Summary: Chloe sees Superman in an unguarded moment, and a deception is laid bare. Follow-up to "Last Rites."

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: Approximately four years after Clark Kent's senior year in high school, and reflecting the alternate timeline from my prior story "Last Rites." General first season spoilers.

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me ( ) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

Author's Note: There have been some changes in the canon universe since I wrote "Last Rites" (most notably, the death of Principal Kwan). I'm writing this to reflect those events, which will create some minor inconsistencies with "Last Rites." For those who are sticklers for consistency, my apologies. ; - )


* You bastard! *

Admittedly, it wasn't exactly what Miss Manners would recommend as far as thoughts about someone who had just saved your life; then again, she probably never expected to find that the person in question was your supposedly dead best friend.

I had just stood up from where the InterGang thug had tossed me to the ground, and was watching Superman finish piling up the criminals he had rendered unconscious when he turned his head away from the crowd of admiring former hostages, but not quite far enough from me. I saw the grin on his face, and instantly recognized it as the one that had lived on Clark's face in happier times. One instant, and ten years of reality was turned upside down.

I hadn't even expected to be at the damned conference. After the funeral, I had thrown myself back into my studies with redoubled intensity, and even managed to graduate a semester early. After the usual round of resume distribution, a newly emerging newsmagazine in Central City was only too glad to give me a junior staffwriter position. For two years, I was the utility player for the staff, filling in where needed, taking assignments where esoteric knowledge and a willingness to roll up my sleeves and dig deep was a crucial quality. My picture appeared at the head of every article I wrote, and before long I was being recognized on the street with increasing and flattering frequency. In spite of this, I was still a relative lightweight on the national journalism scene, and I was not holding my breath about the prospect of being invited to the regional journalism conference to be held in Metropolis this year.

Fate intervened: Lois Lane, a longtime family friend, invited me to the conference as her guest. She wanted to introduce me around and pick my brain for some story ideas. Since we weren't in direct competition-yet-I was happy to do the latter and positively thrilled about the prospects of making new contacts at the conference: the possibility of Lois introducing me to her most famous interview subject hadn't hurt, either. I dug into my closet and pulled out a black evening dress that I had worn to the junior prom, and was gratified that the comments I got from the people I met at the conference were flattering. After a few introductions, Lois left me alone to mingle, and I had just finished talking to a foreign correspondent from TIME magazine when the sound of shots rang out. I whirled and saw the group of armed men bursting through the entrance doors: you didn't have to be too quick on the uptake to know that this was not going to be good.

I tried to slip out of one of the rear emergency exits, but a thug who looked like Whitney might have if you pumped him full of cattle steroids was standing there, and he grabbed me without preliminaries and tossed me to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I shook off the momentary discomfort and was preparing to direct a truly epic glare at him when I heard a clicking sound and saw his head snap back. He slumped bonelessly to the ground, and it only took a second for me to reach the obvious conclusion. I looked back towards the entrance, and the blur of red and blue zipping by the gunmen as they dropped like rocks confirmed my suspicions. One got his rifle up, only to have a lightning fast palm thrust cause the butt of the weapon to smack him in the forehead: he went down without a sound. The blur stopped, and I stared at the figure who stood there, scanning the row of unconscious criminals with a calm look on his face. I wondered if he spent time in the mirror practicing that pose: legs slightly spread, arms away from sides, palms down and open, muscles flexed to the point where they threatened to burst through the skintight fabric. As I watched him pile the inert thugs in the atrium for the just-arriving police to deal with, I was pondering asking Lois that question when I saw that grin, and I had a moment of total clarity that provoked a thoroughly uncharitable-if fully justified-reaction:

* You bastard! *

I did not scream, nor did I walk over and smack the big jerk. I took a deep breath and muttered a few phrases in Tibetan that had served me well in the past. The crowd, relieved at being rescued almost before they knew they were in danger, surged forward to get a good look at their savior, and I slipped back, trying to remain unnoticed. I needed time to think, to absorb what I had learned.

"Hey, Chloe! Come over here: he never stays in one place for too long, and I don't want you to miss the chance."

Damn. Lois was looking out for me, and five minutes before I would have been positively thrilled. I did my best to simulate that emotion as I muttered the Tibetan phrases in my head and walked forward with a big damned smile on my face. Lois didn't notice: she was busy grabbing my arm and calling out: "Superman, while I've got you here, there's someone I'd like you to meet."

The big man turned, and I took a moment to study his face. He looked more than four years older than he had the last time I saw him: perhaps it was the set of his jaw, or the extra musculature, or the total lack of doubt on his face. Clark may well have been a local hero in Smallville, but he had plenty of doubts. His eyes fell on me, and while his face remained composed, I could see an instant of bone-deep shock in his eyes, which made me feel a little better, if not totally forgiving. Oblivious, Lois continued the introduction: "Superman, I'd like you to meet-"

"Chloe Sullivan." He was using the A voice, the one he used when addressing Congress, or facing down alien invaders within reach of a microphone, or during his rare television interviews. I managed not to tingle, and I noticed that he was studying me carefully, looking for signs of recognition on my face. Probably was listening to my heart rate, too. * Fat chance, Clark. I've been practicing biofeedback techniques since before I met you * I saw him relax subliminally before giving me the smile that had appeared on a few billion television screens over the past few years and adding, "I've read your work, Ms. Sullivan--I'm very impressed with it."

I took a moment to feel both genuinely flattered that the most famous person on Earth was taking the time to keep up with my writing, and glad that Clark had not totally abandoned his old life, before smiling broadly and replying simply, "Thank you." He searched my face again, but the mantra did its job, and he noticed nothing. Lois seemed to be about to say something else when one of the television monitors in the room began showing scenes of massive flooding in Tanzania. Superman frowned and commented apologetically, "Excuse me, ladies: that seems a bit much for the local authorities to handle." He nodded to us, then vanished, with the sound of the air displaced by his supersonic departure the only evidence that he had been standing there. Aside from the unconscious guys being dragged off by the cops, of course.

I made a point of simulating enthusiasm about having met Superman, but my mind was elsewhere during the rest of my visit to Metropolis. When I arrived back in Central City, I went to my editor and asked to take a couple of weeks off: the piece I had written describing my experiences at the journalism conference-minus a few crucial details-was enough for him to give me the time with his blessings. By that evening, I was on a plane to California. There were two people who definitely would be interested in what I had to say.

* * * * *

I am quite pleased with my professional success, but I couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy as I entered Lana's spacious West LA apartment. The modeling career that Lana had started to pay her way through UCLA had made her nationally known, and rather wealthy. It had also slowed down her educational career a bit, but I was fairly certain that no one would hold that against her. There was already talk of movie roles, or a television series.

Lana greeted me warmly, and I thought back to the days when I had really wanted to hate her for the way that Clark worshipped the ground she walked on. I gave it a good try, but Lana's really hard to hate, and by the time that she and Clark finally did end up together I managed to deal with it with a few days of sulking, then let it go. When Clark had unexpectedly broken it off with her, she had driven to Metropolis and shown up at my dorm room, and we had commiserated about it over ice cream and videos. Clark had refused to speak to me about it at all, and looking back at it now, it was obvious that even then he had been setting up the whole deception, perhaps hoping that it would hurt Lana less if they weren't together any more when he "died." I love Clark, but he can be such a jerk sometimes.

We made small talk for a few minutes, then a knock at the open door announced Pete's arrival. Lara rose to greet him with an uninhibited hug, and I took the time to examine him minutely. He had experienced a growth spurt when he turned seventeen, and he was now taller than either of us, though he was still a bit short of five foot nine. He was in his first year at UCLA Law School, and he was wearing a suit that reminded me how damned good he had looked in his tux when he escorted me to the Senior Prom. I smiled wistfully, then walked over to welcome him.

After taking a few minutes to catch up, we settled back in the living room, and Pete cut to the chase: "It's great to see you again, Chloe, but you said that something big had come up. What's going on?"

I swallowed hard, then began describing the events at the journalism conference. When I reached the point where Superman arrived and disabled the thugs, I saw Lana's face go totally blank, and she closed her eyes: I could see her shivering. I stopped and waited for her to open her eyes, then asked quietly, "You know what I'm about to say, don't you?"

Lana bowed her head, then nodded once before opening her eyes and replying softly, "It was out of the blue. He had been dead for three years, and I was finally getting past it: I told myself it was what he would have wanted. From the time we started at Smallville High, he was always looking out for me, pushing me to do my best, getting Lex to intercede for me, and even refusing to make a move on me when I was ready to strangle him for being so damned noble. He was gone, and I had to keep going, even on the days I didn't want to." She paused, shaking visibly, and I moved forward to comfort her, only to be stopped by an uncharacteristically savage gesture. After a moment, she locked eyes with me, and there was anger audible in her voice as she continued, "I was watching the news one day. Superman had always seemed familiar to me in some way, but I just assumed it was his kindness and generosity reminding me of family in some way. He had just saved some ocean liner from sinking out on the Atlantic, and there was a shot of him smiling at a child. . .I just knew. I stayed away from classes for the next three days, because I didn't want to explain why I couldn't stop sobbing at the sight of someone who had just saved two thousand people from drowning."

I had no idea what I could say to her at this point, and I was deeply grateful when Pete interrupted with a confused look on his face: "Ladies. . .I'm not following you here. What does Superman saving Chloe have to do with Lana's memories of Clark?"

I watched him, and I saw dawning realization appear on his face, though he remained silent: he wasn't going to say it out loud unless I forced him to face it. I continued my story, continuing to watch his face. When I reached the point where I saw Clark's grin on Superman's face, Pete looked away, his jaw set. I finished, then walked over to him and squeezed his shoulder. He didn't flinch, but he remained silent, and I asked quietly, "Are you all right?"

Pete chuckled bitterly, and replied, "I just feel like an idiot, that's all. Looking back, there were so many weird things going on around Clark. If he had still been alive-" Pete stopped and shook his head at his words, then amended, "-if I'd * known * he was alive, I would have made the connection in five seconds even if Superman didn't look so much like Clark. He played us perfectly." He stood up and began walking to the door.

"Pete, where are you going?" Lana asked the question, saving me the trouble.

Pete turned around, and replied in a deadly calm voice: "I'm going to Metropolis to put my foot up his Kryptonian ass."

I got up, not knowing what in the hell I was going to say to stop him, and was saved again from having to come up with a plan by the sound of Lana giggling behind me. A few moments later, we were all laughing, in relief and in simple response to the absurdity of the whole thing. Pete was first to recover, and he wiped the tears from his eyes as he admitted, "All right, that was a pretty dumb idea. What ARE we going to do, anyway?"

This one I had an answer for. "I'm flying back to Metropolis in the morning, then driving back to Smallville. There are a couple of people there who have some explaining to do." I looked back at Lana, then added, "In the meantime, I propose we get drunk out of our minds and come up with really nasty things we'd say to Clark if he was standing here."

"You always did have good plans," commented Pete. He volunteered to make the liquor run, and when he left, I turned back to see Lana standing there, her eyes brimming with tears.

I went to her and hugged her tightly for a moment, then stepped away to see the apologetic look on her face. "I'm sorry," she explained, wiping her eyes and visibly trying to compose herself as she continued, "it's just that it's such a relief. . .I felt guilty for being so angry at him. My God, Chloe, the thought of being this angry at Clark, or at Superman-I just didn't know how to deal with it, so I just buried it, and didn't think about it again until today. I know he must have had a good reason, but I just want to slap him right now."

I nodded and replied, "Yeah, me too, but I think a more rational approach might work better here." I paused then grinned wickedly at her and added, "We can always keep it as a fallback position." I glanced at the front door and grumbled, "It'd be nice if we didn't have to wait for Pete to come back with the liquor."

Lana blinked, then surprised me by chuckling and directing my attention to the antique cabinet on one of the walls. She walked over and opened it, revealing a fully stocked bar. "I just wanted us to have a head start by the time he got back," she explained with a deadpan expression, pulling bottles out with a practiced ease. She turned back and asked simply, "Kamikazes OK with you?"

* * * * *

I had been rehearsing what I was going to say during the entire flight to Metropolis, and then during the whole drive to Smallville, and I hadn't intended to make any stops on the way to my final destination. The cemetery was on the way, though, and I felt an irresistible impulse to visit the site of the deception that had caused me to travel halfway across the country and back here to confront two people I loved dearly, but with whom I was almost as pissed off at as I was at Clark.

It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and there were very few cars parked in the lot when I pulled in. I got out and walked towards the grave, carefully avoiding the few graves where mourners were gathered. I crossed a roadway and noticed a stretch limousine parked some distance away, too far for me to read the license plates, though I could see that someone was sitting behind the wheel. I ignored this and turned to look towards Clark's grave, only to see that someone else was already there. A tall man in a blue business suit was crouching in front of the tombstone with his head bowed, a garland of purple hyacinths resting at his feet. My surprise rendered me momentarily clumsy, and I stumbled.

The man stood instantly and turned, and I could see naked rage on his face as he snapped, "Get the hell out of-" He stopped, blinked, and stared for a moment before asking in a tone that was almost gentle: "Chloe?"

I was stunned into momentary silence, having recognized him before he uttered a syllable. Lex had broken contact with all of us after the funeral, refusing all of our efforts to see him and moving to Metropolis to begin serving as the president of LuthorCorp, a position he held for exactly nine months and six days before the untimely death of Lionel Luthor began the sequence of events that had made him one of the three most powerful CEOs in the country, as the newly renamed LexCo had doubled in market value in the three years since he had taken over the reins.

Lex was a fixture in the national media, and I had been disturbed at what I had seen. The Lex I had known, with his easy charm and genuine interest in other human beings, had vanished without a trace, replaced by a cold, ruthless dynamo whose callousness had shocked even those accustomed to the habits of his father. He was generally accompanied by a small army of bodyguards when in public, and finding him here alone had me at a loss for words until a hand fell upon my shoulder and spun me around roughly, as a harsh feminine voice snapped, "Get away from Mr. Luthor, you--!"

"Stand down, Mercy." Lex's voice was cold, though polite, and the woman released me without hesitation. Lex smiled apologetically at me and explained, "I'm sorry, Chloe: she takes her job very seriously, and you've never met. He turned back to the other woman and intoned formally: "Mercy, this is Chloe Sullivan: we were friends when I lived in Smallville. Chloe, this is Mercy Graves, my chief bodyguard and chauffeur: you've probably seen her on the news now and again."

I took a good look at her, and realized that Lex was right. Mercy Graves was five foot eleven, with the wiry build of a professional athlete, and her blue eyes watched me with continued vigilance even after her boss had vouched for me. She straightened in her chauffeur's uniform, absently adjusted her hat, then met my eyes with little evidence of discomfort and stated flatly: "My apologies, Miss Sullivan. Mr. Luthor is vulnerable on occasions like this, and I had to get over here quickly."

I made a dismissive gesture and smiled to indicate I wasn't offended: I was still too shaken up to manage a verbal response, and Lex took a good look at me and discerned the problem. He turned back to Graves and ordered quietly, "Mercy, go on back to the car. I doubt anyone else will be coming by today: certainly not any familiar faces." The bodyguard nodded curtly and departed, and Lex waited for her to get out of earshot before he walked next to me and commented, "From your reaction, I take it that you're not here to interview me."

I chuckled involuntarily, genuinely appreciating his obvious effort to put me at ease, then shook my head and replied, "I know your policy: no interviews except by invitation. I certainly wouldn't presume to trade on a friendship that you just described to Ms. Graves as being in the past tense." My tone wasn't hurt or angry, but it was blunt.

Lex's eyes hardened momentarily, but he blinked and gave me a look that reminded me of the old Lex as he smiled wistfully at me and responded, "Don't take it personally, Chloe: if it makes you feel any better, you, Lana and Pete are probably the closest thing I have to friends these days. It just occurs to me that calling someone a friend when I haven't spoken to them in four years would be a bit presumptuous on my part."

Recent behavior aside, Lex had apparently lost none of his inherent people skills. I was about to apologize when Lex smiled at me again, then turned back to the grave and commented, "I thought you might have gotten wind of my visits here: I try to make it at least once a month." He frowned at me, then asked, "Why are you here, Chloe? It's a bit less convenient for you to head out here on short notice from Central City than it is for me to drive out from Metropolis."

I shrugged, not particularly surprised that he knew exactly what I had been up to recently, then told a half-truth: "My editor gave me some time off after I turned in my story about the InterGang attack on the journalism conference, and I decided to come home to visit some people." Lex nodded, apparently having heard about the attack, and a sudden impulse caused me to add: "Lois Lane was introducing me around: she even managed to corral Superman for a moment before he flew off to Africa to stop another disaster."

For an instant, an expression of pure loathing appeared on Lex's face, and it was all I could do not to recoil. He seemed to recover almost immediately, then nodded again and replied, "I'm glad you made it out of that incident in one piece, Chloe." He turned back to the grave and added quietly, "I'd have hated to see a senseless act deprive the world of another gifted individual."

Once again, I was too overcome to reply; this time, it was the desire to scream at Clark for causing yet another of his closest friends pain with his deception. I moved next to Lex and squeezed his shoulder, and we looked down at the grave in silence for a moment before I could not remain silent any more, though some inner sense warned me not to spill the beans about what I had discovered. I knelt next to the tombstone, ran my fingers over the inscription, and commented, "I wonder sometimes what Clark would have accomplished by now if he had lived."

I heard Lex turn away, and I stood up to see him looking towards Metropolis, his posture tense and his jaw set. I was silent, and after a moment he turned back to me and replied quietly, "I have too, Chloe, but I'm sad to say that I can't imagine he'd be happy. This world, with its petty cruelties and its obsession with anyone who can show off in public with a childish costume and the scribblings of overrated journalists who obsess on their exploits, doesn't deserve someone like Clark." He looked down, and muttered, "There will come a time when the world will regret that."

I watched him for a moment, and decided that it might be a nice time to leave. I forced down the uneasiness that Lex's ominous comment had caused me and smiled sadly at him before simply stating: "Lex, it was good to see you again. I'll give you some privacy: I can always stop by again on the way out of town."

Lex opened his mouth as if to protest, then nodded curtly and extended his hand. I shook it firmly, and he managed a smile as he suggested, "Stop by the next time you're in Metropolis: I'm a far more capable tour guide than Lois Lane, even at my advanced age."

I laughed at the joke, then nodded at Lex and walked away. I looked back once, and saw him in the posture he had been in when I arrived: crouching in front of the grave with his head bowed. I shook my head and was turning back to my car when a now-familiar voice called out: "Miss Sullivan, may I have a word with you?"

I turned, and Mercy Graves was looking at me with an expression that contained none of the hostility that had been there before; if anything, she looked completely at a loss. I walked over to her and met her gaze calmly as I replied, "Yes, Ms. Graves? Is there something I can do for you?"

She was silent for a moment, then inclined her head towards a nearby bench. We walked over and sat down, and thirty seconds of silence passed before I turned to her and commented quietly, "I think you have to start."

Her mouth tightened, then she nodded curtly and began: "Mr. Luthor hand-picked me for this job after his father died: I take it very seriously. It's my job to keep him alive, to anticipate his needs, and to otherwise be his right hand. After three years, I'm fairly certain that I know him better than anyone else on this earth does. . .but I haven't been able to understand this." She turned and looked over to the grave: Lex was still in the same posture, and showed no signs of being aware of the conversation. Graves turned back to me and asked bluntly, "Who was Clark Kent? What was he to Mr. Luthor that his death could affect him like this?"

I considered the question for a moment, then replied, "Lex was Clark's best friend when he lived here: he had big plans for Clark's future after high school. Then the accident happened, and it really hit Lex hard. After the funeral, he left town soon after, and I hadn't spoken to him since then, until today." I looked at her, then asked, "He's been coming here once a month since you started this job?"

Graves nodded, then elaborated, "More or less. He also has flowers sent here three times a week." She reached into a pocket and pulled out a bill, handing it to me. I glanced at it briefly, and Graves frowned, then asked, "Can you make anything out from it?"

I finished reading, then nodded, replying, "Mixed zinnias: for remembrance of an absent friend." I nodded towards the grave, then asked, "Does he buy the hyacinths from the same florist?"

Graves shook her head, then elaborated, "He always has them when he comes down for the drive to Smallville: I think he grows them in his private greenhouse, though I can't be sure-it's one of the few places he's denied me access to." She shook her head self-deprecatingly and muttered, "Never occurred to me to look into traditional flower meanings. . .not exactly my area of expertise. What is Mr. Luthor trying to say with those purple hyacinths?"

I had to think for a moment, and when the memory came to me, I knew that I would have more questions when I reached my destination. I blinked, then met her eyes and spoke a single sentence before rising and leaving her there in thought:

"He's asking for forgiveness."

* * * * *

The Kents were waiting on the porch when I arrived.

In between the serious drinking we had been engaged in, Lana, Pete and I had argued about the best approach for asking the only people who were bound to have the answers why Clark had done what he had. In the end, Lana's plan had won the day: she would call ahead and tell the Kents what we knew (in indirect terms, in case someone was in a position to eavesdrop) and that I was coming. Lana had called me on the road from Metropolis and informed me that she had spoken to them. When I asked her how they had reacted, her response was: "They were calm: almost resigned, really. I think they've been waiting for this moment for years, Chloe." I thought about those words as I got out of the car and walked up onto the porch.

Mr. Kent still looked robust, though the lines on his face were deeper and grey hair now competed visibly with the blond ones. Mrs. Kent, who also was visibly grayer, walked over to me and hugged me without hesitation, and I found that I was crying by the time she released me. They waited silently until I recovered, then led me inside.

When we entered the kitchen, I was startled to see that we were not alone. A young man in work clothes with medium length red hair and a muscular build was eating a sandwich at the kitchen table, and he looked up, swallowed, and called out, "Hey, Chloe! Long time no see."

I smiled, recognizing him as a member of my graduating class, and replied, "Hey, Dan: I didn't know you had ended up working for the Kents."

Dan Allen stood up and wiped the bread crumbs from his mouth before smiling and responding, "Yeah, Mr. Kent hired me and Steve Davidson a few years back, after-well, when he needed more help." A moment of uncomfortable silence followed, and Dan coughed and added, "Well, Mrs. Kent said you were stopping by, and I need to get back to work. Nice seeing you again, Chloe." He nodded to the Kents, then left the kitchen, going outside.

Mrs. Kent closed the inner kitchen door, and another long moment of silence followed before I took a deep breath and stated, "Lana told me she had reached you."

Mr. Kent nodded, and Mrs. Kent replied, "Yes. She didn't come right out with it, but it was fairly obvious what she was saying, and I didn't deny it." She looked down for a moment, then looked back up at me with an anguished expression on her face as she whispered, "Chloe, you have to know how sorry we are that-"

"Don't." My voice was harsh, and Mrs. Kent flinched at the sound of it. I felt a moment of guilt before I hastened to elaborate: "I'm sorry, but you can't apologize for him. What he did to us, he did of his own free will, and he's going to have to answer to us for it. All I ask is that you tell me the truth: no more lying for the late, great Clark Kent." I stepped forward and looked into her eyes, feeling angry, confused, and concerned for her all at once as I concluded: "You do owe us that much."

Mr. Kent stepped back into my line of vision, then inclined his head towards the living room. We walked over and sat down: it was still much as I remembered it, except for a missing touch here and there that made it clear that a teenage boy no longer lived here. Mr. Kent frowned, looked away, then turned back to me and began, "Chloe, you have to understand that he didn't do it to hurt you. He had good reasons."

"For tearing the hearts out of his best friends? For convincing a whole town of people who loved him and admired him that he had died a stupid, meaningless death? For turning Lex into a bitter shadow of what he used to be, his only link to his old life leaving flowers to the memory of his best friend who isn't even really dead? What god-damned reasons are those, Mr. Kent?" The words burst out of me in a flood, and it was a moment before I perceived that the Kents were staring at me in open shock. I glared back at them and snapped, "What? Have I said something that wasn't obvious?"

Mr. Kent had turned beet red, obviously livid, but remained silent. Mrs. Kent looked at me in silence for a moment before asking quietly, "What did you mean about Lex? What have you heard about him?"

I blinked, wondering why it was that this comment had been the one that had clearly shocked them. I took another breath, then told them about the encounter at the cemetery: they listened without interrupting me once, and remained silent when I had finished. I stared at them for a moment, then whispered, "You didn't know. He's been leaving flowers there for four years, and visiting once a month, and you had no idea he was doing it. You've never even visited the grave once since that day, have you?" They remained silent, and I felt cold anger as I snapped, "He blames himself for Clark's death, and you've just let it go on for years, not doing a damned thing about it-"

"Why not? He killed Clark, he should damned well feel the guilt for it." Jonathan Kent was visibly as angry as I've even seen anyone, but his voice was a harsh whisper as he replied.

I blinked, and the anger bled out of me, replaced by confusion. I swallowed hard and asked, "What are you talking about? Clark isn't dead: that's the whole point of this conversation."

"Isn't he, Chloe?" Mrs. Kent sounded exhausted, and I listened carefully to hear her as her voice broke at times: "Chloe, we had to hire people to help Jonathan with the farm when Clark left. We don't have the privacy we used to have when we were protecting Clark's special nature. He can't come here, at least not as Clark, and Superman tends to attract a lot of attention if anyone realizes he's around. We usually have to go somewhere else to meet him, for brief times, with him in disguise. If he comes here, it usually means he's in trouble." She blinked, then looked at me and concluded, "Chloe, I pray that if you have a son, you never face a day when the only time he comes home is when he's wounded, or running, or scared."

OK, at that moment I felt like the lowest form of life on the planet. It was pretty damned clear that Clark had imposed this whole thing on the Kents along with the rest of us, and blaming them for it on any level was just wrong. I was opening my mouth to apologize when I remembered what Mr. Kent had said, and blurted out, "OK, but what does that have to do with Lex?"

Mr. Kent reddened again, and Mrs. Kent reached out and squeezed his arm before quietly telling me about what Clark had discovered about Lex, and what he had decided to do about it. After a few minutes, I gritted my teeth to avoid interrupting her: I was in complete shock about what she was saying about Lex. I knew that he had a dark side, and I knew that Clark's death had done a lot of damage to his psyche, but I never could have imagined just how much of a monster he had become even before Clark began his elaborate charade. I bowed my head to the point where it was almost between my knees as I sat in the armchair, and it was with some surprise that I realized that Mrs. Kent was shaking me to attract my attention: I had lost my awareness of everything but the narrative. At length, I looked up to see the concerned faces of Mr. and Mrs. Kent, and I smiled to reassure them before I pondered what Mrs. Kent had told me, and I asked quietly, "What did Clark tell Lex after he found out?"

"As far as we know, he told him the truth." Mr. Kent's voice was strained, but he forced himself to continue as he sat next to me, visibly trying to reassure me with a smile as he continued: "He told Lex why he had done what he did, and Lex left: they haven't spoken since. At least not in words: Lex Luthor is the person who is behind two out of every three of the attempts to kill Clark since he went public as Superman."

I laughed bitterly, then looked up at the Kents as I elaborated, "I'm not shocked about that: I was with him for less than five minutes, and it was obvious that he despised Superman." I shook my head, then wondered out loud: "Do you think he even still realizes who it is he's trying to kill at this point?"

"Who knows? I don't care at this point, to be honest." Mrs. Kent shook her head in disgust, then bowed her head and whispered, "There are times that I wish that Clark had absorbed a bit more of Lex's ruthlessness. . .he might do himself and the rest of us a favor and just rid the world of someone who might be the death of all of us. Of course, after thinking that I usually feel terrible, but that's been true less and less these days: I've had to see Clark come close to death too many times not to start to become callous, I suppose."

"You've got the right: you're his parents, and no matter how you feel, you've clearly made it so that he'd never even think of doing something like that. . .God help us." I smiled at her again, and she relaxed. I shook my head in disbelief, commenting, "I thought my world had been turned upside down at the convention, but this is just. . .I don't have the words, and I don't know how to feel."

Mr. Kent looked better, and he walked over and crouched next to me, looking at me with the kind expression that had been such a familiar part of my childhood, then asked quietly, "Now that you know, what do you want from us, Chloe? You're right: you've been hurt by this, as much as any of us, and we want to make it right, as much as we can." He reached out and put his hand over mine and squeezed as he reiterated, "What do you want us to do?"

I stared at him, and for a moment there was only the distant sound of farm machinery.

* * * * *

The issue of the magazine with my article on the attack at the convention sold fifty percent more copies than usual, and I started getting calls to appear on local interview shows on any number of topics. It had been six months, and I was busier than I had ever been.

I had flown back to LA to fill Pete and Lana in: Lana looked shocked at the news about Lex, while Pete seemed more disappointed but unsurprised. We had spent another night drinking and complaining, then we had gone our separate ways, resolving to stay in touch more. Sadly, good intentions had given way to the reality of our schedules, and the calls had been few and far between.

I frowned and changed a few words in a sentence: I had two days to get this story--which detailed the changes in the practices of organized crime in Central City and Metropolis since the arrival of Superman-to my editor. I was ahead of schedule, and was thinking about a follow-up story when my stomach growled, loudly. Time for pizza. I got up and was walking to the phone when a soft knock came at my door. I walked over and looked through the peephole: a white-haired, stooped man stood there, waiting patiently. I considered waiting for him to go away: I don't exactly live in a great neighborhood. He looked harmless enough, though, and I sighed and unlocked the door, opening it to reveal the man still waiting for me. I smiled at him and asked, "Can I help you, sir?"

The man blinked at me: I could see the lines left by a long, hard life on his face, though eyes undimmed by whatever he had experienced looked piercingly at me. He was tall, though the stoop concealed it somewhat. He blinked again and whispered, "Could I trouble you for some water, young lady? I've had a long journey, and a long way to go before I sleep."

I felt a pang of sympathy and replied mechanically, "Of course: I'll be right back." I turned away, heading for the kitchen, and was reaching for the cupboard when I heard the faintest whisper of sound, like fabric sliding across flesh. I froze, then turned around slowly, and was unsurprised at what I saw.

My thoughts raced back six months, to the Kents' living room and Mr. Kent asking me what I wanted from them. I had looked at both of them and replied, "Tell Clark that we're happy he's alive, that we're proud of him, and that if he ever wants to see any of us again, there had better not be any spandex visible."

My front door was closed, and the old man had vanished, replaced by a figure that was infinitely familiar, yet not. He was taller than I remembered him, yet shorter than the paragon who had congratulated me about my success six months before. His hair was neatly combed, missing the trademark curl that had graced ten thousand front pages. The eyes were the same, and I marveled that I had not recognized them immediately, then and now. I swallowed hard, then smirked at him and called out, "Took you long enough."

Clark shrugged, and replied with the grin that had betrayed him to me, "Hey, you have a busy schedule-it can be hard to find you. I almost stopped by a couple of months back, but I had to make a detour to Antarctica." He seemed to slump a bit; clearly, whatever had happened in Antarctica had disturbed him deeply. After a moment, he seemed to dismiss it, and he walked over to me, looking into my eyes. I willed myself not to shiver, and he smiled and commented, "I hear that you'd like to kick my ass."

I glared at him, and started to compose a truly epic rant in my head. Clark blinked, and the look on his face stopped me dead: he looked vulnerable, and sad, and a little scared. I was torn between the desire to scream at him and the impulse to throw myself at him, sobbing. The conflict granted me an odd sort of composure, and after a moment I sighed and replied, "Maybe later. Right now, I'm starving: do you still like pizza?"

Clark nodded, and as I walked over to the phone, I looked back at him, standing there looking perfectly ordinary, or as ordinary as he had ever seemed. I ordered two extra-larges-it was going to be a long night.

As before, comments are welcome and desired.