Getting out of Kansas was the best move Chloe Sullivan ever made.
It wasn't that she didn't appreciate the place intellectually, aesthetically. It wasn't even that it was a bad place to grow up, really, or that she'd been especially unhappy there. The four years at Met U had been pretty good, and if high school had been trying -- well, high school was hell for everyone, anyway.
Granted, most people's versions of hell included neither multiple near-death experiences at the hands of crazed mutants, nor playing sole confidante to your ex-boyfriend's dramatic gay angst-fest romance -- but then, Chloe was always special.
Besides, they both made for good stories whenever she went out drinking with the guys after work. Chloe never had to buy her own beers.
Chloe liked New York. She loved living there; it felt like home in a way Smallville never had, alive and exciting and bustling from the second she awoke to the second she fell asleep, and in between, too. It was invigorating to be constantly surrounded by people, millions of them, just living their lives on every side of her. Chloe had never thought she could fall in love with a place, but experience was proving otherwise.
Going back to Kansas, then, felt wrong. Against-all-the-laws-of-man-and-nature type wrong.
As soon as she was comfortable in her airplane seat, Chloe slipped on her sunglasses and stared intently at her novel. No eye contact, that was the secret. Big leave-me-alone vibes a foot high all around her, and her neighbors on either side would let her be.
She would swear she could feel exactly when the plane crossed the Kansas state line, and it took all of her self-restraint -- and a few federal laws -- to keep her from frantically searching her bag for her cigarettes and lighter.
Her dad was waiting when she debarked. Six months was long enough to have softened up her memory of him -- faded his gray, made him taller and thinner -- and when she caught sight of him, she realized with surprise that he was getting old.
"Look at you!" he said, chuckling and placing his hands on her shoulders. "You're so grown-up and professional. You look good, Chloe."
She slipped her sunglasses into her purse and smiled at him. "You, too, Dad." He picked up her bag and took her arm in his, and they walked out to the car.
During the ride to Smallville, her father said, "Well, so I'm going to have to go into the plant this weekend, but I took a few days off late next week for us, okay? So you can entertain yourself the rest of the time, I guess, Chloe?"
"Of course, Dad," Chloe said. "I don't want to get in your way, or be a bother or anything."
She was distracted by the view passing by the window outside. Gray and endless snowy white: nothing like New York. It was funny how the homesickness only hit once she was already here.
She walked to the grocery store slowly, list in hand, taking the time to stop and watch where she was going. The past few Christmases had been hectic and busy; she'd been occupied with school in Metropolis, her father equally engaged with helping to build up LexCorp. This was the first Christmas they'd spent together in Smallville since her senior year in high school.
There was snow everywhere, neatly shoveled aside to make smooth paths. All the yards she passed were cheery and decorated: festive lights, nativity scenes and plastic holiday figurines. There were even children all over, out of school, playing and laughing, running and throwing snowballs.
It was all different, and Chloe had trouble connecting the idyllic scenes in front of her with the Smallville she'd known through her high school years. Everything looked normal, tiny and cozy and quaint. There was no weirdness for her to spot and uncover and point out. It was unsettling.
"Hello, Mr. Davidson!" she called out as she entered the grocery. The bell rang out as the door shut behind her.
"Chloe Sullivan." Behind the counter, Mr. Davidson clucked and wiped his hands on his apron. "What brings you all the way back here?"
"Just visiting my dad for Christmas."
"That's nice. Good man, your father. Works too hard, though."
Chloe smiled politely. "I tell him the same thing." She moved through the store, picking out her ingredients quickly: butter, sugar, eggs, milk, bread.
The grocery store was only a couple years old. Chloe could remember when the old one had burnt down her sophomore year of high school, when Mr. Davidson's son had gone weird. If she hadn't have been there, though, she never would have guessed that it hadn't been there forever; the shop was completely identical to how it was before, down to the last detail.
"You tell your dad I said hi, now, Chloe. And merry Christmas!"
"You, too, Mr. Davidson."
Chloe walked back home by the same route, but it was different this time, anyway. The same houses, and the same pretty holiday scene, but this time she could feel the lens fit back into place. The facade faded just a little, and as she walked, grocery bag in hand, she thought: there was the old nursing home. There was Principal Kwan's house, and Greg's, and Tina Greer's; there was the park where Chloe's friend Jane died three years ago, and there was the house where Mrs. Ledding had lived before she went crazy, when Chloe was a junior.
Chloe made a note to herself to visit the cemetery while she was in town. And to bring flowers.
When she got home, there was a message from Clark on the machine, making lunch plans.
"So what's the deal with Clark?" her roommate had asked, the first night in their apartment. She had been fingering a photograph of Chloe's graduation: Clark and Chloe, hugging and smiling in their caps and gowns.
"What do you mean?" Chloe had asked, coming to stand behind her.
"He's an awfully pretty boy."
Chloe had laughed. "Sorry, Maria. He's taken. Six years with his boyfriend next month."
"Figures." Maria had placed the picture back down on the table. "So you two never had a thing?"
"A guy and a girl can be friends without it getting romantic, you know -- but yeah, we had a thing."
"So what happened?"
"I was in love with him. He was oblivious, and moon-eyed over the girl next door, for god knows how long. Then, at the end of freshman year -- shock of my life -- he bought a clue and asked me out. He wanted me, not the pretty, perfect cheerleader."
"But..." Chloe had shrugged. "I wasn't the one he wanted, after all. Six months later, he sits me down and tells me we need to talk, and he's sorry, but he feels he has to do the right thing and break up with me. It's not fair otherwise, because he's in love with someone else."
"The boyfriend. Older and experienced and magnetic and attractive and powerful and disgustingly rich. And he loves him back. We're talking obsessive, over the top, opera-writing true love here. Kind of hard to compete with when all you've got is sixteen, cute and quirky, you know?"
Maria had nodded.
"So, I hated him for a couple months, and stayed in love with him for a couple months after that. Of course, he was as oblivious as ever. And then, I got over it. And we've stayed best friends."
"Man," Maria had said, shaking her head. "He could at least have had the courtesy to have been a complete asshole, you know? So you could have hated him properly."
Chloe had rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it."
Clark was waiting when Chloe arrived at the Talon; he seemed to spot her instantly, and he stood up and grinned at her as she approached his table.
"Chloe! God, I've missed you," he said. He wrapped himself around her in a firm, breathless hug. She laughed as he let her free.
"Jeez, Clark. Warn a girl before you cut off her air supply. I've missed you too, you big lug." She punched his chest lightly. He grinned even wider as he pulled out her chair and sat down across from her.
"So," said Clark, looking at her as if with anticipation, or expectancy.
"So..." Chloe prompted.
"I have something really important to tell you."
Chloe nodded encouragingly, as she felt her breath catch despite herself. She hoped Clark didn't notice. It was stupid, and she knew better; Clark had had millions of opportunities to tell her the truth over the years, most of which would have been much better times than right now, in the middle of a crowded cafe. There was no reason for Clark to tell her now. But still, maybe...
"I'm getting married." He beamed at her.
"Married?" Her voice hit an embarrassingly high note, and she swallowed a few times before trying again. "Is that even legal? I mean, I know the Midwest has come a long way lately, but I think I would have remembered--"
Clark's face had an odd expression. "Chloe," he said hesitantly, and she shut up. "It's not -- I'm not -- Lex and I broke up. He threw me out a month ago."
"Oh." Chloe said, and she sat blinking at him dumbly for a moment before the anger welled up. "And you didn't bother telling me?"
"I thought you knew! I'm sorry." His eyes were pleading. Clark always apologized so easily, as if it didn't cost him anything.
"Well -- what happened? I thought you guys..."
Clark looked down at the table. Chloe couldn't tell if it was anger or embarrassment burning his cheeks red. "It's -- personal."
Personal, to the girl he'd known since he was fourteen, and Chloe didn't think it was that much of an investigative leap to assume it had something to do with his secrets.
"And it's in the past. I don't really want to talk about it. Please, Chloe?"
If Chloe had learned one lesson since high school, it was when it was pointless to go on badgering a source. "Yeah, sure, Clark. It's just really surprising. And sudden. And now you're getting married?"
Clark's smile spread back across his face slowly. "Yeah. Lois and I got engaged last weekend."
"Lois?" Chloe said blankly. She took a sip of her water and wished for something stronger.
"Lois Lane. My partner at the Planet. I told you about her?"
Chloe recollected a photograph Clark had sent her of him and a pretty, dark-haired woman, and just as vaguely his talk about her: short, spunky, intelligent reporter.
Goddamn. It wasn't that Chloe was in love with him, but still. Clark had all the tact and sensitivity of a post. A big, wooden post.
"Wow, Clark," Chloe said, grinning. "That's great! I'm so happy for you." She wondered when the waitress was going to come to take their order.
Chloe shivered, stomping her feet a few times on the porch. She took a drag of her cigarette and stared out over the back yard, dismally gray. She was wrapped up tightly in her winter coat, and her knit cap was firmly latched on her head, but it was still cold.
"Chloe?" Her dad's voice drifted out from the kitchen inside.
"I'm out back, Dad!" she yelled.
"Pete's here. I'm sending him out there."
Pete appeared a few moments later, sliding the door shut behind him, holding a large cookie in one hand. He smiled and gestured with it. "Scored a snack off your dad."
"It's his secret recipe, you know," Chloe said, and she moved forward to meet him. He leaned down slightly and she kissed his cheek. "Hey, Pete."
"Hey, Chloe." He kissed her forehead. "How's it going?"
She sighed dramatically and waggled her cigarette. "Remember back in high school, when I fell from the mansion and broke my arm? And I was in the hospital for a while, and I couldn't get out of bed or move from the room for days and days -- I was just stuck there? It's a little like that. With less Jell-o."
Pete grinned. "Yeah. I know what you mean."
"What about you? How are you doing? How's Lana?"
"Good. All good. We're happy, and work's going well, and Lana's having a really good year with the Talon."
"It looked good. I was just there the other day. Lunch with Clark."
"Hmm." Pete glanced at her warily. "He tell you?"
"Which part?" Chloe said. "Yeah, he told me. Had you known they broke up?"
"Does nobody tell me anything anymore? I'm on the East Coast, not the Moon."
Pete frowned. "I didn't think it was my place to tell you."
Chloe dropped her cigarette and ground it out beneath her shoe. She looked at the man standing beside her and tried to see him: Pete, her buddy, partner-in-crime and co-conspirator, her perpetual co-sidekick. The boy she lost her virginity with the summer before senior year in a giggly and awkward experiment; the guy with whom she shared hours-long phone calls every month; the witness to almost every in-joke and secret of her youth.
It was hard to see that Pete in the man next to her, grown and serious.
"What's that supposed to mean?" She crossed her arms in front of her.
"That was five years ago, Pete. I--"
He said quietly, "I know, Chloe." He paused, and Chloe followed his gaze to the apple tree in the yard, where he and Clark had taught her how to climb trees when she was sixteen. They had laughed at her when she had finally admitted to them both that she'd never learned how. "I never told Clark how I found out about the two of them, you know."
"He knew anyway, though."
Pete turned around, leaning against the porch railing. He put his hands in his pockets. "He never told you that?"
"There's plenty Clark never told me," she said, and she had expected a couple more years before that tone started to enter her voice. More cats, too. She didn't even have a cane to hit nosy neighborhood kids with.
"He's known the whole time that you broke his secret."
"You were his best friend. I thought--"
"Chloe, calm down. I'm just saying," Pete said. He put his arm around her, and she rested her head against his shoulder.
"Mmph," she mumbled into his woolen sleeve.
"You're such a geek," Pete said affectionately.
"Oh, and you're one to talk."
He snickered, and she grinned against his coat.
"Chloe..." he said hesitantly. "I probably shouldn't say anything about this, but the stuff with Clark--"
"We think it might have something to do with Superman."
She pushed away far enough to see his face. "You mean, Clark is--"
"I don't know anything about it," Pete said stubbornly.
"Oh, for god's sake," Chloe said, shutting her eyes. "I've only been away for six months. How far out of the loop am I?" She could feel things clicking into place: she'd thought Lois Lane had sounded familiar, and the dates of Superman's rise would coincide with Clark -- and then, LexCorp; she'd heard her father complain about him more than once, with as much bitterness as she heard from him. It all fit with Clark, after all.
She opened her eyes. "Thank you."
Pete shook his head, projecting discomfort. "No problem." He shifted, and pulled something out of one of his coat pockets. "Here. I got my little brother to pick this up for you before school let out."
It was the latest copy of the Torch. "Wow, Pete, this is great!" She was sure her eyes had lit up like a five-year-old. She scanned over it critically. "What do they think they're doing with that layout?"
"It looked a lot better when you were in charge."
"With you helping," she added, poking him playfully. "Come on, let's go inside. You want to stay for dinner?"
"I'd better be heading home..."
"All right. But you'll come back and eat with us before I go back, right? And bring Lana, too."
"Of course." They walked to the doorway, and he kissed her forehead again. "Love you, Chloe."
"Hey, Pete," she said, stopping with her hand on the door. "Can I ask you something?"
She scrunched her face up as she spoke. "Do you ever get that feeling, where part of you is wishing you could go back to being a kid and the way it was before, and just forget about everything -- but then the other part of you is still waiting to finally get to be a grown-up?"
He smiled at her widely, and maybe a little wistfully. "All the time."
Clark and Pete had both offered to help, but Chloe had disbanded the Wall of Weird all by herself. It had been June and stiflingly hot in the room. She had pulled down each piece and placed it carefully in a cardboard box; the wall had looked painfully bare afterwards, and she had carried the box out to her car and driven it home and stored it under her bed.
It was still there now, next to four years' worth of the Torch, four years' worth of the Metropolis University Gazette, and assorted yearbooks, photo albums, and scrapbooks.
Everything in her bedroom was still the same as she'd left it, actually. She thought her dad must only come in to dust every few weeks.
Nostalgia was thick and murky and and sticky and suffocating. It was like drowning in syrup. It was exhausting, when everything you saw had half a dozen memories attached to it.
It wasn't that coming home was so horrible. It wasn't that she didn't love and adore everyone, and appreciate seeing everything again. It was just that if Chloe stayed here much longer, she was afraid she might tear her hair out by the roots, or maybe gnaw off a limb.
Only two more days until Christmas, Chloe thought as she spread the gifts over her bedspread. Only five more days till she was back on the plane out of Kansas.
With that thought firmly in mind, she set to work on wrapping her presents.
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