You could still hear about it, sometimes. In smoky bar rooms the story trickled out in between the mouthfuls of beer and whiskey, mixed in with all the old wives tales about skin-walkers and boys who could split in two.
"They just took him into their home. Can you imagine that? What kind of nut job just takes an alien in and raises it?"
"One who hasn't seen enough movies."
"I heard they lost their own kids, and that's why they were so desperate to keep it."
"No, they didn't lose them. That thing killed them off, so it would be the only child."
A dark murmur ran through the bar.
"I swear it's true. It's like cuckoos, see? That's all the thing was. One big alien cuckoo."
"Well, thank god it flew away again, that's all I can say."
"Yeah. I heard it could move faster than regular folk can see. Just think what kind of damage something like that could do, if it'd been allowed to grow up properly."
The stories spin out as the light grows dim, endless threads of half-truth mixing with the lies.
But then, nobody really knew the truth. Not even the ones who had been there.
Not even Lex.
The funeral was a strangely quiet affair. The Kents had elected to keep it private- family and close friends only, to keep back the tide of obscenely curious onlookers who would otherwise have flooded the church.
Martha looked even paler under the black veil. She hadn't been the same ever since Clark was taken; the doctor had put her on anti-depressants, the rumour went. She clung to Jonathon's arm as they walked slowly down the aisle, looking for all the world like he was the only thing left to hold her up.
A handful of relatives were scattered across the other pews, along with a few high-school students and the odd person who even Lex didn't recognise. Chloe and Pete were sat together, holding each other so tightly it almost looked painful. Lex, not wanting to intrude now of all times, tried to sit on his own, but Lois wouldn't hear a word of it.
"Look, mister, I don't know you and you don't know me, but if you even think about abandoning me right now then I swear you won't know what hit you."
"You could sit with Chloe," he pointed out dully.
"Chloe wasn't there."
And that was the simple truth if it, he supposed. No one else had been there. The two of them were united by that, if nothing else.
The thought was strangely comforting. And when Lois ducked her head during the eulogy, hiding her red eyes behind her hair, he pretended not to notice. He owed her at least that much.
If he'd known what would happen, Lex thought sometimes, he would have told Clark the truth a lot sooner.
Not about the investigations, or about Dr Hamilton or Nixon or any of the other thousands of lies they shared. None of that really mattered in the end. All those times he'd asked Clark to be truthful with him, wanting to hear the real story behind that day on the bridge... he'd trade every shred of honesty he'd worked so hard for, just for Clark to have shared his other secret one day sooner.
Just one more day in those arms. Was that really too much to ask for?
"It wasn't Clark," he said finally.
"What wasn't?" Lois was maybe a little drunk, but she was still sober enough to know Lex wasn't making much sense.
"Afterwards. When the light faded, and there was just him there, not breathing. It was... it didn't feel like him. Not really. The body was there, but Clark wasn't home anymore."
"Lex... he was dead. What did you expect?"
"It just didn't feel like him lying in my arms. I always thought I'd be able to feel it when he died, and I can't. It just doesn't seem real."
"I know what you mean. Halfway through the service I was expecting him to just jump out of the coffin and shout, surprise! I almost burst out laughing right there. Pretty sick, huh?"
"I just... I don't know." Lex knew he must be drunk, because he couldn't imagine telling her all this if he wasn't under the influence of something. "Do you think maybe..."
"Maybe what? Evil twin, secret clone? Sorry, but I've already been through one fake death. I doubt the odds of getting another one are all that high." She took another sip of her drink, and grimaced.
"I don't know," he repeated, frustrated. "I was... you know," he said, laughing suddenly, bizarrely, "I tried to get a lab to run a DNA check on a lock of his hair, just to make sure it was really him."
"What did they find?" Lois gave him a curious look.
"Enough to win the next few Nobel Prizes, from what the supervisor told me. He seemed quite excited about it. Said there were elements he didn't even recognise, and the structure was beyond anything we've ever seen before."
There was a pause, while the thought sunk in. "Shit," she said eventually.
"They wanted to know where I got it from, so I told them to go to hell. Burned the sample and destroyed all the files."
"You sure that was the best thing to do?"
"Secrets and lies. Clark would be so proud of me." Lois's eyes narrowed, and Lex winced. "I didn't mean that. I don't know why I gave them the hair in the first place. Stupid. I should have known they'd come up with something like that."
"Did they figure out if it was really his body or not?"
"How could they? They had nothing to compare it to. I should have realised that before I asked."
They drank in silence for a few minutes. Then, "What if he's still out there somewhere?"
"You're not getting religious on me, are you?" Lois asked warily.
"Maybe. But he was an alien, after all. What if he doesn't need his body to survive?"
"You think he's just floating around as a spirit somewhere?"
"It makes about as much sense anything else we saw."
Lois gave him a surprisingly steady look, considering how much she'd drunk by now. "You need to let it go, Lex. Even if he's somehow still alive, there's no way we can get him back. He's gone, and you need to accept that."
Lex didn't say anything, but Lois wasn't letting this drop. "I mean it," she said. "And I know all about your obsessive tendencies, so you'd better not try anything while my back is turned. I hear one word about you launching rockets to chase after space ghosts, and I'll..." She floundered for a second, trying to think of a suitable threat. "I'll tell Dad you tried to get me drunk."
Clark was gone. Lex kept expecting the thought to bring some kind of pain every time he played it across his mind, but it just left a strange emptiness. Like the hollow space where a star used to be.
It was something to do with Jor-El, they decided. Clark's parents pieced the mess together with Lex and Lois in the horribly quiet kitchen, making a patchwork from their scattered knowledge of events.
Clark had been acting strangely for days. Always distracted- even more than usual. Not even Lex had been able to hold his attention fully. So when he'd asked Lois and Lex to meet him down at the caves, promising an explanation, they'd been more than a little relieved.
Of course, they hadn't expected what happened. Not at all.
"Does it still hurt?" Lois asked, inspecting Lex's hands with all the interest of a good reporter.
"A little. Not as much as it did the first few days. But they're not like normal burns- they should have faded by now."
"I'm a fast healer," Lex said, surprised in a distant way at how easy it was just to tell her. "The meteor shower did more for me than the free hair-cut."
"He told you to let go. I don't think he wanted you hurt."
"He knew I wouldn't let go," Lex said firmly. "He wouldn't have, if it had been me."
The burns made a strange pattern, spread out across the palm and fingers. If you looked closely, you could just make out the shape- hand prints. The fingers wrapped around Lex's, curled tightly.
"What did it feel like?"
"You couldn't feel it?"
"I could feel the heat, a little, but I wasn't close enough. I could just see the light, and that was it." Lois gave a twisted smile, as if she was remembering something that really shouldn't be funny. "I thought he looked like an angel. He was glowing so brightly, it looked like he had wings."
"It felt like..." Lex's expression was thoughtful, as he tried to come up with a good explanation. "It felt like home. That's the only way I can put it that makes any sense at all. It hurt like hell where I was touching him, because it was so bright and so hot... but when that light washed through me, somehow it felt like coming home."
"You think he knew what would happen?"
There was another long pause, where neither of them were quite prepared to speak.
Then finally, there was a soft noise as Lois uncrossed her legs and leaned forwards.
"Sometimes, you have to know when to let go."
The cave walls were scorched. When Lex finally went down to see for himself he found that most of the paintings and symbols were now unreadable; some that had been nowhere near the burns, he was sure, had vanished altogether.
He had the entire cave system filled in, just to be sure. Structural damage caused by fire, he wrote in his report. The Kawatche were outraged, but they'd deal. Just like everyone else.
Life went on, the way it does. The Kents got older, and they finally grew used to speaking about their son in the past tense. Lois found a job at the Daily Planet, which Lex swore blind he'd had nothing to do with. LuthorCorp continued to prosper.
Lex still worried sometimes that the Kents somehow blamed him for Clark's death, but his fears were put to rest when he called to visit that Christmas. They took him up to the barn loft, which they all still thought of as Clark's, and pointed out the telescope.
"We think Clark would have wanted you to have it," said Martha unsteadily. "He used to love stargazing, and we were hoping you could appreciate it."
"We know he meant a lot to you," Jonathon said gruffly, "and I think he felt the same way. So we'd like you to take this, to remember him by."
Lex didn't need anything to remember Clark by when the memories were burned into his mind, but he'd accepted the telescope gratefully. It now had pride of place in his Metropolis penthouse, gazing out of the window.
It was the only thing the cleaning staff weren't allowed to touch. He had to fire one maid for moving it, and knocking it off its carefully positioned focus.
She hadn't been able to see what all the fuss was about. It's not like it was pointed at anything interesting, she'd said as she left. Just a big gap in between some stars.
And sometimes he called Lois, and sometimes she called him. They argued about the latest stories and corporate scandals, and sometimes they could almost forget what was missing.
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