Three Strikes (and you're out)

by Mara Celes

The first time Clark died, Lex had been quietly devastated.

He hadn't expected the feeling, not then, not when they were in the midst of their hatred and hurt pride. He had been too angry to truly think about the consequences, too wrapped up in the beautiful fantasy of a world without Superman to think about what that same world would be like without Clark in it.

All those second chances, gone in an instant. He hadn't realized that he had wanted such a thing, hadn't realized amendments and forgiveness had been on his agenda, and only when those things were gone forever did Lex understand that their grand estrangement was only a child's temporary tantrum. An infantile spat, something eventually remedied with wry smiles and succulent sweets, something that a simple "I miss you and I'm sorry" could have fixed. Even if they had gone on fighting, it would have made a difference, that understanding between them. Instead, Lex had attended Superman's funeral and castigated himself for ever believing that they had forever. That they had forever to get things right.

When Clark came back a few months later, defying both Doomsday and the four imposters who had taken his name, Lex felt both relief and a very real sense of fear. He locked that fear in a box, ignored it and refused to grant it acknowledgement, but it crept up on him from time to time. It was his adolescent self, a younger Lex who whispered that he was unlovable and forgiveness was impossible, that friendship was a fairy tale and Clark would turn his back. Still, second chances were not to be wasted, and since Lex had been raised to seize opportunities by the throat, he drove to Clark's apartment and offered his own. Tear me, spill my blood, he tempted, but Clark had smiled and taken his hand, and everything was easier than he expected anything could be.

"I'm happy for you," Lex told Clark the next month, watching his younger friend shine as he married Lois Lane. Lex stood proudly beside him when he took his vows. They had both moved on, after all, found different lives and loves, and though Lex felt slightly disappointed, he wasn't truly upset. Clark was back in his life, and that was enough. They had reached an understanding.

The second time Clark died, Lex told himself that he was only vaguely annoyed. It had happened before, after all, and the event was a cheap and badly done reinvention, a theme that had outlived its popularity. Lex used the time to turn the Daily Planet into LexCom, upset its Staff, and have Clark fired. They were petulant actions, he knew, and he fully intended to give everything back, but he had to keep busy to keep from thinking, to keep from worrying. In any case, teasing Clark had become second nature, and Clark's disappearance had pissed him off, and Lex had decided that his friend needed an incentive to stop vanishing.

Eventually, he couldn't take it anymore. Clark was still gone; drastic measures had to be taken. To distract himself from the irreparable problem, Lex threw himself into his work as he hadn't done in years; he got his hands dirty. His plans became bigger and bigger, until Lex finally released thousands of nanonites into the various headquarters of every competitor company, giving LexCorp an advantage he decided it desperately needed. It was a long-term project; Lex designed the nanonites himself, plotted drop-off points and sighted targets; he stole information on every contractual agreement and manufacturing technique. He told himself that it was to make Clark reappear; he knew that if anything could make Clark return, it was the hero's need to correct Lex's moral infractions.

It was necessity that drove him, Lex soothed Superman when he finally arrived, and Clark really didn't think that Lex deserved to fail, did he? Necessity verses morality, he lectured, *the thief would steal the bread each time*. But Clark didn't quite see it that way. Eventually both of them lost their tempers, and they spent the next two days fighting one another, spitting bitterness and throwing curses. Clark destroyed a building; Lex dosed him with meteor rocks, and after the battle they ignored the other and sulked for half a week.

They both laughed about it later, when Lex finally came to visit. Lois found them on the floor of Clark's apartment, found them wrestling and playful, full of joy and drunkenness. She tended to call them vicious names after that, threatened to sell their story to a society columnist, and things between the three of them were confusing for a while. But that was all right in Lex's book, because Clark was back and Clark was with him. Lex never did admit aloud that he had been worried, but he guessed that Clark knew it anyway.

Lex was there when Clark died for a third time. His best friend was weakened and pale; he trembled when Lex held him. Fate had tricked the both of them; they had begun to believe that death was never final, and when that suddenly changed for Clark, Lex didn't know what to do.

At first, Lex blamed himself for not being prepared, for not finding Clark a cure in time to save him. It was a stupid conclusion, and Lex knew it for an irrational one years later, but at the time he could only watch with frustrated fury as the Kryptonite-induced tumor spread itself throughout his lover's body. Clark watched him with sad eyes full of pity, and Lex thought about his mother; she had looked the same before she died. During those times, he wanted to throw himself into business and research, or he wanted to flee and preserve his sanity, but he hadn't been there for his mother when she had passed away, and he had determined that he would be there for Clark.

Superman never went down easily, and Clark did not let go with ease. When the end came, he grabbed a hold of Lex and dragged him close, told him staunchly, "Don't you dare give up on me."

Lex nodded, because he couldn't bear to speak.

"Good," Clark said then, "Now listen closely. There's something I need you to do."

There were no I love yous when Clark died the final time, no promises of forever nor of triumph nor eternity. There was only desperation, and the fierceness of hazel eyes. Others might have despaired at last words being "Earth needs a protector, Lex," but Lex already knew Clark loved him, and those words meant more to him than words of affection ever did. Earth needs a protector, Lex meant *I trust you with my home*, Lex, and it was this that Lex remembered as the years past by.

Eight seasons later, he fulfilled his promise. The Oval Office surrounded him with prestige and power; from this vantage he could do all and more that Clark had ever wished for him. Sometimes, he was tempted to slip a little, to fall into old habits of self preservation and aggrandizement, but in those moments he would imagine the times in their old home, when Lex would look up from his desk and see Clark and his sweet smile shining in the doorway.

Lex never thought that it would happen like this, that this was how he would become a good man. Lex didn't dwell upon it. Instead, he did his job, and sometimes, he dreamed of a Clark that was immortal.

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