The phone was ringing in Glen Barnes' office. Possibly the only rotary dial phone left in existence, its strident trill was loud and unmistakable. It had to be in order to be heard over the noise of the air-powered tools out in his auto-shop. It rang once, then again, and one of the instruments raising its voice into the vaulted ceiling of the garage, dropped out of the orchestra.
Glen Barnes, of Barnes' Auto Fix-It, put down the big lug-wrench he'd been using to argue the tire off a stubborn Mazda, and lurched over to the door leading from the garage into his tiny, paper-strewn office. He was not an old man, but a fast and highly stressful life during his youth had put the years on him in other ways besides chronologically. He grunted as he lowered his thick body into his chair, and wiping his greasy hands on a battered shop rag already smeared with black grease, he reached for the telephone.
He recognized the voice on the other end of the line immediately.
"What have you got for me Mr. Barnes?"
Glen shuffled through the pile of invoices, work orders, and miscellaneous paper work scattered over his desk, and came up with an old cigar box full of nuts, screws and discarded keys. One key in particular he pulled from the box, and swiveling around in his chair, unlocked the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet.
"Just what you need," he said, pulling out a grubby manilla folder. "Tight lipped, a couple of black marks with the cops but nothing too major, cheap...."
"Money is not option."
Bates barked out a laugh. "Isn't this all about money?"
The man on the other end of the line fell silent for a moment. He returned with a parry. "Don't push me Mr. Bates, or I'll have your little operation shut down within twenty-four hours, and the next time we converse it will be through a little plexiglass window at the Lowell County Correctional Facility."
Glen knew he could, and would. "Yeah, yeah, don't get your panties in a wad." He flipped the folder down onto his desk, thumbing through the papers inside. "So, do you want to set it up, or not?"
There was a long silence, causing Glen to wonder if his old phone hadn't finally bit the big one. "Well?" he asked.
"Set it up."
There was a definite click on the other end of the line, indicating his caller had severed the connection. Glen snorted as he put the phone back in its cradle.
A few minutes later he had procured a phone number from the file and was spinning the dial of his phone with one big, greasy paw. Neither the impending conversation, nor the one previous to it, had anything to do with auto repair.
"You know," Chloe Sullivan said as she plunked down at a lunch room table with her tray of food. "Ever since the Reagan administration declared ketchup the vegetable of choice, school lunches have gone down hill. I mean they were bad before, but look at this." She speared one of the yellow globules sitting on her plate in a red pool of "vegetable" and waved it under the noses of the two boys sitting across from her. "Do you call this a Tator-Tot?"
"Yes," Pete declared, and popped Chloe's Tator-Tot into his mouth, grinning around it as he chewed.
"Actually," Clark added. "The Ore-Ida company has the rights to the name Tator-Tot, so you can't call them Tator-Tots anyway. They're potato nuggets." He reached over and also procured one of Chloe's potatoes. "And ketchup can't be a vegetable because tomatoes are a fruit."
Chloe made a face. "Thank you Farmer MacDonald, like I didn't know that."
Clark grinned wryly. "Well, I thought being a city kid you might not know too much about fruits and vegetables." He casually ate the potato nugget, and teased her with "see" food.
"Ew." She threatened him with her spork as he attempted to steal another. "You want to lose a finger?"
He made a face at her, and proceeded to steal another potato nugget anyway.
Chloe poked at her food with the spork and grumbled about doing an expose' ala Sixty Minutes regarding the quality of lunchroom food. "What is this stuff, this grey stuff?"
Pete leaned over to look at her plate. "Meatloaf."
"Oh, God!" She pushed her plate away from her with a grimace. "Blech!"
"You shouldn't waste food Chloe, not when people are starving...."
"Clark, shut up."
He shut up, but divided Chloe's food with Pete, and they continued eating, much to Chloe's profound disgust.
"Personally, I'm tempted to have my food shipped in from Metropolis. Here in Weirdville anything could contaminate the food and you'd turn into...."
"A giant tomato?" Pete interjected.
She paused a beat to cock her head and give him a hard look. "Pete, did you not understand that when I said you were 'funny' it was sarcasm?"
Clark hummed the theme from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
"Great, I'm lunching with Gonzo and Fozzie."
Pete grinned. "Wacka, wacka, wacka."
"You could always sit somewhere else, Chloe," Clark said quietly, arching one eyebrow and giving her his "coy" look from beneath half-lidded eyes. That look irritated her - because she liked it so much. A guy shouldn't be allowed to have such pretty eyelashes.
She turned her head away from the both of them, and looked out among the throng of high schoolers clustered in small groups around the lunchroom. A flash of light caught her eye as she watched a trio of black clad figures crossing the room with their lunches, heading toward an empty table in the far back corner.
"Speaking of contamination, get a load of Jarod's choker."
Clark and Pete turned around to look at the three "metal-heads" taking their seats at the corner table. The biggest of the three, a tall, lanky senior built very much like Clark, wore a myriad of leather and chain bracelets on his wrists, and around his neck was a green beaded choker.
"Is that made of what I think it's made of?" Pete turned to look at Chloe, his humorous mood quelled.
"Yep. I wonder if he knows he's irradiating his brain cells?"
"Not to mention possibly mutating as we speak," Clark added, watching Jarod carefully.
"I doubt he cares, and I doubt he's got enough brain cells left to worry about," Pete said.
Clark shot him a glance. "What do you mean?"
Pete mimicked smoking a joint.
"Uh-huh. My Mom sent him to JD for it about a year ago, told him to clean up his act."
"Has he?" Chloe inquired.
"Beats me, but I think bad habits are hard to break." Pete cast a wary eye back over his shoulder. "I'd stay away from him."
Frowning, Clark followed his gaze. "Maybe we should warn him about...."
The sharp tone in Pete's voice made both Chloe and Clark look at him in surprise. Chloe narrowed her eyes as he gave Clark a "look."
"Stay away from him, Clark," he said firmly.
Chloe raised her eyebrows. Pete and Clark had been exchanging an awful lot of those "looks" lately, which indicated there was something going on between them that she was being left out of, a situation which didn't sit well with her. Pete was acting almost protective. What was up with that?
She made an effort to attempt to divide and conquer. "So, Clark. I'm putting the big yearbook ad in the next issue of the Torch. Do you want to help me do the graphics tonight?"
He looked squirmy.
Uh-huh, she thought. That's the Lana squirm.
"I can't, I'm sorry, Chloe. I'm..."
"That's all right. I understand." She left it like that, as simple as that, because she didn't want to know anymore. What she didn't know, couldn't hurt her. She ignored Clark's hurt expression as she cut him off and turned to his companion. "Pete?"
"I'm grounded," he grumbled.
"Again?" Chloe and Clark chorused.
Pete scowled at them, then glanced at his watch. "Man, I'm late. I have to stop at my locker before my next class."
"So do I." Clark rose with him, picking up his tray and heading out toward the trashcans.
"Hey," Chloe called.
He turned around. "Yeah?"
She nodded towards his tray. "You shouldn't waste food, Clark. Not when people are starving."
The "Kent Charm" came on in full force. "Yeah, but Chloe, you said it yourself - this isn't food."
Her grin matched his.
Lex Luthor bent over the pool table and looked at the balls left remaining on its golden orange surface. His blue eyes marked every one of them, calculating what it would take to get as many of the stripes into pockets with a single shot. Determining the number to be at best - one - he picked out his intended victim, lined it up carefully, and let fly.
The cue ball shot across the table, bounced off the far rail, slipped between two solid colored balls, and hit its intended victim with a sharp crack. The back-spin Lex had put on it brought it back away from the danger of following the yellow striped ball into the corner pocket closest to him. The white ball spun a little on the felt as it came to rest in perfect position for his next shot.
He looked up at his opponent and smiled before taking his next shot. "It passes the time." Pausing, he stood up and gave Clark an analytical look. "Relationships are like pool you know."
"Yeah, how so?"
"You have to study all the angles." Lex bent, drew back his elbow, and sent two more balls into opposite side pockets. "Then decide which one will produce the best results."
He heard Clark sigh. "Well, I sorta know what angle I need to use, but I'm not really comfortable using it."
"Then," Lex said. "Use a bridge." His next shot went awry by a few millimeters and he failed to sink anything. He chuckled as he moved away from the table, relinquishing his turn. "A prop."
Clark stepped up to the table and gave it a long perusal. "Like flowers or something?"
"Flowers are impersonal." Lex moved over to stand beside Clark, resting a hand on his elbow. "Look, Clark," he said. "If you really want Lana to put her trust in you, and give you her affection, you're going to have to give up a little bit of yourself. That's not an easy thing to do, I know, but that's how things work."
When their eyes met, Lex knew what Clark was thinking. Their friendship had been treading on some rocky ground of late. The issue of trust being brought up was like having a bruise and letting someone poke it with an index finger. It hurt enough to be irritating, but not quite enough for a painful reaction.
Or over-reaction, which tended to be the case when it came to Clark Kent. Clark was naive, himself very trusting, and easily bruised. Instead of merely pulling away when one poked too hard at his bruises, Clark tended to lash out at whoever happened to be unfortunate enough to be around him at the time. When it was all over, he came back with his tail tucked between his legs.
Lex often wondered if Clark was purposely naive, not really wanting to know the truth about other people, because then he would feel the need to hand over one of his own secrets.
Which he keeps locked up tighter than Fort Knox.
If that were the case, Clark owed Lex one, because Clark had recently learned the ugly truth about Lex; he wasn't as trustworthy as Clark had always believed. Therein lay the rub. How do you give up a secret to someone you can't trust?
"Prime the pump, Clark," Lex said quietly, and backed away a step, doing some real poking with one slim index finger. It punctuated his words in a staccato rhythm against Clark's chest. "Give her a piece of your heart."
Clark stood in front of the Talon's doors watching Lana. She sat at one of the tables with her books strewn about in front of her, reading, twirling one strand of her hair in her fingers. They had a study date. Clark had a history paper due, and it was giving him some trouble. Lana's math homework wasn't going very well. Each of their academic strengths made up for the other's weakness, allowing them to support each other equally.
It was a very give and take situation. Clark turned the square box he held in his hands around and around in his fingertips. Relationships weren't like pool, they were like homework.
"Love is like homework? You dork." He shook his head and raised a hand to knock quietly on the glass. "No wonder you can't get a date."
Correction, he told himself as he saw Lana raise her head and smile at him through the window, you can get a date, but you seem to have trouble finishing them.
He hastily hid the box in his pocket.
"Hi Clark, right on time." Lana pulled the door open wide enough for him to get through then shut it behind him. "Would you like a coffee before we start?"
"Yeah - no. No, maybe later. " He followed her inside, but didn't take off his jacket, nor take a seat at the table. "Can we - talk a little bit first?"
Lana gave him a sideways look; the somewhat confused-amused-slightly suspicious look. "Sure."
"Do you want to do this standing up or sitting down?" she inquired, clearly not particularly impressed.
Clark suspected she thought their conversation would end up at the same old snags, and he couldn't blame her for that, but he shook his head slightly. "Standing is fine, I..." He bit his lip and winced a little. "Could I have a glass of water?"
The look came back, only the amused and confused parts were missing, and there was a hint of impatience. "Yeah, okay."
She turned away from him, moving around the end of the concession counter turned coffee bar, to where a pitcher of ice water sat. Clark came up to lean on the bar as she pulled down a glass. He watched the moisture beads run down the sides of the pitcher to fall on the countertop as Lana tipped some water into the glass.
They're like tears, he thought, and immediately wondered why that particular interpretation had occurred to him.
He moved his eyes around the room as he drank. Perhaps he'd thought of tears because of the sad feeling in the air. Despite the new purpose, the new decor, and the new young owners, there was still a lingering sadness in the old theater. Lewis and Laura Lang had met and fallen in love in this place. Did their ghosts wander among the aisles? Or were they restricted to the cemetery, where Lana was still wont to go. Clark knew she visited their graves at night and told them her news. The flowers were always fresh.
Clark set the glass down and pulled the plain brown box from his pocket. He hadn't bothered to wrap it. He didn't feel it would make much difference.
Lana gave it a long look before taking it from his hand. "What's this?"
"Okay." She smiled at him, and her eyes glittered with mischief. "But if snakes pop out of here, Clark, I'll never forgive you."
He grinned, shaking his head. "No snakes, I promise."
Popping open the lid, Lana peered into the tissue lined box, registered its contents, and looked back up at him with a startled expression. "Clark, I can't take this."
"Yes you can."
"No." Her fingers shook a little as she drew the heavy silver and turquoise bracelet out of its tissue nest. "I know how you felt about her and I..."
Reaching out to her hands, he folded them gently around the bracelet. "Kyla's grandfather told me this belonged to the one I am meant to be with, and since you're who I want to be with, then I guess it belongs to you."
Her expression hardened and she pulled her hands away from him, but she didn't let go of the bracelet. "Clark, look, you know how I feel about us. Until you can give me something...."
"That's what I'm trying to do," he said quietly. He smiled a little and looked away. "I mean, how many times have I come right out and told you how I feel about you?"
"Once," Lana said promptly.
Clark turned his eyes back up to her face, but she interrupted him before he could say anything.
"But I'm not sure it was really you," she said softly.
She almost caught him with her eyes. If she had, he wouldn't have been able to get away from her without spilling everything. Instead he glanced away, just briefly, enough to compose his thoughts.
"There's a lot about me I can't tell you...." he began.
"We've established that."
Startled by her harsh tone, Clark turned to look at her with a scowl. "You aren't making this easy."
"No, I'm not, because it shouldn't be. You can't just say things, Clark. You have to mean them, and making words mean something - that's hard. Just ask Chloe, she's the writer."
"I wish you wouldn't bring up Chloe."
"Why?" Lana put the bracelet down on the counter between them, like a gauntlet thrown down in a challenge. "Even if you tell me your darkest secret, with your feelings for Chloe not clearly defined she'll still be there between us.
Clark's good intentions crashed and burned. "Lana, Chloe is my friend...."
"Like I'm your friend?"
"It's not the same."
"Why? Why isn't it the same, what makes it different?"
She was backing him into a corner, and Clark hated that, mainly because he couldn't think fast enough to keep up with her. He wasn't sure if it was an alien-human thing, or simply a boy-girl thing, but it always ended up with him getting confused, flustered, and having his foot crammed halfway down his throat. His brain scrambled around looking for an appropriate response and latched on to the fact that he was perfectly capable of painting her into a corner too.
"You know, this is totally unfair."
Lana blinked at him. She wasn't used to him snapping back at her. Even if he wasn't truly snapping per se, he was still standing up for himself.
And it's without those damn red rocks.
"Making words mean something is hard, but so is making a relationship work. It's never clear sailing. My parents have a lot of stuff they disagree about, and they never let those things come between them. Lana, your own parents had their troubles, obviously...."
"Oh, obviously!" Lana said angrily, crossing her arms and looking away from him.
"That's not what I...what I'm trying to say is can't we work on this together?" He ducked his head, in an attempt to catch her eye. "Instead of you trying to understand me, and me trying to understand you, and going around in circles getting nowhere, why can't we try to work on us - together?"
Slowly she turned her head to look at the bracelet, then glanced back up at him. It was a few moments before she responded. "What do you want to tell me?" she asked finally.
Sorry Dad. No details, I promise.
"I can't tell you everything, Lana."
She started to make another noise of protest but he stopped her with a pleading look. Instead she toyed with the bracelet, and said nothing.
"The thing you have to know is that I want to. I really do, more than anything, but I can't."
"Why?" Her eyes narrowed.
"Because it would put you and everyone I care about at risk, and I can't allow that." His voice lowered. "Lana, you have to trust me. This isn't high school. This is real."
Oh, that was brilliant, Kent.
But she seemed to know what he meant, because something changed in her. Her shoulders relaxed and she picked the bracelet up in her hands. When she looked up at him, he saw understanding in her eyes.
"It has something to do with you rescuing people all the time, doesn't it?"
"Yeah." Clark chuckled. "Kinda."
Lana cocked her head a little, and examined the bracelet she held. "Rescuing people isn't a bad thing." She returned her eyes to him. "Are you a spy?"
"A spy?" He laughed. "No, but if I were, I couldn't tell you, because that would be the part I couldn't tell." His smile turned down as Clark knit his brow. "Or something."
She laughed at him, shaking her head. "You're hard to resist sometimes, Clark Kent, so I think maybe you must have secret powers."
Clark hastily schooled his face not to register surprise. "Yeah, like what?"
Wriggling her fingers at him, she widened her eyes. "Like a hypno-ray, oooh."
He reached out a hand and put it on her forehead. "Have you been spending too much time in the projection booth? I think you have B-Movie-Itis."
Lana giggled, and pulled his hand down, but she didn't let it go. Instead she let it rest upon her upturned palm. Setting the bracelet aside, she ran her fingers over the back of his hand, tracing down his fingers and up again to the wrist. Turning it over, she touched his palm, and curled his fingers back and forth, until finally she put her hand inside. He closed his fingers around it and she stared down at their hands clasped together.
"Now that you've told me a secret...."
She smiled and bobbed her head. "Sort of." There was a pause. "Can I tell you something?"
"Absolutely," he said softly.
Her eyes grew a little vague, as if she were looking back in time and after a moment she said quietly, "Up there, in the tornado, you were there. I remember you holding my hand, just like this, and telling me I would be safe."
Lana looked up into his face, and he felt like she could see inside him, like he could use his abilities to see inside her, but instead of bones and muscle, she could see his thoughts and feelings.
"That wasn't a dream was it, Clark?"
He hesitated for only a split second. "No," he whispered. "It wasn't a dream."
"Can you make me feel safe?"
Clark reached out with his free hand, touching her hair with his fingers. Instead of answering, he leaned over the counter, and kissed her.
Lex's fingers curled more tightly around the glass of brandy he held when he heard the doors to his office open, and the sound of all too familiar footsteps on the parquet. He hadn't actually been drinking the brandy as so much as he was appreciating it. He sat swirling the amber liquid around in the glass and watching the play of light and dark in its depths as it picked up the reflection of the fire behind him.
It was like liquid fire. It certainly burned like fire when it hit a gut already torn up in turmoil. War was hell.
"What do you want, Dad?"
Lex took his feet off the credenza and swung his chair around so that he faced his father, who had made himself comfortable on the other side of the desk. "Want, Dad." He put the brandy glass down on the glass desk with a soft "clink."
"Do I have to have ulterior motives to visit my son?" Lionel asked, with a seemingly genuine look of surprise.
He might have once smiled at the cheek, but right now, Lex wasn't in the mood.
"You always have ulterior motives, and since you have to know that my auditors just left, I would say you've come to gloat."
"Never." Lionel said, and rose from his chair, crossing the room to where the brandy decanter still sat out. "I've come to congratulate you."
"Congratulate me." It wasn't question, but rather, spoken with dull resignation.
"Of course!" The elder Luthor gestured with his glass. "On your spectacular failure, Lex." He sipped the brandy as he resumed his seat. "Your stock just took a pretty bad hit, son. LexCorp. is floundering. I've come to offer my assistance."
Lex snorted softly. "You've come to gloat. I don't want, nor do I need, any help from you."
Lionel grew somber. "Let's be honest, Lex. LexCorp. is nothing but a temper tantrum. It's a money pit that is making us both look bad, and therefore I am offering to buy you out. Of course you would still be in a position of authority, but with LexCorp. a subsidiary of Luthor Corp. you will have access to my accounts for support."
"Your accounts, the paternal teat." Lex sat back in his chair and regarded his father icily. "Is that all you wanted to tell me?" He gestured to the computer sitting on his desk. "My e-mail account functions very well you know."
Neither spoke for a moment, but their eyes never left each other. It was a silent battle of wills, one that ended in a stalemate.
Lionel polished off his brandy, and placed the empty glass on the edge of Lex's desk. "You have thirty days, Lex, to pull yourself out of the nosedive you're in. If you wait too long, I'm afraid I'll have to find another investment opportunity. This time I won't be supplying a parachute. Either accept my offer, or lose everything." He stood up. "And by the way, I have business here in town this week. I will be staying."
Without a word, Lex turned his chair around again, dismissing his father from his presence. Lionel only chuckled at the affront, and made his departure. The sound of his footsteps echoed hollowly down the corridor as he left Lex's office, heading toward the rooms he had claimed as his own during his previous residency. He bellowed for the housekeeper, a door slammed, and then there was silence again.
Lex stared into his glass, and watched the flames flicker.
Chloe hit the off button of her computer with a little flourish, and patted the stack of copy sitting on her desk. Another issue of The Torch had been completed and was ready to go to the printer first thing in the morning. It always made her feel good when she finished an issue, but then afterward she felt sort of lost, as if the little high school rag had been her anchor and she'd suddenly been set adrift.
The feeling never lasted too long though. Chloe always seemed to be able to find something to occupy her attention during the "down" times. She'd started her famous (infamous?) Wall of Weird during the slow period between deadlines, and worked on it religiously every chance she could get. The wall of colorful clippings stretched from corner to corner of the room, and almost floor to ceiling now. There were only a few patches of bare wall left open at the top. Chloe enlisted Clark to help her pin new articles up there since she couldn't reach. Looking at it now she wondered what she was going to do once the wall was full.
She turned and eyeballed the end wall, where there still hung a blackboard, a leftover from the days when the room had been used for classes. The W.O.W. was just going to have to sneak on over onto it.
Somehow that idea gave her goose-pimples. The thought of those articles and their creepy contents spreading, like some sort of paper fungus, made her shudder. There were enough mutants around Smallville. They didn't need a crawling blob of newspaper print added to the mix.
"The Tabloid That Ate Kansas!" she chuckled, and tried not to think of Clark humming the theme from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
Chloe actually tried hard not to think of Clark at all these days, especially when she was alone, like now, when she felt like she needed his comforting presence. She wasn't exactly frightened, but it was true she'd developed a greater respect for fear since she'd come to live in Smallville. Things - people - were not quite right here. She considered herself well-versed in the weirdness herself now. It had come after her one too many times.
Shivering a little, she picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. Clark did make her feel safer, but so did the can of pepper spray she carried at all times, and it never made her second guess whether it was going to show up in time or not. Clark was not a good representative of the knight in shining armor; he was more like an elementary school crossing guard. Of course there was the fact that he'd save her, give her a perfunctory kiss, and unceremoniously drop her in a mud puddle in order to go rescue Lana. It was not exactly chivalrous.
"The big jerk."
She hefted the second bag containing her laptop and walked out the door, shutting it behind her. The breeze from the door swinging shut made the clippings on the wall flutter as if they were waving her good-bye. That was creepy too, she thought, then chided herself for an overactive imagination. The Wall of Weird was not going to rise up and eat her.
The school was pretty much deserted. As Chloe paused to stuff a book into her locker, she waved at Tony, the janitor with whom she often shared a coffee when she worked late. He waved at her from behind the handles of a big floor buffing machine, moving aside for her to pass. She burst out of the doors into the parking lot, humming to herself as she marched toward her car.
It was after dark, and a cool drizzle of rain was falling. The pavement was stained with moisture. In the light of the tall lamps illuminating the students' parking lot the blacktop glittered as if scattered with diamonds. Chloe wasn't completely oblivious of her surroundings during her walk across the lot. She kept her eyes open for anything unusual - anything that might jump out of the dark and grab her. Nine times out of ten there was nobody lingering around the lot, but she didn't want to be around when it came time for the tenth.
She opened her car door with an echoing squeal and shut it behind her with a bang. Once securely locked in, she fastened her seatbelt, making herself comfortable behind the wheel. She put the key in the slot and gave good hard twist and the old Falcon protested a little. After a second try the engine fired up with a healthy roar. Damp weather just gave it aches and pains as if it were an aging human. Chloe let the engine warm a little before she put it in gear.
It was then that she saw the shadowy figure standing at the corner of the school's main building. Half hidden by a tree on a moonless night, he was nearly invisible, and she might not have seen him if he hadn't been smoking a cigarette. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the glowing tip cut through the darkness. It moved, presumably as the smoker lowered it from his mouth, and a plume of smoke issued out into the chill spring air.
"Oh, man, number ten," she murmured.
Anyone else would have driven away. Chloe, however, was curiosity's slave, and after checking her door locks and pulling her pepper spray out for easy access, she remained in the parking lot watching the smoker. He seemed to be waiting for someone.
Or she, it could be a girl.
It could have been a completely innocent meeting between two friends heading out to a concert or a movie, or simply someone sneaking out of their parents' house to have an illegal smoke, but Chloe's trouble radar was pinging rather insistently. She remained vigilant until abruptly she realized he could see her as just as well.
Hastily she put the Falcon in gear, and drove away. At the exit, instead of turning left toward home, she turned right, and circled back into the teachers' parking lot where she could park her car under cover of a hedge and a burnt out lamp. She cut the lights, backed the car into place among the shadows, and flipped off the engine. It cooled with a soft ticking sound.
From the back seat, out the back window, she could still see the smoker, and if necessary, she could duck down in the floorboards to hide. She wished fervently she still had her binoculars. Her father had borrowed them to take to a Sharks game and never returned them. Instead she had to rely on her own eyes, which were frustratingly unable to show her the smoker's identity. For a long time nothing happened except a cramp in her foot.
Finally headlights cut through the darkness as another car pulled into the student lot. She immediately recognized the beat-up Chevy and knew then the smoker was Jarod. The Chevy belonged to one of his buddies. Sure enough, as he stepped into the headlights, circling around to the passenger side door, she could make out Jarod Sebring's lanky frame and the flash of green at his throat. He got into the car and slammed the door.
Chloe scrambled back over the seat, hurrying to start her car. As the Chevy shot past the opening to the teacher's parking lot, she waited a moment, then pulled out after it. She almost lost it as it turned a sharp corner, but goosed the Falcon into the tight turn. The wheels spun a little on the wet pavement, finding purchase only after a panicky fish-tailing moment, and Chloe breathed a sigh of relief when the little vehicle surged forward instead of slamming into a row of parked cars.
The Chevy sped down the narrow residential street. Chloe was hard pressed to keep up, yet not get too close and get caught by those she pursued. They ran a stop sign, at which Chloe hesitated before streaking ahead, and she scowled at its retreating bumper when it squealed around another corner.
Okay, so like you're expecting a bunch of potheads to obey traffic laws?
"Whoa!" She suddenly shot past the Chevy when she pulled out of the residential area onto Main Street. It had stopped at the curb behind a familiar red pick-up.
Chloe looked back in her rear-view mirror to see Jarod get out of the car, and she turned quickly down the alley between Fordman's and the bakery. The Falcon's shocks protested the bumps and jolts of the narrow alley with shrieks and squeals. Ignoring the grinding noise coming from under her car's right front fender, Chloe continued around the bakery building to stop in the side street on its other side. She was now facing Main Street.
Jarod stood in the shadows of the alley Chloe had just cut through, looking across the street. He withdrew another cigarette and a lighter from his back pocket, leaned on the corner of the building and simply looked out into the street. Smoke curled in lazy ribbons around his head.
Puzzled, Chloe followed his gaze.
He was watching the Talon.
"Great. I've just wasted, ..." She glanced at her watch. "Nearly twenty minutes, stalking yet another Lana stalker. Nice job Sullivan."
She grumbled a minute or two more, then leaned over to pick up her laptop, which had fallen into the floorboards during one of the radical corner moves. A sheaf of papers had fallen out of her bag. She picked them up as well, stuffing them back where they belonged, along with the pepper spray. It wasn't bad enough that she'd wasted valuable time chasing another one of Lana's stalkers, she had to make a mess of her car in the process.
"Man, I'm just going to grab a sandwich and soak in a hot bath when I get ho..." She sat up, and her words dried up in her mouth.
Her "Lana Stalker" was looking in her driver's side window.
It took all Chloe had not to scream.
In a very leisurely manner Jarod flicked his cigarette butt out into the street. His expression was unreadable when he raised a hand to knock on the window, as if he weren't practically nose to nose with Chloe already. She cracked the window, just enough for conversation, and enough to stick the pepper spray out to give him a face-full if he tried anything.
"Can I help you?"
"I was just going to ask you the same thing," he stated quietly. "Do you make a habit of following people around for no reason?"
"No, I only follow people around if they look suspicious."
His eyes, which were rather bloodshot, narrowed. "You're the newspaper chick."
"Well, among other more dignified appellations, yes. Chloe Sullivan..."
He interrupted her spiel, she hated it when people interrupted her spiel.
"Gabe Sullivan's kid?"
Chloe rolled her eyes, and reflected back on Pete's description of the state of Jarod's brain cells. "Yes, what..." She stopped speaking abruptly, not liking the creepy way he was looking at her. She really didn't like the fact that his choker was inches away from her face either.
For all the time she'd spent studying the effects of the meteorite crystals, Chloe had never fully examined one up close. She'd had a chunk of the ore with some of the red crystals buried in it, which she had been overjoyed to have in her possession - until Pete stole it, claimed to have lost it, and never replaced it. Now, staring at the winking green stones in front of her, she wasn't sure she liked being that close. They looked almost - alive - and knowing what they could do to people, wasn't making them any more appealing.
"Nice necklace, where did you get it?" she asked.
"Made it," he replied, and smiled at her. One of his front teeth was chipped, just slightly. It seemed somehow ominous. "I've read your stuff, afraid I'm going to mutate?"
"The thought had crossed my mind."
Reaching into his back pocket, Jarod removed a third cigarette, and put it in his mouth. He jabbed the first two fingers of his right hand at her. "Stop following me. You'll be sorry if you don't."
Chloe tossed her head, and with a bravado she didn't feel, she grinned. "Oh, is that a threat?"
"No," he said. "This is."
Jarod pointed a gun at her, and cocked it.
She froze. Neither of them said anything for several seconds, and Chloe felt the two cups of coffee she'd had at The Torch talking with her bladder about whether or not to make a hasty exit.
"You gonna stop following me?" he asked finally.
Chloe nodded vigorously. "Yes," she whispered. "Promise. Scout's honor."
"Good. Ain't no newspaper story here."
The gun was withdrawn, but he slapped the side of her car with his open palm, making Chloe jump and cover her eyes. When she uncovered them, he was gone. Craning her head all around, she couldn't tell in what direction he'd gone, and, she told herself, maybe that was a good thing.
She fought to regain her composure. Her hands were shaking as she ran them through her hair, and she sucked air in a couple of deep gulping breaths. Her "something's wrong" radar was now doing some primal screaming in her head, and she could feel her back tensing up with a combination of excitement and fear. As she wiped her sweaty palms on her thighs, she tried to figure out what to do next.
Looking out her windshield, the big, square bulk of the Talon's darkened marquee caught her attention. To her left she could see, just barely visible around the blocky bulk of another store front, the nose end of the red truck she'd seen earlier.
Chloe grabbed her bag, and clambered out of the car. Not bothering to look for traffic, she scurried across the street toward the old theater's big glass doors, through which she could see lights shining from inside despite the closed sign in the window. Before she hit the curb she was glancing back over her shoulder to make sure she wasn't being followed. Instinctively her hand went inside her bag to make sure her defense spray was handy.
Just what exactly she was going to tell Clark she didn't know. After all, Jarod really hadn't done much besides pull a loaded gun at her, and even of that she wasn't sure. How would she know if the gun was loaded? Was that even illegal? In Smallville everything was relative. A punk hoodlum with a gun was nothing spectacular. A punk hoodlum toting a gun and wearing a meteor-rock choker was something to be investigated.
She slipped into the shadows beneath the marquee, hoping there was nothing hiding in them, and hurried to one of the doors. Raising her hand to knock she peered in through the crack between the shade and the edge of the door.
For the second time that night she froze, speechless. Slowly she lowered her hand, as if all the strength had run out of her arm and she could no longer hold it up.
Inside, at the bar, were Clark and Lana. They were holding hands, and kissing. Around Lana's wrist was the big silver bracelet that had once belonged to the native girl, Kyla. Kyla, who had really knocked the breath out of Clark, even more than Lana ever did, and certainly more than Chloe. He had told Chloe all about the bracelet when she was asking him about the caves one day. He'd scoffed about what Joseph had told him about it being for a special someone, but Chloe had seen in his eyes he'd believed it.
Now the bracelet was on Lana's wrist, and Clark was kissing her.
All thoughts of Jarod, his mysterious threat, and everything else fled from Chloe's thoughts as she looked through the crack in the blind. She saw Clark draw away from Lana, who smiled at him with an obviously pleased expression on her face, and Chloe felt something close up inside her.
Without knocking, she turned on her heel, and went back to her car.
The bracelet took some getting used to - it was heavy both literally and figuratively.
Lana, leaning on the counter where she'd been the night before when Clark had given her the bracelet, looked away from her book and stared at her wrist. The bracelet was beautiful. The silver shone in the light as if it were flowing around her arm like a liquid. It made a wonderful contrast against her dusky skin and the turquoise stone complimented the pale pink shirt she wore. With her opposite hand she reached out to trace its outline, and sighed softly.
Was she doing the right thing, getting involved with Clark? The things he'd told her, what little they were, hadn't revealed much about him that she'd not already known or suspected. Some of those things frightened her. Clark was - different. He was predictably unpredictable, always seeming to do the right thing when it came to a life or death situation, but floundering along awkwardly through his everyday trials and tribulations. It seemed to Lana that Clark was much better at helping others than he was at helping himself.
She wasn't sure if that were a sign of insecurity, low self-esteem, or if Clark's vision was so focused on the big picture he was unable to see what lay right under his nose. In order to fully understand him, Lana needed to see things through his eyes, but if he never let her in, their relationship became a guessing game. She had never been very good at twenty questions. This was a game of one-thousand questions.
And very few answers.
Her fingers caressed the smooth metal of the bracelet, and she remembered the soft warmth of Clark's hand around her own. He was always so careful when he handled her, as if afraid she would break, and for someone who worked outdoors on a farm, his hands were very soft. Whitney had not been like that at all. When Clark was near her he seemed very reluctant to touch. Whitney had been all about bear hugs and slobbery kisses.
Thoughts of Whitney brought even more doubts. She'd been with him a long time, and she had loved him dearly. Falling in love with Clark had been completely unexpected and very frightening in its intensity. Guilt plagued her throughout the breakup with Whitney, his disappearance, and his death. Lana wondered if things had been different, if she had been more attentive, more supportive, would he have felt the need to enter the military in the first place? Was she to blame for his death?
People Lana loved tended to die, or go away. She had to admit to herself part of her reluctance to get close to Clark was not because of his secrets, but because of her secret. Lana thought she was cursed. If Clark became too dear to her, she knew deep in her very soul, she would never, ever, have him permanently. He would die, or go away.
She'd latched onto her phobia after her parents died. It had been reinforced during her childhood by a series of pets, given to her by Nell in an attempt to bring her niece a little happiness, that either ran away or died prematurely. In eighth grade she'd met Whitney, and after they'd started dating a while, she fell in love with him, but she'd always maintained a small nagging worry.
Then things got weird. Clark came along, and Lana was confused and distressed by her feelings for him. She forgot about the curse until Whitney went away, then Nell went away...
Lana had fallen in love with Clark, and the curse came back to punish her for her infidelity.
She rubbed at the bracelet.
I don't want to lose him too.
Beside her was her math book, opened to that day's assignment. She tried to do what homework she could at work during the slow periods so she wouldn't have to stay up too late when she got home. The math was going better following the tutoring session of the previous evening. Lana fingered the page of notes Clark had written out for her, smiling at his nearly illegible scrawl, and bent her head back down to her work.
The sound of the door opening made her raise her head again. She always tried to greet people as they entered, making them feel welcome. People who felt comfortable spent more money. Lex had taught her that trick.
Her first thought, when she saw the tall blond in the SHS letter jacket, was:
Oh, please God, I can't go through this again.
Every muscle in her body tensed, and her knuckles went white where she clutched her pen too tightly. It couldn't be Whitney, but he looked so much like him, at least from her point of view, with the afternoon sun shining in through the glass doors behind him, and the fall of his hair over one eye. He even moved like Whitney, with the same athletic grace and air of confidence.
The sun went behind a cloud. The boy turned his head to face Lana and she saw that it was not Whitney back from the dead, nor was it Tina Greer impersonating him. It was simply Jeff McCord, the latest football hero, the junior who had moved up to take over Whitney's position on the team. When she saw his face clearly the illusion was shattered, because he actually resembled Whitney very little.
Pete Ross was with him, and Lana automatically looked for Clark, feeling an irrational pang of disappointment when he didn't follow the two other boys through the door. Pete and Clark had always been joined at the hip, and quite a bit so lately. Today, however, Pete was with Jeff, and the two of them came up to the bar to see Lana.
She smiled broadly. Pete's eyes flickered quickly to Lana's wrist and back again. It was no secret Clark and Lana were officially dating. The word had spread like wildfire the moment Lana had walked in the front doors and met Clark by her locker. He'd given her a pink carnation before homeroom.
"What can I do for you?" she asked brightly. "You do realize members of the Crows athletic teams get a ten percent discount don't you?"
Jeff smiled back briefly, Pete didn't. They both appeared somewhat distressed, and for an instant Lana totally believed they were going to tell her something had happened to Clark.
She poured them both a cup of coffee. "What's going on?"
The quarterback cleared his throat. "Well, Coach was cleaning out some of the old stuff in the trophy case, including things that belonged to Fordman."
He paused, almost as if waiting for Lana to burst into tears. She simply plunked a sugar cube into his cup and waited for him to continue.
"Ross and I took it all over to Mrs. Fordman's house."
"How's she doing?" Lana asked quietly. She felt rather bad about her increasingly infrequent visits to the woman who had once been very close to becoming her mother-in-law. Between finding her biological father, and work, and school, and the whole Clark issue, her time had become incredibly limited.
"Okay, I guess," Pete murmured uncomfortably. He glanced over at Jeff.
"Really guys, what's going on?" Lana looked first to one, and then the other.
Pete handed her the paper bag he'd been carrying under one arm. "Mrs. Fordman asked if we were coming over here, and said to give this to you. She wanted you to have it."
First a bracelet from Clark,* and now what*?
She set the bag on the counter, peering inside. After a moment's hesitation she reached in and removed the contents, letting the soft red cloth spill over her hands. Ironically it hid the bracelet from view as she unfolded it across the counter and supported the trailing ends with her arms. In white block letters the word "Fordman" stared up at her from above a large number fourteen. It was Whitney's football jersey.
"Thanks," she said finally, softly, when she realized she hadn't spoken for a while. "I'll have to go see her, and thank her." Wordlessly, she carefully folded up the shirt again, and put it back in the paper bag.
Her smile returned. She chatted amicably with them for a while, until they moved off to greet some other friends, leaving Lana to her duties. She watched them for a moment, then took the bag from under the counter, retreating to her office where she shut the door firmly behind her. Outside she heard the soft chattering of voices, a little bit of laughter, and the faint clink of glasses. Inside she just heard her heart beating a little too quickly.
Withdrawing the jersey from the bag once more, she raised it to her face, inhaling the familiar scents she associated with the Fordman home. Flashes of memory flew past her closed eyelids like film through a projector, but moving much more quickly. As soon as she thought she could capture one memory and hold it, it flew by and was gone. She clenched the red cloth in her fists until she felt as if her nails would punch through it and into the flesh of her palms.
Sinking down into a chair, she started to cry.
Lex was sitting in his favorite corner, on the worn, red velvet loveseat with the ugly green pillows, reading something in a blue file folder. It was obviously something unpleasant, judging from the expression on his face. He looked as if he would love to tear the head off a kitten. Rather than risk a potential feline homicide, Clark decided to make an attempt to shake him out of his bad mood.
He sat down in the over-stuffed yellow leather chair directly across from the loveseat with a loud "fwumbph" and put his feet on the table. "Have you seen the new artwork?" he asked archly.
"You mean the Shrine O' Fordman," Lex murmured, not looking up from his reading. "Yes."
Clark craned his head to look over his shoulder at the glass box frame now hanging on the wall behind the bar. Inside were the number fourteen jersey and a picture of Whitney Fordman in his dress blues, taken just after he'd left basic training. It had usurped the old photograph of the Talon Clark had given Lana on the day of the grand opening. That picture was now hanging in her office, out of public view.
He looked back to Lex. "What do you think?"
Lex snapped the file folder shut, and raised his head to peer up at the wall. He studied the jersey for a moment in silence, then lowered his eyes to Clark. "Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want me to be honest?" His eyes narrowed slightly. "And if I told the truth would you believe me?"
Clark wondered if he had suddenly sprouted fur and a tail because he felt rather like an abused kitten. There was a momentary stalemate as Clark met the barb with a stony silence, which, as it always did, defused a potentially explosive situation. Lex folded first, lowering his eyes and making a small gesture to the file folder.
"It's business, Clark. It produces moods most foul."
"Tell me what you think," Clark said, moving onward, away from the sticky spot. "As my friend."
One fair brow went up at Clark's parry, and the more familiar, more benign mischief returned to Lex's eyes, overwhelming the smoldering fury that had been there just a moment before. He was pleased, Clark knew, to still be considered a friend despite the head butting the two of them seemed to be doing lately. If he thought Clark was just telling him what he wanted to hear (which he wasn't), it didn't seem to be a problem. He took what was offered and ran with it.
"Have you told her it bothers you?"
Clark made a face. "How can I tell her that? She'll claim I'm being petty." He shrugged. "And I haven't really had the chance to talk to her much since the night I gave her the bracelet. Spring planting is keeping me tied to the farm, and between school and this place, Lana is always busy."
"Honest answer?" Lex asked, quirking his brow again.
"I have no idea."
Flopping back in the chair, Clark groaned. "So now what?"
"Talk to her about it. It may just be another stage of mourning. Just ask her how she feels about Whitney. You saw how taking the first step opened up opportunity, if you really want to work out the kinks in the relationship you're both going to have to start talking to each other about the relationship instead of skirting around the edges."
Clark nodded. "Yeah, I found that out the other night. Once I opened up, so did she." He frowned. "So how come I always have to take the first step?"
"You're more of an enigma."
Clark had to agree there, but definitely wanted to steer the conversation out of those waters. He paused, then smiled wryly. "So enough about my love life. How's Dr. Bryce?"
That question produced a broad and somewhat goofy grin.
"Could it be? Do I hear violins? Lex Luthor is in love." Clark laughed.
"Shh, don't let it get out, you'll ruin my reputation."
It was hard to admit to himself, but Clark was overjoyed Lex had found Helen. It took time away from their friendship, which of course hadn't been on firm footing recently anyway, but it also distracted him from poking his nose in where it didn't belong; namely, into Clark's private business. Lex could say he wasn't doing things behind Clark's back but Clark didn't believe him for a minute. The problem was that instead of keeping his "enemy" close, Lex had accidentally let him inside the walls of the castle. Clark knew him too well to believe he would let a mystery go unsolved. Lex's hurt at Clark's mistrust was only skin deep.
It was a very complicated game they played. As long as they remained on equal footing and neutral ground, things ran rather smoothly. If one of them tipped the scales too far in his favor, or stepped over the line, it all went straight to hell in a handbasket. Oddly, neither one of them wanted the friendship to fail, but each was failing in the friendship. Clark sometimes felt as if he and Lex were tigers with a hold of each other's tails; neither dared let go lest one eat the other alive.
Clark's inner musings were interrupted by the appearance of Lana, who whapped his legs with her empty tray. He promptly removed his feet from the table with a sheepish grin. Her glare collapsed into a smile, and she leaned over to give him a peck on the cheek.
"Hi," she said brightly.
"Lex, I need to talk to you a minute." She waved one hand towards the room in general. "I think there's a problem with the heating system. For the last couple of days people have been complaining that it's chilly in here."
"I noticed it myself," Lex said quietly. "When I came in. Have you checked everything - the thermostats, the pilot on the furnace...."
"The ducts," Clark added.
Lana nodded. "I had Eddie do all that for me yesterday. He gave it the all clear."
Eddie was one of the janitors who worked at the elementary school. Lana sometimes paid him to do little maintenance jobs around the Talon like changing light bulbs, unstopping toilets and changing the furnace filters.
"Can I have a professional come in and look at it?"
"By all means, it's your ballgame."
She beamed. The Talon was her baby, and she hated to think her baby was sick. Her attention went back to Clark. "Are you going to come by at closing tonight? Or does your Dad need you at home?"
"I'll be here," he replied.
If possible, her smile got bigger, and she moved off into the crowd with a little spring in her step.
Lex and Clark exchanged glances.
Clark grinned, and felt his cheeks get warm. He definitely had a bad case of the warm and fuzzies, and a pleasant buzz from the idea of getting together with Lana that evening. They could talk some more, among other things, and he could clear up his Whitney angst.
Talk, drink coffee, make out....
Lex leaned forward to pick up the mug sitting before him, raising it in a toast. "Here's to being punch drunk in love," he chuckled.
A reply was forthcoming, but before Clark could get the words out of his mouth he felt a soft touch against his neck, like the tickling of fingers. "It's Chloe," he thought, and raised his head to look up at her. He was surprised to see no one there. The tickling ceased. He still felt a slight draft and a glance at the door indicated it shut, but someone had just entered.
Clark didn't move. He didn't dare move because if Jarod came much closer the choker he wore was going to make Clark pass out, throw up, or a really unpleasant combination of both. With Lex sitting across from him, watching both Clark and Jarod with much interest, Clark didn't think having to explain a sudden fainting spell would be a good idea. Instead he half turned in his chair and watched Jarod out of the corner of his eye.
If it had been Clark in charge, he would have thrown Jarod out on his ear. The kid was wearing ragged, baggy clothes that appeared to have been slept in, his long hair was done in a few sorry excuses for dreadlocks, and his face was dark with a patchy beard. Lana, however, was not Clark. She greeted Jarod with some civility and asked him what she could do for him. Clark half turned his attention back to Lex, but listened carefully to their conversation.
"I'm looking for the reporter girl. The little blonde, with the funky jewels."
"Chloe?" Lana frowned a little. "Chloe hasn't been in today, but if you want I can give her a message." She tipped her head a little to the side, looking at him carefully. "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do Jar..."
"No," he snapped. "Just tell her...nevermind. I'll find her myself." Abruptly, Jarod turned, and as quickly and silently as he'd entered, he was back out the doors again.
As soon as the door shut, Clark was up and at the counter where Lana still stood with her mouth hanging open in mid-syllable. She glanced over at him as he edged up to her.
"Well, what do you think of that?"
"I think I want to know what Chloe's been up to in the last couple of days," Clark said quietly.
Chloe sat behind her desk with her feet propped up on the edge, teetering precariously on the two rear legs of her chair. Her red blouse glittered with yellow crystals, and her eyes glittered with an unnatural high. She watched Clark ease in the door, his eyes wary, and she grinned at him as she committed yet another murder. Sticky, yellow, sugar-coated goo stretched between her fingers as her victim's head was slowly removed from its body.
She gestured to the package sitting on top of her computer monitor. The head she'd just removed was stuck to her thumb.
"Guh, Chloe how can you eat those things?"
It was revenge for the Tator-Tots. Chloe popped the decapitated marshmallow bird past her lips and chewed with her mouth open. "Mmm, sugar buzz!"
Clark snatched the box away and hid it in a filing cabinet.
"Hey! Get your own." She let her chair down with a thump and stood up, frowning and tossing her head at him in semi-mock anger as she moved on with what she'd been doing prior to breaking out the candy.
Pretending Marshmallow Peeps are you, Clark, and pulling their empty little heads off is much more fun than filing*.
"I'll let you have them back if you answer a question for me."
"Uhm, I'm not sure you can do that." Pausing with her hand full of photographs, poised to dump them into the file simply marked, "Pics Misc," Chloe made a show of pretending to count under her breath. Then she smiled - no smirked - at him. "Nope. Clark Kent has met his quota of favors and questions for the month." She let go of the photos and slammed the filing cabinet shut with a bang. "Sorry. You'll have to wait until next month and file form A-C-Q Number 57. My personal secretary Heinz will then inform you when it's your turn."
She turned on him and regarded him with a very serious expression. "I'm a very busy person. I have obscure facts to research, conclusions to which I have to jump, and I'm working on a friend tracking device for those tricky moments when they suddenly disappear with no warning. Not," Chloe added casually, waving a hand. "That you know aaaanything about those things."
Another pile of photographs, hastily thumbed through, joined the other stack inside the filing cabinet.
"I get your point, Chloe."
"Oh, really? That's amazing, Clark, because I've always figured you to be the type to miss the point even if I stabbed you in the chest with it."
"BANG!" She slammed the filing cabinet closed again, and regarded it solemnly for a minute.
Hmm, I'm madder at him than I thought. And why is that Ms. Sullivan? You never made any claims. You're just friends, remember?
Chloe let her breath out in a long sigh. "What do you want?"
"I was just at the Talon..."
She bit back a smart remark. "Yeah?"
*Like I'm surprised. Okay, now why is he smirking?
"Why would Jarod Sebring be looking for you?"
"I have no idea, considering I gave up dealing for Lent." Chloe retorted, without missing a beat - except for the one where her heart sort of tripped a little. "Did you ask him?" she added cautiously.
"No. He rabbited before we could ask him anything. What's going on, Chlo? You know regardless of how nice a guy Jarod might be, the stuff he's into...."
"How do you know what he's into, Clark? You're judging people on their appearance alone now? How incredibly shallow of you." Edging past him, Chloe dug around in the filing cabinet where he'd hidden her candy, coming up with the bright yellow box. "Maybe he just wants me to solve a mystery for him."
Lunge, thrust, parry....
They met each others' eyes while Chloe fingered a Peep and licked the sugar from her fingers.
"Lana said you're not talking to her at home," Clark said finally.
Chloe turned her back on him and stalked over to her desk. "I told you, I've been busy, and I don't always see Lana at home. We aren't co-joined twins you know. We're not interchangeable." She sat down. To illustrate her point, she pulled two little, squat sugar birds apart from each other. "If one falls...." One Peep tumbled from her fingers to the floor, and she paused before taking up the second one. "You can't just pick up a spare."
She stared at him solemnly as she put the candy in her mouth and chewed very slowly and deliberately. Clark stared back, and from his expression he understood very clearly what she was saying and feeling. It made him mad, which in Chloe's experience, wasn't usually pleasant. Instead of responding to her, however, he simply turned and left, slamming the door on his way out. All the pictures and plaques along that wall fell off into the floor - glass shattered. It lay glittering ominously upon the linoleum.
With a sigh, Chloe regarded the last forlorn little bird in the package of Peeps, then tipped it into the trash.
"He's a sore loser," she said to no one in particular.
As she brushed the sugar from her blouse she counted to ten, just to make sure Clark wasn't going to come back, before snatching up her coat and purse, rushing out to look for Jarod.
"I'm definitely calling someone out in the morning." Lana flipped the sign on the Talon's door to "closed" and rubbed her hands over her arms to warm them as she moved back towards the common room. "It's freezing in here," she murmured.
Before moving on to her nightly "closing up" chores, she went behind the bar to the wall beside her office door where the thermostat hung. According to its reading the room should have been at a comfortable seventy degrees. According to the goose pimples on Lana's arms, it was a great deal colder than seventy degrees. She tapped at the dial.
"What is wrong with you?" she growled.
There was a bang from the front of the room, causing Lana to flinch and turn around. Momentarily frightened, she scanned the common room, only to discover that one of the doors had blown open. It was fairly breezy out, threatening to storm, and sometimes the wind gusted in swirling eddies up under the marquee. She had not secured the door well.
"Brilliant, Lang. You might as well put a sign up - welcome thieves."
Lana's discourse with herself served two purposes. One, to let her vent her frustration regarding the malfunctioning heating system, and two, she was a little bit frightened. Usually Lana wasn't scared to be alone at the Talon after dark, nor any time really. She'd often spent the night curled up on one of the reading couches in the balcony area bookstore-slash-library. She'd never been afraid. She was, after all, known to flit around graveyards at night too.
For the last few nights, however, Lana had been feeling a bit uneasy. New sounds she didn't recognize began echoing through the old theater, like the dripping of water where there shouldn't have been water. Several glasses had turned up broken for no apparent reason, falling off counters where they should have been secure. Once, the night before last, she'd thought she'd seen a shadow moving in the alcove near the bathrooms. That same night she heard a scraping, scratching noise from upstairs that sounded very much like a dog walking across a wooden floor. She'd hastily locked up and gone home.
"Ms. Lana, it's mice," Eddie had informed her the next morning. "Or maybe rats, if that won't put ya off. With it being so damp out from the rain, their sewers get flooded, and they move up into these old buildings."
"It was too big to be a rat, Eddie," Lana replied, shuddering. "Much too big."
Last night Lana had closed up by herself again, and the theater had been quiet and still. There were no odd noises, scary shadows, or broken glasses. Even the cantankerous heater seemed to be in working order. Lana had shrugged off her previous experiences as a bad case of the nerves, brought on by her changing relationship with Clark, and the old nagging pain of Whitney's death. She'd come in this evening feeling confident and unafraid, but as soon as the last patron left, the uneasy feeling came back.
"It's just the wind," she said, and strode off towards the doors.
It was the wind. She could feel it tugging at the door as she pushed it closed again. It took quite a bit of strength to hold it still while she reached up to throw the bolts at the top, and it rattled and banged in the frame as she fought with it. Finally the bolts clicked into place, and Lana stepped back, brushing the hair out of her face. She looked up to make sure the door was securely fastened, and froze.
Every hair on the back of her neck, and down her arms, stood straight up in a series of wicked goose-pimples not brought on by cold. She stopped breathing.
There, standing in the window of the door, was a young woman. Her long brown hair swirled in a writhing, snapping mass all around her head, and as Lana struggled to get a breath out for a scream, the apparition pointed at her. Its mouth fell open, and barely a second later....
The howl of a wolf echoed through the empty coffee shop.
Fiery pain shot up Lana's arm from where her bracelet suddenly seemed to contract around her wrist. Glasses sitting on the counter behind her started breaking in a series of loud pops like gunfire, and right before Lana's eyes a chair rose up and came at her. It was then that she found her voice. She ducked under the chair, fell to the floor, and back-pedaled until she was cowering under a table with her hands over her ears, screaming at the top of her lungs.
Hands grabbed at her and she beat at them, trying to get away. They held her tightly and wouldn't let her go. She continued to scream when she was yanked out from under the table, but stopped almost immediately when she realized hers were the only sounds. The howling had stopped, and so had the breaking glass.
"Lana! Lana, it's okay! What happened? What scared you?" Clark's hands smoothed back her hair, holding her face in a gentle grip. He dropped one to her shoulder, and pulled her close, enveloping her in his arms. "It's okay. It's okay. What happened?"
She sobbed into his collar. "It was Kyla."
One of the tallest buildings in Smallville, Kansas, was Fordman's Department Store. It was one of the few multiple story buildings on Main Street to have survived the meteor shower. A large chunk of the southwest corner had been taken out, but otherwise the building remained as it had always been since the day it had been built - right around the turn of the twentieth century.
The twenty-first century might very well mean the end of the old building. With no one but Smallville's own Mrs. Fordman and a few scattered cousins remaining of the once large and prosperous family, there was little hope of its continued survival. The store itself was barely breaking even. More people were shopping at the Wal-Mart in Grandville than at Fordman's, even if it meant driving further. Chloe knew it would have to eventually close its doors like many other small town shops did once the big mega-stores came into the area.
In sympathy she gave the roof a little pat.
She was lying on the rebuilt southwest corner, her elbows raised just enough to prop her head and shoulders up over the edge of the roof. She'd reclaimed her binoculars from her father, and from her vantage point she could see quite well the alleys and side streets all the way up and down the main road through town. From the street she would be hard to detect, not only because of the roof edge, but because she was dressed all in black from her head to her feet. Going undetected was part of the plan. After all, she didn't need Jarod Sebring blowing her head off because she was spying on him.
Spying on Jarod was exactly what she was doing. He was standing in the alley on the opposite side of the street, somewhat catty-corner from Fordman's, directly across from the Talon. He'd been there since six, and had not moved save to smoke his cigarettes and once, to duck back into the shadowy alley when some pedestrians came too close. Chloe put down the binoculars to look at her watch. It was nearly nine. Lana would be closing the Talon and going home soon. Jarod might make his move then, whatever that move might be.
Chloe hadn't been able to find Jarod earlier, to ask what he'd wanted of her, and after thinking it through, she'd decided it might be better to keep her distance anyway. It was doubtful he'd come into the Talon to threaten her, but Chloe wasn't taking any chances. She wanted to tail him some more before she staged another personal encounter.
She yawned. A car came down the street, followed by another, then it was still. Chloe remembered the streets of Metropolis; even those in the subdivision where she lived had always been filled with traffic, cars going back and forth at all hours. Downtown Smallville was very quiet, especially this late on a weeknight when most of the stores were closed or closing.
A third car passed. Jarod flicked his cigarette butt to the ground as a fourth sidled up to the curb.
It wasn't the Chevy.
Chloe ducked down and peered intently through her binoculars. The car was a black SUV with tinted windows; a new and extremely expensive Mercedes as signified by the tell-tale sigil decorating its grill. Between the tinted windows and the glare of the streetlights, Chloe couldn't get a good look at the driver. Jarod was standing by the passenger's side window, talking rather animatedly with the unknown driver. She could get a good look at Jarod's face, and Jarod looked scared.
A drug deal of some sort? Chloe wondered, and wished fervently it did not go bad while she was watching. She'd seen some pretty gross stuff in her time, but a drive-by shooting wasn't something she wanted to witness. She pressed closer to the rubber eye rests of the binoculars just the same.
Jarod's voice echoed in the nearly deserted street but Chloe couldn't pick out any words, just their tone. He was upset with whatever the driver was saying to him, shaking his head in denial. As Chloe watched he fell silent. It was the SUV's driver who spoke. Whatever he said apparently did much to quiet Jarod's temper, but not his fear. He was deathly pale beneath his dirty hair and scruffy beard. He fingered his meteorite choker nervously.
There is the threat, whatever it is, to keep him under control.
Touche'. Pull a gun on me will you.
Finally there was a nod, and Jarod stepped back from the curb. With a roar of its engine and the squeal of tires on pavement, the SUV peeled out and away. Chloe swung her binoculars after it, catching just part of the license plate as it sped down the street. It was from Metropolis, she made out that much for certain. The digits she managed to see were from the center of the plate, a letter and four numbers. It would be more than enough for Chloe's purposes; her friend at the DMV could trace anything.
Chloe grinned as she returned her gaze to Jarod.
He was gone.
"Oooh! Great! Just gr...."
Suddenly a scream echoed up from the direction of the Talon, faint, but very definitely a scream. After a second to register that it was a scream, Chloe was up and running, shoving her binoculars and her black stocking cap into a bag as she quickly descended the fire escape ladder. At the bottom she dangled for a moment with her feet swinging in the air. Making sure of her balance, she let go, dropping the short distance to the pavement to land perfectly "stuck." She dashed around the building. Her blond bob flew around her ears as she ran quickly down the sidewalk toward the Talon.
The screaming wasn't stopping. Heart racing, Chloe increased her speed, only to flinch, blinking, as she thought she saw a blurred figure cross her path. Her attention was immediately brought back to heel by the sound of Clark's voice from beneath the Talon's marquee.
There was a bang, followed by the sound of broken glass. Clark called out again and this time the screaming stopped. Chloe clutched at her side as she ran up to the glass door hanging broken and twisted in its frame. She couldn't catch her breath enough to cry out, but she picked her way through the shattered glass into the coffee shop. She threw her bag on a table.
Chloe wove around the tables and found him sitting in the floor holding Lana, who was sobbing into his shoulder. She crouched beside them, one hand reaching out to smooth Lana's hair. The other girl was clearly very frightened.
"I heard a scream. What happened?"
Clark shook his head, his dark brows coming together in concern. "I don't know."
Lana looked up, eyes reddened and face still streaked with tears. The fingers of her right hand scrabbled at the wide silver cuff around her wrist, virtually tearing the bracelet off of her arm. She pressed it into Chloe's hands. "Get it away from me! Get it away!"
Chloe's mouth opened. She looked at Clark, who's expression was one of hurt and confusion. He took the bracelet away from her and put it in his pocket as Lana pulled herself to her feet, wiping at her eyes.
Clark and Chloe rose with her.
"Lana, it wasn't Kyla," Clark said gently.
"Kyla?" Chloe echoed.
"I know what I saw, Clark. I saw Kyla standing," she turned and pointed at the broken door, "right there! Right there! She howled at me."
Under normal circumstances Chloe might have laughed, and made some of quip, but she was completely confused. She'd expected to come through those doors and see Clark having a confrontation with Jarod. Even though Jarod had seemed to disappear much too quickly to have had time to break in and accost Lana, that's what Chloe believed had happened. Now she was puzzled. She had heard the sound of breaking glass after the screaming started, and she'd seen, or thought she'd seen, a ghostly figure in the street before that.
"I don't think it was Kyla either," Chloe said quietly. "I think it was Jarod Sebring."
"Jarod Sebring, huh?"
Clark pretended the large sheet of plywood he fitted over the Talon's broken door was heavy, grunting for effect. Sometimes he wondered if he shouldn't just chuck all the "helping people" stuff and go to Hollywood. He'd certainly learned how to act over the years.
"Do you want to explain that theory?" he continued, taking the hammer and a nail from Chloe. Lana had gone home, still shaken, and still refusing to take back the bracelet. Clark was selfishly more concerned with that fact at the moment than trying to deduce what exactly she'd seen.
"I've been tailing him. Something's up." Chloe handed him another nail when he'd finished pounding in the first.
"Chlowweee," Clark moaned. "Why didn't you tell me?"
She shrugged. "Figured you had more important things on your mind."
He knew exactly what she was talking about, even though she thought she was being cagey. Her little display of moodiness earlier in the day coupled with Clark's new "attached" status, had made him wonder how serious she had been when she'd declared them back to being "just friends." Trust Chloe to say the exact opposite of what she was feeling. Guilt had made Clark mad earlier, now he was just - more confused than ever.
"Anyway, it could have been Jarod. He's been casing the Talon for days now, I don't know why, but he threatened me with a gun over it."
Clark stopped in mid hammer-stroke and glared at her. "And you didn't call the police?"
"Well, you know how the cops are around here."
Clark took another nail and resumed his work. He couldn't discount the possibility it had been Jarod who frightened Lana, although Lana was completely convinced it had been Kyla's ghost. Sighing, Clark shook his head. He'd never really come to grips about how and why he'd been so attracted to Kyla. Maybe it had been because he'd sensed her other self, her hidden identity, and found in her a kindred spirit, or maybe she'd cast some sort of spell on him, - he just didn't know. If her ghost was somehow tied to the bracelet though, why hadn't she come to him?
No. It had to have been Jarod, and Lana had just thought she'd seen Kyla. Perhaps Lana wasn't as ready to be Clark's girlfriend as she'd led him to believe.
"The only thing is, I can't work out the timing." Chloe frowned, holding up her next nail. "I was watching Jarod, turned away, heard Lana scream, saw the blur...."
"Blur?" Clark asked.
Oh man, she saw me! That was me, not Jarod, nor any ghost.
"Well not exactly a blur, but something, some presence, crossed in front of me as I was on my way here." She shook her head. "That would indicate some sort of ghostly phenomenon." Her eyes were bright, full of excitement as she looked up at him. "Jarod and Lana's ghost are linked somehow. I know it. I just can't find the missing piece of the puzzle." She pondered a moment. "It must be the necklace."
At first Clark thought she might be referring to Lana's necklace, the one the ship had altered. Lana believed it lost, destroyed by Tina during her masquerade as Whitney, but Clark still had it at home, hidden in his dresser drawer. He hadn't figured out how to get it back to her without a lot of questions being raised.
"Jarod's necklace?" he asked.
"Yes, that choker. It's mutated him somehow."
Clark snorted softly, and looked back down. "Chloe, if just wearing a meteor rock causes a mutation, how come Lana hasn't mutated." He cocked his head to the side, grinning at her.
"Maybe she has," Chloe replied ominously.
"Oh, please! Now you're just being silly, Chlo. Look," he said. "Here's what I think happened. Lana's tired, she's been running this place by herself and trying to keep up with her studies. She probably just saw her reflection, or a piece of paper blown up against the window. She freaked out and started screaming. Jarod heard her scream and it scared him off."
"What about my ghost?"
"The blur?" Clark looked away, becoming very attentive to his hammering so she couldn't see the lie in his eyes. "It was probably just the wind or something."
"How did the door get broken?" Chloe asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
Blushing, Clark shrugged. "That was me," he said sheepishly.
"Lana screams and you jump through doors instead of hoops?"
"Something like that."
Neither of them spoke for a while.
Chloe finally broke the silence. "You didn't cut yourself did you?" she asked softly.
"Nah. I was going too fast." Clark stepped away from the door. "Adrenaline rush you know." He gestured to his handiwork. "You think that will hold until the morning?"
"Yep. Looks good."
He grinned, and Chloe joined him, but he sobered after a minute, giving her a serious glower. "Don't go following Jarod around by yourself anymore, Chloe. I don't want you to get hurt. Just stay away from him."
"I don't think he's dangerous."
"He pulled a gun on you!"
"You should have called the cops," Clark insisted.
The idea of Lana being attacked was frightening, but the idea of Chloe getting shot and killed was even more so. Her adventures often took her out of the range of Clark's protective presence. If something happened to her and he was not there to prevent it he'd never be able to live with himself. Life without Chloe was pretty much unthinkable, no matter how they did or did not feel about each other.
"He hasn't really done anything but loiter, Clark. Okay, besides the gun thing," she added before he could protest. "Just - keep an eye out for him. Something is going to go down."
Clark sighed. He was getting seriously tired of things going down in Smallville.
"Thanks, Clark." Lex leaned back on the sofa, his cell phone in one hand and the television remote in the other. "No, no. I'm glad you called." His thumb flexed, the channel changed. "Is she okay?"
What is this? The golf channel? God!
Lex rolled his eyes and escaped the black hole of boredom that was twenty-four-hour golf with another press of the button.
"I think you're right about Lana being overly tired. I'll talk to her about farming out the bookkeeping. That should free her up a little."
Hmm. Japanese horror film marathon. How many Gamera movies were there again?
Tossing the remote down onto the sofa cushion, Lex switched the phone over to his other ear. "Thanks," he repeated, and reached for the glass of juice sitting beside him on the end-table, but then froze abruptly.
"Chloe said what?" He sat up, swinging his legs off the couch and onto the floor. "Sebring...the kid from this afternoon?"
Son of a bitch.
"No, I have no idea, but I'll find out. Sure. Don't worry."
Lex flipped the little phone closed, all but cutting off Clark's good-bye.
Lex flinched despite himself. The low voice coming from somewhere in the dark room, where he'd thought he was alone, startled him. He glanced over his shoulder as his father moved in from the shadows surrounding the doorway.
"No," he said.
"You sounded a bit concerned." Lionel's purr was like that of the big feline predator to whom he was often compared. "Who was on the phone?"
It was on the tip of Lex's tongue to say, "none of your business," but he kept himself in check. Getting defensive would only make Lionel believe something was wrong.
Lex couldn't be sure because of the lighting, but he thought he saw his father's lip quirk upward at the mention of Clark's name.
His eyes narrowed. "There was a little scare down at the Talon. Everything's taken care of now. No problem."
"Ah, your little sidebar." Lionel nodded. He glanced at the television screen's flickering images and this time his lip did curl, in disgust.
Lex felt his face growing warm. "Did you need me for something?"
"No, no. I was just out for a walk and saw the light." Smiling, Lionel leaned his elbows on the back of the couch, idly staring at the television as if he really cared about what was on it. "You know, that property...."
"No," Lex snapped.
Lionel turned his head, meeting Lex's gaze. For several heartbeats they simply stared at each other while the residents of monster-ravaged Tokyo screamed in the background. Lex felt like screaming and running away himself. His father loved turning the screws to dig in just a bit more painfully every chance he got. The Talon was Lana's. Lex considered it a gift to her. He left it alone. Lionel of course considered it a business enterprise that barely turned a profit, and another example of Lex's inability to manage anything.
Lionel's smile broadened as he straightened. "Thirty days, Lex," he said. "You only have thirty days. If I were you, I'd be considering every option."
What makes you think I haven't already done just that?
As quietly as he'd appeared, Lionel faded back into the shadows again, almost as if he were made of them. His footsteps echoed down the corridor as he went on his way.
Once Lionel was gone, Lex turned off the television and sat in the dark with his head in his hands, pressing his thumbs hard into his eyes. His temples throbbed with the tell-tale pressure of an impending migraine. Japanese rubber monster flicks had suddenly lost their appeal. He needed something else to distract him.
He groped for his phone again, finding it and dialing by feel. He continued to rub his temple as he waited for his call to be answered, wondering how much sweet-talking he was going to have to do. Generally Lex Luthor got what he wanted. He was very good at getting what he wanted.
"Hey," he said, softly, when he heard Helen's voice. "Can you come over?" His voice lowered in a purr very much like his father's. "I'll make it worth your while."
After a moment his mouth stretched in a smile. His headache and his troubles melted away. There would be no other coercion necessary.
Lana was afraid to go to bed. Even leaving the light on hadn't helped. When she closed her eyes all she could see was the face she'd seen looking back at her from the darkness. All she could hear was the howl echoing through her mind. Instead of sleeping she was sitting in the Sullivans' kitchen, nursing a cup of tea and reading a fashion magazine she'd pinched from Chloe's stash, anything to keep her mind off of what had happened.
Clark could doubt her all he wanted, but Lana had seen Kyla Willowbrook in the window. If it hadn't been her, it was someone doing a very good impression.
There was a sound from the living room and Lana flinched. She stared, wide-eyed, as a dark clad figure sidled through the door and made its way across the room toward the kitchen. She only relaxed when the light from the kitchen revealed a yawning Chloe.
"Hey," Chloe toed off her shoes, padding into the kitchen in stocking feet.
Lana watched her rummage through the fridge searching for a soda. Chloe and Gabe both liked the same soda, and a great deal of subterfuge went on between them when the supply started running low. They hid it from each other. Lana had once opened what she'd thought was a plastic pitcher of orange juice only to find two cans of pop inside.
"He hid it in the butter compartment," she said helpfully.
Chloe flipped open the little door and found the last can of soda. "Aha! Thanks!"
Grinning, Lana made a mental note to bring home some more. She could use her merchant card at the Grandville Warehouse Club to get a whole case, cheap. Grinning back, Chloe popped open the top and took a long draw before sitting down at the table. She looked at Lana intently.
"Yeah, just a little shaken up still." Lana bit her lip nervously. "Is Clark mad?"
Chloe tossed her head and set her soda down, her smile growing wry. "Trust me, I've been on the receiving end of Clark's temper more than once, Lana. I can tell when he's mad. He's not mad." She ran her fingers over the top of the pop can. "You still think you saw Kyla?"
Lana nodded. "It was Kyla."
And she wasn't very happy.
"Clark thinks it was a plastic bag blown up against the window," Chloe said. "And that you mistook it for a person because you're overly tired."
Lana felt a surge of anger swept through her, and an odd little twinge of jealousy. If someone else, say Chloe for example, went to Clark saying they'd seen something strange, he wouldn't be so skeptical. It was another case of the "fairy princess" syndrome. Lana was being patronized.
"I know what I saw," she said hotly. "He doesn't have to make something up this time, like he does when I see...." She stopped abruptly, shaking her head.
Chloe frowned. "See what?"
"Nothing, just...." Lana wrapped her fingers tightly around her mug, leaning slightly forward over the table. "I know what I saw was Kyla, Chloe. I know it. I wasn't dreaming. I didn't get knocked in the head. I. Saw. Kyla."
Leaning back in her chair, Chloe took another sip of pop. "Okay, assuming you have gone The Sixth Sense on us, why would Kyla haunt the Talon? She wasn't anywhere near town when she died."
"No," Lana replied. "She wasn't, but she was wearing that bracelet. Maybe she's drawn to it. Maybe she doesn't want Clark and I together." She glanced away, but Chloe must have seen her expression.
"Are you and Clark together?"
Lana didn't answer right away. "I miss Whitney," she said softly. "And sometimes I'm afraid I'm just looking for a replacement."
She returned her gaze to Chloe, who was looking at her with a carefully arranged expression. The blond girl apparently was taking the time to compose her words just as carefully.
"Clark worships you, Lana," Chloe said finally, her voice trembling a little. "Don't hurt him." She tossed back the last of her soda and tossed her head a little, shaking off whatever somber mood had captured her. "I thought you were going to break up with Whitney?"
"I was. I...thought we needed some time. I didn't want to hurt him either." Lana thumbed at one eye, swallowing a yawn.
She was very tired, her mind confused and tied up in knots. Maybe she didn't care as much about Whitney as she was telling herself. When Whitney was at his attentive best, Lana never had to worry about anything. He took care of her, made sure she was comfortable, kept her safe. Clark was more work. He made her think, and wasn't always as dependable as Whitney. Maybe Lana was just lazy, or too needy.
Maybe Clark wasn't the one for her, or vice versa, and maybe that's what Kyla had been trying to tell her.
There was the scrape of wood against linoleum as Chloe pushed back her chair. Lana heard her cross the kitchen and then felt a gentle touch upon her shoulder. She turned her head to find Chloe standing beside her with a box of tissues in one hand. In the other hand she held a carton of ice cream and two spoons.
Lana took the tissues and one spoon. Chloe sat down across from her again.
"You may have lived next door to Clark all your life," Chloe said, prying the lid off the ice cream. "And I've known him for years, but neither one of us really know him. He's as frustrating as he is friendly." She dug up some double chocolate chunk fudge and grinned as she licked it from her spoon. "This," she said, waving said spoon. "Is the best cure for that frustration."
"I think I'm more frustrated with myself than Clark." Lana sniffled, and wiped her eyes with a handful of tissues. She took a tentative taste of the ice cream. Chocolate flavor exploded on her tongue. Her eyes widened.
Chloe giggled. "See. Good huh?"
"It will help you sleep too," Chloe said, scooping up more of the gooey-sweet ice cream. "The lactose, in combination with the warmth the body produces in response to the cold food, helps the relaxation process."
"You learn that in science glass?" Lana laughed.
"Nah, Food Network."
They both giggled.
"Well," Lana said later, as they cleaned up their mess. "Maybe I should break up with Clark."
Chloe cocked a brow. "Oh?"
"Yeah." Lana sighed. "Because if this keeps up I'm going to get fat!"
"Clark Kent, bane of Weight Watchers."
Laughing, the two of them went up to their rooms, and Lana counted herself lucky to have found such a good friend in Chloe, but as she settled back onto her pillow her thoughts returned to Clark. She got very little sleep. Judging from the soft sounds of a computer beeping from next door, neither did Chloe.
Neither Chloe nor Lana were at school the next day, prompting Clark to head straight for the bank of pay phones in the cafeteria as soon as the bell rang for lunch. He was informed by Chloe, who practically shouted over the music playing in the background, that she and Lana had simply stayed up all night talking and Gabe told them they could take a sick day. They were currently engaging in "girly activities of no concern to you."
"Like what?" Clark scowled into the phone.
"Did I not say it was of no concern to you, Clark? Has over a decade of receiving a first rate education from Kansas public schools failed to teach you rudimentary English?"
Peeved, he hung up on her. He knew what they were doing, they were sitting around painting their toenails and gossiping - about him.
Maybe talking Lana into staying in Smallville instead of going with her aunt hadn't been that good of an idea in the first place, especially since she'd moved in with Chloe. Juggling girlfriend, with friend, who happened to also be a girl, wasn't easy. Girls seemed to be more of an alien species than Clark himself, and he wondered if he'd ever be able to figure out the nuances of forging a relationship with one. Lex didn't seem to have any problems; he'd been through three already, if one counted Desiree, and was working on his fourth.
"Of course four women in two years isn't the best track record either." Clark grinned. Sometimes he thought Lex just talked out of the side of his neck and didn't really know as much as he implied.
Clark turned and saw Pete squirming through the lunch crowd toward him, backpack bumping against his leg. It was full of books and obviously heavy. He set it down next to the wall as he stopped to catch his breath.
"Man, if you were talking to Chloe I hope you gave her heck for calling off today. She was supposed to let me borrow her chemistry notes. I've got a test next period and I'm doomed."
"What's all that?" Clark nodded at the books.
The frown returned to Pete's face. "Research project for history. I just came from the library. I'm gonna be doing homework all weekend."
"What are you doing tonight?"
"And tomorrow night?"
"Homework, Mr. I-Have-a-Photographic-Memory, what don't you get?" Pete gestured at his bag and made a wry face. He was trying not to laugh. "Just because some of us have access to more than ten percent of their brains, or at least theoretically because I think about ninety-five percent of your brain is occupied by thoughts of the lovely Ms. Lang...."
Clark picked up Pete's backpack - easily.
"And don't have to break their backs carrying around half the school library." Pete finally started laughing. "What's up?"
"I'll carry this to your locker," Clark said. "And I'll help you with your paper, if you do something for me."
He watched Pete suddenly go from fun and games to deadly serious. Ever since Clark told him his secret, Pete was more wary about things Clark asked of him. He might joke, but in reality he took the fact Clark was "different" very seriously. The run-in with Hamilton had convinced him of how dangerous Clark's real life could be and it had made him very protective. At the same time their friendship was achieving a new closeness, it was also changing. Pete was having to get to know a new Clark, different from the one who had been his friend since kindergarten. Sometimes accepting that was hard on him.
"Does it involve breaking and entering?"
"Not this time." They started off down the hall toward Pete's locker. "I need to go see Joseph Willowbrook, and I just wanted someone to go with me."
Pete visibly relaxed. "Sure, I'll go. Why do you want to see him?"
"I want to ask him if he believes in ghosts."
"Ghosts?" Pete looked at him sideways, then shook his head. "Man, I'm not even gonna ask."
A carefully manicured lawn stretched down from the magnificent stone edifice that was the Luthor mansion - "The Castle," as it was called by Smallville natives. There was a garden in the back, a formal English garden which was tended by an army of gardeners employed to keep the wild Kansas prairie from taking over again. The garden was on an incline, and trailed off toward another expanse of green, a trio of weeping willows, and a pond.
The owner of said pond was standing barefoot in the shallow water at its edge. His pants were rolled up to mid shin, and his expensive designer shirt was somewhat damp and mud spattered. A female companion sat on the bank upon a blanket with the remains of a picnic lunch spread out around her. They'd taken advantage of an unusually warm spring day to get out in the fresh air and sunshine. He had gone wading on a whim.
"Are you always this spontaneous?" Helen laughed.
Lex looked up at her and grinned. "No, it just looked inviting." He peered down into the sandy shallows. "There are millions of tadpoles in here."
"Pardon me, but, ew."
"You won't be ew-ing when they mature into frogs, and start singing at night." Lex sloshed through the water and back onto dry land, stretching out on the blanket beside her, propping himself up on one elbow. "It's beautiful out here at night. I've often come walking out here after dark. You can hear all the little frogs singing, and when it's still the water reflects the sky. It seems like all the stars have fallen to your feet and you can catch the moon in your hand." He clenched a fist, then opened it quickly as if freeing whatever he'd captured. His expression was somewhat wistful.
Helen looked down at him, and reached out a hand to caress his shoulder. "I think country life suits you, Lex," she said softly. "I never would have expected you to be like this."
"My reputation precedes me," he replied. "I didn't think I would. I had to be convinced by the hand of fate. Nearly dying tends to make one slow down and look at the scenery." He took hold of the hand caressing his shoulder and brought it to his lips. "I'm ever so pleased I did not miss meeting you."
Turning her eyes away from him, Helen looked out toward the water. "It is beautiful here. Quiet. Not like Metropolis."
Lex studied her profile. Her hair was pulled back, but spidery tendrils had escaped to frame her face, reminding him of the fall of the willow tree branches. When she turned her gaze back to his she smiled, and he saw himself reflected in her dark eyes. It was tempting to stay in the garden forever, like Thomas the Rhymer lost among the faeries, held captured by their queen. Life, unfortunately, was not a fairy tale, particularly if your name was Luthor. Lex sighed.
"I need to ask you something, Helen."
"It may hurt your feelings."
She leaned over him, and kissed his forehead. "I'll get over it."
He rolled over onto his back. The sky was an obscene shade of blue. "If I lost everything," he said, choosing his words with care. "If I had nothing, no power, no status, no wealth, would you stay with me?"
Helen didn't reply right away. Her silence prompted him to turn his head and look at her. She was gazing down at him with an unreadable expression, but when she did speak he could tell she was trying to control her temper. A part of him found irony in that fact, considering the circumstances under which they'd met. In the end, she succeeded.
"I," she said slowly. "Am attracted to the man who wades in fish ponds like a little boy, and finds delight in tadpoles." Her serious expression suddenly broke into a smile. "Who guards his comic book collection as if it were made of gold, and listens to Dr. Demento when he thinks nobody is around."
Lex stared at her, his smile wry.
"Does that answer your question?" she concluded.
Rising up from his prone position, he kissed her gently, breathing softly against her lips. She tasted of the strawberries they'd had for dessert.
"Yes," he whispered.
"But I have to ask you something in return."
"Anything," Lex murmured, kissing her again. Her dark eyes were like melted chocolate, sweet and warm.
"Are you trying to tell me something?"
He looked into those warm eyes, kissed her sweet lips, and issued a cold and bitter lie to her.
Chloe pulled into the school parking lot in time to see Clark and Pete piling into Pete's car, and she pulled up beside them facing the opposite direction. She and Pete were practically nose to nose as he rolled down the window and glared at her.
"Chemistry notes?" he said.
"Oh no! Pete, I'm sorry. I totally forgot."
"Uh-huh. While you were off playing hooky, I was failing chemistry. Thanks bunches."
"Make it up to you?"
His grin was lecherous. "I'll think of something. Give me time."
Chloe grinned back. "So where are you two headed in the Blue Bomber?" She reached out and gave Pete's Chevy a thunk.
"Ghost busting apparently." Pete laughed, beside him Clark gave him a little shove.
Looking past him to Clark, Chloe narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "I thought you didn't believe in ghosts, Clark?"
Of course he would take Lana seriously. Chloe couldn't say she was very surprised he'd decided to investigate the whole ghost theory after all.
Clark shrugged. "Just covering all bases, Chloe." He didn't meet her gaze, and she determined, with some humor, that he was annoyed with her.
"Uh-huh," she said. "Well, I actually have to attend to some Torch business, so I can't join you on your little ectoplasmic investigation. Tell Bill Murray I said hi." She pushed her foot down on the gas, and drove off to park on the other side of the lot before Clark could say, "You aren't invited anyway."
She yanked her bag across the console from the passenger's seat and got out of the car. The students leaving usually took the main entrance, under the watchful eye of Principal Reynolds, who had a habit of standing at the top of the steps when the dismissal bell rang. He looked out for trouble, made sure they were going home with their books and study materials, and generally provided an opportunity for his students to approach him with problems or concerns. He was, in Chloe's opinion, a much better administrator than the late Mr. Kwan. She never could figure out why the man harbored such a distaste for Clark though. Most of the teachers adored Clark despite his tardiness problems and his tendency to forget to do homework.
"And Torch story assignments," she grumbled to herself. He was past due on an interview with the new guidance counselor Mrs. Wetherby. He had instead made ghost busting a priority. "Whatever."
Chloe went in the back door so she would not have to explain a rather miraculous recovery from her stomach virus to Mr. Reynolds and headed straight for the Torch office. She closed the door behind her with a little sigh. The garish room with its paper strewn wall and dented file cabinets was her home away from home. It was her quiet place, where she could do her thinking without distraction, where she could bury herself in a project for hours without glancing up from her computer screen until her stomach reminded her she hadn't eaten.
Putting her bag down on the floor beside her chair, she plopped down to check her e-mail. While the computer went through its paces she picked idly at her nails, trying to mask her impatience at the snail's pace the program was setting. Finally the computer beeped, and Chloe logged on to check her mail. She crowed with delight when a familiar address appeared in her in-box.
"Bingo. Thank you, Gary."
Before she could hit the print button she heard a sound at the door, followed by the creak of it opening. Whether it was the janitor, Principal Reynolds, Clark, or someone else entirely Chloe didn't know, but she did know she didn't want anyone to see what she was doing. She closed her mailbox and turned around to face the door, barely masking her look of irritation at the interruption.
She was surprised to see Jarod Sebring entering the room. Chloe felt a surge of fear, but held her ground and turned on her facetiousness.
"So, now who's following who? I heard you were looking for me. Pardon me if I don't threaten you with eminent death but I'm not the gunslinger you are."
Jarod shifted his weight and his eyes uneasily. "You here by yourself?"
Chloe hesitated. She wasn't sure she should admit that yes, she was alone. Jarod's body language spoke of fear, not violence, but she knew that sometimes a fearful animal was one more likely to bite. She settled for a compromise.
"I'm waiting for someone. What can I do for you?"
"I'm in trouble," he mumbled.
"Why am I not surprised?"
She examined him carefully. He looked more disheveled than usual, with dark circles under his eyes and wrinkled clothing. He smelled of sweat and cigarette smoke. With shaking hands he pushed back long hair desperately in need of washing. He stared back at her nervously.
"Go on," she prompted.
"I got in with some men. I did a few things for them, and made some money. My mom, she's sick. When I got busted last year I lost my job at the market and we been havin' a hard time so I went back to those guys to get some work." He bit his lip. "I 'greed to do this thing. They gave me the gun, and a pile of money, but...."
"But now you're having second thoughts?" Chloe's eyes widened. This was a bigger story than she'd thought. "Why haven't you gone to the police?"
Deja vu, Sullivan.
"They can't do nuthin. These guys I know, they're just little guys. Someone else is callin' the shots, and he don't like people who mess up his plans. People who mess up his plans sometimes end up gone, you know?" He shook his head. "I tried to ask for another job, 'cause I can't give back the money they've already given me, it's spent. They told me if I didn't do what they told me, they'd hurt my Mom."
Chloe sat back in her chair, chewing her own lip. "Why me? What do you think I can do?"
"I've read your stuff. I know you got connections places. Thought maybe you could get 'em shut down or something, or find me someone who could." Jarod slumped slightly against one of the filing cabinets. "I didn't mean to scare you the other night. I was afraid if you got after me you'd mess up my job, and I'd get in trouble. But now I'm in trouble anyway."
"Your job has something to do with the Talon, doesn't it? Were you the one who frightened Lana last night?" Chloe asked. "Were you her ghost?"
It was Jarod's turn to look frightened. Beneath his scruffy beard his face went white as if he had been the one to see the ghost. "Ghost?"
"Yeah, Lana claims to have seen the ghost of a dead girl at the Talon last night. Do you know anything about that?"
Jarod opened his mouth to reply, but before he could utter a word, there was a knock on the door. Both of them jumped, and Chloe rose to her feet when it opened to reveal Lex Luthor.
"Ms. Sullivan, I hope...."
"Jarod!" Chloe ran forward as she saw Jarod bolt past Lex through the open door. "Jarod wait!" She bounced back and forth on her toes, torn between following Jarod, and being polite to her other visitor. She compromised by throwing an, "excuse me," over her shoulder at Lex before running after Jarod, who was rapidly disappearing down the hallway.
In the older part of Smallville, where rows of 1950's style cape cods lined narrow streets of crumbling blacktop, there lived several of the Kawachi elders, including Kyla's Grandfather Joseph. Clark had been there once during the time he'd been - doing whatever it was they'd been doing - with Kyla.
Clark was hesitant to call it dating. In retrospect he didn't know what it was, only that he'd felt peculiarly drawn to her, and not just because she was beautiful. She had an unearthliness about her that made him feel comfortable, as if she were like him, perhaps one of his people by some shared ancestral blood. In her he'd seen hope of a normal life. If that long ago visitor from the stars had by some means left behind a half breed half-breed child, it would indicate a compatiblity Clark had always thought unlikely. Kyla had also known what it was like to live a lie.
In a sense, she had died protecting him. Using a certain logic it could be said that Clark was responsible for the death of the Luthor Corp. foreman too. Clark often wondered if it were possible to die of a guilt overdose. Sometimes he wished he would.
Then there was the theory that what Desiree had done to Lex, Kyla had been able to do to Clark, bewitching him into falling in love with her. Such a theory would make sense in light of recent developments. If Kyla were in possession of some other powers besides shapeshifting, it could be quite possible she'd come back to protect her interests in Clark from Lana.
"Werewolves, witches and ghosts, oh, my."
Pete glanced over at him. "What?"
"Nevermind. There, the white house with the green shutters, that's it."
They pulled up in a driveway that had once been paved, but had decayed over the years to a strip of grass flanked by two gravel tire ruts. A battered pick-up sat parked there. In the little shed that was a detached garage, was an ancient Chevy Nova with a crooked, rusty bumper.
Clark got out of the car. "Maybe you better wait here."
"Sure," Pete said uneasily. "I'm really not anxious to meet any other wolf-people who might be around."
"They wouldn't hurt you if you did."
"I'd rather not take any chances."
"Chicken." Clark grinned.
"You bet," Pete said promptly. "You're the one with impenetrable skin. You go get bitten. I'll warn you though, if you go all Teen Wolf on me afterward, I'll never forgive you."
"You worry too much, Pete."
"Yeah, well, someone has to do it." He peered out beneath the sun visor at the porch and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "I'll wait here."
Nodding, Clark moved off toward the porch, but before he could go up the steps to the door, Joseph himself came around the other side of the house carrying a hoe. The elderly man seemed surprised to see him, but gave him a faint smile.
"Clark. It is nice to see you again." They clasped hands, and Joseph motioned toward two chairs sitting on the porch. "Come, sit down. I was just preparing to take a break from my planting." He nodded toward a row of potted rose bushes lined up in the flowerbeds along the front of the house. "Climbing roses. Kyla was fond of them. I am too."
"I'm sorry Joseph, I can't stay long." Clark said after they'd taken their seats and Clark declined something to drink. "Maybe another time we can have a longer visit, but for now...I need to ask you something."
"If it is about the caves," Joseph replied somewhat tersely. "I cannot help you. It has been difficult for us to have access to them any longer. The man young Luthor has hired to study the paintings has denied us access. Keep your eye on that one, Clark. His arrogance will lead him to harm."
Clark wasn't entirely pleased with Dr. Walden either, but kept his thoughts to himself, only nodding in agreement. At least the caves were not being destroyed. He looked down at his hands, then back up at Joseph.
"I need to ask you about Kyla. Something has happened, something I don't understand." With a faint smile, he shook his head. "And if it weren't that strange things are pretty much the norm around here, I wouldn't even ask about it but...."
"My friend, my g-girlfriend, thinks she saw Kyla's ghost last night. She's pretty adamant about it." Clark looked over at his companion, his brows dipping in confusion. "Is it possible that she's right?"
Joseph leaned back in his chair, making the wood creak beneath him. He was quiet for some time, gathering his thoughts. Enough time passed before he spoke that Clark had to resist the urge to simply say, "Okay, nevermind. I'll be going now."
"Anything is possible, Clark," Joseph said eventually. "You and I know this more than most people. There are no such things as ghosts, or shapeshifters, or alien beings. These things are frightening, and the human mind will shun them, preferring instead to shutter them away behind the closed doors of disbelief."
"What do you believe?"
The old man smiled slightly. "What do I believe? I believe my granddaughter cared for you a great deal. She was convinced you are the one foretold in the art of our ancestors. I tend to believe what I see with my own eyes, but I do not discount what is seen by the eyes of others."
Clark shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Sometimes things can fool the eyes, Joseph, and when that happens won't fear fill in the blanks, overriding logic?"
"Sometimes." Joseph studied him carefully, making Clark even more nervous.
What did Kyla tell?
"The barrier between worlds is usually impenetrable, but there are times when that veil is worn thin, allowing passage from one realm to the other. Other times it becomes transparent, allowing us to see what lay beyond it. But the spirit world isn't like ours. As you said, the eye can be fooled, and in the case of spirits, things are often not as they appear." Joseph nodded slightly. "Kyla loved you, Clark, and she could be a passionate and sometimes foolish young woman. Had she not been, she might be with us still. Is it possible that she appeared to your lady friend? Yes. Do I believe that she did? No."
"Could it have been another spirit?" Clark asked after a pause. "And Lana only thought it was Kyla?"
"Absolutely. The mind is a complicated thing. The other realm is a complicated place. We see what we want to see, and sometimes the spirits give us what we want."
Clark rose as Joseph got to his feet. "Thank you," he murmured.
"Has your question been answered?"
"In part, but it's raised more."
Joseph nodded. "Such things usually do."
Lex was somewhat stunned to discover the reason for his visit to Chloe Sullivan's sanctum sanctorum standing just inside the door when he opened it. Jarod bolting did not surprise him, the boy had seemed rather twitchy when Lex had seen him at the Talon, but the fact that Chloe went tearing off after him did. Lex was left standing in the Torch office alone, and it took him a minute to realize Chloe wasn't coming back right away. It made him feel uncomfortable. Lex Luthor didn't like feeling uncomfortable, so he decided to make himself at home until Chloe returned.
The Torch office was a source of much interest to Lex, and always had been since the day he'd first seen it. The Wall of Weird was incredibly impressive, and marked an obsessive personality much like his own. Chloe was doggedly determined when she was on the hunt for a story. Lex admired her for that determination. She also tended to turn up exceedingly interesting things. Lex liked interesting things.
He checked out the Wall of Weird for new clippings, and poked around on Chloe's desk reading her notes and the preliminary layout for the next edition of her little paper. Clark, he noted, hadn't turned in his story. Glancing up at the door to make sure it was closed, he checked out Chloe's computer, raising a brow as he pulled up her e-mail. The most recent one was quite noteworthy. His eyes narrowed.
There was a fluttering noise behind him, causing Lex to hastily close Chloe's mailbox. He felt a draft on the back of his neck which convinced him Chloe had returned, but when he turned around he saw only the slightest movement from some of the clippings on the wall, and the door was firmly closed. Nobody had entered.
The drop in temperature was noticeable. Lex automatically glanced toward the windows, but like the door they were firmly shut. Puzzled, he went to stand beneath the ceiling vent, wondering if perhaps the air conditioner had kicked on; it was, after all, unseasonably warm. Hadn't he gone wading just that morning? He raised a hand above his head . The air was still.
He caught the scent then, the achingly familiar scent of a relatively common cologne, but one he had not experienced in many years. It was called Sand and Sable, not an expensive imported perfume, but something available at the corner pharmacy. Like its name implied, it had an almost tropical scent, made up of gardenia and jasmine, with a hint of citrus. Lex was fond of it. Lionel had hated it with a passion.
"I don't know why you insist on drowning yourself in that God-awful stench, Lillian."
Lillian Luthor laughed her pretty laugh and smiled. "It reminds me of Monaco, when I vacationed there as a girl. It's the smell of the sea, and the sand, and the sunlight."
"It's atrocious. I insist that you stop using it.
Lex looked around the room. The scent of perfume was growing stronger, as if someone had broken a bottle of it in the room, yet it seemed to have no point of origin. He saw Chloe's purse lying next to her chair and he looked inside. Her make-up bag contained only a few items, including a small vial of a vanilla scented body spray. There was no Sand and Sable anywhere he could see, but he smelled it in the air.
He felt a hand brush his cheek.
If Lex had possessed hair, it would have all been standing on end as a chill ran up his spine. He backed up rapidly, knocking over Chloe's chair along the way, until he was pressed firmly against the Wall of Weird. Immediately he chided himself for being ridiculous. He summoned outrage, but got only a tremulous gasp.
It fell out of mid-air, sparkling in the overhead lights, and clattered across the tile floor. The scent of perfume vanished as if the bottle had been capped. The temperature returned to normal. Lex stood with his back braced against the wall for some time before he moved forward to pick up the object lying so temptingly before him. He wiped clammy palms on his jacket, then crouched to the floor.
The mysterious object was a ring. More precisely it was a diamond engagement ring. Lex was almost afraid to look inside the band to confirm his suspicions, but felt it necessary to do so. His fingers shook as he stood, and held the ring up into the light so he could see inside, squinting to better read the inscription.
Inside the band it read: "To my beloved - September 9, 1978 - Lionel"
Eight months later he'd married her. Two years later she gave him a son, and twelve years after that, she'd been buried.
She'd been buried wearing the ring Lex now held in his hand.
The door burst open and Lex nearly dropped the ring in fright, but he recovered quickly and slipped it into his jacket pocket instead. Staring blankly at Chloe he could hear his heart pounding in his chest, and the rasp of his own breathing. He hadn't been frightened like that in years.
"I'm sorry! I just...." Somewhat out of breath herself, Chloe gestured toward the hallway. "I needed to talk to him. He got away. I'm sorry, Lex. I didn't mean to be rude."
He shook his head, mute.
She cocked her head after a moment. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, fine. I'm sorry to have interrupted you, Chloe. I was...looking for Clark. Have you seen him?"
"Yeah, he went over to see Joseph Willowbrook about something. Are you sure you're all right? You look like you've seen a...." Abruptly she stopped, and stared at him. "You didn't just...."
Lex made a hasty retreat. "Thank you. I'll catch up with Clark later."
"Lex, wait I...."
He broke several traffic laws getting home, and his heart didn't stop its insane leaping until he drank two glasses of scotch one right after the other. It struck him then to wonder why Clark had gone to see Joseph Willowbrook, and he remembered the contents of Chloe's e-mail regarding Jarod Sebring.
The former he filed away to investigate later. The latter sent him back out on the road again.
Clark came in with his distracted look on his face, which immediately told Lana he was worried about something. The most frustrating thing about Clark Kent was the fact he could be read like a book, on the surface. One look at him and you thought you knew exactly what he was feeling. The problem was that one could never be sure what was reflected on his face was the truth of the matter, because he never talked about it. If he came in looking worried, odds were you would never find out why. He was a novel with the cover of a child's pop-up book but text only someone with a Master's degree in literature could understand.
Lana smiled at him anyway, and the furrow between his eyes eased.
"Hello," she said.
"Hi!" He leaned against the bar, and Lana gave him a cold drink. "You look like you feel better."
"I do. I couldn't sleep last night, but Chloe kept me company. We had a nice talk."
"Yeah?" Clark sipped his drink.
Lana didn't miss the faint flicker of concern in his eyes. "Yeah. It was nice, and no, we didn't spend the whole time talking about you." She grinned, chuckling at him. "So don't worry."
"I'm not worried."
"Liar. Clark, you are awful. You're pouting!"
His expression changed into one of playful indignation. "I am not!"
She laughed again. When Clark joked, which he did rarely, he was an entirely different person; confident, open, and breathtakingly handsome. It made Lana want to hug him. Like always, however, his good humor was brief. The worry line reappeared.
"I've just come from Joseph Willowbrook's house," he said.
Frowning, Lana returned to what she'd been doing before he came in, cleaning the expresso machine. "Oh?"
"He thinks you may have seen a spirit."
This was not what Lana expected to hear. She looked back over her shoulder. "Really?"
"Yes, but not necessarily Kyla's spirit. He says sometimes we see what we want to see, and it's not always the truth."
Lana's hand stopped in mid-air where it was poised to wipe off the top of the expresso machine with a damp rag. She looked at Clark very carefully for a long moment. "Like when I saw you fly?"
Like rounds from a machine gun, Clark's expressions changed. First came shock, then fear, followed by a blank moment as he composed his thoughts, and a forced expression of amusement. It made Lana wonder if he actually wanted to lie to her, or if he did it out of habit. On one hand she was hurt by his inability to trust her, but as time progressed and she started putting things together, she thought she understood why he was so secretive and she couldn't quite blame him.
"What?" he laughed.
"Well how else did you rescue me from the tornado?" She waited a beat and then smiled, letting him off the hook. "I'm kidding."
"Oh," he reschooled his features after a sip from his soda. His relief was obvious.
Of course, Lana thought. You don't know I also saw you jump off the Lowell County Bridge when Ian tried to kill Chloe.
She resumed her work. "So you think I saw a ghost, but I made it into what I wanted to see, maybe subconsciously? Why would I conjure up Kyla Willowbrook?"
"To have a reason to break up with me," Clark said softly.
Lana met his gaze. "If I wanted to break up with you, Clark, I would."
"Like you did with Whitney?" With a nod he indicated the framed jersey hanging above her head. He said nothing for a moment, but continued when he realized she had nothing to say back to him. "Lana, I know you still care about him. I know you were still writing him after you broke up with him. I...." He looked somewhat pained. "Maybe we should slow down a little. Maybe you need a little more time."
"So you're breaking up with me?"
"No! No. I - no. That's the last thing I want to do." His expression and his voice softened. "But I want you to be one hundred percent happy with the relationship, consciously and subconsciously."
Lana took the time to choose her words carefully. "I can never be one hundred percent, Clark, until you are." She walked around the counter and came to stand beside him. Her eyes lowered, and she smiled at him when she looked up again. "I think you may be right though, and perhaps we should work some more on our friendship before we officially start calling ourselves a couple. But," she added, as she rose to kiss him. "I think it won't be long before I'm in the ninetieth percentile."
"That sounds like a fair compromise," he whispered. "I think I can live with that." He pulled her closer, his hands warm and gentle around her waist, and returned her kiss.
The affection in it was something he could never hide behind a lie. Lana pulled back slightly breathless.
"I have to go." Clark eased off the stool. "Dad's waiting for me, and I promised Pete I'd help him with a paper. I'll be back though, to help you close up the place."
"I appreciate that."
He smiled. "No problem."
Lana watched him walk away. The worry in his expression was gone, and there was more confidence in his stride. His broad shoulders were held back proudly. When he reached the doors he glanced back, and his smile lit up his whole face. Not for the first time Lana wondered how he could have gone unnoticed by her for so many years. Had she discovered him before Whitney, her life might be very different.
She waved slightly, returning the smile, and Clark moved out through the newly repaired door. With a sigh, she turned to glance up at Whitney's jersey, then frowned.
There was a crack in the protective glass that had not been there before. It ran diagonally up the surface from the bottom corner of the frame where she'd stuck his picture to just short of the opposite corner. It was an ugly, jagged crack. How had she missed seeing it?
A cold chill made her shudder. She was very glad Clark was coming to help her close.
On the outskirts of Metropolis, in a suburban area known as "The Hills", sat Barnes' Auto Fix-It. The lot upon which it sat was made up primarily of a salvage yard, where various makes and models of cars sat stacked in rows like large, rusty vegetables in a garden plot. The salvage operation was no longer in operation, and the gate leading into that part of the ten acre plot was closed. Weeds grew up around it. The chain was rusted, and therefore very easily broken by a teenaged girl in possession of a large rock and a great deal of determination.
Chloe waited a full minute after she broke the chain before she opened the gate, figuring it would be just her luck for the man to have some sort of drooling monster of a dog guarding the place. There was, however, only silence as she pulled the chain away and pushed open one side of the tall gate. The hinges squealed, prompting her to stop again, but no one, not even a dog, appeared.
She scrambled back to the Falcon. It sat idling just outside the fence, its lights dimmed. Once inside she checked the little LCD clock she'd stuck to the dashboard. It was nearly ten p.m. and the business was probably closed, which was what Chloe had planned. Just in case of trouble she drove the Falcon around a stack of miscellaneous auto parts and brought it back around to face the gate. The gate itself she pulled shut so its unlocked status would not be noticed from the road, but she did not latch it. If she got into trouble, she wanted to be able to get away quickly.
"Be good," she told the car as she left it. The keys she put in her jeans pocket for easy access. Over her shoulder she placed a tote bag. In her hand she carried a small flashlight.
The trek through the junkyard was nerve-wracking, especially for someone with an active imagination. The wrecked cars lurked in the darkness like monsters, their hoods sprung open like mouths, their grills snaggle-toothed grins. Dark headlights looked like the cold round eyes of sharks and seemed to watch her as she passed. Some of them were stacked one upon another, looming over her, watchtowers in a rusted steel fortress. She shuddered, and hurried along the dirt paths between them toward the main building. It was a squat gray garage sticking out among the junk.
Chloe was rather surprised to see a light still on as she approached, and the sound of tools clanking around inside. A pile of old tires gave her refuge, but made her wish she'd brought bug spray. The standing water within them was already breeding mosquitoes and the insects were quite willing to stage an assault on her. Chloe squirmed, ducked around the corner of the building, and slipped through a gate leading to the main parking lot. Crouching down behind a parked car, of which there were many, she peered out into the lot.
There she saw the confirmation she needed. A big, black Mercedes SUV was standing by the garage doors, parked between a dented minivan and a tow-truck. It had the same license plate number her friend Gary had sent her in response to her inquiry. It belonged to one Glen Barnes, who was often under investigation for some underhanded dealings, but never actually caught doing anything illegal. Gary had implied that Mr. Barnes was frequently employed by corporate bigwigs to provide "persuasion" during business negotiations. His patrons tended to protect him well. Judging by his personal vehicle, they paid him well too.
Chloe peered into the garage from around the front bumper of her cover. Inside there were two men, a large older man chewing on a cigar, and a younger, thinner man holding a wrench. Both of them were bent over the open hood of a car, grumbling back and forth to each other. On the opposite side of the open garage was a small door leading to what Chloe presumed was an office. The office would be her ultimate destination. With a glance toward the men she confirmed they were still working on the car. She took advantage of their distraction to cross the open space, pausing once behind a large tool box, and then slipping silently into the office.
The phone rang almost as soon as she hit the threshold. Panic grabbed her by the throat and squeezed. She couldn't go back. Behind her she could hear the rumbling voice of the older man complaining about the phone as he made his way toward his office. Frantically Chloe looked around for a place to hide and spotted the open door to the bathroom. Just as the cigar smoker walked into the office, she was crouching down behind the bathroom door. With her heart beating hard in her chest, fighting to silence her breathing, she peeked through the crack to watch what went on outside. If the man came into the bathroom after his phone call he would catch her. She would have to simply tell them her car broke down and she had to pee, then hope they believed her.
"Barnes'," the fat man barked into the phone. He listened to the voice on the other end and a slow smile crossed his face.
"Look, I was hired to do a job, buddy. I don't care what your problem is." He sat down in his chair and producing a key from a battered box, unlocked his filing cabinet. A dirty file came out into his hands. He leafed through it. "I can't reveal that, sorry."
There was an angry squawk from the other end of the phone.
"You're too late anyway. It's scheduled for tonight and we're past the point of callin' it off." There was a pause. Barnes threw the folder down on his desk. "Tough," he snapped. "Oh, you go right ahead and show up here. I don't give a damn who you are, I'll break your freakin' neck."
Barnes slammed the phone down on the hook. He got up from his chair and went out into the garage. "Hey, Ned! You gonna be around a while?"
There was a voice from out in the bay as the thin man replied. "Yeah, why?"
"We might get some company." Barnes grunted as he levered himself out of his chair. He didn't bother to return the file to its drawer.
The two men went back to work on the car, conversing quietly so that Chloe could not hear what they were saying. Quickly she crawled out from her hiding place over to the desk, where she peeked over the edge. Both men were thoroughly involved in their conversation. She reached over the edge of the desk and snagged the file folder, ducking down again quickly to scan its contents, praying she would not get caught at this juncture. They would never believe her breakdown story now.
With trembling fingers she opened the file. Her eyes widened as she leafed through it. Most of the information was regarding Jarod Sebring, including his rap sheet, references to some of the other jobs he'd done for Barnes and his cronies, and a photo Chloe recognized from the last school yearbook. According to his rap sheet Jarod's speciality was arson. He'd even been treated by a psychologist for his tendency to set fires.
She turned a page and her breath caught. There was a piece of notepaper "from the desk of Glen Barnes" attached to a copy of a faxed document. It said "Luthor" and had a phone number written below the name. The fax cover sheet had nothing written on it but a date - that day - but the document behind it was much more revealing.
Attached to the note and the cover sheet was a copy of the Talon's insurance policy.
"Oh, my God," Chloe breathed. "Jarod's going to burn down the Talon."
If anyone got suspicious Jarod would also take the rap for it because of his past, and Lex could still collect the insurance money. Her father had told Chloe just the day before that LexCorp. took a nosedive in the stock market. Lana's investment in the old theater turned coffee shop was purely emotional. She would not protest if Lex decided not to stay in the coffee house business, which he was unlikely to do if he were having financial difficulties. He would simply pocket the insurance money. In effect, he was sacrificing the Talon to save LexCorp.
"That slimy little...."
Angrily Chloe stuffed the file into her tote as she peeked over the desk again. She had to get back to Smallville and see if she couldn't prevent Jarod from going through with his job. The information she had in the folder would bring down both Barnes, and Lex, and although she suffered a pang of regret about the latter since her father was one of LexCorp's investors, she knew it was the right thing to do.
She crouched by the doorway, counted to ten, then bolted for the garage door opening. Barnes turned just as she emerged from behind the tool box and saw her running for the side of the building.
Chloe stopped, startled. She met Glen Barnes' eye, clearly reading the surprise on his face. He turned his head toward the office, then back to her, and the surprised look turned into one of anger.
"Come back here!"
She ignored him, leaping over a jack and twisting out of the grasp of the thin man who lunged for her as she squeezed between a car and the side of the garage. He was right behind her when she ran around the tires to bolt through the gate into the junkyard. She could hear Barnes cursing in the distance, and the shouts of the thin man behind her as he began gaining ground. Chloe bore down, increasing her speed. Her sneakers kicked up dirt behind her.
The junkyard was a maze of criss-crossing paths that seemed to have no rhyme nor reason. Chloe ducked to the side, hoping to elude the man behind her, but he kept with her no matter what she did. He kept too close for her to hide without him seeing where she went. She had to slow him down. As she passed a pile of mufflers sitting on the hood of an old Ford much like her own, she swung her tote bag and knocked them off into the path behind her. They clattered and clanked to the ground but she did not stop to look back. The man cursed as he tripped over the flotsam, and Chloe put on a burst of speed to get more distance between them.
Ohgodohgodohgod! Where's the CAR!?!
She was terrified she'd gotten lost in the maze. Her breath was wheezing in her throat, a stitch was forming in her side, and she didn't know how much longer she could keep running. She was just contemplating what would happen should she turn and fight, when she rounded the corner of one aisle to come face to face with the tall gate and the cherry red trunk of her Falcon. A sob of relief burst from her throat.
The gate opened with a shove. Chloe ran back to the car and was inside fumbling the key into the slot within seconds. In the side mirror she saw Ned coming up behind her and she slammed her hand down on the door lock just as he made a grab for the handle. He started banging on the window for her to stop.
"Come on! Come on!" She turned the key.
The Falcon's engine protested wearily, and refused to turn over.
"No! No!" Chloe banged on the dashboard. "No! Please start! Please!"
"Get out of this car, girl! You get out of this car right now!" Ned bellowed. "Nobody's gonna hurt you." His voice lowered to a growl. "Much."
Chloe ignored him, but her heart skipped a beat when she saw a flash of headlights among the junkers behind her. Barnes was coming.
"Start damnit!" she screamed, and turned the key again.
The little Ford's engine coughed, backfired once, then roared into life. With a cry of triumph Chloe stomped down on the gas pedal as hard as she could. The thin man leaped back as the tires squealed in the loose dirt, but the car went nowhere. He grabbed for the door handle again but very nearly lost his fingers when Chloe eased off the gas a little and the tires found purchase. Chloe hit the lights as the Falcon shot out through the gate onto the road , where she turned it toward the highway at breakneck speed.
Not a minute later the black SUV tore out the gate behind her.
Clark shifted in his seat, murmuring a little, before opening his eyes. It was completely dark and for a moment he was confused as to where he was, until he remembered an earlier conversation.
"Before we go, can you help me with something, Clark? I totally forgot one of my assignments due tomorrow."
He and Lana had gone through the closing detail and then headed upstairs to the bookshop, where they'd settled down together on one of the over-stuffed loveseats with Lana's history text and a pile of notecards. Clark read, and Lana made notes. After some time she called for a break. They'd talked a little more about their relationship, reaffirming the need to perhaps slow things down a bit, until Lana's eyes started to flutter. She'd fallen asleep against Clark's chest and he must have fallen asleep moments later.
Yawning, he wondered if he should wake Lana, decided against it, and remained very still. He leaned into the corner of the little sofa with Lana curled next to him. Sometime during the time they'd been asleep she'd sunk down onto the cushions and now lay with her head on his thigh, her history notes scattered across the floor. Her hair fell over her face in a dark veil to obscure her features. Clark brushed it back so he could see her face and marvelled at how pretty she was even in repose, even in the dark.
"The dark?" he muttered. Why was it dark?
None of the lights were on, which Clark found odd. Surely if a thunderstorm had caused a power outage he would have heard it? He shifted a little in his seat, and turned to peer down the stairwell to see if the lights were on down in the restaurant. When he did, he nearly dumped Lana out into the floor with his flinch of surprise. His breath caught in his throat and he barely kept himself from bolting, instead tugging a slowly wakening Lana into an upright position. He shook her gently to wake her further. She murmured something in confusion as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
"Shh. Don't make a sound." He nodded his head toward the stairs. "Look."
Lana turned her head to look and Clark felt her sharp intake of breath. Instead of screaming, however, she clapped both hands over her mouth to muffle any involuntary sound. It took her a moment to recover from her shock, and when she did, she turned her face up to Clark and whispered:
"Who is she?"
She was the figure of a young woman standing just at the top of the stairs, looking as solid and as real as either Clark or Lana, but with a faint white aura surrounding her. She was dressed in a long, filmy gown belted at the waist with a silver chain, and her long blond hair cascaded around her shoulders in thick waves. Part of it was pulled back atop her head and secured with a sparkling band of what appeared to be diamonds. She was breathtakingly beautiful, with large, luminous green eyes and a pleasant smile, and had it not been obvious she wasn't real, there would have been not the slightest thing frightening about her.
Clark shook his head. "I have no idea, but she's not Kyla," he whispered. "Don't move."
Lana whimpered "Clark she's coming closer!"
"Shh. I know. I don't think she wants to hurt us though."
Just the same he kept a wary eye on the woman as she glided toward them. Her lips moved and they heard her speak in a soft melodic whisper, but neither of them understood the words she uttered as she came closer and closer. Clark pushed himself back into the cushions of the sofa to put more distance between them. Lana's fingers dug into his shirt and when the woman came within arms reach, she buried her face into Clark's chest with a little moan of fear.
The ghostly figure smiled once more, but there was something wistful in the expression, something sad in her eyes. She raised a hand and Clark gasped as he felt the coldness of her touch. Her fingertips brushed his cheek just above Lana's head with a delicacy reminiscent of a butterfly's wing and a sensation of contentment flowed from the point of contact throughout his body.
"Kal-El," she whispered. Her smiled faded, and she glanced back over her shoulder. When she returned her gaze to him her expression was grave, but she said nothing more. Between one blink and the next, she was gone.
Clark sat there stunned, but within seconds he was up, dragging Lana to her feet and rushing her toward the stairs. When the ghostly woman faded he'd instantly become aware of the smell of smoke permeating the room.
"Lana! The Talon is on fire!"
"Answer the phone!" Chloe shrieked, shaking her cell phone angrily. "Why won't anyone answer?"
She'd called the Talon repeatedly in between trying her father, and the Kents, trying desperately to get hold of someone. The Kents' answering machine kept cutting her off, and her own indicated her father was working late. Lana wasn't home, but the Talon's phone went unanswered. So did Lana's cell.
In frustration Chloe threw the phone down onto the seat, then regretted the action immediately when it bounced down into the floorboards out of reach. With a wail of despair she looked back into the rear view mirror. There was no way she could grab for the phone going as fast as she was, and slowing down would allow the hulking, black truck behind her to overtake her. As it was she could see the headlights closing the distance with every mile.
"I have to get home!"
She stomped the gas pedal to the floorboard and the Falcon surged forward with a muted roar. The old car was being pushed to its limit. Chloe could hear a peculiar, high-pitched whine settling in beneath the bellowing engine and the mildly annoying noise from the right front tire had mutated into a horrible grating sound. A shimmy rocked the steering wheel. She was going well over eighty miles an hour but the speedometer was steadily creeping up toward ninety making it an effort to keep the car on the road. Closer to Smallville the straight road would turn curving as it arced through the farmlands and such a speed would be nearly impossible to maintain. There, however, the smaller car would have an advantage over the big SUV, hugging the curves much easier, if Chloe made it that far.
The Falcon zipped by another car going the opposite direction as if it were standing still, and very nearly went airborne as it hit a bump in the road. Chloe's hands tightened around the steering wheel, as she heard the springs groan when the car hit the ground again hard. Her teeth clacked together and she tasted blood. She'd bitten her lip.
Another glance in the rearview, and another surge of fear gripped her. The SUV was going faster. She shook the steering wheel. Her foot was already grinding the gas pedal into the floor.
"Come on! Come on!"
Her eyes flickered away from the road into the driver's side mirror and for a moment she forgot to breathe.
There were now two cars chasing her.
Another set of headlights appeared as a second car came barrelling up beside the first. The second car was in the wrong lane and flying along even faster than the SUV. For a moment it hovered next to the truck, then cut in front of it. Chloe heard the distant sound of tires squealing as the SUV braked suddenly, but when she looked back both the SUV and the car now in front of it, were still gaining on her.
Chloe cried out when she heard a muffled bang. Greasy black oil and steam started rushing back into her windshield, forcing her to turn on the wipers, which did little more than smear the glass into an opaque mess. She couldn't see the road, but she soon realized it would be a moot point. The Falcon's speed dropped dramatically. The valiant little car shuddered and her engine died.
Clark took Lana's hand and practically carried her down the stairs. The restaurant was dark but he could see smoke boiling out from under the theater doors and through the window in them, the faint glow of fire. Clark's vision shifted, altering the view. His eyes widened in shock when he saw the skeletal outline of someone walking through the smoke toward the doors. The fire was not an accident.
He grabbed Lana by the shoulders. "Get out, now, and call 911."
Lana's fingers closed around his jacket when he started to move away. "Where are you going!" she shrieked. "Don't go in there!"
"Go on!" Clark gave her a little shove. "Hurry!"
They both stopped when the theater doors opened with a bang and a rush of smoke. Standing there, looking just as surprised to see them as they were at his presence, was Jarod Sebring. In one hand was a gas can, and in the other was a box of wooden matches.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. "Nobody is supposed to be here!"
He was too close. Clark felt a wave of nausea and staggered backward, clutching at a chair to keep from falling to his knees. He got no reprieve. Jarod advanced on him and it was all he could do to keep to his feet as he backed away from the choker around Jarod's neck. The stones glowed eerily in the smoky darkness. Clark started coughing. His temples pounded with a sudden headache. His stomach churned. The pain seared through his skull to blur his vision and he stumbled, nearly fell, but regained his feet quickly.
Jarod threw down the matches and the gasoline can, and from his pocket withdrew a gun. Clark held up a hand.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw motion. Lana ducked behind the bar and grabbed for the phone sitting on the counter. She quickly determined it had been unplugged but as she scrambled to find the cord Jarod fired at her, preventing any effort to reconnect it. He missed but glasses shattered all around her, forcing her to duck down behind the bar. Clark heard her scream.
With a monumental effort he lunged at Jarod. The gun swung around and discharged a second time, the bullet slicing through Clark's jacket at the shoulder. He actually felt it burn his skin and a moment later realized he was in trouble as something warm began to trickle down his arm. Either the gun, or the meteor rocks had to go, or Clark would be in danger himself. He grabbed Jarod's wrist with one hand and went for his throat with the other. Both of them fell heavily to the floor.
Clark heard Lana sobbing behind the bar and opened his mouth to tell her to get out of the building but he couldn't find the breath to create sound. Jarod used this distraction to wrench himself back from Clark's grip around his neck, twisting his head in an effort to get away. Clark's fingers were hooked through the choker despite the pain it caused him to touch it and when Jarod pulled back it broke with a snap. The green stones clattered to the floor all around them. One fell on Clark's chest, causing his body to arch up against Jarod's in agony, his voice rising in a hoarse scream. His hand slipped from around Jarod's wrist, and when his vision refocused the gun was pointed right between his eyes.
The Falcon drifted to a stop at the side of the road, hissing as its life fluids leaked from its dying body. In the distance Chloe heard the roar of engines indicating the two vehicles behind her continued to advance. She scrambled madly around inside the car searching for her belongings, managing to grab her tote bag and her purse right away. Groping in the darkened floorboards she could not find her phone.
From outside she heard a loud crash, the squealing of tires on pavement, and suddenly her car was filled with a brilliant, blinding light. Chloe jerked her head up. To her horror, the headlights of the SUV were coming straight for her, the big vehicle bearing down on the crippled Ford like some Jurassic horror. It had been forced over onto the berm by the other car and it was going to hit her.
Her hand clawed at the door release. It sprung open and she rolled out into the ditch, her hands digging into the grass and the earth as she drug herself up the opposite bank to the field beyond. Her sneakers slipped in the dewy grass and for a moment she despaired of getting away. She found purchase, lurching up to the top of the ditch where she started running away at an angle, back and away from the car. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the impact when the SUV struck the Falcon dead on in the rear end. The trunk accordioned. The back seat was obliterated. There was a scream of tortured metal as the truck flipped over on top of Chloe's car and both exploded in a broiling hot ball of flames.
Chloe screamed as she was knocked off her feet into the dirt of the farmer's field. She could feel the heat of the explosion on her back like the hand of one of Hell's minions shoving her into the ground. Gravel dug into her palms and across her chest as she skidded to a stop on her stomach. Rolling over, she saw the other car skidding sideways to a stop some distance in front of the fireball that had once been two cars and two men. One headlight had been broken, and the right fender had been smashed in from where it had hit the SUV. A man got out of the driver's side. He started running toward her, prompting her to get to her feet and start limping across the field as fast as she could. One knee of her jeans was torn and bloody.
"Leave me alone!"
"Chloe! Chloe wait!"
She could hear his breath as he caught up to her and grabbed her by the arm. Instinctively she struck out at him but he caught both her shoulders in a firm grip and gave her a hard shake, forcing her to stop. Her eyes found his face. It was smeared with dark soot from the fire he'd passed, and a trickle of blood ran down his nose from a cut just above one eyebrow, but his identity was unmistakable.
"Lex," Chloe breathed.
The gun shook.
"You weren't supposed to be here," Jarod panted. "You're going to cost me everything!"
Clark swallowed heavily, gasping for air. He was a hair's breadth from passing out completely. His hair clung to his face in sweat dampened tendrils. He could feel his blood boiling in his chest beneath the stone lying next to his heart. It felt as if his heart was faltering.
In desperation, he went limp.
He felt Jarod's body relax. As hoped, the other boy thought Clark had fainted. Gathering every last bit of his waning strength Clark suddenly lunged upward, one arm lashing out to send the gun clattering from Jarod's grasp, and his head coming up to connect with Jarod's. Jarod fell backward with a grunt. Blood streamed from the nasty cut opened by the force of Clark's head hitting his and he lay stunned long enough for Clark to flip over and start scrabbling across the floor toward the bar. The further he got from the rocks the stronger he became. One knee came up and he started to rise from the floor.
A hand around his ankle jerked him back. Jarod's knees came down hard into his back and he felt fingers tangle themselves in his hair. Jarod lifted his head and slammed it into the floor.
More damage was done to the floor.
Bellowing like an enraged bull, Clark rolled over and sent Jarod crashing into the side of the bar. He staggered to his feet, so did Jarod, and instead of charging Clark, he ran around the other side of the counter. Clark wavered drunkenly on his feet. The stones were still too close, glittering on the floor behind him. The room was rapidly filling with more smoke and he could hear the crackling of fire coming from the theater.
Jarod yanked Lana up from the floor by her hair and stood holding a broken bottle to her face. She was holding the reconnected phone in her hands but she'd not had time to dial. His face was a mask of blood, eyes wide, frantic, and not entirely sane. He told Lana to put down the phone, and he then turned his attention to Clark.
"Back off, or I'll cut her."
Clark's eyes darted from the theater doors back to Jarod.
"Jarod. You don't have to do this. You're already in trouble, don't make it worse."
There was a shaky laugh. "You don't get it do you. I can't have witnesses. I can't foul this up."
"Whatever trouble you're in, we can help you. Just let Lana go and let's get out of here." Clark struggled to keep his voice calm but the encroaching fire and the way Jarod's hand shook with the jagged glass so close to Lana's eyes made him nervous. She stared back at him, terrified.
"You don't understand!" Jarod roared. "I have to do this. I've caused my mother so much pain. I can't...." His voice broke. "And it's started again. I wasn't going to go through with this, but when I realized what was happening...I thought after this I'd have the money to get help, to make it stop."
Clark scowled. "I don't understand, make what stop?"
Jarod's voice was a faint whisper. "The ghosts. I can call them, but sometimes they come on their own. I don't mean for it to happen. It just does. Mom says it's stress. I thought it stopped but then it's started happening again."
Understand dawned for Clark. "No, no! It's the meteorites. It was your necklace. You know what Chloe says about them. They must have been amplifying your gift!"
"Gift?" Jarod shrieked. "You call it a gift? It's a curse! I don't want it. I never asked for it!" Tears ran down his face as he shook his head. "It's not a gift."
"Jarod," Clark said frantically. "I can help you, but we have to get out of here! Please."
Jarod met his gaze, and tightened his grip on Lana's hair. His expression was haunted and full of pain. "I'm not going anywhere. And neither are you or your girlfriend."
Chloe sat as close to the passenger door as she could, trembling as she watched the mile markers go by in quick flashes past her window. Beneath the folds of Lex's thick black coat she was shivering. He wondered if she weren't in shock.
"I swear to God, Chloe. I have nothing to do with this," Lex said somewhat breathlessly. He glanced over at her quickly. "I only found out what was going on when I snooped in your e-mail."
That shook her out of her shock. "You snooped in my e-mail?" she said indignantly. "My private e-mail?"
"I'm sorry. It was a hunch. I just had a bad feeling about that Sebring kid all along. When I saw Barnes was involved I put two and two together." He ground his teeth together. "Someone is trying to teach me a lesson."
Lex didn't answer. Chloe was a smart girl. She'd figured it out on her own, but if she didn't, all the better. War games between the two of them were one thing, but when his father started dragging in innocent people, it made Lex infuriated. Lionel was trying to get back at Lex for the coup with the caves, and for making him look bad in the eyes of his younger son. Lucas now hated Lionel as much as Lex did. Then there was the burgeoning relationship with Helen. A marriage would make Lex look quite good to investors. It implied dependability. Lex wondered if Lionel hadn't tipped off some people about the fire and a possible charge of insurance fraud, because that would certainly explain the plunge in LexCorp. stock.
Wait, marriage? Was he serious?
"I tried calling, but there was no answer," Chloe was saying. "How close are we?"
"We'll be there within another hour." Lex pressed the battered Jaguar into a faster pace. He reached into the console and handed her his cell phone. "Try calling again."
If the Talon burns down, someone is going to pay, Lex thought. And it's not going to be this Luthor.
All three of them jumped when the phone rang. Jarod's gaze jerked toward where it sat on the bar and so did Lana's.
Clark's, however, focused on the hand in which Jarod held the broken bottle, and his eyes narrowed. It took him a bit longer than usual, but his heat vision kicked in to send a sizzling ray of intense heat to the back of Jarod's hand. With a cry Jarod dropped the broken bottle, and Lana grabbed that hand in her own, bringing it to her mouth to sunk sink her teeth into his thumb. Jarod howled. He let go of her hair, allowing her to scramble free of him, but she was too slow. His uninjured hand lashed out and caught the back of her shirt.
Later Clark would remember the sudden temperature drop. In the confusion it was only a fleeting realization, made evident only because such an extreme change in temperature within a burning building was unusual. He heard a creaking sound, and raised his eyes above the bar where he watched, stunned, as the framed football jersey tipped forward from the wall and fell through the air. It struck Jarod hard across the top of the head. The glass shattered and the wooden frame fell apart with a loud bang. The bright red jersey tumbled out to lay across the counter like a smear of blood while Jarod dropped unconscious to the floor.
Lana ran around the counter. Clark caught her in his arms.
He guided her outside to safety, then returned for Jarod, and by the time he came back out with Jarod's limp body thrown over his shoulder, Lana had flagged down a car and was dialing 911 on the driver's cell phone.
The creak of the floorboards indicated Clark's presence in the loft. Chloe paused to knock at the foot of the stairs. A moment later he appeared at the railing and gave her a "come up" gesture. She climbed the steps two at a time.
When she arrived in the loft Clark had resumed his stance beside the window. In his hands was Kyla's silver bracelet, which he turned around and around in his fingers. The waning afternoon sun was caught by the bright metal, and flashes of light were sent dancing around in the rafters with every turn. Chloe joined Clark by the window. She gently took the bracelet into her own hands admiring its craftsmanship and beauty.
"Lana still won't take it back?" she asked.
He shook his head. "We've decided to back off a little." His shoulders rolled in a shrug. "I don't think she's ready. I'm not sure she ever was, or will be."
As much as it pained her to admit Clark loved Lana much more than herself, Chloe could not bear to see him so unhappy. She cleared her throat and shifted her weight back to lean against the windowsill. "She'll come around. Give her time."
Clark nodded. "She's going to be busy overseeing the repairs to the theater anyway. No time for a boyfriend." He sighed. "It's just as well."
Chloe nodded, still toying with the silver bracelet. "I talked to Mrs. Sebring. Jarod is probably going to do time, but Lex thinks he can get the sentence reduced. Lex didn't actually want to press charges, but because Jarod was already on probation, and the insurance company was causing a stink, he had to."
"What about his claim of seeing ghosts?"
"He didn't actually 'see' ghosts. From what his mother told me, it's more like a poltergeist type phenomenon. The closest definition I can achieve would be to describe Jarod as a medium, and in times of stress he sort of 'opens doors' to the spirit world. My theory is the same as yours. The meteor rocks served as an amplifier for his gift."
"He made the veil grow thinner,." Clark murmured. "He called it a curse though, not a gift."
"There can be a fine line between the two."
Clark's voice was barely audible. "I'm well aware of that," he whispered.
Chloe frowned, but she didn't ask him to elaborate. She knew he wouldn't. "Did you see a ghost, Clark?"
He raised his head and looked at her, smiling slightly. "Did you?"
"No, and I'm an thoroughly disappointed in that fact. My chance to witness a paranormal phenomenon first hand and everyone but me has an experience. Even Lex saw something, although he's keeping his mouth shut about it."
"That's rather unusual. Lex can be like a kid in a candy shop about stuff like that. He's a lot like you, Chloe."
"Bite the proverbial tongue, Kent." Chloe laughed. "And answer the question."
"Yeah," he said finally, glancing out across the fields into the sunset. "I did. I think she came as a warning, to let me know about the fire."
"Who was it?"
He turned to meet her gaze. "I think it was my mother, my real mother."
"Yeah." Shaking his head uneasily, Clark returned to watching the sunset. "Whoa."
After a moment he shook off his mood, and turned his back on the window. With a smile he nodded at Chloe's hand. "That looks good on you."
She looked down and was startled to see she'd slipped the bracelet on her wrist. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...."
Clark took a step toward her. He put his hands over hers as she started to remove the bracelet, curling them around hers, completely enveloping them. "Don't. Keep it."
Chloe looked up at him. "But...."
"Keep it, Chloe. Joseph told me that sometimes we only see what we want to see, and that what we see isn't always the truth. Lana may be the girl I want to be with romantically, but you're my friend, and no matter what happens, I always want you to be with me." He smiled gently. "Keep the bracelet, Chloe. Please."
There was a moment of silence, during which neither of them took their eyes from one another. In Clark's Chloe saw honest affection. It might not have been what she desired most, but it soothed the raw place in her heart. She could not tell what he might have seen in her own.
"You're going to make me cry, and I'll have to hate you for it," she said finally, gruffly, but she nodded. "I'll keep it."
"Good." His face hardened into mock anger. "And if you run off investigating dangerous criminals again by yourself, I'm going to handcuff you."
"Ooh, kinky. Is that a threat or a promise?"
She was rewarded with a four star Clark Kent blush. Beaming she gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
"I have to go. Daddy is taking me car shopping. I'm trying to talk him into a convertible and negotiations are not going well. I may have to drum up a pout and possibly some tears."
"Doofus!" Chloe laughed, and skipped rapidly down the stairs. At the bottom she turned and waved.
Clark gave her a little wave back.
Lex was alone in his office, his mother's diamond held up between his thumb and forefinger. He watched almost mesmerized as the firelight sparkled in the facets. It was as if the diamond were holding the light captive inside. Chloe had told him of Jarod Sebring's gift, asked him if he'd seen a ghost, and he'd told her no. It was not a lie. He had not seen a ghost, but he had smelled her. Her motives for giving him her ring seemed to be clear.
The door creaked open. Lex palmed the ring and closed his fist around it. His eyes tracked his visitor warily.
"I thought you were leaving."
"I stopped by to inquire after your decision." Lionel leaned his hands against the back of a chair and smiled. "I see a great deal of your stock was recently purchased by an unknown entity. Do I smell a corporate take-over? Tsk, tsk, Lex. You should have accepted my offer."
Lex leaned forward over his desk and offered up a folded piece of paper. "I'm well aware of the purchase, Dad. In fact, I supported it, and have just spent the afternoon preparing a memorandum to the Board. Care to read it?"
Lionel's eyes narrowed suspiciously. He took the paper and flipped it open, scanning the contents. His jaw tensed. "Dr. Stanley Bryce," he growled.
"Oh, and I suspect my stock will be going up when it's discovered I've gone in with Dr. Bryce to develop a much safer alternative to Botox. Cadmus has already sent the prototype to the FDA for approval." Lex leaned back in his chair. "Sorry, Dad, but I seem to be quite weaned."
Straightening, Lionel threw the memo down on the chair. He raised one finger and pointed it at Lex. "You'll regret getting involved with that woman, Lex. Mark my words."
"Helen doesn't know anything about this. She and her father are estranged, but like you, he seems to think his offspring still needs his support. Since she won't accept it directly from him, it was easy to convince him to do so via his future son-in-law."
Lex smiled. "Is that your helicopter I hear outside?"
Lionel stood poised between fight and flight, glaring at Lex from beneath heavy brows, his fury at having been thwarted clearly written upon his face. Finally, without a word, he turned on his heel and stalked out, slamming the door. His violent exit was marred by the door rebounding from the frame to return to an open position.
Opening his fist, Lex looked down at the ring again and wondered how hard it would be to change the inscription.
Lana sat in the Talon after hours, working on her report regarding the Talon's finances which she dutifully presented to Lex every month. Things were going to look bad for a little while as they repaired the damage done to the theater. They had been lucky though and things turned out to be not as bad as they first appeared. Most of the worst damage was only cosmetic. The structure was still sound.
She sighed. Sometimes she felt as if her life was nothing but one setback after another and she wasn't always sure if it weren't all her fault. Everything was so much more complicated these days, with her business, and her personal relationships. What she had with Clark was so much more complicated than anything she'd shared with Whitney. There were days she wished she could go back to those simpler times, and days when Whitney's absence ate at her like a canker.
Yet when she thought of having to choose between Whitney and Clark, it made her chest ache. She missed Whitney badly, and if Clark should leave her too....
"I just want to feel safe," she whispered, and closed her weary eyes.
Only a moment later, a breath of time, she felt warm hands cover her eyes. It brought a smile to her lips. She reached up to touch them.
She felt his breath against her face as he kissed her cheek, and she felt his breath at her ear as he whispered to her, but it was not Clark's voice she heard.
"I will always be with you."
The hands faded away beneath her own. Lana's eyes snapped open. She whirled in her chair with a cry. The room was empty, silent, but her attention was caught by movement near the bar where something swung from the back of one of the barstools. It glinted in the light, drawing her toward it.
She rose, and unhooked it from the back of the stool, staring down at it in disbelief. It was her necklace. The chain ran between her fingers and the familiar faceted stone lay still against her palm. The crystal was now clear, like a diamond, as if all the dangerous elements had been bleached from it. It had been rendered safe.
Turning her head toward the bar, where the number fourteen jersey hung in its new frame, Lana's eyes filled with tears.
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