Clark tried not to cringe as every head in the newsroom turned in his direction. Grabbing his notebook -- and sending his pencil cup flying -- he made his way to the corner office where Perry White waited impatiently for him in the doorway.
"Show a little hustle, Clark. This isn't Smallville; you can't mosey in my newsroom."
Harry Wheeler, the arts editor, was sitting in one of Perry's office chairs. He looked skeptically up at Clark as he walked in, then back at Perry.
"This one?" Harry asked. "Well, I suppose we need one like this. Can he write?"
"Don't ask stupid questions, Harry," Perry snapped. Then, turning to Clark, he said jovially, "We've got a new story for you, something easy and fun. Human interest. It'll be a nice change of pace for you."
"Um, OK?" Clark's last article had been a five-thousand-word monster on the city's aging sewer system, and he was ready for a lighter topic. But Wheeler and his crew of slim, black-clad, French-speaking aesthetes always snubbed the rest of the newsroom, and Clark didn't think anything good could come out of working with them. Except maybe free theater tickets.
"Here's the thing," said Perry. "That Queer Eye show is coming to town."
Clark blanched. "Oh, Perry. No."
"Every goddamned newspaper in the country has done a Queer Eye story when the show came to their city, and we're not going to get out of doing it here. It's a guaranteed crowd pleaser; one of our reporters gets a makeover and lives to tell the tale. And you, Clark, are our guy."
"Perry, no." Clark was panicking now. Makeovers were definitely not part of maintaining a secret identity. "I, I mean, I look OK. And my apartment's fine. I like my stuff!"
"Oh, don't be such a whiner," snapped Wheeler. "It isn't a full-scale makeover, just a few hours of good advice. They'll be at your apartment at five pm sharp." He looked Clark up and down appraisingly. "Take notes."
"So you're the latest reporter," said Thom. "Why do you all live in these shacks?"
"At least he's neat," Jai offered.
"He's more than neat," said Carson, moving in unnervingly close. "He's peachy-keen. They grow them big out in Kansas."
"Umm...," Clark managed.
"You have a totally hot bod, Chuck."
"Clark. Why are you hiding it under these awful clothes? Has the `tucking-in' concept not reached the heartland?"
"You could be doing a lot more with your hair, too, bro," said Kyan. "Something to bring out that curl."
"Guys, he's got a freezer full of meals cooked by his mom," Ted called from the kitchen area of Clark's studio. "It's actually kind of sweet."
"I'm getting the sense that you're a little shy, Clark," said Jai.
"It's really important in journalism to be able to project yourself well, so here's a trick I use --"
"She drew hearts on the cover of the lasagna pan!"
"Do you have no form-fitting clothes at all?"
"What's with this soap?"
"Guys!" said Clark, using the Superman voice just for a second. "It would make writing this article a whole lot easier if you could just go one at a time!"
"So, your wardrobe is pretty much made up of plaid and neutral solids," Carson was saying. "But with your coloring, I think you could get away with something a lot brighter. I'd start with some strong primary colors."
"Primary colors," Clark repeated as he wrote. "Check." His primary-color wardrobe, cape and all, had been carefully hidden away for the afternoon. He was giving silent thanks that none of the Fab Five had X-ray vision when there was a knock on the door.
"I'm not expecting anyone," Clark frowned. "Hold on."
Lex didn't wait for an invitation before he sauntered through the apartment door. "Clark. What would you say to a `Halo' rematch?" As he spoke, he noticed the other men in the apartment, and his expression changed: his public face, the one Clark hated. "I didn't realize you had company."
"Lex, these are the Fab Five! I'm doing a story on them for the Planet."
Lex looked skeptical. "They sing?"
Clark laughed. "No. They're from that TV show? Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? You must have seen it."
Lex looked amused in that private way he had, like the joke wouldn't be half as funny if it weren't a secret. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," he repeated. "No. I've been so busy with work I really haven't had time to watch television. But I'll have to check that one out."
"Mr. Luthor," said Thom, stepping forward. "I'm Thom Filicia; I worked with Jeffrey Bilhuber on your Aspen house?"
"Of course," Lex said, shaking his hand. "Good to see you again."
"How are you liking the house these days?"
"Oh, I sold it," said Lex. "Clark, I can see I'll have to get my revenge another day."
"Well, I'll be done in a couple of hours; do you want me to call?" The idea of spending time with Lex after several hours under the examining eyes of the Fab Five sounded even more appealing than usual.
Lex shook his head. "I've got this gala tonight I really can't skip. I'd invite you along, but I know how much you hate that sort of thing."
"Well, maybe tomorrow then?"
"Maybe." They shared a smile for a moment, and then Lex stepped back towards the door. "Talk to you then."
"OK," said Clark. He stood in the doorway and watched until the elevator doors opened and Lex stepped inside. "Bye."
When Clark closed the door to his apartment and turned to face his guests again, they were all standing in a row in his living room area, wearing matching skeptical expressions.
"Clark?" Ted finally said. "You do realize the show is called Queer Eye for the STRAIGHT Guy, right?"
"So you saved his life?" said Kyan. "What a great way to meet someone. You're so intensely bonded to one another right from the start."
"It's not -- I mean, there's a bond between Lex and me, yeah, of course there is, but we're friends," Clark said. "You guys have got it all wrong."
Somehow his easy human-interest story had spiraled completely out of his control. Instead of getting simple tips on grooming and some quotes on the effects of fame, Clark was on the receiving end of a full-scale grilling about his relationship with Lex. The Queer Eye guys just couldn't seem to accept that they were just friends. Sure, they loved one another -- like brothers. Lex had said as much himself. Brothers trusted each other, even if they didn't always tell each other everything. Brothers spent time together, doing things like playing games and watching movies and driving back roads talking about the meaning of life. Brothers looked forward to seeing one another: the idea of it made their hearts race. They took pleasure in just being around one another, resting shoulder to shoulder on the couch, the reverberations of each other's voices against skin, or just the sound of each other's breathing when the room got quiet. That was what a fraternal bond was -- that was what he and Lex had had for years. But when he tried to explain this to the Fab Five, they ended up twisting his words around and making him feel all mixed up inside.
"Besides which," Clark added, "I'm straight, and Lex is very straight."
The guys all laughed at that. Ted was doing his best to look understanding, but even he couldn't stop smirking.
"Lex Luthor?" said Jai. "My ex-roommate's boyfriend did him at the Limelight. Twice."
"Back in his club days, Luthor had a rep for being kind of flexible," said Kyan.
"Yeah," said Jai, "and I hear there's this thing he can do with his tongue..."
"Please," Carson said. "Lex Luthor would do anything that moves. He's just lucky there were a lot fewer digital cameras back then, or he'd have more in common with Paris Hilton than their trust funds."
"But he's been married! Twice! To women!"
"He's not married now," Thom pointed out.
"Well, no, but that's not his fault -- his wives kept trying to kill him." Clark shook his head. "Look. I'm closer to Lex than I am to anyone else in the whole world. Don't you think that if he was gay, I'd know?"
His five visitors exchanged another knowing look among themselves.
"Clark," said Kyan gently. "We think you do know."
"And it's totally cool that this isn't something you've been ready to deal with. Believe me, all of us know what that's like," Jai said. He put a comforting hand on Clark's knee and looked understandingly into his eyes. Clark thought he looked like a spaniel.
"You guys are crazy," Clark complained, pulling away.
"You know, guys," said Ted, "we really shouldn't push like this. Let's take Clark at his word here. So he's not gay."
"Oh, please," said Carson. "You think I don't know a 'mo when I see one?"
"But he says he's not gay," Ted said a little more pointedly. "Tell you what, Clark -- what is it you hate about those galas Lex goes to?"
"They're boring!" Clark exclaimed. "The same lame food, the same music, the same sort of people I don't know and have nothing in common with, over and over again at all of them. And Lex always says we'll have a chance to hang out, just the two of us, but then he ends up talking to people about work the entire night."
A few of the guys nodded sympathetically, and Clark felt heartened that they understood. "I tell you what," said Kyan. "Why don't you call Luthor, tell him you're coming to this party, and then let us help you get ready for it? I can pretty much guarantee you'll be hard to ignore after that. And then you can just follow your heart, see where the night takes you. Sound like a plan?"
Clark did still need to write his story, and some real fashion and grooming advice really would help to bring the story together. Besides which, just imagining the look on Lex's face when he walked in looking all swanky made him laugh. "OK," he said. "I'll do it."
"Great!" said Ted. "Just... if it works out the other way, could you not put that in your story? We have a hard enough time finding good straight guys for the show without having people think we recruit."
Clark took a cab from his apartment to the Metropolis Museum of Art. Normally, he would have just driven his old Honda, but the guys had advised against it. "You have to think about parking, and traffic, and if you and Luthor go back to his -- I mean, go out on the town, you've got two cars to worry about," Thom said.
"Besides, it's a much better way to make an entrance," said Jai.
And Clark had to admit that driving right up to the museum's grand front doors and having his cab door opened for him by a guy in a doorman's uniform was much better than spending fifteen minutes driving up and down the levels of the museum parking lot. His mood brightened: those Queer Eye guys really did know how to live it up! He looked up at the banner hanging over the doors, advertising the art show that was the pretext for tonight's gala, and smiled as he walked in.
"Clark Kent. I'm meeting Lex Luthor?" he explained to the smiling woman holding a clipboard at the entrance. Her smile got wider as he introduced himself.
"Of course, sir," she said. "Go right in."
Clark had been to enough events at the museum to know that whatever they were celebrating tonight had to be really special, because they'd pulled out all the stops and then some. Beautiful smiling waitresses carried trays of extremely complicated hors d'oeuvres through the crowd, and elegant people in beautiful clothes lofted champagne glasses. The usual string quartet had been replaced by a larger group of musicians, playing quietly but expertly on the left side of the large hall. Sprays of brightly-colored flowers were everywhere, and when Clark looked up he saw that images were being projected onto the ceiling -- delicate mosaics of nature scenes, images of saints, and angels blowing trumpets.
It was all so amazing that for a moment Clark forgot why he was at the party and just stood there, drinking it in. Then a hand brushed across his back, lingering just a little too long at his belt, and he snapped out of his reverie. He pushed his glasses up against the bridge of his nose and turned around with a glare. The middle-aged woman who still had her hand on his hip shrugged unrepentantly at him and smiled.
"Can't hurt to ask," she said, and saluting him with her champagne glass, walked away.
Clark smoothed his jacket back down and for the first time, scanned the crowd for Lex. As he did, he saw men and women quickly averting their eyes, and realized he'd been being stared at since he walked in. He blushed furiously at the thought, and switched to x-ray vision to find Lex more quickly.
I guess it really worked, he thought as he walked through the crowd. After a couple of tips on home decor and food for his article, his guests had all thrown themselves into getting Clark ready for his night out. Kyan had styled his hair with some stuff out of a bottle that made it even curlier than it was on humid summer nights, and messed it up in a way that he assured Clark was completely intentional. And Carson, egged on by the others, had unearthed the black blazer Clark bought for his grandfather's funeral, a white linen shirt Lex had given him, and a pair of black jeans Clark hadn't worn in a couple of years because they'd gotten too tight. They'd tried to convince Clark to lose his thick black-framed glasses for the night, but on that, at least, he'd stood firm. Still, he must have looked as good as they'd reassured him he did when they drove off in their famous SUV.
"You're too good for that house-seller Luthor," Thom had said, brushing down the lapels of Clark's jacket. "I just hope you have fun."
It wasn't much fun to move through the crowd with so many eyes following him, so many murmured comments that he couldn't help overhearing. He felt completely self-conscious, and as awkward as he'd been since back when he couldn't get near Lana without tripping. He could hear Jai's advice in the back of his head -- "just walk like you own the room, Clark" -- but putting it into practice was a lot harder than it had sounded when he was safely in a place he did own. Or, at least, rent long-term. When he finally spotted Lex just a few yards away, he felt a rush of relief.
"Lex!" he shouted, and Lex turned to face him.
The expression on Lex's face began as a simple smile, but it shifted the way things did when Clark ran fast, all slowed-down and distorted. His jaw dropped and his eyebrows went up, and then contracted in apprehension as his mouth closed again. "Clark?" Lex's eyes were bright with concern as Clark closed the distance between them, and he put a hand on Clark's forearm. "Are you OK?"
"I'm fine," Clark said, and he'd been so nervous, it came out more deep whisper than speech. Something in Lex's eyes flared, and Clark felt a warm tingle at the base of his spine. "I got a makeover."
"I see," Lex said, and his voice was like honey.
Clark's mouth was suddenly dry. "Do I look OK?" he managed.
"You look... good, Clark. You look very good. They did a fine job." Lex had fixed him with his gaze, and Clark couldn't even remember what it felt like to have Lex ignoring him. "Do you like it?"
"I think I do," Clark confessed. "I didn't think I did. It's kind of a lot to get my head around." Lex slid his hand down Clark's arm and took Clark's hand in his. Clark felt dizzy, and all too aware of his erection. "Lex. I want... it's kind of freaking me out."
"In a bad way?"
"No," Clark said. "Not entirely." Lex's hip was comfortingly solid; it seemed like the right place to put his hand, and the fabric of Lex's pants was so soft that Clark had to stroke it, moving his hand back and down with the weave. Lex's eyes closed for a second, then snapped back open.
"What do you say we explore the experience further, somewhere else?" he asked, and gave Clark one of those small smiles of his. This time, Clark thought he got the joke.
"OK," he said, and smiled back.
Following Lex out of the party, he watched the way Lex moved through the crowd, the grace and the determination of his stride, and wondered how he could have ever not noticed it before. People were still looking at Clark, but he was leaving now, with Lex, and he didn't mind them seeing that one bit. At least, he was pretty sure he didn't mind. He was pretty sure he couldn't mind, not with Lex making him feel this heated and eager. Things really did just keep getting better, he thought, and as they stepped out together into the cool night air, he started to laugh.
Also, why not join
Level Three, the Smallville all-fic list?