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Corner of the World 46: Love and Quarterbacks

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Sneaking back from Lex's was an art form, and one that Clark had perfected in the year they'd been together. It required careful thought, planning, and execution, and, Clark was sure, the slightest misstep on his part would lead to his Lex-privileges being taken away. But, as with everything, practice made perfect and Clark had spent a lot of time refining his techniques.

The first and most essential step was a shower. Sex meant he had to shower, but most of the time, he and Lex didn't bother with it right away. They cleaned up a little, but mostly they liked sleeping with each other's smell on them. Plus, they were too lazy to take an actual shower because that would involve getting out of bed (having sex in the shower didn't help; it killed two birds with one stone, of course, but often led to more sex in bed after). However, Clark couldn't come home with wet hair and smelling shower fresh. He never did chores like that, since he was only going to get dirty and have to take another shower after.

The solution was to shower early and then go back to bed. That way, when he saw his father, he'd still smell like sheets and sleep, his hair would be messed up, but he wouldn't smell like Lex's expensive soaps. Not that he used Lex's expensive soaps when he snuck out; he'd stocked the bathroom with Ivory.

The trick was to force himself to wake up an hour or two after he and Lex fell asleep. He'd actually gotten pretty good at it. Lex usually woke up when he got up, and then again when Clark got back in bed, but he never complained. He understood the necessity; after all, Lex had been at the rule-making dinner same as Clark.

The second secret to sneaking back home was clothing. He couldn't go home in the same clothes he'd worn the day before, not even if he was just going to go to the loft and change. Even with super speed, it was easier to change at Lex's and wear a new outfit home.

The final secret was to never be in his room when Dad got up. It always felt too awkward and strange to be there, pretending. Besides, he couldn't ever rumple his bed the right way, so Clark always met his father either inside the kitchen or just outside the house.

Clark had covered all the bases today, but if he got caught, it really didn't matter. Not after last night. If Clark never got to spend the night with Lex again, it was worth it.

It wasn't the ring, although feeling it on his finger definitely made a huge difference. He got it now, why girls got so crazy about engagement rings. It wasn't just what they looked like, although Clark really thought the rings Lex had picked out were the most beautiful rings he'd ever seen. But beyond looks, it was the way they felt. Clark could feel Lex's promises to him, could feel his own promises in the cool metal that rested against his skin. He could trace the pattern and feel Lex, and, yes, they were telepathic, but.... The ring calmed him in a way he never could have anticipated. It grounded him, and if Clark lost the right to spend the night with Lex until they were both a hundred years old, it was worth it.

Quietly, so as not to wake anyone still asleep, Clark entered the house through the kitchen door.

"Morning, Clark," Mr. Townsend said, startling him.

Clark jumped, biting his lip as he did. "Mr. Townsend," he said, voice as even as he could make it. "Good morning."

Mr. Townsend smiled and said, "Do you want to perhaps try Mark when we're not at school? Especially when I'm staying at your house?"

"Yeah, okay," Clark said tentatively. That would be completely weird, calling his teacher by his first name. Kind of like when he'd seen his sixth grade teacher, Miss Smith, at the pool a couple of summers ago in a bikini. Only less sexual. "Um, did you sleep okay?" he asked as he grabbed the coffee pot and poured himself a cup.

"No, not really." He leaned against the counter and took a sip of his coffee. "I gave up after awhile and read. How about you?"

"I slept fine." Clark stirred sugar into his coffee and said, "I'm really sorry about what Lionel did."

"Thanks. But you don't have to be. It was in no way your fault. Lionel sent that stuff to my father because he wanted to. It was nothing to do with you." His lips twitched and then he raised his mug again.

"But it does have something to do with me. I mean, he wanted you to spy on Lex and me. And Lionel just seems to be, I don't know. Determined to hurt everyone I care about." He inhaled and exhaled slowly, staring into his coffee mug. "There's this part of me that hopes Whitney stays away from Smallville forever, you know."

"Why?" He sounded surprised.

Clark glanced at him. "Last spring, right before Whitney left, Lionel made me get into his limo. He was touching me and stuff, trying to scare me, and Whitney got me away. He beat up the limo driver and threatened Lionel. It was great, but I'm just afraid if he comes back, Lionel will do something to him. Like he did to you."

"Clark, it's okay," Mr. Tow... Mark said. "I'm not angry, and I'm not afraid of what Lionel might try to do to me. Yes, I'm worried about my job. Yes, I'm worried that Lionel might succeed in trying to make it look as if I'm doing something inappropriate with my students. As for what happened with Dad.... I'm almost glad it happened. Not the way it did, of course, but it's out in the open now, and I can move on with my life. I can date now." He smiled lopsidedly. "Not that there's anyone to date, but I can. More than that, I don't have to live in constant anxiety as Dad needles me about not dating or bringing home any girls or anything about my sex life." He sighed, and a smile broke out over his face. "No, Clark. I think this was a good thing."

"Well. Good," Clark said awkwardly, not believing for a minute that anything good could come from this. But he could hope, just like Mr. Townsend, so he wouldn't add anymore of his own insecurities to the conversation.

"Morning, Clark. Mark," Jonathan said, coming down the stairs. He was pulling a heavy flannel shirt over his tee shirt. "How are you this morning?"

"I'm fine, thank you, sir," Mark replied, setting his mug down. "I was wondering if there was anything I could help you with this morning."

Jonathan ran his eyes over Mark contemplatively and said, "We could always use some help feeding the herd." He grabbed his cow mug and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Thank you."

"It's my pleasure."

He smiled, then turned to Clark. He was about to say something, when abruptly his eyes narrowed and mouth pressed into a thin line. "He didn't run this by us," he said, grabbing Clark's right hand. "What is this?"

Clark swallowed as Dad's thumb ran over the ring. "A ring."

"What, did you and Lex run off and get married last night?"

He snatched his hand back and stuffed it into his pocket. "No. Of course not, Dad, I... No."

"Are you engaged?"

Yes. "No." Sort of. "Not at all." Lex told Clark all his money was Clark's too, but that wasn't engaged.

Dad grabbed his arm again and pulled his hand out. "Then what is this?"

Clark didn't answer.

"Dammit, Clark. You know I'm not ever going to stand in the way of you and Lex, but you're sixteen years old. That's too young to be so committed to him. You can't..."

"Dad, it's just a promise ring!"

"And you promised to get engaged to him? Or to only be with him? Clark, you're too young..."

"No!" Clark shouted, anger overtaking him. "I am not too young, and that's not what we promised anyway! I made him promise not to blame himself for not protecting me from everything! I told Grant about Lionel, Dad. I told him what Lionel did to me, and Lex is all freaked out and scared and upset, and if I don't make him promise he will never understand that everything that's ever happened to me isn't his fault!"

"Clark," Jonathan breathed, looking shocked.

"Dad, this isn't going to go away. Lex and me. It's not. And I can't have Lex walking around for the rest of his life, convinced that nothing he ever does is good enough because one time something happened to me. And I can't have him beating himself up for things that might happen. You don't have to like the ring, but dammit, you know I don't want to be without him. This ring doesn't mean anything new."

Jonathan breathed heavily a moment, throat working as he swallowed. His hand trembled and his jaw was tight. "Clark..."

"I'm going to go milk the cows." Without waiting for his father to say anything, he left for the barn. With any luck, he'd be finished before Dad got to his side of the herd, and then he could just leave. He really needed to go running and just ... be anywhere but here.

For someone so adept at wielding his telepathic powers, Clark sucked at warnings. And, really, in this case? A simple phone call would have done. A warning. A ring. Even a fucking voice mail.

"Hey, Lex. Dad saw the ring. He wasn't happy. Tread carefully."

Seriously, how hard would that have been? But, no. There was no warning, so when Lex pulled up to the Kents', he was met with the glowering face of Mr. Kent.

"Um. Hi," he said, climbing out of his car. It was freezing outside, and he hoped that whatever Jonathan was going to yell at him for could wait until they in the house.

"Lex." Then he just stood there, as Jonathan Kent was wont to do, waiting until the guilty party confessed his sins.

Lex wracked his brains quickly. Had he left the collar here? No; he'd worn it all day yesterday and took the box home with the cat. The computer he'd already gotten permission for. Dad hadn't fired, threatened, or dumped any waste anywhere. So what...

"The ring, Lex. Let's talk about the ring," Jonathan finally said.

Oh, fuck. The ring. Maybe Lex should have told Clark to keep it a secret.

He tucked his hands under his armpits and stamped his feet. "All right. Let's talk about it."

"Clark tells me it's a promise ring."

He nodded. "It is. You, ah, probably feel that I should have run it past you first, I'm sure..."

"Of course I think you should have run it past me. I know we've had the conversation about your intentions towards my son, but this is different. This is a little more serious than Clark having trouble sleeping at night and moving without thinking."

Lex swallowed, throat dry. His throat was killing him, and his head ached softly. Apparently, he still hadn't quite kicked his cold or flu or whatever he had. "You know my intentions towards your son. I love Clark. I would do anything for him."

"I don't want you to get too serious too fast."

"I think it's too late for that, Jonathan." Oh, shit. "Mr. Kent." Oh, God, keep talking and cover up what he'd just done. "Everything is so intense, especially lately," Lex said so hurriedly his words ran together. "What with Ryan and Whitney both falling out of his life, and Dad becoming a constant presence in mine, it's just hard. I swear I'm not trying to rush him into anything, or bind him into anything. It's a promise ring. It's not intent to get married. We had promises to make to each other. To be honest, we probably should have made them last fall when we got back together. But it wasn't until I saw them, that I.... I'm sorry you don't like it, but I'm not taking it back." Oh, shit, did he just say that?

Jonathan sort of laughed and rolled his eyes. "I wasn't going to ask you to take the rings back. And I'm not against the idea. I just wished you'd come to me first."

"It's our relationship," Lex said softly. "I don't want to feel as if I have to ask permission for everything. I've compromised on when I can see him, and when he can spend the night. I'm thankful that you let him spend the night on the weekends, and...."

"And don't think we don't know it when he sneaks over, Lex," Jonathan interrupted.

He blushed and shrugged. "I don't try to encourage it. But it's hard to send him away." He swallowed, wishing he had a cough drop. "Clark and I work better than any other relationship I've had in my life. I gave him the ring because, well, it was time."

Jonathan looked down at the ground and kicked a lump of snow away. "Clark told me that you blame yourself for what happened with Lionel."

Lex squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head.

"Lex, what Lionel did. It wasn't you. Wasn't your fault. You couldn't have prevented it, and couldn't have predicted it."

Throat tight, head pounding, Lex said, "I could have..."

"No, Lex. Just let it go, son."

Staggered, Lex looked up. Jonathan closed the distance between them and put his hand on Lex's shoulder. "Let it go," he said again.

A little shell-shocked, Lex nodded. He couldn't think of anything to say. It was as if his brain had dried up.

"Good." Jonathan squeezed his shoulder and pulled away. "Martha has hot chocolate simmering inside. You should have a cup before you and Mark head over to Reynolds's."

Lex groaned and stumbled towards the house. He felt stiff and frozen; hot chocolate sounded like heaven. "Would you mind calling Reynolds and telling him that I'm not responsible for my father's actions?"

He laughed. "You're on your own there, Lex. Sorry about that." Jonathan waved at him, and then left for the barn.

"Yeah," he replied, rubbing his eyes.

The house was like an inferno compared to outside. Blood rushed painfully to frozen fingers and his cheeks, making him grunt.

"Hey, Lex," Martha said from kitchen table. "Hot chocolate is in the saucepan. Mark's still upstairs getting ready. Clark's on the phone, and..."

"Lex!" Aaron shouted from the living room. "Come see my high score!"

"Aaron's in the living room."

Lex nodded, rolling his eyes. After getting himself a mug, he stuck his head in the living room. Aaron was jumping up and down in front of the television, furiously hitting the buttons on his controller as he played some football game Lex vaguely remembered buying. His score was incredible.

"Good job, Aaron."

"Come play with me." The words were said lightly, but the look he sent over his shoulder was seductive.

"Bye, Aaron." He turned and went back into the kitchen.

Martha put her pen down and looked up at him expectantly. "So, let me see it."

It took him a moment to realize what she wanted, but then obligingly sat down and pulled his gloves off. His ring was on his right ring finger and Lex felt it more keenly than he'd ever felt anything in his life. Including the collar.

He slid his hand across the table for her to take.

"It looks good," Martha said, running her thumb over the ring. "Very strong. It like how it points to your heart." She rubbed over the point which Lex wore facing in. "Clark said you had it inscribed?"

"Yes." He took it off and showed her the inscription.

"Piek ric," she said softly. "He used to say that to us. Before." With a misty smile, she handed the ring back. "I'm happy for you." She put his hand on the table and covered it with her own.

Lex looked down, embarrassed. "Well, it's not an engagement ring. Not even a promise to get engaged."

"I know. Clark ... shouted, and I heard. And I'm glad, Lex. Because the last thing the two of you need is redundancy built into the system. You've got a pretty clear mind about where you're going. This is better. Every relationship needs to define what they can expect from one another." She squeezed his hand. "I think it was a wonderful idea."

"Thank you." He pulled his hand away and twisted the ring. It felt comforting on his finger. He hoped he was able to wear it without attracting too many questions.

"Morning, Lex," Mark said, walking in. He was dressed, but looked as if he'd just woken up. His hair was flat, and face pale, the stitches from the cut his father had given him standing out. There were also circles under his eyes.

"Well, it's afternoon, actually."

Mark blinked and checked the clock over the sink. "Oh. I guess I lost track of time. I laid down to shut my eyes for a minute about a couple hours ago." He yawned and went to the table. "I'm not ready for this. Any way to postpone it?"

"Not unless you want my father to tarnish your reputation before you get a chance to defend it. Trust me; it's a lot easier to go on the offensive than have to do damage control. We can anticipate his moves and warn the school board ahead of time."

"I know the logic. It doesn't make it easier."

"Okay," Clark said into the phone, coming into the room. "Okay, yeah, sounds good. I'll have it all read and send it back to you on Friday. But, one thing now: you have to change the name. I don't want to be George." He stopped, smile growing. "I'll think of something. Okay, I'll talk to you later. Here's Mr. .... Mark." He pulled the phone away from his ear and out to Mark. "Grant wants to talk to you."

"Thank you." His eyes lit up, and Lex wondered if there was, perhaps, more to their relationship than Mark had let on. "Hey, Grant." He rose and left the kitchen.

Clark came behind Lex and kissed him. "Hey, baby. How are you feeling?"

Lex tilted his head back and rested it against Clark's chest. "Okay. Throat hurts. Head is stable."


He shrugged and closed his eyes. Just being near Clark was soothing, and Lex wanted to fall asleep. He hadn't slept all that well last night, for various reasons. He'd been comfortable, and felt safe with Clark, but his dreams had been disturbing and his body had ached and kept him awake. "Didn't take it."

Lips fell on his forehead, and Clark was still. "I can't tell," he finally said. "But I think you're warmer than usual. Maybe we should take your temperature."

Lex reached up and put his hands on Clark's neck. "I'm fine, okay? Even if I do have a temperature, I can't go home right now. Mark and I have to take care of this today. It's not like I'm going to be doing anything strenuous. Besides. I can breathe."

Clark allowed himself to be pulled onto Lex's lap, his arms draped loosely over Lex's neck. Lex kissed Clark gently and then rested his forehead against Clark's cheek. "I'm fine."

"You're probably contagious," Clark said worriedly. "There's a lot more to being sick than not being able to breathe."

"Don't be a worry wart." Lex kissed his chin and pulled away.

"I'm looking forward to seeing you too," Mark said, returning to the kitchen. He was silent a moment, then laughed. "Right. Right, okay. Yeah, I'll talk to you soon. Bye." With a sigh, he hung up the phone.

Clark slid his hands over Lex's shoulders as he moved into the seat next to him. "You're going to see Grant when he comes to town?"

Mark nodded. He refilled his mug of hot chocolate and sat back down. "Actually, he asked if I could come to Metropolis for New Years Eve." He hesitated then said, "Is that okay with you?"

"Yeah, of course," Clark replied with a shrug. "I think Grant's cool."

"Clark!" Aaron shouted from the living room. "You almost ready?"

"Yeah, in a minute!"

"Where are you two up to?" Lex asked.

Clark threaded his fingers through Lex's hand and shrugged. "Brian's having a get together at his house, and Aaron wants to go."

"Brian?" Martha asked.

"Brian Arias? He and Aaron know each other from the city," Clark explained. Then he shrugged. "I just want to make sure Aaron doesn't get into too much trouble."

Lex rolled his eyes at Clark's too casual explanation. He was gazing at their hands, guilt lurking around the edges of his expression. "Clark," he said warningly. "You know how I feel about you having friends."

"Oh, shut up."

He coughed a few times and untangled his hand from Clark's. "Mark, we should probably get going. We're supposed to meet Reynolds in fifteen minutes."

Mark drained his mug and rose. "All right. Give me a couple minutes for my hair."

"I'll see you later, Mrs. Kent. Clark. Behave." He kissed Clark gently and went to wait for Mark.

To his credit, Mark waited two miles before broaching the subject of the ring. "So," he said slowly. Not hesitantly, but in a lazy conversationally fashion. "You gave Clark a promise ring."

Lex sighed and closed his eyes. "Yes," he said. "I gave him a promise ring. I felt, what with everything that's been happening lately, it was time." He shot Mark a look. "Why?" he said, challengingly.

"I was just ... it feels like it's sort of hanging between us right now, that's all. I don't know why." He was quiet a moment before saying, "It looks good on him. Right, somehow. Like a complement to his maturity. Which is funny, considering the fit he threw when.... Well, no. That's not fair. He didn't explode because of his age." He glanced at Lex. "How are you holding up?"

He shrugged. "I'm fine. I feel guilty. I mean, the last thing I ever meant to do was make Clark feel even worse about what happened by adding my guilt, but..."

"Oh, Jesus Christ," Mark muttered.


"The two of you. You're both unbelievable. It's like you look for reasons to feel even worse about yourselves."

He couldn't help but smile at Mark's tone. "Yeah, well. I was raised by Lionel, and Clark's been tortured by him."

"Clark isn't the first boy ever to be raped, abused, or threatened. Look at Aaron."

"What about Aaron?" Lex asked, curious.

Mark glanced at him. "Clark hadn't told you?"

"If it's something he'd learned over the past few days, then no."

He put on the turn signal and turned right onto a quiet little neighborhood. "Aaron was sexually abused as a child. Then he was kicked out of his house and bounced from foster home to foster home. And now he's working a crisis hotline, saving for college, and is generally well adjusted with some expected complications. He doesn't have the support system Clark does, but he's turned out fine."

He's not an alien who could have broken Lionel's skull with the flick of his finger, but Lex wasn't about to bring that up. Besides, that wasn't the point.

Lex twisted his ring around his finger. "I know people are able to overcome things like this. It's just that there's this part of me that's terrified he won't."

"Are you kidding? He already has. Not completely, but it's not something you ever completely get over. But he's gotten over the worst, hasn't he?"

"Yes." He had. After hiding in a cave, falling apart in Lex's arms, and some sense. And if Lex had been stronger ... if he'd talked to Clark about it sooner...

The ring bit into his skin.

Lex let it go.

With a heavy sigh, Mark pulled to a stop in front of Reynolds' house. "I'm not ready for this," he said quietly, looking at the house.

"Reynolds' isn't going to let them fire you. He hates me, but he's a fair man. He can't fire you for being gay, and you haven't done anything wrong."

Mark sighed and shook his head. "I know that. And, yet, it's amazing how two years can change the way you look at yourself."

Lex laughed, surprised. "Yes, I know."

They shared a look of warm understanding, and, for a moment, Lex felt ... normal.

"Okay, let's go," Lex said finally. "Are you ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

They climbed out of the car and waited as Dom's car pulled up behind them. Originally, they'd planned for Damien to attend the meeting, but apparently he'd pulled a muscle last night. Lex wasn't asking questions because the injury caused Dominic to blush, stammer,and refuse to meet anyone's eyes. Because of that, Lex wasn't too worried. Dominic was incapable of hurting anyone too badly during sex.

He hoped.

"Are you sure you're up to this, Dom?" Lex asked as they walked up the recently shoveled walk.

He nodded and tightened his grip on his briefcase. "I may be a glorified accountant, but I do know the law. Besides, I'm mostly here to remind everyone there are laws protecting Mr. Townsend, and take notes in case they should forget."

Lex nodded and took a deep breath. He was a little nervous himself, on Mark's behalf, of course. But, mostly, he was nervous for himself. Even yesterday, Reynolds could barely contain his scorn for Lex, and Lex just ... took it because that's all he could do. Because of him ... no, Lionel, Reynolds had been fired. And because of him...

Christ. Did he always do this? Blame himself for everything? It was his father...

Because of him....

His father hardly needed Lex's permission...

He just needed the excuse.

"You okay?" Mark asked, concerned.

Lex realized he was clutching the screen door. The world spun around him, and he was cold. "I'm fine. Just a little dizzy."

"Do you want to go home?"

"No, I'll be fine." He rang the doorbell.

The real reason he'd taken Reynolds' rudeness yesterday was because he had to. None of this was about him; it was about Mark. Lex wanted to fix what had happened, and, in order to do that, he had to take responsibility. That meant not arguing with Reynolds; he wasn't going to lower himself to either his father or Reynolds's level.

Mark was the reason why he was going to take the abuse again today. With grace and aplomb. At the same time, however, Lex was only going to tolerate rudeness so far before he started, still gently, demanding the respect that was due him.

As long as it didn't hurt Mark.

Reynolds' wife let them in and led them to the living room where everyone was gathered. There were about ten women and men inside, sitting in chairs and on the couch, talking. When Lex, Dominic, and Mark entered, everyone stopped talking and looked at them.

"Mark, Lex, welcome." Reynolds said, rising from his seat. He moved forward to shake Mark's hand as his eyes slid to Dominic. "I'm sorry, I don't know you."

"Dominic Senatori. I'm here on behalf of Mr. Townsend's lawyer."

A murmur ran through the room. "Why would you need a lawyer?" one of the men asked. "What is this about?"

"Mark, would you like to explain?"

He nodded and stepped further into the room. "I don't feel as if I need a lawyer. Or, rather, I don't feel as if I should need one. I've done nothing wrong, nothing I need protection from. However, Lionel Luthor is trying to blackmail me into giving him information about his son." He indicated to Lex. "He and I are friends, and Lionel.... Well, truthfully, I don't quite understand the whole thing, but..."

"But Lionel Luthor is dangerous and has his own reasons for doing what he does," Reynolds said. "He keeps close tabs on his son, and has been known to pay off Lex Luthor's friends for information in the past, as well."

Lex nodded in agreement when heads turned to him.

"However, I refused. So, yesterday, he gave my father a folder of incriminating information," Mark said.

"Incriminating?" someone said.

"Yes." Mark took a deep breath. "I'm gay. I'd never told my father. As most of you know, I was raised by my mother in California, and grew up barely knowing him. I knew he wouldn't be receptive to my sexual orientation, but as he needed a companion because of his health, decided that it didn't matter. I've been in the closet since moving here, and have only told two or three people. One of these people is a student. It was an accident, I didn't intend for him to know. However, it didn't bother him, and his parents weren't threatened by me."

"You discussed your sexuality with a student?" one of the women said, a reprimand in her voice.

"This student is a friend of mine," Lex stepped in. Clark and his parents had already agreed to let the Board know of Clark's involvement, if necessary; until then, no names would be used. "It came out somewhere along the way. Mark didn't do anything inappropriate. However, my father has a few pictures of Mark and this student together."

"Why would you be together anywhere?"

Mark hesitated before saying, "I'm the advisor of a club he started." So much for anonymity, his posture said. "Occasionally, he's approached me at the Talon to talk about that, and other things. He's a bright boy, and I try to encourage him to push himself."

"But nothing inappropriate," Reynolds said.

"Not unless wanting your students to succeed is inappropriate, no."

Reynolds nodded and turned to the Board. "Mark Townsend is a very gifted and talented teacher. I don't want to lose him. I won't fire him, unless any allegations that may be brought against him are true. I spoke to the student's parents last night, and they've assured me that Mark is the last person they would worry about entrusting their son to. Legally, he's free and clear, but I want to make sure that we have a united front if any parent has a complaint about his sexuality."

And, thus began the debate. Of course, none of them would admit to being a bigot, but questions were raised about the appropriateness of methods, and his content, and his interpretations. The essay on The Great Gatsby that Hammond's son had written last fall--the one that dealt with the gay undertones of the novel--was suddenly Mark's doing, and if Hammond's son wound up gay....

"Not that I've got anything against gay folks, exactly.

Rachel's daughter had a sudden obsession with Queer as Folk. She was spending a lot of time on the Internet, and, now that Rachel thought about it, she remembered seeing a picture of Harry Potter and that blond boy kissing on her daughter's computer. Now, while she was sure Mark didn't mean to pass on his views of things like that, one had to wonder.... It wasn't like her daughter was like that before....

"Not that I think being a homosexual is wrong or anything. But it's not natural, a seventeen year old girl to be obsessed with gay boys like that."

Derek, John, and Michael were afraid Mark might teach evolutionary theory to their good Protestant boys and girls.

"I teach English. Grammar and literature."

He might sneak it in.

"I won't. It has nothing to do with anything."

He might give the kids condoms.

"Not my place."

What about the Kent boy? Everyone knows....

Looks were tossed at Lex. He coughed into his handkerchief and wished LexCorp owned the school board.

"I don't step outside my field," Mark said firmly. "I teach English literature, and that's it." Maybe not with Clark, but Clark was different. He needed counseling, after all, and Font wasn't cutting it.

Speaking of ... "Mr. Reynolds?" Lex said softly as the debate raged.

"Yes?" Reynolds said with exasperation, turning.

"I need to speak with you about Mr. Font at some point."

"What about him?" His tone indicated that "sometime" was right now; the less time Reynolds had to spend around Lex, it appeared, the better.

"I have some evidence that he's passing on information about his students to outside sources. Specifically Clark."

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

"My father paid Mr. Font to give him information on his sessions with Clark. And Whitney Fordman."

Reynolds stroked his chin, looking conflicted. Lex could only imagine what was going through his head: who was the bigger devil, the father, or the son? And should he trust anything Lex had to say.

Finally, he sighed and said, "Let me see the evidence when you get a chance. If you're telling the truth, I'll have to let him go. I won't let him break his confidence with a student for a few extra dollars."

"Thank you, Mr. Reynolds. I'll send what I have for you over tomorrow morning."

"What's he after?"

Lex raised his shoulder wearily. "Who knows with my father? It's partly because I broke away from his company to create LexCorp, and partly because Clark and I are good friends and Dad doesn't get that. Whatever it is, he's got Font in his pocket."

"Lionel does that often, doesn't he? Meddles with your life and those close to you."

"Yes, he does. It makes having friends a little difficult." Lex raised his eyebrow. "I could, of course, cut everyone from my life to avoid it, but I think that's a little extreme, don't you?"

Reynolds didn't bother with a reply as he pulled away and rejoined the group of debaters.

The debate went on for about another hour and a half. Damien must have crammed every law and case about discrimination in the workplace into Dominic's head the night before, because for every loophole someone tried to find, Dominic had a counter argument.

But, in the end, it was Mark's charm and good grace that swayed them. He was, after all, a likeable man, despite being homosexual. And, more than that, he was probably one of the best teachers they'd had in a long time. Once Reynolds had showed Mark's classes' test scores, they began to turn until, finally, they all agreed to support Mark against any allegations and complaints.

Lex was exhausted by the time they were ready to leave. He really hadn't slept well the night before. To top it off, he still wasn't feeling well. His throat ached, and head hurt. Fucking stupid immune system.

"Thank you, Lex. And Dominic, of course, thank you so much. I really ... I don't know what to say," Mark said as they went to their cars.

Dominic gave him a small smile, looking drawn and pale. "It was my pleasure. I'm just sorry that Damien wasn't here. You probably would have been out a lot sooner."

"You did fine, Dom," Lex said, leaning against the car, exhausted. He wanted to go home and get some sleep. Now.

Dominic blushed in pleasure, a smile lighting his eyes. "Thank you." He shook Mark's hand. "Lex?"

"I'll go home with him, Mark. I need to get some sleep."

"That's fine. I'm supposed to look at Helen's apartment later. Then I might go out to Metropolis for the evening. Grant invited me to a party."

"Have fun." They shook hands, and Lex climbed into Dominic's car. Within two minutes of leaving, he was fast asleep.

Brian Arias' party was ... okay. Every gay guy from Smallville High was apparently there, giving Clark a grand total of seven guys he could choose to date should he and Lex break up before Clark moved to an area with an actual dating pool.

Everyone who'd been at the ice cream shop the night Aaron and Brian had hooked up was there: Mike, Christopher, and Doug. Plus, there'd been a couple seniors named Henry and Robert, a freshman named Jack who was really cute with dark auburn hair and a face full of freckles, and a junior named Tom whom Clark had in his trig class. All gay. And they'd all been in some form of relationship with each other (except Jack, who was new to the group), and by relationship, they apparently meant had had some form of sex with each other. Which just felt weird because, yeah, the pickings might be kind of slim in Smallville, didn't they, like, get jealous of each other ever?

But, they all seemed cool with the sex thing, so Clark didn't make a big deal. Mostly, they sat around and played video games. There was beer and soda, and no one minded when he passed up the beer for a Coke. In fact, Jack seemed almost relieved and spent most of the day breathing down Clark's neck as they played video games. They were the only two who didn't stay in Brian's room to watch gay porn (although Clark suspected that Jack left because Clark had), and they also pretended not to notice when both Aaron and Brian, and then Doug and Mike disappeared for about an hour and came back with hickies.

The rules were explained when Clark left: you don't tell anyone about any of this, you try not to talk to each other at school more than necessary, and if you came out, don't expect support from the rest of the group.

Then Jack slipped Clark his phone number.

Mr. Townsend--Mark was out looking at Helen's apartment when Clark got back. Lex was at home, sick, so Clark did his chores quickly and headed off to visit.

Lex was in bed when Clark arrived. The covers were pulled up to his chest, the television was on, and Athena, his kitten, was curled on the bed next to him. He was stroking her idly as he watched cartoons, his eyes glazed and face pale.

"Hey." Clark pulled off his shoes and climbed on the bed.

Lex blinked slowly and looked at Clark dazedly. "Hi." He blinked again and shook his head. "Sorry. I'm a little out of it right now."

"It's okay." Clark kissed Lex's cheek and settled next to him. "What's going on?" he asked as he glanced at the night table. There was a thermometer, water, a dark red drink that looked like Gatorade, and something that looked suspiciously like a throw up bowl.

"I have a fever," Lex answered listlessly. "It's pretty high. Apparently, I do have the flu that's going around, but Dr. Sutton said it looks like a mild case. It shouldn't get any worse if I stay in bed the next few days."

"And are you going to?"

Lex nodded and leaned back into Clark. "I feel like crap. I can breathe, but my throat, head, and stomach all ache, and I feel like I've been wrung dry." His eyes closed. "You feel good."

"Thank you." Clark dropped a kiss on Lex's face; it landed on his ear. He laid his head down as well. "How'd it go with Reynolds?"

"Okay. It doesn't look as if they're going to make a huge deal over Mark, but there could be trouble along the road. Reynolds is fine with it, but there were many voices of discontent at the idea of having a known gay teacher at their school."

"It's not like he's going to hang a rainbow banner and start showing gay movies in class," Clark said.

"No. But that never stops anyone from being uncomfortable about gay people." He coughed. "I think they know about us. Someone made some comment about how everyone knows about that Kent boy. And they looked at me." Lex licked his lips and turned into Clark. "I'm sorry."

Clark massaged his back and shrugged. "I guess I don't mind people knowing, as long as they don't try to make something big and disgusting out of it. I mean, I love you. I'm not ashamed of that. I just don't want to be splashed on the front page of the newspaper. Torch, Ledger, Planet, or Inquisitor."

"I just don't understand why none of them have given any interviews to the reporters who came into town."

"Small town solidarity." Clark kissed his forehead. "I might be a gay farmboy, but I'm their gay farmboy. They won't rat me out."

"Ah, I see." He yawned. "What do I have to do to get that kind of support?"

"Stay." He kissed Lex, tongue lightly flicking over the scar on his upper lip. "Forever."

His cloudy, sick-glazed eyes flashed at the word forever. "I'll stay with you that long. Forever in Smallville, though .... No thank you." He stretched in Clark's arms, and rested his head against Clark's chest. "How was it at Brian's?"

"Okay. Your porn is ten times better than his."

"You've watched my porn?"

"One, yeah. It doesn't do much for me. But I was curious, so I put it in."


"Um ... sometime last week."

"Where was I?"

"Working." He ran his thumb down Lex's spine. "I didn't really watch any with the guys. It was embarrassing, you know? Watching strangers on TV fuck while I'm in a room full of people I barely know isn't what I call erotic. There was this kid there, Jack, and he was getting really excited. Just into it. He left pretty quickly, though, when I did." Clark shook his head, remembering. "God, Lex, Jack looks like he's twelve or something. Well, not exactly like a kid. But all gangly and small and ... young."

"Hmmm," Lex hummed speculatively. "What color is his hair?"

Clark sighed. "Reddish. And, yes, he's adorable. But ... he's so young looking."

Lex laughed and twined his fingers through Clark's hair. "You do realize that most high school freshmen don't look like you. Most people in high school don't look like you, period."

"I know. But he seems small."

"He's probably what Aaron looked like when he was in high school. Scrawny. Are you going to ask Jack out?"

"Oh, yeah," Clark responded dryly without missing a beat. "I was going to ask him to go out with me to the club in Metropolis." Then, when Lex got that look, he sighed and rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay," he groaned, banging his head softly on the pillow. "Maybe I will. Try to get the group, I mean, to go. Not just Jack. He's cute, but I'm in love."

Lex pressed a kiss into his lips. "You going to hang out with the guys again?"

He shrugged. "I might. They've got rules, though, so we'll see if I get invited even." He sighed and closed his eyes. "It's tough being gay in Smallville."

"It's tough being gay anywhere, but you're right." He kissed Clark's neck. "I'm glad you found some gay friends. I hope they keep."

"Yeah," Clark whispered, snuggling closer to Lex. "It is nice."

"And this would be your bedroom," Helen said, opening a door a little theatrically. She stepped aside and motioned Mark inside.

It was brightly lit with a window that overlooked the front street. It was painted a deep cream with blue trim and blue curtains framing the windows. The floor was carpeted, which Mark wasn't thrilled with, but the closet looked promising. The room itself was a nice size; it was actually bigger than the room at his dad's.

Currently, the room was set up as an office. There were two bookshelves filled with medical books, a desk, and a computer.

"I don't want to make you give up your office," he said, trying to imagine how he'd fit his own desk and bookshelves in the room.

"Did you see the living room? It's got more than enough room for the television, couch, and my desk. And my bedroom is bigger; I could move the computer in there and be fine. It's really no problem, giving this up. And, uh, this room has a full bathroom, which I think it is a plus." Her smile went crooked. "I don't share bathrooms with boys."

Mark laughed and nodded. "I know what you mean. My last few roommates have been absolute pigs. And don't get me started on my father." He walked to the closet and looked inside. It was as promising as it had looked. It wasn't huge, but more than enough for all his clothes. And there were shelves, which he liked. He preferred, when he could, to store all his clothes in the closet and eliminate the need for a dresser. "I don't suppose you have a bed."

"No, sorry. But if you can't get one right away, the couch converts."

Oh, that sounded attractive. He hated foldout beds; they always had that metal bar down the center that dug into his back and made it impossible to sleep. School started soon, and he wanted to scrape together a semblance of a life before he reentered the hallowed halls. Especially since news of his sexuality was spreading through the town; he needed someplace to call his own.

Someplace away from Clark. Clark didn't need any more problems; he didn't need to be harassed because his gay teacher was living at his home.

But he didn't know if he should live with Helen. Not that there was anything wrong with her. In fact, the more time they spent together, the more he enjoyed hanging around her. But he didn't know if that meant he should move in with her.

He had a steady income. He didn't really need a roommate. The problem was there wasn't an abundance of apartments for rent right now. There were a few rooms, but if he was going to live with someone, he wanted it to be with someone his age and whom he knew.

"It's a generous offer, Helen," he finally said. And it was. The rent was fantastic, and because she'd have the big bedroom, he hardly had to pay anything. "And a lovely apartment."

"Isn't it great?" she agreed enthusiastically. "It totally made moving to Smallville worth it. I mean, it's big, it's airy. It's warm in the winter and I'm told that it's cool in the summer. There's plenty of room for the two of us. We'll never be in each other's way. I work all kind of weird hours at the hospital, and you .... Well, I'll stay out of your way," she concluded with a smile. Then, after biting her lip uncertainly, she added, "We could be like Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd in that movie. Only, without the pregnancy. Or the falling in love. No offense."

"None taken," he assured her. "It sounds nice." He rapped his knuckles on the wall. "I only ..."

"Look," she interrupted, clasping her hands together. "The truth is, I hate living alone. I hate coming home to an empty apartment, and, even though the crime rate here is low, I don't feel safe." She smiled self-deprecatingly and rolled her eyes. "I know it's irrational. And I know I can defend myself if anything were to happen. I've made sure of that, I just ... would feel better if there were someone here. You know?"

Ah, finally. A reason he could understand.

He could always move out if it turned out he couldn't stand her. And he could move in now rather than wait for all the paperwork if he were to rent his own place. And Helen was an articulate, intelligent woman. She might be fun to live with.

"All right," he finally said. "I'll give it a try."

Helen's face split into a grin and she nodded. "Fantastic. Did you want to move in tonight?"

"Give me a couple days. I'm running some errands for Dad."

"Why are you even bothering with your father?" she asked.

Mark shrugged. "Because he's my dad," he answered simply. He didn't expect her to understand. He was still shocked that Lex did, although maybe he shouldn't be. Lex had his own father issues, and while they were in no way the same, over the last few days, Mark had felt closer to Lex than he had since they'd become friends.

Mark's father had rejected him. Hated him. Mark had been asked not to go to the hospital again, seeing as it upset him. Every communication, every explanation of how things would be from now on was sent through intermediaries. Dr. Sutton. Anne. Even Helen, once or twice. Mark couldn't see him. He didn't have to see the hate.

But, paradoxically, that hate only made Mark want to take care of his father even more. To prove he was the good son.

After leaving Helen's, he went back to his father's house. Dad was being released later that day, and he was in desperate need of groceries. Although he was paying (or, rather, Dad was paying) someone to take care of things like that, the woman didn't start until tomorrow. And Mark had time today.

Fruit. Vegetables. No potato chips or soda. Coffee was out, decaffeinated tea was in. Mark couldn't help but smile wolfishly at the menu he'd been given for his father. Dad's already limited choices were whittled further down. Anything he'd liked on his old menu was gone, and, knowing Dad, he was going to be a pain in the neck about it. Mark was almost glad he wasn't the one who'd have to deal with it.

He reached for a carton on milk, when his hand knocked into someone else's. "Sorry, ma'am," he said, turning. Then his eyes widened, cheeks turning hot. "Mrs. Fordman."

Mrs. Fordman blinked, her eyes focusing slowly on Mark. There was a slightly spacey look in her eyes, as if she were very tired or on medication. Her hair was pulled away from her face a little sloppily, and her clothes didn't quiet match.

"Um, hello," she said slowly. Her eyes came into sharper focus and she frowned, looking him over. "I'm sorry, I can't remember you name. Do I know you?"

He placed the milk inside her cart and shook his head. "No. I don't believe we've ever met, actually. I'm Mark Townsend, a teacher at the high school. I ..."

"Oh! Of course you are, I knew that," she exclaimed, color abruptly flooding to her face. "Whitney asked me to cut out your picture from the yearbook and send it to you. I didn't cut it out, actually, just photocopied it and send it. But I have seen your picture, so no wonder you looked familiar." She stopped talking and gave him a once over. "That picture doesn't do you justice."

His flush got hotter and he looked away. "Thank you." He should say something. About Whitney. Sympathetic or caring or something. Anything would be good, as long as it didn't contain the words "I'm", "gay," "attracted to," or "gorgeous son." "So, uh. Have you heard anything about Whitney?"

"No." She shook her head, sighing. "No, I haven't. It's hard, especially right now. Whitney loved Christmas, especially going to Midnight Mass. And, of course, breakfast the next morning." Mrs. Fordman laughed fondly as she shook her head. "The presents were always a plus, of course." She stopped talking and put her hand over her mouth.

"I'm sorry," he said awkwardly, wishing he knew what else to say. After a moment of hesitation, he put his hand on her shoulder.

"Thank you." She patted his hand awkwardly. "I'm trying to keep faith. I can't ... believe God would want Whitney so soon after he took my husband. Not my baby, too. I'd rather ..." She trailed off, looking guilty.

"You'd rather it be you?" he finished gently.

"My sister yelled at me for saying that," Mrs. Fordman said, a frown creasing her forehead as she met Mark's eyes. "Said that I shouldn't think things like that."

"My mother, before she died, said to me that death is always hard. It always hurts, even if you think you're prepared, if you think it's coming. And she knew that I was going to be sad and depressed and mourn her. But she also said that she wanted me to know that at least we were going in the right order. Because it's a terrible thought, that you might outlive your child."

Her mouth crimped and Mrs. Fordman nodded. "That's why he can't be dead."

It seemed the most natural thing in the world to take her into his arms and hold her.

She rested against him easily, head on his shoulder. For a few minutes, she didn't say anything, only sniffed occasionally as she tried to get control. Then, finally, she pulled away.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. There's no reason." He rubbed the back of his neck, not sure what to say.

"I must look a mess." She opened her purse and pulled out a tissue. Blotting underneath her eyes, she said, "Really, I'm fine. I'm mean, I'm certain he's not dead. It's the only way I know how to live right now. My ... sister said that it might be easier in the long run to ... make preparations. At least in my mind. But I'd rather not. I'd rather have my faith untainted, so when he comes home, I don't have to feel guilty for thinking he was dead." She smiled sadly.

It sounded like Mrs. Fordman needed to get away from her sister for a while. "I don't think he's dead, either."

Her smile was brittle. "Thank you." She sniffed and wiped her nose. "Oh," she sighed, and she forced a smile onto her face. "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine," he lied. "Getting ready for school to start again."

"I imagine that keeps you busy."

"Busy enough. I managed to get all the essays the students turned in before break graded. My lesson plans are done, so I can take it easy for the next few days." Except for the fact he had to move.

"Well, if you have any time, I'd like to have dinner with you."

"Me?" he said, startled.

"Yes, you." She smiled and tucked her tissue back into her purse. "Whitney has written about almost nothing else for the past month or so. It was a relief, really, because he had some life in his letters again. He was always so ... so careful in writing to me. He hardly talked about boot camp, so I know he hated it. He only described the weather and landscape of where he was stationed, so I know he was miserable. The only thing that seemed to make him happy was Clark Kent, and while I have nothing against the boy, everyone knows there's something going on with him and Lex Luthor, and that's not something I want my son to be mixed up in. I knew he was depressed or disheartened or something and then, one day, he wrote saying that he'd gotten a letter from you. And every other letter from him contained mention of you, and he seemed happy." Mrs. Fordman put her hand on his arm. "May I call you Mark?"

"Of course."

"Mark, I don't know anything about you, but you became very important to my son in a very short time. I have so little of him right now. I would like to, I don't know. Feel as if I have a part of his life in mine again."

He wondered if she knew Whitney was gay. He wondered if she knew that he was. He wondered if it would matter.

Then he thought of himself sitting in Mrs. Fordman's house when the call came that Whitney had been found and was alive. Alive and ready to come home.

"Yeah," he finally said, knowing that he was an idiot. "I'd love to have dinner with you."

"Lex. Put down the computer."

Lex looked up at Clark and flashed him a quick smile before retuning to his laptop. "Hey, Clark," he said, ignoring Clark's order. "Did you have a good day?"

Irritated, Clark stormed across the room. "You have turned into an obsessive compulsive shop-a-holic in the last two days, and you need to be stopped."

"Oh, please. And, anyway, I just need to buy one more thing."

Clark rolled his eyes as he nearly tripped over Athena, who was furiously batting a ball around the floor. "No, Lex. Now." He pulled the computer away from Lex.

"Clark, Athena needs a cat scratcher."

"No, she doesn't. You already bought her three."

Lex rolled his eyes and straightened the blanket that had been crumpled by the computer. He was in his pajamas, feet socked, and he looked healthy for the first time since before Christmas. "Not one for the dining room."

Clark set the laptop on top of the television and picked his way back to the couch. "Babe, chances are, she's only going to use one." He climbed onto the couch and sprawled over Lex.

"Okay, then look at this bed." He pointed to the computer. "It's so much nicer than the one I got her. I'll put this one in my bedroom, and the other one in the entertainment room. Then I'll get another for ..."

Clark laughed. "Lex, you might as well just give up now. Your cat is only going to sleep where she's sleeping now." He glanced at Athena, who was now happily purring inside Lex's slipper. Her green eyes were on Lex and the tip of her tail in her mouth.

He glanced over at his slipper and sighed. "I know. I can't get her to stop. I thought I lost her yesterday afternoon, and looked everywhere. You know where she was? Under my bed in a shoe I'd thought I'd lost. I was seriously scared, and by the time I found her, I was wiped out."

"My poor baby," Clark said, kissing Lex on the cheek.

Lex closed his eyes and rested his head against Clark's. "She's just so small. I'm afraid she'll be crushed if she keeps sleeping in shoes. And I'm so fucking bored. I can't do anything, and I'm bored. So I buy my cat presents because she's the only one who won't return them."

"Hey." Clark hooked his finger under Lex's chin and kissed him. "I don't return gifts."

"I have a truck collecting dust in my garage that suggest otherwise."

"Not the important ones." He found Lex's right hand and twisted the ring.

His lips twisted. "No. Not the important ones." Then he sighed and fell back against the couch, eyes closed. "I'm so tired."


"Yeah." Lex swallowed and sighed. "Dr. Sutton says I can start working again the day after tomorrow, but only half time. And I have to go to the hospital tomorrow for a battery of tests, just to make sure."

Clark rolled off Lex and settled in between his body and the couch. A surge of tenderness rose in him, and he stroked Lex's jaw line gently. "How do you feel?"

Lex sighed and settled against Clark's chest. "Better. I can talk, and I'm not coughing. The headache's gone. I'm just tired."

"And, uh. How do you feel?"

He laughed and opened his eyes again. Lifting his hand, he ran his fingers over Clark's chest. The light caught his ring and gleamed. "I'm okay, I guess. Really let down that I'm not invincible, though. I thought.... But what I thought was biologically impossible. No one is perfectly healthy, and biological entities aren't made to be perfectly healthy. There's always going to be something. But, uh, Dr. Sutton compared my chest X-Rays from two years ago, last year, and then a few months ago. They're ... better. All the damage and weakness and everything I've had since I was a baby are gone. Just like my allergies." Lex shrugged and tugged on Clark's collar. "I'm human now."

"You were always human," Clark said, concerned.

Lex was looking sightlessly at his neck, eye bright. He shook his head. "I've never felt ... human. Normal. I was always this thing that always needed to be taken care of. A thing my dad couldn't stand because I was so weak, and he was strong and Luthors were supposed to be strong. I was this thing that my mother could take care of and fuss over, until she got sick, too. I was this ... thing that the other boys at school made fun of until it was just too pathetic. This thing that ... that was going to burn out too fast, and I was this..."

Heart breaking, Clark rolled on top of Lex and kissed him deeply. His tongue eased open Lex's mouth, licking insistently until Lex yielded. Then he swallowed the words, the hateful fucking word, stealing it, pulling it, tearing it away from Lex because...

"No, no, no, no, no," Clark panted when he broke the kiss. "You are not a thing. You have never been a thing."

"I know," Lex whispered. He fisted Clark's shirt restlessly. "I know, but, God, I feel so ... sub-par. Defective."

"But you aren't."

Lex didn't answer. He just kissed Clark quickly, flashed him a smile, and then wiggled out of his grasp.

Oh, uh huh. No way was Clark going to let him get away with that.

He snagged Lex around the waist and pulled him back to the couch. "Lex," he said, wrapping both his arms and legs around Lex's waist and holding tight. "You are not defective. You are not sub-par. You're not a thing. You are a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent and brilliant man, and I love you. More than I could ever love anyone now until eternity. And it hurts when you say things like that about yourself, Lex, because all I hear is your father."

Lex went statue still. "That's probably the cruelest thing you've ever said to me."

"All you're doing is parroting his abuse back at me. I'm not saying you are your father, I just ... freak out hearing all that crap coming from your mouth." He kissed Lex, going for his temple, but getting his ear instead. "There is nothing wrong with you. There never has been. I just wish you could see that."

"You're working against twenty-two years of conditioning," Lex whispered, voice bitter.

"I know. But you have to know that there is nothing wrong with you. People get sick sometimes. Helen said that this flu was running rampant around town. Didn't you say about half the plant was out with it? I'm not surprised you got it." He kissed Lex's temple. "There's nothing wrong with getting sick sometimes. And there is nothing wrong with being human."

He laughed, eyes falling shut. "Oh, no?"

"No." He licked Lex's ear. "Just like there's nothing wrong with me being what I am."

Lex nodded and rested his forehead against Clark's chin. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

He pulled away, startled. "Why?"

Lex shrugged, eyes downcast. "No reason. Really. I'm just ... I shouldn't be acting like this. F-Feeling like this."

Clark sighed and searched for Lex's hand. Lacing their fingers together, he said, "Lex, there are no shoulds. No prescribed way that you need to be feeling. You feel what you feel, and you shouldn't have to apologize for it." He kissed the back of Lex's hand. "You told me that. And it goes for you, too."

"I just..." He stopped talking.

"Lex, what's going on?"

Lex worried his bottom lip for a few minutest, stroking the back of Clark's hand with his thumb. Finally, he sighed and shook his head. "It's nothing. You're right. I know that. I'm just tired and on medication, so I'm being dumb." He leaned in and kissed Clark gently. "Never mind."

Clark sighed and lay back on the couch, pulling Lex with him. This wasn't good. This wasn't ... healthy behavior for Lex, although, if Clark was perfectly honest with himself, "healthy" behavior for either of them wasn't something he knew a lot about. Lex was ... just as much a work-in-progress as Clark was, only in different ways. Lex had a penchant for self-deprecation and it didn't seem to be getting any better. Especially since Ryan...

It was tempting to just pull Lex into Kiptin and make him open up. And it seemed as if that was about the only place he was going to do it. It was as if Lex had a block against telling Clark what was really going on with him in reality. He did his best. He talked to Clark when he could, and faithfully stretched and mediated, or at least relaxed in his relaxation room. But there was something blocking him, and Clark knew it had to do with the mysterious something that had been plaguing him since before Ryan died.

But, it didn't feel right. Dragging him in right now. Lex was sick and that always made him feel out of control. The last thing Clark wanted to do was strip away that control even more by playing with his mind.

So, he simply held Lex close and rubbed his back until Lex fell asleep. Lex didn't even stir when Athena hopped onto the couch and curled into a ball in the small of his back.

Clark smiled and tugged the kitten up so he could pet her. Athena purred after she settled down, Lex snored softly and, warm and comfortable, Clark, too, drifted off to sleep.

Winter break had only been two weeks, and yet it seemed to Lana as if everything had changed. Two lousy weeks in Metropolis, and she had to relearn everything about everyone in town.

For example, Mr. Townsend was gay. And Lionel Luthor had outted him. He'd been kicked out of his house by his father and was now living with that Dr. Bryce woman that came into the Talon all the time. And he was having dinner with Whitney's mother at the pancake house next door to the Talon. She hadn't known that Mr. Townsend knew Whitney's mother. Or Whitney.

Another change was the fact that Lex had a kitten. Lex didn't seem like a kitten type. Or a pet type, for that matter. Kittens shed fur and coughed up hairballs and trailed kitty litter all over the place; Lex was ... neat and fussy and clean. He was a little like a cat himself, except for the shedding and hairballs.

Lana hadn't seen the kitten yet, but it's all Clark had talked about since meeting her at the Talon. Lex and his kitten and getting sick, and how he turned into a shop-a-holic when he was sick, and blah, blah, blah.

"Uh-huh," Lana interrupted, tired of the recitation. "But how was your Christmas?" She really wanted Clark to ask about hers, but couldn't come right out and say it. That would be impolite.

He blinked and picked up a nearly empty sugar dispenser. "It was ... okay. I guess. I mean, except for the whole thing with Mr. Townsend." He twisted the top off the dispenser, brow furrowed. "He was so ... lost. And sad, and there was nothing that I could do for him."

"I don't think there's anything you can do in that kind of situation, you know? I mean, effectively. All you can do is be there and offer a shoulder." Lana hesitated, then added, "And, as his student, I don't know if you can even do that much."

"Yeah, I know. Lex mostly was there with Mr. Townsend all day. He feels so guilty about everything, because Lionel is the one who sent the file to Mr. Townsend. But I think it's ... not good, of course, but, I don't know. I think Lex is really learning what it means to be a friend from this. He's not good at it. He, like, tends to be really impersonal, I think. Like, he'll do anything for friends, but he doesn't get emotionally involved with them." Clark tilted his head, an intense look of concentration on his face. "I think that's why he gave me the truck when we first met. He was grateful for being saved, and attracted to this kid six years younger than him, that the best way for him to deal with it was to send something big and shiny over to distract me from, you know. Him."

Lana snatched the sugar dispenser away from him, jaw clenched. Seriously, the boy couldn't go two minutes without mentioning his precious boyfriend. It was so annoying. Yes, he and Lana were only pretending to date, but they were friends, right? And she had been away for two weeks. Didn't he care about her at all? "I'm sure Mr. Townsend will be fine. And that Lex will be, too."

"Oh, I think so." Clark tugged on his finger a moment then shrugged. "Lex has just been having a rough time of things lately."

God, he had a one-track mind, didn't he?

"I'm sorry to hear that," Lana finally said. She screwed the cap on the sugar and grabbed the next one. If he wanted to talk about Lex, there was obviously nothing she could do to stop him, so why try?

"So, how was Metropolis?" he asked, surprising her.

"It was fun." She looked up at him and smiled, happy that they weren't talking about Lex anymore. "Nell and I went to the theater, and Dean took both of us ice skating. I know that's kind of a little kid thing, but I really enjoyed it. He got me a DVD player for Christmas, which I wasn't expecting. And Nell went out and bought all my favorite movies."

"What movies?"

"Casablanca. An Affair to Remember. Sweet November and Titanic. Do you like any of those, Clark?"

He shrugged. "Lex really likes Casablanca so we've watched it a few times. I like it, but it'd be better if every line weren't a cliche now. You know; it's hard to take something seriously when you've grown up listening to Bugs Bunny parody it. But I think Lex likes to think of himself as being cool like Humphrey Bogart. I mean, don't get me wrong, I like the movie. But it's not my favorite."

"Oh, I see." God, had she been this boring when she and Whitney had been dating?

Clark handed her another sugar dispenser. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Clark. I ... You're wearing a ring."

He blushed and cradled his right hand against his chest. "Uh. Yeah."

"You don't wear rings. Or any kind of jewelry."

"Um, not usually, no."

Why was it so hard to breathe? "Did you and Lex get married?"

"No! It's a.... They're promise rings."

"They're promise rings? You mean, he has one too?"

Clark nodded and tugged at his ring. "Yeah, he does. Matching rings. For Christmas."

Lana felt very far away from everything suddenly. She had no idea why this bothered her so much, but it did. Sixteen years olds shouldn't have engagement rings, or wedding rings, or even promise rings. Okay, maybe a promise ring, but Lana had always felt that promise rings were stupid. You were either promising not to have sex--and if you needed a ring to keep that promise how weak were you?--or promising to get engaged, which was just as good as getting engaged, so it was all stupid.

Maybe that's why she was all upset. Because promise rings were so dumb, and she was sad to have to think of a good friend as dumb.

"I'm going to put this in the back," Lana said through a lump in her throat. She picked up the Tupperware container of sugar and went through the doors to the kitchen.

There was water all over the floor.

"Lana, are you o...." Clark stopped talking and clicked. "Oh, not good. I'll take a look at it."

"No." The word startled her, because she still didn't feel as if she could speak. But words were coming out, and she was playing the part again, apparently. Concerned friend. Functioning human being. But she really felt far away from everything. "I'll call a plumber."

"At nine o'clock on Sunday night? Lana, there's no such thing as twenty-four hour plumbing in Smallville; trust me." He crossed the room to the sink and pulled open the cabinet. "You've got a busted pipe."

"No kidding." She put the sugar down and crossed the wet floor gingerly. "Do you think it'll hold until tomorrow morning?"

"Naw, by then you'll need a snorkel. Let me see what I can do." Crouching in front of the pipe, Clark turned the pipe.

Immediately, more water splurted out soaking them both.

"Aha!" Lana exclaimed, jerking away.

Clark let out a startled sounded, jerking back. "Get me a wrench!" he laughed as he tried to block his face from getting squirted more.

Lana nodded and ran out of the room. There was a tool kit in the office upstairs, and a few towels. She was trying to calculate how much this was going to take to fix, but, when she got back, the pipe had stopped leaking.

"How did you do that?"

Clark shrugged and stood up. "I just kept twisting until it finally stopped."

It was funny. Lana heard Clark answer, but she didn't really notice. Because, Clark had been wearing a white shirt and Lana could ... see him, and. Wow. No, really. Wow. He was .... Wow. Like a statue. Like a god. He had ... abs and a six-pack and really hard and peaked nipples that were dusky rose underneath the see-through fabric.

Her heart raced. Her cheeks flushed, and it was so hot in here. She was sweating, and it was like watching Chloe leave the bathroom wrapped in a towel all over again.

Oh, God, she hadn't needed that image. She was going to die and her panties were about to catch on fire.

Clark crossed his arms in front of his body and kind of hugged himself. "Uh, can I have the towel?"

"Oh, yeah." Lana laughed nervously and gave him the towel. She was so flustered that she forgot to be sad.

He wrapped the towel around him and looked away. A hunk of hair fell over his eyes, and his cheeks were stained red. "So, uh. It's fixed."

"Right. Thank you. One day I'll figure out how Clark Kent does the things he does." She hefted the wrench. "I should put this back."

Clark followed her into the main room. His flannel and jacket were thrown across the counter, and he immediately abandoned the towel for the flannel. Lana half hoped that he'd take off his shirt, but, of course, he didn't. Instead, he turned his back to her and pulled on his flannel.

Inside the drawer she was electing to store the tool in for the moment were a few pictures of Whitney. She'd brought them with her, thinking she'd have some time alone tonight. After two weeks away, she'd wanted time to put her store back together again, to make sure nothing had changed. And, she wanted space. Chad was back in town, too, and he'd been visiting Chloe. Lana didn't want to have to watch them, so she'd come here.

"I like those pictures," Clark said, hovering over her shoulder.

"Yeah, me too," she sighed. She pulled out three and spread them on the counter. "Nell gave me a new sketch pad and a bunch of charcoal pencils for Christmas. She said she missed me drawing."

"I forgot you're an artist. You were always drawing when we were kids. And you were good. Won all the art shows."

Lana nodded and tried to figure out which of the photographs was her favorite. "I haven't done it in awhile, and Nell thought I should try again. I've been drawing constantly since Christmas and I, I don't know. Want to draw Whitney."

"Have they heard anything about him yet?"

"No. But they, uh, sent back his belongings to his mom. Before she went to dinner with Mr. Townsend, she gave me my necklace back." She pulled the box she kept the necklace in from the drawer and opened it. The necklace lay inside, gleaming under the lights.

"You going to start wearing it again?" Clark asked, sounding breathless.

She closed the box and turned to him. "Not until I know that Whitney is safe. It doesn't feel right otherwise." She swallowed hard, tears pressing behind her eyes. "I'm so worried about him."

"Yeah," Clark whispered, sounding almost as upset as she was. "Me too."

"You're really.... You really were friends with him, weren't you?"

Clark nodded. "We got really close. He helped me out, once. When Lionel was harassing me. And we just talked a lot."

"And you wrote him."

"Every week."

Okay, that was surprising. Even Lana didn't write every week, and she'd dated him. "Every week?"

"Yeah." Clark blushed. "He just seemed so lonely and upset. He said he liked my letters."

Lana licked her lips, her heart rate picking up. Things seemed normal between them now. Settled. Maybe ... maybe it was a good time to ask. Finally. "Clark?" she asked, not meeting his eyes. "What was in that letter you wouldn't let me read?"

"It was private," he said shortly, face shuttering. Shutting Lana out, and the intense attraction and want Lana had been feeling just a few minutes ago dampened. Because Clark was always like that, secretive and aloof. As much as he cared--and Lana knew he cared--there was always this huge part of him that he kept hidden. And Lana wanted everything.

She nodded and put the pictures away. "Uh." She tucked some hair behind her ear. "I need to mop up. I can't let that water sit."

"I'll help you."

"Thanks, Clark." Then, wryly, "You're the best boyfriend ever."

He smiled and laughed, but they both knew that, really? It wasn't a very funny joke.

"Thank you for treating me to dinner," Mark said as he walked Mrs. Fordman--Rebecca-- to her door. "But, really, I could have..."

"Mark, please," she interrupted. "It was my pleasure. I haven't been out with someone who didn't treat me with kid gloves since Whitney left." She stopped and wrinkled her forehead in thought a moment before saying, "Probably before, actually. Only I was in no state to notice when George started getting worse. Anyway, it's nice to have a pleasant evening with someone new." She patted his arm. "Sorry about Linda Wiseman, though. I won't be speaking to her for a long time."

"I wouldn't want to break up any friendships," he replied uncomfortably. Linda Wiseman, his former next door neighbor, had offered him a few choice words about what he had done to his father by being a deviant while he and Rebecca had been at dinner.

"Trust me, it'll be a pleasure to cut her from my life," Rebecca responded dryly. "She's one of those people I only continue to associate with because we belong to the same bridge group. I'll switch to something else, now. Bridge was getting dull, and I hear there's a good pinochle game starting."

Mark smiled and leaned against the side of the house. "My mother was into mahjongg. And book clubs. She belonged to about three different ones, and always found time to read the books. She also belonged to every political activist organization there was. NOW, ACLU, PFLAG." He sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I was going to tell you I was gay. Having Linda come over and berate me wasn't the way I'd planned it, though."

Rebecca clasped her hands together and said, "Well. I already knew. Whitney told me. In his last letter. I think.... I have this suspicion that he told me as a way to gauge my reaction. Before coming out to me."

He raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, I've suspected that Whitney's gay for quite awhile." She opened the door and waved Mark inside. "I don't have any definite proof, I'll have to wait until someone tells me, but ... I'm fairly positive." She shrugged off her coat and hung it on a hook. Then she went into the living room, Mark following.

"Why ..." He trailed off, not sure what he was supposed to say.

"Why do I think he's gay? There are a number of reasons. First is how attached he is to Clark, and now you. I think he spent more time talking about Clark in the days after his father died than he ever did about Lana. And then there's Lana." She smiled and shook her head. "When Whitney asked her out, I sat down and had a long talk with him. She was only fifteen, and he was almost eighteen. And her fifteen was so very young. I wanted to make sure he wouldn't push her into anything, that he would respect her if she said no to anything. And he told me it wouldn't be a problem. As far as I know, they never had sex, which is wonderful, but ... well, one has to ask herself why he'd get into such a serious relationship and not sleep with the girl."

"I know he takes his religion very seriously," Mark said, sitting across from her.

Rebecca shook her head. "No, I know he's had sex before. I found the empty condom wrapper in his car, junior year. But there were little things, too. When he was in eighth grade, he managed to get copies of Playboy and Penthouse, but just one each and never any more. He had the same two in his room when he left, and, believe me, I cleaned that room from top to bottom when he left, and never found anything else. I did, however, find a book about being gay. And when he started writing about you, and I couldn't help but think that my son is gay as well."

Mark looked down at his hands, studying his fingernails carefully. "How does that make you feel?"

"I love my son," she replied simply. "And after this year.... I've already lost my husband. I maybe have lost Whitney, but if I haven't, nothing is going to take him away from me. I can accept his sexuality as long as it makes him happy."

"Whitney is lucky to have you," Mark said softly, gazing at her.

She smiled sadly. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

As much as Clark enjoyed the freedom vacation gave--staying out late, not getting in trouble for staying with Lex on a weekday, having a lot of time to lounge around, reading, writing, or hanging out with his friends--there was something to be said about school. Yeah, it was forced socialization, and, yeah, Clark was always that weird geek who hung around the bald guy, but there were people to talk to and things to do and places to be at school. Plus, there were people seeking him out to ask him about the next literary magazine meeting, and it just made him feel important.

"Have you seen Chad?" Clark asked Chloe. They were in the Torch office, Clark creating an announcement flyer and sign up sheet for the next magazine meeting, Chloe working on the paper.

She shook her head and pushed some hair out of her eyes. "Not yet. I was going to pick him up, but he said he had to work right after school, so he was going to drive himself."

"He works at the medical examiner's office, right?"

"Yeah. He does the filing and computer work, answers phones, and sweeps the place up. I guess he, like, even checks the bodies in when they bring them. I think it's a little morbid, but he likes it."

Clark shrugged and finished the last touches on his flyer. He couldn't understand the appeal, but, then, death freaked him out. "Um, so does he seem okay lately?"

"Yeah, I guess. I mean, break was rough for him because of his asshole relatives, but he's fine. Why?"

"No reason," Clark lied. No reason. Because what was he supposed to say to her? The truth? He hadn't even talked to Chad yet, and he just felt weird about telling her before Chad. As much as he loved Chloe, she was a little like a herd of elephants at times, and just trampled over everything in her attempt to make it better. But trampling never made things better; it just made things flat.

Today, Clark promised himself. He'd talk to Chad today. At lunch, or maybe after school. He'd go to the ME's office and then...

And then, Clark ran into Chad in the bathroom. Chad had been in a stall, and when he came out, there was blood on the fingers of his right hand.

"Clark," he said, nodding as he went to the sink.

"Hey." Clark waited until Chad was gone, then left quickly, making a beeline for Mr. Townsend's room. No more putting it off; he was doing this. Now.

"Hey," he said, weaving his way through the crowd of senior AP students in the doorway. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

Mr. Townsend was writing notes on the board. He nodded absently, but threw Clark a quick smile. There was chalk on his forehead and on his slacks, and he looked tired. "Of course, Clark. I can't stop writing right now; I'm really behind today."

"Oh, um. Look, I don't want to explain it all right now, and I'm sorry about that, really, but, uh, can you give me and Chad passes excusing us from second period?"

"Sure. Why?"

"I need to talk to Chad about something really important. I'm worried about something, and I want to do it now. I know it's an inappropriate use of school time, but..." He trailed of uncomfortably.

Mr. Townsend stopped writing and turned. His eyes were narrowed slightly, brow furrowed. "Is Chad doing drugs?"

"No! No, but it's serious, and it's something I've let slide too long." Clark twisted his ring anxiously and then added, "Look. This is one of those things I should have gone to an adult for, except I know it'd lead to Chad being sent to Mr. Font, and, believe me, I know that wouldn't help. Before I tell, I want to talk to him. I want him to know that I'm there for him." He hesitated again then said, "I talked to Aaron about this. He works at the crisis center, and gave me some advice. I just.... I'm afraid if I go to an adult, they'll mess up. No offense."

"It's okay." Mr. Townsend set the chalk down and went to his desk. "I'll say that you're working on something for me. But only second period, okay?"

"That's fine." Clark continued to twist his ring while Mr. Townsend wrote the passes. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. Oh, and I guess you didn't hear the news. Mr. Font's been fired." He held out the passes.


Mr. Townsend nodded. "Apparently, he was passing information about students to certain people, so Reynolds fired him. Don't know who they're bringing in to replace him, but I'd stop by the office at some point today or tomorrow and ask what you're supposed to do."

"I will," he promised, and he almost meant it. But, mostly he figured he'd wait until they called him to the office. "Thanks for the passes, Mr. Townsend."

"You're welcome." The bell rang. "Everyone, please take a seat and pull out your anthologies, I'll be with you in one moment," he said loudly. Then, softer, to Clark, "Do you want to drop by after school and talk?"

Clark nodded. "Okay. And I'll see you in class."

"I'm counting on you to participate in class and help everyone transition back. This day has been painful enough."

"I promise," Clark laughed.

The seniors were shooting him looks, but Clark ignored them. He bet none of them could just ask their teacher for a pass out of class and get it. Especially without having to explain what it was for. Okay, yes, Mr. Townsend had asked, but Clark knew that he would have gotten it without the explanation.

Chad had U.S. History second period, and he looked bored when Clark entered the class. Clark went to the teacher and gave her the pass.

"Chad?" she said after reading the note. "Mr. Townsend needs you. Take your belongings."

His face lit up as he gathered everything together. "What's going on?" he asked, practically bouncing after Clark in the halls. "What does Mr. Townsend need?"

"Nothing. I got him to lie for me. I, uh, want to talk to you."

"Why? What's going on?" Chad followed Clark to the Torch office. Once there, he tossed his backpack onto the floor and threw himself onto the couch. Then he heaved a sigh. "It's nice to be out of that class. History is so boring. Stupid."

Clark shrugged and snagged a chair to sit in. "I guess. Well, I like European history. It's interesting." He tugged his ring. "Uh, look, I, um, there's something I've been wanting to talk to you about. For awhile now, and I was hoping we could talk now."

"Sure. What's up?"

"Okay." He twisted his ring and took a deep breath. "I just wanted to let you know that I consider you a friend. And I hope you consider me one, too. Like, if things were bothering you, you could, you know. Talk to me."

Chad raised an eyebrow. "Uh, Clark? I know the make-up is confusing, but we're not girls."

"I'm just concerned about you, that's all. I'm..." He swallowed. "Okay, look. I, uh. Saw. Um." He sighed. "I'm worried about you, Chad. I'm afraid you're hurting yourself."

Chad went rigid. His heavily lined eyes were stuck on Clark's, burning with fear and something that looked like anger.

He pushed on, still feeling stupid. "I'm worried, but not, you know. Angry. Or disgusted or anything. And I haven't told anyone. Adults, I mean, because I thought we should talk first. At least, I should. Tell you my concerns, I mean. I just ... I know what it's like to have things you can't quite deal with. For feelings to press inside you until you don't know what to do." He looked down at his hands. There was still nail polish on his fingers from the last time he'd painted; it was chipped and dull and he wondered vaguely if he should repaint or just stop. "I don't know why you hurt yourself," he finally said. "I want you to know if you ever want to talk to me--about anything--I'm here."

He was very pale now, and breathing rapidly. Biting his lip, Chad tore his eyes from Clark's and looked away. "Look, I know I'm different from other people with the whole Goth thing, but just because I dress like this doesn't mean I'm a freak."

"I don't think you're a freak. And I don't think you cut yourself because you're a Goth. I like you, Chad, and I don't judge you because of the way you dress. But I saw some cuts on your wrist one day. Your cuff came loose and I saw a fresh cut. And today, when you came out of the bathroom, there was blood on your fingers." He looked up at Chad. "If you say you're not cutting, I'll believe you."

"No you won't."

Clark sighed, wishing this were easier. "Chad, I'd love to be wrong, but I'm worried. Please, tell me. Are you hurting yourself?"

Chad met his eyes again and, for a moment, Clark knew he was going to say no. Deny it and tell Clark he was insane, and then Clark didn't know what he was going to do.

And then, Chad exhaled explosively and said, "Yes, I am. I cut myself. My arms, mostly."

Shocked, Clark blinked and asked, "Why?"

"Dunno. I do. It makes me feel better. Helps me handle things. And I don't want help and I don't want to talk to anyone, okay? Cutting is the only thing that helps get me through the day, and it's my body and I can do what I want."

"Do you really think it's healthy?"

"It works," he said succinctly. "That's all I care about." Then he stood, grabbing his backpack. "I'm going back to class." He said it defiantly, daring Clark to stop him.

He entertained the idea for a moment, but dropped it. Clark could keep Chad here until doomsday, but Chad wouldn't stop cutting until he wanted to. That's just the way things went. So, he shrugged and said, "Okay. I'll see you at lunch."

Chad nodded and brushed past him. "Oh, and Clark?"


"Don't tell Chloe."

Clark nodded slowly, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Okay, I won't." He wanted to. She deserved to know. "I promise." He wouldn't tell her. Not yet. Not until he had a chance to talk to Chad again. Or something.

"Good." And then he left.

He exhaled shakily and pitched forward onto the couch. That hadn't gone well, but, then he hadn't exactly expected it to. At least Chad hadn't lied to him; Clark wouldn't have known what to do if Chad had simply denied everything. Plus, now Chad knew that Clark knew, and Clark knew from experience that that could help. And once Chad got over his anger and embarrassment, maybe he would come to Clark.

If not ... then Clark would talk to Mr. Townsend. Mark. Whatever.

Clark lay on the couch for a few minutes, eyes closed. Maybe he could pretend the pass was good for the whole day. Ditch school. Go see Lex. Avoid Lana Lang.

Stupid Lana. Lana and her pink cheeks and really wide eyes while he'd been all wet last night. In a white tee shirt. He had no idea how girls did that; wet tee shirt contests. Being able to see through your shirt and have people look at you like you were for sale or something. It was really uncomfortable.

She'd seemed okay that morning, though. Eyes in her head and all that. She'd still acted weird about the ring, though, and she'd held his hand in a way that covered it up. Clark wasn't sure if he wanted to pretend to date her much longer. It was too complicated.

He groaned softly and stretched. He shouldn't stay. Even though he wanted to. But he'd gotten the pass so he could talk to Chad and Chad had decided to leave. Thus, the pass was invalid, and...

"Excuse me."

Clark froze. His stomach dropped and heart leapt to his throat. He was imaging things. Hallucinating. Because.... Because...

"Hey, Kent. You awake?"

He shot up, heart pounding wildly. "Whitney?"

And it was. Whitney. In full dress uniform, looking ... fantastic. Fit and handsome and just...

Whitney smiled. "That's right."

"Whitney." Okay, Clark vaguely remembered hearing that there were other words in the English language. Unfortunately, he couldn't seem to remember any of them.

"Uh, yeah. Anyway, I was wondering what class Lana's in right now. I want to surprise her."

Painfully, Clark's mind started to work. "You're not dead."

He stepped into the room and pulled off his hat. Cover, or whatever it was called. "No, I'm not."

"What happened?" Oh, God, his arms were tingling, skin crawling with the desire to stand up and pull Whitney into his arms. Why wasn't Whitney coming to him? He'd said that when he saw Clark again, he was going to sweep him into his arms and kiss him, Lex be damned. He'd said...

So why wasn't he?

A cloud crossed over Whitney's face. "I, uh, don't really like to talk about what happened."

"Oh, yeah. Of course. I understand." Clark licked his lips. "But you know, if you ever want to talk..."

"Uh. Right." He turned the hat around in his hands and rocked on his heels before saying, "So. Lana?"

"Oh. Right. Uh, she's in DePerrie's math class right now. Room 45." He had to do something. Do it now. Because...

"Thanks." He started to step back, but Clark forced himself to his feet and crossed the room.

"I'm glad you're okay," he said, and he pulled Whitney to him in a hug.

It was all wrong. He didn't know why, but it was. Whitney didn't hug him back so much as ... hold onto his arms as if he was trying to shove Clark away. Then he sort of relaxed and patted Clark's back awkwardly, but his body ... it was wrong somehow. His breath smelled funny, and skin wasn't the same. His hair was scratchy, and aftershave was different.

Blushing furiously, Clark pulled back. "Uh. Yeah."

"Thanks, Clark. I'll see you around." He put his hat back on and left.

The door shut, echoing loudly in Clark's ears. His lungs seized, and he staggered backwards, falling limply onto the couch.

Oh, God, Whitney was alive. Really alive and warm and not dead. Not blown to pieces or shot in a field halfway around the world. He was alive and home. Safe.

Why was it so cold in here? Really, it was freezing. Clark had never been so cold in his life, and he once went outside during a snowstorm in his underwear. He pulled his jacket around him tighter and curled up into a ball.

Whitney wasn't dead. He was ... alive. Not dead. Breathing. Warm. And Clark ... Clark had thought he was dead. Lying in some field somewhere, pieces of him missing, his lungs not moving, maggots crawling over his skin and what kind of friend was he to ever think something like that? To dream about his headstone in that eternal graveyard that haunted his nightmares and...

He swallowed hard, bile rising in his throat.

"Jesus Christ, are you okay?" Chloe asked suddenly.

Clark opened his eyes, still shivering. "I'm c-cold."

"Cold? You don't get cold, Clark." But she pulled a blanket from her desk chair and draped it over him; Chloe had all the comforts of home in her office. "Jesus, you're burning up. What happened?"


Her face changed. "Yeah, I saw him in the hall just now. When did you see him?"

"He came in here. Asked for Lana. Oh, God, Chloe, I thought he was dead."

She smiled softly. Fingers trailing through Clark's hair, she said, "Isn't this a great time to have been wrong?"

"I guess," he whispered, leaning into her. Then he sighed. "He acted like he barely remembered me."

"Probably because we're at school. I mean, he has a major crush on you, right? A lot of feelings, and that's not necessarily something he wants to display at school."

"Maybe," Clark said. "You're probably right. I just ... expected it to be different somehow. Especially since we were alone. I was in here, and he came in and ... and asked for Lana."

"Yeah, he sort of did the whole hero thing with her. Came striding manfully down the hallway, people parting like the Red Sea. She dropped her books, ran to him, hugged him. Cried. Everyone sort of stood there before converging on Whitney. And, I came to look for you."

"Thanks. You're a good friend."

"Well, I do my best." She gave him a toothy smile complete with wrinkled nose. "Give him a few hours or days to get settled. Then the two of you will talk, he'll tell you he loves you, you'll kiss, and then he'll move on with his life."

"Move on?" Clark bit his lip. "I wonder if Mr. Townsend knows."

"You okay?" Helen asked, sticking her head into Mark's room.

He looked up from the laundry he was folding and smiled at her. "I'm fine."

"Rough day?"

"A little. At first. My first two classes were disrupted a few times by jocks who no longer feel as if they need to listen to me because I'm gay. But, after that it was okay. Everyone was too busy talking about Whitney Fordman to be uncomfortable around me."

"Who is Whitney?"

He felt himself blush, but kept his voice steady as he answered, "A local hero of sorts. He was the quarterback of the football team then went off to join the Marines. He's been missing in action since the end of November. He returned today and came to school to see all of his ... friends." He tried to keep the bitterness from his voice. Not that he was bitter. Not really.

It was just, he'd been expecting something. A hello. A smile. He'd even have settled for a handshake. Some form of acknowledgement.

But there'd been nothing. Of course, he'd been surrounded by students the few times Mark had seen him, but he'd hoped...

God, what had he hoped? That Whitney would come striding heroically into his classroom and sweep him off his feet? He wasn't 16 years old.

"So, he's the one they're throwing the party for at the Talon?"

He nodded and put a carefully folded shirt into his new dresser.

"You going to go?"

Mark shrugged and picked up another shirt. They'd all gotten wrinkled in the move, and he's spent the afternoon ironing them. "I'm not sure. He wasn't in any of my classes, and I barely knew him. There's no real reason to go."

"Oh. Um, Mrs. Fordman called when you were out. That's why.... Anyway, she left a message about the party. She said it's mostly for his high school friends, and then said she'd like for you to come to dinner at her house sometime this week." She walked behind him and handed him the message that was scribbled on a piece of paper.

He took it and smiled. "Thanks, Helen."

"No problem." She left, leaving Mark to continue sorting out his clothes. And his feelings.

It is a truth universally expected that when your ex-boyfriend comes back from the dead, or at least, ceases to be missing in action, you get back together with him. Even if you were supposedly dating someone else. Even though you hadn't told your former boyfriend about the new "boyfriend." Telling would be too painful, and he'd just been in a world of pain, but ...

Lana lay back on her bed and flicked the switch to her as-yet unused vibrator. It turned on, buzzing softly in her hand, the white-faced kitty gazing at her through accusing eyes.

Her door opened. "Hey," Chloe said leaning against the doorjamb.

"Hey." She turned the vibrator off and set it down.

"You almost ready for the party? It starts in about a half an hour."

"Yeah, I know." Lana glanced at her closet and wondered if she should change into something pretty. Whitney would like that. He obviously wanted her pretty, wanted to be with her again, as evidenced by the aborted kiss in his mother's kitchen.

Whitney was just so ... so different. It was like the past year didn't even exist. Because, they hadn't been together in about a year now, and Whitney had just forgotten.

"Hey." Chloe climbed on the bed and put her hand on Lana's leg. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing. Nothing, really, I just .... Okay, maybe ..." She broke off and wiped her eyes. "Whitney doesn't remember that we broke up."

"He doesn't?"

She shook her head. "No. And I don't know what to say. We were having a snack at his house, and his mom went to make a call. He leaned in and tried to kiss me, but I pulled back. Then he said that he wanted to know what was wrong, and I told him that ... it didn't feel right. It'd been so long." Lana bit her lip, replaying the memory in her head. "He said that, yes, it'd been a long time, but he was back now. He wasn't going to leave again and, besides, six months isn't forever."

"Six months?"

"It's been a year." She tugged the ends of her hair. "But when I asked if he remembered the conversation we'd had last year--about us both needing space and growing in different directions--he said that he didn't know what I was talking about. Then he said that he'd been caught in an explosion, and there are huge gaps in his memory."

Chloe frowned. "You mean like amnesia?"

"Yeah, I guess. He's forgotten a lot. Um, he doesn't remember the video letter we sent, or anything I wrote to him. When I asked him about Clark's letter--you know, the one he wouldn't let me see? Whitney asked me why Clark would be writing him."

"Really?" She sounded surprised and a little skeptical. "He has no idea that he and Clark were friends?"

"No, I guess not." Lana sniffed. "I don't know what to do. I don't want to hurt him, but I can't pretend to want to be with him. I care for Whitney a lot, but I don't want to be with him. I don't know what to do."

Chloe sighed and leaned into Lana to hug her hard. "I wish I could tell you what to do."

"Yeah, me too." She pulled away and wiped her eyes. "The really frustrating thing is how everyone just expects me to break up with Clark and start dating Whitney. They expect me to be so ... callous and mean. I don't want to hurt Clark."

"But, Lana, you're not really dating Clark."

Oh, yeah. Right. "I know that," she snapped. "But they don't. And they just think I should dump Clark because my 'real' boyfriend is back. I had at least seven people say that to me today, and it's just ... wrong."

"Hey," Chloe said gently, squeezing Lana's hand. "You don't have to be with Whitney just because people think you should be. It's your life."

"I know."

"No, you don't. You always do this, Lana. First off, you imagine what everyone must be thinking about you, and feel guilty about not meeting this imaginary standard. And then, because you feel guilty, you make yourself even more unhappy and do what you think everyone wants you to do, even though you don't want to!"

Lana tried to be resentful or angry over Chloe's accusation, but couldn't muster the energy. Because Chloe was right.

Tears rose to her eyes, and Lana sniffed. "You know, I've imagined this day ever since Whitney first left. I thought it'd go a lot differently."

"Yeah," Chloe said with a strange, sad smile. "Yeah, well. I think we all did."

Lex hummed softly to himself as he entered Cadmus Labs. Today had been a good day. He'd been up since five o'clock and still felt good, despite the mountain of paperwork and hundreds of phone calls he'd had to do when he'd gotten into the office. Despite the fact that three of his employees had sold their voting share to an unknown buyer who, according to the description (slim, well-dressed blond man with a goatee and goes by the name, "Anthony" which, incidentally, was Dom's middle name) sounded a lot like Dominic. Dominic who was, of course, in London as confirmed by three reliable eyewitnesses. Lex was in a good mood despite the fact that Dad had been particularly annoying at breakfast, and Athena had tracked kitty litter on the bathroom floor and it hurt his feet, and Damien had only let him run for fifteen minutes ("You've been sick, sir, and don't need to overextend yourself."). In fact, Lex was in a fucking fantastic mood. It was amazing what not feeling like you were going to die would do to your mood. He felt better than he had in well over a month: healthy, full of energy, and powerful. Like he could do anything.

His shoes clacked purposefully on the well-polished floors, echoing. Around him was the soft buzz of people at work, and it sounded like success. Well, close to success. LexCorp had managed to snag four researchers in the past two months. Instead of having them work in the Smallville plant, as Dad had when he owned it, Lex moved them to Cadmus. Not that Dad didn't know that Lex still had Cadmus, and couldn't still steal the researchers if he wanted them, but, so far, he hadn't. And while Lex was always going to be vigilant against Lionel, he could also relax and enjoy feeling powerful as he strode through the halls.

"Lex?" Dr. Sutton stuck her head out of her office. She smiled when she saw him. "I thought I heard you."

He quirked an eyebrow. "You did?"

"You have a very distinctive walk." She winked. "Please, come in."

"I hope I don't need to go through anymore tests," Lex said, following her into her office. "I thought you said you were done the other day." The other day, when Dr. Sutton had spent six hours poking, prodding, scanning, x-raying, and peering in, on, and at him. He'd spent the rest of the day in bed, curled under the covers with Athena, feeling like an alien in his own body.

Not that he'd ever admit that to anyone.

"No, no more tests," she assured him, rummaging through the papers on her desk.

Lex heard a chorus of Hallelujah start up somewhere. "Good. Uh, so why did you call? Is something wrong?"

"No. Well, yes. Not wrong with the labs if that's what you mean, but .... Where is that stupid ...Oh, here." She sighed with relief and picked a piece of paper off the desk. "I need you to sign this form."

"What is it?" he asked, glancing over it.

She sighed. "A requisition order. Tina Greer committed suicide two weeks ago, and no one bothered to inform me until earlier today. She hasn't been buried yet, and I would like to get her body into the lab as soon as possible, and I need you to sign that for legalities."

"I thought you were her primary care physician," he said as he sat. The form looked legit, so he signed it. "Why weren't you informed earlier?"

"Sadly, no. As with most of the mutants, I was only able to get to Tina for research purposes. I'm trying to find a way to at the very least control the damage done, if not cure it. But ..." She stopped talking and put her hands on her temples.

"Are you okay?" Lex asked softly.

Dr. Sutton nodded, eyes still squeezed shut. Then she wiped her eyes and exhaled hard. "It's hard enough to lose a patient. But one so young and intelligent. And suicide."

"How did she do it?" he asked in the same, soft tone. He was a little afraid to move. Dr. Sutton wasn't exactly crying, but she was obviously really upset. Lex didn't know what to do.

"She burned herself to death. Locked herself in the art therapy room and ... poured paint thinner on herself and set herself on fire." She opened her eyes again. "And there was no indication of why. Before, I mean. I just saw her. A week before she did it, I was there, collecting a blood sample. We talked."

"About what?"

"Things." Dr. Sutton sat down at her desk and sighed. "I gave her a Christmas present, and we talked a little about books. Then she told me about the movie they'd shown for those who've been well behaved. She's been well behaved for months, if a little confused."


"She thinks she's a lesbian, and that was giving her some trouble. But we talked about it, and she seemed okay. And now..." She broke off and swallowed hard. "She left a note saying she didn't know who she was anymore, but.... Anyway, there are tests I want to run on her. Her body."

Lex nodded and handed her the form. "If anything interesting turns up..."

"I'll be sure to tell you. Oh." She pulled a tissue from the box and wiped her nose. "I wanted to talk to you about Helen Bryce."

His spine stiffened as alertness washed over him. Back when Dr. Sutton and Helen had first met, Dr. Sutton had asked Helen if she'd be interested in looking at the blood work of one of her patients. Lex has assumed she'd been referring to him because, while Byron and Tina's blood had both been altered radically by the meteors, Lex had a feeling she'd been referring to him. After all, he was the one with the unknown chemical in his blood stream. Maybe it was egocentrism, maybe it was paranoia, but Dr. Sutton knew what cased the mutations in Tina and Byron; she wasn't so sure on him. And, unfortunately, Lex wasn't going to enlighten her until Clark said it was all right.

"What about her?" he asked, fighting to keep his voice neutral.

"Well," she said, obviously sensing the change in tone. "I have a small team working with me on the mutants and meteors. The new geologist you brought in to replace Dr. Hamilton has been helpful in sharing his research and the like with me, and I have made advances. However, I'd like to bring Helen on as well. She specializes in blood and changes at the molecular level, and while I'm knowledgeable in that area, she has more ... specific information."

"Do you feel as if you need to bring on another medical doctor?"

"At this point, yes. The scientists working under me know what they're doing, but I'd like to bring in someone new to bring in a fresh perspective. Besides, Helen is already working on this on her own. She's behind us, of course, and doesn't have quite the resources as we do here, but she's a bright woman. With the proper funding, she could crack this."

"And you want her research."

Dr. Sutton nodded. "Of course. I feel I'm near a break-through on some levels. Ever since Lionel signed Byron over to me, I've been making headway. In his case, it's a matter of halting damage that was caused by experimentation with meteors; I've almost untangled the mess of the original drug, and everything is falling into place. Working with a fresh pair of eyes would help, though."

Lex nodded. Dr. Sutton had a point. She was, of course, collaborating with her colleagues in the lab, but her contact with the medical and scientific world at large was limited due to the confidential nature of their work. Lex didn't want it to get out since not only did it have the potential to backfire, discredit Dr. Sutton and have Lex labeled a meteor freak crack-pot, as Dr. Hamilton had been, but it might lead people to Clark. But research conducted in a void didn't flourish, so he understood the need for new blood, as it were.

But Helen....

The more Lex got to know her, the better he liked her. She was funny, intelligent, and, at least on the surface, caring. However, he knew himself well enough to see him in her. She was ambitious and hungry for recognition. And she didn't have a Clark to temper her ambition with a sense of ... morality or common sense or human decency. Whatever it was Clark did that made Lex, well.... To put it succinctly, Lex still wanted to do great things, but, because of Clark, he wanted to do good things, too.

But, at the same time ... if Helen were left to her own devices, anything she discovered, found, or realized about the meteors and the mutants would be hers to do what she wanted with. And Lex didn't want that.

"The difficulty will be convincing her to sign her research over to us," he finally said, meeting Dr. Sutton's eyes. "She's going to want to publish under her name and have the recognition go to her."

"I'm willing to compromise. I'm not in this for fame," Dr. Sutton said.

"No, that's not what I mean. I don't know if she's going to want the name LexCorp attached to her research."

"Ah." She nodded and tapped her fingernails on her desk. "Well, then we'll have to find a way to convince her that, if she signs her findings to us, she'll get the recognition and LexCorp will be able to put the results to good use right away. After all, isn't that what this is all about? Finding a way to benefit humanity?"

He smiled. "Theoretically, yes. That's what I want."

"Helen isn't going to say she doesn't care about the benefits, that she only wants the fame," Dr. Sutton said. "Let's schedule a meeting and talk to her. If any of us have doubts, I'll drop it."

He thought about it a moment, trying to think of all the ways this could go badly. There were hundreds. But, on the other hand, things might go just as badly should Helen do this on her own. And, if she did, there was no way for Lex to control the findings.

"Okay," he finally said. "Set up the meeting. Not here. At the mansion, maybe. We'll talk, and I have final say."

Dr. Sutton smiled and nodded. "Of course, Lex. And it'll be fine."

He could only hope.

Everyone at school had turned out for Whitney's welcome home party. The Talon was filled to capacity, and people spilled onto the streets, drinking hot chocolate and coffee and talking excitedly. It was almost like school hadn't just resumed session and they were still on vacation. He highly doubted anyone but him was going to turn in homework tomorrow, and the only reason he'd done it was because he needed to take his mind off Whitney. Because rereading every single letter Whitney had ever sent him hadn't helped with that.

He tugged his shirt down and ran his hand over his hair. Before heading out for the party, he'd dressed carefully. And asked his mother how he looked. And called Lex and asked if he should wear his black sweater, or if it'd seem too much like he was dressing up.

"Don't wear the sweater," Lex had said, to Clark's lack of surprise. "Wear that green long sleeved shirt I bought you in Metropolis."

"But it's just a tee shirt," Clark said, pulling it out of his drawer.

"You look great in it, and it's not a formal party. The sweater is too dressy. Wear the green top with your black jacket, and you'll look great."

So, here Clark was, standing across from the Talon in the green shirt, black jacket, and jeans Lex had bought him, watching the throng of happy people. All he had to do was cross the street, act like he was having a good time, and he was normal, and he didn't have a crush on Whitney. It'd be easy.

A car turned around the corner and drove slowly past him. Clark froze, flashbacks of the last time he'd stood nervously across the street, waiting to approach Whitney rolling over him. Only this time...

The car picked up speed and continued down the street. Clark exhaled hard, but his heart continued to pound. He felt ... sick. His stomach was jumping around, twisting inside him. God, he hated this. Hated that he was so fucking weak that a car driving down the street could spook him.

He inhaled sharply then strode across the street. It was time to stop being such a baby and just go into the Talon already.

The air inside the building was oppressive. It was hot from all the people inside, and noisy as well. Every waitress was working, rushing around frantically to fill orders. Clark saw, though, that there was a bowl of punch in the corner, as well as a tray of baked goods on a table that was being manned by friends of Mrs. Fordman.

"There you are," Chloe said, suddenly appearing at Clark's side. "I was wondering when you were going to show up."

"Sorry. I've been.... I was doing chores." He ran his hand through his hair. "Where is everyone?"

"Pete and Lana are with Whitney at the front. Chad's getting some air." She took his hand. "You okay?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Dunno. You look a little spooked."

Clark sighed and shrugged. He didn't want to tell her about the car, because that would open a whole can of worms that didn't need to get opened. And he felt stupid saying that he was nervous about seeing Whitney, so he just said, "I'm okay. It's just crowded."

Chloe nodded and looked around the room. "I know, isn't it great? Even with the free punch, the Talon's making bank on coffee and food." She tugged him. "Let's go say hi to Whitney, okay?"

"Yeah, okay."

Heart pounding, Clark followed Chloe through the throng to where Whitney was. He was standing very close to Lana, so close their hands were brushing. Lana looked uncomfortable, but she wasn't moving away.

"Hey. What'd I miss?" Chloe asked as she and Clark joined the group.

"Nothing much." Lana looked relieved to see Chloe, and the look that passed between them set warning bells off in Clark's head. Not that he was against them getting back together, but, Jesus, did they really have to go through this dance again right now? "Pete's just been talking our ear off about football."

"Yeah, well, it's Whitney. Football star, most likely to go pro even now, right? Am I right, man?"

Whitney gave Pete a forced smile and said, "I don't know. I'm not all that interested in football these days," with a little laugh.

"You know, Whitney, if you're up for it, I'd love to set up an exclusive interview with you for the Torch," Chloe said. Then she glanced at Clark. "I'll even let Clark help me write it, if you want."

Clark widened his eyes at her and pinched her arm.

"I actually don't remember that much and what I do remember I'd rather not talk about," he said a little stiffly. Whitney shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. "Now that I'm back home, I'd rather focus on the more important things in life." His eyes returned to Lana, and a genuine smile crossed his face. A loving smile.

Clark's stomach did a slow flip and he had to swallow hard, suddenly queasy.

"Um, well, okay. I understand. But, uh, maybe we can do something about how good it feels to be home, and all the things you missed." Chloe glanced at Clark again then added, "I'm sure you're anxious to just explore the town again with a really good friend."

She meant well. Clark knew that, really, he did. But, God, this was embarrassment that he didn't need. He'd told her about the letter he'd written Whitney in confidence and, yeah, okay, Whitney knew the contents of the letter, but it was personal.

"Right," Whitney said in a tone of polite confusion. Then, he finally looked at Clark and smiled. But it wasn't a real smile, not like the one he'd given Lana. It wasn't like the smiles he'd given Clark last spring, when they'd play basketball together, or hung out and didn't talk, or when Clark kissed him.

It was the smile of someone who didn't like him. Of someone he'd never been friends with. Of...

"Hey, Clark," Whitney said, holding out his hand to shake.

"Hey." Clark swallowed hard and forced a smile onto his face. He shook Whitney's hand, skin crawling at the contact. "It's good to have you back."


"Hey, Fordman!" Roger shouted, coming up behind Whitney with a bunch of other jocks. They pulled Whitney away from the group and across the room.

"I'm going to go find Chad," Chloe said. "I'll be back." She smiled at Lana and touched Clark's hand before disappearing into the crowd.

Pete punched him on the shoulder. "I'm going to get some punch. Want some?"

"No, I'm good, thanks," Clark said as Lana shook her head.

"Okay." He left, leaving Clark and Lana alone.

"So," Lana said, rocking on her heels. "You, uh, you kept disappearing at school today."

"Yeah, well. You were busy with Whitney and I didn't want to get in the way."

"Oh. I, uh, kind of thought that since the two of you had been writing, you'd want to hang out with each other."

He fiddled with the hem of his shirt. "Yeah, well. I bumped into Whitney when he got to school, and he didn't seem to be too interested in seeing me. So I figured I'd give him a chance to settle in and stuff."

"Oh." Lana shifted her weight. "Yeah, he seems kind of like he wants to hang around me a lot. Which is funny because he spent so much time with you before he left." She shrugged. "Anyway, I was wondering if it's okay if he tagged along with us on Saturday."

"Saturday?" he said blankly.

A brief look of annoyance crossed her face. "Yeah. Saturday. We were going to the Winter Festival in Grandville with Chloe and Chad. Remember?"

Great. "Lana, I'm sorry, but I can't go," Clark said, wondering when he'd said he could. "Grant's coming back and we have to work on the article."

"Clark, how could you..."

"Hey, guys, what's going on?" Whitney asked, slapping Clark on the shoulder as he rejoined them.

He stiffened involuntarily, stomach lurching. For some reason, he really didn't want Whitney touching him right now, and he had to fight not to shove him away.

"Nothing," Lana said, a forced smile on her face. "We were just talking."

"Uh-huh." Whitney looked at the two of them carefully, then sort of pulled into himself. "I take it the two of you saw a lot of each other while I was gone."

"Kind of. Not like ... romantically or anything. Just as friends."

Lana shot daggers at Clark and said, "Yeah. Clark and I are just friends, Whitney."

Whitney nodded, eyes looking a little scary. Wild. "I'm going to go get some punch," he said intensely, and then pivoted on his heel, stalking away.

"What was that about?" Clark asked Lana.

"Nothing. It's just that someone's going to tell him that we're dating, and telling him that ..."

"Whitney knows I'm with Lex. I'm sure he'd understand why we were pretending to date." Clark shrugged and stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jacket. "I'm going to get a piece of cake."

"Fine." Lana turned and left, as if she couldn't stand being near him anymore.

Whatever. They were only pretending to go out, and while he appreciated the gesture, it wasn't like he was going to go out of his way to make sure every person believed they were totally in love.

He made his way to the punch bowl and got himself a piece of cake. He had no idea where Pete had disappeared to, but Chloe was stuffed in a corner with Chad, and there was no way he was going to interrupt them.

This sucked. It was too crowded, there was no one to talk to, and Whitney was still giving him the creeps.

Okay, he'd done his part, right? He'd shown up, said hi, told Whitney he was glad to have him home. Gotten into a tiff with Lana. He could leave now. Right?

He ate the cake and wiped his hands on his jeans. He'd hit the bathroom, say good-bye to Chloe, and take off. This wasn't fun.

The last thing Clark was expecting when he walked into the bathroom was for a door to come flying at him. He ducked, heart pounding, immediately hype-aware of his surroundings and looking for danger.

What he found was a heavy-breathing, red-faced Whitney, who was glaring at him with murder in his eyes.

"Whitney," Clark said, immediately concerned and trying to ignore the look.

"What's going on between you and Lana?"


"Don't lie to me, Kent." He rushed Clark, backing him against the wall. One arm pressed against his neck.

"Jesus, Whitney!" Clark exclaimed, clutching at Whitney's sweater. "Nothing is going on, you know that. I've written you every week since you've left, and I'd have told you. You know that I'm..." Clark stopped talking abruptly as the realization that Whitney didn't know he was with Lex washed over him. And if Whitney didn't know, then this wasn't his Whitney.

He went numb. Whitney was still leaning on him, pinning him to the door and it was terrifying because, God, this wasn't Whitney.

"You're a class act, you know that, Kent? I go off to fight for my country, and you stab me in the back by trying to steal my girl."

"She's hasn't been your girl since last winter," Clark managed. Whiney was leaning on his windpipe hard.

"Just because I went away..."

"You broke up, Whitney. Last winter, before your father died." Why was he telling Whitney this? It wasn't him.

Whitney's face twisted and he pulled away. "What?"

"The two of you broke up. She said she wanted to see other people first, and then, later, the two of you made a definite split. But you stayed really good friends, and I don't know how much other people believed you were apart." Which was one of the issues Clark had been running into ever since he and Lana had been pretending to date.

"We broke up. Why? So she could be with you?"

Clark opened his mouth to give a version of the truth, but something stopped him. "No. No. It was around the time she started with the Talon."

"But she wrote me, right? Took me to the bus station? Saved pictures of me?"

"Yeah. I mean, the two of you were really close." He was just feeding the imposter. Why?

Because, it probably was him. And he was suffering from ... something. Stress or amnesia or something, but there was no way Clark could lie to him just because he couldn't remember.

But, at the same time, he couldn't tell him the truth, either. He couldn't explain why, but he couldn't tell Whitney about them, or him being gay, or any of the things that had passed between them. It was too personal and, well, Whitney would either have to remember on his own or just... not.

"Stay away from Lana, Kent," Whitney said intensely, but the strange intensity--insanity?--of before was gone.

"I..." But he decided not to push the point. If Whitney wanted him to stay away, and Lana was pissed at him, then Clark would stay away. Not a problem. "Uh, Whitney? How did you tear the door off?"

"I'm a trained US Marine, Clark," he replied condescendingly. "There are a lot of things I can do." He fixed Clark with a glare, and, for a moment, something like recognition clicked in Clark's mind. Then, Whitney left the bathroom, and the feeling was gone.

Lex had no idea how he wound up in Kiptin, but, then, he rarely did know. After meeting with Dr. Sutton, he'd immersed himself in work for a few hours, rousing only to eat, then go back to work. He hadn't made it to bed until midnight, but it felt so good to be well again, he reveled in the exhaustion.

And, now he was here. That usually meant something was wrong. Well, no. Not always. There were times when Clark pulled him in out of the sheer joy of it existing, and Lex would like to do the same, but it was so hard for him to figure out how to get in.

Lex stretched and sighed, confused as to how he'd gotten here but happy nonetheless.

The bed dipped. Lex turned. "Clark?"

"Hey." Clark looked sleepy. Confused. "What are you doing here?"

"We're in Kiptin." Lex rubbed Clark's stomach, feeling the muscles bunch under his tee shirt.

"Oh." He rubbed his eyes and lay back on the pillows. "Did you bring me here?"

"I don't think so. I just sort of came." He scooted closer to Clark and snuggled close. "I thought maybe you brought me."

Clark sighed and stroked his back. "No, I didn't. I don't think. I mean, actually, I've thought about it a lot lately, but I didn't set out to do it tonight."

"Why?" Lex asked, arching into Clark.

"Because you've been so depressed and weird about things. I thought maybe if I got you here to talk..." He shrugged and kissed Lex's forehead. "But you haven't felt ready."

Troubled, Lex frowned. Had he really been so bad? Had he ... Of course he had been. Ever since Ryan had come, really, and he'd started freaking out over things.

He'd spent so much time and energy avoiding thinking about it and now that he was, the answer was pretty easy. "You know, I think that guy who kidnapped me? Who looked like Jude? After he, uh, fucked my mouth, he complimented me. I honestly can't remember if he said anything about my mouth, or just my skin or what, but ... I know a lot of guys have told me I have a great mouth or variations on that theme. And some of them.... Sometimes, there's this line that gets crossed. I, uh, I expected you to cross it that time when you were high. You were so..." He broke off and swallowed. "But you didn't, and I don't think you ever, ever will. But, uh, sometimes, even after initial consent is given, things get out of hand. And it seemed to happen a lot, especially in the early days." Lex pulled away and propped himself on his elbows. This was hard and he didn't want to talk about it, but the words kept coming. "There were a lot of times I got hurt. And I'm really lucky I never caught anything, because even though I always tried to be safe, they. Didn't."

"Lex," Clark sighed. He stroked Lex's arm gently, comfortingly.

"I don't think about it. Ever. But, uh, lately.... I've been getting creeped out. You know that." Lex licked his lips and wished he could drink Scotch in Kiptin. "I haven't been thinking about it. I don't even know.... I just know that when you told me I had a great mouth, or whatever it was you said, that's when this started." He sighed and laid his head on Clark's chest. "I feel really good right now. Fantastic. Almost like I'm high. I wonder if I've been getting sick since November, and that's why..." He moved closer to Clark, needing to feel his warmth. "Or maybe I've got something wrong with me. I'm manic-depressive or something. Bipolar. Isn't that one of the signs?"

Clark didn't answer the question, but Lex was plugged into him so he knew. And it scared him that Clark had been trolling psychology websites and books for Lex, but at the same time.... Sometimes, Clark was the only one who could look at Lex and really see what was going on. See past the hypochondria and the headaches and the masks and the pretending that everything was fine and contemplate maybe, just maybe, it wasn't all in Lex's mind.

"I think that we shouldn't worry right now. Not yet. I mean, you've been sick your whole life, all the time and maybe ... maybe you were never really, truly well enough to feel good." Clark kissed the top of his head. "And maybe now, you are. And you feel it." He kissed Lex again. "I'm glad you told me about the consent thing. I won't..."

"Clark," Lex said quickly, lifting his head. "I like power games. I love it when you hold me down and fuck me and dominate me. As long as you don't spank or hit, I'm fine. Really. Because I trust you. I know the moment I say the safe word, you'll stop." He touched Clark's face gently. "Even if you're high. Even if you're angry with me. You'll stop."

Clark took his hand and kissed the palm. "I will. I swear to you." He moved down to the delicate skin of Lex's wrist and nuzzled it. "I don't want anyone to hurt you. I don't understand why anyone would want to."

He hitched a shoulder, shivering at the feel of Clark's lips against his skin. "Some people get off on pain. My pain." He shivered again when Clark traced the path of his vein down the length of his arm to his elbow.

"Jealousy," Clark whispered, working his way back to Lex's hand. "Self-contempt. They knew you were too beautiful for them." His lips engulfed Lex's thumb and he sucked it.

His eyes fluttered shut as he concentrated on the sensation. Clark's tongue swept over his thumb, twirling around it with strong, sure strokes as he sucked purposefully. Lex's flushed hotly, sweat breaking over his body, cock growing hard, jealous of this thumb.

"Clark," he said raggedly, free hand twining in Clark's hair and tugging.

But Clark wasn't going to be tugged and pulled by Lex. His attention was focused, and he was moving so, so slowly on his own agenda. All Lex could do was close his eyes and give into the sensations.

Still working Lex's hand over, sucking each and every finger and caressing the delicate skin between each one, Clark rolled Lex onto his back.

Lex limply allowed himself to be rolled. His hand felt as if it were on fire, every nerve ending standing at complete attention, yearning to be caressed by Clark. Everything felt so surreal, though; dreamy. It made sense. They were both asleep, and Kiptin wasn't quite real. Not in any physical sense and yet...

"God," Lex moaned, startled as Clark's mouth closed over his nipple. He didn't even remember losing his clothes, but their state of dress was just a state of mind anyway. If Lex wanted to be naked--or if Clark wanted him naked--he was.

Carefully, tenderly, Clark sucked Lex's left nipple, then worked his way to the right. He was slow and loving, and Lex could feel the need to wipe away all the hurts and damage done to him by lovers past.

Clark's mouth found the burn marks given to Lex in the green car. The stab wound from Club Zero. The almost invisible marks around his wrists where he'd been bound too tightly so many times. The scar on his lip. The long faded bruises on his stomach, his back, chest, legs, feet. Clark kissed away faded terror and fear and absolute helplessness, sucking and marking and ... and worshiping.

It didn't have to be visible. It didn't have to be remembered. Everything Lex had ever experienced was part of him, burned into his skin, soaked into his muscles. It guided his actions, his reactions, danced along his psyche, and often ruled his behavior.

And Clark took it all from him, soothed him, took the sting and the fear and the experience and turned it into something Lex could manage. Could live with.

After what seemed like eternity, after kissing and licking and sucking every inch of Lex, of pushing him closer and closer to the brink until he was trembling, back arched, fingers and toes digging into the sheets, pulling, Clark swallowed Lex down until his nose brushed against the few wiry hairs at the base of Lex's cock.

Two strokes of the tongue. One swallow around his swollen, twitching member and Lex lost it. He screamed and flew apart, Kiptin bursting into icy-blue flames around him as he poured into Clark's mouth.

It took some time before he realized he was flying. Floating, really, a foot or so above the bed.

Lex blinked, his vision slowly returning. The flames subsided, the walls stopped wavering, and Lex understood his surroundings again. Clark, who, just a moment, had been a flesh colored ball lying beneath him, came into sharp relief. He was sprawled over the bed, a dopey, satisfied smile on his face as he gazed up at Lex. Clark's hair hung heavily over his forehead, and his eyes were a dark blue, darker than normal, and they seemed to glow with an inner peace that Lex rarely saw in him.

Filled with joy, Lex smiled down at him.

"Hey," Clark whispered.


"I see what you mean about the flying thing. You are pretty hot up there."

"Why am I flying?"

Clark shrugged and reached his arms up. When Lex took them, he tugged Lex down on top of him and held tight. "Because we're here. And tied up in each other."

Lex nodded and snuggled against Clark. "I'll accept that." He kissed Clark's chest and whispered, "Thank you."

Clark didn't ask what Lex was thanking him for, but, then, he knew. In Kiptin, he knew and words, while comforting to say, weren't necessary. In Kiptin, they were one.

Lana hadn't slept all night. How could she, after the conversation she'd had with Whitney? When her life was being turned upside down and shaken so hard she could feel her brain rattled. When she didn't know what she felt anymore about anyone, except that she loved Chloe and Chloe was in the room next door, and no matter what, Chloe was there. Really there, not like Clark, who was there somehow when she was in trouble, but disappeared like smoke if she needed anything more. And not like Whitney, who'd never felt like hers, even when they were together. Who held her close and listened and cared, but who had this part of him that Lana could never reach and wasn't even sure if she should.

Chloe wasn't like that. Chloe opened herself up completely to Lana and wasn't afraid to take risks like that. And who wasn't afraid to help Lana when she needed help, and, Lord knew, Lana needed help now.

Hesitantly, she knocked on Chloe's door.

"Come in."

"Hey," Lana said, stepping inside.

"Hey," Chloe said as she shimmied into her skirt. She flashed Lana a smile, her wet hair sticking out all over the place, skin still flushed from the shower. She was dressed in only her skirt, tights and bra, and there was still some water beading on her skin. "What's up?"

Lana fought the urge to go over and lick the water off. Instead, she replied, "I just needed to talk to you about Whitney. About this weird conversation we had last night, and I don't know what to do with."

"What did you talk about?"

"He asked about us breaking up," she said, sitting on the bed.

"He remembered?"

"No. Whitney said he saw Clark throwing a fit last night in the bathroom, and when Whitney asked what was going on, Clark said he was angry that Whitney was back, because it messed up our chances of being together."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Chloe said, hands up, signaling stop. "Back up. Clark did what?"

"Whitney said Clark somehow ripped a door of one of the stalls and threw it. Whitney found him and wanted to know why. So Clark told him how angry he was, and how he and I were just starting to get somewhere, and Whitney ruined that."

Chloe looked at Lana through narrowed eyes, as if she didn't believe what she was hearing. "Whitney's lying," she finally said, shaking her eyes. "Clark wouldn't say something like that."

"No, I guess not." Lana took a deep breath, her confusion and ... hope twisting her stomach around. Finally, she said, "But, on the other hand, maybe there's something to it. I mean, you've told me how Clark acted when you tried to hook up with Justin. Maybe he's doing the same with me and Whitney."

"Right, but ... that's different," Chloe said.

"Why? Because he likes you?"

"No! Lana, Clark's crazy about you. Really." She sat next to Lana and put her hand on Lana's thigh. "I mean, you're still his first love, and you're a good friend. You're better than I am at managing Lex, and I know Clark appreciates that. You helped him out with the reporters by pretending to be his girlfriend. You're a good friend, and I can see him getting a little defensive if you started dating someone. Just ... not Whitney," Chloe finished.

"I guess. I mean, he does know Whitney better than he knew Justin. And he cares about Whitney a lot. I guess."

"He does." And there it was again. That strange tone Chloe always got lately when talking about Whitney. Especially Whitney and Clark. Lana couldn't quiet put her finger on why it was weird, but it was.

"So," Chloe said, rising again. She got a comb off her dresser and started combing her hair. "What did you tell Whitney about the two of you."

Lana blinked, startled at being pulled out of her thoughts and said, "I told him that, with his father being sick, and me opening the Talon, he and I just sort of stopped having time to be with each other like that. So we broke up and decided to be just friends. I, uh. Felt weird telling him about you and me. I know I shouldn't be, but I am."

"He's been through enough right now. He doesn't need to find out that his girlfriend dumped him for another girl."

She nodded. "Then he asked about me and Clark. Someone told him that Clark and I were dating, and he wanted to know if it was true."

"What did you say?"

Lana sighed, feeling stupid. "I said that we'd gone on some dates, but nothing was really happening." Which wasn't a lie. It just wasn't exactly honest, either.

Chloe looked at her through suddenly narrowed eyes.


"You have a crush on Clark, don't you?"

She flushed. "Not exactly." Then, "But he is cute. And really caring. I can't help wishing..."

"Lana." Chloe took her hand. "It's not going to happen, okay? He's with Lex."

Why did it seem like they were always having this conversation? If Lana wasn't trying to get back with Chloe, she was falling for Clark. What was wrong with her? "Yeah, you're right. I'm just being stupid." She sighed and tugged at her hair. "Maybe pretending to date Clark wasn't such a great idea after all."

"Your heart was in the right place. He needed help, and you gave it to him. But you can't help him if it's hurting you. It's just not fair."

"I know. You're right. But what do I do?"

"Clark will understand if you want to end your fake relationship. Especially with the confusion of Whitney. Especially since you're having doubts." She put her hand on Lana's knee. "It only works as long as it works. And I don't think it's working right now."

"I just hate leaving Clark in the lurch like this."

Chloe shrugged. "The reporters have stopped. I don't think he's as bothered by people hassling him as he is upset when they hassle Chad. He'll understand."

Lana sighed and wiped her eyes. She wasn't exactly crying, but she felt teary. "I'll talk to him as soon as I get a chance."

Chloe leaned over and kissed her forehead. "That's a good idea."

"Yeah. I guess."

"So, what did Whitney say, anyway?"

"Um, not much. He said that he was sorry for making so many assumptions about us, and that he was sorry he forgot. Then he asked if he could have my necklace again, because being close to me always helps him think." Lana shrugged. "I'm so used to not having it around, I gave it to him."

Chloe got off the bed and went to her dresser. "I'm glad you were honest with him. I think it'll be better in the long run."

"I think so, too."

One thing that never changed was how much Clark loved watching Lex move. Especially when Lex didn't know--or just didn't want to acknowledge--that he was there. Lex moved like liquid, one gesture or step flowing easily to the next, taking no effort at all. And that was in normal life; right now, he was doing yoga, and each movement seemed to fluidly slide into the next pose with little to no effort on Lex's part.

Clark wasn't sure how long he sat in a chair across the room, watching Lex. It might have been an hour; he'd come over right after showering, over an hour and a half earlier than he usually left for school. But he'd needed to see Lex this morning, wanted to feel his skin, cool and soft, against his own. Maybe it was the stalker part of him, but he didn't care. Lex was already his, and he was free to look, touch, and taste as much as he wanted.

So long as he made it to school on time.

Finally, Lex came to a sitting pose on the floor. His back was perfectly straight, hands loosely resting on his knees. He breathed deeply and slowly in time with the soft music that filled the air. It looked so easy, he looked so at ease, with his eyes closed, face relaxed. The sun rested lightly on his face, catching the red in his lashes and making them glow.

The music faded away. Slowly, Lex seemed to return to his body, his posture becoming more and more alert, his breath quickening, and his being simply coming to life.

"Morning, Clark," Lex said softly. He opened his eyes and smiled.


Lex rose easily and glided across the room to him. He climbed onto Clark's lap and kissed him deeply. His hands were on the arms of the chair, and he pushed himself up so he was hanging over Clark, bending to capture Clark's lips with his. "What brings you here?" Without waiting for an answer, Lex kissed him again.

Clark closed his arms around Lex, sliding his hands underneath the loose shirt he wore. "Wanted to see you," he murmured against his neck. "Touch you." He bit softly.

"I've been thinking about you all morning," Lex admitted, sitting down. He ran his hands up Clark's arms and kneaded his shoulders. "You have no idea how good I feel this morning."


Lex's eyes fell closed and his head tilted back, baring his throat further. Clark licked along the vein pulsing underneath the skin then slid along, over his Adam's apple. He placed a kiss at the space where Lex's collarbone met.

"It feels like I've been given a new body. One that fits." He kissed just next to Clark's ear, then bit his earlobe. "I feel like me."

"No more feeling like a thing?"

"No more feeling like a thing." He moved his head, finding Clark's lips. "Thank you."

Clark took Lex's face between his hands and softly kissed his forehead. "All I did was love you."

"I know," Lex said, a strange sort of smile on his face. "I just never realized before ... that it could be as powerful as they say. I keep expecting..."

"It's not going to go away. You know that." Clark took Lex's hand and caressed the ring.

Lex nodded and shifted in Clark's lap, looking sheepish. "I know." He kissed Clark's neck and settled against him. "I never got a chance to ask how Whitney's party went last night."

Clark sighed feeling as if a rain cloud had suddenly overshadowed the sun. He lifted Lex's left hand so he could see it more clearly and began massaging it. "You'll think I'm crazy."

"Of course. Go on."

"I don't think.... I don't think that's Whitney." It sounded even stupider when he said it out loud.

"Who do you think it is, then?"

"I don't know. But he's just so different. He smells different, his skin feels different. He doesn't remember anything at all. He thinks he and Lana are still together, and he doesn't realize that we're friends. Chloe was trying to get him to acknowledge me last night, and started hinting at that letter I wrote him? The one where I said I'd take him around Smallville and see everything?" Clark shook his head. "He doesn't remember. And he hasn't asked about Mr. Townsend once, which is even weirder. When I hugged him yesterday, it was like holding a complete stranger, and then...."

Lex sat up a little straighter, eyes narrowed. "And then what?"

Haltingly, feeling stupid, Clark explained what happened between him and Whitney in the bathroom. He did his best to make it clear he hadn't been scared, not really. "It wasn't like Lionel or anything. Or even the first time Whitney kissed me. He really held me against the wall. I mean, if I tried, I could have gotten him off me, but it was actual strength, not me letting him." He pressed the skin between Lex's forefinger and thumb.

Lex bit back a moan, head falling against Clark's shoulder. "Angel, please, you need to let me think." But his fingers closed around Clark's, keeping them there. "I trust your instincts, Clark, and if you feel that it's not Whitney, you might be right, it's just ... he's been away for so long. Eating new foods and going through new experiences. He was in a foreign country, in battle. That could account for why he smells and feels different."

"Then why can't he remember anything?"

"Post traumatic stress. It can cause people to repress events that happened, to latch onto realities that make them feel safe, and act in ways that seem out of character. After the tornado, a lot of my employees suffered from PTSD. I referred them to a specialist in Metropolis; I can do the same for Whitney."

"It's not Whitney," Clark said stubbornly, upset that Lex didn't believe him.

Lex moved so he was straddling Clark's lap and stroked the side of his face with his knuckles. "Clark, I know how you feel, but don't you think..."

"He doesn't talk the same way. He enunciates things differently."

"He's been surrounded by people from different parts of the country for months. It happens."

"Whitney isn't strong enough to hold me against a door. He isn't strong enough to pull a door off it's hinges and throw it against a wall, I don't care how well trained he is as a Marine. That takes strength, and..."

"Clark," Lex interrupted suddenly, voice cold. "Tina. Tina Greer was strong, wasn't she?"

The absurdity of it all washed over Clark suddenly. Of course. Tina Greer. The shape shifter who could take the form of anyone. Who's knowledge of Smallville was months out of date and, when it did get updated, missed half the facts. Important things, like Lana's breakup and Whitney's sexuality. "Yes," he said. "She could. She must.... But why would she pretend to be Whitney? I thought she wanted to be Lana. She tried to kill her last time."

Lex was rubbing his temples, looking disgusted. "She thinks she's a lesbian," he said. "She told Dr. Sutton that a few weeks ago. Right before she committed suicide. Dammit." Lex rose and started pacing. "She burned herself so no one could tell it wasn't her. No one would think to ID dental records unless they realized that whomever she killed could be connected back to her. And the chances of that.... What do you want to bet that Tina snuck out of the building as someone else and got some homeless person off the street?" He turned and face Clark. "I'll have the dental records checked today."

"I don't understand," Clark said. "She killed herself?"

"Yes. I just found out yesterday when Dr. Sutton asked if she could have the body to look over. We would have figured it out, but by then, who knows? It may have been to late." Lex went back to Clark and took his hands.

"Yeah," Clark said morosely, realization washing over him.

"What is it?"

"Nothing. I just.... I guess Whitney's dead then."

Lex sat on Clark's lap again and stroked his hair. "I don't think we know anymore than we did before. Tina just took advantage of a situation. She doesn't have any information we don't."

"I guess. I just wish I knew where he was. What happened to him. Something. Anything."

"I know." He leaned into Clark and kissed him gently. "The not knowing is the hardest. And now this.... Mrs. Fordman's going to be crushed."

Clark sighed and held Lex close. "When I saw him in the Torch office, I couldn't even think. Somewhere along the way, I'd stopped thinking of him as alive in the world, and started thinking that he was ... apart from it. Not quite dead exactly, just not in it. It was really weird when I saw him. He didn't seem real, and it definitely didn't seem like he should have been there. It didn't help that he was so very wrong. Everything, and I couldn't put my finger on it, but I knew it wasn't quite Whitney."

"You have good instincts about people," Lex said, nervousness washing over him. "I'm not surprised that you sensed something was off about Whitney. I'd, uh, I'd make sure that you always listened to what they were trying to tell you about someone, Clark. And try to figure out why."

"What is it?" Clark looked at him suspiciously.

"Can't I praise my boyfriend?"

"Not when you feel all guilty and nervous, no. What's going on?"

Lex hesitated a moment, then said, "It's about Helen."

"What about her?" He sounded baffled, and Lex didn't blame him.

"Dr. Sutton wants to bring Helen on to help her with research. She's been studying the effects of the meteors on a few mutants: Byron, Tina, Desiree, and Eric. Eric, of course, isn't helping just because the mutation is gone, but the other three she's been testing, studying, and trying to help. Ethically, of course."

"Of course," Clark murmured.

"Dr. Sutton is making some progress, but I think she needs an extra set of eyes. Meanwhile, Helen came to Smallville to do this kind of research. I've done some checking, and she's using an empty lab in the hospital for her research. She's making some progress, but it's slow."

"And Dr. Sutton trusts her?"

Lex shrugged. "To do some limited work, yes. Dr. Sutton has been interviewing all the mutants, and they've all mentioned you and your abilities at one point or another. When Dr. Sutton and I were discussing this, she said she would limit the amount of personal information, interviews, and even contact Helen has with anyone. She's hoping it will be strictly lab work. And, she, uh, won't show Helen any of my blood work, even though she originally wanted to."

Clark exhaled slowly. Looking thoughtful, he pushed his hair out of his eyes then rubbed his chin. "I'm guessing you want me to give you some sort of barometer reading on this or something?"

"Something like that. I'm just wondering how much of your dislike of her is because I'm a little attracted to her, and how much is because she might be dangerous."

"I think she might be dangerous," Clark replied. "There's something about her that sets alarm bells off. But," he continued, cutting off what Lex had been intending to say. "I almost think that she's more dangerous off doing her own research than she would be with you. Wouldn't she have to sign a contract or privacy statement or something?"

"Yes. She'd have to agree that all her research belongs to LexCorp and she can't sell or share it to anyone without permission. The problem is, she might not agree to that."

Clark shrugged. "Then no harm, no foul. Except, maybe, you can still find ways to keep an eye on her research."

He arched an eyebrow. "Are you suggesting I be unethical and stoop to some sort of industrial espionage?"

"No. Just ... I don't know. You like science. You could ask her."

"After trying to hire her? No, I can't." He hesitated, and then asked, "What do you think?"

Clark shook his head and stroked Lex's back. "I think you should give it a shot. This isn't something you can play around with, that I can let you play around with. I think that she doesn't want to hurt anyone. I mean, it's not her goal. But she's driven by ambition, she wants recognition, and I don't know if, if she discovers anything, if she'd be able to protect her subjects. Even if she wants to." Clark kissed Lex's temples. "I think you have a better shot. Because I think you'd rather destroy the research then let it be misused." He smiled as he felt a shudder of distaste run though Lex and added, "Even if it pains you."

Lex smiled lopsidedly. "Sorry; it's just a frightening thought to destroy something like that. But, you're right. I'd rather destroy something than let anyone hurt you. I'd rather die."

"Don't die," Clark said quickly. "Please." He kissed Lex softly, hand at the nape of his neck to hold Lex in place. "So, yeah, hire her. It's the best course. I mean, aren't you always saying keep your friends close but your enemies closer? Or does that only apply to love and quarterbacks?"

"No," he laughed, kissing under Clark's jaw. "Not just then. It does in this, too."

Lana avoided him all morning. No matter where Clark tried to catch her, she always managed to disappear into the crowd. And she never looked happy to see him when their eyes met. She looked startled, then uncomfortable, and then she was gone. He didn't understand why she was acting like this, unless she wanted to "break up" with him and felt weird about it. Clark honestly didn't care. Even if the reporters were just on a break (and he doubted it, because Lex just wasn't news right now, and, therefore, Clark wasn't news) there really wasn't any reason to pretend to date Lana. It had been nice, just because it gave Clark an excuse to hang out with her and remember all the reasons he used to have such a huge crush on her. And he didn't think that had to change if they "broke up". She and Lex were getting along better, he was feeling more sociable (amazing how his mood was tied to Lex's; Lex was suddenly on top of the world, and Clark wanted to hang out with people again), and she and Chloe were friends. There was no reason they couldn't hang out if they weren't together.

He finally caught her before fourth period. She was walking past his class, which was a little weird, since her accounting class was nowhere near his, but he didn't question his luck.

"Lana!" he said, grabbing her by the arm.

Lana stopped and smiled at him. "Hey, Clark. What's up?"

"I need to talk to you about Whitney. Now." He pulled he gently out of the middle of the hall.

"Oh, um, I hope you weren't worried about him. I mean, him forgetting that he and I had broken up. Because it's all taken care of now."

Clark hesitated before saying, "You told him?"

"Yeah. He and I had a long talk last night. He took it well." Lana put her hand on Clark's arm and smiled up at him. "I'm sorry I was afraid to tell him before."

"No, it's okay. I understand. I mean, he was acting weird and. Um, look, Lana, this is going to sound really strange but I don't think that's really Whitney."

A myriad of expressions crossed her face before it settled on vaguely annoyed. "I don't know what you're talking about, Clark. Of course that's Whitney."

"No, it's not. I think he's Tina Greer. Remember her? I think she's come back as Whitney to try to get with you."

This time, the look was fear. "But ... but she tried to kill me last time. If Whitney was Tina, wouldn't I be dead by now?" she asked, sounding vaguely triumphant.

"Not necessarily. Lex said that Dr. Sutton told him that Tina's a lesbian and she's in love with you."

"Oh." Lana's eyes were wide, and she looked away. She was breathing heavily and looking vaguely panicked.

"Hey," Clark said softly. He took her by the shoulders. "It's going to be okay. I promise. I won't let anything happen to you, okay? Just make sure to stick close to me today."

"I ... I have to work after school. I wouldn't want to inconvenience you."

"You're my friend, Lana. And I want to make sure you're safe."

Lana smiled tremulously and nodded. "Thank you, Clark. That means a lot." She stood on her toes and kissed his cheek gently. "Look, I need to go to the bathroom. You don't think I'm in any danger here, do you?"

"I'll send Chloe in after you if you're not back in five minutes," Clark told her.

She grinned at him, kissed him again, and disappeared into the crowd.

Feeling a little better about everything, Clark went to English. Chloe was waiting for him outside Mr. Townsend's door, wide-eyed and pale. "Did you hear?"

"Hear what?"

"Sheriff Ethan went to the Fordman's around ten. He found Mrs. Fordman tied to a chair, crying hysterically, and a dead body on the ground. Someone from the military came to tell Mrs. Fordman news about Whitney, and Whitney beat him to death with a baseball bat. No one knows where he is." She stepped into Clark and rested her head on his chest. "Why would Whitney do that?"

Clark put his arms around her and said, "It's not Whitney. It's Tina Greer."

Chloe pulled back. Her eyes were wet. "That's impossible. Tina Greer committed suicide."

"Lex is checking the dental records now. He's the one who asked the sheriff to go to the Fordman's house." He squeezed Chloe, feeling vaguely ill.

"God, Clark. The guy she killed was Van McNulty's father. He's a lieutenant in the Marines, and she just ..."

Clark closed his eyes, a wave of sympathy washing over him. "They called Van out of class. I have trig with him." Then he looked at Chloe, bolt of horror going through him. "Tina can't go around as Whitney anymore. Now we'll have no idea who she is."

"My money is on you," Chloe said, putting her hand on his arm. "I mean, she wants to be with Lana, right? And she doesn't know about Lana and me. Watch your back, Kent."

"Okay," Clark said distractedly, trying to think of how he'd find Tina. "I will."

Lana walked up just then. She smiled at Clark a little coolly and nodded. Then, without saying anything, she walked inside.

"Did you tell her?" Chloe asked.

"Yeah, I did," Clark said, looking at Lana. There was something different about her than from when they'd spoken. "Chloe, is that what Lana looked like this morning?"

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. She just seems different from when I just talked to her. Maybe it's her hair." Had her hair been up? Different earrings?

"Yo, Clark," she said, hitting him lightly in the stomach. "You have a boyfriend. Stop scoping Lana."

He shook himself and let it go. "Right," he said, blushing slightly. "Let's get to class."

"I hate this town," Lex growled as he tore down the highway. Mutants, tornados, Lionel Luthor. It was like living in hell in the company of an angel.

Tina was definitely not dead. A teenage runaway was dead, but Tina wasn't. She was wanted for homicide. Double homicide, now, since the prints on the baseball bat matched Tina and not Whitney. And, chances were, being wanted wasn't going to stop her. She didn't see reality correctly. After all, she'd killed her mother and barely stopped for breath before going after Lana.

And now she was after Lana again. Which put either Clark or Chloe in danger, and, frankly, Lex didn't trust his security team to guard a rose bush. Besides which, they couldn't guard Clark, and Chloe would just see it as an opportunity to slip off and do some investigative sleuthing on her own.

Ah, screw it. He'd just throw in some emotional blackmail and make her stay. He pulled his cell phone out and punched in her number.


"It's Lex. I need you make sure that you stay in a populated area until I can send a security guard to take you home."

"Excuse me?" She sounded annoyed.

Lex clenched his jaw. "Clark told you about Tina?"

"Yeah," Chloe replied in a softer tone. "He did."

"And has it occurred to you that Tina might go after you, Chloe? You are the ex-girlfriend that won't go away. I don't want Tina figuring that out."

"She won't. The only people who know won't tell her."

"Maybe, maybe not. But, please. Try to stay in sight of people. I'll have a car for you and Lana around at four. Is that okay?"

Chloe sighed. "Fine."

"Don't let Lana go home alone. Try to keep Pete and Chad around you at all times, got it?"

"Got it." Then, in a softer tone, she added. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

Lex hung up and stepped on the gas. He wanted a drink. He wanted ten. He'd settled for coffee, and it was going to be real coffee, none of this decaf crap.

The Talon had a good-sized crowd for a Tuesday afternoon. Lex nodded politely at a few people, wondered if anyone was Tina, and made it to the counter.

"Coffee," he demanded of the waitress.

She hesitated. "Um, decaf?"

"No, regular."

Again, she hesitated.

"Marsha, just give me the damn coffee, all right?"

"Yes, Mr. Luthor," she said meekly.

He gave her a tight smile, promising himself that he'd leave her a good tip. But he needed coffee and he really needed something to do, because, right now, he was feeling a little useless.

"You know, if I were you, I'd stick with decaf," Helen said, coming up behind him. She smiled and leaned on the counter. "Rough day?"

"Something like that." He turned so he could look at her. "You know the drill. Swim in the money pit, lunch with celebrities. It never ends."

Helen shot him a look. "And you run on coffee to make it to your two o'clock massage?"

"Fumes, mostly." He sighed and looked longingly at the espresso machine. "I haven't had regular since November."

She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. "Lex Luthor, falling off the wagon? Color me surprised."

He laughed and shook his head. "It's just this once, I swear. I think I deserve to indulge. Thank you, Marsha," he said when the waitress returned. He pulled out a five-dollar tip and handed it to her. "Sorry about snapping.

"No problem," she said, pocketing the tip. She took Helen's order and went off again.

"So," Lex said. "What brings you here this afternoon?"

"Just getting ready to head to the hospital. I have a full load, and want to get done so I can meet with you and Dr. Sutton this evening. Any chance of you telling me what this is about?"

He added sugar to his mug and shrugged. "Nothing earth shattering. Dr. Sutton wants to bring you on as a researcher at my labs."

"Really?" Helen seemed a little disappointed. "No offense, Lex, but I don't really see myself designing any new fertilizer anytime soon. Not only is it not my field, but there no glory in cow dung."

"I do have other interests," Lex said, annoyed. "You wouldn't have anything to do with the plant. It's medical related, and I think you'd be interested. I don't want to say anymore until we meet, though."

"You're going to make me sign a confidentiality clause, aren't you?"

Lex looked at her blandly. "Of course. Just because the only acquisition I have right now is a crap factory, it doesn't mean I don't have extensive and potentially lucrative outside interests. I like you, but ..."

"You don't trust me."

"Helen, Helen," he tisked. "It's not just you. I don't trust anyone, not with my company's research. I'm sure you understand. Didn't you say you were doing research of you own? How would you feel if ..." He gasped suddenly, pitching forward. Pain cleaved his head in two, and white spots obscured his vision. It felt as if his organs were shriveling, his veins crawling through his skin, and his blood was curdled.

"Lex?" he heard Helen say from a long distance away.

"I'm fine," he managed to grit out. He raised a hand to his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Migraine." /Clark? /

"Are you sure?" She tried to touch his hand, but he yanked it away, feeling as if she'd burned him.

/Tina. Necklace. Hurt. Shields. /

/Where are you? /

/Ship. /

Lex took a deep breath and forced his shields up. The pain faded immediately, and although his stomach was still tied in a knot and his head pounded, he could stand straight again. He managed a weak smile aimed in Helen's direction and pushed his coffee away. "Guess I should have listened to my doctor."

"I don't think you drank any," Helen said, watching the coffee. Then her eyes returned to his face. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Really. I get them all the time." He squeezed the bridge of his nose and said, "Can we reschedule our meeting? Tomorrow, same time? Or another time that's better?"

"Same time is fine. Do you need a ride anywhere?"

"No, I'll be fine. Thank you. I'll talk to you tomorrow." Gathering the remains of his dignity, Lex turned and left the Talon.

Once outside, he pulled out his cell phone to call the Kents. The home number rang ten times before the machine picked up. Unwilling to leave anything incriminating for Tina to hear, Lex simply said, "Hi, it's Lex. I was calling to check on Clark. He seems to have gone underground, and I can't get a hold of him. Bye."

Next, he tried Martha at work, but she was in a meeting and couldn't be reached.

Lex swore softly under his breath and climbed into his car. He could only hope that Tina was nowhere near Clark when he got there, because he didn't think he'd be able to handle her. Especially not if both he and Clark were feeling sick.

He was halfway to Clark's house when the pain vanished. Completely. His headache cleared, skin stopped aching, and stomach unknotted. He almost slammed on his breaks from shock, but managed to keep driving. He had to get to Clark.

"What's going on?" Jonathan demanded after Lex tore into the driveway and flew out of his car.

"Clark's hurt. Tina got him."


Lex shook his head, running for the storm cellar. He heard Jonathan following him, despite his incomprehensible response. "Whitney is really Tina Greer," he called back, feeling his chest tighten from the dust and worry. "Tina's hurt Clark somehow, but I don't know exactly how. He's in the storm cellar."

Jonathan ran ahead of Lex and pulled open the storm cellar. "Clark!" he shouted, not quite panicked, but frantic with worry. Lex was close on his heels.

Clark was lying on the floor, dirt in his hair and smudge across his cheeks in dark streaks. He was gazing wide-eyed at his ship, which Lex noticed was smoking faintly.

"Clark, are you all right?" Jonathan asked, falling to his knees and pulling Clark to rest against his chest "What happened?"

He leaned against Jonathan heavily, exhaustion etched across his face. The remnants of pain lingered in his eyes. "Tina attacked me," he said, forming his words slowly. "She put Lana's necklace around my neck." His eyes flicked to Lex's as he knelt in the dirt by him, and he reached out for Lex's hand. "The ship saved me."

Lex and Jonathan exchanged glances, and then Lex looked back at the ship. It was still smoking and looked tired, if it was possible for a hunk of space metal to be tired. "What did it do?" he asked, turning back to Clark.

Clark lifted a shaking hand to his neck and tore Lana's necklace off. He handed it to Lex, and fell back his against his father, still exhausted.

He held the necklace up for Jonathan to see, heart beating faster. The rock had turned from green to crystal clear. The ship had turned the rock clear, and now it was ... was suffering the effects.

"How did it do that?" Jonathan asked, voice low.

"I don't know. It started glowing and got really hot. I thought it was going to attack me, but it just kept getting brighter and brighter. Then the pain disappeared and, a few minutes later, the light went away." He shrugged, eyes on the necklace.

"It protects you," Lex said softly.

Clark blinked, eyes focusing on Lex. He reached out and took his hand, and he seemed to ground himself. "What?"

"The ship. It protects you. That's why it went out into the storm. It wasn't just that the key activated it; it sensed you were in trouble somehow and was going our to help you." Lex tore his eyes way from the necklace and turned to Clark. "And this time it sucked the radiation out of the rock."

"How are you feeling?" Jonathan asked, squeezing Clark's shoulder. He took the necklace from Lex and dangled it in front of his eyes.

"Better. Not as weak. I just hope the ship is all right," he added with a worried glance in its direction.

"I'm sure it will be," Lex assured him, itching to take the necklace back again. "It's just a little burnt out or something."

"I guess." He sighed and moved so he could rest his head in Lex's lap.

Lex ran his fingers through Clark's hair. "Clark, why did you leave school? How did this happen?"

"Dad called. Right after last class. He said that there was an emergency, and I figured that Chloe and Lana would take care of each other. I told them both."

"I didn't call you," Jonathan said.

"No. It was Tina. She hit me over the head and put the necklace on me." He raised his head, brow furrowed suddenly. "Lana was wearing a pink sweater when she came into English. A cardigan."

"So? When doesn't she?"

He blinked. "So, when I got a chance to talk to her about Tina, Lana was wearing a pullover."

A bolt of horror went through Lex, and he pulled Clark to his feet. "She doesn't know. I'll drive. That way, you'll have a chance to get back the rest of your strength."

Clark hesitated, but nodded reluctantly. "Okay. But if I tell you to go, go. I don't want you getting hurt."

"That's fine." Together, they started up the stairs, Clark still a little unsteady.

"Boys," Jonathan said suddenly.

They turned.

"Be careful." He was looking at Lex when he said it.

He warmed slightly, happy and embarrassed at the same time to be noticed. To be the object of concern.

Clark's hand clamped over his shoulder and squeezed. "Don't worry, Dad. We will."

Whitney had killed a man. Killed him. In cold blood. He'd taken a baseball bat and pummeled a man to death in front of Mrs. Fordman. One minute, the man had been alive, and the next minute, Whitney had killed him.

"It's possible for people suffering from the syndrome to react in unexpected, even violent ways," the new guidance counselor, Dr. Carvey, explained patiently to her. Lana had been pulled out of English to talk to her, and had been doing so ever since. "Lana, he's unstable right now. He might not listen to even you if you tried to talk to him. Now, I know that the two of you are close, and that you've been together for a long time. But I don't think it's a good idea for you to go looking for him. He might not be able to listen calmly to even you, and nobody wants anything to happen to you."

"I won't," Lana answered, feeling cold. She shivered and pulled her cardigan tighter around her, wishing she'd brought a coat. "We broke up. I'm dating Clark Kent."

"Oh. I see." She made a note on the pad of paper in front of her. "Have you told Whitney?"

"Yes. Last night."

"How did he take the news?"

Lana shrugged. "Okay, I guess."

Dr. Carvey nodded and made another note. "My concern is that, since he's not rational right now, he might try to force you back into a relationship. Let's talk a little bit about what you should do if he comes to you."

And, thus, the afternoon was born. When the bell rang releasing the last class, Dr. Carvey had driven her home. Gabe was there, and he seemed a little surprised to see her, but took it in stride. After Dr. Carvey had explained the situation and asked if he was going to be there the rest of the afternoon, he'd put his arm around Lana and said, "Don't worry, Doctor. I'll take good care of her."

Dr. Carvey smiled, given Lana a card with her work and home numbers on it, and left.

"You okay?" Gabe asked when she was gone. He hugged her, and she melted into the embrace, so very tired.

Lana nodded sort of vaguely. She felt ill. No, not ill. Just distant. Like she had after the tornado. And after she heard Whitney was MIA. It was like she was somewhere else, watching what was going on. She found it a little weird that Gabe was home so early, but her mind was too wrapped in cotton to really care.

"I'm going to go take a shower," she said, pulling away from him. "And maybe a nap. I don't feel well."

"It's probably shock," Gabe said. "I imagine it's been a strange day."

"Yeah." She gave him a smile and went upstairs to shower.

Whitney would never kill anyone. Not like that. But a man was dead, and Whitney had ...

Lana felt like she was going insane.

Chloe was in her room when she got out of the shower. She had Lana's underwear drawer open and was turning the Hello Kitty Vibrator on and off with a puzzled expression on her face.

"Hey," Lana said, closing the door behind her. "What are you doing home?"

"Um, I wanted to see how you were doing." She put the vibrator down, cheeks red. "Did you hear about Whitney?"

"Yeah, I did. That's why I was pulled out of class; I had to talk to the counselor." She smiled bitterly. "I think Clark's going to like her. She's nice. And pretty."

A look of confusion washed over Chloe's face. "Um. Right. So, uh ... How do you feel about everything? I mean, he's wanted for murder."

"I think there's some mistake." Lana sat on the bed and bit her thumbnail. "Whitney would never do anything like this."

"I know it sounds strange, but he did." Chloe sat next to her and put her arm on her shoulder. "I'm sorry. But, uh, if it makes you feel any better, I'm sure he'll just disappear now. Not come after you or anything." She squeezed Lana's shoulder. "At least now things won't be as confusing, huh? You're free to be with Clark without having to deal with Whitney's, uh, forgetfulness."

"Very funny, Chloe." She tightened her towel around her and tried not to snap. There was enough to deal with today, she didn't need Chloe telling bad jokes or teasing her about her not-quite-a-crush on Clark on top of it all.

"What? It's obvious the two of you belong together."

"That's funny, because you were telling me the exactly opposite this morning," Lana said harshly. She pulled away from Chloe and went to the closet. "Clark is in love with Lex, which means there's no hope for the rest of us. I get that, but excuse me for not being able to move on as quickly as you. I'm not like you, Chloe. We break up, you find Sydney. You and Sydney break up, you hook up with Chad. I'm not like that. I'm ... stunted or something. Slow."

There was a long silence. Lana took the opportunity to pull her robe on over her towel, then it the towel drop to the floor. When she turned back, Chloe was looking at her with speculative eyes.

"Um, sorry," Chloe said slowly. "I, um. I guess I forget sometimes. About Clark and Lex. I mean, I get so wrapped up in the way you feel, I forget there's another side to it. I just want so badly for you to be happy."

"Thanks, Chloe. But I'm fine, really."

Chloe rose slowly and walked closer to her. "But it was insensitive of me, especially in light of our conversation this morning. It's just ... you know Chad is a great guy and everything." She stopped inches away from Lana and gazed into her eyes. Carefully, she brushed a wet strand of hair off Lana's face, causing the skin to tighten and tingle deliciously. "But he's not you."

"Chloe..." But Chloe cut her off, lowering her mouth to Lana's and kissing her.

It was a strange kiss. Chloe's open mouth neatly tucked into Lana's, her upper lip over Lana's upper and her lower sliding into Lana's mouth along with her tongue. Chloe sucked on Lana's lip forcefully in a way that made Lana's stomach contract with each pull.

"So sweet," Chloe whispered, hands framing Lana's face as again she captured Lana's mouth again. Still strong. Still forceful, this time with teeth that nipped her bottom lip after each thrust of the tongue. Then Chloe sucked as if to taste for any blood or puncture she might have made before repeating the cycle--thrust, nip, suck, thrust, nip, suck, thrust, nip, suck--until Lana's knees were weak and she felt damp between her legs.

With trembling hands, Lana put her hands on Chloe's shoulders, not sure if she wanted to pull her closer or push her away. It was so hard to think with the restless onslaught of kissing. Chloe's leg slid between her thighs and pressed into her until Lana bucked her hips, grinding against her, striving for some relief. It felt so good, especially when Chloe's mouth pulled from her own and lips sucked and bit down her neck, marking her, pulling at her skin in tandem to Lana's hips. Fingers tugged aside her robe and kneaded her breast, rolling the nipple in her fingers and Lana couldn't help but cry out, wishing those fingers were inside her, wishing that hot, probing tongue was pushing into her, lapping at her entrance, teasing the throbbing knot between her legs.

"Chloe," Lana moaned loudly, feeling her entire body flushed hotly, rising to a peak.

"That's right, Lana. God, Lana, please," Chloe groaned, her fingers between Lana's legs now, working her clit furiously.

And then it happened. All at once. Just as Lana's body started to peak, started racing towards that intangible something that was making her knees liquid and skin so very sensitive, the door opened behind Chloe's back.

And Chloe was standing in the door, her face quickly flashing from concern to horror as she saw Lana standing with her robe in disarray, and Chloe's head latched onto her breast, fingers between her legs.

"Oh, fuck," Lana managed before her body took over and she cried out loudly as the pleasure of her first orgasm washed over her.

The Chloe in the door disappeared for an instant and Lana tried to gather her wits. Holy ... holy ... holy fuck that had been spectacular. Wonderful. Perfect. She couldn't believe she'd ever been afraid of that, and ...

"I'll kill you!" Chloe screamed, reappearing in the doorway brandishing a broom like a bat.

Chloe--the Chloe she'd just had sex with--turned, eyes wide. "What the.... Lana, get back. That's Tina."

Tina. Tina Greer, of course. "Chloe, don't," Lana ordered, pulling her robe back on. Her eyes met the Chloe in the doorway when she said it. Everything was falling into place and a strange bubble of joy rose in her. Whitney hadn't killed anyone. Whitney hadn't ... "She's already killed one person."

Lana had hoped that she'd said it ambiguously enough as not to alert Tina that she knew what was going on, but Tina was too bright. Her head snapped back to Lana, eyes narrowed. "I wasn't going to do anything, Lana," she said, voice low and dangerous.

"I know. I just ... I didn't want you rushing her. I don't want you to get hurt, and ... Chloe, no!" she shrieked, but too late.

Chloe hit Tina with the broom handle hard. It caught Tina on the neck, making her stumble back a few steps and breaking the handle in half. Growling, Tina lunged at Chloe, hands latching around her neck and strangling.

"Bitch!" Tina shouted and she throttled Chloe. "You had the perfect girlfriend! Why did you let her go?"

Chloe thrashed underneath Tina, trying to get free. Her head was being knocked on the floor as Tina strangled her, face purple as she twisted, writhed, and kicked.

Lana launched herself at Tina, landing hard on her back. "Stop it!" she screamed, grabbing Tina's hair. She tore at her, pulling her back and off Chloe.

Tina backhanded her. Unprepared for either the blow or Tina's strength, Lana flew across the room, landing hard against her dresser. She fell to the floor, dazed.

"I'll get you, bitch! Then Lana and I are going to have the perfect life!" Tina ran out of the room, chasing Chloe who'd disappeared while Lana had been flying through the air.

Sore and dizzy, Lana forced herself to her feet. She had to get to Chloe before Chloe did something stupid, like go for Gabe's gun.

A gunshot sounded downstairs. Glass shattered, and someone shrieked.

Too late.

"Stop moving!" Tina yelled.

Lana raced downstairs and rounded into the living room. Chloe was pressed into a corner, eyes wide and darting for an escape route. Tina was standing in front of her, gun out. The mirror over the fireplace was broken, and both Chloe and Tina--who changed into herself--were bleeding from shards of glass that had bit into their skin.

Tina shot again. The shot went wide and broke the window. "Dammit!" she shouted.


Lana turned; a man in some sort of uniform--not police, but maybe security--had a gun out and trained on Tina. "Put it down, young lady."

"Fuck you." Tina aimed the gun at the guard and fired.

That's when everything got confusing. Two shots when off at the same time. Lana screamed, hands flying to her mouth when the front door burst open. There was a sort of blur in front of the security guard. Tina went down and her blood splattered all over Chloe, who'd dropped to the floor, pressed into the corner.

The world went fuzzy and dark. Then Clark was there, holding her, telling her it was okay. Lex was in the corner with Chloe, and the security guard was sitting with his head between his knees.

"Lex?" she heard Clark say.

"The police are on their way," Lex said calmly. He wiped Chloe's arms off with a handkerchief then pulled her into his arms. "You're safe, Chloe," he whispered.

Chloe's eyes appeared over Lex's shoulders, meeting hers. Lana managed to smile, and then the world went black.

Heart pounding, Mark knocked on the Fordman's front door. He'd heard the news about Whitney at lunch, and had been trying to get in contact with Rebecca ever since. Not that he really had any right, beyond the fact he was worried. They didn't know each other well, but Mark liked her a lot.

He'd gotten the machine all day. After school let out, he went to the flower shop and bought her a bouquet of roses.

The door opened, but it wasn't Rebecca on the other side.

"Um, hi," he said awkwardly. "I wanted to make sure Rebecca was all right."

"Mark Townsend, right? You have my Theresa for your junior honors class. Please, come in." She opened the door and allowed him to pass. "I'm Erika. Rebecca's in the hospital right now."

"Is she all right?"

"She will be," Erika said, moving further into the house. "That awful girl who was imitating her son gave her a real scare. Hurt her, too, tying her in a chair and shaking her a bit. They've got her sedated at the hospital, and want to keep her overnight. I'm picking up her personal items and taking it over. I'm sure she'd be happy to see you, if you want to come with me."

He nodded and set the flowers on the breakfast bar. "I'd like that, thank you. Um, did anyone ever explain how she was passing for Whitney? Plastic surgery or something?"

Erika sighed and looked at Mark with a carefully composed face. "In Smallville, it's best not to ask."

He gazed at her, trying to read her expression, but it was impossible. Blank. "I see."

"I'll be right back." She was halfway up the stairs when the phone started ringing. "Would you mind getting that?" she called back.

"Sure." He found the phone attached to the wall across from the refrigerator and picked it up. "Fordman residence."

There was a beat of silence. "Uh, can I speak to Rebecca Fordman please?"

"She's not in," Mark said. "May I take a message?"

"Do you know when she'll be back? This is her son."

The world closed in on Mark suddenly, everything disappearing except for the phone in his hand. He could hear his heart beating in his ears, and each of his exhales seemed to be shouted.



"W-Whitney?" he managed.

Whitney laughed, sounding pained. "Yeah, it's Whitney. Who is this?"

Mark licked his lips. "It's, uh. Mark Townsend."

Now it was Whitney's turn to fall silent. Mark almost said something, but he knew that Whitney was there. He could hear him breathing.

"I thought I was ready for this," he finally said, voice quavering. "But, uh, I was kind of hoping I'd see you face to face the first time, you know? So I could just act without having to stress about it."

He smiled softly and closed his eyes. Oh, God, he really was in this deep. He really did have feelings for this man he'd never met, and ... they were returned. "Yeah," he said, twisting the cord around his finger. "I know what you mean."

"This way, I feel like I have to ask or something. Clarify, or ... You're at my house."

"Yes, I am. Your mother invited me out to dinner the other night, and we ... talked about things."


"Yes. She, uh, knows about you. And me. And, uh, has some suspicions about us."

"So," Whitney said, and he sounded both nervous and pleased at the same time. "There's a possibility of us."


He let out a sigh. "Thank God. I've been.... Well. You know."

"Yes, Whitney. I know." He leaned his head against the wall. "What happened to you? Everyone's been frantic. I've ... I've been worried."

"I got separated from my unit," Whitney said in a much different tone. More distant. Formal. "Me and three other guys, during battle. I was trying to get them back home. We walked for weeks, and then the enemy found us. Only one other man survived before we were found." Whitney coughed lightly. "I'm being discharged, and they're going to send me home in a few days."

"Are you all right?"

Whitney coughed again and cleared his throat. "This is another reason I wish I was seeing you face to face. I don't want..."

"Whitney, are you all right?" Mark repeated, heart pounding.

"I lost two fingers on my left hand, and my knee is shattered. I also got some shrapnel in my eye, and the doctors don't know how extensive the damage is. I won't have full vision, but I might be blind in it." Another light cough, and, "I'm thinking of getting an eye patch. Like a pirate."

"I'm sure you'll look sexy with an eye patch," Mark said, voice unintentionally throaty.

"Who is that?" Erika asked as she came down the stairs carrying a small suitcase.

He flushed hotly and replied, "It's Whitney."

"Whitney!" she shrieked, and then the phone was out of his hand and Erika was sobbing into the phone.

Mark staggered away from the kitchen and fell limply on the couch. Whitney was alive. Alive. A little damaged, but who cared? He was alive.

And coming home. And he definitely seemed to want Mark.

Life was definitely looking good.

When Helen had moved to Smallville, she really hadn't been sure whether she was committing professional suicide or taking another step on the road to world-wide glory and recognition. For years she'd read the strange reports that had come out of the small town: the regenerated limbs, the over-large vegetables, the three-headed calves. Two years ago, there'd been an upsurge in reports of children who'd been caught in the famed meteor shower displaying strange abilities. Most people wrote it off as unimportant; after all, there was a LuthorCorp fertilizer plant in the town, and since the EPA had already said the meteors were harmless, it was probably the plant.

Except, the EPA had given the plant a clean bill every year since it'd opened. And except for one or two slip-ups over the years, LuthorCorp had one of the cleanest records of any of the major corporations.

Which meant one of three things: LuthorCorp was buying someone in the EPA off, there was some unknown element in the area causing the mutations, or the meteor rocks, while not radioactive in any traditional sense, were still dangerous.

Occams Razor pointed to the first or the last. And Helen had done some digging; both Luthors were doing research on the meteors. Extensive, if secretive research. She knew both Lionel and Lex were buying or testing land in and around Smallville; comparing the land they were using to the maps of the meteor strikes showed that the senior Luthor had long since bought up most of the major strike areas, while Lex, coming late to the game, was buying the smaller sites. Both had hired scientists and researchers of various flavors, although it wasn't unusual in their lines of works.

However, Helen's gut told her they were both working on the same thing she was working on. Only they had more resources than she did. All she had was a lousy couple of grants and her own mind, and while she was smart, even she couldn't compete with the numbers they'd hired.

Which was why she was glad Lex was approaching her about joining him. Especially since she was pretty sure Dr. Sutton was in charge of the project. She liked Dr. Sutton, had followed her papers and career for years, and was looking forward to working with her.

If only Lex would let her publish under her own name. Helen didn't mind collaborating, but she didn't want the credit to go to him. She wanted it. That's why she'd come to Smallville: to make a name for herself independent of her father.

Lex would have an actual research facility, too. All she had right now was an empty lab in the hospital on the basement level. It was always dark down here, no matter when she came, it smelled damp, and freaked her out. She was always certain she was going to be attacked down here. At least now that Mark was living with her, there was someone who'd miss her before the odor of her decaying body finally attracted the janitor.

She shivered and tried to push that thought from her mind. This was Smallville and a well-populated hospital. Nothing was going to happen.

"Dr. Bryce?" a voice said suddenly, breaking the silence.

Helen jumped, biting back a shriek unsuccessfully. She whirled, hands in front of her, ready to defend herself.

"Mr. Luthor," she managed in a shaky voice when she saw the figure in the doorway.

Lionel Luthor, dressed all in black, leaning on an impressive cane, his blind eyes turned in her direction, offered her a warm smile. "I'm sorry to have startled you, Doctor. I wasn't sure if there was anyone in the room."

She glanced at the man behind Lionel; he was a security guard or assistant or something. For a moment, she thought it was Dominic, but, no, it was a stranger. A stranger who looked an awful lot like Dominic, though. Same build, hair and eyes. He even dressed the way Dominic did.

"It's all right," she said, closing the file she'd been working on as if Lionel could see. "I am just so used to being alone down here. I wasn't expecting anyone." Helen glanced around and spotted a chair. "Would you like to sit down?"

"No, thank you, Doctor, this shouldn't take long. I understand my son has approached you about joining his research team."

Helen hesitated. Theoretically, she didn't know why Lex wanted to meet with her tomorrow; he hadn't said. She was just guessing it had something to do with the meteors, especially since he'd mentioned her signing a confidentiality contract. However, she hadn't signed on yet, so legally she wasn't bound to lie about anything. "Well, I guess. We haven't had a chance to talk yet."

Lionel nodded and stepped further into the room. "I'm sure that's what your meeting will be about. I know you've been researching the effects of the meteor shower on the adolescents of this town, and it's something that Lex is interested in as well. In fact, he has his personal physician, Dr. Sutton, working with several of the mutated children he's encountered since last year."

Her heart rated picked up. "Is that so? I wasn't aware of that."

"Yes. The, ah, subject is something that is very near to his heart. I'm not surprised he wants to bring someone with your experience and intelligence onto his team."

"And you're here to, what? Request that I don't?"

"No, quite the opposite. I want you to work for him." Lionel smiled and, for a split instant, Helen was certain he could actually see her. But the feeling faded, and Lionel went on. "As I'm sure you know, I, too, am interest in the meteors, although I want to harness their effects rather than halt the mutations as my son does. I have an extensive team--far more extensive than you know--working on this."

"Why wouldn't you want to stop the mutations, Mr. Luthor?" Helen asked. "As far as I can tell, the only thing they do is change a person so much, they can't exist safely in society anymore."

"Some, yes, but they also weren't taught how to use their powers without hurting others. And they are caught up in the throws of teenage angst, during which, as I'm sure you know, even the most normal teenager acts out. These mutants simply get caught." Lionel smiled a little unpleasantly. "But the meteors have another affect that's not as well known, not even, I think, by Lex. And because of this reason, I want to harness the power."

"What's the reason?"

Lionel smiled again and approached her, tapping his stick slowly as he crossed the room. "Not yet, Dr. Bryce. First, I need to explain what I want."

"You want me to work for you."

"No, I want you to work for Lex. I want you to work one on one with those mutants, test their abilities, and find ways to control them. Make friends with them, make your discoveries, and publish your papers. That way, when I take over LexCorp once again, which I will be doing in the near future, I already have someone on the inside who knows these children. And I have someone whom these children trust."

Corporate espionage wasn't something Helen was particularly interested in. It was dirty, it was boring and, for the most part, it didn't involve her. She was a doctor and a researcher. If one company took over another, her job would be safe.

But her research wouldn't. Not if Lionel Luthor had it. She could see Lex letting her publish under her own name, and then letting her name lend LexCorp some credibility and prestige in the world. Under LuthorCorp, she'd be a faceless drone.

"Well, what makes you think I want to work for you, Mr. Luthor?"

"While you're working for Lex, I will let you be in contact with ever doctor and scientist I have working on the meteors. Everyone. It not, then you lose over a hundred colleagues with which to work with. See, they've all signed contracts forbidding them to collaborate with anyone I haven't approved. If I don't approve you, you miss out on almost ten years worth of work they've already done."

She blinked. "Ten years?"

Lionel inclined his head. "Are you willing to work with me on this?"

"I don't know. Ten years?" That number was unfathomable. Why ten? Why so long without publishing? Without a discovery? What ...

"Twelve years ago, my son was scheduled to go into the hospital for major surgery. He had a brain tumor that was so large he wasn't expected to live. The operation was a last desperate act. A week before the surgery, I brought him to Smallville. He was caught in the first wave of the meteors and when he came out, the tumor was gone."

Her heart began to pound. "That's impossible."

"And yet, it's true. Lex has no memory of the tumor, which is why he doesn't know to harness the power instead of keep the mutations at bay." Lionel leaned closer, his voice dropping to a whisper. "Think about it, Helen. The cure for cancer. For AIDs. For every disease we have no cure for, you can find it. And all I ask is for you to do what you do best: do your research and to collaborate with my team. And, of course, not to tell Lex. It's not much to ask."

The world was spinning off its axis. Her heart echoed in her ears, and all she could see was her name printed in a medical journal next to the words, "Cure for Cancer."

It wasn't like she owed Lex anything. Not really. He was a nice man and everything, but this was ... saving lives. Making a difference in the world. A little thing like corporations and confidentiality didn't matter in the long run, right?

"What do you want from me?" Helen finally asked when she could draw breath.

Lionel's smile was frightening, and when he put a hand on her arm, she couldn't help shuddering. She didn't believe in evil, didn't believe in the devil, but, for an instant, Helen couldn't help but wonder what she'd just agreed to.

"It's been awhile since I've seen you use that," Lex said softly from on top of the stairs.

Clark turned away from his telescope and smiled. "I know. I haven't used it for awhile, really. Not for stargazing, and since I don't watch Lana anymore, not at all." He shrugged. "It got too ... hard."

"Why?' He crossed the room and sat on the run, folding his legs under him.

"Well, it always made me feel ... not quite sad, but like I was longing for something. Or I'd lost something." He sat next to Lex, but continued to gaze out at the sky, a contemplative look on his face. "I used to think that if I looked up there long enough, I'd find what I'd lost. When I found out I was an alien, I couldn't look anymore. Because I knew." He leaned against Lex, his arm snaking around Lex's waist.

"Why can you look now?"

"I don't know. I feel different right now. Braver or more ... accepting. It doesn't bug me as much to think about being an alien, and I don't know if I've had some kind of breakthrough, or I've just had time to get used to it." He gave Lex a lopsided smile. "And, being an alien comes in handy sometimes. Plus, running is fun, and I love being able to set fire to things with my eyes. I ... miss my parents." Clark licked his lips and looked away. "My biological ones. That's why I spend so much time in the caves; it makes me feel closer to them. Maybe ... maybe stargazing does that, too."

Lex kissed Clark's cheek softly. "Maybe you'll find some answers by looking."

Clark nodded and whispered, "It's hard not to know."

"I know. I have ... gaps in my memory, but I'm sure those gaps hide things I don't care to remember. But not to know your past ... your history and family." Lex chewed on his bottom lip before saying, "I wonder about Lucas. What he knows about who he is."

"Have you found him?"

Lex shook his head. "I feel like I might be getting close. It'd be a lot easier if I had his adoption records, but they're missing." He sighed and stroked Clark's hair.

"You'll find him."

He nodded, looking pensive, but didn't answer.


"Dad said something today about how he's going to be spending more and more time in Metropolis in the coming months. He might even have to move back," Lex said, dropping the subject of Lucas.

"Oh?" He propped himself over Lex and stroked his neck with the tips of his fingers. "Is he going to move back?"

"He didn't say, but I'm assuming that eventually he will. It doesn't make sense, him living out here. The main reason he moved was because Dr. Hamilton got him interested in the ship and meteor rocks, but he hasn't said anything about them since." He sighed and closed his eyes, neck arching slightly.

"Turn over," Clark said, climbing off Lex.

Lex complied, stretching out on his stomach, head pillowed on his crossed arms. "I mean," he continued, groaning softly when Clark began massaging his shoulders and back, "he also moved because he wanted me for company. He'll never admit it, but it was hard for him to suddenly be blind and living alone."

"You think he's ready to leave now?"

"I hope so. He's gotten very annoying lately, which means he's feeling better. And that house really isn't big enough for both of us to live in."

Clark snorted and worked on a particularly knotty knot in Lex's back. "I wonder what's going to happen to Mom's job if he's not living here."

"Dad will probably offer the helicopter."

"I can't see Mom being happy with flying back and forth every day." Then he bit his lip. "Well, maybe. She likes the whirlwind of a really busy life. The only problem is, she won't be around here if things go wrong, and that she won't like."

"True. You and your father need someone to keep a close eye on you. Ow!" he exclaimed when Clark pinched him. "It's true."

"Like you're any better." He kissed the bump on the back of Lex's head.

"True." He sighed and closed his eyes. "Oh, I've been meaning to ask you. Did I forget your parents' anniversary this year? Because I wanted to get them a present."

"No. I mean, yeah, you did, but they didn't celebrate yet, so it's okay. They put it off because of us."

"What?" Lex rolled onto his back again.

Clark sighed and sat back on his heels. "We were so depressed over Ryan's death, they decided to hold off a few weeks before celebrating their anniversary."

"That's stupid."

He just shrugged. "I know. Especially since it's not like they're doing anything spectacular anyway. They told me they aren't leaving town this year because of what happened last year. Especially not since I have more friends then I did." He stretched out on top of Lex. "They don't trust me."

Lex laughed softly and kissed Clark's bottom lip. "Come on, angel, you know the minute they're gone, you'd have another party. Only this one would be with your new friend and involve a lot of gay porn."

"Riiight," Clark drawled. "And a lot of closet games. Seven Minutes in Heaven. Post Office, or whatever it's called. Spin the Bottle. Strip Poker." He kissed Lex, tongue running lightly inside his mouth. "Jack called me today."


"Yeah. He wanted to know if I could hang out."

"And you said?"

"I told him no," Clark said, hitching a shoulder. "Not this week. I just went through this with Theresa, only she wanted more than to just sleep with me. Not that Jack doesn't like me or anything, but I get the feeling that, most of the time the guys are just all having sex with each other. I don't want that, and right now, I don't really want any more friends."

"Why not?"

Clark shrugged. "My plate's pretty full right now. I've got a boyfriend, a group of close friends, my parents, Aaron, school, and I just don't want to worry about walking that line with someone right now."

"That's fine, Clark. You don't have to be friends with everyone who wants to be your friend, you know."

"I know." He climbed off Lex and stretched out beside him. "It's not just that. It's this whole thing with Tina made me think about things."

"What things?"

"Like, at first, how it seemed Whitney didn't remember any of his life for the past year. How weird that would be, not knowing these major things that happened to you. Lana getting together with Chloe was a big deal. It totally changed how she thought about herself. It's the same thing with Whitney and me. I mean, even if he hadn't fallen in love with me, just being friends was huge. And it might not have ever happened, and I can't help wonder what my life--what all our lives might have been like."

"Well," Lex said, stroking his back, "I don't know. The problem with looking at your life in hindsight is that there are so many things you can't predict. What if Lana and Whitney had stayed together? Would that have changed the fact that Whitney's gay? Or the fact that Lana wasn't happy in the relationship? Or that she's bisexual, even. Maybe they would have stayed together, and you and Whitney wouldn't have become friends, and he'd gotten depressed overseas like he did. Who would he have written to? Lana? No offense to her, but she's not exactly who I'd want to turn to if I'm that depressed. She comforts through distraction and deflection of the problem onto herself, and that doesn't work as well in letter format. So, what if Whitney had gotten so depressed that when he'd gone missing in action, he didn't have the inner strength to get through it?"

"I didn't mean things would be better, I just ..."

"Clark," he interrupted. "My point is, sometimes, you actually do have to let life take its course. I'm all for thinking of possible outcomes, and trying to see all the angles and always look seven steps ahead, but ... you can't do that with everything."

"I know," he said a little petulantly. Okay, yeah, he was still feeling a little guilty for not wanting to hang out with Jack, but that wasn't why he'd brought this up. Really.

Lex moved suddenly, rolling on top of him. "Can you imagine, though, what our lives would be like if we hadn't gotten together?"

"I don't believe that could ever happen."

"What if you hadn't realized you were attracted to me, or you were too scared to act on it. What if you'd thought I was serious in pushing you at Lana and chose her over me? Where would we be?"

"We'd still be best friends," Clark replied, holding Lex tightly. "No matter what, I know we'd always be best friends."

He smiled. "So, you think that in all those parallel universes they're always talking about in Star Trek, every Clark and every Lex are best friends?"

Clark returned the smile and caressed Lex's back. "Of course," he replied softly. "Our friendship is the stuff of legends. No matter what universe or alternative reality, that will never change."