Whitney was having his tenth birthday party on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon. His father had taken the day off from the store to be there especially for this, and Whitney's favorite present of the day had been a brand new NFL-endorsed football.
All the boys in the neighborhood were there, except for that weird Kent kid that nobody but Pete hung out with. And while Whitney didn't want his new ball to get dirty, he was dying to play with it.
Jack Fordman chuckled softly and picked Whitney up with one arm, holding the wriggling boy in a hug while he held up the football with the other. "How about a game of ball before cake?" he yelled.
The yard erupted into loud, little-boy cheers--Whitney included--and there was a lot of scuffling as they fought over who were going to be the team captains.
At the noise, a little blond head poked up over the fence, eyes sparkling and toothy grin spreading across her face. Because most of the boys of the neighborhood had been invited to Whitney's birthday party, Lana's aunt had thrown a little tea party in their yard so the girls would not feel left out.
Unfortunately, the sounds of the ball game being put together next door appealed to the jeans-clad eight-year-old Chloe Sullivan more than the quiet tea party and all the girls in the frilly little dresses, and before any of the adults there could stop her, she'd already climbed the fence and dropped down on the other side.
"Chloe!" Lana's aunt hurried over to the fence, calling out after her. "Chloe Sullivan, you come back here!"
Jack Fordman stifled a laugh as he saw the little blond missile come pelting over here. "It's okay, Nell," he yelled back. "She'll be fine over here." He put Whitney down and caught the little girl before she plowed through the boys. "Hey. Don't you think you're on the wrong side of the fence?"
Chloe made a face. "No. If I have to drink one more cup of tea I'll cry," she said, wriggling. "I want to play football."
Jack didn't bother to hide how amused he was by this little girl. She was wearing jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt, as opposed to the little tea dresses that the other girls were wearing, and he could just imagine how much of a handful she'd been. Chuckling softly, he put her down on the grass. "I think we can find a place for you. What's your name, honey?"
"Chloe Sullivan," she said with a cheeky grin, darting to join the rest of the crowd, bouncing up and down to be seen over the rest of the boy heads.
"Daaaaaaaad!!" Whitney yanked on his dad's arm. "I don't want the girl at my party!! They'll laugh at me!"
"You can't leave her out, son," Jack admonished. "Tell you what. I'll be one team captain, and you can be the other."
"No!! I want to be on YOUR team. Make Tommy be the other captain!" he said, picking one of the boys at random.
Jack looked around, making sure the boys hadn't trampled Chloe underfoot in their excitement, and seeing there was no blood spilled, decided it was time to start the game. "Okay, okay." Jack raised his voice. "Tommy! Tommy Thompson, get yourself up here, son!"
A somewhat beefy twelve year old shouldered his way through the crowd, to stand beside Jack. "Here I am, Mr. Fordman!"
"Tommy, you and I are gonna be captains." Jack dug in his pocket for a quarter and flipped it into the air. "Call it."
The bright, shiny quarter landed tails-up on the grass, and Tommy grinned. "Jimmy!!"
Jack's first choice was predictable. "Whitney."
Whitney barreled over to his father's side, doing a little jumping dance.
Tommy surveyed the rest of the crowd, sneering at Chloe when he got to her hopeful face. "Bo."
Chloe's face fell at the sneer, but she didn't leave the line, and didn't stop her fidgety bouncing.
Jack's second pick was, if you were older than ten, also predictable. "Chloe."
"DAD!!!" Whitney glared at his Dad. "I don't want the girl on my team!!"
"You can't leave her out," Jack said sensibly. "I know you don't want her right now, son, but one day you'll change your mind about girls, I promise," he continued, hiding a grin at his wife, who was bringing out a big cooler on wheels full of ice and soft drinks.
Whitney glared at the little girl as she came to stand beside him and his dad. "If we don't win, it's gonna be your fault," he snarled, and turned his back on her.
Chloe just grinned. "We're gonna win."
Once the teams were all chosen, Tommy's team got into a huddle. "Take the girl out," Tommy said. "Whitney don't want her here, and we're not gonna let her ruin his party, right? Take her out, run her over, and she'll go back home cryin' to her mama."
"She don't got a mama," piped up one of the other boys. "Only a Dad!"
"Whatever, then we'll send her home cryin' to her daddy." Tommy glared all around. "Okay? Girl down, and once she's out of the way, we huddle again and figure out how to win. Okay?"
A chorus of agreement met him as the huddle broke, and they lined up on the bright green grass of Whitney's backyard.
Whitney was on the complete opposite side of the huddle from the girl. He had the irresistible urge to yank her hair until she cried, then poke her favorite doll in the eye. Why, he didn't know, because she'd never really done anything to him, but he just didn't want her at his party!
Jack was well aware of what was going through his son's mind, because Whitney's thoughts didn't creep subtly across his face--they more waved big neon signs as they sauntered. "Okay, listen up. Whitney, you're going to be our quarterback. When you get the ball, I want you to run it up to the oak tree. Then when you get there, I want you to throw it to Chloe. Chloe, I want you to run as fast as you can towards the lawn furniture, because that's where the scoring zone--"
"It's called the in-zone," Chloe sniffed.
"That's right, the in-zone. Thank you, I'd forgotten," Jack said carefully, trying NOT to laugh as Chloe tried so hard to fit in. "I want you to run as fast as you can towards that zone, and then catch the ball when Whitney throws it to you. Sean, Brett, Mike and Pete will protect you, because the other team is either going to ignore you, or send everybody after you. So once you catch the ball and you run, don't look back, okay? Trust your teammates. Everybody got it? Whitney, you run to the tree, Chloe, you catch what he throws, and the rest of you guys, I want you to make sure that our receiver gets to the goal."
A weak chorus of agreement went around the huddle, and they broke to take their positions across from the other team.
Stupid girl, if you mess this up, I will hate you forever, stupid girl, stupid girl, stupid girl.
Whitney was still muttering about the "stupid girl" as he got into position, ready to take the ball from his dad. His first impulse was to throw the ball and conk the stupid girl in the head with it, and the second was to ignore her entirely and throw the ball to someone else.
But, when his dad gave him a stern glare, Whitney sighed and hunkered down, getting ready to take the ball. As soon as it hit his hands, he looked around, and saw Chloe already taking off like a shot as soon as everyone else had moved. Her slightly-pudgy arms and legs were pumping as she hurdled past the tree and towards the lawn furniture, just like his dad had told her to. He pulled back his arm and threw, straight and long just like his father taught him, and looked around.
Only to find that none of the boys on his team was doing what they were supposed to do, and they were all kind of standing around while Tommy's team went straight for Chloe. She caught the ball, and then gave a little scream as the first of six bigger boys' bodies piled on top of her.
"DAD!!" Whitney yelled, and pointed.
Jack had already seen it, and he was on his way, yanking the kids off by their t-shirts and yelling the whole time at them. "Stupid kids! Get out of the way, come on!" He dragged all the boys off, glowering at each one of them, shoving them back until he could see grass around Chloe. Her shirt and jeans were both torn in several places; hip, shoulder, across her back, and Jack could see that her nose was bleeding. "Chloe? Chloe, honey, can you answer me?"
Chloe was curled up fetally, and when she felt Jack's hand gently shaking her shoulder, she rolled onto her back and held up the football. "I didn't make it. They tried to get the ball, but I didn't let them have it," she said, very quietly. "But I'd like to go home now, I think," she said, curling back up around her stomach, where the ball had dug into her as she'd tried to protect it against their grabbing fists and kicks.
Jack tossed the football down and turned her over again, helping her move and stretch to make sure she wasn't hurt too badly. When all he found were bruises, Jack picked the little girl up. "Okay, sweetie. Let's get you inside and get you cleaned up and then we'll call your dad, all right?"
"Okay." Chloe whimpered when Jack picked her up.
All the rest of the boys were crowded around Whitney, and Jack was proud of his son when he walked past and heard what Whitney was saying to them.
"Stupid guys. You didn't have to hurt her, I just wanted her to go away."
The next time that Whitney really noticed Chloe was during his senior year of high school. She was two grades behind him, editing the school newspaper, making friends with his current girlfriend Lana, and generally making herself a part of Whitney's life.
He'd never quite forgotten how his friends had hurt her at his birthday party all those years ago, and it made him feel more than a little uncomfortable around her. He didn't quite want to apologize, but he didn't feel like he belonged around her either. However, despite the discomfort and sometimes-rocky friendship that Chloe and Lana seemed to have, Whitney found himself admiring her more and more.
She was smart, saucy and spunky, and she still had the same hold-onto-the-ball-at-all-costs mentality that she'd had eight years ago. He found himself noticing her more and more over the year; defending her to the football team--most of whom had been the same kids who'd tried to break her ribs when she was eight--defending her to Lana when Lana complained about her, and eventually getting dumped for it.
He was less than upset about having been dumped by the head cheerleader, and he supposed that had everything to do with the fact he simply didn't care about Lana anymore. The more he'd gotten to know Chloe, the less he'd actually cared when Lana asked if she was wearing the right shade of nail polish, the less he cared whether or not she was wearing the right sweater to match her hairstyle that day, the less he cared about listening to Lana prattle on about who was screwing who and why.
When he'd told his father about it, Jack Fordman--older, grayer, and a lot more tired than he had been--had just laughed softly, and reminded Whitney of what he'd said at Whitney's big birthday party.
"I know you don't want her right now, son, but one day you'll change your mind about girls, I promise."
Chloe interested him, with her bright smiles and happy laughter, with her flippy hair that bounced every which way and snappy wit that lacerated everyone within distance. Chloe caught his attention with her outrageous outfits and a curvy figure that didn't make him feel like an oversized gorilla lumbering around. But more than anything else, he liked Chloe because she was... Chloe. Energetic to the point of being frenetic, bouncy and single-minded and determined and sure of herself at the same time that she was painfully insecure and shy in anything not having to do with the newspaper.
Which is why, three weeks after having been dumped, he was standing at the door to the newspaper office, trying to get up the courage to knock.
The choice was taken out of his hands when the door to the office was yanked open from the inside, and Chloe glowered up at him. "Well? Come in or move, you're blocking my light," she said with a grin, pointing to the window in the door and flouncing back to her desk and the computer on top of it.
Whitney stuck his head into the office, looking around. It was the first time he'd ever seen the inside of the office with more than just a passing glance. One of the walls was covered in carefully organized clippings, most of them from the Smallville Ledger, but some were from the Daily Planet and even Time magazine.
He did a double-take as he realized the Time magazine cover was actually a young Lana, and then shrugged it off as not really wanting to know as he stepped into the office and closed the door behind him. He wiggled his toes in his tennis shoes, scuffling the soles against the floor as he came the rest of the way into the office and plunked himself down in one of the chairs.
Chloe looked over the edge of the computer. "Come in; make yourself at home. Take a seat, I don't mind."
Whitney gave her a half-hearted glare, and guiltily pulled his feet down from the desk where he'd just propped them and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. He was about to open his mouth and speak when Chloe beat him to it.
"Sorry, the Torch doesn't run personals."
Whitney blinked. "Excuse me?" For the life of him, he couldn't remember why he'd never pulled her hair. It was starting to seem like a good idea right about now, just grabbing a little handful of those flippy ends and yanking.
"Personal ads. You want that, you'll have to call up the Ledger. Talk to Mike, he'll give you a good deal if you mention my name." She didn't look up at him over the edge of the computer, but she was grinning as she said it.
"Why do I need a personal ad?" he asked, slightly mystified.
Chloe sighed and looked up. "You've GOT to develop that sense of humor, Fordman." She saved whatever she'd been working on, and then gave him her undivided attention. "So what precipitates this visit to the fourth estate?"
"What brings you here?" she clarified, and nudged the dictionary towards him with her elbow.
Black scowl at the dictionary, and he transferred it to Chloe for a minute before sighing and leaning back in the chair to fidget. "I came to talk to you."
"Spit it out, or I'm going to have to get a flashlight and hunt for it." But she was smiling again, and waiting patiently for him to come out and say what he wanted to say.
Yeah. Pulling her hair had to be easier than talking to her. "Well... I was wondering something."
Chloe pushed the dictionary towards him again, piled the thesaurus on top of it, and then laid the most recent Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM on top of the stack and beamed. "Knock yourself out." She left her hand on top of the stack, and when he reached out to push it back to her side of the desk, she brushed his hand lightly with her fingertips.
Whitney gave an explosive sigh as he shoved, but didn't miss the light brush of her fingers. "Not exactly what I had in mind."
"No, I won't do your homework for you," Chloe said, grinning. "Seriously, Whitney. What's up?" Her tone changed with that, from the sarcastic flirting of earlier to actually calm and serious, and quieted any other comments that she might have made.
Seriously. Whitney didn't think she knew what the word meant. "I've got something to ask you."
"Yes, I'm a natural blonde." She couldn't help it. He was so cute when he was serious, she had to tease him.
"Sorry. You're just so... serious. I had to lighten the mood. I'm sorry." She grinned, and then mimed drawing a zipper shut over her lips.
Oh, he wished. "Thank you. I was..."
Chloe was staring at him as innocently as possible, chin propped on her hand as she gazed serenely at him.
He fidgeted. Having her entire attention focused on him was almost worse, in a way, than her constant running commentary, and finally, he just blurted it out. "Youmaybewantogooutwithme?"
Chloe blinked. "Deep breath, and say it slow?"
Now that he had gotten it out, Whitney felt a little more... calm. Relaxed. In control of the situation.
Yeah, right. He was still nervous and terrified.
"I said, you maybe want to go out with me?"
Chloe's answering smile was bright enough to light up the entire room. "I'd love to," she said, just a little breathlessly.
Whitney's answering smile was nearly as bright.
Friday night at the theater was crowded as hell, but it cleared out quickly as most people did other things after the movies. Whitney and Chloe hadn't decided what they were going to do after the movie, just walked out of the lobby, hand in hand and talking. Whitney didn't really notice the scruffy man in ragged clothes, huddled in the alleyway's shadows, staring at the people coming out of the theater with popcorn bags and candy bars. Whitney just stopped and leaned against the bricks, tugging Chloe against him and out of the way of the people pouring out behind them.
"So, what's next?" he asked, pulling her cold hands into his jacket pockets to get them warm.
Chloe blushed as she grinned up at him. "How about we find somewhere for dinner?" she asked softly, snuggling her fingers tightly alongside his in the warmth of his letterman jacket.
"I could handle dinner," Whitney said with a little grin, ducking his head for a minute. "Steak? Chicken? Spaghetti? Something I haven't mentioned?"
"Spaghetti's good," Chloe said, grinning back and pressing closely to Whitney for a moment to let a couple that was squeezing behind her pass.
When she leaned forward, Whitney let his hands slide out of his pockets and he wrapped them around her waist, bringing her a little closer to his body as he leaned down to kiss her softly.
He had barely had a chance to find out she tasted like vanilla lip gloss and buttered popcorn before she gave a sharp cry as someone yanked her away from him.
Whitney looked up, shocked, and realized in two heartbeats that one of the skinny young men that had just passed behind Chloe had his arm around her waist and a gun shoved into her side.
"You do what I say, nobody's gonna get hurt," growled the kid, and held out a shaking hand.
Whitney responded immediately. "Look, okay? Here's my wallet, money and credit cards are in it." He shoved up the sleeve of his jacket off and slid the heavy metal watch off. "This is my grandfather's watch--it's probably worth a lot of money. Go ahead, take it, too." He held it out with one hand, and in his other hand, he got the keys to his truck out. "Here's the keys. Take it, take all of it, just don't hurt her."
The kid's shaking hand grabbed the watch first and shoved it in his pocket. "Shut up!" he yelled, when Chloe started whimpering, and moved as if he was going to hit her, but stopped as he saw the stack of cash in Whitney's wallet--not a lot, but more than he'd been expecting, and he shoved that in his pocket too. He threw the wallet down, with credit cards and everything still it, then grabbed the keys. "Which one?" he asked shrilly, pushing all the buttons on the key chain, trying to activate something.
"The blue one, there, by the curb," Whitney answered, reaching for Chloe. "You got what you want, come let her go."
The pale kid shivered once, and shoved Chloe towards Whitney, sending them both sprawling on the pavement as the kid took off across the sidewalk.
Whitney caught Chloe easily and fell on the pavement under her, cushioning her fall and wrapping his arms around her. "Sssh... it's okay. Come on, baby," he said, not realizing the endearment had slipped out. "It's okay, Chloe, you're okay now. I'm not going to let anything happen to you!"
"Chloe!" Clark's voice was almost overlapping Whitney's. "What happened?"
Whitney pointed to the kid that was trying to fumble the key into the ignition of his truck. "He had a gun, he held us up. I gave him--"
"Lex, stay here with them. Call the police." Clark cut Whitney off in midstream, and took off, weaving through the crowd of people that were staring at the two of them. Lex got down on his knees beside Whitney and Chloe, pulling out his cell phone and dialing the police as he kept his hand on Chloe's shoulder, speaking calmly. Whitney looked up in surprise as a scruffy looking man came through the crowd and picked up Whitney's wallet and handed it back to him. Whitney took it, slightly mystified, then watched as the man took off his slightly stained coat and offered it as a blanket for Chloe's legs.
"I seen the kid come out," the man said in a grating voice. "I'll tell the p'lice what I seen."
Whitney nodded his thanks, stripping off his own jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders, rocking her against him as Lex stayed crouched beside them, talking to the police in a low hum.
If Whitney had thought that Chloe had been beautiful in her wedding gown, then the only thing he could apply to her now was absolutely stunning. Pregnancy had made her glow, almost literally, as it had added color to her cheeks, a fullness to her hips and a shine in her hair that he couldn't quite explain but loved all the same.
And that's exactly what he was thinking about in the lazy afternoon sunshine, watching the dust motes dance in the shaft of sunlight that haloed his wife in the bed beside him.
"You're staring," she said, turning around to look at him, tucking Whitney's floppy hair back behind his ears to get it off his face.
"You're beautiful," he said, leaning over and kissing her softly, resting his hand on her belly to feel their baby kick.
"And you're off your rocker," she said with a groan, struggling to sit up and finally getting herself levered up enough to rest her aching back against the headboard.
Whitney didn't even have to be told to rub her back; his hand was already there, massaging the small of her back before moving up to the knot between her shoulders and then back down again. He was so intent on making her feel better, kissing the back of her neck as he did so, he didn't realize, at first, that he was sitting in a damp spot.
Neither did Chloe, for about a second, and then she elbowed Whitney roughly in the stomach. "Honey? I think it's time for us to go," she said.
"Go?" Whitney was still rubbing her back, and then he froze in mid-motion as he registered the dampness against his leg and what she was saying. "Go!!" He bolted off the bed, and dove into the closet, dragging out the black suitcase they'd had packed for two months now--part of the same luggage set they'd taken on their honeymoon five years ago. He held his hand out to her and grinned.
Chloe took his hand and let him help her out of bed, and then leaned over and kissed him. "You're gonna be a great dad, Whitney Fordman," she said softly.
Whitney kissed her back. "And you, Chloe Fordman, are going to be a great mom."
The delivery room was cacophonic. Chloe was screaming with each contraction, the machines that monitored her and the baby were beeping wildly, alarms were blaring, and the doctor was shouting at him to stand back as he brought more nurses over to stand in his place, and another to push him out of the room.
The last thing he heard as he was shoved into the waiting room, bloody scrubs and all, were the screams of his child and wife mingling together.
"It's a breech birth, Mr. Fordman," said one of the bloody nurses who'd followed after him, mere seconds after he'd been shoved out. "Your son is doing just fine, though, he was just a little turned around and it made it a little harder for him to come out, that's all."
Son. Whitney was a father; he had a son. "What about Chloe?"
The nurse looked down. "The fact that the baby hadn't completely turned has presented some problems," she told him softly. "While the contractions have been forcing the baby out, it's been causing a lot of tearing in the vaginal walls. There's... there's been a lot of bleeding."
Whitney closed his eyes, fighting to swallow around the lump in his throat as his hands fisted helplessly by his side. "What... what does all that mean?"
The nurse touched his shoulder gently. "It doesn't look good at the moment. The tearing is pretty deep, and your wife has lost a lot of blood. You can't lose hope, though." is all she said, before turning tiredly around and heading back into the delivery room.
Whitney looked down at himself, bloody scrubs and sweaty hands, and he wanted to cry. But he didn't. In the corner of the waiting room there was a door that led to a small chapel, and he wrenched the door open, grip slipping on the knob.
It was only a few steps to the small font at the front that served as altar, and he got down on his knees beside it, resting his forehead against the cool marble.
"Take the breath you gave me," Whitney prayed softly. "Rip my heart out if you have to. Let me take her place; let it be the last thing I ask You for. Take me out of this world, but please don't take Chloe. Her son needs her, he needs his mother. Just don't take her. Please. Please."
It seemed like an eternity when the door to the small chapel opened, and the doctor called his name. "Mr. Fordman?"
Whitney looked up from where he'd stayed crouched at the front of the chapel, back screaming as he pushed himself to his feet. "Yes?"
The doctor waited for him to get to the door. "You might want to take these off before you see your wife," he said softly. "You can't talk to her for long; she's in the recovery unit right now, and we're going to be moving her to a room as soon as one opens so we can observe her overnight."
His wife. Whitney's knees almost buckled as he gave a short, barked sob of relief. "She's okay?"
"She's going to be all right. She and your son are both going to be just fine."
Whitney's hand locked around the doctor's upper arm. "Take me to her? I want to see her. Let me see her."
"This way," he said, leading Whitney through several sets of double doors, and making him wait outside until he had completely stripped off the bloody surgical scrubs and washed his hands and face. Once he was clean, the doctor knocked on Chloe's door. "Mrs. Fordman? I've got a visitor for you."
Chloe's face was nearly as pale as the sheets she was lying on, but her drawn face broke into a wan grin as Whitney came through the door, and she burst into tears. "Whitney!" she choked out.
The doctor closed the door on the two of them as Whitney sat on the edge of his wife's hospital bed, holding her tightly against his chest.
John was just turning nine, and Whitney had organized the birthday party. Cake, ice cream, soft drinks, pizza, marshmallows and chocolate bars for making S'mores over the patio grill, water balloons and even a rented laser tag game.
John was having the time of his life, with all the guys from his Little League team and about half his grade school class.
Whitney nearly choked when Alexis Luthor's little red head poked over the side of the fence that separated his and Chloe's home from Clark and Lex's on the other side.
"Hey Johnny!!!" she yelled. "You better save me a spot on your team!!!"
Johnny looked over and stuck his tongue out at Alexis as she scrambled over the white picket fence, and then tossed her a gun and a laser tag patch. "Gotta catch me first!"
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