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The Road Not Taken

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This is only a possibility in a world of possibilities There are-- Obviously there are many possibilities Ranging from small to large
Before long there will be short
Before short there was nothing
When there was nothing there was always the possibility of something Becoming what it is

Prologue

Metropolis, Kansas, 1979

Lillian stared at the man in front of her, disbelieving. What had happened to the man she had fallen in love with? The one who brought her flowers, whispered sweet things in her ear as they made love, the one who told her she was the most beautiful woman in the world? There wasn't a trace of him in the cold businessman speaking to her now.

"I'm sorry, Lillian, but I'm not sure what you're expecting. Do you need money for an-- operation?" Lionel asked.

She crossed her arms over her stomach protectively. "How could you ask me something like that? I thought--" She felt the tears welling in her eyes, but she vowed not to let them spill over. Lionel would not see her cry. "You said you were going to leave her," she whispered.

Lionel's smile was gentle and terribly cold. "That wouldn't really make much sense, would it? Lauren is the mother of my first born son and a very understanding wife. It would hardly be fair to leave her for a girl who doesn't even have the sense not to get pregnant while having an affair with a married man."

"I see," she said quietly, proud that her voice didn't waver. "I won't bother you again."

A Ranch in Montana, later that day

"Pam?" Lily's voice sounded tinny and distant over the phone line.

"Lily, how are you?" Pam asked, trying to keep the hurt out of her voice. The last time they had spoken, Lily told Pam that their relationship was over and that Lily was leaving Pam for Lionel. That had been three months ago.

"You were right. God, I'm so sorry, Pam. You were right." It sounded like Lily was crying.

"Oh, baby, what is it? What happened?" Pam asked, heart in her throat. Despite what had happened between them, Pam was still in love with Lily and her need to protect Lily was immediate and instinctive.

"I'm pregnant."

"And Lionel isn't going to leave his wife," Pam finished, not at all surprised. The man was a first class bastard. She felt guilty for the little moment of petty satisfaction that shot through her, knowing that she had been right. Part of her wanted Lily to hurt, to know how it felt to be the one betrayed.

"No, he isn't." There was a long pause before Lily spoke again. "I want to keep my baby, Pam."

In the end, however, there wasn't even a question of what she would do. Pam had been hurt, but her feelings hadn't changed. "The offer still stands, Lil'. Come to the ranch. We can be a family, the three of us. And my parents are here; they can help us. You know how much my parents love you." Her heart thudded loudly in her ears as she waited for Lily's answer.

"You would take me back, just like that? After everything I did?" Lily asked.

"I want you here," Pam said. "I'm not saying things will be great right away, but I'm willing to work on it."

"I am too." Lily laughed a little. "Okay. We're going to Montana."

Pam pictured Lily saying the last statement to her stomach, the baby already a presence in their lives, already making them a family. "I can't wait to see you."

"I can't wait to see you either," Lily whispered back.

Montana, 1980

"Are you going to come to bed anytime soon?"

Lily sighed as warm arms wrapped around her waist. "Soon," she said. "As soon as he stops being so amazing." She stroked the fine red hair gently, unable to take her eyes off of the tiny baby lying in the crib, she hadn't been able to ever since they'd brought him home from the hospital; he was so completely captivating.

"I don't think that'll happen anytime this century," Pam teased softly as she looked down at their son. "He really is beautiful. He looks just like you."

"You think?" Lily asked, secretly glad. She didn't want him to resemble Lionel at all. Alexander belonged to her and Pam now. He was a Jenkins, not a Luthor. If Lillian had her way, which she intended to, Alexander would never be a Luthor.

"You're worried," Pam said. From the tone of her voice, Lily could tell it wasn't a question.

"Yeah."

"Don't be." Pam hugged her tighter. "We're gonna do all right, you'll see." Pam reached out and rested her hand lightly on Alexander's stomach. "Our son will be happy."

"Promise?" Lily asked.

"Promise," Pam said. "Now come to bed."

Metropolis, Kansas, 1983

Lionel ran a frustrated hand through his hair as he studied the resumes in front of him. This would be the third caretaker that they'd hired this month. It was one of the many times that Lionel was sure he'd made a mistake in sending Lillian away.

His decision had been a strategic one at the time. The affair with Lily had been a whim, something Lionel hadn't been able to deny himself, but something he hadn't been willing to sacrifice his marriage for. How was he to know that Liam would be such a sickly child? He had just been a baby when Lily had gotten pregnant.

Lionel allowed himself a moment of indulgence as he closed his eyes and imagined Lily. She'd been so beautiful, so young and spirited with the most gorgeous red hair that he'd ever seen. Lionel had always had a weakness for redheads.

It didn't really matter at this point, he supposed. Lauren was a good wife, easy to control. If only their son wasn't so pathetically weak. Lionel was ashamed to admit the boy was his.

"Excuse me, sir." A woman's voice interrupted his thoughts. "I'm Rachel Dunlevy, I'm here for the caretaker position."

"Ah, Mrs. Dunlevy." Lionel looked at the resume in his hand and then looked up, smiling at the lovely young woman in front of him.

"Miss, actually," she said, tucking a strand of long red hair behind her ear. "But please, call me Rachel."

"Rachel," Lionel repeated, trying to hide a wolfish grin. "I have a few questions for you, but everything so far looks very promising."

Metropolis, Kansas, 1989

Lionel sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers as he considered his options. He would have to proceed carefully from here, although he really couldn't have planned things any better if he'd tried.

Liam had been killed by a freak meteor shower while on a business trip with his father. A farmer and his wife had rushed Lionel and Liam to the hospital, but it had been too late. To the world, Liam's death was an unfortunate accident; to Lionel, it was the perfect opportunity to choose a more worthy heir.

On the one hand, Lily's boy was the oldest. However, that meant that Lionel would have to spend more time training him. Rachel's son was younger, which meant he was more impressionable, easier to mold into what Lionel needed him to be.

"Everyone has gone home," Lauren said quietly as she walked into the office. "I told them you were overcome with grief."

He raised an eyebrow at the caustic tone of her voice. "I've decided that Lucas should come live with us."

Lauren blinked at him, the color slowly draining from her face and then returning in a rush of angry red. "Your son's body is barely in the ground and you're already planning to replace him? If you think I'm going to raise one of your bastards, you're completely delusional!"

"Don't be so dramatic." Lionel waved a hand, dismissing her outburst. "Besides, I have the feeling that Rachel Dunlevy is becoming unstable and is no longer fit to raise a child." It would be easy enough for Lionel to get Rachel put away somewhere. "It would be remiss of me to leave a child of mine in her custody."

"You can't be serious."

He shrugged. "Of course, maybe all she needs is to be married to the father of her son." He let the implication hang in the air, knowing that Lauren would concede. It was one of the reasons he'd married her. She rarely let her emotions get in the way of her more pragmatic nature.

"That won't be necessary," Lauren said quietly after a long pause. "I would be thrilled if Lucas would come and live with us."

Lionel smiled, nodding slowly. "That's what I thought." There was just one more thing he had to do.

Montana

Pam put down the bowl she was washing and wiped her wet hands on her jeans before reaching to pick up the phone. "Hello?"

"Is this Pamela Jenkins?" The man on the other end of the line asked.

"It is," Pam answered, glancing out the window to see Alex and Lily returning from their ride.

"Wonderful. I'd like to speak to you about Alexander."

Pam felt her blood run cold at the man's statement. "Who is this?" she asked slowly.

"This is Lionel Luthor, the boy's father."

She could practically hear his smug smile. "What do you want?" Her knuckles were white where she clutched the phone too tightly, her other hand wrapped in the cord. She had to consciously refrain from pulling too hard and disconnecting the call.

"Now, now. There's no need to get defensive. I just wanted to talk to you about setting up some sort of trust fund for him. I'd like to make sure that my son is being provided for."

"We're providing for him just fine," Pam said, her voice pitched low in an effort to keep it from wavering. "We don't want anything from you. Your help is neither needed, nor welcome."

Lionel laughed. "Certainly you don't have a problem with me giving the boy money. After all, it's not like I'm trying to take him away from you. Although..." he paused. "...I wonder what the courts would decide, if they had to choose. Would they leave the boy with two women involved in a rather questionable relationship, or would they give him to his father to raise in a traditional family environment?"

Pam closed her eyes, leaning against the counter for support. "What would this trust fund involve?" she asked finally.

"Ms. Jenkins, I'm wounded that you would try and read some ulterior motive into my request. I only wanted to set something up for him, money that he's entitled to as my son. He can use it for college or whatever else he desires when he comes of age. You would, of course, be custodian of the money until that time, in case you needed to access it beforehand for whatever reason. What could you possibly object to?"

Pam couldn't figure out Lionel's angle. She had secretly been waiting for the other shoe to drop since she'd read about Liam Luthor's death, but she had hoped that after all these years Lionel would leave them in peace. Wanting to start a trust for Alex didn't make sense. It seemed too generous a thing for Lionel Luthor to do. If he didn't want custody of Alex, what did he want?

"I can set it up so that Lillian wouldn't have to know about our arrangement," Lionel said. "I just want to help my son. I can go through all the proper legal channels if you'd prefer, I simply thought this arrangement would be-- easier."

His voice carried an implicit threat and Pam was loath to see if he would carry through with it. She bowed her head. What choice did she have?

Part One

Come and see
I swear by now I'm playing time against my troubles

Montana, 1993

Lillian's death was quiet and Pam wondered if it wasn't almost worse in a way, to have it be so anticlimactic. The only thing that marked her passing was the change in the heart monitor, the conspicuous lack of a steady beat. No rush of doctors and nurses to bring her back; they had their DNR orders.

Alex looked up from where he was sitting beside the hospital bed and frowned at the machine. The blank look in his eyes when he turned to Pam was almost more than she could handle. He quietly set down the comic book he'd been reading and walked over to Lily's side.

"Momma." He tapped her shoulder lightly. "You have to wake up now. Please?" he whispered brokenly. "I have to tell you...something. So you have to wake up, okay?"

Pam walked over to him, unable to bear his quiet pleading. "Alex." She reached out to touch his shoulder, but he jerked away.

"Don't." He hugged his arms close to his body, like he was trying to contain himself. "Just wake her up, okay? I have to tell her something." They both turned to the door as Pam's parents walked into the room.

"Sweetheart," she started as Alex shook his head in denial. "She's not going to wake up."

She watched Alex turn to her parents and then back to her and then to the bed where Lily was laying, his jaw set in an angry line. "Fine! Don't wake up! See if I care!" He turned and ran out of the room.

"Dad." Pam turned to her father helplessly.

"I'll take him home," her dad said quietly. "Take your time."

Pam sat down in the chair Alex had been occupying, utterly exhausted. Lily had been sick for so long and now that it was over, Pam felt...empty. The doctors hadn't been able to do much of anything in the end. Pam had contacted all the specialists she could find using the money Lionel had sent to cover the extra costs. Nothing had worked and now Lily was gone.

Now Pam had Alex. He'd grown so quiet over the duration of Lily's illness. He'd gone from a vibrant, happy, healthy little boy to a reserved, introverted youth that looked at the world with eyes far older than his thirteen years. He walked around like he bore the weight of the world on his thin little shoulders and Pam didn't know what to do to change that. She didn't know how to make that haunted look leave his eyes.

But she had to try, for Lily and for Alex.

"Alex," his mom called out. "Are you up here?" He only had one mom now, just like the other kids.

Alex sighed. "Yeah, I'm here." He was wedged into the far corner of the loft in the barn, picking absently at a hangnail. Part of him had always wanted to be just like the other kids.

"Your grandfather was worried about you. He didn't know where you'd gone off to," she scolded lightly as she sat down next to him.

"I just wanted to be alone for a little while." He'd gotten his wish; it was all his fault.

"Oh, honey." His mom reached out to touch him, but Alex jerked away.

"Don't." He shrank away from her touch, wrapping his arms around his legs and now he felt guilty because his mom thought he was mad at her. "I mean, I just..." He closed his eyes and hugged his legs a little tighter. He had tried to fix it, had spent so much time at the library reading books, talking to doctors and nurses and anyone else who would pay attention to him and his desperate attempt to find a cure.

"It's okay to be upset, Alex, but sometimes it helps to talk to somebody. You can talk to me if you want." She sounded so concerned and that only made him feel worse.

His stomach churned, misery and guilt mixing and eating away at his insides. What would she think of him if she knew the truth? She would hate him, would make him leave. He deserved to have to leave. "It's my fault," he finally admitted, opening his eyes to gauge her reaction.

She looked confused. "What do you mean?"

"I didn't mean to. I didn't even really know. It's just sometimes I wanted to be like the other kids with a normal family, but I didn't realize." He started gasping as his lungs refused to work properly. He patted down his pockets and pulled out his inhaler, taking a hit before continuing. "But then I tried to make it better, but I couldn't fix it. It was too late and now she's gone and it's all my fault."

"Oh, baby." His mom pulled him into her arms, despite his struggles. "Honey, it's not your fault, you can't ever think that."

"But it is," he insisted. "If I'd been better--"

"No. Alex, listen to me. Her death isn't your fault. It isn't anybody's fault. There is nothing you or the doctors or I could have done. Do you hear me?" She shook him a little.

Alex shook his head. "But I--"

"No!" She cut him off again. "None of this is your fault, Alex. Your mother loved you so much, she would be so sad to know you blamed yourself."

Alex could feel himself breaking, everything was slipping out of his control and it all just hurt. "I miss her so much." And he couldn't hold it in anymore. He pressed his face against his mom's shoulder and cried, great sobs wracking his body until every part of him was throbbing with a sharp ache.

"I know, I know," his mom soothed, rubbing his back gently. "I miss her too. But we'll get through this. It will just take some time."

Montana, 1995

Lionel walked through the crowded coffeehouse, ignoring the sea of people that parted before him. He paused, taking a sip of his coffee as he scanned the crowd. He took a moment to frown down at the paper cup he was holding. It wasn't anything like the cappuccinos he'd had in the little cafe near his hotel on his most recent trip to Rome, but he supposed that most people wouldn't know the difference.

He smiled a second later as he spotted the boy he'd been looking for. It was probably a bad idea for him to be here; it certainly wasn't necessary. Lionel had been keeping track of Alexander since he was a baby, but he'd felt a whim to speak to his son, and quite frankly, Lionel Luthor was a man used to doing what he wanted.

Luckily, the lack of free tables in the cafe gave Lionel a reasonable excuse to initiate contact. "Is this seat taken?" he asked.

Alexander looked up from the book he was reading and smiled politely. "No, not at all."

"Edith Hamilton, Mythology," Lionel said, nodding at the book as he sat down in the vacant armchair. "School or pleasure?"

"School." He shrugged.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bother you..."

"Alex," he said with another polite smile. "And don't worry about it. I think I need to take a few minutes to digest what I just read. Talk about dysfunctional families."

Lionel smiled as he studied Alex, seeking some part of himself, some sign that the boy was a Luthor. "What family is that?"

"The house of Atreus," Alex said, frowning at the book for a moment.

"Ah." Lionel tapped his fingers against his cup and smiled. "Yes, that family was rather unfortunate, wasn't it? Their problems started with Tantalus, I believe? It's a classic example of the sins of the father being visited upon the son."

Alex nodded. "The curse followed several generations until Orestes, who killed his mother to avenge his father's death. He admitted his guilt and sought to be cleansed. It was the first time anyone from the House of Atreus had made an admission of wrong-doing."

"And thus Athena forgave him and persuaded the furies to do so as well. They acquitted him of his crimes, breaking the curse that had been held over the house for so long," Lionel finished.

"You know your mythology," Alex said with a smile.

The expression reminded Lionel of Lillian. Alex had the same deep blue eyes, the same perfectly shaped mouth. He was definitely his mother's son. "You would be surprised at how useful knowing your classics can be."

Alex raised an eyebrow, shooting Lionel a look of tolerant amusement that drove any doubt from Lionel's mind that the boy was his. It was a patently Luthor expression. "I'm sure I would be."

Lionel made a show of checking his watch. "Oh, my. I have an appointment to get to. It was nice talking to you, Alex. I'll let you get back to your studies."

Alex simply nodded, a speculative look in his eyes.

Overall, Lionel was rather pleased with the encounter. Alex seemed to have a shrewd intelligence; he was polite but not completely trusting. He definitely had potential.

"Mom, I'm home," Alex called out as he set his backpack down on the kitchen table. "Mom?"

"I'm right here, no need to yell," his mom said, swatting him with a dishtowel as she walked into the room. "How was Starbucks? Did you get your reading done?" There was a teasing tone in her voice.

Alex grinned ruefully. Ever since he'd gotten his license, he'd insisted that Starbucks was more conducive to studying, even though they both knew it was just an excuse to drive somewhere. "Crowded. I got some of it done." He lifted the lid off the pot on the stove to see what they were having for dinner. "Lentils?" He wrinkled his nose.

"Get away from there." His mom grabbed the lid from him and set it back on the pot. "Lentils are good for you. And why only some of it? You know the deal, Alexander. If you don't get your homework done there, you'll need to start doing it at home again."

"I got most of it done. But then some guy sat down and started talking to me."

"Some guy?" she asked archly.

Alex blushed. He was pretty sure his mom knew he liked boys, but it wasn't something they'd ever talked about. Just the thought of having that discussion with her mortified him. "Some older guy. A businessman or something." He was surprised to find his mom frowning when he looked up.

"I don't want you talking to strange men, Alex."

"C'mon, Mom. It wasn't that big of a deal." He didn't want to admit to his mom that the whole situation had been disconcerting. There was something about the way the man had been studying him that had made Alex extremely uncomfortable. "He was just interested in mythology and he noticed what I was reading, that's all."

As much as Alex loved his mom, he was annoyed at how overprotective she got. Every bit of independence he gained, he had to fight for. He wasn't about to let one slightly creepy middle-aged businessman ruin that.

His mom was still frowning. "I just worry about you, sweetie, that's all."

"I know, Mom, but I can handle myself. Honestly, what do you have to be worried about?"

"Nothing, I suppose." Her smile looked strained. "Maybe I'm just upset that my baby's all grown up." She made a show of wiping tears from her eyes. "Come here and give your mother a hug," she said dramatically.

Alex rolled his eyes but couldn't keep from laughing. "Stay away from me, crazy lady!"

She winked at him. "Go finish your reading. I'll call you when dinner is ready."

"All right." He shouldered his backpack and headed off to his room, pushing the afternoon's incident from his mind.

Montana, 1996

Alex studied his reading selection, trying to decide what kind of mood he was in. He had more books in the house, but he didn't want to go inside to get one. Shortly after he'd started high school, with his mom's permission, his grandpa had helped him transform half of the loft in the barn to what Alex refused to call a fort anywhere but in his mind.

The whole project would have been a lot more fun if his grandpa hadn't kept saying things about every young man needing somewhere he could be alone. "Alone time" was one of those things he never wanted to have to discuss with his grandpa. Ever. It was just...wrong.

They had put a futon in the loft so he could sleep there during the summer when the weather was nice. The back wall was lined with a bunch of crates that he used as bookshelves, filled with almost every type of book imaginable.

Alex loved books and he wasn't a very picky reader. He had everything from Homer and Virgil to Stephen King and John Grisham. His mom would tease him about it, asking him if he wanted her to pick up some romance novels at the store, just to make sure he was well rounded. Her comments always embarrassed him.

Once, he had let his curiosity get the better of him and he'd borrowed a romance novel from his friend Meg. The whole experience was rather traumatic. It had been some time-traveling thing where the girl went back to ancient Rome and then had a lot of sex with a guy who found her and took her as a slave. Meg had said; "It's historical." Alex had been a little wary about her definition of history since then.

He wondered if women really liked stuff like that. Why was the dashing hero so emphatically hairy? Alex preferred less hairy guys. Well, in theory anyway. He didn't have a lot of experience. Or any at all, really. He hadn't exactly come out to anyone yet. Not even his family, although he was pretty sure they wouldn't really care. It was just that being gay in high school wasn't exactly the easiest thing in the world, especially when most of his classmates knew that his mom was gay, too. Add to all that the fact that he was the one who always destroyed the grading curves and he was thrice damned. He figured that it would just easier to wait until he got to college to date.

Alex sighed and studied the titles in front of him for about the fiftieth time. He had been planning on reading something academic, but he wasn't really in the mood anymore. Instead, he pulled out the first book of "Power Failure". It was a four part Warrior Angel series that was outside the current Warrior Angel timeline.

The premise was that a blackout short-circuited Professor Johnston's alarm clock the day that Warrior Angel arrived on Earth. Therefore, the Professor was late and didn't find Warrior Angel like he was supposed to. Instead, a secret government organization found him and captured him for scientific experiments.

Without Warrior Angel, Devilicus was ruling the Guardian Realm alone. Because he didn't have the option of combining his power with Warrior Angel's, he was never tempted to try and conquer humanity. Instead, he spent so much time saving people that he came to care for humanity a great deal and, in fact, became their greatest champion.

When Devilicus found out about the secret government lab that was holding Warrior Angel, he fought to free him and was eventually successful. Devilicus brought Warrior Angel to the Guardian Realm and helped him heal. They became best friends and helped to save humanity together.

Alex thought parts of the plot were overly simplistic, but he secretly really liked the whole story line. He liked the idea that one thing could so drastically alter the whole universe. For whatever reason, the idea of a universe with infinite possibilities comforted Alex. It was always alternately happy and depressing that Devilicus didn't become a criminal mastermind. It made the current incarnation of Devilicus more tragic somehow, more sympathetic. Alex also found it ironic that it was actually the lack of Warrior Angel's presence up to a certain point in Devilicus' life that kept him from turning evil.

"Rowr?" Sandy, their barn cat blinked up at him, one paw resting lightly on the futon.

"Hey, girl," Alex said, reaching out to scratch behind her ear. When he was younger, he'd been allergic, but his allergies along with his asthma had seemed to disappear as he got older, for the most part anyway. He still had his inhaler, but he hadn't used it in over a year.

Taking his scratching as permission, Sandy hopped onto the futon and curled up against Alex's hip, purring happily. He continued his petting distractedly as he read.

After he finished the first book he tucked it back into the appropriate crate and stood up, stretching lazily, which earned him a disgruntled look from the cat. He usually spent the first few days of summer vacation doing absolutely nothing until his mom caught on to the fact that he was slacking off and doubled his chores.

He climbed down from the loft and turned to go toward the house, promptly bumping into someone.

"Oh, hey. Sorry, buddy, I...Alex?"

Alex opened his mouth to speak, closed it and then opened it again. "Jake," he finally croaked out. "Hey."

Jake had been coming to work on the ranch every summer since Alex was ten. He was a few years older than Alex, twenty-one this year if Alex remembered correctly. It was because of Jake that Alex had first started to realize that he wasn't entirely straight. Alex wasn't sure how any guy could be entirely straight around Jake.

Jake was gorgeous, with warm brown eyes and a friendly smile. He was cool and older and he'd always treated Alex like an equal. It was with the onset of puberty and more than one wet dream starring Jake, however, that Alex began to suspect that 'hero-worship' didn't quite cover his feelings.

"Hey!" Jake smiled, a beautiful flash of white teeth and Alex felt his heart skip a beat. "I hardly recognized you! Wow, you look...all grown up."

Alex smiled, ducking his head a little. "Yeah, it was bound to happen sometime. When did you get into town?"

"This morning." Jake ran a hand through his thick blond hair.

Alex watched the way the muscle flexed on his forearm and wondered how Jake could be that tan at the beginning of the summer. For his part, Alex didn't so much tan as burn. Thus he was doomed to paleness year-round.

"Hey," Jake said suddenly, startling Alex a little. "I have to go..." He held up the bridle he was carrying. "But we should get together later tonight and catch up."

"Yeah." Alex hadn't felt this nervous, well, ever. "Um, there's supposed to be a meteor shower tonight around ten. I was going to go out in the south pasture and watch it if you wanted to join me?" He blushed as soon as the words were out of his mouth, realizing how the invitation had sounded. "It's supposed to be, um, you probably really don't care, huh?" He really needed to stop talking. Soon.

Luckily, Jake just laughed. "No, that sounds cool. How about I meet you out here around nine-thirty?"

"Really? I--Yeah, that works. I'll see you then." Alex wondered if he sounded as dumb as he thought he did.

"Okay." Jake smiled again. "See you later, then."

Alex stood there for a moment, disbelieving. Had Jake just winked at him?

Resisting the urge to pace was almost more than Alex could handle. He was standing by the barn, waiting for Jake to show up and trying to talk himself out of a major freak-out. The last thing he needed was for Jake to walk up and find him having an asthma attack.

Calm down, he told himself. It's not like anything's going to happen. That helped. He'd known Jake for years. They were friends. It was cool. He could do this.

"Hey," Jake said as he walked up. He was wearing a white T-shirt and worn jeans. His hair was damp and he smelled really good.

I'm so fucked. "How's it going?" Alex asked, proud of the fact that his voice didn't crack.

"Pretty good." Jake tilted his head a little. "Shall we?"

"Huh?" Alex stared blankly for a moment before he realized what Jake was asking. "Oh. Yeah. I brought a blanket." Smooth. "To lay on," he added helpfully. Brilliant. "Because it'll be more comfortable than the grass." Oh, God. Why was he still talking? "I haven't had any severe head traumas since the last time you were here or anything, if that's what you're thinking."

"I wasn't thinking that," Jake assured him

"Really?" Alex asked as they started walking. "'Cause I was starting to."

Jake's laughter rang out in the otherwise silent night air.

They walked in companionable silence for a little while until Jake stopped abruptly, causing Alex to bump into him. "How far are we going?" he asked, turning to place his hands on Alex's shoulders. "Don't fall. You sure about that head trauma thing?"

Alex was glad it was dark enough that Jake couldn't see his blush. "Pretty sure, anyway." He looked around, acutely aware of the heat of Jake's hands through his T-shirt. "Here's as good a place as any, I suppose." They were pretty far away from the lights of the house. "Um. I guess we should spread this out." He held up the blanket.

Jake grabbed a corner and they spread it out on the ground. Alex lay down quickly, not looking at Jake. He laced his fingers together, resting his hands on his chest, closing his eyes briefly as Jake lay down next to him. He was near enough that Alex could feel the heat of Jake's body.

"I didn't know you were into astronomy," Jake said, his voice closer than Alex had been expecting, low and soft, right next to Alex's ear.

Alex let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and shrugged a little, his shoulder brushing against Jake's arm. "I'm not too into it or anything, but Mom got me a telescope for my birthday this year." He shrugged again. "It's kind of cool."

"So do you know the names of all the stars and stuff, then?" Jake asked.

"Some of them." He turned his head a little until he could see Jake out of the corner of his eye. "You think I'm a nerd, don't you?"

"I don't think you're a nerd." Jake sounded amused.

"Don't lie to me." Alex teased.

Jake turned until he was lying on his side; his head propped in his hand as he faced Alex. "I don't think you're a nerd. You're a very cool kid."

Alex tried not to wince. "I'm not a kid." And, okay, that sounded really childish. "Sometimes age isn't always measured by years." That was better. "I'm old enough."

"Old enough for what?" Jake asked softly.

Suddenly, Alex was aware of Jake's fingers playing with the hem of Alex's T-shirt, almost but not quite touching his body.

"You're not old enough to drink," Jake said. "Or smoke."

Alex closed his eyes as Jake's fingers brushed along his bare stomach. They were so warm, stroking his skin with light, teasing touches.

"You're not old enough to vote. Hell, you're barely old enough to drive."

"Hmm," Alex said. His breathing was more labored now, but not in the scary way like when he was having an asthma attack. He didn't want to speak or move or open his eyes, was afraid that if he did, Jake would stop touching him and that would be very, very bad.

"So, what are you old enough for, Alex?" Jake asked, still touching, his hand moving further up under Alex's shirt.

"I'm old enough for this," Alex said finally, opening his eyes.

"Are you sure?" Jake whispered, but he hadn't moved away.

"I'm very sure."

The pounding of Alex's heart sounded loud in his ears as he watched Jake lean in closer, his eyes finally sliding shut as Jake's mouth covered his in a soft, wet kiss. He groaned and uncrossed his hands to slide his fingers through Jake's hair as Jake licked at Alex's lips, gently teasing his mouth open.

Alex quickly became lost in the new sensations, the thrumming of his body as Jake touched him, kissed him slowly and thoroughly, nipping and licking at Alex's lips.

"Have you done this before?" Jake asked as he pulled away, and it took far too long for Alex's mind to process the question.

"Will you stop if I say no?" Alex asked.

"I'll only stop if you want me to," Jake said. "Although I should probably be strung up for even thinking about touching you."

"Jake." Now was not the time for Jake to be having second thoughts. "I'm not going to ask you to stop," he said. "And I won't tell anyone." He tugged gently at Jake's hair, willing him to comply.

"We really shouldn't be doing this," Jake whispered against Alex's lips as he moved over Alex's body. "Do you know how tempting you are?"

Alex groaned as Jake's leg slid between his thighs, pressing firmly against his cock. "Please."

"Weren't we supposed to be watching a meteor shower?" Jake asked as he rubbed against Alex, creating the most delicious friction.

"Fuck the meteors," Alex panted.

Jake licked his lips, smiling. "There are other things I'm much more interested in fucking."

Oh, yes, please. Alex smiled. "Then why are you still talking?"

"Brat." Jake's eyes crinkled charmingly as he laughed. It was the last thing he said for a satisfyingly long time.

Alex couldn't have cared less that they missed the meteor shower.

Jake was careful to be quiet as he crept up to the loft. Not that he thought they could hear him in the main house, but when one was fucking the bosses' son, one tended to be a little paranoid.

"Alex?" he whispered and then smiled when he saw why his query went unanswered. Alex was asleep on the futon, an open book about to fall out of his hand. It was just so sweet that he wondered for about the billionth time what the hell he was doing sleeping with a kid as young as Alex.

There was something about Alex though, something that Jake found utterly fascinating. But for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what it was. It was almost as if Alex didn't belong there. Like he was transported from another world or something. Jake laughed at himself for the thought.

The truth was that Jake hadn't paid much attention to Alex those first few summers he'd worked at the ranch, though he'd always been nice to the kid. Jake had been hired when Lillian had gotten sick, although he hadn't known it at the time. It wasn't until that fourth summer; the first after she'd died, that Jake had really noticed Alex. He had been so incredibly solemn, almost eerily so. He'd seemed so intensely sad that Jake couldn't help but feel for him.

So Jake had gone out of his way to befriend Alex, trying to draw him out a little. And it had worked. Bit by bit, Alex began to loosen up, which had the side effect of putting Jake on Pam's good side--not that that's why he did it. The more he was around Alex, the more Jake genuinely liked him.

Last summer, Jake had started to notice that Alex was looking at him differently. Long, considering looks from under his eyelashes when he thought that Jake wasn't paying attention. Jake had found it sort of sweet that Alex had a crush on him.

Needless to say, Jake had been surprised when he bumped into a very grown-up Alex this summer. There was no way he could have predicted the attraction on his side of things. Alex was just a kid, a kid who had stood there, looking up at him coyly, and invited him to go star gazing. And the hell of it was, Jake was pretty sure Alex had no clue how fucking hot that was.

Alex had seemingly bypassed all the teenage awkwardness that everyone else was subject to. He moved with a seductive grace while somehow maintaining an air of innocence. Jake was almost afraid to see what would happen once Alex realized how attractive he really was.

Jake sighed, moving to take the book from Alex's hand, doing so gently to avoid waking him up. He checked the spine, snorting softly as he read; Hallucinating Foucault. Even the title sounded overtly intellectual.

"Hey," Alex murmured, blinking sleepily.

Jake laid the book on the floor and sat down on the edge of the futon. "I didn't mean to wake you up," he said, running his fingers through Alex's hair.

Alex shut his eyes, stretching a little. "That's okay. I was waiting for you. I just fell asleep."

"So I saw. A little light reading before bed?" He ran his hand down Alex's neck, stroking his pulse point.

"Mmmm, it's a good book."

Jake smiled. "You've read it before."

"Yeah." Alex opened his eyes, gracing Jake with lazy smile. "It's about this college student who is writing his thesis on this writer/philosopher, Paul Michel, who is in some mental institution. So the student goes to meet him and ends up falling in love with him. He wants to save him."

"And does he?" Jake asked.

"I guess it depends on your interpretation as a reader." Alex frowned. "Michel is much older than the narrator and pretty much thinks the narrator's romantic notions are childish." He laughed then. "It's really pretty depressing if you think about it."

Alex reached up, sliding his fingers under Jake's T-shirt, tracing lightly over his back. Jake wondered if Alex realized how much of what he was feeling showed up in his expressions.

"Do you know how pretty you are?" Jake asked, tracing Alex's eyebrows and then his lips softly with his thumb.

Alex opened his mouth to scrape his teeth across the pad of Jake's thumb before answering. "I think girls are pretty. Guys are..."

"Gorgeous?" Jake asked, smiling at the snort Alex gave in response. "You don't believe me? Every time I look at you I want you."

"Luckily, you can have me," Alex teased.

Jake pulled away a little, feeling a sudden pang of guilt. "You shouldn't give up so much so freely," he said.

"Jake?" Alex frowned.

"I don't deserve that much from you, Alex."

Alex's expression softened and Jake knew that his words had been misunderstood, but then Alex sat up and moved to straddle Jake's hips and Jake couldn't bring himself to care.

"I suppose you'll just have to deal with getting more than you deserve, then, won't you?" Alex asked as he relieved Jake of his shirt.

Jake groaned as Alex's hands roamed over his body. He laid back on the futon, pulling Alex down with him. It was too late to stop things now that they'd started, and despite the fact that Jake felt like a bastard for getting involved with Alex, there was no way he was willing to give him up before he absolutely had to.

Pam sighed as she stood at the kitchen sink and watched Jake slip out of the barn and walk back to the staff quarters. There weren't many ways to interpret the fact that he was leaving her son's "room" at four-thirty in the morning. Even a mother's level of willful blindness had its limits.

Between Alex walking around with a cocky grin on his face and the fact that Jake hadn't been able to look her in the eye since the morning he'd arrived, Pam had been having trouble convincing herself that there was nothing going on. Now it was pretty much impossible, which meant she and Alex were going to have to have the talk.

She sighed again as she sat down at the kitchen table, cradling her head in her hands. What was she going to do? She suddenly had the overwhelming urge to call her parents and apologize for everything she had ever put them through. There was going to be a discussion, that much was a given. But she had no idea what she was going to say.

It wasn't like she could forbid them to see each other, tempting as the idea was. The urge to fire Jake and then lock Alex in his room until he was thirty was hard to resist. Unfortunately, Pam remembered what it was like to be sixteen and different; how wonderful it was to find someone to be with. Trying to put an end to things now would pretty much be like shutting the barn door after the horse had already bolted.

Suddenly Pam felt very tired and it had nothing to do with the early hour. This was all happening too soon. Alex was still just a baby. He was much too young to be having...relationships. She was really not ready to deal with any of this.

Her head snapped up as she heard the soft click of the kitchen door closing. "Alex," she said, watching him jump and then freeze before he finally turned around.

"Mom. I didn't see you there. What are you doing sitting here in the dark?" he asked.

"Just thinking. Could you sit down please?" Better to just get it over with. "I think we need to talk."

Alex's eyes widened. "Um, now?" He smiled. "Surely it can wait until later, right?"

"No, I think it should be now." And don't call me Shirley. She watched Alex's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed nervously and wondered if she would find this funny in a few years. Somehow she doubted it.

"It really can't wait?"

"Alexander, don't make me ask you again."

"Can I at least take a shower?" He fidgeted a little as he asked.

Pam had the sudden, sickening realization that he probably smelled like sex. "Be quick about it," she said quietly and watched her son practically run out of the room.

She made coffee as she waited and tried not to think too much. "You know, Lily, this is one of those times when I really wish you were around," she whispered. She carried the two coffee mugs back to the table and sat down without bothering to turn on the lights.

"So, what's up?" Alex asked as he walked back into the room.

Pam just looked at him until he sat down and wrapped his hands around his cup. He stared at his coffee like it held the answers to all of life's mysteries. She had no idea how to start this.

"Was there something in particular you wanted to talk about?" Alex asked, finally looking up, his eyes wide and guileless.

She didn't buy it for a moment. "Is that the way you want to do this?" she asked. When he didn't answer she continued. "Did you really think you guys were being discreet?"

Alex blanched at that. "Yes. I mean, no. We--I didn't really think about it, I guess."

"Well that much is fairly obvious," she snapped before she could stop herself. "Honestly, Alex. I thought you had more sense that to just jump into something like this without thinking at all."

"Jeez, Mom. It's not like he's just some bum off the street. We've known him for years."

"Yeah, ever since you were ten!"

"Okay." Alex sighed. "I know the age difference seems like a little much at this point..."

Pam snorted in disbelief. "A little much? He's five years older than you are. At this point, that's a huge difference and he should have known better. You both should have."

Alex looked panicked at that. "You can't blame him for this. It wasn't his fault. He didn't make me do anything against my will."

"Jake is an adult, you're not. Legally, whether or not you were willing is a moot point."

"Oh, God, Mom." Alex licked his lips. "You can't...you're not going to call the police, are you?"

She let the question hang in the air for a moment before answering. "I'm not going to call the police," she assured him. "Only because I'm not sure what it would accomplish."

"I like him a lot," Alex whispered.

"That's what I'm afraid of." Pam tried to smile but failed miserably. "I'm not going to make you stop seeing him, but just be careful, okay? You're being safe, right?"

"Mom!" Alex sounded thoroughly scandalized.

"If you're old enough to be having sex, you're old enough to discuss it responsibly."

"There isn't an 'old enough' when it comes to discussing sex with your mom," Alex mumbled.

"Alexander." It was a warning.

He sighed. "We're being safe."

"Okay. I just want you to be careful, honey." There was really nothing else she could do, was there? If she forbade them to have sex, tried to keep them from being alone in Alex's loft, they would just find somewhere else.

"I just told you I was!"

"I mean with your heart. It's easy to get the physical stuff mixed up with the emotional stuff. I just don't want to see you get hurt." Even as she said it, Pam knew there was no other way this relationship could end except in hurt. And she had a sudden sick feeling that Alex was going to be the one left hurting.

"I'll be careful," Alex said. "I'll be fine." The ironic thing was that Pam knew he really believed that. Nothing she could say was going to make him more cautious, so she did what any mother would do-- the next best thing.

"Now," she said, leaning forward. "Let's go over the new rules."

Alex groaned.

"You're sure you mom won't be back until later?" Jake asked again. Better to be paranoid than to have to face Pam's wrath if she caught them together.

Alex smiled. "I'm absolutely positive. Now relax." They were in Alex's bedroom for a change, instead of the loft. Pam was out of town for the day, seeing about buying a horse. "Besides, it's not like she doesn't know about us," he added philosophically.

"Knowing about us and coming home to find us in bed together are two totally different categories."

"Hmmm. You're probably right," Alex said. "You should have your way with me while you can."

Jake laughed. "You're going to have to give me a few minutes before I can have my way with you again. Not all of us are sixteen."

"Pity, that." Alex turned over on his back to stare at the ceiling. "So, I was thinking of dyeing my hair. Maybe black. I could go Goth, start wearing eyeliner and black nail polish."

"As hot as you'd look in eyeliner, don't you dare dye your hair black," Jake said, rolling onto his side and tucking a pillow under his head.

"Why not? What about brown? Or I could go blond." He shook his head then. "No, I think I would be a scary blond."

"I like your hair color," Jake said, running his fingers through the hair in question.

"Really?" Alex wrinkled his nose. "But it's so red. I look like a clown or something."

"Don't be so dramatic. It isn't that bright. Besides, I have a bit of a thing for redheads."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "In general or one specifically?"

"I had one particular redhead in mind. Promise me you won't dye it."

Alex drew an 'x' over his heart with his index finger. "I could shave it all off."

Jake laughed. "You'd look ridiculous bald."

"Oh, very nice." Alex pretended to pout, turning on his side, his back facing Jake.

"What would you do with a million dollars?" Jake asked suddenly, thinking about the call he'd gotten the other day. He'd dismissed the guy as a crackpot, but he couldn't stop thinking about it.

"A million dollars?" Alex turned until he was lying on his back again. "What kind of question is that?"

Jake shrugged. "A hypothetical one. Don't you think it'd be cool to have that much money? What would you do with it? How would you spend it?"

"I don't know." Alex appeared to consider the question. "I suppose I'd invest it."

"But besides that."

"I'd go to school, to college. I'd go to a really good college and get my doctorate in medical science and then find the cure for cancer and heart disease," Alex finished in a whisper.

"'Cause of your mom?" Jake asked.

Alex just nodded.

And that was just so..."Typical." Alex looked startled, so Jake explained. "That's just such a typical Alex answer. You're so good, Alex. You're so...sweet."

Alex smirked a little at that. "I'm not that good. You'd be surprised."

"Would I?" Jake asked.

"Oh yes." Alex nodded. "You have no idea what I'm capable of."

Jake refrained from telling Alex that he sounded more 'adorable' than he did 'threatening'. He didn't quite have the heart to disillusion him.

"What would you do? If you had a million dollars."

"Hmm." Jake pretended to consider as he ran his hand down Alex's side. Alex stretched under his touch like a big cat. "I'd keep you as a pet."

Alex laughed. "A pet."

"Yep. I'd keep you locked in my bedroom and I'd never let you have any clothes. I'd hand-feed you all your meals."

"If I just spent all my time in bed, how would I keep up my girlish figure?"

Jake smiled and moved over Alex until he was settled between Alex's spread thighs. "Oh, I'm sure we could find a way to keep you in shape." Screw the guy and his million dollars.

It wasn't until much later, when Jake was hovering on the edge of sleep and he heard Alex whisper 'I love you' that he started to reconsider the offer.

"Hey, Mom. Good morning." Alex kissed his mother on the cheek as he walked into the kitchen. "Or good afternoon, I suppose. Have you seen Jake? I haven't talked to him since yesterday and I--" He stopped as he caught the expression on his mom's face. "Mom?"

"Jake left this morning, Alex."

Alex blinked, sinking into the chair next to her. "What do you mean?" Surely she couldn't mean he left left.

"He, uh...he said he had some sort of family emergency."

"Oh." Alex felt the knot in his chest loosen a little. That's why Jake hadn't said goodbye. There wasn't time in an emergency situation.

"He didn't leave a forwarding address."

Alex shut his eyes. "I'm sure he just forgot. Right? I mean, he was probably thinking about other stuff and he just forgot." The look on his mom's face pretty much told Alex what she thought the chances of that were. "He'll call, once he realizes." He shoved away from the table.

"Alex..."

"I'm going to go clean out the stalls. They aren't done, right? Because Jake is gone." Jake was gone. He wasn't supposed to be gone for another month and a half. "I'll go do that." Thankfully, his mom let him leave.

The work kept Alex's mind off of things, as much as it could. He lost himself in the strain and the flexing of his muscles and wondered whether Warrior Angel could spend years in a secret government lab being experimented on and still be good when Devilicus freed him. Wouldn't he be bitter and angry and turn evil and get his revenge on the people who had held him captive? It really came down to the question of people's true nature. Were some people born inherently good? Alex tended to doubt it, but then, Warrior Angel was from another planet. Maybe on his planet they were.

He got the stables cleaned out in record time and went back to the house to shower. Maybe Jake had called. But his mom would have come and told him, right? But maybe she was busy and had missed the call. Alex would check the answering machine.

When he went back into the kitchen, his mom was still there. "He left this for you. I didn't read it," she said as he took the folded sheet of notebook paper from her hand.

Alex willed his hands not to shake as he unfolded the letter.

*Alex, I'm so sorry.
-Jake*

Somehow he'd been expecting more. "You knew this would happen, didn't you? When you told me to be careful, you knew he'd--" Alex swallowed, unable to finish the sentence.

"I suspected something like this might happen," his mom said softly. "Not because of you, though, Alex. Just because it seems to be the nature of first loves."

"Doomed to failure?" Alex asked, a bitter smile twisting his features.

"Oh, honey." She took a step toward him and Alex took a step back.

"I'm fine." He didn't want her to know how dangerously close to tears he was. God, he was such a baby. He wasn't going to cry.

"I was going to go to the store. I could pick up some ice cream. And chocolate."

"And rent When Harry Met Sally?" Alex asked with a hint of a genuine smile. "I'm not actually a girl, you know."

His mom smiled. "Some post break-up rituals are universal."

"Yeah? So lesbians do it the same way straight girls do?"

She shrugged. "Sometimes. Sometimes we have more props."

"More...Oh my god!" Alex said with dawning horror. "I can't believe you said that!" She was laughing! Alex turned and started walking to his room, not sure whether he wanted to laugh or curl up into a traumatized ball right there in the hallway.

"Wait, Alex," his mom gasped. "I'm sorry, I--" she started laughing harder. "You should have seen the look on your face."

Alex closed his bedroom door behind him as his mom guffawed in the hallway. "I'm glad you find my pain amusing. You've scarred me for life!" A smile twitched at his lips.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," she said, still snickering.

"Leave me alone! I'm never talking to you again."

"What kind of ice cream do you want?"

"Mint chocolate chip. And get some M&M's." He paused for a moment before coming to a decision. "And could you get some black hair dye?"

Montana, 1998

"Has the mail come yet?" Alex called out as soon as he walked through the door.

"Hi, dear. I'm wonderful, how are you?"

He gave his mom a sheepish grin. "Hi, Mom. How has your day been?"

"Why, it's been just lovely." She leaned against the counter and picked up the pile of mail there. "Now, let's see. I thought there was something here for you." She made a show of flipping through the stack. "Bill, bill, junk mail..."

"You're evil, you know that, right?" Alex asked as he waited.

"Honestly, Alex. I'm not sure what you're so worked up about. It's not like there's a possibility that they aren't going to let you in." She finally pulled the large envelope out of the pile and handed it over.

Alex stared at it for a moment, licking his lips. It was true; there really wasn't a possibility that the college wouldn't accept him. Through the head start program at his high school, he had been taking classes at the community college since his junior year, which meant that in a few months he would be graduating from high school with an A.A. degree. He was also the top student at both schools.

None of that really helped with his nervousness, though. He had already been accepted by all the other colleges he'd applied to, but Metropolis University was the one he was most concerned about. He tore open the envelope, reading the first few lines at the top of the letter. "Dear Alexander M. Jenkins, Congratulations!" He smiled.

"I told you so," his mom said as she came to stand next to him. "You've made up your mind, haven't you?"

She had insisted that he apply to several different colleges and told him to make sure he considered all of his options before he made any decisions, but Alex wanted to go to Metropolis. He'd told her it was because they had a good science program, which was true. They had one of the best in the country. But it was more than that, really. Alex had been going through a restless period since...for awhile. He wanted to get away, somewhere totally different and Kansas seemed as good a place as any. It was where his parents had met. They'd been roommates.

His mom called it destiny. Alex considered it dumb luck, but maybe he was wrong. People always called it destiny when something good happened. When you found love, it was due to destiny. What was it, then, when love fucked you over and walked away without a word? Karma?

"What's the matter?" his mom asked, and Alex realized he'd been scowling.

"I was just thinking about destiny." He sighed. "I want to go to Metropolis."

"I thought so. You'll like it there." She sounded resigned.

"Mom? Are you okay?"

She nodded. "I'm just going to miss you so much. It'll be so lonely here without you."

Alex felt guilty. It wasn't his mom's fault that he felt so trapped here. It wasn't that he had an unhappy childhood or anything like that. There was just something about his life that felt...empty.

He'd dated a little after Jake left, but he'd been too wary to really get involved with anyone else. In the past couple years, he'd become something of a loner. Maybe Metropolis would change that. College was different, with all sorts of different people. Maybe he wouldn't be such a freak there.

He looked at his mom again. She looked so sad. "If you don't want me to go--"

"Alexander!" Now she looked pissed, which was better, he supposed.

"What?"

She sighed. "Of course I don't want you to go. You're my baby and if I could, I would keep you here forever. But you need to go."

There were times when Alex realized his mom understood a lot more than he gave her credit for. "I could go somewhere closer," he offered weakly.

"Honey, if Metropolis is where you really want to go, that's where you need to go. You can't--" She stopped, suddenly looking very serious. "You can't let others make your decisions for you, or influence you into doing things that you don't want to do. You're the only one who knows what is right for you and you can't let anybody else decide that, no matter what. Not even your family." She pinned him with an intense look. "Especially not your family. You can't let someone else control your life; don't fall into that trap. Do you understand?"

Alex studied her for a moment. "Are we still talking about colleges?"

She smiled then. "Just promise me you'll make your own decisions."

"I promise."

"Oh." She started flipping through the pile of mail again. "This came for you too."

Alex took the envelope she was holding and read the return address. It was from Cadmus Labs, Metropolis. He tore it open and pulled out the letter, skimming the words. Blinking, he reread, not quite believing what was written. "Oh my God."

"What is it?"

"They're offering me a scholarship." He didn't remember applying for a scholarship from Cadmus Labs. But he'd applied for quite a few scholarships, so it wasn't a surprise that he wouldn't remember. "A full ride; room and board, tuition, books and an opportunity for a paid internship upon graduation."

"Let me see that." His mom pulled the letter from his hands. "That's very generous."

"They can probably afford it. They're one of the leading companies in genetics research. They have some incredible scientists on their staff."

"Who owns it?" She looked up at him suspiciously.

"I think they're an independent company. Why?"

"Just wondering." She sounded relived. "I'm so proud of you!"

Alex smiled, curious as to what she'd been upset about. But he didn't ask. She got suspicious about the weirdest things and Alex had given up trying to work out her logic a long time ago. "Mom? I love you. You know that, right? That my wanting to leave has nothing to do with you?"

"Oh, honey." She wrapped her arms around him. "I know. I love you too. And I'm so proud of you. I know you'll do great in Metropolis. You'll love it there."

He returned the hug, swallowing past the lump in his throat. "I really hope so." It had to get better, because Alex wasn't sure how much he could handle if it got worse.

Pam sat down on the grass, the sun beating down on her back, and it seemed wrong that it should be a sunny day. Almost rude, somehow. She laughed a little then and considered that she really needed more sleep if she was starting to accuse the weather of being rude.

She studied the headstone in front of her. Lillian Eileen Jenkins, it read. Lily had legally changed her last name, saying that if her father was going to disown her, she was going to do the same thing.

"I'm back," she said quietly. "I got back last night. Alex is all moved in. I know it's only been a day but I miss him already. I keep expecting him to walk in the room and ask what we're having for dinner or tell me he's going riding." She laughed. "Listen to me, going on about him as if he's..." She trailed off, realizing the irony of saying 'as if he's dead' to a grave.

"You should have seen him there; he took to it like a fish to water." She closed her eyes, picturing his face as they walked around campus. It had been a long time since Alex had looked that excited about anything, since he had looked so carefree.

"He still has the black hair, but I think the look is starting to grow on me. It'll help him fit in there, anyway. You should see some of those kids. I'm afraid he's going to come home with all sorts of piercings and tattoos." Alex had joked about getting an eyebrow piercing. Pam had let him know, in no uncertain terms, what she thought about that idea.

"I met his roommate, Seth. He seems like a nice boy. He's a junior too, but he's twenty, so maybe he'll help Alex adjust, show him around. He was very friendly." A pretty boy with brown hair and green eyes that watched Alex with a little too much interest in Pam's opinion. She hoped he wasn't too friendly.

"Anyway, I think he'll do fine there. He seemed to love Metropolis. It's a big city." It was a huge city. The chances of him running into anyone were small. He would mostly be on campus anyway. It was a big city. He would be safe. This was becoming Pam's mantra.

"I couldn't tell him, Lily. I tried to, but I couldn't get the words out. God, I'm such a coward." They had lied to him before. It had been a joint decision and when Alex was little and asked about his father, they had told him that he was special because he was theirs; that he didn't have a father to speak of. When he got a little older, he'd asked Pam if it had been a sperm donor. To her everlasting shame, she had said yes. That had been the end of the subject and since it hadn't ever seemed to bother him, she hadn't tried to bring it up again until he told her he wanted to go to school in Metropolis.

"I'm sure it will be fine. I mean, if Lionel were interested in him, he would have done something before now, right? He would have made his move when you died, since I'm not..." Alex's real mother. She'd researched Cadmus Labs after Alex had gotten the scholarship. She couldn't find any connection between that company and LuthorCorp, but that didn't prove anything except that the connection wasn't a public one. The degree to which Lionel Luthor couldn't be trusted was extreme. "I'm sure it will be fine," she repeated. "It's a big city." God, don't let anything happen to my baby, she prayed.

Metropolis, 1999

"Fuck!" Alex cried out as he bucked his hips, coming so hard that he almost blacked out. College rocked.

"Do you know how fucking hot you are when you come?"

Alex just laughed as Seth crawled up his body. Seth's lips were red and swollen, wet and shiny. It was a good look on him. "God, that was..." Good. Really good. Fucking amazing. Alex was having trouble deciding on an appropriate description.

"I'll take that as a compliment," Seth said.

"Oh, you really should," Alex assured him, closing his eyes. Seth was great. He was funny and charming and friendly and an extremely talented fuck. Alex had been a little reluctant to start any sort of physical relationship with someone he was living with, but Seth had been very...persuasive. He had explained that it would be totally casual, that it was the beauty of having a fuck buddy. Several months later, Alex was willing to admit when he was wrong. Seth was brilliant.

"You know what I was thinking?" Seth asked as he kissed Alex's neck.

"Not a clue," Alex said happily. Thinking wasn't high on his list of priorities at the moment.

"I was thinking that maybe we could make our arrangement more, um, exclusive."

Alex opened his eyes to stare at the ceiling. "What do you mean by exclusive?" It wasn't like Alex was seeing anybody. He didn't really date, which was how the whole fuck buddy thing had come about in the first place. Seth knew that, so why would he bring something like this up?

"I mean exclusive, as in us not sleeping with anyone but each other."

"Sleeping with?" Alex pushed Seth off and stood up, grabbing his pants off the floor. "I'm not sleeping with anyone else. I'm not even sleeping with you." It had been one of the things they agreed upon straight off. They both slept in their own beds, always.

"Well, yeah. That would be another little difference," Seth said, rolling on his side to watch Alex. "Maybe we could start. Sleeping together, that is. And do other stuff. Together."

"You want to start dating?" Alex asked flatly.

Seth shrugged. "Yeah, why not? We get along. I like you, Alex."

"I like you too, but that's not the point. I already told you that I don't really date."

"Right." Seth stood up and put his pants on too, which meant this was going to be a discussion. "But see, that's kind of bullshit, so you're going to have to think of something better."

Alex blinked at him. "Bullshit? It's not bullshit. I'm just not interested in having a relationship with anybody right now. I told you that before. It's not worth the hassle."

"I'm not him."

"Him?" Alex froze. "Who's him?"

"The guy who made you so fucking scared of relationships," Seth said softly.

"I'm not scared of relationships," Alex told him. "It has nothing to do with--I'm not scared."

"Right, which is why the suggestion that you date someone you've been fucking for the past four months has you nearly pissing your pants." He stopped, tilting his head a little. "I wouldn't hurt you."

Alex crossed his arms. "You're wrong. About the guy, that is. I'm not the poor victim of some huge trauma or whatever, if that's what you're thinking."

"What happened, then?" Seth asked, walking towards him a little. "There is someone, or was, anyway."

"It was nothing." Alex shrugged. "I was young and I made some mistakes. It's not a big deal."

"Mistakes? What kind of mistakes?"

I got too involved. "I really don't see how it's relevant. The point is that I'm not really into the whole relationship thing. It doesn't work for me."

Seth stepped closer and Alex had to resist the urge to take a step back. "And my point is that's not true. I know you, Alex. You're not the casual fuck kind of guy."

Alex bristled. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that you're pretty amazing." Seth was really close now. Alex itched to move, to get away. He needed some distance. "You're smart, funny, gorgeous..." He reached out to cup the back of Alex's neck. "Give me a chance," Seth whispered.

"I can't." He shook his head. "This is all there is. Please don't ask for more, I can't give it."

Seth swallowed and looked away. "That's not true either. You can give more, you're too passionate not to...if it's the right person." He laughed a little. "I'm not him. That's the problem, isn't it?"

"I'm not still in love with him, Seth."

"Yeah, Alex. You really are." Seth finished getting dressed and then grabbed his backpack. "I'm going to go to the library and study. I'll catch you later." The door shut quietly behind him.

"Fuck!" Alex looked around for something to throw. When he couldn't find anything, he kicked a pile of clothes. "Fuck!" he yelled again for good measure.

He pulled on a shirt and put on a pair of shoes. "I knew it. I fucking knew it! 'Oh no, it'll be casual, Alex. Fuck buddies are great! No strings attached.'" Locating his keys, he pulled on his jacket and shoved them in his pocket.

"I'm never listening to you again," he told his dick.

The wind was cold as he walked out of the building. Alex really didn't have a destination in mind; he just needed to get out of the room. Checking his wallet to see if he had money, he decided to head over to the student union for some coffee.

"Fuck," he repeated under his breath, as it seemed to adequately sum up the situation. Things were really going to suck now. Living with Seth had just become extremely awkward. "Rule number one; don't fuck your roommate." Could his day get any worse?

Over time, Alex had learned not to ask that question because the universe seemed to take it as some sort of challenge, even if you didn't say it out loud. The girl would have to be carrying coffee.

"Fuck," he said again, and wouldn't his mother be pleased at his new vocabulary? The hot coffee seeped through his clothes, burning his skin. Alex was going to cry. He was going to embarrass himself and have a nervous breakdown in front of the pretty girl who had just spilled coffee all over him. He mentally flipped off the universe.

"Oh, god! I'm so sorry," the girl said. "Shit. I barely got to drink any of that!"

Alex blinked at her. How was he supposed to respond to that? "Yeah, I know that was my main concern."

"Dammit, I'm sorry. Let me buy you a drink or something." She stopped to look at him, taking in his outfit with a raised eyebrow. "Or maybe let me buy you some new pants. You're not from around here are you?"

Alex was pretty sure he'd just been insulted. He started to laugh.

"What?" the girl asked, the corner of her mouth twitching.

"Well, most people would be apologetic for giving a guy third degree burns. You took the opportunity to insult my fashion sense."

"Or lack thereof."

"It's refreshing, really. I'm always looking for people who know of fun new ways to kick me when I'm down. Especially when they're wearing such fabulous shoes. I'm Alex."

She smiled. "I'm Lois. And I really am sorry. Let me make it up to you. Coffee?"

"Sure. Um." He looked down at his clothes. "You mind accompanying me to my dorm so I can change? Maybe you could even keep me from publicly humiliating myself with whatever I pick out."

Lois laughed. "Sure, sounds like a plan."

Alex contemplated the ringing phone for a moment before picking it up. "Hello?"

"I'm bored. Entertain me."

Alex sighed into the phone. "Hi, Lois. I'm fine, and how are you?"

"I just told you, bored."

"Don't you have a story to work on or something? Some horrible injustice being committed somewhere that should be brought to light?" Alex asked as he picked up the remote again, idly flipping through the TV channels.

"Paper's put to bed for the week and it's the last issue before spring break. I'm done with all my final projects and I'm sure you are too, so come over."

"You're a bossy bit of goods, you know that, right?"

Lois laughed. "C'mon. We'll have a sleepover. Please don't make me whine, Alex. It's not dignified."

"How do you know I'm not already doing something? It's a Friday night. I could have someone over," Alex said, pausing for a moment on the cooking channel. That food looked really good.

"Well, I'd ask if you were about to get laid, but I figure you've got the remote in one hand and you're holding the phone with the other, so I'm guessing that's a no."

Alex set the remote down and glared at the TV, wishing that Lois were there to be appropriately intimidated by the look. "Why am I friends with you again?"

"Because I saved you from the flannel," she said. "Besides, you should be flattered. I don't hag for just anyone."

"Is 'hag' a verb?"

"It is now."

"Good to know."

"Come over! I'll even come pick you up so you don't have to walk. I have to stop at the store anyway."

Alex could hear her keys jingling, startled when he heard keys jingling behind him too. "Sounds like Seth is home," he said.

"Who does he have with him this time?" Lois asked.

"We'll find out in a second." He turned to watch Seth walk in the door, his arm wrapped around the waist of a very pretty guy with dark blond hair and blue eyes.

"Hey, Alex. This is Josh," Seth said.

"Josh." Alex nodded in greeting as he answered Lois' question. Ever since he and Seth had their falling out a couple months ago, Seth had been bringing home different guys on a regular basis. Alex wasn't sure whether to feel guilty or jealous or insulted. He settled for a combination of all three. "How soon can you be here?" he asked into the phone.

"Gimme five minutes. Be in front of the building," Lois ordered before hanging up the phone without saying goodbye. Alex hoped she either developed better manners or found a partner with some when she became a real journalist. Otherwise she'd just end up alienating a lot of sources. He took a moment to pity the poor sucker that might have to work with her in the future.

"I'm going over to Lois', so you'll have the place to yourselves," Alex said as he shoved some clothes and bathroom stuff into his backpack. "See you later." He grabbed his wallet and keys, stuffing them into his jacket and then picked up his shoes, padding down to the lobby in his socks.

The lobby was empty as he sat down to pull on his boots, black Doc Martens that Lois had convinced him to get. In fact, over the past few months, his wardrobe had slowly transformed from the stuff he'd brought from home to the clothes that Lois had made him buy. Most of his old clothes were stuffed in a box in the back of his closet.

He stood up, shouldering his backpack and walked outside. The weather was still on the chilly side, causing Alex to pull his jacket a little tighter around his body. He hoped that Lois got there soon.

"Hey, sexy. Lookin' for a ride?"

Alex walked over to the car, bending to rest his arms in the open window. "How much money you got?"

"What are you asking?"

He laughed. "You couldn't afford me."

"Probably not." Lois smiled. "Are you getting in or what?"

"Yeah, yeah." Alex opened the door and threw his backpack into the backseat before sliding in the car and rolling up the window. "What are we picking up at the store?"

"Smokes and coffee." Lois glanced over at him, running one of her hands through his hair. "Your roots are showing. We can get some dye too if you want."

"Yeah, I've been meaning to do that, actually. And smoking is a filthy habit, you know," he said more out of habit than because he thought it would do any good.

Lois just rolled her eyes.

"So what number guy is this?" Lois asked as she stood behind Alex and toweled his hair dry. He was sitting on a chair in the bathroom facing the mirror, making faces at himself.

He just shrugged. "I've lost count, I think."

"And it doesn't bother you at all?"

"We weren't that serious."

Lois bit her lip and refrained from pursuing her line of questioning. She'd already tried a number of times before to no avail. When Alex didn't want to talk about something, that was pretty much it. It was a fact that bugged Lois to no end. "You should get a tattoo," she said instead.

"You're joking, right?"

"No. You should get one of those armbands. You have the arms for it."

Alex raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Like a barbed wire?"

Lois snorted. "No, like a Celtic knot or something. It'd be hot."

"I'm not getting a tattoo."

"Well, what about a piercing?" She studied his reflection for a moment. "Oh! You could get your nipples pierced!"

Alex blinked at her several times. "What?"

"Yes!" She clapped her hands. "Let's get your nipples pierced! You have nice nipples. It'd be great!"

"When have you seen my nipples?" Alex looked indignant. "I'm not getting anything tattooed or pierced."

"Why not?" Lois pouted a little. Part of her viewed Alex as a big plaything for her to dress and decorate as she wanted. It annoyed her when her plaything resisted. "It would be sexy," she insisted.

"Have I done something to offend you?" Alex turned to look at her. "Something that makes you want to inflict physical pain on me with the use of needles in their various forms? Maybe I shouldn't be sleeping here. You don't have a knife hiding under your pillow or anything, do you?"

"If I did I wouldn't tell you," Lois said as she walked back into her bedroom and flopped on the bed. "What are we watching now?"

Alex stretched out next to her. "Something. What's on the Cartoon Network?" he asked around a huge yawn.

She shrugged. "We could just go to bed. Are you sleeping in here?"

"I don't know; will you molest me during the night if I do?"

Lois waggled her eyebrows. "I'll try and keep my hands to myself," she said as she crawled under the covers.

"See that you do." Alex drew a line down the center of the double bed with his finger. "This is my side."

"Yeah, yeah," Lois said as she curled up against his side. She loved their friendship, how comfortable they were with each other. "I was thinking."

"That scares me a little."

"Maybe we should live together next year. I mean, you're not going to live with Seth again, right? We could get a really cheap apartment downtown and hang posters of half-naked men everywhere." She paused. "Unless you have other plans already."

Alex kissed the top of her head. "Frighteningly enough, that sounds like a good idea." He laughed. "Let's do it!"

Metropolis, 2000

Lois considered that first cup of coffee in the morning to be quite possibly the best part of her day. Alex said that she had a relationship with coffee that bordered on inappropriate at times, but Lois suspected that he was just jealous because he wasn't able to appreciate it like she did.

She took a sip that was close to scalding, closing her eyes as the knot of heat settled in her stomach and then spread through her chest, warming her from the inside out. Setting the mug down on the counter, she dug her Camel Lights out of her purse and then dug around for her lighter. Finally locating it, she slipped out of the apartment.

It was a nice morning, due to this year's unusually warm spring, which Lois appreciated since Alex wouldn't let her smoke in the apartment. Winter mornings had been a real bitch. She sat down on the steps and cupped one hand around the end of her cigarette, flicking her lighter with the other. If there were one thing better than the first cup of coffee in the morning, it would be that first smoke.

Stimulants raced through her veins with their usual vigor, making her skin tingle. The nicotine worked with the caffeine in a team effort to wake her up, and Lois appreciated that.

"That's a filthy habit, you know."

Lois looked up, using one hand to shield her eyes from the sun as she took another drag and tried to figure out how she knew the guy in front of her. When she finally recognized him, she almost dropped her cigarette. "Jake!" She stood up to hug him, but he shied away.

"Not while you're holding that. I'd rather not be set on fire today." He grinned. "For a minute there, I thought you'd forgotten me completely."

She decided not to take offense, since she really hadn't recognized him. "What are you doing here? Not that I'm not glad to see you."

"I was in Smallville for the week, actually. Uncle Gabe had to go out of town on some business, so he asked me if I could stay with Chloe while he was gone." He shrugged. "Since I had to come through Metropolis anyway, I thought I'd look you up."

"That's great!" She flicked the filtered end of her cigarette with her recently manicured thumbnail. "Wow, it's been awhile. You look good."

Jake, like the rest of Lois' cousins on her mother's side, had inherited the golden Sullivan good looks. He was tan and blond and gorgeous. For years Lois had resented that side of her family for being so beautiful in contrast to her own dark coloring, but now she was glad she looked like a Lane. Who would take a blonde reporter seriously?

"You're looking pretty good yourself," he said.

She snorted. "You're just lucky you caught me post-coffee. How did you know where I lived?" Even though there was a fairly sizable gap in their ages, Lois and Jake had always gotten along. At Sullivan family reunions, they used to scope out hiding places together and then play cards the entire night.

"Uncle Gabe had your address. He said you'd shacked up with some guy." Jake waggled his eyebrows.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Yes, well, not quite. I can't wait for you to meet him, though. You'll love him."

They had been close as kids, but once Jake got older, he grew restless and started travelling more. He was something of a nomad now, finding odd jobs where he could. They hadn't actually seen each other in years, but Jake wrote her on a semi-regular basis, long letters about philosophy and whatever part of the country he was in. Despite the time that had passed since the last time she'd seen him, it was easy to fall back into their usual banter.

"So, what's the deal then if it's 'not quite' a shack-up?"

Otherwise, she wouldn't have let him get away with questions like that. "He's a friend."

"Nothing romantic?"

Lois took one last drag of her cigarette before grinding it out on the sidewalk and fixing Jake with an indignant look. "What is this, twenty questions? He's gay."

"Really?" Jake looked far too interested at that. "So, is he hot?"

"Yes, and don't even think about it," Lois warned him.

"What?"

"You are not to proposition my roommate in any way, shape or form. Besides, he doesn't date."

Jake shrugged. "So are you seeing anybody else, then?"

"Do you have some sort of vested interest in my love life all of the sudden?"

He laughed. "You never mention anything about it in your letters. I just figured you'd grown up to be horribly ugly. Since you're not, I was wondering what the deal was."

"I don't really have time for a boyfriend." Lois wrinkled her nose. "They're so much work."

"But you have time for gay roommates."

"I'm not even going to pretend to understand how that makes sense in your head."

"Well, you have time for friends," Jake said. "Why not a boyfriend?"

"They're two completely different things. If you actually ever had boyfriends, you would know that."

Jake frowned. "I think I should be insulted by that. But please, enlighten me."

"Boyfriends are like puppies," Lois said, pausing for a moment to work out the comparison in her head. "You have to feed them, bathe them, walk them, play with them constantly and shower them with attention or else they end up peeing on your carpet and chewing up your brand new shoes that you spent over a hundred and fifty dollars on."

Jake tilted his head. "What kind of guys have you been dating?"

Lois decided not to dignify that, but considered the possibility that she may have gotten carried away with her analogy. "Come inside. Do you have a place to stay or were you planning on crashing here?"

"Here, if that's okay. Otherwise I can find a motel or something."

"Don't be ridiculous, of course you can stay here." She opened the apartment door and led Jake down the tiny hallway to the equally tiny kitchen where Alex was bent over, half-inside the refrigerator. She saw Jake checking out Alex's ass and shot him a warning look.

He mouthed the word 'nice' to her in response.

"What are you looking for?" she asked.

Alex turned around, casting a confused look at the fridge before straightening up completely. "I'm looking for the--" He stopped, the color draining out of his face as he stared at her cousin.

"Alex?" Lois asked, a little concerned.

"Um." He blinked, turning to face her. "I was looking for the...orange juice. Are we out?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm sorry. I'll get some from the store later." She looked back at Jake, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I wanted you to meet my cousin," she said slowly.

"Jake," Alex said with a sharp smile. "It's been awhile. How are you?"

"I...Hey, Alex."

Lois stood back a little, studying the two of them. "So, you two know each other?"

Jake opened his mouth to speak, but Alex beat him to it. "Yeah. Jake used to work summers at our family ranch when I was a kid. That was a while ago, though."

Oh, God. Lois looked back and forth between the two men. Please, please, please tell me you didn't fuck my best friend, Jake, she thought a little desperately.

Alex glanced at the clock. "Don't you have to catch the bus, Lois?"

"Shit." He was right; she couldn't miss her reporting class today. But she couldn't just leave them alone together when there was obviously some sort of history there. She gave Alex a worried 'what do you want me to do?' look.

"Don't forget to pick up some juice on the way home, or I won't let you back into the apartment," he said with an 'it'll be okay,' half-smile.

"Okay," she said. "I won't forget." Are you sure?

Positive. "I'll see you later then." He handed her backpack to her. "Stay out of trouble."

"You too," she said with one last worried glance between Jake and Alex. Jake looked incredibly guilty and Lois was almost positive no good was going to come of this.

The door shut behind Lois and for a moment, Alex wanted to call her back, to tell her to take Jake with her, keep him away from Alex, but he couldn't force the words past his throat. He was an adult; he could handle this. He didn't need Lois to come back and protect him from her big, bad cousin, who still looked really good, damn him.

"You dyed your hair," Jake said. "I, um...I didn't know you were in Kansas."

Alex raised an eyebrow coldly. "Is there any reason you would have?"

Jake frowned a little. "Yeah, I guess not. I'm glad you're here, though. I wanted to talk to you."

"And what makes you think I want to talk to you?" Alex asked.

"Alex..." There was a pleading note in Jake's voice.

"It's been four years," Alex said, his words tight, clipped. "What could you possibly have to say to me?"

"I'm so sorry, Alex. I wanted to tell you that."

Alex laughed. "Actually, Jake, I think you covered that much in your letter." He crossed his arms and waited. "Was that all, then? You're sorry?"

"I didn't mean to hurt you. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't have left," Jake said miserably. "I never wanted to hurt you."

"Yeah, well we all have our burdens to bear."

Jake looked startled at that, which made Alex smile a little.

"If you're looking for absolution, you're going to be waiting a long time," Alex said. "Talk to me in another four years, maybe." He turned to walk away, a strategic retreat to his bedroom. A hand on his arm stopped him.

"Let me try and make it up to you."

"Fuck you, Jake," Alex whispered, just before Jake's lips met his in a bruising kiss. Alex reached up, twisting his fingers in Jake's hair, tugging with more force that was strictly necessary

Fuck you for leaving, he thought as he bit at Jake's lip, licking away the coppery taste of blood with a perverse sense of satisfaction.

Fuck you for coming back. They bumped into the wall as they stumbled back towards Alex's bedroom, Alex almost tripping on the shirt he had just stripped off.

Fuck you for not letting me hate you. They landed on his bed with a bounce.

"Alex," Jake started, but Alex cut him off.

"Don't talk." Fuck you for making me still want this.

Alex moved over him, straddling his hips and Jake groaned as Alex rubbed against his cock. "God, Alex, I--"

"Shut up," Alex growled as he leaned in, biting Jake's lip hard. "I told you not to talk." He licked a wet line down Jake's jaw, before stopping to whisper in Jake's ear. "I get to fuck you now. That's fair, don't you think?"

Jake could only nod as he licked a drop of blood from his lip. This wasn't the Alex he had left. It was a colder, sharper version of the boy he'd known and something in the back of Jake's mind was whispering that he had only himself to blame for that. "Maybe we shouldn't be doing this," he whispered, even as he thrust into the hand that was now stroking his cock through his pants.

"Come on, now, Jake. When has that ever stopped you before?"

Alex jumped off the bed abruptly, and for a moment Jake thought that Alex had changed his mind.

"Take off your pants," Alex said as he started to undo his own.

It was only when his pants were halfway off that Jake realized how ridiculously quick he'd been to obey the command. He didn't have time to dwell on the thought, however, as he turned to watch Alex roll on a condom and grab the bottle of lube.

Alex crawled back on the bed; tugging Jake's pants the rest of the way off and tossing them aside. "Lay back," he said softly. He must have sensed some of Jake's reluctance. "You trust me, don't you?" he asked with an over-bright smile. "I would never hurt you, baby."

Jake closed his eyes as he lay back on the bed, trusting that no matter how cruel or mocking Alex sounded; it was still Alex. He would never physically hurt Jake. Still, he was surprised when he felt the light touch of Alex's lubed finger at his entrance. He'd honestly expected Alex to skip any preparation. Alex must have sensed that too, because he chuckled softly.

"You didn't believe me, did you?" he asked as he slid one finger in, and then another, scissoring them slowly. "Well, believe me when I say that I want you to enjoy this."

Jake watched as Alex pulled his fingers out and squeezed more lube into his hand, taking his time to thoroughly coat his cock before he moved back over Jake's body, wiping his hand on the sheets. Jake spread his legs wider as Alex pressed into him, unable to suppress a groan of satisfaction as he was slowly filled.

"God," Alex whispered, his eyes falling closed as he pulled out and then thrust back in. Jake wrapped his legs around Alex's waist as he began to move. He tried pulling Alex into a kiss, but Alex turned his head, burying his face against Jake's neck, his thrusts becoming more forceful.

Jake arched his back, changing the angle of his hips until Alex was brushing against his prostate with every thrust. He reached between their bodies to stroke his cock, already so close to the edge. "Alex," he whispered as his hand moved faster. "God, please..." he gasped, surprised as his climax overtook him.

"Fuck!" Alex groaned, his muscles tensing as he slammed into Jake's body and then collapsed, his breath coming in hot bursts against Jake's neck.

What the hell was I thinking, giving this up? Jake wondered as he wrapped his arms around Alex, lightly caressing his back. Even like this; hurt, angry sex, it was better than anyone else Jake had ever been with. Jake wanted to make up for being such an asshole, if Alex would allow it.

But before he could think of something to say, Alex struggled out of his embrace and stood up, walking out of the room without looking at Jake at all. A minute later, Jake heard the shower running. He closed his eyes and tried to think of the best way to show Alex that he was sincere in his desire to make things right.

Jake must have dozed off, because when he opened his eyes again, Alex was fully dressed, shoving some books into his backpack. "Hey," he said, frowning as Alex jumped at the sound. From Alex's expression, Jake guessed that he wasn't going to get the chance to make things better. If anything, he was only making it worse by staying there.

"I have to go. To the library. To study." Alex wasn't looking at him at all. "There are clean towels in the closet next to the bathroom if you want to take a shower." He turned to leave the room and then paused. "Tell Lois that I'm going to be staying with a friend for a few days."

"That won't be necessary. I'll leave," Jake said. "Tell me, though, do you feel better now? Vindicated?"

Alex stiffened for a moment and then relaxed, turning around. "No," he said finally with a ghost of a smile. "I really thought I would."

Jake laughed a little. "I really fucked up with you, didn't I?" He got no answer. "I swear, though, I never meant to-- I don't want you to hate me, Alex," he finished lamely. He deserved to be hated, recognized for the slimy bastard he really was.

"Jake." Alex sighed, tilting his head back a little. "I don't hate you. That's part of the problem." He shouldered his backpack and turned to go. "Lock the door on your way out," he said over his shoulder, and then he was gone.

"Jake's gone," Lois said the moment Alex walked into the apartment.

He nodded, not really surprised by the statement, although part of him had hoped that Jake would have the guts to stick around this time. "Yeah, I figured. Did he leave a note?" He tossed his backpack on the ground. "He's good at that."

"Do you hate me now?" Lois asked as Alex slumped down in the nearest chair.

He looked up, startled. "What kind of question is that? Why in the world would I hate you?"

"Because my cousin's a dick," she said. "I swear, I had no idea. I would never have let him into the apartment."

"Come here," he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her onto his lap. "Do you even know what happened?" he asked, wrapping his arms around her waist. She was such a tiny little thing; people were always surprised by how ferocious a reporter she could be.

"No," she admitted, resting her chin on the top of his head. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not really. Not at the moment, anyway," he said. "And I don't hate you. Don't be dumb. You aren't responsible for his actions just because you have a few genes in common."

"I'll shoot him for you, if you want," Lois offered.

"I don't think I have enough money to bail you out of jail for premeditated murder," Alex said.

"I didn't say I'd kill him."

Alex laughed. "Oh, so we're only going 'to the pain' then?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, I think I have the money for that."

"Good. Men suck."

"And rarely in the way you want them to." Alex was tired, bone weary, and he still had to change his sheets before he went to bed.

"Yeah. I was looking into becoming a lesbian," Lois said conversationally.

"Oh? I hear they've updated their starter package."

"As well as their membership benefits, but it's still not enough for me to sign up." She sighed dramatically. "Still missing that certain something."

"Cock?" Alex asked.

"Yep."

"Yeah, that's why I'm not a lesbian either."

"Do you want to sleep in my room tonight?"

Alex was sure there would be a point sometime in the future when Lois' intuition would stop surprising him. It would make her into one of the world's best reporters, one day. "Can I?"

"No, I just like making arbitrary offers that I don't intend to follow through on."

"I love you," Alex said, squeezing her a little.

Lois kissed the top of his head softly. "I love you too."

Part Two

Metropolis, 2001

"You're sending me where?" Lucas was positive he'd heard his father wrong.

"Plant Number Three," his dad repeated calmly. "Think of it as an internship of sorts. A chance to prove yourself."

"You're sending me to the shit factory so I can prove myself." That was so fucked up. "It's in Smallville."

"Your grasp of the obvious has always been exceptional, Lucas, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to require more than that in my successor."

"But!" Lucas stood up, frustrated. "There's nothing to do in Smallville!"

His dad leaned back in his chair, looking far too pleased with himself. "That's part of the location's charm. Maybe you'll be able to stay out of trouble there."

There was no way he was going. Lucas made a last ditch effort. "Shouldn't I be going to college now? Shouldn't the Luthor heir have an education?" Ha! Tell me I'm wrong, he thought triumphantly.

"Eventually, yes. However, I don't feel you're mature enough for college at the moment and I refuse to waste any more money on your indiscretions. When I feel you are able to handle the responsibility, you'll go to college." His father leaned forward. "Until then, you're going to Smallville."

Well, fuck. "Am I going to be in charge of the plant?" he asked hopefully. Maybe if he ran it into the ground...

"Don't be ridiculous, Lucas. If you're not responsible enough for school, what makes you think that I'd put you in charge of the plant? I want you to observe and learn something. You're almost eighteen; I expect more out of you than what I've seen so far."

Before Lucas could answer, the door to the office opened and in walked his stepmother. She spared a moment to sneer at Lucas before turning to his father. "We have to be going soon, Lionel."

An annoyed look crossed his father's face. "I'll be done in a moment, Lauren." He waited until she left to speak again. "Pack your things. You're expected at the plant tomorrow afternoon."

Lucas sighed. "Look, if this is about that girl, I swear she was already--"

"Enough! I advise you to take this situation very seriously. I won't tolerate any more screw-ups from you."

Lucas knew that, despite what he said, Lionel Luthor wanted to keep his company in the family. Otherwise, he wouldn't have wasted the time or money raising his bastard. Lucas' stepmother had never let him forget his place. All of which meant that Lucas never took threats of disinheritance too seriously. He knew he had lost, but he couldn't resist one last comment. "Or what? You'll replace me?"

"That will be all, Lucas."

The look on his father's face gave Lucas pause. He shook his head, dismissing his sudden paranoia. There wasn't another Luthor heir.

Smallville

I will go in this way
And find my own way out

Clark leaned against the guardrail, studying the water as he replayed the morning's incident in his mind. Could he have made any more of an ass of himself?

It wasn't like he expected Lana to think he was cool or anything. Clark knew he was pretty much a loser, but did he have to reinforce that fact at every given opportunity?

The fact that Whitney was so freaking perfect didn't really help things much. He just stood there, looking like some blond Adonis in his lettermen's jacket with his broad shoulders and perfect smile. "Who do you have a crush on again, Kent?" he asked himself miserably.

Clark felt like there was a part of the picture that he was missing, some cosmic puzzle piece being hidden from him that would bring everything to focus. Instead, he spent most of his life feeling out of sorts with the world around him, an impending sense of something always pressing down on him. His dad said it was destiny, but Clark didn't want destiny. He just wanted to be normal, to be able to talk to the girl he liked without having a total meltdown.

What was it about Lana that made him act like such a jackass, anyway?

He sighed and was about to leave when he heard the squeal of tires. He looked down the road to see a truck coming and behind it a red sports car. And then everything seemed to happen at once.

The sports car moved into the other lane to pass the truck. When the two vehicles were almost even, a bale of wire broke off, falling off the truck onto the hood of the car. The car swerved, fishtailing as the driver tried to regain control. It hit the guardrail on the bridge, sparking along until it drove off the side of the road, smashing into a tree.

"Shit!" Clark ran over to the car, wrenching open the door. The driver was out cold, blood trickling down his forehead. Clark wasn't sure whether to move him or not, but there was something leaking, and he was almost sure there was still a risk of the car exploding.

He unbuckled the seatbelt and pulled the man from the car, surprised to find that the driver didn't actually look that much older than Clark. "C'mon, buddy," he said as he picked the guy up. He was halfway to where the truck had pulled over, careful not to go too fast, when the deafening 'boom' caught up with him.

The impact threw him to the ground, almost like being shoved from behind. He instinctively covered the other man's body with his own as heat washed over his back.

"Oh my god, kid! Are you alright?"

Clark looked up into the concerned face of the truck driver. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine, but we need to get him to the hospital," he said as he rolled off the body underneath him.

"I'll be damned," the truck driver said. "I coulda sworn that fireball had you."

"That's impossible," Clark said, even as he felt the wind hit his skin, bare where his shirt had burned away. "If it had, I'd be dead."

"Where is he?" Jonathan asked a split second before he spotted his son, wrapped in a red blanket, talking to a couple of paramedics. "Clark!"

Clark turned to him, a look of utter relief spreading over his features.

Jonathan took a moment to observe the state of things around him. The smoldering wreckage of a car on one side and a truck pulled over further up the road. Clark's face was smeared with dirt and soot. "What happened?"

"A car wreck, sir," one of the paramedics said, as if that much weren't obvious. "Your son saved the driver of the car. The truck driver wasn't hurt."

Jonathan looked over to where the man who he assumed had been driving the truck was talking to the police, explaining his story with emphatic gestures. He turned back to Clark. "And you're okay?" he asked, searching for signs of injury, although he knew there wouldn't be any.

Clark nodded, but it was the paramedic who spoke again. "Truck driver swears that he was caught in the explosion. But..." The guy smiled. "It's pretty obvious that's not true. People go into shock in these situations sometimes; imagine all sorts of things." He turned to Clark. "I still think it'd be best if you went to the hospital and got checked out, just in case."

"I'm fine," Clark said, pulling the blanket a little tighter.

"I'm sure he just needs some rest," Jonathan said, placing a hand on Clark's shoulder. "Thank you for your help." They turned to leave, but Jonathan paused, turning back to ask one last question. "By the way, who was driving the car?"

"I can't believe you weren't hurt," his mom said, setting a mug of hot chocolate in front of him before sitting down in the seat next to him.

"Can't you?" Clark asked, looking from his mom to his dad and back a little desperately. "I mean, is it really a surprise?" He'd been replaying the incident in his mind over and over again, searching for an explanation but, like everything else in his life, there was none. "We were caught in the explosion," he said quietly.

"Oh, honey, I'm sure that you're just--"

"Don't!" He cut his mom off. "Don't try and dismiss this. I'm not stupid. I know what happened."

"Why don't you tell us what happened then, son," his dad said.

Clark had the feeling he was being humored. "I could feel it. Like someone...like I was being..." He sighed. "We were knocked to the ground and I could feel it, the heat of the fire. It didn't burn, but it was hot. And there were pieces of metal and stuff hitting my back, but none of it hurt." He fought to keep his rising hysteria at bay. "Stuff like that is supposed to hurt! What's wrong with me?"

He watched his mom look at his dad. Clark had no idea what the silent question she was asking was, but his dad's answering 'no' was pretty obvious.

"Son, sometimes you just have to have faith that things happen for a reason," his dad said.

Over the past few years, Clark had been getting steadily stronger and faster and now, evidently, he was fireproof. He had the feeling his parents knew more than what they were telling him. "That answer is going to stop being good enough soon, Dad" he warned quietly. He didn't press things, though; he'd been through enough for one day.

"Two people could have been killed by your recklessness, Lucas." His father stood at the end of the hospital bed, glowering. "Do you know what a public relations nightmare that would have been?"

"Yeah," Lucas closed his eyes. "Vehicular homicide is always tough to spin, isn't it?"

"This isn't a joke!"

Lucas opened his eyes again as his father's fist slammed down on the table by the bed. It seemed like he was really pissed this time. "It's not like I did it on purpose, Dad. I'll make it right."

His father snorted. "I'd like to know how you propose to do that. You're lucky the boy who saved you wasn't hurt."

"As touching as your fatherly concern is, I'm fine." Lucas winced as he sat up. "And I'm the only one who was really hurt, so you can just go on back to Metropolis. I'll take care of things in Smallville. I mean, that's why you sent me here, right? So I could learn to be responsible?" After all, Lionel had already banished him to Smallville. What more was he going to do?

"Know this, Lucas. If you screw this up, I'm not bailing you out." With that, his father turned and left the room.

Lucas picked up the phone next to his bed and dialed the assistant his father had assigned him when he'd been banished to the shit factory. "What kind of cars do the hicks around here drive, anyway?"

Clark took a deep, steadying breath as he turned on the hand-held blowtorch. He'd started with matches and worked his way up. Holding his hand up in front of him, Clark ran the blue flame across his knuckles quickly and then again more slowly. Heat, a little tingly, but not painful. It was an almost pleasant sensation, actually.

Frowning, Clark ran the flame slowly up his forearm and back down, across the skin on the inside of his wrist and nothing. There was no pain at all; not that Clark had really expected any. The hair on his arm wasn't even singed.

The sound of a car pulling into the driveway distracted him from his thoughts. He sighed and turned off the blowtorch. He wondered who was visiting, but wasn't too worried that it was someone for him. Being almost a year older than everyone in his class, Clark was the only one of his friends who had a license already.

Taking out his notebook, Clark wrote down his notes from the experiment. The notebook was something he'd been keeping since he started middle school, when his 'gifts' had started to develop more rapidly. Part of him hoped that if he kept a good enough documentation of things, he could eventually figure out what was wrong with him. Another part of him thought it was just a spectacularly organized waste of time.

After rereading what he'd written, Clark tucked the notebook back into its hiding place behind a loose board in the wall of the loft. It wasn't that he really wanted to hide it from his parents; they knew about his gifts. It just wasn't something he was ready to share yet.

He jogged down the stairs and out to the driveway, where his parents were standing, staring at a brand new black Porsche.

"Oh my God," Clark said as he walked around the car, taking a moment to appreciate the sleek lines. He resisted the urge to reach out to touch it, feeling as if it would be disrespectful to the car. It was a really nice car. "Who does this belong to?" He looked around to see who else was there, but it was just his parents.

His mom was frowning slightly as she handed him an envelope. His dad looked like he was ready to explode.

"'Just my way of saying thank you for saving my life,'" he read. "It's from Lucas Luthor."

"Yeah, we figured that one out on our own," his dad said angrily. "What an arrogant--"

"Jonathan."

Clark blinked down at the card in his hand. "He bought me a Porsche?" It was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard of. Who bought a farmer's kid a Porsche? Clark was afraid to touch the damn thing. How would he ever drive it?

"Honey, I know you want to keep it," his mom said, the 'but' implicit in her tone.

"But I'll have to return it?" Clark asked, knowing the answer already.

His dad nodded. "I'm sorry, son. It's just..."

"The Luthors?"

Clark had been subject to a rather scathing tirade after his dad had heard who had been driving the sports car. He was now fully caught up on his Luthor history; knew how Lionel had cheated people around Smallville, friends and neighbors, out of their land and money. When he'd told Pete what had happened, he learned that Pete's family had been one of the many screwed over by the Luthors.

Despite all that, however, Clark felt bad about judging Lucas Luthor before he had even met him. He decided to give Lucas a chance before he leapt to any conclusions.

"So, I guess I should take this back then, huh?" Clark asked, staring at the car. He hoped he could get it to the Luthor mansion without breaking it on the way. At least this way, he would get a chance to speak to Lucas.

Lucas turned around, startled to find someone standing in the doorway. "Who the fuck are you?" he asked.

The kid blinked at him for a moment before answering. "Clark. Kent."

It took several long moments for the name to register. "Kent!" Lucas said when it finally clicked. "Right. Come to thank me for the car?"

"Um." Clark shoved his hands in his pockets. "I came to return it, actually."

"Return it?" Lucas laughed. "You're kidding, right? I figured you'd be creaming in your pants right about now. What, you don't like the color?"

Clark gaped at him, his face completely red. "It's not that," he finally managed. "I just can't accept it."

"Don't be ridiculous," Lucas said, dismissing him. "You saved my life, it's the least I could do."

"Look," Clark said, frowning a little. "I'm sure you're just trying to be nice and all, but I can't keep the car. So, here." He held the keys out, as if he expected Lucas to take them. When Lucas didn't move, Clark set the keys on the table next to the doorway.

"Is it because it's a Porsche? I was advised to get you a truck, but that seemed so hick." Lucas watched Clark's eyes narrowing angrily.

"I have to go," Clark said. "It was nice meeting you."

My, how polite, Lucas thought. "Wait, let me guess. It wasn't the car/truck thing, it was the Luthor thing. Am I right?" He watched as Clark stopped, his whole body stiffening. "I am, aren't I?"

When Clark turned around, he looked almost guilty. "Look, it's not really that--"

"That you don't want the car. It's just that you hate my family, I get it." Lucas was amused at the array of emotions flickering across Clark's face. Guilt then anger then back to guilt again. "God, this town is so fucked up. Never mind that the factory is responsible for ninety percent of the jobs here. Don't worry that LuthorCorp pretty much single handedly supports this town's economy, including your shitty little produce farm. Just so long as you guys don't have to handle something that was purchased with Luthor money directly, right?"

"I...It's not..."

It seemed that Clark was back to blushing and stuttering. He looked thoroughly chastised, which meant it was time to reel him back in. Lucas sighed, trying to look a little hurt, lonely. Poor Lucas, banished to Smallville where everyone hates him before they even know him.

"I guess you should go. Your parents probably wouldn't want you to be talking to me for so long. I just-- I just wanted to thank you for saving my life. I didn't mean to go overboard. You probably hate me now." He put on his most charming, bashful smile. "I guess I've got a lot to learn, huh?" He shrugged. "Anyway, I'm sorry. Apologize to your parents if you think it would help. I was just kind of hoping for a friend here." Lucas winced a little, sure he had gone too far with that last bit.

"Look, I..." Clark sighed. "I don't hate you, Lucas. I don't even know you. I just--yeah. The car was a bit much. You don't have to try so hard to impress people, okay? You're more likely to alienate the people here that way."

Lucas nodded. "Does that mean that we can maybe start over? I really would like for us to be friends, Clark." He grinned, knowing he had won. It looked like Lucas had found his newest source of entertainment while he was in the middle of Buttfuck Nowhere.

"I guess so," Clark said, looking beautifully conflicted.

Lucas smiled. This was going to be fun.

"So, everybody knows about this scarecrow deal?" Chloe asked skeptically.

"Well, yeah," Clark said as they sat down at one of the tables outside, the late autumn sun having already warmed the seats.

"It's kind of like a tradition," Pete explained. Somehow Chloe didn't think that made it sound any more legitimate.

"And how long does he stay up there?"

"Um." Pete ducked his head, mumbling his answer into his chest. Chloe turned to Clark for an explanation.

"Usually a few of the guys come back after the dance and take him down." Clark looked down at his sandwich as if it were suddenly the most fascinating thing in the world.

"And?" Chloe prompted when neither of her friends would look at her.

"They give him back his clothes and make him walk home," Pete finally admitted.

"You've got to be kidding me." Chloe set her sandwich down, suddenly not hungry at all. "That's sick!"

"Guys do stuff like that, Chloe." Pete said defensively. "The guys on the football team really aren't that bad. They just do dumb shit sometimes."

"Yeah?" Chloe asked angrily. "And what about everyone else who goes to the football game knowing that there's some poor kid hanging out in a cornfield? What's their excuse?"

Pete opened his mouth to answer the question and then promptly shut it again. Clark didn't even try to hide his look of guilt, which made Chloe smile a little. Clark felt guilty about everything, no matter how much or little he had to do with it. It was kind of sweet, for a Messiah complex.

"You know what we have to do, right?" she asked, looking back and forth between her two friends.

"Oh, no." Pete shook his head. "Don't even think about it, Chloe."

"What?" she blinked, mustering the most innocent expression she could manage.

"You can't do a story on this."

"Why not? Barbaric small-town ritual endangers lives yearly, but nobody does a thing to stop it."

"Yeah, and who do you think will suffer the fallout from it?" Pete asked angrily. "Dammit, Chlo'! People know we're friends. They won't do anything to you directly, they'll just make me and Clark suffer."

Chloe looked at Clark, who merely nodded.

She sighed. She really didn't want to be responsible for Clark and Pete getting harassed. "Fine, I'll stick to the Jeremy Creek story. But..." She chewed her lip for a second. "There's still something we can do."

Pete and Clark stared at her expectantly, and Chloe couldn't quite believe she had to spell it out to them. "We can save whoever ends up being this year's scarecrow. We'll wait out by LuthorCorp until the jocks leave and then untie whatever poor schmuck gets chosen." She fixed them with a determined stare, daring them to wuss out on her.

"I'll be getting ready for the game," Pete said finally, turning an apologetic look on Clark.

"Sure," Clark said finally. "I'll help. I wasn't planning on going to the game anyway."

Clark watched the truck full of jocks drive away, then ran to his own truck, parked a few miles down the road. He pulled up to where the other truck had been before getting out to search for this year's scarecrow, blanket in hand because he wasn't sure if they'd taken the kid's clothes or not. Whitney wasn't with them, which was both a relief and a disappointment. Clark was petty enough to want to find something wrong with Smallville's Golden Boy.

He had convinced Chloe to stay at home, telling her that whoever they'd selected would be embarrassed enough without having to deal with the school newspaper, which is basically what Chloe was.

The sun was starting to set as he walked up to the cross. Dan Sommers was there, naked except for a pair of boxers and a red 'S' sprayed on his chest.

"Clark?" Dan asked, looking utterly miserable.

"I'll have you down in a minute," Clark said as he started to untie the ropes, careful to support Dan's body as his arms fell loose. He felt sick to his stomach as he untied Dan, because Clark knew why they'd chosen him.

Dan wasn't really that small for a freshman, though he was skinny. He was a nice guy, quiet, artistic. Not overtly feminine, but not quite masculine enough for Smallville's standards. Clark had heard some of the names Dan had been called, couldn't begin to imagine the humiliation he'd been subject to during the whole process of being strung up.

"Here," Clark said, wrapping the blanket around Dan's shoulders as he helped him stand up straight. "Did they take your clothes?"

Dan just nodded, not quite looking Clark in the eyes.

"Um, I have my truck, so I can take you home." He turned and started walking back to where he'd parked, not quite sure what else to say or do.

They drove back to Dan's place in silence. Dan sat, huddled against the door of the truck, wrapped in the blanket. When they finally got to his house, Clark parked the truck, turning off the ignition. "Do you want me to come in with you?" he asked quietly, staring straight ahead.

"Um." Dan cleared his throat. "If you wanted to come in for a minute, while I change or whatever, that'd be cool. My parents are at the game."

Clark looked over just in time to see the twist of a bitter smile on Dan's face.

"I'm just going to go take a shower," Dan said as they walked into the house, tracing the red line on his chest absently.

"Sure." Clark nodded. He would hang around until he was sure Dan was okay, feeling suddenly protective. He was glad that could never have been him; Clark would never be that helpless.

But he was helpless in a different way, he realized as he stood in Dan's living room, looking at the pictures on the mantle. He couldn't really fix what had happened, although he suddenly felt incredibly guilty for not stopping it sooner. He had done the bare minimum, saved Dan from a few hours of physical misery, but the emotional damage had already been done, and Clark wasn't sure how to make up for that.

"I think most of it came off," Dan said, startling Clark out of his thoughts.

"Oh. Good." Clark stood there, wishing there was a way he could go back in time and fix this.

"Thank you, Clark," Dan finally said. "For, um. For everything tonight. I really appreciate it."

Clark looked down, studying the pattern in the carpet. "Yeah. I'm sorry. That I didn't stop it earlier, that is."

"Clark." Dan actually sounded a little amused. "You're not responsible for their actions. Besides, you could hardly take them all on, no matter how manly you think you are."

Clark smiled, even as another stab of guilt shot through him. "Do you want me to hang out?" he asked.

"Nah," Dan said, smiling a little. "I think I'm good now."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. I'll maybe look into making some voodoo dolls or something."

Clark laughed. "Let me know how that turns out." He checked the clock on the wall, wondering when it had gotten so late. Everybody was probably getting ready for the dance by now. He blinked then, struck with a sudden inspiration. "I guess I'll go then." He may not have the power to turn back time, but Clark wasn't above a little petty revenge on Dan's behalf.

"Thanks again, Clark," Dan said.

Clark nodded. "You're welcome."

Fear and adrenaline rushed through Clark's body along with the electricity. Fear, because he didn't know if this time he would be hurt and adrenaline because as it turned out, he wasn't. He was completely invincible.

He pushed Jeremy back, sending him flying. Jeremy's head hit the wall with a sickening thud, painting the wall bright red as Jeremy collapsed to the ground. Clark ran over to him to check for injuries, found Jeremy's skull split down the middle, blood and brains leaking out.

Blood all over Clark's hands, and Jeremy looked up at him accusingly. "You killed me," he said, his eyes dull, opaque. "It's all your fault!"

"No." Clark shook his head as he backed away, wiping his hands on his pants. He jumped as he bumped into somebody else. It was Dan, standing there in his boxers, a red 'S' painted on his chest. "No," he repeated.

"Shh, Clark." Dan smiled. "It's okay, because you saved me."

Clark nodded, a little confused. Yes, he'd saved Dan.

"I wanted to thank you," Dan said, walking closer until he was almost pressed up against Clark. "Let me thank you."

"Um." Clark tried to move away, but couldn't move his legs. He could only lean forward and Dan's body was so warm.

"It's okay," Dan repeated as he ran his hands up Clark's bare arms. He reached around, cupping the back of Clark's neck, pulling him down, so strong, even though Clark wasn't really resisting.

Warm lips against his, hot hands all over Clark's body. Clark moaned, kissing Dan back. He wrapped his arms around Dan's body, pulling him closer, but then there was a hideous crack, and Dan was pushing away.

Clark pulled back, not sure what had happened. When he looked at his hands, they were covered in red. Dan was looking at him, his eyes hollow; black holes. The 'S' on his chest was dripping. It wasn't spray paint.

"What did you do?" Dan asked.

"Freak!"

Clark spun around to find Lana staring at him, horror written all over her face. Her green necklace was glowing, pulsing in accusation and Clark felt a searing pain run through his body, bringing him to his knees.

"You okay there, Kent?" Whitney asked as he wrapped his arm around Lana.

"I--" Clark tried to speak, but the pain was overwhelming.

"Clark?" Whitney asked again. "Clark! Time to go."

"Clark! We're going to be late!"

Clark blinked as the pain suddenly disappeared, his bedroom ceiling replacing the image of Whitney's face.

"Are you still asleep?" his mom called from downstairs.

"I'll be down in a second," he called, racing to the bathroom and promptly throwing up, which was a new experience. "This has to stop," he whispered to himself.

He was getting nowhere fast with his experiments. Clark was no closer to learning about why he was so different than he had been three years ago. If anything, he was more confused than ever and last night's fight with Jeremy had just raised the stakes.

Nobody had been hurt and Jeremy hadn't remembered what happened, but Clark had been thoroughly shaken. He needed answers and he was pretty sure his parents could provide them.

"Clark, now!" his dad called.

Unfortunately, it would have to wait until after the Farmer's Market.

Lucas walked around the booths, observing the quaint ritual of the Farmer's Market with tolerant amusement. He could hardly believe this town was for real. Across the way, he saw Clark standing with a man Lucas assumed was his father. They were talking to the quarterback from last night's game and a pretty little brunette. It looked like Clark's dad was congratulating the quarterback for a job well done.

Clark was fairly obvious in the way he watched the brunette as she walked away, pinned up against the quarterback's side like she was his personal property. "Am I stuck in the fucking '50's?" Lucas mumbled to himself as he approached Clark. "Yeah, she's thoroughly fuckable," he said, just to see that expression on Clark's face. Some sort of cross between an enraged bull and a scandalized little old lady.

"Don't," Clark warned, his jaw clenched.

"What, you're telling me you don't want to fuck her?" Lucas asked.

"Lana's not like that," Clark said stiffly.

Lucas really wasn't sure what that had to do with anything. "So you don't think of her as sexual?"

Clark opened his mouth and then closed it again.

"C'mon, Clark. It's obvious you like her. You're a teenager and you like her, which means you had to have thought of her like that." Lucas tilted his head. "Unless you bat for the other team." He smiled as Clark stood up straighter and the vein in his forehead began to throb. Obviously that had struck a nerve. "Is that it, Clark?" Lucas stepped a little closer, invading Clark's personal space. "Were you actually watching the quarterback?"

"Back off, Lucas. I'm serious."

Lucas laughed then. "I'm just fucking with you, Clark. You're so easy." He watched Clark trying to process this and finally Clark's shoulders slumped a little.

"You're going to have to tone down your sense of humor if you want to survive in Smallville," Clark said a little petulantly.

Perhaps he had pushed a bit too far. If Lucas wanted to continue to play with Clark, he couldn't piss him off too badly right away. "Hey, I'm sorry. I was just joking around." He paused. "I'm sorry. Really."

Clark nodded a little, his expression less angry.

"So, you know the quarterback then?" Lucas asked, steering the conversation onto safer grounds.

"Whitney?" Clark asked.

No, genius. The other quarterback. "Yeah. I was wondering if you could introduce us."

Clark narrowed his eyes. "Why?"

Lucas shrugged. "I saw him play last night. He's an extremely talented player. I just wanted to talk to him."

"Oh. Um, sure." Clark looked like he felt bad for whatever he'd been thinking as he turned to walk in the direction Whitney and Lana had taken.

Lucas wanted to laugh, but he was sure that would be unwise at the moment, so he followed Clark, a plan forming in his mind. If it worked, it would be like paying Clark back for saving his life in a way. It would also be extremely entertaining, which Lucas considered important above all else. While he was in Smallville, he would have to make his own fun.

"Whitney," Clark called out as they caught up with the couple.

Whitney turned around, a semi-annoyed look on his face. It looked like he and Lana had just been arguing.

"Um. This is Lucas," Clark said, in what promised to be an extremely awkward introduction. "Lucas, this is Whitney."

Lucas stepped forward to cut Clark off. He was going to inadvertently ruin Lucas' plan before it ever got off the ground. "Lucas Luthor," he said, holding out his hand. "I saw you play last night. I just wanted to congratulate you."

"Yeah," Whitney brightened. No doubt because he knew, like every good football player, that Lucas' dad owned the Metropolis Sharks. "You were there?"

"I'm something of a fan of the sport." Lucas said, smiling. "I'm used to more professional venues. We have box seats for the Sharks." Just in case. "I certainly wasn't prepared to be so impressed by a high school game."

"Wow. Thank you," Whitney said. "Um, this is my girlfriend, Lana Lang."

"Pleasure to meet you," Lucas said, wearing his most charming smile. "Do you mind if I steal your boyfriend for a minute for some shop talk? I'll leave Clark here to keep you company."

"Of course, go ahead," Lana said pleasantly, if a little cold in manner.

Clark's expression tightened, but he didn't look too pissed.

"We'll only be a minute, I promise." Lucas led Whitney a little ways away. "So, did I do something to offend her that I should know about?" he asked when they were out of hearing distance.

Whitney grimaced a little. "No, actually. I kind of lost her favorite necklace last night, so she's not too happy with me at the moment."

"So buy her a new one," Lucas said, although her being mad worked to his advantage.

"Um, that one had sentimental value."

"Oh." Lucas blinked, not sure how much that mattered. He'd found that a gift that was appropriately expensive usually made up for quite a bit, even sentimental value. "So, I kind of lied. I didn't really want to talk football. Well, not directly," he added at Whitney's questioning look. "I'm having a party next weekend at my place. People from Metropolis, mostly. I'm friends with some of the guys on the team. Well--" He grinned. "More like some of the cheerleaders, but that's not the point. Some of the guys will probably be there, so I thought you might like to go too; make some connections."

"Seriously?" Whitney asked.

"Sure." Lucas shrugged. "You seem like a cool guy. I think we could be friends."

"Yeah." Whitney smiled. "Yeah, that'd be great."

"Excellent. Although, I'm not sure you should bring Lana."

"Why not?" Whitney asked.

"Well, I'm not telling you that you can't bring her or anything, but I'm not sure how...comfortable she'd be. Some of those guys can be pretty crude and you probably don't want to spend the night defending her honor against the guys you want to be making friends with."

Whitney nodded. "Yeah, that makes sense."

"Great." Lucas smiled. "I'll give you a call later this week to give you the details. I guarantee you'll have a great time."

The high Clark had felt at talking to Lana earlier had worn off at the end of the conversation when Lana had told Clark why she was mad at Whitney. At the mention of her necklace, the memory of Clark's dream had come rushing back to him and he'd had to excuse himself rather abruptly.

Now he was sitting in his loft, staring at his notebook like he could see through it if he just tried hard enough. He would have to show them now. There was too much he needed to know. Something, anything that would make him understand, and maybe then he would feel like less of a freak.

He flipped through the notebook slowly. Strength had been the first to develop; then speed; both were still developing, even more rapidly than before. Clark wouldn't admit it to his parents, but he scared himself sometimes. All he'd ever wanted was to fit in. He couldn't help but find the term his parents had used to describe his freakishness incredibly ironic.

Gifts. Right.

Rereading his latest entry detailing his fight with Jeremy, Clark knew he couldn't put this off any longer. He jogged down the stairs, his notebook clutched in his hand, and walked into the kitchen.

"Mom? Dad?"

"What is it, honey?" his mom asked as she came into the room. His dad showed up a moment later.

"We need to talk," Clark said. "But first, I need you to look at this." He set his notebook down in front of them and waited.

When Lana was in sixth grade, she'd been at a sleepover with some of the girls from her class. They'd been telling ghost stories, tales of creepy things that lurked in graveyards and went bump in the night.

That had probably been the first time that Lana had fully grasped the fact that other people weren't comfortable in graveyards. She'd always found this one peaceful, though. Even at night when she was all alone, she'd never been scared. She supposed that made her odd, but she didn't really care.

She tethered her horse to a nearby tree, the sound of cracking branches startling her. When she turned around she was surprised to see Clark Kent. "Clark?" she asked, a little worried. There was something off about the way he was just standing there. "Are you okay?"

"Okay?" He laughed a little. "No, I'm not quite okay at the moment. But thanks for asking."

It sounded like he had been crying, but Lana couldn't be sure. "Do you want to talk about it?" They'd been neighbors for years, but they'd never really talked until earlier that day at the market. Still, Lana felt that she and Clark had connected. There was something about him, something beneath the sweet boy-next-door exterior that intrigued Lana.

"I think I'm going to have to work this one out myself. I'm having an existential crisis." He wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Or something like that."

"Sounds serious," Lana said, smiling a little. "We could discuss it in vague, philosophical terms if you'd like."

Clark laughed. "Yeah, that'd be great." He looked away. "What if you found out something about yourself, something that totally changes who you are?"

Lana considered the question. "Is that even possible? I mean, think of it from someone else's perspective. Say you found this something out about someone else. It wouldn't change who they are, just the way you perceive them." That sounded good to her, anyway. "You aren't really a different person than you were this morning, Clark. You just had your perceptions altered a little."

"Yeah." Clark nodded. "I guess that makes sense. I found out some stuff today...about my biological parents. I dunno." He looked up at her, the first time he'd looked directly into her eyes since they'd started talking. "What do you think, Lana? Nature or nurture? Which do you think is the more powerful force?"

"I don't know," Lana said honestly, although she was pretty sure she knew the answer he wanted to hear. "I'd like to think that I'm the person I am because of the people my parents were." She shrugged. "But maybe it's different for everyone."

Clark nodded again, looking away.

"Do you believe in destiny?" Lana asked.

"Like that everything in our lives is already determined?"

Lana wrinkled her nose. "Well, maybe not totally determined, but maybe certain things. Like, maybe you and I were supposed to have this conversation. Maybe, no matter what happens, both of us were supposed to arrive at this point in time. And then that goes to help us decide what happens next."

"So, you think that we're destined to meet and interact with certain people?" he asked. "Be friends with them."

"Exactly," Lana said.

Clark smiled then and it was amazing how transformed he was by the expression. "Yeah, I like that theory."

"I don't know about you, Clark Kent, but I have a feeling that we're going to be friends from now on," Lana proclaimed, just to see him smile again. When he smiled, Lana wondered how other people at school could just dismiss him. There was definitely more to Clark that met the eye.

The smile he gave her was suddenly shy. "I'd like that," he said, looking at her from under his bangs. "I'd like that a lot."

Lucas shut off his computer, rubbing his eyes tiredly. He knew he should just dismiss the worry, but he couldn't quite do it. If he had learned anything about his father, it was that everything the man said had a purpose or meaning. Lionel Luthor never did things randomly.

Which meant that the implication that there was another little Luthor running around out there could be more than an idle threat.

The problem was that Lucas wasn't really sure where to start. If he did have a brother, he would be younger. Lionel wouldn't waste his time grooming anyone other than his legitimate heir. However, that didn't really help Lucas too much. The number of mistresses that Lionel had dallied with since Lucas had been born was impressive.

So, the trick was to think like his father. Lionel hadn't ever brought up the possibility of another heir until recently, which could imply that until recently the possibility hadn't been there. The kid might only be a few years old, if that.

Lucas decided to start with the most recent string of mistresses and work his way back. That information would be the easiest to access anyway.

Setting that problem aside for the moment, he considered the party he was planning. Things had to happen at the right time in order for his plan to work, which meant that it would have to be meticulously designed.

He pulled out his notebook, wondering who he could use. There were several options if he wanted to go by looks, but he needed someone reliable, someone with a little intelligence, which narrowed his options considerably.

For a moment, he'd thought about using a man, but he actually liked Whitney. He figured they could probably be friends, so Lucas didn't want to fuck him over. He just wanted to shake things up a little.

Lucas fingered a little plaque he had picked up in Chinatown years ago. It read: "May you live in interesting times." A supposed Chinese curse, he had liked the sentiment, even when he'd discovered its origins were much more recent and western than people thought.

Lucas liked to make things interesting.

"He'd better be cute," Val said, twisting a strand of thick red hair around her finger. She was still getting used to the color. She'd been a blonde for the past six months.

Lucas shrugged. "I don't think you'll have too many objections," he said.

She knew that it wouldn't really matter if she did. Val had only been turning tricks for a couple weeks when Lucas had found her. He'd offered her a regular paycheck and an apartment as long as she was available to do the odd job for him. It was a whole lot better than what she'd been dealing with, so she'd agreed.

Mostly it was businessmen or guys that Lucas knew from school, basic blackmail stuff and she had a place to live. She didn't have any doubts that if she ever got in trouble, Lucas would deny knowing her. But there was always a risk in her line of work and the arrangement she had with Lucas was still a hell of a lot safer than the streets.

"There he is," Lucas said, pointing to the kid across the room.

Val studied the guy. Blond hair, nice build, he looked incredibly nervous. "Not bad," she conceded.

"So, wait for a few minutes after I'm done talking to him."

"I know the plan, Lucas." She rolled her eyes. As if they hadn't done anything like this before.

Taking a sip of her beer, Val surveyed the crowded room. She had to hand it to Lucas; it was a pretty impressive turnout for a party in Smallville. "Never underestimate the power of Luthor money," she murmured to herself.

The far half of the room that was designated as the dance floor was already packed with writhing bodies. Val made sure to separate herself from the crowd, blend into the wall. She needed to look like she didn't quite belong there.

When the appropriate amount of time had passed, Val approached the guy Lucas had been talking to. "You look about as brave as I feel," she said, trying to look vaguely uncomfortable even as she handed him a beer.

The kid smiled, taking the drink. "I don't really know anybody here."

"You don't look like someone who has too much trouble making friends."

He turned to look at her then and she knew she definitely had his attention. "You don't look like you would either."

She smiled up at him. "That's what I thought I was doing. I'm Val."

He laughed. "I'm Whitney."

"Well, Whitney, how do you know our generous host?" she asked, scanning the room for a sign of Lucas.

"I met him at the Farmer's Market, actually," Whitney said.

Val laughed. "That's gotta be a first for Lucas."

Whitney smiled again, looking a little bashful. "He, um...he invited me because he said there might be some guys from the Sharks here tonight. I'm a football player."

"Typical." Val sighed dramatically. "I'm afraid he pretty much lied, Whitney. Those guys would probably show up to a party in Metropolis, but there's no way they'd come all the way out to Smallville."

"Oh."

"That's just kind of the way Lucas is. He can't just invite people to a party; he thinks he needs some sort of hook to get you to accept. It's not that he means to jerk you around or anything." It wasn't untrue. Lucas always had to manipulate things that normal people would be able to just ask for. Val figured it was his way of protecting himself.

"Sure," Whitney said, looking disappointed.

"Look, I hope you can stick around awhile. There may not be any football players here, but you still might have a good time." She lightly placed her hand on his arm. "What else are you going to do tonight?"

Lucas smiled as he watched Whitney slowly fall under Val's spell. She was sweet looking, a little bashful even, but still hot as hell. It was why Lucas had chosen her.

Whitney was on his fourth beer, which was actually pretty impressive. It was about an hour before Lucas had figured he would have to implement the next stage of his plan.

He made his way to his office and flipped through his address book until he found the number. The phone picked up on the third ring.

"Lana?" he said.

"Who is this?"

"It's Lucas Luthor." He leaned back against his desk. "What are you up to?"

"Just reading," Lana said slowly. "Why?"

"Well, here's the thing. I invited Whitney to a party tonight because I thought some of the players from the Sharks might show up. I told him not to invite you because I thought those guys might harass you."

"Yeah, he told me."

What a good boyfriend. "Well, now I feel bad, because none of the guys showed up and Whitney looks like he's having a pretty miserable time. Would I seem like too big of an asshole if I asked you if you wanted to come over now?" he asked in his most contrite voice. "I'm sure you'd enjoy yourself and I know that it would make Whitney happy."

"I'm surprised that you're so concerned about whether or not he's having a good time," Lana said a little coldly.

"I like all my guests to have a good time," Lucas said. "It's what makes me such a good host. Please come over. Even just for a little while?"

"I suppose maybe for a little while. Let me see if my aunt can give me a ride."

"Wait," Lucas said. "What about Clark Kent? Doesn't he live close to you? I meant to ask him to come before, but I haven't seen him at all this week. Maybe if you ask him for a ride?"

"Sure," Lana said. "I'll give him a call."

"Great! I'll see you in a little while then, hopefully."

"Yeah." Lana didn't sound too enthused.

Lucas smiled as he hung up the phone. That had almost been too easy. Everything else would just be a matter of timing. But he had faith in Val, so as long as he got his end right, everything would work out fine.

"I think I'm a little drunk," Whitney said as they stumbled into the dark room.

"Here," Val flicked on the light, revealing an office. "Let's sit down."

Yeah, sitting is good. He allowed himself to be pushed over to the leather couch, and was only vaguely surprised when Val straddled his lap.

"I'm drunk," he repeated, as if it were his lifeline. Because if he was drunk, this wasn't his fault. That's what he told himself as his hands settled on Val's hips, at least. "I have a girlfriend."

"She's not here, though, is she?" Val said as she stripped off his shirt.

"No, but..." Whitney blinked, knowing there was a 'but'. He just couldn't remember what it was at the moment as Val began to lick her way down his body. She flicked a long fingernail against one of his nipples, making him groan.

Her fingers were undoing his pants now and Whitney decided that thinking was overrated, because Lana never did this. They kissed, little pecks, like they were in third grade or something, but that's where it ended.

"Oh, fuck!" Whitney's hips bucked up as Val's hot, wet tongue flicked over the head of his cock. When had she gotten his pants off? He decided he didn't care as her mouth closed over him. His entire body was throbbing with pleasure, the room tilting and swaying as Val's tongue worked over him. He really wasn't going to last long.

The sounds of the party got loud very suddenly, but it took a ridiculously long time before Whitney realized that it was because someone had opened the door.

"Someone's in he--" The words died on his lips as he opened his eyes to see Lana standing in the doorway, her features frozen in shock.

At that same moment, Val pressed a finger against his hole and did something with her tongue that had Whitney seeing stars. He arched into Val's mouth with a wordless groan, his eyes squeezing shut as he came. He didn't even hear the door slamming shut. When he opened his eyes again, Lana was gone.

Clark felt like an idiot as he leaned against the wall. When Lana had called to ask if he wanted to go to a party, he'd been so excited that he'd said yes without thinking about it. It was only as they were on the way to Lucas' that Lana mentioned they were going there to meet Whitney.

Clark felt like a chump.

What the hell was his problem, anyway? Lana was never going to go for him, big alien freak that he was. Why did he even bother tying himself up in knots over it? It was a lost cause.

He frowned and shook his head as a tiny redhead offered him a beer. Was she even old enough to be drinking? The party was crowded and loud and everyone smelled like alcohol and smoke mixed with sweat. Clark wrinkled his nose, thinking that this was the sort of thing his father had been talking about when he'd warned Clark about the Luthors.

A guy shoved his way past Clark, giving him a dirty look as he passed, as if Clark weren't already pressed against the wall. All Clark wanted to do was go home, but he didn't know where Lana had disappeared to and he didn't want to leave without making sure that Whitney could get her home okay.

There was no doubt about it; he was definitely a big, freaky idiot chump. Closing his eyes, Clark banged his head against the wall lightly. This sucked.

"Clark?"

He opened his eyes to see Lana staring up at him, tears running down her cheeks, her mouth pulled into a trembling frown. She looked so tiny and miserable that Clark didn't even give it a second thought as he pulled her into his arms. Her whole body shook as she sobbed against him, hot tears soaking into his T-shirt.

"Shhh, it's okay," he said, rubbing her back gently. He didn't know what had happened, but he suspected Lucas had said something to upset her. "What's wrong?"

She just shook her head against him, hugging him tightly for a moment before she pulled away. "Can you take me home?" she asked shakily, wiping the tears still running down her cheeks.

"Yeah, of course." He pulled her back into a hug, kissing the top of her head. "Whatever you need, just let me know."

Clark scanned the crowd again, looking up in time to see Whitney emerge from the hallway, wearing only his pants. A girl came up behind him, placing her hand on his bare arm. Whitney grimaced and pulled away from her touch.

Oh.

"Let's go," Clark said gently, turning Lana so that she couldn't see Whitney. He looked back over his shoulder as they left. Whitney obviously hadn't spotted them yet.

Lucas was nowhere to be seen.

Chloe looked at the empty Kleenex box forlornly as she waited for someone to pick up the phone.

"Hello?"

"Lois?" Chloe asked as she searched for a dry corner of the tissue she was holding.

"Yeah...Chloe?" Lois sounded unsure. "Do you have a cold?"

"No, I just--" She was going to lose it. "Men suck!" she managed before she started sobbing again. She'd been crying for awhile and now her nose was plugged, her eyes were puffy and her head was throbbing. She had to go to school tomorrow. Maybe she would skip.

"Oh, honey. What happened?"

"He's dating Lana!" Every time she thought about it, the ache in her chest got a little bit worse. It was like she had this huge gaping hole there and she didn't know how to make it go away. "She just broke up with her other boyfriend three weeks ago!"

"I'm sorry, Chlo'. The guy's obviously an idiot."

"But he was supposed to be my idiot." Lois was like a big sister to Chloe. They'd spent a lot of time together when Chloe and her dad had still lived in Metropolis. Chloe had spent the past summer with Lois and had told her all about Clark. She was the only one Chloe had felt comfortable confiding in.

Lois was mumbling something, her voice muffled.

"Lois?" Chloe sniffled and then blew her nose.

"Alex says that the guy must be a total asshole, a total idiot, or gay."

Chloe laughed then, despite how miserable she felt. The only other person she'd talked to about Clark was Lois' roommate, who was just about the most awesome guy in the world. He'd suggested they take a bunch of pictures of them together to show to Clark to make him jealous. She could tell him that Alex was a guy she'd had a fling with. They'd taken the pictures, but Chloe had never worked up the nerve to show them to Clark. It had been a silly idea.

She heard Alex yell, "You can do better!"

"Tell him I said thanks," Chloe said, smiling for the first time in what felt like days. She flopped back on her bed with a shuddering sigh. "So do you really think he could be gay?"

"You never know," Lois said. "He could be a combination of all three, an idiotic gay asshole. Alex and I'll come kick his ass if you want us to."

"Bastard," Alex yelled.

Chloe laughed again, the ache in her chest easing just a little. "Thanks, Lois."

"Any time, babe," Lois said. "Us Sullivan girls gotta stick together. Yes, and you too, Alex."

Smallville, 2002

"Guess who my aunt sold the Talon to," Lana asked miserably as she laid her head on Clark's shoulder. They were sitting on the ratty old couch up in Clark's loft, the late afternoon sun streaming through the window.

"Who?" Clark asked, lacing his fingers through hers.

"The Luthors. They're going to turn it into a parking garage." Lana was sick over the whole thing. It felt like every connection she had to her parents was being chipped away piece by piece. Whitney had never found her necklace, now her aunt had sold the Talon.

Lana was left grasping at half-faded memories from a time when she barely understood what was going on around her. She sometimes wondered if the things she remembered were things she had made up. Memories were slippery, foggy and unreliable. Lana wanted something solid. She wanted something that proved that her parents existed, that they were real people who did real things; that they were something more than what her subconscious had dreamed up to provide her with a sense of family. She wanted something more than the tombstones that marked where their bodies were buried.

"I'm sorry, Lana. I know how much the Talon meant to you." Clark hugged her close.

She allowed herself to relax in his arms. For all that was missing in her relationship with Clark, this made up for a lot of it. Lana felt safe with Clark, like nothing bad could happen to her when he was close. He made her feel secure and important. Clark would never hurt her.

It made Lana wonder if maybe passion was overrated. Things hadn't ever felt right with Whitney, not for a more physical relationship. He'd wanted more, but Lana had said no. It had given her a sense of power in the relationship to know that Whitney wanted her, but was too decent to push her too far. She'd been in control...right up until the point where he'd cheated on her.

Clark was almost exactly the opposite. He was a gentleman to a fault. Things never threatened to get out of hand with him. He treated her like she was fragile, breakable. It was like Clark was still admiring her from afar, like he valued the image that he had of her more than the reality of having her as a girlfriend.

After almost five months of dating, their kisses were still chaste and sweet. Clark's hands never strayed above her waist or below her hips. Lana was starting to wonder if this was how Whitney had felt.

"What am I going to do?" she asked quietly. She didn't want to break up with Clark, but she was starting to wonder what exactly he wanted from her, if he wanted her at all.

"Maybe you could talk to Lucas," Clark said. "Maybe if you explained things..." He shrugged.

It took a second for Lana to realize they were still talking about the Talon. "Maybe I could," she said, although she doubted that would help. Lucas was a hard guy to figure out. She knew that Clark didn't want to dismiss him outright just because he was a Luthor, but she knew Clark didn't fully trust him either.

"It couldn't hurt to ask. The worst he could do is say no."

Somehow, Lana doubted that was the worst Lucas could do, but she didn't want to say so. The Talon was important enough to her that she was willing to try. Besides, Lucas had always been pretty decent to her and Clark. What could it hurt to ask?

"Oh, shit!" Chloe said, stumbling back a little. "I'm sorry." She bent down to help pick up papers before she fully realized who she'd bumped into. She hadn't really been paying attention. School had let out about an hour ago, so the halls should have been empty.

"S'all right," Whitney mumbled without looking at her.

She wasn't all that surprised that he was rude about it. Whitney's reputation as an asshole had pretty much stuck to him since he and Lana had broken up. It hadn't taken long for the reason they'd split to come out. Since Lana was someone that cultivated protective feelings in just about everyone who met her, the past few months for Whitney had probably been pretty rough.

"Here," Chloe said, handing him his papers. "Oh." She grabbed a bottle that had rolled under one of the lockers. She studied it for a moment, squinting to try and read the faint print on the label. It was some sort of prescription.

"Thanks," Whitney said, snatching the bottle out of her hand. "I've got it."

"Whitney, wait!" Chloe called out, following him as he started to walk down the hall.

He only paused when she grabbed the sleeve of his jacket. "What do you want, Sullivan?"

"To talk," she said, as if that was something they would ever do.

"I'm not a story." He jerked his arm away from her and turned to leave again.

"That's not what I meant. I just thought maybe..." She nodded towards his backpack where he'd slipped the bottle. "Maybe you'd want to talk about it?"

"And why would I want to talk to you?" he asked.

She tilted her head. "Because sometimes it's easier to talk to someone who isn't a friend. You don't have to worry about impressing me."

For a moment it looked like he was going to tell her off, but then his shoulders slumped. Chloe wondered what had happened to make him look so defeated. As far as she could tell, he was sitting pretty. He had gotten a full ride to Met U on a football scholarship; he was leaving Smallville as soon as he graduated. Wasn't that every high school quarterback's dream?

He looked over his shoulder and then back at her. "Is there somewhere we can go?"

Chloe nodded. "The Torch office is empty."

They didn't talk as they walked down the hall. Chloe wondered what it was that had Whitney looking so hopeless and willing to talk to someone he almost surely despised. For the first time, Chloe wondered how many friends Whitney actually had left. She'd assumed the guys on the team were still friends with him, but maybe not. Maybe he really didn't have anyone to talk to. Despite how much she ragged on the jocks, Chloe felt bad seeing Whitney like this.

She let him into the office first, then walked in, shutting the door behind her. There was an obvious tension running through the line of Whitney's shoulders and Chloe wondered if she was supposed to say something.

"My father's in the hospital," Whitney finally said. "He-- There's not much the doctors can do at this point."

"Oh, Whitney. I'm so sorry." She thought that was rather pithy comfort to offer, but didn't know what else to say or do.

He tilted his head back, staring up at the ceiling. "Everything really sucks right now." He laughed a little. "I haven't been to the hospital to see my dad yet. I don't know...I'm not sure I could handle it. God!" He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes.

Chloe pretended not to notice. "I could go with you if you wanted," she offered.

He looked at her then, blinking in surprise. "Why would you do that?"

She shrugged. "I know what it's like to lose a parent. Not that it's exactly the same situation or even really all that similar. But I know that it's good to have someone there." She smiled. "Even if it is that obnoxious girl from the school paper."

Whitney smiled at her then, but didn't say anything.

"Well, anyway, something to keep in mind. I'm around." She shrugged again. "The Torch office is usually empty this time of day except for me," she said, trying to make the invitation open without sounding too pushy.

"Yeah." Whitney nodded. "Actually, I have to get going though." He turned to leave. "Chloe?"

"Yeah?"

"Thank you."

"No problem," she whispered after the door had shut behind him.

"So you think Lana wants to get more physical?" Pete waggled his eyebrows. "I really don't see what the problem is there, man." He shot the ball, shaking his head as it bounced off the rim of the hoop.

Clark frowned as he caught the ball. "The problem? Try problems." He grinned a little as the ball swooshed through the net. Pete rolled his eyes. "Hello? Super-freaky alien here!" Clark made sure to keep from whining when he said it, but it was a very near thing. Being an alien sucked.

Pete had known about Clark's powers ever since he and Clark had helped catch Tina Greer after she'd robbed the bank while impersonating Lucas. He had witnessed the fight between Clark and Tina and Clark had ended up telling him everything. It was nice to have someone besides his parents who knew. There were just some things that Clark wasn't comfortable talking to his parents about.

"I mean, what if I have freaky alien sperm?" Stuff like this, for example.

"That's true," Pete agreed helpfully.

"Or, what if I do something freaky like float? What if my people float when they have sex!"

"Do you float when you, um..." Pete looked down at his feet. "You know..."

"Oh. Oh! Um. No." Clark blushed. "But it might be different if...y'know."

"Well, what about, uh, other stuff?"

Clark sighed. "I don't know. I mean, if we did other stuff for her, then what if she wanted to, y'know...reciprocate? Wouldn't it be weirder if I turned that down than if we just didn't do anything at all?"

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

"So what do I do?" Clark asked.

Pete shrugged. "I don't know. Tell her you want to wait until you get married."

"But then what if she thinks I'm getting ready to propose or something?" Clark groaned. Things had been a whole lot safer when he'd just been Lana's stalker.

"Dude. You have some seriously fucked up problems. You know that, right?"

"Thanks, Pete."

And Pete didn't even know the half of it. It wasn't just that Clark was afraid to get more physical, he didn't really want to. He thought that maybe he came from a race that didn't have a very big sex drive.

It's not that it wasn't there at all, but it just seemed wrong to think of Lana like that. She was like a porcelain doll, fragile and beautiful. Clark didn't want to break her. He wanted to protect her, hold her and keep her safe. He just didn't really want to do stuff with her.

He laughed. If only his parents knew how very much Clark wanted to avoid having a physical relationship with Lana. It would have spared him the incredibly awkward conversation he'd had with his dad when he and Lana had started dating.

Clark was beginning to think that girls were more trouble than they were worth.

Lana wiped her palms on her pants for about the fiftieth time as she stood outside the Talon waiting for Lucas to arrive. There wasn't really any reason for her to be so nervous. Lucas had always been pretty decent to her, despite the fact that he could be a little sleazy at times.

"Sorry I'm late," Lucas said as he walked up to where she was standing. "I got held up at the plant." He smiled. "What is it you wanted to see me about?"

"The Talon, actually." Lana nodded toward the building.

Lucas raised an eyebrow as he studied the building. "Let's go inside and talk, shall we?" He pulled a set of keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door.

"Sure," Lana said, following him into the building.

"Wow." Lucas coughed as the door closed, their entrance kicking up a cloud of dust. "This place really is a dump, isn't it? So what's your interest in it?"

Lana took a deep breath. She could do this. "My parents met here."

"Oh yeah?" Lucas eyed the concessions counter warily before leaning against it. "And?"

"They, um." She blanked, realizing that she hadn't really thought past the significance of this being her parent's meeting place. "I just don't want to see it torn down. It has a lot of sentimental value," she finished lamely.

Lucas smiled. "And you thought maybe I could do something? Save it?"

"Yeah." Lana nodded warily.

He laughed. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but why would you think that?"

"I don't know, I just-- I didn't think it would hurt to ask."

"You didn't think much beyond that, though, did you?"

Lana bristled at the question, mostly because it was true. "Forget I said anything."

"I'm curious, though." Lucas pushed off the counter and walked towards her. "If I did this for you, what would I get in return?"

"My gratitude?" She willed herself not to back away when Lucas stepped into her personal space.

"And how do you express your gratitude, Miss Lang?" Lucas whispered, his breath hot against her ear, the words caressing her skin, touching her in places Clark's hands had never roamed.

Suddenly, Lana felt very much like prey to Lucas' predator. She could almost feel his teeth, sharp as they scraped against her skin, even though he hadn't touched her. "I don't know what you mean," she whispered, not even thinking as her eyes slid shut. Lucas was wearing cologne, something subtle, dark and musky, undoubtedly expensive.

"Really? Because I think you understand me perfectly." Lucas' voice was low and rough, heavy with insinuation, sending shivers down Lana's spine.

She knew she should be offended, felt dirty at what he was suggesting and yet the idea of it-- the room suddenly felt very warm and entirely too small. "I think I should go," she said in the most indignant voice she could muster. If she sounded a little breathless, Lucas didn't mention it.

"Whatever you want." There was an implicit promise to the statement, velvety dark and illicit and Lana didn't want to examine why it made her heart beat faster. "I'm around if you'd like to...negotiate."

"I don't think that will be an issue," Lana said. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time."

The smile she received was sharp and indulgent. "I don't mind at all, but maybe next time we can find a more enjoyable way to waste our time."

"Goodbye, Lucas," she said, trying to sound cold. She ended up sounding as off-balance as she felt, at least in her own ears. It took the maximum amount of self-control that she could muster to keep Lana from running out of the building. She shut the door behind her, hoping that Lucas would wait a few minutes before leaving. She needed time to regain her composure.

"Lana!" Clark jogged across the street, carrying a coffee cup from the Beanery. "Hey!"

"Clark." She smiled weakly, suddenly feeling ten times dirtier than she had a few seconds ago with Lucas. Clark was so good, decent. If he had any idea of what she'd just been considering...

"What's wrong?" he asked, his brow furrowed with concern.

"Nothing, I just-- can we go somewhere?" she asked, desperate to get away before Lucas came out of the Talon.

"Sure, c'mon. My truck's parked over there." He pointed to the Kent truck with his coffee, slipping his other hand into hers, lacing their fingers.

"Thanks."

"Where do you want to go?" he asked as he fastened his seatbelt.

Lana shrugged. "Somewhere where we can be alone?"

They ended up at the Kent's, up in Clark's barn as usual. His parents were evidently away for the afternoon.

Lana examined the loft with a critical eye. It was really a great little place to get away from everything. Clark had a couch, hammock, desk and table up there. When they had first started dating she had wondered how the Kents could trust their teenage son with a place that private. Nell had always watched Lana like a hawk when she'd been dating Whitney.

Much to Lana's disappointment, the Kent's trust in Clark was wholly justified.

"So, what's going on?" Clark asked, his hands shoved in his pockets. He looked so nervous and sweet.

The idea that suddenly struck her seemed so obvious that Lana wondered why it hadn't occurred to her before. Clark wouldn't try anything because he was probably afraid of pushing her too far. Considering how things had gone with Whiney, he was probably overcompensating in showing her that he wanted her for more than just sex: that he liked her enough to wait until she was totally ready.

Lana was more than ready.

"I've been thinking," she said, smiling slowly. "We've been together for awhile now. Things are good between us, right?"

Clark's eyes widened. "Sure. Of course. They're great!"

"Good. So, I've been thinking that maybe it's time."

"Time?" Clark's voice was suspiciously high-pitched.

She nodded. "To take things to the next level. Physically speaking."

"Physically?" Clark swallowed.

"Yes." She walked up to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. "I'm ready, Clark."

"I, um, don't think that-- maybe that's not such a good idea." He gently untangled himself from her arms before practically running across the room.

Lana winced at the dismissal. "Is there a reason for that?" she asked quietly, a little ashamed at how much the rejection hurt.

"I just don't think I'm ready." He shrugged. "I guess I always planned on waiting until I was married."

"Oh." She nodded, trying to hide her disappointment. It suddenly occurred to her that as far as Clark was concerned, this was it. "That makes sense." She would never feel that thrill of the forbidden with him that she had felt in those few moments with Lucas. Clark would never have her panting and questioning her judgement.

Clark would keep her safe, though. She could depend on him and he did truly care for her. Clark was good and decent and kind and sweet. He was everything she should want.

"I'm sorry," Clark said, looking for all the world like a kicked puppy.

"Hey, no," Lana said, walking over to him. "It's okay, Clark. If you're not ready, it's better that you tell me."

Clark looked like he wanted to apologize again, but only nodded. "So, um, did you end up talking to Lucas?" he asked.

"Yeah, we talked," she said, looking down at her nails.

"And? How'd it go?"

Clark was perfect in almost every way. He would never cheat on her or hurt her. He was loyal and good and sweet. He was perfect. He was great. She loved him. For a long time, she'd been sure that if she repeated it enough, she would start to believe it. That had been awhile ago, though. "I think it went okay," she said.

"Yeah? So he's gonna try and save it?"

"Maybe." Lana nodded slowly. "We're going to have to negotiate." She hoped the shame she felt at the words didn't show in her expression.

Chloe found the rain wholly appropriate, if a little uncomfortable. It would have felt wrong for the sun to be shining as the weatherman had predicted. The umbrella that Whitney's mom held was only half covering Chloe. Raindrops soaked her sleeve and shoulder, making her shiver.

Whitney was so still, his face impassive as tears streaked down his cheeks, his arm wrapped around his mom. His other hand was clutching Chloe's, the overly strong pressure the only indication at how much he was hurting. Chloe was starting to lose feeling in her fingertips.

She brought her other hand up, wrapping it around Whitney's, rubbing gently over his white knuckles. He relaxed his grip a little, but didn't let go.

If someone had told Chloe three weeks ago that she would be here today, she would have laughed at them and then tacked the story up on her Wall of Weird. But over the past few weeks she'd spent almost every afternoon with Whitney, sometimes going to the hospital with him, sometimes running errands or getting coffee.

Chloe wondered if she and Whitney would continue to be friends now and then immediately felt guilty for having such a selfish thought standing there at his father's funeral. A lot of people had come out to pay their respects despite the weather. Mr. Fordman had been well respected in the community. Chloe was writing an article about him for the Torch. She hoped Whitney would understand what she was trying to do, that she meant it as a tribute.

It seemed like they had been there forever, but Chloe was surprised when the funeral ended. It all seemed so final, which was a really ridiculous thought, because it didn't get more final than death.

Whitney turned to Chloe as his mom started walking to the car. He surprised her by pulling her into a hug.

Suddenly, the tears that Chloe had held back all afternoon were threatening to spill over.

"I couldn't have made it these past few weeks without you," Whitney whispered against her hair. "I won't forget that, Chloe. Everything you've done for me..." He pulled away. "I should go."

Chloe offered him a weak smile. "I'll see you at the wake?"

Whitney looked like he wanted to say more, but he only nodded before turning to catch up with his mother.

When Chloe's mom had left, her dad told her that every cloud had a silver lining, it was just that sometimes you had to do a lot of searching to find it. She wondered what the silver lining to death was. Thus far, she had yet to find it. She would have been willing to trade every precious second of the friendship she and Whitney had developed if it would have spared Whitney the pain of losing his father.

"Is Lana home?" Clark asked, rocking back on his heels a little, smiling to himself. All the research he'd been doing had finally paid off. Apparently, the Talon could be declared a historical landmark. If it was, they couldn't tear it down. He wanted to meet with Lana so he could tell her about it.

"I'm sorry, Clark. She's not," Nell said. "I think she was meeting Lucas at the Talon to discuss renovations or something?"

"Oh. Okay, I'll just look for her there. Thanks, Nell."

"You're welcome, Clark."

Clark was really tempted to just run to the Talon, he was so excited. But he ended up taking the truck, tapping the steering wheel in anticipation.

The past few weeks with Lana had been really weird. Things had been tense immediately after their sex talk, then they'd gotten better and then they'd gotten worse. Lana was weird, tense and jittery. Clark thought she was still mad at him, so he'd been going out of his way more and more to do stuff to make her happy. Oddly enough, everything he did only seemed to make things worse.

He hoped that this bit about the Talon would fix things a little. Clark wasn't ready to give up on their relationship yet. It was too...safe wasn't the right word exactly, but Clark couldn't really think of a better one.

Lucas' Porsche was parked out front, so Clark pulled up behind it. Telling Lana like this had the added benefit of getting a reaction out of Lucas. Clark couldn't wait to see the look on his face. He would probably be pretty pissed.

It didn't even occur to him to knock first and Clark really wished it had as he surveyed the scene before him.

Lana was against the wall, her skirt bunched up around her waist, her legs wrapped around Lucas in the most obscene way. Her eyes were shut, head thrown back and neck bared to Lucas' lips and teeth.

*"Oh god."* Clark didn't realize he'd spoken out loud until Lana's eyes snapped open, focusing on him with a look of guilt mixed with lust as Lucas continued to thrust into her.

Clark stumbled out of the building, his breath coming in painful gasps that had only ever been caused by the meteor rocks. He barely checked to see if there was anyone on the street before he started to run. A few seconds later he was at the edge of his family's property, on his knees puking into the ditch.

"Oh god," he repeated as he leaned back, settling shakily in the dirt. He knew his reaction couldn't be the normal way to handle things. And it really wasn't fair that stuff like this happened to him. Did the universe feel he didn't have enough to deal with? That it had to add a little something else to the mix to make things interesting? Was being an alien not enough for one guy to deal with?

He knew he should be pissed that Lucas was fucking his girlfriend, hurt that Lana was cheating on him, humiliated that he hadn't been man enough to stop it. But there was only one thought running through his mind, as if his brain was a scratched cd stuck on a hidden song that he'd never be able to get out of his head ever again. The song sounded suspiciously like disco, which just figured, didn't it?

"Fuck," he said, flopping back down on the ground. "I'm so gay."

"Oh, Clark," his mom said as soon as he walked in the door. "If you want to get that discount for the spring formal, you're going to have to call the tux place this afternoon."

Clark stood there, blinking at her for a moment before turning and walking back out of the house. "I need to be alone," he mumbled, hoping she heard him. He couldn't deal with this right now.

He climbed up to the loft and threw himself onto the couch, wincing at the creaking noise it made. This was too much to deal with all at once. Couldn't he have just been upset about someone else fucking his girlfriend for awhile? Did all his epiphanies have to be totally mind-blowing?

The first time Clark had noticed Lana, really noticed her, was at lunch one day near the beginning of the year. She'd just started dating Whitney and he had his arm around her. Clark remembered watching them; thinking how big Whitney's hands were as he ran his fingers through Lana's hair. Whitney had nice hands.

Now really wasn't the time to be thinking about Whitney's hands, though, no matter how nice and big they were, with long, tapered fingers. "Fuck," he said, shifting his position a little. He'd just walked in on his girlfriend having sex up against the wall and all he could think about was her ex-boyfriend's hands.

Of course, it was better than the alternative, which was to think about how he hadn't even really noticed Lana's bare thighs so much as he'd noticed the spread of Lucas' fingers on them. He didn't want to think about how it hadn't been Lana's fingers clawing Lucas' back that he'd noticed so much as the muscles her fingers were digging into.

It wasn't that he wanted Lucas, what with him being a total fucking bastard, but Clark couldn't deny that the guy had a nice body.

The thought suddenly brought home just how screwed up this really was. He was gay. He liked men. "Oh god," Clark moaned. He really couldn't deal with this. What would he tell his parents? What would his friends say? Clark felt his stomach lurch as he thought of how his father would look at him. The word 'fag' echoed in his head and he was afraid he was going to throw up again.

When Clark had found out about his origins, he'd felt this desperate ache at the thought that he might be the only one of his kind around, but he'd still had his parents. They'd always been there for him, known his secret and loved him anyway.

Clark thought he'd known what it was like to be different, to be alone, but until today he hadn't ever realized how truly and utterly alone he really was.

Lucas frowned in concentration, trying to decipher exactly what it was he was reading. Tracking down his father's mistresses had been something of a dead end, so Lucas decided that it might be more lucrative to try and find a money trail leading to the other Luthor bastard. Unfortunately, his father was careful about things like that and it was hard to track what funds went where, even in Lionel's most legitimate business practices. It wasn't impossible, but it would take awhile.

"Lucas!" The doors to his office flew open as his father breezed into the room, his coat billowing behind him.

"Dad." Lucas leaned back in his chair, closing his laptop. "What can I do for you?"

"Judging from the reports I've been getting, not much. I didn't send you here for a vacation, Lucas. You were supposed to be learning something." His dad crossed his arms. "Care to tell me why you haven't been showing up at the plant?"

Lucas shrugged. "I've been busy with other things."

"I don't care how you keep yourself entertained, here, but I expect you to do the job I sent you to do. It's time you started living up to your potential."

"I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment, Dad. Maybe your other son would do a better job."

His father smiled suddenly, as if Lucas had just said something quite precious. "Perhaps, but he's not here, is he?"

"So it's true." Lucas frowned. "You have another son."

"Is that what's got you so upset?" His father laughed. "Afraid you're going to be replaced? I would think that'd be incentive to work more, not less."

"Is it true or not?" Lucas asked again.

His father walked around the desk until he was standing next to Lucas' chair. He leaned against the edge of the desk, looking down at Lucas with an annoyed look. "What have I taught you about every important business venture? Always have a backup plan!"

Leaning back in his chair, Lucas frowned. "Yes, and I've always considered that great advice for business ventures."

"Lucas." His father smiled. "What exactly do you think you are?"

Lucas bit his tongue to keep from saying something stupid like "your son". He noticed that his father hadn't really answered the question. "What are you doing in Smallville anyway? Surely you didn't come down here just to tell me what a fuck-up I am, as you seem to have no problem doing that over the phone."

"I came to finish up the contracts for the parking garage."

"When are they going to tear the theater down?" Lucas asked. He hadn't expected his father to seriously consider his proposal to remodel the building. He wondered if it had even been read before being thrown in the trash.

"Next week."

Lucas nodded.

"May I?" Whitney asked.

"Huh?" Chloe turned to see what he was asking. He was holding up a photo album. "Oh, sure. Those are from when I went to visit my cousin last summer." She turned back to the computer, looking over her cover letter one more time. The deadline to apply for the summer internship at the Planet was next week, but Chloe wanted to get her application in early. "Just let me send this and then we can go.

They were going to rent a movie. Hopefully it would be less of a process than the last time they went, they'd spent half an hour arguing before they'd settled on "Psycho", the original, not the remake. Both agreed that the remake sucked and that Hitchcock should never ever be tampered with.

"Who is this?" Whitney held up the album so that she could see the picture he was pointing to.

It was one of the ones they'd taken for Alex's brilliant "Plan MTFBJ" which stood for "Make the Farmboy Jealous." In the picture, Chloe was sitting on Alex's lap, laughing at the comment he'd just made.

Chloe smiled at the memory of Alex's solemn face as he told her that "we farmboys are a jealous lot." She'd told him that Clark was less likely to be jealous than he was to think that Alex was some creepy old perv to be hitting on someone her age.

Alex had frowned and said, "Yeah. You should stay away from older guys, Chloe."

Lois had just shaken her head and taken their picture.

"That's my cousin's roommate," Chloe said.

"The cousin you're going to be staying with if you get this internship?" Whitney frowned.

"Yeah. What? Why is that bad?"

"Nothing, I just-- You guys seem close."

Chloe smiled. "Oh, yeah. I always liked to pretend Lois was my big sister when I was younger. She's great, I can't wait for you to meet her."

"I meant the guy," Whitney said.

"Oh!" Chloe laughed. "Yeah, that's not what it looks like. Alex just thought it would be a good way to make Cl--" She stopped. "Um, he was just goofing around."

"Clark." Whitney looked down at the picture again.

"Alex is gay." Chloe said.

Whitney just looked confused at that.

Chloe sighed and turned back to her computer, reading the letter once more before clicking the 'send' button. "So, I guess Clark and Lana broke up."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah."

There was an incredibly awkward silence, in which Chloe was reminded of why she and Whitney didn't talk about Clark and Lana. It was sort of an unspoken rule they had.

"So has he asked you to the dance yet?"

"Clark?" Chloe looked at him in surprise. "No, of course not." She chewed on her lip for a minute. "Are you going to ask Lana?"

Whitney looked down at his hands. "Actually, I kind of had another girl in mind."

"Oh yeah?" Chloe asked quietly, ignoring the nervous fluttering in her stomach.

"Yeah, but I don't know." He shrugged. "She's kind of hung up on someone else."

"She's not as hung up as you might think," Chloe said.

"I hope not." He smiled a little. "'Cause I'd hate to make an idiot out of myself. I would, though. It'd be worth it."

"Huh?" Chloe asked brilliantly.

"Make an idiot out of myself, over her. She's the kind of girl that makes you want to do stuff like that."

"Make an idiot out of yourself?"

"Yes."

Chloe had the sudden sickening feeling that he wasn't actually talking about her. "Oh," she said softly, trying to hide her disappointment and figure out who they were discussing.

"She also has a really nasty habit of selling herself short." Whitney sighed. "She doesn't realize how amazing she really is."

"Maybe she just needs someone to tell her."

Whitney nodded. "Chloe?"

"Yes?"

"Would you be my date to the spring formal?"

Chloe didn't realize she was crying until she felt the embarrassing wetness as a tear slid down her cheek. "I'd love to," she said, laughing as she wiped the tear away. "I think I've got something in my eye."

Whitney smiled and handed her a tissue. "It's very dusty in here," he said.

"A Miss Lang to see you," the butler announced two seconds before Lana stormed into the office.

"What the hell is going on?" she asked, her chest heaving angrily.

Lucas smiled. "What can I do for you, Lana?"

"They're going to tear down the Talon!"

"Yes." Lucas nodded. "It's much easier to build a parking garage if there's not already another building there."

She gaped at him. "I thought you were going to help me! I thought--"

"I was going to preserve the building as a monument to your parents' eternal love and devotion?" He snorted. "I have a little secret for you. I have no control or say whatsoever in my father's projects."

Her bottom lip trembled and her eyes filled with tears. She really was beautiful, her face colored with righteous anger, looking like she wanted to kill him. "You were never going to help me?"

Lucas shrugged. There was no point in telling her that he'd tried to get his father to do something else with the building. He would rather be an asshole than a failure.

"I lost Clark because of you!" she said incredulously. "I hurt him for nothing!"

"No." Lucas shook his head. "I'm not the one to blame for hurting Clark. That was your choice, Lana."

"You made me believe it was the right one," she said quietly.

"Please." He snorted. "In what reality would whoring yourself to save a condemned building ever be the right thing to do?"

She slapped him.

"You knew what you were doing and you knew it was wrong," Lucas said quietly. "I may be a bastard, literally, and you can hate me all you want, but put the blame where it belongs."

"Go to hell." Her voice wavered as tears rolled down her cheeks.

"They haven't started tearing the building down yet," he said helpfully. "Maybe you can talk to my father."

Lana turned to leave.

"Although I wouldn't use the same methods of negotiation with him." He smirked. "I doubt he'd be swayed by sexual favors, no matter how charming they are."

Her spine stiffened, but she didn't turn around. The door slammed behind her as she left, the bang reverberating through the otherwise silent room.

Lana stared determinedly at the stairs in front of her, willing her nerves to settle. It had been two weeks since Clark had caught her with Lucas; they needed to talk. Unfortunately, Clark had refused all her phone calls and they'd avoided each other at school. She couldn't put it off any longer.

Regret weighed her down as she climbed the stairs, making each step she took seem more difficult. What Lucas had said was true. In the end, she had nobody to blame but herself. Too late she realized that part of her had wanted to hurt Clark.

The air was heavy, still, the humidity clinging to her skin, restricting her movements. It was going to storm. "Your mom said you were up here," she said quietly. They should have been on their way to the spring formal right now. They should have been happy.

Clark was leaning against the windowsill, staring out into the yard, a distant look in his eyes. "Looks like she was right."

Lana sighed. This was going to be more difficult than she'd anticipated. "You probably hate me now, don't you?"

"No." Clark finally turned to her, the look in his eyes unreadable. "I don't hate you. What happened is as much my fault as it is yours."

She wanted to kill him. "God, Clark! That's such bullshit! Why can't you just hate me? I cheated on you! I deserve it! Not everything is your fault!"

"Obviously something was missing, otherwise none of this would have happened. How is that not at least partially my responsibility? I felt it too, Lana. I could have said something." He shrugged. "Besides, I think you hate yourself enough for the both of us."

"I don't hate myself," Lana said quietly.

Clark looked at her, but didn't say anything.

"I didn't mean to hurt you, Clark. I wanted you, us, to be happy together."

"Fucking Lucas probably wasn't the best way to go about that, was it?" he snapped.

Lana blanched at that.

He looked down at his hands. "I don't hate you, but I never said I wasn't angry."

"Are you ever going to forgive me?"

"Probably." Clark said.

"But you aren't going to want to get back together," she asked.

"Do you?" Clark raised his eyebrows. "Things haven't been that great for awhile, Lana. We've both known it."

Lana nodded, knowing he was right. "We were both in it for the wrong reasons."

"Yeah, but neither of us were ready to do anything about it."

"Yeah." Lana closed her eyes, fighting back tears. She had truly wanted things to work with Clark, even when things had been bad. Clark was safe. "You were the perfect boyfriend," she said.

Clark snorted softly. "In every way but one," he mumbled.

She looked up at him, but he didn't elaborate.

"You're my best friend, Clark." She bit her lip. "I don't want to lose that."

"Me neither," Clark said. "But I think it's going to take awhile."

Lana nodded. It was more than she'd expected.

"The weather's looking pretty bad," Clark said. "You should get home and you and Nell should go down to the storm cellar. You don't want to be caught outside if it gets really bad."

"Yeah." She nodded. "I'll talk to you later, then."

"Goodbye, Lana," Clark said, quietly.

"Yeah." Lana whispered. "Goodbye."

"You really look beautiful tonight," Whitney said, tucking a strand of hair behind Chloe's ear as they danced. "Not that you don't always look beautiful." He grinned. "You know what I mean, right?"

Chloe laughed, her face hot from blushing. She wasn't used to being complimented like that and she didn't know quite how to deal with it. "Yeah. Thank you." She ducked her head a little. "Thank you for asking me to come--go--be your date for tonight." Way to sound like an idiot, Chlo'.

"Hey," Whitney said, lifting her chin gently until she was looking at him. "There's nobody I'd rather be with tonight."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." He bent down, brushing his lips against hers, too quick to be a kiss. He pulled back, looking a little unsure of himself.

"Yeah," Chloe said, smiling. She wrapped her arms around his neck, tilting her face up as he bent down to her again.

This time there was no hesitation. His lips were warm against hers, his tongue gently begging for entrance. Chloe sighed, opening her mouth, sliding her fingers through Whitney's hair as he deepened the kiss.

His hands felt large, warm and gentle as they slid around to her back, pulling her closer to his body. Chloe had never felt so beautiful, so desired as she did in that moment, happiness a physical ache in her chest.

"I've wanted to do that for awhile," Whitney said softly when they broke apart.

"Weeks now, huh?" Chloe asked.

"Longer."

"What?"

He grinned, which made him look boyishly charming. It was a very endearing expression. "At the beginning of the year, when you would make all those snide comments about the jock straps and the pom pom brigade?"

"Yeah." Chloe said, her face heating with embarrassment. Me and my big mouth.

Whitney's grin got bigger. "It made me wonder how much I would have to kiss you to get you to shut up."

Chloe laughed. "I'm not sure whether to be insulted or flattered."

"Maybe a little of both?" he asked.

"Hmmm." She looked up at him through her lashes. "And what did you decide?"

"Huh?" Whitney blinked at her.

"How much would you have to kiss me to make me shut up."

"Oh." He licked his lips. "A whole lot."

"Tough job."

He brought a hand up to her face, his thumb gently caressing her lip. "It's really not," he said. "You're so incredible, Chloe. What are you doing here with a guy like me?"

Chloe wondered if he was joking. "I may have been a little hasty in my judgements before." She said. "Besides, there's nowhere else I'd rather be at the moment, nobody else I'd rather be with."

"Good to know," Whitney said, bending down to kiss her again.

The microphone screeched suddenly. They looked over at the stage where Vice Principal Williams was standing. "Excuse me, can I have everyone's attention, please?"

A murmur ran through the crowd.

"The weather service has just issued a tornado warning. Evidently three twisters have been spotted south of town. Now, they should pass by us, but for your safety we won't be allowing anyone to leave until further notice."

Everyone started talking at once. The nervousness in Chloe's stomach settled a little as Whitney's arms tightened around her. She relaxed into his embrace, resting her head against his shoulder.

"We're safe here," he said.

"Yeah," Chloe said, nuzzling against his neck a little. "I feel safe."

Clark looked at Chloe's face as she wandered aimlessly around the loft. Barely suppressed excitement had been dancing in her eyes all morning as they'd worked, picking up the debris around town that had been neglected immediately after the tornado in favor of more serious damage.

There had been something different about her, like something that had been off in her aura had finally clicked. She looked good.

"So, are you ever going to tell me what's going on, or am I going to have to guess?" he finally asked, thinking that she was just waiting for him to say something before she spilled it. She usually didn't even wait that long.

"Huh?" She asked, looking startled, as if she wasn't aware that she was sending out these totally obvious vibes of happiness.

"What's got you walking around town looking like a little kid on Christmas morning?"

"Oh." She smiled up at him. "I can't believe I forgot to tell you! I got the internship!"

"Hey, congratulations! That's great!" He pulled her into a hug. "I guess this means you'll be spending all summer in Metropolis then, huh?"

"Yeah," Chloe said, smiling as she stepped out of his arms. "Which is totally great since Whitney has to be down there for football boot camp or whatever. We'll get to spend most of the summer together."

"So you guys are doing good then, huh?" Clark asked, looking down at his hands. To say he'd been caught off guard when Chloe had told him that she and Whitney were together would be an understatement. Whitney was the last guy Clark would have seen Chloe with. It was weird, especially since Clark had a small crush on Whitney himself.

"Yeah, he's a really great guy. I know what you probably think of him, what with what happened between him and--" She broke off. "I mean...dammit. I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Chloe." Clark sighed. "For what it's worth, I don't really think what happened between Whitney and Lana was entirely his fault."

"What do you mean?" Chloe asked, tilting her head.

"I think Lucas set him up to get them to break up."

Chloe sat down on the couch, frowning. "Why would he do that?"

Clark shrugged. "Because he could? Anyway, I'm glad you're happy. As long as he's treating you well..."

"I'm sorry about you and Lana," Chloe said. "Do you suppose the universe has it in for us? Only one of us can be happy at a time?"

"I wasn't really that happy with Lana," Clark mumbled.

"You weren't?" Chloe raised an eyebrow. "Coulda fooled me."

"Yeah, well, I'm good at fooling people."

"Clark?"

He sat down next to her, cradling his head in his hands. "What if I was...What if you found out something about me? Something that made me different?" He shut his eyes. "Would you hate me?"

"Clark, hey." She placed a hand over one of his, against the side of his face. "I can't think of anything in the world you could say to me that would make me hate you. You're my best friend."

"I just--" He swallowed past the lump that had formed in his throat. "I don't know who else to tell, but I have to tell someone. I'm so-- I'm so screwed up right now," he finished in a whisper, looking up at her.

"You can tell me anything, I promise."

"I think I'm gay," Clark said, his voice cracking a little.

"Huh?" Chloe blinked at him. "You think..."

"I'm pretty sure." He looked back down at the floor.

"Oh. Oh, god, Clark. Come here." She pulled him into a hug. "It's okay," she said, rubbing his back.

Clark felt a little ridiculous at how comforting it was to have somebody tell him that. "It is?"

"Yeah, of course." She pulled back. "This doesn't change anything. It doesn't change who you are."

"Of course it does," Clark said. "It changes everything."

"Not for me," she whispered. "You're still just about the greatest guy I know." Her mouth twitched up a little. "It does make me feel a little better about you choosing Lana over me, though."

Clark laughed. "You know why that was?" He rubbed his eyes. "It was because she was going with Whitney. I kept seeing them together, when he would touch her..." He shrugged. "I just always assumed it was her I was attracted to."

Chloe's eyes got comically wide. "You have a crush on my boyfriend?" she whispered.

"You can't tell him, Chloe!" Clark said, panicking again. "You can't tell anyone, please!"

"Hey, calm down. I won't tell anyone." She patted one of his hands. "It'll be okay, Clark."

"How do you know?" he asked. "I haven't told my parents. I don't know what they'll say."

"Your parents love you." Chloe said. "No matter what."

He nodded. "I'm really gonna miss you this summer, you know."

"I'll miss you too." She smiled. "Maybe you could come visit me. I'll be staying with my cousin."

"The blond guy?" Clark asked. He'd met Chloe's cousin briefly a few years ago.

"No. Different cousin. Girl cousin. You'd totally love her though. She has the best roommate ever, too."

"Maybe I'll take you up on that," Clark said.

"We could go watch Whitney practice. Hot football players..."

"Chloe," Clark said warningly.

"One or two of them might bat for your team," she said.

"Now you're just mixing sports metaphors," he said, blushing.

"Well, I'm sure there's a baseball team too," Chloe teased, her eyes sparkling.

"Bite me."

"Nah, I'll leave that to the boys."

"He's gay," Chloe said.

"Who?" Lois asked.

"Clark."

Lois laughed. "Your farmboy? I guess Alex was right."

Chloe sighed, switching the phone to her other ear. "Yeah, I guess so."

"So why do you sound so bummed?" Lois asked. "I thought you were happy with your football hottie."

"Huh? Yeah, I am. Whitney's great. I can't wait for you guys to meet him." She smiled. She had already warned Whitney that she would be showing him off once they got to Metropolis.

He had laughed and said, "Only when I'm not busy showing you off."

"Whitney is wonderful," Chloe repeated, glad that Lois couldn't see the goofy grin that was plastered on her face. "That's not the point though."

"So what is?" Lois asked.

"You should have seen how miserable Clark was," Chloe said, her smile fading a little. "He's having a hard time dealing with it. I don't know how to make it better.

"The best you can do at this point is to be his friend."

"I suppose." Chloe sighed. "I was wondering if maybe Alex could talk to him. It'd be good if he had another guy to talk to."

"Yeah." Lois sounded sad. "Unfortunately, Alex is dealing with a lot right now. He went back to Montana."

"Why? What happened?" Chloe asked, frowning.

"His mom is sick. The doctors haven't given her much time--" Lois' voice wavered, a telling sign of how much the news affected her. She wasn't someone Chloe would ever consider emotionally vulnerable. "He's not doing so great," she whispered.

"Oh, Lois. I'm so sorry," Chloe said. "That's horrible."

"Yeah." Lois cleared her throat. "Anyway, I'm headed out there as soon as finals are over, so you might be alone here for a couple weeks, if that's okay."

"Oh, yeah. That's fine." Chloe felt like she was going to cry again, Whitney's pain over his father's death still fresh in her mind. "He'll be glad to have you there."

Lois snorted a little. "Yeah, for all the good it'll do."

"You'd be surprised," Chloe said. "Tell him I'm thinking of him."

"Yeah. I will."

"Clark!" Lucas smiled as he jogged across the street. "I haven't seen you in awhile. How have you been?"

"Don't," Clark said, his voice low.

"Don't what?"

Clark stopped walking and turned to face Lucas. "Don't pretend we're friends. I'm not going to be jerked around by you anymore, so just leave me alone."

"Is this about the Lana thing?" Lucas watched the muscle in Clark's jaw spasm. "Tell me, Clark...were you jealous of me or her?"

Lucas didn't really like to sleep with men, or rather, he didn't like the power it gave his partner. There was something very intimidating about having a lover who could match him physically. Women were much easier to control, so as a rule, Lucas stuck to women. But there was something about Clark. There was so much raw emotion there, so many buttons to push and a mouth that made Lucas hard every time he looked at it.

Clark looked around at the deserted street, smiling for a second before pushing Lucas into the alley and shoving him against the wall.

"Shit," Lucas grunted as his head hit the side of the building. "What the hell, Kent?"

"You wanted to know who I was jealous of?" Clark whispered in Lucas' ear. "Here's the thing, Lucas. As much as the poetic justice of fucking a Luthor appeals to me, it would never be you. Not if you were the last living, breathing thing on this Earth."

Lucas considered the possibility that maybe he had pushed Clark too far this time. "Let me go, Clark."

"Not until I'm sure we understand each other," Clark said. "I want you to stay away from me, my friends and my family."

"Or what?" Lucas asked.

"Or you'll find out what it's like to be fucked by a Kent, and it won't be in the way you so obviously want it to be."

"Are you threatening me?"

Clark let go of Lucas, taking a step away. "Do you really want to find out?"

Lucas refused to answer; his jaw set in a tight line as he rubbed the back of his head.

Clark nodded slowly. "I think we understand each other."

"This isn't over, Kent," Lucas muttered under his breath as Clark walked away. Nobody humiliated him like that and just walked away. He brushed the wrinkles out of his shirt where Clark's fists had been.

At the moment, Lucas had more important things to deal with anyway. His research into his father's finances looked like they were finally going to lead him to something. There were two separate accounts that Lucas had singled out, one active and one inactive. Lucas was pretty sure that once he traced the money in them, he would find what he was looking for. The answers were so close he could taste them.

Not that he was really sure what he would do once he knew. What would he do if he did have a brother? He supposed it would all depend on the circumstances. If Lucas played things right, he could have an ally. If not...there were ways to work that out too.

The only thing Lucas knew was that he had to make sure that as far as the 'business venture' of heirs went, he would be the only back up plan his father had, one way or another.

Clark spotted an empty table near the corner of the Beanery. Well, it was one of many empty tables. He felt like he was the only one who had stayed in town this summer. Pete was on vacation with his family, Chloe was in Metropolis and Clark wasn't quite ready to start hanging out with Lana again yet. All of which left him with a lot of free time and nobody to spend it with.

Despite his quick reflexes, Clark hadn't quite mastered being graceful yet. He swore softly as he tripped over his own foot, spilling his drink on the guy sitting at the table next to him. "Oh, man. I'm sorry," Clark said as looked down at his coffee sloshing over the side of his cup.

"It's okay. Good thing it's iced."

Clark looked up at the sound of the guy's voice, blinking in surprise. "Dan?"

"Hey, Clark." Dan smiled. "How's it going?"

"I--" Clark blinked again, staring a little dumbly. Dan had gone to live with his aunt and uncle in Metropolis shortly after the scarecrow incident. Clark hadn't seen him in almost eight months. Dan had...filled out. "Good. It's going good. How are you?"

"In Smallville for the summer, no big excitement there." He waved a hand, indicating that Clark should sit. "Other than that I'm pretty good."

"You look pretty good," Clark said, blushing as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "I mean, you look different. Good different. I mean--" He sighed. "It's good to see you."

Dan raised an eyebrow, smiling. "Yeah, I guess I've gotten a little bigger since you last saw me, huh? I bet if I'd looked like this last fall, they wouldn't have tied me up."

"Or if they did, it would have been for a different reason entirely," Clark said, mortified as he realized his mouth had stopped checking in with his brain about two minutes ago. "I--" He stopped, not sure what to say to recover from that.

"Are you saying the football players have a secret bondage fetish?" Dan teased softly.

"If they did, they probably wouldn't admit it," Clark muttered.

"Would you admit it, Clark?"

"Me?" It was really hot in there. "I don't have a bondage fetish." He shifted in his seat. "Not that I know of, anyway." Clark really couldn't believe they were having this conversation.

Dan's eyes sparkled mischievously. "There are ways to find that out," he said.

Clark's lips formed an 'Oh', but the word never actually came out of his mouth. That was just a really nice mental image, and maybe Clark did have a thing for some light bondage. Who knew? He wondered how he was going to get through this without embarrassing himself.

"Clark?" Dan blushed a little, looking around the empty coffee shop. "Do you want to get out of here for awhile?"

Clark licked his lips. "Where would we go?"

"Anywhere you want."

"Mr. Luthor."

Lionel looked up and smiled. "Please, come in."

Roger Nixon had been in Lionel's employ for about three years now, ever since Alex had moved to Metropolis.

"So, what can I do for you?" Lionel asked. He had another man on Alex now that the boy was back in Montana.

"Your son approached me, offered me money for information about who I've been tailing." Nixon said.

It was about time; the summer was almost over. Lionel had expected Lucas to figure something out long before now. He was, however, disappointed that Lucas had simply offered Nixon money. With a man like Nixon, whose background provided ample opportunity for blackmail, bribery was the least effective way to get what you wanted. It created situations like this.

"And what did you tell him?" Lionel asked.

"I said I would need some time."

"Good. Here," he said, pulling a file out of his desk. He had been disappointed that Lucas had chosen to use bribery, but he had been prepared for it. "Give him this." It contained select information about Alex that Lionel had accumulated over the past few years, the things that Lionel wanted Lucas to know about his brother, nothing more.

Nixon nodded and took the file, hovering at Lionel's desk.

This was exactly why Lionel hated these situations. "Your next paycheck will reflect the favor." He looked up. "That will be all." The man was already going to be paid by Lucas, but Lionel would have to pay him extra as well. The inefficiency of the whole situation annoyed Lionel.

"Yes, sir." Nixon nodded again and left.

This was a perfect example of Lucas' shortcomings. He was like a rabid puppy, ferociously nipping at everything but unable to do any real damage because of his little puppy teeth. It made him more of a nuisance than anything else. Lucas had no...finesse. Lionel hoped that a little competition might sharpen Lucas' edges.

He wondered how Alex would handle upcoming events, if being a Luthor gave him an inherent edge, or if being raised by two women had dulled it to the point of being ineffective.

Leaning back in his chair, Lionel smiled. If Lucas reacted to the information the way Lionel predicted he would, Lionel would know the true strength of both his sons soon enough. He found himself looking forward to seeing how Lillian's boy turned out.

"I can't believe you're leaving tomorrow," Clark said, kissing Dan's throat gently. As it turned out, all of Clark's fears about sex had been due more to the whole girl thing than the alien thing. When he had finally figured that out, it hadn't taken long for Clark to get over his apprehensions.

"Me neither." Dan sighed, shifting in Clark's lap a little, causing the couch to creak. "It seems like the summer's gone by so fast. I don't want to go back."

"So don't." Clark ran his hands up Dan's thighs and under his shirt, caressing the skin at the small of his back. The loft wasn't the most ideal place for this, but they didn't really have anywhere better to go at the moment. "Stay here."

"I can't." Dan said. "I have to go back to Metropolis."

"Why?" Clark pulled back a little, holding Dan's hips. "Your parents live here. Why do you have to go back?"

Dan moved off of Clark's lap and stood up, running a hand through his hair. "I haven't been completely honest with you," he said.

"How so?" Clark asked, his chest tightening with dread.

"I'm sort of seeing someone in Metropolis."

"You have a boyfriend?" Clark asked, his voice strained with hurt and outrage. "And you didn't think that was important enough to tell me before now? Like, before we started sleeping together?"

Dan shrugged. "I thought that if you knew, you wouldn't want to get involved with me."

"You're right, I wouldn't have." Clark said. "I'm not a huge fan of cheating."

"He and I had an arrangement for the summer." Dan looked at Clark. "I came back to Smallville to see you."

Clark sat back, trying to process that. "Why?"

"After that night...I dunno. You became sort of like a fantasy for me." He smiled. "My very own White Knight. I wanted to see you again."

"Uh..." Clark looked down, blushing. "But how did you know that I was...y'know? I mean I didn't even know, really."

"Clark." Dan smiled, running his fingers through Clark's hair. "Sometimes you can just tell. Or maybe I was just hoping."

"But then why..." Clark trailed off, a little bewildered at the turn of events. If he was Dan's fantasy guy, why was Dan going back to Metropolis and some other guy? Clark suddenly felt incredibly young and wondered how the balance of power had shifted so quickly. He was totally lost and Dan didn't seem to be affected at all.

"I just don't..." Dan looked away. "I don't think we're right together."

"What do you mean? I like you," Clark said a little helplessly.

"I know you do. I like you too, Clark. I just think...I want something more than 'like'. I think you do too."

Clark went back to examining his hands. He liked 'like'. 'Like' was safe. He and Dan got along and there was sex. Clark liked the sex. The sex was good.

"It can't always be safe and easy. Sometimes the more difficult stuff is worth it."

"Right." Clark rolled his eyes. "I have enough 'difficult' in my life. Sometimes I just want 'easy'." He looked up quickly. "Not that I'm calling you easy."

Dan laughed. "Just wait, Clark. I have the feeling you're going to meet someone who's going to make your life a living hell and you're going to love him for it." He laced his fingers through Clark's and Clark tugged him back into his lap.

"I don't want you to go," Clark said.

"I know." Dan kissed him softly. "Can I give you one piece of advice?"

"What's that?"

"Tell your parents. Chances are, after all the time we've spent together this summer, they already know and it'll make you feel a whole lot better."

Clark thought about it later that night as he sat down to dinner with his parents. He and Dan hadn't really had time for long, drawn-out goodbye sex, but they'd given it their best shot. Now Clark was feeling more than a little depressed. What better time was there to tell his parents he's gay?

"Mom, Dad. I have to tell you something," he said, looking down at his peas.

Clark hated peas.

"Jesus, Dad. You really are one twisted sonofabitch, aren't you?" Lucas asked quietly as he flipped through the file.

There was a variety of stuff, pictures, school transcripts and medical records. Lucas looked at the pictures first. They varied in quality, but there were a few that were pretty clear.

"So you're my brother." Alexander Jenkins, born in 1980. Four years older than Lucas.

He studied the picture he held and wondered how it was obtained. It was fairly old, Alex had probably been fifteen or sixteen when it was taken. There was another guy with him, blond and well built. They were in a rather compromising position.

The picture was from a separate folder marked "Jake Sullivan". There were some documents there that Lucas set aside to go over later. There was something about the name that sounded familiar.

It took a little over four hours for Lucas to read all the information in the file. His brother was interesting, to say the least. A gay genius raised in Montana by lesbians. And, as of a few months ago, an orphan.

Oddly enough, Lucas found himself looking forward to meeting Alexander. He wondered what he was like, if they would get along or hate each other straight off. Lucas supposed it would probably be the latter.

He hadn't really formed a complete plan in his mind, but he knew what the first step would be, no matter what.

It looked like he was going to Montana.

Part Three

But I'm coming to much more
Me
All at once the ghosts come back
Reeling in you now
What if they came down crushing

Montana, Fall 2002

"It's pretty obvious that you don't belong here," Alex said, pulling off his work gloves.

"What gave me away?"

"Those shoes." He frowned. "What do you want?"

"You in Metropolis."

Alex sighed. "I already told you, Lois. I'm staying here. You've come a long way for nothing."

"I got the job at the Daily Planet," Lois said, walking over to him carefully. "I'm supposed to start in two weeks."

"Congratulations," Alex said, finally smiling.

"Are you sure there's nothing I can say to make you come back?"

"Lois..." They'd been having the same argument since Alex had told her he was staying in Montana. The arguments he'd been having with his grandparents were variations on the same theme, but Alex didn't feel right about leaving Montana again. Not now, not ever.

"Fine." Lois sighed. "I'll call Perry White tonight. It'll probably be the shortest career at the Planet ever, if you don't count my internship this summer, which I don't."

Alex looked at her warily. "What are you talking about?"

"They do have a newspaper here, right?" Lois looked around the barn. "And what do apartments go for?"

"Apartments?" Alex asked, totally lost.

Lois blinked at him. "Unless you want me to live here." She looked back towards the main house. "It's not like you don't have room."

"Room?"

"I can pay rent, if you want."

"Rent?" Alex shook his head. "What in the world are you talking about?"

"Moving here." She crossed her arms over her chest. "I told myself I wouldn't go back to Kansas without you. So, if you're not coming back with me, I'll just have to move here."

"Ah, I get it." Alex chuckled. "I know what you're doing."

"Yeah, planning to move to Montana. What did you say about the newspaper? Do you have a copy? I want to know what I'm giving up a posh job at the Planet for."

"Right." Alex rolled his eyes. "You've wanted to work for the Planet since you were born. You're going to have to come up with something more believable than that."

"You don't believe me?" Lois asked. She dug her cell phone out of her purse. "I'll call now." She dialed the number and hit the send button, sticking her tongue out at Alex as she brought the phone up to her ear. "Yes, may I speak to Perry White please...Lois Lane."

"Give me that," Alex said, grabbing the phone out of her hand.

"Hey!"

He brought it up to his ear, convinced that Lois had dialed information or something. The music playing over the line was suddenly interrupted. "Perry White speaking."

"Uh." Alex blanked, looking over at Lois. She raised an eyebrow, grinning smugly.

"Hello? Lois?"

"I'm sorry, sir," Alex said, glaring at Lois. "Wrong number." He pushed the 'end' button on White's response. "You weren't really gonna quit," he said.

"Give me my phone back and see how serious I am," Lois replied.

"That job's your dream." Alex frowned. "Why would you even joke about giving that up?"

"Some things are more important."

"Why? Why is it so important that I move back to Metropolis? I'm happy here."

Lois actually had the gall to punch him. She hit really hard. "You're not happy here, Alex. If you were, you wouldn't have gone to Met U in the first place. You weren't meant to be a farmer."

"I can't," he said. "I can't leave now. It would feel wrong."

"Your grandparents said--"

"My grandparents aren't in a place to say anything," Alex said shortly.

"Alex, you should just talk to them."

"I haven't been not talking to them."

"You know what I mean," Lois said. "They love you; they just want what's best for you."

"It isn't for them to decide!" Alex said, the anger and hurt that were never far from the surface flaring up again. "They should have told me sooner."

"They didn't want you to worry." Lois sighed. "I'm sure they thought they were doing the right thing. Your mom didn't tell you either," she reminded him.

"I know why my mom didn't tell me, but they should have." He felt his throat tighten. "I'm an adult. I should have been told."

Lois walked over to him, placing a hand on his arm. "They thought she would get better, they didn't want you to worry."

"But she didn't, did she?" Alex pulled away from her touch. "She got worse and she died and maybe if I had been here..."

"She wouldn't have?"

Alex looked down at his feet.

"Jesus, Alex. You can't think that-- it wasn't your fault. Yeah, you would have gotten to spend more time with her, but there's nothing you could have done to prevent her from dying."

"Yeah," Alex said, his voice rough. He knew that, he really did, but he couldn't help remembering before, the helpless feeling of being a child and unable to do anything. That feeling multiplied because this time he was an adult. He hadn't been able to save Lily because he was a child; he should have been able to save Pam. "I know. But I didn't even get the chance to try. Maybe if..." By the time his grandparents had told him his mom was sick, it had been too late for him to do anything but watch her fade away. "If I had known, maybe I could have--"

"No." Lois wrapped her arms around him, comfortingly real. "There's nothing you could have done. You can't blame yourself."

"You don't know," he whispered. "If you knew..."

"Knew what?"

"I hate her so much," he confessed, choking back a sob that threatened to escape. "She promised me she would be there and now she's not. I'm so mad I can't see straight and she's not around for me to be mad at and it's not fair!"

He hadn't cried when she'd died or at any time in the weeks leading up to her death. He hadn't cried at the funeral or the wake or any of the months afterwards. His anger had kept him from doing so and now, saying it out loud, Alex realized what a truly horrible person he was.

Lois' embrace was surprisingly strong as he cried against her neck. Part of him thought that it would be easier the second time around.

"It's okay to be mad," Lois whispered. "It doesn't make you a bad person."

"How am I supposed to get over this?" he asked. "How am I supposed to just get on with my life? Go back to school, start dating?"

"Because she would want you to. You know she would."

He could feel his anger slowly draining away, leaving him numb. "I miss her," he whispered.

"I know," Lois said.

Eventually, he pulled away, rubbing his eyes with the corner of his shirt. "If you tell anyone about this, I'll have to kill you," he warned.

"Don't worry, your reputation as a macho, macho man will be maintained." She drew an 'x' over her heart with her finger.

Alex took a deep, shuddering breath. "So, we have two weeks until we have to be back in Metropolis?" he asked. She was right, he was miserable here. He had to get on with his life at some point. He wouldn't be able to get into the graduate program this quarter, but he could probably start in the winter.

Lois grinned. "Yep. I'll even let you have your room back."

He frowned at her. "What do you mean 'back'? What did you do to it?"

"Nothing you need to worry about." She linked her arm through his, leading him back toward the house. "What do we do around here for fun?"

"Chores. You're good with waking up at 4:30, right?"

"Try it and you'll find out that these puppies are more than merely decorative," she said, running her nails lightly up his arm.

"You've been here how long? And you're already threatening physical violence?" Alex shook his head in mock despair. "Some reporter you'll make."

Lois punched him again, in the same place she'd hit him last time. Alex was pretty sure he was going to have a bruise. She hit really hard.

Lucas knew how to be quiet when necessary, which worked to his benefit now as he watched his brother go through his chores unaware of being observed. He leaned against the stable doorway and watched.

If there had been any doubt that Alexander Jenkins was a Luthor, it was erased as soon as Lucas saw him move. Alex moved like a Luthor, liquid grace that couldn't ever be taught. He was attractive, pretty in a masculine way with a nice body outlined by a pair of worn jeans and a white T-shirt.

Squinting his eyes, Lucas tried to picture Alex at Club Zero, tight pants, a silk shirt and a leather jacket. It was surprisingly easy.

"Here." Alex pulled a sugar cube out of his pocket and put it in his palm to feed the horse he was petting. "I know, it's been awhile since we've had a good, hard ride," Alex said softly.

"That's somewhat suggestive, taken out of context," Lucas said, stepping further in to the stable.

Alex's head snapped up, fixing Lucas with a surprised glance. "I'm sorry," he said warily. "I didn't know anyone was here."

"Please, don't apologize." Lucas smiled. "I didn't mean to startle you."

"Is there something I can help you with?" Alex asked, studying Lucas with a skeptical look on his face.

Lucas wondered what he must look like to Alex, with his expensive suit and shoes. "I was actually looking for you," Lucas said. "Your grandparents said you were out here."

Alex cocked his head. "Me? Why? Who are you?" He frowned, then added, "If you don't mind me asking."

"I'm sorry. I'm Lucas." He noted Alex's firm grip with appreciation as they shook hands. "As for why I'm here, I guess you could say I wanted to talk to you about family business."

"Family business?" Alex's frown deepened. "Did you know my mom?"

"No, I never had the pleasure." Lucas grinned. "I know your dad."

"What?"

The memory of the totally stunned expression on Alex's face was something Lucas was going to cherish for years to come. He licked his lips, savoring the moment. "I'm Lucas Luthor. Your brother."

"Wow," Lois said, rereading the letter Alex had handed her. "Wow. I mean, shit, Alex."

"I know." Alex flopped down on the bed. He'd woken Lois up as soon as Lucas had left, forgoing his chores for the day. There was only so much a guy could deal with at once and this was a lot to deal with.

"The Luthors are like the royal family in Metropolis! This is-- wow." She crawled up next to him before snuggling against his chest. "So are you ever going to talk to your grandparents again?"

Alex sighed. "I didn't even know I had a father and this kid comes up and says he's my brother, and oh, by the way, you're a Luthor and I had no fucking idea. Do you know how humiliating that is?" He wanted to break something. "Why is it that my family doesn't feel I need to actually know anything about my life?"

He'd confronted his grandparents as soon as Lucas had left the ranch. They'd given him a letter Pam had left that started out, "Dear Alex, if you're reading this, Lionel has contacted you..." Yeah, not quite, Mom.

"They were probably just trying to protect you," Lois said. "The Luthors aren't exactly...Lionel's business practices haven't always been...Um. Shit." Lois hadn't had much experience with tact. Alex supposed that was why she was having so much trouble with it now.

"I think I've had enough protection for one lifetime." He frowned. "Withholding information about someone's life, information that they have a right to know isn't about protection, it's about control."

"Your mom probably thought that if you knew, you might want to get to know him. Most guys would want to know their fathers."

"She didn't want me to leave." Alex closed his eyes. "I get that, but it still should have been my decision to make. I wouldn't have left."

"That's easy for you to say now," Lois whispered. "What are you going to do? Why did Lucas come here?"

"I don't know. He said he just wanted to get to know me." He opened his eyes again, staring at the ceiling. "I got the impression he hadn't had the greatest home life, being raised by Lionel. Maybe he just wants some sense of family." Alex knew he had sometimes taken his family for granted, but he hadn't fully realized how lucky he was until he'd spent a few minutes talking to Lucas.

"Yeah, maybe." Lois pushed away from him until she was lying on her side with her head propped on her hand. "What did you tell him?"

"I told him I was going back to Metropolis next week. He wants me to come to Smallville."

"Are you going to?" Lois asked.

"I don't know. I hadn't really thought about it that much. This is kind of a lot to deal with." But he had sort of been thinking about it. His mom's death had left a hole in his life that his grandparents and Lois didn't quite fill; a need for family and that's what Lucas was. Alex had a little brother. "I could go to Smallville for a little while, maybe."

"What about Lionel?"

"Lucas said something about us meeting in Smallville. He was going on about territorial advantages or something." Alex hadn't really quite followed the logic of that part of the conversation. "I was wondering if you could do me a favor."

"What's that?" Lois asked.

"When we get back to Metropolis, I want you to dig up all the information about the Luthors that you can. From what Lucas had to say, I don't want to go into this unprepared."

"Why wait until we get back to Metropolis?" Lois asked. "You have a computer, right? I can get started tonight."

Alex smiled. "Thanks."

"No problem. What I want you to do is talk to your grandparents, find out everything you can about the family from them. You mom said something about a trust, find out about that."

"Sure thing, boss," he teased.

Lois' smile was strained. "I want you to be careful, Alex. The Luthors are from a whole different world."

"I know." Alex sighed. "But I have to at least see..."

"I know."

"Besides," Alex said, sitting up. "They wouldn't dare try anything when I have Lois Lane, the Daily Planet's newest Ace Reporter on my side, fighting for truth, justice, and the American--Ow!" he said, rubbing his arm where Lois had just punched him. "You've really got to stop doing that."

"So, you're Lucas," Lois said, eyeing Alex's brother. She felt odd sitting in a nice restaurant with the Luthor heir pretending to be pleasant. Alex had introduced them and then run off to the bathroom, but not before casting a warning 'be nice' look in Lois' direction.

"And you're Lois." Lucas smiled as his eyes focused somewhere below her face. "Alex has told me all about you."

Lois wanted to kick him...hard. "Yeah, I've heard all about you too." She smiled sweetly. "Of course, most of it was from articles in the Daily Planet. It seems you were busy in high school."

Lucas laughed. "Yeah, Alex told me you were a reporter."

"Reporters aren't the only ones who read newspapers."

"I told him that was a first. Luthors usually spend their time avoiding reporters," Lucas said, ignoring her comment. "He didn't tell me how pretty you were though, although I suppose with him being...well, I'm sure it just never occurred to him."

She bit her lip, wondering how Lucas knew about Alex "being...". "Maybe he just knew that if you tried to hit on me, I'd castrate you." Which was not what she'd intended to say, but at least she was being sincere.

"Lesbian?" Lucas asked.

"No, just good taste."

"I get the feeling you don't care for me." Lucas smirked.

"Alex is my best friend."

"And he's my brother. Now that we know who everyone is--"

"Hey guys," Alex said as he walked up to the table, taking his seat again. "What are we talking about?"

"Just establishing titles," Lucas said. "Your girlfriend is very charming."

Alex blushed. "We're just friends."

Lois shot Lucas a wary look. Lucas had just implied that he knew that Alex was gay. Why was he acting like he didn't know that now? There was more going on here than Lucas' sob story about wanting a family. Lois was determined to find out what. She scratched the side of her nose with one long fingernail, resisting the urge to use her middle finger.

Lucas just smiled.

Smallville

"So this is Smallville?" Alex asked, staring down Main Street. "Lives up to its name."

"To say the least," Lucas said. "It's a shit-hole, but it's home. For the moment, anyway."

"What are we doing here?"

"Sorry." Lucas checked his watch. "I have to meet with the contractor about this garage. Do you want to come in?"

Alex looked up at the structure, taking in the scaffolding against the side of the ugly gray concrete. "No thanks, I'll stay out here," he said.

"Okay, I should only be a few minutes. Dad doesn't entrust me with anything important because I'm such a fuck-up," Lucas said, bitterness creeping into his voice. "When I'm done, we'll go to the mansion. You'll get a kick out of it, I'm sure. The place is huge."

"Sounds good." Alex leaned against the scaffolding, enjoying the afternoon sun as Lucas walked into the half-completed parking garage.

Smallville actually seemed like a nice little town. The main drag was cute. It reminded him of Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland. The little coffee shop across the street was crowded with the after school crowd.

A blue truck pulled up outside the coffee shop and a blond man and a dark-haired teenager got out. Alex straightened up a little as they looked over in his direction. The frown on the kid's face as he studied the garage disappeared when his gaze settled on Alex.

Alex pushed away from the scaffolding, standing up straight under the stranger's scrutiny when he heard a screech from behind him. Everything else happened too fast for Alex to follow. Someone shouted "Watch out!" and Alex turned to see one of the upper platforms of the scaffolding collapsing.

The next thing he was aware of was being flat on his back, staring up into the green eyes of the kid who had just been watching him from across the street.

"Clark!" somebody else shouted.

"Are you okay?"

Alex nodded, not quite trusting his voice yet. The kid was very close, pressed down on top of him and he really had the prettiest eyes. Now is not the time, Alex told himself.

"Clark, are you all right?" The blond man was standing over them now, a concerned look on his face.

Before the kid, Clark?, who was still on top of Alex with one leg wedged between Alex's thighs, could reply, Alex heard his brother's voice. "Alex, I see you've met Smallville's local hero: Clark Kent."

Clark appeared to ignore the comment as he studied Alex, probably not aware of just how long they had been lying like this or the crowd that had gathered around them. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Alex said, hoping Clark got off of him before Alex started noticing how nicely shaped Clark's lips were. How they would look--

"Clark," Lucas spoke again. "I'd like you to meet my brother, Alex."

Alex's wish was granted as Clark scrambled away from him, his concerned look replaced with one of disgust. "I didn't know you had a brother," he said disdainfully.

In school, Alex had never been popular. He had been insulted because of his parents and later because of his own sexuality, usually in vague, backhanded ways. Sometimes he had simply been ignored. He was not unaware of prejudice; he'd grown up with it. But never in his life had Alex been subject to such instant and open hostility as he was right now because of his last name. He hadn't ever felt so dirty for something he had no control over as he felt his face heat with shame and anger.

"I just found out recently myself," Lucas said as he held out his hand to help Alex off the ground.

"Just what the world needs, another Luthor."

"Clark!" the blond man said in warning, but he didn't apologize to either Lucas or Alex. Instead he said, "You might want to tell your father to make sure his contractors are following their safety guidelines." With that the two men turned and walked away.

"Thanks," Alex said quietly, rubbing the back of his head where it had hit the ground. He was going to have a bump there.

"Welcome to Smallville," Lucas said, clapping Alex on the shoulder. "Where it's always open season on the Luthors. This is the legacy our father has left us." He turned and started walking towards the car. "You'd better get used to it."

Alex's heart beat a little faster as Clark turned to look at him again. His hostile expression faltered for a second, but then hardened again as he looked back at Lucas.

"Great," Alex said softly as he watched Clark walk away.

"And they totally didn't believe me, but I took it to someone and it turns out that they were made of meteor rock," Chloe finished with a flourish of her hands, even though Whitney couldn't see her.

"I thought the meteor rocks were green," Whitney said.

"Most of them are, but they found some that were red and thought they could scam us, because we're just high school students after all." She switched the phone over to her other hand so that she could study the ring on her finger. It didn't look real at all.

Whitney laughed. "Little did they know that they'd have you to contend with."

Chloe beamed at the warm amusement in his voice. "The fools."

"So did everyone buy one?" he asked.

"Well, Pete did, but Clark didn't. Something about not seeing the point since he won't have a girlfriend to give it to or something. I had to remind him that we weren't living in the 50's anymore. But then he said I had no room to talk as long as I was wearing your letter jacket to school."

"You're not!" Whitney said. "You aren't wearing it to school, are you?"

Chloe snorted. "Of course not." She pulled the jacket around her body, the lingering scent of Whitney's cologne making her smile. "He caught me wearing it around the house, though," she admitted, blushing.

"Really?" Whitney sounded pleased at that. "Are you wearing it now?"

Chloe bit her lip. "Maybe. I miss you."

"I miss you too. You're coming down for the game next Saturday, right?"

"I wouldn't miss it." Chloe still thought football was about the dumbest game ever invented, not that she'd ever told Whitney that. But she loved watching him play, or warm the bench, or walk, or smile.

"Do you think you might be able to spend the weekend here?" Whitney asked.

"I think I might be able to spin it..." The other line beeped. "Can you hold on a second?"

"Sure."

She clicked over. "Hello?"

"Chloe! It's Lois! We need to talk."

"Okay..." Chloe frowned. "I'm on the other line with Whitney, can I call you back?"

"Oh, am I interrupting phone sex?"

"Lois!" Chloe blushed down to her roots. "Could you be a little more crude?"

"I could try," Lois said. "No promises, though."

"Whatever. Can I call you back?"

Lois gave her a dramatic sigh. "Fine. Get off with your boyfriend--"

"LOIS!"

"What? Oh! I didn't mean it like that." Lois laughed. "Nice dirty mind you've got there."

"It's your fault," Chloe mumbled.

"Whatever. Finish your conversation with him and then call me back, okay?"

"Okay, I'll talk to you in a few."

"Okay, bye!"

Chloe clicked back over. "Whitney? Are you still there?"

"I'm here. Who was that?"

"It was Lois. She has issues." She leaned back in her chair. "Now where were we?"

"'Just what the world needs'? You really said that?" Pete laughed, shaking his head as he shot the basketball and making a face as it bounced off the rim.

"Yeah." Clark frowned as he retrieved the ball. He had been going over yesterday's encounter all night last night and all day today.

Part of him felt incredibly guilty. That was the part that had noticed how good Alex Luthor's body had felt beneath his, how brilliantly blue his eyes were, how his pink lips had parted as...The part of him that felt guilty wasn't a part that used much logic. And yet, there had been something there; a moment where everything had become crystal-clear before blurring again.

Luckily Clark also remembered the obnoxious smirk that had graced Lucas' lips. Clark wasn't about to allow himself to be manipulated by a Luthor again, no matter how hot he was.

"Clark, dude." Pete waved a hand in front of his face. "You okay?"

Clark blinked at him. "Yeah, fine. Why?"

Pete shook his head. "It looked like you were about two seconds away from setting the hoop on fire."

The sound of tires crunching on gravel cut off Clark's reply. He and Pete turned to see a black Porsche pulling into the driveway-- the car that Lucas had tried to give him.

"Is that him?" Pete asked.

Clark nodded as Alex got out of the car, a determined look on his face.

"Clark," Alex said as he approached them.

"I wasn't aware we were on a first name basis," Clark said coldly.

Alex paused mid-stride. "Would you prefer 'Mr. Kent'?"

"What do you want?"

"I wanted to thank you for saving my life yesterday." He stood there tensely. "A quaint little etiquette sort of thing I grew up with."

Clark snorted. "I can only imagine. How did you plan to thank me?"

"I--" Alex looked confused. "I'm not sure what you mean by that."

When Clark didn't answer, Alex sighed, running a hand through his hair. Clark had to remind himself just who he was dealing with. Luthors had a way of getting past people's defenses and if Alex's tactics were a little different than Lucas', it didn't mean that his intentions were any more pure.

"Look, I just wanted to thank you. If there's any way I can repay you..." he trailed off, shrugging a little.

Clark frowned. "I don't know what your angle is, or what Lucas thinks he's going to accomplish by sending you over here, but you can tell him to forget it. I don't want anything from your family."

The muscle in Alex's jaw flexed suddenly as Alex's eyes narrowed. "I suppose it was dumb of me to expect you to judge me by something other than a last name I didn't have a month ago."

"I made the mistake of giving a Luthor the benefit of the doubt before," Clark said quietly. "You're not welcome here."

Alex nodded a little. "If the situation ever arises where you're in a position to save my life again, do me a favor and don't." His voice was low and quiet with anger. "I would rather be dead than indebted to someone like you."

Clark turned at the sound of gravel crunching again, watching as Chloe jumped out of her car as soon as it came to a stop.

"Chloe," Clark started, but she barely spared him a glance.

"Alex!" she squealed.

Clark watched in amazement as she practically threw herself into Alex's arms. Relief washed over Alex's features, a grin lighting up his face as he wrapped his arms around Chloe, lifting her off the ground for a moment before releasing her.

"Hey," Alex said. "If it isn't my favorite girl reporter." Taking one of Chloe's arms, he stepped back a little, studying her. "You look really good," he said finally, grinning again.

Chloe's faced scrunched up into a happy grin. "Your favorite?"

"Just don't tell anyone." Alex winked.

"I'm sure her boyfriend thinks she looks great," Clark said, sounding more petulant than angry as he tried to figure out what was going on. Chloe shot him a look that was part warning, part disapproval and part confusion before she turned back to Alex.

"How is your boyfriend?" Alex asked.

"Good. He's a little afraid of Lois now, though."

"Threats of castration?"

Chloe nodded. "She can be kind of vicious."

"And more than a little intimidating," Alex agreed.

"With the nails?" Chloe scrunched her nose a little. "Poor Whitney. Anyway, I talked to her. She told me you might be in town."

"Yeah?" Alex shifted a little nervously. "So she told you? About...everything?"

"You mean about the sudden growth to your family tree?" Chloe asked. "Yeah, she might have mentioned it."

"And you're still talking to me?" Alex sent a wary glance in Clark's direction.

Clark frowned for good measure.

"Yeah." Chloe smiled. "I assume, of course, that finding out you're a Luthor has transformed you into a criminal mastermind and that you are already well into developing your plans on how to take over Metropolis. I figure a death-ray is involved somehow." She shrugged. "I was just hoping to get a story out of it."

"I promised the exclusive to Lois," Alex said, frowning. "What if I just make you my second-in-command?"

Chloe considered the statement. "I'll have to see the outfit first."

"Would I ever lead you astray?" Alex asked.

"True. I accept your generous offer then."

"Dude," Pete whispered. "What just happened?"

Clark jumped a little; flushing guiltily because he'd forgotten Pete was there. Chloe and Alex were still ignoring them.

"What are you doing here, Chloe?" Clark asked, still frowning.

"Actually, I was looking for you." Chloe nodded at Alex. "I called the mansion and they told me you'd left, so I came to see if Clark wanted to help me track you down. The question is, what are you doing here?" She raised a questioning eyebrow first at Alex, then at Clark and Pete.

Clark guessed that Chloe wasn't as unaware of the tension in the air as he'd first thought.

"Wrong turn," Alex said. "I guess I got lost. This is definitely not what I was looking for," he said pointedly. "I was about to leave."

"Well, do you have plans?" Chloe asked. "Maybe we could all go get coffee."

Alex looked back at Clark and Pete. "I think maybe--"

"Actually," Clark cut him off. "Pete and I were going to finish this game and then go work on our homework."

"Okay," Chloe said slowly. "Alex? Coffee?"

"You're as bad as Lois," Alex said with a smile. "I'd love to."

"There's a place downtown," Chloe said.

"Across from the parking garage?" Alex asked.

Chloe nodded. "I'll meet you there? I just have to get the English assignment from these guys."

Alex nodded like he didn't believe her at all. "Don't be too long," he said before walking back to his car. He didn't spare Clark another glance.

When he had pulled completely out of the driveway, Chloe turned back to Clark and Pete. She had an overly sweet expression on her face and her eyes glittered darkly. "I would ask for an explanation, but I think I can guess. What's your problem with the Luthors anyway? I mean, I know Lucas can be a bit much, but--"

"It's really none of your business. Besides, I think we're the ones who deserve an explanation," Clark said. The look on Chloe's face got a little bit scarier.

"Hey, Clark. Remember that guy I was telling you about, my cousin's roommate?"

"Yeah," Clark said, not quite liking the feeling of the apparent non sequitur.

She took a step closer. "How when you came to visit, I told you he was gone because his mother had just died?"

Clark swallowed. "Yeah."

"How he was just about one of the greatest guys I've ever met and how I thought the two of you would get along really well?" She continued to stalk towards him.

He nodded, taking a few steps back.

"Well, guess what?"

"What?" Clark croaked.

"He just left."

"I was afraid you were going to say that," Clark mumbled, feeling like the royal asshole that he knew he was.

"So," Chloe said as she dumped another packet of sugar into her coffee. "Do you want to tell me what you were really doing there?"

"I told you already," Alex said blandly.

"Yes, and I suspect that was more for Clark's benefit than mine, as I know you would never insult my intelligence by thinking that I actually believed that." Any idiot could have felt the tension that she'd walked into back at Clark's.

Alex raised an eyebrow at her. "Your friend saved my life yesterday, pushed me out of the way as one of the scaffolding platforms collapsed." He shrugged. "I went to his place to thank him and he told me in no uncertain terms that I was not welcome there."

"Oh." Chloe was at a loss as to how to explain Clark's actions. "Well, you've got to understand that your father has cheated a lot of people out of their property, homes and businesses."

"Did he..." Alex regarded her solemnly. "Did my father take the Kents' property?"

"Um, not exactly." Chloe chewed her lip. "He didn't really ever approach them. But!" she said when Alex's expression hardened again. "He took over Pete's family's business."

"Pete?"

"The other guy who was there."

"Well, unfortunately, Pete wasn't the one saying anything." Alex took a sip of his coffee. "Was Clark the guy you were hung up on last year?"

"Yeah," Chloe reluctantly admitted.

"You're better off with Whitney."

"Clark's really not a bad guy. He just..."

"Hates me," Alex finished. "Because of something I have absolutely no control over. I'm sure he's a prince."

"Well, he and Lucas don't really get along," Chloe said.

Alex snorted. "I wonder why."

"No, it's not like that. They were friends." She paused. "Not good friends or anything. They didn't have sleepovers and braid each other's hair." Alex smiled at that. "But they got along well enough."

"So what happened?"

Chloe sighed. "I don't know. The only thing I can think of is that Clark's girlfriend at the time went to Lucas to see if he could stop your father from building the parking garage."

"His girlfriend?" Alex asked.

"Yeah," Chloe said distractedly. She hadn't been able to figure out what exactly had happened and when she'd brought it up with Clark, he'd told her he didn't want to talk about it. "What I figured is that it was Clark's idea to ask Lucas for help. They broke up and a week or so later, they started work on the garage. So maybe Lana blamed Clark?" She wrinkled her nose. That didn't make a whole lot of sense, especially since Clark was gay. "I don't know." When she looked up, Alex was gaping at her.

"I got treated like that because of a parking garage?" His jaw snapped shut with an audible click. "I'm sorry, Chloe, but your friend is an asshole."

"It was just a theory," she said. "If it makes you feel any better, he feels like an asshole."

"He should."

"He does."

"Good."

"You still aren't going to want to get to know him, are you?" Chloe asked.

"Not in this lifetime," Alex answered. "So, tell me about your boy. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet him this summer."

Chloe grinned. "He's perfect," she said. "Do you want to see a picture?"

Alex laughed. "Show me."

She handed him the senior picture Whitney had given her that she carried around in her wallet.

"Nice," Alex said, studying it. "I bet you guys look all cute and Aryan together. Hey!" He batted away the straw wrapper she'd thrown at him. "And have dozens of little blonde-haired blue-eyed children of the corn--ow!" He reached down and rubbed his shin where Chloe had kicked him. "Now I know which side of the family Lois gets her violent streak from."

"I can't believe she threatened to castrate him!" Chloe said suddenly, much too loudly. She blushed as several people turned to look at them.

Alex didn't seem to notice. "Yeah, why do you think I don't bring dates home."

"Um, because you don't date?"

"Yeah, that too." He winked at her.

Chloe sighed. She thought that it was really too bad Clark had made such an ass of himself. He and Alex would have been good together. Maybe she could set Alex up with her cousin Jake.

"How'd the car run?" Lucas asked, startling Alex.

"Great, perfect!" Alex said, turning away from the sword he'd been studying.

"It's yours then."

"Excuse me?" He stared at Lucas, not sure he'd heard him correctly.

"The car. I purchased it as a gift, but it was returned with deepest regrets." He smirked. "So, if you want it..."

"Um, thanks," Alex said uncertainly as he turned back to study the wall.

"This is the War Room," Lucas said, as they studied the various weapons. "I think it says a lot about the way our father's mind works. Speaking of Dad..." Lucas turned to him. "He should be on his way to Smallville even as we speak."

"Really?" Alex asked, suddenly nervous. He had recognized Lionel Luthor as soon as Lois had shown him a picture. At least he was able to appreciate the irony of the conversation they'd had in the coffee shop so many years ago.

The thing was, there was probably a good reason his parents hadn't ever told him about his father and Alex had been having second thoughts about meeting the man. If Smallville's citizens' reactions were anything to go by, Lionel was not someone Alex wanted to get involved with in any way. Except that he was already involved. "Why am I here?" Alex asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, why did you bring me here? What do you want with me?" Alex turned to face his brother. "What do you have to gain from my being here?"

"What makes you think I stand to gain anything?" Lucas asked, a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth, as if Alex had just said something terribly precocious.

"Because you stand to lose a lot with me here. I want to know what you gain."

"I gain a brother."

Alex didn't believe him.

They both turned as the door to the War Room flew open.

"Don't think that this is going to be a regular occurrence, Lucas." Lionel said as he swept in the room.

"Dad," Lucas said with a sharkish grin. He nodded toward Alex, who, in turn, stood up a little straighter. "I assume you don't really need an introduction."

Lionel's expression softened, if it could be called that. The smile he wore still had too much of a predatory edge for Alex's liking. "Alex," he said. "I'm so glad to finally meet you."

"We met before, Mr. Luthor. Or have you forgotten?"

Lionel laughed. "Mr. Luthor? Isn't that a bit formal? I suppose it's far too soon for 'Dad', however. How about Lionel?" He walked over until he stood in front of Alex, clapping him on the shoulder. "And I haven't forgotten our prior meeting, Son. I couldn't quite help myself. I wanted to talk to you and I remember being very proud of the young man you'd become."

Alex tried not to flinch under the man's touch, the stranger in front of him who was his last living parent. "Why didn't you tell me who you were then?" he asked.

"You seemed happy and your mother didn't want me to interfere." Lionel smiled. "She did a good job of raising you, I never had a reason to interfere."

"Gee, Dad." Lucas placed a hand over his heart. "That's really very touching."

"Now, Lucas. Surely you don't begrudge me my paternal pride in my eldest son?"

Lucas stiffened, his smile tense. "I wouldn't dream of it. Shall we go to the library and have a drink?"

"Of course," Lionel said, turning to lead the way.

They were all silent until they had settled with their drinks.

"What do you plan to do now that you've graduated from school?" Lionel asked. "I noticed that you received a business degree as well."

"Yeah," Alex said. "I wanted to have something that would be useful in helping with the ranch."

"I'm impressed in that sort of initiative. I've been trying to get Lucas interested in the family business, but it seems he has more important things to pursue." Lionel sat back in his chair, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "How would you like to take over Plant Number Three for me?" he asked.

Alex choked on the sip he'd just taken, alcohol burning down his throat. "Excuse me?"

"The plant is, well, it's not doing very well. I was planning on shutting it down, but I would be willing to turn it over to you if you wanted to put that business degree to a practical use."

"I--" Alex blinked at him, not sure he was hearing correctly. "I have no experience running a plant that size. I would have no idea what to do."

Lionel shrugged. "There are some capable men in management there, they just need a competent leader. Gabe Sullivan would be able to get you started."

"You're serious," Alex said.

"Absolutely." Lionel smiled. "Of course, if there's something else you're planning on doing, it's no big loss. We'll just go ahead with my original plan."

"Which is to shut it down?"

"Yes. It's losing money. It wouldn't be pragmatic to keep it open if things continue to operate as they have been."

"Can't Lucas take it over?" Alex asked, turning to find his brother studying him coldly.

"Of course not, Alex," Lucas said. "I'm not competent enough. You're their only hope. How convenient."

"I'm sure that's not..." Alex trailed off as he saw the look on Lionel's face. He looked like he had just chummed the waters of a shark tank and was waiting for the first kill. "How many people are employed there?" he finally asked.

"Approximately twenty-five hundred," Lionel said with a satisfied grin. "Are you interested?"

"Am I--" Alex felt like he was drowning, pressure closing in on his chest, pressing against his lungs in a way that hadn't happened in years. He had stopped carrying his inhaler. Hanging his head between his legs for a moment, Alex took a moment to try and calm down. His father, who he had just met, was placing on his shoulders the lives of over twenty-five hundred people. "I'll do it," he said quietly, lifting his head in time to see a spiteful look pass across Lucas' face. But what other choice did Alex have?

"Excellent," Lionel said, raising his glass.

"I think this calls for a toast," Lucas said, smiling darkly as he raised his own glass. "To the prodigal son. Welcome home."

"So, do you want to go?" Chloe asked. "I already talked to Lois and we can stay at her place, if you guys don't mind the floor."

"Um, let's see...Free tickets to Met U's first game of the season, which means a weekend in Metropolis? I think that would be a yes," Pete said, grinning.

"Clark?" Chloe turned to him, raising an eyebrow.

"I'll have to ask my parents," Clark said. "But as long as I get my chores done, I don't see why not." It did sound like a good time. Clark had only been able to visit Chloe in Metropolis once over the summer and he was definitely looking forward to going back. He was pretty sure he wanted to go to Met U.

"Yay!" Chloe bounced in her chair. "We'll have so much fun!"

"I guess if we're going to be gone this weekend, we should get this done," Clark said, waving at the math homework they'd been doing. He thought that it should be illegal to assign that much homework during the first week. By the way Chloe scrunched her nose at her book, Clark guessed that she agreed with him.

He took another sip of his iced coffee and sat back in his chair, strategically located right over a vent that was blowing blessedly cold air up the leg of his pants. The first few days of school had been almost unbearably hot. He wasn't sure how regular people could stand it. Chloe had been wearing strappy tank tops that reaffirmed Clark's sexuality, because if the way that she looked in the outfit she'd been wearing yesterday didn't turn him on, he was pretty sure nothing female could. The way Pete's eyes kept drifting when he talked to Chloe was, however, entirely amusing.

Chloe looked up suddenly, smiling. Clark turned around to see Alex walking towards them. He felt a little queasy as he tried to think of something to say, or not say. He really wasn't sure how to act now. He hadn't seen Alex since the other day when he'd stopped by the farm, since Chloe had chewed him out for being such an ass.

As it turned out, he didn't have to worry. Alex walked right by them. Clark watched as Alex sat down in a table in the corner and stared at the cup he was holding. He looked a little dazed...and really good. He was wearing a faded pair of jeans and a thin gray T-shirt, both of which were a beautifully close fit. His skin was glistening with sweat and Clark had an almost overwhelming urge to go over there and lick the side of Alex's neck. Unfortunately, he didn't think the gesture would be appreciated.

Chloe frowned and chewed her lip for a moment. "I'll be right back."

"I'm gonna go get a refill," Pete said.

Clark just nodded distractedly as he watched Chloe walk over to Alex's table. He was pretty sure that if he concentrated a little, he would be able to hear what they were saying. They weren't that far away.

"Hey," Chloe said, sitting down.

Alex looked startled. "Chloe, hey. Where'd you come from?"

"Over there." She pointed to their table and Clark looked away, hoping they hadn't seen him watching.

"I'm sorry, I didn't even see you," Alex said.

"Yeah, you seem kind of distracted." She paused. "What's up?"

Alex ran his fingers through his hair. "I met Lionel yesterday."

Which just made Clark feel that much worse about his earlier behavior. He didn't know that Alex hadn't even met his father yet.

"Ah, that explains it," Chloe said.

"What?"

"The look."

"Oh." Alex sighed. "You don't even know the half of it." He rubbed his eyes tiredly. "He put me in charge of the plant."

"He what?" Chloe asked a little too loudly.

"He said that he was planning on shutting it down, but if I-- if I wanted some 'practical business experience', he would hand it over to me instead." Alex's voice was rough and low. "I couldn't-- I didn't know what else to do."

"Oh." Chloe sat back in her chair. "Yeah, Dad was saying something about the possibility of it being shut down, but I didn't think he was serious."

"Jesus, Chloe! What am I supposed to do? I don't know anything about running a factory!"

"Well, obviously your father has faith in you."

Alex snorted. "This has nothing to do with his faith in me. He just met me. This is some sort of power play between him and Lucas. I'm just the unlucky bastard stuck in the middle." He rubbed his eyes again. "If all those people lose their jobs, it'll be my fault."

"Hey." Chloe reached across the table and grabbed his hand. "It'll be okay. We all know that you're terribly brilliant. Plus, you know my dad's the plant manager, right? He thinks you're great, so you already have an advantage there."

"So long as he overlooks the blatant and insulting act of nepotism involved," Alex said, studying his coffee.

"Trust me, Alex. He knows how Lionel Luthor operates by now. He won't blame you for this."

"I guess it's true, about my family." He looked so guilty when he looked back up at Chloe. "About us being--"

"Them," Chloe said, cutting him off.

Judging by the weak smile that Alex gave her, he wasn't totally convinced.

Clark blinked as Pete's hand waved in front of his face.

"Dude, I was wondering if you were ever going to snap out of it," Pete said.

"Sorry, I was kind of spacing."

Pete snorted. "Yeah, I hadn't noticed."

Alex felt a lot better after meeting with Gabe Sullivan. Just as Chloe had predicted, Gabe hadn't held the unjustified promotion against him.

Lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling, Alex wondered how his life could change so drastically in such a short amount of time. He wished he were back at college, where his biggest responsibility was getting his lab done on time.

He wished his mom were still alive so that she could tell him why she'd chosen to keep the truth about his father a secret. He wished that he didn't know how it felt to be truly hated. He wished he didn't notice how his brother's eyes followed him around the room whenever they were together. "If wishes were horses," he mumbled.

The ringing phone startled him. He eyed it warily for a long moment before picking it up. "Hello?"

"You're supposed to call me when things happen. Even if it's little things like, oh, I don't know...you inheriting a fertilizer plant!"

"Hey, Lois." He smiled a little at her outraged tone. "You talked to Chloe?"

"You're such a jerk."

"I was going to call you. I just needed to process a little."

"What are you going to do?" She asked.

"The best I can. I don't really have much of a choice, do I?" he asked.

"Alex, you need to be careful. I don't know what they're up to, but I don't think Lucas is just going to let this slide."

"I know," Alex said. He'd been trying not to think about it, but he guessed that was probably a bad strategy. It was just that he hadn't worked out a better one yet.

"You know what this means?" Lois asked.

"What?"

"You'll need new clothes! You'll have to look professional." She sounded far too excited at the prospect. "I know a few stores that would be perfect!"

"Lois, there are stores in Smallville, I'm almost positive."

"Yeah, but nothing befitting a Luthor."

"I can't believe you just said that."

"Come on. Come to Metropolis this weekend. Chloe's coming for the football game; you can ride up with her!"

"If that's your selling point, you're really gonna have to work on your sales pitch," he informed her.

"Please?" She was dangerously close to whining. "I miss you," she said softly.

Alex winced. "That's below the belt. You know that, right?"

"I'm not afraid to play a little dirty," she said. "So you'll come?"

"I'll come."

"Great! And maybe while you're here, we can get your nipples pierced."

"Lois!"

She laughed. "It was worth a shot."

"Sadist."

"Remember to call us when you get there," Clark's mom said.

"And remember that you're underage," his dad added.

"I'll be fine, guys." Clark smiled. "It's just a football game." He heard Chloe's car pulling into the driveway. "They're here."

His parents walked him out to Chloe's car as she popped out and walked around to open the trunk. "Pete called shotgun," she said as Pete waved to him from the passenger's side.

Clark wanted to complain, but they had agreed to always abide by the rules of shotgun. "You couldn't have picked me up first?" he asked as he threw his backpack in the trunk.

"It would have been out of the way."

He was pretty sure the rules of shotgun needed to be redefined. Thankfully, it had rained last night, cooling things off a bit.

"Have a good time, honey," his mom said as she kissed him on the cheek.

"Call us when you get there," his dad said, as if they hadn't taken turns telling him that every fifteen minutes all afternoon.

"Be good," his mom added.

"I will, I will, I will," Clark said as he squeezed in behind Pete. "I love you!"

They stood there waving as Chloe pulled out of the driveway. Clark sighed in relief. He couldn't imagine what they would be like when he went off to college.

"Okay, we have one more stop to make and then we'll be off," Chloe said as she turned in the direction opposite the freeway.

"Chloe," Clark said warily as they drove. There was only one thing out this way.

"Please be nice," Chloe said.

"This will be a fun ride," Pete muttered.

"You too, Pete. Alex hasn't done anything to either of you."

"He's a--"

"If you say 'Luthor', Pete, I swear I'll pull over and make you walk to Metropolis," Chloe said sharply. She glared at Pete out of the corner of her eye before glaring at Clark in the rearview mirror.

"I wasn't going to be mean," Clark said. "But I'm sure he isn't going to be too happy to see me. Have you told him I'm coming?"

Chloe murmured something that sounded like, "I'm sure it'll be fine." Nobody said anything else for the rest of the drive to the Luthor mansion. The weekend wasn't off to the greatest start.

"I'll be right back," Chloe said as she popped out of the car.

"What do you think?" Pete asked as they watched Chloe walk up to the door and knock.

"I think I might have been a little hasty in my judgment," Clark admitted.

"Yeah," Pete said grudgingly. "Chloe says he's really cool."

Alex opened the door, a backpack on his shoulder, and smiled at Chloe. Then he looked at the car and stopped smiling.

Clark heard Chloe say, "Pete called shotgun."

"You should have told me," Alex said.

"He promised to be nice."

"I didn't."

"Alex--" The glare Alex gave her cut off whatever else she was going to say. She opened the trunk instead. "It's only a three hour drive," she said as she shut the trunk.

"Perfect," Alex muttered.

A moment later he was squeezing behind the driver's seat and Clark was realizing how very small Chloe's backseat was. "Hey, Alex," he tried.

Alex paused in the act of fastening his seatbelt and looked at Clark coldly. "I didn't know we were on a first name basis," he said.

"Right," Clark said, shutting his eyes as Alex tried to get his seatbelt latched, his knuckles brushing against Clark's hip. "I deserved that."

Alex didn't answer him.

When Alex had finally settled in his seat, his legs, like Clark's, were spread to accommodate the small amount of space they had. The result being that his thigh was pressed against Clark's and Alex's body was hot and very close and visibly tense as Alex glared at the back of Chloe's head.

"Well, we're off," Chloe said with forced cheerfulness.

It was going to be a long ride.

By the time they reached the first rest stop, about an hour into their trip, Clark was so on edge that it felt like is body was itching to jump out of his skin. After a few failed attempts at conversation by Pete and Chloe, the drive had been quiet, the radio not quite enough to drown out the tense silence.

Chloe suddenly pulled off the highway in a jerky turn and into the nearest gas station, breaking a little harder than was strictly necessary. "I need something to drink," she said before slamming her door shut.

"Me too," Pete mumbled, only slightly slower in his haste to escape the pervasive sense of animosity in the car.

"So, um. Some weather we're having, huh?" Clark asked. It was now obvious to him that he'd lost his mind.

Alex just raised an eyebrow.

"Look." Clark sighed. "I'm sorry...about before. I was out of line. I just--"

"Why are you apologizing?" Alex asked so quickly that it took Clark several moments to process the question.

"Why? What do you mean?"

"If I weren't a friend of Chloe's, would you still be apologizing?"

Oh. "I'd like to think I would be," Clark said. "But, no, probably not. But not for the reason you think."

"How so?"

"I'm not apologizing because you're Chloe's friend; that was just what made me realize what a jerk I was." He sighed. "It's just-- when I saw Lucas standing there with that look on his face, and then later when you came to the farm..." Clark shut his eyes, acutely aware that he had Alex's full attention now.

"You thought Lucas sent me and that I was there to-- what? What did you think Lucas had planned?"

"I don't know," Clark admitted. "But I've dealt with the repercussions of giving Lucas the benefit of the doubt before. You never know what he has planned." He turned to look at Alex. "You should be careful around him."

Alex looked surprised by that. "Why?"

"Because he screws with people just to prove he can," Clark said shortly. What made him think this would be a good idea? Talking about Lucas was just putting him in a worse mood than before.

"No," Alex said softly. "I mean, why do you care?"

"Back!" Chloe said, sticking her head in the door.

Clark jumped at the sound of her voice. He hadn't even seen her approaching the car. She had a huge soda in her hand, braced against the back of the driver's seat as she dug around for something in the glove box.

"Here, Chloe, let me take that," Clark said, eyeing the precariously balanced drink warily.

He wasn't quite sure what happened next, except that it was so, so bad. His fingers had just closed around the top of the cup when Chloe pulled away, still holding the bottom half. With the condensation gathering under his fingers, Clark only had enough of a grip to knock the drink out of Chloe's hand.

Right into Alex's lap.

"Oh, no," Clark groaned as many, many ounces of soda soaked into Alex's shirt and jeans. It was so bad.

"Here," Chloe said, thrusting a handful of napkins in Clark's face.

Clark grabbed the napkins and started mopping up the liquid, his face heating with embarrassment. One would think that super-fast reflexes would prevent this sort of thing.

It was only when Alex made a half-strangled growling sort of sound that Clark realized exactly where he'd been mopping.

Oh, God. Let me die now. Right now and I'll never ask for anything else ever again. Unfortunately, when Clark cracked an eyelid, he found that he was still very much alive. Fortunately, Alex had managed to get out of the car.

"Here," Chloe said. This time she was holding a towel.

"Thanks," Clark mumbled, drying off the rest of the seat. When he was done, he leaned back and shut his eyes. "Is it over yet?" he asked nobody in particular.

"Alex went to the bathroom to change," Chloe told him. "That was really smooth, Clark. I'd give it a ten."

"Thanks."

"Dude, Clark," Pete said. "I knew you didn't like the guy, but don't you think that was a little much?"

"So much for apologizing," Clark said.

Chloe sat down in her seat. "Don't worry about it, Clark. It was an accident. I'm sure he'll understand."

"Right, I'll just--" he stopped as he caught sight of Alex walking back toward the car.

"Damn," Chloe said.

"Yeah," Clark agreed.

Alex was wearing a pair of black jeans that rode so low on his hips that there was about an inch of bare skin between his jeans and the dark red T-shirt he was wearing.

"Really?" Pete asked, wrinkling his nose.

"I got you another drink, Chloe." Alex handed the cup to her. "Just don't let Clark anywhere near it," he said as he slid back into the car.

When Clark looked up Alex was smiling, just a little.

"Hey, Chloe. Did I ever tell you how Lois and I met?" Alex asked.

The apartment that Alex and Lois had moved into after their first year of living together was actually pretty nice for a college apartment. It was on the eighth floor, about ten blocks from campus. There was a porch that ran the length of the two bedrooms and the living room with a nice view of downtown Metropolis. Alex had continued to pay rent when he'd gone back to Montana so that Lois wouldn't have to move because he'd been planning on coming back. They still hadn't worked out what they were going to do now that it looked like Alex was going to be in Smallville for awhile.

But for the moment, Alex was glad that they still had the apartment. He felt more at home here than he'd felt in a long time. Alex had relaxed almost the moment they'd crossed into the Metropolis city limits. As good as it felt to be home, he would have thought he'd be able to sleep right away.

Instead, he was standing on the balcony at two a.m., leaning against the railing and taking in the city lights. It was mostly quiet, although there were still sounds coming from the street. Metropolis was never totally quiet, not in the way the ranch was at night.

It wasn't the noise from the street that was bothering him, though. The reason for his insomnia was sleeping in the next room, tall and pretty with dark hair and the most obscene puppy dog eyes Alex had ever seen.

He sighed, wondering what the hell he was thinking. The kid had been incredibly rude to him when they'd first met, but this afternoon when he'd been apologizing, he'd seemed sincere.

And then the whole thing with the drink had happened. A smile twitched at the corners of Alex's mouth as he thought about it. Clark had looked so mortified. And then he'd started to wipe it up with the napkins. Alex had been grateful for the fact that there was lots of ice and that Clark was too flustered to really notice what he was doing.

Even so, he'd had to use cold water in the bathroom to rinse away the stickiness of the soda. Which brought him back to wondering what the hell he was thinking. Clark was too young for Alex to be having the thoughts he was having. Pretty, with the most wonderful mouth Alex had ever seen, but too young and Alex had sworn to himself a long time ago that he would never be that guy. He would never do that to someone else.

The sound of the living room door sliding open distracted him from his thoughts. "Couldn't sleep?" he asked as Clark stepped out onto the porch.

"Pete snores." Clark smiled a little. "I'm sorry. I didn't know anyone was out here. I can go back in if you want to be alone," he said, sounding terribly shy.

"Don't worry about it," Alex said. "Pull up a rail." That earned him a full-fledged smile as Clark walked over to him, leaning against the rail in a mimic of Alex's pose. Just far enough away that they weren't touching.

He's too young.

"It's so noisy out here," Clark said.

Alex smiled. "Yeah, it takes some getting used to. It drove me crazy when I first moved here. Now I think it's kind of comforting."

"Where did you move from?"

"Montana. My family has a horse ranch there."

"So you're sort of a farmboy too?" Clark sounded pleased at the possibility.

"You could say that," Alex said.

They lapsed into a surprisingly comfortable silence, an occasional autumn breeze carrying the city sounds a little closer to them. Alex was loath to stir things up again, but he had to ask. "What did he do to you?"

"Hmm?" Clark asked, turning to blink at him sleepily.

"Lucas. What did he do to you to earn such animosity?"

"Oh." Clark looked down at his hands. "I'd rather not talk about it...if you don't mind?" He sighed. "It wasn't one of my better hours and I just-- it's kind of embarrassing."

Alex nodded. "Fair enough."

"Alex, I really am sorry about before." Clark turned to face him, leaning against the railing with one elbow. "I have no right to expect a chance to make it up to you, but I'm asking for one anyway."

"What would you do?" Alex turned so that he was facing Clark too. He hadn't realized how close they were standing. "To make it up to me?" That question hadn't sounded nearly so suggestive in his head.

"I don't know." Clark leaned a little closer with a conspiratorial grin. "Between you and me, I hadn't thought that far ahead yet." His breath smelled like toothpaste. His mouth would probably taste like it.

"Oh. Um..." It wasn't one of his most brilliant responses, but Alex wasn't able to come up with anything better. What were they talking about? "Why?" That seemed safe.

Clark shrugged a shoulder. "I think I could like you...a lot."

"You're too young." That really wasn't what he'd meant to say.

"Oh." Clark blinked and straightened up, the sounds of the city suddenly seeming that much louder. "I just thought...you're friends with Chloe and all. But I guess with Lois-- I'm sorry."

"No. I mean, I didn't mean that like it sounded," Alex said, unsure now of whether Clark was talking about them being friends or something else. "I--"

"That's fine." Clark took another step back. "I just thought--"

"Alex?" Lois' sleepy voice cut off Clark's sentence. His jaw snapped shut with an audible click. "Oh, hey, Clark," she said as she stepped out onto the porch. "What are you guys doing out here?"

"I was just going back inside," Clark said immediately. "Good night!"

"He's a pretty boy," Lois said as the door slid shut.

"Thank you for that insight," Alex snapped. "He's sixteen."

"Seventeen," Lois corrected.

"Whatever."

She looked out over the city. "Did I tell you he was gay?"

"I think I figured that one out all on my own."

She shrugged. "I think he has a little crush on you."

Alex glared at her.

"So what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to go to bed." Alex turned to walk back to his room.

Lois snorted. "You know what I mean."

He turned back to her. "I know what you mean and you know I don't date, especially not high school students. I'm not sure what you're so concerned about." He frowned. "I'm not going to do anything."

"We'll see how long that lasts."

"Don't," Alex warned her. "He's seventeen. You know why."

"You're not Jake, Alex."

"I intend to keep it that way," Alex said. "Look, he and I have had one civil conversation. I don't even know why we're discussing this."

Lois walked over to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. You know what I dirty mind I have."

Alex laughed a little, hugging her back. "Yeah, I know you're a big pervert."

"Now go to bed," she ordered. "We have a big day of shopping tomorrow."

"You're evil." He watched for a moment as she walked back to her room. "Lois," he said right before her door slid shut.

She poked her head back out. "Yeah?"

"I'm not getting my nipples pierced."

The grin he got in response scared him a little. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see."

Clark wasn't sure what actually woke him up, the smell of coffee or the feeling that he was being watched. After a moment of concentration, he was able to look through his eyelids, which, in his opinion, was one of the coolest tricks he'd taught himself to do.

Alex was leaning against the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room, watching Clark with an expression that Clark couldn't quite read, save for its intensity.

Embarrassed at being caught looking, Clark jerked his head in the other direction before he remembered that Alex couldn't see his eyes. Clark made a little noise in his throat and sat up, hoping that Alex would mistake the sudden movement for a dream. He turned to see Alex pulling some mugs out of the cupboard.

Pete was still totally out of it, if the sound of his snores were anything to go by.

"Morning," Alex said softly as Clark sat on one of the stools on the other side of the counter.

"Hey."

"Did you sleep okay?"

Clark nodded as he watched Alex pour a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

"Look, about last night," Alex said as he added a teaspoon of chocolate powder to the cup. "I didn't really mean what I said before." He poured a dribble of vanilla extract in next. "I'm not sure where that came from."

"Sleep deprivation?" Clark offered as he watched Alex add a teaspoon of sugar before stirring.

"Yeah, maybe."

The door at the end of the hallway opened.

"Anyway, what I wanted to say was..."

Lois stumbled into the kitchen. Without really looking at Clark or Alex, she took the cup of coffee that Alex had just fixed and walked into the bathroom, slamming the door shut. Pete snorted a little and turned over.

"I'd like us to be friends," Alex finished as he started to fix another cup of coffee in the same way as the last one. "If you'd like, that is."

Clark sighed. "I don't know, Alex. I mean...friendship? I'm not sure if I'm old enough for that. Maybe if I get my parents to sign a permission slip?" he asked innocently.

Alex studied him for a minute. "Yes, I suppose that'd work," he said as he handed the second cup of coffee to Chloe, who'd just entered the room. She took it with what sounded like a grateful grunt and then walked back to the bedroom. "Although there are laws that limit the number of hours in a day that we can be friends. They're for your protection."

"And when I turn eighteen, we can be friends full time?" Clark asked.

"If you'd like."

"Hmmm." Clark pretended to consider the offer. "Will I get a raise?"

"Depends on what you're willing to do to earn it." Alex froze as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "I mean--" He blushed. "Would you like some coffee?"

Clark smiled. He could feel his own face heating a little. "Sure, but just black, please."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Why? That's not much fun."

"Yes, but it makes me feel all manly." Clark was impressed that he'd been able to get that out with a straight face.

Amusement danced in Alex's eyes. "Oh, yes. Black coffee is incredibly manly." He pulled out a black mug and poured. "Here you go, cowboy."

"Thank you," Clark said, accepting the drink. As he took a sip, he noticed a curve of pink on the other side of the mug. He turned it around to find the word "Princess" written in pale pink cursive with a pretty crown decorating the 'P'. "And don't you forget it," he said haughtily, taking another sip.

The sound of Alex's laughter was something that Clark definitely wanted to hear more of.

"I love you," Lois said as she walked back into the room, holding out her cup for a refill. A cloud of steam from the bathroom followed close behind.

"Well, I'm very lovable," Alex replied matter-of-factly.

"I'll have your babies if you'd like," she offered. "Did you know that I had to make my own coffee while you were gone?" She set her cup on the counter and buried her face in the crook of Alex's neck.

Alex winked at Clark as he hugged Lois. "That must have been horrible."

"It was," she sniffed. "I can't ever get it as good."

"You know, you'd have to give up caffeine if you were carrying my child," Alex told her.

She raised an eyebrow. "You think I couldn't do it?"

"I just want to make sure you're fully aware of what you're offering." Alex shrugged.

"I would give up caffeine to carry your child. That's how much I love you." Lois said, scratching his cheek lightly. "You need to shave."

"What if I want to look scruffy?" Alex asked.

"I'm the one that has to be seen with you, Alex." She pinched his butt, which he found totally inappropriate. "Go take a shower before Chloe gets in there. She takes forever."

Alex turned to Clark. "Do you see how she treats me?"

"Oh, I'm not getting in the middle of this," Clark said, taking another sip of his coffee. "But she's right about Chloe. Do you think that flippy hair just happens?"

"Some friend you're turning out to be." Alex shook his head in mock disappointment.

Clark's eyes widened. "I'm not on the clock yet."

Alex snickered as he poured himself some coffee. "I guess I'm going to go take a shower and shave, then," he said as he headed off to the bathroom, barely beating Chloe there. "Sorry," he said as he shut the door in her face.

"Just don't take forever," she yelled through the door.

"Yeah, yeah," he mumbled as he stripped off his T-shirt and pajama pants. He turned on the shower and then turned back to the mirror as he waited for the water to heat up.

He ran a hand over his chest as he studied his reflection. Lightly scratching his thumbnail over a nipple, he tried to picture what it would look like pierced. "Nah," he whispered.

The edges of the mirror were starting to fog up so Alex turned back to the shower, testing the water with one hand before stepping in. He groaned as the hot water washed over him, turning his back to the showerhead to get his hair wet. And because Alex hadn't thought of something to occupy his mind like he'd planned, the image of Clark popped into his head.

Alex had watched Clark sleep long enough to feel more than a little creepy. He was pretty sure that nobody was supposed to look that beautiful when they slept. People looked ridiculous when they slept. They drooled and snored and twitched.

But, naturally, Clark had looked just as tempting sleeping as he did at any other time.

Clark had been on the floor, lying on his side, one arm tucked under his head, the other draped along his side, his hand resting against his stomach. His lips had been slightly parted, his eyelashes dark against his cheeks and he had the nerve not to snore.

Alex had thought it couldn't get any worse and then Clark woke up. When he crawled out of the sleeping bag, he'd looked at Alex with hooded eyes and hair mussed like he'd just been thoroughly fucked.

It was probably a bad sign that Alex was jealous of the pillow that had gotten to make Clark's hair look like that. Stupid pillow. Alex had been glad to have the counter separating them.

His hand trailed down his stomach as he thought of more fun ways to get Clark's hair to stick out like that. He imagined what it would feel like against his fingers, against his cheek as Clark kissed his neck, against his thighs as Clark...

"Shit," Alex groaned as his fingers closed around his erection, which was already painfully hard. This was really not the time. There were other people waiting to use the shower.

Like Clark.

He moved his fist over his cock, running his thumb over the slit as he pictured Clark in the shower, water running down his body over curved muscles and golden skin.

His hand moved a little faster as he pictured Clark in front of him-- no, behind him.

His hands would be braced against the shower wall as Clark moved in behind him, his body pressed hot against Alex's back. Clark's hands would move down over Alex's arms before they settled on his hips.

Clark bit his neck gently. "I want to fuck you," he whispered, thrusting a little to show how hard he was.

Alex could only nod and then Clark was pressing into him, so hot and thick and fuck it was good. It was Clark's hand on his cock, stroking him as he licked Alex's neck, whispered in his ear.

"God, I want you so much."

And Alex wasn't sure which one of them said it. He bit his lip, thrusting into his fist as his other hand tried to find purchase on the slippery tile wall.

Suddenly Clark was in front of him, on his knees. He ran his hands up the back of Alex's thighs as his mouth moved over Alex's cock. His eyelashes were spiky and wet as he looked up at Alex, his perfect lips obscenely red and beautifully stretched as his head bobbed, cheeks hollow--

"Gmnnngh," Alex groaned as he came.

He leaned his forehead against the wall, panting as he licked the ridge his teeth had left from biting his lip. "Jesus," he whispered.

Turning back into the spray, he tried not to think about what he'd just done. How was he supposed to go out there and face Clark now?

His cock twitched, which was just way too soon and not even remotely funny.

"Don't even think about it," he whispered fiercely.

He finished washing quickly and got out of the shower. It was only when he was done drying himself off that he realized that he hadn't brought a change of clothes into the bathroom with him.

This was not the cause for a panic attack. His room was just down the hall. You can go down the hall in your towel, you big baby. He nodded. He could do this.

Throwing open the door and running down the hall while clutching at his towel like it would save his life was probably not Alex's most dignified moment, but it got the job done. He pulled on a pair of boxer-briefs. Ah, boxer-briefs. The most brilliant underwear hybrid ever. Clark would look good in boxer-briefs... "Fuck!"

He pulled on the jeans he'd been wearing yesterday and a long-sleeved T-shirt and stalked back out into the living room.

"You didn't shave." Lois frowned at him.

"I decided to go for scruffy after all," Alex said. Please, please, please don't ask what I was doing in there.

Lois gave him a disapproving frown, but remained blissfully silent.

Clark was still sitting at the kitchen counter, but when Alex turned to look at him, he quickly turned away.

Alex froze. He didn't know, did he? Was there something about Alex's expression that said, "Hey, I just came harder than I have in years because I was thinking about you sucking me off"?

No, there was no way Clark could know what he'd been doing. It wasn't like he'd been in there that long. For all he knew, Alex just took long showers. He shook off his paranoia and went to get another cup of coffee, realizing that he'd left his first one untouched in the bathroom where Chloe now was.

"So, what time is the football game?" He caught Clark's eye again, surprised at the look of guilt that crossed Clark's face. What in the world did Clark have to feel guilty about?

"Just one more store," Lois promised as they walked down the street.

Alex shifted the bags he was carrying to his other hand, glaring at her. "I think I have enough clothes now."

"This one isn't for you. Here." She opened the door and waited for him to go in. Lois knew she shouldn't be so amused by the fact that he looked like he wanted to cry.

"You-- this is an underwear store," he said flatly.

"Victoria's Secret," Lois said loftily, "is more than just an 'underwear store'."

"But--" Alex wrinkled his nose. "Why would you make me go in there, Lois? Have I done something to offend you? I bought that shirt, didn't I?"

She patted his cheek with her free hand. "Yes, you've been a good boy today. After we're done here, we can go get a drink." Grabbing his hand, she hauled him into the store, almost pushing him into a couple that was leaving. "I just need to get a couple of bras for work."

"I didn't need to hear that."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Don't be such a baby. The girl parts won't get you. Just stand here and look like an uncomfortable boyfriend."

He gave her an exasperated look.

"Yes, like that." She ran off towards the back of the store, hurrying to get the bras that she needed before Alex got too pissy. She also got a pair of red, lacy underwear because a girl could never have too many of those.

From the time they entered the store to the time that Lois made her way back to Alex, probably fifteen or twenty minutes had passed. Alex was glaring at her like it had been two hours.

"Come on," she said. "I'll buy you some coffee."

"What time is the football game supposed to be over?" Alex asked as they sat down with their drinks.

"I'm not sure," Lois said. "They're supposed to meet us back at the apartment when they're done and then we're going to dinner."

Alex nodded.

"So, you and Clark seemed to be having a nice conversation this morning. And last night." Lois smiled smugly.

Alex glared. "What is with you? Why are you so obsessed with Clark?"

Lois shrugged. "He's a nice guy. He's sweet and polite and cute. If he were straight, I'd totally date him."

"Right." Alex snorted. "You'd never date a guy like Clark."

"But you could."

"Lois."

"Alex." She raised an eyebrow at him. "Tell me you're not interested in him."

Alex sat back in his chair crossing his arms. "I'm not interested in him."

"And why did you take forever in the shower this morning?" She smiled at Alex's telltale blush.

"I was deep conditioning my hair," he mumbled.

Lois laughed. "Yeah, you were deep conditioning something."

"That doesn't even make sense."

"It doesn't need to." She took a sip of her coffee. "The point is, you want him; he wants you. You two should totally get together."

"Totally? Maybe you should pass him a note in fifth and ask him if he likes me or if he like likes me." A strained look passed over Alex's face. "Or maybe Chloe could do it, because they probably have fifth period together." He shook his head. "Do you realize how fucked up that is? He's still in high school! Besides," he said, licking his lips. "You don't even know if he likes me. He probably just feels guilty about being such a jerk before."

"Are you finished?" Lois held up a finger. "First of all, bite me. Second of all, they don't have fifth together. They have sixth, though, so I'll ask Chloe about the note. And he's almost eighteen. Also, judging by the way that he was panting at the bathroom door while you were in the shower, I think it's safe to say that his interest in you is more than misplaced guilt."

"I'm willing to be friends with him, Lois. Until he's older, that's all that's going to happen, though," Alex told her stonily. "So just drop it."

"Fine," Lois said. "But you get the bathroom last tomorrow. I don't think poor Pete wasn't the one who deserved a cold shower."

"I don't know, Clark," Pete said. "You really think he's that hot?"

Clark tried not to laugh at Pete's skeptical tone. His friend had been really cool about finding out that Clark was gay, citing that, after the whole alien thing, at least being gay was normal. However, when it came to discussing guys, Pete still seemed distinctly uncomfortable. Clark thought it had more to do with the fact that Pete really didn't see the attraction, rather than that he was freaked out by it.

"He's incredibly hot," Chloe answered as she inched forward. At least being stuck in the post-game traffic gave them time to talk, which they hadn't been able to do at the game.

"Hey," Whitney protested from the passenger's seat. Shotgun rules obviously didn't apply to him because he was Chloe's boyfriend. Clark had argued that there was nothing about boyfriends in the shotgun rules, but Chloe had overruled his protests.

"He's gay." Chloe patted Whitney's leg. "It's okay for me to think he's hot."

Whitney looked like he didn't quite buy into that logic, but turned to talk to Clark anyway. "So you have the hots for Lois' roommate, Kent?"

Clark slumped down in his seat a little. "Could we talk about something else, please?"

"He really does," Chloe said happily. "You should see them together. It's really cute."

"Chloe!" Clark could feel his face heating with embarrassment. "It doesn't matter," he mumbled. "He thinks I'm too young."

"That's just an excuse, Clark." Chloe sounded like she was instructing a small child.

"Well, if he needs an excuse not to date me, it doesn't really matter what it is, does it?" Clark asked. "He just wants to be friends."

"Clark, you totally dissed him when you guys first met," Pete said. "If the situation was reversed, would you want to get involved with you right away?"

"Or at all?" Chloe added helpfully.

"See?" Clark asked. "He doesn't like me."

"Oh, he likes you," Chloe said. "But I'm almost positive he won't make the first move. Pete's right. You really fucked up before."

"Thanks."

"Yay!" She said as traffic started moving again. "That just means that you'll have to make the first move. Show him you're serious. Right?" she asked Whitney.

"Um, sure?" Whitney shifted in his seat. "I haven't pursued a lot of guys, but it sounds good to me." He looked back at Clark again. "What did you do to him, anyway?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Clark said. "And how am I supposed to make the first move?"

"You're going to have to figure that one out yourself," Pete said.

"I don't think I can do it." Clark blinked as Chloe pulled into the parking space. He hadn't noticed that they were already there.

"Sure you can do it, Clark," Chloe said as she got out of the car. "Just don't be such a huge coward."

"Thanks for the words of encouragement," Clark said.

Pete, Whitney and Chloe talked about the football game as they rode the elevator up to the apartment while Clark moped. Alex's quick rejection of him last night had stung, but what Pete and Chloe said made sense. If Alex had treated him the way he'd treated Alex, Clark would have probably reacted the same way.

Lois smiled as she opened the door. "Good, I was starting to get hungry." She stepped back so that they could walk past her. "Alex and I decided on where we should go. It's a cool little place in the University district, so we can walk there."

"Great," Chloe said. "Where's Alex?"

"Oh, he's taking a nap." Lois smiled. "It was a gruesome day of shopping for him. He had to recuperate." She cast a sly glance at Clark. "Could you go wake him up for me?"

Clark looked at the circle of goofy grins his friends were sporting and rolled his eyes. He walked down the hall to Alex's room, telling himself that he didn't worship Lois for assigning him this chore.

The door was open, but Clark lingered at the doorway, unsure of whether he should enter the room or not.

Alex was sprawled on his stomach, his arms tucked under his head. One leg was stretched behind him, the other bent just enough to give Clark a really nice view of the curve of Alex's ass.

It was really quite gorgeous.

Clark shook himself out of his stupor and walked over to the bed. He bent over, shaking Alex's shoulder gently. "Alex?"

"Hmmm?" Alex smiled, his eyes still closed.

"It's time to wake up," Clark whispered.

Alex finally opened his eyes, blinking sleepily. "Clark?" he asked.

"Hey." Clark smiled. "We're back."

"What time is it?"

Clark checked his watch. "It's almost six. We're getting ready to go to dinner."

"Right," Alex said, rubbing his eyes. Clark stepped back as Alex stood up, stretching like an overgrown cat, exposing a healthy amount of skin as his shirt hiked up. "Man, I'm hungry," he said. "How about you?"

Clark's breath caught in his throat. "Starving."

They ended up walking to a little pizza place close to campus. Lois told them it was a popular spot during the weekends because they had pool tables in back and cheap beer. They also had, Alex said, the best pizza in Metropolis.

Alex was walking ahead with Chloe and Whitney, talking to Whitney about...something. Clark was really paying more attention to the way Alex's jeans emphasized the casual, incredibly sexy roll of his hips. Beside Clark, Pete and Lois had stopped talking.

"Returning to your stalker roots?" Pete asked, startling Clark.

He hadn't realized he'd been so obvious until he caught sight of Lois and Pete's matching grins. "Um...I was just spacing." Pete knowing that Clark was quickly becoming obsessed with Alex was one thing. Alex's best friend knowing was quite another.

But Lois just hooked her arm around Clark's and smiled at him. "You're so adorable, Clark. If I didn't think that Alex would kick my ass, I'd keep you for myself."

"Umm..." Clark blushed, not sure quite how to respond to that. He glanced up to see if Alex had heard the comment, but the trio was quite a bit ahead of them now.

"You can have me instead," Pete offered.

Lois laughed, hooking her other arm through Pete's. "Y'all are just too cute for words."

Luckily, it was still fairly early in the evening when they got to the restaurant, so they were able to get a corner booth big enough to seat all of them.

"I have to sit on this end," Alex said as Chloe and Whitney slid onto the circular bench.

"Why?" Chloe asked.

"Left-handed." Alex wiggled his fingers.

Lois gave him an annoyed look as she slid in next to Chloe. "We're having pizza, Alex."

"Which I shall eat with my left hand."

When Clark realized that Pete was waiting for him to sit down, he subtly shoved Pete toward the booth first. Pete had to know that Clark wanted to sit next to Alex. Pete slid in next to Whitney, shooting Clark a disgruntled look.

"So," Lois said, looking at the menu. "What should we get?"

They debated toppings for a full ten minutes before deciding that two pizzas with different toppings on the four halves was the best way to go.

"Hey, Clark," Chloe said, squinting her eyes a little. "Isn't that Dan?"

Clark looked over at where she had pointed, hoping she was wrong. Not that he and Dan had parted on bad terms or anything, but Clark was still a little resentful of the fact that Dan had had a boyfriend the entire time he'd been involved with Clark. "Yeah," he muttered, looking away quickly. "That's him."

"Who's the guy he's with?" Chloe asked. She was either trying to embarrass Clark, or she possessed not an ounce of tact whatsoever.

"Probably his boyfriend," Clark said. Of course the guy would have to be gorgeous.

"Who's Dan?" Alex asked, looking over to the table Chloe had pointed at.

"Clark's ex," Chloe supplied as Clark sank lower in his seat. "The one with the brown hair." Luckily neither Dan nor his date had spotted them yet.

Alex cast another casual glance at the couple, and Clark was thankful that at least someone had a sense of discretion. "Nice," he said finally, raising an eyebrow at Clark when he slid a little further down. "Things end badly?"

Clark sighed. "Not really, it's just--"

"It sucks seeing your ex happy with someone else when you're still single," Whitney supplied quietly.

"Right," Clark said, staring down at his hands. They had never discussed his dating Lana so soon after she'd broken up with Whitney. In fact, Clark and Whitney hadn't ever really talked until Whitney had started dating Chloe. They'd seemed to get along pretty well after that, at least as far as Clark knew.

He looked up to see a hurt expression settle on Chloe's face. Lois looked pissed.

"Did I miss something?" Alex asked quietly enough that Clark was the only one who heard him.

Before Clark could answer, the waitress arrived with food, which everybody ate in silence.

Clark picked at his food miserably. How had such a promising evening gone down the drain so quickly?

Beside him, Alex pushed away his plate. "Who's up for a game of pool?" he asked, an eyebrow raised at Lois.

Lois broke away from glaring at a contrite looking Whitney to grin at Alex. "Ready to test your luck so soon, Jenkins?" she asked.

Alex leaned back in his seat. "Bring it on," he said.

"Right." Lois snorted. "Does anyone else want to play?"

"I'll play," Chloe said, not looking at Whitney.

"Me too," Clark answered quickly.

Lois smiled. "Guys against girls, then?" she asked.

Clark's heart tripped a little when Alex turned to smile at him. "Think we can take them?" he asked.

"I've never actually played before," Clark admitted.

"No problem. I'll give you some pointers," Alex said, standing up. "I'll go get us a table."

"While we pay the bill, right?" Lois asked archly.

Alex kissed her on the head. "I'll pay you back. You know I'm good for it."

"Yeah, yeah," Lois muttered as Alex started to walk away, and then, "Don't worry about it, guys," as Pete and Clark started to get their wallets out.

"Last of the big spenders," Chloe said with forced cheerfulness as they all got out of the booth.

"C'mon, Chloe. We have a pool game to win," Lois said.

"Clark," Whitney said as they started to walk toward the back where the pool tables were. "Hold up."

Clark stopped, turning to Whitney. "Yeah?"

"I didn't mean that the way it sounded," Whitney said. "I mean, I was a little bitter when you started dating Lana and all, but I'm way over it. I just meant to say I understood--why you wouldn't want to talk to him and all."

"Yeah, that's cool." Clark nodded.

Whitney ran a hand through his hair. "On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you think I fucked things up with Chloe?"

Clark studied him for a minute, a little surprised at just how miserable Whitney looked. If he had ever had any doubts about how much Whitney cared about Chloe, they were entirely settled in that moment. "Chloe spent a lot of time thinking she was second best to Lana in my life because I was too stupid to figure things out earlier," he finally said. "Just make sure she knows that she's not your second choice."

"She isn't," Whitney said seriously, as though it was important that Clark believe him.

"I'm not the one you need to convince," Clark said. "You really love her, don't you?"

Whitney looked surprised by the question, but answered "More than I ever thought was possible."

"Have you told her that?"

"No, not yet." Whitney's gazed was locked on Chloe, like she might disappear at any moment.

Clark was surprised at the ache he felt, wondering if he would ever have that. "What exactly are you waiting for?" he asked.

Whitney grinned at him. "Not a clue," he said before stalking off toward the pool table.

Before he could follow, a hand on his arm stopped him.

"Clark?"

He turned to find Dan standing there, smiling at him, his gorgeous boyfriend standing right there next to him.

"Hey!" Clark said, smiling so brightly his face hurt. "It's good to see you!"

"Good to see you too!" Dan turned to the guy next to him. "Ryan, this is Clark. Clark, this is Ryan. Clark and I went to school together in Smallville," Dan added.

"Nice to meet you," Clark said, shaking Ryan's hand. He wondered if this could get any more awkward.

"So what are you doing in Metropolis?" Dan asked as Ryan slipped his hand into Dan's, lacing their fingers together.

"Football game," Clark said. "Whitney Fordman's on the team at Met U."

Dan frowned. "Yeah, well, I'm not too big a football fan."

"Right," Clark said. Stupid! Why didn't he just ask if Dan had been hazed lately while he was at it. Even though Whitney hadn't been one of the guys who had strung Dan up, he'd been on the team that year.

"So, are you seeing anyone?" Dan asked.

"Well, um--" Before Clark could finish the sentence, he felt a warm arm slip around the small of his back and an even warmer body pressed up against his side. He turned to see Alex smiling at him.

"The game is all set up. Are you going to play with me?" he asked in a softly suggestive tone. "Or am I going to have to take the girls on by myself?"

"I--" Clark cut himself off before he added 'love you', but it was a near thing. "Yeah, I'm coming," he said as his hand settled on the curve of Alex's hip. "Um, I want you to meet someone, though." He turned to Dan. "Dan, this is Alex. Alex, this is Dan. We went to school together last year. And this is Ryan."

"Nice to meet you both," Alex said, shaking their hands politely. "I'd better get back before Lois decides to break without us." He smiled up at Clark again.

Clark only had a moment to consider the consequences before he bent down to brush a kiss against Alex's lips, smiling a little as Alex gasped softly. "I'll be there in a minute," he said.

Alex just nodded, smiling distractedly at Dan and Ryan before he turned to leave.

"He seems nice," Dan said.

Clark couldn't quite smother his goofy grin. "He's perfect," he said.

"Look, I just want to talk to you for a second," Whitney said, pulling Chloe aside.

"What?" Chloe asked, crossing her arms defensively. This was it. This was where he told her that maybe they'd made a mistake. That he wanted Lana back. Or maybe some new girl he'd met here. Some Lana-clone cheerleader who was perfect in all the ways that Chloe never would be.

"I'm sorry about what I said before. I didn't realize how it would sound until I'd already said it." His hands settled on her hips as he pulled her closer.

Chloe looked down at the ground, tears threatening to spill over. He wasn't going to see her cry.

"Chloe, I don't for a second regret the way things turned out. I definitely don't wish I was still with Lana, or anyone else."

"You don't?" She had been aiming for skeptical, but the question came out sounding pathetically needy.

"Listen." Whitney gently brought her head up so that she was looking at him. "You're my first choice. My only choice." He grinned. "You're the Helen to my Paris."

She laughed a little then. "Could you have picked two characters any less like us?" she asked.

"My point is, you're mine and come hell or high water, I plan on keeping you. Even if I have to battle with my own stupidity."

Chloe knew she should probably be offended at how possessive he sounded and she would be...as soon as the giddiness went away. "What about you?" she asked. "Are you mine, then?"

"I have been for awhile. Or hadn't you noticed?" He licked his lips. "I'm pretty much crazy in love with you, Chloe."

The room dipped from beneath her feet and then swiftly returned, leaving her stomach somewhere around her ankles. It was a good thing Whitney was still holding her. "You bastard!" she all but shouted. "You're telling me this at a pizza place?" She hit him.

Whitney just grinned at her. "I love you," he whispered before kissing her soundly.

Chloe blinked at him when they broke apart. "I love you too," she said, happiness bubbling up in her chest. "Asshole."

"Are you two about done?" Lois called out. "We have a game to play!"

"Shall we?" Whitney asked.

Chloe rolled her eyes and grabbed Whitney's hand, leading him back to the pool table, where Lois, Pete, Alex and Clark were now gathered.

"You and Pete are just watching?" Lois asked Whitney.

"Yep," Whitney said, wrapping his arms around Chloe's waist as soon as they reached the table.

Chloe leaned back into the embrace, smiling.

"Great." Lois turned to Alex. "Care to make things interesting?"

Alex raised an eyebrow. "How so?" And then added, "Should we really be encouraging the children to gamble?"

"Just between you and me, smartass," Lois said.

"What'd you have in mind?"

"A little wager." Lois grinned. "Loser has to get his or her nipples pierced. Tonight."

It seemed to Chloe that a little of the color drained from Alex's face. However, it was only a moment before he squared his shoulders and said, "You're on."

They shook on it.

"Are they serious?" Whitney whispered.

Chloe nodded. "Oh yeah. They like to make outrageous bets." The last bet had been for a Chinese zodiac sign tattoo. Unfortunately, Lois had proved to be a lousy bowler, and she now had the monkey on her butt to prove it.

Alex sincerely hoped that when he got back to Smallville, his sleeping schedule would get back on track. He leaned against the porch railing, wondering if the distance between the Kent farm and the Luthor mansion would be enough to keep Clark out of his mind.

Somehow he doubted it.

He touched his lips, closing his eyes as he tried to remember the exact feeling of Clark's kiss, so soft and fleeting that Alex was starting to wonder if he'd imagined the whole thing.

Then there'd been the matter of the pool game. Alex had tried to coach Clark a little, showing him how to line up shots, wondering how many times he had to mold his body against Clark's before Clark learned how to shoot.

Alex suspected that Clark was a much faster learner than he'd let Alex believe. They were going to have to have a talk if they were going to have any hope of being friends, and Alex really did want them to be friends. He would have to let Clark down gently but firmly.

He didn't turn his head at the sound of the porch door sliding open.

"How are your nipples feeling?" Clark asked as he leaned against the railing next to Alex.

"Blissfully whole, thanks to you," Alex said. "If I were you, I'd refrain from asking Lois about hers, though."

"Duly noted." Clark gave him a sidelong glance from beneath ridiculously thick eyelashes. "I wanted to thank you for what you did before...when I was talking to Dan."

"Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that," Alex started, but stopped when Clark held up his hand.

"Let me guess. We've reached the part of the evening where you tell me that you think I'm a really nice kid, and you'd like for us to be friends, but not anything more than that. I'm too young and you'd feel creepy dating a high school student." He paused, smiling. "How'd I do?"

Alex blinked at him. "Ten of ten. You're okay with that?"

"I'd like for us to be friends very much," Clark said.

"You would?"

Clark nodded. "Our friendship will be the stuff of legend," he said dramatically.

Alex smiled. Who said stuff like that?

"So I'm totally cool with friendship. For the moment."

Alex's smile faded a little. "For the moment?"

Clark nodded again. "Oh yeah. You're so convinced that anything more would be a bad idea. I plan on convincing you otherwise."

"Clark." Alex took a small step back, wondering when he'd lost control of the conversation, or if he'd ever actually had it. "Not to be insulting or anything, but what makes you so sure we'd even get along? We barely know each other."

The playful look vanished from Clark's eyes as he regarded Alex. "You're wrong," he finally whispered. "I know you. I think I always have."

Fuck, that was romantic. Alex could hear his heart thundering in his chest. Clark was so close and Alex was having trouble remembering why this was a bad idea. Clark's lips were so close, if Alex were to just lean forward a little...

"But since you want to remain friends for the moment, we'll do that." Clark pulled away and Alex was vaguely aware that he was panting. "As you obviously need convincing," Clark added, turning to walk back inside.

That smug little shit!

Clark turned back when he reached the door and Alex bit back the scathing remark that was on the tip of his tongue.

"I really do want us to be friends, Alex. I need you to believe that's important to me." He tilted his head. "I mean, how can I convince you that we should be more if I can't even convince you of that, right?"

He looked so solemn that Alex could only nod.

"Goodnight."

"Goodnight," Alex said as the door slid shut. He leaned back against the railing more than a little dumbfounded. Had Clark just told him that he intended to woo him?

"I'm so fucked."

"So." Lois straightened up and closed the refrigerator. She really needed to go to the store. "What does everyone want for breakfast?"

"You're cooking?" Chloe asked, raising her eyebrow. She was sitting on the couch, cuddling with Whitney who had arrived earlier that morning with coffees for everyone. Lois' respect for him had gone up a notch because of it.

Pete was still asleep on the floor in front of the TV, snoring softly.

Alex snorted from the chair he was curled up in, nursing his latte. "It's the only meal she can cook to any degree of success. Go with it." His last statement was spoken around a huge yawn, ruining the sarcasm a bit.

"Alex, honey." Lois smiled sweetly. "You seem a little tired. Hard night?"

He gave her a dirty look before turning his attention back to his coffee.

"So, what'll it be? I'm taking requests."

"Requests for what?" Clark asked as he walked into the room, hair still wet from his shower.

"Lois is going to make us breakfast," Chloe said. "Which leads me to believe that it's not actually Lois. Tug on her hair, Clark. See if it's a mask."

Lois ignored her cousin and turned to Clark. "What would you like?"

"Whatever anyone else wants." Clark shrugged, sitting down at the counter. "I'm easy."

Alex started coughing.

"Are you okay?" Chloe asked, a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth.

Lois would have asked, but the effort it was taking to keep from laughing prevented her from doing so.

Alex nodded as he continued to cough, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Wrong pipe," he finally managed, his voice strained.

Clark looked vaguely embarrassed.

"Okay, well, cook's choice then," Lois said. "Alex, go take a shower. And for heaven's sake, shave this time. Clark and I are going to the grocery store." There was a little one a few blocks away that they could walk to.

"We are?" Clark asked, clearly surprised.

Alex shot her a panicked 'what the hell do you think you're doing' look.

Lois just smiled at him.

"Um, I'll just get my shoes, then." Clark looked at Chloe, who just shrugged and smiled.

"Shave," Lois told Alex again.

He looked like he was contemplating places where he could hide her body.

It was a beautiful morning, Lois decided as they set off to the store. A little warmer than usual for this time of year, but there was still the smell of autumn in the air. It was Lois' favorite season.

"So what did you want to talk to me about?" Clark asked after a few minutes of silence.

Lois looked at him, startled. "What makes you think I wanted to talk to you about something?" she asked.

"Call it a hunch." Clark looked at her expectantly.

"Okay. Alex," she admitted.

Clark nodded, studying the ground.

"Just...take things slow." She hooked her arm around his elbow. "Start out with little things that he can't really call you on." Lois looked up, smiling at the stunned expression on his face. "Little, friendly touches-- stuff like that."

Clark stopped walking altogether, jerking Lois to an abrupt stop as well. "You're giving me advice?" he asked skeptically.

"Yes. If you go about it properly, he'll never know what hit him. He won't stand a chance." She was leaving out things, of course. The shy smiles and coy looks from under his eyelashes, all those things Clark did naturally.

She really didn't think Alex stood a chance no matter what, but she thought it would be better if things went more slowly with Clark. Alex tended to get caught up in his emotions, rush into things and he ended up getting hurt. It was always so black and white with him. When Alex decided to do something, he gave himself over to it entirely. He couldn't just date like a normal human being.

"Why?"

Lois tugged on Clark's arm until they were walking again. "I like you, Clark. You're a sweet, decent guy and Alex is about due for one of those."

"And?" Clark asked.

"And what?" Lois wasn't sure what else he wanted to hear.

"Rules, warnings, threats of castration..."

Lois laughed. "I knew there was a reason I liked you." She sobered a little. "Don't hurt him."

"I'd rather be castrated than hurt him." Clark's expression was just as sober.

Lois gave herself a mental pat on the back for choosing so well. Clark was perfect.

After last night's conversation with Clark, Alex was more than a little surprised when Clark sat in the front seat on their way back to Smallville. He told himself that it didn't really bother him. After all, he'd spent the better part of the night trying to think of ways to keep things with Clark platonic.

Still, there had been plenty of hot water left for everyone else after Alex's shower earlier, which had been decidedly cold.

No, he wasn't at all bothered that he was sitting in the back seat with Pete, rather than pressed up against Clark.

They were chatting about something school-related; Alex really wasn't paying attention. He stared out the window, wishing the scenery between Metropolis and Smallville were more interesting. His eyelids started to droop, the warm sunlight shining through the window making him sleepy. He really hadn't gotten much sleep last night.

Chloe, Pete and Clark's voices sounded like they were far away, at the end of a tunnel, or maybe like someone had left the TV on in the other room.

Clark's voice was close, whispering in his ear. They were on Alex's bed and Alex panicked, because he knew they shouldn't be there.

"We should go back out to the living room with the others," Alex said.

"I like it here," Clark said, smiling at him. "I like you."

Alex couldn't think of a response before Clark kissed him. Clark's lips were warm and soft, his hands so hot as they moved over Alex's body, up his sides. Alex groaned, moving into the touch, running his hands through Clark's hair.

He knew they shouldn't be doing this, the reason why was dancing at the edge of his consciousness. But Clark was kissing and licking Alex's throat and Alex couldn't remember why this was wrong.

"We shouldn't be doing this." A voice echoing his thoughts. "You're too young."

That was the reason. Alex's eyes shot open as Jake finished undoing his pants.

"But it feels so good, doesn't it?" Jake stroked Alex's face as he spoke. "Too young, so innocent." Jake smiled sweetly. "You'll break him."

"No," Alex whispered.

"Yes," Clark moaned, writhing beneath him.

Alex gasped as he sank into Clark, incredible heat all around him, Clark's legs wrapped around his waist and it was so good.

Clark's eyes flew open, staring at Alex with an expression of wounded innocence. "How could you?" he asked quietly. "I trusted you."

"No." Alex shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"Alex!"

He jerked forward, wincing as the seatbelt cut into his shoulder. It took several moments for Alex to get his bearings. The car wasn't moving; they were parked at a gas station. Chloe and Clark were looking at him with twin expressions of concern.

"You were pretty out of it," Chloe said.

Oh no. "I wasn't talking, was I?" he asked.

Chloe shook her head. "No, but you seemed upset."

Alex relaxed back into his seat. "Must've been having a nightmare," he said.

Clark gave him an odd look, but didn't say anything.

The rest of the ride home was rather silent, but Alex felt a little reluctant to leave his company when Chloe pulled up to the Luthor mansion. It seemed so dark and foreboding.

"Thanks for the ride," Alex said as he hugged Chloe.

"It was fun, wasn't it?"

He smiled. "Yeah, it was." His arms full with all his purchases, Alex set off toward the house, feeling the weight of his new responsibilities settling on his shoulders with each step he took.

"Alex!"

He turned to see Clark jogging toward him. "Yeah?" Alex would never admit to the giddy little flutter of his stomach as Clark smiled at him.

"Come to dinner tonight," Clark said.

Alex laughed. "Is that an order or a request?"

"Whichever one gets you to come," he said, smiling confidently. Then his eyes widened. "To dinner," he added, stammering.

Alex could feel himself blush in sympathy. "What time?" he asked to break the awkward silence.

"Is quarter after seven okay?"

"Sure." Alex was relieved to have an excuse to get away from the mansion. An excuse to spend a little more time with Clark. "Should I bring anything?"

"Nope. All you have to do is show up."

"Okay." Alex suddenly felt nervous. What if Clark's parents hated him? He hadn't actually met Clark's father, but the man hadn't seemed all that fond of Lucas. This had disaster written all over it, but with Clark smiling at him like that, Alex couldn't quite bring himself to care. "I guess I'll see you later, then."

"Just--promise me you'll be nice," Clark said, looking at his father.

"Of course we will, honey," his mom said, casting his dad a warning look.

His dad sighed. "Just promise us you'll be careful, Clark. You barely know him and you know what his family's like. Don't get too involved with him too quickly."

Clark opened his mouth to tell his dad that it wasn't like that, except that it was. He nodded instead, studying the floor. His parents had been really great about things when he'd told them he was gay, although he hadn't told them he'd been sleeping with Dan all summer. No matter how cool they were, Clark found talking to his parents about guys to be incredibly weird.

He turned his head as he heard a car pull into the driveway. "He's here, so just--" He licked his lips. "He's just a friend." For now. With one last warning look at his parents, Clark opened the door and stepped out on the porch.

"Hey," he said as Alex walked up the driveway, carrying flowers.

"Hi." Alex was wearing a long-sleeved gray shirt and a pair of black pants. He looked really good...and a little nervous.

"For me?" Clark asked batting his eyelashes and nodding toward the flowers.

Alex smirked at him. "For your mother. Do you think they're okay?" A worried look passed over his face.

"She'll love them. Tulips are her favorite." It occurred to Clark that, despite what he'd told his father, this was more of a date than not.

"Mom, Dad," Clark said, opening the door. "I'd like you to meet Alex. Alex, these are my parents."

"It's a pleasure to meet you both," Alex said, holding out his hand.

Clark's dad studied Alex for a moment, long enough to be blatant, before shaking his hand.

Alex looked a little nonplussed at the hesitation. He cleared his throat. "These are for you, Mrs. Kent," he said, holding out the flowers.

"Oh, Alex!"

Clark smiled as his mom took the flowers, beaming. He knew Alex had won her over already with such a simple gesture.

"There are some really nice gardens around the grounds, so I--" He ducked his head a little. "I would have brought wine, but I really don't drink much, so I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to choose a good one."

"These are lovely," Clark's mom said as she walked toward the kitchen.

"I would think that Lionel has his cellar stocked with some excellent wines."

Clark stared at his father in disbelief.

"I guess he probably does," Alex said, sounding a little embarrassed. "The thought honestly hadn't occurred to me."

"Boys, time to eat," Clark's mom called from the kitchen.

Clark placed a hand on Alex's arm, holding him back for a moment. "I'm sorry about my dad," he whispered. "It's not you, it's--"

"My father?" Alex finished, shrugging.

"I'm sorry," Clark repeated.

Alex just shrugged again.

The evening was off to a wonderful start.

However, surprisingly enough, dinner went relatively well. Clark's mom was ready to adore Alex and Alex, for his part, endeared himself to her quite nicely.

Clark's dad was a different story. He continued to grill Alex through dinner, his questions ranging from inappropriate to downright rude. But Alex never flinched or lost his temper. He answered the questions politely, and his answers were good. Clark wasn't too worried about his parents finding any legitimate concerns regarding Alex except for his parentage and they really couldn't hold that against him.

The shining moment, though, was when Clark got up to clear the table and Alex immediately got up to help him.

"You don't have to help," Clark said with a smile as his mom moved past him to make a pot of coffee. "You're supposed to be the guest."

"Oh, but I insist." Alex winked at him. "I know what a fun job it can be."

Clark raised an eyebrow. "Veteran dishwasher?"

Alex laughed. "You could say that."

"You can dry, then." Clark said, handing Alex a towel.

Alex leaned against the counter as they waited for the sink to fill. "When I was younger--" He wrinkled his nose. "Thirteen, I think. It was shortly after my mother, Lily, had died." He looked lost for a moment before shaking his head. "Anyway, I thought it was unfair for my mom to expect me to do the dishes with her, so I figured that if I broke a few of them, she would just go ahead and do them herself." He looked at Clark, amusement dancing in his eyes. "I thought I was very clever."

Clark returned the smile, handing him a dish to dry. "So did it work?"

"No." Alex laughed. "She said that I obviously had no appreciation for the value of things, so she made me buy a whole new set of dishes, even though I'd only broken a few. I had to save my allowance for almost the entire summer. She also said that since I obviously needed the practice, she would let me do the dishes by myself from then on."

"I'm guessing that you didn't break many dishes after that," Clark said, smiling.

"Not a single one."

Clark turned just in time to see the gleam of approval in his father's eyes. He had trouble suppressing his laughter. Of all the things to win his father over, it would be a story about dishes.

"So, Alex," Mrs. Kent said, handing him a cup of coffee. "Clark tells us that you're going to be managing the fertilizer plant."

Alex grimaced a little. "Yes, ma'am. Lionel thought it would be a good opportunity for practical business experience." He wasn't quite able to keep all of the bitterness out of his voice.

"That seems awfully trusting of him to just turn over the management like that," Mr. Kent said, although his voice lacked the hostility that it'd held earlier in the evening.

"I doubt that it had as much to do about trust as with proving some kind of point to Lucas." Alex shrugged. "That's my guess anyway." He took a sip of his coffee. "Luckily, Mr. Sullivan is incredibly competent and doesn't resent me for Lionel's actions. I'm not sure what I would do if he walked."

"Shouldn't you be calling him by his first name?" Clark asked. "I mean, technically, he is your employee."

Alex shrugged. "Not unless he asks me to. It just feels disrespectful to assume..." He cleared his throat to break the awkward silence.

"We're going to go out to the barn," Clark said suddenly.

"Okay, honey," Mrs. Kent said. "Just don't be up too late. You have school in the morning."

"Yes, Mom." Clark said, smiling.

Mrs. Kent turned to him, then. "It was nice to meet you, Alex. You're welcome back any time."

"Thank you, Mrs. Kent," Alex said, his throat suddenly tight.

He liked Clark's mom a lot. She reminded him of his mom. It wasn't so much her personality as it was the way she acted around Clark and her husband. The open affection that colored their interactions hit Alex hard, because he hadn't realized how much he missed that. He had Lois and his grandparents, but nothing could quite take the place of a mother's affection and Alex had never felt the loss quite so acutely before.

When Alex glanced over at Clark, he was surprised by the look Clark was giving him, his expression oddly soft. Alex wondered how much he'd just given away.

"Alex." Mr. Kent nodded at him.

Alex nodded back.

Clark rolled his eyes and plucked at Alex's sleeve. "Come on," he said, walking out the kitchen door.

"Where are we going?" Alex asked as he followed Clark across the lawn.

"To the barn," Clark said.

"I've seen a barn before."

Clark just smiled at him.

"Nice," Alex said as they climbed up to the loft. It was way more decked out than his little corner of the world had been.

"Thanks. It's my--" Clark blushed. "Promise not to laugh?"

Alex regarded him curiously. "I can make no such promise, I'm afraid," he said solemnly. "But I'll try."

Clark stuck out his tongue. "My dad calls it my 'Fortress of Solitude'."

"Your..." Alex could feel the laughter building in his chest. "That's nice," he said, frowning in an effort not to laugh.

"Shut up," Clark said good-naturedly.

"Hey, it's better than calling it your 'alone-time room'," Alex said. "That's what my grandpa called mine," he explained at Clark's confused look.

Clark looked at him slyly. "And did you use your 'alone-time room' to be alone?" he asked.

Alex waggled his eyebrows. "I did. At least until I started--" His mouth snapped shut when he realized what he was about to say. He suddenly realized that it was a bad idea to be here, alone with Clark. "I should go."

"It's not that late." Clark frowned. "It's a clear night. We could go stargazing. I have a telescope we can set up."

And that was the mother of all bad ideas. "I should really go," he said. "Dinner was great, though. Thanks for inviting me."

"Sure," Clark said. "I'll walk you out."

They were quiet as they walked down the driveway, Clark's shoulder brushing against Alex's with every other step.

Alex turned around when they reached the car, leaning against the driver's side door. He looked up at the cheery yellow farmhouse, his chest aching at how peaceful it was here. "Your family's great, Clark," he said finally.

Clark snorted. "Sure, after my dad stopped interrogating you."

"They just care about you."

"I know." Clark's hand was warm as it ran down Alex's arm.

"Clark," Alex whispered, unwilling or unable to pull away. He wasn't sure which.

"You have to go," Clark said softly, playing with Alex's fingers.

"Yeah." Alex nodded. Clark was so close and Alex wanted him to be closer. He turned his hand, lacing their fingers together. "Thank you for dinner."

"Don't be a stranger," Clark said, stroking the back of Alex's hand with his thumb.

Alex smirked. "Just try and get rid of me now."

"Never," Clark whispered, leaning forward a little.

Alex's eyes slid shut and he was surprised to feel a soft kiss brush against his cheek. He opened his eyes when he felt Clark step away from him.

"You should go," Clark said, giving Alex's hand a gentle squeeze before he untangled their fingers.

"I should."

"Goodnight, Alex."

"Goodnight, Clark." Alex watched for a moment as Clark walked back toward the house before he slid into his car.

He leaned his head back against the headrest for a moment, groaning softly. Clark was much better at this than Alex had originally anticipated. A dark corner of Alex's mind wondered why he was even bothering to fight it.

For one clear moment, there was no doubt in Alex's mind that he was going to lose this fight and that he was going to love every second of his eventual surrender.

"Hey, Gabe," Jonathan said, setting the box of apples down. "Chloe."

"Hi, Mr. Kent. Is Clark around?" Chloe asked, her eyes scanning the crowded market.

"He's back there helping his mother unload the truck if you want to talk to him," Jonathan said, tilting his head toward where the truck was parked.

"Thanks." Chloe smiled at him before trotting off to find Clark.

"How are things with you, Jonathan?" Gabe asked.

Jonathan shrugged. "I can't complain. How about you? How are things down at the plant?" It had been three weeks since Alex had taken over there and Jonathan was curious as to how he was doing.

"Ah." Gabe smiled. "Busy. But good."

"Yeah?" Jonathan asked. While he had admitted to himself that his initial suspicions about Alex were wrong, he still didn't think that turning such a huge business over to the boy was a good decision on Lionel's part. Not that Lionel Luthor actually gave a shit about what would happen to Smallville if the plant closed.

"I'll admit, I had my reservations about Alex. He's a good kid, but I wasn't sure he could handle it." Gabe shook his head. "I've never been so happy to be wrong about something."

"So he's doing all right, then?" Jonathan asked. They'd seen Alex a few times in the past few weeks, but for the most part he'd been too busy to spend any time with Clark, which had Clark rather upset. Jonathan's warning about taking things slowly with Alex had apparently come too late.

"It's pretty impressive what he's been doing," Gabe said. "So far he's been able to make things more efficient without firing a single person. We should start turning a profit fairly soon." He sighed. "He's been working nonstop. I'm not sure when he finds time to sleep." Gabe lowered his voice. "If I hadn't been told by Lionel himself, I never would have believed that Alex was a Luthor."

Jonathan nodded in agreement. Money changed people, but the fact that he was the son of one of the wealthiest men in the country hadn't seemed to go to Alex's head yet. As infatuated as Clark was with him, Jonathan hoped that continued to hold true. "Speak of the devil," he said as Alex approached the booth.

"Mr. Kent, Gabe." Alex nodded at them politely.

"Taking a Saturday morning off?" Gabe teased.

Alex grinned. "I'll try not to make a habit of it."

"Hey!"

Jonathan jumped at Clark's voice, turning to find his son standing beside him. He wished he had thought to time how long it took for Clark to show up after Alex had arrived. It hadn't been long.

"Hey, Clark." Alex's smile got a little bigger. "Chloe."

"Hey, stranger," Chloe said. "I haven't seen you in awhile."

"Yeah." Alex shrugged a little. "I've been keeping busy."

"Come to dinner tonight," Clark said. Then he turned to look Jonathan questioningly.

Before Jonathan could say anything, though, Alex shook his head.

"I'm sorry. Lionel is coming to town tonight. I'm supposed to be having dinner with him and Lucas so that I can tell him how the plant is doing." Alex grimaced and for a moment the stress of the past few weeks showed in his expression.

"Tomorrow, then?" Clark asked hopefully.

"I don't know, Clark. I'll have to see how things go tonight." A look of genuine regret passed over Alex's face. "Actually, I should probably get going. There are some reports I want to look over before Lionel gets here."

"Alex," Jonathan said as the boy turned to leave. "You're welcome for dinner any time. You don't have to wait for an invitation." It was true for all of Clark's friends.

Alex smiled. "Thank you, sir. I'll keep that in mind."

"We should get going too," Gabe said as Alex left. "It was good talking to you, Jonathan."

"I'll see you later, Clark," Chloe said, waggling her eyebrows.

"Bye, guys," Jonathan said.

"You rock, Dad," Clark said, grinning.

"Thanks, Son." Jonathan raised an eyebrow. "I think."

Alex flopped down in his desk chair with a sigh, relieved to finally be alone. He had never thought of dinner as a particularly harrowing experience until tonight.

Lionel had brought his wife and Alex had been able to experience the Luthor family dynamics in all their twisted glory.

Lauren Luthor was one piece of work. She was coldly disdainful of everyone, though she took particular pleasure in singling Lucas out, using the word 'bastard' liberally. She barely looked at Alex long enough to be introduced to him before she spent the rest of the evening ignoring him.

Lionel, for his part, ignored his wife in favor of pointedly praising Alex on his performance at the plant, while subtlety bringing up Lucas' past failures.

Alex could barely eat under the weight of Lucas' glare. It was an expression that Alex was growing accustomed to receiving when he was around his brother. Whatever good will Lucas had bore him, if he ever had, was long gone.

Luckily, the mansion was big enough that Alex rarely had to be around Lucas. Lucas had taken to making snide remarks about various aspects of Alex's life whenever they were in the same room and Alex's temper was fraying.

The one good thing was that Lionel seemed genuinely pleased over how well the plant was doing in such a short amount of time, which was all Alex really cared about.

He glanced at his desk, doing a double take at the folder that was lying there. The files he'd been going over earlier should have all been put away. His stomach lurched when he saw that the file was labeled with his name.

The first paper in the folder was a copy of his birth certificate. Alex flipped through the sheets with growing horror as bits of his life were revealed, all gathered in one handy location, spelled out in black and white.

A smaller envelope fell out of the folder. Alex opened it with trembling hands. Photographs. Alex was glad he hadn't eaten as he looked through the pictures, starting from the time he had moved to Metropolis. The last one was of him and Lois at his mother's funeral.

All those years his privacy had been an illusion. He was pretty sure he was going to be sick. What kind of fucked up family did he come from?

"What the hell is this?" Alex asked as he walked in the room, throwing the folder down on the weight bench next to Lucas.

Lucas smirked as he studied his brother. Alex looked shaken, paler than usual and incredibly angry. It was better than Lucas could have hoped for. "Oh, did I leave that out?" he asked innocently, wiping the sweat off his chest with a towel as he stood.

"What is it?" Alex asked again through clenched teeth.

"It's a copy of a file our father has on you that I was able to obtain for a small fee." His smirk grew. "Come on, Lex. You didn't really think that he wouldn't be keeping tabs on you, did you?"

"My name is Alex."

"Right." Lucas picked up the folder. "Alexander Jenkins," he read. "Do you really think that keeping the dyke's name makes you better than the rest of us? You're a Luthor, no matter what your birth certificate says."

"Shut up," Alex said softly.

"She wasn't even related to you. Your real mom got knocked up and then went to the only person that would take her in."

It took Lucas awhile to realize that he was pressed up against the wall. He blamed that fact on the lack of oxygen to his brain as Alex's arm pressed harder against his throat.

"I'm going to tell you this once, baby brother, so I suggest you listen," Alex whispered in his ear.

Lucas gasped to get a breath and considered that this was probably the wrong time to notice that his brother really had an incredible voice.

"If you ever say anything about my parents again, I'll cut out your tongue."

Alex released him suddenly and Lucas slid down the wall, coughing as his lungs started working properly again. As soon as he had the breath for it, he laughed.

"You don't think I'm serious? Just try me," Alex said darkly.

"Oh, I have no doubt that you're serious." Lucas stood up on shaky legs. "Now you get to listen to me." His smile faded a little. "Call yourself whatever the fuck you want. You may have everyone in Smallville fooled. I'm sure Clark thinks you're just fabulous, but if you think you're not a Luthor, take a moment to consider what you just did."

Alex looked like he had just been sucker-punched.

"Welcome to the family, Lex." Smiling, Lucas walked out of the room, resisting the temptation to look back.

"Alex," Clark said, a little startled.

"Hey, Clark. Is it too late for me to be here?" Alex asked as he entered the loft. He looked preoccupied.

"Not at all," Clark said. He moved over on the couch and indicated that Alex should sit. "What's the matter?"

"I needed-- I wanted..." Alex shut his eyes as he sat down on the couch.

"Hey." Clark placed a hand on Alex's shoulder, concerned. "What is it?"

"What kind of family do I come from, Clark?" Alex opened his eyes, searching Clark's face. "What kind of person does it make me?"

Clark sat back, trying to think of the right thing to say. He still had his own doubts about how his origins affected who he was, but it was somehow clearer from an outside perspective. "You're the same person you've always been," he said, thinking of the last conversation he'd had about destiny. "Finding out that Lionel is your father didn't make you a different person, it just changed your perspective a little."

"Are you sure about that?" Alex asked, anguish clear in his voice.

"Yeah." Clark took a chance, reaching out to cup the side of Alex's face. "What happened?" he asked, stroking Alex's cheek softly.

Alex laughed humorlessly. "I threatened Lucas," he said. "I just lost my temper and I..."

Clark smiled. "I'm pretty sure that has more to do with Lucas being an asshole than you being a Luthor. What did you say?"

"I threatened to cut out his tongue."

"Wow." Clark blinked, a little startled. Then he laughed. "It would be a marked improvement."

Alex smiled for a moment before his face fell again. "I don't know. What would you do if you found out your parents had been lying to you your entire life about where you came from?"

Clark smirked. That was one question he could answer with some degree of authority. "I would be angry and scared. I would probably go wandering through a graveyard at night, wondering why my parents kept it from me. If it was because they were afraid of what I'd become, of what I was--" Clark stopped, his throat tightening as all his fears about his origins surfaced. "I probably wouldn't realize that they did it to protect me, because they wanted me to find out who I was without the burden of the information they were keeping from me."

"You sound like you know what you're talking about," Alex said quietly.

"Do you believe in destiny?" Clark asked, hoping to cut off any questions Alex might have.

"Like that our futures are determined for us?" Alex shook his head. "God, I hope not. I feel helpless enough without believing that I have no choice in my life whatsoever."

"Not necessarily all our choices," Clark said. "But maybe some things. Like certain people you're supposed to meet, no matter what. And whether you end up friends or enemies depends on the choices you make afterwards."

"You think you and I are destined to be friends?" Alex asked with a hint of a smile.

Clark moved his hand from Alex's cheek to the back of his neck. "Or more," he whispered.

"Clark--"

"Did you talk to Lois about this?"

Alex blinked. "I haven't talked to anyone."

"Why did you come to me?" Clark asked.

"Lois has known me forever. She's biased. You've only known me as a Luthor. I needed-- you. The truth," Alex finished.

"I'm telling you the truth," Clark said, drawing Alex a little closer. "But if you think I'm unbiased, you're insane."

Alex sighed, his eyes fluttering closed and Clark was pretty sure he wasn't going to get a better opening.

The first taste of Alex's mouth was so much better than Clark had imagined that it made him dizzy. Clark licked Alex's lips, moaning when they opened up beneath him. Alex slid closer, turning his body awkwardly so as not to break the kiss.

Clark grabbed Alex's hips, moving him until he was straddling Clark's lap. Alex's hands threaded through Clark's hair as they kissed and he was making the sexiest whimpering noises in the back of his throat.

Alex's shirt was untucked and Clark took advantage of the opportunity, sliding his hands under the shirt to caress the soft, hot skin. He pulled back, breaking the kiss in favor of tasting Alex's neck as he pushed Alex's shirt up past the nipples that had been so thoroughly discussed a few weeks ago.

The feel of Alex's skin under Clark's hands was addictive. There were so many things he wanted to do, so many things that he'd planned on doing when they got to this point that now he couldn't decide which of them to do first. Alex was writhing in his lap and that was really good.

"Clark," Alex moaned, tugging at Clark's hair.

Clark scraped his teeth lightly across the skin at the base of Alex's throat before reluctantly pulling away. If it was possible, Alex looked even more appealing than usual, his lips red from kissing, his pupils dilated.

"I can't," Alex whispered.

"What?" Clark didn't quite understand the statement until Alex wiggled off his lap. "Alex--"

"I'm sorry. I got carried away."

"If you say I'm too young, I swear..." Clark couldn't think of a good way to end the sentence.

"You are, though." Alex backed up a little more. "It may not seem like it now, but-- I have to go."

"I'm not him," Clark called out as Alex turned to leave.

Alex froze for a moment before turning back around, a bewildered look on his face. "You're not--" His expression turned haunted. "No," he finally said. "You're not him. You're me." He shook his head. "I have to go."

Clark watched him leave without trying to stop him again. He leaned his head back against the couch as he tried to process what Alex had just told him. "Well, fuck."

Alex pulled on a pair of pajama pants, shivering a little. The cold shower hadn't helped as much as he'd hoped. His skin still tingled in the places where Clark's touch had branded him.

He didn't bother with a shirt, opting instead for a shot of something that was probably too expensive to be tossing back. He'd swiped it from the library before retreating to his bedroom. There was much less chance of running into Lucas that way. Alex didn't usually opt for drinking when things were fucked up, but tonight he just wanted to forget how good it had felt with Clark. How fucking perfect Clark's mouth had been.

For a second Alex had thought he could do it, just go with it, but he had freaked out and why did Clark have to push things? Why did he have to taste so good?

Alex poured another shot and wondered if he was going to have to take another cold shower before he was properly drunk.

"If you're trying to drive me insane, you're doing a fabulous job so far."

Jumping, Alex whirled around to see Clark standing, no, leaning in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Clark? What are you doing here?"

"Well..." Clark pushed himself away from the doorway and walked in the room, shutting the door behind him. "I decided to respect your wishes and give you some space."

"And yet, here you are," Alex said dryly.

"Yeah. But see, then I thought about it some more and decided that you just need to get over it." Clark smiled.

Alex blinked in surprise. "Excuse me?"

"I think I need to disabuse you of the notion you have of me as the blushing, innocent virgin." Clark shook his head a little. "Whatever issues you have, they aren't relevant to us, and I'd really like to focus on us for awhile."

"Clark." Alex backed up as Clark stalked toward him. "You have no idea--"

"You know, I thought we were of the same mind about being protected against our will," Clark said. "I don't need your protection, Alex. I don't need, nor do I want to be protected from you."

"You're too young," Alex protested weakly.

"I'm a lot older than I might seem," Clark said.

Alex couldn't quite disagree with that. There were times when he'd caught Clark in an unguarded moment, an expression on his face that Alex recognized far too well. He'd often seen it in the mirror since the day almost ten years ago when he'd found out his mother was sick. He had to wonder what had happened in Clark's life, with his seemingly perfect family, to put that haunted look of guilt in his eyes.

There were reasons, Alex was sure. He knew there were reasons they shouldn't be here, that he'd regret this. It would end badly, wouldn't it? When hadn't it?

"Are you drunk?" Clark asked, nodding at the bottle on Alex's dresser.

"No. I've just had enough to do something stupid."

Clark smiled.

"Who are you, Clark?" Alex whispered. How did you get under my skin so quickly? Ever since Clark had arrived Alex felt like he was drowning. He was beginning to wonder if it was really such a bad way to go.

"I'm your friend," Clark said, walking toward him slowly. "Does the rest of it matter?"

Alex shook his head. "Not tonight," he finally said and found that he could breathe water.

Clark's mouth was better than Alex remembered. The alcohol in his veins was enough to make him slightly dizzy as they moved toward the bed.

"Tell me this isn't right, that it isn't perfect," Clark whispered against his jaw.

"You know I can't." Alex scrambled to get his hands under Clark's shirt, against bare skin. "You're perfect."

"We are," Clark said right before they fell on the bed, arms tangled around each other as they fought for dominance.

Alex ended up on top, straddling Clark's hips. He tilted Clark's head up, bending down to claim Clark's mouth in an aggressive kiss. Pushing Clark's shirt up, he exposed endless golden skin stretched over perfectly sculpted abs and a tantalizing trail of soft, dark hair disappearing beneath the waistband of Clark's jeans. "Are you for real?" Alex asked scooting back a little to allow Clark to remove his shirt.

Suddenly, Alex found himself pinned beneath Clark. Maybe he was a little drunk, because it seemed to happen much faster than it should have.

"I want you," Clark said, soft lips and a wet tongue tracing intricate patterns over Alex's throat.

Alex shivered at the growl in Clark's voice. "I think I figured that one out, actually."

"I want to fuck you," Clark purred.

"Oh," Alex gasped, arching up as Clark stroked his cock through the thin cotton of his pants. Then Clark was removing them, pulling them off and Alex wasn't sure how he'd managed that without moving from between his legs. Clark's pants were gone too. When the hell had that happened?

But every question flew from Alex's mind as Clark's skin pressed against his, so incredibly hot that Alex felt like he had a fever. Clark kissed his way down Alex's body, licking and sucking until every one of Alex's nerves was tingling with excitement.

Clark bypassed Alex's cock, though, moving over to lick the crease of his thigh, down to his balls, his mouth so hot and wet and totally incredible.

Alex tried not to whimper as he felt Clark's hands at the backs of his thighs, pushing his legs back, spreading them wider. Alex's hands twisted the sheets under him at the first touch of Clark's tongue against his hole.

"Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck," became his mantra as Clark's tongue thrust into him, working him open, licking over him until he thought he'd die from the exquisite torture of it. "Please, Clark." Alex was beyond the point of caring that he was begging. "I need you, please. Please." He arched up, a low growling sound ripping from his throat as Clark's tongue left him.

"You want this," Clark whispered in his ear a moment later as Alex felt two slick fingers enter him.

He wasn't sure if it was a question or a statement, so he answered just in case. "God yes."

"Are you sure?" Clark was slowly finger-fucking him as he asked.

Alex was about to break from the tension. "Please," he whispered again, unable to say it any other way. "Now."

He heard the sound of tearing foil and in the back of his mind, it occurred to Alex to wonder if condoms and lube had magically appeared in his bedroom. But then Clark was back, pressing into him.

"Fuck," Alex groaned. Pain-- how could he have forgotten about that?

Clark stopped, panting. "You okay?" he asked.

Alex nodded, his eyes screwed shut as the burning began to ease. "S'been awhile," he said between short, shallow breaths.

"Shh, calm down." Clark stroked his side gently. "Try and relax, breathe. That's it." He kissed Alex's neck, right beneath his ear.

Alex took a deep breath, trying to consciously relax his body. Clark slid in a little further and Alex groaned again, pleasure mixing with the pain this time. "I'm okay."

Clark pressed in until his balls were resting against Alex's ass. "Okay?" he asked again, his panting harsher as he held his body still.

"Yeah," Alex said, pressing his thighs against Clark's sides. "Fuck me."

Clark's control seemed to break at that as he pulled out and then slammed back into Alex's body.

Alex moaned as he got caught up in the rhythm Clark was setting. He moved his legs higher up, changing the angle so that Clark's cock was brushing against just the right spot with every thrust. He was going to feel this every time he moved for at least a week.

"So good-- Alex, god you're so tight," Clark whispered as his thrusts got more uneven.

Alex clawed at Clark's shoulders as Clark started to stroke Alex's cock in time with his thrusts. He was so close to the edge that he was shaking with need, whispering things that he couldn't even bother to keep track of anymore, though he was pretty sure he was begging again.

"Oh god-- Alex," Clark's voice was strangled as he came.

Alex placed his hand over Clark's, stroking his cock until he was coming too, shouting Clark's name as his seed spilled over their entwined fingers.

"So good," Clark whispered against Alex's neck.

Alex was inclined to agree.

They must have fallen asleep, because the room was much brighter than Clark remembered it being. He smiled a little at the feeling of Alex's body pressed against his.

It had been almost three a.m. when they'd gotten out of the shower and they'd both been rather exhausted. Clark hadn't planned on actually spending the night. He had no idea what he was going to tell his parents, but it was definitely worth whatever trouble he was in to wake up with Alex in his arms.

He blinked, wondering what had woken him up. Alex was still sound asleep. Clark glanced at the clock, but a movement caught the corner of his eye.

Lucas was standing in the doorway, an extremely smug grin on his face.

"Don't you know how to knock?" Clark asked, refusing to panic. Lucas could mind his own fucking business.

"Clark?" Alex murmured, stirring a little.

"I've got to admit, Clark," Lucas said loudly. "I didn't think you'd have the balls, pardon the expression, to go through with it."

Alex turned to face his brother. "What are you talking about?" he asked.

"Get out of here," Clark said at the same time. His muscles tensed at the smile on Lucas' face.

"I wish I could remember exactly what you said. It was so..." Lucas licked his lips. "What was it? Do you remember, Clark? Something about the poetic justice of fucking a Luthor."

Clark could feel Alex stiffen beside him, but when he spoke, his voice was calm. "And why would he say something like that?"

Lucas raised an eyebrow at Clark. "You didn't tell him?"

The urge to get up and strangle Lucas was almost overwhelming and Clark was pretty sure that if he weren't naked, he would have done it already.

"Why don't you tell me, Lucas." Alex said, sitting up.

"Poor Clark walked in on me fucking his girlfriend." Lucas smirked. "He didn't appreciate it too much."

Alex nodded and he still hadn't looked at Clark. He stood up, completely casual with his nudity as he picked up his pajama pants and slid them on.

Clark watched Lucas' eyes travel over Alex's body and felt his fingers rip through the sheets under his hands in an effort to keep from doing anything stupid.

Lucas' appraisal hadn't gone unnoticed by Alex. He quirked an eyebrow as he walked over to his brother. "Why would I give a shit about any of this, Lucas?" he said.

"Because I don't appreciate my brother being used as a means of revenge," Lucas said, looking pointedly at Clark.

"Your concern is overwhelming," Alex said dryly. "Get the fuck out of my room."

Lucas' eyes wandered over to Clark again, his smirk faltering a little. "You don't really believe that you can trust him, do you?" he asked.

"Get. Out. Now." Alex crossed his arms over his chest.

Lucas shrugged and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

"Oh, god, Alex. For a minute there I really thought you were going--"

"What part of what he said wasn't true?" Alex asked softly, his back still to Clark.

"Huh?" Clark asked brilliantly.

Alex turned and Clark almost flinched at the cold expression on his face. "Is what he said true?"

"Oh." Clark studied his hands a moment before nodding. "I walked in. On him and Lana. It was when she and I were still dating."

"And the other part?" Alex's voice was so soft, without inflection and Clark was having trouble judging how mad he was.

"Later Lucas confronted me. He asked if I was more jealous of him or Lana. I told him that--" Clark closed his eyes, wishing he could be anywhere else in the world besides here, about to say what he had to say. "I told him that as much as I liked the poetic justice of fucking a Luthor, it would never be him," he finished in a whisper. He opened his eyes, his stomach sinking at the stony look on Alex's face.

"Get out," Alex said softly.

"Alex--" Clark got out of bed, locating and pulling on his jeans before he continued. This was a conversation that should not be had while naked. "You can't believe that I'd--"

"Clark," Alex cut him off. "Was there a part of that you didn't understand?"

"Please," Clark said, ignoring the sting of the question. "We need to talk about this."

"I really don't think you want me to talk about this right now," he said. He wasn't yelling and that was such a bad sign.

"But I do," Clark insisted, walking toward him.

"Well I don't," Alex snapped. He took a step back. "Look, I know you don't really give a shit about what I want. If you did, you wouldn't have come here last night. But I'm asking you now--" He shut his eyes. "Just leave."

"Alex." Clark shook his head. "It wasn't like that."

"Wasn't it?" Alex asked. "Tell me then, why did it have to happen last night?"

"It didn't-- I didn't mean--"

"You just had condoms and lube with you in case I'd changed my mind?" Alex was stalking toward him now. "What was the reason, Clark? Why couldn't you respect the fact that I didn't want anything to happen between us yet? Did it occur to you that I might not be ready? Or did you just not care?"

"Alex, I'm so sorry. I didn't think--" Clark tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. Lois had told him to take things slowly and he'd fucked up. God, he'd fucked up so badly. "I'm sorry."

"Go home, Clark." Alex's shoulders slumped. He looked so...defeated. "Your parents are probably wondering where you are."

Clark flinched at the mention of his parents. He picked up his shirt, slipping it back on and then grabbed his shoes. "What about us?" he asked when he was ready to leave.

Alex wouldn't look at him. "There is no us, Clark."

As Clark exited the bedroom, he spotted Lucas leaning against the wall in the hallway. "If you say a single word, I'll kill you," Clark warned.

Something in his expression must have registered with Lucas, because his jaw snapped shut on whatever he'd been about to say as Clark walked past.

Clark ran home, ignoring the tears that were trailing down his cheeks.

Alex stepped into the shower, making the water as hot as he could stand it and wondering if there was any way that he could have fucked up even more. He was filled with self-loathing and the worst part was that he couldn't decide on why.

He should have sent Clark home the second he'd arrived last night. But he hadn't. When it had really mattered, Alex hadn't even had the self-control to do anything but roll over and spread his legs.

And now he didn't even know what had really happened. He wasn't sure what disturbed him more; the fact that he'd given in so easily or the possibility that Clark might not be who Alex thought he was at all.

The poetic justice of fucking a Luthor. Alex pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes in an effort to make the words go away, but it didn't work. The sentence continued to echo in his head, Clark's voice and then Lucas'.

Then it was Clark's voice whispering, "I want to fuck you." The memory was tainted now, twisting around Alex's stomach, weighted down with the implications of the statement.

"Fuck!" Alex slammed his fist against the wall of the shower, wincing at the jolt it sent up his arm. Ever since he'd moved to Smallville, he'd been everybody else's pawn and he was getting sick of it.

It had been so perfect, so much better than anything Alex had ever experienced and it had all been a lie. And the twisted part was that he still wanted Clark. The thought of never being with him again sat heavy on his chest, making his heart hurt as much as every other part of him.

He had been stupid to worry about protecting Clark. He should have been concerned about protecting himself. Alex wondered how many different ways he was going to have to learn that lesson before it started to sink in.

He couldn't trust anybody.

"There you are," Lucas said, smiling as he walked into the library.

Alex looked up, regarding him coldly. "I would have thought you'd be smart enough to stay away from me." He looked tired, unshaven and miserable.

Lucas shrugged. "I'm sorry I didn't warn you about Clark sooner," he said, trying to sound sincere. "Had I known that he was planning to follow through with it--"

"Don't." Alex glared at him.

"My only concern is for you," Lucas said, the corners of his mouth twitching in an effort not to smile. "I swear."

"You're so full of it," Alex said.

"Although I can't blame you, really. I mean, who wouldn't want to fuck Clark? I can only imagine what it must be like to have those lips wrapped around your cock. Did you fuck his mouth?"

"Shut up." Alex stood suddenly, walking toward Lucas. His eyes glittered with a darkness that Lucas had only caught glimpses of before. "You know what I can't figure out?" he asked conversationally.

"What?" Lucas asked, refusing to back up as Alex approached him.

Alex tilted his head. "What do you get out of all this? If it's just that you like to fuck with me, I'm afraid you're going to have to find a new hobby."

"You think so?" Lucas smirked.

"I do." Alex smiled too. "You know what else I wonder?"

"Why don't you tell me?"

Lucas jumped a little when Alex reached out, grabbing him by the back of his neck. Alex leaned forward until his lips were brushing against Lucas' ear. Lucas bit his lip and resisted leaning into Alex's body.

"I wonder which one of us you were really jealous of," Alex whispered. "Is it Clark you want to fuck, or is it me?"

"Fuck you," Lucas said, pulling away.

Alex's eyes glittered with amusement. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

Lucas took a step back, shaking. Alex was getting better, because that had hit a little too close to home. Clark had been fun to play with, but Alex belonged to Lucas. Clark and Alex didn't have the right to be together.

Clark had no right to touch Alex.

It wasn't until he tried to make a fist that Lucas remembered the file he held in his hand. He was able to find his smile again as he brought it up to hand to Alex. "For you," he said.

Alex eyed him warily as he took the folder. He looked down.

Lucas felt a dark glee as the color drained from Alex's face. His hands were shaking so badly as he stared at the file that Lucas had a little trouble reading the words "Jake Sullivan" at the top.

"Why are you doing this?" Alex asked without a trace of his earlier bravado.

Because I can. "The sooner you learn your lesson the better," Lucas said. "You can't trust anyone."

"Even you?" he asked bitterly.

"Especially me," Lucas whispered.

"Get out."

Lucas nodded and turned to leave. "Happy reading," he called out over his shoulder.

Clark kept replaying it in his mind, looking for ways that he could have done things differently. Sometimes he went over to the mansion and they just talked, stayed up until three a.m. talking about random stuff, with maybe a little cuddling. And Clark told him about his fight with Lucas.

Other times they still had sex, but when Lucas came in the next morning, Clark set him on fire before he could say anything. Clark liked that version of things well enough that he felt a little guilty about it.

The rest of his time was spent thinking of ways to get Alex to forgive him. Or even talk to him. Clark would be very happy with talking at the moment. He'd been trying to get a hold of Alex, but all his calls to the mansion had been refused. The last time he'd tried, there' been a pause and then Lucas had come on the line.

Clark hadn't tried to call again after that.

He hadn't told his parents what had happened beyond the fact that he and Alex had fought. His mom had been giving him odd glances and a wide berth all week. Clark had a feeling that she had a good idea of what had happened, if not the exact situation. It was a little disturbing if he thought about it for too long.

So he thought about setting Lucas on fire again, which made him feel a little better.

"Mr. Kent, I wonder what could be so thoroughly fascinating that you no longer feel the need to pay attention in class." Clark's math teacher stared at him expectantly. "Would you care to enlighten me?"

"No, Sir. I'm sorry," Clark mumbled, slumping down in his chair.

His teacher gave him a speculative look, but thankfully didn't pursue the matter.

Unfortunately, his luck didn't hold out when it came to Chloe. She pulled him into the Torch office after school and pushed him down into the nearest chair.

"We need to talk," she said, crossing her arms and leaning against the desk in front of him.

"We do?" Clark asked, feigning ignorance. He didn't want to talk to anyone, he just wanted to go home and mope. Was that too much to ask?

"Clark, what's the hell's the matter with you? You've been walking around all week like--" She threw her hands up in the air. "What's going on? What happened?"

"Nothing's happened. I'm just tired," Clark said. He didn't want to tell Chloe what had happened, he was too ashamed of the way he'd acted.

I know you don't really give a shit about what I want.

"I'm here for you if you need to talk, Clark." Chloe ran her fingers through his hair fondly. "Maybe I can help."

"I--" Clark closed his eyes. Maybe Chloe could help him. Or maybe she'd hate him for being such an asshole to Alex. "I fucked up, Chloe. I messed things up so badly and I don't know how to even begin to fix it and it hurts and it's all my fault."

"Oh, Clark."

His eyes remained closed. Clark didn't need to see the pity in Chloe's expression.

"We'll fix it," she said.

Clark snorted a little. "You don't even know what it is."

"Doesn't matter." She stroked his hair like he was a little boy. Clark thought the gesture was more than he deserved. "Now, tell me what happened and we'll figure out how to make it better."

"What makes you think we can?" Clark asked, sniffling a little. His hopes rose at the confident tone of Chloe's voice.

"Because I'm a Sullivan, Clark. We can do anything."

"And modest, too," Clark said, smiling a little when Chloe hit him.

"You can be such a fucking drama queen sometimes, you know that?"

Alex looked up from his laptop as Lois stormed into the library. "What are you doing here?" he asked warily.

"I had a little talk with Chloe. I thought you might need my help." She crossed her arms over her chest.

Alex leaned back in his chair and studied her for a moment. "I assume you're talking about Clark," he said evenly.

"Is there something else you've fucked up recently and neglected to tell me about?" she asked. "You've got that poor guy guilt tripping like crazy. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"You should have called, Lois. I could have told you over the phone that this is none of your business." He turned his attention back to the computer screen. "Don't you have a job?"

"Yeah. I have to drive back to Metropolis tonight, so it'd be nice if you stopped being an asshole sometime soon." She sighed. "Chloe told me what happened with Lucas. I just can't believe you'd take Lucas' version of things over Clark's."

"They didn't have different versions of things!" Alex shouted.

"That doesn't mean Clark was out to fuck you over. Honestly, Alex, what is the matter with you?"

Alex wasn't so sure that Clark had been out to fuck him over either, but that didn't really mean that Alex could trust him. It seemed that he had a knack for trusting the wrong people and Clark had plenty of reasons to hate his family. But he wasn't about to tell that to Lois after she stormed into his house to yell at him about something that wasn't even his fault.

"You don't know that he wasn't, though, do you?" Alex asked.

Clark should have just told him the truth about what had happened with Lucas up front. Clark shouldn't have even been over there that night after Alex had told him he didn't want to pursue things. Clark was able to override all of Alex's self-control too easily and that scared Alex more than anything else.

Lois was still staring at him expectantly. "You can't be serious," she finally said. "Clark's not the kind of guy who would do that."

"And what about Jake?" Alex asked softly. "Is he the kind of guy who would do that?"

"It's not the same thing," Lois said quietly.

"No," Alex said, pulling out the file that Lucas had given him. "It's not the same thing at all." He handed the file over to her.

She blanched as she read the label. "What is this?"

"Dad has obviously been keeping closer tabs on me than I'd originally thought," Alex said. "Check the last page."

*"What would you do with a million dollars?"*

The color drained from Lois' face as she complied.

*"What kind of question is that?"*

*"A hypothetical one. Don't you think it'd be cool to have that much money? What would you do with it? How would you spend it?"*

"This isn't--" Lois shook her head. "He wouldn't--"

"Check the date," Alex said. The date on the check stub matched up with the date on the letter Jake had left him.

"The day he left?" Lois asked softly.

Alex nodded and stood up, walking around the desk until he could read the file over her shoulder.

"This can't be true," Lois said, turning to face him. "Jake may be a jerk, but he's not...he wouldn't."

"How else would you explain it? Why would Lionel have that in the file unless it was real?" Alex asked.

"Maybe he intended for you to see it," Lois said.

"To what end?" Alex frowned. "Face it, Lois. Everybody has a price and that was Jake's." He tilted his head. "I wonder what yours is."

It took awhile for Alex to connect the stinging of his cheek with the fact that Lois had just slapped him. He stared at her, reviewing what he had just said. "Oh, Jesus. I'm so sorry, Lois." He pulled her into a hug, relieved that she allowed it. "I'm so sorry."

"I swear, if you ever say anything like that to me again..."

"I'm sorry," he whispered again. "I don't know what's wrong with me. All those pictures and files...I've been going over every childhood memory, wondering who was watching me, what the file says about this or that event in my life." He buried his face against her neck. "I'm so paranoid; I don't know who I can trust anymore."

"You can trust me," Lois said.

"I know. I'm beginning to think you're the only one.

"You can trust Clark, too." She pulled away. "He cares about you, Alex. Surely you can see that."

"How do you know that?"

"Because he's one of the good guys." Lois smiled at him. "Reporter's intuition."

Alex looked down at the floor. "Say that I can." He pulled the file out of Lois' hand. "I don't want one of these on Clark. He doesn't deserve that."

"Maybe not," Lois said, plucking the folder from his hand and setting it on the desk. "But don't you think that's a decision that he deserves to make? Believe it or not, Alex, some people think you're worth the risk."

"I don't know."

"Just talk to him. You owe it--"

"I don't owe him anything," Alex said.

"You owe it to yourself," Lois said. "I've seen you two together. There's something worth pursuing there. Don't punish him because of your father and brother."

"I'll think about it," Alex said.

"Hello? Clark? Are you up here?"

"Yeah, I'm here," Clark said, standing up from the couch.

"Hey," Lana said as she entered the loft. She shoved her hands in her pockets.

"Hey," Clark replied. He hadn't really talked to Lana since they'd broken up, but having her here now, he was suddenly struck with how much he missed her. She had been a good friend and her absence had affected him more than he realized. He was ridiculously glad to see her. "How's it going?"

She shrugged, giving him a serene smile. "Things have been better. I wanted to talk to you about something."

"Sure." He gestured toward the couch, but she shook her head. "What's up?"

"Um, I'm moving. To Metropolis." She studied the ground for a moment before looking back up at him. "I wanted you to be the first to know."

"What?" Clark blinked at her, not quite processing the information. "When did this happen?"

"Nell's been seeing someone and he proposed last week," she said. "They want to move to Metropolis. A fresh start and all that."

"And you have to go with them?" Clark asked.

Lana laughed. "Where else am I going to go?" She took her hands out of her pockets and crossed them over her chest. "I think it'll be good for me. I think maybe a fresh start would be good." She looked down again. "Ever since we broke up, I've felt-- a fresh start would be good."

"I'm sorry," Clark said, although he wasn't sure what exactly he was apologizing for. "I miss you." And now that he realized this, she was leaving. Clark felt more miserable than he had before.

She nodded. "I miss you too."

"I'm sorry things didn't work out between us," Clark said.

"It just wasn't meant to be," Lana said lightly. "Hopefully I'll find a nice guy in Metropolis."

Clark nodded. "A guy would have to be insane not to want to date you," he said.

"That or gay." She arched an eyebrow.

"Nah," Clark said, pulling her into his arms. "Even the gay guys want to date you."

Lana laughed and something in Clark's chest eased a little. He knew that, at least in this case, he was forgiven.

"Alex, come in," Mrs. Kent said, opening the kitchen door.

"Thank you." Alex looked around the kitchen, struck with the same sense of coming home that he'd had when he'd been here before. "I was wondering if Clark was home."

"He is. He's out in the barn, if you want to go up there and talk to him." She gave him a motherly, knowing look and ushered him out of the house again.

Alex mumbled his thanks to her before he started toward the barn. He had thought a lot about what Lois had said and finally admitted to himself that she was right. Alex wasn't sure he could trust Clark, but he desperately wanted to.

The painful fact of the matter was that Alex couldn't get Clark out of his mind. He kept thinking about that night, about how concerned Clark had been about hurting him and Alex couldn't convince himself that it had been for revenge.

Even if Clark decided that he didn't want to continue things with Alex, Alex at least owed him an apology for the way he'd acted that morning. Clark hadn't deserved Alex's anger.

He was about halfway up the stairs when he realized that there was someone else up there with Clark. The girl's voice was too soft for him to tell if it was Chloe or not. Alex paused at the landing, froze, rather, as he saw Clark embracing a dark-haired girl.

"I love you," the girl said softly.

"I love you too, Lana," Clark replied. "I always have."

Alex turned before he had to watch them kiss. He walked back down the stairs quietly, walking purposefully back to his car once he'd exited the barn, hoping to avoid Mrs. Kent.

How could he have been so stupid?

Part Four

I'm coming waltzing back and
moving into your head

Smallville, Winter 2002

"He's not here," Chloe said softly as they brought up the rear of the tour. "I asked my dad."

"Great." Clark sighed. It had been a long shot anyway. Every year the sophomore class took a tour of the LuthorCorp plant. The last time Clark had been here, he'd spent his time watching Lana and Whitney, jealousy snaking through his gut.

This time he had volunteered to be a student chaperone in a desperate hope that he would be able to talk to Alex. But Alex wasn't here and Clark was more miserable than ever.

It had been almost a month since they'd talked, since his mom had told him that Alex had come to see him. The only thing that Clark could figure was that Alex had seen him with Lana and left. All his calls to the mansion had been refused.

"So, if any of you had beans for lunch, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Despite his bad mood, Clark couldn't help but smile at Mr. Sullivan's lame joke. It'd been the same one he'd cracked the last time Clark was here.

Clark wasn't sure what he was going to do now. Lois had talked Alex into giving Clark a second chance and Clark had blown it without even being aware of it.

A sudden rattling startled Clark out of his thoughts. When he looked up, the metal door at the end of the room was shaking like there was an earthquake at just that point in the room.

Mr. Sullivan wrinkled his brow. "What the--Excuse me for a moment." He walked over to the door, which flew open a moment later to reveal Earl Jenkins. He was holding a gun and Clark was suddenly glad Alex was nowhere near the plant.

This was so bad.

Alex pulled slowly up to the gate as the crowd parted reluctantly in front of his car. This was the sophomore class tour, so Clark had no reason to be there. So why were the Kents part of the crowd standing at the gate?

He got out of the car and walked back to the gate. "Let these two in," he told the guard, waiting until the gate was shut before he spoke to the Kents.

"What's going on?" Mrs. Kent asked. "They won't tell us anything."

"A man with a gun is holding the students hostage. He wants to talk to my father. He keeps talking about a Level Three." Alex had been briefed on his way to the plant but he still couldn't believe this was happening. He was way out of his league here.

"What's his name?" Mr. Kent asked.

"Earl Jenkins." Alex looked at Mr. Kent. "Do you know him?"

"Yeah, he used to work at our farm. He came to see me a few days ago. Wanted me to help him contact Luthor, but he had a sort of violent seizure and he was taken to the hospital."

Alex sighed. "Mr. Jenkins is wanted for the murder of a LuthorCorp employee."

"He said it was an accident. What do you know about Level Three?"

"Nothing." Alex ran his hand over his face. "When I took over the plant, I went over everything. Blue prints, accident reports, briefs on every project that the plant has been involved in since it's been opened." He looked Mr. Kent in the eye. "As far as I know, there is no Level Three."

Alex turned to talk to the member of the S.W.A.T team seated at the table in front of him, but a hand on his arm stopped him. The look in Mrs. Kent's face killed any hope that they were only here because of their link to Earl.

"Clark is in there."

"Why?" Alex asked shakily as bile rushed to the back of his throat. "It's only supposed to be the sophomore class."

"He volunteered to be a student chaperone."

Alex closed his eyes, a hot knot of anxiety burning in his stomach. "To see me," he whispered. If anything happened to Clark, it would be Alex's fault.

"Looks like you've got a situation on your hands," Lucas said, walking up behind Alex.

"If you have nothing productive to offer, I suggest you stay out of the way," Alex said shortly.

"Don't worry. Dad should be here soon."

"That doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence," Mr. Kent said.

"No," Alex said, turning to him. "But so far, he's the only person that Earl is willing to talk to."

"How could this have happened?" Lionel asked as he stalked toward Alex.

"I don't know, Lionel, I was hoping you could tell me." Alex turned back toward the monitors that showed the students huddled in the corner of the room. Not only was Clark in there, Gabe and Chloe were there too. They had to get them out. Fortunately, the rest of the plant's employees had been evacuated. "He wants to know about Level Three."

"The man is obviously mentally unbalanced," Lionel said. "It was why he was dismissed by LuthorCorp in the first place."

"He's also sick and desperate and he wants to talk to you," Alex said. "What do you plan to do?"

"I plan to let the professionals do their jobs. As soon as he makes a mistake, we'll have him."

"And in the meantime?" Alex stared at his father in disbelief. "He has a room full of kids as hostages, so I suggest you come up with a better plan than 'wait'."

"It is LuthorCorp's policy not to negotiate with terrorists, Alex," Lionel said calmly.

"Well this is the exception that proves the rule, then. Get Earl on the line." Alex handed the phone to Lionel. "You're going to talk to him and see what you can do to get those kids out of there."

Behind his father's head, he could see his brother's smirk falter as Lionel accepted the phone. "I'll see what I can do," Lionel said.

It turned out that the only thing Lionel could do was make the situation worse. He was obviously a man who was used to getting his way and evidently didn't feel that he needed to use anything resembling tact when talking to a man who was holding a group of kids hostage at gunpoint.

"You didn't tell me that you don't negotiate because you suck at it," Alex said as he stared at the static on the monitors. He ran his hand through his hair. He had to do something. Alex was sick of being helpless. "I'm going in there."

"Alex." Lionel grabbed his arm. "Don't be a fool. The gas levels are going up. I'm not going to let you go in there and get yourself killed over some misplaced sense of duty."

Alex jerked his arm away. "It's my decision. I'm not going to let a bunch of kids die when there's something I can do." I'm not going to let Clark die. "Get me a vest."

"We've got to do something," Chloe said. "Can you get close enough to stop him?"

Clark shook his head. When he'd tried to get close to Earl, he'd started to feel sick, like when he was around meteor fragments. He'd felt weak. The blueprints had been Clark's only chance. It hadn't worked. There was no way he'd be able to stop Earl without the possibility of someone getting shot. It wasn't a risk Clark was willing to take.

"Earl."

Clark's head shot up as he heard Alex's voice. He was standing in the doorway, his arms up, a heavy vest fastened over his pale blue shirt. Alex wasn't supposed to be here.

"Who are you?" Earl asked, his gun swinging to focus on Alex.

"I'm Lionel's son. I'm in charge of this plant." Alex gave Earl a nervous smile. "I'd like to talk to you, see what we can work out about getting these kids out of here."

Earl shook his head. "What kind of a man sends his own son to do his dirty work?"

Alex's smile grew a little wider. "C'mon, Earl. You know what kind of man you're dealing with. Otherwise you wouldn't have had to resort to these measures."

Clark's heart leapt to his throat as Alex shrugged out of his vest.

"I just want to get better," Earl said. "I never wanted to hurt anybody."

"I believe you," Alex said. "I spoke to Jonathan Kent outside. He seems to think very highly of you. Any man who has his respect has mine, which is why I'd like to help you." Alex waved his hand around the room. "But I can't do that and worry about these guys at the same time."

Earl's gun lowered a little. "And how can you help me?"

"I'll take you to Level Three."

The gun leveled again as Earl's features hardened in anger. "Don't lie to me!"

Alex didn't flinch. "I'm not lying to you, Earl. Just let them go and I'll take you there. I'm the only hostage you need. A Luthor heir is worth a hundred high school students to Lionel. You know that."

Earl suddenly turned to the crowd of students huddled on the floor. "Get out!"

Most of them didn't need to be told twice. Everyone scrambled to their feet, slipping in their rush to get to the door. Clark used the moment of confusion to get close to Alex.

"What are you doing? Where is Level Three?" he asked.

Alex's eyes were wide, with fear or surprise, Clark couldn't tell. "There is no Level Three, Clark. Get out of here."

"I'm not leaving without you," Clark said.

"That wasn't a request. Get out now."

Clark turned to see Earl walking toward them. "Get out, Clark," Earl said, waving his gun unsteadily.

Swallowing against the lump in his throat, Clark jogged toward the door. He had no intention of leaving.

"We need to bring down the fire doors. The gas levels are too high." The man paused. "Your son is still inside. I'm sorry, sir."

Lionel took a moment to look at Lucas. It wasn't what he would have chosen, but it seemed that he no longer had a choice. "Do it."

He stared at the blank monitors and considered the horrible waste of potential. But it was too late to do anything about it. It was why Lionel had chosen Lucas so many years ago. Alex had always been too much of Lillian's son to live up to his full potential as a Luthor.

"I did my part," Earl said. "Now it's time to do yours."

"I'm sorry, Earl." Alex closed his eyes. "It doesn't exist. It's all in your head."

The pain was immediate, shooting down Alex's spine. His vision blacked out for several seconds and his breath started coming in labored gasps. The reality that he wasn't going to get out of this alive started sinking into Alex's gut.

"I trusted you and you lied to me. You Luthors are all the same."

But at least in this, Alex had taken action. He had been able to save people he cared about from death. The feeling of helplessness that had haunted him since his mother died wasn't there. In this, Alex had done it. If it came at the price of his own life, so be it. He had gotten Clark out of the plant safely.

"Earl, I found Level Three."

Or not.

Clark's voice sounded over the intercom again. "They built a wall in front of the elevator, but it's still here."

Earl hauled Alex to his feet, pulling him over to the intercom. "Don't lie to me!" he yelled into the speaker.

"Clark, get out of here!" Alex yelled, desperation creeping into his voice.

"It's here, Earl," Clark persisted. "Don't you want to see it?"

Earl gripped Alex's arm, pulling him toward the door. "Come on. I want you to see the truth."

Alex swallowed a bubble of hysterical laughter. The truth was something of a novelty in his life. He wondered what it would be like.

By the time Clark was able to release the gas valve, the elevator was already gone. He waited impatiently for it to come back. He had to get to Alex.

When the doors finally opened onto Level Three revealing Alex standing on the catwalk with Earl, blessedly whole, a wave of relief washed over Clark. It was short lived.

"Earl, let's go back upstairs and talk about this," Clark said with all the calm he could muster.

"Clark, I swear, I didn't know this was here," Alex said, a hint of pleading in his voice.

Clark nodded. "I believe you, Alex." There was no reason for Clark to think that Lionel would have told Alex about this.

"Don't believe him, Clark. He's just like his father." The end of Earl's statement dropped off as Earl started to shake, a violent seizure that rattled the whole catwalk.

Alex's clear blue eyes focused on Clark, widening in surprise as the floor suddenly dropped beneath him.

"Alex!" Clark shouted, starting forward before he could even think about it. The part of the catwalk still connected to the platform held his weight, but for how long?

Earl's trembles subsided as he and Alex gripped the fallen section of the catwalk, their bodies dangling like they were a pair of live-action marionettes.

When Clark tried to get closer, pain shot through his body leaving him weak. Another part of the platform gave way and Alex lost his grip.

Clark opened his eyes, unaware of having shut them. Alex was dangling below Earl, his arms wrapped around Earl's legs.

Grabbing the bar above him, Clark inched his way down, swallowing wave after wave of nausea as it washed through his body. He reached down, gripping Earl's wrist as fire shot up his veins from the point of contact.

With every ounce of strength that he still possessed, Clark pulled Earl up, waiting until he had a firm grip on the bar before making a desperate grab for Alex.

Clark could feel his strength returning as Earl moved away from them, allowing him to pull Alex up without much trouble. Keeping one arm around Alex's waist, Clark started to make the climb back up.

Alex's chest was heaving as they made it onto the level platform. Clark's sense of relief was short lived as he glanced up in time to see Earl start shaking again.

He turned to see Alex looking at him, a moment of agreement before they started to run, a mad dash to the elevator. They made it just in time to feel the last section of the catwalk drop from underneath their feet.

Clark could feel the weight of Alex's gaze settle on him as he watched the barrels on the ground fold under the weight of the metal crashing down on them as if they were made of aluminum. He finally turned to meet Alex's eyes.

"How did you pull us up?" Alex whispered.

"I dunno," Clark said. He shouldn't have been able to, he had barely been able to move. "Adrenaline, I guess."

Alex picked up the bottle, intending to pour himself a drink. He set it down again. His hands were still shaking too much. Hours later and his whole body still shook. Alex wondered if it would ever stop.

A dark bruise blossomed below his hairline where Earl had hit him. More bruises decorated his arm, one where Earl had gripped him, another around his wrist from where Clark had pulled him up. There were several more around his ribs and chest where his body had banged against the bars of the catwalk. Every part of him, mind, body and soul ached.

No matter how he tried to spin it, Alex knew that his father had watched him go into that plant with the knowledge that he would never come out again. That Alex had survived was an amazing stroke of good luck.

When he'd confronted Lionel about Level Three, Lionel hadn't told him anything save that it was a failed project. Lionel had made his choice, had been willing to sacrifice Alex's life in order to protect whatever secrets he had. It really shouldn't have surprised Alex as much as it did.

Alex's promise to the media that LuthorCorp would find Earl the best medical attention possible had only earned Alex an amused smile and a cold hug for the benefit of the press. Alex had never felt so alone in his life as he had in the circle of his father's arms.

He'd glanced over at Clark's family briefly, the happy picture of a son being reunited with parents who loved him. They were all smiling and hugging, so happy to be together again. Then Clark had looked up, straight at Alex, his expression too knowing, too empathetic for Alex to stand. He'd had to look away.

The soft knock at his bedroom door made Alex jump, dropping the glass that he didn't remember picking up.

"Hey," Clark said as he opened the door.

They hadn't had a chance to talk and now Alex wished that he could put the conversation off a little longer. He wasn't anywhere near composed enough to talk to Clark.

"I came to see how you were doing," Clark said when Alex didn't answer.

"Well," Alex said, mustering a smile. "I can cross 'get pistol-whipped' off my list of things to do before I die." He rubbed his eyes tiredly. "How are you doing?"

"I was worried about you."

"Well, as you can see, I'm fine." Alex winced at how cold that sounded. "I'm all right," he amended, softening his voice.

A hurt look crossed Clark's face. "You can't still think that I...Please, Alex. I want to fix things between us."

"I'd say saving my life was a good start," Alex said gently. "You should have left when I told you to."

"I wasn't going to leave you to die."

"It was my choice to make."

Clark frowned a little. "You made your choice and I made mine. We both survived. Why are we arguing about it?"

Alex shook his head.

"I need you to forgive me," Clark whispered. "I never wanted to hurt you. I l--"

"I forgive you," Alex said, cutting him off. "That's not the point. It doesn't matter."

"It does to me," Clark said. "I want another shot."

"How did you pull us up?" Alex asked again, not worried about trying to change the subject smoothly. He just couldn't talk to Clark about relationships right now.

"Does it matter?" Clark asked. "I did it and you're safe. Why does the 'how' have to be so important?"

Alex looked down at his hands. They were still shaking. He'd heard stories of people showing incredible strength in times of crisis, but something still seemed off about Clark's answer. There was something Clark wasn't telling him.

"I have something to show you," Alex said quietly. He walked over to the dresser drawer and pulled out the file he'd been avoiding since he'd shown it to Lois.

Jake's name stood out in bold black letters like an accusation. Alex handed it over to Clark, who eyed it warily.

"What is this?" Clark asked, flipping open the cover.

"Jake was my first...boyfriend, I guess."

Clark looked up at him, hurt plain in his eyes. "Why would you show me this?"

"Just look at it. Please."

He watched as Clark studied the file, his skin growing more pale with each page he flipped. "This is Chloe's cousin," Clark said, looking up.

"Small world, huh?" Alex asked without humor. "My father's been keeping tabs on me. For how long, I'm not sure. Probably since the day I was born."

He stopped talking as Clark came to the last page. The check.

"The day he left." Alex swallowed the pain that came with the admission.

"Looks like he got screwed," Clark said after a moment. "There isn't enough money in the world to make me leave you."

Alex laughed, aware that he sounded a bit hysterical. The statement was just so ridiculous and totally beside the point. The money wasn't the issue. If Clark had something to hide, there was no way Alex could protect him. And Alex had a feeling that Clark had something to hide. "How did you pull us up?"

Clark looked up, but didn't answer the question.

"Don't you get it, Clark? If there isn't a new file with your name on the top already, there will be soon if you continue to pursue this." Me. "Are you ready for that? Can your life stand the pressure of that kind of scrutiny?"

Alex took a step closer, noting the way Clark's skin paled further at the question. "Are you ready for Lionel Luthor to know every dark secret you have? That your family has?" He could tell that his point was finally starting to sink in. "Because that's what will happen. Do you still think it's worth the risk?"

Clark's lips moved, but no words came out. Alex had his answer. No.

"Go home, Clark. With everything that happened today, I'm surprised that your parents let you out of their sight."

"I--" Clark's voice sounded strained and Alex finally noticed the tears forming in Clark's eyes. "I'm sorry."

Alex nodded. He bit his lip to keep it from trembling as he felt the corners of his mouth pull down. "I know," he whispered.

Clark handed the folder back with shaking hands and turned to leave. He didn't say a word as the bedroom door shut behind him.

"Goodbye, Clark," Alex whispered as the emptiness of the room seeped into his bones.

Spring 2003

Alex stared at the document, adding the numbers up again. He couldn't quite believe that the total was right, there had to be some kind of mistake. This was far too easy.

The plan to take over Plant Number Three had started to form in Alex's mind shortly after the incident with Earl Jenkins. He had the trust money that Lionel had given him. He also had quite a bit of money his mom and grandparents had set aside for college that had never been used because of the scholarship that Alex had gotten. Scholarship money that Alex no longer doubted came from a company that Lionel owned.

He was being set up, he was almost sure of it. If he shifted his funds, he would almost have enough money to buy the plant outright. It made him wonder if that hadn't been Lionel's plan all along. But to what end? That's the part Alex couldn't figure out and until he did, he was reluctant to act.

It wasn't just his money and future on the line. Alex was unwilling to gamble with the futures of his employees. The plant was doing well. It was turning a profit now and there was no reason to suspect that something was going to happen to change that, but what if it did?

Alex had been brought so Smallville for a specific reason. As soon as he served his purpose, drove home whatever lesson Lionel was trying to teach Lucas, Alex suspected that the plant would be shut down or turned over to someone else. He had been everybody else's pawn for too long. He was ready to change that.

He didn't look up at the knock on the door. There was no longer much fear that it was Clark. Clark had stopped trying to contact him about a month ago. The daily phone calls had turned to weekly ones before tapering off altogether. Alex knew that it was for the best. It just didn't feel like that yet. Not even close.

"Come in," he said when another knock sounded. He started adding up the first column again, but looked up when the silence lasted too long.

"They let me in at the gate."

Alex looked back at the computer, the numbers blurring in front of him as the numbness of shock ran through his veins. "What are you doing here, Jake?"

"Sullivan family reunion this weekend." Jake paused for a moment before sitting down in the chair in front of Alex's desk.

"What are you doing here, Jake?" Alex asked again, shutting down his computer.

"I spent the better part of an hour getting yelled at by Lois and Chloe alternately before I was able to figure out what I was in trouble for." He turned in his chair a little as he dug out his wallet. "I came to talk to you about this."

Alex reached out, taking the paper that Jake had put on the desk. There was a crease down the middle where the ink had worn away, but the numbers were still legible, as was the name. It was an un-cashed check issued to Jake by Lionel Luthor, dated the day that Jake had left.

Jake shifted in his seat as Alex studied the check, the silence in the room itching over his skin. He had never intended for Alex to find out about the money. When he'd finally figured out what Lois had been talking about as she ripped him a new one, he'd thought he was going to be sick.

"Say something," he finally blurted out.

Alex finally looked up at him, a bewildered expression on his face. "Why didn't you cash it?"

"I knew that if I cashed it, I could never come back." And Jake wanted to come back, more than anything. Out of all the mistakes he'd made in his life, leaving Alex the way he had was the only one he regretted.

"When exactly were you planning on coming back?" Alex asked. "Or better yet, why did you leave in the first place?"

"You were too young."

Alex laughed. "So you always said, but that didn't exactly stop you from sleeping with me in the first place, did it?"

"No." Jake smiled a little. "As long as you said yes, there's not much that could have stopped me. My own willpower certainly couldn't."

"So it was my fault?" Alex asked incredulously.

"Of course not, Alex. I didn't say that and you know it." He sighed. "It was my fault and I'm willing to take full responsibility, I just--You still have no idea, do you?"

"No idea?"

"How incredible you are. Jesus, Alex! It scared the shit out of me. You were sixteen years old and I was fucking crazy about you!" Jake stood up and started pacing, unable to sit still anymore. "And you--" he stopped, turning to face Alex again. "You trusted me so much. You were so innocent."

"So you thought you'd fix that by leaving?"

"I thought I was protecting you." Jake pointed at the check. "Because I considered that. There were so many times, I considered cashing it. You didn't deserve someone who would do that to you."

"But you didn't cash it."

"It's enough that I thought about it." Jake sighed. "That's not even the point. My feelings for you...You were too young to be in a relationship that serious. I was too young."

"So you decided for the both of us?" Alex stood up too. "Do you have any idea how that felt? You left a note with my mom." He looked down. "God, Jake. I was so--" He stopped. "You just left."

"What about now?" Jake asked quietly.

"Now?" Alex looked startled by the question.

Jake risked taking a step closer. "My feelings for you haven't changed. If they had, I wouldn't still have that," he said, pointing at the check. "I need to know if you still feel the same way. Do you?"

Alex looked at the check and then back at Jake. His arms were crossed over his chest in a stance so achingly familiar that Jake felt like he was twenty-one again, like they were back in Alex's loft. The sad smile that Alex gave him told Jake his answer.

"I'm sorry," Alex said.

"Did you ever?"

Alex looked away. "I thought I did. For a long time. Just--"

"Not anymore." Jake nodded. "Is there someone else?"

"There is. Was." Alex shrugged.

"What happened?"

Alex laughed a little. "I sent him away." Genuine amusement danced in his eyes. "He was too young."

Jake laughed too, because it was easier that way. "Well, if you're still in a position to make things work, do it. Take it from someone who knows." He reached out, pulling Alex into a hug, relieved that Alex let him. "Don't wait until he changes his mind to realize what an idiot you are."

"I'll keep that in mind," Alex said, pulling back a little.

"Do." Jake decided to take a chance. He wrapped his fingers around Alex's neck, pulling him into a kiss. It was gentle, sweet, lacking the passion they'd had when they first got together as well as the angry hurt of the last time they'd seen each other. "Friends?" he asked when they broke apart.

"Maybe someday," Alex said, taking a step back.

Jake nodded and turned to leave. It was more than he had the right to expect and so much less than what he wanted. "Hey," he said, stopping to turn back. "The last time we saw each other, if I hadn't left..."

"Do you really want to know?" Alex asked.

"No." Jake shook his head. "It's probably better that I don't."

"Jake?"

He turned around again, raising his eyebrows in expectation.

"I hope you find what you're looking for."

Jake smiled. "Thanks." He didn't bother to tell Alex that he'd already found what he was looking for, that he'd just been stupid enough to walk away from it.

It was official. At eight o'clock this morning, LuthorCorp Plant number three became LexCorp Plant number one. Alex wondered if Lucas would appreciate the irony of the name. Except that he was now too chicken to find out. Which was why he was sitting in the darkest corner of the Beanery with his cell phone turned off.

Alex knew that he would have to face Lionel eventually. He just didn't want to do it now. Unfortunately, he would have to find a new hiding place in a few hours when school let out. He didn't want to chance running into Clark.

Clark had been on Alex's mind a lot lately, ever since he had talked to Jake. Not that Clark had ever been far from Alex's mind. He just kept thinking of what Jake had said. He'd even picked up the phone to call Clark a few times, but he'd stopped himself. Nothing had changed. As far as Alex knew, Lionel was still having him followed.

The other thing that kept Alex from letting the calls go through was the fact that Clark had stopped calling him. If Clark had moved on, it wasn't fair for Alex to try and start things up again. Nothing had changed and in the end, Clark had been the one to walk away.

Alex grimaced as he took a sip of his coffee. While he'd been spacing, his drink had gotten cold. He took another sip. It hadn't been all that good to begin with.

"You look like you're enjoying yourself."

"What are you doing here?" Alex asked, surprised. It was as if his thoughts alone had been enough to brink Clark to him. "I mean, shouldn't you be in school?"

Clark shrugged. "Half day. May I?"

"Um." Alex rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, of course. Please sit."

"Thanks." Clark pulled out the chair across from Alex and sat down. "It's good to see you," he said softly.

Alex studied Clark from under his lashes. "It's good to see you, too," he finally admitted.

"I've been thinking a lot, almost non-stop, about what you said." Clark licked his lips as he looked around the Beanery. "Could we talk? Somewhere more private?" He shifted in his chair a little. "My parents are gone for the weekend."

"I don't know if that's such a good idea."

"Please."

There was something about the way Clark said it, the edge to the word that Alex couldn't quite place. Something about the way he asked that made it impossible for Alex to say no. Or maybe it didn't have anything to do with the way he asked, or even what he asked. Maybe it was just Clark that Alex couldn't say no to. "Sure. Let's go."

Alex spent the drive over to the Kent farm listing the many reasons why it was a bad idea for him to go there. In the end, it didn't make a difference. He had just been so ridiculously glad to see Clark that he would have eagerly embraced any excuse to spend more time with him.

Clark was already in the kitchen when Alex got there. "Do you want something to drink?" he asked, pulling out a Coke.

"No, thanks." Alex shoved his hands in his pockets in an effort to keep from reaching out and touching Clark. They had already been down that road once with disastrous effects.

"I miss you," Clark said.

Alex's fingers itched to reach out and smooth the frown away from Clark's brow. He resisted. "I miss you too." It was ridiculous, really, how true that was. The absence of Clark from Alex's life was a physical ache that never went away, a low throb of pain that was with him through every waking hour of the day.

"There has to be some way." Clark's fists clenched in frustration. "God, this sucks!" he said with all the eloquence of a teenager.

"I know." Alex sighed. "Believe me, Clark. If there were some other way, I would have found it, but as far as I can see..." He shrugged. "I haven't actually seen if there's a file on Lois or not, but I don't doubt it exists. Lionel is very thorough."

"Maybe if we were careful, if we didn't see each other all the time?"

Alex shook his head. "I'm too old to be sneaking around behind our parents' backs. It wouldn't work," he added in response to Clark's frown. "This is the only way."

"It can't be," Clark said stubbornly.

"I talked to Jake."

The muscle in Clark's jaw jumped at the admission.

"He didn't take the money."

"I know," Clark said. "I talked to Chloe. That doesn't make him any less of an asshole."

Alex smiled, warmed by Clark's unquestioning loyalty. It was something he hadn't really done anything to earn, but there it was. "When I was with him, I thought that I would never feel about anyone what I felt about him. I couldn't imagine my future without him in it."

Now Clark looked like a kicked puppy.

"When I saw him, he asked me if I still felt the same way." Alex took a deep breath, not sure how much he could reveal and still do what he had to. "It was the first time that I consciously realized that I didn't. I don't think those feelings will ever go away completely, but they weren't the same. Everything that had been so intense when I was a kid just...wasn't anymore. I didn't want him back."

"Why are you telling me this, Alex?" Clark asked.

"I know you're not a kid, Clark. You're one of the most amazing people I've ever met, but..." He ran his hand through his hair. "You're at a point in your life where you're still discovering who you are. When you get to college, you'll change. You'll grow into yourself and--"

"You think my feelings for you will change." Clark's expression was incredulous. "After all this, we're back to 'you're too young'?"

"They might. In high school everything seems like forever and the truth is, it's not."

"They're not going to change, Alex. I know how I feel about you."

"Then there's time. Look, nothing else has changed. My father is still a threat and I'm not in a position to protect you from him. Yet."

Clark looked up at that. "What are you saying?"

"You asked me once if I believed in destiny. I do. The question is, do you?" Alex licked his lips. "If it's meant to happen, it will. It just can't happen now. Not yet." He laughed a little. "I mean, what else needs to go wrong before we get that message?"

"If not now, when?" Clark asked.

"I don't know," Alex admitted. "A few years? When you're done with college, maybe."

Clark frowned. "That's five years from now. You expect me to wait five years?"

"I expect you to live your life. Graduate high school, go to college and do stupid shit and date and find out who you are. And then if you feel the same way..." He looked away, unable to bear the hurt in Clark's eyes any longer. One of them had to be smart about this and Alex didn't have the luxury of youth to cushion his stupidity. "It's the best I can offer you right now."

Clark's laugh was a harsh, sad sound. "So, basically, I have no choice."

"What do you want me to say?" Alex asked, his voice tinged with frustration. "I don't have a choice either! There's a reason you walked away six months ago. If that's changed, please tell me." Silence. "Nothing? Are you willing to risk now what you weren't willing to risk then?"

Clark wasn't looking at him anymore.

"Then, yeah, Clark. You don't have a choice. This is it." Alex turned to leave, shoving his hands in his pockets to keep them from trembling. A hand on his arm stopped him. He turned, searching Clark's face for some clue as to what he was thinking. "What? What do you want from me?"

"Tonight," Clark said. "If I'm giving you the next five years, tonight is mine."

And then Clark's mouth was on him, devouring any protest Alex might have had, but it was unnecessary. There wasn't any part of Alex that wanted to say no.

Clark managed to make it upstairs before he began relieving Alex of his shirt. With every inch of skin bared, Clark thanked every deity he could think of that his parents were gone.

He only had one night to convince Alex to stay.

Clark tossed Alex's shirt on the floor and then eased him onto the bed. Last time he had rushed things, he wasn't going to make the same mistake again. He brushed his lips against Alex's, pulling back when Alex moved to deepen the kiss. Clark could spend years getting lost in the taste of Alex's mouth. But he didn't have years.

He focused on Alex's neck instead, soft teasing kisses and nips down along his jaw as he ran his hands lightly down Alex's ribs. Alex squirmed under Clark's touch, making an odd little noise in his throat.

"Are you ticklish?" Clark asked, pulling back to study Alex's face.

Alex's eyes widened. "No."

"Hmmm." Clark ran his hands back up Alex's ribs, light teasing touches. He smiled as Alex twisted, trying to get away.

"I'm just--" Alex twitched again. "Sensitive in some--Okay I give up," he said, laughing and pushing Clark's hands away as Clark started to tickle him in earnest. "Have mercy."

"I'll have to think about that," Clark said, stilling his hands. "What will I get for my mercy?"

Alex's expression sobered. "Clark--"

Clark cut him off with a kiss. He didn't want to hear anything more about why they couldn't be together. There were enough things in Clark's life that he'd had to give up because of who he was, what he was. That he would soon have to add Alex to that list crushed something inside of him. He could feel some deep, fundamental sense of faith break and twist under the weight of Alex's impeding departure, the pain of the loss seeping through every crack.

Alex's body tensed and then relaxed as Clark settled against him, his mouth opening hungrily under Clark's like his body knew something his mind refused to admit. Alex kissed Clark like he would die if he stopped.

Clark pulled away a little. He rolled to his side, pulling Alex up to face him. Clark wrapped his fingers around the back of Alex's neck, playing with the soft, short hairs there as he brushed light, teasing kisses over Alex's lips.

Nipping at Alex's lower lip, Clark moved in a little closer to deepen the contact. Long, leisurely kisses that they had skipped in the rush of last time. Clark's tongue slid against Alex's, undemanding as he tried to memorize this, how Alex felt, tasted.

Alex's hand moved under Clark's shirt, his touch hot at the small of Clark's back. Clark moaned as Alex pressed his body closer, his kisses becoming more aggressive. He was determined to commit every sigh, moan, taste and touch to memory. Clark would never forget how this felt, he would never forget why.

Clark's hand moved to Alex's hip, turning him onto his back so that Clark could move over him again. He pressed his leg in between Alex's thighs as he devoured the mouth he'd just been exploring. Alex arched against him, his hands running over Clark's back under his shirt, making the sexiest whimpering noises that Clark had ever heard.

When Clark finally pulled away, Alex's lips were red and swollen, which made Clark want to kiss him more. But before he had the chance to move in again, Alex was tugging his shirt off with an impatient growl.

Clark tossed the shirt across the room before moving to kiss his way down Alex's body. He scraped his teeth gently over Alex's collarbone, licking away the sting a moment later.

Alex's skin was perfect, pale and soft, dotted with random freckles over his chest, arms and back. A soft trail of reddish-brown hair started at his bellybutton, leading down below the waist of his pants.

He was just..."Beautiful," Clark murmured against Alex's chest before swiping his tongue over Alex's nipple. Alex surged against him, his fingers threading through Clark's hair. Clark looked up to study Alex's face before bending down to take the tiny nub between his teeth, flicking his tongue over it as Alex's body fairly vibrated beneath him.

"Jesus, Clark," Alex gasped as Clark moved over to lavish the same attention on the other nipple.

Clark finally relinquished his prize with one last swipe of his tongue before moving further down Alex's body. He traced a line down the center of Alex's stomach, pressing his tongue against Alex's bellybutton as his fingers scrambled to undo the button of Alex's pants.

He pulled away, frowning as he tried to work the zipper without breaking the stupid little tab.

Above him, Alex laughed, but it was a strained, not quite happy sound. "You should see the look on your face," he said.

Clark resisted the urge to stick out his tongue, nearly crowing in triumph as he finally got the zipper down. He tugged Alex's pants and underwear off, pausing to remove Alex's socks as well before dumping the clothes in a pile on the floor.

The sight of Alex spread out before him was one that Clark wanted to see every night for the rest of his life. His eyes traveled up Alex's body, taking in the smooth curves of his calves and thighs, his hard cock resting against the flat plain of his stomach. Alex's hands were twisted in the sheets underneath him, the muscles on his forearms pressed against his skin as his fingers clenched and relaxed under Clark's gaze.

Clark's gaze moved up over Alex's chest, taking in the pebbled nipples and the visible pulse at his neck, before settling on his face. Alex's eyes were hot with want and Clark knew that no matter how long he had to wait until they were here again, he would never forget the feeling of being pinned under that gaze.

He crawled back up, settling his body between Alex's spread thighs. He wrapped his fingers around Alex's erection, pausing to admire the way Alex's neck arched back as Clark moved his fist up and back down over the silky hot skin.

"You should see the look on your face," Clark mimicked before bending to take the head of Alex's cock into his mouth. He held Alex's hips down with one hand, keeping the other wrapped around the base of Alex's cock as he pulled away to lick over it messily.

"Oh god, Clark, please..." Alex gasped, his hips straining to move under Clark's grip.

Clark took mercy, wrapping his lips around Alex's straining erection. He moved down slowly, his eyes watering a little as he tried to relax enough to take in Alex's full length. Before he could accomplish it, however, he felt Alex's hands tugging at his hair, pulling him up. He looked up questioningly as Alex's cock slid out of his mouth with a wet sound that really shouldn't have been as sexy as it was.

"I want to come with you inside me," Alex said, his voice low and rough.

"Jesus," Clark said, pressing his hand against his jeans as his cock throbbed painfully in response to the request.

He stood up, shucking his jeans and boxers, almost tripping in his haste to get out of them. Then he reached under the bed, pulling out his box of "essentials" that he'd started keeping when he and Dan had started fooling around.

Clark set a bottle of lube and a couple condoms on the bedside table before crawling back onto the bed next to Alex. He bent down, tasting Alex's lips again as he stroked his thumb over Alex's hip.

"Turn over," Clark whispered when he broke the kiss, moving back to give Alex enough room to turn onto his stomach. He then moved between Alex's legs, bending down to lick a wet line up his back.

Clark bit Alex's neck gently as he tried to get the bottle of lube open with one hand. He turned his attention away from the line of Alex's shoulders long enough to coat two fingers. Clark placed a soft kiss between Alex's shoulder blades, his fingers teasing against Alex's opening, circling around the pucker before pressing in.

"Relax," Clark whispered, stroking his hand over Alex's hip. He groaned as Alex's body clung hotly to his fingers when he pressed them deeper. He pulled them out to add more lube before pushing in again, stroking gently as he felt Alex relax against the invasion.

With his free hand, Clark grabbed a condom off the nightstand, tearing a corner off the package with his teeth. He reluctantly pulled his fingers away from the slick heat of Alex's body to roll the condom on, finishing by coating it with a generous amount of lube before wiping his hand off with a corner of the sheet.

"Are you ready?" Clark whispered against Alex's ear, licking the outer shell to punctuate the question.

Alex nodded, moving up on his knees to give Clark better access.

Clark held Alex's hips still as he pushed in slowly, his head spinning at the tight, welcoming heat. Alex whimpered a little as Clark slid home, his balls pressed snugly against Alex's ass.

"You okay?" Clark asked, his body shaking with the effort to hold still.

"God yes," Alex moaned, turning his head a little.

Clark bent over, molding his chest against Alex back as he captured Alex's lips in an awkward kiss. He pulled back, burying his face against Alex's neck as he thrust into his body.

It was no longer clear to Clark which one of them was making those noises as he rocked his hips, burying himself in Alex's body over and over again. He tried to slow down, wanting this to last.

Wrapping his arm around Alex's chest, Clark sat back, pulling Alex down onto his lap. Alex gasped as Clark thrust into him again, his head rolling back to rest on Clark's shoulder.

Clark gripped Alex's hips as his thrusts sped up, kissing the long line of Alex's throat.

Alex covered Clark's hands with his own, his grip tight over Clark's fingers. "Clark, please." One of Alex's hands slid up, reaching around until he was gripping the back of Clark's neck. "Touch me."

Clark wrapped his free hand around Alex's cock, pumping in time with his thrusts until he felt Alex's body tighten and spasm around him, hot come spilling onto his hand as Alex called Clark's name.

"Alex," Clark groaned, gripping Alex's hips harder as his movements became more erratic. He felt his muscles tighten as he approached the edge. With one more unsteady thrust, Clark came, almost blacking out at the intensity of his orgasm as it ripped through his body.

With shaking hands, Clark eased them onto the bed. Gently pulling out, he removed the condom, tying it off and tossing it into the wastebasket before turning back to wrap his arms around Alex's body.

Alex squirmed, turning in Clark's arms until he was facing Clark, his lips moving slowly over Clark's neck in a series of teasing kisses.

Clark shivered a little, running his hand down Alex's back. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"So good," Alex said around a yawn. "Sorry. I haven't been getting much sleep."

"How come?" Clark asked quietly as Alex's head settled heavily against Clark's shoulder.

"Bought the plant today. S'mine now."

"You bought the plant?" Clark blinked in surprise.

"Mmmm. I have no idea what I'm doing." Alex laughed sleepily. "When I was your age, I was so sure of where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do. The cockiness of youth." His fingers curled against Clark's throat. "I haven't been sure of anything in such a long time. I'm beginning to forget what it feels like."

Clark stroked his back. "You can be sure of me," he whispered. It was only when he got no answer that Clark realized Alex had already fallen asleep.

Alex studied Clark's profile, reaching out to brush back the lock of hair that had fallen in Clark's eyes.

He wasn't sure how long he had been laying there, just watching Clark sleep. Clark had been asleep for awhile.

Alex had woken earlier from his post-coital nap to find Clark watching him with sad eyes. They'd talked, carefully avoiding the subject of their relationship. Alex had told Clark about growing up in Montana and Clark had filled Alex in on life in Smallville.

They had spent several hours exploring each other's bodies, alternating between careful mappings with fingertips and tongues and wild clashes, teeth and nails bared like they were trying to transform their pain into a more bearable physical hurt. Alex already had several bruises forming on his hips and arms and several bite marks along his neck and shoulders. He hoped they wouldn't fade too quickly.

Alex honestly hadn't felt so close to someone in such a long time that it hurt to know it couldn't last. For a few joyful hours, all the stress that had been weighing on Alex's shoulders had seemed to disappear. Almost.

The weaker part of Alex wished that he could just stay here forever. The logical part of him knew that he couldn't. Alex couldn't afford to pretend that forever existed, not if he wanted to protect Clark.

Alex eased himself out of Clark's embrace and slid out of bed. Clark stirred and made an unhappy noise, but didn't wake up. It was starting to get light out, so Alex didn't have much trouble finding his clothes. He winced a little as he pulled on his underwear. He was going to be sore for awhile.

When he was fully dressed he sat down at Clark's desk, staring at the blank sheet of paper he'd pulled out. There were so many things he wanted to say, most of which he couldn't. He wrote the only thing he could think of and then stared at it, laughing at himself. He crumpled the paper slowly, tossing it toward the wastebasket. Notes were overrated.

He walked back over to the bed, bending to pick up his shoes and socks with one hand. With the other, he trailed his fingers lightly down Clark's spine. Bending over, he placed a soft kiss at the small of Clark's back.

Clark smiled in his sleep and Alex felt like the world's biggest asshole. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I lo--" The words stuck in his throat. He couldn't say that and then turn around and walk away-- and staying wasn't an option. Alex felt a sudden sense of empathy for Jake. He hadn't thought that there was a worse feeling than being left behind.

He'd been wrong. Leaving was so much harder.

"Goodbye, Clark."

"Late night?" Lionel asked as Alex walked into the library, watching his son jump at the sound of his voice. He had been waiting for Alex to show up at the mansion for some time now.

Alex ran a hand over his face. "Right," he said to himself. "Is there anyway we can postpone this?" he asked with a wave of his hand.

Lionel raised an eyebrow. "I wasn't aware that there was anything to postpone." He poured himself a drink and poured a second for Alex. "Although I understand congratulations are in order."

"Thanks," Alex muttered, taking the proffered glass. "Congratulations?"

"On your new company," Lionel said. "Although I must say, if you wanted the plant that badly, you could have just asked."

"Right." Alex smirked, looking far more awake than he had just moments ago. "I find it hard to believe that this wasn't part of your plan all along."

"Plan?" Lionel laughed. "I'm not sure I know what you mean, Son."

"Well, tell me then, Dad. Why did you bring me here?" Alex sat down in one of the chairs near the fireplace, indicating that Lionel should do the same.

"Your brother was the one who brought you here."

Alex leaned forward, setting his drink on the table. "And we both know that Lucas doesn't have the vision to make such long term plans. He had no plan, no idea what to do with me once he got me here. You did." He sat back. "I was just wondering what it was. Although if you'd rather not tell me, I suppose that's your prerogative."

Lionel laughed. He appreciated how little escaped Alex's attention as well as the boy's bravado. "I'm afraid you give me far too much credit, Alex."

"In this case, better too much than too little."

"I'm surprised to see you creeping in at the crack of dawn," Lionel said, changing the subject. "Partying all night seems more Lucas' style than yours."

"I wasn't partying, though I suspect you already know that," Alex said, picking up his drink again. "Or did your guy lose track of me?"

Lionel sighed. "The problem with your brother, Alex, is that he has no sense of...discretion."

"Do you have him followed too, or is that an honor reserved only for me?"

"I didn't get to see you grow up, Alex. I simply wanted to know you in some way."

Alex raised an eyebrow with an expression of tolerant amusement. "As well as who my friends are, who I've been fucking...does the word 'boundaries' mean anything to you, or do you just not care?"

"What do you plan to do with your fledgling corporation?" Lionel asked, ignoring the question completely.

Alex, in turn, ignored Lionel's change of topic, not ready to let his point go yet. "The thing about those files, Lionel, is that they really don't tell you much. Names, dates, facts, but not much about what a person's made of. That's why you brought me here, isn't it?" Alex's smile was calculating. "To see what I'm made of? If I was worthy of the Luthor name?"

Lionel leaned back, stroking his beard. "Is that what you think?" Not for the first time, Lionel considered it a pity that he had sent Lily away. He would have been able to create something magnificent had he raised Alex himself.

"What I think?" Alex took a sip of his drink. "I think that you have no idea what I'm capable of." He set the glass down on the table and stood up. "But you will."

Lionel watched Alex walk to the door, feeling what he supposed was parental pride. "Was that a threat, Alexander?"

Alex turned back, his hand on the doorknob. "Of course not." He tilted his head. "If I find out that I or anymore of my friends are being followed..." He smiled. "You'll know when you're being threatened, Lionel."

The transition Clark made from being sleep to wakefulness was totally disorienting. One moment he was running his hands over Alex's skin, the next moment he was totally alone.

Sun was streaming in through the window and the side of the bed Alex had been on was cold. He'd been gone for awhile. Clark swung his legs over the side of the bed and examined his room for a moment before doubling over, cradling his head in his hands.

Alex was gone and there was nothing in the room to suggest that he had ever been here save for the used condoms in the wastebasket. Clark had fallen asleep to the feeling of Alex gently petting him and he'd been so convinced that he'd been successful. He was so sure that when he woke up Alex would still be there.

Clark stood up, wrapping his arms around his body for the moment as he considered what to do next. The shower seemed a logical step.

There wasn't a mark on his body as Clark studied himself in the mirror. Not that he'd expected there to be any, but it seemed horribly unfair, his unblemished skin a taunt-- the universe's way of reminding Clark that he was different. That he was wrong somehow, as if he could ever forget. He stepped into the shower, closing his eyes as the hot water beat against him, washing away any remaining traces of Alex from his body. He wasn't even sore but at the same time, everything ached.

A sob escaped Clark's throat before it closed again. He wanted to hit something, hurt someone, Alex. Make him feel the pain that Clark felt. He knew he wasn't being fair. Alex had only promised one night and he'd held to his end of the deal. Now Clark had his end to hold up.

He shut off the water and dried off, wrapping his towel around his waist as he padded back to his room. Out of some sort of morbid curiosity, Clark checked the wastebasket. He wrinkled his nose at the sight of the used condoms, because it was kind of gross. He turned away and then turned back, bending to pick up the ball of paper lying next to the wastebasket.

Clark frowned as he pulled the note open to reveal Alex's small, precise handwriting.

*Clark,

I'm so sorry.

Alex*

A snort of laughter escaped as Clark started to crumple the paper again. Then he stopped, smoothing it out. He carefully folded it in half and slipped it into his scrapbook.

Clark lay back on his bed, curling around the ball of pain burning in his stomach. His throat closed over the sobs trying to escape, letting them tear at his insides instead.

He told himself that he could do this, he could deal with it. Five years wasn't so long in the grand scheme of things and Clark would make it, if for no other reason than to show Alex just how wrong he was. He would do it, just as soon as it stopped feeling like his world had just ended.

Metropolis, 2006

"Your brother's here," Connor said as he slid his arm around Alex's waist. "Wanna go over and say hi?"

"Remind me again why I bring you to these things," Alex said, taking a sip of his champagne. They were at the opening of the newest wing of the Metropolis museum.

"Because you need someone to beat off the hoards of adoring fans and Lois has more important things to do," Connor answered.

"Fuck you," Alex said through his teeth as he smiled and waved at Metropolis' newest mayor. He hated events like this, but found that he made better business connections here than he did in boardrooms and business lunches. Still, it surprised him at random times how easily he had settled into life in the business world. Alex had found a purpose in LexCorp that had been missing from his life before.

"If only you meant that," Connor murmured, placing his hand over his heart.

Alex laughed. Connor was LexCorp's Vice President and the closest thing Alex had had to a date in almost three years, but their friendship was strictly platonic. Alex had just gotten tired of showing up to these things alone.

In the few years since he'd moved to the city, Alex had become Metropolis' darling, a favorite of the press, a large part of which was due to Lois, no doubt. The gay, bastard son of the city's elite who had risen in the business world faster than his father, quickly becoming one of LuthorCorp's biggest rivals. It was ridiculous how much the press liked to play the story up.

It worked in Alex's favor, however. There were more than a few business rivals whom Lionel had alienated in his rise to power. Many of them were, in turn, happy to help his son succeed. Not that Alex trusted them all, or even most of them, but it was good to have allies. Alex had a great deal of the tact that his father had never taken the time to develop, which also worked in his favor.

"What do you say we blow this joint and go get something to eat," Conner said. "I'm tired of schmoozing."

"Sounds like a plan." Alex placed his drink on the tray of a passing waiter. They'd been there for almost four hours now and Alex was beginning to feel the strain of social niceties. He wasn't sure he was up to dealing with his brother at this point.

After saying goodbye to their hosts, Connor and Alex ended up back at Alex's penthouse with take-out Chinese food.

"It's good to be home," Alex said, taking off his jacket and loosening his tie.

"Amen." Connor flopped down on the sofa and started removing the cartons of food from the bag.

They were silent as they ate, the sound of the Metropolis traffic floating in through the window.

"Alex," Connor said, setting the container of fried rice down on the coffee table. "Why do you bring me to those events?"

Alex raised an eyebrow, setting down his own container before turning on the couch to face his friend. "I thought it was to beat off the adoring masses."

"Right." Connor sighed. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're too hot to be this celibate. When's the last time you had sex?"

"Are you sure that's an appropriate question to be asking your boss?" Alex asked, wincing a little at the question. He knew how telling it was. He never pulled rank with Connor.

"Probably not, but I'm asking it as a friend, and--" Connor looked away. "Did you ever think that this might not be the easiest thing for me? Pretending to be a couple, getting to touch you in public and then this..." He waved his hand to indicate the space between them on the couch.

"I'm sorry," Alex said softly, surprised by the admission. They always joked about it, flirted, but he hadn't ever taken it seriously. "I had no idea..."

"Yeah, well that might be because you're so obviously hung up on someone else, which would be fine if you were actually with that person." Connor stood up, walking over to the window.

"It's complicated, Connor."

"Most things are." Connor turned back to face him. "So what's the deal? Does he want to be with you or not?"

"It's--" Alex sighed, standing up. "It's complicated," he repeated, for lack of anything better to say. "It doesn't matter. You're one of my best friends and I like you, but--"

"We work together, I know." Connor gave him a sad smile. "But I think it'd be a lot easier if you were with someone. Anyone. I hate seeing you alone."

Alex nodded a little, thinking of Clark. It had been tempting, at first, to have him followed, to be able to know how he was doing. But the sickening memory of the feeling of such an invasion of privacy had killed that instinct, so Alex had chosen the opposite route. He had fallen out of touch with Chloe and he'd asked Lois not to pass on any information she might have.

True to his word, Clark hadn't tried to contact him since their last night together. For all Alex knew, Clark hated him.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, walking up next to Connor. He didn't know what else to say.

"Yeah." Connor studied the city lights. "Do me a favor, though?"

"What?"

"Find out if he feels the same way." Connor studied Alex in the window's reflection. "Because if he doesn't, you need to move on. There are other people out there, Alex. You deserve to be happy."

Alex nodded, swallowing the lump in his throat. He felt like such an asshole for not seeing this sooner, for not realizing how much he was hurting one of his closest friends.

"I should go," Connor said. "I think--I think maybe I shouldn't go to these things with you anymore. Not as your date, anyway."

"Connor," Alex said as Connor started to walk away. But when Connor turned, he couldn't seem to get the words out.

As it turned out, it didn't matter. Connor nodded. "I know," he said.

Alex tried not to fidget as the elevator stopped on the third floor. A tall kid with sandy blond hair got on, pushing the button for the eighth floor, which was already lit. That's where Alex was going.

He could feel the weight of the kid's eyes on him as he studied the numbers. He probably recognized Alex from the papers, but Alex didn't have the patience to make small talk.

His decision to go see Clark was made shortly after he'd talked to Connor. The fact that his feelings for Clark hadn't changed over the past few years was enough to convince Alex to give it a shot. He was in a better position to protect Clark now. Maybe he had been wrong in telling Clark they had to wait so long.

It was with a great deal of effort that Alex refrained from bolting off of the elevator as soon as the doors opened. He let the other kid go in front of him, taking a much-needed moment to compose himself.

Alex tried to convince himself that it was ridiculous to be so nervous. He had worked out exactly what he was going to say. He was willing to grovel if necessary. Except when he turned the corner to go to Clark's dorm room, he saw the kid who had been on the elevator standing there. In front of Clark's door.

The door opened a moment later to reveal Clark, his face lighting up. "Hey, I was getting ready to come see you!" he said, reaching out to pull the blond kid into a deep kiss.

Alex took a step back so that he was hidden from view. He pressed his back against the wall, slowly sliding down as his knees gave way. He had evidently been right when he'd told Clark that nothing was forever. Alex was too old to be re-learning that particular lesson.

He pushed himself back up and walked toward the elevator. He had done the right thing before. It was better to have ended things when they had, before they got too deeply involved. Wasn't it?

Alex turned to take the stairs. The elevator took too fucking long.

Lois saved the story she was working on and closed the document before she got up to answer the door.

"Hey!" she said, her smile quickly fading as she took in the expression on Alex's face. "Oh, baby, what's wrong?" She pulled him into a hug, worried when she received no resistance.

Alex's arms finally wrapped around her as a deep shuddering sigh wracked his body. "He's found someone," he whispered.

"Oh, Alex." She pulled him into the apartment, shutting the door behind them. She should have known. There was only one person left in the world who could leave Alex looking so devastated.

Lois led him into the living room and pushed him down on the couch. "Do you want anything to drink?"

"No. Yeah. Scotch if you have it."

Alex was silent as Lois poured their drinks. She wasn't sure what to say to him. She'd known about Clark's boyfriend for awhile. It was sort of ironic that she and Chloe were the only two people who knew the whole story. Like Alex, Clark had asked Chloe not to tell him anything. Lois was starting to rethink that policy.

"Here," she said, pressing the drink into his hand.

"I went to see him," Alex said. "There was this guy in the elevator. And it was him. I saw them kissing. God!" He ran his hand over his face. "I shouldn't be upset. It's what I told him to do."

Lois ran her hand over his back, trying to ease the hurt away. There wasn't really anything else she could do.

"How long?" Alex asked, studying his drink.

It had been almost a year since Clark and Marcus had started dating. A cute boy from Clark's reporting class. "Do you really want to know?" Lois asked softly, not sure that the information would make him feel any better.

He laughed. "No, I suppose not." He turned to look at her. "Is he happy?"

Lois nodded. From what Chloe had told her, he was.

"That's good," Alex said, looking away again. "Did you know that Connor has feelings for me?"

"I suspected," Lois said softly. It had been hard to miss the way Connor looked at Alex.

She brushed her hand through his hair. Shortly after he had formed LexCorp, he'd stopped dying it. It was a pretty, deep-auburn shade of brown. She had a hard time believing that it had been bright red when he was little.

"Could I be any more clueless?" Alex shook his head, his gaze unfocused. "You never saw my parents together." He smiled. "They were so happy. They loved each other so much and I used to think, someday..."

"You'll find someone, Alex. I know you will." Lois had honestly thought that person would be Clark. She had been so sure, but maybe her intuition had been off in this case. Chloe had said Clark was happy, that he seemed to be getting over Alex.

"I don't know, Lois. It seems like everyone that I've ever--" He cut himself off before he said 'loved'. "I think that maybe some people are meant to be alone."

"Maybe," Lois said. "But not you. You're not meant to be alone." She chewed her lip for a moment, thinking about LexCorp's handsome vice president. "What about Connor?"

Alex shook his head. "I just don't-- I don't feel that way about him."

Lois wrapped her arm around his shoulder, pulling him close. "There's someone out there for you, Alex. Trust me. I know these things."

Alex laughed softly as he turned to hug her. "I really thought Clark was the one."

"I know," Lois said, pretending she couldn't feel the wet track on Alex's cheek. I did too.

Metropolis, Spring 2008

"Hey," Clark said as he closed the apartment door behind him. "I thought you had a class to go to."

Marcus looked up from the book he was reading, his expression sober. "I think maybe we need to talk."

"Okay," Clark said slowly, setting his backpack down. "What's going on? It sounds serious."

"I was looking for a book to read and I came across your scrapbook. I thought it would be pictures from high school or something, so I looked through it. I didn't mean to pry," Marcus added quickly.

"Scrapbook?" Clark asked, wrinkling his brow. The only scrapbook he had here..."Oh." His stomach flipped as he spotted the book on the coffee table. It had been wedged into the far end of the bookshelf, behind the filing cabinet. Living alone, Clark hadn't felt the need to hide it any better than that. Now he wished he had. "It's not what it looks like," he offered weakly.

"Really? Because from here it looks like you're pretty fucking obsessed," Marcus said, anger creeping into his tone.

Clark had been thrilled when articles about Alex had started turning up in the Daily Planet. He'd started cutting them out, happy to be able to "see" Alex, to know what he was doing in some small way. Unfortunately, like Chloe's "Wall of Weird," it had sort of taken on a life of it's own.

The scrapbook was now filled, overflowing with articles and pictures from various Metropolis newspapers and tabloids. Clark stared at it, trying to think of some plausible explanation for having it. He figured that, 'What can I say? I'm a stalker at heart,' wasn't going to cut it.

"I knew him in Smallville and then he sort of became a celebrity here. I thought it was kind of cool," he said finally.

"Well, I kinda figured you knew him from the note," Marcus said.

Oh. Right. That was in there too.

"Jesus, Clark! What the hell?"

"It just-- When I started it, it was just a small thing. But then it just kind of grew." It was as close to the truth as Clark could get.

He had almost given it up when the first picture of Alex and his boyfriend had shown up, but he couldn't bring himself to stop. Every picture of them that Clark cut out was like some masochistic form of alien torture.

"Did you fuck him?" Marcus asked.

"What? God, Marcus, what kind of question is that?"

"I'd say a fairly reasonable one, considering." Marcus crossed his arms over his chest. "Did you?"

"It was years ago. I was still in high school!"

Marcus picked up the book, throwing it at Clark's chest, sending loose articles scattering over the floor. "Ancient fucking history, right?"

Clark caught the book, clutching it to his chest. "It doesn't matter. It's over."

"Clark--" Marcus' shoulders slumped. "It's obviously not over for you."

"Marcus, please," Clark said, not sure exactly what he was begging for. He studied the man in front of him. The eyes that were a little too green, the nose a little too thin, the mouth a little to wide and the hair far too blond. Marcus wasn't what Clark wanted, not exactly. But he was what Clark had, and Clark really did care about him.

Then he noticed the bag at Marcus' feet, filled no doubt with the things that had been left in Clark's apartment over the past few years. "I never meant to hurt you," Clark whispered.

"I'm gonna go." Marcus bent down to pick up his bag.

"Marcus--"

"Don't," Marcus said. "I don't deserve to be your second choice, Clark."

"I'm sorry," Clark said to Marcus' back as he walked away.

The only answer Clark got was the sound of the front door as it slammed shut.

Metropolis, Fall 2008

Perry waited for the news to sink in and Lois to react, which would be in about five, four, three, two--

"No way, Perry! Forget it." She looked outraged.

"It wasn't a request, Lois." Perry said. He had thought about the assignment for a long time and the truth was, Lois wasn't the best person for the job, she was the only person.

"You can't be serious!" She said like he had just suggested that she cover the Miss Kansas pageant. "I'm working on a huge story. I don't have time to babysit some fresh-faced cub reporter with delusions of grandeur."

"He's a good kid and he has great potential," Perry said. "He just needs an edge. You're gonna give it to him."

"I can't work with a partner. I'm not going to." She crossed her arms. "I can't believe that you're even trying to saddle me with this. I'm the best damn reporter you've got."

"You'll be the best damn reporter the Inquisitor's got if you keep it up, Lane," Perry said shortly. "It isn't up for debate. You'll work with him and teach him what you know." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Kent!" he yelled through the door. "Get in here!"

Lois was glaring at him like she was trying to set him on fire, but she didn't say anything more as the door opened slowly and Clark Kent, the Daily Planet's newest reporter, timidly stuck his head in.

"Yes, Sir?" he said, casting a worried glance at Lois.

"Get in here, Son. I'd like you to meet your partner." He smiled as Clark slipped in the door, pushing his black-framed glasses up his nose.

Kent was a good kid, likeable, open personality if a bit on the geeky side.

Lois studied him for a moment, her nostrils still flared in anger. "Don't expect me to hold your hand. And don't ask stupid questions." She turned and stalked out of the office.

"Kent," Perry said as they watched her leave. "Don't worry," he assured the kid. "Her bark is much worse than her bite." Usually.

"Smallville!" Lois shouted. "Get the lead out, we have work to do!"

"Coming," Clark said, casting an uncertain look at Perry before he closed the office door behind him.

It wasn't until Perry got up to get a cup of coffee that he realized that he hadn't told Lois that Clark was from Smallville.

The knots in Clark's stomach were tying themselves in knots as he studied Lois' profile. He hadn't known what to expect from her, but he hadn't been prepared for such open hostility.

He was still adjusting to the idea when Lois launched herself at him as soon as the elevator doors closed behind him.

"God, it's so good to see you!" She said, her arms twining around his waist.

"Umm, huh?" Clark asked stupidly as he returned the hug.

Lois just laughed. "Sorry about back there. I was sort of arguing with Perry about his decision to assign me a partner. It wouldn't have been good to seem happy about it when I found out that it was you. How have you been?" she asked pulling away and straightening her jacket.

"Good. Good," Clark said, some of the tension seeping out of him. Lois didn't hate him. That was just so great. Because what Clark needed right now, more than anything else, was an ally. "I wanted to talk to you, actually."

"Oh yeah?" Lois said, raising an eyebrow as she stepped off the elevator. "Well, I assume that was why Perry assigned you as my partner. Anytime you want to talk shop, I'm here."

"Well, it isn't exactly work related, what I want to talk to you about." Clark tripped a little as he hurried to catch up with her.

"Not work related? What else would we have to discuss?" She stopped in front of a car and started to dig around in her purse.

For the first time, it occurred to Clark that it might really be too late. Maybe Alex had moved on. Maybe the whole waiting thing had just been an easy way to let Clark down. Maybe--

"God!" Lois interrupted his thoughts. She was back to looking pissed off. "You guys are such dickheads!" She jabbed him in the chest with her finger to emphasize her point.

"Um, ow." Clark took a step back. "What was that for?"

"You nearly broke his heart when he found out you had a boyfriend," Lois said.

"Marcus and I broke up! And he was dating someone too, with pictures of them in the paper I might add!" Clark frowned down at her. "Besides, it was his idea in the first place. Not mine."

"I know you broke up. He was never dating Connor," she said, holding up her hand, ticking off each point with a finger as she went. "And that's why I said 'you guys are dickheads,' not just you." She poked him in the chest again.

Clark studied his shoes. He missed his sneakers. "Is he seeing someone?" he asked quietly, meeting Lois' gaze.

She sighed. "No. But I swear to God, Clark. This is it. If you guys try and pull more of this "Dawson's Creek" angst on me, I'll castrate you both." She finally located her keys, pulling them out of her purse with a little more force that Clark thought was strictly necessary.

Clark couldn't help but snicker.

"What?" Lois asked.

"Dawson's Creek? That show is so old! And kind of lame. I'm a little disappointed in you, actually."

Lois frowned at him. "Get in the car, Kent."

"So, you'll help me?" Clark asked, unable to fully suppress the urge to bounce.

Lois glared at him, but Clark could see the smile pulling at the edge of her mouth. "Get in the car."

"I think that'll do it," Connor said, gathering the papers off of the coffee table and putting them back in his briefcase. "Which means that, theoretically, we have a free weekend."

"Will wonders never cease?" Alex stepped back into the living room, pulling his sweater down. "What are you going to do with yourself?"

Connor smiled. "Absolutely nothing. Actually, Travis and I are going out tonight. On a date, which is that thing that happens when two people are--"

"I know what a date is, thanks," Alex said. "How do I look?" He had changed three times while Connor was finishing up with the paperwork before finally settling on a charcoal grey sweater and a pair of black pants.

Connor leaned back on the couch, his eyes traveling over Alex's body. "Too good to be sitting at home alone on a Friday night. Don't tell me you actually have a date."

"Sort of. I'm supposed to take Lois out to dinner. She called up bitching about some intern or something that Perry's assigned to work with her."

"She has a partner?" Connor laughed. "Poor kid. Since when did you get so dressed up for Lois, though?"

"Since I made her stop smoking." Alex grinned and handed Connor his coat. "The less there is to set off her temper, the better. She actually told me to be ready to go out, but have food in case she feels like staying in."

"Demanding, isn't she?" Connor patted Alex's cheek lightly. "You're such a good pet."

Alex pushed him away, laughing. "Don't you have a date to get to?"

"I do, so I'm afraid I must leave you to your fate." He picked up his briefcase and headed for the door. "I'll see you Monday."

"Have a good weekend," Alex said, watching Connor get on the elevator before closing the door.

He walked back into the kitchen to make sure that he had something to serve Lois if she wanted to stay in. Not that he really had time to run to the store now. She had gotten rather demanding in the few weeks since she'd quit smoking. Alex just hoped that she got over the cravings soon.

Satisfied that his refrigerator was adequately stocked, Alex was about to go finish getting ready when he heard a knock at the door. He glanced at the clock. Lois was early, which he really should have expected. He padded to the door in his bare feet, ready to make apologies for not being completely ready if necessary, and opened it.

Clark was leaning against the wall, twirling a single white tulip in his hand. He was dressed casually, a pair of grey slacks, an untucked button-up green shirt that brought out the green in his eyes and a black leather jacket.

Alex refrained from whimpering, but it was a near thing. A thousand and one questions leapt to his mind, but he found that he couldn't get any words past his throat. He just stood there, staring.

Clark straightened, handing the tulip to Alex. "Lois sends her regrets," he said as he stepped into the apartment, shutting the door behind him.

The words snapped Alex out of his trance. He felt the flower slip from his hand. Before Alex was fully aware of what he was doing, he had Clark pressed against the wall as he tried to express five years of longing in one long, hard kiss.

Alex's fingers twisted in Clark's silky curls, trying to pull Clark closer as he explored Clark's mouth in an attempt to erase the memory of anybody else's taste. Clark's hands were on Alex's back, travelling under his sweater. Alex's skin tingled with the memory of Clark's branding touch.

They finally broke apart, both of them panting as they studied each other. So many questions were asked and answered as they stood there, breathing in each other's scent, neither of them saying a word.

Alex leaned in, brushing his lips softly over Clark's before stepping back and taking Clark's hand as he led him to the bedroom.

The blinds were open, the city lights casting the room in a blue glow as Clark shrugged out of his jacket and toed off his shoes and socks. He started to undo the buttons of the shirt, surprised when Alex's hands were there, batting his away.

Alex smiled at him almost shyly as he started to work on the buttons, but he didn't speak. Clark didn't either, afraid that words might break whatever spell had settled over them.

Clark closed his eyes as Alex's hands settled low on Clark's stomach, running lightly up his chest and over his shoulders to push his shirt off. And then the touch was gone. Clark opened his eyes to find Alex watching him, his gaze licking over Clark's body hotter than any flame Clark had ever known.

This was what had been missing from the other relationships that Clark had been in. This something that was between them, crackling in the air, refusing to be ignored any longer. This was what destiny felt like.

The sweater Alex was wearing slid easily over his skin as Clark pushed it up Alex's body, his fingers curving over Alex's ribs. Alex wiggled a little, breaths of silent laughter hot against Clark's neck. Clark smiled as he pulled the sweater off and studied the smooth expanse of skin that his memory had never quite been able to do justice.

Alex smiled again, hooking his fingers in the waist of Clark's pants and pulling Clark forward. Clark moaned as Alex nuzzled his neck, inhaling deeply before he sank slowly to his knees, kissing Clark's body as he went.

Hot fingers branded Clark's skin as Alex worked to undo Clark's pants. Clark was glad that he'd chosen not to wear a belt as Alex finally got them open, pushing the material down over Clark's hips.

Clark kicked his pants and underwear to the side, bracing his hands on Alex's shoulder for a moment before moving them back up to run his fingers through Alex's hair as Alex pressed soft kisses to Clark's belly. Clark had to close his eyes as Alex's fingers wrapped around his erection, afraid that he wouldn't be able maintain his control if he watched.

But in the end, Clark had to look, mesmerized by the sight as much as the feeling as Alex pulled back Clark's foreskin to expose the sensitive head of his cock. Alex's tongue was obscenely pink as he licked at the slit before he took the head completely into his mouth.

Clark's knees nearly buckled at the overwhelming wet heat of Alex's mouth as it moved over him. His breath sounded harsh in his own ears, catching in his throat every time Alex's tongue moved over him, pressing against the vein on the underside of his cock.

The muscles in Clark's stomach clenched as his cock slipped into Alex's throat. Clark's hands moved over Alex's head, petting him as Clark tried to refrain from thrusting into the wet, welcoming heat. He closed his eyes as Alex's fingers stroked up Clark's thighs around to his ass to tease at his opening.

When Clark looked down again, Alex was watching him. The heat and desire written in the blue depths of his eyes was enough to send Clark over the edge. His body shook as he came in long spurts, shuddering as Alex's throat swallowed around him.

Alex's lips were swollen and shiny as he pulled away, his gaze never leaving Clark's face. Clark dropped to his knees and pulled Alex toward him, capturing his lips in a hungry kiss. His tongue stole into the wet heat to taste his seed in Alex's mouth.

Clark stood suddenly, pulling Alex up with him before Alex could move in for another kiss. He laced his fingers through Alex's and walked over to the bed. Clark brought Alex's hand up to his mouth, kissing the back slowly before letting it drop again as he turned to the bed to pull the sheets down.

Alex ran his fingers over Clark's cheeks and through his hair as Clark sat down and began to undo Alex's pants. Clark slid his hands down under the elastic of Alex's briefs to cup the smooth curve of his ass as Clark pulled him closer, licking and kissing at the bare skin available to him.

Clark's efforts were rewarded as the fingers on the back of his neck tightened. He looked up to admire the smooth arch of Alex's throat as he pushed Alex's pants all the way down. Clark bent to kiss the head of Alex's erection, his tongue darting out to lick away the moisture at the slit before he moved back onto the bed, pulling Alex down with him.

Alex crawled over Clark's body, shooting him a questioning look before sliding between Clark's legs. Clark just nodded, spreading his thighs wider as the heat of Alex's body settled against him. Alex reached to pull open the nightstand's drawer. Clark's cock twitched at the slide of Alex's skin against his as Alex withdrew a bottle of lube and a condom from the drawer.

Setting the condom on the night table, Alex sat back on his heels between Clark's splayed thighs and opened the bottle of lube. Clark watched Alex coat his fingers, letting his head fall back on the pillow as he felt one of Alex's slick digits circle his opening before pressing in.

Clark groaned and pulled his legs back against his chest to provide Alex better access. This was one thing they hadn't done before due to Alex's doubts about the difference in their ages and now Clark's body hummed with the need to have Alex take him. His cock was hard again, full and heavy against his stomach.

Everything around Clark vibrated and shimmered with desire as Alex slid another finger into him, twisting them slowly. Clark's hand located the condom on the night table and he tore it open with shaking fingers, sitting up as Alex withdrew from his body.

Alex's gaze burned along Clark's skin as Clark rolled the condom on and then squeezed some lube into his palm. Clark took his time coating Alex's erection. He stroked it slowly as he leaned in to lick at Alex's lower lip, tugging it gently between his teeth before lying back on the bed, suddenly nervous.

Hot hands pressed his legs back before Alex moved over him, his journey marked by bites and kisses along Clark's torso. Alex ran his hands down Clark's side, making soothing noises in Clark's ear as he pressed in. Clark groaned and wrapped his arms around Alex's shoulders, his breath coming in short bursts as Alex slowly filled him.

Fully sheathed in Clark's body, Alex moaned as his lips moved over Clark's neck in whisper-soft kisses. Clark ran his hand down Alex's cheek, surprised at the wet trail he felt. Alex pulled back, laughing a little as a tear dropped off the end of his nose and onto Clark's cheek.

Clark brushed his thumb over Alex's cheek again before pulling Alex down into a kiss. Alex took possession of Clark's mouth as well as his body, claiming everything that he'd walked away from before, heart and soul included. Clark offered it all up freely as he wrapped his legs around Alex's waist to accommodate the force of Alex's thrusts, taking everything Alex had to offer in return.

Alex's fingers wrapped around Clark's cock, pumping him in time with his thrusts. Clark whimpered and arched into Alex's touch as the pressure continued to build in the pit of his stomach.

It was too much, so good in ways that Clark hadn't been able to imagine. Every part of him craved Alex's touch. He moved his hands over Alex's neck and back as they kissed, their tongues twisting together in their erotic frenzy.

Alex broke the kiss as his thrusts sped up, his gaze locked with Clark. Clark reached down and wrapped his hand around Alex's as Alex stroked him. Alex's breath came in gasps and Clark wanted to lick away the sweat on his upper lip.

Clark could feel Alex's body tremble under his fingers as Alex's eyes slid shut. Alex's fingers dug into his skin as he slammed into Clark's body. Alex's voice broke on Clark's name as he climaxed, the word rough with sex and desire and every emotion that lay unspoken between them. Clark leaned up to kiss Alex and came hard, his seed hot on his stomach, the taste of his name still fresh from Alex's lips.

Alex kissed the skin most available to him where he lay, snuggled against Clark's chest as Clark's fingers traced lazy patterns over Alex's back. A sense of peace stole over him and he wanted nothing more than to let it carry him off to sleep. He was afraid of what he might find out if they were to talk.

"I missed you," Clark finally whispered after several more minutes of silence.

"I missed you too," Alex admitted, his heart tripping a little at Clark's words.

"Did you?" Clark's voice was quiet and uncertain.

Alex pulled back a little so that he could look Clark in the eye. "Every single day."

Clark smiled and Alex settled against him again. "So you're not with your boyfriend anymore?" he asked, praying that he wouldn't regret the question.

"No." Alex could hear the smile in Clark's voice. "He found out something that I already knew but evidently had to prove."

"What's that?"

"It's you, Alex. It always has been. I came here tonight hoping that you'd finally be ready to believe that."

"Clark." Alex pulled back again, propping his head on one hand and placing the other over Clark's heart. "It wasn't that I didn't believe you, or that I thought you needed to prove something. I had my own issues to work through. Besides, you can't honestly tell me that you're the same person you were back then."

"Maybe not," Clark said as he picked up Alex's hand and placed a kiss in the center of his palm before setting it down again. "But I love you as much as he did if not more and I'm not going to let you walk away this time."

Alex's heart and voice caught in his throat at Clark's words and he could only stare stupidly for several long moments. And then his shoulders started to shake, bubbles of laughter breaking through the lump in his throat because it had never occurred to him that it could just be that easy.

He leaned forward, kissing Clark's surprised frown. "I love you too, Clark, god so much. I love you so much it hurts." Alex's hands shook as he brushed Clark's hair away from his forehead. "And I'm not going anywhere without you."

"Good, because I think I should warn you, Lois threatened us with castration if we screw things up this time."

Alex laughed as he caught Clark's smile. He bent down to nuzzle the side of Clark's neck, unable to do anything more than breathe in Clark's scent. Alex had wanted this for so long that it felt like forever that he'd been without it. "We better not screw things up then," he said reasonably.

"Sounds like a plan," Clark agreed.

Epilogue

It melts into wonder
I came in praying for you

Smallville, Thanksgiving 2009

"Clark, Alex! Get down here!" Martha yelled up the stairs.

Alex laughed against Clark's chest as Clark groaned.

"We'll be down in a minute, Mom," Clark yelled.

"I told you we wouldn't be left alone for long," Alex said, straightening Clark's sweater.

"There will be no sex for us this weekend, will there?" Clark asked. "Maybe I could fly us back to the penthouse tonight for a little while?"

"And with our luck, the headline in the Inquisitor tomorrow would speculate on the affair that the head of LexCorp is having with Superman," Alex said. "Maybe we can work in some barn sex later."

Clark tilted his head. "I don't know. Aren't you getting a little old for barn sex?"

"Oh, that's it." Alex took a step back. "Now you're really not getting laid."

"Boys, come on!" Jonathan yelled. "We're looking at pictures."

"Pictures?" A sense of evil glee shot through Alex at the panicked look on Clark's face. "You told me there were no pictures," he said, backing toward the door. "I can't believe you lied to me."

"Please, Alex. For the sake of our relationship..." Clark said, reaching out as Alex opened the bedroom door.

"You're so pretty when you beg," Alex said. "But not that pretty." He turned and ran down the stairs to find his grandparents sitting on the couch with the Kents. But it wasn't Clark's baby pictures they were looking at.

"Grams," Alex groaned as Clark thundered down the stairs behind him. "You promised!"

"Promised what?" Clark asked peeking over Alex's shoulder. His smile grew when he saw what they were discussing.

"C'mon, Clark," Alex said, trying to tug Clark toward the kitchen. "Let's go to the barn."

"But we're looking at pictures right now." Clark blinked at him innocently.

"Please?"

Clark wrapped his arms around Alex's waist. "You're so pretty when you beg," he whispered.

Alex sighed in resignation as his grandmother turned the page to reveal pictures of him with his parents right after he was born. He suffered through the "ooohs" and "awws" until they came to the picture of Alex buck naked in a pair of red cowboy boots.

"Oh god, please have mercy, Grams," Alex said, trying to cover the picture with his hand.

"You're so cute and chubby," Clark cooed. "Nice boots!"

"If you start laughing, Clark--"

"That was Alex's stage of wanting to be naked," his grandma said. "We couldn't get him to keep his pants on to save his life."

Alex buried his face in his hands as Clark snickered against his shoulder.

"Oh, I know," Martha said. "Clark was in that stage for almost a year."

Clark stopped snickering. Alex looked up.

"We were afraid we'd have to hold him back from school," Martha continued.

"Mom!"

"Please tell me there are pictures," Alex said, his mood improving greatly.

"I think they're around here somewhere." Martha winked at him. "Oh, shoot," she said as a timer went off in the kitchen. "I'll get them out later, Alex. Fair is fair."

"Grams, please," Alex said, taking the photo album away from here. "What's wrong with you?" He shot his grandfather an accusing glare. "You were supposed to keep her from pulling something like this," he said.

His grandfather laughed. "You're never safe from stuff like this with family."

"Yeah, yeah," Alex muttered under the sound of the ringing doorbell. He stashed the photo album under the couch as Clark answered the door.

"Hey, guys!" Clark said, hugging Chloe and then shaking Whitney's hand as they entered the house. "Where are your parents?"

"Mom's pie was still baking. She and Gabe will be here soon as it's done," Whitney said.

"Hey, beautiful," Alex said, bending to kiss Chloe's cheek. "I'd like you guys to meet my grandparents." He turned to introduce them. "Grandma, Grandpa, this is Chloe and Whitney Fordman. Chloe is Lois' cousin."

"Oh, that's right," Alex's grandma said. "Is your cousin coming tonight?"

Chloe looked at Alex before answering. "No, actually. She's spending Thanksgiving with her boyfriend and his family."

"I already told you that, Grams," Alex said.

She laughed. "So you did. Pardon my 'senior moment'. I'm going to go see if Martha needs some help."

"You'll have to excuse my grams," Alex said. "She's a little..."

"Insane?" his grandfather provided with a smile.

"Well, I was gonna say flighty."

"I heard that," the lady in question called from the kitchen.

Alex laughed. "Hears like a hawk, though."

"Have a seat, guys," Clark said, pulling Alex down next to him on the vacated couch.

"Shouldn't I be joining the womenfolk in the kitchen?" Chloe asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh, Chloe. You know we all consider you one of the guys," Clark said.

"Watch it Kent," Whitney warned. He sat down in an empty armchair, pulling Chloe down into his lap.

"Have you heard from your brother at all?" Chloe asked Alex. "Or are you enough of a black sheep that they've stopped trying to invite you to family functions?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Alex said grinning. "Apparently, Lucas went and got himself a wife over the weekend. I assume he'll be spending this weekend hearing exactly what Lionel thinks about the issue."

"You're kidding," Chloe said. "Lucas never struck me as the type to fall for anyone besides himself. Who is she?"

Alex shrugged. "Desiree something. It wasn't a name I recognized. And I'm sure he has some angle he's working. I just hope he was smart enough to sign a pre-nup in case everything doesn't work out according to plan and she decides to double-cross him."

Chloe blinked at him and laughed. "How very cynical of you, Alex. How do you know it's not true love?"

"Maybe it is," Alex said, stealing a glance at Clark. "I suppose anything's possible."

Martha smiled as the sound of laughter filtered in from the living room as she washed the dishes. This was what she'd always wanted, the house full of friends that had somehow become family over the past few years. She closed her eyes to concentrate on the happy noise of too many people talking at once.

"Martha?" Chloe asked, causing her to jump a little. "I came to see if you needed any help."

"Oh, don't worry about it, Chloe," she said. "Feel free to sit down and relax."

"I'm afraid if I relax any more, I'm going to fall asleep." Chloe grabbed a towel. "You sure I can't dry or something?"

Martha smiled and handed Chloe the fork she'd just rinsed. "Dry away."

They worked in silence the warm sound of laughter washing over them with every other dish washed.

Chloe tossed the towel over her shoulder as the last dish was dried and put away. "There's something to be said for teamwork."

"There is," Martha smiled. "Thank you for the help."

"I, um--actually I wanted to talk to you. To thank you for inviting us." She twisted her wedding ring around her finger as she laughed. "I'm not looking forward to the day when I'll have to prepare Thanksgiving dinner by myself."

"Well, we're glad to have you here," Martha said. "Maybe next year you can help me get everything ready."

Chloe nodded. "I'd like that."

Martha walked over to the stove, stirring the spiced cider before she poured a cup for herself and Chloe. She walked back to the kitchen table, sitting at the end that wasn't crowded with desserts. "Tell me what else is going on with you guys. We haven't talked in awhile," she said as Chloe took the other chair.

"Well, actually, I have some news." Chloe sat down, wrapping her fingers around the cup of cider and taking a tentative sip. "I'm pregnant."

"Oh my gosh, that's wonderful!" Martha said.

"It is! I mean, it was a surprise but I'm so excited! I haven't told anyone yet. I mean, Whitney knows of course, but nobody else does." She smiled. "You're the closest thing I had to a mother growing up. I wanted to tell you first." She laughed as she wiped tears out of the corners of her eyes. "And Whitney and I were talking about it and we would like you and Jonathan to be the baby's Godparents."

"Oh, Chloe!" Martha stood up and walked around the table to give Chloe a hug. "We'd love to." She pulled back, laughing as she wiped away her own tears. "When are you due?"

"The end of May," Chloe said, her hands moving down over her tummy.

"Is everything okay?" Clark asked. He was standing in the doorway, a wary look on his face.

Martha smiled. "Everything's fine."

"Yeah, we're just having a little girl talk," Chloe said.

Clark shook his head as he got some more cider. "Girls are weird," he muttered on his way back to the living room.

Martha caught Chloe's eye and couldn't suppress the bubble of laughter. Chloe joined in, her hand moving to cover her mouth as she snorted, which just made them both laugh harder.

"Mind filling us in on the joke?" Jonathan asked as he and Whitney walked into the kitchen.

"It's girl stuff," Martha said, grabbing a Kleenex to wipe the corner of her eyes.

Jonathan and Whitney exchanged a 'don't ask me' look before refilling their drinks.

Martha watched as Whitney walked over to his wife, his hand settling on her tummy as he kissed her softly. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Great," Chloe said, her face glowing with happiness as she smiled up at him. "Let's go sit down." She grabbed her cider and pulled Whitney out of the kitchen, casting one last smile back at Martha.

"You've been out here for a while," Jonathan said as his arms snaked around Martha's waist.

"I wanted to get the dishes done before everybody started wanting dessert," Martha said, leaning back into the embrace.

Watching Whitney with Chloe and Alex with Clark, Martha had thought she would feel an ache at the loss of that feeling of being newly in love, but she hadn't. The truth was that even after all these years she still felt that surge of giddiness every day that she woke up next to her husband.

"I love you, Mr. Kent," she said as she turned in his arms and leaned up to kiss him.

"I love you, too, Mrs. Kent," Jonathan said. "Are you sure you're feeling okay?" He brushed his fingers through her hair. "You look a little sad."

"When Clark was little, I used to worry that with his gifts, he wouldn't be able to find someone who would love him, accept him as he was." She glanced back toward the living room where Alex and Clark were seated.

"And now?" Jonathan asked.

"Now I think that if they make each other even one tenth as happy as you've made me over the years, I have nothing to worry about."

"I'm so full," Alex groaned, rubbing his hand over his stomach as Clark disassembled the couch so that he could pull out the bed. Alex's grandparents were sleeping in Clark's old room.

"Really?" Clark tossed Alex a corner of the fitted sheet and started to make his side of the bed. "I'm kind of hungry again."

"I'm not sure how your parents ever survived feeding you," Alex said as the spread the blanket out over the sheets.

Clark just smiled and walked over to the fireplace to add another log as Alex crawled under the covers. Clark joined him a minute later, wrapping his arms around Alex's waist and laying his head on Alex's chest.

"I can't believe your brother got married," Clark said. "Doesn't that seem weird to you?"

Alex shrugged and continued to pet Clark's hair. "I stopped trying to figure out the angles Lucas operates from a long time ago." It hadn't taken Alex long to figure out that Lionel was the only one he really had to worry about. Lucas' schemes remained small-time meddling for the most part.

"Alex?"

"Hmmm?"

Clark's fingers curled over Alex's heart. "Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if Lionel raised you? Do you think you would be the same person?"

"I don't know," Alex said honestly. "I guess it depends on how much of who we are is dependent on our nature and how much is dependent on the events in our lives. I mean, Lucas is something of a sociopath, but is that because he was raised by Lionel or because his mother's insane?"

Alex wasn't actually sure that Lucas' mother was insane. Lionel's touch was rather obvious in the way she'd been committed. But looking at Lucas, he wasn't sure.

"What do you think?" Clark asked.

"I think that I would have been different," Alex finally said. "If Lionel had been the only person I could have turned to when I needed someone..." Alex's couldn't quite suppress the shudder that went through him. "I think I would have been very different."

"I'm sorry," Clark said as he propped himself up on his elbow. "I didn't mean to upset you."

Alex smiled. "It's okay, Clark. Because I think that even if he had been the one to raise me, my feelings for you would be the same."

"How do you figure?" Clark asked, smiling.

"Because you got under my skin immediately. With every breath I took from the moment I met you, I was aware of you." Alex ran his fingers through Clark's hair. "You're my obsession. I don't think that even Lionel could change that."

Clark leaned down, brushing his lips across Alex's. "If that weren't so hot, it'd be kind of creepy."

Alex laughed. "That's the Luthor in me, I guess."

Clark's eyes crinkled with laugher and Alex felt his breath catch in his throat. In these random moments, his mind couldn't quite grasp the truth of how much he loved the man in front of him. It was a giddy rush, elusive but always there. Alex hadn't lied; Clark was his obsession.

"I have something for you," Alex said suddenly. He crawled out of bed, ignoring Clark's confused expression, and walked over to his bag. He pulled out the box with shaking hands, suddenly completely nervous.

"I've, um-- I've been carrying this around with me for awhile," he said as he sat back down. "Waiting for the perfect moment, but there are so many of those to choose from." He couldn't quite meet Clark's gaze as he opened the box.

Two silver bands lay cushioned in the white satin, tied together with a red ribbon.

Alex took a breath, completely forgetting everything he had wanted to say. "I don't need a ceremony or vows," he said as Clark lifted the rings out of the box. "You don't even have to wear it if you don't want to. I just-- I made my commitment to you a long time ago without it being a conscious decision. I want you to know that it is a conscious decision now. I want you to be sure of me." He looked up as Clark's thumb brushed over his mouth.

"I'm sure of you, Alex," Clark said. He picked up the bigger of the two rings and slipped it on his finger before slipping the other one on Alex's. "You can be sure of me too."

"I am." Alex felt the pressure in his chest ease as Clark drew him in for a slow, sensual kiss.

Clark started laughing as soon as they broke apart. "Your timing sucks, you know that, right?"

"Why is that?"

"Because there are so many things I want to do to you right now that I can't because my parents are sleeping right over our heads."

Alex started laughing too, pressing his face against Clark's chest to smother the noise. "I'm sorry," he said when he finally pulled back. "I guess we'll have to make up for it when we get home." The last part of the sentence was spoken around a huge yawn. "I think the turkey made me sleepy," he said as he lay back down.

"Go to sleep then," Clark said, running a soothing hand down Alex's spine. "Maybe we can sneak away for a little while tomorrow. There's plenty of room up in the loft. Or maybe down in the storm cellar. How do you feel about sex against a spaceship?"

Alex mumbled something that wasn't even close to a word, but he didn't think that Clark was really paying attention anymore. The metal of the ring had already warmed against Alex's skin like it had always been a part of him. Alex's fell asleep to the feel of Clark's hand on his back and the sound of Clark listing off fields and empty barns where they might sneak off to in the morning.

Clark lay awake, listening to the random creaks of the house and the snapping of the dying fire as he stroked his fingers over the small of Alex's back.

The embers from the fireplace cast a warm orange glow over the room. Alex was on his stomach, his head turned toward Clark, a soft smile playing at his lips. Clark hoped it was an indication of good dreams.

He turned his hand, studying the reflection of the fire as it played off the silver of his ring. "The one ring," he whispered to himself, quickly glancing at Alex to make sure that he was still sleeping. The extent to which Clark was a geek wasn't something he felt the need to share all at once.

A warm glow settled in Clark's stomach as he finally curled up against Alex. Everything about today had been perfect. For the first time in his life, everything finally fit together the way that it should.

He and Alex finally fit together, the universe no longer offering up its resistance and it worked. Clark thought that this was it. No matter what, no matter how many diverging paths they traveled, no matter the significance of the road not taken, they would always end up here.

This point and time was part of their destiny in every world imaginable. Clark refused to believe there was any other alternative.