Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An Idle King

Clark/Chloe, Bruce, Ollie
Futurefic angst
Disclaimer: These characters belong to the CW and DC Comics, not to me.

The poem is "Ulysses," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags
...

He stared into the red-gold heart of the fire. He was cold. So cold. There had been a time when he had never been cold, a time when he could fly through the terrible iciness of space and not even feel it.

But now, a chilly November morning made him shudder. And he couldn't even walk, let alone fly.

He shivered, and drew closer to the fire.

Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.


"Clark?" His wife's voice was gentle. "Did you see this morning's Planet?"

He grunted. He was sullen nowadays, a fact he wasn't proud of. But he couldn't seem to help it. The betrayal of his own body, his own frail helplessness, left him angry at everyone. Even Chloe.

"The Justice League saved Oregon," she said, hesitantly offering him the paper. He turned his face away from it with a look of scorn. She sighed, and put it on a table.

"They're still following the procedures you put in place," she told him. "And even though you're retired, they still consider you the leader of the Justice League."

He grunted again. Condescension. Pity. He'd have none of it.

"Clark..." Her voice was soft, vibrant with love and affection. "Everything they accomplish, they manage to accomplish because they had you as a model."

He stiffened his shoulders and glared at the fire. He didn't want to be a model. He didn't want to be sitting here, warm and safe and comfortable, while younger heroes battled the evil that still infested the streets of his city, and of his adopted world.

He wanted to go out as he'd always lived, a hero, a man who dedicated his life to saving others.

But he could do nothing but sit here by the fire and brood.

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone;on shore, and when

Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea.

"He's having a bad day."

He heard her voice, despite her effort to keep it low. His hearing might not be what it once had been, but he could always hear her.

"Would he rather I came tomorrow instead?"

"Oh, no. He'll be happy to see you. I'm just warning you that he's a little... grumpy."

He growled to himself, and huddled beneath the blanket she'd brought him. He knew he was grumpy. He was trapped here, in a worthless shell, withering away beneath the weight of old age, while the world went on without him. While other heroes took up his cause and saved people, and the world forgot he'd ever existed.

"Hello, Clark!"

The words were too cheerful, too loud. He scowled into the gold-bright flames, and didn't answer.

The other man settled down into the other chair in front of the fireplace. He wore Green Arrow's costume, but he wasn't Green Arrow. Not the real Green Arrow. His face was young and unlined, his movements smooth and youthful. He looked like a kid.

He was a kid.

"Just wanted to let you know how the Justice League is doing," he said, his voice still determinedly cheerful. Condescension, Clark thought again. Pity.

He wouldn't tolerate it.

"Go away," he said shortly, or tried to. The words slurred and caught in his mouth, as words had a tendency to do nowadays. Still, he was pretty sure his point was clear, even if his words weren't.

The young man hesitated, glancing at Chloe for help. "I just thought you might want to know how the new Wonder Woman is fitting in..."

A new Wonder Woman. A new Batman. A new Green Arrow. As if they'd all been easily replaceable, as if anyone could put on a black costume and cowl and call himself Batman, or a pair of silver bracelets and become Wonder Woman. As if the world hadn't become a lesser place on the day Bruce was caught in that explosion and had to retire, or on the day Diana was vaporized by that alien gun, or on the day he himself suffered a stroke.

It was, he thought bleakly, as if none of them had really mattered.

"Go away," he said again, and glared into the fire.

"Green Arrow" hesitated for a moment, looking as if he wanted to speak, but didn't know what to say.

And then he stood up and quietly left the room.

...I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known,-- cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honor'd of them all,--
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy
.

There were scrapbooks full of his exploits in the house. Sometimes Chloe sat next to him, paging through the pictures, the articles. She'd written many of the articles herself, though now she was as old and gray-haired as he himself was.

He looked at the pictures, seeing himself as a dark-haired, powerful young man. In those days he'd battled against evil, both by himself and with the Justice League. He'd been famous back then, perhaps the most famous man in the world. And more importantly, he'd been loved.

But now... now another man wore the scarlet cape and the blue tights and the S symbol. Another man did battle to save the world, and had the world's adulation and appreciation.

Once, he had been a name.

But now he was just an old man huddled in front of a fire.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life
!

There was so much more he wished he'd had a chance to experience. He'd seen almost everything there was to see in this world, true. But there were so many more worlds out there. He wished he'd somehow been able to fly out into the galaxy, to explore them all.

No, he thought glumly. What he really wished for was that he could return to this world. That he could return to life. He desperately longed for something other than this sad, pathetic half-life, his entire existence shrunk down to this chair and this fire, with so little to look forward to day after day.

This wasn't life. His heart beat and his lungs drew in breath, but still, it wasn't life. Life meant being out there, amidst his adopted people, saving them from peril, protecting the helpless and the weak and the needy.

He stared into the fire, and sighed. This wasn't life.

This.. this was nothing at all.

Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought
.

He couldn't stay here.

He considered the matter, for long weeks, and at last acknowledged that he already knew what he had to do. What he didn't know was how he could accomplish it.

A man couldn't live out his days in front of the fireplace, waiting for death to claim him. A man had to go forth and meet his destiny, with his most loyal companions at his side.

He stared into the flickering fire, and made his plans.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
to whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,--
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine
.

Metropolis was safe. That, at least, he didn't have to worry about. The man who wore the S on his chest was his own well-loved son, who possessed most of his own powers. He had defended the city, and the world, for five years now, and had done a gloriously impressive job of it.

His son could protect Metropolis as well as Clark himself had.

And for that, Clark both loved him, and resented him.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me,--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads,-- you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods
.

"It is... a portal... into a different world."

Clark spoke as slowly and clearly as he could, but he was unhappily aware that the words were still blurred. The shivering that racked him, here in the bitterly cold Arctic air, didn't help. Nevertheless, Bruce and Ollie seemed to understand him.

"Like the Phantom Zone?" Ollie said, dubiously. "Is it full of criminals?"

"No." Clark struggled to get out the long sentences he needed to explain himself. They'd pushed him into the Fortress in a wheelchair-- and that was an indignity he loathed. It offended him to his very core, that he who once had flown now unable to walk. But he'd had to leave his chair by the fire. He'd had no choice. "Jor-El told me... it is a portal to an alternate world. With different laws. He called it... a... a Shadow Earth."

Bruce looked at him. Half his face had been twisted with scar tissue in the explosion he'd barely survived, but the rest of it was still craggily handsome despite the ravages of age. "Different laws," he repeated. "As in... we might not be old there? Is that what you're thinking, Clark?"

"Jor-El said... entropy works diff... differently there. He thought maybe... But I don't know. We might be un... unchanged, being from a different universe. No way to know. And who knows what the... world there is like... if it's a democracy or a com... communism... if it's run by humans or alien invaders... if it's a utopia or hell on Earth..."

"But you figure it's better than sitting around in front of the fire all day," Ollie said.

Clark nodded jerkily. "It is... a new world. And if, if Jor-El was right, and we are... are younger there, then we may be able to... to help people again. No matter what it is like there... if this age is lifted away from us... then we may... be able... to make... a difference..."

He was growing weary already. Just from talking. He sighed, frustrated by his infirmities. He was so useless now, so incapable of any sort of exertion.

All he'd ever wanted was to help people. To save them. To save the world.

And once upon a time, he had saved thousands, maybe millions of people. Perhaps that should be enough for him. But somehow... it wasn't. He still wanted to do something useful.

Even now, he longed to be a hero.

"The problem," he said, "is that... once we're there... we can't come back."

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die
.

"I say we try it," Bruce said. His voice was still deep and resonant, despite the deep wrinkles that creased the unscarred portion of his face. "Go through the portal, and see what awaits us there. We have nothing to lose, after all. None of us have anything left here."

"Except Clark," Ollie said. "Clark, what about your family?"

"My son... is grown. He is Superman now. I left him... a message. And my wife..." His chest hurt at the thought of leaving her, but he lifted his chin in sturdy defiance of his feelings. "Chloe is... is better off without me..."

"I doubt she'd see it that way," Ollie answered, with a ghost of his old cynical smile.

"I give her nothing, Ollie. I sit... all day long... can't do anything... can't even talk..."

Ollie nodded, patting his shoulder in wordless understanding.

"I understand," he said. "And I agree. Let's go to this Shadow Earth. A chance, even a slim chance, is better than this. Anything is better than this. Just fading out... it's not for us. I'd rather go out in a blaze of glory."

Bruce nodded too, his gray eyes solemn. In both their gazes, Clark saw reflected his own feelings, the terrible humiliations of age and infirmity, the pain of seeing other, younger men carry on their work, wearing their costumes, taking their names.

They understood, as no one else on this Earth could.

Clark reached out and inserted the crystal that would activate the portal. Machinery hummed, and then a glowing, bluish white circle began to form in front of them. Clark spoke.

"Help... help me stand."

He wanted to meet his fate standing on his own two feet. The two of them seemed to understand that, because they reached down and hefted him out of the wheelchair. Even bent and wizened with age, he was a big man, but the two of them managed to support him between them. Together, they turned toward the light.

Clark felt his mouth curve in the first smile he'd felt for a long, long time. On the one hand, he hated leaving behind everything he'd always known and loved. The idea of leaving Chloe behind made his heart squeeze painfully.

But on the other hand, this was something different. Something new. A chance-- perhaps only a slight chance, but a chance nevertheless-- to accomplish something worthwhile once again.

But as they made their stumbling way toward the portal, a voice called out.

"Wait!"

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides
...

The three of them turned as one. Chloe was walking toward them, her lined face set and determined.

"Did you really intend to leave without even saying goodbye?" she demanded.

He sighed. More than anything, he'd hated the thought of leaving her. And yet he'd truly believed she was better off without him. "I thought... I thought it would be... easier this way, Chloe."

"I don't think so." She scowled at him. "Going on to a new world without me? That's just not happening, big boy."

"I don't know..." He wanted to scream with frustration at his inability to get words out. He began to shiver harder, both from cold and from stress. "I don't know... what... is on the other side."

"Then we'll find out together." She glared at him. "I've stood by you all your life, Clark Kent, just as much as Ollie or Bruce have. I've always been your friend as well as your wife. I'm damned if I'll let you leave me behind now."

"But you... what if it's dangerous, or... or not what we expect?..."

"Then I still want to be with you." She scowled at him. "I've always stood by your side, even when it was dangerous. I'm part of the original Justice League too. Or have you forgotten?"

He hadn't forgotten. Of course he hadn't. He simply hadn't wanted to bring her alone, for fear of what might await them on the other side. But then again, she was as old as he was, and there wasn't too much left for her on this Earth, either. She was healthier than he was-- but for how long would she maintain her health? How long before she, too, was weakened by old age? Could he really leave her alone to fight the ravages of old age without him?

He considered the matter for a moment, and then nodded.

"We... we go together, then."

She slipped in between him and Bruce, and slid an arm around his waist. He looked down at her silver hair and smiled, then glanced at his other companions-- loyal, devoted friends who would follow him anywhere.

He didn't know where they were going, or exactly what they would find, or whether or not the Shadow Earth's lack of entropy might restore youth to them all, as Jor-El had once speculated. He had no way of knowing.

All he knew was that they'd done all they could in this world. Perhaps another world would offer them a chance to do good. Or perhaps not.

But it was, he thought, worth it to take the chance. It was worth it to step out of a life that no longer had purpose, and to endeavor to find one that just might be more rewarding. It was worth it to try.

Together, shoulder to shoulder, they all walked into the portal, seeking a newer world.

...and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
.

-The End-

7 comments:

Tracey L said...

Wow, this was a very compelling piece of writing! It was very dramatic and not really what I was expecting, but it was very cool. Of course I'd like to hear more detail about the day of Clark's stroke and Bruce's near-fatal explosion, but a lengthy explanation wasn't needed to get this story across.

Oh, and of course I'm just DYING to know if their plan worked in the alternate world. I'm going to just assume that it all went wonderfully and they all live happily ever after. XD

Thanks!

Tonya said...

This is very beautiful! Fantastic work. It manages to be both heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.

Mariko said...

I really don't like Clark in this story. I have a huge problem with him just abandoning his family for purely emo, selfish reasons. He was old, had lived his life, and had Chloe by his side and new heroes to take his place. I've spent a lot of time with old people, most of them unwell, and there are two ways to go about it-- the ones dwelling on all they are seemingly missing out on are usually the least-healthy and most miserable. It was incredibly self-centered and vain for him to just sit around feeling sorry for himself instead of focusing on a life well-lived. To me it seemed like living out the rest of his life with Chloe wasn't good enough-- chasing after something completely unknown was a better alternative. He should have asked Chloe to come along in the first place, not Bruce or Ollie. Stupid Clark. I hope when they stepped through he was still old and frail-- it would have served his vanity right.

DeeDee said...

I've always loved that poem, and you told its story so hauntingly. Clark's dissatisfation with his current life was palpable.

It was angsty, but it was good angst. I love that Chloe stood by him and went with him in the end - those two are always stronger together.

Thanks for sharing, Elly. Beautiful job!

Mariko said...

I feel my first comment was a little harsh and I should clarify, Elly.

I didn't mean the story was terrible and Clark was OOC and would never act like that. I think I was really bothered by it because I feel like Clark *could* actually be capable of acting like that-- he's always gotten a certain satisfaction from showing off his powers, and he totally gets off on being a hero. It's not a stretch at all for him to be mired in self-pity if that was taken from him. I was mad at HIM for doing it, not you for writing it. The mood and the tone of story itself is fantastic-- the descriptions of his feelings were so dead-on, they made me even madder, if that makes any sense! Anyway, I just in hindsight thought my first comment was a bit harsh and wanted to clarify.

Anonymous said...

I red this the other day and loved it. Very compelling and touching. So I hope come up with a sequal to it because I like to know what happens when they get to other world.

BkWurm1 said...

I was waiting for Chloe to show up at the Fortress, then it felt right.

On one hand, I was frustrated with Clark for not being able to appreciate everything that he had done and still was to people who looked up to him and loved him but I think it is accepted that our beloved Superheroes are compelled to do what they do by forces so strong and urgent that I have to forgive them for being unable to give up even the final battle against their own mortality.

Not giving up-- it is that maddening stubbornness that was so often the key to their success, so I don't look at it as just aged warriors wishing for the glory days, but heroes who are not used to accepting any limitations. I have to believe that they found what they were looking for on the other side of the portal and that is profoundly comforting.

The whole basic concept is wonderful. Just imagine the stories that could take place. How would their years of knowledge change how they lived their lives again?

With Clark, he did find balance in life--he had Chloe from the start, but I actually find myself thinking about what different choices Bruce or Ollie might find themselves making, or if being young would be a stronger drug than wisdom.

Did I mention I really liked this story?