Notes: Xander/Lex Luthor. The characters and situations are not mine.
Rupert Giles looked at Miss Lang's retreating back with dismay. Xhoar demon infections moved fast, and were irreversible after three days. They had a little more than half a day left, during which he somehow had to convince Miss Lang to change her mind and surrender the box made from the armor of Saint George, bring it to Xander in San Francisco, and perform the ritual - actually, have Willow perform the ritual, since it required rather a lot of magic - that would turn Xander back from mystical lizard-being to ordinary (or perhaps subpar) human being.
The jingle of the bells at the coffee shop's front door was almost identical to that of the Magic Shop (at least before it had fallen with everything else into the Hellmouth), and Giles turned automatically towards the newest customer.
It was Lex Luthor, the odd bald man from the Victorian monstrosity, wearing a long black coat over an aubergine shirt and exquisitely tailored trousers. A ridiculous shirt, in both color and obvious expense; Giles could only think of one other person he'd met who could make a shirt like that look reasonable, and he was hardly a man to be emulated. Giles noticed that everyone else in the coffee shop had also stopped and looked up at Luthor. Luthor moved casually, but a certain tightness in his jaw suggested that he was aware of being regarded as a curiousity.
Conversation resumed its previous low-level hum as Luthor approached the counter and accepted a mug of some steaming beverage. He didn't offer payment, only leaned over and began talking to Miss Lang, their faces so close that Giles wondered whether free coffee was the only droit du seigneur Luthor extracted.
She looked over at Giles, though Luthor didn't turn, and said something that made the young man go entirely still. Giles thought he had the look of a predator, inexperienced but learning fast.
Perhaps Sunnydale wasn't unusual in making its children grow up too quickly, even if their lessons were more exotic than those of the average American town.
Giles's new cellphone buzzed at his hip, making him jump and fumble to get it to his ear.
"You know, the phone shows who's calling," Willow said. "You don't have to be all formal with me."
"Yes, well, pardon my distraction, as I have made minimal progress towards our goal."
"I haven't found another source of St. George's armor. That box seems to be made from the last bits and pieces. Do you think I could, maybe, summon it?"
Giles shook his head. Though Willow couldn't see him, he thought she'd be able to tell. "The ritual instructions were very specific. It must be willingly given to the spell-caster, or the saint's power is void."
"Listen, even if you get the box -"
Giles stared glumly at his cooling coffee and wished that he'd risked finding out what Kansas thought qualified as tea. "We're very short on time, I know."
"Buffy says she's coming to help."
"When will she arrive?" Giles kept his tone low; it was the Lang girl who was the problem, not Willow, and he wouldn't take his frustration out on her.
"Um ... a second ago?" The bell jingled, and Willow, Buffy, and - good God, Xander - trooped into the coffee shop. Giles barely remembered to turn off his infernal cellphone before dropping it into his lap. Buffy looked windblown, while Xander was moving strangely; his normal appearance must have been one of Willow's illusions.
Willow and Buffy saw him and dragged Xander over. Xander's tongue flickered out - sniffing the air? Giles looked around and saw that several people had noticed the newcomers' strange behavior. He smiled at them, though he rather thought he made a poor showing, and most heads turned back to their own beverages and companions.
The appearance of three new, young strangers brought Miss Lang back to their table almost immediately.
"You have ... friends," she said, smiling a bit dubiously.
Giles pushed his glasses up on his nose and gave her his most winning smile, which would never merit a gold medal. She seemed, however, to appreciate the effort and her own smile became luminous. "Yes, er, fellow collectors."
Willow nodded vigorously, while Buffy looked grim and Xander's head moved back and forth in a way that didn't look very human.
"What would you like?" Miss Lang asked, and the tension was broken. Buffy ordered exactly the kind of caffeine-cream-cocoa monstrosity Giles would have expected (though he hadn't counted on the shot of hazelnut), and Willow ordered coffee for herself and Xander.
If Xander could no longer talk, the situation was very grim indeed.
"That's her?" Buffy asked as soon as she walked away.
"Hmm," Buffy said, in the way of a woman evaluating another woman. Some things, Giles thought, blessedly remained a mystery to him.
"This town is strange," Willow said. "A bunch of these people have a funny green aura, including that girl."
"There was a large and destructive meteor shower here about fifteen years ago; perhaps it was of mystical origin," Giles suggested.
Willow shook her head. "Nothing we know about. We could try calling Wolfram and Hart, they of the encyclopedic evil -"
Buffy and Giles shook their heads at the same time. Xander swiveled in his chair, watching a girl walk towards the counter, and Buffy reached out to turn him back to the table.
"The instincts are kicking in," Willow said apologetically. "He, uh, kind of tried to - well, strike Andrew. I think he felt territorial."
Buffy was ignoring them to look over at the door, so Giles turned to see who had just entered. It was the blushing, stammering high school boy, the one who'd been so hard pressed to explain why Luthor had given him a priceless box and why he'd passed it on to an even less distinguished girl.
"He looks like part of a complete breakfast," Buffy said.
"He's also in high school," Giles said, fairly confident that he'd deciphered Buffy's argot and that his acid tone was therefore justified.
"Maybe I should get into younger guys," Buffy said, almost wistfully, propping her chin on the heel of her hand. "Instead of, you know, guys who predate the flush toilet. But it would never work; he's human."
"Um ..." Willow said.
Buffy turned. "He's not human?" The enthusiasm in her voice was disquieting. Giles profoundly hoped it was bloodlust.
"I don't know what he is. Not demonic. Sort of like a reverse image of the other weird auras." The boy stood next to Luthor, staring at Miss Lang as Luthor leaned to whisper in his ear. He shifted uncomfortably and looked down at the counter, then said something to Miss Lang that made her look over at the Sunnydale table.
Their drinks arrived, courtesy of a pink-cheeked blonde waitress whose beauty was much more suited to the Midwestern location than Miss Lang's more exotic good looks. Giles smiled at her, wishing she'd go away, while the women assured her that everything was great.
Before they could discuss further steps, Luthor came to the table, standing just far enough back that Giles could see his hands casually slipped into his pockets, emanating enough self-confidence to bolster a roomful of insecure teenage girls (which was a great deal of self-confidence, as Giles now had reason to know). He smiled at them, his eyes measuring them as if he were calculating the worth of their component parts. Up close, Giles could tell that his dark purple tie was embroidered with slightly darker threads that picked out the swirls of a Mandelbrot set.
"I understand you've been asking about a certain box Clark Kent gave to Lana. She's asked me to speak to you and authorized me to decide what to do." The tone invited explanations, and perhaps other intimacies.
"Yes," Giles said, "we're willing to pay a rather large sum for the, er, item at issue."
Luthor smiled, not gently, and pulled a chair from a nearby table so that he could sit down between Xander and Willow. "Our definitions of large might differ." He paused for a moment and reached for a pink sugar packet, which caused other packets to spill from the overstuffed container. He didn't put them back. "Why do you want the box?"
Buffy and Willow looked to Giles for guidance.
"Very dedicated collectors," Willow joined in, nodding.
"What do you collect?"
Giles blinked and reached for his glasses. "Artifacts of saints," he said at the same time as Willow blurted, "Medieval armor."
"Medieval armor of saints," Buffy said, hard on their heels.
Luthor looked at each of them in turn. "Would you like to try?" he asked Xander, his tone distantly polite.
Xander twisted in his chair, staring at Luthor with a predator's hunger. His tongue slipped past his lips as he leaned towards Luthor until their faces were less than six inches apart. Luthor jerked back slightly, his hand going to his cheek. Giles realized that Willow's spell disguised a lengthened tongue, but the illusion must have been limited to invisibility rather than intangibility.
Recovering, Luthor leaned forward again, though away from Xander, his voice dropping as he made eye contact with Buffy, Willow, and finally Giles. "I've been told that lies are never a good foundation for a productive relationship. I suggest you try again, and this time you tell me why you really want the box. I'm not averse to giving it to you under appropriate circumstances. All I ask is that you satisfy my curiousity. Is that such a terrible thing?" He was looking at Willow when he finished, and she shook her head slightly, apparently without realizing it.
"Fine," Buffy snapped, startling Willow so that she looked away from Luthor and nearly knocked her coffee cup to the floor. "But you're not gonna believe it."
"Buffy," Giles said warningly.
"What? You think he'll write a tell-all book? If he thinks we're crazy, maybe he'll give it to us just for kicks."
Luthor shrugged, gracefully. "Sounds like as good a reason as any."
"Xander here has been cursed," Buffy explained inaccurately. "He's turning into a lizard." Giles opened his mouth to correct her, but decided not to interfere. "We can break the curse, but only by performing a ritual that includes St. George's armor. And we don't have much time," she added as an afterthought.
Luthor's expression was unchanged, almost as if he hadn't heard Buffy speak.
"Well?" she demanded, impatient as ever.
He looked at her until her expression went from defiant to defiant and desperately worried. Then he rose and left the table, his coat swinging behind him like a curtain of night. Willow made a small sound of disappointment as Giles stifled a curse, watching in despair as Luthor returned to the counter and got another cup of coffee from Miss Lang.
The terrible weight of impending doom settled on him, worse than it had been since before Sunnydale was destroyed. Somehow, even after Caleb maimed Xander, Giles had always thought that he would survive them all, his bumbling near-competence a sort of protection from the horrors they regularly faced. To lose him like this, from a routine visit to a new Slayer - he wasn't even a Watcher; he'd agreed to look in on her only because he was already in San Francisco, and Giles had been relieved because they were too short-handed as it was. And now, they'd have to watch as he slipped away. Giles blinked rapidly, lost in the struggle to control himself.
He looked up as Willow's hand clamped around his wrist. "Giles," she hissed.
Luthor was making his way back to their table, sliding around the scattered tables like a viper in the desert. Giles fumbled with his glasses, not sure what was showing on his face.
"Lana's going to bring the box to the mansion," Luthor said easily as he reached them. "We'll meet her there."
Giles thought that his sigh of relief might have gone unnoticed underneath those of the women. Xander, lost in his transformation, didn't seem to react at all.
"So," Luthor continued, "how exactly does this ritual work?"
"Technically, it's a spell," Willow said. "Giles will help me cast it - I'm kinda the witch of the group, see. We summon a - anyway, the spell should bring Xander back to normal, and then he can thank you. Thank you, by the way. Oh, and I'm Willow, and this is Buffy, Mr. Giles, and Xander."
Luthor smiled at her; she smiled back and stuck out her hand, which he shook with evident enjoyment. The air between them fairly crackled. Giles looked over at Buffy, who shrugged. Truth to tell, Giles probably wouldn't have drawn the line at sexual favors to help Xander, and certainly not at slaughter, so if Willow's flirting was what did the job, he wasn't going to complain.
"God help me," Luthor said after a short pause, "but I have to ask: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?"
Giles frowned in incomprehension, but Willow nearly simpered. "We're still in Kansas," she said.
"I think you'll find that Smallville is very close to being over the rainbow," he replied, and they smiled at each other again.
Luthor's whim might save Xander, but he had the look of a man who'd sucker-punch a person just to see what would happen next. They didn't need another random variable, but then, when had life ever given this Slayer or her friends what they needed?
"Yes, it's all very interesting," Giles said. "Need I remind you that Xander is gaining scales by the minute?"
"Well, then we'd better head over to the mansion," Luthor said, as if he were the only reasonable man in a group of flighty children. "May I offer you a ride?" He was most definitely engaging in deliberate innuendo, Giles concluded. The only difficulty was that Giles was not sure at whom it was aimed. Perhaps Luthor didn't care who responded.
"That Ferrari outside, that's yours?" Willow asked. Luthor nodded. Giles had arrived before Luthor, so he hadn't seen any such car, but he wasn't surprised to hear that such a flashy young man was engaged in conspicuous consumption.
"Well, in that case," Buffy said, "we'd love a ride."
"So what do I do?" Lex asked after he got rid of Lana and followed his visitors into the weapons room, still trying to assimilate all that he'd heard on the way back to the mansion. Not that he believed much of it, but he'd seen many things he didn't believe over the past few years, so he wasn't going to let a little matter like impossibility get in the way of the advancement of knowledge.
"You do nothing," Giles snapped. "If you'll just leave us for approximately fifteen minutes -"
Lex folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe. From Buffy's appreciative look, he gathered that the pose was effective. "This is my house, my box of St. George's armor, my rules. And one of my rules is that I know everything that goes on here."
Giles glared at him, but Willow put a hand on the older man's arm and looked up pleadingly. Her red hair brushed her shoulders, the neat ends fluttering slightly as she raised her chin. "It'll be fine, Giles. It's not dangerous."
"Famous last words," Giles harrumphed, but he relaxed into a frown that was far less intimidating than those of the schoolmasters of Lex's youth. Lex had to admit that he would have caved, too, if Willow had asked him. Brunettes weren't his only weakness.
"We're going to summon a demon that can cure Xhoar infections. They're not very friendly, but they're easy enough to control if you know the rules. We'd better push all this furniture to the sides and roll up the rugs so we can get a big enough circle," Willow said worriedly. "The sand we use for the circle - it's kind of ucky," she explained to Lex. "And these carpets look pretty valuable."
"Priceless," he said, holding her gaze until she blushed, light rose on skin that looked like it never saw the sun, California notwithstanding.
"Very well," Giles said briskly. Lex smirked in his general direction and began to move furniture. When Buffy had an easier time with her end of the sofa than Lex had with his, he began speculating about scenarios that would pit her against Clark. Too hard to pull off, he decided as they settled it against the back wall, and any such ploy risked losing what small amount of trust he'd accumulated with the visitors. A pity, though.
While Lex and Buffy did the heavy lifting and Xander breathed hissingly in the corner, Willow and Giles were unpacking (using what Lex could only describe as a portable hole, given the volume of material that emerged from it) and preparing. Willow talked as she went, explaining her ingredients with the enthusiasm of a Wiccan version of a Jehovah's Witness, indifferent to Giles' ever more frequent strained looks. Lex interrupted with clarifying questions as necessary, and felt that he was learning more useful things in one day than he'd done in his last semester at Princeton.
"So you don't need to be born magical, like Harry Potter," Lex said as he and Buffy began rolling up the first of the carpets.
"Oh, no. I mean, people are better and worse at it, like ice skating. Some never get the hang of it, and some -" here she paused and gave Giles a significant look, which the man missed entirely as he shook something blue into a glazed black bowl - "win the gold and then end up doing tricks with Snoopy in the Ice Capades. In a metaphorical sense, I mean."
Lex nodded. He thought he might like to obtain copies of the books they'd brought with them. Maybe 'financial wizard' could be as literal a term as 'charming' apparently was.
When the room was cleared enough to create Willow's circle, he was free to watch her work more closely.
She was using the box as a crucible of sorts, a fire underneath it. Lex supposed it was as good a fate as any for the artifact. Getting it back made him feel a bit Hamlet-like, having his letters returned by Ophelia. Though he wasn't the one whose blandishments had lost their perfume; he'd given the box to Clark with the necklace for Lana, and Lana obviously hadn't much cared for the message.
In the legend, the box was a place to hide all that which made a man weak. His mother might actually have thought that it could shield Lex from harm. It would have been one of her more innocuous fantasies. He worried, though, that he'd been Pandora in reverse, letting parts of himself molder in lead, refusing to face that in himself which made him uncomfortable. The box was a crutch, just as the armor had been for St. George; it had to be given up for the saint to find his own strength.
Willow didn't notice Lex's distraction, and in truth he was watching quite closely, dividing his thoughts between observation and analysis. She seemed to feel enjoyment and discomfort at the attention in almost equal measure. "This is a really nice mortar and pestle," she nattered as Lex leaned over her shoulder. "My girlfriend Kennedy gave it to me." 'Girlfriend' was just slightly emphasized, not so much a 'stay out!' as a 'please don't tempt me.'
Lex was perfectly satisfied with that. He could use a challenge to get his mind off the past. "Really? Is she a witch too?"
Willow exhaled, some tension leaving her. "She's a - she works with us, traveling around, fighting evil. That sort of thing. She comes from money," she added confidingly. "Not like your money - her house is the size of a train station, not an airport. But! Ski lodge, which is nice."
Lex thought. "This isn't Kennedy Carson, by any chance?"
Willow looked up from the dried reddish leaves she was crushing. "You know her?"
"Certainly. We spent some time together in Paris a few years back. I'm fairly sure my father did something nasty to hers over a stock trade, but I was only sixteen and I don't think she held it against me. Does she still have that tongue stud?"
The pestle clinked against the bowl as Willow froze. "Oh. Uh." She was so red she was nearly purple. Not an ideal look for a redhead, but Lex liked the effect anyway.
Lex smiled at her, close-mouthed. "I'll take that as a yes."
"Okay," she called out hastily. "I think we're ready to get started." Quickly, confidently, she ordered all the participants into place, Buffy and Lex on the edge of the room while Giles stood to her left, his hand restraining the increasingly twitchy Xander, who did seem to be channeling a reptilian.
"Everybody ready? Good," Willow said and began chanting as she moved her hands in slow waves, palms down, pushing the air aside as if she were swimming in it.
White light, in particles like dime-sized snowflakes, sparkled into existence around her, rising and spreading out through the room in great swirls. It was like standing in a hologram of the Milky Way.
It was amazing, like flying over Smallville had been. He'd always known - he'd always hoped - that there was more to the world than met the eye. Looking at a witch, a real witch, as she reshaped the world to fit her will, Lex realized that he had a new obsession.
Over Xander's sussurations, he heard a deep throbbing, as if they had been transported into the ventricle of some great beast. Willow's voice was less human with every syllable. Lex thought he could fall in love, if he weren't careful.
With a silvery crash, a line of air unzipped in the middle of the spell circle. Lex saw a sky black as the blood in his dreams, veined with lightning green as spring corn.
A beast like a bipedal dog with a lion's mane and glowing yellow eyes stepped through and the portal closed. The creature roared, revealing multiple rows of teeth, like a shark's, leading down its throat. Lex realized that he needed to shut his gaping mouth.
"Demon," Willow called commandingly, "hear our voices, obey our will."
The demon, who looked far too much like a refugee from a Heironymous Bosch painting for Lex's comfort, surveyed the room. "Why have you called me to this place, where a -" here followed a sound like a yodel through a mouthful of marbles - "is?"
"I don't know anything about that," Buffy said, standing just at the edge of the circle. "We need you to help my friend here. He's been bitten by a Zork --"
"Xhoar," Willow added hastily.
"-and you're gonna fix him."
Its only response to Buffy's demand was to sneer. Taking the extra teeth into account, it did a better job than Lex's father.
"Don't make me come in there," Buffy warned.
"You can't kill me if you need my assistance," it asserted.
"Yeah, but you don't really need all those fingers to do the job."
Willow spoke a few words in what sounded like bastardized Greek, and the thing's head snapped back as if it had been punched.
"All right, all right already," it whined. "Bring him to me."
They pushed Xander to the barrier and through the circle. Lex had always thought that breaking the circle was a big no-no, but then he'd always thought that magic just wasn't practical.
Xander stood in the circle, his head bobbing back and forth as he stared aggressively at the demon. Lex was impressed. Even possessed by a reptile spirit, he wasn't sure he could have stood his ground with such aplomb. Sand swished on the floor as Xander's invisible tail thrashed.
Between blinks, the demon had grabbed Xander and brought its mouth down to the man's neck. Buffy cried out, but Willow put out a hand in her direction to silence her. "Its venom will counteract the Xhoar infection."
Sure enough, the demon quickly released Xander, who staggered back a few paces, still moving as if he weren't supposed to be bipedal. He stumbled in Lex's direction, knocking over a candle as he left the circle. Lex watched as it guttered and went out. Giles started towards Xander, his hands already reaching out to make sure that the boy was all right.
The demon spat, red and black, and wiped its mouth with the back of its - paw? "Satisfied?" it asked.
Willow stared at it, frowning, as she also edged towards Xander. "I'll let you know."
From his position off at the side, Lex could see something new.
"Should it be able to do that?" Lex asked, pointing to the extra hand budding from the demon's back that was extending towards the Japanese sword in its fancy glass case on the wall.
Buffy looked over and frowned in annoyance.
The case shattered and the demon snatched the sword from its brackets.
Lex watched, thrilled, as Buffy reached behind her back and produced a shortsword from what had to be a hidden back sheath. Warrior Angel had nothing on this girl.
Willow and Giles were huddled over Xander, not watching and not helping. The demon threw the sword from its back-arm to its right arm and advanced on Buffy. She swung her sword in an arc and it sneered. "Your reach is pathetic," it said, and attacked.
Buffy kicked out, knocking the demon back, then spun for a blow with her sword. Her form was not great, Lex noted, and the demon got under her guard, the katana slicing through the air to catch her full across the chest, underneath her breasts.
There was a thunk, and Buffy stumbled back, the breath knocked from her.
"Did I mention," Lex asked helpfully, as they both looked over at him, "that the sword's a prop?"
Even if the only thing the katana could slice was air, Buffy would still have a bruise. She rolled her eyes and charged forward, driving the sword into the demon's belly with both hands and then gutting it as it staggered.
Lex heard a whistling sound, not entirely unlike the sound of a plane losing pressurized air. It made him a little nervous.
Giles and Willow were just helping Xander to his feet. Giles looked over and raised a hand to tug at his glasses. "Did you have to cut it open?" he asked, sounding annoyed.
"Well, I could have let it beat me to death with the fake sword," Buffy snapped. The sound was getting louder. Lex turned, trying to place the source, but couldn't.
The older man shook his head, adopting a conciliatory expression. "No, it's just that Herzghezor demons are prone to -"
The bang overwhelmed whatever he was about to say as the demon geysered into purple goo, spewing over everything before Lex could even raise his hands to cover his face.
He spat, wiping his eyes free of the mucusy, blood-warm stuff, and saw the others doing much the same, except for Xander, who seemed too shell-shocked to react. Demon residue smelled a little bit like fermenting coconut, he thought, but it tasted more like chicken.
"-Explosive decompression," Giles finished wearily as he tugged his shirt free from his pants and used the untouched shirttail to wipe his glasses free of goo.
Lex looked around his office, estimating how many of his knicknacks and books could be rescued and thanking his foresight in putting the real antiques in the safe. He'd learned the hard way that Smallville was rough on fine furnishings.
With a thunk, not as loud as the demon blowing up, but still enough to get anyone's attention, the doors flew open and Clark charged in.
"Lex!" he yelled. "Are you --?"
Lex didn't blame him for falling silent. He wasn't sure what he himself could have thought to say in Clark's position. Lex and his sodden visitors contemplated Clark, the only clean, dry person in the room, for a good thirty seconds before Clark managed to croak out, "What's going on?"
"There's a really good explanation for this," Buffy said.
Lex raised a (gooey) eyebrow. "There is?" he asked, genuinely interested.
"Okay, maybe there's a crappy explanation for this," she said, deflating.
That ought to make Clark feel comfortable, Lex thought. The boy himself was staring at the carnage as if he couldn't quite believe his eyes. Disbelief would have been more forgivable if he hadn't lived in Smallville so many years. Also, his red and black flannel clashed badly with the light purple motif now coating the room.
"We're all fine," Lex said gently. "It's over now."
Come to think of it, he was pleased to realize that Clark had not been involved in saving his ass this time, though clearly he hadn't done it himself. Self-saving would have been another step forward, but he was willing to work in increments.
"Buffy," Giles said urgently. He made a noise that could almost have been mistaken for a throat-clearing. Lex recognized the sound that the exploding demon had made. It seemed to mean that there was something else nasty in the neighborhood. Which, for Smallville, was pretty much a given.
"I'm gonna go --" Buffy said and turned, pausing as her eyes caught on Clark and her determined expression glazed over a bit. Lex knew the feeling.
"Maybe you should take Clark with you," Lex suggested. "He has a habit of saving the town from its monsters. And he's a model of discretion."
Clark shifted uncomfortably and hunched his shoulders, while Buffy's look turned speculative.
"Clark, do you think you could show my friend Buffy around town? She's looking for someone."
"Who?" Clark asked, reasonably enough. He looked unhappily around the destroyed room. Lex felt some gratification that Clark didn't think he was entitled to any answers about the new decorating scheme. Clark was getting better at reciprocating Lex's tolerance for non-explanations, anyway.
Buffy looked back at her companions, obviously seeking guidance. Willow shrugged, while Giles dropped his gaze as if to avoid admitting ignorance.
"I'll know when I see it -- him," Buffy said decisively. "Can you take me to where lots of people are, where someone might go to cause a lot of trouble?"
Lex was deeply pleased that Clark looked over at him for guidance, even though Clark probably wasn't going to rely on it. At least he was pretending. Lex nodded encouragement and straightened his shoulders, refusing to admit that he was covered with supernatural phlegm.
"Okay," Clark said. "You can explain on the way."
As Clark turned and led Buffy away, Lex stared after him, not for the usual reasons. Clark's tone had been self-assured, unwavering. He was talking like a man, not an uncertain teenager. Lex wondered whether this was good news.
"Uh," Xander said from where he was propped up against the wall, "what the heck is going on? The last thing I remember, I was in San Francisco, looking at a woman who wasn't actually a woman, and in fact wasn't actually a person but a big slavering demony thing, and as far as I can recall I wasn't soaked in what I'm really afraid you're going to tell me is demon snot."
He had a pleasant voice, Lex thought, and was probably a lot more attractive when he wasn't covered in demon guts and turning into a lizard.
Giles helped him over to a ruined couch and spoke to him in low tones, gesturing at Lex and saying something that made Xander stare at him, or maybe Xander was just having the natural reaction to baldness plus purple goo. Willow, meanwhile, was opening a large leather-bound book and whispering in a language Lex didn't recognize. He could see the text on the vellum reshaping in response to her words.
To change what had been written - wasn't that the ultimate power? The only better thing to ask for would be to see the past directly, and Lex had the feeling that Willow might be able to help him out there too.
"Oh dear," Willow said, in the voice of a woman who has, against all logic, hoped for better results.
"What is it?" Giles asked, sparing Lex the necessity.
"The demonic entity that Buffy just went after? It has to be dispersed in a very specific way. If you just kill it, it converts into energy."
"So what's the problem?" Xander asked from his sodden sprawl on the equally sodden couch. "I mean, energy beings, harder to kill, sure, but we've dealt with them before. And when I say 'we,' I mean Buffy."
"It doesn't become an energy being, it converts into energy."
"As in E equals MC squared," Lex jumped in. "Energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. The speed of light is a very big number."
Xander nodded unhappily, then swiped at the mess on his face. There was something subtly off about him - a wandering eye, perhaps, Lex thought. "I'm guessing it gets bigger squared."
"About thirty H-bombs worth of energy, assuming the creature masses about what a human does."
Willow looked at him with sheer admiration, modulating her expression to sincere concern when she noticed that everyone was looking at her.
"I don't know what's scarier, the demon or the fact that you knew that off the top of your head," Xander said.
Lex shrugged. "Anyway, what was that about dispersal?"
"Oh, yeah," Willow said, turning and grabbing for her books. "We need to find Buffy before she -"
"Just this once," Lex said, "I can skip the explanation."
"You'll stay here with Xander," Giles said, and even the desire to mess with the man's head couldn't override Lex's conviction that it might actually be a bad idea to get in the way of the professional demon-killers.
"We'll be waiting for you," he said and watched as they gathered some of their scattered materials.
"Um, hi," Xander said as soon as they'd left the room. "Xander Harris."
"Lex Luthor," he said, thinking that all they needed was a guy called 'Al' to complete the set. "Would you care to clean up some?"
"You make really good plans," Xander said, his expression brightening underneath the drying coat of slime.
"You have no idea," Lex said and led him upstairs, to Lex's bedroom suite.
"Leave your clothes on the bathroom floor," Lex instructed. "I'll have clothes brought up."
Xander opened the bathroom door, looked in, looked at him, then around the bedroom, then back. "Not to pry or anything, but is there a chance that you're incredibly rich?"
"Unless there's been a really big stock market crash, I'd say that's a fair assessment."
Wide-eyed, Xander nodded. His drying, purplish hair stood up in clumps, and the goo had turned his jeans and T-shirt a sort of muddy blue, while fragments of demon marked his neck and arms like prison tattoos. Overall, he looked like a punk who'd been thrown in a clothesdryer. Lex noticed that his eyes were not exactly the same; perhaps one was artificial - or mystical; Lex wasn't inclined to rule anything out at this point.
Xander swallowed, breaking eye contact, and spoke. "Right. So I'll just go ... clean up in your enormous bathroom. Send a search party if you don't hear from me in forty-eight hours." He marched in, avoiding the small rug on the tile floor, which Lex assumed was to avoid contaminating it with demon guts.
Lex smiled. "I'll be back shortly. Don't worry about making a mess; in Smallville, we know how to clean up."
He paused, standing in the door, to watch Xander pull off his destroyed shirt. The boy was built solidly, not thin and not gym-made, but muscled like a construction worker. He had very nicely defined arms. Xander caught him looking and hunched his shoulders, as if he thought Lex might be judging him harshly. Lex took pity on him and pushed the bathroom door closed.
It had been too long since he'd had sex, Lex decided as he headed to one of the guest bathrooms, pausing on the way out to call the head of staff to find something wearable for Xander. Either that, or all these nubile non-teenagers were having an effect on his libido; it was true enough that he hadn't spent much time with people his own age since Victoria betrayed him.
Lex made sure that the staff knew to save his and Xander's clothes for later analysis, as well as all the other material recovered from the weapons room. He doubted that there were immediate commercial applications to demon guts, but his biochemist's heart demanded that he not ignore the amazing research opportunity fortune had provided. Also, his father would go ballistic trying to figure out where Lex had acquired the substance, and that would be good for hours of fun.
He showered and strolled back to his bedroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. Xander was there, his hair wet and still messy, wearing gray sweatpants and a white cotton T-shirt that was just tight enough to be intriguing. He was sitting on Lex's bed, and when Lex entered the room, he turned with an expression that encouraged Lex to saunter closer.
"Uh, hi." Xander's eyes dipped from Lex's face down to where the towel threatened to slip off his hips. "Your room is really ... hot. I mean, nice."
"Thank you." He moved across the floor to stand in front of Xander, less than two feet away from him. Closer than a normal American man would stand unless he was interested in getting even closer. Xander's cheeks were flushed and his uncomplicatedly brown eyes were wide as he stared up at Lex.
"So," Lex said, dropping his voice, "while we're waiting for your friends to return victorious, is there anything you'd like to do?"
"Do?" Xander practically squeaked.
Changing tactics, Lex sat down next to Xander on the bed, their thighs nearly touching. "I'll be honest with you, Xander. You and your friends are extremely interesting. And when I find something interesting, I like to see it from every angle. Get to know it intimately."
Xander was breathing fast now, a fine sheen of sweat on his temples. His eyes -- one dilated, one not, but Lex decided not to dwell on the matter -- met Lex's, then darted away. "Look, you should know -- I'm not gay."
Lex regarded him with amusement. Now that Xander had admitted what was going on, they might get somewhere. "Neither am I. I just like sex."
Xander's mouth opened and closed a few times. "Has anyone ever told you that you're a pretty persuasive guy? Look, I haven't exactly ... I mean, okay, I've thought about it, and there was Anya and the strap-on, but we only did that a few times ... Um, is there any chance the ceiling's going to fall on me and shut me up?"
Lex glanced up. "Anything's possible in Smallville, but somehow I think it's unlikely."
"Oh God, I'm babbling. Like a great big ... babbling ... thing." The look on Xander's face could only be described as adorably embarrassed.
He smiled reassuringly; he was getting good at that. "Actually, I'm flattered." God knew not enough people in Smallville looked at him like they were in Weight Watchers and he was a German chocolate cake.
"No, I'm always like this."
Lex was fairly sure his expression didn't change, but Xander winced anyway. "Please, please make me stop talking."
While this was pretty clearly an appeal to some higher power, Lex took it as invitation, reached out to put a hand on Xander's jaw, and kissed him.
That was much better. Xander was very good at kissing, serious and playful by turns, fighting for control after the first few seconds, his hands rising to grasp Lex's shoulders, big hands, warm and rough.
When Lex pulled back, Xander's chest was heaving like a spooked horse's, his lips were wet, and his good eye was as stunned as Lex's must have been back on the riverbank when Clark rescued him.
This was, in fact, flattering. Lex had spent too much time with people who were more interested in his money and his name than in his body. While such people posed a set of useful challenges, Xander's plainer reactions were more powerfully arousing.
Xander licked his lips. "So, okay, I think you're going to have to talk me through this. I'm not - I'm cool with this, but at the same time I'm pretty freaked, just so you know."
Even if Xander hadn't said so, there was practically a scrolling news ticker under his face conveying the same message. But Lex appreciated the straightforwardness. Appreciated it enough to vow that Xander was going to have the world's best introduction to gay sex in the history of man-on-mankind. "And when we met you seemed so unflappable."
Xander's eyes got wider, which Lex hadn't thought possible. "Yeah, well, I'd say I'm fully flapped."
Lex smiled and leaned in to kiss him again, bearing him down onto the dark red bedcovers. His hands slid over the borrowed T-shirt, pushing it up, searching out Xander's hot, damp skin, the hair on his chest like a promise of what would be found further down.
Lex pulled back, certain that homosexual panic had at last set in.
"You're not going to try to kill me after we have sex, are you?"
"Usually it goes the other way around. Lovers trying to kill me," he clarified at Xander's confused look.
"Oh, 'cause in Sunnydale we had some of each. Attempted murder, then sex, also sex then attempted murder."
Lex nodded as if he understood.
"So, no killing of the Xander, right, that's great," Xander said, and Lex put his hand on the man's crotch to shut him up. "Yeah - unh - oh, also, you're not a demon, right?"
"Not to the best of my knowledge," Lex said, determined just to ride this out until it ended in sex. "But you'd have to ask my father to be sure."
Xander's eyes were fluttering closed, and Lex guessed that he could have said "yes" and still had him. He squeezed Xander's half-hard cock through the sweatpants, and then the conversation portion of the encounter was over, excluding only instructions and invocations of deity.
For a small town, Smallville had a lot of places to look for a big demon. Clark Kent was giving Buffy the same dubious look he'd been directing at her every few minutes since she'd caught up with him at the front door of the castle. She was used to being underestimated, but it was dragging down his cuteness score a few points per glance.
They'd checked the fertilizer plant, the bus station, the high school, the main street (criminally inadequate shopping, she judged), the youth center, the town hall, the courthouse, the elementary school, and a few other places Clark had identified as having high concentrations of vulnerable people. No demony dice, though. They'd stopped at the edge of town, right by the big "Welcome to Smallville" billboard that put Sunnydale's former signage to shame.
Clark was sitting at the wheel of his truck, brows furrowed in concentration, while they considered next steps. Buffy's phone rang, distracting her from contemplating how cuddlesome he looked with that expression.
She flipped the phone open and checked the number displayed. "Give me good news, Will."
"Um ... Reese's Peanut Butter Cups now come in five flavors?"
Buffy sighed. "Fine, give me demon news." Clark blinked at her. She got the feeling that he wasn't all that comfortable with the supernatural, unlike his freaky rich friend.
"Oh, yeah. So, you don't want to kill this thing just yet."
"Willow, we haven't even found this thing just yet."
"Okay, Giles and I are coming to help you. We should be able to track it with a spell, but we can't use magic directly against it."
"It would be bad."
Buffy decided not to press for details.
"Anyway, when we find it, you're going to need to go for the eyes. You have to get all three at exactly the same time, before you kill it."
"Or else what?"
"Or else nothing. Like, nothing for miles and miles in every direction."
Of course. "Right. Okay, we're -"
There was a tapping on the glass at Buffy's right. Buffy turned to see Willow smiling sheepishly, Giles behind her.
"-waiting," Buffy finished, shutting the phone. She still wasn't used to Willow's new Star Trek habit of popping herself and any companions directly to their destination. She'd been concerned about a relapse into magic addiction when she saw how much magic Willow was using in daily life, but Willow had assured her that it was all about using the magic to help other people, and fast travel was a really important asset when they were trying to collect a zillion new Slayers with only remnants of the Watchers' Council resources. Anyway, it was convenient, and also it was really impressive, if the look on Clark's face was any indication.
After a moment, Clark seemed to shake off his surprise. He jumped out of the truck and came around the front to stand by Giles and Willow, opening the door for Buffy with a shy smile that, together with the door-opening, earned him a 10% return of his cuteness points. Buffy descended, smiling at him.
"Okay," Willow said, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes. Her lips moved and her head twitched from side to side. Buffy looked at Giles, worried that the earlier magic had strained her. Giles was frowning, but no more than Giles-standard, so it was probably fine.
There was a buzz by Buffy's ear, like a mosquito the size of a parrot. She raised a hand to bat at it, but felt nothing.
Willow opened her eyes. "Sorry," she said over the buzzing. "The thaumaturgical resonances in this place - never mind." She stopped, looking around at her companions, two uncomprehending and one impatient. "I couldn't produce a visual guide. I wonder if Lex could help me figure out why. He was telling me about the meteors that fell in 1989. Apparently they do weird things to biological material. He knows a lot about them."
If Buffy hadn't been contemplating the beauty of Clark Kent, she wouldn't have noticed the - worry, anger, jealousy? - anyway, some negative emotion that rippled over his face and then disappeared into seriousness.
"Right," she said, rallying the troops. "Let's go." The noise was like an alarm she couldn't find to hit the snooze button. It was annoying enough to redouble her desire to find the demon, kill it, and get the hell out of Kansas.
Clark insisted on leading the way, which involved cutting across fields of half-grown plants that Buffy guessed were either corn or wheat. The landscape precluded use of the truck, but the direction of the buzzing stayed constant, so the demon didn't seem to be moving.
Willow spent the first ten minutes of the journey marvelling at Lex Luthor's castle, his books, his intelligence, his curiousity, his open-mindedness, and a bunch of other wonderful attributes that quickly blurred together in Buffy's mind. Buffy had long thought that the whole 'gay' thing was a little too label-y; Willow had loved Oz as completely as Buffy had loved Angel. Now maybe Willow was realizing that manly goodness was still of the good.
"Lex has a bad track record with relationships," Clark said flatly at last, not looking at them as he continued to plow through plants. It was enough to stop Willow's recitation.
"Oh," Willow said. Buffy heard in her voice echoes of the insecure girl she'd met so many years ago, and it was oddly comforting. "I'm not - I mean, I'm seeing someone, a girl someone. I didn't mean to get in your way or anything."
"Get in my -- ? No," Clark said, sounding shocked. He stopped walking for a moment, resuming only after Buffy narrowly averted crashing into him. "He's not - there isn't - Lex was married."
Buffy and Giles exchanged a glance that said, roughly, 'If Lex Luthor is completely straight, I'm Madonna,' though Giles probably would have put it differently. Willow was looking carefully at what Buffy thought was a stalk of grain, but she wouldn't have taken any bets; regardless, it kept Willow from having to make awkward eye contact.
"And, anyway, I'm -" Clark said, then interrupted himself as if he realized that he was declaring his heterosexuality a little late in the process. "I'm just saying, Lex has - seriously bad luck. I'm sure you're a really nice - witch, but it's good that you're not - uh," he finished in a mumble, "isn't the noise getting louder?"
Buffy thought he was actually right. Shrugging her shoulders to settle the sword more comfortably against her back, she pushed ahead so that she was next to Clark.
They emerged from a field to confront a dirt road. On the other side, there was a wooden slat fence, about six feet tall, but to their left the wooden fence was supplemented with metal, at least twelve feet high and topped with razor wire. Outside the fence there was what looked like a temporary construction shed, surrounded with rolls of chain-link, metal posts, and what Buffy could only assume was fence-making equipment.
"This is the edge of the fertilizer plant's grounds," Clark said. "I don't know what's in there -"
He was interrupted by an inhuman yowl, kind of like the noise a cat would make if you stepped on its tail, if the cat were fifty feet tall and had a voicebox made of iron and steel. From around the shed, a dark ten-foot-tall figure emerged, moving like its limbs were made of snakes. Its head was whipping around so fast that Buffy couldn't discern its features, other than "ugly."
"Stay back," Clark said and started jogging forward.
"Get its eyes! All three at once!" Willow yelled out as a reminder.
Giles made as if to join in the attack, and Buffy shook her head, pulling her sword for the second time that day. "What he said," she instructed him, and hurried to keep Clark from getting his shapely ass kicked.
Closer, Buffy could see that it wasn't humanoid. It had a tail and at least three arms on each side, budding from a central set of shoulders but splitting about a foot out, sort of like an octopus with dinosaur spikes all down its arms and nasty clawed hands at the ends. It was a sort of greeny-purple, a color that would have made Buffy's stomach lurch if she hadn't been busy fighting for her life.
"Um, Willow?" Buffy called out as she leaned back, dodging a swipe from razor-edged talons.
"You said all three eyes at once." She jumped into the air over a tail-sweep that left ragged scars in the muddy ground.
"Un-hunh." Willow sounded distracted.
"This guy has five eyes."
"What?!" One of the demon's arms snaked off to the side, there was a crunching sound, and Giles cried out in pain. Buffy didn't look, because she was busy ducking under the demon's legs and sticking her sword in its back, hoping she didn't accidentally puncture its heart.
The demon howled in pain and thrashed, ripping the sword from Buffy's hands. One of its oak-sized arms hit Clark across the chest, sending him flying back to smack against the side of the shed so hard that Buffy heard the crack of wood. He fell down, landing on a roll of razor wire.
Buffy dropped to a crouch, one hand on the ground, as she tried to figure out the next step. They had to pin the demon down long enough to hit five eyes at once. Three could maybe have been done on the fly, but five was going to require coordination.
The demon kept flailing, trying to reach around to pull out the sword. She saw Clark rise from where he'd fallen, shaking himself like a dog coming in from the rain. Bits of shed, sliced-up flannel, and razor wire flaked off of him, but he didn't look seriously damaged. And that was a mystery for later.
Maybe she could cut off the demon's legs, then get the eyes before it bled to death.
"We've got to pin it down," she yelled out, in case anyone had a good idea.
The demon's grasping paw finally closed around the hilt of the sword, and it tugged the weapon free. A gout of blue-green blood followed, but the demon seemed unfazed as it broke the sword in half over its knee.
She looked at Clark, who was holding out two fence poles like really big quarterstaffs. The demon, growling, lashed out at Buffy, who dived through the space between two of its arms, rolled through a somersault, and sprang to her feet, holding out her hands for the poles. As the demon turned to follow her, its blood splattered in a great arc, dousing Clark.
He staggered and fell to his knees, his pole-toss aborted.
Buffy ran over. His face looked strange, almost decayed, where the demon's blood had splashed it. Black veins marred his cheeks, making him look almost like Evil Willow's cousin.
Dangerous, possibly poisonous demon blood, check. Why weren't demons all fluffy and easy to kill, like Bambi's mom? It wasn't fair. She grabbed the poles from him and turned to face the demon.
It was moving more carefully now. At least they were both worried.
She spun the poles in her hands like batons, remembered cheerleading routines making the motions automatic. Sure enough, all five of its eyes followed the helicoptering metal, and it looked up when she tossed one high above her head.
The first pole slammed through demon flesh, sort of like pushing a straw into a really thick milkshake. Buffy shoved hard, sending it toppling to the ground, as she reached her free hand behind her back to catch the other pole on the way down. The shock of the pole hitting the ground jolted her like a four-story fall, but she managed to get it a foot into the soft earth. The demon was now tethered to the ground, at least for the moment.
She brought the second pole around and repeated the process on the demon's other shoulder. It was screaming now, and this time the sound was all too human. She was standing between its legs now, watching as its limbs flailed and failed to reach her.
A third pole came arrowing over her shoulder, getting the demon in the hip. Buffy glanced back to see Clark, shirtless and mostly clean of demon blood, raising another pole.
Grunting with effort, he shoved it through the demon's thigh. The creature was fixed to the ground now, pinned like the world's ugliest butterfly.
All five eyes at once - Buffy's hands couldn't stretch from eye to eye. But Clark's could. "You have really big hands," she commented, inappropriately imagining how they'd look against a non-demony body.
"Get one eye with your right thumb and one with your fingers."
Clark nodded in comprehension and put his hands in position as Buffy brought the fingers of each hand together and prepared to strike. She was very glad they hadn't brought Xander out with them.
"On three," she said. "One, two, three!"
The demon's eyeballs felt like warm Jello. Buffy shuddered as she kept burrowing. A low gurgle came from the demon's belly; its limbs jerked, wrenching the post in its right leg free from the ground.
Then it collapsed. Buffy looked at Clark, whose hands were equally gory and who looked like he was going to throw up. They both quickly pulled back and started wiping their hands on the nearest patch of grass. Clark scrambled backwards as soon as he finished, falling on his butt in his haste to get away from the demon blood. It seemed to do him good; his color improved and he straightened even as Buffy double-checked her hands to make sure the demon's blood hadn't eaten away any of her skin. Then, as quickly as she could, she looked up, examining Clark's impressive pecs and abs for signs of lingering damage. Clark noticed her scrutiny and made an aborted attempt to cover his chest by folding his arms; he looked longingly at the wadded shirts lying near the shed, which he'd obviously used like towels to clean the blood off himself.
Buffy reminded herself to get back to business. "Are you all right? Should we take you to the hospital? The blood looked like it hurt you."
Clark smiled nervously. "What? No. I'm fine." He held up his hands as if to demonstrate. Sure enough, the black veins were gone from his skin and he was just as pretty as he'd been when they first met.
Buffy nodded briskly. "Okay, so I saw you get thrown into that shed and stand up like it was nothing, and I saw you put that pole into the ground like it was a toothpick. And don't try to tell me I must have seen something wrong," she cautioned, which made him shut his mouth, "because I am a veteran of the weird. What are you? Demon, magical human, robot, genetically engineered government experiment, what?"
Now Clark really looked sick. He made a sound halfway between a squeak and a sigh. Then, when she kept looking at him, he tried, "None of the above?"
Buffy thought it over. "Wait ... Ooh! Ooh! I know! Alien! Giles said meteors fell, right? And meteors sometimes have aliens in them."
His attempted smile was even more sickly. "I don't know what you -"
She tilted her head and looked skeptical, which ended his feeble protest. "Wow, you're a lot better looking than the snot monster."
Clark looked like he'd swallowed wrong. "Um, thanks?" he said when he recovered. "But you can't tell - I mean, if you told, there could be - bad things. There are people out there who could hurt me."
Buffy tried to look reassuring. "Don't worry about it. So not into the alien autopsy thing. I couldn't even dissect the frog back in high school."
Strangely, Clark didn't look all that much happier.
Willow approached, pushing her hair back behind her ear. Pieces of grass and wood were now stuck onto the purplish goo from before; Buffy guessed that she didn't look much better. "What was that with the five eyes?" she asked Willow.
"I have no idea. They really are only supposed to have three eyes."
Clark cleared his throat. "It might be something to do with the meteor rocks. They can cause mutations in ordinary human beings. Maybe it also works on, uh, demons?"
Willow looked thoughtful; Buffy shrugged. "Okay, as long as I'm not going to have to go around the country killing five-eyed demons like that. I've had fun before, and that was not it."
Clark shook his head. "No, the meteor rocks are only around here. As far as I know. And I haven't found any reports of any other place where mutations are as common as they are here."
"Great," Buffy said, squirming as she realized just how icky her clothes were. "Hey, how about we go back to that castle and get cleaned up? I bet your friend Lex can lend us a bathroom or two."
On the way back to the truck, Buffy and Clark stayed ahead of Willow and Giles, talking superhero stuff. Buffy told some of her more impressive stories and Clark looked duly impressed. He was shy about his powers, but he was also, Buffy could tell, desperate for someone to talk to who understood about being different and alone. Buffy thought they had a real connection.
Her thoughts of a possible further connection, though, were defeated by Clark's obsessive focus on Lex. She listened to a diatribe about Lex, Lex's wives, Lex's father, Lex's secrets, Lex's investigations, Lex's paranoia (only, it was apparently justified paranoia, if she understood Clark's stories). Clark was an all-Lex channel, and any hopes Buffy had cherished about a relationship with a nice alien for a change were crushed under the boredom spawned by listening to somebody else's relationship troubles. It was like the very worst parts of her school counseling job, the parts when she had to pretend like she was interested in regular old traumas.
There was a part about Lex and a prophecy, which she seized on as a chance to fight her way back to a conversation. "I wouldn't worry about prophecies. In my experience - and I do have some - they're not worth the paper they're written on."
Clark looked at her, frowning. "This one is on a cave wall."
"See what I mean? Sneaky things, prophecies, moving around like that. You'd do a lot better with astrology. Uh, do you have a sign? Or do you have to be from Earth to have a sign?" Buffy contemplated that for a minute, while Clark looked even more discontented. "Anyhow, if Xander - my friend back at the castle - hadn't ignored a prophecy, I wouldn't have lived to see the Terminator running my state. And that's a lot crazier than any prophecy I ever heard of."
"But things have happened," Clark protested. "Parts of the prophecy have already come true."
"Well, sure," Buffy said. "But isn't it the ending that counts?"
Somehow, this triggered another lesson about Lex and his sneaky mind, and how Clark was always going to be hiding from him. When Lex started to get mixed in with Lana, the girl from the coffee shop, in some way that Buffy couldn't follow, she decided that it was too much.
"Look, I'm not Ann Landers, but I do know something about love and the single superhero. You can't date a normal person," she declared. She'd been depressed about this conclusion for a few months post-Sunnydale, what with Riley married (and back to near-normal, strengthwise), Angel lost to Wolfram and Hart, and Spike gone, but she really couldn't see any alternative. Still, Clark couldn't be the only superstrong hunk remaining in the world. Could he? "You just have to suck it up. The world's not ever going to understand your priorities or your responsibilities. If you're lucky, you'll find some friends, like I did. But love - it doesn't really fit. You're always going beyond what anyone else can do, and you can't ever put one person ahead of the rest of the world."
Clark looked even mopier now. She pondered whether or not to invite him to engage in a bit of horizontal recreation, just to release some tension, but she guessed that he wasn't all that experienced and she didn't want to bother training him when she was about to leave town. Also, that Luthor guy might object, if he was as obsessed with Clark as Clark was with him.
"But maybe," she said, trying to cheer him up, "it's different for guys. Girls are more used to the guy being stronger and having more important stuff to do sometimes."
Clark shook his head. "I don't know about the stronger, but girls do not understand about the more important stuff."
They shared a rueful smile as they reached the truck. Sadly, Clark had an extra shirt there. Back in high school, she'd kept an extra outfit in her locker for much the same reason - fighting evil was a wardrobe killer.
On the way back, Buffy told him more war stories. He was a little like the ex-Potentials - a lot more fun to look at, but almost as inexperienced and alone. Too bad there were no Watchers for aliens. Willow joined in, sharing Wicca things, including the near-disasters like her "my will be done" spell and whatever it was that had produced Vampire Willow. This seemed to relax Clark enough to get him to tell a hilarious story about pheromones and heat vision.
Heat vision sounded awesome, Buffy thought. She turned to Giles, who was sitting stiffly in the back seat as if merely being in a big red truck was offensive to his sense of Britishness. "Clark has all the cool powers. Giles, can't you do something so I can shoot fire from my eyes?"
"No, I cannot," Giles said severely, but Buffy could tell that he was repressing a smile.
"Well, I came back from the dead twice," she said, turning back to Clark. "Betcha can't do that."
"I've never tried and I don't really want to," he said. Buffy totally got that. Bragging about it was cool and all, but bragging rights were not worth the parts where she actually died.
He was so young, even if he didn't look it. Buffy could barely remember what it was like, to think she was experienced and wise just because she had to make terrible decisions.
As they pulled up to the front door of the castle, Buffy wondered where the moat was. And weren't there supposed to be square scallop-like things on the tops of the towers, for shooting arrows? Her knowledge of castle defense was limited to various scenes remembered from Robin Hood and Braveheart. Maybe she'd ask Giles about it.
Buffy thought it was neat that there were people-shaped aliens. Clark had seemed a little weirded out that none of them had a big reaction to his revelation. But, let's face it, people-shaped aliens were practically normal compared to the things Buffy had faced in the past, and they were still pretty exhausted from the whole First Evil thing, which made it harder to get the energy up for a full-scale freakout.
If anything, Clark's existence made her feel a little less lonely by comparison. She'd created a whole bunch of girls like her, but Clark couldn't do that. Unless he could bud or something, which maybe she shouldn't assume was impossible.
Still speculating, Buffy watched Clark retreat into the bowels of the castle to retrieve Xander. They should keep in touch; maybe he'd grow up and want to obsess over a girl for a change. She wasn't the only one who was not baked yet. Clark Kent was alien cookie dough. She just hoped that he didn't grow tentacles or anything as he matured.
All in all, Kansas hadn't been as boring as she'd always thought flyover country was supposed to be.
Clark was pretty sure that Buffy and her friends would keep their promise not to tell anyone else about his powers. They seemed to understand that the world wasn't ready for people who were different, and they had as much to hide in that way as he did, which was kind of a relief. Though he was still all alone, they were sort of halfway between him and normal humans, and that wasn't even his fault the way the meteor mutants were. Like Ryan had been. There was a whole secret world out there, and that made Clark not quite as much of a freak.
He scanned through the mansion and located Lex and another, unfamiliar person in Lex's office, a guy with what looked like a glass eye.
He left Buffy and the others waiting in the atrium and went to get Lex.
When he entered the office, Lex was sprawled out on his couch, looking relaxed, his eyes heavy-lidded and his skin flushed, the way he only was when he was dating and, um. Freshly ... Yeah. But there was no new girl in the mansion. In fact, the only new person around was that guy, Xander.
Who was sitting in the comfy red leather armchair that was Clark's, and whose one real eye looked like a fried egg.
This is your brain. This is your brain on Lex.
Xander reddened under Clark's scrutiny, but maintained eye contact until Clark gave up. Lex, when Clark looked over at him again, seemed amused.
Clark wasn't sure how he was supposed to react. Surely Lex was playing with him.
Maybe he was playing with Xander, a little voice said in his head.
Clark frowned at Xander, who had no right to be sitting in the chair that Lex only allowed in the office at all because of Clark. Lex complained about the decorating disaster it represented every time Clark sat down in it.
"Hey," Xander said at last, at which point Clark realized that he had been staring for a really impolite length of time.
"Hi," he said. He shouldn't be impolite, but there was no reason to flip all the way to friendly. Xander and his group were still strangers, weird and powerful strangers at that.
"Hello, Clark," Lex added lazily. "Did the four of you keep the world safe for democracy, motherhood and apple pie?"
"Yeah, Buffy and the rest of them are waiting in the front hall," he said pointedly.
"Well, we can't have that," Lex said. Clark felt himself tightening up, getting angry at Lex's patronizing treatment. Like he was just some kid, compared to real adults like Xander and the rest of them.
Lex stood, brushing at nonexistent lint on his pants. He was wearing a gray shirt now, no tie, his casual around-town wear that shouldn't have been for strangers. And Xander - Xander was wearing Smallville High sweatpants.
Clark unclenched his fists.
He was just worried that Xander had said something about magical powers to Lex. But that was an irrational fear: even if Lex believed that crazy stuff, there was no reason that Lex would think that Clark had anything magical about him. No matter how chummy Lex and Xander had gotten in two hours, Xander couldn't have told Lex anything of interest about Clark.
Why wouldn't his thoughts make sense?
Lex cleared his throat. Clark looked up and realized that they were both looking at him expectantly, because he was standing in the door, blocking them.
"Sorry," he mumbled, not meeting either man's eyes, and led them down the hall.
He decided to hang around until the visitors all left, just in case they said something to Lex about Smallville weirdness. (He was almost unsurprised that even Smallville's demons were weird demons. Meteor rocks were powerful enough to distort magic, it seemed.)
But nothing like that happened. Whatever was going on with Lex and these people, it didn't have anything to do with Clark. Lex made that absolutely clear when he began his goodbyes to them without a single look at Clark.
"It was ... extremely enlightening," Lex said to Xander, his voice as intimate as rumpled bedcovers. His hand lingered on Xander's for what seemed to Clark like a week. Xander alternated between coughing and shuffling his feet, more awkward even than Clark would have been.
Not that Lex would ever -
Clark's brain stuttered to a halt, vapor-locked.
Lex turned to the red-headed girl. "Willow, it was a great pleasure to meet you." Her hand, Lex clasped between his, drawing her half a step closer. "I hope you'll stay in touch."
"Yeah," Willow breathed. "I mean, yes. But no touching! I mean -"
Lex smiled his don't-worry-about-it smile and moved briskly to Buffy. "Miss Summers," he said, and shook her hand like she was someone with whom he'd just concluded a lucrative deal.
Mr. Giles was next; Lex didn't even say anything to him, just stared into his eyes long enough for both of them to nod slightly, as if something had been decided.
"A word of advice," Mr. Giles said as Lex began to turn away. He looked back, curious. "In your study, that triptych of paintings -"
Lex looked surprised. "Those ugly animals? My father had them hung. I assumed it was his usual bad taste. There were no listening devices concealed in them, so I didn't bother to get rid of them."
Clark remembered now. There was a pastoral scene with a shepherd climbing rocks to get to a lost and bleeding member of his flock, a deer hunt where the hunters' faces were almost blank with the ecstasy of the kill, and a really ugly image of a wolf pack that had brought down something that looked like it might have walked on two legs. Nature red in tooth and claw, Lex had said.
"Destroy them," Mr. Giles said. "Destroy them immediately. Fire would be best."
"Are you going to explain that? My father would believe it was a whim, but I'd like a reason."
"Convince me you've destroyed them, and I will." Mr. Giles fumbled in his pocket for a moment. "My card."
Lex took it, glanced at it briefly, and stowed it away. "I'll let you know. Have a safe trip back to California."
Another round of smiles and nods, and they were finally, finally gone. Clark wondered how they were going to get back to California, then decided not to think about it.
"Well," Lex said, turning to Clark at long last, "this has been an enlightening day. Don't you think?"
Lex's passive-aggressive questioning at least had the comfort of the familiar, with Lex looking at him like a boy holding a magnifying glass on an ant for the sun's rays to fry it. As much as he hated Lex's incessant queries, he still wanted the friendship that was underneath all the secrets and lies. So he reacted the way Lex would expect. "I don't know, Lex. What did you learn from them?"
Lex smiled just a little and did that thing where he didn't quite look at Clark. It was as if he were looking at a hologram of Clark, just a few inches off true. "Oh, just bits and pieces. This world is a strange and wonderful place. It's good to be reminded that Smallville isn't the center of the universe."
"But you still like Smallville, right? You're not going to do anything - big, like move away." To the West Coast, maybe. Clark didn't like the uncertainty in his voice.
"Of course not, Clark. I've gotten past the stage in my life when I needed to make dramatic gestures like that. No, this was just a useful interlude. But they gave me a lot to think about." Lex paused for a moment. "Did you get the feeling that their dialogue was a lot better than ours?" he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
Clark frowned. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said defiantly. "I'm just glad they're - not making trouble." Somehow, he was sure that saying "gone" would have gotten him even more tangled with Lex. He wished for someone like Willow or Mr. Giles, someone who knew who he was and was powerful enough to help him, not someone who would just cheer like Pete or loom ambiguously in the distance like Dr. Swann.
"No," Lex said, and Clark had to struggle to remember the thread of the conversation. "No, we make enough of our own trouble here." He sounded resigned. "Still, they seemed to have survived some rough times. Maybe there's a lesson there for us."
Clark nodded. "They seemed like really good friends. I hope we can stick together like that, even after I graduate."
Lex smiled, more real this time. "You know, Clark, I couldn't agree more."
"Want to hang out and play some pool?" Clark asked. He had a chair to reclaim, after all. And maybe Lex would tell him what had really happened with Xander and it would have nothing at all to do with sex, Clark would make up some story about what he and Buffy had done, and everything would be all right again.
"Of course," Lex said, smoother than he'd been with the strangers, and Clark smiled wide with relief. This was going to work out, the way it always had before. "Just give me a few minutes; there are some books I need to order. And then the game can begin."