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Author's note: This story was written as part of the Chloe Knows Project.
Countdown to the Inevitable
She'd known for seven years, four months, seventeen days, five hours, and twelve minutes by the time he finally figured out that she knew.
Chloe had to hand it to Clark—he was good. No one had ever gotten a photograph of Superman in focus. He was simply too fast. When he did public appearances, his form was always slightly blurred, as if he lived life that smidge faster than the rest of the world. So few people had ever been up close enough to see him on any kind of a regular basis—the people he saved almost always remembered the costume, not the face. As it should be. That was the whole point of such an ostentatious uniform, she was almost 100% sure. She had once confided to her roommate, late one night as they'd shared a six-pack on the roof of her building, that no sane human being would wear his underwear on the outside unless it was to distract people from his face.
It also helped that he rarely needed to save the same person twice. When you're snatched from the jaws of certain death by an angel with heat vision trailing four yards of cape, you tended to take life a bit more cautiously. Look both ways before you cross the street. Think twice before you cross the wrong guy. Spend more time with your family, counting your blessings. No, like lightning, he didn't make it a habit of striking twice in the same spot. That distinction was reserved for about four people that she knew of. Herself, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Lex Luthor. But near as she could tell, she was still the only one with the clue—though she'd lay odds that Lex, being a smart guy and all, had his suspicions. After all, the two of them, as transplanted Metropolitans, were the only souls from this life who had been there from the previous life.
Lois and Jimmy came late to the party. They had only ever seen Clark Kent the slightly nebbish-y journalist. The kind of guy you'd ask over to help you move into a new apartment because he looked like he'd be game for holding the heavy end of the sleeper couch as you walked up the four flights of your thank-god-it's-rent-controlled walk-up. They saw the guy whose sport coats always seemed a half-size too big and in desperate need of a good pressing, even though he was one of the best paid columnists in the city and could afford better. They saw the glasses and the soft-spoken, straight-off-the-farm demeanour, and none of it came across as epic. When you're looking for epic, the little stuff just slides on by, unnoticed.
It hadn't been like Chloe had ever caught him in the act. Nothing so dramatic. No waking up in his arms as he sped away from flames. No stumbling upon him spot-welding the family tractor with his heat vision, or hand-prints in a door that was ripped away with strength that was beyond anything any farm-boy, no matter how strenuous his daily chores around the farm, could have managed. She'd never seen him on his knees, gasping for breath and veins bulging as he was exposed to the meteorites they'd all finally started calling "kryptonite" in the last year thanks to Clark's "exclusive" that won him the job at the Planet.
The first time she'd been saved by Superman, she had been doing a remote with Kyle, her then-camera-man, and Casey the sound-chick two years prior in the middle of March. She'd been one of sixteen journalists on the Belle Starr when it capsized on the river in the middle of the mayor's press conference. She'd hit the icy water with a surprised yelp, her arms flailing and fingers brushing thrashing limbs of fellow dunkees before the cold sapped all the feeling from her leaden arms and legs. She'd blacked out and come to on the shore, steam rising from her clothes as the air around her was suddenly as hot as the sauna at the gym, and Miles from WGNI was sitting next to her, mouth open and his toupee crooked as she finally focused enough to actually see the red boots right in front of her. Registered that heat vision really was invisible. She'd immediately looked around for Casey and Kyle, and ripped the hell out of her nylons crawling over to them. Casey had been alternating between crying and laughing, and Kyle had apologised through chattering teeth for losing the camera that cost more than he could make in three years.
They'd never done theatre in high school, but Chloe'd marvelled at Clark's acting that day. How differently he stood, in the cape. How his voice was pitched that touch lower, with more confidence than she usually heard from Clark, who seemed paralysed by simple decisions like whether to order the tuna salad or grilled cheese at Dooley's. Superman never smiled the way Clark did—wide, and open, and easy. His green eyes were hidden behind lenses that he'd said he'd needed once they all hit college. His eyes had slid over her, never resting on her any longer than anyone else, and then he'd been gone. He'd rolled the boat back onto its back like a child's bath toy, and disappeared into the western sky. The Mayor and all of her people had been whisked away by a hired car, and once the story was filed, the lot of them had ended up at Billy's Tavern, drinking until 2am.
Seven years, four months, seventeen days, five hours, and twelve minutes ago, Chloe Sullivan had been packing up her father's house the week after the funeral. The heat had been oppressive and she'd had all the windows on the first floor open to try and get a cross-breeze. She could have just closed the house up and cranked up the air-conditioning, but the previous month's electric bill had traumatised her so now she only did that at night. Jenny Ordway's mother was a real estate agent, and had already offered to handle putting it on the market for her, which had been a huge load off her mind. Pete had been on his way with the U-Haul, and the kitchen had been the last mammoth chore before she headed back to Metropolis and college.
She'd had the radio on in the kitchen as she'd wrapped old Charlie Brown jelly glasses in newspaper and laid them side by side in the box to go to the Salvation Army on Main St., two blocks from what used to be the Talon when the news came on. The mysterious "super-man" who had saved the shuttle from crashing the previous month had appeared again, this time saving fourteen people from a collapsing building in Suicide Slum. He'd set the three families and several teens gently on their feet two blocks away, where EMTs could treat them for smoke inhalation and second and third degree burns. Then he'd disappeared, a streak of red and blue that rattled windows as far away as New Troy.
She'd paused in her mundane task, lips parting in surprise at her lack of surprise as the thought had just come into her mind "That's Clark."
There had been no great deduction at work. No Holmesian logic games, or trickery. She'd just known. She'd never questioned it. Not from the moment he'd ripped the door off the coffin lid and cradled her in his arms as she gasped from breath that night in Chandler's field. Not since she'd turned around at graduation to whisper something in his ear as they sat listening to Reynolds go on and on about responsibility and the new journey they were embarking on, and found the chair empty even though he'd been there just a second earlier. Not since he'd laid a hand on her shoulder that morning, before she'd stepped forward to lay the rose on the gleaming mahogany casket before it was lowered into the ground.
Clark had always been a hero. Clark had always, even when he'd made her so mad she'd wanted to tear her hair out by the roots and stomp her feet and scream, been her hero. He couldn't help it. It was just who he was. Who he'd always been.
Now, as the wind whipped past them, her face buried in the folds of his cape as they put significant distance between her and the fireball that had been her car, the crisp December wind cutting like knives along the sliver of skin exposed as he'd hastily bundled her up and snatched her from the jaws of certain death in the space of time it took for her to insert her key in the ignition and turn the engine over—now, she was getting to see up close and personal the job Martha had done, getting the s-shield applied over the fabric that looked like it ought to have been spandex, but wasn't. The thread she'd chosen had blended in so perfectly that unless you were looking for it, you'd never see it.
Unless you were looking for Clark's eyes above that shield, you'd never see them.
But he saw as he set her on her feet, in that split second, the look on her face. Whatever he'd been going to say, whatever trite "There you are, Ms Sullivan, now who would you know who might try to blow you up?" was on his lips was snatched away by the knowledge.
They stood there, on the roof of Metropolis General, sixteen blocks from the charred wreckage of her Volkswagen, frozen by the secret they didn't voice.
There was something vaguely surreal about Superman wearing Clark's smile. But she'd analyse that later.
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