question and answer: Part Three

by Beantree


Disclaimer: Not mine, don't own them. Warning: Part Three contains some violence and no hot sex. ;( Author's note: I started writing this story sometime in season two before Chloe and Lex had any interaction or connection what-so-ever. So even though it's a future fic, now that Chlex has a storyline on the show, my fic has turned into a kind of AU where Chloe was never involved with Lionel and by extension, Lex. Also, feedback is more welcome than a cool breeze on a sweltering day. ;)


Chapter 19

Clark waited in the dark silence of Chloe's apartment; still not exactly sure of what he would say when she walked through the door. He felt strange, raw anger growing in his chest. A gnawing unknown to him before this moment. Betrayal, despair and a desire for answers were mixing into a dangerous alchemic poison, but it felt good in the dark like this, stewing and alone. He almost wished she would never come in, but then again, anticipation always had a way of driving him mad. Especially since he could no longer hear the two women speaking through the wall separating their apartments. He knew Chloe was coming. He picked up on her familiar voice earlier in the silence of the hallway, but walked past the door anyway. Even knowing Lex was incapable of hearing her, Clark kept the discovery to himself. Couldn't really explain his motivation for doing so.

No, that was a lie.

He knew exactly why he didn't want Lex there when he saw Chloe. Though he knew no specifics about what had gone on between the two, watching his friend over the past few months, he picked up on several things. Lex was upset, that much was clear, but there was a vein of confusion running underneath his anxiety. Most telling was the strenuous attempt on his friend's part to maintain an air of detached interest in finding Chloe, yet failing to make it convincing. As far as Clark could remember, Lex always projected the sentiment he chose to convey effortlessly, genuine or not. This uncharacteristic behavior made Clark uneasy. Only able to guess at what could have possibly rattled the man's ever-smooth demeanor, Clark hoped his imagination was running away with him.

He heard the door click open at last, but Chloe passed right by him in the dark, walking directly to her bedroom without turning on the lights. He heard the bathroom light click on and continued to sit, listening. She was crying. Hearing her made him wonder how regular this ritual was, sobbing alone with the water running to obfuscate her own tears. Thoughts of a harsh confrontation were draining away, replaced by compassion for her situation. She didn't have to be alone; he just needed to make her see that.

He stood from his seat and moved toward the bathroom, lurking outside the doorway directly behind where she stood. He expected to scare the shit out of her, but when she caught his reflection in the mirror she didn't jump, hardly blinked an eye. She sighed instead, wiping tears absently, as if already forgetting why they'd been shed.

"What are you doing here Clark?"

He was the one to jump, hearing her question. Frustration flared within him. Staring at her incredulously, he could only watch as she shut off the tap and pushed past him out of the bathroom, padding on bare feet into the kitchen. He heard her pouring a glass of water, as if nothing out of the ordinary were going on. He followed after her, dumbfounded. The familiar voice emanating from her strikingly different appearance unnerved him. If he saw her on the street, he would never make the connection. Hell, he interacted with her, however briefly, at that party and hadn't taken a second glance. More than her appearance was altered; her manner was unfamiliar to him.

"I can't believe you're asking me that question. Chloe, you disappeared. We've been looking for you for months," she only stared at him. She looked tired, "I mean...Christ, are you okay? I want to know that nothing is seriously wrong."

"Well, you found me. I'm fine. Mission accomplished."

"GOD DAMNIT, CHLOE!" he shouted explosively, his hand coming down on the counter with a bang. He saw her jump, the water in her hand sloshing out the sides of the glass. He took a breath, trying to calm down. This was infuriatingly frustrating. "Why do you hate me so much? I don't understand when this happened."

She set the glass down, her hand shaking slightly. Her eyes closed as she brought fingers up to rub the bridge of her nose where newly acquired frames sat.

"I don't hate you Clark. I never have."

"Well then what the hell is going on with you? You can't even look at me. And I'm not the only one you're running away from, am I? You know, he won't come out and say it, but I think even Lex is worried that you're in serious denial about the recent events in your life."

"Well, isn't that just the very definition of the pot calling the kettle black," she mumbled.

"What's that supposed to mean?" He hadn't meant that to sound so wounded.

"I don't want to talk about Lex. If you have something you want to say to me, say it. If not, get out."

"Who are you? I don't even know who I'm talking to. This is not you Chloe."

"Really? Well then please enlighten me as to who it is you think I am."

He sighed, trying to clear his head. He felt too jittery to deal with this. He needed to cut through the resistance she was constantly throwing up at him. Desperate to invoke a memory highlighting the kind of friends they had been, he struggled before speaking.

"You're that girl I spent the entire summer after seventh grade with. Every waking moment, side by side, until people began to say we were joined at the hip. That girl who went on a hike with me in a torrential downpour and insisted we keep going, even after I told her we had to go back. Do you even remember any of this?"

She nodded imperceptibly, gaze fixed on the counter. "We spent too much time together that summer. We got into a screaming fight over that hike."

Clark felt encouraged by her response and moved closer to where she stood."You decided to just go on without me. Turned to leave, in fact, when the storm knocked a limb off a tree right into you," He was standing directly in front of her now, but she kept her eyes lowered, "I watched you slide down the mud of that embankment, right into a huge pit of thick, dirty water. I was looking for your head to pop up, scooting down that slope, trying to get to you."

"Always saving people, Clark." Her tone was supposed to be sarcastic, but nostalgia invaded.

"Except you never came up. My heart stopped, Clo. It took me forever to find you in that muck, all tangled in that stupid branch. Even when I finally dragged you out, you were like a rag doll, lifeless. I though you were dead. I was sure you were dead and the last thing I said to you was so hateful."

He was rambling now, sounding scattered and strange, he knew, but she was suddenly quiet and everything kept pouring out.

"I was so clueless, just blowing breaths into your mouth without any idea of whether I was doing anything right or not. It was a complete miracle when you coughed up that gunk and started breathing. I started crying like a baby, wailing. I couldn't stop; couldn't help you, I was sobbing so hard. But after a few minutes you were comforting me, hugging me, telling me everything was going to be okay. I tried to save you Clo, but in the end you saved me. We sat there covered in mud, clinging to each other for an eternity. I still think of that as one of the most significant moments of my life. That's who you are. That's the Chloe I know."

As he finished, he gently took one of her hands, lightly running his thumb over her knuckles. He was anxious for her response.

"All those things you're saying Clark-- those two people-- that was a lifetime ago. A different existence," she removed her hand slowly from his, looking up at him finally, "I think you should go."

The intensity of emotion he allowed himself to let lose in telling this story was something almost palpable. This was his big speech. He was frightened at the vulnerability he felt.

"We need each other Chloe. I need you."

He knew it was a plea of desperation, but something was telling him that this was it. If he couldn't get through to her now, it would never happen.

"No-- no, Clark. I'm sorry," she said firmly before a sad little note of reflection emerged in her manner. "It's funny, you know? All those years, I was right there and you wanted nothing to do with me."

He started to protest, but she interrupted him.

"Sure, we were friends, but your dedication to lusting after Lana always trumped that friendship. But that was the trick, wasn't it? She was a tragic character of her own invention. You couldn't have her then and she was all you wanted. Now I'm the tragic character, the one you can't have. And I'm what you want, aren't I? Can't you see that it's not real?"

She was looking him right in the eyes, seeming so sure that she found her answer there. He didn't understand what was happening. He poured his heart out and it was like she misunderstood completely. She was totally blind to what he tried to do. After a moment she stepped around him, heading toward her room.

"I'll let you show yourself out," she spoke in passing.

Instead he followed her, catching her in the hallway and grabbing her elbow firmly.

"You're wrong, this has always been real. You and me, the Woodward to my Bernstein, remember?"

"Not anymore."

"Why not? Because of Lex?" His question carried too much accusation; he had wanted to be calm.

"Clark-- you know that's not what this is about," her tone was almost questioning, sounding as though now, she wasn't so sure that he did understand.

"Do I? I don't care what happened between the two of you. You don't know him like I do, Chloe. You can't always trust his motives."

"I can't believe I'm hearing this-- I'm not some wide-eyed, innocent victim of circumstance and Christ... he's one of your oldest fucking friends," her face betrayed awe that he could misinterpret everything so badly. But he was convinced that something occurred significant enough to spook Lex and push Chloe further away.

"I just-- make me understand. Why him? You don't even know Lex; you can't trust him. Not the way you can trust me."

"This is not about trust, this is not about Lex, and this is certainly not about you and me," her voice took on a pleading tone then, exhaustion and tears suddenly threatening to break through, "Why can't you just let me disappear?"

He felt a surge of devastation hearing her words. She seemed so far out of his reach, slipping further away with every new aspect of her behavior he didn't understand.

He refused to let that happen.

On impulse he moved forward, bringing his lips to hers. He leaned into her body, feeling her back hit the wall. His brain barely registered her hands pushing against his chest or her voice trying to break through the insistent barrier of his lips, asking what he was doing. Her body was so soft and warm beneath his and she smelled like herself, like his best friend Chloe. She was comfortable and familiar. His dearest friend and he wanted her back. She'd torn his insides to shreds with all these absent months, all these unfeeling words. He wanted her to see how much emotion she stirred in him, how much he was hurting now and had been hurting for what felt like an eternity.

"You're a part of who I am, Chloe. How can you not know?"

His voice choked with emotion as he pressed his lips to her throat. The neck of her blouse seemed to tear unintentionally in his hands, like tissue paper. His mouth moved down the gentle slope of her shoulder, and he lowered onto his knees in front of her. And god, she smelled so good, felt so familiar. He pressed his cheek against the exposed skin of her stomach, encircling his arms around her waist. He couldn't believe he found her, after all this time searching. He raised his head to look at her, wanting to make her understand how, despite everything, he was so relieved to see her. He wanted to express just how heartbreaking her absence had been, but instead was struck by the distance in her eyes. A blank, far off stare, and things began to click in his brain. A strange haze was lifting. He noticed her arms slack at her sides, how she stopped speaking or moving.

Realization dawned.

He had just pinned Chloe Sullivan up against a wall, torn her shirt, and put his mouth on her without invitation. He moved away abruptly, pressing his back against the opposite wall. His eyes widened, startled. Only able to watch as she slid down the wall and wrapped her arms around her knees. She stared straight forward at nothing.

"Oh, god--," he gasped, "Chloe..."

He felt like he was going to vomit.

"You should go home, Clark."

Her voice was quiet. No anger or blame there, only exhaustion.

"I'm sorry." He whispered as he stumbled away from her, out of her apartment. He made it out of the building before doubling over, on his knees and heaving. Finally he stood dizzily and made his way down the deserted street, never before so aware of the impossibility of self-punishment.

Chapter 20

The clear amber liquid rippled lightly as Lex handed Clark his drink. The familiar clink of ice on glass should have calmed him, but his tremors had yet to subside. He couldn't think, found articulation of anything comprehendible impossible. Sitting on the soft leather couch in Lex's Metropolis penthouse, Clark found his mind skipping to another couch, another apartment. He felt odd sitting in this sprawling wealth when only a few short hours ago he'd been silently sitting in a run-down, salvation army-furnished, one-bedroom.

Same spot, different universes.

The thought made him shudder involuntarily. He glanced up to see Lex watching him closely, waiting for him to speak. Lex had yet to ask a single question since Clark stepped through the door, but in truth, he didn't have to. Clark knew what the question would be. Where is she? There was no need to verbalize it. He had wandered around the city for a few hours after leaving Chloe's, doubling back several times, but there was nowhere to go but here. There was really never any doubt of his destination. Clark swirled his drink once before downing the contents. He placed the empty tumbler on the coffee table and leaned back onto the couch, his eyes closed.

"I found her."

"I know." Lex kept his voice soft, obviously wanting Clark to continue.

Clark nodded his head, eyes still closed. He was afraid to open them. Dread drove an instinctual avoidance to seeing any of the emotions potentially stirring in Lex's expression. "Her hair is short and dark now. She wears glasses."

Lex remained quiet. Clark wondered how long his friend would be able to endure his evasive ramblings, but uttering the evening's events out loud would make them undeniably real. The thought terrified him.

"I heard her voice in the hallway." He couldn't do this. What was he going to say? Every decision he made tonight suddenly seemed frightening. "I didn't want you to know." He could hear a rustle of movement and opened his eyes to see Lex had moved across the room. His back faced Clark as he poured himself a drink, but even after the glass was filled he didn't turn around. "I was wrong, I should have told you. I'm vividly aware of that now, believe me."

"Well, that's a comfort." Lex's voice emerged dangerously cold. His body remained perfectly still.

Clark was reminded of the ominous calm before those Kansas summer storms. In a way, the two men had avoided discussing the chain of events leading to this joint search for Chloe. The urgency of their common goal allowed them to ignore any exploration of individual motivations. They shared the drive, why ask questions when they might not like the answers? Even so, Clark had long suspected the reasons Lex had for finding her and had no doubt Lex could easily read his own. But their relationship had always existed in a quagmire of unspoken assumptions and suspicions. This new endeavor was no different and occasionally Clark found himself resenting the mutual silence surrounding the topic.

"Did you sleep with her?" and the question brewing for months escaped unexpectedly. He was surprised by his sudden inability to suppress this irrational need to know. Even if the desire for confirmation plagued him, what did the answer matter at this point? "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-- It's none of my business. It's just-- lately I feel like I'm losing my mind or something."

Clark shifted uncomfortably, placing his head in his hands, trying to hide from his own question. He felt the cushion dip next to him and Lex's voice materialized low and near.

"You talked to her tonight." Despite his comforting manner, Lex's voice was carefully guarded.

"I messed up, I messed everything up."

"Nothing is irreparable when you can see the problem clearly."

Clark was amazed at how civil Lex remained. After all, he just admitted to purposefully withholding his discovery of Chloe's whereabouts, the ultimate betrayal of this search. But Lex's voice carried traces of desperation. The necessity of calming Clark and extracting information from him was trumping Lex's anger. Clark had barely been coherent walking through the door tonight and Lex was ignoring personal aggravation in order to coddle his source. The thought made Clark peripherally annoyed. Always maneuvering to get the desired result as efficiently as possible, the LexCorp way. He should write their jiggles.

"She took off. It's too late."

Clark allowed his response to be dismissive, suddenly wishing he hadn't come here. But he had been wrong about Lex's anger; it appeared to be making a showing after all.

"I don't have time for your morose non-information right now, Clark. I need to know where she is."

Lex rose from the couch, pacing away from where Clark sat, trying to distance himself from the object of his frustration. Clark felt his own anger flare-up. The validity of his fury was highly questionable, but he didn't care. He just wanted to fight; wanted to unleash his self-loathing and project it outward. He pushed up from his seat, following Lex across the room.

"Need to know? All these dire proclamations the past few months and not a whole lot of detail. Why so secretive Lex? Maybe there's a reason she took off from the mansion. Maybe I shouldn't tell you where she is."

"What are you implying?"

Clark could see he was pushing Lex dangerously close to the boiling point. Good. He prayed Lex would hit him; kick the shit out of him. He longed to feel the pain of the blows. Just this once, please. A foolish thought, but the frustration of that impossibility only escalated his behavior.

"Hasn't the Luthor motto always been to just take what you want? Maybe you took something Chloe wasn't ready to give."

Fierce, shaking hands flew up to the collar of Clark's shirt, gripping the fabric tightly and pushing him up against the adjacent wall. Clark let himself be pushed, reveled in the quick heated breaths of rage hitting his face. He wanted hatred; wanted to be despised. Ready for a fist to connect with his jaw, desperate for it, he let out a frustrated sigh when it didn't come. Lex's vicious eyes were regaining their rational sight. Clark could practically see his mind clearing.

--Blind anger *click*, --questioning the turn in conversation *click*, --arrival at abrupt insight *click*.

Lex let go of the handfuls of shirt and stepped back. He seemed almost startled now, his face calm in the certainty of realization.

"What happened tonight Clark?"

"I don't..."

"Think carefully before you let a lie escape your mouth."

"What do you want me to say, Lex?"

"You show up here three hours after disappearing without explanation, devastated and apologetic one minute, throwing accusations at me the next. I can see it all over your face. Something happened that scared you, fine, but I don't have time to let you take it out on me. I have to get back to that building before she disappears again."

The coldness in his voice had returned full force. This night was only getting worse. Humiliating himself completely for the second time this evening and Clark had no idea how to recover. He stood silently as Lex moved around the room, grabbing his coat, his car keys. Preparing to go back for her.

"She's not there."

"So you said, but I'd just as soon see for myself."

"Believe me, I went back about an hour after I left her place. Her few personal possessions were missing. Her car wasn't out back. She was gone." Clark felt his body jump slightly as Lex slammed the keys in his hand against the wall across the room before slumping lifeless into a nearby chair.

"So close," His voice was a whisper.

Defeat. Such a rare thing to glimpse in the demeanor of Lex Luthor. Remorse hit Clark hard. He was suddenly desperate to soften the blow. "I'm sure she's not far, we can go after her."

"I'm running out of time," then more softly to himself, "I don't believe this is happening." Lex's expression turned distant, flicking through possible solutions to this new scenario.

"She's not going to turn into a pumpkin, Lex, we'll find her." Feeling so apologetic now, Clark marveled at the newest turn in this schizophrenic encounter. His emotions were bouncing all over the place and he had no control.

"I don't think you understand what's going on here Clark."

"Well then why do you tell me?"

Lex glanced up at him finally. He looked exhausted. "I can tell you think this is some slighted lover's quest, Clark, but Chloe is in serious danger," he sighed, dropping the chilly faade for the first time, "We found evidence of surveillance in the mansion after she left. I thought it was some kind of corporate espionage at first, but it concentrated too heavily on the places she frequented. I only became seriously concerned when I ran into such difficulty finding her in Metropolis. Locating her never should have been that hard. Someone was interfering; claming-up sources, purposeful misdirection. Chloe is a resourceful woman, but she doesn't have the kind of influence that was used to block my investigation. I had some suspicions regarding who it might be, so I switched strategies, decided to ask different questions. That's how I knew to go to that building, Clark. I only found infomation on where to find her because she was being watched by someone else."

"But you said it was a hunch on someone's false credentials."

"I lied. I knew she was there."

Awareness of Lex's intention struck Clark suddenly, "And you were going to go back without me?"

"I was already planning on it."

"I can't believe you kept all this from me." He had been lied to about the purpose of thier visit to the apartment building that night. Lex hadn't really been interested in finding her then, it had all been artifice.

"Looks like we had similar motivations. I wanted to see her alone."

Minutes of silence stretched, both men lost in the echo of each other's confessions. Clark reeling from his own betrayals and from Lex's. He was shocked by how, despite their alliance, both could fall so easily into the old patterns of distrust and self-interest. Clark thought they left that behind them years ago in those tense days of paternal influence and misunderstanding. But here it was again, so easily resurrected when their goals were once more intertwined. The mood between the two had turned somber and still. The unavoidable approach of confession, of naked truth, was closing in. A rare moment in their history together, but suddenly inevitable now that their lies were revealed.

"Tell me what is going on with her." All the shattering new information gained made Clark realize how completely in the dark he had been. His grasp on the situation was much weaker than he imagined.

"She's going after her mother, she wants revenge."

"Why her mother?"

"The man who kidnapped Chloe wanted her mother's location. It's the reason she was taken."

"I don't understand."

"Chloe's mother is a government operative, Clark. She's a dangerous woman."

"So, knowing all this, why not just locate her mother? Find her, find Chloe, right?"

"The same reason Chloe was taken in the first place, I suppose. This woman is nowhere to be found. All documentation of Chloe's mother ends about five years ago. She dropped off the face of the earth. Chloe knows how to find what everyone else is looking for-- I can imagine what she's planning, I just don't know where she's going."

The conversation died for a moment, allowing their thoughts to settle. But soon enough Lex spoke, wanting his chance to do the asking.

"What happened when you saw her tonight?"

Clark sighed at the question, his distress at the topic evident. His voice was thick when he finally answered. Frightened to re-live his actions. "I was already waiting for her in the apartment when she came home. All I could do was plead for her to come back with me. I thought I was getting through for a moment there, but in the end she told me I was delusional. That I was hanging onto something that wasn't real." He watched Lex turn his face away, hearing that last statement. He looked stung by Clark's words, even though they hadn't been for him. "I just lost it. I wanted to prove how wrong she was, so I-- I just..."

"You forced yourself on her." In completing the sentence for Clark, Lex's voice dropped uncomfortably despite his obvious attempt to maintain a detachment throughout the younger man's disclosure.

"No-- I mean, I don't know," there was a strange awe in his voice, hearing his own words, "But I almost did and I'm not sure what that makes me." Lex let out a tense breath, rubbing his hands over his head. Clark quickly moved to ask another question. He needed to break the horror he felt at his own answer. "What's the real reason you're looking for Chloe?"

"She's in danger. She needs to be warned."

"But that's not the only reason."

"No, I guess not."

"Something happened between you two."

"Yes." Lex's responses were growing more impatient with each question. The discomfort at this line of inquiry obviously getting to him.

"You slept with her."

"Yes." With this admission Lex's tone was that of a weight being lifted. The freedom of disclosure.

"So she became too attached, you fought and she took off."

"No. She just left-- just gone."

Clark watched his friend's face fall with the last answer, surprised at the inaccuracy of his own assumption. An uncomfortable re-living of emotions was on display before him. He saw confusion in Lex's face, outlined with devastation. A new question he never thought to ask emerged in his mind.

"Are you in love with her?"

Lex raised his eyes to look in Clark's, a resounding confirmation written there. Clark hadn't expected this revelation.

"I don't know." He answered shortly, but his demeanor revealed otherwise. Hell, all his behavior leading up to this moment, pointed to the affirmative, but this quiet disclosure shook Clark harder than he expected.

"Then you should go after her."

"The crucial problem with that being, my clues are few and unreliable. I barely know where to start."

"I do."

Lex looked at him with exasperation, but hope painted the corners of his expression. "This whole time?"

Clark produced a small piece of paper from his back pocket, placing it on the counter next to him. "It's an address in Metropolis."

"Where did you get that?"

"I had some time to kill in that apartment before she showed up, I found it somewhere I shouldn't have been looking. I just didn't know what I had, until now."

"You planned to go after her."

"No, I've made too much of a mess already." Clark smiled hollowly at his friend. A strange sense of finality settling around him. "I hope you can help her, Lex."

His words were soft and sad as he pushed away from the wall and walked quietly out of the apartment, not waiting for Lex's response. The sound of the elevator doors hitting shut behind him rang cold. Leaning back against the cool metallic wall, he let his eyes slip closed. He felt so tired. This had never been his fight after all; the realized just arrived lifetimes too late. He didn't belong here. The inevitability of a life fated to be lived on the outside, always looking in, greeted him as he stepped into the slick Metropolis night and walked quietly away.


Chapter 21

Lifetimes seemed to pass seated in her car, convincing herself that tomorrow, tomorrow would be the day. But three days had passed and still she sat, just watching. Her surveillance had provided precious little information. Her mother only left the apartment twice a day. Newspaper in the morning, bottle of wine in the evening. Then again, it had only been three days. The glamorous spy lifestyle of intrigue and danger could still present itself.

The longer she observed, the more depressed she felt about this woman's life. Working up the motivation to confront her seemed impossible. Why make her life more miserable than it already was? In reality, she was stalling, but that was nothing new. Every decision she'd made in the past several months had been in the interest of procrastination. She was getting really good at it. The closer she got to her mother, the less she understood why the hell she was doing this. The result of her confused musings was maddening inaction that prevailed for three days. She alternated between feeling like a coward and feeling like an overreacting fool. This changed, though, as soon as the moon provided a brightly lit night. Watching her leave for an evening booze run, Chloe caught finally caught full sight of her mothers face. All the obscured glimpses and quick snatches of her shadowed figure over the last few days left Chloe unprepared to be struck so hard by a clear picture of her face. Older and worn, but familiar. A warm fading memory from the past and a strikingly similar image to the one she caught in the mirror everyday.

The weight of the moment secured her resolve and Chloe decided it was then or never, but found she couldn't get out of the car. She opened and closed the door four times before actually getting out to move toward the entrance of the building. The overgrown foliage near the door obscured her presence as she waited for her mother's return. She distractedly thought this poor safety practice considering the woman's risky vocation; allowing shrubbery to grow out of control near an entranceway. So easy for someone to hide. If Chloe were in the same position, she would be sure to keep the way clear. She would prepare for every possible eventuality. Smug in her observation, Chloe was taken completely by surprise as she was whipped around, her body slamming into the brick wall behind her. One hand on her throat, the other holding a gun right in her face.

"You have less than one minute to tell me who you are and what you're doing before I decorate the wall with your brain matter."

The words were clipped, not even a hint of surprise or fright in the tone. Chloe choked on her words for a moment. She could barely see her mother's face in the dusk.

"I've seen you sitting outside my place for three days, so identify yourself, or I'll consider myself justified in pulling the trigger."

"What, you don't recognize your own daughter?" she snarked a little more breathlessly than intended.

Her mother kept the gun steadily trained, her face darkening. For a moment they were in a stand off, both still. Finally dropping her arm and stepping back (a little too reluctantly in Chloe's opinion) her mother spoke.

"What are you doing here?"

She sounded weary, but not exactly put out by her estranged daughter's presence. Chloe's temper flared at the comment.

"Aren't you glad to see me, mom?" Her statement reeked of sarcasm and pain. The overexaggeration placed on the maternal pronoun twisted the word into perversion.

Her mother only sighed, "Let's not do this, please. Tell me why you're here or leave."

Chloe felt like a chastised child. What the hell was she doing there?

"I want some answers."

She spoke brokenly, willing the tears rapidly gathering in her eyes not to fall. Her mother looked at her closely, studying her for an uncomfortably long time before allowing her expression to soften slightly. Her manner conveyed an annoyance at her own easy acquiescence.

"Not here. Let's meet tomorrow at dusk. Northeast corner of the park up the street. It's nicely secluded, quiet. We can talk there. And please try no to bring along whoever that is following you."

Chloe's eyes widened in surprise. Her head immediately turned to look around, as if she might see someone lurking. She was about to ask whom her mother had seen and where, but she was already alone again. The building's screen door swung shut against the night.

Chapter 22

So now there was with time to wait, time to waste.

Twenty-four hours with nothing to do but think. About whom her mother had seen following her, about how she could have missed such a thing, about what she would ask tomorrow, about everything she had done to ruin her life.

The warning about being trailed made her every action dictated by an ever-increasing paranoia. She couldn't relax, was constantly jittery. Still, she could see no evidence that she was being followed. Which made her wonder if the warning had been a ploy on her mother's part to force her into being more cautious. She couldn't really say for certain. She didn't know her mother well enough to judge. Regardless, she didn't want to take chances.

Leaving her car in front of the apartment complex, she walked the back streets until she found the odd little motel she drove past on her way into town several days before. The place was an old apartment complex the proprietors attempted to turn into a commercial motel. Definitely the type of place that charged by the hour. She stepped into the lobby, noticing the musty smell of age. Renovations were long overdue. She felt dirty immediately after walking in. The desk clerk looked desperately bored and completely uninterested in her presence. She could be grateful for that, at least. Paying cash, she showed herself up to her room and settled in for the night. Relieved to simply have a shower and bed for the first time in days, trying not to wonder when the last time the sheets she slept on were washed.

She missed her little apartment. It had been a piece of shit, but it had been her piece of shit. Although now, thoughts of her abandoned residence were leading to thoughts of the last night she spent there. Of Clark.

Poor Clark.

She suspected long ago that throwing all her darkness at him could only result in a moment where he would reflect it back. He was forgiven his transgression that night before he ever stepped out of her door. The thought of him in her hallway, so desperate, upset her sensibilities more for his sake than for her own. She had always been the stronger one and from what she could tell during their brief encounter, lately he'd been unraveling.

He had always been her weakness. No matter how hard she tried, she could never rid herself of affection for that goofy farm boy. He worked his way into her heart ages ago, demanding forever-evolving degrees of love. From the moment they met she knew she would always try to protect him, couldn't help but look past all his faults.

The unexpected meeting up on the roof, followed by his face appearing in her bathroom mirror gave her the strange sensation of destiny playing itself out. Funnily enough, she always harbored the fear that she would be the one to destroy that last lingering bit of innocence keeping him uniquely unspoiled in her eyes. It had been her motivation that day in the hospital when she told him to stay away, trying to prevent tarnishing all that hope with her despair. He was her first love and she wanted to preserve in him that wide-eyed boy she remembered so fondly.

But the moment she saw him standing there, she felt resigned to the trickery of fate. Fate had allowed her to think she escaped the inevitable by running, but instead led her right to the end it had planned all along. Seeing his face, she hadn't known whether to laugh or cry. How could she possibly fault him for any hurt he caused? She could always see her own actions reflected in his cruelties. It had always been that way with him. Funny, she would see blaming herself for another's actions as nave and overly dramatic with anyone but him.

Her father had asked in a long-ago moment of teenage broken-hearted despair, what it was about this boy. She still had no answer. But it wasn't just her, was it? He enchanted everyone. But time and circumstance had changed things too drastically and never before had her friendship with Clark seemed so removed from her present reality. She didn't know how to bring it back. She didn't know if she even wanted to. Everything was different. She hardly knew who she was or where her loyalties should lie. With Pete and Lana? With Clark? With Lex...

God, Lex.

She couldn't even allow herself to think about him. Not right now. There were too many thoughts fighting for precedence in her mind, most of which she was trying to ignore. Chloe didn't fall asleep until the early morning hours, her brain jumping from idea to idea, preventing any rest. But when sleep finally did come, it took a firm hold. She didn't wake until well into the daytime hours.

Chapter 23

Nervous energy crackled around her, drowning out the usually comforting sounds of the crickets' symphony. She was lurking outside the park's entrance, waiting and watching; wondering if someone was following close behind without her knowledge and pretending she wasn't terrified to face the woman waiting within. Procrastination had always been her most unbreakable habit. Fear, on the other hand, was something she learned to conquer more successfully.

She was late for their meeting. Too many moments spent taking breaths, calming herself, or closing her eyes in an attempt to focus, delayed her. How long had it taken for her to get here? This very moment was her reason for relentlessly continuing on the destructive path she had chosen for months, but she was ready for it to be over. She wanted to believe this was the end. Hanging onto this act of resolution had sustained her through all of this. Her mother was to be the catalyst toward an end to feeling lost. But she secretly feared that nothing could bring her back; that she would be adrift forever.

Stray thoughts distracted her as the minutes ticked by. The sun was long set by now and, realizing her delay, she moved into the park and headed back toward the more secluded areas, angry with herself for wasting so much time. What if her mother had gotten tired of waiting? What if she was already long gone?

She approached the furthest fringe of the park, noticing someone seated on an outlying bench. Her heartbeat spiked, unsure of the slouched figure. The night was too dark by now and she slowed her walk, eyes straining hard to capture any glint of light that might identify the individual. The figure stood as she came closer, sending her heart pounding mercilessly against her chest. Her brain frantically attempted to make an identification, but fear was delaying her mind's efficiency. Even after getting a clear view, recognition took a moment to click into place.

"Lex, what are you doing here?" She was genuinely curious. The hysterical tinge in her tone made the question sound like blame, but in truth, her fright at his shadowed approach distorted her tone. She really wanted to know. He didn't speak. He looked different to her, oddly melancholy. "Have you been following me?"

Her mother's warning sprang into her mind, but she knew Lex hadn't been the one following her. She would've felt him near. Again he replied with silence and some ill portent began to form in the pit of her stomach.

"How did you find me?" Her third question and finally he chose to answer.

"Clark filled in some gaps a few days ago leading me here, but I've known pieces for a while, lately they've been falling into place."

His voice was so dark and his presence filled her senses as he came closer. This was no time to lose focus.

"What kind of pieces?"

"Chloe, now's not the time..."

"Of course," she cut him off bitterly, "I'm already late, as I assume you're aware."

She began to walk away from him dismissively, but he moved with her, blocking her departure. Angry at his interference and at how easily he seemed to have found her, her expression turned incensed. She was ready to tell him exactly how little she appreciated his presence, but looking into his eyes, her mood darkened mimicing his own. She took a step back from him, her voice turning soft.

"What are you doing here?"

The repeated question carried a hint of panic this time. He reached out gently to touch her, but pulled back when her body jumped at his intended contact.

"Chloe..."

The way he said her name sounded like a warning. She stared at him, wide-eyed now. Something was wrong. She tried to move past him again; suddenly desperate to know why he was detaining her, but he grasped her by the upper arms when she made an attempt to push by. She struggled in his hold, frustrated by his intervention. Panic was gripping her more aggressively with each passing second.

"What happened?" she hissed. "Let me go! Where is she?"

"Just calm down for a minute. Please."

"Why the fuck are you here?" she screamed, already fairly certain of exactly what he was doing there.

The moment she registered his face in the dark, everything about him communicated to her that her mother was dead. That she was too late. She just hadn't wanted to see it. Her body became still before stumbling back from his grip. Chloe could feel shock and denial moving over her in waves. No words would come out, only small gasps. She was having trouble breathing and broke out abruptly into tears, then, just as abruptly, returned to calm shock. A wave of nausea hit next.

This was all her fault.

"I led him right here. She told me someone was following me. I brought Gosch right to her. Oh, god."

How could she have been so stupid? She never even attempted to conceal her location after escaping from that basement, was sure Gosch wouldn't even bother with her anymore. But now it seemed he watched her every move from the moment she broke out, maybe even counted on her to find her mother for him. She was such a fool. Beatings without questions, her easy escape, the reason he hadn't bothered to come after her. She was wrong about his motivations for everything.

Oh god.

Unsteady on her feet, she felt Lex grab her elbow as her knees sank slightly.

"This is not your fault."

"How can you say that? You know that it is," she whispered.

"Don't do this."

"I just killed my mother."

"Do you really think of her that way, as your mother?"

"Fuck you," she spat, wishing he would stop speaking.

"Hatred, grief, desire for revenge. Those emotions can only be inspired by people you loved. Who was this woman to you, really? Don't let her own your guilt too."

He was gripping her arm so lightly, moving close in an attempt to make his words heard. Tears began escaping slowing, slipping down her face.

"My hand in anyone's death would diminish me, but love or not she was my mother. You, of all people, should understand that, Lex."

Her voice was soft and caught in places. He let go of her then, his grip slackening, arms falling to his sides. His expression was resigned, as though he knew exactly how this encounter would go before she even arrived. And maybe he had, but for some reason that hadn't stopped him from trying to soften the blow in his own way.

So she stepped past him and this time he didn't try to stop her. So eager only moments before, but now that she was free to advance she walked slowly, not really wanting the confirmation that this was real. Shadows were playing tricks on her as she walked, revealing legs, arms, feet in every branch and shrub. Every three feet she was sure that a body appeared. When she really did come upon the slack figure of the woman who had become such a focus in her life as of late, she almost didn't register that she had found her. Dark clothes contrasted with a shock of blond hair that, no doubt, was covered-up at the start of the evening. Chloe sank to her knees next to the still figure, quietly surveying the result of all her unfortunate intentions. She could see Lex standing several feet to her right, giving her space, but not leaving her alone. A long, deep welt ran along her mother's throat.

Strangled.

Crouching closer, she reached out a hand, but stopped short of touching the lifeless, porcelain skin of the face in front of her. Instead she took her hand back to cover her own mouth.

"Oh, god." She could see Lex shift uncomfortably where he stood. She addressed him, never taking her eyes off her mother's face. "Why kill her? He was only ever after information."

"Maybe he got it." The pity was strong in his voice; it grated on her nerves.

"And what about me? An unacceptable loose end. We should both be dead."

A statement to test her suspicion that Lex had done something to protect her. After all, with her mother murdered, Gosch should have been the one to meet her here tonight. But Lex had been waiting instead. If she wasn't dead then Gosch certainly was. She could only imagine the spy vs. spy operation that had gone on before she arrived.

"Neither of you should be dead. Maybe you weren't the only one to get here late tonight."

It was a confession, an apology. But in her eyes he held no blame and she didn't have any sympathy for his guilt.

"But early enough to do some cleaning up, right?" He didn't respond, "How big of a mess was there? Forget it I don't want to know."

And she really didn't. There was a first time for everything she supposed. She moved her hand across her mother's cheek, smoothing stray hairs off her forehead. She was struck by the thought that this was the only quiet moment ever shared between them. There was nothing left here for her. It was over. She stood quickly, and began walking toward the exit. So many answers she would never have, but she guessed she never really knew what the questions were. For the first time in a long time she just wanted to go home, tired of thinking and worrying.

Tired of hiding.

Her brain was barely cognizant of where she was walking, just away. She hardly noticed, or maybe more accurately, hardly cared as Lex caught up with her and subtly took charge in leading her to his waiting car. She remained passive as he guided her into the passenger seat before driving her silently away. She knew she should be annoyed at his interference; knew she should demand he tell her how he found out so much. Curiosity about how meticulously he kept tabs on her should have been driving her mad. She should've protested loudly at the fact that she was currently leaving behind her car, still sitting in front of her mother's apartment building, with her entire life inside it. But she couldn't force herself to fight just now. Could only watch the passing pattern of city lights rush by, like distant ghostly beauties, while her mind became quiet for the first time in what seemed like an eternity.

After a long time she turned to look at Lex, so far away in that adjacent seat. Highway lights dragged patterns of illumination across his still figure.

"You weren't supposed to get involved in any of this." Her voice rang sad and regretful, unsure if she was talking about her revenge or just her.

"I know." He responded quietly, almost a whisper.

Tears strangled her voice when she spoke again. "I'm sorry-- I never meant to give you the responsibility of saving me."

"You saved yourself, I just did what I could to protect something unexpectedly important to me." His words sat in long moments of silence, "I'm sorry about your mother."

She continued to stare out the window, showing no sign of acknowledgement, save her small hand slipping over his in the shadows between them. A swell of relief hit her to feel his hand grasp hers in return.

_Epilogue:_

"Clark, do you think we could talk?"

Every ounce of will power obviously hard at work to keep her voice solid and her hands from shaking as she pulled him aside from his work. He knew she'd been back in town for over a week but they had yet to speak.

"I don't know, I'm pretty behind. I've been neglecting the farm lately." He hadn't meant it to be a swipe at her, but could see her flinch at the comment.

"I won't take much of your time. Please."

He didn't reply, only removed his gloves and walked with her to the barn. He wasn't sure if he could handle this. He managed to avoid her pretty successfully until now, despite the small town. So much shame lingered from what he had done. He couldn't even look at her without remembering his loss of control. Unable to forgive himself for his actions or even admit to being capable of such frightening behavior, he chose to avoid dealing with it. Which meant avoiding Chloe. But hadn't she told him numerous times that she didn't want anything to do with him anymore? So really he was just taking her request to be left alone to heart at last.

This argument worked very well, making him feel justified in staying away for over a week. But here she was, wanting to speak with him after all. And all he wanted was for her to go away and take his memory of that haunted, betrayed look on her face with her. Quite a roll reversal from those months ago. She followed him up the stairs, taking a seat on that old couch that had been in the loft since their high school days. Chloe left enough room for him to sit too, but instead he walked away from her, moving to stand near the window several feet away. He couldn't look at her, didn't want to get too close. He felt an overwhelming need to stay far enough away to obscure her physical presence. Gaze fixed on the fields stretching out in front of the barn, he waited for her to speak. After a moment she sighed sadly and broke the silence.

"I can see that you're not going to make this easy for me. I suppose I deserve that."

He was glad that the sun was burning low in the sky, casting a shadow over the area where she sat. He gained comfort from his inability to see her small, still figure. He had no desire to watch her face as she told him how much he had hurt her; how bitterly she felt the betrayal of her trust.

"I don't want you to think that I expect forgiveness for everything I've done, but before one of the great friendships of my life finally withers completely, I needed you to know that you didn't deserve my animosity. There were things I had to take care of on my own and I can't apologize for that necessity, but I know that you only pushed so hard because you love me, I know that. It's what I would have done for you. I wanted to protect you, but I know that I hurt you and I'm sorry."

She waited for a beat, expecting a reply, but as silence hung between them longer and longer, she finally stood and left, her speech lingering behind.

He didn't go after her; didn't really understand what just occurred.

The sensation of his chest being crushed in a vice prevented any immediate reaction. God, everything was so fucked up. All his emotions were so tangled he barely knew how he felt anymore. Here she was apologizing, but so much damage was already done to their friendship. The impossibility of ever forgiving the hurt inflicted on each other, amid the mess of circumstance, loomed gargantuan in his mind.

How could she ever forgive him?

The really twisted thing was, he never really blamed her for pushing him away. It hurt, but he understood why it was happening. The real struggle was how to forgive her for being the cause of his loss of control. Even now, he couldn't say for sure that he would have stopped if he hadn't chosen that exact moment to look up and really see Chloe clearly. The instant he recognized the expression on her face as one of disconnect, of resignation to endure whatever he was about to do to her, his perception of himself was shattered. What if that moment of clarity had never come? Would he have raped her?

And in some sick way he blamed her for opening up the possibility that he would be capable of such a thing. Of physically forcing something upon her, or anyone. But she was the only one truly entitled to blame. He knew about some of what she'd gone through. Could only guess at how many devastating physical punishments had been forced upon her during her month-long captivity. He imagined her face permanently occupied by that same look of detached acceptance then. He should've known better that night. It made him sick to think he was no better than those who had hurt her for gain.

The most devastating thing was, in the end, all he ever wanted was to show her how much her loved her. Through all of this chaos of emotion he lived in for the past several months, --the guilt for leaving her alone after she was shot, --the pity for her pain after she escaped, --the anger at being pushed away, --the jealousy at the closeness formed between her and Lex; running underneath it all was this thread of insanity originating from the loss of her as a stabilizing force in his life. He really did need her; he always had.

And suddenly he desperately wished he hadn't let her leave in silence after her apology. He sped out of the barn, frantic to reach her house before she got there, so relieved to find her just pulling up as he arrived. Red rims of dried tears lingered around her eyes as she stepped out of her car. Her face showed only mild surprise to see him. The muted curiosity currently inhabiting her expression seemed to indicated she had almost expected him to show up.

"Hey."

"Hey."

"What are you doing here?"

He couldn't think of exactly what to say, just stood there. An eternity passed before his tongue found any words, but she waited patiently for him to speak.

"Chloe, you said so much-- I don't think anyone has ever said things to cut me to the bone the way you have."

"I know..." she responded emotionally, but he interrupted her before she could continue.

"Even for me, there's only so long I can fight before there's nothing left." She looked away from him, nodded her head sadly as she fought off tears. "Your apology was heartbreaking, Chloe, because this whole thing, this mess we're caught up in, isn't your fault; I never blamed you. And what I'm really scared of..." he was choking up now, afraid his tears would let loose, "is that you'll never be able to trust me again after what I did that night in Metropolis. The way I just pushed you up against that wall..."

He couldn't say anything else, had to convert all his efforts to preventing himself from crying. Breathing deeply, rapid eye blinking...

He would not cry.

Chloe stepped closer, wrapping an embrace around him and soon he was clinging back tightly, marveling at how long it had been since the last time he truly hugged her like this. He felt overwhelmed to be able to put his arms around her and feel her return the gesture.

"How can you forgive me?" he whispered into her hair, afraid this spell of reconciliation would shatter at any moment.

"I forgave you before you walked out of that apartment, Clark. I know you too well to condemn you for that. It's always been that way with us, I guess. Maybe the real question for us both, now, is if forgiveness is enough."

He nodded tearfully, placing a kiss on her head, still not quite ready to let go. "How do we find out?"

"I'm not sure if that's a question we know how to answer." Clark felt his face contort in grief at the bitter truth ringing through her statement. He felt her bury her face in his shoulder and intensify her hug for a moment before finally breaking away from his embrace. "Well, you better go. Get caught up on all that delinquent farm work." Her words were playful, but not without a tinge of sorrow.

"Yeah, I guess I better."

"Okay then."

"Okay."

They smiled at each other sadly before he turned, heading back the way he came. He was only a few feet away before she called after him.

"Hey, Clark." He turned immediately to hear her voice, "See you later."

"Yeah, I'll see you."

He hoped that he would.

FIN


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