Part I: Metropolis
If one possesses a thing securely, one need never use it. - Graham Greene
Bruce lay in the darkness and watched Clark Kent get dressed.
When he didn't think anyone was watching, he moved like a lion, a hawk, any predator comfortable in its own skin. Bruce wondered what it would take to make a man like that hide himself.
He was not without a sense of irony.
At least Kent probably wasn't secretly the scourge of Metropolis. Metropolis's scourge didn't even wear a mask, and he looked nothing like Clark Kent.
After the disaster that had been Selina, he'd sworn off people with secret identities. There was only room for one split personality in his bed. And since everyone carried strangers within, that meant sticking to one-night stands, meaningless motions designed only to cement Bruce Wayne's sybaritic reputation.
Unfortunately and unpleasantly, Bruce Wayne hadn't responded obediently to the Batman's diktat. A few months back, he'd found himself putting his hands over a debutante's face, fingers splayed to curve over her cheeks. It looked just like a butterfly mask. She thought he was caressing her, but that wasn't it at all. He'd known then that it was time to take Bruce Wayne out of circulation entirely for a bit.
Thus, Kent had been something of a surprise.
"I'm not always a journalist, you know," Clark Kent said, leaning forward just enough that Bruce felt hot breath in his ear. Sidelined, half-hidden from the dance floor by a seven-foot-high cardboard cutout representing the firemen the fundraiser was meant to honor, they were in no danger of being discovered.
Bruce turned, and saw an answering spark in Kent's eyes. "What are you when you're not a journalist?"
"Just a man, with the same needs ... desires ... as anybody else." Kent was staring at his mouth. Subtle, he wasn't.
"Well, I'm not always a playboy," he said, enjoying the thrill of an unheard confession. He put his champagne glass down on an abandoned table without taking his eyes from Kent's.
"You want to get out of here?" Invitation accepted. Kent didn't waste any time. Bruce liked that.
He nodded and turned to go, feeling Kent a pace and a half behind him.
In Bruce's experience, if he found himself with a desire to see someone again, that meant trouble, so he went down to the cave and started researching Clark Kent. "A reporter with the Daily Planet" was, as he'd suspected, false modesty. Three Pulitzers shared with his writing partner (romantic partner?) Lois Lane, a host of other awards, and, more than that, two resignations from state-wide office, three major public works projects cancelled or reconceived, five kingpin-level arrests, and a host of other reforms made as a result of the duo's reporting.
One of the good guys, or so he seemed.
A local boy, from a suburb of Metropolis with the rather unimaginative name of Smallville.
Bruce knew that name. Lex Luthor had also emerged from Smallville, like a poison moth unfurling from its chrysalis. After Kent and Lane's second Pulitzer, Lex's name had begun to come up in Metropolis politics, as a new face untainted by prior corruption. Kent and Lane had written some nasty things about him, but unlike their other reporting, it hadn't stuck.
He started looking for a connection.
The Smallville Ledger online went back only to mid-2005, a few months after Lex had moved back to Metropolis. Clark Kent showed up exactly three times in its archives, once in 2006 back from his freshman year at Met U, helping in the reconstruction after a freak storm leveled half of Main Street; once at the wedding of two high school classmates, Lois Lane in tow; and once attending the funeral of his father.
None of the news services carried the Ledger further back, and neither the University of Gotham nor Met U had microfilm. Bruce was willing to bet that no one did, at least for that critical few years early in the century. Lex was plainly hiding something. For his own safety, Bruce had to assume it concerned Kent.
He started a program that would trace Kent's finances and those of his widowed mother.
The phone rang. "Yes?"
"Master Bruce, Mr. Lex Luthor is on the line. Shall I put him through?"
That was surprising. Both because Lex never should have been able to trace Bruce's queries back to him, and because Lex knew better than to confirm the connection with such an overt act. "Please do, Alfred."
There was a click. "Hello, Bruce. How are you?" The voice was, if anything, smoother than he remembered, rich with the promise of sex, power, and danger.
"I'm well. And you?" He tapped his fingers against the console, feeling ridiculously exposed, as if Lex could see him in the cave.
"Also well. I'd appreciate it if you'd curb your enthusiasm for Clark Kent."
This was all wrong, too unsubtle. "Why? Is he one of yours?"
"Not in the sense that he's been yours, no." Lex sounded as if he were smiling. So he'd had them watched, last night, at least at the party. Bruce thought that the Manor was proof against surveillance, but if anyone could have gotten audio or visual of their encounter, it would have been Lex. "But I thought we'd agreed to a division of territory. I don't interfere with visitors from Gotham, and you let Metropolis take care of its own."
Bruce could make out the edges of his own reflection in the computer screen, dark and poorly defined. "Are you threatening me?" After LexCorp had swallowed LuthorCorp, Lex had grown more aggressive in his acquisitions, but he had maintained a careful distance from Wayne Industries.
Lex laughed. "Don't be ridiculous, Bruce. You're smarter than you are pretty, whatever you pretend to Gotham's high society. Believe it or not, I retain some fondness for you from our schooldays. Clark is an incorrigible, incorruptible do-gooder, true to his image, but people who get too close to him tend to end up dead. Or deeply resentful."
The computer beeped, finished with its task.
"That search you just ran isn't going to find anything. You've never felt the need to extend your wings further than Gotham, and this is no time to start."
Bruce froze in his chair. Lex had always chosen his words carefully.
"Bruce? You still there?" Lex's voice was not quite merry.
"Of course. Do you think Superman would tell me the same story you just did?"
There was a pause. "Superman tells many stories." Now Bruce had the sense that Lex wasn't quite talking to him, at least not only to him. "As I'm sure you've -- heard, he doesn't have much tolerance for amateur do-gooders." That pause was another red flag - Bruce remembered only too well Superman's reaction to the Batman's decision to stay out of the so-called 'Justice League.' It was then that he'd begun to take steps towards compiling his own stock of mystery mineral. Just in case.
With the elder Luthor out of the picture, Lex was his biggest competitor in that market.
"If Clark is being a bad boy, Superman will send him to his room without any dessert. Let it go, Bruce." Lex's voice had softened, become rougher, almost sincere.
"You're almost guaranteeing that my interest is piqued."
Lex let out a breath, loud over the telephone wires. "It would have been anyway. Clark is like that, you think you'll just peel back one more layer and then you'll know what it is about him. And maybe a new obsession would be good for you. But not this one, not Clark Kent. There's enough insanity in Gotham. Stick with the kind of crazy that ends up in Arkham, not the kind that walks the streets of Metropolis."
Bruce leaned back in his chair, staring at Kent's nondescript finances. "Thanks for calling, Lex. We should stay in touch."
That earned him a snort. "Feel free to call me when you realize what you've gotten yourself into. I so rarely give advice, I'm looking forward to saying 'I told you so.'"
The phone clicked, and Bruce found himself listening to a dial tone.
That had been disturbing on any number of levels. Bruce stood, seized with the desire - the need - to patrol. The Batman could puzzle over Lex's bizarre warnings and implications while taking out his nightly dose of criminals.
After Bruce checked in to the Metropolitan Grand Hotel, scandalizing the bellhop by insisting on carrying his own bag, he headed over to LexCorp, a few hot city blocks away. His name got him to the executive floor. His name and a request for a meeting got him fifteen minutes in a waiting room, a drink offer that he declined, careful scrutiny by a blonde woman who moved like an assassin, and, finally, entrance to Lex's office.
Lex rose from his desk as the door closed behind his stunningly beautiful assistant. The blonde had tried to follow Bruce in, but Lex had waved her back.
"Bruce," Lex said, walking up to him and standing too close. He didn't extend his hand. "You shouldn't have come here."
Bruce made no reply. In person, Lex was a slightly bulked-up version of the boy he'd known. If he was still ghost-haunted, it no longer showed to casual observation. His eyes, fixed on Bruce's face, were gunmetal-gray.
"I have business in town," he said at last, stepping to one side. Lex swiveled to follow, his hips like ball bearings - that, he remembered too.
"Mmm," Lex agreed, a bit too indulgent for Bruce's comfort. "I don't think Clark likes to be referred to as 'business,' though he wouldn't be happy with 'pleasure' either. He's hard to satisfy that way." His hand came up and tugged at Bruce's tie.
Bruce knew he should be reacting, but it was impossible to pull away from Lex's unblinking stare. The hand was almost an afterthought. Lex loosened the tie and pulled it down as Bruce swallowed against his knuckles. Then he unbuttoned the first three buttons of Bruce's shirt, pushing the fabric aside and seeking out the bullet scar under Bruce's right collarbone. The fact that Lex obviously knew what he was looking for, even more than the heat of his fingers, made it difficult not to tremble.
"Did it hurt?" Lex asked, dreamily. His fingertip traced the puckered circle, and only the last dregs of Bruce's training kept him from panting, or fleeing.
"With all you've done, I'm surprised you haven't been shot yourself," he said severely.
Lex smiled, slow and secretive. "I have been. I want to know if it hurt you."
"Of course it did."
"Of course," Lex repeated, and stroked his fingers down to where Bruce's shirt opened, then began rebuttoning it.
It was at this point that Bruce realized that he was aroused to the point of half-insanity. The reason criminal madmen did so well, he thought, was that they were hypnotizingly unpredictable. You didn't want to kill them, because then you wouldn't know what happened next. Bruce tried not to let the potential for redemption interfere with practicality, but the existence of Arkham, instead of another graveyard, was evidence of his weakness as much as it was proof of his vow not to kill.
"Would you like to spar, Bruce? Work off some of that tension?"
He hated that mocking tone, guaranteed to reduce the Dalai Lama to a high-school geek who'd just spilled milk down his pants in front of the entire cafeteria. Hitting Lex sounded like the best idea in creation, even if it did come from Lex himself.
Lex's blonde bodyguard followed them from the conference room to a large gym on a high floor of the building. There were clothes in Bruce's size waiting, and he and Lex changed quickly, without taunting looks, which left him equally relieved and disturbed.
"No interventions, Mercy," Lex ordered as Bruce followed him to a section of the gym that was just black rubber matting. The bodyguard looked fractionally more unhappy, but didn't protest.
"What about gloves?" he asked as Lex backed away, settling into a defensive stance.
Lex's lips twitched. "I don't think I have any that would suit you." Bruce could see padded red boxing gloves draped over a chair near the wall, so this could be another suggestion that Lex knew who Bruce really was, designed to keep him off guard.
"Fine," he said, and lashed out with his right fist.
Lex dodged and spun into a kick, which Bruce took on his hip and grabbed Lex's ankle, sending Lex to the mat. Lex sprang up as if his shoulders were magnetically repelled by the floor. The parameters of the fight were clear. He had a longer reach than Lex and a hell of a lot more strength. Lex was fast and in no way considered this a game.
They traded and dodged blows for several minutes. Lex did substantially more dodging than Bruce. He was stronger than Bruce initially thought, as Bruce discovered when he let Lex close enough to land an uppercut. And the left-handedness was useful for training purposes.
After five minutes, Bruce's right ear was ringing and he could taste blood from his lip and nose. Lex's left eye was already swelling closed, and he held his right shoulder back in a way that suggested moderate damage. He was still just as fast as he'd been in the opening seconds, though, and Bruce was beginning to wonder whether he'd have to let the Batman out to win.
Then Lex zigged when the smart money was all on zag, and Bruce's fist caught him on the side of his chest. Bruce could hear the snap of ribs breaking, and he pulled away in horror as Lex looked down at his fist with a genuine smile.
The noise continued, and it wasn't Lex's ribs but a window shattering inwards.
What was Superman doing here? Lex followed Bruce's stunned gaze and smiled wider, even as his hand went to his chest in instinctive, belated self-protection.
Superman was glaring at him with what looked weirdly like betrayal - he spared a moment to turn the same expression on Lex's bodyguard - and Bruce briefly wished for the lead-lined vial of mineral he'd added to the suit for this trip, though it was back at his hotel with everything else.
"What are you doing? You could kill him."
Bruce couldn't contest the accusation, because he could and he'd wanted to, and what that said about his sexuality -- and probably his sanity -- was not at all pleasant.
"Don't worry, Superman. I'm saving myself for you." There was blood on Lex's chin after he finished speaking.
The bodyguard was muttering into a phone.
Superman pretended to ignore Lex. "Mr. Wayne, I don't know what you do in Gotham, but in Metropolis we frown on this type of behavior."
"In other words," Lex said helpfully, "Superman says to go pick on someone your own size. I started the fight, alien," he paused to turn his head and cough into a clenched fist, "and I'll heal. I always heal; like fucking Tithonus, asked for health but forgot to ask not to get hurt."
"Luthor," Superman said, his blue eyes shining with regret and worse.
"Heroes," Lex said with contempt and started walking to the door, even as it opened and admitted two worried-looking people with medical kits. He moved as if he'd break open if he wobbled even a bit.
Superman's hands twitched, as if he wanted to reach out. When Lex and his attendants had left the room, he turned his attention back to Bruce. "Lex Luthor is - he's not well, Mr. Wayne. I don't know why you're here, but I advise you to stay away from him."
And the gym was empty except for Bruce himself, shattered safety glass like sharp drops of water across the black mat. Bruce blinked, looked out at the view of the Metropolis skyline through the destroyed window, and then examined his bruised and split-knuckled hands.
This is going swimmingly, the Batman whispered. This city doesn't want you. Go home.
Yet he hadn't figured out the mystery of Clark Kent, and now there was the equal mystery of why Superman was acting as Lex Luthor's belated guardian angel. Luthor was going global, and the Batman couldn't pretend that Gotham was separate from the rest of the world. Ra's al Ghul had shown him that.
If Superman and Luthor were more than simple nemeses, Batman would have to be aware of that. Obsession, especially reciprocated obsession, was more dangerous than any rational villainy or heroism.
Selina and Harvey had shown him that.
But neither Harvey nor Selina could punch a hole through a mountain, no matter how bad things got. He couldn't say the same about Superman. No, the Batman needed more information.
He tried to shake off the feeling that his presence itself was somehow destabilizing as he headed towards the elevators, out of the LexCorp complex. Superman follows Luthor and Luthor follows Kent. So was there a third side to the triangle?
"I'm very pleased that you contacted me, Mr. Wayne," Lois Lane said, wrapping her hands around her coffee. Her manicure was a few days old, the polish the color of a robin's breast. "But my sources tell me that you never give interviews. What's changed? And please," she leaned forward, her blouse parting a fraction more, "don't tell me that it's my charm and grace, because I hate to walk out on a man so soon after I've met him."
Bruce smiled his brainless playboy smile at her. "I met your partner Clark Kent in Gotham recently, and he spoke highly of you."
Lane leaned back and took a sip of coffee, her bright eyes missing nothing as she stared at him. "Clark didn't mention you."
He shrugged. "My reason for contacting you is rather embarrassing." He paused long enough for her to school her face into a welcoming, friendly expression that didn't quite hide the shark fins cruising behind her eyes. "You've interviewed Superman."
"I - I want to know what he's like. In person."
"You want to know what Superman is like," she repeated, as if he were a bit slow.
He nodded sincerely. "The behind-the-scenes story, the things that don't get into the published interview. He's a hero - well, I don't need to tell you, but - I admire him tremendously. So, if you'll tell me -"
Lane looked at him skeptically, doubtless wondering if he were a front for someone trying to find Superman's weaknesses. As long as she was worried about that, she wouldn't pay much attention to his other questions.
At last, she leaned forward, her nails grazing the surface of the table. Bruce almost expected to hear the screech of metal scratching. "All right, Mr. Wayne. A backstage pass, in return for an exclusive interview on Wayne Industries' recent activities."
He smiled. "You might be disappointed. I don't pay much attention to that sort of thing, but I'll tell you whatever I can. And, please: call me Bruce."
After that, the interview went smoothly enough. He said nice things about his board of directors, and she told him useless Superman trivia, like the maximum number of people he'd rescued in any one day. He described the glittering life of a useless multibillionaire, and she recapitulated the material in her published interviews with Superman. He gave her boarding school stories, which led to a question about Lex that required actual deflection and denial, and she gave him behind-the-scenes anecdotes showing that Superman was just as nice a guy - an alien - in private as in public.
Bruce recalled some of Kent's editorial comments, which weren't as favorable to Superman as the average Metropolist columnist's, and certainly not as glowing as Lane's hagiography. No direct criticism, nothing like what Lex Luthor risked saying against the world's most popular superhero, but always a tone of distance, surprising in someone who'd had as much direct contact with Superman as Kent had. He asked Lane whether Kent shared her high opinion.
She shrugged, her shoulders drawing together as if she were slightly uncomfortable. "They really respect each other, but they don't hang out much. I think Superman's a little goody-two-shoes for Clark. All that wholesomeness intimidates him."
Bruce raised an eyebrow, smiling with just a hint of incredulity. "Clark doesn't seem like the type to be easily intimidated."
"Off the record, Bruce?"
"Yes?" His expression was pleasant, unthreatening. He knew which muscles were contracted.
Lane stared at him; he could almost feel her gaze bouncing off him. "About Clark. You know how some people repress because they think if they start something, they won't ever be able to stop? That's Clark. Right after he started at the Planet, he discovered sex. He's never really slowed down. Some woman or man is always calling to see whether he's available, or to see what happened when he didn't show up for a date. He tends to blow people off when something better comes along, and by 'something better' I mean 'someone he hasn't already hooked up with.' I love him dearly, but not even FEMA and the Justice League combined could clean up the disaster that is his personal life. I think he's worried that if Superman knew him better, he'd lose respect. Superman isn't the type to break promises or treat the Metropolis white pages as his version of a little black book."
Bruce kept his face distantly amused as he wondered just how much of a fool he was. "To be honest, Clark sounds like he's a lot more my speed than Superman. I'm more about variety than commitment."
Lois Lane was a good enough reporter that she didn't show the contempt she must be feeling. "I guess it's a good thing that not everyone can be Superman. It gives us someone to look up to."
Bruce nodded politely and turned the conversation to more social matters.
After the interview, Bruce went to the main branch of the Metropolis Public Library to access the minor local papers that weren't archived anywhere else and to review the material that his research assistants had put together for him, each of them responsible for only a small piece and unaware of the others' existences. It was a methodology that had served him well in the past, allowing him to assemble relevant information and synthesize it without needing to rely on the discretion of someone who knew where Bruce's interests really lay. He sat at a terminal in the corner of the main reading room, quickly breaking through the library's security so he could make the computer do his bidding, and emanated enough hostility that no one came near him while he worked.
He reviewed the earliest reports about Luthor's struggles with Superman. Luthor had managed to suppress most such accounts, since they weren't consonant with his image as Metropolis's prodigal son, but he hadn't been able to get at the Department of Homeland Security.
Superman had been active in Metropolis for several months by then. He'd given two exclusive interviews to Lois Lane, and the full-page headlines and one-hour news specials had fallen back to two-column pieces below the fold and five minutes on the nightly news.
Then Superman had destroyed a research facility engaged in illegal animal testing - preparatory, Bruce was sure, to illegal human testing. The company was a LexCorp subsidiary, about five miles of paper insulated from Luthor, but his nonetheless. According to the janitor who'd talked to the investigator two days after the incident (and who had disappeared shortly after that), Superman had smashed the medical equipment and melted the computers to slag. Then, what looked like a mighty wind swept through the cage room, after which all the doors were open and the rats and monkeys began pouring out of their prisons, adding to the chaos. The janitor didn't know what was being tested, but Superman must not have thought the animals were dangerous. Either that, or he didn't care.
Superman was corralling the researchers, putting them with admirable efficiency in the very cages he'd just emptied, when a black-clad security force arrived. They'd been wearing masks. The janitor had thought they were US Special Forces, and the interviewer had done nothing to enlighten him. Superman's eyes had narrowed and he'd started towards the newcomers. To the janitor's shock and dismay, he stopped halfway and took a faltering step back. His face, the janitor reported, showed no fear, only resolution and - it seemed - disappointment. The people in black had been carrying thick staves, like police riot sticks but tipped with something strange and green, their guns holstered at their hips.
"You've had your fun," the lead person - woman, the janitor emphasized, as if he couldn't believe it himself - had said. "Now get out."
And Superman had gone, shakily. When he'd left, the glowing stones embedded in the commandos' nightsticks had faded to a dull dark green.
The NSA had concluded that this was Luthor's security force. Industrial espionage and bribery revealed that Luthor had a large stockpile of the green stones, but their provenance was still unknown.
Before now, he'd been focused on getting his hands on a weapon against Superman; he hadn't considered how Luthor might have acquired the stuff before that.
Bruce had resources not available to the NSA. He'd been able to track the mineral back to LuthorCorp holdings in Metropolis as early as 2002. In 2002, Lionel Luthor was still in charge and Lex was in exile in Smallville.
Smallville, home of Clark Kent.
Bruce pulled up other databases. Government surveys, property records, news reports. There was a point at which absence of information became as telling as the presence of suspicious data. There was a hole in recorded history, a hole in the middle of Kansas.
Smallville, site of the largest meteor strike in the US in the past hundred years. Smallville, where death rates had been more appropriate for a war zone than a Kansas hamlet and large insurance claims more common than county fairs. Common wisdom held that LuthorCorp Plant #3 was responsible for the many and varied ways in which people met their dooms in Smallville, but Bruce had never found common people to be all that wise.
Working hypothesis: Luthor's mineral came from the meteors, which were related to the fact that Superman first appeared in Kansas. As for all the deaths, maybe meteor residue was equally dangerous to humans.
It was all confusing, illogical, tangled and ugly, with the promise of something uglier still behind the alien's perfect face.
The NSA report also revealed that the government had approached Luthor to get its own supply of the mineral. When Luthor politely told the feds to fuck off, the FBI (with the highly illegal assistance of actual Special Forces) had raided seven LexCorp facilities simultaneously, to no avail. The refined bars of mineral so carefully documented by the snitches were gone, dissolved into air, or at least hidden by more reliable employees. Only a speedy invocation of the Patriot Act III had kept Luthor's lawyers from publicly crucifying the government.
As it was, Luthor ended up with five very lucrative no-bid military contracts, while the NSA sulked and plotted to seize samples the next time Superman confronted a LexCorp operation. This meant, however, that Luthor's research installations were de facto guarded by the best American technology had to offer, and whether for that or some other reason, Superman had yet to revisit any of the LexCorp operations of which the NSA was aware.
Combined with what Bruce had witnessed during his visit to Luthor the other day, the facts suggested an odd symbiosis, each protecting the other from the rest of the world. Or was the antagonism fully feigned, the two playing an even deeper game, Clark Kent some sort of accomplice? No, Bruce couldn't believe that what he'd seen was play-acting. Lex's contempt had been too raw, and he'd always had a far worse poker face than he liked to think.
Times like this, Bruce could have used a sidekick to discuss the possibilities, to offer a more human perspective. Bruce was never entirely sure he understood how people thought - and while that was irrelevant to Superman and quite possibly to Luthor, he still would have liked to hear a trusted person's opinion about the whole mess.
But to trust another person, someone who wasn't Alfred, who hadn't spent his life with Bruce, who'd have an agenda of his own - it was dangerous, and not worth thinking about.
Bruce hesitated, though he hadn't meant to. "Clark, it's Bruce Wayne."
"Bruce!" He sounded sincerely pleased, if a little surprised. "How have you been?"
"I've been well," he said, trying to relax into his role as empty suit. "I'm in Metropolis on business, and I wondered if you wanted to have dinner."
There was a pause. "I'd ask what business," Clark said, "but I'm guessing you don't really want to tell a reporter." His tenor voice had no cajoling in it, only amusement.
"Come on, Clark," he said, "you know I don't have much to do with the day-to-day operations of Wayne Industries. Anyway, I just gave an interview to your lovely partner, so there's nothing left to investigate. The only question you should be asking me is where I'm taking you to dinner."
Clark chuffed, somewhere between charmed and exasperated. "Well, I wouldn't want to disappoint you."
In the event, Clark was thirty minutes late, much as Lois Lane had suggested. Bruce hadn't had that happen to him in - ever, in fact. He should have found it a useful lesson in humility, but he felt wounded instead. It made him wonder about the women he'd stood up over the years, when the Batman was too busy to come up for air. Had they felt personally insulted? He'd always thought their protests were mostly for show, because they hadn't known Bruce at all, not really, so they couldn't be too hurt. The curious emptiness he felt as he nursed his slowly warming chardonnay suggested that he might have been wrong.
When he finally arrived at the restaurant, Clark's wide grin as he caught sight of Bruce was almost enough to make Bruce forget the last half hour. There was nothing to suggest that Clark's charm was cultivated. It was more effective for seeming natural.
Bruce stood and shook Clark's hand. It was warm, the skin soft in the way he hadn't thought a farmer's son's could be. Clark didn't even have a writer's callus, he noticed - a real child of the computer age.
They made not-quite-idle conversation through dinner. Clark had spent considerable time in Africa, as Bruce already knew from his researches, and his travels had left him with a number of entertaining stories to share. Bruce matched them with stories from his perambulations in Asia, the ones that didn't reveal too much about him other than a taste for adventure.
When the dessert plates and coffee cups had been cleared, Bruce looked across the table. "Come back to my hotel."
Clark smiled, and if Bruce hadn't known better, he would have sworn that the room got brighter. "I was hoping you'd say that."
When they'd collected their respective briefcases and overcoats, Clark suggested that they walk back - it was only six blocks, and a beautiful night, the moon brighter over Metropolis than it ever seemed to get above Gotham. Bruce agreed. Well-lit or not, the night always had a calming effect on him.
They walked past cozy restaurants and then hit a block of businesses closed for the night. A neon sign flickering in a copy shop window made Clark's face shine red and blue, the colors of flashing police lights.
The street was empty except for the two of them, passing by unoccupied parking meters and trashcans newly emptied and ready for tomorrow's commuters.
Bruce automatically noted the footsteps behind them. Three men, walking quickly, one whose foot dragged a little. No talking, which was a bad sign.
Preying on two fairly large men, a worse sign. Bruce turned and saw two men with guns and a third who just had a bad attitude. Clark was stiff beside him, frozen either in fear or in hopes of preventing any accidental escalation.
"Give us your wallets," the man in the middle demanded. He had one of the guns; the guy on his right had the other. The third, that was the problem - he was bouncing up and down on his feet, high on something and ready to create a fight. One part of Bruce's mind recorded their descriptions, cataloging moles and scars and clothing, while another prepared to fight.
He stepped forward and in front of Clark, shielding him.
"Bruce, just -"
"Run," he said as he threw his briefcase to the side; he would have used it as a weapon, but it was awkwardly sized. Instead, he just kicked the man in front of him as his right hand swept out to knock the gun out of the second man's hand. The one in the middle collapsed, losing his grip on his gun as he struggled to breathe; he'd be out of the picture for a good thirty seconds minimum.
Left hand punch - the third man wasn't so high on drugs that he couldn't dodge, though. The rattle of footsteps behind him suggested that Clark had wisely taken Bruce's suggestion. He was smart enough to call the cops as soon as he was at a safe distance, so Bruce had better make this quick.
The second man was still on his feet, looking for his gun on the sidewalk. Bruce took another step forward and slammed his fist into the side of the man's head, sending him toppling back into a parking meter.
A side kick kept the man on the ground where he was, and then there was just the third. Unpredictable, possibly not sensitive to pain - and, Bruce saw, holding a knife in each hand, shifting his feet with the grace of an experienced fighter. He didn't need to see the prison tattoos to know that this one was the worst of them.
Bruce leaned back, avoiding the first, almost casual thrust. The man smiled at him, predator to prey, and darted forwards, close enough that Bruce could see his blown pupils. Bruce ducked to one side and twisted, managing to get his hand on the man's upper arm and shove. The momentum pushed them apart as Bruce pivoted and brought his leg up for a solid kick on the outer thigh, which caused the man to stagger back a step.
His teeth were bared as he recovered his balance, twirling the knife in his right hand in a way that was probably supposed to be frightening. Twirling with only one hand meant his left was weak, nondominant, unlikely to be good for precision - Bruce didn't think this guy was good enough to be playing him. Bruce took the opportunity to shrug off his overcoat and wrap it around his arm. He missed his real suit, but this would provide some protection from slashes.
"Pretty boy wants to play, I'll play," the man said, just a little bit louder than conversationally.
Bruce nodded at him, and he rushed forwards. Bruce dropped down, braced on his hands, and swept a leg out, tripping the man and then somersaulting forwards, out of the way of the strike he delivered on his way down. His left-hand knife clattered on the sidewalk as he released it in order to keep from falling face-first. Bruce jumped to his feet, spinning, and managed a good kick just below the man's left shoulder before having to break off the attack to deal with assailant number two, who was moving around at the edges of Bruce's vision. Bruce spun, grabbed him, and shoved down so that the back of his head met the top of the parking meter with a meaty thunk.
Then he had to dodge around the parking meter and the slumping body as the third man, now armed with only one knife, came at him, face purpling with fury and effort. Bruce threw his arm up, feeling the blade catch on his sleeve and then drag through the coat as he twisted it, locking their arms together and trapping the knife so it couldn't do further damage. He pulled until he could see the man's back, his dirty neck and ragged-collared sweatshirt, and wrapped his left arm around the man's neck, squeezing so hard that consciousness left within seconds.
Bruce disentangled himself, collecting the knife on the way, and pulled back, letting the man slump to the ground with his compatriots. He looked at his forearm - the overcoat and suit jacket were destroyed, but the dress shirt underneath was only frayed, and he'd probably get away with less than a welt.
While he waited for the police, he retrieved the other discarded weapons and examined the attackers. Number one was conscious, but in no mood to go anywhere; he looked up at Bruce and ducked his head like a beaten dog.
They didn't look like Luthor's goons, which might have been part of the point. If Lex had wanted to see him in real action, as opposed to sparring, he might have sent them. Or it might be just another random violent incident, the kind that he seemed to attract the way other people were particularly vulnerable to mosquitoes.
"Clark," Bruce called back, without taking his eyes from the bodies on the street. Clark moved fast and light, slowing to a halt about six feet away. "You called the police?"
"Yeah - my God, what did you -- ?"
"I hope they get here soon. I don't want to press my luck."
"Are you all right?"
Bruce decided he liked Clark even more, based on the honest concern in his voice and the fact that he had yet to mention turning this into a story. "I'm fine," he said, letting some amusement into his voice. "My coat's a mess, but that's what tailors are for."
"You were - really impressive," Clark said, edging around so that he could see Bruce's face. "I mean, what I saw of it." He didn't seem to know where to look, his gaze bouncing from the would-be muggers to Bruce's face to his arm.
Bruce shrugged, then decided that his role required something more boastful. "I've taken some self-defense classes, and of course I stay in shape."
A frown. "Still, I wish you had just given them what they wanted."
"They didn't look like they'd be satisfied with that," he said.
"You think your money makes you invulnerable," Clark continued, as if Bruce hadn't spoken. "It just makes you a bigger target."
"Maybe I know that, and I'm ready," Bruce suggested.
Clark shook his head with what looked like regret. "It's more dangerous than you think. It always is. You can't control - you could have been shot."
"But I wasn't," he pointed out.
At that point, the sirens of the approaching police car took over, and they waited for the cops.
Unfortunately, the officers insisted that Bruce go down to the station to give his statement - understandable, given that he'd taken down three attackers, but still cramping his style, and Bruce was careful to play the nonchalant and jaded aesthete, distantly amused by all the fuss, not quite understanding that playing his martial arts games in a real-life situation had put him in danger. The sergeant in charge got angry with him, another unpleasant necessity, but he managed to keep his flippancy under control so that he got out with only a five-minute lecture and a promise to return to town should his testimony be needed at trial.
When he was finally released, he was not shocked to find Clark Kent waiting for him, his coat on his lap and his eyes behind his glasses observing every detail of the waiting room.
"This must be familiar territory to you," Bruce said as he pulled out his phone to call for a car.
"Yeah, I worked Metro for a few years when I - have you been checking on me?" Clark blinked at him, intrigued and a few inches from suspicious.
Bruce finished the call and smiled self-deprecatingly. "I wanted to see how you wrote. Prize committees are one thing, keeping my interest is another - and you are good."
"Thanks," Clark said wryly.
"While we're waiting to be picked up," Bruce suggested, sitting down next to Clark on an ugly orange chair whose graffiti dated it to no later than 1978, "why don't you tell me some of your favorite stories from the Metro section."
Clark looked skeptical, but didn't say more about Bruce's snooping. As a reporter, he had to have some sympathy for researching a potential subject.
"When I was just starting at the Planet," he said at last, leaning back into his bowl-shaped plastic chair, "Superman was still pretty new. There were lots of - human interest stories, I guess. How are grade schools being affected by Superman's existence, how's fashion affected, the stock market, the Billboard Top Ten, the price of tea in China. Everything had to have Superman in it to get any attention. Oh," he said and checked Bruce's expression, almost too quickly for Bruce to catch it, "Lois says you're a big fan, and it's not anything against Superman, just the reaction to him - which was a little over the top. Anyway, there I was, stuck on the Metro beat.
"So I followed this one officer around for a week. He helped organize a neighborhood watch, talked to kids at a couple of schools, investigated some muggings - ordinary stuff. Meanwhile, Superman was saving lives, defusing bombs - I remember he gave CPR to a dog that had nearly drowned in Central Park." Clark winced in involuntary sympathy, as Bruce was tempted to do - smelling a dog's breath was bad enough without mouth-to-mouth.
"That was the same day Officer Frank walked into a convenience store in the middle of a hold-up. I'd been called away on other business, so I didn't see it, but he talked the robber into putting down his weapon. And then the store owner, who'd had his unlicensed handgun pointed at the guy under the counter, got so excited that he squeezed the trigger and shot Officer Frank in the arm. When I got there, the EMTs were treating him, and I knew the dog was going to be on the front page and he was going to be in the middle of the Metro section."
Bruce leaned further towards Clark, drawn in by his evident passion, the throb of injustice in his voice.
"I asked him what he thought about Superman. Whether he resented Superman, whether he thought Superman was making his job seem silly. He said Superman and the metahumans like Batman and the Flash made his job even more important, to remind people that you didn't have to be superstrong or superfast or invulnerable to do the right thing. That it was important to protect and serve other people even though it put you in danger. Even though you were no different from anyone else. Because you were no different from anyone else.
"I wrote my story about him, and Perry White put it in the Sunday commentary section." Clark smiled now, his eyes unfocused as he remembered. "Lost a few subscriptions, people who couldn't hear a word that implied that Superman wasn't the be-all and end-all. But we got a lot of thank-yous from firefighters and police officers, too."
"What happened to Officer Frank?"
Clark's smile widened. "He retired a few years later. I get a Christmas card from him every year. He still talks to kids at public schools."
Bruce had expected a rather worse end to the story. In Gotham, Officer Frank would have ended up stabbed by some fifteen-year-old punk.
He was also, as always, amused to hear Batman referred to as a metahuman. He was very much in agreement with Officer Frank about the need for humans to fight their own battles - though to be fair, being a billionaire didn't hurt his ability to get the right equipment to enhance his capabilities.
"Bruce," Clark said quietly. Bruce looked at him. "You don't mind that I ran?" Clark was shy now, afraid that he'd shamed himself.
Running was a lot better than standing frozen, waiting like a rabbit for whatever fate a criminal decided to inflict. "Of course not. As you pointed out, it's not sane to stand up to armed men."
"You did," Clark pointed out.
"I'm a little bit crazy." Bruce smiled, to make clear that he wasn't taking any of this seriously. "And insanely lucky, as that cop was happy to tell me at length. I don't think the reality of it has set in - it feels like a game, or a play."
Clark opened his mouth as if to ask a question, then shut it. Bruce's phone buzzed to let him know that the car had arrived.
"Shall we go?" He rose, and with a sweep of his hand invited Clark to precede him out the door.
The car turned out to be a long black limousine. Bruce Wayne couldn't afford anything less flashy.
The driver rushed out to open the door for them.
As the car started to move, Bruce turned, leaning over Clark, braced with one arm as his other reached for Clark's glasses. "Maybe you can take my mind off reckless endangerment."
Clark let his head fall back further, his lips parting. Bruce carefully removed the glasses, noting as he folded them and put them on the seat that the prescription must be extremely mild; the view through them seemed undistorted. Clark was either mildly hypochondriacal or convinced he'd look more reporterly with glasses.
The kiss was warm, comforting, as if Clark thought he needed to take care. He moved until his hands cupped Clark's shoulders, pressing him into the softly creaking leather. Clark opened his mouth and started kissing back in earnest. His hands rose up, brushing Bruce's upper arms. Hot mouth, big hands. It was nice to be with someone who didn't seem little and fragile, even knowing that he could crush Clark's windpipe with one blow.
They were playing, wrestling one another for dominance. Clark tried to pull Bruce's shirt off, which would have been a bad idea with the lights on because of all the scars and bruises.
He pulled away from Clark's mouth and bit kisses over his chin, down his neck, over his Adam's apple. Clark made a soft noise and arched up.
Bruce was flexible, but he was in an awkward position. He slid down so that he was on his knees between Clark's legs, undoing his belt and trousers and burying his face in the crease of Clark's thigh, where his scent was strongest.
He smelled - earthy, with a strange hint of ozone, the smell of new wood exposed by a broken branch.
Clark groaned and Bruce stopped teasing, moving his mouth to suck on the fabric above Clark's hardening cock. "This is turning out to be a really good day," Clark said to the ceiling.
Bruce wondered if Luthor had managed to bug the limo. The good thing about being rich, dumb and pretty was that he didn't have to worry about blackmail. So he sucked men off in limousines; no one would stop inviting him to the best parties if pictures showed up in the Gotham Gazette. Actually, it might even improve his image. Clark wasn't vulnerable to that sort of pressure, either, not if Lois Lane was right about his promiscuity; and Bruce already knew that Lex had some obsession with Clark, so if he did track them he'd keep Clark's secrets for his own private enjoyment.
Maybe he should have said something about possible surveillance, Bruce thought as he tugged down Clark's boxers and licked down his cock. Just because Luthor wasn't going to go public didn't mean Clark wouldn't object to being observed. Clark moaned, his hands resting gently on Bruce's hair, as Bruce ran his tongue back up along the shaft and sucked him in.
After a few minutes, he was able to relax into the moment, alert for surprises but otherwise focused on the feel, taste and sound of the man underneath him. It was even better than fighting, because there was little need to plan ahead, just letting their bodies negotiate towards pleasure.
Clark's hands rubbed over his shoulders, a mere graze but enough to make him open his jaw and take Clark's cock as far down as he could.
"That's really good," Clark said, as if he were surprised. "Suck me, yeah, been thinking about this since you called -"
Bruce worked his tongue up and down, and Clark shifted to grunts. His muscles were long, lean and solid under his awkwardly fitting clothes; he needed a tailor.
Wet sounds, along with Clark's panting breaths, filled the back of the limo. It was dark and warm; his fingers sought out Clark's thighs, damp with sweat as he pushed Clark's legs apart against the resistance of his trousers.
"Oh God," Clark managed. "You - you are so - that's so good - harder, now!"
Bruce was amused at the disappearance of Clark's good manners, but he complied, hollowing out his cheeks with the force of the suction.
With one last, drawn-out groan, he came, pumping down Bruce's throat, his hands raised to clasp his own head as if holding himself together.
Bruce pulled away with a smile just as the limo came to a halt. With Clark slumped against the seat, it was up to him to rearrange Clark's clothes, making him decent in time to allow the driver to open the door and let them out.
Clark stayed in the car a moment, recovering his breath, but he followed Bruce inside the hotel with a smile on his face.
"I want to fuck you," Bruce said when they were in his suite. Clark's attention had been wandering to the view over Metropolis, which was glittering like a dragon's hoarded treasure in the darkness below. Bruce's declaration got that focus snapped back to him.
"Sounds like fun to me," Clark said, smiling. It was a blinding smile, wide and toothy and careless. Bruce found himself staring. He'd known beautiful women and men, but mostly they'd acknowledged their beauty and polished it to a fine gloss or, blaming it for their pain, tried to destroy it. Clark Kent wore his like it was a blessing to be shared with other people, but nothing to him in itself.
His eyes were dark, wide with desire, the city lit up behind him making him seem to glow around the edges.
Bruce crossed the room in three long strides, his mouth on Clark's almost before his hands found the broad shoulders, turning that smile into something more specific. His hands tugged at Clark's shirt, unbuttoning and sliding it half off, his fingers moving across Clark's skin. Even on his shoulders and back, that warm skin was as soft and fine as talc, so different from Bruce's callused hands that they might have been different species. He nipped at Bruce's mouth as Bruce backed them towards the bedroom.
Their progress was halted when Clark tripped over his own feet, wobbling precariously. His arms flew out to the sides for balance. Bruce grabbed his shirtfront and held on, not having to fake a smile at the comically dismayed expression on Clark's face, so different from the suave man who'd approached him in Gotham. Rocking forward almost to the point of pitching into Bruce's arms, Clark barely managed to right himself and Bruce let go.
"Sorry," Clark said, smiling again. "You're kind of distracting."
"I could say the same for you," Bruce said, hearing how his voice had roughened and deepened with lust.
The smile edged towards a smirk. Clark shrugged the shirt from his shoulders and let it fall as he turned to precede Bruce into the bedroom. Bruce heard the click of a belt buckle, then watched Clark cast his leather belt to one side with the carelessness of a very messy man. The muscles of his back stood out in golden relief above the tan slacks. There was a slight gap between the fabric and his skin, a line of shadow like the terminator between night and day.
Bruce followed, tugging at his tie. Despite the sound of Clark's pants falling to the floor, he carefully rolled the tie, took off his cufflinks, and hung his shirt and pants in the closet before turning to the bed. It was worth the wait; Clark lay naked on his back, one knee drawn up and tilted to the side in a classic pinup pose, his head pillowed on his bent arms. His smooth chest reminded Bruce of Michelangelo's David, or perhaps an athlete on a Greek vase, ruddy against the dark hotel bedspread. His cock, half-hard, lay against his thigh, a shade darker than the rest of his skin.
Clark grinned up with him with complete confidence - and complete justification, Bruce had to admit. Before joining Clark on the bed, he walked to the lamp over the nightstand and turned it off, leaving only the lights of the city to illuminate them. Light in Metropolis seemed somehow brighter than light in Gotham.
He rolled onto the bed and over Clark, retaking his mouth as if there'd been no interruption. He rested most of his weight on his arms, bracketing Clark, but pressed their lower bodies together. Their legs rubbed against one another. Bruce liked the friction, the feel of the hard lines of their shinbones and the yielding heat of the muscled calves.
Clark had a gorgeous chest, the pectorals outlined like an anatomy diagram. Bruce licked and bit his way across, sucking at one nipple until it was as red as Clark's lips. Clark's head was tossed back against the pillows, the line of his throat like a rainbow's arc.
"Like this," Bruce said, pulling back and urging Clark to turn over on his hands and knees. It was a good position, one where he could see the beauty of the man beneath him, see and not be seen.
Bruce stopped to grab the bottle of lubricant he'd left by the bedside when he unpacked. It was cool and shiny on his fingers, and he rubbed them together to warm them before moving between Clark's legs and pressing inside. Clark made encouraging noises while Bruce squeezed the back of his thigh with his free hand. The skin there, damp with sweat, was just as sleek and perfect as the rest of him, the large muscle yielding when he ran his fingers down, not quite hard enough to raise a welt. Bruce slid his hand down to caress the crease at the back of Clark's knee. "Ah!" Clark said, and Bruce pressed a little harder.
But he wanted to be inside Clark, so he took his hand back and grabbed a condom, also waiting by the bedside, ripping it open with his teeth and sliding it on himself as fast as he could.
Clark sighed with satisfaction when he removed his fingers and spread Clark's cheeks with his hands, and sighed again as he slid inside. Bruce watched the muscles in Clark's back, like a map of some unconquered country, the broad shoulders narrowing to the waist, the slight widening at the hips, the sweet dip at the small of his back leading down to his tight and welcoming ass.
"Any time you're ready," Clark said, his voice strained, and Bruce began to move.
They found a rhythm quickly, Bruce braced with one hand on the bed and the other between Clark's shoulders, Clark moving back in counterpoint with Bruce's thrusts. Clark had balanced himself on one arm; he jacked himself with the other, the wet sound like a backbeat for Bruce to pace himself with.
They were racing, together and separately, towards the horizon. Clark's pleased grunts were easy to interpret, his body shaking beneath Bruce's every time Bruce pushed into him. Bruce moved his hand down Clark's side and curled over him, breathing in the scent at the nape of his neck, tasting him there with tongue and teeth. Cocoa and oranges, sweeter than Bruce would have expected but somehow just right. The rest of the world fell away, leaving the two of them locked tight, moon and planet orbiting each other, Clark pulling him in with the force of high tide.
When Clark stiffened and called out wordlessly, his hips jerking out of rhythm, Bruce followed, the orgasm rushing out of him in white waves. Only his hand at Clark's waist prevented him from collapsing where he was; instead, he pulled off, quickly disposing of the condom, rolling onto his back while Clark slumped face-forward onto the bed.
If he'd moved to avoid the wet spot, Bruce would have let him get closer, but he appeared content as he was.
The noises from outside, distant sirens and the background hum of a working city, seeped back into Bruce's consciousness as he laid back. The lights from outside played across Clark's back, false bruises. Clark's eyes were open, observing Bruce and the rest of his surroundings.
This was a chance for a reporter, or even a lover, to ask more intimate questions, learning more about his real beliefs and wants, getting information so he could develop theories about who Bruce was and why. Clark stayed silent.
An ordinary man might have felt ignored or unwanted, but Bruce liked the idea that Clark wasn't trying to know him. He had secrets, but he wasn't hiding them from Clark in particular, any more than he was keeping secrets from anyone else whose life only knocked up against his. Saying otherwise would be like saying he was hiding from a person he bumped into on the subway because that person never knew his name.
He liked Clark's lack of curiosity, and at the same time it made him curious himself. As if maybe Clark was too wrapped up in his own secrets to pay attention to anyone else's.
He hadn't forgotten that Clark Kent was mixed up with Lex Luthor somehow, but he was fairly sure that Clark was not on Luthor's side.
"What do you think of Lex Luthor?" Bruce asked.
Clark blinked. "What do you mean?" He lifted his head from the pillow, leaning on his forearms, looking at the headboard rather than at Bruce.
Bruce hadn't expected stonewalling. "You've written about him, you've followed his rise over the years." He wasn't going to mention their youthful connection - wouldn't want Clark to get the idea that Bruce was checking up on him that seriously. "I'm interested in your perspective on the man you've studied so closely."
"Oh." Clark's eyes dipped. "He's dangerous."
"You can't stop there, not after such a provocative statement."
"He'll take every advantage - he doesn't believe in rules, only in not getting caught. And he wants it all, power, wealth, public approval, fear, obedience. There's a hole inside him, Bruce. I think he knows nothing's ever going to fill it, but he keeps trying anyway. That's what makes him dangerous: he wants so much and he doesn't know how to stop."
"And your mission is to keep him under control."
Clark rolled over, making his distractingly well-formed back into a wall between them, turning his face away. "My mission is to let everybody know the truth and hope that that's good enough."
Bruce started awake, the rattle of pearls on rain-damp concrete fading into the prosaic nighttime creaking of strange hotel furniture.
Someone was watching him.
He turned to find Clark, stretched out with one hand propping up his head, his expression thoughtful, as far as Bruce could tell in the near-blackness.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Clark asked.
"No," he said automatically. It was always the same dream. His parents were falling, falling, and he knew that when they stopped the world would end. There were a thousand bats, swirling above them like the funnel of a tornado. They were calling for help, and Bruce couldn't move.
The bats screamed out for help, never his parents. It was already too late for them. Bruce couldn't remember his mother's face, a blur in the dream, though the color of her dress that night came through every time. He remembered so little of them. He remembered watching his father shave, the gleam of the straight razor and the silken smoothness of the shaving cream. The smell of pine always took him back to that steamy bathroom, that interrupted ritual.
"My parents -" he said. "I was just - remembering."
"I'm sorry," Clark said, entirely sincere. "I was orphaned when I was very young. I don't remember my biological parents at all. I've often wanted to know what they were like, to have some memories of my own. But memories always have a price, I guess."
Bruce wondered whether he'd trade his knowledge of what he'd lost for Clark's complete uncertainty. Neither was right, neither was fair. He shrugged, as best he could with one shoulder pressed into the bed, and flipped the sweat-soaked sheet off of his body. In the night, his scars were invisible. He reached towards Clark, who was so hot that it was like putting his hand to a radiator, the warmth tangible from inches away. "Well, while you're up -"
Clark's voice held a smile. "I'd really like to, but I have to get going. Lois is going to be at my apartment in an hour or so for a stakeout, and I do not want to disappoint her. Even you aren't worth her wrath."
He sighed, already thinking about the patrol he'd do when Clark was gone. He couldn't afford to take a night off, even in a strange city. It was too easy to let his edge dull.
Some might say that was proof his weapon was too weak for the purpose to which he put it. But they'd never say that to his face.
Clark squeezed his shoulder and rolled out of the bed, his feet hitting the floor with a thump that sounded too gentle for a man of his size. Bruce let his hearing track Clark's actions in the dark, pulling on his clothes, very definitely not fumbling for his wallet or his shoes, as if he knew exactly where he'd put them before Bruce turned off the lights.
A spy, maybe? Pulitzer-winning journalist wasn't a particularly muted cover, though. And Clark had no military record. It was a puzzle.
Bruce just didn't know if he was the one to put it together.
Patrolling was risky. Specifically, it put Bruce Wayne at risk. His presence in Metropolis along with Batman's invited correlation.
The Batman knew it, but he went out hunting anyway. He needed - he needed to see that Gotham wasn't the only sink of human misery on the face of the planet, that things were bad even amongst the glitter and polish of Metropolis.
He stopped four muggings and sent a pimp to the very hospital that would have taken his girl if the Batman hadn't shown up.
He waited in the shadows for Superman to appear.
Superman wasn't as big a fan of the night. Didn't need concealment. In fact, it was better for him if everyone saw his total arrogant invulnerability, bright as one of those poison butterflies whose colors warned the world: touch me and die. There was no man behind the mask. There wasn't even a mask. Superman was the real thing, needing no myth, the kind of hero the Batman could never hope to be.
In the morning, all he had was the stink of Metropolis's back alleys on him - it had been a hot, rotten summer - and a blurred picture in the Inquisitor asking "Is Batman Here?" Back in Gotham, the Joker had robbed a bank.
Bruce rose as the tall man in the elegant gray suit approached his table. If he didn't miss his guess, the suit was made by the same Hong Kong tailors who made Lex's. "Mr. Grossman?" He held out his hand. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me."
Grossman' grip was firm, businesslike. "It's my pleasure, Mr. Wayne."
"So why did you call me, Mr. Wayne?"
Bruce didn't offer his Christian name. "I'm trying to find out some information about Lex Luthor."
"And you thought I'd know it?" Grossman raised his eyebrows. His blue eyes sparkled with interest, and some merriment.
"You are the only member of the former LuthorCorp board to remain on the LexCorp board," Bruce pointed out.
Grossman smiled wryly and looked down at his plate, shaking out his napkin and putting it on his lap. "Thus you conclude that I must know something of value."
"I want to know why Clark Kent and Lois Lane are the only people in this town allowed to criticize Lex Luthor." There was no particular reason to conceal his hand; Lex already knew, and Grossman might not care if Bruce wasn't trying to get confidential corporate information.
"I do have something to tell you, Mr. Wayne, but it's probably not what you want to hear. Do you know what I did the morning before the first meeting with my new CEO?"
Bruce clenched a fist underneath the table. "No, what?"
"I shaved off my beard. Not just for the obvious reason. Alexander the Great was clean-shaven, an anomaly at the time, and his circle imitated him."
This fellow was perfect for Luthor. "You're saying you cast your lot in with him."
Grossman looked almost disappointed. "No, not entirely."
The waiter chose that moment to come up. Grossman didn't look at the menu. "I'll have the market salad and the steak, medium rare."
"The same, but rare."
The waiter disappeared as if a magician had whisked him away.
"Then what is that story supposed to tell me?"
Grossman leaned over the table, his eyes hot. "I cast my lot, as you put it, with Mr. Luthor because he's going to succeed. And he's going to succeed because people like me follow him. The age of the individual is over, Mr. Wayne, if it ever existed. Da Vinci was a genius, but without an Industrial Revolution behind him, he left only sketchbooks and grand dreams. The great man who operates in isolation from the rest of the world, who holds himself apart and above, is the true enemy of progress. Mr. Luthor understands this."
Grossman was clearly speaking about Superman, but he could have well have been lecturing the Batman.
The salads arrived. They spent a few minutes eating in silence.
"That's an interesting philosophy, but I'm not sure what it has to do with my question."
Grossman speared a yellow pear tomato and popped it into his mouth. "People can say or write anything they like about Mr. Luthor. Ms. Lane and Mr. Kent simply disagree with the majority of people about the value of his various endeavors. Time will, no doubt, prove them in error."
Silence fell again.
Their plates were whisked away and replaced by the entrees. Bruce's steak was so rare that it could have fed a vampire bat. Pink, fatty juices pooled on his plate as he cut and ate. The silence didn't bother him. It was almost as good as being alone, if unhelpful.
"You know, Alexander the Great was responsible for his father's assassination," he said as he finished eating.
"That's one interpretation," Grossman said. "Others say it was his mother, or even that the assassin was one of the king's cast-off lovers. History is tricky business, Mr. Wayne." He pushed his plate away and looked up, smiling. "I'm afraid I can't stay for dessert."
Luthor's man stood, and Bruce emulated him. With a friendly handshake, a smile, and a proffered business card, Grossman left.
Bruce caught the waiter's eye and gestured for the check. The waiter, an attractive young man with dark hair that was just a little too short, hurried over. "Oh, no, Mr. Wayne. Mr. Luthor's instructions were quite clear that you were his guest."
Bruce smiled. Did Lex think him that stupid, that in need of overt reminders that Lex knew everything Bruce was doing?
So far, Lex was right. Bruce wasn't learning anything useful.
"Thank you for seeing me, Principal Reynolds," Bruce said, shaking the man's hand.
"It's been a long time, Mr. Wayne," Reynolds replied, resuming his seat behind his solid wood desk. His voice was heavy with age, his hair almost pure white against his dark skin. The man Bruce had known was swaddled in sagging flesh. But there was still steel there, underneath.
"What brings you to Smallville?" Reynolds' desk was covered with papers and knickknacks. Glass apples, marble squares with logos from teachers' organizations, brass pen sets.
Bruce looked at him. "I suspect the same thing that brought you."
"Luthors." It was a sigh, a curse, a confession. "Lionel Luthor had me fired from Excelsior. I made a new life - and years later, he came back, threatening to take it all away if I didn't come here. Smallville. Do you know that there are still people here who tell me that I'm a credit to my race?"
Bruce wanted to ask why Reynolds had complied with Luthor's demand, but it might shame him and make him stop talking. "What did he want you to do here?"
Reynolds had a look that said 'Your stupidity makes me weep for the future.' He used it. Bruce was amused to find that it worked slightly better on him now than it had when he was an invincible teenager.
"He wanted me to keep an eye on Clark Kent. I wasn't entitled to an explanation, of course, but it was obvious the first day Lex Luthor drove up with the boy in his car. Dropping him off late, the boy practically glowing - and he was always in the center of whatever trouble there was, and there was a lot of trouble. Fights, murders, fires - Clark Kent would have been in jail ten times over if it hadn't been for his relationship with Luthor."
That was hard to reconcile with his image of Clark; harder to reconcile with the image of Clark he wanted to have.
"Why are you interested?" Reynolds asked, steepling his hands on the desk in front of him.
Standard playboy dilettantism wouldn't cut it with Reynolds; this was a bit over the top for a casual interest. "I still keep a hand in the family business, and Lex Luthor has been making some moves in my direction. I'm trying to figure out what happened to him after I lost touch with him all those years ago. Know your enemy and all that."
"Chloe Sullivan had a number of interviews with him."
"Chloe Sullivan, the reporter?"
"One of our most prominent graduates," Reynolds said with no apparent irony. "She learned her muckraking skills right here."
"I'm interested both in the content of those interviews and in the fact that they occurred at all. I didn't know he'd ever given a voluntary interview."
"It was because she was close to Clark Kent, and so was Luthor," Reynolds said. "Best friends, they called it, and no one dared to say any different because Luthor could make your life very difficult in this town, on a whim even, and there was nothing whimsical about Lex Luthor and Clark Kent."
"Luthor and Kent don't seem very close now."
Reynolds snorted. "Did you really expect Lex Luthor to maintain an interest in anyone over the long term? Yes, by the end they were apart. But Lionel was convinced there was something special about Clark Kent. He had me give him access to the Torch computers - that's our newspaper," he said at Bruce's inquiring look, pride creeping into his voice - "so he could read everything Chloe Sullivan wrote about. She was obsessed with the strange things that happen in this town, most of which ended up in Clark Kent's lap one way or another."
Bruce remembered how hard it was to find out anything about Smallville. "Do you have any copies of the school paper from those days?"
Reynolds leaned back in his chair. "We should."
"I don't want to be another Lex Luthor to you," Bruce said. "But I would be very grateful if you'd let me see those stories. And if there's anything I can do for your school, I'd be happy to contribute."
"This is a LexCorp town," Reynolds said. "Your money's more trouble than it's worth. I'm going to get one of Luthor's stormtroopers here as it is, asking why you were here. Asking nicely, at first, then not so nicely. Just so you know, I'm going to tell the truth."
"I wouldn't expect anything else," Bruce replied, defensive despite himself.
Reynolds stood up, bracing himself on the arms of his chair. "Follow me," he said.
Bruce did, down hallways like something out of The Brady Bunch. Clean-scrubbed white faces, bright red-and-yellow school spirit banners, and posters for the Spring Fling and the prayer group. None of these kids would last a day at Gotham West, nor an hour at Gotham East.
The principal didn't bother to knock on the door labeled 'Torch' in six-inch-high letters. He pushed it open and Bruce followed him inside. There were multiple computers and high-speed printers; Bruce resolved to double his donations to the Greater Gotham PTA.
"Ms. Jenkins," Reynolds barked, startling a young woman out of her trance-like contemplation of her screen. She jumped and would have fallen out of her chair had Bruce not hurried to catch her shoulders. He let her go instantly, mumbling an apology as she looked up at him in surprise.
There were a series of framed articles along one wall, some from the Torch and others from the Metropolis Inquisitor; Bruce saw that the latter bore Chloe Sullivan's byline. There were no articles by Clark Kent on the wall.
"I need to look at the archives for 2001 through 2005," Reynolds told the girl.
She frowned, thinking. "Those aren't on disk, we don't have electronic copies until starting in 2006 - the older ones should be in the file cabinets." She waved a hand at the back of the room, where a row of cabinets - big, heavy dinosaurs - stood, half buried under stacks of loose papers and covered with sedimented layers of bumper stickers mostly concerned with quirky humor and radio stations.
Bruce let Reynolds go first. He started at the top left, while Bruce went right on the theory that the most recent pre-electronic editions would be stored there. He found file folders crammed with lunchroom menus from 2002 and 2005, others with football and swim team schedules, advertisements for local businesses, but no actual editions of the paper. Nearby, Reynolds was opening and shutting drawers with increasing agitation. He would have lost his composure entirely, Bruce thought, were it not for the girl watching him with fascination.
"They're not here," Reynolds said at last, unnecessarily.
Bruce couldn't find it in himself to be surprised. He could talk to Chloe Sullivan, and hope that her memory hadn't been revised the way the Torch's archives had been. But that was dangerous, bringing in another person who might be loyal to Clark or Luthor or both, and a reporter at that. She might even have been the one to destroy the records.
He was opening his mouth to tell Reynolds that it was all right when his beeper went off, meaning that the Bat Signal was flashing.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I'm going to have to leave. Please let me know if there's anything I can do for the school."
He left Reynolds standing in the back of the office, clearly wanting to curse but unwilling to do so. His wireless hand-held computer brought him the latest news from the Gotham Gazette's home page; the Joker was out again. A toy hunt being held to celebrate the opening of the Kane Memorial Park had been infiltrated - instead of ordinary toys, the Joker had substituted his surprises, from the merely startling to the deadly. Almost fifty families were being held hostage by his goons.
There was no way Bruce could get there in time, even if he had a jet in the Smallville High parking lot.
He'd decided long ago that his pride should never stand in the way of saving lives. He entered the number Superman had given him to call the Justice League; the connection was scrambled and he'd just have to hope the security on his end was good enough to avoid being tracked either by outsiders or by the League.
"Gotham needs help," he said to the deep-voiced man who answered. He explained the situation.
"Hang on," the man said. There was a pause; Bruce had time to consider the surreality of superheroes putting people on hold. "All right," the man said at last, "Superman has been informed and he will arrive in minutes. Shall I tell him to look for you?"
"He won't see me," Bruce said, which should imply that he was still in Gotham. It made him look like more of a weakling, but it concealed the other, more troubling weakness that had separated him from his city.
The car he'd rented had a television in the back. He went to CNN and found that they'd developed a "Joker Crisis" logo in purple and green. They didn't have any live footage, just an old picture from Arkham and a picture of the park entrance, surrounded with police cruisers and waiting ambulances.
Then they began to receive a feed from a hovering helicopter. Bruce could see the Joker's gaudy minions, circling around the families. There were at least three people lying on the ground, curled and broken.
A blur swept through the park, making the hostages disappear one after the other. Then, as the henchmen started to waver, Superman came for them as well, depositing them among the police - as a hasty switch to another camera feed revealed. Finally, Superman appeared in front of the park with the Joker, grasping him by the scruff of the neck.
"Where's the flying rodent?" the Joker asked, his mad eyes reaching for Bruce through the television. He twisted around, looking up at Superman. "No fair - no fair! I didn't want to play with you! You offend my eyes, you primary-colored freak!"
Superman frowned down at the Joker, whose colors did in fact clash badly with the superhero's costume.
"You took away my toys!" he continued to complain.
"And I'll do it again if I need to," Superman said, with the air of an aggrieved teacher. "Here you are," he told the police officers who'd gingerly moved towards them. "I really feel that prison would be more appropriate for this man. Even if he is mentally ill, surely he can be treated in a place where he can also pay for his crimes."
The Joker, not one for a moral debate, made a loud raspberry as Superman released him into the officers' custody.
Bruce, frustrated, headed back to Metropolis, driving as fast as human engineering would allow.
He would stay one more night, give Lex another try in the morning. He would go out to the Suicide Slums and beat up on some Metropolis criminals. Not that it would even the scales, but it would be better than nothing.
The Joker's tricks were a rebuke to him for leaving his city.
As it happened, he was able to do Superman a small favor that night. Tuning in to the police frequencies, he heard a report that some clown - literally, a clown, makeup and red rubber nose and floppy shoes - was terrorizing a high-end restaurant. Bruce was in the area, so he came in the back and went through the kitchen, where pots abandoned in the staff's mad rush away were boiling over. Through the crack in the double doors, he could see the clown collecting valuables from the well-dressed men and women frozen at the tables.
"Excuse me," a loud, commanding voice came, causing everyone but Bruce to look towards the front of the restaurant. "You're not being very funny."
The clown snarled at Superman, the painted red ring of smile around his lips making the grimace hard to see. "Clowns aren't really supposed to be funny. They're supposed to be scary." He started to swing something - a lasso? No, a sort of bolo, with a rock at the end. Every time it neared Superman, it flared neon green.
Bruce pushed open the doors and stalked towards them. One woman turned her head to him; her jaw dropped, but Bruce raised a finger to his lips and she quickly looked away.
"Are you scared?" the clown asked, advancing as Superman fell back. The look on his face was fascinating: a kind of resigned agony, as if he had a lot of prior experience with the rocks but hadn't built up any resistance to them.
Bruce slipped out a Batarang and sent it hurtling towards the bolo, clipping the rope so that the rock continued forwards and smacked into his waiting hand. He immediately put it into an insulated sample case on his utility belt. "Need any help?" he asked as the flabbergasted clown and an equally surprised Superman turned towards him.
"Thanks," Superman said, annoyingly sincere.
"I can take it from here," the Batman offered, stepping forward and slapping flexicuffs on the clown before he could reveal any more weapons in his arsenal.
Superman considered. "There's a hurricane off of Key West - if you wouldn't mind?"
The Batman nodded. It was a good excuse for Superman not to hang around where he was at risk from the rock - meteorite -- and he very much wanted to ask the clown a few questions.
As he patted the dismayed criminal down, taking away knotted scarves with razors in them, uninflated balloons, and a squeaky horn, he whispered his take on the man's situation into his ear. By the time the Batman was convinced that the clown had no more tricks up his puffy, polka-dotted sleeves, he was extremely anxious to talk.
"Where did you get that rock?"
The clown couldn't help a pleased smirk. "Lex Luthor has a big stash. Word on the street is that Superman's allergic, so I thought I'd give it a try. At Star Labs, there was a party for the staff's kids the other day; I came in, slipped out during the Clown Car trick, and grabbed some that was just sitting on some guy's desk. Stupid, leaving it out like that, like they wanted someone to take it."
Now there was a disturbing possibility. The Batman hoped that Luthor had merely hired a sloppy researcher; he'd check to see whether anyone had been fired over the incident.
The police arrived, and the Batman departed.
His secretary relayed the message that Lex wanted to see him. "At your earliest convenience, of course," she repeated, and Bruce could hear Lex's supercilious tones even in her dry recitation.
One last try at Luthor might be fruitful, now that he knew that the soil of the little town he'd left was fertilized with secrets. With so much hidden, something had to come to the surface eventually.
The trip to LexCorp was familiar to him by now. The LexCorp logo seemed to be everywhere, from the headlines on the Planet at the newsstands he passed to the commercials playing on the televisions in the window of a Best Buy to the signs noting that Luthor had paid to clean the streets. Metropolis was a fully branded, cyber-enabled, solar-charged, twenty-first-century city, and if Luthor was its genius, Superman was its avatar.
He needed to soak into darkness, back in a city that let him be an icon as well.
The bodyguard's scan for weapons was perfunctory this time. Bruce could only assume that this was pursuant to Lex's direct orders.
The man himself was waiting in his office, working at a tablet computer, when Bruce came in. He didn't get out of his seat.
"Fine," Bruce said, letting Lex take that however he wanted. "I'll tell him you asked."
Lex smiled; Bruce had hoped for a twitch, but he was obviously well-prepared to discuss Clark Kent. "So you're still on speaking terms. I wasn't sure you would be."
Lex stood and crossed the floor to the wet bar near the window. He poured himself a glass of something amber from a decanter faceted like a diamond. He didn't offer Bruce a drink, just took a sip with the distracted air of a man performing a task so rote as to require no conscious thought.
Bruce could have waited Lex out - God knew the man liked to run his mouth - but he was anxious to return to Gotham. He'd been too long away from its dark places. "Why did you want to see me?"
"I just wanted to wish you farewell," Lex said. "That, and say 'I told you so.'"
Bruce stepped forwards, closing half the distance between them. "You have no idea about me." Unfortunately, this was only half strategic, designed to make Luthor's pride kick in so he'd reveal himself; the other half was actual angry posturing.
"Really? Because I think you're scared." Lex drifted closer. "You've realized that your fascination has led you out of your cave and left it unguarded. You're worried that any person could have that sort of influence over you." Closer still. "You're upset that he doesn't even seem to care that he has that power." They were almost touching now, close enough that Bruce could almost feel Lex's breath. "You're afraid that you'd have to change to have a relationship with him, or with anyone - but more than that, you're afraid that he might make you want to change.
"Still think I have no idea?" He stared into Bruce's eyes, unblinking.
Bruce's heart rate was increasing and his mouth was dry; he felt blindsided. He'd expected Lex Luthor, not some psychoanalyst. Even if Lex wasn't quite right, he was freakishly close. "You're a bastard," he said, because Lex knew he didn't want to hear this.
"If I had a million dollars for everyone who ever called me a bad name - Oh, wait." Lex grinned. "I do."
Abruptly, he turned away from Bruce and went to the floor-to-ceiling window that gave him a view of most of the city, including the globe of the Daily Planet.
"The thing is, you're too isolated, so afraid of connection that anyone who gets through even a fraction of your defenses seems to have the power to destroy you. Get a friend, Bruce. Or get a dog. You won't last another year like this."
"Now you've really lost me." Even if it was uncomfortable, Lex was revealing himself in his analysis of Bruce, and Bruce had learned to tolerate discomfort.
Lex sighed and leaned against the glass in an impressive display of confidence in its strength. "All you see is an endless line of victims, or people waiting to be victims. If you want to stay human, you've got to find someone specific to remind you."
"Have you told that to Superman?"
Lex's eyes were hard, like marble under seawater. "He's not human."
They stared at each other in silence, until Lex spoke again. "I sometimes envy you, you know."
Bruce willed himself to raise an eyebrow.
"You get to put the mask on and take it off. Sometimes you get to be Bruce Wayne, and then you're not. It's not the same as being Lex Luthor twenty-four hours a day."
He hadn't thought Lex would get that explicit. Though it was becoming clear that there were a lot of things he hadn't understood about Lex. "What makes you think Bruce Wayne's not the mask?"
Lex's smile was as thin as a garrote. "I never said I thought that."
Bruce was keyed up, adrenalin fizzing through his body like champagne bubbles, making him want to hit things. He didn't want to be vulnerable in front of Lex, especially when he could sense Lex's own vulnerability but not quite see the way to tap into it, not without committing himself to a closer tie to Clark Kent than he really wanted to risk.
Though there was always the obvious -
"Does it bother you, thinking about me and Clark? You and I have so much in common, after all; isn't it a little frustrating that he'd go after me instead?"
Lex only froze for half a heartbeat, his pupils contracting and widening as if he'd been hit by strobe lights. Then his face was serene, his posture more relaxed than before. "If you're inclined to think of yourself as a mere substitute, I won't fight you. But wouldn't you rather be with someone who wants you for yourself?" He paused, then continued, each word as sharp as if it had been cut out with scissors, "Of course, that would require you to know who you were, so maybe that's not an option."
Bruce stepped closer, almost up against the glass himself. The answer to the mystery was here; he'd have it out of Lex one way or another.
"Nice view," he said, not looking away from Lex. "If you're not afraid of heights."
Lex's eyes were the blue-gray of the old marble that made up half Gotham's civic buildings, ancient and modern all at once. This close, he could see the little wrinkles around Lex's eyes, the only thing that said that Lex was older than his early twenties.
"What do you want, Bruce?" The question was deceptively soft, inviting a confidence.
Bruce wasn't going to ask about Clark, of course, but he leaned in, so they were only centimeters apart. He could smell the scotch on Lex's breath.
Lex closed the gap between them, his teeth sharp on Bruce's lip. Bruce was surprised Lex had gone beyond teasing, for the first time - in school, the two of them had traveled in very different circles, and Bruce hadn't yet realized that he needed a dissolute image, so he wouldn't have responded to Lex's overtures had they been made.
Lex kissed like he'd gotten a Ph.D. in sex and was lecturing on the topic.
The secret was here, he knew it.
Bruce told himself that he wasn't making excuses as he kissed Lex back, shoving him against the cool glass hard enough to make clear that he wasn't just going along with Lex's desires.
"Come upstairs," Lex said into his mouth, pushing free so that he could turn around and start walking towards a side door.
Bruce wiped his wet lips, watching Lex's hips make promises - every inch the politician, Lex was, though Bruce rather thought Lex could deliver on these pledges. He was slightly shorter than Clark, less broad through the shoulders, but Bruce remembered from boxing the other day that his body was no less well-formed.
Lex reached the door and opened it, revealing a staircase. He looked back over his shoulder, waiting for Bruce to decide. His eyes gleamed, probably with mischief rather than arousal - possibly they were the same thing to him.
"Upstairs" turned out to be a fully furnished apartment, though they went quickly through the living room. Bruce caught glimpses of a kitchen and a study before they were in the bedroom, which was dominated by a Caravaggio saint and, underneath it, a bed big enough to accommodate a harem.
This time, when Lex unbuttoned Bruce's shirt, he kept going, pushing it off Bruce's shoulders, pausing only to rub his fingers over the most visible scars. He made similarly short work of Bruce's belt and pants, sliding the elastic waist of his boxers over his hips with a caress that felt both precisely calculated and entirely casual. When Bruce was naked, Lex stepped back to contemplate him. Bruce endured the scrutiny; even the most attentive eye couldn't see past the trappings and the suits of Bruce Wayne's persona.
Lex opened his mouth; Bruce shook his head, and miraculously Lex stayed silent. "Take off your clothes," Bruce commanded. Lex smiled and stripped, revealing a body as pale and well-formed as a classical statue, without even the bruises remaining from their boxing match that should have been there. With that evidence, it was no surprise that Bruce couldn't see any bullet scars, despite Lex's claim to have been shot before. Like Bruce, Lex's body wasn't going to tell his secrets to anyone.
They stared at one another in silence that should have been uncomfortable, thick with challenge, until Bruce decided that he'd lose nothing by making a move and stepped forward, pushing Lex back until he hit the bed and fell back on it.
Lex smiled closemouthed up at him, propping himself up on his elbows, his flat stomach rippling as he waited for Bruce's next action.
"Turn over," he said. If Lex had any qualms about turning his back on Bruce, he didn't show them, just rolled over with lazy grace. Naked, his slenderness was revealed to be deceptive, long lean muscles testifying to usually-hidden strength. The baldness made his body into one smooth, uninterrupted line, from the crown of his head down to his feet. His half-hard cock was visible between his legs.
There were condoms and several bottles of lube in the drawer of the bedside table. Bruce chose one of each at random and didn't bother with any more foreplay, just planted his knees on the bed between Lex's legs and shoved inside hard enough to make Lex gasp.
He was tight, tighter than he had any right to be - unless that was part of his healing, too? - glove-tight, strong enough to set his own pace, taking Bruce along with him like a runaway horse.
Bruce struggled for control over his pumping hips. He couldn't lose the plot now, no matter how good this felt.
"He's got a magnificent ass, you know," Bruce said and squeezed Lex's to emphasize his point. His thumbs slid along the tight curves of muscle, somehow warmer than he'd expected.
He bent over, biting at the skin of Lex's back, then moving up so that he could speak directly into Lex's ear. "Do you want to fuck him, Lex? Or do you want to be him?"
There was no answer. Lex was rolling underneath him like a stormy sea. The heat between them was like a cloudless August day in Gotham, when the city baked in a concrete-and-marble oven of its own devising. Heat so great it built mirages in Bruce's eyes. His hands, clenched on Lex's hips, blurred in his vision. Lex was cursing him, wobbling as he tried to rest his weight on one arm to free the other to help himself out. Bruce used one hand to shove at Lex's upper arm so that the attempt failed, and Lex pitched forward, his protest muffled by his thousand-dollar pillows.
Bruce was close now, his hand resting between Lex's shoulder blades, the smooth sweat-dampened skin there marred only by the red marks of Bruce's teeth, already fading. There was just something about fucking a metahuman, someone who might be able to kill you a little more easily than the average villain. The bruises healing as if shown in time-lapse photography made him even harder, made his hand clench and scratch new lines down Lex's back just to see.
He'd bitten Clark too, he realized, hard, as if he could somehow own -
But there hadn't been any marks at all.
Clark Kent is Superman, he realized, and went up in white-hot flame. He was molten metal, blank golden ecstasy, scattered over the universe and coalescing into the heart of a star.
Eventually, he became aware that Lex was pushing at him, scrabbling for enough room to move. He pulled back just enough to let Lex roll away. Lex was talking, but Bruce couldn't possibly listen when he was too transfixed by his revelation.
It was amazing, really, that he'd been oblivious so long. Kent and Superman both had that ambiguous relationship with Luthor, that crusading goodness - the history of Smallville, with its meteor-and-something-else strike - Kent's lateness and harmless self-presentation, an almost impossible act for such a big man. Bruce should have seen how deliberate it was. The glasses, for God's sake.
What sort of alien technology, he wondered, was required to distort Superman's appearance so that their resemblance was reduced to similar runway-quality good looks?
More to the point - what did Luthor get out of allowing Kent to maintain the fiction? Because there was no way under Heaven Luthor didn't know. He'd spent four years in Smallville with the proto-Superman - which explained a lot about why he'd survived what by all accounts had been a war zone in which he'd been a major target of opportunity.
The knowledge also meant that Luthor's hints about Batman were probably based on actual information, since Luthor had to be acknowledged as an experienced cape-chaser. But most salient of all, Bruce had far more power than he'd thought, not just over Superman. What might Luthor give him in return for silence?
Bruce returned his attention to the present. Lex was sprawled on the bed, taking up more space than Bruce would have guessed possible.
"Thank you," he said, because he wasn't free of the desire to mess with Lex's head.
Lex raised a hand from the bed in acknowledgement, then let it fall. "Likewise, I'm sure."
"I didn't hurt your ribs, did I?"
Lex snorted into the sheets.
Bruce rolled off the bed and began gathering his clothes. "By the way, Lex," he said as he pulled on his pants, "you and I aren't the only ones with secrets. You might want to consider that before you go around spreading your innuendoes."
There was a second of silence during which the temperature of the room seemed to plummet to air-freezing lows. Then Lex sprang off the bed, facing Bruce with the savagery of a tiger, careless of his nudity and of Bruce's tensed muscles.
"Make one move against him -- think about moving against him - and I will kill you, raze Gotham, and salt the earth where it stood."
Luthor's vehemence almost made him reconsider. "I thought he was your enemy."
"He is," Luthor said, with what seemed like complete sincerity. "But whatever the proverb says, it's not an equation where you can be on my side because you're not on his. He's my enemy. That makes him mine, and that makes you a trespasser." He drew a breath. "And trespassers sometimes get shot."
It was the wrong threat to use with him. Bruce's hands twitched, closing on air. "You should be more careful. Even he couldn't protect you if I decided to take you down."
Luthor smiled, slow and vicious. "You could try."
But Luthor must have known this was a possible outcome as soon as Bruce had come to Metropolis. Bruce would have made a contingency plan under like circumstances, and he couldn't gamble that Luthor was less cautious.
"Don't make me decide you're an imminent danger," he warned, backing away so that he could reach his shirt and shoes.
Luthor had recovered enough composure to adopt a casual smirk, more suited to a conqueror in a boardroom than a naked man in a bedroom. "Likewise, I'm sure."
On that note, Bruce left.
Not all problems were solved in the first attempt - he could vary his stratagems until success was his. As the Joker would say, there was more than one way to skin a bat.
He got the hell out of Kansas.
End Part I
Part II: Gotham
So it is with this calamity; it does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me and leaves no scar. It was caducous. - Emerson
Mercy stood in the doorway of Clark's office, her arms folded, looking larger than Clark knew she was. "What are you doing here?" he asked, his voice full of weary disgust.
She uncoiled, holding out a small envelope in her right hand. Like Lex, Mercy was a left-hander, and would never hold anything that wasn't deadly in her dominant hand. Clark knew this from bitter experience. That reminded him - he scanned her and found only two guns and no lead at all, a rarity for his encounters with her.
"Take it," she said. Her face had its usual determination, but her cheekbones looked as if they were about to cut through her skin. Two nights ago, she'd seemed tiny, sylph-like, splashed with Hope's blood.
"Why?" Clark prayed Lois would return with the coffee. He wished it had been his turn, though Mercy probably would just have waited.
Mercy rolled her eyes. "It's not Kryptonite, Mr. Kent."
No, just one last way to hurt me, Clark thought. "How is Hope?"
She looked away. "Recovering," she said huskily. "Thank you for asking." He noticed that she'd cut her hair, the neat braid replaced by a too-short style that still bore traces of a woman hacking away at herself in rage she couldn't otherwise express.
Turning back to Clark, Mercy stepped into the office, ignoring Clark's leap to his feet as only her due, and put the caramel-colored, unmarked envelope on the edge of his desk.
"The will's being read tomorrow at the LexCorp offices at three. I suggest you attend."
She turned around. Clark wasn't sure he'd ever seen her back. Her shoulder blades, prominent under her thin white blouse, were like folded wings. "I don't blame you," she said without turning, and left.
Clark sat and struggled to keep his Clark Kent face on. Lois might be back at any moment. Anyway, it wasn't as if he were a stranger to guilt.
When he looked into the envelope, he saw only a silver disc with Lex's handwriting on it. "C5," it said. Unwillingly, Clark rolled his chair over to the envelope, wondering about the fates of C1 through C4. He reached out, brushing his fingers over the smooth thick paper.
"Clark?" Lois fumbled with the coffees and bag of pastries at the doorway. Clark's hand automatically went to adjust his glasses as he hurried to help her. "What's the matter?" Their arms brushed as she looked up at him, her hazel eyes wide with concern.
It would be very easy to go home with her that night.
It would be much, much smarter to go to an anonymous club, one too tame for Superman to shut down, and head into the back room.
Clark was a smart guy.
"Don't take this the wrong way, Lois," he said, taking a cup from her, "but I could really use a hug."
Lois's expression dimmed. She blinked, hiding her eyes, then stepped forward to wrap her arms around him. "Sure, baby." Even her casual mischief was muted in response to his evident distress. Still holding a cup and the paper bag, she squeezed him tightly enough to interfere with a human's breathing and pressed her cheek against his chest.
Clark let his arms settle around her and closed his eyes. Lois smelled like sandalwood and oranges. She didn't ask - honestly, she must know, but Clark had a gift for keeping the people who loved him from talking about his plainest secrets - and she didn't let go.
A cleared throat from just outside the open door made Lois jump, and Clark let her go before she started to struggle. He raised his eyes to Perry's.
"Sorry to interrupt your little hug therapy session, but LexCorp's press office just announced a press conference in fifteen minutes," Perry said, gruff as ever. He believed that work was an anti-depressant. In his way, he wanted to help, even if he'd never understand Clark's grief.
"Sure, Chief," Clark said. Lois nodded, moving away.
"Son, a word -" Perry said.
"I'll get Jimmy," Lois offered, so Clark knew that he was visibly falling apart. Lois acknowledging nuance was a worse sign than a rain of toads. Taking her coffee, she swept past them, closing the door behind her with a thud.
Perry was looking across the office, staring at what Lois called the interstellar shipyard - awards of every size and shape, a miniature city in plastic, crystal and silver plate. He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "It's a terrible thing to know you'll never get to finish with someone. To think that, if you'd only had more time -"
"Sir -" He talked just to keep Perry silent. Perry couldn't know what he was saying to Superman. More time might have let him think of a better plan, a plan that didn't end with fire and a greasy black ash where a man once was. "Lex and I were friends a long time ago. I always hoped he'd change back."
Perry nodded. "In the end, it was his choice. You can mourn that, Clark, but don't blame yourself."
Clark almost couldn't suppress a snort. "Thanks, Chief."
Perry scowled. "Well, I've said about all I mean to say on the topic. Go get Lane and get out there. The world hasn't stopped turning."
"Yeah," Clark agreed, and abandoned his coffee and subpar bran muffin along with Lex's disc.
Clark sent the final draft down to the Business editor and leaned back in his chair. Lois had given up on him over an hour ago, after one last offer to buy him a drink.
The envelope peeked at him from under a pile of corporate disclosure forms he could have sworn he'd placed dead on top of it. Maybe Lex was playing poltergeist.
"Okay," he said to the empty air. "Fine."
He tugged the envelope free and ripped it open. Lex's script was efficient, bold.
Clark shook his head, angry at himself for mooning. He checked again to ensure that the door was locked and loaded the disc into his computer.
There was only one file, lastwords. Clark had a moment of disbelief at Lex's high drama and then double-clicked.
Ice ages passed while Clark waited for his video player to start.
Lex's image appeared on screen, perhaps three feet back from the camera recording him. "Hello, Clark," he said, staring into the lens.
"If you're watching this, my death occurred under circumstances for which you might feel responsible. This message is to disabuse you of that notion.
"I refuse to be saved by you. My choices -- ill-advised as this message may show them to have been -- are my own. My successes and my failures are mine. Don't try to make them yours. If my death wasn't my own doing, then neither was my life."
He paused and drew a deep breath, but kept staring as if he could see through the lens, into the future. The video wasn't good enough to show the true color of his eyes, only meaningless gray pixels.
"I'm not leaving you any money. The last thing you need is deep pockets. My will does give you a number of files. Don't ignore them. They contain my analyses for Superman's major living enemies and the other members of the Justice League. As you well know, even your best friends can turn on you, and I suspect Superman hasn't prepared for that contingency as well as the Batman." By the time he said 'Batman,' his tone was acidic enough to eat through metal.
"If your conscience rejects this, I suggest you at least share the files with the other League members. They might be interested to know their own vulnerabilities.
"I never forgave you for looking down on me," he said abruptly. Clark heard a crunch as the mouse pulverized in his hand. "You think it was the secrets, but it was the condescension. You thought I didn't understand your morality because obviously if I understood, I'd agree with you. So there must be something wrong with me, because my father screwed me up - oh, and I read your series on head injuries and criminality, for those of us not strong enough for free will. I refuse to be defined by your simplistic principles, Clark.
"I wish I could be around to see you learn that you can save lives, but you can't save people. Well," he leaned forward, half smiling, "in fact I wish I could live forever, but obviously I missed out on that. So good luck, and try not to let anyone else kill you. I'd be upset to see a lesser mind succeed where I failed."
The file froze on Lex's most annoying smirk, the one that made Clark want to grab some red Kryptonite just so he could give Lex the hiding he so thoroughly deserved. Clark stared at the image for a minute, then ejected the disc and melted it to slag in his palm. He wiped the remains on a wad of paper napkins left over from lunch, hid it and the crumbs of the mouse in the trash, shut his computer down using the keyboard, tidied his desk, rearranged the pens on his blotter --
And stood up, realizing that he was about to destroy his office with a few strategically aimed punches. He activated the image distorter to produce his uniform, flew out the window, and sped into the night.
Clark flew high, wanting to feel the cold, not breathing. The emotion started to bleed off as he sliced through the air.
What an idiot, Clark thought, veering off course and heading into space. He's being unfair. He's the one who talked about being saved. He's the one who elected me to be his conscience. And he does understand morals. He wants to be judged and found wanting.
These thoughts, and variations, cycled through his head as he flew to the asteroid belt, where he pummeled rocks into smaller rocks for a few hours, until he felt a little better.
Clark obeyed Batman's command and felt the Kryptonite-tipped missile whoosh over him, leaving mild nausea in its wake. He kicked out, sending one robot crashing into the next, its purple beanie-like antenna spinning madly.
The little machines were no match for either of the superheroes, but there were hundreds of them. Cleaning them out of Gotham's main park was taking too much time, especially since they had to break off the systematic destruction every time one of the robots grabbed a hapless human and threatened to slice him or her to ribbons.
"What are these things, anyway?" he called out to Batman as the Caped Crusader vaulted over him and took out another three robots. Now that Clark thought about it, they resembled the creatures he and Lex used to watch on Robot Wars, all slightly different but equipped with cutting and crushing devices.
"Purple is the Joker's color, but he isn't usually this mechanical," Batman yelled back. He wasn't even breathing hard. Clark suspected that if he listened, he'd hear a resting heart rate. Batman was pretty frightening, even for a metahuman. Maybe lack of affect was part of his power set - which remained murky, even after months of on-and-off cooperation, since Batman was very fond of his gadgets and refused to engage in friendly banter about his abilities.
The robots were almost vanquished, most lying shattered around the park. He saw another missile heading towards him and swerved to avoid it.
Agony convulsed him.
As he plummeted, he realized that he'd been lulled by the one-missile-at-a-time strategy. The Kryptonite slurry from the missile he hadn't noticed had splashed all over his suit, sticking like mud.
Impact was worse than the first time he'd been hit by a car. Robotic apparatus stabbed into his back and legs.
Half-conscious, Clark rolled, trying to scrape off the Kryptonite. Even while he was biting on his lip to avoid screaming, he had to admire the tactic. Unlike the rocks, this Kryptonite had been modified somehow to make it sticky and clinging. Still, he was able to wipe most of it on the grass of the park.
Batman stood above him, unsmiling, though Clark had the feeling he was enjoying his superiority.
"Got an extra cape?" he choked out.
Batman turned his head. "Better idea," he said and loped off. Clark let his head drop to the ground. He was inches from a robot head, its boxy purple form almost cheery now that it was attached from its killer body. Blue lights still winked from deep in the robot's eyes.
Clark tried not to throw up. Kryptonite never got any easier to handle.
A jet of water hit him with the force of a lightning strike, leaving him gasping and spitting water. The spray played over his body, washing the sludge away. He'd have to remember to get Batman to clean up the area.
Clark struggled to his feet, holding up his hand to keep the water out of his eyes. Not that it hurt, but it was annoying. Batman turned off the firehose and dropped it. Clark would have returned it to the firefighters, but Batman's town, Batman's rules.
"What's that smell?" he asked, shaking his head to throw off excess water. Because he could shake very fast, he was dry in under a second.
They looked around. Gray smoke was rising from the robot corpses, as if something inside was melting.
Acting on an intuition, Clark bent and grabbed the head he'd been staring at. It was soaked with water and didn't appear to be disintegrating like the others.
"I want to take a closer look at this," he said.
Batman shrugged. "Don't pay too much attention to the Joker's tricks, Superman. Part of being insane is that his acts are often meaningless."
Your acts are rarely meaningless, Clark thought. Still, he supposed he ought to be grateful that Batman had condescended to give the League a call; even if he was sneaky and sullen, he put the welfare of his city ahead of his paranoia, and that spoke well of him. Instead of saying anything, he launched himself into the sky, clutching the water-cooled metal.
The Fortress's lights flickered dubiously when Clark proffered the remains, which looked like a mechanical Medusa's head, trailing wires from the neck and silver chaff-like ribbons from its scalp.
"Can you tell who made it?" Clark asked, placing it in an alcove that conveniently opened for him.
There was a longer pause than Clark expected.
"There are no marks of geographic origin," the Fortress said. "But there is an anomalous configuration on the central microprocessor."
A section of dove-gray, translucent wall turned white, then resolved into an image of a microchip.
"I don't -"
"Magnifying," the Fortress interrupted. The chip grew bigger in jumps. Finally, they were down to the molecular level.
"Oh God," Clark said, staring at the letters written on the corner.
A.J.L., surrounded by LexCorp's sunflower logo.
"This came from LexCorp?"
"There are no matches in my records," the Fortress replied. "In the past, LexCorp chips have been assembled in California and have borne manufacturer's marks that are absent here. None of the secret LexCorp labs of which I am aware could produce this type of chip."
Clark sat in the chair the Fortress extended for him. "Could there be other labs?"
"Naturally," the Fortress said, as if speaking to a slow child. "However, Mr. Luthor did appear quite confident of his computer security, and it seems unlikely that he would keep records of his genetic and Kryptonite-based experiments on his system and not of this comparatively mild project."
He closed his eyes, imagining Lex's skeletal hand reaching out from the grave to tug him into another disaster. Not that there'd been enough of Lex to bury.
"There is a match to other aspects of the construction," the Fortress continued, sounding almost wary. "The configuration is almost identical to the robotic soldiers used by the Joker two years ago to attack the First National Bank of Gotham."
Lex and the Joker had worked together? That didn't feel right. Lex had always relied on being the more unstable one in any alliance, to keep his allies afraid of crossing him. If they had joined hands, however, there might be other nasty leftovers from the alliance. It had only been three months since Lex died, and Lex always had plans in multiple stages of preparation.
"That Kryptonite sludge was pretty effective," Clark said, changing the subject because there was nothing he could do about Lex's unknown plans. "Do you have any countermeasures?"
"I do not."
The emphasis was bizarre. "What?"
The lights in the wall dimmed slightly, as if the Fortress were lowering its eyes in embarrassment. A building shouldn't have a personality, in Clark's opinion, but the Fortress rarely asked for that. "You instructed me to secure Mr. Luthor's files. You did not specify that I was not to assimilate their contents."
"Lex? Lex created that stuff, too?"
"I believe so. He also developed a formula to counteract Kryptonite. I can produce new uniforms impregnated with the formula, which should improve your Kryptonite resistance, though it cannot eliminate your vulnerability."
Clark gaped at the blank wall. "You didn't think to tell me before now?"
"You have not always been rational on subjects related to Mr. Luthor." Clark didn't know why the Fortress sounded so miffed. It wasn't at risk from the villain of the week.
"Well - just make me a new uniform, all right?"
"As you will, Kal-El."
Clark folded his arms and frowned, although it was a lot harder to do without a face on which to focus. Not rational? Lex's files were dangerous, which was why he hadn't read them. Clark Kent, he heard his mom's voice say, tell the truth now. Which was sort of ironic, since it wasn't the kind of thing she would really say, under the circumstances.
"Anything else in there I should know?" He could be rational.
"Nothing immediate, but I will analyze further. Some of Mr. Luthor's suggestions are quite promising. It is a shame -"
"Don't push it," he said, and the Fortress shut up.
Clark considered calling Bruce. Someone ordinary, if a billionaire could be called ordinary, to distract him from the things in his life that separated him from humanity. He went so far, once or twice, as to dial the first eight digits; if Bruce had been in the same area code, it would have been too late to stop.
Every scrap of sense remaining to him counseled against reaching out to Bruce. He didn't need to put a new obsession in place of the old one. And it could easily have slipped into obsession: too much of what he saw in Bruce was the surface smoothness provided by inheriting more money than God. He was looking for a dead man, and that was neither fair to Bruce nor likely to bring Clark any satisfaction, in the end.
Instead, he went out to meet bodies. Clark lost count of the people, lithe blonde women and gym-perfect dark men, splayed against graffiti-tattooed walls, bracing sweating hands on the doors of metal bathroom stalls, kneeling on concrete among cigarette stubs and broken bottles, grunting or sighing or saying words he wouldn't hear as he moved in the basic rhythm his kind shared with humans, little amnesias like a string of fireworks across the sky. His only rule was the same as always: no metahumans. At this point, the scan was second nature. It was simpler never to approach anyone whose cells screamed out mutation. Detecting the sometimes-subtle variations was a hard-won skill, developed to defend himself from potentially dangerous encounters.
A few times he chased the night halfway around the world -- all clubs are gray in the dark - returning to the Planet midday, still stinking of alcohol and ash, showering in the bathroom by Perry's office, coughing out some story to appease Perry and excuse his debauched condition, the words already dead black and white in his head before they appeared on the printed page.
He fucked until he was sick of it, not tired because Clark never tired, not any more. But when the contempt he felt at night began to spill over to the people he rescued during the day, he knew he had to stop. For a while.
He did not sleep with Lois. It was the one thing that made him think that he still might be a good man. She had such fire, lust for life and for knowledge, as if the two were entirely the same. He could have flown her above Metropolis and shown her the stars. But he was twisted out of true; he would have destroyed her, crumpled her like a lump of coal in his fist into something harder, brighter, and smaller, feeling the killing pressure all along.
Lex would have been happy. He'd finally managed to warp Clark's life as thoroughly as he thought Clark had mangled his.
Then the Joker released a virus that turned its victims hypoxia-purple, but didn't kill them.
"It is undoubtedly Mr. Luthor's handiwork," the Fortress said unhappily through its uplink to League HQ. "Portions of the RNA were taken directly from genetically modified organisms patented by LexCorp."
Batman's million-yard stare stayed unchanged.
"I don't understand," Clark said, pacing around the room. The stars, usually so beautiful to him, were just another distraction. "When did he have time to do all this?"
"He didn't," Batman said, over the Fortress's crisp, "Unknown."
Clark turned to stare at him. He tried not to look at Batman too hard because the man was, frankly, disturbing, but they were alone and Clark couldn't pretend to watch another League member instead.
"Did you see a body? I know they buried an empty coffin."
The wall of flame jumped up in Clark's memory, blue-white. The fire had been hot enough to melt brick. By the time he'd put it out, there'd been nothing left to bury. "I saw him on top of the building," he said. "There was no way -"
"Are you sure?" Batman pressed. Clark tried very hard not to clench his fists.
"It wouldn't make any sense," he protested. "Luthor had everything going his way - a popular public image, tremendous wealth - why would he fake his own death?"
"But could it have been done?"
Batman was, Clark reminded himself, far more experienced with crazies than Clark.
He forced his mind back to that awful day. The terrorists had appeared out of nowhere, taking two floors of LexCorp hostage and threatening to blow the entire building. They'd taken out Hope and separated Mercy from Lex, testament to their skills if not their ethics. Clark had suspected some deal between them and Lex gone wrong, but it didn't matter once innocent (or nearly so, given that they were mostly LexCorp employees) lives were at stake.
They'd prepared for an assault on Metropolis, each wearing chunks of Kryptonite cadged from who-knows-where - one reason Clark suspected a Lexian plot turned sour. They hadn't counted on Clark's specially constructed lead box, an innovation the Fortress had suggested, that could swallow the rocks easily. If Clark approached at speed with the box properly aimed, he could insulate the Kryptonite in an inch of lead before he had time to feel the effects.
He'd sped through the building like a character from a video game, gobbling Kryptonite, defusing bombs and knocking out terrorists faster than they could see to respond, but somehow he'd missed a few. Too many. By the time he got to the roof, where the ringleaders and Lex were waiting for a getaway helicopter, they must have known it was futile, and one of them had chosen death and dishonor, triggering the bombs planted all over the roof and a few floors down. Clark had arrived in the open just in time to see the conflagration begin and realize that he'd have to deal with eight separate rocks in close proximity where the terrorists were bunched together around Lex, too much to handle even with superspeed. Given time, he could probably figure something out, but the whole building might go as the structural supports melted and collapsed onto the lower floors.
Three thousand people worked in the LexCorp tower, and the terrorists had refused to allow evacuation, mining the entrance to deter rescue missions.
Clark had turned from Lex's expressionless face, already washed in flame, and plummeted to the ground to grab a truck filled with fire-suppressant foam and hold it in position over the burning roof.
One of the terrorists couldn't face death by fire, and jumped, probably dead before he hit. Clark doubted that he would have flown to the man's rescue if he'd seen him in time.
That was all beside the point. He focused on those last glimpses - he'd seen Lex and the others, and then been gone over three minutes, because the truck required some delicate maneuvering.
"He could have been pulled out," he admitted at last. "If someone was very careful and very lucky. Can we pull all the footage from the news copters? One of them might have caught a rescue attempt."
The Fortress took this as a command addressed to it. "There is no available record of the aerial view from that side of the building at the relevant time."
"That's impossible," Clark said. "It was like rush hour up there. I nearly banged into about five helicopters, and there were more not much further off." They'd been thick as fruit flies around a bowl of week-old apples, interfering with the firefighting. He hadn't been a good mood, to say the very least, and had actually thought of shoving the more aggressive ones aside as they tried to outdo each other in closeups of Metropolis's own hero saving the day, mostly, once again.
"There's no available record," Batman said. "That doesn't mean that no records were made."
"Only that they were deleted," Clark finished. "So, what now?"
Batman turned to look at the computer screen where he'd pulled up mug shots of the terrorists Clark had captured. "I think we ought to have a chat with some of these men, don't you?"
Clark was working on a story in his office when a wave of nausea hit him. He looked around and saw that the vault in the old LuthorCorp building was open. Lionel's old office was lit up, teeming with workers, as Kryptonite bars were piled onto pallets and removed. A dapper man in an elegant suit - or perhaps an elegant man in a dapper suit - watched over the operation with interest. Clark looked closer and identified him as a fellow named Grossman, one of the directors of LexCorp, someone who'd been with LuthorCorp for years before that. Someone who'd spent hours every day close to Lex and who'd probably never known who Lex really was.
Clark figured that with Lex gone, the new management saw no reason to spend so much money and time on this strange mineral with no known industrial applications. If LexCorp's corporate culture hadn't changed, the stuff would probably be dumped in some isolated location, the regulators bribed not to see anything, and Clark would have to find it and get the other superheroes to clean it up.
The vault swung closed and Mr. Grossman locked it, then made a call. Shortly thereafter, while Clark was feeling the Kryptonite as it moved down the building in a freight elevator, men started wheeling expensive furniture into the office. Lex had left the room unoccupied, maybe as a symbol that he wasn't his father and didn't need anything of Lionel's, but a location as attractive as that office couldn't have stayed empty without Lex's need for petty revenge. So now someone was moving up in the world, literally and symbolically.
It kept getting shoved in his face that Lex was gone. Pretty soon they'd probably change the company's name to something futuristic and focus-group-tested, and then there would only be the monument in the Old Metropolis Cemetery, that useless pillar of white stone, to show that Lex had existed. That, and a few pictures in his scrapbook, the pages stuck together because he hadn't looked at them in years, and a section of railing on a bridge just a little bit newer than the rest.
He busied himself cleaning up the office, throwing out all the piles of printouts from old stories and stories that never worked out. Ancient, dried-out coffee cups and crumpled napkins, white plastic spoons and sugar packets, Post-Its and pen caps, until he'd filled his trash can and the cans in the offices to both sides of his and had to go get a bigger bin from Maintenance.
There was so much he'd let slide. What had he been waiting for?
Clark turned and looked up at Lois, standing in the doorway to his office. She was dressed in a black track suit with white racing stripes, a white exercise top - and open-toed chunky black sandals high enough to induce nosebleeds (not to mention fetishes).
Her toenails, he noted, were a candy-apple red that clashed with the burgundy of her nails.
"What?" she snapped.
The feeling that his balance was off from the Kryptonite, which had dogged him as he cleaned, now made him incautious. "You look like Sporty Spice."
She actually spluttered. Then she drew breath, like a dragon gearing up to spit fire. "I was going to the gym, and then Jimmy emailed about the LexCorp reorganization - I didn't have time to change, and I can run in these just fine, and what are you, the fashion critic?" The end of the sentence was a lot louder than the beginning.
Lois rarely allowed him opportunities like this. "You didn't have time to change, but you did have time for high heels. Wait," he said, pretending to have a sudden insight, "you just can't stand to be a centimeter shorter than possible, can you?"
She looked away, busted, her cheeks pink. "I hate you. You are hated by me. Just so we're clear on that." Her embarrassment fascinated him, since in general she not only had no shame, but actually generated some sort of field that sucked shame out of her hapless interviewees, which was the only explanation for half the things she got them to say.
"Absolutely understood." He hesitated, then decided that he was already in so much trouble that he might as well enjoy it. "Sporty."
She darted forward and thwacked him on the shoulder with her purse before launching into her latest theory of LexCorp's shenanigans. Reporting on the story, which involved the internal machinations of the board of directors and the heads of the three biggest divisions, consumed most of the next twenty-four hours. Lois got a chance to demonstrate that she could run in those heels, not that Clark had doubted for a second.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Metropolis had been a fringe right-wing organization for decades. The MPD had been extremely embarrassed when an investigation after the LexCorp incident revealed that it had classified the PFLM as a threat so minimal that no ongoing surveillance was required. According to the MPD, the PFLM was responsible for a few hate crimes and some minor property damage once every couple of years when the aging members got drunk.
"When did you join the PFLM, Jordan?" Clark stared across the table at the kid staring unblinkingly back. He was nineteen but looked younger, and would have been handsome if he'd gained fifteen pounds.
Jordan's face was set in a scowl and he was trying his best to do the serial-killer glare, the one that screamed "touch me and your hand will come back in pieces." Clark, however, was not only invulnerable; he'd seen the look from people entitled to give it, and Jordan Baker just didn't have the stuff. In fact, Jordan had the look of a young man desperately wishing he could take back certain ill-considered decisions. That look was easy to recognize. Clark didn't have to go further than his own mirror to see it.
Clark ignored Jordan's silence. "I don't think you knew everything the PFLM stood for when you joined. I think you fooled around, maybe broke a few windows, and then other things started to happen and before you knew it, you couldn't back out. I don't think you intended to be a terrorist."
"I'm not a terrorist!" Jordan's hands, chained together on the scuffed table in front of him, twisted around each other like nervous spiders. "I just - it wasn't supposed to happen like that. I thought the explosives were to blow shit up at night. You know, like bridges and synagogues and shit."
Clark didn't let his expression change. "Who supplied the explosives, Jordan?"
The kid looked down, apparently fascinated by the deep scratches in the beige plastic coating of the seventies-era table in front of him.
"Don't stop talking now, Jordan. Do you know why I'm here?"
He didn't look up, but he shook his head. He needed a haircut. Clark supposed that grooming wasn't a priority in jail.
"Superman's word carries a lot of weight around here. If you give me what I need to know, I'll get the capital charges dropped."
That got Jordan's attention. "No shit?"
"Like I said, I don't think you knew what you were getting into." In point of fact, Clark didn't believe that Jordan's initial ignorance, and the cowardice that kept him from defying his "comrades" when the scope of the operation became clear, were any excuse, but he wasn't a supporter of the death penalty and he would rather solve the mystery than see another man die. "Now, who supplied the explosives?"
"I never knew his name," Jordan said, and Clark knew he'd won.
Clark drank from a bottle of water as Batman reported on the results of his inquiries. Metropolitans weren't exactly accustomed to the Batman interrogation style, Clark suspected, but that hadn't slowed him down any.
"Everything's pointing to Gotham," he summarized when Batman finished. The mid-level thug who'd delivered the explosives was one of the Penguin's minions. Batman had followed the money used to equip the PFLM back to an account owned by the Riddler under one of his puzzle names. Most significantly, the Fortress had tracked helicopter rentals and traffic for the day Lex died - Clark wasn't saying disappeared, not even in his own head, not yet - and found a rich man who remembered allowing a beautiful woman to take his copter, for no reason he could explain. The pilot had been found dead three days later, poisoned with a plant alkaloid.
"Too much so," Batman said. "There's no way all these people joined forces to extract Luthor."
"He could be pretty persuasive -"
"No." The big cowled head shook, and Clark was again tempted to peek inside. He didn't, in large part because he thought Batman would know somehow, and probably had a lead-lined hood in any event. "Occasionally two of them will get together, but it's always a race to betrayal, and this many working in tandem is impossible. None of them play well with others."
Clark didn't point out that this was a Gotham trait (and still hadn't stopped Batman from his flirtation with the Justice League), but Batman scowled as if he'd heard it anyway. Clark wondered whether the man's uncanny insights were part of his powers; Ryan hadn't been able to read Clark's mind, but every metahuman seemed to be slightly different.
Clark cleared his throat. "Back to what we know for sure. The Joker is the only one actually using LexCorp creations."
"He's capable of emulating any of the others, for the perversity of it," Batman agreed.
"It's just not adding up. If L-Luthor -" the pause was all but unnoticeable, which meant that Batman had certainly noticed it - "wanted to drop out of sight, which he had no reason to do, he's too smart to go right on signing his microchips and using genetic sequences that lead back to him. It defeats the purpose."
"Maybe that's the point."
Clark's eyes widened. Batman tapped at a keyboard, bringing up a map of Gotham.
"We've been assuming that Luthor had a part in planning this, that the lack of significant fatalities at LexCorp was evidence that he didn't want to destroy what he'd built up. But it's also possible that the Joker went and got himself a pet mad scientist on his own initiative, and Luthor doesn't want to stay in his cage."
Clark moved to stand in front of the map, which had dozens of glowing circles on it.
"These are places the Joker might have hideouts. With your help, I can investigate them all in a few days."
Lex, a prisoner? It didn't compute. He couldn't imagine a prison from which Lex couldn't escape, except perhaps that of Lionel's expectations. Lex seeking outside help, sending Clark coded messages in his weapons, was nearly inconceivable.
"Let's get going," he said.
The first two sites were completely useless. An abandoned building and an office park supposedly connected to shady activities, but you couldn't have proved it by Clark. All he saw was some OSHA-noncompliant workstations and two office workers screwing in the Xerox room.
They weren't even very good-looking, not that he would have kept watching if they had been. He didn't use his powers as part of his sex life; peeping would have smacked of secrets and hiding, and he didn't do that when he went out to get laid. Anyway, he could get people who wanted to show off for him.
Three, four, five.
Clark's count of the Batman's sites was the only thing that made him aware that time was passing. They all looked different, but they were all the same. He wondered, some, whether Batman's theory wasn't just another search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, an excuse trumped up to get him to help clean up Gotham.
But Batman covertly wanting his help was so much less likely than Lex being alive that he discounted it, glad that there was something less likely than Lex being alive.
Six, seven, eight.
He returned from Gotham in time to watch Lois leave for her date. He hadn't watched her shower and get dressed, only listened for the small sounds, but when she left the apartment, he followed, at an appropriate distance.
She smiled at the man's jokes and he guffawed at hers, even snorting once. Clark believed him, but that didn't mean much. Lois seemed to think they were on the same wavelength, and that had to be enough. When they were at the movie and he whispered a rude comment about the police procedure onscreen, she whacked him on the arm, as hard as she would have whacked Clark.
And when he left her apartment, long after midnight, when Lois turned her face into her pillow and didn't even let herself hear the crying, Clark did what he always did.
He went back to saving the world.
Nine: a poor showing indeed, a metahuman brothel. He was glad enough to get the underaged girls and boys into protective custody, but it left him dissatisfied with regard to the main mission and haunted by the tableaux he'd seen in some of the special rooms. The depraved imagination, he thought, was infinitely inventive.
He flew back home and didn't shower, because that wouldn't help the dirt. Also, he was later than usual for his meeting with Lois.
He caught up with her as she left the building, heading to interview - who was it, again? - yes, State Senator Graham. It was getting harder to remember who Clark Kent was these days.
"Hey," he said, pretending to be out of breath.
She didn't look at him.
He debated saying that he was sorry for being so late, but decided it would just make her angry. Angrier.
She was wearing a suit the color of poppies, with shiny black heels high enough to make her look like she was on tiptoe. Her hair, freshly cut, swung as sharp and gleaming as a guillotine blade.
"Let me buy you coffee."
Lois stopped walking and turned to him.
"Am I your partner?"
"Am I your partner?" she demanded again, stepping close and shoving her finger in his chest, right at the center of the hidden "S."
"Of course, Lois -"
She pulled her hand away as if he were made of molten steel. "Don't 'of course' me! You haven't even been phoning in your role as reporter these days, you've been instant messaging it. Where are you always going? I almost wish it were a story, Clark, because then someday you might clue me in on it."
"I - I'm just running late, that's all." He could hear the desperation in his voice.
Lois's eyes grew shinier still as she set her jaw. "I think maybe we'd better talk to Perry about changing our assignments."
"Lois, no -" A thousand late nights flashed through his mind, laughing with Lois as the city turned over in its sleep, holding his hand up to fend off the rubber bands she liked to shoot at him across their desks, reading the scurrilous shorthand notes she took during interviews and trying not to smile. Rescuing her as Superman, allowing her to rescue him as Clark, rating the looks of the other staffers on a scale from Jack Benny to Michelangelo's David. Watching her eat her second order of banana nut pancakes from the Silver Star diner after they finished a stakeout, marveling at the amount of butter and syrup she was able to make them absorb.
She drew in a shuddering breath, forcing Clark to pay attention. "I mean, we're hardly ever together anyway. It's not like -"
"I think Lex Luthor is alive," he blurted.
"Maybe," he said hurriedly. "I didn't - I know you think I'm - biased. But - there are things that don't add up." Briefly, he recounted some of the evidence he and Batman had collected. "I didn't want to tell you," he finished, "because -"
And oh, he was good these days, wrapping the lies in just the right flavor of truth, because he had her back now. She lectured him about partners sharing information, but she was already wrapped up in writing the story in her mind.
"We can't print anything yet," she said, her eyes unfocused. "We've got to go to Gotham. Perry -"
"We can't tell Perry. Somebody at the Planet might talk."
Lois's brows drew together. "Buy me that coffee. I need to think."
Clark followed her as she turned and headed for the convenience store that was right by the Planet. The coffee was terrible, but cheap and hot.
"Can you get your buddy Bruce Wayne to give you another interview?" she asked, pushing open the door.
"So soon after yours?"
She frowned, pursing her lips. The guy behind the counter saw the two of them and nodded, going to the coffee machine to prepare their usual order.
"Well, get him to do something," she said. "He's a lot more interesting than he wanted me to think."
"I'll ask," he promised. "But in the meantime -"
"In the meantime, it's all extracurricular," she agreed, letting him pay for the coffees. He watched as she dumped even more sugar than usual into hers and then tossed him two sugars and two creamers for his.
Clark was seized with love for her. Standing in the narrow aisle of the store, surrounded by candy and chips and lottery ads, her nose wrinkled as she stared into her coffee as if it were about to talk back to her, she was everything wonderful about Metropolis. "Lois," he said.
Her head whipped around, alerted by his tone.
"You know I -"
"Quit while you're ahead, Smallville." She took a sip of her drink, wincing as it burned her tongue.
"Right," he said, relieved, and looked around for something else to say. On the news rack by the door, the cover of the Inquisitor caught his eye. "Batman's Love Child," it yelled, with a picture of a chubby infant with little bat wings hanging off its shoulders, the photo upside down so it looked like the baby was hanging from something.
"Look," he said, nudging Lois as he took a sip of coffee. "I mean, really, how implausible is that?"
"Yeah," she said, putting a plastic cover on her cup. "As if Batman's condom would ever break."
Clark choked on his drink, which Lois undoubtedly took as a point scored. He'd been thinking more along the lines that Batman was a guy in a batsuit and unlikely to have a bat-shaped child without an extended stay in Smallville, but that just went to show that he'd never in a million years understand how Lois thought.
They went out into the sunlight, and Clark felt better than he had in a long time.
Batman was a strange fellow, which Clark had known before they'd started working together, but repeated exposure revealed new depths of strange. It was as if he'd carved huge chunks of personality out of himself, never realizing that those very mutilations made him a creature driven by emotion rather than reason. Logic in the service of an insane aim was not sanity. Still, he was thorough and practical, which Clark appreciated, given the nature of their project. It helped him remember that all he was doing was cleaning up Gotham, and maybe stopping the Joker's deadliest tricks.
He was also hoping that their current alliance might get Batman to reconsider the idea of becoming a full-fledged member of the Justice League. Batman was too smart and too, well, high-strung to be ignored. Clark wanted to be able to keep a discreet eye on him nearly as much as he wanted Batman's assistance with the various evils of the world.
Clark was beginning to think that they might not find anything. Sure, weapons caches and other illegalities; Batman's information was good enough for what it was. But nothing that went beyond Gotham, nothing on Lex.
The Joker's activities were threaded like inoperable cancer through Gotham. By comparison, Metropolis got off easy. Lex had been crazy in socially acceptable ways, and physically different in socially acceptable ways, whatever it might have seemed like to him. He could go out without people pointing and staring, or at least the stares were appreciative rather than horrified, but the Joker was a living gargoyle. The Joker had so much less to lose, and that made him deadlier than Lex by far.
Still, Clark saw many similarities. Both had to give everything they were to one identity. Lex running a business instead of an empire had been like using a nuclear reactor to power a go-kart. It was no surprise that things didn't turn out right.
The Fortress wasn't reminding him that he had other obligations. It probably should have been, but maybe it was possible for it to get hurt feelings after being yelled at enough.
The fourteenth site proved a revelation, though not because of anything Lex-related.
Clark tried very hard not to use his super-smell unless absolutely necessary to track a criminal. It had been a blessedly late-developing sense, and he'd been fortunate that his experience in controlling the other senses had served him well in mastering - and suppressing - this new one. But after the first time with Bruce, he'd deliberately indulged in the rich dark scents they'd made.
At the fourteenth site, a luxury apartment in a converted warehouse, there was a still-damp towel. Clark thought it might be worth a try, so he braced himself for the sensory assault and inhaled.
He smelled Batman, of course. Underneath the plastic and metal, the scent was unmistakeable. He froze, completely distracted from the task at hand.
Bruce hadn't exactly lied.
But it was awkward, to say the least, to be accidentally sleeping with someone you had to work with. Like meeting someone in a chat room for virtual sex, then discovering that your partner was actually your editor.
Only you, he thought to himself, could get yourself into these situations. Secret identities - it was enough to make him wish that he didn't need one, that there was some way to keep his parents and Lois and the rest of his friends safe so he could reveal himself.
And anyway, what the hell was a human doing, fighting alongside those with real superpowers? He hadn't considered the possibility that Batman might be relying entirely on technology and training, because it was ludicrous.
Oh, and Bruce - no, the Batman -- was going to be angry when he figured it out. Clark couldn't hope to keep the two identities separate as far as Batman was concerned forever. Look how quickly Lex had connected the dots - and he and Lex hadn't even been fucking.
"Anything?" Batman asked, breaking into his reverie.
"Uh, no," Clark said, and tried to refocus.
As it happened, when they did track the minion down, he didn't know a damn thing.
"Wake up," Lex whispered in his ear, as Clark opened his eyes in the dream.
They were in Clark's old bedroom, shabby walls and shabbier furniture, all of it radiating such love and security that he couldn't help but smile, even with Lex sitting next to him on the bed.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, because it was expected.
"Speak for yourself, Clark," Lex replied.
Clark got up and went to the window. Looking out, he saw the view from the top of the Daily Planet, directly opposite LexCorp's higher floors.
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" He could feel the ghost of Lex's breath on the back of his neck, Lex's coarse velvet voice low and invasive.
Across the way, a mechanical replica of Lionel was dancing, spinning like a circus clown through the vast empty spaces of his boardroom, his blue metal arms jerking and spasming. A portrait of Lex, done in broad purple brushstrokes with a sun that wasn't yellow behind and above his head, watched over the spectacle.
"If I am only for myself, what am I?"
Clark turned, to find Lex standing outside in the hall, the door open. The hallway began to telescope, dragging Lex into the distance so that he shrunk into a manikin, hardly there at all. "If not now, when?"
"Maimonides isn't really your style," he said, calm though his heart shuddered in his chest.
"Clark," Lex said reproachfully, and Clark turned to see him in the mirror over the chest of drawers. "Have some respect for history. It's Hillel." Clark approached the silvered glass, raising his hand to watch Lex do the same, reaching out. "Just because our fathers weren't wise is no reason to be sloppy about it."
Their palms hit the mirror at the same time, the collision sending shocks up Clark's arm as the cold, flat surface refused to let them touch. Lex splayed his hand out, his fingers invisible behind Clark's, leaning into the mirror with the confidence he always had that nothing would yield without his permission.
"Stop trying to define yourself by what I'm not," Lex said, drawing his free hand back and curling it into a fist. Clark found his own arm reacting, pulled without his volition. "Because, Clark, there's a lot of room for contradictions in 'alive.'" The fist began to swing.
Clark shattered awake.
Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.
They stood outside the seventeenth building, deep in the shadows Batman preferred. Clark did a quick scan to see what awaited.
"Some people, with guns. And a lead-lined room," he said, telling himself not to hope even as his heart sped up.
"We'll go in together." Batman must have seen that Clark was picoseconds from speeding in, because he continued, "I know the people. I know who's dangerous and what things might be tricks."
Clark nodded, uncertain what his voice would sound like.
He ripped the small door beside the loading dock off its hinges and walked through a hail of bullets that felt less annoying than gnats. Clark sped around the enormous, cluttered warehouse floor, disarming everyone but one fellow who had a Kryptonite-enhanced vest - and, shortly, a Batarang in the face.
The dismayed groans of the men faded into the background as Clark slowed to a stop and looked, drawn like a magnet, towards the small room that had been constructed in the back. There was a white-coated woman hastily punching in a code - he looked through her skeleton to get see what it was - and she bolted through and slammed the door. Light bled out around the edges.
He gave Batman a chance to catch up with him. The man was fast, Clark had to concede that, and he didn't make any sound, even though he ought to have been trying to catch his breath.
"I'll go in first," Batman said, which was only sensible but still made Clark twitch.
"Fine," he said and told him the code.
Clark kept scanning around, in case the Joker showed up to watch the fireworks, while Batman entered the numbers as if offended by the very existence of the electronic lock and pushed open the door.
There was a series of violent thuds. A tiny form in motley came hurtling through the door, the bells on her cap jingling as she hit the concrete floor. She groaned and tried without success to push herself upright. Clark bent to cuff her hands behind her back with a piece of scrap metal as she kicked weakly, and deposited her against some large unmarked boxes.
"Batman?" Clark called. "Are you all right?" Even though it wasn't entirely safe, he moved to stand in front of the open door, trying to look in.
Batman's bulk took up most of the doorway. With bright bluish light behind him, he looked like the creature of nightmare he wanted to be.
"Luthor's here," he said, and his voice had an unfamiliar note.
Clark stepped forward. Batman put a gloved hand to his chest. "You don't want to see."
"What?" He wasn't going to shove Batman aside, but he was considering a gentle push.
Batman drew in a breath. "Luthor said - Luthor asked that you stay out, and I think he's right. You take charge of the cleanup, and I'll have a medical team here -"
Clark picked Batman up by his shoulders, turned, and deposited him next to the still-struggling woman.
And walked into Hell.
The walls were white and the tables gleaming silver metal, which made the smell of old blood hard to understand. The floor sloped downward on all sides to a central drain. On one side, the woman who'd used the code to lock the door was slumped, unconscious, her hands bound behind her and her coat smeared with grime from the floor. There were cabinets on the walls, mirrored so that the body on the elaborate surgical table was reflected to infinity.
Clark's mind refused to admit what it was seeing, skipping over Lex to the knives, retractors, and other silver implements on the tables beside him.
When that tactic failed, he still couldn't quite comprehend it, thinking of old plates of Vesalius he'd seen in Europe.
From his toes to his calves and to the wrist of his right hand, Lex had been flayed, half dissected, the skin at the edges of the cuts rolled back like someone might roll a sleeve. His abdomen was an open sore, loops of intestine bulging wetly, a sick purple Clark had only ever seen at major accidents. The red, seeping flesh that remained around the bones of his feet, the yellow streaks of fat, the blue veins seemed unreal, plastic, some mannequin of a visible man.
Lex's chest rose and fell. His head was turned away from Clark, and the face in the mirror was too distorted to recognize.
Clark staggered back out. Batman was speaking into the cowl of his outfit, presumably talking to the police. The jester-woman was curled up on herself now. She'd managed to twist so that the makeshift cuffs were in front, and her hands were drawn up to her chest in a pose that reminded Clark of a praying mantis. Praying mantises eat their mates, he remembered. She was giggling. On some of the white diamonds in her costume, Clark saw dark spots and lines, blood black with age. Different velocities, different angles -
"Did you do this?" he asked, his voice buzzing in his head.
Batman was saying something to him. Clark couldn't hear it as he picked the woman up by the front of her costume. She gibbered like a monkey, her mouth stretched as wide as a slashed throat. Her colors were like those in the room, white cheeks, red lips, yellow and white and blue diamonds on her costume. The fabric sagged as he held her up, unable to think or move. Gradually, she calmed down, staring back at him, her eyes like cyclones.
Clark became aware of Batman's hand on his forearm. "Put her down, Superman," he was saying, in the tone of a man who'd been repeating himself for a while.
When he let go, the woman tumbled to the ground like a string-cut puppet. Batman stared at her for a moment, then turned to Clark. His eyes were dark under his mask.
"I'll go check for - anything else that got left behind," he managed, and fled.
Lex didn't acknowledge his entrance, continuing to stare at the laptop screen in front of him. The computer cords draped across the hospital bed, merging with the other equipment that bleeped and ticked around Lex.
His left hand jittered over the keyboard like an ecstasy-sodden teenager at an old-style rave. His right lay concealed beneath the sheets. There was a sort of tent over his feet, with even more monitors and displays clustered around it.
"How are you doing, Lex?" Clark asked.
"Go away, Superman," Lex said. He hadn't even looked up. How he could tell that Clark was in uniform and not mufti was only the beginning of the mystery, when Clark hadn't even known Lex was alive.
He stepped closer to the bed, drinking in the sight of Lex's too-thin face. Lex had carried that deceptive softness around for years; without it, he looked more like his father.
Lex's fingers slowed and then stopped. He turned his head to look at Clark. It was like being hit with a firehose; Clark could stand it, but it took concentration. "Batman was here earlier. Don't you have some more deserving charity cases to look after?"
That was disturbing. Batman wasn't exactly the candy-striper type. Clark was used to visiting hospitals, doing the Make-a-Wish thing until he was sick with helplessness, but he couldn't imagine why Batman would have checked up on Lex, unless Lex and Bruce -
It didn't bear thinking about.
"I wanted to see you," he said, because sincerity without full disclosure was always his best weapon against Lex.
Sure enough, the pressure of Lex's gaze faltered for a second. "You've seen me," he said, but without finality.
"How are you?" Another half-step closer. Given a few months, he might be right beside Lex.
"My doctors haven't given you all the latest news?"
"I didn't ask them." In fact, he'd stood behind Mercy, arms folded, as she explained to all the doctors, nurses, and other attendants how extremely displeased Mr. Luthor would be if any information on his condition were to appear in the press or even in hospital gossip. It wouldn't have been fair to ask after that.
Lex smiled, unamused. His eyes were the dark gray of a summer thunderstorm. "Well. Due to my remarkable healing powers, the flesh on my feet is regrowing nicely. They tell me I'll walk in under three months."
"I'm glad to hear that, Lex. Really."
"I know," Lex said, looking down at his fingers, still on the keyboard. "You'd never be so petty as to want me crippled." There was a pause. "I lost the hand."
Incomprehension, again, like being back in the Joker's sick bunker. "What?"
"The exposed bone got infected, there was gangrene - they took it off at the wrist three days ago." Lex's voice was calm, but it sounded as if he were reminding himself that this was no nightmare. Clark's vision flashed into X-ray, searching below the bedsheet. Lex's familiar skeleton was truncated, mutilated.
Clark stumbled back, bumping into a chair by the wall and collapsing into it. "Lex -"
"Superman," he said, a reminder.
"I'm so -"
"Shut up!" Lex's left hand - his only hand - pounded on the plastic tray in front of him, nearly sending the laptop flying. "You don't get to be responsible for this. That psychotic bastard is, and I'm going to kill him." Lex's face, already strange in its new thinness, twisted into fury redder than anything Clark had ever seen aimed at himself. "I'm going to rip out his spine and use it as a watch chain. When I'm done with him, blood is going to be the new black."
Clark realized that he was making noise, a wheezy sound lost under Lex's rant. He tried to control himself as Lex raged on.
"And don't you dare go after him yourself. That sick fuck is mine, and if you try to protect him out of some misguided ideal of justice you'll discover that I've hardly been trying to hurt you at all until now."
"He broke me," Lex said, his voice as flayed as his skin had been. "I thought I was - I thought I was strong. I thought I was my own man. I thought no one could make me do anything I didn't want, and sixty hours after he took me I was his." He wasn't looking at Clark any more. Clark thought he wasn't seeing the hospital room at all. "I would have killed - I would have done anything to make it stop, and I did.
"The only reason," Lex said and halted. He breathed out, swallowed, and raised his eyes to Clark's. "The only reason he doesn't know who you are is that he didn't ask. I don't think it ever crossed his mind that I might know." Lex looked so suddenly young, lost against the too-white sheets and the bleeping electronics.
Clark stood and took three steps towards Lex's bed. "Don't."
"Don't what? Don't tell the truth? Isn't that what you always wanted?"
It's not even close to what I wanted, Clark thought. Guilt was supposed to be his great fault, not Lex's. Pride, Luthor pride, that was what Lex needed now, to be made strong by his fatal flaw.
After a minute, Lex made a sound that could have been a laugh reflected in a funhouse mirror. "At least you're not spouting Bruce's claptrap about how no one resists torture, as if we were just ordinary." His tone made it a curse.
Well, this day just kept spiraling towards perfection. The last thing Lex needed right now was Bruce shoving his moral superiority in Lex's face - and yeah, Clark was aware of the irony, but that was kind of the point. Clark really needed a clear field on which to make his own moves.
"Listen, Lex," Clark said and crossed the floor to stand by the bed, breaching the force field Lex had emanated against him for years. "When we all thought you were dead, Mercy gave me a message you recorded for me."
Lex blinked, obviously remembering the contents of the message. His lashes dipped in embarrassment, only part-feigned. "I'm a sentimentalist, what can I say?"
Clark knelt so that he and Lex were at the same level. "I knew that already. Here's the thing: I refuse your refusal."
"What?" Lex looked honestly confused, for once.
"You refuse to be saved, okay. I refuse to not save you." He was reminded of Pete's old line: You're not the boss of me. He smiled, feeling better as Lex's expression clouded with outrage. Lex shouldn't be reflecting on his own perceived inadequacies; that made him mean and dangerous. Mad at Clark was much safer.
"You patronizing little shit," Lex began.
"Yeah, probably," he admitted, silencing Lex - another blast from the past, to be able to shut him up. "But you know you didn't take me seriously either."
Lex actually gaped at him. It was almost enough to make Clark smile, even with everything else. "Look, how far did all this guilt and angst get us? I know I'm not happy. Maybe -"
The Fortress's super-miniaturized link chimed in his ear, letting him know that a forest fire was threatening a California town.
"I've got to go, Lex. But I think we need to talk more."
He deliberately didn't listen for Lex's answer as he flew towards California.
Once the fire was out and Clark was able to check in at the Fortress, he realized that he needed to deal with his other big problem. Maybe it was abusing his Justice League credentials to use Batman's contact information this way, but the whole mess was making him paranoid, and he needed not to be distracted right now. Thankfully, the Fortress put the call through without any commentary on the madness that was his life.
"We need to talk," he said when he heard Bruce pick up the phone.
"Come to Gotham," Batman said. "You know where I am."
Clark's jaw clenched reflexively. "That's what I wanted to talk about."
"Is it that important to you?" Batman sounded indifferent. Clark just hated this macho bullshit. Not that honesty was always the best policy, but they were supposed to be allies. He'd just helped Batman clean out half the bad guys in Gotham, for goodness' sake. They needed to come to a mutual understanding.
Okay, so maybe he should implement his own ethic. "We need to understand each other," he said. "And I think it would be easier face to face." Thank God he was old enough not to flush with embarrassment as he flashed back to being face to face with Bruce.
"I'll see you in a few minutes, then."
This was so not a good time, not with Lex newly risen and plainly still very angry. (Clark was aware that this was something of an understatement, but defining Lex's emotions had been a losing battle for him even in their best days.) Clark didn't need to deal with two brilliant, screwed-up men with virtually no resource constraints.
Maybe, he thought, I should have considered that before I came on to him. I did know he had the money, even if I didn't know the other thing.
That would teach him to underestimate humans.
Really, it had seemed like a bright idea at the time. He had known Lex would find out, and there had been a nasty thrill from that, thinking of Lex shaking hands with Bruce at some business meeting. More than that, Bruce was gorgeous and sex was fun; Clark was good at it; it was a way to make people happy instead of just saving them from death and dismemberment. It was nice to be good at something not associated with painful revelations or just pain.
Casual sex was more honest. He was careful, not careless like Lex had been. He picked only men and women who were just looking for a night outside their own heads. That way, he didn't have to make promises he was sure to break or pretend to share what he was thinking. He didn't even have to choose who to be, Superman or Clark Kent, since he didn't have to wear a costume at all.
He'd thought Bruce understood. Bruce had seemed to be having fun, too, and fun was not an activity that Clark had ever associated with Batman. Bruce hadn't seemed like the type to go psycho on him. Though as it turned out, that was only because he already was.
As usual, Clark's judgment sucked.
This was so unfair. Who would have thought that Bruce Wayne, the male equivalent of Paris Hilton (minus the widely distributed sex tape, though there were always rumors), would moonlight as a superhero? Conversely, who would have thought that Batman's special powers were composed of weirdness and money?
Clark had the irritating suspicion that Lex was probably the answer to those questions.
He flew to Gotham.
Bruce's - Batman's - creepy butler let him in. Lex never had a butler. Maybe it was an old money thing. "Master Bruce is waiting for you in the study," the man intoned, as nonchalant as if men in superhero costumes came by every day. He led Clark into the labyrinthine mansion.
Bruce had his back to the door to his den, looking out the window over his enormous dank gardens. He was wearing a suit tailored with exquisite care to make him look slimmer and weaker than he was. Clark felt a flash of resentment - money made things so easy. Sure, alien technology was helpful, especially with the appearance distorter he used with the suit, but the Fortress didn't print money and it couldn't replace all the clothes he destroyed running to rescues. It was money that provided Batman's nice toys; without it, all the attitude and genius in the world wouldn't have outfitted him to play on the League's level.
"This is awkward," he began.
Bruce didn't turn. "I know."
Clark closed his eyes. Bruce was deliberately being aggravating, and Clark was not going to play. "I didn't know until a few days ago. If I had -"
"I knew I should have lined the mask with lead."
Clark shook his head, even though Bruce couldn't see - except, Clark saw, Bruce was looking at the window, and there was a reflection in the glass.
"That's not how - that's not the point. I need to know if we can still work together."
"That depends," Bruce said, turning at last. "Whose side are you on?"
"I believe in the Justice League and what it stands for," Clark said.
Clark stared at Bruce. "I don't know what's going to happen with Lex. But I am - I'm going to do everything I can to make it work."
"Have you considered another round of electroshock?"
Clark didn't think, just moved, grabbing Bruce and shoving him against the nearest wall so hard that he heard the creak of aristocratic wood. "You think that's funny? Lex's father tortured him, as bad as the Joker did - his father, his own father. Yes, Lex has done bad things. Yes, Lex hasn't tried hard enough to escape his legacy. But I will not believe that it's too late for him. I'm sorry if that makes you jealous or - or whatever it is with you, but I did not know who you were, and I sure as hell wouldn't have had sex with you if I had. I've got about all I can handle with one obsessive psycho genius, thanks a lot. You were supposed to be this gorgeous pinhead, and, you know what? It's your own damn fault if false advertising gets you in relationships you don't like."
Clark paused for breath.
Bruce's blank face broke into a smile.
"Freak," Clark said, but he was already smiling back, helpless against the mockery, which was almost gentle - as close as the Batman could get to gentle, anyway.
"You see?" Bruce asked, pushing Clark back and stepping forward. "Now we have a basis for communication."
"Then I guess it's your turn," Clark said, regaining his composure as he folded his arms across his chest.
"I didn't know either," Bruce said, making it sound like an insight instead of a confession of ignorance. "Not until recently. I don't know what I would have done if I'd known. I don't trust you and I don't trust Luthor, not separately and definitely not together. You're too powerful and he's too ambitious. I'm not going to stand by and let him use you to take over the world, or let you enforce your own vision of morality on it. However attractive that morality may be."
Clark shut his mouth, considered, and nodded. "I wouldn't expect anything else. But I'm worried that you'll do something preemptive against me or Lex, and you're very good. You need to understand that I'm uncertain about you, the same way you're uncertain about me."
"Fair enough," Bruce said. "We worked well together, these last few weeks. I'm not averse to trying it again, when necessary."
That sounded like the best he was going to get, right now. Trust had to be built slowly - at least Clark thought so; he still wasn't all that good at it. If all went well, he could make sure the Batman had access to Kryptonite, just in case. It might make Bruce more confident. Maybe Bruce would even see that Lex's presence in Clark's life could be the same kind of balance. Bruce didn't seem to have grown up with all that mythic prophecy stuff, so maybe he didn't understand how Clark and Lex had these roles to play, no matter how hard it was.
"So," Bruce said, "can I offer you dinner?"
Clark laughed. "Thanks," he said, meaning it. "But I should get back. I'll - be in touch, okay?"
Bruce seemed willing to let it go at that.
Clark wrote the story of Lex's miraculous return from the dead. He had to; he'd established himself as Superman's media contact long ago, and Superman's adventures in Gotham had been fairly public. And he did have all the background research about the search for Lex, which Lois knew. Superman did refuse to discuss Lex. Clark made up a sharp quote about privacy and letting Lex reclaim his life.
How many resurrections did this make?
Lois made the routine call to Lex's office, asking for comment. She liked to be the one who did that because she liked the creativity of the responses - sorry, but Mr. Luthor has gone fishing. Sorry, he's almost got the meaning of life figured out and he can't be interrupted. Sorry, he's journeying to the center of the earth, out of cellphone range. Sorry, he's getting a haircut. Sorry, he's got bubonic plague.
Lois was wide-eyed, her customary wry smile missing, as she listened to Lex's assistant. Covering the receiver with her hand, she turned to Clark. "Luthor says he'll talk to you at three o'clock today."
Clark stared at her, equally taken aback. He nudged his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. Lois hastily turned back to the phone. "He'll be there," she said, listened for a minute more, and hung up.
"So, Kent," she said, her eyes bright with speculation, "tell me more about your childhood friend Lex Luthor."
He looked down, casting his hearing around just in case he could go to someone's rescue.
"Listen," she said, scooting her chair across the floor so that their knees were almost touching. "I watched you go into mourning for months and I didn't say anything. I even let you have your little Search for Spock thing - good call, by the way. But he's not dead any more and you are a journalist about to have an exclusive interview with the biggest story of the year. I'm your partner and I deserve to know how your reporting is going to be affected by your personal life."
Clark looked up, trying to figure out what he could say. Her eyes were hazel, green spiked with brown like petrified wood, patient and hungry all at once.
It was something of a miracle that she hadn't asked before. She'd never had any hesitation teasing him about Lana, asking him about being adopted, and otherwise prying into his thoughts. He hadn't noticed that Lex was the only topic she skipped.
"We were best friends," he blurted. "When he first arrived in Smallville. Until - he changed, and I couldn't -"
Lois's eyes unfocused as she thought. "You were - what, fifteen? And he was already running that LuthorCorp plant. How'd you get to be best friends?"
"Smallville's not like other places," he said, even though everyone in Smallville had asked the same question. And mostly come up with the answer Lois was about to generate.
His history in Smallville hadn't been a problem for him in years. The Metropolis papers had never printed his name as Lex's rescuer, and he'd burned down the building where the Ledger archives had been kept when he was home for fall break his junior year of college. He'd blown out the fire as soon as the records were destroyed, and there were no human casualties. There was no need to worry about back-up copies. His interests had been aligned with Lex's on that - destroying the electronic versions up through 2005 was probably the last thing Lex had done to help him, however inadvertently, until Clark had received his bequest of useful information.
"You weren't -" Lois said, then swallowed and barrelled onwards - "fucking him?"
Clark shook his head. "Lex wouldn't do that. Lex had scruples, just not normal ones."
"It sounds," she said slowly, "like you wanted him."
Clark didn't say anything.
"You're both grown-ups now," she pointed out.
"He's Lex Luthor now."
Lois wouldn't tell him that maybe all Lex needed was the love of a good man.
"So," she said at last, "can you do this story?"
He nodded. He could do anything. He had ten years of superheroing to prove it.
Clark had never entered the LexCorp building from the bottom. The security was impressive: discreet but all-pervasive metal detectors, cameras, pressure sensors, heat sensors, and machines whose functions were unknown to him. The lacquer-perfect receptionist (cross-draw holsters and stiletto in a thigh sheath) examined his credentials without comment, then gave him a badge with the date and his picture on it, the word "Visitor" written across it in large red letters. The elevator to the top floor had a human operator (one gun at his waist, another at the ankle) and Clark had to give his badge to be scanned before the doors would close.
All this, and Lex hadn't been paranoid enough. Clark looked at the elevator operator and wondered if he'd been one of the men who let Lex be taken.
At last, the elevator decanted Clark into an empty, dimly lit waiting area. Up by the ceiling, in between camera lenses, there were small holes for gas, either poison or simply incapacitating or, most likely, a choice of both. As he remembered, the walls were lead-lined; either they hadn't been destroyed in the Joker's attack, or they'd been replaced. Since he couldn't see out, all he could do was test the batteries in his recorder and wait.
A section of silvery-gray wall slid aside, revealing Hope standing in a corridor. The lights were bright enough to make a human blink after the twilight of the waiting area. She'd changed her hair, twists instead of braids, and her fingernails were polish-free and bitten, as if she hadn't quite come back up to speed. "Come this way," she told him, and watched as he walked past her.
Their footsteps were swallowed by the black flooring.
He didn't notice whether she even entered Lex's office or said anything before she closed the door.
Seated behind his massive exotic-wood desk, Lex looked just the same as ever, though a quick X-ray revealed that his chair was actually an extremely well-made wheelchair. He'd been wearing leather driving gloves that day on the bridge, Clark recalled. Today's black leather pair covered Lex's hand and his prosthesis, disappearing into the sleeves of his fine suit. When Clark shifted his eyesight to look through the fabric, he saw plastic straps biting into the flesh of Lex's forearm.
Lex followed his gaze and held his arm up, turning it so that the prosthesis moved. With its fingers in fixed positions, it looked more unnatural in motion than it had resting on the desk.
"I'm still working on the bionic hand," Lex said lightly. "I could get some mobility with a claw-type arrangement, but it makes most people uncomfortable and I need to reassure people more than I need to be able to tie my own shoes."
Clark controlled his wince. "I hope that works out, Lex."
"Thank you." Amazingly, Lex's tone was irony-free. But he wasn't done surprising Clark. "I want to apologize for the way I spoke to you at the hospital."
Clark gaped at him.
"I was extremely angry and I lashed out at you when in reality I once again owe you my life."
This was the part where Clark was supposed to say something about repaying him by becoming a productive member of society. "You don't owe me anything."
Before, Lex had been so wrapped up in his own suffering that his smooth manipulativeness hadn't been functioning properly, stripped away like his flesh. Now Clark could feel Lex turn it on, extending across the desk like a magnetic field. "I didn't expect you to save me. It wasn't your fault. It's never been your fault."
Lex was a liar, so good a liar that he himself believed every word just as long as he needed to. Clark knew that, so Lex's sincerity shouldn't have felt like a Kryptonite-fueled punch in the stomach.
"We should - we should get started," he said, back to stuttering like a farm-fresh kid.
Lex's brows raised a fraction, but all he said was, "Very well."
Clark raised the recorder, preparing to turn it on.
"I'd prefer it if you didn't record our conversation."
Clark closed his hand and let the crushed pieces fall to the floor. Lex's eyes lowered in satisfaction.
Oddly, the interview began well. Lex's answers, declining to go into detail about his ordeal, were eloquent and would come across in print as charming and sincere. When he wasn't actively raging, Lex probably had a hard time turning off his charm. It had been years since Clark had been caught in the sweep of Lex's seduction, like a beam of light from a lighthouse, guiding ships to their doom. He'd forgotten how Lex could electrify the air, making everything sharp and alive, like the snap in the air of a brisk fall day or the view from the top of a high mountain.
"What?" Lex looked at him suspiciously, as if wondering whether Clark was reading the documents stashed in Lex's desk.
Clark blushed, not having realized that he'd let the pause between questions go on so long that he was just staring at Lex like a moonstruck calf. They weren't friends any more. Smallville was a lot further away in time than in space. He'd do well to remember that.
He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders, trying to be professional. Lex kept saying that he wanted people to stop thinking of him as a victim and remember that he was a businessman, so -- "Moving on to current events, what's your reaction to allegations that LexCorp is indifferent to the human costs of its business decisions, specifically regarding the job cuts that came two weeks after the buyout of GreenTech was finalized?"
Lex, whose relaxed demeanor had disappeared while Clark was trapped in nostalgia, snarled. "You know, I am fucking sick and tired of being treated like Attila the Hun because I run a growing business. Hasn't anyone been paying attention? Twenty percent of American children go to bed hungry, it's worse elsewhere, and I. Feed. People. Global warming is making the summers hotter and the storms worse. Half the country doesn't have working aquifers anymore. Whole towns are poisoned by factory farming. The only way to save the environment is to grow more food on less land."
He turned towards the window, gesturing out at the city with his living hand as he talked. "The fat times are over, and the lean times are going to last a lot longer than seven years. We need new weather-resistant strains of rice and wheat, new fertilizers for worked-out soil, new desalinization technology, new distribution methods, and LexCorp provides them. I feed people. When I fire employees, it's because they're bad at feeding people. The real price of a dozen basic foods have dropped nearly ten percent in the U.S. in three years because LexCorp leads the market.
"If I have to fire a thousand people every month to make sure that progress continues, I'll do it. I make it possible -- I make it easy -- to eat. I'm the best at it, and I won't stop because it's so basic as to be unpopular with college student activists." He was panting, shaking with fury. Clark half expected him to start throwing objects from his desk.
"Well?" he demanded, hunching his shoulders as if he expected to be hit.
It was fitting that Lex would be obsessed with hunger. In so many ways, he'd been starving since he was a little boy.
But that was flippant. This was far more than armchair psychology.
Clark looked him in the eye. "I didn't know you felt that strongly about it."
Lex had recovered himself enough to give an ironic little smile. Clark wondered again why the scar on his lip was the only survivor of all Lex's misadventures, then barely stopped himself from wincing as he remembered Lex's more recent loss.
Lex's next words were a relief, because if it had been up to Clark to restart the conversation they might have been sitting in silence for months. "Though you may find it hard to believe, the only retroviruses I want to work on insert benign genes into plants."
Wait, was Lex feeling guilt? Guilt over helping the Joker, when he hadn't flinched at ruining lives and reputations to build his own empire - it was ridiculous, and perfectly Lex.
Clark had the feeling that "I believe you" would go across very badly, for a variety of reasons. "It's an important project, Lex. And you're probably the only person who could do it."
Lex blinked at this compliment, as well he might. "Why did you come here, Clark? What do you want?"
Again, Lex was ignoring his role in the whole thing, as if Clark had just shown up unannounced the way he'd done too many times when Superman had to curtail some Lexian experiment. Still, Lex deserved an answer. Try honesty. What the hell, you've tried everything else. "I missed you."
A muscle in Lex's jaw twitched; a vein pulsed on the side of his head (which must be an annoying tell, Clark thought, since most people didn't have that exposure). Lex exhaled, swallowed - Clark must have really fazed him with that. Lex probably thought that was why he said it.
"I knew you'd figure it out eventually, you and the Batman." Lex's voice was as even as if it had been sanded down.
Clark leaned forward in his chair. "I missed you longer than that."
"I don't know what you -"
"It's not too late," Clark said.
"Sometimes," Lex said, looking down at his desk, "I think it was too late the moment you pulled me out of the water."
"Sometimes," Clark said, "I think the most amazing thing about you is your inability to accept a happy medium. You weren't born doomed, and you weren't born saved. You have choices every day. I only wish you believed that."
"I don't need your pity," Lex sniped, looking angry more at himself for losing his composure than at Clark.
"I don't pity you."
"You're not going to tell me you admire me."
Clark shook his head, wondering how Lex could think that there were only two options other than fear. "You've lived so many times when you should have died. You lived when no one else would have; you've lived when it was crazy to survive. Don't you think it means something? Don't you think you're meant for something more than tormenting Superman and dodging the law?"
"It means that I'm a freak. But you knew that already."
"Meteor mutants die all the time, Lex. I saw a lot of them die. It's not that."
Lex was silent. Behind him, Clark could see the highest part of the Metropolis skyline, the view he got when he was flying above the rest of the world. The sun was out of sight, but the light was still bright and welcoming.
Screams in the distance -
"I have to go. Emergency," he said awkwardly, unused to explaining his departures. "If you want to talk, or - anything, you know where to find me."
He thought Lex almost smiled at that, though he could have been imagining it, as he rose from his chair and Lex punched a button that opened half the wall for him.
Clark's dad was a bit set in his ways, but about one thing Clark had learned he was absolutely right: You can't make a man's choices for him. They're what make him a man, for better or worse. Clark could only hope that, for Lex, they'd get better.
End Part II
Part III: Smallville
To be loved is nothing. I want to be preferred. -- Gide
LexCorp already had the most advanced cybernetics lab outside of MIT; Lex acted swiftly to take out the qualifier. He thought it was likely that Misaki Hayashi signed on out of pity more than for the money, but that didn't bother him.
They were able to get a prototype together within weeks. It was ugly, and the fingers were too big, Clark's size rather than Lex's, but people didn't recoil from it when Lex wore gloves and long sleeves.
He was surprised how much it hurt. The interface with the remaining nerves and muscles in his forearm was direct. It was like having a ring of twenty-gauge steel needles jammed in just above his wrist. His forearm looked like a metal gauntlet had half-melted into his flesh. He had to be careful not to pull any of the wires out; he healed small wounds fast enough these days that it was a hassle to put them back in.
After about a week of practice, he was able to roll a wheelchair, shake hands, and lift weights with tolerable precision. Holding small objects and performing other random tasks of the non-dominant hand were simple. Showering was an annoyance, because he had to put on an elbow-length glove, tied off with a rubber hose, to keep the mechanism from getting wet. By the end of the day he generally had a headache to match the constant grinding pain in his arm, which pulsed as if he were holding it in a garbage disposal.
Other people lived with more pain and fewer compensations. That knowledge didn't stop the self-pity, but it did help him push it aside for most of the day.
Lex refused painkillers for the hand, though he did accept local anesthetics for his slowly healing feet. It was a good thing that LexCorp's tower was a new, ADA-compliant building, because it was still so damned awkward to get around in a wheelchair that he couldn't imagine what it would have been like in the old, unmodified LuthorCorp tower.
That was almost the only good thing about LexCorp. In his absence, his subordinates had realigned themselves into several factions, and not everyone was happy to have him return.
Lex had expected as much. It had been one of the tortures that happened naturally, without extra effort by the Joker and his people, the knowledge that his empire was flaking away from him like paper in water.
The Roman Empire's size and longevity -- still an amazing achievement -- could be traced to the absence of fast communication or transportation. The emperor couldn't just call a provincial governor on the phone or drop by via Learjet for an inspection. After a man was appointed, he disappeared. So he had to be the best, the best trained, the most knowledgeable about Roman culture and governance, before he went.
Even with modern communications, the lesson still held true. Crippling subordinates to hold on to one's own power wasn't just insecure, it was self-defeating. Indeed, his people had mostly responded quite well to his death, rearranging responsibilities to keep the company afloat. Precisely because of their strong leadership abilities, though, it was hard for them to step back into their former roles. As De Gaulle had observed, the graveyards were full of indispensable men. Too bad De Gaulle hadn't provided any advice on what to do when the grave yielded back one of her robberies.
At least Clark's story in the Planet had been flattering. Clark changed all the "I"s to "we"s in his big speech, so that Lex sounded more like a leader and less like a megalomaniac. The story made his return to power a PR coup for the company, strengthening his position both within and without. It was nice of Clark; it made Lex worry.
All in all, he'd thought it best to retreat to Smallville to recover, reintegrating himself into LexCorp, bringing the important people out to meet him a few at a time. It was a weakness to need familiar surroundings in order to stay in control. But then he'd always been indulgent of his own weaknesses, and it was only temporary.
Two weeks into his exile, Bruce Wayne darkened his doorstep. Lex picked him up coming down the drive, following him from camera to camera until he reached the front hallway. With a few phone calls to security, Lex made sure that no human confronted him on his way in. Bruce headed unerringly towards Lex's office, stopping only once, in front of a room that used to be a little museum of obsession and now held only spiders and dust.
Our problem, Lex thought, is that we have an unerring eye for secrets, but we just can't figure out what they are. If we were worse, or better, at unearthing them we might not be so angry.
At least Lex himself might not be so angry. With Bruce, it was hard to tell.
Lex had tried hard to be flattered by Clark's interest in Bruce. Bruce was like Lex, with his own infinite loop. Bruce didn't have a room where a reconstruction of his parents' murders played on a computer screen, but it was imprinted on the inside of Bruce's eyelids, and he had a whole mansion to remind him.
Bruce was even better than Lex, not just a better man, but a better symbol. Clark's childhood killed and killed again as the Kryptonite did its work, and Bruce's childhood was all about witnessing death. Lex could easily see how his immense grief would lock into Clark's guilt like a hook into an eye, the way Lana Lang's had done.
The doors to his study swung open as if of their own accord. Bruce strode in, his beautifully tailored suit damp from a spat of rain. Bruce rarely bothered with coats, even though they were useful in making grand entrances. Lex thought it was half bravado, being strong enough to resist any element, and half that he wanted as much separation between himself and a certain caped crusader as possible. Moving carefully so as not to crush his remaining fingers, Lex folded his hands on top of his desk and looked up expectantly.
If there were such a thing as a comfortable uncomfortable silence, it reigned then.
"Lex," Bruce said at last.
Lex wanted to stand, to be a little closer to Bruce's height, but maybe it was better to be trapped in his wheelchair, with a hard physical reason he couldn't possibly compete with Bruce. "Hello, Bruce. What brings you all the way to this insignificant hamlet?"
He saw Bruce fight his own ingrained dumb-playboy blankness, sincerity emerging from him like a cicada shaking free of its dun shell. "I wanted to see that you were recovering."
Lex nodded. "Your concern is appreciated. Still, you could have called. I would have told you what you wanted to know."
Bruce half-turned, looking at the little Goya hidden in the shadows, a study for Saturn devouring his children.
When he spoke, he sounded as if each word filled his mouth with the taste of blood. "This was my fault. If I hadn't gone to Metropolis, you wouldn't have attracted his attention."
If you'd killed him instead of locking him in an asylum that might as well have been made of papier-mache, Lex thought, this wouldn't have happened. Wasn't that the real failure here? Then again, Lex knew all about not being able to take the final step against the most terrible of adversaries. He'd choked twice, first with his father and then with Clark.
Lex turned away from Bruce and looked out the window at shredding grey clouds and patches of sky as blue as Wayne blood. Bruce's presence was entirely ridiculous here, where the land was flat and clean and the buildings didn't challenge the sky; he stood out like a black bear in a kindergarten. Not that Lex was one to talk - but at least the folk of Smallville were used to him.
"I'm not angry at you," he said at last. "I understand unintended consequences." The Joker's possessiveness of Batman and Gotham was like his own with Clark, and one thing Lex scorned to be was a hypocrite.
The whole thing could be summarized as a ploy to get Batman's attention. The Joker had been so insulted by being dealt with by another superhero that he orchestrated an elaborate scheme just to punish that superhero, and by extension Batman, because he'd almost surely known how Batman would absorb that guilt into his own. For a madman, the Joker was extremely psychologically astute - and yes, Lex ought to know.
There should be some sort of law of conservation of guilt, Lex thought, so that it wouldn't increase by being shared among people who took responsibility, so that it couldn't be evaded by people who were actually responsible.
He was so tired.
When he turned back, Bruce was watching him steadily, his hands at his sides, waiting like a soldier.
"I told Clark that I didn't trust you, or him." Bruce said this with an expression closer to satisfaction than anything else Lex could recognize.
Lex nodded. He, by contrast, trusted Bruce's behavior in most circumstances. (His version of implicit trust had a lot of qualifications and hedges.) He considered what he ought to say in return. Before his abduction, he'd thought that his anger could be assuaged with sufficient success - over his father, over Clark, over the people who called him a freak and laughed at the things he valued. Now, though, he thought the anger wasn't likely to go away.
Without knowing what he really wanted, he could neither lie to Bruce nor tell him the truth.
Bruce was watching, waiting for a better response, his blue eyes like Arctic ice.
"Clark and I are - still finding our way around each other," he said at last. "You're a complicating factor, one I'd prefer to ignore for the time being. If you stick with the Kryptonite you have and make no attempts to acquire more, we can maintain the status quo."
Bruce didn't look happy with that. He probably saw a sword of Damocles hanging over his head, Clark the blade and Lex the hilt. But Bruce never looked happy when he was being relatively honest.
"Look, you're never going to trust me to do the right thing as long as I'm alive, and I'm not going to die any time soon, so you need to decide what else is going to satisfy you."
"Stay out of Gotham," Bruce said immediately.
Lex was surprised into laughter, his living hand clenched on the arm of his wheelchair.
"I'll take care of the Joker," Bruce insisted. "I know I - failed, so far." It sounded as if the words had been forced out over razor blades. "You've got reason to want revenge. But I won't let that happen in my city."
If it was your city, why the fuck did the Joker elude you for months? Lex wondered. Still, he wouldn't get far in Gotham with the Batman standing in his way.
"The Joker and anyone he worked with are fair game if they leave the city," he said. When the Joker inevitably broke out of Arkham, he could reconsider his side of the deal. "And you'll actually communicate with the other do-gooders. Better coordination could have kept this from being such an enormous disaster."
Bruce nodded sharply. Lex realized that he'd asked for too little. Bruce was probably grateful to have the Justice League around, where he could keep an eye on all the most powerful beings at once and learn their secrets. He just needed to pretend to be reluctant, to strengthen the image. Well, Lex was still exhausted and shaken; he could be excused a few failures to exploit his advantages.
"We both want a better world, you know," he said, suddenly weary of the conversation.
"And you're so sure you know how to build it." The delivery managed to be affectless and derisive at once. Lex almost envied him his communication skills.
Bruce lacked ambition; he wanted time to roll backwards, and failing that, he wanted safety. But total safety could only be found in the silence of the graveyard, as Lex's mother and Julian had both discovered.
"Power is a constant, Bruce. It can be neither created nor destroyed."
Bruce shrugged, his elegant brown suit coat moving fluidly over his broad shoulders, so like Clark in size and shape but so different from Clark's careful awkwardness. "It still matters who has the power and what it's used to do."
"I can't argue with you there," he admitted and put his hand out to touch his desk, wanting to feel something solid, something his.
Bruce gathered himself, a stillness settling on him as he prepared to say words Lex just knew he wouldn't like. "Speaking of power, the records from Star Labs make fascinating reading."
Lex forced out a mild, inquiring expression. "Really? I didn't realize biology was your field."
"I dabble," he said, in a voice that was pure Batman.
Lex mentally ran through the list of names of the security consultants he was going to fire.
"You should be careful," Bruce continued. "Illegal experiments make people nervous, and I know how much your image matters to you."
He gritted his teeth. "Of course, if you've only got one shot in your arsenal, you also have to be careful when you use it."
Bruce moved his mouth into a shape very like a smile. "I agree completely."
"You know, Bruce - and I mean this in the nicest possible way - from now on, I wish you'd just stay in Gotham."
The full-on glower was less impressive without the mask. Still, if he couldn't control Batman, he could at least break through the apparent indifference.
Without further conversation, Bruce turned on his heel and left.
Lex closed his eyes, thinking about all the plans he'd had through the years. Destroying his father, gaining the adulation of millions, remaking the face of the earth itself. If he didn't think he knew how to improve things, there would be no point to existing - and that was just as true for the Batman.
Now that he'd escaped from that white room in Gotham - inasmuch as he'd ever leave, which was a matter of some internal debate - he was regaining his hope that existence did have meaning. At least, he was willing to make a version of Pascal's Wager on the possibility. If he was wrong, he wouldn't have wasted anything worth keeping.
He forced himself back to his desk, where mundane matters refused to resolve themselves just because he had conversations with superheroes.
Misaki had good news for him: The progress on the brain implant was steady. If they could get it working properly, so that it read patterns of neuronal activity indicating an intent to move a particular way, he could get rid of many of the wires and, it was to be hoped, a significant amount of the pain. Of course, it would require walking around with an electrode sticking out of his head, and he couldn't exactly keep it hidden under a mane of flowing hair, but nothing came for free.
Other facets of his existence were showing improvement, as well. The board was remembering what it was like to serve him, and most of the people he dealt with acted as if he'd never been gone. He was almost hesitant to go back to Metropolis, when having visitors come to Smallville as supplicants was working so well.
After reading the details of Misaki's latest advances, Lex turned to plans for expansion into California. With proper management and coordination, migrant workers could travel the country working on LexCorp farms year-round, with corresponding gains in productivity and profits.
Lex was just about to break for dinner when the gate guard buzzed to let him know Mercy had arrived with a man in tow.
He waited, unable to concentrate on the reports in front of him, his eyes roving over the eclectic art hung on the office walls. He'd always liked the one that looked like a starfield in royal blue, even if it wasn't old and manorial.
The office doors swung open. Mercy shoved the man and he stumbled in. His face was severely bruised, one eye swollen almost shut, but Lex still recognized him.
"What's his name?" he asked her. His voice sounded as featureless as poured concrete, which gave him a surge of pride that lasted until the man brought his chin up and snarled.
"John Thomas Collins," Mercy said.
Lex rolled his chair out from behind the desk, crossing the floor to get closer to Collins. If he could have stood, he would have gotten right in the man's face, but as it was he stayed back so he wouldn't have to crane his neck too far. The whirring of the wheelchair's electric motor was ominous in the silent room.
"You don't look as pretty as you did last time I saw you," Collins said, spitting the words out through obvious pain. Mercy liked to kick her targets in the ribs; she said it encouraged good behavior.
Lex smiled. Collins' bravado flickered for a second, then returned.
The question was, torture or swift death? Torture had the virtue of tit-for-tat, but the defect that the scales would never even out as far as Lex was concerned, so the attempt might just be setting himself up for disappointment. Swift death might be best; Lex would be left resentful, but one step closer to putting the whole mess behind him.
Collins knew he wasn't leaving the mansion. Lex could see the realization sinking in. It was in the way his shoulders twitched, the way his good eye darted around the room, looking for something that would let him get in a few good blows before he fell.
"I'd say your failure to beg for your life impressed me, if it did," Lex told him. "But I think you're just too stupid and too twisted to care. Mercy -"
She stepped closer, raising her hands preparatory to snapping Collins' neck.
There was a blur and a whoosh. Mercy was gone, the office doors were closed, and Clark was holding Collins' wrist like he was a recalcitrant schoolboy. The man was so big and bulky that Clark looked almost normal beside him - normal if you discounted the tights and cape, of course.
"Superman," Lex said wearily. He was almost tempted to use Clark's real name, but he'd kept mum for years and he wasn't going to change just for the sake of a piece of shit like Collins.
"You were going to tell Mercy to kill him."
Lex raised his eyebrows at the obviousness of the statement.
"He's one of them, isn't he? One of the Joker's."
Lex swallowed. "If you're just going to repeat information I already know -"
"Two choices, Lex. First, I can take him to the police and you can leave him to the justice system." Collins sniggered. Clark spared him an annoyed look. "Shut up," he suggested. Lex didn't see him move, but Collins' whimper suggested that Clark had done something painful.
"As attractive as that proposition is, I'm going to have to ask what's behind door number two."
"I'll kill him for you."
Lex choked on air.
"You can have him dead," Clark continued, as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing the weather - in fact, as a farm kid, he'd often sounded far more emotionally invested in the weather than he did now - "but only if you use me to do it."
Jesus. Clark - Clark was telling him to make Superman into a murderer. Stepping off that pedestal, if Lex asked it. Clark knew - it was becoming embarrassingly clear that he knew better than Lex - that Lex needed him to be the good one, the one who had uncrossable lines, so that Lex could cross them and feel assured that his ruthlessness was necessary. Lex needed balance, an immovable object to his irresistable force.
What happens to yin if yang lets go?
God, his obsession with myths and legends was fucking him hard here, what with Clark off the script, depriving Lex of the appropriate narrative models.
"You wouldn't," he said experimentally. Collins, at least, looked like he wanted to believe that, his expression truly terrified at last, a child's fear on the man-mountain's face.
"He was one of the ones who tortured you, wasn't he?"
Lex nodded without meaning to.
Again, Lex found himself speaking without a plan. "I didn't get - let's just say that after the first day, I wasn't exactly going to arouse lust in anybody short of Jeffrey Dahmer. But Mr. Collins here - he liked watching them work. And at night, when everybody else had gone home, snug in their beds, he'd sit there, one hand in my fucking guts, and -" Saying it brought the sensation back, the pain only outpaced by the absolute humiliation, the violation making the endless brutal hospital tests when he was a kid seem like coddling. His hands, glistening -
In a way, Collins' presence was a blessing; it gave Lex the incentive he needed to shut the fuck up before he lost it. The artificial hand had compressed the metal arm of his chair into a twisted twig. He let go, deliberately, and looked only into Clark's eyes. "Yes, he was one of the ones who tortured me."
"And you think I wouldn't kill him?" For the first time ever, Lex could only see Superman, nothing of Clark at all. "I'd sleep like a baby. It's up to you."
Clark, on his side at last.
Clark, taking the step from policeman to executioner.
Everything he'd ever wanted, everything he'd ever feared.
"You're playing with high stakes," he said. Clark's stance relaxed even as he spoke, which pissed him off because it meant that Clark was still ahead of him.
"You're the one who requires life-or-death drama." And that, Lex thought, was at least a return to Clark's lies of old, because Clark got as much a charge out of it as he did.
He didn't need to ask what would happen if Collins had an unfortunate accident in the prison yard. This was his big chance, and if he blew it, Clark would be lost to him forever. Only the greatest of traumas had given him this opportunity, a nonrefundable, unalterable ticket good for this flight only.
"Just - get him out of here. Before I change my mind."
Clark did, disappearing as fast as he'd arrived. Several minutes later, Mercy burst in, looking nearly miffed.
"Lex -" she said, clearly about to abase herself. She'd just begun to lose the tightness in her face, the circles under her eyes.
"Don't worry about it. You know he's not going to kill me; just stay focused on the ones who do want to. Good work on Collins, by the way."
She nodded slightly, looking unconvinced.
There had come a day when Lex had realized that he could escape the torment by giving himself over to madness. He'd been hanging over that abyss for a long time. He could have let go, unclenched his fingers - yes, ironic in retrospect - and fallen, wind-borne, into something new and strange.
Three times he'd almost done it. No devil at his shoulder, tempting him, no scent of brimstone in the air under the blood, but three very bad days. He hadn't even begged for it to stop because he'd screamed his throat raw and probably couldn't have formed coherent pleas in any event.
Dissociation, he'd known, would be permanent, a suicide of mind if not body.
Twice he'd rejected the option, knowing - not believing, because belief implied the possibility of doubt - that Clark was going to come for him.
But one night, looking down at his chest, marked with a grid like he was being tested for allergies rather than for his response to various corrosives, the knowledge that Clark was on his way had lost its meaning. There had been only the now, the body, the knife. What he once thought, wanted, feared - all irrelevant, because all depended on the existence of some person over time, and he'd been ripped from time's grasp. The pain was now was forever. Was this Lex Luthor? This thing, raw and seeping, no boundaries between it and the edges of the world? How could it be?
Whatever was left of him had decided to live in the pain. Not in hope, not in faith. Life, blind and seeking. There was no reason. He didn't refuse madness; there had been no "he" to do so. The madness had looked at what Lex had become, and in that stillness - the heart of light, the silence - it had slid away from him, indifferent. It had passed him by as if his disintegration had made him invisible.
Back in Smallville, his body had often gone on fighting past the point of hope or reason, and in the Joker's abbatoir it seemed that his mind had joined that blind struggle. Neither mind nor body seemed to have much connection with what Lex thought of as himself. His soul was separate, and didn't have any control over what mind or body did, which maybe was proof that he didn't have a soul.
After that, he had fought even when he didn't really want to, struggling hopelessly, ceaselessly, cutting himself open on the restraints before any of the minions could do it for him. On his next visit, the Joker had seen that Lex had traveled through some undiscovered country, and he'd been delighted. He'd wanted to know what had been the trigger, so much that he'd let Lex heal enough to talk.
When Lex had proved incapable of explaining to his satisfaction, the Joker had become truly inventive.
Ten days later, Clark had arrived.
Two days after Collins, Clark came back. He actually checked in with the guards at the gate this time, waiting patiently while they checked with Hope, whose emotionless mask was flawed only by the twitch of the muscle in her jaw when Lex told her to let Clark come to the office.
Lex had time to send a few last messages and put away the reports on the agricultural division's five-year plan before Clark arrived.
When he pushed open the doors, even though he was dressed in crayon-bright colors, Lex couldn't help but remember all the times he'd come that way before. Smiling, frowning, brooding, blushing, asking for something only Lex could do for him. Lex had always looked forward to that, to confirm he was good for Clark. It would have been normal to resent being used as a vending machine, a car for a smile, but Lex was used to pay-as-you-go relationships, and it was only money. Clark's material wants had never been the problem. It was when the tickets and mortgages weren't enough any more that things had gone sour.
He opened his mouth to ask what he'd done to deserve the visit, but Clark beat him to it.
"Lex. I've been thinking - God, it seems like it's all I think about, now that you're back. I want to try again. I want to be your friend."
Well. That was - abrupt. Classic Clark, and really, why fritter away precious minutes on pleasantries that wouldn't be pleasant with all their history hanging over each word?
Clark looked so out of place in this opulently appointed room, each object with a pedigree and a certificate of authenticity. No longer wrapped in cheap flannel, he was hidden behind his artificial colors and his technologically distorted face, and even so he seemed more familiar than any of the antiques Lionel had bought.
Yet Lex remembered why he'd bowed out of this dance so many years ago. Clark's moves were clumsy and tended to leave bruises, and Lex's steps involved too much humiliation even for him.
"We've been down this road before, Clark, and let's just say it was a road paved with the very best intentions." He could live without Clark, he knew, but not with him always just out of reach, and that was what friendship meant to Clark.
"I was fifteen, Lex. Cut me some slack - meeting you was like being pulled up to the major leagues to pitch against Sammy Sosa after only ever playing T-ball. And my parents didn't even let me play baseball."
"I'm not even going to touch that simile," he said, buying time to figure out how to react. "Maybe you were too young - I admit I put a lot of pressure on you - but now we have that history. We can't start over."
"No, but maybe we can -"
Whatever they could do was lost in the howl of the perimeter alarms, loud as a tornado and twice as worrisome.
Lex hit a few buttons on the control panel by his desk and portions of the bookshelves slid aside. The screens they revealed showed different views of the mansion, interior and grounds both.
Men were converging on the mansion from all sides, pouring out from nowhere like a plague of ants. They must have been preparing for days, digging in just outside the grounds - in the sky, helicopters were circling like vultures, doubtless waiting to disgorge more troops.
Clark was staring at the images, looking as surprised as Lex felt.
The cellphone wouldn't work, nor would his secure land line.
What the hell --
The answer came to him like a lightning strike.
While he was gone, certain people at LexCorp must have been concerned for the company's future, with its founding father gone. They would need to reassure their best customer that the firm was still a valuable partner. Therefore, they would have made deals with the government, extremely advantageous deals that Lex had always refused for reasons he had never bothered to explain to anyone else. He'd always assumed that he'd be in control, because he was arrogant and overconfident, and he'd certainly never thought that he'd come back after being gone, so he hadn't planned on what to do if the government came into a large supply of Kryptonite.
At least he had some generic plans.
The computer system was still working, though he couldn't count on it lasting much longer with the hackers the government must be employing against it. Quickly, he tapped in commands, setting timers and activating defenses.
All across the grounds, automatic sprinklers popped up and began to throw out arcs of liquid, glistening in the sunlight. There wasn't much at first, but it built up quickly, coating the ground. Some of the soldiers tried to dodge it, but others just ran through.
And fell down.
LexCorp's military contracts included one for the Mobility Denial System, a translucent goo with the friction coefficient of wet ice. A layer of the stuff would stop a man from walking, stop a wheel from turning, even turn a helicopter's landing into a death slide. That was the theory, anyway; this was going to be the largest-scale test yet.
It was almost enjoyable to watch trained killers get turned into re-enactors of the Three Stooges' slapstick as they struggled to stand, to get a grip on their gooey weapons, even to get on hands and knees while the MDS continued to pump out.
But there were dozens of them inside the mansion already, so all he'd done was limit the immediate threat.
His attention was drawn back into the room as Clark staggered, looking nauseated. "They have a lot of Kryptonite," he said. "Even with the new suit, I can feel it."
"I don't know how much they got from LexCorp," Lex said. "If it's the whole supply -" and if it was, heads would roll - "it's something over eight tons."
"Eight tons?" Clark repeated.
"Now is not the time for recriminations. Get out of here," he told Clark. The order was pro forma; it was silly to suppose Clark would comply.
Nor did Clark bother to respond. Typical. Lex thought of saying that they were obviously here for Clark, and that if he left, they'd have no reason to harm anyone. But he wasn't sure that the claim would be correct. Some analyst might actually have noticed all those Superman-Luthor summits and concluded that Lex was a possible hostage. Lex hated the idea of being a mere tool to get someone else to behave. Even the Joker had done better by him in that way. He wasn't going to - okay, so he was going to take it sitting down, but by God he was going to orchestrate some punishment for the insult.
Lex struggled to think.
"Do you know how to shoot a gun?"
"I grew up on a farm, Lex."
As if it had been a stupid question, as if Clark's superpowers hadn't made guns puny by comparison. But it sounded as if Jonathan Kent's traditionalism prevailed, which in this case was a good thing. Lex went to a cabinet on the side of the room and keyed in his code. The door popped open. He took out a shotgun and held it out to Clark.
"I'm not using that."
Fucking pacifist. The Kents should have called him Ferdinand, like that wimp bull in the kids' book, Lex thought as he dumped a box of shells into his lap and prepared to wheel himself out to defend his property.
The box disappeared, as did the gun. Lex looked up to see Clark bend the barrel into an L-shape. "You're not using that either. These are American soldiers."
Lex stared at him, wondering how he'd survived this far.
"What do you suggest we use? Sarcasm?"
"You're well-supplied, at least." Clark had folded his arms over his chest. Even with greenish veins popping out over his face and hands, he looked resolute. And the pose made his arms look amazing, no matter how annoying it was otherwise. "That goo can't be your only defense."
"Yes, I was planning on supplementing with a shotgun." If Mercy wasn't with them by now, she was unlikely to break through any time soon. She was under orders not to kill any federal agents, which was most likely cramping her style.
Clark looked towards the ceiling. "They've set up a perimeter, with air support. I won't be able to fly out without getting close enough to the Kryptonite to be vulnerable. And they're bringing it in, shrinking the globe."
Lex could see it in his mind, a glowing green force diagram.
"Real globe or half globe? Can you tunnel out?"
Clark blinked and glanced down. "Yeah," he said, eyes widening in surprise.
Just goes to show it's a mistake to use half measures, Lex thought, and bit down on the quip.
"What are you waiting for?" he demanded.
"Could you be any more annoying? Don't answer that."
Clark stepped away from Lex. In the blink of an eye, the carpet was rolled up and left at the side of the room. He began to twirl. Blue and red blurred into a miniature tornado, which threw up a cloud of wood shavings and other debris. Lex raised his hand to shield his eyes, wondering why exactly Clark had bothered to protect the carpet.
As Clark sank into the floor, Lex saw the office doors begin to shake. The soldiers must have arrived, despite the gas and other assorted party favors in the halls. It was a bad day for the mansion's structural integrity, he thought with resignation, though he hoped that his own structural integrity would suffer no further insults in the near future.
Lex drew a deep breath, preparing to deal with whoever came through the door. He expected a lack of humor matched only by an absence of imagination; he could work with that.
Just as the door burst open, the tornado whirled back out of the hole in the floor, like a swarm of killer bees on speed. Lex felt himself being lifted and slung over Clark's shoulder.
He put his hands over his head; Clark was decent at keeping him from bouncing off the ragged edges of his newly created tunnel, but bits and pieces were still crumbling around him, and he was spattered with dirt and stone fragments.
Lex couldn't tell how far they went underground. They came up in a featureless cornfield. Clark paused to look around.
"They're too far away to track us," he said. "I want to take you to my Fortress until we figure out how to deal with this."
They were over an ocean before he realized that Clark had said "we."
The Fortress of Solitude was amazing. Electronic sentience - quantum computing, maybe. It was able to fabricate a wheelchair for him almost instantaneously. Lex wanted to take it apart and see how it worked. Given how annoyed it seemed at his presence - talking in Kryptonian to Clark until he ordered it to speak English, even - he guessed that it could sense that desire in him.
After a recap of the situation, Lex requested some time to work. Clark, after a sharp Kryptonian exchange with the computer, headed up to the Justice League to talk to his colleagues.
Lex checked his cell and was pleased to see that it was working. Either Clark's computer was helping it out, or the advertising was really serious about worldwide coverage. He dialed Hubert Grossman.
"Mr. Luthor," Hubert answered on the first ring.
"How much Mineral X did you transfer to the government?" Lex asked.
He could just about hear Hubert blanch. "Half our - half the supply."
"First, have the contracts emailed to me. Second, remind me to hold a meeting about absolute power, and why LexCorp should be the only entity that possesses it. Third, I'm going to need an extensive cleanup at the mansion in Smallville. And the DoD is going to be calling, in something of a huff. They don't get a refund."
Hubert sucked in a breath. "Yes, Mr. Luthor."
"Yes, Mr. Luthor?"
"I'm not angry. You all did the best you could with the information you had. But Mineral X is off the market now, and it's going to stay that way."
"They demanded - we needed to reassure -"
It was almost disconcerting that he could get Hubert, of all people, this upset. Hubert was usually smoother than Sinatra, even when Lex was raging. Perhaps there was something special in his tone today. "I'm not angry, and there will be no reprisals. It's been a rough few months for us all. Just have a clean-up team at the mansion as soon as possible, and we'll say no more."
He hung up without waiting for confirmation. Hubert was a good man, and Lex didn't need to hear him squirm.
"Hey, computer," he said to the empty room. "I need to check my email."
Clark came back looking even more worried. Lex guessed that the League had been less than united in determining how to respond to the US military's desire to capture one of their own.
"The bad news is that the transfer of title of the Kryptonite is completely legal," Lex told him, wheeling his chair around so that he could face Clark. "And even if it weren't, all the government is legally obligated to do is pay LexCorp the fair market value. So our options are: steal it back, neutralize it somehow either physically or strategically, or negotiate a deal."
"The military wanted me to hunt people down and kill them," Clark said. "That's why I decided to form a nongovernmental organization in the first place."
"Were they bad people? Never mind," Lex said before Clark could start a lecture. "Stealing it back is risky, but it's more likely than not that Hope and Mercy can do it, especially with the entire payload being kept in the same place so it can overpower you."
"People would get hurt," Clark said.
He nodded. "Most likely. Second option: To neutralize it strategically, we'd need to have something to threaten the government with if you were harmed. Mutual assured destruction."
Clark just looked at him.
Lex sighed. "Right. To neutralize it physically, I'd need access to the remaining Kryptonite at LexCorp, and at least three months in the lab. I'd be lucky to succeed in that amount of time, unless you know something about its structure I don't."
The computer decided to jump in. "Kryptonian technology can neutralize small amounts of Kryptonite, but the energy requirements are prohibitive on a larger scale."
"Prohibitive?" Lex asked, perking up, already imagining the reactor he could build.
"In order to render four tons of Kryptonite harmless using the known method, the energy output of your sun for approximately three hundred years would be required."
Okay then. Regretfully, Lex pushed aside the idea of cold fusion for the moment.
Clark turned and leaned wearily against the wall, folding his arms in a way that looked more defensive than usual. "We tried negotiation. The President wants assurances that I won't give the League any further assistance or take any action in any foreign country without his permission and that I will aid the US to the best of my abilities in whatever capacity I'm asked to. I asked if the prohibition on going outside the US would include helping out when natural disasters struck, and he said yes."
Lex felt a headache coming on. "It sounds like you'd better take me back. Given a few days, I can get some Kryptonite samples and set up in one of my labs. They won't be able to find me." He didn't want to be a fugitive. He wanted to be a CEO, with minions rushing to do his bidding, a private chef delivering sushi any hour he wanted to eat it, and a wine cellar that was the envy of the French premier.
It was still better than being back under the Joker's control, he reminded himself. And playing with Kryptonite was as much fun as it was possible to have while clothed and sober, so it wouldn't be all bad.
"And I'm just supposed to stay here for three months, or however long it takes you?"
"I haven't heard any suggestions coming from your side of the room, Clark."
"Kal-El," the computer said.
Lex looked around, wishing there were an avatar he could see. It creeped him out when voices came from the walls. It made him feel crazy, and he didn't like that.
"I could interface with Lex Luthor and create a virtual environment in which subjective time would flow orders of magnitude more quickly. Results could be expected much more quickly."
"Can you accurately simulate Kryptonite?" he asked.
"I believe so," it said, its tone managing to imply that he was silly to ask.
"Simulation only works if you understand the properties of the substance, and if you did there should be no need for -"
"Unless you comprehend the principles behind my quantum simulations, you should not make pronouncements of that nature."
Lex swallowed, feeling too much like Job getting told off by God. It still sounded unlikely to him, but the AI was correct that he was applying Earth science to what might as well be Kryptonian magic.
Clark was looking at him, worried.
A mind-meld with an alien entity that had evidenced a certain amount of hostility to him, not without reason - Lex should be leery, too. But curiosity was his curse and his blessing. "I'm willing to try it, at least for a while," he said.
"You won't - do anything to him," Clark said.
"The interface will require numerous biomechanical connections," the computer replied. Lex winced, thinking of his mechanical hand. Well, he was already a cyborg of sorts.
"No," Clark continued, "I mean, you won't try to alter his thoughts or his motivations. Will you."
Lex stared at Clark. "It can do that?"
Clark shrugged uncomfortably. "Remember the summer before my senior year of high school?"
"I think I was in a coma." Lex smiled, to indicate that he didn't blame Clark, which was almost true.
A muscle twitched at the corner of Clark's jaw. "Well, the computer was still in the caves. It - tried to indoctrinate me. So I'd be ready to rule the world."
"This just gets more reassuring."
"If you will it, Kal-El, I will do nothing that will not facilitate the resolution of your current problem with Kryptonite."
Clark looked over at Lex; Lex looked back. "Is that good enough for you?"
"It is if you reword it. I don't need any extra motivation. I'd like to go home as much as you would."
"Okay," Clark said. "Link up with Lex, but don't do anything to change the way he thinks except make it faster."
"Very well," the computer said, and if it couldn't be annoyed, it was doing an excellent imitation. "Approach the console, Lex Luthor."
Lex turned back to the station he'd been using for email and related tasks. He closed his eyes, steeling himself for another assault on his person and psyche. He didn't expect the computer to make the experience pleasant.
He pushed the wheels half a turn, until he bumped up against the edge of the desk-protrusion. He missed being able to stand. He felt so much more out of control like this.
"Put your hands on the surface in front of you."
He could feel Clark's nervousness, thickening the air. "Clark, you'd better go - get kittens out of trees, or whatever you do for fun. The computer will contact you as soon as we know anything."
"Okay," Clark said. Lex couldn't resist turning his head to watch the door swish closed, leaving him alone in this white featureless room, pristine as a clean room in a microchip factory.
"There may be some discomfort at first," the computer warned, as silver and white filaments crawled out of the desk like worms and writhed onto his hand and his forearms.
He fell into pain, like falling through a sheet of glass.
He shredded into tatters, screamed without voice, and reassembled in the same white room. All sensation was gone, as if his entire body had been replaced by prosthetics, a virtual Tin Man.
When he looked down, his hands both looked human, and his feet were encased in normal shoes rather than the sterile cages he'd been using.
Experimentally, Lex stood. He could feel pressure, and after a moment of disorientation some simulation of inner-ear balance kicked in, so he took a step away from the chair.
A door in the wall whooshed open. Clark had watched too much Star Trek, Lex thought.
"How would you have me configured, Lex Luthor? A log cabin, perhaps?"
Okay: Snark, acceptable; mind-reading, somewhat less so.
As if to emphasize its power, the computer made no comment. Lex walked through the door into a lab similar to one of his own.
"I have accessed LexCorp's files and made them available here."
Lex gritted his teeth and proceeded towards the glowing green mineral spread out across a tabletop like a galaxy of fatal stars.
"Let's get started," he said.
He had no sense of time, no cramps, no hunger, no tense neck or aching feet. Every time he thought about taking a break, the impulse disappeared, which ought to have worried him, but there was enough to worry about with the recalcitrant Kryptonite. It refused his attempts to master it, defeating every countermeasure he devised with contemptuous ease. He'd known for years that it responded to human thought. Its molecular structure was protean, and as his drive to destroy it intensified it seemed to respond in kind, bending and dodging his attacks like an aikido master.
Eventually, despair set in. "It's not going to work," he told the computer. "Let me out so Clark and I can consider alternatives."
The computer didn't respond. Lex looked around the shadowless lab.
"So it's like that," he said unnecessarily. "I should have known."
He returned to work, not from any hope of success but because he couldn't sit quiescent while there were still things to learn about Kryptonite. It was a marvel, a shifting, fractal construct that defied every rule of Earth physics and chemistry.
Lex composed a parody of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" as he worked, wondering whether he would spend a thousand years inside the computer, or whether only minutes had passed. He should have asked how much faster time would run in here than outside.
He should have asked for a panic button.
After some time, he passed through despair to boredom, thence to what he imagined was Zen-like calm. Kryptonite had a subtle, elusive beauty, like an oil spill on seawater.
He could be happy like this, he realized at last. There were no other demands - just this one impossible task, and he'd accepted his failure there - there were no disappointed ex-friends or greedy would-be spouses. No Joker, with his laughter and his colors and his whispers of all the things that Lex was and could never be. No knives, no fires, no assassination attempts, no scurrilous editorials in the Planet, no sleep and thus no nightmares, no graves to visit and no sneers to ignore.
It was an island paradise, without the maggots and malaria, without wondering how he'd been betrayed and who'd betray him next. And when he talked to an empty room, there really was someone else listening.
Clark was a distant worry, the Fortress's problem now. Lex was making new strides in chemical analysis, Nobel-worthy discoveries shed like chaff as he played.
He set up the three-thousandth-odd particle bombardment. At this point he was varying speed and angle more for amusement than because the difference was likely to produce a new outcome. As he watched, he felt - content. The closest analogue he could think of was the lassitude after sex with Desiree, his first and in many ways his best wife.
The Kryptonite fizzed and dissolved into orange-white sparkles.
"What the fuck!"
Immediately the experiment was replaced with a new sample. The computer, unheard for who-knew-how-many milliseconds, bleated, "Replicate the process."
Lex snarled and pressed the button to send the same particle streams.
"What --?" he said, bringing a hand up to rub at his temples. For a fraction of a heartbeat, the world went dark - but then everything was the same, and he wondered if he'd imagined it.
"Additional power has been diverted to the emitter. Repeat the process," the computer suggested.
He did, and this time the Kryptonite flared and disappeared as if a Star Trek transporter had grabbed it.
"The Justice League has identified the location of the stored Kryptonite. Your controls now are targeted towards it."
Lex nodded and punched the button one more time. It was anticlimactic in the extreme, without even an image of the Kryptonite in its no doubt heavily guarded bunker. (Lex sincerely hoped that the government had been using lead shielding. Mutated soldiers, with training and access to weapons, would be even worse than regular mutants.)
"The operation was successful," the AI announced. "Prepare for disconnection -"
The world disintegrated around the edges, white to gray to black.
He opened his eyes to Clark's concerned face, inches away. He was slumped in a chair, his neck aching slightly from having been at a bad angle. Automatically, he straightened and put his weight on his feet to stand -
He looked down.
"I had the Fortress help you heal while you were under," Clark said. Lex's gaze whipped to his right hand - which was human again, just like in the simulation.
The technology that could work such miracles would revolutionize medicine, but Lex couldn't bring himself to care about that now.
"Thank you," he said as he tested his restored fingers, hearing the tremble in his voice, like being a kid again, so grateful for scraps that Clark threw him - only this time, the gifts were valuable by anyone's standards.
"It's - I wanted to do something for you. Since you pretty much just saved my ass."
He could feel the hard smoothness of the console in front of the chair, feel it with real skin and nerves, not computer-transmitted signals. "It was my pleasure."
When he looked at Clark again, Clark was smiling, still looking at Lex's restored hand. "You have nice hands," he said, then blushed, apple-bright.
"I never thought my favorite part of that sentence would be the plural."
Now Clark's smile was wryly lopsided as he looked up at Lex, his head tilted flirtatiously so that his eyes were only half-visible. "Life really hasn't turned out the way we expected, has it?"
Lex shrugged, moving muscles that were tight from inaction. "Expectation is a mistake. It leads to disappointment."
"And disappointment leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side ... Wait," Clark said, and this was just plain teasing, nothing subtle about it, "I think I got my aphorisms mixed up."
Lex smiled a little, to show that he knew he'd been caught. "Care to give me a lift back to civilization?"
Clark's face fell, his lashes lowered to cover his shining eyes. "If that's what you want."
He swallowed. "Well, I wouldn't mind a guided tour of an alien artifact first. And then maybe a snack."
That restored the smile, the same careless-bright one he remembered from Smallville. The one he never saw any more, not even when he looked at pictures of Clark receiving yet another award for his journalism. Superman smiled, usually at children, but there was always something distant about it, and that wasn't Clark's face anyway. Lex had thought he'd remembered that smile, but seeing it again made clear that he'd forgotten how it could make even this cold white room blaze with sunlight.
"Come on, then," Clark said, extending his hand to Lex, who took it with bemusement, standing up on feet whose wholeness felt even more bizarre than his renewed hand. His first steps were a little wobbly, which might explain why Clark didn't let go for several seconds.
The Fortress of Solitude - whose name Clark managed to say with a straight, unblushing face - was enormous, full of galleries of lost Kryptonian culture and rooms of mysterious equipment that made Lex's hands long for a toolkit. The floor was slick and translucent; the air was chilly, but the gleaming walls were somehow insulated so that when he pressed his palm against one he felt only the promise of cold and not the ice itself. He couldn't stop touching as they went, whether it was the holograms of alien animals or just the blank hallway walls, using both his hands. Clark noticed, he was sure, but didn't comment.
He learned more than he could immediately process about Krypton, the House of El, and the decisions that had sent one baby boy off into the ether while the rest of the population died with their exploded planet. Lex had little hope that humanity, which couldn't even learn from its own history, was going to do better absorbing the lessons of another lost world, but knowledge was never worthless.
After the tour, Clark took him back to the room he'd worked in before, where the Fortress had set a table and prepared a meal. If it was synthesized, Lex didn't know and didn't much care, since the food was uniformly delicious. He ate nearly half as much as Clark, which was a sign of true hunger on his part, while Clark told him about his years struggling to master his Kryptonian heritage without succumbing to his father's schemes for world domination.
No wonder Clark had hated Lex's fights with Lionel so much.
Dessert and coffee came. Lex was sorry to reach the bottom of his cup, but he had to get back to the world sometime. Outside of the Fortress, Clark's priorities would diverge from his own, and they'd be back to the struggle - one that Lex would inevitably win, he knew, but it still would sting to have Clark shouting out his accusing questions while Lex was just trying to make a recalcitrant world run better.
"You look - sad," Clark said, interrupting his musings. Lex looked up, into eyes as open and apparently trusting as a puppy's. He felt a twinge of pain in his chest, then an insulating anger at Clark, for pretending that time could be rewound.
"I should really go home," he said.
Clark closed his eyes for a moment. He was so very beautiful, his mouth with its perfect bowed curves, his skin rose gold, every plane of his face a new dimension of perfection, like a temptation conjured up by Mephistopheles for Lex's Faust. If only there were some Devil with whom he could make a deal - but Clark was on the side of the angels, and therefore as far away from Lex as he could get.
"Okay," he said, and opened his eyes, catching Lex staring. As Lex watched, Clark's eyes widened and his lips parted, just a little, not smiling but poised to speak. "No," he said after a moment. "It's not okay."
Lex stood up, pushing his chair back, and Clark did the same. He walked around the table so that there was nothing between them but the years.
"Clark -" he began.
"Shut up," Clark said, desperately. "For once, please - shut up."
Clark's hands on his shoulders were bruisingly hard, but his lips were feather-soft. Lex leaned into the kiss, letting Clark hold him up, opening his mouth and tasting coffee and Clark, Clark's tongue moving in him like he was conducting an inspection preparatory to taking over completely.
Lex realized that his eyes were closed, but he couldn't bring himself to open them, in case this was one of Clark's experiments. His hands nonetheless came up to stroke across Clark's chest, the slippery fabric of his uniform featureless and frustrating, denying him access to that golden idol's skin he'd seen in too many surveillance tapes.
Clark broke the kiss, leaning his forehead against Lex's. Lex could feel Clark's breath, hot against his wet mouth. He could feel his own pulse hammering, his heart lurching to keep up with what was happening. He could feel his fingers clenching as they failed to get any purchase on Clark's body, the Superman costume resisting his every attempt.
"Look at me," Clark said. His voice wasn't Clark Kent's. It was commanding, devoid of nuance, painted in primary colors.
Lex refused to shake his head. He stood so still he could feel the slight air currents of the Fortress brushing past him.
"Lex," Clark whispered. "Lex, this really doesn't work without you. Look at me."
Slowly, Lex opened his eyes, seeing at first Clark's madder-rose lips, his straight nose, his raven's-feather lashes.
The fact that Clark's skin was pale and his eyes were strained with fear shouldn't have reassured him. Any more than he should still have wanted Clark after all these years. Lex had never been good with 'should.' "It's all right, Clark," he said, forcing the words through a throat that felt blocked with baling wire. He raised his hands to clasp Clark's cheeks, away from the hateful costume, warming himself with the heat of Clark's skin. Clark's hands circled his wrists, holding him lightly.
This time, Lex was the one to bring their lips together, brushing from side to side, feeling the energy between them build like static electricity. Eventually, another touch, no different from the others before it, ripped away his control like the last grain of sand triggering an avalanche. He was clawing at Clark's collar, hanging on like a man fighting not to be swept off a ship in the middle of a storm, and Clark was just as fierce, one hand tight on Lex's wrist as the other came up to clasp the back of his neck, swinging them around so that the back of Lex's thighs bumped against the table.
"Take it off," Lex pulled himself away long enough to demand. "Take that outfit off and let me touch you." He didn't give Clark a chance to respond, just took his mouth again, lost in the feel of skin on skin, tongues meeting and parting, the graze of teeth like the rocks on which sirens led sailors to shipwrecks. His thumb grazed across Clark's Adam's apple - or whatever the equivalent was for someone whose ancestors were never expelled from Eden - and found a pulse under the corner of Clark's jaw. It leapt in time with Lex's own.
Clark pushed him up until he was sitting on the table, his legs splayed to accommodate Clark rubbing up against him. Clark let him go long enough to do something that made the cape fall heavily to the ground, then pulled off his uniform top. The movement left his hair tousled, curls sticking up at odd angles. His eyes were heavy, darker than Lex had ever seen them. He couldn't look away, and was forced to rely on his hands to tell him about Clark's body, bulkier now than in the past, perfect curves that no mathematics could describe, skin like satin, smooth as water, hot and solid and completely there. More than Lex had let himself hope for in years.
At some point, Lex had lost his clothing too, the table cold against his naked back, almost uncomfortable where the knobs of his spine hit the clean white surface. Not that he cared, with Clark bearing down on him like he wanted to melt into Lex's skin.
His legs moved against Clark's, like being underwater, not quite close enough yet, with Clark still half-dressed. He pushed at the waistband of the suit, but it didn't want to move, didn't want to give him access to Clark.
Clark's hands smoothed down his sides, over his hips, his fingers kneading as if he planned to reform Lex into a better shape. Lex arched up, grinding into Clark, and Clark's big hands palmed his ass, making him grunt against Clark's mouth. Then he was off the table entirely, Clark holding him up effortlessly as he wrapped his arm around Clark's neck for balance.
When he landed on a bed, he wondered whether the AI enjoyed watching them as it provided for Clark's needs, but he was hardly one to complain about witnesses.
Clark licked and bit down his neck, over his chest, pressing Lex down into the mattress every time he made an effort to reciprocate, so Lex relaxed as best he could and let Clark explore, offering verbal encouragement where appropriate. His mind kept wanting to throw up barriers between himself and the experience; he struggled to just feel, his head tilted up at a nearly painful angle so that he could watch Clark work his way down. Mostly he could only see Clark's hair, and the occasional flash of mountain-green eyes as Clark looked up, but he couldn't have mistaken Clark for anyone else. He carded his hand through Clark's mussed hair, thick and soft as a cat's fur. When Clark tongued his navel, his hand clenched automatically, and Clark made an approving sound.
He seemed taken with the hollow of Lex's hip, running his tongue over Lex's skin again and again, ignoring Lex's feeble attempts to move him further down. His hands rested heavily on Lex's upper thighs, keeping them spread and pinned. Lex meant to call him a fucking tease, but the words wouldn't come out, only half-moans.
Finally, finally, Clark shifted a little, moving to lick his balls and the base of his cock, simultaneously letting go of Lex's left thigh and pushing a miraculously slick finger into him.
Lex screamed before he could stop himself; when he covered his mouth with his wrist to stop a repeat of the sound, Clark batted it away with a casual violence that made him even crazier. Now Clark wasn't holding him down at all, but he was still pinned between Clark's mouth and his finger - fingers, as Clark added another, curling them up and jolting Lex with a wave of electric pleasure.
Clark trailed the tip of his tongue up Lex's cock, pausing at the tip until Lex craned his neck down to meet Clark's eyes - they were glowing, Lex realized, and his mouth fell open as Clark licked the head once and then took sucked him down. Heat - this was Clark! - pressure driving him up, up, into that wet suction -- Clark! - could kill him in an instant, rip him apart with a twitch of those long, knowing fingers - after all this time, better than he'd ever imagined - could tear his flesh from his bones with just his breath, but instead just sucking, sucking at him with what felt like vigor but had to be the most exquisite care - "Clark!" he cried out, and came in pulses like lightning in a dark summer sky.
By the time he could tell that he was seeing the white ceiling and not afterimages of his own ecstasy, Clark was stretched out next to him on the bed, pressing salty kisses into his mouth, their sweat-damp skins brushing and parting with soft wet sounds.
"Can I fuck you?" Clark asked.
Lex wanted to laugh, but Clark's open, trusting expression made something twist in his chest, so instead he nodded, watching the molten colors in Clark's eyes with amazement.
Clark pushed his legs up so they could be face to face, looking to Lex to make sure that it was all right before he took his cock in hand to guide himself into Lex. The sight of Clark's big golden hand wrapped around his big thick cock was enough to make Lex's whole body tremble, even though he wasn't going to get hard again any time soon.
They both watched - pressure, a throat-clenching moment of panic as Lex flashed on what this might mean, then the sensation wrenched him back into the present as Clark pushed inside, a slow inch and then another, then a smooth thrust until their bodies were locked together, Clark inside him as far as he could go.
Clark pulled back a fraction, then in again, staring down, concentrating the way Lex had always concentrated on Clark's mysteries. Lex wanted to watch, too, but his attention was caught by the flexing of Clark's muscles, his arms rippling like Michelangelo's Dying Slave, his flat stomach moving with every thrust. Lex's own sensations were almost irrelevant.
"Lex," Clark said softly. He looked up, and with his eyes locked to Clark's, suddenly he was fully present in his body again, feeling Clark's cock in his ass, feeling the slide of his legs along Clark's side, the brush of his heels against Clark's back.
"Lex," Clark said again. He pulled Clark into a kiss, clawing at his back, rocking up into him, wanting to be closer in any way possible. Clark's hands moved up, covering his ears, holding his head in an inescapable grip.
Clark was grinding into him, his hips making small circles that would have made Lex scream if he'd had the breath to do so. As it was, he hung on to Clark's shoulders, his hands slipping off and then returning to that slick skin as Clark fucked him. Fucked him slow and hard, sweat beading on his temples and dropping down on Lex's face, making the sound of their bodies meeting into something obscene and moist. When Clark pulled his mouth away from the kiss, Lex could only look up in awe, the bright white light surrounding Clark's head like a halo, Clark's eyes wide and shocked, his hair stuck in sweaty black spikes, his face gilded with sweat, panting with the effort of breathing life back into Lex, fucking it back into him.
"I never stopped wanting you," Clark said - or maybe Lex did - and his eyes closed as he thrust once more and came, roaring. Lex could feel him, inside and out, only him. Clark wasn't taking over every atom of Lex's being, because that had happened long ago, but he was reclaiming his territory, and Lex was eager for the restoration.
Eventually, Lex started to straighten his trembling legs, prompting Clark to pull off of him and roll over on his back, splaying one arm over Lex's chest and twining their legs together so that they wouldn't truly be parted. The arm felt as heavy as if it were made of gold.
He ought to be figuring out what came next -
"Stop thinking," Clark said, his voice a satiated rumble.
Lex looked up at the featureless ceiling, white as clouds in sunlight, and let himself relax. Clark's breathing beside him was loud and regular. It had been years since he'd shared a bed with anyone, preferring to be gone as soon as the sex was over.
He felt like he was floating, his body heavy yet buoyed by whatever power made Clark able to fly.
He'd been working so hard, so long - even before he came to the Fortress to be Clark's personal mad scientist - that now that he was at rest, he couldn't imagine wanting to start again. The most effort he was willing to make was to turn his head, so that he could see Clark's profile, the only color in the room - not that he needed the contrast to stand out.
When he moved, Clark looked over at him, still glowing like the corona of a star. "How do you feel?"
"You have to ask?" Lex smiled at him, then dragged a hand up to brush Clark's hair off his forehead, enjoying the contact even though he was almost too exhausted to move. "I could stay here forever."
"Mmm, good," Clark said, turning into Lex's touch, his arm moving from Lex's chest as he curled against Lex's side. "Hit the light, will you? There's a button on your side."
Lex reluctantly turned away and saw the button on the wall. Weird, but there was no reason to expect that alien technology would follow human patterns. Not trusting his tired fingers with the task, he reached up and pushed with the palm of his hand, exhaling with satisfaction as the darkness fell.
The world exploded.
From night to searing light, from quiet to howling discord, from giddy floating to cramping ache - the experience redefined pain, and given what Lex had been through in the past months, that was saying a lot.
He tried to scream for Clark, but his mouth didn't respond.
New novas exploded at his groin, his nose and throat - catheters and tubes coming out, he realized, and retched as they slithered away like dying snakes. The convulsions left him slumped to one side, unable to straighten. Every muscle in his body screamed. Lex felt his eyes try to tear up, but they were too dry and only stung instead.
He was just coming disconnected from the computer.
There had been no victory with Clark, no reconciliation, nothing.
He'd been under the AI's spell all this time, wrapped in its clutches like a fly in a spider's web, getting his vitals sucked out. Tuned like a balky piece of equipment. All so he'd achieve the right mental state to manipulate the Kryptonite into annihilation.
The pain of his nerves coming back to life was spectacular: worse than the feeling of having a morning star shoved into his guts when he'd been poisoned, nearly as bad as being flayed because it was so random, impossible to brace against. If he'd had his hands around a pistol, Lex honestly couldn't have said that he wouldn't have shoved it in his mouth and pulled the trigger, just to end the agony.
As it was, his hands - hand! Fuck, he'd forgotten - flopped around as muscle fibers contracted and relaxed at random, his arms bumping against the now-quiescent console. He'd just been getting muscle tone back after the rescue, he recalled.
"How long -" he said, or meant to say, but the words turned into a wheeze that evolved into a choke. He got himself under control, disgusted to find that his mouth was crusted with dried saliva, and tried again. "How long was I out?"
The computer answered, which was a small mercy. "Just over seven days."
He could, he realized, smell himself.
"You lied to Clark. You said you wouldn't manipulate me."
"I said I would not change the way you thought. Nothing was said about context or emotions. It was necessary. You could not have produced the required affect yourself once you were aware that contentment was the necessary mental state."
It was true: the computer was the Devil. Maybe the Devil's lawyer. So now Lex was a stinking, pathetic mess in withdrawal from a pleasure as pure as any rat with an electrode in its head ever experienced.
He was glad the AI could no longer read his mind, now that the connection was severed. At least, he thought it was unable to do so. He'd have to make Clark check.
And later, there would be a reckoning.
"Kal-El approaches," it warned him. Which would have been nice, if he could have done anything but loll in his chair, wanting a drink and a bath and, hey, how does happiness sound?
He managed to twist his head towards the door when it whooshed open. Clark looked smug, as well he should with his most dangerous nemesis responsible for the destruction of his one real vulnerability.
"Lex!" he said happily. Then he got a good look at - or possibly a good whiff of - Lex and frowned.
"Water. Drink and shower," he clarified, looking at Clark's cheekbones rather than his eyes. His voice sounded like a stream trickling through a dry gulch, but Clark nodded in comprehension.
Clark strode over to him and picked him up like a bridegroom doing the threshold bit. That got old really fast, in Lex's considered opinion. His remaining clothes grated against his skin, the fabric trapped between him and Clark.
They went into the next room, which had been reconfigured into a palatial bathroom. At this point, the humiliation was as close to complete as made no difference, so Lex didn't protest as Clark put him on a tiled bench, unbuttoned his sweat-filthy shirt and pulled off his ruined pants and boxers - another thing to curse the damned computer for, that it had destroyed fine Hong Kong tailoring when it stuck its tubes into his private places.
Clark blinked away and back, now holding a glass of water, which he held to Lex's lips as he knelt beside the bench.
Lex took a small sip, then a larger one when his stomach allowed it. A few gulps later, he let his head loll back against the cool porcelain-analogue.
"I think that's my line," Clark said wryly. "Shower?"
Lex's sluggish neurons fired a warning. "I need to cover my feet and my hand." In the midst of the cacophony of bodily pain, the screech of his stump and the deep bass throbbing of his feet had been lost initially, but they were returning to the forefront of his attention.
"Oh. Right." Clark looked miserable. Lex wanted the energy to snort disdainfully; he settled for keeping his eyes open. "Hang on." This time his absence lasted long enough for Lex to take several deep breaths. He returned with what looked like genuine surgical tape and plastic bags. The gentleness - Lex's mind hesitated on the word "reverence" - with which he handled Lex's body made Lex want to curl up and hide.
He was going to have to depend on either Clark or his AI. But only one of them was going to survive the year if Lex had his way, so the choice was plain. "I can take care of this part myself," he said when Clark was finished.
"Right," Clark said, flushing. "The Fortress can get anything you need. I'll, uh, be outside."
"Can I get a showerhead with a flexible hose?" Lex asked the room when Clark had gone. Obligingly, a large, circular piece of wall detached and blossomed towards him like a metal sunflower. Lex managed to get a grip on it, and then to turn the water on.
Even a slow trickle felt like a scouring pad against his oversensitive skin. After a few minutes, though, his much-abused nerves began to confuse pain and pleasure. There was soap in a little depression in the wall near him, extruded while he wasn't looking. Lex used it as vigorously as he could, to wit, not very vigorously. He displayed all the manual dexterity of a Parkinson's patient with broken fingers, and counted himself lucky to do that well. When he'd come out of his post-meteor coma all those years ago, his hands had been like rubber; he was a little better at resurrection now.
When he was as clean as he was going to get, he turned the water off. Without needing to be asked, the Fortress made a dry space in the bench beside him, which then slid aside to disgorge a white terry robe. He noted with some amusement that it bore Superman's crest on the upper left.
So the infernal machine had its good points. He was still going to destroy it for colonizing his will - all the more because it could fairly claim that it hadn't violated Clark's instructions, since it hadn't tampered with his motivations. Lex could forgive lies. Betrayal was only to be expected, whether from humans or aliens. Trickery was another matter. It smacked of his father and his devil's bargains; it made him complicit in his own exploitation.
"Could you tell Clark I'd like to see him?" he asked, politely. The computer might suspect his enmity, but there would be no evidence for it to report to Clark.
After a short pause, during which the entire room reconfigured itself into something more like a general living area, Clark returned.
"Have you heard from the government yet?" Lex asked, leaning forward as he stripped the plastic covering from his artificial hand.
"Yeah," Clark said, with a sudden, mischievous smile. "They're pretty upset. Something about an act of war. I said I wasn't interested in war; I just want to be left alone to help people."
"To be fair, Clark, you do a lot of property damage."
Clark grimaced. "So you've pointed out to the press. Repeatedly. At length. Listen, I've got no objection to working with cities on emergency response plans that get the bad guys as far away from population centers and important buildings as possible - but that's not what these military jerks wanted me to do.
"Also, in my defense, the bad guys tend to choose places because of the people and property they can put at risk - it's like blaming the firemen for the fire because they're always found together."
Lex thought that Clark was overlooking the way his cape operated as a red flag - pun intended - to villains looking to make names for themselves by taking on the Man of Steel. This, he was convinced, was why Metropolis's Rogue's Gallery resembled nothing so much as the lineup for WWF Raw, silly names and all. But they'd both stated their positions on the matter before, and he didn't want to fight at the moment.
"Regardless," he said, glad to have a problem outside his own skin as a distraction, "with their supply of Kryptonite depleted, wiser heads are likely to prevail. It's changed from a military to a political problem, which is to your advantage - and mine, since it means I can go home and get back to running my company."
"Uh, about that."
Lex closed his eyes and turned his face away. Every time he thought he'd hit a new low, he discovered that he'd just bounced off a ledge on the way down. "Yes?"
"Nothing bad! Just, the computer's been emulating you, so nobody even knows you were gone. It's also prepared a bunch of patent applications based on the stuff you did while you were in the simulation."
Lex blinked. "Really." He was still going to dismantle the thing and piss on its pulverized circuits - but maybe he'd wait a bit.
Clark looked at him with an expression altogether too smug.
"So what now?" Clark's face was as close to trusting as Lex could remember seeing it. As if he were interested in Lex's opinion.
Lex had forgotten how that made him itch, the expectation (or hope, anyway) that he'd be a Good Man and not a Bad one. He'd never liked to do things he wasn't competent at doing. He'd never even been fond of acknowledging the existence of such things.
He looked away, at the computer console. "Now we get in touch with the American government and see what happens."
The computer let him call his Pentagon contact, who quickly transferred the call several stars higher up. Eventually Lex reached General William Rogers, the man in charge of what the military liked to call Special Projects and everybody else just called "superheroes."
"Good afternoon, General," Lex said after checking the time in the Eastern seaboard. "I hope you're well."
"Let's cut the bullshit. You just destroyed material vital to national security. You betrayed your country."
This might be fun. "That assumes that Superman is an enemy of the American people, which has yet to be demonstrated. His actions suggest the contrary, even during the past week when his life was in danger from your 'material.' But," he barreled on over the general's outraged huff, "now isn't the time for speeches. We need to work out a way for you and your good men to go back to fighting the real threats."
"What are you offering?" the general asked warily.
Lex leaned back in his chair. "I'm authorized to grant the US priority access to the League -" he held up his hand to forestall Clark's protest, so there was only a rustle of cape - "and exclusive updates on League activities worldwide. The League can't wait for your authorization - metahuman threats happen too fast for that - but it can consult and inform, providing you with an invaluable source of intelligence. And frankly, General, the League is far more popular globally than America is, or than it would be if it were commonly understood to be an American operation."
There was a pause. Lex expected the general was getting his superiors in the loop.
"You hate Superman," he said at last. "Why would you take his side against your own country?"
"What I feel about Superman is irrelevant," Lex said, though "inexplicable" was probably the better word. "If he and his teammates are treated well, he can be a tremendous force for peace. If he's mishandled, he might just decide that humans are too irrational to govern themselves, which has been my concern all along."
There was a long pause, and when the general spoke, he sounded like he didn't want to. "The Justice League has some advanced technology at its disposal. We'd want a technology transfer agreement as well."
"And I want to be President, but that's not going to happen today," Lex responded easily. "The League can agree in principle to discussions of what technology might be suitably shared, once some trust has been rebuilt. Say two years from now?"
Another pause. If Lex had read the general correctly, he was telling various people on his end to shut up and let him negotiate, because they damn sure weren't going to be in a better position in the foreseeable future.
"A year," Lex said, keeping most of the amusement out of his voice. "Consider it an anniversary gift."
"We need to be able to initiate contact."
"Naturally," Lex said. "The League takes sovereignty seriously when it doesn't get in the way of saving lives. I'm sure reasonable requests could be accommodated."
"Then I suppose we have an agreement," the general said. "The League has the United States' permission to operate within our territory and outside as long as the United States is kept advised on a priority basis and entitled to object to any operation on national security grounds."
Lex's lips quirked; given that the whole point was to allow the government to save face, he didn't think it would be useful to respond to the idea that the US could object to any operation with "So can I, or so can any man."
"In addition," Richards continued, "the League agrees to negotiate in good faith on technology transfers starting one year from today, and not to share technology with any other nation without first offering the United States the same technology."
Lex guessed that complimenting the general on his clever addition to the agreement would go over badly, and the League could afford to agree to that anyway. "Then we have a deal," he said.
Behind him, Clark sighed.
"You planned this," the general accused, sounding as if he'd just had an insight. "You planned this for years, pretending to oppose him so you could screw us over."
Lex smiled. There was a special pleasure in beating someone who remained ignorant even in defeat. "The League will be in touch about setting up a communications protocol."
"Are you happy being a traitor?"
He stopped smiling. "I wish you wouldn't call me that."
"What are you going to do, send Superman after me?"
"The Justice League doesn't make threats, General, but I do. Keep this attitude up and you'll find this conversation and all necessary background material distributed so widely you'll hear your voice on ESPN.
"Superman is more popular than God - if you'd killed him, you might have survived, but you didn't, and if this gets out you won't be allowed to command a Boy Scout troop, let alone an army. Now suck it up, say 'Thank you, Mr. Luthor,' and get ready to shake Superman's hand for the cameras, or prepare to be responsible for the first ever successful impeachment and conviction of a president."
Lex let him sit for a minute, long enough that he had to be considering just hanging up. "General?" He knew he sounded jovial.
"Thank you, Mr. Luthor," General Rogers said with remarkable evenness.
"Thank you, General. We'll talk again soon."
He cut the connection and leaned back in his chair.
That was a good start. Lex swiveled, looking up at Clark's wide eyes and parted lips. "Now you just have to get the League to go along. It should be easy - every human is American, and how you managed to convince the world that you're not CIA tools is a mystery of its own, but they should all fall in line behind you."
No response. Clark was almost frozen, though Lex could see the rise and fall of his chest.
Clark shook his head, like a big dog coming in out of the rain. "You're just - really sexy when you're kicking someone's ass. I never had the chance to notice when you were trying to kill me." He smiled, cheerful and teasing.
Lex had never really expected to kill Clark; if he was worthy, he'd obviously survive whatever Lex threw at him.
It struck him that he was using his father's reasoning.
Maybe he didn't want to be attractive because he was threatening.
Lex relaxed his clenched hands - or tried to; the artificial one stuck and then released with such a savage jolt that he made an involuntary noise.
"What is it?" Clark stepped closer and put his hand out, almost touching Lex's arm.
He fought back the grimace, relaxed the muscles in his back and shoulders, and looked up, wishing he could stand. "I'm fine," he said. "I'd like to go back now, Clark."
"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," Clark said, withdrawing his hand and putting on his Superman expression, detached and so judgment-free it was actually judgmental. On consideration, Lex thought that was the closest the real Clark had ever come to an apology. And - uncomfortable? Lex reviewed the conversation - right, smart and evil is sexy.
"You didn't," he said, because Clark hadn't, at least not in the way that he thought. "I would like to get back to the world. I'm sure the Fortress creates an excellent simulacrum of me -" from what Lex could tell, it was a lot more like him in its desire for control than Clark even knew - "but I would feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings."
Clark nodded, looking much like the uncertain boy of yesteryear. "But - can you do anything about Lex's hand?" he asked, ignoring Lex in favor of his computer.
"The interface can be redesigned so that it no longer causes nerve damage."
Lex winced to hear the problem described so bluntly. If his body weren't so freakish, the nerves wouldn't regenerate to be fried again, Prometheus-like. But then he'd be long dead, so he supposed that it was as fair a bargain as a Luthor could expect.
"Then do it," Clark said.
Before Lex got a chance to object, the console dissolved into a tangle of grasping tubes and wires, slithering up his arm like vines on a statue. "Wait," Lex snapped, to no avail. "I don't want your computer having continued access to my body. My left hand is going to know what my right hand is doing."
"The modifications can be autonomous," the computer said, as if it had any business offering an opinion.
"Okay, do that," Clark said.
He tolerated the reconnection. There was pressure, almost tickling, and cool metal circuitry pressing its fingerprints into him. He wriggled his arm just to make it hurt. The computer promptly clamped down on him to prevent further movement. Clark, meanwhile, was on the other side of the room now, talking softly - to someone in the Justice League, judging by his cajoling tone.
When the mare's nest of tubing shriveled away, the artificial hand was smaller, the size of Lex's real hand, and the gauntlet had been shrunk and reformed into a silvery cuff covering where his wrist should have been, overlapping the ends of the long bones of his forearm. It looked real, not the uncanny near-humanity he'd feared the Fortress would stick him with.
It didn't hurt.
He flexed experimentally, spread the fingers wide and then curled them in. "It's very good," he told Clark, who'd finished his conversation moments before.
"The pain is gone?" Clark asked anxiously, returning to Lex's side. He squinted at the hand, presumably using his broad-spectrum vision. Which, when Lex had figured it out, had explained in retrospect a number of Clark's dopier looks, though by no means all of them. What Clark hoped to see in the mechanism was an interesting question. Lex didn't know whether he could detect individual nerve impulses. It was one of the many, many mysteries of Clark's alien origins. Lex thought he could spend the rest of his life exploring Clark's physiology, and not even in an obscene way. The flying alone -
Clark had asked a question. "It feels remarkably lifelike," he said. His word choice could have been better; Clark winced. "Thank you," he added, to clarify his opinion.
"No problem," Clark said, practically shuffling his feet.
So they were back to awkward.
Lex supposed it was marginally better than homicidal.
"Shall we get going?" he prompted.
"Sure," Clark said. "Uh, there's kind of two ways of doing this. I call them 'sack of potatoes' and 'honeymoon.'" He said it without looking at Lex's face.
"'Sack of potatoes' sounds extremely undignified, but honeymoons have rarely gone well for me. What's your recommendation?" Lex thought his tone was reasonable, but Clark cringed fractionally anyway.
"'Sack of potatoes' probably is beneath your dignity," Clark agreed. "You, uh, might be more comfortable the other way."
"Well, then," Lex said, as reasonably as possible under the circumstances, "what are we waiting for?"
Clark used his superspeed to minimize the embarrassing process of getting Lex properly positioned. Lex found himself whipping through icy air, one cheek pressed against Clark's shoulder. Tears streamed from his exposed eye, forced out by the cold and the speed. He was held so that he couldn't see how far away they were from the ground, which on balance might have been a good idea.
He was flying. The enormity of it could only be grasped in short flashes.
Clark, now wearing his Superman guise, accelerated so fast that Lex could feel the gravities piling on like stacks of weight, and then they were simply rocketing through the sky like a definition of speed. Lex grinned, curling his arm around Clark's neck (ignoring the flash of false memory of doing the same thing in the computer simulation), and turned his face so he could see the cloud vistas in front of them.
He should have known Clark would take him to the mansion in Smallville. Clark stopped in the air a few yards from the perimeter, looking in with dismay. "Lex, it's kind of - I forgot how much damage there was," he said, embarrassed. Up close, Lex could tell that he still flushed easily - whatever alien technology he used to distort his features had no effect on the blood flow under his skin.
"It's all right," he said, his face still stiff from the chill of their passage. "If my bedroom is intact and the satellite connection is working, I'll stay here. The place is big enough that half of it could be under repair and I'd never notice." He did hope that most of the art had survived. Insurance money was fine, but it couldn't be contemplated and cherished in the same way.
Clark narrowed his eyes; Lex noticed how thick and long his lashes were, like an antique doll's, a houri's in an opium dream. "The bedroom is fine. And the satellite link is working. But - there are people in your library. Oh God," he said, his eyes widening almost comically.
Lex didn't have to wait long.
"It's Bruce and Lois. They're talking." Clark paused and his voice filled with horror. "It's like a nightmare."
Lex couldn't help himself. He sniggered.
"Just for that," Clark said, "we're going to meet them like this." And in a blink, they were in the library, Lex in full helpless rescue victim pose.
"Put - me -- down," he said, his voice pitched for Clark's ears alone. Bruce and Lane probably heard, though. It was that kind of day - no, that kind of year - no, lifetime.
Clark carefully, slowly walked over to a blue leather couch - Lex was going to have to speak to whoever did the redecorating - and lowered Lex until he was sitting almost normally, Clark still leaning over him with a solicitous air. He was facing Lane and Bruce; behind them he could see the railing, looking down over the remains of the office, which was covered with the yellow police tape that was almost as familiar to him as crystal decanters and ancient weapons.
Lex slung an arm across the back of the couch, arranged his legs in their most arrogant sprawl, and raised his eyebrows at the man and woman staring avidly at Clark.
"Can I help either of you?"
They looked at him like something stuck to the bottom of Superman's boot, and while Lex didn't disagree with the opinion, he nevertheless objected strongly to others who dared to hold it.
"We were - " Lois Lane began.
"I was - " Bruce said, then clearly remembered that he was not in costume and, understandably rattled by his lapse, switched to feckless playboy mode. "The lovely Ms. Lane and I wanted to see -"
Lex had to smile as Bruce struggled to finish that sentence in a plausible way.
"The government comes down on here like you're David Koresh and Saddam Hussein combined, and then total radio silence? I knew there'd been some major fuck-up. I wanted to make sure Superman was all right and that you haven't done something to warp his mind," Lois said. "I don't know what Bruce's deal is - the two of you have some sort of billionaire boy's club, or what? Anyway, I'm here, give me the story."
"Are you sure you're feeling all right, Ms. Lane? Because if you think I'm going to give you any kind of assistance -"
"Oh come on," she said, striding over and plopping herself down on the couch next to him, their knees inches apart. "You gave Clark an interview and you hated him more than you ever had reason to hate me. It's my turn."
Lex was aware that his mouth had dropped open. Not much, but still. Evidently staying away from Lois Lane had been a wiser idea than he'd even known. He was aware of Clark, standing sternly over his shoulder, probably gloating.
He'd just stared down the US government. No way was some muckracker going to intimidate him, no matter how fucking scary she could make sheer determination look. Anyway, he needed to deal with Bruce. "Superman," he said, not turning to look back, making clear that he was supremely confident that Clark would do whatever he suggested, "why don't you take Ms. Lane down to the kitchens, get her some coffee and tell her the story as it ought to be reported? Bruce and I do have some business to discuss." Not that he knew what Bruce wanted to chat about, but it was all about the appearance of control.
Lane's eyes flicked upwards, fast as a switchblade. She frowned, but rose to be closer to Superman's level. "I'll decide how the story ought to be reported, thanks, but I'll be happy to hear your version of it first."
"What admirable commitment to the truth," Lex said, almost under his breath.
She rolled her eyes. "Like you'd recognize truth if it ripped off its clothes and danced the hootchie-cootchie in front of you. Come on," she said to Clark. "Like the man said, use that X-ray vision of yours to find me a cup of coffee."
In the doorway, when Clark was already out in the hallway, she paused and looked back. "Later for you," she warned, and Lex was nearly shocked to see that she was aiming for Bruce.
Who looked - was that actual fear, or just a perfect simulacrum? And did it matter, in the end?
"The hootchie-cootchie," Lex repeated, caught between astonishment and relish, as the door slammed closed on her retreat.
"That woman is a menace," Bruce replied. "Why did your security let her in?"
"I could ask the same of you," Lex pointed out. "What did you need to say that couldn't have been said on a secure channel?"
"She said she was thinking of doing a feature on Gotham - does she know?"
Lex guessed that he was talking about Clark/Superman. He was enjoying watching Bruce shake in his black leather boots far more than was nice.
He had rarely been so glad not to be nice.
"My guess is yes, but she doesn't admit that she knows even to herself. I call it Superman-induced multiple personality disorder. But unfortunately it's not a testable hypothesis. And the point of your visit?" he prodded.
Bruce shook his head, gathering his composure. "I needed to see how far the two of you have gone."
Lex brought his hands together, his elbows resting on his knees. It was a little odd not to be able to rest any weight on his feet, but he could pull off the pose regardless. "That's more than usually cryptic, even for you."
"You destroyed the one thing that can take him down, if he ever gets out of control."
He thought about that before replying. A man less controlled than Bruce would have paced while waiting for Lex to speak, or stepped closer to convey a sense of menace, but Bruce just stood there with his arms crossed over his chest. Lex could imagine him in full costume in the same pose, like a shadow over his features. It was a stance that improved in impressiveness with gauntlets and some sort of chest symbol.
"I didn't destroy all of it," he said, "and I won't. He understands that there has to be balance as well as you and I do."
"But under your control, not the government's."
Lex shrugged. "Of course. Not to mention the other bits and pieces you've got squirrelled away, so don't pretend you're now helpless."
Muscles shifted in Bruce's face, but the resulting expression was just as stony as the original. "Batman asked me to bring the communication device the government wants Superman to use. He's disabled the tracking chip and attached a device to spoof the location when it connects to the satellite network."
Lex was impressed despite himself, both by Bruce's technical facility and the completeness of his paranoia that he might be overheard. "I'll give it to Superman." He held out his hand. "What, you think I'm going to add spyware of my own? Either Superman would find it because he mistrusts me, or he'll tell me voluntarily, so I have no incentive to do that. Not to mention that I have plenty of sources in the military."
"I don't trust either of you."
"You keep saying that. In my own life, when I kept announcing that to the world, I was looking desperately for someone I could trust. You'll do better if you're aware of that - you couldn't do worse than I did, anyway."
This revelation had the unexpected benefit of making Bruce even more uncomfortable, judging by how he stiffened as if the Gorgon had just flashed him.
"Come on," Lex said, and gestured with his open hand.
Slowly, Bruce removed what looked like an ordinary cellphone from his pocket. Lex had to lean forward to take it, and even at full extension almost fumbled it out of his fingers - one of Bruce's little power games, but Lex's father had done worse every day before breakfast, so Lex didn't mind.
Bruce was staring hard at Lex's false hand, now braced on his upper thigh for balance. Lex wondered whether Bruce had on him any equipment sensitive enough to discern anything about the machinery. If so, Lex really had to talk to his own researchers about the importance of being ahead of the competition. Maybe he should incorporate a jamming chip into the hand.
It was almost funny, to be recovering from a trip to perfect happiness only to be confronted with Bruce. If the Kryptonian AI had needed to rely on Bruce to achieve the appropriate mental state, Clark would be dead now.
Of course, it had yet to be proven that Lex Luthor could survive happiness, either.
Lex closed his eyes and sighed. "We're a long way from making your worries of a world-conquering alliance materialize. And with you around to pester Clark, I doubt he'll fall headlong into any of my schemes."
Bruce made a noncommital noise. Lex supposed that was an encouraging sign.
When he opened his eyes again, Bruce was gone.
Lex allowed himself a small smile. With Lois Lane in the building, Lex couldn't blame Bruce for running.
Against all expectation, Clark returned without Lane. Lex didn't ask what he'd done to make her leave. "She's gone?" he asked. Clark nodded. "You looked?" And because Clark had worked with Lane for years, he did scan around. This time, when he nodded, Lex believed him.
Lex let his exhaustion show, slumping back into the couch and closing his eyes. "Any more surprises lurking around, or are we done for the day?"
He heard Clark's awkward steps towards him. "I didn't see anyone else. Uh - should I take you upstairs? So you can get some rest?"
He nodded. He didn't open his eyes when Clark picked him up. The computer simulation had been incredible - Clark even smelled the same.
In the bedroom, Lex refused to be awkward about the fact that Clark was lowering him onto his bed. He sat up, careful not to put any weight on his feet, and picked up the phone by the bedside. Clark began to retreat as he dialed Mercy's number.
"Stay," he said, putting the receiver against his shoulder to mute it. Clark stopped, his body rigid and uncomfortable.
Mercy answered immediately, her voice clear but still obviously wounded at losing him twice in such rapid succession. He assured her of his status and location and asked her to make sure that the repairs in his office were given the highest priority.
Clark stood frozen in his hero's suit, reminding Lex that ancient Greek statues of the gods were originally painted in the brightest colors; it was only time that bleached them white.
At the end of the conversation, she said, "I'm glad you're safe," in such a rush that it was a struggle to understand her, then hung up before he could process the statement.
It was wrong of him, he knew - when had that ever stopped him? - but he seriously hoped that Mercy wasn't developing a personality at this late date.
Stress could make people behave strangely, as he well knew.
Clark was still doing his impression of a mannequin, standing on the Oriental carpet like an enormous action figure.
"Can I offer you a drink?"
Clark twitched, setting the cape to fluttering, and shook his head. "No, thanks. I should really -"
Away from the AI, Lex felt more himself. He missed the sun-sweet happiness it had put in his head, but he could put it aside. Clark could always drive him to distraction, and distraction was certainly needed. "Please, sit." He patted the bed beside him, and received a wide-eyed stare in return.
"You said you wanted to try this friendship again. Having second thoughts already?"
Clark closed his eyes, perhaps praying for strength. Then he crossed the floor, flipping the cape carefully out as he sat so that it pooled on the bed behind him. Lex smiled a little at the evidence that Clark wasn't as ignorant of image as he wanted to seem.
The cape was even brighter up close, red like something out of a fairy tale -- myth blood.
Clark looked over his shoulder, following Lex's gaze. Against the carefully neutral colors of his bedspread, the cape looked unreal, as if Clark were an animated character in a live-action film.
"I know we don't really have any catching up to do," he said, to start things off. "But if there are things you want to ask me - or tell me - I'd like to hear them."
The bed creaked as Clark shifted. His hands, framed by the blue of the suit as they rested on his thighs, were perfectly human.
"Friendship," he said at last. "It wasn't just that, was it?"
Lex shook his head. Fantasy was one thing - having believed in the AI's illusion was another. It was difficult to speak to Clark as if he'd never felt Clark's naked skin against his own. He kept having to remind himself that the memory was just another lie. It was minimal comfort to know that Clark had felt the attraction too, once upon a time.
"So why didn't you - why didn't we ever --?"
"Maybe because you can't do it if you can't say it?"
Clark rolled his eyes. "You know, I'm pretty sure I've fucked more people than you have at this point."
That stung, but he'd deserved it. "By the time you were legal, I wasn't sure you liked me that much."
"I was your best friend!"
Clark shifted, turning to face him, but Lex refused to meet his eyes. "You know, I really dislike your self-deprecating sense of humor at times. Anyway, it wasn't like you weren't used to sleeping with people you didn't trust."
Lex's lips twitched as he looked up. "Really, Clark. Surely you can grasp the idea that I didn't want that from you."
"But - " he protested, wide savior's eyes looking at Lex with a disturbing combination of bewilderment and faith.
"I misused your friendship," Lex admitted. "I didn't really expect you to forgive me for investigating you. I expected the lies. I half wanted them, to remind me that no one could be trusted. I kept pushing, knowing it would drive you away - which proved to me that you weren't really my friend after all. It's humbling to realize that one's psychology can be reduced to the most basic insecurities, but the truth is generally a lot uglier than I want it to be. There wasn't room in my life for honesty, and if we'd slept together, that would have been honest. It couldn't have been anything else."
Clark nodded, and Lex thought that he did understand, after all. Their bodies couldn't have lied when their mouths could barely sustain the pretense; touch would have exposed every artificial constraint they'd put on their interactions.
Lex tilted his head, as if looking at Clark from a slightly different angle would give him the insight he'd always lacked. "Now - we discovered each other's secrets a long time ago. Maybe that's enough to justify a new start."
"So you still - I mean, I thought you probably still cared, because of the surveillance and everything," he frowned briefly to indicate that Lex had tested his patience but was forgiven, "but I didn't know what you were feeling."
"What I felt when I watched you?" Clark was too close for this conversation, bright and real and only a few feet away. Clark's nod forced him to continue. "You know what I wanted." The carpet was thick wool, black flecked with white and purple, like river stones. The sin of pride, he recalled, was associated with the color purple, which though beside the point was a more comfortable thought than dealing with Clark right now.
Clark's hand on his upper arm challenged him to look over. And, like a Pavlov-trained dog, he turned to see.
Clark was smiling, a slow secretive expression that made La Joconde look blatant. "You're the one who started me reading philosophy, stocking up quotes to tell people when I didn't want to use my own words. There was this French guy who said, 'Jealousy is in some measure just and reasonable, since it merely aims at keeping something that belongs to us, whereas envy is a frenzy that cannot bear anything that belongs to others.'"
Lex stopped breathing as he tried to parse Clark's logic. From friendship to jealousy - not that it had ever been a great distance, for Lex. "So," he said, as careful as he knew how to be, "should I be jealous or envious of Bruce?"
Clark's face lit up like a solar flare. He was the boy from the bridge again, shiny and new. "You should be jealous. You should be very, very jealous."
Hope, a great white bird spreading its wings, moved in him. "Good. That's - good." He suspected that his expression was completely fatuous, but Clark wasn't going to call him on it.
If he was still in the AI's simulation, he thought, he was going to rip it apart with his hands and teeth, and then cut his own wrists.
"Did you watch us, Lex?" Clark's tone held neither the ingenuousness of Clark Kent the reporter nor the utter righteousness of Superman. Lex swallowed, a habit he'd thought conquered.
"Answer me," Clark demanded, bringing his face close to Lex's. "Did you watch? You had to guess I knew about the cameras. Were you hoping I was performing for you?"
"You know I was." Lex didn't recognize his own voice, desire-broken.
"Wouldn't you rather have me in three dimensions?"
But wasn't that what Clark had always offered, shimmering in the distance, if he'd only behave himself according to Clark's standards? He'd hurtled towards that superior mirage too many times before, watching it recede as he sped up. "We're still not on the same side." He'd felt more secure when they were flying, defying nature's law. This - Clark - refused to settle into a pattern again, refused to be something he could predict and use and brace himself against.
"We could be. I don't want apologies; I want you to listen before you act, and I'll do the same. That's how it can work, if we're serious about it."
It was the matter-of-factness of Clark's statement, more than anything else, that made Lex want to believe him. "And what do I get for that concession?" Lex's blood was thundering through his body; he had to fight to keep from swaying towards Clark.
Defeating Lex's self-control, Clark leaned forward, his eyes all the colors of Earth. "Do you want a list or a demonstration?"
"I want everything," Lex breathed. Clark's mouth was centimeters away.
Clark closed the last distance between them, and Lex learned to hate the AI all over again, for taking away his first time.
But the touch of Clark's lips was nothing like what the computer had imagined for him. There was warmth and pressure, lush never-chapped lips softer than any human's. Nothing was physically different from the illusion he'd had before. What was new was the sense of the world turning around them, as if this moment were a fulcrum, sending his life onto a new vector. He could feel every cell vibrating with Clark's. He reached up and twined his fingers in Clark's hair, which was thick and prickly to his human hand, softer to the machine. Clark opened his mouth and Lex shuddered, letting his head fall back as Clark's tongue invaded, explored, took him over.
"Fuck!" Clark yelped and pulled back, nearly losing his balance.
"What? What?" Lex pushed himself half upright, ignoring the protests from his feet, fully prepared to humiliate himself to keep Clark from leaving.
"I have to go deal with a big flood in Sri Lanka. Just got a message from the League," he explained as he stood up. "But I should be back in a few hours."
"I - I'll be here," Lex promised.
In less than a heartbeat, Clark was sitting next to him again, breathing into his ear. "Just think about this while you wait: All the things you watched me do - you haven't seen the first part of what I'm going to do for you."
Lex wasn't sure what expression was on his face, but it was satisfactory enough that Clark grinned victoriously and stood. It was a hell of an exit line, Lex had to admit.
"This is going to be a feature of our relationship, isn't it?" Lex asked the empty air.
Many thanks to tireless beta readers: Cassandra (who liked Lois!), CJ, and Caroline Baker. Title, summary, and "deeply resentful" taken from Batman Returns. Hey, I liked Michael Keaton in the role.
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