Title: Echoing Street Signs
Author: A.j.
Rating: R, language and themes.
Fandom: Smallville/Superman Returns
Pairing: Chloe Sullivan/Richard White, Chloe/Clark, Richard/Lois, Clark/Lois

Notes: Forgive me this was a plot bunny that perked up and kicked my ass all over tonight. All mistakes are my own.

Summary: The fairytale always wins.

---

Who are you, taking coffee, no sugar?
Who are you, echoing street signs?
Wwho are you, the stranger in the shell of a lover,
Dark curtains drawn by the passage of time?

­- "Recessional" by Vienna Teng

---

It's three a.m. when someone bangs on Richard's front door. It's annoying enough to get him up and away from his computer - for half a minute he thinks it might be Lois, but locks that little hope/fear firmly away before he even touches the doorknob, Jason has school tomorrow – and away from the story that's giving him a headache.

The peephole is no help at all, just letting him know that the person outside is short and blond and not facing him. But something in the set of the shoulders is familiar, and as his fingers scrape over the deadbolt, the woman turns and it's really, really not someone he'd ever expect.

"Chloe?"

She is facing him as he gets the door open. Small and pretty and slightly damp from the outside rainstorm, she squares herself and holds up her hands. In them are a bottle of what looks like tequila, and a pack of Marlbro Lights.

His hand still on his doorknob, he blinks at her crooked smile and sad eyes. Something in his chest sinks, sinks further than it had watching the news as Lois and Jason were plummeting to their collective death on that airplane.

"Let me in, Richard." Her voice is smoky and full of something he doesn't want to acknowledge and he stares at her, back-lit from the low lights in the hallway.

He's known this woman longer than he has his fiancé. Worked beside her as an intern, then a copy girl before he'd moved on and up in the company, and she'd found her calling in the foreign bureau in London and beyond. They'd exchanged the occasional email prior to his engagement to her cousin, and many more sympathetic ones since. He hasn't seen her, not outside of a family gathering, in almost seven years.

"Why are you here, Chloe?" His voice sounds hollow and more than a little panicked, but his hand loosens and he steps back into the gloom of his foyer, allowing her entrance. He tells himself that it's too late for her to be wandering the streets alone, and he can at least offer his couch.

She brushes by him in the tight space of the doorway, hands him the bottle, but turns her head to look him in the eye as she walks past. With numb fingers he clutches the tequila.

The door shuts quietly behind them, and that says everything, really.

---

Chloe moves around his apartment like she owns it. She's a small but graceful ship, touching the occasional bookcase, but flitting from room to room, taking everything in. Richard follows her, confused and not completely sure this isn't some kind of strange dream. Still, he picks up here and there as she silently moves around.

She snags his empty breakfast coffee cup out of the sink in the kitchen before sailing back into the darkened living room. "Can I sit down? It's moronic but even though I've been sitting or lounging for the last fifteen hours, I'm exhausted."

"When did you get in?" He waves her towards the ornamental divan his aunt saddled him with when he'd moved in before lifting up a magazine and pulling one of Jason's matchbox cars out from underneath. He'd left it the previous week, and Richard had found it hidden under the couch when he'd vacuumed last. It's a taxicab. Boxy like cars from the 1980's were, but with a bent wheel axle. It's hard and real in his hand, even while the situation is dreamy and not so solid.

Chloe slumps over in a graceful sprawl, setting the dirty mug on the low coffee table nearby. "About five hours ago."

He jerks up and stares then. "Christ, Chloe, have you even been home yet?"

She just shrugs, and sticks a cigarette in her mouth while digging a lighter out of the small shoulder-bag he hadn't noticed before. The flare from the plastic disposable is sharp and strangely warm in the low light of the room, staying bright while she sucks in the first breath before winking out on the exhale. The play of light and shadows on Chloe's face made her seem older than she was; Richard knows that she's two years younger than Lois, but here, in this place, that doesn't seem accurate.

She must see something on his face because when she opens her mouth again, the tone is dry. "I don't actually have a home in Metropolis, Richard. But yes, I called my dad and let him know I'd see him tomorrow. And dropped my bags off at my hotel."

"Okay." He narrowed his eyes at her. "If you have a hotel, why the hell did you troop all the way over here to wake me up?"

She snorted and started twisting the plastic around the neck of the tequila bottle off. "You weren't asleep. If you were, I'll eat this bottle."

"Chloe..."

"What? No, 'Hey, Chloe! How are you? How was your flight? Enjoying being an embedded journalist in Iraq?' Not cool, Richard. Not cool."

"Chloe." He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to block her and everything else out of his mind. "I really don't have the patience for this right now."

"No, you probably don't. How's Lois?" Her voice is flat, but not harsh. He flinches, just enough that he knows she sees it.

"She's fine." Because she was, at least earlier. Angry and distracted, she'd tossed Jason over a hip and muttered about not being able to stay. He knows that's why he's awake. No human interest story has ever kept him up past 11, no matter how tough the subject. And the grand reopening of the Gilliould Theater is definitely not this impossible.

Exhausted and not in the mood for games, he opens his eyes. Chloe smiles crookedly at him over his coffee table and offers him the now-open bottle of tequila.

He declines, at turns fascinated and confused and pissed at his fiancé's cousin. He has absolutely no idea what she's doing at his apartment. Hell, he wasn't sure she that she knew where he lived until he'd opened the door. She shrugs and takes a long pull, sucking in a sharp breath before setting the bottle back down and half-screwing the lid back on.

"How are you, Richard? That's why I'm here."

"You flew all the way from Iraq to Metropolis to see me?" He stares and tries not to laugh. Only kind of succeeds.

"Saw that Superman was back. This was the earliest I could get away. Figured you might need a friend who's on your side."

"A friend? Chloe, I haven't seen you in years." He laughs, completely lost in this insane episode of something. "Are you sure you're okay? Because I seriously don't think that Superman is plotting against me."

She shrugged a shoulder and took another drag off her cigarette. "You'd be surprised about what can go through that brain of his."

"You sound like you know him." He narrows his eyes at her because it really did sound like she knew what she was talking about. That strange note of confidence. That surety.

"We all know Superman, don't we?" She leaned sideways against the dark burgundy arm of the divan. She was dressed in dark pants and a canvas jacket that peeked open to show a lighter shirt. For some reason, she noticed the jacket too, and stripped it quickly, tossing it next to her. "And we know just how Superman feels about Lois Lane."

He flushes, half from rage, half from shame, and all of it for something he wishes weren't true. Because everyone knew about Lois Lane and Superman. That Superman would always, always come for her. At least, that's how it had been.

"It doesn't matter." He wishes his voice was less shaky. "You need to go back to your hotel, Chloe. It's late and I want to go to bed."

"No, you don't."

"Stop telling me what I do and don't." He bites off the words and looks away. His eyes land on a jacket that Lois left over a few weeks ago. He can't see the color in the dark, but knows it's green. He knows a million things about Lois. Has watched her cry and laugh and felt her kiss him goodnight. She loves him. He knows that because she's said so. He believes her.

Really.

Angrily, he takes a step forward. This is over. Chloe needs to leave now. Go home and leave him be in his apartment with his notes and his unfinished story.

"You know it's over, don't you? Because I was sitting at this little café when I heard the sonic boom and saw the blur. I looked up, and there he was. He was alive, and back and screaming across the heavens like he never left." She kept her eyes trained on him. Straight to center, and there was no where to look but at her, and at those eyes that knew more than she was going to ever tell him.

"What's going on Chloe?" He asks because he knows but won't say it.

She laughs, a brittle sound in the quiet, and turns away.

He waits – fuck he's always waiting for someone - but for some reason he really doesn't have a choice here. He can't just kick her out. He doesn't know why, but he needs to know what Chloe's going to say, but he knows he has to hear it. Jason's toy car is warm in is hand, forgotten but present.

Chloe stares out at the wet streets beyond his window. He thinks that if he had a camera, this image would win him no end of prizes. She is compact, but long in the way she sprawls on his couch. The cigarette, burning low, blooms smoke and her profile is stark, almost unforgiving. When she speaks, strangely it doesn't break the moment, just makes it more.

"I fell in love with a boy when I was fourteen. He was tall and beautiful and unnoticed, which confused the fuck out of me. But I was fourteen and he was in love with someone else. Seven years, Richard. Seven years of missed opportunities and being too much of a pussy to ask for what I wanted. Being his best friend, and know that when someone's back went to the wall, it wasn't going to be me he pushed back for. It was stupid, but I believed in happy ever after."

She paused, tapping the end of her cigarette on the edge of the mug before taking another drag. It looks blunt and angry in her small hands. "A few years ago, he fell in love with... one of my best friends. Deeply, madly, and permanently in love. And they were happy. She knew how I'd felt about him, but it really didn't matter. The fairytale won out.

"The fairytale always fucking wins."

She shrugged, sucked in another breath of smoke. Richard felt cold watching her.

"Jason is Superman's son, isn't he?" He didn't expect that to come out of his mouth. Even if he's been thinking it, running it over and over in his brain for the last three weeks.

Chloe smiles at him sadly, stubs out her cigarette and stands. Walks over to him and gives him a look of such feeling that he almost backs away.

"Why are you here?" He asks it desperately, pleading with everything inside of him for this not to be real. For it not to be true.

The look on her face would be pity if it weren't something… more. Her lips twitch, trying for mirth, but missing and landing somewhere in 'bitter'. The fairytale always fucking wins.

And then her hands are warm on his face, brushing across his cheekbones and jaw softly. She comes up on her toes until her lips brush the same skin and then across his ear. He shivers, just a little.

"Because no one was ever there to do this for me."

He breathes out on a sob, feeling the weight of everything press down on his shoulders. All the rumors and reality, and seeing them and their fucking star-crossed selves dancing across the city and the newspapers and television, and watching Jason accidentally mangle a fork and spoon here and there are suddenly too damn heavy. He feels his body curve inward, but Chloe is just there. Standing under him to catch his weight, holding him up while he falls, her hands on his back, soothing, and her voice in his ears, just as soft.

Lois is going to leave him. He knows it. Has known it since the day she accepted his request for a date, all round and beautiful and flushed with adrenaline and heat.

No one could compare to Superman. Especially not plain old Richard White.

And there's not a damn thing he can do about it.

"There are two ways this can go," Chloe's voice is rough and deep in the dark of the apartment, sexy and sad all in one go. It's strangely fitting for both the mood and the situation. "The first way is that we sit down and finish up this bottle of tequila, cry, stare at the wall, and you pass out in here clutching the photo of of Lois and Jason. I'll take your bed and when we wake up in the morning we can be pathetic and hung over, but still have the moral high ground. You can be the jilted one, the nice one, that Lois will agonize for months over leaving, and feel like shit for the rest of her life over you once she eventually does it. Because she will do it."

Richard flinches at the certainty in the other woman's voice and demeanor. He doesn't say anything though. Because he's spent the last five years engaged to Lois Lane. Known her for longer. Knows that Chloe is right.

"The other way is harder." She leans on him a little, relaxing her body and curling up into his chest. Her breathing is soft and warm, even through his t-shirt. He can feel her breasts, a pleasant weight against his chest, and he thinks, absently, that she is tiny. So very small and blonde and who could send her into war zones?

The answer is, she sends herself.

She's standing here, isn't she?

He sighs into her hair, clinging to this woman, this moment, a little tighter than he should. She smells like rain and cigarettes. She feels like an ending.

"Why should I do this, Chloe?" Her hands are under his shirt now, cool from the apartment and the earlier rain. "Why should I do this with you?"

"Because we're never going to be first choice. So we should choose first." Her voice breaks a little when she answers, and he realizes suddenly, that maybe he really doesn't have the whole story. But it doesn't matter. Not really. Because she's right. Scenarios play out in his mind, one after another, but always with the same result. Lois walking away.

"I'm tired of being the nice one," he whispers into her hair. Pretends he doesn't feel her pain under his fingers, or his anger.

She tastes like alcohol and sadness, and he closes his eyes and pretends that it's Lois, knowing that Chloe's got her eyes closed and it isn't him she's stripping the pants off of.

That lasts until they hit the bed. Surprised, he opens his eyes, sees Chloe staring down at him, everything and nothing written across her face, and then he stops pretending.

It's better this way.

---

Richard wakes up the next morning to the sound of Lois' key in his lock and Chloe's warm weight against his chest. The room smells like cigarettes and tequila and something else.

He hears the door scrape and open, but he doesn't move. Just waits for the woman he loves to walk in and find him here with her cousin. Waits for the screaming and the demands and the crying and never seeing Jason again. But this is the best choice. He loves her enough, loves her so much that letting her go like this...

Because deep down, he knows Lois doesn't love him enough to do the same.

As he listens to the footsteps coming down his hall and Lois calling for him, he thinks that something else he smells is grief.

Chloe just curls around him that much tighter and breathes.

-fin-