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And Dark Our Celebration Was

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They hassled him in the airport at Detroit, and made him stand in line forever at customs. When the woman at the counter finally stamped his passport, she gave him a snide smile and said, "Welcome home." Clark smiled back, because it always somehow seemed to him that, however far away she was, his mother would know immediately if he was ever rude to anybody for any reason.

Clark hated flying.

But he did like being home, a lot. It was a short connecting flight from Detroit to Metropolis, and he was so tired that he slept through it, even though his legs were much too long to get comfortable on any airplane that wasn't a Lear jet or Air Force One, and even though he had a window seat and he wanted to look down at the ground and marvel at the simple fact that this was America. He'd been too busy to miss it, until now. Now he physically itched with the desire to be there for real, on the ground, returning to the life he'd chosen in the city he loved.

He might not have recognized Chloe at all, except for that smile of hers. She looked...totally different. It had been a year, of course, and people changed, Clark understood that. But it didn't feel like a year, until he saw her waiting for him in the baggage claim terminal and looked right past her twice. She'd dyed her hair auburn and pierced her nose, and she seemed tired around the eyes, and she was wearing kind of a weird outfit that included plaid capri pants and Birkenstocks. It was probably really trendy; Clark had been out of the country for a while. He hugged her so hard her spine cracked a little bit, but she didn't complain, and it almost felt like she was hugging him back just as hard.

It didn't feel like a year, because she'd e-mailed him almost every day while he was in Tokyo, long, wildly punctuated tales of every detail in her life, from the dramatic (the endless carousel of back-stabbing and credit-grabbing that went on in the Inquisitor's newsroom) to the amusing (an ongoing catalogue of strange people encountered on the morning subway that rivaled the Canterbury Tales in its scope and absurdity) to the impassioned (Clark was the only soul in the world, as far as he knew, that Chloe had trusted with all the details of her affair with Jason the Piggish But Oddly Compelling Married Judo Instructor and her subsequent abortion). It seemed like they were as close as they'd ever been, maybe even closer. It seemed wrong for Chloe to look so...unfamiliar.

Home looked unfamiliar to him now in all kinds of ways. He thought he could probably get lost in Metropolis now, if he didn't have Chloe dragging him around by the hand. The apartment she'd found for him looked titanic in comparison to his place in Tokyo, although according to Chloe it was "not much, but what do you expect?" The people looked fairly titanic to him, too, and Clark found that disappointing. He was back home now, where he was just a tallish, nice-looking guy who slouched. In Japan, he'd been a giant, freakish, mutant alien. Or rather, in Japan he'd looked like a giant, freakish, mutant alien.

And that was nice. For once, he almost felt like people could look at him and really see.

Chloe's lead on the apartment had been a guy who volunteered with her on the Jacob Krupp gubernatorial campaign. He lived directly downstairs, and when Chloe introduced them, he checked Clark out pretty blatantly. His name was Tyson or Tyler or Taylor, Clark didn't quite catch it, and he wasn't Clark's type. Clark wondered if this was all just Chloe's way of trying to get the scoop; he knew it must drive her insane, the way he never said anything about sex or romance or what exactly he was looking for in a significant other, besides the fact that he wasn't. Looking. Which he really wasn't. He used Japan as an excuse, and it was a good one; it was hard to meet people that you had a lot in common with, when you were a giant, freakish, mutant alien intern in the Pacific Rim. Chloe saw through it, though, of course. She'd known him for a decade, and he didn't have a good excuse at all for most of that time. Not one that he really felt like he could share with Chloe, anyway.

But now that she had him within her grasp again, Clark had a feeling that she was really going to commit to this. When she insisted that they go out to celebrate his homecoming, and that he change clothes first, it seemed like the beginning of the end. Chloe intended to get him hooked up with someone, or know the reason why. She even invited Tyson, Tyler, Taylor. He was sharp-toothed and well-groomed, and Clark thought maybe tonight would be a good night to be straight, and sort of head this whole thing off at the pass.

He kept calling Chloe "Lo," and Clark really didn't like that very much. Nobody that he ever knew called her "Lo," and he didn't see what made Tyson, Tyler, Taylor so special. Clark already had kind of a headache, and they hadn't even gotten into any clubs yet.

Strangely, however, it wasn't as bad as he expected. Chloe and her friend (a bit snottily, Clark decided that he was just going to say screw it and make up his own name; he looked like a Jeremy) took him to someplace called NASA, which was in a place where Clark vaguely remembered there used to be a Thai restaurant. He expected the music to be shitty house electronica, but it was actually sort of speed-metal-ish, and made him think of one of his fraternity brothers out of whose headphones you could hear the same Skinny Puppy CD all finals week long. He expected it to be a gay bar, but it was actually pretty sexuality-unspecific, as far as Clark could tell. He expected the drinks to be overpriced, and they were, but they were really good, too. Chloe knocked them back fast and hard, and for some reason Clark wanted to pull her down on his lap and just rock her there, like she was twelve and not twenty-two.

Jeremy danced. He looked like he was having fun out there, and Clark almost wanted to dance, too. Except that might look like flirting. And he was a bad dancer. So, worst case scenario, Jeremy who wasn't even his type might take one look at Clark on the dance floor and then give him the brush-off, which would have exactly the kind of sour irony that you could almost always rely on Clark's life to provide.

So instead he sat at the end of the bar and talked with Chloe, about work, about home. As she got more ripped, she started grilling him about Bangkok and Hong Kong, and sex tours and crazy Asian porn. He laughed it off, a little awkwardly, and said that the job kept him pretty busy, and that he hadn't even had time for the regular tourist things, let alone time to go...exploring. She didn't seem happy with that answer, and finally Clark snapped, "Did you want me to go on some kind of whores-and-opium binge?"

"I want you to be a human being," she snapped back, and Clark looked away. It was wrong to let her see how much that hurt, when he couldn't tell her why.

"I want that, too," he said quietly, and he didn't really think she could hear him over the music, but after a second she put an apologetic hand on his knee anyway, and Clark pulled himself together and smiled at her. This was Chloe, for God's sake, his best friend since forever. If anything, he was the one who should feel bad, not her. Clark's first year out of college and in the journalism shark pool had gone pretty smoothly; Chloe's had been rough. And with Pete in grad school in California, and Lana still in Smallville, and all Chloe's new friends being office friends and therefore competition, she must have felt at least as alone as Clark had, maybe more alone.

I should have been here, he thought. Logically, he knew how ridiculous that was. He couldn't be everywhere for everyone all the time and hold down a job of his own, too; he was fast, but not that fast. And still, in his heart of hearts, he felt like he should have been here all along.

When you run away from your problems, Clark's father always said, you usually find you don't have much of anywhere to run to. Which was either very profound or very stupid; Clark spent a lot of time trying to sort out all his father's aphorisms into the category where they rightfully belonged. It was hard work; Dad had a lot of aphorisms, and sometimes the line between profound and stupid was pretty damn thin.

"You want to dance?" he asked.

Chloe smiled; nothing had dimmed that smile yet, and Clark found it easy to tell himself that nothing ever could. "I want to drink until my liver takes out a restraining order. But you go. You dance."

"I'm not sure that's a good idea. Jeremy kind of scares me."


Clark sighed. "Forget it." She thumped him on the kneecap, hard little fist right on the joint, where it always used to make Pete say damn, woman! and glare, rubbing his knee for the next five minutes. It didn't hurt Clark of course, but he made a noise of protest anyway, and she smiled again.

Somehow, he found himself on the dance floor. It figured, really. When Chloe made up her mind that he was going to do something, Clark inevitably ended up doing it. He danced with a woman who looked Latina or maybe Italian, with frosted hair and breasts that could not possibly have occurred naturally on a five-three or so frame. He was just drunk enough to be amused by his own lack of moves, and she was smiling up at him like he could have busted out into the Macarena and she still would've slept with him.

Clark indulged that fantasy for a moment. He hadn't been with anybody at all since Bethany the coffee-shop girl the week before he left Metropolis, because she started to cry when he told her he wouldn't be coming in anymore because of working in Japan, and he felt like he'd tied her puppy to the bumper of his truck and dragged it down Wesleyan Boulevard. She was too young for him, he was pretty sure, though not completely sure, but she was sweet and had been giving him extra whipped cream and sprinkles for three years, and he came back that night at closing time and brought her a pizza from Steverino's around the corner, not because he wanted to sleep with her, but just because it seemed like she would honestly miss him, and that touched something in Clark that he didn't think he had anymore. She was little, too, but tough and athletic, with nice thighs, and she laid across the counter while Clark stayed standing up, her thighs flexing around his waist, and she slipped her fingers into his mouth and they tasted like fingernail polish remover and espresso beans, and it was nice, and Clark would've asked her out again, maybe, if he hadn't been leaving the next Wednesday.

He put his hands on the full, Latina-or-Italian ass of his dancing partner, slid them half into the back pockets of her tight jeans, and he felt unbelievably lonely as she ground up against him, because maybe he wouldn't have asked Bethany out again. Probably he wouldn't even have slept with her, if he hadn't known he could get away easily. He just wasn't...cut out for girlfriends. How could he be? It was just too damn problematic, and anyway, he already had enough people in his life that he felt like a complete shit for lying to all the time. In college, there had been a few soap-operatic entanglements with girls on the newspaper staff, which always ended with them hooking up with whoever they'd been using him to make jealous, or with Chloe crying in the darkroom and Clark having to pretend he didn't see it and was ending the fling for some other reason entirely. And there had been a few men, mostly older than Clark, the kind who had Palm Pilots and cell phones that rang constantly, and were in the closet, and were always relieved not to have to know what Clark did when he wasn't with them. Sad, shallow relationships that Clark couldn't tell his mother about, that made him feel worse than being alone, except when he was in bed with them, pretending that they were capable of pinning him down, because that was what he liked to believe, and pretending that he was awed by their money and their importance, because that was what they liked to believe.

He wasn't awed. He was a little contemptuous, really, deep down in the not-very-nice parts of his soul. Because, yeah, they had Palm Pilots, and they scheduled teleconferences over their Nokias and apparently thought their Japanese accents weren't godawful, and they thought that should impress him, because he was young and from a farm in Smallville. They patronized him right alongside lusting after him, and Clark just smiled his best clueless-farmboy smile and let them think that they were teaching him what power was all about.

It wasn't a coincidence, exactly, that he happened to be thinking about Lex at just that moment -- or not a very exciting coincidence, at least, because truthfully he thought about Lex a lot, more than anyone had ever suspected. But still, it was disorienting to look over at Chloe and see him there, one hand on the brass rail of the bar, intent in conversation with his head bent down and her face turned up like they were about to kiss. Even more disorienting because he still wasn't used to this older, redheaded Chloe, and Lex looked just like he always did, just like he always had, as though he'd stepped straight through the years, out the door of the Talon and into NASA without time leaving so much as a wrinkle in the sleeve of his jacket. Clark stumbled, and made the woman with him stumble, and then pushed her gently off into someone else's arms.

Lex looked over at him, wholly unsurprised. He gave Clark a quick I'll be right with you nod and kept talking to Chloe. Clark sensed his window of opportunity, the moment when he could've ducked away and vanished in a blur, the moment when he should have.

But he stood there instead, dumbstruck and feeling the wound blossom open across his throat. Fucking Chloe. She'd sold him; she planned this. She kept casting him sidelong glances that never achieved eye-contact, so at least she had the decency to feel guilty.

The crowd moved aside as Lex passed through it, so that he never had to turn his shoulders or sidle around bodies. It was like they were scenery or choreography, just set pieces in Lex's little music-video, in whatever the fuck this was all about. But then, hadn't they all been, all along? Set pieces, art-department frills gracing the fringes of Lex Luthor's story?

"Clark Kent," he drawled out when he was close enough to Clark to lean against him if he'd wanted to.

It was too cheesy to say Lex Luthor. It was too much work to think of anything else to say. Clark said nothing at all. He backed up when Lex took another step toward him, and Lex grinned in delight and tried it again. Clark backed up again, and almost stumbled.

Lex's fingers ghosted over his cheek, and Clark jerked his head away. He wanted to scream. He wanted to go back home, to his efficiency apartment in Tokyo that was the size of the guest bathrooms in Lex's old castle, to where he was safe, half the earth's distance between him and this man. Lex just chuckled at him and did it again, his thumb brushing Clark's earlobe. "Aren't you even going to say hello? Where are your manners, Clark?"

"I'm here with my boyfriend," Clark said, and then remembered that Chloe gave him up and it was all futile.

"Oh, are you?" Lex wasn't buying it, not even close.

"Yeah, Tyler. He's right over-- " Sure, and now he couldn't spot Jeremy in the crowd.

"Liar," Lex said, and he was still smiling. But the word breathed fire between them. So long unspoken, but maybe the thing that mattered most, mattered too much to be approached any way except this. Clark dropped his eyes.

Lex's pale hand settled on Clark's hip. Khaki brought out the yellow in Lex's skin; no wonder he never wore it. It wasn't flattering. Clark couldn't look away. Lex leaned in, bent his head down beneath Clark's so that Clark could feel his breath. He hit brick behind his back, finally out of places to run. (Fine, chalk that one up as a profound aphorism. Next.) "Welcome home," Lex said.

That seemed gratuitous, pain for the sake of pain. Clark hated him for a second, then went back to wishing he hated him. He closed his eyes and said, low in his throat, "A lot you know about home, Lex."

For a minute it seemed like Lex didn't have a snappy comeback for that. Over the speakers, some screaming thrash-band was doing a cover of "Sex and Candy," shrieking out the lyrics like they were an accusation -- like disco lemonade, yeah there she was!

"I didn't come here to talk about the past," Lex finally said.

"You are my past," Clark said, half-desperately, willing it to become true. No luck. Of course.

Lex's hands rubbed up his chest, shoving. The back of Clark's head struck the brick wall lightly, and he heard himself whimper like an animal. "The past is dead, Clark. And I, for one, am glad."

"Then so is the friendship," Clark said bitterly.

Lex laughed, viciously. "Oh, just now noticing that, are you?" His fingers slotted into the grooves of Clark's collarbones, sending a warm sensation down his arms that might have been pain. "But cheer up about it, Clark. I, for one, have been waiting...a long time for this."

"For what?"

"For you to be all grown up."

Fuck you, Clark really should have said. Because, really, fuck Lex Luthor. It wasn't fair of him to be able to do this, to make him feel so grown-up and knowing and special when he was just a kid, and now that Clark was an adult, to be able to turn all those memories into something callow and juvenile. He wanted to shove Lex, to shove him halfway across the room or more. He mostly wanted to cry. It wasn't fair. Lex had always had all the power, and always would.

The power to leave. And that was really the only power that counted, wasn't it?

But he didn't say fuck you. He didn't push Lex away. He didn't even cry when Lex kissed him, even though the hot shame boiled inside him and wanted to spill out somehow, because, God. People changed, didn't they? In a year, in seven years? It was impossible, wasn't it, that he was really the same stupid little kid who'd sat in his room for three solid days in the summer after his sophomore year, waiting for the phone to ring, unable to tell anyone what he needed to have happen now, or why, or how fucking awful it felt to realize hour by hour that it never would? It was impossible that after all this time, he was the same person whose only desire on God's green earth was for Lex to kiss him again, and again, and not stop.

And yet.

At first, it was just the way Clark remembered it, identical to the kisses that were scalded into his memory and -- possibly -- into his heart, too. Lex's mouth, warm and slippery, cautious and almost beseeching against his. Lex's fingers splayed across his shoulder, rubbing little circles, his arm shifting to lie along Clark's shoulder with his hand cupped around the back of Clark's neck, settling in. Clark found Lex's waist with his hands, and it was just as unbelievably surprising and welcome and euphoric as it had been when he was barely sixteen. It made him feel like just as much of a man.

People change. The kiss became a fast, dangerous downward slope, turned incautious and nasty, starving, needy. Lex shoved against him, made him growl, pushed his tongue up into Clark's mouth with ruthless, uncompromising Luthor arrogance. Fuck you had seamlessly become fuck, yes, and everything in Clark's body seemed to have shifted downward, so that thought was caught in his throat, his heart was pounding in his uneasy stomach, and hunger was settling in his groin. "Fuck, yes," he thought he said aloud, but he wasn't sure.

His body remembered this, or at least the premonition of this. He'd felt this way in the grass, with the endless summer sky of Kansas at night above him, and Lex almost able to blot it out, almost able to erase reality. He'd felt wild and frightened and desperate, and his hand shook when he took Lex's wrist and pulled his hand down to the fly of his jeans. His whole body shook.

Relief, and agony, when Lex moved his mouth and let out a slow, shuddering groan, then slipped out of Clark's grasp and let his hand slide gently back up Clark's stomach. "No, no," he'd crooned against Clark's face. "No, Clark, please. Not so... Not yet." He sounded scared, and that kept fear from swamping Clark completely.

"But I want you to," Clark said, because he did.

And Lex laughed, breathless and tense, and he kissed Clark's jaw and his lower lip and threaded the hair at Clark's temple through his fingers until Clark shivered convulsively from it. "I know you do," he said. "But it takes time to do this right, okay? Can you trust me on this, Clark?"

"Yes," he said quickly. "Sure." Because at that time, in that year, he had trusted Lex almost completely.

Until Lex had never called him. Until three days later, when he finally went out to the castle and saw with his own eyes that what everyone had said was true, and that Lex had packed up and moved away and left nothing behind. Other than Clark, of course.

He tried to hang on to that memory, to the nightmarish quality of it, his first sure knowledge that people lie and people let you down and people leave you alone, even when you never saw it coming. But....

It was another life. He really had been just a boy, then, a sixteen-year-old boy (barely sixteen) with a crush on an older man that he thought was sophisticated and courageous. The pain was real, Christ, yes, it was real, but it didn't seem to matter so much now. First betrayal. Well, there was a first time for everything, wasn't there? And what did it have to do with this, with the slick, dirty heat of Lex's tongue in his mouth, the slow, grooving grind of Lex's hips against his?

Or maybe he was just making excuses now for Lex because he could feel Lex's hand on the button of his khakis, and he didn't want to deal with any of the reasons that he really ought to stop this, like Lex can't be trusted and Lex always has an unspoken agenda and Clark's still more than a little in love with Lex and that could make this messy beyond belief.

Clark shifted his arms slightly, giving Lex's hands maybe a little more cover for what they were doing. Not like anyone was going to get arrested, but he didn't guess there was any harm in saving Lex a little money on bribes; Clark had always been a cheap date. He touched his mouth to Lex's ear and tried not to see the people gawking curiously at them -- not so much because they were getting it on right up against the wall at eleven-thirty on a Friday night in a Metropolis nightclub, Clark sensed, as because Lex was, frankly, about the most recognizable person on earth, and of course people were always interested in who was putting out for celebrities. If Lex's first priority hadn't always been control of the media, Clark would worry about ending up a Page Six blind item.

Control of the media. Oh, you ass, you complete idiot, Clark told himself. The media, the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor had always been Lex's paper, he'd used it and relied on it even back when Clark knew him. Of course he knew how to get to Chloe. Hey, now, tell the truth - - Clark's hands fell away and landed on the walls on either side of his body, scrabbling pitifully for something to hang on to as Lex's hand slipped into his pants and Lex's fingers curled around his cock -- what you mean is, of course he owns Chloe.

First betrayal. Not the last. He'd always known it wouldn't be the last, but.... But Chloe. He figured it wasn't betrayal if it wasn't love first, and that sounded so simple and so ultimately not helpful at all that it might be one of his father's aphorisms.

"Oh, please, please," Clark gasped, gouging at the brick with his nails (not literally, he hoped) and shoving his dick harder against Lex's palm. He wondered if Lex was going to let him come like this, let him probably get it all over Lex's pretty clothes. Probably not, bastard, bastard. He'd probably make Clark stop any second, just like the other time, just like before. He'd probably never want what Clark wanted.

He wondered where Lex's eyes were. He couldn't bring himself to look at anything except the lights above the dance floor, his own shoulder, the inside of his eyelids. He didn't want -- he wouldn't live through really looking at Lex, not now.

"Please," he said again.

He used to do this alone, with that exact word in his head. Lex's broken, breathless No, Clark, please. He told himself that he knew what it meant, that Lex had been feeling exactly like he was, new all over, confused and wanting and dreading. He told himself that Lex, who was so strong in almost every way, was not strong when it came to the heart, and he got scared, he felt too much, he ran away. He told himself that Lex hadn't been as ready to deal with love as Clark had been. As Clark thought he had been. Clark had no way to count the nights he'd spent lying alone in bed, touching himself and promising himself, he wanted me, a lot, too much, that was all, that was the whole problem, it was all just too real. Of course, as opportunities ticked away, birthdays and graduations and anniversaries (the night he saved Lex's life, the night they kissed in the shadow behind the Himalayan at the carnival and Lex tasted like Heineken and caramel, the night in the grass when Lex said please,), and he read about Lex in the papers but never heard from him.... Well, it got to the point, pretty quickly, when Clark only believed that stuff about strong feelings and too much love when he was jerking off.

So maybe it made a lot of sense that he was thinking it now. Pavlovian, or something.

Clark came so hard that it made his eyeballs hurt, a combination of the headache that he still had and the wild slam of sensation so intense that at its highest moment it didn't quite seem to be pleasure anymore. He groaned, and then slipped woozily back down into pleasure, hell, bliss, the golden just-after moments that Clark always liked best of all, when his blood and skin and tongue all felt raw and blindingly alive.

Lex had a handkerchief in his pocket, to wipe Clark clean and then dab at the cuff of his shirt. Naturally. And the funny part was that he probably always had a handkerchief on him, not really for cleaning up come in bars, but just because Lex was that kind of guy. A gentleman. Or something like that.

"Happy now?" Clark was way too tired to snark, but his throat was roughened and his mouth felt clumsy, so it came out kind of like a growl, which was good.

Lex smiled at him, as clear and radiant a smile as he'd ever seen from Lex. "Oh, indeed I am, Clark. Thank you." Then the smile faded, and he looked dark and serious. He reached up, his hand dry but still pungent, and ran his thumb in a light, uneven oval along the lines of Clark's slightly parted lips. "You have no idea how often I've thought of you."

No idea, huh? Clark didn't know whether to lick his hand or smack it away, so he did neither. "More often than you let on, I assume," Clark said. Hello, snark, and not a moment too soon, thanks.

Lex gave him an approving little smile, allowing Clark to take the point for that one. "I thought it would be easier this way."

"It wasn't."

"Don't be so sure. I know you think I was going to sleep with you, Clark, but I wasn't. I never had any intention of it. I do have my standards, you know."

It was too confusing to be hurtful; Clark almost couldn't make sense of the words, had no real idea what Lex was talking about. "I'm, what?" he managed. "I'm beneath you? I'm not good enough for Lex Luthor?"

Lex shrugged, his eyes wandering off slightly as though he were already half-finished with this conversation. "I don't sleep with people I don't trust. It minimizes the risk of betrayal. Not eliminates, but minimizes. You lie so prettily, Clark, you'd make a very pleasant exception. But. No exceptions."

"What do you call this, then?"

He chuckled, low and a little raspy. "I don't call it sleeping with you. If this is what you consider a perfectly acceptable sexual encounter then I have to say, I don't think much of the quality of people you've been dating lately."

Frankly, neither did Clark, and he was putting Lex right at the top of that list, even though it was stretching the definition of "dating" a whole hell of a lot. "You didn't trust me?"

"I did," he said, unexpectedly soft. "Once. But by the end.... There was just too much that didn't make sense, Clark. Too many excuses, too many evasions. It wasn't worth it anymore."

"I would never have hurt you, Lex."

"Please, stop. And me without my insulin." No, Clark, please.... Clark closed his eyes. "I'm sure you had all the excellent reasons in the world for being a self-righteous liar, but truthfully, I'm not that interested in them. Save something for the unauthorized biography."

Clark kissed him again, putting his fingertips on Lex's chest to feel the stuttering swell of his lungs as Lex caught his breath. "Maybe I could tell your biographer about the time I deep-throated you in front of a hundred and fifty witnesses in a nightclub?" Clark murmured against Lex's moist lips. He'd actually never deep-throated anybody, but he had once clocked himself holding his breath for fifty-eight minutes, so he thought it probably wouldn't be that difficult. He also thought Lex would probably never in a million years let him get any of the power in this situation back like that, but he liked the noise Lex made when he said it.

Slowly, Lex pulled away, and Clark could see that he was wearing his game smile now, complacent and false. "Maybe some other time. I'll call you." There was a mocking lilt to that, a tiny slice that stung forever, like a paper cut. Damn. Clark should have known better than to try to play games with Lex; he just didn't have the stomach for it, really. Clark shoved past him. He just wanted to be home.

For one half-second, he thought he heard Lex following him out on the sidewalk. But the steps were too quick, and had a squishy, rubber-soled sound instead of the smart click of dress shoes. "Wait, Clark," Chloe said, grabbing his arm.

He stopped for her, but he moved his arm away. "You kind of forgot to mention to me that you were in touch with Lex," he said.

Chloe moved in front of him, and her expression was almost funny, stuck somewhere in between worried and ticked off. "Look, Clark, he contacted me, okay? I didn't know -- I don't know what's going on between the two of you, but he seemed like he really missed you, and he didn't think you'd want to see him, and...." She ran her fingers through her hair. "Shit, come on, Clark! I would've known what the right thing to do was if you'd ever told me the whole story there."

"It was personal," Clark said, and then felt like the worst human being in the world. As though he didn't have the kind of relationship with Chloe where she'd have every right to expect that he might share some personal information. And because he felt so bad, and because for just a second he wanted someone else to feel worse, he said, "It must work out really well for you, doing favors for Lex Luthor like that. In your line of work, and all, I bet it'll come in handy."

She looked more sad than angry, and more tired than either. God, did that tired look ever leave her eyes anymore? A year was a whole lot longer than Clark had realized -- and seven years a whole lot shorter. "Stop it, Clark. You don't know anything about my line of work. You spend a year researching stock quotes and writing fluff business-tech pieces for the Lifestyle section and you think you're a journalist. You may think my paper is nothing but a tabloid, Clark, and maybe you're right, but I'm a fucking investigative reporter. I'm doing what I always wanted to do, and you don't know what it's like to work there, for people like that who don't give a damn about the truth and only give the good assignments to people who prove how well they can suck up to the rich and famous, and yes! He's helping me out, okay? Not everybody can do everything alone like you can, Clark."

"I'm sorry," he said, and she looked surprised by how much he meant it. Worst human being in the world. He put a hand on Chloe's shoulder. "You're right, I have no right to criticize you. But you're wrong that I can do things alone. I need people just like everyone else. Chloe, I need you. That's just...that's why it hurt, because I...I really didn't want to see him again, and.... Oh, shit." Clark laughed, and snuffled a little, scrubbing at his nose with the heel of his hand.

She reached out to him and ran her fingers softly down the back of his other hand, then let the touch fall away. "Clark. If we're never going to be together because you're gay, then you could just fucking tell me that, okay? You could just be fucking honest about it, for once in your life. It's just me."

Refrain for the evening, Clark supposed. It was funny, coming back from Japan where nobody ever really expected, or even wanted anyone else to be totally honest about anything, and then getting nailed twice in one night for keeping too many secrets. Life might have been a whole lot easier if his spaceship had crashed down in Hokkaido instead of Kansas. He caught her hand and squeezed it in his. "If it were just that, I swear I would've told you already, Chloe. Honestly. It's just...everything's so damn complicated."

"I love you, Clark. But sometimes you're hard to be around, you know? You make people feel not very important."

"I don't think that. I mean, that's not how I feel about you."

She sighed, and nodded. She smiled, the shaky Chloe smile that she seemed to think would keep people from being able to see when she was unhappy. "Okay, have we had enough fun for one night? Can we call it a party, and go home, and maybe talk to each other later? Lunch or something?"

"Okay," he said. "I'll call you." After a minute, he added, "I really will."

She laughed a little, a real laugh, and said, "Okay," in a tone that said, heard you the first time, you big weirdo.

Clark took a cab home, and forgot the address of his new place, and had to waste a bunch of money circling the neighborhood until he recognized the building. He unlocked the knob and both deadbolts, but once he was in he only locked one of the deadbolts behind him. Tonight, he half wished someone would try to break into his apartment. He'd really like someone to have a serious conversation with about boundaries and personal space. Absolutely.

His apartment looked titanic, and empty. "Welcome home," Clark said to the darkness. "Things are going really well so far."

A complete and total lie.