"No, please, I insist." Mxy waved his arm as he bowed, peeking through his brows, not at all hiding his naughty grin. Whatever he was thinking translated to a rare kind of sparkle of pure delight in his eyes. "Treat me like your own personal Santa. Up to and including any lap-sitting needs you might have."
Rolling her eyes, Chloe took a step back. Sunlight gleamed on her hair, endless fields of green surrounding them. Cornstalks waved in the slight breeze, deaf to conversation and separating Chloe and Mxy from the next prying ear by miles. Idly brushing the row of stalks beside her, Chloe considered for a moment. "I want to be like Clark."
Mxy deflated. "You don't need me for that. Flannel's always on sale somewhere."
Small clouds of farmed dust filtered up, hazing the air with a beige tint, and a flavor she could only identify as spring in Kansas. Chloe measured short steps, her chunky shoes wobbling just a little on the uneven ground as she approached Mxy. "He's been hiding these powers for who knows how long, and I want to see, firsthand, what he's really capable of. It's not like he's going to sit down and give me an exclusive for the Torch; he wouldn't even let me interview him for a school project."
"Has anyone ever told you you're diseased?" Mxy squished his thumb and forefinger together, squinting past it. "Perhaps a smidge? I just offered you the universe, and you want to take a ride in Clark Kent's Keds?"
Clasping her hands at the small of her back, Chloe nodded. Her pink glossed mouth turned up in a smile, and she nodded, very slowly so that the response would telegraph long before she actually spoke. "I've been very good this year, Santa."
According to an incredibly boring essay on life around the farm Chloe had once edited for Clark, it took Mr. Kent hours to till a couple of acres of land; or maybe a couple of days? It could have been a month- Chloe wasn't sure, because she'd just discovered that she could till at least a mile and a half of cornfield in 2.2 seconds, with her face. Crawling out of the ditch she'd bored into the field, she spat out a mouthful of dirt and groaned. Remarkably, she didn't hurt, though the embarrassed flush at her first incredibly unsuccessful flight did sting.
Mxy dropped out of thin air with a pop, arms clasped across his chest. His smug smile softened a little as he plucked corn silk from her hair. "Ready to wish for a tropical vacation?"
"No." Chloe swiped his hand way, then presented her back to him as she jimmied free the clods of earth she'd collected down her scoop-necked shirt. She'd done okay with big jumping; bounding over the old Beaumont barn left her breathless and beaming. It hadn't taken any effort at all; she just bent her knees and suddenly, the ground receded beneath her. She'd felt weightless, and no wonder Neil Armstrong had flubbed his great space speech- the high of breaking free from gravity had pared her considerable vocabulary to a collection of wows and oh my gods. Jumping had been so easy that she just held on to the weightless moment, and forced it forward to flight. Unfortunately, she tapped into the speedy stuff at the same time. At first, the world blurred, the fields nothing but big paint swatches of green. Then, everything turned all slow and Matrix-y; she could see every single leaf for miles undulating in liquid, lazy time. That's when she freaked out and remodeled the Midwestern landscape with Sullivan's Gorge.
Undeterred, she pushed her hair from her face and shook her head. "No, I'll figure this out; it's just going to take a little practice."
"You could be practicing the hula," Mxy protested, hopping up to sit in the air. He crossed his legs and hovered like a swami, riding a gentle breeze as he rolled his arms to the faint strum of a conjured ukulele. "We could be walking arm in arm, sipping umbrella drinks and getting leied on the white sands of Waikiki. A o 'oe ku'u pua, that's right, sunshine, I speak love in every language."
"Really? How do you say nauseated in Hawaiian?"
"Why don't I speed things up a little?" Mxy snapped and the ukulele squawked into silence.
A silvery glow cascaded over Chloe, warm and tickling in places Mxy had no business tickling. Opening her mouth to complain, Chloe snapped her teeth together when she realized she knew how to fly. How to light candles with her eyes. How to... she squinted, something tightening behind her brows, and the world turned from glorious, 3-D color to eerie, wire framed blue.
Shaking it off, Chloe whirled around, confident she could catch bullets- with her teeth even, if she wanted to- and break the sound barrier, and wow, good luck explaining a sonic boom in the middle of Lowell County. Soaking up sunlight, she tapped one toe against the ground. She lifted off perfectly, balanced and smooth as she rose, and she gave into the urge to make a couple of comic book poses in the air, just because she could.
"Clark never did that." Shielding his eyes with a hand, Mxy watched her rise. Smile growing, he unfurled his legs and floated beneath her, dimples flashing when he smiled. "Not that you should consider that a complaint on your form. I'd never want to see Superputz in a skirt from this angle. Or at all, for that matter. Hey, wait up!"
The cry had started like a siren, an unbroken, high-noted wail. Chloe flew across the fields, following the sound as it guttered down to hiccups and moans, dwindling cries in a child's voice that chilled Chloe in spite of the brilliantly sunny day. It felt like someone had replaced her heart with a hummingbird, the beat so fast it made her dizzy with anxiety. Cresting above the river, she could still hear the dwindling cries, but she couldn't find the source.
She zigged back and forth, following the sound to the end of its echo then doubled back. In the tallgrasses, she spied regal anthills, an abandoned boot, and enough empty beer cans to build the most impressive pyramid in Met U's dormitory history, but she found nothing that could cry that pitifully. Her hummingbird heart squeezed hard, starting to hurt as her throat clamped down on breaths she wasn't even sure she needed with Clark's powers.
Swinging up, she spun in the air, the weightless sensation that had pleased her so much just a few moments earlier making her sick to her stomach. "Mxy! Damn it, Mxy, where are you?!"
He stepped from a thin shimmer, his grungy duster and oversized khakis replaced with a loud floral shirt and lime green jams. Raising a hollowed pineapple, he smiled with a tiny, pink umbrella caught between his teeth, and removed it to speak. "This has got to be the best Blue Hawaiian Screw I've ever had. Can I interest..."
A gurgling sound strangled the rest of his words. Faster than she could have imagined, Chloe hauled him up by a fistful of shirt, too panicked to bother with silly things like etiquette, or conversation. "Help me find him!"
Still cacking with understated coughs, Mxy wormed a finger into her fist and pulled himself free. For good measure, he floated a few feet away before shaking his head. "I'd really like to, pumpkin, but I can't."
"You're the one who claims to be a god," she spat, dive-bombing him again. She only managed to punch through the empty space he'd recently occupied, and she whipped around so quickly, she dredged up a tiny whirlwind beneath her. "Can't only exists in your vocabulary as a tool to annoy people who know better!"
Mxy considered that as he slurped his drink. "On the contrary. Can't exists in my vocabulary because you people insist on it. You said you wanted to be like Clark. Since you didn't throw a 'just like' in there, you got to keep the bodacious bod, but your game, your rules. You're just like Clark, kiddo. And that means you and your savior complex are on your own. Sorry."
Another distant cry bored into Chloe, and she clenched her fists. "So change the rules!"
"Can't do that either." Draining the pineapple cup, Mxy tossed it over his shoulder, where it disappeared with a little puff of glitter. He shoved his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels. "I know Clarkenstein doesn't like to admit it, but I don't change anything once the ball's in play. Much as it would entertain me to interfere, it just wouldn't be sporting. Insert something whimsical and Yogi Berralike here."
On the verge of tears, Chloe waved at the landscape behind her. The cry had grown softer, so faint now it seemed like a memory. "So you're going sacrifice a little kid and call it fair?"
Mxy shrugged. "I'm not going to do anything. Well, except sit here and watch you play Clark Kent, and possibly admire your many charming... assets."
Shoulder to elbow to wrist to hand, she wanted to punch him. The desire for one good right hook vibrated through her, infusing her muscles with a liquid anticipation, making her bones ache for the release that the shock of contact could cure, but instead of trying to put her fist through his cheerful, lumpy face, Chloe shot into the air, a streak of magenta and green. The sound seemed to move, so maybe it was an echo, she guessed, punching through the sound barrier to get that strange, still-motion view of the world again, listening harder to make out the undulating waves of a muffled sob. It was an echo; she could trace it almost at leisure now. Echo on the water- she looked across the waves, but nothing. Under the water, nothing, what would echo in the middle of a field, by a river, underground...
She stopped abruptly, accidentally creating another tiny tornado that whipped through the rushes and died an ignoble river death. Applying a squint and that strange pressure behind her eyes, she looked through the water, through the grass, and there it was. A circle, glowing blue, hash marks capping it; she flew straight toward it, and without thinking, ripped the grate from the drainage pipe.
Flying inside the drain seemed like a bad idea, so she settled for speedwalking. The concrete walls wept with a continuous shimmer of grayish slime, and her shoes made wet, kissing sounds as she waded through sedimentary sludge. The echo surrounded her now, still theoretically quiet, but focused enough that her ears pounded with it. When the sunlight receded, she didn't notice; she could see the bends and turns in the pipe plainly, a long maze she had to navigate by sound and intuition.
The scent of spoiled water plugged her nose, and she stepped more carefully as the water rose up her shins. She had to be getting close; she decided that because the cries weren't coming as often any more; she needed to believe that. She called out softly, marking a new turn with a quick blast of heat from her eyes. Dizzy sparkles lingered in her eyes as she passed the scorched X, reeling in surprise that fire had just come out of her head. That would be a cool party trick, if she could actually show it to somebody.
Everything stopped in a cold, draining instant when she saw the boy. Small arms curled beneath his head, he'd curled up in an alcove just above the water line. He was so still, so blue in the odd half-light, that the hummingbird in Chloe's chest turned to a stone. Voices in her head shrilled that she'd taken too long, he was deaddeaddead, and she rushed over to him, forgetting about the foul sludge as she sank to her knees next to him and pressed a hand to his cheek. "Please be okay, please be okay..."
The boy's lashes fluttered, and he lifted his head. With a dazed, unfocused stare, he looked up at her then smiled. "The lullaby man said you were coming."
Knitting her brows, Chloe scooped her arms beneath him, lifting him as though he were made of feathers. Underneath the fear sweat and drain miasma, he smelled a little like cinnamon. "You must have been dreaming. I bet you were pretty scared, huh?"
"I was until the lullaby man came." Laying his head on her shoulder, the boy curled his fingers in the neck of her shirt, a pink paper umbrella clutched in his fist. It scratched against her collarbone as she carried him to safety.
"So now that you've saved the day, how about that Blue Hawaiian Screw," Mxy asked, draping himself over the back of the couch. He walked his fingers from the upholstery to Chloe's shoulder, dotting over the freckles there. His breath fell warm on her skin, teasing against the blunt edge of her bob.
After applying her skills as a consummate liar and returning the boy to his parents, gosh, she just happened to hear him crying and walked into the drain to find him, right place, right time, yadda yadda, Chloe had taken her Clark-powered self home the normal way, by walking. Mxy'd been waiting for her, or just popped up as soon as she opened the door- she couldn't tell- but she had too many thoughts in her head to try to sort out complicated feelings. She ignored him, heading straight for the shower, and took her time drying her hair before reappearing downstairs to make a pot of java. Caffeine had a comfortably non-magic ability to make everything seem simpler.
Cupping her hands around the mug, she sipped slowly. "Are you still in the mood to play Santa?"
"Actually, I'm more in the mood to play Casanova, but whatever crumbles your cookie, toots." He hopped over the back of the couch, sprawling beside her with a genial leer. "Ready to sit on my lap?"
"Make all the meteor rocks go away." She took another sip from her mug then set it aside. Tipping her head back, she blinked at the ceiling, awash in a confusing tangle of wants and needs, ruminations and contemplation. "I know he's probably used to figuring things out a lot faster than I am, but with everything... I mean... it should be easier. What he's doing should be easier."
Mxy sighed. Dropping an arm over her shoulder, he leaned in, his head brushing hers as he plucked up her hand to squeeze. "Would it kill you to start slow? Maybe ask for a couple of possible things before you veer wildly into the realm of wish I could but can't?"
Pursing her lips, Chloe stared at their joined hands. "I don't know what to make of you. You say you can do anything, but when it's important, you won't. For like, two seconds this afternoon, I thought maybe you were decent, lullaby man, but now I just don't. You probably invented all of it just to jerk me around, and I don't know why."
Untangling himself, Mxy pushed to his feet, an unseen weight planing his shoulders to flat defeat. His trench whispered against his khakis as he turned to face her. "Rules are rules, and balance is balance. Everything has to come up even, or planets start imploding, monkeys grow beaver tails, and farm boys become alien overlords. The multiverse is a very delicate instrument, sunshine; you ca... I can't fiddle with the fundamentals, or it's good night Vietnam to infinity."
Chloe lifted her chin. "So what's keeping you in check, Klimpystim?"
"My conscience. And that's pronounced Kltpzyxm." Sinking with another sigh, Mxy slipped his hands into his pockets. All his playful light died at once, and for a moment, he looked merely ordinary. Ordinary brown hair, ordinary brown eyes, ordinary face, he stood before her as just another teensomething guy trying to capture the edge of cool. "I didn't come to play games with you so if you want me to leave, you need only ask."
Threads of uncomfortable silence tightened around them, a delicate, steely web that trapped them in place. Chloe pressed her knees together, folding her arms close and leaning in on herself, and Mxy shuffled his weight from foot to foot. They stared at one another until their gazes faltered, landing on shoulders and curtains instead: complication, live and in person in the living room.
Chloe spoke first. "So the name thing..."
"Kltpzyxm, Kltpzyxm, Kltpzyxm." Mxy spread his hands out, his smile tight and thin. "What do you know, I'm still here."
Swallowing at the sour taste in her mouth, Chloe stared at his unlaced shoes. The sensation of flying had worn off completely; feet of lead and skin of stone, she couldn't even lift her head. "Please don't take this personally, but maybe you shouldn't be."
He didn't make a sound. No shimmer rent the air, and he didn't say goodbye. His shoes just weren't there anymore, and he took her temporary being of alienness with him. All alone in the house, she listened to the walls settle, and the mundane beat of her heart. Things never made sense when he showed up, but somehow, they made even less once he'd gone.
Pushing those thoughts aside, Chloe clasped her hands behind her neck, and told herself she was too old to believe in Santa, anyway.
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