He knew a storm was brewing as soon as his eyes landed on the door to the Torch office.
Fake snow had been sprayed across the bottom of the window, and a cheery cardboard Santa was tacked above it, looking very much like it was smirking at him. A cluster of silver bells was strung up near the top of the door, and someone had placed a miniature plastic wreath around the doorknob.
Christmas decorations. Tacky ones. This meant trouble.
Clark shook his head ruefully, his hand resting indecisively on the knob. Chloe was not going to be in a good mood. In fact, he'd lay ten-to-one odds that Chloe would be on the warpath, and he wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to be in the line of fire when she exploded. He shifted his weight back and forth indecisively, fiddling with the doorknob before raising his eyes to glance at the decorations once more.
The Coca-Cola Santa was definitely smirking at him now. Pathetic, Kent. You're not only nearly a foot and a half taller, but you also have superhuman powers... and you're still so totally railroaded by Chloe Sullivan?
Clark glowered at jolly old Saint Nick. "No, I'm not," he muttered defensively. "You haven't seen what she's like when she's... " He trailed off, his face hot with the shame of full fledged dorkitude when he realized he was talking to a one-dimensional inanimate object.
Glancing around to ensure that the building was indeed cleared out, he briefly toyed with the idea of using his heat vision to set it on fire. Once he eventually discarded that option, his face grew even more red with embarrassment, and he twisted the knob, pushing the door open with more slightly more force than necessary.
Inside was even worse.
Red and green streamed criss-crossed the ceiling so thickly, the ceiling itself was no longer visible. Tufts of cotton and tinsel were strewn across the floor, and a gigantic fake Christmas tree had been pulled in front of the Wall of Weird. Plastic icicles were stuck to the windows and to top it all off, an enormous, ostentatious bunch of gaudy mistletoe dangled from the fan, spinning around in lazy circles.
The Torch had somehow been turned into a frightening replica of Santa's Village at the Grandville Mall. The only thing that didn't fit the scene was the pulsating rock music coming from behind the door of the darkroom.
Clark turned his head automatically in the direction of the darkroom entrance, noting the paper candy canes taped to it. The blasting, angry notes could only mean that Chloe had taken refuge insideprobably developing more prints than she'd know what to do with. He winced as he recognized the band.
She was listening to Garbage. She only listened to Garbage when she was really, really mad.
He took a deep breath and set his backpack down on the couch. He crossed his fingers for luck, then made his way to the door and tapped on in twice, waiting for a response.
After a moment, the volume of the music went down. "Stan, if you even think about opening this door and ruining my photos, so help me God, I'll gut you like a fish and play cat's cradle with your"
"It's just me, Chlo," Clark interrupted, unable to suppress a slight grin at her familiar snarl. Better not let her see him smiling, though, he reminded himself. Even if he hadn't been responsible for the decorations, he still had to tread lightly. "Anything I can do?"
The door was suddenly flung open, and he had to jump back to avoid getting hit in the face. It wasn't that it would have hurt, but he figured things would be bad enough without having to explain how he'd punched a hole through the darkroom door.
Chloe's eyes were narrowed dangerously, flashing bright with anger. Several black and white prints were clenched so tightly in her hand that they'd begun to crease. "Not unless you're willing to break Stan Morgan into tiny pieces. Slowly, and painfully. And have a video camera on hand so I can forever savor the image."
"Yearbook won again, huh?"
"Gee, Clark, what was your first clue?" she snapped, throwing her hands up in disgust. "It looks like a bunch of elves threw up in here!"
"I was thinking along the lines of Santa's Village," he said helpfully. "You know, holiday cheer, festive colors..."
"Elf barf. It's elf barf."
"It's about to be elf barf mixed with Kent blood in another second, Clark."
He held up his hands in surrender. "Obviously, you're not going to be joked out of this one."
"I'm not in the mood for humor," she said darkly, stalking over to her desk and sweeping a plastic reindeer into the trash can. "Friggin' Stan and his stupid yearbook staff. God, I could snap him in half. This was supposed to be my year, dammit! I had a plan! I had a foolproof plan!"
"Chlo," Clark began carefully, deciding not to tell her that, given the state of the Torch office, her plan clearly hadn't been quite that foolproof. "Maybe you should sit down."
"I don't need to sit down. I need to"
"I know, I know. Chop Stan bite size pieces with rusty nail clippers, dangle his remnants off a fishhookthe usual maiming and dismemberment threats. But come on, you can get him back next year, right?"
"That's what you said last year." Chloe scowled as she stalked over to the file cabinet, yanking a door open and shuffling through a stack of manila folders. "God, I hate this! The Torch hasn't won the 'trash the opposite journalism venue's office with cheesy Christmas decorations' contest since... since before I even got here."
"I'd think a bunch of journalism enthusiasts could come up with something better to call it than that," he said lightly. "Is 'trash the opposite journalism venue's office with cheesy Christmas decorations' really the official name of the contest?"
"No, dumb-ass. And the official name is so not the point."
"And the point would be...? C'mon, Chlo, don't you think this whole thing is kind of ridiculous? It's just a couple of Christmas decorations."
The look on her face told him that he'd definitely said the wrong thing. "It's not about the decorations, Clark, it's about honor. It's a matter of upholding the pride of my paper, and getting to rub it in yearbook's face for the rest of the semester. The satisfaction of knowing that we finally one-upped them. And I was on the verge of getting my staff ready to go tomorrow, which makes it an even bigger blow to my pride."
"Uh, I'm sorry?"
Chloe looked at him exasperatedly and flicked a lock of hair out of her eyes. "See, this is why I didn't ask you to come pick me up," she said pointedly. "I knew you wouldn't understand. And speaking of that, what are you doing here, anyway? Where's Pete? I called him like an hour ago."
His ego was a little stung by that remark, a slight pang of jealousy rippling in his stomach, but he tried to let it roll off. "Yeah, I know. He said your car broke down this morning?"
"Flat tire. I didn't have time to change it."
"Right. Anyway, his mom decided to go buy their Christmas tree tonight, and you know Judge Ross..."
"Very big on family togetherness," Chloe finished, shoving another reindeer off her desk and slapping the folders down in its place. "So he called you to bail him out?"
"Looks like." Clark offered a slight smile, but Chloe just grunted and started arranging her photos into piles. "Uh... is there anything I can do?"
"No, thanks. I know you think this is stupid."
"That's why you called Pete instead of me?" he asked before he could stop himself.
Chloe arched one blonde eyebrow as she glanced up at him. "Pete was just the first person I thought of since Lana left for Metropolis this morning. But now that you mention it, actually, no, I don't think Pete would tell me I'm being ridiculous."
"I didn't," he protested.
"Clark, two seconds ago, you said that this whole thing is, quote-unquote 'ridiculous'."
Touché. "I meant it in a loving, supportive type way," he said feebly.
"Nice try," she deadpanned.
"That was weak, yeah." He ran a hand through his hair and looked at her sheepishly. "Honestly, I'm sorry. It's something that's important to you. I shouldn't have made fun. It was kind of mean."
Chloe smiled grudgingly, and Clark breathed a sigh of relief that he was off the hook. "I probably am being a little goofy about this, I know. Stan just gets on my nerves with his smug, 'journalism-ier than thou' attitude."
"He's just bitter because you turned him down for Homecoming this fall."
"And the winter formal last week," she agreed, looking a little brighter. "Give me five minutes to clean up the darkroom, and we can get going."
"Sounds good," Clark said. "I'll get rid of some of this stuff." He waves his hand at the decorations on the wall to illustrate his point.
He was rewarded by a genuine smile, all bright green eyes and white teeth, and he couldn't help grinning back in return. No matter what they'd decided last May, he'd long ago come to terms with the fact that nobody else had a smile like Chloe's... and nobody else's smile would give him this particular feeling in his stomach.
Even if they'd put it behind them, he was pretty sure part of him would always regret that missed opportunity. The moment that he'd never be able to get back.
"You're a lifesaver, Clark," she told him gratefully, disappearing back into the darkroom. "Five minutes!"
"Take six, even," he called to her retreating back. He could hear her laugh as the door closed, and he turned to the desk, still smiling.
A plastic snowman was taped to the top of Chloe's computer, and more of the fake snow was strewn across her desk. Even the screensaver had been changedthe familiar bending geometric shapes had been replaced by 'Merry Christmas!' scrolling across the screen in red and green. Clark shook his head in disbelief.
Stan had touched the computer. Anybody who knew Chloe knew that the computer was sacred turf.
Unless, of course, you're busy snooping through her email, his conscience nagged him. He pushed the thought back and began clearing away the tufts of cotton from her keyboard. His fingers brushed the keys just enough to restore the screen, but he paid it no attention, focusing on tossing the last of the snow into the garbage can.
But when he moved to take the snowman down, his eyes strayed of their own accord to the heading on top of the open document.
Chloe's New Year's Resolutions, 2003. And I swear on Woodward and Berenstein that I'm going to keep them all this year.
Clark glanced quickly at the door to the darkroom and gave it a cursory sweep with his X-ray vision. Chloe was still emptying out trays of chemicals, and from what he could tell, two printers were still on. And he was more than a little curious to know what his best friend had resolved...
No, no, no. Bad idea, Kent. Incredibly bad idea. Invasion of privacy, Chloe's personal thoughts... Then again, she did leave it open... She probably just forgot to close the file, and even if she didn't, it's not right... But really, it's only her resolutions. Who takes those seriously, anyway?
The devil in his left ear won out, and Clark leaned in to read as quickly as he could.
1. No more eating at McDonald's, or Taco Bell, or any other fast food restaurants, unless Dad offers to pay. Really, how can anyone be expected to turn down free food?
2. Keep in better contact with Mai and Aaron. They email me constantly, and I write back maybe once a month, if that. They were great to hang with this summerremember how fun they were.
3. In case you didn't notice, Sullivan, you don't have a job, and college is not going to be cheap. This means I will only be seeing Lord of the Rings once. No exceptions. Unless someone else offers to pay for multiple viewings, see resolution one.
4. Learn how to change a tire. It's ridiculous that I don't know how to do this yet.
5. Don't procrastinate with the thank you notes. Get them done over winter break before I get bogged down with homework and Torch stuff. Which brings us to 5a, Sound more sincere when thanking Aunt Amy for the bound-to-be-hideous sweater she'll be sending. She does it every year, stop asking Dad to drop hints that a gift certificate would be equally appreciated.
6. Figure out some way to boost morale on the staff that doesn't involve sticking Stan's head on a pike outside the door, a la Macbeth. As much fun as it sounds.
7. Find some way to politely explain to Sarah Baker that there really is a difference between 'through' and 'thorough'. 7a, While doing that, try to also explain that commas are our friends.
8. Cut back on the caffeine. No, seriously. Make a valiant effort, at least.
9. I've been vowing to do this since September. Get all wild and crazy, and redesign the entire Torch layout. Change equals good.
10. And this one is the most important, and should have been done a long frickin' time ago. GET OVER CLARK KENT. Once and for all. It's not May anymore, he's crazy about Lana, and it's getting incredibly pathetic to crush on a guy who sees me as nothing more than a boy who just happens to have breasts. Move the hell on. Dave Johnson is actually displaying signs of interest, he's pee-your-pants funny, he's cute, and he's definitely not a meteor mutated freaksee, four points in his favor already. Do something about it instead of brooding over the 'let's just be friends' incident, because, hey! Pretty much my fault.
"I'll be done in one second!"
Chloe's voice jolted him, rock hard, back to reality, and Clark clapped his hands to his head in nervous surprise. "Yeah, okay!" he called back, his voice coming out in a high squeak.
She still liked him.
He couldn't help it; he scanned the words on the screen again. '... the 'let's just be friends' incident, because, hey! Pretty much my fault.' That must meanit had to meanthat that day by the river, she hadn't meant it. She hadn't meant a single word she'd said.
Chloe still liked him. After how horribly he'd treated her, after the mean things he'd said, after all the times he'd run out on her, or ignored her advice, or made her feel like she was only coming in second to Lana...
So the question was simply, what should he do about this? How could he show her that he thought of her as anything but one of the guys? It might be her New Year's resolution to end this, but he had no intention of letting all the days between now and New Year's slip past without him somehow being able to vocalize Chloe that she had always owned a piece of his heart, and he'd just been to stupid to realize it.
Through some unbelievable stroke of good luck, she still had feelings for him.
And she would kill him in less than a heartbeat, regardless, if she walked out here and found him reading her files, he registered with horror.
Quickly, he closed the folder and shut down the computer, jumping away from the desk a mere breath before she walked out of the darkroom.
Chloe tilted her head to the side in puzzlement as she tugged her coat onto her shoulders. "Clark, are you all right?"
"What? Me? Nothing! Fine!" he yelped as he fumbled for his own jacket.
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What did you do?"
God, she is so cute when she squints... ack, she asked you a question, you dork! "Nothing," he said again, inhaling deeply to gather his bearings. I am so much smoother in my mind than I ever, ever am in reality. "I was just... thinking about some things, you know how it is. I was a little startled."
She chuckled a little as she flicked off the lights in the Torch office and headed out to the hallway. "Did you have a deep and powerful revelation?"
"I just might have," he replied as he waited for her to lock the door. "Hey, Chlo?"
"Do you have any plans for New Year's Eve?"