The Observer Effect
By vega

Summary: From the periphery, Jimmy sees more clearly.
Character/Pairing: Primarily Chloe/Jimmy and Chloe/Clark. Vague mentions of Clark/Lois.
Spoiler: General season six.
Disclaimer: I'm sure more than hundreds of people can claim their ownership to various Superman franchises and incarnations. I'm not one of them.

Jimmy Olson, struggling with a coffee tray and two brown muffin bags and his precious camera hanging loosely around his neck, stopped about five blocks away from the Daily Planet. A scene caught his eye, though he couldn't explain exactly why. A trash can running wild in the dark alley on a windy morning of Metropolis wasn't exactly story-worthy, and the overall grey image wasn't auteur enough to be considered even remotely artistic. But it had attracted his photographer's eye, for whatever it was worth, and hell, he always had a lot of film to waste, so why not?

After fumbling about five minutes to get the angles right and spending another ten on the light and the reflection, he got the result that might capture maybe the half of what he had seen through his own eyes. The shutter clicked, and the image was frozen in his camera, and he straightened up with odd, inarticulate sense of excitement. Picking up the abandoned coffee tray and crumpled muffin bags, he checked his watch - still about fifteen minutes before his break was up, which meant there was enough time to drop by the basement office before going back to work. Work, work, work, the thrilling task of scanning even more archival photos - not that he was complaining, of course. He would come to work for DP under a lot worse and dismal circumstances (say, like, the world was ending).

He practically slid down the familiar staircase, trying to balance all the goodies he was carrying, and pushed open the door to the basement of the DP building. A quick glance around, and he spotted her in the copy room.

Her, the reason for his little trip on the break, Chloe. Chloe Sullivan, whose name still left him in a hapless daze, was in the middle of an animate discussion session with…huh, CK. Again. You'd think the guy lived five minutes away, not hours away in a Kansas farmville.

He debated for about a second on whether he should interrupt (which was a no-brainer, really – would you not want to interrupt when your girl was having any conversation with this tall, hunky best friend of hers who was around her all the damned time?) and proceeded directly to interrupt. He was ready and armed, and he was devious enough to use the two no-foam, non-fat caramel macchiato to distract her from whatever talk they were having – a very good plan that was thrown out the window at the very moment he noticed her smile.

Chloe always had a wide open smile that lit up her face (and possibly everyone around her, Jimmy so unbiasedly thought) but this smile felt different. Not brighter, but not necessarily sad, and her eyes - always steady, always focused – held something else. Concern, maybe? But that didn't feel right either, and she was looking away from her friend, which she never did. CK didn't seem to notice. Their conversation went on like usual, and it seemed to end as Chloe handed CK a non-descriptive yellow folder, which he took gratefully.

CK turned to leave, but Jimmy was still busy struggling to find the exact words to describe and catalogue that smile of hers. He had never been eloquent enough to describe anything adequately, so he lacked the words to figure out the smile that still graced her wistful face.

So, his next move was an automatic, non-thought process. In less than a second, he already had his camera in his hands.

The shutter clicked.

Between the dead bodies dropping all over Metropolis that required investigation, the supposedly heroic costumed bandits running loose in the city that needed to be caught, and the billionaires with hidden agendas to be debunked, the photos had stayed hidden between his portfolios for days.

That was, until the photos actually came to be required, in one of those accidental fate moments, for one of the investigating, catching and debunking activities.

"There, that one," Chloe said, pointing at one particularly grainy photo of the dark alleys in the city. "That looks like the area, close enough to one of the Lexcorp branch labs, but it doesn't look like there was chemical spill there. When was this taken, Jimmy?"

"I'm thinking two weeks." Jimmy frowned and checked the date on the back. "Yes, about 12 days ago. That is about the time when the reports on the dead bodies started coming in, right?"

"It is, but I don't see anything amiss in this picture."

CK, hovering over Chloe and Jimmy, squinted at the picture, too. "What about there? That grey discoloration across the compound? Is there any way to zoom onto that?"

Both Chloe and CK turned to stare at Jimmy as one. Jimmy gave himself a mental kick for not thinking of it sooner. "I don't think it's possible, man. I mean, it's not taken with a digital camera, and that's the only hard copy I have. It wasn' wasn't supposed to be... Okay, it was just a recreational photo I took for fun, okay? I didn't think to bring special lenses and zoom-in features or anything."

Chloe tilted her head, a grin tugging at her lips. "Recreational? The dismal atmosphere of grey alleys behind abandoned factories is recreational for you?"

Jimmy gave her his best impish grin. "Hey, you say dismal, I say art."

"I didn't know you took art photos, too," CK chimed in, shuffling through the photos in the portfolio, with Chloe looking over his shoulder. "I thought you were more into the investigative, you know, factual stuff."

There was nothing mean about CK, and he was obviously just interested. That was all. There was absolutely no reason to take it as a criticism. Really. Jimmy tugged down at his shirt and fought the urge to reach out and take away his photo books from CK. "Ah, factual photos, but what is fact, really?" Jimmy said, all grand gesture and fake-voice. "It's all in the eye of the beholder, all distorted by the lens of the camera, so yeah. Um, I do both."

He was particularly feeling lame with the dime-a-dozen lines of photo-philosophy he just sprouted when Chloe stopped CK from flipping over more pages and took over the portfolio, her hand on a particular page.

She observed it intently, her eyes glittering with keen interest. "Did you take this one, too, Jimmy?"

He took one look at the photo, then he didn't know whether he should smile or not, didn't know what to think. Should he be nervous? Why the hell not? His awesome girlfriend was looking at the trash can picture he had taken on a whim, the picture he was secretly way too proud of, and if she was going to dislike it or even remotely…. he swallowed. "Yeah."

Slowly, her face broke into a bright smile. "Jimmy, this is beautiful."

He stared back, wondering how come his heart was beating even faster, if it was at all possible. "You really think so? I mean, when I took it, I had this image in my mind, and I don't think it captured the half of..."

Chloe stood up and put her arms around his shoulders. "Yes, I really think so. You have a great eye."

Her smile was nothing short of infectious and he couldn't help but grin widely until he felt like his face hurt. "And apparently a great girlfriend, too. This makes me a happy guy."

The moment lasted as much as it could, he supposed, because they were at work, and because –

"Should I be taking a hint and a hike?"

The inevitable cough from CK put an immediate end to the moment that could've possibly led to some serious snuggling session at the office. Chloe smiled at Jimmy instead, leaving a happy flutter of beats in his heart, and turned to her friend. "I know, I know, so not the time," she said, picking up the portfolio again. "Well, we can try scanning the photo and see if the resolution gets any better."

CK nodded, his expression pretty much unreadable. "And I'll talk to Lex."

Chloe's head snapped up. "No, you won't."

"Chloe—" CK began to protest.

"You won't, period. What are you going to say after barging into his manor? Say, Lex, I know one of the hundred devious and dirty and amoral things you're doing at this given moment, so please 'fess up to one? Clark, seriously, has that tactic ever worked?"

"Well, actually--" CK, obviously not too stupid, paused, apparently threatened by Chloe's glare.

"You're not going to accuse Lex of anything until we figure out it indeed is the toxic spill that the Lexcorp is hiding. Until then, no talking to Lex, okay?"

"Okay," CK obliged grudgingly. "But we'd better figure this out soon—"

Jimmy was watching the interplay with a myriad of emotions. Not that this was the first time, of course, that he was seeing the two friends argue, but seriously, it was starting to bother him on some fundamental level that he couldn't explain. Wait, no, he could explain it away if he wanted to, really, because he could just as easily start screaming, 'Yo, hey, she's my girlfriend'—

He paused that thought, because he realized CK stopped speaking. So did Chloe. Because they were both looking at the next picture on the portfolio, which was... Oh, Christ.

They were staring at Chloe's face in the picture.

Jimmy sucked in his breath. Damn. Way to make yourself look like a girlfriend-stalking-boyfriend, loser. "Hey, uh, sorry," he started, before panic completely started to take over his mind and freeze any ability he had left to speak. "I didn't mean to take the picture without your …"

"Is that how you see me?" Chloe asked, suddenly. Her eyes were still on the picture, so he couldn't read her face.

"No," Jimmy said, truthfully. "I don't think I can ever capture you. Never fully. It's just…I don't think I ever saw you…like this. So, uh. Yeah." He cringed. "I'm sorry?"

When she looked up, to his surprise, she was smiling again. Oh so very widely. "Don't be."

It was the first time she kissed him at the office, and for a moment, he was completely, utterly and wholly in heaven that he almost missed the look on CK's face.

Almost, but not quite.

Neither did he miss the fact that CK's fingers lingered on her picture moments longer than necessary. Of course, the kicker was, he had not thought of why or how or anything of it until later. Much, much later.

Hindsight was hilarious that way.

Jimmy Olsen, currently, squashed underneath a large, unmarked white van commonly preferred by criminals and other assorted unsavory folks for their equally if not worse unsavory and (amazingly likely) illegal businesses, wondered very briefly about fate. And its well documented sense of humor.

It was raining. It was also very, very, dark. Because if something terrible had to happen, it had to happen on a dark, stormy night with rain thick enough to block your vision and soak you so completely heavy that you couldn't even bring yourself to take another step. After all, why would it happen in broad daylight when people could see things and authorities with big weapons could come to the rescue?

He furiously swiped at his wristwatch and tried to check the time again. Five minutes. Chloe had been gone for five minutes, but seconds had been stretched thin, and he felt it ticking by on every inch of his skin. Okay, she had said ten, but if she did not come out of the building in two minutes, he was calling CK to bring the police. She had said not to, but why wouldn't she want to call CK? Though, okay, CK had been conspicuously absent the last few days, and Chloe had said something about Clark being otherwise occupied, but CK had been helping out the investigation for no reason at all, so, and – and God, why the hell had he left behind? Surely, the need for the lookout would not outweigh another pair of eyes in the den of the lions, right? He should just go in, go in right now and jeopardize whatever investigation Chloe had been carefully setting up from the beginning. Right, that was not going to work. No, but –


The scream was not what he had been expecting, neither did the person who was screaming his name, so for a second, Jimmy suspected auditory hallucination.

"Jimmy, help!"

Okay, so auditory and visual, because the shadowy figure of a man who was screaming his name while crumbling in the front of the suspicious looking factory that Chloe had just got in was –

"CK? CK!"

In less than a second Jimmy was up and running through the rain, trying to see, trying to – what the hell, what the hell's going on? – figure out when no coherent thought was forming in his head. By the time he reached CK's side, wading and slipping in the mud and rock asphalts, CK, who had always looked like a mountain of strength, was badly trembling, his legs already folded in half. In all the shock and panic, Jimmy was a second too slow to realize that CK was holding someone in his arms – Chloe.

"Chloe? Chloe! God, what's happened to her?"

CK, by then, had completely crumbled, barely holding onto Chloe. His entire body trembled from what seemed like severe cold and exhaustion, and he was covered with …some green dust that glittered ominously in the muddy darkness. "Take her, Jimmy. She's hurt…. Get her to the hospi..."

CK could barely finish his words, and Jimmy didn't need to be told twice. Chloe was pale, too pale, and out cold. With her in his arms, Jimmy noticed absently how light she was. Even in this soaking rain, she seemed to weigh next to nothing, though you'd think otherwise because she always had this presence that was impossible to ignore. He pushed himself up, with her in his arms, and, using the very last drop of his strength, propelled himself toward the car they had parked hidden off the road.

Because he was spending all his energy just to walk, it took several moments for him to realize that CK was not following. Not at all. Instead, CK was slowly bringing himself up, which seemed to be taking an inhuman amount of toll on him, and he was turning back toward the building.

"CK!" Jimmy screamed on top of his lungs, only because he doubted that anyone could hear anything less in this thunder, in this rain. "CK, C'mon! What're you doing? Are you insane?"

Jimmy could just make out the dark figure, CK, turning toward his direction. CK screamed back, "Go! I'll follow you. Go! Take Chloe and just go!"

Jimmy wouldn't have left him there, not normally, even if his stomach and heart and many other anatomical parts of his body had sunk low with sickening worry for Chloe, but he heard something in CK's voice, the frantic insanity, maybe, that pushed him toward the car, not back to CK. Because, for the moment, he really believed that whatever it was, Clark Kent could take care of it.

When Jimmy looked back for one last time, the image of the tall figure stumbling back into the factory became imprinted in his memory, living stark, cold outlines, both beautiful and terrifying.

Later, looking back, Jimmy would remember this was the first time that he could recall when he had ever been glad that he didn't have a camera.

"It wasn't Lex," Chloe was saying. She looked more comfortable and snug than it would've been possible on the ever-uncomfortable hospital bed. "He doesn't do a half-baked revenge thing. Clearly, Lex wasn't behind the attack."

CK, obviously, wasn't in an agreeable mood. He all but snapped, "And how do you know that, exactly?"

"Because they were trying to kill me," Chloe said, like that explained everything.

CK stared at Chloe like she just lost a sliver of her mind. "And that's not something Lex would've done, how?"

Chloe was grinning. "Oh, no doubt that I'm quite high on the list of people he would cheerfully send to their deaths if methods and means present themselves, but I don't think Lana would take it very kindly if the news got around to her that her boyfriend had me killed. Getting me to disappear without a trace after making sure that I have nothing incriminating in possession, on the other hand, is more Lex's style, and since they didn't try to get any information out of me – not Lex."

Chloe sounded way chipper for someone who had pneumonia and various other assortment of injuries. She was relaxed, smiling despite the occasional coughs, which meant she was definitely enjoying her time with her friend.

Which was why Jimmy was lingering at the entrance, actually hesitating whether he should intrude or not. A week ago, he wouldn't have hesitated, no problem. A week ago, he would've gladly stepped in (and yes, he was willing to admit that it would've been out of petty jealousy, why do you ask?). But a week ago, he hadn't seen CK so wounded, so raw. While Jimmy had been exposed to various life-threatening adventures lately, this particular harrowing experience had been scathing; the look on CK's face… probably had been the singularly most intense one he had ever captured in his eye.

The problem was, CK was still wearing that look right now, even though it seemed well hidden. CK absently tore at the edge of her blanket. His eyes were dark, unseen. "You almost died."

Chloe stared at CK, her eyes instantly sober. "Luck of the draw. It could've happen to anyone, Clark."

"Not if I could help it. I could've stopped this."

"Sure, Clark, and you can also stop this now. You're not superman, and you're not responsible for everyone's well being."

"Not everyone -- you. If I couldn't even keep my best friend safe, what good is --"

"Déjà vu," Chloe cut off his tirade, shaking her head gently. "I'm sure we had this conversation many times before. Try to remember what my answers were then and apply them to the current situation. Or do you want me to beat some senses into you again?"

Apparently not a word of Chloe's lighthearted joke was registering. Clark was looking as doomed as ever, as he resolutely stared at the floor next to her bed.

"I almost lost you."

His voice was so whispery that for a second, Jimmy thought he had imagined it. CK was looking away, but the look on Chloe's face did confirm that CK had said it, and that she had heard it, too.

"Not letting you off the hook that easy, you know," she said, a moment later, her voice just merely a murmur that Jimmy had to strain to listen. She reached out to touch him, and she put her hand on his fist that still clenched at her blanket. "I mean, who's going to bail me out when I'm in trouble? Wait, scratch that. Who's going to bail you out of trouble if I'm not around?"

That earned a small smile. CK finally met her eyes, and knowing she had a captive audience, she gave him one of her infectious smiles. "You'll never lose me, Clark. You'll just have to trust me on that."

Jimmy definitely believed her. He wondered, then, why exactly CK didn't look too convinced. He also wondered how long he was supposed to be eavesdropping when the act as well as the content of the conversation succeeded in making him feel progressively like crap. In all definitions of the word. Crap. Okay. He took a breath to clear his throat.

Which was, of course, exactly when CK decided to look up at the direction of the entrance, right at Jimmy. "Jimmy," he said, not looking at all surprised.

"Uh, hey, Clark…CK," Jimmy stammered, hoping like hell that he wasn't flushed. Since it was damned near impossible to read CK's expression, he decided the best option was to very quickly look away toward the direction of his girlfriend. "Hey, Ms. Sullivan."

Chloe straightened up, an easy smile on her face. "Hey, Mr. Olson." She gave him a mock-appraising look and raised an eyebrow. "Where're you hiding the latte you promised to smuggle in?"

Sure, okay, the talk about coffee was infinitely easier to deal with than what he might or might not have eavesdropped. He reached her bedside and matched her expression with one perfectly raised eyebrow – the skill he perfected just by being near Chloe. "You wanted to see me or the latte?"

"Uh-oh. Tough question. Can I be honest with you?"

He uncovered the cup from underneath his jacket and put it aside, well beyond her reach. "Nope. Not if you, you know, want to actually drink it."

"Then -- of course it was you," she said, bubbling with laughter. "Now, give?"

Which he did. With Chloe happily occupied with the latte, Jimmy was left with actually having to talk to CK, who looked at them with that impassive look he had around them, 24/7. Jimmy searched for an actual greeting, which wasn't so hard to come up with, come to think of it, because he did have questions to ask. An actual question, not of the 'Hey, what is up with you and my girlfriend' variety.

"So, hey, uh, how're you doing, CK? Chloe said you were recovering from what happened?"

CK finally met his eyes, really looking this time. "I'm better, thanks. By the way, I meant to thank you, for helping. That night." CK sounded sincere enough, but his expression relaxed only a tiny little bit.

"Oh, that's not a problem. I mean, if you're anytime being pursued by maniacs and criminals who want to kill you for seeing stuff that you ain't supposed to have seen and you need someone to drive people you rescued to hospitals? I'm your guy." Jimmy paused, then thought for a second. "I mean, only if there isn't anyone else."

Chloe cracked up at that, which meant, Jimmy supposed, that the joke (or half-baked truth) had been worth making. CK grinned slightly and stood up. "I'll keep that in mind. And that's my exit cue. I'll catch up with you guys later."

"You sure?" Chloe asked, looking up and cracking her neck probably by doing so. "We're not kicking you out. You don't have to go, you know."

Jimmy begged to differ, but he wisely kept his silence.

CK smiled, like he knew exactly what Jimmy was thinking. "I'm supposed to help Lois with some sort of stationery equipment shopping soon. I'm sure she'll shred me into pieces if I'm not there on time."

Chloe wrinkled her nose. "Lois mentioned something about needing a new copier. You do know that it's the fifth one she murdered and mutilated into oblivion, right?"

"Don't I know it," CK mock-sighed and briefly kissed her cheek. "I'll come by tomorrow, okay? Stay out of trouble till then."

Chloe rolled her eyes. "Speak for yourself."

Jimmy waved. "See you later, CK."

CK left with a smile for Chloe and a nod to Jimmy, which Jimmy responded in kind. When he turned around, Chloe was staring at him, a curious look on her face.

"Yeah? What?"

"You can ask, you know," she said, her eyes understanding and sympathetic. "It's unlike you not to ask."

Jimmy sat on the chair that CK had emptied. Then tried not to think too much about symbolism of that.

"All right," he said, mind made. "I've got a question."

"Okay," she said, tilting her head a little, which meant she was getting ready to listen. "Shoot."

"That night. Did you already know that CK was in the factory?"

That probably wasn't what she was expecting because instantly she had a thoughtful look on her face. "Yes and no. I wasn't sure. I knew those…guys…were after Clark. I thought he might've been kidnapped, but I didn't actually know."

"And you didn't think you could tell me."

"I didn't tell anyone, Jimmy, because I wasn't sure. I know this conversation was due some time." She straightened up and met his eyes. "Clark is my family - sometimes more than that, and if he's in trouble--"

"Then you wouldn't stop for your own wedding," Jimmy finished her sentence, not necessarily angry or even jealous. He just nodded. "Yes, I got that part."

She smiled in full apology. "Jimmy, I wouldn't stop for my own Pulitzer. I mean, I know it bothers you - it would bother me, too. But it doesn't mean I put him above you."

"Of course you do," he said without malice, which, frankly, surprised both of them.

"Jimmy -"

"No, let me. I do understand. You two have been friends for a long time, and I'm the new guy. It's not like I can expect to know you better than he does overnight. That's not what I expect, at least not right now. Just, uh, you know, give me a chance," he finished quite a bit lamely. At least it wasn't the lamest thing he had ever said to her, because he stumbled onto the next sentence with, "I mean, I'm not such a bad guy, and you can trust me."

He cringed, but she didn't. When she smiled, it was, as always, so bright. "Ask me that question again."

"What?" Then he blinked. That question. Oh, that question. "Really?"


"So, um, you think you can be my girl?"

"Definitely willing to give that one a go, if you're willing."

"And, okay, uh, I have to ask this." He didn't, really, but god, he had to. "And CK?"

"Jimmy, Clark."


She met his eyes for a full moment before she nodded. "You're right. You deserve more than that." Then she smiled, and suddenly Jimmy remembered that smile, the smile he had captured on his photograph before all this began. "Clark Kent has been in love with the girl next door for years, even until she was no longer from the next door. And now he's busy falling for Lois."

Lois? The cousin Lois? He pictured Lois in his head and went, Seriously? Okay, Chloe had to have gotten that one wrong. "And what about Chloe Sullivan?" he asked, feeling the words caught in this throat.

"She's loved her best friend for years. And now she is busy falling for this guy whose photographs she is in love with."

She smiled at him again, and it was more than good enough.

He leaned down and kissed her.

Maybe he was easy, because he managed not to think about Chloe and CK and her smile that wasn't quite her smile and CK with his expression that contained all sorts of incomprehensible torments that, frankly, would have made no sense to Jimmy except when he was watching melodrama or reading comic books.

So it was just his misfortune that it lasted until the moment he picked up his portfolio that night after coming home. The picture of the smiling Chloe slipped between his fingers.

Jimmy picked it up and wondered if he would ever know.

Driving to Smallville took exactly two hours. Usually, driving to Smallville meant seeing Chloe, so the hours went by pleasantly and quickly. This time, of course, it was neither pleasant nor quick.

CK's house was easy enough to find – Jimmy had been there a few times, most of the times dropping off or picking up Chloe. He didn't remember ever being inside the barn, though, which apparently was the choice of location for CK when he was feeling all solitary-man-like.

He almost lost his nerve at the door, because what was the etiquette for entering someone's barn? Knock? If so, where? Barge in, then? And risk the potential wrath of the Kansas male who looked like he could crack walnuts with his bare hands?

In the end, he went with making as much noise as possible as he walked in gingerly. "Hello? CK?"

CK appeared behind the ledge around the staircase. He wasn't actually frowning, but he looked like getting close to that when he saw who it was. "Jimmy?"

"Yeah. Hey. Uh, nice place."

"Thanks." CK shrugged as he came down the stairs to meet him. "What're you doing here? Is everything okay? " Then something must've come to his mind, because he went from relaxed to alert in a microsecond. "Is Chloe—"

Jimmy waved his hands furiously. "No, no, no. Everything's fine. She's still being discharged tomorrow, as planned."

CK relaxed again. "Okay."

"Yeah, so. Nothing's up. Just, you know, thought I'd visit and see how you're doing."

"Oh. Huh." CK was obviously trying not to frown. "I'm fine. Like I said before."

"Right. Great. That's good."

Silence descended, and Jimmy kicked some random hay on the ground, trying to work up the courage to actually get to the point. Before he could begin, though, CK cleared his throat.

"Actually, I did want to speak to you before," CK said, offhandedly. "I wanted to – I want to thank you, for saving Chloe. I can't imagine what would've happened if you hadn't been there."

"You're welcome," Jimmy said after a moment, because there was nothing else he could say to that. But then again -- "But, uh, that's not something you need to thank me for," he added carefully. "You know that, Clark, right?"

CK froze, but only for a second. He then gave Jimmy a self-deprecating smile. "You're right. Fair enough."

That was good; at least CK proved that he wasn't going to beat him down to a pulp even if Jimmy said something he might have not expected or liked. That gave Jimmy a bit of encouragement to take out the envelope from his pocket and handed it to CK. "Here. This is your copy."

CK took it. The look of curiosity vanished into the one of impassiveness when he saw the photo of Chloe inside.

"I thought," Jimmy tried to explain, "Well, I thought maybe you'd like to keep this."

CK stared at the photo for one full moment in silence. When he looked up, he still looked predictably impassive. "I don't know how much you heard at the hospital, and I don't know what you're assuming. Jimmy, she's my friend."

"Oh, I know," Jimmy said, trying to let him know that it really wasn't about what he had or had not eavesdropped. At least, not directly. "Chloe did tell me that you guys had a history together, sort of, but she made it clear that you've never been interested, not like that."

There was that look again, Jimmy thought, as he watched CK's face going from the impassive to the...other level of impassiveness that Jimmy was sure he couldn't follow. Not willingly, at least. "Did she?" CK asked, obviously not expecting to be answered.

"I don't think she knows," Jimmy offered, quietly. "What I can't figure out is why you wouldn't just...tell her."

"I don't know what you're talking about," CK said, stiffly.

Okay, so Jimmy could read the 'back-off' hint as well as the next person, and he would've gladly taken it, if it weren't for...Jimmy swallowed and tried, for the moment, to forget about the fact that CK could probably pummel him to death if he got angry enough, but then again, CK was a nice guy. "I really like her," Jimmy said, truthfully. "I think...I think I might be in love with her."

"And you think I'm getting in the way?"

CK sounded mad there, but Jimmy just shook his head. "You're not. Not intentionally, anyway. In fact, you seem to be trying your best not to be in the way. Hence me, not understanding why you wouldn't just tell her and try actively to be, you know, in the way."

CK said nothing, looking like the epitome of stoicism, so Jimmy bravely continued on, "And since I don't know why, I can't give her up, Clark. I mean, I don't know if knowing the reason is going to make any difference, but not knowing certainly doesn't help, either. Not really."

Still nothing. Which meant Jimmy had been right, and that there was something else. It wasn't really a pleasant tidbit of knowledge to have.

CK just stared without a word, so Jimmy stared back until he felt uncomfortable. "Look, Clark, I don't know why it is how it is for you and Chloe, but if you decide to do something about it, could you do me a favor and do it sooner than later? It kind of...isn't fair to Chloe or me, not when things are...well, I think she's happy with me."

"She is."

CK said it so casually and straightforwardly without a change in expression, and Jimmy blinked. "What?"

"You're right – she's happy with you."

Okay, that was very anticlimactic. "That's...that's great that you agree." Wasn't it? Then why wasn't he sure? "Okay, well, that's it, then." Jimmy spread his hands in the universal gesture of 'I mean no harm, despite how it might look, really'. "That's all I was here to tell you, and since I'm done – will go now."

Jimmy turned around and walked as fast as he could without looking like he was tailing out of there.

"Hey, Jimmy," CK called out just before he passed through the entrance.

Jimmy stopped. Contemplated for a second whether it was wise to turn around, but he did. "Yeah?"

There was something else on CK's face, something not stoic, not at all, but Jimmy still couldn't figure it out.

"Thanks for the photo," CK said, simple and graceful. "Chloe's right – you have a great eye."

Then Jimmy knew, as he probably had known even before coming here, that CK would never go for it. That he had already decided to keep whatever it was that he felt locked away. Why and what were still unclear, but that much was crystal enough. Jimmy wasn't sure whether he should be happy that Chloe's best friend wasn't going to swoop in anytime soon and pretty much destroy what Jimmy had with Chloe.

But hadn't he already known the answer before coming here? He had seen the look, and while Jimmy might not be the most articulate person in the world, he knew looks. He knew images. And he knew this.

It couldn't be helped, then, that Jimmy thought that maybe the camera wasn't always needed to capture the moment, because at that second as CK turned around and retreated back into the barn, Jimmy remembered exactly how he looked like when CK had headed back to the factory on that faithful night.

And how, in the odd ways that some things were, it mirrored Chloe with her smile.

He stares at the photo in his hands.

He tests the words on his lips – I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

It doesn't get any easier, and every time it dies on his lips.

The three words that he had brandished so easily before, given out like water, like there's an endless supply in his heart. He knows better now, and he knows that the mere three words are more destructive than any other power he has ever known. The three words that can devastate anything and everything worth that he lives for, that he fights for. The three words that can shred even the most tenacious bond of friendship into a sliver of nothing, because they are that powerful, that cruel. Mere three words that he cannot risk because he can't risk losing her, not when she is his only ally, the only source of honest comfort he can ever afford. Because he can risk his heart, but not hers. Not her heart that he knows he has broken one too many times.

I love you.

He wonders if he ever became the hero she thinks he is capable of becoming, the words would stay, with him. To say the words to himself now, the mere words that she might never hear because of who he is, what he is, and what she means to him now... He might be indestructible, but this, this breaks his heart.

But he can say it now, to himself, because it's only his heart that he's breaking.

I love you.