Chloe worked tirelessly through the night trying to crack the command codes.
Clark had been right. Once she’d started working on the algorithms, all the rust caking her knowledge of computer systems and their inner workings seemed to just buff right out.
She’d managed to discover that the missile system was using a triple-Helix installation code with 56 panels, and that each panel had to be decoded separately and independently before they could even begin to hope to shut down the master command. She explained all this to Clark as he poured her another cup of orange juice.
He seemed to be a sweet enough guy. He’d outright refused to get her any coffee, not even decaf, and she was beginning to believe that maybe, in another life, another time and another place, they really were as close as two people could be.
Several times through the night as she sat working, Clark had forgotten that she wasn’t the Chloe he knew, and would lean right over her shoulder, so close that his breath would tickle her ear and lift the hair at the side of her face. She’d fix him with a hard stare, and he’d slink away with a sheepish grin, only to reappear over her shoulder five minutes later.
“So how close are we, exactly?” she asked after she’d given him the back off glare for the third time. “I mean, in your universe, of course.”
He gave a warm smile, and his eyes lit up as if a light bulb had gone off inside him. “Closer than close. We’ve been best friends since the day Principal Kwan handpicked me to give you your orientation.”
“We hit it off just like that?” she said, genuinely interested.
He nodded. “Just like that. It was really strange, because I’d had no female friends up until then, but you and I…we just share this bond that’s been there from the very beginning.” He grinned. “It might have something to do with the fact that you gave me my first kiss, though.”
“Oh, did I?” she said, startled. “That doesn’t sound like me.”
“Well, you claimed you wanted us to kiss and get it out of the way so that we could be friends,” he said. “So far, it seems to be working.”
“Huh.” She focused her attention on the computer screen before something else struck her.
“Are we together, as a couple?” she asked suddenly.
“Er…no,” he said carefully. “We’re not.”
“And why’s that?”
He sighed. “Chloe, there’s almost a decade of history between us, and only a few hours to potentially go through it with you,” he said. “I don’t want to start something I can’t finish.”
“It’s a simple enough question, Clark: why aren’t we dating?” she asked bluntly. “If we’re as close as you say we are, if I’m the only woman really trust and share everything with…then why aren’t we together?”
He scratched his head and frowned. “It’s complicated, kind of,” he hedged.
She shrugged and continued working. “I only ask, because with everything you’ve told me about our history, you’ve pretty much described the relationship I have with my fiancé,” she explained. “We’re best friends, we tell each other everything, and we’re as close as close can be. It’s only natural that we ended up together.”
“But didn’t either of you worry that getting together might mess up your friendship?” Clark asked hesitantly.
She shook her head. “Nope. Why would it?”
He sighed. “Maybe fear of upsetting the status quo; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, that kind of thing,” he explained.
“Or maybe you just had your eye on someone else,” she deduced wisely with a smug grin.
Clark’s face reddened and he shifted uncomfortably, and Chloe knew she’d hit the jackpot.
“Let me guess: Lana Lang?” she drawled.
He flushed. “How did you know?” he asked in a small voice.
She snorted, and adopted a deep voice. “Hi Chloe, I’m Clark, we went to school together, and can you please find Lana Lang for me?” she joked.
He had the good grace to hang his head. “I guess that was pretty damning,” he admitted.
“So did you and Lana ever date?” she asked.
He made a wry face. “We dated. And we broke up, and then dated some more. And then broke up…”
“Ah, one of those relationships,” she said with an amused smile, typing away furiously. “What was the problem?”
He sighed. “I couldn’t be honest with her about who I really was.”
“But you could with me.”
He nodded and smiled. “That’s right, I was.”
“And I assume she knew that you and I had a secret that you couldn’t – or wouldn’t - share with her.”
“She always suspected we were hiding something from her, and was curious as to why we were so close, so I suppose that’s a yes, as well.”
Chloe smiled. “It’s funny,” she said. “George had a girlfriend at the time we met, but as he and I grew closer, he realised that I was the one he spent all his time with, and not her,” she said. “I was the one he was calling for hours on end, the person he was sharing his life with.”
She glanced across at him and noticed his thoughtful expression as he pondered her words.
“For what it’s worth,” Chloe went on, nodding at her computer screen, “Lana Lang is now Mrs Lana Rousseau, and she runs an art gallery in Provence. Her husband, Pierre, is a local entrepreneur. They have two little girls, and live in a villa in Southern France. They appear to be very happy.”
“It’s good to see that she’s okay,” he said, relieved. “Thanks for that.”
“Glad I could help.”
She typed on, but kept thinking about the relationship she shared with this man in another reality.
“You’re just not into me, are you?” she said suddenly.
“Huh?” he said, startled.
“Earlier, I made a comparison of our relationship in your reality with the one I have with George in this one,” she explained. “Now, if you and I are partners in almost every sense of the word - which you’ve said we are - I’m quite curious as to why you’d pass up on the chance to make something more of it.”
“I should have known you’d talk too much in this reality, too,” he grumbled.
“I’m serious, Clark. If there’s nothing to be gained from hanging out with you, why would I continue to do so?”
“Hey, what’s wrong with me?” he said defensively.
“Nothing’s wrong with you, Clark,” she said patiently. “Something must be wrong with me. The other me.”
“Nothing’s wrong with you, Chloe,” he said. “You’re the most caring, giving person I know.”
“Aaah, so that’s it.” She turned to him and stared directly into his eyes. “I’m in love with you, aren’t I?”
Clark swallowed nervously. “We’re best friends, you and I,” he began, but she shook her head.
“That wasn’t the question,” she replied. “I know myself, Clark. I would be in love with you, because you’re the perfect stand-in for the man I love here. The only difference, however, is that while I love you in this other world, you’re saving all your lurve for Lana. Correct?”
“So you’re getting the best of both worlds,” she mused. “You have this wonderful woman who you literally share your life with, and who no doubt worships the ground you walk on…and all the while, you’re lusting after the pretty girl. Amazing.”
“But you’re pretty,” he said defensively.
She shrugged nonchalantly. “I’m not the girl people cross a crowded room for, which is fine with me,” she said simply as she worked on the codes. “I’m just surprised and disappointed in myself that I let you take me for granted so much.”
“Hey, I don’t take advantage of you,” he protested.
“Of course you do, who wouldn’t?” Chloe said, her eyes gleaming. “You love Lana, but you keep me around because of what you can get from me.”
“No, that’s not how we are, Chloe!” he said firmly.
She ignored him. “Yikes. Am I that desperate and pathetic that I cling to you so fiercely, regardless?”
“I don’t have any self-confidence,” she surmised. “The other me, that is. Otherwise I’d have left you to do your dirty work long ago. Looks like I’m still waiting for you to open your eyes and see me.” She glanced at him and smiled. “But that’s never gonna happen, is it?”
“It’s not like that, Chloe,” he said, but she laughed and shrugged again.
“You don’t have to get all defensive, Clark. The Chloe you have with you isn’t me. If I could say anything to her, though, I’d tell her to be a bit stronger, and look out for Number One until the right person comes along.”
Just then, all her algorithms fell into place, and the number to unlock and reprogram the missile codes appeared on her screen.
“Got it,” she grinned, and wrote it all down on a sheet of paper which she tore off and handed to him. “Here you go. You need to find a way to key this in at the parent computer within the final 60 seconds of the countdown, or it’s all over.”
Clark heaved a sigh of relief and gave her a brilliant smile. “You’ve saved me again, Chloe,” he said. “Thank you.” And before she could stop him, he’d wrapped his arms around her in a warm hug.
She stiffened and pushed against him. “Uh…Clark? Doing it again,” she said dryly.
“Oops, my bad.” He released her and shook his head with a short laugh. “I’m sorry, I keep forgetting…”
Chloe folded her arms and stared at him questioningly. “Do you love me, Clark? The other me?” she asked directly.
His head jerked up and he stared back at her like a deer caught in the headlights. “What?”
“You heard me. Do you love Chloe? Or is she just a fantastic go-to girl and sounding board for when things go sour between you and Lana?”
He started to reply vehemently, but then his face turned serious as he really pondered on what she’d said.
“Well?” she prodded.
Finally he faced her squarely and spoke. “Chloe’s pretty much part of the fabric of who I am,” he said at last. “I can honestly say that she’s the one person I’d love to share my life with. I can’t imagine my life without her in it.”
He took a deep breath and continued. “My day isn’t complete if I haven’t seen her smile or heard her voice. I hate to see her sad, and my greatest fear is finding out that she’s in danger. Sometimes I go by the Daily Planet just to watch her work. I think she’s at her sexiest when she’s hot on the trail of a story.”
He paused again and shrugged. “So that’s how I feel about Chloe,” he concluded. “Is that love? I don’t know. But I do know that I like what we have, and would hate to lose it.”
Chloe nodded thoughtfully, and then glanced at the clock.
“It’s getting late,” she said, “and George will be home soon. You’d better get going, or my fiancé will wonder why a strange man was with his girl all night.”
“I’d hate to compromise you,” he said as he got to his feet. “Don’t worry, I’ll be so fast, no-one will see me leave.”
“All the best with the mission,” she said as she saw him to the door.
“I couldn’t have done it without you, Chloe,” he said warmly, smiling at her.
She smiled back, and then frowned and paused in the act of unlocking the door.
“Clark, can I ask you a favour?”
He nodded. “Anything. What is it?”
She took a deep breath. “I’m fortunate enough to be with someone who’s always treated me as an equal, and as such I’ve become a stronger person with him; and he with me. We’re stronger together.” She paused, and then continued. “I can see that you’re flourishing with Chloe by your side…but is she?”
Clark swallowed and stared at nothing in particular. Finally, he turned his attention back to her.
“What do you want me to do, Chloe?” he asked quietly.
“I want you to be honest with me, and with yourself,” she said gently. “If you want her…me…with you for keeps, then tell me. If it’s Lana or anybody else that you fancy…then let me go, before I become so attached to you I don’t know where you end and I begin.”
She folded her arms and continued. “I know myself, Clark. That’s just the way I am, and I’d hate for you to keep me on a string and risk damaging our friendship irreparably.
“So I guess what I’m saying is, don’t keep me around just for your benefit,” she said. “Consider my feelings, too. If I’m not what you want, then I need to move on from you…sooner rather than later.”
Clark was silent for long moments before lifting a hand and cupping her cheek.
“I promise you that I’ll be honest with you,” he whispered. “Even if it means losing you.”
Chloe smiled and nodded. “Thank you. It means a lot.”
“Listen, um…can I hug you?” he blurted out, startling her.
She took his hand away from her cheek and squeezed it gently. “I’m not the one you want to hug, Clark,” she said wisely. “Go sort this thing out; I’m sure you’ll get home safely somehow. Then you can give me as many hugs as you want.”
He smiled and stepped out into the hallway. “You always know just what to say, Chloe,” he said. He turned to leave, but then stopped and stared intently at her misdesction, and then smiled.
"Do you want to know what you're having?" he asked.
Chloe gasped and lifted a hand to her belly. "You know?" she whispered.
He nodded. "It's your call."
Chloe hated not being in the know about anything, and even though her first sonogram was scheduled for the following week, the suspense was killing her.
"Uh....okay. Pink or Blue?"
He gave her a big cheesy grin and winked. "Blue."
And with that, he sped off in a blur of red and blue, leaving her standing in her doorway with her eyes and mouth wide open.
Two seconds later, the elevator doors pinged and a weary George came round the corner.
“Hey preggers,” he greeted as he walked tiredly towards her. “What are you doing up so early?”
She grinned and wrapped her arms around him. “Excellent question, my dear. But before I tell you, I think I’ll let you have a sleep first…you’re definitely going to need it.”
To be continued…