Disclaimer: At this point Chloe's probably thrilled she's not mine. Her and all the rest belong to Millar and Gough.
A/N: Thanks to N. and Grail for thoughts, encouragement and beta duties.
Timeline note: This is a mid-ep for Obscura. I'm assuming there are several days between Lana's rescue and the final barn scene. This takes place during that time.
Feedback: Comments and criticism are always appreciated.
Something Like Peace
The smell of wet earth, like the land after spring rains, flooded her senses. The air trapped with her was biting, damp and cold, pushing icy fingers up under her clothes. And she embraced it. She calmed her gasping and instead took long steady breaths, inviting the carbon dioxide in; letting it run through her veins like a sedative until there was nothing at all.
It was Clark, broad and strong and holding her, calling her name until she cried out. Her hands clutched at his shirt, the soft flannel catching on her jagged nails, ripping them down to bloody stumps. The tears wouldn't stop; soaking through until she was sure they must be hot on Clark's skin.
She knew the embrace should feel warmer, safer in some fundamental way because it was Clark. But it was always Clark. And there was something terribly off about that.
She pulled away, standing suddenly, leaving Clark kneeling, arms open, in the downpour. And she couldn't remember when it had started to rain. She couldn't let it distract her. There was a story there, just in her reach.
She moved forward, tape recorder suddenly in hand out of nowhere, pummeling Clark with question after question. She watched him struggle to his feet, amazed that even wet and cold the Clark of her dreams had an aura of indestructibility. Some days it made her want to push him over a cliff just to see if he'd bounce. Invincible. So she kept pushing, pushing, pushing until Clark looked like she'd just killed his puppy. Ridiculous, she knew, because Clark had never had a puppy. Chloe watched him and wondered if maybe that was the look she got every time she caught him looking at Lana. The same, she was sure, but harsher, baser: a deeper kind of betrayal.
Just one more question, but it broke something behind his eyes, and made Clark turn and walk away. She clutched the dictaphone to her chest and ran after him. She ran until she was out of breath but was no closer to catching him. Clark always was just beyond her reach.
She followed him into a building she never realized was there. She stepped in just on his heels only to find him gone, replaced by hanging teddy bears and cupie dolls. Turning quickly she reached for the door and found nothing but space open before her, a coffin sitting silent in a halo of light, waiting for her. She started screaming even before the thick, covered arm spun her. She knew it had begun again, without Clark this time. Buried again, with no one left to save her.
Chloe gasped in a breath as she woke, the stale smell of old laundry, vaguely wet towels and newsprint filling her lungs. She wondered if it was possible to die because of stagnant air. Suffocation. Drowning in air, and she'd almost done just that less than a week ago. Sitting abruptly, she ignored the dizziness and opened the window above her head. The cool air washed down on her, chilling the beads of sweat she hadn't noticed before. She sank back into the mattress, glancing briefly at the red glow of the alarm clock. Three hours she'd been out, longer by thirty minutes than she'd slept the night before. It must mean she was getting better; that, or just more exhausted. She couldn't really bring herself to care which.
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and thought she could smell wet dirt under the sweet scent of her lotion. She tried to recall the dream, but the details were always fuzzy. The only image that she ever recalled was of Clark, looking wounded, turning away. Turning his back on her, because of her.
If she could just figure out what it was, exactly, she'd done. The chasing, the crying -- hell, maybe she was having an atrocious hair day in her dream. Medusa-style hellacious and maybe Clark was afraid she'd turn him into stone. Running her hand through her unruly mop she grinned at the image of Clark in a toga, a la Clash of the Titans, waving a mirrored shield at her. And just a vague pull at the back of her mind, one she carefully pushed away, that reminded her of adoption papers and too many questions.
And there really were times when she thought too much. It was just a dream, after all. A nightmare: nothing more than a figment of her way overactive imagination.
Still half asleep, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed to stand. Ended up a heap on the floor instead, the sheets twisted around her legs. There was a definite reason she always insisted her middle name was Grace. Only a clear lack of foreknowledge on her parents' part that it really wasn't. Cursing quietly she rolled to her back, frustrated and clearly in dire need of caffeine.
Finally free from the clinging bedclothes she tiptoed through the disaster area that was her room lately. Careful to avoid the third stair step, the one that groaned with any weight, she made her way downstairs.
The dishes from dinner were still in the rack as she grabbed a mug from the cupboard. Just the sight of the thick, black liquid that spilled from the coffee pot was enough to clench her stomach. She'd never understood how her dad could drink it so black; it was disgusting, there wasn't enough sugar and cream in the entire county to make it palatable. But sludgy or not, she wanted the boost. Needed it if there was any chance of her functioning for the day. And she was pretty sure that was a sad, sad fact for someone only sixteen years old.
One sip of the bitter, cold brew convinced her to rethink the necessity. She considered giving up on the day, crawling back into bed and ignoring school altogether. But crawl into bed and do what? Sleep hadn't exactly been working out lately and lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, really wasn't her style.
She could work on the article. The Ledger had approached her the day she'd gotten out of the hospital. They'd wanted to do a story; she'd declined. But then they'd offered her twenty inches in the Saturday lifestyles. How could she refuse? She'd accepted and had beat out most of the story that night--a combination of straight telling and personal reflection--the kind of stuff features editors drooled over.
There was only one piece still missing, the part she'd been struggling with for the past day: Clark. He'd begged off the interview twice and when she'd finally all but tied him to the chair he'd given non-answers, the big brush off. She wasn't sure which pissed her off more--the fact that he'd lied to her, or that he assumed she wouldn't know he was lying to her.
Chloe had finally given up the direct approached and had taken the battle front straight through Clark's mom. Scruples were over rated anyway. Besides, Clark had started it. All she wanted was the truth. She'd wheedled a promise out of Mrs. Kent for Clark to meet her before school. Just a few quick clarifications before putting the story to bed, she'd promised.
In minutes she had the kettle going, a carefully worded note tacked to the fridge. 'Gone to school early, love C.' No need to mention how early or why. Just enough information not to get her busted, and if god were smiling on her, her dad wouldn't get up until 6:15-6:30.
Filling her thermos and locking the door behind her, she found it oddly amusing how much more comfortable she was in the open air than in her own house. Enclosed spaces were not her friend; even 2500 sq feet worth was almost unbearable. Weird that that particular fear outweighed the 'getting snatched' phobia. And when, exactly, had she started thinking of her neuroses on a sliding scale?
The car she could do; something to do with constant motion maybe. She couldn't be trapped, after all, if she never stopped. She debated driving until the sun came up, avoiding the confines of the school and The Torch office for as long as possible. She decided it was probably better to get in early and out early. The less time spent in the company of hundreds the better.
That first day back she'd thought she'd find it comforting, all those people. Instead it had been overwhelming, the bodies as confining as any walls she'd ever known.
And in the middle of it was Clark; all big hands and tiny lies wrapping around her not less than twenty times in a day, before school, between classes, after school. She'd never told him no, never told him to stop, but she couldn't control her body as well as her tongue. Rigid muscles, almost painful, each time she brushed against someone. And she knew Clark could feel it, she could feel his own body tighten in response, his arms wrapping her more securely--like if he just held on tight enough he could heal the wounds and melt the ice. She didn't have the heart to tell him no.
Not that she would have, even if her tongue worked. Who was she to turn away six feet of extra beefy, extra touchy-feely Clark? It was like a dream come true. Well, except for the whole injected with unknown drugs, locked in a coffin part.
But the last time he held her so tight she shook. Unaware that she was crying until he backed away, moving a hand to brush at her cheek. She flinched away so hard that her head had slammed back into a locker. Clark had withdrawn, mumbling an apology she couldn't acknowledge. And it was that same wounded vision of Clark, eyes shadowed and fists clenched, which haunted her dreams. No anger this time, like with the adoption records, just guilt and something more she couldn't put a finger on. It had taken two days of sugar cookies at lunch and late night hot chocolate to assuage that particular hurt.
Pulling into the student parking lot, she smiled to herself. If nothing else insomnia provided for great parking.
She looked quickly around and decided a quick, controlled jog to the door would be a good idea. Not panic. The Kansas nights were just a little chilly and damp still, that's all.
The halls were dark, eerie in only the way a deserted high school could be. Too many doors to conceal whomever, or whatever (because this was Smallville and she wasn't ready to discount that possibility) happened to be lurking.
She strode through the halls, her shoes, wet with pre-dawn dew, squeaking across the faux marble linoleum. She fought the impulse to run, instead reaching out to gingerly run her hand over the cool surface of the lockers. Anchoring. At least that's what she'd read on more than a dozen sites, all of which threw around words like panic and dissociation like they were candy. Childish is what she thought to herself before pulling her fingertips back as if burned. Just a little self-control, that's all she needed.
Not exactly the easiest thing when all her senses felt dull, like a wet wool blanket had been folded around her, like five different levels of removed. It could have been lack of sleep, but she suspected it had more to do with trauma. She laughed at the word. The whole town was like a fucking train wreck. Trauma didn't begin to cover it.
Chloe froze. Apparently the laugh had been out loud. She pushed her body into the shadows, hugging the wall and wishing Smallville High was one of those television high schools where every locker was full length and perpetually unlocked, nothing but thousands of handy escape hatches.
Back to the cool metal doors, she forced her breathing back to something resembling a normal rhythm. Calm. She needed to stay calm. It was just another student, she thought, one of her peers retrieving forgotten homework. Her mind flashed briefly to Wade and Eric and Sasha. Yeah, just another student. That thought held no comfort at all.
The panic edged up into her throat, the familiar taste of old tin coating her tongue, and wasn't she supposed to be doing something here. Fight or flight or something that involved not just standing around waiting for the attack.
Closer than before and familiar. Lana.
The voice was Lana's, but then Tina had been Lana. Well, whoever it was, they already knew she was here, no sense in hiding any longer.
Decision made, but her body still wouldn't move, just locked in place. Calm and reason, apparently, were pretty much out the window. Focused panic was her best bet. Tugging a smile into place, she tried to lean casually against the lockers, waiting for Lana to come find her.
"Chloe! God, you scared me." Lana rounded the corner, eyes wide and relieved. Lana reached out, lightly grabbing her arm. Chloe shook off the grasp, maybe too harshly. She cringed as Lana's eyes went hurt.
"I'm sorry," she stammered and tried to smile. "You caught me on a sore spot." Chloe rubbed her arm to emphasize the point. The lie.
"Oh, sorry. I didn't hurt you, did I?" Lana shifted closer and Chloe had to stop herself from retreating immediately.
"No. No, I'm fine."
Breathe. Just breathe.
"So, uh, what are you doing here this early?" Chloe scrutinized Lana. "No, wait, better question: how did you get in?"
"The night janitor, Mr. Levy. He lets me in some morning so I can use the library."
"How very studious of you."
"It's just with school, working at The Talon and helping Nell with chores..." Lana gestured weakly with her free hand. Looking closer, Chloe could just make out the well concealed bruising under her eyes. "Besides, I'm more productive in the mornings. Less distraction."
Chloe nodded. "Yeah, I get that."
"So," Lana smiled in that way that always made Chloe think of the Cheshire Cat: all teeth and no eyes, faced scrunched but not unprettily. Never unpretty. "How'd you get in?"
Chloe grinned, holding up the key ring she'd been clutching. It had taken some conniving on her part to get the duplicate made, but the extra freedom had been well worth a little deception.
"Nice," Lana nodded, approvingly. "Bet that comes in handy."
"It's great; much better than the credit card trick was working out. You know, still breaking and entering, but at least it's B&E with style."
"Like the administration would ever come down on Chloe Sullivan: Star Reporter."
Chloe shifted from one foot to the other, fingering the keys self-consciously. She wanted to remind Lana of the whole Torch debacle earlier in the year but decided it wasn't worth the effort. Lana always seemed to remember history to fit her momentary needs. Besides, if there was anyone the administrators would overlook transgressions from it was Lana. Lana and Clark. Twin paragons of virtue. And really no idea where that image came from.
"Speaking of which," Lana continued, unfazed. "I heard you're doing an article for The Ledger."
"Yeah, I'm suddenly very popular with the print news around here." She smiled ruthlessly. After all, it'd only taken getting buried alive to secure her chance for a byline. Not a pattern she'd particularly like to continue, but she wasn't sure, at moments, that it wasn't entirely worth it.
"Tell me about it. I've had about a dozen requests for interviews so far. I keep telling them no, but they're relentless."
"Yeah, those reporters. They can be pretty ruthless."
"Chloe, I didn't mean..." Lana cocked her head to the side, dark hair falling away from her face. Lowering her voice as if imparting some vast words of wisdom, she continued, "I was just saying that sometimes they don't know when to leave well enough alone, you know?"
"Whatever it takes to get the story," Chloe shrugged, suddenly not at all sure that was even close to the right response.
"So how's it going? The story, I mean."
"Good," she lied. "Actually, that's why I'm here...deadline's this afternoon." Chloe turned, gesturing towards The Torch office.
"Oh. Well, I won't keep you then." Chloe watched Lana retreat a few tentative steps. "I guess I'll see you later."
She'd been there when Lana had told her story to the police, just in the background, but hearing enough to already know that Lana hadn't seen anything. Or hadn't seen anything she was willing to tell the officers, at any rate. But eyeing Lana's drawn profile more carefully she wondered if there was something there after all. An exclusive if she could just play her cards right.
"So does this 'no interviews' policy extend to friends who just happen to be ruthless reporters?" And Chloe wondered if her smile looked as fake as it felt.
Lana stopped to size up the offer, like she'd be doing Chloe a favor by agreeing. And, okay, she would, technically, be doing just that, but did she really have to look so smug about it?
Chloe reached into her bag, producing a thermos, holding it out like a temptation. "I have hot chocolate," she wheedled, flashing her best smile. And maybe it wasn't quite the same as slipping a C note to an informant, but Chloe had always known when to go ahead and just call a rose a rose.
"Chloe!" Lana laughed, not unkindly. "It's May. Don't you think it's a little warm for that?"
"Absolutely not." Chloe raised her chin, smiling while trying to look serious. "Hot chocolate is one of the great, all purpose, any time comfort foods."
"Well, then, I certainly can't argue with that." Lana flashed her demure smile, but her eyes were guarded as she followed Chloe's lead.
Flipping on the light in the office, Chloe spared a look at the wall. The allotted space full, the stories and pictures had begun to creep out over the edges, slowly encroaching on the entire room. She thought perhaps it was time to start a Wall of Weirder; or, at the very least, a Wall of Conspicuous Coincidence starring the king of 'always in the vicinity' himself. And, yeah, headlines had never really been her strong suit.
Throwing her bag down, Chloe booted her computer and grabbed two mugs from her desk.
"So tell me what happened," she asked, pouring the hot chocolate carefully.
"You know, Chloe, I'm not sure I'm the best one to interview for your story."
"Oh, come on. You were right there, in the thick of it. I want detail." She cringed at her own eagerness.
"Honestly, I don't remember that much," Lana shrugged. "One minute Det. Watts was pointing the gun at me the next Clark was helping untie my hands."
"I don't know," Lana offered with a finality in tone that Chloe chose to ignore.
"Have you asked Clark about it?"
"No." Lana frowned, shifting her eyes away from Chloe's. "Why would I?"
And Chloe wondered if it was something about Lana being a small town girl that let her just accept things at face value like that. Lana didn't need a puzzle to solve. What did it say about her that she did?
"Aren't you curious about hi...I mean, about what happened?"
"Not really." Lana tilted her head, her eyes searching Chloe's face again. "Clark saved me, he saved you. Isn't that enough?"
No. Right there, at the top of her mind, no thought necessary. It wasn't enough to believe that Clark just had a savior complex and great timing. Not when she knew, she knew there was more: a mystery to be solved, a story to be written. And all of it just right at her fingertips, all she had to do was grab.
"Mostly Chloe, I just want to forget it ever happened. All of it." Something hard and defiant crossed Lana's face. Pain, maybe, or anger, Chloe couldn't be sure. Sure though, for the first time, that she saw understanding. Not apathy or ignorance, but acceptance.
And maybe that's what you learn when you bury your parents before you're old enough for memory; when you grow up in a place where names like bug boy and queen bee are quite literal. Accept; don't rock the damn boat because life will do enough of that without your help.
Blind acceptance or willful ignorance and she was pretty sure she'd never seen the difference until just then. And she wondered, really, which of them was seeing more clearly.
She looked hard at Lana again until the other girl turned to meet her eyes. And there, for a moment, it looked to Chloe a lot like peace.
She had to look away, turning instead to watch the sunrise outside the window as it burned the dew from the ground. Something like sympathy in Lana's gaze, and something else, dangerously close to pity.
"So, have you gotten a dress for formal yet?" Lana asked, breaking the silence suddenly and changing subjects so quickly Chloe had irrational thoughts of whiplash.
"Well, seeing as I don't even have a date yet, I thought the dress might be a bit premature."
"Don't worry. He's going to ask you."
And Lana seemed almost happy about it. Which was...odd. Not at all the feeling Chloe had gotten at the funeral, or any other time for that matter. It only occurred to her as an afterthought to wonder how Lana could be so confident.
"He said that?" Chloe reached down to play with the pencils on her desk, studiously ignoring Lana's smile.
"Well, not in so many words. But you know Clark; he's like an open book. I honestly don't think that boy could tell a straight-faced lie to save his life."
"Yeah," she agreed, nearly chocking on her stifled laugh. Glad when the knock on the door provided Lana no time to question her response.
"Hope I'm not interrupting." Clark stepped cautiously into the office, looking for all the world like a trapped animal.
"Well, speak of the devil." Lana raised her eyebrows in mock surprise, before standing and grabbing her books. "I think I'll go ahead and be on my way."
"So what were you guys talking about?"
Chloe watched Clark's smile broaden as Lana stopped in front of him.
"Fashion," Lana offered, turning to offer Chloe a conspiratorial wink before brushing past Clark, his eyes lingering on her as she melted into the quickly growing sea of students in the hall.
"So, uh, Clark?"
"Hmm..." Clark shifted his feet, still staring out the door, like he could see through the crowd to follow Lana's retreat.
"Clark..." Chloe sighed and snapped her fingers loudly to get his attention.
Clark finally turned, and collapsed into the chair Lana had used.
"So, fashion?" he grinned.
She watched him play absently with the tail of his flannel shirt and wondered if it felt the same as the one in her dream. She pushed away the thought carefully, focused instead on his face. Still smiling at her, but hollow and guarded behind his eyes. Not the same as it had been for Lana and her adoring smile, her grateful eyes and unquestioning lips.
And Chloe wondered if maybe that was part of Lana's appeal, her willingness to be the damsel in distress to Clark's knight. She frowned as she considered it, because if that was the game then she really had no chance. Chloe had never done the damsel thing well.
She watched Clark shift uncomfortably in the chair, and, God, he really was readable. Not a good liar at all, her Clark. And Chloe thought that she could help him with that, coach him to keep his eyes steady, to not allow the corners of his mouth to dip that fraction of a dead giveaway.
"So..." He lowered his eyes to his hands, obviously uncomfortable under her gaze.
"So..." she smiled.
"My mom said you wanted to ask me something." Clark fidgeted again, his long fingers playing over her desk, eyes everywhere but her face.
"Yeah, I wanted..." *to know how you found me, dug me three feet out of the ground without a shovel. I want to know why it's always you, Clark. I want to know your secret*.
She brought her eyes up and it occurred to her that she was witnessing a completely Pavlovian response. Shoulders hunched and head bowed, body braced for a blow when all she had were questions. She could see his mouth pursed, ready to tell her another lie.
Liar. And how many times had she seen that stance and let it go, let him just walk away? More than she could count on fingers and toes.
She thought, for a moment, that she saw compromise in his face. A margin of error she could exploit if she could just ask the right questions.
Maybe she was reading it wrong. Like she'd misread Justin. Like she'd misjudged Lana.
"Chloe?" Clark reached out as if to shake her, his hand stopping short. And she was painfully aware of the distance between them. Much more than a hand's width, much more than it had ever been before. And all of it her fault. Don't rock the damn boat was suddenly looking like pretty good advice.
"Sorry," she shook her head as if to clear it. "Little brain freeze there. I wanted to know if you'd proofread my final." So easy to let the lie slide across her tongue. "You know, before I send it in to The Ledger and completely embarrass myself."
His smile was as wide as his entire face, genuine and unguarded with a promise of next time. And that was a fair trade, wasn't it? Acceptance for rescue, a guarantee that next time she was shoved into a six by two steel box and buried alive Clark would be there, just so long as she kept the hows? and whys? to herself.
Reaching across the desk he enveloped her hand in his and she fought the urge to jerk away. Pushed it down, deep into her gut, with all the questions and doubts.
"Like you even have to ask," he offered, squeezing gently.
As easy as that.
Chloe didn't flinch as Clark brushed his fingers over her face, pushing the hair out of her eyes, and she could smell the damp earth still on his skin, too. And the choice hadn't been as hard as she thought it would be -- maybe as it should've been.
Truth just a small price for something like peace. And maybe one day, when Chloe was far away from Smallville and could no longer remember what it was like to drown in air, she would find the voice to ask.
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