Clark flinched and immediately stopped drumming his fingers against his thigh. Beside him, his best friend was standing quite still, hands in his pockets, shoulders back, looking every inch the cool businessman he was. In his faded jeans and a checked flannel shirt, Clark felt very much the Kansas schoolboy by comparison. Who wouldn't, next to Lex Luthor?
A few moments later, his foot started tapping.
"Clark," Lex repeated in a chiding tone.
"I'm sorry, I can't help it!" Clark walked to other side of the room, thinking that maybe if he moved around he'd be able to burn off some of the nervous energy.
Lex followed him slowly. "Look, what you have to remember is that they're your friends. At worst, they might try to embarrass you a little, but they wouldn't do anything to hurt you."
"Not deliberately, no," Clark muttered under his breath. He heard Lex sigh, and quickly quashed the annoyance he felt. His own nerves were bad enough; he couldn't handle Lex's frustration as well.
Scanning through the walls, he took another survey of the building. Nothing had changed since the last time he'd checked. It still looked like a typical TV studio: an auditorium, cameras, lights, and a stage. Stagehands were rushing back and forth, each one of the crew trying to get things ready before taping began. A stand-up comedian was entertaining the audience, who were already in their seats. He could see Chloe, Lana and Pete in the front row, talking and laughing.
"It's a game show, Lex. A game show!" Clark threw his hands up in despair.
"I know," Lex replied tiredly. "This involves me too, remember?"
Which was another thing that made him nervous. When Pete had sprung this on them, he had insisted that Lex be a part of it, all but implying that joining him on the show was a true mark of friendship and worse that Lex was scared. Lex, of course, wasn't the type to back down from a challenge. So, there they both were, in a tiny dressing room, waiting for the next taping of Y.F.O.M.
"I'm surprised you're taking this so well," Clark commented.
Lex shrugged before perching next to him on the dressing table. "In the past, I've tried a lot of questionable things, most of them to piss my father off; but, this is one thing that honestly didn't occur to me," he said wryly, looking as puzzled as Clark had ever seen him. "Actually, I'm just amazed that your parents are letting you do this."
"They don't know," Clark admitted. "Pete kept the whole thing a surprise. All he told them was that he got us tickets to a show in Metropolis. I really don't think they're expecting me to be on it, especially with you!"
And that was another thing to worry about. His parents didn't like his friendship with Lex. They didn't trust him. None of his friends did - Pete in particular. So, he couldn't understand why Pete had gone to all the trouble of getting them on this show. And, why all the secrecy?
Scanning the building yet again, Clark couldn't spot Jerry Springer anywhere, so that had to be a plus.
"Clark," Lex said. "I checked with my people the minute we got here, and they say it's just an average show, nothing to worry about," once again displaying his sense of perception. "No prostitutes, no strippers, no drug-crazed mutants. We've dealt with a lot worse on a bad day in Smallville."
Which was true, Clark told himself, feeling marginally better about the situation.
"And," Lex continued, "I don't think Pete would be so reckless as to put me in a situation involving public humiliation."
Also true, Clark thought. Lex was his best friend, and because of that Lex let him get away with things he wouldn't tolerate from anyone else. Still, there were lines even he knew not to cross.
"I will not let things get out of control. You believe that, don't you?"
Before he could answer, the door swung open suddenly, making both of them jump. A blonde head popped into the room. "Guys, it's time," the woman said.
She led them into the studio where they were met by Y.F.O.M.'s assistant director and a group of make-up artists. As the make-up artists went to work, doing their last-minute touch-ups, the director gave them a brief run-through of what to expect on the show.
It was very similar to what Pete had told them half an hour earlier, when he had unveiled his surprise. The show took a couple, asked them questions about attractiveness, and if their answers matched their panel of experts, the couple won cash prizes. It sounded reasonably straightforward, Clark thought, especially if he were partnered with Lex. Considering Lex's near obsession with good taste, they would probably do very well.
Looking over his shoulder at his best friend, Clark scowled. Lex seemed completely relaxed. He was smiling and talking to his make-up artists, like he did this kind of thing every day. The make-up artists were fawning over him, some cooing over his smooth, perfect skin in a way that made Clark clench his fists. God, if he had to listen to one more person sigh over how beautiful Lex's skin was he was going to—
Unclenching his fists, Clark took a series of deep breaths and forced himself to relax. He tried to take his mind off his nervousness by getting familiar with the set.
It reminded him of one of the rooms at Luthor castle. The walls were decorated in a purple, grey and white pattern, which matched the weave on the carpet. In the centre of the stage were two armchairs, a couch and a large TV monitor. They were arranged in U-shape, the couch placed facing the armchairs with the monitor forming the bridge. Added to this was a huge plasma screen on the side stage wall. Both screens were playing the show's signature logo Y.F.O.M.
"Clark, isn't it?"
Clark spun round, only to be temporarily blinded by the flash of a camera. Blinking, nodding, he allowed himself to be pulled to one side where Lex was now talking to a tall dark-haired man and a petite young woman.
The assistant director then introduced him to the man and woman, who were Y.F.O.M.'s co-hosts. After some speedy handshakes, the four of them posed for the pre-show publicity shots. Clark stood by Lex in the middle, with the co-hosts on either side of them, the man on Lex's side and the woman on his.
"Are you nervous?" she asked kindly as she posed beside him.
"Yeah, a little," Clark admitted. "I've never been on TV before."
"Well, don't be, you've got nothing to worry about. I've done this hundreds of times and I haven't seen anyone nearly as good-looking as you. I'm sure you'll do just fine."
Clark reddened as she laughed softly. The cameras clicked again and again, until the assistant director decided they had taken enough shots. The female host gave his shoulder a quick squeeze before walking off stage with her colleague.
When Clark turned back to Lex, he noticed him frowning in her direction. "Lex?" he whispered.
"Are you okay? You looked a little funny there for a second."
"Oh, everything's fine, Clark."
Lex's face smoothed into a polite mask, leaving Clark feeling distinctly uneasy. He had spent enough time around Lex to know his friend only wore that particular expression when something was bothering him.
Before he could press further, he and Lex were being pushed on stage by the assistant director, who instructed them to sit on the couch and take their places for the start of taping. The show's opening music started, the audience clapped and cheered, and the director gave the cue to start.
Y.F.O.M.'s two co-hosts walked out from the wings and took their respective places in front of the huge wall screen. The man waited for the applause to die down before taking his signal to start. "Good evening, I'm your host Jimmy," he announced.
"And I'm your host June," said the woman by his side. "And we're here to play 'Your Face Or Mine'."
"We are indeed," Jimmy continued smoothly. "This is the show where your face could win you up to $50,000. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, on 'Your Face Or Mine' looks really are everything.
"Our contestants tonight will be asked to judge a number of celebrities, members of the public and themselves in terms of attractiveness. If they agree with our studio audience on who is more likely to turn heads, they could walk away with up to $50,000."
June added: "To play, our one stipulation is that our contestants must be in a relationship with each other. So, let's meet tonight's first couple: Clark and Lex!"
As the director cued the music and the audience began to clap, Clark looked round wildly, first at Pete then at Lex. "Did you know about this?" he hissed.
"No, Clark, believe me I did not."
The studio seemed to be spinning. He could see Lex's lips moving, but he could barely hear him over the noise in the studio and the roaring in his ears. He watched the two co-hosts walk towards him as if in slow motion, and he felt himself about to panic. "Oh, God, they said we—that you—and me—"
"It's all right, Clark, calm down. I'll take care of it. Okay?"
Nodding helplessly, Clark leant forward, forearms resting on his thighs, and stared blankly at the floor. He was on a TV show for couples, a show for dating couples, with Lex as his partner. Forget about ever going back to school . . . and God, what about his parents? He couldn't believe Pete had done this to them. Right then, the only thing keeping him together was the warmth of Lex's hand on his back, and his absolute faith that Lex would take care of everything.
It took several moments for him to get his breathing under control. In that time, the two co-hosts had taken their seats opposite and were ready to start.
"Lex, Clark, welcome to the show. Let me start by saying you look a little surprised."
And, Lex immediately went on the offensive. "If I look surprised it's only at the stunning mistake your research assistants have made."
A ripple of unease went through the studio.
"Er, there has been no mistake, Lex," Jimmy responded carefully. He glanced at his co-host, whose quiet laughter was doing nothing to diffuse the tension. Clark stiffened as Lex turned his glare on her; he knew Lex couldn't stand to be laughed at.
"Some friends of yours played a little trick on you," June confirmed. "Normally, we do use a couple who are dating. But, we know you and Clark are just friends and that you aren't dating or anything like that."
Clark sagged in relief. He let out the breath he'd been holding as she continued to explain in a conciliatory tone. "Clark, your friends sent in letters and pictures of the two of you. Hundreds of letters, telling our show's producers how great you both were, what good friends you two were and that you would be perfect for the show. They convinced us to make an exception."
"Really," Lex drawled sarcastically.
The tension in the studio rose a fraction. It occurred to Clark, then, that while he'd been reassured, such platitudes would mean absolutely nothing to Lex. Those sharp eyes had narrowed to slits, drifted over to the audience, and Lex kept them focused on Pete when he started to speak again. "That was kind of them. I'll need to devise a suitable 'thank you' for all this."
"Ah, that's so sweet," June said. She seemed completely oblivious to the danger she and everyone else were in. "Actually, I'm glad your friends got you on the show. I think you two look great together. Don't they look great, audience?"
There was a spate of murmuring followed by nervous clapping from the audience. Off-stage, Clark could see the show's producer gesticulating furiously. Words like *legal advice* and *you're fired* were flying round, and various assistants were running for cover. He realised he had to do something quickly to take Lex off protect-and-destroy mode. So, he grabbed Lex's hand, which was lying on the couch in the space between their bodies, then he threaded their fingers together, squeezing gently.
Lex flinched, his head whipping round. "Clark?"
"It's okay, I'm okay now." Shifting closer, Clark whispered, "No harm done. Really, I'm fine."
"You're sure?" Lex sat back, turning that piercing gaze on him.
Clark nodded. "Yes, I'm sure. They explained everything, it's okay now, really, Lex. You don't have to do anything."
Lex didn't look remotely convinced. One eyebrow raised, his lips flattened to a thin line, but eventually he backed down.
Clark let out another sigh of relief. Somewhere, he found a genuine smile for the show's co-hosts. "Jimmy, June," he said to them. "No more surprises, okay?" adding a look that clearly warned: 'Because, I won't be able to control Lex if there are!'
Jimmy raised both hands in surrender. "You have my word on that, Clark." Then, he pretended to wipe the sweat from his forehead, making the audience laugh, effectively diffusing the tension. "Okay, why don't we get started," he said seriously. "In round one, we're going to show you three pairs of celebrity faces. For each pair, we want to know which one is more attractive. Remember, we're going purely on face value here, not personality."
"If your answers match those of our studio audience, who voted earlier, you'll win $3,000 per pair," explained June. "Have a look at our first celebrity pair." Simultaneously, two faces flashed up on the wall screen and the on-stage TV. "Cameron Diaz and Uma Thurman - which one is more attractive?"
Dumb struck, Clark stared at pictures of the two of the world's most beautiful actresses, wondering how he was supposed to decide.
"Come on, guys, make it fast!" Jimmy urged, reminding them: "You only have one minute to get through all three."
"Uma Thurman," Lex said decisively.
The two pictures melted away then up flashed the winning face.
"Ooh no, it's Cameron Diaz," June laughed.
For a moment, Clark was worried Lex might try to strangle her. He gave Lex's fingers another gentle squeeze, only to realise he'd been holding Lex's hand all that time. Embarrassed, he let go at once. Lex gave him an odd look, but didn't say anything.
"Okay, next couple," Jimmy said. On the screen came pictures of Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias.
Clark glanced at Lex, suggesting: "Enrique?"
"Oh, I agree," Lex replied with a pained expression. "Besides, we'll get nothing but dirty looks and lukewarm coffee from our Enrique if we choose otherwise."
The idea of Lex's manservant's version of retribution had Clark struggling to keep a straight face. "Uh, Jimmy, we'll have to go with Enrique," he said.
This time, the images on screen melted away to show Enrique Iglesias as the winner. "Well done! That's $3,000. Now, for our final celebrity pair: Rosie O'Donnell and Chris O'Donnell," June announced.
Clark frowned. "Er, Chris?"
"Uh-uh, Rosie," countered Lex.
He shook his head in disbelief. "No way, Lex, come on!"
"It's Rosie. Trust me on this."
"I do trust you, but you're wrong."
"I'm not wrong, Clark. How could you—"
Jimmy raised a hand to interrupt them. "Guys, you can confer, but don't fight! Come on, quickly."
Clark tried to stare Lex down for a moment. Then, he threw his hands up and snapped: "Fine, we'll go with Rosie!" only to bite his tongue when the images melted away to reveal she was the winner.
With the round over, and the audience clapping, Clark felt more than a little stunned. He couldn't help the shiver that ran through him when Lex leaned over and breathed into his ear: "I could say 'I told you so', but that would be redundant right about now."
When the noise in the studio died down, Jimmy took his cue to move to the next part of the show. "Congratulations to Clark and Lex, at the end of that round, they've won $6,000!
"In round two, we start to get personal. No celebrities this time; instead, we ask our contestants to judge their own attractiveness against ordinary members of the public. And, yes, the emphasis here is on ordinary."
Several people in the audience laughed, but for Clark the joke fell flat. This was the part of the show he was least comfortable with. He'd never thought of himself as particularly good-looking, and if the audience were anything like the people he'd grown up with and went to school with, the chances were they wouldn't either.
"For each answer they get right, they'll win $4,000. Once again, our studio audience will be the judge, but this time they'll be voting live with their keypads."
In the front row, Pete, Lana, Chloe and other members of the audience were pulling out their keypads in preparation. Watching them, some of Clark's earlier anxiety returned.
"You don't have to do this, you know."
Clark sighed, instinctively moving toward the warmth of that voice and the support it offered. "They've already started filming, Lex."
"And they can just as easily stop. All you have to do is say the word and I'll put an end to this."
"It's just . . .." He let his gaze drift to where his other friends were sitting. Pete waved at him energetically, looking very pleased with himself. "Pete worked so hard to set this up, and I still don't get why! I haven't been spending much time with him lately, not as much as I used to."
"Right now, my concern isn't with Pete," Lex growled softly. "It's with you—with us."
The fierce tone of his voice made Clark jump, but when he saw the concerned expression on Lex's face and the way Lex was so focused on him, that anxiety just seemed to bleed away. "I guess I don't want to let him down again," he said, brushing his fingers against Lex's, willing him to understand.
Lex spared a brief glance for Pete, Lana and Chloe, before looking down at their hands touching. "I suppose if things do go badly, I could always buy the studio."
Though Lex said it with a smile, Clark knew he wasn't joking. "I'll be all right. I mean, how bad could it be, right?"
The only response he got was a grim look. It occurred to him then that he hadn't really considered the toll this was taking on Lex, or that Lex might have his own reasons not to want his looks judged in such a public arena. He'd just been so relieved to have the support. "Lex?" he asked hesitantly. "Are you okay with this?"
"Not really," Lex sighed, again glancing at the audience. Slowly, he rubbed one hand across his nape. "But, I'm not going to let anyone here see me run."
"Oh, God, I'm sorry! I wasn't thinking—"
"It's okay, Clark," Lex cut him off with a wry smile. "Like you said, how bad can it be, right?" Running a hand over his scalp, Lex then faced the show's co-hosts. "I'll go first," he told them.
"Okay, Lex, Clark, you'll each be given the task of judging each other against real live people, some of whom you may have seen before," Jimmy said. "We'll start with you, Lex." Then, he turned toward the audience. "Can we have our first mystery guest, please!"
There was some commotion in the auditorium. Clark watched with interest as a spotlight panned over the audience, and he gasped when the light settled on Chloe. She got up, made her way down to the stage then sat on the couch between him and Lex. It was a very tight squeeze. Pressed against her side from shoulder to thigh, he could literally feel her buzzing with excitement.
"Chloe, I take it you know these two."
"Yeah, I do. I'm a friend of Clark's and Lex's."
"And how long have you known them?" Jimmy asked her.
"I've known Clark pretty much since 8th Grade. We grew up together, went to the same schools, that kind of thing. Lex, I've known for about a year, but that's mostly through Clark. They spend a lot of time together."
While Chloe was speaking, Clark noticed two faces appear on the large wall screen. On the right was a real-time video feed of him, and next to it was one of Chloe. Slowly, it dawned on him that he was the one up against Chloe and that Lex would have to choose between them.
"Okay, Lex, over to you. Who do you think is more attractive, Chloe or Clark?"
Suddenly, to Clark, Lex seemed a little uncomfortable. Those normally unreadable eyes darted nervously from Chloe to him then back again, and Clark wasn't quite sure how to take that. He felt a stab of betrayal when Lex murmured: "Well, Chloe is a beautiful young woman . . ." realising with shock, as he watched Lex staring at Chloe's face, that he'd honestly expected Lex to choose him. His feelings of surprise turned to dismay when Lex continued: "She's also smart and funny, which make for an extremely attractive combination."
"We're going on looks here, not personality," Jimmy reminded him.
"I know that." Lex frowned. The expression on his face made Clark's heart sink further.
Lex was going to pick Chloe. It made perfect sense when he thought about it. Lex had always liked Chloe, and Lex was a guy, Chloe was a girl - a very pretty girl, who, right then, was glowing from all the compliments Lex had paid her. He could think of no reason why Lex would choose him over her, or why that bothered him so much. Lowering his eyes, he stared miserably at the floor.
"I would still have to say Clark is better looking."
Clark's eyes flew up. Lex had picked him? After all the amazing things he'd said about Chloe, Lex had still picked him? He didn't have much time to dwell on that, because the audience votes had come in, and now there were Chloe's feelings to worry about. 54% of the audience had decided he was better looking, and 46% had chosen Chloe.
"Chloe, I'm sorry. Are you okay with all this?" Clark asked her nervously.
"Oh, yeah, I'm fine," she answered. "Actually, that's pretty much what I expected him to say," indicating at Lex with a jerk of her head. Smiling, she gave Lex a playful nudge with her shoulder, which he returned.
"Thanks, Chloe," Clark said sincerely.
She gave him an amused look, before patting first him then Lex on the knee. "Guys, hope you enjoy the rest of the show!"
As Chloe left the stage to generous applause, June commented, "What a lovely girl. That's a good friend you've got there."
"Yeah, she's great," Clark agreed.
"Okay, now, let's see how well Lex does," she continued. "Can we have our next mystery guest, please!"
This time it was Pete who stepped out of the audience and onto the stage. Clark gave his friend a big grin as Pete squeezed himself onto the couch, in between him and Lex.
"Clark, it's your turn now to be the judge," Jimmy announced. "Lex or Pete, who do you think is better looking?"
Before Clark could offer any kind of judgement, Lex drawled, "Oh, I think I'm far more attractive. While he is undoubtedly a good looking young man, I would have to say my features are more compelling." Running a hand over his scalp, he turned to face the audience. "I mean, does Pete have this incredibly smooth head?"
The two co-hosts roared with laughter, and several people in the audience stood up and cheered. Lex regarded them all with a raised eyebrow and a tiny quirk of the lips. It was obvious to Clark that Lex had them in the palm of his hand. One by one, he watched them fall under Lex's spell, knowing from experience that a relaxed, charming Lex was difficult to resist.
"Lex, if you want my opinion, I think you are better looking," June agreed. "I'll admit, I didn't get it at first, but yeah, that look really works for you. Not many people could carry it off. The lack of hair actually brings out your eyes and your—"
"June, please!" Jimmy chastised her. "Will you stop flirting with the man!"
"Yeah, stop flirting with him," Pete repeated in an aggrieved tone. "And you, Clark," he said, hitting Clark on the arm. "Stop staring long enough to make a decision!"
For Clark, it was amazing seeing Lex's face on that huge wall screen. All the subtle little smirks and half-smiles he usually had to strain to catch were magnified for all to see. And, he could watch them openly now - no pretending or stolen glances when he thought Lex wasn't paying attention. He'd always thought Lex was really . . . well, handsome. But, having his face magnified like that, in direct comparison to another person, only seemed to highlight that fact.
"Come on, Clark," Pete urged. "Remember who has always been there for you. Remember who has been your friend since 3rd grade."
"Stop trying to influence him, Pete," Lex said, then he unleashed one of his devastating smiles.
There were sighs and gasps from the audience. For a moment, Clark forgot how to breathe. His face felt hot, his palms started sweating. "Um . . . Lex?"
Lex's head was tilted to one side, and Clark found himself pinned by that intense gaze. "No, uh, I mean—" Tearing his eyes away, he cleared his throat, and he clarified: "I'm choosing Lex."
Pete groaned theatrically.
"All right, let's see whether the audience agree with you," June said.
As the audience logged their votes, Clark gave Pete an apologetic shrug, hoping Pete would forgive him; he knew instinctively that, had he chosen otherwise, Lex would not. Leaning back, he took another opportunity to stare at Lex's face on the big screen. The relieved expression he found there confirmed his suspicions: Lex seemed to be taking this game just as seriously as he was.
When the results of the voting came up on screen, the scores were Lex - 84%: Pete - 16%. The audience let out a huge sigh of condolence for Pete. Jimmy turned to them, saying, "It is no use groaning like that; you're the ones who voted."
"Yeah, people, I'm crushed. Crushed!" Pete joked. "Lex, Clark, I'm out of here." He received a massive cheer as he made his way off-stage, and the studio seemed to buzz with the good humour he'd left behind.
However, for Clark, all of that good humour faded when the next mystery guest came on stage to sit between him and Lex.
"Well!" Jimmy exclaimed.
"Oh, my, my, my!" June drooled. The audience laughed, and several wolf-whistles could be heard cutting through the air. "Why don't you tell us about yourself, Victor," she said.
"I'm a model and an actor," the man replied. "I've been on the cover of several magazines, and I have a recurring slot on a detective TV show."
"Very impressive. And, what about our contestants? Do you know them?"
"No, but I would like to," Victor said in a suggestive tone of voice, not taking his eyes off Lex. "Actually, one of them is kind of hot," he added, eyes trailing up and down Lex's body. "Very, very hot."
Clark fought back a surge of something between anger and possessiveness, literally having to clench his fists to stop from pummelling the guy. Who the hell did he think he was, hitting on Lex like that? Lex just raised an eyebrow at the blatant come-on, doing nothing to stop it, which only made Clark angrier. As he watched Victor eyeing Lex, he wondered, with his powers, how far he could throw him. All the way to Alaska, he hoped.
"Victor, I think everyone can see you are a very handsome man." June winked meaningfully at him. "So, Clark," she continued. "Tell us what you think of Victor here."
"He's okay, I suppose," Clark muttered in a churlish tone, making the audience howl with laughter.
"Right, Clark, tell us how you really feel," June said, laughing along with them.
Bright red, Clark folded his arms across his chest, staring at her defiantly. Victor simply beamed with confidence, easing a little closer to Lex on the couch.
"June, Jimmy, I believe it's my turn to decide this round." Lex interceded, drawing all eyes to him. When he was sure he had everyone's attention, he said, "Obviously, Victor is very good looking. It's his job to be good looking; he wouldn't be a model if he weren't. When you compare him to Clark . . . " His eyes raked over Victor from head to toe. "There's absolutely no contest. Clark wins hands down."
Clark's sense of relief was so sharp that, for a moment, it made him dizzy. Lex had picked him, again, not that over blown excuse for a male model. Looking over Victor's shoulder, he gave his friend a huge smile. The audience, however, didn't seem to agree with Lex's choice. When the votes finally came in, the scores were 61% to Victor: 39% to Clark.
"Oh dear, Lex, you went with Clark on that one, so you don't win any money," Jimmy told them.
"I think we'll cope," Lex responded dryly.
Victor scowled at him, at both of them, before leaving the stage to loud applause. As he strode off stage, Clark gave his retreating back another dirty look. He really didn't understand what those people saw in him.
"Okay, everyone," Jimmy said after things had calmed down somewhat. "It's time for our final mystery guest. Whoever you are, please come on down."
The audience whistled appreciatively as Lana made her way onto the stage. Clark's heart started pounding furiously. Glancing over at Lex, he tried to make eye contact, but Lex didn't acknowledge him. He looked as though he were sculpted from ice, his face completely unreadable.
As Lana sat down next to him, Jimmy gave them all a probing look. "I'm sensing some tension here, guys. You all obviously know each other."
"Yeah, we do," Clark said quietly. He blushed when Lana gave him a pretty smile.
"We've known each other most of our lives. Clark lives next door to me. We're good friends," she added.
"And, what about Lex?" June asked.
"His dad and my aunt are friends. Though, mostly I know him through Clark."
"And, have you and Clark ever dated?"
"No, we haven't," Lana answered. "Bad timing, you know. For one reason or another, it has never seemed to work out for us."
"So, what you're saying, Lana, is that Clark has a chance with you?" Jimmy asked her.
Lana smiled shyly, seeming a little embarrassed to be put on the spot like that. "Um, yeah, I suppose he does."
Clark flushed even more. He looked nervously at Lex, who still refused to meet his eyes.
"Okay, Clark, it's time to decide. Who do you think is better looking? And remember this is to take your total up to $18,000. Forget about loyalty and friendship—"
"And his feelings," June added, pointing at Lex. "Come on, Clark, and be honest now. Which one will it be - Lana or Lex?"
And that was really what it was always about, Clark realised. Lex or Lana - somehow, it always seemed to come down to a choice between them. She really was incredibly pretty, he thought sadly. Quite beautiful, in fact, and he cared for her deeply. But, she didn't fascinate him the way Lex did.
As Clark stared at her face on screen, he admitted to himself that Lana didn't make him dream of touching her skin, or running his fingers over the curve of her eyebrow. He didn't look in her eyes and get lost, wondering what she was thinking. He didn't ache to get close to her, so close that he could feel her eyelashes brush his cheek, or the warmth of her breath on his neck. And, he didn't want to press his mouth to hers and kiss her, again and again, until all he could taste and think of was her.
Those were all things he wanted from Lex.
"I think Lex is better looking," he said quietly.
There were gasps of surprise from the audience. Beside him, Clark felt Lana flinch, but he kept his eyes firmly fixed on the show's co-hosts.
"You're sure?" Jimmy asked him. "You think Lex is better looking than Lana - that's your final choice?"
Clark nodded before letting his gaze shift to June. He didn't dare look at Lana, Lex or anyone else in the audience.
"Okay," June said sceptically. She looked from him to Jimmy, who only gave her a mild shrug. "Why don't we find out what the audience have to say."
Moments later, the scores flashed onto the screen. 72% had chosen Lana, 28% had gone with Lex.
"Well, Clark, it would seem that our studio audience don't agree with your choice."
"That's okay," Clark replied. Then, he blurted out: "I do and that's what matters." This time, though, he did gather enough courage to face the two people sitting with him on the couch. Lana's smile had dimmed a fraction, and Lex was staring at him open-mouthed.
Clark felt himself turn ten different shades of red. He barely registered the co-hosts' call for a commercial break or Lana's eventual exit. All he could ask himself was when had he fallen in love with Lex Luthor?
The music died down and the audience grew quiet, signalling the end of the commercial break.
"Lex and Clark, so far you've won $14,000," Jimmy said. "But, it's not over yet."
"No, it's not," June continued, smoothly taking her cue to jump in. "There's still one pair of faces left for you to judge. If you get it right and agree with our studio audience, you will double your money. If you get it wrong, you go home with nothing."
Both co-hosts paused and smiled for the cameras, and Clark felt the hair rise on the back of his neck.
"Okay, guys, here are the last two faces we want you to judge. Which one do you think is the most attractive!"
In unison, Jimmy and June turned to look at the large wall screen. Clark looked up as well, and when he saw the faces on-screen, he knew he'd been right to worry. On the left side of the split-screen was Lex's face, and on the right was his own.
Clark groaned. "Oh, no."
"Oh, yes," Jimmy said brightly. "It's you two! This is the point in the show where we ask which one of you is the better looking." There were gasps and groans of surprise from the audience. Jimmy looked over at them and he instructed: "Forget whether you like girls or boys. We need you to vote. Who is the better looking: Clark or Lex?"
Then, June took over, asking, "Guys, what do you think? Talk us through!"
Clark looked up at the wall screen, up at the images of himself and his best friend, side by side. "It's Lex." Glancing over at his best friend, who was now frowning, Clark continued: "If we were in a bar or a club or somewhere like that, people would be lining up to go for him." He knew he certainly would be. "Lex is better looking."
Again, Jimmy seemed stunned by his choice, and quite obviously so did June. "You're sure about this?" she asked. "Clark? Lex?"
Lex sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, saying nothing.
"Yes, June, I'm sure," Clark answered. "Really, it's Lex, it has to be him."
"Guys, the thing is, this is for $28,000." Jimmy cautioned them, pointing out: "If you get this wrong, you lose; you go home with nothing. Are you willing to take that risk?"
"Yes," Clark replied.
"No, we're not," Lex said, finally joining the discussion. "Clark, please, be reasonable. I won't think any less of you or of our friendship if we go with you. Actually, I happen to think you are better looking."
"You're wrong, Lex."
"No, I'm not. And the audience will agree with me."
"No, they won't," Clark argued.
"Yes, they will, Clark. I know this is a game but there's still a lot of money at stake. Stop being so stubborn. Make the right choice."
"It's not about the money, and you know it. $28,000 means nothing to you. Why are you pushing me on this?"
"Because, it could mean something for you! For once, you have a chance to do something good for yourself and you're about to throw it away. Clark, you're my closest friend and I'm not allowed to do anything for you! I have all this money, and I can't—" Lex stopped abruptly, looking shocked at his own loss of control. When he spoke again, his voice was much calmer. "Think about what your family could do with that kind of money. Think about the farm, your college tuition. Make the right choice."
"I am making the right choice," Clark said again, only to have Lex draw back from him in disbelief.
"Don't you want to win this?"
"Yes, I do, but not at your expense. Don't ask me to choose anyone over you, even me, Lex. I won't do it." Forgetting about the audience, the cameras, everything, Clark slid closer to him, staring deeply into shocked blue eyes. "God, don't you get it? You're amazing! Sometimes, I don't think you realise how incredible you are. Most days, I can't believe I got so lucky to have you as my friend . . .."
His words trailed off as Lex smiled at him, really smiled at him.
"Okay, guys," Jimmy said finally, when it became obvious he wasn't going to get any more from them. "Let's see how the audience voted."
The results flashed onto the screen: 50% had voted for Clark, and 50% for Lex. Everyone in the studio broke into spontaneous applause. People leapt to their feet, clapping and stamping their approval. The two co-hosts looked at each other with almost identical expressions of shock as the audience went wild. And, Clark barely noticed any of it. He grabbed Lex and pulled him into a hug, burying his face in Lex's throat.
"So, you think I'm amazing, huh?"
"Yeah, I do," Clark answered shyly.
"Good, I'm glad."
They stayed like that for a long time, arms wrapped around each other, long after the audience had calmed down. June's voice eventually pulled them apart. "You know, you two behave more like a couple than most of the other contestants we've had on this show. The arguing, the closeness, the support . . . it's quite lovely to watch."
Clark felt his face turn a vibrant shade of red. Quickly putting some space between them, he noticed even Lex looked a little embarrassed.
"Oh, I agree entirely, June," Jimmy said. "Most of our other contestants are quite ready to turn on each for money or a pretty face. You're one of the few couples who have stayed loyal throughout. You guys have been great. I hope you really enjoyed being on the show."
"Yeah, you were fantastic, and really, you do make a great couple. Think about it," June added with a wink. Then, she turned to the cameras, saying, "Congratulations to Clark and Lex, who walk away tonight with $28,000. This is the show that tests whether love is really blind. Join us after the break to find out how well our next couple fare."
The lights dimmed, the audience clapped and the studio music came on for the commercial break.
When the assistant director came to collect them, Clark got up from the couch in a daze. Now, that it was all over, the enormity of his actions truly began to dawn on him. He'd more or less told Lex he was crazy about him on TV. Incredible, he'd called him, amazing, too. The whole world probably knew how he felt.
He and Lex were led through the studio, back to the dressing room, where, they were told, Pete was waiting for them. Clark kept his head down all the way, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Once inside, the make-up artists descended on them, this time working quickly and efficiently to clean them up. In a matter of minutes, they finished their work and left the dressing room, leaving Clark, Lex and Pete to deal with a mountain of awkwardness.
"Remind me never to go on TV again," Lex said tiredly. He grabbed one of the large bottles of water sitting on the table, and he took a long drink from it.
Mesmerised, Clark watched that pale head tip back and the slow, steady working of throat muscles as Lex swallowed again and again. It took some time before he managed to drag his attention away. "Yeah, Pete, thanks a lot," he muttered. "That was interesting!"
"I'll say," Pete replied. "Go on, admit it, Clark, you had fun on the show."
"A little, maybe," Clark admitted grudgingly. "Though, I still don't get why you put us through that."
"You don't get—you mean you haven't figured out that part already?"
"Figured out what?"
Slowly, a look of disbelief spread across Pete's face. "For God's sake, Clark! Am I going to have to engineer a situation where you and Lex are trapped together in some freezing, deserted cabin, with no electricity, forcing you to share body heat?"
Lex choked on his drink.
"Pete—Jesus!" Flustered, a little annoyed, Clark decided to ignore that and concentrate on caring for his coughing friend. He took the bottle out of Lex's hand, placed it on the side table, and then gently patted Lex on the back. "Lex, are you okay now?" he asked, keeping his voice low and soothing.
But, Lex didn't seem to be listening to him. He was staring at Pete, one hand resting over his heart. "Pete, if you manage to do that, you have my word that you and your family will be set financially for life."
"Lex," Clark hissed.
"What, Clark?" Lex turned toward him, a warm smile lighting up his face. And Clark promptly forgot what he was supposed to be annoyed about.
"Pete," Lex said seriously, not taking his eyes off Clark. "Thank you. I owe you one."
"No, you don't," Pete replied. "I didn't do it for you, I did it for him. Just take good care of him, Okay?"
"I will, I promise."
Neither Clark nor Lex moved as Pete left the room, quietly closing the door behind him. Neither of them said a word, as they were alone for the first time in hours. The silence stretched comfortably.
Finally, Lex gave him a rueful little smirk. "This isn't quite where I imagined we would have our first kiss."
"You imagined—" Clark blinked and cocked his head to one side. "You mean you thought about us together, like that?"
"All the time," Lex said in a voice gone soft with longing.
And that was all Clark needed to hear. He leant down and gently brushed his mouth against Lex's, sucking gently first on the bottom lip then the top, letting his tongue dart out to trace the tiny scar that was so fascinating to him. The taste of Lex's skin exploded through his body, making his hands shake and his body go hot and heavy from wanting. His tongue was drawn again to that scar, moving slowly over it before dipping to the line between parted lips, pushing gently between them. He couldn't hold back his groan of pleasure when Lex opened for him just a little, just enough to let him get a deeper taste. And when, finally, Clark pulled back, Lex was staring at him heavy-eyed.
"W-was that okay?" he stammered, his breathing harsh and loud in the small room. He could feel himself blushing furiously. "I don't have much experience at this . . .."
He'd barely finished speaking before Lex's hands were cupping his face, fingers sliding back into his hair. Then Lex was pulling him back down, kissing him with tiny brushes of contact and gentle nibbles on his lips that left him aching for more, blindly following Lex's mouth with his own. He drew Lex close, wrapping both arms around his waist, and Lex shivered in his arms, tongue licking at him in a way that drew a moan from the back of his throat.
"Open your mouth," Lex ordered in a husky voice.
And, Clark didn't even think of resisting, letting out another groan as Lex's tongue pushed deep into his mouth and stroked his own. His knees went weak; he was shaking with desire, held open by Lex's hunger and the warm hands stroking his face, the back of his neck. A hard thigh pushed between his while the tongue in his mouth continued to taste him deeply, stroking slowly in and out, claiming him in stages until Clark was writhing and whimpering and sucking frantically on it.
"Clark—" Lex gasped, breaking off the kiss suddenly.
Clark bent forward again, needing to kiss Lex again, only to be stopped by Lex's hands pressing firmly on his chest. "Lex? Why—" His face creased with worry. "What is it, did I do something wrong?"
"No, Clark—God! It's just we can't—not here."
"Oh." Clark's eyes clouded with disappointment and he struggled to get his body under control. "Oh," he repeated blankly when his brain kicked in, remembering where they were.
"Yeah," Lex concurred. His fingers resumed their slow, soothing comb through Clark's hair. "Are you okay to stop now?"
Clark nodded and took a deep breath, but still couldn't bring himself to let go of Lex. He touched his forehead to Lex's, calming in the silence that fell between them, every muscle in his body unwinding. They remained quiet for such a long time that the sudden sound Lex's laughter startled him.
"What?" he whispered, gently rubbing his cheek against his boyfriend's. Lex was his boyfriend, Lex was his, he realized happily, almost giddy from the thought. He let his hands drift up and down the broad back, luxuriating in the permission he had now to touch this man.
"I really do owe Pete for this."
"Yeah," Clark sighed happily. "I think we both do."