by Koi

Rating: NC-17

Disclaimers: Just passing through.

Warnings: Futurefic. Dark waters ahead.

Shoulders of Giants Announcement: Inspiration from stories by Sarah T., Te, and especially Fayjay. Though they shouldn't be held responsible for where I spun the concept off to.

Summary: What is truth?

"Oh, the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone;
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on."


Five years old. The light coming on. He stayed quiet on the floor behind the Directoire desk; there were only two people who might come in this room, at this hour. Never show yourself, never reveal, until you're certain.

Two steps on the parquet floor and he knew. But he still didn't move. Light steps, light shoes, a faint hint of Dior fragrance that would hit him like a Proustian sledgehammer in later years, ruthlessly flinging open the closed books of his memory whenever he was near it.


He made a sound, then. He hadn't wanted to, but she called, and he answered. That was how it worked.

She stood behind the desk a moment, then pushed the big leather Daddy-chair away and got down on the floor beside him. "You've been crying."

"That's why I'm here," he said, reasonably. His voice still had the hollowness of one who'd sobbed his soul out half an hour before.

She nodded, then opened her arms, and he climbed into her lap. "It's all right to cry."

He looked at her doubtfully. He wouldn't call his mother a liar, but...

"No, it is. But it's a private thing. And you're right not to let... anyone... know when you do a private thing."

"You know." Always logical.

"All right." She smiled. "Then you mustn't let anyone know who isn't worthy."

He nodded, and let his head rest against her as she stroked his hair. Five minutes went by; a long time in other places, but he never felt the need to talk around his mother. Then he said, "Mama?"


He twisted his head around to see her. "What if no one's ever worthy?"


There had been the initial shock, of course. Lex believed that the only way to win was to face the ice-cold spray of truth at all times, and he would not pave this part of it over. Yes, he'd been shocked. And shaken.

Horrified. Intrigued. Betrayed.


He touched the hurt mentally, playing with an aching tooth; it was still there, but he could put it in perspective.

The greater shock, of course, had been the upsetting of his world-view. Like an old Victorian play he'd seen once where the wall of the library kept rotating, confusing a character who'd turn and see a shelfload of books replaced by a row of torches and weapons.

Or more like a horror flick, where the nice-girl victim suddenly pulls off her rubber mask and raises a chainsaw.

He and Clark had met for dinner that day at Belle Claire's, the only restaurant they both loved, overlooking the harbor. Even then, Lex had wanted a private booth in the balcony, and Clark had wanted one of the tables in the center of the action. "Don't make me yell at you," Lex complained, over the volume of conversation downstairs.

"Is that a threat?" Clark grinned. "If you want to imitate my Mom, you've gotta add 'Clark Jerome Kent' to the end."

So Lex had grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him through the mass of people to the stairs. And though Clark made his usual protesting noises, Lex noted he was smiling. Somehow Clark never tried to stop himself from being hauled to places he claimed he didn't want to go, at least when Lex was doing the hauling.

Once they were seated in the balcony, Lex said, "See? You're unnaturally tall enough to see over the side anyway. You can look down from this Olympus on a cleavage wonderland."

"I didn't come here for cleavage."

"No? Why did you come here?" Lex unfurled a blue linen napkin, feeling a smile form.

"I came here so my friend could tell me why putting 'reporter' on my career placement card is a bad idea."

"It's not my place to tell you anything of the sort, Clark."

"Yes, it is. I know you don't want to push me, but I also keep getting these vibes from you like the three witches in Macbeth. 'Don't do it, Clark! It's a mistake! The stage will end up littered with corpses!'"

Lex laughed. "God, I never should've encouraged you to take drama."

"I just mean, you can tell me anything. I won't be mad. I'm your friend."

He took a breath. "You can do anything, Clark, and be a success."


"But a successful newspaperman "

"You did."

"I'm a freak, Clark, I'm talking about real people." Clark opened his mouth.

"Close it, I'm not finished. Besides, I cared about money as a process, not a reward. I like to create it, move it, put more of it in my bank account than other people's. Encourage research, productivity -- "

"Wow, and we were even talking about me."

"Bastard. That college has ruined you. Most people care about money for the material things it buys -- and no, don't bring up the cars here, because I'm going for a point." Clark looked properly chastened. Or he would have if not for the smile. "At your age, living in a walk-up with its own wildlife and not having enough money for new underwear seems romantic. That will pass. The day will come when it will get on your nerves, and you'll look at your options."

"And they would be...?"

"That's the point. I'd like you to have some."

"And LexCorp would give me them."

"In spades."

Clark looked down at the menu for a second. Since they both knew it by heart, Lex let him think. Finally, he said, "It won't give me what I want."

"Clark, I don't know how to communicate to you that I would do anything to give you what you want. Perhaps a stone tablet -- "

"I want people. I want to understand people."

Lex was silent. "We're not talking about a psychology degree, are we."

"If I worked at LexCorp, in the kind of job that gave me 'options,' I'd wear a suit and tie and meet a lot of other people in suits and ties. All talking about the same things, doing the same things."

"That's a vast over-simplification."

"I want to talk to dockworkers. Homeless people. Truck drivers. Nobel winners. I want to sit down with a striker and understand why he's angry. I want to know why human beings do the things they do."



"Pronoun choice -- you and me, we're human, too. Although I wish for plausible deniability at times."

"Right. Well, didn't Socrates say 'Know thyself'?"

Lex grinned tiredly. "Gonna throw the ancient Greeks at me, are you?"

"I play dirty, Lex."

Lex decided not to push. "Decide on an entre, worthy adversary. It looks like we've got Purple Scrunchie Waitress again."

Clark could usually be counted on to seek out Purple Scrunchie Waitress, whatever table she was at, for a little eye candy; despite his disavowal of cleavage, he followed it nearly as closely as Lex did the stock market -- but this time he only sat back and gave Lex a long look.

"I see the tired aura."

"No, you don't."

"The tired, no-dancing, no-fast-driving-after-dinner aura."

"You've been looking at the sun again."

"Is it your father?"

Lex covered his surprise. He hadn't been able to hide his emotions from Clark for a long time, but Lex hadn't seen Lionel in months, and that was a direct hit.

"Don't tell me my aura is that specific."

"Only to those that know you."

"That would be just you, then," said Lex, exaggerating his relief.

"What is it? A new plot to take down LexCorp?"

"I don't know what it is. He wants me to meet him later." Lex met Clark's eyes -- evading wouldn't do any good, Clark knew too much about him; so why deny himself the pleasure of that warm, focused gaze looking back?

"No hints?"

"No. He was very... friendly, though, which is alarming."

"Lex." Clark tapped Lex's hand, holding the corner of the menu. "If you want to call me afterwards, that's okay. Or I could come over."

"I'll be fine."

"I know. In case, that's all."

Lex was about to respond when Purple Scrunchie Waitress appeared with her notepad. He turned and gave her his best smile, and she smiled back. Score one for Tired-Aura Lex, he thought. He ordered risotto.

Then Clark turned his radiance on her, and she melted. God, thought Lex, you can almost see her bones becoming more fluid. She took his order in a scattered fashion and then strolled dazed from the table without her notepad.

"Bastard," said Lex calmly. "We'll never get served now."


"It's about your friend," Lionel said. Lex only had one friend, so that made it easy. "Dad, I would think that when a son turns 26, and has, by the way, been disowned, his choice of friends would cease being a parental concern."

"Not in this case."

It was an unrolling of evidence that put the O.J. Simpson case to shame. Photographs, videotapes. Clark stepping in front of a car to divert it from a pedestrian -- looking bored, as though he'd done this before. Cleaning up his dorm room in the space of seconds. The victim of an accident at the campus coffeeshop, boiling steam shot into his face.

Silence from Lex, then, "I assume that last one was staged."

"Naturally. The temperatures involved should have required skin grafts."

"No medical reports, I notice."

"He breaks needles, Lex. We know, the school nurse is ours."

Lex went to the window, stood, and looked over the grounds.

"Still no comment?" asked Lionel. "Should I gather from your attitude that your friend has let you in on his little secrets?"

Lex ignored the question. "Smallville's not your average town, Dad. I think you're aware of that."

"Smallville's not the issue, Lex. We're talking about some place a lot further away." And he handed Lex the photos of the ship.

A roll of nausea. The floor yanked out from beneath.

And he stared at it, disbelieving, as all assumptions became null and void. The idea that Lionel would try to fabricate something this ridiculous, knowing how carefully Lex would check -- no. He didn't work that way. Which meant...

"I think you could use some time to process this," said Lionel, surprising him with his sensitivity.

Lex heard the footsteps walking away. He dropped the photos from numb fingers and stared out at the night.


All the lies. From the beginning, that was the thing, from day one, hour one, minute one. Everything he had wrung from Lex, every belief, hope, and dream, and why? What was its agenda?

Much later Lex looked back and realized that that was when the world changed.

When the pronouns changed.

When he accepted it.


It wasn't human. How could anyone know what went on behind those lying eyes? That it had an agenda of its own, Lex did not doubt. Everyone did. But that assumed there was someone home there at all -- that it wasn't just an incredibly complex automaton. There'd been some interesting work done lately on the creation of "false" artificial intelligence, proving that a computer program with a vocabulary of only several thousand words could fool bright adults into thinking it was human for long periods of time -- "more human than most," one user had said. Perhaps this thing, this golden boy with his radiant smile, was just as empty inside. A clockwork with a mission.

Lex became aware of a stinging sensation in his left index finger. He looked down and saw that he'd absently taken his penknife out. A cut ran down the finger from the first joint to the nail.

Haven't done that in a while, he thought vaguely. Years, hadn't it been?

He gazed at the line of blood forming with an intent expression. It was fascinating. Meaningful, in some way.

His father's footsteps broke him out of the trance.

"Lex, are you all right?"

"Fine." He slipped the knife away.

"Let's go into the dining room. I told Marie to leave the food and take the night off. There's a lot to talk about."

"Yes," he said, and followed him in.


There were so many questions. It was ridiculous to think that an alien species could have evolved to so closely match humans; the creature had to have been genetically designed to pass.

"More than that," said Lionel, over dinner. There was an excitement in his voice that Lex hadn't heard in years. Not since the struggle with Minotaur Systems, back in the early 90s. Before his mother died.

"How do you mean?"

"Look at it, it's beautiful! I watched the tape of its high-school graduation, the thing smiles like an angel. I never saw a better fifth-columnist. Designed to engender trust, cooperation, love. As a child, protection while it learned about us." He set down his wineglass with an enthusiastic clang. "You have to admire the beings that sent it, whoever and whatever they are. I wonder if they got those big eyes out of Disney movies."

Lex took the logic of it in bitterly. "Nice to know I fell for a line of crap I could've gotten more cheaply from Hollywood."

The tone penetrated Lionel's pleasure, and he spared Lex a look of reassurance. "Son, you mustn't let your initial belief bother you -- this creature was created as a psychological weapon. That you could remove yourself from that mindset, once you realized the truth, speaks volumes." He sounded genuinely proud.

"But the purpose?"

"Yes." Lionel ran a hand through his mane, looking serious. "Why was it sent? What does it pave the way for? War? Plunder? Slavery?"

"Perhaps simple scientific interest."

"Scientific interest is never simple, you know that."

"There are the meteor rocks to account for, too."

"Yes. Though they may have been an accident. It doesn't react well to them, you said."

"That would be an understatement."

"Excellent." He poured another glass beside Lex's empty plate, and waited till Lex forced a smile and picked it up. "Its body is no doubt a treasure trove, but the immediate profit will be in its mind and abilities. Incentive is important."

"Yes." Lex lifted his glass. "To two Luthors, working together again. A sum greater than its separate parts."

Lionel looked surprised, and a little touched. "Thank you, son. I'm glad you put it that way."


Lex slept in the mansion, in his old room. He had the Loki dream again that night. He hadn't had it since long, long before Smallville, before the day he flew, before he believed in rebirth.

Chained to a rock, a serpent above his head, acid poison dripping in his face. Changing him, marking him with pain.

The serpent didn't speak, but he knew what it said. Judged and unworthy.


I threw rocks at you. Because you're a coward. You lost your hair, because you're a coward.

"No." This was all wrong, he thought vaguely, trying to find the thread of reality through the dream. He'd solved all this long ago, hadn't he? Hadn't he... done things, learned things, challenged himself, made himself into something new?

Except now he couldn't remember what those things were.

Never anyone worthy. Always alone. Because you're despicable.

"It's not true," he said, no longer believing his own protest.

And then the serpent changed, as it did in his childhood, when he conflated two myths. It grew feathers and a beak, but he was still chained, and when it dived viciously for his abdomen, there was nothing he could do. He felt his own entrails as they slipped wetly from his body.

Who are you to think you can touch the sun's fire?


Blue sky, open road. "Just like the old days."

"Yes," said Lex. "But we're not in Kansas any more."

There were echoes of Oz in that, and Clark's familiar, answering laugh came from the seat beside him. The laugh of a boy, a young man, glad to have been seduced from his books on a Saturday like this, glad to be alive.


"So tell me," --'Clark' -- "what did you decide? Or are you still treading water?"

Blue-green eyes turned on him, reflecting the sky. "You know me, Lex."

"Yeah, I know. Good-bye, LexCorp, hello, poorly paid entry-level job at some rag. Well, never mind, we'll always have Paris."

It earned him a quizzical look. A moment later: "Did I mention that Chloe's coming back?"

"For the summer?"


The Chloe and Clark Show: after a fantastically ill-starred romance their sophomore year, Chloe had transferred to Wittinger in Gotham City for her last terms. Not a bad choice -- Wittinger's School of Journalism was the best in the country, and she'd be in a position to meet the right people to try to get in.

"I thought she was going to journalism school there."

"She said she missed Metropolis. She got in at Met U's Journalism School, too, you know."

Second best in the country. Lex wondered whether this meant she felt that she was over Clark enough to return, or if she'd just reached her limit in how long she could be away from him. He suspected the latter, because Chloe was ambitious, and, well. Second-best in the country.

"No journalism school for you, though."

A shrug was his answer. "Chloe wants a Pulitzer."

"Not one of your ambitions."

He got a small, wry smile. Of course not. How trivial that must seem to you.

They'd left the factories and warehouses far behind, and even the fields were disappearing now, eaten up by woods. Lex turned off onto a road marked "No Exit."

The symbolism of my life can be truly appalling at times.

"Where are we going?"

"Surprise, Clark. Have I ever given you a surprise you didn't like?"

"There was that time you made me eat squid."

And yes, Clark had eaten it, too, as though willing to give anything Lex wanted him to do a second, third, and even a fourth chance. Brilliant even in the details, and how could anyone resist a boy like that? Why, you'd leave the top school of your profession and travel across the country just to be in the same city as him. Naturally.

The wheels spun to a stop on gravel, outside the factory. There hadn't been another building for miles.

"Place looks boarded up."

"It's not," said Lex.

He got out of the car, and Clark followed suit. "Hey, can I drive part of the way home?"

"Sure," said Lex.


Lex didn't get back to his penthouse, not even for a real shower, for the next six days. He slept on a cot two floors above the study area.

The first step, of course, was to map out the effects of baseline meteor exposure, in both mass and time. That gave the team something to work with.

Interrogation was alternated with physical experimentation; after all, what one might fail to yield was bound to be made up for by the other. The durability and rate of repair were phenomenal, but as he'd told Lionel, that was to be expected. "And all the better for questioning," Lionel commented. "If the Inquisition could break the same bones over and over and over again, the whole world would be Catholic today."

Sometimes Lionel's sense of humor left much to be desired. He had a point, though. Humans had a breaking threshold, their bodies could take only so much. Now they had a subject who forced them to continually raise the bar.

Lex stepped into the observation room, drinking from a bottle of water. He paused by the window for a moment and watched the head lift up to stare at him. He wondered if he'd get the same question. Six days, and the question never changed.

The head bent again. Accepted that there was no point in asking. Good.

Lex walked over to one of the researchers, glanced at his computer screen. "Let's see today's numbers." He took pleasure in his own competence, in his ability to function and be sane in the face of a universe with a clown mask. He was dealing with it. No weakness in him.

There was a tiny, utilitarian shower, sheathed in white plastic, on the top floor near his cot. Lex would step into it at night and stand there in a daze of exhaustion. How strange, this rollercoaster alternation between feeling excited and feeling dead. Hot water pounded him, and he was vaguely aware of cuts opening up somewhere on his body, and blood swirling down the drain.


They had experimented with a number of possibilities, comparing them to baseline meteor exposure. They didn't get to the stage of creating a drill made from meteor rock for a couple of weeks; it sank through the skin like a dream, and when it was applied to the creature's nerves, the results were... extraordinary. Any human's throat would have been raw from that sort of screaming in moments.

That was the turning point, Lex and his father both agreed. Until then, the creature had been admirably consistent in its cover story -- "I don't know where I'm from, trust me I'm your friend, please don't let them do this -- " It played its role so beautifully that two of the research staff had walked out during the first few days, and certain security measures had to be implemented.

It was during a refractory period on the second day of drilling that it had broken. The alien was allowed these rest periods between bouts of experimentation -- after all, it was not only the humane choice, but every tradition of coercive interrogation agreed that it was good to give the subject a chance to think and anticipate.

Lex still remembered the golden body stretched out on the floor, and though nothing was broken at that moment that had not healed, there was something about the way it lay there that spoke of wrongness. Finally it lifted its head, turned to the observation window.


Lionel stepped closer. The word had been used before, but there was something about the way it was said this time...

"Please." Eyes widened, staring with a kind of native pain, an expectation of a universe turned bad. "I'll tell you anything, do anything you want. Anything. Please. I can't take it. Oh, please..."

It had been minutes, in fact, before it could say anything else, as though its brain were stuck in a loop. Clearly, though, this was a breakthrough, and the thing was brought out of the room, given a clean robe and food.


It ate warily, spooning out granola and yogurt from the carton they took from the researchers' kitchen. Not sure if we doctored it, Lex wondered, or thinks we might take it away? Three apple cores lined the table, and the wrappers of several Hershey bars. They'd kept it on short rations. Lex recalled that when in character, the creature went for cheeseburgers and hot dogs several times a week. The recollection had tempted Lex to toss it a raw steak, just to see what it would do; but that would be self-indulgent. Curiosity was understandable, but one study at a time.

"Well," said Lionel meaningfully.

It looked up at him from the chair. "I don't know everything you want. Only some things."

"Such as." Lex pulled out the chair opposite and sat down.

"My purpose. Why I'm here." It reached for another candy bar, and Lex grabbed its wrist. They both froze a moment. It was the first time Lex had touched it since he knew the truth. Lex released the wrist, and it drew back its hand obediently.

"I'm here to learn. But you figured that part out, didn't you? What makes humans tick. How they operate." Partially sated with food, away from the pain, it could even call up a defiant smile. Resilient, Lex noted -- be wary. "I told you that at Belle Claire."

"I took it in a different way, then."

Still the faint smile. "You were meant to."

"In retrospect, I suppose it makes sense. Why turn down an offer of wealth to wander the city talking to people? Unless talking to people is your mission."

Lionel put his hand on Lex's arm, briefly. Lex understood: Don't be drawn in. "Who sent you?"

It spoke slowly. "What they are -- their nature, I mean -- that, I don't know." It glanced up, a worried look flashing through its eyes, nervous that they might think it was evading. "You have to understand: I was created just for this assignment, and they didn't put any more information into my memory than was necessary. I have an instinctive imperative to follow my instructions, and that's about it."

"Were they worried about your capture? What you might reveal?"

"Maybe. Though I have a second cover story to use, should people discover I'm not human. I'm to play the orphan card."

"You didn't play it with us," Lex said.

Again that smile, hard and cold. Nothing that would ever have been on Clark's face, if Clark were real. "Would you have believed it?" It gestured toward the candy bar, carefully not picking it up. "I'm hungry," it said to Lex. "Please, may I?"

Instead of responding, Lex asked, "What about the Kents? How much do they know?"

"They know that I'm their loving adopted son, that I came in a ship, and that I was in need of guidance and shelter and education. I'm nearly through with them now."

"You're entirely through with them," said Lex grimly.

"Eighteen years of playing their son," said Lionel, and he sounded -- impressed. "Quite the heartless chameleon, aren't we?"

It was still gazing at Lex with cool eyes. "We've established I can act."


Lex thinks about the purpose, the grand plan, sometimes at night. When he's not quite ready to surrender to sleep, to let the dreams come.

"They need to know what human limits are."

Of course. What moves us. What we'll allow, what we won't allow, what we'll welcome, what we'll fight. Where the profit and loss are, in knowing us.


Lex accepts, now, that he himself is a human being. Us versus them clarifies the mind wonderfully.

He remembers the conversation, one of many. What could they want from us? Lionel had asked. Superior technologically, or there wouldn't have been a starship. Superior in genetic knowledge, or the alien wouldn't be here.


"Slaves?" Lex was the first to say it.

"That's a cultural term. Indentured workers? It's more economically feasible to have a servant class, capable of learning a wide variety of tasks, who'll create their own replacements in nine months and educate them of their own free will. Beat that with technology."

"So they do want to conquer us."

"Don't be silly. They want to do business with you."

Why not? Lex thought. The triangle slave routes had paid African slavers well enough to keep the trade going for years. Why steal or conquer, when your own people would give you up? It would be a simple exchange: medicine, knowledge, materials, in return for -- oh, a hundredth of a percent of the population. Paradise on Earth, cheap at the price.

Lionel had been less sanguine. He was too well acquainted with the ethical lobbies LuthorCorp had always faced -- the Greens, the unions, the disabled, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law... "The world will never agree to willingly trade slaves. I trust Smallville High School made it clear to you what a sore point this is in our history. Or is the American educational system to be a constant disappointment to me?"

"No cancer," it said simply. "No AIDS. Crops to feed the world. Lifespans extended into a second century..."

"You've made your point," said Lex. He looked at his father. "They'll be pushing them on board with cattle prods."

"I'll be a liaison," it said. "When the day comes."

"And when that day comes," said Lex, holding the candy bar, "will your friends be upset with us for making you unhappy?"

Test question. There was no good answer to this. Yes, they'll be unhappy; treat me better. Yes, they'll be unhappy -- kill me quickly and bury me deep, so they never learn the truth. He waited to see what it would say.

"They won't care," it said, finally. "Not in the way you mean. When you think about it, I'm just a more expensive sort of slave, myself."

Father and son looked at each other. "All right," said Lex easily. "Have a candy bar."


"Lex, have you seen Clark?"

Lex sat up in the big bed, linen piled around him, disoriented, listening to Chloe's voice over the phone. The lights of the city gleamed through the curtains.

"Um, no," he said, checking the clock. 2:03 A.M. His heart was still beating quickly; serpent, poison, failure, punishment. Sometimes he woke with no memory of what he'd dreamed at all, just sheets with sweat ground into them, nail marks on this palms. But Chloe'd interrupted a full-on session, tonight. Loki was responsible for the end of the world; at least, he helped. Maybe Lex would be too. Maybe he should have killed the thing, not let it talk its way into their strategies, their lives. Foolish to have believed in the first place... more foolish to let it live, now that the danger was unmasked. Luthor arrogance, to risk the world for personal advantage.

"I haven't seen him for three weeks," Lex said. "I thought he was studying for finals."

So easy to say "him" to Chloe. They were talking about a persona. A warm, enthusiastic young man, easy to believe in. Easy to love.

Poor Chloe, still in the delusion. Lucky Chloe.

"I'm in Smallville visiting Dad," she said. "Clark was supposed to be here. It's his mother's birthday."

Lex's excellent mind filled it all in, in technicolor. The birthday Martha Kent would always associate with the disappearance of her only, greatly loved son. The calls his parents would have made, over the last three weeks, to Metropolis. The excuses they'd have made for not hearing back. Clark could be careless with time; he'd leave messages unreturned, disappear from events where he'd promised to be. He'd make it all up later, when he reappeared out of nowhere, late and not quite repentant enough, but sorry, sorry, sorry; glowing with the smile that was just for you, explaining as he ran an awkward hand over his hair, sending out love like a firefly's message. Forgive me, I love you. I know you'll forgive me, I trust you.

But he would have called on his mother's birthday. Even if something came up.

He remembered the looks on their faces when their son came alive out of Factory Three.

"Is there anything I can do?" he asked Chloe. "Would you like me to swing by his dorm?"

"Would you?" There was relief in her voice.

"I'd be happy to. I'm sure he's all right, Chloe."

He hung up, considered just sitting by the bed till enough time had passed, then calling back; but that was far too risky, of course. He would have to go through the motions.

Rather the way it had gone through the motions.

"You can tell me anything, Lex. We're friends."


Eight years old, and he tried to figure it out. His father had told him, repeatedly and clearly, that he was spending too much time with the puppy, and now his father had done something to make the puppy shy away from him. Lionel Luthor was not a man crass enough to kill a pet, or even, greatly, harm it; and although he didn't particularly care for dogs himself, he gave generously to the ASPCA when they came calling. Nor (and people often misunderstood this) was he unsubtle, except when he chose to be.

He had done something. What?

Lex raised his arm, more slowly this time, hand outstretched. He squatted, puppy-level, to not look ominous. It was easy to put himself in the other's place, more easy than with his fellow humans at school. After all, both of them were creatures who liked to hide under desks.

The eyes stared out from the hollow of the desk, not moving. He inched forward slowly, making sure his hand was open, harmless looking.

"It's all right," he said softly. "Trust me."

It still didn't move. That was all right, it meant there was hope -- though as soon as he felt that rising, he quashed it ruthlessly. Never believe, never give yourself, until you're sure.

Soft. Gentle. "Remember the park? We rolled down the hill. You licked my face so much that Nanny had to scrub me down with the allergic soap."

Closer now. "That's right. Smell me. It's okay -"

And Bucephalus bolted for the door, which was closed and locked. The little thing leaped at the door over and over, scratching and whimpering, until Lex could stand it no longer. He strode over -- the puppy ran away as he came more near -- and flung the door open. It shot out past him and down the hall like a nervous cannonball.

When Nanny carried the puppy out that night in her arms, to return him to the breeder with thanks and a generous tip, Lex didn't even turn to look up from his book. The puppy had been there a week. You didn't get attached to things in a week.

Lionel was in the room, too, when Nanny went by. After she'd gone, he put down his papers. "Lex."

Lex looked up.

"Come here."

He did, sitting on his father's knee when Lionel patted it. From his higher vantage point, he could see the papers spread out on the desk.

"See this?" His father pointed to a letter with a colorful logo on top: a prop plane that morphed into a jet as it crossed the page.

"Drew Aviation." Lex could read long before he went to school. He scanned the first page idly.

"That's right, Sharp Eyes. This is from a man who is lying to me. He wants to trick me into thinking his company should get our business."

Remembering a scrap of conversation he'd had with his mother once, on this very spot, Lex asked, "Is he worthy of it?"

"No," said his father, with what sounded like satisfaction. "He is not." He patted Lex's shoulder, rubbed his back gently. "I'm sorry about the puppy. But I want you to know that I will always be here for you." Lex nodded, and his father let him down. "Scoot. I have work to do."

Lex went back to his own room and pulled open the drapes on the big latticed window, watched the fairy tale moon come up, and thought. His father was saying that he, Lionel, was worthy; that instead of laughing and playing with the puppy, Lex should bring his true self to Lionel, show him his hopes and vulnerabilities.

The moon shone down at him, solitary to solitary.

His Daddy wasn't always very smart. Lex wasn't going to fall for that trick.


"I can help you, you know." Sharp eyes watching as the cot was carried outside. Lex had explained this test to the alien; they wanted to know if it could levitate -- hover off the ground for any period of time. They were going to remove the furniture, cover the floor with finely sifted meteor gravel, and then electrify it. There would be nowhere to go to escape the pain. Nowhere but up.

"You're helping now."

"I can't fly, Lex."

"Let's make sure, shall we?"

Lionel entered the observation area. He and Lex were rarely apart for long, these days.

"I can help you crush your competitors." It spoke more loudly, for the benefit of the Luthor outside the door.

Lex signaled, and a researcher appeared with the container of meteor gravel. The thing's eyes fastened on it as though hypnotized. Then it pulled its gaze away, and turned to Lionel, speaking quickly. "You can take every idea your opponents have, and get to market before them. You can know their business plans. You can know every weakness they have. I can get it all, I can give it to you. Anything you want, I can find out."

Lionel leaned back and crossed his legs. The chair was big, comfortable, of dark leather -- a match to the desk chair in his office. He'd had it brought in during the first week. "You mean, by using your speed and strength to break into rival R&D departments and steal their secrets?"

"That too, but I meant my vision. I can see through things."

Lex and his father looked at each other through the window.

Lex pointed to the ceiling, past the lead shielding that hid the lights and tools. "What's in the room up there?"

It cast an automatic glance upward, and shrugged. "That's lead. I can't see through lead."

When they exchanged another glance, it seemed alarmed. "I swear, it's true! Anything but lead. Test me, I'll prove it."

Lionel said, quietly, "Lead does seem to block the meteor effect."

Lex shrugged. He made no assumptions about truth where the creature was concerned.

Lionel focused on it. "Why would you do it?"

"I work for... beings that aren't human. I work for you. What difference does it make? I want to live."

"Why should we?"

"Because you're in the business of doing business."

Lex looked at his father, uneasy. Say no. It would destroy them, somehow. He knew that. He couldn't argue it, couldn't explain it; even trying would sound like weakness. But he knew.

His father let them both wait for his answer. Like him, the bastard.

"All right," he said.


You could sense, as it let them dress it, that it had a bad feeling about this. It didn't know what they were putting on its body, but Lex did.

A lead band around the left wrist: 23 meteor needles inside, protected from contact with its skin by thin squares of lead.

A lead band around the throat: 50 needles inside, 12 that aimed directly into the spine.

A lead band around the right ankle: 32 needles inside.

The lead sheathes were fashioned to withdraw automatically, upon receiving a signal.

Lionel nodded to Lex, who touched the band on his own left wrist. Eight seconds later, he touched it again.

When it finally stopped screaming, Lionel laid it out.

Attempting to remove any band would activate all three.

Attempting to remove Lex's band would activate all three -- and there would be no way to turn them off, as Lex's band was prepared for sabotage.

If Lex had no pulse, it would activate all three.

It glanced toward Lex at that one, still gasping from the pain. Lex returned the gaze quietly. It turned back to Lionel.

"I've been doing what you want." As close to a protest as it dared get.

"The demonstration was necessary," Lionel said, "as a teaching device. You'd have been sorrier if you'd tried to escape, and we used it to incapacitate you till we could locate you again. With your speed, it might have taken days."

"Thanks," it said flatly.

"You should be thanking me," he agreed. He opened the door to the outer rooms. "No more cell. You're free to walk out of here, go back to the world." A pause. "With proper supervision, of course."

"Can I see my family? My friends?"

"No. But why would you want to? We'll provide you with anything you need. In fact, you may find this an improvement. You wanted to learn about people, didn't you? You're about to travel, see life beyond Metropolis." He might have been recruiting for the Navy, Lex thought. Dad had a way of dropping into a role that was a little scary at times.

Lionel clapped the thing on its shoulder. "Lex will be responsible for your safety. Your personal safety, as a corporate asset, and the safety of those around you. He'll see that you can't harm anyone."

"That I can't harm anyone." Bitterness like a dark river through the words.

Lionel smiled. "Let's not forget which of us is the alien invader here."


Three AM. Lex's tie lay on the rough marble tiles of the solarium. A glass of brandy sat on the white wrought-iron table beside him.

"The gardener's doing fine work, isn't he?" Lionel said, taking a sip from his glass.

They were facing a stand of rare, imported white lilies. The petals were still closed, wrapped tight, the central pistils hanging from the snowy envelopes like the tongues of tired dogs. Lilies. Lillian had hated the flowers, and Lex had never found them reassuring. Symbols of death, heavy and funereal. In Pre-Raphaelite paintings their pads floated in dark water, twining around victims, keeping the pale flesh of young heroes below the surface till they died, betrayed by beautiful river-maidens.

Jesus. He was getting melodramatic over a flower. Fuck this. He took a swallow of brandy and felt its electric burn down his throat.

"Dad, maybe this isn't a good idea."

"I know you were reluctant, but didn't we both agree the logic was sound? I'd rather not trust anyone else with control of a nearly omnipotent being, would you?"

"No, you're right." His voice was still uneasy, and Lionel stood up, put his hands on Lex's shoulders and pulled him back, drawing him close.

"Lex, you've clarified your mind on this, haven't you?"

"Would I be here if I hadn't? Would the alien be here?"

"I know. But emotions are poisonous things -- they can drip like acid, destroying you before you're even aware of them. This thing knows you. It's had years to know you. You have complete control, as long as you don't falter. Don't let it inside your head again, Son."

"Trust me, Dad. That's extremely unlikely."

Lionel smiled at the tone of voice. "Good."


Ten years old, and he had a friend. He tested the word: friend.

He was still a day student in Metropolis then, attending Reardon Academy. Dropped off at 7:45 every morning by the chauffeur and picked up at 3:15 by the latest Nanny. Four hundred kids in blue jackets with the Reardon crest and khaki pants, a uniform designed perhaps on the grounds that if everyone looked like a geek, no one would. Of course, that didn't hold for Lex, whose distance from the center of the bell curve was obvious.

He and Tom Beales sat on the concrete wall that curved above the walkway that led out to Grand Boulevard. Autumn. The five trees on the Reardon front lawn were in flame.

"You can't really do it," Tom said. "It's just something you see in movies."

Out through the gate, Lex watched the line of vans and expensive cars as each vehicle gulped up another Reardon student and inched away from the curb into traffic. Five after three. His Nanny would be here soon in the Lexus. With her usual look of stunned boredom -- Jenny was a grad student in need of room and board; she found children a necessary evil.

"We could do it," Lex said. "I'll bet we could follow any one of the cars out there. As well as any detective on TV."

"Yeah," said Tom, "we could walk really, really quickly."

"Taxi," said Lex.

"No... like, 'follow that car'? He'd laugh in our face."

Lex had learned a few things in his ten years. He pulled a bill from his pocket and held it up. "They never laugh at large denominations." It was true; certain numbers just seemed to short-circuit people's brains.

A knot of students passed, and the word "freak" floated up from the midst of their chatter. It was a word Lex's brain could pick out of twelve competing conversational streams. Tom probably hadn't heard it. Behind the students strolled Mademoiselle Cunliffe, the French instructor, in sharp black pants and a bolero jacket.

Much later, Lex realized that Mlle. Cunliffe couldn't have been more than 22; it was her first assignment. At the time, she seemed neither more nor less aged than most grownups, but Lex did know she had short, black, windblown hair, a soft voice, a graceful sway like the stem of a flower, and a smile, even for him. His crush on her was just one of the many things he didn't share with others.

"Let's test it," Lex said. "We can follow Cunliffe home."

"Oh, come on," said Tom. But his eyes were wide with excitement.

They slid off the wall and trailed behind her to the street. "You get to say it," Lex said, as though conferring a gift.

Tom grinned. "Follow that car," he said, practicing.

As it turned out, however, Mlle. Cunliffe wasn't going home.

"Won't your Nanny get you in trouble?" Tom asked, fifteen minutes later, as they got out of the cab.

Lex shook his head. "If she tells my father she lost me, he'll say she's incompetent. She doesn't tell on me, and I don't tell on her." There's a certain freedom in mutual blackmail, Lex had discovered. It was good to be sure of people.

They followed their target into one of the most exclusive bridal boutiques in Metropolis. "She's getting married," Tom hissed in Lex's ear. There were men's clothes in the store as well; morning suits, evening wear, even old-fashioned gray top hats on a dusty shelf in the back. The place was big enough that Tom and Lex could crawl under a revolving rack of long gowns and peer out at Cunliffe's trim ankles as she stepped into her dress. Chatter of French with the saleslady, a few pins and chalk marks, twenty minutes of precocious voyeurism, and she swept out again into the street -- followed closely by the saleslady, who closed up the shop behind her.

Lex and Tom exchanged a wary glance.

The door shut and they crawled out into the darkened shop.

"I wonder who she's marrying," said Tom.

Lex walked to the front door and examined the locks. There was a coded box by the door. "ALARM SET," read the digital rectangle. "I think we'll trip a siren if we leave," he said.

"Oh, man."

Lex glanced out through the curtains. "We can wait a few hours till the street empties, then run like hell."

"Why an alarm for a bunch of dresses?" Disbelief and disgust in the tone.

"I guess some of them are worth a lot of money."

They passed the time by wondering all through the store, while Tom talked about movies, English homework, and the odds on his father's taking the family to Cape Cod next summer. He pulled out one of the morning suits and tried the jacket on. "Check me out."

Lex grinned, and pulled out Cunliffe's bridal gown. He imagined what she'd look like on the day, wearing this lace, smiling at someone she loved. He held the dress up against himself in the mirror. Imagined her smiling at him.

"Dude," said Tom (who really did watch a lot of television). "It's you."

"White's not my color." Lex's pale face was not enhanced by ivory lace with a puffed back-collar. He looked like some kind of truly perverse Elizabethan Puck.

Finally the street outside darkened. The shops emptied. Lex signaled Tom and they threw open the bolts and burst through the door. The loudest clang in the history of the planet followed them as they pelted down the street.

No cop cars. No cop cars at all. They were ten blocks away when Lex leaned against a wall and started to laugh. Tom gave him a betrayed look -- it's not funny, Luthor -- and then broke down into giggles himself.

As they walked home, Tom sobered. "What if they dust for prints?"

"Tom, it's a store. There are lots of prints. I used the edge of my shirt when I opened the locks." He thought and added, "Although from the stunning lack of interest -- "

Tom said, "My father would kill me."

"It's all right, Tom, really." He put his hand on Tom's shoulder. "No one will ever know."

Or at least, not till two weeks later, when Lex got to school to find copies of The Inquisitor everywhere. There was a photo of Lex, taken while on a school outing, that made him look like a deranged killer of small animals. "LUTHOR SON IN PERVERTED ESCAPADE" read the headline. According to the article, Alexander Luthor "and another boy" had broken into a store to shoplift, but been diverted from the plan when Alexander chose instead to model various dresses, beginning with his French teacher's bridal gown.

Tom found him reading the paper under a maple tree on the front lawn. He approached Lex uncertainly. "I didn't tell anyone, really," he said.

Lex glanced at him, then down again at the article. Ms. Janine Cunliffe, owner of the gown in question, was horrified when she learned that someone had been prancing around the store in her wedding dress, much less the freaky Luthor boy. Although Mademoiselle had phrased it in a more civilized way, the words "freaked out" cried from every line. The gown, she said, was "tainted." How could she wear it on her day of days? She would have to find another.

"Just my Dad," said Tom, when Lex didn't answer. "He knew I was late. I had to tell him something. But I swear, I didn't say that stuff about putting the dress on..."

Tom's father, Thomas Beales, Senior, hated Lionel. It was a petty revenge... but then, never let it be said that humans aren't petty.

Lex himself probably wasn't even on Beales's radar. No, Beales was probably somewhere right now, imagining the questions and looks Lionel was getting from his peers and employees.


"It's all right, Tom."

"Really?" The relief in his voice was evident. "We're still friends?"

"No." He folded the paper.

"No? What do you mean, no? You said it was all right!"

"It is. But we're not friends." He started to walk away.

"Lex... come on... please, Lex! I'm sorry! I had to tell him something!"

Lex turned off the voice from a switch in his head. It would be harder walking past the whisperers, as he thought of them, now that he was alone; and there was the humiliation of French class still to come. But really, there was no choice involved.

If you couldn't be sure of someone, what was the point?


He wondered if it knew how much he enjoyed seeing it on its knees, in a position that said, I can't hurt you any more, but you can hurt me. Probably; probably that was why it did it. But it was the strategy of the conquered, so he didn't mind.

Lex had entered the hotel suite, mind on three different things, and found the television on, an old movie playing, and the creature standing by the window, shirtless, looking down at the Manhattan streets. The first stop on Lex's alien world tour: Like Metropolis, only older, and more crowded together.

"What did you talk about with the maid?"

Its eyes were wary in an instant. "Nothing. Her mother -- her mother's sick. That's all." And scanning Lex's face, it dropped to its knees in an instant, in a display of submission that would make any naturalist reach for his notebook. "I swear, that's all it was!"

"I know. I talked with her in the elevator."

It tilted its head slightly. Examined him more closely.

"What, then?"

The taut band of anger, just below Lex's skin. No one else in the world would have read it, and that knowledge alone tightened the screws in Lex's head just one quarter-turn more. Dad had sent him out into the world with a bright and beautiful striped tiger, a chair and a whip. Did he really think that having it under physical control would keep it from mauling him?

Lex didn't know what it was reading off his face now, but it stayed on its knees. Good, Lex wasn't complaining about that.

He ignored the question, and said, "I was just checking. I don't really believe you're stupid enough to pass messages out through the help. After all, who could you turn to anyway, but the Kents? And I think you know what a bad idea that would be. For everybody."

A twinge of guilt there. What he said was true, and best (for the Kents especially) that it understood that... but Lex knew it already understood. The reminder of its powerlessness was a punishment, a lesser one than the needles, and therefore justifiable enough that he didn't really have to examine it consciously. Done because Lex was angry, and he could. Because it knew too much, and he could. Because...

"Is it about why we're here?" Carefully, neutrally spoken. "If I'm to be helpful, shouldn't you give me as much information as possible?"

Funny, Lex had said much the same thing to his father, not half an hour ago.


"Dad, one of the names on the meeting list is Ohashi. I'm wondering how many Ohashis there are in genetic research."

Sachiko Ohashi, despite the full-bore name, was born in Greenwich, Connecticut. She won a Westinghouse scholarship at a ridiculously young age, attended Stanford, and graduated to become Lionel's pet geneticist. Her creativity in engineering hybrid grains was matched only by her financial avarice.

Which led to her being seduced away by another CEO while Lex was still in college. Lionel had reacted by throwing a snit the like of which had not been seen since the days when duchesses' cooks were lured to the kitchens of their social rivals.

"Oh, is Sachiko working for Hoyt these days?"

"Dad, please. I suppose you were also unaware that her Hoyt research is in biological warfare."

"We're playing on a much bigger stage now, Lex. Bridging the gap between international business and international politics. There are allies we can make by taking Hoyt's business away -- "

"By creating viruses? You think that will give us power? Dad, we've got an alien. Isn't that enough?"

It was his own fault, Lex thought. Lex had never doubted for a moment that he himself was heading for a bigger stage, but his father had always thought in terms of LuthorCorp alone. He was pushing out now into world politics the same way he'd always pushed his company. Boldly, and frankly, not as intelligently as he might. Christ. If only meteor jewelry were available for one's relatives...

"You might have mentioned it," Lex said, finally.

"Two birds with one stone, son. I don't see the problem."

Well, Dad, one problem might be your forcing me back into the dutiful-son box. You know, that metaphorical little room without windows or light switch?

Fuck that. He didn't create LexCorp to take a step back now.

You'll be fine, he told himself, hanging up. Just remember you're alone, and that when it comes to power grabs, your father is only marginally more trustworthy than alien invaders.


Now here was said alien, watching him as though it were far too well-informed about his psyche, his family, and the glass of scotch he'd stopped for in the bar downstairs.

"You've been briefed," Lex said. "Patent information, business plans, check the names on distribution lists for sources we don't know about -- "

"It's just, that's not very specific. I thought you might want to..." The voice trailed off, with almost a slight wistfulness.

Lex smiled, and he knew it wasn't a nice one. "Trust you? If you're confused about your role in my life, let me clarify it for you. You're not here to provide moral support or strategic thinking. You do what you're told."

It got up from its knees, probably sensing with that jab that Lex's dangerous phase was passing. The next sentence confirmed it. "A well-informed pawn is a productive pawn."

The hint of sarcasm in its voice was reassuring; Lex didn't like the way it veered into trust issues when it sensed a possible gap with his father. Like it was just waiting to reel him back in. He wasn't that fucking needy.

After a moment, he said, "I left the suit I want you to wear on the bed."

"I know. I never wore a tailored suit before. There's something a little creepy about it -- I feel like Rain Man in Vegas." It picked up one of the sofa pillows, hugged it to its chest, and fell back on the plush cushions. "I never stayed in a hotel room this big, either. It looks like a whole lot of money exploded in here."

"You should see the Gotham Four Seasons." Lex answered automatically, responding to the tone and voice, before he caught himself.

Tricks everywhere. He picked up the remote and turned off the TV, where an understandable moral universe was still unrolling in black and white. "Get dressed," he said flatly. "Our meeting's at three."


It did look different in a tailored suit and a good haircut; much less Clark-like.

Thank God.

The hotel was only two blocks from their destination. A beautiful spring day, trees in bud, the midtown office women liberated from the heavy coats they'd hauled around all winter, bouncing out now in rubber-soled shoes, doing that New York stride. It was still cool, but there were men taking cigarette breaks without even their suit jackets, ties lifting in the breeze, too eager to feel the softness in the air to wait.

The creature paid no attention to any of it, till they crossed Madison and walked to Park Avenue, where it stopped for a second, gazing up at the tall glass building across the street. Hoyt Tower. "Huh."


"Nothing. I guess I'm working for LexCorp after all, aren't I."

Lex glanced at it; the face was impassive. They reached the corner just as the light was changing against them. Lex said, "You know what we want."

"Yeah. I'm clear."

They waited. After a moment, Lex became aware of the alien gaze on his face. "Lex."


It had said it the way Clark used to; as if he'd liked the name, and the way it felt on his tongue.

"You know that it's not normal, to suddenly turn a person off like they were a tap. To decide they're not real. It's sociopathic."

Lex smiled. Compared to the head games he'd grown up on, the thing's were amateur. "It might be sociopathic if I did it to a human. But, as much evidence tells us, you're not one."

"Who says?"



His smile widened. Some people felt a classical education didn't prepare you for the modern world, but he'd never found it so. "Descartes. 'There is no error more powerful in leading feeble minds astray from the straight path of virtue than the supposition that the soul of brutes is of the same nature as our own.'"

"Brutes... If you're going to call all alien visitors names, I wouldn't count on your planet ever making the tour circuit."

"By 'brutes,' of course, he meant anything not human. And by 'supposition,' he meant 'making stupid assumptions about creatures that are too different from yourself.'"

"So anybody not like you, you're free to treat like an automaton. Their suffering doesn't count. Nice guy, Descartes."

"He was one of the greatest minds of his century."

"Yeah. And meanwhile, anybody who ever had a puppy would know Descartes was full of shit."

The light changed, and as the alien stepped off the curb, Lex looked at it sharply. It couldn't know.


In Lex's opinion, Willis Hoyt was the sort of billionaire who believed that because he'd made a lot of money developing real estate, he understood how the world worked. In his fifties now, he still retained a plump, boyish charm, smeared only a little by the years.

It was an upscale conference room, mahogany and ergonomic leather, meant to impress; it stared straight down the canyon of Park Avenue and the water was served in goblets of Austrian crystal. Clearly, Hoyt lived by appearances, the way a lot of the old guard did. Their day was passing, and Lex felt no mercy at all. In the immortal words of Napoleon, fuck the Ancien Regime. The mind was the true child of Darwin.

"Lex, by God," Hoyt said, pumping Lex's hand in what he clearly felt was a manly fashion. "I haven't seen you since that Christmas party... you must've been seventeen."


"You know the one I mean?"

"Oh, yes." And thank you so much for bringing it up. "Will, this is my VP of research and development."

"Jeffrey Kates," it said, giving the name on the ID Lex had provided. They shook.

"Another youngster, it looks like."

"LexCorp is a young company."

The creature began quietly scanning the room. There were papers on the table, briefcases belonging to the other six people present, and a wall of file cabinets in the room next door that might be useful, if its visual control were up to the task. Lex continued his role of distraction as Hoyt beckoned over a woman in an elegantly cut green suit. "My own VP of R&D, Sachiko Ohashi."

"I know Sachiko." They smiled at each other. Thirty-five years old, a Nobel-caliber mind, and the best legs in Metropolis -- yes, still there. Pity that skirts had lowered a little lately.

"Oh, that's right," said Hoyt, as though he'd forgotten, "Sachiko used to be Luthor property, didn't she?"

How charmingly you put it.

"Lex," said Sachiko, "I remember our discussion of mitochondria with great pleasure." He grinned; he'd been fourteen.

The creature seemed to have homed in on Sachiko's briefcase. At least, it was staring at the thing with hypnotic interest. Lex gave an unobtrusive tap; try to look as though you're staring vaguely into space and not rifling through private papers, okay?

"Shall we sit?" asked Lex. "I'd like to lay out my proposal for you."

After forty minutes, Hoyt excused himself, leaving the meeting "in Sachiko's capable hands. Like old home week for you, eh, Lex?" The creature's gaze wandered toward the next room, but it always returned to Sachiko's briefcase.

The suspense is killing me, Lex thought, with the kind of pleasure other people seemed to take in a good action movie.

Ten minutes later, Sachiko took a call on her cell, apologized, and said that she'd leave the others to wrap up, so good to see you again Lex. Lex would have taken it as a diss, except that he'd deliberately brought them a weak proposal, and frankly thought it deserved no better consideration. Darwin for the goose was Darwin for the gander, after all.

The creature followed the progress of her briefcase out of the room and, from the direction of its stare, into Hoyt's office.

"Well?" said Lex, five minutes later, as they waited for the elevator.

"A lot of stuff. They're working on several military applications and a pest-resistant grain. There's a lab in New Jersey where they're testing; most of the information should be there." It hesitated a moment, then said, "Also, they're kind of weak. From next year's business plan, they're totally counting on their military contracts to see them through. They'd be pretty easy to topple, I guess."

Lex gave it a look of disbelieving pleasure. "You're suggesting a takeover?"

It shrugged, almost uncomfortably. "I'm trying to give you information you'd be interested in."

"And don't stop now. I had no idea Sachiko's briefcase would be so fascinating. Though from the way you followed it into the next room..."

"Oh, I wasn't looking at that."


Another hesitation, another shrug. "She and Hoyt were doing it on the sofa in his office. That's why he called her out of the meeting."

The elevator doors opened and they stepped inside.

"You're kidding. Sachiko and the Hoyt Monster?"

"He called her 'lemondrop' on the phone."

"God, you knew the man had no taste from the Lichtensteins on the walls." He glanced over and saw an almost Clarkish look. "What?"

"Dog collar."

"Really. Which one?"


"Hmm," said Lex, as he pushed the button. "Too bad."


Lex spent the rest of the afternoon fielding calls from LexCorp, then, feeling like a walk, headed for a Thai restaurant he remembered on Lexington. The creature was hungry and, since Lex was disinclined to call room service for it, it came along.

"Clark" had hated Thai, but obviously, its preferences were no longer relevant.

Three blocks from the restaurant, Lex's phone rang. The street wasn't too busy, but Lex stepped into an alley anyway. It followed and waited.


"How did it go?"

"Hmm, Dad, I thought that was a question you'd be asking three hours ago."

"Don't sulk, Lex. I had LuthorCorp business to attend to. The Hanover merger -- I had to justify it to the press."

"With plenty of pointed quotes about LexCorp's media buying?"

"Naturally. We are supposed to be enemies, after all."

"Listen, I'm on my way to dinner, but we should get the wheels moving on some of the Hoyt material. It's with me right now," he added, glancing over to where the thing stood in a tailored suit, its face impassive at hearing itself discussed this way. Well, why not? They all knew what it was. "I'll hand it the phone."

It took the cell from him and faced into the night breeze. "Is the recorder on? All right. Page one, a patent application dated May 16..."


They were forced, if that was the word, to linger in New York a few more days while Lex's people tracked down the address of the New Jersey lab. Lex didn't mind; he loved great cities. The more skyscrapers, the better, and the faster the bootheels clicked on pavement, the happier he was. It was like standing in the beating heart of the human race, a giant theater and gameboard, and plains and hills and desert mesa were nothing to it. Why relax when you can crackle across the sky like lightning?

I'm traveling from great city to great city, he thought, and I've got an alien following me. Beat that -- Napoleon, Alexander, Aristotle.

"Where are we going?" the alien asked.

"Walking," he said. He didn't see much point in talking to it when there wasn't business to discuss; it might get ideas. He let his feet take him west through the crowds and found they were across the street from the park. By sheer reflex he almost said, "My mother took me here once," but he closed down the impulse in time.

Central Park in the spring. Lex found he was still fond of Literary Walk, the paved stones lined with arching trees and the statues of great authors, leading to golden sunlight at the far end and the topmost tip of the fountain just visible across the road and down the steps. It was like strolling in some park in France, in the 1800s. Not at all the sort of thing you found in Metropolis, and although that was a city he knew he'd never leave, it was also a city that trashed its past as quickly as it built and rebuilt its future.

Gotham had it right, he thought; melodramatic and dark and with the stench of decay rising from its backstreets, but it knew that you always lived on the bones of the past.

"It's pretty."

He glanced at the alien, and sat down on a bench. It sat beside him. "Yes," he said.

And filled with people. Families, couples, strollers and skaters. A young Dad on the next park bench over, helping two little girls into rollerblades and kneepads. "You're wearing your helmet, sweetie," the man insisted.

"Oh, Daddy." But she pulled it on, and he watched her glide off.

Normal people. All the people Lex would never be. He envied them, but it wasn't an envy that generated hatred. They were so fragile. So ignorant. They never questioned, they never saw the black maw behind the painted surface.

He glanced back at the creature, and saw that it was regarding them with the same hunger in its eyes that Lex felt. But what did hunger mean, in the case of an enigma? Because there was a trace of anger in those eyes, too, and as the gaze came around and met Lex's, he thought defiantly, You're what I'm protecting them from.


Oh, it was in a mood, tonight. Tight-lipped and restless, its mundane answers to the issues of housekeeping and food delivered with the same flatness a teenager gave to a tiresome parent, or a wife to a husband she resented.

That was fine, too; he liked it when the alien showed its bitterness, its hatred for its captivity. Easy to believe in the honesty of those emotions. When it looked at him sometimes as though measuring his grave, he was content.

It was the other times that bothered him. The times he couldn't read and the times he almost could, but what he saw had to be a lie.

It paced the room as Lex tipped the waiter and lifted the dome from a plate of poached salmon. There was a bottle of brandy and two glasses beside it, but Lex would only need one. Over the last few weeks, Lex found himself spending less and less time with wine -- it was brandy or scotch, and to hell with what was supposed to accompany what.

He picked up his plate, ignoring the thing's restless movement. Another dome sat on the tray, with what Lex knew was a cheeseburger, but that remained untouched. "We need to figure out a way to get you near the right laboratory."

It stopped pacing and turned to him suddenly. "You're more damaged than you let on, to anyone back in Smallville. To anyone anywhere, right?"

Lex sat on the ottoman, holding his plate. He was still damp from the shower, and found himself wondering if the brandy glass he'd just set on the floor were really necessary. Easier just to carry the bottle. "Oh, is the chameleon sliding into psychiatrist mode tonight? Regardless of your other tortures, we never forced you to sit through any mental health professionals with questionnaires." He lifted a forkful of salmon, inspected it idly. "Perhaps that was a mistake."

"Been through a few questionnaires yourself, though, haven't you? And you lied on them. Because who you are, that's information you can't let out."

Lex dipped the salmon in white wine sauce. "Elementary Tactics 101. You're no different."

"But it's more than that for you. Because without the armor, you won't survive. If anyone finds out about the dragon's underbelly..."

"You know, for Earth's first alien being, you can be surprisingly tiresome."

"You guard it like a madman trying to hide his madness. No one can see, no one can know..."

Lex's eyes narrowed. He watched the thing carefully.

It said, as though frustrated, "You won't die if you let yourself feel!"

He set down the plate. Tapped the skin just above his wrist just once, a clear warning. Its gaze went to it as though jerked by a string, as it always did. It paled slightly.

"It's been three weeks," said Lex. "Am I being lax?"

"No." Just that word, eyes still fixed on his wrist.

"You're sure."


"Good. Then let's discuss Hoyt."


New York, London, Tokyo. For a beginning, it wasn't bad. Hoyt was tumbling on the NASDAQ, fueled by rumors that its military contracts were going to LexCorp instead. Sachiko had walked out on Willis Hoyt, who -- having left his wife and family for her -- was said to be suicidal and under a doctor's care. She had been welcomed most tenderly into the LexCorp family, where she'd been promised challenging work and a graduated series of bonuses to mend her broken heart.

Four weeks of travel and teleconferencing, and they were back in Metropolis. Spring had ended, and summer was here, baking the streets, reminding the wealthy why they liked to live in towers on the river.

The creature was less free to roam here, but Lex hardly considered exile to the penthouse equivalent to a season at the Kansas Penitentiary. Though you'd think so from its restlessness. Food, newspapers, television, air conditioning, a view, and it still projected bitterness. For a psychological weapon from beyond the stars, the thing was damned high-maintenance.

In late June, Chloe came. It was the kind of day when people walked straight home and into the shower, shedding clothes as they went. Chloe wore a blue summer dress that showed a tiny damp spot between her breasts, and her light hair clung wetly to her forehead. She rode up in the elevator standing straight behind the doors in an attitude of forced dignity, her face on the security cameras looking a trace more lost than usual. The creature watched her, then nodded to Lex and disappeared into the back rooms just as the doorbell rang.

Lex had meant to meet that look of stubborn dignity with a formality of his own, but one glance at her face and he found himself embracing her. She held on tight, and when she finally released him, they were sharing a look of mutual loss that he hadn't expected either.

"Are you still staying in Metropolis?" The first words out of his mouth. He didn't explain, didn't excuse. The death of the person they'd both loved had forced them too close together for that.

She nodded, knowing what he meant. Yes, Clark wasn't here, but she was staying anyway. "I'm investigating, Lex. I have to. Talking with his friends, the people in his dorm..."

"I understood there were no witnesses to anything."

"There aren't."

"And that the police had questioned everyone."

"They did."

He nodded. No need to explain, he would do the same thing in her place. Had had to fake doing the same thing, in fact. "My own people didn't find anything," he said.

"But they're still on the case."

"Of course."

He wasn't worried. There was no evidence that she could ever uncover. If she had to do this, he would allow it -- would help her, if she asked.

She sat on the plum-colored sofa and ran a hand idly over the nap. "Remember the first time I got really drunk, and woke up on this sofa at ten in the morning?"

"Believe me, Chloe, that night was an eye-opener all around."

"Yeah, the image of Clark trying to dance to 'Love Shack' will haunt me till my grave."

"I know. All those fencing lessons, and the whole 'grace and carriage' thing went right out the window as soon as the B52s came on."

She curled her bare legs up on the sofa and tilted her head back, enjoying the air conditioning. She sighed, and looked back at Lex more seriously. "I've never been sensitive to etiquette, Lex. Should I not mention our days in Clarkworld? I can't talk about him with his parents -- except, you know, the investigative stuff. And I always thought... you and I..."

"I know. You and I, Chloe. It's all right."

"Because I have to. Maybe if he were here, I wouldn't have to, but he's not, so this is as close as I can get -- "

"It's all right."

She got up, walked over to the loveseat, and curled up beside him. Like a kid. Forcing herself past the famous Luthor gates of personal space.

He didn't mind, though. They sat there, motionless, for a while, his hand on her bare shoulder. Every now and then she would bring up another story -- remember the dance? Remember that Christmas? Her hair smelled clean and good. And it had been a long time since Lex had been touched by anybody he liked.


It came out of the back rooms when Chloe left, and stood by the window, watching her speck walk away, sixty floors below. Then it turned to Lex. "I want to tell her I'm alive."

He shook his head. "Even if you asked, she'd never keep it a secret from the Kents."

"Listen. I've thought about this. Let me revive Clark Kent."


"It's only been a few weeks. I can say I ran away, that I was... backpacking in Alaska or something. I'll apologize for letting everyone worry..."

"The police might accept that. Do you think Clark's parents would?"

"Good liar, Lex, remember? They know I'm different. I'll say I had a strange reaction to a meteor rock, woke up six weeks later, have no memory of what happened."

Lex imagined driving the thing to Smallville in his car, watching as the door to the Kent house opened and Martha and Jonathan embraced this mimicked creature, thrilled at its return. Like reaching for a twig on a branch and finding some monstrous stick-insect instead. His stomach turned over. "Hard though it is to believe, I'm actually not that bad a person," he said.

It met his eyes. "I'm grown now. I'd only go home for holidays. You could come with me, see that I didn't do any harm..."

"No. I know you're tired of being shut up in the penthouse, but I'm not letting you hurt any more people."

It pushed beyond its usual discretion. "You didn't create a cover story for me at first because you and Lionel thought I'd be in that lab forever, right? Or until you killed me."

Lex made no response.

"Things are different now. Don't you want me to work for you in Metropolis? What if someone recognized me? Isn't it better to get our own spin out there first?"

He was still silent. It pulled over the ottoman and sat, facing him. Deep green changeling gaze. "They hurt, Lex."

"As if you care."

"You do."

He did. Surely it would ease their pain...

With sweet, poison candy. If they knew what he did, would they thank him?

He said, troubled, "Don't ask this again."


A long, slow, hot afternoon. You could feel the heat whenever the creature pushed the door open and walked out onto the terrace. Like there was a hell somewhere far below, and the updrafts were working slowly toward heaven.

Up here, though, you were untouchable. At least from the heat.

Chloe had been gone for a few hours. Lex stayed in the leather armchair that faced the terrace, the bottle of scotch on the floor beside him. He was vaguely aware of the creature walking in and out, moving around outside, entering again for a shower, and finally coming to sit, cross-legged, on the floor beside his feet.

It said nothing. That was restful, he thought.

Finally: "You're tired," it said quietly.

At least it wasn't talking about Chloe or strategies or belief in fantasy worlds. That was rather nice, too. He used to hate it when anyone, including Clark, told him he was tired, in an "I'll decide when I'm tired" kind of way... but this wasn't Clark. And God, he was tired.

His shoes were already off. It lifted a foot gently and peeled away one of his socks. He was so tired, in fact, and the action happened so naturally, it look him a moment to realize he should object.

"What are you doing?" Even his voice didn't have much force.

It bent its head, stroked the top of his foot, and looked up at him. "Making you feel better. Didn't we agree that was in my best interest?"

It pulled off the other sock and kneaded his foot, gently pushing and stretching the muscles. It felt wonderful. He hadn't had a massage in months -- it was hard to remember there was a time he'd scheduled them regularly.

Then it kissed the sole of his foot, and he felt the tip of its tongue, and the tiny electric current that sizzled up into his body from just that pressure on his flesh.

"Fuck. Stop it." Unfortunately, he was looking down when he said it -- the gaze was meant to emphasize the order, but it was hard to be convincing when you were so close to those eyes. Wide-open, calm, certain about what they were doing. The new haircut only served to emphasize the pure Raphael beauty of its face, and its total quiet focus on Lex was making strange things happen in his groin. Fuck, he thought to himself, not even sure if he could say it again aloud.

"You've wanted me for a long time, haven't you? Wanted this."

"Don't touch me."

"Why not? There's no danger. You have all the power. You can make me do anything." It bent its beautiful head, mouthed the ankle gently, ran its tongue along the bone. "Anything at all." It looked up, smiling.

Lex was breathing in isolated pockets, and his face felt frozen.

A hand slid up his leg, shifting his pants up, and the mouth followed it. Tongue and suck, tongue and suck. Nearly to his knee.

A kind of paralysis had set in. The room had become almost oppressive in its warmth, and that was fine. Everything was fine, so long as he didn't move, didn't end what he should end or collaborate in what he should be disowning.

"Take off your clothes." A brush of fingers over the cotton that covered his cock, as though that would illustrate the point. From the involuntary shiver that ran through him, maybe it did.

He was about to call his scattered troops together to put a stop to this, when it occurred to him --

Why not?

The weakness, after all, was in not knowing fantasy from reality. Now he knew. Why not accept the fantasy, then, as a welcome respite? As simple pleasure, solace, a way of keeping the serpent at bay? How was this different from paying a rentboy for an hour of his time and telling him to answer to the name of a movie star?

The creature was right. Whatever its reasons, it was making itself useful for once.

He raised himself a little, far enough to tug his pants down past his crotch. The rest of the way would be unnecessary work that didn't require his cooperation. The thing could damn well -- no, wait. You're not doing this right, Lex, are you? Close your eyes.

He did. He allowed his head to fall back.

He let go, entered the fantasy, felt the tongue and lips and fingers as those of Clark Kent, a person who'd never existed. And as someone who was never real in the first place, he could be perfect, and how appropriate was that for a sexual fantasy? Lex could let him do anything he wanted. He -- it -- would never dare hurt him.

The deft fingers pulled down his pants, ran over his thighs -- and stopped.

The cuts. He had dozens now. Some were fresh, ready to open again. The older ones were already scarring. Pain bloomed from the latest ones as the fingers explored, and he felt them withdraw.

He pulled them back. "No. I like it."

Clark had to touch everything, heal everything.

He turned his body over to the lover of his dreams, and let him tongue and repair and make sacred again every inch of skin.

And it was Clark. Experience and innocence, not even the stutter of hesitation, just the sense that there would be hesitation if Lex were not so precious, so greatly loved, that lack of true certainty had no place here. There were finding themselves, they were meant to find themselves, there had never been anything to worry about. Their pain was just a shadow, meaningless now.

Such incredible care taken of him, like being enveloped in light. It was so easy to believe that this was the Clark he'd thought about for years, wondered about; the Clark he told himself that saw, knew, accepted Lex's feelings, and didn't reach out to touch for the same reason Lex did not. Because a friendship that made life worth living was not to be carelessly risked.

By the time the lips were on his cock, he spun in goldenness. As he sped up the slope in the final rush, he heard himself say it aloud.


Golden, perfect moment. Falling into forever.


"Lex...!" Breathed out, shocked. The hands let go.

It was all there in the tone -- startled, deeply and unexpectedly moved, unable to hold back from responding to Lex, despite all that had happened. Truth found in bodies. The spear down, an outstretched hand. One word, and it was all there. You wouldn't think a syllable could hold that much.

And Lex understood at once. It thought he was a fool, easy prey -- thought this was a weakness it could exploit. Insult. Intolerable. Rage re-energized him, and without a word of warning, he sat up and touched his wrist.

The thing crumpled to the floor, screaming. He left it there, stepping over it to fetch the copy of the Planet on the sideboard. He flipped it open to the theater section, and scanned the list of plays for something Chloe might enjoy. He found two possibilities, tore them out, and touched his wrist again. As the screams stopped, he bent down to the creature's ear.

"You will not take liberties. Understood?"

A gasp. "Yes."

He nodded, satisfied. No need to repeat the dose, the alien was smart; it would understand that it was not to try to draw him back into a fantasy world. Lex wasn't interested in hurting for the sake of hurting, regardless of how it had nearly destroyed him once. The thing wasn't human, after all; may as well resent a panther for stalking and killing. He walked on to the shower to get ready for tonight. He'd promised to put in an appearance at the annual ball for Metropolis Children's Hospital.

As the steamy water hit him, washing off the creature's scent, he let out a hiss of pleasure. Fantasy sex and a hot shower; the science fiction stories you read as a kid never prepared you for the good stuff. Then he frowned for a moment... as the thing's head had turned, when he released it from the pain, there'd been a shininess at the corner of its eyes. As though it were crying. It hadn't cried before, regardless of the amount of exposure.

Silly to dwell on it, though. The lesson had been needed, and better administered at once, before it tried to take things further.

Mercy was for humans.


Twelve years old. His mother's coffin, and the stench of lilies.

Footsteps behind him on the marble floor of the cathedral. Mrs. Jenkins had asked him how he wanted to spend the two hours before the funeral; whether he wanted to go to the park or take a ride in the car along Riverside. Knowing without either of them needing to say it that staying in the house with Lionel was not a good idea right now.

He'd just wanted to come here. And wait.

"All those people," he said, feeling Mrs. Jenkins's hand slide into his. "People she didn't even like." In and out of the house, calling, asking when the funeral would be, getting their respects on record with his father. His mother's actual friends had gathered at the hospital, while she was still alive. Her death had confused and disordered them; her friends were not Lionel's, and they'd been thrown off and outnumbered by the placeholders, as he thought of them. The acquaintances and allies and enemies of his father who hurried to go through the motions, expressing clockwork concern.

He lifted the hand she held and looked at it. "Are you going to leave us now?" It was reasonable, he supposed. She'd worked for his mother, and his mother was -- not here.

"Lex... would you mind if I stayed?"

He looked at her questioningly.

Her voice was tentative, embarrassed, with the tinge of shyness that comes over some people when they talk about things that matter. "I promised your mother that I'd take care of you. If you don't mind. I wouldn't be taking her place -- but I could be your friend."

"I -- "

"Lex, wait before you answer. Your mother asked me to say... that she's asking you to let me."

Lex was silent. He liked Mrs. Jenkins, that was true. He liked the way she always put her arms around him without any hesitation. He liked her laugh and her books and the way she could sit on the floor and joke with his mother about things that would have made her cry, if she were alone. It would be good to have someone who could joke with you like that.

Even so. His mother was asking a big thing, a serious thing. But maybe this was the place for serious things; he'd never seen much point in cathedrals before, but the huge expanse of carved ceiling overhead now seemed necessary in containing so big a thing as death.

He trusted her. He trusted them both. He lifted his face, expecting -- expecting! -- that it would be kissed, and it was. She relaxed and smiled down.

He said, "Mrs. Jenkins, I heard Dad tell you to see him in the study after the funeral. Do you know what it's about? Is he thinking of sending me away to school?"

She shook her head, her hand firmly on his shoulder. "Not a clue." The hand tightened just a bit, possessively, and she smiled. "But since we're friends, I think you can call me Pamela."


He'd compartmentalized his sexual attraction to Clark years ago.

The seals had broken on that, with a vengeance. Now it was right there, a hand around his throat, every time he saw the creature cross the room. Dress. Bend intently over a book. Run a towel over its hair.

Theoretically, he should feel free to indulge. After all, it wasn't the sex that was the problem -- he just didn't want to hear that voice again, that voice that said it cared about him. But hopefully he'd put a stake through that.

Still. Vaguely risky, in a way he didn't like to examine too closely.

He took to spending more and more time away from the apartment. The thing would look at him when he came in, bastard fucking alien, as though it knew why he'd been gone so long.

He left a late board meeting one Friday, gave the stuffed briefcase to his limo driver, and walked along the river for two hours. Gradually he started making his way back to his own neighborhood, circling it as through there were a bomb somewhere inside.

He didn't want to lose himself in a club, the way he'd done when he was younger. Anonymous sex wasn't going to get his mind off Clark's body. He needed to think about something else, about the big picture, the grand plan, LexCorp and the human race; and he thought stopping at the bar of Dillon's, with its deep, expensive carpets and unobtrusive lighting and few patrons under thirty would be just the thing. Until he heard the subliminal music from the wall behind him, U2 chanting over and over again about desire.

Dillon's was across the street from the penthouse, visible from the windows, so maybe it shouldn't have surprised him when he stepped backward from the crowd at the bar, holding a new scotch, and found that the body he was pressing against was the one he'd been dwelling on for the last several hours.

He set the scotch down on the closest table and moved into the creature's personal space, walking them both back to the entrance to the restrooms. "I'm going to fuck you," he said.


He considered it.

"No." He took its hand, pulled it toward the door.

They crossed the dark street, its hand still docilely in his. It probably assumed he was taking it back to the apartment. And he was. Technically.

The doors closed on the penthouse elevator. He reached for its shirt and began unbuttoning. It started to help.

"Hands down," Lex said. He finished the shirt, ran a thumb over a nipple, and bent to suck at it. He could feel it harden under his tongue. Interesting. He moved to the neck, licked and sucked along the collarbone. His fingers strayed up to its chin, and... There... a small hitch in its breathing as he traced the lips with his thumb. They parted slightly, ready to take him in. He leaned back and inspected the face; it was flushed, the eyes a little dazed.

Autonomic reflexes fully in place. He pressed the elevator's "Stop" button. And saw wariness penetrate the daze.

He pulled down the fly, and turned it gently to face the wall. He embraced it from behind, his hands roaming over the neck and chest, lingering for a moment on the stomach where he stroked softly, not going further, yet. The muscles pressed against him were slowly liquifying, and the ass curved back into his hips. It reached for his arms.

"No. Keep your hands on the rail."

"Isn't there a camera in this elevator somewhere?"

"Yes." He kissed the curve of shoulder. "And a higher than fifty percent chance that someone's watching right now. Does it bother you?"

"You're the one..." -- warm exhale -- "with things left to lose."

"You're forgetting I own the cameras in this building. And the people who watch them."

"The way you own me?"

"Well, not in the specifics. But the situations are parallel. I like to know where I stand with people."

He pushed in against its thighs... fuck, he'd always loved Clark's thighs. Here the creature was, malleable and willing to accept anything he did; he may have lost Clark, but he'd gained Clark's body, and at the moment, it almost felt like a reasonable trade.

He said, conversationally, "You know, in the time of the Sun King, a duchess might fuck right in front of her footman."

"Because the footman wasn't an actual human being."

"Um-hmmm." Before silk was brought to the West, what could bards have possibly compared skin like this to?

"So if she actually fucked the footman himself, did that count?"

"Nothing counts if it's done with enough discretion."

"And look where that attitude got them." Breathy voice. Good.

"I'd say they did pretty well."

"There was a revolution, Lex. People were guillotined."

"Oh, the ending. Everyone always dwells on that. They created a court that lit up Europe."

He slipped two fingers in its soft mouth, let it wet them. Traced them down the river valley of its back and through the hills of its alien ass and slid inside. It twisted against him. Not through pain, he assumed.

"Am I hurting you?"

Its face pressed sideways now against the wall, expression contorted with lust. "Interesting... metaphysical... question."

"Anything I could do to make this better for you?" he inquired coolly.


He moved one hand around to its cock. A convulsive shiver ran through the creature's body.

"Anything at all. You've been so helpful."

A reflection of its face in the brass paneling, eyes big and dark and wild.

He leaned in and bit, hard, in the perfect center of the perfect S of its back. The thing's body curved up as though in a seizure.

"Just f-fuck me."

"Sure? The camera thing seemed to bother you."

"Fuck you, Lex. Fuck me."

A shade incoherent, but it got the point across. He shoved down its pants and plunged in.

Even here, even like this, it felt a little like coming home. The result of too many years of choked-off fantasies, he thought. It arched against him, and words were spilling from its throat, too soft to decipher... too bad the videocamera wouldn't have sound, he could have played it back later, dug in its head.

The tone of voice hitched up his arousal, though, and the rhythm of body on body was seeping into his brain and ripping the joined pieces of his thoughts apart like they were old pillows. Feathers everywhere.

When he finally came, it took a while to float back down, and there was a little start when he realized he was standing in an elevator in messy clothes, embracing his most dangerous enemy.

Or ally. Same thing.

He pulled back and cleared his throat. His voice felt wrong. "Clean up," he said, punching the elevator button. And not looking at its eyes.


You'd think that would have helped.

It let him do anything he wanted. It wasn't as though he could hurt it. He could have tied nails into a whip and beat it every night, and it would have quietly gone along with it.

With the farce. As though he could touch it inside. Inside, where the mystery looked out and planned and judged him.

"Hoyt's bankrupt," said Lionel, at the end of June.

"Fast fall. Splashy landing."

"He was propping up R& D with his real estate money." A pause. "He blames you."

"Tell him to take a number," Lex said.


"Where are you going?" it asked him that morning. He'd dismissed the limo driver, and had the valet bring his car around.

"A ride."

It studied him. He hated that fucking look, like it was lifting his skin to check the gears beneath.

"South?" it asked, with the pointed discretion of an oppressed people.

He slammed the door.


Pain radiated from the very walls of the Kent house. Stiff smiles, polite answers, always welcome here, good of you to come. Jonathan excused himself early, after walking restlessly around the room, and Martha sat Lex at the kitchen table and gave him tea in a faded Delft cup.

"Have the police found anything?" he asked.

She shook her head. She moved to the screen door, checked that Jonathan was out of earshot, and said, "We don't talk about it, but we both..." She bit her lip. "Clark would call. Or come back to us. He would, you see, if he were alive at all. Nothing would hold him back."

Because your son is the strongest thing on the planet? You should see what a rock bracelet and some well-explained threats will do.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." And he was. Her pain dripped on him like acid, and if he could turn his face into it and spare her, he would.

He lifted the top of the familiar blue and white sugarpot, and stopped. It was empty. She noticed and her voice became embarrassed. "I should have warned you. I keep forgetting to buy sugar."

"It's all right."

"We've been drinking tea without it. It doesn't seem to matter." She forced herself to stop fussing and sit across the table from him. "I know this sounds stupid, but -- I mean, it's like that in the morning, too. I get up and I kick off my slippers and pick up my shoes, and I think, why am I getting dressed?" She gave a short, humorless laugh. "Of course, I do, we both do, because that's how you go through the day, and I don't mean we're basketcases, really. We work and go to the store and do everything we need to. The extras, though... it's nearly July, and usually Jonathan will have the storm windows down, and the screens put in, and now the storm windows are still there and they're grimy from the winter. I used to bug him about it for days, starting every May. I can't imagine that, though, can you? Why would anyone care?"


He drove away from the house in his open car, feeling the shadow of wings overhead, the uprush from his dreams before the bird's talons would rip into his belly.

I wonder if it's their suffering, he thought. If that's what I've been feeling, when I lay down in bed. I'm trying to take it on myself, and I can't.

God, I wish I could. They deserve so much more.

And yet.

The house was cleaner without it in it, he reminded himself. The innocents had held a scorpion to their breast, and now the shadow was removed. They would heal eventually.

Heal to what? A functional half-life? Tell me, Lex -- since the truth is so important to you -- imagine Martha Kent, age 65. Do you think a day goes by that she doesn't think about Clark at least once?

The sun went down as he drove north, turning the fields to gold. By the time he reached Metropolis it was full dark, the city's lights on. It was all sublimely beautiful, and Lex wondered if it was actually possible to die of self-loathing.


All the way home he kept visualizing the kitchen knives, and the scissors in the drawer of his bedroom. Especially the scissors. A beautiful set, made in Germany, and maybe you could make fun of that, rich guy with his perfectly balanced fucking scissors, but they'd lasted twenty years and still cut through cardboard like butter. And you could use them left-handed.

He made sure he was under control before he stepped into the penthouse. He strolled across the room easily, passing the creature, who sat on the floor reading a book from Lex's library. A Journal of the Plague Year. Wasn't that appropriate.

"How did it go -- " The thing looked up and stopped, focused on his face.

Which Lex would swear showed nothing. "Fine. I'm going to take a nap. No dinner, so go on and eat if you're hungry."

He walked on into his bedroom, turned, and found it had followed right on his heels. The eyes six inches from his. The anger he felt startled him. "Get out of my bedr--"

It grabbed him and pushed him against the wall, holding his wrists, the left one just above the band, so he couldn't have activated it if he'd wanted to. He felt the body against his, his own eyes wide with shock. And with... recognition. Of something.

It leaned in further. The tongue flickered out, lizardlike, against his lips. He felt a tingle run crazily from the top of his head to his toes. Then it bit gently at his upper lip, and he felt his mouth open for a kiss. It plunged against him, mouth, tongue, thighs, hands steel around his wrists and one thumb stroking his empty palm.

After an unknown amount of time his mouth was released. He gasped for breath, not sure what just happened. The thumb still stroked his palm.

It leaned in and spoke into his ear, voice diamond-hard. "Lex, I think I'm going to fuck you now. What do you say to that?"

His knees nearly gave out. "Oh, please, yes."

It let go of his wrists and he managed to get onto the bed. Oh, he thought vaguely then -- clothes. He knelt up straight, trying to open his belt, and it slapped his hands away with a movement like the careless paw of a leopard: This is power, Lex. In case you were wondering. Enjoy your little lead-and-meteor toys.

Pants yanked off easily. He was pushed down onto his stomach. And now, very, very belatedly, second thoughts surfaced. What could this thing do inside him? He started to lift his head. "I don't know -- "

Big hand on his neck, shoving him down into the mattress. Dark head bent to his ear. "Oh, no, Lex. This time you're the one who's not a real boy." A lick behind that ear. "Something I think we already knew."

That hand on his neck was sending some kind of signal straight through his body to his cock, which was hard against the mattress. Almost unnaturally hard, as though he'd turned into an alien himself. And he wasn't even trying to activate the band.

A second hand moved measuringly down his back to his ass -- possessive, inspecting, readying him for a coffin or a fucking, maybe both, and his entire body shivered and wouldn't stop.

"Tell me... when you called my dorm that night, when I was studying? Did you know about me then?"

"N-no." Voice, dammit. Voice. He could do better with the voice --

Leisurely track of mouth along his shoulderblade. Soft bite at the tip. "So that day in the car, the drive out to the lab -- that was the first time."

"Yes." That was better. Marginally. He wouldn't risk any long sentences, though.

A pointedly thoughtful stroke of a thumb from the hand still on his neck. "Hmmm. Sort of an anniversary, then, isn't it? Two months. Of course, it's not quite midnight for a few hours yet. But you've never followed other people's rules anyway, right?"

Reminding him that he was letting something nonhuman fuck him. That this wasn't even close to Clark.

God, it was such a relief.

The mouth had reached his other ear and stopped there. Teeth played with the lobe, warm breath on the skin. There were maybe three inches of flesh there that it decided to investigate in detail, back and forth, gentle stroking of inexhaustible tongue; and really there should be a time limit, something, because while those three inches were starting to feel really strange, a sense of warmth and languor was spreading out over his whole body. Little sizzles and crackles behind it.

Lex was someone who was rarely unaware of the passage of time during sex, no matter how good it was; he lived three or four steps behind all that he had to accomplish in this lifetime. But that time-sense was definitely eroding when it came to the creature. Maybe it was another super-alien ability.

"You have something?"

His brain was firing so slowly it took a second to penetrate. "Top drawer."

Then the body was, wrongly, gone, and he was alone. He had to check the terrible urge to follow it across the room. He heard the drawer pulled open, and it suddenly occurred to him that the scissors were in there, too, and he felt a twinge of alarm... but that was ridiculous. What awful secret was he hiding, anyway? They were just scissors. No reason they should mean anything to it.

But now that he was momentarily alone again, and the fizzing and sparking had died down a little -- yes, maybe this was a mistake on many levels, and though his bones didn't feel particularly solid at the moment, perhaps he should --

He'd barely shifted when it was back, pushing him down, and the bite of teeth at the junction of neck and shoulder felt as if it were an electric plug, straight into his spine. His body jerked with pleasure. More current than he could handle.

It pulled his hands above his head. Warm words in his ear, uncoiling like little snakes, sliding unopposed into his head like lovely poison, like the right kind of dripping serpent's acid, a dream you'd stay in forever.

"Understand, Lex. No decision you make here tonight is going to have any effect on anybody."

Oh, fuck. A soft response in his throat, a sound he couldn't even define, but he had no doubt the brain behind those hands and teeth could decode it. Gratitude. He found he was pushing his ass up against the thing.

It shoved him down again, and when the fingers finally slid in he shifted impatiently, just wanting it inside and fuck the biological considerations. One stinging slap, and he froze in shock..

It sat up, straddling him, and he could still feel the crack of warmth settling through his body like an earth tremor. Voice, conversational: "I could do it again."

"Oh, god. Oh, god." He didn't care what his voice sounded like, and if the entire boardroom of LexCorp walked in, he frankly wouldn't have cared about that either. "Just -- please -- I can't -- "

One more slap, and he jerked, only slightly less shocked than before.

And his hands had apparently already found their way to the headboard, because when he was told, "Hold on," his palms were curled hard around the carved wood.

It plunged inside him. He felt the pain and was grateful for that, too, and gripped the headboard tighter. When the wash of pleasure came behind it, he was less comfortable. Switches were tripping over all through his body, like the lights of Metropolis at twilight, and he wanted to keep some little place untouched, some corner he could go back to later, where the creature had never been.

Except it was filling him entirely, and not just physically. And he wanted more, wanted it to shove in again and again, wanted the weight pushing him down until he dissolved utterly --

He came with a prolonged shock of freefall that rivaled what he'd felt the night he learned the truth. One long, black soar.

It rolled off him finally, one hand still on his neck, now a gentle, assumed weight. Eyes closed. He felt himself descending into sleep, and thought, maybe that worked. Maybe I can do that and not be contaminated. One corner of my soul untouched, that's all I need, I can live on a corner...

Except, if it was untouched... why was his throat raw?


Lionel swept in the next morning in person, with two Wall Street Journals, one already tucked under his arm and one he'd picked up outside Lex's door.

Lex met him in the living room, wearing only a pair of pajama bottoms that he'd yanked on hastily. He offered Lionel orange juice and hoped that the creature wouldn't stroll in on them in any manner that suggested a straight line from his bedroom.

Lionel tossed him one of the Journals. "The decline and fall of Willis Hoyt."

"Nice," said Lex, looking at the sketch of Hoyt's pained face that topped the column. "Hubris, seeds of his own destruction?"

Lionel shrugged. "More or less."

"Newspaper people are all the same. They want reasons."

"I thought we might go after Mendelssohn next," Lionel said, his head turning as he followed the creature's entrance into the room. It had pulled on a pair of pants and thrown a white shirt over them, open down the middle. Hair touseled, skin glowing, was it possible to look more like sex?

Or was that thought coming out of his own obsessed mind? If it was, he had to make utterly sure it stayed there, and that Lionel didn't catch it. If it wasn't...

His father's glance moved to Lex, then back to the creature. "Sleep well?" he inquired mildly.

It poured a glass of milk from the carton in its right hand and said, "Fine, thanks."

Lex carefully did not look in its direction. Lionel might not mind if he were exploiting the situation for sex, but he'd already expressed doubts that Lex could handle things emotionally, and this would feed right into that. He didn't dare show weakness before his father. Dad would have teeth in his throat in an instant; it was a reflex. And if he didn't trust Lex any more to control their alien prize, he'd confiscate it -- or try to; and in his present state, Lex didn't feel as sure of winning as he usually did.

Lionel took a chair near the terrace, as though he'd just decided to stay for breakfast. "How are you doing, son?"

Actually, Dad, I'm holding onto sanity by my teeth, but it seems to help a little when I let our Prisoner From Outer Space fuck me. And you?


"Not very talkative, though."

I guess intensive, submissive sex can take a lot out of you. Or maybe it's just you, Dad. "Yeah, well, I'd planned on sleeping in. So much for that idea."

Oh, Christ. The creature was sitting down, too. He'd have to look at it, or it would seem suspicious.

"Enjoy your travels?"

Lex was about to answer when he saw Lionel was addressing it. His discomfort level increased.

"I wanted to visit Saint Paul's and the Tower of London."

Lex interjected, "I'm afraid it was stuck at the Savoy a lot of the time."

"But beautiful views from those rooms," Lionel said, with every appearance of enthusiasm. He smiled and turned to face his son. "You know, an idea occurs to me, Lex."

Fuck. He knows. "Oh?"

"I thought I might bring our visitor back to the house for a few days. Get a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses. Convey my preferences to it in terms of... information exchange."

Lex, I'm going to fuck your alien. Objections?

The creature was looking at him, too. Not accusingly. Waiting.

He got to his feet "Is this a test?"

"I'm not sure what you mean." A pause. "But everything's a test, isn't it? As you know."

He did know. He walked over to the bar, planning to do something with his hands while he tried to cover, and realized only as he was facing the liquor bottles that this was the last thing he wanted to do in front of his father.

He was panicking. The creature was fucking with him, he was sure of it, pulling his sanity off in strips like a kid might the wings of a fly. At the same time, he'd sailed too near the maelstrom. He needed the thing here, he needed to touch it, or he was going to go under. He licked dry lips.

"Now?" he asked.

It was always "now" with his father.

"Why not?"

"I have plans for it today."


Don't excuse, don't explain. He fixed his father with a direct look. "Tonight. I'll bring it by tonight."

Lionel considered it. "All right, Lex. If that's more convenient for you." He smiled. "It's been ages since you've been by for dinner."


It sat there watching him after Lionel left. Watched as he strode back to the bar and poured a large glass, eight in the morning be damned.

He turned from the bottle, met those searching eyes and thought, No. No. It's your damned fault! Three months ago I could have handled my father. I could have handled anything. I had LexCorp, I had Clark at my side, I had a vision of the future that hadn't drifted into the Twilight Zone.

I wasn't alone.

It said, calmly, "What time tonight?"

He opened his mouth, and the bile of the words made him sick as they came out. "I wonder how Jonathan Kent would feel if he could see photos of his son, shared Luthor whore?"

He waited. Cool eyes met his, and there was no emotion at all in the voice. "That would hurt Clark, not me. Which of us were you aiming for?"

Fuck. He was unraveling.

He closed down the impulse to hurl his glass against the wall and made sure that his voice was even. "Get out."

The thing was no fool. It stood up at once. "Where?"

"I don't care. Don't come back for three hours."

It grabbed its wallet, with Jeffrey Kates's driver's license, and walked out. Quickly, which was the only satisfaction Lex got out of the whole thing.


Sex, drugs, driving fast, winning. There just aren't that many things that will give you a hit when you need one; the rest are variations on the above. Taking a hairpin turn on a mountain road while driving. Hurting an enemy while winning.

Hurting an enemy while having sex...

He was far too impatient to wait for a valet. He took the Ferrari and drove true north, flying past the suburbs till he reached the lake, high and exhausted and sick from not eating since lunch yesterday. (Not sick from anything else. Not if he chose not to be.) He parked near the shore.

Well, here's a lesson, Lex; now all you can do is turn around and go back.

Not yet, though. There was an old lodge somewhere along this shore, where Dad used to take them when Lex was very young. Pre-meteor-shower. He'd look for it.

Lex laughed. Suddenly he understood those idiots the police would follow in lengthy car chases. People would always watch the -- well, you couldn't call it drama; lack of drama, maybe -- unfold on the helicopter footage, and mock the drivers. How did they think they were going to escape?

They don't. They just don't want to stop, open the door, and make it all real. Anything to delay that moment.

He found the lodge bowed out from a stand of trees at the shoreline, abandoned, the boathouse underneath still housing an old, rotting vessel whose interior showed dials and switches set in mahogany. Built in the 50s, once loved and cared for. Lex preferred to believe he was not sentimental about the workings of entropy, and he shrugged the ghostlike atmosphere of the place off, till he found an old, yellowing paperback his mother had been reading.

He picked it up. John D. MacDonald. Redolent of the summer of '87, and even then it must have been old, for you could see the figures on the front had stepped out of the Sixties.

He could take it with him.

Or... he could burn the lodge down.

It blossomed out of nowhere, that thought, beautifully freeing. "Tortured on a rack of time's compressing..." Where was that from? All day he'd been scrabbling around like a bug trying to escape a kid with a magnifying glass. Forget it, let it go, cut himself off from all that crap! Why was he even trying to be human? Here he was in this dusty rattrap, as though he was mourning his own death in advance. As though tonight were the funeral, and this day the wake. Drawn to the lodge as to a cathedral.

Fuck it.

He got back in the car and turned it around. He didn't need to burn the place down. He could burn it down in his head.

He'd killed a lot of people there.


A stop for one scotch at Dillon's, no harm in that, and he had just stepped out onto the sidewalk again when Hoyt appeared, blocking his way. He wore a suit, as though he were on his way to work, and carried a briefcase.


His face had the sullenness of a child punished unfairly. The eyes were squinted against the brightness of the world.

"Will. Do you want something from me?" Hoyt was another dead man as far as Lex was concerned, and the dead could be tiresome when they insisted on speaking to you. Lex had things to do this afternoon, and dinner with his father tonight. He glanced at his watch.

Hoyt had been a CEO for twenty-five years. People had hung on his every word. Lex knew the bit with the watch would annoy him, but he hadn't expected -- well, the word "apeshit" came to mind. Hoyt grabbed Lex's shoulder. "You don't know!" he screeched. "You don't know what you've fuckin' done, you little bald prick!"

Lex considered coldly: a sharp blow to the solar plexus, and he could drop this madman like yesterday's newspaper and walk on with his life.

Then Hoyt cried in a raw voice, "She changed my life! She was everything!"

And Lex veered on a dime. Amazing -- Hoyt was more upset about Sachiko than about his company, his reputation, his CEOship. His vanishing money.

Even the dead can surprise you.

And in tribute to that surprise, Lex made an exception to his "don't excuse or explain" policy. He made his voice conciliatory. "What I did was in the game, Will, you know that. But Sachiko isn't -- "

"She's at LexCorp, you think I don't know?"

"But her personal life is her own. If there's really something between you -- "

"You're fucking her, you smug freak! The same way you fucked me!"

Shit. That glance at her legs had been a mistake, but who knew?

Then several things happened at once.

Lex saw the creature, standing across the street watching them. His eyes narrowed. Was it following me? Why?

Hoyt brought his arms up toward Lex's face and flipped the toggle on his briefcase as though the act would send a message.

And it did. Time slowed. There was a loud noise -- somewhere far away. Lex felt a sense of vacuum in his body, and apparently the creature was not across the street at all, because he felt arms around him that he would recognize anywhere, and then they were both lifted into the air and shoved forward by an invisible fist.


He had a vague idea of what had happened, but he couldn't seem to retain it. He felt arms lift him carefully, and as he drifted in and out of consciousness he was aware of being carried up flights of stairs. His head was muzzy and thoughts were hard to focus on.

Now that he was vulnerable, it might try something... but no. The arrangements were too carefully made for that; his safety was still all that stood between it and pain. Even so...

"You'll regret it if you hurt me," he murmured.

"I know," said the voice. Strangely broken.


Then he was in bed, somehow. Clean sheets pulled up. A wet cloth carefully touched to a cut on his face. His brain switched into clarity for a moment.


"I got us out of there too quickly to be seen. I don't think there'll be any tough questions to answer; you won't be found anywhere near the crime scene, and you obviously haven't been blown up."

Good. He really didn't want the scrutiny.

It went on, "It doesn't look like anything's hurt internally. Maybe a slight concussion, hard to tell."

"Won't be the first time for that," he murmured.

"Yeah. I figured you wouldn't want a hospital."

A movement on the bed, and it was sitting beside him. A soft hand stroked his uncut cheek. "Your body's had a shock, though. You should sleep. I'll keep watch in case there's a problem."

Spoken like an offered gift. God, he wanted to sleep. Forever, maybe.

And no dreams.

Rhythmic strokes along his face. He was about to relinquish consciousness when a thought occurred.


There was a pause. The hand was taken away, the balance of the mattress changed, and it was on its feet, moving a glass of water near the bed. "I couldn't shield you both," it said finally.

He thought about that. "He did bring the bomb to the party."

"I know."

Of course it would make sense for it to save him, and not Hoyt; when Lex's pulse stopped, the pain would begin. He opened his mouth, and heard himself say, "You can't blame yourself for everything."

It gave him a sharp look, and he couldn't even bring himself to feel alarmed over the slip, that was how tired he was. He settled back into the propped-up pillows.

But apparently his mouth wasn't done. "Why?"

He wasn't sure what he meant -- maybe, why this consideration? This gentle care, when tonight it was to be delivered like a parcel to his father?

But it seemed to think he was asking something else. Or maybe he was dreaming, now, because as he slipped down into sleep he could just see the creature's dark outline against the shut curtains, a faint afternoon glow behind, and maybe the voice that followed was from his own head.

"Why? Because given two possible answers, you always choose the dark and assume the light is a lie."

It shifted then, moving closer, and the voice in his head spoke calmly.

"And the only victims who survived the Salem witch trials were the ones who confessed."


Dreams, snatches of things, places melting into each other. He hears the sound of the acid poison dripping, moves through the shadows. Why isn't he tied up, being punished?

Oh. He is. It's the Kent Farm, the walls of the kitchen the same shade they were six years ago. Clark's cooking at the stove, and Lex is trying to get his attention.

"Clark, please. I know what happened with the car. You can tell me the truth; you can tell me anything."

"Oh, come on, like you care about the truth. Sure, Lex, I rode a broomstick to the Black Sabbath. That's what you wanted to hear, wasn't it? Sure, I'll be glad to convert to any god you like, just untie me from this rack and give me what you want signed..."

Lex sits, exhausted. Maybe there's a law of conservation of pain. Maybe it only gets pushed around from person to person. From my father to me, from me to the Kents.

He looks up from the breakfast plates and finds himself facing the Clark of today. The creature. Merciless eyes look back at him.

"You're lying," Lex says.

"Of course I am. JFK's assassination? That was me, too."


He woke to twilight and the first wave of the city's lights glittering through the curtains. At this time of year, it must be... nearly nine o'clock. He was late for dinner. After a while, his father would call.

The world was predictable after all, wasn't it.

He spoke to the shadow sitting in the corner. "You should get your clothes together."

It made a sound of vague assent.

Lex contradicted himself, just as reasonably. "I can't go on like this."

"No, I know." Spoken calmly.

"I guess this is a privileged moment for you. A Luthor admits weakness."

"You've never really gotten a good look at yourself, have you? You're the strongest person I know. You're just carrying too much."

"It's tempting to believe that. Will you take me out on the terrace and offer me the kingdoms of the Earth, too?"

"Maybe later."

Smartass alien. He should take control of this, give some orders. Tell it to get him a glass of water... no, it had thoughtfully provided a fresh glass already. "Get me a scotch."

It hesitated. "In your condition -- "

"That wasn't a request." He stared it down.

It stood and left the room without further dispute. He got out of bed at once and padded over to the bureau, feeling a magnetic pull he didn't even try to resist. The solution to all problems... maybe literally, this time; go with it, Lex, see where it takes you.

It occurred to him suddenly that maybe they were gone, maybe the creature had moved them. Why he would think that, he didn't know. But he slid open the drawer and breathed a sigh of relief.

Salvation gleamed in stainless steel.

He picked them up, touched the blades.

And then a hand was on his wrist, and they were ripped from his fingers. He heard a sound as they were thrown across the room -- a thud, not a clatter -- and he looked. Embedded in the wall, and not even point-first. It would take a hammer and chisel to get them out of there.

Enraged, he twisted his wrist away, and it was duly released. "You have no fucking right -- "

"No! No more answers there."

He stepped back and gave it his full glare, the one that made LexCorp executives pale. And he didn't have anywhere near the options with them that he had with it. "You know what I can do to you." He spat it out, visualizing the thing on the floor, screaming. The image made him feel better. Maybe it was worth exploring.

And it stepped forward without hesitation, following him. It put hands on his shoulders and leaned in -- intense, focused, almost another person entirely. A person he knew. Deep, clear, blue-green eyes. "I promise you, I will fix this, I will save you, but you have to let me in."

Let me in, Lex. We're still friends, aren't we? I swear I didn't tell him. Call me Pamela. Dad, can I have this one? Look, he knows he's mine, he came right up to me! I'll always be here for you, son.

He pushed by, walked into the living room. It followed.

"What are you, now, a therapist?"

"I'm your friend. And you need one, badly."

He threw himself into the armchair and ran his hands over his face. Trapped in a box, no way out, and how did it happen? He'd been so careful all his life.

"Just take the first step."

He looked up. "What's that, admitting I have a problem?"

"You know what it is."

"I can't. I can't. You know I can't."

"You're stronger than you think."

"Shut up."

"I won't hurt you. I'll never hurt you."

"Shut up!"

It ignored him, circling the chair. "Do it now. Tonight. Before all those failsafes catch up with you again."

"You mean my survival instinct, don't you?"

"Because once they do, you'll never escape. Is that what you want? How long can you live like this?"

So much for the diffidence born of applied torture. This was a new persona, a new tone. Certain, almost commanding. He could imagine the commercial, a little hysterically: Not just for the bedroom any more.

It knew he wouldn't push the button. And it was right, of course. There was some theoretical universe in which Lex could very easily push the button; it was a simple, physical movement, after all; but here, in this universe, today, he didn't see it happening.

He was so incredibly fucked up.

He got up and walked away from it. Except it was there, somehow, in front of him, arms against the wall on either side, holding him captive. It leaned in and kissed him, and he opened his mouth for it, because that seemed to be his body's new tradition. After a moment it drew back.

"What do you think, Lex? Do you think somehow, down the road, things will be different? And when would that be? When someone comes into your life who honestly wants to stay with you? Tell me, how would you ever know when that happened?"

Tone of sarcasm he'd be proud of himself. Words like a drill. He cleared his throat. "I don't need -- "

"Hope? Is that what you don't need? Yeah, you're doing pretty fucking well without it, aren't you?"

His father's voice: Don't let it in your head again, Lex. Thanks, Dad, but you're a little late. Was this an intervention or an attack? And was there a difference any more?

The phone rang. He glanced toward it. Who but his father?

It stepped back, giving him space. "Don't answer it. This is your decision."

The cold fear of that. "And yet, I think he'll have something to say about it."

"We'll find an answer to him. It's your choice that counts here, Lex. That counts with me."

Sure, open the door to the fantasy world, and everything would be good again. No more nightmares, no more loneliness. Let down your guard, give it whatever it wants, and it'll make you happy. Probably something in its very sweat, the scent of its body, that induced euphoria and comfort and what human wouldn't become addicted?

Maybe it was worth it. How long was he going to last as he was?

He looked down, saw his hands were shaking. "How could you? If it were true, how could you forgive me?"

"We had six years together, Lex, and two months of insanity. Weren't you listening? You can't just turn someone off like a tap. That goes for me, too."

"I hurt you."

"Because you're broken. Not out of malice. You hate yourself more than you ever did me."

He was broken, all right. Didn't they say that that was one of the things that tempted schizophrenics to flush their medication down the toilet? The fact that in their delusion they were the center of the universe, part of an exciting drama, while when they took their pills they turned into just another guy in a mental hospital?

Everything you want, Lex. But it might not be real.

"How can I know?" He was amazed at the open pain in his voice. It was happening anyway, he was displaying his vulnerability, and in front of the last one on earth who should see it.

"You can't."

He looked at that face, the face he had loved. As though it had disappointed him.

Wry tone. "Did you expect me to say, 'Look in your heart?' This isn't a movie, Lex."


"And your heart's one sulky bitch, you know. It wouldn't accept Mother Teresa without ID and a written agenda. God, I wouldn't trust your heart to get out of the car and walk a straight line."

He laughed, tinged with hysteria. He wouldn't trust it, either.

Gentle hands turned his head so that he looked into that face. A thumbstroke over one temple and then the voice, so very clear.

"Beloved. Listen to me:

"The last 18 years were an act. Or the last two months were.

"I'm your dearest friend who will love you no matter what you say here, or I'm something else, using you for my own purposes.

"I'm Clark. Or I'm not."

He felt his hand lifted with utter gentleness, touched to the other's cheek. The voice turned soft, but the words were just as hard. "One of these is a lie. Which one?"

Choose, Lex.

A leap of faith. There was nothing else left. And I don't even approve of faith, he thought.

Scars on his body. Invisible scars on Chloe and the Kents. The walls of a house that groaned with pain. The dripping of poison in the night. He should be strong, he should be able to hold all that weight inside himself, for the sake of the truth. He did approve of truth, he worshipped at its altar.

Except he didn't know what the truth was.

All he knew was that he couldn't be that person any longer. Not even another minute.

He touched his wrist, entered the emergency code, and pulled off the band. He set it on the table.

"It can be destroyed now. It's safe."

A second later it was a melted, smoking ruin on the cherrywood surface.

He felt himself collapsing, said the words he had to: "Clark. Help me, please."

And then -- hands lifting him swiftly, as though they would never let him fall, his own urgent value evident in the very touch, and he was pulled into an embrace. He felt the warm breath, the tears, the inhumanly strong heart beating against his, and after a moment his arm lifted of its own accord and buried itself in the soft, black hair. God. As though he were a planet pulled into the orbit of the sun.

"Oh, Lex. Lex, I was so afraid I couldn't save you."

And then he was pushed back just far enough for their eyes to meet.

To see the smile -- that smile of diffused radiance that comes after great trial; the quiet smile of relief when a loved one is carried alive from a burning building, the smile of hope answered, the smile that follows a long, hard war of attrition, when all is over but the heart has survived. Impossible not to respond.

He kissed its forehead, its lips, its eyelids wet with tears.

He knew it would hurt him eventually, but he couldn't hold out any more.

"And they gave me their comfort, and later they gave me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been traveling so long."
Leonard Cohen, Sisters of Mercy

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