Chloe Sullivan died on a Tuesday afternoon.
"I told you, Clark. I'm fine." Cordless `phone pressed to her ear, Chloe sat on the edge of the bed. "Well, fine considering I woke up this morning feeling like crap."
"That's good." His relief almost seemed to pour out of the `phone. "Not good that you're sick. But, when I didn't see you at school this morning, I started to worry."
She almost said, Wow, I'm surprised you noticed. Because such comments had become pretty knee-jerk over the past few months. Fortunately, she'd gotten better at not blurting them out.
"And you weren't home when I came over," Clark continued.
Chloe's eyebrows shot up towards her hairline. "You came over? I mean, you actually left school to come over and check on me?"
"Well, yeah." All of a sudden, he sounded shy. He was probably wearing that bashful grin of his, too. The one that made him look like the most gorgeous dork ever born. "Like I said, I was worried about you."
And Chloe's mind scrambled at the sweetness of it all. She had to remind herself--forcefully--that this was just Clark being the great friend he had always been. That it didn't mean more, and letting herself think for even a second that it did mean more could only lead to badness.
So, keeping her tone as casual as possible, she said, "I must have been out when you dropped by. I went to the store to get some cold medicine." She took a bottle from the nightstand. "I think it's working, because I feel slightly less like crap than I did before. Of course, now I can't operate heavy machinery. Damn it!"
"Yeah, too bad," Clark chuckled. "But don't worry about it. Pete and I'll be over after school to cheer you up."
But Chloe could already feel a yawn coming on. "I'll probably be pretty out of it by then. Why don't I call you once my drug-induced coma lifts."
"Okay. Feel better."
"I'll give it my best shot."
But, as she hung up the `phone, she realized feeling better wouldn't be an option for a few days. She was headachy, body-achy, and nauseous. She also had a fever. But not an honest, straightforward fever. No, this was one of those sneaky fevers that was just enough above normal temperature to make you feel too warm...and a little chilly at the same time.
"I need juice," she decided. Maybe if she drank, say, a gallon of orange juice, all that vitamin C would nullify those nasty cold cells before they could do more damage.
Hey, a person could dream.
With a few dry, half-hearted coughs, Chloe stood up.
And the room tilted.
"Whoa!" Chloe exclaimed as she staggered to one side. She made a blind grab for...anything, and just managed to grab hold of the footboard on her bed. Eyes closed, she waited for the dizziness to pass. Idly, she wondered if the cold or the medicine was to blame. Probably a little of both.
Once her bedroom stopped with the spinning, Chloe dragged herself out the door. God, she hated being sick! Okay, everybody hated being sick, but she was sure she hated it more than most people. Drained of all of her energy, like a weak battery. Brain too fuzzy to form a coherent thought. Trapped in the house, with eventual stir-craziness on the horizon.
Oh, yeah, this promised to be a fun week.
Hands pressed to her throbbing temples, Chloe started down the stairs.
And that's when another wave of dizziness hit.
Once again, the world tilted. Her body did a drunken stumble. And her foot completely missed the step.
Thrown off balance, Chloe pitched forward. Heart leaping in her chest, she grabbed for the stair rail. But the cold, and the medicine, had slowed her reflexes. Her fingers barely brushed against the cold wood as...
She fell. Seeming to float forever, in some almost peaceful place...
Before her body slammed against the sharp edges of the steps.
Chloe screamed as the pain burned across her body. Little nails driving into every inch of skin. Stabbing deeper and deeper as she tumbled down.
And she could feel her bones breaking. She could hear it. *Snap, crackle, pop,* as she tumbled down. Down and down, forever and ever.
When her head twisted sharply to one side, she heard the biggest CRACK of all. And, she didn't feel any pain anymore.
Suddenly, forever ended, and she crashed to the floor. Her body a broken heap at the foot of the stairs.
And, finally, the darkness came and took her away.
For hours, there was nothing but stillness. As if the house had stopped breathing when the girl did.
The girl who lay in a twisted heap at the base of the stairs. Like a rag doll tossed aside by a careless child.
Blood oozed from the gashes and scrapes that covered her skin. Her head rested at an odd, impossible angle. And her lifeless body grew colder as each moment passed.
For hours, there was nothing but stillness...
Until the house started to breathe again.
Chloe Sullivan gasped for air. Oxygen filled her empty lungs. Her heart jumped to startled life, racing after being still for so long. Blood started to move through her veins again, made her skin, her bones, to tingle.
As memories of the fall flooded her mind, Chloe's eyes popped open, wide with panic. In a single moment, she relived every detail.
Slamming into the stairs. Sharp edges digging into her flesh. Pain so intense, it became everything, consuming every thought, every emotion, until it was the only thing left.
And then, the CRACK as her neck snapped.
Horror washed over her. Her heart slammed inside her chest. Her breath came in short, shallow pants.
"Oh, God," she whispered, and wondered why she wasn't dead.
Wondered why she didn't feel any pain.
"Oh, God," she whispered again, and her mind filled with visions of surgery, and wheelchairs, and months spent in a hospital. Pitying looks, rude stares, and needing help to do the simplest, every day things.
"Wait," she muttered. She could feel her hands, balled into two tight fists. Could feel her nails digging into her palms. She felt her toes curl. Felt the hardness of the floor against her back.
She wasn't paralyzed.
But that was wrong. If she wasn't paralyzed, there should be pain. A lot of pain.
She was afraid to move. All of those first aid courses said moving would make any injuries she might have worse. But she had to see.
Slowly, Chloe moved her head from side to side. She expected the action to nullify whatever kind of shock she was in, and send pain screaming through her body.
But it didn't.
Chloe lifted her right arm, until her hand was just above her face. All of her fingernails were broken, chipped and cracked and jagged. There was a streak of blood on her knuckles, but she couldn't see where the blood might have come from.
She wiggled her fingers, to see if that would make a difference. But, still, there was no pain.
So, she lifted her left arm. Lifted her legs, one at a time.
Starting to feel frantic for some reason, she cautiously pushed herself into a sitting position. Knowing as she did that she shouldn't have been able to.
She pressed her hands against her ribs, expecting to find a sore spot. But there was none.
She ran her fingers through her hair, expecting to feel a bump. But there was none.
Chloe shook her head. "This isn't right," she said. "This...this isn't right."
And her mind started racing. There was confusion. And doubt. Had she fallen down the stairs at all? Was that just a dream? But it seemed so real. She knew it was real!
Hesitantly, she stood up. And her eyes went to the stairs. She remembered the fall in vivid detail. The sound, the feel, of her bones breaking. The thunk as her head bounced against wood.
And now there was just nothing?
How could there just be nothing?
Without thinking, she ran into the downstairs bathroom. Stared at her reflection in the mirror, as if she could see what was wrong with her, even if she couldn't feel it.
And there was blood. A trickle from her right nostril. Another from the corner of her lip. A streak across her forehead. Another across her cheekbone.
But there wasn't a single wound in sight. As if the blood had just appeared on her skin, with no reason or cause.
Or as if the wounds had already healed.
Chloe's mind shied away from that last thought, because it was too ridiculous to even think about. Instead, she latched onto another.
"I have to call...someone."
Because that's what you did when something like this happened. You called someone and got help, and maybe they could explain things to you.
Once the idea took route, every other thought sort of faded away. On automatic pilot, she left the bathroom and went to the kitchen. Picking up the receiver, she ran through the list of people she could call. Her father. Or Clark.
She glanced at the clock. School was out. And Clark could be here way before her father.
Or maybe she should call 911. That made more sense. She'd had an accident. This was a medical emergency. Sort of.
As the hum of the dial tone filled the kitchen, she tried to decide. And that's when reality slammed into her like a Mack truck.
What was she going to say?
I had an accident. I really bad accident...I fell down a flight of stairs...Well, I know I was hurt pretty bad. I mean, my neck broke and everything. I heard it...No, no. I'm fine now. There's not a scratch on me. I mean, there's blood, and I'm pretty sure it's mine. But, other than that, I'*m fine...How? I d-don*'t really...
They'd think she was lying. That she was a troubled teen who made up some pathetic story to get attention. Not like it hadn't happened before. She'd written about stuff like that in The Torch.
Or they'd think she was on drugs. That she'd popped, snorted, or injected something and imagined the entire thing. She'd written about stuff like that, too.
Or they'd think...that she was telling the truth.
And, suddenly, that last seemed like the worst of all. Because she was thinking of the Wall of Weird. And how falling down the stairs and having nothing but a bunch of broken nails to show for it definitely qualified.
And how she wanted to write about the news, not be it.
Slowly, Chloe hung up the `phone. For one long moment, her mind was numb and she couldn't think anything. Then, she was thinking a thousand thoughts at once, each running around in circles, too fast to catch.
What was she going to do?
With everything going on in her head, she didn't have time to realize her cold was gone.
The Wednesday morning bus to Metropolis was almost empty. Chloe only recognized one of the three passengers, and she didn't think any of them knew her.
Or, at least, that's what she was counting on. If word got back to her father that she took a road trip when she was supposed to be home sick in bed...And it wasn't like she could explain, could she?
But she had to do this. The library in the city could give her something good old Smallville Public couldn't.
Chloe slid lower in her seat and took out the morning edition of The Smallville Ledger. Again, she tried to concentrate on the front-page story.
*...Natalie Baer also had blond hair and light eyes, in this case, blue. She was 20 years old, 5 feet 4 inches tall and had a slight build. She seems to have encountered her assailant sometime after leaving her last class at Metropolis University on Monday afternoon. And, like Rachel Halliday, Natalie Baer was also strangled.*
While police refuse to comment, the similarities between the two murders have already caused some to...
Usually, this kind of story grabbed her complete attention. But, today, she found her attention wandering. And her bloodshot eyes drifted away from the paper to stare out the window.
She was so tired. No big surprise. She'd spent the night pacing her bedroom as she quietly freaked out. For hours, her mind raced as she tried to find a logical explanation for what happened to her.
But there just wasn't one. There was no way to explain it.
It would have been one thing if she'd fallen down the stairs and simply didn't get hurt. Yeah, it was hard to believe, but stuff like that happened. Heck, the Inquisitor had a weekly column called "They Survived the Unsurvivable."
But she'd heard her neck break.
As the sound of that CRACK echoed through her mind, Chloe shivered. Chills raced up her spine, and goose bumps sprang up on her arms. She would never forget that moment. Her head twisting to the side. A sharp pain. Her body going numb.
And that CRACK.
Still, even if she could convince herself that vivid memory was a creation of her fertile imagination, there was one thing she couldn't ignore.
Her cold. The cold that made her feel like crap yesterday, but was now completely gone. Not a sniffle. Not a cough. Not an ache. It was almost like she'd never been sick at all.
But Chloe knew better.
Something was going on with her. Something weird. Something she couldn't explain.
And what did she do when faced with something she couldn't explain?
She investigated. Researched. Looked for a logical answer. Because there always was one, if you knew where to find it.
The Smallville Public Library was out, not to mention the one at school. Okay, so could've started her research on the Internet. But, truth was, she wanted to get out of Smallville, if only for a couple of hours. As crowded as her head was, she needed space.
She'd thought about asking Clark to come with her. But asking Clark to ditch school would feel like contributing to the delinquency of a minor or something. Besides, a huge part of her didn't want anyone to know what was going on. At least, not until she knew herself.
Chloe sighed and let her head fall back to rest against the seat. Closing her eyes, she fell into an uneasy sleep.
The city bus dropped her off a few blocks away from the library.
Chloe hitched her purse strap over her shoulder and started down the busy street. Well, busy compared to Smallville. It was actually pretty tame at this time of day, with most people already at school or work. But she'd gotten used to the slower pace of rural life...in spite of herself. During her summer internship at The Daily Planet, it took a while to get used to the way everyone seemed to hurry everywhere. Strange, since she grew up in the city. But, whether she liked it or not, a part of her was now very much "small town girl."
As she walked past a bakery, Chloe stopped to admire the pastries on display in the window. She hadn't been in the mood for breakfast this morning. In fact, she still wasn't really hungry. But the way her mouth watered at the sight of the chocolate clair told her it was almost time.
Deciding to make a little snack stop before she headed home, Chloe started to move on...
And that's when she felt it.
It was like someone shoved the thinnest needle ever invented in one temple and out the other. The pain was so sharp, so sudden, she staggered, and had to put her hand against the building to catch her balance.
By the time she pressed one hand to her temple, the pain was gone. And it was replaced by this...electric hum. Like a thousand voices whispering in each ear. Not pain, exactly. Not dizziness. But close to both.
Taking a deep breath, Chloe turned to rest her back against the stone wall.
And that's when she saw him. A man standing across the street, staring at her.
What was strange was that, as soon as she saw him, that electric hum...vanished.
Chloe frowned as she studied the stranger. He was in his mid thirties, and had sandy brown hair. And he wore a long overcoat, despite the fact that it wasn't that cold out today.
There was a look of confusion on his face. Like maybe he knew her from somewhere but couldn't place her. Or...something.
Suddenly, a delivery truck passed between them, blocked her view for a moment. And, when the truck was gone...so was he.
Chloe blinked in disbelief. Where did he go?
As she stood erect, her eyes searched the busy street for the man in the long overcoat. But he was well and truly gone.
Sighing, Chloe Sullivan closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. When, exactly, had she stepped into the Twilight Zone?
William Merrick watched the young woman enter the library.
She was quite beautiful, wasn't she? Even from a distance, she seemed fresh and energetic. Full of life. So young, and innocent.
Of course, it was very possible that she was twice his age, and ten times more experienced. But he didn't think so. She'd felt new. True, those feelings couldn't always be trusted. He'd heard that the great Duncan MacLeod himself once mistook a woman centuries old for a newbie.
But, in this case, Merrick was almost certain. She'd seemed genuinely surprised by the buzz, as if she had no idea what it was. Or what it meant.
And, from the clothing she wore--jeans, t-shirt, a light jacket--he doubted there was a weapon anywhere on her person. Hardly prudent in a city this large, full of strangers.
*Full of us,* he thought.
No, she was new. A fledging, who probably had yet to take her first Quickening.
And an easy target for any headhunter who crossed her path.
Tapping her pen against her notepad, Chloe frowned at the books on the shelves. The section the librarian guided her to seemed to have exactly what she needed. Books on near-death experiences. Spontaneous healing. Miracles.
But this was all metaphysical, New-Agey stuff. She wanted something a little more scientific. A little more rational.
Shaking her head, Chloe turned...and ran right into the guy standing behind her.
"Oh, sorry," she muttered, and tried to walk around him.
The guy moved to block her path.
"Hey," he said, and gave her a smile that immediately set her nerves on edge. "Can't find what you're looking for?"
Chloe just managed not to roll her eyes. She could spot this type a mile away. College aged, cute enough, and convinced he was God's gift.
"Excuse me," she said, and tried to walk past him again.
And, again, he sidestepped to block her path. And, as an added bonus, he put his hand on her shoulder.
Jerk, Chloe thought. Instead of knocking his hand off her shoulder--which was what she wanted to do--she took a step back. "I said 'excuse me'."
"Hey, what's the hurry?" he said. Still smiling that smile, he ran his hand through his golden blond locks. Had to make sure she noticed them, right? "You know, I spend a lot of time in this library. Maybe I can help you."
Dredging up a polite smile from somewhere, Chloe shook her head. "Thanks anyway. But I'm sure I'll be fine on my own. So..." And she gestured for him to get out of her way.
But Goldie Locks didn't take the hint. What he took was a step closer. She had to press her back against the shelves to keep his body from touching hers.
"So," he said, "are you here by yourself? I didn't see anyone else come in with you. You want to hang out?"
Figuring she'd given polite a fair chance, Chloe allowed her polite smile to transform into a glare. Because, if there was one place a person shouldn't get hit on, it was the library. Oh, and church. "Look, I don't have time for this bull..."
And that's when she felt it again. That sharp pain, followed by an electric hum.
"I believe the young lady isn't interested in your company."
And the man in the long overcoat turned the corner into the aisle.
After the last couple of days she'd had, Chloe wasn't even surprised.
Goldie Locks didn't seem happy with the interruption. He graced the new arrival with an angry sneer. "Who are you? Her father?"
"No. I'm the man who's telling you to go away." As the stranger spoke, there was a slight smile on his lips. As if he was amused by the entire situation.
But Chloe saw something in his gray eyes. Something cold and hard. Like steel.
Goldie Locks must have seen it too, because he took a quick step back. But he recovered quickly, thanks to that bravado most young males seemed to have in spades. The bravado that made their IQ's drop several points.
But it seemed Goldie Locks' IQ hadn't dropped that far.
"Whatever," he snarled. Giving Chloe a look of disgust, he walked away. Or strutted, as if to show had hadn't really been scared off by a look.
As Goldie Locks disappeared between the stacks, that hard glint in the stranger's eyes disappeared. It was replaced by genuine amusement.
Silence fell between them. Chloe supposed she should say something. Thank him for getting rid of the jerk. But she could get her lips to move.
As each silent second passed, the stranger's amusement seemed to grow.
Finally, he said, with a slight, British accent, "This is the part where you ask who I am."
To tell the truth, Chloe wasn't sure she wanted to know. Because the Twilight Zone, as it turned out, wasn't a fun place to be.
But she was a reporter, and asking questions was sort of second nature. So she shrugged and asked, "Who are you?"
And the stranger's smile became a full-blown grin. "I'm William Merrick. Your new teacher."
"What's the matter, Chloe?" Merrick eyed her plate. The breakfast he'd insisted on paying for was untouched. "Not hungry?"
"Gee, I wonder why," Chloe sighed. She pretended to give it some thought. "Oh, yeah. Some strange man I've never met before just told me I'm Immortal. That I can't die. Well, not unless someone chops my head off. Sword-wielding lunatics will be coming after me for no good reason, and I have to learn to fight unless I want my Immortal life cut short. Literally." She threw up her hands. "Can't imagine why I lost my appetite."
Merrick chuckled. "You summed that up rather nicely. You must be a fine reporter."
"Thanks." With another sigh, Chloe glanced around the diner. It was a little early for the lunch crowd, so the place was almost empty. One man sat alone, reading a newspaper as he finished his meal. Two women, one with a baby, chatted over coffee and donuts. And a guy, maybe a college student, was reading a textbook, pausing every so often to take notes.
She imagined that, for them, today was pretty much like yesterday had been. Nothing life changing or bizarre had happened to them in the past 24 hours. Everything they believed about life, about themselves, hadn't been torn to shreds.
Their minds weren't numb with shock.
"I died," she whispered.
Merrick's ever-present smile became sympathetic. Understanding. "Yes," he said softly. "You did."
A shiver, a hundred shivers, raced through Chloe's body. Her heart lurched in her chest. And her eyes glistened with tears.
She'd known something...extraordinary had happened to her yesterday. But this made it different. She hadn't just been lying at the base of the stairs, unconscious as some medical miracle repaired all of her injuries. She'd been dead.
And the only reason she hadn't still been there, a cold, lifeless corpse for her father to find when he got home from work, was because she was some kind of freak of nature.
"I died," she repeated. As if that would make it more real. As if it wasn't already real enough.
"Your first death," Merrick said. "We all have one. Until we die that first time, we're just like everyone else. We age. We get sick. Our injuries take just as long to heal as..."
"A normal person's?" Chloe said, sounding a little bitter. Imagine. Until yesterday, she'd been a normal person. Now, she was...
"Immortals are just as normal as mortals," Merrick said, a hint of steel behind the humor. Reaching across the table, he stole half of the toast from her plate. "We are as old as history. As long as there have been mortals, there have been us." He shrugged. "We're just a different kind of normal, that's all."
"Uh huh," Chloe muttered, not ready for logic just yet. She needed a chance to wallow in the self-pity for a while. To get used to being a freak. Then, she'd deal.
She studied Merrick, who'd just taken the rest of her toast. If she'd passed him on the street last week, she would have thought he was just a fairly good-looking guy in his 30's who was dressed a little too warm for this time of year. Who could know that he had a sword hidden under his overcoat? Or that he was pushing one hundred and thirty?
The scary part was that, according to Merrick, he was young as far as Immortals went.
"So, who is the oldest Immortal you've ever met?" Chloe was surprised to hear herself ask. Apparently, not even severe emotional trauma could suppress her reporter's instincts.
Shrugging, she picked up her cup.
"Well, I've never met him," Merrick said as Chloe took a sip of her soda. "But there's an Immortal named Methos who's about, oh, five thousand or so."
Chloe gasped, and the soda went down exactly the wrong way. As she choked and spluttered, Merrick's cheerful laughter filled the diner. And, of course, everyone turned to stare at the too crazy people causing a commotion in the corner.
As her coughing fit settled down, she glared at Merrick. He gave her a look that, she supposed, was meant to seem innocent.
"Sorry about that," he said. "Didn't mean to catch you so off guard."
Chloe wouldn't bet on it.
Suddenly, Chloe's mind started to wander. There was no way she'd believe there was a five thousand year old man running around out there somewhere. But, if there was...
Imagine what that interview would be like.
"Now," Merrick said, "tell me about this Smallville. I should know about the town I'll be calling home for the foreseeable future."
Clearing her throat, Chloe stared at him. She'd forgotten about that part of things. Merrick moving to Smallville to teach her how to fight. With a sword.
Of course, with everything he'd told her in the last hour or so, it was a surprise she still remembered her own name.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked. "Helping me, I mean. You don't even know me."
Merrick shrugged. "It's a tradition among our kind, I suppose. Mentoring younger Immortals is the closest we ever come to having..." Leaving the sentence unfinished, he shook his head. "Well, that's not important right now. As I was saying, when an Immortal comes across a fledgling, we sometimes take it upon ourselves to train them, to teach them how to defend themselves from headhunters. Those whose sole purpose in life is taking the Quickening of other Immortals."
The Quickening. An Immortal's life force. Their essence. Merrick had explained that, when another Immortal took your head, they absorbed your energy, which made them stronger. More powerful.
Chloe hand caressed her neck, which seemed pretty vulnerable at the moment. Hard to believe there was something inside her so important, other people wanted to kill her for it.
Hesitantly, Chloe asked Merrick. "H-have you ever? Taken someone's Quickening, I mean."
And Merrick's ever-present good cheer seemed to vanish. "Yes, I have. Several, in fact. And so will you. One day."
Chloe felt herself pale. No way! Okay, she could see learning to fight. If these lunatics, these headhunters, were going to be coming after her, she had to be able to defend herself, right?
But there was no way she was cutting off another human being's head.
Are we human? a tiny voice whispered in her head, and she grew a shade more pale. As her stomach turned, she was glad she hadn't eaten anything.
"Fortunately, you're less likely to run into an Immortal where we're going than in a big city like Metropolis." Merrick's smile returned. "I've never taken on a student before. Should be interesting." He leaned across the table. So, tell me about this little town of yours."
Swallowing hard, Chloe wrapped her shaking hands around her cup. Then, she took a deep breath and told her new mentor about Smallville.
Clark Kent breezed through the door of The Torch office. "Hey, Chloe," he said as he dropped his backpack on the nearest chair. "Whatcha doin'?"
But Chloe didn't answer. In fact, if she heard him at all, she didn't show it. Instead, she sat hunched over her desk, blank eyes glued to the computer screen.
"Chloe?" A frown crinkling his brow, Clark approached her desk. Hesitantly, he reached out towards her. "Hey."
The instant his hand touched her shoulder, she jumped.
"God!" she exclaimed. Her arm knocked into a pencil holder, filling the once-silent room with the clatter of wood clacking against wood. Hands pressed over her heart, she turned. And seemed shocked to see him standing there. "Geez, Clark!" she snapped. "Don't sneak up on people like that!"
A little surprised by her angry glare, Clark took a step back. "I didn't sneak. I came in the door, just like always." He nodded towards the door, which was directly in her field of vision. "I even called your name a couple of times. You just...didn't notice."
For a moment, Chloe seemed determined to stay angry. Her glare went from Clark, to the door, and back again. Then, finally, she closed her eyes. "Sorry, Clark," she sighed. Elbow resting on the desk, she pressed her fingertips to her forehead. "My mind was...somewhere else."
"Yeah," Clark agreed. Truth to tell, he was getting used to it.
At lunch today, Chloe barely said two words. Instead, she'd spent the entire period staring at her food. Which she didn't eat.
And yesterday morning, he, Pete and Lana were talking in the hallway. And Chloe walked right by them. Like she didn't even see them. Clark had to call her name four times to get her attention.
She'd just been acting...strange. Ever since she back to school after being out sick for few days.
"So." Chloe gave him a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "What's up?" Turning back to the computer, she pecked away at the keyboard.
"Well, I was thinking maybe you, me and Pete could hang out this afternoon." He gave her an encouraging smile. "We could rent videos and order pizza."
"I'd love to, Clark," she said, still typing. "But I can't. I have...something to do as soon as I finish here."
"Really?" Clark frowned. "Like what?"
"Oh, it's just...this thing." She took one hand off the keyboard and waved it dismissively. "It's no big deal. I...uh...kind of promised to baby-sit for someone. A neighbor."
"I thought you said baby-sitting wasn't your thing."
"You mean because of the `incident'?" She made finger quotes in the air. "Well, I decided not to let one trauma rob me of the chance to increase my income. And, next time, I'll keep the permanent markers away from the little nippers. And the walls."
Clark tried not to smile, but it had been funny. At least, Chloe's rant about never baby sitting ever again had been funny. "Well, okay. I can bring the videos over there. Keep you company. Who are you sitting for?"
She started to shake her head before he even finished talking. "Sorry, Clark. No boys allowed." Her smile apologetic. "House rules."
"Oh." Clark sighed with disappointment. "Well, maybe we can do something tomorrow."
"Maybe," Chloe said absently. Then, as her fingers flew over the computer keys, she seemed to tune him out. "See ya later, Clark."
"Uh, yeah. Okay." Unsure of what to do next, Clark started towards the door. Taking his back pack from the chair, he tried to think of something else to say. Finally, when he couldn't, he shrugged his broad shoulders. "Er, `bye." And, with another sigh, he left the office.
Glancing up from the keyboard, Chloe watched Clark walk out of the room. As soon as he was out of sight, she took a deep breath and let her body go limp in her chair.
This was harder than she thought it would be. Much harder.
She felt like she was being torn apart inside.
Half of the time, her mind was a million miles away. She couldn't focus on anything around her. Not class. Not The Torch. Not her friends. She was lucky if she remembered to eat.
The other half of the time, she was hyper-aware of her surroundings. Every time she walked past someone, every time someone looked at her, she was sure they saw it. The difference. The abnormality. They had to see it. Right?
That's when she wanted to hide in her room, the door locked and the blinds closed. But, at the same time, filled with the burning need to tell somebody.
Her father. Clark. Pete. Even Lana. If she could just tell somebody, maybe she wouldn't feel this need to scream every waking moment of every day. Or to laugh hysterically at nothing at all. Or to go sit in a quiet corner while she cried for a couple of days.
Chloe ran a weary hand through her tousled hair. But she couldn't tell. She could never tell. If she did, what would she say.
You know how fascinated I've always been about the meteor freaks. Well, guess what? Turns out, I'm the biggest freak of all! And I can't even blame it on meteor rocks. Nope, I was born a freak! I just had to die for my innate freakiness to kick in. How about that?
Lips pressed into a thin line, Chloe started to type, hoping what she wrote made sense. They wouldn't understand. Her father. Clark. None of them could understand this. This feeling. Not just that she wasn't normal, but that she was...wrong. Somehow.
Blinking away tears, Chloe shook her head. "They wouldn't understand."
"Hello, Clark," Martha Kent said.
"Hey, Mom." Clark took out a carton of milk out of the refrigerator. About to bring it to his lips, he realized his mother was glaring at him...and strangling the dish towel she held in her hands. With a chagrined smile, Clark took a glass from the draining board.
Martha nodded with satisfaction. "That's better." She gave the already spotless counter a cursory wipe down. "And remember, you're picking up the stuff Mrs. Traubridge agreed to donate to the church yard sale today."
"I know, Mom," Clark said...as if he hadn't completely forgotten. "I'm on it." He poured himself a glass of milk, and downed it in a few quick gulps before pouring another. As he put the milk carton back in the `fridge, his mind turned to what happened at school this afternoon. And he couldn't keep a deep, but quiet, sigh from escaping.
"Something the matter, Clark?"
Clark smiled a little. Of course his mother heard him. Because he might have special alien powers and super senses. But Martha Kent had special mom-powers far beyond his ability to understand.
Closing the refrigerator door, he turned to face her. "It's just...remember I told you Chloe was out sick for a few days."
"Yes." Martha's frown was sympathetic. "She had a cold?"
"Yeah. And, ever since she came back to school, she's been...I don't know. Different."
Clark gave it some thought. "Well, distracted. And distant. Kinda listless, I guess. And I haven't seen her anywhere but at since then."
"Well, honey, it might just be that she's not a hundred percent yet. And you know how I am when I'm getting over a cold."
Clark's eyes widened at the vivid--and scary--memories. "Oh, yeah!" he said. Grinning at his mother's look of indignation, he continued. "And maybe that's all it is. But..."
"You think there's more to it?"
Clark shrugged. "Yeah. Or maybe I'm completely wrong and overreacting to nothing."
"Well, if there's something on Chloe's mind, she might want to talk about it with. Maybe she's just waiting for someone to ask."
Clark nodded. He'd known all along what he'd have to do. But, truth was, Clark Kent sometimes found deep, emotional stuff as scary as...as his mom with a cold. If something serious was bothering Chloe...
...as her friend, he had to try to help her with it.
"Okay," he said. "I'll go to Chloe's as soon as I get back from Mrs. Traubridge's."
"Nice room," Chloe said as she eyed her surroundings.
"Room?" Merrick looked insulted. Setting his suitcase on the floor, he spread his arms wide. "This, my young pupil, is a suite!"
Chloe's looked around again. She supposed it was a suite...by Smallville Inn standards. There was a sitting area, and a separate bedroom, both kind of small. And, in the corner over there, there was a mini fridge.
"Nice," Chloe said again.
Merrick paused, as if mining that one word for sarcasm. He seemed to decide to take it at face value. "Since this will be my home for the next few...whatevers, I asked for the best." He picked up the suitcase and carried it into the bedroom.
Pushing her hands into her pockets, Chloe wandered over to the window. "To be honest," she began, raising her voice so he could hear her. "I didn't expect you to get here so soon."
"I didn't have all that many loose ends to tie up in Metropolis." Merrick called back. "So it didn't take long."
Chloe nodded, even though he couldn't see her. She'd expected it to take weeks for Merrick to arrive. Weeks where she was all alone. The only one. With no-one she could talk openly with. No-one to answer her questions.
Then, Merrick called to tell her he was already in town. And she felt so relieved, she almost forgot he was a virtual stranger.
"Well," she murmured, "I'm glad you're here."
Merrick stuck his head out the door. "What did you say?"
Chloe smiled and shook her head. Her first real smile in much too long. "It was nothing."
With a shrug, her mentor returned to the bedroom. "We'll start training as soon as I find the right space," he called.
"Uh huh," Chloe said. Arms folded, she started to walk around the room. Studying this and looking at that.
"You'll start out with a light training sword. Then, when you've acquired some skill, we'll get you something more personal. More...you."
"Okay," Chloe said. Because, the fact was, this entire sword-training thing didn't quite feel real to her yet. She just couldn't imagine it. Her. Slashing and thrusting. Metal clanging.
Chloe shivered. Nope. Still didn't feel real.
"I think we'll alternate," Merrick continued. She heard a door open in the bedroom. Probably the closet. "Sword training one day. Hand-to-hand the next. How does that sound?"
"Fine." Yep. Just call her Kung Fu Chloe.
"I already contacted a real estate agent about possible training space." Finally, he came out of the bedroom. "Well, I didn't say training space, of course. Just something spacious, somewhat isolated. She gave me a list of addresses. I thought we'd check them out this afternoon."
"Okay." Chloe looked at the tiny mini fridge. It looked big enough for a carton of eggs, and maybe a six pack of sodas. "You think maybe the real estate agent could find you a nice house to rent?" Chloe asked. Not that she didn't like his, uh, suite. But...
"I'm not really a house person," Merrick said. "What do I need with a bunch of extra rooms to rattle around in? This is fine." He gave the sitting room a fond once over. "Besides, I've lived in worse over the past 130 years."
Another shiver raced up Chloe's spine. Again, she was hit with the fact that the man standing in the room with her was over a century old. A century!
The things he must've seen. The things he must've done! She bet he could tell her some really...
"Please." Merrick held up his hands. "No interviews."
"What?" Chloe exclaimed. "I wasn't going to...what makes you think...I didn't..."
"You just got this strange glimmer in your eye." His own eyes narrowed as Merrick studied her face. "And your expression. It was a cross between a curious child about to bombard her parents with questions, and a ruthless hunter on the scent of her prey."
Teeth clenched, Chloe glared.
Merrick just smirked. "Alright then." He clapped his hands enthusiastically. "Let's go look at those training spots." And he headed for the door.
For a second, Chloe tried to decide whether to be mad or not. Finally, she couldn't help but smile. Rolling her eyes, she followed her mentor to the door.
Clark's impatient hands tapped against the steering wheel. Now that he'd decided to talk to Chloe, he wanted to do it. Now. The sooner he asked her, the sooner he'd know what was bothering her. Maybe.
But, first, he had to take Mrs. Traubridge's stuff to the church. They'd ask him to unload it, which he couldn't refuse to do without being impolite. And, since someone would probably be watching him, he'd have to do it at normal speed. And, of course, they might ask him to help with other stuff too. Because he was such a strong, helpful boy.
Clark sighed. He didn't mind using his abilities to help out. But, sometimes, he wouldn't mind being a 98 pound weakling.
As the car in front of him stopped to let some people cross the street, Clark pulled the truck to a halt. With another impatient sigh, he let his eyes roam around the busy--for Smallville--street. His gaze settled on the Smallville Inn, in time to see...
Suddenly, he was glad the car in front of him had stopped. If he'd been moving, he would have slammed on the breaks. The car behind him would have plowed into him, pushing the truck into the car ahead. And...
That was Chloe, wasn't it? Coming out of a hotel with a guy? A man! A, like, 30-something year-old man!
The two of them were smiling at each other. Chatting it up. Walking pretty close to each other. They looked very...chummy.
And there was the coming out of a hotel part.
Clark was so stunned, he didn't realize his mouth was hanging open.
Or that his hands had twisted the steering wheel out of shape.
"What do you think?" Merrick asked.
Hands on her hips, Chloe studied her surroundings. The small warehouse was first on Merrick's list of possible training spots. It was miles away from...well, pretty much anything. There was plenty of floor space. And the windows were up high. So no-one just passing by could take a casual look inside and see anything...interesting.
Chloe shrugged. "I'm just the lowly student, remember? So you'd know better than me. But shouldn't we take a look at the other places first?"
"No, this perfect," Merrick assured her. "I have a good feeling about this place."
"Well, good," Chloe said. Hands on her hips, Chloe gave her mentor a hopeful. "So, now that we've found our classroom, you can give me a lesson in Immortals 101."
Merrick gave her a puzzled look. "Pardon?"
"Oh, come on. Tell me something about myself," Chloe continued. "You know. All the stuff you've been holding back because you think it will freak me out." She held her arms out at her sides. "But don't worry. I live in the Weird Capital of the Midwest. I'm more used to the strange and bizarre than you would believe. So, whatever you have to tell, I can take."
"I'm sure you can," Merrick said. "But the taking would be easier in small doses. Becoming Immortal is enough of a shock in itself. The rest can wait."
Chloe sighed. "I knew you were going to say that. But you don't understand. I have this special condition. Curiosity could literally kill me."
"Which explains your aspirations to snoop professionally," Merrick chuckled.
Again, Chloe glared. She figured her time spent with Merrick was going to hone that particular skill to a razor's edge.
"Tsk, tsk," Merrick said. Looking wistful, he shook his head. "That's what's wrong with the young. They don't truly learn the virtue of patience until they're at least 70 or 80." His wistful frown melted into a grin. "We have plenty of time, Chloe. You will learn all you need to know long before your `condition' becomes fatal. Is there name for that by the way? I might want to look it up."
Exhaling another sigh, Chloe let her shoulders droop in disappointed. And, while she didn't like to resort to such measures, she let her lips to extend into a modest pout.
Merrick stared at her for a moment before he burst into laughter. "You're father lets you get away with murder, doesn't he?"
"Well, maybe not murder." Chloe gave him an optimistic glance. "Is it working on you?"
Merrick pretended to think for a moment. "No, not really. But points for effort."
This time, Chloe's pout was real.
"Although, I will tell you one thing."
She allowed herself a cautious smile. "Really?"
"Don't get too excited. It's just a little piece of advice. Something I should have told you in the beginning." And his smile was still there. But the humor that usually lit his silver-gray eyes faded away. "Holy ground."
Chloe frowned. Of all the things she'd expected him to say... "Huh?"
"Immortals can't fight on holy ground. It's one of the Rules. If you sense another Immortal nearby, if you feel the buzz and aren't one hundred percent sure it's me, don't walk. You run to the nearest church. Or synagogue. Or Indian burial ground. Understand?"
Chloe's heart sank under the intensity of his gaze. The fear that had faded to a whisper but never went away--not since she woke up at the bottom of those stairs--flared to life. And she remembered her life would never be the same.
"Holy ground," she said. Swallowing hard, she nodded. "Got it."
Merrick stared into her eyes for one long second. Then, he nodded. And the ever-present good humor returned. "Good. Now, back to the fun stuff." He waved around the cavernous room. "Any decorating tips?"
For a moment, Chloe just blinked at him. Like a disoriented owl. How did he do that? Change moods so fast? Most of the time, he seemed so cheerful and carefree. Then, that good humor just went go away. His gray eyes turned as cold and hard as steel. And she was reminded that he was a stranger.
A stranger who'd volunteered to teach her to defend herself from people who wanted to kill her. People who wanted to hunt her down and chop off her head and...
Maybe she wasn't ready to hear everything all at once.
Chloe took a deep breath and tried to recapture the mood of a few moments ago. Better that than happy thoughts of decapitation.
Looking up, she pointed towards the windows. "Maybe some nice curtains?" she asked.
Merrick nodded. "Sounds like just the thing."
Clark pealed out of the church parking lot. Oh, he'd hear about it when he got home. Someone would call his parents to tell them their son had been driving recklessly. And his dad would give him the lecture about driving safely.
You won't be hurt in an accident, son. But you have to think of the other people on the road with you. How would you feel if your actions caused someone else to be seriously injured?
That lecture was a guaranteed four hundred guilt points. Easy.
But, at the moment, he couldn't worry about that. He was too busy worrying about Chloe.
He couldn't even remember driving away from the Smallville Inn. Or straightening the steering wheel. He must have been in shock because, after seeing Chloe leave the hotel with that man, the next thing he remembered was pulling up to the church.
As he unloaded Mrs. Traubridge's stuff--and did all the other things he was asked to do--his mind raced, dashing from one emotion to the next.
Disbelief was first. Because, even though he saw it with his own eyes, he still couldn't believe it.
Then came guilt. How dare he let his mind jump to the conclusions it had jumped to? This was Chloe!. There must be some logical explanation for what he'd seen. Maybe the guy was a relative...who, for whatever reason, didn't want to stay in the Sullivan's guest room. And Chloe just went to the hotel to visit him.
But, if there was a logical explanation, why did Chloe lie to him about babysitting after school?
That question lead to anger. Chloe lied to him! She looked him right in the eye and...
Clark frowned as he changed lanes. Now that he thought about it, Chloe hadn't actually looked him in the eye much when he was at The Torch. She looked at the computer screen, or the keyboard, but not at him.
Which lead to concern. Was this why Chloe was so preoccupied and distracted the last couple of days? If she was distracted because she was worried about her situation--whatever her situation was, and he was trying really hard not to jump to conclusions here--that meant she was in some kind of trouble. Right?
And if this guy was doing anything to hurt her...
It took some effort not to bend the steering wheel out of shape again. He'd managed to straighten it out somewhat, but it was still lopsided. No need to add to the damage.
Clark forced his grip to relax, and took a deep breath. Now, talking to Chloe seemed even more urgent than it had before. Hopefully, she'd call him an idiot for overreacting to something completely innocent. She'd give him a logical explanation, and his stomach would stop twisting in knots, because there was nothing to be concerned about after all.
It was that "or" that had him worried.
Shaking his muddled head, Clark drove towards the Sullivan house.
Sam Krager only staggered once as he walked across the gravel-covered parking lot. He was pretty good at looking sober. No-one would ever guess he'd spent the last two hours in a local bar.
Besides, he wasn't really drunk. He knew how to hold his liquor. And he'd deserved it, right? Today, he got his promotion. And the boss let him off early.
"Time off for good behavior," Sam giggled.
And his wife was visiting her mother, so she'd never know he'd broken his promise.
Hell, he'd been dry for six months...except for a beer or two while watching football on Sunday afternoons. And he'd admit it. Charlene was right. Things had been going good for him lately.
But it was only this once. And he was celebrating. You couldn't kill a guy for that, right?
Sam pulled his car keys out of his pocket. He had to fumble a little to find the right one. And it took some effort to get the key in the lock.
With a nod of satisfaction, he opened the driver's-side door.
Chloe pulled the car into the driveway. Grabbing her bag, she got out of the car.
A few houses down, Shelly Macelli was playing with a beach ball in her front yard.
"Hi!" the little girl called, waving shyly.
As she waved back, Chloe wondered who was watching her. Okay, yeah, this was Smallville. But the four year-old spent way too much time outside alone, unsupervised. And it was almost dark.
I'*ll come back out and play with her,* Chloe decided. And when someone finally came outside to get Shelly, she'd drop a few unsubtle hints about benign neglect.
As Chloe started towards her house, she noticed Shelly's ball had gotten away from her. As it rolled into the street, Shelly gave chase.
Chloe was about to call out to her to be careful...when a car screeched around the corner.
Shelly caught up with her ball in the middle of the road. As she picked it up, she looked towards the car barreling towards her.
But the little girl didn't move. Didn't run back across the street. Instead, she just...froze.
"Oh, God!" Chloe gasped. Dropping her bag in the grass, she started to run.
The world around her faded into a blur. All she could see was the little girl, standing there, a ball almost as big as she was clutched in her little hands. All she could hear was the car, the roar of the engine getting closer and closer.
Time moved in slow motion. It was like one of those dreams, where you tried to run but could never get anywhere.
Her thoughts were a jumble. A disjointed prayer.
Oh, no. Please. Move, kid! Won't make it. Too fast. It's too fast. Please, no.
And, suddenly, she was there.
Chloe slammed into Shelly Macelli. The little girl flew out of harms way. Screaming when she hit the ground and slid across the cement.
*Thank God,* Chloe thought...before her mind went blank.
As Clark turned onto Chloe's street, he saw someone running.
His first thought was, That's weird.
His second thought was, Hey, that's Chloe!
A split second later, his friend was in the street, pushing a little girl out of the way...
...just before a car slammed into her.
"Chloe!" he cried, one foot stomping on the brakes. Horrified because all he could do was watch.
The impact tossed Chloe's body into the air. As the car continued to move forward, she sailed over the hood. Crashed into the windshield.
The sound of shattering glass exploded into the silence.
Finally, the car screeched to a halt.
Chloe's body fell onto the car with a metallic bang. Carried by momentum, she rolled down the hood, and dropped to the hard concrete. Then rolled a few more feet before coming to a stop. A still, boneless heap in the middle of the road.
Clark wrenched the truck's door open, almost taking it off of its hinges. In a blur of speed, he was at Chloe's side.
Frantic, Clark dropped to his knees, and he reached out to touch her. Then he stopped, uncertain. Lying there, she looked so...broken. What if touching her hurt her more.
Some distant part of his brain heard the little girl crying. The child stood up and ran towards a house a few doors down from Chloe's.
And the car that hit Chloe came to life. With a screech of its tires, it sped away in reverse.
Clark didn't care. All of his attention was on Chloe.
There was a large gash on her forehead. Blood ran down to cover her face. And every inch of exposed skin--her face, her arms and hands--seemed to be covered in scrapes from the cement.
The way her right leg was laying seemed...wrong. And her right arm was all bent and twisted.
"Chloe," he whispered, as fear flooded his body. This was bad. So bad.
And he hadn't done a thing to stop it!
Turning anxious eyes towards the houses, Clark started to call for help.
A moan drew his gaze back to Chloe. Her eyes were squeezed tight, her face frozen in a grimace of pain.
She was awake.
"Chloe! Don't...don't move. Don't move. I'll...get help." Again, he looked towards the houses. "Somebody!" he called.
"No!" Chloe groaned. And, suddenly, her left hand was clutching the front of his shirt. "N-no," she gritted through clenched teeth. "D-don't. D-" She dissolved into a paroxysm of coughing. And soon, blood coated her lips, trickled down her chin.
Clark panicked. "God! A hospital. You need..."
"No," she rasped. Her eyes were open, barely. "No hos-hospital. Can't go...Can't stay...here." And, to Clark's horror, she started to use the hold she still had on his shirt to pull herself up.
"Don't move!" he said again. He grabbed her shoulders and forced her back down. "If you move, you could..."
"Clark," she whispered. "Can't stay. Get me...away." Her voice sounded faint but desperate. She forced her eyes open a little more. Her gaze was distant. Unfocussed. Pleading. "Please. Clark." And her eyes drifted shut again.
Clark shook his head. She had to be in some kind of shock. Unable to understand how hurt she was. But clearly remembering that she hated hospitals.
Clark pried her left hand off of his shirt. If he wasn't afraid to move her, he'd carry her to the hospital himself. They'd be there in minutes.
Instead, he would have to go get help.
As Clark prepared to stand, her gave her one final look. Instinctively, he activated his x-ray vision. He didn't know why. It wasn't like seeing the extent of her injuries would get her the help she needed any faster. He just did it.
And that's when he saw something...incredible.
It was like living electricity. Silver-white with a haze of blue. Spiraling around her broken bones. Racing through her bloodstream. Dancing under her skin.
Startled, Clark reared back, his vision returning to normal. In time to see the same silver-white energy arcing across the gash on Chloe's forehead. It weaved back and forth between the two jagged edges of the wound, like a needle and thread. As Clark watched, the gash seemed to knit closed. Leaving nothing but smooth, unblemished skin in its place.
"My God," Clark whispered, eyes wide with disbelief. "Chloe?"
Martha Kent heard the squeal of tires coming from outside.
While it got her attention, she shrugged it off. Lex Luthor was a frequent visitor to the Kent farm. Not to mention an adventurous driver. She was used to the sound by now.
So she continued to snap the fresh peas she was making for dinner.
Until she heard her sons voice.
Martha frowned. Clark sounded upset.
Martha wiped her hands on a dishtowel. Hurrying out of the kitchen, she opened the front door.
"Oh my God!" she gasped.
Cradled in Clark's arms was Chloe Sullivan. The girl, usually so energetic and full of life, looked like a discarded rag doll, lifeless and torn. Her head lolled across Clark's arm. Blood trickled from her mouth, down her chin. Her skin was scraped and raw.
"What happened?" Martha asked. Fear choked her voice.
Mouth set in a grim line, eyes frantic in his still face, Clark didn't answer. Instead, he walked towards the entrance. Without a thought, Martha stood to one side, and held the screen door open for him.
"Clark?" she said as she followed him inside. "What..."
"There was an accident," her son said, talking a fraction too fast. "There was...this car. And Chloe..." He couldn't seem to continue.
Martha studied Chloe. One look at the unconscious girl told her how bad the accident must have been. And, from the turmoil in his eyes, she knew Clark must've have seen it. And hadn't been able to stop it, even with his powers.
*Oh, Clark,* she thought. Martha Kent knew her son. He was probably already blaming himself.
But she'd have to tend to his emotional wounds later. Now, there was Chloe.
Martha rested one hand on Clark's arm. The other brushed against a patch of skin on Chloe's cheek that wasn't scraped.
"You shouldn't have moved her, honey," she said. And immediately wanted to snatch the words back. Recriminations weren't what they needed right now. "Why don't you go lay her on the sofa. I'll call for an ambu..."
"No!" Clark exclaimed. "We can't call anyone."
Martha opened her mouth to speak. To tell him Chloe was badly hurt and needed help, so of course they had to call for an ambulance.
"Something's happening to her, Mom," Clark continued. He glanced down at Chloe. "I think she's...healing." He shook his head, as if he couldn't believe what he'd just said. "I don't know. When I looked at her with my x-ray vision, I saw this energy or something, moving around all inside her. And..."
"Energy?" She stared at his lowered head, trying to understand. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know. It's just..." Suddenly, his eyes widened. "Look!"
Martha glanced down at Chloe, and gasped. Sparks of light danced across the bloodied scrape on her right cheek. Small sparkles of silver-white weaving in and out of the ravaged skin. As she watched, the scar seemed to fade. Fainter and fainter until the abrasion was gone. Like it had never been.
"Clark?" Martha whispered, unable to believe her eyes.
"I think she knew this would happen," Clark continued. "And she begged me, Mom. She doesn't want to go to a hospital. She doesn't want anyone to know about this."
Martha stared into her son's earnest eyes. And her mind flashed onto one of her worst nightmares. Somehow, some way, Clark got hurt. Unconscious, he was rushed to the hospital. Where they'd discover that no needle could penetrate his skin. And they'd do tests. And they'd call experts. And the wrong people would find out about this strange boy in Smallville, Kansas named Clark Kent who didn't seem to be completely human.
These thoughts made Martha's stomach sink. Some invisible force squeezed her heart in its fist, sucked the air out of her lungs.
If that ever happened, she and Jonathan would lose their son.
She wasn't about to contribute to Gabe Sullivan losing his daughter.
"Let's take her to the guest room."
Arms crossed, Clark paced from one end of the kitchen to the other. Again and again, his mind replayed the accident. Eyes open or closed, it didn't matter. He couldn't get the vision of Chloe being hit by the car, tossed into the air, out of his mind. And the sound of her body crashing into the windshield echoed through his memory.
"Try to calm down, son," Jonathan Kent said. Elbows resting on the table, he clasped his hands under his chin. "Wearing a rut in the floor isn't going to help Chloe."
"Nothing I do can help Chloe," Clark muttered. "I sure didn't help her this afternoon."
His father gave him a long, searching look. "Clark, you can't blame yourself for what happened. Even with your abilities..."
"I can't save everyone," Clark interrupted. The words left a bitter taste in his mouth. Thinking back on the accident, all he could remember was sitting frozen in the truck while his friend was plowed down. Logically, he knew there was nothing he could have done. It all happened in a split second. Even he wasn't that fast.
But he didn't feel all that logical right now.
Just then, Martha Kent came into the kitchen. She looked as shocked as Clark felt.
"How is she?" Clark asked.
His mother just shook her head. "It was incredible." She set the first aid kit on the counter. "I'd start cleaning a scrape or cut and, before I'd finish, it was just...gone." She looked at Clark, eyes wide she clutched her right bicep. "And you said her arm was broken?"
"Yeah." Clark nodded. "It was pretty obvious, even without x-ray vision."
"Well, I don't think it is anymore. At least, not in a way you can see with the naked eye."
Jonathan stood up from the table. "Son, do you think this has anything to do with the meteor rocks?"
"I don't know," Clark said with a thoughtful frown. "Chloe's been acting really...off the last couple of days. Maybe something happened to her. Something that gave her the ability to heal."
"I guess we'll ask her," his dad said. "When she wakes up."
Nodding, Clark started pacing again.
Heart pounding, Chloe Sullivan sat up in bed. Eyes squeezed tight, she panted for breath.
Her mind was a jumble of thoughts and feelings and images. Seeing Shelly in the path of the car, and the panic that she wouldn't get there in time. This incredible pressure on her right side, followed by blackness deeper than anything she'd ever seen before.
Then the blackness went away for a moment. And her body was hit by a flood of pain so...big, so all-consuming, she couldn't think. She couldn't imagine there was anything else.
Chloe took a deep breath and forced her eyes open. There was a moment of disorientation as she wondered where she was. Then, she recognized her surroundings. It was the Kent's guest room. She'd stayed there once or twice, like when her father was away on business or something.
As her heart started to slow down, other memories seeped in. They were faint and hazy, more like a dream than something that really happened.
She'd opened her eyes and there was Clark, looking more scared than she'd ever seen him before. And he was saying something about a hospital.
And the pain was pushed aside by panic. She couldn't go to the hospital! If she did, they would find out. They'd witness her healing first hand. They'd know she wasn't normal.
She didn't need Merrick to tell her what a bad idea that was.
Startled, she turned. "Clark?"
He stood in the doorway, a worried frown crinkling his brow. "How are you?" he asked uncertainly.
For a moment, she couldn't speak. Her heart sank as the realization struck her. He knew. He'd seen her lying there, broken, in the middle of the street. And he could see with his own eyes that just (she glanced at the bedside clock) a few hours later, she wasn't broken anymore. Not even a little bit.
Uneasy, she stared down at her lap. Things were about to change. Again.
"What happened, Chloe?" Clark asked. The worry on his face was joined by confusion. "I just saw you get hit by a car. And now..."
Eyes narrowed, Clark studied her. His gaze was so intense, so penetrating, Chloe could almost believe he could see right through her.
"Now," he continued, "it's like it never happened." Clark shook his head. "Does this have something to do with the meteor rocks? Did something happen to give you some kind of...healing ability?"
Chloe settled back against the headboard. She'd imagined this moment a hundred times. Each scenario filled her with dread, and made her even more determined not to let anyone know what she was. So she was surprised she wasn't more scared. Probably adrenaline, numbing her down so she could take whatever badness took place in the next few minutes.
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to look at Clark. Her best friend. The guy she could tell just about anything.
"It doesn't have anything to do with the meteor rocks," she said. "I was born this way."
Frowning, Clark took several steps towards the bed. "What do you mean?"
Deciding it would be less painful this way, Chloe forced herself to blurt it out. "Clark. I'm Immortal."
Clark Kent's head was spinning by the time Chloe explained what she meant.
Lowering himself onto a wooden chair, he leaned towards the bed. "Are you saying you can't die?" he'd exclaimed. Again.
And she smiled at him for the first time in days. "Well, that's kind of the definition of `Immortal', Clark. Oh, and you have to think the word in capital letters. At least, that's what Merrick says."
"He's like me. An Immortal. I met him in Metropolis. And he sort of volunteered to teach me about what we are."
Clark nodded as the pieces fell into place. Well, that was one mystery solved. The man he'd seen coming out of the hotel with Chloe was this Merrick guy.
One question answered. A hundred or so to go.
As silence descended upon the room, Clark stared at her. Her teeth were nibbling at her bottom lip. Her nervous eyes darted around the room She looked like...like he'd probably looked when he told Pete his secret.
When he told Pete what he really was, he couldn't stop thinking about the nightmare he had sometimes. In it, he was the star of a scene straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He's walking down the street one day when everyone starts to stare at him. And point. And they're whispering to each other, until the air is filled with the hiss of lowered voices.
Freak! someone screams. Then someone else. Then someone else. And, soon, everyone's screaming it as they move closer and closer, eyes wide with fear and revulsion. Surrounding him on all sides with that word.
Freak! Freak! Freak!
And he knew this was why Chloe'd been acting so strange lately. Distant, and worried, and anxious. She'd probably imagined herself as the star of the same scene.
At this very minute, she was watching him. Waiting for him to look at her like she was the most disgusting thing he'd ever seen. Or the scariest. Or maybe to start studying her, like she was a bug under a microscope.
So, he kept his tone casual, his expression mildly curious. "How long have you been an Immortal? I mean, when you fell out of the window at Lex's, you didn't heal this fast."
Chloe's eyes widened, like she was surprised by his mild reaction. She studied him for a moment, an uncertain frown crinkling her brow. "My Immortality was dormant until now. Before that, it took me as long to heal as anyone else. Then, the first day I was out sick with a cold, I d-..." She paused to clear her throat. "Um, it sort of `activated', I guess. And I kinda wigged."
"Yeah." Clark nodded. He knew what that was like. He'd always been faster and stronger than other people. It had just always been that way. And, while he knew it wasn't normal, he'd had his entire life to accept it.
Then, a little over a year ago, his more exotic powers started to develop. The first time his x-ray vision kicked in, it terrified him. All he could think about was that guy in that movie, whose x-ray vision got so out of control, he ended up not being able to see anything because he saw right through everything.
He'd always thought it was a sucky way to end a movie, and he sure didn't want to be the remake. Luckily, he'd learned to control his new ability. Because he didn't want to go through life seeing people as nothing but bones and muscle tissue.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, he found Chloe staring at him. "What?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Why aren't you more wigged? I mean, if I wigged, you should wig too. It seems only fair."
Clark stared down at the floor. Since he couldn't tell her the truth--that he'd once been the one telling a friend he wasn't normal--he opted for a grin. "I don't know. It sounds kind of cool."
Chloe seemed to give that some thought. Then, slowly, she smiled. "I guess it is. Kind of."
"I still can't believe how cool they all were about the whole thing," Chloe said. "Clark and his parents."
"What were you expecting, exactly?" Merrick asked as he sat next to her on the sofa. "For them to run, screaming, from the room? For them to form their fingers into the shape of the cross and wave it in your face?"
"Well,"--Chloe shrugged "--yeah."
Merrick grinned, probably amused by her baffled expression. "Chloe, a few mortals have found out what I am over the years. Now, I wouldn't recommend taking out an add in the local penny saver. But I've found that most people who really know and care about you can be trusted with your secret."
Chloe nodded. "I guess." At least, it made her think twice about not telling her dad. Her brain had been so busy thinking about that one, she hadn't gotten any sleep last night.
"You are very lucky it was your friend Clark who found you," Merrick continued. "Luckier still that he understood enough to get you out of there."
"I know," Chloe sighed. And her mind flashed back on the accident.
As she'd lain awake in bed last night, she'd replayed the memories again and again. Instead of fading, every detail got sharper and sharper. She remembered everything. The look on Shelly Macelli's face. The design on the ball the little girl had chased into the street.
And the car.
The anger she'd felt since last night started a slow burn in her chest. "I can't believe Sam Krager is going to get away with this!"
"Sam Krager?" Merrick said. "The driver that hit you?"
"Yeah. I'd know that ugly car of his anywhere. And, since his wife is out of town, it had to be him driving." Her fists clenched with frustration. "His drinking got him into a lot of trouble a while back. He had some D.U.I.'s, and a drunk-and-disorderly charge. Then, he seemed to go straight. Everybody was pretty impressed. But I guess he's boozing it up again." Suddenly, her eyes widened as she got an idea. "Hey! Maybe I don't have to tell the police what actually happened. I'll just say...I saw his car weaving all over the road, and am pretty sure he was driving drunk. If he's on some kind of probation..."
"No." Merrick shook his head. "The last thing you want is to draw attention to what happened yesterday. And, while I hate depending on the worst elements of human nature, I think it could work in your favor. The fact that the man left the scene of the accident means he's unlikely to talk about it. And, if he was drunk, he might not have a clear idea what happened."
"I guess," Chloe said through clenched teeth. Her smile had a bitter twist to it. "So, he's not going to sell my story to The Inquisitor. Yea me! And he gets away with hitting me, and almost killing Shelly. Which is just great! And there's nothing to stop him from drinking and driving again. Even more bright side!"
Merrick gave her a chiding look. "Sarcasm should only be used in moderation, Chloe. And, hopefully, what happened will scare some sense into Mr. Krager. I'm sure he'll think twice before getting behind the wheel while under the influence again."
Chloe stared at her mentor. There was no way he, at one hundred and thirty, was that naive.
Sighing, she glanced down at her watch. "I'd better go. I'm already late for school." She stood and picked up her bag. "I can't believe I got up an hour early just to come talk to you. And I only had one cup of coffee."
"The sacrifices we make."
Rolling her eyes, Chloe opened the hotel room door.
She turned, ready for another of Merrick's quips.
But his smile was gentle. His eyes sincere. "You saved a child's life yesterday," he said. "You should be very proud of yourself."
Feeling suddenly shy, Chloe blushed. "I am," she said.
And there was a bounce in her step as she left the hotel.
Sam ignored the ringing `phone. It was probably someone from work, calling to ask why he was late.
Just got a promotion yesterday, and he was already screwing it up.
Sam's hands shook as he lifted the glass to his lips. When he'd decided to give up on anything harder than beer, he'd told Charlene he'd throw out every bottle of liquor in the house. Instead, he'd stashed them at the back of the storage closet. It was a test, he'd told himself. The fact that he hadn't touched any of it in months proved that he was serious about cleaning up his act. That he could be strong.
A bark of laughter, that sounded more like a sob, escaped his raw throat. Yeah, he was strong. So strong, he ran away from an accident he caused.
He emptied the glass in one gulp. He couldn't remember all of what had happened. It wasn't clear. But he knew he'd hit someone.
"How?" he gasped. How could he have just...taken off like that? And left the person he'd hurt lying there in the middle of the street.
He'd panicked. As soon as he hit the breaks, a hundred thoughts rushed through his head. Losing his job. Charlene leaving him. Going to jail. And he'd been so scared.
But that was no excuse. He knew that. And he knew he'd have to turn himself in. He just needed one more drink. And the bottle on the coffee table was empty.
Sam pushed himself out of his chair, staggering from the booze and lack of sleep. He took a step towards the kitchen.
And that's when something hit him.
Pain exploded through his head as he crashed to the floor. The glass fell out of his hands and skittered across the carpet.
"Mr. Krager," a strange voice said. "You've been a very bad man."
Sam groaned. His head felt like it was about to throb right off of his shoulders. "Who...?" he moaned.
"Under normal circumstances, the authorities would handle this," the voice continued, and Sam's booze-soaked brain picked up a slight, British accent. "I imagine you'd be locked in a nice, 8 by 10 cell with a man named Bubba who desperately wants to be your...friend."
Sam's head felt so heavy, he couldn't lift it. Instead, he turned over onto his back, wincing as the pain grew in intensity. His blurred gaze took in the tall, dark figure that loomed over him. And his heart started to pound in his chest.
"Circumstances prevent me from turning you over to the police." Suddenly, the figure kneeled next to him. "But there is such a thing as poetic justice." The man smiled. And it was as hard and cold as his steel-gray eyes. "You, my dear Mr. Krager, are going to have an accident."
A sliver of terror, as sharp as a razor, shot through Sam's body. Looking into those eyes, he knew he'd never leave this house again.
Clark Kent glanced at the clock again. Still fifteen minutes before the bell rang.
Sighing, he tapped his fingers against the edge of his desk. At times like these, he'd welcome the activation of a new power. Something that would make time move faster, maybe. Not a lot. He didn't want to blink and find it was next Tuesday. He just wanted to blink and find class was over.
Eyes narrowed, Clark stared at the minute hand, and willed it to move forward.
"Bored, Mr. Kent?"
Startled, Clark looked from the clock to Ms Simmons. The teacher looked more than a little annoyed.
As his classmates turned to look at him, a flush worked its way up Clark's neck.
"Is there somewhere you'd rather be besides my class?" Ms Simmons continued.
Clark managed to keep the "duh" off of his face. There was always somewhere a sixteen year-old would rather be than in class. It was like a law of nature. But, he knew when to play it smart. "No, ma'am."
"Glad to hear it. So it shouldn't be too much of an effort for you to pay attention."
"Yes, ma'am." Clark pulled his textbook an inch closer, and stared at the page.
"Thank you." With a satisfied nod, Ms Simmons continued on with the lesson.
Glancing up, Clark found that one person was still looking his way. Chloe was grinning at him, obviously enjoying the fact that he'd been caught.
Outwardly, Clark scowled at her. But, on the inside, he smiled. Chloe was back. Compared to the distant, distracted girl who'd been wandering the halls of Smallville High the past few days, she was her old self again.
Turning his attention towards Ms. Simmons, and pretended to listen to what the teacher was saying. But, truth was, Clark had been too hyper to concentrate in any of his classes today. Not just because of what happened yesterday, but because of the decision he'd made this morning.
"I'm going to tell her."
A deafening silence filled the Kent kitchen. Clark's parents stared at him for one long moment, then tuned to stare at each other.
His expression grave, Jonathan Kent set down his coffee cup. "Are you sure that's a good idea, son? I know we were all pretty strongly effected by what happened to Chloe yesterday. We all were." He waited for his wife to nod in agreement. "Which is why you should take some time to think it over with a clear head."
"But I have thought it over, Dad," Clark said. He pushed his half-empty plate towards the center of the table. "And I realized there really isn't a reason not to tell her anymore."
"What do you mean, honey?" Martha Kent asked.
"Well, I've been thinking about why I haven't told her before now."
"Because the fewer people who know your secret," Jonathan said with certainty, "the less risk there is that others will find out."
"That was part of it," Clark admitted. "But that wasn't the real reason. Deep down, I've always believed I could trust Chloe with the truth." He grinned a little. "No matter how many jokes I make about her selling her soul for a story big enough for the front page of The Planet."
Jonathan looked pretty skeptical, which Clark pretty much expected. But Martha seemed a little more receptive.
"So, what was the real reason?" she asked.
Clark sighed. He might not be from this planet, but he was still a 16 year-old boy, and this `talking about your feelings' stuff was hard. "I was worried about how she would react," he finally said. "I mean, look at Pete. He completely freaked. For a while there, I thought I'd lost one of my best friends. Which is pretty much what I'd always thought would happen if anyone found out."
"Oh, honey." His mom put her hand over his, and gave him that `look' only a mothers could produce. The one that made you choke up just looking at it.
Clark cleared his throat and continued. "With Chloe, it's different. I won't have to wonder whether she'll be able to deal. She understands what it's like to learn you aren't what you thought you were. To be able to do things `normal' people can't. I mean, she even knows what it's like to get hit by a car going 60 miles an hour and not have a scratch on you the next day. That's not something I have in common with a lot of people."
Maybe he shouldn't have tried to lighten things up with humor. His dad didn't look amused by it. And his mom was still giving him the pitying glances.
"Besides," he hurried on. "Maybe finding out I really know what she's going through will help Chloe somehow."
Snapping out of his reverie, Clark realized almost everyone had their hand raised. Quickly, he put his own hand in the air. He had no idea what the question was, but the odds were in his favor. Seven times out of ten, Ms Simmons called on students who didn't have their hand up.
Like she did this time. As Marcy Benton struggled to come up with an answer she didn't have, Clark lowered his hand.
Now that he'd decided to tell Chloe the truth, he couldn't wait. After all, look how well telling Pete had turned out. Clark now had a friend who knew the truth, and it was a major relief. Finally, there was someone he didn't have to hide his abilities from. Someone he could talk to when things got even weirder than usual.
And, most important, someone he could really show off in front of.
Still, while Pete accepted what Clark was, he couldn't understand what it was like. He'd never felt like a freak.
Well, no more than the average teen-ager anyway.
Just then, the bell rang.
Clark grabbed his books and went to Chloe's desk. "You know, friends should enjoy watching friends suffer."
"Maybe they shouldn't," Chloe said with an unrepentant grin. "Doesn't mean they won't."
As they walked towards the door, Clark was hit by a wave of nervousness. This was it! He was going to tell her.
Clark swallowed. His heart tripped over a beat. And he suddenly couldn't remember why he'd been so impatient for class to end.
"So," he began as they stepped out into the hall. "Where do you want to..."
"I'm sorry, Clark," she interrupted. "I know I said we'd talk right after school, but I can't. Not right now."
"Why, what?" Pete asked as he sauntered up next to him. "And who, when, where and how?"
Chloe glared at him. "Very funny."
"I thought so," Pete grinned. "So, what's up?"
Clark could see Chloe's shoulders tense. As her gaze slid away from Pete, she shifted from foot to foot. "Oh I, uh, was just telling Clark about this interview I set up last week. I completely forgot about it. If I don't do it today, who knows when I'll get another chance. And I worked too hard to get this far to blow it now, you know? So, I'll see you guys later, `kay?" Flashing them a grin, she turned and disappeared down the hall.
For one long moment, the two young men stood in stunned silence.
"Okay." Pete scratched his head. "What was that all about?"
Clark shrugged. "I have no idea. But it looks like Chloe's back to normal."
"Yeah. She's been doing a pretty good zombie impersonation the past few days. But, whatever was wrong seems to be okay now."
Without comment, Clark started for his locker. He'd forgotten that Pete had been as worried about Chloe as he had. They'd even talked about it, trying to figure out what might be bothering their friend.
Well, now Clark knew. And he couldn't say.
Clark opened his locker. It looked like telling Chloe the truth would have to wait a bit longer.
The Talon wasn't too busy today, which suited Clark just fine. Things were crowded enough inside his head as it was.
As he dropped onto a stool, he let out a weary sigh.
"Hey, Clark!" said Lana Lang as she appeared, holding a coffee pot. "What can I get you?"
As usual, seeing Lana's smile was enough to lift his spirits. Clark straightened in his seat, and offered her a smile of his own. "Hey, Lana. I'll take a coffee, I guess."
"Coming right up." She produced a cup from under the counter and began to pour. "So, any new developments in the life of Clark Kent?"
Well, Clark thought, I just found out one of my best friends can't die, and I'm trying to find her so I can tell her I'm an alien. I'd say that's pretty new.
Out loud, he said, "No new developments. Although the mystery meat they served in the caff this afternoon was pretty interesting."
"So, you saw it move too, huh?" Lana grinned.
"It wouldn't have surprised me." Clark grimaced. "Actually, I came here looking for Chloe. She went off to give some interview, and I thought she might drop by here afterwards."
Lana frowned. "I don't think so. When I saw her, she said she'd probably head straight home."
As Lana drifted off to serve a new group of customers, Clark stared into his coffee cup. It was kind of funny, actually. The one person he'd been sure would jump all over his secret the first chance she got, and he couldn't find her to tell her.
Startled, Clark spun around. "Lex! Um, hi."
Lex Luthor offered a faint smile. "You looked like you were a million miles away. I almost thought twice about bringing you back down to Earth."
"Yeah," Clark admitted. "I kind of have something on my mind."
"Oh?" Pushing his hands into his pockets, Lex nodded. His gaze became sharp, searching. A person could almost mistake it for mild curiosity...if they didn't know him better. "So, is it something you want to talk about?"
Clark shook his head. "Not really."
After a lengthy pause, Lex nodded. "Of course you don't," he said with a resigned smile. "Clark Kent. Man of Mystery."
Chagrined, Clark ducked his head. It looked like he now had two secrets to keep. Because his life wasn't complicated enough.
Lex sat on the seat next to Clark's. "I saw something very interesting yesterday." He raised a hand to signal the girl behind the counter. Within seconds, his usual was sitting on the counter in front of him.
Clark wondered what Lex would say. The older man's definition of `interesting' was sometimes a lot different from other people's.
"Yesterday, I saw Chloe Sullivan in a car with a man," Lex continued. "A man I recognized."
Clark nearly choked on the sip of coffee he'd just taken. As it was, he had to clear his throat several times.
Merrick, Clark thought. Lex must've seen Chloe with that Merrick guy.
Lex nodded. "His name is William Merrick, if I remember correctly. He's a freelancer--highly paid, I might add--who did some security work for an acquaintance of mine."
Clark took in that tidbit of information. Merrick was one of the things he'd meant to ask Chloe about. And if Lex could tell him something now....
"So, you know him?" he asked.
Lex shrugged. "Not really. I only met him once. He seemed much too cheerful for the kind of work he'd been hired for. Until I saw his eyes."
Clark frowned. "His eyes?"
"They're the windows to the soul, Clark. I learned that looking into my father's for the past 21 years." There was a bitter twist to Lex's smile. "Looking into William Merrick's eyes, I saw a very dangerous man. Well, to those who pose a threat to his clients, at least."
Clark felt his heart sink. He wasn't liking the sound of this.
"But I have to wonder," Lex continued speculatively. "What's a man like that doing in a town like Smallville? And how does he know Chloe Sullivan?"
"Hmmm," Clark mumbled noncommittally. Now, finding Chloe was even more important than it had before.
Clark was about to ring the Sullivan's doorbell when he heard shouting coming from inside.
Opening the door (which wasn't locked, and Chloe's dad would kill her if he ever found out), Clark hurried into the house. Following the voice, he ran to the kitchen.
Chloe was there, alone. She stood close to the entrance, her back to the door. Holding the handle of a large butcher's knife in both hands, she brandished it like it was some kind of sword.
"So, thought you could get the drop on me, huh?" she was saying...to thin air. "Well, ha! Think again, pal. The fact that you're 6 foot 5 and nearly 300 pounds doesn't mean a thing to me. I've faced Immortals way scarier than you and lived to tell the tale."
Clark stood motionless in the doorway, an embarrassed heat climbing up his neck. He knew Chloe would be mortified if she knew he was seeing this. He should probably tiptoe back out the front door and pretend it never happened.
But, instead, he stood there and watched Chloe play...whatever game she was playing with her imaginary friend.
"A ha!" Chloe exclaimed. "You've heard of me? Knew you couldn't take me without a little back up? Brought a little help along, did you?" She laughed confidently. "Well, you know what they say. The more the merrier!"
Without warning, she spun around.
"Ha!" she exclaimed, as she thrust the knife forward...
Right into Clark's stomach.
For one long moment, nothing moved in the Sullivan kitchen. And then...
"Oh, my God!" Chloe exclaimed. She released the knife, and it clattered to the floor. Hands pressed over her mouth, she stared at Clark with horrified eyes. "Oh, God!"
Clark frowned down at his shirt which was now sported a ragged gash. And this was one of his favorites, too.
"Okay, Clark," Chloe said, still frantic. She grabbed his arms. "Stay calm. You're going to be okay. Just lie down." She gave him a push, and didn't seem to notice when he didn't budge. "And don't panic. And firmly apply pressure to the wound to stop the bleeding..."
Finally, when she ran out of steam, she looked--really looked--at Clark's stomach for the first time. Head tilting to one side, she took a step back.
"Clark? Where's the bleeding?" she asked. Her gaze fall to the butcher's knife. Which was lying at their feet, blade bent nearly in half.
When she turned to stare at him, Clark offered her a weak, chagrined smile.
"Um, Chloe. There's something I've been meaning to tell you."
"I should strangle you, Clark Kent!" Chloe exclaimed. "Of course, you being invincible and all, it would be a waste of a good, homicidal rage. But it would make me feel better."
Invincible or not, Clark scooted an inch or two down on the sofa. A little space couldn't hurt.
"Thanks to your little stunts, I thought I was going nuts!" Chloe continued, hands gesturing wildly. "I mean, you're there. And I turn my back for a second, and you're gone! I thought I was having blackouts or something."
"Sorry," Clark mumbled. A guilty flush stained his cheeks. "But I only did it when there was an emergency. I swear."
"Hmmph!" Chloe rolled her eyes. "You just better hope I don't find out differently."
Cautiously, Clark studied his friend, and tried to decide how she was really taking it.
Well, she'd gone pale during the whole "stabbing" incident. And, when he'd explained why he wasn't lying on her kitchen floor bleeding to death, she'd gone a few paler shades of...pale. And her eyes were a little wider than usual.
But she seemed to be trying not to freak. In Clark's opinion, the fact that she'd started to yell at him was a good sign.
"So," Chloe said after a pause. "You're from..." And she pointed up towards the ceiling.
"Yeah. At least, that's what my parents say. I don't actually remember. And, well, I saw the ship. So..."
For several long moments, she just stared at him, her face blank of any expression. She did it for so long, Clark stared to feel self-conscious. Shoulders hunched, he almost reached up to see if there was anything on his face.
"Wow," Chloe finally said. And a slow smile lit up her face. "That is so cool."
Clark let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding, and relaxed into the sofa cushions.
"And you never bothered to tell me," Chloe continued as her smile melted into a thoughtful frown.
Clark winced. Maybe he'd relaxed too soon. "Well, Chloe, it's not the kind of thing you just..."
"But you told Pete," she interrupted. Her eyes narrowed. Her voice was disturbingly quiet.
Clark swallowed. Yeah. He'd relaxed way too soon.
"I sort of had to tell Pete," he explained. "I mean, he found my spaceship."
"Something you both lied to me about."
She wasn't pale anymore. In fact, her cheeks had gotten pretty rosy.
Clark braced himself, waiting for Chloe to lose her temper. And he couldn't blame her, could he? Yes, he'd had his reasons for keeping his secret a secret. And, with time, she might be able to understand them, just like Pete had. But, until then, she'd probably be able to think only one thing. That he hadn't trusted her. That he'd lied to her for all of these years, and...
"Oh, well," Chloe sighed. Whatever anger she'd felt drained out of her. "I guess I can't exactly get mad about it, can I?"
Clark was so sure of what was going to happen, it took a minute for his brain to absorb what did happened. Blinking owlishly, he stared at her. "Huh?"
"It would be like the pot calling the kettle `black'. You know?" She shrugged. "After all, I wasn't going to tell you I was an Immortal, either."
"You what?" Clark exclaimed. He looked at her like she'd lost her mind. "What do you mean, you weren't going to tell me?"
Surprised by his reaction, Chloe reared back a little. "I mean, I wasn't going to tell you. Like you said, it's not the kind of thing you just..."
"You can't be serious," Clark interrupted. "How could you not tell me?"
Chloe stared at him, one eyebrow raised in disbelief. And, as Clark realized what he'd said--and how it could apply to both occupants of the room--he started to back pedal. "What I mean is, as your friend, you could've trusted me to..."
The eyebrow went a fraction of an inch higher. Only, now, it was joined by a smirk.
Clark's face turned red with embarrassment. "All I'm trying to say is, I don't see why you thought you had to hide..." Taking a deep breath, he sighed in defeat. "I don't think there's any way for me to win here."
"Nope," Chloe cheerfully agreed. "But you can keep trying. It's pretty entertaining."
Clark grinned, more with relief than anything else. He'd told her the truth. Chloe knew his secret. And she seemed to be okay.
And, being Chloe, curious. Knowing how long one of her question-and-answer sessions could be, Clark begged for snacks. And she broke out an impressive array of sodas, chips, and cookies (chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin).
Soon, they were lounging on the sofa, glancing occasionally at a TV show neither was really watching.
"So, what else can you do?" Chloe asked. "Besides deflect knives with your abs, bench press my sofa--which was pretty cool by the way--and run faster than a speeding bullet?"
Clark gave her a skeptical look. "Faster than a speeding bullet?"
Chloe shrugged. "It just came to me."
Smiling, Clark popped the top on a can of soda. "Well, I have heat vision. I can light a candle just by looking at it."
"Must come in handy when the power goes out." She nibbled on a nacho chip. "That's one of your new powers, right?"
"Yeah," Clark agreed. Not that he'd tell her how that particular ability first activated. There were some things you just didn't tell a girl. Even if she was your best friend. "Oh, and I can see..." he started to say. Then, he stumbled to an abrupt halt.
He'd just remembered some of the things he'd...uh, seen using his X-ray vision. Not that he was himself at the time. But, if Chloe asked, he doubted he'd be able to lie about it convincingly. And of course she would ask. Anyone who found out their friend could see through stuff--like clothes--was gonna ask!
"What?" Chloe finally demanded. "You can see what?"
"Uh, a long way off," he said, unable to look her in the eye. "I can see a lot farther than most people."
"Oh. Well, that's cool. You'll never have to wear glasses then, huh?"
Clark scoffed at the idea. "I really doubt it."
He told her about some of the `adventures' he'd had in the past year and a half. Including the whole truth about some of the times he'd rescued her.
"Some reporter I am," she snorted. "Not that I didn't notice something weird was going on with you. But, instead of investigating, asking probing questions, I always explained it away. Or believed one of you're really lame excuses."
"Hey!" Clark exclaimed. He'd thought some of his excuses were pretty good. He could think fast on his feet when he had to. Most of the time.
But, before Clark could defend his skills of deception, the `phone rang. As Chloe went to answer, Clark dug into a bag of cookies. All that talking made a guy hungry.
"Merrick, hey!" he heard Chloe say.
His stomach forgotten for the moment, Clark tuned in to her half of the conversation.
"Yeah...okay....Well, yeah. Yeah, right." She sent Clark an uneasy look. "Yeah, whenever...Tomorrow it is, then." She took a deep breath and rolled her eyes. "No, I'm not going to show up in a hot pink leotard and turquoise leg warmers. Where do you get this... Alright!" Exasperated, she threw up one hand. "I'll be there tomorrow, and on time. Promise...Okay. `Bye."
Chloe hung up the `phone and returned to the sofa. "I mean, do I look like the pink leotard type?"
"Lex knows Merrick," Clark blurted out. He didn't mean to. He'd tried to find a subtle way to approach the subject. But, before he knew it, his mouth had opened, and there it was.
Chloe was caught off guard. "Huh?"
Chagrined, Clark hesitantly continued. "I just found out earlier today. Lex said he saw you two together, and he recognized Merrick."
"Oh. Well." Chloe frowned, her eyes distant and thoughtful. "He never mentioned knowing Lex. Of course, he's not really Mr. Let's Share. But, with the Luthors being Smallville's most famous residents, you'd think he would have said something."
"Maybe `knows' is too strong a word," Clark hedged. "They only met once, so he might not remember."
Chloe snorted. "Who can forget Lex?"
Nodding in agreement, Clark continued. "Anyway, Merrick was doing some security work for one of Lex's acquaintances." He gave her a cautious glance. "Lex said Merrick seemed kind of...dangerous."
"Lex probably thinks everyone is dangerous in one way or another." She gave him a straightforward look. "And I know there's another side to Merrick. There has to be in order for him to have survived for over 100 years."
Clark gave her a perplexed look. "I thought you said he was Immortal, like you. If he can't die, what was there for him to survive from?"
For a few seconds, Chloe just stared at him, uncertainty plain in her eyes. She ran her hands up and down her jean-clad legs, a nervous gesture he had seen before. Then, suddenly, she stood up.
"Come on, Clark. Let's go for a walk."
Stepping around the toy truck someone had left in the middle of the sidewalk, Chloe glanced at Clark out of the corner of her eye. Looking at him made her heart pound in her chest. And not in the usual way.
This was Clark. The guy who blushed at the drop of a hat. The guy who loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The guy who still, on occasion, tripped over his own feet for no good reason.
How could he possibly be this physically superior being who hailed from some far-off planet in a distant galaxy?
She should probably be scared. Instead, she felt amazed. Astounded. In awe.
And she felt this incredible urge to say "Wow," over and over and over again.
But she remembered how she'd felt when she told Clark her secret. The fact that he'd seemed to take it in stride--and now she knew why--had been a huge relief. She figured the least she could do was try to return the favor.
Besides, they both had other things on their minds.
"Let me get this straight," Clark began, "This energy called the Quickening is what makes you Immortal. And, if another Immortal cuts off your head, they absorb your Quickening, which makes them stronger."
"Pretty much," Chloe agreed, watching for his reaction. Maybe it wasn't a spaceship hidden in the storm cellar, but what she was telling him had to be pretty freaky.
And he did look kind of freaked.
"And," he continued, "the only way to kill an Immortal is to chop of their head. And there are Immortals running around taking other Immortals' heads so they can get this Quickening stuff."
"Uh, yeah. That's the Cliff's Notes version."
Taking a few seconds to take that in, Clark looked completely mystified. "Why?"
"It's called the Game," Chloe's began. "See, there's this legend. One day, at the time of the Gathering, whatever Immortals are still wandering around will be mystically drawn to the same place. They'll fight each other, one-on-one, until there's only one left. And the one who's left will win the Prize. They will absorb the strength, knowledge and power of every Immortal who ever lived, which would make them the strongest person in the history of, well, history."
Clark had this sour expression on his face. It was a mix between disbelief and revulsion.
"I know," Chloe sighed. "It sounds crazy. In fact, a lot of Immortals don't believe it. Merrick thinks it's just a myth that evolved back in the day. You know, like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. Or the story of Johnny Appleseed, which grew out of something that was true.
"Thing is, a lot of Immortals do believe in the Prize. They want to get as many Quickening as they can to prepare for the Gathering. So they'll be strong enough to win. And even if a headhunter doesn't believe in the Prize..." Chloe's shrug was fatalistic. "Well, taking Quickenings can almost be addicting. Merrick says it's a pretty big rush. Bigger than any drug." Chloe shook her head regretfully. "This is such a great story. And I can't write about it."
"Wait a minute!" Clark came to an abrupt stop. "You don't have to fight these `headhunter' guys, right? I mean, if they don't know you're an Immortal..."
"Well, that's the thing," Chloe interrupted with a weak smile. "Immortals can sense each other. We feel this Buzz that lets us know another of our kind is nearby. So, if I run into an Immortal, they're going to know I'm one too. And, if they're a headhunter, I have to know how to..."
The sound of the familiar voice made Chloe groan. Eyes a little desperate, she turned to Clark. "Is invisibility one of your powers? And, if I stand really close to you, can I be invisible too?"
Clark gave her a confused frown. "Uh, no. And no."
"Crap," Chloe hissed. Sighing, she turned.
Megan Goresman was bounding towards her like an over-eager puppy, bright red curls bouncing cheerfully. Megan--dedicated gossip and full-time snoop--thought that, because Chloe wanted to be a reporter, she wanted to know everything about everything that happened anywhere in Smallville. The last big "news" she'd told Chloe was that she'd seen a neighbor buying hair color at a local grocery store. Which proved the woman wasn't a natural blond.
Chloe still didn't know what she was supposed to do with that bit of information.
"Chloe!" Megan called again, still a few yards away. "You'll never guess what happened!"
That was how Megan started every conversation. It was probably the first thing she said when her mom woke her up for school in the morning.
"What happened?" Chloe reluctantly asked.
As Megan arrived, she seemed to realize Chloe wasn't alone. Seeing Clark, her eyes grew wide, her mouth formed into an O. Looking up at him from her petite, 5 foot 1, her green eyes went distant and dreamy.
"Hi, Clark," she simpered with a coy smile.
Clark shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Uh, hi."
Chloe rolled her eyes. She was used to girls reacting this way to Clark. And, she hated to admit it, but she'd probably reacted this way herself a time or two.
"Megan, tell me everything!" Chloe exclaimed.
The enthusiastic invitation to talk was all it took to snap Megan out of her trance. Giving her head a hard shake, she turned her attention back to Chloe.
"You won't believe what happened to Sam Krager," Megan said, eyes sparkling.
Chloe froze, the name making her heart pound in her chest. As memories of yesterday's accident assailed her, a shiver raced up her spine.
Clark must've noticed the change in her. He watched her with worried eyes. "Chlo. What is it?"
Ignoring Clark, Chloe took a step closer to Megan. "What happened to him?"
"Well," the girl began. "He and my dad work at the same place, you know. Well, Sam didn't come to work this morning, and he wasn't answering his `phone. So, on his lunch break, my dad went to his house. And guess what he found! Mr. Krager was lying on the floor, all bloody and bruised." Stepping closer, Megan lowered her voice, as if there was someone else around to hear. "He fell down the stairs."
Another shiver raced up Chloe's spine, memories of her first death still fresh. It seemed kind of ironic that the man who almost killed her the second time had also fallen down a flight of stairs.
"My dad said he had obviously been drinking again," Megan continued. "He was probably coming down the stairs when he lost his balance."
Speechless, Chloe just shook her head. "Wow."
"Is he okay?" Clark asked.
Megan turned to him, a sappy grin spreading across her face. Which, considering what she had to say, seemed kind of surreal. "He has a concussion, some broken ribs, and a broken wrist. And his face is all banged up. But he'll be fine. Well, until his wife gets home and finds out he's been drinking again. Then, it's gonna hit the fan!" The last was said way too cheerfully. Tearing her eyes away from Clark, she looked at Chloe. "Well, gotta go. Clarinet recital!" Giving Clark one final, simpering glance, she turned and bounced away as energetically as she'd arrived.
Shaking her head, Chloe stared after her. "Wow," she said. "Clark, do you believe in poetic justice?"
He seemed surprised by the question. "I don't know. Why?"
"Sam Krager is the guy who ran me down."
Clark's eyes doubled in size. "Oh."
"Yeah. I mean, not that I'm exactly happy about the guy falling down and going boom." She paused to think about it for a second. "Well, not too happy about it. But it seems kind of fair, you know." She looked towards the sky. "Like someone up there knew I couldn't exactly turn him in, so they decided to punish him for me."
"Yeah, someone up there and a bottle of Jack Daniels."
Stunned, Chloe turned to stare at him. "Clark! Was that cynicism?"
Clark grinned proudly. "Yeah. I think I've been hanging around you and Lex too long."
Later, in Metropolis
She was such a pretty little thing.
Sitting back in his seat, one finger stirring his scalding hot coffee, he watched her. Sitting in the diner, surrounded by her friends, Debra Switz just seemed to...sparkle. Her chin-length, strawberry blond hair glowed under the weak, fluorescent lighting. Her smile was electric, illuminating the room.
Pretty didn't do her justice. She was...delicious.
Grinning at his own thoughts, he took a sip of his coffee. She was so full of life and energy. Gesturing wildly as she talked. So excited about her topic.
The others at her table paled in comparison.
Finally, Debra stood, picking up a backpack from the floor. One of the others--a boy from one of her classes at Metropolis U--also stood. Probably offered to walk her to her car. But she shook her head.
*"That'*s okay,*"* he imagined her saying. *"It's not that far. I'll be fine."*
So strong. So independent.
Standing from his own table, he laid some money (to pay for the coffee, plus a generous tip) next to the coffee cup. Then, whistling a jaunty tune, he followed Debra Switz out of the diner.
One month later.
"Ow!" Chloe cried. The sword fell out of her hand, clanging as it hit the concrete floor. Staggering back a step, she pressed her hand to the slash in her right bicep. Within seconds, the warmth of her own blood covered her fingers.
"Tsk, tsk, Chloe," Merrick gave his sword a twirl. "You zigged when you should have zagged."
"Yeah," was all she could manage to say. That blissful moment before her body realized what happened had passed. Now, there was pain. Like someone put a giant razor on her upper arm...then hit it with a sledgehammer.
But she wasn't given much time to think about that, because Merrick kept coming.
Chloe pushed the pain aside. It was a skill she'd learned well after getting poked, slashed and stabbed more than once in the past month. Not to mention the broken nose, sprained ankle, bruised ribs, etcetera, etcetera.
Unable to pick up her own sword, she fell into a fighting stance; hands upraised, body turned to one side. Then she watched, and waited for her teacher's next move.
Merrick swung, the sword whispering as it cut through the air. Chloe jumped back, and it missed slashing her chest open by a fraction of an inch.
His next swing was higher. Instinctively, Chloe ducked, causing the blade to pass harmlessly over her head.
Merrick turned with the momentum of the swing. At the end of his spin, he lashed out. Before Chloe could straighten out of her duck, or stumble away from what she saw coming, his foot slammed into her left shoulder.
Chloe landed on her back, the impact jarring every bone in her body. As the air rushed out of her lungs, she made a sound much like a squeak toy that had been stomped on.
For one long moment, silence filled the small warehouse. Then, another moment passed. And another...
Stepping up to Chloe's side, Merrick frowned down at her. "Will you be getting up some time today?"
Folding her hands across her stomach, Chloe took a deep breath--once she was able to breathe--and let her body relax. Never had being still felt so good. "Getting up?" she mused, pretending to give the matter some thought. "No, I don't think so. I'm really pretty comfortable down here. Thanks anyway." Her eyes drifted to a point above Merrick's head. "Oooh, look at the pretty ceiling."
Smiling, Merrick held out his hand. "Up we go!" he said jovially.
Chloe hesitated, trying to decide which hand to use. Since the arm Merrick cut hurt a little less than the one he'd kicked, she went with the right. Taking Merrick's hand, she allowed herself to be pulled into a sitting position.
"Ow!" she cried, as the slash started to sting more.
"You're an Immortal," Merrick reminded her. "You'll be healed by tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, but it hurts today!" As Merrick hauled her up to her feet, she hissed. Teeth clenched, she grumbled, "Did I mention `Ow'?"
"Once or twice." Still holding her hand, he studied the slash. "Let's have a look, shall we?"
Chloe looked away. She'd learned, from prior experience, that seeing her own gaping wounds wasn't a lot of fun.
Still, she'd felt worse, especially in the beginning. Four weeks of training had raised her tolerance for pain. Now, when Merrick punched her in the face, she only got a little dizzy. Most of the time.
And Merrick didn't pull those punches, either. No, sir! As he liked to say, she was an Immortal. She'd heal.
She hated to admit it, but she was probably learning faster because he didn't hold back. Maybe she couldn't take Jackie Chan, but there were a few jerks at school who...
"Well, that's not too bad, is it?" Merrick squinted at her cut. "The bleeding's already slowed to a trickle. Still, I'll ready the first aid kit while you freshen up."
With a weak nod, Chloe limped towards the stairs. On the upper level of the warehouse, there was a catwalk that over-looked the main floor. Chloe had thought the offices up there would go unused. Imagine her surprise when Merrick moved into them. But it made sense. This way, he didn't have to pay for a room at the Smallville Inn.
Chloe entered the manager's office-slash-Merrick's bedroom. Walking past the cot, she went into the bathroom.
As Chloe rinsed the blood from her hands and arm, red tinted water turned the porcelain sink pink. She was kind of proud of how casually she did this kind of thing now. When she cut her finger while chopping carrots a few months back, it had been an event. She screamed. She moaned. She got dizzy at the sight of her own blood. She glared at the ER doctor, who said she didn't need stitches, and hinted that she'd overreacted.
Now, it was like bleeding was no big deal.
"How weird is my life?" she muttered as she turned of the water. Hands dripping, she reached for the roll of paper towels Merrick kept in the bathroom. Only to find there weren't any. "Great."
Hands held up like a surgeon's, Chloe went out into the office. Looking around, she saw a towel on the chair Merrick used as a night table. As she picked the towel up, she found a book sitting underneath.
Curious, as always, Chloe picked the dog-eared, paperback copy of Wuthering Heights. She was surprised this was the kind of thing Merrick read. Then again, it was written only about twenty years before he was born. Maybe reading about those times made him feel nostalgic or something.
Shrugging, Chloe opened the book cover and read what was written on the inside.
*Property of: Amanda Beardsley (but, you can keep it...if you promise to read it!)*
Smiling at the words the previous owner wrote, Chloe returned the book to the chair.
Merrick dressed her wound in no time at all.
"Look at that. Good as new." Enthusiastically, he rubbed his hands together. "What say we go a few more rounds?"
Groaning, Chloe let her upper body fall over onto the sofa.
Merrick grinned. "Or, we could call it a day."
"That one!" Chloe exclaimed as she sat back up. "I want that one! Enough already. My poor bruises have bruises." Heck, if she were mortal, she doubted she'd be able to move for a couple of days at least. But, being Immortal, she'd wake up tomorrow morning with nary a twinge.
Chuckling, Merrick went over to the card table and rifled through his tote bag. Without warning, he tossed a bottle of water Chloe's way.
Forgetting she didn't intend to move for several hours, Chloe snatched it out of the air, hissing when the pain shot down her arm. Damn her newly sharpened reflexes!
"That's the way!" Merrick said with pride.
"Whoopee," Chloe grumbled as she twisted the top off of the bottle.
Merrick sat in a chair across from her. His ever-present smile seemed almost wistful. "You might hate it now, but there's something very...innocent and pure about this time. Between the moment when you become Immortal, and the moment when you take your first head. Once you get pulled into the Game, you'll start to miss these moments."
Chloe gave him a doubtful look. "Hmmm, let me see. What will I miss? Getting hit and kicked and tripped. Getting nicked by your sword. The sight of my own blood. The pretty bruises. Yeah, I'll cry myself to sleep every night missing all that." Nodding, she took a sip of water.
"I'm sure you will," Merrick said. "You're probably depressed just thinking about it even now. But this should cheer you up. I've decided to train one or two extra hours every day next week."
Chloe groaned again.
Merrick grinned. "I knew that would lift your spirits!"
"I'm getting out of here," the young girl said. Aches and pains forgotten, she jumped to her feet. "Any more `cheering up' from you, and I'll need an anti-depressant."
Lex Luthor studied the customers who were crammed into the Talon. There wasn't a free table to be had. As soon as one group left, there was another there to take their place.
In contrast, when he drove by the Beanery, the former hot spot was almost empty.
Lex nodded in satisfaction. True, he considered the Talon more Lana's than his. He was happy being a silent partner. And his fortune hardly rested on the coffee house's success. But he was a competitive man. And if there was a competition between the establishment he had a stake in and one he didn't, he wanted his to be on top.
As he lifted his cup of coffee, he spotted a familiar face coming through the crowd.
"Clark. Riding solo tonight?"
"Hey, Lex," Clark said. He sat down at the table. "And I guess so. Lana's working." He looked towards the counter, where Lana Lang was being run off of her feet. And looked pretty happy about it. "Pete's been grounded. And Chloe...um." His eyes darted away and back so fast, most people would have missed it. "I guess she's probably working on The Torch."
Lex's antenna went up. Clark Kent had a lousy poker face. And, to Lex Luthor, gauging what people were thinking from their expression, the tone of their voice, the look in their eye, was second nature. So, he almost always knew when Clark was being evasive. When he was hiding something.
Of course, Lex rarely knew what his friend was being evasive about, which was incredibly frustrating at times.
But, in this case, it wasn't too hard to figure out. Idly curious, Lex wondered where Chloe Sullivan actually was. Tracking a lead for her next exclusive? Spending time with the mysterious Merrick?
"So, Lex," Clark began, interrupting Lex's thoughts. "Mom says your dad's leaving town on Monday."
Lex didn't even try to contain his pleased smile. "Yeah. He's checking into a clinic for another full battery of tests. As you might imagine, dear old dad is impatient to find some way to restore his eyesight sooner rather than later." He raised his cup in a toast. "Let's hope they succeed."
Clark's eyes widened, as if he was surprised by Lex's sincerity.
"Strange, isn't it," Lex agreed. "I'd always thought I'd enjoy seeing him this vulnerable. But one-upping him when he's not at full strength, while somewhat enjoyable, just isn't as satisfying."
"I guess not," Clark said. And, by the frown crinkling his brow, he was struggling to understand. Clark Kent had probably never wanted to see Jonathan Kent weak, vulnerable. Broken. Clark didn't want to beat his dad at anything more serious than a game of checkers.
"Besides," Lex continued, "I need the break. My father's version of `bonding' is starting to get to me."
"Laugh all you like," Lex said. "But there's something you should know. Lionel wants to get to know you better."
Clark's laughter turned into an appalled gasp. "What? Me? Why?" he exclaimed.
"I have no idea. But don't be surprised if you get an invite to a family dinner sometime in the near future." As he watched the color drain from Clark's face, Lex allowed himself a small, malicious smirk. Sometimes revenge, no matter how small, was sweet.
Lex looked up and saw Chloe Sullivan approaching the table.
"Chloe!" Clark exclaimed. He sounded surprised. "Hi."
"Miss Sullivan," Lex said. Frowning, he studied the young woman's gait. She seemed to be...limping.
Clark noticed, too. He stared openly at his friend's feet. "I thought you said you weren't coming tonight," he muttered.
"I wasn't," Chloe said. She unzipped her jacket, but didn't take it off. "But I've been all work and little play lately."
"Working on your next expos?" Lex asked.
"Huh?" For a moment, the young woman looked at him like he was speaking in a forgotten language. Then... "Oh! Yeah! That's me. Always looking for a story. But, right now, I'd sell the Pulitzer I don't have yet for a coffee." And she turned towards the counter.
"Hey, I'll get it for you." Jumping out of his seat, Clark grabbed the retreating Chloe's left arm.
Chloe yelped, drawing the attention of several customers. Grimacing in obvious pain, she snatched away from Clark's grasp.
Clark took a startled step back. "What? Did I..."
"No, it wasn't you," Chloe said. Casting a wary glance in Lex's direction, she laughed weakly. "I kinda walked into a door this morning. I know. Stupid." Left arm held close to her body, she gently wrapped one hand around her forearm. "It's still sore, that's all." Once again, she turned towards the counter. "Be right back."
Clark watched her limp away with worried eyes.
And Lex wondered if Chloe knew her poker face was almost as bad as Clark's.
As Clark returned to his seat, Lex studied his friend. A concerned frown lingered on the young man's face for several minutes. And Lex's practiced eye detected another emotion simmering under the surface.
"Strange," Lex said, measuring his words carefully. "Miss Sullivan never struck me as the clumsy type."
Clark's expression darkened as he stared down at the table. "She isn't. I mean, she usually isn't." For several moments, some inner struggle played out on the young man's face. Then, seeming to come to a decision, he looked up. "Um, Lex. You...you said you might be able to find out more about Merrick?"
Lex's brows rose in surprise. "I did. But you asked me not to."
"I know," Clark sighed, with obvious regret.
"Fortunately," Lex continued. "I recently did some business with the acquaintance Merrick worked for in the past. And his name...came up during one of our conversations."
Clark gave Lex a disapproving look. No doubt he knew that, if Merrick's name had `come up', it was because Lex wanted it to.
But the disapproval soon gave way to hope. "What did he say?"
Smirking just a little, Lex looked down at his folded hands. "It seems Pierce Woodrose hired Merrick for another job. But he pulled out suddenly. Just a few days before I saw him here in Smallville with Chloe, as a matter of fact."
Clark nodded, as if that information fit with something he already knew.
"I didn't learn much beyond that," Lex continued. "But I'm sure I could find out more."
The offer seemed to hang in the air between them for one long, silent moment.
"I don't know," Clark said, his uncertainty obvious. "Chloe asked me not to..."
"Alright," the young lady in question said, interrupting their conversation. She set a cup of coffee on the table. "What are we talking about?"
"I was just telling Clark my dad's leaving town on Monday," Lex answered smoothly.
Luckily, Chloe wasn't looking at Clark at that moment, or she would've seen his eyes widen in surprise over what Lex said. Instead, the girl was focusing all of her attention on just sitting down.
Lex watched with interest as she carefully lowered herself into her seat, hissing softly all the way. Finally seated, she let out a sigh of relief. Then, as her right hand reached for her coffee, she winced, eyes sparkling with pain.
And Lex started to wonder what he would see if she took her jacket off.
"Did you really walk into a door?" Clark asked as he followed Chloe to her car.
"What?" Chloe glared at him. "Of course not! I mean, I've had my klutz moments, but I have never walked into a door. Well, not lately, anyway."
"So, what's with the arm?" he asked. "And why are you limping?"
"Oh, that. Merrick got a little carried away with the lesson today, that's all." Walking around to the drivers side, she took out her keys. "I'll be fine in the morning."
Clark studied her across the roof of the car. He understood that Chloe had to learn to fight. He understood it, but he didn't have to like it. Especially since, every time he saw Chloe lately, she was hurt in one way or another. He still vividly remembered her broken nose. Her swollen face and two blackened eyes.
She was able to hide her other injuries from her dad. But there was no hiding that. So, she and Clark cooked up this story about working late on a big school project that was due the next day. Clark's mom--reluctantly--called Mr. Sullivan and asked if she could stay at the farm rather than drive home in the middle of the night.
And, by the time Chloe came down to breakfast the next morning, it was like her nose had never been broken. The swelling was gone, and so were the black circles around her eyes.
Within days, she seemed to have put the entire thing out of her mind. But Clark couldn't. He hated seeing anyone get hurt. Especially if that someone was his best friend.
"Chloe, I just..." Sighing, he folded his arms across the top of her car. "Couldn't you ask him to take it easy, or something?"
She shook her head. "I know it seems pretty harsh, Clark. And definitely feels harsh." She grimaced as she shrugged one shoulder. "But I need to learn to defend myself as soon as I can. And I'm learning much faster this way than I would if Merrick held back." She gave him a reassuring smile. "It's okay. Trust me."
Clark sighed again. That was what she always said. And he seemed to have no choice but to agree.
"Now, I'm gonna go crash," Chloe said. Carefully, she got into the car. Then, leaning towards the open passenger window, she gave him a smile and a wave. "See you tomorrow."
As he watched the car disappear down the street, Clark's mind raced. The truth was, he'd liked Merrick...the three times he'd met the man in the past month. The guy seemed to have no interest in interacting with anyone in Smallville but Chloe. Which was probably some weird Immortal thing or something.
But the fact that Merrick was likeable didn't counteract seeing Chloe battered and bruised almost every day for the past four weeks.
Still, Chloe seemed okay with his rigorous training methods. And, until that changed, there really wasn't anything Clark could do.
*Except take Lex up on his offer,* a little voice in his head whispered.
But Chloe had asked him not to go digging for information about her mentor. And, after the way he reacted when he found out she was still looking into his adoption after he asked her not to, he couldn't turn around and do the same thing.
Shaking his head helplessly, Clark went back into the Talon.
Easing into bed, Chloe let out a long sigh of contentment. The thought of lying still for eight hours straight was nothing short of bliss. Pure, heavenly bliss. Of course, finding a position that was comfortable for both of her arms proved was a challenge, but she managed.
Moaning softly, Chloe picked up the remote control. The TV came on right in the middle of a news report.
*...month had passed since the murder of 19 year-old Debra Switz, and things had almost returned to normal on the campus of Metropolis University. But, with the discovery of a fourth victim, 20 year-old Amanda Beardsly, the nightmare seems to be far from over.*
Authorities say this latest in a string of apparent serial killings...
Chloe didn't hear the rest. She couldn't. She was deafened by the sound of her heart pounding in her ears.
Slowly, she sat up in her bed. She watched with horrified eyes as the pictures flashed across her TV screen. Four pretty young women. All with blond hair and light eyes. All average height or smaller.
As the name of the latest victim echoed through her mind, Chloe pressed one trembling hand over her mouth. "Oh my God."
Pushing up the sleeve of her short-sleeved pajama top, Chloe pealed back the bandage on her right forearm. The sword slash from this afternoon's training session was already gone.
"Thought so," she muttered. As she rubbed the smooth skin where the scar should have been, it occurred to her that she'd never have a scar again. There'd be no scabs on her knee she could point to and say, See that? I got that running from Mrs. Becker's deranged Chihuahua. She'd never again wake up in the morning, look at the paper cuts on her fingers, and feel satisfaction because she got them working on the The Torch the night before.
Shaking her head, she tossed the bloodied bandage into the kitchen's trashcan. "God, what a thing to miss."
As she poured coffee into a mug, she glanced at the microwave clock. Hard to believe it wasn't even 11 o'clock yet. As tired as she was, with everything that had happened the last few hours, it felt like it should be much later.
Still, exhausted or not, she knew she wouldn't be able to go to sleep. Not now.
Chloe returned to her bedroom, hoping she hadn't made enough noise to wake her dad. Sitting down at her desk, she squinted at the screen of her laptop. On it was another article about the Metropolis U. Murders.
The press seemed so...excited about this new serial killer. Even as they talked about how terrible it all was, they were eating it up. And, she hated to admit it but, if she were one of the reporters on the story, she'd probably be reacting exactly the same way.
The Inquisitor was the worst. They'd sensationalized the hell out of this thing. There graphic dramatizations of each murder (a mix between actual police reports, and a woman-in-jeopardy movie on Lifetime) seemed pretty popular with the public. So were the pictures splashed across the front page of every issue, which featured a dark, shadowy figure, stalking some beautiful blond with wide, frightened eyes.
The Daily Planet and The Smallville Ledger were going a classier route, mostly sticking to the facts. But even they were fascinated by the Twilight Strangler.
Chloe glanced down at her notepad. On it, she'd scribbled the dates and approximate times of all four murders. If she could find out where Merrick was on just one those nights, if she could prove it couldn't be him...
"I mean, what do I really have?" she muttered. "A name in an old book that he probably bought at a second-hand shop? Sometimes, a coincidence is just a coincidence, Chloe."
But that didn't get rid of the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It couldn't be him. He'd helped her through one of the hardest periods of her life. He'd put his own life on hold to teach her how to survive. He'd moved to Smallville for her.
He made her laugh.
Sighing, Chloe closed her eyes. It couldn't be him.
A soft knock interrupted her chaotic thoughts.
Surprised, Chloe stiffened in her seat. "Yeah?"
The door opened to reveal Lana Lang. "Hey. You're still up."
Chloe forced a smile. "So are you."
"I just got home, actually. We had a disaster at the Talon." She rolled her eyes ruefully. "It wasn't too bad, just inconvenient. Anyway, I saw the light under your door and decided to see what was up."
"Just working on a story."
Lana waited for a second, obviously expecting Chloe to fill her in on the details, the way she usually did. But, this time, an awkward silence stretched between them.
"Well, then," Lana finally said. "I, uh, guess I'll turn in. Goodnight." And the other girl started to close the door.
"Lana, wait!" Chloe said, surprising herself as much as her housemate.
Lana turned back into the room. "Yeah?"
For a moment, Chloe stared at her friend. It was just...she so needed someone to talk to. Someone to tell her she was overreacting to absolutely nothing, so why didn't she just let it go already.
But she couldn't even imagine how to start that particular conversation.
Hey, Lana. There's this guy I've been spending a lot of time with. You'*ve never met him. Anyway, this girl named Amanda Beardsley was murdered in Metropolis a few days ago, and Merrick just so happened to have her copy of * Wuthering Heights in his bedroom. What do you think it means?
Yeah, that would work.
"Chloe?" Sounding worried, Lana came further into the room. "Is something wrong?"
Chloe shook her head. "No. I just...was wondering if you'd seen my sweater. You know, the aqua blue with the scooped neck. I wanted to wear it tomorrow."
Lana gave her one of those long, Lana-looks, like she doubted that was what Chloe really meant to say. Finally, she shook her head. "Your sweater might have gotten mixed up with my stuff in the wash. I'll take a look."
Chloe waved the idea away. "Nah, it's no big deal. I was just...wondering."
"Okay. Well, good night."
As Lana left the room, Chloe took a deep breath. As she stared at the list of victims, each name seemed to stare back accusingly. Like she was doing something wrong. Or she wasn't doing enough.
Chloe glanced at her cell `phone. Maybe she should call Clark after all. He knew about her Immortality, and Merrick, and everything. Talking to him made perfect sense.
"Not yet," she said, shaking her head. "Not until I have more to go on than a name in a book."
A glimmer of gold caught Merrick's eye.
The Immortal bent down to study the object that sparkled in the weak security. It was an earring, lying there next to a streak of blood that stained the warehouse floor.
"Chloe," he muttered, and picked up the gold stud. She'd probably lost it during their sparring session this afternoon.
Merrick smiled as he remembered their conversation that first day.
"You should take off all of your jewelry before we start training," he'd said.
"Yeah, that makes sense," Chloe had snarked. "Because the first headhunter that challenges me is going to give me plenty of time to take off my bracelets, my watch, my rings, my..."
Eventually, she'd complied, taking off everything but a simple pair of stud earrings.
Except for a few minor disagreements, Chloe was an obedient pupil. That, and a fast learner. She was determined to absorb as much as she could as fast as she could. Her strength and resilience, continued to amaze him. She took every blow without a single...
Well, she did complain. Quite often, in fact. But she never quit. That afternoon, as much pain as she'd been in, as tired as she was, she would've kept going if he'd pressed the issue. She would've gritted her teeth, ignored her slashed arm and twisted ankle, and kept sparring.
Merrick placed the earring on the card table, where his student would see it when she arrived Saturday afternoon. Then, whistling softly, he jogged up the stairs to the second level.
He really hadn't been sure how this arrangement would work out. Coming here, to a small town in the middle of nowhere. Training a teen-aged girl who knew little about self-defense, let alone sword fighting. But he'd actually enjoyed himself this past month. He liked Chloe more than he would've imagined. She was smart, funny, older than her years.
She made him laugh.
True, being around her could be difficult. In the beginning, looking at her made the memories so strong, it was hard to focus on the present. But things got easier the more he came to know her. When she stopped being what she looked like, who she reminded him of, and became a person in her own right.
As Merrick stepped into the office he used as a bedroom, he stripped off his shirt. After Chloe left, he'd gone out, as he often did. Things actually did happen in Smallville, and the surrounding towns, after dark. In the past four weeks, he'd made quite new friends, frequented bars, attended parties, even gone on a few dates.
And, if there wasn't anything interesting to do around here, Metropolis wasn't that far away.
He was about to toss his shirt onto the chair when he noticed something he hadn't before. The time-worn, well-read, dime store copy of Wuthering Heights, which he remembered being under the towel, was now on top of it.
A frown crinkling his brow, Merrick picked up the book. Opening the cover, he saw a blemish on the first page. It was an oval-shaped spot, about the size of a thumbprint, darker than the rest of the page, and slightly warped. As if someone with wet hands had handled the novel.
The thumbprint could have been there all along. But he knew it hadn't been.
"Chloe," he said, remembering she'd come up here to `freshen up.' Expressionless, he ran his finger across Amanda Beardsley's name. Of course, the name probably hadn't meant a thing to his pupil.
"Thank God it's Friday!" Pete exclaimed as he sauntered into the Torch office. "No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers'..."
"Um, Pete," Clark interrupted as he followed Pete inside. "You really want to finish that?"
Pete had the good grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry. Lost my head for a second there."
Watching them from behind her desk, Chloe forced herself to smile. "You seem to be in a good mood."
"What's not to be good-moody about?" Pete asked. "I have a date tonight with one of the finest sophomores in the place."
"Really?" Chloe's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Not Venessa Dawson, the girl you've been mooning over for, like, ever." She shook her head. "When did this happen?"
"Just now," Clark answered. His grin was filled with chagrin. "Pete was gushing over how hot Venessa Dawson is, and how sweet, and how perfect." He rolled his eyes. "And how it's so unfair that she only dates upperclassmen. And I might have said something about him being too wussy to ask her out, and if he wasn't such a chicken..."
"So, Pete has a date with his dream girl because you questioned his manliness?"
"Pretty much," Pete acknowledged. He gave Clark a sincere smile. "Thanks, man. I owe you one.."
"No problem." Pushing his fingertips into his pockets, Clark turned to Chloe. "So, what are you up to tonight?"
"I'm up to working on the paper," Chloe said. "These last few weeks, I haven't been giving it the attention it deserved." Yeah, she'd gotten every issue out on time. But she knew they hadn't been up to her usual standards.
Which was why she'd told Merrick she'd have to miss today's training session to work on The Torch. And, now, she was doubly glad he'd agreed. She couldn't face him today. Not with the doubts nibbling away at her peace of mind.
"Do you want some help?" Clark asked. "I'll be happy to stick around."
"No, thanks. I think me and my baby need some alone time."
After the guys left, Chloe threw herself into work. It was guaranteed to take her mind off of whatever was bothering her. Usually. But, this time, her mind kept going back to her suspicions about her mentor. And the murders themselves.
Something about them just didn't fit.
The first victim was Rachel Halliday. Then, a little over a week later, Natalie Baer's body was found. Less than a week after that, Debra Switz was killed.
Then, an entire month passed before Amanda Beardsley was murdered.
Pausing in the middle of rearranging the layout for the front page, Chloe frowned. It wasn't unusual for serial killers to take long `breaks' between killings. But what if there was a reason for it in this case?
Like, say, the killer being out of town.
Feeling a strange combination of excitement and dread, Chloe hurried to the computer.
"Okay," she muttered, squinting at the screen. As she typed, she thought out loud. "Unsolved murders committed in towns close to Smallville, say a 15 to 30 minute drive, in the last month."
And it didn't take long to find two. One in Chaseton, the other in Hicks.
Both victims fit the profile of the Metropolis murders, from their coloring, to their ages, to their size. The only real difference was that neither girl was a student at Metropolis U.
"And that's what's throwing everybody off," she whispered. Everyone was so focused on the fact that the Twilight Strangler's known victims attended college in the city, they didn't even think two killings in two small towns hours away could be connected.
But, to Chloe, it made perfect sense.
"Dammit," Chloe cursed, heart sinking in her chest. Maybe it wasn't proof. But it certainly added fuel to the fire of her suspicions.
As she started to print the article about the Hicks murder, she felt it. Pain so sharp and sudden, it made her eyes water. An electric hum, like a thousand voices whispering in each ear.
The Buzz that meant another Immortal was nearby.
Gasping, Chloe stood up. As the Buzz got stronger, her heart started to pound. All she could think of was locking the door, keeping whoever was out there from getting inside.
Chloe almost tripped over her chair in her rush to round the desk. She'd only taken a few steps towards the door when it opened.
As Chloe stumbled to a halt, her sinking heart began to pound. Her mentor stood in the doorway, his long overcoat draped over his broad shoulders. There was a smile on his lips. But his eyes were cold and hard.
"Merrick!" Chloe exclaimed, and hoped he'd mistake her look of wide-eyed panic for surprise. "What are you doing here?"
Merrick didn't answer. Eyes narrowed, he studied her, head tilted to one side. Finally, he nodded. "You know."
Chloe put on her best confused expression. "K-know what?" she croaked. Taking a deep breath, she cleared her throat. "What do you mean?"
He leaned his shoulder against the doorframe. "I shouldn't have kept the book," he began casually. "It's what I told myself, even as I slipped it into my pocket. But I knew someone"--his flinch was almost imperceptible--"a long time ago, who loved it as much as Amanda seemed to. Keeping it somehow seemed...fitting."
Chloe couldn't breath. She gasped once, then couldn't seem to take in anymore air. The sound of her blood racing was like thunder in her ears. Yes, she'd suspected. But to hear him say it...
"I suppose I should have torn out the page with her name on it at the very least," he continued. "But leaving it in somehow seemed fitting too."
"You're a killer!" Chloe blurted, unable to keep the word from spilling out.
Merrick considered the accusation. "I am," he agreed. "My story is rather clichd, actually. Monstrously unpleasant childhood. Then betrayed by the woman I loved in the worst possible way. She stabbed me in the back. Literally." He grinned. "Luckily for me, death didn't take." Pushing away from the doorframe, he stepped into the room.
Chloe took a quick step back. "Stay the hell away from me," she hissed, a spark of anger finding it's way into the fear.
He stopped, gray eyes boring into her like lasers. "I've seen plenty of women who reminded me of her. But never an Immortal. Not until you."
"Well, goody for you," Chloe snapped. She glanced from one door to the other, wondering if she could make it to either one without him stopping her.
"But even though you remind me of her, you were never like the others." His frown was thoughtful. "You see, I never talked to any of them. Never got to know them. To me, they were her. Well, substitutes for her. But you..."
Spinning around suddenly, Chloe lunged towards her desk. And the long, sharp pair of scissors lying next to her computer.
Merrick slammed into her from behind, sending her flying forward. Chloe crashed into the desk, her momentum carrying her forward. As she slid across the desk, she took half of the stuff on top of it with her.
Tumbling over the edge, she dropped to the floor, landing in an ungainly heap.
"But that first day, in the diner," Merrick continued, as if there hadn't been any interruption. "I actually started to like you." He chuckled a little, as if unable to believe it himself.
Chloe lay still for a second, too stunned to move. Then, panting for breath, she rolled over onto her back and stared up at her mentor. He loomed over her, casting her in his shadow.
"I liked teaching you. I liked that you trusted me. In fact, soon after I arrived in Smallville, I realized I didn't want to hurt you." Then, his face went blank. All traces of humor vanished. "But we don't always get what we want, do we?"
Chloe cringed. Yes, his eyes were still hard. Still cold. But what chilled her was the sincere regret she saw in them.
"I'm sorry, Chloe," he said. Then, he reached for her.
For one moment, Chloe froze. She couldn't breathe. Couldn't move. Couldn't see anything but his eyes, glinting like silver in his expressionless face.
Then, Merrick's hands wrapped around her throat.
"No!" she gasped. Body filled with panic, she grabbed his wrists, tried in vane to pry his hands away from her neck. As it got harder to breathe, her panic grew.
"It'll be easier this way," he said. He sounded so calm as his grip tightened. "If you're already gone, you won't feel the sword."
And she could feel the weapon, hidden within the folds of his coat, pressed against her leg.
Chloe gagged, struggling for the smallest breath. As dots of light and dark flashed before her eyes, her panic grew.
Frantic, helpless, Chloe flung her right arm to the side. Her hand thrashed through the debris that littered the floor. Through papers and pencils, and...
Suddenly, her fingers brushed against something. Something hard, and solid, and heavy.
Chloe fumbled for the object, her clumsy hands almost pushing it away before she managed to grab onto it. Lungs screaming for oxygen, she lifted the weight, swung with the last of her strength.
The object slammed into Merrick's head.
Her mentor cried out in startled pain, his hold loosening just a touch.
Chloe swung again, the second blow landing close to the first.
With a grunt, Merrick fell to the side, his body slumping to the floor.
For an instant, Chloe was too dazed to move. She coughed as air flooded her lungs, seeming to scrape against her raw throat.
Finally, she pushed herself up, dizziness making her head spin. As she gathered her feet beneath her, her subconscious recognized the object she held. It was a crystal paperweight she won for one of her articles. She'd never liked it, and only kept it because it was a prize, proof that she was a good writer.
Now, the cut glass was covered with blood.
Shakily, Chloe rose to her feet. And a hand wrapped around her ankle.
One hard yank sent her crashing back to the floor. The paperweight flew out of her hands, skittering across the floor until it disappeared under the sofa.
She was trying to catch her breath when Merrick grabbed her. One hand wrapped in her hair, the other clutching her right arm, he pulled her to her feet.
Chloe struggled against his hold. "No!" she cried. "Let me...go!" She threw her left arm back....and her elbow connected with his right temple.
Merrick grunted with pain. "Dammit!" he hissed, and violently pushed her away from him.
Chloe flew through the door. Feeling like she didn't have the energy to stop, she stumbled across the hallway, finally crashing into the lockers.
Chloe moaned. Her right arm throbbed from hitting the metal doors. Taking a deep breath, she turned ...just in time to see Merrick lunge towards her.
Heart leaping in her chest, Chloe joined her hands together, the clapping sound filling the deserted hallway. She raised her hands up over her shoulder, like a batter about to swing at a baseball. And, when Merrick was close enough, she swung.
Her joined fists slammed into his head, against the bloody wound she'd already.
It was like her teacher said. Find where you're opponent is hurt the most...and make it hurt more.
Merrick veered to the side, slamming into the same locker doors she had.
Chloe didn't wait to see if he'd be able to stay on his feet or not. She just ran.
She'd been lucky so far. Merrick was off guard, disoriented. He hadn't expected to have to fight her for so long. Or to get hit in the head with a crystal paper weight.
All of that, plus a few lucky shots on her part, were the only reasons she was still alive. But he'd recover. He was the one who taught her to push past the pain. To keep fighting, keep thinking, no matter what was broken, or slashed, or burned.
He'd recover. And, when he did, she'd be way out of her league.
So she ran. If she could get to an entrance that wasn't locked, make it to her car...
Dammit! she thought. My keys are in my purse, which is still in the office!
But that didn't matter. She just had to get out of this building. Find a business that was still open and, hopefully, busy. Then, she'd be safe. Merrick wouldn't kill her in front of witnesses. He couldn't.
Suddenly, she heard feet pounding up behind her. Seconds later, she was tackled to the ground. As her knees banged against the floor, Merrick's body fell on top of her, driving the air from her lungs...again.
Still, she fought as he dragged her to her feet. "No!" One hand slapped against his face, making her palm sting. "Let me go!"
"Stop it!" he finally barked. Fingers digging into her forearms, he gave her one hard, violent shake.
Chloe's teeth snapped together so hard, it sent a shockwave through her skull. Startled into silence, her body went still.
"That's better," Merrick said, and almost sounded like the man she first met four weeks ago. For a moment, he just stared at her, blood trickling from his head wound and down the left side of his face. His eyes sparkled with anger. And that same, eerie regret.
Chloe's body shook. Her knees trembled. "Merrick," she heard herself say, her voice little more than a squeak. "Don't..."
"It was a nice try," he interrupted. "But, now, it's over." With enough strength to lift her off of her feet, he pulled her through a doorway, and into the dimly lit school gym.
Merrick dragged her across the basketball court. About halfway, he tossed her down onto the floor.
When Chloe hit the hardtop, she barely felt it. Adrenaline was pumping through her veins, making her body feel numb.
Her mentor stared down at her. "I always knew how good you could be," he said. "So eager to learn. Such an acute instinct for survival." He opened his overcoat, withdrawing the sword hidden within it's folds. "I think you would have lasted far into the Game."
Eyes glued to the lethal weapon. Chloe rose shakily to her feet. "Just what I always wanted," she panted. "Praise from a homicidal maniac."
Merrick's smile was rueful. "Funny. My praise always mattered to you before."
"Yeah. Before." Eyeing him warily, she took up a defensive stance.
Merrick seemed strangely pleased by her actions. "That's it. Never go down without a fight." He gracefully slipped out of his coat and tossed it aside. "Now, let's see what the student managed to learn from the teacher."
And he swung, the sword whispering as it cut through the air.
Chloe jumped back, but not fast enough. The tip slid through her skin, inches below her collarbone. A thin, red line appeared in her white t-shirt.
Chloe cried out, tears filling her eyes. Almost distracted by the pain. When Merrick swung again, she barely managed to duck. As the blade passed harmlessly over her head, her mind flashed back to yesterday's training session. And the way it had ended.
Merrick turned with the momentum of the swing. At the end of his spin, he lashed out, his right foot aiming at her left shoulder.
Chloe dropped to one knee. Grabbing his foot, she pushed up and away, a scream of fear and rage giving her added power.
Merrick flew back, crashing to the floor. The sword flew out of his hands, spinning as it slid towards the bleachers.
As Chloe got to her feet, Merrick got to his. Eyes on his fallen sword, he took a step in that direction.
"No!" she cried, knowing that was one advantage she couldn't let him have. She ran at him, her small body slamming into his larger one, the impact rattling her to the bones.
The two slammed into the hardtop, both grunting as the hit the floor. They'd barely touched the ground before they were rolling away from each other. Both rose--Merrick gracefully, Chloe a little less so--to their feet.
Merrick stared at her, surprise in his eyes. "Very good," he said. And, before she could even think, he attacked.
The first blow was like a brick being slammed into her face.
Head whipping to one side, Chloe staggered back several steps. Her vision exploded into a haze of starbursts, some white and sparkly, some black and splotchy. As her head spun, her body tipped one way, then the other. And, for a second, she had no idea where she was.
Taking a deep breath, harsh breath, Chloe gave her head a hard shake. She forced her brain to push through the cotton that had surrounded it. To focus.
Just in time. The next blow seemed to come at her from out of the shadows, materializing into a fist inches from her face.
"Whoa!" she cried. But her body knew what to do even if her fuzzy mind didn't. Again, she ducked. As his arm passed harmlessly over his head, Chloe slammed her fists into his ribs. Lift, right, left, each punch making him grunt a little harder.
Then the arm that had so harmlessly passed over her head came back, and the side of his fist slammed into her temple.
The force of the blow made her stumble, almost fall. But, even as her head spun, she caught herself, pressing her hands against the ground to keep her feet on the floor.
"Taking the offensive comes with a price," she heard Merrick say. "When you move in to attack, you make yourself vulnerable."
"Shut up!" Chloe gasped, his `advice' adding fuel to her anger. "Class is over!" Ignoring the throb in her temple, she staggered to her feet. Hands raised in a defensive position, she took a deep breath. As adrenaline, endorphins, and oxygen combined to clear her head, a familiar voice--his voice--began to whisper in her mind.
Use your size. Your quickness. Don't try to overpower me. Use your own strengths.
Chloe nodded without even realizing it.
Merrick swung with his left, and Chloe blocked, her forearm knocking into his wrist, causing his fist to pass inches from her face. An instant later, her left uppercut slammed into the bottom of his chin. As his head snapped back, she heard her knuckles crack. Pain exploded up her left arm.
"Dammit!" Chloe cried. Grabbing her wrist, she squeezed, as if that would stop the pain from traveling.
Distracted, she didn't see Merrick's fist coming at her. But she felt the right cross. It spun her completely around, making her forget all about her hand.
As blood filled her mouth, coated her tongue, Merrick delivered a roundhouse kick straight to her ribs. And Chloe felt something snap inside.
Grabbing her middle, the girl crumpled to the ground. As pain clawed at her from the inside, her legs drew up until she was almost in a fetal position.
On the edge of her pain-filled awareness, she sensed Merrick kneeling down next to her. As he flipped her over onto her back, Chloe cried out in agony.
"Excellent," Merrick said, sounding almost...proud. "You're even better than I realized."
Gasping for breath, Chloe stared at him, her blue eyes wide with fear.
"I'm truly going to miss you, Chloe," Merrick said. And, again, his hands reached for her throat.
"Hey, Mr. Sullivan."
"Clark!" With a friendly smile, Gabe Sullivan opened the front door a little wider. "What can I do you for?"
"Well, Chloe stayed at school to work on the paper, and I decided to go keep her company. I just wanted to see if she had made it home first."
"Nope, she's still there, working on The Torch. It must be a big issue."
"Yeah," Clark muttered. Although, if something big or unusual was going into The Torch this week, Chloe would have told him all about it. "I guess I'll go over there and help her out."
"That's a good idea." Gabe nodded. "And could you tell her to take a break and check in with her old man?"
"Sure, Mr. Sullivan. `Bye."
As Chloe's father closed the front door, Clark ambled down the porch steps. True, he probably wouldn't be much help "putting the paper to bed". But he'd done all of his chores at the farm, did the little bit of homework he had over the weekend, spent an hour at the Talon. And he figured that, by now, Chloe wouldn't mind some company.
And maybe they could talk over a few things. Like Merrick, and her training.
The problem was, he didn't know anything about being an Immortal. So, when he brought up his doubts to Chloe, and she dismissed them because `Merrick knows what's best,' he couldn't mount much of a counter-argument. Because maybe it was true. Maybe this was the way all Immortals were trained, and Chloe was learning exactly what she needed to learn in the best way there was to learn it.
Still, he couldn't believe there wasn't some other way for her to be trained. Some way that didn't look quite so much like punishment.
Sighing, Clark got into the truck. Starting the engine, he drove towards the school.
As Merrick's hands reached for her throat, Chloe swung, punching him in the throat, her knuckles bashing against his Adam's apple.
Merrick reared back, hands clutching at his neck Reaching up, Chloe gave him a shove, pushing him over onto his side.
Chloe struggled into a sitting position. It was excruciating, the pain sliding through her ribcage like ice. But it wasn't as bad as before. Maybe it was her Immortality kicking in. That, or shock.
Holding her breath, which seemed to help, she pushed up onto her knees.
And that's when her eyes fell on the sword. Somehow, in the midst of the fight, she'd ended up close to it. Only a few yards away.
A burst of hopeful energy flowing through her, Chloe climbed drunkenly to her feet. One arm wrapped around her ribcage, she half ran, half staggered towards the sword.
She was only a few feet away when she heard Merrick behind her, the sound of his harsh breathing echoing through her ears. Filled with new panic, she quickened her pace.
It was more than her battered body could take. As her legs collapsed, she crashed to the floor.
Which is what saved her. Merrick reached for her at the same moment, only to find she wasn't there anymore. As he grabbed at the empty air, he lost his balance, falling forward.
Chloe's frantic hands wrapped around the hilt of the sword. In one smooth move, she turned and, eyes squeezed tight, swung the sword with all of her might.
She felt pressure as the blade met resistance. But it kept moving, kept slicing. And, suddenly, the resistance was gone.
There was a thump, as something landed on the floor beside her.
Then, Merrick's body fell on top of her.
Panting for air, Chloe opened her eyes. And, when she saw the empty space where his head was supposed to be, she started to scream.
Clark was halfway to The Torch office when he heard a familiar scream.
"Chloe!" he exclaimed. The next instant he was a blur, moving at super speed through the hallway, crashing into the gym with such force, he almost took the doors off of there hinges.
Stopping abruptly enough to leave skid marks on the floor, he took in the situation.
Chloe was standing there, sort of half bent over. One arm was wrapped around her ribcage, her other hand pressed over her mouth. Her wide, horrified eyes were glued to something on the floor.
Frowning, Clark followed her gaze. When he saw what she was looking at, his breath hitched in his throat. There was a body there, lying next to a sword.
A body without a head.
"Oh, my God," Clark whispered. Suddenly nauseous, he swallowed. "Chloe?"
Startled, Chloe turned to stare at him. Her eyes were dazed and vacant. "Clark?" she said, voice shaking. "Clark, I..." Her mouth opened and closed, as if she wanted to say more, but couldn't get the words out.
Wanting to help her, somehow, Clark took a step towards her...only to freeze again. A luminous, bluish haze had begun to form around the body. As the haze thickened, became brighter, sparks of electricity danced across the corpse. And a breeze began to swirl through the room.
Mesmerized, Clark stared, squinting against the ever-brightening light. He jumped when a bolt of energy shot by him. It struck the basketball hoop behind him, electric blue sparks circling the rim.
That energy started to arc out from the haze. And, suddenly, the room was alive with it. It crawled, like a living thing, across anything metallic. Up the walls. Across the ceiling. And that breeze began to churn, whipping into a gale. Tearing at the victory banners that hung from the rafters.
"No!" Chloe screamed, the wind snatching the words from her mouth. She staggered away from the body. "No!"
And as the first bolt of energy slammed into her body, the windows exploded.
Lex Luthor was driving by Smallville High when the windows exploded.
Startled, he slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a halt with a squeal of tires.
Swearing softly, he looked towards the school...and was immediately entranced by the spectacle he saw before him.
Opening the door, Lex stepped out of his car.
Bolts of sapphire lightening shot from the windows of the school gymnasium. It was like they were alive, electric blue fingers reaching up towards the sky.
And he could hear noises coming from inside. It was like...like a storm had gotten trapped inside the building, and was trying to break out.
A stray bolt hit the flag pole, showering the ground below with sparks. The metal screeched as shocks of energy skittered down the pole, disappearing into the ground.
Unable to believe his eyes, Lex shook his head. "What the hell..."
Chloe screamed as the Quickening flowed into her, bolt after bolt of energy crashing into her body.
From a distance, she heard Clark call her name. But she couldn't see him. The light of the Quickening blinded her. Cut her off from everything but the pain. And the power.
It was like a million needles stabbing at her skin. A thousand tiny teeth tearing her flesh from her bones.
Her face was frozen in a grimace of pain. A phantom breeze whipped her golden hair around her head, made it slap against her cheeks. Even as her legs tried to collapse beneath her, the Quickening held her up, lifting her onto her toes. The energy pulled her arms out to her sides, until it felt like she was being ripped apart.
It seemed to go on forever. The energy bolts kept hitting her, crawling up her arms and down her legs.
And she just kept screaming.
Nearly blinded by the light, Clark tried to get to her. But even he wasn't strong enough to fight against the wind that was holding him back. For every step he took forward, he seemed to lose two.
"Chloe!" he called, knowing she couldn't hear him over the gale. Over her own screams.
Then, as suddenly as it began, the storm ended.
Like a marionette whose strings had been cut, Chloe fell to her knees. As a few final sparks danced across her skin, she sank to the floor.
"Chloe!" Clark cried, his voice too loud in the suddenly quiet room. Running to her side, he dropped to his knees and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Chloe?"
But she couldn't answer. She was, perhaps mercifully, unconscious.
Clark easily lifted the sofa.
There it was. The crystal paperweight, it's jagged edges coated with dried blood.
Clark grimaced as he picked it up. Thanks to his super speed, he'd been able to clean up the mess in the Torch office and get Chloe out of there before the police arrived to investigate the light show on Friday night. But Chloe had been too out of it to tell him about the paperweight until this morning.
"I forgot!" she explained when he stopped by her house this morning on the way to school. "How could I forget?"
She'd been on the verge of panic, convinced someone had found it. And, even as he tried to calm her down, he was worried about the same thing.
But here it was. Since the office wasn't part of the `official' crime scene, the police probably hadn't even searched it.
Lowering the sofa to the floor, Clark put the paperweight in his backpack.
"What are you doing, man?"
Startled, Clark turned around to look at Pete. "Uh, nothing. Just thought I saw something on the floor." Trying to seem casual, Clark zipped up the backpack. "I thought you were looking for Venessa."
"Couldn't find her." Pete grinned. "She's probably off telling all her friends about our perfect date."
Forcing a laugh, Clark stood. It felt strange to be keeping secrets from Pete again. But this wasn't his to tell. And he didn't think Chloe was about to any time soon.
"Hey, did you find the file Chloe wanted you to get?" his friend continued.
"Yep." Clark held up the bag. "It was right where she said it would be."
Clark followed Pete out the door. In the hallway, the hum of countless conversations made it hard to hear yourself think. The entire school was abuzz with morbid excitement. Everyone was talking about the latest freakiness to hit Smallville High...better known as The Headless Dead Guy In the Gym.
Pete shook his head. "Man, I bet Chloe's sorry to be out sick. She would have had a blast getting everybody's reactions for the paper. The entire day could've been one big interview."
"Yeah," Clark mumbled. Although this was part of the reason Chloe had stayed home. The fresh memories the building held were bad enough. She sure didn't need to hear one of the most traumatic experiences of her life turned into schoolroom gossip.
"Hey, look! There's Venessa." Grinning at the girl in question, Pete slapped Clark on the back. "Catch you later, man."
As Pete hurried down the hall, Clark headed for his locker. The thought of leaving the `evidence' in there all day made him more than a little nervous. Maybe he'd sneak away around lunchtime. He couldn't wait to put paperweight where it belonged.
At the bottom of the lake, right next to Merrick's sword.
Chloe's hands had been shaking for the past four days.
It was kinda starting to annoy. When she tried to write, the pen jerked all over the page. When she picked up a glass, she spilled its contents all over the place. She didn't dare try to cut a lemon for her tea.
Arms folded, Chloe wandered into the bathroom. When she looked up at the mirror, she froze. Ever since Friday night, seeing reflection had felt...strange. Not because she was so different, but because she wasn't.
Shouldn't she look older? Harder? Shouldn't she be able to look at herself and see what she'd done? Shouldn't she be stained somehow?
But the face that stared back at her was the same. Except for the empty eyes. Those were new.
"I'm a killer," she muttered, the words thick and heavy in her mouth.
If Clark were here, he'd rush to point out she'd had no choice. That she'd only defended herself. And her rational brain knew that was true. Merrick was a murderer. A serial killer who had tried his best to make her his next victim. Guilt was the last emotion she should feel right now. But...
Merrick was dead because of her. She'd killed him with her own hands. With his own sword. She'd taken his head and his Quickening. She could almost feel him inside her.
And her hands wouldn't stop shaking.
Chloe took a deep breath and closed her eyes. It would be so much easier if she could just hate him. But she'd remember something he'd said and almost smile. Or she'd remember how proud he was when she picked up some new move faster than he'd expected. She'd remember that, for a while, he was her friend.
And she'd killed him.
Turning on the tap, Chloe splashed cold water on her face. It was either that or throw up again.
As she dried her face, the doorbell rang. Chloe thought about not answering it. It wasn't like she was in the mood for company. Besides, there was no good reason for anyone to be knocking on their door at this time of the day anyway. But, after 5 minutes, it became obvious the visitor wasn't about to go away.
Dragging herself to the front door, Chloe threw it open.
The man on the porch was a handsome Latino in his late 20's. He was dressed the way Lex might on a casual day, down to the leather jacket that would cost most people an entire paycheck. And cradled in his arms was a long, rectangular case.
"Can I help you?" Chloe said, thinking he was better dressed than the average delivery man.
Mouth set in a grim line, the man studied her. "Chloe Sullivan?"
Chloe's curious gaze settled on the package. "Yes? Is that for me?"
With a sharp nod, he stepped closer. "I...knew Merrick."
Chloe's body tensed. Instinctively, her stance became defensive, prepared for an attack. She didn't feel a buzz, so he wasn't an Immortal. Still...
"Maybe `knew him' is too strong," the man continued, as if he didn't notice her reaction. "I only spoke to him face-to-face a few times. It's more like we knew about each other. Which got me into some trouble, believe me." He shrugged and held out the package. "This is for you."
Chloe eyed the package as if it had turned into a poisonous snake. "I don't..."
"He came to my place early Friday morning," the guy interrupted. His lips twisted into a frown. "Can't say I was happy he knew where I was staying, but I probably should have expected it. Anyway, he gave with instructions. If anything happened to him, I had to give it to you."
More alert than she had been in days, Chloe stared at him. "What? I don't understand."
"Consider it your inheritance." As he undid the clasps on the case, his sleeve rode up his arm. Chloe saw the beginnings of some kind of tattoo on the inside of his wrist. For an instant, her curiosity was peaked.
Then, he lifted the lid, and she saw what was inside the case.
"Oh my God," she whispered, taking a startled step back.
"Yeah." The man sounded impressed. "It's a single-handed broadsword. One of the best I've ever seen. It must have cost Merrick a pretty penny."
Eyes wide with disbelief, Chloe studied the weapon. It was beautiful. She never thought she'd think that about a sword--especially not after what happened the last time she held one. But this one was breathtaking. So much so, she made a small sound of protest when he closed the lid.
"Here you go." He thrust the case into her numb arms, then placed a small envelope on top. "This is for you too. And I'm done." Turning abruptly, he started to walk away.
"Wait!" Chloe called, snapping out of her trance. "Who are you?"
Impatient, he turned back. "Someone who was never here if I want my next assignment to be halfway decent. Believe me, I wouldn't have agreed to do this except Merrick wasn't the kind of guy you said no to, you know? And, since I agreed..." His shrug seemed almost embarrassed. "Well, I like to keep my promises. Even if the guy I made them to is dead." His piece spoken, he turned and hurried across the lawn.
Beyond bewildered, Chloe watched as he got into an expensive SUV and drove away. Finally, she took her unexpected gift inside. Setting it on the dining room table, she stared at the envelope. CHLOE was written across the front in Merrick's familiar, bold script.
Hands trembling more than ever, she opened it and pulled out the single, thick card. As she read the words, tears filled her eyes.
Fight well. Live long. And always remember...
In the end, there can be only one.
Taking a deep breath, Chloe set the card on the table. As she opened the case, a single tear rolled down her cheek.
And her hands stopped shaking.
As Clark drove towards the Sullivan house, he didn't know what to expect. The last couple of days had been pretty tough on Chloe. He'd tried to help. But, except for telling her she hadn't done anything wrong and everything would be okay, the most he could do was sit with her and offer his silent support.
The last thing he expected was to find Chloe on the front porch, staring up at the sky.
Carefully, almost as if she'd break if he made any sudden moves, Clark sat next to her. For a moment, neither of them spoke. Just watched the clouds pass by overhead.
"I'm going to school tomorrow."
Clark didn't try to hide his surprise. "Are you sure? After what happened there, isn't it kind of soon..."
"I have to get back on the horse sometime," Chloe interrupted. "The way I see it, the sooner I go back, the sooner I can get over it."
"I guess," Clark agreed, a hint of doubt in his voice. He'd had trouble walking into Smallville High this morning, and his experience there had been nothing compared to Chloe's.
Thoughtfully, Clark studied his friend. Since Friday night, Chloe had been like a shadow of herself. Quiet, withdrawn, distant. All of her injuries had been healed by Saturday morning. Her ribs were mended. The swelling in her hand was gone. There wasn't a scratch or a bruise anywhere on her. But, still, she'd somehow seemed...wounded.
But, today, some of the spark was back. The strength he was used to was back in her eyes. And, yeah, the stubbornness too.
"Chloe," he cautiously began. "Are you...okay?"
She thought about it for a second before she shook her head. "No, I'm not." Her smile was shaky. "But, for the first time since that night, I think I will be."
Lex Luthor sat on the edge of his desk and stared down at the various documents spread out across the surface. Most of it was information he wasn't supposed to have, of course. But there was always a way to obtain the unattainable.
As he studied the crime scene report, a contemplative frown crinkled his brow. The electric light display wasn't the only unusual thing that happened at Smallville High on Friday night. In fact, the police seemed to think the decapitated corpse found in the gym was slightly more important.
As he read the crime scene report again, the scientist in Lex was intrigued. Except for a smear here, a streak there, there had been almost no blood in the gym. Certainly not what one expected in a room where a man's head had been cut off. The coroner speculated that the weapon used to do the deed generated enough heat or energy to seal the wound, cauterize it, before it could bleed. How or why, they had no idea.
Even more interesting was who the dead man had turned out to be. One William Merrick, resident of Metropolis, recently moved to Smallville for reasons unknown. Well, unknown to the police. Lex doubted anyone in Smallville knew about Chloe's connection to Merrick but himself and Clark. And, apparently, Ms. Sullivan was in no hurry to enlighten them, since she hadn't mentioned knowing the victim when questioned by the police.
It was standard procedure, since her car was found in the school parking lot. When questioned, Chloe explained she was working late at * The Torch* on Friday night when her friend Clark Kent dropped by to lend a hand. They went out to grab a bite to eat in his truck. And, because it was so late, she decided to leave the car at the school until the next day. When questioned separately--also standard procedure--Clark Kent corroborated her story.
The police believed the story whole-heartedly. And, Lex admitted, it seemed entirely plausible. Except...
It was that "except" that made his teeth itch, made his mind race with a mix between curiosity and suspicion.
Standing from the desk, Lex strolled over to the window. There was something more here. Something in the connection between Chloe and Merrick that the young woman didn't want anyone to know about. In that strange, electrical energy that had emanated from the gym where Merrick's body was found.
Something was telling Lex that Chloe and Clark had a secret.
Now, he just had to decide on the best way to figure out what it was.
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