"Lois, don't," Clark said, and ever after he lived with the knowledge that if he'd used the superspeed, he could have swept her away before she opened the box. But he was still just Clark to her, and he wanted candles and flowers (and, to be honest, a place to hide while she got over the inevitable tantrum) when he did reveal himself, so he just yelled. Naturally, she ignored him, and gave the hinge a solid whack with her flashlight so that the lid popped up.
A brown cloud puffed out, enveloping her head and upper torso. Clark caught the scent of strawberries.
"Shi—" Lois began, and fell over gracelessly.
Clark did catch her before she landed, at least.
Lex was automatically notified of the intrusion alarm via a discreet IM on his computer, because the characteristics suggested a superpower-aided assault. If nothing else, LuthorCorp had the best event analysis software on the market; it'd made Lex a killing on emergency preparedness contracts.
Somehow it never seemed to keep Superman out, though.
This time, the target was—
Lex looked at the display and cursed.
"This is the sample I retrieved from LuthorCorp," Clark told Bruce, who took the vial with the expected caution. "The doctors at Met General say they can keep her breathing indefinitely, but her organs are showing signs of stress and, and—"
Lois Lane was a beautiful woman, but more than that she was a beautiful mind, quicksilver-fast and monofilament-sharp. The idea that whole sectors of her brain were shutting down under the stress of whatever Lex had been hiding in that box was too painful to bear.
Clark had no time to spend on recriminations. Not yet.
Lex hadn't checked in on Project A238 in several weeks, and then only to skim the summary. Reading the detailed reports now, he was impressed with the progress of the neurotoxin. It was a very good thing that LuthorCorp had all those Bush-era contracts squirreled away, never cancelled due to excellent (and expensive) lobbying. Otherwise what they'd been working on in that room would have been a federal crime. As it was, LuthorCorp was violating international law—but no one was likely to try to extradite Lex for it. At least not as long as Lex kept the matter quiet.
If Lois Lane died, he was not going to be able to keep the matter quiet.
He stared at the chemical formula and thought.
The penthouse was the only part of LuthorCorp that wasn't lead-lined. Clark figured Lex preferred a defined point of contact, and Clark needed that right now.
Somehow Lex's sensors had caught his direction early enough that Lex was properly posed before Clark touched down. Or maybe Lex waited like that all day long, glass in hand, contemplating the city he essentially owned.
But Lex didn't speak first, as if he thought it would be a defeat to do so. Clark just didn't care. "Lois needs your help."
Lex didn't move. Outlined against the deep blue-gray of Metropolis dusk, his head was a smooth dark shape, a hole cut in the world. Then he took a careful sip of his drink. "There's no cure, no antidote. She inhaled a potent toxin for which there is no known antitoxin. I suggest heavy doses of morphine. At least she can go easily."
"Luthor, you have to do something. You're killing her!"
"Don't try that with me. Not this time." The snap in Lex's voice was what a sudden frost must feel like to ordinary humans, waking to find the world gone cold. "You not wearing protective gear I can understand, but Lane? How many warning signs did you have to ignore to get in there?"
"Four," Clark said without thinking.
"Actually it was five," Lex corrected, swiveling to face him at last, "but the point stands. The bank robber doesn't get to blame the bank for leaving its money so temptingly in the vault." He put his glass down on his desk, a solid slab of one of LuthorCorp's prize products—transparent aluminum, Lex called it, which was some sort of joke. Like Lex, it looked fragile, but it could survive a holocaust untouched while everything around it crisped to ashes.
"Lois is dying." Lex was a stone statue, a graveyard monument. Clark wanted to reach out and shake him until the layers peeled off and he was Smallville's Lex again, Clark's Lex like when they'd first met, when he could have asked Lex for the moon and Lex would have reached up and ripped it out of the sky for him. "Lex, please." He took a deep breath as the world shimmered.
The tears were cool on his face when he knelt, echoing the long-ago time he remembered, even if Lex didn't, when Lex hadn't been Lex, but Zod. "Please."
Lex stared at him like he'd turned into a monster right in front of Lex's eyes, then looked away. "Lane's been a hindrance for years. If I were to put my scientists on the problem, you'd need to offer suitable compensation."
Clark gasped, loud and wet in the silent office. But he wouldn't have come if he hadn't been willing to beg. "What do you want?"
Lex's hands clenched into fists, right at Clark's eye level. "Far more than you can give me." Then, as if every word broke one of his bones, "But you can help."
He let the pause go on long enough to be dramatic. "Standing on the Jewel of truth and honor, in the presence of statues depicting your biological parents, we will perform the Ritual of Rao and exchange bracelets symbolizing your trust and faith in me and mine in you," Lex said, and it was like every lecture he'd ever given Clark except for the small matter of the blackmail.
Also: "What are you talking about?" Clark demanded, getting to his feet so that he could think through the humiliation. He'd never heard of the ritual of Rao. He knew Rao was the god of the sun, which meant that Rao was responsible for Krypton's death (if you believed in that kind of thing, which Clark didn't), and thus perfectly appropriate for Lex's own destructive impulses. But his Kryptonian education had never included any Rao-based rituals.
Lex smiled thinly. "Is that really a question you want to waste your time with?"
He'd never been quite certain what Lex had taken away from the Fortress, all those years ago. If Lex had snuck out with some data crystals, it was possible that he'd managed to analyze them, and extract—well, all things considered, Kryptonian cultural rituals weren't that bad.
"Why?" he asked. He put his hands on his hips, and Lex pressed his lips together in that familiar angry line, plainly recognizing that Clark wouldn't proceed without an answer to that question.
"I would think it would be obvious," Lex bit out. "With Superman at my side, all those past allegations will be forgotten, which will be a blessing for my presidential campaign. Of course part of the bargain is that you can't tell anyone why you're standing at my side. Not even your beloved partner."
"I'm not going to help you destroy—"
Lex raised his hand. "You can do whatever you want in private. I'm not asking you to stop your relentless assault on my special projects. But in public, you will smile and agree that I am the one man you trust enough to perform this ritual with, or else you'd better start writing Lane's obituary. You've got five minutes. Pull your usual Hamlet and she's already dead."
Lex retreated to his vault while Clark angsted. Being surrounded by the weird green glow of Kryptonite was as close as Lex got to comfort: chunks of chaos, secured under his control. The vault contained all his extraterrestrial treasures: pieces of advanced alien technology indistinguishable from mystical artifacts, fragments of space weapons so advanced they could take out a star system, a chunk of Doomsday's hide kept at absolute zero and enspelled by one of Lex's contract wizards so that it wouldn't start growing again. Little things like that.
He needed the familiarity and the reminders of his wealth. Negotiating with Clark was like being stabbed, sharp silvery pain that hurt more the more Lex let himself think about it. He hated his own weakness; an addict clinging to that which dragged him down.
But there was always so much to say to Clark. And this time, maybe, there was a chance he could get a step ahead. Clark needed him, more than he'd ever needed Lex's money and power back in Smallville. This was Metropolis, where the stakes were always higher.
It was only fair that Lex should get more out of his generosity than a chance at Clark's extremely variable respect.
He should have felt more triumph, he supposed. But years of having defeat kick him in the teeth every time he so much as considered a victorious curl of his lips had made him superstitious.
In a way, having the bracelets prepared, just in case an opportunity arose, branded him a hopeless optimist. But only in a way.
"What is that?" Clark demanded, horrified, when Lex returned from his cabinet of wonders. The black thing Lex was holding out was thick and rounded, puffy like a tire for a miniature moon lander. It looked like nothing more than an alien leech.
"A bracelet of binding," Lex said, managing to make the words sound completely serious, the same way he managed to make baldness look like a fashion statement. "Purple would clash too much with your ridiculous costume, so I will accept black."
Clark gaped at him. "I have to wear one too," Lex said, sounding miffed. "This is your heritage."
"I don't want it," Clark pointed out.
Lex shook his head. "No, you don't like some of the consequences. If you didn't want it, you wouldn't do it. As you've demonstrated repeatedly, no one on Earth can force you to do anything, and certainly I can't."
Clark didn't know where to begin with that. Or more accurately, he didn't know where it had ended, where he and Lex had diverged so much that Lex could pretend that caving in to extortion was somehow an exercise of free will. He almost asked Lex what had happened to him, but that was a diversion and Lex wouldn't know how to answer anyway.
"Let's get this over with," he said.
"Take us to your arctic hideaway," Lex instructed him, and Clark did.
Once they arrived, Lex called Mercy and told her to start work on Lois, keeping his side of the bargain. Clark still didn't trust Lex as far as he could throw him (though in fairness, he could throw Lex pretty far), but Lex did value his contracts.
It turned out that the Fortress could generate statues of his parents, twice as big as life and blindly staring. Clark would have liked to spend some time gawking at them. But right now he couldn't make himself lift his head enough to see them, because Lex ordered him to stand in front of them like—like they were standing together in a church.
"In the name of Rao, who kindled the sun," Lex began in passable Kryptonian. Clark blushed at the awfulness of it. Clark stared at the feet of the statue in front of him and tried not to fidget.
"In the name of Rao, who shaped the moons," Lex continued. Clark did his best to ignore him.
"Kal-El!" Hearing his Kryptonian name in Lex's angry tones made Clark snap his head up. Lex glared at him and wriggled the bracelet. Clark held out his right arm like a caught criminal awaiting manacles.
Lex continued, "I pledge to you my care and honor. My hope is ever in you." Clark would have expected the words to be mocking, but they were drained of all emotion, as if a computer had generated them. Lex took a deep breath and pushed the bracelet around Clark's wrist. The material was dull black, nonmetallic, no more chill than the air of the Fortress. The edge of the clasp slid along his skin, and then it closed around him. Clark felt a hot bright jolt, like flying through a sunspot, and shuddered in place.
Lex held out a second bracelet. "Now you."
Clark swallowed and grabbed the bracelet without touching Lex's fingers. "Uh, in the name of Rao, who shaped the moons," he began.
"'In the name of Rao, who kindled the sun,'" Lex hissed.
Like it mattered what order he used in this farce. But that was Lex all over, preferring form to content. Clark corrected himself and started again.
"'I pledge to you my faith and trust, my duty always to you,'" Lex prompted.
He hesitated, looking at the bracelet around his wrist. It was a solid ring of black, no sign it had ever been split at all. He didn't recognize the technology.
"Are you sure this won't hurt a non-Kryptonian?" he asked, desperate.
Lex tilted his head and waited.
Lois, waiting for him. Lois, for whom his word was given.
"I pledge to you my faith and trust, my duty always to you," Clark said, the words stumbling over themselves in his haste to get them out. He almost dropped the bracelet, and then he almost closed it so that it would have caught a flap of Lex's skin inside, but years of taking care over human fragility stopped him, and he ended up cradling Lex's wrist in both his hands as he slowly brought the ends of the bracelet together over the inside of Lex's right wrist, where the veins stood out royal purple under too-pale skin.
Lex twitched. Clark's thumb slipped, pressing against Lex's lifeline, the crease in his palm that went all the way to his wrist. Clark always remembered Lex's skin as cool, legacy of that very first touch when Lex had been shivering wet from the river, but this time the contact sent a gout of heat through him, as if whatever process sealed the bracelet had thrown off enough excess energy to melt steel. Clark couldn't breathe as he checked Lex's skin for burns, but apparently it had been mere illusion, just nervousness and anger leading to phantom pain.
"That's enough," Lex said roughly, pulling back. His mouth pinched in its familiar angry pout when he had to wait for Clark to release him. "Let's get back to Metropolis. I have a press release to issue, and I imagine you have a bedside to wait by."
Clark dropped Lex on the rooftop at LuthorCorp and was instantly gone, not even a dot disappearing into the sky. Lex wondered sometimes why Clark's passage didn't do more collateral damage. Even the laws of physics were inclined to cut Superman some slack, as if, instead of Planck and Heisenberg and Doppler, Clark's every move were attended by the little cartoon bluebirds that dressed Cinderella.
Lex snorted to himself at the image as he punched his code into the lock on the roof door. If they were doing Disney, then he supposed he had to be the evil uncle. Though the man he had to kill to achieve his kingdom was far from a kind and gentle ruler.
Fairy tales were so very Smallville. Metropolis was more a graphic novel type of place, he thought as he listened to the rattle of his feet pounding down the stairs. This building employed over two thousand people, and still the stairwell was empty, his own noises echoing back to him like he was the only one left after a neutron bomb. Almost, he wished he could stay like this, free from the demands and imperfections of others.
He'd have to look into automating the building, once the other items on his agenda had been settled.
Oliver called within fifteen minutes. The nurses gave Clark dirty looks, and he took his cell outside the hospital room.
"What did you do?" Oliver demanded.
"Pretty much what Lex is saying."
"Clark! How could you? Unless you take it back—"
"I gave my word, Oliver."
Oliver made a sound of disbelief mixed with disgust. "I'm gonna send Bruce—"
"Don't," Clark told him. "We'll figure it out. But it's done and there's no going back."
Oliver hung up on him. Clark couldn't really blame him. He checked through the walls and saw that Lois's vital signs were steadily improving. The LuthorCorp treatment was restoring her body, and more importantly, her brain activity was increasing every minute.
She was going to be fine. That was the only thing he wanted; the rest could be fixed later.
Security foiled three intrusions before Batman arrived. Between one blink and the next, he was there, silhouetted against the window. Lex put his drink down on his desk and wished, quite profoundly, that he could afford to kick the Bat so hard that the caped crusader would fall back through the reinforced glass. Batman would just use his gear to grab onto some part of the building and thus avoid pancaking, so it would only be a temporary pleasure, but there was plenty to be said for temporary pleasures.
"Which part of the threats and insults do you want to skip?" he asked instead of lunging. Batman would just dodge anyway and Lex wasn't in the mood for humiliation. The preliminary polls were—frankly, he'd never been much impressed with the intelligence of the average voter, but even he was surprised how much difference Superman's endorsement was projected to make. Point being, no dark avenger was going to get him down tonight.
Batman stared at him.
"All of them, then? I approve," he said, smiling his nastiest smile. "You're watching me, I'm watching you, we're all dangerous voyeurs and if I try to exploit Superman I'd better be prepared for the consequences. You'll let me know if there was anything I missed, of course." He dropped his gaze and considered pouring himself another slug, but he wasn't actually finished with his present drink and so the performance wouldn't have been convincing.
Batman stared at him.
Lex didn't roll his eyes, but it was a near thing. "Three options: talk, leave, or get ready for Mercy." Lex didn't think Mercy had a mosquito's chance against Batman, but it never hurt to watch an opponent fight. There was something to be learned from watching his best warrior get her ass handed to her.
Batman stared at him.
Lex reached out and slapped the security button. If Batman was in the mood to harass him, then there'd be no one awake to come running, but that would be interesting information as well.
But no, ten seconds and Lex heard the door from the main office start to open. Lex didn't see Batman's hands move, but the space where he'd been was suddenly surrounded by a dark gray cloud that smelled like licorice and burning leaves. Lex winced; another carpet lost.
Mercy charged into his line of sight, wearing a gas mask (another one skittered across the desk to rest between Lex's hands as she rushed towards the cloud; he appreciated the thought even if he was already exposed). She produced a foil from somewhere as equally mysterious as the source of Batman's smoke grenade and slashed it through the thick coils that were only slowly sinking downwards. It was pro forma, because obviously the Bat had flown, and yet Lex felt better for seeing her do it.
He wasn't worried about the threat implied by the Batman's ability to penetrate his security. Well, not deeply worried. Superheroes were so constrained by their nonlethal morality.
They cornered Clark at last after a foiled bank robbery in Star City, where he was patrolling while Green Arrow was off doing things Clark didn't want to know about in a country Oliver had refused to name. Oliver wasn't as accommodating of the press as Clark, for reasons that were pretty obvious, so Star City reporters had become used to descending in a crush whenever they got the chance. Clark didn't feel it was polite to fly off without a brief interview.
Unfortunately, they weren't much interested in the bank robbery, or even in Green Arrow's absence.
"Superman! Superman! Lex Luthor says that you've undergone the Ritual of Rao with him, indicating your trust and support for him. Is it true?"
Clark looked at the bracelet on his wrist. He'd spent so much time twisting it that if he were human he was sure he'd have a rash by now. But as with everything else, his body stayed stubbornly unmarked.
He had to say something about the damned bracelet. Of course Kryptonians couldn't have their rituals confirmed with secret symbols, like Mormon underwear. No, they had to go for the most undeniable displays. And he had to keep his word. The fact that he and Lex never outright lied to each other was the only thing that had kept both of them alive and Metropolis largely intact over the past decade. Break that truce, even for the best of reasons, and the longterm consequences would be much worse.
"Yes, Lex and I performed the Ritual of Rao," Clark said, not looking at any particular reporter.
"In your own words, what is the Ritual of Rao?" a woman shouted out from the back of the crowd.
Clark took a deep breath. Lex was right, this would rehabilitate his reputation with a substantial percentage of the city, and even the nation. It would strengthen his campaign, maybe enough to get him elected, even if Clark refused to endorse him. "The Ritual of Rao," he began slowly, "is a ceremony that two people perform when they hold one another in high esteem."
How could he live with himself after this? Aiding Lex Luthor's rise to power, after so many years of fighting his every step. Stopping a nuclear power plant here or an unlicensed drug trial there, those were trivial compared to swearing fealty to Lex on a national stage.
And then, quite suddenly, he had the answer.
Clark raised his head and looked directly into the nearest camera. "Basically," he said, "it's a marriage."
He flew away before any of them recovered enough to ask a follow-up.
If Lionel had still been alive, Lex would have known fifteen minutes sooner that he'd entered into a sodomitical marriage. Realizing that gave Lex his first and only regret over his father's death.
As it happened, Lex found out the news when he left the meeting with the representatives of the Export Bank of China. The crush of media was so great that it overwhelmed Mercy, who was under strict orders not to cause grievous bodily harm within view of a camera. "When did you know you were gay?" was the nicest, least intrusive question he heard.
Lex threw himself into the limo and slammed the door. Mercy would have to find her own way back. "Drive!" he snapped.
By the time he returned to the LuthorCorp tower, the stock was down five percent, every major news network and Oprah had called to ask for an interview, and his Iowa coordinator had resigned. His Facebook group, however, had gained ten thousand adherents.
Perhaps his fate was to go through life with some sort of reverse Midas touch.
That night, The Daily Show's segment on him was called Red to Blew. "Conservative presidential candidate Lex Luthor shocked the nation today when it was revealed that he got gay married to Superman," Jon Stewart said, smirking all the while. "Apparently he didn't realize that you don't automatically win the Iowa primary just by being married to another guy. To do that, you have to get gay married in Iowa. We go now to our senior gay correspondent, Aasif Mandvi."
As Lex watched in horrified fascination, after Stewart and Mandvi bantered a while over the meaning of "gay correspondent," Mandvi and Hugo Huang (junior gay correspondent) debated whether Lex topped or bottomed. Mandvi maintained that obviously, if a notorious playboy like Lex was going to take it up the ass from anyone, it would have to be Superman, while Huang engaged in a bit of armchair physiology and suggested that Superman-on-bottom was less dangerous, since a real pounding from Superman would tear a human apart: "You remember those anti-gun ads where the bullet hits the apple? Like that, but with semen."
Then Stewart jumped in to point out that there was a potential for a crush wound from the otherworldly power of Superman's ass, which made Huang wince and cross his legs. In fact, that observation made Lex wince also, though the five glasses of brandy he'd had since the segment began might also have had something to do with his relative empathy. "You know, those are all concerns with a woman, too," Lex told the television, even as Stewart ended on a joke about how the two of them might just lie in bed and jerk each other off—"and every woman in the audience just passed out," Stewart finished. "We'll be right back."
Not on Lex's television. He managed not to throw the remote through the screen—replacing electronics was embarrassing, and anyway he suspected his aim was off—but he did hit the power before picking up the brandy and swallowing another few ounces.
The proximity alarm went off, and it took Lex three tries to find the display.
Superman was hovering outside the penthouse, arms crossed like a gaudy Oscar statuette.
Lex hit the button to let him in, then got to his feet. He had the feeling he was going to want the freedom to pace.
"Here to gloat?" he asked, turning his back as he poured himself another drink.
"I'm following your rules," Clark said from approximately ten feet behind him.
"So, yes, then." Lex couldn't blame him. It had been a brilliant piece of political strategy. "Who suggested you do that? Bruce? Or Oliver? My bet is Oliver, he's always had a better instinct for this sort of thing. Bruce knows fear, but not this kind of fear."
"I didn't—I thought of it," Clark said defiantly.
Lex turned, raising an eyebrow. Clark's scowl, even through the image distortion of the Superman illusion, reminded him of years past when Lex had dared to suggest that Lana Lang was possibly not Clark's destiny. "Congratulations, then. It does seem a bit unfair that I'm getting all the burdens of marriage without any of the benefits. So any time you'd care to perform your conjugal duties—"
Clark's eyes widened amusingly.
"You did promise," Lex said, because he was going to extract some satisfaction from this mess one way or the other, and really, leader of the free world was an ambition worth pursuing, but messing with Clark's head was always going to be more tempting. Not to mention more immediately gratifying. "I liked how you were when you came begging to me, on your knees. I suggest you start there."
Lex had faced a lot of unexpected events in his relatively short and eventful life. Even counting meteor attack, meteor mutant attack, attempted murder by plane crash, possession by alien entity, and—well, point made—he had never found it harder to maintain his cool than when Clark actually went to his knees. From anyone else, he would have anticipated some devastating taunt, something about what Lex would never have, but that wasn't Clark, so Lex's brain just locked up like New York in rush hour. Clark stared at Lex, looking almost amazed by his own boldness, and then started crossing the room.
On hands and knees.
Lex nearly lost his balance with the rush of arousal. And then Clark was in front of him, reaching for his trousers—impatient with the catches and buttons, tearing, ten thousand dollars of Hong Kong wool gone in an instant—"Turn off that fucking illusion," Lex snarled, because as much as he wanted that mouth on him, he'd set himself on fire to avoid touching Superman. Clark did, instantly, even though Lex couldn't see how it was controlled; maybe it was purely mental, he thought, before the sight of Clark's mussed dark curls and red red lips drove speculation from his consciousness.
Waking up was nearly as disconcerting as when Clark had shuddered back to life in his tomb after everyone thought Doomsday had killed him. The differences: sunlight instead of pitch-blackness, the pleasurable ache of tiredness instead of the full-body bruising that had lasted weeks, and the utter and complete shock. Dying was one thing—Clark had always understood that he was going to die eventually—but sleeping with Lex Luthor (not to mention the sex), now, that was as close to inconceivable as anything that had ever happened to Clark, including parallel universes, bodyswaps, and that one time he got pregnant with the last survivors of a dying species.
Now would be a really good time to be comfortable cursing, Clark thought as he sped back into his uniform. He barely remembered to restore the image enhancer that gave him Superman's face; he never wore the uniform without the enhancer, except that when Lex had told him to be Clark he'd felt such overwhelming relief that abandoning the enhancer had been as automatic as breathing.
At least superspeed let him dress himself and sneak out without waking Lex.
Lex, who was sprawled out and still taking up only a tiny fraction of his half-acre bed, the dark and stained sheets covering only his lower legs. The sheets had been softer than butterfly wings against their skin. Lex had muttered words about giving up purple for blue, but Clark wasn't trying to remember what Lex had said, sonnets composed on the fly as Lex's hands had worked him over like Lex was sculpting him out of clay. Relaxed with sleep, Lex's skin was pale everywhere, veins tracing over him like lacework, the heavy muscles of his shoulders and back so much bulkier than they'd been when he and Lex had been kids in Smallville.
Clark had left marks last night; Lex never could. But Lex was already healed, so Clark guessed they were even.
When Lex had ordered Clark to—to service him, Clark had meant to scoff and storm out, same as ever even if the topics had grown more adult. But then.
Then he hadn't.
Clark zoomed back to his apartment, where the sight of Lex wouldn't distract him so much. He started coffee, which unfortunately couldn't be made at superspeed (this, Clark knew from vile experience) and paced, human-slow, around his living room, which was smaller than Lex's bed. No, bad comparison.
The way Lex had sounded, his voice like smoked quartz, when he'd opened Clark up. The taste of him, brandy and oranges and a hint of metal.
Clark shook his head. He needed to figure out what had caused last night's insanity, not obsess about the details.
The Ritual of Rao. The words Clark had said had been different from the words Lex had said. "Duty," Clark had said, or the Kryptonian equivalent, and then Lex had repeated it last night, right before he'd demanded sex.
Maybe "duty" wasn't the full translation, and maybe the Ritual of Rao was more powerful than even Lex realized. Clark stared at the bracelet around his wrist, feeling newly betrayed by it.
If Lex could order Superman around, then Clark's bargain had been a much worse one than he'd thought. Lex wouldn't need to be electable: with his brains and Clark's powers, even the rest of the Justice League couldn't hold him off.
The only hope was that Lex didn't realize the extent of what he'd gotten from Clark. Lex had seemed shocked last night, under the thin layer of calm he could manage in any situation. Maybe he thought that Clark had just given in to a longstanding passion, never acknowledged when they'd been less than outright enemies and only acted on now because there was nothing left for them to lose.
Ridiculous, of course, but maybe Lex would believe it. Lex always did like the most complicated explanations.
Somehow, Clark would have to keep Lex from giving direct orders. And if Lex did demand that Superman assist his plots, Clark would have to figure out how to obey in the least helpful way possible, just like he'd done with the whole gay marriage scandal.
He could do this, he thought as he changed into his reporter's outfit. If it kept Lex convinced that the Ritual of Rao was just a set of words, Clark could pretend that he wanted to do those things with Lex.
Lex made himself—let himself—roll off, putting a few inches between them on the bed, and swallowed down on the noise that wanted to leave his throat. Beside him, Clark was breathing heavily, and Lex tried to decide if that was just some sort of habit, a useless unconscious gesture. Probably the panting was real, or as real as Clark ever got, because it made sense that his heart—or whatever he used for a heart—would speed up during sex, even if it wasn't exactly strenuous in the usual human sense.
"Whoa," Clark said, almost like he was talking to himself. For some reason, Lex very much wanted to get up and flee to his office. But that would be weakness, even if Clark wouldn't understand it as such.
He hadn't expected Clark to show up again so soon. He'd thought there would be at least a few days of agonizing, and then most likely accusations of manipulation.
Instead, he'd looked up from his computer screen, meaning to watch night fall on Metropolis. When the blue sky took the leap into darkness, he felt closer to his city than at any other time. They were both always transitioning from one thing to the next, always ready to light up fiercely.
Instead of the post-sunset blue, all he'd seen was Clark, already out of his Superman drag. The expression on Clark's face had been new, for all that Lex would have sworn that he'd rifled through every one of Clark's secrets.
After that Lex's memory was uncharacteristically blurry. He remembered everything about Clark's skin (slick, quickly sweaty; smooth except for the occasional mole) and Clark's mouth (sharp teeth, a predator's; there could be only one of him, at the top of the food chain) and Clark's hands (moving him like all his intense workouts were irrelevant, and of course they were; positioning him for maximum accessibility) and even Clark's eyes (shocked almost, wide and green as Lex's dreams of other worlds to conquer). But the physics of it, how they'd moved from LexCorp to his bedroom, that wasn't so clear. Though Lex was pretty sure that the first time had been in the office, which made the return on his investment in one-way glass a lot more substantial.
The bed smelled of them, damp salt and that special note of pure Clark, something like sandalwood cut with fresh grass—always a hint of green growing things, as if Clark's boundless vitality was going to spill over and leave flowers blooming in his wake.
The bracelet was warm around his wrist, like it had held on to the heat they made between them. Lex wanted to twist it, just to feel the unknown metal slide around him, a piece of a destroyed world that he'd shaped to his own devices. But he could already sense the nervous habit that wanted to form, and he couldn't have a blatant tell like that, so instead he just pressed his arm down a little, letting the edges of it dig into his skin.
His scientists had been unable to penetrate the secrets of this bit of Kryptonian technology. They speculated that what looked like metal was actually a complex nanodevice. It made about as much sense as any other explanation.
Clark sighed, almost soundless. Lex stared up at the ceiling, pure white twenty feet over his head. "I should go," Clark said. Lex could hear the bedsheets rustling as Clark shifted, whisper of skin on silk.
Lex swallowed. "Then go," he said—he wasn't going to fucking beg, those days were over and blasted apart. What they were doing now, he thought as Clark rolled to the edge of the bed and began gathering his clothes, had nothing to do with the early years in Smallville. Well, of course, the desire was still the same. It had been so long that every cell in his body had been replaced, but the desire was burned in deeper than that. It was like being bald: something he'd learned to accommodate, and even occasionally to use as a motivator.
But the friendship was gone. Now they had bargains. Bargains, and this.
Lois alternated between glaring at Clark and looking over his shoulder at the lights of the city. She was dressed to maim: tight black vest over crisp white shirt, skirt with creases like a switchblade, icepick heels. Even her earrings were silver daggers, edged with rubies. "I wanted to talk to you—" he told her.
"Yeah, I got that when you texted me for the fifth time."
She'd made him wait for ten minutes on the top of the Planet.
"I know you're probably wondering—"
"Wondering. No, I am not wondering. I am considering how to have you locked up so you can get your head looked at! I mean, obviously you made a deal to save me, which on the one hand I approve of, but on the other—marrying that snake? You could at least've bargained him down!"
He wanted to protest that her life was not a used car. Before the words came out, he remembered Lex's condition: don't admit the truth to anyone. That was an easy rule for him.
"It's not like that," he said, gently enough that she stopped sputtering and really examined him. "I was serious when I went through the Ritual."
Her mouth opened in shock. She fumbled for her cigarettes; Clark hadn't managed to steal the latest pack, so she was able to retrieve one. She'd tried to get him to light one with heat vision for a couple of months, before she'd decided that Superman was as humorless as Clark on the topic of smoking. Fishing the lighter out of the flotsam of her purse gave her something to do with her hands, and it meant that she didn't have to look the man she was halfway in love with—who was also maybe halfway in love with her—in the eyes while he explained that he had kind of married someone else, without even having the decency to tell her first.
Clark knew Lois better than she probably wanted to be known.
"Okay," she said when she'd sucked in a long hit, "so you guys, what, were pulling each other's pigtails all these years? Let me guess, Kryptonian courtship rituals consist of blowing shit up and attempted murder?" Her voice hardly shook at all, but the bobbing of the ember at the end of the cigarette was a small betrayal.
"It's complicated," he said. "I—He—" Lex could make him avoid the truth, but he couldn't lie, not about this. He put his hand around the bracelet; it disappeared beneath his fingers, and he could feel it like a band around his heart.
"Or is the sex just that good?" Lois asked, titanium-edged. "Lord knows his reputation—Holy shit." She sounded like she'd just witnessed an alien abduction; Clark knew this for a fact. "It really is the sex, isn't it?"
The Superman projection mimicked Clark's own expressions. Apparently it also transmitted blushes. "I don't—"
"Well, the Planet won't print that," Lois said, more regretful than he'd heard her up to this point. "Lex Luthor, intergalactic Casanova. Now I kinda wish I'd—"
"Lois," Clark said, pained.
"Sorry, sorry," she said, waving her free hand at him apologetically. And like that she was Lois Lane again, the girl who hid all her hurts behind a shell as impenetrable as Superman's skin. "So, what happens to all your anti-Luthor activities?"
Clark had thought a lot about this answer, especially now that he had to avoid demands from Lex. "LuthorCorp is still subject to the same laws as everyone else. When I see a violation of the law, I plan to act."
Lois took another drag of her cigarette and cupped her elbow in her palm as she turned towards LuthorCorp Tower. "I guess now you can put him on the couch if he acts up. Maybe that's the incentive he needs to start behaving."
Clark shook his head. "Not even Lex understands what makes Lex tick. I wouldn't make any predictions." It was the closest he could come to warning her that he couldn't be the guardian of Metropolis any more, not when Lex was involved.
She looked at him sidelong, her gaze still scalpel-sharp. "I never thought I'd say this, but: good luck with Lex. I have the feeling we'll all need it."
"Lois, you've been—" 'A good friend' was not entirely accurate; 'a pain in the ass' was too harsh, even if she'd understand exactly what he meant. "I need you to keep me honest, now more than ever. If I—Lex can be persuasive. Don't let me forget the costs of his plans."
Her eyes softened, the way he'd imagined they would have looked if he'd ever managed to declare himself to her. The chill wind of evening closing in on them whipped strands of her ponytail around her shoulders, and she smiled, wide and wry. "I'd like to see you try to stop me."
SUPERPOWER COUPLE? was Newsweek's headline, independently arrived at by six other papers and magazines. Five more omitted the question mark. The Economist went with a caricature, Superman's cape wrapped around Lex, except that they always drew the cape as the American flag, and they had Lex in the pose of the Statue of Liberty, which made him look like some sort of fashion-challenged Roman potentate with a crown on his bald head. And those were the good ones.
The first press conference was precisely as excruciating as Lex had expected. After some internal debate in the campaign, they'd decided on the line that Lex had left it to Superman to characterize the relationship, because it was his heritage and his choice. And they'd had a new set of suits made so that the bracelet was exposed—no hiding for Lex Luthor—but the color of the metal was close enough to that of the fabric that anyone inclined to do so could see it as one blended entity.
Here was a thing he never expected to think, but: Thank God for the People reporter. Once she asked how they'd met, and Lex had explained that Superman had saved his life, the political questions ended and then it was pure gossip time. How long had they known each other? ("Several years," give or take a decade, "but I'm always learning something new.") When had the relationship changed? ("I'm not going to answer that" was a lot better than "two days ago.") What drew him to Superman? ("You're joking, surely"; the laughter was more than polite.)
"Is Superman going to campaign for you?" the Tribune reporter asked. Lex had called on her when he sensed that he needed to get back to substance.
Lex shook his head. "I haven't discussed it with him, but I don't have any reason to think his noninterference policy has changed." Actually—and he could just see the Weekly Standard article on this already—Superman had not been born in America. An act of Congress a couple of years back (sponsored, of course, by Senator Kent) had conferred American citizenship on him, after Lane's first set of interviews, but Lex's lawyers had told him then that the question of whether a nonhuman could even be a citizen was at best an open one. Superman campaigning for him openly might not just be a PR issue; it could be a campaign finance law violation. Fortunately it was a moot point, because Superman wasn't going to offer an encouraging word.
And even if Superman's citizenship became a campaign issue, he'd already be so much closer to victory that there was no point in worrying about it now. He nodded at the reporter, allowing her a followup.
"Are you concerned that if he's around you too much you won't be able to escape the gay marriage issue?"
Lex shrugged easily and held his hands out. "Ms. Hansen, I went through the Ritual of Rao with Superman. Since I don't have a working time machine, I expect most people are going to know. But he's got a career of his own and I'd prefer to keep it that way."
The question with Lois Lane was always whether to call on her early or late. Early, and she set the tone; late, and she could ask a question that erased everything that had come before. Today, he'd gone with late. "Ms. Lane."
"Are you going to reveal Superman's secret identity? We don't know what kinds of conflicts of interest you might have. Or if someone else finds out, you'd be subject to blackmail. Is that really a vulnerability we want a potential president to have?"
Lex didn't bother looking at her. He looked right into the cameras. "I think you've confused Superman with some of our other guardian angels. Superman doesn't wear a mask."
"He's never denied living a separate life," she called out.
Lex wanted to say: 'He's also never denied being a cocker spaniel.' There was no point putting ideas in people's heads, though. "Kal has kept his private life private. But you, and every other reporter in the Western Hemisphere, have had him under scrutiny from the moment he caught that runaway airplane. There's an extensive, even grossly excessive, public record of who he is. Not many of us can say the same." He wanted to ball his hands into fists; he wanted to tell them that if they hadn't found anything yet they weren't going to. But if there was anything that he'd learned from the line of annoyances running from Roger Nixon to Lois Lane, it was that provoking the press was a terrible idea no matter how satisfying it might feel in the moment.
Well, that kind of backfired.
Lex had 100% name recognition, more valuable than gold and harder to move than negative opinions. He was still behind in the polls, but Clinton-behind, not McCain-behind.
Clark had grown up with preachers on the radio talking about gay marriage like it was the apocalypse up close and personal. But it turned out that Kansas was pretty much as conservative as it got on the gay thing. Most of the people who wouldn't vote for Lex wouldn't have voted for him anyway. And because the Ritual of Rao wasn't the same thing as a wedding, plenty of people thought their relationship was kind of like a civil union, which was boring and not so obviously against anybody's religion. Over half of the population lived in states that recognized gay marriage or domestic partnership; the nation's capital had even legalized gay marriage a few years back.
The bracelets of Rao became a minor fashion trend, worn by teenagers in love with controversy and hipsters who had decided that they were somehow ironic. Some of the bracelets came with little Superman logos, enameled red and yellow. Clark found an entire warehouse full of them and thought about setting it on fire, but settled for running a story about the dodgy overseas production conditions and traces of lead in the paint.
Lots of the commentary suggested that Lex's election was just the next inevitable frontier in gay rights. The conservatives who talked about interspecies mixing like it was miscegenation just made the rest of the critics look bad. Apparently Clark really was that popular.
Jon Stewart riffed on Lex every night, and worse he spent a lot of time making jokes about what Clark presumably liked to do in bed. Even the non-sexual jokes were worrisome, because they were all about making Lex seem harmless, which Clark could have told him was like making a volcano sound like a sun-warmed piece of rock suitable for picnicking. But no, he got: "We've had a black president, a Mormon, a woman and a Jew. Maybe it's time to knock down that last barrier in modern times and elect a bald man."
Lex shook up his consultants and started going after independents who were tired of the culture wars. And they were listening. Lex always could sound like the most reasonable person in the room, as long as he'd had a chance to think about what he wanted to say.
Bruce frowned constantly. Clark asked him, as a personal favor, not to fund anti-gay groups as a way to take Lex down. Bruce called him a child and asked whether he thought there'd be no price for his rash decision. But, in his capacity as Clark Kent, he checked and didn't find Wayne money going to any of the usual suspects, which was a small relief.
Also, Clark was having an astonishing amount of sex.
This was something that he tried not to think much about when it wasn't happening—his uniform was really really tight, for one thing. And Clark Kent needed to be paying attention to what was going on around him or Lois would whack him on the arm, which always made her curse and shake her hand.
It wasn't like he hadn't known that Lex would be embarrassingly, outrageously good at sex. He'd seen Lex walk. And bend over. And touch things. And lean on—whatever, Lex was an Olympic-quality sexual gymnast, this was news to precisely no one.
The funny thing was that Clark could fall asleep in Lex's bed and not wake up terrified of what Lex was going to do to him, or make him do. He wanted to blame it on the Ritual of Rao. But the Ritual only made him obey. That, Clark had confirmed with the Fortress, which also said that it was irreversible. Apparently if Clark had known what he was doing he could have negotiated some constraints on the obedience, which would have been incorporated into the vows—the whole thing really was more like a marriage, crossbred with a contract, than Clark had known—but since he hadn't, the only thing holding Lex back was his inability to imagine that Clark might follow orders. Thanks a lot, Kryptonian culture, Clark thought. Too bad that particular wrinkle hadn't been part of his whirlwind tour of his heritage.
Fortunately, Lex's usually clever imagination seemed to have failed him when it came to exploiting the Ritual. Mostly, they just had sex, and occasionally fought about some story in the Planet or a sketchy Luthorian business venture.
One night, Lex stopped stroking his back and rolled out of bed, pulling his pants off of the floor. "Where are you going?" Clark asked, sleepy and satiated.
Lex stopped and ran his hand over the back of his head. "If I'm going to get the new testing facility approved this year, I need to finish this report." Clark knew that there'd be more to it: Lex probably had someone who needed to be bribed or intimidated as well. He'd have to look into it tomorrow.
"Come back to bed," Clark said. Even if Lex hadn't been able to cut him off with a single order, Clark didn't want to fight. "Just until I fall asleep."
Lex stood there like one of the statues in the mansion. Clark started to wake up, because if Lex was going to get mad Clark definitely needed all his brain cells in full working order. But then Lex sighed and dropped the pants. "I suppose it's not a particularly high priority."
Sonny Boswell had been the Mayor of Metropolis "since Hector was a pup," the line he unrolled on anyone unfortunate to be in a room with him for more than five minutes. One of these days, Lex was going to get around to having him recalled and replaced.
Boswell stood as Lex entered and crossed over to where Lex had stopped just inside the door. He was holding a manila envelope, sealed and unmarked.
"You asked for a meeting, Mr. Mayor?" Boswell was going to ask for some LuthorCorp donation, and Lex would have to go along for the publicity value, but he'd negotiate some sort of abatement, and everyone would go home with a burnished public image and an unchanged balance sheet. Boring.
Boswell smiled, reminding Lex of a remora. "I wanted to do this in person. And I wasn't sure the ordinary folks we use could get past your security."
"Excuse me?" Lex asked.
Boswell shoved the envelope at him, as if he were going to slap Lex in the chest with it. Lex grabbed it out of the mayor's hands purely in defense of his own dignity.
"Congratulations, Lex," Boswell said. "You've been served." He darted past Lex and out the door. Lex examined the people left in the room—various mayoral functionaries, most so trivial that he didn't even know their names. He turned on his heel and left, already dialing his lawyers.
The envelope gave him a papercut, which was just typical. Inside was a lawsuit—not his first by a long shot, but the first in a long time naming him as an individual defendant and not LuthorCorp.
Metropolis was suing him for compensation for damage caused by Superman's various activities over the years, on the theory that as Superman's spouse his assets were Superman's.
A lesser man would have said something like 'I don't believe this,' but Lex's threshold for belief was, like the rest of him, strongly influenced by his experiences in Smallville.
"Anne," he said to the partner who'd answered his call, "get over to my office. Bring a family law expert."
There was a shocked silence on the other end.
"I'm not getting divorced," he said when he realized the problem.
"Of course not," Anne said tartly, as if she'd never thought differently. That was why he paid her as much per hour as his masseuse: you could shock her, but you couldn't get her to show shock. "You should know, a post-nup is going to be a devil—"
"That's not what I want either," he said, deciding that it was legitimate to be peeved. "Just—get over there. And call Paul and tell him you won't be home for the next few days."
Lex, naturally, picked the newest and prettiest anchor in Metropolis for his first sit-down hometown interview since Clark's bombshell. Prettiest, because, well, Lex; newest because he hadn't had time to sleep with her and leave her resentful.
Or so Clark reasoned, anyway.
Her name was Kayleigh. Someone named Kal-El probably shouldn't have found that annoying, but at least he had a good excuse. As far as he knew, Kayleigh had been born and bred in Kansas.
"What's your response to getting sued by the city of Metropolis?" she asked, after a few warmup softballs.
Lex spread his hands and shrugged. "Well, first, I'd like to think that it's not the city, but the mayor, who's suing. Mayor Boswell and I have butted heads before, and it's certainly an excellent way for him to raise his political profile. But I think most Metropolis citizens prefer having Superman around to not having him."
"But, Lex, in the past you yourself have expressed concern about the amount of property damage Superman causes while he's doing all his noble deeds."
Lex managed to look modestly self-effacing, even though he should have been—well, Clark didn't know what he wanted, but it had to be something other than what Lex was delivering, which was relaxed comfort while he hung Clark out to dry. "I'm deeply impressed with how Kal—that is, Superman—has improved his record in avoiding collateral damage as he saves hundreds and even thousands of lives, which is of course always his primary goal."
"But you're refusing to compensate Metropolis businesses for that collateral damage when it does, unfortunately, occur."
Lex leaned forward, hands on his knees. "Over forty percent of that collateral damage, I should point out, has occurred on LuthorCorp property. I'm far from indifferent to the costs. I also recognize the benefits Superman has brought to Metropolis. In any event, it's true that I don't believe that I personally ought to pay for that other sixty percent. Kansas doesn't recognize any relationship between two men as having any legal effect. I don't see how the state can tell me on the one hand I'm not married and on the other I am, as long as that hand is picking my pocket."
"So you don't feel responsible for the damage Superman causes?" Kayleigh prodded.
Lex smiled. "Most spouses take suggestions, not orders. And most spouses don't have superpowers."
Clark just knew that Lex had an internal commentary track running, and that it was not nice either to Clark or to the interviewer. Who was leaning forward, and even if she wasn't flashing her cleavage to the entire audience, he could tell that Lex was getting a good view, even if Lex wasn't obvious about looking.
"And what is your view about federal recognition of same-sex marriage?"
Lex widened his smile, easy as if he weren't about two millimeters from a tantrum that would have left the studio in fragments. "As I've said numerous times in the past few years, I believe marriage is a religious matter. I support civil unions between consenting adults."
Clark frowned. There were all kinds of things wrong with that answer, but it seemed to be working. Of course it would; it had undoubtedly been focus-tested to perfection.
Later, he asked Lex about it, because he did have the opportunity—Lex wasn't throwing him out before he could pose an entire question. At least, if he managed to pose a question before they started having sex; they ate up a shocking number of hours that way.
Lex shook his head. "The state has no business determining who can marry. Any more than it has any business determining what counts as an unconscionable contract term. Private parties, private decisions."
Clark took the bait, even as he knew he was supposed to do so. "The government has to protect people! There just need to be rules about what kind of interventions are okay."
And they were off. The argument lasted through dinner, turned into yelling while Lex was trying to drink his cognac, quieted down when Lex shoved Clark back onto the couch and dropped to his knees, and resumed between rounds two and three. Then Clark needed his rest too much to continue, so they tabled (or more precisely, bedded) the issue.
Maybe Clark enjoyed debating political philosophy with Lex, a little, now that he had the knowledge and experience to hold his own. He didn't need to confess that to anyone, though.
"Why are you investing so much money in extra-durable building materials?" the business reporter for the Times asked him.
Lex opened his mouth, then closed it while he thought. "Given the threats faced by major cities in the twenty-first century, disaster-resistant construction is one of the best investments we can make in homeland security, and LuthorCorp's technical expertise has already made substantial improvements in the technology."
"But it will take decades to recoup that investment," the reporter pointed out.
Lex shrugged. "It depends on whether you factor in the insurance savings, along with the decreased chances of total loss of one of our key facilities. And one of the virtues of owning a controlling interest is that LuthorCorp can make decisions for the long-term, instead of the next-quarter mentality that has brought so much economic pain to this country."
He finished the rest of the interview in a haze. Fortunately the business side was easier than breathing, and the questions were relatively technical ones, unlikely to make scandal even if he screwed one up.
The problem was that he didn't know why he'd invested so much in extra-durable building materials. He'd just walked into his office one morning, called a meeting, and made it happen.
Lex didn't like not understanding his motivations. It led to misjudgments and mortal danger, not to mention the occasional humiliation.
He'd done it the morning after Clark had sighed and moaned about the football stadium he'd destroyed in his latest battle with the Toyman. Lex hadn't even bothered making Clark's monologue into a conversation, because they both knew it was the Toyman's direct fault even if Clark's presence was what had drawn the crazy to Metropolis, and none of the relevant underlying facts were going to change. At last, probably just to get his attention, Clark had started in on how LuthorCorp should be doing something to protect the people and properties of Metropolis.
Clark had told him to make buildings stronger, and Lex had started work on it immediately.
It hadn't been calculated, not consciously. Was he wooing his sort-of-husband? No, he dismissed that possibility.
He was doing it because he'd never considered not doing Clark's bidding.
He looked at the bracelet around his wrist, the metal dull and apparently quiescent under the office lights. Nice, simple alien ritual involving nice, simple alien artifacts. But words were powerful, and he'd said some of the most powerful ones of all to Clark.
Well, he thought, use unproven technology, get surprising results.
So, he had an impulse to obey Clark. He'd cancel the building project immediately, except that really would be a PR and financial disaster, so that would be a mistake. Unless, of course, that was a rationalization designed to keep him under Clark's control, compelled to obey.
Clark had shown no signs of understanding his power, and Lex couldn't afford to let him find out, so he couldn't attempt to provoke a test. He'd just have to be wary and ready to fight Clark's next demands. Though possibly he should simply avoid Clark, to minimize the chance of accidental exposure of his weakness.
Just like the fucking Kryptonians to hard-wire loyalty into their relationships. He should have known: nothing about them suggested much sympathy for free will.
Lex stiffened as the next set of implications occurred to him.
Clark had said some powerful words to Lex, too. Though there was surely some sort of fail-safe to protect either party from telling the other 'don't give me orders,' the Ritual of Rao could have given him the same type of influence over Clark that Clark had over him.
It elegantly explained the single most anomalous feature of his recent dealings with Clark. He remembered the first time with diamond-edged clarity: he'd ordered Clark to perform his conjugal duties. And Clark had done so, despite the array of unchanged facts, commitments, and past events that made a relationship between them more ludicrous than any costume the Justice League had yet to approve.
He'd let himself think, because he wanted to believe it, that Clark had always felt the same electricity between them as Lex had. That Clark had just been looking for an excuse, and that they were engaging in a mutually satisfactory exchange in the knowledge that there was very little left that either of them could do to hurt the other.
Lex was not a nice man. He'd had plenty of sex with people who, if they'd ruled the world, would never have come near him. He'd been the aggressor with some of them. But they'd all determined that the costs of not having sex with him outweighed the costs of having sex. They'd all had the capacity to get up and walk away in the middle of the action, as long as they were willing to accept the consequences. That wasn't the line that everyone would draw, but it was, he thought, an important one, and it was his own.
Clark was the only person he'd ever fucked who couldn't change his mind.
Lex didn't realize he was going to vomit until he was leaning over the toilet, reliving lunch and breakfast and, near as he could tell, last night's dinner as well.
"I'm going to be busy all night on this deal with Japan," Lex said distractedly the moment Clark stepped into his office. "You should probably—" He stopped, which was just weird, and Clark checked him out automatically, looking for elevated temperature or altered brain readings or anything out of the ordinary, but nothing showed up in broad-spectrum vision. "I'll be busy," he repeated (weirder). "If you like, you can have Lien make you some dinner." He swiveled in his chair, dismissing Clark.
Clark stood there like a complete moron for maybe half a minute before he understood that this wasn't one of Lex's games. There wasn't a whisper of invitation in Lex's pose.
He opened his mouth to ask if Lex was sure, but that was even more stupid than gaping at Lex. "Okay," he said. "I guess I'll head up to the Tower."
Lex nodded automatically. When Clark looked back from a mile away, he was absorbed in reading the report on his screen. Oddly, it was in French, something about nuclear power plants in Russia, and Lex didn't even have his fingers on the keyboard.
But then an undersea alarm went off—Arthur's kingdom was under attack by an army raised by Black Manta—and Clark turned his attention to more pressing matters.
Lex had three problems, each in the way of solving the others, each time-sensitive. First, there was his ability to coerce Clark. He was under no illusions that he'd resist abusing it forever. Second, there was Clark's reciprocal ability to influence him. Clark was not devious, but he wouldn't remain ignorant forever, and attempts to keep him in the dark by avoiding activities to which he'd object would also eventually trigger his suspicions. And third, last and least and in the end responsible for the other two, there was the damned election. The irony was: he was going to win it, too, unless something shocking occurred in the next month. Like Clark ordering him to withdraw from the race.
His certainty about the fail-safe was just logic and not actual Kryptonian knowledge. In the absence of such a provision, like the fairytale rule against wishing for more wishes, there'd be too much potential for exploitation. Kryptonians overall didn't seem like the type of people who appreciated being vulnerable, as much as they liked to see it in others.
Lex had chosen the Ritual of Rao because it had been described, rather poetically he'd thought, in the materials he'd kept from Clark's Arctic palace. But the description was limited to its establishment. He had no idea how, if at all, it could be dissolved.
It was possible that his father had been right about his inability to account for unexpected consequences.
He'd attempted to take a sample of the metal with a monofilament. He'd applied concentrated heat and concentrated cold, looking for softening or brittling, and only managed to give himself frostbite and third-degree burns on successive days. He'd subjected the bracelet to X-rays and next-generation MRIs (and getting the machine to function with the metal inside it had been a technical challenge even for him, by which he meant that he'd destroyed three labs and a dozen machines before he'd conceded that there was no discernable internal structure inside the bracelet; at least there was a new patent out of it).
Just in case, he'd tried speaking "I divorce you" out loud three times. Then he'd upped the repetitions to seven and switched to Kryptonian. Sadly, what worked for certain Earth cultures had no effect on the Kryptonian device. Maybe his translation had been off. The word he'd used in his experiment was more like "sever" than "divorce," for which he'd found no exact cognate. And that failure to have the concept was, perhaps, the source of his problem. Kryptonian marriages, from what he could decipher, seemed generally to end with the death of one party. Sometimes, the materials suggested, one spouse would hasten the day of that death, and apparently spousal homicide was not frowned upon on Krypton as it was on Earth.
Maybe there was some sort of aura emanating from Kryptonite that explained why all Lex's spouses had attempted to kill him.
No-fault divorce would have been a lot simpler, but also a lot less satisfying. Lex actually had the feeling that he would have gotten along fine on Krypton.
He pushed the problem aside to let his unconscious mull it over and turned to his daily press digest. After some internal debate, he clicked on the video clip from The View. "Why hasn't Lex Luthor's homosexuality been a bigger issue in the presidential campaign?" Elisabeth Hasselbeck asked the camera, smiling with teeth so white he suspected her of having internal floodlights installed.
Whoopi Goldberg grinned with the kind of tension Lex himself felt. "Actually, we've heard pretty detailed confirmation that he's bisexual, you know."
Hasselbeck frowned prettily. "Well, the American people don't care, they just don't want to hear about homosexual behavior in the White House."
"Speak for yourself," Whoopi rejoined, which made the others giggle or frown.
Katie Couric intervened: "I think if Bill Clinton taught us anything, it's that in the end the American people don't want to hear about what their presidents get up to in the bedroom—gay, straight, whatever."
"Is it relevant to job performance, that's all I want to know," Amy Robach said.
Lex closed the window, as reassured as he was going to get.
The thing was, it was unfair of Lex to cut him off. Clark didn't even know what he'd done. He would have thought his general track record of lying and investigating and foiling Lex's plans would have prevented Lex from wanting him in the first place. But since clearly none of that had been an insurmountable barrier, Clark was at a loss to explain why he'd been as sex-free as a monk on Prozac for the past month. Sure, that had been life pre-Lex, but that thought didn't improve his mood any.
Maybe Lex had just—gotten bored. It wasn't like Lex was used to long-term relationships, and maybe that wasn't just because all his wives and fiancees tried to kill him. Maybe the wives and fiancees were just getting out ahead of the inevitable.
Clark glared at the members of the Black Hat Gang. Several cringed. He realized that his eyes were glowing and made an effort to calm himself. The criminals didn't look particularly reassured, but Clark was overall okay with that.
He couldn't just go to Lex and ask, he realized as he delivered the miscreants to police custody, zipping back and forth between the bank they'd tried to rob and the jailhouse. Humiliation factor aside, Lex would think he was entering into some sort of negotiation. Clark didn't have anything he could afford to give, if the orgasms weren't doing it any more, and even if that hadn't been true he wasn't sure the bracelet would distinguish between a request from Lex and an order from Lex.
Clark could live without the sex. That was a demonstrated fact, over many years. And yet—
Lex was so warm after, even though his skin usually felt cool. They'd lie in bed, the sheets damp and rumpled, sometimes torn (Clark was pretty sure Lex had new ones bought each night), and they'd breathe. No accusations or insinuations, no demands or threats. It was almost like hanging out back in the barn in Smallville, when he'd been just a kid—well, except with the addition of afterglow, and that was hard to count as some sort of deterioration in the situation.
Wally was yammering in his ear, he realized, asking him if he was done or if he wanted to bust some more walls into rubble.
"Sorry," he said into the comm link, meaning the rubble and his inattention. "I'm going off line for a while, okay?"
"Conjugal visit, eh?" Wally said, the leer almost visible through the connection—"Ow," he continued immediately, as if Hawkgirl had smacked him in the back of the head. "Sounds like a great idea, big guy! You work some of that tension out, you'll be back to fighting form in no time!"
Clark wasn't sure what was worse, the fact that Flash had noticed that he wasn't in perfect condition or the fact that Bruce hadn't yet said a word about it.
He clenched his jaw. He was going to have to deal with Lex, that was obvious. Problem was, he didn't have a model for doing that other than storming in with an accusation, and "You haven't slept with me in weeks!" was both pathetic and self-evident. Clark couldn't even expect a denial, so the whole formula for their interactions (pre-marriage, anyway) would be wrecked.
Back in the beginning, he'd come to the mansion just to hang out, because the world was brighter with Lex in it, sharper-edged. His blood had pumped faster through his veins. He'd been flushed and nervous and at the same time stronger and smarter in Lex's presence, like Lex's own galactic personality made Clark more himself in response.
In retrospect, he might have had a little bit of a crush on Lex.
At the time, he'd thought that nausea was the leading indicator of true love, so he hadn't figured it out. Now, he needed to make Lex remember those early days, when they both thought the other one was perfect. Or, well, he needed to make Lex remember. Clark couldn't afford any more memories than he already had.
The last thing Lex expected to find in his apartment was Clark.
Well, no. The last thing Lex expected to find in his apartment was his father, resurrected from the dead and declaring sincerely that all was forgiven. (Not that Lex entirely ruled this scenario out. He just considered it highly improbable. And really, most of that was from the 'sincerely' part.) Regardless, Clark's presence was unlikely, though the crossed arms and the glower helped convince Lex that he wasn't hallucinating again.
"Clark," he said, as neutrally as he could. It was truly insupportable to have his usual conversation openers like 'what can I do for you?' taken off the table, given that Clark was likely to answer and then Lex would be stuck obeying him.
"You know what," Clark said, "I'm tired of talking."
Which was even more ridiculous than usual, given that they'd barely said ten words to each other in the past month. But before he could blink, the world blurred and his skin chilled with the rapid transit into the bedroom, plus the sudden nudity.
"Stay put," Clark instructed him. Lex considered this while determining that he was laid out like a virgin sacrifice on the bed. The trip had been a bit disorienting. And then—Lex would have tried to suppress the noise he made if he could have processed the relevant input, but the human body wasn't meant to react to being caressed over every inch at superspeed. Clark was still moving so fast that it seemed like he had ten thousand hands, and a hundred thousand tongues, all moving on Lex, so fast that Lex thought maybe he was outstripping the speed at which Lex's neurons could fire. So fast the wetness on his skin didn't get any time to cool down, just slick heat everywhere, like he was being swallowed whole.
Lex's own groans seemed like they'd been slowed down in contrast, thick and distorted in his ears. Clark's hot hands covered him, cupped his ankle and ran up his calf and stroked under his balls and traced the outline of his biceps; his tongue tickled the back of Lex's knee and circled his navel and traced his jawline.
He thrashed, or tried to, but Clark wanted him in place, and Lex had never, never gotten off on bondage before, but he was underwater here, full fathom five. And then the orgasm hit him, supernova, every muscle seizing. If they were fucking in superspeed, then he'd lasted years, relatively speaking, so he wouldn't have felt embarrassed even if he'd had the coherence to work up a full-fledged emotion.
Clark had the presence of mind to slow down enough not to do Lex any damage when he pressed inside. At some point Lex was going to be grateful for that, but with Clark back at normal speed it seemed a more pressing matter to dig his heels into Clark's back and squeeze his biceps and bite at the curves of his collarbone and the tendons of his neck. Lex didn't understand why Clark even had muscles given the superstrength, or why Clark's bulletproof skin gave under the pressure of his fingers like a human's instead of resisting like a statue's, but right now he almost didn't care.
Clark grimaced, his eyes closed and his hair in little sweaty curls fanned over his forehead. Every thrust sent a buzz through Lex's entire body, toes to fingertips. Lex turned his head to one side and then the other, folding himself up further and clamping his jaw shut in case some idiotic portion of his psyche tried to get any words out.
When Clark came, it was with a roar that shattered the glass of the Art Deco mirror on the wall above the headboard. Lex managed to put his hands over his head before any fragments fell on him. Clark looked up and spent a moment with a hilariously confused expression that reminded Lex of the results of many, many innuendoes he'd used back in Smallville.
Then, most likely because he didn't want to waste the time cleaning up all the fragments covering the sheets, he moved them to one of the guest bedrooms and started all over again.
Clark hadn't managed to discuss anything with Lex, but he sure felt an awful lot better. He noted that Lex gave all his interviews the next day standing, which he kind of wanted to feel bad about but actually didn't, not even a little. Lex was a fast healer, and maybe he'd know better than to cut Clark off for no reason at all in the future. If Clark was bound to Lex, he might as well be getting the few benefits that the connection allowed him, after all.
And then the pictures showed up. Apparently, Lex's security had not been as thorough with the guest bedrooms as with Lex's own.
The motion-activated camera got fifteen frames per second, which meant that there was an animated version, but it was jerky enough that it really made more sense to look at the stills.
"Holy mother of fuck," Lois said, staring at her monitor, while Clark had to concentrate really hard on not actually sinking through the floor—or in his case, burrowing, but it was basically the same thing—and on not setting anything on fire with his eyes.
Maybe God has it in for Kryptonians, Clark thought. Maybe in his past life he was worse than Zod. Or maybe he was just that stupid, to think that he could use sex to solve his problems and not get Lex even angrier at him.
The reaction to the pictures was predictable: cue outrage on all sides. Lex's opponents decried the intrusion and subtly dug at Lex's lifestyle. The "independent" commentators weren't that subtle. Lex had no comment on his private life, though his chief spokesperson did, at the end of that first press conference, suggest that this kind of intrusion was likely to happen when people were too concerned with what went on in other people's bedrooms. Of course Lois, sitting next to Clark, jabbed him with her pen, scowled at the now-broken pen, and whispered, "When they look like those two, anybody'd be interested in what goes on in their bedroom." Which just went to show that 'no comment' was always the best policy for Lex, and Lex seemed to realize that.
So much for the 'sex it out' plan for relationship repair. Maybe that only worked for people who weren't being stalked by half of the entire journalistic profession.
Jon Stewart mugged for the camera and said that pictures of Superman and Lex Luthor having sex commanded a $5 million price, but that the American people would gladly pay the same amount to not see pictures of the other candidates' sex lives. "And one thing we know: a president has to be able to take anything the world dishes out and keep coming back for more. Inexhaustibly. Insatiably, if you will. I believe we've now seen that Lex Luthor is more than up to the challenge."
Lex picked up a priceless Greek statuette and wondered how many particles of worthless Greek dust it would create if he threw it through the screen. But no, he wasn't that boy any more, pouring out his aggression on the material world when it was people who hurt him. Or aliens.
Moving with exaggerated slowness, Lex set the reprieved statuette back down.
It was somewhat unfair to blame Clark, not that he was going to let that detain him long. The original command must have been percolating back in Clark's mind all this time, eventually boiling over when Lex hadn't given him any opportunity to perform his conjugal duties. Evasion had failed, and Lex had always known that he didn't have the fortitude to order Clark outright to keep his dick in his pants even if it wouldn't have signaled to Clark that something very strange was going on.
At least the pictures were going to keep Clark away while Lex figured out what to do, or, as Clark might have said, sulked.
Oddly, the polls had barely moved at all. If anything, he'd gained support. The very bravest of his advisers had suggested that many people were a little confused by the fact that Superman played both pitcher and catcher. But mostly the public seemed to take the pictures as confirmation of preexisting beliefs.
He didn't want to spend his term—terms, thank you—on lifestyle issues. Obama got to be more than the first black president; Lex could fight past this.
But right now, with Clark staying ensconced in the Watchtower except to superspeed into Lex's bedroom for his nightly fix, Lex was having a hard time remembering why he wanted so much to sit in that office and solve other people's problems.
Doomsday reappeared on a Tuesday, popping up out of an excavation site in Turkey and slaughtering an entire team of archaeologists, along with most of the other people in a two-mile radius.
The early reports were understandably confused, and at first the League sent only some minor hangers-on to investigate. Then, once they'd lost contact with those three, Hawk and Dove decided that this went beyond something the heroes on monitor duty ought to be dealing with alone, and called up J'onn.
By the time Clark got the call from Batman, ten hours had passed since the initial call for help from Turkey. Clark was naked in Lex's bed, which made talking to Batman uncomfortable; he always had the feeling Bruce could see him, and honestly it was probably true, what with Bruce's access to tech.
"I have to go," he said to Lex, who was just coming out of the bathroom. Lex didn't mind being nude—and Lex was nude, not naked; Clark was fairly confident that nakedness was declasse and therefore nonLuthorian. Clark cut his eyes away and tried to concentrate on Doomsday. Batman had given him all the intel available by satellite, but some things could only be discovered by showing up and punching. "It's Doomsday, he's out and he's heading towards Ankara."
"No," Lex said immediately.
"What?" Clark blinked at him.
"Apparently you need to be reminded of the last time you fought, when—stop me if this sounds familiar—he killed you. Even Christ only came back from the dead once. No, you are not going to fight Doomsday." Lex's hands were fisted at his sides; traces of damp still clung to his skin from the shower, and Clark wanted to nibble on him, keep the flush from fading.
"Um, yes, I am," he said instead, because he was used to postponing what he wanted for the greater good.
"Clark," Lex said carefully, his left hand moving to twist the bracelet of Rao around his right wrist, "I forbid you to fight Doomsday."
"Lex!" Wait, Lex knew about the power he had over Clark? But he hadn't been—Clark couldn't deal with this revelation right now. "Lex, it's Doomsday. Billions of people could die."
Lex tilted his head and stared at Clark unblinkingly. "I've got contingency plans, Batman has contingency plans. If we pool our resources—"
"Your contingency plans don't happen to involve really big bombs, do they?"
Lex clenched his jaw. "The longer you fight me on this, the more time Doomsday has to gain strength."
"No!" Clark yelled, and tried to turn away so he could superspeed into costume and out into the night. But the bracelet of Rao gave a slight squeeze, almost undetectable, and he was stuck in place, like he'd been trapped in one of Jor-El's beams of light. He couldn't even shift his feet, watching helplessly while Lex strode over to the bedside phone and started punching buttons.
"Lex," he said, loud enough to interfere with Lex's hurried instructions to Mercy. "Lex, this isn't your choice to make."
Lex dropped the receiver to his chest. "I believe it's clear that it is," he said, and almost succeeded in sounding casual. "If you go and get yourself killed, you're leaving us vulnerable to the next bad thing that crawls out of this rather extraordinarily hostile universe that's opened up in the past few decades since your arrival. I'd rather sacrifice a few hundred thousand people than lose the whole planet." He raised the phone and gave Mercy a few more code words.
Clark felt a stab of fury, red and hot. "If you stop me," Clark said, almost whispering now, "I'll never forgive you."
Lex's face was pale stone. "That's nothing new."
Clark couldn't figure it out. As for the risk, Clark had more PR value to Lex as a dead hero than a live one. Lex couldn't rationally think that holding Clark in reserve for a worse threat than Doomsday made any kind of sense.
Unless, maybe, the sex had tangled him up same as it had Clark. If this was some sort of misguided attempt to protect Clark, then Lex might not listen to reason, but he might still listen to Clark.
"Please." Clark found himself capable of dropping to his knees. "Please, Lex. I have to do this. It's—it's who I am. And I know you don't—I know you hate me. But if you ever—I saved you, Lex. I saved you and I never regretted it. And I never will. I just—I need you to let me do this. You can make me do anything, I know that. But let me—let me be Superman, and I'll. I'll do it all willingly. I'll be yours."
Lex's eyes were as wide as they'd been when he'd seen Clark stand in the way of a speeding car. He was shaking, like one of his expensive cars poised to zoom off. The phone dangled uselessly from his hand.
Clark bent his head, submissive, looking up at Lex through the fringe of his bangs. Lex swallowed, suddenly looking ten years older.
"You'd do that," he said. "Anything I wanted." His voice—Clark wanted to say it was wonderment, or a thrill of victory, but it sounded more like revulsion, like Clark had finally revealed himself to be weak in some crucial way.
Clark nodded anyway. He didn't know what else to do.
Lex closed his eyes, still as a mausoleum. "Go," he said.
Clark felt the compulsion holding him in place disintegrate. "Thank you," he said, and paused just long enough to register Lex's flinch.
Lex looked away from the smear of blood he'd left on the marble wall and examined his rapidly swelling hand. If he just let it go, he'd be healed in half an hour, but at least four of the bones would need to be rebroken and reset.
He had work to do before he could have his doctors see him. "Mercy," he said, hitting the intercom, "change of plan. Are the satellites retargeted yet?"
No point in letting Clark go get himself killed if Lex didn't give Clark the chance to save the world all by himself again.
As he waited for more intel, he straightened his fingers, welcoming the distraction of the pain. Clark had promised him everything he ever wanted, with the crucial flaw that made the success rot in his mouth. His very own Clark-puppet. If he told Clark that he wanted to hear Clark apologize for all the lies, all the mistrust, Clark would probably even feel honor-bound to do it.
And even worse: now, when Clark was hurt, maybe killed, it was Lex's choice. His fault. Even if Clark made it through this battle, Lex would be the one sending him to the next one, and the next one, until Clark soared too far and fell to earth.
Lex remembered the funeral, the first time Doomsday killed Clark. The world had been monochrome, even though the sun had been shining and the flowers thick as tears. He'd thought then that he could get over Clark, the way he'd gotten over losing his hair and his mother (which was to say, never and not at all, but he functioned). But then Clark had returned from the dead and that was even worse, because it meant that Lex could never be certain that it was over.
The viewscreen on the side wall flared to life, showing the satellite feed. There was a lot of dust, and the resolution was only six inches, but glimpses of Superman's ridiculous outfit were discernable as he and Doomsday set about pounding the stuffing out of each other.
"The Justice League is on the line," Mercy said in his ear.
"What is it?" Lex snapped.
"We need those space mirrors you've been constructing in the guise of communications satellites." Batman's growl was ridiculous—Lex knew for a fact that Bruce Wayne's natural voice was a tenor—and if he'd been physically present Lex wouldn't have been able to avoid taking a swing.
"The plan," Lex demanded, because this was no time for posturing (and yes, he was aware of the irony, but Lex knew plenty of things about the tech that no one at the League would have, and if he didn't understand what the aim was then they might as well be fighting separately).
There was a pause, and then a different voice came on. "We wish to target Superman with a beam of solar energy, while simultaneously hitting Doomsday with an anenergic pulse that should prevent him from gaining power by fighting."
Lex didn't know whether Wonder Woman understood the technical underpinnings—"anenergic pulse" sounded suspiciously like it had something to do with reversing the polarity of the neutron flow—but he was relieved to find that an actual adult seemed to be present up there.
"What do you need me to do?" he asked.
Clark was grateful that Doomsday looked so—well, alien now. He was as subject to anthropomorphism as any human, and an enemy who looked like a cross between a bug and a junkpile was a lot easier to hit.
The first task was to get Doomsday to an unpopulated area, punch by punch, knocking Doomsday across an area the length of a football field each time. Whenever Doomsday hit back, Clark carefully twisted so that they'd keep going in the same direction. Getting whaled on still hurt, but at least it represented a variety of progress.
When his League communicator crackled to warn him that help was coming, he was digging himself out of a thirty-foot crater, and his ears were ringing, so he didn't get all the details. Clark managed to roll up the slope a few feet before Doomsday's punch could send him another dozen feet into the ground. But Doomsday grabbed Clark's cape and dragged him the rest of the way to the surface so he could whirl Clark around and around like a slingshot, except that on each circuit Clark smashed into the earth again. Clark briefly wished that his uniform wasn't quite so indestructible.
When the light hit, it was like being shoved into the sun. Clark could feel himself healing, the prickle-pain of it almost pleasure, blood drying up and cells reknitting in that bath of solar energy.
Doomsday roared and Clark pulled himself free, turning in the air and using his heat vision to blast Doomsday back another twenty yards. The light followed Clark, like this was a reality show and he had the spotlight. Which was all well and good, but Doomsday was just going to get stronger as he adapted to Clark's strengths again.
Then another beam touched down, arrowing out of the sky and encircling Doomsday. It was hard to perceive—even Clark's multispectrum vision had trouble identifying it; he could tell it was there, giving a bluish cast to Doomsday and the patch of ground around him. But he couldn't figure out what it was.
Doomsday howled frustration and lashed out, but the circle moved with him, so that he couldn't even reach the sides. Clark felt an unwilling sympathy with him, a victim of a world he'd never made, now with some alien technology seemingly taunting him as it enclosed him.
"Superman," Green Arrow's voice came as Doomsday whirled, angrier and angrier as each attempt to free himself failed.
"Whatever you're doing, it's working," Clark confirmed. "What are you doing?"
"I'm sure Luthor could explain it to you," Green Arrow said, somehow making it into an insinuation.
Clark narrowed his eyes. "Sure, if I want to be lectured about physics." But actually Clark could imagine listening, and even enjoying: Lex had stopped lecturing him years ago, when he'd stopped thinking that Clark wanted to be around him. And given what Clark had promised, lectures were better than most of the alternatives.
There was a more pressing matter at hand. "What now? You can't keep this up forever," he pointed out, because even if there weren't a mechanical risk—Clark had learned the hard way that containment fields generally stopped containing at the worst possible moment—the Turkish government was unlikely to be thrilled with a permanent Doomsday monument in the middle of the country.
Like that, glowing green force lines appeared around the column of whatever-it-was. Clark always had to suppress an instinctive cringe when Green Lantern's energy fields showed up. He was too used to that particular light coming from Kryptonite. The construct looked almost like one of those Russian tea-glass holders, the Lantern energy carefully surrounding the beam encasing Doomsday, tugging him upwards in a cradle of light. Doomsday was still raging, flailing against the invisible walls of his cage and bouncing back like he was in a padded room.
Clark watched until, a mile and a half above the Earth, Doomsday was sucked into the satellite generating the beam, which swallowed him up and then began accelerating out towards deep space. It wasn't a permanent solution—no such thing—but if they were very, very lucky Doomsday would be out of commission long enough for the human race to evolve some better defenses.
Clark closed his eyes and basked in his own solar energy beam, like a housecat in a shaft of sun, and right then—because of course Lex was involved, and efficiency dictated against waste of good energy—the power cut off, leaving him with only regular light. Usually that was enough, a kiss of life across his skin whenever he was outside, but now it felt like he'd been dumped from a hot tub into a cold shower.
He shouldn't have needed an announcement that the crisis was over. Now he had to deal with everything that Doomsday had left behind. First the humanitarian crisis, and then—
And then Lex.
As Clark worked on repairing what he could and rescuing the few survivors in Doomsday's path, he tried to anticipate what was going to happen next, now that Lex's power over him was out in the open. He'd promised not to fight Lex. He wasn't entirely confident it was a promise he could keep, especially since Lex would be sure to taunt him.
Except that Lex hadn't been taunting him, not of late. Clark frowned, trying to remember the last time they'd fought before Doomsday. Lex had been busy with the campaign, of course—there were enough dirty tricks in politics to divert him from most of his usual shenanigans. So there'd been less to fight about, and Lex had been pretty careful to keep his activities on the up-and-up, what with more reporters than Lane and Kent looking for reasons to discredit him.
Maybe what Lex had needed all along was the scrutiny of public office.
On the other hand, maybe Lex was going to start to use his control more now that it was explicit. Lex had a better imagination than most people, even if it was largely wasted on paranoia and weapons design; Clark shuddered to think what Lex might ask of him. If his orders got too bad, Clark knew, there was always Batman and his Kryptonite stash.
Today had shown that Lex was still reachable. Clark had never given up on him entirely, and his faith had been justified. He could work his way around his promise in order to encourage Lex to do the right thing. Maybe he could even use the bond between them to draw Lex closer to virtue. Lex hated owing any debts, and he might come to think that Clark had overpaid for his bargain.
Lex watched the reports pour in as the news channels scrambled to get footage. They didn't have any special information, but he needed to get on top of the spin. Someone was going to blame Superman for the destruction; someone always did.
He was reminded of that lawsuit, blaming him for Superman's actions. He'd thought it was preposterous, but he hadn't been making the right connections. If only the lawyers understood the ritual of Rao, he'd be paying damages that made the award for the Exxon Valdez look like a parking ticket. And then there'd be all the plaintiffs complaining that he hadn't sent Superman in their direction when he could easily have done so, could have toted up the costs and benefits until Clark's every flight was preplanned. It was an old complaint: Superman stopped this car crash, why not mine?
When he heard those whines, Lex was always reminded of how much he hated it when people who survived accidents said that God must have been looking out for them, or when a winning sports team thanked God, because of the necessary implication that God wasn't looking out for or supporting everybody else. True, Superman existed, and not being omnipotent he also had to make choices, so in some ways the comparison was flawed. But there was still an unwillingness to accept that random chance was a governing force in life, that rain fell on the unjust and the just alike, and Lex was never going to respect people who expected Superman to play God without the arbitrariness that came with the position.
And then came the Ritual of Rao, which had radically changed Clark's decisionmaking capacity. Clark wasn't even going to fight him any more, at least if Clark kept his word; and if he did renege, Lex could most likely order him to shut up about his petty qualms.
Lex had long understood that he was an irresistable force, and Clark was his immovable object. He'd taken it as a comfort: Clark was always going to be there to blink those big green eyes and tell him not to go any farther. Now, that was no longer true, and it was worse than having the entire sky fall on him, more terrifying because Lex wasn't just afraid of dying.
He knew what he had to do. He'd known for a long time, really, as soon as he'd realized that ordinary measures wouldn't suffice.
He looked down at the bracelet. Still featureless black, indifferent to his attention. Alien as Clark, and ultimately as damaging.
He paced back to his desk and hit the button to talk to his secretary. "Patience," he said, "clear out the second sublevel. I want it empty by the time I get down there."
Because crises didn't wait for one another to finish before starting their own shenanigans, there was a forest fire in Indonesia. Clark spent five hours fighting it, then had to leave when the army asked him to get out. It was a familiar annoyance: governments wanting him around for the heavy lifting, but not for the finish so they could claim the credit for themselves. Clark didn't like it, but he still got to save lives, and that had to be enough.
Anyway, he didn't have to return to Metropolis (Lex) as long as there was work to be done. He zipped to the Watchtower and checked the monitors, but Superman-level events were relatively rare and bitter experience had shown that addressing non-Superman-level events outside of Metropolis was a recipe for disappointment, resentment, and other less pleasant emotions from the citizenry and, not incidentally, from his fellow heroes.
Some days it was hard to remember why it was so important to help humanity out.
He was sitting with Green Lantern, soaking up John's casual and silent companionship, when the bracelet of Rao twitched on his wrist.
Clark made a noise that had John jumping into a combat stance; Clark was on his feet himself, not knowing how he'd gotten there, when he felt the bracelet shrink fractionally. Cracks appeared all over its surface. Hesitantly, Clark poked at it with his left index finger.
It crumbled into dust, pouring across his wrist and into his palm as he twisted his hand, trying senselessly to catch the superfine particles that felt like silk, like air, as they puffed into a black-grey cloud and disappeared.
"Superman?" John asked.
He stared at his wrist, the skin there no paler than the rest of him, like it had never been covered up. There was a mole on the knob of his wrist, a little brown spot; a few specks of dust clung to the hairs around it.
His brain felt frozen; he could feel his expression changing, but he didn't know what—Lex couldn't be—Lex wouldn't just die, that was preposterous, like gravity disappearing and the moon going nova.
"Superman!" He heard John hit the intercom, talking fast to whoever was on duty, but the words were as stretched and blurry as if they were coming from the far side of the moon.
He had never been more grateful for the specially designed force field that let him exit the Watchtower at speed; he would have punched a hole in its side if he'd had to.
Lex wasn't supposed to be anywhere special right now, so Clark flew to Metropolis, arrowing his hearing to catch voices he recognized using Lex's name. Mercy was talking fast and vicious to someone, so he went to her. LuthorCorp didn't have a specially designed force field around the building. They were going to have to replace a couple of blast doors.
Mercy was paler than Clark had ever seen her, but composed. She was standing in front of a bank of monitors, watching dozens of scenes of frantic activity. He skidded to a halt beside her. "Where's Lex?"
She didn't twitch, just continued to snap orders into her headset about media and—surgeons?
Lex wasn't dead, then. Clark's internal organs lurched, and for the first time in years, decades maybe, he thought he was going to throw up. "Mercy," he said, catching her arm in his hand, "where's Lex?"
She sneered at him for nearly a second, but then his expression must have gotten to her, because she shook her head fractionally and said "I'll meet you in the OR," then disconnected.
"He's downstairs," she informed him, then twisted her hand snake-fast so that she was hanging on to him instead of the reverse. "Unless you know how to perform high-speed reconstructive surgery, your best bet is to stay out of the way."
"Reconstructive surgery?" Clark repeated. He could do a lot of things fast, but surgery had never been one of them.
She closed her eyes as if to gather strength, then glared at him with a purity of hate that he'd only seen in Doomsday's eyes before. "There was an accident," she said in a perfect PR voice. "Mr. Luthor's hand was severed at the wrist. The surgeons are attempting a reattachment. However, his advanced healing factor appears to be hampering the attempt."
An accident. Clark felt the phantom pressure of the cuff against his wrist and knew that the only accident was the one that had sent his ship slamming into a field right next to Lex.
He'd done this, by explicitly fighting Lex's control. It didn't matter that Lex had coerced him into the deal in the first place; Clark had known what he was doing, or he'd thought he had. A flush of anger filled him, even though it did little to counteract the guilt. Still, he was furious, shaking with it: Lex just had to discover an ethical code when it would do the maximum possible damage. Just had to make a suicidal gesture, probably because he couldn't cut off Clark's hand at the wrist and knew that doing it to himself would hurt more.
"I need to see him," he found himself saying, even though he was just as likely to punch Lex as anything else and even though he had no need whatsoever to ask Mercy's permission.
Mercy folded her arms. "The operating theater's not lead-lined." Which was pretty much a fuck-you, not that he should have expected anything different from her.
He scanned the building, and sure enough there was a full medical facility in the subbasement. He'd never bothered to look there. Three doctors were hunched over Lex's arm—the bones of the forearm were intact, but they just stopped where the wristbones should have joined them. An anaesthesiologist was checking Lex's vitals worriedly. "—not responding," she finished as Clark tuned in. Another side effect of Lex's meteor-enhanced healing, Clark realized: Lex was throwing off sedation and painkillers as fast as they could be pumped into him.
"We can't do it," the lead doctor said. "Mr. Luthor, I'm sorry, but the healing of the stump is too far advanced, and the hand—it seems to be suffering accelerated decomposition." Clark flicked his gaze over to the refrigerated unit at the side of the operating table. What he saw inside didn't look like it could have belonged to a living human. He'd seen a lot of death and destruction, bodies torn and burnt, but he still had to fight back the nausea.
Probably this, too, was meteor-related. Whatever unnatural vitality Lex possessed had been taken back, like his hand was Dorian Grey's picture.
Lex still hadn't said anything.
"Mr. Luthor?" the doctor prompted. The other two backed away, presumably wanting to get out of the line of fire.
Lex opened his eyes. His skin temperature was low, too low to be accounted for by the chill of the operating room. There was a faint sheen of sweat on his temples. His jaw worked. "Thank you, Dr. Houn," he said at last. "Please do what you need to do to close up, then schedule a consult about a prosthetic with my assistant."
Clark fell back against the wall, staring up at nothing.
"I need to reschedule three campaign appearances," Mercy said sharply, startling him. "You're not welcome here."
Clark meant to snap back at her, but he couldn't figure out a thing to say.
"I'm sorry, was I unclear?" Mercy asked, honey over cayenne. "Get out or you'll be picking Kryptonite out of every square inch of your superheroic hide."
Lex wouldn't have thought that his right hand was all that useful, and his healing factor had gotten him through the phantom itch more quickly than he'd had any right to hope. But it was shocking how intensely he missed his previous symmetry. As it turned out, the nondominant hand was still extremely useful, or at least its absence extremely frustrating when he tried to do simple tasks like dressing himself, or soaping up in the shower, or answering email.
It was a good thing he hadn't let himself think about his plan too much before enacting it, because even a minute's thought would have convinced him that it was the stupidest sacrifice since the Bay of Pigs.
He'd done a brief press appearance, shown off a temporary prosthesis under a black leather glove. All signs indicated that the 'accident' wasn't going to affect the election. It was just too weird for voters to process, and as long as he didn't show the stump in public he was unlikely to trigger a serious aversive response, or so his staff psychologists told him.
Funnily enough, he wasn't all that worried about the election any more.
Maybe he ought to be questioning his fitness for the post. After all, a president had to be prepared to send people to die. Done right, that would require at least as much bravery as walking into mortal danger oneself—and Lex had never wanted to do it wrong.
But a president got to order people who volunteered; a president got to order people who voted.
No, that was all window dressing: the fact of the matter was, Lex couldn't be the one who sent Clark to his death against his will and he couldn't be the one who kept Clark away from his glorious goddamned mission to save humanity against his will. He refused to be the man who used Clark as a hammer, an object to be deployed if and only if it suited Lex's desires. And it would come to that, even if Lex resisted the first time: look how well he'd done turning down Clark's physical attentions. Forced fucking only contaminated him; abusing Clark's other abilities ran the risk of destroying the world.
All Clark's other blame, that was just the price of living, the decisions Lex had made that had seemed right, or at least necessary, at the time. Lex's sins were investigative, protective, occasionally wrathful. He always had reasons, defenses, excuses for Clark.
Not this time.
Almost worse than losing the hand was that he'd surrendered every inch of contested ground in the battle with Clark. Clark would take Lex's gesture (no pun intended, he thought, and smiled) as confirmation that his simplistic view of the world was right and that Lex agreed, underneath it all. Lex might still win the election, but as between the two of them, he was worse off than he'd been before the Ritual of Rao.
"Lex?" Clark's voice from behind him was tentative, coddling. So it began.
He closed his eyes. He'd have to remember to reprogram the doors to the penthouse. "Do we have business?" He made himself swivel his chair to face Clark. The temporary prosthesis couldn't clench its fingers, which was a reminder that he should keep his left hand relaxed. "Or is it perhaps pleasure that brings you?"
Clark went pale, or as pale as a golden idol like Clark could get. "You let me go," he said.
"I take it as an unpleasant judgment on humanity that 'Superman' refers to brawn and not brains."
Clark, shockingly, looked hurt for a moment. "I mean—" When he stopped, drew breath, and smiled—just a little, a curve of the lips that promised nothing tolerable—Lex knew that he was in worse trouble than he'd imagined. "How many more body parts do you think you can sacrifice before you have to talk to me for real?"
Lex fought his body to stillness. "I had thought that the point of losing the hand was to avoid talking to you at all."
"That's not going to work," Clark said, as predictable as ever. "I've been trying to understand why, what would make you decide to give up the greatest weapon you've ever had." Lex didn't contest the description; Clark was speaking with accuracy, not self-love. "But then—tell me, Lex: why did you tell me not to go after Doomsday?"
Lex clenched his hand, hard. "Again: I'm not discussing this with you."
Clark sighed. "Fine. Then you're going to sit here and watch the interview I just gave to Lois."
He couldn't outrun Clark, and shooting him with the reserve Kryptonite gun would be an overreaction even for him, so he gritted his teeth and pulled up the Planet's website.
Clark was sitting on a too-small chair, squirming as he looked down at his lap, at his bare wrist.
"How are you doing?" Lane asked, almost softly, and Clark's head jerked up, his eyes widening in surprise. She started to roll her eyes and then rather obviously realized that the camera could pick that up, so she cleared her throat. "What can you tell us about the accident?"
Clark, never good at PR, ignored the camera and stared straight at Lane. "Thanks for your concern. Uh, I don't really know what happened. I was away on League business and—Lex hasn't been able to tell me much. From what I know, the explosion happened very fast and the accounts are still pretty confused."
Lex needed to revise his judgment on Clark's ability to deal with the press. Clark was, after all, a political reporter, and he'd had a great deal of experience with deflection. That answer was an elegant diversion, making it sound like Lex didn't remember much. He was trying to forget; holding his hand in place to be crushed by heavy machinery was just about the worst thing he'd ever made himself do—it made him nostalgic for eating grubs and talking to his imaginary friend Louis.
"Is the accident related to the fact that you're no longer wearing your bracelet?" Lane leaned forward a tad, as if she planned on jumping Clark and sticking her tongue down his throat if he announced that he had separated from Lex.
Clark pasted on an expression that bore about as much relation to a smile as a three-year-old's drawing of a person resembled a photograph. "Uh. It's kind of, a private thing. Culturally. Actually, I've been thinking. I'll always be Kryptonian. But I'm also an American, and—it's time Lex and I made it official the American way."
Lane's response to such an obviously juicy statement was practically Pavlovian; she was lucky she didn't need to wipe the drool off of her chin. "And what is the American way, in this case?"
Clark smiled, the real one this time, supernova-bright even through the Superman illusion that distorted his face. "I guess that depends on where we're living six months from now."
Lex stopped the replay. He was grateful that his limbs worked. A lesser man would have asked a stupid question like, 'Did you just propose to me on camera?'
He cleared his throat. "Why did you propose to me on camera?"
"Uh, because apparently we only talk to other people about the fact that we can't actually live without each other?"
Lex turned. His face was inches from Clark's. Clark had turned off his Superman face, but it was still the same smile. "I can live without you," Lex told him, except that it came out a tad too breathless for comfort.
"You can live without saying it out loud, I'll give you that. But, Lex, you kind of showed your hand—" Clark turned bright red and even Lex was struck speechless at the utter inappropriateness.
They stared at each other, frozen, until Lex couldn't contain his laughter. It hurt—especially when he tried to clutch at his stomach and only managed half the job—but it was pure Smallville-era Clark, awkward and with no sense of social grace, and somehow that was exactly what Lex needed to hear.
When he managed to stop wheezing, Lex saw that Clark had retreated a couple of feet, but he still had his determined Man of Steel expression.
"When I'm leader of the free world, I'm going to order you around and you're going to do what I ask," Lex warned.
Clark considered him, head tilted a little. Lex knew he wasn't being scanned with X-ray vision, because that wouldn't give Clark any further insights, but he still had to stop himself from squirming. "Probably," he said. "When you make a case for it."
Part of Lex, the part most powerfully formed by reaction to his father, wanted to be angry at the prospect of endless battles, always having to prove his bona fides. A smaller but active part thought it might be the most interesting challenge he could give himself.
"Would you like to hear a case made for the virtues of oral sex?"
Clark's blush, which had faded, returned in full force. Lex was oddly charmed. "I'm willing to take that one on faith," Clark said quickly. And then there was very little of consequence to say.
"So," Jon Stewart said, "Superman and Lex Luthor got rid of their promise bracelets, causing screams of outrage in the fashion world. What will they do with all their unsold inventory now?" There was a picture, which Lex profoundly hoped had been photoshopped, of crates of sluglike gray bracelets engraved with Superman's crest spilling out onto Canal Street.
"The real question on everyone's lips is, what were the bracelets for?" he continued. "Superman says it's a cultural thing; all I can say is, Kryptonians better not have worshipped Xenu, or Superman's going to confront the only force that could truly defeat him: Scientology." Pause; smirk. "Nah, that's just crazy talk. So, the bracelets' real function—I'm thinking bleep-bleep." Lex could lip-read 'cock ring.' The audience roared. "I'm just saying, that Superman outfit is designed to make really clear that 'Superman' isn't false advertising."
Strangely, Lex was starting to find seeing his life played out on a fake news show rather comforting. Given how many entirely preposterous things had happened to him, fake news seemed just about right.
"Of course, you know what this means." He shifted to falsetto and wriggled his hands: "Wedding of the century. Will they wait until Luthor's in the White House? Given those pictures from a couple months ago, the First Residence will be the only thing about them entitled to wear white. Ooh, and then: Superman, as first—well, first superhero, I guess; Superman gets to redecorate." The screen showed a picture of the White House merged with the Fortress of Solitude, the whole thing looking like a Freudian nightmare of ice phalluses. Lex rather liked it.
"Maybe that's too much; maybe he'll just pick out some new china." This time the picture showed Clark, smiling uncomfortably, photomanipulated so that he was holding one of the collectible plastic plates McDonald's had issued back when the League was just getting started, the one with Batman's sigil on it. "Or is that in bad taste, to have a constant reminder of your exes around?" Lex choked a little on his drink. "Come on, what do you think those guys do up in that tower, away from the rest of the world, while they're waiting for some crisis to resolve? Think about it: first thing you'd do with superpowers, you'd take 'em for a little spin underneath the sheets. Or floating above the sheets." He raised his eyebrows and grinned out at the audience, which was applauding.
Lex took another swallow and thought that Bruce was probably less happy with the monologue than he was. And really, he could live with that.
"Lex?" Clark called from the bedroom. "Turn off the computer and get in here."
Lex didn't have to obey.
He just felt like it.
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