Title:  Favoring Fire Episode 5
Authors:  Beth and Nomi
Email:  bethandsam@earthlink.net; gnomi@asknomi.com
Disclaimer: The characters of "Smallville" are owned by Tollin/Robbins, Millar Gough Ink, Warner Bros., and DC Comics, not by us.
Rating:  PG-13
Spoilers:  None
Series:  Favoring Fire
Category:  Pre-slash (yes, still)
Challenges:  Cafeteria and Dorm Sex
Summary:  Can America help Lex find the perfect mate?
Notes:  This is dedicated, as always, to Celli Lane!  In a typical risky maneuver, the Beth and Nomi enterprise betad this one.  So, any errors contained within are ours and ours alone.  If youve just come across this series, there are four previous episodes.  You can find all of them here:  http://www.asknomi.com/sv_stories.html.

Favoring Fire Episode 5

By Beth and Nomi

***

Lex watched as Pete left his office.  He was confident that Pete would do exactly as he'd said and leave right away.  He sat back in his chair and pondered the morning's events.  What he'd said to Pete was completely true once Lex was given time alone to think, his anger would dissipate relatively quickly.  He was a redhead, after all, quick to anger but quick to forgive.  Already he was formulating a plan for renewing contact with Clark.  But it would be on his terms, when he was ready.

Anything else would be unacceptable.

***

Pete's cell phone rang as he drove away from Lex's office, but he ignored it.  The caller could only be Clark, whom Pete was not ready to deal with yet.  During the drive, Pete figured, he'd come up with a way to explain the current situation to Clark without it sounding as hopeless as it really seemed to be.

The phone rang twice more during the ten-minute drive back to campus, but Pete didnt respond either time.  He had a couple of extra minutes to think as he trolled campus for a parking space, eventually finding one half way between Clark's dorm and his own.  Now the dilemma was whether to go straight to Clark's room or to retreat to his own space and wait for Clark to come to him.

Pete considered the options for a couple of minutes as he sat in his car but then, taking pity on his friend, who was already going through enough, Pete headed toward Clark's dorm.

Taking the stairs up to Clark's room, Pete paused before knocking.  For all he knew, Clark had gone out, and then he could avoid this conversation.  But then he heard a crash and a muffled "ow" and knew that he couldn't avoid this any longer.  He knocked once.

"Go 'way.  I'm sick," Clark said.

"It's me, Clarkbar.  Open up."

There was a shuffling from inside, and then the door opened a crack.  Clark peered out and then, once he verified that it was, in fact, Pete, he stepped behind the door and allowed Pete to come in.

"So?  How'd it go?  I tried calling you, but I kept getting your voice mail."

"Oh, must've been a bad connection or something," Pete said.

"Pete..."

"I'm sorry, Clark.  I couldn't convince Lex to come and talk to you.  He said he'd be in touch over the weekend, but that's the best I could do.  He's really pissed, Clark."

"But I didn't do anything!  It's not my fault!"

"Yeah, I know, Clark. But how are you going to explain that to Lex?"

Clark blanched.  "Yeah, I know."  He paused.  "What am I supposed to do now, though?  Lex is..."

Pete grimaced.  "Yeah, I know.  He's your best friend."

"Pete, I know you don't like him, but he's important to me, like you are; like Chloe is.  I can't stand it when any of you are pissed at me.  And this...well, this feels like it should be significant, but I can't figure out what it's supposed to mean."  He refrained from telling Pete what he'd realized about his feelings for Lex; there was enough tension between Pete and Lex already.

"Yeah, I know."

Both were silent for a moment, then Clark said, "I've got to...I can't stay here."

"Where are you going?" Pete asked.

"Not sure yet.  I just can't stay here, waiting for Lex to get in touch."  Clark started pulling clothes out of his closet and drawers and shoving them into a duffel bag.  "I'll be back before classes on Monday, I'll promise you that.  But I need to get away.  Can I borrow your car?"

"Sorry, man.  I've got a big date tomorrow.  I need my car.  But maybe Chloe can loan you hers."

"I don't want to have to explain this to her," Clark said, gesturing to his bald head.

"Mm, good point," Pete said.  "But I've got an idea."  He pulled out his cell phone and pushed speed-dial for Chloe, who picked up after the first ring.

"Chloe Sullivan," she said.

"Yeah, Chlo', it's Pete."

"Hey, Pete.  Be quick; I'm about to run off to do an interview off-campus."

"Damn," Pete said.  "OK, look, shot in the dark.  Clark's got wanderlust and he needs some wheels.  Is there any chance he could borrow yours for the weekend?"

"The whole weekend?  Without my car?"  From Chloe's tone, someone might think Pete had just suggested that she go without her computer for the next year.

"It's only a couple of days, Chlo'," Pete argued on Clark's behalf.

"Yeah, but it's the weekend, Pete.  This girl's got plans, OK?"

Pete sighed.  "OK, well, thanks anyway."

"Look, tell Clark I'm sorry; I know what his 'wanderlust' does to him.  Maybe he can scare up a car from someone else.  Hell, maybe he can borrow one of Lex's."

"Uh...that's not really an option," Pete said.

"Trouble in paradise?" Chloe asked.

"Something like that."

"Pete, I really gotta run.  Sorry about the car thing.  I'll catch up with you later, OK?"

"Yeah, OK."  Pete hung up the phone and turned back to Clark.

"It's not gonna happen, Clark.  Chloe's got plans, and she needs her car."

For a brief moment, Clark considered stealing one of Lex's less-favored cars, but then he realized that if Lex already didn't trust him, jacking a car would just make the situation that much worse.

"I guess I'm running, then."

"Where?" Pete asked again, now more worried because Clark had no restrictions.  At least if he were driving, Clark would be beholden to how much gas his tank could hold and how much money he had.

"I really don't know.  Home, first, I guess."

"OK."  At least, Pete hoped, Clark's parents could keep him from doing anything too stupid.

Clark knew something was missing, but he couldn't think of what he might've forgotten to pack.  Not that it really mattered - he was going to start off at home, so anything he needed would be there...except --

"Damn," Clark said.

"What?"

"Tell me you picked me up an extra copy of the handouts from Photography.  Please."  Even this early in the semester, Clark had managed to make himself known to the Photography professor, and not in a good way, either.  It wasn't Clark's fault that he already knew more than the prof about current cameras.  But now he was really watching his step around Professor Gilman, and it wouldn't help if, as a result of his having cut class, he fell behind and Gilman noticed.

"Yeah, I did.  But they're back at my room."  Pete shrugged.  "I'd meant to bring them to Lex's last night, but I forgot."

"That's OK," Clark said.  "I'll just come back with you, pick them up, and then head out."

Clark picked up his bag, headed for the door, paused, and then turned around.  He went back to his bureau and picked up the John Deere cap his dad had left last time he'd visited, jammed it onto his head, and then turned back to the door.  "Coming?" he asked Pete.

"Right behind you, Clarkbar," Pete said.  As soon as Pete cleared the threshold, Clark locked his door and headed toward the stairs.

"Hey, CK," someone said.

"Hey, Mike," Clark mumbled, barely pausing.  As his mom had drilled into him, haste was no excuse for rudeness.

"Sorry, man," Pete said.  "Emergency study session."

"I hear you," Mike responded.  "Have a good session."  But at that point, he was talking to an empty hallway.

Clark and Pete quickly made their way to Luthor Hall, Pete's dorm.  And as soon as the handouts had been handed over, Clark was out the door and back in the hallway.  "Thanks, Pete," he said, though the delay even for that chafed at him.

"Go, OK?  You're almost vibrating...actually, you are vibrating just the tiniest bit."  Clark glared and Pete smiled.  "Kidding.  I just know you're eager to get going.  Do me one favor, though?  Call me when you get home, OK?  Just to let me know you went there and not, say, Timbuktu."

"I will," Clark said.  "Really, Pete.  I just...I need to go."

"So go.  Be safe, though, OK?"

"Yeah," Clark said.  "I'll call."  And then he was down the stairs at not-quite-normal speed.  Pete heard the front door slam, and when he looked out the window he saw Clark jogging away toward the main campus exit.  Pete had a feeling that, as soon as he got out of sight, Clark would put on the afterburners.

***

Ten minutes after leaving Pete, Clark reached the outer edge of Smallville and slowed to a slightly more human pace.  Being here, in Smallville, close to the farm, already was relieving some of the pressure in Clark's chest.  He'd go home, talk to his parents, and then figure out his next move from there.  Some of his decision would likely depend on what his parents said.

Standing at the side of the road, Clark pulled his phone out of his pocket and pushed the speed dial for Pete.

"Yo, it's Pete," Pete said when he answered on the second ring.

"Hey, Pete.  It's Clark.  I'm in Smallville."

"But not home.  I get you.  But I trust you can get yourself safely from where you are to your parents'?"

"Yeah, Pete.  I'll be fine."  Clark knew there had been times in the past where he had gotten into trouble over that short distance, but everything seemed quiet right now.  "I'll try to call you again before I come back.  So you'll know."

"I appreciate that, man.  So...what should I tell anyone who asks where you are?"

"Just tell them I decided to go home for the weekend."  Not that Clark expected anyone other than Pete or Chloe to care where he was this weekend, and they already knew he'd left campus.

"OK, man.  Be safe."

"I will."

Clark hung up and started walking to his parents' farm.  While he could have easily just sped to the farm, he had found since starting at Met U that he appreciated the slower pace he found in Smallville, the fact that people passing him along the road would stop and wave and ask how school was, how his family was.  For all that he'd found it cloying by the time he graduated high school, Clark had come to find just how special that aspect of small-town life was.

It took him as long to get to the farm as it had to get to Smallville in the first place, which Clark found amusing on some level.  It made him smile, though, for the first time since the whole hair fiasco began, and he decided to take his happiness where he could find it.

He was therefore smiling as he climbed the steps to the kitchen door.

He knocked once, so as to not surprise his mom if she were in the kitchen, and then went inside.

"Clark!" Martha said, looking up from her cutting board as the door opened.  "I wasn't expecting you!"  She put her knife down and turned away from the counter as Clark came further into the kitchen.

"I know.  I probably should've called.  This was sort of a last-minute decision.  I hope it's OK that I've come home."

"Of course it's fine, sweetie.  Are you here just for a short time, or did you come for the weekend?  I didn't hear a car...did you come by bus?"

Clark took the questions in the order they'd been asked.  "I'm here for the weekend, if that's OK with you and Dad.  Both Chloe and Pete needed their cars this weekend, and I couldn't borrow one of Lex's, either, so I came by myself.  I didn't take the bus."

The expression that crossed Martha's face was familiar to Clark.  It said, "I know you're careful, but I always worry someone will see you."  However, she didn't say anything more about how Clark had chosen to travel from Metropolis.

"You must be hungry.  Come sit down and I'll fix you a plate."  Martha took a covert look at her son as he settled himself at the table.  She knew that all was not right with her boy, but she wasn't going to press him for details right now.  If there was one thing she'd learned over the years, it was that Clark would explain his problems at his own pace, and pushing him would just make him less likely to share information.

"Thanks, Mom," Clark said, sighing in pleasure as he soaked in the atmosphere of being back in his mom's kitchen.
Martha put a plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and vegetables in front of Clark, patted him on the shoulder, and said, "I'm glad you're here, Clark."

Clark looked up at her.  "I'm glad I came home," he said, then dug into the food.

He ate in silence as he considered his options.  When he finished eating, he cleared his dishes and then sat back down at the table.

"That was wonderful, Mom.  It's so great to eat something other than cafeteria food."

"You're eating OK at school, right, Clark?  I can send you back with some food if you need it."

"No, Mom," Clark said.  "This way, it's a treat when I get to eat your cooking.  Not that it's not a treat anyway.  I mean --"

"I understand what you mean, sweetheart," Martha replied, joining Clark at the table.  "So," she said, "is my cooking the only reason you're home this weekend?"

"No," Clark said, but then he didn't know where to go from there.  He reached up, grasped the bill of the cap, and took the hat off his head.  "I'm..."

"...bald!" Jonathan said, coming into the kitchen at what Clark considered the worst possible moment.  "Is this some Luthor-bonding ritual or something?"

Clark jumped out of his chair.  "This has nothing to do with Lex, Dad.  It's all because I'm a crazy weirdo alien freak!"

"You are nothing of the kind," Martha said.

"Mom, I'm bald!  And it was overnight!  It was like...I was normal -- or, at least, what passes for normal for me -- and then suddenly I was like this!  I was shedding like some ridiculous sheep dog, and by morning my hair was all gone.  All over my pillow.  And I've been careful -- no one but me has been anywhere near my shampoo.  So it couldn't've been any of the guys on my floor.  So it's got to be more alien crap!"

"Language, Clark."  It was his mother speaking; his father did nothing but glare at him.

"Damn Jor-El!  Even after all this time he's got you going 'round in circles.  For all you know, this could have nothing whatsoever to do with him and that destiny garbage.  He's been jerking you around since you were fifteen!"

"Dad," Clark said, "I don't know if this has any connection to that."

"OK, then," Martha said, trying for what seemed like the millionth time to restore order in her kitchen.  "Is there anything special that's happened in the past couple of days that might've caused this?  Something you ate, maybe, that your system isn't handling right?"

"Mom, nothing has changed.  Nothing!"  Well, Clark thought, that was not completely accurate, but it was all he was telling his parents right now.

"OK, Clark.  I trust you on that.  So it must be something else."

"Yeah," Clark said, "it's just that I'm an alien freak. Nothing new there. I...I need to go talk to Jor-El."

Before his parents could say anything else, Clark sped out of the kitchen and toward the barn.  He ran up to his Fortress of Solitude and opened the steamer trunk.  Reaching under all of the things he'd hidden in the trunk over the years, he pulled out the metal octagon that activated the cave wall.  He then sped back down the ladder, out of the barn, and out to the caves.

Instead of entering, though, Clark paused at the cave entrance.  Now that he was there, he wasn't really sure he could ask the questions he had, and he wasn't sure he'd want to hear the answers to the questions he asked.

"Don't be an idiot, Kent," he said to himself.  "Nothing the cave can tell you will change what already has happened.  And maybe it will even be able to tell you how to fix it."

Clark took a deep breath, let it out, and then walked into the cave.  He stepped up to the cave wall with the octagonal indentation and inserted the metal octagon.  Immediately, the wall came to life.

"You have come again, Kal-El, son of Krypton."

"What's happened to me?"

"The time has come," intoned the voice from the wall.  "You have chosen."

"I've chosen?" Clark asked.  "What have I chosen?  To be bald?  I didn't decide that!"

"The choice has been made," was the response.

"What choice?  I wasn't given a choice!  Do you think I'd choose to have my best friend hate me?  To have my best friend think I was making fun of him?"

"You hear, but you do not see.  Look inside, Kal-El."

"Inside?"  Clark shrugged and used his X-ray vision on the wall.  "It's a sheer rock face!  What good does looking inside do?"

"No, Kal-El.  You must look inside."

"Stop calling me that!  That's not who I am.  Who I am, apparently, is a friendless freak!"

"You are what you must become.  You are where you must be."

"That isn't helping!  Aargh!  This is crazy!  I'm just wasting my time."  Though he'd have preferred to just punch the wall in frustration, he was afraid of damaging it.  Instead, Clark stamped once, hard, on the ground of the cave and then plucked the metal octagon from the crevice in the wall.

"Screw it," Clark mumbled to himself.  "This was a stupid idea."  He stalked out of the cave and headed back toward the farm.  Frustration coursed through him, making him want to pound something.  The harder the better.

As he walked the back fence of his parents' property, he noticed a number of posts that needed replacing.  And hauling and planting posts would be a constructive way of burning off his rage. He burned a tiny hole into each post he needed to replace so he could identify it when he came back.

Simply loading the replacement posts into the bed of the truck felt good, Clark thought.  And once he'd driven back to the fence and started replacing posts, the physicality and monotony of the job began to calm him.

As he worked, he thought about his options.  On one hand, there was little to be gained from going around in circles with the cave.  That would drive him insane.  Of course, he thought, there was a level of insanity just in the fact that he was having a conversation about aliens with a cave wall at all.  But if he didn't ask more questions, he would never find out why he lost his hair overnight.  He knew it had to be something connected to his Kryptonian heritage, but what?

Clark was so focused on his task that he didn't hear his father come up behind him.

"You don't have to do that, son," Jonathan said, startling Clark enough that he buried a post completely in the earth.  "But I do appreciate it."

"I needed time alone.  Just to think.  It's the main reason I came home."

"Well, you know you can always come home for that.  But we're always here if you want to talk."

Clark took a deep breath.  "But what about topics I don't know if I can talk to you about?"

"There's nothing you can't discuss with us, Clark.  Nothing at all."

"I really don't know, Dad.  I don't...it would be uncomfortable for all of us."

"Clark," Jonathan said in his I'm-Your-Father-Trust-Me voice, "there is no topic so uncomfortable that we can't discuss it."

"I think I'm in love with Lex."  Clark said it all in one breath, as if pausing even for oxygen would keep him from completing the statement.

Jonathan struggled to keep his expression stable.  This was the last thing he had been expecting.  "You think what?" he asked, in case he had misheard the rush of words.

"I think I'm in love with Lex," Clark said.  He was much calmer now that he'd said it once, out loud.

"Oh," Jonathan said, at a loss for anything else to say.  Almost immediately he began to evaluate the ramifications of Clark's statement.  Having an alien son was old hat by now.  Would having a gay alien son be so different?  In one way, yes, Jonathan figured - he could actually talk to someone else about his son being gay.  If, in fact, he was.  Right now, all Clark knew was that he "thought" he was in love with Lex.

"Clark?  You do know that Lex has already chosen a woman to date, if not to marry, right?  That he's chosen one of those women from the show, and that his choice will be public information in two weeks."

"Yes, I know," Clark said, and Jonathan could not remember any time that Clark had looked so glum.

"Do you know anything about which woman he chose?" Jonathan asked.

"Dad, you know I'm not allowed to say anything about the outcome of the show until after it's aired!"

Jonathan knew; it was part of why he asked, in fact.  For all that he had come to like and respect Lex over the years, he still had a niggling fear that his boy would be tainted by some of the Luthor family's less-than-savory characteristics.  To be fair, Jonathan knew, it was only Lionel who was corrupt; Lex had never been anything but aboveboard in all his transactions.  But any time Jonathan could confirm Clark's innate sense of right and wrong, he did so.

"I forgot, son.  I'm sorry."

"That's OK, Dad," Clark said.  He extracted the next damaged post and tossed it aside as if it weighed nothing.

"Do you want any help with that?" Jonathan asked.  Not there was much he would be able to do to help, but it seemed as if it had been a long time since he and Clark had worked side-by-side on a farm chore, and he realized at that moment just how much he missed it.

"Sure, Dad," Clark said, picking up on his father's intent.

They worked through the greater part of the afternoon, moving from the fence repairs to other long-neglected maintenance chores.  After that original conversation, the two did not speak of Lex or of the anything having to do with a future possible relationship.  Instead, Jonathan asked Clark about his classes, how he was enjoying living in Metropolis again, and other relatively innocuous topics.

Coming home had definitely been the right decision, Clark mused as they put their tools away after they'd completed their work for the day.  And maybe after dinner he'd attempt another go-round with the cave.  There had to be a way to get the answers he needed.  There just had to.

Clark and his father walked back from the barn in companionable silence but both lost in their own thoughts.  The kitchen door opened just as they approached the house.  "Good timing, guys," Martha said.  "I was about to call you in."

"Something smells great, Mom," Clark said as he entered the mudroom and took off his boots.  "What's for dinner?"

"Thanks, Clark.  It's nothing fancy, just pot roast and potatoes.  A good, hearty meal after all that hard labor."

"Is there an equivalent for after an afternoon of hard mental labor?" Clark asked as he snitched a cherry tomato from the salad bowl on the counter.

"If I think of something, I'll send you a care package," Martha responded, tapping the back of Clark's hand in reproach as he tried to go back for a second tomato.  "Come on, if you keep doing that, there will be none left for later."

"Eat my vegetables; don't eat the vegetables.  Which one is it?" Clark asked.  It was an old joke between him and his mom, and he found it comforting, as he'd found everything else in this house since he'd arrived that morning.

"Eat your vegetables when you're sitting at the table like a civilized lifeform."

"Yes, Mom."

Martha smiled; it was nice to find that there were still some things that hadn't changed.  "Dinner will be ready in a minute, Clark.  Go wash your hands."

"Yes, Mom," Clark responded.

As Clark loped off to the bathroom to wash up, his parents exchanged a look.  Since Clark's enhanced hearing had developed, the elder Kents had developed a whole non-verbal vocabulary through which to discuss Clark and his issues.  In this one, Jonathan said, "There are changes afoot," to which Martha responded, "Are they serious?"  Jonathan's "We have to wait and see" was aborted as Clark came back into the room; neither of his parents were positive that Clark had not, over the years, developed telepathy along with all his other powers.

They sat at the table and ate dinner, and they all focused on keeping topics neutral.  Clark had too many conflicting ideas running through his brain, and neither of his parents wanted another shouting match like the one that had started Clark's visit.  Since all the school-related topics had been covered earlier by Jonathan, dinner discussion revolved around how things were going on the Kent farm, the new family that had bought the old Peterson farm, and the current ups and downs of the Smallville High School Crows football team.

Once dinner was over and the dishes had been cleared and washed, Clark turned to his parents.

"I'm gonna go back to the cave, OK?  I didn't get any helpful answers earlier, and I think it's because I wasn't asking the right questions."

"You sure, son?" Jonathan asked.  "The cave will still be there in the morning."

"Yeah, Dad.  I want to do this now.  I don't want to go to bed tonight without at least some answers."

"OK, Clark," Jonathan said after another short eye-conversation with Martha.  "But check in with us when you get home, just so we know you're back."

"OK, Dad.  Thanks!"  Clark kissed his mother's cheek, patted his father's shoulder, and then took off at a run back to the cave.

***

After a disappointing day, Lex let himself into the penthouse and shut the door behind him.  His only plan was to get to the bar and pour himself a drink.  Beyond that, the world could take a flying leap for the evening.  He had had enough.

Lex made a brief side trip to his office and put his briefcase out of sight.  He didn't want to have to think about work issues for the next while.  He loosened his tie and strode through the rooms separating him from his bar.  He'd almost made it when he was stopped by a familiar voice.

Sir?

Must not kill Enrique, Lex thought ironically as he turned toward his longtime butler.  Yes?

Are we expecting Master Clark this evening?

We are not. Lex's expression brooked no further discussion.

Unfortunately, for Lex, Enrique had known him since he was a little boy and that particular expression had little effect on him.  Might I ask why not, Sir?

I wouldn't, Lex frowned as he turned to walk away from Enrique to the bar.

Master Lex, might I suggest that a drink is not what you need right now?

I don't think that would be a good idea, Lex replied through gritted teeth.

I see, Enrique said, moving quietly behind his employer to pluck the glass out of his hand.  I would differ with your opinion.

You could, Lex agreed. But you could also be looking for work tomorrow.

I could always work for your father. Enrique stared at Lex without fear until Lex broke the stare.

I hate it when you do that.

I know.

Someday, I am going to fire you.

I'm sure. Enrique moved behind the bar and retrieved a bottle of water for Lex. Do you want to talk about it?

Do I have a choice? Lex was resigned to having the conversation.  Enrique would keep after him until he gave in.  He knew his father would never tolerate this level of interference. It was half the reason that Enrique worked for him in the first place.  His father couldn't stand Enrique and the feeling was, quite obviously, mutual.

I think you know the answer to that. Enrique's face remained impassive - not even a twitch of amusement at Lex's clear sense of defeat at Enrique's determined hands.

You know, I don't think other people have butlers who act like this.

Perhaps not, sir, but then they simply aren't as fortunate as you are, now are they?  Enrique reached into the refrigerator again and extracted a small plate of cheese and crackers that he'd prepared for Lex earlier.  He pushed the plate across the bar to Lex and waited for the other man to acknowledge it.

Cheese and crackers? Lex's eyebrows rose dramatically. What am I? Six?

Your behavior this morning seems to warrant such consideration.

Excuse me? Lex stared at his butler.

Your mother's son would not slam a door in the face of a friend. Enrique stared balefully at the younger man.

My mother would not have tolerated what this particular friend had done to me either.

From the sound of it, you didn't give him a chance to explain the circumstances.

Circumstances didn't need to be explained.

I see.

No, you don't see. Lex slammed his fist onto the bar top.  You don't see at all.

Do you need ice for that? Enrique wondered what would happen the day Lex actually broke his hand performing that particular maneuver.  At Lex's decisive negative shake, Enrique said, Why don't you explain it to me then?

I don't want to, Lex replied petulantly.  He knew he sounded like the six year old he'd denied being earlier, but he just didn't know how he was going to put Clark's betrayal into words.

And that reasoning has always worked so well for you before, hasn't it? Enrique continued studying his employer from across the bar.  When Lex seemed disinclined to continue, Enrique said, I've seen the security tapes.

How did you - no, I don't want to know.  See, you already know what the problem is, then.  Lex paused and then added, How did you get security to let you see the tapes?

I thought you didn't want to know that, Enrique smirked.  It wasn't quite as effective as Lex's, but it got the point across quite well.

So, now I do want to know.  How?

It's a fascinating technique, really, I asked politely, and they let me see them. Enrique didn't mention that he'd convinced Cook to make up a batch of cookies first and took them to the security office as a bribe.  He also didn't mention that the security people viewed him as Lex's second closest confidant and were willing to give him leeway that no other person - aside from Clark Kent - would ever have.

I'm firing all of them.  Letting you see tapes without asking me first.  I swear I'm going to fire them, Lex muttered.

And then you'll have to rehire them, Master Lex, because they are, quite obviously, the best or you would never have hired them in the first place.

Fine.  Are we done now? Lex wanted nothing more than to be completely finished with this conversation.

We are not, sir.  Why did you treat Master Clark the way you did this morning?

You saw him.  Why wouldn't I slam a door in his face?

It seemed clear that his appearance was as much of a shock to him as it was to you.  Why not let him explain?

Because he was mocking me, that's why.  I don't want to hear why he did it.  He did it and that's all that matters.

Did you listen to him?

Why would I?

Because I don't think he did this deliberately, Master Lex.  I think this was done to him or it was some sort of strange occurrence.  It's not as if we're strangers to those sorts of things, now is it?

But that was Smallville.  This is Metropolis.  Strange shit doesn't just happen here.

I don't know if that's true, Master Lex.  Even if it is, however, Master Clark spent many more years in Smallville than he has in Metropolis. Perhaps this is some sort of delayed reaction.

Lex studied his butler carefully.  A delayed reaction?

Certainly, sir.  We know that all manner of oddities occur in the presence of the meteorites.  Perhaps Master Clark is having a reaction in the *absence* of the rocks.

Then why didn't it happen last year?

I'm only a butler, Master Lex.  You're the scientist - perhaps you should consider the variables and see if there could be an explanation for Master Clark's depilated state. Enrique remained silent for a moment to allow that point to sink in. Alternatively, perhaps Master Clark has not made friends with the other young men on his hall.

Huh? Lex was rapidly seeking and rejecting variables that would explain the sudden hair loss.

I said, perhaps he's not friendly with the other young men.

What would that have to do with anything?

I've heard that young men can be particularly cruel to others who don't fit in.  Perhaps Master Clark has been the victim of a vicious prank, and instead of receiving solace from his closest friend, he was rejected.

A prank?

Yes, I've heard that one can replace shampoo with a depilatory solution and achieve an effect not unlike what Master Clark appeared with on the tapes.

You think someone did that to him intentionally? Lex began to seethe.  It was one thing to have meteor rocks take your hair, but it was quite another, and totally unacceptable, to have some drunken idiot relieve you of your hair.

I'm merely presenting possibilities, Master Lex.  Enrique took a deep breath before firing his final blast. Unlike some, I assume that Master Clark has nothing but good intentions toward you and would never presume that he would try to hurt you intentionally.

What was I supposed to think?

You were supposed to remember that he is your friend, Master Lex.  As you are so fond of reminding me, your only real friend.  It is your obligation not to jump to conclusions, but rather to allow him to explain the circumstances.

"But he hasn't been acting like himself," Lex said.

"I'm not sure what you mean by that. I've seen nothing but the same young man who has kept you honest and focused since the first day you met him in Smallville."

"You've watched the show.  He was acting different around the women."

"He was, Master Lex.  He was treating them as if they were people who were important to you.  He gave them the care and consideration he thought you would expect from him."

"I wouldn't ask him to splash around in a pool with my wife!" Lex exclaimed.

"Of course you wouldn't, but you might ask him to accompany her to an event that you were unable to attend."

"That's true," Lex conceded. "But did he have to be so nice to them?"

"I think he believed he would lose you if he wasn't, Master Lex."

"But that's not true."

"Things will change when there's a new Mrs. Luthor in residence, Master Lex.  None of us looks forward to change, but we've all accepted that it will happen."

"But I don't want things to change.  I like things the way that they are," Lex said, kicking the bar hard enough to hurt his foot.

"Then perhaps you should have thought of that before you entered into this arrangement, Mr. Luthor," Enrique said with a bit more agitation than was strictly necessary.

"Why are you calling me that all of a sudden?"

"It's one of many changes that we'll all need to get used to, sir.  Surely you realize that I cannot continue to be so informal when the new Mrs. Luthor arrives."

"But . . . But," Lex stammered.  He never stammered, but he didn't like it when things changed and clearly things were going to change in a way that he wasn't going to like.

"If that will be all, sir, I need to continue my attempts to persuade Cook that leaving your service is not inevitable."

"What?  Clark loves her; she can't leave."

"It's not Master Clark that she will need to please, and she feels unequal to cooking for the women she's seen on this program," Enrique sniffed and started to walk out of the room.

Lex grabbed his arm to stop him and demanded, "Why didn't you tell me?"

Enrique studied the now miserable young man in front of him.  "You were determined to follow the course of action laid out by your father.  Until you are truly willing to step out of his shadow, be your own man, and follow your heart, nothing I could say would have dissuaded you from pursuing this course."

"But I don't want to be alone," Lex realized he sounded pathetic, but the picture Enrique was painting scared him.

"I don't believe that Master Clark would ever allow you to be alone."

"He'll meet someone who will take him away," Lex muttered -- the 'from me,' though left unsaid, echoed in the room.

"He's never shown any inclination in that direction, Master Lex.  In fact, it often seems that his only interest is in seeing you happy. If a wife is what it will take, he's clearly willing to sacrifice his own happiness for yours," Enrique said, pulling away from Lex. "Perhaps you should think about that before you question his loyalty or devotion to you.  Can you honestly say the same is true for you?"

Lex stared after his butler as he found himself questioning the very things he'd been so sure of that morning.  The Clark he'd known for years would never have mocked him in the way that Lex had accused him of.

The more Lex reflected on the look of panic and distress on Clark's face that morning, the worse he felt.  After standing in the middle of his living room for several minutes feeling worse and worse about what he'd done to Clark, he whirled around, grabbed his coat from beside the door and left the penthouse intent on finding Clark and making amends.

Enrique peeked out from behind the kitchen door when he heard the front door slam closed.  Once he'd ascertained that Lex was no longer in the penthouse, he turned to Cook and gave her a thumbs up.  Maybe things would work out the way the staff hoped they would yet.

***

Lex tore out of the garage and barreled down the streets of Metropolis wondering if it was even possible to salvage his friendship with Clark.  He couldn't believe he had been so stupid, so self-involved.  How could he have believed that Clark would intentionally mock him in that way? Clark could be unintentionally cruel at times, but he would never do something so blatant, so obvious.

When Lex got his hands on the bastards who had done this to Clark, they would discover what true pain, true loss was all about.  They would be lucky to graduate -- let alone find gainful employment in Metropolis.  Make that Kansas.  No, make that the entire North American continent.

He swung the Ferrari into a parking space and practically ran up the stairs to Clark's dorm room.  He knocked on the door normally, but when there was no response he began pounding on it.

"Clark! Open up!" Lex shouted through the closed door.  He continued pounding for several minutes with no results except increasingly irritated stares from the other men on Clark's hall.

"He's not here," a brave but skinny guy from across the hall said. "You might try Pete Ross's room over in Luthor Hall.  I think he said he was going there."

Lex turned to the younger man, who immediately shrank back when he realized to whom he had been speaking.  "I ... I'm sorry Mr. Luthor.  I didn't mean to bother you."

Lex grabbed for the door and stopped it from slamming closed. "Thank you!  I appreciate your help.  And you are?"

"Mike, sir.  Mike Roberts."

"Here's my card, Mike.  If you're ever in need of a favor, give me a call.  I owe you one."

***

Lex stood outside Luthor Hall and stared up at the building for a few minutes.  He was always startled by the disastrous architecture of the building.  Lionel had obviously not invested enough in the building to either a) make sure it was attractive or b) prevent Lex from being expelled from Met U.

He found the whole situation ludicrous.  Pete, the kid who could barely stand him, was living in the hall that was supposed to have kept Lex in Met U., while Clark, the person who really cared about him, lived in the more poorly named Dunge Hall.  There were times when irony just rained down on Lex.

He took a deep breath and let himself in the front doors. The massive portrait of Lionel in the front hall made him want to vomit.  There was something utterly inappropriate about his portrait hanging in front a dormitory.  Lex stopped at the desk to ask directions to Pete's room.  He was reminded that Pete actually had a roommate, though he wouldn't have had one if he would have allowed Lex to help him, but he wouldn't so he suffered.

Lex arrived at Pete's door to find one of those ridiculous white boards with notes scrawled all over it. He glanced over the notes to see if he could determine anything interesting. Most of the notes were from other young men on the hall.  On the top of the board was a note that indicated that Pete was in the laundry room.

Lex stopped a young man in the hallway.  "Where is the laundry room?"

"It's that way, dude," the guy pointed down toward the end of the hall.  "Take a right at the end and there you are.  Who're you looking for?"

"Pete Ross."

"He's not down there, dude.  I just came from there -- ran out of clothes -- I saw him racing out of here a while ago.  Don't know if he's back yet or not."

Lex studied the other guy and realized that his horrid clothing combination could only be the result of no laundry.  No one would voluntarily pair camouflage with stripes.  No one.

"Thanks for the information," Lex said as he turned back toward Pete's door.  He tapped gently on the door and then knocked a bit louder when he realized that no one in a dorm situation would hear the more polite knock.

"Yeah, yeah." Lex heard coming from the other side of the door.  "Keep your shirt on."

When the door opened, Pete stared at Lex. "You?  I thought we were agreed.  No more Pete in the middle."

"We are agreed, Mr. Ross.  I was told that Clark is here."

"Been and gone, man."

"Damn," Lex grumbled. "Do you know where he is now?"

Pete studied the other man. "Are you planning to yell at him more?"

"I hadn't planned on it," Lex replied.

"I can tell you where he isn't, but I don't know where he is."

"Then where isn't he?"

"He isn't in Metropolis."

Lex nodded quickly and then stopped. "I'm sorry.  What?"

"He said he couldn't stay here right now and so he left town."

"Damn it.  Where did he go?"

"I don't know, Lex.  You're his best friend.  Shouldn't you know where his bolt hole is?"  Pete was seriously tired of this whole thing and just wanted to get both men out of his face and have them deal with their own problems.

Are you sure he left?

No, I'm not sure, Pete said, exasperated. I don't know anything except that he's not here.  He opened the door to his room wider, so Lex could peer in.  See - no Clark.  Now, if you don't mind, I have studying to do.

Lex gaped at the door that had closed in his face.  He spent a couple of minutes trying to decide how well Pete really knew Clark.  He took a peek at his watch and decided that no matter how much Clark wanted to be away from Lex, there was no way, simply no way, he would go without eating first.

***

Lex stood at the door of the cafeteria staring at the woman speaking to him as if she were speaking a foreign language.

Excuse me?

You need to pay here if you don't have a pass.

I'm simply looking for someone.  I won't be a moment, Lex replied, confident that his explanation would be sufficient.

Doesn't matter, the cafeteria worker insisted. If you want in, you've gotta pay.

Lex rolled his eyes at the woman and pulled out his wallet.  Fine.  How much?

That'll be ten dollars.

Are you kidding? Lex stared at her as she nodded and tapped the register none too gently with her fingers.  Ten dollars to eat *here*?

Would you make up your mind?  Are you paying or not? The woman glared at him and nodded behind him, indicating a growing line of increasingly restless students.

I can't enter the cafeteria without paying, correct? Lex asked.

That's correct.

Then I'm paying, Lex pulled a ten out of his wallet - grateful that he'd stocked it with smaller bills - and stalked into the cafeteria itself.  He found himself immediately herded toward the food by another zealous cafeteria worker.

Line's this way, son, the older gentleman said.

I'm looking for someone, Lex replied.

New rules, son. Food first and then you can find a table.

Excuse me?

Now, son, you're looking a mite thin there, it wouldn't hurt you to eat up. The older man continued to guide Lex toward the back of the food line.

I was told I couldn't enter the cafeteria without paying.

And that's true, but you can't enter the seating area without your food, son.  It's a new rule.

I am not your son, Lex turned a frosty gaze on the older man.

Be that as it may, rules are rules.  Go through the line, get your food and then you may proceed into the dining room.

Fine, Lex growled as he took his place in the line.  What he went through for Clark.

He stared, aghast, at the food options in front of him.  Yellow, rubbery things purporting to be eggs were on the tray in front of him.  They were being kept warm by a warming light and looked, frankly, worse than anything Lex had ever seen.

He decided to pass on those and see what else he could find.  As he continued down the line he saw a stack of pancakes that appeared to be glued together, wilted French toast, and bagels that were harder than rocks.  He peered around suspiciously and realized that there was simply no fruit to be had.

You gotta get here early to get fruit, man, the guy behind him in line said.  This here's the dregs.  They've even run out of biscuits and gravy.  Your best bet now is the cold cereal.

I'll take that under advisement, Lex replied staring over at the large bins of cereal with scoops shoved unceremoniously in them.  He studied the offerings and selected what he fervently hoped was raisin bran.  Otherwise, he didn't want to know.

Admittedly, he wasn't, necessarily, planning to eat the breakfast, but if it was the only way to get Clark to sit and talk with him, then eat it he would.

He selected a carton of milk and proceeded through to the dining room.  He'd been confident when he entered the cafeteria that he could find Clark easily.  However, now that he was confronted with the throng in the dining room, he wasn't as sure that he could.

Just as he was about to dump the tray and leave he heard a voice calling his name.  He looked around the cafeteria uncertainly, not wanting to believe that he'd been recognized, but when he thought about it, really thought about it, he realized there were several things wrong with this.

First, he was still in his suit from work.  Second, he'd been served breakfast after 6 PM and he didn't even balk at it.  Third, he was eating raisin bran for dinner.  So, it wasn't entirely outside the realm of possibility that he'd been identified by someone who was now persistently calling his name.

He turned again and spotted the bright, blonde head of Chloe Sullivan weaving through the crowd toward him.

What are you doing here, Lex? Chloe demanded when she was close enough to be heard clearly.

Looking for Clark.

Come sit with me.  We can wait for him together. Chloe eyed Lex's tray for a moment and then plucked it out of his hands leading him toward a table near the back of the cafeteria.  He noticed that many of the other plates around him were covered in substances that looked more like traditional dinner foods which simply left him more disturbed by the whole cafeteria experience than he had been before.

Chloe plunked Lex's tray down, none too gently, across from her own place.  Lex noticed that she was eating a hamburger with French fries and some sort of pasta salad.  Where did you get that? He asked accusingly.

You went through the wrong line, Lex, Chloe said, blithely as she settled back into her seat and took a bite from her burger.

I did?

Yeah, everyone knows not to eat the breakfast stuff after noon.  That cereal is probably stale, but there are always some folks who will eat it because, well, they're weird.  Chloe dipped a fry into ketchup and munched before continuing. Not that I think you're weird, Lex.  I just don't think you knew.  And Herbie, I swear he gets a bonus if he coerces the newbies into eating the leftover breakfast stuff for dinner.

Perhaps. Lex again eyed the bowl of food in front of him and then pushed it away.  He wasn't hungry anyway. Are you expecting Clark?

We usually have dinner together, so yeah, I am. Chloe felt the tiniest twinge of conscience for lying to Lex, but she really wanted to find out why Clark had left town so suddenly, and she figured her only means of finding out was sitting in front of her.  So did you two have plans tonight or what?

No, no plans.  Just a small misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up.

You and Clark had a misunderstanding?  About what? Chloe tried to keep her curiosity in check, but she was very interested in finding out what Lex and Clark could possibly have argued about.

Have you seen Clark today? Lex asked, grimly.  I had a bit of a problem with his appearance.

No, I haven't, Chloe frowned.  Why would you argue about how he looks?

Lex realized, at that moment, that Chloe did not realize that Clark had lost his hair. He quickly shifted into Clark protection mode. "You know how defensive he gets about his flannel.  I was trying to convince him that he really needs to dress a bit nicer for the reunion episode and his feelings got hurt."

"I see," Chloe said.  "That's not what Clark said."

Lex goggled at the woman across the table at him wondering when he'd a) lost control of his reactions and b) what Clark had said.  He forced himself to remain silent and hope that Chloe would spill the beans without him having to say anymore.

Chloe watched as shock was quickly replaced by a mask of cool indifference.  She was disappointed; she'd hoped to surprise Lex into saying something interesting or informative. She glanced at her watch and said, "Wow, Clark is really late tonight.  I wonder where he is."

Lex studied the woman in front of him and decided that she honestly didn't know that Clark had left Metropolis and that Clark's appearance in this cafeteria was far less certain than Chloe had previously indicated.

"I'm only certain that he's not here," Lex replied with a calm that was more forced than it appeared.  "Thank you for your company, Ms. Sullivan.  I believe it is time for me to continue my search."

"Oh, please wait, Lex.  I know he'll be here soon." Chloe clutched at his sleeve to try to keep Lex with her for a few minutes longer.  She was sure she could get more information if she got him to wait longer.

"I'm sorry.  I've tarried here long enough." Lex picked up his tray and strode purposefully from the cafeteria after depositing his tray in the specified location.

***

Lex screeched out of the parking area, taking the corner on two wheels.  He allowed himself a grin as the Ferrari settled itself easily out of the curve and started to eat up the ground between Lex and his objective.  He didn't allow himself to consider other possibilities.  If Clark wasn't in Metropolis, he'd gone to Smallville.  The alternatives simply weren't worth thinking about.

Lex did turn his considerable brain power to Chloes odd behavior, however.  He had to wonder what the woman was thinking. Both delaying him and attempting to interrogate him were things he would have thought that only enemies would attempt.

He did not want to classify Chloe as an enemy, but he could not understand what purpose her tactics had served.  Unless, of course, she was lacking in information and had hoped that Lex would provide her the details she needed to put the puzzle that was Clark together.

He did not want to be the person to help her put Clark together when he could not put the puzzle together himself.  While he didn't pretend to understand why Clark would continue to lie about some of the things that Lex suspected, he was willing to admit that Clark had as much right to lie as Lex did.

At least to himself, Lex would admit that he lied to Clark.  Not to the degree that he felt Clark was lying, of course, but he certainly wasn't entirely truthful.  For example, he was certain that Clark was unaware that Lex was plotting a coup from within LuthorCorp.  He had been steadily working to bring down his father, under his father's own nose, for the last several years.  A few more months and Lex would accomplish his goal.  He was sure that Clark would be pleased with the eventual outcome, but he wasn't as sure that Clark would approve of some of the methods he was employing to achieve it.

In fact, he probably should check in with his assistant to let him know about the sudden excursion to Smallville.  He snapped open his phone and pressed the speed dial number that would connect him with Maxwell.

Lex Luthor's office, Maxwell speaking.

Maxwell, this is Lex.

Yes, Mr. Luthor.

First, it's after seven, why are you still in the office? Lex hadn't always been concerned with his employees work habits, but Clark had made him aware that Maxwell had a tendency to work excessively long hours if Lex didn't mention it to him.

I'm awaiting a final delivery from the courier, sir.  I should be leaving momentarily.  What can I do for you?

I'm heading for Smallville.  I should be back in a day or so, but I there are some things I need to check up on there.

Should I have the helicopter drop me off at the castle, sir?

No, these are personal matters, Maxwell.  However, I doubt I will be in the office tomorrow.  If something comes up that needs my immediate attention, I will have my cell phone, but I do not wish to be disturbed for anything less than urgent.

And where does your father fall in that paradigm, sir?

Less than urgent, Lex said with an evil smirk.

Certainly, sir.  I will take care of that, and will keep you informed of any urgent issues that crop up. Maxwell rang off and stared balefully at the man glaring at him from across the desk.

Well, what did my son say? Lionel demanded of the harried assistant.

He said that urgent matters drew him from Metropolis and that he will return soon.  Maxwell continued his staring match with the elder Luthor as he attempted to find a tactful way to say that Lex wasn't planning to speak with Lionel in the near future. He said he would be in touch with you soon, but he wishes to maintain his concentration while driving.  I'm sure you understand.

Much to Maxwell's shock, Lionel nodded thoughtfully and turned to leave the office. I'll expect to hear from him before the evening is out.

I'll be sure he gets the message, sir. Maxwell only started breathing again when Lionel entered the elevator and the doors closed behind him.  He dreaded the almost daily confrontations with the elder Luthor, but he considered them the unpleasant part of an otherwise pleasant job.  He quickly packed up his bag for the evening and departed the office before any other Luthor-related disaster could befall him.

***

As Lex reached the edges of Smallville, he started trying to think like Clark.  Where would Clark go if he were seeking comfort and support?  The barn loft seemed the obvious choice, but Lex realized he might not go there because Lex, himself, was the cause of Clark's pain.  As he'd gotten older, Clark had come to realize that he couldn't let on to his parents when he and Lex had any kind of argument because it would automatically damage any credibility that Lex had managed to gain with them.

So the barn and the farmhouse were probably out.  Lex considered the castle next.  There were plenty of places there for someone who felt betrayed to both work out their anger and hide from the people who were tormenting them.  Lex should know, as he'd used the castle for that very purpose many times in his life.

But the castle, even with its merits, just didn't seem like a place Clark would go when the person who had betrayed him was Lex.  Many other times, the castle, and Lex, had served as the place where Clark would go when he was afraid, scared, or even just lonely.  Lex just couldn't see him going there this time.

Clarks closest friends were all in Metropolis.  So, checking in with Pete and Chloe would be useless.  Clark wouldn't go to their parents, he'd have no reason and to do that would simply spark his own parents' interest because Gabe or the Rosses would simply call the Kents if Clark appeared on either of their doorsteps.

As Lex was beginning to feel hopeless, he realized he'd left one person out of the equation:  Lana.  Unlike the other Smallville High graduates circa 2005, Lana hadn't felt a pressing need to get out of Smallville.  No one had really been surprised when she chose to attend the local community college and continue to run the Talon.  She had simply allowed herself to become too enmeshed in the small town's past to easily extricate herself - even for a higher purpose like college.  She had seemed content to allow the others to leave her behind, and, in fact, had expressed not a single ounce of regret in the year and change that had passed since the others had headed to their colleges of choice.

Of course Clark would go to Lana.  Even if he'd finally and forever given up on the two of them having a relationship like he'd dreamed of, Clark still counted Lana as one of his closest friends.  With that in mind, Lex headed to the old Potter place, now known as the Lang place.  Lana had purchased her aunt's old house with the money that she'd made from the Talon in the previous year, so she now had a home and a place of her own again.

As Lex pulled into the drive, he was disappointed to see that not only was Lana's vehicle not present, but neither was any vehicle that he could reasonably attribute to Clark.  It simply hadn't occurred to him to ask Pete or Chloe if Clark had borrowed a car, and he was certain, mostly, that he would have noticed if one of his own were missing.  Though, he would admit, under duress, that Clark could have taken a car from the separate garage that Lex kept for the vehicles he wasn't currently driving and Lex wouldn't know about until he went to swap cars at the end of the month.  Rough to be a billionaire! Lex thought with a grin.

Lex peeled out of the driveway at Lana's house and headed for the only other place that Lana might be at this time in the evening.  It was later than Lex had thought, but the Talon would still be open, so he drove quickly to the coffeehouse to see if he could get a bead on Clark's location.

When he whipped into a space in front of the building, he banged his hand against his steering wheel in frustration.  No sign of Lana's latest SUV and no apparent signs of life in the Talon either. The lights were off - except in the bakery case - and the doors appeared to be locked.

Lucky I have a key, Lex thought as he sauntered up to the door.  He peered into the establishment without opening the door, quickly ascertaining that no one was in the office either.  He paused as he looked at the sign on the door Closed on Friday evenings!

When the fuck did that happen? Lex muttered as he strode back to his car.  Granted, Thursday nights weren't exactly a money-maker, but as a partner in the business, Lana should have run that decision by him before closing the coffeehouse early on any evening.  Although, it certainly appeared that it wasn't simply an early closing, but rather that the shop hadn't been open since sometime in the early afternoon.

Wonderful.  Now I have to wonder if I'm getting screwed by the pink princess.  That's just what I need, Lex muttered as he started driving again.  He cranked up the CD player and hoped that the throbbing beat would overtake his throbbing headache.  He could feel it building right behind his eyes and he knew, just knew, that he was going to suffer a long and miserable night if he couldn't find Clark and fix the problem between them.

Not for the first time since he'd left Metropolis, Lex could feel the self-loathing start to overtake him.  He had reacted to Clark as if Clark were the enemy.  He'd sworn to himself that he'd never do that that he'd never put Clark on the outside.  Yet, the first time - in a long time - that their friendship was tested in any way and Lex immediately assumed the worst of the person in whom he'd placed his trust.

Why did he always do this?  Why couldn't he break free of his training and actually be the friend that Clark wanted and deserved?  Lex was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn't realize how fast he was going, nor did he realize that he was starting to meander off the road.

Lex concentrated on the reasons behind his reaction to Clark - this time.  Why would he react so strongly?  It wasn't as if Clark were the only person in his life he could trust.  Lex considered that statement for a moment and realized the depth of his self-deception.  Clark was the only person he trusted.  He didn't care what other people thought; he only cared what Clark thought.  He tested his daily actions against the Clark litmus - will this upset him or endanger our friendship?  If the answer to either was yes, Lex simply didn't follow that particular course of action.

When had anyone ever been given that amount of sway over him?  Who else had ever had that kind of control?  His father wanted it, but couldn't achieve it because Lex neither trusted nor loved him.

Holy shit!

Lex tried desperately to correct the course of the Ferrari.  The sickening crunch of metal was the last thing he heard as the airbag deployed and knocked him unconscious - again.

***

This time, there was no hesitation in Clark's step as he entered the cave.  He'd had most of the day to think about how he was going to approach the wall this time, and he hoped he'd found a method that would get him some actual answers.  He put the disc into the wall and waited as the lights began to flash and the colors began to shift in cycle.

"You have returned, Kal-El."

"Yeah, I have," Clark said.  "I need answers, and you are the only one I can get them from."  He took a deep breath and asked his first question.  "Was my hair falling out a random occurrence?"

"No, Kal-El.  It is part of your destiny."

"Destiny?  My being bald is part of my destiny?  What sort of ridiculous answer is that?"

"You have chosen a path, and now you must follow it."

"Is this the choice you mentioned before?  The choice you said I had made?"  That statement from the wall was the one that had bothered Clark the most.

"Yes."

"Did my choice, whatever it was, cause me to go bald?"

"As your hair has fallen, so must your preconceptions."

"Preconceptions?" Clark asked.  "What preconceptions?"

"There is one that you have not completely discovered."

Clark was formulating his next question when he heard a noise from outside the cave.  It wasn't directly outside the cave, though Clark could tell it was nearby.  And the noise was familiar...too familiar.  It was the sound of a fast-moving car colliding with...something.

Clark tuned his hearing to the scene of the accident.  There was a creak of metal on metal and then a moan.

He knew that moan.  It was one he'd heard too many times for his peace of mind.  Lex had, Clark realized, crashed another of his cars.  But...why would Lex be crashing his car in Smallville?  There was no reason for him to be here at all.

"He is here," said the wall.

"Yeah," Clark said.  "But why?"

"Only you can find the answer."

"Oh, the hell with this."  Clark didn't honestly care why Lex was here.  If he was in trouble, if he was hurt, Clark had to get to him.  But much as he was worried about Lex's wellbeing, Clark took care to walk from the cave to the location of the crash at a normal pace.  With his luck, Lex would see him speeding to the rescue, and that would just make the whole situation between them even worse.

***

Lex was only unconscious for a few moments, if his watch was anything to judge by.  He peered at his once beautiful Ferrari in the moonlight and considered just how much his insurance would increase this time.

Fuck! Lex kicked a tire and started hopping around on one foot.  Note to self, he thought, no kicking tires in dress shoes.  It hurts like hell.

He looked around to get an idea of where he was and realized that he was, more or less, already on Luthor property and if he took the back way, he would be at the castle in less than half an hour.

He glanced back mournfully at the Ferrari.  It was clearly not going anywhere without benefit of a tow truck.  And wouldn't that be a joy -- the only towing company in Smallville had almost gone out of business when Lex moved back to Metropolis, but here he was subsidizing them once again.

As he walked through the gaping hole he'd left in the fence, Lex chuckled.  At least he didn't have to climb the damned fence on top of everything else.  He tried not to worry about the pounding in his head.  He knew, from experience, that it would lessen quickly and that he would feel like his old self - more or less - within a day or so.

Once he felt reasonably certain that he was going in the proper direction, he allowed his thoughts to ramble back to where they'd been before he had the unfortunate run-in with the fence.

Could he be in love with Clark?  Could it really be that simple?  Not that being in love with Clark would be simple.  It would be so far from simple that it actually would make sense that Lex would have those feelings.  Lex had never done anything the easy way before. Why would love be any different?

Of course, even if he were to be in love with Clark, it wouldn't actually change anything.  He would still marry, he supposed.  It wasn't as if Clark would ever return those feelings, and he didn't want to face the daily reminder that he couldn't have Clark and not have anyone to comfort him when Clark went home with someone else.  Which he inevitably would because it wouldn't make sense for Clark to remain single for the rest of his life.  Even if the women of Smallville had always been singularly stupid, it didn't mean that the women of Metropolis would remain so.

In fact, there were several women from Single Millionaire who were ready, willing, and able to romance Clark if he were willing to have them.  So, no, there was no reason that Lex should change his current plans.

Marrying someone he didn't love wouldn't necessarily be a new experience, but it was one he'd hoped not to have to repeat.  However, if he was honest with himself, he would admit that Enrique was right.  He was following the path his father wanted him to follow.  Even after all this time, he still wanted the old bastard to love him and accept him.  A wife would be the one thing - the only thing - that Lionel would look at and believe that Lex hadn't screwed up his life irretrievably.

And, he could keep Clark's friendship.  If he married, no one would ever accuse him of harboring more than friendship feelings for the young man who had really become the center of his life.  As he reviewed the weeks of taping and the weekly viewing of those tapes in his mind, he started to see what Enrique saw.  Clark took care of him and, in his own way, loved him - the brotherly relationship he'd never had with Lucas.

This way, Lex would never have to feel like he was pining or putting his life on hold waiting for something that would never happen.  And he knew, intellectually, that a relationship with Clark would never happen.  Between the secrets that each man kept and the uneasy truce between Lex and Clark's parents, there was simply no way that anything would ever happen between them.

Lex brushed a hand across his scalp and was startled to feel wetness on his hand.  He peered carefully at it, but realized that he simply couldn't see whether it was blood or some other substance.  With his luck, it would be blood.  That would be a perfect capper to this day - a bleeding head wound.  All he really needed now was a meteor mutant attack and his day would be complete.

Just as he was becoming resigned to the fact that he'd, yet again, suffered a head injury at his own hands, Lex was startled by a sound from the distance.  He tried to see where it was coming from and managed to trip over something in his path.  He landed in a crumpled heap on the ground and could feel that something wasn't quite right with his leg.

God damn it! Lex shouted.  I've had enough!

Enough what? A voice from the darkness asked.

Whos there? Lex demanded, trying to see into the dark.

Lex, are you okay? Clark asked as he knelt down next to his friend.

Do I look okay, Clark?  Lex frowned.  Strike that - even you can't see me in the dark.

What are you doing out here?

Funny - I was going to ask you that. Lex started massaging his ankle, hoping that he wouldn't fall on his ass when he stood up. At least I'm not trespassing.

But . . . but, Clark stammered.  He thought they'd long since passed the point where Lex would consider it trespassing if Clark was on his property without his express permission.

Kidding, Clark.  Kidding, Lex said with a chuckle.

That wasn't funny, Clark said in a wounded tone.

Perhaps not for you, but I found it quite amusing, Lex muttered as he started to get up.  He sat back down quickly when he realized there was no way his ankle would support him.  Don't suppose you have a vehicle nearby, do you?

Why would I - Clark stopped to consider why Lex would be asking.  He frowned again and clicked on his x-ray vision to check Lex out from head to foot.  Ah, the foot.  Where's your car, Lex?

Impaled on a fence.  I think it may well be dead, Lex said mournfully.  He was going to miss the Ferrari.

You were the squealing brakes I heard?  Lex, are you okay? Clark was suddenly more frantic.  He started patting Lex down looking for injured parts that weren't broken.

Lex batted Clark's hands away.  Stop that, Clark.

But you could be hurt.

I am hurt, Clark.  I think I twisted my ankle when I fell over whatever the hell it was I fell over.

We've got to get you out of here, Clark said.  He started to consider possibilities quickly.  He couldn't carry Lex as that would raise too many questions.  He couldn't take Lex back to the farm - his parents were not too pleased with the young Luthor at the moment.  The castle was still pretty far away.

If I promise to forget everything, will you just get me out of here in the most expeditious way possible? Lex asked as he tried to ignore the throbbing in his head. I'll probably forget anyway, I think I have a concussion.

You can't keep banging your head, Lex.

Thank you for the insight, Clark.  I hadn't considered that for myself. Lex rolled his eyes at the notion but realized that Clark had lifted him up from the ground as if he weighed nothing.  Where are we headed?

Where were you going before the Ferrari impaling?

I was trying to find you.

I wasn't in the fence, Lex.

Now you tell me, Lex moaned as the throbbing in his head became more insistent.  The castle - let's just go to the castle.

Fine.  Close your eyes. Clark waited until Lex's eyes were closed and then ran to the castle.  He leapt the fence and was at the back entrance before Lex even realized they were moving.  We're here.  Do you have a key or something?

Lex popped his head up from Clark's shoulder and stared at the castle.  He kept chanting in his head - I know nothing; I saw nothing; I felt nothing.  If he kept that up long enough, he knew he'd forget that he now had new questions for Clark.

He noticed Clark staring at him and asked, What?

How do we get in?

Oh, keypad.  Let me enter the code and the door should open automatically. Lex leaned against Clark as he punched in the code.  True to his prediction, the door opened and Clark helped Lex inside.

Do you still keep a full complement of medical supplies here? Clark asked as he led Lex to the study.

This is Smallville - what do you think?

Right. Clark let loose with one of his world brightening grins. You sit here and I'll go find supplies.  Is there anything else hurt aside from your foot and your head?

My pride.

Yeah, we don't have a big enough supply of bandages for that, Clark shot back as he headed off to find supplies to repair the most recent damage Lex had done to himself.

And here I thought I was better for having known you, Clark, Lex called after his friend.  He started to bend over to take off his shoe but thought better of it when the room started to go black.

What the hell are you doing? Clark practically ran back into the room.

I was taking off my shoe.  It's a task I've completed quite a few times without supervision, Lex said with a sigh.

I'm certain that you have, Lex, but you probably didn't have a concussion at the time.

True, Lex admitted.  He sat back and allowed Clark to slide the shoe from his foot.  He winced in pain but tried to mask it so Clark wouldn't notice.

I'm sorry, Lex.  I know it hurts, but I have to get your shoe off so we can see the damage better.

I know it's not broken.

So do - Clark stopped as he realized what he was about to reveal.  He could easily see that Lex's ankle wasn't broken, but he certainly couldn't admit that to him.  Not after running him to the castle as he had earlier; it would simply raise more questions he didn't want to answer. I think we'd know if it's broken, Lex.  You wouldn't have handled the shoe removal with just a wince if it was broken.

Luthors have an unusually high level of pain tolerance, Lex replied.

With your father, I'm sure you do, Clark said.  Be that as it may, if you broke your ankle, we'd both know it.  As it is, I'd say it's sprained.

It's already starting to feel better, Lex admitted.  I heal quickly.

I've noticed. Clark concentrated on wrapping a cold pack around Lex's ankle, holding it steady while Lex tried to flinch away.

Damn.  That's cold.

Well, that's kind of the idea, Lex.  Cold makes swollen things unswell, you know?

I'm aware of the effects of cold, Clark.  That doesn't mean that I'm going to be thrilled to have something cold bound to a sensitive part of my body.

Your ankle is sensitive?

Aren't yours? Lex asked with a raised brow.

Not especially, Clark frowned in concentration as he not so subtly checked out Lex's head. You don't need stitches, but it's not going to feel good when I clean this up.

Yes, well, I'll live. Proceed, Clark. Lex waved his hand at Clark and then squeezed his eyes shut so he wouldn't have to watch the approach of the cloth soaked in god only knew what.  FUCK!  That hurts, Clark.

I told you it wasn't going to feel good.

Yes, but I didn't know that torture was part of your repertoire these days. Lex bit his lip against the stinging at the back of his head.  Just as he was beginning to get used to the stinging, it stopped.  Lex felt something soft pressed against his skull.  Now that doesn't feel so bad.

It shouldn't.  It's a piece of gauze.  Nothing painful there at all. Clark watched Lex's face and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the other man begin to relax. He moved behind the other man before he could open his eyes, and asked a question sure to distract Lex from Clark's denuded scalp. Now, what were you doing driving like a bat out of hell?

I wasn't driving that fast, Clark.

I heard the brakes squealing, Lex.  You were driving too fast again.

I wasn't driving too fast.  I just lost track of where I was and hit a fence.

So what were you doing that distracted you? Clark figured that if he kept focused on Lex's driving, Lex might not remember that he was angry at Clark.

Trying to figure out where you were.  I should have just run into something earlier.  I'd have found you a lot quicker. Lex tried to turn to get a look at Clark but found himself repositioned so he couldn't see Clark at all. I would like to turn around, Clark.

Yes, well, we'd all like a lot of things and right now, I need to keep pressure on your head.  Clark figured as long as Lex couldn't see him, Lex wouldn't remember about the bald thing.  As long as Lex didn't remember, the happier Clark was.

I'm fine, Clark, Lex said, impatiently.  He put a hand over Clark's and tried to remove the large hand from his head.  I can hold the bandage in place, Clark.  We need to talk.

I don't want to talk.

That much was obvious, Clark.  Lex squirmed again and managed to get loose of Clark's hold.  He wasn't quite sure how he'd done it, but he was going to put his mind to figuring it out later.  Whatever he did could come in handy again in the future.

He turned to face Clark and looked at him solemnly.  He allowed his eyes to rove over Clark's bald head.  He couldn't help but mourn the loss of Clark's hair, but he could also tell that this wasn't done to embarrass him or to insult him.

We need to talk about this, Clark, Lex said, waving a hand toward Clark's head.

Do we have to? Clark was willing to beg if Lex would just let this go.  I swear I didn't mean for it to happen and I wouldn't do it to hurt you.  I'm just so sorry.

I overreacted and I'm sorry. Lex was stunned when the words escaped his mouth.  Luthors weren't supposed to apologize, after all.

Clark stared at Lex.  He didn't think he'd ever heard his friend apologize before, and he was simply stunned to hear it this time.  Um, okay.

I'm serious, Clark.  I should have known that you would never do something like this simply to embarrass me or hurt me.  Not you.

I wouldn't Lex. I swear it, Clark replied fervently.  He tried to put out of his mind the fact that he knew this was directly his fault.  He'd developed feelings for Lex and this was how his freaky, alien body expressed itself.  It wasn't his fault and he was sure it would go away soon.  It just had to.

Do you know how it happened? Lex wanted to see if Enrique's theory of a college prank was accurate.  There were numerous ways he could make a prankster pay; he would just have to wait for Clark to be away.  He was a patient man - okay, he really wasn't, but for this, he could be patient.

I, uh, well - Clark stuttered.  He couldn't tell Lex the truth.  The whole alien love thing was a bit much to lay on his recently engaged friend.  Well, he thought Lex was engaged anyway.  Since Clark hadn't been present for the taping of the final episode, he really didn't know what had happened.  He'd assumed, though, that Lex had proposed to one of the two women who'd remained.

Lex's eyes narrowed at the stuttering.  Clark only stuttered when he was trying to come up with a suitable lie.  He could feel the anger begin to pulse through his veins again, but then stopped and reminded himself that Clark knew him as well as anyone.  Even Clark would realize that if someone had done this to him, Lex would seek revenge.  Let me rephrase the question, Clark.  I don't need to know how it happened.  Do you know how it happened?

Yes, Clark said, promptly.

Is there a reason why you won't tell me what happened?

Yes.

Okay, are you afraid I'm going to hurt someone as a result of finding out how it happened?

Not exactly.

Lex blinked at that one.  He thought he had figured out the cause, but now he was wondering if he was off base.  Do I need to know how it happened?

Clark closed his eyes and summoned all the deceptive ability he might have stored up. No, you don't need to know.

Okay.

Okay? Clark stared at Lex.  He could not believe the man was agreeing to not knowing.  He just couldn't believe it.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, Kent, Lex said forcefully.  I don't promise forever, but for now, I'll stop asking questions.

I can live with that. It was far more than Clark expected to get from Lex.

As it happens, so can I.  For now, Lex ended in a cautionary note.  He studied Clark's head carefully.  Having never seen it sans hair before, he had no idea of its actual shape.  He didn't think Clark looked quite as good as he did bald, but he didn't look bad.  So youre stuck with the look for awhile?

Yeah, Clark admitted. It's not going away.  But, Lex, I can't go around looking like this.  Everyone's going to think I did it to look like you or to make fun of you and I don't want that.

Yes, I can see where looking like me would be . . . unfortunate. Lex ran a self-conscious hand over his scalp.

I'm not saying that you don't look good, Lex.

So you're saying I look good, Lex couldn't help pouncing on the statement.

Leeeex.  Stop teasing me.

I can't help it, Clark.  Only you would end up sporting the Kojak look and not be able to explain it and be stuck with it for the duration.

Not the duration, just for a . . . while, Clark corrected.  He found himself reaching up to run his hands through his hair only to make contact with his bare scalp and turn beat red from embarrassment.

So, how do you want to handle it?

I don't know.  I've never . . . Clark trailed off as he realized that he was going to say something worse than he'd already said.

I know; you've never been bald before.  It's okay, Clark.  You didn't mean for this to happen; it was an accident - of sorts.  We'll get it put to rights.  Lex sighed as he considered possibilities himself.  The best option wasn't one that Clark could live with - however, with enough money, Lex could buy Clark some temporary peace.  And money was something that Lex had plenty of.

What do you have in mind, Lex?

It's not a perfect solution, but for the time being we could get you a wig.

A HAIR PIECE!!!!!! Clark shouted.

Calm down, Clark.  I can get you one that looks like your hair.  In fact, if you still have most of the hair you shed, we could weave that into the wig and most people would never know the difference.

I'm not wearing a hair piece, Lex.

Then you can go to class bald.

That's it - those are the only options you can come up with?

Short of applying Miracle-Gro to your head, yes, those are my immediate ideas.

Miracle-Gro?  We're organic farmers, Lex.  We don't keep that shit around here.

Never suggested you did, Clark, but I'm sure we could find some around Smallville somewhere, and maybe, just maybe, it would provide you with the hair that you currently don't have.

I don't think that's likely, Lex.

Ah, so the cause is organic then?

I guess you'd call it organic.  Clark wasn't sure where Lex was going with this, but he wasn't sure he liked it.

Well, what would you call it?  If you're recent hair loss can't be attributed to chemical causes and you didn't shave it -

I didn't shave it, Lex.  I swear I didn't.

I know, Clark.  My point is - if you know that chemicals didn't cause this to happen then the cause has to be organic.

Oh, yeah, yeah.  It's organic, then.

Leaves us many interesting possibilities.  If his head hadn't hurt quite so bad, Lex would have put some serious energy into trying to determine an organic cause for hair loss that would affect Clark - and only Clark.  However, his head was bothering him so he just leaned back onto the couch, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes.

Are you still hurting, Lex?

Lex frowned.  What do you think?

That's a yes.  Can I get you something else?

No, Clark.  I just want to rest for a bit, and then you can tell me why you ran from Metropolis.

I didn't run, Lex.  I took the bus, like anybody else. Clark was panicked.  Lex couldn't possible realize that Clark could run from Metropolis to Smallville - he just couldn't.

I didn't mean that literally, Clark.  I meant why did you run away?  Lex sometimes wondered how Clark had managed to keep his secret whatever it was -- for as long as he had.  He was far too literal sometimes and he often worried over the simplest turns of phrase.  If Lex weren't so determined to keep Clark happy at whatever costs, he could have figured this secret out ages ago.  Too many clues had been scattered over his path for him to remain ignorant through anything other than sheer force of will.

You weren't talking to me.  I didn't see a reason to stay.

I am sorry for that, Clark.  I reacted - badly.

You have to know I would never do anything that would hurt you.

Lex studied Clark.  He was going to have to ignore, to let go the times that Clark *had* failed him.  He was going to have to if they were going to get over the times that he'd failed Clark.  I do know that, Clark.  I just - I'm sensitive about this.  More than I thought, apparently, and I didn't deal well with being confronted by one of my lesser strengths.

Most people call those weaknesses, Lex.

Luthors don't have weaknesses, Clark.

Neither do Kents.

Well, now that we have that settled, you should go see your parents. Lex didn't really want Clark to leave, but he wasn't sure that he could offer good hospitality at this point and he really just wanted to sleep.

Already did that, Lex, Clark said with a grin. Besides, you have a concussion, again, and I can't leave you alone.  So, either I stay here with you, or you come back to the farm with me.  Which will it be?

I'll stay here, thank you, but I don't need looking after. I'm sure I'll be fine by morning, and your parents should get more than a brief visit.  They don't see you nearly enough anymore.

I'm sure my Mom would agree with your last point, Lex.  But you definitely need looking after, and I want to make sure you'll be fine in the morning.  Can't have you dying before the show is over, Clark said, chuckling as he nudged Lex in the shoulder.

Of course, I should have known.  If I die, you don't get to do the live show at the end.  Okay, Clark, for you last shot at fame I promise to live through this experience.

LEX!  Clark shouted, and then lowered his voice when he saw Lex wince in pain. That's not it.  If you've finally found someone to love and who loves you, I want you to actually experience it.  You can't die before that, Lex.  I won't let you.

I wouldn't, Lex muttered under his breath as he allowed himself to start drifting toward sleep.

Don't get too comfortable, Lex.  I'm going to be waking you up every two hours to make sure you're all right.

For god's sake, Kent, if I wanted hospital-style treatment, I would be in the hospital.  Let me sleep, Lex growled as Clark settled a blanket procured from god only knew where over him.

As Lex drifted off to sleep, he would have sworn that something brushed against his scalp, but he was so tired he didn't have the energy to investigate it.  Perhaps it would happen again when he was more alert and he could determine the source of the distraction.

***

As Clark sat watching Lex sleep, he realized that staying was not one of his better ideas.  His recent realization about his feelings for Lex made sitting this close to him more uncomfortable than he could have imagined.  It was one thing to be with him and a group of friends, but to see him in such an unguarded state was doing things to Clark that he didnt feel were good for his future relationship with Lex.

He kept finding himself fantasizing about how perfect things would be if he and Lex were only together.  He wouldnt have to sit in a chair and stare at Lex in his fantasies, Lex would be resting with his head in Clarks lap, where Clark could keep a close eye on him and also help him forget about the pain.  In fact, if they were together, they wouldnt have to be in the living room; they could spend this nervous night in Lexs bed waiting in comfort to see if the concussion was serious or not.  Clark started squirming in his seat as he thought of different ways that he and Lex could pass the time.  He looked up and realized that Lex was watching him carefully, as if expecting him to react badly again.

"I can't stay, Lex," Clark said.  "I . . . I came home this weekend to get some time to think."

"I understand, Clark," Lex said, though he wasn't happy about it.  He was beginning to realize just how much his anger had hurt Clark, and he wanted the chance to rectify the situation.  Not that he felt he owed Clark an apology, exactly, but he was sorry that Clark was hurt so deeply by his words.

"Don't worry, Lex.  I'll be back in the morning, after my chores.  When I'm home for the weekend, though, I feel an obligation to help my dad out."

"That's good of you, Clark," was all Lex said, but the relief he felt was immeasurable.  They were building something new here, something uncharted, and Lex did not want to waste any time in finding out what this new construct would become.

"I knew you'd understand, Lex."  Clark stood up and headed to the door.  He paused before leaving and turned back to Lex.  "You sure you'll be okay if I go?  You took a nasty hit to the head -- again."

"Yes, Clark.  I'm fine.  Go home and get some sleep."

"OK," Clark said.  "If you're sure."

Lex was heartened by Clark's reluctance to leave.  However, he knew better than to take advantage of it.  "I'm sure, Clark," he said.

"OK, Lex."  Clark took one quick x-ray look at Lex's head then said, "Try to get some sleep."

"You, too," Lex said.  "And give my regards to your parents."

"I will," Clark said.  He left the castle and headed back to the farm at a slightly-faster-than-normal pace.  He doubted anyone would spot him at this time of night -- after all, it was well after midnight and most of the denizens of Smallville were early-to-bed, early-to-rise types.  He opened the door as quietly as he could, trying not to wake his parents.

"Did you learn anything at the cave, Clark?"  Martha's voice came from the darkness.

"Aah!" Clark yelled, then stopped when he realized who was there and that if he were too loud he'd wake his father.  "Mom!  What are you still doing up?"

"Well, you left so long ago, when you didn't come back, I got concerned.  Now I know you're a college student now, and that there are probably a lot of nights that you're out even later than this.  But when you're at school, I don't know that you're out late, and I can pretend that you're home early, studying alone in your room.  Tonight, though, I knew you were out late."

"I understand, Mom.  But I'm fine.  I was at the cave, and I was just beginning to get somewhere, getting answers, when I heard a car crash."

"Is Lex all right?" Martha asked.

"How did you know it was Lex?"

"It was a car crash, and then you were gone for a long time.  So I figured he'd hit his head again and you'd stayed to make sure he was going to be OK."

Clark smiled.  "Are things that predictable?"

"For now," Martha said under her breath.  Aloud, though, she said, "What brought Lex to Smallville this weekend?"

"I . . . I don't know."  Clark hated lying to his mother, but he didn't want to get into the whole issue of the fight he'd had with Lex about the baldness and Lex's now seeming acceptance of the whole situation.

"In that whole time, you didn't ask him why he'd come to town this weekend?"

"It didn't come up.  I was more concerned about whether Lex had any sort of mental problems from his newest head injury."  He tried not to raise his voice, but there was something about this line of questioning that was bothering him.

"It's OK, Clark," Martha said.  "I understand."

"Love you, Mom," Clark said, coming over to where Martha was sitting at the table.  "I know you're just concerned for me."

"I am, Clark.  There's just so much happening right now for you.  I just don't want any of it interfering with your studies."

"It won't, Mom," Clark said.  "Now, I should get to bed, and so should you.  Dad won't be happy to find you still down here when he gets up in four hours."

"Your father would know that it was important."  Martha stood up and embraced Clark.  "But you're right -- we both should get some sleep."

"I'm going back out to the caves tomorrow after I'm done with the chores, to see if I can get the complete answers I'm looking for."

Martha turned off the single light above the sink and walked to the hallway with the ease of many years in the same home.  Clark followed right behind her, trailing her up the stairs and down the hallway until he reached his bedroom.

"Good night, Mom.  And thank you."

"Oh, you're welcome, dear."  She wasn't completely sure what she was being thanked for, but she had learned over the years to accept the gratitude without question.  "Sleep well."  Martha leaned in, lifted the baseball cap off Clark's head, and kissed his bald pate.

"You, too."  Clark walked into his room but didn't turn on the light.

Clarks enhanced vision was sufficient for him to be able to get around his room in the dark, and if he were truthful with himself, he really didn't want to see his bald head in the mirror again until morning.

And even then he really didn't want to look at it.

Clark stripped quickly and climbed into bed, exhausted both physically and emotionally from the events of the day.  His friendship with Lex had survived, though it still stood on shaky ground.  And if he learned from the cave in the morning that his baldness would be permanent, he'd start to figure out how to deal with it.  Maybe, he thought, he could get some advice from Lex.

Clark slept fitfully despite his exhaustion and awoke less than completely refreshed.  After showering and dressing, he super-sped through his regular chores and then returned to the house in time for breakfast.

"Good morning, Clark," Jonathan said as Clark came through the kitchen door.  "You're up early."

"I want to go back to the caves before I go and check in on Lex."

"Check on Lex?" Jonathan asked.

"He was in a car accident last night and bumped his head.  I waited with him for a couple of hours last night, but I want to see how he's doing this morning."

"That's good of you, son."  Jonathan was still wary of this new relationship that Clark was hoping to build with Lex, but he didn't think there would be any value in protesting.  "Did you learn anything yesterday at the caves?"

"Not really.  Jor-El talks in nothing but riddles.  But I'm going to try one more time to get some real answers."

"Good luck," Jonathan said.  "But don't get your hopes up too high; Jor-El can be very hard to deal with."

"I know, Dad.  But thanks."

"When do you think you'll be back?" Martha asked as she brought breakfast to the table.

"I don't know, Mom.  Don't wait for me for lunch, but I'll call you if I'm gonna miss dinner."

"If Lex is free, why don't you bring him with you for dinner?  It'll be good to see him again . . . it's been a while."  Martha's expression was guarded, moreso than Clark was used to.

"It has been, hasn't it?" Jonathan said.  "Please ask him to come."

"I will.  Don't worry."  Lex hadn't been to dinner at the farm since the summer, and Clark looked forward to extending the invitation.  Things were looking up -- yesterday, Clark never would've assumed that Lex would ever set foot in the Kent farmhouse again.

Over breakfast, conversation revolved mostly around the upcoming fall harvest, with the regular question of how often Clark would be able to help out given his school obligations.  No agreement was reached, with Clark promising to check his schedule as soon as he got back to the dorms.

When they were finished, Clark helped his parents clear the table and wash the dishes, but then he immediately gathered up his backpack.  "OK," he said.  "I'll be back tonight."

"Be safe, son," Jonathan said.  Past experience told him that interactions with Jor-El were always hazardous, and he wasn't one to trust anything to chance.

"I will be, Dad."  Clark checked his pocket for the metal octagon that activated the cave wall's interface then kissed his parents and left the house.

As he walked to the caves, Clark considered his approach with the cave wall.  Straightforward questions had not yielded straightforward answers.  But he doubted that indirect questions would fare any better.  Best, he decided, to ask one or two direct questions and see how the wall responded.

Clark entered the cave and placed the disc in the indentation in the wall.

"You have returned, Clark Kent," said the wall.

"Yes, I have."  Clark did a double-take.  "What did you call me?" he asked.

"You have proven your intent, Clark Kent.  You have shown your mettle.  Ask what you want, and I shall respond."

"Now this is more like it," Clark muttered.  "Why am I bald?"

"Your hair has been sacrificed for your love.  When your intended has made his decision, your hair will begin to grow again."

"Wait a minute," Clark said.  "I'm bald because I'm in love with Lex?"

"Yes."

"And my hair will grow back when he makes his decision?"

"Yes."

But Lex already has chosen!  The final episode has already been filmed!

There must be a second.

A second?  A second-place contestant?  Of course there will be.

There must be a second choosing.  He must embrace his final choice.

Clark sighed.  His only hope to become normal again lay in Lex's ability to choose between the two final "Single Millionaire" candidates and to stick with his decision.  Great.  Just great.

Clark considered the implications of this revelation from the cave.

If Lex chose to propose to one of the two finalists during the final episode, Clark would start regrowing his hair.  That, he figured, was a given.  But what if Lex chose a woman to date but didn't commit to her?  What if they dated for a while and then broke up?  Would that mean that Clark would remain bald until Lex proposed to her?  Or would his hair start to grow in and then, if Lex and the chosen woman broke up, would Clark's hair fall out again?

"So if Lex doesn't make a decision, will I be bald forever?"

"Yes."

That clinched it, Clark decided.  Regardless of how Clark felt about Lex, he had to encourage Lex to commit to one of the two women as his bride.  And all he could hope for was that the chosen woman would stay with Lex long enough for Clark to get his hair back.

But how would he convince Lex to make a definitive choice?  Lex was not easily swayed, even by Clark, and Clark's time would be limited.

He would have to come up with a strategy quickly.

Now that Clark had his answer, he removed the metal octagon from its crevice and stuck it in his pocket.  The wall's mechanism immediately powered down and disappeared.  As soon as Clark had removed all possible traces of his presence in the caves, he headed off toward the castle.  The sooner he started his campaign to get Lex to choose, the sooner Clark's life would return to normal.

When Clark got to the castle, it occurred to him that it was likely that Lex was the only one in residence.  Since Lex was spending the majority of his time in Metropolis these days, the castle was tended to by the most meager of skeleton crews, just sufficient to keep the grounds in meticulous order and the castle itself free of dust.  But unlike Lex's regular staff, none of these maintenance people actually lived on the grounds of the Luthor estate.  Clark wondered briefly if there was even any food in the kitchen and strengthened his resolve to convince Lex to join him and his parents for dinner at the Kent farm.

Even though he knew it was most likely futile, Clark waited at the front door momentarily for one of the house staff to greet him.  Too many times he'd entered the castle ahead of the staff, and that always perturbed them, especially the newer members.  But after a minute or so, Clark knew that no one would be coming to let him in, so he entered on his own and made his way to Lex's study.  Even though it was Saturday, Clark knew that it was most likely that Lex would be involved in some aspect of his business.

When he got to the study, he found Lex on the phone.  He didn't pay any attention to the conversation -- he'd found over the years that Lex's business conversations were among the dryest he'd ever eavesdropped on -- and instead wandered around the study taking in the changes that had happened since he'd last been there.  He noted a new statue of Alexander the Great -- Clark had lost count by now how many Lex had in his collection -- and a couple of books that looked new to Clark.  Other than that, however, the study seemed mostly unchanged since Lex had moved the majority of his operations to Metropolis.

"Good morning, Clark," Lex said, interrupting Clark's perusal of the study.  "I hope your parents weren't too angry at how late you came in last night."

"Mom waited up for me," Clark said with a sigh, "but when she heard you'd been in an accident, she didn't give me a hard time about it.  And this morning, both she and Dad suggested that you come for dinner tonight.  They both feel like it's been a long time since they'd had a chance to just sit and talk to you over dinner."

"I'd like that, Clark.  Thank you for the invitation."

"You're welcome.  You know you're always welcome at the farm, right?"

"Your parents have been more than kind to me on more occasions than I can remember. I appreciate their continued hospitality."

"Anyway, Lex," Clark said, having no good answer to Lex's statement, "how are you?  Have you had any headaches or dizziness or blurred vision or anything?"  Clark had learned to ask very specific, detailed questions when asking Lex about his health, especially following a head injury.  Otherwise, it was likely that Lex would just give a neutral report on how he was doing, regardless of his actual physical condition.

"I'm fine, Clark.  Not a thing bothers me this morning...healthwise, at least."  Lex gestured to the papers on his desk and the open laptop in front of me.  "Businesswise is another story.  But it's nothing you have to worry about."

"Lex, I know I don't know much about your business, but if you want to talk, I'm here to listen."  Not that Clark expected Lex to actually share any of the business goings-on that might be troubling him, but he wanted Lex to know that he was sympathetic.

"Well," Lex said, surprising both of them, "it does to some extent involve you.  You remember the whole situation with Veronica in the club and the tabloids."

"Of course," Clark said, shuddering.  There were still people periodically hanging clippings on his dorm-room door; apparently the issue was still in play among his dormmates.

"Well, now Veronica's father's company is trying to sue LuthorCorp for libel, saying that we 'besmirched Veronica's character' in the press."

"Veronica doesn't have character to be besmirched," Clark muttered under his breath.  Out loud, however, he said, "Will this hurt your company in the market?"

"I don't think so," Lex said, "but that's only because I just spent the past four hours on the phone with all of the various lawyers involved, rehashing the evidence that Veronica approached us first in the club, that I did not say anything libelous about her to the media, and that, in fact, I went out of my way to avoid saying more than was minimally necessary during the whole encounter."

"Will they need me to testify?" Clark asked.

"I don't think so.  This all should just be swept under the rug.  But what with the show airing in just a few days, I'm concerned that the media will try to rehash the whole sordid affair and that you, Chloe, and Pete might be hounded by the press for a couple of days."

"Oh, great," Clark said.  As if his schoolmates and his friends seeing him bald wasn't enough, now all of America would get the opportunity.

"Don't worry too much, Clark.  We'll find a way to keep them away from you.  You'll be staying with your parents for the weekend.  The only people who know that are Chloe and Pete, neither of whom would tell any reporters.  I'll have a security detail keep an eye on your parents' place, but I think you'll be left alone for the weekend.
Once you get back to Metropolis might be another issue, but we'll figure that out before we head back."  Lex had a couple of ideas how he could keep the media away from Clark, but at the moment their relationship was still a bit too tenuous to mention any of them explicitly.

"Thank you, Lex.  Though you know my Dad's gonna protest having the security guys around."

"Yes, I know.  But then he'll grudgingly thank me after they've left."

"You're right."  Clark smiled; it was good to be reminded that they'd been through difficult situations with the press before.  It gave him hope that they'd survive this one, too.

"Anyway," Lex said, "I know you didn't come by today to deal with business issues or lawyers, or anything like that.  I took the liberty of queueing a couple of DVDs for us to watch this afternoon, or if you wanted we could play some pool."

"The movies would be great," Clark said.  Most weekends that Clark didn't have to study were spent at the penthouse watching as many action movies as he and Lex could stand in one sitting.  While the castle didn't have nearly the array of audiovisual equipment that the penthouse had acquired, the facilities were much better than any local movie theater.  "Do you think there's popcorn in the kitchen?"

"I have no clue, Clark.  But you can go look, if you want."

Clark grinned and headed out toward the kitchen.  Using his x-ray vision, he quickly located a jar of popcorn in the pantry.  He grabbed a large bowl, poured some kernels in the bottom, and applied his heat vision.  It was risky to do this in Lex's house, but Clark figured it was highly unlikely that Lex would venture down into the kitchen.  In just a couple of minutes, Clark had a large bowl of freshly-popped, still warm popcorn.  He added some salt and brought the bowl up to the theater.

Five minutes later, Lex walked in.  "Sorry to make you wait, Clark," he said.  "I had one more vital call to make. But from here on out, I'm all yours."

Not for long, Clark thought.  Almost immediately, however, he pushed that thought out of his mind.  Now wasn't the time to think about the implications of Lex's choice . . . no matter how vital that choice being made had now become to Clark's future wellbeing.

"Great!  What's up first?"

"Your choice," Lex said.  "True Lies or Total Recall."

Clark settled himself in the center of one of the plush benches in the home theater.  "Let's go with True Lies first," Clark said.

The irony of the title did not elude him, but he chose not to comment.

"OK," Lex said, sitting next to Clark on the bench.  He pushed a couple of buttons on the remote control in front of him, and soon both men were caught up in the movie.  All thoughts of plans, choices, and baldness were forgotten as they enjoyed their movie marathon.

Several hours later, as the credits ran on Sudden Death, Lex stood up and stretched.  "That was good."

"What, the movie?  It had no plot!"

"No, Clark. You're absolutely right -- that movie was nothing but an excuse for Jean-Claude Van Damme to run around and blow things up.  I meant watching the movies in general.  We haven't done that in a very long time."

If Clark's memory served, the last time they'd done that sort of movie marathon was right before they'd left for the taping of "Single Millionaire."  Clark wondered if this would end up being the final time they did so.

But he put that out of his mind for the moment.  Right now, they had a dinner appointment to keep.  Clark stood up and looked at his watch.  "We should be getting to my parents'; they'll be ready for dinner by the time we get there."

"You're absolutely right, Clark," Lex said.  "It would be rude of us to keep your parents waiting."

Lex and Clark quickly put the theater back to rights, and after they'd returned the dishes from their snacks back to the kitchen, they headed out.  It was just like old times, and to Clark, it was the first thing that had felt right in days.

They arrived at the Kent farm just as Martha was taking the roasted chicken out of the oven.  "Hi, boys," she said as they entered. "You're right on time."

"Wonderful," Lex said, walking over to Martha and giving her a kiss on the cheek.  "It's good to see you again."

"I'm so glad you could join us tonight, Lex.  Clark wasn't sure you'd be able to get away."

"Martha, nothing has higher priority in my life than dinner with you and Jonathan.  Work can wait."  Lex joined Clark and the two of them set about putting out the silverware and plates.

Jonathan walked into the kitchen as the final dinner preparations were being done.  "Hey, Lex.  It's good to see you, son."

"Thank you, Jonathan," Lex said, walking over to Jonathan and shaking his hand.  "It's good to see you, too.  Thank you both for the invitation."

"It's our pleasure.  Look, give me two minutes to wash up, and then we can sit and eat, and you can tell us all about what you've been up to since we last saw you."  He walked off toward the bathroom as everyone else gathered around the table.

Dinner itself was extremely normal -- identical to the many dinners that Lex had attended over the years.  And it felt right.  Being here, surrounded by the family he'd adopted -- and who had adopted him right back.  It occurred to Lex that, depending on the choice he made during the final installment of "Single Millionaire," there might not be many more opportunities to have dinners like this.  But then he dismissed that idea -- no woman he'd be involved with would have the temerity to tell him that he could not have dinner with the Kents.  Lex did not allow people to get close to him easily, but prying him away from someone would be even harder.

After dinner, Lex joined Clark and his parents in the family room for coffee.  It was getting late by the time they finished dinner, but -- despite the busy day he knew he had ahead of him on Sunday -- Lex was loath to leave the comfort of the Kents' home.  And a cup of coffee might wake him up enough that he could get some work done before going to sleep.

"So," Jonathan said after they were all settled in their usual places -- Martha and Jonathan in their easy chairs, Clark and Lex on the sofa -- "how have things been, Lex?"

Lex glanced briefly at Clark, then said, "A little busier than usual since 'Single Millionaire' started to air."

"I can imagine," Martha said with a smile.

"And you're in Smallville this weekend anyway?" Jonathan asked.

"Dad!" Clark said, but Lex smiled and gestured for Clark to relax.

"I came because . . . well, Clark and I had a misunderstanding yesterday, and I didn't want it to continue any longer than it had to."

Clark and Lex exchanged a look, one that said "I'm sorry" and "thank you for forgiving me."  They were almost back to where they'd been before this horrible baldness incident began.

"That's good of you," Martha said.  "I know Clark was concerned."

"I was concerned, too," Lex admitted.  "I . . . I said some things to Clark that were out of line, that were said out of anger and that were not fair.  I am just glad that Clark could find it in himself to forgive me."

"I was more worried you'd hate me forever," Clark said.

"I could never hate you, Clark.  Even during our worst arguments, I haven't hated you."  Lex almost said more, but he wasn't completely sure what "more" he would have said.  Right now, his feelings for Clark were complex.  Ever since his conversation with Enrique, he'd been reevaluating how he really felt about Clark.  And this setting, the comfort of the Kent home, a place where he felt more at home, more accepted, than anywhere else, was dangerous for his equilibrium.

Finally, as it approached 11 PM, Martha and Jonathan excused themselves to go to sleep.  "Thank you for coming, Lex.  We're glad you could join us," Martha said, standing up from her chair.

"It was my pleasure, as always, Martha," Lex replied, standing up to give Martha a hug.

"We'll see you again soon, Lex," Jonathan said.  He gave Lex a hearty handshake and a pat on the back.

"Thank you for having me," Lex said.

"Anytime, Lex."

The two elder Kents headed up to bed, leaving Lex and Clark alone.

Lex sat back down on the sofa, closer to Clark than when Clark's parents had been in the room.

"So," Lex said after a couple of moments of silence.  "I should probably be heading home."

"I understand," Clark said.  "You've probably got a ton of work to do before Monday."

"Yeah, I do," Lex said.  "And this whole Veronica thing is just complicating an already complicated situation."

"What do you mean?"

"If this were happening after the final episode of 'Single Millionaire' aired, we wouldn't have to worry so much.  The confidentiality agreement ends when the last episode airs, and then we don't have to watch every single thing we say.  If I could publicize Veronica's status on the show -- when she was eliminated or if she was chosen as the final candidate -- it would make everything that much simpler.  As it stands now, if I wanted to issue a press release about the lawsuit or anything else surrounding the show, it would have to be vetted first not only by my personal lawyers and the LexCorp corporate lawyers, but also by the lawyers for the production company.  I have a meeting tomorrow morning with all the counsel in question to find out just how much time this ridiculous suit might take, and whether they're willing to wait until after the final episode airs so that I -- and by extension you, if they require you to testify -- will not be under the gag order."

"They'd make me testify?"

"Not if I can help it.  And, anyway, my hope is to keep it from going to court in the first place.  You're not named specifically in the suit, but because of who you are we have to assume that you'll be called as a witness for one if not both sides."

"Should I be at that meeting tomorrow?"  Clark had been hoping to spend the day working on his article for the Planet; he'd spent almost no time so far this semester on his internship, and he couldn't afford to get on the bad side of any of the editors he worked with.

"No, there's really no need.  I'll let you know afterward if there's anything you need to know."

"Thanks," Clark said.

Lex stood up.  "Walk me to my car?"

"Sure."  Clark stood up as well. After quickly bringing the remaining dishes to the kitchen, Lex and Clark put on their coats and headed outside and down the driveway to Lex's car.

Lex paused, one hand on the car door.  "Good night, Clark."

"Good night, Lex.  Pleasant dreams."

"You, too."  Lex opened the door and slid into the driver's seat.

"I'll call tomorrow, no matter what the outcome of the meeting."

"Promise?"  Clark cringed at his own pleading tone.

"I promise," Lex responded.

Lex closed the car door and with a final wave backed out of the driveway.  Clark watched the car until even with his enhanced vision the car was just a speck on the horizon and then headed back inside.

There was no use worrying about Lex's meeting in the morning, he told himself.  If there was anything he had to be concerned about, Lex would be sure to tell him.

***

In the morning, Clark felt more rested than he'd felt in days.  The previous day, he was reassured that he and Lex were on the way back to their old level of friendship.  And while he knew he still had to get Lex to choose one of the women, Clark had made peace with that.  If he made an effort, Clark could still maintain the relationship with Lex that he currently had.  Clark wanted more, it was true, but if he couldn't have what he really wanted, he shouldn't lose what he currently had.

Clark bounded down the stairs and out the door to the barn to start his chores.  While he worked, he thought about the upcoming week.  At the latest, he figured, he'd be bald until the final episode of "Single Millionaire" aired; at that time, all of America -- and, thus, Jor-El -- would know that Lex had made his choice.  Not that Clark thought that Jor-El watched reality television, but he figured that if Jor-El knew Clark's deepest secrets, he'd likely also know the outcome of a well-publicized television program.

It couldn't last much longer than that.  It just couldn't.

Clark put it all out of his mind.  It didn't change anything, really.  He still had classes to take, an internship to complete.  If Lex found a woman to marry, Clark didn't think his life would change all that much.

Or, at least, that was what he wanted to think.

Clark worked his chores at a normal pace rather than his usual super speed.  He didn't have much else to do before he went back to Metropolis other than his chores and his homework.  When Clark was younger, he'd never imagined that he'd choose to do chores over anything.  But compared to the mental work he did for his classes, the physical work was relaxing.

By the time finished the chores and extra work he'd made for himself, it was almost lunch time.  He washed up and joined his parents in the kitchen.

"You've been busy," Martha said in greeting.

"Yeah," Clark answered.  "I didn't want to leave you and Dad with anything that I could get done."

"That's good of you, Clark, but we could've handled them," Jonathan said.

"I know, Dad.  But I just thought . . ."

"Not that I don't appreciate it, son.  I just don't want you thinking that you have to come home and do chores all the time."

"Oh, don't worry.  I don't."  Clark grinned at his parents.

Martha laughed.  "You hungry, Clark?  Lunch is almost ready."

"Of course I'm hungry, Mom."  Clark began gathering plates and silverware to set the table.

"OK; lunch in just a couple of minutes."

Clark set the table as his mother began to serve bowls of pasta and sauce.  Clark grabbed the bread basket off the counter and filled it with some of the fresh bread that was sitting in the bread box and then sat down at the table.  Jonathan came back to the kitchen, and the three Kents sat down to eat.

They'd just finished passing the food around when there was a knock at the door.

Martha got up and answered it.  "Lex!  Have you eaten lunch yet?  Come, join us.  Clark," she said without taking a breath, "set another place at the table."

Lex had, in fact, had what passed for lunch when he had to make it himself -- a couple of slices of cheese between two pieces of bread that he'd picked up at the corner store that morning.  But he was never going to turn down an offer for lunch at the Kents', especially when his lunch had been so meager.

"I'd be honored to join you," Lex said in response.

"Wonderful," Martha replied.

Clark grinned as he got up to get a table setting for Lex.  Now that he and Lex were friends again, Clark was thrilled for any opportunity they had to spend time together.  And while lunch at his parents was not the most exciting activity Clark had ever been party to, it was always interesting when Lex was there.

"So," Jonathan said as the food was passed to Lex for him to fill his plate, "I take it you're headed back to Metropolis today?"

"Yes," Lex said.  "I was actually just stopping by to find out if Clark wanted a ride back to school."

Clark nodded and said, "Yeah, sure!  That would be great!  And that way Mom and Dad don't have to make the trip."  Clark had actually been planning to just run back to school, but that was irrelevant at the moment.

"Clark said you'd been in another accident," Martha said.  At Clark's facial expression, she realized how her comment might have sounded.  "I mean, I hope you're feeling better, feeling up to the drive to Metropolis."

Lex laughed.  "Don't worry, I knew how you meant your statement.  I'm perfectly fine, though.  And on the off chance I do start feeling like I shouldn't be driving, I know Clark can ably handle my car."

Clark grinned, recalling some of the times he'd less than ably handled Lex's cars.  Of course, compared to the damage that Lex inflicted on his cars all by himself, Clark's driving record was near spotless.

"Well, do be safe.  I worry about both of you," Martha said.

"We will, Mom," Clark said.  "And I'll be sure to call when I get back to campus."

Once lunch was concluded and the dishes had been cleared, Clark went upstairs to collect his bag.  He could hear conversation going on between his parents and Lex, but he didn't eavesdrop; he'd had enough problems this week from miscommunication, and he didn't want to compound them by snooping on what was, more likely than not, a perfectly innocent exchange.

When he returned to the kitchen, Jonathan asked "So the final episode airs when?"

"Not this week but next week," Lex said.

"Not soon enough for me," Clark mumbled.

"What was that?" Jonathan asked.

"Nothing, Dad.  Just talking to myself."  Clark turned to Lex.  "I'm ready when you are."

"Then let's get on the road.  Jonathan, Martha, thanks so much for lunch."

"You're welcome, Lex," Martha replied.  "You know you're always welcome at our table."

"I do," Lex said, "and I appreciate that."  He gave Martha a kiss on the cheek and Jonathan a firm handshake, and then Clark and Lex headed out to Lex's car.

Out of Clarks parents hearing, but before they got into the car, Lex said, You dont have to worry about any lawsuit.  I just wanted you to know.

Thats a relief, Clark said.

I figured youd want to know as soon as possible.

Thanks.

They got in the car, and Clark made a show of putting on his seatbelt.  Lex grinned and then followed suit.

"Straight back to campus?" Lex asked as they pulled out of the Kents' driveway, "or is there somewhere you want to stop first?"

"Straight back is fine with me.  I have a ton of studying to do before Monday. Not to mention the article I owe the Planet. I brought all this stuff with me when I came home, but I didn't crack open a book once all weekend."

"OK, then," Lex said, turning toward the highway back to Metropolis.  "You should be back with plenty of time to get your work done and still get a decent night's sleep."

"Thanks."

Over the years of driving with Lex, Clark had learned not to attempt conversation while Lex was at the wheel.  While Lex swore he could multitask driving and talking, if the conversation got at all heated, the speedometer crept into unsafe territory.  And the radio was on a low enough volume that Clark was able to tune it out and concentrate on his own thoughts.  When they were about 45 minutes away from Metropolis U, Clark fell asleep and didn't wake up until Lex skidded to a stop outside Clark's dorm.

Clark shook his head to clear the last of the nap-induced cobwebs, and then he undid his seatbelt.  "Thanks for the lift, Lex."

"You're welcome, Clark.  Good luck with the studying."

"Thanks."  Clark opened the door, got out of the car, and retrieved his bag from the trunk.  "What are you doing tonight?"

"I have no plans to go out," Lex said.  "I'll be home working on various business matters, most likely."

"Well," Clark said, as he had numerous times before, "have fun with that."  He grinned then turned to enter the dorm.

As he climbed the stairs to his room, Clark heard Lex pull out of the parking space and drive off toward the penthouse.  He entered his room and tossed his backpack on the desk chair, then pulled his baseball cap off.  Reflexively, he moved to run his hand through his hair to counter the inevitable hat-head, but then he froze.

Damn, he thought, for a short time there, I completely forgot I was bald.  Sighing, Clark tossed the cap aside and took his unfinished assignments out of his backpack.

He settled on the bed and began reading.  About half an hour in, he heard his next-door neighbor come home.

Since he'd moved into the dorm at the beginning of the semester, Clark had only seen his next-door neighbor twice.  Of course, he'd heard him more than that.  Much more.  Almost nightly, Clark heard the symphonic sounds of his next-door neighbor and said neighbor's girlfriend doing things that Clark could barely even imagine.  Yes, he could have looked through the wall, but Clark wasn't honestly sure he wanted to know.

Most of the time, the sexual symphony amused Clark more than it bothered him.  But given all that had happened over the past week, all that Clark had realized about himself and his own love life, he just was not in the mood to hear all that right now.

And, anyway, he had some serious studying to do.  The sounds from next door were becoming a worse and worse distraction, until Clark realized he had to get away.  He picked up his books and his laptop and left his room, walking briskly toward the library.  A couple of people called out to him, but he just waved and kept moving, hoping that he was exuding an "I really need to study" vibe.

When Clark entered the library, he headed straight for his favorite corner, in between Plant Culture and Forestry.  It was his favorite corner because none of his friends were majoring in anything remotely related to these subjects, so he was usually able to study there without interruption.  But this time, to his dismay, his favorite table was already occupied by a group of girls giggling over a book Clark highly doubted was forestry-related.

Clark sighed quietly and started considering other places in the library where he wouldn't be bothered.  He was headed toward American History when he heard a familiar laugh and saw a flash of blonde hair.

Damn, he thought.  He didn't have the time or the patience to deal with Chloe right now.  She was bound to have questions about his escape from campus on Friday and the subsequent events of his weekend...not that there was much that he'd share, but she'd ask and ask until he told her stuff just to get her to go away.

As quickly as he could without calling attention to himself, Clark made his way back toward the library's entrance and back out onto the quad.  He had to study, absolutely had to.  And now both his dorm and the library were out of the question.  So where to next?

Clark pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed Lex's number.

"Lex Luthor," Lex said.

"Hey, Lex.  It's me."

"Hi, Clark.  How's the studying going?"

"It's not.  There's nowhere here to study.  I hate to impose . . ."

"Yes, Clark," Lex said, "of course you can come here to study.  I'll be working in my office, so you'll have all the peace and quiet you need."

"Thanks, Lex.  I really appreciate this."

"It's no problem."

"Great," Clark said.  "I'll be there in about 15 minutes."

"I'll let Security know."

Usually, Security just waved Clark past, but given the events of Friday, Clark understood that their orders may have been made more stringent.  He hoped, though, that now that the trouble between them had been resolved, Lex would rescind whatever orders he'd given to his security guards.

"Thanks!  I'll be really quiet; you won't even know I'm there."

"Do stop in and let me know you've arrived, though.  I'll let Enrique know to expect you for dinner."

"Great!  See you in a bit."

They said their goodbyes, and then Clark headed for Lex's.  He walked at a normal pace across campus, still wearing his "leave me alone, I need to study" face.  And in just about 15 minutes, he arrived at the lobby of LexCorp.

The usual daytime security guard looked up as Clark came through the revolving.  "Good afternoon, Clark," he said.

"Hey, Leon," Clark said.  "How's life?"

"Good.  Things have been quiet, which is always good.  Especially around here."

"I hear you," Clark said, nodding.

Leon reached into a cubbyhole in his desk.  "I've got a new keycard for you - we recoded all the readers over the weekend on Mr. Luthor's orders, but when he came in this afternoon, he had me make you a card first thing.  You can just toss the old one; it's worthless now."

"OK, cool," Clark said, taking and pocketing the rectangular piece of plastic Leon handed him.

"Do you want me to tell Mr. Luthor you're on your way up?"

"Nah, he knows; I called him before I came over."

"OK, then.  Have a good afternoon."

"Thanks," Clark said and then headed toward the executive elevator.  A couple of minutes later, he was knocking on the penthouse door.  When there was no immediate answer, he swiped the new keycard and heard the lock disengage.  Clark eased the door open slowly then entered the penthouse.  After hanging up his coat and stashing his backpack and laptop in his usual bedroom, he walked to the doorway of Lex's study and knocked on the doorjamb.  "Lex?  I'm here."

"Thanks for letting me know, Clark.  Good luck studying."

"Thanks."  It was clear that Lex was busy, and Clark didn't want to disturb him more than was necessary, so he went back to his room and flopped down on the bed.  He pulled out his laptop and began working on his article for the Planet. He quickly became engrossed in the material.

"Master Clark?"

Clark jumped at Enrique's voice.  "Oh, hi, Enrique."

"Master Lex wants to confirm that you called your parents."

"Oh, shit . . . sorry Enrique.  No, I haven't yet.  I'll do that now."

"Very good, sir."

"Please don't tell Lex I haven't called yet; I'll never hear the end of it."

"As you wish, sir.  I'll give you some privacy."  Enrique left, closing the door behind himself.

Clark dug his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed his parents' number.

"Hello?"

"Hey, Mom.  It's me."

"Oh, hi, Clark.  You back at school?"

"I'm studying at Lex's, actually.  The dorm was too loud, and I couldn't study at the library.  So he said I could come here."

"It sounds like whatever your problems were earlier, they're all patched up now."

"Yes," Clark said.  "I think so."

"That's good.  You're not the same when you and he are on the outs."

Clark didn't have much of a response to that, so he quickly said goodnight and hung up.  He briefly considered his mother's parting words, but then he put it out of his head as he concentrated on his studying again.  He was making good headway on his Journalistic Ethics homework when there was a knock on the door.

"Yeah?" Clark called out.

Lex opened the door. "Enrique says dinner in about 10 minutes.  How is your homework going?"

"Almost done, actually.  Wow - dinner already?"

"Clark, it's almost 8."

"Wow . . . I didn't even notice."  Clark stood up and walked to the door, and then he and Lex headed toward the kitchen.

"Do you have a lot more homework to do?"

"Not really.  I've done all the stuff that's due tomorrow and Tuesday, and while I've still got some reading to do for Wednesday, it can wait until tomorrow night."

In the kitchen, they found that Cook had made pizza for them as well as a big bowl of pasta and tomato sauce and had set out silverware and all the plates and bowls they needed.  They were sitting down to eat within minutes.

"So do you want to watch a movie after dinner?" Lex asked once they were settled and eating.

"Uh . . . sure.  But I should be heading back to the dorm before 11, because I've got to be at the Planet by 9:30."

"Why don't you stay here?  There's a spare change of clothes or two in the closet in your room, and it's closer to the Planet from here, anyway. I've got a meeting with Perry White tomorrow morning, anyway, so I can just drive you there."

"Uh...OK."  Not that it was all that unusual for Lex to offer Clark crash space, but things were different now.

"Wonderful.  After spending the afternoon immersed in spreadsheets and income projections, I really could use a mindless movie before bed."

In the end, the chosen movie was Galaxy Quest -- Clark professed a love for the science-fictional aspects of it, while Lex claimed that it provided an interesting glance into the science fiction subculture of conventions.  And it was just the right way to end the evening.

It was almost midnight by the time they were cleaning up the last remnants of their evening.

"Thanks for letting me stay, Lex," Clark said.  "I really had a good time tonight."

"Thanks for staying," Lex countered.  "I appreciated your company."

"Well," Clark said, suddenly feeling awkward.  "Sleep well.  I'll see you in the morning."

"You, too.  I'll have Enrique wake you by 8:30."

"Thanks."

Clark was asleep almost the instant his head hit the pillow.  And he was sound asleep when Enrique knocked on the door in the morning.

"Master Clark, Master Lex reminds you that you both have early appointments today."

"I know, Enrique.  Tell him I'm already up."  It was a lie, but Clark knew he could speed through his morning preparations and be at the table before Lex was.  By the time Lex joined him in the kitchen, Clark was already pouring his second bowl of cereal.

"Did you sleep well?" Lex asked as he prepared his own breakfast from what Cook had set out.

"Like a log.  I can't remember when I last slept that well."

"It's noisy in the dorms a lot, isn't it?" Lex asked.

"Yeah," Clark said.  "And every year it takes me almost until winter break to get used to the traffic noises and all, you know?"

"I understand.  One of the nice things about being this high above the traffic is not hearing the noises from below."  Lex almost said more, but then thought better of it.  "So, do you think you'll be ready to go in about ten minutes?"

"Yeah, sure."

Clark finished eating and cleared his dishes into the sink.  "I'm basically ready now, actually."

"OK, then.  I just need to make sure I have a couple of documents with me, and then I'll be ready to go."  Lex headed out of the kitchen and back toward his study while Clark gathered the few things he had brought with him the previous evening.  This whole weekend had been an unexpected break from his regular routine, and while it had been brought on by less-than-stellar circumstances, he was somewhat sorry to see it coming to an end.

Clark picked up his coat and his baseball cap fell to the floor.  He bent over to pick it up, cursing himself for forgetting his current baldness, then stood up and jammed the cap onto his head.  "I wish Lex would hurry up and finalize his decision so that my freaking hair would grow back," he muttered.

"What was that, Clark?" Lex asked as he came back into the kitchen.

He'd heard "Lex" and "hair" and had to tamp down his automatic defensive response.

"I was hoping you would hurry up and get ready so that I can go and show off my freakishness elsewhere," Clark said.  It wasn't completely a lie.

"Why are you in such a rush to get back?" Lex asked, truly perplexed. When he'd lost his hair, he remembered, he hadn't wanted to do anything but hide.

"In some perverse way, I want to know what I'm up against.  If this is going to follow me for the rest of my college career, I'd rather know now."

"That makes some sense," Lex said.  "I'm ready to go, so we can start your discovery phase as soon as you're ready."

They headed down in the elevator to the garage and soon Lex was navigating the congested Metropolis streets.  Even with all the traffic, Lex was exceeding the speed limit, and they arrived at the Daily Planet building in ten minutes.

"OK," Clark said.  "I'm headed up to the Features bullpen.  Thanks for the ride, Lex, and thanks again for letting me come over last night.  And for letting me stay."

"You're welcome for all of it.  The door's always open for you."

"I really appreciate that," Lex.  Clark blushed, realizing that they could do this back-and-forth all day.  "So, anyway...I'll see you soon."

"See you soon," Lex echoed.

Clark got out of the car and watched as Lex drove toward the parking structure.  As the car faded from view, Clark headed up to the floor where the Features bullpen was located, between Sports and Living/Arts.  He came through the swinging double doors and was happy to find that the majority of the reporters who were in the bullpen were too focused on what they were doing to notice his entrance.

He walked over to the Feature Editor's desk and placed his article in the In box on the corner of her desk.  Marie barely looked up from her computer screen as she continued her phone call, nodding quickly and then going back to her conversation.

His current assignment done, at least until Marie marked up his draft, Clark settled down at a computer in the Features area to start researching his next piece.  Since he appeared focused on his work, the reporters who came and went during the next hour stopped only briefly to say hello, but they didn't comment on Clark's hat or his sudden lack of hair.

At 11:00, Clark saved his document, closed the assorted windows he had open, and collected his bag and jacket.  About 20 minutes earlier, Marie had slid his marked-up draft under the monitor of the machine he was working on, but she'd been chasing down some hot story, so she, too, had barely lingered.  As Clark left the bullpen, Marie called out to him, "See you Wednesday, Clark!  Don't forget to make those changes, OK?"

"OK, Marie," Clark said, waving behind him.  That had gone smoothly, he thought.  Now he hoped that would carry over for the rest of the day.

As he entered his Journalistic Ethics class thirty seconds before class started, Clark walked into the doorframe and dropped his books, causing the whole class to turn to stare at him.

"Sorry," Clark said, blushing.  "I'm breaking in a new pair of feet."

The room erupted in laughter.

"Be that as it may, Mr. Kent, have a seat and tell me what you know about the Iran-Contra hearings and the journalistic complications on reporting on them."

Clark mumbled, sat, and tried to figure out what to say.  It was just like any other class period in which he'd shown how much of a dork he could be.  And that, bizarrely, felt good.

His classes went as smoothly as possible during the next couple of days, and his out-of-class time was spent mostly with Pete, so Clark was not hassled too much by his dorm mates or his classmates.  A couple of people commented on the hat of the moment -- be it a baseball cap, a fedora with a press pass stuck into the hatband, or the short-lived experiment with a watchcap -- but Clark always joked his baldness away.

"What happened to you, Kent?"  The question was almost always asked the same way.

"Never drink and get a hair cut," Clark would respond.

"I hear ya!" was the usual response.

Still, however, it was a relief to get off the campus on Wednesday afternoon and return to Lex's place.

***

Lex was fidgeting and he knew it.  Clark had been wandering around campus wearing hats of varying kinds for the last several days while they awaited the arrival of the wig.  It was going to arrive the same day that they previewed the tape of the next episode.  It would be a good test, Lex thought, of the wig.  If Chloe didn't notice that Clark was wearing a wig, then the plan would surely be successful because no one else was likely to scrutinize him so closely.

Maxwell had been avoiding entering the office all day, as had Lex's secretary.  She'd shown her face for two seconds to practically throw the videotape at him and then run from the office.  He really didn't think he was that bad; he just wanted this to go well for Clark so he could start acting like a normal guy again.

He practically leapt from behind his desk when there was a timid knock at his door.

Yes?

Mr. Luthor?

YES, Lex replied, more impatiently.

Irene opened the door a crack. The box you've been waiting for just arrived upstairs, sir.  Enrique just called.

Thank you, Irene.  I'm going upstairs now.  I'm not to be disturbed. Lex made a show of packing the videotape inside his briefcase, which he felt sure would signal that he had no intention of returning that day.

Of course, sir, Irene replied as she slipped back out the door.  She only hoped he would be happier once the ordeal of this show was over; she really liked her job, but she wasn't sure she could keep working for him the way he was now.

***

Well, where is it? Clark demanded as soon as he got to the apartment, which -- if Lex was counting minutes -- was quite a bit faster than he should have been able to get there.  He'd sped over as soon as he'd gotten the call from Lex.

I've only just gotten here myself, Clark.  I'm sure Enrique has it secreted away somewhere so no one stumbles across it accidentally.  How goes the hair growth plan?

It's not like I can think the hair back onto my head, Lex.

I'm well aware of that, Clark, Lex said, ruefully.

Damn it. Clark flushed as self-recrimination started to take over.  I'm sorry, Lex.  I keep forgetting.

I don't think you realize how much it relieves me, Clark, that you don't first and foremost think of me as your bald friend.

No, I think of you as my geeky friend.

Yes, well, that's much better, Lex said, flushing a bit himself.  So shall we try to find where Enrique might have hidden our purchase or shall we try to find Enrique and just let him tell us.

I know you'd probably rather hunt for it, Lex, but I really just want to stop looking like an even bigger dork than usual.  Clark rubbed his hand self-consciously over the knit hat he was wearing pulled down low on his head.  I feel like some gang member wanna-be, and Chloe's been giving me so much shit about my choice in hats.

Lex eyed the current head covering and grinned, Well with hats like that, I really can't blame her.

My mother MADE it for me, Lex.

When you were ten, Clark. Lex knew very well where that hat had come from and why Clark held onto it even though it wasn't exactly attractive. Okay, okay - let's go find your hair.

That's not funny, Lex.

Huh, I thought it was. Go figure. Lex grinned again as he led the way toward the private parts of the penthouse.  He assumed that Enrique would have placed the wig in either Clark's room or in Lex's.

He peered into Clark's room, saw no package, and continued to his own private domain.  As they crossed the threshold, Lex spied the box sitting on his childhood desk.  Leave it to Enrique to make a statement without saying a word.

Well, shall we take a look at it? Lex turned to realize that Clark was standing, completely still, at the entrance to his room.  Clark?  Are you okay?

What? Clark jerked out of his silent contemplation of Lex's space.  It wasn't like he'd never been in here before, but he'd never been in love with Lex and been in here before.  It made more of a difference to him than he'd thought.

You looked . . . uncomfortable.  Are you sure you're okay?

I'm fine, Lex.  Let's see if we can make me look normal.

I think you're expecting a bit much from the wig, Kent.

Oh shut up. Clark started laughing as Lex ripped open the box.  His breath caught as he saw the wig.  My god, it looks real.

For what I paid, it had better look real, Lex muttered.  Lex turned the wig around in his hands, studying it from every angle.  They've certainly improved wig construction since I tried wearing one.

Clark's face fell.  He already felt guilty because of the whole expense thing, but now to realize that Lex might have wanted something like this when he was younger just broke him.  I'm so sorry, Lex.

For what?

Um, because you had to go through this and you couldn't even cover it up.

You didn't make me bald, Clark.  The meteorites did that.  Besides, I think I look good this way.  Lex's attention was on the wig as he examined the attachment method; he never noticed the look of pain that crossed Clark's face.

You do.  I just wish that you did it by choice and not because you had something taken from you.

I gained more than I lost, Clark. Trust me. Lex grinned sharkishly.  Now, let's see about attaching this thing to your head.

I can do it.  Clark really needed a few minutes alone and away from Lex.  Every time he thought he had conquered his guilt for his role in Lex's own pain, he'd stumble over some new thing that he'd done and want to die all over again.

You need more than two hands to do this, Clark.  I'll have to help you. Lex motioned Clark to a chair as he extracted the bottle of spirit gum.

Clark started fidgeting in the chair.  Come on, Lex, I want to get this done.

Don't rush me, Clark.  You don't want me to do this wrong.

Lex studied the preparation carefully before removing Clark's hat.  He applied some to Clark's scalp and the attempted to place the wig. Damn it.

What's wrong, Lex? Clark asked, panicked.  He started to get up to see what was going on when Lex pushed him back into his seat.

Nothing's wrong, Clark.  I'm just going to have to do that again.  I must have reversed the sides of the thing or something.

Let me see, Lex.  Please? Clark turned the puppy-dog eyes on the older man, and Lex caved.

Fine, you can see, but you'll see why I didn't want you to.

Clark walked into the bathroom and looked at his reflection in the mirror.  The wig was on top of his head, but he looked like a bad version of one of the three stooges.

Tell me it's not supposed to look like that.

It's not supposed to look like that. Lex studied the position of the wig and said, The edges must have curled under.  Let me try again.

No problem.  This is worse than being bald. Clark sank back into the chair and closed his eyes.  It was hard enough having Lex brushing up against him; he didn't need to see him so close too.

Lex gently removed the wig and then applied spirit gum remover to Clark's bare scalp.  Multiple layers of the stuff couldn't possibly be good for applying the wig or for the sensitive skin underneath.  Once he'd cleaned off the surface of Clark's head, Lex again considered the structure of the wig and the shape of Clark's head.  Perhaps if he approached it scientifically, he'd have better success.

There was a reason that he didn't wear wigs; after all, no one had the patience to affix them to his head each day - not even him.  Add to that the fact that the wigs had looked horrible when he was a child and the reasons for his lack of experience became clear.

***

Two bottles of spirit gum later, Lex finally had the wig positioned properly on Clark's head.  He sat down hard on his bed and watch as Clark studied his reflection in the mirror.

Well?

What do you think, Lex?

Well, I know for damned sure it isn't your hair, Clark, but I think I'm biased.  Let's try someone who is more likely to give you an honest opinion. Lex peeled himself off the bed and went to his door to call Enrique.  He was surprised to find the servant standing right outside the door poised to knock. Yes?

Mr. Ross and Ms. Sullivan have arrived, sir. Enrique wondered if Lex realized how much time had actually passed since he'd arrived at the penthouse.

That's not possible.  We've only been in here for twenty minutes.

If you say so, sir, but my watch indicates that it's been closer to two hours.  Enrique smirked as Lex paled at the realization that he'd spent two hours trying to get a wig placed properly.  May I see the results of your efforts?

That's what we were hoping you would do.  Lex held the door open and allowed Enrique to enter.

Enrique studied the younger man in front of him.  Clark was biting his lower lip while awaiting Enrique's judgment on the wig. I believe that it will pass as his hair to all but the most discriminating observers.

Enrique was shocked to find himself wrapped in a bruising hug from Clark. Thank you, Enrique!  Thank you so much.

Of course, sir, Enrique said with a raised eyebrow.

Shall I tell your guests that you will be a few more moments, Master Lex? He sniffed the air gingerly to indicate that they were both giving off some strong smells that might alert Chloe to the presence of the wig.

Yes, please, Enrique.  Tell them we need a few moments. Lex heaved a huge sigh of relief as Enrique closed the door behind him. I've got to get this smell off my hands, Clark.

Lex started toward the bathroom only to find his path blocked by the younger man.  He, too, was the recipient of a patented Clark Kent hug.  He allowed himself to be held and enjoyed the moments of innocent friendship trying not to wish for more than he had.  You need to unhand me, Clark, or we'll be stuck together.

Clark let go with some reluctance. You've saved my life, Lex.  Thank you so much.  I can't ever repay you.

I don't know about saving your life, Clark.  I've, perhaps, spared you some embarrassment.  That's about it.

But you didn't have to do it, and you really didn't have to take all that time to put it on.

Lex continued in to the bathroom and started washing his hands.  He was struck with a sudden realization, and called to Clark, Come in here, Clark!

Sure, Lex.  What's up?

Do you realize that it took me two hours to attach that thing?

I'm sorry.

Do you understand what that means?

Um, no.

Well, hopefully, I'll get better at it with practice. . .

Wait!  Why would you need to practice?  Once it's on . . .

You can't sleep in it, Clark.  You'll have to take it off every night and then put it back on every morning.

Are you kidding me?  Clark started to panic.  There was no way, just no way, he could put the wig on himself.

I wish I were. Lex frowned as he realized his brilliant plan wasn't so brilliant after all.

What am I going to do? Clark all but wailed.

I need to think about this, Clark, and our friends are waiting. We'll talk about it after we watch the show. Lex turned and led the way out to the living room where Chloe and Pete were waiting.

***

Long time, no see, stranger, Chloe said as Clark entered the room.

I've been busy, Clark muttered as he grabbed a seat on the couch.

Lex had detoured briefly to the briefcase he'd left by the door to retrieve the videotape.  He glanced at the assembled group and suppressed a small grin when he realized that he'd been left his customary place beside Clark.  Are we ready to watch?

It's all Pete has talked about today, Lex.  I think you're going to have to start the tape soon or he may expire due to withdrawal.

You do realize, Mr. Ross, that there are still two episodes left to air, correct?

Yeah, this one and then the two hour finale plus, theres the live after-show that I just know my good friend Clark is going to get me a seat in the audience for, Pete said, slapping Clark on the back.

Um, you'd have to talk to Lex.  I don't even know if I'm invited to the after-show, Clark muttered.

Of course you're invited, Clark.  I can't do this without you, Lex said, and then glanced at the other two in the room. I can't do it without any of you.  You'll all be there as my guests.

Can I write about that? Chloe demanded.

Of course you may, and I'll even guarantee you an exclusive interview as soon as the cameras stop rolling. Lex promised quickly.

Clark tried to muster enthusiasm as Chloe started to glow.  That's great, Lex!  I can't wait to see who you finally picked.

Wait!  You mean you don't know, Clark?

No, Chlo, I wasn't there for the final event, so I don't actually know what happened either.

Huh.  I always assumed that Lex would have told you.

Well he hasn't, Clark said, peevishly.

I haven't told you because you said you didn't want to know.  You said you were afraid you might let it slip and cause us both contractual nightmares.  That's why I haven't told you, Lex said heatedly.

Fine. Clark knew he was being difficult, but since he'd realized what had caused his baldness, and what the outlook was for the rest of his life, he just couldn't bring himself to be enthusiastic about the show or Lex's choice or really much of anything at all.  Could we just watch the tape?

Lex grumbled something unintelligible and pushed the tape into the VCR.  He grabbed the remote and started the tape.

***

Tonight, on Single Millionaire, Lex Luthor will take each of the three remaining women home to meet his family.  How will each woman fare in a day in the life of Lex Luthor?  Will Lex's choices become easier or more difficult?  Who will Lex choose to go to the final two?  Find out tonight on this episode of Single Millionaire.

***

Whoa! Dude, you took them to meet your father? Pete's eyes were huge.  I'm amazed that any of them were still willing to go through with it after meeting him.

You'll have to see how it went, Mr. Ross.  I think the ladies held up admirable under the pressures of the day, Lex said with a smirk.  He felt a large hand squeeze his shoulder and smiled at Clark.

Clark knew, better than most, how much Lex wished he were an orphan, adopted, disowned - anything to remove the taint of Lionel Luthor from his life.  Fair means or foul - didn't matter to him if he could be free.  Of course, he never really would be free and to lose the name (as had been suggested on more than one occasion) would dissociate him from his mother, which he had no desire to do.  So, Luthor he remained, but he tried to make the taint of that name lessen with each decision, each choice that he made.

You going to be okay? Clark asked right against Lex's ear.

Lex nodded and resumed the tape.

***

Lex awaited the helicopter at a landing pad near Smallville.  He'd chosen not to have the women land at the castle because he had no intention of sharing that space with them during the day's events.  His father was in residence, at the moment, and was refusing them camera access.  Really, it solved most of his problems.  He didn't have to introduce the women to his father and he didn't have to explain that he shared the drafty castle with said father.

As Delia stepped out of the 'copter, her hair began flying around her face dramatically.  Lex wondered at the impracticality of wearing her hair loose when she didn't know what was in store, but decided that one sign of impracticality in the otherwise exceptionally capable and practical woman might be a good thing.

As she approached, Lex held out a hand and was surprised to find himself wrapped in a much more assertive greeting, complete with kiss.

I've missed you, Lex, Delia said, huskily.

"I've missed you as well," Lex allowed.  He attempted to extricate himself from the grasping arms of the woman he'd just met. "We need to get underway."

"I'm looking forward to meeting your father," Delia said as she caressed Lex's sleeve.

Lex raised an eyebrow as he studied the woman in front of him.  His father?  Why would anyone assume that Lex would be performing that particular introduction?  "I'm sure it will be a fascinating meeting."

"Why are we doing this here?" Delia asked, her tone of disgust at being in Smallville barely disguised.

"The significant events of my life have occurred here.  It seemed only fitting to have my future wife understand that."

"Of course, Lex," Delia immediately agreed. "I'm eager to see your old haunts."

Lex grabbed Delia's elbow and eased her into the limousine.  He would have preferred to drive himself, but the limo allowed the camera crews to film while they were riding -- on the off chance that Lex would point out some element of scenic interest.

As they drove toward Smallville, they passed the castle.  He felt rather than saw Delia shift to gaze at the castle.  "Who lives there?"

Lex studied her for a moment to decide whether she was serious and decided, after a moment, to take it at face value.  "At times, I do."

"Why are we passing it?  Shouldn't we be going in?"

"As I said, at times I live there.  This wouldn't be one of those times."

"So I won't get to see the castle?"

"I would imagine not," Lex said.  "It's one of my father's follies.  The story is that this is the old family castle from Scotland and he had it shipped over here piece by piece."

"The story?"

"It's been my experience that my father has a peculiar relationship with the truth."

"So will I get to meet him?"

"If you're lucky." Lex reminded himself that he was being filmed, so he didn't want to say anything too inflammatory. "He's been incredibly busy and his schedule is quite erratic."

"Oh," Delia replied, sounding crestfallen.

***

"She's just a little too interested in your father," Chloe said.

"I hadn't noticed," Lex replied.

"Seriously, Lex. She's asking too many questions about your father."

"She's meeting my family, Miss Sullivan.  Wouldn't you try to find out as much as you could about your prospective father-in-law?"

"But she doesn't seem to be speaking about your father in the 'I'm curious about a prospective in-law' way.  This is more of the 'which one of you might be the better match for me' way."

"I don't see that," Clark said. "She's really into Lex."  Clark didn't want Lex to feel insecure, and he knew he would be if he believed that Delia had been more interested in Lionel than Lex.

"If you say so," Chloe said, unconvinced.  She'd seen that look before, and she was sure that this woman was more interested in Lionel than she would ever be in Lex.

***

"Where are we going, Lex?" Delia asked as they continued driving.

"As my father is unavailable, and I have no other family, I've found what I consider to be a reasonable substitute."

"Is anyone else going to meet your father?"

"I don't imagine so, no." Lex studied the woman in front of him.  "Why this preoccupation with my father?"

"I wanted to know how seriously you're taking this enterprise.  My guess is, not so much on the serious scale because you aren't introducing us to your father."

"I can assure you, choosing to introduce you to the people who have made me a part of their family is a far greater indication of my seriousness than any introduction to my father would be." Lex settled back stiffly in the seat and refused further discussion until he saw the turnoff for the Kent farmhouse.

Delia was peering out the window when Clark appeared at the doorway.  "What is he doing here?"

"He who?"

"Clark.  What is he doing here?  I thought this was supposed to be us and your family.

I'm not sure I understand your objection.

I've spent quite enough time with Clark Kent. Delia crossed her arms emphatically.

I see.  Then you'll find today's date and visit a bit difficult, Lex replied calmly.  He couldn't quite contain the smile when he saw Clark waving enthusiastically from the porch.  He lives here.

What?

This is the Kent Farm, where we'll be spending our date.

Delia's face pulled tight for a second before she attempted to look pleased at the current turn in events.  She could only hope that they would get to spend some time alone on this farm.

***

Lex tried not to react as he saw the hurt crossing Clark's face.  He'd realized that Clark knew Delia wasn't fond of him, but he didn't think Clark had realized the extent of her dislike.

It's okay, you know, Lex said, quietly.

If you picked her, it won't be, Clark muttered back.

It won't change anything, Clark.  You'll always be my best friend.

Right.  And she'd be your wife, Lex.  Your wife, Clark repeated emphatically, though quietly.

Everyone else seems to think a wife is going to change things.  I just don't see it.

You don't want to see it.

Do you two want to be alone, Chloe asked pointedly.  She was trying not to stare, but she was hearing parts of the conversation and she desperately wanted to know what was going on.

No, we don't, Clark said more loudly. We need to finish watching this show.  I just want this to be over.

Lex gaped at the petulant tone.  He'd thought Clark was enjoying this - at least some of this.  We don't have to watch any more if you don't want to.

What?  No, Pete exclaimed.  Clark, tell him you want to watch the rest, dude.  Please!

We need to watch the rest of it, Lex, Clark repeated dutifully.  He could think of a million things he'd rather do - most of them didn't involve watching Lex getting closer and closer to moving out of Clark's life.

Lex continued to study Clark carefully.  There was something - but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.  He was annoyed because he knew there was something more going on here, but he just couldn't piece it together.  Are you sure?

Yes.  Just turn the damned thing back on.

Fine, Lex replied in a short tone.  He stabbed the play button on the VCR and waited for the on-screen drama to continue.

***

Delia was smiling as she exited the limousine. Clark!  What a pleasant surprise!

Martha and Jonathan came out to stand behind Clark and said, Welcome to our home!

Delia. Lex steered the woman toward Clark's parents.  I'd like you to meet Martha and Jonathan Kent - Clark's parents.

It's lovely to meet you, Mr. Kent; Mrs. Kent!  Clark is such a lovely young man; you've done a great job with him.

It's a pleasure to meet you, Delia. Please, call me Martha. Martha took the young woman's arm and drew her away from Lex, up the stairs toward the front door. Why don't you come in with me and I'll fix you a glass of lemonade.

Delia threw a look at Lex over her shoulder, but seeing that he was paying her no attention, she allowed herself to be led. You have a beautiful home, Mrs., I mean, Martha.

Thank you, Martha said with a smile.  She already wasn't sure about this woman, something about her rang false.  Why don't you join me in the kitchen?  I could use some help putting the pie for dinner together.

I don't know much about cooking, Martha.

You don't need to, dear.  I'll do the hard work; you can peel the apples for me.

Delia looked around wildly for Lex, but he was nowhere to be found.

***

Trust Martha, Lex, Jonathan advised. She'll know more about this young woman's interests and motives after those apples are peeled than you and Clark could figure out in the last few weeks.

I'm sure you're right, Mr. Kent, Lex said. So what are we going to do while they're making the pie?

Dad and I thought we could go fishing, Clark suggested. He pointed out the poles and gear in the back of the truck.

Come on, son, let's go, before Martha decides to put us to work too.  All three men shuddered and headed for the truck, leaving Delia in Martha's capable hands.

***

So, what did you say you do, Delia? Martha asked as she rolled out a pie crust.

I'm working on my Ph.D. in Classics.  I'm interested in the intersections between Greek and Roman mythology.

How fascinating!  Of course, you and Lex have a great deal in common.  He's an ancient history buff, you know.

There's a great deal of difference, Martha, between being interested in history and doing the intensive work required for a Ph.D., though I'm sure you don't realize the depth of the difference. Delia focused her attention on the apple in front of her so missed the look of displeasure that crossed Martha's face.  I really don't think I'm doing this right, Martha.  Maybe I could just go join Lex.

Martha spared a quick glance at the apples.  They were inexpertly peeled, but they didn't look utterly unusable. You're doing fine, Delia.

Well yes, but I was under the impression that I would spend time with Lex and his family.  So where's Lex?

I'm sure I don't know, dear, Martha continued rolling the pastry dough flatter and smoother as she considered her next question.  How do you imagine fitting into Lex's life, Delia?

I'm sure it won't be particularly difficult. My work is quite portable and I can go with him where he needs to go.
 

I see. Martha spared another glance at the younger woman.
He spends a significant amount of time here working on the farm.  It seems to bring him pleasure.  Are you prepared to help with that?

Some things will certainly change after our marriage, Martha.  There will be new expectations placed upon him because he's become more settled. Are you prepared to give up your free farm help when he has new responsibilities in Metropolis?

I think you'll find that Lex is very much his own man and he creates his own expectations, Delia.  If coming to the farm is what he chooses to do, I can assure you that nothing in Metropolis will dissuade him from it.

I wouldn't be so sure, Delia muttered.  Again, she didn't notice Martha's frown at her clear distaste and disrespect toward the family that Lex had chosen.  Her only interest seemed to be in the family he'd been born to.  I don't mean to be rude, Martha, but this is not how I planned to spend this date.  I think I'm going to go see if I can find Lex.

You're welcome to try, dear, Martha said, softly to the retreating back of the younger woman.  You're welcome to try.

***

It might have been nice if your mother had mentioned that exchange, Clark, Lex said.

Don't you remember, she told you that appearances were deceiving and that you shouldn't trust the faces that you saw?

And from that I was supposed to get that Delia is really not interested in being involved with me; she's interested in being involved with a Luthor.

Maybe she was trying to be more covert because it was TV. Clark defended his mother.  He couldn't imagine why she hadn't been more blunt either, but now he was grateful.  If Lex had chosen Delia, maybe he'd reconsider after seeing the tape.  Maybe Clark would have a chance after all.

Does this mean you chose Delia, Lex, Chloe asked, hoping to trip up the other man.

It doesn't mean anything other than I wish that Martha had been a bit less cryptic in her observations of this woman.  I wonder what else we're going to discover, Lex said.

I don't know, Clark said. Do you know when dinner is, Lex?  I'm getting hungry.

I would imagine, Clark, that dinner will be the same time that it usually is.  You do, however, know where the kitchen is and you can certainly go inquire if you'd like.

I don't want to miss anything, though!

We'll wait for you. Lex assured him. Go find out and hurry back.

Thanks, Lex, Clark said as he moved quickly out of the room.  To be honest, he didn't care as much about dinner as he did about getting away from everyone for a few minutes.  He stood in the hallway out of sight of Lex, Pete, and Chloe and contemplated what he'd just seen.

It could be such a good thing. If all the women were really just after Lex's money, maybe, just maybe, Lex would decide not to have anything to do with any of them, and maybe Clark would have a chance.

Although, why he really thought he'd get a chance if Lex decided against all of these women, he didn't know.  He was still a guy; Lex still preferred women.  The equation just never worked out for him the way that he wanted it to no matter how many times he tried to change the variables.

He started down the hallway toward the kitchen when he almost ran into Enrique.

Master Clark?

Oh, hey, Enrique.

Is there something I can do for you? Enrique raised an eyebrow as he awaited a response.

I just - Do you know when dinner is going to be ready?

I was just coming to announce it now.  If you'd like to go ahead to the dining room, I'm sure you'll find things to your liking.

Clark flashed a bright smile. Thanks!  I love getting a head start.

I'm sure you do, Master Clark.  Enrique turned to leave.  I'll just arrange these flowers again and then go alert the others.

Thanks!

You're welcome, Master Clark.  Now, do hurry on, I can't hold the others off forever.

***

Once they'd all eaten and repositioned themselves around the screen, Lex restarted the tape.  The pinched look on Delia's face as she exited the barn suggested she hadn't found Lex and wasn't pleased with what she had found.  She looked around for any familiar signs and then flounced back up onto the porch to wait for Lex.

Martha could be seen from the window watching the other woman with no discernable expression on her face.

***

Why do I always let you talk me into going fishing, Clark? Lex demanded.  He wrung out a sock and then threw it into the back of the truck in disgust.

Because you like it? Clark responded, hiding behind his father.

I always end up in the pond.  No matter how many times we do this, I end up in the pond.  Does that sound enjoyable to you? Lex's voice was rising in volume with each question he asked.

Well, no, but . . . but . . .

You caught a fish this time, Lex, Jonathan added helpfully.

And so I did.  Didn't you say we could use it as BAIT!

Well, yes, son.  But you're getting better!

I could have stayed with Martha and baked a pie, Lex said, mournfully.

But then Mom wouldn't have been able to . . . to . . .

The word you're looking for here is interrogate, son, Jonathan said.

No, Mom's not going to interrogate anyone, is she? Clark raised an eyebrow at his dad.

Well, son, if I know your mother, the only thing she doesn't know about Delia now is whether she . . . well, never mind.

Do I want to know? Lex asked, intrigued.

Probably not.  Suffice it to say that Martha will leave no stone unturned to make sure that you're pairing up with a sane woman this time. Jonathan was proud of himself for getting through that in one piece.

And I'll be eternally grateful for her assistance.

No cars, Lex.

Not even a little one?

No, Lex. Jonathan grinned.  It had become a familiar joke between them.  Another sign, among many, that Lex was really a part of his family; this wasn't simply because the Kents were a better alternative than Lionel, but because Lex truly felt he belonged here.

***

As the truck pulled up in front of the farmhouse, Delia sprang up from her seat on the porch.  She positioned herself on the steps, arranging her legs so she looked as appealing as possible, and waited for Lex to exit the truck.

"Hi Lex!" She said, brightly. "Did you have a good time?"

"Fine, thank you," Lex replied, politely.  He skirted around Delia and headed into the house.

Delia frowned, and then headed in after him.

"Aren't you going . . ." she trailed off when she heard Martha laughing.

"Again, Lex."

"I swear those fish have something against me, Martha."

"Well, you know where the towels are," Martha said, still chuckling.

"Yes ma'am.  Do I have time to clean up before dinner?"

"I'm sure you do, dear.  The pie isn't quite finished."  Martha noticed Delia out of the corner of her eye. "Do you need some more lemonade, Delia?"

"No, thank you.  I'm fine." Delia did her best to sound gracious and was rewarded by a warm smile from Lex.

***

Once Lex had cleaned up and changed, he headed back down to the kitchen sniffing the air appreciatively.

"Dinner smells wonderful, Martha."

"I've made your favorite, Lex."  Martha waited for an indication of Lex's plan.  She could easily pack some of the chicken up for a picnic if Lex wanted some time alone with Delia or she could simply serve at the table.  She just needed an indication.

"Am I in my usual place tonight, Martha?" Lex asked.

"Of course, sweetheart.  I've put Delia next to you, of course," Martha said smoothly as she shifted the plates around on the table.

"Aren't we going to spend some time alone, Lex," Delia demanded.

"The idea of these dates, Delia, is for you to spend some time with my family.  It would hardly be time with my family if we just leave to seek privacy."

"This isn't your family," Delia said.

Martha sucked in a sharp breath, but before she could say anything, Jonathan jumped to Lex's defense.

"We welcome Lex here, and anyone he chooses to bring with him.  It's not the family that birthed you that matters; it's the family that chooses you. We have chosen Lex -- for as long as he wants to belong here."

***

"Whoa!  I don't think I've ever heard your Dad say something that positive about Lex," Pete said with a touch of awe.

"Surprised me, too," Lex admitted.

"He likes you, Lex," Clark said. "You're never going to escape the Kents now."

"Like I'd want to."

***

Once Delia had been taken back to the airport, Lex returned to the Kent farm for the evening.

"So, what did you think of Delia, Jonathan?"

"She seemed nice enough, Lex.  Of course, I liked Helen, so I'm not sure I'm the best judge."

"Helen had us all fooled, Jon," Martha said. "There's no shame in being duped by a woman like that."

"Indeed, "Lex said.  He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  Discussing his former wife, even in the abstract, always made him uncomfortable.  "So what do you think, Martha?"

"Appearances are deceiving, Lex.  You shouldn't simply trust the faces that you see," Martha replied, taking a sip of her tea as she studied the young man in front of her.

"Okay."  Lex had never appreciated cryptic comments.

"What are your plans for the evening, son," Jonathan asked.

"My father is at the castle," Lex said with a grimace.

"Why don't you stay here?"

"I couldn't put you out like that."

"Just have them shut the camera off, and I'll be fine," Jonathan said, gruffly.

***

Another limousine pulled into the Kent driveway the next day.  Veronica exited first and stared at the small house in front of her.

"Where are we, Lex?" Veronica demanded as Lex extricated himself from the back of the car.

***

"Hey, why didn't they show the meeting at the airport?" Chloe asked.

"It's a family show," Lex smirked.

"You so chose Veronica, didn't you, Lex?" Pete demanded.

"Contractual obligations prevent me from saying," Lex said, smirking again.  He was distracted, though, by Clark's glare at his image on the screen.

Lex wasn't embarrassed by the fact that, on screen, he looked like he'd been fucking, though he hadn't, but he didn't like to see Clark upset.

"It's not what it looks like," Lex muttered close to Clark's ear.

"It doesn't matter," Clark muttered back. "Why should I care what you do?"

"I don't know, Clark, why should you?" Lex was irritated now. He didn't understand why Clark was taking this all so personally. He paused the tape and turned to face Clark.

"I just can't believe you showed up to the farm looking like that."

"You didn't notice then," Lex countered.

"Boys, do you think we could watch this.  Pete's about to have a heart attack over here," Chloe said.

"Fine," said Clark.

"Fine," said Lex as he stabbed the remote button again.  He wasn't going to let Clark leave without getting to the bottom of this. Then he remembered the wig.  If he could get Clark to stay at the penthouse, he would be able to interrogate the younger man at length.  The next week was going to be difficult for both of them; it would be best to get all unresolved issues off the table before then.

***

Veronica clearly wasn't comfortable in Martha's kitchen, and she was more obviously searching for Lex than Delia had been.

"I don't peel apples, Martha," Veronica announced when she was guided into the kitchen.

"Oh, well, we all pitch in here at the farm."

"Really?" Veronica asked with an eyebrow raised.  "What does Lex do?"

"Whatever Jonathan asks of him," Martha replied as she waited for the other woman to assist her with the pie.

"I'm not interested in working on a farm.  I'm interested in spending time with Lex.  Where did he go?"

"I'm sure I don't know." Martha had already dealt with one spoiled princess who felt she, and she alone, was entitled to Lex's time.

"I will not be kept from Lex today," Veronica warned.

"I wouldn't try, dear."  With that, Martha tuned out the unpleasant woman and hoped that the boys would return soon.

Martha did not see Veronica head out of the house and commandeer one of the crew vehicles, but the cameras did.

***

"What the hell is this?" Lex demanded as he saw the vehicle pulling up in front of the castle. He paused the tape and stared at Clark. "We need to talk -- now."

"Um, Chloe, Pete . . ."

"Yeah, yeah -- we'll go entertain ourselves with the pool table or something.  When you're finished come find us, Clarkbar," Pete said, dragging a protesting Chloe behind him.

"Did you know about this?" Lex waved a hand at the screen as soon as the other two were out of ear shot.

"I didn't Lex. I swear I didn't."

"So you just . . ."

"I don't trust her, Lex. That's all."

"And you didn't . . ."

"I didn't, Lex.  I swear I didn't." Clark was having a hard time believing his eyes as he stared at the image frozen on the screen.  There was no way to deny that Veronica was at the castle and that the film crew had followed her.

"Do you want to watch this without them, Lex?  We could do that and then replay it for them.  That way you aren't surprised in front of them."

"I think that might be a good idea, Clark." Lex was shaken by this situation too.  He couldn't believe that he'd misread Veronica so completely.

***

"Lex?" Veronica called, frowning at the echo in the castle. "Where are you, Lex?"

She heard a noise from deeper in the castle, and continued to wander in unabated.

***

"Where the hell is Dad's security?"

"Maybe this was prearranged meeting?" Clark suggested. After all, Clark had been able to wander the castle freely for most of the time that he knew Lex.

"I suppose we'll see." Lex nodded at the tape, which showed Veronica heading into Lex's study and finding, not too surprisingly, Lionel seated behind Lex's desk.

***

"And who are you, my dear?" Lionel asked silkily.

"I'm looking for Lex."

"As are we all.  What business do you have with my wayward son?"

"I'm his new girlfriend."

Lionel raked his eyes up and down Veronica's body and smiled smoothly. "His taste is improving, I must say."

"Thank you, sir.  I appreciate that.  Do you know where he is?"

"I imagine that he's somewhere with the Kent boy.  He spends much too much time slumming for my taste." Lionel looked Veronica over again. "Perhaps you could break him of that unfortunate habit, my dear."

"I plan to, Mr. Luthor."

"Well, now that we've agreed upon that, I will leave you to continue your search."  Lionel took Veronica's hand and kissed it before releasing her. "If you would be so kind as to remove those cameras from my home, Veronica."

"Of course, Mr. Luthor."

***

"Stop the tape, Clark," Lex shouted.

"What?" Clark said, alarmed.  He quickly shut the tape off.

"Did she ever give my father her name, Clark? Did she give him her name?"

Clark quickly reviewed the tape in his head. "No, she didn't.  What the hell does that mean?"

"I don't know what it means, Clark. I know that I don't like it."

"What do you want to do?"

"I suppose I should talk to my father, but I can't imagine that he would be forthcoming in this matter."

"Yeah, it would probably be a total waste of time."

"We should probably just watch the rest of the tape," Lex said.

"I'll go find Pete and Chloe," Clark volunteered.

"And then we'll remind them that they didn't have consent to film in the castle." Lex's grin was sharkish.

***

Lex stalked out of the room while Clark replayed the section of tape that Chloe and Pete had missed.

Wow!  Do you think she knows Lionel? Chloe asked.

I don't know, Chlo, but it does look that way.

I've just determined that, in fact, my father did give them permission to film at the castle.  He was called and informed that someone was coming and asked if it would be all right.  Apparently, they gave him her name. Lex crashed down on the couch next to Clark.

Do you believe them? Clark asked quietly.

For now, I have to believe them, Clark.  They have a signed release; it's been faxed and it does appear to be my father's signature.  I just don't understand why he'd agree to it after refusing me.

Clark frowned. I didn't know you asked your Dad to do the show, Lex.

I didn't want to place more of a burden on your family, and I felt anyone getting involved with me should know exactly what they're getting into.  I mean, my father is not your average in-law.

True, Clark replied. And he said no?

He said he didn't have time for foolish games.

But this was his idea, Clark protested.

Of course it was.  It's fine for me to participate in foolish games - particularly those that might net me a Luthor-acceptable spouse.  It's not, however, fine for him.  Unless, apparently, he does it on his own terms.  Then, I guess, it's fine.  God, I hate my father. By this point, Lex had completely forgotten that there was anyone other than Clark in the room. What am I going to do, Clark?

Why don't we just watch the rest of the tape, Lex? Chloe asked.

Lex's head popped up from the back of the couch as he realized that Chloe and Pete were also in the room. Oh God, I didn't realize that you two were in here.

Where were we supposed to be, Lex? We were watching the part you wouldn't let us watch before.

I'm sorry.  You didn't need to hear me complaining about my father.

Well, I figure it makes you more like the rest of us, Lex, Pete said.

I see. Though Lex clearly didn't see at all.

I mean, we all complain about our parents.  You just have a bit more to complain about than the rest of us.  Between the hair and his unusual interest in your personal life, I think you really struck out when it came to parents.  No offense.

None taken, Pete.  I think you might be right about that.  So, any bright ideas about what to do here?

I'd say what Clark said; watch the rest of the tape and let's see what else happens.  Maybe this was just a freak thing, you know? Pete tried to sound confident, but he wasn't sure he was making it work.

You're both right, of course.  Let's continue.  How much worse can this really get?

***

Veronica looked smug as she exited the commandeered vehicle and found Lex waiting for her on the porch.

Did you enjoy the sites, Veronica?

There's just so much to do here in  . . .

Smallville. Where there's not much to do on a Saturday, Clark offered from behind the screen door. Dinner's ready if you're interested.

Lex and I have other plans for dinner, Veronica said.

Actually, we don't. Lex pulled open the screened door and headed into the house. The idea, Veronica, was for you to spend time with my family.

Veronica followed Lex into the farmhouse but was clearly reluctant to be there.  She sat down at the table and only responded to Lex when he spoke to her.  She seemed unwilling to engage in even basic conversation with the Kent family.

When the dinner had ended, Veronica took Lex's arm and began trying to draw him out of the house.

I want to talk with you, Lex.

We can talk here.

I have private things I want to say to you, Veronica pleaded.

I don't think there's much that you could say that you can't say in front of Clark and his family, Lex replied.

Veronica nodded and continued to try talking with the Kents though she was still visibly irritated by the evening.

***

Once Veronica was loaded back into the limousine, Lex headed straight back into the house with the Kents.

Well, what did you think of this one?

To be honest, Lex, I couldn't get her to converse with me or to work on the pie.  Her only interest seems to be you.  I don't know that it's a bad thing, though, for her to be focused on you, Martha mused.

Focused is a good word for it, Lex, Jonathan added. I found her very focused on you.  It didn't seem that your family or your chosen family mattered much to her at all.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, Lex said.

No, it's not, Lex.  That's what we're saying; she's very interested in you and focused on you.  She seems intent on having you to herself. Martha watched as Clark's face fell at that comment.  While he wanted Lex to be happy, he clearly hadn't considered the possibility that Lex's happiness might lose him some of the focus and attention he was used to from Lex. It might be good for you to have someone who cares about you as much as she does.

I don't know, Mom.  I don't think it's healthy for her to want Lex's undivided attention all the time.

I don't know if that's it either, Clark, Jonathan said. I didn't get the feeling that she wanted to prevent Lex from doing the social things that he's always done, just that she wants his exclusive attention when they're together.

But that's not reasonable, is it, Lex? Clark asked.

No, not entirely reasonable, Clark, but I can see where she might expect to have more of my attention than other people if she's my wife. Lex wasn't too sure about the situation with Veronica.  It reminded him, not in a good way, of Desiree.  It seemed like she exerted some sort of power or influence over him that he had trouble shaking when he was alone with her.  When he was with her and Clark, though, he felt clearheaded.  It was something to think about and, perhaps, talk over with Clark before he made his next selections.

***

Marnie arrived at the Kent farm with a smile and carrying flowers.  She'd insisted that Lex wait for her with his family instead of dragging himself to the air strip for the third consecutive day.  She smiled at everyone and even gave Clark a kiss on the cheek.

"It's so good to see you -- both of you," Marnie said to Lex and Clark.

Clark wrapped her up into a gentle hug and then set her back down. "It's good to see you, too."

Lex grinned at the comfort between the two and then was the recipient of a huge hug and kiss himself.  "I'm glad you're here, Marnie!"

He put a hand to the small of her back and escorted her toward Martha and Jonathan. "Martha, Jonathan, this is Marnie.  Marnie, these are Clark's parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent."

"Mr. Kent, Mrs. Kent, thank you so much for having me," Marnie said holding the flowers out to Martha.

"You're welcome, dear.  Thank you for the flowers."   Martha took the flowers and sniffed them smiling at the young woman. "I was planning to make a pie, would you be interested in helping me?"

"I don't know what Lex's plans, are, but assuming he doesn't mind, I'd love to help," Marnie said.

"It's fine with me," Lex said, amazed at how much easier it was to get Marnie to go along with the plan to give Martha time to interrogate the women.  "We'll just go . . ."

"Check the fence line," Clark piped in, seeing Lex's desperate glance in his direction.

"That's right, boys.  We need to repair a section of fence near the back of the property," Jonathan said with a twinkle in his eye.

Lex muffled his groan as he saw that twinkle -- god only knew what Jonathan had in store for him this time.

***

"Is Lex really going to help repair a fence?" Marnie asked as she sprinkled some more flour on the board.

"I'm not sure, actually.  I was under the impression that Jonathan and Clark had finished that earlier this summer, but I could be wrong.  We have had some storms recently." Martha watched the younger woman started to roll out the pie crust.

"I'm not familiar with the recipe you're using, Marnie.  Where did you find it?"

"It's my mother's actually," Marnie replied somewhat self-consciously. "You have a wonderful home here, Martha. It reminds me of my parents' home."

"So you're not originally from Opal City?"

"No, I'm a small town girl."

"So how did you end up on a show like this?"

"Would you believe a friend sent in a tape for me?  I had no idea what she'd done until the producers called me," Marnie said as she began fitting the crust to the pie plate.

"Obviously, you decided to do the show."

"I have to admit I didn't expect to get very far with it.  I'm about as far from millionaire wife material as I think any woman there."

"So, now that you've made it this far, how do you feel?" Martha rested her chin on her hand as she watched Marnie arrange the apples she'd sliced into the crust.

"I really like Lex.  He's a nice guy and he tries so hard to make me feel comfortable with all the things that he's doing, and I know I'd like to spend more time with him and get to know him better, but I'll be honest, I don't think I'd be ready to get engaged at this point."

"I see," Martha said with a smile.

Marnie started creating a lattice top to the pie, while Martha continued to watch.

"What do you think of the other women remaining, Marnie?"

"I don't know Delia or Veronica well enough to form an opinion.  We all kept to ourselves -- moreso possibly than the other women."

"Where do you see yourself in five years?"

"I'm not sure.  This show has opened new doors for me and I don't quite know where I'm going to end up."

"If I had asked you this before the show?"

"I would have said working in a small town and raising a family in a farmhouse something like this.  Of course, if I end up with Lex that dream would have to change." Marnie frowned as she continued working the lattice pattern. "I think I'd be okay with that, Martha.  I really do."

So you really like Lex, then? Martha studied the woman in front of her.  Ideally, she would have chosen a woman like this for Clark; had Clark been a different, human boy without the destiny he had.  She wasn't sure that Marnie would really be cut out for life with Lex and wondered whether that would lead to heartache for the young woman should Lex choose her.

He's a very nice man, Martha.  At Martha's raised eyebrow, Marnie giggled. I know, I've heard all about his reputation and how dangerous and difficult he could be, but I think that may have been his rebellion against who he is and who he was expected to be.

Perhaps, Martha conceded.

***

Don't you think she's just a little too sweet? Chloe asked.

Marnie is really a nice person, Chlo.  She's just that sweet and nice.

It could be an act, though, Chloe said.

I suppose so, Clark admitted. But she never seemed like anything but that.  She would have to be one of the best actresses around to remain completely conscious of the cameras like that.

As we've seen, Clark could easily forget about them, Lex said, grinning.

Hey! Clark lightly punched Lex's shoulder. That's not fair.  I'm not used to having cameras in my face all the time.

I know that, Lex said soothingly.  My point is that if she was acting, the likelihood is that she would have dropped her guard at some point.  Every other woman seems to have done so.

Right.  See, Chloe, even Lex thinks Marnie's great.

Does that mean you chose Marnie, Lex? Pete demanded.

Contractual . . .

Yeah, yeah.  Contractual obligations prevent you from saying.  I've got it, Lex.  I got it the first time you told me and the fifteenth time you told me.

So why do you keep asking? Lex asked with a raised eyebrow.

Because I keep hoping that I'll trip you up and you'll tell us by accident.

I think it's highly unlikely that that will happen, Lex said.

***

Marnie had settled in with Martha when the three men reappeared in the farmhouse.

Something smells fabulous, Martha, Jonathan said, pecking his wife on the cheek as he headed toward the kitchen to wash up.

Don't thank me, Martha said. I didn't even get to touch an apple for this one.

Jonathan turned inquiring eyes toward the two women. You made the pie, Marnie?

I haven't gotten a chance to bake since I started the show, so I begged Martha to let me do it. Marnie flushed with embarrassment. I just hope you all like it.

I'm sure it'll be just fine, Marnie, Clark said, crossing his fingers behind his back.  Nothing was as good as his Mom's pie.

Would you like to stay here for dinner? Lex asked.

Oh, could we, Lex? Marnie asked. I'd just love to have a good home cooked meal.  I'd even help fix it, if you'd like, Martha.

Of course you're both welcome, Martha said. And Marnie, you are welcome in my kitchen anytime.

Clark and Jonathan grinned at each other.  Clearly, this candidate had won a place in Martha's heart.  Lex looked more dubious but still settled in graciously to await the arrival of the meal.

***

Clark's eyes were huge after eating the pie.  He would never have believed it if he hadn't tasted it for himself, but Marnie's pie was as good as his mother's.  He slumped back into his seat in shock.

Are you okay, Clark? Marnie asked, staring at the young man with concern.

Yeah, that was a good pie, Marnie.  Really good!

That's a high compliment coming from Clark, Lex said. Even my cook doesn't receive that kind of praise.

Your cook makes lots of other things that I like, Lex, so it's okay that her pie isn't this good, Clark offered somewhat apologetically.

We should probably be getting you to the air strip, Marnie, Lex said.

Would you like to come along, Clark? Marnie asked.

I - wouldn't I be in the way? Clark looked from Marnie to Lex to see if he could figure out what they wanted him to do.

Actually, I was going to have my driver take you, Lex said. I have some matters to discuss with the Kents before I head back to Metropolis with Clark.

Oh, of course, I didn't even think. Marnie blushed prettily. I should have realized. Is the car here?

It's quite all right, Lex said, soothingly. I can see where there might have been some confusion. I believe I just heard my driver pull up.

Marnie left in a flurry of hugs and kisses for everyone, leaving Lex standing at the door staring at the departing limousine.

So, he asked, leaning his head against the doorframe, what do we think of this one?

Perhaps that's not the right question, Lex, Martha said.

I'm not sure I follow.

The question shouldn't be what do we think of her, but rather what do you think of her?  Do you like her?

I like each of these women for different reasons, Martha.  Delia is smooth; she'd fit into my business life and my social life quite easily.  She's smart and she's attractive.

And Veronica? Jonathan asked trying to conceal the small shudder he felt at the mere mention of her name.

There's just something about her, Jonathan.  I don't even know how to put it into words, she's intriguing.  An enigma, even; a puzzle I want to solve.

Clark frowned, knowing how much Lex appreciated puzzles. But what about Marnie?

I almost feel like she's too good for me, Clark.  I don't think she's cut out for life in my world. Lex frowned, too, because he also felt, many times, that Clark wasn't cut out for life in his world, but he let Clark stay.  Maybe he should assume that Marnie knew her own mind and that she was ready for what his life could be like.

I think, Lex, that she's going to expect things to move much more slowly than the other two women, Martha offered.

What do you mean?

She doesn't seem ready to marry you.  She'd be interested in spending more time with you and getting to know you more, but I don't think she'd marry you at this point.

I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, Lex, Jonathan said.

But the point of this exercise was to have a wife at the end of it.

I thought you told me a suitable wife candidate, Clark objected.

Would you have agreed to do this if I'd said, suitable wife?

No! Clark replied hotly.

I rest my case.

What the plan now, boys? Jonathan asked.

We'll need to head back to Metropolis for the selection ceremony, and then, I believe, Clark will be returned to you.  I make the rest of this journey on my own.

Surely you can stay tonight and leave in the morning, Martha implored.

Of course, Martha, Lex said, reassuring her. We don't have to leave, but the camera crews do.

***
Okay, Marnie is definitely the best of the bunch, Lex, Chloe said.

I have the same reservations today that I had when this was taped, Miss Sullivan.  I fear that she's not cut out for the life I lead and that she would not be happy, ultimately, being married to me. Lex frowned at Clark as he said this.  He'd begun to harbor suspicions that Clark had feelings for Marnie, and if that were the case, he would try to steer the woman in Clark's direction when this was all over.  Perhaps.

I don't know; she's kind of like Mom.  She's all soft on the outside, but she got a core of steel underneath.  I think she'd hold up just fine.

And I suppose it is true that of all the women I know, I admire your mother above all.

See, Lex, that's right.  And you can't have Mom, but Marnie would be a good fit.

I suppose it's possible, Clark.

Wait - does this mean that you haven't actually picked yet, Lex, Chloe demanded.

It does not.

Then why are you talking as if there are still options? Wouldn't you have made up your mind already?

"I'm not actually foolish enough to give you clues, Miss Sullivan.  You're intrepid enough to follow them and come up with a correct or complete answer." Lex smiled pointedly at the young woman sitting across from him.

"I'm not going to tell anyone, Lex," Chloe protested with her fingers crossed behind her back.

"Then you're not half the reporter I believe you to be, Miss Sullivan." Lex smirked at her shocked face.

"I . . . I . . ."

"It's quite all right, Miss Sullivan.  I do understand the desire to achieve specific stories and to excel at what you do.  It's a desire I respect and understand." Lex waited a beat and then added, "But I will not be the story that makes your career.  Do you understand me, Miss Sullivan?"

"I do, Lex," Chloe said, chastened.

"She won't do anything, Lex," Clark promised.  He glared at Chloe; he would make sure of it.

"I trust you, Clark."

Clark flushed under Lex's gaze but grinned to acknowledge the significance of Lex's sentiments.

***

"Lex, Clark, we'll be heading down in a few moments for you to have a few minutes with each of them women before you make your final decisions, Lex."

"That's fine, Mark," Lex said. He patted Clark gently on the shoulder. "Are you ready for this, Clark?"

"Sure, Lex. How about you?" Clark studied his friend's face with concern. Lex seemed about to jump out of his skin.

The two men were led downstairs by Mark and introduced to the women. "Ladies, you'll have some time with both men this evening, I suggest you make the most of it."

All three women converged on Lex, completely ignoring Clark. Clark leaned against a wall and waited patiently for whatever was going to happen to happen.

Lex listened to the babble for about a minute before holding up a hand to stop each woman. "I want to speak with each of you individually.  While I'm talking with you, I suggest that you spend some time with Clark."

Veronica and Delia pouted, but Marnie nodded and waited to see who Lex would speak with first.

"Veronica, let's talk." Lex motioned toward the door leading to the patio. "Clark, come get me in five minutes, okay?"

"Afraid I'll distract you, Lex?" Veronica purred.

Lex grumbled, but simply led the way out the door. He leaned back against the closed patio door and stared at Veronica.

Veronica didn't speak, she simply wound her way around Lex and started kissing him. She murmured softly, but audibly to the camera, "You know you want me, Lex."

Lex stared at her but remained silent.

"I'm the best choice, Lex.  You know that I am." Veronica rubbed her body sinuously against Lex's. "I'll be perfect for you in just so many ways."

"I see," Lex said with a raised eyebrow. He jumped when he felt the handle jiggle behind him.

"Lex, are you out there?  You told me to come and get you," Clark called through the closed door.

"You don't need to talk with the others, Lex.  Stay with me," Veronica pleaded.

"I should talk with everyone, Veronica.  It's only proper." Lex turned back toward the door to let himself back into the house.

Clark let out a sigh of relief when Lex took Delia out next.  The hostility level she'd been emitting was amazing.  He watched as Veronica settled herself on the couch with a smirk.

Clark approached her only to receive a glare. "You don't want to talk to me?"

"I absolutely do not want to talk to you," Veronica growled.

"It's your call," Clark said.

"It certainly is." Veronica settled back on the sofa and glared at Clark who was backing away from her slowly.

He bumped into Marnie and but for superspeed would have knocked her over.

"Oh my gosh!  I'm so sorry.  Are you okay, Marnie?" Clark asked.

"I'm fine, Clark," Marnie said, smiling up at him from the safety of his arms.

***

"I thought you said there was nothing going on between you and Marnie," Lex hissed.

"There isn't, Lex," Clark hissed back.

"That --" Lex stabbed finger at the image frozen on the screen. " -- is something going on. I thought I could trust you."

"You can trust me, Lex.  I don't want her.  I never wanted her.  I swear it," Clark said, plaintively.

"It sure looks like you want her, dude," Pete chimed in.

"You. Are. Not. Helping!" Clark practically shouted.

"Even Pete can see it, Clark.  Why don't you just admit it," Lex said, flatly.

"No!  I'm not admitting it because it isn't true.  Why would I . . ." Clark trailed off.  He could say what he wanted, but he would ruin the surprise for the other two watching the tape.  "Can we just finish watching this, please?  We don't need to subject Pete and Chloe to this."

"You're right, Clark.  Let's finish watching this and then we can discuss our issues privately."

"Fine with me," Clark said.

***

The scene on the patio wasn't much different from that inside, except that Delia and Lex were kissing.

"We need to stop," Lex said. "I still need to talk to Marnie."

"Be realistic, Lex.  You aren't going to choose her.  She's milquetoast, Lex, and you need someone stronger than that."

"I don't know, Delia; she has a number of interesting qualities," Lex said, thinking of the ease that Marnie showed in a variety of situations.

Mark appeared at the French doors on the patio. "It's time to go back upstairs, Lex."

Lex disengaged himself from Delia and said, "I didn't have a chance to speak with Marnie."

"I'm afraid time is up, regardless, Lex," Mark said, escorting Lex toward the stairs.

Lex threw an apologetic look toward Marnie as he and Clark were shepherded up the stairs.

When the reached the photo room, Mark said, "I'll leave the two of you to discuss the choice that Lex needs to make tonight.  Remember, Lex," Mark said smiling at the camera, "you will need to say good-bye to one woman tonight."

Lex stared at the three photos and turned his choices over in his mind.

"What are you thinking, Lex?" Clark asked.

"I'm clear on my decision, Clark.  I know what I have to do." Lex's voice was grim.

"Am I going to like your decision?" Clark asked.

"I don't think it will surprise you," Lex said, eyeing the photos again.

"I just want you to be happy, Lex."

"That might be a bit too much to shoot for." Lex stuffed his hands into his pants pockets and rocked back on his heels.

"Are you gentlemen ready?" Mark asked as he stuck his head in the room.

"Clark is staying here," Lex said, firmly.

"Actually, we need him downstairs tonight, Lex," Mark said.

"We do?" Lex and Clark said in unison.

"We do," Mark confirmed.

***

"Ladies, as usual, Lex will be making his selections in a moment.  If you don't feel that you want to go further, you should feel free to decline Lex's invitation to go further."

The women glanced at each other and then waited for Mark to move aside for Lex.

"However . . . tonight, Clark will make the final decision."

"What?" Clark said.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" Lex asked.

"If Clark feels that one of your choices is, well, less than appropriate for you, he may, if he chooses, veto your choice and replace one woman with the remaining woman."

Clark paled dramatically and leaned against the strategically placed column.  He considered, momentarily, x-raying them for green meteor rocks.

"Well, this should be interesting," Veronica muttered, just loud enough for the camera to pick up.

"And now, Lex will make his choices," Mark said, as he stepped aside. On cue, a butler walked in with two boxes on a tray.

"I would like to say that this was a difficult decision for me, it truly was.  Each of you have qualities that I can appreciate and would enjoy in a wife.  I feel confident that I've made good choices all the way along because there are so few dissimilarities between you, but there are a few."

Lex looked at each woman carefully, as if reviewing the pros and cons of each woman.  "Marnie?"

"Yes, Lex," Marnie said as she walked up to Lex.

"We've had some terrific times, Marnie.  You've demonstrated, time and again, how easily you could fit in to my life." Lex smiled as Marnie's face lit up. "Would you be interested in continuing this journey with me?"

"Of course, Lex." Marnie's smile blossomed. "I would love to introduce you to my parents."

Lex kissed her gently and handed her a box from the tray the butler was holding.

He waited a moment and then said, "Veronica?"

Veronica flipped her hair and flashed a brilliant smile.  "Of course, Lex."

"I haven't asked yet," Lex replied.

"But you will and I'm saying yes." Veronica smoothed her dress and waited for Lex to deny what she'd said.

"You're right, I was going to ask.  Would you do me the honor of continuing?" Lex was curious about what the following week with Veronica would hold, and he knew she could hold her own in the whirlwind that was his life.

"Of course, of course," Veronica said, reaching for the package on the tray.

"Uh, Mark?" Clark said from his position against the column. "Do I, uh, get to have my say now?"

"Of course, Clark.  Do you have concerns about Lex's choices?"

Clark looked at Lex for a moment, almost pleading for him to understand. "Yeah, I do."

"It's okay, Clark," Lex said, quietly. "Tell us what you're thinking."

"You're making a mistake, Lex, and I just can't let you do that.  This is just too important."

"I understand, Clark." Lex tried to convey to Clark that he would trust his decision.

"I think Delia is a better choice for you," Clark said.

"So, which woman do you want to replace, Clark?" Mark asked.

"Oh, I thought that was obvious." Clark stared at Lex again, who nodded in understanding.

"You'll need to say it, Clark," Mark said.

"Veronica.  I'm replacing Veronica with Delia."

"THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS!!!!!" Veronica screamed as she threw herself toward Clark.

***

Tune in next week for the two-hour finale of Single Millionaire.
 

End