"What are you up to, Luthor?"
Clark woke with a start. It wasn't like he had been sleeping at all well anyway, what with his thoughts of Lex Luthor. He had looked at a calendar the other day and realized that nearly fifteen years had passed since he had first met Lex. Soon, he will have known Lex for half his life. It was an unnerving thought. He had known this day would come, had looked forward to having that kind of history, but he had thought they would still be friends, not arch enemies.
He had never really gotten over them being friends. Every barbed conversation they now had, every attack Lex made on Superman, every raid Superman made on LexCorp, every interaction he had with Lex felt like their old friendship, just grown big and vicious. With venomous fangs. He shouldn't care anymore, he shouldn't want the friendship back. It troubled him that he still did care a great deal.
Then he had made the mistake of commenting on it to Batman. And people thought Superman could be judgmental. He had nothing on Batman. It was like Clark had committed a crime by being friends with Lex so long ago.
Of course, Bruce had never wanted to cozy up to the Joker.
Clark sighed and pushed the thought away. He had to identify what had woken him.
He listened carefully. No major earthquakes or floods anywhere in the world. Lois was still at work muttering to herself, rewriting a tricky article to get maximum insinuation while skirting any outright libel. His mom and dad were both asleep in Smallville, breathing deep and evenly. There were no major crimes happening in Metropolis when even the criminals were home, either asleep or planning, but quiet in the dead of night.
Criminals in the dead of night, however, reminded him of Batman, again. Then he was already out of bed and dressing before the memory fully settled. He had heard Batman talking to himself, say "What are you up to, Luthor?" That's what had woken him. He carefully avoided thinking about how the words "Lex Luthor" were almost as good as "Superman, help me" for catching his attention. It was much more important to track the bass growl of the batmobile as it streaked towards Metropolis.
He should know better than to tell Batman anything personal. The man had a talent for digging up dirt on people and being on the side of good didn't make him any less psycho. And being a business rival to Lex in the daytime was practically the definition of "conflict of interest." So, what had Batman found that had him coming to Metropolis rather than just calling Clark on his cell?
It would be easy enough to get to the batmobile en route, but given some of Batman's connections it would probably be best to check out Luthor Tower and make sure no one else got there first. Even going at those speeds, the batmobile would take a while to get there, so Superman found himself staking out Luthor Tower. He could ask Batman his intentions when he arrived. In the mean time, he found a useful shadow and allowed himself to sway slightly in the wind outside the 17th story penthouse apartment.
He stared at the silver velvet curtain in one window.
"Silver, Lex? Isn't that a bit too '2nd place' for you? Are you sure you don't want gold?" A much younger Clark had teased his friend.
Lex had snorted a laugh. "Silver is elegant, calm, and peaceful. Gold, on the other hand, is tacky, you plebian."
"Well, at least the silver will hide dust better." Clark had been at his most disingenuous, the butler who had just brought in some drinks had looked horrified, and Lex had nearly busted a gut laughing so hard.
The curtains hadn't acquired lead lining until later.
It would normally be a boring place to watch, everything lined with lead and soundproofed. However, it was Lex's headquarters. It was the quintessential black box. Information went in, decisions came out, and there seemed no way to know how the transformation was affected. Clark let his mind drift towards his old friendship with Lex.
Being a teenager had sucked in so many, many ways. It was a truly horrible period that just got worse the more distance and perspective he got on it. Since then, he had made his own way in life, carefully balancing being a vigilante against believing in the rule of law. And the one law that was coming to mean more to him than any other was that you couldn't try kids as adults. No crime is so horrific, no behavior so extreme, Clark knows, that some kid won't convince himself it sounds like a good idea. Being a teenager should really grant an automatic insanity ruling, or possibly an automatic imprisonment until it went away. It messed with your head so much.
He missed Lex but, dear God, they had been rough on each other. They had both thought they were adults, when really they were anything but. They had both been trying to find themselves and found each other instead. Looking back, a blow-up had been inevitable. "Fate," as Lex would have put it.
Lex had been too young and impatient to realize that some secrets one couldn't force. Some secrets one had to learn in bits and pieces. Some trust was built on silence rather than confession.
And Clark had been too young and scared to realize that he couldn't have a curious intelligent friend who cared about him without having a curious intelligent friend who asked questions.
So they had rubbed each other exactly the wrong way and somehow war was declared. Every since, Clark had kept track of Lex's plans and Lex had created the occasional superweapon to take Superman down. Although really, Clark thought, those weapons were kind of a relief. Sometimes he needed the chance to let go of self-control and really wale on some killer robot or race against time and death lasers. He never admitted it to anyone, but there had been months when fighting whatever Lex sent at him was the highpoint of his life.
He was so deep in his thoughts, Clark didn't notice the movement in front of him for a moment. One of the silver velvet curtains was pushed to the side. Then the window slid open, and Clark knew that was against building code to have a window this high up able to open, but it hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things because there was Lex himself, standing in the empty guest room, staring out at the dark.
Looking at Lex now, he could see a faint crease on the man's face as he thought something through, a tilt of his head that showed he was waiting for something to happen, maybe for himself to reach some decision.
Looking at him, Clark also realized that fifteen to twenty-one was a major age-gap, but thirty to thirty-six was practically the same.
The world was funny that way.
Before he could decide to do anything, Lex spoke. "Happy thirtieth, Clark."
Clark froze. There was no way Lex could see him and anyway, the day he celebrated as his birthday had actually been a couple of weeks ago. Clark still went completely still.
Lex laughed softly, making Clark wonder if he were drunk. It made him doubly glad that he was here because a drunk Lex in front of an open window on the 17th floor of a building was not a good idea.
But Lex just stood and echoed Clarks's own thoughts, murmuring to the wind. "Half of your life. A few more years, and it will be half of mine, too. We are a legendary pair, aren't we?"
Then the batmobile arrived and it was time for Superman to leave. Instead Clark remained where he was, starting at Lex, and tracked Batman's progress by sound as far as entering Luthor Tower on the 14th floor. A few moments later, there was a faint beeping noise from the apartment and a women's voice, "Sir, you're about to have a visitor."
"Thank you, Mercy. Stand down unless I call you."
Lex turned away and the curtain fell back into place and the entire apartment was blacked out again. But the window was still open. With concentration, Clark tracked Luthor's steps across a plush carpet.
There was a click, a rush of air, and then Batman's growled, "What sort of game are you playing, Luthor?"
"Game? I'm not the one dressed for a costume party." There was a chime of ice scooped into a glass, then a liquid pouring. "The criminals of Gotham seem to think you're a vampire bat, but given the molding on the body, I'm more included towards a fruit bat."
The sly insinuation in Lex's voice made Clark grin. His humor vanished when he heard the thud of a person's back hitting a wall.
Batman growled, "I noticed something, Luthor. Do you want to know what?"
"I feel sure you're going to tell me regardless."
"Every major manufacturer in the world pays millions every year for metahuman testers. Companies publish glossy reports of how their equipment stands up to third tier metahumans. Every single manufacturer except one: LexCorp."
"Are you accusing me of cutting corners? That's not exactly a new accusation, the Lane-Kent byline make it all the time. Shall I give you the same answer I give them? The people know they can trust my products."
There was the standard arrogance in the reply but Clark had to admit it was well deserved. His first year out of college, he had tried to boycott LexCorp products and businesses. It had been a miserable and expensive failure. Not only was LexCorp everywhere in Metropolis, Smallville, and large parts of the rest of the world, but the products really were better than most competitors'. Having superstrength was hard on household appliances. He had gone through three vacuums and an untold number of alarm clocks before admitting defeat. A decade later and he still had the same LexCorp vacuum and he'd only had to by ten replacement alarm clocks. LexCorp really didn't need to do much advertising because word-of-mouth was so supportive.
"They know," Batman was speaking again, "because you have Superman testing your newest innovations for free on national news every other month!"
"Hardly for free. The property damage is quite expensive."
"Possibly because half the Metropolis homeowners try to arrange for the damage to happen to their defunct kitchens to avoid paying for their own renovations." Batman spoke dryly and really sounded a lot more like Bruce Wayne than he usually did in costume.
Lex laughed. "There are no defunct kitchens in Metropolis. This isn't Gotham after all. We may have slums but they're not cess pools.
Batman ignored the interjection. "And your legal fees are astronomical but it's still cost effective when weighed against the testing and advertising."
"Wow," Lex was sarcasm itself, "who knew that Batman was a business man?" Clark rolled his eyes. Everyone knew that Lex knew the secret identities of most of the superheroes around. "Anyway, I should get something out of fighting off that alien."
The tone of Lex's voice made Clark squint in consideration. He really wished he could see Lex's face right now. Because the man's voice had held a sneer but no venom. There hadn't been the expected hatred.
"You don't hate him." Apparently Batman agreed.
"Of course I do." And Lex was a big, fat liar.
"No. You are many things, but not an idiot. I always thought the sheer stupidity of your assassination attempts on him were a result of hatred beyond reason."
"They weren't stupid!" Clark could practically see the bright red flush on Lex's normally pale cheeks. Clark really hated that lead insulation in the penthouse walls.
"No, they weren't stupid. But they weren't assassination attempts either."
There was a rustling of clothes and Clark imagined Lex straightening his jacket. He was probably facing a mirror, apparently checking his own appearance but really eyeing Batman.
The silence lengthened. Lex finally spoke, "They kept him in check. Even I'll admit Superman is useful when other aliens attack. But he does have to be stopped from world domination."
Clark didn't want world domination. Lex seemed to want it, but it was one of the reasons Clark thought Lex was completely insane. World domination was dealing with issues, big and small, all the time; it was people wanting your opinion constantly, and having that opinion matter. It was an appalling thought.
"He doesn't want world domination."
Thank you, Batman. Within a year of becoming Superman, Clark had realized he had a problem, because other people wanted his help to fix all of theirs. It wasn't in his nature to walk on by when he saw a need, but as his senses grew to encompass the world, there were times when he had to make the self-ish choice. He could catch the man falling off a roof or he could get to work on time. He could catch the hit-and-run driver or he could be polite to the lunch lady. He could stop the robbery in progress or he could get a good night's sleep. And more and more often, he decided his job, the lunch lady, and some sleep were more important.
The papers would crucify him if they ever figured that out.
"That hardly matters, under the circumstances. He's already set himself up as a moral authority. There are people even now clambering to be subjugated. Are you going to tell me you don't have a contingency plan for if he accepts? I hadn't thought you an optimist."
The silence that followed that was telling. Clark felt his jut knot with tension. If Batman and Lex actually agreed that he was a danger to humanity, then he didn't know quite what to think.
He wanted to burst into that apartment and defend himself. When the world was in danger, he would save the world, every time. But the police were competent and were paid for their troubles. He saved the individuals he loved. He tried to make time to stop other crimes but he hated those people who wanted him to play the role of some omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent god.
The idea that Lex and Batman both thought he might agree to it, hurt. It was ironic, though, that what the papers would crucify him for, Lex and Batman both demanded.
Finally Batman spoke. "That's two."
A pause. Clark raised an eyebrow, alone in the dark of night, unable to see Lex but mirroring the look he was sure was on Lex's face.
"You once said that any major action should have at least three separate motivations. To act on fewer was to open yourself up to manipulation by others."
"Oh yes. I seem to recall imparting that pearl of wisdom to a wealthy young orphan by the name of Wayne." The irony was laid on with a trowel. Of course, Lex could only reveal a secret identity once, so kept that weapon in reserve and they both knew that Lex wouldn't reveal it over this little conversation. The open secret was just getting a bit ludicrous.
"You attack Superman on a regular basis. Reason one: you've found a way to make money off of it. Reason two: it distracts him from the possibility of conquest. So, what's reason number three, Luthor?"
"Mm. What do you think?"
"I think it's emotional," Batman sounded grimly smug. "You were his friend and now you're not. You're not his friend anymore and that pisses you off. I think his hair's not long enough for you to pull his pig tails, so you'll do the next best thing and shoot him with your 'death lasers'." Clark was so enthralled with this suggestion that he didn't even blush. "You want his attention," Batman taunted. "Just like every girl in this city, you want him to pay attention to you. You want him to care about you. But he doesn't."
"Get out." Lex's voice was cold and deadly. He was apparently not as cheered as Clark was at Batman's suggestion. Even Superman shivered in response to that tone of rage. Batman didn't seem to even be aware of his own danger.
"I spoke your name earlier and then I drove all the way from Gotham to Metropolis. If Superman was paying any attention to you, if he cared at all, he wouldn't have let me in your little sealed building here. He's saved you when you forced him to, but he doesn't care enough to save you from me."
Suddenly and amazingly, Lex laughed. It wasn't his standard public chuckle or even privately bitter, but a real laugh. A laugh with real humor.
"Go back to Gotham, Batman. Go back to the town and the criminals you know. Because you don't know Metropolis, you don't know me, and you certainly don't know Superman."
"You're right, this isn't my town. But I think I taught you something tonight."
"You certainly did." But Lex sounded more amused than anything. There was silence for a bit. Some ice chinked in a glass. Then a soft beeping. "Sir. Batman has left by the same fourteenth floor window. Do you want to have the security hole fixed?"
"Thank you, Mercy. Have it fixed in the morning. And put a new secret security fault in, oh, the north vent on the sixth floor."
Then there was the soft pad of feet across carpet, and the lead-lined curtain he had stared at for so long was pushed aside.
Lex stood framed in the open window again. He looked more relaxed and happy than Clark had seen him in better than a decade. Clark smiled and remained hidden in the shadows. It was just like Lex to leave an intentional hole in his security so that he could observe and control any infiltrators. It would also, he thought with some chagrin, be just like Lex to have sensors around the outside of his building to see if anyone happened to be flying by.
It was also just like Lex to be right about Batman, too: he didn't understand Metropolis, Lex, or Clark. For all of Lex's schemes and lack of morals, he wanted what was best for Metropolis just like Clark did. And as much as Lex might want Clark's attention on him, Clark wanted Lex's attention.
As if reading his mind, Lex said, "We have a seriously screwed up friendship, Clark."
"That's okay." Superman didn't reveal himself but spoke just loud enough for Lex to hear. Lex smiled and it made Clark's heart glad.
It was okay. They were on opposite sides of politics, morals, and ethics. They fought and built and tore down, but it was okay because as serious as the issues were, the only way to stay sane was to treat them as a game. And a friendly opponent made any competition a joy.
"To friends and rivals." Lex raised his glass in a toast.
They were like a seesaw. There wasn't much point in always being high, or always being low. It was best when soaring up and plummeting down. He refused to stay down, be nothing more than a regular person and let Lex get away with his crimes, but he didn't want to stay on high, ruling the world as a friendly despot. He wanted to help the world and to enjoy living in it, both, and in order to do that he needed someone on the other end of the seesaw, someone of equal weight to Superman. Lex was cool like that.
"And to those who are both. Take care, Lex."
Clark sped off to get a few hours of real sleep before morning. He was still smiling when he fell back to sleep.