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"Clark, are you ready? The limo's waiting." Lex was pacing back and forth in their luxurious suite at the New York Regency.

Clark stepped out of the bathroom, bow tie hanging loose around the collar of his tuxedo shirt.

Lex rolled his eyes affectionately and sighed.

"C'mere," he said gesturing with his fingers.

Clark complied and went to stand in front of Lex, whose praticed hands reached up and started to wrap the folds together.

"I can't believe you still can't tie a bow tie."

"Maybe I just like having you do it," Clark said smiling. "Ever think of that?"

Lex smiled back, adjusting the tie. He smoothed his hands over the shoulders of Clark's tux. It was a scene that had been repeated countless times.

"There. Perfect. And the tie's not bad either." Lex looked up expecting a smile on Clark's face. He was surprised to see that Clark looked distracted.

"Do you think going tonight is really a good idea, Lex?"

"It's a high school alumni event, Clark. Why wouldn't it be?"

"Yeah, but I thought you didn't like being at Excelsior anyway."

"I didn't, but it had its moments. And there are a few of my classmates that I still like. Plus it's politically expedient for me to go. Excelsior's alumni make up a large number of this country's businessmen and political players."

Lex knew that Clark hated political functions, but he usually went along anyway. Tonight, though, he was restless in a way that Lex hadn't seen in quite some time. He grabbed Clark's hands and led him to the edge of the bed, pulling Clark down to sit beside him.

"Clark, what's going on? You're as fidgety as when you were sixteen. Is there a reason you don't want to go to this with me?"

"No, it's not that." Clark sighed. "Well, okay, yes, it is that, but ..."

"But?"

"I just don't want to disappoint you, that's all."

Lex reached his hands out and cupped Clark's face. He pulled him into a solid, comfortable kiss. "You never could. Do you know how much I love you?"

"Jeez, Lex, if you start with that we'll never get out of here," Clark said, a faint blush creeping into his cheeks.

"Clark, you have nothing to be nervous about. I had a couple of people I considered friends at Excelsior, but these fund-raisers are mostly about business contacts. You've already met the only person from there who ever mattered to me."

"Bruce?"

"Yeah, Bruce."

"Well, see, that's the other reason why this is going to be weird, Lex."

"Because you know Bruce?"

"Because I know Batman."

"So? No one's going to figure out your secret identities because you attend my alumni fund-raiser. I promise. It'll probably be the safest school function in history. That should make you happy."

"Lex, if you and Bruce are both there, safe is probably not the appropriate word to use."

Lex shot an unconvincing glare in Clark's direction and tried to pull the conversation back to Clark's concerns. "Most of my classmates probably know you're a reporter, so they'll either be eager to bend your ear hoping to get positive press or they'll avoid you like cheap scotch. Nothing to worry about. We'll say hi to a few people, I'll write a cheque for an obscene amount of money, and we'll come back here and I'll make you forget about everything else."

Lex punctuated his sentence with a thorough exploration of Clark's warm mouth.

"Promise?" Clark's words came out breathy, hands holding Lex a little harder than was absolutely necessary.

"I promise, Clark. There's nothing to worry about."

***

"Stop looking at me like that, Dick. We'll put in an appearance, say hi to Lex and Clark, write a cheque and then find something else to do."

"I still don't like it."

"It's an alumni fund-raiser. What could happen?"

"Well, with you and Lex in the same room things do tend to get broken."

"That was only the once, and it's not my fault that he couldn't execute a Jiu Jitsu kick without shattering the school's trophy case."

"Who taught him that kick?"

"That's beside the point."

"What about the Mayor's limousine?"

"How were we supposed to know the bridge was under construction? Anyway, you and Clark will both be there tonight. What's wrong?"

"I just have a bad feeling, that's all."

"You don't have to come, you know."

"I'll worry more if you leave me sitting at home."

"There's nothing to worry about. You and me and Clark can certainly handle anything that comes up, and Lex is no slouch despite his appalling lack of technique sometimes. He has been taught properly; he just chooses to put his own spin on things. Stop worrying. Nothing's going to happen."

"Promise?"

"I promise, Dick."

***

"Harry, tell me again why you want me to go to this thing with you?"

"I already told you, Pete. I'm not seeing anybody right now, and I don't want to go to an alumni event alone, especially when it's in my own city. Besides, you can get some great photos. Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor were both in my class, and Lex's partner, Clark Kent, is a junior reporter for the Daily Planet. I think you'll like him."

"Yeah, I've read some of his investigative reports with Lois Lane. They've done some good work. Must be hard being attached to Luthor, though."

"Well, Lex's reputation is a lot worse than he deserves. His father's the real tyrant."

"What is it with billionaires and their fathers, anyway?" Peter said with a laugh, then instantly regretted it.

"You're not actually comparing Lionel Luthor and my father, are you, Pete? Norman Osborn was a scientific genius. He had a PhD in biochemistry. Luthor made his fortune destroying people's companies and blackmailing anyone who opposed him."

"Harry–"

"No, Pete, it's okay. I don't know why I expected you to understand, you being my best friend and all. Forget I asked. Catch you later."

"Harry–" Peter's voice fell on deaf ears as Harry stormed out of the apartment they shared. Peter sunk onto the couch, and let his head fall into his hands. Great, just great. He had a feeling this night was going to turn out to be a disaster.

***

"Hey, Lex."

"Harry. Your friend Peter didn't come?"

"Something came up." Lex noticed that Harry–who'd once succeeded in drinking an entire college football team under the table in less than twenty minutes–was sipping his champagne with very little enthusiasm. And it was excellent champagne.

"Too bad. I wanted to introduce him to Clark. Figured they could talk journalism instead of being bored silly with all the business stuff."

"Speaking of that, how's LuthorCorp these days?"

"I'm still battling with Dad, but LexCorp is moving into some really interesting areas of technology. I'm getting a chance to play in the labs again. Get back to my roots, so to speak."

"Yeah, Lex, if your roots are centred in a nineteenth-century gothic novel."

Lex smirked. He didn't think that Clark would appreciate the Dr. Frankenstein comparison, but Lex had a particular fondness for the 1931 film version.

"And you? How's OsCorp? I was sorry to hear about your Dad."

"Thanks. The company's taken a few hits, but you probably already know that." Lex smiled a noncommital response. "I've been restructuring, and things are starting to feel more under control. It almost felt like I was living two lives there for awhile."

"I know how that feels." Lex put a friendly hand on Harry's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. He tried to remember when comforting gestures had become part of his natural repertoire. He supposed that was Clark's influence. "I've got to catch Bruce before he ducks out. He hates these things. We have a research project we're looking to fund with progressive-minded investors. Should I give you a call sometime with the specs?"

"Do that. I'm continuing my father's program in the high-tech areas."

"I'll send the information over."

"Good to see you, Lex."

"You too, Harry."

***

Clark surveyed the scene before him with all the enthusiasm of a man about to face a firing squad.

"Clark? You look troubled."

"Dick!" Clark turned and pressed the young man into a warm embrace. Dick Grayson was only a few years younger than he was, and Clark had grown very fond of Bruce's energetic ward. Well, ex-ward, now since Dick was nineteen and very much an adult. Of course, Clark wasn't sure Bruce had realized that. Dick was an amazing counterpoint to Bruce's brooding temperament. Dick was bright and lively and gave the impression that he couldn't sit still–exactly the opposite of Bruce's calm, stoic behaviour. He and Dick always had a lot of fun at these society parties–they were much more alike than the difficult, focussed men with whom they shared their lives.

"Lex sent me over here with instructions to bring back Russian caviar, which I think is that stuff–" Clark pointed to a small bowl filled with a suspicious black goo.

"–goose liver pate, which I've narrowed down to either that or that–"

Clark waved his hand towards two small plates featuring greyish lumps and crackers.

"–and something that started with a 'c'."

"Canapés?"

"No, that wasn't it."

"Crudités?"

"That sounds right. What is it?"

"Vegetables."

"You're kidding. Why didn't he just say that?"

"He probably thinks he did. Bruce is the same way. They tend to forget that most of us don't have six words for everything."

"Yeah, imagine my surprise when I realized that the aubergine shirt he bought was not, in fact, Lex striking out in a bold new fashion direction, but was just a fancy French word for purple."

Dick snickered. Clark loaded a plate with cut vegetables, a generous blob of the black goo, two slices of pate–one from each of the greyish lumps–and a handful of crackers.

"Champagne, gentlemen?" A man in a dark grey uniform held a silver tray out to the two of them. Clark helped himself, but saw Dick shake his head.

"If you want one, young man," the waiter said in a kindly voice, "I certainly won't tell."

Dick smiled politely. "I'm not much for champagne. Thanks anyway."

Clark glanced back to where Lex was surrounded by a smiling group of businessmen who seemed to be amused by something Lex was saying. Clark noted that Bruce had moved to join the group and was standing comfortably at Lex's side, holding a champagne flute.

From the look of things, they were just getting started. Clark snared a cracker off the plate and turned back to Dick.

"So, what's happening in Gotham these days?"

***

Peter Parker was having a hell of a night. Not only had he managed to royally piss off Harry, but once he'd decided to make amends by following him to the fund-raiser, he'd discovered that the tuxedo Harry had bought him to wear to exactly these sorts of things, was still bearing the scars from the last outing. Peter gazed in horror at the shrimp sauce that looked like a bloody wound splashed across the front of the tuxedo shirt.

"Okay, no tux. I'll wear my suit."

Peter shoved his regular clothes aside and reached towards the back of the closet for the dark navy suit he kept for job interviews and funerals. He brushed the collar of it sadly. He'd worn it to his Uncle Ben's funeral. He had to fight back the feelings of guilt that were threatening to spill from his eyes. He pulled it on over his spider-suit–better safe than sorry–slipping the already knotted tie around his neck, and sliding it up to tighten it. Sure he could shoot webs from his wrists, but he'd never been able to master the half-Windsor. Aunt May had advised him to just leave it tied. Worked for him.

Once he was on his scooter heading for the Hotel New York, he had time to plan an apology to Harry.

Sorry that your Dad was a megalomaniac who liked to dress up and kill people. No, too honest.

Sorry, I don't really understand what it's like being the neglected son of a crazed billionaire. Too snide.

Sorry, I've got a lot of my own problems right now, including figuring out how to tell you that the person you hate the most is your best friend and has had a secret crush on you for years. Peter frowned. No, that wasn't going to work. This was going to be a hell of a lot harder than he thought. Fuck, he bet that Batman and Superman didn't have these problems.

***

"You had them in the palm of your hand, Lex," Bruce said admiringly as they moved away from the small group they'd been pitching ideas to. He'd always respected Lex's abilities as a businessman, but he'd forgotten how genuinely charming Lex could be when he wanted.

Lex's eyes were bright and enthusiastic as they stepped over to a corner to talk.

"I doubt we'll have trouble finding investors for a joint project after tonight. The research LexCorp's been pursuing in fire-retardant materials is starting to look incredibly promising. Add that to Wayne Enterprises' work with rubbers and polymers and this could be a huge technological breakthrough."

Lex took a long slow sip of his champagne and lowered his voice. "Not to mention the practical applications for certain individuals in the crime-fighting business."

"At least Superman's pretty much impervious to fire."

"Yeah, but as much as I like to see him naked, I'd prefer if he didn't get his uniform burned off by flame-throwing mutants first. Scared the hell out of me last time that happened."

"Fire-retardant materials would also have been handy at the last Justice League function," Bruce said, his features unreadable.

"I had no way of knowing that the cake was soaked in rum Who the hell soaks a birthday cake in rum?"

"I've never seen the Flash move so fast. He still thinks you did that on purpose." Bruce was chuckling softly. It was a good sound–like water tumbling over rocks in a deep mountain stream.

Lex smiled and raised his glass. "To flame-retardant friends."

"And safe rubbers," Bruce added, his laughter growing louder and deeper. Lex joined him as they clinked their glasses together, looking pleased with themselves and each other.

***

"Wonder what those two are up to?" Clark said, hearing familiar laughter from across the room. And that wasn't just Lex's social laugh; it wasn't even his the-champagne's-gone-to-my-head-and-I-believe-I-can-do-anything laugh either. It was absolutely genuine. Clark felt a twinge of something he refused to acknowledge.

"Yeah, Bruce doesn't laugh like that often. This probably means something very bad is about to happen."

"I don't see any signs of a lighter."

"No breakables within the immediate vicinity. You'd think Excelsior would've kept better records on those two. They should come with warning labels: volatile when combined; destruction of public property is likely to occur; please make sure all emergency exits are clearly marked."

Clark smiled, but his eyes were still fixed on Bruce and Lex. They were leaning close together now, Bruce clearly inside Lex's usually precisely-defined personal space. His space. Speaking intensely, totally focussed on one another, they were a closed circle of two. Clark saw Lex put a hand warmly on Bruce's arm and had to stop himself from super-speeding across the room to knock it away.

"You know, if you stare at them any harder, one of them's going to burst into flame."

Clark reluctantly turned his gaze back to Dick who was looking at him with concern. He laid a hand on Clark's arm in a mirror image of what Clark had just seen Lex do. He suddenly felt foolish.

"Clark? Is everything okay? With you and Lex, I mean?"

Clark took a sip of his champagne and nodded.

"Everything's great. I just have this bad feeling I can't seem to shake, and it's making me worry about things I honestly haven't worried about in years."

Dick nodded knowingly.

"I mean, I know Lex and I are solid, but sometimes when I see them like that ... do you ever wonder what they were like ... together?"

"Sometimes, but it was a long time ago. You grow up a lot faster in their world."

Clark knew that was true. And he also knew that Lex and Bruce had been really young when they'd had a relationship. Still in school. It said something that they were still friends. Bruce was about the only one of Lex's friends that Lionel hadn't managed to lure away or corrupt with bribes or blackmail. Clark knew that meant everything to Lex. Loyalty and honesty were central to who he was, whether the gossip columnists would believe it or not.

"Clark, they're too much alike in some ways. They would've destroyed each other and they both know it. That's why they need us. We help them find the balance."

Clark turned back with a genuine smile. "When did you get so smart about relationship stuff? You're the youngest of the bunch."

"What can I say? I've learned from hanging out with all you old guys."

"Smart ass."

"Codger."

"Pipsqueak."

"Adult."

"Hey, that's fighting dirty!"

"Seriously, Clark. You and Lex have an awesome relationship. Everybody sees how you are together. You've got something amazing. And I want that with Bruce; it's just not as easy with him. He's got a lot more darkness in him than Lex. You're lucky that you met Lex before Lionel really got a hold on him."

Clark fought back a shudder and gulped a mouthful of champagne. He thought about that a lot. Too much. He'd seen enough of Lionel's influence to know that he would've lost Lex forever–the Lex who laughed out loud and tied his bow ties and cancelled meetings because Clark needed him–and the realization always gave him a chill.

"Thank God, I stopped lying to him. It was worth pissing off my parents. If that had gone on much longer, he never would've forgiven me."

Clark sometimes wondered if the fact that he'd lied at all would ever be completely forgiven. Bruce Wayne was apparently the only person who'd never lied to Lex. Ever. His first lover. First love. A man who didn't lie. It was a lot to compete with, not to mention the whole super-hero thing and Lex clearly had a kink for men in tights.

"Yeah, and the world's got enough criminal masterminds without adding Lex Luthor to the mix. Could you imagine what that brain would be like if it were working for the other side?"

"I can imagine," Clark said quietly, and glanced towards Lex. He caught his eye and Lex gave him a smile that was just for him. Clark beamed back, doubts evaporating like steam, amazed that in a room full of people, Lex could still make him feel as if he were the only one there that mattered.

Clark saw Lex cock an eyebrow and raise his chin at the plate that Clark was holding. It was empty save for a few stalks of celery and a pair of soggy crackers. Clark shrugged sheepishly and turned back to Dick.

"Guess it's back to the buffet."

***

"I swear to God that boy has a hollow leg," Lex said shaking his head as he saw Clark trudge off to the buffet with Dick close on his heels.

"He's not exactly a boy anymore, Lex."

"I know," Lex said softly. "He just doesn't look much different from when he was sixteen. Sometimes he leans in to kiss me and I see the kid who pulled me out of the river."

"Remember when we were sixteen?"

Lex smiled wickedly. He remembered. He'd been out of control at sixteen, dragging Bruce along for the ride. And Bruce had already been so comfortable with darkness and violence and anger. Back then, Lex was set on pissing off the entire world and Bruce stood beside him–occasionally threw himself in front of him–and fought back when the world came looking for revenge. Their relationship had always been tumultuous–passionate and rough, verging on violence or love. It was about sex, hard and dirty, in the dark towers of the school, about clinging to each other like two men drowning. They clawed their way through high school, fucking and fighting, doing everything with absolute commitment and intensity. They would both survive or they would both die. That had always been the understanding. That had always been the deal.

"I remember."

And somewhere along the way they'd also learned how to give and take comfort, how to laugh even if it was only a bitter chuckle dislodged from someplace raw and aching. They'd learned how to use their minds as well as their bodies to give each other pleasure, to challenge, to push, to teach. They knew the value of honesty that cut you wide open and left you on the floor to die. And the kind of loyalty that sent you back to mop up the blood you'd shed in the name of friendship or love or just because you damn well could.

"We're still alive."

It hadn't ended because they'd stopped caring or stopped needing or wanting. It hadn't really ended at all in any conventional way. They'd graduated out of Excelsior, moved on to take up their respective places in their respective cities. They were no longer boys, if in fact they'd ever been. They never discussed it, never shed a tear, or said good-bye, or even had a final fling. Never had just one more night for old times' sake. It was just what it had always been. Part of them. Part of what made them who they were. As necessary as the passage through the birth canal. Another journey where they'd both arrived naked and screaming, terrified and exhilarated and brutally, joyously alive.

"That was the deal."

The most they ever did was have conversations like this. Do you remember when we were sixteen? I remember. Where the only thing that changed was who asked the question. The words were written like well-loved scars on their tongues, revealing everything and nothing at all. Nothing that would interfere with their lives, their loves, their jobs and loyalties. But still a gesture. We're still alive. That was the deal. Still a promise that meant something. And some days, meant everything.

Lex looked up into eyes that were almost black and for a moment he felt like he was falling. Almost thought he could see the flutter of leathery wings behind those eyes, so close to the surface if anyone cared to look. Lex reached an unsteady hand toward Bruce's face. So familiar. So close he could almost touch it.

"Lex?" Bruce's hands were holding his arms. Too tightly. There was something wrong in Bruce's voice. It'd been a long time, but Lex still recognized the sound. Fear. He tried to smile, but his mouth wouldn't bend the way he wanted. Lex heard conversations getting louder, surging around him as though the room had turned into a carousel of light and whirling sound. He felt dizzy. It sounded like rain was falling hard all around him. Bruce's lips were moving, but nothing was coming out. Lex could feel the hands on his arms, gripping him. Then the world dipped sideways and fell into blackness.

***

Clark turned as soon as he heard Bruce's voice spike with fear, stumbling over Lex's name. He felt as if he'd switched into super-speed, everything seemed to be moving so slowly, except his feet were rooted to the floor. He watched Bruce holding Lex's arms, Lex swaying on his feet seeming to focus on something far away, and then Lex was buckling at the knees, falling limply into Bruce's arms. Clark had the fleeting thought that Lex even managed to look elegant when he fainted. All around the room, people stopped what they were doing. Some reached out for the person they were talking to, some sat down on the floor before slumping over further. Everywhere, people were falling, suddenly, inexplicably struck down.

"Clark!" Bruce's voice shouting at him, Dick at his side tugging on his arm, and then he was moving again at normal speed, listening to the odd thuds of people tumbling to the floor, the almost musical tinkling of glass as champagne flutes shattered on impact.

Then Clark was there gathering Lex into his arms, touching his pale face, feeling for a pulse, strong and regular beneath his fingertips, listening for the sound of–thank God–steady breathing.

"Lex? Lex?" Clark turned to Bruce who was kneeling across from him on the floor, one hand holding Lex's, the other reaching out for Dick.

"What the hell happened, Bruce?" Clark noticed the room was growing steadily quieter. The only ones who seemed to have escaped the sudden lapse into unconsciousness were the three of them and Harry Osborn, who was standing a few feet away looking confused. Harry swallowed another mouthful of champagne.

"I don't know. One second he was fine, and then people started to drop."

"So why are we still standing?"

"That is an excellent question, gentlemen." They looked up to see a tall, well-built grey-haired man in a grey uniform, one of the waiters. He was pointing the barrel of a rather sizable gun in their direction.

***

Peter slapped the hurriedly scrawled note--Courtesy of Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man-–to the front of the unconscious man's chest and left him for the police to deal with. If this kept up, he was going to have to get a bunch of those notes professionally printed. It was slowing him down to have to worry about writing out his calling card, and it's not like there were a whole lot of other crime fighters who left the bad guys tied up in web. Peter figured it should be obvious, but since he'd started writing the stupid notes in the first place, he felt obligated to continue. It seemed expected now. He'd even had one bank robber ask him to autograph it. Peter had almost wished that he didn't wear a mask, so the guy could get the full effect of the glare Peter had given him. Unbelievable.

He swung himself onto the roof of a nearby apartment building and retrieved his navy suit. Maybe Harry would be happier if he didn't surprise him, Peter thought, as he noticed that being flung onto a rooftop had done nothing for the appearance of the suit. Inexplicably, his tie had come undone, and Peter had no idea how to fix it. He abandoned it as a lost cause and shoved it in his pocket. Maybe Harry would take pity on him when he got to the party.

***

"Move over there, gentlemen," the waiter said, gesturing with the gun. The entire catering staff appeared to be armed. Large bags had appeared from somewhere and Bruce watched as the wait-staff began to divest the unconscious party-goers of their jewellery and wallets. Bruce looked past Clark and started to assess the nature of the threat. Fifteen to twenty heavily-armed men. Possibly more at the entrances and in the kitchen. Well-organized, well-executed. They'd had no way of knowing that certain people–Kryptonians and men who'd studied sleep-resistance with Tibetan monks–were immune to most drugs. Bruce wasn't sure about Osborn, but Harry's tolerance for alcohol had been legendary at Excelsior. Perhaps that was all it was.

Clark glared at the man who was motioning them away from Lex.

"No." Clark was clearly going to be a problem–at least until Lex's own overactive immune system kicked in and bounced him back to reality. Probably in a quarter of the time that everyone else would need to recover. Bruce just hoped Lex had the presence of mind to tune in to his surroundings before revealing that he was awake.

The man with the gun smiled. "You want to see what bullets feel like?"

"Go ahead," Clark said, smiling back. Bruce glared at him. Damn invulnerability.

"Hey, Stan," the grey-haired man called out to a larger man with an even larger gun. He'd just stepped out of the kitchen area. "Kid wants to be a hero."

"Nobody's going to be a hero," Bruce said calmly, never taking his eyes from Clark. Obviously he was going to have to be the voice of reason here.

"What happened, Cain?" the man from the kitchen asked the waiter who seemed to be in charge. "The only one who didn't drink the champagne was him," he said, pointing at Dick. "The rest of them should be in dreamland."

"Good question. Care to explain how the rest of you managed to resist the effects of one of the most potent soporifics available?"

"High metabolism," three male voices said at once.

Cain started to laugh. "Well, at least you've got your stories straight. Still leaves us with a problem, though. See, there weren't supposed to be witnesses. Everyone was supposed to drop off to sleep, junior would get a light knock on the head because he was too young to drink the champagne-–"

Both Bruce and the armed waiter pointedly ignored Dick's indignant "Hey!"

"–-and everybody would wake up in a few hours a little bit sore and a lot less rich. It's not as if you people can't afford to give a little," Cain said bluntly.

"Not all of us here are rich," Clark said angrily, still cradling Lex. "I'm a reporter. Do you know what reporters make?"

Bruce rolled his eyes and hung his head in resignation. Clark was an idiot. Bruce was going to have to buy Lex a leash for him. And quite possibly a muzzle. He almost smiled as he realized that Lex would probably get a huge kick out of that. It might be worth it just to see the look on Clark's face.

"A reporter?" Cain said tightening his grip on the gun. "Isn't that interesting." Clark swallowed awkwardly as he realized what he'd just done. Good, Bruce thought. Let him realize that his actions were going to have consequences for all of them.

"So Cue Ball here is just a rich friend?" Cain said, continuing to direct his questions at Clark. Bruce tried to catch Clark's eye. Don't do it, Clark. Don't say it.

"Boyfriend," Clark corrected automatically. Bruce pressed his lips together hard. Definitely a muzzle. Bruce wondered when all of Clark's common sense had taken flight. He cast a glance at Lex's pale face, Clark's arms holding him tightly, and Bruce relented. He realized that his own hand was still gripping Lex's. He cast a careful glance up at Dick. Bruce knew exactly how Clark felt.

"Boyfriend?" Cain smirked. "And you hide it so well. Now, I suggest that if you want to see your boyfriend wake up without additional holes in him, you do as I say. Lay him down, and move over there." He motioned again with the gun. "All of you. And I'm not asking nicely again."

Clark finally met Bruce's eyes. Bruce nodded slightly and let go of Lex's hand. "We'll do exactly what you say," Bruce said. "We don't want anyone to get hurt." He moved slowly, nudging Dick gently in the direction that Cain had indicated. Harry moved back against the wall, shifting nervously on his feet. Bruce watched as Clark gently lay Lex down on the floor, large hands cradling his head. He placed one hand on Lex's chest for a brief moment, then stood up and moved to stand beside Bruce against the opposite wall, reluctance clearly dogging every step.

Cain was grinning. "Good. See how pleasant co-operation can be? Now, gentlemen. Kindly empty your pockets."

***

Peter glanced at his watch as he took the elevator to the floor where the fund-raiser was being held. With any luck, Harry hadn't left yet and he'd still have time to have a drink and choke out an apology. He'd decided to go with the simple, but ever popular: "I was a jerk and I'm sorry," possibly followed by dropping to his knees and begging for forgiveness.

As the elevator opened, Peter was surprised that the area was quiet. The party couldn't possibly be over already. Even bad parties never ended before midnight, and Harry's alma mater wasn't noted for bad parties. Quite the opposite. Peter caught the eye of a surly-looking man dressed in a grey staff uniform. He was standing in front of the double doors to the room where the party was supposed to be. Peter saw that the sign announcing the event was right where it should be, but he still couldn't hear any noise coming from within. He felt the fine hairs on his skin raise themselves in warning.

"Can I help you?" the man asked suspiciously.

"Wrong floor," Peter said, stepping back onto the elevator. "Sorry." He was relieved when the door sealed in front of him. He pressed the number for the top floor and started to unbutton his shirt.

***

Lex was vaguely aware that the floor underneath him was cold and sticky. He tried to imagine what he might have done that would've led to him being in this position. The last thing he remembered was hearing a note of fear in Bruce's voice, Bruce's hands on his arms, and then nothing. And where was Clark? Bruce's hands on his body should have been enough for Clark to practically super-speed across the room. Clark tended to be a little over-protective when it came to Lex's former lovers, even the ones who hadn't tried to kill him. Maybe especially those.

Lex stilled his thoughts and listened. He could hear people moving around the room, low voices talking, but he still wasn't focussing well enough to catch the words. He would just lie here and wait until he knew what was going on. No doubt the spandex brigade had found some kind of trouble and were going to have to rely on his quick-thinking to get them out of it. It was always like that, Lex mused. God, what would they do without him?

He felt someone move nearby, tipping him onto his side. He let himself be rolled. Felt a hand on his ass. Hey! Groping for his wallet. Oh. Where the hell were Clark and Bruce? He thought at least one of them would be objecting to any ass-groping that was going on. Hm. There was something that sounded like it might be a Kryptonian being shoved back against a wall by a bat-loving billionaire before he could do something stupid. Those are my boys, Lex thought proudly.

He felt a tug at his wrist as he was rolled onto his back. He was almost fully awake now. Rough, unmanicured hands struggled with the clasp on his watch. The watch with a Napoleon franc for a face. The watch his mother had given him. No. Lex opened his eyes at the same time as he flung a fist in the general direction of the person who was stealing his watch. He felt the satisfying thud of flesh against bone. Heard a loud gasp.

"My mother gave me that watch. Hands off." Lex sat up, shaking his fist lightly and readjusting his watch. He looked over to see Clark beaming, Bruce rolling his eyes, Dick grinning, and Harry glancing nervously at the window. He didn't seem to have noticed Lex's sudden re-animation.

"Hey, guys," Lex said smoothly, ignoring the gun that was trained on him as he got to his feet. He brushed himself off casually. "Hell of a party."

***

Harry was vaguely aware that Lex had apparently recovered. He was also aware that there was something very odd about his classmates and their partners, otherwise they would've also been unconscious on the floor. But at the moment, he was more concerned about the flicker of movement he could see through the window in his peripheral vision. A familiar, red-suited web-crawler was hanging upside-down outside the window taking in the situation. When he noticed Harry noticing him, he shook his head slightly. No matter what issues they might have, there were innocent lives at stake here. A lot of them. Harry didn't like being reminded of that fact by someone who hid behind a mask. He glared at the window then turned his attention back to the situation at hand.

***

Malcolm Cain was not a happy man. This job should've been a piece of cake. Arrange the catering services for the alumni fund-raiser of one of the most pretentious prep schools in the world, drug the champagne, and make off with the money and jewellery while everyone was sleeping. Easy.

Instead, he now had four witnesses–no, make that five since Cue Ball returned to the game with a convincing fist to Rempel's jaw-–and absolutely no idea what he was going to do with them. He wasn't a man who liked killing, although he'd done it in the past, but only when there'd been a principle involved, a good reason. As much as he loved the idea of taking from the rich, it didn't seem like enough of a motive for murder. At least not if it were his hands that were getting dirty.

If he were dealing with less powerful men, he could use bribery, but what could he offer these people? They had everything. Their lives were about the only thing he could give them, but that wouldn't prevent them from siccing the police on him or even private hitmen when this was all said and done, and the score from this night wasn't going to be enough to let him leave the country and retire to a beach somewhere. The thought was far from settling. He reviewed the wallets of the five men in front of him and fought to connect the names to their places in society. He didn't have to struggle that hard.

The tall, dark quiet one was Bruce Wayne. Of Wayne Enterprises. Well, shit. Dick Grayson was the kid, but he seemed to be attached to Wayne in some way. They had the same address. A nephew, perhaps? Cain tried to remember what he knew about the reclusive Wayne. It wasn't much. Quite the opposite to ... Lex Luthor. Now Cain realized why Cue Ball was so familiar. The man had been making banner headlines from New York to Metropolis since he was a teen. Clark Kent was the reporter, and apparently living with Luthor, at least according to their drivers' licenses. Well, whatever turned your crank, he thought. But, fuck, Luthors weren't exactly known for being forgiving. Rumour had it that Lex had bankrupted a former girlfriend and her father after he found out she was sleeping with his father. But who could believe everything that was written in The Inquisitor? The nervous one, who was still drinking the damn champagne–-and didn't that beat all?-–was Harry Osborn, another billionaire with another internationally known corporation. And apparently they had all done enough drugs that what should have easily put down a bull elephant didn't seem to be phasing any of them.

Then Cain had a brilliant idea. Yes. These were important, powerful men. The kind of men who ran empires. The kind of men who had people who would pay for their safe return. Yes, it might work, and the score would be a hundred times bigger than a few sets of cultured pearls and some pocket money, even if the pocket change tended to run in the range of hundred dollar bills.

"Everyone listen up. Change in plan. I've got to call the man in charge. If any of them moves–and I mean it–shoot them. Just enough to hurt, not enough to kill. We need to keep them alive."

Cain watched as five pairs of eyes turned towards him menacingly.

"At least for now." He turned and walked out of the room, reaching for his cell phone as he went.

***

"What do you suppose that means?" Lex asked quietly, leaning slowly back against Clark's warm side. The gunmen looked even more twitchy with Cain gone, and Lex didn't really want to end up on the floor again. His head still felt uncomfortably sticky, and he wondered if he'd been lying in champagne. God, he wanted nothing more than to take Clark home and wrap himself around his body. After he'd had a shower. He hated being sticky. Especially if there was nothing as pleasant as sex beforehand.

"I think it means Cain's figured out we're worth substantially more than the stuff they've lifted," Bruce returned. "We messed up his plan, but he's not typically a killer. He needs direction from whoever's calling the shots. We gave him time to regroup, and so things just got a lot more complicated. There's someone a lot bigger than him involved in this."

"Moonlighting as an FBI profiler now, Bruce?" Lex said with amusement.

"Will you guys be quiet?" Harry whispered urgently, causing the others to look at him in surprise. He hadn't said much of anything since this ordeal started. He darted his eyes towards the window one last time, then said softly in a voice that demanded obedience: "Get down," as he flung himself to the floor.

The window beside them shattered in a blur of red and blue.

***

Lex felt himself hurled to the floor–a very sticky floor–with a large and heavy Clark wrapped around him as glass and bullets rained down. Lex realized that Clark had managed to grab Harry by the neck and pull him in close, so that Clark was effectively shielding them both. Lex thought he could see the top of Dick's tousled head peeking out from behind where Bruce had crushed his ward against the wall, shielding Dick with his body. Lex knew he'd be grateful later that Clark and Bruce were such over-protective geeks, but right now he thought breathing might be nice. He poked Clark in the side.

"I need to breathe," Lex whispered, knowing Clark's hearing would catch it, and felt Clark shift slightly. Lex tried to turn his head so he could get a better view of what was going on. He wiggled until he had managed to peer over Clark's shoulder, trying not to kick Harry as he moved.

"Lex," Clark warned between clenched teeth.

"I just want to see what's happening."

"Well?"

"Oh, it's one of yours. Red suit, leaping around the walls and spraying webs. Cool! It's Spider-man!"

Bruce and Clark looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

"Great. Just what this party needs-–another super-hero," Clark whispered. "Think we can make it out of here while they're busy with him?"

"Too big a risk," Bruce said. "Besides, there's a room full of innocent people here." Lex noticed that Bruce was ignoring his snicker at the word innocent. "As it is, there's a good chance that somebody's going to get shot with him bouncing all over the place and them firing indiscriminately." Bruce clearly didn't think much of this rescue so far.

"Then we'd better do something, now," Lex said, pushing hard at Clark's chest. "Get off. There are five of us here who can take care of ourselves without revealing anybody's secrets if we're careful." Lex chose to ignore the strange look Harry was shooting his way. "The least we can do is help Spidey out."

Clark reluctantly rolled away and Bruce let go of Dick. The five of them got to their feet and leapt into the fray.

***

If he'd been able to use his super-speed, things would've been a lot easier, Clark thought, but that power was just a dead giveaway. So he was reduced to bashing heads together like a common thug. He hated this kind of fighting. It lacked finesse. It was effective, but it just wasn't all that satisfying. Plus, he felt like he had to keep an eye on how everyone else was faring, since apparently he'd been the only one in line when they were handing out invulnerability. Clark sighed as he felt a chair crash down on his head. He shook away the debris and turned to wag a finger at the perpetrator. He really wanted to be somewhere else. Preferably back at the hotel with Lex.

Lex, on the other hand, seemed to be rising to the occasion. He was twirling and spinning and yelling things in Chinese that Clark thought–with his rudimentary understanding of Mandarin–sounded more like "There's a cricket in my noodles" than anything tremendously insulting. Clark decided it was time to limit Lex's Kung-Fu movie rentals. Still, what Lex lacked in strength, he more than made up for in style. Clark smiled in appreciation as Lex sent two men tumbling backwards with a well-placed roundhouse kick. Lex was really something.

Bruce was appalled. He was wearing a tuxedo and engaged in what was essentially a street fight in one of the oldest and classiest buildings in New York. Bruce's right arm gracefully extended sideways and dropped a charging opponent. On top of that, he had to listen to Lex shouting nonsense in Mandarin–and who exactly did he think he was going to intimidate by pointing out that the train to Beijing was leaving at 3:00? Bruce frowned as he watched Lex execute another typically Lexian variation on a traditional Aikido movement that resulted in both Lex and his opponent crashing through a nearby table.

Bruce turned effortlessly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, letting the smooth motion of his arms carry him around to deliver a satisfying thrust into the sternum of his attacker. The man sank like a stone. Bruce was going to have to talk with Lex about his moves–he hadn't realized Lex had become so sloppy. He turned his head in time to see Clark drop-kicking someone into the wall; hm, perhaps he'd better sit them both down and remind them about the legacy of grace and dignity inherent in the martial arts. He returned to a ready position.

Dick laughed as he tumbled out of the way of a swinging fist. He'd missed this. The closer he and Bruce had gotten, the less inclined Bruce was to take him into dangerous situations. He kept talking about training and timing and not rushing things. He shot a glance over at Lex. He seemed to be holding his own, and Clark wasn't watching his every move. Of course, Lex's moves were so huge that you could see them coming a mile off, but still, it was obvious that Clark trusted Lex to take care of himself. That's what friends did. That's what boyfriends did.

And sometimes you just had to jump in and fight, Dick thought. This was a hell of a lot better than hanging back and waiting for the bad guys to fall into a trap. Or getting left behind and figuring out later that the "simple plan" meant Bruce staggering bruised and bloody through the door at two in the morning. Dick did a backflip and neatly avoided the kick that had been aimed at his head. This made him feel like he was flying from the high trapeze again, and something in his blood started to sing. This was what living was all about.

Harry was fighting his way across the room, intent on one thing. Spider-man. The web-crawler was plastered to the ceiling, breathing hard, and taking in the mayhem below him. Harry barely registered the fact that apparently his classmates were all martial arts experts, although he wasn't sure why Lex was asking his opponent if he knew where he could rent a rickshaw. Perhaps Harry's Mandarin was a little rusty. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard faint laughter, egging him on toward the man who had killed his father. He was going to find out Spider-man's identity and he was going to kill him-–not necessarily in that order-–if they were the last things he did.

***

Peter looked down in amazement as Harry and the other four men that had been sheltered against the wall entered the fight. Weapons were discarded in favour of hand-to-hand combat and Peter had a moment to catch his breath and observe. Peter smiled. Honour among gun-toting thieves was so rare these days. It was a nice change to be working with professionals.

He knew who the five men were. Working in the newspaper business meant he'd seen their pictures before. Many times. But Peter would've never guessed that two billionaires, a newspaper reporter, and a kid barely out of high school would be kicking ass and taking names like this. Even Harry was more than holding his own, although truthfully, he looked like he was a man on a mission and Peter had a pretty good idea what that mission was. He'd seen the hatred in Harry's eyes. He tried to push the guilt away. It wouldn't do him any good here.

The two tall guys, Bruce and Clark, seemed to be well-trained and very strong. Peter watched in wonderment as he saw Clark take a chair to the head, and shake it off as if it were nothing. He'd just seen him pick up a guy who must have weighed three hundred pounds and toss him against the wall. It looked like the marble had cracked when the guy hit, but Clark didn't seem to have even broken a sweat. Shit. What kind of program were these guys on? Bruce was all about silence and absolute efficiency of movement. He looked like he fought in a tuxedo every day. It was kind of like watching James Bond, but without the cheesy one-liners or the special effects. He gave the impression of moving through a series of forms–-tai chi or aikido or some other ancient martial art–-and almost coincidentally, people fell down around him when he executed the moves. As if they were just part of the performance. Peter took a deep breath. Bruce was a little intimidating to watch.

Lex Luthor on the other hand was like watching late night television, although Peter suspected that Luthor would have him killed for saying so. Lex was all performance, showy moves and whooping yells in foreign languages that sounded really threatening when Lex said them. Peter was sure that whatever he was saying in that smooth don't-fuck-with-me-I-have-the-power-to-make-your-life-a-living-Hell voice was intimidating everyone in the room. He certainly would've stayed out of Luthor's way. Lex's style, such as it was, was occasionally messy, but Peter figured that Lex had the element of surprise on his side; he didn't look like he should be able to take care of himself, but he was doing just fine, although occasionally, no one looked more surprised than he did when he connected with an opponent. The big smile on his face said more than anything else.

The kid was another surprise. Dark and lithe, he had more bounce than a Mexican jumping bean. Peter watched him backflip, somersault over an opponent, and practically fly through the air. That didn't seem entirely normal, but then again, he was a human spider, so who was he to judge?

Peter took a deep breath, adjusted his costume, and starting shooting webs to hold the attackers that had been incapacitated. He worked at moving the innocents out of the way and shielding them behind webs. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Harry's murderous glare edge closer and closer.

***

Malcolm Cain heard the first shots fired, even though he was three floors above.

"Shit! We just lost the upper hand."

"Nonsense," the cool voice on the phone replied. "The shift in balance is momentary. My team is on its way to deal with the situation. You will retrieve your people and meet me at the rendezvous point as previously arranged. You will bring everything you have extricated from the Excelsior alumni, and I mean everything, Cain."

Cain flushed red, but didn't say anything. He was a professional, not a petty thief.

"My team will take care of the six who are there now."

Six, Cain thought. There had been five when he came upstairs. That was an interesting development. The man on the phone rarely made mistakes, let things slip. Or perhaps he wanted him to know. The game was complicated. The rules kept changing. He filed the information away for later and continued listening.

"They know what to do. You and your people will be richly rewarded for bringing these men to my attention, but they are no longer your concern."

Cain nodded into the phone. Six, he thought to himself.

"Forget you have seen them." The voice was slightly hypnotic, almost mesmerizing.

"Forget they were here."

Cain concentrated on the word six. Six men. Six. He felt as if he'd been staring into a flame for too long.

"Forget everything about them."

He turned the flame into the number six, let it burn into his mind. It was the only way to escape Thrall's power to make you forget. Six.

"Go now. You've done well, but do not attempt to contact me again. Do you understand?"

"Of course, sir. I understand."

Six.

Cain hung up the phone and waited until he was sure it was safe to go downstairs.

***

Clark wasn't sure at what point the situation went to hell, but he figured it was about the same time the ceiling disappeared. One moment they'd been holding their own, the next the ceiling was disappearing in a cloud of plaster, black leather, and silver rappel wires. Clark felt something tighten around his neck, and reached up to shake it off. He felt a familiar feeling of nausea as he looked at his hands turning green and veiny. He fell to his knees, hands scrabbling at the collar that was threatening to choke him.

"Lex," he managed to call weakly, but Lex was already moving steadily towards him.

He heard Bruce cry out sharply, and turned his head in time to see Bruce sink to his knees, pulling some sort of dart out of his chest. The next moment, five black-suited commandos were swarming over him, securing his hands and feet. Clark could see Dick being similarly man-handled, thrown over the shoulder of a tall figure in leather, hands and feet locked in some sort of device that allowed for very little movement. Dick was yelling for Bruce, but Bruce's eyes had already closed.

Then Lex was kneeling in front of him, warm hands brushing his face as he fumbled with the collar.

"I suggest you leave that be, Mr. Luthor, if you don't want to see what a Kryptonite-bomb can do to your lover's head," a voice said from the doorway, and Lex froze.

"You're bluffing," Lex said, turning to face a man dressed all in black. Unlike the rest of the commandos that had dropped through holes blasted in the ceiling, this man's face was visible. A heavy scar cut his face in half from right brow to the left edge of his chin, and his nose looked like it had been broken and failed to set properly on more than one occasion. A shock of red hair had slipped from beneath his helmet, and a moustache of the same colour ended in two long curls. He stood head and shoulders taller than Lex, looking vaguely like some Prussian general that Clark had seen in one of Lex's history books. If Clark hadn't felt like he was going to throw up, he probably would've said so to Lex. He'd never admit it, of course, but he loved when Lex went into historical lecture mode. Smart Lex was incredibly sexy.

"Try me," the man said. "I promise you, it will be your loss."

"What do you want, Slash?" Lex said, switching back into negotiation mode. Clark knew he was trying to buy some time, although he wasn't sure that insulting the man was the way to get it. Lex had always been a little short on tact outside the boardroom. Even in it.

Clark saw Harry and Spider-man being carried out by more of the black-suited commandos; both of them appeared to be unconscious. Clark spared a moment to look over the room. It was a disaster area. Spider-man had done his best to pull many of the unconscious party-goers out of the line of fire, depositing them in neat webs around the edges of the room, but Clark could see places where feet seemed to be poking out from under huge slabs of ceiling, and he thought that at least some of the red stains on the floor looked a lot more like blood than wine. He hoped he was wrong. He felt like they'd really screwed up this time.

"A room full of super-heroes? What's not to want?" The man moved closer, stepping over debris as he walked through the room. Clark could feel the effects of the Kryptonite stabilizing. There seemed to be enough in the collar to keep him extremely weak, but not enough to make him pass out. Someone appeared to know a great deal about his limits. He didn't like the idea, and he really didn't like that Lex was standing between him and this man, trying to talk his way out of the mess they were in.

"You must be mistaken," Lex said with a hint of menace in his voice. Clark looked up, could see Lex's frame straighten as he spoke, his back rigid. This man, whoever he was, and his commandoes had just effectively cowed three of the strongest men in the city and here was Lex standing there glaring up at him, threatening him, with nothing and no one to back him up. Clark wanted to drag him away from there before something happened. He didn't know how anyone could ever doubt Lex's bravery, although his sanity was another matter entirely.

"Lex," Clark said. Lex looked down, gave him an encouraging smile, then went right back to what he was doing. Clark knew that look. It was his over-my-dead-body look, and Clark lived in fear of somebody actually taking him up on that.

"Lex, please," he tried again.

Scarface was speaking: "Superman, Spider-man, Batman and Robin, and the Green Goblin, or at least his son, so it's almost the same thing seeing how these things usually work. Fathers and sons. And then there's you, Mr. Luthor. Odd man out."

Lex laughed. Clark closed his eyes. He felt sick. Scarface had just outed all of them and Lex was standing there laughing in his face.

"You're insane, Slash," Lex said calmly. "Three billionaires, a reporter, a kid, and Spider-man, I'll give you. If you think you've got more than that, you're dreaming." Clark wanted to kiss him. Now. Kiss him hard. Kiss him like they had forever. Because they both knew this wasn't going to work.

"And that's why your boyfriend is the same colour as the Kryptonite around his neck?"

Clark saw Lex start to turn his head before he realized he was being baited. The shift was tiny, but it was enough. Not that there had been any doubt, but still, Lex was off his game because he was worried. That much was clear.

"What do you want?" Lex said again, and this time there was no disguising the anger in his voice.

"I have what I want, Mr. Luthor. I have all of you. You're not asking the right questions. Your father would be disappointed."

Clark closed his eyes. Oh, that was very dangerous. Any mention of Lionel in a situation like this was sure to send Lex careening over the edge at breakneck speeds. Clark wasn't disappointed. Scarface was pushing all the right buttons.

"Is my father involved in this? How do you know him?"

"Ruled by your emotions, indeed. I see what he means." Clark reached out a weak hand, but Lex was actually stepping closer to Scarface, too far away for Clark to touch. He needed to get Lex away from here. He needed for Lex to be okay and there was no way that this conversation was going to end with Lex anywhere in the vicinity of okay. In fact, he suspected that okay had already left the building and put a sign on the door saying "gone fishing."

"Fuck you! What's the right question, then? You already have us, so I guess the logical question is to ask what you plan to do with us. Am I close?"

"Very good."

"So, answer the goddamn question then. What do you plan to do with us?" Lex was scared and angry and shaking. He was standing practically nose to nose with the scar-faced man–a considerable feat given the height difference–yelling in his face. The man leaned in closely and put a gloved hand on Lex's right shoulder. Scarface was touching Lex. His Lex, and Lex was angry enough not to care. God. This was not going to be okay by any definition. Okay had not just left the building, but had pulled up stakes and moved to Canada. He wanted to scream at Lex to run.

"I've always been particularly fascinated with your ability to heal, Mr. Luthor. I think it's time to test it out."

Clark heard the words, saw the man's right arm move beneath his coat, heard the dull thud of a gun being fired at point blank range. Clark cried out, but it was too late. He could see the bullet moving through Lex's side and bursting through his back. Clark felt blood spattering his face. Then Lex was falling backwards, into his arms, and the look on his face was pure shock. He hadn't seen it coming. Lex, who planned his chess games twelve moves in advance, was completely taken by surprise.

Clark caught Lex roughly in his arms, not used to Lex feeling heavy. He knew it was the Kryptonite. It changed everything. It robbed him of everything that felt normal. Lex bleeding in his arms was definitely not normal.

"I'm sorry, Clark," Lex whispered, and his eyes were already closing. Clark felt a sob shake him as he bent to kiss Lex's lips. He felt a pinch at his neck, and then he too was lost to darkness.

***

"Clark? Clark! Can you hear me?" a voice was practically shouting in his ear. God, no one was respectful of super-hearing, Clark thought. He nodded, hoping that was sufficient to make the yelling stop until he could at least get his eyes to open and his brain to catch-up.

It must've worked because the voice backed off. Clark felt sick. He was having trouble getting his bearings, and his neck was unbelievably heavy. He struggled to sit.

"Help him sit up, Dick." Bruce's voice, steady and cold. No, not Bruce. Batman.

Clark remembered what had happened before the darkness. Remembered the world turning the colour of blood. Remembered his life being ripped from his arms. He made a mournful noise in the back of his throat and shook off the warm hands that were touching him.

Superman opened his eyes.

***

Bruce saw the change the moment it happened. Saw Superman push Dick away a little more forcefully than he had to and struggle to right himself, by himself. Green eyes flashed coldly in a face that seemed to have grown suddenly more angular than soft, more imposing and commanding than the boy that had lain there unconscious and shivering a moment before.

Lex had been right. There were times when Clark did look as if he were still sixteen. But now wasn't one of them.

It was the eyes that bothered him the most, Bruce thought. Superman's suit had always transformed Clark's eyes into blue–a reflection of the material the suit was made from and part of the disguise. Bruce wasn't used to Superman staring back at him with Clark's eyes. He thought maybe he finally understood the strange dichotomy that Lex lived with every day. The green eyes seemed wrong, out of place, in the face of the alien. They were Clark's eyes. Eyes that were supposed to be filled with love and laughter. The eyes Lex had told him about after he first met Clark. Bruce remembered Lex babbling about his Porsche and a bridge and destiny. Bruce hadn't been able to make a lot of sense out of it at the time, but Lex had kept coming back to some kid named Clark and a pair of stunning green eyes. Eyes that had haunted Lex's dreams for months after that. Bruce wondered briefly if Lex had ever told Clark that. Wondered if he would get the chance.

The five of them had been here for an hour or more, but no Lex. And Clark had been unconscious, muttering incoherently, when two men had dragged him in and dropped him in the corner. Bruce had noticed the eerie green glow from the collar, the blood spattered across Clark's face, the huge stain that had coloured the front of his tuxedo a dirty red. Dick had scrambled over to check if Clark was wounded; they knew he could bleed when Kryptonite was involved, but Dick had looked back at Bruce with sad eyes and a shake of his head. So. It wasn't Clark's blood.

Lex.

"Clark, where did they take Lex?" Bruce asked, his voice the detached bass rumble of Batman.

Bruce could see Clark struggling to keep his features blank, struggling to keep Superman in command. Superman could deal with anything, even when Clark was terrified and screaming inside. Bruce understood that too.

He rephrased the question: "Superman, what happened to Lex?"

Superman pulled himself together. Bruce would get the facts, and little else. They'd deal with the rest later. Bruce saw him scan the room once for listening devices before he began to speak. "I was weakened by the Kryptonite collar. Luthor was trying to get it off when their commander arrived. He had a scar across his face."

Bruce nodded. Scarface had come in to look them over once since they'd been locked in here. Bruce tried to ignore the fact that Clark was talking about Lex as Luthor. He'd only heard him do that when Lex had really pissed him off, and usually only when Lex was around to get the full effect of being reduced to his last name, something Lex hated more than anything.

If Clark needed to distance himself this much from whatever had happened ... Bruce didn't want to consider the possibilities. Lex had been a part of his life for so long that he couldn't imagine him not being there. He longed to wrap the dark cape around his shoulders, pull the cowl over his face. It was easier to blot out everything with the right props.

"He told Luthor the collar would explode if removed. There didn't seem to be a lot of options. Luthor attempted to find out what he wanted with all of us. Scarface knows everything. All of our identities, our weaknesses."

"Fuck, Clark, you know Lex hates it when you call him Luthor. What the hell's the matter with you? Just tell us what happened," Dick said angrily, putting a hand awkwardly on Clark's shoulder. His hands were still in restraints, but he wasn't going to be pushed around by Superman anymore. There were times that he hated when Bruce did the Batman thing–how he put on another personality when he donned the mask–and with Clark it was even worse. He'd never understood the need for it, and right now he needed the guys who were his friends, not the ones that treated life and death as though they were simply two sides of a coin. He needed the Clark who liked to shoot hoops with him and the Bruce that liked to make up Scrabble words, just to see if he was paying attention.

"Please, Clark. Come back and tell us what happened. We'll help," Dick said plaintively, reaching out awkwardly to touch Clark's leg.

Something inside Clark broke, and a strangled sound, half-way between a sob and a laugh burst from Clark's mouth. Words rushed out in a torrent. "Lex tried to tell him he was wrong. Called him 'Slash.' Lex laughed at him, as only Lex could. We knew it was a lost cause, and he just kept trying to protect me, trying to deny what the guy could already see. Why the hell I ever thought that worked, I don't know. And then Scarface mentioned Lionel, and Lex just lost it. He was so angry that maybe Lionel was involved somehow. The guy kept pushing and Lex kept pushing back, and then ..."

"What happened?" Bruce saw tears forming at the edges of Clark's eyes. He didn't think he was even aware of them. God, Lex, Bruce thought. His eyes went back to the dried blood all over Clark. What the hell happened?

"Scarface said he'd always been fascinated with Lex's ability to heal. Then he shot him. Point blank. I saw the bullet go through his side and out the back. It went right by my head." Clark rubbed awkwardly at his face, and Bruce noticed that the tears were mingling with the dried blood–Lex's blood–that dotted Clark's face. "He fell right into my arms and then they took him away. He said he was sorry. I don't even know if he's still alive. There was a lot of blood." Clark passed his hands over his eyes again, using the tears to rub the blood off his face, as if he could erase the memory of what had happened. As if it would make Lex whole and alive and safe.

"Jesus, Clark," Dick said, and leaned his head forward against Clark's shoulder. "I'd put my arms around you, but I can't. These restraints really suck." Bruce closed his eyes and smiled inside, and all the love he'd ever felt for Dick was right there in front of him wrapping itself around Clark. Because Clark needed it. Two kids comforting each other in the darkness. I'd hold you if I could. I'd save you if I could.

Do you remember when we were sixteen? I remember.

We're still alive. That was the deal.

And Bruce shivered inside because he'd known Lex forever, before Batman, before the suit. And if he really thought about it, Lex had saved his life as much as he'd saved Lex's. He may have physically saved Lex from being beaten to a pulp when his mouth got ahead of him, but Lex had saved his soul. He'd crawled into his personal space and held him when he wanted to hate the world. He was the only person who'd ever punched him in the face, then kissed his bleeding lips. He'd taught him how to hold someone and not break him, how to love and not just fuck (although he'd taught him a lot about that too), how to live with the darkness without living in it all the time. And considering Lex's role model, Bruce deemed it some kind of miracle that Lex had always known instinctively what love felt like. What it looked like. There would never be anyone else like Lex, no matter who else came and went in his life, in his bed.

And God help them all, if Lex was dead. Clark may have sworn to protect and serve humanity, but Bruce had made no such promises. If Lex was dead, God help the world.

That was the deal.

***

Peter sat with his back against the wall, chains securing his arms and legs. He'd listened intently to everything that was being said, and with his mask still in place he knew that the others couldn't be sure whether he was conscious or not. Shit! Clark Kent was Superman. That was something. And damned if the guy wasn't hopelessly in love with Lex Luthor. Peter had never heard such anguish before listening to Clark tell what had happened. And now maybe Lex was dead, which Peter really hoped he wasn't. Apparently Lex was one of the good guys after all; just like Harry had tried to tell him.

"Excuse me? Hey, Spider-man."

Peter realized someone was speaking to him. It was Bruce Wayne. Great. The guy was as intimidating as an exhibition of Dadaist art. Peter turned his head to indicate that he was listening.

"It looks like we're all in this together, and the reality is that the bad guys know a hell of a lot more about us than we know about each other. Normally I wouldn't suggest this, but I think introductions are in order. We need to know our strengths and weaknesses if we have any hope of getting control of this situation."

Peter nodded. It made sense, even though it meant that Harry would find out the truth now. It wasn't the best circumstance and it wasn't how he'd planned on telling him, but at least it probably ensured that Harry wouldn't kill him with so many witnesses present. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.

"Okay, if we're all in agreement, I'll start. I'm Bruce Wayne. I'm also known as Batman." Peter sucked in a breath. He noticed that Harry had done a double-take as well. Good. He was glad that he wasn't the only one who hadn't made the connections. "I have specialized training in the martial arts and I rely heavily on technology, so without my equipment I'm limited in what I can do."

"Bruce, I've seen you incapacitate someone with a tuning fork. Give it a rest," Clark said. "You're fucking Batman. You rule the night. Skip the false modesty. Lex would bust your chops for that, so I'll have to do it til he gets back."

Peter marvelled at the way Clark–Superman–seemed to be putting himself back together so quickly.

"Lex would never say 'bust your chops,' Clark, although he's quite capable of performing the requisite action," Bruce replied. Peter watched Bruce and Clark exchange a genuine smile.

Lex Luthor must be some guy to command that kind of loyalty from two super-heroes. Peter was beginning to think that maybe Bruce was a little bit in love with the guy too. He didn't know if he had even a fraction of the strength of character that these men did. Half the time, he wanted to ball the suit up in a garbage can and walk away from it all.

"I'm Clark Kent. Superman. And don't get me started on the name. That's Lois Lane's fault. I'm an alien from the planet Krypton, but I was raised in Kansas so I feel pretty human most of the time, except I'm mostly invulnerable." Peter was leaning forward with interest. He'd heard reports and rumours, but he didn't really know how much of the legend was true. "I'm strong, fast, I can fly, I have super-hearing, can freeze things with my breath, and burn things with my eyes. I have x-ray vision, which is actually just as cool as it sounds, and bullets bounce off me. Well, most things do, including subtle attempts at humour. Did I mention I can fly?"

Clark leaned back against the wall. He looked tired and now that Peter really looked, his skin seemed faintly green.

"My only weakness–besides Lex–"

Peter was amazed that the man was able to grin.

"–is Kryptonite, a substance found in meteor rocks. The green stuff makes me weak. Enough of it, or a refined quantity, makes me really ill or could even kill me. Red Kryptonite just makes my inhibitions take a walk, which is fine if you want to have kinky sex, but not so good if you actually want to like me while we're doing it. There are a bunch of other colours too, but we probably don't have to worry about them. They're pretty rare."

"And if you haven't figured it out, this fucking collar has just enough green stuff in it to keep me weak and nauseated, but not enough to make me pass out. Someone knew exactly what he was doing. I also can't see through lead which is both good and bad. It's good because it protects me from the effects of Kryptonite, but I can't see through it, which is why, I'm assuming, the walls of this fucking room are lined with lead. Next?"

"I'm Dick Grayson. I'm Robin to Bruce's Batman." Peter smiled. That made a lot of sense now. "Technically, I used to be Bruce's ward, but we're a lot more than that. Partners," Dick said proudly, with a look at Bruce that said he wanted that in every sense of the word.

Peter detected a note of proprietary smugness in the young man's voice and thought he saw Bruce shift uncomfortably. Private men didn't like their private lives being put on public display. It made them weak. Vulnerable. So Robin was Batman's Achilles' heel, just as Lex was Clark's. It made sense. It's why the bad guys were always trying to get at the people you cared about. He understood something about that.

"I don't really have any special powers, although I benefit from Bruce being a gadget freak. He's given me a lot of training in the martial arts, but I was a trapeze artist before that, so I'm, uh, pretty limber." Dick flushed pink as he realized how that sounded. Bruce looked at him affectionately. Peter couldn't believe that these men could spend any time in public together without having all their secrets spilled. Jesus, they were horrible at hiding their feelings. At least he had the sense to put on a full face mask.

"Bruce, this seems like a really fucked-up meeting of Super-heroes Anonymous," Clark said mildly. He looked like he was in pain. There seemed to be a thin sheen of sweat on his face. Peter was getting that invulnerable aliens from the planet Krypton typically didn't sweat.

"We love you, Clark," Bruce and Dick chimed in together and Peter found himself laughing along with the rest of them. They were being held prisoner God knows where, while Superman's lover had been shot and was possibly dead, and here they were laughing together and trading secrets. Being a super-hero was really a fucked-up occupation.

"And Clark, can you watch your language? Your profanity level goes through the roof when you're stressed. That's Lex's influence. I know the green stuff's not helping, but I don't want anyone picking up bad habits."

Even Peter knew who that was aimed at. The protectiveness was sweet; there was no other word for it. He'd never thought of Batman as having a softer side. A soft furry underbelly, so to speak. He was thankful the mask hid his grin.

"Harry? You want to go next?" Bruce said. Peter steeled himself. He knew what was coming.

"Um, well, I don't think I really fit in this club very well, but I'm Harry Osborn. My father was Norman Osborn. He was The Green Goblin." Harry looked to see if there was any reaction from the other men. Peter saw no sign of judgment there. "He was killed by Spider-man, so this is a little awkward because I've sworn to avenge my father's death."

Peter kept his face averted from Harry. He knew the kind of look Harry was sending his way. He didn't need to see it in his friend's eyes. He could see Bruce and Clark exchanging glances, but Peter couldn't tell what the looks meant.

"I've considered taking over my father's role as The Goblin to keep Spider-man in line. Somebody needs to. He's a menace."

"Harry, I know this is tough, but let's just do the basics right now. Any special abilities?"

"Um, well, I took the same chemical formula that my father did and I've noticed that I'm stronger than I used to be. I seem to have a greater tolerance for a lot of things."

"Like alcohol?" Dick ventured.

"No, I always had that. Pain mostly." Peter didn't want to know how Harry knew that.

"But sometimes it feels like I'm almost two people, and I get urges to do things. Bad things." Peter shifted his eyes to look at Harry. Harry's eyes were down and he looked as if he might be shaking. Even with everything, he was still Peter's best friend, and Peter wanted to go over there and comfort him. He felt sick that he'd driven Harry to become his father. He didn't know if he could ever forgive himself for that.

"That's usually part of walking on the dark side of things, Harry," Bruce said gently. The man seemed well-acquainted with the concept. "You can control it, though. You don't have to let it control you. Just remember that. And now that we know, we can help you too. We try not to judge. We all come to things in our own way."

"Yeah, we even have a slogan. 'One person's villain is another person's hero.' It used to say 'man', but Wonder Woman made us change it," Clark said. "We even have bumper stickers. We can get you a mug. Dishwasher safe."

Peter smiled under his mask, could see that Harry was smiling too. It had been a long time since he'd seen Harry smile. He missed it.

Clark cleared his throat and Peter could see his look shift to something more serious. "The rest of us all know Lex pretty well, but Spider-man doesn't, so maybe someone can say something."

Bruce looked at Clark sympathetically, and nodded. "Lex Luthor is a prominent businessman from Metropolis. He's not a super-hero in the conventional sense–"

"He wouldn't be caught dead in spandex," Clark interjected, stumbling when he hit the word 'dead.' He looked away miserably.

"–but most of us tend to think he's one of the bravest men we've ever met."

Peter could see that Clark and Dick were nodding. Harry looked interested. So, this was new for him too, even though he'd gone to school with both Bruce and Lex. Obviously, he hadn't been privvy to their deeper secrets.

"He lost his hair to Smallville's meteor shower–the one that brought Superman to us–and it left Lex with the ability to heal rapidly, so we're counting on that to get him through this, wherever they've taken him."

Bruce looked almost nostalgic as he continued. "I've known Lex for a long time. Since we were kids. And Clark was a teenager when they met. I guess Lex is a weak spot for both of us." Bruce's voice had grown softer, and Peter wondered what it had cost him to admit that.

"Lex's biggest asset is that people tend to underestimate him," Clark said. "They see a spoiled rich guy with a soft life, and that's not Lex."

Peter felt a stab of guilt. That was exactly what he'd thought when Harry had mentioned him earlier this evening. God, it seemed liked years since they'd had that conversation back at the apartment.

"Lex has worked hard to get where he is, and he's done it fighting his father and other people's expectations all the way. He's had to be smarter, faster, braver, and sometimes more devious, which takes a lot. He's brilliant and ambitious and a complete geek all at the same time. He can tell you 47 ways to knot a tie and can convert American dollars to yen in his head, but he can't fix a leaky faucet or sew on a button. He'll take care of himself and everyone around him, whether you want him to or not, but he'll never do exactly what you expect. He's got his own Lex way of doing everything."

"That's for sure," Bruce muttered. Clark shot him a small smile.

"Lex is a survivor, so I know he'll be alright." Peter sensed a small tremor in Clark's voice, as if he were trying to convince himself of exactly that. "But he has a bad habit of attracting trouble."

"It seems like he also attracts heroes," Peter said honestly, "so I'm guessing he'll be fine."

Clark looked across at him gratefully and his smile seemed to light up the small dark room. Peter wondered what that smile would look like when Clark's batteries hadn't been drained by Kryptonite. He suspected it was blinding.

"And that brings us to Spider-man," Bruce said. "We do appreciate what you tried to do for us back there." Peter nodded his acknowledgment. "We can respect your right to preserve your identity, but we've all had to trust you, so I hope you can trust us too. We take these things seriously." Peter saw everyone else nodding gravely. Even Harry was nodding.

Okay. This was it. The moment of truth. He was ready to reveal his identity. Everyone was looking at him expectantly.

"Um, the way they've tied my hands ... I can't reach up to take my mask off," Peter said apologetically. He felt like an idiot. "Someone else will have to do it."

Dick eased himself up off the floor and hobbled over to Peter. He was shackled hands and feet, but he still seemed to have the largest range of movement. Limber, indeed. He grasped the top of Peter's mask.

"Ready?" Dick said.

"Ready as ever," Peter replied and he felt the fabric slip away from his skin.