by Nifra Idril
Chloe drives fast. Her foot presses down on the pedal, and she turns the music up. It's early September, and fall's starting to roll like a thin sheen of gold over the long, waving fields between Metropolis and Smallville. There's a wind that stirs the long stalks of corn and it teases the ends of her hair. Chloe smiles. She's driving to Metropolis, and she's seventeen, and for the next hour, she doesn't have to think about anything, anything at all.
And that's as close to being free as she gets these days, and for right now, that's enough.
Metropolis pops up out of the nothing that is Lowell County - always unexpected, no matter how many times she sees the thick glass and steel rectangles that blindingly reflect sun back, or the round tilting globe of the Daily Planet towering over the flat, flat plains. Chloe remembers thinking the whole world was shaped like Metropolis - that everything was just a careless sprawl of street after street, lazy and unbeautiful asphalt lines that curved around the few parks.
They're like patches of green sewn carelessly into a grey quilt, Chloe thinks now. She remembers being little, and running barefoot through the park at Maxwell Square. The grass would stick to the bottoms of her feet, get stuck between her toes. It tickled. Her mother played tag with her there, chasing after Chloe with her long, ring-covered fingers, saying, "Watch out, Chlo'! I'm going to get you! Oh, no, you're too fast!" She'd always stay one step behind, just enough for Chloe to get away, and she'd laugh and laugh. When her mother did finally catch Chloe, she'd spin Chloe around and around and around, holding her up high. Chloe remembers falling down, breathless, and staring up at the wisps of clouds and the shadows of buildings, her hand tight and warm in her mother's.
She doesn't much care for the park anymore, with its shabby grass, and shabby trees, and little uncomfortable benches.
In the city, which moves so much faster than Smallville, Chloe has to drive slower, be more cautious. She takes Lincoln to Main, and her eyes stray up, toward the brick face of the apartment building across from her. That's where she used to live, with her mom and dad, on the third story in the corner apartment. Chloe can see what used to be her window, with the thin black iron bars across it, to keep her from falling out - and two windows over, the balcony where her father used to spend the evening doing work while her mother sat cross-legged on the floor across from him, leafing through photographs.
He doesn't work now, not since he got fired. He says it's all right, he doesn't have to. "Smart investing, lets me get an early retirement," he tells her, clapping a big hand on her shoulder, and smiling. She hears him at night, though, pacing all along the front porch, and when he doesn't know she's watching, Chloe can see just how worried he is. His face is pinched tight with it, and now his laugh sounds like it's forced, every time.
Back then, Chloe remembers how her dad's laugh used to seem to fill the whole room. Her mom made him laugh a lot - she was funny, sharp, her dad says. Chloe doesn't really remember.
Someone behinds her honks, setting off some kind of chain reaction of horn after horn, and Chloe snaps out of reverie, turns the corner, embarrassed.
Main's a skinny street, with lots of little town houses and anemic looking trees that are already beginning to drop their leaves. On the sidewalk, there are joggers and strollers, and people walking their dogs. A couple of girls sit on the stoop in front of one house, and music blares out of a window over their head. They're gossiping, Chloe thinks, watching them animatedly waving their hands and leaning toward one another, confidentially. They can't be too much older than twelve, or thirteen - the age Chloe was when she left Metropolis.
She remembers the big brown boxes that filled their apartment, and the way they seemed to swallow everything Chloe owned. When she unpacked, in Smallville, it never quite seemed as though she'd gotten everything back - like there was something missing, all the time. She got used to it, and stopped thinking about it, and went on with her life, but there's always been this nagging feeling, like she left something behind here.
Her dad told her they were moving a couple months before school was over, and her last week of seventh grade was hard. Chloe would look over at her friends; at Eva who'd lived down the hall from her all of Chloe's life, and at Jake, who'd given her the first valentine she'd ever gotten when they were in pre-school together, and her eyes would start to burn.
The night before Chloe moved, Eva and Jake spent the night. They put together a tent in the living room out of Chloe's comforter and some of the bigger boxes, and lay down pillows. The windows were open, because it was so hot. They didn't need sheets or anything, and they lay there, on the hard wood floor. Eva, with her long dark hair, and Jake with his thick glasses, and they promised to stay friends. They promised to stay in touch.
Chloe saw them for a couple weekends early in eighth grade, and they called each other every now and then for a few months, but things weren't the same. Chloe knows now that's only to be expected - that things and people can't ever stay the way you want them to, can't be like some kind of snapshot in time. When she got her internship in Metropolis after her freshman year, she saw Eva and Jake occasionally, and Chloe remembers the way they all tried too hard to make things like they were before Chloe left.
As Chloe drives down Main the town houses give way to unassuming apartment buildings and small storefronts. The left side of the road is filled with little tables -outside seating for a few restaurants that Chloe's been to before. During one of the times the summer before sophomore year she went to dinner with Jack and Eva, and they ate outside, at the Vietnamese place on the corner. Jake fiddled with the ear pieces of his glasses, and twirled his cup on his coaster, and told Chloe about how he'd figured out that he was gay.
"It was Patrick Mendoza - do you remember him? He's got the most beautiful eyes, all warm and dark...anyway. I just...I knew, one day in Algebra, it just...I knew," Jake said in a halting whisper, his eyes firmly fixed on his fingers. Eva flipped her black hair off her shoulder, and fixed Chloe with a challenging look - as though she expected Chloe to be angry, or hostile. Like Chloe was someone she had to protect Jake from.
Chloe didn't say anything, just blinked a little, and reached over to take Jake's hand, and Eva softened. "It's been a rough year," she said in an undertone.
Eva talked about her family, about how her brother had just gotten married. She told Chloe about her boyfriend, who was a junior and played basketball. Chloe thought about Lana, and Whitney, until Eva rolled her eyes and said, "Imagine me, going out with a stupid jockstrap."
"She's in love with him," Jake confided, grinning. "She even writes his name all over her biology book."
And Chloe told them about Clark. She ripped her napkin into little pieces that fell into her lap and told them about how he'd always been after Lana, how he hadn't seemed to notice she existed, until he did, and then he forgot again right in the middle of the formal. She told them about how he was tall, and gorgeous, and smart, and how he was a blind, self-righteous jerk who'd left her standing there in the dress that had cost her more money than she'd admit under torture. She'd told them about Sean Kelvin, and Justin Gaines, and the way it was starting to seem like nobody would ever be interested in her unless they were in some way violent and crazy.
Eva threatened to kick Clark's ass, and told Chloe she should leave Smallville, because it sounded like a freaky, fucked up place.
"Oh, it is," Chloe told her, "it's crazy like you wouldn't believe."
"And you think it's terribly interesting, don't you, Chlo'?" Jake asked slyly, and for that second, just one second, it was like things were back to normal. Like Chloe was the girl who grew up in Metropolis, and there had never even been two years in Smallville.
But there had been, and Jake and Eva and Chloe didn't see each other more than twice after that dinner. She hasn't heard from either of them since.
Chloe remembers spending a lot of that summer alone, walking all throughout the city, thinking about Clark. She remembers feeling literally crushed, like Clark had taken her between his big, smooth hands, and squeezed until something important inside of her had broken. She'd hated him and hoped for him to call her in equal measure. In those long walks before she had to be back for curfew Chloe fantasized that Clark would show up with a confession that he was wildly in love with her.
It was sad, and it was hard, but even as Chloe drives past the places where she used to wander, thinking maybe there was still some kind of hope with Clark, she thinks it was easier than the way things are now. At least then she knew how to feel - it was clear-cut. She was wronged, and he was the wronger, and that was that.
Now things are...tangled. Too complicated for Chloe to even begin to unravel how she feels, or how she should feel, let alone the question of fault.
Main Street widens into a three-way intersection, where Chloe turns left onto 89th. In the center of the intersection there's a little median, made up to look like a mini-park. It's got a bench and a planter full of blue flowers that look sparse but determined to grow in the shadow of the tall buildings around them. The paint's peeling, Chloe notices, leaving curled white flakes all over the sidewalk. It looks old, unkempt, and the wind picks up the chips of paint, blows them over the road.
When Chloe first moved to Smallville, she remembers the way everything looked dilapidated and too decrepit for words.
"Picturesque," her dad told her, when Chloe pointed out that the neighbors had cows.
She'd rolled her eyes, and said, "Total cultural void."
"Peaceful," her dad had shot back.
"Deliverance waiting to happen!" she'd said, backpedaling when her dad gave her a look, "Not that I've seen that movie. But you know what I mean, Dad! This place is just...filled with slack jawed yokels whose family trees don't fork!"
"Look, give it a chance, okay, kiddo?" He hugged her, and Chloe leaned against him. "Let's see what you think after school, hmm?"
She remembers waking up, ready to hate everything. She was primed to sneer, mock, and jeer when her dad dropped her off at the middle school, and her veneer of cynical loathing stayed firmly in place right up until Clark walked into the guidance counselor's office.
Now, Chloe laughs a little, because there was no way she'd been prepared to meet someone who looked like a Greek god trapped in flannel at Smallville Middle School. She kissed him before she went home, her palms sweaty and her breath coming fast. Just a little peck, right on his lips, and then she'd said breezily, "Great, now that's out of the way, we can be friends."
She'd meant for it to be coy; he'd taken her at her word. And Chloe thinks, she's probably lucky that he did - if he hadn't, then he probably would have just hovered awkwardly around the periphery of her life until she was in grave danger because of yet another meteor freak. Chloe would have missed out on a lot of things, if that had happened - if she'd been Lana.
She wouldn't have known how funny Clark can be, or how smart he is, even if he is emotionally stupid. She wouldn't have learned all the random astrology she's picked up over the years, or the fastest way to get to Miller's Pond from school. She wouldn't have had anybody to talk to, because yeah, Pete's a great guy, but a lot of the time he's pretty focused on himself. She would have missed out on Clark, who has probably been her best friend.
It makes her uncomfortable, thinking about how much Clark's meant to her in the past few years, how much he still means to her. Physically uncomfortable - as though there's a vise in her head, slowly, slowly tightening, pressing in on either side of her skull.
Chloe rubs her temple, and starts scanning the street for a parking space. All along the sides of the road, there are skyscrapers that rise, dark and austere, toward the midday sun. Down further, the Daily Planet globe spins around and around, a perfect golden sphere. Now, at noon, the sun catches on the ring around it, and Chloe thinks it must be blinding to look out the window from any of the executive offices so high up in the buildings all around.
Two blocks over, Chloe's mother has an apartment, Chloe knows. She doesn't live there all the time, but it's in her name: Laurel Sullivan. Sometimes, when Chloe drives to work, she thinks about what it would be like to just show up on her mother's doorstep. Laurel probably wouldn't even be there - Chloe would probably just end up turning around, and scuffling her way back down the stairs. She doesn't even know what she'd say if her mother did open the door. "Hi, Mom, ten years no see?" or maybe, "I'm thirsty, can I have some water?"
Someday, Chloe wants to see her mother again, but she doesn't know if she's ready to do that now. She doesn't know when she will be.
She parks her car in the shade, and feeds coins into the slot in the meter. She's a couple blocks up from the Daily Planet building, and as soon as she sets foot on the sidewalk, she feels herself get swept up in the urgency of the city. She's walking so quickly she might as well be running by the time she gets there, bringing in a gust of humid air with her in the rotating glass door.
The receptionist's an old woman with eyes like blueberries, who smiles at Chloe as she signs in and walks through security. Her desk is on the fourth floor, and she's alone in the elevator.
Working for the Daily Planet at seventeen - being the youngest columnist in the paper's history, no less - is still a thrill, but not the way it was at first. Now she feels this guilty shiver of delight as she makes her way through the bullpen, over toward her little corner of the building. But she feels uncomfortable here, and not just because she's so much younger than anyone else - because every minute she spends in this building, she feels the touch of Lionel Luthor's hand on her skin, can smell his cologne, and practically hear the rasp of his laugh.
Chloe has done good work here. She's written interesting, witty columns. She's said mature things, and written beautifully. She's used her credentials well, and found all kinds of fascinating newsworthy information. That's not why she's here, though. That's not why she's got this job, and it won't help her keep it if Lionel Luthor isn't happy with her. In her more paranoid moments, Chloe goes so far to think that there isn't anything she'd be able to keep if Lionel Luthor were to decide she was a threat - the way she could be, with the information she's found about him.
She likes working here. She likes the connections, the encouragement, and the way this will pad out her college applications and later, her resume. She doesn't like being beholden to Lionel. She doesn't like the way he shows up from time to time, a dark shadow with wild hair at the Torch. And she can't stomach spying on Clark, not even if it means working across the desk from Bill Archer who's been writing Editorials for the Daily Planet since Gerald Ford was President.
But here she is, across from Bill Archer, with a nameplate and desk of her very own. Chloe Sullivan, columnist - it sits like warm ashes in her mouth, when she says it out loud to her reflection in her mirror. Lana laughs at her, says, "Stop showing off," but Chloe's not. She's just trying to come to terms with what she's going to do.
She's going to make an enemy out of the most powerful man she knows. She's going to piss Lionel Luthor off, and royally. She'll lose this job, surely. Lionel will probably even try to make sure that she won't get hired at any of Metropolis' big newspapers - if he's got any credibility left when she's done with him.
It's not arrogance - it's careful research, and Chloe's got him. She's got him dead to rights, implicated in a hundred different scandals, one of which is the death of his own parents. Not even Mother Theresa's reputation could stand up to the kind of dirt that Chloe's got, and Lionel is far from Mother Theresa.
Bill Archer belches into his phone, waves at her distractedly as Chloe sits down and smoothes her hands over her desk. She prints out two copies of this week's column and sends one to her editor, and keeps the other for her files. She looks at the framed copy of her first column with its highlighted byline, and thinks of her father, watching her unwrap it. He was so proud of her, Chloe thinks. So proud of what she'd managed to accomplish.
It had been hard to keep the smile on her face, as excited as she was. She didn't do it - she didn't deserve the column, she just wrote it. Chloe runs her thumb over the smooth glass of the frame, and wonders what her mother thought. She wonders if her mother even saw any of her columns.
Chloe will give all of this up, because it's the right thing to do, and because she'll have it again. She'll earn it, she's sure of it. She won't have to sell secrets that aren't hers to sell, and she won't have nightmares about Clark finding out. About Clark dying slowly in front of her, looking as helpless and feverish as he had last year, when his mom was in the hospital. Before he ran away - before he ran here, to Metropolis.
She drums her fingers against her desk, fiddles with her Crows mug, tries to ignore the tightening in her head. Clark's her best friend, even if he isn't very good at being one, and when she lets herself, Chloe feels rank, and low.
Chloe loves Clark. Maybe not the way she used to, but he means a lot to her. He's still special - and God, there are still times that Chloe thinks, "Pick me, Clark, pick me," but more often than not she thinks that's just habit. She knows him too well now to want to put up with the kind of hoops he makes Lana jump through, whether he knows he's doing it or not.
But she does love him, and she knows she probably always will, despite everything. Despite freshman year, and the way that he looked her right in the eyes and lied to her before running away and becoming a different person. Despite the fact that he spent three months being the biggest jackass Chloe's ever met, and nothing like Clark Kent. Not the way she knows him, anyway, and yeah, Chloe's still mad about a lot of that.
There are times she wants to hit Clark over the head with something heavy until he starts to apologize. She's not sure what it is that she wants him to apologize most for, though, and as she shifts in her comfortable swivel chair at her desk in the air conditioned office of the Daily Planet she knows she doesn't have the right to be angry. Not here, not now.
So Chloe turns to her computer - she gets to work. She makes a few phone calls, she takes notes, she digs the hole that she's going to bury Lionel in a little bit deeper until her editor tells her she's okay to take off and head home.
She drives by her mother's apartment building and Clark's old penthouse before she leaves Metropolis.
She imagines her mother, sitting in the kitchen, stirring the brown soup she used to make - the one that made the whole house smell like nutmeg, and she wonders which pictures are up on the walls now. She thinks of Laurel in the dark room, flipping the prints of what would become prize wining photographs over and over in the sink, how she'd seemed so tall in the dark, while Chloe sat on the floor behind all the equipment, playing with her My Little Ponies. She slows, but doesn't stop.
When she passes Clark's old penthouse, she pictures him sitting on the spindly white couch he'd bought, staring out the window, looking lost - his hands useless and lax in his lap. She thinks of him lifting the phone to call his parents, and hanging up when he heard his mother's voice. She thinks of him lonely and angry, and wishes she could have been enough to bring him back, and she speeds up, passes it quickly.
Chloe lets the black ribbon of road carry her out of the city, into the country. She puts down the top of her convertible, and presses her foot firmly on the accelerator, and doesn't think about anything as she drives toward Smallville - as she drives toward home.
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