Disclaimer: These characters belong to the CW and DC Comics, not to me.
Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays
'Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays, you can't beat home sweet home
-Perry Como, "Home For the Holidays"
There were presents beneath the Christmas tree.
That, in and of itself, shouldn't be surprising. After all, people typically put up Christmas trees so they could stack presents beneath them. Presents and Christmas trees went together like peanut butter and jelly.
It was the fact that the presents were beneath her tree that was puzzling.
In November, a disastrous wedding to Jimmy Olsen had ended in her being abducted by a monster, and her life had subsequently unraveled completely. 2008 had been a long, hard year, and the way things had finally fallen apart completely had freaked her out. Lost and frightened and alone, she'd left Smallville.
No. If she was going to be honest about it, she'd fled-- fled the ruins of her life, in the hopes of creating a new one.
She'd climbed into her little car, with a few of her most treasured possessions, and driven until she reached Fawcett City, where she'd managed to get a job with the major newspaper there. It had been too long since she'd worked as a journalist, due to an unjust firing and an alien supercomputer that had taken up residence in her brain-- it had really been a hard year-- but the Fawcett City Post-Standard seemed glad to have her. She'd buckled down immediately and begun working long hours, churning out story after story.
A month later, she still hadn't heard from any of her friends or family. She and her dad hardly talked anymore, since he'd moved to the sunny shores of Florida. He hadn't bothered to come to her wedding, and she doubted he even knew what had happened there. God knew she hadn't told him. Her former fiancee/almost-husband Jimmy was recovering at Metropolis General, with the support of her cousin Lois Lane.
She knew Lois was pissed with her, pissed at the way she'd just run off and left Jimmy to deal with the fallout from his injurites-- but the truth was, she didn't love Jimmy, and hadn't for a while. She'd been forced into marrying him, thanks to the supercomputer in her brain, which had been using her wedding to Jimmy to cover its own, much darker agenda. Left to her own devices, she would have broken up with Jimmy six months ago.
Even so, she hadn't wanted to leave Jimmy to face it all alone. But Jimmy hadn't wanted to see her. When she'd hesitantly stepped into his hospital room, he'd cracked open his bruised and swollen eyelids and uttered two words quite clearly: "Get out."
She'd stood in the sterile white hallway crying, while Lois coldly informed her that he blamed her for everything that had happened. Chloe could understand that. In some moments, she blamed herself. It hadn't been her idea to be taken over by an evil computer, of course, and it certainly hadn't been her plan to have a huge, armored monster rip their reception apart. Even so, she didn't have any trouble understanding Jimmy's aversion to looking at her.
The computer in her brain had led him on, used him, and then dumped him in favor of a big ugly monster. Naturally he was pissed.
Jimmy's anger and Lois' disapproval had all been too much for her to take, and she'd run away without letting anyone know where she was. Given all her recent bylines, though, it wouldn't be much of a challenge to find her on a Google search, and she'd figured her best friend Clark Kent would show up almost instantly, and demand that she come home.
But he hadn't.
And that was just as well, because she was still angry with him about the mindwipe thing. She'd lost all her memories as the computer in her brain took over. Clark had used his Fortress of Solitude to restore them, only he'd decided not to return the ones that were about his secret. So he'd Swiss-cheese-holed her memory, albeit with the best of intentions, and when she'd finally been fully wiped of the computer's programs, getting her memories back in the process, she'd been totally pissed with him.
The two of them had had... words. Ugly words. Angry words. And on her side, quite a few obscene words.
It was no wonder he hadn't come after her, really. She'd said some pretty horrible things to him. Of course, he'd deserved them. But still.
She'd alienated her last friend in the world, and now she was all alone on Christmas morning.
Her artificial tree was adorned with white lights, and pretty but anonymous decorations from Wal-Mart. She'd meant to plug it in, sit down with a cup of coffee, and look at the tree glitter for a while, while trying not to mope over everything she'd lost.
But when she'd walked into her tiny living room, she'd discovered that the formerly empty space beneath the tree was stacked high with presents.
She blinked at the packages a moment longer, then crossed over to them and sat down on the floor. They were all neatly wrapped in shiny green, red and blue paper, adorned with large bows. Someone had taken the time to do a really nice job wrapping them. But there were no tags.
Santa, she thought, and smiled a little sadly. She'd had occasion once before to suspect that Santa Claus actually existed. But even if he did, Santa had no reason to bring twenty or thirty packages by her empty apartment. Even when she'd been a little girl, "Santa" had never brought this much.
She picked up a small one on top, shook it experimentally, and then tore off the paper. It was The Golden Hum by Remy Zero, one of her favorite albums ever. Back in her freshman year, she and Clark had listened to it practically nonstop. But her first college roommate had swiped it, and she'd never quite gotten around to replacing it.
The next package opened to reveal a hefty volume: Tales of the Weird and Unexplained, by Aleya Naiman. She'd adored the book as a kid, but had left it behind when she moved to Smallville. Clark had found her a copy in the local library when she'd first moved to Smallville, but she'd never managed to find another copy for herself.
Intrigued, she picked up the next package and unwrapped it. It was a little green alien mug, like the one she'd kept pens and pencils in at the Torch. One day during senior year, she'd reached over for a pen without taking her eyes off the story she was working on, and knocked it off the desk. It had shattered against the industrial flooring, and she'd never found a mug like it again.
She kept opening packages, finding replacements for things she'd lost, things she'd once loved that had been destroyed or lost or that had simply fallen apart. When she opened one of the larger packages and found a teddy bear exactly like the one her mom had given her when she was little, which she'd somehow lost during her move from Metropolis U back to Smallville, she hugged it to her, blinking back tears.
"Clark," she whispered into the empty room-- because she knew who'd brought the presents now. Only one person on Earth knew her this well. Even Santa couldn't possibly know this much about her. "Clark... I appreciate it. But you can't replace everything I've lost. Not the big things. Not the things that really matter."
There was a whoosh and a rush of wind, and suddenly he was sitting next to her on the floor. He wore old jeans and workboots, and his familiar red jacket over a red and green flannel shirt. His dark brown hair looked slightly windblown, and she guessed he'd been some distance away, waiting to hear her speak his name. He might have been back in Smallville, for all she knew. She honestly wasn't sure how far away he could hear her voice.
"You're right, I can't replace the things that really matter," he answered, looking at her earnestly. "Only you can do that, Chlo."
She closed her eyes, still holding the bear to her chest. "Maybe I don't want those things back, Clark. Maybe I don't want my old life back."
"Chlo..." He reached out a big hand absently and set a delicate glass ball to spinning. He watched it, avoiding her eyes. "Look, I know everything got really screwed up. And part of that was my fault. Hell, maybe it was all my fault, if you want to get technical about it..."
"You didn't ask Brainiac and Doomsday to come to Earth, Clark."
"No. But I'm the one who wiped your memories of my secret and allowed Brainiac to take you over. I screwed up, and I'm sorry."
She was silent for a long moment. "Just because Brainiac took me over?"
"Hell, no," he answered instantly. "Because you told me you didn't want to forget my secret, and I had Jor-El take those memories anyway. Because I was so focused on protecting you and trying to make you happy that I forgot you're a grownup who gets to make her own decisions."
She blew out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. She was glad to know that Clark understood what he had done wrong, and was sorry for it. "I appreciate the fact that you want me to be happy," she said softly. "But the truth is, I didn't want to marry Jimmy. It was all Brainiac's doing."
"Yeah. So what I did didn't make you happy, just forced you into marriage with a guy you didn't want. You explained that pretty clearly last month, while you were telling me exactly what you thought of my ancestry and reproductive habits."
She felt her cheeks redden slightly. "I may have been a little ticked..."
He laughed without mirth. "Chloe, you were a little ticked the way I'm a little fast. And it's okay. You had every right to be. I screwed up bigtime, and I'm sorry. I told you I was sorry then, but I don't think you were ready to listen."
"I was too freaked out to listen," she said softly. "My life was falling apart. I was scared."
"Yeah." His voice was very soft and very deep. "I was scared, too. I was scared I was losing you."
"And then I left."
"And then you left," he echoed. "And I don't know if you'll ever come back. And... I'm still scared."
She hugged the bear a little more tightly. "I'm not sure I want to come back home, Clark. Things are improving. I mean, things aren't great here, but they aren't awful, the way they were in Smallville. I have a job. I'm working as a journalist again. And I don't have a supercomputer taking over the dark recesses of my brain. So that's an improvement, right?"
He turned his head and looked at her. His green eyes were very serious. "But this isn't where you really belong."
She sighed again. "Maybe I don't really belong anywhere."
He looked at her a moment, then reached out a long arm and hauled her up against his chest.
"I miss you, Chlo," he said into her hair.
She tried, very hard, not to melt against his flannel-clad chest. He smelled like pine soap and fabric softener, and felt every bit as cuddly as the bear she held in her arms. She really wanted to drop the bear and wrap her arms around his broad shoulders. "I miss you too," she whispered into his shirt.
"Then come home. I know things got screwed up, but we can fix them. But we can't do much to fix things if you keep running away."
"I did not run away," she said with dignity, or as much dignity as a girl could have when her face was buried against a guy's shoulder. "I just thought it would be smart to fall back, regroup, and examine my options."
"Ahhhh." She heard a smile in his voice. "Well, you can regroup in Smallville, too, you know."
"I can't." She sighed. "I don't have anywhere to live..."
"Oh, yeah, that is a problem. Let me think about that. Oh, I know-- maybe you don't realize this, but I have this old rambling farmhouse with a spare bedroom and a hundred acres. I bet I could shoehorn you in there somewhere."
"But I have a job..."
"The Planet has some openings. And if you don't want to work for a Luthor publication-- well, I hear the Inquisitor is trying to clean up its act, believe it or not. Trying to become real competition for the Planet. I bet they could use someone like you."
"Uh, maybe. But I can't just leave... I'd have to give two weeks notice..."
"I can superspeed you back and forth for a couple of weeks, or even longer, if you can't find another job right away. No problem."
She sighed into his chest, feeling his arms around her. "Clark... what are we talking about here, exactly? Because I sort of thought you and Lois..."
"God, no," he said with such feeling that she could hardly hold back a chuckle. "I mean, yeah, okay, at your wedding I was feeling kind of lonely, and I did kind of, well..."
"Hit on her?"
"I wouldn't put it that way, exactly."
"You were about to kiss her, big boy."
"Yeah. It was a mistake. I thought I'd lost you for good, Chlo. I mean, you were married. But she's not the one I really want to kiss, trust me."
"Really?" She thought about that for a moment. "But you do in fact have someone in mind that you'd like to kiss?"
"Definitely," he said, very softly, and she felt his lips brush over the top of her head. She shivered.
"I guess I could come home if you really want me to," she murmured into his shirt. "But Lois... and Jimmy..."
"Lois will get over it," he assured her. "You know how she is. She holds a grudge for a few weeks, and then she's onto the next grudge. Once she calms down, she'll realize none of it was your fault. She's just upset because she hates seeing Jimmy so badly hurt. I think maybe she cares more about him than she likes to admit."
"Hmmm. Well, then there's Jimmy..."
He squeezed her waist. "Jimmy's a tougher case, Chlo. He got ripped up pretty badly by Doomsday. I don't know if he'll ever be able to look at you again without thinking about that day. But it's not like you want him any more, anyway. Do you?"
She thought she heard a trace of anxious insecurity in his voice. She shook her head firmly.
"I don't want him that way, no. But I don't want him to hate me forever, either."
He patted her back reassuringly. "Somehow I don't think Jimmy's the hating forever kind of guy, Chlo."
She thought about going back to Smallville, about facing the wreckage of her life and putting it back together. She thought of mending bridges with Lois, and Jimmy, and maybe even picking up a phone and calling her dad. She thought of talking with the people she loved most in the world, of seeing familiar places, hearing familiar voices.
A strange feeling clenched in her chest, and she slowly realized it was homesickness. She hadn't liked being all alone in the world. She missed her friends and her family and her life.
And more than anything else, she'd missed Clark.
Slowly, she lifted her head. He was watching her, his pale green eyes alert, but filled with an oddly vulnerable expression. She realized he was afraid she wouldn't come back.
She smiled into his eyes and tilted her face up, brushing a kiss over his lips. "You're right," she told him. "It's time to go back."
He broke out into a radiant, beaming smile and rose to his feet, sweeping her into his arms as if she weighed no more than air.
"Hey," she objected. "Don't forget my presents."
"Don't worry," he answered. "I'll come back for all your stuff later."
She frowned a little, suddenly embarrassed by the multitude of packages beneath her tree. "I didn't buy you anything, Clark."
"That's okay." He looked deep into her eyes and spoke very solemnly. "The only present I need is you."
There was a sudden blur, and then he was placing her carefully onto the tattered couch in the old Kent farmhouse. She'd spent more time in this house growing up than she'd spent in her own, and decked out for Christmas, it looked heartwrenchingly familiar. A fire crackled comfortably in the hearth, pine garlands lined the mantel, and in the corner a Fraser fir gleamed with multicolored lights and old glass ornaments.
She looked around at the comfortable, warm surroundings, and couldn't stop a smile from curling the corners of her mouth. Clark dropped down next to her and put an arm around her, smiling back at her.
"Welcome home," he said.