana Lang. Lex smiled artificially at Nell and with slightly more warmth at Lana, then set out to find someone worth talking to.

Some time later Lex was much more relaxed, having snuck into the house to spike his drink. The food was excellent, the music was passable, and everybody seemed to be having a good time. Even Jonathan Kent thawed somewhat when he saw the look of pure enjoyment on Clark's face as he mingled with his friends and acquaintances. He'd even given Clark permission to stay the night so as not to wake them when he got home. Lex sat at the back of the garden in the gathering darkness and watched the people around him--few friends, many acquaintances, some strangers--as they chatted and ate and eventually left. The adults, that is--the teenagers looked to outlast Lex himself. The elder Kents had already bid him goodnight and many others were following their lead. The tables emptied and the dance floor filled.

"Hey."

Lex looked around calmly. "You know you can't surprise me, Clark."

Clark smiled sloppily and sat beside him on the ornate iron bench. "I can always hope. Someday your dad will get you so rattled that I'll be able to sneak up behind you."

Lex sipped at his drink then set it down. "God, I hope not." He snickered. "Did you see how pissed off Nell was earlier?"

"Yeah. What happened?" He picked up Lex's drink and swallowed. "Ew."

Lex reclaimed his cup. "Gin and tonic is an acquired taste. She wanted to see Dad and he refused. I have to find out what he called her to make her turn that shade of red. It could come in handy."

"Whatever it was she seems to blame you."

"Of course. Who doesn't?"

Clark bumped his shoulder. "Lex...," he said warningly, "how much have you had to drink?"

"This is the first, and probably the last until everyone else leaves."

"So you're just maudlin."

"Good word. Means weakly sentimental. Now there's a redundancy for you." He snorted and finished his drink. "Although, another meaning for it includes drunkenness."

"Right."

In an effort to cheer up, Lex managed a smile, which wasn't too difficult around Clark. "So. Are you enjoying yourself?"

"It's great, Lex. Everybody's happy and relaxed and carefree. Except you."

Lex dipped his head and studied his feet. "Sorry."

Clark stood, pulling Lex up with him. "C'mon. You should dance."

Lex shied away from his grip. "No. I will not dance here."

Clark turned those big green eyes on him, and Lex wished he hadn't had so many lights installed, so that he didn't have to see the hurt expression. "Why not?"

Lex gestured at the kids flailing wildly on the terrace, none within a foot of anybody else. "See that, Clark? That's innocence. I haven't been able to play that innocent since my own last birthday party, which, I might add, was my fifteenth."

"Oh. I guess it never occurred to me that there would be a difference."

"There's a big difference, and everyone would see it. Especially the few parents who are still around." He gestured to Gabe Sullivan chatting with Amanda Cohen's mother, another of Lex's employees. The music changed and Lex continued, "Watch now. See how only the committed couples are touching at more than the hand and hip? Even then they look like children. There's no passion, no want, no desperation. No heat. There was more chemistry in that game of water polo earlier than on that dance floor."

"Does there have to be passion? Can't it just be fun; a way to burn energy?"

"Playing sports is for burning energy. Dance is a mating ritual, a way to touch a person of the opposite sex with societal sanction."

Clark looked down at Lex, confusion clear on his face. "But what about fast songs?"

"Mimicry."

"Of what?"

"The sex act itself."

Clark didn't respond.

"When done well, that is," Lex added. "They'll learn. You'll learn. Eventually all people learn that the best dancers make the best lovers. The freer you are in dance, the freer you are in bed." Lex shook himself out of his reverie and narrowed his eyes at Clark. "And I shouldn't be discussing this with a seventeen-year-old."

They wandered back to the crowd. The last of the parents had left while they talked, and Lex seized the opportunity. It was nearing ten--not too late for what he had in mind. "Grab Chloe, Pete, and Lana and meet me in the library. Be subtle."

Clark obeyed, and when they gathered Lex had out a bottle of champagne and five flutes.

"What's this?" Lana asked, taking one of the flutes and holding it up to the light.

"Just a little private celebration for the inner circle." Lex wrapped a pristine cloth around the top of the bottle and eased out the cork. He filled each of the glasses halfway and handed them out.

Chloe took hers, grimacing slightly. "I don't like champagne," she said.

"Then you haven't had good champagne," Lex replied sternly. "Try it." Chloe looked at the wine doubtfully. "For Clark," he added.

She glared up at him. "You're a rat bastard, you know that?" She sipped carefully.

"Well?" Pete asked.

"I'm reserving judgement," Chloe said, sipping again.

"Well I like it." Lana smiled brightly and raised her glass. "To Clark. May the next seventeen years go as smoothly as the first."

As the others drank in response, only Lex saw the brief look of fear on Clark's face. He covered, though, and drained his glass.

Pete eyed Clark as the other boy held out his glass for a refill. "I don't know, Luthor, contributing to the delinquency of four minors...."

Lex leveled his gaze on Pete. "Funny, I thought you were mature enough to decide for yourselves."

"So, Lex, do Jonathan and his lovely wife know about this secret assignation?" Lionel's voice rang out from behind them.

Lex turned as if unsurprised. He smiled reflexively. "Of course they do. So do the other parental figures. They're each allowed two glasses." He turned back, and refilled Clark's flute.

Lionel wheeled himself farther into the room. Cerberus--Clark had broken down one day and asked Lionel the dog's name, so now Lex knew far more about it than he wanted to--trotted up to stand by his master and whuffed gently at the assembled crowd. "Who else do we have here? I deduce the presence of Misses Lang and Sullivan. The snickering does not seem to be coming from young Mr. Kent. Do you like my chair, Mr. Ross?"

Pete managed to stifle his laugh long enough to reply, "It's very colourful, sir."

"Yes. Lex particularly likes it. So much so that he refuses to replace or repaint it."

Lex leaned into Clark conspiratorially. "I think the Hello Kitty hubcaps give it that touch of class, don't you?"

Clark nodded. "Absolutely. But no more so than the rainbow fringe around the bottom."

Lionel's expression darkened, and Lex put a warning hand on Clark's arm. "Enough," he mouthed. "To what do we owe the honour of this visit, Dad?"

His father didn't reply, but took a cane out of the side pocket of the wheelchair and extended it. He flipped up the footrests, planted both feet on the floor, and stood. Lex's jaw dropped by almost a centimetre; he'd had no idea his father was so far along in his treatment. Lana started to clap, but Lionel's sharp look towards her made her falter. He took a tentative step forward, then another, then collapsed, narrowly missing hitting his head against the sharp corner of the bookcase. Lex rushed to him, but Lionel waved him off. "Get Irene," he said.

Lex moved briskly out of the room. Clark set down his glass. "Maybe we should leave," he said, giving each of his friends what he hoped was a stern glare. "Rejoin the party." The three left, Clark lingering when he saw Lex returning with Irene. Irene rushed to her patient and Lex started pacing nervously.

"Lex, stop that. I'm fine. I'm touched by your show of filial concern. Go back to your little friends." Both Lex and Clark watched as Irene helped Lionel into his chair. She wheeled him out.

"I think champagne makes me hallucinate."

Lex looked up, distracted. "Pardon?"

Clark shook his head slowly. "I could have sworn I saw something strange when Mrs. McPhail touched your dad."

Lex's eyes widened. "You mean, a sort of pale glow?"

"Yeah. A sort of pale glow. From her hands."

"I've never seen anything like it. Not even when she's touched him before." Lex glared in the direction the two had gone, as though he could see through the wall. "Your mom did say she's a miracle-worker."

Clark looked at Lex sharply. "Like a healer?"

Lex met Clark's disbelieving gaze. "Stranger things have happened, wouldn't you agree?"

The last of the party guests left shortly after one o' clock when the deejay packed up. The caterers had gone much earlier, leaving behind canned and bottled drinks and bowls of snacks. The two friends looked out across the garden, watching as Lex's small staff cleaned up. "So, did you have a good time?"

Clark grinned. "Best party ever, Lex. Thanks."

Lex replied with his own smile. "You're welcome. It was my pleasure."

"Did you have a good time?"

Lex put a hand on Clark's back, pushing him slightly towards the house. "Ask me again after we've finished that bottle of champagne. Can't let it go to waste." They made their way back to the library, where the champagne was indeed waiting for them, recorked and sitting in ice. The used glasses had been taken away, and two clean ones sat awaiting them. Lex grabbed the bottle and glasses. "I want to go check on Dad. Make sure he's okay and all that."

"And keep an eye on Mrs. McPhail, I'll bet."

"I don't want to inherit Luthor Corp quite yet. I'm too young for that."

Clark looked dubiously at the bottle in Lex's hand as they entered Lionel's dark room. "Your staff is incredible. Or psychic." He spoke quietly; Lionel was sleeping, Cerberus on the floor at the foot of his bed.

They went to the far end of the room and Lex poured the gently bubbling liquid. "Sometimes I think they're both." He handed Clark a glass and sat beside him on the couch.

"You're incredible," Clark said. "Or psychic." He gestured out the window at the remains of the party.

"Neither. I'm just very good at planning."

"But you knew what I wanted."

"Didn't your mom tell you she helped?"

"No. I guess she didn't want to ruin the surprise. I was expecting the ballroom and salmon pate."

"But you got Clark Kent's birthday party."

"Exactly."

"That was your mom's influence."

"But you were smart enough, and caring enough, to ask her for advice."

Lex had no reply to that, so the two sat in comfortable silence for a while, moving only to get more champagne. At Clark's third glass, which he held rather than drank, he nudged Lex's knee. "Teach me to dance," he said.

Lex thought briefly about refusing outright, but the pleasant buzz he had didn't allow him to be that mean. "Why?"

"Because I've been thinking about what you said earlier. I want to learn to dance properly. Like you do."

"I never said I dance properly. There's nothing proper about dancing the way I do."

"All right, I'll say it: I want to learn how to dance like sex." Clark leaned in and whispered the last word; it came out in a hiss. He smiled. "Lex," he said, giving it the same emphasis.

Lex took a deep, fortifying breath and waved his hand at the empty room. "We have no partners."

Clark stood and held out a hand. "There are two of us. C'mon, you can show me. It'll be fun."

'It'll be a lot more than fun,' Lex thought. "Okay," he said, taking the offered hand. Clark pulled him up, and slipped an arm around his waist. "Clark?"

"This is how I know how to dance." Clark raised their joined hands to shoulder height and started to sway.

"Why am I the girl?"

"Because you're the short one."

"I should lead because I'm the teacher." Lex concentrated on the argument to distract himself from Clark's body gently brushing against him. "Besides, this is all wrong."

"So teach me."

"You wanted to learn about fast dancing. What song is in your head?"

"Jimmy Eat World, 'The Middle'."

"That'll do for a start. It's got a good strong beat. Do you know the words?"

"Yeah."

"Sing if you need to." Lex tried to back away. "Clark?"

"Yeah?"

"You have to let go."

Clark's smile was barely visible in the dark room. "Right." He let go. Lex moved to stand behind him, and put his hands on Clark's hips.

"Now, plant your feet on the floor. Moving them is a later lesson. Bend your knees slightly; pretend they're a spring that the rest of you moves on." Lex put pressure on Clark's right hip, indicating he should move the opposite direction. Clark caught on. "The beat is a fast one, so follow my hands." Lex mimicked the beat of the song with his hands pushing Clark's hips. "Try to draw an infinity symbol in the air with your hip."

Clark started singing the words under his breath. "Hey, don't write yourself off yet/It's only in your head you feel left out/or looked down on."

Lex loosened his grip and watched as Clark moved to the music in his own head. He was still a little stiff, but doing well. Obviously he didn't think so, because he stopped and faced Lex.

"Show me what it's supposed to look like," he said.

Lex suppressed a sigh and started up his own mental jukebox. He felt strange dancing all alone; he was accustomed to the press of a crowd, and usually a partner, with loud music and alcohol dulling his awareness. Well, he at least had the booze, such as it was. He closed his eyes, pretending, and let go. The music in his head had reached the first chorus when he felt a warmth behind him. He kept dancing, aware now of Clark copying his movements, shadowing him. He tried to keep it simple; not only was Clark inexperienced, but he was also practically breathing down Lex's neck, which was distracting at best. He didn't think he could concentrate on anything more difficult than just gyrating to the beat. He lost all concentration when Clark's hands gripped his waist and the warmth at his back was suddenly on his back, pressed up against him fully, moving in perfect synchrony. Clark's head brushed his, and he heard in his ear, "You're doing better on your own/so don't buy in/Live right now/Yeah, just be yourself/It doesn't matter if it's good enough/For someone else." Clark's hand snaked up to cross Lex's chest, pulling him closer. The other arm wrapped around his waist and Lex felt Clark's hair brush his ear. Lips touched his neck so gently that Lex thought he'd imagined it, that it was an artifact of the dancing, not anything Clark intended to do. That is, he thought so until Clark turned him slowly in his arms until they were facing each other, still pressed close. Lex gave up and slid his hands over Clark's back, feeling the muscles shudder and move.

"Clark," he whispered in the available ear.

"Shh," he felt against his neck, and this time the kiss was more than noticeable. "There's still another verse." The gentle, teasing kisses trailed up his neck and over his jaw, stopping just at the corner of his mouth. Clark pulled back just a little, seemed to nod in agreement with himself, and the teasing kisses came back, this time on Lex's slightly open mouth. They were still moving, still dancing, if one could call it that, and Lex's resolve completely broke down when he felt the tip of Clark's tongue on his. The kiss deepened as they discovered each other's mouths, hands wandering up and down backs. Their height difference wasn't enough to make the kiss uncomfortable for either, and they gave into it, forgetting everything else. Clark gasped when Lex slid his hands down to cup that firm ass, pulling Clark into him even more, arousal obvious on both. He backed Clark towards the couch, and they sat down heavily, Lex straddling Clark's legs. He took full advantage of his position, dominating the kiss and exploring Clark's body with both hands. Clark had also taken stock of his position, and Lex moaned when he felt hands in his back pockets. In retaliation he bit Clark gently just under his ear, eliciting a corresponding moan.

"Is someone there?" Lex jumped at his father's voice; he'd forgotten where they were. He relaxed slightly when he realised that Lionel could neither see nor get to them. "What's going on? Lex, is that you?"

"Yes, Dad. It's just me." Lex put a finger to Clark's lips, earning it a lick.

"Is someone there with you? I thought I heard voices." Lionel sounded annoyed.

"No, it's just me. I came in to check on you and ended up on the couch." He heard the start of a snicker and clapped his whole hand over Clark's mouth, wincing at the light smack.

"Don't lie to me Lex. I know you're up to something over there. Be a good boy and tell me what you're doing. Maybe I'll forgive you for disturbing my rest."

"It's really nothing, Dad. I don't have a potential lover in here, and we're not taking advantage of your nice big couch."

"Just get out and give me your excuses in the morning."

Lex stood, and Clark followed him to the door. "And Lex...."

"Yes, Dad?"

"I'm betting Jonathan Kent doesn't, in fact, know about this."

Lex leaned against the newly closed door. "Shit. Shit, shit, shit." He rarely cursed, considering it the resource of people with weak minds and small vocabularies, but at this moment he didn't care. "Fuck."

Clark stroked Lex's cheek gently. "I take it things have just gotten much worse for you?"

"For me, for you, for us. Go to bed Clark." Lex started up the stairs.

"But Lex...." Clark followed closely.

Lex turned, his face hard, his eyes distant. "No, Clark. Go to bed. Alone." He focussed on Clark and his expression softened a little. "I need to think." Clark continued up the stairs. Lex, however, went back down. He waited for a few minutes at the door then, when he thought his father had had sufficient time to fall back to sleep, he crept in and repositioned himself on the sofa.

He passed the night deep in thought, coming to a few conclusions. He was just weighing his options for the morning's discussion with his father, when the door on the partition opened and Irene came through. She didn't seem to see him, so Lex stayed still, assuming she was just checking on her patient. Lex stared as she ran her hands just above Lionel's body and the glow started to form. This time, though, instead of the pearly colour the glow had earlier, it was tinged with a sickly yellow. She proceeded for a few minutes, touching him randomly, then left.

Puzzled, Lex finally went to bed hoping for at least an hour's sleep. He woke much later to a gentle knocking on his door. He ignored it. Clark's head peeked in and he whispered, "Lex, you awake?"

Lex glared at him as menacingly as one could while still half asleep. "Stupid question, Clark."

Clark came all the way in and closed the door. "Sorry." He half-smiled and sat on the edge of the bed. "You have to get up, though."

Lex rolled over and buried his head under the pillow. "Why?"

"Because your dad's just been taken to the hospital."

"What?" Suddenly Lex was out of bed and darting into his closet so fast that Clark almost missed it. "What happened?"

"I just went downstairs and Mrs. McPhail was on the phone calling an ambulance. Your dad wouldn't wake up." Lex came out of the closet still pulling a shirt over his head. "The paramedics said everything seemed fine, he's just unconscious."

"Just unconscious. Right." Lex somehow pulled together wallet, watch, and shoes simultaneously. "Let's go." On the way downstairs he tossed his phone to Clark. "Here. Call your parents and tell them where we're going. Happy birthday."

About halfway to the hospital Lex's brain caught up and he put together all the connections. "Clark, do you remember what happened when Irene touched Dad last night?"

"The glow, yeah."

"What colour was it?"

"A shimmery white. Why?"

Lex kept his eyes on the road, and tried desperately to make sense. "Because I went back to his room last night, after you went to bed. At about four Irene came in and waved her hands over him. The glow was yellow. A putrid yellow."

"You think it means something?"

Lex dared a glance at Clark, who looked puzzled. "Dad's condition has been fluctuating wildly. Just when it seems he's improving, something happens to set him back. The PT gave him a good prognosis, then the blindness comes out of nowhere. Yesterday he stood unassisted, and now he's unresponsive. There's something strange at work here, and I'm going to find out what it is."

"But Lex...Mrs. McPhail? Why would she sabotage her own work? Nursing is the only thing she has left; she doesn't have kids and her husband died last year. She loves caring for people, and she's good at it, according to Mom."

They pulled up to the ER parking lot. "I guess we'll have to ask her and find out."

On entering the building Lex cornered the first employee he could find, while Clark looked around for Irene McPhail. He spotted her sitting with a pale little girl. She touched the girl's arm briefly and Clark caught a glimpse of that white glow again. The girl smiled. Clark sat on the woman's other side, and waited for her to finish her chat with the toddler.

When Irene noticed him sitting there she smiled brightly. "Oh good, you're here. I suppose Lex is getting an update from the doctor?"

"Yeah. He's really worried. His father's condition is in no way normal. But I guess you knew that."

"Oh yes, it's very distressing. Such a strong man brought so low." She wrung her hands together as she spoke.

Clark looked up as Lex stormed across the waiting room towards them. His anger was noticeable to anyone who knew him, yet carefully controlled. "Irene. Clark. Let's go to the private waiting room and have a talk."

The private room was warm and comforting, in direct contrast to the cold, hard expression on Lex's face as he closed the door behind him. "Irene," he started, "what did you do to my father?"

Clark closed a hand over Lex's bicep as he advanced towards the woman. "Lex."

Lex looked up at him, and only Clark could read the desperation in his eyes. "Clark, we both know she's responsible for Dad's condition. There's no point in being oblique about it." Clark let go of his arm and Lex reasserted his gaze on Irene. "We know you have some sort of power. What did you do to him?"

Irene sighed heavily and sat down. "You're right, of course." She shook her greying curls and looked mournfully at Clark. "I'm not working steadily enough to support myself anymore. I can't keep the house. I have nothing else I can do." She seemed to brace herself, and stood to face Lex directly. "All I wanted was a permanent job. When you hired me, I saw the chance and I took it. I've always been able to heal and harm; I never wanted to hurt your father, Mr. Luthor, I just wanted to keep him disabled enough to need me."

Lex stopped her, not wanting to hear the rest of her sob story. "You impeded his healing, blinded him, and then put him in a coma. I'm not going to ask how you think that didn't hurt him, because frankly, I don't care about your opinion. Heal him, now. If you don't, I'll tell everyone--starting with Martha Kent--about what you've done here. You'll never work again."

"I can't heal his back completely. Some things are beyond me."

"Just fix what you caused and anything else you can. You've wasted a lot of his and my time with this game. Now's your chance to make up for it." Lex took her by the arm and led her out of the lounge and into Lionel's private room. Clark followed closely, not entirely sure what was going to happen.

Simply enough, Irene ran her hands over Lionel's body, touching him lightly at his eyes and hips. The white glow suffused her hands, seeming to penetrate both her and Lionel's skin. After a few moments she dropped her hands and turned back to Lex. "I've done all I can."

Lex watched as his father's eyelids twitched open. He didn't look at Irene. "Get out. Get away from us both." She left the room hastily, looking back only once as Lionel stirred slightly. Lex pulled a chair up next to the bedside, then noticed Clark leaning against the far wall. Clark shrugged in the direction of the open door. Lex nodded, and Clark went to wait outside, closing the door behind him.

When Lex came out ten minutes later Clark was still there. He stood and walked over to Lex, handing him a cup of coffee. It was abysmal, but Lex drank it anyway. "He seems to be fine," Lex replied to the unasked question, "he can see again, and he managed to sit up by himself."

"Can he stand?" They walked slowly down the hall towards the main doors.

"Probably not. They're doing more tests right now, and keeping him for observation, but his prognosis is the same as it was when all this started: eventually he'll recover. It's just a question of time."

"How did he take the news about Mrs. McPhail?" Clark led Lex through the sliding doors out into the sunshine.

Lex chuckled ruefully. "He wants to hire her as a full-time nurse at one of the plants. He 'admires her ambition and moral code'."

"Weird. Only your dad could admire someone who nearly killed him."

They stopped at the car, and Lex hesitated in unlocking it. "Clark, I think we need to talk about last night."

Clark leaned both elbows on the roof of the car, and smiled a little. "It was nice, Lex," he grinned at the memory, "really nice, but...."

Lex smiled back. "But? But you're a high school kid; but you're unsure of your sexuality; but it might have been the alcohol; but your father hates me?" He jabbed Clark lightly in the ribs, causing him to giggle.

"Yeah, all that." The relief was clear on Clark's face, and Lex was glad of Clark's inability to hide his emotions. The last thing he wanted to do was break his friend's heart.

"I'm glad you feel that way. We're friends, Clark, and nothing will change that, except possibly becoming lovers right now." Lex copied Clark's position against the car.

Clark moved slightly so that his arm was touching Lex's. "But if, in the future...?" He met Lex's eyes and saw his own emotions reflected there.

"If, in the future, Clark." Lex opened the car and they both got in. "Where to?" he asked.

"Mom said to bring you over for breakfast." He checked his watch. "It's pretty late, but I'm sure she'll still have food for us."

Lex took a moment to process that information. "Sounds good." He started the car and pulled out on to the main road. "I've been thinking."

"Again?"

"Clark. I've been thinking about how to solve two particular problems we have. One, Dad heard us last night, and may try to use that against us. No matter what we've decided, your parents cannot find out. Agreed?"

Clark looked a little scared. "Absolutely. And the second problem?"

"I still have to get rid of Dad."

Clark nodded. "So you have a solution?"

Lex grinned. "I was thinking, if we made a tape--say, something that sounded like us having sex...."

"We can pretend that last night was a joke."

"Exactly. I knew Lana hadn't completely melted your brains. Plus, we get the added benefit of playing it to Dad whenever he gets annoying."

Clark laughed. "You're evil, Lex."

They sat in silence for a few minutes as Lex maneuvered into the Kents' driveway. "Clark?"

"Yes, Lex?"

"If I paid you, would you shave his dog?"

END



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