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Corner of the World 45: A Merry Little Christmas

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"I need your credit card."

As soon as the words left Clark's mouth, he winced. Somewhere between leaving home and getting to Lex's room, he'd lost the rest of what he'd meant to say. The words that explained that normally he'd never ask for a favor like this, and that it wasn't that he thought he deserved to make demands for Lex's money, but this was really important and Clark would never ask if it wasn't. And, how, no, this wasn't a matter of life and death, and no one was in jail, but it was still, well, important and, because of that, Clark needed a loan of indeterminate amount.

That's what he'd meant to say. Along with something soft and fluffy and tactful. But he was so nervous, and taken so off guard by the sight of Lex getting ready for bed at nine at night, he blurted everything out without thinking.

The funny thing was, Lex didn't seem to notice Clark's blunder. When Clark made his demand--because, yes, he realized it had been a demand and not a request--Lex only nodded and continued to brush his teeth. Then, even though Clark wasn't spending the night, he pointed to Clark's toothbrush and looked at him hopefully.

"Uh ... no thanks," Clark said, rocking on his heels. "I'm good."

Lex puppy dog eyed him, but Clark held firm. He loved Lex more than life itself, but damned if he was going to indulge in Lex's tooth brushing fetish.

He tried diverting Lex's attention by asking, "Why are you going to bed so early? Are you feeling okay?"

Lex sighed, spit, and rinsed his mouth. "I'm fine. And I'm not going to bed, teeth and pajamas notwithstanding." He plucked at his pajama bottoms and pouted a little. "I tried to make brownies since Mabel is gone, and it didn't work." He twisted his face. "I can mix chemicals, but the skill required to mix ingredients and bring them to the perfect temperature eludes me."

"I thought you'd baked brownies before."

"From a box, yes. And those never turn out right, either. This was more complicated. And failed miserably." He sighed.

Clark couldn't help laughing. "If they were burned so badly, why did you eat them?"

"They weren't burned. I accidentally put baking soda instead of baking powder in them."

"Oops."

Lex nodded and made a face. "I gave the rest of them to Dad." He crossed the room and slipped his arms around Clark's waist. "Wanna fool around?" he asked, kissing Clark's neck.

Clark closed his arms around Lex and picked him up. "Of course." He lowered his mouth to Lex's neck and nipped.

He shuddered, arms tightening around Clark's body. "Clark," he whispered, teeth closing around his earlobe. He sucked gently, causing Clark's stomach to tighten and loosen in waves. When he released it and started kissing down Clark's neck, he whispered, "And a definite yes to the credit card."

Clark stiffened without thinking.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," Lex snapped. He wiggled out of Clark's arms and fell back to the floor. "We're in a relationship. You're my boyfriend. I love you. I am not, I repeat, not paying you to have sex with me! Christ!"

"I'm sorry," Clark said, feeling like an ass. Of course he wasn't being paid to have sex. And, had he not just asked Lex, he wouldn't have minded the insinuation; role playing was fun and kind of sexy. It was just that he hated having to borrow money, especially for something like this, and ...

Lex rolled his eyes. "Fine." He turned and started stalking away, but not before tossing back, "It's not like it isn't practically your money too."

Clark grabbed Lex by the waist of his pants and yanked him back.

He stumbled, fighting Clark. Overriding him by sheer strength, Clark picked him up and crossed the room to the bed. "What does that mean?" he asked, sitting down. He pulled Lex into his lap.

Lex stubbornly refused to speak. He continued to struggle in Clark's arms, mouth pressed into a tight frown.

"Baby, I'm sorry," Clark said softly. He kissed Lex's cheek. "Please, talk to me."

He could tell the moment Lex relented. His muscles relaxed, and his head fell against Clark's. "Clark, we're together," Lex finally said. He rested his head against Clark's shoulder, eyes gazing up at him. "We plan to be together for a long, long time. I know it can be hard to look past high school and even college sometimes, but .... Angel, what do you think that all means?"

Now he felt really stupid. Damn it, Lex. "That we love each other. That we build a life together. That we ... live together and watch TV and talk and .... I don't know," Clark finally admitted. "I guess, when I think of us, I don't think of the details like money. I just know it's us, together, growing older, sharing things. Like Mom and Dad." He couldn't meet Lex's eyes.

Lips pressed into his forehead. "God, sometimes I forget that, for all your maturity, you're so young." Lex kissed him again, and then sat on the bed next to Clark. "And, I have to admit, sometimes the finer details escape me. But I do think of them."

"Details like what?"

"Where we'll live. How we'll live. I'm afraid that you'll never be comfortable living in a penthouse, that you'll always feel like it's my house or that you're just a guest or something. So I wonder what type of house or apartment we'll buy. I wonder what you'll do for a living. You'll probably never make as much as me, so how will that make you feel? It will never matter to me, but it might to you. I wonder if we'll have children, or pets, and if we'll live in the city, and if we'll have someone to manage our expenses, or will you do it, or ... I wonder. At lot. But the one thing I know without a doubt is whatever I have is yours."

Wow. No, really, wow. That was a lot. All of it.

Clark blamed the overload for his response. "I don't want your money."

Lex arched an eyebrow.

"Oh, fuck, Lex, that's not what I meant. I swear. I mean, I ..."

"It's okay." Lex kissed him to shut him up. "I know what you meant. You don't have anything against my money, it's just not the reason you're with me. That, above all else, is why it's yours."

"But isn't that dangerous? What if something happens?"

"Like if we split up?"

Clark nodded.

"Clark, even if, for some strange reason, we did split, you wouldn't go after my money. You're not like that. You'd kill me with words and judgments, but you wouldn't take the money." He stroked Clark's cheek and added, "You're too much like your father."

Clark made a face, but Lex had a point. Ah, the trials of being known too well for anyone's own good. "But it's not my money," he had to point out. "I mean, I had nothing to do with earning it."

Lex snorted and climbed off Clark's lap. "And I did?" He grinned. "Okay, yes I did earn some of it. But most of it I inherited, which wasn't exactly a hard thing to do."

"It is if you're living with Lionel."

He laughed and rolled his eyes. Lex was in a really good mood tonight, which was nice. The sun always shone when Lex smiled, even when he was too pale and looking off. "Point," he said, chuckling. "However, when all is said and done, I'm a spoiled prince and you know it."

Clark crawled to Lex and forced him onto his back. "Spoiled prince, huh?" He dropped an open-mouthed kiss on Lex's lip, tonguing the scar a little sloppily.

"Mmmm," Lex groaned, raising his hips. "A spoiled prince who loves being pampered."

"As opposed to one who doesn't like being pampered." He bit Lex's neck.

"Right," Lex breathed, fingers gripping Clark's shirt. "Clark, how are you feeling about this? The money?"

He released Lex's skin. Hands on either side of Lex's body, Clark rested between his legs and gazed at him thoughtfully. "I don't know. It's a lot. I just don't know if I'll ever be able to think of it as mine, you know?"

"Well." Lex released his death hold and stroking Clark's back lightly with his fingertips, "I was hoping that maybe you'd come to think of it as ours," Lex said. He said it lightly, but everything in him screamed vulnerability.

Clark's heart softened, and he kissed Lex's chin. Theirs, of course. "I would be honored .... I want to share my life with you. I want to accept and give. And I guess it does bother me that it can't be equal."

Lex's face fell.

"But," Clark continued. "I guess when it comes down to it, it's not the financial portion of a relationship that has to be equal. It's how much each person is willing to put in, emotionally and ... just give of themselves. And I know that we'll always be equal in that way." He kissed Lex gently. "Tell me more about our life, Lex."

The happy glow was back. Lex writhed underneath Clark as if trying to get comfortable, a smile curling his lips. "What do you want to know?"

"Everything. Tell me what you've thought about."

Lex laid his head on Clark's shoulder and traced up and down his chest. "Well, at some point, of course, we'll move in together. I don't know if we'll wait until after you graduate college or if I'll move to Metropolis when you do. Although," he added, frowning, "I don't want you limiting your options to Metropolis University just because it's closest or closer to me. Or because of money." He pushed Clark, who obediently rolled onto his back so Lex could stretch out over him. "But, you'll go to college, get a degree, and graduate."

"You'll become a powerful CEO," Clark said, stroking Lex's neck. "The most powerful in the world. But, more than that, you'll be renowned for your innovative but ethical research and business practices. Maybe you'll even get your PhD in something. Clark kissed Lex's chin. "I'll become a writer."

"And we'll move away from here," Lex said, picking up the thread. "Away from Kansas, maybe even Metropolis. We'll move ..."

"To California."

Lex smiled. "The Bay area. San Francisco. Maybe Monterey. I'll center LexCorp in San Francisco. We'll have a house by the coast."

"I've never seen the ocean before." Clark licked his lower lip and shook his head. "I've never seen anything."

"You will. I'll show you. Maybe we'll go out to California this summer." Lex stroked Clark's chest. "For a week or two. We'll fly out, do tourist stuff. Find our home."

Clark laughed. "Yeah, that sounds good." He picked up Lex's hand and kissed it. "It's stupid, isn't it? To know we're going to be together, but have no concept of what that means. I mean, am I really just this kid who ... who thinks forever, but doesn't mean it? Or can't mean it?"

"No, not at all," Lex assured him. "Most teenagers think they're going to be with whomever they are with forever, but they don't know how to make a relationship work. Things get rough, and they break-up, at least eventually. Most aren't able to see anything through, and that's the way life goes. You do know how to make things work. The one thing we do know is how fucking hard it is to have a relationship that works." He looked at Clark and smiled, the light hitting his eyes so they seemed to glow. "And that's why it will endure. Not because we've got the bond, or because of Kiptin. Not because you're an alien, or I'm some sort of bald freak. But because we've been through hell and are still here, more in love with each passing moment."

There was nothing to say to that. Nothing Clark could say, not with his throat so tight and eyes stinging. He simply gathered Lex to him and kissed him.

The kiss went on forever, deepening and changing. Tongues stroked and tasted, hands soothed and undressed. Shoes were lost, and flesh was bitten. Sweat broke out over Lex's body as he strained against Clark, face twisted and bottom lip caught between his teeth. Clark's hips rose and fell, and he gasped in harsh grunts as his fingers held Lex just a little too tightly. Color blossomed over pale skin and Lex seemed to glow.

"Clark, I want ..." Lex gasped as his mind ^opened^. A rush of desire flooded Clark, desire so intense, all he could do was nod. Speech had been taken, and his body flamed hot.

It was physically painful to let Lex go, and Clark cried out as Lex tore his body away. But then he was back, and he was ^back^, and there was no preparation, nothing but the snap of the tube and then ... and then ....

Heaven. Fulfillment. Completeness, and they moved together in waves, becoming the ocean they'd talked about, the ocean Clark had never seen and ...

There were no words, no talking or teasing or reassurance of love because there were no words. Nothing that they could say that could mean anything more than the synchronicity of their movements, of their breathing, of the hearts as they beat in tandem as they strained ... almost there and ever closer to being so deep inside each other there was no way to tell ...

Exploding. Together. As one and nothing is exact but there was no separation as they flung themselves into the abyss.

Hours later, Lex stirred. "Are you sure you don't want to stay the night?" he asked. His lips pressed over Clark's heart, voice sleepily sated.

"What time is it?"

"One-thirty."

Clark ran his hand up Lex's back and held him gently. "No point in going home now." He yawned. "I'll stay until morning, and then go home before going to Metropolis."

"Do you still need my credit card?" Fingers explored Clark's body.

"If it's okay."

"Of course it's okay. What's it for?"

Clark shifted, body awakening in response to the stimulus. "Christmas present. An important one that I don't have the money for right now." He held his breath. The gift was for Lex, and it was the most important gift he could think to buy. And he had to be the one to buy it, even if it was with Lex's money.

Lex was silent as he stroked Clark's thigh; his fingers brushed against Clark's cock, which stirred. "You know the saying, 'it's the thought that counts'?"

"Yeah."

He lifted his head. "It's true." Lex crawled up and kissed Clark. "Don't worry about the money. Just concentrate on the thought."


In the end, it was actually Damien's credit/debit card Clark borrowed, and even then, it was a convoluted Lex Luthor thing that Clark didn't quite follow. It wasn't Damien's money, it was Lex, only the account was under Damien's name for protection.

"Dad has no problems with freezing my access to the accounts he set up for me, and fucking with the banks where I have my own money. But he won't do anything to Damien's money. So, I put some aside just in case Dad comes after me for some reason."

That "little something" was close to two million dollars thanks to a mysterious income that made Lex's emotions become pure shame, and lots of heavy investing. Lex could access the account, of course, but it was legally Damien Walter's account. And Damien, at some point in the past year, had obtained a card with Clark's name, "just in case."

Clark was going to start calling the whole account, "Just in Case."

He left Smallville early, and drove out to Metropolis. Any other day, he would have simply run, but he was bringing Aaron home with him, so he had to endure the three hour drive. Unlike Lex's cars, the truck wasn't capable of going at supersonic speeds, so it took the entire three hours.

Before going to the jewelry shop, Clark stopped off at the penthouse. There was no way anyone was going to take him seriously if he went dressed in jeans and a flannel, so he required a serious costume change.

He dressed carefully in his black sweater and a pair of gray slacks. His hair was gelled, and he even wore a black wool pea coat in deference to the fact it was snowing. Then, feeling as if he'd just seen a stranger in the mirror, he left the penthouse and drove to the jewelry store.

"Can I help you?" a coolly aloof voice asked Clark.

He turned from the display case that held enough jewelry to pay for the entire herd on the farm to find a woman staring at him with an air of disapproval.

Clark fought the urge to run his hand through his hair and straighten his clothes. He looked fine. He knew he looked fine. Lex had bought the clothes for him, and Clark knew he looked good.

"Um, hi. I'm looking for a present for a friend of mine."

"I see. Do you have anything particular in mind?" She looked over his clothing carefully, then his face. Her icy demeanor melted just a bit.

Clark nodded and tugged at his coat. "Uh, yeah. I'd like a box."

"A box."

"Yeah, like ... to hold something in. Like a necklace and stuff." God, he felt stupid. He should have done this on the internet. "Can I see your selection?" Shit. He should have said, "May I see your selection."

"Follow me." The lady--Sandi, according to her nametag--turned on her heel and sort of glided to the back of the store. She wasn't as smooth or polished as Lex, but it was still nice to watch. She went behind the glass counter containing about ten boxes. "We have more back here," she said, waving her hand at an impressive oak armoire behind her. She pulled a key from her pocket and unlocked the armoire. "Anything catch your eye?"

Feeling overwhelmed, Clark looked at the selections. There were all kinds of boxes: long narrow ones, square, rectangles, round, silver, gold, black, blue, jeweled, white, plain, fancy, extravagant, gaudy, understated, horrifying, and pretty.

"Uh ... wow."

Sandi smiled. "Here. This one is Egyptian silver, with woven pattern on the top. It's lined with velvet, and fastens with a clasp." She opened the box and let Clark look inside.

He studied the black velvet lining and slowly shook his head. It was a nice box, but too understated. Not that Lex was flamboyant or anything, but the box just didn't fit.

"Very well." She set it aside. "What about this one?" She placed a small, wooden box with an intricate lid.

"That's too small. I need one that's about this big." He was planning on keeping the collar fastened in the box, just because it would look better than all stretched out. He indicated a circumference that was just a little wider than the collar. "It can be bigger."

"I see." Sandi put away the little box and pulled out another one made of wood. "This one is oak and walnut. As you can see, the carvings on top make it possible to peer inside. The inside is lined with burgundy velvet, and one of the interior walls is lined with a mirror." She took the lid off and showed the inside to Clark. "This one is a music box. You can customize it if you like by choosing a song from our catalogue. It adds to the price, but many people feel it's worth it." Sandi turned the box over and pushed a switch. When she opened it again, "Over the Rainbow," began to play softly.

Clark took the box from her and ran his fingers along the sides. It really was pretty, and it was something he'd want for Mom or even Lana, but it wasn't right for Lex. Too ... old fashion. And not romantic. Not for them.

But it was the best so far, so Clark said, "Um, this is a possibility. But let me look at some more."

Sandi kept bringing Clark boxes to look at, and Clark kept rejecting them. He wasn't trying to be picky or obstinate, but nothing was right. This gift, this box, was important to him. It had to be perfect.

"You know," Sandi said after about twenty boxes, "it might help if you tell me what this is for. I'm generally good at meeting my customers' needs."

Clark blushed and looked down at a small, white mother-of-pearl box with a blue-green satin lining. This one was really close, and the white would be a good contrast with the black collar. But there was just something missing.

"It's for my, uh ..."

"Girlfriend?" Sandi helpfully supplied, smiling at him with that grown-up air of amusement.

"Yeah," Clark conceded, not wanting to get into it even far enough to say boyfriend. Much less, "my boyfriend's collar."

Sandi nodded and looked at the selection. "Have you already bought the necklace?"

"It's something she's had for awhile, but she's never had a special place to store it, you know?"

"Can you describe her?"

Crap! "Uh, a little shorter than me. Uh, really ... introspective. A genius. Beautiful."

"What color is her hair?"

"Red. And really piercing blue eyes with fantastic eyebrows that are, like, gold and ginger. And h ... she's got pale, smooth skin that's really touchable and perfect.

"How long have you two been together?" she asked, smile growing.

"A little over a year. That's why finding the right box is so important. I really love this person, and I want to get a gift that shows that."

Sandi nodded and pulled away from the counter. "So what you need is something fit for a queen."

"Exactly," he replied, because it was true. Lex was his queen.

"Let me check the back; I think I may have something." She walked away and disappeared through a door.

Clark touched a couple of the boxes he put as a "maybe" and sighed. This was a lot harder than he'd thought it was going to be. He'd already been here for about forty-five minutes, and hadn't found it yet.

He wandered through the store, looking at the various displays. The jewelry was really pretty, but Clark couldn't imagine buying any of it for anyone he knew. It was all so ... ostentatious. And a little pretentious. Nothing but the simplest things in the store would suit anyone he knew.

Or, maybe it was just that he couldn't find that right thing. Lex would be able to find the right earrings or bracelets or necklaces for Mom, Lana, and Chloe. Clark would inevitably pick out something that clashed with their own beauty.

Clark went back up to the front of the store. Off to the left of the door was a giant display case. However, it was strangely empty. There were only two necklaces, a bracelet, and two silver rings nestled together in a box.

"These are our purchased items that haven't been shipped or picked up yet," Sandi said, returning to his side.

"Why haven't they been shipped?" Clark asked. The rings were beautiful. Pure silver, there was some sort of etching on it. Like lacework, only not as intricate.

"The bracelets are due to be picked up tomorrow, and the rings will be shipped out today. We had to keep the rings for engraving."

Clark nodded absently as he looked closer at the rings. "What did you engrave?"

"To tell you the truth, I don't remember what it says. It's some language I don't know; probably Gaelic,'" Sandi said.

"Gaelic?"

"Yes. The rings are Celtic wishbone rings, so that's why I think the inscription is Gaelic. They stand for balance, both in the world, and in a relationship." Sandi looked at him. "I think I have what you're looking for." She set a small, round box on the case. "How's this?" she asked as she opened the box.

The strains of a half familiar song started. It was pretty, and teased at his memory, making him think of his parents, smiling at each other on summer nights when it was so hot they had to keep the lights off and the fans blowing and the three of them sat on the floor, sucking on ice and listening to records.

"What's the song?" he asked, closing the lid to see the top. It was beautiful; Clark's breath caught in his throat as he gazed at it.

"At Last," Sandi answered. "This is a Victorian French collar box. It's an antique," she added as if Clark were a special child who didn't know when the Victorian era was.

"It's beautiful." Clark felt the stirring of excitement in his stomach. This was it. This was what he'd been waiting for. It was perfect. Just the right size, and shape. The color suited Lex: black and indigo. The inside lining was snowy white, which would look really good contrasted with the collar. It screamed Lex.

It was perfect. "I'll take it."

"Well, let's discuss price, first. Perhaps we should have done this first, but .... This is five hundred and thirty-five dollars."

Clark nodded and pulled out his wallet. "That's fine. You take credit cards, right?"

To Clark's relief, they took the card without any trouble. He'd half expected it to be rejected and to have to call Damien or Lex, and the last thing he wanted to do was bring Lex's attention to what he was doing. Not that Lex didn't already know he was making a big purchase, but he didn't need to know where.

"Thank you for your help," Clark said after Sandi gift wrapped the package.

"You're very welcome. And, remember, if you need to have the song changed, or make another purchase, please, come again. We appreciate your service."

He smiled at her and left the store. He only had about another half hour before he was supposed to meet Aaron, and he needed to hurry. This was his real Christmas present to Lex, but he needed something to give him on Christmas day when they opened presents with his parents.

Clark went to the comic book store Lex had told him about. Wonder Comics had just released a new series of Warrior Angel action figures, and Clark knew that Lex hadn't ordered them yet. They were six bucks each, so Clark had decided to get all three dolls when, to his amusement, he saw that although Joel Presage, aka the Prophet, had just been made Warrior Angel's sidekick (something he'd learned while Lex was enthusiastically chattering on about the new development while they were taking a bath the other night) Prophet already had not just one, but two action figures. Which meant he had to get four dolls: the new Warrior Angel with some sort of new tool; Devilicus, whose horned cowl was detachable so you could see the surprisingly handsome face; and the Prophet in both his dark unitard and in street clothes.

It was probably bad to think Joel was really sexy, considering he was a hunk of plastic, but he was. Clark turned the box over in his hands and thought about actually reading his story arc.

Done with his shopping, Clark went back to the penthouse to change his clothes. He'd just made it to the coffee house where he was supposed to meet Aaron, when he heard his name being called.

"Clark!"

He turned, one hand on the door, ready to go inside. "Aaron!"

Aaron waved to Clark enthusiastically, then pulled a duffle bag from the car he'd climbed out of. "I'll see you next week!" he said as he slammed the door.

The person inside said something back, then drove away.

Aaron turned back to him and dropped the duffle on the ground. "Hey, man, how're you doing?"

"I'm good," he replied, accepting the hug Aaron drew him into.

"You look fantastic!" Still keeping his arms on Clark's shoulders, Aaron drew back and looked up and down. "Really, really good. You wear flannel well."

"Thanks. You, uh, look .... Tired." He hated to be blunt, but it was true. Aaron's hair was dyed black with green tips, and it contrasted poorly with his pale, drawn face.

Aaron laughed easily and rubbed his eyes. "I am. I've been working double to save up, plus putting in extra hours at the Center, so ..." He trailed off and smiled. "I could really use a vacation."

Clark smiled back at him and pulled away. "Are you ready to go, or did you want to get coffee first?"

"Naw, let's hit the road. I'm anxious to see this little town of yours."

"All right. My truck's across the street."

Aaron picked up his duffle again and grinned. "Lead the way and I shall follow."


The LexCorp Christmas party was falling apart, and there was nothing Lex could do to stop it. One of the men decorating the hall for the LexCorp Christmas party had fallen and broken his leg. There was a problem with the caterers. It was snowing, and it didn't look like it was going to stop any time soon.

And Lex had a headache. Not a stress headache. If it was a stress headache, he wouldn't be so nervous. But it wasn't. It was a sick headache. And he had a sore throat and runny nose to go with it.

So far, no one else knew. Damien was at home, resting for the party. He'd just graduated to his new wheelchair and, although his upper body strength was well maintained, he wasn't in good enough shape to wheel himself around for extended periods of time. He could only sit for so long until his hip started hurting. Despite that, he was planning on going to the party for at as long as he could last, only returning home when the pain became too much to bear.

They were prepared for Damien's early exit, though. Since Anne was going to the party with Lex, they'd hired another nurse to look after Damien. However, since Lex felt like crap, it looked almost as if they weren't going to need the other nurse; Lex might use Damien's early exit as a chance to cut out early, too.

But he couldn't. He had to stay at the party. After all, he was the boss, and he needed to be there to show support for his company.

Lex coughed hard and shook his head. He was still filling out paperwork for the worker who'd fallen. It was completely the man's fault, as he had been standing on the top of his ladder to cover up some God awful Egyptian thing when he'd fallen. The ladder still had the sticker warning against standing on top, but he'd ignored it and taken the risk. Not that culpability mattered; Lex knew a lawsuit was on the horizon.

"Lex?"

Lex rose and went to the door of the office. "I'm up here, Clark!" he called, trying to ignore how hoarse his voice sounded.

Clark, however, was obviously not going to ignore it if his expression was any indication. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked.

"I'm fine." Which would have sounded more convincing without the fit of coughing at the end, but what could he do?

"Crap." Clark pushed Lex into the office and put his hand on his forehead. "Do you have a fever? Are you congested? How long have you been coughing? Does Damien know? Have you seen Dr. Sutton? Have ..."

Lex kissed Clark to make him shut up, and leaned into the warm hand on his forehead. Not that he was cold or anything, just a little chilly. Shivery, really, and Clark, as always, was so warm and Lex wanted nothing more than to curl up underneath the covers with him and snuggle for a few hours. "I'm fine," he whispered hoarsely against Clark's lips. "It's just a little cough."

"You haven't been sick since Desiree, and that was because she messed with your brain. You know how dangerous it is for you to get sick. I really think you should call Dr. Sutton."

"I don't have time." Lex kissed his chin. "The party starts in three hours, and I have to be ready." He kissed Clark's bottom lip.

Clark sighed and kissed him back. "I'm worried. You haven't been sick in so long, and it's just .... I guess I thought we wouldn't have to go through this again. You've been so healthy." He pressed a kiss into Lex's forehead. "It's two days until Christmas, Lex. I don't want you to miss it because you pushed too hard."

"What am I supposed to do, Clark? I've put too much into this party." Lex sighed and rested his head on Clark's shoulder. "I have to be here."

"I know. I know, but it scares me, you know?" He kissed Lex's forehead and pulled away. "At least tell me that you've called Dr. Sutton so you can see her tomorrow."

Lex looked away.

"Lex ..."

"I've been busy, Clark," he said with an edge to his tone. "I'll call her when I get the chance, but, right now, I'm working." He turned and walked to his desk. "There was an injury here, and the food isn't right, and the Talon still isn't done, and they've forecasted snow for tonight, and I'm sick and I just ... can't. Do this." Feeling wiped out, Lex dropped into the chair. His head landed with a loud thunk on the desk, and he winced but, really? His head was already pounding so it didn't matter.

There was silence in the room except for Lex's raspy breathing. He hated being sick, and he hated how upset and worried people were when he got sick. In anyone else, a cold wouldn't cause concern, but it was a crisis with Lex. He understood why, got the concern, but he couldn't help feeling annoyed by it.

Clark's hands landed on his shoulders and started massaging gently. "When did you last eat?" he asked.

Lex thought about it for a moment, feeling the knots in his muscle relax under Clark's hands. "Some time this morning."

"If I go get you food, will you take a break and eat it?"

"What about your friend? Aaron?"

"Aaron crashed when we got home. He was barley lucid for the ride, and, like, as soon as we'd had lunch, he fell asleep. So I'm free for a few hours." His lips pressed into the nape of Lex's neck. "You need to eat."

He groaned when Clark hit a tender stop, then relaxed. "I'll eat."

Clark kissed Lex again then squeezed both shoulders. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Take a nap."

"Yeah." Lex waited until he heard the door open and close again. Once he knew he was alone, he sighed and added, "Like that's going to happen." Then, like the good boy he was, he squeezed his eyes tighter and tried to do as Clark had asked.


Mr. Adams had been running his sandwich shop for almost fifty years, and he was good at his job. As much as Clark hated to admit it, he actually though Mr. Adams's sandwiches were better than even Mabel's. He always sliced the meat right, his wife baked fresh bread in the store each day, and his vegetables were always fresh. And organic, since he bought from the Kents.

In middle school, before Clark and his friends started hanging out at the Beanery, they'd always come here. Mr. Adams served the best fruit smoothies in the world (according to Chloe), and since he'd let them have smoothies for washing tables and refilling the salt and pepper shakers, it had been their chosen place of residence while they did homework and talked about stuff.

He hadn't been in the sandwich shop for awhile now, but that didn't stop Mr. Adams, who was making a sandwich for someone, from looking up at him with a big smile and saying, "Clark! Hello. Long time no see."

"Hi, Mr. Adams. How are you?" he asked, wiping his feet off on the mat at the front of the store. Mrs. Adams treated the shop like her house, and she used to yell at them if they didn't wipe their feet off. Clark was trained now, and did it without thinking.

"I'm doing well. I'll help you just as soon as I finish up Dr. Bryce's order."

Clark's stomach went cold as he approached the counter. So cold, in fact, he had to stumble back a few steps. His skin hurt.

Dr. Bryce turned and smiled at him. "Hi." Her eyes narrowed slightly, as if she was trying to place him. "We've met, haven't we?" Then she got it. "You're Lex's friend."

"Yeah," Clark said, face hot. "I'm, uh, the one who, uh, yelled at you that night."

"Right, I remember." Her smile grew, and she seemed amused. "So, how are you doing?"

He was glad she didn't sound either concerned or sympathetic. And she wasn't being condescending. Maybe she wasn't all that bad.

Why was he so queasy? "Better," he finally answered, backing away slowly. "Thanks."

"Of course." She started walking towards him. "How is Lex? I haven't seen him in a few days. I, uh, tried calling him, but I kept getting his voice mail. I didn't leave a message."

Clark swallowed and tried not to flinch. He felt sick, and wasn't sure why. He didn't dislike Helen this much. "Uh, he's, uh, not feeling well today. And he's all stressed because of the Christmas party tonight."

A strange look crossed over her face, and Helen nodded. "Right, I'd heard about the party. It's being held in the Talon, right?"

"Yeah."

She looked away a moment and licked her bottom lip. "Is he taking a date?"

Oh, for God's sake. "Yeah." He swallowed hard, wondering if he was going to throw up. It felt like his stomach was trying to push through his skin. In fact, it felt like all his internal organs were trying to get out of his body somehow. A thousand needles were pricking at his skin, and he was too hot and too cold at the same time.

"I see." Helen moved away again, back to the counter. "Well, tell him I hope he feels better."

Clark sat down at a table against the wall and nodded weakly. "I will."

She hesitated, then cocked her head. "Are you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine," he said breathlessly, flashing her a smile.

"Dr. Bryce?" Mr. Thompson said.

She turned back and paid for her sandwich and drink. "Bye, Clark," she said as she walked past, coinciding with a new round of nausea. "Merry Christmas."

"You, too."

The moment Helen left, Clark felt better. Like, really better. His skin stopped hurting, the pain disappeared, nausea went away. So, either Clark just really hated Helen, or she was carrying meteor rocks around. And, at this point, either possibility was disturbing.

"So, Clark, how have you been lately?"

"Good, thank you."

"Keeping up in school?"

Clark smiled. "Straight A's. And I'm working on the newspaper with Chloe."

Mr. Adams nodded. "I've read a few of your articles. And I saw that literary magazine you put together; that was fantastic work."

He blushed and looked down at his feet. "Thanks."

"So, what can I get you?"

"Large chicken soup and a toasted water bagel with butter. And a Sprite."

He looked concerned as he asked, "Getting sick?"

"Naw, this is for a friend. I'm feeling fine."

"I'm glad. Sorry for your friend, though. Let me get that order." He turned and started getting the food.

The door chimed again as someone came in. Clark glanced behind him, half afraid that Helen had come back. Luckily, it wasn't her.

"Clark," Mr. Townsend said, pulling off his gloves. "Hi. I thought you were going to Metropolis today."

He nodded, relieved. "I did. Earlier. Now I'm back," he concluded awkwardly, immediately feeling stupid. Of course he was back. Duh.

Mr. Townsend just smiled and came to stand next to him. "Where's your friend?"

"Aaron's at home. He's been working, like, double shifts and stuff lately to save up money. He crashed on the ride to Smallville, and then again after we ate lunch. Mom said to just let him sleep right now, so I came to see how Lex is holding up."

"And how is Lex holding up?"

Clark shook his head and sighed. "He isn't. He's sick, which is bad. Last year, he almost had to go to the hospital when he got sick, and the year before, he did wind up in the hospital and almost died, so ..." He sighed again. "Anyway, he's still planning for the Christmas party, so I'm getting him dinner."

"I wouldn't worry too much, Clark. His date for the party is a nurse, right?"

"Yeah."

"Then she'll keep an eye on him. Don't worry." Mr. Townsend pat his shoulder. "I was wondering if you were free to grab a cup of coffee with me tomorrow."

"Uh, I don't know. I haven't asked Aaron what he wants to do."

Mr. Townsend nodded. "I understand if you're not free, but I was hoping we could have a chance to talk."

"Why? Did Grant tell you that you needed to talk to me or something?" Clark asked suspiciously. He hated it when people took the decision to talk to someone about his problems out of his hands.

"No," he said slowly, eyeing Clark. "I wanted to give you your Christmas present, and I realized we hadn't really talked in a few weeks. That's all. Why?" He paused a moment, then asked, "Is there something we should we be talking about something?"

Clark closed his eyes and wished that, just once, his mouth would check in with his brain before spouting off. "No. No, not .... It's just that Grant got worried about something, and .... Well, he thought I should .... But I'm good, really, and I don't ...."

"Clark." Mr. Townsend put his hand on Clark's shoulder. "Talk to Aaron, see if it'd be okay for you to leave him for an hour or so tomorrow. Call me, and we'll get together. If you want to talk about anything that's bothering you, we can talk. If not, at least I can give you your present, okay?"

"Yeah, okay. I'll do that."

Mr. Townsend smiled. "Good."

"Here you go, Clark." Mr. Adams set Clark's food on the counter. "That will be five fifty."

"Thank you, sir." Clark said as he paid.

"You're quite welcome, Clark. And don't stay away so long next time; I'm always looking for someone to wash the tables," he said with a wink.

Clark returned the smile. "I'll keep that in mind, thanks. Talk to you later, Mr. Townsend."

"Bye, Clark."

Clark crossed the street and went back into the Talon. It was weird to see it closed, but even weirder to see it all ... Christmas-y. Lex had gone all out, which was about as surprising as Lana wearing pink, but, despite not being surprised, Clark was still awed.

Everything Egyptian was gone, covered by gauzy, flowing drapes that had been hung from every wall and pillar. White twinkle lights shone, twined around long strips of greenery that wreathed the top of each curtain rod. A huge Christmas tree stood in the corner by the stairs, presents piled beneath it. The chairs and tables had been cleared, with only about fifteen remaining around the edges of the room. Caterers were setting up behind the counter, and Clark knew there were also some in the movie theater, which had been similarly cleared. The DJ was setting up in the control booth, and already music floated lightly in the room from hidden speakers.

Clark jogged up the stairs to find Lex crashed on the desk. He was snoring softly and drooling.

"Lex," Clark whispered. He set Lex's food on the table and kissed him gently. "Baby, wake up."

Lex groaned and opened his eyes. "What?" His voice was practically gone.

"It's four-thirty, Lex. You need to go home and start getting ready for the party."

He moaned and closed his eyes again. "I feel like crap."

"I know." He kissed Lex again, and then stood. "I'll drive you home so you can eat your soup."

Lex nodded and forced himself to his feet. He wavered a little as he pulled his keys out and handed them to Clark. Then, he leaned into Clark, wrapping his arms around Clark's waist. "You're too good to me."

Clark shook his head and kissed Lex gently. "Trust me, babe. Nothing is too good for you."

He only laughed and shook his head. Resting his forehead against Clark's chin, he whispered, "Take me home?"

"Yeah. Let's go."


By seven, Aaron was awake, hungry, and in possession of red hair again. He also was full of nervous energy and bouncing off the walls. Clark could tell he was getting on Dad's nerves, and, truth be told, Clark almost wanted to strangle Aaron, too. He wouldn't shut up, he was following Clark everywhere, and, in general, was just under foot.

"Can we go out?" Aaron finally asked.

"We don't have much nightlife around here, Aaron," Clark replied doubtfully, but Aaron kept begging.

Finally, Clark called Chloe and they decided to meet at the Sweet Shop on Pine. It was mostly an ice cream place, but they served other desserts too. Clark, however, needed ice cream.

Aaron's eyes popped when they entered the shop. "Oh, wow." He looked around the store in wonder, a lopsided smile on his face. "I didn't know places like this really existed."

Clark looked around the shop. It was like something out of a movie in some ways, and the owners worked really hard to keep it so. The shop was brightly lit with black and white tile on the floors, little round tables scattered around, a counter with red vinyl-topped stools that swiveled. There was a jukebox in the corner, and you always got a free ice cream on your birthday.

"God, I remember how when I first moved to Smallville, I always wanted to hang out here," Chloe said, sliding her arm around Clark's waist. "I was always so embarrassed about it. It's such a cliche. But, at the same time, it appealed to that little girl movie love thing."

"So why didn't you just hang out here?" Aaron asked as he yanked a chair out from a nearby table. He shrugged out of his coat and threw it on the back before turning it around backwards and lowering himself into it.

Clark and Chloe exchanged glances as they sat down. "It was usually overrun by the underclassmen crowd," Chloe explained. "Freshmen and sophomores had it staked out as theirs. You practically had to be invited in, or else they'd make your life miserable. All very stupid school politics stuff. By the time we were in high school, the social scene had moved to the coffee houses."

"I see." Aaron looked around the shop. The place was pretty empty, with only a couple families and a group of kids around their age inside. But, then, that was expected. It was about three degrees outside and snow was hanging heavily in the air. Plus, there were a lot of people at the LexCorp party.

The group in the corner caught Clark's eyes, simply because it was a group he'd never seen hanging together before. There was Brian Arias, former star goalie for the school soccer team and now college freshman at Metropolis U.; Mike Jewitt, a senior who played saxophone in the band; Christopher Deal, a senior who was better at finding places to hide at school than Clark (Clark had stumbled across him a few times while looking for a quiet spot); and Doug Roland, who was a junior on the football team.

"Can I get you anything?" the waitress asked. She sounded bored.

"I'll have a brownie sundae," Chloe said.

"Christmas special," Clark ordered.

Aaron looked at him. "Christmas special?"

"Peppermint ice cream, Christmas cookies, red and green sugar sprinkles, hot fudge, whipped cream, and candy canes."

"Yeah, I'll have the same," Aaron said.

Kathy didn't say anything as she walked away.

"So, this is Smallville, huh?"

Clark shrugged. "On a winter night when there's nothing else to do, yeah. Although I thought it'd be a little more crowded."

Chloe shook her head and trailed her fingers up and down Clark's arm. "I heard that it's the annual sneak into the Wild Coyote night. Because the college kids come back with the fake IDs and the owner really is pretty lax, so ..."

"Wild Coyote?" Aaron asked.

"It's a bar. It sucks, and you don't want to go," Clark said.

Aaron poked him. "You've been?"

"Once, yeah. I was going through a rebellious thing."

"For about three days," Chloe added. "And then he got over it. But, yeah, from what I've heard, it's the place to be if you don't have any place to be."

"Okay, I'll take your word for it. So, instead you do the Friends thing and hang out at the coffee place?"

"The Talon, yeah."

"Which is owned by your girlfriend." Aaron pointed at Chloe.

"Ex."

He blinked. "But I thought .... Isn't that one of the reasons you and Sydney broke up? Because you were getting back together with her?"

"Chloe and Lana are always getting back together," Clark said. "And then, somehow, they don't. In a dramatic, teary way. Anyway, Chloe's dating a guy named Chad right now."

"Oh, a guy," he said. "And what's he like?"

Chloe blushed. "Uh, cute. Sweet. Gothic. He's got these beautiful eyes, and perfect smile." Chloe looked at Clark and wrinkled her nose. "He's also smart and caring. I like him a lot."

"Clark?" Aaron looked at him. "Is he all that she says, or is he really a jerk underneath? Because it's your job to protect her from these things."

"Chad really is nice," Clark said, flushing slightly. "He was one of my writers for the literary magazine, and he was really easy to work with."

Aaron nodded. "So, where is he?"

"He's with family in Grandville for Christmas. He should be back in a few days."

Aaron nodded and turned to Clark. "And what about you? Any surprises I should know about?"

Clark swallowed. He was going to tell Aaron about Lex. About who he was dating, and what they meant to each other. Lex wasn't exactly happy about it, and neither were his parents, but he had to. Aaron was spending Christmas with them, and Clark didn't want to have to hide his love for Lex on Christmas morning.

"No," Clark said.

"Well," Chloe said, sitting back as Kathy set their orders on the table in front of them. "That's not exactly true. You are dating Lana right now."

"What?" Aaron looked at Clark in disbelief.

His flush deepened. "Pretending," he said softly. Clark picked up his spoon and stuck it into the whipped cream. "I'm being harassed at school. Chad and me both. And there have been reporters dogging me, trying to out me, so, one day, Lana came over and kissed me. To fool the reporter. So, now we're pretending to date."

"That sucks," he said, sucking on one of his candy canes.

Clark shrugged. "It's okay. I mean, as long as it's not forever, and Lana gets that we're not really going out, I think it's going to be okay. I mean, this has to blow over soon, right?"

"Right," Aaron replied, but he wasn't looking at Clark. "So, is this Chad guy gay?"

"No," Chloe answered. "He's ... well, he says he's bi-curious. But he's never been with a guy."

Aaron looked back at Clark. "What about you? Are you really gay?" His eyes dropped to Clark and Chloe's hands, which were almost entwined on the table top.

Now, Clark felt a if his cheeks were on fire. He pulled his hand away and said, "Yeah, I am. Got the boyfriend and everything to prove it." Boyfriend who was sick, which meant Clark was upset, and Chloe, of course, had picked up on that. Hence the petting.

"Do I get to meet the boyfriend?" Aaron sounded interested.

"Yeah," Clark mumbled around a large spoonful of ice cream. He slurped it, and added, "He's coming over for Christmas."

"Good. Then I get to see my competition." He rose from his seat and stretched languidly. "I'm going to hit the bathroom."

When he was gone, Chloe leaned forward and asked softly, "You're really okay with letting him know about you and Lex?"

"I guess I have to be. I invited him over because he needed a place to stay. I couldn't let him keep staying in homeless shelters. But, when I invited him, I didn't think about Lex. I mean, Lex has to come over for Christmas. He did last year, he's going to this year. He's family. So, Aaron is going to have to meet him."

"I understand that, but .... And please, understand that I think Aaron's a great guy. I'm really happy that you're friends with him. But, when all is said and done, you don't know him all that well." Chloe's necklace fell into the whipped cream of her sundae.

Clark pulled it out and wiped it onto his thumb to clean it. "So?"

"So, you've been having problems with the press lately. What if Aaron, trying to drum up some extra cash, tries to sell what he knows to the press?"

"He won't."

"You don't know that."

Clark looked at her. "Yes, I do. He wouldn't do anything like that."

Chloe sighed and sat back. "Clark, you are so trusting. And I think it's adorable, and I think it's great, especially since .... You know."

To Chloe, everything stemmed back to Lionel. "Yeah." Even things that didn't have anything to do with anything.

"I like Aaron a lot. Really. And I think he's great for you, in a non-boyfriend way. But, I'm just worried, because ..."

"Lex got him two thousand dollars worth of gift certificates."

She sat back, a funny sort of half-smile on her face. "I think you can trust him," Chloe said after a moment. She dug into her sundae.

Clark watched her for a long moment, feeling sad. Lex had responded the same way when Clark had told him about Aaron. Clark had barely finished the sentence about how he wanted to tell Aaron before Lex had his checkbook out and was trying to think of the perfect amount to keep a homeless kid quiet. Neither one could trust anyone, and maybe they were right. It was just that Clark hated not being able to trust people. He wanted to trust people. And he did, mostly. He liked Aaron. Aaron was ... cute and smart and had a funny, street-savvy air about him. And he was easy to talk to.

He was a good person. And that's what mattered in the end, right?

"Have you talked to Chad lately?" Clark asked after a few minutes of silence.

Chloe swallowed her spoonful and nodded. "I was talking to him just before you called, actually."

"How's he doing?"

"Okay. His uncle was giving him a hard time about the make-up, and he was upset about that." Chloe sighed. "I like Chad a lot, and I like him Goth and everything. I just wish life was easier for him."

Clark nodded, and for the hundredth time wondered if he should tell Chloe about Chad cutting himself. She deserved to know; it was her boyfriend, and she'd want to know. In fact, Clark knew that she'd be furious at him.

And yet .... Clark still hadn't spoken to Chad about it. Until he did, he just didn't feel right about telling her.

Finally, he said, "Me too. I, uh, kind of feel like maybe it's my fault."

"Clark, no. Chad was getting harassed way before the press decided you were the next hot story. In fact, I think you're being harassed by Roger and his gang because of hanging around Chad, not because of Lex. Let's face it: Chad looks like a little gay-boy. He wears more make-up than Lana, has more flamboyant expressions than Lex, and sticks out among Smallville High's less colorful denizens. And it's his choice. He could try washing off the make-up and wearing 'normal' clothes," she said, air quoting "normal." "But if he did, he wouldn't be Chad."

Then maybe he wouldn't cut himself, Clark wanted to say, but he didn't. He knew it wasn't true. Chad cut himself because of not being able to deal with emotions properly, not because people picked on him.

"Okay, Aaron has been gone a really long time," Chloe said suddenly.

Clark looked around; she was right. He'd been gone for almost fifteen minutes, and his ice cream was completely melted. Not good.

"I'll go see if he's okay."

Clark rose and walked across the shop. The family had left some time ago, and the only people left were him and Chloe and the guys in the corner. Doug looked up when Clark passed, and gave him a sort of strangled half-smile. Clark just waved back and entered the bathroom.

"Yeah, that's it," someone was gasping in a low moan.

Clark froze, eyes wide. There were two pairs of legs inside the single stall of the bathroom. One pair were straight, jeans and boxers puddle around his ankles. The other were Aaron's, and he was kneeling on the floor. Sucking Brian Arias' cock.


"I think your party is a success, Mr. Luthor," Gabe Sullivan said as he stood next to Lex, gazing at the throng of LexCorp employees.

Lex sniffed and wiped his nose with his handkerchief. "Gabe?" he whispered, voice nearly gone. "I know I'm your boss, but I think it's time for you to start calling me Lex."

Gabe grinned at him, chest practically swelling with pride. "Very well. I think your party is a success, Lex."

"Thanks." He smiled. "Although, I think that this will definitely be the last party I plan personally. From now on, it's party planners for me." He sneezed.

Gabe turned to him with a concerned frown on his face. "Lex, I really think you should probably go soon. You've made your appearance; you should go get some rest."

Lex nodded and rubbed his eyes wearily. "I will," he answered. "Soon. I want to let Anne stay a little longer; she looks like she's having fun."

Anne was across the room with a group of people, chatting happily. She really had been a godsend, and Lex was glad he hadn't asked Helen. Anne was sweet and friendly, and always seemed to know the right thing to say. Plus, she was from a small town, too, which Lex hadn't known until she started talking about it with one of his employees. They'd quickly begun to swap stories about life in a small town, leaving Lex out of the loop but enjoying the conversation. Anne, definitely had been the right choice.

"I'm going to get a drink," Gabe said, breaking Lex from his reverie.

"See you later."

After Gabe left, Lex retreated to a corner and sat down. He hated not being able to circulate, but after just a couple hours, he was just too wiped. He knew that no one would blame him for sitting listlessly in the corner; they'd all heard how bad he sounded when he gave his welcoming speech. And that speech had to be cut short since his voice had diminished to nearly nothing. He'd spent most of the party since circulating with Anne, and trying to talk to as many people as he could. By sheer force of will, Lex managed to remember everyone's names. The concentration it required pretty much ate all his energy, and his conversation sucked, but, again, that was what Anne was for.

Lex wasn't having any fun. He was too tired to enjoy the party, and that wasn't fair. He'd worked so hard for this. It was the first official function of his corporation. It was time to celebrate, and all he could do was worry about ending up in the hospital.

"Sir?"

Lex opened his eyes, surprised to find that they had closed. "Yes, Damien?"

"Are you all right?"

"No," Lex surprised himself by answering honestly. But, really, it was too obvious he was sick, so why bother lying? "I'm going to have to leave soon."

"As am I," Damien admitted with an air of consternation. "My hip. I haven't sat in my chair this long since before the second accident." He hissed and shifted uncomfortably. "Poor Dominic."

Lex raised his eyebrow. "Poor Dominic?"

"I have a feeling I'll be heavily medicated tomorrow when he arrives. Not much fun, I'm afraid." He sighed and looked around the Talon. "But, I suppose it was worth it. It's nice being able to see what you have accomplished, sir."

"We," Lex corrected. "What we have accomplished. None of this would have happened if I hadn't had you." He immediately felt stupid of saying it out loud, but blamed it on the cold.

Damien's smile was barely more than a slight curl of his lips, but his eyes gleamed. "Thank you, sir." Then he winced again.

"Do you want me to go get Anne? I can do a quick good-bye to everyone, and we can go."

"I would appreciate that."

Lex rose and scrubbed at his eyes. They felt gummy and heavy, and he was glad to be leaving. "I'm glad I brought her," Lex said, looking across the room at Anne. "I thing I might take her to Metropolis for New Years."

"Your father gave her money to pass on information about you," Damien said.

"I know," Lex replied. "But that doesn't change the fact she was a good choice for tonight." He glanced down at Damien. "Unless you want to get rid of her."

Damien shook his head. "She's not going to find anything your father doesn't already know. And I would hate to have to break in another nurse. Anne was hard to find as it was; I don't think I could find anyone else who so perfectly suits my needs."

"Okay, then, she stays." He sighed. "I wish she hadn't taken the money."

"Would it have mattered?" Damien asked dryly.

Guilt suffused Lex and he looked down at Damien. "You think I'm being unfair to Mark, don't you?"

"You think you're being unfair to him," Damien said with a shrug. "I think you need to ask yourself why."

Lex licked his lips. He didn't want to talk about this, had, in fact, been avoiding this topic for days, and now here he was. Cornered into the subject.

He sighed. "Mark has done nothing since the very beginning but be honest with me. With everyone. And, he came to me to tell me what Dad did. It wasn't like I found out and confronted him. He knew it would bother me, so he came to me." He glanced down at Damien. "That means, he's either really canny or really honest. I think it's the latter. So maybe I am being unreasonable." He rubbed his eyes again. "I guess I'll have to talk to him."

"That, of course, is up to you. But it is wise to examine your reaction to him. You don't want to push him to your father simply because you find it hard to believe that anyone would turn Lionel down. I believe Mark did exactly as he said: refused the money. I know he did, because no money ever turned up in his bank account. By continuing to suspect him of deceit, you may only be assuring it will happen."

Lex nodded, glanced at Damien briefly, then walked across the room. There was a microphone set up in the front where he'd given a brief welcoming speech. Now, he had to use it again to admit to his employees that he couldn't stay out a whole night.

"Excuse me, everyone," he said into the microphone. He cleared his throat, wincing at the pain.

The music immediately turned down and everyone turned.

Lex smiled wearily at the crowd. "I want to thank everyone again for coming tonight. LexCorp would be nothing without you. The buyout was one of the best business ventures I've ever embarked on. I couldn't have done it with a better group of people."

Everyone clapped politely, and, to Lex's surprise, there were even a few whistles.

"As you can all tell, I'm a little under the weather tonight. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to leave. I hope you all stay and enjoy yourselves. And Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas!" the room dutifully cheered back.

"And get some sleep!" someone called from the back of the room. "We'll hold the plant together while you're gone."

"Thanks," Lex said gratefully, smiling. "Good night." He turned the microphone off and went to where Anne was standing. "Are you ready?"

She smiled sympathetically and touched his face gently. "Definitely. You poor thing, you sound awful."

Lex shrugged and put his arm around her waist. Kissing her on the cheek, he said, "I'm fine. Did you have fun?"

"I had a wonderful time. Thanks for inviting me."

"You're welcome." Lex almost said something about New Years right then, but something held him back. For some reason, he wasn't quite ready to commit to that night yet. Part of it was the fact that he didn't know if he was going to be well enough, but there was more. He liked Anne. She was sweet and nice and human. He wasn't surprised by her dishonesty in taking money from his father, nor was he angered by it.

But that didn't mean he wasn't still cautious. Anne knew less about him than Mark did, but she could still be dangerous. And even though she was a good date, Lex wasn't quite sure if he really wanted to take the same woman with him to all his business or social functions.

So, he stayed silent. They collected Damien, got into the limo with only a little bit of difficulty, and went home as companionably as they had all arrived.


This was, like, the most boring movie in the history of the world. Ever. Okay, yeah, there were explosions and blood and Jeremy Irons. And Bruce Willis doing the bald thing, but ...

Clark shifted on the couch. He pulled his legs up, and knocked into Chloe, who gave him a dirty look. Not that he blamed her; it was about the fifth time he'd hit her.

"Sorry," he said again, and put his legs down. Then he bit his thumb. And shifted. And wiggled, And ...

"I'm going to get some fresh air." Clark climbed from underneath the blanket he, Aaron, and Chloe had been cuddling under on the couch.

"Clark, it's like zero degrees outside," Chloe told him.

"Yeah, stay." Aaron lifted the corner of the blanket enticingly.

He shook his head and backed away. "I'll be back." Picking up his coat, he jogged up the stairs of Chloe's basement and left the house.

Aaron didn't know Clark had found him and Brian. Clark hadn't interrupted them, and had had no idea what to say when Aaron had emerged. Ever since, Clark had been trying to pretend like everything was cool.

But it wasn't. He was freaked and uncomfortable and confused.

The air was crisp and cold against his skin. It felt good. Clark stripped off his jacket and walked the streets, feeling the tight knot in his chest grow tighter.

Why? Why was Aaron sucking some stranger's cock? And in the bathroom of a public building? Okay, yeah, Clark would go down on Lex in the Talon if Lex would let him, but ... but Clark knew Lex.

He wished he understood. The whole desire to sleep and fuck around with strangers was completely alien. Why would you want to do that? It was kind of icky, in a way. And yet ... people he liked, Aaron, Mr. Townsend, even Lex, all did it.

Without even thinking about it, Clark found himself on Mr. Townsend's doorstep. He lived close to Chloe, although not in Pleasant Meadows like the Sullivan's. His house was about a mile away, in a more established neighborhood. In other words, it was pre-Luthor, and Clark wouldn't be surprised if his father's father had originally bought or built the house. Whitney's family was like that, only, from what Clark understood, the house had actually belonged to Whitney's great-grandfather first, and then it'd just sort of drifted down through the generations to whichever son took over the family business.

Heart pounding in his chest, Clark climbed up the steps of the porch and knocked on the door.

"Clark," Mr. Townsend said with surprise when he opened the door. "What are you doing here?"

Clark immediately felt stupid. Mr. Townsend looked like he was ready for bed. In fact, he was wearing a pair of flannel pajama bottoms like Lex had, slippers, a long sleeved shirt, and a robe. Plus, he was carrying a mug of something, and it was almost eleven, and why was Clark so stupid?

"I'm sorry," he said awkwardly. "I shouldn't have .... I'll go."

"No, Clark, please come in." Mr. Townsend caught him by his jacket and tugged.

"But you're busy."

"I'm drinking hot chocolate and reading. That's not busy. Come in."

Sighing, Clark followed Mr. Townsend. It was weird, being in his teacher's home so late at night. He wondered if it was allowed, then dismissed the thought. He didn't care. His life was so full of secrets and weirdness and non-normalcy, that something like this didn't really matter. Mr. Townsend was, well, not his friend, exactly. But he listened to Clark, gave advice when he needed it, and kept his peace when Clark didn't need advice. And he seemed to always know what it was Clark needed.

Tonight, Clark needed answers. Desperately. He was just so sick of not understanding, and he didn't know where else he was supposed to go.

"What's going on, Clark? You seem upset." Mr. Townsend led Clark into the kitchen and waved him into a chair.

Clark nodded and looked down at his hands. "I'm just ... confused, I guess. And I didn't know who to go to."

Mr. Townsend glance at him as he pulled a box of hot chocolate out of the cupboard. "What are you confused about?"

"You won't get mad, right?"

Mr. Townsend was silent. A moment later, a steaming mug was placed in front of Clark. Clark wrapped his hands around it and looked up.

"I promise, Clark," Mr. Townsend assured him.

"Okay." Clark inhaled deeply and looked into his mug. There were swirls of milk that still hadn't mixed with the chocolate inside, and Clark focused on them. "Are you and Grant, like, dating?"

There was a brief pause before Mr. Townsend answered guardedly, "No, not really."

"But you slept with him."

Mr. Townsend exhaled hard. "Yes, I did."

"Why?" Clark asked, forcing himself to look at up.

"Why ... why what?"

"Yes. I mean. Were you planning on dating him?"

"Well , no," he said awkwardly. "I wasn't."

"Then why sleep with him? I mean, in general, not just Grant. Why sleep with someone you don't know and don't plan on dating?"

Mr. Townsend took a long drink of his hot chocolate. His hand seemed to be trembling a little when he set it back onto the table. "I don't really have a good answer for that, Clark. With Grant, it just worked. I was attracted to him and we were both single. It's been awhile since I'd ..." He broke off, blushing. "It'd been awhile," he finished lamely.

Clark nodded. It embarrassed him, of course, but then, he'd asked for it. This was probably against the rules or something, asking his teacher about his sex life. But Clark needed to know, and there was no one else to talk to.

"Um." Clark stirred his drink. This was a lot harder and more embarrassing than he'd thought, but he had to talk to someone. And that someone couldn't be Lex right now, since Clark could practically recite what their conversation would sound like by heart. "Uh, do you do that a lot?"

"Sleep with people I hardly know?" When Clark nodded his confirmation, Mr. Townsend replied, "No, I don't. I did it more when I was younger. Not as much as some, but I didn't always need a relationship to justify my attractions. Don't always, I guess, since I slept with Grant." He hesitated, then said, "May I ask why are you're asking me this?"

No, oh please God, no.

Clark blushed and ducked his head. "You know my friend, Aaron, that I was telling you about?"

"Yes."

"Okay, I met him in October at a club. He was a friend of Chloe's gi ... friend." He stopped a moment, then looked at Mr. Townsend questioningly.

"Yes, Clark, I know about Chloe," he said, answering Clark's unasked question. "It was in something you gave me to read. I don't think you meant me to read it."

"Well, she claims that she doesn't mind all that much if people know. As long as she doesn't get hassled. But, uh, anyway, Aaron was a friend of Sydney, Chloe's girlfriend. And he, like, really liked me. He was nice, and when I told him I had a boyfriend, he backed off. But he still, uh, kissed me. It was a nice kiss."

"I see. And, now that he's staying with you, do you find yourself wanting to sleep with him?"

Clark shook his head. "No. No, I don't. Uh, earlier, Aaron, Chloe, and I went to the ice cream parlor. I found Aaron in the bathroom with a guy. He was ..." Clark broke off, blushing.

Mr. Townsend was nodding in understanding. "So, you want to know why Aaron was with a guy he didn't know."

"Yeah. I just don't get it. Sex is supposed to be special, right?"

"Ideally, yes. That's the romance of it all, but, Clark to tell you the truth, life isn't always, well, ideal."

Clark snorted. "No, really?"

"Clark," Mr. Townsend said gently. "What I mean is, yes. What we are told is that sex is supposed to be something wonderful, beautiful, and very special. It's supposed to occur between two people who love each other very much and who are working to build a relationship and life together. And that's a good goal, of course. It's something that I want in my life, what I'm looking for. However, I don't have it yet. Do I like Grant? Yes. If circumstances were different, I might even date him. I might have even fallen in love with him. But, circumstances weren't right, so I took what I could get.

"The thing is, Clark, you and I both know that life isn't perfect. Not everyone we're attracted to will be the right person for us. Sometimes, we'll meet people we're attracted to, but can't even form a friendship with. So a lot of people don't let that stop them. I took the time to get to know Grant a little better because I had time to. That doesn't mean I've always done that in the past. It doesn't even mean I always will in the future, either."

"So, sex really isn't special." That was a let down. To know sex was only as special as you wanted it to be. Clark had just really been hoping that it was and people simply didn't understand and did it all wrong.

"I don't want to say that," Mr. Townsend said quickly. "I believe that sex, that sharing yourself and your body with another person is one of the greatest intimacies you can have. And, it's so hard to lay yourself completely open to another, it can't be anything but special. However, I guess it depends on how you view it. Personally, I mean. There are many reasons society preaches monogamy. Religion, morality. Protection against diseases. Emotions. All good reasons, but, in the end, monogamy isn't for everyone. And there's something to be said about sleeping around or experimenting when you're young. It's a good way to explore yourself. Your body," Mr. Townsend said, cheeks turning a darker rose color. "And other's bodies too."

"Strangers?"

"Well, I suppose. Sometimes."

"But isn't it better to sleep with someone you know?"

"Of course," he answered immediately.

Clark licked his lips. "But Lex said that some people have relationships where they sleep with other people. Causally, I mean. And I've read things online and stuff. Like, uh, there are these sex clubs, and people just go and, uh, sleep with other people, and like, don't even know their names."

Mr. Townsend covered his face with both his hands. A small groan escaped his throat.

"I'm sorry," Clark whispered.

"No, it's okay." He looked back up. "Really, Clark. It's fine. You can ask me anything. Uh, you're right. There are a lot of people in the world who treat sex like a recreation. It's something fun that they enjoy doing and, as long as they're safe and honest, I don't really see the harm. Sometimes, people just like feeling connected with someone else, or they get off on the thrill of being with someone new. Or the taboo feeling of sleeping with a stranger."

"Have you ever slept with someone whose name you don't know?"

His cheeks turned brighter, and Mr. Townsend looked away for an instant, but Clark could see him force himself to look back. "Yes, Clark, I have. In college, mostly. I really haven't done it in a long time because I don't find it emotionally satisfying to sleep with strangers. And if I'm not emotionally satisfied, then I might as well ... take care of my own physical needs by myself." Now he was blushing furiously and unable to meet Clark's eyes.

"Then why did you sleep with Grant?"

"Because it was different. I didn't know Grant well, but he was more than a body and a pretty face. I was attracted to his personality, and his intelligence. We went out for drinks before went to his hotel, and had I not liked him, I wouldn't have gone anywhere with him. But I did like him, so when we slept together, it satisfied me." He rubbed his forehead. "Honestly, Clark, a big reason I haven't pursued anything further with him is because of my situation. I don't feel comfortable with dating, especially while I'm living with Dad and hiding in the closet. If things were different, I would be very interested in seeing Grant more seriously. He's an attractive man, and we have a lot in common. There's an emotional bond there, even though it's not fully realized, so I felt comfortable enough sleeping with him."

Clark turned all that over in his mind a moment. "So, you need to be comfortable?"

He hesitated. "I'm at a stage of my life where sex is a little more serious for me. I like knowing the person a little bit, and I felt I knew enough about Grant to sleep with him."

"What about Whitney?"

Mr. Townsend seemed confused. He looked at Clark, frown creasing his forehead and asked, "What about him?"

Clark squirmed in his seat. "I thought you liked him."

"Clark, Whitney's missing," Mr. Townsend said gently. He shrugged and smiled sadly. "I've never met him, and I just don't know what to feel." He rubbed his eyes. "Sometimes sex can be a good way to let go for awhile. To just feel and not have everything weight heavily on your mind." Mr. Townsend put his hand on the table and looked at Clark. "May I ask you a question now?"

He nodded uncertainly.

"Have you talked about this with Lex?"

"Yeah."

"What has he said?"

Clark shrugged. "A lot of the same stuff. He's said that sex can be fun. That it can be about being with other people, and making them and yourself feel good."

"And what has he said about you sleeping with other people?"

Startled, Clark looked at Mr. Townsend. Then he turned bright red and had to look away. "He's, uh, said different things. When we first got together, he kept pushing me to date other people, mostly girls, so I didn't feel trapped or stuck or anything. He doesn't do that so much anymore, but mostly because I've asked him not to. Everyone once in awhile, he'll get on that kick again, but I don't know how much he really means it."

"Do you want to sleep with other people?"

Just so it looked like he was taking this seriously, Clark made it look like he was thinking about it. But he wasn't. He knew who he belonged with, and sleeping with a thousand other people just for fun wouldn't make him any more complete. It wouldn't be fun, either. If Lex wasn't around, he really couldn't see himself seeking out other people, unless he was high or something. It just didn't feel right. "No," he finally said. "I don't."

"Not even Aaron?"

Clark shook his head. "I've only fooled around with three other people, and I wasn't really myself then."

"Wasn't really yourself?"

"I was kind of high. And Lex and I had broken up, so there were all kinds of weird things going on in my life. When it was over, I knew that drugs were evil and I wasn't interested in sleeping around." He dropped his head to the table. "I just. I wish I could understand the appeal of sleeping around."

Mr. Townsend sighed and leaned forward. "Not wanting to sleep around isn't something to be ashamed of, Clark. In fact, most people would say that's how you're supposed to feel. "

Clark lifted his head. "Not people my age. I mean, I'm not normal. Normal is wanting to be promiscuous, right?"

"Boy, you ask the hard ones, don't you?" Mr. Townsend reached out and put his hand on Clark's arm. "Young men often want to sleep with a lot of different people. And when your desired partners are other young men who want to have a lot of sex, your chances of getting laid are pretty good." He squeezed Clark's arm. "Clark, what does Lex say about himself sleeping with other people?"

"That he doesn't want to."

"Really?" He sounded surprised.

"Yeah." What else was he supposed to say? The one thing Lex had been pretty adamant about since they'd gotten together was that he had no interest in anyone else. He'd done the whole promiscuous thing, and now that he'd found Clark, he didn't need it anyone else. That's one of the reasons why Desiree had been such a slap in the face. It was one thing to know your lover had been with other people in the past; it was another to see him with another person. "He's only been with one other person since we've gotten together, and that was his wife."

Mr. Townsend looked completely lost as he asked, "What was that all about, anyway? I remember him getting married, but I don't understand why you two are together now if it happened during your relationship."

He really wasn't in the mood to explain the whole meteor mutant/pheromone thing. It was too complicated, and too hard to prove.

"It's really complicated. Lex and I were broken up, or separated at that point. He was ... sick, and on medication and exhausted from working too much, and she somehow convinced him to marry her. Then she tried to kill him." Lamest lie ever. Clark grimaced and continued, "Uh, anyway. So he hasn't been with anyone else."

"Are you sure?"

Oh, that didn't sound good. It wasn't like Mr. Townsend sounded suspicious or anything, but ... Clark didn't like the insinuation. "Yes, I'm sure. Lex wouldn't lie to me."

Mr. Townsend did that sad smile again and sat back. "Clark, I like Lex. You know that. But he's not ... your age. Or your mindset. As I've said, I have no problem with people sleeping around or partying or whatnot. And I have no proof that Lex is doing so. But, even if he's not, Clark, I'm worried."

"Why? Because he's a Luthor, because he's more experienced than me, because he's from a different world, because I'm just some dumb farm kid? Why?" Clark recited flatly, bored with the conversation.

"Because I'm afraid that, somewhere along the line, there has been or will be mixed intents here. You might be thinking forever and exclusive, while Lex is thinking that this is a fling. He might not be sleeping around on you right now, but he might not be as exclusive as you think."

He didn't know what he was talking about. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"Maybe I don't. But I just wanted to throw it out there, just so you could think about it. It's not that I'm trying to encourage you to sleep around. God knows, that's not the kind of advice anyone should give. But I will tell you not to shut yourself off to the idea. You're only sixteen, and still in high school. You don't seem to be friends with the other gay boys at school, you don't ..."

"Wait. Other gay boys at school? There are other gay guys at Smallville High?" Clark said in shock.

Mr. Townsend blinked, and then smiled. "Of course, Clark. Even in Smallville, about one in every ten or so people are gay."

"Who?"

"Well." He hesitated. "I don't have any proof for any of them. Just a suspicion, and I really don't think any of them are out."

"Oh." He looked down at his hands.

"I think Mike Jewitt, Doug, and Christopher Deal are all gay. They give me that vibe."

"They were all at the ice cream shop. They were there with Brian."

Mr. Townsend nodded. "From what I hear, James Bale, who owns shop, is gay too."

Clark's head hit the table again. "God. I've lived in this town for thirteen years, and I know one other gay person my age. Aaron is here for three hours, and he finds a whole group, and gets laid. Sort of."

"You're very wrapped up in Lex."

"It's not just Lex. I don't want to sleep around. Not really. I just guess I wish that I did." He looked down and traced a wood grain in the tabletop. "I feel so different. Weird. I just wish I could be normal, you know?"

"I'll tell you a secret, Clark. Everyone feels like that, even the most normal of normal jocks sometimes feel alienated and out of place."

"I know."

"But it doesn't help, does it?"

Clark shook his head. Then he jumped, phone buzzing in his pocket.

"Sorry," he said, blushing. He pulled the phone out. "Hello?"

"It's me, Clark," Chloe said. "It's starting to snow, and I think you'd better take Aaron home before the roads get blocked."

Clark glanced out the window and saw that snow was indeed coming down. "Okay. I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Where are you, anyway?"

"Mr. Townsend's. I'll be back in a few minutes." He hung up and stuffed the phone into his pocket. "I've got to go," he said.

Mr. Townsend nodded. "All right. Hold on, a minute, though. I want to give you your present."

Clark waited as Mr. Townsend went to his room and returned with a bag and a wrapped box. "I, uh, didn't bring your gift with me," he said.

"That's fine. I know you didn't exactly plan to come over. Here; open this first." He handed Clark the gift bag.

Clark took it and pulled the tissue paper away. Inside were five books. Closer inspection proved they were all queer teen literature, and all books Clark had thought about buying at one point or another. "Oh, thank you. How did you know I was interested in these?" he asked, reading the back of one.

He shrugged. "Wild guess. I mostly wanted you to be able to read about gay teens. I know how isolating life can be, even with a support system. And you like to read, so I thought it'd be a safe present to get."

"Thank you." Clark set the books back into the bag, and put the bag on the floor. Mr. Townsend handed him the box, which he carefully unwrapped. "Oh, cool," he said. "Is it real?"

It was a quill pen. The feather was jet black and sleek, and the nib golden. Inside the box was a bottle of ink.

"Well, real enough," Mr. Townsend said. "I didn't exactly go out and get the feather from a crow. But, yes, it is. I got you black ink, because I wasn't sure if you'd want another color. I can give you the catalogue if you want to order any more. Oh, and then there's this." He produced a dark brown leather journal from behind his back. "Because every writer needs one."

"Why would you get me all this?" Clark asked, taking the journal. He shook his head at Mr. Townsend while he reveled in the feeling of the leather underneath his fingers.

Mr. Townsend smiled and shrugged. "I've told you, Clark. You're a special young man with a lot of talent. If I can do anything to help you achieve what I know you're capable of, even by just supplying the tools, I'll be happy."

Embarrassed, Clark flushed. "Thank you, Mr. Townsend."

"You're welcome, Clark."


They didn't make it back until after midnight. Both of his parents were in bed, and it was snowing so heavily outside that Clark decided to sleep in his old room tonight. He hoped the snow stopped for Christmas. Lex was supposed to sleep over Christmas Eve, and if it was still snowing, Clark would have to sleep downstairs. Well, pretend he was sleeping downstairs, at any rate. He'd sneak in with Lex even if he was outside.

The sheets on his old bed smelled stale, so he was remaking it when Aaron appeared in his doorway.

"Hey," he said softly. "You angry at me?"

Clark glanced at Aaron; he was dressed in sweats and a tee shirt with a really hot guy on it

"No," Clark replied. "Why?"

Aaron shrugged and entered. Taking the corner of the sheet, he tucked it under the mattress and said, "I don't know. You've just been acting weird all night. You disappeared from Chloe's, and you hardly talked on the ride back."

"You talked enough for both of us," Clark said with a smile to take off the sting off his words. "And there was a lot of snow. I had to concentrate." He pulled the comforter over the mattress and sat down. "I'm not mad."

Aaron sat down too, and tucked his feet under him. "You saw me, didn't you? With Brian."

So, there was a scrolling news update on his forehead, right? One that broadcasted his inner thoughts? Because, otherwise, how could Aaron know that? "How did you know?"

"Clark, we've only known each other a few months, but I know what freaks you out. Any time the conversation turns to sex, you get all quiet and weird at first. I mean, you eventually loosen up, but it takes awhile. I'm guessing this is how you act when you walk in on something like that."

"I'm sorry," Clark said softly.

Aaron shrugged. "Don't be. You've got issues, I get that. And I'm here if you ever want to talk about them." He rubbed his eyes. "I do know Brian. I met him at the Center. He goes to the Youth Focus group that meets on Thursday nights."

"Are you two together?"

"No." Aaron ran his hand through his hair. "I followed him into the bathroom to say hi. That's all, I swear. But he's all upset at being home and having to deal with his family. He wants to come out, but is afraid to, and so he's lying to everyone, and he was just so upset. So, I offered to calm him down."

"Aaron," Clark said in surprise. "That's .... That just seems kind of unhealthy."

Aaron shrugged. "It's not like I want him to like me or anything. I ..." He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "God, I'm so pathetic."

"No, you're not." Clark moved closer to him and touched his shoulder gently. "You want to help people. That's something I understand."

"But you wouldn't suck someone off to make them feel better."

No. Well, maybe. "I might suck my boyfriend off."

Aaron shot him a poisonous look.

"Okay, yeah, that's my boyfriend," Clark backpedaled. "But I don't sleep with anyone but him. You do. And I think maybe that as long as you, like, get something out of it and enjoy it and don't have any expectations of saving them or them becoming your best friend, there's nothing wrong with it."

"I guess. I mean, I love sucking cock and fooling around, even when I'm mostly doing it for the other person. It's fun for me. But there's this part, the analytical part that's been to counseling one too many times, that's afraid I'm doing it for all the wrong reasons." Restlessly, he rubbed his arms. "I was abused, you know."

Clark shook his head. "I didn't."

"Yeah. My uncle did it. From when I was about four to when I was seven. My folks didn't believe me, and then they blamed me for it. And when they caught me making out with my first boyfriend when I was thirteen, they again blamed me for my uncle, and kicked me out of the house. I wasn't like one of those cool kids on TV who stayed on the streets or anything. I freaked out and went to a homeless shelter. They contacted Child Services, and I was put into foster care. I've been through enough counseling to recognize I've got serious self-worth issues. I can't stop myself from wanting to help people by fucking around with them, and I can't stop beating myself up over it and wondering why."

"Do you let people do the same to you? I mean, I get the thing with Brian was rushed, but if he'd wanted to suck you off after, would you have let him?"

"Hell, yeah. I'm not a saint, yo."

Clark laughed. Then he put his hand on Aaron's knee and squeezed it lightly. "I think that, if it makes you feel good, and makes you happy, as long as you're safe, it's okay. But if you get all upset and mad at yourself after, then maybe you need to stop for awhile. Because isn't that kind of like cutting? Doing something that you know will make you hurt?"

"Sort of, I guess." He exhaled slowly. "Okay, from now on, I'm only going to sleep with people I'm attracted to, and who are emotionally in a good place. I won't be a slut."

"I don't think you're a slut," Clark said. "But I agree you should only sleep with people to make yourself feel good. Physically."

"Yeah." Aaron looked at him, the light from the hall playing across his face. "You're lucky, you know. That you have a boyfriend who's crazy about you. I want that."

"You'll get it."

Aaron nodded and rose to his knees. Before Clark really realized what he was doing, Aaron was kissing him.

This kiss was a lot more insistent than their first. Aaron's tongue pushed at Clark's lips, licking along the seam until Clark opened. Then it twisted and writhed in Clark's mouth, causing his stomach to tighten. Aaron's hands caressed Clark's back, and he could feel Aaron's heart pounding underneath his skin.

"Aaron," Clark breathed, breaking the kiss, but Aaron followed him, pushing him down onto the bed. Strong for someone so small, and he was even smaller than Lex, and, despite himself, Clark's arms closed around Aaron, holding him. Small and fragile and way too thin, and in so much pain. So scared.

/ Damn it, Clark/ Lex said groggily in his head. /I'm trying to sleep./

Startled, Clark pulled away.

/Jerk./

"I can't," he gasped, breathless. His hands slid from Aaron's back to his shoulders, and Clark pushed him off. "Aaron, please." The last came out a lot more frightened than Clark meant, but he was shaking and he was a little freaked.

Aaron sat back on Clark's lap. His eyes were wide, and he was trembling. "Clark, what's wrong?"

"You have to stop." And, fuck, he was close to tears. Pushing Aaron off him, Clark crossed the room and pressed himself into the farthest corner.

"I stopped. And I won't do it again, I promise." He inhaled deeply. "I'm sorry."

Clark shook his head, wishing he wasn't so stupid. "It's okay. You just .... I just ..." He turned, but kept his back pressed into the corner. "I like you a lot. And you're really cute, and if I weren't in a relationship, I'd be interested. Really."

"But you are in a relationship."

He nodded silently.

"I'm sorry." Clark didn't know if Aaron was apologizing for Clark being in a relationship or for kissing him. It didn't really matter.

"Yeah," Clark replied softly, feeling bad. "So am I."


His chest hurt. A lot. But, perhaps, not as much as his throat. Which felt like it was bleeding. Or his head, which had hired a brass band to pound into his skull. Or each and every muscle, which were all screaming.

"Should you be here?" Clark asked when Lex's coughing fit tapered off.

Lex pulled his handkerchief away from his face and nodded. "I'm fine," he said in a low, whispery voice. It was the only way he was able to speak, his throat hurt so much. "A little woozy from the medicine, but I needed to get out. Besides; I heard there's a Kent quilt waiting to wrap me up at your place." He sniffed and picked up his tea.

"I just hope you're okay."

"I'm surprisingly fine." Lex winced and set his tea down. The tea was cold, and had arrived cold. "I miss Lana," he sighed.

"I never thought I'd hear you say that," Clark laughed. He waved down Donna, who was working the floor. "Can you get Lex some hot tea?" he asked, smiling at her. "His seems to have gone cold."

Donna rolled her eyes and shot a glance at Theresa, who was working behind the counter. "Sorry about that, Mr. Luthor." She took his tea. "Why don't I get you a refill too, Clark? Theresa is on uber-bitch mode, and I wouldn't be surprised if she did something to your drink."

"Thanks Donna."

"Would you mind reminding Theresa that I own most of this business, and I won't tolerate waitresses who can't be civil and professional to their customers?" Lex asked, rubbing his eyes. He didn't want to fire someone on Christmas Eve, but this was fucking ridiculous. Clark hadn't scorned her, hadn't treated her badly, hadn't done anything but not be attracted to her. She needed to grow up and fast.

"I will, Mr. Luthor." She took Clark's coffee and went to refill their orders.

Clark sighed and leaned towards Lex. "I think coming out would have been easier."

"Naw. If you had, my tea would be cold and have spit in it. No thank you." He glanced over his shoulder to where Aaron was sitting, animatedly conversing with Brian. "I thought they weren't really friends."

Clark shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips. "That's what Aaron said last night. Now they look like more than friends. And they look good together, don't they?"

Lex studied the pair a moment. Aaron was pretty much exactly what Lex had picture him as: a short, fey, redhead. Except, not really fey. He was probably manlier than Lex was, even though he was about four inches shorter. Aaron had a toughness about him, and a punk attitude that Lex, even his clubbing days, had never been able to achieve. Had he been able to, maybe he wouldn't have ended up on the receiving end of abuse so many times in his early days. Being tied in the back of a car and burned with a cigarette lighter hadn't been the only time someone took advantage of the fact Lex tended not to fight back.

Lex swallowed, and winced, throat dry. Strange, that thought. That he'd purposely not fought back. Because, now that he thought about it, it was true. He almost never fought back when someone went after him, and it wasn't due to lack of training. When he was younger, he'd been trained to defend himself by a Navy Seal, and yet ...

"Whoa, where are you, Lex?" Clark said suddenly. He put his hand on Lex's, eyes wide.

He blinked, trying to push off the terror that had enveloped him. He was sweating, but so cold. "Maybe I'm sicker than I thought," he said. He rubbed his eyes.

"Maybe," Clark said, but he sounded skeptical. He rubbed Lex's hand, then pulled away quickly.

"Here you go," Donna said, setting drinks down in front of them. "Are you all right, Mr. Luthor?" She sounded concerned and, then, to Lex's shock, she put her hand on his shoulder. "You look awful."

Lex blinked and looked up at her. "I'm, uh. I'm fine. Thank you. Just a cold."

"Well, if you need anything else, give me a holler." Donna smiled at Clark, then pulled away to help another customer.

"What was that about?"

"It's about you scoring big at the Christmas party last night, plus giving her father a raise. Which translates to more money for her for her college stuff, which makes you her favorite person," Clark said, adding sugar to his coffee.

Lex nodded and played with the teabag. "Got it." He sniffed and coughed again.

"So. You going to tell me what that was all about?"

"Would you believe me if I told you I don't know?" He met Clark's eyes.

"Yes."

He sighed and broke contact. "I was thinking about Aaron, and how he looks like he could really stand up for himself in a fight. And then I started wondering why I don't."

"What do you mean?"

"Challenge me, I rise to it. Hurt my friends, I attack. But if I'm physically threatened, I just ... take it. And I don't know why."

"So, you started wondering why you don't, and you freaked out."

He nodded, unsure of what else to say.

"Lex, do you know what's bothering you lately?" Clark leaned into him, his posture screaming that he wanted to touch Lex. He didn't, though, simply continued, "I mean, you've pulled away from me a few times, and now this."

"No, I don't know."

Clark sighed. "Keep talking to me about it, okay? Maybe not right now, but whenever you start feeling like this. I'm worried."

"Yeah," Lex said, throat parched. "Me too." He lifted his tea and sipped.

"Hi, guys," Mark said, approaching the table. He frowned a little when he looked at Lex. "Lex, you okay?"

Lex managed a wan smile, but inside he cringed. The number one thing he hated about getting sick was how anything he'd ever felt remotely guilty about came crashing to the forefront. And, right now, he was feeling incredibly guilty for not taking Mark at his word, even if he still felt he was justified.

"I'm fine." He coughed. "Just a little cold."

"Should you be out?"

"Probably not. But I've been sleeping all day, and needed to leave the house for a bit."

Mark nodded and pulled a chair to the table. "I know how that goes. I wish I'd known I'd be bumping into you, though. I'd have brought your Christmas present."

"Me too." And then, "You got me a Christmas present?"

"Of course. We're friends, aren't we?"

Lex froze. The tone, the way Mark was looking at him, the his fingers traced the tabletop so casually. Something had changed, and Mark was angry at him. Finally, and he deserved to be, but .... Why now?

"Of course." He swallowed. "I got you something. I just wasn't expecting ..." Not good enough, echoed through his head, but, damn if he was going to admit that.

Mark's expression wavered slightly. "I wouldn't not get a friend something." He glanced down. "Maybe I'll drop by tomorrow and drop it off. Unless you're busy."

"I'll be with the Kents most of the day."

"You can come and have lunch with us," Clark said. "We're going to eat around one or so. I can give you my present, and you can meet my parents. And, uh, Grant e-mailed me his article last night. You can read it. If you want."

Lex raised his eyebrow at Clark. He blushed and looked down at the table, embarrassed. "Or, uh. Maybe not," he mumbled.

/Finding out you were almost raped probably won't be conducive to a happy Christmas, Clark./

/Yeah, I get that, Lex./ To Mark, he said, "It's kind of heavy in parts. Maybe waiting will be better."

"It's up to you, Clark, of course. But I'd love to come over. Are you sure it's okay with your parents?"

"I'll call you tonight if it's not, but I'm sure it's cool."

"I look forward to it." He glanced around the Talon. "Where's Aaron?"

"Over there." He pointed at Aaron and Brian, who'd apparently both give up the pretense of being anything other than totally into each other. Brian's hand was covering Aaron's, and their faces were so close, their foreheads were almost touching. Power to the people, in Lex's opinion. The more gay people in Smallville, the better chance that Clark could safely come out within the next few years.

Mark smiled. "Looks like there's something there."

"Yeah, I think so," Clark agreed. "I'm happy for him. He was really, uh, upset last night about things."

"Like what?"

Clark shrugged and sipped his coffee. "Just things. He's going through stuff. He broke up with his boyfriend and got evicted. I think that dating would be good for him."

"I hope it works out of him," Mark said. Then, when Donna came back to the table to refill Clark's coffee, he ordered his drink. "So, are you two busy?"

"No, not really," Clark said.

Mark leaned to the empty table next to them and snagged the Scrabble set. "Want to play?"

"Ug," Lex groaned, rubbing his temples. "I don't think I have enough brainpower."

"Good," Mark retorted playfully. "Then the rest of us have a chance."

He was still upset with Lex, but at least he was trying to put it aside. Lex appreciated that. He hated to think their friendship was over just as Lex was beginning to realize what an ass he'd been. "So you like me handicapped, huh?" Lex retorted, trying to smirk.

Mark just smiled as he set the board up.

"Fine," Lex sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose, wishing he didn't feel so dead. "I'm in."

"Mind if I join you?" a new voice said.

Lex looked up. "Helen."

Helen smiled at him, looking pretty in a soft white sweater and navy blue coat. Her scarf was red, and it lent color to her cold-flushed cheeks. "Hi, Lex. Clark. Mark." She pulled off her gloves delicately, one finger at a time.

"Helen," Mark said, sounding a little warmer than civil. It wasn't much, but it felt so very pointed, and again, Lex felt a stab of guilt wrench through him. "I'm fine if you join the game." He glanced at Clark, who shrugged.

"Fine." Clark picked his tiles and set them on his stand.

Helen looked back at Lex and shrugged. "Well?"

"Are you any good?" he asked, casually choosing his tiles.

Her eyes seemed to twinkle at him, and her lips curved. "I think I'm good enough to match wits with the great Lex Luthor," she replied.

He couldn't help smiling back. She seemed ... playful. Easy-going even. He liked her like this. "Pull up a seat."

"Thank you." Helen complied and pulled her seat next to Lex's.

Clark immediately put his foot on the inside of Lex's ankle, so their knees brushed together. Lex hid his smile, glad to know that some things never change. Helen had proven twice she wasn't a threat, and yet Clark was still edgy around her. No different than Lex, really. He was still terrified of Lana, and, God, he really was tired if he'd just admitted that, even to himself. Damn cold.

/I ran into Helen yesterday/ Clark said.

/Oh?/

/Yes. She made me feel queasy. And off balance./

Lex looked at Clark, wondering if he was exaggerating, but found a pair of earnest eyes gazing back at him. He shot a glance at Helen, who was choosing her tiles very carefully, then back at Clark.

/How do you feel now?/

/Fine./

/She said something to me about looking into the mutations before. Maybe she's experimenting with the meteor rocks. Tell me if it happens again./

/I will./

"Let's start," Mark said, ending the conversation. He went first.

At first, the game was fun. Lex's brain felt like it was wrapped in cotton, and he could barely spell the word, 'the', but the company was nice. Helen and Mark got along well, and even Clark managed to joke around with her. Donna kept the tea coming, and Lex felt himself begin to relax.

And then, Mark ruined everything. It started slowly, with him studying the board carefully, and tracing the damn table again. Then, he deliberately lifted his eyes to Lex, then lowered them to his tiles where he laid out, catamite.

Lex went cold. His stomach turned to stone, and he had to swallow hard before he could meet Mark's eyes again.

Mark's face was expressionless, but that in an of itself was an accusation. And, dammit, Lex knew exactly what he was insinuating, so why the fuck was it sitting with him so wrong? His heart was pounding and he was sweating again. He wasn't doing anything wrong.

Clark leaned over. "Are you okay?"

"Fine." He lifted his tea and gulped at it. "Helen, it's your turn."

"Uh ..." She hemmed and hawed a few minutes before using Mark's c to make crass. "Lex?"

Lex managed to make "vase." He really thought he was going to throw up. "Clark?"

Clark licked his lips and looked back and forth between Mark and Lex. Then, with the same deliberation Mark had used, he set down, "beloved."

Mark sighed heavily and looked at Clark. There was a look of sadness in his eyes, but he simply smiled at him. "Nice job." Then he turned used the "s" from vase to make sex.

Clark made a noise deep in his throat that might have been a growl, but almost might be him just clearing it. Frantically, Lex searched his tiles for something to counteract Mark's accusation, but he couldn't because he was still shaking, and he really, really felt like he was going to throw up.

"Okay," Helen said after setting her word down. "I'm going to the restroom. Feel free to keep playing." She rose and walked away.

Her word had been "out". Thank goodness; Lex had an o, an s, and a l. "Soul," he said softly, setting down the letters. He met Mark's eyes, then looked at Clark.

Clark was smiling at him softly, lovingly. And, gazing into his eyes, Lex felt safe again.

"Lex," Mark started, but then he broke off, shaking his head. "This isn't the place."

"No," Lex said, turning back to him. "But I'd like to know what brought it on. I thought ..."

"I think we should talk about this tomorrow," Mark said. Then, with a short shrug, he added, "I'm just concerned, that's all."

"It's not ..."

"It is, Lex," Mark cut him off. He glanced at Clark, then back again. "Clark's my student. But, more than that, he's ..." With a shake of his head, he turned to Clark. "Look, maybe I'm overstepping things, but you're more than just a student to me. You're not exactly a friend, but I care for you, Clark, and I want to make sure you're not being used. You're like ..."

"A little brother," Lex supplied.

Clark made a face at him, even as Mark nodded. "Exactly. And, you have to admit, this whole situation is out of the ordinary. And, as much as I like you, Lex, it makes me a little uncomfortable in some ways." He glanced over his shoulder. "Helen's coming back, so I'll stop talking right now. But I need to say this, Lex."

"Fine, got it. We'll talk tomorrow. Until then." Lex rose, coughing as he did.

"Did I kill the game?" Helen asked, placing her hands on the back of her chair and gazing at Lex.

Lex shook his head. "Not at all. I'm just a little tired now, and I think I better get some rest. This cold is wiping me out."

Her face changed immediately, and she reached out for his wrist. "Are you sure it's just a cold? The flu that's going around has a lot of the same symptoms, and with someone with your medical history ..."

He yanked his wrist away. "What do you know about my medical history?"

"Only what was in the papers," she said. "Plus what Dominic has told me. And, I was working with Dr. Sutton last week, and she mentioned something about your health."

"What?"

Helen waved her hand dismissively. "She didn't tell me anything confidential, Lex. She only told me that if you had any problems this winter, and she couldn't get to you, she wanted me to handle your case. You know the road from Metropolis is sometimes blocked in the winter, and she wanted to make sure that someone she knew handled your case. That's all." She leaned forward. "Is this going to be a problem?"

"I don't know. I just think it might be a little uncomfortable."

"I've been friends with patients before, Lex." She smiled and leaned in further. "It's not like we're more than friends."

He smiled wanly and wondered if he should be happy she was finally flirting with him, or upset about the timing. He decided just to be too tired to care. "Right." Lex looked at Clark. "Ready?"

"Let me get Aaron. I'll meet you outside. Have a Merry Christmas, Mr. Townsend. Dr. Bryce."

"Bye, Clark."

Lex slid his coat on. "I'll see you tomorrow, Mark."

Mark nodded, looking a little uncertain. "Lex ..."

"It's fine. I'll see you later. Good-bye, Helen."

"Lex," Helen's voice stopped him as he turned away. "Do mind if I give you a call in a couple of days?"

He blinked, swayed on his feet, then shrugged. "Of course not. I'll be looking forward to it."

Clark and Aaron were waiting for him outside. It was colder out than Lex had remembered, and he shivered, pulling his coat tighter around him. Aaron, too, was feeling the effects. He was whispering curses under his breath and frantically zipping up his coat.

"Lovely weather," Lex finally said dryly.

Clark gave him a half smile and shrug that let Lex know that he was perfectly happy with the weather. The freak.

"Are you ready to come over now, or do you need to back to your place first?" he asked.

"I'm good." Which meant they could all pile into Clark's car and huddle for warmth. Unfortunately, Aaron would be included in the cuddling, but since Lex was the boyfriend, he got to sit next to Clark, and Clark was an inferno. So it was worth it.

"So, what's going on with you and Brian?" Clark asked as they drove away from town.

Aaron grinned, bounced on the seat a few times, and rubbed his hands together over the heating vent. "I have no idea. He just came over and wanted to talk."

"About ..."

"Stuff," Aaron replied evasively. Then his grin came back. "I think he wants to hook up."

"Hook up as a one night thing?" Lex asked, feigning interest.

"No. I mean, like, I think he wants to get together with me. Which is pretty cool, because Brian's a really nice guy. I'm glad I bumped into him here."

"I hope it works out for you," Clark said. He glanced over Lex to Aaron. "You really deserve to be happy, you know."

Lex watched as color spread underneath Aaron's fair skin. It was always fun to watch a redhead blush, especially one with as pale skin as Aaron's. Clark was lovely when he flushed, but there was no comparison check at the end. Aaron's face was about three shakes lighter than his hair, and much pinker in color. The clash, however, was endearing.

"So, uh, what was going on with you guys?" Aaron asked. "I mean, for a game of Scrabble, it looked pretty intense."

"It was nothing," Lex told him. Then he turned to Clark. "Was it?"

His blush was darker than Aaron's, but right now, not as cute. The underlying tension negated anything cute about it. "We'll talk about it later."

"What did you do, Clark?" Lex couldn't help the question. He needed to know what had happened to change Mark's opinion of him. Because, it obviously wasn't Lex's own mistrust that had done it.

"What part of later don't you understand?" he snapped.

"Hey, are you two fighting?" Aaron cut in before Lex could respond. "Because, if you are, I've got a lot of room in my bed. And I'm willing to share."

Lex turned to him, eyebrow raised. "Back off, runt. He's mine."

Aaron smirked at him and replied, "Who said I was making the offer to him?"

He rolled his eyes and turned away. But he was glad for the interruption. The tension was gone, and even though Lex was still upset, he was able to ignore the problem.

The rest of the drive was relatively quiet. Aaron sang with the radio, and drummed his hands on the dashboard. Clark concentrated on driving; Lex concentrated on not falling asleep.

He continued to do that for the next hour. Clark did chores, Aaron played video games, and Lex sat with a controller in his hand, vainly trying to make his little men shoot something. He finally gave up, conceded that Aaron was the winner, tried to ignore the fact Aaron almost succeed in giving him a victory kiss, and stumbled up to Clark's old room to sleep.

When he woke, it was pitch black and the house was completely silent.

Lex sighed and rolled onto his back. He was still tired, but he didn't feel as exhausted as he had the past couple days. The worst seemed to be over, despite nature's best attempts to drag him down. Drag him off his alien high, more like it. Dr. Sutton would probably have some medical reason that he'd gotten sick, even with the immune bolstering from Clark. It probably had something to do with the chemical only being able to do so much, or that his body had adapted to the chemical, and only increasing the dosage would continue to make him healthy. Or, he'd reached the peak of his health and from now on, he'd continue to get sick occasionally, but nothing like it had been.

But Lex knew the truth. Destiny was out to get him because destiny, like everything, was controlled by his father. And the last thing Lionel wanted Lex to do was succeed on his own terms. Lionel wanted to be able to control Lex and keeping Lex sickly and dependant on doctors and medicine was one way to control him.

He heard the downstairs clock chime and checked the clock radio. It was half-past midnight.

/You up?/ Clark asked suddenly.

/Yeah./

/Come downstairs and eat./

Lex groaned and rolled onto his stomach. He yanked the pillow over his head, eyes closing.

Clark laughed, sending waves of warmth riding through Lex. His toes curled and stomach twisted in pleasant delight that was partly his. /I'll come up, then./

It took about ten minutes, but finally the door opened and Clark entered. "Mom told me to make you Cream of Wheat when you woke up," he said, setting the tray on the dresser. "Something about vitamins or nutrients or ... something. I hope you don't mind."

"No, it's fine. If she says that's what I need to eat, I'll have to trust her, won't I?" His voice still hadn't come back, and it hurt like hell to talk.

Lex up and leaned against the wall.

Clark sat on the bed and handed him the steaming bowl. "Feeling better?"

"A little, yes." He ate a spoonful of cereal. "My headache's gone." Lex ate another bite before asking, "What happened with Mark?"

"You have a one track mind," Clark sighed. "I swear."

"Of course. It's the only way to succeed. So what happened?"

He sighed again. "Well, I told you about finding Aaron, right?"

"Yes."

"After I did, I was all confused and needed to talk to someone. So I went to Mr. Townsend to ask about how people could sleep with each other casually and stuff. He got all upset when he realized I'd only ever slept with you. He thinks you're using me."

Lex rolled his eyes, a bubble of anger erupting in his stomach. "No fuck."

"Lex ..."

"God dammit." He resisted the urge to throw his bowl. Instead, he set it on the dresser and clenched his fists. "It's my fault."

"No, it's not."

"I should have trusted him. Taken his word at face value." Lex licked his lips. "If he'd taken the money, he wouldn't have told me anything." He lay back down and turned away from Clark.

Clark sighed and laid out behind Lex. "Okay, so you made a mistake. It's understandable. Mr. Townsend's making a mistake too, but, again, it's understandable. You know how our relationship looks. But we know we're really in love. You can tell Mr. Townsend that. If he doesn't believe you, that's his problem, not yours."

"He accused you of being my catamite."

"So?" He kissed the nape of Lex's neck. "You've called me that before."

"It was different. It's okay if I call you things like that. He can't." He rolled over. "Life sucks."

Clark kissed him. "I'm sorry." He kissed Lex again, climbing on top of him.

Lex closed his eyes and submitted to the kiss. His mouth opened lazily as Clark's tongue slid inside, finding his. It was always strange to him not to be aroused when Clark kissed him, or not to intend becoming aroused. Clark never had any problems just kissing for the sake of kissing, or touching him to touch. It was second nature to him to reach out to the people he cared most about and touch them. Or, had been, before Lionel.

He pulled away and turned his head, coughing hard. "I guess," he rasped, "I'm sicker than I thought."

"Too sick for sex?" Clark said, suggestively grinding his hips into Lex.

"Yes." Although it might be a nice quick fix to his cold. A quick injection of needed alien-sperm to speed through his blood, repairing the damage.

Of course, he'd be unconscious most of the time and, ew.

Clark stopped grinding and wiggled until he was resting between Lex's splayed legs. "Can I ask you a question?" he said, interlacing his fingers with Lex's.

"Always." His eyelids felt heavy, and the extra heat from Clark's body was making him drowsy. Lex knew he should be eating more of the cream of wheat, but he wasn't as hungry anymore. Besides, he liked being pinned under Clark.

"You know that Aaron and I were making out last night. Why aren't you all upset with me? Or him?"

Lex shrugged and stretched his and Clark's arms over his head. "There's nothing to be upset about."

"I was making out with another guy. And getting a little turned on by it."

"You were getting turned on by how small he was, Clark. Which was a little weird, by the way. Do you have size issues?"

Clark nipped his neck. "You know I like boys who fit me perfectly. Or, rather, boy. Or, actually, man. But, yeah, the contrast was kind of cool. You're avoiding my question."

Lex sighed. "There wasn't anything to be upset about, Clark." He pulled his hands away and draped his arms around Clark's shoulders.

"You'd be upset if it'd been Whitney."

Damn. Found out.

He closed his eyes and stretched his back, wiggling under Clark. "You're right, I would. But Aaron isn't Whitney, so I'm not."

"I don't understand."

"Clark ..." Lex shrugged and opened his eyes again. "You've got a relationship with Whitney that's, well, special. He was there when you were taken away by Child Services. He gave you a place to go to where you didn't have to talk about anything. You could just play basketball or whatever and forget about life. He fell in love with you, which is always gratifying. He saved you from Dad. You're really emotionally connected to him and, I honestly think that, if you weren't with me, you'd be with him. And I think he could make you really happy. Would make you really happy if you were together." He looked away. "I tell you that you should sleep with him because I don't want to deprive you of anything. Sex with Whitney would be special and important and everything sex should be. "

"I'm not going to sleep with him."

"I know," Lex assured him. "And I'm glad."

Clark smiled, rolling his eyes. He kissed Lex's cheek and asked, "So what's different with Aaron?"

"You're attracted to him, but there's no connection like you have with Whitney. And he's a nice boy, but the two of you wouldn't work in a relationship. So, if you slept together, it wouldn't hurt. It'd just be ... sex. And the next morning, you'd go back to being friends."

"You've given this a lot of thought, haven't you?"

Lex shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips. "Your sex life is a topic that fascinates me."

He laughed softly and bent down to kiss Lex again. His mouth was so warm, everything about him was warm. Lex wrapped his legs around Clark's waist and held on.

"I couldn't do it," Clark whispered against Lex's skin. "If you slept with anyone, I'd be hurt."

"Because you'd know I was doing to it to deliberately hurt you. Because that's the only reason I could ever think I would stray." He bit Clark's lower lip gently. "I think I'm done with any roaming days. Permanently.

"Good." Clark sucked on his tongue for a moment, before he broke the embrace. "I want you to open your present now."

Lex sat up, coughing. "Clark ..." But he trailed off, not sure what else to say.

Clark held out a richly wrapped box--professionally done--cheeks pink. "I got one for you to open tomorrow morning, too. But this is special. For us." He handed Lex the box.

Lex took the box, heart pounding. He was pretty sure he knew what was inside the package, but that only made him more excited and nervous.

The wrapping fell away as he ran his fingers under the tape. The present was inside a cardboard box, and surrounded by yards of tissue paper. When the last had been pulled off, Lex's heart stopped. "Clark," he breathed, holding the beautiful collar box in his hands. "It's ... It's ..."

Beautiful. Exquisite. Wonderful.

Perfect.

"Do you like it?" Clark asked, sounding uncertain.

Lex's voice wouldn't work. He could only nod.

"I, uh, didn't put the collar in yet." Clark went to the dresser and pulled the collar from the top drawer. "I was embarrassed to show it to the sales lady." He placed the collar inside, and it looked gorgeous against the snowy white lining. "Looks good, huh?"

"Looks great," Lex said, throat tight.

Clark's face broke out into his million-dollar smile, and his eyes shone. "Now it has the dignity it deserves."

"Yes," Lex whispered, gazing into Clark's eyes.

Without Lex having to say or think anything, Clark picked the collar up once more. He fastened it around Lex's neck, consecrating it with a bite and kiss to his jugular. "Merry Christmas."

Lex closed his eyes and turned his head into Clark's. A tear escaped his eye. It slid down his cheek then fell from his face to Clark's.

"What is it?" Clark kissed him gently, and looked into his eyes worriedly. "What's the matter?"

Lex swallowed, but the lump still rose in his throat. Taking a deep breath, he managed in a hoarse whisper, "No one has ever loved me this much."

Clark's expression softened and he kissed Lex with great tenderness. "I always will," he said quietly. Then he took the box from Lex and turned it upside down. "It's a music box. I turned it off because I think it'll get annoying to hear it every time we open it." He took Lex's hands and pulled him out of bed. "Dance with me?"

Without answering, Lex fell into Clark's arms. The music engulfed them, dancing lightly in the air. But, really, all Lex heard was Clark's heartbeat, steady and strong, thrumming through Lex. It was the only music he needed.

"I love you," Clark said. His arms were wrapped around Lex's waist as they swayed together in a patch of moonlight. His breath wafted softly over the shell of Lex's ear. "And nothing anyone ever says or thinks about us will change that fact."

"I know," Lex whispered, ignoring the fact that the corner of his eyes were leaking. Christ; if this was how Clark's present--which he'd been expecting--affected him, how was he going to hold up when he gave his present to Clark?

"Then don't worry about Mr. Townsend. Don't worry about the world, Lex. We don't need them to validate us." Lips pressed into Lex's temple. "We are us."

Lex turned his head and caught Clark's mouth with his own. "Forever," he said when they broke apart. He rested his forehead against Clark's and held on. "And always."


It was perhaps one of the tiniest kittens Lex had ever seen in his life. She almost fit perfectly in the palm of his hand and was so little. Lex's heart pounded, thinking how easy it would be to crush the kitten on accident, to squeeze too tight or to roll on her and squish her. He was almost afraid to pick her up from the beautifully decorated basket she was sitting in.

The basket was beautiful. There was a plush green pillow in it, upon which the jet black kitten sat. The kitten was perfectly black, except for her front left paw, which was white. Its eyes were dark green and huge, legs short and stubby, and her tail was shorter than his pinky finger.

"What do you think?" Martha asked anxiously.

"I think it's a cat," Lex rasped hoarsely, bemused. A cat who was currently studying him curiously, her front paws on the basket rim, tail whipping back and forth.

"Yes, it is," Martha said. When Lex looked up at her, her eyes were shining at him.

He looked from her, back to the kitten. She was actually serious about this. Oh, God.

Gingerly, he picked her up, afraid he was going to hurt her. "Why is she so small?" he asked, stroking her head.

The kitten started purring loudly. It shouldn't have made Lex's heart melt like it did, but he was only human.

"She was the runt of the litter," Martha answered. "She's healthy, though. I've spent weeks nursing her, keeping her warm, making sure she got enough attention from her mom. She's ready to leave her mother now, and I thought she might to better in a home than in the barn."

"Oh." Runt of the litter. It felt a little pointed; he was pretty sure Martha knew he'd always been small for his age. "Ouch!" The kitten had sharp claws. He put her onto his leg carefully and scratched behind her ears. "What's her name?"

"I thought I'd leave it up to you to name. Unless you don't want her. I don't want you to feel obligated to take her if you don't want."

"No, I want her," Lex assured her. The kitten was rubbing her head against Lex's hand and purring in ecstasy. "I've never had a cat."

"I know. You told me how you couldn't' because of your allergies. It thought that now might be a good time, since you're doing so much better."

"Thank you." He picked the kitten up and rested her close to his heart. Looking up at Martha, he said, "I love her." And he meant it. He really had always wanted a cat, and one given to him by Martha Kent was even better than a regular cat.

The kitten squirmed and mewed plaintively. Lex released her, and immediately, she bounded through the mess of wrapping paper strewn over the floor.

He smiled. "I'll have to think of the perfect name. Just any name won't do." He pulled his eyes away from his new pet and looked back at Martha.

She was looking at him with a soft smile on her face, and her eyes shone. It was a look that Lex had seen her give Clark quite often. It was a look of love.

He flushed and looked away. "Clark? I think it's your turn to open a gift."

"Okay." Clark leaned over and kissed his cheek, then grabbed the large box in front of him. "From Lex," he said, tearing at the paper. He froze after the first rip, eyes wide.

Lex smirked at Clark's reaction. Clark's eyes were wide, and he seemed to have stopped breathing. His cheeks colored, and Lex knew that he was thrilled.

"Merry Christmas," Lex said.

Clark looked at him, but it wasn't happiness in his eyes. It was ... fear.

Lex frowned. "What ..."

"Clark?" Jonathan said. "Why don't you show us what you got?"

"He got me a laptop," Clark said hollowly. With shaking hands, he pulled off the rest of the computer. "Like the one Chloe has."

"Better," Lex corrected, still not understanding what was wrong.

"I've heard that one is really good," Martha said.

"And expensive," Jonathan added wryly, throwing a smile at Lex.

Clark licked his lips, smoothing his hands over the box. "Mom, Dad, I know you don't like it when Lex gets me stuff like this, but, please, can I keep it? I promise I'll use it, and I need it. The literary magazine was hard to put together because I couldn't work on it here. The files to put the magazine together were on a program we didn't have, and it would save so much trouble. Please."

"Of course you can," Lex answered for the Kents. "I wouldn't have given it to you if I'd thought there'd be a problem," he assured Clark.

"Open it up, Clark," Aaron urged. It was the first thing he'd said since opening Lex's gift of two thousand dollars worth of gift certificates. The poor boy hadn't been expecting anything, much less a sweeping gesture of something that looked like generosity.

Aaron crawled across the floor, almost squashing Lex's cat. She yowled angrily, swiped at him with a claw, then bounded back to Lex.

Clark wasn't paying any attention. He was too busy looking at his parents pleadingly. "Please, may I keep it?"

"Of course you can keep it, Clark," Martha said. "It's a Christmas present. Lex sat down with us and talked about why he thought it was necessary you have a laptop of your own. And he's right. You've been writing so much lately, with your essays and the literary magazine, that we all decided it was important to have one."

A look of disbelief washed over his face. Then he broke out in a grin. "Thank you," he said to his parents. He looked back at Lex. "Thank you," he said in a much softer voice.

Lex smiled and leaned in to give him a kiss. "Merry Christmas, angel."

"Merry Christmas." Clark pulled Lex to him and kissed him deeply.

"I'll get the computer out," Aaron said, exasperated.

"Thanks, Aaron," Clark said, resting his forehead against Lex's. Then, softer, he said, "I can't believe you got me a computer."

"Well, you're always borrowing mine," Lex said, picking up the kitten who was clawing at his slacks. "Chances are, one of these days you're going to figure out all my passwords and steal important information from me. Maybe pass it onto my competitors. I had to keep myself safe."

The doorbell rang.

Clark laughed. "Right. Because you always keep incriminating files on a computer you carry around. And let me take to school. How silly of me."

"Mr. Townsend," Jonathan said at the door. "We weren't expecting you until later."

Lex pulled away from Clark and looked towards the door. Mark was standing just outside, looking pale and disheveled. He hadn't shaved that day, or combed his hair, and Lex was pretty sure he was wearing his pajamas underneath his coat.

"I know. I'm sorry, but I didn't know where else .... I need to talk to Lex, I ..." He looked past Jonathan and met Lex's eyes. "I need help."

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Lex rose, still clutching his kitten to his chest. "What happened?"

"He got a huge file," Mark said, stepping into the house. "This morning, it was with the paper. There were ... pictures of me. And interview transcripts with old boyfriends. Confessions. Names, dates." He sort of fell, boneless, into a chair. "Photos of me at Pride events and with boyfriends. Personal pictures. I thought my closet seemed disorganize a few weeks ago, but I didn't think .... They must have broken in and taken them. And there were even some of me and Grant, and a couple shady looking ones of you and me." He looked up, very frightened. "There was one of me with Clark. I was sort of leaning into him, and I'm afraid ..."

"It's all right, Mark," Lex said calmly. He handed the kitten to Clark. "We'll go to Reynolds today. We'll tell him now so, if Dad does try to make it look as if you're having inappropriate relations with a student, we've already established that you're being framed. We'll have him call the school board in to speak with you tomorrow, so you can come out to them. That way, it'll come from you. It's your choice to tell them, and you won't be on the defensive. If necessary, we'll have the Kents testify on your behalf."

Mark nodded, breathing rapidly. "I don't want to lose my job."

"You won't." Lex moved in front of him and put his hand on Mark's arm.

Mark started suddenly, panic etched across his face. He grabbed Lex's arm. "Shit, I ... I need Helen's number. Dad's heart .... He looked pale, I can't believe I forgot, I need ..."

"Clark, phone."

Clark, who was holding the now howling and struggling kitten, snagged the phone and tossed it to him.

Lex caught it without looking and punched in Damien's number. "It's going to be okay," he said as calmly as he could manage. He also just managed to keep the guilt out of his voice. This was all his fault.

"Damien Walters speaking," Damien answered.

"It's me. Is Dr. Sutton there?"

"Yes, are you all right?" he demanded.

"I'm fine, but I need her to go to Mark Townsend's house and check on his father. He has heart problems, and Dad just outed Mark."

Damien said something off the phone that Lex couldn't quiet understand. "She's on her way. Do you need anything further?"

"Not right now, thanks. But I think Dad's going to try and ruin Mark professionally, too, so we might need a lawyer. Are you up to it?"

"Of course."

"Thanks, Damien. I'll call you later." He hung up. "My doctor is on her way to see your father. She'll call us when she knows anything."

Mark sighed, his shoulders slumping. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me," Lex said with a snort. "This is my fault. I should have prepared you for something like this, and taken measures to protect you." He sighed and rubbed his forehead.

"Mr. Townsend," Martha started, but he shook his head and said, "Call me Mark. Please."

"Okay, Mark, would you like something to drink?" she asked gently. "Or eat? We have cinnamon rolls if you like."

He nodded, looking grateful. "I'd love a cup of coffee and something to eat. I didn't get anything this morning, and I'm ..." He broke off and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.

Lex exchanged looks with Martha. She smiled sadly and went to the kitchen.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Townsend," Clark said softly, petting the kitten. He was looking down at the cat, shoulders drooped, and looking miserable.

"It's not your fault, Clark," Mark said, looking at him. Then he moved his eyes to Lex. "It's not yours, either."

Just twist the knife why don't you? "Yes, it is. I should have trusted you."

"Yes, you should have." Mark shook his head and shrugged. "I like you, Lex, and I try to pride myself on being a good friend. But, more than that, I would never do anything that would put Clark in danger or in an awkward situation. I don't trust your father. I'm sorry, but any man who wants me to spy on a sixteen year old kid isn't doing it for his own good." Mark swallowed and said, "I was trying to protect him."

Lex's stomach twisted as he thought about his own failure to protect Clark from Lionel. And, soon, Mark was going to know what happened. How Lex had failed, and just how badly. "You should have told me that," he finally said quietly. "I would have understood."

Mark smiled bitterly. "I guess I just wanted you to think I did it for you. Because I could tell it wasn't something you were used to." He lowered his head into his hand again, and rubbed his forehead. "That, I guess, was my mistake."

"I'm sorry," he said again.

"Yeah, well. I am, too."


Dr. Sutton had called about forty-five minutes after Lex sent her to Mark's house. Just as Mark had suspected, his father was having chest pains and breathing problems. It hadn't been a heart attack, but it was enough to concern Dr. Sutton, who'd called and ambulance and had him admitted to the hospital.

Despite Lex and the Kents' protests, Mark had to see his father. Had to make sure he was all right, and apologize or something. He was so disgusted with himself, ashamed for lying, ashamed that he was gay and causing so much trouble. Ashamed that he'd let himself be victimized like this. Angry at Lex for not protecting him, although he knew it wasn't Lex's fault. Not completely.

He had to do something to make this right. And that meant speaking with his father as soon as possible.

"Ten minutes," the nurse said to him before he went in. "And try not to excite him."

Mark nodded, twisting his gloves in his hands. Then, after taking a deep breath, he entered the room.

His father was hooked up to about ten machines, all of them beeping and monitoring something. To Mark's surprise, he was awake and reading a book. Apparently the old man was stronger than he looked.

"Hey, Dad," he said hesitantly.

The look Dad gave him was one of pure loathing. "Get out," he said in a low, dangerous voice. Mark almost missed the words because of the machines, but there was no mistaking the revulsion in his tone.

"Dad," Mark said, stepping further into the room. "I'm sorry I didn't ..."

"Don't you ever call me that again, Mark. You're no son of mine."

Mark swallowed. "Dad, I know ..."

"Get out you pervert!" Dad shouted. The machines went wild, and Dad threw the book at him.

It hit the bridge of his nose, one of the corners cutting into the soft flesh above his eyelid. Blood welled immediately, obscuring his vision, and all he could do was stand there stupidly as a nurse burst into the room to tend to his father.

"Come on." Lex was suddenly at his elbow, leading him from the room. He didn't say anything, just pulled him away, letting Mark sink into a stupor.

"What happened?" a new voice asked, concerned.

"His father threw something at him," Lex responded. Lex's hand was on his shoulder, holding him.

"Mark?" It was Helen. He didn't feel like answering.

"Bring him here," she said, suddenly sounding official. "I want to look at his eye."

They were talking about him like he wasn't there, but that was okay. He wasn't. Mark let himself be led into an examination room.

"Lex, thanks, but could you wait outside?" she asked.

Lex sighed, but only squeezed his shoulder. "I'm going to be outside the room, Mark. Shout if she hurts you."

"Oh, shut up," she replied almost playfully.

The door closed, and then a cool, gloved hand was dabbing at his wound gently. "Mark? I think you're in shock, and you're beginning to scare me a little. Are you in there?"

He blinked and tried to get his eyes to focus. "Sorry, Helen."

"Oh, don't apologize. I just want to make sure you're still verbal." She smiled sadly and threw the bloody gauze away. "I'm sorry, Mark. You're such a nice man, you don't deserve to be treated like this." She grabbed another piece of gauze and pressed it to his forehead. "It looks like you got cut pretty good. I'm going to have to put a stitch in it. You'll probably have a scar."

Mark laughed hollowly. "The Mark of Cain."

Helen snorted and lifted his hand to press the gauze to his forehead. "Don't think like that. If anyone deserves a Biblical brand, it's your father. I'm glad I'm not his doctor." She opened the door and leaned outside. "Sally? Can you come help me stitch my patient up?"

The nurse came in and, together, they prepared the various instruments Mark watched them impassively, feeling as if he was floating.

Helen came back and her hands were on his face again. He liked them there; her touch grounded him.

"So," she said after a moment. "Lex tells me you're out a home."

"Yes," he replied without nodding. The pain faded as she applied a local anesthetic; when she began to sew, he didn't feel a thing.

"Well, if you like, I've got an extra room. And a lot of space. It's a huge apartment, and I'm living on my own, and, well. If you like, you're welcome to it. The room, I mean. And the apartment. But I come with it."

"I don't want to impose."

"It's no imposition. And I could use the company. Even if it's only until you get on your feet."

Mark smiled faintly and said, "Thanks. I'll think about it."

She finished quickly, and Mark signed some papers. Then there was a quick stop home for him to get some clothes and most important possessions. As he climbed into the car, he handed Lex his present. "Merry Christmas."

Afterwards, they'd gone back to the Kents, where another room was waiting for him. Lex had originally planned to take Mark directly to Reynolds', but Mark was too shell shocked. He had something to eat, mostly because Martha fussed around him until he ate, and then he retreated to the guest room. Clark's old room, he'd been told; apparently, Clark slept in the barn now.

Feeling dead, Mark climbed on top of the desk and leaned against the window. His forehead pressed against the cold surface. It was the only thing he could feel.

He wasn't sure if any of this was real, but it felt too real to be a dream. He'd always suspected his father would kick him out once he found out, but the reality was so much worse. It was hard, seeing that hatred in the eyes of someone who'd been responsible for his creation. To see the loathing and the disgust.

It was painful to admit he'd been sired by a bigot. And it was even more painful to admit that there was a part of him that felt Dad was right. That there was something wrong with him.

That thought was almost enough to make him throw up. How could he think something like that? He'd been out since he was fifteen years old, over ten years. For all but two of those years, he'd been taught to think that there was nothing wrong with being gay, that it was just as natural as heterosexuality, and there was nothing, nothing to be ashamed of. And, after two years, that's just what he was: ashamed.

He sniffed and pressed his head harder into the glass. No. No, he wasn't ashamed. He was upset; that wasn't the same thing.

The door opened. "Mark?" Lex said softly.

He blinked, snapping out of his reverie. His body ached, and the sun had set. He must have been up here for at least an hour. He really had no idea. "Yes?" Mark didn't turn.

"How are you holding up?"

He laughed humorlessly and shook his head. "My life just shattered around me. I'm numb."

"I'm sorry."

"I wish you'd stop saying that."

"I don't know what else to say. Or do. I ..."

"You've done enough, Lex. No matter how you look at it." Then he sighed and pulled away from the window. "I should have been honest with my father. From the very beginning. I still think the result would have been the same, but I'd be different. I ... I've been living with this incredible guilt for the past year and a half. For the first time in my life, I've felt like there was something wrong with me. I never felt like that with Mom." Mom had always been so wonderful about him being gay. Supportive. If she minded, she never let him know. Never made him feel ... like this. "Mom always made it clear I could talk to her, and if that was too uncomfortable, she'd find someone else for me to go to. She got me involved with the local youth center, encouraged me to join the GSA at school, and wanted to meet all my boyfriends." Mark stopped talking and rubbed his eyes. His head ached fiercely, and the anesthetic was wearing off.

Lex climbed on the desk, tugging at the neck of his turtleneck. He, as usual, dressed impeccably and looked beautiful. It wasn't fair.

It was times like this that Mark hated him. Hated him for being so sexy and unattainable. Hated him for walking around so flawless-looking while Mark was continually coming undone at the seams. Hated him for not wanting Mark, and hated him for having someone like Clark to worship him.

And, most of all, he hated seeing Lex like this. Looking insecure and guilty and strangely ... fragile.

He sighed, and hated himself for needing to comfort Lex. But he did. He felt bad enough, and, besides, it wasn't fair to let Lex beat himself up too much over this. "It wasn't your fault, Lex."

"Yes, it was. If I'd just trusted you, believed you when you said that you didn't take the money Dad offered, this wouldn't have happened."

"Maybe, maybe not. I think that something like this would have happened eventually. Besides, you aren't infallible. And I have some culpability in it, too. Lionel wouldn't have been able to use this against me had I just been honest."

"He still could have tried to ruin you professionally. And he would have. Still might." Lex shook his head and looked out the window. "He'll use Clark to do it, too. Just to fuck with his mind some more."

"Which is what I was trying to avoid in the first place."

Lex smiled bitterly and shook his head. "Trust me. If Dad wants to fuck with Clark, the only one who can stop him is Clark."

"Oh?"

"I mean it, Mark. Dad has it out for him, and nothing anyone does ..." He broke off, eyes closing. The faint light from outside glinted on his lashes, making the red glow like a sunset. "Last year, while I was supposed to be protecting Clark, Dad tried to rape him. And I .... No matter how hard I try to protect him, or make it okay, or just anything, I'm always going to fail because I love him too much and Dad makes me ..." He exhaled shakily and ran a hand over his mouth. "Weak."

Amazing how that one word made everything so clear. God, how could he have been so blind? Of course Clark had been .... "Fuck." He covered his face with his hands, feeling ill.

"You didn't know."

"I should have. God, I should have known something had happened. He's my student. He's pulled away from me. I've seen him pull away from other people. I didn't understand. I thought it was you. That you were, I don't know what. Telling him he couldn't be with other people or something. Trying to scare him into only being with you."

"I try not to. I try to encourage him to date other people, and explore his sexuality and be young. I was hesitant at first. About us. We both thought this was going to be temporary. A fling or exploration or something, just to see. He thought I was going to move back to Metropolis at the first chance I got, and I figured he was going to end up with Lana or Chloe or someone. But we couldn't leave each other. I still encouraged him to be with other people, but after Dad ..." He sighed and tugged at his shirt collar again.

"I'm sorry I doubted you," Mark said quietly. "I'm sorry I thought you were being selfishly immature, and for thinking life was so easy for you."

Bright blue eyes met his, and Lex's lips quirked. He seemed pleased by Mark's admission. "I don't think anyone's ever admitted thinking that to me before."

He returned the half-smile. "No more lies."

"Agreed. I'm sorry for doubting you. I should have known you were one of the good people. I just ... don't meet many of them."

"You have a whole family of good people, Lex."

He swallowed. "I'm still not used to them." Then he sighed. "Reynolds hates me, but I'll do whatever is necessary to make sure he helps you keep your job. I swear."

Mark nodded, knowing that Lex would be true to his word. The only thing that remained to be seen was whether Mark would still want to stay in Smallville after this.

Then he thought of Whitney. And of Clark. And he knew he would do whatever it took to stay.


"This wasn't how I wanted to spend tonight," Clark said softly as Lex entered the room.

Lex gasped, hand tightening on the doorknob. Clark cringed, berating himself. Lex was tired, jumpy, sick, and scared of some nameless nightmare that'd been following him since Ryan. Why the hell hadn't Clark turned on a light to warn him?

He leaned over and turned the lamp on the dresser on now, accidentally disturbing the kitten in his lap. "Sorry to scare you."

"It's okay," Lex said, his voice cracked and almost nonexistent. He closed the door and crossed the room. "Do your parents know you're here?"

"No. But it's okay. We're on vacation, and as long as I'm back in time for chores, I'm sure they won't mind." He pet the kitten. She purred loudly and turned onto her back, stretching. "You okay?"

"No." He toed off his shoed and stretched across the bed on his stomach. "God, no. If I never have to deal with Reynolds again, I'd be a happy man. And Mark's father is a real asshole. I can't believe I'm arranging home care for the bastard. I'd like to hire someone who'd kill him, but Mark won't let me. Not that I ran it by him." He sighed and rested his head on Clark's thigh. "Not a merry Christmas at all."

Clark ran his finger over Lex's ear, feeling a surge of tenderness well in him. "I don't know. It had its moments."

"Not for Mark." He stroked the kitten's stomach lightly.

"It wasn't your fault." But the words sounded old and tired. Not because they weren't true. It hadn't been Lex's fault, it was Lionel's. Even had Lex tried to stop it from happening, there was a good chance Lionel still would have done his damage anyway. "It was such a little thing, you know? If he hadn't gotten the proof to Mr. Townsend's dad, he could have just told him. And I bet Mr. Townsend would have 'fessed up to it, too. Without the proof."

"But his job ..."

"You'll protect him now, Lex. He's your friend."

Clark watched as Lex squeezed his eyes shut, a look of anguish on his face. "What's wrong with me?" he asked in a whisper.

Oh, baby. Clark's heard melted. Carefully, he shooed the cat off his lap. She meowed unhappily, but leapt off the bed and went sniffing around Lex's shoes.

"Right now, a lot of things. Ryan died. Damien got hurt, again. Lionel's been bothering you, you've been buried in work." He stroked down Lex's neck. "You're sick. There have been so many things going on in your life right now, plus, you were hurt when Lionel made the offer to Mr. Townsend. You weren't thinking clearly."

"I would do anything to protect my friends. I let myself be implicated in a murder for Amanda. I killed someone for you. I .... But I can't ... ever stop him." He swallowed, and a tear eased out of the corner of his eyes. "I let him hurt you. I let him destroy Mark's life. I'm just ..."

Trying not to roll his eyes, Clark pulled Lex off his lap. "Repeat after me," he said, holding Lex by the shoulders. "Lionel hurt Clark, not me."

"Clark ..."

"Say it."

He sighed and mumbled, "Lionel hurt Clark, not me. But it was ..."

"No, Lex," Clark said in exasperation. "No, it wasn't your fault. You are responsible for your actions, Lex. Not your father's."

"What about my inactions?"

"Baby, you have to let this go. Both what your dad did to me and Mr. Townsend. He and I will survive. We both did. And the only thing you can do is help us continue to survive, not mourn what happened. We're both going to do that enough, and what we need is support."

Lex pulled Clark to him and held him tightly. "I broke into your e-mail account. I r-read Grant's article."

"Yeah, I know." Like Lex, Clark had stumbled onto Lex's e-mail password weeks ago. They both knew each other knew, even if they'd never talked about it. Normally, they didn't read each other's e-mails, but there was a thrill in being able to have access to this.

But that wasn't what was important. The content of the article .... Grant had written of the attempted rape more starkly than Clark had thought he would. It'd been painful for him to read, and most of it had been in his own words. "You have to understand, Lex, the entries Grant used were written very soon after it'd happened. When I was in the most pain and confusion."

"I'd never heard some of those things. That you wrote."

He rubbed Lex's back. "I didn't tell. I couldn't .... I started it about a week after it happened. I couldn't say anything, I could form the words, but they kept flowing out of the pen. During the day, I was able to forget it, and focus on everything but what had happened, but at night .... I wrote. I'm sorry if you're hurt I didn't share it with you, but ..."

Lex pulled away, mouth open. His eyes were shiny and face wet with tears. "Clark, no." His voice cracked. "No, I'm not hurt. I'm not angry. Not at you."

"I don't want you to be angry at yourself. It wasn't your fault. I've never blamed you."

He closed his eyes and brought his hand up to his face. For a long moment, he didn't speak. His thumb rubbed restlessly against his cheek, smearing the tears over his skin rather than wiping them away. He looked so lost and hurt, and Clark wanted to hold him, but Lex wouldn't want that right now.

"When I first met you, I didn't understand you," Lex said, voice so low Clark had to lean in to hear him. "And you were ... so beautiful. So Goddamn beautiful. Innocent and pure and good and there was this part of me that wanted to ... to hurt you. Just to see how beautiful you'd suffer, too." He swallowed hard and bit his thumb. "And when I realized you wanted me, and I felt so lucky, but I .... I swore to myself I wouldn't let anything happen. That, even if we slept together, and even if I showed you things that you were too young for, I wasn't going to let you ... wasn't going to make you grow up before you were ready." He looked up at Clark. "I've never been innocent, and I wanted you to be."

"Lex, if we hadn't gotten together, if Lionel have never tried to get back at my dad through me, I still would be an alien. And I'd still be fighting the victims of the meteor shower. I still would have been drugged with the red meteor rocks, and the tornado would have hit, and Ryan would have died. Whitney would still be missing. Everything still would have happened, only I wouldn't have you."

Lex's lips trembled. "Right, I know. I know that, but .... It hurt to read. It was like someone was tearing me apart."

"I know the feeling," Clark said wryly. "Lex, I love you, and I completely understand the urge to protect me. Any time I even think you've been hurt, I go crazy. But you can't ... can't make promises that are impossible to keep. People grow up. They lose their innocence. And, hey. It's not like I'm that jaded."

"No, angel, you're not jaded," Lex laughed. He wiped underneath his eyes. "Not at all." He coughed; when he swallowed, he winced hard. "I, uh, didn't have a chance to give you your present."

Clark's heart began to pound as Lex reached into his pocket. He didn't know why he was so nervous, but ...

As soon as he saw the black velvet box, he knew. He knew what was in it, and he didn't know if he was supposed to be disappointed that he knew, or happy because it was exactly what he'd wanted from the moment he'd seen ...

Two silver rings. Celtic wishbone rings that symbolized balance in nature and in a relationship. Balance in their relationship, and ...

"What's the inscription?" he asked, voice hoarse. He wasn't crying. He wasn't.

Lex blinked, startled. Blue eyes met Clark, and his lips trembled into a curve. "Piek ric."

Of course.

"Lex," he whispered.

"It's a promise ring." He lifted the larger one, hand shaking. "I thought, with everything we've been through this year .... When I saw them at the store, all I could think of was how beautiful one would be on your finger."

He swallowed. "I saw these. At the jewelry story where I bought the box. I saw them." Clark looked up, blinking to clear his vision. "I knew. I wanted them, but I didn't even .... Not consciously."

Lex smiled and took Clark's right hand. "Of course you knew." He kissed the center of Clark's palm. "We've got one mind about some things. We knew it was time." Lex took a deep breath as he brought the ring to Clark's finger. His chin trembled slightly, and he met Clark's eyes. "I promise that I'll trust you. That I'll love and protect you to the best of my abilities. That I'll always do what's best for you and your family, but that I'll always consult you. I'll remember that our relationship is a partnership, and I don't know what's best or have all the answers." He licked his lips. "And I promise I'll take care of myself, and not overwork and make myself sick."

"And you promise not to blame yourself for things that are out of you control."

"And I promise not to blame myself for things that are out of my control," Lex repeated solemnly. "And I promise to love you." He slid the ring on Clark's finger.

Lightheaded and exuberant, Clark picked up Lex's ring. His mouth felt dry, and he had to work moisture back into his mouth in order to speak. "I promise you that I'll love and protect you my whole life. I promise that I'll trust you, and always come to you when I'm troubled or unsure about anything you or I may do. I promise .... I promise you everything that I'm capable of."

Lex smiled and put his hand on Clark's cheek. "Don't ..."

"Lex." Clark turned his face into Lex's touch and kissed his wrist. "All that I'm capable of promising. And no more. I swear."

He nodded and sniffed.

Trembling, Clark slid the ring on Lex's finger. "And I promise to love you." Then he laced his fingers with Lex's and squeezed. "Thank you," he whispered.

Lex slid into his lap and wrapped his arms and legs around Clark's body. "Thank you for coming into my life." He kissed Clark's cheek, then his lips. "Thank you for loving me. And thank you for ... thank you."

"I love you Lex," Clark said, resting their foreheads together. "Merry Christmas."

Lex kissed him, mouth hungry and needy. But his body was so tired, and he leaned against Clark, heavy with exhaustion.

Clark lay back on the pillows, pulling Lex with him. They continued to kiss leisurely, lovingly. He tugged the covers over them, and rolled Lex underneath. "Sleep," he whispered, kissing each of Lex's eyelids.

"Don't leave." Lex rested his head over Clark's heart, eyes closed. His breathing was a little labored, but there was a look of bliss on his face. Of peace.

A smile tugged Clark's mouth, and he planted a kiss on Lex's lips lovingly. "Never," he whispered, making his final promise. He took Lex's hand and laced their fingers so the rings lined up. Then, as Lex drifted off besides him, Clark allowed himself to dream of the future, of love, and of Lex.