She always forgets how damn pretty he is. It's got to be some kind of freakish supermodel power, god's gift to mutants, because Clark Kent couldn't fashion his way out of a wet paper GAP bag but he's still the prettiest thing on earth. Not even the grim dog-eat-dog of the baggage claim can put a dent in his cool. He just looks scruffy and tormented in all the right ways. It's a good thing she gave up pointless crushes right along with red meat and Smallville.
The loudspeaker comes on urging Dr. Jace Noseworthy to pick up the nearest white courtesy phone, and Chloe hitches her bag up her shoulder and mentally girds her loins. Then she ungirds them, tells her brain to shut up, and pushes through the crowd.
His eyes zoom in on her immediately. "Chloe!"
"Clark!" she says again, "I can save you up to fifteen percent on your car insurance!"
"Freak," he says, laughing and picking her up for a hug. She buries her face in his neck and squeezes him as hard as she can. He makes a gagging noise. It's good to be home. "I was afraid I'd missed you," he says, setting her down. "I got here a little late."
She grins and flicks the hair out of her eyes. "Nah, you're fine. We couldn't find a place to park, so we had to circle the block a few times."
"Good." He toys with her bangs. "So, uh, explain your hair to me. Is it supposed to look like this?"
"It's Audrey Hepburn meets Linda Evangelista, and shut up. Everyone at school loves it."
"But how do you see where you're going?"
"Oh, please," she says, grabbing him by the sheep fleece lapels. "You've been wearing this jacket since high school. You're automatically disqualified from having an opinion on my hair."
"I like it!"
"Your jacket or my hair?" She eyes his blue and white checked dress shirt and the white thermal lurking beneath it. She'd hoped he'd eventually learn how to dress himself, but apparently U of M doesn't offer classes in remedial fashion. When she saw him over spring break he'd been experimenting with sleeveless shirts.
"Both," Clark says.
A foghorn sounds and the conveyor belt starts spitting up baby seats and lumpy duffle bags. The crowd runs over like a pack of wrinkled velociraptors.
"Speaking of hair," she says. "You're looking pretty hot now that you've let yours grow out."
"Sort of had to," he mumbles.
She looks over at him. "What?"
"No time to get it cut."
"Yeah, I know how it is," she says, catching one of her bags as it cruises past. "You're busy. You've got school and work and not returning any of my phone calls."
"Chloe," he says weakly.
"Don't worry, you're still coming Christmas shopping with me."
He makes a horrible face. "Can't I just do your laundry instead?"
"Nice try, Clarkbar, but grey isn't my color." Her last suitcase sweeps by and she grabs it by the neck. "That's it. Let's ditch this popsicle stand."
"This way," he says, picking up her duffle bag. He heads for the revolving doors and she follows, dragging her gimpy luggage behind her.
She catches him staring and shrugs. "Lost a wheel in Atlanta."
"Another angry mob, huh?"
"Hey, totally not my fault this--" The door opens to the parking lot. "Son of a bitch!"
"Oh," Clark says. "I should have warned you. It's cold."
Cold is not the right word. Cold would imply an actual temperature, something a thermometer might register without cracking in half. What they've got is closer to absolute zero. The point at which all human beings cease movement and refuse to leave their homes. Last week's snow is still on the ground, frozen into dirty blobs of permafrost, and the air's so sharp it's making her cry. She jams a hat on her head and hopes her mascara's waterproof.
She shudders. "Peachy."
"I'm parked just over there."
"You got a car?"
"Yeah. I had some money saved from working at the Planet this summer and the last, and Mr. White pretty much told me I needed one." He puts on a gruff voice and a squint. "'How many reporters you see taking the bus, Kent?'"
"He's got a point."
"He doesn't have to find parking on campus. Over here." Clark opens the trunk of a green Jetta and shoves stuff around to make room for her bags.
She hops up and down next to him, flapping her arms to stay warm. "Hurry up."
"Hold on." He finishes with the trunk, unlocks her door, then goes around to the driver's side. She throws herself at the handle, yanking at it crazily but it's like she's speaking another language. Clark leans over and opens it from inside. "That sticks. You gotta pull up a little."
"Fantastic." Jumping into the car, she digs through her purse until she finds a pair of gloves. They're fingerless and make her feel like Bob Cratchit huddled in front of the vent waiting for her lump of coal to catch fire. "It's like, what, three degrees here? I should have stayed in Northampton. At least there I could feel my nose."
Clark checks behind him and backs up carefully. "It's supposed to snow tomorrow."
"It'd have to warm up first."
"That's what they're saying."
"God," she says. "We're boring. When did we get so boring?"
"Speak for yourself, I've always been boring."
"Don't joke! The last time I went home all my dad could talk about was the weather and his retirement fund."
"I hear a lot about organic goats."
Clark pays the parking attendant in his little plastic box, then merges onto the freeway like border patrol's after him and he's got illegal crack-smoking aliens in the trunk. He's still lagging behind. A purple-haired grandma in a Chevy tears past them and Chloe giggles, defrosted and half asleep in the heat blowing from the vents. To the east, Metropolis rises out of nothing, glass towers reflecting glass towers and the endless grey sky.
"How were your finals?" he asks.
"Hell if I know."
He glances over at her.
"I've decided to repress them," she says. "It'll come rushing back once grades are posted, but until then it's avoidance and denial all the way."
"That doesn't sound good."
"Haven't you heard? Junior year is the year to have a nervous breakdown."
He takes one hand off the wheel and jostles her leg. "Why didn't you say something?"
"It was just feminist theory and my mental health. No big deal."
"If you're going to go nuts, the least you can do is tell me. I deserve a running start."
The white cuff of his thermal undershirt makes his hand look huge and she covers it with both her own. Together they almost equal one giant Clark paw. It makes her feel like a kid.
"Seriously," she says. "I turned some papers in late and probably bombed my ethics final, but I'll be fine. I made it this far, right? What about you? You've still got two weeks left."
"Nothing too scary. I've only got one in-class final." He shrugs.
Apparently that's all he's got to say on the subject. She lets him have his hand back and he gets off at the Union Street exit, taking them through Old Metropolis where the buildings have little white lights on them and the wrought iron street lamps are wrapped in thick gold ribbon.
"You're definitely taking me shopping here."
Clark pretends like he can't hear her and turns the radio up.
*"--isn't that right, Pinky?"*
*"It's like you read my mind."*
*"Okay, you big-headed losers, listen up. You want the traffic report? I'll give you the traffic report. Lemme look out the window. Yep. If you're on the road, you're ...ked."*
Clark groans. "Blix must have borrowed my car."
*"A ten-car pile-up has royally screwed I-35 northbound, so don't go to the airport or try to leave the airport. Met U sends hugs and kisses to everyone stuck east of 36th Avenue. Take a memo. Just 'cause you got a bunch of pretty little signs don't mean you can plug up traffic with your dumb asses. Why is it--"*
"She always messes up the radio," he mutters, switching to the local NPR station.
*"--opolis University today, including senatorial candidate Jackie Hayes."*
"Hey," Chloe says. "Jackie Hayes was up visiting one of my professors just before break. I played my barely-got-out-of-Kansas-alive card and got an interview for the paper."
"How'd it go?"
"She was a total cowboy, all about protecting the first amendment and freedom of speech. She dodged my question about special interest groups so fast I couldn't even stop her."
He smiles and turns the radio off. He's got that serious look he gets whenever he's trying to scrape together the brainpower to lie convincingly. He's also been circling the student union for the last ten minutes. The guy on the corner dressed up like a sandwich is staring.
"Looking for a place to park?" she asks.
"No," he says. "Yes. In a moment."
"That clears things up."
"There's something I have to tell you."
"Hit me," she says, pulling her hat off and waiting for the secret password. Going by his expression she'll need a hearing aid by the time he actually spits it out. "Two words? Sounds like--"
"Oh." She hopes she looks supportive instead of hysterical, but she has no idea what her face is doing. Time to reboot.
"Yeah," she says. "I mean, okay. Sure. How's that working for you?"
There must be a word for when the high school love of your life tells you he's gay after you've wasted five years trying to get into his pants. The Germans probably have a word for it. She'll have to settle for the depressingly inadequate duh.
He glances over at her. "Did you know?"
"No." She really should have guessed, but she never was very smart when it came to not being in love with Clark. "Why, was there a memo?"
"Full page ad in the Planet," he says, shrugging. "You're my best friend. I thought maybe you already knew."
She checks him for signs of irony, but he seems sincere. She turns in her seat. "Okay, maybe I did. Tell me more."
"I don't know. Aren't you supposed to have some kind of coming out speech?"
"I'm not running for office, Chloe. I'm gay."
He sounds patient and annoyed, like a kindergarten teacher explaining why it's not good to eat paste, and that's when it finally hits her, because there's still a difference between suspecting something and knowing it. The plastic flower on her hat is coming loose and she picks at the petals. "You seeing anyone?"
"Not really." He sighs. "Help me find a place to park."
"If you get lost, just look for the ugliest building on campus."
"The seventies were a time of great turbulence," she says, looking up at the dorm's fishbowl windows. Van der Knapp Hall isn't just ugly, it's criminally insane. Bug-eyed and lopsided, the whole thing's wider in the middle than it is on the top or bottom and looks like a concrete birthday cake designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's evil twin.
"Wait till you see the inside," Clark says.
"Maybe I shouldn't. I'm allergic to shag."
"No shag. Yellow linoleum."
He heaves her bags out of the car and slams the trunk. "I think Blix is at the gym, so we'll put your stuff in my room for now."
"Are you sure she doesn't mind me crashing on her floor?"
"She volunteered. I don't know what I said that made her so excited to meet you."
"Oh, your obvious love for me shines through," she says, throwing a bag over her shoulder and stepping onto the sidewalk. It's got more salt on it than a ballpark pretzel and she still manages to hit a slippery patch.
Clark grabs her arm, putting a halt to her impression of a spastic mime on ice. "Careful."
"I should sue," she mutters.
They make it up the walkway and Clark swipes his card through the reader and holds the door open for her. Except for the pipes and the curved walls, it looks like a regular dorm on the inside. It has sagging orange couches in the lounge, terrible pea green walls, and a small kitchen for students who want to cook sheep organs and kimchee. Clark's room is on the second floor, a single with muddy yellow linoleum and a skittish throw rug hunched at the side of his bed. There's laundry piled up behind the door and his walls have a few crooked posters hanging on them, several of which she recognizes from his room in Smallville.
She drops her purse and flops onto the bed. "What's next?"
He pats himself down. "Gee, looks like I left your itinerary in my other pants."
"Well, what do you want to do? Hungry?"
"Actually," she says, pulling her gloves off and hunting down the business card somewhere in her purse. "I need to use your phone to call Lex. Mine's dead." Clark doesn't say anything and she looks up. "Is that okay? It's a local call."
"Why are you calling Lex?"
"I'm meeting him for coffee. Wanna come?"
He looks at her like she asked if he wanted to come to the bathroom with her. "What?"
"I always try to see him when I'm in town. It's not like I'm going to steal him away from you or any...oh my god. Don't tell me you're still not speaking to him."
He shrugs one shoulder.
"You told me you went to Lionel's funeral."
"And you couldn't get over yourself long enough to say something to him? What the fuck, Clark?"
"I wanted to," he says.
She'd talked to him after the service and he'd sounded miserable and guilty, but he's always taken funerals personally so it wasn't anything unusual. She'd said the usual things and asked how Lex was doing. Clark told her that he wasn't sleeping, that he was burying himself in work, that he didn't want to talk about it. She realizes now he hadn't said that he'd talked to Lex at all. She'd just assumed he had. All this time and she'd thought they'd made up.
"You should come with me," she says. "I'm sure he'd be happy to see you."
"Don't be insane, of course you can. I'll just tell him--"
"I have to move the car," and he's gone. She sighs and stares up at the ceiling. She doesn't know what happened between them, what it was that caused the cold war, but Clark's never really been the same since Lex left. She didn't notice at first, too busy with her own problems and all the stress of applying to college, and when she finally caught on it was too late. She was leaving for school, and he was leaving for school, and she didn't have a chance to talk to him about Lex. It hurts to think about, how she wasn't the friend he needed, and now she's not the friend he wants.
The phone is hidden under a pile of old comparative lit papers. She flips through them while she dials Lex's private line. The red notes in the margin indicate Clark has an affinity for unreliable narrators and run-on sentences.
"Lex? It's Chloe."
"Chloe." He says her name like he'd been expecting the SEC and got her instead. "Just a moment."
He puts her on hold. She tucks the phone under her chin and sits down at Clark's desk. His laptop is password protected, but his drawers aren't. She pulls out some photos of Smallville, a ticket stub from a movie she's never heard of, the mix cd she made for his birthday. The shelves behind his chair are crammed with textbooks, a stack of tapes from the media center, old spiral notebooks, his self-help library, and something too thin to be a magazine. She pinches it out from between two grammar workbooks and a stray photo drops from between its pages as it clears the shelf.
It's a junk shot from her freshman year. Nell and half of Mrs. Kent. Chloe was doing a piece on the farmer's market for the Ledger and her camera had spazzed out at the last second. She'd said something loud and four-lettered and everyone within a hundred yards had turned to stare at her in horror. Not her best moment, but Clark wasn't even there to see it. He'd been off getting a corn dog or something.
"Sorry about that," Lex says. "I had a call on the other line."
She gets up to search through a pile of mail. "Meanwhile I was being tortured by Karma Chameleon on the zither."
"Your hold music," she says. "It's like being poked in the ear with an angry banjo."
"That's not possible."
"Mad banjos or Boy George being piped through the LuthorCorp phone lines?"
A door opens and closes in the background. "It's been a while, Chloe. What can I do for you?"
He sounds detached and professional, but as someone who's had the dubious pleasure of overhearing him tutor Clark on how to win Lana Lang's heart, she knows he's just fighting the urge to sound pissy, and oh boy does his exasperation with Clark make sense now.
"Tell you what," she says. "You can take a break from oppressing the working class and meet me for coffee."
"You're in Metropolis."
It's not a question, it's more like she's being accused of something, but she plays dumb and answers it anyway. "Yeah, I'm visiting Clark."
Her experiment yields a few seconds of silence and an electronic beep. Finally he says, "There's a cafe on the corner of 13th and Kincaid. Does Friday at eight work for you?"
"In the morning?"
He doesn't respond, but she can feel his irritation spiking through the phone lines. He's going to jab her in the ear if she doesn't watch it. She writes the address down on her hand. "Yeah, yeah, that's fine."
He hangs up without saying goodbye. She rolls her eyes and leans over to pick the photograph up off the floor. Talking to Lex is always a little like being in a spy movie. Like this message is going to self-destruct in...she squints at the picture she's holding and suddenly understands why Clark has it hidden away. Lex and Clark are sitting together behind the Kent's booth. They're small and blurry and smiling at each other. She slips it back into the wrinkled comic book and returns it to the shelf, feeling like a traitor for finding it and for finding a dark sort of satisfaction in it. She is a terrible person who needs to call her father and let him know she's not dead.
He's at work so she gets the machine. "You've reached the Sullivan! That's right, there's only one of me now. Leave a message after the beeeeeep."
"Dad, you big dork, nice message. I'm at Clark's. Life is good. Airports suck. I lost a wheel in Atlanta and they patted me down three times in Logan. I told them I was too short to be a terrorist, but they didn't seem to think that was very funny. I'm probably going to drag Clark out tonight. Tomorrow, whatever. Friday I'm having coffee with your boss, so you better be cool about my grades this semester or I'll tell him you're running that plant of his into the ground. I'll call again after my phone recharges. If you need me before that, I've totally forgotten Clark's number, but I think I emailed it to you last week. Love you, bye!"
Clark sticks his head in the door, looking ill. "You through?"
"Yeah, hope you don't mind, I called my dad. I'll buy you a drink."
"No, that's fine." He sags against the doorframe but a gigantic blonde girl pushes him aside. "Oh, I found Blix."
"I love your hair!" Blix says, hugging her. "I've been thinking of getting mine cut, but it gets in the way when I'm playing. Tennis," she says. "Clark didn't tell me you'd be in this early. I would have come to the airport."
Chloe nods stupidly. Blix looks like captain of the Swedish Bikini Team, all perfect skin and long blonde hair and legs that take forever to reach her kicky lime green tennis skirt. According to Clark, she's also some kind of differential calculus rockstar. It's like standing next to Miss Universe.
"Hi," Chloe says.
"It's so cool you're here. Clark talks about you all the time."
Considering he barely talks to her these days, this is news to her. "He does?"
"Of course!" Blix says, throwing her arms around Clark's neck. He just looks bored and sort of annoyed, like there's nothing exciting about six feet of perky Swedish exchange student trying to wear him like a sweater. "I've heard all about the trouble you two used to get into. He loves to tell that story about how you got the biology teacher fired. You're his favorite."
Clark clearly left out a few things about their high school years.
"Let's get your stuff upstairs. We can figure out what we're doing tonight." Blix breaks away from Clark to get Chloe's bags. "This one probably has a rousing game of Scrabble planned."
"I thought I'd let Chloe decide," he says.
"And I think Chloe wants to go to a party," Blix says, kissing him on the mouth on her way out the door.
Chloe stands next to him and they watch her walk down the hall. "Does she know you're...?"
"Yeah." He sighs. "I just don't think she cares."
"We need to get you a sign or something. Maybe a big stick." Or a boyfriend. Jesus, they're going to love that back in Smallville. She wonders if his parents know. She could ask. They could get drunk and stay up all night and talk about their feelings, but that's a little beyond her right now. She grabs her purse and hurries to catch up with Blix.
She's got the door to the stairs propped open with her foot. "Was he warning you about me? I'm always doing things that embarrass him."
"You too, huh?"
"Does he give you the look? That 'oh please god stop talking' look?"
"Are you kidding," Chloe says, following her up the stairs. "I was the reason he invented that look."
Blix makes a tch noise. "I never know what's going to upset him. I get drunk and climb into his lap at a club and he's got no problem with that, but I tell my roommate I had sex with him and--"
"Oh my god! You had sex with Clark? How?" Realizing what she said, she stops and claps her hands over her mouth, one after the other like a cartoon character. Then she comes to her senses. "When?"
"Last year." Blix shoulders open the door to the third floor.
"Christ. It's like the moon landing. One giant leap for mankind." Chloe staggers forward like a zombie. "I was beginning to think his pants didn't come off."
"They come off," Blix says, looking sly.
"Not when I was dating him," Chloe grumbles. She wants the rest of the who-what-whys answered, but she doesn't trust Blix not to give her all of the horrible sweaty details. She wonders if she's going to be sick.
"We weren't dating. We were just having sex." Blix stops in front of a door with a cut out of Sweden taped to it. "No chance of hurt feelings if it didn't work out."
She's definitely not going to cry. That would be stupid and pointless. Oh hell. She bites the inside of her lip.
Blix shifts Chloe's bags around and bends down to pull a key out of her right sneaker. "Not that it matters now. He's finally figured out we're not his type." Blix grins at her. Chloe tries to smile back but she's lost control of her face again.
"Okay," Blix says, kicking the door open. "My roommate moved back to Turkey last month, so you can have her bed. Showers are down the hall, just don't use the one in the middle, and I can sleep through anything so don't worry about waking me. Tonight, there's a party at the Delta Tau house. I can get us into Echo, or any club in the Warehouse District. Clark could probably find you a poetry reading or a Latin club dinner."
"Party." If she's lucky, it'll be too loud for anyone else to come out to her.
"Great! Just give me a second to change. You look perfect."
Chloe looks like she just spent six hours crammed in a metal tube, but she can live with that. It's not like she's got anyone to impress. She sits on the bed. Blix pulls off her shirt and tosses her bra at a laundry basket in the corner.
"So you're studying journalism, like Clark?" Blix asks, wiggling into an aqua tube top.
"Uh, yeah. Sort of. Smith doesn't have a journalism major, but I'm taking classes at U Mass too."
Blix finds a pair of clingy black velvet pants. "You want to be a reporter?"
"I want to get into Columbia. Then I want to be a reporter."
"I want to be a teacher," Blix says, standing in front of the mirror and calibrating her tube top, which can cover her breasts or her bellybutton, but not both. "After I'm done here I'm going back to Sweden to get my PhD."
Blix is going to be the most popular math teacher of all time. She sits down on her bed to yank on a pair of motorcycle boots and Chloe realizes she's been staring. She wipes some salt off the toe of her clog.
"Yeah," Chloe says, getting up.
"Oh!" Blix grabs something off her desk. "Keys. The card opens the outer door. You're not really supposed to have these, but I have a friend in housing. Just pretend you belong here."
They go back downstairs to find Clark slouched in front of his computer, head propped up in one hand. He took his jacket off and she can see his blue and white shirt is actually short sleeved and three sizes too small. He looks like he was raised by a pack of feral, depressed nerds. She stands behind him and wraps her arms around his shoulders, half hug, half nelson.
"Hi," she says.
He leans back against her and sighs. "Hi."
"We're going to the Delta Tau party," Blix says, throwing open Clark's closet. "Put on something sexy."
"I don't own anything sexy."
"I know that, but I keep hoping." Blix pulls out a wine-colored dress shirt that looks like something Lex might wear. Clark tenses, but Blix only checks the label and puts it back in the closet.
"Those jeans will work. These boots." Blix flings a pair of shiny black combat boots at them. "And..." She straightens. "I know what you need. I'll be right back," she calls, darting out the door.
"How ya doing?" Chloe asks.
He looks up at her. "You two have been talking about me."
"You know everything," he says morosely. "Blix isn't big on holding back."
"Clark, I've known you forever. It's not like I'm suddenly going to decide you're too weird for me."
"It's happened before," he mutters.
"Hey," she says, shaking him a little. "Not with me, right? Who did you run to when you were getting psychic phone calls from the future?"
"Exactly. You and I hit saturation point on weirdness a long time ago, buddy. Now put your boots on before Blix comes back and yells at us."
"They pinch," he complains, but hikes his jeans up and pulls them on.
Blix returns clutching a meshy, silver black t-shirt. She shoves it at Clark. "Here."
He recoils. "That's yours!"
"I'm not wearing your shirt!"
"There's nothing wrong with it," Blix insists, grabbing him and trying to pull his thermal over his head. He yells something in Swedish. "Nej, nej!"
Blix falls back on the bed, giggling.
"What'd he say?" Chloe asks.
"Det later inte sarskilt fantastiskt." Blix translates, "That does not sound particularly fantastic."
"Well it doesn't," he grumps, snatching the shirt from Blix and changing into it, probably just to shut her up. It's stretchy enough that it fits him, while leaving absolutely no question about his sexual preference. Blix must be trying to get him a boyfriend. Clark, clearly sensing her plan, immediately puts his jacket back on and buttons it all the way up to his neck.
Some things never change.
They eat at a pizza bar a block away from campus, and then walk to Greek Row. Blix is wearing Clark's jacket because she didn't bother to bring one of her own and Clark couldn't handle her bouncing around in sub-zero temperatures in only a tube top. In his sheep fleece coat and her hair in two long braids, she looks like a saucy milk maid. They pass by the bookstore and she adopts a skinny black guy with orange hair, leaving Clark and Chloe to trail behind them.
"How'd you meet her?" Chloe asks.
"I don't remember," Clark says. "One day she just showed up in my room."
"I bet she did."
He doesn't seem to hear her. "It was my first summer in Metropolis. Sometimes I'd go running with her along the river. She was kind of the first friend I made here." He snaps out of it. "She's graduating this spring, moving back home. I might even miss her."
"She's definitely one of a kind," she says, watching Blix show off her backhand with an invisible tennis racket.
Despite the weather only being suitable for polar bears and Scandinavians, the door to the Delta Tau house is wide open. A couple of shirtless, shivering freshmen stand guard on either side, PLEDGE scrawled across their puny chests.
"Hell week," Clark explains. "Uh, you might get asked to, um..."
There's a Jeep parked on the lawn and a trail of empty beer cans leading to the curb. It's a frat. She'll probably get asked to sign some guy's dick or be forced to use their skanky bathroom. "I'll just tell them I'm a lesbian," she says.
He shakes his head. "I think they actually get extra points for that."
Blix dives between them. "This is going to be so much fun. Clark never comes to parties with me."
"Hey, I went to that thing with the DJ and the glow sticks."
"You took him to a rave?"
Blix just laughs and pulls them up the steps. Clark pauses in the doorway like he's considering a last minute bid for freedom. Blix helps him make up his mind with a push and a slap on the ass and lets the doorboys take their coats. Clark staggers inside and is instantly pulled away by the crowd. He gives Chloe a helpless look over his shoulder.
"I'll get us a beer," Blix says, giving her tube top a little boost. "Be right back."
It's loud and hot and for the first time since getting off the plane, Chloe feels like she can relax. She shouts her name at a few people, gets an offer to smoke up and another to join a private party upstairs. "No thanks!" she yells. "I'm on parole!"
Blix presses a big plastic cup into her hand. "Keg's in the kitchen."
Three guys in cocktail dresses and high heels teeter down the stairs. The first two stick close to the wall and then scuttle around the corner and out of sight. The third comes down into the room and slings an arm around the neck of a friend. He's got a pair of sunglasses pushed up into his hair and a big silver watch on. It's strangely hot.
"Don't let anyone near your drink," Blix says, kissing her on the cheek. "I have to talk to the boy in the blue satin."
Chloe drinks her warm foamy beer and observes the primitive mating rituals of the Delta Tau. She spots Clark by the pool table, looking frustrated and spoiled, his supermodel powers having attracted a frat boy in a yellow polo shirt. The frat boy's making little gestures with his hands while he talks and Clark's leaning against a trophy case, half-listening with a bored look that's sure to make him irresistible. Blix is dancing with at least three people, including the guy in the dress, and Chloe decides to join them. The next time she looks over at the pool table, Clark and his frat boy are gone. Chloe needs more beer before she can even think about thinking about that.
The kitchen's in the back of the house where it's not as loud. The keg's dead, but there's some hinky red punch in a drum. She dips her cup in and tastes it. It's like Kool-Aid flavored rocket fuel. She didn't need those brain cells. They were just getting in her way.
"There's nothing weird in it." A guy dressed up like a cheerleader is sitting on the counter next to the sink. He takes a drag on his cigarette. "Even if there was, no way it could survive in all that alcohol."
"What is with you people and the concept of female as punishment?" Chloe demands. Apparently her time wasn't totally wasted in feminist theory. She may have gotten a C, but watch her apply knowledge in real world situations! She's totally going to put that in this year's reflective essay.
The cheerleader sighs. "It's supposed to be demeaning."
"Look, I'm not saying the appropriation of the feminine isn't problematic," he says, ashing in the sink and crossing his legs. He's got boxer briefs on under his pleated skirt. He shrugs. "I'm just saying it could be worse."
"So it's all relative. Better my pain than yours." She scowls. "You're an anthropology major, aren't you?"
"Music, as it turns out, but a lot of people get them confused. I blame The Monkees."
"You know, Monkees, comma, Hey, hey, we're The? I explain that one group has wacky musical adventures and the other has tails, but for some reason it doesn't always sink in."
She feels strange, hot and dizzy. She wants those brain cells back. This conversation is making zero sense.
"What's your story? You performing some kind of community outreach program? Educating the savages on cultural sensitivity?" He grins at her.
She realizes her cup is empty. She puts it down on the table. "I'm here with my church group. Gotta go."
She goes out the back door and stands next to the dumpster. It's snowing, icy little flakes that hit her in the face like frozen needles. The cold helps clear her head. She could walk back to the dorm, but not alone and in the dark. Blix is probably still dancing. The house has security floodlights on the eaves and she circles around to the front, carefully, because the red-punch-in-a-drum's started up a mosh pit in her stomach.
The pledges at the door are gone and there's a BMW parked on the lawn next to the Jeep. The trunk's been peeled back like a microwave dinner. Clark's standing next to it, snow glinting in his hair.
"What's going on?"
"Chloe. Go stand at the curb and flag down the ambulance."
There are sirens in the distance.
She grabs his arm. "What happened?"
Inside the trunk, naked except for his underwear and someone's coat, is a student. He's lying in a puddle of vomit and has PLEDGE written on his chest in red lipstick. He's black and blue and not moving.
"Brotherhood," Clark says. "Go get the ambulance."
She stumbles off to the street. This doesn't make any sense either. It's snowing, and her fingers are cold. Her head feels very far away and the sky's spinning, but at least she's identified the problem. She's drunk.
The ambulance comes and the paramedics race up the driveway. She watches Clark lift the boy out of the car. He's thrashing weakly, mumbling and trying to pull away from Clark. "Shouldna done. Spossa stay."
People are everywhere, standing on the lawn, staring, pointing, coming out of the neighboring houses, lurching away down the street to find another party. Clark leaves with the ambulance, his silvery t-shirt sparkling in the swirling red and white lights. The snow turns to soft flakes.
Campus security comes. The police. Blix.
She gets Chloe into her coat. "There you are. You okay?"
"I had punch," she says to Blix.
"Oh, poor baby." Blix puts an arm around her. "That stuff'll kill you."
Chloe thinks about throwing up.
"Sim's giving us a ride back to the Knapp. We'll get you into bed with some water and some aspirins and it'll be like tonight never happened. Is Clark around?"
"No," Chloe says, slowly. "He left."
"Well, you know Clark," Blix says. "He's not happy unless he's in the middle of everything. We'll see him tomorrow."
Chloe doesn't know if that's true. She can't remember the last time she saw Clark happy.
She wakes up and for a moment she doesn't know where she is. Someone is humming and using velcro.
The velcro stops. "Oh! Did I wake you? Go back to sleep. It's early."
Blix, who slept with Clark, who's gay and hung up on Lex, who seems to be annoyed with Chloe, who drank way, way too much last night. How is it possible that yesterday could have been that long? She turns over and buries her face in the pillow. She wants a re-do, and a new head.
"Wait, drink this."
A bottle of water. Chloe drags it under the covers with her and goes back to sleep.
The next time she wakes up it's less early. A ray of sunlight streams through the gap where the curtains don't cover the windows and it only makes her want to die a little. She pours herself out of bed and fakes her way through a shower. The only problem with that is she can't remember if she already washed her hair or not, so she ends up doing it twice.
She's just crawling out of the cave in search of coffee when she meets Blix coming up the stairs.
"Hey! Wanna get lunch? My next class isn't until one, and I'm not even sure I'll go. It's just a review."
"I was thinking of going Christmas shopping," Chloe lies. She'll hide in the library if she has to, but after the non-stop thrills of yesterday she just wants some time alone.
Blix doesn't seem to care either way. "You should check out the new shops at Luthor Plaza." She digs in her pocket. "Take Clark's car."
"I don't think--"
"It's fine. He's busy with something, but he gave me his keys in case you wanted to use it."
Chloe takes the keys. "Thanks."
It's bright white outside. She flinches, shielding her eyes with one hand. There's only a few inches of snow on the ground, but it's like standing inside a light bulb. Eyes squeezed shut, she crunches her way to the student union. She gets coffee at the Starbucks and finds a pair of sunglasses in her purse while scavenging for loose change. They're not hers, and the lenses are pink, but they're better than nothing. She puts them on.
Now she's only got to figure out what to do with the rest of her day. She drinks her coffee and watches all the North Face jackets bobbing past the windows. Yellow might be the new orange, but Kansas is still getting used to last year's neon blue. Some pro-hemp group is passing out flyers on the corner and for a block in each direction, the sidewalk is papered with mushy green pulp. She needs to get off campus before she climbs up into the clocktower and starts pelting the courtyard with those rock hard wheat-free vegan squares everyone and their hippie sister seems to be eating. She actually could go shopping. The streets are clear and she's got the keys to Clark's car.
She goes back to where she last saw it, but the car's not there and she remembers he moved it. It's black...or green? She looks up and down the street, then pulls out her newly recharged phone and calls Clark. He answers on the fifth ring.
"Dude, where's your car?"
"Chloe. Hang on." He's somewhere noisy. She can't hear what he's saying, but it sounds urgent.
She finishes her coffee and tosses it into the trash.
"It's parked in the lot behind McGruder. It's got snow tires so you should be fine."
"Where are you?"
"The paper. I'm in the middle of something. I'll talk to you later."
"Wait! The car, what color is it?"
"Dark green," he says, hanging up.
"Thanks," she says to the dial tone. "I'm doing fine. Metropolis is great. Wish you were here."
A girl in a three-pronged hat walks by and smiles at her. Chloe forces a smile, then goes off to find the car before she has a psychotic temper tantrum in the street. She wanted to be alone. It looks like she's getting her wish.
It starts snowing again around five. Everyone immediately forgets how weather works and starts driving like the world's ending and they need to get to the bank before it closes.
Chloe pulls into the Starbucks drive-thru. No way she can deal with this without coffee.
The line creeps forward one giant SUV at a time. She keeps an eye on the car in front of her and chews the tags off the woven denim scarf she bought at the crazy rainforest store. Luthor Plaza was unreal, filled with glass and fountains and abstract marble figures, and she knew the guy who owned it. She'd been in his castle, been thrown out of his castle, attended both his weddings and watched him dress Clark in the occasional multimillion dollar sweater, but standing in the plaza and looking up through the glass ceiling at the tower gave her a whole new appreciation for just how rich and unreachable Lex was, like an alien from the planet Thrillionaire. Clark never seemed to get that. He'd ask Lex for twenty thousand dollars the same way he'd ask Chloe for a piece of notebook paper, and Lex would hand it over just as easily, right up until the day he left. Clark must have finally asked for something Lex wasn't willing to give.
She gets her coffee and drives back to campus, hating each and every person on the road, but in a benevolent, zen-like way. Starbucks might be more expensive than therapy, but at least you can have it in the car.
Her phone rings while she's circling Clark's dorm and praying for a parking space. From the look of things, God's forsaken her. He never brought her that pony she wanted either.
She answers her phone. "Hey, Daddio. What's shakin'?"
"Just checking up on my girl. How's Metropolis?"
"Metropolis," she says, "is falling apart like a boy band pushing thirty."
It's actually worse, but she can't tell her dad that. He'll say all the wrong things and she'll yell at him or burst into tears or both and who needs that. "Nah, the snow's just making me cranky. It's like magic idiot dust."
"Please tell me you're not driving in the snow and talking on the phone."
"Who's talking on the phone?"
"No daughter of mine."
"You better believe it, kid. Now hang up and be safe."
"Love you." A car the size of an egg pulls away from the curb and Chloe drops the phone and noses the Jetta in the spot. She's parked next to a row of newspaper boxes. The red one on the end is the school daily. The lead has something to do with hazing in the Greek system. She pulls a copy out and there's Clark's name, right on the front page.
"When the hell did you find time to write this?" she asks him when he opens his door. She holds up the paper.
"Last night, this morning." He shrugs, looking guilty. "There's a longer version online."
"Here I thought you were supposed to be entertaining me."
"And, uh, Mr. White had me working with a staff reporter, so it's going to be in the Planet tomorrow too."
"The Planet? That's great!" She hugs him, and it's a lot like squeezing a robot. He tolerates it but doesn't seem to understand what's going on. She pulls back. "It's not great?"
"Not for that kid. He's in a coma. They only identified him this morning."
"He's from Iowa," Clark adds, as if somehow that makes this all just that much more depressing.
"So what's the story?" She kicks back on Clark's bed and scans the paper.
"He was pledging Delta Tau. They forced him to drink until he passed out and then stripped him and locked him in the trunk of his car."
Clark's article says things like hypothermia, alcohol poisoning, criminal negligence. His style's always tended toward the dark and brooding, a gothic flair not even intro to news beat out of him. She'd blame Smallville and the type of stories it spawned, but she's the one who wrote most of those creature features and her own writing's much more in your face. She wants people to listen to what she's saying, not how she's saying it. Clark likes to go on a rambling little walk through the facts while pouring on the tragedy of the human condition.
Kansas law prohibits hazing, but in Metropolis the number of hazing-related deaths has doubled over the last decade, and the nurses at Sacred Heart Hospital are whispering about the latest student brought in from Greek Row. This isn't the first time a Delta Tau pledge has arrived in an ambulance.
She looks up from the paper. "This has happened before?"
"Three times in the past two years," he says. "They even got their charter suspended for hazing back in 2005, but it's one of the few houses on campus that hasn't gone dry, so the students are kind of protective of it. A lot goes on there that doesn't get reported."
Until Clark Kent came along. But he's used to being unpopular. It's what makes him a good journalist.
"They're not going to be protected much longer," she says, knowing it's what he wants to hear. "Tell the truth, aren't you at least a little excited about being in the Planet?"
He shoves his hands in his pockets and grins. "Yeah."
"You'd better be, or else I'll be forced to lock you in the closet and assume your identity, and I don't look good in plaid."
"You've been watching Alias again, haven't you?"
"Forget Alias. Try Smallville. I can name ten people that had doubles wandering around town fucking up their lives, and at least two of them were Lex. I'd swear it happened to you a couple times too, but that just might have been PMS."
He scowls at her.
"Hey, we should call Pete. This is a big step up from reporting on the lunch menu. You're practically required to rub his nose in your success. It's going to be years before he's even qualified to give free legal aid to the shiftless and confused."
"He went prelaw last year, remember?"
Clark starts fussing with the remote.
"You're not talking to him either," she says flatly. "You realize this makes no sense. You're not speaking to Lex, and you're not speaking to Pete because you're not speaking to Lex. Your foreign policy sucks."
"Pete thinks I'm better off--" He stops, refusing to finish his sentence. He sits on the bed, as far away from her as he can, and turns the television on.
"Pete thinks he's responsible for carrying on his family's ancient feud with the Luthors. It's a problem, but you dealt with it fine before Lex left. I don't know who you think you're punishing, but you could move past this if you wanted to."
"I can't be friends with him. He doesn't understand." And that's all he'll say, and she's not even sure he's talking about Pete.
She lets it go, because that's what it takes to keep him. She lets him have his secrets, and she doesn't get between him and Lex.
"His loss, then," she says, unbuckling her oxfords and getting comfortable. He's found some ridiculous documentary on the History channel filled with dramatic reenactments and cheesy camera work. She leans back against the wall. "Oooh, guys in skirts."
*"To this extent,"* booms the narrator, *"the Peloponnesian War was a trade war and it was chiefly on this ground that Corinth appealed to Sparta to take up arms."*
"I believe the technical term is man-skirt," Clark says.
"You'd know better than I would."
The war goes to commercial, and he flips past sports and reruns and the home shopping network but stops on the KMET 5 News. Some hairdo in a North Face parka is standing in front of the Delta Tau house, pushing a microphone at Clark and looking troubled.
"Did I forget to mention the local news interviewed me," he says in a big rush, speeding past the channel.
She tackles him, reaching for the remote. "I wanna see!"
He holds it over his head. "I don't!"
She gets the remote away from him easily. He's laughing too hard to fight her off, not that it matters. He's always been careful not to seem too strong.
Somehow, bending all laws of space and time, Clark's even prettier on television. He's rosy cheeked and broad shouldered and dark haired. Even that dumb jacket of his looks good. The reporter asks him the usual inane questions, and he answers them, serious and beautiful, like he's going to save the world right there on the lawn of the skankiest frat house in Metropolis. Channel Five's Jennie Mantilia is utterly charmed, fumbling her lines as she sends it back to the studio where they agree it's a damned tragedy and give a number for a useless phone-in poll about drinking on campus.
Chloe clicks the TV off. "So, how should we celebrate your rise to fame? Dinner? Movie?"
The phone rings.
"Oh, definitely. Just let me get my tassels." He rolls his eyes and answers the phone. "Hello?"
She watches his smile rise and fade.
"Dad, it's not--"
The Kents had a reputation for being odd long before Clark came into their lives. He simply added to the weirdness. Now they're known for their money problems, the murder charges, the midnight raids by the government, the way they consistently refuse medical help for Clark.
"Mom, tell him--"
They wouldn't let him play sports. They never allowed his picture in the yearbook. They don't like him on the news.
"I was just trying to help!" Clark says, frustrated and desperate.
She wants to stay, but she already learned this lesson. "You know where to find me," she whispers.
He nods, once, and she squeezes his hand, gathers up her stuff, and leaves him to his secrets.
Clark's not answering either of his phones, or his door. Across the hall, a Russian and an Australian are watching Regis and Kelly and eating cold pizza.
She pokes her head into their room. "Have you seen Clark?"
The kitchen looks like something out of a sci-fi prison movie, all barred windows, glass cupboards, and funky jellybean counters edged with chrome. Clark's still in his t-shirt and pajama pants, slumped at the table and staring into his coffee mug.
"We missed you at dinner," she says. He wasn't answering the phone then, either.
He doesn't even look up. "Sorry."
"You want to talk about it?"
Big surprise there. "Are your parents mad?"
He laughs. "That's one way to put it. They want me to quit the paper."
He looks at her now. "You know they don't like me drawing attention to myself."
"But you love working on the paper."
"Yeah." He laughs again, and it's a terrible sound, forced and bitter. "I do."
She's shivering and can't seem to stop. She pulls her coat around her and sits across from him. "I'm going to meet Lex for coffee. Do you want to come with me?"
"I already have coffee," he says. She knows Clark Kent, and this is what he looks like when he wants something he thinks he can't have. He's never once looked at her like that.
"I didn't know you two kept in touch," he says finally.
That would seem strange to him, considering how Chloe's the only person from Smallville he still talks to.
"It's not a big deal," she says. "The first time I came home for Thanksgiving break, Lex was in town visiting the plant and we ran into each other at the Talon. He said we should do it again sometime, and we did. Now get dressed, you're coming with me."
"No, Chloe." He sounds exhausted, like he's been fighting this war forever. It makes her want to hug him, or hit him. Anything to get that hopeless look off his face. He's not wearing any socks and his feet are bare on the concrete slab of the floor. He's wallowing.
"Fine, but you and I are going out tonight so don't go making any plans."
He smiles at her weakly and she gets up and pulls her hat on.
The coffee shop is right on the edge of campus, so she decides to walk. The snow crunches under her feet and the sun is bright but cold. At the corner, she mails the postcard she got for her roommate Eleanor and digs out change for the newspaper. The Daily Planet headline is a big and obnoxious DEATH ROW? over an innocuous shot of Delta Tau and its neighboring houses. Clark shares the byline with some guy named Craigg. The article goes into a lot more detail than the one in the Chronicle and includes the new information that the kid from Iowa woke up from his coma with permanent brain damage. Her stomach turns over. She'd stood there and watched him being lifted into the ambulance, watched Clark almost red-eyed with anger. Clark has to help, that's who he is, and his parents want to take that away. It'll never happen. She tucks the paper under her arm and crosses the street.
There are two cafes on the corner of 13th and Kincaid, but one sells bongs and rolling papers and doesn't have any chairs. The other one's called The Golden Cup and has a tile mosaic of the sun on its facade. She goes into that one.
Lex is sitting in a butter yellow armchair near the back. He catches sight of her and for one bare second his eyes drift to the space behind her, where Clark isn't.
And then it's like she imagined it. Lex acknowledges her with a lazy blink and she waves at him and goes over to wait in line to give herself time to recover, because the look on his face wasn't something she was meant to see. It's almost like being back in Smallville at the Talon, sitting at the counter with Lana, watching Lex and Clark flirt with each other in their private corner under the stairs. Back then, they thought it was funny how their awkward farmboy had fallen in with Lex Luthor, going over to his castle after school, hanging out with him in the Beanery and then the Talon. They were nothing alike. Lana said it was like a fairy tale. Chloe thought she was nuts.
She would have known what it really was, if she'd let herself. She remembers one morning their sophomore year, after she and Clark had started dating, school had been cancelled because the power had gone out and half of Smallville High was crowded into the Talon. Lex and Clark were sitting in their usual spot, but it was like they had an invisible forcefield around them, no one was leaning on the back of Clark's chair or reaching over Lex to get more napkins. They were alone in this crush of people, and Lana had turned to her and commented in her usual simple way that Lex and Clark both wore a lot of clothes.
Chloe spun around to ask what the hell she was talking about -- it was winter, everyone was wearing a lot of clothes -- but Lana was already gone, off to dish out some coffee. Under the stairs, Lex and Clark were sitting across from each other and talking about something that had Clark grinning like a girl with a new pair of shoes and Lex looking supremely pleased with himself. They had always looked like that when they were together.
The barista is asking Chloe if he can help her, and probably has been for a while.
She gets her coffee and works her way back to Lex.
"Clark's in the Planet," she says, tossing the paper on the table. She hasn't seen Lex since his father died, and before that they didn't talk about Clark. She saw herself on Clark's side, loyal to his mysterious heartbreak. Lex never brought him up. She's done with that. Just because Clark wants to push away everyone who was once important to him doesn't mean she has to play along.
Lex takes a sip of his coffee, unruffled. "I know. He pushed me below the fold."
She flips the paper over to find LuthorCorp's acquired a completely unsexy shipping company. "I don't even know why this is on the front page at all. It's money, but it's boring money."
"I'd imagine Clark's pleased."
She looks up. "You'd be wrong."
He nods as if he expected nothing different. "Perhaps it would help to know Delta Tau is getting their charter revoked."
That wasn't in the paper. "How do you know that?"
"The dean will be making an announcement this afternoon."
"And you're what, drinking buddies?"
"I know her in a professional capacity," he says, slippery as ever. He gives her a little half-smile, part bribe, part threat. He's always been impossible to read. She sighs into her coffee.
"I'll tell him."
Lex sits back in his chair. "How's school?"
She gives him the Disney version, leaving out all the trauma and most of the psychosis and focusing on the talking birds and fairy godmothers, in this case her roommate and media law prof, respectively. There's no reason Lex needs to know the LuthorCorp scholarship kid almost failed half her classes because she spent the week before finals huddled in bed eating M&M's and compulsively revising her iPod playlists. That is a story for another time.
Lex is explaining why she should be excited about his new shipping fleet when his phone rings. He mutes it and checks the screen. "I'm thinking of buying this place," he says to her. She has no idea if he's being serious or if that's what passes for a joke in his world.
Another enigmatic half-smile. He gets up. "It was good seeing you, Chloe."
They shake hands, just like they did the first time they met.
"He misses you," she says, though she hadn't meant to.
Lex just tucks his scarf around his neck, buttons up his coat, and smiles.
Clark won't be out of class until noon so she talks her way into the computer lab and kills a couple hours checking her email and fucking around on the internet. There's still no news about the Delta Tau charter.
Back at the dorms, she goes up to the second floor, planning on leaving Clark a note on his white board, but she hears voices coming from inside. Clark's lying on his bed with a book on his chest, obviously having skipped class in favor of feeling sorry for himself. He did manage to get dressed, though still no socks. Blix is at his desk, reading something to him off his computer.
Blix waves her over. "Hej, flickan. Where have you been?"
"Coffee. With a friend. Did you just call me a horse?"
Clark snickers from his sick bed.
"I called you a girl," Blix says.
"Huh," Chloe says. "Stupid name for a horse. Anyway," she turns to Clark, "Lex says the Delta Taus are about to be kicked to the curb with the rest of the trash."
"That's what he said."
Clark sits up a little. "That's good news, right?"
"It is if you oppose cruelty to freshmen. You want the paper?"
"No," he says, taking it.
"I was just telling Clark we should go to a movie," Blix says. "Help me pick."
There's the usual stuff playing in the multiplexes, action-adventure, action-romance, action-action, Paris Hilton's dog. Chloe leans over Blix and scrolls down a few pages. "The Princess Bride's playing at the Orpheum."
Blix bounces out of her chair. "Perfect."
"That's a chick movie," Clark grumbles.
"Yeah, and you're acting like a girl, so you'll fit right in. Let's go."
The Orpheum's in a converted church a couple blocks off campus. They cut across the quad and behind the library where the streets aren't plowed, Clark shuffling between her and Blix like a prisoner being led to the dentist chair.
"So, you look like hell," Chloe says.
"I thought..." Clark hunches into his jacket. "I don't know what I thought. Delta Tau's only part of the problem. That kid didn't have to drink until he passed out. He didn't have to get into that trunk. He could have said no and none of this would have happened."
"No. It still would have happened, just to someone else. You stopped that."
"It's not enough."
"It'll have to be," she says. "Unless you've got some kind of secret plan."
He shakes his head.
"What about the paper, are you going to quit?"
"I don't want to," he says, sounding guilty and stubborn.
"Chloe! It's not that easy."
"Actually, it is."
"You can't live your life for your parents, Clark," Blix says quietly, surprising her.
"I know. I just--" Clark's head snaps forward and she feels something cold hit her in the neck. Snow. She turns around. There's a group of five stupid-looking guys coming toward them. If she had to guess, she'd say they were Delta Tau.
"That's him," one of them says. "Kent!"
"Oh great," he mutters.
"They shut us down, Kent. They're closing the house. What makes you think we're going to let you get away with that?"
Clark steps out in front of Blix and Chloe, clearly intending for them to stay back there, but Chloe never was very good at staying put. She takes a few steps forward, bringing her even with him. On his other side, Blix's done the same thing.
"You got yourselves shut down," Clark says. "I wasn't the one who stuffed David Blalock into a trunk and left him there. He can barely remember his own name."
The leader doesn't flinch, but two of the other guys do. The one on the right looks vaguely familiar. He's smoking a cigarette and nervously tapping the ash off into the snow. The last time she'd seen him he was dressed like a cheerleader. She narrows her eyes and he looks away, squinting against the glare of the sun.
"Is he in now?" Clark yells. "Did he prove his loyalty? His devotion? Now that it's too late to do him any good?"
The frat boys are freaked and she doesn't blame them. Clark's fucking scary when he forgets himself and stops hiding what he is. The whole group backs up a couple feet. They're thinking five to one isn't such great odds after all.
Clark shows his teeth. "His life is ruined because of you."
"Hey." The leader puts his hands up. "His choice, man. He didn't have to do it."
"He just wanted to be accepted," Clark says.
The frat boys turn tail and run as soon as they decide Clark isn't going to charge after them. Clark deflates, but Chloe's shaking with all those questions she can't ask. He's made his decisions and she's made hers, and no matter how much she wants to help him, she can't. He won't let her. She hates him a little for that.
Somehow they get to the movie. Blix herds them through the ticket line and the snack bar and down into the theater. Westley and Princess Buttercup get all the way to the fire swamp and the R.O.U.S. before Chloe's heart stops pounding.
*"Rodents Of Unusual Size?"* says Westley. *"I don't think they exist."*
Clark is fidgeting. Chloe hands him her Coke.
Westley gets put to the machine. Miracle Max pronounces him only mostly dead. Clark finishes the Coke and sort of wilts in his seat, eyes closed, arms crossed over his chest. Inigo finds his six-fingered man. Clark shivers, unfolds, reaches out for her hand. He's calm now, but she knows there's something wild and angry inside him. It's rattling the bars of its cage and she's not sure they're going to hold.
"Clark," she whispers, one last time. "You can tell me."
He squeezes her fingers and lets her go.
Buttercup jumps from the window of Humperdink's castle and Fezzik catches her, and they all live happily ever after. Except in the book, where it ends differently, and they don't.
They go back to the dorm. Clark breaks off at the second floor landing, saying he's got to talk to his parents. Blix follows Chloe to her room, but grabs a couple books and her messenger bag and heads off to a study session. Chloe sits on her borrowed bed and calls her dad and tells him she's coming home tomorrow.
"You could stay longer," Clark says, his hair ruffled by the wind.
"Nah," she says. "I'm cramping your style. I can tell."
"If you and Blix aren't getting along, you can stay in my room."
She smiles at him and double checks she's got her bus ticket. "You're sweet, but I kind of just want to go home. See my dad."
"Yeah." He stares at his feet.
"Will I see you at Christmas?"
She won't. Clark hasn't set foot in Smallville since the day he left. Just one more secret rattling that cage of his.
A bus pulls up under the breezeway and the loudspeaker announces its arrival. A few people get off, collect their bags, and go inside. Chloe stares out at the empty construction site across the street. There was freezing rain earlier and it left a hard coating of ice over everything. She's going to cry if she has to stand here for one second longer.
The loudspeaker calls for her bus to load.
She picks up her bag, then puts it down and hugs Clark as hard as she can. "You've got my number. Use it."
The cold wind stabs into the terminal. She pulls back to kiss him on the cheek, but changes her mind and kisses him on the lips instead. She doesn't say goodbye.
She gets her things and takes a seat in the back. The bus pulls away from the station and she watches Clark through the tinted window. He stands there on the sidewalk until Chloe can't see him anymore, and for all she knows remains standing there, even after she's gone.
Punk Maneuverability . http://home.teleport.com/~punkm/index.html
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