"How did we end up like this, Clark?"
Lex sighed and shifted restlessly in his overstuffed chair, grimacing when the injudicious movement reawakened an impressive collection of bruises and left his truncated right arm throbbing. Moving carefully, he settled into a more comfortable position, shutting his eyes as he willed the pain to subside to a manageable level. The same scene that featured in his latest nightmares played out behind his closed eyelids, shouted orders and explosions echoing in Lex's memory.
Lex bowed graciously when introduced to Zala-Ur, the leader of Kryptonian 'delegation.' The smile on her beautiful face had a supercilious curve to it and her tone was condescending when she greeted him in turn. "Luthor. I assume you are here to agree to our demands."
"No, although I am willing to negotiate peaceful alternatives." He nodded in turn at the three fellow exiles that flanked her. "I'm afraid that turning over control of our world to you will never be on the bargaining table."
Zala-Ur's regal gaze swept around the marble atrium, briefly assessing and then obviously dismissing the well-armed presidential escort as a possible threat. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on Superman, who was standing a short step behind Lex's right shoulder, but his presence did nothing to deter her declaration of deadly intent. "Then our discussion is at an end, Luthor. We will simply take whatever we want."
Lex looked up to the balcony and raised a fist, his signal made only a few seconds before Zala-Ur made an imperious gesture, dispersing her entourage around the room to take control while she stepped forward to remove Lex from the equation. The Secret Service agents and honor guard opened fire on the rogue aliens immediately, while Superman shifted to a protective stance in front of Lex, growling, "You need to use the damn ring! Now!"
"You had no idea I'd always had contingency plans in case of an invasion." Reaching out, Lex indulged himself, brushing back soft ebony curls before grasping Clark's slack hand and squeezing gently. "How could you when I'd been treating you as a potential threat for years?"
There was no answer to the rhetorical question, a monotonous beeping and the swish-thock of a ventilator the only sounds in the sunlit room.
"Yes, I did listen when you told me how dangerous they are, but I still have to go through with the summit! I also remember how you once told me that destiny needed to be tempered by duty." Lex stood behind the desk that had featured in thousands of photographs and pointed at the ornate seal that decorated the wall. "In this particular instance of destiny, I'm considered the leader of the free world and this is my duty."
"I was afraid you might say that, Mr. President, so I have something that may help ensure your safety."
His curiosity roused, Lex accepted the small box Superman handed him, barely restraining a flinch when he read the name 'Cadmus Labs' embossed on the lid. Lex recognized the ring the moment he opened the box, knew the wide platinum band inset with diamonds had Lex's initials engraved on the inside. Lex felt sick at the thought that Superman - Clark - had known about one of Lex's most appalling creations. The ring was a symbol of the bad years, when they'd been at 'war' over Lex's insistence on working with Kryptonite.
Extracting the ring from the box, Lex carefully traced over the diamonds that would trigger the release of deadly green radiation. He looked up at Clark's impassive face and shook his head slowly in disbelief. "A Kryptonite ring? You expect me to use something that will incapacitate you?"
"Of course. That is why you had it made, Mr. President," Superman said, and Lex didn't know how to interpret the lack of bitterness behind Clark's sad smile of acceptance. "The Kryptonians match me in strength, and I may not be able to protect you if anything goes wrong."
Lex frowned, disturbed by Clark's disassociation with the only other survivors of his planet's destruction and uncomfortable at the thought that Clark could end up hurt. "I don't like the idea of you being vulnerable."
"And I don't like you meeting with four aliens who could crush you barehanded," Clark snapped back before he took a deep breath and said more calmly, "Consider it a compromise."
It had been too many years since he'd heard those words from Clark, and Lex didn't have the heart to reject them. The ring warmed quickly against his skin as he slipped it on his right ring finger, heavy with the weight of diamonds and portent. Lex wanted more than the memories behind the words. Aching to pull Clark close, to ignore the security cameras and risk exposure, he stepped forward, but there was a discreet knock at the door reminding them that their time had run out. Lex had to be content with a heartfelt handshake and a quiet, "Take care."
Lex watched silently as Hope checked the readouts on the various monitors, shaking his head when she quietly asked, "Can I get you anything, Lex?" She frowned and pointedly set out a paper cup holding several pain pills and an opened bottle of juice on the table next to Lex before exiting the room.
Well aware that a president existed with only the illusion of privacy, Lex sighed and tipped the pills into his mouth, washing them down with the crisp taste of apples. He waved the empty bottle at the camera in the corner near the ceiling before tossing it into the wastebasket by the bed, thankful that he had a few more hours before his overzealous bodyguards forced him to eat.
Reluctant to watch Clark lying so still, Lex looked down as he smoothed out a non-existent wrinkle in the sheet. "I knew when I accepted the ring that I wouldn't use it and risk you." Lex shook his head as he shifted his regard to the white bandages protecting the stump of his forearm. "I guess wearing the damn thing to the meeting became the ultimate moot point."
Walking over to the far wall of the lead-lined bunker he'd had built under the White House, Lex tapped two points on the projected blueprints of the building where he would be meeting the Kryptonian delegation. "I want Mercy stationed here, and Hope, you'll take this spot. That will give both of you clear shots if I raise my fist. I want them taken out with extreme prejudice - they can't be allowed to escape and regroup."
Neither of his personal bodyguards offered any suggestions or changes to the plan, they simply nodded and picked up the weapons they would carry to their assigned positions. Although Lex was well aware of the Secret Service's opinion of the women granted unrestricted access to the president, Mercy and Hope were the only two people he trusted with not only his life, but Superman's as well. There was no one else he would allow to use the special lead-clad bullets containing liquid Kryptonite in their hollow points.
Developed in Lex's top-secret labs, the ammunition had been designed so that after the first bullet smashed open on a Kryptonian's skin, the alien would be vulnerable to subsequent strikes. The plan was to have Hope and Mercy wait for Lex's signal before opening fire, the only guards to be armed with the special ammunition, the only humans Lex trusted not to harm Superman unless absolutely unavoidable.
Although they'd gone their separate ways many years past, Lex had kept Clark safe, even as Lex had made the necessary contingency plans for an alien invasion, and he hoped his modus operandi wouldn't change in the next few hours.
"You called it a compromise and I fell for it just like you wanted." Lex's laughter sounded more bitter than amused as he descended into regret. "You played me and I let you, because I remembered how it used to be, when you'd insist that you weren't using sex to influence our arguments; only giving me time to decide how I could compromise and still make it look like I'd actually won."
Lex rested his head against the back of the chair and looked up at the stamped tin ceiling, absenting tracing the patterns of shadow and light, blinking more and more slowly as the pills starting taking effect. "What I don't understand is why we gave up so easily on both of those things - the sex and the compromises - and I wish to hell that we hadn't."
"You have to shut down the experiments, Lex. Nothing is worth what we've seen happen when Kryptonite is involved!" Clark's fist halted scant millimeters from the top of the bureau, and Lex couldn't help appreciating the display of control despite Clark's anger and distress. Quite a few pieces of furniture had fallen victim in the past, and Lex wasn't interested in picking out another bedroom suite.
He also wasn't interested in the argument, the same one they'd been having for months. He sighed and shook his head condescendingly; his tone suited for lecturing one of the dim-witted government lackeys that attempted to enforce regulations. "Of course it's worth it, Clark. We're close to breakthroughs in both the medical and agricultural divisions…."
The short distance Clark's fist descended did nothing to protect the wood beneath it, and Lex made a mental note to have Mercy order a replacement. "I've read the reports! You haven't been able to eliminate the mutagenic effects!"
"Sometimes you have to decide the potential side effects are worth it, Clark." Lex shrugged and turned away to select a tie from the dozens hanging in his closet. "It's a compromise made everyday by millions of people when they drive their car or take a pill."
Clark was gone in a blur of red and blue when Lex turned back around, but his last sorrow-filled words lingered in the air. "I can't let you do it, Luthor."
Lex jerked awake at the sound of blaring medical alarms and harsh coughing. He looked up in time to see Clark dropping the ventilator tube over the side of the bed. Coughing a few more times, he turned to Lex with a puzzled look on his face before rasping out, "Lex?"
Before Lex could answer, Hope bustled into the room to turn off the machines that were obviously no longer necessary. She raised the bed so Clark could sip from a cup of water, tidied his rumpled sheets, and left the room again after assuring both men that food would be arriving soon.
"Damn, I can't remember…." Clark scrubbed a hand across his face as if swipe the last of the cobwebs from his brain. "I'm assuming they're all dead since we're not."
Lex felt a glimmer of guilt at the thought that Clark truly was the last of his kind, quickly overridden by the memory of their murderous intentions. "Yes, it wasn't easy, and we lost fourteen of our finest, but it's over."
It was evident Clark felt no regret at their passing as he ground out, "Good." His eyes narrowed as he looked at Lex, his face growing grimmer with each bruise and cracked bone he discovered, until he finally reached Lex's right arm. "Lex! What happened!"
"It seems that Zala-Ur had no qualms about eavesdropping on the Oval Office." Lex shrugged and raised his arm a few inches in a dismissive gesture. "When you ordered me to use the ring, she attempted to eliminate the threat, but I'd already pressed the diamonds, so burning through my wrist…."
"I'm so sorry." Somehow, the sorrow in Clark's face tore at Lex more than the loss of his hand. "I never wanted you to be hurt."
Leaning forward, Lex grasped Clark's hand and squeezed. "I could say the same. Mercy and Hope did their best but, on top of being close to the ring, you intercepted at least one of their shots. That left you even more vulnerable." He closed his eyes for a moment as the memories rushed in: screaming and shouting, the sickening smell of blood and burning, Hope and Mercy taking charge of Superman's still form as the Secret Service rushed Lex for treatment. With a shudder, he opened his eyes to Clark's concerned face leaning closer, and Lex's voice was ragged as he confessed, "I was so damn worried that you'd never wake up."
"I could hear you, Lex." Clark shrugged with a rueful smile. "I just couldn't seem to make anything work."
"You could hear me." Lex tried to remember if he'd said anything incriminating, but his brain was still more than a little fuzzy from the pain medication. "Everything?"
Clark's smile blossomed into a grin, something Lex hadn't seen for years. "Everything that was important."
"Oh." Lex felt a blush rising, something else that hadn't happened in years.
"Listen, I know we both made mistakes in the past, but I also think there's no reason we can't start making some new compromises." Clark's raised eyebrow and ill-suppressed smirk made it clear that wasn't all he was suggesting they revisit in the future. Lex didn't even attempt to resist the tug on his hand and he met Clark halfway, the kiss soft and sweet and filled with promise, until Clark pulled back to yawn. "Sorry, I swear it's not the company," apologized Clark with a sheepish smile.
Realizing Clark needed more rest, Lex removed temptation by leaning back into his chair, although he didn't release Clark's hand. "It's fine. We have plenty of time to work things out later."
"I'm holding you to that." Clark yawned again then settled back into the bed, his breathing evening out into sleep in a few short moments.
Lex watched the gentle smile on Clark's face and, as he thought about the lengthy debates he and Clark had engaged in all too many years in the past, he realized that he was actually looking forward to their first disagreement.
It promised to be a win-win situation.