It's only been a few days, and already people at school have moved on from the "Moon Nearly Crashes Into Earth" incident in favor of "Kelsey's Parents Are Out of Town This Weekend, BYOB". Not too long ago, he admits, he would have been as happy as the rest of them to put it out of his mind. (That, and the meteor the week before. Before Clyde met Luke, he really didn't pay attention to how many celestial bodies came plummeting towards Earth on a regular basis.)
Every now and then Clyde wonders what his life would be like if he'd never met Luke. Mostly he figures it would involve less alien gunk - which, yeah, he could live without - but that seems a small price to pay for the life he lives these days. Fighting aliens, defending the planet, going to space - it's like his daydreams when he was a kid, only without the laser guns that Sarah Jane won't let them touch. Since that first encounter with the Slitheen, he's felt like he's carrying a secret, something special and bright inside him that he's never felt before.
It's still there, burning in his chest, but it's starting to ache a little. If he's honest, he's starting to realize that there's more to saving the world than swooping in at the last minute with mirrors or a handy bottle of vinegar.
He knows Maria dreams about the Trickster, and endless white; last night, he dreamed about the dark, and red flashing numbers. (Luke doesn't dream at all, apparently. Clyde thinks that might be a good thing, and is only a little jealous.)
"You should talk to him," Maria says at lunch. Luke's been quiet since returning to school, a little more isolated; he's poring over a textbook at an empty table, having excused himself to catch up on the work he missed while everyone thought he was Ashley Strafford. Glancing towards him, Clyde notices that he's about six chapters ahead of the rest of the class, which is a lot even by Luke standards. "He's having a hard time."
"Tell me about it," Clyde grumbles, stabbing at a chip with his fork and missing. "I haven't been able to use my laptop since Mr. Smith spat me out. Ms. Engle wasn't impressed with my handwritten essay this morning." He pauses, frowning. "Why do they spend so much time teaching us cursive if we're not even allowed to use it?"
Maria rolls her eyes. "So that they can write annoying, 'helpful' comments on the side?" she suggests. "I don't know. But seriously, I think you should talk to Luke. Sarah Jane's feeling guilty about the whole giving-her-son-to-the-Slitheen thing, and he's still struggling with it, too, even if he doesn't know it." She shakes her head. "Plus, he nearly destroyed the world again, and you know how he gets about that."
Clyde snorts, loudly, and Luke looks up. "Yeah, all right," Clyde agrees, stuffing a handful of chips in his mouth and gulping down a sip of coke. "But only if you handle Sarah Jane. One Smith with a guilt complex is enough for me." Maria offers a mock salute, stealing the last of Clyde's lunch as Clyde makes his way across the dining hall to sit across from Luke.
"The Mean Value Theorem and - someone's - Rule," he attempts to read upside down. "Right. Right! Yeah, that was a good one. Real entertainment value." Luke cracks a smile, but doesn't reply. “Why are you spending so much time on catch up, anyway? You only missed like two days.”
“I like it,” Luke says simply. “It’s interesting.”
Well, if that isn’t a sign that Luke needs some serious therapy time, he isn’t sure what is. “You need a break,” Clyde declares. “C’mon, let’s go to the park.” Luke opens his mouth to object, but Clyde interrupts - “No one’s going to think you’d ever skip out on class, and,” he shrugs, “I’ve already missed a few days this week. One more class won’t hurt.”
It’s a little surprising how readily Luke agrees, but he just sighs and quirks his mouth like he doesn’t want to argue before stuffing his book in his bag. That was...easy, Clyde thinks, blinking, but decides not to question it just yet. It’s easy to sneak out when the bell rings, everyone swarming back through the building and Luke’s perfect student aura somehow managing to camouflage them both as they climb over the fence and make their way down the sidewalk.
Luke doesn’t say much through all this. When they’re a few minutes from school and have stuffed their ties and jackets into their bags, Clyde relaxes a little, and tries to get a good look at Luke without actually staring. He’s pale; there are dark bags under his eyes. He might not be having nightmares, but Clyde’s willing to bet he hasn’t been sleeping, either.
“How are things?” he finally asks, starting small and kicking at a pebble on the sidewalk. “At home, I mean?”
Luke shrugs. “Mum’s still pretty upset,” he says matter-of-factly. “Maria and her dad are there a lot, though. They’re helping.”
“Yeah, Maria says her dad’s coming round to the whole fighting aliens thing.” Clyde likes Mr. Jackson. His own dad may be worthless and Luke doesn’t have one, but Maria’s dad is pretty cool, especially now that he’s not trying to keep Maria away from them. “Looks like no one’s going anywhere, at least.”
The harshness of Luke’s reply startles him, and he stops. Luke’s eyes are wide, fierce, and a little afraid; his hands are clenched. Luke may be his best friend, is definitely the smartest kid he’s ever known, but sometimes Clyde forgets how young he really is. (He ignores the creeping sensation in his stomach, the utter loneliness and undeniable fear he felt those long hours in computer limbo. It’s not the same thing at all.)
He looks around, then puts a hesitant hand on Luke’s shoulder. “Hey - you’re back now, yeah?” he says quietly, praying he’s reading his friend’s reaction right. “And you’re not going anywhere, either. Me and Maria, we never bought the whole Ashley thing. We weren’t gonna let you stay there.”
Luke shakes his head. “Sarah Jane would have.”
He starts walking again before Clyde can respond, making his way towards one of the picnic tables and lying down on the bench. It takes Clyde a minute to follow; he’s pretty sure there’s nothing in Encyclopedia Clydannica that covers this. He’s sure there’s a stupid joke somewhere, but he pictures the look on Maria’s face, sighs, and scrubs a hand over his face. Damn. He wishes she were here.
But she’s not, and Luke is his friend, and one thing his friends have taught him these past few months is that he’s not completely useless.
“Nah, she would’ve come round,” Clyde finally says, slumping onto the bench next to Luke. “She was just - I dunno.” He pictures the look on Sarah Jane’s face as Luke was driven away; remembers what she’d said to Maria, and how much it reminded them of the bitter, struggling woman they’d first met. “It messed her up pretty badly, you know? Thinking you weren’t her son. Maria says she has abandonment issues or something.” Clyde shrugs, moving to get a better look at Luke’s face, half hidden in shadow. His eyes are slightly glazed; he looks thoughtful. Bolstered, Clyde finishes, “She’d’ve figured it out eventually.”
Luke stays quiet for a long time. “Yeah,” he agrees eventually, swinging his legs over the side of the bench to sit up. “I know. I just wish it’d been a little sooner.”
Clyde doesn’t know what to say to that. As it turns out, Luke beats him to it. “What about you? Are you mad at me?”
Clyde stares at him, befuddled. “What?”
“You haven’t been to our house since - you know,” Luke says, looking nervous again. “I thought you might be mad at me."
“For what? I mean, no!” Clyde boggles. “Why would I be mad at you?”
“You were trying to help me when Mr. Smith dematerialized you,” Luke says. “You nearly died. That was my fault.”
Clyde runs one hand over his head, raising the other in a “stop” gesture. “Whoa, time out,” he insists. “It’s like I said, right? We weren’t going to just let some random aliens kidnap you and get away with it.” Luke looks unconvinced, and he barrels on. “And besides, it was their fault, not yours. Them and Mr. Smith. They’re the ones who had the evil master plan to destroy the planet, not you. And -” he pauses, thinking back to what he’d learned after they’d saved the day. He hadn’t planned on saying anything, but hey, no one else is here, and somehow being cool and unemotional doesn’t seem to matter as much right now. “And you’re the one who saved me. So, yeah.” He shrugs, awkwardly. “Not mad.”
The silence is just this side of uncomfortable, though Luke doesn’t seem to notice. Clyde digs his shoes into the grass, making a note to take them off before going inside (he’ll never remember, but he likes to make the mental effort).
“I saw you outside the house,” Luke says. “The one they were keeping me in.”
“Yeah,” Clyde replies, relieved. “That fake mum of yours could use some manners.”
Luke grins, finally, a proper grin that reaches his eyes. “Thanks,” he says. “For not giving up on me.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what mates do.” Clyde reaches out his fist, bumps it lightly against Luke’s. (Luke’s mostly gotten the hang of fistbumps, now, but practice makes perfect.) “They stick together.”
“So why haven’t you been by?”
And, there’s that jittery feeling again. “No reason,” Clyde shrugs, trying to keep his voice even. “I hadn’t even realized. I mean, I’m not not coming to your house, I just - haven’t...” he trails off. Luke is staring at him, and Clyde’s pretty sure that even he can recognize babbling on that scale. He shakes his head. “It’s Mr. Smith, okay? I know he’s good now and everything, but I just need a little time to get over him trying to eat me.”
He thinks he manages to sound pretty casual about it, but it feels strange saying it out loud, to another person. Last week was a whirlwind of panic and anger and confusion, and since then it’s been easy enough to focus on the big things, like coming up with a cover story for the moon near-collision and quietly sorting out the Strafford mess with UNIT. Clyde hasn’t really let himself process the fact that he nearly died. Mr. Smith’s betrayal hit Sarah Jane hard (he still has bruises from where she hugged him after hearing what happened), but in a weird way the computer had been like a friend to him, too, and it hurts to think that he - it - was responsible for all the pain of the past few days.
“I haven’t been up in the attic yet,” Luke tells him quietly. “Maria’s helping Mum and her dad clean up and get him working properly again, and I feel like I should be too, but I keep remembering what he tried to make me do. What he did to you.”
“Do you really think he’s changed?” Clyde asks. School seems to have let out - a group of kids carrying footballs are making their way towards the park.
Luke shrugs. “Mum does,” he says - Clyde inwardly cheers at hearing him call Sarah Jane “Mum” again. “I guess she’d know best. Mr. Jackson, too, though he says he prefers computers that don’t talk back.”
Clyde snorts. “I guess he’d better get used to it, now that he’s member of the saving-the-world team.” A part-time member, he adds silently - can’t have the grown-ups taking over.
“He and Maria should be over soon,” Luke says, sounding tentative again. “You want to come? We can play X-Box downstairs.”
“Yeah, sounds good,” Clyde agrees, and suddenly grins. “I mean, after our trauma, I think we should wait until the attic is fully restored before going back up. Don’t want any setbacks or anything.”
It takes Luke a minute, but then it clicks, and his face lights up with a matching smile. His eyes are sparkling again, and Clyde finds that the ache in his chest is mostly gone. “Yeah, I think you’re right,” he agrees. “I mean, it’s gonna take a little while to replace all the floorboards, and it’s not like Mum can call an insurance company. We should keep out of the way until all of that is back in order.”
“Definitely.” Swinging his bag over his shoulder, Clyde waits for Luke to gather his things before settling into step beside him. Together, they begin making their way towards Bannerman Road.