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Dates of Wars

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This story is No. 3 in the series "The "Date" series". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Sequel to Second Date. Lionel warns Buffy away from Lex. Dawn & Clark fight monsters.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Smallville > Multiple PairingsLastScorpionFR15126,482173,39214 Jan 0514 Jan 05Yes
Disclaimer: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is owned by UPN and/or Mutant Enemy and/or Fox and/or Joss Whedon. "Smallville" is owned by DC Comics and/or the WB and/or Millar & Gough and/or Tollin & Robbins. "Superman" was invented by Shuster & Siegel. I don't own any of the characters. I'm just fooling around. Please don't sue. The Date universe goes AU before Sunnydale was destroyed, and before Lex married Helen.

"My mind lets go a thousand things,
Like dates of wars and deaths of kings."
--Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907)--

Ring
Ring
Ring

CLICK. You have reached the Summers residence. If it's the Apocalypse, you can page me at 555-2375. Otherwise, please leave a message after the tone. BEEP.

"Buffy, hello. It's Lex Luthor. Just wanted to see how you're doing. Dawn and I made it back to Metropolis without any difficulty. You probably already know that; I'm sure you must have spoken to your sister some time in the past two weeks. You have my number already; I've left it several times. Call me back. Um. Please."

***

"Ooooh."

Clark thought the whole unpleasant "Hey, You're Superman!" debacle might have been worth it just for the expression of awe on Lex's face when he finally saw the spaceship.

"That's my ship," he said proudly, laying a big possessive hand on its weirdly smooth surface.

"May I touch?" Lex looked hopefully up at Clark. It was darn cute, actually, and Lex looked like a kid in a candy store when Clark nodded.

Lex approached the ship differently from how Pete had, differently from how Clark himself had when he'd first seen it (that he remembered) five years before. He examined the underneath part first, looking for propulsion or something, then the leading edges of the wing-things, and then the rear.

He had run his hands over about two-thirds of the ship before he exclaimed, "Hey! My octagon disk would have fit right here! I wonder what it would have done."

"Not your octagon disk, Lex, not originally,"

"I suppose not, but possession is eleven points in the law."

"I thought that was nine-tenths."

"Colley Cibber, 1697. Look it up. I wish I knew what happened to that thing."

Clark laughed aloud. He couldn't help it. "Possession won't get you anywhere today, nine, ten, or eleven. My mom has it."

"What!" Lex astonished twice in a row. This was fun.

Clark lounged negligently against the wall of the cellar. "She swiped it from your dad's safe that time you got them held hostage in his office."

"That bastard."

"My mom?"

"Of course not!"

"It works in that slot on the cave wall, too. That's how I can read ancient Kryptonian."

"You brat! I knew you were up to something when I found you asleep in my cave!"

That sobered Clark right up. "Maybe it's a good thing Mom's got it put away safe. Humans probably shouldn't mess with it. Remember Dr. Walden?"

"You think he was meddling with the disk, and it struck him down because it could tell he wasn't you?" Lex speculated.

"Or the cave itself did," Clark agreed.

"You know," Lex said conversationally, "when he finally regained consciousness, he'd lost four years' worth of memories. He didn't remember writing his last book, much less any of his cave research. That's a pretty effective safeguard."

"I'm glad he got better at all. I still don't think I can forgive whoever put those parasites in there. Chloe and Pete could've died! And Travis actually did. Dang Kryptonians. Almost makes me glad they're extinct."

"Hmm." Lex looked at Clark and quirked his eyebrows. "You're ordinarily the last person I'd think of as an advocate for genocide."

Clark ducked his head. "Maybe I don't really mean it." Then he raised it again and looked at Lex steadily. "But maybe I do. There was a message with the ship, from my biological father. I'm supposed to rule you guys with strength, because Earth people are a flawed race."

Lex shivered. Clark could probably do it, too. "I can't defend my species against the accusation."

Clark smiled at him. "Don't worry. I wasn't raised that way."

"Thank God for Jonathan Kent."

Clark laughed. "Never thought I'd hear you say that."

"It's not even the first time I have," Lex protested.

They continued in companionable silence for a while, Clark leaning on the cellar wall watching Lex run his hands all over the ship. Lex looked a lot like he did at a new car lot, but even more so. Clark was glad he'd shown him this.

Presently, still looking at the space pod, Lex said, "How are things in Sunnydale?" It seemed like he was trying to sound casual.

Clark was a little confused. "Fine, I guess. Dawn didn't mention any new apocalypses when I saw her last weekend. Why?"

Lex didn't answer for a couple of minutes. When he finally did, his voice sounded hurt. "Buffy doesn't return my calls. I wondered if she's all right."

Ouch. Well, this was finally an area in which Clark had more experience than his older friend. "She's probably just really busy. You know, fighting monsters and saving the world and stuff."

Lex didn't look reassured. He was still facing the spacecraft, but his eyes didn't look focused on it anymore.

"And you're busy a lot, too," Clark ventured. "Maybe she called back when you're at work or something. I think I've heard Dawn say that Buffy hates leaving messages; if she called when you were out, you probably just missed her."

Lex said, in a very small voice, "I even tried the apocalyptic pager number."

Clark's heart went out to his friend. He put as much reassurance as possible into saying, "I'm sure she's just busy. She'll definitely call."

Lex looked up at him and smiled ruefully. "I can't believe, with all your practice, that you're still such a bad liar."

***

Buffy hummed as she worked. Ever since Chad (the last male employee in the shoe department) had quit, Buffy got to be the moving-heavy-boxes-in-the-stockroom person. Lifting and stacking didn't really require her full attention, so she was entertaining herself by remembering a PBS fund-drive program about Judy Garland she'd once watched with her mom. In the memory Dawn was there, too, but Buffy was almost sure it had been just Buffy and Mom in real life.

"Sing alleluia, come on get happy, get ready for the Judgment Day...."

"You know, Buffy, she had a tragic life. She killed herself. Drug overdose."

"It's all so peaceful on the other side...."

Buffy suddenly realized someone had called her name twice already. She turned her head, put on a smile, and blinked at her supervisor. "I'm sorry, Lisa. What did you say?"

"I said there's somebody here to see you."

Buffy followed the older woman out of the stockroom. Lisa was still talking, and she seemed uncomfortable. "We're not busy right now. Take the rest of the afternoon off."

Hmm. Broad daylight, plenty of hidden weapons -- Buffy decided not to worry, much.

The man at the Service Counter reminded her of someone. His clothes and shoes were expensive and well made. He carried a handsome walking stick with a silver knob. For a man who had to be at least sixty, his hair was totally ridiculous.

"Miss Summers. I'm Lionel Luthor."

Buffy silently shook her head a little. That wasn't it. He didn't remind her of Lex.

"Please come with me. I have something I wish to discuss with you."

Buffy let Lionel usher her out to the limousine illegally parked in the fire lane. He opened the door for her, and she got in and let him close it. "Never get in a car with a strange man" didn't apply to her anymore; she'd been in so many more dangerous places with stranger things.

Lionel sat next to her. He didn't seem nervous. "Miss Summers. May I call you Buffy?"

Buffy blinked at him. He didn't wait for permission before going on.

"Buffy, I'll be very blunt. I want you to stop seeing my son."

"Lex?"

"Yes, Lex, since he's the only one you know," Lionel answered impatiently. "I'm willing to make it worth your while."

Buffy frowned. She deliberately hadn't talked to Lex since the day at the beach. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"You will agree to leave my son, Lex, alone, and I will make an electronic transfer of funds to your bank account."

"Why?"

"My reasons are, of course, my own."

"I don't understand," she said.

Lionel's opinion of her intellect hadn't been very high to start with, and it had been visibly declining throughout the conversation. "I'm sure you're aware that I am a very powerful man, Buffy. I reward those who oblige me, and I punish those who attempt to defy me. Is that simple enough for you to understand?"

Buffy started to resent this guy. "I think *you* don't understand," she told him.

Buffy turned her full attention on Lionel Luthor and let her voice get hard. "There's basically two kinds of stuff. Some things are beautiful or wonderful or profitable and not the end of the world. That would be the 'You're a powerful man' variety. The rest is the small category of stuff where it actually is the end of the world. That's mine; it's what I care about, and it's not anything you can give me or take away from me."

"Your life could be made very unpleasant," Lionel threatened.

It had been a long time since Buffy had felt so much like laughing. "You're going to make my life unpleasant? What -- I'll never sell shoes or sling burgers in this town again?" She gave him the big, sunny, Buffybot smile. "Lionel -- I can call you Lionel? -- you don't even need a *pulse* to get my kind of job in Sunnydale."

"You're not the only person whose life could be made unpleasant," Lionel observed coolly. "You have a younger sister, I believe, studying physics at Metropolis University. Her scholarship could be rescinded. She could even be expelled."

"If Dawn can't stay at school on her own merits, maybe that's not where she should be. If you can have so much influence on the powers-that-be at that place, maybe it's not the place for her," Buffy argued.

"And worse things can happen to a young lady away from home for the first time in the big city than simple expulsion." Lionel sneered arrogantly at Buffy as he spoke, and there it was! He reminded her a little of the Master!

"You know, Lionel, I have a short and shrinking list of people and things that I'm going to have to messily disassemble should any physical harm ever come to my sister Dawn. Putting yourself on that list might not be the smartest thing you did today." Buffy tried the door, found it was locked, and opened it anyway. She gave Mr. Luthor the little smile, the "this arm's not broken" smile. "Bye."

Buffy left the car door open behind her.

***

Ring

"I've got it," Dawn shrieked. There were only two other girls in the third floor lounge. Neither one looked inclined to fight her for the dubious privilege of answering the phone and trundling down the hall to find the person it was for, or (more likely) to leave a note on her door.

"Lloyd House. Home of the Future of Interdimensional Transport."

"Dawn?"

"Buffy!" Dawn squealed. "I can't believe it; it's for me! No one ever calls me here."

"That's because your boyfriend always just drops in," sniped Cathy from the lounge's ratty green sofa.

Dawn ignored her. "So, Buff, what's up?"

"You're in a good mood."

"Uh huh! Stellar success in the lab," Dawn confided.

"Sorry to have to spoil it."

"That sounds bad."

Dawn could hear Buffy sigh over the line. "Lex's dad might get your scholarship pulled."

"What? Why?"

"It's a pressure thing to make me drop Lex."

"So Mr. Luthor doesn't know you're already not returning his calls."

"Huh?"

"Lex told Clark; Clark told me."

"Dawn! It's not that simple. You know... " Buffy audibly huffed out another exasperated breath. "Lionel Luthor also said he might get you expelled."

"Go on."

"And he's possibly hiring goons to attack you as we speak. Come home to the nice, cozy Hellmouth? Please?"

"Buffy! I'm not coming home. So this guy is evil?"

"Looks that way. Kinda reminded me of the Master, but with way better teeth."

"You gonna slay him?"

"Human. He's on The List, but it'll never happen if you're still around to worry about it."

Dawn squirmed around sideways in her armchair and thought hard. "Well, he's a big name here financially. He can probably get the scholarship revoked, but I've already paid all the coming year's tuition and fees out of it. I'll go over and pay the whole room-and-board right now, before the Housing Office closes for the day, and I'll see if any of the books I'm gonna need are already at the Bookstore. By the time he takes it, hopefully there won't be much left."

"What if he gets you expelled?"

"I'll just have to be careful about frame-ups -- like that's something new. Even if I get booted, most of the classes I really care about, the profs'll let me audit. If I'm lucky, next year I'll be ready for England anyhow."

"That still leaves physical mayhem."

"A comforting constant in an uncertain world."

"Dawn! I'm serious!"

"I know. Buffy, don't worry."

"Watch your back."

"Always. You too. And if you ever wanna talk about Lex...."

Buffy hung up.

***

One of the wonderful things about being a workaholic, Lex decided, was that when your personal life sucked you could just spend more time working. It was comfort and profit put together.

Actually, it wasn't particularly comforting, but it was better than nothing.

LexCorp stock prices and profits were up over the course of the last two weeks. He'd been spending every waking hour in the office, except for that one extraordinary afternoon at Clark's house examining the spacecraft. There had been pie, too. It was starting to look like that afternoon was going to end up being the high point of Lex's remaining life; Buffy didn't call; Clark was almost always busy with farm-work or super-heroism or Dawn....

Right, business. Back to work. Lex made a couple of notes in the margin of an operations report from his alternative fuels facility in Oklahoma. He'd had an interesting idea about hydrogen liquefaction, and he was wondering about production feasibility.

It was only two o'clock in the afternoon, but Lex really wanted a drink.

Instead he got an extremely unwelcome visit from his father.

Lionel Luthor burst in through the door of Lex's office as if he owned the place, which he *didn*'*t*. "Lex," he declaimed. "We need to talk!"

Lex sighed heavily. He neatly folded his papers away into a file folder and carefully stowed it in his safe. He softly closed the safe door and spun the dial before finally giving his father his attention. "What can I do for you today, Dad?"

Lionel had used the time to help himself to a brandy from the bar and make himself comfortable on the office's leather sofa. "I've just come from California. Sunnydale, I believe the town was called. A real hell-hole."

Lex swallowed his annoyance. "I don't think you're likely to find anyone to argue that point," he said. Lex got up from his desk chair and walked deliberately over to the small bar refrigerator. He got himself a bottle of water instead of a brandy. Lex walked with measured steps back to his desk and leaned against it. He wanted Lionel to be the next to speak.

Lionel finished his brandy with evident enjoyment. Finally he spoke. "She's insane, Lex. You should know better."

"You didn't." Even as he spoke, Lex knew that was a side-issue, and he knew that Lionel knew. Damn. He was getting a headache.

Lionel smiled. Lex hated that smile. "Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself. Publius Terentius Afer," Lionel quoted. "Circa 160 BC. A wise man learns from others' mistakes. A fool must learn from his own."

Lex took a drink of water. "Buffy's not insane."

"Her own parents had her involuntarily committed to a mental institution in 1995. Her school records are full of incidents of violence and arson. She believes in vampires." Lionel rose from the sofa, using his silver-headed cane for leverage. "Tell me you'll break it off with her, son."

Lex's jaw worked, and he covered it up by drinking again. "Did you bribe her to leave me alone?"

"I tried, but she didn't seem to understand what I was talking about." Lionel shrugged flamboyantly. "She's moderately pretty, Lex, but extremely unstable and not very bright. That doctor you met in Anger Management was a better choice, and she was, well, awful." Lionel looked at Lex searchingly.

Lex just looked back. He didn't trust himself to speak.

After a few moments Lionel sighed heavily. "Very well. You leave me no choice, Lex. In the long run, you'll see that it's all for the best." Lionel swept magnificently out of the office.

Lex sank into his desk chair and tried to think.

***

Dawn took a big bite of chocolate chip muffin and washed it down with coffee. "So that's the sitch," she finished up. "Lex's dad may very well get me thrown out of school, and being thrashed by hired goons is always a possibility."

Clark shook his head. Even after all these years, he couldn't ever quite believe the plain evil that Lionel Luthor seemed willing to stoop to in order to get his own way. "Well, you can't stay here by yourself," he said.

Dawn looked at him like he was nuts. "What are you talking about?"

"I won't have you getting hurt in one of the Luthors' little squabbles. You'll have to come home with me."

Dawn laughed out loud, spraying crumbs. It was disgusting. And embarrassing. Clark realized he probably could have found a better way to phrase that.

"Clark, I love you and all, but I'm not coming to live in your house because Lionel Luthor is ticked with my sister! Get a grip!" Dawn quit cackling and drank the rest of her coffee.

Clark sat there stunned by the offhand way she'd said she loved him. She couldn't mean that, could she? Just like that? She must mean as a friend, the way he loved Chloe or Pete or Lex....

Dawn had gotten packed up and paid for their breakfast and was all the way to the front door of the cafe by the time Clark's brain and his body caught up with each other. She was tapping her foot impatiently at the door, waiting for him to put his things back in his backpack and come with her, when suddenly she stiffened.

Clark was beside her instantly. "What's wrong?"

"May I please have seventy-five cents, Clark? I used up all my quarters." Dawn's voice was calm and sort of remote.

Clark handed her three quarters and watched her put them in a newspaper dispenser there by the door of the coffee shop. The front page story of the *Inquisitor* was apparently Headless Body Discovered in Park. Dawn read the whole story standing there. She even turned to the inside back page and finished it. Then she turned to the front again.

"What's wrong?" Clark repeated.

Dawn looked up at him as if she'd forgotten he was there. "Hmm? Oh. I'm not sure. Possibly a Kleptes-Virgo. Do you know anybody around here who can get us a report from the coroner's office?"

"What's a cap toss furgo?" Clark asked. Dawn was reminding him a little of Chloe now, with the complete concentration on a Wall-of-Weird worthy story.

Dawn looked up at him. "Kleptes-Virgo. It's like a giant preying mantis that can cloud men's minds so that they see it as a beautiful woman. It lures virgin teenage boys to its lair, mates with them, and bites their heads off."

Clark blushed so hard he thought his face might catch on fire. Fortunately Dawn had gone back to looking at her newspaper. "You kill it by chopping it to pieces with something big and sharp. Buffy used a machete; you could probably just, you know, tear it apart. Like the Gorevanor Demon. We might be able to tell if that's what it really is if we could read the medical examiner's report or see the body."

Clark raised his eyebrows at Dawn in disbelief. "See the body? Shouldn't we leave this to the police?"

Dawn snorted at him. "Call yourself a -- never mind. Do you know anybody, or do I just attempt a little Applied Hacking?"

Clark sighed in surrender. "I'll call Chloe."

Dawn grinned at him and tucked the paper into her backpack. "Great."

***

It was flattering yet annoying, Dawn thought, that Clark wouldn't let her out of his sight after she shared Buffy's warning with him. He called his friend, Chloe, from the pay-phone at the diner. Then he called his mom to say he wouldn't be home 'til later, and then he followed Dawn to the lab and sat against the wall with a book while she did her work. He walked her back to her dorm when she took a break. He dashed home to Smallville and back while she was changing out of her lab clothes, and seemed genuinely relieved to see she was still okay after his fifteen-minute absence. It was stalkery but sweet.

It turned out Clark's friend Chloe had a summer job at the *Daily* *Planet*. She was a Journalism Major, too, but she seemed a lot more serious about it than Clark was. Dawn could understand that. Clark had not only school but also his family's farm and world-saveage to deal with. She hoped he didn't feel all inferior.

Dawn had called the house and left a message on the machine for Buffy. She thought she remembered how they'd defeated the Kleptes-Virgo (freaky, since she had really been in a Czechoslovakian monastery at the time), but it would be nice to get some strategy tips from the front-line fighter.

When Clark got back from Smallville, Dawn was changed out of her grubbies. "Ready to go?" she asked him.

"Yeah. Mom and Dad agreed that this is more important than chores for the moment, so I'll be staying in Metropolis until we've got it all cleared up."

Dawn was a little surprised. "And you'll be staying where?"

Clark didn't seem to notice her dubiousness. "With Pete," he said. "He's interning in the Mayor's office this summer, and he has a room. He already said I could sleep on his floor any time this summer, so I'll just take him up on it. In fact, I called him from home, and he's going to meet us for dinner with Chloe."

Dawn gave him a warm, genuine smile. "I like it when you plan stuff out," she said, cuddling up to his (enormous) arm.

Clark looked down at her, using his middle finger to keep his big ugly glasses from sliding down as he did so. "You do?" he asked. God, he was so cute when he was dorky. Then he smiled at her, and he was even cuter. "Let's go meet the team and come up with a plan to defeat the head-eating giant bug, then."

"Right!"

***

Lex paced and drank. It was after five o'clock, and he was still in his office. Dad, as usual, had shot his concentration straight to hell. He really needed to get over that.

He hadn't managed to get back on the Oklahoma project at all, but he'd researched Buffy a little. Her parents had actually had her put away. Lex knew vampires were real; he knew Buffy was the Chosen One, the Slayer -- she wasn't crazy. Unfortunately, he could imagine perfectly well how awful it would have been to be incarcerated by your own parents for a fate you couldn't control. He could empathize with the learning-to-lie; he knew all about causing trouble at school....

Damn it! He put the phone down. He'd already hung up on her machine twice; he was NOT going to call Buffy's house again tonight! Instead he picked the receiver back up and dialed another number he knew by heart.

"Hello?"

Lex cleared his throat. "Hello, Mrs. Kent. This is Lex Luthor. May I speak to Clark, please?"

"Hello, Lex, it's nice to hear from you, and call me Martha." That brought an involuntary smile to Lex's face. Doubtless it was another weakness, being made to feel warm by Martha Kent's friendly voice. Oh, well. Nobody could see him right here, right now; he'd had the office swept for bugs within half an hour of Lionel's leaving. Mrs. Kent went on. "Clark's in Metropolis tonight, actually. Dawn had some sort of trouble and needed his help."

The Kents liked Dawn -- Dawn was almost Lana-like in her ability to attract goodwill from people, Lex thought. He forcibly reminded himself that Dawn had done nothing to deserve his bitterness. It took a second. Then he said, "Were they... Do you think he'd mind if I tried to get in touch with him here?"

"Of course not, Lex. They were going to have dinner tonight with Chloe and Pete, I think Clark said. There was a story in the paper about headless corpses, or something, and Dawn seemed to think there were monsters that they'd need to handle."

It still amazed Lex that he knew about Clark being Superman, and Clark's parents knew he knew, and that nobody had been after him with a shotgun. At all. There had been one obscure long-winded lecture from Jonathan about loyalty and family responsibility (Lex had years of practice at appearing to pay attention to lectures about loyalty and family responsibility), but after that the Kents' behavior toward him had been very nearly unchanged. They'd taken the notion of Dawn's sister being Chosen to Slay Vampires completely in stride as well. Lex couldn't decide whether they were so blase about the idea of supernatural activity because they'd had all these years to get used to their own alien son, or whether Clark had just fortunately stumbled onto the two most weirdness-accepting people in Kansas when he'd landed on this Earth. Maybe the ship had some sort of detector. Being this sidetracked was not a good sign.

Apparently he'd been silent for some time. Martha asked, "Lex, are you still there?"

"Yes," he answered. "Did he say where they'd be?"

"I don't remember. Chloe always has her cell phone, though. Do you have the number?"

Why was he so disjoint this afternoon? His dad couldn't have affected him that badly; surely he should be used to him by now.

"Lex?"

"Uh. Thank you, Mrs. Kent. I...."

She interrupted him. "Lex, sweetie, do you have a pen and something to write on?"

He did. "Yes?"

She told him the number for Chloe's cell and made him repeat it back to her. "Call her as soon as I hang up, okay? I'm sure Clark will want to hear from you, and Dawn will want you to hear what's going on. Say, 'Yes, Martha.'"

Lex laughed. "Yes, Martha."

"Good. See you later, Lex." Martha hung up.

***

Chloe said they should meet her at a little vegetarian restaurant she liked near the *Daily* *Planet* building. It had internet access and the best falafel in the city. She'd found it the first summer she interned there, and she'd introduced Clark to it when he first started at Met. U. Over the course of his freshman year Clark had spent a lot of time there, and now it was one of his regular twice-weekly produce delivery stops. The cooks and most of the wait-staff called him by his first name. Sometimes Clark felt guilty that they all seemed to know him better than they did Chloe. If it bothered her, though, she didn't show it.

"Clark!" Chloe got up from the little square red-and-black booth to come greet Clark and Dawn at the door. Her blonde hair was cut very short this summer, and she was wearing cool thrift-store linen and a variety of bracelets. "I just got a call from Lex. I said he was welcome to come join us here. Pete's going to be late. Hi, Dawn."

"Hi, Chloe," Dawn said, but Chloe had already turned her attention back to the brightly colored laptop she'd left in the booth.

Her fingers danced over the keys as the others sat down. "This case looks like the real deal," she rapid-fired at them.

Clark raised one eyebrow. (He'd learned how to do that the summer after high school graduation, when Lex and Pete had finally tabled their hereditary differences and the three of them had spent half their Sunday afternoons watching Classic Star Trek in the mansion.) "Wall of the Weird?" he ventured.

"Better," Chloe rattled back without looking at him. "There have been three boys reported missing in that area in the past week. The headless body found in Carson Park this morning has been identified as one of them. Until the body was found, the police believed all three boys were runaways. Now they're looking into serial killers and registered sex offenders."

Just then, Lex came in. "Serial killers and sex offenders? What are you kids up to now?"

Dawn was hanging over Chloe's shoulder, looking avidly at the computer screen, so Lex squeezed in next to Clark. Clark noticed how much more relaxed Lex seemed to become when the three college kids greeted him and made him welcome.

Chloe continued keyboarding as she explained. "Clark and Dawn have an idea about the headless corpse found in Carson Park this morning. I'm bringing up the Medical Examiner's records...."

"You can do that?" Lex asked.

Chloe looked up at him for a moment and flashed him a bright smile. "I'm not untalented at the computer research."

"I told you she was the one to ask," Clark told Dawn.

"Mm Hmm," Dawn agreed, still studying the screen. She kept watching Chloe work the computer while a waitress brought plates and a big bowl of tomato-and-cucumber salad (featuring Kent Organic Vegetables) and a dish full of falafel balls. "There! Stop on that image, Chloe."

"This one? Ew. What are those... marks?" Chloe looked kind of disturbed for an intrepid reporter, Clark thought.

"They're from insect mandibles," Dawn declared triumphantly. "Madam, gentlemen, these are the tooth-marks of a giant bug!"

Chloe looked at Clark in exasperation. "What! I thought you wanted me for my crime reporting skills! You mean this really is Wall of the Weird stuff!?!"

"Chloe," Clark pointed out, as reasonably as he could. "A boy is dead, maybe more than one. You remember Greg. You know that giant bugs aren't as impossible as most people would like to think. You can't just totally turn your back on something because it's not *Daily* *Planet* material."

Chloe made a little growling noise. "I thought that I left that crap behind me when I left Smallville," she complained.

Dawn and Lex traded glances. Clark realized that Chloe was the only one at the table who didn't know he was an alien.

The little bell over the restaurant door jingled, and Pete came in. "Hi guys, sorry I'm late. What crap are you leaving behind you in Smallville, Chlo?"

"This!" Chloe gestured at her computer screen, and Pete squeezed in next to Dawn, craning his head over her to see what Chloe was talking about.

"Nasty," he commented. "What happened to his head?"

"It was eaten by a giant bug," Dawn stated confidently.

Pete gave her a Look. "What? Girl, you been hanging around with Clark too much."

"No, really. My sister fought one of these things in Sunnydale, like, ten years ago. I know what I'm talking about."

Chloe looked at Dawn skeptically. "You're not some sort of green glowy freak, are you?"

"Not lately," Dawn answered in a small voice.

Clark thought he'd better intervene before "Gang up on Dawn" day was declared a formal Metropolis holiday.

"Guys!" he interjected. "You both remember Greg. Why is it so hard to believe there are other giant monster bugs out there?"

"Clark," Chloe argued, "Greg wasn't really a giant bug. He was a Smallville Meteor Mutant. That's a pretty specific type of thing, and this just isn't the same...."

"Baloney!" Dawn interrupted. "I don't know anything about Greg, whoever he is, but this type of creature, the Kleptes-Virgo, or virgin-thief, appears in many cultures: the Greek Sirens, the Celtic sea-maidens who...." Dawn broke off the mythology lesson when she was drowned out by Chloe and Pete's loud laughter. Even Lex was snickering quietly, and the three of them were all looking at Clark.

Clark had been afraid that morning that he'd blush so hard his face would catch fire. Now he kind of wished it would. He ducked his head. Lex was at least trying to control himself, but Pete and Chloe were definitely going on his list of People I'm Going to Make Pay When I Take Over the World.

"Hey," Dawn's gentle voice made him look up at her. "Clark. It's a good thing." Her smile was happy, and intimate, and just like that, it didn't matter that Pete and Chloe were there making fun of him. "Bait, big gun, back-up, remember? We've got us a plan."

Pete and Chloe's laughter had died away at the looks passing between Clark and Dawn. Lex seemed sort of still and quiet. Clark turned and looked at him and made out how upset he was -- probably thinking of Buffy -- before Lex smoothed the expression away.

Dawn took advantage of the moment to take control of Chloe's keyboard and brought up a site that Clark had never seen before. She riffled through the entries quickly and displayed a screen of information to the other four at the table, turning the computer so everyone could see. "See? I'm not making this stuff up."

"Those are the same sort of marks," Chloe agreed.

"These monsters live all over the world? Eating guys who can't get any?" Pete asked.

"Pretty much," Dawn agreed. "They must have a really low hatch rate, or else the juvenile form is easy prey for something, 'cause they're not common anywhere, but they totally exist."

"Probably they cannibalize each other," Chloe speculated, taking back control of her laptop. "Real preying mantises do. Anyway, before we detoured into the Twilight Zone, I found out that all the missing boys were members of the Carson Park Swim Club."

"So, maybe we're looking for a swimming instructor or a pool maintenance worker or a cashier," Dawn said. "After we're done eating, we should probably just go down to Carson Park and look around."

"This thing is that obvious?" Lex asked.

"This thing is blatant," Dawn confirmed.

***

Carson Park had its fair share of blatant on a long warm summer evening, Dawn thought. Apparently most Metropolis women between sixteen and forty wanted to be gold-diggers when they grew up, because Lex was drawing them like flies. Still, it meant that the Kleptes-Virgo should be easy enough to spot; she'd be the one who wanted Clark instead.

Lex was doing nonchalant like he'd majored in it; Clark was hunting the crowds with that scan-the-area thing that Buffy was so good at; Pete was muttering in disbelief and annoyance that the chicks all wanted Lex; Chloe and Dawn rolled their eyes a lot and tried not to giggle. The first sign that they'd hit the center of the weird for the day was that the pool area was completely devoid of teenage girls and young women. There were little girls and people's moms, but the whole high-school/college demographic was represented by boys only, and the boys were all clustered at one edge.

"That would be the one," Dawn pointed out the lifeguard in question to Chloe. "Well-proportioned Miss Baywatch '06 over there. Like a queen surrounded by drones."

"I agree," Chloe said. "What do you guys think?"

There was no answer from the boys. Dawn and Chloe both turned to look at them. Pete was grinning like a maniac. Clark was almost drooling. Even Lex (probably the furthest thing from a virgin that Dawn had ever personally met, if the stories were true) looked kind of stunned. All three of them had their eyes glued to the lifeguard as if they'd never look at anything or anyone else ever again.

"They think that's her," Chloe interpreted.

Dawn laid her hands on Clark to keep him from going closer to the Kleptes-Virgo, and Chloe restrained Pete and Lex. They pulled the boys further back away from the pool, to a handy clump of trees where they could talk without being overheard.

"Okay, I said we had a plan, but now that we've located her we need a *real* plan," Dawn said.

Lex shook his head a little and took a deep breath. He looked at Dawn. "Right," he said. "How do we kill it?"

"Hold on a second," Pete protested. "What're you talkin' about killing now?"

"That... thing. The Kleptes-Virgo. It's not really a woman, Pete," Lex was forcing himself to not look towards the pool.

Pete was still gazing at the beauty surrounded by boys in the distance. "Looks like a woman to me, man. Maybe you should get your rich-boy eyes checked."

"Pete!" Chloe exclaimed indignantly. "You saw the coroner's pictures! That monster bit a kid's head off!"

Pete chuckled, slow and low, in a way that Dawn didn't really like. Then he tore his eyes away from the poolside display and looked at Chloe. "I'm not convinced. Okay, yeah, something attacked a kid, and that's bad. But there's no evidence that fine babe out there is the thing, that's all I'm sayin'."

"I don't *believe* you!" Chloe began, but Dawn cut her off.

"No, Pete's right. We need some sort of proof. If not good enough for the cops, at least good enough for us, so we're sure we're not attacking some innocent bystander," Dawn said thoughtfully. Although Clark's continuing speechlessness tended to rule out the possibility of the woman at the pool NOT being something weird. Dawn refused to entertain the thought that her boyfriend was just entranced by some other girl. She was resolute in her belief that the lifeguard was a giant mind-controlling preying mantis. Really.

"Well, what happened when you met one of these before? In Sunnydale?" Lex asked.

"I wasn't in on that fight," Dawn was forced to admit. "I was only about nine." Actually, she hadn't been in existence as a person at all. "I heard about it all years later, in bits and pieces."

Lex still wasn't looking towards the pool. Dawn saw him swallow. He got his tiny, expensive, state-of-the-art cell phone out of his pocket and handed it to her. "Call your sister," he said in a clipped, expressionless voice. "Ask her what we need to know before we face this."

Dawn took the phone without comment and dialed home. She got the answering machine and left a message. Lex's jaw was twitching a little. Pete had gone back to gazing at the lifeguard; Clark had never stopped.

"Are you going to page her?" Lex asked.

"I'm going to try Xander first, if that's okay. I know he was there." Lex nodded but didn't say anything. Dawn dialed Xander's cell.

"Harris," Xander answered after the second ring.

"Xander, it's me, Dawn."

"Dawnster! How are things in America's Heartland?"

"Not so good, actually. A boy was found early this morning with no head, and suspicious mandible-ey marks on the body."

"Ooh. Giant preying mantis lady?"

"That's what I thought! And I think we've found her. Lifeguard at a city pool."

"That would be a good hunting spot."

"She's gorgeous, and predatory-looking, and I *don*'*t* think that's a city-issue swimsuit. Also, all our boys are speechless and stupefied."

"Our? Who do you have for back-up?"

"Well, Clark's here. He'll be our bait...."

"You have no idea how glad I am to hear that, Dawnie," Xander interrupted her.

"Yes, Dad," Dawn scoffed at him. "Anyway, Clark, and Lex, and Clark's friends Pete and Chloe."

"Another girl's a big help, although the seduction kind of falters once the rape begins."

"Huh?"

"I never told you this story, did I? It's not exactly a shining triumph in the life of Alexander Harris."

"I don't need all the gory details." She *really* didn't. "Just what you think we should know to fight this."

"Well, the one we had got guys to go to her house for after-school work on a science project. She had cages in her basement, and she kept us there until she could get around to the egg-laying, mating, and beheading part of the fun. Once the trap was sprung, she let the glamour down. I think she got off on our fear."

Dawn could tell it still made Xander uncomfortable to talk about the whole episode. "I'm sorry."

"Do you have weapons? The technique should still be the standard slice-and-dice."

"Weapons! Okay, we'll need machetes or axes or something."

"Yeah, and Buffy used bug spray...."

"Good idea."

"...And also a recording of bat sonar to mess up its senses. Your sister? Smarter than she looks."

"Lucky for the world," Dawn smiled. "How is she anyhow?"

"Fine. Haven't seen her today, though. I got a new apartment last week; did you hear? She helped me move all my stuff."

"Good for you. I can't wait to see your new place."

"Can't wait to show it to you. Be careful, Dawnster."

"I will. You, too." Dawn turned off the phone and gave it back to Lex.

"Well?" Lex asked.

"The good news is, the two other missing boys may still be alive. The bad news is, we forgot to pick up weapons and bug spray and recorded bat sonar on the way over here."

"Uh, guys? I've got other bad news." Chloe gestured towards the pool. While Dawn, Chloe, and Lex had been preoccupied with the telephone conversation, Clark and Pete had wandered away. Clark could be seen towering over the rest of the masculine throng, and Pete's bright yellow shirt was occasionally visible as well. "Do we just charge after them?"

"They should be okay, for now," Dawn speculated. "Pete's not, I mean he didn't act like...."

"A virgin?" Chloe interrupted. "Hell, no. But what about Clark? He may not use his head for much, but it sure is pretty, and I'd hate to see it gone." Chloe was trying to make light of the situation, but Dawn thought she sounded worried.

"I have some weapons in the trunk of my car," Lex said. He sounded distracted and sad, and he kept looking at Clark. "Can't we do without the other things? I mean, this is Clark. It's not likely she'll be capable of physically harming him."

Dawn noticed Chloe eyeing Lex curiously. "Let's go, then," Dawn quickly said, hoping to distract the her with some action. The two girls and Lex headed out for equipment.

***

Buffy came to in a dark place. What the hell? It was dark and hot and smelled like diesel fuel, and it was vibrating.

She felt all muzzy. Her arm hurt, and her side did, too.

The lethargy and nausea felt like a drug -- the name was right on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn't quite remember it. It was something they gave you in a psychiatric ward, though. She was sure of that, even though some or all of those memories weren't real.

She had been walking to work in the morning. A lady in a van asked her for directions. "Could you come a little closer, dear, I'm hard of hearing." She was *sure* it hadn't been a monster. It was broad daylight, what could....

The lady had hit her with a taser. She thought she remembered now. In the side. Twice.

It was so hot. Buffy wished there were a little more air. Then she passed out again.

***

It was a long walk to where Lex's car was parked, and by the time the three intrepid monster-hunters got back with a couple of inauthentic but well-made swords, the pool was closed.

Pete and several other young men were hanging around aimlessly in the summer twilight. Lex felt it, too. The absence of the Kleptes-Virgo was like the ghost of a feeling he'd had too many times before. Girls always leave -- Helen, Buffy, Desiree, Pam, Mom....

Lex sat heavily down on a grubby wooden park bench next to Pete. He ran his hands over his head and sighed.

"Pete! Where's Clark?" Chloe sounded agitated.

"Gone, man. Clark's gone," Pete answered slowly.

"Pete! Where?"

"Uh, with the lady. Her name's Sheryl. Mmm. Sheryl."

Chloe handed her newspaper-camouflaged sword to Dawn and shook Pete hard by the shoulders. "Where! Did! They! Go! Pete!"

Pete shook his head for a moment after Chloe stopped shaking him, and then he looked a little more focused. Lex almost envied him. Pete gestured. "They went in there. Sheryl took one look at Clark, and left all the rest behind, even though he was all shaky and... Oh, man. Her eyes were really green." Pete blinked a couple of times, and Lex could see that busy brain start humming again behind Pete's eyes. "I think Clark's in trouble."

"You *think* Clark's in trouble!?" Chloe was loud and indignant, but Pete turned to Dawn and Lex.

"No, I think he really is. He was acting like he used to around Lana, when she had that damn necklace? And Sheryl's eyes didn't glow before Clark got close to her; I'm sure of it. Somehow that thing has meteor rock in her."

Lex didn't even wait for Pete to finish speaking before he was trying to find a way in to the pool house. "Locked," he fumed, slamming his hand painfully against the door. The sun had set; the other aimless teenage boys had wandered off home. Lex started hunting for a window he could break, but they all had bars.

"Let me," Dawn said. She put down the bundled-up swords and got two small wire objects out of her jeans pocket.

Lex unwrapped the swords and got one of them into his hand. Its solid weight made him feel a little better. He could hear Chloe and Pete arguing -- Chloe was accusing Pete of knowing more than he said, and Pete was vehemently not denying it. Dawn seemed to be taking a long time. "You're sure you can *pick* locks?"

"One of Buffy's old boyfriends taught me."

Ouch. "So your sister ordinarily dates criminals?"

"Ordinarily she doesn't date. Anymore." The lock turned, and Dawn jumped up, pumping her fist in the air. "Yes! Guys! We're in!"

Lex stopped the other three from rushing headlong through the now-open door. "Wait. You'll need weapons."

"Dibs on the other sword!" Dawn sang out as she scooped it up from the ground.

There was no doubt that Dawn knew her way around a blade, so that was fine. Lex drew his pistol from under his light summer-weight jacket and held it pointing up at the sky. Looking at Chloe and Pete, he asked, "Can either of you shoot?"

"I'm pretty good," Pete admitted.

Lex gave him the gun. "It may not be much use, but then again it might." Pete seemed to handle the weapon competently. "Oh," Lex added, "It's loaded with wooden bullets."

Chloe looked very surprised and interested. "Okay, you guys, something's up, and you all know but me. This is NOT acceptable."

"We'll tell you later, Chlo," Pete promised. "After Clark's okay, and hopefully those other kids, too."

"I'll hold you to that, Pete Ross," Chloe whispered as the party entered the quiet pool building.

It was dark inside. The building was an ordinary municipal building for Parks & Recreation offices and storage. Lex and Dawn walked in front with their swords naked in their hands, each hugging one wall of the hallway. Pete was a little behind, ready to fire between them or around them. Chloe was back a little further, jittering from side to side like a high-energy particle and watching their backs.

There were two shower-rooms, Girls and Boys, and three offices on the ground floor. None of the doors was locked. The adventurers didn't split up to search, and they didn't find anything unusual. They did find a can of roach spray in the janitor's closet off the Girls' locker-room, and Chloe appropriated it for her weapon. At the end of the hallway there was an access door to a stairwell.

Lex gestured silently for the others to stay back as he leaned against the door that led to the stairs. Dawn crowded up against it with him anyway. Listening hard, he could make out some panicky yelling rather far away on the other side. "Down?" he mouthed to Dawn. She nodded. The door had no lock.

***

Clark leaned against the strong chain link of the cage. He was so screwed. It was dark, but he could see well enough to know that. Dawn hadn't said anything about these klepto-whatevers having kryptonite in them, but he hadn't exactly waited around for the planning of the *real* plan, had he? He'd wandered off like a dang four-year-old. He'd followed Sheryl like a lamb to the slaughter, right downstairs, right into the cage. He'd tagged along behind her like an unweaned pup, though he could hardly walk straight. He'd struggled almost as hard to follow her to his doggone doom as he'd struggled to haul Lex up out of empty space at Level Three. Man, he was an idiot. It's not like he didn't *know* she was a monster. Even if he hadn't, there she was now -- giant preying mantis, check, with glowing, multi-faceted, kryptonite-colored eyes. She was laying slimy, green, glowing eggs. Spookier yet, she was crooning to them in Sheryl's soft, womanly voice, calling them her darling children and promising them the world. Clark felt sick, and it wasn't just from the kryptonite.

Right. Still gotta do your best, Clark, no matter what.

There were two other boys in the cage with him. They were younger, tenth-graders he thought, and they were very afraid. Clark let go of the cage wall and lurched back to the farthest corner, where they were huddled together on the floor. Even that small increment of additional distance away from the monster was enough to make him feel a little better.

"Okay," he told the kids. "It's gonna be okay."

Both of the boys looked up at him, and one answered. "It's not gonna be okay. That thing killed Craig last night, and it's gonna kill all of us, too."

"It'll be okay. I have friends who'll be looking for me, and I have a plan."

The boy who hadn't said anything before spat out, "You're delusional."

Clark got a little mad at the kids' defeatism, and it helped him feel stronger. He moved to the corner of the cage, where the fencing material met the hard concrete wall. Taking a deep breath and bracing his back against the wall, he shoved against the chain-link as hard as he could. It moved a little. He did it again, trying to be quiet. Very soon he had a space that a person might be able to squeeze through, but he was out of time. The Kleptes-Virgo had finished laying her brood, and she was coming to fetch a mate to fertilize it.

"While she's busy with me, you guys get out through there and make a run for it," he hurriedly told the high-schoolers.

Clark could feel the weakness and nausea increase as the monster came closer, but he forced himself to the front of the cage. "Hi, Sheryl," he said, trying to sound as cool as Lex always did when he was kidnapped by lunatics. "What's up?"

The thing cocked its head at him, and that was really disturbing. The bright eyes whirled with curiosity. "Are you not afraid, dear? Perhaps you are the worthy progenitor of the new race."

Oh, crap. He hadn't even *considered* that. To make matters worse, young Mr. "You're Delusional" behind him was ignoring his friend's urging to sneak out of the cage in favor of having literal hysterics right there on the floor, and the monster was opening the door. She grabbed him with her big serrated claws and pulled him out of the cage. He could see out of the corner of his eye that his arms had gone all veiny and dark, and it hurt like heck wherever she touched him, but he fought back as hard as he could. He had to go down fighting. No! He had to hold her off until help arrived, or else Jor-El's grand-insects would rule the Earth with strength, and he *couldn*'*t* let that happen.

***

Lex took a deep breath. Okay. One, two, three. He slammed the door open. Dawn and he rushed down the stairs, with Chloe and Pete right behind.

One flight down was a big concrete basement, ordinarily used to store lane lines and chlorinating agents and the other paraphernalia associated with a public pool. There was a cage that the chemicals were supposed to be kept in, with yellow metal storage cabinets and a door that locked. Clark and two high school kids were in the cage. One of the younger kids seemed to be freaking out.

Unfortunately, between the foot of the stairs and the cage there was an enormous insectoid monster. The monster reached into the cage and grabbed Clark. He looked bad, and the monster had that Smallville meteor rock glow.

"Put him down!" Lex yelled.

The giant mantis turned its head all the way around to look at them. It appeared to consider for a moment. "I could kill him now, if you do not leave," it said. It sounded just like a human woman.

"If you kill him now, he won't be able to fertilize your spawn," Lex pointed out coolly.

"And he's a good one," the insect agreed. "Fresh. Large. Of a novel genome." Clark was struggling hard, but the creature had no trouble tossing him thirty feet into the wall.

Then, lightning-quick, it attacked Lex.

He didn't get his sword up in time to deflect the first slash, but he was instinctively dodging already, and it only ripped down the outer edge of his right arm.

Dawn was there in a flash, attacking it from the side with great hacking sweeps of the sword. The mantis's quick-parrying legs made it impossible for Dawn to get a serious blow in on its body, but she was probably going to take a limb off before long.

Pete jockeyed for position behind the first line of battle. Lex wished he'd just hurry the hell up and shoot, but he had to admit that this monster was a lot scarier than your typical Smallville mutant, and he himself hadn't exactly landed any useful blows either. He was working hard to keep parrying the thing's tearing claws, when suddenly the Kleptes-Virgo bent its scary, ugly head down and opened its big bug jaws and bit at his neck. His panicky sideways dodge meant it sank its mandibles into his right shoulder instead. "Damn," he thought, "I'm going to lose a limb before it does." He hacked inelegantly at its dinner-plate-sized eye with the sword in his left hand, and Dawn finally knocked off the middle leg on its left-hand-side, and presently it had to let go.

While the monster's head was relatively still, jaws buried in Lex's flesh, Pete had finally emptied the pistol into the creature's other, unwounded eye. The blast, so close to Lex's head, was deafening, but after that, the creature seemed to have a lot more trouble hitting them. Chloe had run to see if Clark was all right. Dawn and Lex kept fighting, although Lex really wished he could sit down. Thank God for shock -- if he could still feel his right arm he was sure it would hurt like hell. Pete ran after Chloe and got the roach spray from her. Lex took another slice on the right shoulder. He could feel the blood running down his shirt.

Fortunately for Lex, the monster seemed to have decided Dawn was something of a threat as well, once she cut off its leg, and it was concentrating on biting her instead of him. Dawn was thin and lithe, and she dodged well. Her sword technique was unlike anything he'd ever seen in fencing class. She was starting to scream at the thing as she fought. Lex would've told her to save her strength for the battle and not be a fishwife about it, but it seemed to be working for her. She'd done the monster some damage, and she'd avoided everything but little scratches. It was as if she knew where the thing was aiming before it struck.

Suddenly Dawn's luck ran out. Abandoning its attempts to hold Lex at bay, the Kleptes-Virgo used both its huge serrated front-limbs to grab Dawn and hoist her into the air. Lex dodged underneath the girl to try to stab at the monster's underbelly, but its remaining middle limb gashed him painfully across the scalp, and he was driven back.

Pete got back to the melee with Chloe's insecticide and sprayed it into the Kleptes-Virgo's face. Dawn fell from the creature's uncontrollable limbs with a squeak, and scrambled away. The monster and the humans all retreated a step from the combat, coughing, and suddenly a big, yellow, metal chemical storage cabinet came sailing across the room and smashed the big bug against the concrete wall. Clark, cut-up and nauseous as he was, had been watching the whole combat from a distance and awaiting his chance.

Dawn dashed forward, avoiding the clawed, spasming limbs, and severed the head from the body. That didn't stop the creature from moving, but its movements stopped being coordinated. There no longer seemed to be any chance that the battered big bug body would be able to work its way out from underneath the metal cabinet and attack.

The sudden stillness was unnerving. Wait, maybe that was the blood loss. Lex sat down carefully on the concrete floor and started trying to think of something he could use to wrap up his arm. The sword was heavy, so he put it down.

***

Buffy woke up in the dark again. She was lying on a narrow white bed. Her clothes were gone, and she was dressed in coarse white cotton pajamas. She was fuzzy-headed, and her arm hurt more than it had earlier, although the sore place from the taser had apparently had time enough to heal itself.

She wasn't tied down to the bed. Buffy sat up.

Her head swam. She waited a while for it to stop, but it didn't. Looking at her sore arm, she counted three puncture marks. The counting took some time.

There were other beds in the room with her, with other people in them. Buffy got up and wandered around quietly, looking at them. They were all women, pretty women between their late twenties and fifty-something. Most of them were redheads. They were all asleep. They smelled drugged.

The door was locked. The window had bars. Slayer senses seemed to be working better than other things -- brain, for instance. It was three hours until midnight. There were no vampires around for at least a quarter-mile in any direction.

Buffy lay back down and went to sleep.

***

Lex looked pretty bad. Clark looked pretty bad. The two high-school boys looked pretty bad, although not so much physically. Fortunately the Kleptes-Virgo looked even worse. Dawn couldn't help crowing in triumph when its legs quit twitching. Chloe was looking suspicious and a little angry, and Pete looked like he was catching his breath.

"Right!" Dawn told the others. "Let's get out of here. You two kids, from the Carson Park Swim Club, we just saved you from a *horrible* death. The least you could do is help us get our friends, who were hurt on *your* behalf, out of this stinky monster-filled basement and up into the fresh air. Move!"

The two tenth-graders blinked at Dawn. The one who had been having hysterics before looked like he might argue with her, but Dawn had learned her 'resolve face' at the feet of the master, and she quelled him with a glance. The less-stupid kid hauled his companion to his feet, and they both, under Dawn's supervision, got Lex standing (more or less) and helped him out of the basement. Chloe and Pete had Clark, although Chloe's expression said she'd rather torture some answers out of her friend than help him out this very second. Dawn snagged Lex's sword from the floor and a first aid kit from the Girls' Shower Room wall on their way out.

Once they were outside in the warm summer night, Clark was apparently fine. All his cuts healed up in a few moments. Lex, on the other hand, was barely moving under his own power. Dawn directed the two former victims to set him on a nearby park bench. She sat down beside him and opened up the first aid kit as Pete helped him out of his jacket and shoulder holster.

As she started to work on cleaning and bandaging Lex's wounds, Dawn suggested to the two high-school virgins that they should go back downstairs and smash every single one of the eggs the Kleptes-Virgo had left. They agreed readily, and took off back into the pool building. Pete went, too, to keep an eye on them and make sure they didn't miss any.

Chloe had seen Clark's magic healing routine, and the mysterious krypto-sickness, and the big-heavy-cabinet tossing. Dawn remembered how furious Lex had been at finding out Clark's secret, and she decided she'd keep her mouth shut and let Clark deal with his own friends himself.

"So, Clark. What *have* you been hiding all these years?" Chloe's voice was cold. She'd had time to pull herself together, and she wasn't letting anything go.

Clark took his glasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on. He took a deep breath and stood up tall. Dawn thought he looked kind of grown-up that way -- almost Giles-like; she liked it.

"Off the record, Chloe," Clark said.

Chloe looked at him with furious eyes. "Fine," she spit out. "Deep background only. It's the best you'll get, Clark. I *can* figure it all out myself, and you know it."

Clark looked down at the ground and then back up at Chloe. He pushed his glasses back into place with one finger. "I'm Superman," he said quietly.

Dawn shivered. From the look on Lex's face, he felt it, too. Neither of them had ever heard him admit it flat out like that.

Chloe's face crumpled. Dawn thought she might cry. Then she visibly composed herself and went back to being offended and mad.

"*You*'*re* Superman?" Chloe asked skeptically. "I've known you since you were *twelve*. No *way* are you *Superman*."

Clark didn't answer. He just flew. He took off into the moonless Kansas night, looped around once, came back and landed soundlessly. Dawn had Lex's arm and head bound up by now, and she watched his eyes grow big as he watched Clark. Was it the first time Lex had seen Clark fly, as well?

If anything, Chloe seemed to be made even angrier by the display. "Fine!" she spat out. "You're Superman! You're the superhero from another *planet* that *Lois* *Lane* wrote about last winter. How come you never told me, Clark? I thought we were friends!"

"We are friends, Chloe," Clark protested quietly, "but I couldn't just *tell* people I'm an *alien*. I didn't even know it myself when I first met you, and...."

Chloe didn't let him finish. "You couldn't *tell* people? Or you just couldn't tell me? It seems pretty clear that I'm the only one here tonight that didn't KNOW, Clark!"

Clark was starting to seem a little stunned. Dawn wished she could help him, but she had no idea how. She settled for cleaning the swords. He ducked his head and looked at the ground again, looking less like Superman and more like the dork who'd first attracted her attention in Astronomy 101.

"Pete found my spaceship when it got out of the cellar the summer after freshman year. He *found* *out* about me; I didn't just tell him. My folks have always known, of course. That kid Ryan, you remember him? He really was psychic; he found out. A couple of other mutants over the years. Dawn's sister just plain recognized me in the Superman costume; that's never happened before. That's how Dawn and Lex found out, too; they were there when Buffy outed me."

"And I've found out now." Chloe's voice was awfully unfriendly for someone who'd been palling around with Clark since Junior High.

Clark lifted his head and looked at Chloe again. "Please don't tell anyone."

Chloe sniffed. "I already told you: deep background only. A journalist has to keep her word to a source."

Clark looked hurt. "A source? Chloe, please. I want to still be your friend."

"So, Superman. Tell me, why didn't you just crush that killer bug right away?"

"It's the meteor rocks, Chloe. You remember that from Smallville, don't you?"

"And do you have any idea why the Kleptes-Virgo would also have that effect on you?"

"I don't know. I remember that Greg was full of the stuff -- kryptonite is the actual name of that mineral. He almost got me in the old foundry back home, but there was some lead sheeting there, and that blocks the radiation or something, I guess. Some heavy equipment fell on him, and he broke up into a zillion little bugs, and they all scurried away."

"And so much for Greg. He was supposed to be your friend, too." Chloe's voice dripped with bitterness.

"That might not have been the end of him," Dawn put in tentatively. Everyone turned to look at her, so she went on. "There was a Latvian bug-man called Mr. Pfister -- an assassin. He could break himself apart into a lot of little worms, so that he could go through small places, like under a door or something. Then he'd re-assemble himself and be fine."

Lex spoke up unexpectedly. His voice was a little hoarse. "Was Greg a virgin?" At Chloe's scoffing agreement and Clark's silent nod, Lex went on. "Perhaps he encountered one of these giant mantids. Like calling to like. The resulting offspring might well incorporate kryptonite into their tissues."

Clark looked suddenly up at the building. "Pete and those kids are done smashing eggs. They're on their way back," he said.

"I won't betray your secret identity, Superman," Chloe stated.

Clark looked at her. "Chloe," he began, but then Pete and the two boys were back, and he had to stop.

Lex fumbled his cell phone out of his pocket.

"What are you doing?" Dawn asked, attention drawn by his sharp intake of breath.

"Calling the police," he answered.

"The police? Are you sure that's a good idea? This isn't exactly normal stuff we're dealing with here," Dawn argued.

Lex struggled a little to handle the phone one-handed. Clark came over and held it for him. "This isn't Sunnydale," Lex said. "It isn't Smallville, either. This is Metropolis. The people of Metropolis don't need to be protected by ignorance; we don't need to be lied to, and our police force is the finest in the world. I'm confident that the Metropolis PD can accept and process the knowledge of this creature, and it would be extremely regrettable for them to never be able to put case closed to Craig's murder."

"We don't need to tell them the name and the lore and the how-do-we-know, though, do we?" Dawn challenged. "'Cause my experience has been that's a first-class ticket to the loony bin."

Lex shook his head. "I don't see why we'd need to tell them anything other than what we've seen here tonight. Hello? This is Lex Luthor. I'm at Carson Park. Please send a patrol car and an ambulance to the pool area. Yes, it's an emergency." He held his phone out towards Dawn. She took it and closed it up.

"Okay, I'll grant you the Metro Police should want to know what happened to that guy who was found dead this morning. But who's the ambulance for?" Dawn looked at Lex, but he didn't answer.

His bandaged head was warm and heavy against her arm where he lay unconscious.

"At least he didn't get a concussion this time," Pete observed.

Dawn glared at him as she and Clark laid Lex down flat on the bench. "Inappropriate much?" she huffed.

Pete laughed at her and tucked Lex's ruined jacket under his head.

***

When Buffy awoke again, nothing appeared to have changed in the room. It was about two hours past midnight this time, three or four hours still until dawn. Her accelerated Slayer metabolism had processed more of the drug that should have kept her unconscious at least until morning, and now she had to decide what to do.

Her earlier wandering around the room had told her she was only on the third floor. The window was barred on the outside of the glass; the bars were fairly far apart; she thought she could slip through them. She'd fallen from higher places; she'd even *survived* falling from higher places. Buffy knew there was no moon tonight. She could hear a high wind kicking up, and it smelled like it might rain. She was pretty sure she remembered there being trees and stuff outside from earlier.

She hunched her knees up to her chin and hugged them. If she rocked a little as she thought, at least there was no one to see her acting crazy. Wait, untrue. There was a camera mounted high on the wall, just where it met the ceiling. That meant that anything she did would have to work the first time; no do-overs for Buffy. "Our two main weapons are fear, surprise and a fanatical devotion to the Church," she muttered. Her arm hurt; her mouth was dry; she was sure she hadn't eaten since lunch on the day before she was captured, and she'd had nothing to drink since her morning cup of tea before leaving the house to be kidnapped. Nevertheless, she had to make this quick and sudden.

Fighting off the urge to just lie back down and go to sleep again (Because I'm the Slayer, dammit! The world *needs* me!) Buffy suddenly uncoiled and launched herself at the window, bursting through the glass like a shell, heedless of the shards falling around and with her. She grabbed one of the bars briefly, whipped her body around and between them with the momentum, and threw herself at the ground.

She landed in broken glass and muddy grass, rolling to break her fall, not even flinching from the cold sharp glass that left shallow cuts on her knees and elbows. She rolled some distance, trusting the coarse cloth of her pajamas to shield her from most of the sharp edges, trusting the dark mud to help camouflage her in the night.

She made it to a scratchy hedge of some sort and squirmed into it to hide and observe. The building she'd jumped from was a huge lightless bulk looming in the darkness. There were no audible alarms. There were no searchlights. Wind-whipped tree branches and scudding clouds intermittently let the dim light of the stars down to her. Buffy crept along beneath the hedge as far as she could, heading obliquely away from the building the whole time, before finally squeezing out from under it on the opposite side from where she had started. She could make out a stone wall about thirty yards from her, and she could hear traffic noise far away, muted by the driving wind.

Buffy worried about the other women being held in the building she'd just escaped. Who was their captor? Could she really just leave them there? They were drugged; could she even rescue them if she tried? What if they were imprisoned for a good reason, and Buffy had been the exception? "Stop it!" she told herself sternly. "Escape first. Then find out stuff. Then plan what to do about them. Right? Right!"

There was a tall tree overlooking the wall. Its branches reached to within about five feet. The whole thing was thrashing with the stormy wind. Buffy ran to the tree and climbed it as fast as she could. She crept out along the branches overlooking the wall as far as they would bear her slight weight. She held tight and kicked in time with the wind, gaining the momentum she needed to launch herself over the wall, then let go and flew.

It was a bad landing. The ground was further away than she'd thought it would be. Apparently the walled compound, whatever it was, was situated on top of a rocky little hill. Buffy felt bruises blossoming on her shoulder and hip when she hit, but at least she didn't twist an ankle. "That's right," she told herself. "Look on the bright side."

Buffy fled.

***

Clark felt terrible that Lex had gotten hurt. Lex regained consciousness before the ambulance and police arrived, but he still insisted on going and being checked out by a doctor. That was pretty darn unsettling in itself, since Lex tried to avoid doctors ever since Helen. But Lex had passed it off lightly with a quip about just wanting to make sure he got a pain prescription, and Clark felt more assured that Lex would be okay.

Clark felt terrible that he'd hurt Chloe's feelings so badly, too. Pete had been furious at him for a couple of days when he found out, years before. Lex had been incensed for about a month when he'd found out, less than two months ago. Both of them had to almost die before they decided to forgive him. Clark didn't want Chloe to almost die; for one thing, she wasn't as reckless as the guys were. It might be a long time. Mainly, though, he just didn't want her to get hurt. He didn't want anybody to.

Dawn suggested they hide the weapons under a rock or something before the police got there. She maintained that there was "No point in unduly agitating the police." Chloe was completely silent on the issue, but Pete disagreed.

"Look," he pointed out reasonably, "I've been Driving While Black in Kansas for like four solid years, and I know cops. You want to be nice and polite and not make 'em think too much." He gestured towards the high-school boys they'd rescued. "Chauncey and Earl over there are just gonna tell the whole story, anyway. You don't want there to be too much discrepancy; a giant bug's weird enough by itself."

Lex roused himself enough to agree. "Pete's right," he said. "Keep it as simple and straightforward as possible."

"You *do* have a license for that piece, don't you, Luthor?" Pete asked.

"Of course. And a Concealed Carry Permit, as well. I just hope they don't become too inquisitive about the ammunition." Lex was breathing funny, and his forehead was scrunched up with the effort it took him to keep his voice cool and even. Clark x-rayed him worriedly. The Kleptes-Virgo's mandibles had bitten into Lex's collarbone, and there were little hairline fractures spreading from the tooth-marks. That had to be hurting a lot. Clark wished he'd thought of calling the ambulance, instead of making Lex think of it himself.

"What about the ammunition?" Chloe asked. It was the first word she'd spoken since she'd cut Clark dead by promising "Superman" not to reveal his secret identity. "Why did you have wooden bullets, Lex?" It was the perfect voice to use to ask the 'hard questions' of captains of industry; she'd been practicing it since she was fourteen.

Pete took pity on the bloodied and the baffled, and answered Chloe himself. "At the end of the school year, when Clark started going out with Dawn, he discovered that vampires are real. There was a bunch of them summoning something in the museum, and Superman stopped it. I'm guessing Lex Luthor, Mad Scientist, here, was doing weapons research about them and that would explain the gun."

"They work, too," Lex added threadily.

Chloe looked even angrier then, which Clark would not, offhand, have thought possible, but they were spared her wrath by the approach of sirens.

It looked like Chloe was going for some quality mad-at-Clark time. After Lex was taken away in the ambulance and the police had taken everybody's statements and said they could go, Chloe still hadn't said one more word to Clark. Pete kept giving him these meaningful looks -- Clark was sure Pete was trying to help him out or tell him what to do, but he didn't read minds, and he had no idea what he should be doing about Chloe.

"You'll give me a ride home, won't you, Pete?" Chloe said. Her tone brooked no argument. They'd come in two cars from the restaurant; Lex didn't own anything but the limo that would hold more than four people.

"Of course," Pete answered. He was still trying to give Clark telepathic advice with his eyebrows. Clark looked back at him helplessly, but Chloe stomped quickly off into the dark, and Pete had to scurry to keep up.

The two swim club kids (their names weren't actually Chauncey and Earl, but rather Tom and Bill) had been taken home to their worried families by the police, so Clark and Dawn were left alone. The wind was picking up; a storm was coming in. Clark had Lex's keys and his fervent admonition to get the Ferrari home safely.

Dawn and Clark slowly walked back to Lex's car. It was late. Clark was tired; he thought he was too tired to put on the suit and patrol tonight. Then he felt guilty because maybe people would need Superman, and he wouldn't be there, and he felt guilty about Lex, and Chloe, and Craig who had died the night before....

Dawn interrupted his train-wreck of thought by putting his arm around her shoulder, and snuggling in under it, and putting her own warm little arm around his waist. "Stop beating yourself up. You did good. Those kids would have died, and you saved them."

Clark swallowed. "You're the one who figured it all out, from the newspaper report. I was completely oblivious. *And* I was useless in the fight...."

"Hello? What fight were you at? We were getting our asses kicked! You killed it with that storage thingie."

"*And* I wandered off and didn't wait for the whole plan...."

"The Kleptes-Virgo was designed to trap young men. You can't blame yourself for being caught."

"*And* Lex got hurt. Badly. And you're all scratched up, too!" Clark suddenly realized that no one had given Dawn any first aid, and x-rayed her, and almost picked her up to carry her the rest of the way to the car, but she stopped him with her hand on his chest.

"Clark! Stop it. These are just scratches. I'll take a shower when I get home, and I'll be fine."

"I was supposed to be protecting you, in case Lionel sent any thugs, but instead I let you get all beat up by a monster that wanted me."

"Fighting monsters is part of what I do. I'm a Summers girl. This is really NOT All Beat Up. And if it makes you feel any better, you can guard the shower room back at the dorm while I'm in there. No x-ray vision, though."

Clark finally laughed. He ducked his head and rubbed his cheek against Dawn's shiny hair. She smelled nice, and he really liked her.

"Chloe's mad at me," he admitted in a small voice.

"I know," Dawn answered quietly. She gave him a squeeze, and leaned up and kissed him. "Don't worry. It probably won't help any."

"That's not all that encouraging," Clark whispered.

Dawn chuckled a little and patted him a couple of times on the shoulder. "There there."

"Yeah, that's better." They walked the rest of the way to Lex's car. It started to rain.

***

Buffy found a road at the bottom of the hill. She picked right as the direction to go because that way she wouldn't have to cross the street. If there was a drive that went up to the walled compound she'd just escaped from, it must be on the other side. Over here there was nothing but a chain-link fence posted "No Trespassing", which she climbed easily, and a rough weedy verge next to the road. There weren't many cars at two or three a.m., and Buffy threw herself flat in the scrub and hid whenever she heard one. She wished she had some sort of shoes, and that reminded her of the annoying old saying about the guy who cried because he had no shoes until he met a man who had no feet, and that reminded her of footless creeping demons she'd known, and bodies she'd discovered that had been chopped up into pieces, and generally was a bad thing all around.

Buffy kept walking until she couldn't walk anymore. By then she was in a region of cornfields, and it was pouring down rain. She didn't remember exactly when either of those things had happened, but she was grateful for the soft plowed earth and the tall plants. She crept into a field and hid among the corn.

First things first. She had to do something about her outfit. If her two fashion choices were escaped mental patient or weird cultist, she'd take the second one. Buffy tore the sleeves off her pajama top and rolled them into ropes. She took off the pajama pants (obscurely comforted to find she still had underwear) and used Slayer-strength and precise little fingers to tear them into cut-off shorts. She put the shorts back on, and used one torn-off piece of cloth to make a head-scarf, and the other to make a belt. One sleeve-rope secured the headscarf, and the other was twisted into an arm-band. It wasn't as if the heavy drenched cotton was keeping her warm, anyway. The best she could hope for was to not be arrested.

Second things second. Buffy looked for a tree -- she needed a stake. There weren't any in the cornfield, but she had rested long enough for a person on the lam, she thought. She chose to blame lingering traces of drugs in her system rather than raw stupidity for her failure to break off a stake earlier, when there had been trees. Buffy got up and went back toward the road. She decided she'd keep the first row of plants between her and it while she walked. She was looking for wood, or a gas station, or a phone booth.

She'd work on her plan while she walked.

***

Every medical facility that accepted contributions from LuthorCorp had to paint at least one-third of its interior walls purple. Lex hated it.

He also hated the fact that his goddam father had threatened Buffy's sister, and therefore his one actual friend in this benighted city (okay, on this benighted planet) couldn't come with him to the hospital. Clark had to guard Dawn in case Luthor Hired Goons tried to kill her or something.

He hated that Buffy was *doing* what his father wanted, but lacked the wit to make his father see that, so the hairy old bastard was still trying to put pressure on her by threatening her family.

He hated the way his arm felt; he hated the way his shoulder felt; he hated the way the stitches pulled; he hated the drugs they gave him for the pain. Stupid goddam giant bugs -- this kind of thing never used to happen to him before he went to Smallville.

He hated the limo that came to take him home, because if his damn father hadn't threatened Buffy then *Clark* could have taken him home.

He hated his home. Since he'd moved back to Metropolis, he was mostly staying at the penthouse, which technically meant he was still living in his father's house. He needed a place of his own, other than the LexCorp offices. Or he could just put a cot in under his desk -- he was at the office almost all the time anyhow, and it would be a hell of a lot more comfortable than anywhere Lionel lived.

He hated Buffy. If she wasn't going to have anything to do with him anymore, why couldn't she have *told* Dad that, and spared them all this trouble?

Why didn't she ever call him back?

***

About an hour before sunrise, Buffy found a gas station. There was an unlocked restroom with a working sink. She gratefully drank as much water as she could. Thirst had been worse than hunger; try as she might, it seemed impossible to really drink rain. Then she started looking around for clues as to her whereabouts. The pay-phone was out-of-order, but it had most of a phone book still attached to its little chain. The phone book was for Metropolis, Kansas and Surrounding Communities. That answered the question of who had abducted her, and why. She owed Lionel Luthor something, now, and she'd just have to figure out a way to pay.

Unfortunately, squinting surreptitiously at the area-code maps and things in the front of the directory remnant soon convinced Buffy that she'd been walking the wrong way for the last two or three hours. That might be lucky from the point of view of evading capture, but it sucked in terms of catching up with Mr. Luthor and Making Him Regret That He Was Ever Born.

She was wet and tired, and her feet hurt. She'd stopped being hungry a while ago, and she knew from experience that that was actually a bad thing. The sun would be up in less than an hour, and that would make hiding a lot harder.

Buffy lurked in the weeds behind the gas station and tried to think of a good plan. She kept an eye on the road in case any sudden inspiration should appear.

Then it did. A white stake-bed truck with "Ranson's Gardening Service" stenciled on the door pulled into the gas station. It had been heading towards Metropolis, and maybe that meant it would be heading towards Metropolis again when it resumed its journey. Buffy crept closer and waited for her chance. The truck had a big load of something in the back, covered with a tarp. The driver went into the gas station mini-mart. Buffy hoped he was going to get a cup of coffee as well as pay for re-fueling, so she'd have time for this. She ran to the back of the truck and pulled up a corner of the blue plastic sheeting. The truck was full of rolls of sod. She squiggled under the tarp and rearranged it over her as best as she could.

By the time the driver came back out to gas up his truck, Buffy was already asleep.

***

Lex tried manfully not to toss and turn on the expensive linens. It was undignified; the servants would know from the rumpled bedding that he was insomniac, and they'd tell his father. Also, the painkillers they'd given him at the hospital were useless; his right side screamed at him every time he turned.

It would be light soon; maybe he should just get up.

Maybe he could call Toby, and get some of the good stuff.

No, that would only be an acceptable course of action if he weren't planning to go in to work today, and there was no way in hell he was staying at the penthouse all day long. No way. He had to go in to LexCorp or he'd lose his mind.

Lex kicked the bedclothes off onto the floor and rang for his valet. He swallowed another pill from his prescription, even though it hadn't been four hours since the last one. When Charles arrived, Lex bit his lip to keep himself quiet while the manservant helped him dress.

He dismissed the valet and went to the kitchen. Lionel's staff hated it when Lex made his own coffee in the mornings, but that was one of reasons he enjoyed it. The other reason was that it reminded him of Smallville. Mrs. Digman at the castle used to welcome him in the kitchen. Maybe he should spend some time in the country soon....

Lex was surprised to find that the kitchen was already occupied. Lionel's chef was preparing breakfast, and Lex didn't feel quite strong enough this morning to challenge him face-on. He contented himself with asking that coffee be brought to him in the dining room, and left.

Lionel Luthor was seated at the dining table, elegantly dressed. He was reading the Business Page of the *Daily* *Planet*, and greeted Lex before Lex had time to get away unnoticed. Damn.

"Lex! You're up early. Particularly after a night spent in the Emergency Room. I thought you'd outgrown that, son."

Lex sat down and accepted a cup of coffee from the maid. He put as much sarcasm in his voice as he could. "Sorry to disappoint you, Dad. How are you this morning?"

Lionel looked appraisingly at Lex over the edge of his own coffee cup. "Better than you. You look like shit, Lex. What *were* you doing last night?"

Lex smiled bitterly and swallowed coffee. "What, hasn't the police report been delivered to your desk yet? Public park, after hours, me and Clark Kent... What do you think I was doing?"

The momentary flicker of unease on Lionel's face was almost worth it. Lex counted it as a point for him. Childish. It didn't last nearly long enough before it was replaced with an expression of calculation.

"Yes," Lionel mused. "Clark Kent. His finger-marks are all over this...."

Lex knew better than to ask, "All over what?" He knew he'd have to find out, though.

***

Something woke Buffy up. She was in a small, dark space. Panic washed over her. She froze and let it crest, ebb away. The smell was wrong -- not the stench of meat left in a closed box for four or five months, but rather grass, dirt, plastic, rain, car exhaust.... She wasn't in her grave. She was under a tarp, in the back of a gardener's truck, in Kansas, escaping from the minions of Lionel Luthor, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. She took a deep breath of relief. She was sodden and tired, starving and filthy, but she had reason to know it could be *so* much worse.

It must have been the sudden lack of engine noise that had awakened her, because the truck had stopped. She heard the driver's door slam as he got out. Slayer-sense said it was a little after dawn. She peeked out from under the edge of the tarp.

They were in a residential area. To Buffy's California-bred eyes, the houses looked big. They were on large lots, too, and there were no fences between them. The truck-driver was talking to a few men on the front porch of one of the houses. It was still raining. They didn't seem to be paying any real attention to the truck.

Buffy ran.

***

When Dawn got up that morning, she was surprised to find a big alien camped out in her hallway. "I thought you were staying with Pete!" she exclaimed.

Clark stood up and looked sheepish. "His roommate snores. Also I was worried about you."

"I'm fine," Dawn said with a smile. "Now, get out of my way so I can go to the bathroom. Please."

Clark scrambled out of her way, then tagged along behind her as she carried her clothes and towel down the hall. "How are you this morning?" she asked.

"Fine. I set up at Pete's last night after I dropped you off and dropped Lex's car off. Then I couldn't sleep..."

"Snoring roommate."

"Right. So I put on," Clark dropped his voice to a whisper, "the suit, and patrolled for a little while." Clark looked up and down the hall. There was no one there. "Nothing much was happening, so I came over here and sat in front of your door and read. Then you got up."

"How's Lex?"

"The hospital let him go. The Luthor limousine picked him up around 4:30. I haven't seen him, but I was going to check the LexCorp office later. He's living with his dad right now, and the guy creeps me out..."

"Evil," Dawn put in.

"No kidding," Clark agreed. He went on, "So I didn't want to go to the penthouse. Besides, Lex hates it there, so if he's there he's probably asleep, and I shouldn't bother him anyway."

"This is my stop," Dawn said when they got to the door of the Women's Bathroom. "I won't be long. You want to go out to breakfast?"

"Sure!" Clark grinned at her. "I'll be right here."

***

Dawn didn't take long to get ready, which was kind of keen, Clark thought. He remembered the few times he'd waited for Lana downstairs at the Sullivans' house, when he'd gotten his act together enough to actually show up for one of their rare and ill-fated dates. She used to take *forever* to get ready to go *anywhere*. Maybe that had been some sort of petty revenge? Nah, probably not. Lana wasn't that kind of girl.

"Ready to go?" Dawn asked. Clark looked up with a start. Staying awake all night wasn't as tough on him as it would be on a human, but it still left him a little bit spacey -- especially if there wasn't any sunshine, for some reason.

Dawn looked dang cute for someone who hadn't gotten much sleep, herself. Her hair was shiny and pretty, even when it was still damp from the shower. She was wearing a sleeveless green top, khaki shorts and sandals. Clark made a quick synapse connection, and came up with "You look nice this morning."

Dawn beamed at him. "Thanks!" she said, gesturing with her armful of pajamas and towel. "So do you. I gotta go put this stuff back in my room."

She was quick to put her laundry in the hamper and get her purse and umbrella, too. Going out with Dawn was always nice -- comfortable, and, after the first time, practically angst-free. Unless she was mad at him, and she never made him guess about that, being with Dawn was always fun, and sort of easy. What did that mean?

The coffee shop was busy. Clark used his superior height and bulk to get them a little table by the window. Dawn ordered the pancakes, so Clark did, too. While he waited for their order, his eye fell on the copy of the *Daily* *Planet* that the man at the next table was reading. Near the bottom of the front page of the second section was a story about Superman. Dawn was rummaging through the jam caddy, looking for marmalade, so he let his attention, and his freaky multi-focus eyes, dwell on the story.

"Dang!"

Dawn looked up, startled by his exclamation. Clark didn't know what to do for a second; he couldn't just steal the guy's paper, could he? But this was important....

Dawn finally got his attention. Clark realized she'd said his name two or three times already.

"Clark!" she said loudly, "What's wrong?"

"I can't believe she'd do that," Clark mused. Was this the 'shock of betrayal' they kept bringing up in English class? If so, it stank.

"Who'd do what?" Dawn asked.

Clark took a helpless breath. "Chloe."

Dawn finally seemed to notice that he was staring at a newspaper. Their pancakes arrived, but she said she'd be right back.

Clark was so thrown he didn't even start eating while she was gone.

Dawn got back with a newspaper that she'd bought. "Where?"

Clark showed her.

Dawn read silently. "Oh my God!" she exclaimed. "But... but she said she wouldn't tell!"

Clark was comforted that Dawn was enraged on his behalf. He didn't want her to make a scene, though. "Let's finish our breakfast, and then read it all again back at school. Maybe it's not as bad as it seems."

"Not as bad as it seems? Clark!"

"Dawn!" Clark lowered his voice again almost immediately. Dawn still looked really mad -- kind of funny to have it not be at him. "Let's talk about it somewhere more... private."

Dawn nodded sharply. "Right." She folded the newspaper up and put it in her bag. "Is there any marmalade over there?"

***

Buffy lurked carefully through the prosperous suburbs. The weather continued stifling, overcast and gloomy, with occasional warm rain; it helped her stay out of sight. There were plenty of chances to get a stake, so she was well-armed in no time.

She wanted a working pay-phone (rarer than ever now that cell phone technology had really come into its own), or a public library with internet access, or LuthorCorp Tower. If she found a pay-phone she could call Xander collect (if he was home -- was it a weekend?) If she found a library, and if she remembered her Yahoo! password, she could send an e-mail to Willow, and ask her to undo whatever warrants or commitment papers Lionel Luthor might have had made up on her. If she found LuthorCorp Tower, she could go in and beat the crap out of the guy. Okay, that last part wasn't exactly a *good* plan.

Buffy walked through the side streets and carefully-manicured yards for more than an hour. One house had several sets of plastic flip-flop sandals on the front porch, and she stole a pair. Gradually the surroundings changed; the houses got smaller and less opulent, and there were little clumps of businesses in between them. Nothing was open yet, but there were people walking around that she needed to avoid. She hoped she was moving closer to the middle of the city. She hoped this was the right city, Metropolis, instead of Wichita or something.

She got confirmation of the day of the week when she passed St. Luke's Catholic Church, and it was full of people. She lingered on the front steps and rested for a few minutes, listening to the singing. She was about to move on, when she suddenly remembered something Merrick had said, years before. There was a trash can on the sidewalk near the steps. Buffy rummaged through it for a minute, then came up with a 20-ounce plastic soda bottle, complete with cap. She dumped the last few drops of sticky brown liquid out of it into the gutter, and slipped into the back of the church. It didn't take long to find the Holy Water dispenser -- it was a big tin urn with a cross painted on it in a little side hall near the restrooms and drinking fountain. Buffy filled her plastic bottle and tucked it into her makeshift belt, then left the church and continued on her way.

It was late morning when she found a small branch of the Metropolis Public Library. The sign said it opened at noon on Sundays. There were a few other people, almost as shabby as she, waiting under the overhang of the building. Buffy got up her nerve to ask one of them the time, and found out that it was 11:40, and the library would be open in twenty minutes. "They're okay with you staying outta the weather," he said, "as long as you don't cause no trouble."

Buffy thanked him and crouched by the wall to wait.

***

God, it was good to get back into the LexCorp office. It was Sunday; Lex was the only one there besides Security. That was good, too. Being all tensed up around his father made his shoulder hurt more than ever. It was a physical as well as a mental relief to be away from him. Lex hoped the wounds healed fast.

Lex ran over the list of business indicators that his computer found and flagged for him each day. It was a program of his own; he didn't trust his underlings to know exactly what he was looking for. Acceptable all around -- he'd have to reward his managers, and change the program. There were always more parameters to analyze. Lionel could strong-arm people; that was an advantage he had over Lex, who had decided he *didn*'*t* want to live in that world. As long as Lex could find other ways to keep an advantage over LuthorCorp, he could stand comfortably by that choice.

Lex locked everything down and dug into the safe for the codes he'd hacked out of his father's computer. He knew Lionel kept codes he'd had hacked out of the LexCorp computers as well. He hoped Lionel never hired anyone good enough to notice that there were two levels of penetrability on the LexCorp computers. Lex deliberately left some rather vital information where it could be obtained with only a reasonable amount of effort, in order to (he hoped) disguise the fact that there were other data which couldn't be obtained as easily. It was like leaving one piece of meat out, far from the rest, at a barbecue for the wasps. That was something else he'd learned in Smallville.

What were Lionel's pet compu-nerds up to now? Lex found it within half an hour.

His father had rigged up commitment papers on Buffy Summers. She was incarcerated here in Kansas. Lex dug a little further. The private asylum that his father always used, the one where Lionel's former mistress, Rachel Dunleavy, was detained -- something had happened there the previous night. There was a report, heavily coded. Lex figured that there had been some sort of a jailbreak. Eight women were missing.

Lex sat back in his desk chair. That made sense. Lionel's private jail wouldn't be able to hold the Slayer. Maybe she'd rescued some other prisoners as she left.

Where was she now?

***

Buffy woke from a light doze when the other homeless people started moving into the library. Sleeping while crouching -- must be a Slayer skill. She kept her head down when she shuffled past the security guard opening the door. Others did, too. She wasn't *too* conspicuous.

Inside it was warm and dry. Buffy walked around a little to get the layout and uncramp her limbs. She found the restroom and used it, found the drinking fountain and had a drink. There were four "Internet Express" computers right in front of the watchful eyes at the check-out desk. The sign said there was a fifteen-minute limit when people were waiting. Buffy got in line and waited her turn.

It was only ten minutes before she got a chance on the computer. She got her password right on the second try and left an e-mail for Willow. "Like a message in a bottle," Buffy thought. "Please save me. I'm stranded." She decided it would be better not to drag Dawn into this, and the only person she knew in Kansas who wouldn't be dragging Dawn into it was Lex. She didn't want to drag him into it, either. Probably his dad monitored his e-mail, anyway.

People were glaring at her. She wondered how much time she'd lost and signed off the computer.

Buffy wandered over to the maps and looked until she found a good one of Metropolis. She found St. Luke's, and this library, and LuthorCorp Tower, but she couldn't figure out where the building she'd escaped from must be. She knew she was missing it. If she'd been at her best, she would have been able to work it out.

Buffy put the maps back and looked for a place to sit down and rest. She planned to get back on the computer and check back with Willow in a couple of hours, after the witch had had time to find out more, or maybe even to fix everything. Wouldn't that be nice.

There was an empty chair behind the poetry section with no one around. Buffy sat down. Just an hour or two. Then she'd get up and check the maps or the computer again. Maybe she could make a cross out of some of the wood and scraps she had. Always good to have a cross.

Buffy closed her eyes.

***

Clark didn't know when it had happened, but he'd discovered that he had a tendency to follow little brunettes, and let them boss him around. It hadn't happened so much with Lana, although there had been that whole ugly Senior Class Prank incident. With Dawn, though, he sometimes found himself just following along on things he *never* would have gotten into on his own.

For instance, watching Dawn's back while she picked the door to Chloe's apartment.

They'd done the respectable thing, the Clark Kent thing, and knocked politely on the door. Clark had called, "Chloe? Are you in there?"

"Go away!" Chloe had yelled back.

"Chloe! We have to talk!" Clark had tried.

There had been no response. Reasonable people would probably have left at that point. Dawn had gotten out her lockpicks.

"Dawn!" Clark had protested, futilely.

"Shut up!" she hissed at him. "You need to talk this out. Watch my back. And don't worry so much."

So he watched her back, and tried not to worry. Was this going to be the pattern for his life? Superman seemed to do okay, fighting crime, snagging bad guys and carrying them to jail. Witnesses voluntarily came in and talked to the police afterwards when Superman told them to. Criminals frequently confessed to the cops as soon as Superman put them down at the station. How come Clark Kent let himself be pushed around, and ended up in these extremely questionable situations?

"We're in!" Dawn exclaimed. "Come on."

Clark followed her into Chloe's studio apartment.

Chloe jumped up from her daybed as they entered. She was wearing sweats, and her hair was messy. "What the hell?" she exclaimed.

"What the hell indeed?" Dawn yelled back. She got the newspaper out of her bag and shook it in Chloe's face. "What the hell!" she repeated.

"You break into my house, and start waving around a newspaper..." Chloe shouted at the taller girl.

Dawn didn't let her finish her sentence. "A newspaper? Your newspaper! You SAID you wouldn't TELL!"

"I said deep background, and I held to that!" Chloe shot back. "I *never* said, 'Clark Kent is Superman' in that story!"

Clark worriedly x-rayed the surrounding apartments to see if anyone seemed to have heard that last. They were clear.

"You said that Superman fought that big bug and rescued those guys. Now those two nimrods know for *sure*, plus probably the cops and ambulance guys!"

"It's *news*!"

"It's *more* important than *news*! It's the fate of the doggone *world*, sometimes! Plus I haven't even *gotten* to the bad part!"

"What the hell are you talking about? And did I mention that you broke into my home?"

"You wrote about the kryptonite, stupid! Now every crook who's read your article knows that there's a green rock called kryptonite that makes Superman weak and sick! What the hell were you thinking?"

That seemed to bring Chloe up short. She was completely silent for a minute. That was weird. No weirder than having girls fight over him, kind of, but still. Weird. Had Chloe been so mad at him, when she was writing her article, that it honestly hadn't occurred to her that she could be getting him killed?

Chloe crossed her arms and raised her chin. Clark could practically *see* her decide to brazen it out. "So?"

"So!" Dawn was outraged. She did outraged really well. "He could get killed because of you, and all he's doing is the right thing! The kryptonite secret is *way* worse than the Clark Kent secret! What were you thinking?"

"But it's true!" Chloe maintained. The facade of Righteous Objective Reporter was starting to crack, despite her best efforts. "It's true, and it's news, and why shouldn't I write it, and why shouldn't they print it when it's news!"

"It's Clark's *life*!" Dawn pressed. "That stuff can *kill* him, and now everybody *knows*!"

Chloe took two deep shuddery breaths; then her face crumpled. "I know!" she wailed. "I'm sorry! But you told *everybody* before *me*! Pete I can understand, and Lex, I guess, and Dawn's your actual girlfriend, so okay, but *Lois* *Lane*? You told her all about, and you gave her the exclusive, and I'm supposed to be your friend? And it *is* all true, and it *is* news, and I *did* keep your secret just deep background, and... and I was just so *mad*, Clark, I...." Chloe stopped being even remotely coherent, and plopped back down on the daybed.

Dawn turned her back with a swish of shiny brown hair and crossed her arms in fury.

Clark went over and sat on the bed with Chloe. "There there," he said, patting her gently on the shoulder. "I'm sorry, too. Secrets make people mad. I understand."

"Clark!" Dawn was scandalized.

"No, really," Clark went on, talking to both the girls. "Pete was mad when he found out. Lex was mad when he found out. Lana -- I never actually told her, but I'm pretty sure the reason she hasn't spoken to me all year, and makes sure we're never alone together is because she found something out. I should probably tell her, too. You're wrong about Ms. Lane, though. She doesn't know anything about Clark Kent. Or kryptonite."

"Clark! I don't believe this! Chloe just betrayed you for a *byline*, and you're all 'I'm sorry and I understand and this is all my fault'? Please! Are you gonna apologize to the next bank-robber who shoots you with kryptonite bullets, too?"

Chloe seemed to be done with the crying part of her emotional outburst. Clark patted her on the back reassuringly. "It'll be okay. We'll figure something out. Maybe Lex will... Shoot! What time is it? I was going to call him!"

***

The telephone rang. Lex ignored it, intent on his computer screen.

It rang again. Where was his secretary?

It rang again. Oh. It was Sunday. He hadn't called anyone in. Lex picked up the phone, and only then did he realize how cramped and stiff he was, and how much his eyes ached. "LexCorp," he said, craning his neck to ease the knots.

"Lex! It's me, Clark. How are you today?"

"Clark! There's something I need... Where are you?"

"We're at Chloe's right now. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Well, stiff, and sore, but not bad. Much better than last night." Lex was happy to notice that it was true. Ah, the beneficial side-effects of meteorite-induced mutation. "Look, we need to talk, not over the phone. Where can I meet you?"

Clark seemed to be talking to the girls for a second. "You could come here. Do you know how to get to Chloe's apartment?"

Lex called her address up on his computer. Easy. "Yes. I'll be right there."

"Drive carefully," Clark told him. Then they hung up.

***

"Come on, Miss, we're closing now."

Buffy came to herself with a start. "Huh?" she asked.

The security guard was a young man in uniform, with a weedy beard and a big flashlight. "It's five o'clock. I'm sorry, but you'll have to leave now."

Five o'clock? Crap. "Oh, I'm sorry. Thanks." Buffy got up as docilely as possible. It wasn't hard to look mild-mannered. She'd been so out of it for so long, and it had been so long since she'd eaten, that her head spun a little when she stood. It didn't really stop, just diminished as she walked. Maybe she was coming down with something.

So much for her big plan. She couldn't check back with Willow to see if she was in the clear now. She couldn't even know whether or not the witch had ever received her message.

Damn. Plan C was looking better and better. She could walk to LuthorCorp Tower, find Lionel Luthor, and kick the crap out of him. It would serve him right.

Buffy went outside into the rain. She thought for a moment, picked a direction, and headed towards downtown Metropolis.

***

Dawn couldn't believe that Clark was forgiving Chloe -- he'd even apologized to her! Crazy alien! It also ticked her off that he was patting the weepy ditz on the shoulder. A lot.

Fortunately, Lex arrived in almost no time.

Chloe was still all red-eyed and repentant on the daybed when the knock came at the door, and Clark was still 'there-thereing' her, so Dawn answered it.

"Hi, Lex," she greeted him. "You don't expect me to ask you in, right?"

Lex smiled at her (he had a really nice smile, almost as good as Clark's) and pushed past her into the apartment without waiting for an invitation. Before anyone else could even greet him, he said, "My father had Buffy kidnapped."

Dawn wasn't as shocked as she supposed she should have been. It always had struck her as odd that enemies of the Slayer always attacked the little sister instead of going straight to the source. Apparently Lionel Luthor was more direct than your typical demon. Chloe and Clark were suitably surprised and inquisitive, though. Journalists.

"Lex, tell us. What happened?" Clark's voice was calm and deep. It easily overwhelmed Chloe's more querulous tones. He sounded like Superman, actually.

"May I sit?" At Chloe's watery nod, Lex sat down on the room's one chair. He crossed his legs elegantly, and looked more comfortable. "This is all information that I've gleaned from my father's computer. He maintains a private sanatorium about twenty-five miles outside of Metropolis. Mrs. Dunleavy, whom I believe Clark and Chloe will both recall...."

Chloe sniffled again. Dawn wondered what the story was behind that.

Lex went ahead as if he hadn't heard Chloe. "Mrs. Dunleavy and some other people who my father has decided over the years need to be put away for his own good are -- stored there."

Dawn was getting impatient. "What does this have to do with Buffy?"

"My father's minions have many skills. He had somebody falsify commitment papers for Buffy and incarcerated her. You understand, I've pieced this together based on various clues and my knowledge of...."

"Lex. You're the acknowledged expert on your dad. Quit with the disclaimers already and TELL me what happened to my sister!"

Lex looked at her, and Dawn suddenly felt bad about attacking him. He was pale, and his eyes were red. His right arm and shoulder were still all bandaged up. "I'm trying to tell you," he said. "Last night something happened in the discarded-mistresses ward." Lex quirked his mouth at the description of the room -- it had actually been the term used in Lionel's computer records. "Someone or something broke a window, and wrenched the bars apart. The women were all kept drugged, for easier handling. They shouldn't have been able to do anything or go anywhere on their own. The broken window-glass had a little blood on it -- I haven't been able to find out the type. Eight women, including Buffy and Rachel Dunleavy, were reported missing."

"She broke them out?" Clark suggested. Chloe seemed to have pulled herself the rest of the way together, and Dawn guessed she was glad. Especially since it meant Clark could stop petting her.

"This afternoon at around two o'clock, the first body was found. She'd been dead for hours, probably since before daybreak."

"Let me guess," Dawn said disgustedly. "Drained of blood?"

"Drained of blood," Lex agreed.

"Drained of blood?" Chloe asked. "You mean vampires?"

Lex nodded. "When you called me, Lionel's teams had found a total of three bloodless corpses. I only have four wooden bullets left, but I've re-loaded my pistol. We have two questions: where is Buffy, and where are the vampires?"

"Damn," Dawn exclaimed. "What are we going to do? We *have* to find her."

"I can fly a search pattern. She's pretty easy to spot with x-ray vision. Unless Evel Knievel's in town, she'll probably be the only person in Metropolis who's broken every bone she has."

"What?" Lex asked.

"When she died," Dawn answered.

"She died?" Chloe asked.

"She said she drowned," Lex argued.

"That was the first time. Look, we don't have time for this! We need to find Buffy and help her!" Dawn exploded.

"I'll fly around town and look for her," Clark said. He took off his glasses and went into Chloe's tiny bathroom to change. (The delay fighting the Gorevanor Demon had finally convinced him to keep the suit on underneath his street clothes, no matter how hot and sticky it got.)

Lex sighed. "I'll go talk to my dad about it. He must know more than I've been able to weasel out of his system."

Chloe looked concerned. "Are you sure you want to do that?"

"I'll be fine. I have some blackmail material I've been saving for a rainy day." Lex quirked a smile at her as thunder crashed outside.

"We'll stay here and try to find out more on the computer," Dawn volunteered. "Come back and get us if you need back-up."

Superman came out of the bathroom and gave Dawn a kiss. Then he opened Chloe's window and flew out into the rain. Lex and Chloe watched him disappear with almost identical expressions on their faces. Dawn wasn't sure she liked it, but she'd been the one to get a kiss, so she supposed it was fine. The other two shook themselves a tiny bit. Chloe resolutely opened up her computer, and Lex left.

***

Buffy drifted through the dark rainy streets of downtown Metropolis like a ghost. The streets were full of people -- at least, they seemed full compared to Sunnydale streets. Sunnydale would never have these crowds on the sidewalks after dark, not even if the weather were lovely, which of course it usually was. Dozens and hundreds of people milled around with umbrellas, while the thunder rumbled intermittently. The lights of the city were so bright that the lightning barely showed. Weird. No one bothered her, or even looked straight at her. It was as if she weren't really there.

She wondered if Demon Ken's "Family Home" had a Metropolis branch.

LuthorCorp Tower was easy to find. It was the tallest building in Metropolis. The streets seemed to empty out as she got nearer, and Buffy knew why as soon as she stopped to look at it from the sidewalk right out front.

She could sense vampires in there.

Buffy had noticed the serious lack of vampire-y vibes ever since she'd woken up in these fugly pajamas. Vampires, rare in Kansas, check. But the sidewalk out in front of LuthorCorp Tower had that old familiar feeling, and normal humans with good sense (unlike residents of Sunnydale) tended to subconsciously avoid it.

The Slayer pushed on the main door. It was locked, but not for long.

There were two dead men in security guards' uniforms on the floor.

Buffy slipped to the side of the door, stake in hand. It didn't *feel* like there were any vampires right near here, say in the same room, but she knew it's never a good thing to stand silhouetted in a doorway. She followed the wall around to the corner of the reception area. There was another door ajar, and she went through it. More dead men, and blood on the floor.

Buffy felt better and more awake than she'd felt all day. She was starving and soaked, but now she had vampires to hunt and a trail to follow. Things were looking up.

***

Lex parked the Porsche in one of his father's reserved spots, and stepped out into the rain in front of Lionel Luthor's building. He'd checked every other likely place; his dad must be here, or out of the city entirely. Superman swooped down out of the clouds and joined him.

"Anything?" Lex asked.

"I didn't see her anywhere," Clark answered. "Your dad must have his safe open, though. The one with all the kryptonite? I couldn't get anywhere near the upper floors of the tower and still fly. I haven't looked through anything higher than about floor sixteen."

"What did you see there?"

"I think most of LuthorCorp's on-site security guards are probably dead. There's a lot of people lying on the floor, in uncomfortable-looking poses. I didn't see anything moving around in there, but I think we've found where the vampires went."

Lex nodded grimly. "It hasn't been dark for long. They must have found the access tunnels," he speculated. He let out a short, humorless laugh. "I wonder what Dad thought of genuine vampires."

Clark went on. "I may not be a lot of use in there until somebody gets that dang safe closed again. Let me go get Dawn, and maybe Pete. You still have those swords in your trunk?" Lex nodded again. "Okay. You wait here for us to get back. Don't go in all by yourself." Superman flew away.

Lex unlocked the trunk of his car. He had four swords there, now, complete with scabbards. He took one and buckled it around his waist under his long black coat. Then he closed the trunk, thought a minute, and left the key in the lock. He drew his pistol and checked it.

Then Lex went into the LuthorCorp Tower alone.

***

Buffy crept up the stairs of the tower. She'd already killed four vampires. She only had one stake left -- plenty, as long as she didn't have to throw it. She was sure there were no more undead below her. She had lost count of how many dead humans she'd found. The last blood trail led here.

Buffy quietly levered the fire door open a tiny bit, and slid through. She found herself in a richly appointed anteroom, with a beautiful reception desk at the far end. She recognized the vampire sitting at that desk. She had been one of the women in Luthor's private psych ward.

The cocky new vampire gave the Slayer a toothy grin. "I'm sorry, Mr Luthor can't see you now. He's in a conference."

Buffy didn't bother to quip. She didn't really have time, anyway. The vampire receptionist launched herself at the intruder, and practically impaled herself on the Slayer's last stake. Buffy was careful to pull it out in time not to lose it as the surprised vampire went to dust.

The door to the office beyond was ajar. There were voices coming from it.

"Ah, Slayer. How nice. Won't you step in?" She knew that voice.

Buffy found her bottle of holy water and carefully loosened the cap. She gripped her stake tightly and went to the door.

Lionel Luthor, somewhat roughed up, was seated in an ornate chair behind a massive desk with a huge window behind it. The desk had some file folders and papers and stuff scattered across it, and a couple of big bricks of green stone. One of the women from the lock-up was leaning over Lionel suggestively. She had red hair, and now that she was a vampire, she looked kind of gorgeous. If you overlooked the blood dripping from her mouth and the insane expression in her eyes, that is.

Speaking of insane expressions (although Buffy knew better than to look into her eyes for long), there was another vampire in the room. Buffy thought at first that she was wearing long red gloves, which would have fit right in with her demented fashion sense, but actually it was just that her hands were bloody to the elbows.

"Hey, Dru," Buffy greeted her.

***

Lex made his way carefully through the darkened office building. Someone must have cut the power at some point, he thought. Only the intermittent lightning and the dim orange emergency lights illuminated the bloody floors and corpses.

He kept his gun in his hand. He only had four shots; he hoped he'd be able to make them count. He'd found a big pile of dust on the fourth floor, in the Security Surveillance Center, and another one on the twelfth floor landing. Buffy must be here, somewhere. He hoped she was all right.

Lex's plan was to get to the lead-lined safe where the kryptonite was kept and close it. That should enable Superman to come in and back Buffy's play, assuming she was still alive. He knew he should've waited for help, as Clark had asked him to, but he couldn't. Suppose he waited just a moment too long, and Buffy were hurt or killed? Once you got started with this 'pick the world you want to live in' stuff, it was hard to quit.

Lex knew he had to be quick, careful, and quiet. If he was lucky, Buffy had taken care of all the vampires along the way. However, he was aware that this building held something that could be even more dangerous.

Lionel.

***

Buffy entered Lionel's office. Her stake was in her hand; her bottle of holy water was tucked into the back of her belt.

"So, Drusilla," Buffy drawled, carefully keeping their eyes from meeting, "what brings you to Metropolis?"

Drusilla swayed as if she could hear music or wind or something. She glided to the other vampire's side, and smoothed the red hair back from her brow. "This is my new little darling. Isn't she pretty?" The red-haired vampire looked away from Lionel long enough to smile adoringly at Drusilla.

Lionel attempted to take his chance to lunge for something at the edge of his desk -- probably a silent alarm button, Buffy thought. She could hear the bones crunch as her former cell-mate stopped the tycoon's desperate reach without even looking at him.

Drusilla went on as if nothing important had happened. "I owe you thanks for her, Buffy." Drusilla stopped petting the new vamp and danced back closer to the Slayer. Buffy set her back against the wall, but it turned out that Dru wasn't starting the combat yet after all. "I never would have noticed that cozy nest of poor lost starlings if you hadn't marked it for me. Thank you." Drusilla did a weird little head-bob thing.

"What do you mean?" Buffy tried to sidle around the edge of the room to get a little closer to the wounded human. Even though he was Lionel Luthor, it was part of her Sacred Duty to try to protect him.

"Your blood. You marked the spot with Slayer's Blood. I smelt it, felt it, found the place and my little darling asked me in. Such a sweet child, and cruelly done by. This bad daddy," Dru was at Lionel's side with incredible speed, skinny sharp-nailed hands fisted in his long hair, pulling. "This bad daddy," she went on, "stole my little darling's little darling from her. Rachel, poor Rachel, wailing for her children, and she found him, found him and lost him, and this!" Drusilla pulled two handfuls of hair from Lionel's head by the bloody roots, and threw it in the air, watched delightedly as it drifted to the floor like feathers, laughed and spun.

Suddenly, without warning, Dru was all business. Her face shifted, and Lionel's stifled cry let Buffy know that he hadn't realized these were real monsters before. "Welcome to my world," Buffy thought. Dru was staring at Buffy with a laser-like intensity; it was all she could do to keep track of the vampire's approach without meeting her gaze.

"I had some others with me, too, and you've broken them all. Bad, naughty Slayer. You always break my toys, break everyone's good things and heads and hearts and minds. The broken things are sweeter, *he* said it once, but he lies and bleeds and dies. He does. This one, too. And you."

Drusilla was almost close enough to jump. Buffy tensed for the spring, but then the mad vampire drifted back towards Lionel and Rachel. "My poor little one, my sweet," Drusilla crooned at her progeny. "Look at him, how he bleeds." Both female vampires gazed at Lionel.

He tried to look in command of the situation, but no one was buying it, with the blood pouring from his nasty scalp wounds and his crushed right arm held at an extremely awkward angle. "I'm sure you're aware that I'm an extremely powerful man," he began hoarsely, but Rachel didn't let him finish his negotiation. She grabbed his right arm in both of her hands and wrung it like a washcloth. Lionel's guttural cry of pain made her laugh like a little girl.

Drusilla joined in the laughter. "Such a good game! Do it again!" she urged.

"Leave him alone, Dru!" Buffy shouted. "Look, I'm the one who messed up your family or whatever. Just come fight me!"

The two vampires turned on the bedraggled slayer with identical expressions of delighted interest on their suddenly-human faces. "Does this bad daddy belong to you? Is he your sugar-daddy? Mmmm. Sweet as thorns and blackberry. No! Bad Buffy shan't have him! Rachel's the one." Drusilla patted Rachel's shoulder approvingly. "Eyeballs first, dear," she advised. "They're just like sugar-plums."

Quick as thought, Rachel Dunleavy popped Lionel Luthor's eyeballs out of his sockets and into her mouth.

"So much for not throwing the stake," Buffy thought, and did. Rachel exploded into a burst of ashes before Lionel's scream had time to really get started. Vampire dust stuck to his bloody face.

"Noooo!" Drusilla wailed, and attacked.

***

Lex found the remains of another vampire in the vestibule on the LuthorCorp Chief Executive Office Floor. He stealthily unlocked the side door behind the guard station. Just as he was about to go to the storeroom to shut away the kryptonite, he heard a scream. It was coming from his father's private office.

Lex ran as quietly as he could, around the security checkpoints, through the secretary's office, up to the rear door of Lionel's office. He kicked it open and put his gun through, keeping as much cover as possible.

He saw Buffy, dressed in rags, engaged in furious combat with a dark-haired woman. They fought all over the office, knocking things over, occasionally crashing into his father, who was slumped in his chair, his face a mask of blood. Lex couldn't get a clear shot. He didn't know for sure whether or not the other woman was a vampire, although the fact that she was fighting the Slayer would seem to be a strong indication.

There were two big bricks of kryptonite on Lionel's desk; as long as those were there, closing the safe wouldn't do anything to facilitate Superman's entrance. Lex kept his eyes on the combat while he picked his way over towards the desk. He planned to at least get the meteorite rocks out of there so that Clark could come help -- he knew Superman could make short work of vampires.

Lex hadn't quite made it all the way over to the desk when Buffy's fight suddenly came to a halt. The dark-haired woman had one thin hand twisted in Buffy's dirty head-scarf, and she was staring into the Slayer's eyes and murmuring. Buffy looked mesmerized, and she wasn't fighting.

"Let her go!" Lex yelled. He shot, and hit the woman in the shoulder. Her face shifted, and Lex was pleased at the proof that she was a vampire. His pleasure was short-lived, however; the vampire attacked him.

Unfortunately for Drusilla, the noise of the pistol shot had brought Buffy back to her senses. Dru barely had a chance to scratch Lex's face before Buffy got out her soda bottle and dashed the contents onto her.

Drusilla screamed and writhed. Her skin bubbled as if she'd been doused with acid. Lex aimed as well as he could, and squeezed off a round. Missed the heart. Tried again, and got her.

Lex straightened up, with blood running down his cheek from Drusilla's nails. He holstered the gun. "One bullet left," he commented.

***

Pete hadn't been home, and Clark wasn't about to take the time to search for him. Even as it was, Lex was gone by the time he set Dawn down on the sidewalk in front of the Tower.

"Shoot!" Superman exclaimed. "I *told* him to *wait*!"

"The key's in the lock," Dawn said from the rear of Lex's car. "Guess I'll gear up." She picked out a sword, locked the trunk, and pocketed the keys. "Are you okay?" she asked Clark. "I mean, do you need to be farther away than this?"

Clark shook his head. "I can go a lot closer before it hurts. Flying is tricky, though. Maybe we'd better go in on foot."

Dawn fell in beside him as he went through the damaged door and walked past the dead bodies. Just two more humans he'd failed to save. Plenty more where they came from. Jeeze. X-ray vision showed him there were multiple bodies still lying around. How many people did Lionel Luthor have in here on a Sunday, anyway?

Dawn put her hand on his arm when he went to push the elevator button. "I can see up to the sixteenth floor," he told her. "It's safe to use the elevator to get that far."

Lightning illuminated her face long enough for him to see her roll her eyes. "Power's out," she reminded him. "We have to use the stairs."

Clark felt dumb. "I'm blaming my stupidity on the kryptonite," he muttered.

Dawn gave his arm a little squeeze. "That's right; you're normally very smart." It was nice of her not to mention that the kryptonite was about thirty floors up from here.

They headed up the stairs.

Clark really started to notice the effect of the meteor rocks at about the fifteenth floor. Luthor must have a ton of the stuff. It made him worry about Lex, too. If all had gone well, Lex's first plan would have been to get the safe closed. Clark hoped he and Buffy were all right. He didn't really care if Lionel was or not, although he was well enough brought-up to feel guilty about it.

By the time Dawn and Clark got to the twenty-seventh floor, they were both flagging a little. Dawn was breathing hard, maybe more from the continual alertness she was maintaining than just from climbing so many stairs. Clark was glad she was paying attention to their surroundings, because he was really starting to lose it. He had to lean on the walls to keep climbing, and he let Dawn lead the way and just followed the gleam of her hair in the scary corpse-filled orange dimness.

Suddenly Clark felt fine. Lex must have gotten the kryptonite stowed away. Superman grabbed Dawn (she squeaked, but didn't drop her sword) and zoomed up the stairwell.

***

When Clark grabbed her and zipped up the stairs at super-speed, Dawn knew that somebody must have put the kryptonite away. He'd really been starting to look sick before, and it just made her mad that Chloe's doggone *news* might have made that a common future occurrence for the young superhero.

Clark set her down in a fancy office. There was sort of a lot of dust all around -- at least two vamps' worth, Dawn figured. An old man was bleeding in a chair. Lex was on the phone. Buffy was sitting on the floor with her back against the wall. She looked ragged and dirty and very blank. Dawn went and crouched down next to her.

"Yes, LuthorCorp Tower. Thirty-fifth floor. We need an ambulance right away. Yes, I'm aware that I was also involved in an emergency last night. Is the ambulance on its way? Fine." Lex slammed shut his phone. Clark was over there with him and the wounded guy -- Lex's dad?

Dawn didn't pay them much attention. Buffy looked bad. "Buffy?" Dawn asked. She put Lex's sword down on the carpet and touched her sister's face. It felt cold. "Buffy," she repeated.

Buffy took a deep breath, and then her eyes focused. "Dawn?" she asked. She looked really confused, which wasn't surprising. If what Lex had told them was right, she'd been kidnapped and drugged and God knows what else.

Dawn smiled at her. "Yeah, it's me. What happened?"

Buffy rolled her shoulders, took the filthy rag out of her hair, and smiled. It was nice to see. "Oh, you know, the usual. Pretty sure I lost another job."

Dawn was able to laugh at that. "Willow e-mailed me," she told her. "You're not wanted by the authorities anymore. She said as long as she was wiping out commitment records, she got rid of the first set as well."

"Good," Buffy said. She stood up, so Dawn did, too. "You know," Buffy confided, "I'm usually really grateful to those monks. But not for that."

Dawn hugged her sister. It was disturbing to feel how thin she was, and Dawn didn't really like the way Buffy rested all her weight against her.

"Cl, er, Superman?" Dawn asked.

The costumed crime-fighter turned away from stanching Lionel's bloody wounds with his cape and looked at her.

"I don't think Buffy needs to be here when the police arrive. I don't think she's up to talking with them. Can you take her somewhere else, please?"

"Sure. What about you, though?"

"I'm fine." Lex didn't look like leaving him here all alone to deal with everything would be too good, either. "I'll stay with Lex, and you can call us later."

Buffy allowed herself to be handed over to Superman without any argument, and Dawn got worried again. She looked so tiny in his arms. Clark whisked them away, out to the stairs and presumably up to the roof and awwaaay.

Lex was staring at the old man with a peculiar expression of loathing mixed with concern.

"Are you okay, Lex?" Dawn asked.

"Hmm? Yes." He absent-mindedly wiped blood from his face with his bandaged right arm. "Where's that ambulance?"

"I'm sure they'll be here soon. There'll probably be cops with them. Do we have a story planned out? We can't tell them it was vampires."

"Rachel Dunleavy," the old man rasped.

"What's that, Dad?" Lex asked.

"She was here," Mr. Luthor said; then he stilled. Dawn hoped he was unconscious.

"We'll tell them the truth, except for the vampires," Lex decided. "Escaped mental patients, with a grudge against my father, killed his guards and gouged his eyes out. How sure are you that Buffy's name is clear in that regard? How good is this Willow?"

"She's the best," Dawn assured him. "If she can't fix it, no one can. Literally. She almost destroyed the world once."

Lex just nodded. He didn't look particularly reassured.

"We'll tell them that when we got here, Superman was just chasing them away. He told us to take care of your dad, and went after them. We'll leave out Buffy and the kryptonite entirely."

Lex almost smiled at her. "You have quite the talent for lying."

"Lying, locks and languages. Gifts from the Old Country." Dawn shrugged.

Lex felt the pulse at his father's un-mangled left wrist and looked thoughtful. "I really need to make him some armor."

Dawn knew just what he meant. "Yeah," she agreed. "You know, according to legend, St. George had lead armor. Written all over with spells of protection and stuff."

"I know," Lex smiled.

They waited quietly for the police and paramedics to show up.

***

Dawn's sister was asleep in his arms by the time he got to Smallville. Clark hadn't even realized he was taking her home to his mom until they were practically there. He landed behind the barn with a muddy splash. X-ray vision showed that only Mom, Dad and Cara were anywhere nearby. Clark carried Buffy's limp, weightless form to the kitchen door and opened it.

"Clark!" His mom seemed surprised to see them, but she only took a second to take control of the situation. Clark and Buffy were ushered into the warm, dry house and provided with towels and soup. Buffy woke up confused, but the Kents reassured her quickly. She managed half a bowl of Martha's homemade vegetable soup before she fell asleep again, head on the table.

Martha made Clark carry the Slayer upstairs while she found her a clean nightgown; she woke Buffy up enough to not drown in the bathtub, then summoned Clark to help the washed, nightgown-clad girl into the bed in Clark's room. The whole operation -- soup, bath, clean clothing, and bed -- took about half an hour.

Only then did the interrogation begin. Clark told his parents everything. Dad said, "What did anyone expect getting involved with a Luthor?" and Mom whapped him with the soup ladle. Clark had changed back into his normal jeans and flannel while Mom had been giving Buffy her bath. He wondered if Lex and Dawn were done with the police yet, and whether Lionel Luthor would survive. He figured nothing could kill Lionel, actually, but then again, you know, vampires. Maybe it had been long enough that he could give Lex a call.

The familiar non-greeting: "Lex."

"Hi, Lex, it's me. I ended up taking Buffy home, you know, to my house, not California. We're fine."

Lex's breathing sounded relieved. "Good. That's good. I'll have to call you back later, but rest assured your actions to date have met with my highest approval."

Someone must be there with him, someone Lex didn't want to know anything. "That's great, Lex." Clark put on a false business-like voice. "You have no idea how much your confidence means to me." He laughed. "Talk to you later."

Clark silently wished Dawn and Lex luck, and then went to gather bedding to put out in the loft. He'd been sleeping inside the house this summer; it seemed nicer to be in close proximity to his family now that he'd had a whole school year without them.

***

Lex clicked shut his cell phone. Taking Buffy to Smallville had been an inspired move on Clark's part. If there were still trouble about her commitment, being three hours away would be a fine alibi for the attack on his father.

He'd never had such an unpromising conversation with the police turn out so well. For all Dawn's nervousness the previous night, she turned out to be a masterful liar -- smooth and genuine and warm. The police fell all over themselves giving her the benefit of every single doubt. Lex and Dawn were given permission to go in record time. It wasn't even midnight yet when they headed over to Metropolis General.

The hospital was just as ugly on its second night in a row. Lionel was still in surgery when they arrived. Dawn had refused to let Lex visit the hospital by himself; she was surprisingly forceful in her stubbornness. They'd been waiting in the regrettable purple high-traffic area provided for that purpose when Clark's phone call had come.

As soon as the other people waiting on their institutional green davenport had been called in to converse with a doctor, Lex leaned over and quietly said, "Clark took Buffy to his parents' house."

Dawn opened her eyes wide in an attempt to not look as if she'd been falling asleep. "How are they?"

"He said they're fine. I told him I'd call him back."

"So I heard." Dawn got up and stretched. She seemed to have gotten her second wind. "Want me to get you some coffee?" she offered.

Lex hated hospital coffee. "No thanks," he said.

"Well, I want some. I'll be back." Dawn bounced away.

Lex shook his head. Then he got up from the hard waiting room sofa and walked around the carpet for a few minutes. He was about to snag a hospital employee and ask for a status report on Lionel, when a stubby balding man in scrubs came in. The man looked around. "Mr. Luthor?" he said.

"I'm Lex Luthor. Is there any news about my father?"

Dawn came back down the hallway carrying a foam cup, in time to hear the update. "Mr. Luthor, I'm Dr. Tirion." The doctor seemed to want to shake hands, and Lex let him. "Your father is in serious but stable condition. Barring complications, and after an appropriate course of physical therapy, he should regain most of the use of the arm. The head wounds were superficial. His eyesight, however, is a different matter."

"His eyes were torn from their sockets," Lex quietly reminded the man.

"Yes. There was extensive damage," the doctor agreed.

"When can we see him?" Dawn piped in.

"I can let you have a few moments now, but not long."

Dawn set her coffee down on a little table, and accompanied Lex in to see his father. None of the hospital personnel challenged her right to be there.

Lionel was in a private room. The walls were eggplant-colored. His head and upper face were wrapped in white bandages, and the cast/bandage assembly on his right arm was huge. He was moving a little bit, restlessly in his bed.

"Dad?" Lex asked quietly, not sure if his father was supposed to be conscious or not.

The old man stilled. "Lex?" he wondered. "Is that you, son?"

Lex sighed resignedly and sat in the straight-backed chair next to the bed. "It's me. Is there anything you need me to do for you, Dad?"

"No. They...." Lionel took a sharp breath and hissed it back out again. "I was wrong. I was wrong about your girl. I never should...."

Lex was pretty sure that was the drugs talking, but it was still pleasant to hear. "I know, Dad. She knows, too."

A nurse rapped once softly on the door and came in without waiting for an answer. "Mr. Luthor? Miss? Time to go."

"It's Lex," Lex automatically corrected the nurse, as he rose from the chair. He turned back to his father and touched the man's unwounded left hand, lying still against the hospital sheets. "Good luck, Dad. Get better, okay?"

Dawn chirped, "Good-bye, Mr. Luthor. I'll tell my sister 'hi' for you."

'That was malicious,' Lex thought as they followed the nurse out of his father's hospital room. But he had enjoyed the insolent comment, too.

***

There was no doubt as to whether Lex was driving her to Smallville or not. The only question was whether she was going to let him get a couple of hours of sleep first. Fortunately the whole argument was made moot by the fact that Lex didn't seem to *want* to sleep.

As soon as they left Lionel's hospital room, Lex was on the cell to somebody, telling them to bring the car around. By the time they were on the ground floor, Lex had his black leather driving gloves on. He'd worn his long coat the whole time they'd been there, waiting -- Dawn guessed he didn't want anyone from the hospital to see how much better his arm already was.

One of the Luthors' servants was just getting out of the Porsche parked in the loading zone when Dawn and Lex walked out of the hospital's main door. Lex thanked the man briefly and said something that sounded like, "Have him watched." Papers of some sort changed hands. Then Lex turned to Dawn. "I don't suppose there's any way you're letting me go without you?"

"As if," she scoffed.

Lex smiled and walked around to the passenger side. He opened the door and ushered her in with his hand on her elbow. Goof. Then he went back to his side and got in. "Fasten your seatbelt," he told her. He took his cell phone out of his pocket and handed it to her. "Call Clark at home; tell him we're on our way."

Neither of them talked until the pre-dawn streets of Metropolis were left far behind. Finally Dawn looked out her window, full of nothing but black sky, stars, and tall ghostly corn, and said, "Man. You sure have a whole lot of nothing out here in Kansas."

Lex smirked. "Thank you," he deadpanned.

There was a lot of stuff Dawn wanted to tell Lex, about how Buffy had been hurt again and again, and he'd better treat her right if he knew what was good for him. It seemed like it would take a long time, so she decided to content herself with a warning.

"Lex?" she said.

"Yes?"

"Buffy's had bad luck with men. Nothing but bad luck with men, actually. If you're the one to finally break her, they'll be finding your body for weeks."

Lex snickered a little, but stopped when he took a sidelong look at her and saw the expression on her face.

"I'm serious," she growled. "This isn't one of those toothless beat-you-to-death-with-a-shovel threats. This is for real. I know what I'm saying, and I know just how to do it."

Lex shot her another glance. He was driving too fast to look at her for long. Dawn saw him swallow. "I won't hurt her," he promised, "if I can help it."

Dawn sighed. She was suddenly very tired. "That'll have to be good enough," she said.

***

Buffy woke up in an unfamiliar bed. It was less than an hour until sunrise. The sheets were a faded blue; so were the open curtains and the long sleeveless nightgown she was wearing. They looked like they'd all been made from the same material. The small bedroom held a sturdy bed and a dresser with "Sky and Telescope" and "National Geographic" magazines piled on top. The open closet door revealed a couple of dress shirts, a few plaid flannel shirts, and one good suit hanging up. There were maps of the world and star charts on the walls. She realized she was in Clark Kent's room, in Kansas. The sky outside the window was finally clear, and lightening in the east with the coming dawn. It would probably be a hot day.

There was the smell of coffee and something baking, and voices coming from downstairs. Buffy got up and went to find out what was going on. The hem of the nightgown swirled around her feet; Clark's mom must be taller than her. She instinctively kept to the edges of the steps as she walked silently down the stairs, the old wood silky against her bare feet. She stopped short when she could see into the big kitchen full of people. 'A Country Kitchen,' she thought.

Buffy watched in silence as Mrs. Kent set a platter of muffins on a big kitchen table. Clark's dad was eating eggs and helping a little girl, about two or three years old, with her glass of milk. Clark brought some jam from the refrigerator to the table. He was laughing at something Lex said. Dawn was there, too, drinking coffee and sitting down with Clark's family as if she belonged there.

Dawn was the first to see her. "Buffy!" she called. She jumped up from the table and was hugging her sister in no time.

Buffy let herself lean into the hug and close her eyes for a moment. It was at times like this that she was glad her sister had grown so tall. Even though Dawn was the younger sister, and the one Buffy had to protect above all others, her hugs could sometimes make it feel like Buffy was being held and protected. Buffy allowed herself one little sniffle, and then she put on a smile and gave Dawn a big hug back. "Dawn!" she said, letting go and stepping back. "I'm so glad to see you!"

"I'm glad to see you, too! You have no idea! When Lex said his dad had you kidnapped and Willow told me that you'd been committed, I was so worried!"

"Dawn," Mrs. Kent's strong sensible voice cut through Dawn's babbling. "Let your sister sit down and have some breakfast."

Dawn pulled Buffy to the table and sat her down, but she didn't stop talking. "Mr. and Mrs. Kent, this is my sister Buffy. Buffy, that's Cara, Clark's baby sister."

"I'm not a baby," Cara declared.

"Of course not. You're my big girl," Clark's dad said, as he wiped Cara's sticky hands and face with a damp cloth. He slugged down the last of his coffee and said, "Pleased to meet you, Buffy. I'm glad you're okay after your little brush with the Luth -- with Lionel Luthor." Buffy saw Clark beam at his dad, and Lex duck his head to hide a pleased little smile. Mr. Kent smiled, too. "I gotta go; those cows won't milk themselves. Clark, I'll see you out in the sweet corn as soon as you've got your friends stowed away. We've got a lot of orders to fill."

"Yes, dad," Clark said. Mr. Kent left the kitchen.

Buffy slowly ate eggs and a muffin. She drank Kent Organic milk and two cups of coffee. By the time she was done, Dawn had gone upstairs to take a nap in Clark's bed, and Lex had been sent off to the living room to mind Cara so Mrs. Kent could fill orders for muffins and jam.

Buffy took her dishes to the sink and washed them. "Thank you, Mrs. Kent, for the food and shelter and clothing. I know it's really an imposition, and I don't know how to thank you..."

Clark's mom interrupted her. "Call me Martha, Buffy. It's no imposition. We're glad to have you here. From what Clark and Dawn have said, it appears that we owe you our lives a few times over, anyhow. It's the least we can do." Martha left her bowl of muffin batter for a moment and gave the younger woman a one-armed hug. Buffy blinked hard and had to bite her lip to keep from bawling. She suddenly missed her mom so much it hurt.

"Um. I have to call home, or, call Xander, and see what things are like at home," she said. "Can I, May I use your phone?"

Martha saw that Buffy was getting emotional, and kindly turned back to her work. "Of course," she said. "It's two hours earlier in California, though, isn't it? Maybe you should wait a little while. Why don't you go into the living room and help Lex with Cara?"

"Okay. Thanks." Buffy fled.

In the living room Cara was building something with a set of big wooden blocks, and Lex was asleep in the corner of the couch. Buffy sat down on the floor with the little girl. "What are you building?" she asked.

"Pyramids. Is your name really Buffy?"

"Uh huh. Is yours really Cara?"

"Nope. It's Caroline Jennifer Kent. Will you read me a book? Lex was, but he's sleeping."

"Okay."

Cara brought the book, and Buffy read it to her. When she finished, Cara made her read it again. It was about bunnies and mice doing things in alphabetical order.

When she finished it the second time, Buffy looked up and saw Lex's blue-gray eyes staring at her. She blinked. "Hi, Lex," she said.

Lex sat up. He still looked tired. "Hi." Now that he'd caught her eye, he didn't seem to know where to look. It wasn't even nine o'clock yet, but the day was heating up. Buffy in Martha's lightweight nightgown was more appropriately dressed for it than Lex in his business suit. He shrugged out of his coat, still not really looking at her. "I must apologize for my father's behavior. I don't know how to make it up to you; perhaps a cash settlement in lieu of a lawsuit for false imprisonment would be...."

"Lex," Buffy said.

He stopped talking and looked at her.

"It's not your fault your dad kidnapped me. His choices, not yours." She looked down. Cara was building pyramids again. "I'm sorry I never called you. It's just, it always gets so doomed, you know?"

"I know," he murmured. "Believe me, I know."

Buffy looked back up at him. "And what we had? It was nice. Couple of dates, couple of big monster battles -- good times. Why spoil it with the inevitable crashing doom?"

Lex smiled at her. He even let out a little laugh. "So this is what it's like to be on the other side of one of those heart-walls."

Buffy thought she knew what he meant. "A wall around your heart isn't a *bad* thing. I mean, once you've got a wall around something, maybe a roof, that's a house, right? Keeps the rain and the vampires out."

Lex was still smiling at her. He had a really nice smile.

"A person should maybe, probably, have a door," Buffy conceded.

Lex came over and kneeled down next to her on the floor. Cara looked up from her blocks, but apparently the grown-ups weren't that interesting, so she went back to the pyramids. "A few windows would also be desirable," Lex whispered in Buffy's ear, and then he kissed her.

The End

You have reached the end of "Dates of Wars". This story is complete.

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