by Tara O'Shea
Chloe was working on the Torch before school when Clark stuck his head into the office. Fans were set in front of the open windows, but it was still stuffy inside the cramped office. Chloe sat at the green iMac, a sheen of sweat on her bare shoulders.
Prior to this moment, Clark had really hoped either the heat wave would break, or Smallville High would invest in getting the air conditioning fixed soon. However, there was something kinda appealing about the entire female population of Smallville high in skimpy tops and all shiny like that.
His eyes burned slightly, and he blinked.
"Hey," she said as he pulled up a chair next to her and dropped his backpack to the floor.
"Hey, um... " He frowned, and stared down at his hands. "I was wondering if you could do me a favour?"
"What kind of favour?" she asked, her curiosity apparently piqued.
"Can you see what you can dig up on Ms. Atkins?" The words came out all in a rush and were met by a raised eyebrow.
"Mrs. Luthor, you mean?" she asked, all innocence.
"Why? Do you think there's dirt to dig?"
"I just... Lex married her so fast. I mean, and... well, I'm just worried, that's all," he practically mumbled.
"Sure. Why not? It's not like I was doing anything important..." As he looked over her shoulder, she closed her story on the Library paint job and fired up her browser. The only sounds in the office were the steady drone of the fans, and her finger hitting the mouse button as she paged through search engine results.
"So, what's his name?" Clark asked, trying to sound casual, after an uncomfortable silence that seemed to grow more excruciating by the second. Once, it might have been companionable. Not so, any longer. He resisted the impulse to squirm in his chair.
"What's whose name?" Chloe replied absently, mouse hovering on the "next" button and eyes still on her computer as screen after screen of information flashed past just fast enough for him to tell none of it was what she was looking for. If he didn't know any better, he'd believe Chloe was the one with the super-speed. But if the last two years had taught him anything, it was that Chloe and Google were a good match.
"Your mystery intern. The one who made you forget all about Smallville and made those three months just fly by."
She kept on clicking and he attributed her blush to the lack of air conditioning in the Torch office. "Jack. His name is Jack."
"Huh," Clark said, leaning back in his chair and drumming his fingers on the desk as he mulled over this little titbit of information. "So how come you never told me or Pete about him?"
"I guess I didn't think you'd be interested," she said airily, and he let the mask slip over his features. "So, you never told me—how was your summer?" she asked before the silence could descend again.
"Well, June was pretty much working on repairing all the damage from the storm," he said with a shrug. "And on top of all the work we usually have to do during the summer, and money being so tight, we couldn't hire on any hands. So July and August were pretty crazy. I hardly left the farm."
"Oh," she said, and then paused, chewing on her bottom lip. "Not even for coffee at the Talon?"
A muscle in Clark's jaw twitched, and he looked down at his hands again before shaking his head. "Nope. I only really ever saw Lana when I was dropping off pies and muffins from my mom."
This time, the silence was excruciating.
"So, has she heard from Whitney?" Chloe asked finally.
"Yeah," he said quickly, and this time he was the one who was blushing. "He sent her email—she's making a video letter to send back to him."
"They have VCRs at the front?"
"She's planning on e-mailing the video, I guess." He shrugged again. "So, what's he like?"
"Whitney?" she asked, looking confused.
"No. Jack the Metropolis High guy."
"Oh, Jack!" she laughed, and was that an edge of panic in her voice? "He's great. Jack's great."
"How great?" he asked before he could stop himself.
Smooth, Kent. Girl says in no uncertain terms she just wants to be friends, and so you start grilling her about her new boyfriend. Smooth.
"Um, well... he's a senior at Metropolis High this year," she kept clicking, glancing back and forth from the screen to meet his eyes. "He works on their paper, and, um... oh! He's going to Met U next fall."
"Are you guys gonna keep seeing each other?"
"Nah." She shook her head. "It was just, you know... A summer thing. Fling. I mean, long distance relationships..." she began, and then trailed off. "They just never work out."
"I dunno," Clark said. "I mean, look at Lana and Whitney."
"Yeah," she said softly. "Yeah, I'm sure if anyone could make it work, it would be Lana."
Clark searched her face for some sign that she was being either sincere or sarcastic, but all he could see before her eyes returned to the computer screen was a flicker of sadness.
The silence returned, and Chloe dialled into Mrs. Ross's account to start scanning the county records office. Pete hadn't exactly told his Mom yet that Chloe used her access to help out with their little Meteor Mutant adventures, and Clark prayed he never would. Chloe wasn't a hacker so much as she was just a really, really good bloodhound. He didn't know where they would be without her investigative reporter skills.
All summer long, he hadn't really faced up to the idea that they might be on their own this year. He felt like a louse for not going up to Metropolis with Pete last week, to help move his sister into her dorm and visit Chloe. Especially since, so far as he knew, she was in Metropolis to stay.
He'd chickened out at the last minute, giving Pete a lame excuse about having to work with his Dad, which was all the worse for being true. Now he wished he'd found a way. Seeing her in the hall Monday morning reminded him of exactly how much he'd missed her the last three months.
"But Jack—he was, you know... A nice guy?" Clark asked, staring at her out of the corner of his eye.
"I don't exactly have a track record for going out with bikers or juvenile delinquents," she laughed.
"Sean Kelvin?" Clark pointed out, and this time it was his turn to raise a brow.
"We never actually went out," she reminded him.
"What about Justin?"
"Okay, Justin was—definitely a special case," she frowned. "And he didn't seem crazy when he kissed me."
"He seemed pretty crazy when he tried to kill you."
"Yeah, well... Yet another reason why I probably shouldn't date Smallville guys," she said, eyes focussed on the screen again as she hit a matching record, so she missed his wince. "Oh, so the new Mrs. Luthor has an alias," she observed, as a photo of the mysterious Ms. Atkins came up on a legal name change form. "That's interesting."
"What would you say..." Clark began, a little nervous, "if I told you Ms. Atkins, AKA Alison Sanders," he read off the screen, "...showed up at my loft last night, and tried to seduce me?"
"I'd say you were living the voyeuristic fantasy of every male student in this school." Chloe couldn't hide her disbelief. She stabbed Control-P, sending the screen to the colour printer. "Clark, she just married Lex. Why would she possibly be interested in you?"
"Thanks," he scowled. Nothing quite like hearing that the girl you thought had a crush on you suddenly finds you about as appealing as a baloney and mayo sandwich next to prime rib. "Look, she was dissing Lex, saying he was the only thing standing between her being with me."
Chloe rolled her eyes. "Okay, you know, this is quickly going from merely nauseating to genuinely disturbing."
"Chloe, I'm not making this up," he insisted, desperation creeping into his voice. "She's got some strange hold on Lex."
"Gee, I wonder what that could be?"
"I'm serious." Clark frowned. "It's more than the fact that she's hot," he said with exasperation.
"Clark, this is Lex Luthor we're talking about," she pointed out, as if that alone should be enough. "Don't you think he considered all of the unfortunate possibilities before he said 'I do'?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out." He stood and shouldered his bag. "I'm gonna go talk to him. Will you keep digging?" he asked, and she held back a sigh with effort.
"Yeah. Sure. Where there's smoke there's fire. Excuse the aphorism."
He paused in the doorway of the office, trying to think of what to say. But when he saw the look on her face, he thought better of it and headed down the hallway.
"What?" Chloe yelled, a decibel level higher this time. Students passing the Torch office peered in through the open door, and Chloe got up to close it. When Clark hadn't shown up at school that morning, they had just assumed he had had a relapse. It wasn't as if he'd missed anything that important, since the first week of school pretty much tended to involve going over syllabi endlessly, and chapter 1 of every single new textbook.
"Clark spent the night in jail," Lana repeated, edging on frenzied panic. "Mrs. Kent just called Nell."
"What happened?" Chloe asked as she sat down in front of the computer, and Lana sank into the chair next to her.
"Apparently, Mrs. Luthor says he blew up her car."
"Clark?" Chloe shook her head, disbelief written clearly across her features. "She must have gotten it all mixed up. Clark saves people from burning cars. That's what he does. Lex knows that. I'm finding this really hard to believe."
"Yeah, well, I'm starting to wonder how well any of us actually know Lex, after the thing with the Talon." Lana couldn't keep the bitterness out of her voice.
When she'd left for school this morning, her aunt Nell had been showing the movers which pieces needed to be loaded into the trucks. Seeing her dream dismantled right in front of her eyes had hurt, but knowing that Lex was responsible had made it that much worse. She had trusted him. She had counted on him. And all of her confidence in her abilities to read people had vanished overnight.
Chloe frowned. "I'm starting to think Clark was right."
Lana got the distinct impression that she was missing a piece of the puzzle here. "About what?"
"About Alison Sanders," Chloe informed her
"Who?" Lana asked, confused, and Chloe leaned over and handed Lana colour printouts out of several newspaper articles.
"Desiree Atkins, before she was Desiree Atkins," Chloe said and Lana glanced down at the printouts. One was an obituary of a man in his sixties, survived by his wife of less than a month, Alison Sanders. Another was a piece on the trial of a local high school boy, who had confessed to murdering a wealthy shipping mogul and then recanted six hours later.
"Okay, I'm sold. So where do we go from here?"
"The morgue," Chloe said with a cheerful grin.
Lana swallowed, having nightmare visions of corpses. For a girl who regularly hung out in graveyards, she was still squeamish about the idea of dead bodies on slabs. Or dead bodies of any kind, come to think of it.
Thankfully, the morgue turned out to be the newspaper stacks at the newly-repainted Smallville Public Library. Lana stifled a sneeze from the mouldy old paper smell combined with lingering paint fumes as they took over one of the long tables and Chloe handed her a stack of yellowing Ledger issues.
The Library was deserted—no doubt because of the heat wave and the public building's ancient air-conditioning system. Even though the stacks were in the basement, which made it at least five degrees cooler than the main floor up the linoleum-covered stairs, it was still stuffy and uncomfortably sticky.
"November 1989?" she asked when she saw the masthead.
"Comb through the front page of each section—they printed four dozen meteor-related stories between October 12th and November 30th of that year. I have maybe a third of them up on the Wall, but I didn't see anything on Sanders back at the Torch. So if we're lucky, she'll have been newsworthy."
She opened the top issue on the stack, and began leafing through the pages. This time she did sneeze as she got a lung-full of dust.
"Gesundheit!" Chloe fished a tissue out of her bag, and Lana accepted it gratefully.
"Don't they have these on computer?" Lana asked, incredulous. On television, everything was always in the computer.
"They don't even have 'em on microfiche yet. Welcome to the sticks." Chloe sighed dramatically. "No offence to your hometown, but it hasn't exactly joined the 21st century yet."
Lana gave the other girl a wry smile. "And to think, I used to think 'old-fashioned' and 'quaint' were compliments."
"Not where legwork is concerned," she said absently as she attacked her own stack of newsprint. "Now, let's see if Miss Sanders was caught in the meteor shower, shall we?"
"Pheromones!" Chloe said, practically grinning. Lana glanced back and forth between her and Clark, slightly confused by the jump in logic.
They'd gone straight from the library to the jail and Ethan Miller had reluctantly let them in to see Clark, muttering that they only had ten minutes and that he was only doing this because Clark was the only person in the lockup. Lana had thanked him profusely, while Chloe had just impatiently tapped her foot and glared.
Lana knew that things had been strained between Clark and Chloe since the Formal, and while part of her was sincere in her hope that they worked things out—after all, Chloe was her friend, and she wanted her friend to be happy—Lana had to admit that part of her dissatisfaction with her and Whitney's relationship had a lot to do with her burgeoning feelings for Clark.
He was sweet, and he was kind, and he had saved her life more times than she could count. But she still had the niggling feeling in the back of her mind that when he looked at her, he didn't really see her. She got the sense that he was still so hung up on the fantasy of the girl next door that he still didn't know her—the real her—and that made her slightly uncomfortable.
The truth was, as flattering as his attentions were, she would trade Clark's infatuation in a second for a fraction of the genuine closeness he and Chloe shared. Or rather, had shared, up until their disastrous first date. Chloe may have been convinced that Clark felt nothing for her, but the kind of friendship they shared was something special. Something Lana couldn't help but want for herself, just a little bit.
"Chloe..." Clark rolled his eyes, but it was no good. Chloe was on a roll.
"Clark, she was in the throes of major passion when the meteors hit!" Chloe said, more excited than Lana had seen her since she got back from Metropolis. "If her pheromone levels were enhanced, she could get a guy to do whatever she wants!"
Clark was sold. Lana could see it. He'd looked so utterly miserable when they'd arrived, and she wanted to do anything she could to help. Now, at least, there was a glimmer of hope in his green eyes that hadn't been there before. Lana wished she could claim credit for some of it. Chloe had been the one who had known just where to look, and Lana had just been along for the ride. And as crazy as her theory sounded, well... There was plenty of evidence to back it up, if Lana's own experiences of the last year were anything to go by. She would have laughed, once, if someone had told her that the meteorites could change people. That was before Greg Arkin, Tina Greer, and Deputy Watts.
Not exactly a laughing matter anymore.
"Lucky for us, Clark Kent seems to be immune to some members of the opposite sex," Chloe said, her tone somewhere between bitter and teasing.
Clark flushed, and Lana felt her own cheeks warm as they traded guilty looks during the uncomfortable silence that followed. Chloe, however, simply quirked an eyebrow, and waited. Whatever response he might have made, however, was cut off by the sound of a key in the lock of the barred door.
"Time's up, girls," Sheriff Miller said as he slid open the door to the holding cell area.
"Okay," Lana said, reluctantly stepping away from Clark.
"Hey, my dad went to go see Desiree." He gripped the iron bars of his cell, eyes wide with desperation. "I gotta get outta here!"
"Just hang on, okay?" Chloe said, her voice low, and Lana held her elbow as they were lead down the long hall back to the front office.
"What are you going to do?" Lana asked, and Chloe bit her lip as they stepped out into the scorching heat of the Indian Summer afternoon.
"I'm not sure yet. But I've got to do something."
"How can I help?" Lana asked, just as she heard sirens from inside the police station. "Oh God, not another fire!"
"Clark!" Chloe paled, and they turned to run back inside just as Sheriff Miller stumbled out, coughing.
"Sheriff! Is Clark still in there?" Lana grabbed his arm, and he shook his head, wiping his face with a handkerchief which came away sooty.
"...Gone," he said between coughs. "I opened the cell, and then he was gone."
Pete climbed the stairs to Clark's loft, and saw a pair of denim-clad long legs hanging over the side of the newly installed hammock. Clark had spent a good chunk of the summer repairing the damage the storm had wrecked upon the farm, and as a result, his "Fortress of Solitude" had gotten a bit of a face-lift as well, Pete noted with amusement.
He remembered when they were kids, how jealous Clark had been of the tree fort Greg Arkin's dad had built, even though his fear of heights had made him unable to spend much time there. About that time, Jonathan Kent had built a new barn, and surprised Clark with the loft. By the time Greg's folks had divorced, Clark and Pete had moved most of their after-school and summer playtime to the Fortress, which had acquired furnishings and trappings of civilisation as it went. It now boasted a comfy couch, an old steamer trunk full of all the stuff Clark couldn't fit into his bedroom closet, which doubled as a coffee table, and a bookshelf and desk which held most of his schoolbooks. His telescope had sat in front of the open window for much of the last two years, but now sat on its tripod in the corner of the loft. Pete suspected this had more to do with a decline in Clark's stalking of the lovely Miss Lang than it did any waning interested in the heavens.
"Pete!" Clark almost fell out of the hammock, and Pete grinned.
"What's with all the candles?" Pete asked as he looked around the Fortress and saw red, blue, white and yellow candles of all shapes and sizes on every surface. "Did you lose power in the barn?"
"Something like that," Clark muttered as Pete dropped onto the couch. "What's up?"
"Just coming by the make sure the jailbird is okay."
"God, you have no idea," Clark said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. "If I never spend another night in the county lock up again, it'll be too soon."
"Didn't sleep much, huh?"
"Deputy Bertigo snores. You can hear him all the way down the hall."
"Good to know," Pete said with a laugh. "How are your mom and dad? Uncle Bill said your mom was fit to be tied."
"They're okay. My folks went out to dinner."
"So... is it true?" Pete asked, grinning, and Clark blinked at the non-sequitor.
"Is what true?" he asked cautiously.
"C'mon! You can be straight with me. Did Luthor's wife really come on to you?"
Clark looked panicked. "It's not what you think—" he said quickly.
"What? She didn't come onto you?"
"No, she came onto me. Oh boy," his eyes glazed over at the memory, "did she ever. But she just wanted me to—she was just trying to get me to, um, kill Lex."
"So, the Black Widow thing was for real?"
"Chloe thinks it's pheromones—from the meteor shower."
"She would. Me, I'm thinking it was her bodacious ta-tas."
"'Bodacious ta-tas'? I'm getting you a pimp hat to go with that vocabulary."
"Man, she was hot."
"Hey, better Lex than you."
"Hey, I never said I liked the guy," Pete said with a shrug. "Man, you get all the good women. Hot sex-ed teachers, Lana, Chloe—"
"I don't exactly 'have' Lana or Chloe, in case you haven't noticed," Clark said with a scowl as he sat down on the trunk across from Pete, resting his forearms on his thighs. "Lana's still doing the long distance thing with Whitney—maybe, I dunno. I mean, she told me she still misses him. And Chloe met some guy in Metropolis over the summer."
"What? What guy?"
"Jack," Clark said, and Pete didn't think it was possible to put any more venom into a single syllable. "She said she met another intern from Metropolis High and spent the whole summer with him."
"You don't sound so happy about that," Pete observed. "I thought you guys decided to, you know, keep it friendly?" he asked tentatively.
"Yeah. Just good friends." Clark sighed.
"I thought you were all on-board with the whole friends thing?" Pete asked, curiosity getting the better of him. Between his job at Mayor Seigel's office and Clark's chores, they hadn't hung out much over the summer. And when they had, they'd mostly played a little one-on-one, or gone swimming at the community pool. They'd never really talked about what had happened after the Formal. It just hadn't come up, and Pete hadn't pushed. Still, to hear Chloe tell it, Clark had been thrilled by their "mutual" decision. He didn't seem so thrilled at the moment.
"It's what Chloe said she wanted," Clark said slowly. "I value our friendship too much to screw it up. You know, any more than I did."
"Yeah, I know what Chloe said. But what do you want?" Pete asked, hoping he didn't sound too much like Jerry Springer.
"I want things to be like they were before," Clark said with a sad smile. "It's like we're strangers, the last week. I guess I just miss my friend."
Pete let that sink in and hoped Clark couldn't hear the wheels in his head spinning.
Part of him just wanted to blurt out that Chloe hadn't meant what she said—and another part of him, a part he wasn't particularly proud of, hoped Clark might never figure it out. Because deep down, he still wished Chloe would look at him just once the way she looked at Clark.
Every since Chloe Sullivan had first moved to Smallville, she had only had eyes for Clark Kent. Oh, sure, she'd told him on the day they'd met that she just liked him as a friend, but as time had gone on Pete could tell that she had a thing for Clark, even if Clark had been clueless. Pete had always been the shoulder she'd cried on, the third party both of them could come to. Pete had always thought Chloe was a babe, and he loved her like a sister. But sometimes, he didn't have particularly familial thoughts about her. What guy wouldn't? She had a body that wouldn't quit, she was incredibly passionate about her work, and her smile could light up the world. Clark Kent hadn't know what he had when he had it, and part of Pete hoped he never caught the clue.
But Clark was Pete's friend, too. And it was obvious that the guy was confused and hurt by what had gone down after the storm. He'd watched Clark pine for Lana Lang since the sixth grade, and he knew that kind of crush was hard to just drop, even harder now that he'd actually gotten close to Lana. Become her friend. But he'd really thought Clark had finally figured things out when he'd asked Chloe to the Formal. He'd been ready to kick Clark's ass when he disappeared. But when he'd found out that Clark's dad was missing, and that he'd spent all night looking for him, he'd understood. Chloe had understood. Everything was going to be all right, and then Chloe had pulled the friend's card. Clark, being Clark, had accepted. And then Pete's shoulder was there, for Chloe's tears. Just like always. It was an endless circle.
All Clark wanted was for Chloe to be happy. All Pete wanted was for both Chloe and Clark to be happy. And in the end, it wasn't his secret to tell.
"Yeah, well, I'm sure Chloe will come around," he said with a smile that was only partially fake.
"Yeah," Clark said half-heartedly.
Thunder rumbled in the distance outside her bedroom window, and the dark clouds threatened rain. Chloe turned off her computer—no sense in risking anything, surge protector or no surge protector.
She'd gotten the Torch out on time, and had even managed to get the story about Desiree onto the front page, pushing the Talon fire to the interior, and the Library paint job story had been axed all together. The official spin had been that Ms. Atkins had been fired after having inappropriate relations with an unnamed student (Clark) and pending the outcome of the police investigation into her attempt on (soon to be ex-) husband's life, Biology would be taught by a sub until the administration could hire someone new.
Personally, Chloe was sticking to her pheromone theory. Otherwise, it was just impossible to believe Lex and Mr. Kent would have been taken in by such a ho-bag. Lex, because he was just too smart, and Mr. Kent because he was madly in love with Mrs. Kent, who in turn could totally kick his ass. She so didn't buy Clark's story that his dad had been only pretending to go along with Desiree, but still wondered how on earth Clark had escaped the Black Widow's web. Clark hadn't exactly been forthcoming, and all things considered, Chloe didn't much feel like pushing it these days.
It had been a helluva first week back. Her suitcases sat empty in the middle of her bedroom, her clothes—both old and newly purchased while in Metropolis with her mom—hung up in her closet and neatly folded and put away. She'd take them downstairs to the basement in the morning. It was a little early for bed, but she'd been up half the night working on the Torch. Yawning, she threw on one of her dad's old Sharks t-shirts to sleep in and clicked off the light. She flopped down on her bed, ready to call it a night, just as her bag rang.
Reaching down, she fished her cellphone out of the inside pocket. "Hello?"
"Okay, so how come you didn't introduce me to this Jack guy when we were up in Metropolis?" Pete demanded.
"Maybe because he's fictional?" she replied, biting her lip.
"I made him up."
There was a long pause. "Why?" Pete finally asked, and she could just picture his face so clearly from his tone.
"Take a wild guess," she sighed.
"Pathetic? Desperate? Stupid? Teenybopper in a bad sitcom? Are you gonna stop me here, or shall I go on?"
"Hey, I was just waiting to make sure you knew how sad you were."
"I am a sad, pathetic wretch. And you know what sucks the most?"
"That I did it to myself. That I keep on, at every opportunity, doing it to myself." She rolled over onto her back, letting her arm hang over the side of the bed as the room was illuminated in a brilliant flash of heat lightning. "It's just... Did he have to be so damned happy about the whole 'Just Friends' thing?"
There was a pause. "How do you know he's happy?" he finally asked.
"Pete, you weren't at the wedding. You don't know. I was surprised he could rip his eyes away from Lana or the blushing bride long enough to notice I was even there."
"Maybe Clark's just really good at hiding how he feels," he suggested, but she couldn't shake the feeling that he was playing devil's advocate.
"Oh, please! This is Clark Kent we're talking about here. World's worst liar."
"Well, he didn't seem all that thrilled when he was telling me about your fictional boy toy."
Pete was damn lucky he was on the phone and not actually in her bedroom, within smacking range. "Don't play with me, Peter."
A nice, long, pregnant pause. Chloe glanced down at the cell to make sure she hadn't lost Pete. Cell service around town had been wonky ever since the tornadoes.
"I'm just saying, I think the guy still, you know... has a thing for you."
"Yeah, well, his thing for Lana is bigger," she replied bitterly.
"Okay, that sounded dirty."
"As it was meant to," she replied blithely. "It would suck so much less if it weren't for the part where I can't actually hate her, you know? All summer long, she was the only one who kept in touch, and we're kinda, you know... friends. I mean, we were sorta-kinda-friends before, but now we're, like, actual friends. And so that just makes it ten times worse."
"Does she know?" he asked, and she sighed.
"She said the same thing you did. But if Clark did care about me in a guy way and not just a friend way, why does he still get all moony-eyed over the hopelessly perfect Ms. Lang?"
"Um, Chloe? I hate to break it to you, but Clark's a guy. It's a total guy thing. You can be jonesing for up to five, six girls at once. You shoulda seen my brother when he was trying to figure out who to ask to Prom. You'd think he was proposing or something."
"Who'd he finally take? The cute spunky side-kick or the drop-dead gorgeous childhood crush?"
Another pause. "Maybe he's a bad example."
"Maybe I'm just destined to be alone forever," she got up and peered out her window at the storm clouds. "You know, like a Cat Lady who has eight million cats, and dresses them in little outfits and stuff, and calls them her babies."
Pete laughed. "Yeah, right. You couldn't keep a cactus alive, let alone a house full of cats."
"Well, I'm talking about when I'm old. Like, in my forties. I assume by then I will have learned to give them food and water on a daily basis."
There was another long pause. "Chloe?"
"It'll be okay."
"Thanks," she said, her bottom lip trembling slightly.
"Okay, but you gotta tell him about Jack."
"No! God, no. Are you insane?"
"What happens when he finds out you made the guy up?"
"He's not going to find out. Because you're not going to tell him."
"I mean it, Pete."
"This is all gonna blow up in your face, Ms. Teenybopper in a bad sitcom. You know that, right?"
"Yeah. I know," she wiped away a tear, and then grinned. "But I'll still have you, right?" she asked with forced cheerfulness.
"I'm not going anywhere," he assured her.
"You really loved her, didn't you."
"I thought I did," Lex said with a rueful smile. He walked over to the open window of the loft and stared out at the sky. He couldn't see the stars for the dark clouds. "I filed for an annulment, which my lawyers tell me should be final in a couple of days. I'll let the police deal with Desiree."
"And when that's finished?" Clark asked.
He braced his hands on the sill, keeping his back to Clark. "I'll try to be more cautious. I let my passion get the best of me. I won't make that mistake again."
He could hear Clark come up behind him, but he didn't turn around.
"Lex, I don't think having passion is such a bad thing."
Lex glanced back at Clark over his shoulder. "You're right, Clark. Passion for life and work and friends, great. As long as you keep it in check."
The boy nodded, as if he understood. Lex actually hoped he didn't. He was too young to be feeling this old. This... used up.
"I should take a page out of your book," Lex said with a wry smile.
"How do you mean?" Clark asked, confused.
"The way you deal with Lana," he clarified with a smile. "I've always told you to go for it, but you don't. Even now that the Quarterback's out of the picture."
"I want to, believe me. But Lana needs to work out her feelings for Whitney first. I can wait."
It was a very adult outlook. Mature. Lex would say this for Clark Kent—he was more responsible at 16 than Lex was at 22.
"Don't wait too long," Lex cautioned, and headed back down the stairs of the loft to his car. He turned the key in the ignition as he glanced back up at the window and saw Clark staring out at the sky. Gravel crunched under the Lamborghini's tires as he pulled away.
Lost in thought, he drove down the centre of town, his windows open despite the heat. He breathed deeply the smell of rain that hung in the air. He slowed at a stoplight and smiled when he saw the Kents' pickup parked in front of the brand new sushi restaurant. He couldn't help but chuckle at the unlikely mental image of Jonathan Kent eating sashimi. Though, he admitted, he should give the man more credit. After all, his wife was a Metropolis girl born and bred, and according to Clark, they had met while Jonathan was attending college in the city. Who knew? Maybe the Kents were more sophisticated than their denim and flannel wardrobe led him to believe.
There was always a danger at being taken in by appearances. Certainly, he'd taken Desiree completely at face value. And he'd have to live with that mistake for the rest of his life. But at least, thanks to the Kent men, he was alive to regret.
He had actually driven out to the farm to apologise to Mrs. Kent. Though he felt like he'd been in a fog for the last few weeks, the memory of her words was sharp enough to cut, even now that Desiree had been carted off to whatever jail could hold her. It was an ache far worse than the second degree burns on his back from the alcohol his wife had thrown on him and then set alight.
Victoria had screwed him over, but at least she had never set him on fire.
His father, of course, would be the worst. Because the "I told you so" would be justified. Even blind and in a wheelchair, Lionel would no doubt be positively gleeful that Lex's whirlwind marriage hadn't lasted the month. He'd never hear the end of it, not once someone read him the catering bill.
Lex had wanted the fairy tale. He could admit that to himself, if no one else. He just hadn't realised that his Cinderella was really the Wicked Witch in disguise. But he should have. He'd spent his entire life dealing with sycophants and lackeys, hangers-on who were only after him for his money and the power they associated with the Luthor name. But somehow, he'd fooled himself into believing Desiree, or Alison, or whatever she had called herself, had been different. He'd needed her to be different.
He looked at the Kents, and their family, and he wanted something like that for himself. He'd never had it as his father's son; he thought he could build it for himself as a husband. Someday, as a father. Now he knew he would never have that. He hadn't lied to Clark, when he said that some people were meant to be alone.
He just hadn't really wanted to be one of them.
"How's it going with the, ah, tape for Whitney?" Clark asked, hoping to divert Lana's attention from the mystery that was Clark Kent. Her green eyes narrowed, and she took a deep breath before answering.
"I decided to tell him how I really feel."
Considering their conversation earlier, that took him by surprise. He wondered if Lex had somehow known when he'd shown up in the barn. "What happened to putting on a brave face?"
"It wasn't fair to either of us. I haven't been honest about my feelings," she admitted, her voice tinged with sadness. "I know it's gonna hurt, and my timing is crummy, but having a relationship that's built on secrets and lies is doomed to fail."
Her words hung in the air, so many questions tucked inside them, and he knew he couldn't answer her. Clark swallowed, looking everywhere but at her. Lex had said much the same to him the night of the storm. He wondered if she had any idea. Impossible, of course. But troubling all the same.
"Don't you think so, Clark?" she asked, eyes searching his.
"Absolutely," he said, just as the rain began to fall outside the Talon's windows.
She sighed, and smiled, and the moment passed. "Looks like the heat wave's finally broken," she said with a grin. "I'm glad."
"Yeah. Me too," he said, with a half-hearted smile. "I should let you finish..." he said, completely wussing out on his promise to help her with the repairs as his fight-or-flight response went into overdrive, triggered by her unwavering gaze.
"Um... bye, Lana," he said, sticking his hands in his pockets.
"Bye," she said, still staring at him as if she was trying to puzzle him out, and he fled the Talon.
Stepping out into the rain-slicked street, he was soaked through to the skin in seconds. But the warm summer rain was a relief. The smell of rain on asphalt—a smell he associated with summer—helped to drown out the panic that made his heart jackhammer inside his chest.
His parents had taken the truck, so he'd run to the Talon. He walked now, letting the breeze cool him. He pushed his hair out of his eyes, and let the water trickle down his neck as he trudged along the side of the road.
She was breaking up with Whitney. That was what he had been waiting for since... since forever.
And it terrified him.
It was bad enough, having to hide who he was—what he could do—from all the people he cared about... But they all seemed to take him at face value. Even Lex, and Clark knew how hard that had been for his friend. To let go of the mystery, for the sake of their friendship.
But ever since the storm, Lana had looked at him differently. Not different "maybe that boy is hot and I should date him" which was what he'd been hoping for since his first growth spurt. Different "maybe he's a mutant" or worse yet, "maybe he's a space alien who can start fires with his eyes." And he wasn't sure he could handle that.
All he wanted—all he'd ever wanted—was a normal life. In one day, all that had changed. It had brought so much into his life. His friendship with Lex, and with Lana. The knowledge that he was not of this earth. Sharing the secret, the burden his parents had shielded him from since the day they found him. Shouldering the responsibility, which was so much more than he though he could bear. But through it all, all he'd ever really wanted was to be... not so special. Just a guy.
As the lights from town faded, and the ground alongside the highway grew spongier with each step, Clark sighed.
He was never going to be just a guy. Somebody who could fall in love with a girl, and lead a normal life. Lana and Lex were both right—any relationship he ever had would be founded on lies, and deceit. And this was all going to blow up in his face, someday.
But he couldn't stop wishing. Even if part of him ached for Whitney, who had lost so much in the last year and was about to lose the one thing he'd been counting on. Even if he couldn't ever be friends with Chloe quite they way they used to be, but couldn't tell her how he really felt, or why he had made her worst nightmare come true. He couldn't stop trying. He couldn't stop the guilt, knowing Lex had killed a man to save his father's life—his life, without ever knowing why. But he couldn't stop believing that somehow, he'd make it all right.
Because he had to.