"Hospital Coffee"
by Tara O'Shea

Hospital coffee is lousy. I've had a lot of hospital coffee lately, so I know whereof I speak. But I keep drinking it.

Clark is asleep—I can see him through the window. He tried to stay awake. I could see him blink, and his shoulders and head do that thing where you're trying really hard to stay awake, but you keep dozing and the muscle spasm ends up waking you up again. He did that for a while, before he gave up and laid his head down on his folded arms. More than anything, I want to go in there and curl up next to him, and tell him it's all going to be all right. But I can't. So instead, I'm sitting out in the hall in one of those plastic chairs, my coat balled up on top of my bag for a pillow, drinking the worst coffee in the known world out of a paper cup.

I was still here when he brought Pete in. Seeing Pete unconscious on the stretcher, an ugly bruise mottling his forehead, I kinda lost it. I just started crying—I couldn't stop. Clark got me in a hug, and swore Pete was gonna be okay. He wasn't in a coma, Clark had just had to knock him out to keep him from shooting Lex.

But once I started crying, I just couldn't stop.

"It's all my fault," I told him. "Lana and Pete. If I hadn't dragged them out looking for clues, they'd be okay. It's not fair—they got hurt because of me, and I'm okay. And that's not right, it's not fair. If they die, because of me..."

He looked like I'd hit him over the head with a two-by-four for a second there, and then I couldn't see his expression because everything got all blurry from the tears. He got me back in the hug again and told me it was all going to be okay, and that I'd only been trying to help his dad.

I can't stand it, that he forgives me. Absolves me. It somehow makes it worse. A million times worse. His entire world is falling apart, and he has to comfort me. God, I am such a loser. Stupid, stupid, thoughtless....

I need more coffee.

It's coming up on 5 a.m., and Lex's doctors from Metropolis gave Mr. Kent, Pete and Lana the shot about two hours ago. Nell came back in the LuthorCorp helicopter with the specialists from Metropolis—Lex must have made the arrangements. Lana's door is shut, and I haven't seen her since she first came in. Whitney is still here—apparently, he was here visiting his dad when Clark brought Lana in. I couldn't hear what Clark said, but I think Whitney started to cry. Jeez, I can't imagine what it must be like for him. I mean, I've never exactly been crazy about the guy, don't get me wrong. But being on the verge of losing your dad, your future, and suddenly your steady's in a coma? That has got to be rough.

Mrs. Kent fell asleep in the chair by the window, and the nurse came and woke her up and now she's out cold on an empty bed in the next room. I don't know how she can sleep—yes I do. If it wasn't for all the coffee, loaded up with sugar to mask the taste, I'd probably be out like a light too. I'm in that weird place I normally only reach when it's deadline time and I've stayed up all night doing the layout to get the Torch to the printers on time. Where nothing feels quite real, and everything's got to penetrate this haze that's equal parts exhaustion and mania, but I've got the caffeine buzz to keep me going. When the buzz is the only thing keeping me from sliding down a wall and curling up in a heap and passing out.

I called Dad on my cell, and told him where I was. He wanted me to come home, but I can't. Not until I know Pete's going to be okay. His brothers are down the hall—I can hear them talking, their voices hushed.

I can't go home until I know we're all going to be okay.

God. Pete. Pete came on to me. Who saw that coming? I mean, he's always been the one telling me to just go for it with Clark. And he's such a horn dog, going after anything in a skirt sometimes... I never thought... I mean, I never knew. So this is what it feels like, to be Clark Kent.

Oh, God, Clark...

It's so stupid.

These are the sort of thoughts you have when it's almost dawn, and you've had about eight cups of coffee, and haven't slept in two days...you know? I can't stop them. They just keep on coming, as I stare at Clark's head resting on his crossed arms, and the steady rise and fall of his back and shoulders as he sleeps. In between the mind-numbing panic attacks brought on by the fear that two people close to me might die, and the guilt that I'm the one who got them into this mess in the first place, there's this stupid question that I just can't stop obsessing over.

What if it had been me? What if I'd been the one to find the flower, out by the accident site, instead of Lana?

I mean, I don't want to be lying in a hospital bed right now. I'm not an idiot, and I'm not suicidal, and I'm not that... stupid. But I can't stop thinking about it, wondering what I would do if all my inhibitions were just... gone. Like I'm drunk or high, and I'm not afraid of anything. Not rejection. Not destroying the only thing I have left.

Would I have stripped down to some sexy underwear, which I'm pretty sure I would have had to have gone out and bought since I know I don't own anything that isn't cotton at the moment, and gone skinny dipping?

If I had, would Clark have kissed me?

I mean, let's face it—I'm pretty sure that my deepest, darkest desire is to wrestle Clark Kent to the ground and... Okay, among other things, force him to look at me. Really look at me. See me as a girl who's crazy about him, and who's dying a little bit every day, watching him pine for Ms. Perfect. I know I was a bitch to him yesterday in the hall. But it's getting so hard, to be the perfect friend and not show him how it's getting to me. I'm only human. There's only so much I can take before I'm gonna snap at him. I love the guy—God, there are no words for how much I love the guy. But sometimes, I just want to strangle him...

Maybe it wouldn't have been the pool. Knowing me, it probably would have been a strip-tease or a lap dance in the Torch office. And knowing Clark, he probably would have wrapped me up in his coat and taken me to the school nurse. Not started making out like crazed weasels. But what if all he's waiting for is for me to say something? Not to hint, not to snark, not to dance around it... But flat out tell him. Show him. Just jump him; force him to see how I feel, how much I care about him, how much I wish he'd look at me just once the way he looks at Lana Lang.

Oh God, what if Lana dies? The thought comes in clear and loud, and pretty much annihilates the momentary fantasy of ill-advised, unprotected sex up against the Wall of Weird.

I should never have taken her out there. What the hell was I thinking? I don't even like the girl—okay, that's a lie. She's starting to kinda grow on me, despite the fact that Clark's utterly crazy about her and has her on a pedestal that's only a million miles high. It was just one of those stupid things—Pete was with Clark at the hospital, and Lana was in the Torch office when I was packing up and asked where I was going. She may not be hip to the whole Clark thing, but she is his friend. She just wanted to help him. No ulterior motives. And it wasn't awful—driving out there, singing along to the radio, flashlights clutched in our hot little hands. It was an adventure. It was Nancy freaking Drew. It wasn't supposed to end... like this.

What if Lana dies, and it's my fault? Clark will hate me. I know he doesn't think he will, but he will. And I can't handle that. I really can't. Clark and Pete are the only friends I've got in the world right now, and if Lana and Pete die...

I need to focus on something else, before I become even more useless than I already am. So I take a walk down to the coffee machine. The cafeteria closed a couple of hours ago, and I'll have to wait another hour until it opens again. Fish through my pockets for change, mutter obscenities when I realise the previous trips have depleted my reserves. I rinse out the coffee cup at the water fountain, and refill it with water. Slightly coffee-flavoured water, now. Sip it slowly as I walk back towards Mr. Kent's room.

Lex is there. He's staring at Clark too, through the glass window in the door. He's got a honey of a bruise on the back of his head, from where Clark knocked him out.

"I'm sorry," I say, before I can stop myself. "I'm so sorry."

"For what?" he shrugs, still facing the window. "It's not—"

"Don't tell me it's not my fault," I blurt out, more sharply than I'd meant to. "Please," I say, my throat raw, and new tears pricking my eyes, "Please just... don't."

He turns to me, and what's in his eyes is something so huge it almost swallows me. Just for a second. And then it's gone.

"I told Clark and Pete about the diary," I tell him, blundering on, impatiently wiping tears from my cheeks with the back of one hand. "I took Lana to the accident site. I took Pete to the barn. I almost got you killed. I may have gotten Pete and Lana killed. I just wanted... wanted to say that I'm sorry."

"I just spoke with the doctor," he says. "Pete's fever broke, and he's resting normally. The doctors say he's going to be fine."

I stare, stupidly, unable to believe what I'm hearing.

"It's going to be okay, Chloe," he says, more gently than I deserve, and I think it shocks him as much as it shocks me when I throw my arms around him in a hug.

It's awkward, both because I still have half a paper cup full of water clutched in my hand, and because Lex is simply not someone you hug. He doesn't seem to know what to do with me, and his arms hang limply at his sides. But it doesn't matter. I'm doing the hugging for both of us.

"Thank God. Oh God, thank you," I say into his incredibly expensive shirt, and I can't hardly breathe my chest is so tight. But this time, it's from relief. "Thank you," I keep saying, because I can't stop. His arms go around me for a second, tentatively.

"It's going to be okay," he repeats, as much to himself as to me.

"Chloe, honey," I hear Mrs. Ross behind me, "Pete's asking for you."

I let go of Lex, who seems relieved that the incredibly emotional high school girl has stopped having hysterics all over him. He looks tired too—and I realise he probably hasn't gotten any more sleep than the rest of us since Mr. Kent got sick. I wipe the last of the tears from my face with my sleeve, and down the last of the brackish water before crushing the paper cup and dropping it into the trash. I'm almost afraid to meet Pete's mom's eyes—I can only imagine what she must think, finding me hugging a Luthor. It's all messy and complicated—old grudges half-buried brought screaming out into the open by a bad Twilight Zone plot I would have made fun of if I didn't live here and know how freaky this burgh can be.

"Mrs. Ross, if there's anything else you or your family need—" Lex begins, breaking the awkward silence that's descended. Not surprising: there is not a lot of love lost between the Ross family and the Luthors.

"Thank you for your help, Mr. Luthor," Mrs. Ross says, looking like she's just tasted something bitter. "But I think we're going to be just fine on our own."

It must be galling, and painful, and generally all screwed up to know that the Luthor money she hates so much is the only thing that kept her from losing her youngest son. I sneak a look at Lex, but he doesn't seem to have much of a reaction. Or if he did, he hides it well. I wish there was something I could do—after all, it's my fault Pete's in here. Not Lex's. But you can't convince the Ross clan of that, these days.

I stand in the doorway of Pete's room, my eyes adjusting to the relative gloom. He's snuggled down under the blankets, and the bruise on his forehead that I'm guessing is from where Clark knocked him out is even darker and angrier now, livid purple fading to green at the edges.

"Hey," I say, when he sees me, a tentative smile on my face. I scoot one of the chairs closer to his bed and tuck his hand in mine. I'm gonna start crying again, I just know it. "Glad to have you back."

"I didn't.... I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"No!" I say quickly, "Jeez, Pete... No. I mean, you really scared me—"

"What did I do?" he asks, sounding desperate.

"You don't remember?"

"Last thing I knew, we were in Dr. Hamilton's barn, and then I woke up here and my mom said Clark brought me in. But no one will tell me what I did."

For the briefest of moments, I consider spilling it all. How guilty I feel for not feeling the way he wants me to, even though I understand what it's like, what with the massive Clark crush thing I've got going. How terrified I was when I thought he was going to die. How every time he looks at me now, it's going to be weird and awkward and we won't know how to act, or what to say. I could tell him everything. But if I did... everything would change.

And I don't know how much change I can handle right now.

"You stole my car," I tell him, keeping my tone light. No need to let him know how incredibly creepy it actually was to have my best friend hold a gun on me and demand my keys. He shouldn't have to live with that. I can carry it for both of us.

"I did?"

"Yep. I had to hitch to the hospital. So, you're just lucky that I caught a ride back with Mrs. Shuster instead of getting picked up by a psycho freak who would have slipped me a roofie and sold me into white slavery."

That got a smile out of him. "Mrs. Shuster the chem teacher?"

"Yep. Didn't even ask what I was doing with a flashlight in the middle of the night, thumbing my way down I-54."

"I always knew I liked her," Pete chuckled.

"Then you tried to shoot Lex," I said, very casually as I leaned back in the chair and propped my feet up on the edge of the hospital bed.

Pete's eyes are huge, and his jaw drops.

"Oh my God. I didn't—"

"He's fine," I say quickly, to reassure him, "though from what Clark told me, the panelling in his library isn't. And, Dirty Harry, you killed a vase full of flowers dead."

"Oh, man..." he groaned.

"Well, since it was Lex's doctors who saved your life, I'd say it's time to let bygones be bygones and maybe even practice kissing his ass a little, so he doesn't have you booked for armed assault."

Pete scowls, and I laugh.

"Or not."

"I just don't like the guy, okay?"

"Okay," I assure him. "You don't have to."

"Good," he mutters, and yawns. I'm guessing now that the adrenaline has worn off, he's wrecked.

I give his shoulder a squeeze. "You're a good guy, Pete. I mean that, and I'm sorry if I don't tell you that enough. And I promise, we'll have some special one-on-one best friend time soon. Just you and me."

"What about Clark?" he asks, fighting to keep his eyes open.

"No Clark. No Lex. And no Lana. Just us," I say, and lean over and give his hand a squeeze as he drops off. I close the door behind me, and I can hear muted voices from Lana's room. Peering in the window, I see Whitney and Nell by her bedside, and she's awake and Whitney's holding her hand. She's smiling. Of course she's smiling. She's Lana. I wonder if Clark will ever tell her what she did...

Mrs. Kent is awake, and talking to Mrs. Ross. And Lex is still watching Clark through the window. I look over his shoulder, see Clark's head is still bent over his hands, his chair pulled up close to his dad's bed. They're both still sleeping. I touch Lex's shoulder, and give him a grateful smile. His smile is a pale shadow of mine, but it's still a smile.

Then I slip on my coat, shoulder my bag, and head towards the elevators.

No more hospital coffee for this girl. Not tonight.