"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single mutant in possession of freakish powers, must be in want of Smallville's princess, Lana Lang."
Chloe Sullivan, Personal Diaries, Unpublished.
"How's Lana doing?" Chloe asked Clark.
"She's at the hospital again," answered Clark, "I really, really hate that place. They look at both of us oddly."
"Well, that's kind of expected. I'm surprised they didn't name a wing after her by now, with all the insurance money she paid them," said Chloe. Clark didn't look amused, maybe because he just finished fighting yet another mutant. The ending was the usual kind: Belle Reve earned itself a new patient, and Lana was back in her regular room at the Smallville Medical Center.
"Why must every mutant in town stalk Lana?" asked Clark. "Is it some kind of law?" he went on, "maybe a side effect of the Kryptonite radiation?"
"Universal truth," murmured Chloe, "you can't beat those."
Mutants and Lana, Lana and mutants. From Bug Boy to Tina the shapeshifter and Byron the awful poet, all thought that Lana was the most wonderful thing since sliced bread. But Lana insisted on staying.
The right thing to do would be to drive to Smallville and try again to convince her but Chloe had grown weary of Lana lately. Part of it was the insult to Clark. Another part, the dawning realization that Lana wasn't the Best-Friend-Forever Chloe had imagined her to be. You shall not date your friend's crush, darn it.
"Did you try talking to her about moving out of Smallville? Clark, the town is dangerous for you, too. The place is full of Kryptonite, even more than it used to be during our freak-of-the-week youth."
"We didn't have a freak every week," said Clark. "Two or three a month at best".
"I tried. She won't leave her parents' graves."
Graves. Chloe was all for respect for the dead, but not when the next helpful mutant might turn you into a member of Club Graveyard (open 24-hours, recommended by every undead tourist guide).
"You're right about Smallville being dangerous," said Clark, "but everyone keeps pretending those meteorites are nothing but odd-colored rocks. Ostriches and bats are better capable of noticing all the weirdness in Smallville than the government. "
"Maybe they do," said Chloe.
"Then why do they sit and do nothing?"
"Because they're small politicians wanting to keep their jobs. Alarming the world about mutation-causing meteorites isn't high on their list. They don't want to join those friendly mutants over at Belle Reve."
Clark looked frustrated. He started saying something, closed his mouth, opened it again.
"Chloe…" he said, "there's something else?"
"Isn't there always?" Chloe asked. "What is it this time?"
"I talked to Lana at the hospital, after they admitted her, and…she wants us to try again."
Try again. Try Again? Ok. She must have heard wrong. Or maybe Clark meant 'try again to be friends'. Or something. He did not mean 'try again to be involved in a romantic relationship, a few weeks after I lost my virginity to and proposed to another girl'.
"Oh. What did you say?"
"I said…I'll think about it," Clark replied.
At least, she thought, he had the decency to look extremely uncomfortable. A guy should be uncomfortable when he thinks about getting back with a girl who considers him a freak.
And why did Lana want to get back with a guy she considered a freak? A nasty thought made its way to the front of Chloe's brain: Lana realized she wouldn't, physically, survive long without Clark. Having Superman as your boyfriend could be very helpful when you're stalkers' favorite.
"And…?" she asked, hugging her thighs and leaning her chin on her knees
He hesitated. "Do you think it's a good idea?"
Now that, she thought, was annoying. What did he expect her to say? 'That's great, Clark! I've been waiting all this time for you to run again on that hamster wheel. Why? Because I'm Superfriend Chloe - professional shoulder to cry on, comfort sex included.'
Ok, her level of cynicism had just surpassed the one of caffeine in her blood. Time to forget what Lex had so kindly pointed out for her and focus on Clark being a dumbass.
"You and Lana have been trying to get together since Whitney left," she said cautiously. "It never worked. I know there was your secret to consider, but you had five years, and even after you told her, you two never pulled it off. Perhaps the universe is trying to tell you something."
Clark frowned. Yes, he had definitely expected her to be supportive. If he'd say 'this time it'll be different,' she'd scream. She wondered if hamsters ever got tired of running on their wheel.
Mercifully, he spared her the cliché. Instead, he sat down. "You turned me down, Chloe. You have no right to stop me from having another relationship."
Somewhere inside Chloe's brain, tiny vesicles, carrying neurotransmitters, were secreted from synapses, announcing 'Dangerous Subject Alert!'
"Did you hear me say that you shouldn't have another relationship? All I said was that the one with Lana is getting kind of repetitive." Lana and Clark had tried getting together more times than Buffy staked vampires, but always ended up looking sadly at each other and walking away. Maybe they just loved the angst.
"You want normality," she went on, "but you're not normal." She watched Clark's face darkening.
"Don't you think I know that?" he said. Then he jumped up, and stayed in the air for a good 15 seconds, "I'm an advanced version of your average freak; you're just too good a friend to put me on your wall."
It was time for some tough love. "Clark, if this is going to turn into a pity party, I'm leaving."
"If you want to." His expression made her feel as if she had just kicked a puppy.
"I just want you to make up your mind. Five years seems enough time for anyone to make a decision."
"It usually is," Chloe agreed, "but make up you mindClark. For the sake of my sanity, if not yours." She stretched her legs, taking them off the bed, and got up.
"Let me know when you do," she said, grabbing her things and heading for the door, leaving a dumbstruck Clark behind.
"The Ethan Lane Memorial Foundation awards 25 scholarships every year, for the best essays describing Superman's contribution to humanity. Essays should be submitted no later than 4/5/2012…"
Chloe crossed the campus, not sure where she was heading, other than it was away from Clark's room. She took a deep breath of the sweet spring air. Konrad Lorentz and his goose, Lana and Clark. A frightening analogy. The five-year-old boy infatuation didn't fade only because Clark was now nineteen. He still had on his "Lana Blinders", as Pete put it back when they were all young and naïve and terribly melodramatic.
Guess she still tended toward the emotional drama, because she knew Clark was going to be miserable, and that made her miserable, too. She didn't want to watch him suffer, in a relationship that was all but happy. Clark may think she's jealous, but she had been jealous for a long, long time, till there wasn't much left.
There was the disappointment, of course. After all, Clark had proposed her, and she hoped that, in a way, it meant that he felt something for her in more than a best-friends way. But to Clark, Lana was the last remnant of normality in his life, and he wasn't ready to let her go.
Perhaps the thing between Clark and Lana was love. Chloe would be the first to admit she knew very little about the subject, and that was one thing you couldn't google or call the appropriate source for. She could imagine herself calling Chad and asking him how you know when it's real love. He'd probably shrug and say that when the sex was good, it was definitely it.
Wasn't love supposed to make you happy? Or was that just another false Hollywood concept? Like waking up in the morning with perfect hair and makeup, or drowning your sorrows in Ben & Jerry's and not getting fat.
She was standing in front of her dorm room, and she wasn't even sure how she got there. She started to go through her bag for the keys, when the door was opened, and Naomi grinned at her.
"I thought I heard you," she said, and then Chloe noticed she wasn't alone. He was wearing a long brown jacket, and he was leaning forward past her bed, his nose mere inches from her Wall of Weird.
"Oh, no," murmured Chloe under her breath, "I completely forgot."
She had planned on coming up with intelligent insights regarding the world today that were appropriate to drop 'accidentally' during the conversation with the Planet reporter. She had also planned to wash her hair.
He had straightened up while she had been thinking, and was looking at her curiously.
Naomi raised her eyebrows high, in a silent 'where have you been?'
"Sorry," whispered Chloe.
Naomi finally did the formal introduction. "Chloe Sullivan, meet Ethan Lane. Ethan, meet Chloe."
Ethan Lane. In her room. Checking her wall of weird. Wow.
"I was just showing Ethan your wall," said Naomi, in half apology. "I hope you don't mind."
Ethan Lane, war correspondent, looked surprisingly young, for a guy who spent the last years in an area of conflict. She was sure such places make people age faster, but Ethan didn't look more than twenty-five. He had a slight tan, and while he wasn't as tall as Clark (why was she comparing every man to Clark?), he was definitely past the 6' mark American men held so dear.
He smiled at her, and she could see dimples forming in his cheeks. True, his face wasn't sculptured the way Clark's was (she was doing it again) but he was good looking. Soil-colored hair and sky-blue eyes.
He was standing in front of her now, and she remembered her manners and stuck her hand out. He took it.
"Nice to meet you," Chloe said. Six-feet-two, eyes of blue, she mused.
"Same here," he said. He turned his head to the wall. "Interesting decoration. Naomi said you call it the Wall of Weird?"
"Yes," said Chloe, "I've had it – well, in certain versions – since I was thirteen. It started out as a scrapbook and just kind of mutated."
"Somehow," Ethan said, pointing at an article that featured a two-headed monkey, "mutated sounds like the right word for this wall."
Naomi reached for her jacket. "Sorry, guys, I have to go. Just remembered I promised Jeff I'll meet him for, uh, something."
"Didn't you say you'd dedicate the afternoon to show me what I have 'foolishly left behind in favor of war and famine'? I believe that was your exact quote," said Ethan.
Naomi shifted her weight from one foot to another. "Well," she said. "I'm sure that Chloe will be happy to show you around. See you!" And she was out the door.
Chloe and Ethan looked at each other, at the door, and each other again.
"I think Naomi just won the 'most obvious try for matchmaking' award," said Chloe. And that, she thought, was perfectly fine with her.
"I apologize. Usually our family is much more subtle than that when it comes to matchmaking. They force the two people inside an elevator and shut down the power."
"So Naomi's just following the family tradition?" said Chloe. That was a lame line, but her brain just presented her with a 'malfunction' notice on her inner computer screen.
Ethan shook his head. "Actually, no. Most of my family doesn't even have that level of semi-social skills. Naomi must have picked that up from those romances she used to read."
"Naomi read romances?" Chloe asked, her eyes widening. She was sure that Naomi wouldn't be caught dead, let alone alive, reading that kind of literature.
She usually launched herself into a long speech about why that sort of fiction was unrealistic and misleading for women (Chloe had her fair share of grudge toward romances – if life went the way romance novels did, Clark would have been head-over-heels in love with her by the time they were sixteen. Talk about false advertising).
"In her defense, she was eleven, and I'm glad to say that a few well-placed Lois Bujold books made her leave Harlequin behind."
"Who's Lois Bujold?" asked Chloe. Lois was a nice, somewhat old-fashioned, name, she thought.
Ethan made his way to Naomi's side of the room and scanned the shelves, then pointed at a series of books that caught probably half a shelf.
"She writes what you might call 'soft' science fiction," he said. "She concentrates more on people and society than technology."
"So you're a science fiction fan?" asked Chloe. That might explain the calm way he accepted her wall, very like his cousin. The first time Naomi entered the room, Chloe remembered, she already had her wall in place, and was slightly nervous about her roommate's reaction. Naomi looked at it for a long moment, said 'cool', and went to the business of unpacking her suitcases.
"I'm a Worldcon kid. It comes with the territory."
"Nerd by nature and nurture. My parents met at a science fiction convention called Worldcon. I was doomed from the start."
"Not many people would admit willingly they're 'nerds'." Especially those who didn't look like it, Chloe thought. But she was just being prejudiced, she said to herself with guilt.
"It's my secret identity," he smiled, showing his dimples again, "at day, a respectable war correspondent, at night, a SF/F fan."
"Ok, you've just proven yourself a nerd. Are you a historical nut as well?"
"I used to be pretty handy with a bow. Not that I get many opportunities to practice, nowadays," he said, passing his hand through his hair, and glancing at the bow that hung near the bookshelves.
"Not a sword?"
"I've decided the pen is mightier."
Ok, what's next? thought Chloe. She wanted to ask him about his work, but didn't think it'd be appropriate within the first five minutes of their first meeting. Perhaps she'd wait another five. What else could she talk about? Hmm…best friend is being an ass? Not a good subject, he didn't need to hear about her problems.
Ethan broke the momentary silence. "If I may I ask…why don't you have any articles about Superman on that wall? Isn't he the biggest mystery of them all?"
He is, thought Chloe, but not only for the reasons you think. But one didn't put her best friend on her 'Wall of Weird'.
"Oh, I've got plenty of material about Superman," she assured him, going to the shelves above her desk.
"Would you like to see it?" she asked, and immediately regretted. She sounded like a kid wanting to show off her stamp collection. Not that she ever had one. Ethan, however, didn't seem bothered.
"I'll be happy to," he said, and sounded as if he meant that.
"Those folders," Chloe pointed out, "contain the Superman material I've collected." And embarrassed Clark with, but she didn't mention that.
"That's a big collection," he said.
"All the girls in my dorm know I'm always looking for Superman articles," explain Chloe, "they keep whatever stories they read, and I collect them every week or so. I also have an elephant-sized file of web articles."
Ethan nodded, "I saw him only once," he said, "but I understand that in Metropolis he's an everyday phenomenon."
Especially for me, thought Chloe.
"When did you see him?" She was definitely curious. Like Ethan said, Clark didn't usually leave Metropolis. There wasn't any lack of bad guys there, after all.
"A bombing in a mosque in Basra," Ethan said. His eyes got a strange look, and he quickly changed the subject. "Can I have a look at them?"
In reply, Chloe pulled out the first folder. "those are the very first articles. He just appeared, and everybody went nuts…"
"…two hours later, after we went through half the articles, we both remembered we were hungry and caffeine-deprived. Ethan suggested dinner, I accepted. An almost mundane beginning…"
Chloe Sullivan, Personal Diaries, Unpublished.
Another chapter! I know, I know, it takes me a long time to finish them, but I want to get them right. Speaking of right, my beta readers keep saving me from ridiculous mistakes, and provide lots of encouragement. So thanks, as usual, to Last Scorpion and The Die Hard.
References: Konrad Lorenz was a Biologist. He showed the principle of imprinting on geese. I think the Clark-Lana connection is quite obvious.
LoisBujold is a real, honest-to-God writer. She's recommended.
Historical nut - that's a reference to a filk also want to warn you – this story isn't about plot, unfortunately – I'm not very good with those. It's about character exploration. Please don't expect too many twists and turns.
Reviews: very necessary, especially about Ethan.