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A Date for the Fourth of July

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This story is No. 4 in the series "The "Date" series". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Fourth in the Date series. End of World, Extraterrestrials, Caused by. Also mutant bugs, time travel, and smoochies.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Multiple Crossings > Multiple PairingsLastScorpionFR15142,184162,71721 Jul 0521 Jul 05Yes
A Date for the Fourth of July
(A Sequel to "Dates of Wars" and, kind of, "What Child is This" & "Like a Shepherd")
By LastScorpion

Disclaimer: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is owned by UPN and/or Mutant Enemy and/or Fox and/or Joss Whedon. "Smallville" is owned by DC Comics and/or the WB and/or Millar & Gough and/or Tollin & Robbins. "Forever Knight" was invented by James Parriott, and the rights to it and all its characters probably belong to Sony or Columbia/TriStar. "The X-Files" and all its characters were invented by Chris Carter and aired on Fox -- they probably own the rights. "Superman" was invented by Shuster & Siegel, and he is apparently owned by Time/Warner these days. I don't own any of the characters. I'm just fooling around. Please don't sue. Goes AU right around the middle of Buffy season 7 and Smallville season 2.

Author's Note Regarding the AU'ness of it All: "Forever Knight" and "The X-Files" are pretty much going to be regarded as having gone exactly as they did, as far as I can recall. LOL! No guarantees of accuracy, though I'll probably be better on the FK than the XF. This version of Buffy and her friends used a clever plan to wedge the First Evil into the Hellmouth, thus leaving it partially blocked off like it was when she first came to Sunnydale and the Master was wedged into it. This version of Lex was never put into Belle Reve; I think I'm going to take Smallville AU around the Helex wedding episode - there's a version on the DVD where they just ran off together instead of actually tying the knot; I'll go with that. Also, Martha's baby didn't die; Clark saved her as per "What Child is This," and he didn't blow up the ship.

A million thanks to TeenyGozer and TheDieHard for beta-reading this!

***

"That's a good look for you."

Martha's friendly voice sounded entirely too amused. Lex's eyes snapped open. He found himself settled in the corner of the Kents' sturdy old living room davenport, covered with sleeping blondes. Well, actually, there was one little strawberry blonde curled up asleep in his lap, and a thin, worn bottle-blonde leaning asleep on his shoulder. His right hand rested on Cara's baby-soft curls, and his left was tucked around Buffy's hard sharp little shoulder. It was hot -- he was surprised any of them had remained asleep so long like that.

Lex licked dry lips. He was thirsty. "What time is it?" he asked.

"Almost noon. I've finished my morning's work, and I was coming to see if you all wanted lunch."

Her mother's voice appeared to wake Cara up. She zoomed over faster than Lex could see and grabbed Martha's leg with exaggerated gentleness. "Mama!" she squealed.

"Cara," Martha rebuked her mildly. "You know better than to do that in front of people." She gave Lex an uneasy look. It hurt. He bit down on his questions, but Martha answered them anyway. "I'm sorry, Lex. It's habit. She needs to get used to behaving in public. Fortunately you already know about Clark." She turned to her daughter. "Go wash your hands, sweetie."

Then she came over to the couch and touched Lex on the shoulder. "I do trust you. It's just habit," she repeated. "Cara's not from Krypton. When I was pregnant with her, Clark used the meteor rock and electricity to transfer some of his powers to us, to save our lives. On me, it wore off, but for Cara, it stuck."

"The time he was so sick... that guy with a knife," Lex realized.

"Yes. When he admitted you hit him with your car."

"I thought he was just sick. He was stabbed. I saw the blood."

"Yes. He was. He got better." Martha smiled at him warmly. "Wash up for lunch, please, Lex. You should wake Buffy, too. She looks like she could use a good meal, and I think she said she had some phone calls to make." Martha went back into the kitchen.

***

Buffy was dreaming. It was hot where she was. There was sand and hard-baked clay all around, and nothing moved for miles in every direction. The sky was that blue that's so pale it's almost white. There were no clouds. There was no wind.

She wanted to stay there, but she knew there was something she needed to do.

Suddenly a drop of blood appeared on her coarse white pajamas. Another followed, and another. Blood was raining down on the Slayer, from a clear hot sky.

Buffy gasped and woke up. Lex was gently shaking her shoulder.

"Buffy?" he asked. He looked concerned. How long had she been asleep?

It was hot. She didn't recognize the room. She was wearing a sleeveless blue cotton nightdress, not blood-stained institutional whites. "Where am I?"

Lex smiled crookedly at her. "That's a little cliched, isn't it? We're in Smallville, Kansas. The Kents' house."

"I remember now." Buffy wanted to lean on Lex's shoulder again and go back to sleep. Instead she drew away from him, and he let her go. She rubbed her face and pulled her hair back, out of her eyes. "What time is it? I need to call Xander."

Lex wordlessly offered her his cell phone, and she thanked him.

***

"Harris."

"Xander? It's me, Buffy."

"Buffy! Thank God! Did Willow get in touch with you?"

"Dawn talked to her. Or read e-mail from her, or something. Um. Well, Dawn told me that I'm not wanted by the Nut Patrol anymore. Will fixed it."

"Are you hurt? How did you escape?"

"I'm okay. I, just, you know, escaped. Broke a window, attracted wandering vampires to kill my fellow inmates, got Lex's dad's eyeballs pulled out. Sorry. I didn't mean to bring up any... Um, I meant to call and ask about what's going on at the Hellmouth. I'm in Kansas. At Clark's house."

"Hellmouth seems to be quiet. It's almost July; I think we're having our midsummer lull. I haven't heard anything about vampires since before you disappeared. I called Chris Epps this morning and he said there weren't any mysterious deaths, even."

"Wow. Well, that's, uh, good. That's good."

"Are you sure you're okay? You sound kinda...."

Buffy blinked hard as her friend's voice trailed off.

"Tired, Buff. You sound tired."

"I guess I am," she admitted.

"So, Kansas, huh?" Xander asked cheerfully, changing the subject. "Have you seen any twisters? Wicked Witch of the West?"

"Um. Kind of. Drusilla was here."

"Drusilla!" Xander sounded alarmed again. "Are you okay?"

"You keep asking that," Buffy complained. "I'm fine. She killed most of the people Lionel Luthor had locked up with me, and she turned the rest into vampires, and one of the vampires tore Lionel's eyes out, and Lex killed her."

"Wow. You've got more vamp action there in the middle of nowhere than we've got in Hell Central right now."

"Yeah. Did I... do you happen to know if I'm fired from my job yet?"

Xander's voice went all apologetic. "Yeah, you are. Sorry. I got worried when you weren't around, and I went to the shoe department to see if you were there, or if they'd heard from you. I could have called you in sick or something if I'd known you'd been kidnapped, instead of...."

"Yeah. When a Slayer disappears, she's usually just dead. I'm sorry I worried you. And forget about the job. It's totally not your fault."

"Thanks. So, when are you coming back?"

"I'll have to hitch a ride with somebody somehow. I don't have any money or anything to get a plane ticket. Or a bus ticket. I'll figure something out."

"Don't be in a hurry."

"Huh?"

"Look, Buffy, you haven't had a vacation since the summer after sophomore year."

Buffy remembered what had happened in Los Angeles that summer, the old friends from Hemery High that she'd encountered vamped and been forced to kill. It hadn't been as much of a vacation as she'd let on to the Scoobies. She kept silent again. Xander was still talking.

"The Hellmouth is quiet. Willow's Big Prophecy Database doesn't show anything happening any time soon. If something turns up, I can call Angel Investigations in L.A. I promise I won't try to handle anything all by myself. Why don't you see if Clark's folks would let you stay there for a few days, and have a little rest?"

"I couldn't impose."

"You've saved the world a dozen times. They know that. I'm sure they'll be glad to have you. Or that guy Lex Luthor -- he's richer than God; he must have a spare room."

Buffy didn't know what to say; she blanked for a minute. Finally she settled on "I'll call you later." She closed the phone and went looking for Lex to give it back to him.

***

Fox Mulder opened his eyes, then closed them again. He wished he were still asleep, or already dead. An end to striving -- all he'd have to pay for his Nirvana was his life, and the end of the human race. He was probably going to have to pay that anyway, whether he stayed in bed or not.

Mulder sighed and got up. Yesterday's clothes would do. Besides, there wasn't anything else. The location of this last-ditch emergency bunker had only ever been known to four men. Three of them were dead now. No one cared about keeping the place in readiness.

He'd tried everything. He, and Scully, and Skinner, had tried so hard. They weren't the only ones. Others had paid in blood and horror even more than they had.

All the prices had been paid in vain.

Time had run out, and it had happened six years earlier than he'd thought it would. All the good agents had been crushed, the careful well-thought-out plans had been thwarted. Everything had failed.

Scully might have given up, given up on the world and given up on him, which she'd *never* done before, not really. Now that nothing mattered anymore, she was going to go spend the last few days ever with her son, with *their* son. He could come along if he liked, she said.

Mulder told her there was one thing more he had to try. Scully disagreed, but she wished him luck before she went.

He'd sure need it.

***

Dawn woke up happy, took a nice cool bath (darn Midwestern weather!), got dressed in yesterday's clothes (yuck!) and bounced down the stairs. The kitchen was full of activity. There was homemade bread and homemade jam, Kent Organic milk and fruit, and cold fried chicken.

Clark and his dad came in, stomping their feet on the porch to dislodge the dirt. They were conversing enthusiastically about crops or something. It seemed like Mr. Kent was glad to have Clark back after his little monster-hunting jaunt. Every time Dawn saw them together, their closeness struck her as odd. Maybe it was another Midwestern thing, but she'd never get used to people's fathers being around and, you know, glad to see them and stuff. Lex's dad seemed less weird to her than Clark's did.

Clark noticed her coming into the kitchen and beamed. "Hey, Sleepyhead!" he greeted her. "You just getting up? We've been working for hours."

"Bite me, spaceboy," Dawn sniped good-naturedly back.

Cara was setting napkins around the table, and Lex was helping her with the flatware. It was funny to see that bald head gravely bent down to listen to the little girl's chatter, and the serious way he took Cara's bossing him around about how to set the table.

Buffy drifted in from the living room, holding Lex's tiny telephone. She looked lost in thought, but that was considerably better than just plain lost, and Dawn was glad to see it.

"What's up?" Dawn asked.

"Xander says nothing. He says Willow's got no prophecies and Chris has no suspicious deaths and it's Midsummer at Hell Central and I should take a vacation. In Kansas."

Dawn let out a delighted laugh. "Cool!"

"I guess."

Buffy handed Lex back his phone. Dawn noticed how the billionaire looked at her sister, and the way his hand tried to linger on Buffy's hand when she gave him back his cell. She smiled. Suddenly she felt like Mrs. Bennett.

Buffy went on. "But I have nothing to wear! Okay, that came out whiney. But literally, nothing to wear. And nothing of any kind, actually. And no means of getting home. And --"

Lex cut off the rant with a hand on Buffy's bare shoulder. Dawn *liked* the expression on Buffy's face when she looked up at him. Clark and his parents were washing up and setting out food; only Dawn and Cara were paying attention to Buffy and Lex.

"Don't worry," Lex said in a low voice. "I'll get you anything you need."

Dawn felt like pumping her fist in the air and shouting, "Yes!" Instead she just watched her sister blink cutely up at the richest non-evil guy she'd ever heard of until Martha Kent told everybody to sit down for lunch.

***

This was nice, Clark thought as he passed the plates of food around the kitchen table. His dad looked happy, too. Clark had heard the occasional story about big family gatherings from Jonathan's childhood, but the Kent family had dwindled down to almost nothing by the time Clark fell to Earth, and four at the table was about the most he was personally familiar with.

Mom gave Buffy a jug of milk and asked, "What did your friend Xander have to say?"

"All quiet on the Hellmouth front," Buffy smiled. "He said not to hurry back."

Dawn looked like she was bubbling over. "You can come stay in my dorm for another week! It'll be great! We didn't see half the stuff in Metropolis last time that I wanted to show you!"

Clark was confused. "I thought you had a lot of lab work you had to get finished this month?"

Dawn's face fell a little, and Clark was sorry he'd said anything. "That's right, I do. I only have 'til Saturday to finish my milestones for June. I gotta get back to the lab!"

Mom laughed at Dawn's sudden mood shift. "Not until after lunch, I hope."

Dawn calmed down immediately, and smiled as she took another piece of bread-and-jam. "Tomorrow's probably soon enough."

"Maybe you could stay at the penthouse, Buffy," Lex ventured. Clark didn't know how anyone could look elegant eating fried chicken with their fingers, but Lex somehow managed. "There's plenty of room, and my father probably won't be there for a while -- maybe the castle would be better. It's completely empty at the moment, except for Mrs. Digman, and I'm sure she'd be glad of the company."

"Nah, you don't wanna stay someplace all by yourself," Dad put in. "Besides, Lex is a single man; it wouldn't be proper. Why don't you stay here, at least until the Fourth of July? We've got room, and, no offense, but you could use some home-cooking."

"Mrs. Digman cooks," Lex said quietly.

"Be a pity to come all the way to Smallville from California and not stay for the Independence Day Fair," Dad wheedled.

Mom was looking at Dad with a smile Clark didn't understand. Cara suddenly was right next to Buffy, snuggling up to her. "Yeah!" Cara said, "Stay here with me!"

Buffy laughed. Clark wasn't sure, but it might have been the first time he'd heard her laugh. She sounded really happy. "Okay," she said. "Thank you very very much. But I totally need some clothes."

"No prob," Dawn exclaimed. She turned to Lex. "You'll take me into town and buy my sister clothes, won't you, Lex? I know all her sizes and what she looks good in."

"Dawn!" Buffy sounded scandalized.

"His dad *did* kidnap you. You *have* saved his life."

"He's saved mine, too." Buffy was kind of *gazing* at Lex. Clark suddenly thought he'd figured out what Dawn was so happy about.

"Let me buy you clothes," Lex murmured. Lex could be darn persuasive. That was probably part of what made him so good at business.

Buffy smiled. "Okay," she said.

***

Fordman's was still the place in Smallville to shop for clothes. People who wanted something else would travel to the outlet mall just outside Grandville. Lex was willing to support local small businessman Bill Ross (who had bought the store from Mrs. Fordman several years earlier) but there was no way in hell he'd frequent the outlet mall.

Lex leaned against the wall and watched Dawn riffle swiftly through the racks of clothes. She'd taken quite a while finding a pair of jeans that suited whatever criteria she was using. Two little shirts of some sort had been easier, and now she seemed to be hunting out a sundress. She pounced on one, making a cute little "Ah ha!" sound, and then headed over to another part of the store.

Lex, thinking of his own huge closets full of clothes, had expected Dawn to be looking for considerably longer. "Are you sure that's enough?" he asked.

Dawn turned and looked at him speculatively. "I forgot who was bankrolling this for a minute. Are you saying you think I should get her more?"

Lex looked at Dawn, holding the little armful of clothing, and thought. He really wanted to get home to the castle so he could take a shower and change. On the other hand, a woman staying in Smallville for a week needed more clothes than that. "Maybe we could come back for more later?" he ventured.

Dawn gave him a sly smile. "Don't you think it would be better if *she* came back with you later?"

Lex smiled back. What was he, slow this morning? Out-schemed by a nineteen-year-old Physics major. "That's a fine idea," he said, carefully not displaying as much enthusiasm as he felt. A man had to have some pride.

Dawn looked very smug. "I'll just go get her a few small essentials, underwear, toothbrush, comb, and then we can head on out." She bounced away.

***

Cara had been carried upstairs for her nap, protesting all the way that she'd already *had* a nap, a long one, with Buffy 'n' Lex! Now Mrs. Kent was packing up the morning's baked goods for delivery. Clark and his dad were out in the barn doing the same with the produce. Dawn and Lex were out at the store. Buffy found herself alone.

She couldn't get dressed, because she didn't have any clothes. She'd had a bath the night before. She couldn't comb her hair, because no comb or hairbrush. She felt all slept out, so no nap for Buffy. She couldn't worry about her job, because, hey, no job. She supposed she could worry about Sunnydale, but it *was* more than a thousand miles away.

For the first time since she'd been dead, Buffy found herself completely at loose ends.

She wandered all around the farmhouse, looking at things. Cara, it turned out, was even cuter when she was asleep. Buffy ended up in the big kitchen. Apparently she was being stealthy, because it took Mrs. Kent a couple of minutes before she looked up at her and said, "Hi, Buffy! Could you give me a hand with these?"

"Oh! Sure! I'm sorry, I should have come in before and offered to help."

"No, no, I was fine. They're all done anyhow. I just wondered if you could help me carry them out to the truck."

The orders were packed up into cardboard boxes and tied shut with brown string. Buffy looped a bunch of them onto each arm and followed Martha out into the yard.

"I see you got somebody else to help carry today!" Clark's cheerful voice boomed as they got to the truck. The truck-bed was packed with bigger, dirtier-looking cardboard boxes full of fruit and vegetables. Martha directed Buffy to load her things into the cab, where they were neatly stacked on the passenger's side of the worn bench seat.

"That's right!" Martha replied. Jonathan Kent was standing at the rear of the truck, wiping his hands on a rag. Martha went to him and took him by the elbow. "Honey, could I have a word with you?"

Clark started loudly enumerating all the different kinds of vegetables they grew on the Kent Organic Farm, and who ordered how much of what kinds, but Buffy's Slayer-hearing still picked up a few masculine protests of the 'But I was gonna work on the tractor for a while' variety from the conversation behind them. She ducked her head and smiled a little. Clark, who could obviously hear his parents' conversation even more clearly than she could, started to laugh. Soon they were both giggling like idiots, and they were barely able to compose themselves when Clark's dad came out of the barn. He walked up to the truck and said, "Son, howsabout I do the deliveries today. There's some people on the route who I haven't seen in a month of Sundays. You can take Buffy around the place, show her the crick and stuff."

"Okay, Dad. Thanks. That'd be great."

Martha was leaning against the outside of the barn, gazing fondly at her husband. Buffy and she smiled at each other.

***

"And this is the crick," Clark said, pointing out the little watercourse. He'd already shown Buffy the whole barn, including his Fortress of Solitude and all the swallows' nests and the place where the owl sometimes was, and the vegetable plots, and the sweet corn, and the cows, and the milking-shed, and the beehives, and the orchards. She'd showed a surprising ability for climbing trees (Clark politely averting his eyes, because she was wearing a *nightgown* still) and told him about sneaking out of the house to fight monsters in high school. They skipped the compost heap.

"Crick, huh?" Buffy said. She slid her feet out of the plastic sandals she'd apparently stolen while on the run from Lex's father and stepped into the edge of the water. "Why do you call it that?"

"I guess actually it's a creek. Everybody I know pronounces it crick, though." Clark sat down on a rock (non-meteorite) and untied his boots.

"Ooh! There's fish in here!" Buffy squeaked. "And tiny little lobsters!"

"Minnows and crawdaddies," Clark specified. He rolled up his jeans legs and put his feet in the water, too.

"Well, this is just neat," Buffy smiled. She was awful cute when she smiled. It must run in the family.

"There's a swimming hole downstream a ways. We could swim later, if you want."

"Maybe. I don't have a swimsuit or anything, and I don't know what Dawn's getting me."

"Well, people do skinny-dip," Clark offered tentatively.

"Clark Kent!"

"What?" Clark could feel his face getting hot. He didn't mean it like that! "I just mean, I mean it's way out in the country, and probably no one would see you -- alone! Not with me or anything! I mean...."

Buffy was laughing herself breathless. Clark stopped feeling so self-conscious and started getting a little worried that she might choke. After a while, she finally stood up straight, wiped her eyes, and caught her breath.

"You done?" Clark asked with his eyebrows raised. He felt a little bit insulted, and he was trying to look cool and grown-up.

"Yeah," Buffy gasped. She waded out of the water, shook her feet off, and put the sandals back on. Then she patted his shoulder. With him sitting on the rock and her standing next to him, his shoulders were about on a level with hers. "I like you, Clark," she told him, smiling. "I hope you and Dawn get along forever."

Clark didn't know what to say in reply to that, but it gave him a warm feeling inside. He put his socks and boots on, and they went back up to the house.

***

Dawn felt smug as she sat on the Kents' front porch with a glass of iced peppermint tea. Lex was inside playing with Cara. Buffy's new clothes were hanging up on the clothesline, almost dry in the amazing Midwestern July heat. Mrs. Kent was making dinner -- Dawn had cut up the cucumbers and tomatoes for the salad and been sent outside. She felt like she and Buffy were making a good impression on the Kents, which was nice, and Lex was starting to strike her as somebody who might actually be good for Buffy. Not that it would take much to be better than all the other contenders for that title, but still.

Clark and Buffy approached the house, laughing. Oh, that was good to see.

"Hi, you two!" she shouted. "Did you have a nice time?"

"We really really did," Buffy answered. "Your boyfriend invited me to go skinny-dipping."

"What?" Clark sputtered. "I did not! I, I, I...."

The Summers girls both laughed at him. Dawn thought he was probably making a bigger production of his indignation than he really felt. The big guy had to be a pretty good actor, after all, to pull off that whole Clark Kent/Superman dual identity thing.

"Kids!" Clark's mom called. "Dinner! Come on in and wash up!"

"Go ahead. I've gotta have a word with my boyfriend." She didn't think she was really fooling anyone with her fake growl.

Buffy smiled at them and went in. Yes, indeed -- *good* to see. Dawn grabbed Clark by his massive arm and hugged him tight. "Thanks for getting her to laugh again."

He was beaming at her. "Glad to help."

***

Retirement woulda been a lot more fun if Marie had lived to share it with him.

Joe Stonetree popped another beer tab, levered his Barcalounger backwards, and sighed heavily, like a whale. The Blue Jays sucked this year, too. He downed half his beer, and snarled at the TV.

The doorbell rang.

Joe stabbed the mute button and set the beer down. He heaved another gigantic sigh, got his massive bulk upright, and pulled his ratty old bathrobe closed in front. Who would be ringing his bell at this hour?

It was a stranger, a skinny white guy with dark circles under his eyes and a wrinkled suit that looked like it had been slept in. Not that Joe had any right to complain about anybody's clothes.

"Can I help you?" Stonetree asked.

"I hope so," the stranger replied intensely. "I need to locate Nick Knight, Detective Nick Knight, right away."

"Huh. I'm afraid he's gone."

The guy looked almost staggered by that news. "What about Detective Schanke, or Dr. Lambert from the Medical Examiner's Office?"

"They're dead."

The guy sagged, just sagged. "What, all of them?" he whispered.

Joe didn't want to help this guy; he wanted to go back to his ballgame and his beer. On the other hand, the Blue Jays were a national disgrace, and the stranger looked like he *really* needed the help.

Protect and Serve.

Stonetree sighed yet again. "Hey, buddy, you look like somebody just shot your dog. You wanna tell me about it?"

"You wouldn't believe me," his visitor said, shaking his head and making as if to leave the porch.

"Huh. You'd be surprised what I'd believe." Stonetree stood aside from the doorway and gestured. The stranger looked at him dubiously for a long minute, then came in.

"Siddown. Make yourself at home." Joe turned the TV off and lumbered into the kitchen. "You wanna beer?"

***

At first, Buffy wasn't sure she saw them.

Martha and Jonathan Kent had insisted that they *wanted* to do the dinner dishes, and the young people could best make themselves useful by taking Cara outside and letting her tire herself out before bedtime.

Clark set up the lawn chairs. Lex disappeared into the house and brought out five glasses of lemonade on an old tin tray. By the time he got back, Clark and Dawn had joined Cara in her rushing-around-the-yard-and-shrieking game, so he just handed Buffy her glass and set the tray down on Clark's chair.

"It's a pretty evening," Buffy commented as Lex sat down next to her. "You never get a sky like that in California."

Lex looked up at the big dramatic clouds, scenically lit with the shifting colors of sunset, as if he'd never thought of it before. After a minute he said, "It's the climate, of course. Cumulo-nimbus clouds are unusual where you live."

"Uh huh," she agreed. Then she saw them, or thought she did. "Um. Do you see those?"

Lex looked, and didn't seem to notice anything. "What?" he asked.

Buffy swallowed hard and faced up to it -- she was seeing things again. She took a deep breath. "Those little wandering lights, out there by the bushes?"

Unexpectedly, Lex laughed. "Lightning bugs. Also known as fireflies. Bio-luminescent beetles of the order --"

"Oh, thank God. I was afraid it was something evil that only I could see."

Lex shook his head a little and smiled. He had a nice smile, and he looked at her in a way that no one had looked at her in a long, long time. "They're just bugs," he reassured her.

"Not evil then? Good, good."

"Want me to catch you one?" Clark interrupted.

"No, let me!" Cara shrieked.

"Race ya!" Clark challenged, and the two Kent kids were off like a shot.

Dawn flopped down in a lawn chair, and Lex handed her a drink.

"Thanks!" she huffed. "I *so* cannot keep up with them!"

"Well, they are faster than a speeding bullet," Buffy pointed out, laughing. It was years since she'd laughed as much as she had today.

"No kidding!" Dawn exclaimed.

"Buffy! Buffy! I caught you a lightnin' bug! I'm being very gentle with it, too!" Cara appeared out of thin air, right next to Buffy's chair. She had her chubby little hands cupped together, only touching on the edges. She opened them slowly, and Buffy could see the insect. It really was some sort of beetle, she saw, not very big, and its butt turned on and off.

"That's really weird," she said.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "This from the Vampire Slayer!"

The bug flew away. Cara squealed happily and ran to tell her Mama that she'd caught one without squishing him.

Clark followed her in, then came back and took the tray into the house. Finally, he returned again, took his glass from Dawn (she'd snagged it when he picked up the tray) and joined the others.

"Do you suppose I was that much of a handful when I was that age?"

Everybody laughed at him, and he blushed. Or maybe it was just the last red light of sunset on his face.

"So. Lightning bugs," Buffy said. "Not evil, huh?"

"Just bugs," Dawn said, unconsciously echoing Lex's earlier assertion.

"These mosquitoes, on the other hand," Lex said, brushing one from his head.

"They don't bother me," Clark bragged.

"Me either," Dawn added. She didn't volunteer any possible reasons. Buffy approved of her sister's reticence, although she supposed it probably wasn't really fair that the Summers girls knew Clark was Superman, but he didn't know that Dawn was the Key. Oh, well. It would probably all sort itself out, one way or another.

"Are you sure you have to go back to Metropolis tonight?" Clark asked, giving Dawn the big puppy eyes.

Buffy rolled her eyes at the tone of voice, and noticed Lex doing the same thing. He noticed her, too, and they silently shared the snark with a smile.

Dawn had Clark's big hands in her own. "I'm sorry, baby," she said. "But I have to get this stuff done at the lab."

"I know," Clark pouted.

Buffy managed to turn her reflexive gagging reaction into a fairly innocuous cough. "Are you all packed up, Dawnie?" she asked, in her bossiest big-sister manner.

Now Dawn rolled her eyes. "Yes, Buffy. All packed up and ready to go."

"Are you all packed up, Lex?" Buffy asked.

He gave her a very amused look. "No need to take that tone with me. You're not *my* big sister."

"Thank God!" she exclaimed, and grabbed his hand. "Wanna take a walk down to the crick? Give Clark and Dawnie a chance to say their good-byes before you have to drive back to Metropolis tonight?" She didn't add aloud that she wanted a chance to say a proper good-bye to Lex, too, but it was obvious that he picked up on it.

"Absolutely," he replied. "We'll be back in an hour or so, ready to drive back to the city. You'll be ready, kids?"

"Kids?" Clark sputtered indignantly.

"An hour," Dawn added sweetly.

"Or so," Buffy answered her.

***

"Huh. Let me get this straight," rumbled former Captain Stonetree, contemplatively swigging beer. "Alien invasion, international guvmint conspiracy, end of the human race. Did I leave anything out?"

Mulder didn't know why he even tried telling this story any more. "I said you wouldn't believe it."

"Nah. I believe it."

Mulder looked closely at the big man. It was hard to tell whether he was joking or not.

Stonetree seemed to understand his doubts. He smiled and clapped Mulder on the shoulder, nearly toppling him from the spindly kitchen chair. "Smile, kid. Have another beer. I'm gonna go put some clothes on, and then we'll hit the road."

"You know where Knight might be?" Mulder didn't get his hopes up.

"Somethin' else." There was the sound of drawers opening and closing from the other room.

"What? Where are we going?" Mulder felt like things were careening past him, out of control. Again.

Stonetree re-appeared, wearing a big baggy brown suit, a really strange-looking tie, and a porkpie hat a la Buster Keaton. Mulder blinked and blinked again, but the vision remained.

"Kansas," Stonetree answered.

***

From *The Daily Planet*, front page, below the fold (first front-page byline for cub reporter Lois Lane! She was so proud when they put the paper to bed!):

PRESIDENT PLANS VISIT TO METROPOLIS
President Bush will be spending Independence Day
in Metropolis, breaking years of tradition. "America's
Heartland is the heart of America, not Washington, D.C.,"
the President said. "As the most prominent city in
America's Heartland, Metropolis is the ideal place for me
to be this Fourth of July."
Civic authorities have arranged for an even more
spectacular than usual fireworks display, and all streets
downtown will be closed by order of the mayor's office,
as a security precaution.
We at *The Daily Planet* believe that the President
shouldn't worry about his safety in Metropolis. After all,
Superman is here!

***

The skinny kid looked kinda upset. Lotta people got that way when there's trouble, big trouble like this especially. He was still in there swinging, though, and Stonetree honored him for it.

Joe hadn't felt this alive since Marie had gone.

Still, small talk -- put the kid at ease a little. "What's your name?" Stonetree asked, pulling open the garage door. Its spring hinges wailed in protest -- didn't get much use.

Standing well back, the guy looked blank for a moment, then shook his head a little and said, "Mulder. I'm Fox Mulder." Mebbe four beers had been too many for him. Kid probably didn't eat enough.

"Pleased to meetcha, Fox. Call me Joe," he replied, securing the old-fashioned door open and pulling the chain-light on.

Mulder was still shaking his head. Yeah. Four was too many beers. "What? Why Kansas?" he asked.

"Heh. You said the Navajo you knew were gone when you went back. The ones who told you about the trouble." Stonetree popped the trunk on the old turquoise Caddy and put in his bag.

"Yeah. Wait. Is that Knight's car?"

"Yup. You have a bag, Fox?"

"I. Wait. Why are...?"

"Gimme your keys." The old habit of command was strong -- the intoxicated ex-FBI man just fished them out of his pocket and handed them over. Stonetree identified the other's car without trouble, opened its trunk, and swept up its contents. There was plenty of room leftover in the Cadillac's trunk, even after he stowed all Mulder's gear.

Mulder was watching him, dubious and unsteady. "Why do you have Knight's car?"

"He left it behind." Stonetree opened the door. "Get in."

Mulder took a deep breath and just looked at Stonetree for a second. Stonetree tried to look like a guy who knew what he was doing. Mulder got in and fastened the lap-belt. "Kansas, huh?"

Stonetree had only driven the Cadillac once, when he'd put Nick's things into storage.

Marie had laughed at him when he'd raved about the smoothness of the ride.

She used to laugh a lot.

"Why *do* you have Detective Knight's car?"

"He left everything behind when he disappeared. It was the night his new partner died. And Natalie," the big man reminisced as he eased it out of the garage.

"What happened to them?"

"Captain Reese tried to blame Detective Vetter's death on Nick. A perp-in-custody got hold of somebody's gun."

"Nick's?" The Ex-FBI-man sounded skeptical.

Stonetree snorted. "Nah. No one's *that* fast. One of Reese's boys. But Nick was there when Tracy bought it, and Reese was spreading the blame around. The Commissioner had his head on a plate, regardless, but Nick was gone by then. Disappeared without a trace."

"What about Dr. Lambert?"

Stonetree stopped at an otherwise unoccupied red light, and eyed the Yank appraisingly. Then he returned his attention to the road.

"She was found on the floor of Nick's apartment. Drained of blood. She had two little holes in her neck."

"Damn," Mulder whispered.

Stonetree heaved a sigh. "Yeah."

They drove on a while in silence.

Then Stonetree said, "Let me tell you the legend of Naman and Segeeth."

***

Early Tuesday morning, Buffy was awakened by an excited toddler bouncing on her bed (well, actually it was Clark's bed, but he was sleeping in the barn loft while Buffy was staying with the Kents.) It was already hot, though nothing like how hot it would get later, and she'd tumbled Clark's blue sheet and red blanket off onto the floor during the night.

"Wake up!" Cara said importantly. "We're burnin' daylight!"

"Burnin' daylight, huh?" Buffy asked the little girl. "What does that even mean?"

Cara told her something long and involved about cows and getting up. Meanwhile, Buffy gathered an armful of blessedly clean clothes and her brand-new hairbrush, and headed for the bathroom. "It means everyone's up but you!" Cara finally finished.

"I better hurry and get dressed then," Buffy said brightly. Cara nodded enthusiastically. "'Scuse me!" Buffy chirped, closing the bathroom door before the girl could follow her in.

She heard Cara racing down the stairs, bellowing, "Mama! Buffy's up!"

"Oh, Cara!" began Mrs. Kent's reply, but Buffy lost the rest in laughing. Little sisters were all the same.

When Buffy got down to the kitchen, Clark and his dad were just finishing their breakfast. Mr. Kent was scowling at the newspaper, and Clark looked worried.

"It sounds like they just expect you to drop everything, and provide all the security for this dang political dog-and-pony show of theirs!" Jonathan exclaimed, throwing the paper down disgustedly and barely managing to not upset the milk. "With never a by-your-leave!" he fumed.

"I know, but what else can I do? It's the president of the United States!"

Mrs. Kent put a plate of eggs, fruit and toast on the table next to Cara, and beckoned for Buffy to sit. "So called," she commented.

"Now, Martha --" Jonathan began, but Clark interrupted.

"No matter what you think of the man, you gotta respect the office," Clark said. "And if he's in my city, I have to protect him."

Martha looked at Clark in surprise to hear him call Metropolis 'his city,' but Jonathan didn't seem to pick up on that part. "You have work to do here at home!" he insisted.

"Dad," Clark said, "I'll do what I have to do." He got up from the table and left the house.

"Me'n Buffy can do Clark's chores," Cara volunteered, face covered with jam. "We're very strong girls."

"Absolutely!" Buffy found herself agreeing. "I feel weird not helping out."

"That's settled then!" Cara declared with an enthusiastic nod.

Jonathan and Martha couldn't seem to help laughing at that.

***

Lex's early-morning meeting with his father's lawyers had gone about as well as could be expected. He thought perhaps Lionel selected them for their hostility. To be fair, some of them had been working for the Luthor family long enough to remember various legal problems he'd had during his misspent youth, but he certainly didn't intend to allow them any advantage from that.

Despite everything Dominic tried, it seemed clear that Lionel intended for Lex to manage LuthorCorp in the case of any sudden disability. Dominic tried his hardest to insinuate that Lex was responsible for Lionel's injuries, but all the police and medical reports were against him, and he finally had to resort to innuendo and pouting.

Lex was used to the innuendo, and Dominic didn't pout nearly as well as Clark did. The meeting ground to its inevitable conclusion; papers were signed; Dominic grudgingly turned over Lionel's day-planner (Lex wasn't about to trust Mr. Senatori to mind it for him) and Lex was free to step out into the blazing, sticky city summer and look for his car.

As he settled into the comfortable leather, he decided that he'd performed enough unpleasant duties for one morning. He'd postpone visiting Dad in the hospital until tomorrow, and putting the fear of Lex into Dad's LuthorCorp minions until after lunch, which he would have with someone nice.

Lex had gotten hands-free cell phones installed in all his cars. He made a quick reservation for two at his favorite downtown lunch spot. Then he called Metropolis University's main information number, and spent a few minutes being pleasant to assorted office workers before getting the number for Dawn's lab.

"Lab Seven."

"Dawn, it's Lex. Would you like to come out for an early lunch today?"

"Aren't you busy being a big-time tycoon?" she asked archly.

"I've done more double-talking this morning than most people do all day. I want a break, and I thought maybe you could come keep me company."

"I should be at a convenient stopping-point in about twenty-five minutes. I gotta warn you that I don't have time for any three-hour business lunch."

Lex laughed. "I'll come pick you up."

"Oooh! I can show you my doohickey! It's not finished, though."

"Great!" Lex chuckled. "See you soon."

***

Feeling torn was getting to be a way of life, Clark thought. He supposed he'd better get used to it.

"I wish I didn't have to ask you to do this," he said again.

"Clark!" Buffy exclaimed. She sounded like she was getting a little exasperated with him. "I already told you! This will be a vacation for me! If your dad's willing to let me have the chance to mess up his stuff --"

"It's really hard to break dirt, actually."

Buffy grinned at him for that one. "Well, good!" she declared. "'Cause I gotta tell you, my yard at home is pretty much a distressed area."

"I'm not worried about that. Mainly, I wanna make sure there's someone to help Dad with the two-man jobs. And, you know, don't let him, um...."

"Blow me off, over-do, and hurt himself. I get it."

"I'll do what I can at night, or --"

"Speaking as the more experienced evil-fighter, you prolly want to patrol Metropolis at night, and do your home-on-the-farm thing around, like 10 am to noonish. Take a nap after lunch. Once the prez is here, anyhow -- how much sleep do you need?"

It amused Clark to see the tiny blonde woman getting all 'as the more-experienced evil-fighter' on him, but he wasn't quite dumb enough to let her see that. "Less and less as I get older," he answered. "I haven't really checked out all my limits -- they seem to keep shifting. You know, it's really neat to have somebody to talk to about this stuff."

"Well, yeah. You sort of do need a Watcher, I guess. Otherwise you're just all on your own -- trial and error."

"Dawn told me a little about Mr. Giles. He sounds like a good guy. I wasn't all on my own, though. My folks and then Pete always helped, and there was a lot of stuff kind of written in the caves."

"As keen as cryptic underground prophecies can be, I still think it works out better with an actual person to tell you stuff."

"I guess it's a good thing I grew up in Smallville. Local mutants to practice on." Local mutants that are all my fault, Clark thought.

"Not your fault, doofus!" Buffy said, whapping him on the arm just hard enough to feel. Clark wondered if Slayers could read alien minds. Stranger things had happened. "You were *three*! Cara's age! You wouldn't blame her for something like that! Now, show me how this farm-stuff works."

"Okay. Right." Clark effortlessly lifted another huge milk can up into the back of the truck. Buffy watched how he arranged it neatly against the others, then copied him. She seemed to handle it easily. "It's a little old-fashioned," Clark said. "The big dairy operations use tanker trucks, but the organic creamery outside Grandville does business with small farmers all over the county, and we're kind of idiosyncratic."

"Understatement!" Buffy commented.

Clark flashed her a grin. "So you can load up the truck and deliver the milk while Dad's disassembling and sterilizing the milking machine."

"Which is the skilled job," Buffy put in, hoisting another umpteen-gallon can. "I'm no good at all with machinery invented after about 1520, but I *can* drive. Finally. Stick, even!"

Clark put up the last can and showed her how to secure the back. "Great!" he said. "Why don't you drive, and I'll give you directions, and then tomorrow you'll know just how to get there!"

"Sounds like a plan!"

*********

Lex found that picking his way through the dimly-lit subterranean corridors leading to Lab Seven was unexpectedly enjoyable. Who knew that cheap linoleum and grubby institutional cinderblock walls could evoke a sense of nostalgia in him? From the inside, this low-level laboratory building strongly resembled the ones he'd known as an undergraduate. Briefly, he considered lunching with Dawn wherever it was that she usually ate, but he discarded the notion almost immediately. It was almost sure to be somewhere greasy and cheap, and he wasn't nineteen any more.

The door to Dawn's lab, like most of the others along this hallway, was wide open. Lex politely stopped at the threshold and said, "Knock knock."

Dawn stopped frowning at her apparatus and looked round. Her shiny brown hair gleamed warmly in the cheap fluorescent light as she swung her gaze up to meet his eyes. "Who's there?" she teased.

Lex chuckled, partly at the lame joke, but mainly because it felt so good to see a friendly face after spending the morning with the LuthorCorp lawyers. "Your lunch date. Ready to go?"

"Just about. I wanna run this once and record the --" Dawn squeaked and fell off her lab stool when the apparatus made a loud popping noise and showered the workbench with sparks. The lights wavered and went out all up and down the corridor, and the dim yellow emergency-lights came on.

Lex hurried to Dawn's side and helped her to her feet. "Was it supposed to do that?" he asked dryly.

"No!" she sputtered. "There's no flipping way that could have happened! It was set to -- well, okay, if there had been a dimensional rift *right here*, at the *same moment* I put the power to it, but I'm sure I would have *noticed* Olaf the Troll suddenly popping into my lab!

"Maybe somebody else was pulling almost enough electricity to pop the breaker already, and you just pushed it over the edge," Lex suggested.

"I guess," Dawn said dubiously, as she set all the switches to OFF and then, brow wrinkled in thought, disconnected the power cable. Lex politely ushered her out, but she stopped a few paces down the corridor and turned back to close and lock the door.

Most of the other lab doors they passed had been left open when their researchers had abandoned their work after the power failure.

Lex decided he'd have to get considerably more information on this little project of Dawn's over lunch.

*********

"This is a terrific lunch, Mrs. Kent," Buffy said.

"Call me Martha, Buffy," Clark's Mom told her.

It's like there's light in her when she smiles, Clark thought, passing round the biscuits. It's more there than it was in Sunnydale, and it was almost gone when I picked her up in LuthorCorp Tower, but it's coming back for sure. No wonder Dawn was so happy yesterday that I made her laugh.

"Earth to Clark?" There was that laugh again.

"Huh?" Clark asked brilliantly.

"The milk, please?" Buffy repeated politely. Now Mom and Dad were laughing, too, and Cara was practically crowing.

Clark felt his face go red. Oh, well. Someday he'd probably learn how to listen and think and maybe even do a few things all at the same time. It couldn't be *that* much harder than flying.

"The baked goods are cooling," Mom said. "If you want to learn the delivery route, Buffy, you'd better go along with Clark this afternoon."

"I'm looking forward to it." Yeah, cute sure ran in Dawn's family.

"I'm comin' too!" Cara declared. She had jam on her face again.

"Now, sweetie, you need to take a nap after lunch," Mom said reasonably.

Clark would've been willing to bet cash money that Cara's next words would be something like "No I don't; I'm big now!"

The little girl surprised him and his folks by saying instead, "Uh huh, I know. I'm done. May I please be excused?"

"You sure that's all you want, honey? Everybody else is still eatin' dinner," Dad smiled at her.

"I finished my milk, and if I take my nap now right away, I might wake up in time to go with Buffy 'n' Clark." She put her chin up and tried to look tall.

Dad chuckled, and Mom smiled. "All righty, then," Dad told her. "Remember to wash your hands and face before you go lie down."

"I will," Cara promised. She took her plate and cup to the sink, and then headed on upstairs.

Clark noticed Buffy looking quietly proud. "Did you tell her to do that?" he asked.

"I just told her that people would be more willing to treat her like a grown-up if she does the things she knows she has to without complaining. Nobody likes a whiner, and it never does any good anyway."

"That's very wise," Mom said softly. She was looking at Buffy sort of the way she looked at Lex sometimes, like she wished she was their Mom, too.

"Well, you know. Wisdom's what happens when you forget to duck. Besides, I might need Cara along delivering stuff. She says she never gets lost."

"Yup. Must be a Kryptonian thing." Clark knew he always sounded a little smug when he referred, no matter how indirectly, to Cara's abilities. Saving her and Mom had been the first time he'd come up with a plan, a good, quick plan that had really worked. Before that, he'd never thought that was a skill he even might have, but it turned out that, as Superman anyhow, he could do that a lot.

"If only it were a Slayer thing," Buffy said wryly.

***************

Mulder awoke with a start. His eyes felt gritty, and he might be hung-over. It only took a moment for him to remember everything. "Where are we?" he rasped.

"Tourist Information Center, Steuben County, Indiana," his companion rumbled. Ex-Captain Stonetree, or rather Joe, was stretching and twisting in his seat, making the whole car move, despite its impressive suspension. The engine was stopped; they were parked in front of a nicely-landscaped, modern-looking building with a lot of dark-tinted windows.

It was a hot day, bright and humid. The 1962 Caddy didn't have a working air-conditioner. Stonetree opened his door and got out, grunting. "Gotta stretch my legs a little," he told Mulder, bending over awkwardly to get his head back in through the window. "You go on back to sleep if you want."

Mulder didn't feel like sleeping any more. He got out, too, first double-checking that the doors were locked, that Joe had taken the keys, and that the windows were mostly closed, then followed Joe into the building. It was cool inside. Joe headed straight for the Men's Room, and Mulder tagged along. There was nobody else around. Mulder ignored the sounds coming from Joe's stall, and ran cold water on his arms, splashing his face. Yeah, hung-over. Eventually he just put his head under the tap.

Finally Stonetree finished. "Aah," he said, approaching the sink. As he washed up, he looked at Mulder in concern. "You okay, Fox?" he asked.

Mulder straightened up and shook the water off. Oog. Shaking like that had been a mistake. "What about the end of the world?"

"Don't worry. We're on it." Mulder wished he shared the old man's confidence. "There's an EconoLodge outside Fort Wayne. We'll get four-five hours' sleep, then continue on to find the caves."

"What?" Mulder protested. "We don't have time for that!"

"Sure we do. More haste less speed. I'm about too tired to steer, and you can't drive. Look at you."

Mulder had to admit the old guy had a point, but he didn't have to admit it out loud. "We're up against a pretty serious deadline here, Joe."

"Yeah, I know. Don't worry. We'll get there; we'll get help. If we crash the car in Indiana, Naman and Segeeth will have no warning."

Mulder knew he was clinging to straws. He'd never heard of this Kawatche legend before, and Stonetree seemed to be taking this all too calmly. He had an ace up his sleeve, though. It was a slimmer chance than Nick Knight had been; Mulder had seen the vampire cop fight alien invaders with his own eyes. However, there were stories out of Kansas, some woman at the *Metropolis Daily Planet* claimed that city had a superhero, an alien protector who flew around in garish tights and a cape, helping the helpless. If he weren't just a circulation ploy, and if Mulder could get to him, he might be enough to turn the tide. It wasn't any worse a hope than anything else. He was still in there swinging.

And on his way to Kansas.

************

"This is a nice lunch place," Dawn commented, eyebrows raised. There hadn't been anything on the menu under fifteen dollars. She was glad she'd worn the green cap-sleeve top this morning, instead of a tee-shirt with cartoon animals or witty sayings, and that her ratty gym shorts had suffered a catastrophic oatmeal encounter, forcing a change to the more-respectable khakis.

Lex did that infuriatingly elegant almost-shrug thing of his. His only concession to the weather was that his pale lavender business shirt had one button open at the throat, and he wasn't wearing a tie. "I'm incredibly curious about your research," he said with an ingratiating smile.

"I'm incredibly curious about what happened back there!" Dawn declared. "I was thinking about it again on the ride over." She did not add that she'd been using her speculations to avoid paying attention to their certain imminent deaths, based on the driving habits of the Metropolis populace. "Even if there had been a high load average on the lab electrical system, it shouldn't have gone like that. We could've blown a fuse, sure, well, flipped a circuit breaker really, but those sparks mean something else."

"So it's a dimensional rift detector?"

"It's an interdimensional transport device. Well, it will be, when it's finished." Dawn knocked the underside of the table for luck. "The number one thing is the steering, of course."

"Of course," Lex murmured.

"No, really! Dimensional travel itself isn't all that hard. There are spells for it, at least, and they work. Well, kind of. Mostly. Anyhow, I'm *sure* I can figure that part out. But even a hot witch who knows exactly what she's doing has trouble with the steering. Willow once said it's like trying to hit a puppy by throwing a live bee at it, and since I've been working on the problem I've decided she was being optimistic. She left out the blindfold, and the cross-wind, and the bee-booze, and the herds of rampaging bunnies." Dawn noticed the waiter staring at her, and stared back until he put down their orders and left.

"So you're working on the guidance system first."

"Exactly! There has to be a certain topology of the n-dimensional surfaces, and I've put together an algorithm and a detector. A few years ago it would have been impossible to even think of mapping anything that complex with a computer, but linking a few PC's even, is just about fast enough now. The detector's the thing, the first main big thing, because nobody before has even thought of trying it."

"That's what blew up on you today."

"Yes! See, witches don't traditionally think of a technological process, and tech guys typically don't know anything about this stuff. But I was practically brought up by Willow Rosenberg, and she's the shiznits in both. Plus I'm the -- well, I've always had a special feeling for dimensional stuff. Once they got into real actual math and science at school, instead of all that picture-book-counting-group-save-the-panda-bears stuff they used from K through ten, I could *see* how it all related, and I had Willow there to explain the tricky parts."

"I assume you'll be calling her wondering what happened."

"No kidding. Well. What it could have been would be -- here." Dawn pushed her plate out of the way and took a notebook out of her bag. Lex leaned over a little to look at what she was writing. "This is the distance equation. First approx, anyhow." Their meals grew cold as she defined her terms and explained the derivations. Lex really seemed to be following along. Nobody else but Willow had ever let her go on for five minutes of this stuff without glazing over and telling her to stop. Smart, as well as gorgeous and rich -- she sure hoped Buffy would get to keep him.

Lex put his hand on the paper. "Here. Look at this term. You said we would've noticed Alfy the Troll --"

"Olaf," Dawn corrected quietly.

Lex went on as if he hadn't heard her. "-- suddenly appearing in the lab. But if the disturbance were large enough, it could have the same effect from much farther away."

"Ooh!" He was right, of course. Dawn flipped over to the grid side of the paper and quickly started estimating a mass-distance curve. "So here, and here.... Troll in the same room, elephant in the building (which I also think we would've noticed), building on campus -- did you notice any new buildings as we were driving out, Lex?"

"Appearing or disappearing?"

"Aircraft carrier somewhere in this country --"

"We'll have to check the newspapers in the morning," Lex smirked. She got the feeling he wasn't exactly taking this seriously.

"Small asteroid in orbit, Death Star in the Oort Cloud."

Lex just looked at her. She double-checked her figures, with a growing and familiar sensation at the back of her neck. Did worldwide catastrophes just *follow* her from state to state?

"Darn," Dawn said faintly.

Now Lex looked a little more serious. He pulled her paper over to his place, and studied the equations more closely.

"It doesn't necessarily mean anything," Dawn tried to convince herself, and failed woefully. "It could have just been a power system thing. Maybe. Or...."

Lex's expression was one she'd seen on Xander's face sometimes, and on Buffy's. He looked like someone who knew that the worst explanation was the most likely to be true. She wondered how his life had been worse than Clark's, that he could wear that face and Clark never did.

"We don't know anything from just one data point."

That made sense. "I'll fix my apparatus. I have to before Saturday, anyhow."

Lex finally began eating his lunch, so Dawn followed suit. "I'll help," he promised.

*****************

Cara's big plan worked just as she'd hoped it would. She woke up from her nap and tore downstairs, and Mama was just putting the last box of cake and pie and stuff in the front seat.

"Mama! I'm awake! Can I come too?"

Mama looked around as if she hadn't seen Cara before. Clark and Daddy came round from the barn, and Buffy was tagging along with. "There you are, sweetie!" Mama gave her a squeeze.

"Hey, Cara! Glad you're up! Buffy was just asking about you," Clark said. Cara squiggled free from Mama's hug.

"Can I come?" she repeated.

Buffy smiled brightly at her. "I know I'll be glad to have you along!"

Daddy brought over the booster seat from Mama's little car. Buffy shoved the boxes around to make room. Cara bounced up and down. Mama said, "Cara, you better go use the bathroom first." Cara almost argued, but she saw Buffy looking at her, and remembered what she said before.

When she got back, Clark boosted her into the booster seat and put the seatbelt on. Buffy got in next to her. Cara told her to put her seatbelt on, too. Clark got in. Cara told him to put his seatbelt on. Clark laughed, but he did what she said!

"Okay, Cara, you pay attention to the route. Tomorrow I'm driving it, and you'll have to help me not get lost," Buffy said.

"Okay!" Cara felt proud. She waved bye to Mama and Daddy.

Then all three of them drove away to do the deliveries.

******************

"So, you deliver stuff all over the place here," Buffy said at last, when they were done and on their way back to the Kents'.

"That's how we keep in business," Clark said. Cara was diligently watching out the windows. They'd told her that she was the navigator for the next day's delivery run, and then they'd explained what a navigator was. She had promised to "not let Buffy get lost."

"To Metropolis, too. I saw you take off with some stuff when Cara was napping."

"Yeah." Clark was silent for a little while, eyes responsibly on the road. Then he sighed loudly and said, "Buffy?"

"Right here," she chirped.

"Lex told me you once said that the Sunnydale Police had a 'strict anti-Buffy policy.' I've never really run into that before. But now.... I was in Metropolis to make my deliveries, while Cara was sleeping and you and Mom were making up the boxes. So, I changed into, you know, and I went to just kind of get the lay of the land, for when the President's here. That's less than a week! And when I went around checking stuff out, there were these guys...."

"Secret Service?"

"Yeah, I guess. I went to talk to them first, 'cause, you know, cooperation with legitimate law enforcement authorities is important."

Buffy raised her eyebrows in disbelief, but she managed not to comment out loud. Clark looked really upset about this. She reminded herself that he was a kid; okay, yes, huge and hulking and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but not really any more mature than Dawn.

"They pulled their guns on me! They said get lost or they'd call out the Air National Guard! They threatened to arrest me! You'd think that Superman worked for Al Qaeda or something!"

Buffy tried not to laugh at how outraged he was. She failed.

Fortunately, her laughter made Clark smile instead of getting even more upset. "How do you deal with that?" he asked.

"What did you do?"

"I put my hands out to look harmless and backed off slowly, like with a mad dog or something. I *hope* they wouldn't have opened fire in the middle of the doggone *city*, but by then I wasn't any too sure. Then I did my surveillance and got a little idea of what was what from a lot further away, so they couldn't see me and get all hysterical again. I didn't stay long, 'cause I had to get home. I'll check them out some more tomorrow, staying further back."

"Sounds good. I always try to go *around* the police, or authorities of any kind, really. Just avoid them. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't."

"What do you do if it doesn't?"

"Break out of jail and take care of what I have to. Just 'cause they're jerks doesn't mean I get to ditch my sacred duty."

"Yeah." Clark nodded and looked like he was thinking it over. "You know? Another thing -- they weren't setting up the way I would have."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, when there's somebody you need to protect, or something, there's a way you go about scoping out the area and setting up your watchpoints. They were doing something else."

"I don't really have any grasp of the Theory-of-Bodyguarding. Shouldn't the Secret Service be good at it, though? Maybe they, if you don't mind my saying so, know how to do it better than you do?"

"Maybe. But.... Maybe."

"How do you deal with the regular everyday cops?" Buffy asked.

"Some of 'em like me; some of 'em don't, but leave me do my work anyhow. I guess I mostly go around, like you said. I get along great with the Fire Department, though!"

Buffy laughed again. "Yeah, firefighters are cool! Once I thought maybe I could get a job doing that, but somehow it never worked out."

"I'm gonna be a fireman when I grow up!" Cara declared importantly.

"Good for you!" Buffy told her. Cara was still watching the landmarks (which mainly consisted of five-foot-high stalks of corn in all directions) so they wouldn't get lost tomorrow. "Can I come visit you in your firehouse then?"

"Yes!"

They drove in silence for another little while. The weathered wooden sign for Kent Organic Farm came into view.

"I wonder what the Metropolis Police think of these alleged Secret Service guys?" Buffy wondered out loud.

"Huh," Clark said thoughtfully. "Maybe I should find out."

As they drove into the lane, Cara squealed, "There's Mama!"

"Clark! Buffy!" Mrs. Kent called, waving.

Clark parked the truck, and everybody got out. Cara launched herself at her mother, who caught her with a big smile and an exaggerated "oof!"

"Clark, sweetie, Dawn just called from Metropolis. She and Lex think there's a problem."

**********

"*That* went well," Mulder sniped as they left the Lowell County Sheriff's Office, bright and early Wednesday morning.

"Woman needs more fiber in her diet," Stonetree agreed.

They'd arrived in Smallville late Tuesday night, had no luck finding the caves or the tribe that Stonetree claimed should be here, and had finally checked into Smallville's one old-fashioned motel, at the edge of its picturesque small-town business district.

Mulder stopped in a patch of sunlight and stretched. It was tiring, believing again that the world might be saved. His companion's truly impressive snoring when they'd stopped to sleep didn't help. "What now, Chief?"

"Don't call me Chief," Joe rumbled. "I know there's a reservation around here somewhere. The Kawatche *should* be able to tell us what we need to know."

The scent of coffee reached out from a nearby -- movie theater? Whatever. Coffee would be good. "Maybe they can tell us something in here," Mulder suggested. "Coffee shop."

"Good idea."

The inside of the old cinema's lobby had been remodeled into an oddly-decorated coffee bar.

"Sort of an Art Deco/The Mummy's Revenge theme," Mulder commented.

"Fox, be nice," Joe muttered.

A tiny dark-haired girl in pink greeted them with a blinding smile. "Gentlemen. What can I do for you?"

"We'd like a table and a couple of coffees," Mulder said.

"And any information you can give us about the Kawatche Caves," Stonetree added.

She blinked at them for a moment. Then the smile returned. Mulder felt a definite shock. This young woman *knew* something; he'd half-convinced himself that Stonetree's lead was a total wild goose chase. Small Midwestern town with secrets -- it was familiar, and he felt his investigator's instincts waking up, pins-and-needles, like a sleeping foot.

"Right this way," she said, gesturing them to a small table by the kitchen door. "I'll have to make a ph -- I have some things I need to do, but someone will bring your coffee shortly." The girl disappeared into the kitchen.

"Toldja somebody'd know something," Stonetree gloated.

"*I* picked the coffee shop. Think she'll talk to us?"

"I'm sure we can rely on your natural charm," Joe retorted, almost with a straight face.

The girl didn't come back. At least the coffee was good.

**************

"I'm Lex Luthor, here to visit Lionel Luthor. Someone should have called earlier."

The woman at the desk checked some papers. "Yes, Mr. Luthor..."

"Lex."

She darted her eyes up at him, and he forced a smile. She smiled back. "Lex. Follow the purple line to the elevators. It's 437, on the fourth floor. Please don't stay more than half an hour."

"Don't worry, I won't."

Lex didn't want to be there. After yesterday's lunch with Dawn, he'd done another seven hours at LuthorCorp. It would have been even longer if Clark hadn't showed up with pie and flowers. Clark forced Lex out of work and over to the University, where they dragged Dawn out of the lab and sat down to a dorm supper of cereal and milk, followed by Mrs. Kent's wonderful rhubarb pie. Over dinner, they'd all agreed (including Buffy on the phone from Smallville) that there was probably nothing to be done about any possible space invasion until it got close enough to see. Then Clark pouted until Lex had to accept the roses his mother had sent, *and* made him promise to deliver them to Lionel the next day. Finally Clark, proxy-mother-henning accomplished, had Supermanned off, leaving Lex and Dawn to foolishly go back to her lab and work on the damaged interdimensional apparatus until three a.m.

He still didn't know why he'd ignored Clark's parting instructions to "get some rest." Maybe the bossy red-and-blue persona just brought out his inner rebellious brat. In any case, he'd ended up with only three hours' sleep.

Lex had made the resulting bad temper work *for* him. Every LuthorCorp employee he'd seen that morning had come away from the encounter with a certain sense of caution.

Lex wished he could just leave Lionel to his own devices in the hospital, to recover or not without Lex's assistance. He knew that would be dangerous, though. Dad was at his most devious whenever he seemed helpless -- look at that whole ugly prior episode of 'blindness.'

Besides, he'd gotten one incoherent phone message from Lana already that morning, warning him that his dad had a couple of hired goons going around Smallville to try and get the Kawatche Caves away from LexCorp again. That whole stupid tug-of-war had become pretty damn important, once he knew what Clark really was, what the ancient Indian information in the caves really meant. He couldn't let Lionel get that much leverage over Clark. He had to find out what the old bastard was up to.

Unfortunately, the show of temper that had worked so well on the minions probably wouldn't work on Dad. Lionel had better be thoroughly debilitated by his injuries, or this upcoming conversation was going to be horribly one-sided.

The door was (what else?) purple. Lex squared his shoulders and went in.

Lionel was propped up in the bed. The broken arm was encased in an elaborate brace, and the other arm was hooked to an IV and a couple of monitors. His ruined eyes were heavily bandaged.

Lex couldn't tell whether he was awake or not. The uncertainty was strangely disturbing.

"Dad?" Lex asked quietly.

Lionel started. "Who's there? Lex?"

Lex sighed and sat down in the bedside visitor's chair. "Yeah, it's me. What can I do for you?"

"Lex," the old man rasped. He moved restlessly and stretched out his good arm, trailing tubes and wires. Lex could only stand to watch his father's blind groping for a moment before taking his hand.

"I'm right here, Dad."

"Don't tell your mother."

"What?" Lex asked, startled and a little horrified.

"She doesn't need to know. About Rachel. Tell her it was a disgruntled employee. She'll believe you. And it's even true." Lionel's attempt at a carefree chuckle was horrible to hear. He didn't sound like he was shamming.

Of course, he wouldn't.

Lex couldn't think of anything to say.

"She hasn't been to visit. She must be furious. Tell her, it's... It's not what she thinks. I...." Lionel's head rolled back and forth against the pillow. "Is it the baby? They don't allow children during visitors' hours. She should leave him with that damn friend of hers. The nanny. Why?"

"It's okay, Dad," Lex interrupted. He hesitantly put his free hand on his father's forehead. Lionel quit tossing at his son's touch. Lex didn't think a forehead should feel that blazing hot. "I'm going to go get a nurse, now."

"No," Lionel protested. His grip tightened on Lex's hand, but it was weak, and Lex untangled himself without much difficulty. This was worse than the time after the tornado.

"I'm just going to get a nurse. It'll only take a moment. I promise."

Lionel's voice followed him out of the room. "Lex! You have to tell her!"

Lex got a nurse, then slipped silently away while she busied herself with his father's IV. If Lionel wasn't behind the inquiries about the caves, who was?

***

Lt. Maggie Sawyer's office was on the third floor of Metropolis PD HQ downtown. Superman loitered within a mile of the building, X-ray-telescopic-vision peering, for almost an hour before she was there and alone.

In that time, he stopped one mugging, scowled effectively at a guy who was about to slug his girlfriend, and rescued a kitten from a tree.

He also kept a long-distance eye on the Secret Service preparations. They *still* didn't look right, and he was getting seriously worried. The President of the United States was due to arrive in just a few days.

Finally, the Lieutenant seemed available, and Superman sped to her window. He stopped and gave himself a second before stepping collectedly onto the sill. Fortunately, the building was old enough to have windows that actually opened, and they were always ajar in the summertime.

"Superman," Lt. Sawyer said in a long-suffering voice. "Just what this day needed."

Clark Kent would have ducked and stammered at a greeting like that. Superman was made of sterner stuff. "I take it you've had words with the Secret Service," he guessed.

"They've had words with me," she snapped.

For a minute or two, the only sound was the angry slamming of file cabinet drawers. Superman had picked up the knack of not speaking just to fill awkward silences. It came in mighty handy when he wanted someone to tell him something.

"It doesn't make any sense!" Maggie finally exploded. "These are Secret Service Agents! I was *looking forward* to working with them! Seeing how they do things, you know?" Lt. Sawyer looked at Superman for understanding, and he nodded.

He knew exactly what she meant; he'd also been curious and excited about meeting the President's security teams. Clark felt kind of warm inside, too, that Sawyer would talk to him like this, like a person, like maybe even a friend.

"And it's *not* that I don't *understand*!" Maggie continued. "These are *not* 'innovative new safety precautions'!!! This is just plain nuts! Do they *want* someone to get him?"

Clark blinked. Now, there was an idea. Maggie stopped ranting around the office and looked thoughtful. "You don't suppose that's it, do you?" she ventured. "Like a palace coup?"

Superman crossed his arms and looked big. "That's not the American Way." Then he sighed. "It does make a certain amount of sense, though. Darn. Why'd they have to...."

He cut himself off before he could finish the unworthy thought, but Maggie completed the sentence for him anyway. "...Pull this crap in our town?"

He was so happy at the use of that 'our', because Maggie Sawyer had always been one of the cops who hated having Superman around. He smiled at her, and it was the Clark Kent smile. Whoops. Oh, well. She'd never met Clark Kent but the once, and that was years ago -- he didn't recall having smiled much that day anyhow.

Maggie smiled back at him, ruefully, and that was neat, too. "Damned if I'm gonna let 'em get away with that here. How 'bout you?"

"I wholeheartedly agree," Superman said.

"That's that, then. Even the U.S. Secret Service can't take out a man once Metropolis PD *and* Superman have sworn to protect him. Why don't you go make yourself useful; I've got work to do." The words weren't that friendly, but she waved to him as he flew away.

***

Clark Kent leaned over the archaic coin-operated pay-phone, counting rings. "C'mon, c'mon." No one was answering at home. Everybody must be busy outside in the fields. He glanced up and through a bunch of buildings to where the G-men (T-men?) were still fiddling around.

"Dang!" He hung up and tried another number he knew by heart.

"Lex Luthor."

"Lex! It's me, Clark. Do you think -- can you get a message to Buffy?"

"I can certainly try. She's not at the farm?"

"No one's answering. Tell her that Lt. Sawyer of Metro PD agrees with me about those Secret Service guys. It's like they're setting up for the President to be vulnerable to attack on purpose."

"Like a palace coup?"

"That's just what Maggie said! Lt. Sawyer, I mean."

"Hmm." Lex sounded like he was mulling over the fact that Clark had used the lieutenant's first name. Clark's face got hot, and he thought he might be in for a severe teasing, or even some real trouble, if Lex told Dawn and Dawn got mad. But what Lex said instead was "You hero-types really should carry cell phones."

***

Dawn tried again to twist her hair up into a bun. How the heck did Buffy and Anya and Mom make it look so easy? Must be a blonde thing. Exasperated, she stabbed a pencil through it, and it stayed up! Huzzah! Encouraged by this extremely minor success, she returned to the smoking ruins of her interdimensional transporter.

Several hours passed.

"Crap crap crappity crap," Dawn fumed.

"Very eloquent." Lex was lounging nattily in her lab doorway. She didn't know how long he'd been there.

"Just the brilliant young billionaire I was looking for!" she greeted him. "Hold that, wouldja?"

Lex obligingly held the awkward wire-harness in place while Dawn struggled with the connector. "Think you can get it working again?"

"Of course! Well, kinda. The detector didn't do anything too exciting when I put the power to it again, which my advisor said he appreciates. I think I fritzed some components. But if this doesn't -- stand back, huh?"

Lex stood back. Dawn flipped the power strip switch to ON. No flames, sparks, or smoke resulted.

"Hah!"

"Success?"

"Well, lack of catastrophic failure, anyway. It means I just need to get some fresh capacitors, maybe a new heat sink --"

She was interrupted by a loud POP! All the room's lights went out.

"Darn."

"Circuit breakers?"

"I hope."

There ensued a short interval during which the power strip was shut off again, and the circuit breakers were located and re-set. Lighting restored, Dawn stared at her apparatus in annoyance.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Lex said.

"Yeah, well, whatcha gonna do. The field of mad science is fraught with mishap."

Dawn heard the suppressed laughter in Lex's "That's very true," but she chose not to comment on it.

"I *still* have to get this working by Saturday -- end of the month milestone."

"Not to mention needing it in case of possible Death Stars."

Dawn rolled her eyes and blew her hair off of her forehead. "I wasn't going to mention that."

***

Farmwork? Kinda hard, kinda not. It sure wasn't much like Slaying.

Buffy thought she could have made it to the creamery and back even without Cara's help. Eventually. After all, it was a straight shot to Grandville, and there were road signs and everything. It was a good thing that Martha and Jonathan didn't really need any help hooking up and unhooking the milking thingies to the cows, 'cause Buffy had found that to be both complicated and gross, just from looking around at them doing the work. She wished she could be more help, but Clark's folks seemed to have everything under control, so she guessed it was fine.

One thing she actually had some experience at, even though it was fictional experience made up by monks, was baby-sitting. Cara was a helpful little kid, but she was still a little kid, and it was easy to see that keeping her out of Martha's hair while she ran the home-baking business and did the bookkeeping for the farm was a worthwhile service for real.

Xander's ideal of Buffy's Kansas Vacation might be kind of goofy, but she sure was getting caught up on her sleep. Buffy's contribution to the Lex-Dawn-Clark teleconference thing the night before had mainly been big silly-sounding yawns, and she'd been fast asleep at an hour when she'd typically just be locating the evening's first prey, back home. It was kind of cool.

She'd ended up napping when Cara did again, too, although that wasn't quite as much fun when it didn't involve waking up right next to Lex. She wished she hadn't been too out-of-it to enjoy that, Monday afternoon.

There was plenty of food; Mrs. Kent seemed to think Buffy needed feeding up. Mr. Kent hadn't balked at her helping him with the hay or the tractor. Plus, there was pie.

Everything seemed to be working out fine.

Of course, that usually meant trouble.

"You sure you know the route for these deliveries?" Jonathan asked, as he and Buffy hauled the last box of fresh organic vegetables into the truck bed. "I could come along; there are more stops today than there were yesterday when Clark showed you around."

"I've got the map, and I have Cara."

"Yay!" Cara interjected.

"Besides, you need to catch the cows and milk them again, don't you? I totally can't be much help with that. Honestly. I think we'll be fine. Right, Cara?" Buffy smiled at the little girl, who was wiping her hands on her cute little overalls, in imitation of her daddy.

"Right!"

****

"It must be around here somewhere."

"You've been saying that for the last hour," Mulder sniped. He spat another sunflower seed shell out the window.

"Hmm. More like thirty-forty minutes," Stonetree argued, eyes on the road.

"It's pitch-black out here. It's the middle of nowhere. The only way we'll find these caves is if we crash into them."

Stonetree could've pointed out that the sun was barely down, but he stayed silent instead. He was starting to wonder whether the end of the human race was really such a bad thing.

Suddenly he heard something. Fox's head snapped around, too. "You hear that?"

"Screaming. Over thataway."

Stonetree spun the wheel and accelerated. "Let's go."

***

They weren't *exactly* lost. Cara said she knew which direction the farm was in, and how far away it was, and Buffy believed her. The problem was there was no *road* going that way, hadn't been for an hour or more, and now it was definitely getting dark.

They were *approximately* lost.

Buffy kept driving, hoping for a road that would head the direction Cara kept pointing.

"Buffy! It's *that* way!"

"I know!" Buffy took a deep breath. Do Not Snap at the Toddler. "We need to find a *road* that way, sweetie."

"Oh." Cara quit bouncing, but she kept pointing. Then she started bouncing again. "Are we gonna miss supper?"

"I'm sure your mom will save us something. Have you ever been on this street before?"

Cara shrugged. "Maybe."

They weren't surrounded by corn any more. Buffy had no idea if they were even still in Kansas. Weren't all these Eastern states awfully small? The road entered a bunch of trees -- woodlot or forest or something -- old and dark and spooky and absolutely deserted.

Buffy started to get a bad feeling about this place, which was only made stronger when the truck's headlights revealed a fallen tree blocking the road. Huh. She stopped the truck and looked at Cara.

The little girl wasn't pointing anymore. She was all huddled together in her booster seat and looked cold.

"You okay?"

"Nuh uh." Cara shook her head.

There had been lightning bugs visible in the bushes and fields beside the road ever since it got dark, but now Buffy noticed there were a *lot* of them surrounding the fallen tree trunk.

They seemed bigger and greener than the ones at the Kents' place.

"Let's turn around," Buffy decided.

She carefully maneuvered the big truck around. The swarm of weird glowy bugs surged ominously around outside her windshield, making it a little hard to see. Almost immediately, Buffy got her rear wheels into the ditch. They spun uselessly.

"Bugger it!" she swore. Embarrassed, she looked at Cara. The little girl hadn't noticed Buffy's peculiar choice of bad language. She had her knees drawn up, and her arms wrapped around them, and she was starting to whimper.

"Ohhh. Don't worry. I'll just pull the truck out of the ditch, maybe turn it around by hand; we'll go back the way we came and find our way home like that." Buffy turned off the ignition and put the truck in Neutral. She might be a sucky driver, but she did have a fair amount of experience with *pushing* vehicles.

The second she opened her door, a bunch of the fireflies came flying in. She dratted and swatted at them, not too concerned ('They're just bugs' still reassuring her, even though these particular bugs seemed sort of extra odd) but then Cara started to scream.

The green flashing bugs converged on the terrified child. They seemed to become brighter and greener as they did. Cara screamed and screamed. Buffy instantly slammed the door shut to keep out the rest of the swarm, and started killing insects.

Cara's scream became thin and hopeless, and her flailing arms weak and ineffective. Her skin had gone all greenish and corrugated-looking.

The bugs were no match for the Slayer's lightning-quick hands. Even dead, though, they seemed to hurt the little girl. Buffy cleaned the bug goo off Cara's arms and hands -- fortunately, none had gotten squished on her face -- wiped her own hands clean, balled up the flannel shirt of Clark's she'd been using as a cleaning rag and threw into the far corner of the truck cab. Then she freed the sobbing toddler from her booster seat and gathered her into her lap.

Just bugs my ass, she thought.

There were still about a million glowing insects surging around outside the truck. No way she was opening the door again. Cara still looked sick and shaky, and Buffy couldn't get her to stop crying, but at least her skin looked like skin again.

Stupid demonic bugs.

***

"Worst case scenario --"

"Always a good place to start."

"There are big space monsters, or something, that have bamfed into orbit --"

"Not orbit."

"Huh?"

"Someone would have noticed something suddenly appearing in orbit. I like your original Oort Cloud idea."

"Like?" Dawn's eyebrows shot up.

Lex shook his head ruefully and gave her a tiny, tight little smile. "Not really."

"Check. How long does it take to get from the Oort Cloud to here, I wonder?"

"Depends on the speed, of course. Hand me that soldering iron, please?"

"I really appreciate your help with this."

"Keeps my mind off... things. Like why the Kents and your sister don't answer the phone. It might prove extremely helpful, as well, vital even, if our worst suspicions prove correct."

"We need some sort of nearer, less-depending-on-catching-them-at-just-the-right-moment detection thing. That is also not broken."

"There are telescopes, both land and space-based, which might very well detect any possible ships. Not just anyone has access, however."

The two worked in silence for a few moments.

"You know, everybody in the Astronomy Department just *loves* Clark."

"I bet. Is it time to try phoning again?"

"It's only been five minutes. Don't people in Smallville, like, go outside and stuff?"

"I could've driven there by now."

"Lex. She's the Slayer. It's not like you being there would help. Sorry. Tactless. But you know what I mean."

Lex sighed and tested another circuit.

***

The screaming had stopped some time ago, but Joe kept driving.

After longer than Mulder thought reasonable, they came upon a battered pickup truck stopped in the road, its way blocked by a fallen tree.

"Stay here," Stonetree cautioned. Of course, Mulder ignored him.

The two ex-cops got out of Knight's left-behind Cadillac. They cautiously approached the stalled truck. Mulder swatted at some local insects in irritation.

The truck was stuck halfway in the ditch. Apparently the driver had failed to turn it around. There was a young blonde woman cradling a little kid in the driver's seat.

"Get out, and we'll help you with your truck!" Stonetree shouted.

The driver shook her head, and the kid looked at them with big scared eyes.

"She's allergic to the bugs!" the little blonde yelled, barely audible through the glass. "Can't you kill them out there?"

"Hold on!" Mulder yelled back. He made his way back around to the Cadillac's spacious trunk and rummaged through his sparse belongings. Ever since that whole ugly cockroach incident, he'd made it a point to travel with... Ah ha!

"Whattaya got?" Stonetree rumbled over his shoulder.

"Bug spray," Mulder said, raising the canister triumphantly.

The can of RAID made short work of the strangely aggressive lightning bugs, and the woman gingerly opened the truck door and got out. "Thanks," she said warily, cradling the toddler against her hip. "Who are you guys, anyway, and what are you doing here?"

"Could ask you the same thing..." Mulder began, but Stonetree cut him off.

"We're looking for the Kawatche Caves," he rumbled. "You know where they are?"

Wordlessly, still sniffling, the little girl pointed.

***

Buffy wished that Cara hadn't just answered these two weird old guys' question right away. Okay, yes, they had killed those stupid bugs for them, and she could tell they at least weren't vampires, but it still might have been nice to have a minute's thought before getting involved. On the basis of the fat guy's peculiar little hat alone, they definitely counted as strangers-not-to-talk-to-after-dark.

She tried to salvage the situation. "Well, guys, thanks for the pesticide and all. I gotta get this little one home."

The big-and-tall guy wasn't looking at her. He addressed Cara instead. "Can you show us the way, child? It's very important."

"What's so important that two grown men need a little girl to help them?" Buffy asked indignantly.

The younger guy looked a little embarrassed. "It's the end of the world."

Bollocks. Buffy shifted Cara on her hip and rolled her eyes. "We're in," she said, resigned.

***

When Clark touched down in the barnyard, Mom was clearly beside herself with worry. She'd finally returned to the house in case Buffy and Cara, who were hours overdue, should find their way home somehow. Jonathan was still out searching for them.

"I hope nothing's happened to them," she fretted, putting another pan of muffins in. "That old truck is so temperamental...."

"Don't worry." Clark used the Superman voice when he was wearing the Superman suit, even when he was talking to his own mother. It was good practice. "I'll find them."

Mom was the one person who never treated him any different when he was wearing that persona. She smiled up at him, and looked a lot less worried. "Thank you, sweetie."

Clark was just about to spring into the air off the back porch, when he noticed somebody approaching the front door. He slipped inconspicuously into the kitchen instead, and Mom went to answer the knock. He x-rayed through the door. Who would be visiting at this hour?

It was a deliveryman.

When Mom came back into the kitchen, she was laughing a little. "Lex sent you and Buffy cell phones."

Okay, the head-duck, blush, and grin were pure Clark Kent, despite the suit. As long as he was breaking character already, he gave Mom a little hug and a peck on the forehead. "I'll give hers to her when I find them," he promised, and took to the skies.

"Call home, too!" Mom's instruction followed him.

Clark could just about fly and dial a cell phone at the same time. Good thing he didn't have any gum.

"Lex Luthor."

"Hey, Lex. Thanks for the cell phone."

"Clark! Good. We need to get you to talk to the Astronomy --"

Clark didn't let Lex finish. "Buffy and Cara didn't come back yet from deliveries. Mom thinks the truck probably broke down, and Dad's out looking for them. So am I, now. I'll call you back later."

Dawn's voice came from the background. "Let me talk to him... Clark? Good luck."

Clark smiled. "Thanks. See you guys." He might have heard Lex protesting as Dawn hung up the phone, but he was too busy searching for his baby sister to worry about that right now.

***

The caves were spectacular. In another time, another life, Mulder could have spent hours analyzing their pictographs.

The young woman, Buffy Summers (that name was almost familiar -- maybe she was mentioned somewhere in one of his long-lost X-Files?) had insisted that Mulder and Stonetree help her pull her truck out of the ditch and then follow them in the Caddy. "It's bad enough we're going with you at all. We're certainly not getting into your car!" she'd scolded, with particular emphasis for the kid, Carrie something, who was apparently not the little blonde's daughter.

Fox couldn't believe they were seeking help from a babysitter, but Joe seemed completely unfazed. He couldn't deny, in his heart, that this scheme to save the world had made a lot better progress since the old Canadian had been in charge of it, so he kept just drifting along in the big guy's wake.

Stonetree studied the symbols on the wall as if he had some idea of what they meant. He took his tiny, ridiculous hat off and scratched his head in thought.

Oddly enough, both of the girls they'd rescued seemed able to make some sense of the mystical writings as well. Carrie pulled the babysitter here and there, showing her various pictures and chattering explanations that her big brother had apparently told her about. Buffy didn't look nearly as enthusiastic about any of it. Stonetree was squinting and sticking his tongue out a little as he concentrated on deciphering the glyphs.

"There you are!" boomed a sudden voice.

"Superman!" Buffy exclaimed.

Sure enough, a tall guy in tights and a cape had entered the cave. It wasn't just a *Daily Planet* publicity thing after all, then.

Carrie had started running to the stranger already, but she halted and looked questioningly back at Buffy's shout. After just a moment's pause, she resumed running to the costumed vigilante. "Superman!" she giggled and jumped at his knees.

"Cara Kent," Superman chided. "Your mama has been very worried about you."

The little girl launched into a garbled narrative involving getting lost, mean bad bugs, and Buffy drove us into the ditch!

Mulder noticed Joe beaming, as he abandoned the cave-writings and approached Superman with his hat in his hand.

"Naman," Stonetree greeted reverently.

************

Clark was sometimes very glad that he wasn't just Clark Kent, Boy Alien, any more. Superman didn't have to blush or stammer or come up with a bunch of lame protests when the old Indian greeted him as Naman. (Who was this guy, anyway? Clark was pretty sure he *knew* all the Kawatches.) Superman could just stand there, cool as a cucumber, arms folded and feet planted heroically apart, while Clark decided whether or not he should deny being Naman, too.

"Call me Superman," Clark corrected him kindly.

"Of course, Naman," the man rumbled, smiling.

Clark refrained from sighing in exasperation. "I'm acquainted with most of the members of the Kawatche Tribe. You're not from around here, are you, Mr. --?"

"Of course. Where are my manners? I'm Joe Stonetree. This is Fox Mulder. We need your help."

"I'm listening," Superman said calmly. Clark ignored Cara giggling at him. Buffy had retrieved her charge, and kept one hand on the little girl's shoulder, even though most of her attention was fixed on Stonetree and Mulder, and the eeriness of the surrounding caves.

Mulder spoke for the first time. "Are you really an alien?"

Superman smiled and nodded.

"You're not like.... Maybe you already know this, but let me begin at the beginning. Fifty years ago or so, an alien ship visited Earth. The aliens made a deal with a cabal of power brokers, whereby the human collaborators would betray the rest of the planet to the invaders in return for their own safety, and that of their families. We've, I've, found evidence of... horrors...." Mulder stopped and closed his eyes for a minute.

Stonetree patted him roughly on the shoulder and took up the tale. "This group of aliens, not your own people, have a timetable. Their main force is coming very soon, possibly within days." He snorted, sounding almost amused. "Human technology can't possibly stop them, couldn't even if the governments of the Earth *weren*'*t* thoroughly infiltrated with their servants.

A phone rang.

Dang.

Clark reached under his cape and brought out a ringing cell phone. He looked meaningfully at Buffy.

"Miss Summers," he said, "Mrs. Kent asked me to bring you this. If you hadn't left without it, she wouldn't have had to be so worried about Cara."

"Oh. Yeah. Thanks. Sometimes I'm such an airhead," Buffy said fakely. She took the ringing cell phone that Lex had sent special-delivery to Clark's mom.

"Hello? Oh, hi, Lex." Clark noticed that Buffy kept a sharp watch on the two strangers the whole time she was talking.

The big old guy with the funny hat was poking the younger guy meaningfully, and mouthing the word 'Segeeth.' Clark didn't sigh resignedly again. Mulder did, though.

"Yeah, he did. Um. Well, I got lost, with Cara, heading back from deliveries, and we met these couple of guys -- No! They actually kinda saved us from some sort of weird -- yeah, they *did* glow green! Fine, smart guy. Anyhow, they say it's the end of the world, again, and they want help from Naman and Segeeth. You do? Huh." Buffy held out the phone to Superman. "He wants to talk to you."

"Superman here."

Lex snickered at him! Punk. "I see Buffy's cavalier attitude towards her secret identity hasn't rubbed off on you too much. There are actually people there in the caves, looking for Naman *and* Segeeth, to prevent an apocalypse?"

"Yes, that's correct."

"AND?"

"As I said, yes."

"What did you tell them?"

"Nothing, yet."

"Who are they, exactly?"

"I am endeavoring to ascertain."

"They don't know about Buffy?"

"I believe that to be the case."

"This probably has something to do with what Dawn's detector picked up. We were hoping you could talk the Astronomy Department into letting us use their big telescope, in an attempt to confirm whether our theory about invading space craft is correct."

"Alien invaders. Yes. I may know a more efficient mechanism. Your plan, however, would be an excellent backup. Would you like to speak with Ms. Summers again?"

"What's gotten into you?"

Superman handed the phone back to Buffy.

"Mr. Stonetree, I rely on you to get Miss Kent and Miss Summers back to the Kent Organic Farm. I'm heading up topside to take a look."

Superman took off.

Up topside to take a look? What, was he in *Dawn Patrol* now? Clark shook his head, bemused at the way the cheesy dialogue just *rolled* off of Superman's tongue.

He didn't know exactly what he was looking for, but he hoped a fleet of alien invaders would be sort of obvious, once he got up above the atmosphere. He'd been experimenting with the vacuum of space ever since he and Dawn had taken that trip to California, but he still wasn't too sure what his limits were.

Actually, he hoped there would obviously NOT BE a fleet of alien invaders.

Up past the air, everything was eerily quiet. There was plenty of sunlight, though, even though it had been night when he took off, and somehow the intense sunlight almost took the place of oxygen for him, when he was up here and the air was all way down there. He did a bunch of slow loops, his line-of-sight going around and around like the outermost strand on a ball of yarn. He let his freak-vision and his freak-memory have free reign, and all too soon he found them.

Crap.

**************

Everything was coming together. Joe felt a calm descending upon him. There was a way through this situation; he knew it deep in his bones. If they all worked this right, everything would be fine.

First things first, step by step -- that was how to do it now. "Miss Summers, Miss Kent. Shall we return to the Kent Farm?"

"I guess. Lex, we're all heading back to the Kents'. Talk to you later."

"That's it?" Mulder asked. "We've been searching for these damn caves for days, and that's it? We're just going away again?"

"We found what we came for," Joe reassured him. "Naman needs us to be where he can find us. Segeeth, too. Let's get these ladies back home."

"We know the actual way home from here?" Buffy seemed to be asking the child. Cara nodded, and Buffy addressed Joe and Fox. "You guys just come with us. Looks like Kent Organic Farm is gonna be Command and Control for this one."

Stonetree followed Buffy and Cara, and Mulder followed Stonetree.

By the time their little procession pulled into the yard at the Kent Farm, Mulder's continual questions and building panic had only worn away a little at Joe's steady calm. It wasn't like this was the first time he'd met up with something incredible, and that had worked out pretty well. Well, not as badly as it could have, anyway. The thing to do was stay calm and alert, and handle things as they came up. He tried telling Fox that, but the kid was a lot more high-strung when he wasn't drunk off his ass or dragging along in a blue funk.

It was probably just as well. Maybe high-strung could work in their advantage.

Joe parked the Caddy at the side of the dirt lane behind the battered farm truck. A buxom red-haired woman came hurrying out to the vehicles as they drove up. From the way she snatched the little girl out of the truck, she must be Cara's mother. Buffy jumped down out of the cab and started explaining. Joe and Fox got out of the car and joined the group. The farmwife's expression became suspicious.

"Buffy? Won't you introduce your friends?" The woman talked right over the little girl's chatter about mutant lightning bugs. She *must* be Cara's mother.

"Not exactly *friends*," Buffy huffed under her breath. "Mrs. Kent, this is Joe Stonetree and Fox Mulder. They were looking for the Cow-Hickey Caves, and they rescued us from some of those bugs that Cara is *allergic* to, after -- never mind. Short form -- Norman, Shuggie, Superman, end of the world. Can I use your phone?"

"End of the world?" Her eyes went wide, and she clutched the toddler to her ample chest. Joe wondered briefly whether Mrs. Kent might be a divorcee or a widow, and was shocked at himself. It was a long time since he'd thought of a woman like that.

"Don't worry," the babysitter reassured her. "We're totally on it. Phone?"

"Didn't C -- um, Superman, bring you that, your cell phone?"

"Oh! Yes, totally. Thanks." Buffy took the little electronic device out of her pocket and flipped it open. "Dingbat," she muttered under her breath. Squinting a little, she used the light from the Caddy's headlights to pick out a phone number on the tiny keypad. Holding it up to her ear, she looked at the Mulder and Stonetree and flapped her free hand at them. "Talk among yourselves!" She turned her back to the group and said, "Hey! Willow. It's me. Whattaya got on End of World, Extraterrestrials, Caused by?"

A small domestic car drove up, and a man got out. "Martha! You found them!" He came up to Mrs. Kent and hugged her and the child. Not a widow, then. Joe knew better than to be disappointed.

"They came back on their own. Mr. Stonetree and Mr. Mulder here helped them out of a sticky situation." Mrs. Kent backed away out of the conversation, petting her child and going to stand watchfully on the porch. Joe heard the little girl start clamoring for her missed dinner.

The farmer heartily shook Joe's hand. "Jonathan Kent. Thanks for helping the girls out, Mr. Stonetree is it?"

Joe liked Mr. Kent even more when he shook Mulder's hand and apparently left it stinging. "Glad to do it. They helped us out, too. We were having a hell of a time finding the Kawatche Caves, and your daughter was able to direct us."

"Kawatche Caves?" Kent asked, suddenly sounding suspicious as well. "What did you want there?"

"We were looking for Naman and Segeeth," Stonetree started to explain.

"We're trying to prevent the end of the world," Mulder put in, sounding tired again.

Instead of treating them as if they were crazy, Jonathan Kent gave both old ex-cops a long, appraising look. Finally, he said, "You all better come on into the house, then."

**************

Superman landed on the roof of Pete Ross's apartment building in Metropolis, but moments later it was Clark Kent who super-sped through the hot, muggy, neon-lit downtown and ended up at the leafy but still stifling Met. U. Campus. He zipped unerringly to Applied Physics, and slowed to a fast Earth-normal speed only after he got the after-hours lock-code wrong twice.

Blessing his freak memory (he'd only seen Dawn tap in that combination once, during the early stalking phase of their relationship, which she didn't actually know about yet) and cursing his fast, clumsy fingers, Clark thundered down the worn tile steps, calling "Dawn! Lex!"

Dawn's shiny brunette head poked out of the door of Lab Seven. "What's wrong?" she asked.

He took her hand and let her pull him into the room. Lex was there, too, as Clark had known he would be. There was a smear of graphite on his temple. Sometimes it was just freaky how alike he and Cara looked.

"Real alien invasion fleet?" Lex asked, as soon as he saw Clark's face.

Clark nodded miserably. "Five ships." He looked all the way through the floor and the ground and the planet and the atmosphere on the other side, and gestured. Now that he knew exactly where to look, they were depressingly obvious. "Right there." Superman didn't let a little thing like being massively outnumbered and outclassed bother him (possibly because it had never happened before) but Clark felt, frankly, doomed. He sat down on the linoleum floor. "What are we going to do?"

*************

"Okay, great, Will. You'll get in touch with Riley and Mrs. Riley and the surviving Government Monster Squadders, and you'll call Angel in L.A. and Giles and those Coven Guys in England, and hey! I've got another call coming in! This is the coolest phone ever. Catch you later! Hello?"

"Buffy, it's me."

"Hi, Lex." Buffy's heart was doing that little singy thing it did when she had a new beau, and she tried to squelch it, because that never turned out well, and besides they had a big alien invasion counter-plan to do. She was about fifty percent successful.

"Superman is here with me." Buffy could hear the air-quotes, but that was only because she knew what was up with that.

"Was he able to find the bad guys?"

Clark was audible in the background. He sounded upset. "Yes. There are five ships."

"Five?" Okay, time for the we're-all-going-to-die plummet. It was weird feeling that and the new-boyfriend feeling all at once. Never happened that way before. "Five seems like a lot. How long do we have?"

"Four or five days, he thinks." Clark's voice in the background again, then "Closer to four. He can see them from here, now."

Mmm. Freaky. Four days was good, though. The certainty of impending world-endage eased off a notch. "Well, I've sent a heads-up around to my troops, but we prolly need to know a where as well as a when. How. Who."

Clark said something in the background. "Huh?" Lex asked, and Buffy echoed him. "Cl - Superman thinks... Here. You talk to her."

Buffy heard Clark clear his throat, and then he spoke, in the same self-consciously heroic voice he'd used earlier when in costume. "The President of the United States will be in Metropolis for Independence Day. It's never happened before. Additionally, I took your advice about speaking with the Metropolitan Police. Lieutenant Sawyer agrees that the behavior of the President's security team is extremely suspicious."

"Oh, yeah! That makes a lot of sense. Especially with what those two old cave guys said, about international government conspiracies and stuff. 'Cause if I was a government conspiracist, I'd make sure the big alien invasion went down way the hell away from my nice marble buildings and statues. Washington Monument, White House, you know."

"You're right. Independence Day, then."

"Like the movie!" Buffy laughed, even though she knew that it would probably make Clark feel upset. End of the world -- she felt almost comfy, in her own proper place. "Okay, so that's at least one ship headed for Kansas. Do you suppose they're all coming here, or are they setting up around the globe?"

"I don't know. I suppose I can sneak around up there and keep an eye on them."

"That won't give us that much warning, and I think it'd be a better use of your skills if you take out as many of them as you can as high up as possible. Nope. Plenty of witches in England, with locating spells and prognostication and stuff. I'll call Willow back."

"Wait. Take out? Buffy!" Huh. He was using his regular dorky college boy voice again.

"Uh. Alien Invasion!"

"Just because they're aliens doesn't necessarily mean they're bad!"

Buffy's jaw literally dropped. "Excuse me?"

"I'm serious, Buffy."

"So am I, you know. World-endage, kinda my speciality."

"How do we even *know* that they're really an invasion?"

Dawn's voice was loud enough to be made out clearly, even on the other end of the phone connection. "Well, the fact that they're, you know, *invading* would tend to bear that theory out!"

Clark sounded mulish. Buffy thought he was mostly talking to Dawn. "Just because they're aliens coming to this planet doesn't mean they're bad."

"Mulder and Stonetree --," Buffy started to put in.

"We don't know them! We don't know they're telling the truth!"

"We at least know they're *human*!" That provoked a startled gasp and a stunned silence from the boy on the other end of the line, and Buffy realized what a mean thing she'd just said. "Oh, God. Clark, I'm sorry. I didn't mean...." And damned if she hadn't just called Clark by his right name. Well, she never had been any good at Secret Identities. Hopefully the phones weren't tapped or anything.

Lex's voice came from the phone. Clark must have dropped it, or given it to him. "He could have a point. I'm certainly not one to give any unwarranted benefit of the doubt, but it would be better if we could be sure. How much do you know about these two characters, exactly?"

"I guess we could do some research, but if we only have a few days -- fine. Fox Mulder, Joe Stonetree. I'll ask Willow to check on them, along with all the other --"

"No, it sounds as if your friend will have enough to do as it is. Checking backgrounds is right up Chloe Sullivan's alley. I'll call her. I wish there were a way to communicate with the ships themselves. You don't pick a fight with someone you can't talk to."

Buffy'd only known Lex for two months, but she already knew he was a Giles-class quotations guy. "Sun Tzu's *Art of War*?" she guessed.

Lex's little huff of a chuckle was very cute. "C. J. Cherryh, the Chanur saga. I'll talk to Chloe."

"And tell Clark I'm sorry about that human crack?"

"He knows."

****************

Clark had left the lab as abruptly as he'd entered, muttering something about patrol and then vanishing before Lex had even gotten off the phone. Lex felt bad for him, but he couldn't restrain the thrill he felt at watching Clark blur away like that, not worrying about hiding his nature.

Dawn looked worried, too. "He'll feel better after stopping some crime," she said aloud, obviously trying to convince herself more than him.

"I think I'll declare myself a holiday until the Fourth of July. It's only a couple of days. Besides, there's no point in worrying about the stock price if the world comes to an end," Lex mused. "Between the two of us, you think we can figure out a way to prove to Clark that it's okay to kill those guys?"

"I think we have to. I'm not sure Buffy can take out five spaceships full of alien invaders alone."

"Especially if they land at five different spots on the planet's surface. If I had five spacecraft and were invading a world, I'd...." Lex broke off a moment and thought. "If I had five ships, I'd definitely need some sort of communication between them."

"Radio, laser, telepathy, magic, something we've never heard of..."

"Occam's Razor. Radio's easiest."

"Who do I know with a powerful frequency scanner?" Dawn asked, looking at Lex with raised eyebrows.

End of the world. "All of LexCorp's and LuthorCorp's assets are in play. I'll see what I can find." Lex pulled out his cell. Even in the middle of the night, he had his minions. It was nice to be the boss. "Nolan? I'll need you to deliver the following supplies to Lab Seven, Metropolis University." He looked up at Dawn. "You'll let my man in?"

"Maybe we should move my stuff to one of your labs? It'd be nice to have a more robust power supply."

Lex nodded. "Maybe we should move your stuff out of Metropolis altogether, if that's where the big fight's going to be." Addressing the phone again, he said, "Nolan, change of plans. Send a team and a van to Met. U. We'll meet you at the door."

"And don't forget to ask Chloe about Mulder and Stonetree. I could look them up myself, but I think I'll be busy with moving the hardware. Clark could be right, you know, about them just being nuts or bad guys themselves. We do have to check somehow."

"I'll call Chloe right now." Lex flipped the tiny phone open again. He'd programmed in the number for Chloe's cell after Mrs. Kent had made him write it down -- had that only been last week? And now the Earth was probably being invaded by some sort of alien strike-force. The world is stranger than we can imagine.

"Hello?" It didn't sound like he'd just woken her up. Thank heaven for college girls.

"Chloe, this is Lex Luthor."

"Hey, Lex. What's up? I read about your dad. Was it really vampires?"

"It was. I'll be glad to tell you the whole story later, off the record. Right now, there's a new problem, though, and I need your skill with research."

"Color me intrigued."

Lex smiled. He didn't want to go into the whole alien invasion story over the phone, so he just said, "Could you copy down the following two names? Joe or Joseph Stonetree, Fox Mulder." He spelled them for her, and waited while she spelled them back. "We need to know all about them, really."

"I have some stuff I need to do for the paper, but I can probably get back to you tomorrow or the next day."

"I'm afraid that won't be good enough --"

"Lex," Chloe interrupted, "I have cut you a lot of slack and taken your side a lot over the years, but when you act like you have priority over my life just because you're rich, it's really just too --"

Lex interrupted her in turn. "It's a matter of life and death, Chloe. I wouldn't, well I'd try not to -- it's about the end of the world. Superman can give you the whole story, in a few days, if we all live that long."

Chloe stunned was a specific sort of a silence, one that he recognized from their shared insane youth in Smallville. "Okay," she finally said. "I'll get right on this and call you back as soon as I can." She hung up.

Dawn was sitting and scribbling at the lab's battered metal desk. She looked up at Lex and gestured to her paper. "Suppose it is radio. These guys are, what, two-thirds of the way to the Oort Cloud from here? The radio transmission delay is going to be huge, and I doubt they'll be patient and enthusiastic about a conversation with us anyway."

"We'll just have to try it."

"Or, we could try this."

****

It seemed a little anti-climactic, to end up in this perfectly ordinary yellow farmhouse sharing pie and coffee with these perfectly ordinary-seeming people. The caves had been much more like the sort of thing he was used to.

On the other hand, he and all his allies had been struggling through ancient sites of power for many years. So far, all it had brought them was suffering and death, and the world was no closer to salvation.

Briefly, Mulder longed for the days when the worst he had to worry about was the closure of the X-Files, being thrown out of the FBI and imprisoned, and certain alien invasion and doom in the year 2012. In those days, he'd had friends; he'd had Scully. At least he'd known where she was and that she was mostly safe, and that she was brilliant and working on the problem. Skinner had been with her, bringing to bear as much of the official Bureau resources as he could on their behalf, on the behalf of the world. He'd had hope of success. Even if it had been false hope, it had been something.

Now Skinner was dead, and Scully had finally given up on him and his crusade. Now he knew that the invasion was coming six years earlier than he'd hoped. Now he'd exhausted every lead, burned every bridge, and if it weren't for the bizarre help of this retired Toronto policeman, he almost certainly would have put a bullet in his brain by now, to save the aliens the trouble.

Fox noticed everybody around the table was staring at him. "I'm sorry?" he asked.

Stonetree guffawed a little, softly. Mr. Kent's weathered face crinkled in a smile. "Martha asked you if you wanted any more pie," the farmer asked.

"Um. Yes, please. This is... good pie. Thanks." Mrs. Kent took his plate and returned it with another piece. She refilled his coffee without asking, but she still looked a little suspicious.

The blonde, Buffy, wiped Cara's face and watched him warily. Cara was on the verge of falling asleep; it was pretty late for a little girl, Mulder guessed. He was momentarily lost again in regrets about his son, regrets that he thought he'd given up on a long time ago.

"So, Mr. Mulder, tell us all about this alien invasion of yours." Mulder thought that Jonathan Kent's voice sounded falsely jovial, and he noticed that the farmer had his trusty rifle near at hand, hung on the wall right behind his seat.

Mulder sighed. "When I was a child, my sister was abducted by aliens. Nobody seemed to believe me when I told them what I'd seen. When I became a man, I joined the FBI, to find out the truth. I found out... a lot of things. More than I'd bargained for."

He took out the one weapon he had (his Glock was unloaded and locked in the Caddy's trunk), and showed it to them all.

Martha took one quick, uninterested look and busied herself with getting her sleepy toddler upstairs to bed, but Buffy and Jonathan both looked on in great interest. Stonetree had seen it before, days ago in Toronto. He got up and fetched himself another cup of coffee, muttering, "Wonderful coffee," to no one in particular.

Buffy reached out her hand and stopped in mid-motion. "May I?" she asked.

"Careful," he said, and operated the hidden switch that shot out the sharp narrow blade.

Buffy smiled delightedly and picked it up. She was attractive when she smiled, he thought, maybe a little skinny for his taste.

"Over the course of many years' investigation, I found evidence of a worldwide government conspiracy. They were covering up all evidence of alien incursions on Earth. They were also, simultaneously it seemed, trying to develop covert plans to either thwart or enable the alien invasion and takeover of the planet. There were so many groups, all trying to keep secret from one another, and all willing and able to kill for their own purposes. The truth was out there, I always thought, but I was wrong. The truth was back home. After my father died, I found this with his things. It's a specialized tool for killing alien spies and assassins. The only way to kill them is to stab them in the back of the neck, at the juncture of the skull and the spine. These things are specially designed for the purpose. My father, he knew all along. He traded my sister for something, some goal of some group he was always a part of, since before we were born." Mulder knew he wasn't telling this story in a persuasive way; he'd done a lot better in Canada. No one was going to be convinced by his whining ramblings. Hell, he wouldn't even be convinced.

Apparently, Buffy and Jonathan were, though. They were looking at him with a mixture of pity and horror in their eyes. "I thought the Luthors were bad," Jonathan muttered, shaking his head in disgust.

"He probably thought he had some sort of... reason," Buffy suggested dubiously.

"Are you condoning --," Mr. Kent began, heatedly.

Buffy cut him off. "No! There's *always* another way." She shook off whatever memory it was that darkened her eyes, and changed the subject. "This weapon is *very* cool," Buffy said, wielding it in some quick complicated pattern before plunging it towards the table and stopping a hair's breadth away from the worn wooden surface. She laid it back down exactly where it had been. "Nothing else will kill them? Beheading, setting on fire, stake through the heart?"

"Doesn't seem to. Also, if they're wounded but not killed, their blood emits toxic vapors, and it will eat through almost any material, like a powerful acid."

"Darn," she commented. "We'll have to come up with a way to get around that."

Mulder looked at her in surprise. Was she joking?

She smiled at his expression. "I'm the Vampire Slayer."

"Aaah," Stonetree said. Mulder couldn't tell whether he was referring to the Vampire Slayer or the pie.

"But I kill other stuff, too; it's not just vamps!" Buffy insisted. Apparently, his doubts showed on his face. "I've done an alien, even, a Queller Demon. So. Have you ever heard of an organization called The Initiative? The Adam Project? Professor Maggie Walsh? Something called 314?"

It seemed to ring a bell. "There've been a number of Adam Projects, I'm not sure..."

"It doesn't matter, really. Government mad-science guys and commandos, in my town, Sunnydale, splicing together people and demons to make super-soldiers for some reason we never found out. It all went horribly wrong, of course, and they ended up shutting it down. It's just that it seems to fit in with what you were talking about."

"It could easily have been. I actually came to Toronto looking for a vampire cop, Nick Knight, hoping he'd help."

"Vampire cop?" Buffy asked, clearly fascinated. "I know a vamp private eye in L.A., but I never heard of a vampire cop. How could that even...?" She trailed off, clearly thinking hard.

"Nick was a good guy," Stonetree rumbled. He got up and gathered all the dishes and took them to the sink.

"But he was gone by the time I got there. Joe was still around, though, and he brought us here looking for Naman and Segeeth, ancient prophesied defenders of the world." Mulder realized it might be out of place to let the sneer creep into his voice when he said that, considering that they'd apparently actually found them, but he somehow couldn't help it.

"Naman *and* Segeeth?" Jonathan Kent asked. "Are you sure? I always thought those prophesies said the two of them are destined to be enemies, that Segeeth betrays Naman and they battle forever."

"They *balance* forever," Stonetree rumbled over the sound of the running water. "They are as close as brothers, and like brothers they betray one another and reconcile, again and again, generation after generation. They are not always the same men, but when the world needs them, there they are. Star-destined." The big man turned back toward the table, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. He'd washed all the dishes and neatly put them away. "They are not always the same men. They are not always the same stories. But they are always there."

*****

Even though it had been more-or-less her plan, Dawn was surprised how quickly and smoothly it all came together. "Too bad we didn't have you around the last few times the world was coming to an end," she complimented Lex. "It would have been a lot more efficient."

He smiled crookedly at her. "What, you would have saved twice as many planets by now?"

Mulder, Stonetree, Buffy, and Jonathan Kent were on the road from Smallville to Metropolis, driving the monstrous Cadillac that had apparently once belonged to a vampire cop. All Dawn's scientific apparatus (and quite a bit of LexCorp's, too) was on the same road, going the other way. Lex thought her experiments were intriguing and important, and they were stashing the gear in his castle in Smallville, to theoretically keep it clear of the big alien battle coming up.

Chloe's preliminary report on Fox Mulder indicated, basically, that he was thrown out of the FBI for running a Wall of Weird, and now she wanted desperately to meet him in person. Stonetree's reputation, on the other hand, was spotlessly normal and respectable for a retired Canadian policeman. Clark had seemed much reassured (and considerably calmer, after thwarting a bank robbery, a car-jacking, and two liquor-store heists) to hear that.

Dawn had been on the computer with Willow for almost an hour, getting the specifics of the binding spell. She sent Clark to England to borrow Giles's magic gourd, while she worked out all the modifications she was going to have to implement. Sineya, the First Slayer, had been cranky enough the first time Buffy's gang had used her spell. She'd probably be even more reluctant to let a boy from a different planet be the focus. Dawn realized she was counting pretty heavily on "Gotta Save the World" as the Slayer Prime Directive, but she figured gambles like that were what world-saveage was all about.

She was sitting on the front porch of the Applied Physics building and finishing up her cards when a big car drove up.

"Over here!" she called, waving.

Buffy hopped out of the back door and came over. "How come vampires always have the coolest cars?" she wondered.

Lex came up the steps from the lab in time to hear her remark. "Hey!" he objected. Then he saw the Cadillac. He blinked at it for a couple of seconds, then shook himself a tiny bit. "American made," he sneered, but Dawn could tell it took an effort.

Buffy smiled at him and took his hand. "Snob," she said fondly. "So. What's the sitch?"

"The airline tickets are all arranged. Your reinforcements should be here within twenty-four hours, on LuthorCorp's dime."

"Not LexCorp's?" Jonathan Kent asked, in a disapproving tone, as he came up to the Applied Physics porch.

Lex smirked and looked cool. "It's Dad's world, too."

Unexpected gruff laughter came from the big man, must be Stonetree, who'd worked his way free of the driver's seat of the Caddy. "Always thinking. I like that in a man." He narrowed his eyes and peered intently at Lex for a long time. Dawn noticed Lex swallow nervously.

"Hey, Chief!" called a tired-looking middle-aged man from the car. "Help me get this stuff up there, huh?"

"Don't call me Chief," Stonetree grumbled, turning back to the car.

"You brought stuff from Smallville?" Dawn asked, folding her papers and homemade magic cards into her binder and following Buffy down to the parking spot.

"Oh, yeah. Clark's mom made us a *ton* of food!" Buffy confirmed happily. "Which is good, 'cause we'll be kinda feeding an army here in a day or so."

"I have a plan!" Dawn told her sister proudly. She'd never really been in on the make-up-a-plan stage of saving the world before.

"Let's hear it," Buffy said, handing her boxes of food.

"Well, okay, yes, a lot of it is your plan, with the summoning up the army and Angel Investigations and the part where Superman takes out as many as he can before they get a chance to land. But! I have a way to make the space part have a much higher probability of success! Remember that power-sharing spell you and the guys did to take out Adam?"

Buffy froze for just a second, then went on with what she was doing. Stonetree and Mulder had taken some boxes into the building. Lex must be showing them where the fridge was. "I remember," Buffy said quietly.

Dawn's exuberance was a little squelched, but this was a good plan! So she continued, "I got all the details on it from Willow, and Cl -- Superman's over in England borrowing Giles's gourd now. I've figured out a way to modify it so that he's the Hand." Buffy's dubious look forced Dawn to add a reluctant, "I think."

"What's the First Slayer going to say about that?"

"Well, I was hoping she'd let it slide, for the sake of saving the world. You'd be in the spell, too -- it's not like it would be completely non-Slayer-related."

Buffy was silent, so Dawn felt compelled to go on. "Come on, Buffy! You know that the only way that we'll avoid a total bloodbath for the People of Earth is if Superman gets rid of all those ships before they even land. And you've *met* him! He's not going to be *able* to just kill them all and let God sort it out, attack from surprise, take 'em out blinking! Maybe you could do it; Faith sure could; I know Giles would say --"

"He can't, and it's good," Buffy interrupted quietly. "You have no idea what a threat he'd be if he weren't such a nice guy."

That shut Dawn up for a moment. "Okay, yeah. I know. This spell, the binding -- I thought Lex for the Mind, you for the Heart; I'm Spirit, of course, since I'm casting, and Superman's the Hand. That way Lex could talk to the alien fleet, see if they're really invading, which we all know they are but he's not convinced, and you're an expert on destroying things that are bigger and stronger than you, which is experience Superman kind of totally lacks, and I'm, you know, casting. What do you think?"

"When Willow did it, she had to be right in the next room practically, as close as she could," Buffy objected. "You're not thinking of all of us in space, are you?"

"I think I've got the range to do it from here."

Buffy looked disapproving and disbelieving. "Willow Rosenberg is the strongest witch I ever heard of. She's a strong witch, compared to the strongest *Giles* ever heard of. What makes you think --"

Dawn didn't let her finish. "I'm not a witch."

They'd been there long enough, just standing by the car talking, that some of the men had returned to see if there was anything else they could carry down to the lab. Mulder and Stonetree seemed to be close enough that they might be able to hear the conversation at any moment, and Buffy looked ready to let the matter drop. Dawn wasn't quite, though. In the sudden awkward silence that had fallen between her sister and her, she muttered. "Witches are human."

Buffy looked at the strangers, as close as the steps of the building, glared at Dawn, and pursed her lips meaningfully.

Dawn flipped her shiny brown hair, picked up a box and turned to go.

*******

Joe had managed to get a pretty good idea of the cast of characters during the long drive up into the city. It looked like Miss Summers and her sister were having some sort of a fight. He smiled, remembering his daughters' college years.

The smile faltered. Segeeth hadn't been what he'd hoped for. A legendary hero shouldn't be so petulant, so tentative, so broken. Joe took in about a bushel of hot, humid, city air and let it out again in a mighty sigh. He had friends, though, that was something to add in his favor.

Joe had sensed the power in Buffy Summers. She had an air of long, hard-won experience about her that was similar to that he associated with Nick Knight. Vampire Slayer, huh.

Her sister, Dawn, struck Joe as more powerful yet, although she seemed awfully raw -- young and somehow also old, like fresh-turned earth. Funny family. Probably a good thing they were here.

Naman lightly touched down to the pavement. He was carrying a large gourd, written over in mystic sigils. It absolutely *breathed* power, and age. Joe smiled at the young god. "Naman. What do you bring?"

Superman looked at the mystic object in his hand. "I'm not sure. Something that should help. Let's get these things inside, Mr. Stonetree." The superhero swallowed nervously as he and Joe lugged all the remaining supplies into the lab building, which would be serving as 'Save-the-World Headquarters' (Buffy's phrase) until the evening of July third, when all the elaborate plans the young people had prepared based on Fox's information would come into play.

Stonetree suddenly felt that, anciently prophesied god or not, this kid needed a little encouragement. "It'll be okay," he rumbled, clapping him on the shoulder with a force that used to stagger Don Schanke, and that Nick (on those rare occasions that the old cop felt the need to comfort the vampire) used to barely notice. Superman didn't react physically at all. "You've got a good team here, and it'll be okay."

Mulder shouldered past them, carrying a box of supplies. "If you're super-strong, shouldn't you be carrying this stuff?" he grumbled.

They grabbed the rest of the boxes from the car and followed him in.

************

Superman launched himself into space from the top of the LuthorCorp Tower, carrying an industrial-sized refrigerator (shelves removed) containing a compressed air cylinder, a battery-powered shop-light, and a state-of-the-art frequency-scanning telecommunications console that he didn't know how to use.

It was like something out of a bad joke.

He found it hard to believe that same building had been full of vampires just a week ago.

It was even harder to believe that Dawn was gearing up to cast an extremely scary mind-blending spell on him, just four hours from now. He had four hours to get to the invasion fleet, and to maneuver (undetected) into some sort of a 'behind them' position -- Clark was never totally sure he understood Buffy when she gave him fighting advice. Supposedly, the spell was going to fix that right up.

This was *such* a bad idea -- even Clark recognized that. Going it alone was probably even a worse idea, though, and that scared the heck out of him.

On one side, you had technologically advanced aliens with multiple actual working spaceships, probably big political allies and maybe a long-range plan for the conquest of Earth that had been in the works since his dad was a child. On the other side there was one alien, from a dead race, with a non-working tiny ship just big enough to hold a baby.

Maybe these guys weren't even bad guys after all; there was no real way to tell. Okay, yes, he had two separate sources, kind of, which is good enough to write a newspaper story, but it wasn't good enough to destroy spacecraft and *kill* people! Of course, if they *were* right then that was pretty near the only chance that the people of Earth had, and a slim one at that...

Clark took a deep breath and tried to calm down, one last time before taking a deep breath became impossible. He wasn't even totally sure he *could* destroy a space ship. He hoped it wouldn't turn out that he *had* to.

Maybe this was all a big misunderstanding. Yeah, right.

Superman quit breathing, quit thinking, and just flew.

**********

Magic gourd, check.

Cards (and Dawn had done a surprisingly nice job on those, very artistic) check.

Riley and the missus and their freelance former-government monster-squadders, and Angel and his crew (including a bunch of obvious criminal types, and Spike of all people, and didn't she just wish that she didn't wonder like hell how *that* had happened), and Mulder and Stonetree and Mr. Kent and Pete, and all the Metropolis Police that Lt. Maggie Sawyer trusted with her life *and* her reputation, stationed nonchalantly at the seriously paranoid Secret Service roadblocks all through Metropolis, check.

Giles and Willow and their Coven in England, meditating and casting spells of divination and true-smiting and protection from poison, check.

Clark disappearing into the distance, check.

Patience enough to wait peacefully for four hours until Dawn was ready to cast the joining spell? Not gonna happen.

Buffy rolled her shoulders and stretched. "I'm going on patrol," she told her sister. "I'll meet you back here in three hours."

"What? You're going to patrol *Metropolis*?"

"Why not? Blue Boy's busy, and somebody prolly oughta do it. Besides, I'm gonna lose it here, just waiting."

"Okay, but be careful. I don't think the spell will work at all if you're not in the mix."

"Dawnie, like I was trying to tell Clark, that spell --"

"For the millionth time, I have the range! I have the strength for this one! It's all binding energy; I could do it a light-year away, and hold it for a week! Just *trust* me!"

Know what? Buffy thought, the time for caution is past. She switched gears and smiled. "I do," Buffy said sunnily. "You trust me to come back in three hours, okay? And maybe you should slay something. You seem tense."

Dawn growled at her. Buffy laughed and went down to check out the city.

Sometimes she worried that the potential end of the world didn't worry her more, these days.

********

Buffy and Dawn had tried to tell Lex what to expect from this spell they were going to attempt. He wasn't completely clear on what they were planning, or what they were hoping to gain by the process, and he had to admit he was somewhat unnerved by his memories of that horrible time when Lana had been possessed by some witch ancestress, and bound him bleeding to Lionel's piano.

He couldn't let his fears dissuade him. Clark might need him. The world might need him.

In order to make the approaching big space battle seem less horrific by contrast, Lex decided to go visit his father. After all, this might very well be their last night on Earth.

The gods smiled upon him. Lionel was asleep. The nurse let him in to the ugly purple room, warning him to be quiet. Lex nodded. He didn't want to talk. He took an uncomfortable seat and looked around.

Lionel had been in the hospital for a week now. His doctors (the finest in Metropolis) said he could have been brought home, with a hired nurse, the day before, but Lex had requested he stay a little longer. With the campaign against the alien invaders nearly underway, he thought it would be best all around. The hospital representatives didn't object very strenuously, and Lionel didn't object at all.

That was when Lex knew that the old man was really hurt this time. Lionel hadn't sniped at Lex about any of the treatment decisions he'd made; he hadn't squabbled with the hospital staff or threatened any lawsuits; he didn't even complain about the food. It didn't seem like scheming, or biding his time. It seemed like the unthinkable had happened, like Lionel Luthor was actually broken this time.

He certainly *looked* broken.

After the tornadoes in Smallville, Lionel had been well enough to blame Lex for, basically, ruining his life, within two days after the catastrophe. This time, after being attacked by vampires in his office, Lionel had still been raving with fever at that stage. The day after that, the surgeons had gone back into his arm and shoulder, ferreting out and repairing a stubbornly bleeding infected vessel -- he'd been within a hair's breadth of losing the arm entirely.

Lionel's breathing changed a little, two great gasps ruffling his mustache and wrinkling his forehead with -- something. Probably pain. Was he waking up? Lex tensed, and chided himself for it. The world was almost certainly coming to an end (he didn't fool himself about their chances) but what scared him was having to talk with his father? Shameful.

Lionel didn't completely wake, just strained a little as if trying and failing to roll over in his sleep, and then relaxed again. The lines on his forehead, even as close to completely relaxed as he was, medicated to within an inch of his life, remained far more deeply etched than Lex remembered them.

It was unprecedented to watch his father this way -- not fighting, not striving, not hiding anything from one another. Ultimately, even Lionel Luthor was just an old man. He was Lex's dad, his only living relative, barring a bastard half-brother he'd never seen until he was twenty-two, and hadn't heard from in almost a year. Without the continual father-son drama, Lex could even feel sorry for him.

Sitting there, watching Lionel sleep, was strangely peaceful. The nurses seemed to have forgotten Lex. Two hours passed, in complete harmony -- a world record, he thought wryly. It was time to go. Lex stood, stretched, cricked his neck. He felt utterly calm, at peace in a way he couldn't remember having felt before.

He leaned over his father, brushed the knotted hair away from his warm, damp forehead. "Good-bye, Dad."

Lionel stirred. "Lex?" he croaked.

Lex smiled. He knew there was probably a ninety percent chance that Dad would say something hurtful, but he didn't even care. He felt unaccountably happy that he'd have a real chance to say good-bye. "I'm here, Dad."

"What are you -- what time is it?"

Lex stifled an actual laugh when his father changed the question in the middle, to one that wouldn't sound so needy. He didn't know why, but he suddenly found it almost cute.

"Nearly nine. I have to go."

Lionel cleared his throat. "Have you been here long?"

"A couple of hours."

"Surely there are more profitable things you should be doing."

"I needed some time to think. And... And I enjoyed just being here with you." Lex smiled again, bemused to realize how true it was.

Lionel shook his head a little. "So. Where are you off to now?"

Lex, daring anything now that nothing mattered, leaned over and kissed his father on the forehead. "To war."

*********

Holy cow. These things were huge.

Despite the suit and the cape, despite the fact that he was flying faster than any spacecraft the people of Earth had ever launched and traveling completely unprotected in the vacuum of space, it was Clark Kent, not Superman, who approached the alien fleet. He crossed his fingers, hoping they didn't notice him. Or his fridge.

They didn't look anything like his little spaceship in the storm cellar back home. Their towering metallic sides were like literally nothing on Earth, nothing Clark had ever seen. He wouldn't have the slightest idea of how to start trying to break one, trying to kill the people or... or *people* inside.

One good thing -- he was faster than they were. He guessed he could literally run rings around them, maneuvering his little load of gear around to what he hoped Buffy and Lex would consider "behind" the trailing ship.

It had been a little less than four hours. Soon he should feel the effects of this crazy spell of Dawn's. He was as vulnerable to magic as humans were, and he hated it. Honestly, it had been a shock, a bad one, to find out that Dawn was some sort of witch. She said she'd explain everything later, if the world didn't end. He guessed he really had no choice but to respect that.

He was awfully far away from her, though. The spell, as far as he could tell, was one she was making up and had never tried before. If nothing happened, he was on his own out here, with no way to talk to the people in the ships.

Privately, he had already decided to give it another half an hour, then abandon the fridge and assorted paraphernalia and look for a door or a hatch or something to knock on.

Clark hadn't mentioned this plan to any of the others because knew they'd think it was suicide. He sort of thought that himself.

*******

The lights of the city were just beginning to twinkle as the long summer twilight drew to a close. High atop Metropolis's tallest building, in the extremely restricted-access meditation garden that Lillian Luthor had put into the tower's plans herself, a ceremony began.

Lex lit a candle, and set it next to the rune-marked gourd Superman had brought from England. All three casters solemnly lit candles from the first one, and set them up, equidistant from one another, surrounding the magic gourd.

Dawn took a deep breath and said, "The power of the Slayer and all who wield it, last to Ancient first, we invoke thee. Sharing thy domain, share primal strength. Accept of us the powers we possess. Make us, mind and heart and spirit, join. Let the hand encompass us, to do thy will."

Dawn held up one of the cards she'd painstakingly drawn earlier. It bore the image of a dark-haired woman, dressed in green and surrounded by a nimbus of blue-green light. She laid the card ceremonially on the pavement in front of her. "Spiritus," she said. "Spirit of the Key."

Then she held up another card. The image on this one was a blonde woman wielding a sword, crouched fiercely and protectively over a blue-and-white swirled globe. Buffy took the card from her. "Animus," Buffy said. "Heart of the Slayer."

Dawn drew another card and handed it to Lex. Its drawing was of a bald man peering through a telescope. "Sophus," Lex said unsteadily. "The Mind of Man."

Dawn raised the last card from her little deck and displayed it to them all. The picture was undeniably Clark, dressed only in shadows, dark unruly hair flying in the wind, his fist raised before him as it was when he flew as fast as he could. He looked like some sort of ancient chthonic god. "And Manus," Dawn said. "The Hand of the Last."

"We enjoin that we may inhabit the vessel, the Hand, Last of his Kind, who holds this world dear as do the daughters of the First. We implore thee, admit us, bring us to the vessel, take us now! Wield him, Sineya, as your Hand!"

************

Clark was sure it had been four hours. In fact, he was sure it had been four hours, nine minutes, and fourteen seconds. He was starting to feel silly, matching velocities here 'behind' the space fleet, balancing his refrigerator in his hands. Of course, he could have climbed inside the fridge and kept watch *through* the metal sides, but that would have felt even sillier.

Suddenly something happened.

They observed the alien ships with wonder/cool assessment/worry/fear. Considering their weak points, They matter-of-factly slipped into the refrigerator and closed its sturdy insulated steel door behind Them. The shop-light snapped on. They started up the radio-frequency scanner and deftly ran it through its paces for several minutes (twenty-four, and nine seconds.) They were beginning to suspect/fear/be concerned that the alien ships didn't use radio after all, when They picked up a transmission.

It was in English. Of course. They realized how sensible it would be, to be well-versed in English if beginning an invasion by seizing the President of the United States.

They dug powerful fingers delicately into the door, holding it securely in place, and opened the valve on the air tank. As soon as the pressure inside the refrigerator was high enough to enable speech, They closed the valve, fine-tuned the telecom device until it picked up both speech and picture clearly, and set it to Transmit, interrupting what seemed like a routine positioning update.

It would be best to appear strong and confident. "We are Kal-El of Earth. What is your business here?"

They were elated/interested/indifferent to find that there was no communication time-lag at this range, and that the LuthorCorp Telecommunications Scanning Console interfaced very acceptably with whatever technology the aliens were using.

The alien on the screen laughed, a low, scornful sound, and They suddenly thought They recognized him. Two others appeared on-screen, slightly behind the first. All three were identical, and clearly similar to The Judge, and to Luke, the Master's Harvest Vessel. Fox Mulder had said the invaders probably would be manufactured soldiers. Now They knew what these soldiers had been manufactured from -- a powerful demon, or an evil man long-dead, the Master's most faithful servant. They knew and speculated about cloning, about magickal duplicates, about demon budding-twins... They strained to listen to the alien's answer over the clamor of Their own tumultuous thoughts.

"This planet is not yours, Kal-El. It is ours, bought and paid for. We owe you nothing, not even an explanation. It has all been paid."

"That's unacceptable, incorrect. The People of Earth..."

"Will die or be enslaved," the alien cut Them off. "Your quarrel is not with us, Kal-El, but with your former masters, who have sold you all and your world, as is their right." The Luke-Judge clone laughed again.

The focused through the walls and began cataloging weak points. They felt a cold/hot anger, and knew the aliens would all perish, for justice/vengeance/duty's sake.

They tried one more time. "Please. Don't do this. You know it isn't the right thing. People should treat each other with respect, and work together peacefully."

The alien's laugh was uglier than ever. "Be cheerful and industrious. Oblige us and you may survive. It is better to be a slave than a corpse."

They thought NO.

They decided the manufactured soldiers were not people after all.

They turned off the radio and the light, and opened the door. The best target on the surface of the hindmost ship was already all picked out. They considered that velocity is squared in the kinetic energy equation, and that a small mass at sufficient speed can destroy anything. They knew that They were physically almost invulnerable, but that the ships probably were not.

They took joy/no joy in the testing of that supposition.

Their first impulse was to circle around the fleet a few times, to build up speed, but They knew that They had almost unimaginable acceleration.

They flashed forward from a relative dead stop, put Their arm over Their eyes, and hurled Themselves right through the trailing ship's most vulnerable spot, through hull-metal and machinery and atmosphere and hull-metal again, and back out into the vacuum of space. The gaping hole They left spewed air and sparks and organics and explosions of flame, but They didn't pause to look.

This was no time to consider what They'd done. Oh, They were fast -- faster than anything They knew! (Though some of Them had Their theories.) The distances in space, however, are huge. Brooding in the middle of combat would just gets Them dead, *and* Their enemies would triumph! The attackers' ship couldn't exactly pivot at warp two, They were amused/confused/curious/speculative to observe, but it didn't have to shift very far or very (relatively speaking) fast to force Them to alter Their plan of attack. They did so seamlessly.

The next ship along was turning already, noticing something wrong. Their first choice of target was shielded now. They altered trajectory smoothly and kicked it up a notch, hitting this second ship even harder than the first. The hull was thicker here, but still They penetrated it, marveling at/completely ignoring the fascinating glimpses of an alien propulsion system before smashing it straight to hell and surfing the shock wave of the resulting explosion out towards the remaining three ships.

They were not surprised to find that They were being fired upon as they outstripped the expanding debris of what had been a spellbinding miracle of advanced technology/big spaceship -- dead now. Evasive maneuvers were an absolute pleasure to perform like this; it was almost like poetry, though not the kind that anyone would ever write.

Two ships fell into place to cover for the retreat of the third. They instinctively understood the space guys' plan; it was as plain as a pikestaff/the nose on your face/day. These aliens had clearly practiced their battle tactics, and briefly They wondered against whom.

The aliens' coordination meant this was a bad time for wondering; their powerful energy weapons didn't seem to do that much damage (less than a car crash, or a Fyarl Demon, or kryptonite) but the knock-back effect was considerable. They needed to stop as many ships as possible from reaching the Earth, and They couldn't do that if They couldn't catch up with them!

It took a combination of tricky dancing/dodging and some sustained laser eye-beam attacks on alien gun-turrets to finally get close enough to damage the next ship. Then it was just grunt-work, holding hard to the outer hull and battling to keep the third ship's bulk between Them and the fourth ship's still-functioning guns, tearing off strips and chunks of whatever They could reach, wherever They could. The other ship, covering for the lead ship's dash to Earth but still confidently trying to salvage Their current prey -- why should the aliens believe something as small as They were could do so much damage? -- tried diligently to shoot Them off its companion's hull. Twice, a glancing shot knocked Them loose, but not far enough away to stop Them, and They looped around and began Their attack again from a fresh spot.

Third time's the charm. They finally punched through and hit air. Earth-type atmosphere rushed out past Them, but it was not wind enough to dislodge Them. As soon as it was done, They widened the hole and slipped inside.

They found Themselves in a blank-looking broken corridor, with two closed hatchways along the inboard side and a sealed blast door at each end. X-ray vision revealed the other ship still firing at the place They'd gone in; the toughness of the alien hull-metal was working in Their favor now, but it couldn't last long. Their freak/special/remarkable/handy-dandy vision also showed which door had the ambush set up behind it. That was obviously the way to go.

They sped up and crashed through the door as if it were nothing -- these interior emergency seals weren't as strong as the actual hull. The demons/clones/aliens/constructs were set up in standard ambush formation on the other side, with guns already aimed and blasting. They shrugged off the attack, far weaker than the ships' weapons had been outside, went quickly through Their opponents like Glorificus through an Order of Knights/Darth Vader through a rag-tag band of freedom fighters, and scanned around Themselves for Their next target.

The battered aliens' blood was an evil green, like kryptonite/the energy that could destroy worlds. If Fox Mulder was to be believed (and so far, every crazy thing he'd said had turned out to be true) that same blood was an acidic poison that would quickly kill any human person who got it on them or breathed its vapors. They had plenty on Themselves; it had sprayed quite a distance during the fight. Though weltering in dead aliens' gore, They were physically undamaged. Apparently it didn't work the same on Kryptonian flesh.

Taking a moment to contemplate mortality turned out to be a good thing this time. The killed aliens started getting up!

They were only a *little* surprised/shocked/horrified/fascinated by this revolting development, and killed them all again before they got off more than just a couple of shots. Then They remembered what Fox Mulder had said about the special ice-pick-like weapons carried by the people and assassins who had been covering up this impending invasion for the last half-century.

Experimentally, They tried stabbing the next undead foe through the back of the neck with one super-strong finger. The clone whipped around and tried to strangle Them. It was a lot stronger than a human being, but no match for what it faced now.

They held the alien zombie at arm's length, realizing with great interest/slight alarm that it regenerated and continued to fight even in hard vacuum. They cast a whispered spell of dissolution, using as little of Their hoarded air as possible to form the words. There was a flash of green light, a puff of disrupted material from the target at the back of the thing's neck, and then it slumped, lifeless, and did not rise again.

They looked around Themselves carefully, in and out and through all the chambers and corridors of this engine of destruction, of enslavement. They counted the enemies in ambushes, marching towards Them, frantically repairing this killer vessel headed straight towards home. They summoned the power, widened the field, and cast the spell again.

Every creature aboard, excepting only Themselves, fell dead.

They fled that charnel ship, arrowing out straight through the engines and leaving it to explode in cleansing flame behind Them, and sought out Their last two targets.

The battle had been going on for quite some time, and the lead spaceship was getting very close to Earth. They could now tell, with an eye-brain coordination that They didn't pretend to understand, that it really was headed for Metropolis, Kansas. That was a relief. If anywhere on Earth was ready for an alien invasion right now, it was Metropolis.

The other ship that had been trying to hold Them off, to cover the first ship's dash to Earth, tried another tactic. Blasters firing wildly, they skittered off noisily in another direction, then suddenly quit all the racket and dived as fast as They'd yet seen the aliens go, towards Earth on a parallel course. They sped after them in hot pursuit, firing the eye-lasers as They went.

Two-thirds of the way to catching up, an explosion wracked the pursued vessel. They circled it, dead in space, and watched its busy ant-like crew of identical clones scurrying to repair Their handiwork.

Let them limp painstakingly home, They thought. Let their tattered and wretched state serve as a message to whatever home-world spawned them -- Don't Mess With Earth.

Besides, speaking of Earth, the battle there was starting. There was a lot yet to do.

The bond dissolved. Alone, Clark fell down, down, down towards the ground.

***********

Lex came to himself with a start. The air was cold and thick in his lungs. He felt achingly heavy and alone.

He could hear. People were breathing hard, gasping. He was one of them. Lex opened his eyes.

Buffy was already standing, looking beautiful and uncanny, supernatural against the starry night above, lit from below by the jewel-like lights of the city.

Dawn looked about as dazed as he felt, maybe even more so. "Clark," she stammered. "We left him. Is he?"

"He'll be fine," Buffy said confidently. She looked up. On the eastern edge of the sky, a light trail was just beginning. The alien ship had hit the atmosphere. "I gotta get down there before they do," Buffy muttered. She left the LuthorCorp Tower rooftop at a run.

Lex tore his attention away from the point where he last saw Buffy. She was speeding down to the streets, he knew. The combat would begin soon, and he *needed* to be there with her. It was his city, after all. His wits were returning, though, and running straight ahead without thinking was not the Luthor way. "That spell you -- we -- did in the ship. Can you do that again?"

Dawn shook her head. "I don't have the power for that one again, especially by myself."

"I could stay, and try to help," Lex offered reluctantly.

Dawn looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "No. That won't work. I can cast a field of dissolution on all the weapon points in the city by myself, though, and hold it for as long as -- for a long time, anyway. I think that'll do, especially combined with the spells Giles and Willow are casting for us from England. We'd hoped their true-smiting spell would be enough, but I guess maybe it isn't. Mulder already briefed everybody about that back of the neck thing. I just hope they'll all remember."

The approaching ship was getting nearer, brighter, louder. Lex suspected Ground Zero would be City Hall. All the Secret Service preparations that Clark had been complaining about indicated that, and the President was supposed to be staying in the Mayor's Mansion directly adjacent.

Dawn shouted to make herself heard over the invaders' approaching roar. "I'm fine here! Go! She might need backup!"

Lex went.

He stopped briefly in his father's office. LuthorCorp cleaners were very thorough. They'd been in there the moment the Crime Scene tape had come down, and not a trace of Lionel's blood or of vampire dust remained. Lex and Dawn had both left swords there a week ago, stowed on a shelf with decorative objects of historical interest. Luckily, they hadn't looked so out-of-place as to attract the attention of the police. Lex was pleased to see that one of them was gone; Buffy's tendency to rely on improvised weaponry all the time worried the hell out of him.

He grabbed the other sword and headed for the stairs -- the Metropolis electrical system had never had to withstand space invaders before, and Lex wasn't sure it was up to the challenge. Even inside the enclosed brightly-lit LuthorCorp stairwells, Lex could feel the unearthly vibrations the invader made as it came down from the sky. He could only imagine how horrifying it would have been if he'd been one of the 2.7 million of Metropolis's inhabitants who *didn't* know what was going on.

At floor twenty-one, the quality of the nerve-wracking near-sound changed. Lex thought they must have landed, and he threw himself down the steps even more quickly than before.

At the fourteenth floor, all the lights went out. Lex didn't stop, but he did have to slow down a little. A minute or so later, the yellow battery-powered emergency lights came on.

Lex was still congratulating himself for choosing the stairs over the elevator when he got to the ground floor. He paused for just a moment to quiet his noisy breathing (thankful that the asthma was long gone) and stealthily cracked open the fire door. Working hours had come to an end during the long space battle, and the lobby was deserted. He eased out of the stairwell and slipped cautiously along the wall until he could see through LuthorCorp's huge glass main doors.

The cityscape outside was like a scene from a nightmare.

The visible streets and sidewalks seethed with panicking people. It was hard to make out what exactly was happening, because the only light came from a few sets of headlights from official city vehicles, the occasional fleeing citizen's pocket flashlight, and the distant ruddy flicker of what looked like parts of Union Park set ablaze. Lex surmised that the alien craft's landing might have set some trees and brush on fire.

Suddenly, the tip of his sword began to emit an eerie green glow. Lex knew it must be Dawn's spell, and that it was past time for him to be out there fighting.

He was about to go through the door, when the public-address system and all the monitors at the lobby security station crackled to life. Their bluish light revealed to Lex that he was not, as he'd thought, alone in the lobby. Two young women in LuthorCorp Security uniforms noticed him at the same time he noticed them, but any possible conversation was forestalled by the message that was being broadcast on all screens.

One of the alien demon clones appeared onscreen, sitting at a massive, official-looking desk. Lex thought he recognized it as belonging to the Mayor's office. George W. Bush and several serious-looking men of an older generation stood at the creature's left. Lex recognized the obvious quality of their suits. Bush looked confused.

"People of Earth," the alien began. "Return quietly to your places of residence and await reassignment. Do not delay. We are your masters now. There is no point in struggle."

"What the hell?" Bush exclaimed.

"Quiet, George," a nearby suited man hushed him, and took him by the arm.

The President shook him off. "Look, buddy, I don't know who you think you are, but you can't just --"

The clone soldier smoothly stood and effortlessly backhanded Bush to the ground. He lay with just his feet in view, completely still. Most of the men in suits looked strangely satisfied.

"If you display a proper sense of propriety, humility, and service, you and your descendants may survive, and even prosper, as our slaves. Otherwise, you will be eliminated," the alien continued, flatly.

Oh, that'll go over well in *Kansas*, Lex thought. He could almost hear ten thousand farmers cocking their deer rifles.

Lex didn't care what else the alien would-be overlord had to say. He stepped to the front door, hefting his glowing green sword.

"Mr. Luthor!" called one of the security guards.

"Lex," he corrected automatically. He'd forgotten all about them. The last thing he wanted was to drag a couple of LuthorCorp drones along with him out into the maelstrom, especially if these were the two who'd been left behind when the security teams had been assembled during the planning stages of the city's (world's) defense. There *was* one thing he needed done here, though. His eye lit upon the girl's nametag. "Ms. Graves --," he began.

"Mercy," she countered, deadpan.

Lex quirked her a small smile. "Mercy, then. There's a young lady on the roof. Her continued survival is essential for the safety of the world. If she dies, there will be absolutely no point in you and your partner having kept this building free from any possible looters. Please protect her at all costs."

"Gotcha." Mercy jerked her chin towards the stairwell door. "Up you go, Hope. Radio me when you get there."

"Yes'm," the other guard replied, with a mocking little smile. She left at a steady jog, long braid swinging behind her.

"Just one of you?" Lex asked skeptically. "It's no exaggeration to say that Dawn Summers's death could guarantee the alien invasion's success at this point."

"One at a time," Mercy answered him. "The rest of LuthorCorp Security is already out there, on your suddenly-plausible instructions, aiming at the base of the skull of anybody who looks like that guy." She gestured at the TV screen, where the alien was still talking, the President of the United States was still lying motionless on the floor, and the prosperous-looking bureaucrats and businessmen appeared to be kneeling in worship. "At least, they are if they were paying attention during that whacked-out ex-fed's briefing. Hope and I are the only ones still here tonight. If we were both on the stairs and somebody got in down here and found another way up and killed the lady, that'd be bad."

"Good thinking." How'd she end up working for LuthorCorp Security? They usually seemed to make a point of hiring only idiots. "Carry on, then. I have to go...."

Something happened on the screen to draw their attention. The well-dressed gentlemen were standing again, huddled together at one side. The alien looked surprised and less sure of himself than before. Standing over George W. Bush's body, legs planted shoulder-width apart and hands steady (despite the blood and other fluids that spattered his already disreputable suit) Fox Mulder stood, aiming a Glock 9 mm just below the clone's chin.

"You're not going to do this," Mulder said, voice cracking. "You've done too much already."

The alien roared and surged up at him. The gun went off at once. Another alien, identical to the first, rushed in from the side, trampling Bush's body as he came. The first alien fell dead, something disgusting (but apparently non-toxic at this point, thanks to all the magic being thrown around) oozing from the green glowing hole that went in at his throat and came out at the base of his skull.

The collaborators scurried away, clawing at one another and trying to hide behind furniture. The second alien and Mulder grappled for a desperate few seconds before the sickening sound of a human neck snapping was heard loudly over the air.

Mulder fell lifeless from the alien's hands. A split second later, another shot rang out.

The victorious invader whipped around, away from the camera, to face his new attacker. More panic spread among the craven minions, who now didn't seem to know where to hide. There was another shot; the alien jerked and fell. Then the screen flashed brightly with a hot wavery light, and went dead. Only static remained.

Mercy's radio crackled. "Mercy, this is Hope. Come in. Over."

"Mercy here. Over."

"I'm in position. Come on up. Over."

"Roger that. Over and out." She looked at Lex. "Your girl on the roof will be safe, Lex. You be careful out there." She left at a run.

Lex shouldered open a door and headed towards the flames.

**********

It was a good thing she had so much experience fighting in the dark, Buffy thought.

Not that it was actually all that dark out here tonight, what with all the fires and stuff, but a lot of the aliens had these really keen like chameleon outfits on, which made them pretty much invisible.

Riley's merry band of freelance police had some fancy military hardware type scope-sights that they said worked pretty well, and the LuthorCorp Security teams that Lex had volunteered to help out had some even fancier gadgets that they wouldn't talk about at all, so all the normal guys in the thick of the action should be able to see okay.

Buffy wasn't sure what the Angel Investigations crew had for detectors and weapons, but they were all vamps and demons except for Wes and Cordy -- they'd be fine.

Lieutenant Maggie Sawyer, who Buffy liked better than any cop she'd ever met, and her trusted members of the Metro PD were supposed to be dealing with the 'Secret Service' goons at the perimeter of the madness. Clark's dad and his friend Pete (who Dawn said was a good shot and a good man in a fight) were with them. They seemed to be doing a pretty good job.

Buffy hadn't seen any other living humans since she'd slipped through their scrimmage line and into the flame-shot darkness surrounding the City Hall/Mayor's Mansion complex. That was just the way she liked it.

She thought she'd head towards the ship and see who'd made it there to cut off supply and retreat, then maybe slide on over to the City Hall complex and see what was up over there. Her part of the actual plan was done -- four ships down. Now she was just out Slaying.

There. That seemed like something. She listened and stepped and whirled, striking, felt the blade bite and dodged the guy's heat-weapon beam which set another tree on fire behind her, stepped and kicked and thrust, and he went down.

She could tell exactly how he lay now, 'cause the blendy-into-the-background thing quit working once they did, and he didn't exactly match up with the ground any more. She ran the green glowy tip of her sword (and that was a very cool effect -- she'd have to remember to tell Dawnie how much she liked it) through the juncture where head met neck (the puff of disintegrated stuff that produced was kind of cool, too, although it smelled awful) and went looking for something else to kill.

'Cause that was what she did.

**************

Stonetree sighted and shot, sighted and shot again -- another alien down for good. The visible ones surely were easier to kill. It had taken him six whole bullets to finish that camouflaged one Fox and he had met up with, right outside the loading dock for the Metropolis Civic Center's Food Court. That was when he'd lost the Yank. Mulder had forged ahead when Joe stopped to reload his old-fashioned revolver, and he'd lost track of him in the government hallways.

Forty years a cop -- a man learned to trust his instincts. He had a long, long family tradition of strange and supernatural experiences to draw upon, too. Joe followed his gut once he got inside the dark building, carefully sticking close to the walls and letting his pistol lead him around the corners. The dim green sparkle of his gun barrel (and that was odd, old magic -- Joe had never felt its like) was the only thing lighting his way.

His instincts led him right again. It wasn't long before he heard someone talking -- a distant steady monologue, like a sermon or a lecture. Suddenly, the droning speech cut off, and Stonetree heard a voice he knew -- Mulder, sounding desperate, too far away to make out the meaning of the words -- and then a gunshot. Stonetree abandoned his cautious advance and broke into a lumbering run.

He burst into the well-lit Mayor's office just in time to see Fox Mulder die. Stonetree aimed and fired, twice, with all deliberate speed, and Mulder's murderer was dead. Guilty-looking well-dressed rats ran for the corners.

There were another couple of dead men on the floor, and one was exactly like the one who had killed Fox; they were those manufactured clones the dead Yank had been talking about. Two more of the same kind, probably guards from the main entrance, came rushing in. They had some sort of alien weapons. Joe dived under a desk (adrenaline makes a man more limber) as one clone opened fire and set half the office ablaze.

Two of the humans in the room weren't as lucky in their hiding places as Stonetree was. Their horrifying screams and frenzied rushing about provided the distraction Joe needed to lean out from cover, aim and fire twice, and kill both aliens. He pulled down the room's last non-flaming wall hanging, tackled one human torch to the ground with it, and rolled him up. The other had fallen and quit twitching by then; the remaining survivors were long-gone, and the room was undeniably going up in flames.

Joe shouldered his groaning burden and got the hell out of there, leaving Mulder's body to burn along with those of his enemies.

He hoped Fox's spirit would forgive him.

***********

When Buffy got to the ship there were four dead aliens on the ground and four live gun-toting military boys standing watch at the front hatchway. She slipped around, Slayer-like, and they missed seeing her despite their high-tech goggles. The spaceship looked a lot different on the ground than it had out in space. Part of that was probably that she was alone now, in her own body, instead of teamed up with Clark and Lex and Dawn in Superman's.

Buffy skirted the whole ship without sensing any other demons besides the ones the soldier-boys had already done in. She didn't find any other doors, either. By the time she got back to the main airlock, the four Initiative-types had become eight, and one of them was Riley, so she showed herself.

"How's it look?" she asked casually.

Three of the guards, all wearing the LuthorCorp logo, jumped and swung their guns up at her. They looked kind of perturbed. Apparently, this had been a weird and trying night, compared to a standard shift at LuthorCorp.

Riley stood them down with a gesture. "Pretty good," he said. "We've swept it twice, and these are all we found. Sam at the Inner Perimeter reports five more aliens killed, with only light casualties to her team. Lt. Sawyer at the Outer Perimeter says they didn't see any ET's, and most of the T-men came around once the spaceship landed. Sure would be nice to know how many aliens there were to start with, though, especially since that FBI man of yours said they'd infiltrated and lived disguised as humans before. Oh, and City Hall's on fire. If we could give the all-clear, we could get the Fire Department in here to contain it."

Buffy thought back. "I think one shipful was about forty or forty-five, but you're right. It would be good to be know exactly. This looks like a job for a standard locating spell!" She got out her cell phone and called the contact number for their spell-casters in England. "Hi! This is Buffy Summers. Could I please speak to Willow Rosenberg?"

"One moment, please." Why did people with an English accent always sound so smart?

Willow's familiar well-loved querulous tone came over the line. "Buffy! Is everybody all right?"

"Hey, Will! Yeah, we seem to be. Just mopping up now. By the way, great job with that anti-poisonous-alien-demon-clone-blood spell! It just kind of itched when you got it on you, instead of, you know, burning holes in you and killing you dead. We all really appreciate it." The soldier-boys listening all kind of smiled and nodded. "We were wondering if you guys could cast a standard locating spell on, say, the state of Kansas, to find any aliens we still haven't killed yet."

"Oh, yeah, absolutely. We have one almost ready here. You wanna hold on?"

"Sure, I can hold." Buffy put her hand over the mouthpiece. "They're doing the spell now," she told Riley. He nodded, already on the walkie again to someone else. It sounded like they were compiling kill stats.

Another call came in on her cell. She gambled on Willow's spell taking about as long as they always did and switched over. "Hello?"

"Buffy?"

"Lex! Are you guys okay?"

"I'm out in front of City Hall, with Joe Stonetree. He has a person here who needs an ambulance. Did you know the Civic Center is on fire?"

"Yeah, Riley told me. We're just trying now to see if we got all the aliens, so we can let the Fire Department and paramedics in. Oh! Or I think Mrs. Sam Finn apparently in charge at the Inner Perimeter, whatever that is, used to be a doctor or a nurse or something. Peace Corps. You guys could go find her. What about Dawn?"

"We'll take him there then. Thanks. Dawn's fine. I left her in good hands, and besides, the weapons are all still glowing green -- that's her doing."

"Good. I had actually guessed the sword-glowiness must be Dawnie, but it's good to hear from somebody who actually knows."

"Oh, and Buffy. I'm... I'm sorry, but Fox Mulder's dead."

"That's too bad. He seemed like a nice guy. Sorta crazy, but that's what happens. We owe him the world, this time." He *was* a nice guy, and he *had* saved the world. If he got a tombstone, maybe they'd put that on it.

"Yeah." Lex sighed. "Well. I'll see you later. Be careful."

"You too." She disconnected from Lex's call, and in a couple of minutes Willow returned.

"We came up with three aliens still alive in Kansas. Two are less than a mile from you, and the other one is about a hundred and sixty miles southwest from there. I can give you the exact coordinates. Ready?"

"Um, maybe I better hand this over to Riley and let you tell 'em to him. Numbers, you know?" Willow's amused snort of exasperation was full of high school memories, and it made Buffy smile. "The hundred and something mile away one is probably Superman. He got a little beat up taking out the first four ships, and he might have crashed or something. Can you do a locator on Superman, and see if it's the same thing?"

"Sure, of course. Want me to give Ri the other info first?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Here." She handed over the phone to Riley. Smallville was about a hundred and sixty miles away from Metropolis, wasn't it? Three hours' drive, anyway. It was a little odd that Superman hadn't been in on this bounce, all over *his* city.

She hoped Clark was okay. Dawn would be upset if he was hurt.

*************

All the mopping up was finished before sunrise. Good thing, too. Some of the most important people to the end-of-the-battle squaring away were sort of flammable in sunlight.

Dawn had been so relieved when the fight was over, and a delegation from the Earth-Metropolis-defense forces came to let her know about it, that she'd almost cried. She might have, too, except that she'd taken a semi-serious disliking to the two Amazons in polyester that Lex had sent up to guard her, and she wouldn't give them the satisfaction.

The post-battle letdown was made all the more potentially tear-jerking because the group that came to fetch her was almost all old Sunnydale friends or acquaintances, and (although she usually managed not to think of it at all) Dawn hadn't been home all year. Homesickness was a bitca.

The whole time she'd been casting the focused dissolution spell, Dawn had kept her eyes on the stars. Their power, as they moved through their set paces and paths, reinforced her own, and it helped a lot to concentrate on them. She was only starting to get tired when she heard Riley Finn's voice saying, "Stand down, please, miss. The fighting's over."

She dropped her gaze from the heavens to the door, and it was him! Of all Buffy's ill-fated boyfriends, he was probably the one she missed the most. (It would have been Spike if only he hadn't... never mind.) She let the spell fall and ran to him.

"Riley!" she cried, dodging LuthorCorp security goons, who still had their dang guns out even though he'd been super-polite asking them to put them away. She gave him a hug. "Is everybody okay? Are the aliens all dead? Where's Buffy?"

He hugged her back, and then she noticed Cordelia and Angel and Spike were there just behind him. She frowned at them. Spike slunk further back into the doorway, looking ashamed, but Angel and Cordy, of course, totally ignored her angry look. Dawn wished she could forgive Spike for what he'd done to Buffy, especially considering all the tears she'd shed for him when they'd all thought he died in that last big battle at the Hellmouth, when they'd wedged the First Evil into the Master's old trap. She wished she could ask him, or Angel, or even Cordelia, to explain how exactly he'd gotten out of that one, and why he hadn't called or anything to let them know he was okay, but they were all (dearly though she missed them and remembered them) people she was mad at, for various reasons, and not speaking to. So she confined herself to talking with Riley.

"Buffy's fine. The only alien left in the state of Kansas is Superman. We lost five men killed, including Mr. Mulder, and twelve wounded, and preliminary reports say about forty civilian deaths, including the President. Not bad, considering what it could have been," Riley told her, hugging her back.

"Not bad," Dawn echoed weakly. Why did it always feel so much like losing, when they won but so many of their own died? How did people like Riley and Buffy manage to keep on planning and fighting like they did, knowing that their own forces would die even if they won? There probably was no good answer to that.

"Without that spell of yours it would have been a lot worse, so buck up." Riley always treated her like a kid sister. Dawn really didn't mind it from him.

"Yeah. What happens now?"

Angel spoke up. "Buffy sent us to bring you to the ship. She says you and she and Lex Luthor are the ones who'll be able to tell if there are any more of those aliens hidden inside. There's no guarantee that Willow's spells would be reliable through the hull of a spacecraft. There needs to be a physical search." Angel sounded dogged, like maybe he'd been in an argument about this earlier.

Dawn still addressed herself to Riley. "You're kind of a large group to send, just to fetch me, aren't you? And what happened to Superman? He was the one who was actually really inside those other ships."

Angel didn't even have the decency to look annoyed by her snub. "The streets are still full of frightened people. Conditions are ripe for a riot to break out. I don't know about Superman. I didn't see him during the fighting."

"Buffy said that he might have crashed or something. Willow's locator spell showed him alive and still in Kansas, just a couple hundred miles away," Riley reassured her.

"I think he just didn't want to fight in this city," Cordelia sniped. "Can we go?"

"She's not leaving here without us. Not until Mr. L -- Lex says she does," declared one of the security guards.

Cordy looked mad. Angel looked impatient. Strangely, so did Riley Finn. Lips tight over some sort of complaint, he got a phone out of his cargo vest and handed it to the guard. "Call him," he said shortly.

One quick conversation later, Dawn was free of the Smirking Security Sisterhood, and on her way to the wreckage of Metropolis City Government.

Dawn figured the cooperation between the LuthorCorp Security teams and the Special Monster Forces and Angel Investigations had *not* been completely perfect in every respect. Her suspicion was confirmed when their little party made it out to Union Park. Firefighters were getting the Civic Center conflagration under control. Metropolis Paramedics were tending to the wounded LuthorCorp personnel, but Medics in fatigues were dealing with the injured among Riley's soldiers. The uninjured were even more separate, facing each other angrily across the airlock, with Buffy looking stony between the two armed camps. Buffy greeted Dawn with an enormous bone-crushing hug.

"Dawnie!" Another hug. Dawn hugged back as hard as she could. "That glowy-green-weapons thing you did was awesome! Good job!"

"Thanks. Is --?"

Buffy didn't let her finish, which was probably good, because Dawn realized a second too late that she was *so* totally about to blow Superman's secret identity. "I called Clark's mom, and he's okay. Getting over that stomach bug just fine. She said all he needs is sleep, so don't worry about your boyfriend. We have a little something right here to worry about, actually."

"What? But Riley said the aliens were all taken care of. Angel said that Willow might be wrong about there being some left inside the ship, but Willow isn't usually... okay, there was that one time, and then that other time, but..."

Buffy cut her off again, which was again, fine. Dawn had no idea where that sentence was going.

"There's a little conflict between the Initiative-type boys and the LuthorCorp minions, and sort of the LexCorp guys."

Lex, looking sort of sooty and red around the edges, looked up at his name. Sam, Riley's wife, was bandaging up his arm. "Leave me out of it, please."

"It doesn't seem fair if everybody else gets to play pinata with the smushed ship and you don't, Lex. You're in. No arguing," Buffy told him.

Lex smiled, surprisingly sweetly. "I've got the one thing I needed to come safe out of that ship," he told Buffy.

Buffy beamed at him. "You're still going in and looking around. It's only fair."

"I still don't get it. What's going on?" Dawn asked.

"People want to loot the spaceship," Angel told her disgustedly.

Dawn just blinked, too surprised to ignore him. "Isn't that dangerously insane?"

"That's what *I* said!" Cordelia shot back. "Not to mention a huge waste of time!"

"It's important that the people who set this up aren't the people who profit from it. If we leave this wreckage here tonight, you *know* that those members of the U.S. government who betrayed the people of Earth to our enemies *will* be the ones who get this technology for their own purposes," Riley said patiently, as if he'd already said this about a million times. "We have only a limited amount of time to make sure that doesn't happen, and we don't have the explosives to blow it up right now. I don't even think we could if we had them, in the middle of the city like this. If we have you guys to show us around in there, it'll be safe enough. And this subject has been talked to death."

"It really has," Buffy agreed. "Okay, looting teams it is. Dawn, Lex and I will be the trusty native guides; Angel, Spike and Cordelia will be the disinterested safety observers. Lex, I assume you'll want to go with your own LexCorp guys. Who do you want for your observer?"

Cordy suddenly looked alert and interested. "Lex Luthor? Twenty-five years old, President and CEO of LexCorp, which has been on the Fortune 400 list each of the last two years? Net worth 1.4 billion dollars? Currently single? That Lex Luthor?"

Buffy rolled her eyes.

Cordelia, despite the fact that she'd been right in amongst the blood and char and death all night, just like the rest of them, managed to look stylish and beautiful as she gracefully stood, approached Lex a little more closely than was polite in Kansas, and breathed, "I'd be glad to accompany Mr. Luthor's team."

"Lex," Lex corrected her absently. He looked meaningfully at Buffy, and Dawn was *extremely* pleased to see that he was amused by Cordelia rather than entranced or anything. She was even more pleased to see that Buffy saw it, too, and that she was able to smile at the whole situation. Buffy deserved a guy who thought she was hotter than Cordy. She always had.

"Right," Buffy said, smiling as she talked. "Dawnie, would you like to go with Riley's guys? And you can have Spike, too." Okay, that was sort of malicious on Buffy's part, and Dawn applauded the move whole-heartedly. She'd show that bleached bum -- make her cry over his mysteriously non-existent death, would he? With Riley and the boys there to do the *direct* talking for her, she bet she'd get the whole secret story out of him, too. "Angel and I will go with the LuthorCorp team." That was smart, too. LuthorCorp was definitely the group that needed the most strenuous watching. "Let's go, everybody! We need to have this hulk stripped of everything freaky and be out of here before sunup!"

The salvage teams got moving.

*************

Everybody slept late on the Fourth of July.

Well, Mr. and Mrs. Kent still got up pretty early, as they always did, and Cara was never one to stay in bed unless she absolutely had to. And Mrs. Digman was actually up and drinking coffee, reading the early morning paper, when Lex and Buffy came roaring up to the castle in his Porsche (Lex drove like a maniac, even completely sober, which Buffy found kind of novel) to warn her that a literal army would be showing up within an hour or two, wanting beds and/or breakfast.

It turned out that Riley Finn was not the only farmboy in the anti-monster commando squad, so Jonathan had plenty of help with the morning's chores, even though they did get sort of a late start.

That was good, because Clark had crashed hard after the big space battle, barely making it home before falling shivering into a heavy sleep on the Kent living room couch. The Kents were taking it in stride, so Buffy told Dawn not to worry about it. She was pretty sure Dawn would worry about it anyway, and made sure that Dawn was bivouacked in the Kents' farmhouse, so she'd be right there when Clark finally woke up.

Buffy decided to stay at the Kents' place, too, instead of at the mansion. She thought it would be too awkward to try to sleep in a place she'd never slept, with Lex and Riley Finn and Mrs. Finn and a ton of Finn-followers all under the same roof. After all the previous night's death, she also sort of wanted to stay near to her sister.

At least Angel and his entourage had all chosen to stay in Metropolis instead of coming down to Smallville. They had a nice block of hotel rooms, that Lex had arranged for them and paid for, and that had those thick expensive light-proof curtains to prevent Angel and Spike from going up in smoke. As soon as Cordy had made sure that Lex really wasn't up for grabs, she'd insisted on six hundred dollars a day plus expenses. After all, Angel Investigations was in the *business* of helping to stave off alien invasions and things of that kind, and LexCorp Industries would have gone broke if the attackers' plan had succeeded. Lex paid without a murmur. Buffy was pretty sure that Cordelia would be spending at least part of the day enjoying the Metropolis shopping before the AI team caught the red-eye back to L.A. that night.

Stonetree had stayed in Metropolis, too. He'd been completely uninvolved in the big Alien Contraption Scavenger Hunt, choosing instead to offer Lieutenant Sawyer any help that he could, and to wait patiently until Fox Mulder's remains could be retrieved from the Civic Center (which ended up an almost total loss.) He said that Mulder had a son and a partner in Montana somewhere, and he figured he ought to bring them the news, and the ashes. It was very Watcher-like of him, Buffy thought. It was always nice to meet one of the world's Good Guys.

When Buffy woke up, it was almost noon. The residue of restless dreams was dispersed by the sound of normal cheerful conversation downstairs. Dawn's cot across the room was empty, so Buffy figured Clark must have finally woken up too. She was happy to have actual clean clothes to put on, even though she never had gotten that shopping trip with Lex they'd talked about.

It was remarkable how different it felt going down the stairs, compared to how she'd felt just over a week ago. Yeah, people had died again, and odds were it was her fault somehow. But still, the world didn't end. Look at it.

Buffy came into the kitchen smiling, and greeted her sister, and Clark and his folks, and Riley and his wife, and the four soldiers who'd come over with them to lend a hand on the place. She didn't even know their names, but it didn't spoil her mood at all.

"How you feeling today?" she asked Clark, who looked a little down.

"Fine," he said automatically, but Buffy knew different, and Dawn and Clark's folks and probably everybody else in the room knew different.

"It wasn't your fault people died. And the world's still here. You did good," Buffy told him. She could see he didn't really believe her. He'd have to get over it eventually, but it was up to him.

"I told you that," Dawn grumbled, messing up his hair.

Clark dipped his head and blushed, shoving his big black-rimmed glasses back into place. He obviously didn't want to have this conversation here in front of strangers, and Buffy suddenly remembered about the secret identity, and decided to re-direct.

"It's not your fault you got sick, and we had lots and lots of big strong men to fight with us." The soldiers chuckled, shoveling down ham and eggs and muffins. "Your dad and Pete did fine, too. One more guy wouldn't have made that much difference. We'll all miss Mulder, but it's so totally Not Your Fault."

Clark shot her a grateful glance, and the table's topic of conversation turned to the Fourth of July Fair.

Riley and Company weren't planning to stay for it. They'd arranged to transport out all their booty via Smallville Municipal Airport, which didn't even have a tower and technically counted as Uncontrolled Air Space, which they figured might help avoid questions.

Mrs. Kent was packing up the pies she'd made the day before, while nearly everybody else had been gearing up for the big fight. The best one was going to the fair to be judged, and she was sending the rest with the soldiers for thank-you presents.

Buffy, Dawn and Clark hitched a ride back to the mansion with the soldiers, in their Jeeps. They'd say good-bye to everybody, distribute the pies, and then continue on to the Fair with Lex. The Kents and Cara would probably see them there.

Mrs. Digman had obviously gone all-out with the hospitality. She looked even more cheerful than Martha Kent had, at the large number of guest she had to provide for. Lex, on the other hand, looked more than a little shaky and pale. Either he hadn't been able to sleep, with his house full of strangers, or he was having a bad reaction to last night's events.

When Sam Finn got all possessive of Riley's arm, as Buffy and Dawn were bidding Riley a fond farewell, Lex seemed to perk up a little. Clark seemed more cheerful once all the Initiative-types were gone, too.

"Let's go to the fair," he said. "I want to see if I can win the pie-eating contest!"

"Isn't that a little unfair?" Dawn asked, as she and Clark wedged their long legs into the backseat of Lex's least backseat-challenged sportscar.

"I don't have super pie-eating powers!" Clark protested vehemently.

"Are you sure?" Lex asked.

Buffy and Dawn both laughed. Clark tried not to, but he kind of failed. "I don't!" he muttered feebly.

"We believe you," Dawn said, snuggling him.

Buffy and Lex laughed some more.

The Fairgrounds were crowded with people. A smattering of carnival rides attracted the little kids to one side, and the livestock and domestic arts competitions attracted people's parents to the other. (Jonathan had foregone entering any cattle this year, because he was busy with planetary defense. Martha, trying to keep her mind off the invasion and her menfolks' possible imminent deaths, had gone overboard and was entered in the pie, cake, candy, jam, and flower-arranging categories.)

Buffy, Lex, Clark, and Dawn strolled about, saying hi to kids Clark had been to school with, and to people who worked for Lex. They got some cotton candy, and rode some of the rides. Clark competed in the pie-eating contest, but he heard somebody falling off the Tilt-a-Whirl and had to rush away in the middle of it to save them on the sly, ending up disqualified. Lex got the operator fired on the spot, for failing to check people's seatbelts.

Various Smallville merchants had booths or displays set up. Lex spent quite a while at a scarily pink and ruffled booth, ordering iced coffees and talking with the proprietress. Buffy was about ready to wander dejectedly off and look for something else to do, and Dawn was looking all huffy on her behalf, when Pete Ross came up and defused the whole situation by leaning over the counter and kissing the slightly-built dark-haired girl full on the lips. Clark sputtered cutely, "Pete! You never told me you were going out with Lana!"

Pete puffed himself up proudly and gloated, "You never asked me, man. We been together almost since Christmas."

The girl, Lana, giggled and bobbed her head, blinking.

"Way to go, Pete!" yelled a nearby kid in a letterman's jacket. Lana giggled and bobbed her head some more.

"Congratulations, Pete," Lex said. "I hope that you and Lana will be very happy together." He sort of hustled Clark, who still looked a little stunned, away from the booth.

"Pete!" Clark sputtered finally, when they were out of earshot. "Pete!"

Lex laughed at him. Dawn began to look a little dangerous. Clark visibly started realizing how much trouble he was in.

Buffy saw something strange that drew her attention. There was a crowd of scared-looking people gathered around the Fordman's booth, where a big-screen TV was set up. "Uh oh," she said, and she pulled the whole party over to check it out.

**********

For some reason, the reporters on TV, all channels, seemed to be from the BBC.

Buffy immediately called England.

Clark just plain vanished.

Lex and Dawn watched the reports coming in from the other side of the world, horrified.

"Ministry of Health scientists believe the contagion began in the Gobi Desert region of China, early this morning." The screen showed a series of crooked, grainy images, probably taken and sent with cell-phone cameras. They revealed a haze of something reddish falling from the sky, distant car crashes, widely-spaced and unattended house fires in a tightly packed city that Lex recognized as Beijing.

There was a way in which he felt almost, a tiny bit, relieved. When he'd first heard the news, spreading by whispered word-of-mouth across the Fairgrounds as they'd approached the Fordman's display, he'd been certain the plague had started from the Metropolis spaceship. It only made sense that his men or his father's, or the soldiers-of-fortune whom he should have done more to stop, would have set off some alien failsafe or booby trap that had doomed the world.

The more he watched, though, the more he realized that there was absolutely no reason to feel relieved.

"Call me if you find out anything," Buffy said, and snapped shut her cell.

A graphic on the big screen showed concentric red circles marching across a map of Eurasia. The announcer's British tones could no longer be understood as the crowd there with them in Smallville became even more filled with alarm.

Is there going to be a riot here? Lex wondered. Will I end my days crushed beneath the booted feet of Smallville? Or will I live to see death marching across these fields?

They were showing digital pictures again. The crawl indicated the times and cities of origin. "Last image sent from Beijing," one subtitle read, with a time-stamp of half an hour before. The picture was clearer than most. A young woman, dressed to go out, lay sprawled on a late-night city sidewalk. Reddish circles dotted her rose-colored silk sheath, like drops of rain on pavement at the beginning of a thunderstorm.

Lex knew then that this *was* his fault. It had to be. He'd had this dream a dozen times, even though pinching himself proved he wasn't dreaming now. A rain of blood would come, sweeping across the world, Kansas, Smallville. It would kill everyone. He might survive, alone, as he'd always been really alone, the murderer of his race.

"Bite me," Buffy swore softly beside him. "I know I've seen that blood-rain stuff before. But where?" Suddenly, for no reason that Lex could see, Buffy yelled "Hey!" and took off running. The crowd was no hindrance to her -- she slid around people like water flowing, just as she had in Sunnydale in the spring.

Lex, embarrassing as it was to admit, would have just stood there and let her run away without trying to follow, if Dawn hadn't grabbed him by the hand and yelled, "Come on!"

They ran and fought their way through mobs of frightened people, who were all trying to get either closer to or further from the TV display. Buffy was far ahead of them by the time they got clear, running hard towards the parking area. Not many people seemed to have that idea yet. Lex knew it would probably be a panicked mob scene in cars once the news had time to sink in, once the people of Smallville realized, as he already had, that those circles of plague and death weren't going to stop. They'd come here. Everyone would die. It was all his fault.

"Come on!" Dawn yelled again. She yanked him out into the parking lot. Lex had parked at the farthest edge from the entrance so he could take two spaces without Clark making that face at him. Buffy was standing at his car, fists on her hips, staring around in evident anger.

"What was *that* all about?" Dawn huffed.

"She was *right here,*" Buffy muttered.

"Who?" Dawn demanded.

"Sineya!" Buffy exploded, frustrated. "The First Slayer, with the cryptic prophecies and the inhabited-by-ancient-demons, and the trying to kill us in our dreams!"

"Let's just go," Lex suggested diffidently. He didn't want to get caught up in the madness that he was sure the roads would soon become. Dying at the mansion, drunk off his ass on fine scotch, that was his best option at this point.

"Wait. What about Clark?" Dawn suddenly balked, as if just now realizing Clark was no longer with them.

Lex had been trying very hard not to notice that himself. Knowing Clark as he did, Lex was certain he'd supersped off to China when he'd vanished.

Clark was most probably already dead.

"Clark will be able to find us," Buffy vaguely reassured her sister. "There's something -- a way through this...."

People began streaming out into the parking area. Soon the roads would become completely undrivable. If he had less than a day until the end of the world, as his calculating mind had deduced from the news reports, Lex didn't want to spend any of it stuck in a traffic jam. He gestured the girls into the car. "Let's hurry."

Suddenly a wail of "Buffy!" rang out, and Cara Kent crashed into their midst like a cannonball. "Buffy! I lost Mama and Daddy, and I can't find 'em anywhere, and people were stepping on me, and I cried, and I dropped my cotton candy, and I can't *find* them! And then I saw you."

Tears, snot, and pink sugar streaked the little girl's face. Buffy un-self-consciously wiped it clean with her shirt-tail. Lex supposed it wasn't much, compared to blood or demon ichor.

"We'll take you to Lex's house with us," Buffy said decisively. "I'll call your folks and let them know where you are."

*************

Clark didn't even bother to suit up. This was such a terrible thing, and it was all his fault.

He was Superman; he was supposed to protect his adopted planet from alien attackers. While Buffy and Lex and Dawn and Buffy's friends had been fighting that last ship in Metropolis, he should've *at least* had their backs. He should have made sure than none of the other aliens that they'd all *counted on him* to take care of, could sneak up on the other side of the planet and KILL THEM ALL! He'd *slept* and now BILLIONS WERE DEAD!

Clark flew faster.

It wasn't long at all before the Pacific Ocean came into sight. Over the ocean, the sun went down, but it wasn't that it had gotten that late, just that Clark was moving that fast.

Sooner than he would have thought possible (he was moving faster than he'd ever thought he could, although probably not as fast as he'd gone during the Big Space Battle) the coast of Asia came into view.

He went to Japan, intending to physically carry as many people to safety as he could -- he thought Tokyo was the most densely populated city on the planet, so he should be able to save the most people by going there first. He hadn't given any thought at all to the likely response of a Japanese person, confronted by a big flying alien gaijin who wanted them to "Let me carry you to safety." His lack of foresight didn't matter, though.

From the moment he sighted land, everybody he saw was dead. X-ray vision, telescopic vision, landing (completely heedless of his own safety) and tearing buildings open with his hands to look inside for real -- everything revealed that everyone was dead.

All the animals were dead, too.

The roofs and sidewalks and streets, and the clothes of the few corpses he found out of doors, were all marked with red, damp splotches. Superman thought hard, and flew out to sea again, looking for something he remembered rushing past earlier.

There it was -- a thing like a storm front, not very deep, but as wide as he could see to either side. The rain drops were red, and they didn't smell right, and the clouds they fell from were all wrong, too.

He dove into the ocean. At least this crap wasn't killing all the fish, but it would kill every person, every dog and cat and chicken and cow, except him, if something didn't stop it.

He had to stop it. He had no idea how.

None whatsoever.

**********

Dawn and Lex were both uncharacteristically quiet during the drive back to the mansion.

Buffy sat in back with Cara, who'd taken some persuading to get into the car without a booster seat. Martha and Jonathan didn't have cell phones, so she called and left a message at the farmhouse. She considered calling the sheriff's office, in case the Kents looked for Cara there or tried to get some official help with a search, but the line was busy so she gave it up. It didn't seem all that likely they'd go there, and the local police would be really busy anyhow.

She occupied herself with Cara in the back seat, talking and playing little kids' word games, pretty much as she'd kept herself occupied most of the previous week.

They got to Lex's place. He left the car at the front drive, not bothering to put it away in the garage, and strode wordlessly into the house, tossing his keys onto the hall table. He poured himself a scotch, gulped it down and poured another before sitting down.

How Giles-like, Buffy thought. Guess Dawnie's not the only one doing that Oedipal thing.

Dawn herself stood in the stately hallway before Lex's study, head tipped to one side and a distant, thoughtful expression on her face. Cara seemed to catch the uncomfortable atmosphere here as she hadn't in the car, and put her arms up for Buffy to carry her.

Buffy slung the little girl onto her hip automatically and thought, There's a way through this. I know it. Sineya was there for a reason.

A phone rang. Lex finished his drink and took a cell phone out of his pocket. He set it down on the desk without opening it, and moved to the wet bar to get another drink.

"Lex," Buffy said. "Answer it."

His eyes were very blank when he turned them on her, and she didn't know whether he'd do as she asked or not. The phone rang again. He swallowed hard, put down the glass and answered it before the voice-mail kicked in.

"Lex Luthor," he said faintly.

Dawn suddenly muttered, "Yeah!" and rushed away down the stairs.

"Clark!" Lex said, joyfully. Buffy watched the life wash back into his face, and then gradually it was tinted with an expression of deepest concern. "You're... Okay, slow down. Listen. After we're done talking, fold up the phone carefully and put it somewhere safe. I'm not sure how waterproof it is. Then swim as deep as you can back towards us, and when you get to some sort of island, past the place where the blood-rain is falling, get out of the water and go up to an animal. I know, but they're going to die soon anyway, Clark!" Lex breathed deeply for a second, and then went on. "If the animal dies, retrieve the phone and call me back. Otherwise it should be safe for you to come home, okay?" Lex hung up.

"Clark?"

"Everyone in Japan is dead. All the animals, all the people. This stuff doesn't kill him, though. He didn't even think. He. I was sure he was dead."

"Yeah."

Cara was looking at both of them with big eyes. Buffy wished she could reassure her, but she couldn't think of anything to say.

"If he's a carrier of the contagion, he'll be calling again. Otherwise, he's going to come straight back. I don't know whether --"

Lex was cut off by Clark suddenly whooshing into the room. He looked shattered. "What are we going to do?" he asked, lost. Cara squiggled down from Buffy's arms and zipped over to him. He hugged her, looking hopeless, and repeated, "What are we going to do?"

Buffy heard Dawn running back up the stairs from Lex's basement. "Guys! Come down here! I have an idea!"

*************

"Clark! Hey!" Dawn hugged him hard with one arm. Her free hand was full of wires. "Glad to see you back."

How could she seem so normal? Billions of people were dead. Why wasn't she more upset? Clark didn't say anything.

"So here's my idea -- not exactly a plan, that's to come, but definitely and for sure an idea. By the way, Lex, how much power can you get here? Since you, like, own everything and stuff. And considering the infrastructure, although I guess we can change that if we --"

Lex cut her off rudely. At least he seemed to have some idea of how serious this all was. "What's this about?"

"Right." Dawn stepped back and swept her arm to indicate all the stuff that they'd brought back to Smallville from her lab in Metropolis. "This here, just as much as is finished now? Put enough power to it, and I can send matter back through time. Not far, not without getting the tolerances a whole lot tighter than I've been able to, and the mass-limit is going to be just a couple hundred pounds, but it's --"

Lex cut her off again. "You have a *working* time machine?" He obviously thought she'd lost her mind.

Dawn put her chin up and raised an eyebrow at him. "If you have the power supply. That's not what it's *for*, but brute-force it'll work. You didn't pay that close of attention when you were going over my equations, helping before, huh?"

"I...." Lex's voice dwindled to nothing, and he got a far-off expression on his face. His mouth was hanging open.

Buffy was smiling at her sister in delight.

Clark held tighter onto Cara. Had his friends, his allies, had they all lost their minds? Or could it be that this could be fixed?

"That's. That's a lot of power," Lex said at last.

Dawn nodded seriously. "Yes. But what else were you going to use it for, after the population of the planet is dead?"

Lex shook his head, eyes still distant and speculative. "No, that's not it. I can...." Suddenly he looked completely awake again. "We'll need cable. Plenty of it."

Clark felt much better. Apparently there was a solution, and Lex and Dawn were on it. "I can bring cable, as much as you need," he said. "Just tell me what kind, and where you think I could get it from." He certainly wasn't going to worry about *theft* right now.

"Great. Yes. Here, I'll make you a list," Lex said. He went off to look for paper or something.

"I'll keep picking at this calibration," Dawn said. "The finer I can get it, the more weight we can send. Don't take your time, Lex! To do more than a twenty-four hour jump would take more electricity than *anybody* has!"

"Good!" Buffy declared. "I knew there would be a way to fix this. We have a plan in-process. Cara, you and I are in charge of bringing snacks." She took the little girl upstairs with her.

Lex handed Clark a piece of paper with extraordinarily neat printing covering about half of one side. "This is just a preliminary list. After you bring these, we'll have a better idea what else we need. Any questions?" he asked.

Clark looked it over. It seemed perfectly straightforward. He took off.

***********

Mmm. Violating all known laws of physics. Dawn was willing to bet that it was evil for her to be so happy to have the chance to use the equipment for this, all things considered. She kept quiet about it.

Lex and Clark were the best co-conspirators a girl could ever ask for, if she was building a quick-and-dirty limited-range time machine.

Lex was a genius. He understood what she needed almost without having to be told. He had an intimate knowledge of his business rivals' inventories that made Dawn very glad she wasn't a shareholder of theirs -- no way did other Kansas businessmen have the contents of LexCorp's or LuthorCorp's warehouses by heart.

Clark, of course, was the ultimate smash-and-grab man. It took some persuading to get him to really embrace the role, but they did it. Surprisingly, Buffy was better at encouraging the virtuous to larceny than Lex was. Dawn didn't remember her attitudes towards Other People's Things being quite so lax when she was a kid getting caught shoplifting. Funny. The buzz around Metropolis always associated the Luthor name with an ends-justify-the-means attitude, especially about property rights, so Dawn would have expected Lex to be the stronger voice there.

Once Clark had been nagged into being the Procurement Guy, Buffy reverted to her usual planning-technical-stage job of snack-bringage. There was still no answer at the Kent Farm, and Mrs. Digman was nowhere to be found in the castle (Lex had given her the Fourth of July off -- it was actually kind of surprising she'd been there to feed the military occupation earlier) so Cara continued to stick to Buffy like glue.

Dawn didn't really have the time to worry about people's personal trauma, or drama. That twenty-four hour thing was a hard limit. As well as retrofitting the doohickey for a use she'd never considered anything more than a theoretical Oooh-Shiney, she had to design a whole huge honking power system on the fly, and work out *something* to use as a Recall Device. All her plans had to be clear enough for Clark to understand and implement first-time-every-time, with minimal explication from Lex, who was doing his own, less blatantly illegal, procurement tasks on the phone. Clark had to do quite a bit of the assembly, because a lot of the pieces involved were *big*. Dawn hadn't been kidding about this trans-dimensional side-effect requiring a *ton* of power. By the time the last giant coil of copper had been eye-lasered into place, it was almost dark.

Lex snapped his cell shut with an air of finality. "There," he said wearily. "The aluminum plant in Grandville is shut down. It took the plague being confirmed in North America, before they'd agree it was pointless for them to continue operations. If I hadn't been able to convince them, I would have had to call in a bomb threat."

"Perfect. Let's get this bird in the air," Dawn said, a lot more confidently than she felt. Yes, theoretically this would work. Theoretically, though, a lot of things would work.

They hadn't been listening to the radio or TV -- too distracting. Lex's comment about the blood-rain reaching North America must mean California. That was closest to China, wasn't it? Or would it be in Alaska or Canada instead, creeping around over the North Pole? Dawn had a sick certainty, which she refused to acknowledge, that Giles and Willow had to be dead by now. She squelched the feeling down.

It didn't matter.

They'd fix it.

"Okay. I figure we can get the full 24 hours with a weight limit of 150 kilograms -- about 300 pounds. That's also probably light enough that the Earth's gravity will hold you here, in Lex's basement, instead of your own inertia having you end up where this spot was 24 hours ago, a day's travel back along the path of the Earth's orbit. We need as long in the past as we can get -- the aliens' plan to poison the planet will probably be a lot more stoppable before they get it all the way set up. Clark, you better put on your...." She stopped talking, because he was already changed into the Superman suit. He sure had gotten a lot faster the last couple of days.

Clark took his position on the base plate. He stood heroically, the full Superman posture, but Dawn could tell he was scared. Who wouldn't be? He was trusting his life, and the lives of everybody he loved, to the hair-brained schemes of a non-real person. Dawn shook that thought away.

"What do you weigh, Clark?" she asked. "About one ninety?"

"Two oh five." It was the Superman baritone.

"And I'm right around a hundred," Buffy said cheerfully, setting Cara down and joining Clark on the salvaged copper plating that he'd battered smooth enough to serve as their transport pad.

"All right," Dawn muttered. She didn't want to pick a fight, especially since a)They didn't have the time, and b)Buffy did look like she was at least back up to ninety, after a week of Martha's home-cooking.

"Oh, here. Take these," Dawn added. With a flourish, she drew a white cloth off of a white dish, displaying two little objects. They each consisted of a sharp, pointed quartz crystal wrapped intricately with various kinds of wire. One of them had a thin sliver of kryptonite (from Lex's rather extensive collection) wrapped together with the quartz -- too small to glow or hurt Clark from even this small distance. Deliberately, Dawn stabbed her left palm once with the sharp point of each crystal. She wrapped the kryptonite-containing one in a little piece of lead foil she had ready, and handed that one to Clark and the other to Buffy.

"It seems like a good idea to have a Recall Device, so I made these. They're magic, not technology, but I think they'll work. To return here, you just stab your hand with the bloody point of the doodad there. The spell's already on it; you don't even need to say anything. Clark, you might want to pick Buffy up." He did it. "And, um, hover. But concentrate on staying in this room."

His eyes widened in surprise (and they were Clark's eyes again, not Superman's) but he lifted into the air a couple of inches. His head still cleared the top plate, by a similar distance.

"Okay, Lex," Dawn said, stepping back. "Hit it."

Lex threw the big heavy-duty horror-movie-looking electrical switch, that they'd snagged from the corpyard at LexCorp Fertilizer Plant No. 1 here in town. Fat sparks jumped across as the contacts got close, but Lex jammed it shut tightly anyway. A low hum started.

"Oh!" Dawn yelled. "Be sure not to MEET yourselves!"

The hum grew and sharpened in tone, and a blue-green miasma seemed to form between the apparatus's metal plates, bathing Clark and Buffy in a freaky-looking glow. The glow got brighter. The tone rose to an almost-unbearable pitch.

Suddenly, with no warning at all, Cara streaked past Dawn and jumped into the field. She leapt and grabbed onto Clark and Buffy, just before they all vanished in a flash of green light.

Lex was supposed to open the switch as soon as the transport event was concluded, but he must have been too shocked. Dawn certainly was. He left the juice on, and the apparatus started melting, and then all the power went out.

Private residence. No battery-powered emergency lights. It was pitch black in the basement. The melted circuits smelled strange.

"Oh my God," Dawn said faintly in the blackness. Then, after a minute, "What do you figure she weighs?"

*****************

Buffy woke up on a hard stone surface. She had no real trouble finding her way over to the light switch and flicking it on.

There was only about half as much equipment in the room as there had been a second ago, and it was all stacked against the walls. Clark and Cara were sprawled on the floor.

Slayer-sense told her there were no vampires anywhere nearby, that they were underground (which she already knew), that the Kent kids were alive (Good!), and that it was right around midnight.

Midnight? Uh, oh. Twenty-four hours would have been around nine. Shoot. Cara must have messed up Dawnie's aim.

As soon as the Big Space Battle had finished, Clark had limped back home -- Kents' couch to Luthor's basement, was that going to be too close? Had the Gobi Desert aliens started spreading plague yet? The BBC lady on TV yesterday -- er, tomorrow -- said, "early this morning." What time was it in China, anyway?

Too many questions. Buffy just had to get Superman up and away, and fast.

"Clark! Wake up!" Maybe it was magic in general that had a bad effect on him. No way would she *ever* believe that Dawn's doohickey was all 'science.' Nope, the Slayer *knew* magicks when she saw them. "Clark!" she yelled again, slapping him. Wow. Man of Steel.

At least all the yelling woke Cara. "Cara! Come help me wake up your brother!" The little girl obediently started poking Superman in the nose. "By the *way*," Buffy scolded, "what the heck were you *thinking*?"

"I wanted to come too!" Cara declared, "and not whine or make a fuss!"

Buffy sighed. She guessed that made sense, if you were a pre-schooler.

Cara climbed onto Superman's chest and bounced.

Clark woke up! "What? Where?"

"We're burnin' daylight! Come on!"

Flying with Clark was quite the experience. Buffy supposed she'd traveled that way from Metropolis to Smallville originally, but she thought it shouldn't count if you were unconscious. She was almost totally saved from having inappropriate fluttery feelings for HER SISTER'S BOYFRIEND by Cara's poingy and distracting presence.

Cara was having a grand old time sightseeing, but Buffy kept urging Clark to fly faster. She and Cara could both take it, after all, and the fate of the world was at stake.

When the big mountainy desert in the north-central part of China or Asia or whatever hove into view, Buffy figured it was almost 2 a.m. in Metropolis; the fighting would just be hitting its stride. Here, though, the sun was high overhead, and the cloudless sky was that blue that's so pale it's almost white. Everything but themselves was absolutely still -- no animals, no alive-looking plants, and not a breath of wind.

It all looked terribly familiar. She'd been here in her dreams.

Clark put himself into some sort of a search pattern, paying no attention to Cara and Buffy as they clung to him. Buffy admired the methodical way he worked, quickly and efficiently. She knew it was a trait that Giles would always have liked to see more of in her.

"There," Clark said eventually. He zoomed them all over to a spot on the desert, a place Buffy could barely see.

The ship there had clearly crashed, not put down under its own power like the one in Metropolis. Half a dozen Judgey-looking Demon Clone Warriors puttered about, mysteriously assembling something out of weird mechanical bits.

"We have to be careful to not set off the blood-rain thingie by accident," Buffy cautioned. "Cara, honey, you better keep well back. Stay out of the fighting."

"But --"

"Cara!"

Clark settled onto the sandy hard-baked clay and set the girls down.

Superman and the Slayer attacked.

Unfortunately, they had forgotten (in Cara's defense, she'd never known) that it had only been Dawn's and the Coven's spells which had allowed them to actually KILL these guys before. It was just luck that Buffy was still in the pummeling phase of her first fight when Clark ripped off an alien's head, and was driven back from a toxic cloud of green gas. It wasn't kryptonite; it didn't kill him, just made him cough a lot, but it gave the invaders plenty of time to stick the clone's head back on, and there he was as good as new.

"Dang!" Clark swore.

Buffy avoided the cloud neatly, and continued to kick and dodge her opponents. "We don't have the spells going on here that we did before!" she called. She circled and dodged, doing a pretty good job of leading the aliens away from their device.

"Well, at least they're the easy-to-see kind," Clark said, obviously trying to look on the bright side. Everybody who'd been in the fight in the city had told their stories in Smallville, and he'd heard about the frighteningly perfect alien camouflage.

"You have to go back to Metropolis!" Buffy yelled, kicking an alien to crash into and knock away two others. "Go get that ice-pick thingie from Fox Mulder!"

Superman squashed an alien up against the crashed ship and wrapped a section of hull around him. "Doesn't he need it there?" he asked, treating another manufactured soldier the same way.

"No!" Buffy kicked her next opponent to Clark, who caught him neatly and bound him up in hull-metal, too. "Dawn made all the weapons in Metropolis magic. He was using his gun! And hurry! If you're quick enough, maybe you can even save him! I've *got* the rest of these! Go!"

That was the winning argument. Clark took off. He went so fast that he made a sonic boom, like the supersonic jets they used to have at the Southern California air shows when Buffy was little.

Buffy might have been maybe just a tiny little bit optimistic when she'd said she could handle the rest of the aliens. The three that Clark had trapped were, of course, struggling to get free. Fortunately, they weren't quite Superman-strong. Unfortunately, the three that *were* still free gradually came to realize that Buffy wasn't the pushover they'd stubbornly expected. They quit attacking her head-on, willy-nilly, and they came up with a plan.

Cara's agitated bouncing drew their attention; they must have known that Earthlings were attached to their children, even if their research had failed to turn up vital Slayer- and superhero-related info.

To make matters worse, two of them double-teamed Buffy, making her fight them nonstop to keep them back from Cara. While they kept her busy and distracted, the other one dashed back to the wreckage and brought out some of those stupid heat-ray weapons. After that, they were all much more dangerous, although thankfully there wasn't much out here to set on fire.

Buffy hoped desperately, as she made a lucky shot and kicked one flat-headed interloper's ray-gun out of his hand, and dodged another one's blast, that Clark would hurry the heck up.

Then something went badly wrong. One of Clark's captives finally worked his way loose, roared and charged. Buffy was distracted for a moment, zigged when she should have zagged, and one of the armed aliens blasted Cara.

*********

Mulder was only a little surprised when the barrel of his Glock started to glow green. He'd somehow fallen in with a very strange group of people, ever since he'd given up on saving the world. That fact was the only thing that gave him the slightest glimmer of hope.

Stonetree's old .38, looking tiny in his hand, had started glowing, too. Joe nodded at it meaningfully, as they snuck along the wall towards the Food Court loading dock. "Magic," he said.

"Ya think?" Mulder breathed.

Suddenly, a section of the inky nighttime park *lurched* at them. Mulder dodged and pirouetted away from the no-longer sheltering wall, ducked down behind a purely inadequate trash can, and shot back at it. Joe had just plain opened fire. The old man seemed to hold to the 'Anything worth shooting is worth shooting over and over again' philosophy, but Fox wasn't going to argue with him. The thing took a total of seven bullets and fell. Once it was down, they could see it, and Mulder dispatched it with his father's alien-killing tool.

He and Stonetree stood looking at it for a moment, breathing hard. Its blood was green and evil-looking, but it didn't smoke or burn, as he'd expected it to from past experience. "Must be the magic, huh?" he commented.

"Yup." Stonetree was taking a while to reload his revolver. "See this?" he pointed out, displaying the bullets. Each individual bullet point glowed green as well. "This is why we were able to take him down."

"I'll try to aim for the base of the skull next time I'm shooting one. Look, Joe, I don't think we can..."

"Go ahead. I'll catch up."

"Thanks." Mulder quickly made his way into the building. He could hear voices, so he headed that way. Oh, man. Was that the President? Take me to your freakin' leader. Fox hurried through the darkened hallways.

There was a doorway up ahead, with a light showing through it. He thought the voices had been coming from there, too, but there was only one voice now. There was just one guard at this door, and he was facing inwards. Mulder used his father's legacy again, sneaking up unnoticed and back-stabbing the alien without any fuss. He caught the body to avoid a noise, laid it down on the marble floor, and peered around the jamb.

President Bush lay immobile on the floor. Fox couldn't tell, from here, whether he was dead or alive. A dozen fat cats of the conspiracy kneeled on the floor at another alien's feet. He was giving a speech; Fox identified the alien artifact that they must be using as a TV camera.

"Your children will be taken from you and sorted. The usable will be brought to central raising pens; the unusable will be destroyed."

Mulder stepped through the door. "You're not going to do this," he said, voice cracking. "You've done too much already."

The alien roared and surged up at him. Mulder immediately shot him, aiming for the base of the skull, and was thrilled to see that his magically-enhanced gun killed the alien without any trouble.

He didn't have time to savor his victory, though. Another alien came out of nowhere and tackled Mulder. The gun was knocked away, and Fox found himself fighting for his life, suspended by the neck with his feet a foot above the floor. He couldn't get a breath. The guy's grip was far too strong to break, and he was starting to twist.

Good-bye, Scully. I hope you and William will be okay.

Then Mulder found himself on the floor. His neck hurt, but he was alive.

Superman was there. The alien speaker was dead. Two more aliens charged in, firing heat-beam weapons. Joe Stonetree appeared at the doorway and shot them both dead. The room caught fire. Two of the aliens' servants started to scream. Superman took a deep breath, and blew the flames out. Moving almost too fast to see, Metropolis' superhero rounded up the well-dressed traitors and tied them up with the heavy curtains, slightly scorched, that had been decorating the office.

"Mr. Mulder, are you all right?"

Mulder caught his breath and nodded.

"May I please borrow the ice-pick weapon your father left you?"

Mulder gaped in surprise. "Uh. Sure," he said, fishing in his pocket.

"Thank you." Superman took it and flew away.

********

The little girl's screams were terrible to hear, as she was engulfed in flames. Buffy knew those weapons could flash-burn a man to blackened bone -- she'd seen it, in Metropolis -- but that was war. It hadn't torn at her heart like this did.

As had happened so often before, her rage gave her strength. The aliens didn't know what hit them, especially a couple of minutes later when an enraged, naked, bald, but otherwise completely unharmed toddler crashed into one of them like a runaway train.

Cara forced him into and *through* the mechanism the aliens had been trying to build. Parts flew everywhere. Fortunately, it didn't seem to activate.

"You burnt up my *clothes*!" Cara shrieked, embedding the hapless invader shoulder-deep in the hardpan. "And my *hair*!" she wailed, throwing another one up into what could possibly have been orbit, if Superman hadn't returned that very moment and caught him.

Buffy might have been wrong, but she thought the goon actually looked relieved to be stabbed in the back of the neck.

Cara flung herself down onto the ground, crying, kicking and howling. Superman dispatched all the remaining aliens in short order. Buffy gathered the furious little girl into her lap. "Here, baby," she said, shrugging out of her shirt. "Thank God Dawnie got me sports bras, huh?" she quipped to Clark, who was piling all the alien bodies together in the ruins of their plague-rain generator. "There you go," Buffy said. "It's just like a little dress. And the thing about hair? It grows back."

Clark collected the corpses, the weapons, the mysterious equipment, and the remains of the spacecraft, and wadded them all together into a big untidy ball. Buffy found the crunching noises this produced strangely satisfying.

Superman effortlessly picked up the ball and threw it far, far away. It was out of Buffy's sight almost immediately, but Clark gazed intently after it for almost ten minutes, during which time Cara subsided to sniffles in Buffy's lap. Finally, Clark looked down, and let out a deep breath.

"That's that," he said.

"What'd you do with it?" Buffy asked.

"Sent it into the sun."

"That's probably for the best. You really should go back and do that with the other one, too, just to be safe."

"Yeah." Clark crouched down beside them and spoke to Cara. "I'll be back as quick as I can."

"Hurry, okay?" Buffy told him. "I kinda think we should leave before the dimensions settle down and get too comfy like this."

"I'll hurry," Superman promised, and took off again.

"Or, wait!" Buffy called. Superman stopped in midair. "Take us with you and drop us off in Nebraska or something. That way you won't have to come all the way back to the Gobi Desert for us to all use the Recall Thingies together."

"Right." Buffy and Cara climbed aboard. Clark looked a little tired, close up, as he carried them back towards home. It had been a very long day.

**********

One moment, Lex and Dawn were standing in total darkness, among the remains of Dawn's Inter-Dimensional Transport Device and a whole heck of a lot of hot hardware, staring at the spot in the blackness where Clark, Buffy, and Cara had disappeared. The next moment, the lights were back on, Dawn's gear was neatly stowed away against the walls, and the air was *not* full of the scents of ozone and burnt insulation.

"They must have succeeded," Lex guessed.

Dawn looked worried. "I hope so."

Almost an hour went by. Neither of them could bear to leave the room, or to stop watching for Buffy, Cara, and Clark to return. They didn't talk much. Once Dawn said, "I wish they'd hurry." Lex agreed with her, but he didn't say anything.

Finally there was a brilliant flash of green light.

"Oh, thank God!" Dawn exclaimed. She grabbed Clark and kissed him. He barely had time to set Buffy and Cara down first.

Lex just stared at Buffy, drinking his fill of the sight of her. She'd lost her shirt somewhere and the sports bra she was wearing as a top revealed all the heartbreaking elegant sharpness of her bones. He wished he could keep her safe, but he knew that wasn't an option, would never be an option. Tenderness for her welled up painfully in his heart. He loved the Slayer. He almost wished he didn't.

Then Lex noticed Cara. The child was raggedly dressed in Buffy's shirt, and she was bald!

"Are all of you okay?" Lex asked, but his eyes were fixed on Cara.

Clark's mouth was busy; Buffy just smiled at him. Cara said, "The monster guys burnt my clothes and my hair off! Buffy says it'll grow back."

"I'm sure she's right."

Cara came closer, and Lex found himself patting her on the head. The skin was unbelievably warm and soft, and he remembered what she'd been like as a baby, the only one he'd ever touched or held since Julian.

Cara looked determined. "I'd be okay even if it doesn't," she said.

*************

"So," Stonetree asked, quaffing coffee from a cup that looked almost like a thimble in his massive hand, "what're you gonna do next? Now that the world's been saved."

Mulder didn't think he looked quite as out-of-place in the five-star hotel's dining room as Stonetree did. The good meal and the solid day's sleep he'd gotten at LuthorCorp expense had done him good, not to mention the incomprehensible relief of having, against all odds, actually thwarted the plot that would have ended the world.

"I need to go to Montana. My partner's there, and our child." It felt incredibly strange to say that out loud. "My partner and our child," he repeated softly.

Stonetree smiled at him. "You wanna ride? I haven't been to Montana for a long time."

Mulder smiled back. It felt like years since he had last smiled. "That'd be great, Chief. I think you and Dana would like each other. Let's start in the morning, huh?"

*************

The fireworks would be starting soon, and just because they'd saved the world twice (once that nobody but the five of them would ever remember) was no reason to miss them. Clark took Cara back home first, to get cleaned up and changed. His parents were there, and he couldn't believe how glad he was to see them. It wasn't only because then they could be the ones to deal with his little sister, either.

"Cara Jennifer Kent!" Mom greeted them. "What did you to your hair? And your clothes?"

Cara started to explain, at great length, and Mom took her away, still talking, to give her a bath. "Don't be mad at her!" Clark called after them as they left. "Everything she's saying is true."

He quickly washed his hands and face in the kitchen. The light in the living room was on, so he went in. Dad was there.

"What, was Cara playing at being a Luthor?" Dad asked, looking up from the *Daily Planet*. Its headline was "Superman Stops Alien Invasion, Saves President." (Due to the alien takeover of all electronic media -- which had taken hours to clear up after the aliens themselves were defeated -- and to Perry White's lobby display of antique mechanical printing presses, the *Planet* had scooped every news organization on Earth with that story.)

"No, there were a few aliens we missed, and we had to go after them. She sort of stowed away. One of 'em blasted her with one of those heat-ray things. Guess it's a good thing she's like me," Clark said. He wasn't exactly lying. He, Lex, Buffy and Dawn had talked it over before he'd run Cara back home. They all had two sets of memories, and this story was fairly consistent with one of them.

Judging from Dad's reaction, it sounded perfectly plausible to him. "Clark, you shouldn't let your baby sister get into that kind of trouble."

"I know. I'll try harder to keep her out of it next time."

"Next time," Jonathan sighed. Clark didn't say anything. "So. You kids heading back over to the Fair to see the fireworks?"

"That's the plan. I thought maybe I'd, you know, fly, and you and Mom could take Cara? Lex is giving Dawn and Buffy a ride, and I said I'd catch up with them."

"I'm not sure whether we'll be going or not, but you young people have a nice time." Jonathan put the paper down and looked at Clark squarely. "You did a good job, son. I'm proud of you."

Clark beamed. "Thanks, Dad."

It was a beautiful night. It almost took his breath away to think that it might have been the last one ever, for the human race. Clark did not want to think about what the world would have been like for him, if Dawn's crazy plan had failed. He so owed her for this.

Clark landed outside the Fairgrounds and walked in. All his old schoolmates who still lived in Smallville, and quite a few of the ones who had gotten jobs or colleges or spouses out of town, were there. It was nice to see them again. Even the ones who'd mostly ignored him in high school said Hi. Nobody knew about the second disaster they'd averted, but everybody knew about the alien ship in Metropolis, and he guessed life was just a little sweeter for all of them because of it tonight.

It didn't take long to find Lex and the girls. Buffy was wearing one of Lex's shirts, a silky gray one with buttons; she had the sleeves rolled up, and it really suited her.

Dawn immediately glommed onto Clark's arm and didn't seem to want to let go. That was fine with him. He didn't much want to let go of her either. "Where's the best place to view the fireworks?" Dawn asked.

"There's a big field over there, that people spread out blankets and stuff. Do you want to go now? Try and get a good spot?"

The girls did, and Lex didn't seem to mind one way or the other, so they made their way over to the field, along with the rest of the crowd. Lex had actually brought a blanket, one that didn't even look like it would be some sort of a crime to spread it out on the midsummer grass and lie on it, so they did.

Dawn snuggled up against him. It felt wonderful. All the other couples around them on the grass, even Lex and Buffy, were just far enough away to ignore them if you really wanted to, and Clark really wanted to.

The fireworks were nice, nothing they hadn't all seen before, but everybody oohed and aahed in the right places. Clark had been to these displays every year since he was little. He remembered watching them warily from Mom's lap, and with half his attention while tearing around in the warm summer darkness with Pete, and glumly sitting alone envying poor Whitney Fordman with all his heart. He'd changed so much, but the fireworks were always the same. When he thought how close they'd come to there never being any more fireworks, or anything, ever again, he got a lump in his throat.

Dawn turned in his arms and looked up at him. "Clark? You okay?"

He nodded. "Thanks to you."

After a moment, Dawn said, "You know that thing I said I'd explain after the world didn't end? About the magic?"

Clark shushed her and kissed her hair. "You don't have to tell me anything. It's okay. I trust you."

************

Rural amusements, Lex thought tolerantly. It had been a long couple of days, and he was tired.

Tomorrow he'd have to get back to the business. He'd been neglecting it. Of course, there wouldn't have even *been* a tomorrow if he hadn't, so he supposed it had been a necessary evil.

Tired as Lex was, he suspected he'd have trouble falling asleep. He needed some scotch, and a woman in his bed. It had literally been months. There just hadn't been anyone interesting enough to try to pick up, not since the first time he'd seen Buffy.

He really liked the way she looked in his shirt. And the way she felt, lying next to him, watching the fireworks, brushing against him just at the shoulder and the hip.

Lex rolled up onto one arm so he could look her in the face. She smiled at him. "What?" she asked.

"You're beautiful."

"Thanks. You, too." He just kept looking at her, and she laughed at him a little. "Anything else?"

I love you, he thought. He didn't say it yet. "Come back to the mansion with me? Stay the night?"

Buffy smiled at him more broadly. "Thought you'd never ask."

Lex kissed her.

The End

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