Saturday, April 29, 2006

The World Isn't Ending, Chapter 2

Season 5, an expansion and rewriting of part of "Solitude"
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: These characters belong to the WB and DC Comics, not to me

“You know,” Chloe says, sipping her coffee a little more slowly, “next time I go up north I really need to remember to pack a parka.”

He lifts an eyebrow. His Fortress of Solitude isn't exactly within driving distance. “How’d you get up there, anyway?”

She hands him a metal octagonal disk. “You left your key in the cave, dumbass.”

Clark winces. She calls him that fairly often, in a gentle, teasing kind of way, but the word has never been so apt before. He’s been calling himself that for the past hour, along with every other epithet he can think of.

“You have got to be more careful,” she tells him sternly. “You know, if I can get up there, anyone can.”

“It’s a damn good thing you did get up there,” he says in a soft voice, remembering the way Fine immobilized him with kryptonite. If Chloe hadn’t followed them, led by her insatiable curiosity and her concern for him, the Fortress of Solitude might now be in ruins, and the world in the process of being taken over by Zod.

The thought makes him much colder than the Arctic wind ever has.

“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Clark. You would have gotten out of it somehow and managed to kick Fine’s ass. You always do.”

“Not always,” he says with a sigh. “Sometimes you have to save me.”

She shrugs, as casually as if she had prevented him from getting a hangnail. “I keep telling you, Clark. Even heroes need backup.”

“You know, Professor Fine told me humans were insignificant and couldn’t be depended on,” he says with soft sincerity. “He obviously didn’t know you very well.”

Chloe has no idea how big the stakes were, what she’s just accomplished by rashly following him to the Fortress, but he knows that one of the pitiful, insignicant, irrelevant humans Fine was so contemptuous of has just saved the world. He’s grimly amused by the irony of it.

Chloe rolls her eyes, and, typically, deflects the compliment with humor. “Oh, please. Roboprofessor understood as much about human nature as R2D2.” Clark smiles, amused despite himself, and she looks over at him curiously. “What was he, anyway? Obviously he wasn’t Kryptonian, because the kryptonite didn’t bother him. Besides, I saw him just kind of materialize out of a pile of nuts and bolts that spilled out of the spaceship.”

“I guess he was some sort of Kryptonian artificial intelligence.”

“They really must have had some awesome computer programmers on Krypton,” she quips. “I wonder if he’s actually dead? If not, he might go back to the spaceship, because they seem to be related somehow. Maybe you should go keep an eye on it, see if he comes back to it.”

“I already went over there,” he says. “It’s gone.”

She blinks. “Maybe the master of the shell game moved it,” she suggests, referring to Lex Luthor, who’s been keeping the alien spacecraft in a heavily guarded warehouse.

“Or maybe I have a bigger problem that I thought,” Clark says. They both saw Fine disappear, but disappearing isn’t the same thing as dying, particularly not when the person seems able to materialize out of metal. It worries him that Fine and the spaceship have both vanished.

“Maybe.” She sips her coffee absently. “Exactly what did Fine want with you, anyway?”

Clark looks away from her, into the fire. “He was trying to trick me into helping him free a rebel Kryptonian named Zod,” he answers. “And he almost succeeded. If it hadn’t been for you…”

She pats his hand reassuringly, the same way she’s been patting Shelby. For some reason he’s irritated by the thought. “It’s okay, Clark,” she says. “I don’t know what this Zod was going to do, but…”

“He was going to take over the world,” Clark blurts. “Destroy everything. Enslave everybody, or kill them.”

She looks at him, then takes a long, fortifying sip of coffee.“Okay,” she says. “I’m beginning to see why you look so upset. But it’s okay, Clark. You can relax now, because the world isn’t ending. Not today, at any rate.”

“I just can’t believe how gullible I was, Chloe. Fine was able to manipulate me into doing exactly what he wanted.”

“Obviously he’d been studying you for a while, and knew how important your parents are to you.”

“You should have heard the way he was talking,” Clark says, still angry at the memory. “He talked about how wrong it was of me to want to protect my parents, how irrelevant humans were. He called them a scourge. Like humans were, I don’t know, roaches to be stepped on, or something.”

“Well,” she says softly. “I guess I can understand how he could think that way. We’re obviously not as highly evolved as Kryptonians.”

He jerks his head around and stares at her. “You have got to be kidding me, Chloe. You don’t really think of me as more highly evolved than you are, do you?”

“Of course you are. I’m just a regular person, but you… you’re a superperson.”

The thought that she regards him as something so different, so inhuman, really upsets him, for some reason. It’s a strange echo of what Fine said, and it makes his teeth grind together. “Maybe we’re different physically,” he says, his voice sharp-edged, “but inside, we’re all just people.”

“You’re smarter than I am,” she says, looking into the fire and carefully not meeting his eyes. “Faster. Stronger. And you can do all those other things, like look through things and set things on fire with your eyes. You need to quit thinking of yourself as just another human being, Clark. Because you’re not.”

He knows he’s not being totally rational, but he feels like she’s slapped him across the face. His best friend in the whole world thinks of him as inhuman. Alien.

The thought slashes into him like a kryptonite knife.

“Well,” he says, his voice shaking with anger and hurt. “Maybe Fine is right. Maybe I just shouldn’t try to be friends with humans, if I’m so damn superior to them.”

His acidic tone seems to catch her attention. She turns her head and looks at him, and a little furrow appears between her eyebrows. “What are you getting all huffy about, Clark?”

“I just don’t like the idea that I’m somehow genetically superior,” he says angrily. “It sounds too much like what Fine said. He thought of humans as something to be crushed and swept aside.”

“Just because Kryptonians are stronger than us doesn’t mean they have the right to destroy us,” she answers. “And just because I said you were more highly evolved doesn’t mean I don’t think of myself as worthy to be in your august presence. We’re friends, Clark. That hasn’t changed just because I found out about all your abilities. It won’t ever change.”

At her soft reassurance, some of the irrational anger drains out of him. He studies her intently. “It just sounded like you might, I don’t know, resent me or something.”

She does the patented Chloe eye roll. “Please. Don't be any dumber than you have to be, Clark. You know perfectly well I don't resent you.”

He drops his gaze and stares into the fire. “What about other people?” he asks softly. “Earth people, I mean. If they knew about me, and the things I could do, would they resent me?”

She’s silent for a long moment. “I’m not sure, Clark. But yeah, I think maybe a lot of them would.”

He draws his knees up and rests his chin on them, still looking into the fire. He’s always been conflicted about his abilities. Part of him wishes he were an ordinary human, which is perhaps one reason why Fine was able to manipulate him so easily. That part of him had jumped eagerly at the chance to destroy his last link with Krypton.

He remembers Fine’s words: To think that you would sacrifice your Kryptonian heritage for a single homo sapiens. You are a pitiful disgrace.

The fact is, he would have done just about anything to save his mother. But he can’t deny that the thought of destroying the Fortress, the will of his Kryptonian father Jor-El, and every reminder of his alien heritage had appealed to him.

But no matter how much he keeps fighting it, he's not human. He's Kryptonian.

“I’ll never fit in on Earth,” he says at last, sorrowfully. “Maybe a few people will accept me, but I’ll never be able to tell everyone my secret. They won’t accept it.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Chloe admits.

“But I can’t go back to Krypton, either. There’s no Krypton to go back to.” He swallows, feeling as alien and alone as he’s ever felt in his lifetime, and something stings his eyes. If he were human he’d blame the smoke from the fire, but since he’s invulnerable, smoke doesn’t bother him. He blinks hard, trying to will the stinging sensation away before Chloe notices the suspicious moisture in his eyes.

She reaches over and puts a hand on his shoulder, and he has the uncomfortable feeling she already noticed it. “Clark,” she says gently. “Maybe you don’t need the whole world to accept you. Maybe... maybe it’s enough if just a few of us accept you for who you really are.”

He reaches up blindly and puts his hand over hers. “Chloe,” he says hoarsely, grateful for her reassuring touch, grateful for the reminder that she really does accept him. There are only four people in the world who know his secret—his parents and two friends. Even his girlfriend Lana Lang doesn’t know, because he’s never had the guts to tell her. He’s terribly afraid that she’ll reject him, so it’s easier to hide the truth from her. But the problem is she doesn’t really know who he is, and never will unless he works up the nerve to share his secret with her.

But Chloe knows who he is, knows everything about him... and accepts him.

It's nice to have one girl in his life he doesn't have to keep secrets from. But when he thinks of the danger she put herself in by following him to the Fortress, of the danger she keeps putting herself in, over and over again, he gets freaked out all over again. He never wants to lose her, and he's afraid that one of these days her curiosity and her stubborn loyalty are going to be the death of her.

He turns toward her, puts his arms around her, and pulls her against him. She seems to understand his need for reassurance, because she puts her mug on the floor, slides her arms around his shoulders, and holds him.

"You could have died today," he whispers against her shoulder. "Can you please be more careful?"

"Sure," she answers perkily. "From now on I won't even jaywalk."

Her cavalier attitude makes anger flare inside his chest. "I'm not kidding, damn it," he says, lifting his head and glaring at her.

"Geez," she says, blinking at him. "You are having serious mood swings today, Clark. Is it that time of the month, or what?"

"It's been a bad couple of days, Chlo. My mom almost died. You almost got yourself killed. And then there was something else... what was it again? Oh, yeah. The attempted total annihilation of the Earth."

"Which I foiled," she points out. "If I'd stayed at home and been careful, we might all be speaking Kryptonian by now."

He knows she's right, that he's being irrational again, but the thought of her in danger really bugs the hell out of him. "I just want you to be more careful," he says through gritted teeth.

"I'm a reporter, Clark. And I have a best friend who's an alien. These two things sometimes conspire together to make my life just a little eventful."

"Just try to stay out of trouble, okay?"

"I never wake up in the morning with the intention of getting into trouble, Clark. Trouble just comes to find me."

"It does not." He grasps a handful of her hair, tugging at it gently so she has no choice but to look up at him. "You go looking for it. Promise me, promise me, you'll quit going out of your way to find it."

He's suddenly aware his mouth is only about an inch away from hers, and she's looking at him with something very like surprise. He's a little surprised at himself, too, and thinks the stress of the last two days must be catching up with him. He knows he's taking out the stress on Chloe, that he's not being fair about this, but he can't seem to help himself.

"Geez, Clark, quit going all caveman on me," she says, and the color is starting to rise in her cheeks. He's managed to piss her off. "I'm a reporter, not a china doll. Sometimes I have to take risks."

"One of these days you're going to get killed." He remembers his mother lying on the couch, dying, and envisions Chloe there instead. The thought makes him feel ill.

"I can think of worse things than dying in the pursuit of truth and justice."

His fingers tighten in her hair. "Don't. Get. Yourself. Killed."

Her lips press together. "Clark, if you don't stop telling me how to live my life, I'm going to shove kryptonite in your ear."

He's not sure how this conversation started to spiral into an argument, how they went from holding each other to snarling at each other, but she is really getting on his nerves now. "If you'd just admit I'm right--"

"I know where you keep the kryptonite," she says, her eyes narrowing dangerously, "and I'm not afraid to use it."

"Look, Chlo--"

"Stop!" she says stridently. "Listen, Clark, I know things have been way out of your control for the past couple of days, and it's freaking you out, but stop trying to control me."

He pauses, thinks about it, and realizes that yeah, that's pretty much what he's been doing. It would be nice if he could know that one person in his life was safe from harm. The more irrational part of him wants to put her in a box, wrap her up in cotton, and make sure she never, ever goes into danger again. But he realizes she's not guaranteed to live forever, no matter what he does to protect her.

"I just don't ever want to lose you," he says, dropping his gaze and feeling stupid. He's been acting like an ass, and he knows it.

"I know," she answers. "Because you like having one person around who knows your secret."

He looks up quickly and meets her eyes, seeing a shadow of sadness there. He's alarmed to think that maybe Chloe thinks her only value to him is the fact that she's his secret keeper. Because she means so much more to him than that. There's so much history between them, so much friendship and affection that could never be replaced by anyone else. He doesn't know how he could live without her.

"No," he says softly. "Because you're my friend, Chlo."

And he kisses her.

Read Chapter 3 here.

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