Author: Dogpoet ([info]garryowen)
Genre: Drama, AU
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Clark/Lex with bits of Lex/other
Summary: In an extraordinary time, the world needed heroes.

Last, Best Hope by dogpoet

"Dear Lana," Byron wrote, his freshly filled pen gliding smoothly across the parchment. He could hear the creaking of his parents' footsteps above him, and wished uselessly that he could be in the kitchen, part of the domestic scene, however unblissful it might be. Oh, cruel fate! A tear escaped him, falling onto the parchment, blurring his words. In a sudden fury, he swept his writing implements and sheaves of paper from his desk, and they met the concrete floor with a crash.

It was futile to write to Lana; the iron chains allowed him to wander about the room, but they prevented excursion farther afield. There was no hope of escape. And where there was no hope, there was no life. Byron threw himself onto the coverlet, conscious of the metal cuffs digging into his wrists. He tugged harder. Bleed, he thought. Bleed. Perhaps if he spilled his blood, he would be cleansed of the terrible disease that kept him from humanity.

He wrenched his arm against the sharp edge of the cuff. Bleed!

"Mr. President," Commander Stampe said quietly, "I'm afraid it's bad news all around." His heavy, wool uniform decorated with medals did nothing to elevate his confidence. In the end, he was just a man. He could do no more than any other man with a good head on his shoulders, and a strong army at his back. Those things weren't enough for the tide that faced them.

"We've lost the outpost on Vesta-749," the President said, acknowledging more than asking. He, too, was feeling the limits of his humanity and his position. "Do we know what triggered the insurrection?"

"No, Sir. One month ago, negotiations were amicable. We had envoys in all of their cities. Yesterday, I received communication from one of my generals, who said all troops were under attack." Commander Stampe paused. He had been born in a time of prosperity, and had entered the military because he believed he could preserve privilege for his grandchildren. He hadn't expected battles. He hadn't expected loss. But here it was, staring at him, like his own mortality. "There's been no word since," he continued. "I've been unable to establish contact with any of the men."

President Rume and Commander Stampe sat in silence in the Oval Office. It was raining, and water fell in a noisy curtain, pelting the windows, giving a bleary cast to everything outside. Winter was coming, coming soon. Understandably, both of the men were thinking of their families, of their children who had faith in waking each morning and faith that their fathers would be home each evening to put them to bed.

The President took a deep breath and forced himself out of his chair. He stood at the window, gazing out. "Others before me have faced challenges they could never have anticipated, challenges greater than any of their predecessors had faced. World wars... There was a time when no one would have thought them possible. And now... I stand at the threshold of something darker and more frightening than even the Nazis. The Nazis, who killed millions of Jews. This is... I don't... I don't have a plan. I don't have a plan." He turned suddenly to the Commander. "Do you? Because if you do, you'd better tell me now."

Commander Stampe shook his head. "It seems our defenses may be useless against them, unless we endanger ourselves in the process of killing the enemy."

"Nuclear holocaust," President Rume said.

"It's possible, Sir." Commander Stampe wished he could trade lives with anyone, anyone at all. Anyone who didn't have to face the decisions he now faced.

"No!" The President slammed his fist against the bulletproof glass, causing the Commander's stomach to leap in shock. "You and I are going to come up with a plan. We are not leaving this room until we have a plan for the survival of the human race. David! Do you understand me?"

Commander Stampe nodded. He believed in the President, even in the face of hopeless odds.

President Rume tore at his jacket and threw it over a chair. Then he began to roll up his sleeves. He pressed the intercom button. "Coffee!" he barked. He had run for president with the intention of going down in history, not allowing the obliteration of it.

"Clark?" Martha trod carefully up the steps to the loft. She wasn't sure if she'd be welcomed or ignored. Clark had been unpredictable and moody of late. She hesitated at the landing. "May I come up?" There was no answer. "Dinner's ready. It's your favorite." She stood breathing dust motes from the hay. Everything was quiet and her breath clouded the cold air. Suddenly, she became aware of the stillness and the empty feeling of the approaching winter. "Clark?" Her voice trembled as she said it, but she didn't know why.

One of the hardest things about being a mother was knowing when to reach out to her son and when to leave him alone. Sometimes he pushed her away because he genuinely wanted to be by himself. Other times, it was because he didn't know how to tell her what he needed, when what he needed was a hug.

"I'm coming up, honey." She walked slowly up the steps, pretending she was a child just learning to climb them. Step. Stop. Step. Stop. She watched her feet go. Clark didn't even need steps anymore. He could leap. He could almost fly.

There he sat, hunched over on the couch, elbows resting on his knees, face in his hands. He was shaking, crying silently. Beside him on the couch was a charred, black hole. Martha hurried forward.

"Honey, what happened?" She knelt and tried to take Clark's hands, but he jerked away from her, standing suddenly, eyes closed. He crossed the room in a flash.

"Don't touch me. Don't come near me."

"Clark. Talk to me. Tell me what's going on." Like an accident on the highway, the black spot on the couch called to her. It was a small piece of destruction, but it was somehow greater than it appeared. That spot had caused Clark's current state. "Did you do this?"

"I'm a freak! I can't -- I can't do anything right. Or normal. I can't be like everyone else!" Clark held his hands over his eyes.

Martha wished she knew what to say. She wished she could understand, or even somehow know what had happened here. Lana had come over, that she knew. Lana was not here now. Gingerly, Martha held her hand over the couch. The burnt fabric was still warm despite the cold of the room. Lana had come over and the couch had been set on fire. No matter what the details, they couldn't be good.

"Clark? Did you set the couch on fire?"

Clark crumpled, like a piece of cardboard holding more than its allotted weight. Suddenly, he was on the floor, crying anew, turning away from her.

"Go away," he said. "I don't want to talk to you."

"Whenever you're ready, I'll be waiting. I'll listen to anything you have to say. All right?" She waited for a response, but received none. She didn't think he even noticed her retreating down the stairs and into the crisp outdoor air.

Inside the house, she went to the bedroom, lay on the covers, and cried.

"Gentlemen, I have a proposal," Lionel Luthor said smoothly, his hands folded in front of him on the polished mahogany table. Across from him, an exhausted President and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces held onto his every word. That was what Lionel liked to see. "In the past, we fought wars as the times required. This is a different time. We have different enemies. I propose that the alien enemy requires the use of alien weapons."

"But we don't have -- " Commander Stampe tried to interrupt.

"I'm not speaking of alien technology," Lionel cut in sharply. "I'm talking about fighting fire with fire. The alien weapons are no more powerful than ours. It's they who are the weapons. Their bodies can't be destroyed by our guns or our missiles. I'm talking about creating an army of indestructible beings. Our human soldiers would manage the war from the ground. They would assist in the battle, but the front lines... On the front lines, we would have weapons the aliens would never suspect. Weapons that look just like us."

"Robots," the President said flatly.

"I didn't get this far in life by thinking simple thoughts," Lionel said.

The President's eyebrows rose slightly.

"I'm speaking of an army of mutants. Superhuman beings on par with the aliens." Lionel sat back in his chair, satisfied that he had the attention of all the men at the table.

"Mutants?"

"I can provide them for you."

"Mutants?" the President repeated as if he couldn't believe his ears.

"The most valuable export of Smallville, Kansas."

"What happened here?" Lionel demanded. In the ruins of yet another boarding school dormitory, Lex trembled, whether from anger or fear, Lionel did not know. He didn't care. "Answer when I speak to you."

Lex shook his head, hugging himself tightly.

"You are worthless! A mistake!" Lionel sneered. He didn't need to raise his voice. Being quiet had more of an effect on Lex. "I'll fix you," he said. "You can be fixed." He grabbed Lex by the arm and hauled him out of the room. The remaining walls shook as they walked, Lex resisting every step of the way.

Outside, the headmaster looked on with disapproval. "I'm sorry, Mr. Luthor," he said.

"Sorry for what? My assistant will transfer funds to cover the damages." Lionel attempted to push Lex into the car. Lex balked, and the metal siding of the vehicle began to creak. "Fenton!"

Lionel's assistant hurried forward with a syringe. Without ceremony, Lionel held Lex down while Fenton stabbed Lex's vein and depressed the plunger. Lex went limp.

Inside Belle Reve, the lights were low and unnatural. The President had an awful feeling in the pit of his stomach. There was something wrong about the place. He tamped these feelings down, however, and followed Lionel Luthor down the corridor. Beside him, Commander Stampe provided a solid, rational presence. The President could scarcely believe that in the throes of a global emergency, he was here, in Kansas, at an institution for the gifted as Luthor had called them.

Everything, from the lights to the tiles to the doors themselves, was austere and colorless, made of metal and glass. It seemed like a horrible place, clinical and mean.

"Luthorcorp has been helping these poor souls for years. They were outcasts from society before I saved them." Lionel pressed a button and a giant metal door slid back revealing a well-lit wing containing a number of individual cells with windows facing a central hall.

Lionel stopped in front of the first cell. "This is Alicia. Say hello, Alicia. It isn't often a young girl like yourself gets to meet the President."

President Rume stepped forward and stared at a pretty, blonde girl, who sat reading on her bed. She glanced up, then came forward. The heavy metal coils around her wrists clanked noisily when she pressed herself against the glass. "Get me out," she mouthed silently.

"Alicia has a little disappearing problem. She can dematerialize and materialize at will, appearing in any location she wishes. The bracelets keep her from using her power."

"Can she take things with her?" Commander Stampe asked.

Lionel nodded. "You see the ways in which she could be useful to you."

"Are there more like her?"

"She's one of a kind, but we have others." Lionel walked on. "This one can walk through walls. And this one can make herself invisible."

"Mr. Luthor, this is all very interesting, and I have no doubt these?children have military applications, but we're talking about a powerful, alien race. We need people with the ability to destroy them."

"This is only the tip of the iceberg, Mr. President," Lionel said. "Follow me."

The trio walked on, passing through another set of giant metal doors, which closed immediately behind them. Directly in front of them lay yet another set of doors. It was as if they were in a pressure chamber. The second set of doors opened. Inside was a chair, and sitting on the chair was a bald teenager connected by wires and electrodes to a small machine. Metal clasps bound him to the chair.

"This is my son. Lex." Lionel said.

Lex looked up, and the President thought he had never seen such venom. An attendant stood beside the chair, waiting for Luthor's command.

"Like the others, he lacks the discipline to control his abilities. Therefore, I must control them for him. When we set him free?" Lionel nodded to the attendant, who then removed electrodes from Lex's arms and temples.

Immediately, the room began to shake, as if being hit by a low-level earthquake. The bolts holding the machine together began unscrewing themselves, and several clattered on the tile floor.

The attendant placed the electrodes back onto Lex, and the shaking ceased.

"You would do that to your own son?" the President asked.

"My own son would destroy me and you and the building we stand in if I didn?t take steps to control him. These are children Mr. President. They know not what they do."

"How many are there?" Commander Stampe asked, ever practical.

"One hundred and ten here in Belle Reve."

"Even with their skills, that's not enough soldiers."

"There are more, Commander Stampe. Smallville is full of them. Raw materials just waiting to be found. And you will form them into your army."

It was a long flight back to Washington. President Rume stared out the window at the clouds. He had qualms about the course of action he was about to take. There was no doubt he would take it. This was no time for the moral high ground. His job as President was to save as many lives as possible, to preserve freedom and democracy, and to work for the greater good. Sometimes sacrifices had to be made.

Still, he couldn?t forget the quiet desperation in the eyes of the girl who had begged him, Get me out of here.

Martha Kent was rolling out a pie crust when the doorbell rang. She wiped her hands on the damp dishtowel and went to answer. It was strange to receive visitors after the dinner hour, and her only thought was that it must be an emergency of some kind. Jonathan was out in the fields, checking the fence wire.

She did not expect to see two military officers.

"May I help you?"

"Are you Martha Kent?" one of the officers asked, removing his hat.

"Yes. What's this all about?"

"Mrs. Kent, we?re here on behalf of President Rume's elite armed forces unit. May we come in?"

Martha stood her ground. "I don't understand. Have we done something wrong?"

"Not at all. If you'll allow us to explain?"

Martha stepped back and let the two strangers into her living room.

"He'll be in good hands, Mrs. Moore," the officer explained as gently as he could. He felt distinctly uncomfortable on the threadbare couch, in the dim living room. The house reminded him of his family's home, the one he'd worked so hard to escape. There was no money here. There were no opportunities. What he was doing was saving their son's life.

The woman sitting across from him wrung her hands in distress, fraught with concern. "My Byron, my baby," she said, sniffling. She used her calico dress to dab at her tears.

"You all gonna pay for everything?" Mr. Moore asked.

"Yes, Sir. Just sign these papers, and everything will be taken care of." The officer removed the papers from his briefcase and fastened them to a clipboard. He handed the board and a pen to Mr. Moore.

"All right, then." Mr. Moore cleared his throat and studied the papers. "A school, you say. What're they gonna teach him?"

"He'll learn what he would learn at any other school, but we'll accommodate his special needs."

Mr. Moore's thick eyebrows drew together. "Must be some catch. Folks try to help Byron before, made him worse."

"This is a government-sponsored program. It has nothing to do with the private company that treated Byron before. The President himself authorized this."

"Hm." Mr. Moore uncapped the pen.

Mrs. Moore stared, looking lost. "Will he have friends there?"

"I'm sure he will, ma'am. It's a nice place."

Martha could feel defeat creeping up on her. She had kept the officers waiting, offering them pie and cocoa, and anything else that came to her mind, until Jonathan had come in from the fields. He was in a bad mood from a long day, and Clark's sulking hadn't helped.

Clark was still hiding in the loft, refusing to speak to them.

Jonathan listened to what the men had to say. He looked at their brochures and photographs. He nodded when they listed the credentials of the teachers at the academy. But in the end...

"I appreciate the offer, but my son wants a normal life. That means he lives with his family. He goes to school. He gets his driver's license. It doesn't mean he should go to a boarding school to be with other kids like him. That's not the real world." Jonathan pushed his chair back from the dining room table, as if to indicate that the discussion was over.

"Mr. Kent, how is he supposed to feel normal when things like this keep happening to him." One of the officers casually slid a photograph across the table.

"Now, what in the hell.... Where did you get this?" Jonathan stood up, looming over the two uniformed officers.

The older officer responded. "We have our sources. As I said before, our school specializes in children like your son. We have experience, something you lack despite the best intentions."

Martha could hear Jonathan's blood boiling. She heard something else, too: the quiet creak of the screen door as Clark entered the kitchen from the outside.

In the end, their opinions hadn't really mattered.

"I want to go," Clark said. "Just get me out of here."

Lionel watched soldiers slam shut the doors of the transport vehicles. All morning, they'd been loading the patients from Belle Reve into the cars to be taken to the newly established training academy just outside of Washington, DC.

"That's all of them, Sir," Lt. Connor reported.

"I haven't seen Lex. You didn't forget him, did you?" Lionel surveyed the building as if he could see inside it.

"I'm sorry, Sir. I thought you would take him yourself."

"Nonsense. Load him in the car with the rest of them. Be sure to sedate him, otherwise you'll never make it."

The lieutenant saluted, and headed into the building.

The FBI Academy on the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia had been commandeered for the purpose of training mutants to be superhuman soldiers.

Not far away, in the Oval Office, President Rume watched a satellite broadcast of a battle taking place on Vesta-432, another of the military outposts. It was like watching Civil War soldiers, armed with bayonets, run headlong into nuclear war: hopeless.

The galactic outposts were egregiously undermanned and inadequately armed, but the President had always felt that the human spirit was equipped to triumph over even the greatest evil.

He feared, now, that he had been wrong.

Clark Kent had never visited Washington, DC. He'd barely left Kansas. Unless you counted being born. That had happened in a place beyond imagining. Sometimes Clark lay in bed and thought about his real parents. He wondered what they looked like, and if they were still alive somewhere. He wondered if it was better to know, or not to know.

He supposed that most adopted kids thought about the same things. The difference was that their parents really existed somewhere. Maybe in a different state, or even a different country. But they were, in some way, knowable.

He felt awfully lonely sometimes. Like he was floating in space, going aimlessly from one point to another with no purpose in life. There was nothing to tie him down, not even the love of his adoptive parents.

The military escorts had let him sit by the window in the airplane and he'd watched the plains and rolling hills of Kansas recede. He wondered if he'd ever see them again. There had been talk of returning for the holidays, but Clark sensed that he was embarking on something different than what his parents had envisioned.

It was only a few hours before the density of Washington grew nearer. Clark had seen pictures, but had never imagined it would be so big. He hadn't imagined the buildings would look as they did. Not just the Capitol and the White House, but the regular buildings. And there was water everywhere. River. Ocean. Bay. He wanted to smell it, but there wasn't time for that. He was shuttled from the plane to a limo, which then drove for an hour out of the city.

In Virginia, as in Kansas, the leaves were nearly gone from the trees, though smatterings of color remained: red and yellow and orange. Leaves fell as he watched, floating feather-like to the damp ground.

With every mile they drove, Clark felt the momentousness of the decision he'd made. He had perhaps irrevocably altered the course of his life.

When the limo pulled into the parking lot, Clark felt his stomach clench with nervousness. The driver, who had remained silent during their journey, took Clark's bags from the trunk and set them on the sidewalk.

As if on cue, a matronly woman wearing a maroon skirt suit appeared. "Clark Kent is it?" She spoke brusquely, but not unkindly.

"Yes, ma'am." Clark held out his hand.

"No need for that. Call me Judy. I'll show you to your dormitory."

At that moment, a noise caught Clark's attention. Another limo had pulled up to the curb and a thin, bald boy of about Clark's age emerged.

He appeared to be drunk.

The limo driver had to hold him up. The boy leaned suggestively against the driver.

"I know you want to fuck me. Let's do it right now."

"Mr. Luthor, let's -- "

"Don't call me Mr. Luthor. That's my father. Wouldn't want to be mistaken for him, would I?"

"Lex."

Lex pushed off of the driver's chest and went reeling across the sidewalk. Clark stood frozen, unable to look away.

"What are you looking at?" Lex asked.

"Nothing." Clark turned away.

"Never seen someone doped up on Robaxin before? It's good shit." Lex laughed.

"Come this way, Mr. Kent," Judy prompted.

"But -- "

"The driver can handle it."

Reluctantly, Clark let himself be led toward one of the bland, concrete buildings. His eyes felt hot, and he closed them, taking a deep breath.

"Are you all right?" Judy peered at him with concern.

Keeping his eyes closed, Clark concentrated on the almost inaudible sound of light rain falling on the ground. It was a cooling image, and with great force of will, he tamped down the feeling that had flared up inside him. He shook his head. "I'm okay," he said. "I get dizzy sometimes, that's all."

You may want to bring that up with the doctor."

Clark nodded and smiled as if grateful. "Thanks," he said. "I'll do that."

The room was plain. A single bed with a metal frame. One window that faced a grove of trees. Gray carpet. A wardrobe. A desk. A chair. The bed was neatly made up, covered in a gray woolen blanket.

Clark set his two duffel bags down on the bed, then sat beside them. He wondered who else was here. So far, he'd seen only one other student, and that had been Lex Luthor. The name rang a bell, though Clark wasn't sure why.

At the thought of his fellow student, Clark felt the heat rising again. It sent him into a new wave of panic. He recalled the incident with Lana and he was overcome with shame and guilt.

His mother had rightly guessed that Clark was the cause of the fire. New facets of his freakish body constantly asserted themselves, and Martha had learned to expect them. They hadn't discussed the latest development: fire from his eyes. Maybe Martha had even guessed that the fire had something to do with Lana, but that was where she would have been mistaken.

He and Lana had been having an innocent enough conversation about the English project on which they were partnered. That had led to talk of a field trip, and the upcoming football game. Lana had started telling Clark about how her boyfriend Whitney had gone to a football camp in the summer, and the Metropolis Sharks' scout had seen him play.

It was Whitney's fault that Clark had ruined the couch.

Clark had pictured Whitney in his football gear, and then something had happened. He'd gotten lost, remembering seeing Whitney in the locker room... That's when he'd felt the heat. He hadn't understood it then. He hadn't known what would happen until it was too late.

It was bad enough that he could shoot fire from his eyes. Did he have to be gay, too?

Inside the auditorium, it was incredibly noisy. Lex had always hated assemblies. After the first one at Exeter, he'd taken to hiding in the bleachers, getting high. He'd even fucked someone once, right there, with everyone sitting above them. He wished it had been like one of those scenes in the movies where the curtains went up and everyone could have seen him sucking Trevor McIntyre's dick. That would have been fabulous.

The doctors kept shooting him up with Robaxin to keep him from destroying everything, but it made him loopy and a little dizzy. He stumbled down the aisle. There weren't bleachers like there were at Exeter. This was more like a movie theater. No place to snag some cock. Unless, maybe behind the stage...

A lectern was set up near the front of the stage, but there was a curtain behind it. Lex strolled casually toward the stage. There was that Adonis he'd seen when he'd arrived. Fucking hot. And a virgin, too. If Lex had a say in it, that kid would be getting his cherry popped sometime soon. Lex loved virgins. He loved non-virgins, too. They each had their merits. Deflowering a virgin was the best high. That look on his face when you first put his cock in your mouth. Like you were God. That gratitude. Fuck. It made Lex want to grab the nearest one.

"Luthor, where are you going?" asked a deep voice.

Lex turned to see a graying African-American guy with glasses and an Army uniform. How did these people know his name already?

"I wanted to sit up front."

"Excellent. You can sit with me. Lt. Washington." The man extended his hand.

Lex didn't shake it, but flopped into the nearest seat. Instead of standing awkwardly, the lieutenant quickly sat beside Lex.

"We have a special guest this morning," Lt. Washington said, leaning toward Lex.

"Unless he wants to suck my cock, I'm not really interested," Lex said.

The lieutenant chuckled. "I used to be like you."

"A fag?"

"The straight version of you." He left it at that.

"Unless you lived your life doped up by your dad so you wouldn't cause every building you walked through to fall apart, then I don't think you were like me."

"Point taken," Lt. Washington replied good naturedly.

The auditorium had filled up, and a highly decorated Army officer walked onstage and tapped the microphone at the podium. Obediently, everyone in the audience hushed. Lex slouched down in his seat. The view sucked.

"Good morning, everyone, and welcome. I'm Colonel Frey, the dean of students. I hope you're all settling in. I know you and your parents were told that this was a special school, a place where people with your abilities could feel at home. What we hope to teach you here is how to control your powers and how to use them more effectively. Each of you was chosen for a reason. You were chosen to come here because you can be a contributing member of society."

Lex concentrated his energy to see if he could complete the minor task of removing the screws holding the podium together. He was close enough that under normal circumstances, he could have done it without much thought. The drugs were fucking with his system, though, and he felt like he couldn't have made a hair fall from the lieutenant's head.

The Colonel droned on and on, then the rest of the students were clapping. Lex had missed whatever important thing had been said. The bolt holding his chair to the floor moved slowly counterclockwise. It was taking all of Lex's concentration. He could feel his heart rate increasing, and he was starting to sweat. He glanced up at the stage.

Holy shit. That was the President. Lex was impressed enough that he lost his focus.

President Rume cleared his throat. He was a solemn man, not someone you'd call for a good time. Of all the recent presidents, Lex liked Rume the best. He had a Ph.D. in Classics, a fact Lex secretly admired.

"I wish I didn't have to be here today." The President spoke clearly, but quietly. "That's not a reflection on you, but on the state of the world. Outside of these walls, there is a crisis brewing. I've brought you all here because I need your assistance. I can't divulge the details of the situation we find ourselves in, but I can say that we may shortly be embroiled in a battle whose scope we cannot yet comprehend. It's my hope that you, with your extraordinary talents and abilities, can help ensure a future for this nation and all other nations. I'm grateful to see all of you here. As I look at your young faces, I am filled with hope.

"Your lives here will no doubt be difficult. You will have to work hard and train hard. You will be cut off from your families and from the outside world, but your sacrifices are more necessary than you could ever imagine.

"You'll have questions about why you're here, and just what it is you're preparing for. Those questions will be answered eventually, but I ask your patience as we begin your training."

Beside Clark, a pretty, blonde girl tapped his arm. Silently, so as not to interrupt the President, Clark turned to her. She pointed at the metal bands coiled around her arms, then made a gesture to show she wanted to break them. Then she pointed at Clark.

He shook his head.

She nodded emphatically, then poked his arm insistently. "I need to get out of here," she whispered, close to his ear.

Clark shook his head again and turned to the stage, trying to ignore her.

"You don't understand. Break the bands, so I can get out of here. I need to." Her whisper had taken on a frightening fierceness. She leaned in close, took Clark's ear in her mouth, and bit.

Clark reacted, even though it didn't hurt him. It was one of the things he'd learned: he couldn't feel pain, not unless he went near the green rocks at the old foundry.

"If you break them, I'll do things for you," the girl whispered again, then slid down in her seat, one hand on Clark's thigh. She looked at him suggestively.

Heat rose to Clark's face, but this time it was only embarrassment, not...that other thing. He didn't like this girl touching him. Her hand was creeping dangerously close to his crotch. The President was in the room. Didn't that mean anything to her?

Obviously not.

"I'm gay!" Clark hissed. "Stop touching me." Clark could feel how bright red his face was. He guessed now was as good a time as any to come out to someone. He didn't really care what this girl thought. It felt good to say the words aloud.

The girl's hand withdrew. "Sorry," she whispered.

That was easy, Clark thought. Why hadn't he thought of it before?

The President was done speaking. Instead of the rush of applause that usually followed a presidential announcement, there was a moment of quiet, then hesitant, scattered clapping.

Clark had been raised on a Kansas farm. He clapped vigorously.

The Colonel returned. "This assembly is dismissed. Classes begin after lunch. Your schedules should be in your dormitory mailboxes."

There was an onslaught of action noise: shuffling and seat bottoms swinging up into place, people talking and walking.

"What do you think he meant?" Clark asked, turning to the girl who had harassed him.

"The big, secret enemy? I think it's bullshit. I mean, there's always some big enemy. The commies, the Japs, the Arabs, the pagans... And you, right? You're a public enemy."

"What?" Clark hadn't told anyone his secret. The secret of his strength, and even his other abilities, was okay here. It wasn't really a secret. But the other part. The part where he wasn't from earth... He'd never told a soul.

"Yes, you're eroding the morals of America. God doesn't want you to kiss other boys."

"I don't -- I mean -- "

"Who knows what they want to use us for, but I'm sure it's for something evil. Like to take over Mexico or something. What's your name?"

"Um." The girl was giving him a slight headache. She talked really fast. "Clark."

"My name's Alicia," the girl said. "And just 'cause you're gay doesn't mean you can't break these for me. They keep me from, you know... Poof!" She clapped her hands once.

"You're here for a reason. They wanted you to be here."

"They didn't ask my permission about it. Did they ask your permission?"

"They asked my parents. But I'm the one that wanted to come."

The two of them walked together out into the weak sunshine.

"I didn't want to come," Alicia said. "And I don't have any parents to give permission for anything."

"I'm sorry," Clark said. And he was.

Alicia shrugged. "All I'm saying is that some of us want to be out in the real world. Not like it was great or anything, but I miss going places. I like using my ability. It's fun."

"They said they're going to train us, so they'll have to take those off." Clark nodded toward the bracelets.

"They take these off, they'll never get me back!" Alicia flipped her hair.

"Where would you go?"

"I don't know." She was silent for a minute as they walked toward the dormitory. I guess... It's been a long time since I had anywhere to go. A place I could call home, you know."

"I can understand that," Clark said.

"Do you know where the infirmary is?" a freckled kid in a red jacket asked. He looked overwhelmed and young.

"I don't know, sweetheart, but I'll help you find it," Alicia said warmly. She put her hand on the boy's shoulder. "You're not feeling good?"

"I'm supposed to go for my physical."

"What's your name?" Alicia asked as she began walking away, waving goodbye to Clark.

"Ryan. What's yours?"

Their voices faded away. Clark smiled. In that moment, Alicia had reminded him of his mother. He suddenly felt she was someone he could trust.

In fact, Alicia turned out to be pretty cool. She'd lost her parents, and had been raised by an aunt, but when Alicia had developed her powers, the aunt had freaked out and had sent Alicia to be part of a research project at Luthorcorp.

"The rest, as they say, is history," Alicia said as she and Clark walked to their first class after lunch.

"But you have rights. They can't keep you against your will."

"A lot of things happen in this country that shouldn't happen."

They entered a building that looked like a hospital: square and institutional. Inside, fluorescent lights illuminated the tiled corridors.

"It says we're supposed to go to the basement," said Clark.

When they stepped into the elevator, it descended for what seemed like a very long time. The doors opened into a small lobby with only one directional option: in front of them were double doors, which enclosed a cavernous room whose ceiling extended, theater-like, out of sight.

There were no chairs. The walls of the room were dark and shiny, like glass at night. A handful of other students stood around awkwardly. Clark saw Lex Luthor. He was dressed in tight black pants and a purple t-shirt. Kids like that got beat up in Smallville, but no one in the room seemed to want to mess with him. He stood by himself, leaning casually against the wall. His skin looked unnaturally pale against all the dark colors surrounding him.

Clark looked away. He didn't want to have any accidents on the first day of class.

"Crazy, huh?" Alicia said, giving the place the once-over. "What do you think it is?"

"It's called The War Room," a voice came from behind them.

Clark recognized the man who had been sitting beside Lex at the assembly. Not like he'd been staring or anything.

"This is the room where you will learn to fight. I'm Lt. Washington. I'll be your coach -- not your teacher, because I can't show you what you need to do. I can only guide you. I can help you become stronger or better at what you do. You all do different things, but you need to learn to work as a team. First, we're going to go around and get to know each other. Lex, you start us off. Tell us who you are and what your skills are."

All eyes turned to Lex. Clark could feel himself blushing. He looked down at the floor.

"My skills? According to my father, I don't have any."

"Lex Luthor, ladies and gentlemen. No skills. All right." Lt. Washington turned his attention to the boy nearest Lex.

Clark glanced at Alicia. She was trying not to smile. Lt. Washington hadn't given Lex the response he'd wanted. Lex was trying to play it cool, acting like he didn't care.

"Uh, my name is Byron. I can write poetry?"

"By 'skills', I meant your abilities, son. What brought you here."

"Oh." Byron hesitated for a long and painful moment. "When I go out in the sun, I get really strong. I kind of lose control. I kind of..." He licked his lips nervously. "It's not really a skill."

"It is when you're here. I'm going to help you learn to control that ability. Not to worry, Byron." Lt. Washington nodded to the next person in the circle.

When it came time for Clark to introduce himself, he was overcome with shyness. It hadn't seemed like that big a deal. Everyone was doing it. He was safe here. But he had so many abilities. He felt like it would be bragging to mention them all. Maybe everyone else had been holding back. Maybe he should, too.

"Kent?" the lieutenant prompted.

"Sorry. My name is Clark Kent and I guess... I'm pretty strong and fast." He nodded and stepped back a little. He was only skipping the flying, the fire from the eyes, and the invulnerability. Not a big omission.

"Good. Now that we're acquainted, I want you to pair up."

Clark and Alicia looked at each other at the same time.

"Clark, why don't you pair up with Lex. Alicia, you can work with Byron. Byron, we'll get the UV rays going for you."

"How am I supposed to do anything with these on?" Alicia asked, holding up her hands with their heavy bracelets.

Lt. Washington came forward. "My oversight. I'll take them off for you." He turned to the class. "We're in a very special room. It's fireproof and soundproof, made to withstand a 10.0 earthquake, or impact from a missile. It also has a special electromagnetic field to contain someone like Alicia." Looking at Alicia again, he said, "You'll be able to transport within these walls, but not outside of them."

Of all the people in the room, probably only Clark understood what a blow that knowledge was. Still, Alicia's spirits seemed to lift when the metal bracelets came off. She shook her hands experimentally, then disappeared in a flash. She reappeared next to Byron.

Lt. Washington smiled and called out the other pairs, but Clark missed them. He could hear his heart pounding as he approached Lex. He wondered what Lex's ability was.

"Hi," Clark said, trying to keep his eyes on the floor.

"Where'd you grow up? A farm?" Lex asked.

"Huh?" Clark looked up, confused. Then he realized Lex was staring at his boots. His heavy work boots, which still had smears of mud on them. His jeans were dirty, too, and a bit holey. There hadn't been much time to pack. "Oh. Yeah. It's in Kansas."

"Kansas," Lex said with relish. "Well, Kansas, tell me what your other abilities are. You skipped some."

"I -- what?"

"You think I can't tell when someone like you is hiding something?"

Before Clark could respond, Lt. Washington approached them. He was holding a complicated remote control. He pressed a few buttons, and a wood and metal structure emerged from the wall. It was like a pavilion, just big enough for the two of them.

"That's for you, Lex. I want all of you to try to activate your abilities, then try to deactivate them. This is a lesson in control. If you already have good control, like Alicia here, then help your partner." The lieutenant pointed the remote at Alicia and Byron and an impossibly bright light suddenly shone on them. Just after the expression of panic crossed Byron's face, his eyes grew dark, and he went all hulk, bulking up, roaring. He swiped at Alicia, but she was too quick for him.

Clark turned back to Lex. "What's this for?"

Lex didn't answer. His jaw was clenched in concentration and his eyes were closed. The structure around them trembled almost imperceptibly.

"How are you doing, Lex?" Lt. Washington said, peering through one of the openings in the structure.

Lex glared. "Maybe if I weren't so fucking doped up, I could actually do something."

The lieutenant nodded. "I'll tell them to cut back. We need you to be able to do what you do, even if that means a few repairs here and there."

Around the room could be heard crashes and yells as the other teams got a feel for their tasks.

"What is it you do?" Clark asked.

"It isn't obvious? I fuck everything up." Lex stared intently at one corner of the pavilion.

Clark heard it: bolts unscrewing themselves. He followed Lex's gaze. "You have magnetic powers?" Several splinters fell from the wooden beam above Clark's head.

"Entropy," Lex said. "I make things fall apart. Usually much faster than this, but my father shoots me full of muscle relaxants so I can't wreck anything when I get upset. I can't control it when I'm pissed off." Lex's concentration broke, as if the effort had become too much. "You never told me," he said.

"Told you...? Oh."

Lex leaned on one of the pillars holding up the pavilion. His pants were really tight. Clark wondered what Lex looked like underneath them. Different from Whitney, probably. Bigger? Smaller? Suddenly, Clark's vision went wonky. He felt the heat rising and he tried desperately to tamp it down with thoughts of the compost heap or first snow. Anything, anything. But the heat wasn't the problem. He was seeing things. Or his imagination had gotten really vivid.

Lex didn't have any hair. Down there. Clark was looking at it, as if Lex were naked.

Then the heat surged. Clark shut his eyes, but it was too late. He could feel the beams of heat leaving his head, and he hit the floor in an attempt to shield the room. He heard a scream, but wasn't sure if it was his fault or not. There'd been a lot of shouting during their class. Clark curled up like a turtle, breathing hard, grabbing for some control. He found that he was crying, and that seemed to quell the fire in his eyes.

"Hey," Lex said, close to him, touching his arm.

"I'm okay. Really. Okay. I am."

"I guess that answers my question."

Clark opened his eyes. The class was staring at him and the pavilion was on fire. Shit. He could have hurt someone. He might have! He scrambled to his feet. "Did I -- Is anyone hurt?"

"We're fine, Clark. Everything's fine. You neglected to mention.... heat vision," said Lt. Washington.

"Yeah, sorry. It's kind of. New."

"Lex, work with him. Let's get it under control."

Clark stared at the floor, concentrating. And, yeah, he could see past the concrete to the pipes and wiring, and then there was something he couldn't see through. Really thick metal, maybe.

"If you know what triggers it, that helps," Lex said from right beside Clark. "Any ideas?"

Lex touched Clark's shoulder, then let his fingers slide down Clark's arm.

He knew. Lex knew what had set off the "heat vision." Clark could feel all the little hairs on his arm standing on end in response to Lex's touch.

"I don't think you should..." Clark stepped away.

"Try not to let it happen." Lex followed Clark and cupped his hip right at the top of his jeans.

"Don't." Clark could hear the panic in his own voice.

Lex pushed Clark up against the wall. "What happens if I do this?" He leaned close, then closer, until their bodies were touching, hip to hip.

Clark swallowed hard, focussing all of his energy on not thinking about Lex. He pretended he was in a different world. Maybe his planet. What was it like? Desolate? Cold?

"You're doing great," Lex whispered against his ear. His tongue flicked lightly against the lobe.

And Clark lost it.

Fortunately, the Lieutenant had a fire extinguisher at the ready, and no one was hurt. When the hubbub had subsided, Clark noticed Lex watching the whole thing with a smirk.

Lt. Washington clapped his hands for attention. "Okay, class, that's enough damage for one day. Dismissed."

"You're such a jerk," Clark said to Lex.

"So I'm told."

Directly after class, the nurse came to dope Lex up again. "From now on, you'll get your evening shot, but not the morning one. So behave yourself." She was pretty in that no-nonsense, army-brat sort of way. Lex preferred boys, and he only fucked girls if he stood to gain something from doing it. In this case, he might convince the nurse not to give him the nightly shot. He knew some of the students were eighteen, and he doubted the nurse would suspect his real age.

When she came to his room that night, he was ready.

He wasn't her type, of that he was sure. But if he played his cards right, he'd get her in bed anyway. There were things he could give her that Mr. Buff Air Force Guy couldn't. Most girls secretly wanted someone bad who could make them feel really good.

"Natalie, right?" Lex said, smiling. He'd dressed in a nice pair of gray slacks and a black shirt with the first two buttons undone.

She smiled in response, checking his pulse.

"Where are you from? Not here, I can tell."

"Texas. Can you hear it?"

"A little."

"I try to hide it. I used to practice talking like the newscasters when I was a kid."

"You don't like being from Texas?" Lex leaned against the wall. He was sitting on the bed, Natalie beside him. There wasn't much option, but the situation worked to Lex's advantage.

"People think Texans are dumb."

"Not true at all. Several presidents have come from Texas. And don't forget, lots of really successful businessmen. People who make their own fortunes aren't stupid."

Natalie laughed and got out the blood pressure cuff. Lex took his time rolling up his sleeve, folding it neatly.

"It feels weird," he said as the cuff filled with air.

Natalie ignored him, listening for his pulse. Her fingers lightly brushed his skin as she removed the cuff.

"Your hands are cold," Lex said, grabbing one of them.

"They always are."

Lex could tell she was a little nervous, but she didn't pull away. "You know what they say: cold hands, warm heart."

Natalie raised her eyebrows and removed her hand from his grasp. "Hands off, Lex."

"You have a boyfriend."

"None of your business."

"You're right. I shouldn't be nosy." Lex began unrolling his sleeve.

"Leave that up. I have to give you your shot."

Lex scooted forward even more so that he was able to lie down. He was wrongway on the bed, so his legs hung off of the side, his feet on the floor.

"It makes me feel faint, just when you first inject it," he said.

"It shouldn't," Natalie said, puzzled.

"I don't like needles. It's always something bad."

"This is helping you." She swabbed his vein with an alcohol prep, leaning over so he could easily look at her breasts. She was dressed in a white military uniform with navy blue trim and gold tasseled epaulets.

"Have you ever taken this stuff?"

"No. How is it?"

"I hate it." Lex put a catch in his voice. "It makes me feel like a different person. Not myself. It's like if someone took control of your body and made it so you couldn't walk the way you normally walk, or talk the way you normally talk."

Natalie was listening now, watching his face. She hadn't gotten the syringe out yet.

"I miss myself, I guess. You probably wouldn't understand."

"Well... I sort of know what you mean."

Lex watched her. She was thinking of something. He hazarded a guess. "You miss home, don't you?"

Slightly startled, she came out of her reverie. "Ain't no place like Texas." She grinned.

Lex hardly dared breathe. It was like waiting to pounce on an innocent bird. "Why don't you go back, then?"

"My daddy really wanted me to do well. He worked so hard to put me through school. He never went, you know. It's his dream for me to have what he never had." Her accent was creeping back. She'd let her guard down. "Sometimes, I just miss him."

Lex gave her a look of empathy and held his hand out, not touching her, but letting her know she could trust him. She smiled and put her hand in his. A tear fell onto the blanket.

"Sorry," she said. "I'm acting like a girl."

"You are a girl," Lex said.

"I know. But I gotta be tough out here. Strong, you know."

Ever so gently, Lex guided her down to the blanket. He turned onto his side, so they were looking at each other. He could feel his heart racing. It was time to go in for the kill.

"You're doing great," he said. "You just need to be yourself sometimes, so you don't forget where you came from."

Natalie nodded, sniffling. Lex reached to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear. He let his hand stay there, his thumb rubbing the soft, peachy skin of the top of her ear, then her cheek. She just watched him, quiet. Instead of leaning in, he stayed where he was, waiting. He could see the gears clicking in her head. He let his hand stray lower, his finger moving across her bottom lip, just barely touching her. She breathed in sharply, then leaned forward, closing the distance between them.

Lex had her now. He practically had a Ph.D. in kissing.

It was disgusting, Clark thought, as he sat in his room, staring at Lex through layers of concrete, rebar, carpeting, and plaster. He was glad he couldn't hear them. He didn't want to know what Lex had said to get that poor girl into his bed.

Clark had been watching for a while, telling himself he was just learning to control his new ability. It had been bothering him all day, flickering in and out at inopportune times. When classes were done, Clark had spent a good while in his room, trying to make the vision kick in at will. It hadn't taken long to do that. It was much easier to control than the fire beams.

Of course, he'd searched the building, seeing who was where. He found he could control just how much he saw through, though there was still a bit of fine-tuning to do in that area. He inadvertently exposed himself to several naked girls before he could "scope" out. The naked boys were another story. Clark didn't exactly try to correct when he saw through their clothes.

He was most interested in Lex, though. Clark found him quickly enough. Watched him showering in the communal bathroom on the third floor. He could tell Lex was doped up again because he was walking funny, stumbling around. It made Clark feel kind of sorry for him. He wondered how a person could function like that -- Lex had gotten drugged up right after their first class, but had been only a few minutes late to the second, which was a lecture on topography and military defense strategy.

Several times during his "observations," Clark had felt his eyes heat up. He was getting a handle on controlling it. He knew what to expect, and the triggers were mild -- not like Lex licking his ear. He'd only lost control during Lex's shower. Then, he'd had to lean out the window and bake the sidewalk outside. The grass edging the cement turned black, but there was no other sign of damage Clark had noted with relief.

But now he was worried. Things were heating up in Lex's room, and Clark couldn't make himself turn away. It was like an accident on the highway: gruesome, yet fascinating. And arousing. What did that say about Clark? He was getting off watching a guy make out with a nurse. And what did it mean if he actually wanted to be that nurse?

When the girl's shirt and bra came off, Clark really almost turned away. Almost. He thought the heat might subside, but then Lex's shirt came off, and there was no hope. Clark poured all of his concentration and will into preventing a fire. His dick was hard, though, and there was really nothing he could do. He hadn't jerked off since that incident with Lana, but the hard-on wasn't going to go away by itself. He stroked it, eyes determinedly shut. He would not look. He would not look.

A sharp pain pierced his ears without warning. Clark cried out, and curled up, fetal, on his bed. What a sad state he was in. Half naked, hard, in pain because now his hearing was acting up. What was the deal? He took shallow, quick breaths, trying to deal with the pain. Through it, he was aware that he could now hear a lot of noise. He opened his eyes, but his door was closed (and locked). The sounds were so near, it was like he had a whole group of people in the room with him. He heard voices chatting, someone crying... And then the clincher: Lex's smooth voice saying, "Like this?" and the nurse's answering gasp of assent. Clark came suddenly, without even touching himself.

He lay there for a moment. The heat behind his eyes was gone. At least he knew now that shooting off would get rid of it. Some preventive action might be in order before his next class with Lex. The pain in his ears was still intense. Noise continued to assault him, and he realized he could hear airplanes and cars on the nearby roads. Underneath all that, there were the hums of machines and gears and computers. Clark put his hands over his ears, but it didn't help.

He'd so rarely felt pain in his life, he wasn't good at dealing with it. Whimpering in self-pity, he got up and wiped himself off. He'd gotten stuff on the blanket, but he couldn't worry about that at the moment. He changed clothes and stopped in the bathroom to wash his hands and face. The pain was really debilitating. His balance was thrown off, too. He felt a little like drugged-up Lex as he crashed into walls and furniture, his feet making a tremendous din every time he took a step. He tried to tread softly, but that was difficult to do when all he wanted was to escape the pain.

He didn't know what made him do it. He wanted to interrupt, and he didn't. On the one hand, he felt a raging jealousy, and didn't want Lex touching anyone but him. On the other hand, the voyeur in him wanted to keep watching. Or keep listening, as it was. He was in so much pain that he couldn't make his vision work. He could hear, though, and he could guess what was going on. It was hard to separate all the sounds, but like a hound trained to scent a certain prey, he couldn't shut out the nurse's mewling or the low rumble of Lex's sexed-up voice.

When he got to Lex's room, he pounded on the door. The noise split his ears and he fell against the door. "Lex!" he called out. "It's Clark. I need your help."

"Shit," he could hear the nurse say.

"Sh. It's okay. I'll take care of it."

In a moment, the door opened. Clark felt like an idiot, lying on the floor, curled up, his hands pressed against his ears. It didn't really help, but it felt like it should help, so he kept doing it. This was all Lex's fault. Clark had been doing just fine without all his senses going into overdrive. What was next? Crazy taste buds?

"Hey," Lex said, kneeling beside Clark. He smelled...so good. Like sweat and sex.

Clark just looked at him, making pained sounds. "My ears," he said. He didn't know how to explain.

"You'd better go," Lex said, and for a second, Clark thought Lex meant him. But then the nurse appeared at the door, rumpled and flustered, carrying her medical bag. She pulled at her shirt self-consciously, glancing at Clark.

"I can take him to the infirmary," she said.

"I don't think they can help. I'm his partner. We'll work it out."

"Okay," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow." She hurried off down the hall.

"Come on in," Lex said, draping Clark's arm around his shoulders and helping him to stand.

The door shut behind them.

The bed was a mess of sheets and blankets, but Lex quickly smoothed them, then helped Clark lie down. Clark could smell her, that tramp. He wondered if Lex really liked her.

"What's going on?"

"I'm hearing everything. I could hear you from my room. I can hear the cars on the freeway. It's raining, too, somewhere. Ryan is crying. I can't make it stop," Clark whimpered. Even talking seemed to hurt him.

Clark waited for what seemed like an eternity while Lex thought this over.

"This just happened?"

"About...when you started taking off her clothes."

Lex might have been slightly embarrassed. It was hard to tell, he was so impassive. Suddenly, he stood up. "Let's go. I have an idea. Can you make it to the War Room?"

"I think so." A sudden burst of even more intense pain made Clark curl up fetal, falling onto the floor. He rocked back and forth. He didn't know what else to do. His body was in shock, and he needed to keep moving, needed to keep his focus off of his ears, but that was proving impossible.

Lex helped Clark up again, and they made their way out of the dormitory and across campus to the building where the War Room was housed. Lex used his ID card to get them into the building and down into the room.

The moment the door closed behind them, the world normalized. Clark sank into a heap against the wall. He was sweating, and his ears continued to throb, even in the new silence. The buzzing sound from the machines in the room was loud, but not more so than an ordinary noise.

"Better?" Lex asked.

Clark nodded. "But what happens when I have to leave? I can't stay in here forever."

"You learned to control everything else. You'll do the same with this." Lex got up and walked across the room. "Okay, I want you to concentrate. I'm going to whisper really quietly. Normally, you wouldn't be able to hear me. I want you to keep trying until you can shut that sound out, okay? Just the sound of my whisper."

"I can hear your heart beating," Clark said.

Lex's hand went subconsciously to his chest, but he didn't comment. Clark could hear the susurration of his hand against his shirt. "Listen to me" came his bare whisper across the room. Clark closed his eyes and focussed just on that sound. Lex kept talking, and Clark concentrated on his voice. What he discovered was not that he could shut out Lex's voice, but that, after a time, he could shut out everything else. Lex was like a rope guiding him through the darkness. Clark clung to that, and slowly his body calmed down.

He opened his eyes. Lex was sitting across the room, watching him in the dim light. Clark picked up the sound of his heart again.

"I think I'm ready," Clark said.

"Ready?"

"To try more."

It was amazing how much being prepared and calm could make life easier. As Clark tentatively exited the War Room, he was able to filter the noise, slowly but surely, so that it didn't overwhelm him. It helped to have Lex there. Strangely, he was a steadying influence, even though he made Clark want to faint.

Outside, the night air was cold. A light frost was forming on the grass. Dressed only in a long-sleeved shirt, Lex shivered. "Aren't you cold?" he asked.

"A little," Clark lied. His t-shirt was damp with sweat, and the chill in the air barely registered with him.

They were quiet, then, walking back toward the dormitory. The sky was clear, and Clark stopped to gaze up at the stars. He wondered if somewhere out there, there were others like him, and if they went through the same things he went through with his powers. He wished again that there were someone to tell him what to expect. Someone to guide him through growing up.

He let his ears wander, too. Let them focus on different sounds around campus. He'd discovered that they had some directional capability, but he hadn't gotten the hang of that yet. He and Lex had spent quite a bit of time in the corridor of Tyler testing it out. Who would have thought that Lex Luthor would turn out to be...not an asshole.

Clark brought his attention back to earth where Lex was watching him, shivering. Clark wanted to put his arms around Lex to keep him warm, but he didn't think his body could handle that. And Lex might object. That display in class had just been a ploy to get Clark to spew flames.

They walked quickly the rest of the way. Inside the dormitory, Clark followed Lex to his room, pausing outside the door.

"Thanks for, you know..."

Lex shrugged.

"Sorry I messed up your date."

"It wasn't a date."

"Right." Clark shifted his weight on his feet. He felt big and clumsy all of a sudden. "Do you want to go for a walk. I mean, you could get your coat and we could, you know... If you wanted to. It's a nice night."

"A walk?"

Clark felt stupid. "We don't have to, I just... Never mind."

"We could do something else, instead," Lex suggested, suddenly close to Clark, leaning against him.

"Something else?" Clark managed. His head was swimming, and he felt slightly dizzy, tingly and fuzzy.

Lex hovered for a split second before crushing his mouth against Clark's. Clark felt heat rushing up his spine, coming from somewhere visceral and unknown. Lex's tongue slid into his mouth, and Clark stopped breathing. But when Lex pressed one of his hands over the front of Clark's pants, it was too much. The heat that had been building in Clark's body rushed out, unable to be contained. The carpet burst into flames, and an acrid smell filled the air.

Clark backed away, horrified. "Oh, God. I can't do this. I can't."

He ran from the room so fast that he might have set more carpet on fire with the friction of his strides.

Lex stared at the burnt spot on the carpet. The synthetic fibers had melted to form a black mass. It smelled awful. Slowly, Lex went into his room and opened the window.

Lex had never had anyone turn him down for sex before. Not that he blamed Clark. It had taken Lex a while to get past destroying a whole dormitory that time he'd fucked Jason. The bastard. He'd learned his lesson from that one: never have sex with someone you care about. Especially if they don't give a shit about you.

Lex's skin felt strange and empty. He took his shirt off and lay back on the bed, getting goosebumps from the chill in the air. Tracing his fingertips over his face, and then his bare arms, he pretended it was Clark touching him.

Clark would avoid him now, probably. He would be embarrassed. Clark was definitely a virgin, and maybe hadn't even kissed before. Lex was getting hard just thinking about it. Such a beautiful boy, and he could be all Lex's. If Lex could get him past what had just happened. Lex wanted to make Clark writhe in ecstasy. Beg for it. Urgently, Lex unbuttoned his pants and pushed them down over his hips. He grabbed his dick and jerked it with hasty motions. Clark had needed him tonight, had asked for his help. Someone needed him. That was Lex's last thought before orgasm took over his brain. His hand sped up, on autopilot, and he came.

"Some of you think you don't need to exercise!" Lt. Burton yelled at his students as they stood shivering out on the playing fields. "You think because you've got special powers, you can coast along! You've got another thing coming. We have to be fit, no matter what else we've got going for us. I don't have much time to whip your pansy asses into shape. We'll be doing distance running, obstacle courses, weights, martial arts, you name it. Girls, you'll be doing the same thing as the guys, so don't think I'm going to take pity. In battle, there's no excuse. You have to run as fast and fight just as nasty!"

Lex ventured a glance at Clark, who stood a short distance away. He was wearing only a t-shirt, but seemed unaffected by the cold. His biceps were huge. Lex tried not to think about Clark naked. It was rare that Lex didn't get something he wanted, and now he couldn't get Clark off his mind. As he'd suspected, though, Clark seemed embarrassed and wouldn't meet his eye.

Burton interrupted Lex's thoughts. "Luthor, you pair up with Kent. Morris, you're with Mahaney." Clark raised his hand as if to object, but Burton anticipated him. "You're paired together for a reason. No objections. Let's start with four laps!"

Clark set off at a jog, and Lex sprinted to catch up with him.

"Clark, wait up."

Clark slowed minimally, and Lex tried to keep pace with him. Lex had always avoided sports, thinking them too plebeian. Jocks were not his style, and neither was team play. He'd been on track for a while, but the inane cheering and pointless laps had been too much for him. There had been no real motivation to continue. The only thing keeping him from complete inactivity was vanity. He'd kept up some running and weightlifting only so he wouldn't turn into one of those pasty boys with glasses who lurked in the library.

"Hey," Lex said, "Are you okay?"

"Can we not talk about it?" Clark said, as if he knew exactly what Lex was thinking.

Clark sped up easily, showing no increase in the amount of effort he was putting forth. Lex was already running as fast as he could, and he fell behind in a matter of seconds. It was as Lex had thought: Clark was mortified and probably thought the best strategy was never to talk to Lex again. All Lex really had to do was to make Clark realize that the previous night was no big deal. That was the hardest step.

Lex tried again during the obstacle course. "Teamwork!" Burton had shouted at them as they'd begun. Indeed, there was no way Lex was going to make it over the climbing wall without a little help.

"Teamwork," Lex parroted, grabbing the back of Clark's shirt.

Clark licked his lips and stared at the ground.

"Don't worry about last night, okay? Let's just do this."

After a moment's hesitation, Clark nodded. "Okay."

Lex was already gasping for breath. The concrete wall rose imposingly before him, with only the barest foot- and hand-holds. He was supposed to make it over the top, leap down to the other side, and run through the obstacle course of tires and hurdles. There was no real opponent in this game, and Lex had no hope of finishing first, but pride made him want to finish decently. He'd make it over the fucking wall if it killed him.

Lex took hold of the first hand-hold and placed his foot on a fake rock that jutted out from the wall. Pressed against the concrete, he searched for his next mark. The wall wasn't really that high -- only about twelve feet -- but they were climbing without gear, and they were being timed. And that bastard, Burton, kept shouting motivational insults at them.

A hand on Lex's back steadied him, and he was able to reach up for the next hold. Now the hand was on his ass. Lex smiled and pushed up another couple of feet. Maybe Burton really had known what he was doing when he'd paired Lex with Clark. Lex's next grab was for the top of the wall. With sheer force of will, Lex hoisted himself over the top. Clark was already there beside him, jumping with ease down to the course below. He looked encouragingly up at Lex. Lex leapt. When he landed, Clark's arms wrapped around him. Lex pressed close for the barest second before pulling away.

It was dizzying, staring at the obstacle-laden ground while running as fast as possible. By the time Lex reached the tunnels, the world was swaying. He threw himself to the ground and crawled into the dark, narrow concrete pipe. Clark was there at the other end, extending a hand to help Lex out. Lex's lungs ached, and he didn't want to go on, but he managed to run the last 100 meters of the course. He collapsed on the cold, wet grass, feeling like there was a tear in his side.

"Hey."

Lex opened his eyes and saw Clark hovering over him.

"Are you going to make it?"

"Fuck you. At least I finished the course. The enemy can kill me now."

Clark laughed. Lex liked that. Liked the huge smile, and those green eyes. Lex didn't stop himself from staring. Clark's shirt clung to him, revealing a muscled torso, and even though his sweats were baggy, his position had caused them to pull tight across his groin. Yeah, he had a handful under there, Lex thought.

Clark seemed to have become aware of Lex's attention because he stood up quickly. "We should cool down," he said, and turned abruptly to go.

Classes continued in the same vein for a few weeks, running right through Thanksgiving. Training was only put on hold for a partial day of football and turkey dinner. Clark was cordial to Lex, but not overly friendly. He still seemed abashed whenever he felt Lex looking at him, and Lex for his part, couldn't stop looking. He'd begun to think about Clark with alarming frequency. His father's voice echoed in his head, warning him against emotional attachment and against weakness.

All Lex really had to do, he thought, was to fuck Clark. That would make it all go away. Lex didn't like the unknown. He didn't like not getting something he wanted. That was all this was. He'd keep obsessing over Clark until he had some closure. One way or another, he'd have to get Clark into his bed.

As Lex knocked on Clark's door, he wondered if he was actually nervous. He could feel his heart thudding in his chest. It was weird. He put a hand on the doorjamb to steady himself.

The door opened.

"Hey," Clark said. "What's going on?"

"I thought we could go for that walk." Lex could feel arousal coursing through him already. All it took was Clark's presence.

"A walk?"

"Remember? You asked me -- "

"Oh. Yeah, of course." Clark grinned, and Lex relaxed slightly.

Clark pulled on his coat and shut the door behind him. Lex tried not to think too much. Tried to keep moving. Down the hall, down the stairs. It helped to be in the cold night air. It was a clear night, and the stars shone down on them.

"Do you like to look at the stars?" Clark asked, following Lex's upward gaze.

"It was how I learned the myths," Lex said.

"I don't know the myths. Just the constellations and the names of the stars."

Lex reached for Clark's hand. Clark didn't pull away, but Lex felt a catch in his stride.

"You know about Hercules."

"Uh-uh."

"Really? He's the most famed of the Greek heroes. When he was a baby, Hera tried to kill him by sending snakes to his crib, but Hercules killed them with his bare hands. The gods were all about jealousy and revenge, and Hera didn't give up. She drove Hercules crazy and he killed his wife and children."

"Why did she hate him so much?"

"Zeus cheated on Hera with Alcmena, and Hercules was their love child." Lex stopped walking and stepped out in front of Clark, putting his free hand at Clark's waist.

Clark avoided Lex's gaze and stared at the ground off to his right. Lex seemed to be lacking his usual ability to say exactly the right thing at the right time. He was already messing this up. Clark needed to feel comfortable, like nothing could go wrong. Lex brought his hand up and touched Clark's cheek. Clark closed his eyes, his breath quickening.

Lex couldn't resist. He drew Clark's face close and kissed him hungrily. Before he knew it, he was lying on his back, on the frozen ground, and Clark was grinding against him. Lex was mute with want, clutching locks of Clark's hair. He bit at Clark's lip, really wanting to devour, to have more. He'd meant to be gentle. He'd meant to take things slowly. He'd meant not to be an asshole, but his body couldn't be bothered with niceties. He was ready to yank Clark's pants down and fuck him right then and there.

Lex had actually managed to get his hand under Clark's shirt when Clark sprang away from him as if he'd been stung.

"Oh, shit. Oh, shit." Clark had a pained expression on his face and his eyes were squeezed tightly shut.

If Lex hadn't been rock hard and absolutely desperate for a fuck, he would have found it endearing. "It's okay. Calm down. Look how far you got this time." Lex grasped for any straw he could.

Clark shook his head vehemently.

"We'll take things slowly."

"Like we were just now?" Clark demanded. "Lex, this isn't going to work. I can't do it. I'm going to hurt you, or burn down a building. Or worse."

"You're not going to burn down a building," Lex assured, even though he knew it was a distinct possibility. "It'll be fine. Trust me."

Clark opened his eyes. Immediately, flames coursed from them, singeing the frozen ground. Clark closed his eyes again.

"You could look at the sky the whole time," Lex suggested. He couldn't believe how desperate he sounded. It had only been a few weeks, but he wasn't used to that kind of abstinence. He'd been so patient before, but he hadn't wanted Clark so badly then. Now, it was all he could think about. "Or we could stop every couple of minutes so you could -- "

"I'm not a science experiment." Clark stood up. "I appreciate that you want to -- whatever -- but I can't deal with it. I'm sorry."

"Fuck," Lex muttered to himself as Clark disappeared into the night. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

***
The next evening, Lex was sitting alone in the dining hall. Clark noticed that he always sat alone and that no one made an effort to talk to him. He seemed to have already established a reputation for being a slightly crazy troublemaker.

Clark debated going over there. Alicia was deep in conversation with some guy named Cyrus, who could heal people. Lex seemed kind of lonely. But then a girl with stringy hair and too much eye make-up sat down across from him. Since Clark had already established a habit of spying on Lex, he automatically listened in.

"You want him that bad, we can make a deal," the girl said. Clark remembered her from lecture. Was her name Tina?

"Did I say you could sit down?" Lex asked, hardly looking up from the book he was reading.

"Is this better?" The girl suddenly transformed so that she looked exactly like Clark.

Clark shivered. Someone had told him about this girl. She gave him the creeps.

"You want to fuck him, I can make it happen. With me, it would be just a business deal. In. Out. Over." She snapped her fingers. "I'm sure you can afford it."

Clark stood up, gripping his tray, swaying a little. Lex glanced his way, then turned back to Tina.

"How much are we talking about?"

Clark dropped his tray. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Without any awareness of what he was doing, he made his way toward Lex's table. Tina and Lex both looked up at him. It was bizarre looking at a replica of himself, Clark thought.

"I -- " Clark had no idea what to say. He wanted to say He's mine, but somehow couldn't bring himself to do it.

"Something you want to say, Clark?" Tina asked, still in her Clark-form.

"Leave Lex alone."

Tina laughed. "I don't think he minds me being here. In fact, we were about to make a deal."

"The deal is off," Clark said.

Lex stood slowly and closed his book. He took Clark's hand. "Clark? Maybe we should go."

Clark felt like the whole dining hall was watching him. "Go?"

Lex began walking and, after a few seconds, Clark followed. Lex had forgotten a coat again and when they hit the outside, he began to shiver.

"Where are we going?" Clark asked, catching up.

Lex turned, striding backwards. "Where do you think we're going? We're going to do it, Clark. We're going to fuck. I'm going to figure out how to fuck you without getting a crew of firemen in on the action. Agreed?"

Lex wasn't really asking for assent. He was telling Clark the plan, and there was no backing out.

"Um."

"Good."

When they reached the door to Lex's room, Lex pushed Clark inside, guided him to the bed, threw him down, and kissed him.

God, he had no clue what to do. It felt strange. His mouth felt strange. His tongue, which had been pretty cooperative throughout life, suddenly felt superfluous and clumsy. What Lex was doing felt really good, but Clark felt like he should be doing something, too.

Then he did do something. He shoved Lex away, panicked, heat rising without warning. He ran to the window, opened it, and directed his gaze onto the sidewalk. Thankfully, no one was walking by. Clark stumbled back into the room, closing the window automatically.

"Oh, God." He covered his face with his hands. He was still aroused, which meant that the heat vision might return at any moment.

"We could always go to the War Room," Lex said, close by.

Clark didn't respond. He was too humiliated. He was such a freak. Just beyond measure, a freak. He could feel Lex's hand on his shoulder, but he wouldn't look up, wouldn't show his face.

"Stay like that," Lex said, the sound of his voice moving away.

Clark felt Lex's hands on the button of his jeans. In a flash, he stepped away, hands coming away from his face. "What are you doing?"

On his knees, Lex looked perfectly calm. "I'm going to blow you while you look out the window."

"Blow me?" Clark swayed, faint.

"Arousal causes the heat beams, right? If I get you off as quickly as I can, then you won't need to worry about it. It'll take the edge off."

Of course, Clark knew from his previous experience that Lex was probably right, but he didn't want things to happen that way. He wanted normal sex, whatever that was. Not like he knew. "But..."

Lex stood up and dragged the bed closer to the window. "Sit." He took Clark's hand and sat him on the bed.

"This is embarrassing. No."

"What's wrong? Don't you like putting on a show?" Lex took hold of Clark's jeans. "Lift."

Clark lifted his hips, and the jeans came down and off. Lex opened the window and got down on his knees between Clark's legs so they were almost eye to eye.

"This, too," Lex ordered, tugging at Clark's flannel and then his t-shirt. "Mmm, that's better."

Clark felt suddenly vulnerable and hugged himself. No one had ever seen him naked except in the locker room, and he'd always tried to get dressed as quickly as possible without using his alien speed.

"You're so fucking hot," Lex said, leaning in to kiss him again. His hands explored Clark's shoulders, uncrossing his arms firmly but gently.

Clark shivered. It felt so good. No one had ever touched him like this. It was such a new sensation. Did everyone feel like this, or was it just him? He tried not to give in to the sensations, but he couldn't help it, they were too strong. The first burst of heat vision must have released some pressure because he found he was less hot, more in control. He tried, too, not to think about the window, or the possibility of being seen. Lex's mouth was on his neck, on his shoulder, teeth scraping his skin. Something brushed one of his nipples: Lex's thumb.

"Shit," Clark said, and Lex moved out of the way without a word as Clark leaned out the window and once again baked the pavement outside.

Straightening up, he caught a glimpse of his half hard dick and felt a new rush of embarrassment. Lex, though, seemed unfazed. In fact, he looked kind of glassy-eyed and his mouth was open. His hands found Clark's hips and his head bowed. Clark couldn't believe this was about to happen. It couldn't be.

And then it was. He was getting his first blow job. The sensation of his dick getting harder while it was in someone's mouth was making him lose focus. He couldn't keep sitting up, but lay back on the bed. Lex pushed his thighs farther apart. Then, holding Clark's cock with one hand, he placed openmouthed kisses at the base, using his strong tongue to exert pressure there. With his other hand, Lex caressed the space between Clark's balls and his thigh, a place he'd never known was sensitive. Something started thrumming inside him: not heat vision, but the beginnings of an orgasm. Clark forgot about feeling self-conscious; he was too far gone. He thought he stopped breathing, and something seemed to catch at his insides, before the pressure broke and he was coming.

Clark felt dizzy and light. He could hear buzzing and a clutter of voices rushing at him. After a moment, they faded and it was just him, alone in the room with Lex.

Lex moved forward and kissed him again, more aggressively than he had before. He stood up, gazing down as he removed his shirt. Clark just watched, mesmerized, shifting his body so it lay the correct way on the bed, instead of sideways. Lex's shoes came off next. And his belt. His pants. Then, finally, his dark, clingy boxers. Clark had never seen another guy hard. He had been afraid to look on the internet. With his luck, his parents would have found out and he'd have died of humiliation. He'd always wanted to know.

He'd never asked Lex about his hair. It hadn't really occurred to him. It didn't matter. Lex was breathtakingly sexy.

Lex straddled him, then leaned down and resumed kissing, shifting his body so that his cock rubbed against Clark's hip.

"Do we have to do this part in the window?" Clark asked.

Without taking his eyes off of Clark, Lex moved to get up.

"No, stay." Clark held him in place. When Lex relaxed, Clark took hold of the edges of the bed, focussed his energy, and floated.

"Holy shit," Lex murmured.

Clark let them down gently when the bed reached the wall.

"You neglected to mention that in class." Lex ground against him, then scooted back, settling between Clark's knees.

"I know. I felt weird. Whoa!" Lex had put a finger between the cheeks of Clark's ass. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going to fuck you," Lex whispered.

Clark scrambled a bit to get some distance, suddenly apprehensive. Lex moved with him.

"Sh. It'll feel good." Lex put a finger in his mouth, then placed it back where it had been.

"I don't know if I'm -- oh, God."

How could something feel so good? Strange, but good. Lex's finger sliding inside him, touching a million nerve endings Clark didn't even know he had. Clark spread his legs to make Lex's task easier. He wanted more of that. It was making him feel helpless and out of control. He moved his head back and forth against the pillow, trying for something, anything, he didn't know what. His dick was waking up, too, and his body felt warm and tingly again.

When Lex moved away, Clark felt cold and empty. Lex was tearing open a condom, then rolling it down over his cock. Condoms hadn't even occurred to Clark. Everything was happening so fast, but he didn't want to stop now. Lex was making him feel so good. Something nagged in the back of his mind, reminding him that not only had Lex been having sex with that nurse a couple of weeks ago, but he'd been about to make a deal to have sex with Tina as Clark. In fact, Lex just wanted to get laid. He didn't care with whom. Clark could understand the wanting-to-get-laid part, but it bothered him that once this was over, Lex would move on to someone else. Someone who wasn't Clark.

Clark sat up so suddenly that Lex lost his balance and barely had time to catch himself against the wall with one hand.

"Clark?"

"What am I doing? I don't know what I'm doing," Clark babbled. "You were doing it with her. Here. And Tina..."

Lex sat back on his heels, his erect condom-covered cock suddenly strange and wrong.

Clark wondered what the hell he'd been thinking. Had he completely forgotten what he'd seen? He hadn't been thinking, that was what it boiled down to. Whenever Lex touched him, his brain went out the window like the heat from his eyes.

"I'm sorry you saw that. I was desperate."

"You didn't have to do that," Clark said, feeling young and somehow stupid. Which girl were they talking about? Clark didn't even know.

Lex sighed, and shifted so he was leaning against the wall. "Shit," he said with finality, and put his head in his hands.

Clark watched him, waiting for him to say something. He wanted to put his clothes back on, or cover himself with a blanket.

"I'm sorry," Lex said. "I made a mistake."

"A mistake?" Clark's voice sounded really small.

"I shouldn't have done this."

Clark couldn't breathe. It was like someone had stuffed cotton into his airways: something was getting through, but it was dragging and horrible, and took great effort.

He watched as Lex got up, pulling the condom off his softening cock, and picked up Clark's shorts. He tossed them onto the bed. Clark swallowed something that felt like a rock.

How long it had been going on, he didn't know, but he noticed the bed shaking. So slightly, it was almost undetectable. Clark's jeans landed on the bed beside his shorts. Then his t-shirt and flannel.

"Get dressed."

Clark looked up at Lex, unable to speak.

"Come on." Lex picked up the red t-shirt and scrunched it up like you would do for a kid. He pulled it over Clark's head, picking up his hand to put it through the sleeve. The gesture was oddly tender, considering what he had just said.

"I can do it myself," Clark said, hearing the shirt rip as he jerked the hem down over his stomach. He was still gasping for breath and he didn't know why. It felt like some new power gone awry. He didn't understand anything. Didn't understand what had just happened. Didn't understand Lex. Didn't understand his own body. The world had always been confusing, but he'd discovered new levels of confusingness.

He'd felt so good, and now... He'd messed everything up. Maybe he was being an idiot. He didn't know. He had trouble standing, and Lex had to put a hand out to steady him as he put on his boxers and jeans. Clark couldn't see a thing, and it took him a moment to realize he was crying. Crying, of all things. In shame, he brushed the tears away, and wove toward the door.

"Clark," Lex said so softly, no normal person would have heard.

Clark turned back for just a second.

"I'm sorry," Lex said again.

Clark felt like they were the wrong words. Entirely wrong.

President Rume was trying not to crack.

All of America's extraterrestrial outposts had been lost, all soldiers killed, all buildings taken over or destroyed. Via the telecommunicator, he now faced the enemy. Beside him sat the leaders of Britain, Canada, and France.

They looked human, these aliens. It was disconcerting. The President felt as if he were talking to another world leader, instead of the enemy of his entire planet. The aliens had learned human languages -- English, Japanese, Spanish -- with remarkable ease, though their way of speaking could always be differentiated from humans'. The cadences and inflections were completely off.

"Those demands are unreasonable," President Rume persisted.

"We have overpowered your army. We can make unreasonable demands," the alien leader said logically. Her name was Eela, which seemed creepy to the President, even though he tried not to be prejudiced.

"Surrender your planet, or we will have to attack." Her face was completely impassive.

"We'll fight back," the Canadian Prime Minister said irritably.

"Your weapons are useless."

That wasn't entirely accurate, the President thought. The aliens had proven invulnerable to many of the weapons the extraterrestrial army possessed, but here on earth, there were many more options, many more resources.

"Where do you expect us to go? We can't just leave our planet!"

"Other races before yours have been displaced. It is the way of history. Flee, or stay and become enslaved."

"I've offered you resources and crops. Give me some room to negotiate!" President Rume said. He could only stay calm for so long. Maintaining peace was a matter of making reasonable demands and not letting pride get the best of you. Clearly, the aliens did not come from the same school of diplomacy.

"We will attack in twenty-four earth hours if you do not surrender." The screen went blue, the connection terminated.

The President stared at the cold cup of coffee in front of him. His stomach hurt. He felt wired from the caffeine, but deathly tired deep inside. There were two battles here: the one he would have to make the citizens of the world fight and the one he would have to fight inside himself in order to lead his people to survival. Victory seemed a dim hope.

As he had spoken to the students at the new "academy," he had tried to project confidence and calm. He had tried to be serious without frightening them. They were so young, so unbelievably young. Teenagers. Some barely that. They seemed insignificant despite Lionel Luthor's assurances that they could wield power beyond his imaginings. Luthor was a madman, Rume thought. Either a madman or a visionary.

Maybe both.

Clark had never tried to run a thousand miles. He'd sprinted through cornfields, he'd run the dirt roads near his house, going from farm to farm in the blink of an eye, and he'd even once zipped over to Grandville when his dad had needed a tractor part.

But there was nowhere to go to escape the pain he'd felt when Lex had said those words: I made a mistake. I shouldn't have done this.

Clark had retreated to his room, slamming the door so that it splintered. That did nothing to assuage the feeling.

He stomped outside, but the air didn't feel cold to him. He couldn't freeze himself. He couldn't be numb, not in the way people could.

Using his speed, he whipped past the guards at the edge of campus. They didn't even notice him. That was the thing, wasn't it? You could be in horrible pain and people would just walk by you, completely unaware that you were dying inside.

He kept running. And running. Moving was better than standing still. It kept him from thinking. When he reached the interstate, he felt giddy. It occurred to him that the highway probably ran all the way to the ocean. The Pacific Ocean.

He climbed over the guardrail and ran, dodging cars, running so fast that not one person humming along to the radio, eating chips or drinking soda as they drove, was aware that they missed him by inches.

Clark ran until he was almost dizzy from concentrating on the hurtling metal projectiles all around him. He came to a sudden stop somewhere, he didn't know where. He hadn't been keeping track of the signs and exits. It was snowing, just lightly. A car's brakes screeched, and the driver swerved. In his daze, Clark didn't move.

The car hit him, its front end crunching up like paper.

The driver stared at Clark through the windshield. The airbag hadn't gone off, but horns were sounding everywhere as people tried to come to avoid the accident. Clark backed up a step, unable to break his visual connection with the driver.

What could he do but run?

The problem was that only one place made him feel like something resembling normal.

As Clark stepped into the dormitory, he could hear the television blaring from the common room. It wasn't his ears: the volume was up. In a daze, he made his way toward the sound. Something pulled him there. A dozen people were clustered on the couches and chairs, some even sitting on the floor next to the television.

Everyone was quiet.

At first, Clark thought they were watching a movie. Futuristic crafts loomed in the air, and rays of light shot down to earth, vaporizing buildings and people in their path. Near the bottom of the screen, a banner read: Live: New York City. It all seemed pretty Hollywood until one of the girls caught sight of him and looked up. She had tears in her eyes.

"My house," she said, turning back to the screen. A cell phone lay on the carpet beside her foot.

Clark sat down in one of the empty spaces and watched, all thoughts of Lex gone from his mind, even though a physical pain, like a wrenching in his lungs, remained.

The voice of a newscaster broke the silence of the footage. "We're receiving reports, now, from New York, where all power is out, and transportation out of the city is at a standstill. The NSA has confirmed that what we're seeing here isn't an attack by terrorists, but by alien craft. We don't have any more details, but the President is calling a press conference in a few minutes. We join Dan Roberts at the White House. Dan."

The images of destruction disappeared from the screen, and the familiar backdrop of the White House Press Room appeared instead. There was a low buzz of reporters, and the camera focussed on one of them.

"It would be incorrect to say 'Good Evening' on a night like this. I'm here at the White House Press Room, where President Rume is about to emerge from a meeting with his security advisers. So far, it's all quiet here in Washington, with no sign of impending attack. The President has refused to go into military protection. He's always said he's a man of the people, and he'll face what the people face. This may be a night when he changes his mind." The reporter turned to the podium, where the President had emerged.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," President Rume said quietly. "America is under attack, as you well know. The alien race with whom this government forged a covert alliance has turned against us. Negotiations have done nothing to advance the cause of peace. We find ourselves the target of a hostile and unyielding people. I've called together the strongest military powers from all nations to defeat this enemy. I hope I can accomplish that with as little injury as possible to the citizens of this planet.

"At this time, we need to have faith. We need to be strong. We need to remember that in other times of darkness, we have prevailed. Always, our ingenuity and persistence have served us."

A slight whoosh alerted Clark to Alicia's presence. She was suddenly sitting beside him. She leaned up against him.

"The armed forces have all been working together to assemble a special army with state-of-the-art weapons that have been undergoing secret testing. These weapons have not been used before because the enemy for whom they were created has never attacked us. The time to use them has arrived. Have no doubts that these weapons will be deployed to defeat the alien attack.

"You, the people, can do your part by supporting your local police and the National Guard. We're all suffering. We all have loved ones in danger...."

"That's us," Alicia said. "He means us. We're the army."

Lex's room was a shambles. The bed had splintered, and even the mattress had begun fraying, the threads coming off of the trim, letting the springs and filling out. Elsewhere, the wardrobe and desk had also succumbed. The overhead light had shattered.

He could have kept going until the whole building collapsed, but a strange urge came over him, and he ransacked the desk until he found the syringe full of Robaxin that Natalie had left for him, just in case. He was an old hand at shooting up, and it didn't take long before the drug was in his veins. He stumbled to the decrepit mattress and collapsed, feeling dead and empty.

Lex lay for a long time in his bed. The dorm was unusually quiet, but it suited his frame of mind, so he didn't really wonder about it too much. After Clark had left, Lex had tried to follow. He'd found an empty room and a door that had fallen victim to Clark's strength and upset. Hours later, Clark was still nowhere to be found. Lex had retreated to his room in despair. He'd fucked up. Big time.

Clark had left his flannel shirt, and Lex gathered it to himself like a blankie and breathed in the smell of it: a laundry detergent fragrance that had worn off with repeated wearing, and then Clark's scent, which, by now, Lex would know anywhere.

He didn't really have any thoughts as he lay there, sort of floating in the darkness. He remembered a time not long after his mother had died. He'd gone through a phase where he wouldn't leave his room. He had just sat there all day doing nothing because even reading was too much effort. He felt a little like that now.

Lex had undressed before climbing into bed and now, lacking anything better to do, he ran his hand down his belly and over his flaccid cock. He kept stroking, thinking not much at all, until it was half hard. Sex was physical, that was all. Here he was, not picturing anyone, only going through the motions, and his body had responded. He'd never be able to come while he was doped up. He regretted injecting that crap. What he really needed was a drink.

Instead of getting up, he pictured Clark. How he'd looked when Lex kissed him, or when he came. Even how he looked when he'd come to Lex in desperation, in pain, needing help. And, oddly, how he'd looked in the common room, studying. Lex rubbed his cheek against the flannel of the forgotten shirt. He wondered if Clark would remember about the shirt, or if he could keep it forever.

His limbs were heavy from the drugs and getting up was an effort, but he managed it. Inside the doorless wardrobe, he found his duffle bag and, in it, his flask. The doctors had told him again and again never to mix alcohol and Robaxin, but it wasn't like Lex ever followed orders. He took a swallow of whiskey. And then another. And another.

Until it was gone and he couldn't have gotten out of bed to save his life.

"I can't watch this anymore," Clark whispered. He'd been sitting in the common room for nearly an hour. The press conference was over, and now there was just footage interspersed with government announcements about what citizens should do: stay in their homes and try to remain calm unless they were in an area where evacuation was necessary.

News reports showed looting, even on the west coast, which was far from the site of the attacks.

"I'll come with you," Alicia said, getting up, too. "I want to go find Byron. He wasn't in his common room."

"Is he from New York? Maybe he's trying to contact his family."

Alicia shook her head. "He's from Kansas, too. Smallville."

"Really? I thought I knew everyone in Smallville." For the first time since leaving, Clark wished he were home. He could have used a hug from his mom, and maybe some pie and cocoa. She didn't often understand his problems, but he guessed that getting rejected was a normal enough problem, and she would have lent an ear. He hadn't thought about Lex while watching the footage of the attacks, but now the memory of what had happened seemed to open up, fresh and painful. The whole world was a gaping wound.

They walked down the carpeted hallway. Everything was quiet and empty. It was eerie. Normally, there were people playing hockey with oranges, open doors with music and conversations floating out of them.

"His parents used to keep him locked in the basement," Alicia said.

"Huh?"

"Byron's parents."

"Oh." Clark considered how lucky he was to have the parents he had. He wondered if they were okay. They were pretty well stocked on the farm, and Kansas seemed safe, for now. He wondered if he could run there really quickly to check on them. Or maybe he could fly. He'd never done that. Not really. He'd just floated, slowly, from the house to the barn, once.

It suddenly occurred to him that, now, if someone were to discover that he was an alien, it might mean disaster. He'd always been high-strung and paranoid about it, and his parents had been worse, but the alien attacks added another layer of caution. It didn't matter whether he was from a different planet from the invaders, he would still be classified with them. He would be hated, even though he'd been raised by farmers in the middle of America.

Was he from a different planet? The ship had told him he was the last of his race. Had it been wrong? What if these aliens were his kind? Jor-El had told him he'd been sent to earth to rule humans. To conquer. That was what the invaders were trying to do.

He wondered how much the government knew. The news report had been oddly lacking in details or information about the aliens. Where were they from? How had they known about earth? Had the government known about them before the invasion? The space station had made the news when it had been constructed, but there was little reportage on it, aside from discoveries about other planets and stars. As far as the people of earth were concerned, there had been no alien life before the attack.

Alicia noticed his silence and touched his arm. "You okay?"

"I think so." He really wasn't sure.

"It's scary. I mean, what do they want us to do? How are we supposed to stop a bunch of aliens? Look at what they did already."

A crackling in the ceiling made both of them look up. A voice materialized.

"All students, please report immediately to the auditorium for an announcement from the Dean. If you need assistance, or if you are trying to contact your families, there will be faculty members there. Please report immediately."

Colonel Frey looked years older than he had during the first assembly. "As probably all of you know," he began, "New York City has been under attack tonight. The President made mention of a special army with which he plans to fight the alien invasion. I'd be lying to you if I told you he didn't mean you. All of you, you're the ones." He seemed to realized how tired he was, and paused. "I'm sorry your day has come so soon. We don't have a lot of time to prepare. Not nearly as much time as we thought we'd have."

The students all sat in silence. Most of them looked frightened to death, and some were crying.

"You all, I know you aren't soldiers. Not yet. Maybe some of you never wanted to be, but your country needs you." He struggled to continue. His military comportment seemed to be deteriorating. "I ask you all to give everything you've got in the next few days as we prepare for deployment. America is a strong nation, and we've got the best armed forces in the world. We got a good battle ahead of us, but with your help, we can win. Listen to your teachers -- they'll be handing you a lot of information -- and ask questions if you've got them. I know it's not going to be an easy night, but you should all try to sleep. This is the safest place you could possibly be. We've got troops nearby, and this campus is heavily protected. That's all for now."

He stepped down to dead silence.

Some of the faculty began gathering students, herding them toward the exits. A murmur of conversation began. Clark could hear people asking, "What if we're not ready? I can't do anything! How am I supposed to fight? They didn't tell us anything. It's a conspiracy! Aliens? We're going to get killed."

Clark had never used his abilities to fight anyone. He'd always tried to lie low, out of sight. He was a conflict avoider because he didn't want to draw attention to himself, and he was willing to bet that most of the kids were the same way. And now he had even more reason to keep a low profile. Still, he wanted to help. He had all of these freakish powers and he never did anything with them. Would his powers be enough to fight aliens? How exactly would that work? What were the aliens even like? Could you have hand to hand combat with them? Or were they giant blobs?

Involuntarily, Clark had been searching the crowd for Lex, but Lex was nowhere to be seen. Clark chastised himself for the gesture. What was the point? Lex hated him. Because, what? He hadn't been willing to have more sex? Because he'd freaked out about the nurse and Tina? Had Lex really rejected him for that? Clark tried to think of what his mom might make of the situation. Not that he'd ever tell her about his sex life, but he could sometimes channel her opinion. She would have said Clark was right, that there was nothing wrong with his reaction. That Lex had been shallow and pushy.

Still, Clark couldn't help feeling that he was being stupid. That he should have just let things keep going. God knows, that's what his body had wanted. Lex had made him feel better than he'd ever felt in his life. He wondered if sex was always that way, or if Lex was simply really good at it.

Back at the dorm, Clark still hadn't seen Lex. He scanned the building and quickly located Lex's room. Lex lay still amid the debris of falling-apart furniture. Clark tuned his ear to Lex's frequency and heard a dull, slow thudding. Much too slow.

Clark's mom also would have said that Lex was a "troubled and confused young man." He could totally hear her voice saying it, too. She had a habit of taking in strays, and she might have tried to mother him. Whether he would have let her was a question that would never be answered.

Outside Lex's door, Clark hesitated. He was worried in spite of himself. Lex was a mystery. How could someone have been so kind to him, only to turn around and be such an asshole. He remembered how Lex hadn't even questioned Clark's need when he'd shown up in pain. He'd dropped the nurse like a hot potato. This thought warred with Clark's torn up insides.

The doorknob was loose, and all the plating had come off of the lock mechanism. With a light push, Clark opened the door.

"Lex?"

Even if he was angry, he didn't want something to be wrong. Clark waded through splintered wood and fallen books. The room reeked of alcohol, which wasn't surprising. Clark noted the syringe, which lay discarded on the floor. Kneeling by the mattress, he put a hand on Lex's face and found it clammy.

"What did you do?" Clark sighed. Gently, he gathered Lex up in the sheet and exited the room, noticing once he was out in the lighted hallway, that Lex was clinging to his flannel shirt.

When Lex woke, he didn't know where he was, or how he'd gotten there. It wasn't a foreign experience for him. He deduced that he was in the infirmary, which was less alarming than the concrete floor of an abandoned warehouse, or the disgusting bathroom at a Metropolis club.

"Hey there," a familiar voice said. Natalie approached his bed and adjusted the rate of his I.V. drip. "You were out for a while."

"How'd I get here?" Lex croaked.

"Your friend brought you."

"I have a friend?"

"He seemed awfully worried about you. Not too fond of me, I gather."

"Clark brought me?" Outside it was cloudy and gray, but bright enough that Lex estimated it was close to noon.

"You would have died if he hadn't gotten you here. Robaxin and way too much alcohol. Were you trying to kill yourself?"

Lex chose not to answer. He didn't really know. He supposed that death might have been a reprieve, even if he hadn't been actively seeking it out.

"Maybe you just confused whiskey with water. Happens all the time." Natalie sat on the edge of the bed and put the cold stethoscope on Lex's chest.

"I think I did something really stupid."

"Uh-huh," Natalie said matter-of-factly, unvelcroing the blood pressure cuff.

"I'm sorry."

"For what, hon."

"For being stupid," Lex grinned.

"I should've known better. I'm a big girl, you know. Anyway, I had a good time while it lasted. No hard feelings. I get the impression Clark is a little more sensitive."

"Fuck. I fucked that one up." Lex tried to cover his face with his hands, but quickly reacted to the pull of the I.V.

"He sat with you all night." Natalie looked at him pointedly and patted his cheek. "I'm going to keep you on this I.V. for another hour, then you have to get yourself to class. You probably heard. No more Robaxin. Time to use those powers for good."

A giant metal pod-like beast with eight legs stomped noisily through the street, crunching cars and randomly smashing buildings. Alicia stood in its path.

"Come and get me, you big creep!" she shouted.

The creature roared and lunged for her, but she vanished instantaneously.

"Over here, slowpoke!"

As the beast turned to find Alicia again, Clark grabbed one of its legs and pulled it. Hard. The heavy body went tumbling down to the pavement. Clark didn't let go, but used his weight as an anchor as he began to swing the creature in a circle. At first, the body dragged on the ground. It wasn't at all the way Clark had imagined it, swinging gracefully in the air.

The beast clutched at cars and buildings with its clawlike arms, but it wasn't very dexterous or graceful. There was a great screeching and crunching as its body dragged along. Finally, though, Clark was able to get some height, and the beast swung in the air, like a discus in the hands of a champion athlete.

Alicia picked up a firethrower and blasted the thing. Slowly, a mark began to show on what would have been the belly. Alicia struggled to keep the flamethrower on target as Clark manhandled the creature. At last, something made a loud noise, and Clark let the creature fly. It burst into shards of burning detritus in the sky.

"Great job," Lt. Washington said, and the whole scene vanished.

Alicia inexplicably fell on her ass. "It's like taking off heavy roller-skates," she observed.

Clark helped her up. It had all felt so real.

Lt. Washington crossed the room to where Byron and a kid named Cyrus were battling two things that looked like the creature from the black lagoon.

The bell rang for lunch. They'd been fighting all morning, and even Clark was exhausted. It didn't help that he hadn't slept at all...

President Rume had served in Iraq, but he knew he had no comprehension of what his country's soldiers were going through. They were fighting an enemy so different in culture, in language, and even in physiology. The enemy not only fought differently, but was stronger, better. It must be an exhausting battle, he thought. He imagined fighting and fighting, and seeing no result. Maybe it was a little like Vietnam. Only now there was much more at stake: the fate of the whole human race.

The President had been wary of sending too many troops to the eastern seaboard. Another attack could come at any time in another part of the country. He'd ordered all bases in Hawaii, Guam, San Diego, and every other port city, to be prepared for attack. The troops were on high alert in Colorado, too. Anywhere that could defend itself was ready to fight to the death.

And death was often the result.

So far, only New York metro had been attacked. The National Guard had been sent in, and the men were fighting valiantly. Two thousand troops against only a hundred of the aliens. Yet the battle was close. Human weapons seemed not to affect the aliens -- they looked human, but their bodies were bulletproof. The big guns -- missiles and bombs -- had some effect, but they endangered soldiers and civilians.

New York had been evacuated as best it could, but some people refused to leave. Others couldn't. The roads had been destroyed, and the aliens shot down helicopters and planes. The keys to defeating them seemed to be the element of surprise and the most powerful arsenal money could buy. If the soldiers could get within range without being detected, they had a chance of success.

So far, one thousand had been lost.

The television was now on 24 hours a day in the common rooms of the dormitory, and in the lunchroom. Clark and Cyrus, a kid who could heal people, sat together at a table, necks craned to see the broadcast as they sightlessly forked food into their mouths.

A newscaster stood, microphone in hand, in front of the 9/11 memorial, which had been reduced to a pile of rubble. "Breaking news here, Bradley. I'm standing at the former site of the Twin Towers, and you'll notice how quiet it is in the city. After several days of heartrending defeat and very little success against the alien enemy, our troops accomplished a modicum of victory, killing nearly half of the alien invaders. The cost of human life was high -- a thousand soldiers, at least, and a civilian head count that has reached several thousand, with more bodies being discovered every day. After all their struggle, it seems the troops can regroup, and finally take a rest: this morning, the remaining aliens, who were fighting here, retreated back into space. We don't know why yet. Perhaps they have gone back for reinforcements. Perhaps they've admitted defeat. One thing's for sure, the President isn't taking it easy. The troops have been warned that another attack
could come at any time.

"Today, it's quiet, and people are out, some of them trying to clean up what's left of their houses. Others trying to find loved ones. The destruction is beyond anything I've ever witnessed. Skyscrapers and brownstones alike have been levelled. Few trees remain in what was already an almost treeless city. Central Park is nothing more than a wasteland.

"You can see people behind me sweeping up, carrying bricks and blocks of cement. We've been blessed with some unusually warm weather for late December. Temperatures are in the sixties, and the sun is trying to make its way through the haze created by the dust and debris of all this destruction.

"In the buildings that remain standing, aid workers are providing food and medical care. With Christmas less than a week away, it seemed like we might not have anything to celebrate, but today, there is a trace of hope. Here, in the heart of downtown, people are lighting candles and saying prayers, gathering together, asking one another, 'How can I help?'

"From New York, I'm George Sullivan."

The whole cafeteria had been watching wordlessly, their thoughts woven together in sadness and sympathy. The girl who had been crying that night of the attack, was being comforted by a friend.

What happens when more come? Clark wondered. If they'd lost this many lives fighting a small contingent of alien invaders... He knew that everyone here had abilities, that they were strong, but could they really save the world?

Classes were now held in the auditorium. There were lectures on strategy, on safety, on the weapons they would be using, and most importantly, about the aliens. Little was known of them, but the students were briefed on biology, customs, and history. Clark wondered why they hadn't been told before. Why no one on earth had even known that life outside their galaxy had been discovered.

He felt a little like a spy. Like he was taking classes on himself. He felt at any moment like the instructor would turn to him and say, "And now, let's have Clark Kent come up here to be dissected. I'll show you what an alien's insides look like." He'd been having dreams, too, dreams of being laid out on a metal table, lights shining down on him, making him close his eyes and try to curl up to escape them.

He walked around with those visions, and with a heavy weight on his chest, like his lungs had collapsed and each breath had to prop them up anew. His skin felt thin, like someone could kill him with a knife, just like the most ordinary human being.

The aliens shared some things in common with him. They were human in appearance, though slightly taller than an average human, usually between six and seven feet, even the females. They had learned human languages, and the class was shown some clips of negotiations and trade. You'd never mistake them for human, though. Never.

Their native tongue wasn't Kryptonian. That gave Clark both comfort and despair. It meant he wasn't one of them, but it also meant....he wasn't one of them. His faint hope of finding his people seemed like it would never be rewarded. On the other hand, what would he have done if they had been his people? Would he have joined them? Would he turn against earth? Would he even like those cold, robotic figures that had been shown to him? When they weren't being portrayed as the enemy, were they warm and fun-loving?

He caught Lex looking at him. Their contact had been limited, since Lex had been in the infirmary, and had missed their defense class. Clark felt himself blushing. He couldn't help thinking about Lex, even though it was futile. The vision of Lex naked was burned into his mind. He tried to sneak a glance over in Lex's direction, but found that Lex was still looking at him. He wondered why. Had Natalie told Lex something? Clark didn't like leaving Lex in her hands, and had stayed as long as he could before the bell for class rang -- he'd had to use his speed to get there just in time.

When class was dismissed, Clark paid a lot of attention to Alicia and tried not to look at Lex at all. Alicia might have wondered what had him so interested all of a sudden, and why he insisted on walking her to her room.

They had a little quiet time before dinner, and Clark wandered slowly to his room. He didn't really feel like being alone, but he was tired and wanted a nap. But when he opened the door to his room, there was already someone on his bed.

"Hi," Lex said, sitting up.

"Hi."

They looked at each other in silence until Clark chickened out and stared at his feet.

After what seemed like five minutes, Lex said, "Natalie told me you saved my life...." It sounded like he wanted to say more, but he didn't.

Clark shrugged. He didn't know if Lex was thanking him or just stating fact.

"I guess you missed out on some sleep, too. You didn't have to do that."

"I had to," Clark said abruptly without really knowing why. He dropped his backpack and went to sit in the chair by the desk.

"You know, the Chinese believe that when you save someone's life, you're responsible for it forever."

Clark looked up from his shoes. Lex looked so young all of a sudden, and kind of tired.

"What does that mean?" Clark asked.

"I think it means..." Lex thought for a minute. "I think it means that person is kind of a part of you. Or you're a part of them. So, if you let them die, a part of you dies, too."

"I've saved lots of lives," Clark said carelessly, not without intent to hurt. It was true, after all. He'd done his share of sneaky life-saving in Smallville. He'd never told anyone about it, and he'd never let anyone see him. So maybe that didn't count.

"I've fucked a lot of people," Lex replied quietly.

"I know."

They didn't say anything for a bit. The thing about the lives he'd saved was that he hadn't known any of them. They'd been accidents. And he'd never waited around to make sure they were okay. So it wasn't like what Lex was saying at all.

Clark really wanted Lex to touch him again. He knew it was stupid, but he couldn't help what he wanted. He wanted it, but he wanted it different. He wanted it to go on and on, not end after one night. Not like Clark was preserving his virginity, not like he was a prude or something. Just that he didn't want to feel it just once and then never have it again.

"When I said I'd made a mistake, I didn't mean that -- "

"I know what you meant," Clark interrupted.

"Listen to me for a second." Lex waited for Clark's nod. "I'm used to doing things a certain way. It's not necessarily a good way, it's just the way I've always done it. I never felt wrong about it until the other night."

Clark was trying hard to understand what Lex was saying, but he was being cryptic.

"I went too fast. That was my mistake. I should've... I don't know."

Clark sighed. Lex had a way of making him lose his focus. He didn't know what to believe. He didn't know how to feel. Part of him wanted to be naked again with Lex, and the other part was terrified and never wanted to be back in that place again.

"Clark, don't ever think you're not worth it. Because you are." Lex got up, and Clark followed him with his eyes.

When Lex's hand was on the doorknob, Clark said, "Lex?"

Lex turned around just slightly, as if inclining his ear, but not looking directly at Clark.

"I'm glad you didn't die."

"Thanks." Lex hesitated. Then he stepped through the door and closed it behind him.

All the students were being documented. They were being called one by one to the infirmary before being deployed. The announcement had been made that morning at breakfast. Clark didn't know what to do. Alicia was one of the first to go, and she reported that they had taken her blood. The news sent Clark into a panic. Not only could his blood not be taken, but he was certain that if it could somehow be taken, it wouldn't look like a human's blood. Not even a mutant, super-powered human like Byron or Alicia. What would happen then?

He literally found himself sweating, which was unlike him.

"You okay?" Lex asked.

They'd been civil to each other all through defense. Clark didn't know what to say. His chest still hurt, and he felt like he had a big gaping wound in his stomach every time Lex spoke or looked at him. Clark knew he was being an idiot. He'd only known Lex for a couple of months, and they'd just hooked up. Most guys would have been excited and left it at that. It wasn't an emotional thing. It was just sex. Not like someone's grandma had died.

"Fine," Clark said. At that moment, two aliens burst from the walls of the room. They looked exactly like humans, but they weren't. Clark hit one of them with all of his strength, but for the first time in his life, he understood that expression about hitting a brick wall. The alien was strong, and he barely stumbled. He was armed with some sort of weapon, Clark didn't know what. The other alien jumped on Clark's back, and the three of them tumbled to the ground.

In some part of his consciousness, Clark could hear Lt. Washington talking, saying, "Focus it, Lex, focus it. Find your target. Good. Good!" The alien beneath Clark exploded in a mess of fragments. Clark was able to roll with the other alien and hurl him against the wall. The alien recovered quickly and ran at Clark with a vengeance. Clark braced himself, shooting beams of heat right at the alien's face. The alien screamed and executed a move Clark had only seen on wrestling shows: he picked Clark up and hurled him at the floor.

Thankfully, Clark didn't feel pain. He bounced right up and attacked the alien again. It felt strange to be using his powers against something that looked so human... Like him. Just like him. Clark felt his resolve weakening, and he fell to the ground with the alien on top of him.

"You're losing control," Lt. Washington shouted. "Focus it!"

The alien had an arm up against Clark's throat and was pushing with all his might. Clark closed his eyes, trying to get his thoughts around what was happening to him. Something tackled both him and the alien. He opened his eyes to see blood spewing out of the alien's mouth. Lex lay on top of them, breathing hard. The alien disintegrated, leaving Clark and Lex pressed up against one another.

"Are you okay?" Lex asked.

Every inch of Clark's body felt Lex's close presence. He couldn't respond, could only look into Lex's eyes. He felt like he was pleading for Lex to understand everything that was going on in his head, though he knew that was impossible.

"What happened there?" Lt. Washington asked, breaking the moment.

Lex rolled off of Clark and scrambled to his feet.

"Sorry," Clark said. "My mind was somewhere else."

"That could cost you your life in a real battle. You're strong, but if you aren't concentrating, what happened today will happen again. And, Lex: use your mind, not your body."

It was an offhand warning, but Lex looked abashed, and ran his hand over his scalp. "Okay," he said.

Lt. Washington nodded. "Let's try again."

Walking back to the dorms with Alicia, Clark was in another world, obsessing over his upcoming physical.

"I think Lex likes you," Alicia said.

"Huh?" Clark dragged himself back to reality.

"Lex. You." She waved her fingers in the air by way of explanation.

"What are you talking about?"

"Come on. He's a total ass to everyone but you, you haven't noticed?"

"Um..."

"I'll see you later, Clark," Alicia said, heading down the hallway to her room.

Clark got his call later that day. With a sense of dread, he dragged himself down to the infirmary. When he got there, Lex was waiting, too, slouched in a weird, orange plastic chair.

The nurse at the desk looked up. "Clark Kent?"

"Uh-huh."

"Have a seat. You're up next."

Clark sat beside Lex. They didn't say anything to each other, though Clark thought he felt Lex studying him.

On the wall across from them was a poster of a bare-chested, muscular guy. It said Hard in large letters. Below, in smaller letters, it said, Not knowing is harder. Get tested.

Clark shuffled his feet, making a rasping sound on the carpet.

The door to the back section of the infirmary opened, and Natalie poked her head out. "Clark. Come on in."

For some reason, Clark looked back at Lex as he walked to his doom. Lex offered a small smile. Reassurance.

"You haven't had a physical in a long time..." Natalie said, looking at Clark's folder.

"Guess not."

"That's true for a lot of you. I guess because you're all unusual. A lot of people's parents were trying to protect them. Let me just have you get on the scale here." Natalie slid the weights until the meter balanced. She took his temperature and listened to his heart. Read his blood pressure. When she got the syringe out to begin taking blood, Clark began to hyperventilate. "Don't like needles, huh?" Natalie smiled. "I'm pretty good. You won't feel a thing."

Clark wasn't sure which was worse: having impenetrable skin, or having the doctor be able to see his blood. Not like he had any options. The moment it touched his skin, the needle crumpled, as if surrendering to a greater being.

Natalie gave him a questioning look.

"That happens," Clark said.

She tried again with the same result. "I guess we're not taking your blood." She made a few notes in the folder.

Clark desperately considered the possibility of breaking into the infirmary to modify his records. He would certainly be caught. Someone would notice. Or Natalie would remember, or...

"That's all, Clark. You can go."

"Thanks," Clark said, wiping his sweaty palms on his jeans. He didn't want to leave, because then it would be final. It would be written on his medical record that he was stranger than strange, that even among mutants, he was different.

In the waiting room, Lex looked up from the magazine he was reading. Clark's distress must have shown on his face because Lex got up immediately and paused in front of him. He was about to say something when Natalie called from the doorway. Lex walked backward toward the sound of her voice, and Clark watched him go. He wondered what Lex had been planning to say.

Slowly, Clark left the building and walked through the unseasonably warm air back to the dormitory.

The one thing Clark allowed himself, the one bit of evidence, the one trace, the one possible giveaway, was the disk. The one from his ship. He'd found it, once, when he had been running and practicing leaps in the cornfields. He'd known immediately that it was his. He'd known to take it to the ship and put it in the slot. He'd known.

He'd known, too, that he shouldn't take it from the farm. That he shouldn't have it with him. But he couldn't help himself. It was a reminder of his identity, an identity still unknown, and unknowable. No matter how many times he talked to Jor-El, he would never really know where he came from. He wouldn't find people who looked like him, or who were like him. The disk was like a warm little secret he could hold in his pocket to steady him.

When he returned to his room after his physical, he lay on his bed in the dark with the disk in his hand. He traced the etchings with his finger, the symbols for home. Sometimes he wished more than anything that he could go there, just once, to see it. To see the trees, if there were any. To see the mountains, or the rivers. To see the buildings. Most of all, to see the people and how they lived.

The knock on his door startled him. He'd almost been asleep. He'd missed dinner, even. Hadn't felt like talking to anyone.

He x-rayed the door. It was Lex.

"Yeah?" he said quietly.

"Can I come in?" Lex stared at the doorknob like it was a bomb he was trying to disarm.

Clark could see the minute vibrations of the metal as Lex's energy worked on the screws holding the whole thing together. Lex was getting really good at using his power now that he had an outlet for it. "It's unlocked," Clark said.

"I forget, you're from Smallville," Lex said, opening the door and stepping inside.

"Yeah, we never lock our doors." Except for the root cellar, Clark thought, where the ship was hidden. It was probably the only locked root cellar in all of Kansas.

"In Metropolis, everyone locks their doors." Lex stood there, not making a move to come near Clark. He hadn't turned the light on, and he probably couldn't see a thing.

"You can turn on the light."

Lex reached behind him and flipped the switch. The light was ugly and harsh after the darkness. Lex's eyes fell on the disk lying on Clark's palm. Clark noticed and closed his hand around it.

Lex came forward and sat on the edge of the bed. Clark scooted toward the wall to give him more room. Lex skated his fingers over Clark's wrist and closed fist.

"What's this?"

"Just something I found in Smallville." Clark slipped it into his jeans pocket. He really wanted to touch Lex, inexplicably, and almost uncontrollably. He realized that he wanted a hug, to be comforted and told that everything was going to be all right.

"Clark..."

Clark knew it was stupid to give in to physical need, but some other law, like gravity, was in control. Lex leaned toward him, and Clark propped himself on his elbow and met him halfway. Lex's lips were soft and tentative, not at all like the first time they'd kissed. He caressed Clark's jaw with gentle fingers, and Clark got dizzy just from that. He fell back on the pillow, bringing Lex with him.

"I didn't want to rush you," Lex whispered against Clark's mouth.

Clark wrapped his arms around Lex's thin body and held him close. Lex laid his head on Clark's shoulder and spread himself out, aligning his limbs so they were flush with Clark's. His arm wrapped around Clark as much as it could. Then his mouth found Clark's neck, and he began kissing along the line of Clark's collar, then lower, through the fabric of the t-shirt, and back up to Clark's mouth, where he stayed a while.

They clung to each other, like survivors in the ocean, the last on a raft, adrift in a great sea, floating beneath clusters of stars.

Clark felt the heat rising inside him, buzzing through his veins, staticky and random. It was less intense now that he'd learned some control. More a pleasant feeling, instead of a panicky one. Clark arched his back, pressing against Lex. Lex kissed his jaw and his ear, Clark's chin, and the lids of his closed eyes. Trust flooded Clark's body. He wanted to surrender everything, to tell the truth, to confess all his secrets to Lex. He felt warm and happy and secure. His brain had forgotten any bad things Lex had ever done.

"I'm sorry," Clark whispered.

"No," Lex answered. "Me."

Clark was breathless and hot. He licked his lips. A wave of heat washed through him, and he closed his eyes reflexively.

"Open them."

When Clark did, Lex was holding his face in his hands and staring into his eyes.

"Am I hurting you?" Lex tried to shift his body.

"You can't."

Lex stopped moving. "I can. But I didn't mean to."

"I know." It popped out of his mouth automatically. He supposed he had known, even though that hadn't made it easier to bear.

"We have to leave soon, and I wanted to see you."

At first, Clark didn't understand what Lex meant. Then he realized. They might never see each other again. He might not see any of his new friends. If they were deployed to different places, they might die in battle. They might die. Clark hadn't considered it quite that bluntly before, but he knew it was true. They were soldiers, whatever else they might call themselves. And part of being a soldier was not knowing if you'd see tomorrow.

"Do you want to...? Um..."

Lex smiled and kissed him again. "You're so cute. Yes, but not just because we're leaving soon."

"I want to."

Lex looked at him wonderingly. "You actually like me, don't you? I don't get it."

"Why wouldn't I?"

Lex looked at the wall. "I don't know."

"You're smart. And...you're a good partner. Um. I like the way you look."

"My father always told me I was ugly."

Their limbs were entwined, so tangled up, it would have taken a force of nature to disentangle them.

"What does he know?"

"He's on his way here, he told me. I don't know why. He never cared to visit me before." Lex huddled closer, and Clark realized he needed comforting, too. Clark tightened his hold. "Can we lie here for a while?" Lex asked.

"Yeah." Clark closed his eyes and breathed Lex's scent. "What's your father like?"

"A bastard."

"I figured that out."

"He's... I don't know. I could say a lot of things, but none of them would convey what he's really like. It doesn't matter what stands in his way; if he wants something, he's ruthless. He'll fire people, kill people, frame people... You don't believe me," Lex said, smiling into Clark's shirt.

"I can't imagine him, but I believe you."

"He has a way of twisting everything around and making people see what he wants them to see. When I was eleven, my brother...had an accident, and my dad told me it was my fault. He and I had a fight, and everything started falling apart. Julian's crib crashed." Lex finished in a whisper.

"Maybe he shouldn't have fought with you. He knew what would happen."

That met with silence. Clark wondered if he'd overstepped his bounds somehow, talked about something he knew nothing about. But Lex tilted his chin up quite suddenly, and their lips met again. Lex's tongue flicked Clark's bottom lip, and Clark's whole body tingled from the contact, aching from being without. Clark wondered if Lex would still want this if he knew, if he knew what Clark was. If he knew all the things Clark could do.

"Lex?"

"Hm." Lex kept kissing Clark's mouth, lightly so he could still talk.

"Do you think all aliens are bad?"

"No. That would be like saying all humans are bad."

"There must be some out there who don't want to take over earth."

Lex wiggled so he could have a proper look at Clark's face. "What are you thinking about?"

"Nothing. Just wondering."

"You've been worried. The last couple of days. Are you afraid of dying?"

Clark shook his head.

Lex threaded his fingers through Clark's hair and kissed him again, his tongue becoming more adventurous. "You won't die, okay? Promise me you won't die."

Clark smiled at the ridiculousness of the statement. "I promise."

"Because I really, really want to fuck you," Lex whispered in Clark's ear, like it was a nasty secret, which, in fact, it kind of was.

Clark laughed. He could feel himself blushing.

"I can keep it up for a really, really long time," Lex bragged.

"Oh, god."

Lex's hand found its way under Clark's t-shirt, and hiked up the fabric. Scooting down, Lex licked a circle around one of Clark's nipples. Then his hand strayed to Clark's jeans and rubbed his erection through the denim.

"Really, really want to..." Lex kissed Clark's stomach, making Clark's nerves leap.

Clark felt like he was underwater. Muted sounds rushed past his ears. Footsteps, doors closing, voices, someone, someone speaking sharply, someone angry. Clark sat up with a jolt.

"What's wrong? We can slow down." Lex sounded nervous.

Clark shook his head. "Not you. Someone else. Someone's coming."

It was like slow motion. Lex turned around to look at the door, even though no one was there yet. Only Clark could see -- through walls, through wood and brick -- that something like a SWAT team was approaching, with a ferocious, bearded man in the lead.

The door opened, and Lex sprang from the bed like he'd been shot. "Dad?"

"Out of the way, Lex," the bearded man commanded. Above his head, he raised a green stone fastened to a rod so it formed something like a torch.

With a sickening lurch, Clark fell over and tumbled to the floor. His whole world was pain. His vision blurred, sounds became scattered and tinny, and then the world disappeared in a deluge of blackness.

President Rume didn't like the man. He reeked of deceit and ruthless ambition. In desperate times, the President had been forced to trust Lionel Luthor's judgment. He hoped he had made the right decision. Doing something was usually better than doing nothing, and the President had been ready to try anything to save the human race from alien takeover.

But, now, as he sat with Mr. Luthor at the Pentagon, he wasn't so sure of his course of action.

"How do we know he's an alien? You yourself recruited him for this mutant army of yours," President Rume said. "I don't like to wrongly accuse someone, especially not for propaganda purposes."

"The people need hope, Mr. Rume. Hope. If they see you've caught one of the aliens, you're giving them what they need."

"I'd like to think I can give my people hope without committing injustice."

"I've told you, I have proof he isn't human. He bears too many similarities to the aliens for it to be coincidence."

"You withheld that information before."

"I needed proof. And for that, I needed him in custody. It wouldn't have done for me to go after him without being prepared. I might have started an intergalactic war."

"An intergalactic war is what we have on our hands, I'm afraid. With or without your help."

"Study him. You'll see that I'm right. He's indestructible. The green stones are his only weakness, and without that bit of knowledge, no one would be able to destroy him."

"You didn't tell me about the stones, either. We could have developed a weapon with them. Something to use against the invaders."

Lionel Luthor smiled. "You'll find, I think, that this spy has been on earth for some time. I think that gives him a highly specialized physiology. His primary use to us is to gain information we can use against the others. He knows something. It's up to us to find out what."

President Rume felt he'd somehow become a pawn in Lionel Luthor's game, but he didn't see a way out at present. Clark Kent bore more investigation, at any rate. But the President wasn't about to deliver a guilty verdict. Not until he had proof.

Lex woke up with the world's worst fucking headache. He felt groggy and weird, more so than when he was doped up on Robaxin. Someone had drugged him and drugged him good. His body hurt, too, when he tried to move his arms or turn his head.

Someone. His father. That fucking bastard. Lex hated him more than language could express. With some effort, Lex tried to recall all of the events that had transpired in his room, presumably the previous night, though god only knew how long he'd been out cold.

He remembered making out with Clark -- who would forget that? -- and then the strange fear that had filled Clark's eyes the moment before the door had been kicked in. That's when things got hazy. Lionel had been there. He'd done something to Clark -- Lex didn't know what. Clark had been in pain, had fallen to the floor. Lex had dived down with him, trying to protect him. Clark had whispered in his ear, "Smallville," pressing into his hand the metal trinket he'd been playing with when Lex had entered the room. That's when Lex had felt the shot in his neck. In his last moments of consciousness, he had slipped the metal thing into his pants pocket. Then everything had gone black as he lost consciousness.

His father had hurt Clark. On purpose. That was all Lex knew. Aching, he rolled over and tried to get out of bed. It was like being dead drunk with vertigo like none he'd ever had. Lex collapsed on the floor next to his bed.

"Fucking bastard."

Out in the hallway, he heard a commotion, and he crawled to the door to see what was going on. Once he got the door open, he was able to see a couple of kids hurrying down the hall carrying camouflage backpacks.

"Dude, you're fucked up!" someone observed.

"Yeah, thanks for telling me," Lex replied caustically. He could barely talk. His speech came out slurred and garbled.

"You'd better get to the War Room. They're handing out gear and assigning units."

"Shit."

"Yeah, shit. Did you hear the news?"

Lex shook his head and managed to get himself upright, supporting himself with the wall while stumbling along. The boy shouted after him: "They caught one of the aliens! They caught him!"

When he reached Alicia's room, Lex pounded on the door. There was no answer. He tried the knob and the door opened revealing a neatly made bed and a poster of Olympic figure skaters, but no Alicia.

"Where's Alicia?" Lex demanded of a girl who was hurrying by.

"With Ryan," she gestured down the hallway before continuing on.

Lex didn't know which door it was, but he only had to knock on one wrong one before reaching the correct room. The door was open and Alicia was on her knees before Ryan, who looked scared to death. She was holding his hands, speaking to him in earnest.

"It'll be okay, sweetheart. Really, it will."

They turned when Lex entered the room.

"Alicia," Lex garbled.

"Lex. What are you doing?" She sounded indignant.

"He's not drunk," Ryan said. "He was drugged."

"What happened?" Alicia asked in a kinder voice.

"They took Clark." Lex's breath hitched. He'd fucking gotten attached.

"What do you mean?"

"A SWAT team came. They shot me with something, and they hurt Clark."

"A SWAT team?"

Ryan watched Alicia, wide-eyed. "Don't think that!" he burst out. "That isn't Clark!" He turned to Lex. "The news is saying that they found an alien spy and they caught him. Alicia thinks maybe it was Clark if the SWAT team came to get him."

"No. Clark isn't a spy." At the same time as Lex uttered the words, he was flooded with doubt. It would be just his luck to fall for someone who was trying to use him to get at critical information. Clark had certainly been too good to be true. Lex reached into his pocket and pulled out the object Clark had given him. He was still fuzzy-headed, and he swayed slightly as he studied it. He could feel Ryan's eyes on him.

"You should do what he said. I know Clark. He was my friend. He wouldn't lie to you."

"How'm I supposed to go to Smallville?" Then it came to him. He looked at Alicia. Her eyes widened. She shook her head.

"Yes!" Ryan whispered.

"I can't."

"Clark gave me this right after they shot me. He told me to go to Smallville."

"We're about to go to war. Isn't that more important?"

Lex considered the strange object in his hand. He wasn't exactly thinking straight, but the fact that his father had been involved made the whole thing reek of conspiracy and deceit. Clark had looked so scared, and he wouldn't have told Lex to go to Smallville if there hadn't been a very important reason. "No," Lex said. "I think this has something to do with the attack. We should go."

Alicia stared at him, deciding. Then she nodded. "Okay. Let's do it now, while we still have a chance. Ryan, I want you to stick with Cyrus, okay? Tell him I said he has to take care of you. Tell him not to let anything hurt you." She spoke with such determination that Lex didn't see how anyone could fail to carry out her orders.

Ryan nodded, beginning to cry. Alicia kissed his cheek and hugged him. She let go abruptly, grabbed Lex's hand, and said, "Where in Smallville do you want to go?"

Lex had been studying the flat, metal piece in his hand. He felt like he'd seen those symbols somewhere before, but he couldn't remember where. "We should go to Clark's house. I don't know where he lives."

"I do," Alicia said. "He was telling me about it because I grew up in Grandville."

Lex felt an instant flare of jealousy, but tamped it down. He nodded to Alicia. An intense tingling made its way up his arm, originating from the point of contact with Alicia. His whole body felt fuzzy and strange. He closed his eyes for a long minute while his body fell in and out of sorts, and when he opened them, they were standing at the end of a long driveway. A pale house loomed ahead, obscured by falling snow. Alicia shivered and hugged herself. They had both left unprepared for being outside, and it was freezing cold in Kansas.

The strange mode of travel had cleared Lex's head. He felt alert, like he could figure out anything. "Let's go," he said, and they set out, stumbling on the uneven dirt driveway, which was marked by deep tire tracks highlighted in gathered snow.

"May I help you?" A woman with reddish hair and a worn face opened the door and peered out at them. Behind her, in the kitchen, sat a blonde girl about Lex and Alicia's age.

"Mrs. Kent? We're friends of Clark's. From school. In Virginia," Alicia clarified.

Mrs. Kent studied them uncertainly.

"I'm Alicia, and this is Lex. Um. Clark is in trouble, and we need your help." Alicia's teeth chattered, which seemed to spur Mrs. Kent to action.

"Come on in," she said. "It's freezing out there."

The blonde girl had come forward, eying them curiously. "I'm Chloe," she said. "I'm Clark's friend from Smallville High."

Mrs. Kent ushered them to chairs set up at the kitchen counter and put mugs in front of all of them. "I was just heating some milk for cocoa."

"So, what's going on with Clark?" Chloe asked. "Did they send him out to fight yet?"

"No, but how did you...?" Alicia began.

"Chloe's a reporter. She knows everything," Mrs. Kent said. "I didn't even know what was going on until she showed up today to fill me in."

Lex said, "I was in Clark's room last night when a SWAT team came in and took him. They did something to him -- he was acting strangely. They hurt him somehow. They shot me with a tranq gun. Before they grabbed him, Clark gave me this." Lex placed the metal object on the counter.

"Oh," Mrs. Kent's eyes widened, and her hand went to her mouth.

"You know what it is," Lex said.

Mrs. Kent didn't answer.

Chloe picked up the tile. "These designs... I've seen them."

"So have I. Where?"

"The caves. The Kawatche caves. They're in South Smallville."

"Lex?" They all looked at Mrs. Kent. "How did they... What did they do to Clark? He's... He's very strong. No one could just take him."

"They didn't shoot him. He just kind of collapsed." Lex shook his head.

"Did they have anything unusual? When they came in..."

Lex thought back, remembering his father. He didn't want to mention that part. "Some kind of torch with a green light on it, not a light exactly, but something glowing."

Mrs. Kent began to cry.

"Mrs. Kent..." Chloe stood and put her arm around the older woman. She turned to Lex and Alicia and said, "Clark was kind of...unusual. Mrs. Kent was just telling me about your school."

"I didn't tell you everything," Mrs. Kent said through her tears.

"It's okay, Mrs. Kent, I think I already know," Chloe reassured. "I've been researching it -- sorry. At first it was curiosity, but since Clark went to Virginia, I've been worried about him, and I might have gone a little overboard with the snooping."

"Oh! The milk!" Mrs. Kent jumped up and ran to the stove where a pot was boiling over.

"The news said the National Guard caught one of the aliens and they've got him imprisoned," Alicia said. "They have Clark, don't they?"

A clatter made them all look toward the stove. Mrs. Kent had a hard grip on the edge of the appliance, as if trying to steady herself. The pot sat askew, half on and half off one of the metal cages covering the gas burners.

"He's not one of them," Mrs. Kent said vehemently.

The kitchen fell silent as they all considered her words in their different ways.

"How did they know about him?" Alicia asked. "Why would they take him? I don't understand."

"Our physicals," Lex said. "That must have been it."

"They already knew about him," Chloe said, glancing at Mrs. Kent, who hadn't moved. "Mrs. Kent was telling me how they came to the house -- they already knew he was special, and they probably knew he was a little more special than everyone else. I did some investigating; all of you were chosen specifically. Not by the government, but by a private firm called Luthorcorp. The company did pharmaceuticals research near here, and most of the students came from the facility they maintained. They must have made a deal with the Department of Defense."

Alicia stared hard at Lex like she was trying to see through him. "Lex."

Lex nodded. The ruse was up. He would have to tell all he knew, consequences be damned, because at this point, they'd hate him more for not telling. "My dad," he said.

"Lionel Luthor?"

They all turned to look at Mrs. Kent.

"I'm not my father," Lex insisted, maybe more for his own reassurance than for theirs.

"Clark must have trusted you if he gave you this, and told you to come here," Chloe said. "He never gave me that much, that's for sure." She gave Lex a sympathetic look.

"My father was there when they busted into Clark's room. He was the one leading them. He had that torch. I thought he was just taking Clark because he knew Clark was important to me -- that's the kind of thing he liked to do. It might all be my fault."

Chloe considered the strangely patterned tile. "I don't know, Lex."

"If Clark really is... My father might have done it to win political favor. He provides the President with an army. He catches the alien 'spy' trying to undermine the operation. The President owes him big time."

Chloe nodded. "From what I know about Lionel Luthor, that makes some sense."

"So Clark really is an alien?" Alicia asked.

Mrs. Kent had been silent, but now she said, "I have something to show you three before you go." Glancing at Lex and Alicia, she added, "But first, let me find you two some warm clothes."

Clark had never felt such pain in his life. Sometimes, when he was a kid, he'd gone down to the foundry on purpose to see how long he could stand it, how close he could get before he gave in and walked away. He'd had suicidal impulses; he'd jumped from the tops of buildings, tried to cut himself with knives and threshers, and he'd gone near the rocks. Those had been moments of real despair, of feeling like no one understood him. While other kids might have gotten drunk or taken drugs, Clark tried to see if he could destroy himself. After the incident with Lana, he'd pushed it farther than he ever had before.

He didn't have a choice in the matter, now, though. He was locked in a dark room, cold concrete under his body, his hands cuffed behind him. And there was a green rock nearby, there had to be. Clark struggled to breathe, his lungs burning. His bones ached inside his body. He didn't even know how long he'd been in the room. The minutes dragged. Clark wondered when he would die.

He couldn't use his powers at all, not even to look through the walls, or to catch a scrap of conversation. The rocks completely disabled him. He didn't even have the strength to feel along the walls for a door.

It could have been days, he didn't know, but finally the door opened with a strange noise, like the door of a safe or a vault. Clark's pain ebbed just slightly. In the light coming from the space outside of the room, he could see that the green rocks had been embedded in the door itself, so that any attempt to escape would only result in death. Clark wondered how they knew about his weakness. Only his parents knew. His mind raced to thoughts of his parents being tortured or killed. That was almost more painful than the rocks. His parents may not have been able to handle him or his abilities, but they had tried. They had always protected and loved him.

"Time for a little interrogation, Mr. Alien," a uniformed guard said with glee.

Another guard joined the first, and they hauled Clark to his feet. Each of them was armed with brass knuckles studded with green rocks.

Clark leaned over and dry heaved.

Lex watched in wonder as Clark's past appeared before him: his birth, his journey, and his potential future.

"He never wanted that," Martha said when Clark's father had finished stating Clark's mission on earth: to rule the people, to conquer. "It's not in his nature. When he watched this, it tore him apart."

"Is there a chance he is one of them?" Chloe asked. "Maybe this thing is wrong about him being the last..."

"I don't know," Martha said. "I suppose it's possible. The ships don't look like this one, but the...aliens are invulnerable like Clark, if the news is accurate."

"We'd know for sure if we took some of the green rocks back with us," Chloe suggested.

"You'll find plenty of them at the foundry."

"I don't know if I can transport all of us, but I'll try. It isn't far," Alicia said.

Something was still bothering Lex. "Even if he is one of them, we have to rescue him. Don't you think?" he appealed to Martha.

"Jonathan always said that Clark was our son, no matter what his biology was. Our son would fight to save his friends. He wouldn't turn against them."

Dragged along, cuffed, restrained by the green rocks, Clark tried to absorb as much visual information as he could so that he might have a chance to escape. The guards seemed to take pleasure in his pain, and treated him far from gently.

He was shoved unceremoniously into a windowless room, which was brightly lit. The guards fastened him to a metal gurney, strapping both his arms and legs so that he couldn't move at all. The gurney stood alone in the room, and was equipped with its own green stones. They had certainly been prepared for his arrival, Clark thought. Once they had Clark secured, the guards exited the room.

Clark wasn't alone for long. The door to the room opened again and a man in a dark suit entered. He looked familiar. Clark racked his throbbing brain, and recalled that this man had led the crew who had come to take Clark away from Quantico. What had been strangest about the encounter, stranger even than someone knowing his weakness and attacking him without provocation, was that Lex had seemed for an instant to know the man. He called him 'Dad'. Clark pushed that thought to the back of his brain. He couldn't deal with it. He hoped he hadn't dug his own grave -- or dug it deeper -- by trusting Lex with the disk. Lex was his only hope. If Lex went to Smallville, he would probably find Clark's mom and she would know to trust him if he had the disk. Though what could possibly come of that, Clark didn't know. He'd had no choice. It was that or do nothing. Doing nothing was almost never a good idea. And if his captors, whoever they were, had found the disk,
it might have been worse.

"So," Clark's visitor said, nearing the gurney, "you are my son's newest toy. I must say, his taste is getting worse, if that's possible."

Clark could feel his heart racing from the presence of the stones. It had been going hundreds of beats per minute for so long now, it was a wonder he hadn't had the alien version of a heart attack. This, then, was Lex's father, whom Lex claimed to hate. Clark hated him, too, and he barely knew the man.

Before Lex's father could say anything more, the lights pulsed, going dark, then coming on again. An alarm sounded, a blaring siren. The man looked at Clark for a second, then exited the room. The alarm continued unabated. Clark could hear, beneath the siren, people running and shouting.

He lay there for a long time, and no one came.

They decided to bring Chloe back with them. She seemed to know something about everything, and she insisted that she wanted to help, even if the mission was dangerous. It was almost too much for Alicia -- they had to complete the journey in parts, and Chloe vomited after the first transport, which didn't make it any easier. Lex didn't feel great either, but he was used to stomach-turning experiences.

They'd only been gone for a few hours, six at most, but they came back to a different world. The dormitory was completely empty, as was the rest of campus. It looked as if it had been abandoned in a hurry. Doors had been left open, and there were tire tracks in the light dusting of snow that had accumulated on the ground.

"They've left already. We have to find them."

"Sh!" Chloe said. "Listen."

In the distance, almost inaudible, they heard the sound of explosions.

"Shit," Lex said, going to the nearest window to look out. The evening sky was pinkish-orange, as if there were a huge forest fire nearby.

"Let's find a television. Where is it?" Chloe asked.

"This way," Alicia said, and they all ran toward the common room. Chloe slid to her knees in front of the television and turned it on.

"...efforts of the National Guard," a reporter was saying as explosions went off in the background.

"That's the Capitol," Chloe said. "Washington is under attack. We need to go there now."

"What about Clark? We need him." Lex was ready to go by himself if necessary.

"We have no idea where he is. Where would we start? He's definitely not here." Chloe began pacing. "Shit, shit, shit. Okay, you said your dad was involved. My guess is he's in Washington. We need to find someone we can trust and get them on our side. Get them to tell us where Clark is, or help us find out. Right?"

"She's right," Alicia said. "We can't really do anything yet."

Lex ran a hand over his scalp. He felt so powerless. But he had to admit that Chloe was being completely logical. "We don't have any weapons," he pointed out.

"We have ourselves," Alicia said. She held up a rock. "And these."

"If they work," Chloe said.

"Yeah, if they work. I should take you somewhere safe, since you can't fight."

"No way. I bet there aren't any other reporters here. I'm not going to sit in some basement while all of this happens." Chloe got her camera out of her backpack. "Let's go."

Alicia transported them one last time, this time materializing at ground zero. Lex was afraid she was already tiring, and their battle had only begun. Lex wasn't doing that great himself. He'd been doped to the gills, de-atomized and re-atomized, and he'd barely eaten all day. Their breath shot out in clouds in the cold air. The noise was terrific. Explosions, the shouting of soldiers, gunfire, and the thunderous crashing of falling buildings and people. Already, the ground was littered with bodies -- mostly regular soldiers, though Lex recognized a kid he'd seen walking the halls of the dormitory. There didn't seem to be any commanding officer. There was only chaos. Lex inferred that the scale of the attack had overwhelmed the armed forces and the students had been called in as last-minute reinforcements.

The aliens were fairly easy to recognize. They wore uniforms of shiny, metallic armor, and they stood at least a head taller than everyone else. They fought without expression or passion while Lex's fellow students, and even the Marines and G.I.'s, grimaced or called out, fighting with heart rather than body, where they were destined to fail.

Lex had a moment of panic. He wasn't prepared for this. Here they were, in the middle of a losing battle, and they had no leader. It was like the blind leading the blind. But Lex had been born and bred to have grace under pressure. He'd studied famous battles -- had even acted them out. He knew how to fight and how to strategize. From the looks of things, no one knew what they were doing. The whole thing had a sloppy feel to it. Of course, they'd been attacked, caught unawares before they were ready. Lex took a deep breath, focussed on Alexander the Great, who would have taken the whole situation in stride, and stepped forward to lead his troops.

"Byron!" Lex shouted to be heard. Byron turned. "Let Alicia help you. Alicia, you zip around and distract the aliens so Byron can catch them by surprise." Amazingly, both of them nodded and their eyes met in silent communication. Lex strode on. "Bart, you can outrun these aliens, can't you?"

Bart nodded.

"You're going to work with Greg. Greg, you wrap these guys up in your webbing while Bart gets them to move where you want them. Got it? Tina!"

For once, Tina actually looked frightened. She wore her real shape, all of her bravado gone. When Lex gestured, she drew near. Around them, soldiers were falling, and at every moment, they risked being hit. It would take sacrificing some soldiers, but Lex had to do it.

Lex leaned close so he could speak to Tina without being overheard. "While the others are dealing with them, you take on their appearance, one of the ones we're bringing down. Pretend to fight. Then I want you to go in and be a spy. See if you can get into one of the ships and disable it. I don't know. Do something. Fire the weapons into the sky, whatever you have to do."

Tina's eyes widened.

"Do it," Lex ordered.

"Okay," she said, looking around her, calculating her best opportunity.

Lex moved on, and when he turned, Tina was nowhere to be seen. But one of the aliens gave him a slight nod. Lex smiled, then ducked behind a pile of fallen soldiers. Chloe was there, too, peeking out with her camera, recording everything she could. Lex turned his attention to one of the ships, which was sending an enfilade down to the ground. Focussing all of his energy on the ship, Lex could feel his power working. It was like adrenaline in his veins. The alien crafts were incredibly strong. Lex gave it everything he had, but accomplished little. He did manage to warp the gun turrets, which ceased firing.

Lex had to keep moving so he wouldn't be discovered. He turned to tell Chloe she should do the same, but she was already gone. He couldn't see her anywhere, but he hoped she was safe. He made his way, following the outskirts of the battleground. He caught sight of a few other people from the academy: Justin and Sean. He sent Sean to work with Alicia and Byron and he recruited Justin to help him attack the aliens with their own weapons. Lex was able to open up the weapons cache of one of the alien ships and Justin used his telekinetic powers to send the weapons toward the enemy. It must have been the extraterrestrial metal because the ammunition had its desired effect.

A faint humming, an undercurrent of the horrendous noise around them, grew louder. Lex glanced up at the sky and his heart fell. A fleet of alien ships was approaching. Though Lex could also see military aircraft circling the dark sky, he didn't have high hopes for their efforts.

"Justin," he called. "We need to retreat. Now."

"Where the hell are we going to go?" Justin looked up, too, and panic crossed his face.

"I'll figure something out." Lex began pushing his way through the bodies littering the ground and the bodies still standing, fighting against all odds. He was exhausted, and the others couldn't have been much better off. He noticed Alicia swaying on her feet, trying to prop herself up for a second as she caught her breath. "We have to go, otherwise no one's going to make it."

Alicia nodded.

"One more time? Can you go tell Bart and any others you see?"

Alicia dissipated before his eyes, though he noticed it took her longer than it had when she was well-rested. The longer they stayed, the greater the chance they would fail. It was better to take a step back now, while they could still stand on their own two feet. He didn't want anyone leaving in a body bag. They would retreat, regroup, and strategize. Humility was as important as hubris in battle.

It wasn't long before the other students had gathered on the outskirts of the battlefield. "This way," Lex said, heading north. If he remembered his geography, there was a big park not far away. He hoped they could find cover there. He was exhausted and cold, and all he wanted was to fall into bed and never wake up again, but he summoned the will to go on.

He had no choice.

His loneliness went on and on. Clark struggled against his bonds, but it was useless. The cuffs cut into his weakened skin. He wasn't used to feeling powerless. He wasn't used to pain. In the past, in this situation, he might have longed for his mother, for her hugs and kind words. But now, he longed for Lex. When they had lain together in bed, Clark had felt safe and Lex's touch had been like endorphins running through his brain.

Then, Clark heard voices. He knew they were probably his captors -- he didn't dare let himself hope for rescue -- but even they were better than lying here, slowly dying. He strained his ears, but the rocks had affected his senses, and he could neither hear nor see anything beyond the room he was in. In a moment, however, the door opened. A tall, clean-shaven man with dark hair stepped into the room. Clark knew immediately that he was an alien soldier because he wore a kind of armor Clark had never before seen. Clark's first impulse was to run. The aliens were the enemy. They had attacked his home. Clark threw everything he had into resisting his bonds.

The man paused when he saw Clark, narrowing his eyes, assessing the threat. He held a weapon of some sort, though he did not aim it. He must have seen the straps that prevented Clark from running or attacking. He called out in a strange language to someone in the hallway.

It wasn't Kryptonian, Clark realized. He didn't know why he'd expected it to be. It occurred to Clark that perhaps being an alien might save his life. Perhaps these people would sympathize with him and treat him as one of their own. It might be Clark's only chance of survival.

"Don't hurt me!" Clark said, wondering if they even spoke English. "I'm like you."

"Who are you." the man asked in stilted tones.

"My name is...Kal-El."

"You are a prisoner."

Clark heard Lex's voice saying, On the contrary, I enjoy being tied up. But Clark would never say such a thing. Instead, he nodded.

"That is your way of saying 'yes'."

"Yes," Clark answered in a tongue he had only ever used to speak to the apparition of his biological father.

The man looked puzzled. He turned to another soldier, who had entered the room. They conducted a discussion in their foreign tongue, glancing now and then at Clark's prone form. Finally, the first man said, "You will come with us." He neared the gurney and studied Clark's bonds, fingering the green stones.

The second soldier spoke to the first, who nodded. Carefully, they removed the cuffs, but only for long enough to detach them from the metal rails of the gurney. Then they refastened the cuffs securely.

"I don't need them," Clark said, hoping against hope that they might fall into his trap. Unfortunately, lies were not one of his strengths.

The second soldier gave Clark a strange look and said, "We must learn more about you. We will keep you."

Affected by the rocks, Clark could barely stand. The two soldiers, one on either side, supported him and helped him walk down the corridor.

"We need food, Lex."

"And shelter."

Lex peered through the darkness at Byron and Justin. Byron held a flashlight -- the students had been deployed in haste, but they seemed to be fairly well supplied. "There are no meal packs in there?" Lex asked, nodding to Byron's pack.

"Not enough to last. We might all be able to eat tonight, but what happens in the morning?"

Lex recalled a fact about Alexander the Great: that in the desert, he had drunk the same water rations as his men. It felt strange to have people looking to him for guidance and leadership. "We'll eat tonight," Lex said. "I'll send Alicia and Bart for food in the morning. They'll be the safest and the fastest."

"How long are we going to stay here?" Ryan asked. Lex had found him hiding near one of the crumbling buildings in the city. Right now, he was leaning against Alicia, huddling.

"We'll recover our strength and tomorrow night, we'll head back out. During the day, we'll scout around here for shelter. For tonight, we'll make do." Lex could feel the morale dropping at his words; it was bitterly cold and windy. Everyone wanted a warm, comfortable bed as much as Lex did. For a brief moment, Lex wished his power was to put things together, instead of breaking them apart. He looked around him, trying to see something, anything, they could use. A thin crust of ice crunched under their feet. It was going to be an unpleasant night if Lex couldn't figure something out.

"Okay, listen, why don't all of you sit down and eat. You'll feel better. I'll try to find something we can use for shelter."

Ryan surprised him by saying, "I'll come with you." When Lex gave him a questioning look, he added: "I haven't done anything yet. I want to help. I'll share my food with you."

Lex nodded. "Chloe, you're in charge." She saluted him, and he noticed her arm was covered in blood. She had wrapped some sort of fabric around it for protection. "Have Cyrus take care of that for you."

Without another word, Lex turned and headed off into the woods. He'd purposely come this way. Rock Creek Park if he remembered correctly. He wanted to stay away from houses and roads. Whether that made sense when one was trying to evade aliens, he didn't know. All his years of putting on a face for his father were paying off: he'd never let on to the others that he was scared to death.

"It's okay, you know," Ryan said beside him, his headlamp sending bouncing beams of light into the darkness.

Lex had forgotten Ryan was there, and only now recalled that Ryan could read his thoughts. He'd have to watch himself.

"I don't just hear them. I have to try. I won't if you don't want me to. People lie a lot, so I guess I got in the habit."

"Sometimes I wish I had your ability," Lex said, thinking of his father.

"Sometimes I wish I didn't." Ryan slung his backpack to his front and opened it as they were walking. After pawing around for a minute, he extracted a couple of power bars. "Here."

Lex took the bar gratefully. He had tuned out his hunger and tiredness. Now, at last, one of them would be relieved. "Do you have a compass in there?"

"What do you think this is, the 1800s?" Ryan held his power bar in his teeth and rooted around again. He handed Lex a GPS.

"Right." Lex began to get his bearings. "Why didn't you give this to me before?"

"Sorry. I forgot about it. You seemed to know where you were going."

"I'll tell you something: I don't know what the hell I'm doing."

"Coulda fooled me, and I'm telepathic."

They munched for a few minutes, Lex's brain working as quickly as it could on limited calories and rest.

"What are we looking for?"

Lex shrugged. "Good question. Something I can take apart."

"There's a water tower..."

They'd been hiking up a gentle hill and Lex saw that at the top of it sat a metal water tower. The kind usually emblazoned with the name and logo of a small town.

"I wonder if there's water in it? Let's go check." Lex broke into a run, fueled by hope. It didn't take much to excite him when life was this bleak.

"What are you going to do? Wait up, I have asthma."

Lex slowed down. "If there's water, we want to try to save it somehow. We'll need drinking water. But we also want to use that tank for shelter." The rocks around the water tower were littered with beer bottles and cans, and the tower itself bore myriad graffiti. When Lex reached the base, he began to climb up the frame holding the tower aloft. He was a problem solver, and he was going to make this work if it killed him.

Clark had been brought into a chamber of their ship. It was a large room, oddly shaped, like a lopped-off piece of pie. Everything was metal and shiny, like a futuristic movie, except more so because it was real. The room was cold, and the throne-like chair Clark's captors sat him in was even colder under his skin. He was still wearing the jeans and t-shirt he'd had on before he'd been captured. Ordinarily, Clark didn't feel the cold, even in the dead of winter, but the rocks had so weakened him that he shivered uncontrollably. He wondered if he was going to die. He'd never felt this awful in his life, not even when his hearing had gone crazy. That had been pain. This was... Clark didn't know how it felt to be near death. How weak did you have to get before your body gave in?

He tried to memorize everything around him, in case there was a chance of escape. He had no idea what was running through the minds of the aliens. Were they going to torture him? Kill him? Force him to fight for them? Clark was more than a wild animal -- he had reason and intellect -- but he had an animal's impulses. He didn't know whether it would be wise to run or to stay, but every particle of his being was screaming at him to get away.

The walls of the room curved overhead, following the shape of the ship. Running down the center of the room like a spine were rows of characters Clark didn't recognize. Maybe it was just a design, but he sensed the lines and shapes meant something. Though there was no apparent light source, nor a window, Clark could see perfectly well. It was like a gloomy day, cloudy, but light.

The two soldiers who had brought him in were dismissed, and Clark was left with two other men. Their armor was decorated with geometric patterns, which Clark inferred meant they were of higher rank.

One of the men studied him, then spoke in toneless English. "How did you come to be held prisoner."

Clark wasn't sure how to respond. Should he lie? What would keep him alive, and what would get him killed? He had no idea. Knowing he was a poor liar, he decided to tell the truth unless it seemed decidedly to his disadvantage. "Soldiers came to my school and took me."

"You are not human," the man observed. The man beside him remained quiet, but watchful.

Clark's heart began to race.

"No, you are not. Where did you come from. Where are the rest of your people."

Clark hesitated. "I don't know."

"You do know."

It was the strangest interrogation. Clark felt as if the man already knew the answers, but was making Clark state them for the record. His manner of speaking was creepy and robotic, and didn't lessen Clark's discomfort. "I think I'm the last. I can't be sure."

"The last."

Clark couldn't tell if that was a question or a statement. Either way, it was strange.

"How many years have you spent on earth."

"Ever since I can remember. Twelve years."

The man surprised Clark by saying, "You spoke Kryptonian. I know your people. We traded with them at one time."

All his life, Clark had dreamed of hearing words like this. He had dreamed of finding someone who could tell him about his home planet, maybe even show him images. Photographs. Someone who could describe his parents, who could tell him tales of people who looked like him. Who were like him. He wanted to know. He never suspected that his wish would be granted under conditions like these.

There were so many questions Clark wanted to ask. Did you know Lara and Jor-El? Did they have other children? What did my planet look like? Did everyone have my powers? Did my parents love me? Silly questions that a business associate would never know the answers to.

"We could not grow many things on Zeblar, but on your planet, many things grew. We mined minerals and traded them until your planet was destroyed."

In pain from the rocks, tired, and already emotional, Clark felt himself beginning to cry. He asked the question that was foremost on his mind despite the odds against the man knowing his parents.

"I did not know them," the man said, expressing no regret. He didn't acknowledge Clark's tears. Whether that was a function of his military position, or a function of his race, Clark wasn't sure.

"You are strong like them."

"Were they? Like me?"

"You have many questions. I do not posses the answers. That is all I know."

The second man, who had been silent the entire time, finally spoke, communicating with Clark's questioner in their native tongue. The first man turned to Clark and spoke again.

"You were raised here, by humans."

Clark nodded, unable to speak.

"Yet the humans took you prisoner."

"They didn't know -- "

The man waited.

" -- what I was before. Only my parents..."

The men spoke again in their language. They seemed to be disagreeing about something, though Clark could only guess what. He was tired, and wanted to sleep. He wanted an end to the agony of having the rocks clasped to his wrists. He wanted to pee. He wanted to eat. He wanted his mom's fried chicken and mashed potatoes. He wanted to watch TV. Mostly, though, he wanted to touch someone. This was all so unreal, and he needed to feel real again. He'd even take the mall. The mall and that crappy drive-in theater in Grandville. He wanted it more than anything. Homework. He even wanted homework.

"You will come with us."

The first man stepped away from the chair, and Clark supposed he should follow, but he couldn't. He just couldn't. The man waited.

"I can't," Clark said hoarsely. He leaned forward, but couldn't support himself. Before he knew it, he was falling, meeting the floor with a crash.

Clark woke with a start, as if from a bad dream. His heart was racing, and he was breathing hard. He felt, too, like he was falling. He opened his eyes. He was lying flat on his back, on a cold, metal surface. He turned his head to see the soldier who had interrogated him.

The soldier said: "Our people and your people do not touch as humans do." He set the device down. "Why do they do that."

"What?" Clark's head spun.

"Why do humans always touch one another. I fail to understand the practice."

"We like it."

"You speak as if you are one of them. Yet you are not."

"You never touch another person?"

"Not unless it is required. That is rarely."

Now that he was waking up, Clark realized that he felt fairly normal, not in pain. Lifting his head, he saw that the cuffs no longer weighted down his wrists. He could see them, though, in the far corner of the room, near the door. The soldier followed his gaze.

"They would have killed you. I do not want to kill you. I would like you to join us."

"Join you?"

"Fight."

Clark's brain tried to process the soldier's request. "You want me to kill people?"

"You were made for that. Kryptonians were warriors."

"I'm not a warrior."

"You do not know that side of yourself. You are not angry. They tortured you and held you prisoner."

"I guess so," Clark said carefully. He couldn't pretend to hate humans, but to say he loved them would mean certain disaster. What the soldier said was true: Clark had been an outsider all his life. He had felt awkward and ugly, deformed, even if not physically. He had felt like a freak. There was no denying that life had been full of painful experiences. But would joining an alien army make him feel normal? Would he enjoy life with them? He knew the answer to those questions was no.

He missed Lex. Fiercely. Wanted to see him. Touch him. The thought warmed him, and made his skin tingle.

Clark supposed he would always exist only half in this human world. Part of him would always be alien and strange, floating in space, tugging against gravity to try to find his home. But there was no home. Quantico was the closest thing he had found. He felt something like normal there, where there were others like him. It was like how immigrants clustered when they came to America. It made them feel like they were still at home, even in a place so vastly different from the place they'd known.

"You think too long," the soldier said, standing.

"I'll help you," Clark said with all the deceit he could muster.

Outside, it was snowing. Wind gusted against the metal shelter, driving the icy snow in regular rhythms. Lex lay in the dim light, huddled under a space blanket, trying to sleep. He was cold and, even though he was lying down, he felt like collapsing. Like his body would fall in on itself. Weakness, that's what his father would call it. He would have told Lex that Alexander the Great had ridden across the Hindu Kush in the dead of winter, and he hadn't had a space blanket.

He hadn't faced super-powered aliens, either, Lex thought. And he'd had his best friend/lover by his side the entire time. If Clark were there, Lex would be warm. He remembered that Clark had felt unusually hot, like he had a fever. Lex imagined Clark's encompassing body beside him, and that warmed him a little. He shivered, but not from cold. He was worried about Clark, but even his constantly-strategizing brain didn't have a plan to find him. Clark was probably in some top-secret lab. He could have been in fucking New Mexico for all Lex knew. Lex couldn't help feeling that all of this would be easier with Clark around. At least Lex wasn't completely alone.

It had taken Lex hours, but he and Justin had dismantled the water tower in a way that kept the water mostly intact, while removing the domed roof from which he and Byron, along with Greg, had made the shelter in which they all slept. Soon, of course, the water would freeze. It had already formed a crust of ice.

The shelter wasn't as well-hidden as Lex would have liked, but it couldn't be helped. Napoleon's army had been defeated in Russia because Napoleon was a fool who thought he could survive a Siberian winter. Lex knew that escaping detection was useless if they all froze to death. He suspected that the aliens lacked intimate knowledge of the landscape, and they didn't have the subtlety and wiles of the Viet Cong. They weren't going to be running search parties through the woods. Lex wasn't exactly in Yosemite, but it was out of the way, and it afforded some cover.

"Lex?" someone whispered.

Lex shifted his head, trying not to make noise with the space blanket.

"I can't sleep. Want me to go get food?"

Lex supposed the others would wake soon. He didn't know what time it was, only that it was time for him to sleep, and he couldn't.

"Sure," he said. "Are you okay going by yourself?"

"Who's gonna keep up with me?"

Bart had a point.

"Go somewhere far enough away that if you get caught, they'll think you were hiding out somewhere else."

"Got it."

There was a soft crinkling as Bart climbed out of bed. He quietly emptied his pack and stepped over bodies. Then he was gone.

By the time the others woke, Bart had delivered the goods. Donuts, fruit, sausages, spaghettiOs, and more disgusting foods the others fell upon with gusto. He had even pilfered a saucepan to make coffee. It was instant, which was plebeian, but Lex made do, thinking of Alexander and his troops.

Lex had decided upon a way to pass the time before dark. They only had a couple of hours, but that was all he needed. He had noticed Sean's absence, and after inquiring, had learned Sean had died early on during the fight with the aliens. Lex wondered at this, since Sean had been an excellent fighter during their training sessions. He wanted to get everyone together to talk about their experiences fighting the aliens. Among all of them, there had to be useful information about weaknesses the aliens had. The instructors at the academy had only known the basic facts of alien biology and custom. No one had had battle experience, and that was what they now needed.

"Did anyone see Sean fighting?" Lex asked.

"Only for a second," Alicia said. "He sent a big trail of ice to freeze the guy who was shooting at him, but the guy just broke free like it was nothing. It was weird."

"I got that on camera, I think," Chloe added. "He seemed to get stronger after Sean whammied him." She pulled out her camera and clicked through to find the photo.

Bart said, "They're strong, but definitely not fast."

"So they don't have any abilities so to speak?" Lex asked.

"Here," Chloe said.

They gathered around to look at the picture.

"Look at that," Chloe marveled. "Those guys are like Deadpan Dudes, but this one's totally ecstatic, see that? Like he's getting off on being zapped by ice."

"Did you notice," Lex said, thinking aloud, "that they retreated during that warm spell?"

"What warm spell?" Chloe asked.

"Two weeks ago."

"Not in Kansas."

"But here on the east coast, we had this warm spell. It was almost like summer, it was so warm. Even in New York, they were reporting temperatures in the sixties."

Chloe began to glow with excitement. "They like the cold!"

Lex nodded.

"But do they hate the heat?" Justin asked.

"Well, that's why they retreated. Maybe they knew we could defeat them if it was warm," Chloe said. "Guess they've never been in DC in the summer. I mean, if their goal is to take over earth, they should've picked a different continent. Hello, Antarctica."

"Maybe they're already there."

"Okay," Lex said, "How do we test our theory, and what else do we know about them, or what can we find out?"

Clark woke with a start. Someone was right beside him in the darkness. He could feel it. A presence.

"Hush," said a familiar voice.

"Lex?" Clark whispered, completely disoriented. Maybe it had been a dream, that whole captured-and-taken-prisoner-by-aliens thing. Head swimming, Clark tried to get his bearings. He wasn't in pain, he noticed. "What are you doing here?" he asked, feeling like he was missing something important.

"I'm here to save you." Lex shifted his body and straddled Clark, who lay on his back.

"You're freezing," Clark said, gathering Lex in his arms. What was different? Lex was acting strangely, but Clark couldn't put his finger on what exactly was off. "How did you get in here?"

Lex didn't give him a chance to speak, but kissed him. Lex felt nice, even if he was cold. A block of ice, really. He must have been here, waiting for Clark to wake. That didn't make any sense.

"Shouldn't we get going?" Clark asked between kisses.

Lex hadn't even asked how Clark had gotten into this mess. He wasn't plotting or telling Clark what to do. Clark felt oddly like he was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Lex had rucked up Clark's shirt and was kissing his stomach, heading for the fly of his jeans.

"Warm me up, soldier," Lex said, straightening up, still straddling Clark's legs. "Didn't anyone teach you how to fuck?"

"Lex?" Maybe Clark was having some kind of drug trip or an aural hallucination. He wished he could see. See where he was. See the little scar on Lex's lip. Lex didn't sound right. He didn't taste right, either, which was a weird thing to think, but it was true.

"Do you have my disk?" Clark asked suddenly.

Lex seemed to be fisting his cock, judging from his movements. "Damn this feels good."

"My disk," Clark repeated, sensing that this was the right tack to take to get out of whatever weird dream he was in.

"What about it?"

"Do you have it?"

"Uh-uh."

With an abrupt movement, Clark pushed Lex off of him and he went tumbling across the floor. "Hey!" Lex's voice exclaimed in the dark.

Clark wished that with all his powers, he could just see in the dark. That would be handy. "Where's Lex? And who are you?"

"Jesus, Clark, chill. I was just having a little fun. Trying to warm my ass up in this fucking place."

Tina Greer. He'd been making out with Tina Greer. "How'd you get in here?" Clark hissed.

"Lex sent me in. I've been pretending to be one of them. But they keep it below freezing, if you haven't noticed. My body can do a lot of things, but it can't do thirty fucking degrees with nothing but a stupid set of armor on. I don't know how they fucking stand it."

"Do they know you're in here?"

"I said I was coming in to check on you. The guard's asleep. At least they do that. They're like fucking robots, man."

"Okay, whatever, just let's get the hell out of here. And don't ever tell Lex what happened. I can't believe you did that to me."

"You're warm. Couldn't help it. I knew you didn't swing my way." Tina laughed. "Lex is a lucky boy. At least once he teaches you a few things."

Clark could feel himself flushing with embarrassment, and he was glad Tina couldn't see him.

"Anyway, I'm gonna die in this fucking place if I don't get out soon. I can't eat their fucking food. There's no water. I haven't had a drink in like thirty-six hours, I swear to fucking god. It's getting harder for me to change shape. I want a fucking cheeseburger, know what I'm say -- "

"Someone's coming!" Clark said, suddenly aware that he could hear like he normally could. There were definitely no rocks in the room. Tina must have moved them.

"Shit," Tina muttered.

"What?"

"I don't think I can change back. I'm just so fucking cold."

"Well, warm up," Clark said, desperately shooting beams of heat toward the ceiling.

The door to the room opened, and voices spoke loudly in the Zeblar tongue. Clark stopped his heating attempt. It was too late. Tina was stuck halfway through her transformation from Lex to alien. The two alien guards stumbled when they entered the room, as if something inside was making them sick. Clark had a momentary thought that he would grab Tina and make a run for it, but the guards had the rocks, and Clark collapsed in pain.

Tina was clearly exhausted, struggling in her half-metamorphosed body, like a fish out of water, flopping uselessly. The guards seemed to be affected by something, and they moved slowly, exerting a great effort to move Tina's weight.

Clark decided he had nothing to lose, and ignoring his pain, he lurched at the weakened guards. He threw them off balance, and they fell to the floor. Tina rolled over, not completing her transformation, but returning to her Tina self. That seemed to revive her.

"Run!" Clark said.

And, miraculously, she did. Clark could hear a loud clank, like a door opening. He crawled across the floor, but before he could get far, one of the aliens had dropped a rock right beside his head. Clark squinted upward and saw the alien looking down at him. There was no way he would be able to escape.

Tina didn't come back. Clark wasn't sure what had happened. He could only hope she had escaped, and that she wasn't being held prisoner as he was, strapped down with the one substance that could kill him.

The man who had come to speak with Clark before entered the room. He sat on a metal cube that emerged silently from the wall. He looked steadily at Clark without expression. "You choose to remain loyal to the humans. You deceived us after we treated you with kind ways."

Zofar proclaimed these things so confidently and serenely that Clark felt he shouldn't be offended. Yet he was. He knew better than to speak his mind, however. In a battle between Clark and a shipful of aliens in possession of green rocks, Clark would lose.

Clark felt like pointing out that holding someone against their will wasn't kind. Especially if you kept them in a constant state of pain.

"You do not wish to avenge what was done to you by the humans though they would have killed you."

Clark had brief recollection of Lionel Luthor striding into his room as if he were on a crusade. But not everyone was like Mr. Luthor. "There are good humans and bad humans. Just like there are good and bad aliens." He looked pointedly at Zofar.

"You are not human."

"You don't even know what being human means."

Cyrus had rigged an antenna that amplified radio signals so their transistor radio picked up a nearby transmission. Though the aliens hadn't spread the area of their attack, they had continued to hit New York and Washington. Just when the troops appeared to be gaining an advantage, the aliens would send more ships, with more soldiers, and the human soldiers would fall back again, wounded or dead.

In the afternoon, Lex prepared to head out on a recon mission with possible fighting. He debated whether he should leave two people to hold down the fort, or whether it was better for them all to stick together in case they had to relocate. He decided upon the latter, much as he hated taking Ryan into battle. Chloe wouldn't have stayed even if he'd told her to, so he forced himself not to worry about her.

Geared up, they headed out. It was eerie walking through abandoned suburbs. Homes had been looted and pets wandered, lost and hungry. Strange objects lay on the streets -- cars with open doors, teddy bears, half-eaten candy bars, and even, mysteriously, a television and a potted palm tree, dying in the cold.

They didn't encounter another soul until they could hear clearly the gunfire and explosions. Military trucks and tanks cluttered the streets, some clearly abandoned, others simply wrecked beyond being drivable. Suddenly, someone rushed at them, catching Lex off guard. At first he thought it was an alien, and he gathered himself to retaliate, but the figure transformed before his eyes. Barely recognizable as the Tina he'd known, she looked haggard and tired, worn to the bone.

She fell to her knees in front of Lex.

"Tina." Lex reached out to steady her.

"I'm sorry, I had to escape. Clark."

"Help me get her into one of the trucks!" Lex said to anyone who might help. Byron stepped forward and they put Tina into the back seat of one of the vehicles.

"Here's a blanket," Chloe offered.

Cyrus squeezed into the confines of the back and took Tina's hand. Her teeth chattered, and she closed her eyes.

"It was so cold in there. They kept it really cold, and I tried, Lex, I really tried. I couldn't wear a jacket because they would have known something was wrong."

"Don't worry. Tell us what else you found out." He offered her a power bar, but she shook her head.

"Clark. They have him in there."

Lex experienced a sensation like blood rushing around loudly in his head, and he realized it was fury, sheer fury. "Did they hurt him?"

Tina nodded.

"Did you talk to him? Yes? What did he say?"

"I didn't have time..."

Lex took a deep breath. "We think they're vulnerable to heat. Looks like we're probably right. Is there anything else we should know?"

"Trying to make a shield around the city to keep it cold." Tina stopped to gather herself. "They want to enslave humans to make us grow food for them, so they can live here. They don't drink. There was no water, anywhere."

Lex clenched his jaw and withdrew from the truck.

"Okay, Cyrus, you stay here with her. Ryan, you, too, I don't want you in harm's way, and someone needs to be here with Cyrus. Chloe, how can we get word to the military commanders? Do you want to be in charge of that?" It was more an order than a question.

"No problem," Chloe assured.

"We're going to try to get Clark out. Alicia, can you get us in there?"

Alicia shook her head. "I tried, once. There's some kind of, I don't know, forcefield or something. I can't get into any of the ships."

"We'll figure something else out. Meanwhile, we'll blast the ship with heat and try to get Clark out. Cyrus, I'll call you when we've succeeded, then we have to figure out how to heat this whole place up. Make some kind of greenhouse, I don't know. At first light, when we have the sun. Let's hope we have the sun."

"I'll make the sun shine," Chloe said, and Lex had to smile. She sounded so confident that he had no choice but to believe her.

Other wars had been fought here, but none like this, Lex thought, as he stood on a toppled pillar and looked through his binoculars at the ship. He hoped this was the one where Clark was being kept. It was one of the smaller ships, the kind that seemed to stay on or near the ground. Far up in the sky, a larger ship hovered, now and then spitting out one of the smaller vessels. Even on the ground, the body of the ship was out of reach, standing on spindly legs over two stories tall. It gave the aliens a good vantage point for attack, but made Lex's life very, very difficult.

Lex hoisted the blowtorch over his shoulder, then turned to Justin and Bart. "You ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Justin said.

Bart had already raced ahead, but Lex and Justin began the trek across the ruins, toward the ship.

"You sure about this, Lex? What if I can't hold you up long enough? What if something happens to me? What if -- "

"What if I never get Clark out?" Lex said testily. "He can really help us defeat them. They're hurting him in there. There's no choice here."

Justin ran to keep up. "All right, I got it."

"Good. Do your best. I'll handle everything else."

Dwarfed by the large "foot" at the end of one of the ship's legs, Justin and Lex tried to stay out of sight. The legs were smooth and unscaleable. Lex hoped he wouldn't need to hold on. He didn't believe in god, but he prayed Justin would come through for him. Lex couldn't see Bart, but he knew the kid was working on creating friction and heat by circling the legs of the ship at great speeds. His action might also cause the legs to collapse, but hopefully Lex wouldn't be in the way if that happened.

"Ready," Lex said, giving Justin a nod.

It was like driving too fast over a speed bump, or a small hill. Lex's stomach lurched unhappily, and he had to scramble to hold on to the blowtorch, which seemed to be levitating separately from Lex. "Holy shit," Lex muttered as he rose higher and higher into the air.

Justin had pretty amazing control. He maneuvered Lex into position on the underside of the ship, near where Lex had once seen a hatch open. It was already pretty warm from the hot air created down below. Lex put out a hand to signal Justin to hold him in place. Once he was steady, he aimed the blow torch and fired. He hoped he had enough fuel. A huge tank was strapped to his back -- a deathtrap if he got hit by any sort of ammunition, or even if he fell to the ground the wrong way -- but the heat resistance of the alien metal was much higher than earth metal.

Finally, after about two minutes of steady heat, Lex spotted a seam in the metal. The trouble was that it was too hot to grab. Lex tried not to lose focus -- he wedged the torch into the opening. He could hear it still working, just out of view, slowly heating the inside of the ship.

Inside his room, Clark's mind was turning in circles, trying to figure out a way to escape. How could he earn the aliens' trust? He couldn't. It was too late for that. The only other way was to trick them. Lex would be good at that. He'd probably have the aliens convinced they should fly off to Mars already.

Even a stratagem like the one Lex had used with Natalie wouldn't work. The aliens were so impersonal and cold. Clark couldn't imagine cajoling them into feeling sympathy or granting favors.

It didn't help that Clark's brain hurt. His whole body. The aliens had known enough to cut back on the rocks, but Clark was still incapacitated. He wished he'd known right away that Tina was Tina so he could have done something to get them out.

Suddenly, Clark heard some sort of commotion outside his room. There was the sound of running and shouting. Clark struggled to his feet, but couldn't stay on them. He fell to his hands and knees. Still, this was the most he'd heard the aliens since he'd come aboard. Something big was happening. Maybe they were being attacked.

In addition to the rocks once again strapped to Clark's wrists, there was a single rock sitting by the door. Clark made his way toward it, pushing past his pain, straining with the effort of just crawling along. When he got to the rock, he began to nudge it toward the other side of the room. He could see his veins pulsing green, and his skin looked as if it might split to let the veins out. Clark pretended he was a kid, and that this was a game, the game he'd played by the old foundry, testing himself, to see how far he could go.

His internal organs felt like they were spilling blood all over his body. Blood poured out of his nose and onto the metal floor. Clark could hear gunfire, and explosions. The entire ship lurched, sending both Clark and the rock sliding away from the door. The ship lurched again, tilting precariously. Clark was pressed against the outer wall of the ship, the rock wedged against his side. He gasped in agony, unable even to scream. He was going to die. He was really going to die. If the ship teetered again, the rock would go right into him and kill him.

The ship seemed to sway for a moment before steadying. Clark tried to roll off of the rock, but it was too much. The door to the room was now above him. He couldn't crawl there. He couldn't fly.

Then the door opened.

Clark strained to look up, hoping against hope that it was someone on his side.

And there was Lex aiming an automatic rifle into the room.

"Clark!"

Clark tried to smile. He'd never been so glad to see anyone in his life. Never.

They stared at each other for a moment as if neither could believe the other was really there. Finally, Lex came to his senses and glanced behind him. He had no pursuers. He leapt into the room, aiming his body so he landed right beside Clark. He rested his fingertips on Clark's cheek, looking into his eyes. Clark felt like he could read all of Lex's thoughts because they were his thoughts, too.

"Under me," Clark whispered, almost inaudibly.

They broke their visual connection. Clark felt Lex moving him with great care, shifting his body, then reaching under it for the rock. Lex stood suddenly and heaved the rock with a scream. It disappeared beyond the door. Lex then knelt and tried to rip the cuffs from Clark's wrists, but they withstood his efforts.

"What the fuck is this?" Lex stared at the cuffs in frustration.

Clark wished he could help. He felt like such an idiot, just lying there. He wanted to grab Lex and kiss him and never let him go, but he couldn't even do that. Out of a pocket in his pants, Lex extracted a pocketknife of some kind. He began to saw at the heavy duty nylon, which had been fastened in some unfastenable way to Clark's wrists.

"My fucking father," Lex said under his breath. "He did this to you. I'm going to fucking kill him." Lex sawed with a vengeance. "He gave me this fucking knife, and it better fucking set you free."

The sound of Lex's voice, even with all the cussing, was music to Clark's ears. He was comforted, though he wondered for how long they'd be safe.

"Fuck!" Lex threw the knife across the room in frustration. He held his comm mike close to his face. "Bart? Can you stop? Tell Justin to get you in here if he can. When you see a green rock, I want you to take it far away, fast."

Lex turned back to the cuffs.

"Sorry I can't do anything," Clark whispered.

"This is my fault. I'm going to get you out of here."

"Burn them," Clark said. "Use the torch."

"I'll burn you, too, if I do that."

"I'll heal once they're gone." It was going to hurt like hell, but Clark didn't see any other options. Super strength was not one of Lex's gifts.

"But --"

"Trust me."

Lex looked at Clark for a long moment, then nodded. "Okay." He picked up the blowtorch and aimed it at the cuffs.

Clark closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. No, he hadn't known pain before. Not at all.

"Oh, God. Shit."

Clark was starting to hyperventilate. But then his pain eased.

"Lex?" Clark heard Bart's voice.

"Catch!"

The pain began to subside, and Clark opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was Bart peering in through the door above. "Hey, man, you going to be okay?"

"He'll be okay. Just go. Take them somewhere he'll never go."

Bart nodded and was gone.

Lex focussed his attention on Clark. "Hey. You're bleeding, but it looks like it's getting better. Stay with me." He bent and kissed Clark gently.

"How did you get here?" Clark whispered.

"Long story. The aliens are allergic to hot air. I blasted the hell out of this place."

"Hot air?"

"And possibly water. Chloe's alerting the military."

Clark was feeling almost normal. He tried to sit up. Immediately, he felt Lex's arm at his back, helping him. He looked down at his wrists, which were a nasty purplish red. There was blood everywhere, including on his face. "Gross," Clark said.

"You scared me." Lex kissed him again, getting blood on himself.

"I'm okay now."

"I have to get you out of here." Lex looked up at the door, which was out of reach.

"Give me a minute and I'll fly us out." Clark wiped his face on his shirt. He was feeling much better. Slowly, he got to his feet, swaying a bit. He held onto Lex while he regained his equilibrium.

"There are still some people in this ship."

"I thought I got them all," Lex said, his gaze darting around the room, as if he could see through the walls.

"They're knocked out, I guess from the heat. Let me get you out of here, then I'll take care of it." He picked Lex up in his arms and floated them upward through the door, then out of the ship. He set Lex gently on the ravaged ground.

"I'd better go help the others. There's another ship," Lex said.

"I'll handle this. Go."

Lex started off.

"Lex?"

"Yeah?" Lex looked back, frozen in mid-stride.

"Don't die."

"I won't. I promise."

Clark turned to the ship and focussed his heat vision on it. He tried not to think about the soldiers inside. No matter what course of action he took, he would be killing someone. It was either the aliens or the humans, who were his adopted people. Others before him had been in this situation. How had they chosen?

It was a good thing he couldn't use his x-ray vision at the same time as his heat vision. But he could hear: soft sounds of suffering and death. It was all too much. He took the ship by one of the legs that stood it upon the ground.

He hadn't really tested his flying ability because he was afraid of being discovered. Sometimes he'd floated over the barn, or into a tree. He didn't know how far he could fly. He hefted the ship behind him as he rose. Bullets rained on his skin. Small missiles missed him, but hit the ship, causing it to thrash in the air, but Clark held steady. When he had passed through air traffic and had entered the cold, dark sky, he began to swing the ship in an arc, like a lasso, or a shot. He didn't hold back, like he'd held back all his life. He put every ounce of his strength into it. It was a testament to alien construction that the ship didn't fall apart. Clark pretended he was sending away every person who had ever made him feel awkward or strange. Every person who had ever called him a freak, like the time he'd popped the football in kindergarten, or the time he'd accidentally broken his desk in second grade. The time Lana had said she thought aliens were
disgusting. The time Whitney Fordman had asked what the hell he was looking at in the locker room.

Soon the momentum was too much for Clark to maintain. He chose the right direction and let go. A shiver went down his spine as he watched the ship sail through the atmosphere and break out of earth's gravitational field, headed for the sun.

He was no conqueror. But he could be a defender, if he chose.

President Rume couldn't quite believe his eyes when a bedraggled, blonde teenager and an equally bedraggled, scruffy man entered the basement room of the Pentagon, escorted by Commander Stampe. The President looked at the Commander without voicing his question.

"I -- I don't know, Sir. It seemed like the right thing to do," Commander Stampe said, in a daze.

The girl stepped forward. "Mr. President. Chloe Sullivan. And this is Kyle Tippett. Don't blame your security guys -- Kyle's pretty good at getting into place. I'm sorry we have to meet like this instead of during my future-Pulitzer-Prize-winning interview with you regarding the Middle East Peace Treaty, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Let's talk alien defense."

President Rume had been studying the attack patterns via satellite feed. The military officer beside him waited for his word. The President nodded. "If you have something to tell me, I'll listen." She looked so young and hopeful. And if the country was being decimated by aliens, he was willing to accept the equally improbable possibility that a fifteen-year-old girl might have the answers. "Have a seat," he said, gesturing to the couch.

"Mr. President, I've been working with your mutant army, and they've managed to gather some useful data about the aliens. First of all, they aren't as invulnerable as you think. "

The President felt like he was in a dream. This girl was young enough to be his daughter. She reminded him a little of one of his girls. It was clear that she was exhausted, and had probably been on the battlefield for days. Yet she radiated energy. She had to know something he didn't.

"Heat is their weakness. You remember, they attacked New York, and then mysteriously retreated when that warm spell hit? It was in the sixties. Then, when the cold front came through, they came back. They waited until winter because they knew our summer was too warm, and they wanted to hit our most important cities. They did their research, only they couldn't count on the weather. It was unpredictable. I have some firsthand accounts, too, if you don't believe me. One of the mutant soldiers tried to freeze one of the aliens, but the alien wasn't affected at all and Sean lost his life. I just got a call from a friend that a whole ship was incapacitated by having a fire set off inside it. We're fighting with the wrong weapons, Sir." Chloe paused to take a breath. Her voice had faltered toward the end, the only sign of stress she showed.

Commander Stampe had been listening attentively. "You propose we heat the entire northeast?"

"Exactly."

"That's impossible."

"I'm sure a handful of MIT grads would disagree with you. There's got to be a way."

"We'll do it," President Rume said.

"Sir?" Commander Stampe asked.

"Small scale first, to test it."

Commander Stampe gave him an expression of doubt.

"Kyle," Chloe said.

"Can't hurt. Might help," Kyle said, leaning over and patting Commander Stampe on the hand.

"You're right. Absolutely right. I'll get on it right away." Commander Stampe leapt to his feet and hurried from the room.

The President eyed the retreating Commander with some puzzlement.

"Persuasion," Chloe said. "That's Kyle's power. Don't worry, we didn't do it to you. I wouldn't dream of it. You got us out of Iraq!"

"Miss Sullivan, what else can you tell me?" the President asked, recovering.

Chloe took a deep breath. "I'm not sure what this means, but we sent a spy in to check out the ship, and she said there was no water on board."

President Rume steepled his hands and concentrated. "They like the cold," he said.

"Right."

"When it's cold, there can't be water. They must have adapted so they wouldn't need it. Like a desert plant."

"Sir, you are a genius. I knew there was a reason I voted for you. The question is, will water hurt them?"

"Only one way to find out." President Rume picked up the red phone that sat beside the couch.

From the sky, Clark could see the extent of the battles. In New York, the destruction was greatest. According to the news, evacuation had been discontinued because the roads had been destroyed. The aliens were killing civilians and expanding their attack to include the outlying areas of the city. In Washington, the chaos was smaller in scope, and the evacuation had been more successful, but it was the nation's capitol. And Lex was there.

Clark shifted his body, still getting used to maneuvering in the air, and headed back down to earth. If he looked beyond the cities under attack, the rest of the country seemed to be at peace. It was beautiful, in fact. Clusters of lights defined the cities and towns, making Clark think of all the people asleep, or hopefully asleep. Some were being attacked. Some were on the run. Children. People like his parents. Clark felt a tug of something in his chest; this was his home, whatever the difficulties of living here might be. Even if he was an outsider, this place belonged to him. He fought the urge to head for Kansas. He hadn't talked to his mother since he'd left for school, and it nagged him. What if something happened to her? He'd have to do his best to ensure that she remained safe.

Clark's removal of the alien ship seemed to have galvanized the rest of the soldiers because they fought with renewed vigor in spite of their exhaustion. After Lex and Justin had dismantled another ship, with the help of some well-directed makeshift fire-bombs made with gasoline, Byron and Krissy had made short work of the vulnerable aliens.

At some point during the fighting, the troops had been issued communication headsets, and were now able to keep up with what was going on in other parts of the city. Lt. Washington's voice suddenly crackled to life in their comms. "Troops! Let's convene by the Monument. I've arranged for a transport to New York. You're needed there."

The G.I.'s continued to pound the remaining aliens. They had obviously received word about the aliens' weakness because they were doing their best to create hotspots near which they could take on the nearly invulnerable people. Their weapons weren't meant for fighting with heat, but they were doing a good job of improvising.

When Lex reached the half-decimated monument, Alicia and Bart were already there. Lex scanned the skies, looking for Clark, but it was still dark. He expected that Clark might glow, like an angel coming down from the heavens, but that didn't appear to be the case. He hoped with all his might that Clark was okay.

A jet waited on the promenade, and Lt. Washington ordered them on board. As they settled in, he gave them the lowdown. "All right, soldiers. We're headed to New York. They're not having the same luck we're having, and that's because they don't have our help. You guys have done a great job over here. You've done me proud. The aliens have set up base in Central Park, and they're guarding the place like it's Fort Knox. We're going to go into the lion's den and kill the motherfucker. Got it? While we're in the air, here, I'll go over strategy with all of you so we can coordinate our attack with the troops who are already on the ground over there."

Lex listened, but his eyes were on the sky, searching for Clark. It was almost dawn, and as they rose, the sky turned from black to midnight blue. Still no sign of Clark, but Lex remembered Clark's sensitive hearing, and decided to try something. "Clark!" Lex said at a normal volume. "We're in a jet headed for New York. Can you find us?"

Beside Lex, Alicia leaned over and peered out the window, as if she knew what Lex was doing. They both stared intently for a long minute.

"Clark..." Lex said hopefully.

Suddenly, there he was: his shirt was in tatters, but otherwise he was intact. Lex bounced in his seat. He couldn't help himself.

"He heard you!" Alicia exclaimed.

"Of course he did," Lex said, like he'd never doubted it.

"Lex. What's going on here?" Lt. Washington appeared beside their seats. "We have strategy to review."

"It's Clark, Sir, he's found us," Alicia said, pointing out the window. "He can hear us."

"Good. Clark, listen up, we've got a battle plan for New York," Lt. Washington commanded, seemingly unfazed by the fact that one of his students was flying beside the jet, listening in. Outside, Clark gave the thumbs up. Lt. Washington chuckled. "Amazing," he muttered quietly as he made his way back up front.

In the War Room, President Rume had kept the girl nearby. He liked her. He'd have to consider giving her a little professional boost. He couldn't imagine her being bad at any task she attempted. Together they sat studying a satellite image of the New York City greater metro area.

Commander Stampe pointed with the laser. "Their base is here, in Central Park. Lt. Washington tells me they're going to get their people into the buildings on the east and west sides of the park. From the buildings, they'll launch an attack, using heat-throwing weapons. The Air Force has a fleet ready for an offensive from the sky."

"Those buildings are heavily defended, aren't they? How do they expect to get in?"

"Don't worry about a thing," Chloe assured. "They have ways of getting places. Trust me."

A female voice came over the speaker system. "Sir, it's time for your radio address, and Paulison is waiting to meet with you."

"Would you like to meet the head of FEMA?" President Rume asked Chloe.

"Would I?" Chloe whipped out her notepad.

"Keep him busy while I do this broadcast, and I'll get you a job at the newspaper of your choice." The President stood and donned his wrinkled blazer.

"Sir..." Chloe's eyes widened in awe.

Pressing a button on the phone, the President leaned in and said, "Send him in, Jenny." He nodded to Chloe and left the room. He just hoped she was right, that he didn't have to worry about a thing. That was what he needed to hear. As he passed by a window, he noticed that dawn had arrived. It looked like it was going to be a sunny day.

"Okay," Lt. Washington said, clapping his hands together, then turning to the map on the screen at the front of the plane. "We've got Alicia helping to get the soldiers inside the buildings. You're going to have to work fast. One unit per building."

"I can transport two at a time, Sir," Alicia averred.

Lt. Washington nodded. "Bart and Clark will get the weapons in, and Clark, if you encounter any alien guards, it goes without saying that they should be eliminated on sight. Wade, you and your team get in there to fight with the G.I.'s. You go in first to establish points. Kyla, you observe the perimeter, and make sure nothing takes us by surprise. At 0900 hours, we'll start our offensive, preparing the way for the Air Force fleet. We're going to heat everything up so our boys in the sky will have a chance. They're going to bomb the hell out of the place, so keep your guard up. We want them trapped, so we can completely wipe the base out. Any questions?"

"What about the bunkers along the Hudson? I heard the aliens were keeping prisoners," Lex said.

"Once we've gone after central command, I'll send some of you out there. They've landed in a few other places, too, and the troops will need our help."

It was a strange feeling for Lex. For the first time in his life, he felt he belonged somewhere. Not a place, but with this group of people. He had a purpose, and his ability wasn't a curse. He wasn't exactly good at making friends, not even at Quantico, but since they had been fighting, people seemed to have accepted him. They looked to him for leadership and guidance. They trusted him, and didn't care about his money or his name. They didn't even seem to know who he was. At his previous schools, the name Luthor connoted wealth and power beyond imagining, and the kids who went to school with him were concerned with such things. Their families socialized together, and gossiped about the latest takeovers or the latest power-marriages. Lex had always thought that was his world. He belonged there, however much he might have hated it. He'd never considered the possibility that he might belong somewhere else entirely.

He glanced out the window. Clark was still flying there beside him, his intense gaze directed downward, scoping the lay of the land. Lex smiled. Clark's presence was comforting. He wondered if Clark was his boyfriend. Lex had never had a boyfriend.

"Clark," he whispered, so only one person could hear him.

Clark's focus broke as he glanced at Lex's window. Lex pressed his face against the glass and Clark grinned at him. A warm feeling crept through Lex's whole body. If he could have shot flames from his eyes, he might have.

In all his life, Lex could not have imagined the scene that met them when they reached New York. They landed at East River Park, on a makeshift runway, and moved toward Central Park on the ground. They had to move on foot because the vehicles were not only more noticeable, but would have been slower, given the debris they had to move through. Sure, Lex had watched the History Channel. He was obsessed with battle strategy, and had pored over books and documentaries about the world wars, Vietnam, and the Middle East, but being there, on the ground, breathing in the smoke and the dust, walking through the debris and the destroyed buildings and streets...that was something entirely different.

Washington, DC had been a mess, and the destruction and loss of life had been horrifying and difficult to block out of his mind as he fought. Maybe it was the density of New York that made the scene even harder to process. Many people -- civilian and armed forces -- had died, and there hadn't been time to clear the bodies. In the cold, the smell was minimal, but there was no way to avoid seeing the horror on people's frozen faces. Sometimes, they would come across a limb separated from its owner. And, as in Washington, the strangest objects littered what had once been streets.

Kyla padded along beside Clark and Lex in her wolf form, her nose to the ground. Suddenly, she reared up and put her dusty paws on Clark's chest.

"She's found someone," Clark said quietly.

"Keep on, Clark. We can't stop for rescue," Lt. Washington ordered.

"It'll only take me a second. I'll catch up. I promise." Clark's narrowed eyes focussed on what had once been a brownstone.

"Clark..."

"It's a little girl, Sir. I'll run her to the medical station. I won't stop for anyone else."

Before Lt. Washington could respond, Clark was gone. Kyla stood still, watching the building. Lex touched the ruff of her neck, and she moved on again. Lex could hear behind him the creaking of metal bending and the crash of concrete blocks being tossed aside. He couldn't hear the child at all, but he knew Clark could.

The buildings bordering Central Park had once been the priciest real estate in Manhattan. The park view had been coveted as an oasis in the midst of the chaos and bustle of the city. Now, the buildings had been largely demolished. What remained had been torn apart by air strikes. Air strikes that had done no good.

But that was about to change. Following the sketched-out maneuvers, the G.I.'s and mutant soldiers made their way into the ruins bordering the park. At his station at the southeast corner of the park, Lex began to worry about Clark. No sooner had the thought popped into his head than Clark appeared beside him, loaded down with weapons.

"Hey," Clark said.

"Is she okay?" Lex asked.

"I think so. Gotta go." Clark vanished.

Lex couldn't wait for this all to be over. He felt like he hadn't had enough time. He hadn't talked to Clark as much as he wanted to. Hadn't asked him about his family, about where he came from. About what he liked and didn't like. That had been taken away from him, and he resented it for a moment, until he remembered that if they hadn't been brought together for this purpose, they never would have met at all.

Lex and the handful of soldiers stationed with him were literally standing in rubble, in a building that at any moment could collapse on top of them.

"You one of the mutants?" one of the soldiers asked. His name was Tucker, and he was ruddy and crew-cutted. The kind of guy Lex had learned to hate.

Hesitantly, Lex answered yes, expecting the worst. He'd been harassed often enough for being different.

"Cool," Tucker said, surprising Lex. "You guys are kicking some ass."

"Uh, thanks."

Tucker nodded, chewing his gum, checking the sky for action. "What do you do?"

"I can make things fall apart."

"Like, uh...?"

Lex shrugged. "I think about a certain thing, and I can destroy it."

"Shit!"

Tucker fell silent beside Lex, and they both waited for their signal. It was a full five minutes before it came, barely intelligible through the static. Lex and Tucker glanced at each other and nodded. Tucker's weapon was already lined up, and he began firing. At the same time, down their row of buildings, and across the park, everyone else began firing, too. The blast of heat and noise was almost incapacitating. Lex clung to the crumbling wall to steady himself, then he concentrated every last ounce of his strength on the ships that were clustered, hive-like, in the park. Above them, planes suddenly roared into view, firing at the ground. The spectacle was something Lex would never forget. Virtually every bit of vegetation was gone within minutes. Lex knew this was on purpose, so there would be nowhere to hide.

It was something like the footage he'd seen of Hiroshima. The ships exploded in an almost architectural way, blooming into clouds of fire and dust, shards of metal flying in every direction, like the bits of explosive in a firecracker. Lex had become inured to the sight of dying aliens, but when one ran by, covered in flame, and screaming, Lex lost focus for a moment. These were people they were killing, people with lives and presumably with families and loved ones. Then he reminded himself that the aliens had had no compunction against killing entire neighborhoods on earth. It was one of those things: kill or be killed. With a glance, Lex put the alien out of his misery.

Lex was lucky he no longer suffered from asthma. The air around them was almost unbreathable. They'd been given gas masks, but they were bulky and stifling. Lex preferred the air, however saturated with particulate matter. His lungs would surely be coated with a layer of black sludge by the end of the day.

For a while, it looked like earth might be winning. The Central Park offensive had worked, and as far as Lex could tell, every alien within the park had been wiped out, and every ship lay in ruins. But then the planes above the park began exploding in midair, fired upon by huge alien ships high in the sky. The heat in Lex's building was something fierce. If Lex had had hair, he was sure it would have been singed off. Beside him, Tucker was sweating profusely, and showing signs of exhaustion. The other guys who had joined them were constantly rubbing their heads against their sleeves to keep the sweat from dripping into their eyes.

As two alien ships hovered above the park, the soldiers began firing. Unarmed, Lex stared at the ships, willing them to fall apart. Lex knew that even at their height, the ships had to be feeling the heat, and even with a cooling system, the aliens wouldn't last long, not if they wanted to be close enough to attack.

It was then that the alien bombs began to fall on them. Lex switched his focus, trying to dismantle the bombs in the air, but they were too fast for him, and one hit the building across the park. Another was let loose from one of the huge ships. Lex barely had time to register its presence before something went by in a flash and scooped up the bomb. It was Clark. Lex knew he was indestructible, but the sight sent his heart into his throat. He was close to passing out from the heat and the stress, and he didn't know how long he could keep going. He ignored his fear and kept his attention on one of the ships. He was tiring, and it was harder to make anything happen, especially so far away, but he kept at it, even as he heard bombs striking the areas around him. The soldiers beside him were firing their weapons into the sky.

Suddenly, Clark was back, this time flying up so fast he was just a blur. Like Atlas, he lifted one of the ships onto his back. In the air, it was an ovoid mass, legs withdrawn up into the body of the ship. Clark began rising higher into the air, slowly but surely.

"You can do it, Clark," Lex said. He wondered if Clark would even hear him amid all the noise and the effort of lifting the ship. He had to be tired.

A great cheer rose from the buildings as Clark kept going, increasing speed, becoming smaller and smaller. The cheer died as two bombs, one after another, were released from the remaining ship, and another ship appeared on the horizon.

With a burst of adrenaline, Lex managed to dismantle one of the bombs in midair. Then he fell back into the building, collapsing onto the rubble.

"Here, kid, drink this." Tucker tossed him a plastic bottle, then, without missing a beat, returned to firing into the sky.

Lex drank what appeared to be Gatorade, then struggled to his feet. The ship that had been above them for some time, seemed to be having some mechanical trouble. It dipped and careered around instead of holding steady. Lex guessed that the aliens inside were beginning to die. He gritted his teeth and gave the ship all he had. Like a 3-D puzzle, it burst into pieces with the rumble of summer thunder.

"All right!" one of the soldiers yelled.

Clark zipped into sight again, and this time when the remaining ship let fly a bomb, Clark caught it and hurled it back toward the ship. Time stood still as everyone watched what would happen. The bomb hit the belly of the ship, and the whole craft disintegrated into particles that rained down out of the sky, hitting the buildings and the park.

A silence hung in the air, and Lex thought of A Stillness at Appomattox. Clark floated in the air, motionless, watching and waiting, but no more fire came. There were no more ships that the eye could see.

When the bulk of the debris had fallen, a voice came over the comms. "Troops, hold your position until we can confirm an all clear."

No one moved.

It was five minutes or more that they waited, not daring to let down their guard, barely daring to breathe. Lex could see Clark searching the skies with the expression of concentration he wore when he was looking through things. He must have been satisfied because he turned his attention to the city below and applied the same concentration.

"Looks like we're clear. The report from Washington is good. They've got it under control."

The voice couldn't have told them to be quiet. A cheer went up all around the park, and Lex thought he could hear even the troops that were stationed at the far end. He slumped against a wall and sank to the rubble. He was bone tired, and the work had barely begun.

Lt. Washington's voice came over their comms. "Take it easy, everyone. Let's convene outside the buildings. I need to get a head count."

Slowly, stumbling in their exhaustion, Lex's unit made their way down the decrepit stairs, three floors to the sidewalk. You couldn't even call it a sidewalk anymore. None of the original concrete was visible beneath the dust and ash, bits of brick and mortar, and jagged pieces of shrapnel and shell casings.

Outside, Lex swayed dizzily. He felt the way he'd felt when he'd gone to see How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He'd walked out, shellshocked, only to find it was an ordinary, sunny day in Metropolis. The birds had been singing, and at first, he'd thought they were fake.

But it was real.

Lex couldn't see the sky through the haze. The air was hot and crackling, like his clothes might catch fire if he ran too quickly. Ashy bits of newspaper floated past him, on their way down to the ground. Clark landed just as gently and Lex fell into him, putting his arms around Clark's solid body.

"I didn't die," Lex said.

Wade Mahaney ran toward them as fast as he could, his feet catching on chunks of cement and rebar. "I can't find my brother! I can't find him!"

Clark broke away from Lex, and Lex almost collapsed until Clark reached out again to steady him.

"I'll go look," Clark said. "Where was his unit?"

"Right next to mine. He's not there!"

"Take me there." Clark strode off with Wade, and the others all stared after them.

Tucker shook his head. "We didn't all make it," he said, his voice flat. He released his backpack and let it slide down to the ground. Then he found a seat on a piece of buckled concrete and stared at the ground between his feet. His skin was red from being burned by chemicals and heat, and fine dirt stuck to him.

Lex knew Tucker was right, though it hadn't hit him until now just how many dead there might be. Many of the buildings in which they'd been stationed were now flattened. It was doubtful that anyone in them had survived. Lex wondered how many of the mutant army had made it. And those in DC... Would Ryan be there when they got back?

Realizing that he still wore his pack, Lex followed Tucker's example and set it down on the ground, then he too sat. He didn't think he would ever recover from this exhaustion. His brain buzzed and felt numb. He looked at things, but didn't really see them. He wanted to lean against something because he didn't know how long he'd be able to hold himself up.

A soft sobbing sound caught his weary attention, and he turned, a gesture that required a concerted effort. The noise came from Wade, who knelt on the bumpy ground next to his brother's still form. Clark knelt also, his ear to the boy's chest, a look of desperation on his face.

At that moment, Lt. Washington could be seen making his way down the treacherous road.

"Lieutenant," Clark said.

Lt. Washington sped up his pace. His camos were dark with sweat, and he looked no better than all of them, yet he found the energy to hurry to Wade's side. "I'm sorry, son," he said, putting a hand on Wade's shoulder.

Wade was inconsolable. He bowed down in the dirt, like a Muslim in prayer, and Lex could feel his grief. He seemed to be trying to push himself down into the earth so it would swallow him up and end his pain.

The others could only watch. There was nothing to say. Nothing to do for a body that couldn't be saved.

Tucker struggled to his feet and reached for Wade's arm. "I got you, come on up."

It was a wonder, but Wade followed the order, blindly scrambling to his feet with Tucker's help. Tucker folded him into an embrace, patting him on the back. "It's gonna be all right," he said. Lex once again had occasion to admire a jock he would have dismissed in regular life.

"We've got a helicopter coming. We'll send them home. Lex, can you go find John? I don't want to call him over the comm."

At school, Lt. Washington had jokingly called the Mahaney brothers "Mahaney, Wade; Mahaney, John; and Mahaney, Stuart," instead of using their first names alone. For a moment, Lex didn't know whom Lt. Washington meant. But by the time he'd found his feet, he'd figured it out. "Yes, Sir."

So many images would remain with Clark: the ships exploding in the air, bodies littering the ground...but none would stay with him so vividly as Wade's face when he saw his brother's dead body. The loss was so raw that Clark could feel it digging a big hole in his own chest, even though he and Stuart had barely ever spoken. He found himself crying, and he didn't know why.

"Clark," Lt. Washington said. "I need you to do something for me."

Clark pulled himself together, rubbing a dirty hand across his face to get rid of the tears. "Sir."

"Our work isn't done. We're sending troops out to the encampments up the Hudson a ways. I hear the aliens were keeping prisoners. We need to get them out. I'd like if you were there, just in case. I know it's a lot to ask..."

"I'll go," Clark said. He looked at Lex, who hadn't moved for several minutes.

"He'll be all right," the Lieutenant said.

"Okay."

"Go on ahead. Follow the river. You'll see us when we get there, but you can help us locate the sites."

"Can I have a minute first?"

"Absolutely."

The sound of a helicopter rotor came through the haze, faint, and then stronger. It was a reassuring sound. Clark sat beside Lex. "Are you okay?" Hesitantly, he touched Lex's shoulder. He knew the military were a homophobic lot, and he didn't dare be too open. He'd risked enough by hugging Lex before. It was stupid thought to have after what they'd all been through. Maybe he was being overly paranoid. He doubted that anyone had the energy to be a bigot.

Lex rendered the question moot by leaning into Clark like a child. Clark let his arm slide around Lex. No one was even paying attention to them.

An Army General approached, and spoke to Lt. Washington. "I lost one of yours," he said. "Arkin?"

Lt. Washington sighed. "Thanks for letting me know."

The General nodded and walked on.

Clark felt eternally grateful that he and Lex had both escaped injury. At least physical injury. "I have to go," Clark whispered, "but I'll see you soon."

Lex clung tightly to Clark's shirt for a brief second, and then let go, pushing away gently. "Don't...let anything happen."

Clark nodded. He knew what Lex meant. It would be foolish to assume that there would be no more attacks. They had to keep that possibility in the back of their minds.

President Rume had grown up in Galax, Virginia, a little town known to few besides the state's residents. He loved the intense greens of the summer, the heavy heat, and the close sound of the cicadas. He loved the mountains, which flowed outward in never-ending waves. And there was always the sound of music in his house; his parents had loved music.

They were gone now.

Looking out on the ruins of the city, the President had a sudden, inexplicable yearning for his mother and father, for their simple ways, which seemed outdated in this world. There was so much loss in front of him, he found himself paralyzed. Yet he was the President. He had to be calm. He had to carry on in the face of adversity. Only now that the fighting was over did he realize the work had just begun. There were people to bury, cities to rebuild, children -- his own children -- to comfort.

He was the youngest of his brothers and sisters. By the time his mother gave birth to him, she was considered old. He'd been a difficult birth for her, a C-section, and she'd spent some time in the hospital afterward.

At the hour of her death, she had motioned for him from her hospital bed. She had said in a whisper: "My highest hopes...are for you."

She hadn't lived to see him become President, but he hoped that wherever she was, in whatever world, he had done her proud.

He wasn't done yet.

He put on his winter coat and scarf and walked out of the Pentagon doors. A uniformed guard hurried up to him. "Sir, Mr. President, Sir."

"Yes?"

The man looked abashed. "Do you need me to call a helicopter?"

"I think I'll walk, but thank you. Open the gates, please." President Rume continued on.

"Where are you walking to, Sir?" The guard tried to keep up.

The President could tell the man thought he was crazy, but couldn't bring himself to say so. "The Red Cross needs volunteers. I'm on my way there."

The guard looked around. "Uh..."

President Rume held up his cell phone to indicate that he could be reached if necessary. "I'll be fine."

"I'm sending someone to walk with you, Sir. It's the least I can do." The guard saluted.

"Tell him to catch up with me."

As he walked along through the cold, morning air, he remembered a story his father had told him long ago. The thought of it comforted him, and though he hadn't ever shared his father's faith, he understood the story in his own terms. In the story, a man dies and goes to heaven. He sits down with God, and they look together at the course of his life. On the sand the man has walked upon, there are two sets of footprints, his and God's. But during certain times, there is only one set of footprints. The man turns to God and says, "Why is it that during the most difficult times of my life, I see only one set of footprints? Why did you abandon me when I needed you most?" God answers, "My son, those are the times I carried you."

The President understood that he had the capacity to carry others through their dark times. That was his purpose, and he would not neglect it now.

Clark had never been so exhausted in his life. But through his exhaustion and sadness, he was able to feel relief. As he set people free, their gratitude and hope washed over him. People he'd never met hugged him and kissed him and thanked him if they could. If they couldn't, if they were near-unconscious, it was simply the expressions on their faces as he gathered them up and carried them to the nearest medivac.

The aliens had taken prisoners immediately after attacking the city, and had transported them to factories along the Hudson. There, they had been trapped in the buildings with strange metal gates that only Clark seemed able to break through without demolishing entire walls.

Without heat, food, or water for several days, lives had been lost. The prisoners had shown remarkable ingenuity, and had started and maintained fires in many of their cells. Abandoned by their captors during the previous afternoon, they hadn't known if they would live or die, or if anyone would even know if they did. They could only imagine what was happening.

Parents had lost children, and children had lost parents. Clark wrapped cold bodies in blankets, and held survivors in inadequate embraces.

Sometimes, he felt dead, too. Sometimes, he felt their losses. Sometimes, there was nothing at all, only the motions of his body as he did what was required.

"Clark Kent?" a uniformed officer asked.

"Yes, Sir." Clark set down the little boy he'd been carrying. The boy clung to him, not wanting to let go.

"I've been told to put you on a helicopter home. You need some rest."

Clark knelt so that he was the same height as the boy. "Hold on," he said, glancing up at the officer. Then, to the boy, he said, "You'll see me again, I promise."

"When?" The boy's face was covered in tears and snot, and he wiped his face with a grubby sleeve.

"I'll be flying around sometime, taking care of things."

"You will?"

"Yeah. But for now, you need to go with the soldiers so they can help you find your parents."

The boy gave Clark a hug and waved goodbye as a soldier took his hand.

"A helicopter, huh?" Clark asked, standing and addressing the officer.

"You've put in a long day."

Clark nodded. "If it's all right with you, though, I'll fly myself down."

"They'd like to see you in Washington. The President wants to thank you in person."

"I'm headed that way, back to school. I was told that's where my classmates went."

"I'll let the Commander know." The officer took a step backward, and bowed his head.

Above Clark's head, the sky was light, but hazy. He could fly slowly, and still reach Quantico before dark. That is, if he could fly.

Gathering himself, Clark sprang, jetting into the air more easily than he'd expected to. Below him, the officer turned to watch, an expression of wonder on his face. That was when Clark realized: the aliens couldn't fly. His people could fly. That gift set him apart from the invaders, and he would never be mistaken for them. He smiled, remembering his promise to the kid. He imagined swooping over New York City, brightly dressed, so the kid would see him and would know that Clark was looking out for him.

The thought buoyed him, and he felt light enough to float without any real effort. He tried it, rising higher and higher, above the dust and into the sunlight. He spread himself out in the sky, letting the light cover every part of him.

His eyes drifted shut.

When he woke, the landscape had changed. It was dark, and he didn't know where he was. Below him: lights against darkness. Clark tuned his ears, and heard something familiar. His body must have a homing system, he thought, because during his sleep, he had migrated south, following the sound of Lex's voice.

"What do you mean, he left at three-thirty? That was eight hours ago. A Greyhound bus could get there faster. Clark takes less than five minutes to go that distance. Doesn't he have his comm? Or a tracking device? Doesn't the Army bar code all its troops?"

Outside the door to Lex's room, Clark smiled. He was willing to bet that Lex had been on and off the phone for hours. There was definitely some pacing going on. The lock on the door was broken, and Clark gave it a gentle push. Lex paused his interrogation and slid the phone away from his face as he turned toward the door. "I'm -- Oh. Never mind. I found him. He's here!" Lex hung up.

Then, he seemed not to know what to do. He stood awkwardly in the center of the room. "Hi."

"Hi," Clark said. There was so much to say, and not say. So much had happened, and it was too much to express.

"I was worried," Lex said. "I don't normally go all soccer mom. I saw you on tv, and then you left, and you weren't here right away, and then... I even called your mom. We should tell her you're okay."

"I fell asleep while flying here." Clark realized he was covered in dirt and soot and blood and God knew what else. His hair was probably a mess, too. Lex looked tired, but he wore clean clothes -- a white t-shirt, and gray slacks. Clark wanted to touch him more than he wanted anything else in the world. "I'm a mess," he said. He was still standing in the doorway.

"Are you going to come in?"

"Oh." Clark stepped forward and shut the door behind him. It made a funny sound, the lock failing to engage. The door began to swing open again. Clark pushed it back into place, but it only came back again.

"I broke it."

"I know."

"That's the thing about me, I know how to make things fall apart, but I don't know how to put them together again."

"Someone could walk in on you."

"I'm not doing anything." Lex looked sidelong at Clark as he sat on his bed. "Yet."

Suddenly, Clark felt nervous. "I need to shower," he said abruptly, glancing behind him.

"Okay." Lex got up and grabbed the towel that lay spread across the splintered wardrobe. "You don't mind if I come with you, right?"

Clark felt his jaw drop. "Uh-uh."

"Well, come on, then. There's actually running water here, not like in the city. Some people are going out on search and rescue tomorrow."

In a daze, Clark followed Lex down the hall to the showers. They still hadn't touched. It was making Clark itch, and he could feel a mirage-like sensation behind his eyes. Inside the bathroom, there was a stall with three showerheads. It was a guys' floor, but everyone showered alone. They probably wouldn't be interrupted.

Inside the stall, Lex had already turned on the spray and was peeling off his t-shirt. He dropped his pants, stepping out of them with bare feet. He grabbed Clark's shirt and used it to pull Clark nearer. "You're going to have to take this off."

Clark maneuvered his body so that Lex could strip him of his t-shirt. His Army-issue pants were in a shambles and Lex pulled them down without ceremony. That was what it took to bring Clark to his senses. He kicked the pants away and pushed Lex into the water and against the wall. He needed to touch. Needed to feel something physical that had nothing to do with pain or suffering or fighting. He rested for a second, almost every inch of his body in contact with Lex's.

"I missed you," Lex whispered, his voice raw in Clark's ear.

It had been less than a week since they'd last been together, but it felt like years. A lifetime.

Clark stood there breathing the warm air. Next to his mouth, rivulets of water ran down Lex's cheek, and on impulse, Clark licked. Lex tasted nice. Warm and clean. Clark wanted more, so he placed openmouthed kisses along Lex's wet shoulder. The water felt like relief on his tongue. He hadn't eaten or had a drink in so long he couldn't even remember. The last few days had been such a whirlwind; he hadn't thought of normal things. His body had put aside its desire for food. But suddenly, as if given permission, he felt empty, and starving, and thirsty.

"Hey," Lex said, half-laughing. "Slow down. It's okay."

Even as he said those calming words, he clutched Clark with a kind of desperation and pulled him in with one hand for a hard kiss that went on for so long that Lex had to pause for breath. The two of them had begun to move against each other unconsciously. Clark couldn't bear to let go of Lex for even a moment. His skin was on fire, his blood pulsing with a strange rhythm. His eyes began to itch. He closed them, focussing on keeping his heat in control.

"I was afraid... We lost some..." Lex's breaths hitched and he banged his head against the tile with a ferocity that made the gesture seem intentional. "Ryan." His voice broke.

"Lex."

"He was just a kid. And I'm still alive."

Clark had never seen Lex emotional. Not like this, so near collapse. Lex was all about control, pretending he didn't care about anyone or anything. Clark wasn't exactly a man of steel himself, and the news shook him. "Alicia." She would be devastated. Ryan had been like her little brother. Clark pushed them out of his mind. He couldn't think about them now. It was too new, and he needed this, to be with Lex, before he could deal with anything else.

Lex made a noise like a hiccup near Clark's ear. They hadn't moved, water running over them, hot and clear. Suddenly, the showerhead fell with a clang to the floor. The faucets, too, were loose. Water began to spray randomly with nothing to guide it.

"Shh." Clark pressed all of his weight against Lex's body, probably hurting him, but trying to steady him, secure him, hold him together. Tiles broke off from the walls, crumbling before they hit ground.

"I want you," Lex said, his eyes closed, his breathing fast and shallow. "I want you now."

Clark didn't know what to do. He didn't have enough experience with Lex or anyone else to know what such a vague request entailed. Lex didn't keep Clark wondering, but swung Clark around and pushed him against the crumbling wall. Without warning, beams of heat burst forth from Clark's eyes, hitting the wall opposite. Lex glanced behind him.

"Sorry," Clark said.

"Don't move." Lex trailed his hands down Clark's chest and sank to his knees, unfazed. He kissed soft skin beside the dark curls. He didn't look up at Clark, but Clark could tell he was crying, his hands pressing down on Clark's hips. His mouth slid lower, his lips caressing Clark's balls, his tongue flicking out to tease. The he took one of the testicles into his mouth, keeping it there with gentle pressure. Clark couldn't imagine that anything in the world felt better than that. Lex licked a trail up Clark's erection, tracing the vein there, then took the head into his mouth. One of his hands wrapped around the base, keeping rhythm with his mouth, which was moving quickly.

All this time, all during battle and rescue, Clark hadn't let himself think. There were things to do. People whose needs were greater than his. He'd been on a kind of high, the equivalent of adrenaline. He had functioned without food, without water, without rest. He had been strong. He had been capable. He had been steady and trustworthy.

But when he came in Lex's mouth, all his strength drained away. He felt himself collapsing onto the floor. There was tile rubble under his skin, and the walls were down to the pipes and steel beams. He wanted to sleep again. He let the wall hold him up, just barely. He reached for Lex and Lex was there, straddling his lap, leaning in close and kissing him again, gentler now. Lex's body moved like liquid, his cock slipping against Clark's stomach.

"I was okay until you got here," Lex said, sniffling, having difficulty breathing through his nose.

"So was I," Clark said. With some trepidation, he reached for Lex's cock and began to stroke it, liking the feel of it in his hand. He felt like it belonged to him in some strange way. He never wanted it to belong to anyone else. He kissed Lex roughly. He could feel himself becoming aroused again. Not hard, just tingly and strange.

"Harder," Lex whispered.

Clark obeyed, still careful. Sometimes he didn't know his own strength, but he seemed to be doing it right because Lex closed his eyes and gripped Clark's shoulders, moving surely and decisively, fucking Clark's hand until he came.

Skin to skin, they didn't say anything. The room had ceased collapsing, though an occasional tile clattered to the floor, and the water hissed loudly, leaking from pipes.

Lex pulled away slightly, allowing space between their bodies. Clark looked down and saw that Lex's knees were bleeding, the red washing away down the drain.

"You're hurt." Clark put a hand on Lex's thigh. They were both lucky to be alive. He suddenly realized. Lex was infinitely destructible. Vulnerable to bullets and bombs, and he'd come out unscathed while others hadn't. Clark stared at the blood, mesmerized.

"I heal quickly. I'll be okay." Lex shifted his body and lifted his leg so one of his knees pointed toward the ceiling.

They both studied the wound as falling water diluted the rush of blood. Clark bowed his head and kissed it. He could taste Lex's blood on his tongue, metallic and strange. Alive. His tongue traced the curve of Lex's pale knee.

"When I was a kid," Lex said, "I was in Smallville during the meteor shower. That's why I'm like this. Why I can do the things I do." He remained transfixed by the sight of his own blood. "I used to cut myself, to see how badly I could get hurt, and how long it would take me to heal. But I was always better the next day. Sometimes I wonder if I'm capable of dying."

"That was me."

"Hm?" Lex looked up.

"Me. The meteor shower was because of me. It's when I came to earth."

Lex didn't say anything.

"I'm sorry," Clark added.

"We might not have met," Lex said. He leaned forward and kissed Clark again. Slowly and gently this time, with none of the urgency he'd exhibited before. His fingers played with Clark's nipple, rubbing it, circling. Lex's mouth was soft, and the unexpected brush of his tongue against Clark's lip made Clark shiver. "We met before, you know."

"We did?"

"Your mother told me. She and your father found me in a field. They gave my father and me a ride to the hospital. You were in the truck, too. You held my hand, she said."

"I didn't know that."

"I can't find my father," Lex said, his voice cracking.

Clark recalled something. "I saw him."

"You did? Where?"

"After they took me. He came to see me in some room. I don't know. They were going to interrogate me. But then the aliens attacked, I guess, and he fled the building and left me there. I don't know what happened to him."

"I don't know why I care." Lex began shivering, his teeth chattering inexplicably. The water falling on them was still hot.

"Hey." Clark rubbed Lex's back. "Let's get out of here." He glanced at the exposed pipes and flashed his heat vision at them to weld the leaks shut.

"All the doors are broken," Clark said, trying to shut the door to his dorm room.

"Just ours." Lex sat on the bed, still wrapped in his towel. "What are you doing? How are we going to get out?" he asked as Clark welded the door shut.

"If they really need us, they'll find a way to open the door. I'm not ready to go out there."

"Okay."

Clark had sped, faster than sight could catch, from the bathroom to the room, completely naked. Lex had ambled behind, wrapped in his towel, but now he shifted his body and pulled the towel away. Clark wondered if he would ever get tired of looking at Lex. His pale skin and eyes like prairie sky. All he could do was stare.

"Want to have sex again?" Lex asked.

Clark nodded soundlessly. He didn't understand this need. He should be eating. He should be checking on people. He should be phoning his mother. He should be looking for Lex's father. He should be comforting Alicia. He should be cleaning up the city and helping people get to shelter and medical care...

But it was more than his body that was exhausted. He just wanted to shut the world and its needs out of his consciousness. He wanted something to make him whole again, to put back all the pieces that had been torn and stripped away.

Oddly, this was it.

It was still dark outside. The night was strangely quiet. If he focussed, he could hear people breathing. He could hear some quiet conversations.

He stopped listening.

He'd been moving so fast, and so constantly, even just now with Lex. He wanted to stand still.

So he did.

He stood in the center of his room and watched Lex watching him. Neither of them said anything, like each understood what the other was thinking. There was no urgency now. Lex's long limbs lay splayed out on the covers, his cock still soft, his eyes sleepy.

Without a word, Clark turned off the light and found his place on the bed, spooned up behind Lex. Lex's skin was warm and smooth. Clark ran his hands over Lex's biceps, then his sides, and his rib cage, feeling the bumps of the bones. Lex's earlobe was velvety under Clark's tongue and, at the touch, Lex shifted onto his back, pulling Clark down on top of him.

They kissed gently, taking time to explore each other's mouths. Everything was silent, like they were underwater. Clark felt peaceful. Clark tasted Lex's jaw, and his ear again, licking the inside lightly with just the tip of his tongue. That made Lex laugh.

"Ticklish?" Clark did it again.

"No."

Clark could feel Lex's hardness jutting against his belly, and he moved his body, rubbing.

"I've never done this," Lex whispered.

"That wasn't the impression I got."

"Not that. I've done all kinds of that."

"Oh." Clark knew he shouldn't feel disappointed. He'd known that about Lex, but hearing it said out loud made it real.

"Sorry." Lex's hand brushed Clark's cheek.

"It's okay. It would be bad if both of us had no clue what we were doing." Clark's voice sounded loud to his ears. His heart was beating fast.

"I meant, I've never stuck with one person before. I don't know how to do it."

Clark considered his words as carefully as he could given the fact that his whole body was warming up and tingling. "I think you'll be good at anything if you set your mind to it." Now he sounded young, like a kid asking for a bike for Christmas. "You're already...doing it."

"My father says -- "

"Shh." Clark covered Lex's mouth with his. Beneath him, Lex spread his legs and wrapped them around Clark.

Lex broke the kiss and said, "I didn't tell him about you."

"I know that."

"How did you know?"

"You're silly." Clark kissed Lex's nose, almost missing it in the dark.

"No, really, how did you know?"

"I'm not even going to answer that," Clark said, getting up on his knees, so he could inch down the bed. He hoisted Lex's legs over his shoulders. He kissed Lex's belly, which was soft with peach fuzz. He'd never done this before, and he was nervous. He wanted to do it right. Lex had a different smell here, kind of musky and rich. Clark breathed, memorizing. He could hear Lex's heart racing, racing, racing, like he was nervous, too, or maybe just excited. Either way, it was good.

Clark kissed the very tip of Lex's cock, which was slightly slick with fluid. He opened his mouth and sucked the head lightly, like it was a piece of candy. He was tasting, getting used to how things smelled and how they felt. He realized, now, that Lex had always taken charge, had never laid himself open like this and let Clark see him, smell him. Taste him.

Lex's legs fell open further, slipping off of Clark's shoulders. Eyes becoming accustomed to the dark, Clark could see the pale outline of Lex's leg against the blanket. So beautiful and ghostly.

With his fingertips, Clark traced the shape of Lex's cock, kissing it, openmouthed, moving slowly and deliberately. It was different from his own. Smaller, and circumcised. Clark remembered how much time he'd spent thinking about this moment. Thinking about how guys in the locker room would look spread out like this, ready for sex. But nothing in his imagination had compared to this because he hadn't liked those guys. He hadn't trusted them. In his fantasies, they had accepted him, and had told him how hot he was, but in real life, he knew they thought he was a freak.

Lex hadn't been like that at all. Thinking about that night he'd first gone to Lex...it gave Clark the shivers.

"What are you thinking about?" Lex asked, his hand threading through Clark's hair.

"You," Clark said simply.

"Right answer."

Clark grinned, and took Lex's cock into his mouth. It felt strange, like there wasn't enough room in his mouth. He tried to remember what Lex had done, and wrapped his hand around the base. His tongue liked to do its own thing, putting pressure on the underside of Lex's shaft, or circling around the head on the upstroke. Clark felt clumsy and inexperienced, but Lex was gasping for breath, shifting his hips on the bed.

Clark realized they'd never... Clark didn't call it 'fucking' in his head, he couldn't, not after being raised by his parents, who didn't swear except for saying 'damn'.

"Lex?"

"Don't stop now, Clark, you're doing great. It feels great."

Awkwardly, Clark tried to change positions in the dark, bracing himself over Lex. "I thought you might want to, um, you know."

"'You know?'"

"Yeah. Do you? Want to, I mean?"

"We can do whatever you want. Whatever you're comfortable with. What you were doing felt really good."

"I remembered that you -- "

"You're thinking too much, Clark," Lex said, pulling Clark down and executing a roll that landed Lex on top.

"Sorry. I'm nervous."

"Don't be nervous." Lex sounded so earnest, and he kissed Clark softly. "You're perfect."

"No, I -- "

"Perfect."

"I want you to." Clark felt more scared than he'd ever felt in his life, but it was a good scared.

"God." Lex bit down on Clark's shoulder and ground into him. "Okay. But the stuff's in my room."

Stuff. Clark hadn't even thought about that. Yes, he had, but not, not in a real way. Not in a way like things would actually happen. To him. Sex had been nowhere near reality in Smallville.

"I can get it." This was a delay, and Clark didn't like delays. And he felt like an idiot for not having his own stuff.

"Okay." Lex sounded amused. "It's, um, in the top drawer in the wardrobe. Or what's left of it."

Clark scrambled off of the bed, his erection bobbing in the air. He felt silly, especially when Lex laughed. He felt even sillier when he tried to open the door. "Crap," he muttered before yanking the door open and speeding to Lex's floor.

The room was still a shambles. Lex hadn't been in it, really, since it had come apart. Clark found the drawer easily enough, and pawing through lots of silk boxers, he found condoms and several tubes. And rings. And...strange things, which Clark maybe didn't want to know about. What would Lex need? He grabbed as much as he could and zipped back to his room.

The door wouldn't shut. Of course.

Clark sighed. The universe was against him losing his virginity. Or maybe he'd already lost it. What counted, anyway?

He blasted the lock assembly, which was beginning to look completely mangled and useless, but the door stayed shut, and that was what was important.

Lex lay on the bed, legs spread, touching himself. "Took you long enough. Come here."

Clark dropped the stuff on his bed. He'd only been gone a few seconds.

"Mm, you brought toys," Lex said, picking up the strange thing Clark hadn't been able to identify.

"I don't want toys. I want you." He pinned Lex to the bed. Their cocks brushed together.

Lex reached between their bodies, bypassing Clark's erection. His fingers slid into the crevice behind Clark's balls. Suddenly, Clark realized what was going to happen. He shivered.

"Are you okay?" Lex asked, halting his movement.

"So okay," Clark said. It felt good. Sort of thrilling and illicit.

"Good. You'll be even better in a minute." Lex reached for one of the things Clark had brought.

Clark hovered, unsure of what he was supposed to do. Lex seemed unfazed, as usual. He took his time uncapping a tube and spreading stuff on his fingers. Then he put his hand back where it had been. This time, his fingers were cold and slick, and he pressed one of them slowly inside of Clark.

"Kiss me," Lex commanded in a whisper.

Clark obeyed, his bottom half moving in time with Lex's fingers. The feeling was a little bit shocking and strange, like Lex's finger wasn't somewhere it was supposed to be. Then there was more inside him. Another finger, maybe? Clark gasped, and a small sound escaped him.

"Did that hurt?"

"Uh-uh. Can't hurt me."

"Does it feel good still?"

"Um..." Clark hesitated. 'Good' wasn't exactly the word he would have chosen.

Lex delved deeper with his finger.

"Oh God. Yes. That's good."

"Get on your back, my hand is starting to hurt." Lex removed his fingers.

"Sorry."

They shifted positions.

"Don't be," Lex said, right next to Clark's ear. "I'm having a really, really good time." He thrust into Clark with his fingers again.

Clark spread his legs, trying to get Lex's fingers to go deeper inside him, but instead Lex withdrew altogether and reached for one of the condoms. "Six condoms?"

Clark felt himself blushing.

"You're an optimist. That's why I like you."

There was a funny sound of latex unrolling, and then Lex knelt between Clark's legs and braced himself on his elbows. "I like you a lot." One of Lex's hands reached down to guide his cock. The head pressed against Clark for a moment before pushing inside.

Clark lifted his hips. He wanted more.

Lex sank in all the way, and his hand came back up to rest on the blanket. "Tell me if it hurts."

Clark opened his mouth to remind Lex that he couldn't be hurt, but Lex said, "I know, but just tell me. You never know."

"Okay."

Lex rested some of his weight on Clark and began to move. Clark hugged Lex to him, unwilling to let go for even a second. Lex was inside him. Inside him. It felt so good and strange and scary and wonderful and right and... Lex kissed him, speaking without words, and Clark relaxed. Lex had seen all of him, and it was okay.

Clark let one hand creep down to give Lex's ass a squeeze.

"Fuck," Lex whispered, thrusting harder.

Clark made a mental note that Lex liked having his ass groped. Clark's skin felt like it was on fire, and his cock was bouncing slightly, banging into his belly whenever Lex thrust into him. Clark wanted more. Needed to touch himself. Needed to --

Lex read his mind and sat up, resting on his heels. He grabbed Clark's thighs and tightened the connection between them, still thrusting, though less forcefully.

"Do it," Lex said.

Clark reached for his cock and jerked himself off, the way he'd often done when he was alone, but it had never felt this good, never. All the sensations were hundreds of times as great, and he quickly went over the edge, spraying come everywhere. He felt a deep desperation, his body yearning for something he couldn't name. Then Lex came, too, making a strange sound, almost like sobbing.

The walls trembled slightly, as if a mild quake was radiating out beneath them.

"Was that you?" Clark asked.

Lex didn't answer.

They both breathed hard in the darkness. Clark wished he could see Lex's face better, though his eyes had gotten used enough to the dark that he could make out Lex's features. The beautiful shape of his mouth, and his tongue as he licked his lips.

Clark reached for Lex's hands. They were sweaty and hot.

"Wait a second," Lex said. He pulled away from Clark and removed the condom. He dropped it on the floor, then lay beside Clark.

He was shivering.

"Hey," Clark said. "What's going on?" He clutched Lex tightly, awkwardly trying to cover their bodies with the blankets.

Again, Lex didn't answer. He tucked his head under Clark's chin, burrowing.

Clark kissed Lex's scalp. He thought he understood. Maybe it was the same for both of them. Clark closed his eyes. He felt safe and happy, and he pushed away any other thoughts. He didn't want them right now. He only wanted this.

For the first time in days, Lex didn't wake with a start. He became conscious slowly, first feeling the warmth of Clark's body next to his, then hearing Clark's breathing. He could feel it wasn't dark, but he didn't want to open his eyes yet. In the back of his mind, he knew what today held, and he wanted to avoid it.

Clark smelled nice. Like clean cotton, almost not a scent at all.

Lex wondered what the hell he was going to do about it. What the fuck did he know about dating? Almost nothing, that was what.

But he couldn't bear to let Clark go. He'd have to figure it out somehow. Usually, anything Lex wanted, he got. He bought it, or fought for it. He hadn't had to do either to get Clark, and neither of those things would work to keep him.

He didn't know what Clark wanted, and found it hard to believe Clark could simply want him. There had to be more to it.

"Mm." Clark shifted, waking.

Lex opened his eyes just as Clark was doing the same. Clark grinned. "Hi."

"Hi," Lex said, feeling oddly shy.

During the silence that followed this exchange, Clark just looked at him. "What?" Lex finally asked.

"Nothing."

This was said with such fondness that Lex started to get suspicious. He narrowed his eyes. With a quick movement, Clark leaned in and kissed him lightly. Before Clark could pull away, Lex grabbed him and inched even closer. They were both hard, and as Lex rubbed himself against Clark, he could feel sparks of arousal. Just one more time, one more hour, before the day started, that was all he wanted. He didn't want any reason to leave this bed.

"I'm starving. Do you know how long it's been since I've eaten? I could eat twelve cheeseburgers."

"I don't want to be around if you eat twelve cheeseburgers," Lex said. "That's revolting." He lay in bed watching Clark search through his wardrobe for something to wear. It wouldn't have been difficult to convince him to have sex again. Looking at Clark naked was starting to produce a Pavlovian response.

"Are you going to lie there all day?" Clark asked, picking out a red t-shirt.

"Not red," Lex said.

His voice must have told Clark something because Clark immediately dropped the shirt and looked at Lex questioningly.

"Memorial service."

"That's right. Ryan." Clark looked so crestfallen. Lex had forgotten about it, too, just for a little while. But then he'd remembered.

"Stuart. Cyrus."

"Cyrus?"

Lex nodded. "Kyla."

Clark sighed. "I'd better go see if Alicia's okay." He struggled into a pair of khakis and a green button-down shirt. "Come with me?"

"No clothes."

"I'll get you some." Clark hesitated at the door. "Dammit," he muttered, then yanked the door off its hinges.

Lex stared dully at the wardrobe. He felt alternately normal and heartbroken, never sure which he should be feeling. When Clark reappeared with the clothes, Lex hadn't moved. Clark sat on the bed, studying him. "It'll be okay, you know. It will." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as Lex.

Lex sat up and leaned into Clark, whose arms automatically embraced him. They held each other for a few minutes without talking. Finally, Lex pulled away and picked up the black shirt Clark had brought. He didn't want to wear it. As if he could read Lex's mind, Clark took Lex's hand and guided it into the sleeve. Then the other hand. He gathered the shirt in front and began buttoning. Lex didn't help him at all.

"I forgot to bring you boxers."

Lex glanced at the open door before getting out of the bed. Taking hold of his trousers, he tried to put them on, but his head began to swim. Clark steadied him. The wool felt slightly scratchy against his skin. Clark hadn't brought him a belt, either, but he didn't care. Thoughtlessly, he tucked his shirt in, and put his shoes on.

"I'm ready," he said. But he wasn't.

"I know I'm supposed to feel lucky to be alive, but it's harder being left behind," Alicia said. She stopped walking, overtaken by sobs, shivering even in her woolen coat. Clark pulled her to him, and let her head rest against his shirt. He felt like he was everyone's comforter today.

Lex stood a few paces away, waiting, looking incredibly lonely. His ears were red with cold, and his breath came up in clouds. Dressed all in black, he cut a somber figure.

"Come on," Clark said, "We're going to be late." He patted Alicia reassuringly.

Alicia nodded, but broke out crying afresh. Clark took her arm and walked with her the rest of the way. Lex walked on his other side, but didn't say a word. He seemed lost in his own thoughts.

Inside the auditorium, the other students were already seated. The stage was decorated with flowers and portraits of the dead. The dead, Clark thought. People he would never see again. He suddenly wished he was home with his family. What if something happened to them? He'd had a rough time growing up, but it wasn't any fault of theirs. They had tried hard to understand him and to give him a good home. He missed both of them intensely, even if his father was full of lame advice and his mother tried too hard to be the perfect mom.

They loved him.

He'd always expected them to be there when he came home from school. This was the first time he'd considered that he might come home to an empty house, that they could die and be gone forever.

Alicia broke into his thoughts. "I'm going to go up," she said. The students had been invited to say words in remembrance of their classmates.

"Okay," Clark said, watching her wipe her eyes and head up the aisle. His mind wasn't on her, but on Lex, who was so quiet and still beside him. Lex looked paler and thinner than usual. Clark reached out and put his hand over Lex's, clasping it gently. Lex squeezed back, offering the tiniest acknowledgement, but kept his attention at the front of the room.

When the service was over, and the chaplain had offered the benediction, students began filing out, though many clustered in small groups, talking and hugging, offering remembrances. Lex surprised Clark by leaning close and saying softly, "I'm going on ahead. I'll be in my room."

"Are you okay?" Clark asked. He knew Lex wasn't, but none of them were.

"Yeah. I need a minute alone."

Clark nodded.

"Hey, Alicia." It was Justin.

His gaze still on Lex, Clark stayed by Alicia's side. She'd been so grief-stricken. He thought he should walk her back to the dorm. Justin started to say something more, and Clark got caught up in the conversation.

It was a few minutes later that he spotted Lt. Washington. "Clark, it's good to see you made it back," Lt. Washington said. "You did us a great service out there."

"Thank you, Sir."

"Will you be going home to your parents?"

"I -- I thought we would all stay here?"

"That is the plan, at least for the next few weeks. We'd like to send you all home for Christmas, but it's too dangerous. We don't know if they're going to retaliate -- we hope not, right?"

"Right," Clark said good-naturedly as Lt. Washington clapped him on the arm. "But, then, would we go home?"

"I don't expect many of you would want to stay here, but maybe I'm wrong."

"A lot of us like it."

Lt. Washington nodded. "Where's Lex? You two are usually together."

Clark tried, and failed, not to blush. "He's -- He went back to his room."

"I'd better go find him, then." Lt. Washington set off immediately, a determined expression on his face.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Clark?"

"Is everything okay?"

Lt. Washington took a breath, thinking. "Maybe you'd better come with me."

Clark felt something drop into the pit of his stomach. "Alicia, I'm going. You'll be okay?"

"I'll be fine," Alicia said, looking at him with concern.

Clark leaned over and gave her a hug, then strode toward Lt. Washington. They walked quietly down the path. Flakes of snow floated in the air and disappeared when they reached the ground.

"You and Lex...You know him pretty well," Lt. Washington said, finally.

"I guess you could say that." Clark wondered just how many people knew he and Lex were...whatever they were.

"I gather he isn't close to his father."

"Close isn't the word I'd use, no."

"Do you think that will make him take this easier, or harder?" Lt. Washington stopped and regarded Clark seriously.

Clark liked this about Lt. Washington. He never condescended. And he cut right to the chase. He knew that Clark knew what he had to tell Lex.

Clark gave the question some thought. "Harder," he said. "But..."

"It's never easy," Lt. Washington finished.

"I wouldn't know, Sir."

"You can take my word for it."

Clark tried to imagine when Lt. Washington might have learned that lesson. Then he followed as the lieutenant walked on.

"Why don't you wait out here?" Lt. Washington said in the corridor outside Lex's room. "I'll tell him you're here if he needs you."

Clark nodded. He'd never been entrusted with such responsibility. Even when he'd been helping children find their parents, when he'd been taking the sick and wounded, the starved and hypothermic, to medical shelters, it hadn't been like this. This was Lex who, to Clark, was far more precious than any of the lives he'd saved in previous weeks, or even in his whole life. He'd been almost afraid to say it, or even to think it, because Lex had seemed dangerous, untrustworthy, and out of Clark's league, but Clark was in love with him. It was too late to do anything about it. Clark couldn't change it, or take it back. Lex was etched into him in some permanent way, even if they parted, even if they grew to hate each other someday. Even if Lex broke Clark's heart.

Clark didn't like to think of it. Lex had had him from the first moment. He'd been so electric and beautiful, fighting and full of anger. Clark had never met anyone like him.

Clark closed his eyes, leaned against the wall, and listened to Lt. Washington tell Lex that Lionel Luthor was dead.

The whole building shook. Not a gentle tremor, but a serious quake.

Lt. Washington yanked open the broken door and said, "I'll go get the nurse."

"No," Clark said, but Lt. Washington didn't hear him. The last thing Lex needed was to be doped up in order to save the building. Clark thought quickly. Through the open door, he could see Lex, still in his coat, sitting on the floor, his pale scalp blotchy with color. His jaw was set. Clenched. Like he didn't want to let anything show.

But he was about to break.

Clark was there in less than a second, and had grabbed the blanket from the bed. He didn't even bother with the hallway and the stairs, but threw open the window and dragged Lex to it. "Jump!" he ordered.

Lex looked at him for only the briefest second, then climbed out of the window. And leapt.

In an instant, Clark had caught him, and they were rising through the cold, snow-dusted air, and into the sky. Clark held Lex, one arm supporting his back, and the other, his legs. Lex put his arms around Clark's neck and huddled close. The buildings grew small beneath them, and Clark tuned out the raised voices he knew were there.

They were so far from anywhere Clark could think of to go. Far from his house in Smallville. Far from the cool old towers in the fields outside town. Far from his mother and his father, though he half-wanted to take Lex to them.

Despite the impracticality of the idea, it called to him.

They were already heading west, following the path of the interstate, flying as fast as Clark thought he could go without damaging Lex's very human body.

"Lex?"

Lex didn't respond. But Clark knew he was listening. He had followed orders before.

"Lex, get out your phone."

Lex unfurled an arm from Clark's neck and reached awkwardly into his coat pocket.

"Dial this number." Clark said the number he knew by heart.

Lex held the phone to Clark's ear. On the other end, the phone rang and rang. Finally, someone picked up.

"Hello?"

Clark smiled. He'd missed the sound of that voice.

"I need your help," he said.

To Chloe's credit, she didn't ask questions. Clark supposed she already knew everything. Lionel Luthor's death couldn't be a secret, and Chloe probably had some Metropolis news-shark sending updates to her phone so she wouldn't miss anything important.

She didn't ask questions, just gave orders.

"Clark, I could drive you to Smallville, but I think we can arrange something a little faster than that. Give me ten minutes."

"Where are you, Chloe?"

"That's top secret, but I'll tell you later. Where are you?"

"Um...Somewhere above Northern Virginia. By the interstate."

"I'll call you back." She hung up.

Lex flipped the phone closed, tucked it back into his pocket, and curled his arm back around Clark's neck without a word.

He trusts me, Clark realized. He trusts me to take him somewhere safe. He's putting his life in my hands. He jumped when I said 'jump'. He's shivering here, somewhere, a couple thousand feet above the earth, but he's not even worried.

Of course, Lex might not care whether he lived or died. That possibility made Clark tighten his grip. If that were the case, Lex's life would be harder to save than all those people imprisoned by aliens. They had wanted to live.

The morning clouds began to clear, and the sun emerged. Below Clark, cars sparkled in the light. Through the bare trees, Clark could see snow and the shapes of the hills. "You should open your eyes," Clark said. "It's beautiful down there."

Lex shifted his head and peered over Clark's shoulder. After a moment, he tucked his head back into the crook of Clark's neck. Well, it was better than nothing, Clark thought.

When Lex's phone rang, Lex dutifully pulled it from his pocket, flipped it open, and placed it against Clark's ear.

"I've got you on satellite, you know. You must be freezing." Chloe sounded like she'd been drinking cappuccinos all night.

"No, but Lex probably is."

"I got you guys a little trip on a jet, but you have to get to the runway. Can you do that?"

"A jet? Chloe, what -- "

"Top secret, Clark."

Clark sighed. "Okay, where am I going?"

When Chloe came out to meet them on the runway at Reagan Airport, Clark couldn't quite believe who was walking by her side.

"It's the President!" Clark hissed. He put Lex down, but kept a steadying hand on his arm.

"Mr. Kent," President Rume said, stepping forward. "I was just on the phone with your dean, trying to figure out when I could meet with you to thank you, and look, here we are. And -- " He looked at Lex. "Lex Luthor, I gather." He nodded his head, seriously, searching for words. "I am truly sorry for your loss."

The surprised expression on Lex's face when the President pulled him into a quick hug was priceless. Clark's eyes met Chloe's, and he couldn't help a small smile. She covered her mouth with her hand.

As if waking from a dream, Lex straightened his shoulders. "I appreciate that Mr. President. And," Lex added, "it's an honor to meet you."

"The honor is all mine. You just let me know if there's anything you need, son." President Rume nodded curtly as he stepped back. "Chloe. You're all set."

"I didn't think Presidents did this kind of thing. Thank you."

"These are strange times we're in. Don't get used to it."

Chloe grinned. "I won't."

She turned and began to climb the stairs leading from the tarmac into the jet. Lex paused for a moment, glancing back at President Rume. He lifted a hand in farewell. In less than a minute, the plane's door closed with a vacuum sound, and the rest of the world disappeared.

"You're amazing," Lex said.

Clark stopped mid-bite, and stared at Lex. He was on his fifth pancake, and had already demolished a three-egg omelet and a bunch of hash browns. Presidential jets were very well-equipped. And Clark was hungry. He'd only had time for juice and toast before the service.

"Clark always did have a way with food," Chloe said.

Lex leaned on Clark, and Clark put his fork down so he could wrap his arms around Lex.

"Where are we going?"

"Home," Clark said.

When they landed at the Smallville Regional Airport, the only other plane in sight was an old crop duster, which looked like it hadn't been used in some time.

A dark car waited for them, a uniformed driver beside it. "I've been instructed to give you a ride," he said.

Clark was sure his mother never expected her son to be driven home on the President's dollar. She came to the back door and squinted into the sun. Her red hair shone brightly, and Clark thought she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.

In all the years he'd lived in Smallville, in this same yellow house, it hadn't felt as much like home as it did at this very moment. It was the place he most wanted to be. It was welcoming and safe and, for the first time, Clark felt like he owned it. Like it was his place. Maybe it wasn't that the place had changed, but that he had. He knew who he was, and he was okay with it.

"Clark! Lex!" Martha ran down the steps and gathered them into a hug. "Chloe." She managed to squeeze Chloe in, too.

"Hi, Mrs. Kent," Lex said, seeming to relax for the first time since he'd received news of his father's death.

"Mom, you're freezing. Let's get inside."

Martha rubbed her hands on her bare arms. "Lex, sweetheart." She gave him another hug, and he returned it, which Clark thought was a good sign.

The thing about death, Clark thought, is that life just keeps going on after it happens. His mother hugged Lex and fed him and set him up in the guest room, but then she put him to work cleaning the barn, a task he undertook without comment or complaint, dressed in some of Clark's old clothes.

Clark went out to see him after a couple of hours. They hadn't yet had a real conversation. Clark didn't want to push. This Lex was so different from the confident, swaggering, competent Lex he'd known. The Lex who would seduce nurses to get what he wanted, or who would lead his fellow students into battle, as Chloe had described to him.

It was nice to worry about someone else, in a way. It meant Clark didn't have to think about all the things he'd seen, or think about how exhausted and sad he was. He knew he'd be okay. He always was. But that didn't make it easier.

Lex was sweating, even in the freezing air. He had rolled up the big sleeves of one of Clark's flannel shirts. The shirt was comical on him, but Clark looked past the shirt at the lean muscles and flushed skin. Lex made Clark ache; Clark needed him.

Lex stopped his shoveling.

"Want some help?" Clark asked.

Lex shook his head.

"Come up to the hayloft with me?"

"I've never been in a real one," Lex said as they sat on the dusty piles of hay.

"I guess this is where people go to make out when they live in the middle of nowhere."

"You guess?"

"I've never done it."

"There's a first time for everything," Lex said, rolling over, scooting closer to Clark.

That sounded nice, but Clark didn't take Lex up on it. He put his arm around Lex and rubbed lightly.

Lex sighed.

They lay there in silence for a long time. Until the light disappeared, and Clark could hear his mother calling. Her voice neared, in the barn now.

"We're up here," Clark called out. "We'll be down soon."

Clark could see his mom hesitating, unsure of whether she should push or let it go. Clark willed her to let it go.

"Okay," she said, finally. "Dinner will be ready soon. Chloe's here."

"Thanks, mom."

She was still there, making up her mind.

"I love you."

He heard her sigh of relief. "I love you too, Clark."

Clark kept stroking Lex's back. He wasn't sure if Lex was even awake.

"Even if I didn't like him, he was all I had." Lex's voice sounded small.

"I know. I'm sorry."

"It's hard to imagine life without him."

"Well," Clark said, trying to sound confident and reassuring. "We'll go back to school, and you'll come here during holidays, and you'll be a part of my family."

Lex seemed to consider that. "You're going back to school? I thought you'd want to be here."

"It's my home, and I love it, but I -- I prefer school. I don't have to worry about, you know, setting fire to things. And don't you think they still need us?"

Lex nodded against Clark's chest. After a moment, he spoke again. "Clark, I never want to be like my father."

"Where did that come from?"

"When he was alive, I could fight against him, but now he's gone. What's going to keep me from becoming like him?"

"Lex. You're... I don't know your dad, but I doubt you'd keep mutants prisoner and then sell them to the government. And you probably wouldn't subject me to torture and interrogation because you thought I was an alien."

"Of course not."

"You tried to help me, remember? You handled everything like it was nothing. I loved that about you. It's what made me..." Clark didn't know how to say it. Lex lay absolutely still in his arms.

"You trusted me," Lex said finally. He didn't elaborate, but Clark thought he knew what Lex meant.

"That's the difference between you and your father."

"Okay," Lex whispered.

"Everything's going to be all right."

Epilogue: Six months later

"Clark? Can you hear me?" The headlights from the cars trapped in the tunnel didn't give much light, and their light couldn't be directed to where Lex needed it. He was covered in dirt and blood after squeezing through a small gap in the debris. There were people crying and panicking behind him. He had to keep a clear head, otherwise this whole thing was going to go to shit. He and Clark and a few others had been sent out because the police thought they had a good chance of saving these people. Lex didn't want their faith to be misplaced.

"Pop the hood," Lex said to the guy in the car nearest to him.

When Lex heard the click, he felt under the hood and released the catch. He pulled the headlight out of its socket and pointed it upward. "High beams," he said. They clicked on. "Someone hold this for me."

A little kid climbed out of the passenger seat and held the light.

"Thanks," Lex said.

The kid just looked at him with huge eyes.

"I know you can see the bolts," Lex said. "Shit. I wish you could talk to me."

"Who are you talking to?" the kid asked.

"My boyfriend. He's going to get you guys out of here. I need to tell him the safest way."

"Oh."

The kid watched as Lex studied the ceiling of the tunnel. It looked as if the whole thing was made of concrete panels reinforced with rebar and tied back with steel. Lex considered the physics problem. If Clark just busted in, he'd have to be awfully fast to save everyone before something fell on them. Lex hoped to find the most stable area, gather the people there, and let Clark know what he should do.

There were twenty people in the small section of tunnel. For whatever reason, this section had held, though the ones behind it and in front of it had collapsed. Chances were, if Lex waited too long, this section would collapse, too.

"I saw you on tv, huh? When the aliens came."

Lex didn't say anything. He wasn't good with kids.

"Were you scared?"

Lex dropped his gaze from the ceiling and looked at the kid. "Yeah, I was scared. Shine it over here."

The kid followed Lex's finger.

Lex could see the seams between the panels. Each panel was only about twenty square feet. If he could get everyone under one panel... But the minute Clark busted in, it would fall. If Clark could hold the panel up while someone else busted in, that would be better. Clark simply wasn't big enough to grab the panel from above.

Lex was starting to feel lightheaded.

"Clark, I'm going to get everyone under this panel. It seems to have the most structural integrity. When I've got everyone here, I'm going to start loosening the bolts. I don't want you to bust in because the surrounding panels might collapse inward from the impact. Just keep an eye on things, and come in at exactly the right second." Lex took a deep breath. He trusted Clark. Clark had never let him down.

"Okay, everyone. Gather in. I need some people to help me move these cars over."

A few guys, and a gung-ho girl in high heels helped him roll a car away from the spot where they would need to stand. Even the kid helped, flexing his muscle for show.

"Good job," Lex said, and the kid gave him a thumbs-up.

Everyone gathered around and Lex raised his gaze to the roof of the tunnel, concentrating all of his energy on the bolts he knew were there, just out of his sight. He hoped no one could tell that he was nervous. He didn't want to fuck up. He felt a clammy hand grab his. The kid leaned up against his leg.

A great creaking sound echoed off the walls of the tunnel as the bolts scraped their first inch. Lex could hear everyone breathing.

Lex squeezed the kid's hand, more for his reassurance than the kid's.

"You can do it!" the kid cheered.

Lex felt himself smile, just a little. Some random kid said he could do it. How could the kid be wrong? It was so silly that Lex felt some weight lift off of his shoulders.

The bolts moved another inch, and something very, very big shifted. Everyone huddled closer to Lex, which made him feel like something was holding his lungs down, but he kept on. He let his mind go a little more, let his power work a little harder.

It was like the sound of a boat sinking.

Continents moving.

A blinding pain burst through Lex's head, and he almost collapsed, but the people behind him held him up.

"Clark?" Lex whispered. It was almost time, he could feel it. He let out one last controlled pulse of energy, and a terrific noise filled the air, along with dust and rubble. People screamed. Instinctively, Lex raised his arms to cover his head.

Clods of concrete hit the roofs of the cars, and there was a sustained creaking, like rusty metal parts scraping one another. Everyone was coughing, choking on dust.

Then, slowly, the air cleared. Sunlight appeared through the clouds of dust. Lex looked up to see Clark rising into the air, holding the entire concrete panel above his head. As Lex had expected, the surrounding panels had fallen, pushing some of the cars toward the group of people in the center of the tunnel. But, miraculously, no one had been crushed. Clark looked down for just a second and Lex smiled at him.

"I can't," Lex said, shaking his head.

"You can." Clark took hold of Lex's hands.

They were sitting on Lex's bed in the dormitory, a strange contraption between them. It had been Jonathan Kent's idea: kind of a Fisher-Price activity center for people with mutant telekinetic powers. It consisted of a wooden block with panels of screws and nails and other types of fasteners that could be taken out and put back in.

Lex was really good at taking them out. Jonathan had said, "If you can take something apart, you should be able to put it back together again." And he had built this.

Lex stared at the fucking bolts, his nemeses. They popped out of their sockets and fell onto the bed. Patiently, Clark picked them up and half-screwed them back in. Then he took Lex's hands again.

"Hey," Clark said. "Look at me."

Lex looked. Clark's green eyes stared at him, and Lex got that tingly feeling he often got around Clark. Clark leaned forward and kissed him, taking his time. It always made Lex melt.

"Try again," Clark whispered.

"I can't. It's entropy. It only works the other way."

"Did someone tell you that?"

Lex looked away. Clark knew him better than Lex liked to be known.

"You want him to be right?"

"What's the point?"

"The point is, your brain can do whatever it wants to do. Let's see what it can do." Clark licked his lips, and Lex thought about how they'd have sex later, in his bed, kissing for a long time, touching each other, then falling asleep together. He was getting sleepy and happy just imagining it.

"One more time," Clark said.

Lex stared at the apparatus. He could feel the connection between his body and Clark's, an energy flowing between them. He imagined lifting them with his mind. He stopped breathing, feeling light and buoyant. He focussed on the bolt, which was heavy, but in his mind, he made it as light as he was.

Gradually, it began to turn clockwise, in the right direction.

The end.

We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.
-Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862, Washington, DC




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