Clark didn't know what bothered him more, the "I-told-you-so" look his dad gave him when his mom came in with the news or the weird, lurching feeling of disappointment in his stomach it caused him. It must have been disappointment, he thought, because the look should have sent him to the loft to brood, not over to the Luthor estate with anger in every step, but it was pretty darned close.
The servant glowered, but brought him into Lex's blown-up version of a living room without asking any questions. Lex himself was working at a laptop on the couch. He looked up and smiled. "Clark! I wasn't expecting you." His eyes seemed to catch Clark's expression, and his smile wavered a little. "What brings you out here so suddenly?"
"I heard you bought the Wilson, Fairfax, and Planchett farms yesterday."
"Yes, I did. What about it?"
"So you were looking to get more land, after all. Is that what you were planning for my family's property all along? To sneak in and then somehow buy us out?"
"Sure, Clark," Lex said easily. "I'm helping to run a billion-dollar company here. I've got nothing better to do with my time than cheat my friend's family out of a small parcel of land." He scowled and pushed the laptop away. "Of course that wasn't what I was planning."
Clark stared. "Then what...?"
"I bought the land from those other families because I don't have any particular investment in their futures. I offered your father his opportunity because I wanted to give him a chance to get in on something big."
"LuthorCorp is planning--I'm planning--to use Smallville as a test site for some new strains of genetically-modified soybeans. They're predicted to have a yield nearly thirty-five percent higher than the current most popular strain. That's what I need land for. Please keep that to yourself, by the way. I don't want the news to get out and drive up the price of land around here."
Clark could have run out the door in embarrassment--or laughed in relief--but there was something more important to worry about. Experimental crops in a town where the insects could turn people into bugs, the lake could suck the body heat out of someone, and people could shape-shift? His parents thought that GMOs were a really bad idea. Clark wasn't completely positive himself, in general--but he was sure that in Smallville in particular, they were a really, really bad idea. "Are you sure that's smart?"
"Why wouldn't it be? Smallville is almost ideal for my purposes. It's relatively sparsely populated and underdeveloped, but close to a major company facility. I'm taking lemons and making lemonade."
"But...but..." Clark cast around. "None of those farms have done well since the meteor strike. They all took big hits, I think." He thought. Right. He'd figured out to stay clear of that part of town long before he even knew about the meteor fragments that made him ill. "There might be something wrong with the land."
"But there isn't." Lex got up and went over to a cabinet. "I had soil assays and background radiation checks done before I bought the property. There were none of the usual toxins, or any dangerous levels of radioactivity. I may be from the city, Clark, but I do work in agribusiness. I know what precautions to take."
The meteor fragments--no one knew how dangerous they were, of course. And there wasn't any way of letting people know without bringing way too much attention to the town, and to Clark. "I just...I just have a bad feeling about this, Lex." He flushed even as he said it, hearing how lame it sounded. Lex was talking about soil assays and he was muttering lines from Star Wars.
"Are you sure that's not a guilty conscience speaking?" Lex asked, pouring himself a drink.
A guilty--Oh. Oh, geez. "Look, Lex, I'm sorry, I just wasn't thinking."
"Hey, no problem. I'm getting used to the wild accusations from the Kents. Usually it's from your father, though."
"Whatever my dad said, I don't necessarily believe it. You know that, don't you?"
Lex gave him a speculative look over his glass. "I thought I did, anyway." Clark winced as he downed his drink and looked at his watch. "I was just going to knock off work, anyway. Want to come and watch Citizen Kane with me? A great film, though a little pessimistic, I think."
He wanted to, but he was obviously going to need help on this one. "I have to get back. I still have some chores to do."
Lex shrugged. "Too bad."
"Look, I really want to, but..."
"It's all right. I understand. Just don't believe everything you hear over there, okay? Joachim thought you might be planning to assassinate me, the way you stormed in here. He gets sulky when he thinks I'm not taking proper safety precautions."
Joachim? Oh, the servant. Lex couldn't be too offended if he was joking like that. "Right. You don't want to live with sulky people."
Lex laughed. "Exactly. There's only room for one brooding young man in my life right now."
He meant...Then he really wasn't mad. Clark grinned. "Well, the criminal mastermind position in mine is already filled, so it's good that you're not one, after all."
"Oh? Who's the lucky mastermind?"
"Your friend on the paper?"
"You'd be surprised. It's always the little ones."
Lex laughed again. "You're probably right. Good night, Clark."
Clark's dad sat down at the kitchen table, folding one hand over the other. "This is bad. This is very bad."
"Well, maybe nothing will..." Mom trailed off. "Who am I trying to kid? I think GMOs are dangerous even when they're growing on normal land. This could be a catastrophe."
"Another crisis, courtesy of the Luthors. I was right after all."
He'd been afraid his dad would react like this. "No, you weren't," Clark protested. "You thought he was trying to rip you off. He wasn't."
"No, he was just planning to grow poison crops on my land."
"They're not poisonous on purpose. Lex said they'd have a really high yield. Wouldn't that mean cheaper food for everyone?"
"And lots of profit for LuthorCorp."
"Is it so bad to want to make money? I mean, isn't that what we're trying to do on our farm?"
"Not by threatening the environment. There's a reason we're an organic farm, Clark. I thought you understood that."
"I do. But Lex isn't trying to hurt anybody here. He doesn't know."
"Which, if we can just give up the fascinating subject of Lex Luthor's motives for one second," Mom said dryly, "brings us back to the question of what we should do."
"I think..." Clark took a deep breath. "I think I should tell him."
"Absolutely not!" Dad exclaimed. "I can't think of a faster way to get the government down here--or maybe worse."
"You think LuthorCorp wouldn't be interested in you?"
"Maybe. I guess. But they wouldn't kidnap me or anything, Dad. Come on."
"Tell it to Bill Anderson."
"Who?" Clark asked.
"Bill Anderson, son. He was a friend of ours, and the chief organizer of the anti-development group that wanted to prevent the LuthorCorp factory from being built out here. They were really giving old Lionel Luthor a hard time. For a while, anyway."
"I'm not sure you'd understand."
"Look, Dad, if you want me to understand, you have to give me the whole story. I'm not a kid anymore, all right?"
Dad looked at Mom. She sighed and said quietly, "It came out that Bill had...certain tastes. He was a married man. Joan understood, but he still...he killed himself."
Dad nodded. "There are some things a small town isn't so good at handling, son. I think that's all I want to say about that. But Bill was a good man, and he wasn't hurting anyone--well--he just didn't deserve to have his personal affairs splashed on the third page of the Ledger."
"Poor Joan," Mom said. "She left town. We haven't heard from her in years. No one knows who put the story in the paper, but most people think it was Lionel Luthor."
"So you see, Clark, why I don't trust them as far as I can throw them. And certainly not with your future and safety. No, you can't tell him."
"But Lex isn't his dad!"
"Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he didn't want to use you in some way, though, do you think his father would listen?"
Clark got up and leaned against the refrigerator, resting his head on the plastic as he tried not to think about the story he'd just heard. "I don't know."
"So what do we do, then?" Mom said.
"I don't know. It's his land, I don't see how we can stop him."
Clark raised his head. "Wait. I have an idea."
"Yeah. Give me a day or two. I think I can pull it off."
"Clark," Mom said warningly, "you're not going to try anything dangerous, are you?"
"No, this will be strictly legit, I swear. No superpowers involved."
"All right. Meanwhile..."
"Meanwhile, we'll try to think of something else," Dad said. "Before LuthorCorp poisons more people than it already has."
It wasn't hard to track Chloe down after classes the next day; she was in the Torch's office, just like she always was. Which was exactly what he wanted, anyway.
"Hey, Clark," she said, hardly moving her eyes from the screen of her computer. "What's up? I don't suppose you've got any hot gossip about you and Lana I can put in this week's issue."
"Uh, no," he said. "Are you that hard up for material?"
"It's been a couple of weeks since the football cheating scandal. A good paper never rests on its laurels. I was going to write an editorial against the cheerleading squad, but somehow my motivation to do that has diminished recently." She tapped a finger against her monitor. "So, yeah, at this point, I'm seriously considering plagiarizing the farm report. Spicing it up a little. Maybe something about aliens abducting Mrs. McCraw's chickens."
"Actually, I do have something you might be able to use." He hesitated for a minute. "It's not as exciting as my continued total failure to go out with Lana, but..."
"Oh, really? What is it?"
Lex had said that if the news got out, people would want more money for their land. If he couldn't get enough land, he'd have to do his testing somewhere else. Somewhere that wasn't riddled with alien space rocks that turned everything in their vicinity to some kind of freak. He might be a little annoyed, but it would be for the best in the end--wouldn't LuthorCorp get in real trouble if their crops started turning people into goo or something? Still, it gave him a pang. "LuthorCorp is buying up all those farms because they want to use Smallville as a test site for some genetically modified crops. Soybeans."
That got Chloe's attention. "How do you know?"
"Lex told me himself."
"Wow." She spun her chair in a circle, stopping herself with her hands on the keyboard and beginning to type instantly. "This is huge."
"It is?" He didn't think the price of property was that big a deal. He'd been wondering if maybe he wouldn't have to beg Chloe to run the article.
"Sure. Your parents aren't the only organic farmers in Smallville, you know. There are a lot of them--it's the only way to try to compete with the big farms these days. They're going to go nuts when they hear they're bordering on farms growing GMOs. The crop drift alone--"
She snorted. "You'd think you were the one who grew up in the city, Clark. You can't really contain a strain of crop on one piece of land. The seeds spread out. That's what nature made them to do. So organic farmers nearby could lose their certification."
"Not to mention the principle of the thing...LuthorCorp sneaking out here to secretly try out weird new crops in our own backyard. It's the sort of thing that brings out the hippie in everyone. Oh, this is big, all right."
Clark swallowed. His mouth had gone dry. "So you think...you think there'll be a big reaction."
"Yeah. And the Torch is going to break the story. This is great, Clark, just great! I was beginning to worry about you hanging out with Lex all the time, but it actually paid off. Thanks!"
"Chloe," he said.
"Yeah?" she asked, still typing furiously.
"Are you sure..."
He could tell she wasn't paying attention. Besides, what was he going to say? "Never mind."
He trudged out of the office, hoping that she was exaggerating. Chloe did get a little carried away sometimes about what the newspaper could do. People probably wouldn't get as upset as she thought. Heck, the price of land most likely wouldn't even go up.
Right. He hoped.
Two days later, his dad came into the kitchen with the morning Ledger. "Well, Clark, looks like you did it," he said, tossing it in front of him. The headline read: LUTHORCORP DENIES PLANS TO GROW GMOS IN SMALLVILLE. Inside, there was an editorial titled LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. He didn't need to read that one to know how scathing it was.
"There are protestors at the plant and everything," his mom said, going for a cup of coffee. "I heard it on the radio."
"Protestors?" Clark asked, his stomach sinking down to his work boots.
"Maybe we should go out and join them," Dad said. "For Bill Anderson, if for no other reason."
"Don't," Clark said instantly. "Dad, please don't."
"I wasn't serious. Besides, it doesn't look like we'll need to. They're backing off fast."
"That's what I meant. Look, I've got to go. I've got some...stuff to take care of."
His mom gave him a look as he went out the door--one of her 'I'm not an idiot, Clark, I know you're not telling me the whole story' looks--but he decided to worry about that later. Someone else needed an explanation more.
There were a handful of protestors at the Luthor estate, being watched by an irritable-looking security guard. Clark had to give him his name before being waved up the driveway. Lex was throwing some bags into his car. "If you're going to give me some sort of lame excuse, Clark, it'll have to wait," he said, slamming the trunk shut. "I've got a meeting of the board of directors to attend."
"Lex, I just came to say that I'm really sorry."
"Sure." Lex snorted. "You thought you were doing me a favor."
Clark caught his arm. "Look, I didn't know..."
"...that Chloe was going to run the story? She didn't tell you?" Lex turned and looked at him, and there was such a surprising flash of desperate hope in his eyes that Clark almost gave in and said yes. Maybe it would be easier on everyone that way. But, no, he had to carry his own mistakes.
"No. I just didn't know how big it was going to be. I thought you'd only have trouble getting more property."
Lex twisted his arm away smoothly. "So you did plant the story. What, did your father put you up to it?"
"No. It was all my idea."
"Well, congratulations, Clark, it was a real winner. You accomplished exactly what you set out to do. You humiliated me and ruined one of the company's projects. You've got a real future in business, you know." Lex opened the car door and slid in. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm late for my ritual public flaying."
Lex slammed the door shut and backed the car out in a cloud of dust, narrowly missing the protestors as he did.
It took everything in Clark not to run the car down, catch it and make Lex listen to him. But what could he say? He couldn't tell him his reason any more than he could have before the article. Lex was too smart to buy any sort of lie he could make up. It would just look like he was covering for having run off his mouth to Chloe to prove how much he knew, or for going with his "bad feeling" and stabbing Lex in the back.
So he turned his steps towards home instead. As he came up the road, his mom called to him from the window, "Clark, I'm glad you're back. Chloe is here. She really wants to talk to you. I sent her to the barn."
He didn't want to deal with Chloe right then; she was probably doing her little dance of victory, and she wouldn't understand. Still, he made himself go into the barn. Chloe was standing in the loft, looking out the window, and as she turned to him, he was startled to see her face streaked with tears.
"Chloe? Chloe, what's wrong?" he asked, bounding up to her.
"I have to resign as editor of the Torch," she said.
"But...why? You just broke maybe the biggest story it ever had!"
"Yeah. That story." She bit her lip. "LuthorCorp really didn't like it."
"Why does that matter?"
"Because LuthorCorp is the biggest single sponsor of the Torch, Clark. They contribute more than half of our budget. How do you think we got the office fixed up so fast after the fire?"
"And they want you gone?"
"They've got a lot of pull in this town. Mr. Speck might've lost his job over it. He didn't want to ask me to resign, but..."
"That's not right, Chloe." He shook his head. "It's just not right."
"Well, just because it's not right doesn't mean it's not happening." She looked down. "God, Clark, that paper was..." Her voice broke. "It was my thing, you know? The thing I was good at. The thing that helped make me me."
He just couldn't believe that Lex would go so low. "Look, Chloe," he said, touching her arm. "I'm going to fix this, okay?"
"How?" She looked at him, half-hopeful, half-miserable, and he knew that he'd do it any way he could.
"Just...just leave it to me. Don't resign or anything until I have a chance to try something."
"What if it doesn't work?"
"Come here," he said, pulling her into a hug. "I'll take care of this. I promise."
His brain raced as he listened to her sniffle against his chest. What he'd done had probably saved lives. It might even have saved LuthorCorp. It had been the right thing to do.
It didn't seem fair that he should have to feel so terrible about it.
The protestors had gone home when he went back to the Luthor estate after dark, which was probably just as well. Clark paced by one of the trees, rehearsing what he had to say while he waited. It wasn't too long before Lex's car swung carelessly up the drive and Lex climbed out. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a flask, but didn't drink from it. Instead, he stared at it with an expression that Clark knew how to read, because he was feeling it himself: self-disgust. He shook his head and turned, throwing it in a clean arc onto the grounds. He saw Clark and his eyes narrowed.
"You could've nailed me there," Clark said, coming forward. "Would that have helped?"
Lex didn't smile. "Polished up that excuse for me?"
"That's not why I'm here."
"Oh, really." Lex leaned on his car, folding his arms. "Then what's this about?"
"Look, Lex, you can be as mad at me as you want. I deserve it. But don't take it out on Chloe, okay?"
"That wasn't my decision. I think it's bad PR. My father wanted it that way."
"Couldn't you talk to him?"
Lex laughed shortly. "I don't have an awful lot of influence with him right now, Clark."
"But couldn't you explain? I mean, what if the Planet found out that LuthorCorp had used its connections to pressure the high school student who broke a major story about it into resigning? Wouldn't that look really bad for you?"
He'd just been trying to follow up Lex's thought about the PR, but the instant he said it, he realized that he'd made a mistake. Lex's face went still. It was amazing how cold and blank and smooth it could be. He turned around, looking up at the sky. "You know, Clark, my father asked me something at the meeting. 'Why, Lex? Why in God's name would you spill confidential company information to some farmboy? What did you think it was going to get you?' I didn't have an answer. Until just now. It's so obvious."
He turned around, and in one swift motion, seized Clark's head and kissed him. It was a bruising, unkind kiss, his fingers digging into the back of Clark's neck, and over almost at once, but it was as if Lex had branded his mouth with his intensity. "Well? How about it?"
Clark stared. Of all the things he'd expected from Lex, that hadn't even been at the bottom of the list. "Lex, I'm not...we can't..."
"No, Clark? Why not?" His tone was such a weird mix of bitter and casual. "I'm an excellent fuck. And there really is a certain way this is supposed to go. You're supposed to be sleeping with me when you betray me. It's traditional."
He touched his mouth in disbelief. "Lex, I didn't betray you. You have to believe me."
"I do?" He cocked his head. "Why?"
"Because I'm your friend."
"Friend. No, I think we've pretty conclusively established that that's not what you are." Lex popped the trunk and took out his bags. "Look, if I'm not even going to get a good roll in the hay out of this, I really do have other things to do."
He moved to block Lex's way to the house. "I never thought you'd talk to me like this, Lex."
"What can I say? I thought you were different from everyone else. I guess we were both wrong." He started for the house. "Now get out of my way. In fact, get off my property altogether. Until you change your mind. Honestly, I think you owe me a little something. Or maybe Chloe does, since she's the one who got the exclusive, but...I'd prefer you."
That was too much. Clark stepped aside in a daze. A minute later, he heard the door slam shut.
When he got home, Mom was sitting in the kitchen, drinking some hot chocolate. "Hi, Clark," she said. "Help yourself."
He went over to the pot on the stove. "Smells good." He filled a mug and then sat at the table, where he stared down at the wood.
After several minutes of quiet, she said, "So. I take it we won't be sending any more produce to the Luthor estate?"
"I think that's a pretty safe assumption."
She touched his hand. "I'm sorry, Clark. I know he was your..." She paused.
"My friend, Mom. He was my friend. But I guess I wasn't his."
"Is that what he said to you?"
"Yeah, basically." He knew enough to know to leave the other part out.
"Well, that wasn't entirely fair. You saved his life. That ought to give you some credibility with him. Did he even give you a chance to explain?"
"What could I tell him, Mom? That I--" The phone rang.
"Hold that thought," she said, getting it. "Hello?" She held out the phone to Clark. "It's Chloe."
He took it grimly. "Hey, Chloe. How are you?"
Her voice was bubbly. "Great--thanks to you, I guess."
"I just got a call from Mr. Speck. He said I don't actually have to resign--that LuthorCorp changed its mind. Did you do it?"
So Lex had called his dad after all and gotten him to back down. He must've actually told him about the threat he'd thought Clark had made. Clark didn't know Lionel Luthor, but he couldn't imagine that that had been any fun. "I didn't. Lex did."
"Nothing. I'm glad, Chloe. Really glad."
"Me, too. I wonder if I should write an article about this."
She laughed. "Don't worry, I think I've had enough trouble. For the week, anyway."
"Okay. I'll talk to you tomorrow, okay?"
His mom raised her eyebrows at him as he sat back down at the table. "Care to share?"
"Not right now." He fidgeted with his mug for a minute, then jumped back up. "I need to..."
"Go over to Lex's? Maybe we should work out a code, so you could tell me without tipping off your father. That way, at least one of us could know where you are."
"I knew you'd understand, Mom," he said and kissed her on the hair before zipping out the door.
Joachim gave him a positively icy look this time. Clark's heart was pounding as he came into the living room. He didn't know if he should do this. He didn't even know if it would really help. But he had to do something. It wasn't right that Lex should have to be the victim in all this, that he should get nothing but trouble when he'd only tried to do something good for everyone.
Lex was squatting in front of the fire, stirring it up with a poker. "Clark," he said. "I didn't expect you to come around quite so fast."
"That's not why I came, Lex." He was going to need another few years before he knew what to think about that.
Lex stood, swinging the poker casually in one hand. "What? Did you come up with something else to blackmail me for?"
"No. I wanted to explain."
"I already have a pretty good idea why you did it, Clark."
"No, you don't. Sit down, okay?"
Lex cocked his head, looking at him, then shrugged and flung himself onto the couch. "All right. I'm listening."
Clark took a deep breath. "It all started twelve years ago..."