Mezzanine
By Rach L.
rach_jiwon@hotmail.com

Rate: PG-13 for character death.
Category: Angst. Possibly AU, and future-fic.
Spoiler: Just general.
Disclaimer: Not mine. Blah.
Summary: Ten years into the future. "The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone." - Harriet Beecher Stowe
Note: A change of pace fic for me. This short story suddenly came to life after hearing a bit about the Superman canon, which says Clark and Lex will end up as bitter enemies, Lana and Pete will be married (imagine that), and Chloe will not be spoken of again. I'm a fairly melodramatic person, and I inevitably indulged in this scenario of what-could-happen.

Dedicated to the C/C worshippers of the Hallway. ;)


***
Mezzanine: n. A low-ceilinged story between two main stories of a building. A in-betweener.
***


He knows it's her even before she enters their office. The familiar sound of her irregular footsteps echoes from the hallway, and he doesn't need to use his X-Ray vision to know that she's dangerously struggling with two cups of cappuccino, her thick briefcase, three different newspapers, and her purse all together. He inwardly counts three and opens the door, catching her keys just in time before they slip away from her fingers and fall on the floor.

"Hey, thanks," she says gratefully, and gives him a sunny smile. "You're in early."

He smiles back. She's probably the only person he knows who actually enjoys Monday morning. "I'm always in early," he tells her while helping her unload her stuff. Before he gets a chance, though, she snatches away the coffee tray from his hand.

"No, no, no. Bad Clark. Get your own cappuccino. These are mine."

It's a meaningless banter, really. They already know each other's habits better than their own, their particular morning rituals practically memorized from long experience. Yet here they are, every morning, having exactly the same conversation.

He wouldn't have it any other way.

"You're gonna have two all by yourself?" he plays his part--whining. "It's eight in the morning, Chloe."

"Exactly," she says. "I need two to just get to nine o'clock. Three more till noon."

"I swear, you have caffeine instead of blood."

"Whatever gets me going." She gives him a brief grin and goes around to her desk, a few feet across from his on the other side of the room. "Who's turn is it?"

"Mine." He takes today's edition of the Daily Planet and goes to his corner. He begins to read out loud as she settles into her seat and turns on the computer. "Let see. The headline article by Lois Lane again. The ones who robbed the National Banks got caught. Those Bordine brothers, like suspected."

"Mm-hmm." She's already begun working on her editorial, her head hidden behind the monitor.

"'Mm-hmm'? Is that all I get from reading Lois Lane's article? Lois Lane? Your heroine?"

That, as he expected, gets a reaction out of her. Her head snaps up. "First, just because she has my dream-job, it doesn't automatically deify her as my heroine. Second, I would've caught Bordine brothers weeks ago if I were the one writing it."

He hides his smile and lets her steam off. When he reaches the cartoon section, she's already finished with the first cup of cappuccino and is on the way to the second. "I heard she's a nasty character," he comments absently.

"Who?"

"Lois Lane."

"I heard she's our age. A headline writing reporter of the Daily Planet is our age." She sighs, her thought clearly written on her expression.

"But you're the chief editor of your own paper," he points out.

"Of the Smallville Ledger, with you as my only staff member who shows up on time."

He shrugs. "Hey, at least you get to boss me around."

"Its *only* perk."

"Me think the lady doth complain way too much."

She smiles openly this time, and his mission is accomplished.

They still can't agree on how they first met. Not really. She insists the chem lab class where he almost burned himself; he's sure it was the gym, when the city girl came to Smallville and quite spectacularly fell up from the climb rope. Memory is like that. They always remember what they want to remember.

When they met, however, is something they do remember. Twelve years ago. It was before a year in the Smallville Ledger, before the four years of college, and before Smallville High. Almost a lifetime ago. She's his family now, just as much as his dad and mom were. And to think they once worried about growing apart is now unthinkable.

"Hey, superman," she calls out half an hour later. "Still working on the Nietzsche column?"

"It's my burden."

"Well, hurry up. You have--"

"--Three hours and forty minutes."

"Thirty six minutes. You know," she leans toward his direction, hovering over her desk, "I still don't get why you majored in journalism. You write great, but with persistence close to zero. Not a journalist material."

"Maybe I want to find my version of the truth, too, without getting interrupted by the bossy editor," he answers innocently. Of course, the real truth might be that he now has the easy access to the information to help people, recognize the troubles, and solve them.

She gives him a look, and goes back to her work, and so does he. They're not at all discomforted by silence that surrounds them. He likes the peaceful serenity of this moment, an hour before they are interrupted by the others. This is when things make sense, when he does not have to think of the world with so many problems, the course of his life that seems to have no destination, and his alien...ness. Alien, in more ways than one.

She stands up, having finished the second up to the last drop. Predictably she walks around to the sink at the side of the office to fill her mug with regular coffee. "Lex Luthor's gonna be in town." Her remark sounds offhanded, but he knows better.

"Yeah, I know." He, on his part, tries to sound casual.

"You still buddy-buddy with him?"

"Checks in with me twice a week. Never misses a call."

"The self-proclaimed surrogate big bro, huh? Should give him an award."

He knows where she's going with this. Way too well. "Look, I know what you think about Lex's decision to take over the Crown Pharmaceutical, but he's only trying to make things...better."

"You wrestle adjectives for living, and that's the only word you come up with? 'Better'? I should fire you right now."

"Chloe, he's a good guy. Trust me."

She stops in front of his desk, her expression serious. "I trust you. I just don't trust him."

He has to sigh. Chloe is more than a good friend to him, but her paranoia has no bottom. "You don't think that was an accident."

"An accident? The fact that one of the very influential men from the Crown Pharmaceutical, who was against the merging with the Luthor Corp. very much, suddenly died is an *accident* in your dictionary?"

"From a heart attack."

"Induced by what?"

"He was sixty-seven, Chloe!"

"A very healthy sixty-seven. Honestly, Clark, your naiveté worries me."

"My naiveté is just fine; yours, however--"

"Finish that line, and there's no Danish for you."

He shuts up. After two shared Danishes later, the rest of the staff arrives. Another day begins at the Smallville Ledger. He's happy as he has ever been.


***


"What are you getting him?"

He spares her a glance in between chewing down a McNugget and sipping coke. "I don't know. Flowers?"

She stares at him as if he's gone completely insane, her lunch forgotten. "You want to give Pete flowers for his birthday?"

"He can always give them to Lana."

"Right," she says, suddenly smiling. "I remember. You used to have a thing for her."

"I did not."

"You did too."

"Did not."

"Did too."

"Did not."

She's exasperated. "You want evidence? You were like this giant sunflower, staring at the sun--in this case, Lana--wherever it goes. Totally weak to the knees when you even saw the glimpse of her. You know, Pete felt actually guilty about having to ask her out just because of you the first time."

True. He had to do everything short of physically dragging Pete to Lana to convince him that he wasn't in love with her any more. "So?" he grumbles, "Everyone had a crush on someone in their high school years."

"What about now?" her question sounds casual, but it is deeply weighed. He knows that.

Pete. Lana. Lana already has so many scars that she needs someone normal, someone who isn't hiding invisible scars. Someone who doesn't always have to be *good*. Someone that is not him. He knows that; he's known that for years. Pete is quite correctly the best man for the job.

He can't say he isn't hurt. He is, still. But he's always done what is right. He will continue to do so.

"Now I don't," he lies, but it is only a small lie, and he is not sure if it really is a lie any more. "What about you?"

"Me?" she replies back, not looking at him.

"High school crush?" he persists, not about to let her get away from the question. "You had one, right?"

"Of course I did. I'm human, you know."

"So?"

"So what?"

"Tell me," he says, giving her a broad smile that always works on her.

"Why should I?"

"Because you know my deepest, darkest secret?"

"Your crush on Lana Lang doesn't even stay in the same continent as your darkest secret, Clark."

"You're avoiding the question."

"Yes, I am."

"Why?" He pouts, and he knows she can't handle him pouting.

"Because," she looks up at the sky as if saying 'Why me?' "It was you."

"Me?"

"My crush."

He knows his mouth is hanging open, but it doesn't seem like there's a way of shutting it close. "You're kidding."

She shoots him an irritated look. "Am I wearing my kidding face now?"

Mouth still open. His facial expression is spinning out of control. He finally mumbles out the words, "I always thought you and Pete had something."

"And you wonder why I still call you dense."

"What about now?" he asks, carefully disguised as a cute, joking, kidding question. He shouldn't, but somehow, for some incomprehensible cosmic reason, he dares to.

She leans over toward him, and whispers one word, "Guess." With that cryptic answer, she stands up and grabs the empty paper cups and wrappers. "You coming?"

"Yeah."

He follows her out of the mall's finest fast-food store. His head lowered, because it's impossible to hide a small grin spreading across his face.


***


"So, you're a journalist now."

There's a slight disgust in his voice when he says the word 'journalist'. Lex Luthor is still the same, even the condescending tone of his voice.

Clark nods leisurely, trying really careful not to break the cue he's holding. He's never been good at Nine Ball--that's Lex's turf, among with many other things--but he attempts anyway, carefully aiming at the next one. "Yep, full-fledged."

"I say it's waste of your talent," Lex promptly declares.

"You know, we had this conversation before," he reminds Lex. "Last year, the same time, before you left the town. And I remember my answer."

"My offer still stands."

Clark almost laughs. "Yeah. Work with you in Luthor Corp. My father will love that."

"Clark. You're your own person."

The same song again, in the same words in the same conversation. "Yes, I *am* my own person," he says a little pointedly. "Lex, I'm happy where I am, with what I'm doing."

Lex shrugs, signaling he's backing out. "Can't blame me for trying. I just don't want to see you rot in this place, that's all."

Clark smiles. "Thanks, Lex. I know you worry, but don't. I'm great at what I do." If not unmotivated and not at all ambitious, as Chloe puts it. "...Ow." His hand slips, and the cue misses its target completely.

"That's what happens when you don't concentrate," Lex says, taking his turn with a slight teasing grin. "When will you learn?"

"Probably if you show up more often, I will learn--eventually."

Lex aims easily, and the white ball hits and scores just as easily. "You sound as if you missed me."

He has. There's always this connection between him and Lex, something that cannot be easily defined, something that apparently no one understands. "Of course I did," he answers, almost offended by the question.

Somehow, that frank answer seems to surprise Lex Luthor, someone who should be surprised by nothing. Lex stares at him for a moment, then shakes his head ruefully. "I almost forgot how you're like."

"How am I like?"

"You give away trust like water."

"And that's *bad*? Come on, Lex. I spent better half of the day yesterday to defend you from Chloe."

"Ah," Lex nods, almost mockingly. "How's Miss Sullivan lately? Still thinks I killed Harry Crown?"

Clark looks sufficiently apologetic. "You know how she is."

"I know." The last ball standing is scored now, and there's only the white ball standing on the table. Lex, with an odd glint that Clark has never seen in his eyes, straightens up.

"I know."


***


"I got it! I got it!"

She rushes into his house the second his mom opens the door for her, waving her hands like a small bird fluttering to fly for the first time. She stops only when she realizes his parents are with him, having a quiet family together.

"Oh," she goes, deflated and her face red. "Good evening, Mr. Kent. Martha."

His mom shares a look with his dad, both amused. "Good evening to you too, Chloe," dad says, repressing a grin. "And you can call me Jonathan, you know."

She nods sheepishly, but the words don't seem to register in her head.

Clark stands up immediately, putting down his fork. "What is it?"

"Well," she fidgets in embarrassment, "It's nothing, really."

He shoots her a stern look.

"Okay," she relents, giving his parents a look that's a cross between shy and proud. "The job at Daily Planet. They want me in starting next month."

The next minute she's surrounded by two tall Kent men and woman, all patting her shoulders and hugging her. The rapid words of congratulation are exchanged, and she's beyond ecstatic.

"Come on," he leads her into his fortress of solitude after thirty minutes of excitement, away from his parents. "Tell me more."

"Nothing to it, really." She tries to look modest as she settles by his side, and fails. "Remember how drunk I was two weeks ago? Well, whatever I drank must've been something, because I apparently sent in my articles that night, and just now I got a call. They want me in, just like that."

"And you didn't even tell me about it." He can't even pretend to be angry, because her happiness seems infectious.

A faint guilty look passes through her face. "Well, if there was no response, it would've been a monumental embarrassment."

He shakes his head, and pulls her to a hug again. "Congratulations. You deserve it."

She stares at him for a brief moment. She sighs a little as her eyes turn to the starry sky. "I don't know, though."

"Don't know what?"

"Do I really want this job? I mean, it's, so, so..." she draws a circle in the air, "big. I've only been in the Smallville Ledger. I don't even remember what's like to be in Metropolis any more."

"Of course you do," he reassures her. "You know it better than anyone else. This is what you always wanted."

"I always said I would never stay in Smallville, but now, thinking of leaving it...I'm going to miss this place."

"And me, right?" he asks mischievously.

"Yes." Her voice, unlike his tone, is so quiet and serious.

He feels something fluttering in his chest, but shakes it away. He can't dwell on it now. "Come on. Okay, here," he balls up a flyer lying next to him like a cone and uses it as a mike, "Today we have the world-famous journalist Chloe Sullivan with us. Tell us, Miss Sullivan, why did you want to become a journalist for the Daily Planet in the first place?"

She suppresses laughter and wrinkles her nose. "You could *try* and come up with a more original question than that."

He pretends to shake the mike. "Testing, testing. What was it, Miss Sullivan? I didn't catch you there."

She finally breaks into laughter, and at his urging, tries to be serious. "There was always the money, of course. Better pay, better food, better coffee, which is always a plus in any situation."

He gives her a mock-disapproving look. "That's very basic of you."

She smiles serenely. "And I wanted to do what was right."

He's quickly back to his interviewer mode, "What was right, Miss Sullivan? Finding the truth?"

To his surprise, she shakes her head. "Some truth could hurt more than heal. I want to know the truth, and I want to heal. That's the right thing to do."

"What do you mean?" He is quite frankly puzzled.

Her eyes are at the dark sky, and the moonlight casts a long shadow on the side of her face. "Some truths are better left buried."

"Like what?"

She turns to him abruptly, expression unreadable. "You, for instance."

"Me?"

"You," she repeats, looking straight into his eyes.

And it hits him. "You knew?" he asks, shocked, bewildered, dumbfounded...everything.

"Of course I did," her voice is soft, "I have eyes, you know, and I'd like to think I'm far from being profoundly dumb."

He still can't get his head around thinking that she's known it all along. "Since when?"

"Freshman year."

"College?"

She shoots him a look. "High school."

All these years? "And I never knew *you* knew." He knows he must look miserable now.

"Well, I'm smarter than you."

He doesn't dispute that.

"It was more than obvious, Clark. You were always around those 'accidents'. I just put two and two together."

He swallows hard. "And you aren't--"

"Weirded out? Angry that you didn't tell me?"

He doesn't trust his voice, so he nods.

She doesn't look remotely angry. Actually, she seems quite happy. "First, yes, but from then on, it has become *my* secret too. And after certain point, I wasn't sure how to break to you that I knew. So, I guess we both didn't tell everything to each other."

He has to shake his head ruefully, and smiles. "I'm glad that you know--knew."

She smacks him on the head once, suddenly. "You better be. Do you know how hard it was for me to cover all your tracks? Geez, for a person who didn't want his secret get out, you sure did make lots of mistakes."

"What?" he protests, rubbing his head. "What did I do?"

She shudders. "School medical records, every 'incident' you involve in and solve with your incredible strength. Do you know how many cops and detective would've looked into you if your name appeared in every unfortunate accident in which people should never have been able to get out alive, but have? God, all those nights of hacking. You turned me into a criminal."

"You...you did all that?" He is speechless.

"Who *else*?" She's about to scold him, but gives up. "You are so obvious about it, Clark. If you want to be an anonymous life-saving hero from now on, I recommend putting on a disguise." She ruffles his hair, a friendly gesture that uses to mean nothing but now it brings both shiver and warmth to his chest. "And do something about your eyes. They're dead giveaways."

Sheepishly, he touches the front lack of his disarrayed hair.

She tentatively speaks again, "Promise something?"

"Anything."

"That you won't always be so lonely. You always look as if...you'll just fly away and disappear."

That's probably because he can, but that really is beside the point. "I...do?"

"Yeah, you do." A soft sigh. "Promise that you will let people come near you and touch your heart, that you won't just stay an arm's away like an outsider. You are one of us, Clark, perhaps more than most of us. Don't forget that."

Her eyes glisten underneath the moon and the stars, almost teary, and it demands only the truth.

"I won't," he promises.

She smiles and leans against him, and he gradually relaxes against her, both staring up at the glittering jewels of stars ornamenting the sky. The sky, something that always reminded him of what he is and how he's different by just being there, seems different today.

For the first time, he doesn't seem so alone in this vast universe.

"So," she says, her warm hand on his, voice full of laughter. "What are you, really? I still haven't figured that out yet."


***


She's late.

She's never late. Well, not usually. But this is a special occasion. They should be at Pete's by now, celebrating his birthday, and possibly announce her new job at Metropolis. She wanted to pick up something nice for Pete, and now she's late. About forty minutes.

That's *exceedingly* late.

And he's beginning to be worried. He paces around the empty office, so fast that he realizes he might drill a hole on the floor. Only then he stops, contemplating between running out and looking for her and flying out of the office (he never fled in the exposed space before, but maybe he can go up high so no one could see him?). It's then when the phone rings.

He grabs right away, "Chloe?"

"Yes," her whispering voice sounds far away through the static. Her cell phone, he deduces. Thank God. She has to be okay. Of course nothing happened. She's just fine.

"Where are you?"

"-m--at----ing."

"What? I can't hear you. Chloe?"

"--better now?"

"Yes! Chloe, where the hell are you?"

"Uh," he can hear her hesitation even in her low, almost inaudible voice, "On Granville street."

Granville street? Gran... "Oh, no, you didn't."

"Ah...well, I kinda did."

He's trying not to be angry, but it's hard. "Tell me why you're at the Crown Pharmaceutical Company factories in the middle of the night."

"Uh, because I just saw the CEO of the company slipping out from the downtown by himself and sort of followed him?"

"God, Chloe, you. *You*!"

"Sorry, really sorry, but can you lecture me later? I'm kinda trying hard not to get busted here."

Okay, calm down. He can always give her an earful later. Lectures, and some serious headaches. "What's happening?"

"Well, he's waiting for something. There's--ow."

"Chloe!"

He can hear her low swearing words, then she's back on line. "Sorry. Almost tripped over a garbage can. Okay, Randle's waiting by his car... Wait. He's getting inside by himself. Okay. This whole thing is just odd. What is he doing here by himself?"

"Okay, that's enough. Get out of there."

"No, wait, something's happening. A van just pulled over at the side."

He doesn't like this. He doesn't like this at all. "Chloe, just get out. Now."

There's a short pause that feels like eternity in his mind, and she speaks again, her voice calm and low, "I'm going in, Clark."

"No, Chloe! Don't!" He springs up, fear overwhelming him. "I'll be there in a minute. Just wait!"

"I can't," she whispers back frantically, "Jeff Randle is inside, and several very heavily armed men followed him just now. What do you think is going to happen?"

They are going to kill him. There is no doubt. "Just wait for me, Chloe. I'm coming...Chloe? Chloe?" Instead of her voice, only thick static fills the line. "Dammit!" He flings the phone, and starts running, then flying.

He's out of the office in a fraction of a second, and arrives at one of the dark, empty factories of the Crown Pharmaceutical. His heart, the one that never pounds even when he runs hundred miles a minute, pounds so hard that it's about to explode. Yes, it's just like Chloe to continue investigating Lex. It's just like her to keep it to herself until she gets the evidence to convince him. But nothing would've happened to her. She's done reckless things like this before, but is smart enough to not to get into any serious trouble. She should be fine.

He is wrong.

No one is at the entrance. A quick x-ray vision tells him there are six people inside, four of them standing together, and two of them on the farther side. One of the four draws something, and one of the two steps in the way--Chloe!

He doesn't care about the concrete wall of the compound digging into his skin as he hits it with his entire body, because he doesn't feel them. He feels nothing, sees nothing except her as the four figures all turn toward her.

And the loud, chilling bam of--

"CHLOE!"

Can't be too late. Can't be. Because he's possibly the fastest person alive. He runs faster than *anything*, and it's just not possible that he's arrived here, where he's needed the most, too late.

But he is.

No.

Something's hitting him repeatedly. Probably bullets. But he doesn't care. Can't.

There's a puddle of crimson where she lies, her face so pale that the gray concrete looks jet-black against her skin.

"...Clark?" she whispers, her eyes fluttering open. Her eyes are not focused as if she can't see him. "Randle?"

Randle is fine. Randle is more than fine, because he ran away the second Clark entered, never minding the person who just saved his life is lying there, dying--

He doesn't know when he collapsed, sliding to her. "God, no, no, no. Chloe, no." Her head on his lap, his hands on hers. "Don't. Please don't. I...Chloe..."

"Oh...this is not a nice...way to go," she barely manages to speak, straining to smile, for him.

He can't register her joke. Not at all. "It's fine. It's gonna be fine. Everything's gonna be fine, Chloe. You're going to be fine." He can do this. He can hold her in his arms very very carefully, and he can carry her to the nearest hospital. Where is it? Somewhere. Somewhere where? Where is he now? The nearest hospital...

"...late."

"Don't you dare, don't you dare leave me..." He can't concentrate. Where's he supposed to go? This is not right. He can't think. Dammit! "You're gonna be fine. Just fine." He shields her from the bombardment of bullets. It's getting really annoying. He pulls out a metal pole from somewhere and with one hand still holding her, throws it toward the four men still shooting at them. They're knocked out, and he can now think. "Okay. Granville street. I can fly. Yes, fly to the downtown. Chloe, just hang on. Hang on."

She weakly laughs, and that shocks him out of his numb stage.

"You idiot," she says, her breathing getting increasingly ragged. Her laughter is mixed with tears. "It's not...your fault."

"Chloe. No." There's something in his throat, ready to burst out. His whole body is shaking.

She motions him closer, and he, the crimson oozing from her body mixed with his sweats and tears all over his hands, does so. She speaks to him, a few words, the few indescribable words.

"Not your...fault."

"No, don't go. God, no, Chloe. Please, no. God--"

Man screams at God. Man screams, yells, begs, even negotiate with Him. And He does not listen.

When he reaches the hospital, he's still holding her so tight and they have to pry her out from his grip. And when his parents and all of the friends who should be at the party arrive, Clark Kent, with only void left inside, breaks down into pieces.


***


"Two weeks," Pete whispers. He looks a decade older now, losing who was once his best friend. "It's already been two weeks, but..."

"He needs some time." Dad. Concerned. They speak, not realizing he can quite well hear them.

Two weeks. Is that it? Two weeks. 14 days. 336 hours. 20160 minutes. 1209600 seconds.

("You knew. You *knew*!")

1209601 seconds.

("You ordered it. They were your men. You ordered to get rid of everything that gets in your way. YOU DID THIS!")

He is 1209601 seconds late.

("...I trusted you, Lex. It will *not* happen again.")

He is 1209601 seconds late for her.

(His hand, that cannot possibly feel pain, hurts. Strange, because his heart is already broken by betrayal, and loss. A broken man can do nothing. He can't feel, think, or remember. He can't even hit Lex Luthor. He only kills a bystander, a harmless tree, with his punch, but he can't even touch Lex.)

It's late. Too damn late.

A second, then he would have been there, wouldn't he? One mere second, then he would have been there for her.

He never lost a fight before, whether it was against bad guys, against the nature, against the whole damn world. He never lost. There were near-miss's, sure, but he never lost one. She is the first. She was the first to touch his heart, now he knows that. Now that she's gone, he knows. And she's the first to be lost.

Maybe he's 1209601 seconds *and* twelve years late.

Quiet, whispering voices, appropriate for a wake.

"God, Clark, I'm so sorry." Lana. Lana. She tries, she really does.

"Let us in, man." Pete.

"Please, Clark." Mom. "Please."

When he finally opens the door and emerges from his room, his family and friends all turn to him. They're waiting. The second he begins to doubt whether he belongs here, whether he will ever belong to *anywhere*, there's her voice, urging her to stay in this world, that this is the place for him to be.

Remember the promise.

The right thing.

He will not be late. Never again.

His life is already decided.


**


The man whose name is Clark Kent and will be known as something else entirely walks out from the elevator, almost tripping over on the way and breaking his newly acquired glasses. He soothes the lines in his suit, feeling extraordinarily geeky, but willing to go with who he is now.

The office is wide and unfamiliar, and nervously he makes his way inside. Soon, a man taps his shoulder and offers his hand.

"Clark Kent?" the man says. "Welcome to Daily Planet. I'm Perry White."



*END*
Nov. 25/01