by LaCasta

Experimented with several different techniques here, so particularly interested in feedback about what worked (or didn't). Thanks!
Usual disclaimer applies.

*It's good to be President.* Under various threats, he'd stopped saying that to Pete, but that couldn't keep him from saying it to himself nearly every time he took advantage of another perk of office. In this case, it was having access to the National Air and Space Museum during its officially closed hours, any time he felt like it.

It was the place where he could see the record of human attempts to understand and explore the profound mysteries of space. Even if during his first private visit, the first thing he went to look at was the original model of the Enterprise. He'd confessed that to Pete, who had shook his head pityingly and said, "Once a geek, always a geek," adding, after a long pause, "Mr. President."

In the museum, the shadow of the teenager who had so often scanned the night heavens with his telescope was very close. Sometimes he wondered if these friendships were somehow Clark's last gift to him. His inheritance. As if Clark had known what would happen and wanted to leave him with the one thing that would dull and smooth the edges of the sharp pain of his absence. For all of them.

He'd have given nearly anything to be able to share this place with Clark. Clark would have loved it, absorbed it eagerly. But even without Clark, he wasn't lonely here.

The sound of a footfall behind him startled him out of his reverie.

"Mr. President."

"Doctor." Lex didn't have to look to identify him. Dr. Arkin's voice was unmistakable, naturally deep but kept from heaviness by the crisp lilt of his Bermudan accent. He turned and shook the astronomer's hand.

As far as Lex was concerned, the museum housed its very own terrestrial mystery: Did Arkin ever go home? Or did he shut himself up in one of his own exhibit cases or possibly take a sleeping bag into one of the many pods and shuttles? Lex had yet to be in the museum, at any hour of the day or night, without the curator coming over to greet him. It was only his respect for the man's massive dignity that kept him from asking--they were on amiable terms but Arkin seemed to keep everybody at arm's length.

"Ah, yes." Arkin nodded at the case Lex had been standing next to. It held simulations of the rocks which had fallen from a comet, which had harbored living viruses. "And what if they had been sentient? What to do then?"

Nearly every time he had encountered the astronomer, Arkin had asked a variant of the same question. Each time, Lex had once realized, his own answer had been slightly different. Most of his predecessors in his office had shown the passing of time through whitening hair. He supposed that since he wasn't able to manage that, his evolving answers marked the impact of the difficult decisions, the sleepless nights. Rather than becoming more involved over time, they had become simpler. "To respond in kind. If it wanted just to learn about us, to let it and to learn from it."

"If it wanted conquest?"

Lex smiled faintly. "To kick its galactic ass."

Arkin smiled in return, acknowledging the underlying determination to protect the world whose destiny he had the power to mold. "And what if it wanted only to find a refuge, to be left in peace to live out its life?"

Lex looked at the models again. "As much as I'd want to study it...if that was what it truly wanted, and if it meant no harm to anybody, to give it that." That was the first time he had come to that conclusion and at Arkin's contemplative gaze, he felt as though the other man was coming to a decision.

"Mr. President, will you come with me?"

*don't open the door don't open the door don't let them open the door but it will open and I think I can't take any more I know I can't but more keeps happening*

*please please please please don't hurt me why won't it stop hurting stop hurting stop hurting never stops hurting*

finish finish finish finish finish me finish me finish me

nothing to hang onto nothing I can even see but hands and eyes and more hands cold hard hands and things and surfaces but eyes are colder and harder

let me go let me go let me go

*can't scream want to can't scream that sound is all there is I have a mouth but I can't scream please let me please*

*they move around like ghosts like I'm a ghost but then I'd be dead want to be dead want to be dead please let me be dead no no if I'm dead now this will never change please death please please change this change me change me to nothing nothing can hurt nothing there's nothing to hurt*

but I already am nothing nothing to them nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing not a thing but I am a thing please stop please stop


Lex didn't often have trouble finding words; usually his challenge was to pick out the most effective ones from the many that crowded his brain. But trying to find words now was like trying to pull a goldfish from a pond using only his toes. Arkin's words could mean only that somebody had found not only extraterrestrial, intelligent life, but found it here on earth.

Arkin was leading him through storage rooms which, while not actually dusty, gave that impression. Without warning, the older man turned and Lex nearly ran into him. With the automatic, "Sor-" that came from his mouth, he found he was capable of speech again.

"Does this mean that there is intelligent life from another planet?"

Arkin nodded silently.



Lex sensed so much self-questioning behind his unmoving expression that he wasn't able to stop his own question, though as he spoke it sounded ridiculous. "It's not you, is it?" When it was out, he realized that not only was the question ridiculous, but that he'd spoken in the excited quaver of an adolescent.

Arkin smiled, fleetingly. "No." Lex wasn't sure--had the astronomer's face always had that sadness behind it, and he had just learned to recognize it, or was it new? The expression now seemed almost as organic to him as his features. "I'm going to ask you something now, Mr. President, now that you've had a chance to absorb this." A tiny, detached part of Lex's mind commented that of the two of them, the President of the United States had far less of an air of authority.

"Terrible things have been done to him, in the name of science as well as far less illustrious goals. He has been cruelly exploited, though it seems that he never wished to harm a living thing."

"He?" Arkin was so precise in his speech, the choice of pronoun couldn't be just convenience.

"He. For the first years of his life here, he not only passed as a human but was raised as one. We don't know if even the people who raised him knew of his origins. Or if he did. Then-" He raised a hand and let it drop.

"Somebody found out?"

"Somebody found out. Somebody found out and what was apparently an innocent and harmless being was thrown into a hell made especially for him." Arkin's smile was twisted with bitterness. "People are made to suffer terribly for being different. If there is one rule of history, that is it. It might have seemed to a detached observer that in a few parts of the world that was changing. But it hadn't changed enough or in time for him."

Lex could well imagine but his brain shied away from that like a whipped horse. "He was raised as human? What...what's his name?"

"That question was one of the few that wasn't too trivial for them to record. As he was sold from one to another and again to another, notes and observations were part of each sale but nobody added that."

Dehumanizing. Except the being, who perhaps thought he was human, never was. A name, so trivial and yet so vital. "What do you call him, then?"

Arkin chuckled but with only faint amusement. "Among ourselves, Al." He waited for a wince of comprehension at the feeble, sad joke. "Not having anything to call him to his face, we avoid it."


"My sister. A practicing psychiatrist. Everything she has attempted is as ineffective as superstition. Or even more so, sometimes superstition has its own effect." He grimaced. "He was raised as human and I cannot believe that it has been ineffective because he's an alien. I think it's because the damage is so profound."

"Can'st thou not minister to a mind diseased?" He wasn't even aware of having spoken until he heard the sound of his voice trailing off.

Arkin locked his eyes on Lex's. "Mr. President, I need your word that you will do him no harm." The words seemed to resonate in his ears as sonorously as organ chords. "You are a good man, Mr. President, but what he represents is great temptation. If it would be best for him--and for you as a man with a conscience--to forget this conversation, I ask you to do that. If you want to see him, you must promise that you will not harm him."

"I won't promise not to hurt him. I promise to protect him and help him in any way possible. You have my word." Arkin's eyes seemed to examine not just the words and the voice but to be weighing him for truth like the Egyptian god of justice weighed the hearts of the dead against the feather of justice. He must have been satisfied, as he turned to leave the room, but holding the door for Lex to proceed him.

Lex realized that Arkin had deliberately led them in the wrong direction several times during their trip, as they retraced their steps and passed through the various underground tunnels joining the museums on the Smithsonian campus. He was thoroughly disoriented after just minutes and had no idea if this, too, was deliberate or not.

They passed through a series of locked doors and Arkin paused before the most forbidding yet. "It's difficult to tell how much of his current condition is physical and how much is mental, particularly since we have no sense of what he was like before being so traumatized." He unlocked the door and Lex looked about what looked for all the world like an apartment, simply furnished but with comfortable furniture and warm earth tones. A woman, whose prominent and broadly-sculpted facial bones clearly indicated her kinship with Arkin, looked up from her book at the sound of their arrival, and seeing Lex, she got up swiftly.

"Mr. President," she said, levelly. Some signal seemed to pass from her brother to her, as her expression changed minutely, from wariness to cool observation. "I'm Carola Arkin."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," he said perfunctorily, eyes searching the room. He wasn't even trying to be discreet but suspected that she'd have seen through him immediately even if he had.

"He's in there." She still stood between him and the door she indicated. "It's one of his better days," she added. "I'll take you in."

The room was dimly lit. It held a bed, a comfortable chair near the bed, a low bookcase with a television and video player on top, and on another bookcase, a small stereo system that was quietly playing classical music, a Haydn symphony, Lex guessed. There was a figure in the bed, lying on its side, covers heaped on top, only dark hair showing that it was more than a pile of blankets.

The hair. Lex was overwhelmed by the feeling of desolation that came over him at the resemblance. It was so like Clark's. He already been moved by the alien's history and his determination to help and protect was redoubled, just by that resemblance.

"Stay here," she said quietly, and crossed the room where she bent to look at the figure. Her cool voice warmed as she addressed him. "There's somebody to see you, dear. He's going to help keep you safe. I'll be right here all the time, child."

There was no response but she nonetheless gestured for Lex to come to where she stood. Familiarity burned at his heart as he came across the room and around the bed, but when he looked at the alien's face, nothing had prepared him for absolute recognition. It was Clark. Clark, not raising his head or even looking at him. Clark, staring with blank, empty eyes like a dead man's, only an occasional blink revealing that he was not dead or a lifeless replica.

Lex wasn't sure if it was the desire to see him more closely or a simple inability to stand that had him kneeling next to the bed. He hadn't even realized that he'd reached for physical contact with Clark until her hand stopped his.

"He doesn't react well to being touched."

Anger at being denied what he wanted rose quickly but he crushed it down. "How do you even know?"

"There's a monitor on his wrist for pulse and blood pressure. It prints out in the other room. Any time he's touched, it either spikes or tumbles."

He twisted his neck to look directly at her. "And you call this one of his better days?"

Lex would have recognized her kinship to her brother just from the dryness in her voice, the calm that was more of a damning indictment than any rage would have been. "Sometimes, his eyes are open. For him, that's a good day."

Not moving his eyes from Clark's face, Lex said, equally levelly, "As it turns out, I can fill in a few of the blanks about his past. His name is Clark Kent. He grew up in Smallville, Kansas, where he was the adopted son of two farmers. For the two years I knew him, he closest friend." He hesitated and then did not add that during the last month, Clark had been his lover. Let that remain between them. "He disappeared one July morning. We never knew what happened to him." Getting up--the wish to touch Clark becoming a palpable sensation in his hands, too much of a temptation--he added, prosaically, "Do you have a phone? I want to tell his parents."

"Just as a precaution, we don't use one from here. It's too easy to pinpoint a signal. Back in the museum."

Lex nodded automatically. The news that Clark was an alien was just beginning to sink in, with the realization that he was still alive. If he could call this being alive. He addressed Clark, speaking softly. "I'll be back soon. We all missed you and thought about you. Every day. We're here now, Clark, we're here."

Arkin and Lex were both silent as they made their way back to the museum. Lex was still trying to grasp what he had seen and heard. Without Clark present, it was difficult to believe it had truly happened. The astronomer's face showed nothing of his thoughts.

The first thing Arkin said was "Dial 9 for an outside line." Lex had to think for a moment to remember the Kents' number; on every phone he used regularly, it was programmed in.


"Jonathan? It's Lex."

"What's wrong, son?" The worry in Jonathan's voice was unmistakable. So much for being reassuring and delivering the news as gently as possible, in carefully judged gradual steps.

"It's Clark. He's...been found."


"Yes." He couldn't get out more than the syllable.

"But he's hurt." It wasn't a question.

"He didn't know me. He didn't know me at all." He hadn't meant to say that. He was going to be the one they could lean on, who could shoulder their grief and the even more painful hope as well as his own. But it was in words now, the furrows on his heart like a cat's raked clawmarks, offered to Jonathan to ask for comforting, like a child's skinned knee. He hurried on. "I'll arrange for someone to come get you. A few hours. I'm telling Pete and Lana next."

"We'll be ready. Hang in there, son, we'll get through this, too."

Next was Pete. He dialed a direct number which rang on only one phone in their home. "'Lo?" Pete was not a morning person and it was still early.

"Pete. Can you come to the Space Museum now, and bring Lana with you?"

"Sure, but?"

"I'll meet you there and explain." He wasn't sure that he'd be able to keep the tiny remnants of self-control if he had to find words again for Clark's condition. He wasn't sure about being able to do that, anyway.

He'd learned a lot about stilling his emotions but this went beyond any injury, real or imagined. There were thousands of suffering victims every day and if he felt anger on any single one's behalf, he'd either go insane or destroy the world as the only way to put an end to the pain. He'd had to make his empathy become distant, like figures seen through a telescope. Like Helen had when faced with the inevitable suffering and destruction of the human body. But when it came to Clark, it was impossible. It was all the agony of knowing and loving Clark so well that what Clark had endured and was enduring was mirrored in him, but magnified by knowing that the burden wasn't shared, but instead, copied in his own.

He saw, through the glass door, Pete and Lana hurrying across the museum campus. Lana was pregnant enough that the bulge showed clearly under her coat but almost running.

"It's Clark," he said, simply, as they came in. "He's alive."

*it wasn't real it wasn't real that's why I can't hold onto it but I want it back I don't even remember it but it was warm*

no no no no right once it was right once wrong now wrong now everything

*a story somebody told me a story a story a story about fire or was it me then even if I close my eyes I can feel when they're going to*

not even an animal they kill the animals first

*there was an eagle in the story like eagle's claws and beak claws and beak claws and beak*

nobody helps nobody to help wanted to help nobody nobody

*why can't I die I should be dead if I am there's not a grave all those graves none for me none for me don't I get one too*

not again please not again

*let me go warm only warm my blood how can I bleed that much and not die want to die let me die don't even want a grave just let me die cut deeper deeper deeper and I'll die*

*please how can I ask you I can't talk or move please did I ever have a voice or was it always this*

it was different different

*no never was never was dream wake up and it's real*

*there were other things once weren't there please somebody answer me tell me they were real and maybe I could feel them again*

Arkin's expression and stance usually gave nothing away. But as Lex made the brief introductions, "Dr. Arkin, Pete Ross, Lana Lang," he looked so dour that Lex immediately tried to think of a backup plan if he were to deny any knowledge of Clark or point-blank refuse to lead them back.

Pete nodded briefly, then looked Lex in the eye. "Clark's alive but you look like the sky just fell. What's wrong?"

The question and the man asking it commanded the truth. But there were no words, or he couldn't find them, for this. He looked away. "It'll make more sense when you see him."

The younger man planted his feet firmly. "That's not enough, Lex. Tell us what's wrong."

Reluctantly, he met their eyes again. Lana's searched his earnestly, but Pete's unmoving gaze demanded, unyielding. Then the words wouldn't stop coming. "He's been abused until he's catatonic, he doesn't say a thing, his eyes don't even focus and it was happening to him all this time. People were buying and selling him and I didn't do anything. All this time."

"Where is he? Is he in the hospital? Who did it?" Pete shot out the questions like any reporter.

From a shout, Lex's voice modulated to a whisper. "He's here in the Smithsonian because he is an alien. And that, it would seem, gave anybody who had the cash to buy him the right to treat him like that."

"An alien?" Lana was staring at them both but Pete had lowered his head, sadly, with no signs of surprise. "Clark is an alien?" she repeated.

"Yeah. Long story, Lan'. Where is he?" So Pete knew. He and Pete were going to have a very thorough discussion of this, Lex grimly promised himself.

"I'll take you to him." Arkin's eyes were still guarded, even hooded.

"And how are you involved?" Pete rounded on the astronomer. "What have you been doing with him?"

"He was given into my care two years ago."

Lex had never thought to ask when. "Two years? You've had him for two years? And you just kept him locked up in a museum basement?"

Arkin looked at him balefully, almost contemptuously. "Would you have had me assume that being President, having power, conferred on you exemption from ambition, willingness to exploit a situation, even fear of the unknown? History suggests that would be an unwise assumption. To say nothing of your own history. If his situation wasn't improving, at least it wasn't getting worse."

The man's monumental calm fueled Lex's anger but Pete had seemed to get a grip on himself. "Guys? This isn't getting us anywhere. Can you stop pawing the ground for a minute and take us to Clark?"

When they got back to the apartment, the outer room was empty but an alarm was buzzing in a corner of the room. Lex thought for a moment his heart had stopped beating.

"Who's there?" Carola's voice, from the bedroom.

"The President has brought more people to see him," Arkin called back.

The persistent alarm numbed his thoughts. Arkin didn't seem concerned by it but it distracted Lex to the point that he hadn't even thought of a response to the chilly answer. Lana, on the other hand, darted in front of the astronomer, a hummingbird facing down a monolith. "We're not tourists who want to see a curiousity, we're people who knew and loved him. He was the best friend anybody could have and now--" She drew a breath. "And now we're going to help him however we can." She turned to Arkin. "He's in there, right?" Without waiting for the answer, she strode towards the door, Pete behind her.

Lex turned to follow them, but telling himself it was to let them absorb what they would see, stopped. "What's the alarm?" he asked, dully.

Arkin hadn't moved an inch but his face softened with pity, an emotion Lex had never learned to tolerate towards himself. "We try to do everything that involves any kind of physical contact all at once, just once a day." He nodded towards a corner. "That monitors his heart and pulse and sounds an alarm if they become significantly faster or slower or become erratic. The changes for no visible reason have become less frequent, but it still happens any time either of us touches him and sometimes it continues quite a while afterwards." For the first time, he seemed to look for understanding from Lex. "Do you see now why I waited two years?" He sighed heavily and shook his head. "I had to be careful. How could I have known?"

He couldn't have. The thought formed slowly in Lex's mind but it formed with the substantiality of certainty, certainty but with a doubt following behind. The years of his presidency had brought with them triumphs but also bitterly regretted decisions, sleepless nights, every question of heart and mind and conscience. He always would have protected Clark, that much he knew. But without those years, would he have done it without relishing the power and mastery it gave him? Would he have protected an alien who wasn't already love, friend, brother, or would he have turned a blind eye if allowing exploitation promised immortality for his own name? Would he have bought eternal fame, previously unopened books of knowledge, at the price of one mere alien creature's suffering? He wasn't sure he had an answer certain enough to convince himself.

"Clark? Clark, buddy, it's Pete." What did you expect, he chided himself, that Clark would do a Dorothy, wake up, blink a bit, and remember everything? He turned to look at the woman who watched them. "Is it physical or - " He shook his head helplessly. "Isn't there anything we can do?"

"You knew him before, so there's a better chance now of getting him to respond. It's been difficult to guess and we've erred on the side of caution. All we've really done is keep him in a controlled environment with steady and unthreatening sensory input. The human body and brain have remarkable powers of recouperation but with his, we've just had to guess and hope."

"What have you been doing?"

"What you see. Music that would have a mix of change and pattern but wouldn't be harsh or jarring. Videos that would do the same thing. Even tactile stimuli, different textures on sheets, blankets, pillows when we change them." She laughed shortly and without the least amusement. "To answer your next question, we can't tell if it's done a bit of good. Two thousand years of medicine and all we've offered him is keeping him warm and fed and comfortable. We're even just guessing at what's comfortable. At least there were notes about feeding him, that they tracked. And experimented with."

Lana hadn't made a sound but when he looked at her, staring down at Clark's blank face, he wasn't sure and didn't care whether he was trying to comfort Lana or himself as he caught her hand between his.

*home I want to go home please I want to go home please somebody say that it's been enough say I can go home*

*all the people who died I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry if I thought this would fix it but it won't I know I can't give their lives back no matter how many times they pull mine out*

*where where I'm not in my body not out of it I'm just what hurts in between all the spaces can't move not again no don't open the door don't come in forget I'm here forget forget forget*

*please I'm scared I'm scared I don't want*

*so cold and dark so cold the doors are locked heavy locked doors heavy so heavy how can they be so heavy don't they weigh so much they'd weigh the world gone*

*it kept happening two three four five six isn't it enough I couldn't keep from trying to get out I wanted not to it was funnier to him two funnier three funnier four funnier five funnier six funnier he couldn't believe that I kept trying I couldn't stop I wanted if I could*

*what are those spots so tiny but lights are they lights tiny like Christmas tree lights I want to say they're stars*

"You're not going to believe this, Clark, but I'm Vice-President now. Of the United States." Pete tried to chuckle. "And even if you believed that one, Lex is President. Or maybe that's easier to believe. Yeah, things have changed a lot, buddy."

It was easier, he decided, if he didn't look at Clark. Focus a bit beyond him, imagine that they were talking over the phone or something. "You know, it's because of you. Lex did everything to try to find you. Had the entire town out looking. People were pretty damn impressed with how he organized it all. He didn't show much, well, that's no surprise, but they, we, I guess, liked how much he cared, you know? It felt, for the first time, even with the whole buyout thing, that he was one of us, not some Metropolis person who was here for what he could get." Pete sighed. "I bet you didn't even know how much people wanted you to be okay. Everybody was looking for you." He remembered one incident that might spark a response. "Lex had a professional team bring in search dogs. Watching them follow your scent was like watching The Hidden Life of Clark Kent. The loft, the Talon, school, all over the farm, my place, Torch, Fordham's, Lex's. Even over to Lana's old place and you'd pretty much stopped going there, God knows how long ago. Good thing we never really had the guts to go into Over 21, huh? We kept talking about it but never did it. And you know, you were the one who looked old enough. But I guess you didn't think it'd be fair to go on your own."

He felt his phone vibrate and knew without even looking that it was Hector, his secretary, wanting to know where the hell he was and specifically why he wasn't prepping for the Senate opening. Lex could get away with giving somebody a look that said "You could try getting one of those telephone leashes on me during the times when I don't want one--but you wouldn't succeed." He himself had gotten pretty good at giving orders when needed but Lex could somehow make a raised eyebrow not just an order but a statement of fact. "Clark, buddy, I've got to go run the Senate, okay? It's like babysitting, but worse. Lana's out talking with the Arkins but she'll come say hello, stick around for a bit. Oh, and Clark, she's got big news, too. Really big news." He got up reluctantly. Damn, he wanted to hug Clark. Or give him a noogie. Lana would probably say something about men if he told her that.

Lana and Lex were standing in the doorway in a familiar pose, one that a million tabloid photographers would kill to get, Lana leaning against him, head tucked under his chin, his hands around her waist, or now, protectively spanning her belly. He'd warned them that if he had anything to do with it, the baby's first words were going to be "Uncle Lex," not anything boring like "mama" or "dada."

They must have heard him tell Clark he had to go, since Lana detached Lex's hands and came in. Lex grimaced his understanding that as much as they wanted, he and Pete couldn't stay, and Lana took Pete's place in the chair next to Clark's bed.

*thousands of pieces of string and wire and rope and twisting like snakes and I don't know which one I think they keep multiplying and twisting and tangling and changing and I have to find the right one and pull it out and everything will change*

everything will change and it will all be turned upside down and mixed around and around what if it gets worse

*want to find it untangle it I wouldn't want something that would make everything hurt more would I what if they're making me think*

have to be faster than it have to be faster before I get the right one

*needle in a haystack needle in a haystack needle in a haystack it's like a little song needle in a haystack needle in a haystack*

*would it change if I touch it so nothing else could change it wouldn't would it somebody tell me it won't*

please let me it hurts please look at me if I still have a face it would ask you please please

*hungry and they pulled the food away thirsty and the water flowed away who told me about him or was it me no somebody told me his name it wasn't my name*

*who said to me sometimes people can be mean but most of them aren't and even the ones who are are sometimes sorry somebody said that somebody is it true if it's true if it's true if it's true then*

"Hi, Clark. It's Lana." She laughed nervously, a habit that had remained with her over the years. "I...I don't know what to say. It's, it's been such a long time...A lot's changed, well, you look like the Clark we knew, well, not exactly, you're, we're all older, but..." She looked at the floor for a moment.

"I don't even know where to begin, telling you what happened since you left. In order, or the biggest things first, or what? Pete and I, well, we got married seven years ago. He's the youngest Vice-President in history, you know? I think you'd be proud of him. The big news he said about, well, we're having a baby!" Another gust of nervous laughter. "He's going to be a boy. We're still working on names. Pete took one of those lists and crossed out all the ones he didn't want and I crossed out all the ones I didn't want but there were still about a hundred. He'll be born in April, that's kind of a good month for a birthday, isn't it?"

She tried to look for any kind of response in his face, a movement, an expression, even a blink that looked spontaneous. There was nothing, and she felt her insides clench in pity and anger. His face had always been so readable, puppy-dog eyes, annoyance, happiness, sympathy, amusement, or even glassy-eyed boredom, during the middle of a class. Even the boredom was there to see, not just this blankness. If the occasional blinks had been even the tiniest bit more consistently paced, she'd have wondered if somehow this were some kind of Clark Machine. That the real one, the one she knew, was somewhere else, and this silent figure was the alien substitute. It was like a nightmare she'd had often after her parents died and then after she'd found out her connection with Henry Small: She'd run up to people who looked like her parents and then the figures would dwindle into nothing or change into something else, all the more terrifying for being ordinary, a crossing guard near the school, or just a stranger.

"Chloe's teaching journalism at Metropolis U. It's not really what she'd planned but it worked out great. She can really set them on fire, you know, the way she gets that determined look? She did some really big stories even while she was a student, some exposes that we were scared would really get her in trouble." She laughed again, remembering. "You'd have loved it, Clark. Well, you'd have been there, but Lex offered to hire bodyguards for her and she said no, they'd cramp her style. Can't you just see her saying that? So Lex hired them anyway and she pretended never to notice them. Instead, she just made sure that she lost them at least once a day, she said it was good practice. Pete says that there are probably a few of them still in the U basement, trying to find a way out. When it came to a story, Chloe wasn't scared of anything." Still no response from Clark

The Clark she knew had seemed so physically fearless. She'd often laughed privately, not at him, really, but at the idea that somebody that big and sturdy could be so shy, even tongue-tied. Even Pete, before he'd had five-inches-fifty-pounds spurt in his first year of college, exuded self-confidence. Well, most of the time. Not when she decided that if anything was going to happen between them, she'd have to initiate it, and asked him out.

"I think that rubbed off on Lex. You know the way that the Secret Service has code names for people? Anyway, they wouldn't tell me what they're using now, but they told me some of the old ones, since they change every now and again. When he was running, they called him Bart Simpson, and then once he was elected, they changed it to Brat. Well, you know Lex, he has issues about being crowded, and he really didn't do real well with having bodyguards right there every minute of every day. So finally, they put in a lot more techno-security things, he even wears what they call the baby monitor. If anybody who isn't already authorized gets near him, even twenty yards, he has to press a security code to let them know it's okay, or they come in. It's weird, he was the one raised with security all around and he hates it, Pete and I, well, we pretty much had you, and it wasn't a big deal getting used to it.

"Pete and I, we got together senior year. It was funny, I started feeling jealous of the people he dated. Sometimes I thought he did like me, other times I was sure he didn't. And then I finally just showed up at his house one Saturday and asked if he wanted to go out." She laughed again. "A bit like with Henry, I guess. Show up out of nowhere and scare `em." Still no response.

"You'd be proud of Lex, too. Nobody thought he really had a chance if he ran as an Independent, but he did. Governor, then Senator, then off politics for a while, regrouping, building allies, and then President." She shook her head, grinning. "All the commentators said that it was only in the US that you'd get a grass-roots campaign for a multi-multi-billionaire. Pete was running his campaigns for a while but his own approval ratings were so high, and Lex said he was one of the people he could really trust, so he ran with Lex. I wish you'd seen him in the debates, he really was great. He just ruled the stage, you know? He was sincere, and it showed, but he also knew just how to say something, or ask a question, or even just pause for a second before answering, not clowning or anything, but just letting it sink in how pointless Montgomery's or Parson's answers were. You could see them, by the end, they weren't even debating each other, it was the two of them against him, and he was still winning, easily. They say Lex is a shoo-in for re-election and then Pete'll run. I don't think they'd really do it, but some of their cabinet were saying that Lex should run as his VP but Lex says Pete would have too many things to get even for."

Hearing a noise, she looked up. Carola Arkins was coming into the room, a faint frown on her face. "Is something wrong?" Was talking to him bad for Clark, or was she saying things that she shouldn't?

"His heart rate has been increasing slightly. Whether that's a good sign or bad, flip a coin." The older woman's anger seemed to show all the more clearly through her low voice and slow movements. Her expression was forbidding but Lana decided, somewhat tentatively, that the anger wasn't at her or at the motionless figure.

"Should I leave him alone now?"

Carola's massive shoulders lifted in a helpless shrug. "Either you're upsetting him or he's enjoying the company. Or it's something else altogether, sometimes it happens for no reason." She closed her eyes in a gesture of resignation. "There might be ways to figure out which, but we've not been willing to gamble that finding out would be worth what it would inflict on him. I tried, after three months, to see if his brain shows activity in the same areas that it does in humans, in response to pleasure. That way, we could test different things, see what he preferred, instead of guessing almost blindly, perhaps make him feel he was in a comfortable and comforting environment." She clamped her lips together before continuing. "It's a simple test, put something sweet-tasting or bitter in the mouth, see which part of the brain responds to each. In humans, there are two very distinct and separate areas for pleasure and displeasure. The meters I had are tiny, a patient barely notices that they're on. Except that when I put the first on, telling him what I was doing and why, his heart rate and blood pressure became so high that it would have killed a human in ten seconds. That was enough to make me stop. Even if I hadn't sworn to do no harm, I might have been able to go on if I knew that I'd learn something that could help him, but I couldn't even count on that."

Lana had dozens of questions, but only an incongruous one came to her mouth. "How did he end up with you?"

"Thanks to the woman I'd thought the most imbecilic trophy wife on the entire East Coast. William had met her at various social functions, and I'm still not convinced she knows that he's an astronomer, not an astrologer, or even that there's a difference. But when her husband and his son died in an accident, she found out that her inheritance included him. Unlike all the scientific and business genius wonder-workers who had had possession of him, what she saw wasn't a fortune but something unspeakable. Since the...processors told her that he was an alien, after she ordered them to leave him alone, she came to find William, since he'd know what to do. Being an astronomer. Or possibly an astrologer." She almost smiled. "When William saw how unresponsive he was, and read in the various notes that he'd interacted intelligently before, he called me in. Since then, this is the progress he's made."

*if I go there then they won't find me down in the bottom very quiet and dark where things are quiet and dark like when time stops and nothing moves because time won't move and then I can breathe*

*something's coming in something slanted and strange stranger than what they call me why can't I touch light if I can see it and feel it's warm"

*it's a fire but it's drawing light to itself not throwing it off*

*what was it I can't remember if a tree falls if a tree falls I don't know how it ends*

*see I'm being quiet I'm being good I'm being good*

*don't take me out of this see I'm all gone and nobody can dig into what's empty what's been emptied like a bucket trickling through the cracks everywhere and nobody can put it back*

*if there's a bird singing does it feel its own singing in the air it flies through*

It had taken about three hours to get to DC but it felt interminable. The quick drive to the high-speed train to Metropolis, a LexCorp DynamicJet from there, and now the ride to the White House. It was a trip Martha had often taken with Jonathan, but never with her heart beating in her throat like this, never seeing Jonathan unconsciously leaning forward, as if he could push the vehicle to be even a few seconds faster.

She wanted to be there, to see Clark, but a tiny, cowardly part of her wanted never to arrive. If Clark didn't even recognize Lex, what had been happening to him? The fears and worry that routine and time had only crushed down to a tiny space in her heart, rather than eliminating, because they rushed back in a flood, physically sickening in its intensity, carrying her back to those ravaging days after Clark had disappeared.

Those days were enough to draw them all together into the heart of a unit--not just Pete, but Lex as well. After the fear and worry had changed to misery, they needed each other and when resignation set in, all the aching emotions they had shared had woven the two young men so tightly into her life and Jonathan's, as well as each other's, that their lives continued to intertwine. When she had finally told herself that Clark was gone for good--missing for two months and clearly hadn't, as they had planned, used the ship's existence to bargain for his freedom or at least to be allowed to communicate with them--she even wondered if somehow God or the universe had been moved enough to give them even closer ties with Pete, who possessed so many of Clark's dearest qualities, and Lex, who though an adult, was as much in need of a family's love and as eager to return it as the toddler who had found them. Nothing filled the space that Clark had left, but the four of them somehow gave the space enough that it was merely empty, not a vacuum dragging everything else into it.

"Even if he's hurt, at least he's safe now." She realized she'd said it out loud only when she heard the tiny, pleading words, and her husband pulled her closer.

"Where there's life, there's hope," he said, firmly, conviction making it sound not like a cliche but a simple truth. For him, she realized, it was.

She hadn't imagined having to wait once they got to the White House; she'd steeled herself to see Clark during those minutes and waiting made her imagination fill with even worse visions. She and Jonathan weren't frequent visitors to the White House but were familiar to the staff and having to be polite, friendly, and calm chafed at her like sandpaper.

It wasn't going any easier for Jonathan, who was pacing up and down, wiping his hands on his jeans every few seconds, his restlessness crackling across the room like static.

By the time Lex, followed closely by Pete, entered, she was ready to scream. Though he automatically smiled in welcome, Pete's face was stiff as he came over to her and she wrapped her arms around him. "It's bad, Martha," he said, quietly. "It's real bad."

What frightened her as they followed Arkin down the tunnels was that his face changed from stern expressionlessness to deep pity when Lex explained who they were, though it changed back so quickly she wanted to tell herself she'd just imagined it. Jonathan's hand was as clammy as hers when she took it. The scientist unlocked one last door and she gasped, hand flying to her mouth, as she heard a dull grinding sound as they entered the apartment-like space. It was just a blender, she realized, when a woman who looked like a female counterpart of Arkin looked up and turned it off, a few pieces of fruit still lying on the counter.

"Mrs. Kent, Mr. Kent. He's in there." Pete must have sensed the apprehension that washed over her, as he squeezed her arm. "I was just finishing his dinner."

"That's his dinner?" Jonathan asked, pointing at the blender. His voice came out harshly but the woman ignored it.

"Yes. If we put liquids in his mouth, he swallows, but he won't chew solids." She added, "Yet," but with so little conviction that Martha felt her mouth go dry.

"I want to see him."

"This way." Lex, who had gravitated to Jonathan, was maintaining composure but the crevice from nose to mouth on his face deepened to harshness. A bitterness she hadn't heard for years scraped through his voice. "Any physical contact, by the way, seems to terrify him." He then faltered, "Maybe...maybe it will be different for you." Jonathan put a hand on the younger man's shoulder, and Lex walked, as resolutely as a condemned man, to the door he had indicated.

The familiar, still figure caught at her heart. "He's asleep," she whispered, "Do we...let him?"

"He's not asleep," Arkin answered. She looked at him in disbelief and then circled the bed to see Clark's face. As she knelt and Jonathan joined her, she put a hand to the floor to steady herself. Clark was awake, eyes open, but expressionless, not as though she and Jonathan were strangers, but as though they weren't there.

"Oh, sweetheart," she breathed, reaching out to stroke his cheek but pulling her hand back as she remembered Lex's warning. She turned to look up at the others. "What happened to him?"

*the sun shouldn't be so thin like somebody's whispering like water but water won't give life water is water and sun is sun they shouldn't take each other's places now they slip through my fingers like they were never there*

*pushing through the ground underneath and then the plowblade tears into them and before they can grow back the birds eat them but I do grow back and only the eagle so I'm not one of them I'm him I used to know his name*

*it's not there there's nothing there just the sounds of somebody else trying to scream before the next has to come*

*is this because the words said I was supposed to rule words are just shapes and I never wanted to hurt anybody never I didn't want to bring the meteors didn't want to bring death and fire but they came with me anyway*

please no if I can slip like the water I can go away and be another whispering thing on the other side

or are they on this side now

"I don't think that it's a bad sign that he fell asleep," Carola Arkin responded to Martha's unspoken question when Clark closed his eyes and his head leaned to the side against the supporting pillows. "Nobody knows whether the brain adds or sheds memories during sleep, and right now, either would be good for him."

Jonathan nodded. "Seems reasonable," but the word sounded ridiculous as he said it. There was nothing reasonable about this situation. Not one damn thing.

"What did this to him?" Pete demanded. Arkin sighed like a man contemplating an ugly task.

"Maybe out there," Lex interjected before the astronomer could answer, still looking steadily at Clark with hooded eyes.

"Definitely," Arkin answered and Jonathan had to fight the urge to protest. Leaving Clark in that room seemed like abandoning him or walking away before a necessary chore was completed. But then, Arkin knew a lot more about what had happened than he did, and he reluctantly followed, catching up with Martha just outside the doorway and putting an arm around her shoulders.

In the oblique lighting, the tears in her eyes made them look like they were lying at the bottom of a pond, distant and blurred. "We'll get through this," he said, using the same words he'd used to reassure Lex. Maybe if he said it enough, he'd be able to believe it.

*running so fast I couldn't believe I could still see things but I did then it wasn't something in my head*

no no not what they think I am I used to be

*small small very small shh they won't find me here who is it*

*so empty so so empty like space is I was able to reach out and take a handful of stars to hold but now I can't any more*

blood through my veins like worms slowly slowly slowly dragging down and through and back

if I could move just an arm if I had my strength back for just a second then then

red and cracking like leaves and boots

last one out last thing left alive nothing worth saving no nothing all cracking and red and wet

Carola shot a glance at her brother. Jonathan didn't even have an inkling what it meant but whatever message passed seemed clear enough to them. Head high and gaze fixed at the opposite wall, she spoke in a voice that was soft but had nothing gentle to it.

"All of the people who bought and sold him kept notes, which passed along with him. The notes increased his value, you see. If it weren't for that, we'd know even less."

"Bought and sold?" The thought of Clark, of his son, trading hands like somebody's old car froze him.

This time, she turned to look at him. "Yes. The irony is that the first person who...imprisoned him had no idea that he was anything extraordinary, at least not in the beginning. When he realized what Al, excuse me, Clark, was, he had enough unscrupulous contacts that he was able to sell him for a small fortune. There were eight transactions. Some of them treated him as a kind of exotic pet, a curiosity, and sold him again or gave him away when the novelty wore off. But the worst and last was the longest. They tried to clone him, imagining the price that some would pay for a group of even five or six. Indestructible, immensely powerful...We should be thankful that the results were failures. But during the process, they found that as long as a few cells were left, any organ they removed from Clark would regenerate in a matter of days. The real value was that they made perfect transplants."

Martha's hand as it gripped his was ice and Pete looked nauseated. He didn't even want to turn to see how Lex was reacting. Carola continued, her voice even softer, the consonants even more precise. "When introduced into various animals, they found that his organs immediately reprogrammed the host's immune system, so to speak. Introduced changes that made it recognize the new organ as its own. No rejection and the substitution was better than the original, worked better, less susceptible to disease. It didn't take them long at all to find the process was the same in humans. The only hitch was that they had to clean them very thoroughly as his equivalent of white blood cells could bring down the host's immune system in a matter of hours."

She cleared her throat and continued. "There was quite a market. Not only to replace diseased or malfunctioning organs, but replace normal ones with something that wouldn't fail. The only parts that didn't work were his heart and corneas. They weren't convinced that the risk of extracting his heart was worth it and his corneas were too differently constructed. Everything else..." She raised her hands in a kind of shrug. "Fair game."

Arkin continued after her pause. Jonathan thanked God that the words seemed to have lost synchronization with time, that it took longer to understand them. It made the story just bearable enough. "They were able to make it very efficient as they had more practice, you see. For example, they found that anesthesia slowed the regeneration process. And that cutting his vocal cords every few days was more practical than gagging him, since they sometimes had to take the gag out and then he would try to protest his treatment. Or he'd simply scream."

Carola leaned forward. "We think that's why he's so unresponsive. You see, the body and brain are constantly adjusting their operations based on one another's directions and responses. With speech, for example, if each time he tried to speak he was unsuccessful, his brain would eventually stop the attempts. Much the same with physical movements. If he tried to move but couldn't, or the attempt resulted in pain, his brain would stop suggesting physical movement as a possibility, stop sending the impulses to the motor nerves."

"So you're saying they used his organs? Pulling them out and selling them and when he grew new ones, pulling those out, too?" Pete's outraged voice hadn't sounded so uncontrolled since adolescence and Jonathan saw Martha put a hand on his arm.

Carola's lips moved into a tight, venomous smile. "It's some consolation to know that the man behind it died in a car accident. Massive organ failure before the ambulance even arrived." She became impassive and controlled again as she continued. "His widow took one look at Clark and what had been done to him and came to William. We've done what we can for him since then but it's been very little. His response to you, Mrs. Kent, is more than we've been able to accomplish in two years." She looked around the room. "If he has a hope, it's through you."

dark and quiet and cool still but the walls are covered with things that scare me now is that why

*what happened what happened it wasn't supposed to everything said once it was written everywhere I could see but then it all burnt up from the inside and now nothing's safe*

please do you know how to forget is it something you can pick up and wrap around what hurts like a bandage

*the wind is here again but it never sits down like it should never sits down and rests I wonder if it can't if everything it carries tears it and makes it want to stop*

*can't light the fire in the fireplace with the screen there it melts and falls and sighs because there's nothing more of it*

try to dive to the bottom but the water is too thick nothing can pass through it

black holes black holes are stars that have collapsed on themselves and wait wait I know it that have collapsed on themselves and become so dense that not even light can escape it tries to go by but the hole swallows it

what happens then

What with one thing and another, Lex hadn't had a chance to be alone with his thoughts until late that night. The Kents were the only ones staying with Clark; he and Pete both knew that occasional hours in the safety of the White House and its environs were one thing, the Vice President or President spending a night without a Secret Service presence would be quite another. They'd obey a direct order to leave but the questions it would raise couldn't be controlled that easily.

He sat up in bed, back against the headboard, arms clasping his knees. Even saying that Clark was alive was an exaggeration. Respiration and a heartbeat, those were both there, but were they animating a vegetable, that was the question. He wanted to believe, desperately wanted, that his showing no distress when Martha touched him meant that Clark was still in there, that he could be coaxed out again, but he also knew that it could be a leftover response to a previously-learned stimulus. There were shades of grey in defining a vegetable, too.

He loved the Clark he had known and he'd felt that flood back into his heart with just recognizing him in that silent, lost figure. Even if it was just the shell and Clark was still lost, elusive, that shell demanded his love.

The question wasn't whether he would obey that demand but how. They'd have to make arrangements for taking care of him. He hated to admit it, but Clark would be safer away from DC. The question was whether to gamble on telling none of the truth or just part of the truth. Pulling the covers up to his knees, he considered the options.

After the first flurry of attention and profiles during his and Pete's campaign, the media had left the Kents alone, more or less. The fact remained that they'd become icons of his presidency. Homespun heartland goodness and even the barest bones of Clark's return would smell of human interest and photo ops. Prayers answered, long-lost son found, all the works. The only other thing that People magazine could ask for would be a faithful dog nosing at Clark's yet-unresponsive hand. But if they kept everything quiet, the media might be on that, too, and more determined to root out anything and everything about Clark Kent.

Like his being an alien.

His mind kept returning to that same dead end, cold and hard and inescapable. Clark hadn't even said that there were things he couldn't tell; he'd denied that there were any secrets he was hiding. During all that time afterwards, when he'd have sworn that there were no more secrets or lies, Jonathan and Martha and Pete had all kept their mouths shut. It was only a half-hearted consolation that Lana had been kept out, too.

The part of himself that was still Luthor urged him to be angry. Luthors don't feel hurt, they feel angry. Except that the only anger he could create was just that, created, an element with a half-life of an instant.

"Love hurts, Lex." Jonathan had once offered him that truism. Like a fair amount of what Jonathan said, it was so true that it solved nothing, but reminded him that whatever it was, he wasn't walking on untrodden ground and that he wasn't walking it alone.

*the door that isn't a door but opens and closes please I don't want to go in there*

*rule I don't remember the rest huge wings sweeping everything away*

*there's a moth in my hands I'm holding a moth except when I open my hands it isn't there even though I can still feel its wings beating*

*if it was the sky that told the secret and the wind blew it to them and now I can't move if it wasn't the sky it was the water that told I never wanted to hurt anyone why won't it stop*

*it's just thunder nothing to be afraid of just thunder it's just thunder*

*if I stay very still they won't see that I'm here*

I wanted to go thank her but they said she was never there nobody there but her name was still there in red paint

*no it's not calling you it's scratching its way up the tree to lie on the branch until everything's gone away into something else*

*you don't have to go just stay here quiet and it won't be real any more there won't be anything inside but empty empty look empty glass empty room goodnight*

*if I leave it all there they'll look for it and not for me so dark like the center where everything is turned*

*if I wouldn't do this why not if somebody did then but I don't know that other world any more if I was never there I can't go back there please I want to*

*did I fail if I'd been better why didn't they know this would happen it's not worth it*

*he has to be careful because they're watching and their eyes burn*

Lex was up and at the museum while the morning's slanted light was still grey, as though the day was indecisive about whether to begin or not. He had expected to need the keys Arkins had given him as well as his own key to the museum itself, but nonetheless, as he entered, he heard Arkins call quietly, "Mr. President?" and waited for the astronomer to appear.

"I've not seen him yet this morning," Arkins said after the formal handshake he always initiated. "The Kents spent the night and my sister should be there by now." As they walked through the tunnels, Arkins looked at him with a glance that was far from casual, despite its swiftness. "You knew him before. Is there a hint of anything now that is still characteristic? Was he given to day-dreaming, did he often let his mind wander?"

"I don't think you could call what he's doing down there day-dreaming."

"No. But if it were a habit, with him individually, or with his species, it would make his condition less alarming."

"You think he's not going to recover." He couldn't keep a flash of anger from his voice but the older man ignored it.

"The odds have changed in his favor but they are still tremendously against him."

"Dr. Arkins, I know Clark Kent, and if anybody could recover, he would," Lex answered, as they arrived at the door.

As Arkins opened it, Lex could see Jonathan's fast turn and smile of sheepish relief as he realized who it was.

"Lex. Doctor."

"Are you all right?" Lex hadn't expected Jonathan to look ready to run a marathon but there were bruise-dark circles under his eyes and the lines on his face seemed those of a much older man.

"Spent most of the night talking to him, when his eyes were open, at least." He shook his head before Lex could ask the question. "He didn't respond but it didn't seem to alarm or upset him."

He almost jumped at Carola's soft, deep voice behind him. She must have come out of the bedroom while he wasn't looking. "No changes in his heart rate. He clearly knows and trusts you both."

"Have you and Martha thought about what next? This might not be the safest place for him any more." Lex knew that by now, he didn't have to offer resources. The day that Jonathan Kent asked for his help. admittedly, just for lifting a piece of equipment, was the time he felt Jonathan truly accepted him.

"We talked about it a little. Back to the farm, a place he knows, see if being home does it for him. We can move him later to someplace secure if it doesn't help him."

"I was thinking the Montana ranch would be safe and quiet."

Jonathan nodded. "But we want to take him home first," he said firmly.

Lex couldn't help the smile as he nodded. "Definitely home first." He couldn't help the smile when thinking of the farm which had become a home for him. That was the one place he'd want to be if he were Clark. He'd find a way to make it safe if he had to stand guard himself.

After a pause, Arkins looked at his watch. "This is about the time we give him breakfast. Mr. Kent, if you would?"

"Actually, if you've got the time, Lex, why don't you? He does seem to recognize me, so we can see if he recognizes someone not around during his childhood."

Lex could see through that without even trying. "Thanks," he answered quietly, and Jonathan gave his shoulder a squeeze. He tried not to sniff dubiously at the cup Arkins filled and handed to him, but it was a near thing. The contents were a light blue. "What's in it?"

"In the morning, we give him proteins. Milk with yogurt blended into it. Trying different flavors to see if he responds to anything." Lex was beginning to hate that phrase, "if he responds."

Martha was sitting next to Clark, watching him intently, as if she could will him to return. When Lex came over, he dropped a quick kiss on her cheek.

"How is he?"

She shrugged helplessly, then took a deep breath. "You'll want to talk to him. I'll wait out there."

Remembering the last night, Lex stacked the pillows under Clark's head, raising it. The act brought back memories even more bittersweet than before. Clark's hair, ruffled on a pillow, lying in sleek but unruly tufts. The lips that he held the cup to, which parted as he slipped the cup rim between them. So similar but changed, distorted to his eyes because they were Clark's and not Clark's.

When he was sure he could control himself, he began speaking, in a low voice, tilting the cup again with each swallow. "I've missed you so much, Clark. Sometimes I think about you coming into the Oval Office, just the way you did in Smallville. It was always so good to see you. I don't think I told you that enough. But maybe you guessed. I hope you did and now I'll tell you every time."

The disk player in the corner caught his eye. "I've got to bring E.T. for you. I remember it just as though it were yesterday. We decided to watch a movie and I told you my favorites were in the top drawer. You pulled it out with such an expression on your face, and asked, `E.T. is one of your favorites?' And I had to defend it, saying that it was a classic story and besides, it had some of my best associations. Mom and I watched it regularly, and I'd sit in her lap, later, next to her, when her lap was just too undignified for somebody who had reached the advanced age of ten.

"We were talking and I thought you were sliding closer to me to reach for the remote. I couldn't let myself think anything else. Losing our friendship would have been losing part of me. The better part of me, the one you always believed in, even when I didn't.

"You put your arm around me and looked at me so anxiously. If I hadn't already been in love with you, I would have fallen immediately, just from that. Even then, I wasn't able to believe it. I thought you were being warm and kind, the way you always were when I talked about her, and I let my head rest against you. Then you kissed me, on the cheek, you were so shy, and I finally had to believe that you were there and real and wanted me."

He paused, to make sure he'd be able to speak calmly. "People don't get many perfect moments. But that was mine. You were so open, Clark, so transparent about what you felt. You weren't keeping score or comparing or wishing that I was somebody else. It was purely you there.

"Every man remembers the time he realized he'd found the one to share his life. That was you, and it still is." He remembered that Martha had put Clark's hand on the cup, to try giving him the sense of being able to control his own movements again. He slipped the blanket aside and couldn't resist enlacing his fingers with Clark's. There was no responding pressure, no pleased glance and smile. He slowly encircled the cup with their joined hands and lifted it again.

When the cup was empty, he started to release Clark's hand, but then retained it at the last minute, lifting it so that his lips could brush against the fingers, just enough to feel that vividly remembered texture again.

*they forgot like the dough forgets the fingers you push your finger in but the dough doesn't know how to remember not like footprints because the ground remembers footprints and it knows our feet like we know our faces*

*it wouldn't hurt so much as living does please please please you win*

*are you sure this is the way to get there because I don't see the door or the door turned into the wall again and I wish it wouldn't it's not the way it should be*

*the window not here it's somewhere else it's somewhere we can't see from here because from here it doesn't exist only when you watch it but it's not the same world I just don't know why*

*if you look the past in the face it blinks because it's changing underneath all the little changes crawling up and down underneath the snow stays still but the mountain is what melts*

*wait while he repeats the names he calls those names and they hear it in different voices all different voices one for every hour that goes by the center where they create time and no time because it's not in time any more it just hovers*

*where is the fence post should go with the other toys shouldn't it why are they all hunched like that it's because they're scared I think scared or scarred or sacred or scared*

*if it were real it would be like atoms into a star it takes so many and it's not real I thought it was but if were real then bone by bone I could dig it up from where it's buried and it would be it would be there is no word it would be itself*

Lex came in quietly and Jonathan thought wryly that anybody taking a good look at him wouldn't have been surprised by his announcement of taking a quick vacation. The two days of hoping for change but finding none had left their signs on his face, hardening the lines and dulling his eyes.

He smiled wearily at Jonathan and sat next to him on the small couch. "Nothing?"

Jonathan shook his head and then put an arm around Lex's shoulders. "I'm sure being in his own surroundings will make a difference." He'd decided long ago that it didn't do much good to be angry that it was more than ten years since they'd become close and Lex still craved affectionate touch, as much as a young child would, but still wouldn't initiate it.

Lex nodded, barely perceptibly. "Everything's being finished tonight at the house. It should be ready for tomorrow. There'll be another limo waiting at the airfield, it's slower but probably easier on him than a chopper." He'd had the farmhouse set up overnight with state-of-the-art security to prevent any kind of infiltration, whether by a camera lens or a person. The official reason was to ensure that he could safely visit the Kents for that hastily-scheduled vacation.

"It's not easy being patient, son."

Lex closed his eyes for considerably longer than a blink. "Carola Arkins keeps saying that he probably didn't get in that condition overnight and won't recover overnight, that his brain needs time to readjust to the new situation, that it was months before he even opened his eyes for more than a few minutes." His mouth quirked briefly. "She's being very reasonable and explaining things very clearly. Sometimes I want to throw something very heavy at her."

"But she'd look at you and tell you exactly what triggered that in your cerebral cortex or frontal lobe or talk about ganglia or something." He'd been pretty startled by finding he and Lex often had the same hot-tempered reactions to things and the same fierce loyalty and protectiveness towards those they loved. He should have guessed that Lex was responding the same way as he was to the psychiatrist's composed explanations.

That got a tiny chuckle, then a grimace. "It's worse in some ways to think that he knows us, recognizes us, but it's not enough to bring him back. Or thinking that maybe he's not in there to come back, that she's right when she says that it...might last."

"We've got to keep hoping and keep trying to reach him, Lex, he needs us to do that."

A very forced chuckle came from the bedroom. "Pete's with him now?"

"About a half hour now."

Lex nodded again and in the ensuing silence, they could hear his voice. "And Clark, the baby had better hope to be a boy, since we're definitely naming him Clark, boy or girl. If it's twins, we'll name them both Clark.

"I bet that if you asked, Lex would donate any state you pick to charity. Or imitate Elmer Fudd for the next State of the Union address." Jonathan could easily see Pete casting about for new topics or things to say in the next long pause. "Oh, Radiohead got back together. It was just for a disk and then they got together again for another tour. And hey, one good thing, the robot band thing is so over. I was going to try to make that illegal if it didn't. I mean, the government's got to be good for something, and if can't get rid of those robot bands, then it might as well just go away quietly."

There was a sound, the chair being moved back, Jonathan decided. "Clark, buddy, I don't need you to fall asleep on me, that's what Congress is for." Another pause, and barely audible, "Love you, man."

Meeting their eyes as he came out, Pete said, quietly, "Tough audience." Jonathan immediately knew to ignore the tiny crack in his voice as he added, "Gotta..." and went into the bathroom.

*don't want to play hide and seek what if nobody finds me*

*it's not that easy it should be but it isn't not when it comes to people*

*forgot the door and the house is lost how do you lose a house I guess it's easy it's buried very deep deeper than the caves*

did the caves know it would come to this

*my name is my name is doesn't matter all I have to do is wait until they all go away but flawed is better than lonely*

should I go get the laundry before it rains

*shaking like the long grass in the wind or after I'd run through it as fast as I could then I'd turn around and see it sliding back into place like a zipper closing*

*the air is so cold and thin because it used to be alive and now it's like me please please stop please I can't take any more but they never stop*

*maybe it's not real but I think I can see their eyes and hands and I'm the one who's not human*

*he's singing until it's almost full and but each time it's nearly full they open it up again and the corn spills all over nobody can find that one kernel because it's so dark and it's so cold it's colder than the end of the world*

why did you send me here if you loved me

*they're a flawed race a flawed race a flawed race*

"Goodbye, my dear. You're going home to your family, where you belong. You'll get better even faster there, I know. William couldn't be here this morning but he'll miss you, too, though we're very happy, very happy, that you're going to be with your family and that your friends will be with you, too." Martha, though still concentrating on making sure she thoroughly understood the workings of the heart rate monitor and had gotten the trick that opened the battery compartment, could hear the other woman's voice clearly.

Carola came out and joined her. Martha opened her mouth to thank her, but she'd turned away with a muttered, "I almost forgot about something," and fished a flat, dull grey box from under the sofa. From the way she lifted it to the table, Martha suspected the box had to be lead and that it had to hold something made from Kryptonite. The psychiatrist's expression of distaste worried her. "The that were used on him. They're all made of that substance. We hoped that destroying them in front of him would help him understand that it's over, but he clearly had such associations with the sight of them that I was afraid he wasn't able to perceive more than that they were here." She touched the box with a fingernail, as if further contact would carry contamination. "Perhaps later it would be beneficial for him."

"What, I don't want to look at them." Just Carola's tone and her own imagination had made her stomach clench.

"As long as they're kept in lead, he can't see or be affected by them, according to the various notes."

Martha nodded. "Clark called it Kryptonite. He can't see through lead or feel it through lead."

"Hmmm. I wonder why, what's in the composition of lead...we thought it just blocked radiation but..." Her voice trailed off.

Martha hesitated, then decided that she would ask the question that had persisted in her mind. "Dr. Arkins, I hope you won't be offended,'ve done so much to help him, to protect him, this can't have been at all easy, why did you both go to so much trouble? For us, well, we're his family, but..."

If she hadn't heard the amusement in Carola's voice, Martha would have had no idea what to make of her expression. "Just because my brother and I happen to think that he has the right to decide who he tells what about himself and when, that doesn't mean that we both wouldn't give an arm and a leg to know more." By the time she finished the sentence, her face was twenty years younger with enthusiasm. "An alien, a living being from another planet, and so human? What more could an astronomer or a psychiatrist both ask out of life?" She shook her head ruefully. "No, we'd have done it without that inducement--God, after what he'd gone through, just as representatives of this sorry species we owed him that--but we certainly didn't mind imagining what things he might want to tell, or what it would be to ask him about himself...It would have been like a miracle."

"He's been that for us every day," she answered, and judging from Carola's quick smile, Martha knew that she had understood all the thanks that lay beneath the statement.

"The car is ready," Jonathan announced, coming back into the apartment. "Clark," he continued, entering and crouching near the bed. "Son, do you think you can get up?" There was no motion or sound. "Okay, let's try this, and if you aren't ready for walking yet, we can carry you." He raised a passive Clark to a sitting position, then draped one of his son's arms across his shoulder. "Here we go." As he rose, pulling Clark up with him, the alarm that monitored Clark's heart rate began to shriek.

Jonathan froze and Martha could see in his face the same anger and pain and fear that had made her gasp. But instead of lowering him back down, Jonathan, still supporting Clark's weight, turned him so that they were facing one another. Clark's head was bowed but the height difference let Jonathan still look him in the face, and then pull him closer. Knowing exactly what he was doing, she crossed to stand next to them, making sure that Clark could see her, and silently stroked Clark's back. She had no clear perception of how long it took, but gradually the sound grew softer until it was just a buzz.

She slipped her arm around his waist as Jonathan tentatively started walking towards the door. The height difference didn't let her support much of his weight and she felt a stab of misery in her guts again as she saw that while he wasn't resisting, he wasn't trying to walk, either--he was simply letting himself be dragged.

Carola gathered up the lead box and the monitor and led the way out.

"We're going to be outside again in a few seconds, Clark. It might be hard on your eyes for a bit, at first." Martha looked up at Clark's face but his eyes had already been veiled and distant, revealing nothing. As they walked outside, she saw Lex's and Pete's expressions change, through, from anticipation to quiet disappointment, and she realized they'd both been hoping, like she had, that there would be some kind of breakthrough at being outside and with them.

Lex and Jonathan gently helped him inside the limousine and Pete put his arms around Martha. "He'll be okay," he said, and Martha nodded.

"I'm sure that being home will make all the difference." Hope was something they seemed to be passing around themselves like a salt shaker.

"It's got to," he answered, fiercely.

She heard Lex murmuring something to Clark and he got out. Pete stuck his head inside and managed to sound cheerful. "Hey, Clark, see you soon."

Lex was looking longingly back at the limo and Martha kissed him on the cheek. "We'll all be waiting for you Saturday." As she got in, she looked back at Lex and Pete, two of the most important political figures in the world, and then at her silent alien son, and she couldn't help the tears from coming to her eyes.

*it's too much to think about too much too much*

running so quickly what was a pebble is a mountain

*there's nothing I can do but I'm not I'm not I'm not I'm not*

is there are shortcut to figuring out the square root I hope there is

*this day's sun has only a few minutes left to live so it's trying to go out in fire in fire all over*

*so dark and everything smells like it's decaying being folded back in so quietly smells so quiet so peaceful even the water bugs across the surface don't disturb it brown and green and grey*

would you just tell me how much the mortgage is I know you want me to think about other things but I want to know

*don't worry I won't let them see I don't have a belly-button*

*stay here stay a while here it's dark and quiet like the pond*

*please I'm not human I know I know but please you don't listen*

protect him and deliver him from evil

*all those tongues licking my blood off the knife those tongues they're the size of my hand*

*no please please please I thought you wouldn't hurt me but I'm scared I'm scared please no I promise I'll be good never tell anyone my secret*

like lions to the slaughter that makes sense too

*pulling it up around me like a blanket dark and quiet and warm here where nobody can find me but still a thread a silver wire that won't be cut cut like a baby's cord I forget the name*

"What if he is immortal? Or that nothing can kill him but the Kryptonite? He could outlive us all and what would happen then?" Martha looked at Jonathan as though she really thought he might have a better answer but he didn't have a single one. Or maybe the way she looked at the floor after a moment showed that she knew that.

He wasn't a man to avoid taking risks for himself, but when it came to his family, that was another thing entirely. The question was picking the right risk. It was Pete's call that brought it to a head. He'd called after two weeks abroad, asking how they were, chatting a bit about the summit, and finally asking about Clark. When Jonathan had said that there still wasn't any change, it was the way that Pete burst out, "But it's been six months, isn't he at all better?" that made him think about a possibility he'd always shoved firmly to the back of his mind before.

But he still said, "Martha, let's give him a bit more time. Getting here wasn't easy on him and maybe he's still recovering from that." Even he heard how little conviction there was in his voice; Clark had been easily perturbed for about two days after coming home, but after that, settled in. Settled in to the same lack of responsiveness as before. If they put liquids in his mouth, he'd swallow. If they touched him, he'd be alarmed for an instant and then return to his previous state. Even after the week when one of them was always in the bed with him, remembering how that had calmed him when he was much younger and afraid or upset about something.

She sighed and he hated the sound of it. It meant that she was still as uncertain as he was, as glad to postpone the decision yet again. "All right. Another week, do you think?"

"Let's give it a week."

During that week, Jonathan couldn't tell if he wanted the it to finish instantly or take forever. But it was too easy to try and defer the decision any longer, to say give it another week, wait until some indication that might never come. But that morning, he wanted to find some reason to wait. He'd prayed his soul raw, they'd watched for any sign that he was recovering, or even for any sign that his stupor was peaceful instead of troubled and unhappy.

He leaned closer to Clark. His son's eyes didn't waver and Jonathan nodded to himself. "Your mother and I will be back in a few minutes. Whatever happens, son, we love you."

Martha must have been just as impatient, since he was barely at the door before she was there, her hand clasped tight shut. "Do you want to-" He let the question dangle, so she could finish it with any course of action.

"It's the right thing."

She ran her fingers through Clark's hair and then brought his hand out from under the blankets. She looked up once at Jonathan but her hand was steady as she placed the red crystal in his.

In the first motion they'd seen from him, his hand slowly closed around it.

*hours and days and weeks piling up piling up so deep but I don't know how many just that they're lying dead on the floor like leaves*

is it a place I know or is it somebody I know no the street is running like water flowing away to come together again at the end

please let me go

*looking in the mirror every night but seeing just a moth in the empty room their bodies look like they shouldn't be able to fly do they*

*it's the perfect kingdom of you and I can't get back or maybe it was a fairy tale like all the others*

*what's happening rising like something from the bottom of the water rising to the sun*

*that's what the sunflowers do and I'm coming with them*

rising faster faster now hurry now hurry

I want I want I want I want

*I want to do everything I can do everything anything I want to there's nobody to stop me*

I want I want I WANT

Martha and Jonathan stared at one another and Jonathan, grimacing, returning from his instinctive dash to the door to follow Clark's raging exit.

There wasn't much to say but things that had to be done. "We'd better...warn Lex." He nodded grimly.

She dialed the number that was almost direct--it went straight to Lex's personal secretary. After a few moments, Lex was on the line.

"Lex, things have changed but not entirely for the better." She rushed that out.

"What do you mean? Is he all right?"

"We didn't want to get your hopes up by saying anything before but the red Kryptonite has the effect of lowering all of Clark's inhibitions, completely blocking his conscience, he's just intent on having whatever he wants. We thought that maybe it would wake him up, if he's been blocking himself." She saw it all too clearly still in her mind, the hand closing on the red stone and his sitting up and looking around. "We thought that it just brought him back to himself, but he was just...disoriented. We couldn't stop him or get the rock away from him. He's gone to find everybody who abused him." Martha swallowed hard. "He said he's going to make them pay. And then he said he's going to find you. He still wants you, Lex, but before."

"I see." A silence extended itself. "How does he know how to find them?"

"I'm not sure but he'd be able to find them very quickly, even if he just narrowed it down to a state. He can run, we don't even know how quickly, faster than any vehicle, and he can see through things."

"I see," Lex repeated. She couldn't read his tone at all and by the time he spoke again, it was back to crisp and decisive. "Pete has the notebook, we'll see if we can figure out from that where he's likely to go."

"Lex," she began, then started again. "Lex, you have to understand that he's dangerous when he's like this. He's perfectly willing to hurt anybody to get what he wants. Be careful."

"Yes. We'll let you know if we find him."

*They chatted like they were cutting up a pie, not me. The Orioles, that's Baltimore, and Johns Hopkins is around there. Maybe it's Johns Hopkins. Damn. Nothing looks familiar. What's that other place, Bethesda, something like that. A bit slower, see if anything looks like what I remember.*

*They're really going to pay but they won't be able to pay enough. They'll die, sooner or later, and I wasn't able to. Well, maybe just as well now, but then it was all I wanted. Now, there are a lot more things I want and I'll have every single one of them.*

*I'll make them pay and then start helping myself to all the rest. I was sent to rule here and I see why. Huh, Dad said that Lex was President now. `Hi, Lex, you're reporting to me now, since I'm ruling everything. Every fucking thing. Oh, speaking of, get that nice tight ass of yours bare for me because I'm coming in!'*

*Wait, that looks familiar, I know that. Do I? Where is this, it doesn't look like an official anything. Okay, the layout could be it. That floor, no, that one, no, that one, no, wait, I think that's it! Yeah, if I was lying on my back, that's what it would look like.*

*Pretty fucking funny, I was looking for another one and found this one. What's Lex's long Lexword for that? Serendipity, that's it. One thing, though. Once I'm done, I won't have any problem finding him, the White House won't be hard to find. Hard, there's a good word.*

*That guy with the lab coat, I know it's him! This is going to be so cool.*

"No, Arkins doesn't have any idea, dammit." Pete hung up the phone and turned back to Lex, who was scribbling down possible locations on a list, occasionally stopping to cross one out as another line from the notebooks eliminated it. Lex was looking pretty damn sick, which was no surprise at all. He'd thrown up five or six times, not so much at the pictures and sketches, but knowing that the subject was Clark.

"Pretty safe that it's the same area code," Lex muttered, mostly to himself. "But..."

Pete and he both turned at the pounding at the door. "Come in!" Lex shouted.

"Mr. President! There's been an attack on the Fort Industrials building. It looks like it could be a terrorist attack." That was the first time Pete had ever seen Mark Forrson look anything other than calm.

Pete looked at Lex, who grimaced. "It might not be terrorists, Mark. Not in the classic sense, at least. Keep things as quiet as you can and get cameras to the building."

"Already on their way, Mr. President. It should be live in the Central Room in about a minute."

"Good. Mr. Ross and I want to see if there's something there. We'll know it when we see it."

*Char-broiled just the way you like it! This is so great. He wanted to know all about my fucking heat vision, he knows what it feels like now! `Run the tests for phosphine, Collin. Tell me, do you feel heat anywhere inside yourself before you burn something? If each neuron has 120 millivolts, if it's concentrated that might be enough. Wake up, brat!' Now who's the brat and who's the bratwurst!*

Yeah, I remember her, too! Coming up behind you, feels a bit hot? Look at her hair go!

*Don't know who they are, don't think I've seen them. Maybe I'll just scare them a bit.*

I wonder what that was? Took out the whole floor with it, though. Cool.

Okay, where next?

Pete thought he'd been pretty clever at quickly convincing Lex that only one of them should go, now that they'd seen somebody who sure looked like Clark at the third site that had seemingly come under attack. But as usual, Pete thought to himself, if you won an argument with Lex, it meant that he'd just switched something around. "I quite agree. It will create more chaos if we both go and both get killed. So you stay here." Agreeing had been the hardest choice in Pete's life.

Lex had ordered no media access to any of the sites and nobody allowed near except emergency personnel and his own escort. Pete wondered how many other eyes, despite this move on Lex's part, were watching it just the same as he was.

Clark was very clearly dominating the scene. He was leaning against the stop sign in the parking lot, almost casually incinerating anybody who tried to flee the building and occasionally turning to send warning blasts of heat to the small crowd of military and emergency personnel who were arriving and gathering in small, helpless groups.

Pete hadn't realized how much he was sweating until he felt his fingers slip out of the fists he'd formed. He whispered a half-formed prayer as he saw a new group of cars pull up and saw Lex step out.

Lex had always considered himself a master of multi-tasking but at that moment, he felt that moving his legs in a coordinated fashion was almost beyond his powers. Grimly determined not to let this show, he muttered one final reminder to the Secret Service agents. "I don't think there is anything that can take him out. You'll put me in more danger by intervening." It was a struggle of wills he wasn't sure he was ready for, but their unofficial voice, Thomas, lowered his gaze first.

"But Mr. President, if any of us think that you're in danger we can get you out of, we will act."

"Fine." This victory won, he said it almost absently, concentrating on what Pete had told him, that once he got the red stone away from Clark, he'd return to...well, whatever condition he'd return to.

Clark was leaning as casually as if he were eying the last few minutes of a movie's credits before leaving the theater. Lex began walking towards him.

"Clark?" he called, neither loudly nor softly, as soon as he was sure he was within the other's hearing range.

The casual glance over his shoulder turned into a feral smile. "Be right with you, a few things to finish up first." Another window collapsed as he returned his gaze to the building."

Lex came closer but had to bite his tongue to get enough saliva in his mouth to answer in a sensual rumble rather than a hoarse scratching. "And if I don't want to wait? You might not want to, either." That got Clark's attention and he turned around fully. Lex continued both his slow pace and conversation, "I'm rather hurt that you didn't even come first to me. I'd have thought you'd want to say hello." He'd only thought before that he'd seen somebody undress another with his eyes; Clark's heavy-lidded and unblinking gaze did that and more but he said nothing. Taking that as a good sign, Lex took another few, steady steps towards him, then tilted his head slightly to one side in a signal of surrender and flirtatiousness.

Clark's breathing was quickening and Lex now stood perfectly still. Instinct told him that the next move had to be Clark's and his instinct was rewarded when suddenly, Clark had him by the shoulders, pushing him down first to his knees, then prone, and was crouching over him in a stance that reminded Lex all too vividly of a predator and prey brought down. He managed another murmur, "I'm not one for audiences, Clark, can't we be a bit more...private?" He wasn't quite sure just what happened then, just that one moment he was outside with Clark straddling him, and then he was inside the building, in exactly the same relative position. He uneasily turned his head at the sounds of burning coming from other rooms.

"Scared?" Clark taunted, tongue flicking at his lips.

"Of not getting what I want," he answered, and reached up to pull Clark on top of himself. In an instant, his shirt was ripped off and Clark was mouthing him in a frenzy that only reinforced his earlier mental images. "Want you," he managed to whisper, and as he reached under Clark's t-shirt to pull it off, Clark momentarily stopped to complete the task, and threw the shirt across the room. Well, the red stone wasn't in there, clearly, since the eyes still locked on his were the cold blue of a gas flame that looks gelid even while it burns. Had to be in the sweat pants then, he decided, and ran his hands down to Clark's waist. He wasn't able to force back the tiny sound of pain as he saw the pants' loose fit and felt unexpectedly sharp ridges of bone, but Clark either didn't notice or ignored the dismay. As he pushed the pants down Clark's hips and Clark yanked them the rest of the way, momentarily turning his attention away from Lex as he threw them to join the shirt, Lex felt a sudden jolt of panic. The rock wasn't in the shirt pocket and the pants didn't have pockets.

Pulling Clark's briefs down and taking Clark in his mouth, he fought to keep concentration, despite both fear and a growing hunger for the body he'd missed so long, even if the Clark he loved seemed no longer to occupy it. Clark must have been just as impatient, as it was only a few seconds before liquid jutted into Lex's mouth, and the tension left his body and eyes.

Lex faked a satisfied chuckle. "Now, on your back," he whispered, and Clark complied, dilated eyes still sated. "I'm going to lick you all over," he promised, and pulled at Clark's shoes, one after the other. Hoping that Clark took his frenzy as sexual, he ripped at the socks and felt, to his immense relief, something small and hard in the folds of fabric as he threw them as far as he could.

Clark gasped and shivered, then turned to hide his face with his arm. Lex sat up and awkwardly pulled an unresisting Clark into his arms, cradling him awkwardly but gently, rocking him back and forth in slow, small motions as Clark buried his face in Lex's chest.

*More of that, I want more of that! They all do whatever I want them to do--run, or burn, or die. That's what the world will be like soon enough.*

*That's can't be Lex! Well, however he got here, nobody walks like that. And he's walking like he knows exactly what's going to happen. Let's make him wait a bit.*

*Hmmm, he doesn't want to wait. Should I make him be patient, now I want it. Want him. Entirely mine. Mine under me and pounding into him until it feels like he'll split in two. Mine. Now.*

*I don't want them gawping either. There's part, still standing. Good thing I took my time burning the damn place.*

*Ah, God, that's, oh, God, he's mine. Now. In your mouth, Lex. Oh, God, coming, can't stop, don't want to.*

Want more. More.

*Naked, just like the time--no. Wait, I put the rock, so it wouldn't fall out...No. Oh, God, no. What have I done?*

*No, I don't deserve this, held and touched and your voice crooning to me but I can't make myself pull away. Oh, Lex...*

Pete's face was grim. "She's been asking questions. Finally asking the right people." During those days, the only "she" was Lois Lane, who had begun investigating what she called a mysterious cover-up of four attacks on medical and biotech facilities and one attack on a home. All starting with heat projected from some distance. Her theory so far was that it was a new weapon of some kind, but she didn't surmise, at least in print, about whose it was.

Lex didn't have much fear that she would. The facts themselves were fairly easy to cover up, if only because the people who witnessed the events were more scared of a repetition than of any reporter. But the fact of a coverup was harder to bury.

He almost would have enjoyed the hunt, turned it into a game. After all, he was close enough to re-election that her surmises came off as last-minute politically motivated attacks. Confuse the trail, deny everything, and keep his office. Except for the fact he wasn't able to wipe off his conscience, a conscience much more vocal than it should be: He had abused his office's powers to ensure the coverup.

He stood up. "I'm going to offer her a deal." He'd been keeping that back as a last card to play and now saw the time in which he still had some advantage was passing quickly.

"You offered her what?" Clark still looked so vulnerable, hair tousled, faint circles under his eyes which would have gone unnoticed on most faces but to Lex, were as vivid as bruises.

*My not running again," Lex repeated. "She gets the full exclusive story of why. At least my version of why."

"Lex, are you sure? Isn't there another way?" Jonathan looked at him almost pleadingly.

"Not without running more risks to what I care about most." He quickly averted his eyes from Jonathan's face. "My `illness' leaves Pete free and clear. He'll get easily 80 percent of the last predicted votes for me and that by itself will take him cleanly over the edge. He'll probably pick up that remaining twenty and probably most of the undecideds. Once there's a debate, that is." He smiled faintly.

"Lex, I hate that you're giving it all up."

"Giving what up?" He saw Clark relax at the clear sincerity in his voice. "I've got you back."

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