Chloe had finally located a decent cup of java. It had taken her a few tries, but within a scant hour, even the blasted wasteland that was Main Street could produce some drinkable coffee. According to the rumors going around, there was an earthquake, followed by an exploding oil truck, that was fortunately empty. People glossed over how no-one had been within a mile of the actual ground zero.
Never mind how barely anyone had been hurt, or how even the property damage was minimal. People had a way of rationalizing it all, in the aftermath. All of that conspiracy stuff would happen once some reporter got a hold of it, and the bigger picture was revealed. She didn't envy the person who got this story, simply because there wouldn't be any answers.
Clark was standing behind her, looking like someone died.
"Hey Clark, what's wrong?" Chloe asked, dreading the alien's reply.
The coffee cup hit the charred, shiny pavement. She didn't didn't even register when her hand had opened. Lana was like a sister to the blonde. She found herself and Clark in a hug. Both were crying. Chloe understood Clark as well as any mere mortal could, and she'd realized a while ago that Clark really wasn't two people. He was three.
Sure, there was Clark Kent, normal boy. Clumsy, awkward, well-meaning, sensitive, a good friend, hot, and scared very easily. Then there was Kal El, the kryptonian warrior with morals more invulnerable than he was, always dangerous, but carefully controlled. When he came out it was like watching a natural disaster, unstoppable, beautiful, and terrifying.
Finally, there was Clark. The kid in between the two poles of his personality, the two masks he wore. He rarely surfaced. Chloe wondered if he ever had a real friend. He was so scared of contact, even though he was fully in control of his effect on others. She'd thought it was like living in a world made out of glass, filled with people made of pressed flowers. Everything was fragile. If he twitched at the wrong time, in the wrong way... He could kill someone. He couldn't really pitch a fit if he got upset, because if he raised his voice, he could cause property damage and hospital stays. People wondered why Clark was startled so easily, why he was so soft spoken. If Clark messed up, there was hell to pay.
Did she really know her idol, her best friend, at all?
Did Lana know Clark before she died?
Did Clark know Clark?
That thought scared her more than anything she'd ever thought of before. Clark wore his two masks all the time. With his personal friends and complete strangers, he wore the bumpkin. With his vigilante acquaintances, he wore the capable kryptonian. Had those masks strangled her friend so much so that the real Clark had died? Chloe was more scared than ever before.
"I couldn't save her. The nuclear plant. When I saved it, I heard her last gasp, and then when I got there..." Clark was murmuring into her shoulder, "She died between the time it took for the power to completely shut off and the reserve generators to kick in."
"Clark... There was nothing you could do..." Chloe started.
"That's what hurts. I can't punch a brain aneurism in the face, tell it to change, and hope for the best. Hell, kryptonian technology couldn't do anything. I was powerless, and that hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. It's... What if I can't get close to anyone because of this? What if-"
"Clark, it's the future, no-one knows what's going to happen. Everything will work out, I promise," Chloe did her best to comfort the alien. Of course, Clark has always been powerful. He's used to it. It made sense that the sensation of weakness was his greatest fear. Ironically, that was always his greatest dream. He wanted to be normal. But he was scared of it in a way that only another superhuman could understand. He could have nothing he wanted for fear of destroying everything around him, and he couldn't give up the dream because then he'd lose himself to the power he held. The worst was that he couldn't have both a normal life and a life dedicated to protecting others, which is what he needed. He couldn't fit them into a single life.
Chloe found she pitied him, for the first time in her life.
Buffy watched the exchange from a distance. She didn't know what to think. She knew what it was like to lose someone who you couldn't save. Buffy lost her mother that way. The funny thing was, she knew that there simply wasn't a damn thing you could say when that happened. 'I'm sorry,' didn't cut it. 'It'll be alright,' was almost insulting. 'Cry it out,' was simply useless.
Pretty much anything you could say reeked on insincerity.
She thought about that as she walked to the cellar where Angel and Spike hid. The Slayer Prime knocked three times on the metal hatch that shielded the tunnel, warning any of the sunlight-allergic that they would want to be under cover. She opened the hatch and climbed down the rusty ladder.
Angel and Spike were playing a game of Go Fish to the light of a small fire made out of trash.
"Hey love, nice of you to drop by," Spike grimaced, looking at his hand, "Jacks?"
"Hiya Buff, Go fish," Angel rolled his eyes.
Buffy grinned when she saw her friends do something so endearing and human. Seeing Clark break down... had been enlightening. She didn't know what she knew, but something had changed in the world today.
Spike started cursing in fluent spanish. He tossed an eight of diamonds over to Angel who was grinning like a madman. Buffy was always amazed how the two most dangerous vampires in the world could revert to being kids again so easily. That's why she loved them both. They bickered a lot, but they got on well with each other.
"Hey guys, how do you handle someone so far beyond you that it makes you look pathetic?" The Slayer Prime shifted her weight awkwardly.
"Oh dear. Are you referring to our extraterrestrial acquaintance who can shoot fire from his eyes?" Angel put down his cards and stood up. Buffy nodded. Her hands played with the worn edge of her leather jacket. She'd gotten it from her mother, a couple of weeks before she died. It made her feel safe, and that probably stemmed from the close bond she and her mother had shared. It was also from the ceramic scale that she'd sewn in a few years after her mother had passed and the protective spells woven into the jacket by Willow and couple other magically inclined friends. It was also very stylish.
"Well, pet, I dunno. I still haven't wrapped my head around it yet. Much as I hate to admit it, Peaches here understands him pretty well, friggin' ponce actually likes the farm boy," Spike pulled out a cigarette and lit it using the small fire.
"Spike, you like him too... you just don't like admitting when you're outclassed," Angel winked at the narcissistic vampire. William the Bloody shot a glare at Angelus the Scourge before pouting with his lip, nearly losing his precious nicotine stick in the process.
"Look, Buffy. You've always sort of been the toughest fighter around right?" Angel asked.
"Sorta. I guess."
"You've saved the world a whole bunch of times, right? So you've got to be pretty bad ass."
"I'll pretend that I buy that if you'd get to the point."
"The power that was given to you has costs right? Having a normal life, having a lot of close friends that know who you really are, deep down. Being able to show exactly who you are. That sort of stuff. All of that is compounded with Clark. He has such a ridiculous amount of power that he can only exist in the world we live in by hiding in plain sight. See, you are several cuts above the average man, but put a bullet to the brain and you still die. Clark might blink. If it was an off day. Clark could incinerate a city in a minute or two. Clark can murder an army in under two minutes, I've watched him do it. If he went rogue, the world would pretty much be fucked. He could just grab a chunk of the sun and ignite the atmosphere. That, in the eyes of the government and general public, makes him a threat. You're just bad ass, he's a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of whoever is in power right now, because in many ways he's the ultimate expression of anarchy in this world. He has to power to effectively do whatever he wants without repercussion to himself, personally, but he chooses to help people in need, and only fights if those people are threatened. Morally guided chaos, in essence.
"Humans, which are a very orderly species as a rule, find that power attractive and dangerous. So he's hidden as well as he could so they never find out why so many people who should have died, are alive. Clark hates his powers, but he needs them to save those he cares about. So, he's stuck, quite frankly, in a Catch 22 situation," Angel espoused his philosophy regarding the super-human to Buffy, who found him surprisingly like her tenth grade history teacher, pedantic and not quite all there. Most of all that talking went right over her head. However, now she had a couple of points she could at least relate with him on. Buffy knew what it was like to have your life screwed up by powers. Buffy knew what it was like to hide. Ironically, just knowing that he had similar problems made her feel better. If only because now she knew that even the unstoppable force needed help sometimes.
"Wow... I really put my foot in it this time, didn't I?" Lois was sitting on the curb, chain smoking as fast as she could, send huge smoke signals of her nervousness into the metropolis sky.
"I just... wanted to be let in, you know? Clark's a good guy and all, but he's so damn secretive. He holds everything so close to his chest, especially his love. He really loved Lana. I never understood why until today. Clark blames himself for existing. Like survivor's guilt, but compounded, you know? He's pretty much the last of his race. He was spared from the fate the rest of his people suffered, and now part of him thinks that things would be better if he had died with his world. Fewer people would have suffered, he thinks. Come to think of it, he never liked celebrating his birthday. He loved getting presents for people and celebrating his friend's birthdays. But I'm wandering off here.
"Lana lost her parents on the day of the meteor shower, a direct hit. Clark, being the egotistical bastard he is, blames himself for their deaths. Lana was sort of his project I bet. He'd always help her out of a jam, fix her car, do whatever he could, not only because he loved her, but because he wanted to make up for everything he believed he'd taken away. But what really bound the two together, I bet, was that Lana, once she found out, forgave him for his 'crime'. By telling him he had the right to exist, because it made her happier knowing that he was around... It's one thing, knowing intellectually that you deserve to be alive, but it's another to really believe it with your heart... I'm amazed he held himself together for so long when he found out she kicked the bucket..." Lois trailed off.
"You know, you sound a lot like Spike when he's talking about Passions," Willow matter-of-factly pointed out. She paused.
"Actually, you really are a lot like Spike."
"Willow, you are so right! If there was a Scooby chapter in Smallville, Lois would be Spike! You, madam are a genius!" Xander cheered emphatically, "Clark would totally be Angel, what with all the guilt trips, philosophy, and major hotness, I mean even I can tell that he's dripping with fangirls when he walks down the street and by God do I hate him for that, Chloe would be Willow, Uh... I'm guessing that Lana would be a kinda nicer Cordelia, Ollie would totally be Buffy, I mean look at the crossbow fetish, and that Bart kid, where the hell did he run off to anyway? He'd be me!"
Buffy walked up to Clark, a few hours after her conversation with Angel. She was walking back to her hotel room, and she saw Clark sitting on a curb. To be entirely honest, he looked miserable.
"Hey Clark," Buffy sat down next to the Kansas farm-boy.
"Hey Buffy," Clark looked at her, his eyes were white, even though he was crying. Salt didn't burn the blood vessels in his eyes. Hell, a bullet wouldn't even irritate his eyes. Buffy was envious of that.
"What's up? You look down. Maybe talking about it would help," Clark tried to smile.
"It's, well, you know the old 'hero must save everybody' complex. I just lost my girlfriend. I'd finally gotten things on the right track with her, and then BAM! Brainiac turns her into a vegetable. Brainiac is a sentient super-weapon. He looks a bit like Spike actually, if Spike had brown hair and was about ten years older. He fried Lana's brain with his nanotech. So now I just don't know what to do... Where do I go from here?"
"Would you change anything? Do anything differently?" Buffy was honestly curious. See, she'd never really met another genuine hero type, doing the whole thing out the kindness of their heart and because they had gifts beyond the normal. Angel was trying to hide from his past, Spike was a degenerate sot who was in love with her and tagged along, Willow didn't have the whole hero vibe going on, Xander was courageous, but fixed windows, not... well You get the idea. Everyone around her was sort of driven into the 'saving the day' lifestyle because they had no other reasonable options. They all had things they would rather do, but for various reasons never actually did those things very often.
Clark wasn't any of those things. If he wanted, he could just disappear and become someone who didn't have to save the world. Hell, he could just go to a different galaxy and live there for a while, if he felt like it.
The alien sighed, "I couldn't do anything differently. If that plant melted down, everyone would have died, including Lana. Maybe I could have killed Brainiac when I had the chance, a long time ago."
"So you wouldn't let all those people die. You would sacrifice Lana, your girlfriend, to save the lives of others."
Clark looked at Buffy, horror filled his face, and then was replaced by grief.
"Yes. I would."
"I've had to the same thing. It's never an easy choice. You had it harder and easier than I did. Back when Sunnydale was around, Angel got his soul sucked while we were dating. And he decided to destroy the world. So he opened up a portal to a hell dimension. I had to plunge the sword through his chest, but he wasn't really the man I loved, at all. I didn't have to force myself not to save him," Buffy smirked, " But the usual weirdness in Sunnydale kicked in and brought Angel back to his unlife, from a hell dimension. So don't be too sure she's going to stay dead. Death is kinda like a revolving door in our profession."
"Thank you Buffy, I appreciate the comfort, but I think that you're only seeing part of the problem. See, my existence is now sort of an open secret. Lois knows, and who knows how many people saw my fight with the guy with the claws and stuff. The Army will be getting statements. Someone will have seen something that can be used to find me. Lana was my... reason for staying secret, for hiding. Protecting those who are close to me so they aren't a target. So Clark Kent isn't a target," Clark kneaded his hands together.
"Maybe you just need a decoy."
Clark smiled at Buffy.
"Yeah, that might just work."
Clark dug through a chest of drawers until he found what he was looking for. A needle and thread. He smiled and walked over to a couch in the living room of the Kent farmhouse. Several bolts of fabric were littering the floor, one blue, one red, and one yellow. Clark sighed and picked up a picture of Lana and him cuddling on the couch in his barn. He lightly kissed the black haired girl's face and got to work making himself a suit to save the world in.
Time to stop hiding.
The rest, as they say, is history.