THE LEADING HEART
BY MYOWNSPECIALSELF

Warning: m/m relationship; somewhat romantic

Rating: PG-13

Spoilers: None, really. A couple of references to Season 1 episodes (pilot, "Jitters," and "Nicodemus").

Disclaimer: This story is for entertainment only. It is not for profit. Smallville is the property of Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Tollin-Robbins Productions, and Warner Bros. Television, and based upon characters originally created by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Notes: written for the 1-B Challenge of the Third Wave of the CLFF (Clark/Lex Fuh-Q Fest) at:

This is a 'prequel,' of sorts, to "Changing of the Guard."

Acknowledgments: A tip of the hat to Beth for giving us certain barnyard-animal characters, and to Wendi for Chloe's boyfriend. And a naughty wink to all of you out there in the fandom who pointed out Angela's music vid featuring the Clark look-alike.

From one who truly felt the love this time around, thanks to a great quartet of betas -- Philtre for always being there, for making me write, and for insisting it make sense; to Reetchick for ideas, coherency, and insightful chats; to Alee for encouragement, for great feedback and for asking the right questions; finally, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to Lady Angel for doing so much to make it right, and for paddling the canoe when all I could do was sit there and stare at the oar I held in my hands.

*** *** *** ***


*Click*.

The e-mail message popped up in a new window. He read the first sentence and gasped. Eyes wide with shock, he read the rest of the message. He re-read the whole thing and then jumped up, tipping over the chair onto the Oriental rug.

"Mom!"

Too startled to cry out, she jerked around and almost bumped into him. The pie tumbled from her mitt-covered hands toward the kitchen floor.

He bent over quickly, sending a small whoosh of air past her, and managed to catch the pie right side up. He handed it to her.

"I didn't hear you walk in," she snapped, putting the pie on the counter. "Because you *didn't* walk in." Turning to him, she narrowed her eyes. "You know you're not supposed to super-speed in the kitchen if I'm in it. We almost lost that pie."

Feeling the heat of her mom-ray on his face, he fidgeted even more. "Sorry." He tried for an apologetic look.

His mom was immune to puppy-dog expressions and besides, the excitement was too great anyway, so he gave up after a moment.

He grinned. Very widely. "I just got an e-mail saying I won a computer!"

"A computer?" She smiled. Then she pursed her lips. "It's not one of those spam e-mails, is it?"

"No. I won it! In a writing contest. Grand prize!"

"You entered a writing contest and won grand prize?" Her smile returned, much bigger this time and she wrapped him in a hug. "Congratulations, honey! Your father will be so proud."

"A Macintosh. A laptop. With a laser printer. And a scanner. And Internet access. And some other stuff." He took a deep breath.

"That's wonderful!" She nodded vigorously. "*Free* is always good." Her tone became almost wry. "Even if we do have more money now that I'm working."

He was just about to ask if he could put the computer in the Fortress of Solitude. *It comes with a modem*, he would say, *so can I get a phone line in the Fortress if I pay for it with money from odd jobs* --

She looked at him. "So, you wrote a story for a contest... Can I read it?"

"Um. Yeah. It's nothing inspired, just -- "

" -- Some little nothing that happened to win grand prize."

"Yeah. But don't expect *too* much. I'm only seventeen, so I haven't developed much of a style. Like they say in book reviews, I'm still trying to find my voice."

"You've lost your voice?" Jonathan opened the screen door, wiping his feet on the doormat on the back porch. He came in, carrying Binks under one arm as if she were a baguette. A small gust of early autumn evening air followed them in.

"It can't be laryngitis." His dad gave him a quizzical look and opened a cupboard door. "You never get sick". His dad brought out a can of cat food, and Binks meowed her approval.

"Clark! Tell your father," his mom said, nearly dropping the can opener in her excitement as she handed it to his dad.

"What?" His dad whirled to face him, and Binks complained. "Clark?"

He grinned and reached out to take the cat from his dad. "I won the grand prize in the Lowell County High School Fiction Competition!"

"Grand prize?" The can opener clattered onto the counter. The older man threw an arm around his shoulder and squeezed. "Congratulations, son!"

He saw the pride blazing in his father's eyes. "Thanks, dad."

"The grand prize. What exactly does that include?"

"A laptop. A printer. A bunch of stuff. And a year of free Internet access. It's all supposed to arrive in three days."

"Free Internet access?" His dad's smile was pure bliss. "And a laptop? Even better. You can use it up in the loft. And I'll get my computer back." His dad tossed him a sardonic look and then picked up the can opener to pry off the can lid. A fishy smell filled the air. Turning back to him, his dad continued, "A writing contest. Yours was the best, huh?"

"Yeah. I guess they really liked it." He wrinkled his nose and stepped back as his dad began to scoop the food out of the can and into the bowl. Binks meowed loudly.

"So, this 'voice' thing you were talking about?" Still smiling, his dad looked at him.

"*Voice* like in writing style." He shrugged. "You know, word choice, rhythm... things like that."

"I see," his father murmured, exchanging quick, proud glances with Martha. His dad stopped, spoon in mid-air. "Is it something that I could read, Clark?"

"Sure, dad. It's just a story." He knew what his dad was asking. "Nothing out of the ordinary." Almost relieved, he spotted Desdemona waiting impatiently at the door and went to let her in.

"I mean, I don't have a problem if people write about themes that are *gay* -- " There. His dad had said the word. "But I don't know if I'm quite ready to read something that..." The older man paused to search for more words.

"Jon, give Binks and Desdemona their dinner already. Your beloved cats aren't going to feed themselves, you know." He looked at his mom and did a double-take when a wicked smile flashed across her lips. She went up to his dad and gave him a quick peck on one cheek, obviously enjoying the baleful look.

"Very funny," he heard his dad mutter... and was that a pout? His dad placed the cats' food bowl on the floor and a second later, stood up and was face to face with his mom.

"Our son could become another Chekhov." His dad grinned proudly, moving back until he was against the counter. "Or maybe the next Dostoyevsky." His dad kissed Martha on the forehead and placed his hand on the small of her back. He noticed his dad's hands didn't stay there long.

His mom squeaked. He didn't need any super-powers to guess where his dad's hands must have moved. And even though he truly enjoyed seeing his parents this way, he obeyed his duty as a teen-ager and let out a snicker.

"Hey, you two. Get a room." He pointed to himself. "There's a minor on the premises. And the cats can see you, for crying out loud."

His dad and mom looked at him, both of them trying for innocent expressions. He felt a smirk coming on. "What *is* it with you two and that kitchen counter, anyway?"

*** *** *** ***

Leaning against the wall, Martha read the first couple of paragraphs and stopped. "My baby wrote this." She said it in an amazed voice.

She read another paragraph and stopped again. "My son wrote this." Putting the story down, she looked around the kitchen even though there was no one else. "My *son* is going to be a writer." For maybe half a minute she stood there, the thought playing over and over in her mind.

Putting a mitt on one hand, she went to the oven and opened the door and pulled out a rack with two pies. She examined them closely and calculated they would need another ten minutes. Enough time for her to go out to the barn to remind Clark to invite Pete tonight.

""Download complete.' About time, you huge-assed file," she heard Pete say in the distance as she entered the barn with a sheaf of papers in her hand. "Well, a 56K dial-up is better than nothing," Pete added. Then: "Oh, yeah baby!" In his best Austin Powers voice, no less.

A light pop beat started and a girl's voice drifted down from the loft.

*All of this time, yes, I must have been blind,
Can't you see, you and me, we're picture-perfect...*

*Don't tell me...* She listened to the saccharine harmonies and vocals. *Do guys their age still listen to* -- She winced. -- *Mariah?*

"Who's that?" she heard Clark ask. "It sounds... okay. If you like that sorta stuff."

"That's Angela Via. What a babe!" A brief silence. "Yeah, baby!" Pete was channeling Austin Powers again.

She paused on the bottom step.

*Now baby, we've been friends for such a long, long time*.

"Pretty," she heard Clark concede. "But the music is pure bubble gum. It's girl-pop. I thought you were into Smashmouth."

"Music?" Pete guffawed. "I'm just checking out her video. The moves. You know. The, um, choreography. The dancer babes."

*I should clear my throat so they know I'm headed their way*, she thought. *Or not.* Grinning, she climbed the stairs. Slowly.

"Check out her boyfriend in this video, Clark. Maybe he's your type."

*We're picture perfect*.

"Pete, just because I'm gay doesn't mean that I have to check out every guy -- "

"On second thought, don't bother, Clark. He looks kinda dorky. Yeah. Even goofier-looking than you, Clark." Another guffaw. "Dude! He dances just like you! A total doofus!"

"You're really doing wonders for my self-esteem, Pete."

"Aw, Clark, I'm just messing with you." A brief silence. "And why would *you* have low self-esteem?" Pete's tone was serious, now. "You've already captured the attention of one of the world's most eligible bachelors."

She froze. If Pete and Clark weren't facing the monitor, they might almost be able to see the top of her head where she stood on the stairs. *Clark is seeing someone*?

"Pete, you sound just like *People* magazine when you say that. I take it you're referring to Lex. We're just friends. Besides, Lex isn't gay."

"Have you actually asked him? And does he know how you feel about him -- "

"No to both questions! And he doesn't know yet that I'm gay. And he won't know unless *I* decide it's okay for him to know, right?" She could almost feel the glare that Clark must be fixing on Pete. "Right?"

"Right, okay, okay. Whatever you say. And don't widen your eyes at me like that. I don't want to get fried to a damn crisp or something."

To get their attention, she decided to stomp up the last few stairs. Those five pounds she had gained recently should be good for making some noise. She put on her I-hear-nothing face and took a deep breath.

"Hey, Clark." Smiling, she waved the sheaf of papers as she emerged at the top of the stairs. "This story is great. I really like how it starts."

Ignoring the young men's obvious discomfort, she walked across the loft to the laser printer. She tapped it with a finger. "Print a copy for your dad. I don't want to share mine and he'll want his own anyway. And another hard copy to send to your grandfather. He doesn't have e-mail."

"Okay. Thanks, mom."

She saw the hesitant look on his face and waited.

"So you don't think the story starts out weak?"

She shook her head. "It's unique. It holds my attention from the first sentence." Patting his arm, she switched to her proud-mom voice. "I see why the panel awarded it the grand prize." She turned toward the stairs. "I've got to get back to the kitchen right now. While I wait for the pies to finish, I'm going to keep reading this."

At the top of the stairs she looked at Pete. "Petey." She stopped and sighed, exasperated with herself. "I mean *Pete*. Clark remembered to invite you to dinner, right? We're celebrating his winning that contest. Fresh blueberry pie for dessert."

"Blueberry?" Eyes wide, Pete nodded enthusiastically. "I'm there. Thanks."

She gave them both a smile and went down the stairs.

*So Lex isn't gay...* Not that she had really thought about it one way or the other. Well, not until Clark had come out to Jonathan and her earlier in the year. As she walked out of the barn, she let out a short, wry laugh. Clark had had a secret, and for once it wasn't one that his parents had been the first to share.

*Clark has feelings for Lex*. She mulled this over as she crossed the yard to the house. Her brow creased when she remembered what Clark had said.

*Just friends*. She wondered if Clark hoped for more just friendship for Lex and himself. And if so, what chance would Clark possibly have with Lex, if the bald young man wasn't gay?

She shook her head and told herself to stop thinking about the heartache that would come from all that. *It's all part of growing up, I suppose...*

For a moment she wished Clark didn't have to grow up. Ever. Slowly, she shook her head and walked into the house.

*** *** *** ***

"I was just wondering if you were still in Metropolis. Then I heard you drive up and park in the back alley." He looked up. Lana grinned from the doorway of his office.

"Yeah. Gabe and I got out of the meeting sooner than we expected, so we decided to come back to Smallville." He dropped his car keys on top of the unopened mail on his desk. "I left him off at the plant and thought I'd swing by here. How are things here at The Talon?"

"Pretty good," Lana nodded. "You'll be happy to know that a week from today we're going to start the 'Open-Mike Poetry Thursday' series, like you and I discussed. She pointed in the direction of the front of The Talon. "By the way, Clark was just asking about you."

He walked after her down the hall and out into the public area, stopping only to grab a mug of coffee. As they approached the corner booth, he noticed that only Pete was in it. He also noticed how the young man's eyes shone when he spotted Lana.

"Hey, Lana. Things seem kinda slow right now." Pete turned to him and he was almost blinded by the ingratiating grin. "Will your boss let you take a quick break?"

*Wow. That was a radioactive smile*, he thought.

"Sure, why not?" he said to Lana. "You can tell Pete about the Thursday night events you're setting up." He slid onto the booth bench across from the boy, while Lana sat eagerly next to Pete.

He nodded at two half-empty coffee mugs. "Where's Clark?"

"Right here." He turned to look up into Clark's grin and was blinded. "Men's room," Clark said by way of explanation.

"Hey." Smiling, he moved over and Clark slid in next to him. Not as close as Lana was sitting to Pete, but -- close.

"So. How was the meeting with your suppliers?" Clark's interest seemed genuine as he leaned forward.

"It was, shall we say... very... interesting. They're all dying to be our first-tier vendor. Gabe wants to play them against each other. Then he wants to take the bleeding survivors and grind them down on the price until they scream in agony." He made an exaggerated face of fear. "He's sounds more like my dad every day. I'm starting to get scared. Very scared."

"-'Poetry Thursdays,' huh? That's certainly high-brow." Pete was saying to Lana. "So no one liked my idea of having the cheerleaders stage a Jell-O wrestling match here?" Pete turned and grinned at him. "Just kidding, Lex. Poetry probably goes better with a cappuccino or a latte."

"Oh, I don't know. The wrestling certainly might draw a crowd." He smirked. "Of course, the problem with wrestling in Jell-O is that it gets into some really annoying places." He took a sip of coffee for dramatic effect. "Not that I would know."

The laughter was gratifying, and he broke into a grin in spite of himself. He felt even more gratified when Clark nudged him in the shoulder and told him he was just too funny.

"Pete." Lana stood up. "Actually, I do have a lot of work to do. One of the girls called in sick and we're short-handed."

Pete's smile faltered for a half-second.

"Could you help me take out the trash? There's more than usual, and the trash cans are really *heavy*."

Pete's smile blazed anew as he got out of the booth to follow Lana.

As they walked away, he noticed how they almost brushed against each other every so often. "Interesting," he said, smiling before he could catch himself.

"What?" He turned and caught the full force of Clark's wide-eyed, green-eyed, curious stare.

"Oh, you know...."

"What? Tell me."

"Just a year ago, it could have been *you* helping her take out the trash."

The younger man looked down intently at the tabletop.

"Yeah. Things change, I guess." Clark peered at him for a moment, then looked down again. "Lana and I will always be just friends. I'm okay with that."

He and Clark both turned to look toward the back of The Talon when Lana's laughter rang out at something Pete had said.

"She really likes Pete. And he *really* likes her." Clark sighed and looked at him again. "I'm really happy for Lana. For Pete. For both of them."

He tried to decipher the look on Clark's face as the young man looked away. "Of course you're happy for him. He's your best friend, right? " He scrutinized Clark's profile for a few seconds and then looked down at his coffee.

"He's my oldest friend. Oldest friends are just one category of best friend, actually."

A touch of shyness colored Clark's voice, so he thoughtfully kept his eyes on his coffee mug and waited for the younger man to say something else.

He felt, rather than saw, the bashful glance Clark gave him. "I have more than one best friend, you know."

He nodded. "I myself have only *one* best friend. But I don't feel deprived at all." He looked meaningfully at Clark and saw the incandescent grin that told him Clark had understood.

After a moment, Clark spoke. "I knew Pete really liked her by the way he kept talking about her during our sleepover last month. It was *so* obvious he likes Lana. So much that I wanted to try and help him get together with her."

A sudden flash of what he thought of as the "Clark-smile." "Looks like they don't need my help."

"Indeed not." A question jumped through his mind. He looked closely at Clark. "You and Pete actually have sleepovers? Like a pajama party?" He recalled that Gabe had mentioned something -- complained, really -- about toxic levels of giggling when Chloe and Lana had recently invited a couple of girlfriends over for the night.

"Sort of. Only Pete and I don't squeal over how cute each other's nightgown is."

He glared back at Clark's smirk. "Okay, I get it, wise guy. I was just asking."

He shifted back slightly on the bench to give Clark some more room in the booth, which apparently was smaller than he remembered. "I've never been to one, so I don't really know what's involved."

"Never?" The green eyes widened again.

"Never." He snorted. "Blame those damn boarding schools."

"Never been to a sleepover." Clark's tone was thoughtful. "I can get you an invitation to one."

"'Get me an invitation.'" He chuckled. "You have connections, do you? Am I speaking to Clark Kent, man about town?"

Clark didn't take the bait. "Yeah, I can get you an invitation to a sleepover." Clark smiled smugly. "*My* sleepover. Tomorrow night. Pete and I are going to have it in the loft."

"I -- "

"C'mon, Lex." The broad shoulder that nudged against his was firm. Solid. Very solid. "It'll be fun. Seven o'clock. Tomorrow night."

"Well -- "

"Well, what? It's not because of Pete, is it? Pete's doesn't have a problem with you anymore." An impish look. "He's accepted you for who -- for what -- you are."

"Really. And just what am I, exactly?" Clark's teasing tone made him narrow his eyes in a mock threat as he looked at the younger man. It was true that these past few months, Pete had been friendly to him.

That is, when Pete was able to take his eyes off Lana.

"Oh, you know..." Clark waved a hand vaguely as he searched for words. "A geek. A nerd. A loser." Clark tossed a sly glance in his direction. "Yeah. A geeky, nerdy, loser who's never even been to a sleepover. Who reads Warrior Angel comic books."

He noticed the crooked expression on Clark's face, and realized the younger man was biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.

"Is that so? By the way, I *do* want those comics back. So I accept your invitation." He was unaware he was returning the very pleased smile that Clark gave him.

Suddenly he thought of something. "Are you sure your parents will be able to put up with all three of us? Not that we're going to giggle all night long -- are we?"

"Well, it's like this. Poor mom and dad won't have the pleasure of putting up with us. They're going to Metropolis tomorrow night. For the weekend. Their twentieth anniversary."

"Oh. How thoughtful of them." He didn't even try for a tone that was other than ironic. "They took your social calendar into account."

"And, of course, I know you're never going to breathe a word of this to them. Anyway, we're not going to do anything wild like drink kegs of beer and run around wearing underwear on our heads and terrorize the chickens and the cows, or..." Clark paused and grinned knowingly. "...Shoot off fireworks like it's some kind of wild party. We'll just hang out and talk and stuff and -- "

"Hey guys, what's new?" He looked up. Chloe was standing there, grinning. She tilted her head in a bird-like movement.

"Hey, Chloe. We're going to have a sleepover. Clark. Pete. And Clark invited me."

"Really?" She looked Lex up and down as she sat down across from them. "A sleepover. Lex, I can't imagine you putting polish on Clark's nails. Or on Pete's."

"We won't have time for nail polish." Lex brought forth his best deadpan expression. "We'll be too busy doing each other's hair." He ran a hand over his scalp. "Good thing I chose this no-nonsense style. It'll make things easy for Pete and Clark."

The glow of pleasure returned when both teen-agers giggled loudly. Then, when Clark again nudged his shoulder and again said he was just too funny, he realized how good it felt to have someone laugh at something he said.

Jesus. When had he become so needy?

"So, Lex. What do you think of Clark's recent triumph?" Chloe interrupted his thoughts.

"Triumph?" He looked at Clark, who reddened slightly.

"Clark?" Chloe prompted. "It's your achievement. You tell him."

"I won a laptop computer!" Clark looked as if he were about to scuff his shoe on the floor and duck his head. "It was the grand prize. In the Lowell County High-School Fiction Competition."

"Grand prize!" He felt his face split in a smile from ear to ear. "That's great! A fiction contest, you said?"

"Yeah." Clark seemed quite pleased that he was pleased. "They liked my story."

"And I'm happy because I have the lead article for next week's issue," Chloe sang out. "'Local Wordsmith Snags Grand Prize'".

"You wrote a story. Wow!" He nodded his approval -- his admiration -- at Clark. "I'd love to read it." He paused. "You'll let me read it, right?"

"Sure. I'll give you a copy when you come over to the loft tomorrow night."

"Oh!" The startled look on Chloe's only lasted a second. "My phone." She fished in her pants pocket. "I had it on vibrate mode."

"Mmmmm," Clark said and turned to him, wiggling two well-shaped eyebrows.

"Wally?" Chloe purred into the phone.

He felt his own eyebrows arch up. He would never have imagined Chloe as the purring type.

"Hello. Wally? Wait a sec." She got up from the booth and walked toward the front window of The Talon. "Okay. I can hear you now."

He looked at Clark, who grinned weakly. "Yeah. She's completely over me. No surprise there."

"And your ego is okay with that?"

Clark nodded. "It doesn't hurt, if that's what you mean. And I'm happy for her." There was something in Clark's voice that told him the younger man was sincerely glad for her. But what was that vague sadness he sensed?

Beep. Bee-beep. Beep. Bee-beep.

"What?" he murmured as he fumbled for his cell phone. He frowned at the LCD display. "Gabe." He looked hard at the small screen. "'666. Code Exorcist. 86.'" He sighed. "I've got to make a call."

He turned to Clark, who was surprisingly closer than he thought. Probably trying to read the display also. "Looks as if Dad is pissed and -- I'm guessing here -- his head is spinning all the way around. Gabe's probably all worked up, too. Dad must have fired him again."

"Ah. Your dad. Is that what the six-six-six is about?" Clark chuckled. "I think I know where Chloe gets her sense of humor."

"I'd better straighten this out." Placing a hand on Clark's shoulder, he stood up in the booth. "Will you let me out? So I don't have to climb all over you and sully your farmboy purity with a lap dance?"

Clark stood up, but even so, he had to squeeze by him to get out of the booth.

Beep. Bee-beep. Beep. Bee-beep.

Sighing, he pulled the cell phone out again. He squinted again. "'Danger Mothra! Godzilla sighted.'" He turned toward Clark when he heard the snicker. Again, Clark was surprisingly closer than he expected.

"I take it Godzilla is your dad. And he's headed toward Smallville? Who's Mothra?" When he didn't answer right away, Clark gasped. "You let Gabe Sullivan call you Mothra?"

"Gabe has a very quirky grasp of the metaphoric." He sighed again. "I would prefer he call me -- oh, I don't know -- Rocky. Somehow a flying squirrel doesn't seem so undignified."

"And your dad would be... Bullwinkle?" He laughed at Clark's expression. It was obvious the younger man found the concept to be mind-boggling.

"No, my dad would be Fearless Leader. Or Boris." He clapped Clark on the shoulder. "Hell, maybe even Natasha." He left his hand on Clark's shoulder. "Now you? You can be Bullwinkle. You're taller. And you'd get all the good lines. The funny ones."

He finally took his hand away. "So. See you tomorrow night, Clark. Seven o'clock."

Clark was smiling at him, as if hypnotized.

He wondered for a split second what the younger man was looking at. Surely... not the scar on his lip? "Earth to Clark. Do you read me?" He watched as the green eyes re-focused.

Clark smiled as if seeing him for the first time. "Um. Lex. Don't forget to bring a sleeping bag to the sleepover. It's traditional for the participants to bring their own sleeping bags."

"Sleeping bag. Traditional. I can do that. See you tomorrow night." He headed for the back of The Talon, in the direction of the door that opened to the alley.

He suddenly became aware of Clark's gaze on his back. He turned around and caught the younger man staring absently at him, slowly rubbing a fingertip over his own upper lip. As if looking for a scar.

He gave the now-startled Clark another brief parting salute and hurried down the hall and out the back door, missing the embarrassed smile and feeble hand-wave. He drove away wondering how tomorrow night would turn out. Maybe more interesting than he had first thought?

*** *** *** ***

"Clark, you understand. Right?" Pete's voice held a hint of pleading.

He shifted the receiver to his other ear. "It's cool, Pete. Don't worry about it."

"Neither Chloe nor Mr. Sullivan is home right now, so she can't get a ride. And her truck is still in the repair shop. "

"Pete, it's cool. Honest. Give her a ride to The Talon. And after she gets off work, think about offering to take her to a late movie or dinner. She probably won't be interested in a cup of coffee."

"Way ahead of you, man."

Pete heaved a sigh that was so insincere, he had smile to himself.

"Sorry to bail on you."

"No you're not. But that's cool, too. And you can drop by and join us later. After you help Lana. But Pete, something tells me you won't drop by afterwards."

"Oh, I could drop by later, all right. But me dropping by would ruin your Plan B." A brief chuckle. "You. Lex. Alone. In the loft." A pause. "Oh, I'm such a bad person, Clark. I'm delivering Lex into your alien and... uh... nefarious grasp." The laughter was pure malice.

"Shut up, Pete." He tried for as much exasperation as he could. "It isn't like that. He's just a friend. That's how he sees me. As just a friend."

"Blah blah friend. Blah blah friend. Clark, I know you're using English words. But I don't understand them."

"Yeah? Well, bite me. I know you understand that. And you'd better get going or Lana will be late for work. And really, drop by later on. `Bye."

"Yeah, bite me, too. Okay. `Bye."

*** *** *** ***

"So this is your new laptop." Lex nodded reverently at the computer. "A PowerBook G4."

He didn't answer right away because he was watching Lex slide a discreet tongue across crumb-covered lips.

When Lex leaned forward to examine the lines computer's design, he admired the snug fit of his friend's black jeans. He wondered for a split second if he could bring himself to mention to Lex how flattering the pants were.

Instead, he popped a potato chip in his mouth. "Exactly. The Macintosh Titanium PowerBook G4 with SuperDrive DVD-burning capability. And -- " He pointed toward the other end of the desk. "A laser printer. And a scanner. Plus AirPort Extreme, so I can go wireless."

He gestured at his hammock. "The Mac and I are going to be spending a lot of time there."

"Have you used this yet?" Lex ran a long, elegant finger under the scanner cover and lifted it up.

"Um. Yeah. It's pretty easy to use. Great resolution, too." He tried to keep the evasiveness out of his voice. By the time Lex looked up at him, he had managed to achieve a non-committal expression. He noticed the intense, inquiring look a split second before he heard the question.

"So what have you scanned so far?"

"Oh, well..." He stopped.

This was Lex here in his loft. Lex who knew he had secrets, but didn't ask very often. Lex who accepted that his curiosity was turned away and who always waited patiently for another day to see if he could ask questions again.

Surely he could share *this* with Lex?

He motioned Lex over to the screen. "It's for my parents. I made them an anniversary present." He opened his web browser and clicked. A web page popped up. "Chloe helped make the page."

Lex peered at the text. "'Jonathan Hiram Kent and Martha Clark Kent: Twenty Years'," Lex murmured. "That's a nice photo."

"I put up twenty more photos. One for each year. And... here..." Clark scrolled down and a sand-colored rectangle came into view. "I scanned their wedding invitation." He looked nervously at Lex, who was focusing on the cursive script in the image.

"'Today I marry my best friend. I give him my hand, and with that, my heart.'" Lex paused. "That must be the vow your mom recited." He read some more: "'The one I laugh with, the one I dream with, the one I live for. The one I love."

"Yeah." He felt almost embarrassed, even though Lex wasn't making fun of him or the invitation. "A little bit corny, no?"

Lex shrugged. " I've seen the way your parents look at each other." He tapped the monitor screen. "I'm very sure your mom and dad truly meant those lines when they were standing at the altar."

When Lex turned toward him, he saw the faraway look in the blue-gray eyes.

"And I'll bet they still mean those lines. Maybe even more so now." Lex paused. "Somehow, I just have to believe that when two people are in love, even trite or corny phrases don't sound that way to them."

"I think I know what you mean." He merely nodded at Lex, not knowing what else to add to Lex's observation.

Lex tilted his head. "Do you know that on the wedding invitation Desiree picked out..." An eyebrow twitched. "...The word 'love' doesn't appear even once?'

"Oh." He felt foolish, once again not knowing exactly what to say. After a few seconds, he tried. "Talk about someone with an agenda! She wasn't about love, was she?"

"No, indeed. Not her. I didn't really love *her*, either." Lex shook his head and grinned. The smile seemed dutiful. "Let's talk about something else."

They moved away from the desk and he gave Lex a consoling pat on one shoulder as they neared the couch. "How about a movie now? Since I went to all the trouble of borrowing Pete's DVD player." He looked at the table. "Hey. More cheese puffs?" He thrust the large bowl -- still half full of Lex's favorite-- into the bald young man's hands.

"I'll be taking care of these corn chips." He grabbed the other bowl and sat down on the couch.

Lex seated himself on the floor. "Clark?"

He stopped in mid-chomp and tried to answer. "Yeah, Lex?" He thought his voice sounded fairly clear around a mouthful of corn chips.

"An hour ago we finished off one extra-large thin-crust pepperoni; a large order of chicken wings; a medium bag of pretzels; two liters of soda; and an entire coconut cream pie. And now we're snacking on two kinds of junk food."

"Your point being?" He chewed some more.

Lex frowned. "Enough of the appetizers, already. Where's the main course?"

He managed to turn his head away from Lex as he guffawed. Soggy corn-chip crumbs sprayed all over the couch.

Lex eyed him warily. "I'll think I'll stay seated here on the floor for now." Lex's face twitched. "Do you practice spewing like that? It was pretty impressive."

"Hey, you made a joke. I laugh at your jokes `cause you're funny. Sue me. And another thing." He jabbed an accusing finger at Lex. "*We* didn't eat that whole pie ourselves. You gave a slice to the cats. And a big-assed slice to the goat."

The look of quiet amazement on Lex's face was just, well, pure Lex. "I must say, I was quite surprised. I had no idea you Kents had a goat. Especially one that loves baked goods with coconut."

"Yeah, well, we may not have a goat for much longer if he doesn't survive that slice of pie." He gave Lex a mock stern glare as he grabbed a towel from underneath the sofa.

Lex looked at him with narrowed eyes. "How was I to know Sparky was going to lunge for my plate when we went out there. Besides, it was a great pie. Your mom's a first-class cook." Lex shook his head. "Sparky doesn't have to worry about botulism."

"Actually, Lex, what we *do* have to worry about is a food allergy. Sparky eats all sorts of things, but he doesn't do well with coconut." He toweled the soggy corn-chip crumbs off the sofa.

"One time, when he was a baby, he got hold of a bag of macaroons and ate them all. Back then he wasn't allowed out of the barn after dark. Things got really messy. And the smell -- "

"Whoa, Clark! Way too much information there." He saw Lex's hands -- hands with long, well-shaped fingers -- wave in front of his face in a defensive gesture. "Look, if anything happens to Sparky, I'll take the blame. I'll buy your parents another goat."

"Before we talk about that, let's see if he's still alive." He pointed his chin at the bowl of cheese puffs. "Grab the bowl and let's go back outside and see."

"Cheese puffs? For a dying goat?" Cradling the bowl in his arms, Lex followed him down the stairs.

"Huh," Lex said ten minutes later as they trudged back up to the loft. "I guess he's okay, judging from the way he gobbled all those cheese puffs." Lex looked into the empty bowl and flinched.

"Clark, is the inside of the bowl shiny because of the goat slobber?"

He could tell Lex was trying to keep his voice casual. "Yeah." He clapped Lex on the back. "Try not to think about it." He rubbed the strong shoulder briefly in what he thought could pass as a friendly, buddy-like gesture. He took the bowl from Lex and put it on the floor, near the stairs.

"Oh, hey. My story." He walked over to the printer, gathered up the sheets of paper and stapled them. As he handed it to Lex, he felt a sudden bashfulness. "Last night, um, you said you wanted to read it."

"I did say that. And I *do* want to read it." His fingers touched Clark's for a moment as the papers changed hands. "Can I read it now, or do you want me to wait until I get home?" He paused. "Some writers can't be in the same room when someone looks at their work."

"Um." He felt like a ten-year-old kid. "You can read it now, if you want." He forced himself to not duck his head.

"I do want to read it now. But keep the noise down if you're going to munch on those chips. And don't spray them all over the loft this time."

During the five minutes that it too Lex to read his story, he noticed that his friend occasionally moved his lips while reading. This, in turn, made the upper-lip scar move sideways ever so slightly. You'd have to know exactly where the scar was to be able to watch it, of course.

"Clark, this is really something. It's really good." Lex was looking at him. "I'm impressed." He felt a flush of contentment at Lex's words.

"Thanks," he said softly. Then more loudly, "Any observations? Likes? Dislikes?"

"Well, first of all -- " Lex smiled at him. "A reader would never believe that the author is only seventeen years old. You write very well. Those journalism classes have really helped."

"Second..." Lex's expression turned pensive. "For someone who knows you, they see you -- no, they *hear* you -- in these words when they read the story." His voice dropped. "I like that."

"Thanks, Lex." As he looked at Lex, he wondered what else to ask now. "It means a lot to me that you like my story."

"Clark."

"Yeah, Lex?"

Lex leaned toward Clark. "Have you decided what to major in when you go to college?"

He pursed his lips for a moment. Somewhere in the back of his mind it registered that Lex's tongue had flicked out over that little scar in a subconscious response. "Well, I'd like to major in journalism, I think -- "

" -- Interesting." Lex nodded and sat back. "A good choice. I think you'd do well as a writer. Or a reporter. Or a journalist."

He took a quick breath to finish what he wanted to say. To tell Lex what he had recently thought. What he hadn't wanted to discuss yet with his parents. "I've also been thinking about business administration."

"Really. Business administration." Lex tilted his head in that Lex way. "I had no idea."

"Maybe a marketing specialization. I've talked to Pete about it. He *really* wants major in marketing." He raised his eyebrows slightly. "Or else economics. He wants to go into politics someday."

"Is that so?" Lex seemed genuinely interested. "Sometimes I think about doing that." Chewing his lower lip, Lex looked thoughtfully out the loft window.

He turned to Clark. "Okay. Back to you. Business administration. Because...?"

"I could help my parents run this farm as a real business. Organic produce is only going to increase in demand." He smiled on the inside when Lex nodded what seemed to be his approval. "We could start turning a profit. If we did well, Kent Farms could expand some day."

"What do your parents think about you majoring in business administration?" Lex's eyes turned -- solemn? The eyes were suddenly hard to read.

"Uh, well, I haven't talked to them about it. We've only discussed the journalism thing."

He saw how Lex's expression shifted and changed several times in a second. He felt as if he were watching the landscape. Like when clouds rush by and cast shadows as they first cover, then reveal, the sun.

"Clark. I think you'd be great at just about anything you do. But -- " He took a breath that sounded more like a sigh. He stopped.

"But?" Clark prompted.

"Your dad hasn't really ever said that he wants you to carry on the Kent farming tradition, has he?"

The way Lex said it, it seemed more a statement than a question. He thought about it for a few seconds. "Not really. What..."

"Just wondering. I think your dad would say it differently, but his intent is clear-"

"What's that?"

"Even if he's not saying it, he'd probably agree with me: you mustn't let the farm -- or anything else -- pressure you into vocational choices that don't truly make you happy."

"Uh-huh. He did say something like that once, actually."

"Now, take this in the spirit of an older brother talking..."

Brother? He realized that he hadn't ever thought of Lex as a brother. If anyone was like a brother, it was Pete. Lex, however, was like -- Lex to him.

"...If there's only one piece of advice I could give you, Clark, it would be this: in deciding what to do with your life, choose the things that will make you happy. Don't choose what you think will make others happy."

"Okay, but -- "

"I'm almost done here. What I want to say is -- well -- you should follow your heart. Know your heart. Let it lead you to what you truly want."

"Okay." He tried to let that sink in.

"Okay." Lex nodded and gave him a small smile.

"Clark." He felt Lex's warm hand alight on his forearm. "Promise me something. Because we're friends. Best friends, right?"

He nodded dumbly at Lex. "Right. Best friends." He swallowed. "What is it?"

"Promise me you'll follow your heart. As often as you possibly can, if not every single time." Lex's hand tightened on his arm and gave him a gentle shake. "And promise me you'll take the time to know your heart. To let it lead you to what you truly want in life. Whether it's writing or reporting or farming, or whatever else. . "

He felt Lex's eyes scanning his face and he felt uncomfortable. "Lex..."

"Promise me?" Lex's voice was low. Quiet. "Make a promise you'll do everything to be happy. Promise your best friend?"

"I promise."

He saw Lex's expectant expression and felt Lex's hand, still on his arm. He knew Lex wanted to hear more. In a soft, steady voice, he added, "I promise I'll let my heart lead me to what I truly want in life."

Lex's smile was solemn as he nodded. "Good."

Lex sat back, his features relaxing a little. A couple of seconds later, a sheepish smile bloomed slowly on his friend's face.

"Now what, Lex?" He was almost afraid to ask.

"I didn't mean to get so dramatic just now." Lex gave him a wry smile. "This is my first sleepover, but I'm fairly sure the conversation is supposed to sound more like guy-talk and not like a greeting card."

He leaned forward. "It's cool, Lex." He held his hands out, palms up. "You'd be surprised at the things Pete and I talk about. If it's your best friend, then there's no problem if the subject of feelings comes up."

*Unless it's about the feelings for your best friend, that is*.

"Feelings."

A gleam appeared in Lex's eyes.

Uh-oh. "Feelings. Right. You know..."

Lex nodded innocently.

He knew that innocent nod. "I start to feel nervous whenever you get that look in your eye. What are you going to ask me?" He fought to make his grin playful.

"Just... well, yesterday, you had an odd expression on your face when you told me that you were happy for Pete and Lana."

"I am. I really am." He looked down.

"And you also got a funny look on your face when you said you were glad Chloe is over you."

"I am glad she's over me." Trying to keep his face blank, he looked over at Lex. "And this is important because...?"

"Can I ask what were the funny looks for? Since I happened to notice them."

"Yeah. I..." He really didn't want to tell Lex this. Or Pete. Or anyone. "Okay." He didn't mean to sigh so piteously, either, but he did anyway. "I just felt... envious. Left out."

"Left out?"

"Uh-huh. I mean, Pete has someone now. Lana has someone. Chloe has someone."

"But Clark Kent doesn't." Lex mulled this over.

"And my mom and dad. They have each other."

"Ah, yes. Well." Lex seemed to be thinking.

He waited patiently for the bald young man to say something else.

"I don't have someone either, Clark." Lex's smile was a poor imitation of the real thing. "We could form our own lonely-hearts club. With a newsletter. We'd weep and wail about our bachelor status, wallow in self-pity..."

"Oh. Yeah." He couldn't find a way to laugh at Lex's feeble joke. He looked askance at Lex and felt an ache when he saw the sadness slowly erase the weak smile, slowly dull the gleam in those eyes.

"Clark, you'll find someone. I know you will. And Pete and Lana and Chloe will be there to share that with you. And I will, too." He heard the conviction in Lex's voice, but the sadness in Lex's face was still there.

He suddenly knew why he ached when he had looked at Lex.

Because Lex didn't have to be lonely. And he didn't have to feel left out if he had Lex as best friend. As a best friend to whom he would give --

He cleared his throat. "Lex?"

"Yes?"

"Thank you."

"You're welcome... but why are you thanking me?" Lex's voice was subdued.

"Because, Lex. You made me understand the importance of following my heart."

"Oh. Right." Lex's smile was not as weak this time. "Again, you're welcome."

He felt braver and tried again. "Lex?"

"Yes?" This time Lex almost seemed to want to laugh. "You're going to wear out my name, Clark."

"I'm going to start following my heart and let it lead me to what I want. Beginning right now." He nodded slowly and shifted closer to Lex.

"Good. I'm glad to hear that." Lex's smile was real, but it wasn't enough. There was too much relief in the smile.

He didn't want a relieved smile from Lex. He wanted much more.

"So here I am."

"Right." Lex looked at him curiously.

In the back of his mind he wondered if that look was one Lex normally reserved for aliens. The slimy kind with tentacles, that is. Or even the other kind.

*Focus*.

He breathed in and waited for Lex to speak again.

"So, you're here, Clark. Sitting on the couch. And...?" An eyebrow arched.

"And my heart tells me I want you."

Lex's face was very still and his eyes were very wide.

"Your heart. Tells you -- "

" -- That I'm in love with my best friend." He said it softly. Deliberately. "If I follow my heart, it leads me to *you*, Lex."

He decided to say more, because he knew Lex wouldn't think it was corny. "See, you're the one I want to give my hand to. The one I want to give my heart to. Lex, I'm giving it to you now."

Lex didn't move. He didn't say anything.

*I shouldn't have said anything.*

"Lex?" He hadn't meant for it to sound like a croak, but then, he also hadn't expected to feel so foolish all of a sudden. So humiliated.

Lex moved slightly closer to him and he saw how the brow furrowed in concern.

He felt Lex's hand on top of his. It made him think of when he was a little boy and his mom used to pat his hand to console him. *There, there. Don't cry, honey...* His stomach felt like ice.

"You're probably wondering if I have a heart to offer." Lex's voice was soft. It sounded almost mournful.

*Oh no*. He felt his stomach drop.

"Clark, if I tell you that -- "

*Oh God*. How could he possibly steel himself for the impending crash?

" -- I don't have a heart to give -- "

*Crash*.

" -- It's because a beautiful farmboy stole it from me on a riverbank. With a kiss, Clark."

Lex's smile lit up the loft as he leaned forward and kissed him. Hard.

"Like so."

~End