A single strand of white Christmas bulbs lit the way to Clark's loft. Twined around the rail in uneven loops, tight in some places, hanging low in others, they were powered by an orange extension cord that made them seem painfully ordinary. The snow outside had already greyed, and the wind couldn't be called brisk or bracing- it was just cold. Chloe stamped slush from her boots, taking each step instead of skipping them by twos.
The foil-wrapped package in her pocket tried to jingle, but it only managed a few, anemic ticks. Sorry, Clarence, no wings for you tonight in Smallville, she thought, fighting gravity and lethargy with a deathgrip on the banister. The climb to the loft went on forever, steeper than she remembered it, and more precarious- just a thin slat of lumber between her and a good fifteen-foot drop.
Once, she'd had a dream about standing on the rail. She'd spread her arms, fearless even when she teetered, then leaned back to fall back into space. Like going high enough on the swings to make her stomach tingle, or the weightless nirvana of a roller coaster's first hill, she didn't remember landing, just the giddy sensation of flight. It was a good dream, if a little weird, starring a fearless version of herself who laughed as she plunged.
Awake, however, her eyes darted over sharp, incomprehensible farm tools, and down to the hard-packed floor. The glint of a pitchfork set her imagination on wild tangent that ended very, very badly, and Chloe forced a little energy into her last two steps to the landing so she'd quit thinking about going over the side, on accident, or on purpose.
A space heater hummed in the middle of the loft floor, spitting out an orange glow, but not a lot of warmth. Hunkered down on the couch beside it, Clark had dozed off reading, the open fold of the book resting on his nose. Dark lashes spread on his cheeks, big hands curled tenderly- one tangled in his hair, the other grazing the button seam of his shirt- it would've been a shame to wake him, but a sin not to look at him, just a little.
Smoothing her hands together, she watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest for a moment, and admired the soft flutter of his untroubled brows. Clark was still pretty, but it didn't hurt to look him anymore, and that was something, Merry Christmas. Starting to rebutton her coat, Chloe stopped mid-first step down when she heard a muffled, "Hey," from the couch. Summoning up as seasonally-bright a smile as she could, she slapped her hands against her hips. "Your mom said you were up here; I didn't mean to wake you."
Clark set his book aside and scrubbed the sleep-softness from his face. A curl of dark hair stood up at a wrong angle, flattened when the scrub swept back over his head. "I wasn't asleep."
"So I noted by the closed eyes and enthusiastic snoring."
Lifting his head, Clark blinked at her. "I snore?"
With a soft laugh, Chloe crossed to sit beside him. Careful not to crush the package in her pocket, she merely perched on the edge of the couch, feeling ridiculously dainty with her hands laced together on her knees. Not dainty- prim, like she should be wearing something high-necked and lace, with button-up boots and silver-edged spectacles for gravitas. On reflection, the button-up boots didn't sound all that bad. "I'm going to skip right past the awkward silence and reflection portion of the show, if that's okay with you." Stealing a glance at him, she saw waiting in his eyes, the same, guarded shadows he'd been wearing for weeks. "How goes the escape plan?"
"It doesn't." Clark's shoulders bowed when he sighed; what used to be a slightly bad habit to hunch him down into the munchkin land everybody else called normal had turned into a character trait. Head down, shoulders down, eyes down, Clark rubbed at a spot on his ring finger absently. "I can't get on the list without Lionel's permission."
Flipping her hands over to stretch her arms, Chloe offered another smile- the can-do one that always made her feel confident, even if she wasn't. "It's the Internet age, Clark. We have ways of adding names to lists."
Clark exhaled a sound that very nearly approximated a laugh. "They keep it on a clipboard at the front desk."
"I'll flash the clerk while you write yourself in really quick?" She only offered it as an absurdity, trying to coax him out of the dark for a second, at least. Half-forgotten snatches of a book she'd once read rose to mind, a pretty, red-headed girl saying 'Things are rough all over,' the quote just another piece of literary trivia trying to assert itself for no reason, except it was true: things were rough all over. She couldn't have a conversation with her dad that wasn't about Lana, and she couldn't have a conversation with Lana about anything important. Everything about Clark was about Lex, and she couldn't even remember a time when seeing -Unavailable- on the caller ID just meant a telemarketer had phoned in her absence.
It would have been easier if they could have fixed something; if a Christmas goose would have been enough for Tiny Lana Lang to throw off her crutches, if there'd actually been something in that scotch, if the list were accessible through the miracle of broadband technology. The tin-can carols that played in Fordman's swore this was a season of comfort and joy, but so far, it had been nothing but dirty snow and desolation. Veering away from the satisfying melodrama of a pity party, Chloe pulled the package from her pocket and jingled it at Clark. "It's not much, but it's something." "You didn't have to," he said, a sheepish tone in his voice. Instead of opening it, he laid it in the space between them on the couch, and pushed to his feet. If he noticed the cold outside the radiating sphere of the space heater, he didn't show it. Only his breath gave it away, frosting in soft puffs as he reached up to pull something from the bookcase. Turning back, he offered her a small box wrapped in plain white paper. He'd scribbled her name in blue ink, two smudges and a slash carving the O into a smiley face.
"You didn't either." Surprised, Chloe stood and took the gift, exchanging it for Clark's. She held the box up to her ear, shaking it slightly to measure the heft and weight of the rattle, then reached up to grab Clark's wrist before he did the same. She shrugged as she let her fingers slip from his warm skin, rolling her eyes a little. "Sorry, it's somewhat breakable."
In quiet punctuated by the bell and the sound of torn paper, they opened their gifts at once, glancing up to make sure they didn't miss a good reaction. When the paper had fallen away, Clark held a small bundle of wire and an eyepiece; Chloe held up a mauve, pendant flash drive on a silver chain, sixty four megabytes of portable data storage. Laughing under her breath, Chloe looped the chain around her neck, watching him flip over the box to discover that the wire would let him hook a digital camera to his telescope. "Merry Geekmas to you, too."
Waving the eyepiece, hushed as snowfall, Clark met her eyes with a faint, but genuine smile. "Thank you." Chrome and glass shone in his hand, catching light, reflecting it in a muted sparkle as he turned the piece to examine it. Then, as if he'd thought better of it, the smile faded, and he brushed against Chloe's shoulder as he moved to put the new toy away. "I'll have to borrow your camera to try it out if this storm ever passes."
At that flat, non-committal murmur, Chloe's heart sank. It wasn't the present; she didn't care if he ever used it, but he was slipping away again, from her, from everything. Agreed- it was a lousy winter, after an equally lousy summer, but giving up was against the rules. Tipping her head back to look at him, she touched his arm gently. "You can't just drop out of life, Clark. If you do that, then you've lost hope, and right now, that's all we have to go on."
A kind of distant steel poured over Clark, armoring him against any accidental peace. The light faded from his eyes, and his mouth flattened to a grave, bloodless line. "Do you think they have a Christmas tree in Belle Reve?"
"No," Chloe said patiently, tugging on sleeve to pull him closer. Whether he liked it or not, he wasn't alone in all this; things were rough all over. Skimming a hand against his shoulder, she pulled until he quit resisting, and made him lean down so she could wrap her arms around him. Shifting to keep her balance in the awkward embrace, she brushed a hand over his hair, and turned her face against the warm curve of his neck. He still smelled like Ivory soap. "But you know what? You can get him one when you bring him home. When. I'll even help you string cranberries, and you know how I feel about manual labor."
Clark's lingering stiffness ebbed away; first, his head settled against her shoulder, and then his posture softened, equalizing the clumsy hug with his own balance. Finally, he let the weight from his arms, no longer caging her in a mannequin embrace, but molding to the curve of her back. She could feel his breath on her throat, steady, deepening sighs that washed down to an even rhythm against her skin. Though she couldn't see his face, Chloe guessed that he had his eyes closed, comforted by the hug, even if he was too dense to ask for one in the first place.
After sharing the quiet, Clark drew back. Hands slipping down her arms, he let his touch stop at her elbows, still standing close enough to count freckles. His expression more thoughtful than morose, he cut her a glance through the dark arch of his brows. "I thought you were banned from arts and crafts for life."
"For you, Clark, I'll risk it." Satisfied that Clark and the ledge were no longer one, Chloe squeezed his arms once more, amazed again at the strength he hid beneath baggy double layers, but he stayed her with a resistant touch. He hesitated, and she let him, only half-closing her eyes when he brushed his lips against hers.
A bittersweet pang bloomed in her chest, utterly alien to the sting of infatuation she used to get just thinking about this. Outside, he was gentle, his mouth warm, soft against hers, but however unintentionally, he was still clumsy with her heart. On a relative scale, it wasn't wrong to part her lips to let him slip past them; he'd dumped Lana- which she'd heard about a lot more quickly than she'd gotten the news they were dating in the first place-but it wasn't right, either. A drum-beat pulse pounded in her ears, liquid heat spreading over her skin, and she smoothed her palms against his strong, strong chest, and pushed away. Trying for that careless, confident smile again, Chloe painted sunshine over her brittle skin. "While it's both a pleasure and an honor that you'd choose me to help regulate your dopamine levels..."
"Chloe." Clark frowned, disapproval turning down the edges of his eyes. "That's not what..."
Chloe cut him off this time, battling the sudden tightness in her throat, the invisible clasp of a tight band around her chest, trying to strangle out her breath and kill her voice. "Do us both a favor and just don't. Things are going so well, Clark. We're friends again. We can look each other in the face again. I missed that."
Shamed, Clark stared at the toes of his sneakers. "So did I." Glancing through a fringe of bangs, he radiated sincerity. "I missed a lot of things."
"And yet, I'm still not interested in being Miss Right Now." It came out sharper than she intended, and she shook her head at herself, waving her hands between them to try to scrub the bitterness away before it lingered. Her shoulders rose as she took a deep breath, sinking again as she exhaled. "We're really good as friends. Maybe in another time, or another place, we'd be better at more than that."
Clark straightened to his full height, a broad, towering wall of shifting frustration. From the way he fixed his mouth before speaking, she could tell there was something else, something new he was trying to say, and just couldn't figure out how. That was a point in his favor at least, thinking before he leapt. Whatever it was faded, though, and he spread his hands helplessly. "I know I don't have the greatest track record, but things are different, now."
Crossing her arms over her chest, Chloe shivered when the pendant's chain fell against her bare skin. It left a trail of ice in its wake, cold and slow to fade. "I don't want to be expendable." There it was, as simply as she could put it- if he couldn't be with Lana because it was too dangerous, then what did it mean if he could be with her? That was a question to consider alone, with the lights off, and a big box of tissues close by. Rubbing her arms until her hands warmed with friction, she stepped around him. "So be my friend and let me believe that."
"Chloe, you're not."
She bobbed her head, grabbing the stair rail as she looked back, wondering how many times they'd have the let's just be friends speech, and whether it would ever get easier. "I'll see you at school. I hear there's a big scandal brewing among the pom-pom set. Something about illegal crotch holds or something."
Raising a hand, Clark just held it up, fingers slightly curled and still. "I'll let you know what I find out about Lex."
"Keep me updated." And when he promised he would, she fixed her gaze on the next step, and the next, and the one after that, eyes wide open all the way down to keep from falling again.
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