Part I: One Spoilt Spring
The sky looked like sodden tissue, crumpled and grayish. The wind was high, and Lex pulled his coat more tightly around his shoulders. The cornstalks in the field beside the plant were shaking, whispering secrets to one another, and he wondered if someone had told them Clark's. Clark was, after all, the golden prince.
Lex became aware of another noise, something whirring, like a car engine or a compressor. He couldn't place the source, though he turned a full circle.
It took him a minute to look up, into the belly of the thing descending like the mountain coming to Mohammed.
"Clark," he said, not really noticing his own voice, and began to run.
By the time he was on the road, smaller black ships had begun to descend from the mother ship, though he couldn't judge how big they were without a referent. His father had said that Dr. Hamilton's "ship" was small, too small for an adult human, and there was no indication in the caves about relative size. Though if the Indian legends had been right about the cross-breeding, the aliens couldn't be that different in scale.
The best way to find Clark, who was always of use when dealing with an unknown enemy, was to head into the most dangerous place. Though several ships had gone towards central Smallville, the bulk had settled around the castle. The aliens, he thought, knew where real power lay, and that was possibly the most disturbing fact of all.
It had begun to rain, almost desultorily.
A few minutes into the drive, he saw a fast-moving contrail. Out of McConnell AFB, he presumed. He wished he could tap into the military frequencies, but that would also require getting to the castle. Anyway, he could guess at the broad content of the message the military was sending: who are you and what the fuck are you doing in Nowhere, Kansas?
The sky blazed white, as if God had suddenly turned on His brights. Immediately thereafter, Lex heard a clap of thunder and realized that his car had stopped working.
Electromagnetic pulse - not thunder or lightning, but a weapon.
The wipers were frozen nearly vertical, the pattering rain not yet a significant driving hazard. He turned the steering wheel, much harder to control now without hydraulics but still working, and got onto the side of the road, plowing down some farmer's fence and bumping over the land until the car came to a halt. Without the sound of the engine, the squeal of wood and wire disappearing under the car was particularly unpleasant. He could feel the heat from the phone in his pocket as its circuits fried.
By the time he was safe himself, a black line of smoke from the crash site was all that remained visible of the Air Force plane. He didn't see any parachutes in the air, but then he might not be able to at that distance.
He was possibly fifteen minutes away from the castle on shank's mare, and he started jogging down the road. It wasn't as if anybody was going to run him over at this point, and he spared a moment to mourn the several million dollars of scrap metal in his garage. The experimental biodiesel car might restart.
It was amazing how the mind focused on trivialities at the expense of the bigger picture. Ahem -- aliens, Lex? Shooting military planes out of the sky? The diminishing possibility that he'd get to continue to enjoy driving fast cars was not so much dependent on electronics as on the actual alien invasion in progress.
Wet as a seal and extremely unhappy about his lack of information, Lex approached the main entrance. The gates were frozen closed, and he'd had to climb over like a common thief. Not that he'd seen many of those in Smallville. As a rule, the local thieves were spectacularly uncommon.
The electronic locks had apparently been engaged during the EMP. He wasn't getting through the front door without a chainsaw. Undeterred, he circled around to the kitchen door, in front of which - in defiance of all security protocols - the staff were wont to take their cigarette breaks, propping the door open so they could hear if the phone rang.
Sure enough, there was a brick keeping the door from closing, and he entered the kitchen, whose windows would have let in enough light to see if it hadn't been raining. Instead, he had to navigate mostly from memory of what the large gray things were. In the emergency drawer, he found matches and, behind the false panel, a gun. Just inside the pantry he picked up a lantern.
He didn't want to walk around brandishing a weapon. In the future, Lex resolved, all his suits were going to be tailored to conceal a shoulder holster. As it was, his pocket was barely large enough for the gun. His sopping clothes clung to him, cold even with the leftover heat from the castle, but he left the coat on to better hide the gun.
After he lit the lantern, he headed towards his office, where business was most likely to be conducted.
In the main hallway, he met his first alien.
At least, that was what he thought - the man was large, dressed in black slashed with red and blue, and carrying a very large black device that looked like the get of the rape of a crossbow by an M-16.
Lex raised his hands. "I come in peace," he said.
The man growled and pointed his weapon at Lex's chest. Not taking his eyes off Lex, he called something out in a language that Lex had never heard. Two more men, similarly dressed, came out of one of the book rooms. One of them was carrying what Lex recognized as his favorite bronze, a Giacometti.
"Make yourself at home," he murmured. In the words of every Star Wars movie, he had a bad feeling about this. At least Helen was in DC, presenting at NIH.
His pants were clinging to his shins and the backs of his knees; it was funny how significant the irritation was even as the alien invaders gestured him towards his own office.
When they opened the doors, he was less than surprised to see his father.
Lucas's presence, however, was unexpected. They were standing, almost shoulder to shoulder, speaking to two others in uniform, one with extra splashes of red and blue that could indicate higher rank. The less-decorated one was speaking in heavily accented English.
"--Reassure the general population," he said, just before falling silent at the sight of Lex.
"Lex!" his father said, sounding as delighted as he was when he was about to spring some new trap. "So glad you could join us. Mr. - ah - Gana was just asking for advice on how to let the public know that our visitors' intentions are entirely benign."
"Well, a press conference isn't going to work, given what they've done to all the electronics in range. What is that range, by the way?" he asked `Mr. - ah - Gana.'
The English-speaker, whose hair was the glossy chestnut of a fine Arabian stallion, looked down his nose at Lex. Literally - the man (or close enough for government work) stood at least four inches taller than Lex, and the other one was taller still.
The guy in charge, the one who didn't need to learn English because he had a subordinate to do it for him, growled something.
"This is your son?"
"My eldest," Lionel said and Lucas smirked. "He enjoys ... challenging my authority."
Gana went on longer than Lex thought should be required for the fairly basic concept of filial disobedience. The Fearless Leader spoke briefly. Finally, Gana turned to Lex.
"You are well known in this area. You will introduce us to the people. You will reassure them that they will not be harmed. You will encourage them to cooperate."
"You will stuff yourself." Even if the idiom wasn't understood, the look on the aliens' faces gave Lex the impression that his tone was a true universal. He was annoyed, mostly at being treated like an idiot child, but also because rainwater was still running down his back. The implication that Smallville was practice for the rest of the world wasn't reassuring, either.
Lucas actually snorted, while Lionel's lips quirked. "As I was saying," his father said in the martyred voice that he did so poorly.
The big guy frowned.
"Your father has agreed to assist us." Gana sounded almost puzzled, as if selling out to the strongest bidder ought to be heritable.
"Best of luck with that. A word of advice -- you might want to take your act somewhere they don't know him."
"We would like to work with you," Gana tried in what was evidently a last-ditch effort. "You would be well rewarded."
"Sorry," Lex said, drawling it as insultingly as he knew how, and what he didn't know about insults had yet to be invented. "I'm not on the market."
Fearless Leader didn't wait for the translation, just snapped an order to the two orderly-types who'd been lurking by the door.
Lex wondered whether he'd made an entirely perverse decision.
"It doesn't matter," Lucas said as the aliens bracketed Lex. "This town loves Lex. They think he's some kind of savior. Punish him in public. Make him Exhibit A, and they'll understand there's a new sheriff in town."
Gana blinked, possibly wondering what a sheriff was. Then he spoke again, but received no response from the guy in charge.
Lex regretted trying to impress Lucas. That was at best a dangerously incomplete claim about his standing about town, and to add injury to insult Lucas was using this false status to get Lex in trouble.
"It's a good idea," his father said at last, and Lex couldn't suppress his betrayed glance. Gana continued and this time the leader said something that sounded positive. Positive as in yes, not positive as in good for Lex. The aliens edged closer, and he resisted the urge to pull in his shoulders and take up less room.
"You think they'll succeed in breaking me where you failed, Dad?"
"We don't need to break you," Lucas said coolly. "We only need to break everybody else."
"I should have let you die in Edge City," Lex said and meant it.
"Shoulda, woulda, coulda." Lucas shrugged. "I think we're done here." He turned to Gana, who nodded. The four of them - leader, follower; leader, follower - moved to leave the office.
"Enjoy your new master, Dad," Lex called out. "Have fun learning how to heel and fetch."
His father didn't look back. Lucas lingered at the door. "What, no taunts for me?"
"Unnecessary, Lucas. You've always been somebody's bitch, even when you didn't know it."
Lucas smirked, again. "See you later, bro. Well, most of you."
At that point, the two aliens finally laid hands on him. He wondered whether all the aliens were built like linebackers.
"Hi, I'm Lex Luthor, I'll be your victim today," he said. They looked at him uncomprehendingly, then at each other. Then, acting on what might be a telepathic signal, they grabbed him and proceeded to rip his clothes off. Not too different, yet, from his wilder days.
Disassociation was a beautiful concept, he thought as they began. It was good that he remembered how not to be present when painful things were happening to his body. The doctors after the meteor shower hadn't been malicious, mostly, though there was that one woman - well. He'd cried, even while withering under his father's contempt, until his mother explained that it was better to think about something nice instead. Afterwards, hazing at Excelsior, and other places, had been a cakewalk.
He was out in a field with Clark. The sun was shining and it was hot enough that they were sweating even before they began to touch. The grass was soft and ragged against his skin, almost tickling. They'd finished their sandwiches and Martha Kent's carrot cake. They had nowhere to be and no one to obey.
It was a good story. Maybe not one of his best. Not heavy on plot, but it hardly needed one.
Eventually, the monitor-Lex who was keeping an eye on reality suggested that he ought to check back in.
He was alone, shaking and curled up on the floor. The doors to the office had been left open a few inches, but he couldn't see or hear anyone in the hall. The only body parts that didn't hurt were his eyelashes, and they were fake. When he moved, he felt the once-priceless, now worthless carpet squelch under him, thick with blood. Mostly blood. Why were priceless and worthless antonyms instead of synonyms? he wondered. Fuck, he might need a transfusion to think clearly.
Though the fingers on his right hand pointed in several different directions and at least three or four ribs were broken, all extremities reported in for duty. That was nice. He didn't want to test the limits of his enhanced healing. Even if he could rebud fingers and the like, which would disgust but not surprise him, the effects of meteor mutations on cellular growth were too unpredictable. He'd hate to end up with an evil hand.
They'd found and - Jesus, crushed his gun into a lump of high-tech metal and plastic. Would high-velocity impact even be enough to hurt them?
No, the gun was unlikely to be directly effective, but it was still a loss.
Where was Clark, anyway? Lex was well past the point of needing imminent rescue. Even with recent tensions, he didn't think Clark would have left him to be savaged unless something even worse was happening to people he liked more.
After a while, he was able to crawl over to the mini-fridge and get some water and a nearly-off bottle of milk he kept for Clark. No solid food, unfortunately. The extra gun in the tiny freezer went in his half-dry pants pocket, and then he had the exciting experience of dressing himself as well as he could. He considered and rejected the sweater he'd thrown over the chair that morning, back before the world changed. They might not make him go naked if enough of his injuries were still visible, and he really wanted to keep the pants.
Leaning over his desk despite the pain, he tried to reboot his computer. No luck. Screw loyalty to Apple, the next one was going to be military combat-hardened. Even without an EMP, that would help when he threw it against a wall in a fit of pique.
Voices in the hall. Again, that guttural language. One voice seemed to be Gana's, and the other was younger, high and angry.
Lex was mildly surprised to discover that he hadn't wanted to know this.
He was sitting on the couch when Clark came into the office. The hasty movement meant that he didn't need to feign a half-faint.
Clark said one last thing in his native tongue, then closed the doors and turned to Lex.
Lex stared. He couldn't even manage an inquisitive eyebrow quirk. His mind was too busy re-sorting all available data about Clark to fit the new information. His heart rate was elevated and he had to remind himself to breathe regularly.
Clark's face, for some reason, was equally shocked.
"Lex!" Clark hurried to the couch and squatted, eye level with Lex. "Why did they do this to you?"
He shrugged, then wished he hadn't. "My charming personality, I expect. How long have you been waiting for them, Clark?"
Clark reddened and looked away. "I thought - Dr. Swann said my planet was gone, destroyed. I thought I was the last one."
"Oops. So if you're not the advance scout, why did you get here first?" The fingers of Lex's right hand wouldn't close, but he was gripping the couch with his left so hard he thought he might tear through the leather.
"You have to believe me, I didn't know. He told me I was the only survivor." Clark's eyes were dark, shiny with unshed tears, his mouth slightly open. Under other circumstances, Lex would have appreciated the proximity to his half-dressed body. "My mother designed an advanced drive that got me here faster. The, uh, military didn't know about it, but they did know about Earth. So when the planet was destroyed, they came here."
Clark's use of the passive voice made Lex wonder whether the aliens who'd survived had been the ones to do the destroying. Not that Clark would necessarily know the truth. Lex was beginning to understand a little better. Clark's people had known about Earth because of an alien scouting party, hundreds of years back, known to the humans of the time as gods and memorialized in the caves near Smallville.
"That's an interesting story, Clark, but it doesn't explain your sudden mastery of the language."
Clark dipped his head. "In the caves, when I was exploring, I triggered something. Like an archive. It was like it plugged directly into my brain. When it was done, I knew how to speak Kryptonian. I think Dr. Walden tried the same thing, but it didn't work because he was human. They said my accent sucks," he added, almost petulant.
"What are their plans?" By now, Lex had almost controlled his voice, and he spoke with the gentle command that usually worked on Clark.
"I'm not sure," Clark said. Lex could tell that Clark had his suspicions, and they were frightening enough that he didn't want to share. "I don't think they really get that Earth isn't ruled by one government. I think they're a little - they've been cooped up on that ship so long. And they're so much stronger here than they were at home. They've got a lot of energy."
"Yes, I know," Lex said, because he'd been on the receiving end of that energy not long before.
Clark looked miserable. "I don't really - I'm just a kid, Lex, they don't listen to me. They just pat me on the head and congratulate me for surviving among humans. And by the way," he stared directly at Lex, "what's that room you have upstairs for? What did you plan to do to me?"
Lex smiled and knew it wasn't a kind smile. "I didn't plan to do anything, Clark. I only wanted to know what you were hiding."
"You said you'd stopped."
It was a sign of something fundamentally wrong with the universe that Lex could feel the slightest bit of guilt at Clark's tone. "You said you were my friend. I found that harder and harder to believe, and so I resumed my inquiries early this year. You came to me for favors, cars and lawyers and whatever your heart desired, and you've got to expect that a Luthor will want something in return. And since I clearly wasn't going to get your trust -- You were the one who gave me that last concussion, weren't you?" he asked as realization flooded him. It was like drowning all over again. "So I wouldn't see your heroics."
Now it was Clark's turn to look guilty. Nonetheless, he continued on the offensive. "What would you have done, if you'd known?"
"Done? I would have been amazed, and awed. I would have wanted to know everything. I would have protected you." He reached out with his left hand to hover just above Clark's cheek. "I would have been happy to share your secret."
Clark bit his lip, his eyes unfocused as he thought. "Look, it doesn't matter now," he said. Lex nodded. If Clark was still willing to be his friend after seeing that room, he wasn't going to make any more noises about lack of trust. "I'm going to -"
The doors opened, and Gana strode in, flanked by Lex's two tormentors. He said something to Clark, who stood and said something sharp back. Lex figured that he'd better stand on his own, because the aliens were likely to make it even more painful, and struggled to his feet.
"What's going on?" he asked, directing the question equally at Gana and Clark.
Clark answered, ignoring Gana's derisive grin. "Some sort of town meeting. They want you there. I've got to -" He stopped as the aliens took hold of Lex's arms, squeezing the already bruised flesh to the point of agony.
"I'll come quietly, officers," Lex said and gave Clark a reassuring smile.
Clark, who was really more gullible than he thought he was, smiled back distractedly, and Lex was swept out of the room.
He was taken outside and put into something like a troop transport designed by crack-crazed gorillas. From his brief view, he couldn't tell much about the means of propulsion, but antigravity seemed so wasteful that he guessed it used regular wheels or tracks. Ruining the interior of a vehicle with his blood was nothing new, and reminded him that he hadn't much enjoyed his youthful rebellion even when he was pretending to do so.
Lex couldn't see out of the windows, but wasn't surprised when the vehicle stopped and disgorged them onto Corman's field, where the farmer's market and the county fair were held. At least the rain had stopped. Aliens wielding things that were either weapons or very, very troubling dildos herded Smallville residents into a tight-packed group of frightened humanity.
Lionel, flanked by Gana and the one Lex had dubbed Fearless Leader, must have been speaking for a while already. He was telling the people that life needn't change much for them, if they did as they were told. "Kryptonians," he said, and Lex mouthed the word, "are just like you and me." Lex, feeling a scab on his back break open as an alien pushed him towards the speaker's platform, thought that the aliens were a lot more like the "me" than the "you."
"In fact," Lionel continued, "although you didn't know it, Smallville is already home to a Kryptonian. Through a tragic sequence of events, a young Kryptonian orphan was accidentally separated from his people and arrived on Earth in 1989." The crowd responded, not well.
Lex winced on Clark's behalf as he was hustled up the steps to stand by his father. "Clark Kent never knew his true parents -" The name caused such a reaction that Lionel's next words were lost in the roar. Lex scanned the crowd, but couldn't see Martha or Jonathan Kent.
"As a result of your generosity, the Kryptonians chose to make first contact here."
Lex saw a cluster of black-clad Kryptonians surrounding someone - a flash of red hair - and sweeping her off to the side. Martha was under his father's protection, obviously, but no one else was cut from the herd. The crowd was turning into a mob, angry faces looking for someone who wasn't armed and impermeable. His stomach turned as he realized that his father had just written and signed Jonathan Kent's death warrant. Mr. Kent would be blamed for not warning the rest of Smallville about the alien invader in their midst.
His father was saying something about remaining calm and obedient, pointing to Lex - not quite his only begotten son, but the implication was there - as a reason not to rebel.
Lucas joined them on the platform, so they were a little Luthorian triptych. Lex supposed that he was the Holy Ghost now, or maybe the superego. What was Clark off doing? He felt dizzy, possibly because the blood was flowing freely down his back, drops splashing on the dirty boards like sudden rain.
"Perhaps Lex has reconsidered," his father said, his voice carrying even without a microphone.
In between the time he spat a mouthful of blood into Fearless Leader's face and the time someone hit his head like it was going to turn into one of Sammy Sosa's home runs, Lex had the leisure to think that the expression on his father's face looked a lot like pride.
The door opened, and Lex couldn't identify who, or even what, it was in the dark.
"Clark?" He kept his voice at Clark's whisper level.
"We don't have much time." Moving unerringly despite the absence of light, Clark pulled him upright. He stifled a cry of pain as cuts on his back reopened and his ribs ground together. At least he'd managed to set his fingers with makeshift splints.
Clark hurried them out into the hall and up a flight of stairs, Clark's hand on his right arm guiding him and his outstretched left hand providing reassurance that he wasn't going to be impaled on a stray suit of armor.
On the third floor, Clark took a right, into a guest bedroom. The drapes were closed and the room was as dark as the space between the stars. Lex heard Clark tapping against the wall, then a whoosh and a rush of stale, dusty air. He had to cover his mouth to conceal the sound of his coughing. He hadn't had time, what with kidnappings and betrayals and ordinary work at the crap factory, to explore the place fully, but he couldn't be surprised that Lionel's castle had a secret passage. He did wonder why his well-paid consultants hadn't identified it. Maybe Lionel had paid them better.
Clark's arms came around him, lifting him off his feet. Lex grimaced, his back to Clark's chest; being manhandled - alienhandled - didn't sit well with him even when he knew the handler.
"Sorry," Clark whispered as they moved through where the wall should have been and plunged downwards, into further darkness. He could hear Clark's body squeaking against a metal slide.
After a spine-liquefying rush of time, during which Lex continuously expected to fetch up against something sharp, they fell off the slide, into a cooler, larger-feeling space. Lex was mostly cushioned by Clark's body. The pain of impact was like a lightning strike. He fought to stay conscious and to breathe shallowly, to make it easier on his ribs.
He pushed himself off and onto what felt like loosely packed dirt.
There was a blue-white flash of light, and Lex threw up his arm, too late to avoid temporary blindness. As he recovered and found that his vision was no longer blurry from the earlier blow to the head, he could see Clark holding a glowing sphere. More alien technology.
Clark looked terrible, haggard and shocky. He'd lost his father not hours ago, Lex remembered, whereas Lex had only been reintroduced to his own.
Lex opened his mouth to question, unsure where to begin. "What -"
"I talked to your dad," Clark interrupted. "I told him I didn't believe he was the type to put all his eggs in one basket, or all his sons. He - told me about this passage through the basement. At the back of the lower level of the garage, there's a box that looks like a fuse box, but big. It leads into a tunnel that comes up in a shed on the old Johnson farm."
Lex had the feeling that Clark was omitting relevant details of the conversation, but he took the light-emitting sphere when Clark held it out to him. The adrenaline from their dark free-fall was still coursing through his body, enough so that he had to concentrate to avoid letting the light shake in his hand.
"He also said that the password for the safe in Metropolis is 50XCR88. He said you'd know which one."
"It's full of meteor rocks," Lex said, thinking hard.
Clark nodded, unsurprised. "I have to stay. My - the Kryptonians, they don't understand. Once they realize we're just like you, they won't - They're like this because they're afraid," he said with all the conviction of a man whose key audience was himself. "There are so many people here on Earth, and so few of them. They don't even know what their powers here are."
"What are their powers here, Clark?"
Clark winced. "Strong, fast, hard to hurt. Um, X-ray vision, heat vision, and I think, maybe, someday, flying."
Lex wasn't even shocked at this point. He'd seen six more impossible things before breakfast, or would have if he'd had breakfast. "Heat vision? As in, you see in the infrared?"
"As in, I can set things on fire." It was hard to tell in the strange light, but Lex thought Clark was blushing. Charming, but beside the point.
"Any limits?" He didn't mention that the meteor rocks hurt Kryptonians (and that was passing strange even under the circumstances, if Clark and the meteor rocks had arrived together). He didn't want Clark thinking too hard about what he might be doing to his closest relatives with this conversation.
Clark ducked his head. "Lead - shields me from the meteor rocks. I can't see through it. I also - they aren't as strong as I am, yet. There must be something about Earth that makes Kryptonians stronger."
Lex nodded, adding a window-closing period of vulnerability to his assessment. Getting to working weapons was even more urgent than he'd thought.
Clark looked up, wary, fearful, smeared with dirt from the fall, and entirely beautiful.
Clark's mouth worked, but nothing came out. Lex turned to go to the door of the chamber, which by his guess was on the south side, a few rooms away from the stairs to the garage.
Clark was in front of him, appearing like a hologram popping into existence. He blinked; the reports of his own senses were more powerful than logical knowledge.
Clark's hands were on his shoulders, his mouth crashing down on Lex's like their very first meeting. Clark's hands were bruisingly hard now, each finger leaving its own mark as Lex kissed him back, as if they could make up for lost time if they pressed closely enough together. Lex bit at Clark's lower lip, knowing it couldn't hurt, and Clark moaned into his mouth.
After some time, Lex pulled back, and Clark let him go. He could taste blood where his lip had split again. They stared at one another for a moment longer.
"Now there're no more secrets," Clark said, almost smiling though his voice cracked.
"No," Lex said, and put his good hand on Clark's chest, feeling his human-like heartbeat. "Now there's war."
Clark closed his eyes and stood still as Lex stepped around him, and left.
Just before he exited the tunnel, Lex fiddled with the sphere until it turned off and slipped it into his pocket, replacing it with the gun. He put his hand on the cold metal handle, awkwardly holding on to the gun and stepped into a lesser darkness.
Pete Ross nearly assigned himself a bullet between the eyes when he spoke and simultaneously turned on his flashlight. Lex let Pete look down the barrel of the gun even after recognizing him.
Pete took a deep breath. "Hi."
"Hello," Lex said warily. "Put the flashlight down, please." As long as he held the light, Pete could blind Lex for a moment.
Pete complied, keeping his other hand up and open. The flashlight illuminated a shed crowded with scraps of wood, old and crusty-looking equipment, and tarps probably concealing more members of the first two categories.
"Clark said you'd be coming. I brought bandages and some clothes."
Lex relaxed enough to lower the gun, and Pete brought his hands down. He picked up a white plastic bottle that said `iodine' and advanced, and Lex nodded fractionally.
The iodine stung like a nest of wasps, and was probably unnecessary for him, but it was tolerable and Pete might trust him more if he allowed himself to be treated. Large gauze pads secured with surgical tape finished the job, and he put on the blue cotton shirt and dun-colored sweater that Pete also provided.
"Why did you come for me?"
"You're gonna fight them, right?" Pete's voice was rough.
"If that's what you want to do, I'm sure the Army recruiter in Metropolis will sign you up."
"No. Didn't they tell you? Washington - it's gone. Something they did killed everyone there, left the buildings standing." Washington, where Helen had gone two days ago, leaving with a kiss on the side of his forehead as he worked on a proposal to get more venture capital. He hadn't looked up; he was busy. Lex barely registered Pete's next words. "And all the nuclear weapons, the Kryptonians have a thing, a force field they put around the bombs and blow them up. They said it's happened everywhere, Russia and China and all the rest."
It couldn't be true. "Are you sure? They could be lying."
Pete shook his head. "No, they brought in TVs from Metropolis and showed - what happened to Washington and to the Air Force."
He'd always known she was going to leave him. They both liked the idea that she'd rescue him, but he'd known it couldn't last.
He was supposed to have more time.
But there was no time, not for Helen or for his ridiculous sentimentality. There was a box in his head for inappropriate emotions, bulging and reinforced with duct tape until it was more tape than box, and he imagined putting their engagement photo inside, her smell and her warmth and her five hairbrushes. It was more complicated than simple disassociation, because there were pieces of himself in that box and what was left outside was scraped raw, but he did it, he did it.
Eventually he'd have to repeat the process with Clark, if he could. The locked blue room in the castle had been his first stab at that, but Clark hadn't been contained by it. He imagined Helen and felt only regret and the memory of pain.
He had no idea how long he'd been standing like a statue, but Pete wasn't fidgeting or looking even more worried than he'd already been, so it couldn't have been too long.
If he began to move forward, the momentum would keep him going. "So they've taken Metropolis."
Pete grimaced. "They've taken everywhere. The only thing we've got is the meteor rocks. They don't know about those yet."
Lex narrowed his eyes. "What do you know about the meteor rocks?" Come to think of it, Pete had pronounced "Kryptonian" with an odd familiarity.
Pete looked away. Unlike Clark, his blush if any was invisible.
"You knew," he breathed. It was a simple equation in the algebra of friendship: Pete had known, and Lex hadn't, regardless that he could still taste Clark.
"It's not Clark's fault," Pete said earnestly, patently needing to believe it.
"Your parents let you come here?" Lex changed the subject because he couldn't imagine what he could say that would be rational.
Apparently the change was not for the better. Pete's face contorted, and Lex at last returned the gun to his pocket so he could put his hand on Pete's trembling shoulder.
"Hey," he said, squeezing a bit. Pete needed a reason to stay in control. "Let's go start a rebellion."
Pete sniffled, wiped the back of his hand across his face, and straightened. "Show me the way," he said, and Lex led him out of the shed, towards Metropolis.
End Part I
Part II: The Estate of Man
Leila's shot took the Kryptonian guard in the throat. Lex stepped over him as he died with the blood running hot and fast over his clutching fingers. Good. Lex hadn't been sure that the meteor rock bullets would maintain their integrity over such a distance.
Humanity was lucky, he thought as he worked the electronic lock. If the Kryptonians had been able to bring more resources as they fled their dying planet, they wouldn't be relying on human technology to guard their equipment on the ground. That advantage would dissipate with time as the Kryptonians took over manufacturing, though, just as they were no longer vulnerable to most things that were deadly to humans.
The door slid open and they slipped into the hangar. The ten-day shuttle was scheduled to depart in fifteen minutes. The cargo had already been loaded. The two pilots and the cargo-master were talking in low voices near the rear of the shuttle.
It had taken five months and cemetaries' worth of deaths to learn Kryptonian well enough to fake the appropriate responses from a shuttle to the mother ship. Miniature recorders, passed from hand to hand among the cargo, and women who kept their eyes and ears open when they were brought up front to pass the time.
Leila nodded to Lex, who like her had his back pressed to the stack of boxes at the back of the hangar. With X-ray vision, it didn't help much to stay out of the line of sight, at least once the foe was alerted. As one, they aimed and fired, Leila's a perfect head shot and Lex's a less successful hit through the cargo-master's shoulder. The Kryptonian screamed and staggered back against the shuttle as the remaining pilot turned, just in time to catch Leila's third bullet in the face. Lex's second shot took his man in the chest, and he stopped screaming.
There was a blotch of blood on the shuttle, but it would burn off on the way up.
"That was easy," Leila commented as they jogged across the concrete. Lex looked back and saw that the rest of the team was coming in now, pushing and pulling at the heavy load on the wheeled pallet.
Lex almost pointed out that it wouldn't be easy, next time, but thought better of it.
They pulled the doors open with great effort, and looked in on the group of huddled, frightened humans in the cargo hold. Mostly girls, Lex noted automatically, but a few pretty boys.
"Ladies and gentlemen, there's been a change of plans," Lex said as they gaped.
"What's going on?" a blonde girl, a few years younger than Lex, asked. She had a bruise on her cheek and others visible on her arms, but she wasn't cringing like too many of the others.
"We're going to have to ask you to get off, and then I'm afraid you'll have to wait here for about half an hour. After that, you'll be free to go."
The blonde jumped out of the shuttle and held her hands out to help another girl down. Induced by her example, the rest followed, and in minutes the hold was empty, ready to receive the bomb.
Pete took charge of that aspect of the process, while Phil the tech guy took the ex-passengers aside to wait. Lex doubted there were any Kryptonian plants among them - that, too, would change after a while - but he couldn't let them out of here, just in case.
Leila was pacing off at the side, testing her voice simulator in a low voice, echoed by its gruff male tones. Her accent, as best as Lex could tell, was flawless. But then, she didn't need to fool him.
"Last chance to back out," he said to her back.
She turned, and she was smiling cheerfully. "I wish you could have met Lois," she said. "She was quite a girl. And you would have been a catch."
He smiled back, acknowledging with a twist of his lips that he was much less catchable today than previously. "I would have liked that."
Leila Lane had been a linguist and, Lex was fairly sure, an operative for an alphabet-soup agency before the invasion. Anyone who could fly a plane and shoot like that wasn't just another Met U professor, unless the university had taken to keeping up with the Indiana Joneses.
A shout from Phil indicated that the bomb was loaded, the cargo hull sealed. The rest of the team would go now, to get as far away from the launch site as they could.
Leila walked to the side of the shuttle, where the pilots would board. Lex followed, wanting to change the plan. He'd killed with his own hand, but Leila was the first person he'd sent to die - somebody's mother, no less.
He almost bumped into Leila when she stopped at the entrance to the ship and turned to him.
"Lex," she said, putting her hands on his cheeks and pulling his head forward so they were inches apart, "don't fret over what can't be changed." She had brown eyes, and the lines around them were heavier than when they'd met months ago. She rose on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his forehead. "You're going to do fine."
He tried to smile through the memory of his mother telling him much the same thing. He had to swallow a few times before he could be certain of his voice, and by that time she was in the shuttle, about to seal it up.
"Success," he said, because it wasn't about luck.
"Success," she wished him back and closed the door.
The main hangar door began to grind open, letting in the blinding afternoon light.
Their main hope was that the Kryptonians weren't expecting an act of terrorism this dramatic. If so, they simply hadn't paid attention to the course of human events. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, he thought and allowed himself a smile as the shuttle eased itself up and out into the air.
It was out of sight in less than a minute.
While they were waiting for the shuttle to reach the mother ship, Pete and Lex sat just out of earshot of the rescued humans.
"Meteor rocks," Pete mused. "Doesn't really have that scary ring to it, especially if you're not from Smallville."
Lex nodded. As a businessman, he understood the importance of branding. "Any suggestions?"
"Krypticide?" Pete kicked at a scrap of paper stuck to the hangar floor.
"No - too much like `cryptic.' We don't want them to be a mystery. Anti-Kryptonium? Anti-Kryptonite?"
"Anti's not right. Too negative." Pete shook his head and threw his shoulders back, stretching. "Kryptonite. Like dynamite, but for Kryptonians. I like it." Lex had an intuition that more was going on here than Pete was saying, but names were important and he didn't think Pete's motives were any more suspect than his own.
Lex tilted his head. "Kryptonite," he repeated, rolling the word, green and astringent, along his tongue. "I can work with that."
The blonde from earlier had detached herself from the main group of people, and was heading in their direction. Lex nodded reassuringly at Phil, who looked relieved and turned his attention back to the main group.
"Excuse me," the girl said as she approached. "Are you in charge here?" Lex could see, now, that her bruises were of different vintages - some almost healed and others clearly inflicted within the last few hours. Her skin was an astonishing variety of purples, yellows, browns and shades in between.
"What can we help you with?" Lex asked.
She held out her hand. "My name is Mercy Graves. I want to join up."
He took her hand - her grip was self-consciously firm - and smiled. "Ms. Graves, I appreciate your eagerness, but frankly I have to ask what you can offer my operation."
Mercy drew herself up to her full Amazonian height. "I know how to fight. I want to learn how to win. I'll do anything."
Lex considered her. She was young (he was a fine one to talk, but hypocrisy never bothered him) and, from her bruises, reckless and defiant.
Not unlike a certain young man with a very heavy last name, he remembered. Youth and defiance might be good qualities in the battles to come.
"You follow my orders," he said. "Forget that and you're out."
"Yes, sir!" she said and smiled as if she'd just been made valedictorian.
Pete shot him an are-you-sure-you-know-what-you're-doing-"sir" look, which he ignored.
"Hey, it's almost time," Phil called out, and they went to watch the shuttle's progress on the improvised ambient radio frequency detector. It was a few minutes time-delayed, but it was the best they could do with only terrestrial equipment. Phil was in heaven, his first-person-shooter experience exchanged for real mayhem; Lex thought Phil had been born for this kind of war, where human muscle didn't mean a thing and hacking could save the day. They watched the screen as the little blue dot merged with the big red dot.
"All right!" Phil yelled. "You guys get out of here. Lie low for a while," he added, unnecessarily. There was a minor stampede for the doors. Mercy looked at her fleeing co-cargo with vague contempt.
Lex led his own party out and around various buildings until they came to the old red van. What he wouldn't give for a real car, he thought and then realized that Pete and Phil would have to be very good friends indeed to fit in the back seat on most of his cars.
Pete did the driving, in any case, taking them into the suburb next to the small private airfield, and thence to their lair. He'd always wanted to have a lair. Well, no, not really, that was more one of Bruce's things, but he had to take his pleasures where they came these days. He watched, tapping his fingers against his thigh, as Phil twisted knobs and gave the machine a good thwack on the side with his closed fist.
Finally, Phil made a satisfied noise, then a less interpretable one.
"What?" Lex asked as he leaned in to look, bracing himself against the cold metal wall of the van.
"It's not breaking apart." That had been too much to hope for, given what had happened to the other nukes. But -
"What are those?" Small red dots fuzzed around the big red blob.
"Shuttles," Phil breathed. "They're evacuating. The meteor dust worked."
Lex couldn't suppress an inarticulate shout of triumph, and didn't even roll his eyes when Phil held up his hand to be slapped. Pete whooped from the driver's seat.
"What worked?" Mercy asked, swiveling in her seat to stare at them.
Lex realized that they'd all be better off if the provenance of the meteor rocks was left unclear to anyone not already in on the secret. (Clark would explain to his fellow aliens, the voice of reason whispered in his ear, but he ignored it.)
"Kryptonite," he said. "We unleashed a massive amount of Kryptonite in the mother ship. It's poison to them, and they're fleeing the contamination."
Mercy's brows drew together. "I've never heard of -"
"Welcome to the resistance," he interrupted. "There's lots to learn."
The van rumbled down the old road out of town, towards Metropolis. Phil was tracking the shuttles, though he'd lost most of them due to the limited range of the equipment. Six that he still had on screen were heading to Metropolis. If only they'd had more Kryptonite, Lex mourned, he'd have thrown them the welcome-back party of the century, one they'd never forget and would have precious little time to remember.
Mercy was chatting with Pete. Lex listened as she extracted highly sensitive information from him through a series of harmless-sounding questions. This, he thought, was the kid whom Clark trusted with his planet-buster of a secret.
When the conversation paused naturally, he stuck his head between the front seats, squatting so he could keep his balance through Pete's abrupt turns. "Pretty good," he told Mercy. "Remind me why I'm supposed to trust you?"
She bent in her seat so their faces were less than six inches apart. "Because I want to kill them all." Her gaze was steady, her tone conversational.
"Pete, I don't expect you to resist torture, but try not to give out truthful information to every pretty girl you meet."
Pete looked down at the steering wheel and frowned. Mercy turned her face away from Lex, but not before he saw a flash of concern in her eyes. Lex resolved to take her aside later and explain that the fidelity and submission he required did not include any sexual services.
Then there was Pete, publicly humiliated. A motivator, but not one that would build loyalty, since his last name wasn't Luthor.
"So Mercy's done us all a favor, testing our security. She just showed us the kinds of innocent questions we need to guard against."
Pete nodded curtly, but Lex saw the message sinking in, and Pete's hands relaxed on the steering wheel.
"How many Kryptonians do you think made it out?" Pete asked, after a pause.
"Phil says at least fifty-two shuttles, so it could be a fairly large number depending on how many they stuffed into each. They've got a disciplined military structure. We have to assume several thousand, minimum."
"I guess it's back to Smallville," Pete said.
"What's in Smallville?" Mercy asked, obviously constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone.
"Old friends and corpses," Lex said, his tone sufficient to silence them both. Pete really, really needed to work on his secret agent persona.
By the time they reached their base of operations (Lex couldn't think of it as HQ, because that would mean a campaign and that would mean years), the mood in the van had improved considerably. Mercy regaled them with tales of freshman follies at Met U, funny enough that even Phil was half-drawn from monitoring his scanner to listen.
Lex had matched her story for story. Even leaving out the ones involving drugs, he could keep up for weeks before shifting to Princeton tales.
"--So then she said, `That's all well and good, but what are you going to do about the duck?'" he said to general laughter as Pete parked and killed the engine.
They were all smiling as they trooped in, only to confront Jimmy, who was waiting just inside the door.
The look on his face froze Lex. It reminded him of how people looked in the first few days of the invasion.
"What is it?" he asked as the others stilled.
"New York -" Jimmy said.
The rest was written on his face.
"Like Washington?" Lex managed at last. That had been a variation on a dirty bomb, killing the people in a ten-mile radius and leaving the buildings, mausoleums, for posterity. Cleaning it up hadn't been a Kryptonian priority. Helen, he knew, was somewhere among the unburied corpses.
Jimmy shook his head. "We're getting shortwave from New Jersey and Connecticut. They say the sky went red, then black. Now there's nothing but black clouds and ash falling from the sky. They say the smell -"
Phil was weeping, quietly. Pete and Mercy were too shocked to react. Phil's tears seemed to break something in Jimmy, who turned his face away as his own sobs began.
Lex himself felt nothing.
He'd expected retribution, probably against Metropolis from where the shuttle came. He hadn't imagined this.
"What - what are we going to do?"
It was a measure of his distraction that he wasn't sure who'd spoken.
At last, his gear-stripped brain ground into motion. "We're going to make them wish they'd never seen the sun."
He knew that revenge begot retaliation as surely as Luthors begot liars. He also knew that they were in a death match that today had simply accelerated. Today hadn't been the end, or even the beginning of the end. But it was, he could see now, the end of the beginning. There could be no further hiding from what needed to be done, and he'd do it if he personally had to slice a Kryptonite blade across every alien throat.
The energy in his anger could have powered a small city. It would power the resistance, because he'd harness it. Because he willed it. What was Alexander, after all, without an army to command and an enemy to defeat?
"I want to go," Jimmy said, running his hand through his new, spikier and redder hair.
"Have you ever sold drugs?" Lex asked with just a hint of condescension.
Jimmy's updated `do must have made him bolder. "Have you?"
"Not as such," he admitted. "But I know how it's done." He also had much more confidence in his ability to talk his way out of a bad situation than in Jimmy's. He knew, intellectually, that leaders shouldn't risk themselves when subordinates could do, but he was understaffed and, more to the point, sick of being left behind when the others went out on missions. Being a Kryptonite-refining genius was all well and good, but he wanted to see some Kryptonians suffer.
Jimmy walked away, muttering something about Mercy and reason, and Lex put the last of the plastic vials into his pockets.
The weapons of the weak are few and frail, especially when the strong are almost unkillable. Psychoactive substances, though, had been the downfall of many a soldier on hostile territory. Lex planned to bring a little bit of Vietnam to Metropolis.
Reza's was an old-school Metropolis club that had been retrofitted for Kryptonian convenience, which meant that there was a brothel in the rooms to the side of the main club and the bar stocked alcohol strong enough to kill a human. Lex paused outside to run his fingers through the slicked-back hair of his wig and entered. There was no bouncer. It wasn't the kind of place humans tried to crash.
Inside, the lights were low and the music was bone-shaking and raucous. Lex realized after a moment that it was the Ramones. That felt as if it ought to be ironic or tragic, but really it was just loud. Kryptonians, their heads seeming to float as their black uniforms disappeared into the darkness, clustered at tables and watched a few big-breasted girls move on the tiny dance floor.
Lex threaded his way past the seated Kryptonians and went to one side of the bar. When the human bartender drifted over, Lex asked for a gin and tonic.
When he got his drink, Lex paid the bartender. In among the coins for the tip, he put a package with four small white pills under plastic.
The bartender's fingers hovered over the pills, then gathered everything up. Without a word, he walked away. In his peripheral vision, Lex saw the bartender say something to one of the lovely but granite-faced waitresses.
It was nearly fifteen minutes before the first Kryptonian approached him.
"I haven't seen you here before," he said to Lex, who turned on his seat to face the Kryptonian more fully.
"I'm a kind of a traveling salesman," Lex said with a self-deprecating smile, but the Kryptonian was unamused.
"What do you sell?"
Lex slipped into Kryptonian, careful to keep his accent rough and obviously human. "I have Starfire, and something even better." Starfire was crystallized aloe laced with PCP; the ingenuity with which the aliens sought out mind-altering substances approached that of humans, and the drug was over two years old now. The trouble was, Starfire-crazed Kryptonians tended to destroy property and people, but recovered.
Thus the need for something even better.
"Why should I buy? Why don't I just take?" The alien loomed over him. His shoulder pips said that he was a lieutenant, family name Z'hallen; the lower-ranked aliens with whom he'd been drinking were probably part of his squadron.
Lex was genuinely unimpressed. "I don't think Commander Kiryn would like that."
"Hunh?" Z'hallen said, or its equivalent anyway.
"You think Kiryn doesn't know everything that goes on in this town? You think I'm not authorized to be here? Take what I've got and Kiryn doesn't get his cut, you'll feel his fist close around your neck."
Kryptonian idiom was so very visceral.
"You're bluffing," Z'hallen guessed.
Lex shrugged. "Try, and find out. Or you could pay a mere three korr for the best experience of your life." He pulled his hand out of his pocket, revealing a vial not quite an inch long, full of pink powder. The price was high enough to tantalize.
"What is it?"
He smiled. "It's called Red. One hit, and even the General doesn't feel any better than you will. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back."
Z'hallen reached out a hand, and Lex closed his fingers around the vial. "Money first."
Frowning, the alien produced the heavy coins. Lex passed his hand over Z'hallen's palm, removing the money and leaving the vial in one smooth gesture. "I suggest you snort it through a straw for best results. I'll be over here when you want more."
"I'll try it right here. I don't want to have to come looking for you if you've cheated me."
Lex relaxed on his stool as Z'hallen called the bartender for a straw and tapped a line of powder out on the scratched, overwaxed counter. Bending, the alien inhaled every grain, then stood.
His eyes flashed light red, then went back to their original brown.
Lex raised an eyebrow encouragingly, watching the alien's face as it went from shock to stunned pleasure.
Z'hallen took a deep breath and put a hand on the counter rail, crushing it. "I feel - amazing. Like a god!"
Lex very carefully did not smile.
"How much do you have?"
Within minutes, Z'hallen and his crew had snorted enough Kryptonite to have killed them, if it had all been green. Their voices grew louder, their gestures more sweeping. Other Kryptonians in the bar, watching the reaction of the early adopters, quickly bought up his entire stash.
Starfire caused exhilaration and paranoia, but not violence serious enough to injure another Kryptonian. Pete had told him about Clark's reaction to the red meteor rocks, and Lex had experimented. He'd watched a Kryptonian, trapped in a room studded with Kryptonite and exposed to the red variant, beat another Kryptonian to death with his bare hands. Then he had ripped the dead one's arm off and shaken it like a trophy, ignoring the catastrophic wounds his comrade had inflicted before dying.
Lex hypothesized that arrogant Kryptonian soldiers feeling like gods would seek worthy opponents, as his test subjects had, and ignore tissue-paper humans. He'd added a small amount of Kryptonite to the mix. The dizziness it caused would be lost in the rush, and it ought to make anyone on the drug mostly invulnerable. Mostly, that was, instead of wholly.
One of Z'hallen's men swung his arm to illustrate some point and knocked a mug of beer into another's lap. With a roar of rage, the second leaped over the table, causing still more damage, and began to throttle the first.
Lex carefully wiped off his glass with his napkin and left the bar. From outside, he could hear the noise level rising. Several humans followed him into the brisk night. A hand grabbed his arm, and he turned, ready to fight.
She couldn't have been eighteen, blonde and brown-eyed and falling out of her too-tight red dress.
"Hey," she said, and then grabbed the back of his head, bringing him down for a very wet, very enthusiastic kiss. Lex found himself kissing back for a moment, tasting beer and lipstick.
"Thanks," she said when she released him.
"I don't have any idea what you're talking about."
Her grin was short-lived, interrupted by the Kryptonian body that flew out through the brick wall - not under its own power -- and crashed through the stone of the old bank on the opposite side of the street. She gathered up her skirt and ran into the night.
Lex didn't have a skirt, but he emulated the rest of her behavior.
Sara sailed into the apartment like the pride of the Queen's navy, smiling more brightly than Lex had ever seen. "Honey, I'm home!"
"You're in a good mood," he observed, catching her around the waist as she pressed herself against him for a kiss.
"Mmmm," she agreed, her fingers working at the buttons of his shirt. He took the hint and helped her undress while they stumbled towards the couch. Her fingers tugged at his hair as he moved down her body.
He grabbed her wrists and held them away from his head. The wig glue was strong, but it wasn't that strong. Fortunately, Sara liked him just a little rough.
Lex pulled his awareness into himself, letting his body do its job. After, he cozied up to her, trying not to fall off the couch in the process.
"What's all this about? Not that I'm complaining," he said, running his fingers down her cheek.
"Good day today." She smiled with equal fondness and patted his hip.
"That's not much of an explanation."
She sighed in mock exasperation. "You know I toured the western farming communities today."
"Yes, as I recall you were complaining about getting manure on your boots." He kept his gaze on her shoulder, admiring its fine curve.
"I found a girl."
"You do that a lot."
"No, I found a girl. For the General."
(Fearless Leader, as it turned out, would also have made a fine translation of his title, but the Kryptonians did like their military hierarchy.)
Lex let out his breath and ran his hand along her back. "I didn't know he was in the market."
"He doesn't either. He's got one already - Candy or something - but this girl, Lucy, is perfect. Cheery and witty, blonde and blue-eyed, tits like melons, raised to be obedient and loyal. And eight years younger than his current hag. All I have to do is get them in the same room."
"And this discovery, she's all yours?"
Sara smirked. "All mine. Her parents gave her an awful haircut and terrible clothes, and no one else would have seen through the disguise, but I can always spot them."
Lex made a sound of acquiescence, thinking. He'd been with Sara for nearly a month now since that first meeting in the human administrators' bar.
"Sara?" he said, bringing his hands up to cradle her head.
"Yes, Lew?" she teased back, looking into his eyes and smiling that enormous smile.
"The General's woman? Her name is Chloe."
She barely had time to look puzzled before he twisted, hard, snapping her neck.
He dressed swiftly but carefully, then went to the computer and downloaded all of Sara's records to the hard drive on his keychain. It was a catalog of Kryptonian preferences, kinky and not so kinky, invaluable both for a procurer and for a saboteur. He'd known the password for some time; he'd been waiting for her to reveal her passwords to the main system. But keeping Chloe in place was more important than that.
Wiping down the fingerprint-holding surfaces of the apartment took another ten minutes. Not that the Kryptonians would care to investigate much, but some police officers still took their jobs seriously. Eight years younger, he realized as he put on his shoes, sitting on the edge of the couch by Sara's feet, would make Chloe's intended replacement fifteen, the same age Chloe had been when he met her.
No Kryptonian women had made the journey to Earth. He still wasn't sure why, and it didn't much matter, with Krypton wiped off the face of the sky. What it meant for humans had been all too clear from the first days. The experiments in hybridization had begun soon after, delayed nearly a year by the loss of the mother ship. Lex's informants reported that, after over five years of trying, the Kryptonians were close to their first live birth. No human knew how many of the women who'd disappeared into their "Embassies" had died for that and how many more accidentally. Lex didn't suppose it made much difference to the dead.
He understood exactly why a beautiful, intelligent woman like Sara would have taken pains to make herself valuable to the Kryptonians in other ways. If it wasn't her, she would have said, it would have been someone else, and what good would that do anyone?
He understood her, oh yes. In a lot of ways, she was in his blood, and perhaps that was why he felt such contempt for her. What he was doing to Chloe wasn't terribly different, even if his intentions were superior, and could that have been one of the reasons he smiled when he heard the crack of bone?
These were not productive thoughts.
Lex grabbed his jacket, pulled on his gloves and left the apartment. Nodding pleasantly at the doorman as he left, he was already allowing himself to look forward to his own room, back in the cave-warren the Resistance called home. Not to mention his Kryptonite ring, whose absence bothered him more than it probably should.
Downtown wasn't as busy as it had once been, but there were enough people that he could join the stream of bodies leaving work and running errands. There was a Kryptonian guard in front of the old LuthorCorp building, talking to someone. Lex glanced at them, just to get the Kryptonian's face in his memory, and the other man looked up.
Lex nearly stopped walking and only with difficulty prevented himself from whipping his head away, trying to hide. He let his gaze move casually away from Clark as he tried not to stumble into the person in front of him. Shitfuckanddamn, his luck had been good until now.
Fifty meters and he could turn onto a side street. It had been years, and Clark wouldn't remember, wouldn't recognize him with hair, he lied to himself and knew he was lying as his pace sped. He put his hand in his pocket and flipped the cap off the little penlight on his keychain. The exposed wire was coated with a poison that should work before their drugs had time to force any information out of him.
Another step, and he crashed into Clark, who'd dropped from the sky like lightning. It was just like the first time, looking death in the eyes and realizing with shame that he was going to take another - many, many others now - with him.
Clark's eyes unfocused, scanning him, and his keys were in Clark's hands before he could make his fingers close on the penlight. People startled by the Kryptonian's sudden appearance turned away and kept walking, which was exactly what he would have done in their place.
Clark made a show of taking his ID from his pocket and scrutinizing it, still wordless. Lex had a million things to say and they were all stomping on each other, leaving him just as silent, flexing his bruised hand.
At last, Clark took Lex's arm and began dragging him from the plaza, towards a building. The Ritz-Carlton? Lex thought that was still a human establishment, inasmuch as anything was these days.
Inside the hotel lobby, Clark still wasn't looking at him. Clark marched up to the registration desk and Lex kept pace as if he didn't notice the vise grip on his arm.
"A room," Clark said, showing his sigil ring. He was frowning, clearly furious. The desk attendant's eyes widened, flicked quickly to Lex, then went down to her computer. No one else was looking at Lex. It was part fear, part shame at being afraid and unable to help, part frustrated anger at him for getting himself in trouble, and part a kind of respect, pretending that his humiliation didn't exist, privacy being the one thing his fellow humans could give him.
The computer spat out a card key, and the attendant took a breath. She held the card out with her fingertips and said, "Suite 908."
"No interruptions," Clark ordered and didn't wait for her nod.
As the glass-walled elevator rose over the hotel atrium, Lex examined the ghost images reflected by the heavy glass. Clark looked older, tired. Lex himself looked - different, that was all he could say, though he thought the hair made him look younger. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend they were having one of their comfortable silences.
"You can let go of me. I won't run. I know it wouldn't do any good," he said evenly as the doors opened on the ninth floor.
Clark almost sheepishly released him, and he tugged his jacket to get the creases out. He had a ballpoint pen in his jacket pocket. Given fifteen seconds, he could probably get to his carotid artery. He couldn't, offhand, think of worse ways to die, but he well knew that the Kryptonians could.
Clark let the suite door close behind them before he grabbed Lex by the collar and dragged him up close. He was barely on his feet while Clark snarled, "Adrian Veidt? Are you insane?"
Lex swallowed. "It was a fifteen-minute ID, from a comic book no Kryptonian but you ever read, and don't tell me you wouldn't have stopped me if it had said Jim Jones."
Clark released him and he tried very hard not to stagger back, but failed. "Jesus! You think there aren't any humans cooperating with the Government? You think none of them were ever kids dreaming about heroes?"
"The fact of the matter is, I wasn't going to get stopped. So what are you going to do now?"
Clark pressed the heels of his hands into his closed eyes, as if he could erase the sight of Lex. "I don't - oh, kull!" Lex had to suppress a smile; even in Kryptonian, Clark could only get out the mildest of curses. "Just - wait."
Which he did, watching as Clark fumbled for his phone and told someone that he was going to be late for a meeting. From the look on Clark's face, the person replied, "Now, that's a shock!" or its sardonic Kryptonian equivalent. It was reassuring to know that some things didn't change.
At last, Clark snapped the phone shut and turned back to him.
"Hello, Clark. Long time no see." He needed Clark off-balance, but not angry enough to turn him over to his superiors. "How's your lovely consort?"
Clark winced. "Lana - she's not - when I found her at the Talon, they were -"
"I know what they were doing at the Talon." And at the plant, and Gabe Sullivan's house, and the castle, and everywhere else in Smallville.
"She's never really - I had to take care of her, Lex. I knew you'd survive." Standing not three feet from him in the impersonal suite, Lex could still see the beautiful godling he'd known years before, a living version of Michelangelo's David. It was too easy to remember how he'd wanted to play the part of the biblical Jonathan, how he'd thought he could be the king's son and heir.
"Your confidence in me is appreciated."
Clark shook his head. "Why can't we make peace?"
"We didn't make war. We were invaded." His arms were folded defensively across his chest. He tried to relax his posture.
"Not everybody in the Government is fanatic about conquest. If you didn't keep blowing people up, maybe we could negotiate." Clark's eyes looked brown in the bad hotel light, as sincere as they were changeable.
"I sent a man to do that two years back. You may recall it - he took nearly thirty hours to die. Really disrupted the TV schedules." Lex spared a moment to remember Jeff, with his wife and two kids. He'd been the best surviving mediator in America and he'd accepted the risk. Lex had sent Hope personally to ensure that Jane, Zoey and little Leah didn't see a television until it was over.
"That was wrong," Clark admitted, looking into Lex's eyes with all his considerable sincerity. "But it doesn't mean you should give up on a peaceful solution."
"You'll pardon me if I wait for a demonstration of Kryptonian good faith before I send another man to die."
Clark frowned. "And how would you know if the Government did want to negotiate in good faith, if you won't consider the possibility?"
"Oh, I'll consider it," Lex drawled. "I've learned that even the most unlikely things can be true."
Again, the flush of embarrassment. Why was he taking the sins of an entire race out on Clark? Maybe because Clark was the only one he was able to shame.
"Look, Clark -" he began, but Clark's whisper cut him off and made him lean in closer.
"Do you ever think about me - about us?"
Lex swallowed again, giving himself a moment. "I do." He'd been so deliberate about avoiding any knowledge of what Clark was doing in the Occupation. If he'd known for sure Clark was corrupted, he thought, he could have taken some aggressive action.
"If the Kryptonians hadn't shown up, would you ever have said anything?" Oh, he could fall into those eyes and never get out.
"Probably not." Might have tripped and fallen on Clark's face if he'd gotten desperate enough, but verbalization, no. That would have been unsubtle.
Clark's face fell and his shoulders slumped. Lex could feel Clark's breath against his skin.
"Ridiculous as it sounds now, I wanted you to have a normal life. I didn't want your secrets exposed to the rest of the world, and the combination of my father and the media would have done that. I had to be satisfied with watching."
"But none of that matters now."
"No," Lex agreed.
"So what happens now?"
Lex reached out and took Clark's face in his hands. The look in Clark's eyes couldn't be called anything but joyful as he tugged Clark down and tilted his face up. The kiss was chaste, then turned aggressive. In antebellum days, Lex's powerlessness when it came to Clark had frightened and seduced him, and it was no different now.
When he pulled away, Clark looked at him as if he'd invented fire.
"Help me," he said. "I could use an inside informant."
Clark blinked away what might have been tears. "I - I can't. You're killing people. In the long run that will only make peace harder."
"In the long run, we're all dead." Lex turned. Watching Clark too long had the ability to blind him. "Are you going to turn me in?"
"You know I can't do that."
"Just keeping quiet, then?" Clark's cheek had been so smooth. Like silk. "You're good at that."
And indeed, Clark didn't say anything when he left.
Lex put his hands in his pockets and shifted on his feet, looking at nothing in particular, invisible among the other humans taking advantage of the warm spring day to flood the park. His right hand ached fiercely, cramped after a day spent in the labs trying to synthesize Kryptonite. His people recovered as much as they could after each assault, but attrition was inevitable.
It didn't help that the mineral was too dangerous to allow people who hadn't already been exposed near it. Lionel's files had actually provided most of their non-random knowledge about that, though at first the Resistance had lacked the sophisticated equipment necessary to manipulate the mineral without human contact. Lex, a meteor freak already, could deal with Kryptonite directly, but he refused to be responsible for adding to the stuff's human death toll. Meteor psychosis was a bad way to lose someone, and risked exposing other members of the Resistance to the Kryptonians besides.
The synthesis was close, not working yet but getting there. He'd hoped to have it ready by the tenth anniversary of the invasion. Even though he'd failed to meet that goal, he was confident that he'd have it soon.
Lex was thinking through possible changes in the third step of the process when he saw Chloe drifting towards him. Her tan raincoat was buttoned and belted, hiding whatever the General wanted her to wear that day.
He went over to a vendor and bought a soft pretzel and a bottle of water, then sat down on a bench that hadn't been painted for years. Old green paint, and brown paint beneath that, had peeled away in huge patches to reveal metal and rough wood. He broke off a piece of pretzel and ripped it into bits for the pigeons lurking diffidently a few feet away.
There was a rustling sound, not unlike the sound of the pigeons' wings, as Chloe sat on the other side of the bench.
"Pretty day," he said.
"They say it's caused by global warming," she said.
Lex tore off another chunk of pretzel. He trusted Chloe enough to come to this meeting, enough to take the passphrase as evidence that she wasn't under observation. Turning on the bench, he gave her a smile for pretty girls, eyes crinkled and puppy-dog friendly.
"Pretzel?" he asked, offering the piece to her.
Her fingertips brushed against his hand as she took it. When he'd found Chloe, she'd already had her own resistance cell, literally under the General's nose. She'd said she wanted something of her own, something good that no Kryptonian could take. He'd held her in the darkness, in lieu of tears.
Now, in the brightness of day, Chloe picked at the pretzel, taking nearly-invisible bits off and throwing them to the ground by her feet for the pigeons to get later.
"What's going on?"
"There's somebody who needs killing. I can't do it, but I can give you the information you'll need." Her voice was level, affectless, but her eyes were the dark green of Katyn Forest. Before, during and after the massacre.
There were things he didn't think about, wrapped like Russian dolls in nested layers of denial, and how Chloe was living was one of the biggest. "Who and why?" Why wasn't strictly necessary, but Chloe was the kind of woman for whom talking, making experience into words, was a way of surviving.
Lex nodded. The Kryptonian would have been ideal for the part of Iago, but Lex didn't much like the casting of Desdemona.
"The General won't let him borrow me. He thinks that's because of my feminine wiles," she continued with the cutting wryness she'd had even before the invasion.
In a way, Gana was right. He was notorious for breaking his toys - a difficult feat, that notoriety, given the competition among Kryptonians for senseless waste -- and the General wasn't done with Chloe.
Lex needed the General not to be done with Chloe, needed her to smile and keep her eyes open.
He ground his teeth and waited. After a minute, she continued, "There was a woman - a girl. He had her hair dyed blonde, made her use colored contacts, so there couldn't be any mistake about what he was doing. When he was finished, he had her sent to me. She took - it was a bad death.
"I told the General he couldn't let that go, that it was just as much an attack on him." Her voice was bitter with self-loathing for making that argument, which was both true and appallingly false.
"The General said he couldn't, that Gana has too many friends these days, but he's sending Gana out to Gotham next Tuesday to inspect the steel works there. Gana can't take more than two bodyguards; it's bad for his image among the soldiers."
"Okay," Lex said softly, remembering to throw more pretzel crumbs to the pigeons. The internecine power struggle between Gana and the General was of some assistance to the Resistance, but Gana's Hydra-headed group would sprout more contenders to the throne within days. Lex could afford to do this for Chloe.
He'd done damn little else for her.
Three ideas for how the assassination could be accomplished occurred to him immediately, as well as a concern. "Is there any chance, any chance at all, that the General deliberately told you that so you could pass it on?"
She bit her lip and shook her head, tearing the last of her bit of pretzel into shreds. "No. He told me because I said I was afraid. He said he'd be sending Gana on a tour of the most dangerous places in America so that Gana wouldn't have time to `bother' me. Not that you won't be doing the General a favor, but there's nothing to be done about that."
Across the park, a Kryptonian patrol was landing. The flying was an effective method of intimidation, Lex had to admit. They began checking the IDs of everyone around, and Lex had no doubt that others were waiting out of sight in case someone tried to slip away. He hoped Mercy was watching him from out of their range. Her ID would hold if she were checked, but she was a very good-looking woman.
"I should go," Chloe said, following his eyes.
"Consider it done," he said as she rose. She left him with a flirtatious smile and started walking towards the Kryptonians, her gait loose and self-assured. Her status as the General's woman wouldn't let her boss around even the lowliest of soldiers, but it would let her out of the cordon quickly and without serious harassment.
Lex waited for the patrollers to come to him, watching the pigeons snatch up their crumbs. It did him no good to wish he'd gotten her out as soon as he'd found her again. It's not as if he would have behaved any differently, given the chance for a do-over. Just like Leila Lane, Chloe was too important in her role for him to pay heed to her as a person. (The irony that Leila was Chloe's aunt, which he'd discovered years after Leila's death, did not escape him; destroyed families seemed to be the theme and melody of his life.)
He'd kill Gana just for reminding him that Chloe was -
He could think it. He was thinking it, even if he pretended he wasn't.
Chloe was whoring herself for him. Lex hadn't turned her out, but by God he was keeping her in business.
He forced himself to relax and wait for the patrol. In a mood like this, he was liable to do something rash. That would be another betrayal of Chloe, who was relying on him, so he had to keep his anger to himself.
Standing as they approached, he kept his eyes on the ground. The pigeons had fled, knowing just as the humans did that the guys in the big black boots were not healthy to hang around, and the new grass was sparse under his feet.
"Identification," one of the Kryptonians ordered. His accent was terrible. Lex produced his card and waited as they scanned the code to see if he was out of place. Keeping the rage out of his eyes was giving him a headache, but he kept his shoulders slumped and his head down until the card was shoved back at him and the soldiers moved on. The card wasn't even a forgery; it came off the same press as the official ones, and the code was legitimate. It was the person pictured who didn't really exist, but no patrol would bother to call his supposed supervisor.
His people were very, very good at their jobs.
Lex's job was to make sure that all their sacrifices produced results, so he began to walk out of the park, thinking about ways to kill Kryptonians. Slowly.
Mercy didn't like it. Hope didn't like it. Lex didn't tell Pete, but Pete assuredly wouldn't like it.
"I'm sorry," he said to the two women as they tried to back him into a corner, "but has this become a democracy while I wasn't looking?"
"Mr. Luthor," Mercy said despairingly, "I can keep a team at the outskirts of town, but I can't guarantee that I can come and get you if anything goes wrong."
Lex smiled at her. "Then I'll have to make sure nothing goes wrong."
Hope and Mercy exchanged glances. They were probably right; he shouldn't be taking front-line chances like this. But his mission wasn't exactly intended as a guerrilla operation.
In the end, as foreordained, Mercy drove him to the small community at the junction of two major highways, where the buildings had already been suitable for storing food and other useful materials. Lex had no trouble getting into the agricultural compound; it wasn't the kind of place the Resistance attacked, given that humans needed to eat and be clothed just like Kryptonians, and the security wouldn't have stopped a mischievous twelve-year-old.
He found his way to Clark's room readily enough, and picked the human-style lock in under thirty seconds. It was a fairly clean room, not ostentatious, and had a door at the back that Lex quickly ascertained led to a separate room for a woman. Lana, unless things had changed.
There was very little about the room that reminded Lex of Clark. He opened the closet and stared at the row of uniforms for a while, thinking about men he'd killed for wearing that uniform.
He heard fumbling at the door, and sat carefully on the side of Clark's bed, facing the door but not visible from the hallway.
He'd formed a greeting for Clark even as he realized that the person entering the room was much smaller. She turned to close the door, not yet noticing him.
When she flipped on the overhead light and saw him, Lana actually squeaked in terror.
Her mouth opened and closed several times. "Lex," she said at last, in a breathy whisper. He noticed that her hand was not reaching for the doorknob, which he considered a good sign. "What are you - God, what are you doing here? It's not safe. You've got to know Clark is watched."
"Don't worry about that." Lana didn't need to know that they'd hacked the Kryptonian security computers three weeks ago, and that there weren't any cameras in Clark's room, though his movements were tracked. "How are you?"
Lana laughed shakily and brought a hand up to smooth her shiny, well-cared-for hair. "I'm fine. Just fine. Obviously, who wouldn't be fine?"
He didn't stand, but he did raise his hands. "It's okay, Lana, calm down."
She giggled again. Lex briefly considered the possibility that the invasion had broken her completely.
"Oh, God, Lex," she said again, and rushed across the room to hug him, half kneeling and half in his lap. He closed his arms around her and patted her shoulder with his left hand. Through the leather of his glove and the cotton of her shirt, he couldn't feel her as living flesh at all.
She was crying softly, tears welling from her eyes without marring the beauty of her face. Lana was built for sorrow, he thought and then felt uncharitable. "Shh, shh. It's all right," he soothed.
"I'm sorry," she said, shuddering and wiping her hand under her nose. The motion made her human again, and Lex tightened his arms around her, guiding her to sit next to him, at his left. "It's just been so long since I've seen anyone else from Smallville. Since there's been anybody to talk to."
Lex looked at the girl-woman whose devotion to her lost family had always struck a chord of reluctant admiration in him. Such extravagant grief, lacking an objective correlative, disrupted ordinary life, forcing others to halt and stare. It was impressive, like Victoria Falls, grandiose in scale. Lana's inability to shield herself from fortune's slings and arrows made it hard to see her as a rival.
The invasion couldn't have added to her sorrow; it had been infinite before.
"Would you like me to get you out of here?" The offer, impulsive as it was, felt right. Lex had always had an affinity for broken things.
She put a hand on his arm, recovering her composure. "Thank you. But Clark takes care of me, and I take care of Clark."
Lex nodded. Clark's existential guilt might respond to Lana's still waters, and she was probably physically safer with him.
"So," she said, taking a deep breath and putting her hands on her knees, "why did you come here?"
He smiled, which neatly concealed the fact that he wasn't sure himself. "Isn't Clark supposed to be here?"
Lana shrugged. "You know Clark. He didn't call, which means he probably won't be extremely late. Extremely late is defined as a new month."
Lex's mouth curled in what felt like a real smile.
After several minutes of nearly comfortable silence, Lana stood and went over to the large antique dresser in the corner of the room. Running her fingers across its polished top, her face reflected in the oval mirror that was part of the dresser, she asked, "Do you know what happened to everybody else?"
"Chloe is working in Metropolis," he said. "A number of people from the LexCorp plant are still there in one capacity or another."
Lana's eyes closed briefly, no doubt thinking about the names he didn't say. Pete still spoke of Lana wistfully. She'd been Smallville's icon of femininity even when he'd seen her every day. But Lex didn't convey Pete's undoubtedly fond remembrances, because the Kryptonians didn't know who Pete was and some of the Rosses were still alive. He had nearly liked Lana, but he wouldn't trust a woman who couldn't be made happy.
"What about Henry Small?" Her voice trembled.
"I'm sorry, I don't know." Small was lucky to have been in a working farm community. He might well be alive, as long as he had stayed physically sound and shut his mouth. It was possible.
She turned back to him and tried to smile. "I just wish I knew. One way or another. It's always there with me, the not knowing."
There was no good response to that. Lex looked down at his right forearm, bulging under his black sweater with the machinery that turned muscle twitches into clumsy movements of his new claws. Certainty, he thought, could be a bitch as much as ignorance.
Clark might indeed have saved the day when he opened the door on the two of them, moping in their own orbits.
"Lana, what --?"
Clark gaped as Lana swiftly moved to close the door behind him.
"Surprise," Lana said, smiling nervously as she returned to stand near Lex. Lex had the distinct impression that she was protecting her territory the best way she knew how.
The expression on Clark's face reminded Lex of the long-ago times Clark had confronted him about his (warranted) suspicions. The warm anticipation he'd been feeling dissipated like a flock of birds. He swallowed. "Lana, may I have a moment with Clark?"
Lana, looking back and forth between them, nodded and fled through the inner door to her room.
"What are you doing here?" Clark's brows were drawn together, almost as if being in Lex's presence was a pain like Kryptonite. His body wasn't as toxic as all that.
"I wanted to see you," he said.
"Why now? All these years I waited for you and you never came." He sounded like a child, one grown accustomed to asking and not receiving, the way Lex had too often sounded with his father.
"I don't know, Clark, maybe it's because I had my hand cut off last week and I wanted to remember the last time I felt like this." He stopped, nearly as shocked by his outburst as Clark, who narrowed his eyes and looked at Lex's deformed right arm, then turned quickly away.
"I'm really sorry about that, Lex. But you shouldn't be here. There's nothing - You've killed so many people. Unless you're here to try to negotiate, and even then I'm the wrong one to talk to." Clark's voice was steady, though he wouldn't meet Lex's gaze.
Lex felt a pain in his chest, nothing like the scratchy agony of the prosthesis scraping against his stump. He'd come with expectations, even if he hadn't admitted them to himself, and that was his fatal mistake.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said, hearing the voice he used on strangers. He stood, since there was no point in staying.
"There has to be a peaceful solution. I'm trying to make things better, but it's hard when you keep making the Government see humans as threats. Look at you," Clark said, gesturing at his mockery of a hand. "This fight is destroying you. And so many other people."
The hand wasn't a fucking metaphor. It was a casualty to Kryptonite-induced cancer. "If thy right hand offends thee ..." he drawled. "I do what I have to do."
"So do I," Clark said, his face white except for the spots of color on his exquisite cheekbones.
"Fine," he said and cursed himself for sounding like a petulant lover.
"Don't come here again, Lex." Clark's voice was strained, his head turned away again.
"Oh, have no fear of that," he said and let himself out into the safer territory of the Kryptonian complex.
"Hey, baby brother," Lex whispered into Lucas' ear as he clamped his artificial hand over Lucas' nose and mouth.
Lucas came immediately awake, struggling and choking until he was exhausted. Lex cuffed his hands over his head, threading the chain around one of the slats in the teak headboard, and only then shifted slightly to let Lucas breathe through his nose.
Lex really liked the new, improved hand grafted onto his bones and nerves; wearing the glove, it even looked authentic. Lucas still couldn't speak, and Lex's real hand at his throat was an extra incentive for him to behave.
Lucas' paranoia had been helpful. He'd kicked the night's girls out and gone to bed on his own. He was naked under the thin linen sheet - so fine that Lex's abused sensibilities whined for what he'd lost - and still better-muscled than Lex.
"Listen to me, Lucas," Lex said quietly, straddling him. "I need the codes for the fertility labs. Give them to me and you may get to see the sun rise."
He gave Lucas a moment to think, then uncovered his mouth.
"Lex," Lucas said. His smile was still blinding. "You never call, you never write. But I'm honored you're giving me your ... personal attention."
Was that a twitch of his hips under Lex? It didn't seem out of the question for Lucas to be half-hard for reasons other than near-asphyxiation. Lex wondered whether that ought to bother him.
Lucas wasn't his responsibility any more.
"Don't presume that my nostalgia in any way redounds to your benefit." Lucas' throat worked under his hand. Thirty-five pounds of pressure per square inch to collapse the trachea, or two minutes of lesser pressure to fatally cut off blood flow to the brain, or just the right touch on the carotid sensor - there were so many ways Lucas could die tonight.
Instead, Lex brought out and opened his knife and pressed the tip against Lucas' chest. "Did you know that nipple tissue will regenerate? That's if you don't cut too deep." The blade slipped under skin like a scull through water, and Lucas bit down on a gasp of pain.
"The codes?" Lex prompted.
Lucas stared up at him. Lex sighed and began to move the knife up.
Lex raised an eyebrow. Lucas started spitting out numbers and letters. After a while, he paused for breath.
"We're in," Hope's voice said in Lex's ear. Sneaking into the Metropolis "Embassy" had been easy enough; it was, after all, a former LuthorCorp building. But the labs, the successors to Dad's old Level Three, were a slightly tougher objective.
Destroying the equipment and records would hurt the Kryptonians where they felt it, in their genetic legacy. It would also be a good diversion from Lex's more promising avenues of attack.
He had to stay until the team was out of the labs. If Lucas had given him a false code that opened the doors but set off an alarm, Lex was going to cut off his nose.
Lex wondered whether that ought to bother him.
He pulled back and wiped the blade clean on Lucas' shoulder. Lucas, who was his father's son, didn't take his eyes from Lex's face.
"How did you get in here?" Lucas asked, conversationally. Lex didn't bother to smirk. Lucas changed tack. "If I were anyone else, you'd just have killed me."
"Maybe I want something more from you."
Lucas licked his lips and shifted underneath Lex. "Maybe if you ask nicely."
But Lex had known some things even before he'd known Lucas existed: Sex was a weapon. People who were revolted by you were off-balance and could be toppled. Luthors were vipers, and the fact that they were sinuous, smooth and pretty just got the prey to come within striking distance of its own volition.
Lucas was predictable, and that was some justification for letting him live.
He slapped Lucas, hard enough to make his hand sting. Lucas let his head turn with the blow, and the line of his throat in the half-dark could have inspired a thousand bad poems.
"It could have been different," he said, surprised to hear real emotion in his voice.
"Between us? Never," Lucas said, and Lex tried and failed to remember Julian's face. He shook his head to clear it. That was when Lucas bucked, hard enough to throw him off, and simultaneously jerked his arms down with enough force to crack the headboard slat Lex had used for the handcuffs.
Lucas managed to get one leg up for a kick in the stomach that threw Lex off the bed, and pulled again at the cuffs. The wood splintered and bent, one more good try away from breaking entirely and releasing him.
"All done." Hope's voice over the comm suggested she'd had an easier time of her part of the job than Lex was having.
Lex could hardly breathe, but he struggled to his feet and thrust the point of the knife against Lucas' throat. "I wouldn't - if I were you," he gasped, his hand shaky enough that the knife skittered down Lucas' skin, leaving a red line like a lightning bolt.
"Mr. Luthor?" Hope asked.
Lucas grinned and Lex saw his muscles tense for another pull. Lucas with his hands cuffed in front of him would be as good as unrestrained.
He buried the knife in the meat of Lucas' shoulder, pushing until metal grated against bone.
Lucas screamed and thrashed, but without the coordination needed to free himself.
Because he was a melodramatic fool, Lex leaned over so he could speak into Lucas' ear again. "Keep the blade in until you've got a doctor or you'll hemorrhage. And tell Dad I said hi."
"Mr. Luthor?" Hope never worried, but someone who didn't know that could have been excused for detecting a note of concern in her voice.
"Sorry, I was busy. On my way," he said and backed quickly away from the little brother he never had.
End Part II
Part III: Our Proud and Angry Dust
"All we need is a living subject or three -- more would be better, but somehow I doubt that Kryptonians are going to line up to volunteer." Peter leaned back in his chair, looking over the assembled group leaders with a self-satisfied air.
Lex smiled and folded his hands in his best wise-old-man pose. "Good. What's it going to do to the hybrids?"
Peter looked down, fiddling with the papers on the table. "Unknown." Harry, the true Dr. Frankenstein of the pair, would have had a more definite, less accurate answer, which was why Lex had Peter at these meetings instead. Harry was better off sequestered in the lab, eating and showering when Peter told him to, doing his part to avenge his father and his city.
John, sitting next to Peter, made a dissatisfied noise.
So many new faces that could never quite replace those he'd lost over the past twelve years. Pete Ross's chair, at least, was empty simply because he was off dealing with the Californian rebels, who were just as wacky under Kryptonian rule as they'd been in the days when the state was nominally part of America.
Pete wasn't necessary for this strategic briefing. Lex's decision would be based on the science. Harry's virus, designed to turn Kryptonians' own body chemistry against them, might be just the Hiroshima they needed.
"I'm prepared to kill some kids," Lex said at last. Nearly four thousand kids, at last known count, and more gestating now in human wombs. "What I want to know is if it can vector to humans through them."
"They're too heavily guarded to grab for tests," Hope pointed out.
"If we make isolation a priority, we can decrease the chance that they could infect humans," John offered, his ramrod-stiff posture a silent rebuke to all the amateurs surrounding him.
"Everything's a priority," Mercy groused.
"That's why they pay us the big money," Lex said lightly. "Now, how are we going to get some live, not-kicking Kryptonians for the tests?"
Because the gods of irony weren't listening, Mercy was halfway through explaining her procurement plans before there was a knock at the door.
"Come in," Lex called, and Jimmy stepped in, a man hard on his heels. Hope and Mercy rose, cautious as always.
Not a man, after all.
"Lex, I knew you'd want to see him - he didn't die, after all -"
"Jimmy, when I shared some very personal information with you and said Clark Kent died early on in the invasion, it was in the nature of a metaphor. Ladies and gentlemen," Lex said, staring, "let me introduce you to Clark Kent, ne Kal-El, formerly of Smallville and currently continental Minister of Agriculture."
Now everyone but Lex was standing, Hope and Mercy moving to cover him, John looking ready to leap over the table at Clark, and Peter pressed against the far wall as if that would help.
"How'd he get through the screen?" That was why he liked John - he saw the most important issues immediately. The Kryptonite at the cave entrance should have exposed Clark as inhuman.
"That's what I'm here to tell you," Clark said at last, not looking away from Lex. "I'm one of the first to receive the new treatment. In six months, every Kryptonian on Earth will be invulnerable to Kryptonite."
Several people gasped, and Lex wasn't one hundred percent sure that he wasn't one of them.
Without breaking eye contact, he pulled the ring off of his artificial hand and tossed it at Clark, who caught it in midair. He winced, possibly just at the hard-angled sigil that was a mockery of Kryptonian power, but slid it onto his own hand. It got stuck halfway down his index finger. Lex had forgotten about Clark's hands.
"Headache," he said, "but nothing worse. Something new you cooked up, Lex?"
Well, artificial essence of Kryptonite wasn't going to be the blockbuster for which he'd hoped. His head spun, closer to helplessness than he'd been in ten years.
Clark removed the ring and put it down on the conference table.
"Lex, I need to talk to you -"
He swallowed his instinctive snarl. Clark - Kal-El - obviously had useful intelligence to share. "All right," he said as carefully as he could. "People, we're adjourned. Mercy, start the implementation and Peter, be prepared to start in twelve hours." The virus had just received a field promotion from "good shot" to "only hope," and time was wasting. The enhanced Kryptonite had taken five years of off and on research, all for a result that could now be taken care of with an Anacin. Maybe with five more years and enough research subjects he could defeat this mysterious treatment, but he'd seen the numbers - he was the only one who'd seen all of the numbers - and the Resistance didn't have five more years. It barely had two, and that was five minutes ago, when Kryptonite worked. "Go on," he said, waving his hand negligently.
"Sir -" Hope protested.
"What are you going to do if he wants to kill me? Frown at him? Stay if you want, but Mercy and Peter need to go."
John left with them, doubtless eager to give Mercy helpful suggestions. Jimmy seized the opportunity to escape. Hope stayed, still holding her sidearm like a child's transitional object.
"How's Lana?" he asked, trying to get some control back.
"The Ministry's been trying to get her pregnant."
Only Kryptonians - well, only Kryptonians who'd been so patriarchal as to have no women at all on their spaceships when their world blew up - would have a Ministry of Reproduction. Artificial insemination: when good old-fashioned rape just wouldn't do.
"I take it congratulations are not yet in order."
Clark's face twitched. Poor boy; he didn't understand why Lex was being so mean to him. "I tried, Lex. I tried to convince them that we could all live together, and I couldn't."
Lex tapped a pencil against his lower lip, because he needed something to do with his hands. "I get that, really I do. But you can't barge in here now and expect me to slaughter the fatted calf in your honor."
"I'm not the only one of - the Kryptonians who opposes the Occupation," he said, and Lex was fairly sure that he'd nearly said "us."
"Do they oppose it enough to sell out their own kind?"
Clark looked down. "You can't be loyal to a species. Especially not one that won't exist in a generation."
"But you can be loyal to a person, or an idea. What are you loyal to, Kal-El?"
"My name," he said, his voice shaking, "is Clark Kent."
As an answer, it wasn't bad. Even Hope, Lex saw in his peripheral vision, had relaxed a degree or two.
Still, he needed to know how Clark had found the caves, and whether he'd told those mysterious "others," and a variety of other things. He was ordering the questions in his mind when someone knocked at the door.
This time, Jimmy entered without waiting for a response. "Chloe's here. She says it's urgent."
Clark's face lit up.
"Jimmy, please take Mr. Kent to another room, then get Ms. Sullivan."
"Lex -" Clark protested.
"I need to look at you. She doesn't."
Clark only nodded, perhaps seeing that Lex would not be moved on this, and followed Jimmy. Maybe the years had calmed him some. Or maybe the Occupation had just beaten the argumentativeness out of him.
"What do you think?" he asked Hope when Clark left. Clark could hear through the walls, of course, but one could never underestimate the power of illusion.
"Kill him." If we can, she didn't say.
"Could draw unwelcome attention." The death of the only full-blooded Earth-raised Kryptonian, and a Minister to boot, would demand a more disproportionate reprisal than usual. Even years in, there were still plenty of nonessential humans to execute.
Hope snorted and folded her arms, leaning back against the wall. It was true that he'd never let that deter him before, when an opportunity to punish the enemy arose.
Lex had seen other numbers, too. Reports on areas, including most of Africa and vast chunks of Asia, emptied of young, healthy workers, leaving the old, the sick and the children to survive as best they could. Which was not well, when trade was cut off. The Kryptonians didn't mean to keep a slave race forever. Didn't, he guessed, want to become weak and reliant on servants, if the ones he'd tortured were at all typical. They weren't sterilizing humans; for one thing, the hybrids' vigor was still unproven. But they weren't investing in human capital for the long term either. It could be that they just wanted to go well below the planet's carrying capacity, so the new race could expand, but he didn't think that too likely, in part because he'd done his best to convince the Kryptonians that the human spirit couldn't be broken.
Jimmy opened the door. "Here we go," he said over his shoulder, and Lex rose to greet Chloe.
And stopped moving so abruptly that he almost tripped over his own feet.
She was pregnant. At least six months. He raised his eyes to her face. She was smiling, bravely, the kind of smile that begged him to pretend that nothing was wrong.
"Hey, Lex. Now we know why the General moved me into his quarters, right?"
He nodded, his mind calling up all the smuggled doctors' reports he'd read. Six months. Fetal survival rate, 62%. Maternal survival rate, 26.5%.
Chloe took a deep breath. "I'm here because the General told me about a new procedure he's going to get. It's supposed to confer immunity to Kryptonite."
He nodded. "We're ... aware of the problem. There are a few options," he lied, knowing he wouldn't have to explain himself. What Chloe didn't know, she couldn't reveal.
Lex gave in and crossed the distance to her. The hug was awkward, with the thing in her belly in the way, but she sighed and laid her head against his shoulder.
"I can't stay long," she said into his neck. "The General's kind of crazy about his first daughter."
"How did you get away at all?" Chloe had always found a way, wherever she was. He wouldn't normally ask, but she'd be under much closer surveillance as a bearer of Kryptonian seed, and Clark's appearance had stoked his paranoia.
"My bodyguard - he's sympathetic to my desire to get away from it all. To spend some time on my own, just in case -"
The condemned woman's last wish. Yes, he could see Chloe selling that.
"Soon," he said. "We'll get you out soon." He wanted to ask her to stay, but whatever the Kryptonians would do if Clark disappeared went tenfold for the General's first daughter. More important, the Kryptonians were the only source of Chloe's 26.5% chance.
If the schedule was what he suspected it had to be, her alien doctors would be dead before she came to term.
"When's the General supposed to get this treatment?"
"Next week," she said, releasing him and rocking back on her heels a bit. "They won't finish with the foot soldiers for another few months."
"All right. Things might happen fast. If it gets hairy, come here. Some people are going to be pretty indiscriminate in identifying collaborators."
She chuckled. "Don't I know. The looks I get - sometimes I want to scream out, `He puts his dick in me! It's not a political commitment!' but that probably wouldn't play too well with the bodyguard."
For her, he smiled. "Get out of here," he said, inclining his head towards the door.
"Don't get dead," she said. It was one of his rules: he never said goodbye. Chloe had picked up on that early.
He watched her bob away, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. The General liked long hair, she'd said once, and he felt a crystalline stab of rage as the door closed. Clenching his fists so hard that the servos in his right hand whined, he took slow, deep breaths until he'd backed the anger down into the nuclear core where it usually resided.
"I need to finish with Clark," he said and Hope peeled herself from her place along the wall.
Jimmy had put Clark into the second-largest conference room, where he was building a miniature fortress out of containers of creamer and sugar packets. Lex spared a moment to be amazed that creamer was so artificial that his people could be drinking ten-year-old versions of the stuff.
Clark's smile was as fresh as ever and cut just as deep. "How's Chloe?"
"Pregnant," he said and sat down across from Clark, who looked suitably distressed. "Who are the Kryptonians who agree with you and what are they willing to do for us?"
"I can't tell you who, but I can tell you what."
Lex leaned back in his chair. "No. It doesn't work that way."
"Lex, you just have to trust me -" Clark leaned forward, closing the new distance.
"Setting aside the complete preposterousness of your using that word with me and that I don't have to do anything, you're proposing to have me trust these other, unknown Kryptonians, and that's hardly my natural inclination."
"This isn't Smallville, Lex, and you do have to do some things. You have to act before all Kryptonians are invulnerable." Clark didn't blink or look away.
Ma Kent's little alien was all grown up. Clark was correct that he couldn't afford to ignore any potential advantage, or any risk, regardless of the source.
"All right, it's your show, Clark. Start singing and dancing."
Three weeks later, he met Clark in a dank little bar on a street that had been dangerous even before the invasion. The meeting had been a source of much controversy with his people. It was true enough that a second's scan would reveal his missing hand, which was a prominent part of the description circulated by the Kryptonian high command. But the bar wasn't in any of the areas of town that Kryptonians frequented, and Mercy herself was positioned in the back with her rifle in its lead box.
Clark, Lex saw as he slid onto the torn green vinyl seat of the booth, was not wearing his sigil ring. He was holding on to a beer stein, and Lex was willing to bet that he hadn't taken a single sip even for the sake of pretense.
"You have medical facilities at the Embassies, right?" he said and tossed back the swill pretending to be whisky.
"Do you have drugs that raise the heart rate? The equivalent of adrenaline, methamphetamines, whatever?"
"I don't know." Clark's finger traced the incised outlines of RL + ZM 4EVA on the table, still damp from a careless swipe of a rag. "I can find out."
Another shot appeared by Lex's hand, as if beamed there by transporter. "Good. When I give you the signal, you and whoever you want to save get those drugs, enough to maintain an overdose level for at least eight hours, and destroy what you don't take for yourselves. Don't leave any behind, anywhere."
Clark still wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Can you do that, Clark?" If he couldn't or wouldn't, there'd be an extra layer of complication, infiltrating the Embassies to barricade the drugs long enough for the Kryptonians to fall prey to the virus.
"You're not the only one who can do what has to be done." The words sounded as if they'd been forcibly ripped from Clark's throat.
"That's good to know." Lex wished Clark weren't treating him like a necessary evil. Even if he was, there was a special pain in losing the memory of the boy who'd believed in him despite all evidence to the contrary.
At last, Clark looked up. There were lines on his face that hadn't been there three weeks ago.
"Am I doing the right thing?" he asked.
That was fairly poetic in its reversal - chiastic, really. From cross to double-cross in ten easy lessons. There had been a time when he would have asked Clark that question, or at least tried to hide his plans from Clark, knowing he'd face disapproval. "They're killing us off. Whatever you may think of me, if I thought there was any other way to end this, any chance of a voluntary turn to democracy, I'd take it."
Clark's eyes weren't readable in the low light. But he nodded slowly, and Lex thought that would have to be enough.
The message, when it went, was transmitted through people who didn't know its origin. Communicating with Clark through strangers seemed oddly appropriate, as if they could only ever get at the truth indirectly.
If everything had gone right, the message had said, "From Adrian," obediently and ignorantly. "The party's on Wednesday at three in the afternoon, at my place in Metropolis."
Either Clark got it or he didn't.
"Come on," he said to the others waiting for his signal. "It's a beautiful day for a genocide."
A troop of little girls, reminiscent of Madeline's class from the children's book, headed towards the Kryptonian "Embassy." The girls were surrounded by blue-coated teachers and aides, and ten armed guards who hadn't been in the children's book, two floating in the air in case of attack from above. Pretty girls; no reason they wouldn't be, given the Kryptonians' taste in mothers. They were too young for anyone to know how many of their fathers' traits they'd inherited, though early reports from accidentally maimed servants suggested that the strength had come through.
All girls, because that way they could be bred back to full Kryptonians. If they reached menarche soon enough and all else went as planned, the Kryptonians might try another generation of daughters so that the human taint would constitute only one-eighth of the new race's heritage.
Halfway across the square, the group encountered a Coca-Cola vendor giving away red and white balloons, and the head teacher allowed them to stop and accept one each. Now the girls were almost too cute, with their buttercup-yellow outfits, including hair ribbons, all holding balloons. The primary colors thing was racial, Lex thought, not an individual quirk.
A red balloon popped in a guard's face, and the deprived child's face screwed up in pique. An aide hastily surrendered her own, and disaster was averted. The guard wiped his face, scanned the square to make sure it wasn't some kind of distraction, and waved his charges forward.
Lex leaned back in his chair, watching the monitor. The guards weren't looking for cameras, any more than they were looking for balloons. The team could be at the gates of the complex in seven minutes when it became necessary.
Reports came in, via voice and email and even flares in the night.
Lex learned that in Buckingham Palace, a grease fire had broken out in the kitchens and, due to an oddity of wiring, every sprinkler in the palace turned on, waking a number of Kryptonians and sending them, sputtering, out into the halls for three minutes before someone found the shutoff.
In Chicago, the wind howled through the city. A truck, misloaded and improperly driven, struck an old Jeep and overturned. On the former University of Chicago campus, a collaborator whispered into her radio, the wind was thick with the smell of Indian spices.
In Beijing, at the ex-US embassy, the spy-proof air circulation system choked and died for two minutes, then came back online, raising the humidity two percent according to the hacked computer system.
In Gotham, Bruce messaged with his usual brevity, workers repairing the inner reaches of Wayne Manor broke through an old wooden floor and released a flight of bats, squealing and whizzing through every room in the converted mansion. (Lex thought that if Bruce had the sense God gave a rabbit he'd have used pigeons, but Bruce insisted that the bats were a known hazard of the Manor and shouldn't trigger any special alarms. Bruce was the liege of Gotham as surely as Lex was of Metropolis, so he got his way.)
In Paris, behind the Hotel de Ville, a wrecking ball swung at an old building and filled the air with dust, blocking the view of the recently installed video camera.
Around the world, humans did small things, sometimes unknowing, and the war was on.
Around Lex, his people waited. The silence was broken only by a few taps of fingers on keyboards and the creak of chairs.
"Lex," Hope said in his ear, "the Jerusalem Embassy just reported that three subcommanders collapsed in the middle of a meeting."
If they'd put it out on the network, they'd know it wasn't an isolated incident soon. It was time. A physical assault now might disrupt any coordinated response, and prevent some desperate retaliation.
"All right, let's go," he said and hit the button that would send the message worldwide.
The doors of the Metropolis Embassy were beginning to swing closed as they entered the square, running, making no attempt to hide their weapons. Three Kryptonian soldiers hovered in front of the gates, raising their lasers and waiting for the attackers to come within heat-vision range.
As the first blasts lanced out, the middle soldier fell backwards, convulsing. He landed in the path of the gates, whose steel was no match for his alien solidity. It was incredible good luck and Lex couldn't waste it.
"Mercy, keep the others from moving him," he said into his microphone as he dodged a blast of energy. They were at the extreme edge of the range of Kryptonite-laced bullets, but Mercy's aim was good enough, surrounding the fallen soldier with a glowing hail that sent one of his comrades scuttling back from the body.
Lex could hear people screaming nearby and smell flash-cooked bodies as he took cover behind a fountain. The humming sounds of laser fire abruptly dropped off, and he dared a look to see another dying Kryptonian. The remaining one was firing almost randomly as he attempted to jump over the body holding the gates apart. Mercy's bullet took him in the eye, and he crumpled.
His team, mostly intact, converged on the gate just as the shot soldier's body was being tugged out of the gap by someone inside. Lex wanted to remind everyone that the point was only to keep the Kryptonians busy while the virus did its work, but he knew the distraction would only be harmful.
Someone - one of Mercy's people, he thought - reached the gate, stuck his gun through, and began to fire. A blast of heat turned him into a torch above the waist. Lex knew that the man's combat helmet was melting onto his skull as he windmilled back and fell, giving way to the next human, who pulled at one side of the gate.
It swung open in quick jerks, revealing a wavering line of Kryptonians, many of whom were grasping at their chests already, either feeling the virus or thinking they were.
Kryptonite bullets filled the air like pollen in spring, a spendthrift extravagance that could never be repeated.
Aliens fell, just like humans had so many times.
They charged forward into the compound.
In his heart, Lex knew that he hadn't ordered a human assault to coincide with the virus deployment just to disorganize and confuse the Kryptonians so they couldn't find a devastating response or a miracle cure. He'd done it, condemning hundreds more to die, because he needed to watch the aliens die, and to find his father.
He'd seen enough dead Kryptonians now. He'd memorized the directions to his father's offices, in the hope that he'd be waiting there for more information before deciding how to react. Dad had always liked intel.
"Lex," Mercy's voice hissed in his ear, "where are you?"
He turned one last corner and saw the door. It bore his father's name and title, in Kryptonian and English. Five humans worldwide shared his rank, supervising all the industrial workers - how that must have galled, not to be the only one. Lex regretted his lack of heat vision; he'd have liked to slag the words.
Instead, he used his non-Kryptonite-loaded gun to shoot out the lock and hinges and kicked the door in, following with both guns in front of him as it fell.
His father stood behind a sleek glass desk, his fingertips brushing the desktop. He was alone.
"Hello, son," he said.
"Hi, Dad. Long time no see."
Lionel still had his mane, a pure, theatrical white now. Lex wouldn't have put it past him to have intimidated his own hair into bleaching itself rather than dyeing it. If anything, his eyes were sharper, the flesh of his face no longer hiding very much of the skull beneath.
"Are those really necessary?" His father's tone of amused disdain suggested that only a coward would need to hold two guns on his own, enfeebled father. Lex knew that only a Luthor would really need to.
"I don't know that they're strictly necessary, but they make me feel a hell of a lot better."
His father chuckled. "I missed your sense of humor, Lex. Lucas is many things you aren't, but his wit lacks a certain verbal facility."
It was a good reminder. He shouldn't be playing his father's games. He swallowed and began to speak. "In the name of the United States of America, I arrest you. The charge is treason."
Lionel's smile grew wider. "Treason against a rebellion? Lex, Lex, you know better."
He stuck the Kryptonite gun in its holster at his back and produced the handcuffs, preparing to condemn his own father.
Cold metal at the back of his neck made him stop. Lionel, whose face had revealed nothing, smiled anew as a woman said, "Give me the gun."
Not just a woman, he realized, and stood stunned as Martha Kent relieved him of both guns. She didn't know about the one at his ankle, but then he couldn't reach it right now. He raised his hands in the air as she backed away from him, towards Lionel.
She was holding one of his own guns on him.
"What did you bluff me with?" he asked.
A smile kissed her lips and disappeared. "Lipstick."
He snorted, disgusted with himself almost as much as with Martha Kent's betrayal. "You picked the wrong side, Mrs. Kent. I remember a time when you tried to protect me from my father."
Smiling brightly and a little fixedly now, Martha moved to Lionel's side. He beamed fondly down upon her. "You don't understand, Lex," she said as Lionel held out his hand for the gun.
He opened his mouth to ask her to explain when she turned, cat-quick, and shoved the gun in Lionel's face. "On your knees."
The fact that Lionel immediately dropped said so much about what he'd done to her in the past twelve years, what kind of demons he'd put in her head, that Lex could barely think through his tidal rage.
"Open your mouth," she ordered. Lionel complied. "I don't want to hurt you," she said, her voice taking on his cadences, "I just want to make you feel good."
Lex wanted to throw up. Lionel had taken a beautiful woman, a beautiful soul so generous that it could accept even him, and done this. The edges of his vision wavered and his blood felt as if it were about to boil out of his skin.
"You don't have to do this, Martha," he said, though he could barely hear himself through the buzz of horror. "Don't let him make you a killer."
She blinked and her hand shook. Lex took the opportunity to grab his backup weapon in case Lionel tried anything. His father's eyes flicked to him, then back to Martha when he realized that Lex was aiming at him, too. Tears ran down her face, and her trembling worsened.
"It's all right," he lied, putting every atom into the attempt to calm her. "Just step away. He'll get what's coming to him. You're not that kind of person, Martha."
The moment stretched and snapped as Martha took a step back, letting the mouth of the gun drift down.
Lionel's eyebrows raised and he opened his mouth to say something cutting.
"But I am," Lex said and shot him.
Martha cried out and dropped the gun, raising her hands to her mouth. The shot had been imperfectly aimed, so he could only see the surprise in his father's remaining eye as he toppled backwards.
Lex blinked. The anger rushed out of him like air from a depth-crushed submarine. Dizzy, under water, like the second time his life changed. His father, though, hadn't survived the impact.
"Lex?" Martha had retrieved the gun, and her face had set into grim lines of fear and stress. "Are you going to bring down the building?"
He nodded. She took him by the arm and turned him away from his father's body. "We need to get the children."
They were moving now, back in the hall and deeper into the interior of the building. He stepped over dead and mostly dead alien bodies with a kind of detached glee. They weren't really dead, not the way his father was, because no one but his father had been so alive.
"This way," she said, tugging him to the left. Normally, he wouldn't want the contact, but he wasn't sure it was for his benefit. "Lionel used the children to keep me in line." Her voice was bitter as week-old coffee.
Lex had no trouble imagining that. Martha Kent would sacrifice a lot of herself to keep Lionel from being the only human making decisions about those little girls.
They were in the civilian quarters now, where Lionel and the other human servants had lived. The nursery was two floors away, if he remembered rightly.
She stopped and knocked shave-and-a-haircut on a door like any other.
The door swung open, revealing a red-headed, blue-eyed girl of perhaps eleven or twelve. "Mommy?"
"Elizabeth, I need you to grab Teddy and come with me."
"Where's Daddy? And who's this?"
"Elizabeth -" The girl reacted to Martha's urgent tone and disappeared back into the room. Lex turned to Martha, his brain still stuck on "Mommy?" He remembered now: Martha had been pregnant when the Kryptonians came.
"Lionel's the only father she's ever known," Martha said, imploring, before the girl returned.
Did that mean - was this Jonathan Kent's daughter? Or Lionel's? She'd been working for Lionel long enough before. Elizabeth. Liz?
The girl returned, carrying a bag out of which poked the head of an old, honey-colored stuffed bear that Lex remembered from the dresser in Clark's room.
"Honey, this is Lex. I want you to do whatever he tells you, all right?"
She looked up at him, her eyes a clear blue like Kansas twilight, like Julian's had been. "Lex? Are you my brother?"
Yeah, kid, and I just killed your father. How'm I doing? His stomach lurched and he was sweating in a way that portended vomiting in the immediate future. "Yes," he managed, wondering if it were true.
She smiled, though he could tell she was still upset by her mother's strange behavior, and stuck out her hand. "I'm Liza. Dad says you're a slick operator, and that I could learn a lot from you."
Only a sharp pinch from Martha prevented him from throwing up on her tennis shoes. Instead, he shook her hand, then hit his comm for Mercy.
A minute later, they were surrounded by members of his team. "Get her out of here," he ordered, as Martha reassured Liza that they'd be together soon and she'd explain what had happened and everything would be all right, the last a lie more appalling than any his father had ever perpetrated on him.
He sent the people who were not sweeping Liza to safety back to the military quarters, and let Martha lead him to the nursery.
"Does Clark know he has a sister?" he asked, amazed at the evenness of his tone. Casual conversation, the kind you'd have with an old college chum in town for the weekend.
Martha didn't look at him. "Lionel wouldn't let us talk. He said it was dangerous for Clark to have too many connections to his old life, and from what I've seen it might even have been true."
They rounded the last corner. Dead Kryptonians were scattered around the doors of the nursery like so many sacks of garbage. Lex wanted to kick one, but even dead the corpse would just hurt his foot.
"Judy?" Martha called through the door, handing him the gun she'd been holding as she realized that she had no place to put it. "Judy, it's Martha. I'm coming in." She turned to Lex and dropped her voice to a whisper. "I don't know what side Judy's on. It's not something you talk about here."
He put a hand on her wrist. "Is it safe?"
"It's safer than leaving them to your soldiers."
Lex sensed another Mexican standoff ahead, but nodded. Martha turned the handle on the door as Lex stepped back, out of the line of fire. She pushed the door open, calling "Judy?" as she went.
"Oh God," she said softly, and Lex came through the door with his guns in his hands.
Approximately twenty little bodies - the full complement of the Metropolis nursery, likely - lay in a corner of the schoolroom. Blood slicks spread across the floor like puddles of rain.
He remembered the Kryptonian reprisal after his people had blown up the Chicago research installation. An entire town, executed in the high school gym. The bodies were so burnt that they'd curled into child-sized balls, fused together from the heat. They'd had to be buried in a mass grave, and Lex knew the marker hadn't gotten all the names right.
These girls had been babies, or unborn, back then. Lex stepped into the blood, towards the woman with the gore-streaked scissors. Confirmation, at least, that the invulnerability hadn't developed yet, if it would ever have done so.
"Judy?" he asked gently. She was crouched by the wall opposite the bodies, staring at her hands. Bright construction-paper cutouts, the symbols of the Kryptonian alphabet, hung on the wall above her.
Martha's paralysis had broken and she was checking the girls to see if there were any survivors.
"Judy, my name is Lex Luthor." He put his guns away and moved closer. Slowly, still well out of striking range.
Her head came up, and she blinked at him. "You look younger than the pictures."
He shrugged. "They rarely got me at my best angle."
She smiled, or tried to.
"Judy, I'm going to ask you to put the scissors down."
"Did we win?" She couldn't keep her eyes focused on him; her gaze kept wandering behind him, to Martha and her grim task.
Does this look like we won? he thought. "Most of the Kryptonians are dead." He wondered how she'd gotten the girls to stay calm before the slaughter. Even this young, they should have been strong enough to resist her. Presumably they trusted a woman they'd known all their lives, cradle to grave.
"Good," she said. Those weren't freckles on her cheeks. They were flecks of blood.
Lex very much did not want to hear the story of her rage. If all happy families were alike, not that he'd know, all invasion stories had a terrible sameness of their own.
"There's going to be a lot of work to do now," he said. Not including punishing Judy for multiple murders. He and Judy were going to walk away like angels because the people they'd killed didn't count. Casualties of war. "Can I get you to put down the scissors? Then we can go see some people who can help you."
"The other teachers, they just ran," she said, staring at something only she could see. "I had to do it all myself." She looked down at the floor. Lex dared a look over at Martha, who was scanning the room. She held up two fingers, two girls unaccounted for. If they were still alive, he needed to get Judy out before Martha found them.
"Give me your hand," he said, stepping closer and bending so that she could touch him if she wanted to. "Let's get out of this place, Judy. Let's leave it behind."
He watched her face. Her eyes were deep brown, with darker rings around the irises. She was pretty enough to have been the mother of a hybrid, and he hoped that none of the bodies in the room was her daughter's. She stared back, looking for some sign of disgust that would justify another attack. He wouldn't give her the opportunity.
Slowly, her hand dropped to the ground, and her fingers relaxed around the scissors. His eyes were beginning to smart, but he didn't blink until she took his hand. He could feel the mostly-dried blood clinging to her skin as he helped her to her feet. It smelled just like human blood.
"All right, Judy, we're going to leave. Martha," he said, still speaking quietly, "I'm going to send a woman named Mercy Graves to get you out of here." He didn't look to see her agreement. She was smart enough to know that she risked a collaborator's death if she went wandering around. His people were well-trained, but average Joes and Janes would be looting the compound soon enough.
He didn't want to leave Martha so soon after he'd found her again, but he couldn't think very well. He was worried, in a distant sort of way, about shock. Mercy would be a better protector, especially if there were hybrid survivors.
He turned his back and led his fellow murderer away.
Outside, his people and others he didn't recognize were milling about. He saw one of Mercy's lieutenants and called her over to take charge of Judy.
Pete Ross was there, holding a clipboard and scowling as he talked into his headset. He saw Lex and hurried over. Lex wiped sweat from his temples and hoped he could sit down soon.
"What is that?" he asked, gesturing at the clipboard. Close up, he could see a list with nearly all the items checked off.
"Hey! There's always gotta be a guy making sure nothing goes wrong, and that's me. You've got to be in on this," Pete said and took his arm. Did he have a sign on his back saying "Grab Me" today? He followed Pete into the central courtyard, where people were swarming around the bare flagpoles bracketing the main gates. Pete pushed the two of them to the left side, where a woman was reverently unfolding a huge American flag and fastening it to the line.
As soon as the flag was secure, dozens of hands were pulling at the line, raising the flag in huge jerks. Lex helped, aware that he should be feeling triumphant, but he'd screwed that up for good when he pulled the trigger on his father. The rope burned against his bloody palms and then the flag fetched up against the top of the pole.
Pete, or whichever of his underlings who planned this part of it, had done a good job. The flag was light enough to catch the breeze and snapped smartly against the blue Kansas sky.
He was very cold.
People were weeping, holding one another upright. On the other side of the gates, the dark blue state flag lifted to match the U.S. flag. "Ad astra per aspera," indeed.
Pete's voice rang out over the muffled noises of the growing crowd. "O say can you see, by the dawn's early light ..."
Shakily at first, then with vigor far exceeding tunefulness, the crowd joined in, faces raised to the flag like sunflowers. Lex could hear, on the far side of the gates, other people singing, each to each.
Later, too much later, he made it back to the base. The techs were setting up for his worldwide address, so he had a few minutes to see people who really mattered.
He found Chloe and Martha Kent together in a makeshift hospital room. Martha, sitting by the bed, held on to Chloe's hand as they turned to him. "How are you doing?" he asked, bending to kiss Chloe's cheek.
Chloe smiled, after a second's hesitation. "Good."
Lex pulled up a chair to sit next to Martha. They sat silently for a few minutes, and for that alone he would have loved them both.
Chloe was not by nature quiet, though, and soon enough she started to speak. "I was telling Mrs. Kent - Martha - I was with the General when it started. He fell down, and he was flailing, and he looked at me like he was surprised I wasn't freaking out. I told him, `I don't know what's more pathetic, the fact that you think you love me or that you're so deluded you think I could possibly love you.' Then I spat in his face. It didn't feel as good as I imagined."
Lex and Martha both nodded. Revenge might be a dish best served cold, but it wasn't all that tasty under any circumstances. It was only attractive to a starving man.
Chloe wisely changed course. "So, Martha was telling me about the kids she worked with. Sounds like my girl's going to be a fighter."
"Just like her mother." Lex risked a glance at Martha. "How are the children?" He'd instructed Mercy that, when it came to the hybrids collected from around the world, Martha's word should be treated as his own.
"The two from Metropolis are scared, but safe. The others are mostly fine. There were some deaths - none viral," Martha hastened to add when his eyes widened. "They're all being brought to Metropolis."
He nodded. They'd be safer and easier to manage nearby.
"Is there any word on Clark?" Martha's face betrayed only slight concern when it should have been open worry. Another of his father's horrible legacies.
Lana Lang had come in a few hours after the viral release, but she'd just been leading a group of consorts (or concubines or victims - the politically correct liberation terminology hadn't yet been determined). She hadn't seen Clark in over a day.
Lex shook his head. "I told him to come here and bring anyone else he trusted. Now we just wait to see whether any of them set off a doomsday device."
"Clark wouldn't -" Martha began.
"Anybody can make a mistake about whom to trust," he interrupted. He didn't like to think he'd risked humanity's survival for the sake of one person, but he'd done it and there was no use whining now. "But I expect that would have happened already, if it were going to," he continued, moderating his tone, "so my guess is that Clark just got distracted saving someone from a car accident or moving a town out of the way of a flood."
The women smiled fondly, and Lex felt unwarranted relief. "Punctuality was never Clark's strong point," Chloe said. "There was this one time -"
Her voice cut off and her eyes rolled up as a convulsion shook her, raising her body half off the bed. Monitors shrieked and wailed. Lex and Martha rose, shocked. He wanted to reach out to her, but he didn't know what to do.
Two people charged in, pushing Lex and Martha out of the way. "I've seen this," Martha said in his ear as more personnel arrived. "Preterm seizures. There can be brain damage."
Hope preceded yet another medic, crowding the room nearly to capacity.
"You need to leave," a worried-looking man told them, barely looking away from Chloe's stomach.
"You're doing a C-section?" The hybrid would be premature, but Chloe would be safe.
The doctor looked up, annoyed. "Ms. Sullivan's instructions were quite clear that she wished to carry the child as long as possible."
Martha looked at him. Some of the other medics stopped working as the tension in the room shot up like a fever.
"Ms. Sullivan's not in a condition to make such decisions," he said. "Hope, will you show the good doctor my medical power of attorney?"
Hope pushed her jacket back and put her hand on the butt of her gun.
The doctor's gaze flickered between the gun and Lex. It wasn't a great bluff, since he needed the doctor's expertise and couldn't afford to have him shot.
Nonetheless, after a thousand-year moment, the doctor nodded and turned back to his patient. He began to issue orders that sounded suitably preparatory to surgery. Lex led Hope and Martha out of the room.
"If the baby dies," Martha said, almost whispering, "she'll never forgive you."
He shrugged. He'd been unforgiven before.
Lex was drinking.
Lex was not drunk. Not drunk enough, anyway. He'd had a handful of opiates snagged from the infirmary and half a bottle of Wally's best homebrew - 180 proof, also suitable for use as rocket fuel or paint stripper, at the drinker's option. You'd think that would be enough to fell a giant, if that was what he was, but you'd be wrong.
Drunk, drunker, drunkest.
Through the walls, he could hear a television, cranked as high as it would go. KFOX, newly censor-free, was running an X-Files marathon, no commercial breaks, and promised to keep going until the bitter end. They were still in the first season, from what Lex could hear, back when everything was shiny and new. They had at least interrupted the marathon for his speech.
It had been a pretty speech, he thought as he poured himself another slug. A speech about hope and mercy, and also Hope and Mercy and all the others who'd made liberation a reality. About compassion for the victims and aid for America's newest immigrant group, all my darling daughters. Well, most of my darling daughters. Liza Luthor was out of luck in the father department, though she did have quite an embarrassment of brothers. That didn't seem the right collective noun for Luthors. A pride of lions, a murder of crows, a sorrowing of larks - a duplicity of Luthors? A betrayal? At least Liza might have Clark to keep her on the side of the angels, and maybe she'd respond better to his blandishments than Lex had.
The part where he quoted that bit of "Home on the Range" that nobody knew had been good, very appropriate. "`How often at night when the heavens are bright/With the light of the glittering stars,/Have I stood here amazed and asked as I gazed/If their glory exceeds that of ours.' Today we know the answer," he'd said.
Am I my father's son?
"Today we know the answer," he said now, to the invisible audience.
He'd spoken about the dream of America, in which the sins of the fathers were not visited on the children - and that was such a howler he was surprised he'd managed to keep a straight face.
A good speech, going out on a high note. Not a literal high note, of course. He had a man's voice, a manly voice, not James Earl Jones, but it would do, `twould serve. A graceful speech, a speech to remember.
Then Pete Ross had to go and spoil it all.
"'Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States,'" Lex repeated, toasting the empty room beyond his desk, and gulped more of Wally's liquid lightning.
Proving that his timing had improved, Pete pushed open the door and strode in. He was holding a Starbuck's cup, filled with champagne, no doubt. Lana, or someone with a like sense of style, had made him a funny hat out of newspaper.
"Hey, Lex!" he boomed. "No work tonight. Tonight, my man, is party time."
Lex looked at him, and Pete deflated some.
Pete wanted so much to be happy, Lex thought. He wanted it so hard and so well that he was going to end up with Lana, his very own fairy-tale princess. She would make him happy and that wouldn't be ironic or trite, it would just be happiness. Beautiful to look at, lovely to hold, but if you break it -
"Nothing," he said. "I'm - musing on the king my brother's wreck and the king my father's death before him."
"You shouldn't have done that."
"What, the campaigning? I don't think there'll be a backlash. It's not like there's some precedent against it."
"In fact, Pete, there's historically been a taboo against active military leaders expressing political views or aspirations. I suppose you could consider me retired.
"No, you shouldn't have said it at all. I'm not fit to lead." He took another strengthening swallow from his mug.
"Oh, come on!" Pete shook his head, his smile returning as he evidently decided that Lex just needed jollying. "After what we did? You've got the nation - the world! - in the palm of your hand."
"I'm just a murderer with a big dream." God, the moonshine didn't get any better closer to the bottom of the bottle. "I don't deny, I wanted to be president - what billionaire's son wouldn't? But I beat my plowshares into swords a long time ago, and the metal won't last through another forging."
He could see that Pete was watching carefully now. The last of Lex's black depressions had been three years ago, after what happened to San Francisco. Pete knew the signs. "You're a hero. People are looking to you for the skills the country needs to rebuild."
Lex laughed, a sound like bones grinding together. "Yes, my skills. Early in my career I trifled with pesticides and fungicides, but I've moved up the food chain. Homicide, genocide, patricide. My skills are legion. My name is -"
"Hey!" Pete interrupted, even as he twitched involuntarily and leaned away. "Let me get - uh, someone."
The door opened. Pete turned quickly so that he too saw Clark's determined face, mouth set in that same old endearing frown.
"Clark!" Pete said. "Were you --?" He shook his head, plainly realizing that it was silly to ask. "Governments rise and fall, my friend, but you're just as much a stalker as always."
"Hello, Clark. Glad to see you made it. Have a good night," Lex said and choked down the last of his mug. He picked up the bottle and poured himself a refill. His hands didn't shake, which made him wistful. Surely his hands ought to tremble. Or was that after, with the hangover?
"Pete, would you excuse us?" Clark said steadily.
Pete nodded and fled, closing the door behind him.
"I don't need another conscience, Clark. I've spent far too much time warping my own to fit my particular needs."
Clark was standing by his side. His mug and bottle were gone to the other side of the room, speeded away faster than he could blink, even sober. He would have gotten up to recover them, but the other side of the room might as well have been the other side of the moon with Clark in the way.
He swiveled in his chair, enjoying the slow turn, so he could look up at Clark, who'd crossed his arms over his chest and was looking peeved.
"If you don't have anything to say, I've got some quality drinking -- well, quantity drinking -- I'd rather be doing."
He glared up, refusing to be intimidated. I've been on my knees in front of scarier people than you, he thought and hoped it showed on his face.
Clark sighed theatrically. "Stop. Fucking. Whining."
If he'd been drinking, he would have choked. As it was, he merely stood up, sending the chair scuttling back away from him, and advanced on Clark. "How dare you -"
"Look, I know they're your issues and you love them, but the rest of the world doesn't have time for this. Pete's right, you're not just living for yourself any more."
"Tough love's a good look for you," Lex sneered. "And, you know what? Screw you. And screw the world. I gave at the office. I gave on the battlefield. I even gave in my own damn bedroom. Isn't that enough?"
"I don't know. Is it over?"
Clark's gaze pinned him like an ant under a magnifying glass who didn't know why the world just kept getting hotter.
"No," he admitted.
"Then it's not enough."
Lex looked away, took a deep breath, and released it.
"I killed my father," he said, watching Clark's face. "I shot him in the head and I liked it. I felt good." And also like he'd shot himself, like he had died, but his body just hadn't noticed yet. The feelings didn't cancel out. They didn't even contradict themselves. He'd always liked his pleasure with a dash of bitters.
Oh, this was priceless. Twelve years later and Clark's first sincere apology was for something he hadn't done.
"Sorry I did it, or sorry I liked it? He should have been tried, like the others will be. I shot him because he was my father and he hurt me." He realized that he was mirroring Clark's posture and forced his hands to his sides, where he could hide his balled fists in his pockets.
"I'm sorry you did it and sorry you liked it. I'm glad he's dead. If you hadn't done it, I'd have wanted to tear him apart a centimeter at a time. And that would have been wrong, too."
"So you want a parricide in charge, for the good of the nation? Oedipus tried that. Didn't work out so well. Something about fate, I think."
"Yes, it has to be you," Clark said with an air of exaggerated patience, "because most people don't see that side of you. And they shouldn't. If it has to be as a figurehead, then we'll nail you to the prow of the ship and Pete can run the country. But I don't think you could stand that.
"Killing your father was wrong. I understand why you did it, but that doesn't make it right. I can't forgive you. That's not one of my powers. All I can tell you is that one act, one moment, isn't all you are. You are - you can be - so much more. Or you can let that be the one choice that defines you, the last thing you'll ever really do with your life. Me? I think you ought to keep going. One step, one day at a time further away from that choice.
"Your father can still destroy you, if you let him. But you don't have to let him. I know that because I know you."
Lex sucked in a shocked breath. Had he thought he could give speeches? Obviously, he was a piker, a tyro, a tiny goldfish compared to the massive carp of Clark's speechmaking.
It was too much for him to comprehend all at once. He had a feeling that he'd need to hear this again and again, at least in the privacy of his memories, to get through the coming days and weeks.
Right now, he just needed to show a reaction.
"So, to summarize, I need to get over myself, yet remain chastened by the past and hopeful for the future."
Clark grinned. "Sounds good to me."
Lex smiled back, a little. "I may be a whiner, but you've gone beyond optimism to straight-up insanity."
"Don't tell me you're surprised."
"Give me back my drink. I'm going to need more alcohol for this."
Amazingly, Clark went to get his mug as Lex carefully sat back down in his chair.
"So, are we friends again?" Clark's fingers were warm under Lex's as he accepted the mug.
"We're not enemies." He drank, savoring the burn in the back of his throat.
"I can work with that." Clark sniffed the bottle, eyed it suspiciously, then took a slug. He didn't choke. Damned Kryptonian immunities.
"Apparently, you can work under a variety of circumstances."
"I'm not going to apologize for taking the Ministry. I saved a lot of lives. That wasn't easy, with your commandos inciting the Government. They didn't trust me much, and arguing that we shouldn't strike back indiscriminately didn't make me any more trustworthy in their eyes."
"You're saying we were asking for it? Was Grandville asking for it? Was San Francisco? Was New York?"
Clark shook his head and took another drink. "Of course not. But I protected people, and I can't be sorry for that. On the other continents, agricultural workers were put to death for shirking, or sneaking extra food, or looking at a Kryptonian funny. And you know what? Most of those punishments were carried out by humans. So let's not pretend it was that easy. I did my best to be loyal enough to get to stay in a position where I could stop those abuses from happening."
His eyes were deep green, shining even in artificial light. Lex wasn't going to be able to resolve the generations-old debate about whether it was better to mitigate injustice or let its full force spur earlier rebellion. At least, not drunk like this.
He realized something to which he'd been heretofore blind. Clark had lost everything in the invasion: his community, his family, his friends, everyone whose expectations and trust worked to define him. During the war, Lex was the one who was no longer isolated, who had people depending on him not just for a paycheck but for their very lives and who had dozens of loyal coconspirators. In the dark small hours of the morning, Lex could do more than give himself abstract reasons not to give up; he could visualize their faces.
Clark, even keeping the humans under his jurisdiction safe, could do so only impersonally. Connections risked negative attention.
Lex's journey had been far easier, his alcohol-soaked mind announced. He almost said that to Clark, but thought better of it. He knew how Clark would react to any hint of pity, which was second only to charity in the list of things Kents didn't accept, far ahead of trucks.
Instead, Lex would give Clark another chance at what had been taken from him.
He held out his mechanical hand for the bottle as he drained his mug. "The fact of the matter is, you now have extensive leadership and management experience, as well as an idea what it's like to play human in an unforgiving world. I want you to take charge of your fellow survivors. We aren't going to have badges for you or registration as if you were all sex offenders."
Clark's face twitched at that jab, but he didn't say anything. Some of Clark's recruits, Lex surmised, were latecomers to the idea that humans were people, too. He poured half of the remaining alcohol into his mug and returned the bottle to Clark. "But it still won't be pleasant to be Kryptonian. You can help them. I'll get you language and accent coaches if necessary. And you can also explain that any misbehavior will be met with the severest of sanctions. There will be no third chances."
Clark upended the bottle, showing the long line of his throat. When he put it down, it was empty. "For someone who claims not to want to govern," he said, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, "you sure give a lot of orders." Even years later, Clark could almost pull off wide-eyed innocence.
"Don't gloat; it's declasse."
"I want us to stay in Metropolis. A few of them have daughters. Jan-Li - lost his, today. But the others, they want to stay here, so they can protect the girls."
That could cut down considerably on his own security costs and risks. The hybrids might even help the Kryptonians see that humanity was their only destiny. "I'll see what I can do."
Clark nodded, then flushed. Lex stared at him, curious.
"Are you and Chloe - together?" he blurted, reddening further.
Lex blinked. "What makes you ask that?"
Clark's face clouded. "You always do that. You think it's not lying if you're just turning the question around on me."
He tried to determine the proper response to that, but alcohol was working against him now. "We - the answer is no."
"But you were."
"It wasn't - ordinary," he said, lacking words for the truth. "I'd do anything she wanted. Not for her, but for me. I couldn't save her, and she couldn't even conceive that I should have been able to. I left her there for twelve years. I had people following my orders and treating me like a savior, and she -- she -"
He looked away. When he'd regained his composure, he saw that Clark's skin was strained tight over high cheekbones, his eyes fever-bright.
"It wasn't pity," he tried to explain. "Neither of us wanted that. It was about the war, about surviving, about shieldmates." His lungs felt waterlogged, his head like a virus-laden helium balloon.
"Lex," Clark said, and took the step Lex never could have, kneeling into an awkward hug that made the room spin. He shook against Clark's unyielding arms, grabbing at his shoulders hard enough to bruise his hand.
"She's going to be all right," Clark said, and even though he knew it was speculation, he needed to hear it. Clark smelled like sweat and plastic; Lex realized that he'd expected the citrus scent of Clark's long-ago shampoo, but it didn't matter.
Clark helped him to his feet, so he could sway against Clark in a less ungainly way.
"I want to be your shieldmate," Clark whispered and squeezed more bruises onto Lex's arms. "Let me help."
During that terrible visit to Clark years back, Lex had been too obsessed with his own suffering to understand what Clark's sterile room, devoid of any pictures or mementoes, meant. He'd come to Clark to be fixed, thinking that Clark would be happy to have someone to save.
His heart pounded in his chest like a sledgehammer breaking through six feet of concrete.
"I'm sorry I was a jerk about your secrets," he said into Clark's shoulder.
Clark made a surprised noise, then his chest heaved as he chuckled. "Yeah, well, I'm sorry I was a jerk about my secrets, too."
Lex felt unmoored, as if he were watching his life scroll by in reverse, like a flower curling back up into a bud. Chloe, Martha, his father, Clark, all returning him to what he'd been. All potential, no disappointment. All hope and fear, no acceptance.
He was shaking in Clark's arms. He could feel the heat rising from Clark's face, from his mouth descending.
The door opened - this was getting to be just like the pre-invasion castle, Grand Central Station without the Dunkin Donuts - and Lex turned his head to see Liza.
She stared at them. They stared at her.
"Are you guys kissing? Isn't that weird?"
Weird being the 12-year-old word for twisted and disturbing.
Lex looked at Clark. Clark looked helplessly back.
"We're not really ... brothers. Clark was adopted." He stopped, aware that the rest was Martha's choice. Maybe. Lies, and failure to tell the truth to a child was a lie, couldn't be at the core of a true family. And Lex had responsibilities towards Liza.
"Maybe you should get your mother so we can explain a little more."
Clark shot him a dubious look.
"Not tonight," he conceded, leaning back against his desk. He was so far beyond overwrought that hysteria would have seemed like Vulcan calm. "We're all tired, and it's long past bedtime." Liza rolled her eyes. "My bedtime," he clarified. "You can stay up all night as far as I'm concerned."
"Okay," Liza said and disappeared.
"Wait! Mom --!" Clark tried to amend, but she was already gone. "Mom's not going to like that."
"If that's the only thing she doesn't like, I'm well ahead of the game."
Lex stepped into Chloe's room, almost hoping she was still asleep. Instead, she looked up from the tray of food on the bed in front of her.
The bowl of rice pudding splattered on the door just over his shoulder. "You piece of shit!" He put an arm up, warding off the silverware that followed. "You miserable, arrogant, self-righteous bastard!"
The plastic tray was surprisingly solid. He thought he'd have a bruise on his forearm.
"You arrogant -"
"You said that already," he pointed out, checking from behind his hand to see that she had nothing else within arm's reach but a box of tissues.
"It was my choice!"
She didn't need to say that the General had been the last man making choices for her. Even if Lex was acting in her best interests, he understood why she'd object.
"And it was my choice that you wouldn't end up dead, or brain-damaged." His voice sounded rough in his ears. "I let too many people die already."
Chloe's face softened.
"You're a lucky sonofabitch," she said and folded her arms under her chest, almost getting tangled in the IVs running into both of her hands.
Lex took a deep breath. He'd known that the baby was doing well and he'd thought that would be enough for Chloe, but he hadn't been sure.
Somehow, in the hours since he'd seen her, she'd managed to convince someone with minimal talent to cut her hair, which now looked like a haystack after an assault by a weed-whacker.
"Your hair is perfect," he said and she laughed and opened her arms.
Cautiously, he came in for an awkward hug, which ended when she boxed his ears. "Do that ever again and you'd better hope I don't wake up."
He pulled away and caught her hands. "That's not going to happen."
Chloe looked up at him for a long moment. "We did it, hunh?" Her smile rivalled Clark's in width and brightness.
"Yeah, we did."
They grinned at each other like schoolkids playing a prank. Lex pulled up a chair to sit by her side and leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees and steepling his hands. "So, what's Baby Sullivan's name?"
"Actually," she said, "I was thinking it ought to be your mom's. If that's okay, I mean."
It was another hammer to the heart; war hadn't managed to kill him, but victory still might. "Chloe -"
She reached out again, and he sniveled into her shoulder, reassured by the fact that she was sniffing, too. "Lillian Sullivan would be a terrible thing to do to a child," he said at last, when he'd regained control of his voice.
Chloe was still smiling when he pulled away. "How about Lily? Lily Victoria, for victory."
If he warned her off ex-lovers' names, the baby would be Baby X for eternity. "Sounds perfect."
Clark, Lex, Martha and Liza sat around one of the smaller conference tables, Martha and Liza together and Clark and Lex each surrounded by empty chairs. Liza had a cup of cocoa, and Lex wrapped his fingers around the warmth of his coffee.
"Liza," Martha began, "we're here to talk about our family. The four of us are all that's left -"
"Lucas isn't here," Liza interrupted.
Martha and Lex exchanged glances; Clark frowned. "Lucas is in jail, honey," Martha said carefully.
"`Awaiting trial for treason and crimes against humanity,'" Liza quoted with pride. "I don't like him. I hope he fries."
Luthor genes or not, Liza had picked up a few family traits, Lex thought as he hid his smile behind his cup.
Martha pursed her lips, not quite disapproving. Lex was willing to bet that she'd done everything she could to keep Lucas from ever being alone with Liza.
Liza's face clouded, and she stared down at her cocoa for a minute. Not looking up, she asked, "Was Daddy a traitor, too?"
"Yes," Martha said, like a long-held breath finally released.
"Then were you a traitor?"
Martha's face whitened further and she clutched at the arm of her chair. Clark scooted over and reached for her hand. She grabbed him and held on tight. "I - Liza, I need to tell you some things. Important things, and I want you to listen.
"Before you were born, I was married to a man named Jonathan Kent. He was killed right after the Kryptonians came. Your - Lionel Luthor said that he'd protect you and me if I would - stay with him." Martha was almost panting now, red spots high on her cheeks as she visibly struggled to say forbidden things without revealing too much to Liza. Lex thought that it wouldn't take very long for Liza to blame herself for tying her mother to Lionel.
Liza's lips were moving, though Lex couldn't read them. She pushed her mug away and braced her hands on the edge of the table.
When she looked up, her eyes were so like his father's that Lex sucked in a shocked breath. "Was Lionel Luthor my father?"
"No," Martha said, as if she were dropping a cement-laden corpse into a watery grave. Something in her tone, in Liza's eyes, made Lex want to ask if that was her final answer, but this was Liza's drama now.
"I, uh, have a picture," Clark said at last. "Of me, and Mom, and our dad. If you want to see it."
Liza looked at him, and anyone who said that children were too innocent to hate would have had to revise that opinion upon seeing her expression. "He's not your dad," she said, knuckles whitening as she pushed at the table. "You're adopted. And Lucas isn't my brother and you're not my brother."
Clark and Martha were poleaxed by Liza's rage. Lex knew it intimately. "Liza," he said, firmly, but not too loudly, and she turned towards him. "Your mother is your mother and she deserves your respect. Clark is your brother because your parents chose to bring him into your family. And I'm your brother because - we were raised by the same man, and that's as much of a bond as any accident of birth." God knew anyone brought up by Lionel could use a brother, though perhaps that brother should not be someone also brought up by Lionel or with any genetic connection to him whatsoever.
She stared at him, transfixed, for half a minute, then bolted from the room.
Martha, mouth open in a surprised `o,' stood to follow her. Clark rose also, clearly uncertain about whether he ought to try to comfort Liza or lie low instead.
"And that's the way we all became the Brady Bunch," Lex said, leaning back in his chair.
Clark turned, furious. "You think this is some sort of joke?" Martha, with a worried glance back at her boys, left the room. Lex knew she was going in search of Liza, even if Liza needed to be alone to think about all the things she knew that turned out to be lies.
"It's a tragedy, Clark, of course it's funny. I can't do anything to change it - a lesson, I recall, you were at pains to impart to me last night - so I might as well try to manage it. Humor's a useful tool."
Clark collapsed back into a chair. "This was supposed to be the happily ever after part," he complained, looking at the wall and narrowing his eyes - searching for Liza and Martha, Lex presumed.
"Apparently God missed that memo."
Clark snorted and rubbed at his forehead, mussing his hair.
"Come on, let's visit Chloe. I understand she's driving the doctors crazy."
It was safe to bring Clark to her and show him that life really was going on. Not everyone was struggling with the vicious undertow of the past the way Lex's bizarre little coterie was, and it was important to remember that.
"Will she want to see me?" Clark was looking at his hands, afraid of the answer.
"Nobody blames you," he said gently. And it was true, now that Lex had stopped thinking like a spoiled child.
"I didn't know -- I thought I was the last one. I thought I was the one in danger," Clark said, obviously enacting an argument he'd heard in his head for years now.
"You were in danger," Lex said. "And you are now, if it makes you feel any better, so calm down and go say hello to someone who loves you very much."
Clark's hands clenched, then relaxed. "Let's go."
Chloe's reaction was as predicted: she squealed and demanded a hug, regardless of the contortions Clark had to go through to reach her in the hospital bed. Lex admired Chloe's strength. If she was angry at the world for what it had allowed to happen to her, she hid it well.
Lily had been moved in with her mother. Clark used the heavy gloves integrated into the incubator to touch her, looking as awed as Lex had ever seen him. Chloe also insisted that Lex do the same. He could barely feel the pressure of the baby's tiny palm against his multiply gloved finger, but he was sure she'd grow into a grip that could move the world.
There was a bright flash in his peripheral vision, and he looked up to see Chloe smirking and waving a digital camera at him. Clark was unsuccessfully trying to hide his smile behind his hand. "Lex Luthor Revealed As Big Softy," Chloe intoned in what he could tell was headline copy.
He bared his teeth at her, but that only made the two of them laugh harder.
Lex sat on the downed log at the edge of the small thicket of woods and watched the stars. He hadn't been allowed out without a guard in years - Mercy was a real martinet that way, and entirely right. She'd promulgated that rule a decade ago, and begun to enforce it after he'd returned so shaken from his second encounter with Clark. He hadn't breathed fresh air alone in so long that the taste of it and the sound of crickets in the darkness were as surprising as they'd been when he'd returned to Smallville.
Mercy probably had a guard in the woods. As long as he didn't know for sure, it was enough like freedom. Though HQ no longer needed to hide, no one had taken advantage of that and so no artificial light detracted from the night sky, the moon blazing with cold fire and the stars like millions of newly avenged souls.
He'd never let himself love the land as Jonathan Kent had, but it had been an effort, and now he stopped fighting. The sound, the smell, the feel of the earth breathing around him, made his concerns seem trivial, but his victory more complete. These green fields, these whispering trees, they'd been rescued, too.
Movement off to the side made him turn his head. Liza, fawn-like in her awkward pre-adolescence, a woman's face barely visible beneath. He hadn't seen that before, but then she'd been much younger this morning.
Liza was his responsibility, now. On the off chance that she was a Luthor and the sociopathic tendencies did continue to breed true, he would take care of her. If she wasn't, he'd still take care of her.
"Do you want to sit down?" He indicated the log, and she came over, hitched her overalls up, and sat to his left. "You don't get a sky like this in Metropolis."
She leaned back, imitating his pose, and tilted her head towards the stars.
He was half-dozing when she spoke.
"Tell me about you and Clark."
He took a moment to organize his thoughts. "That's going to require some background, and probably a parable or two. In 1989 I was nine and my father took me to Smallville. He was making a deal, and I wandered out into a cornfield. There was a man there - a boy, really, but I was young - hanging from a cross."
He kept his eyes on the stars and his hands relaxed in his lap. "More like one of the thieves, but I didn't know that then. Yes, I thought he was like Christ, and I was terrified. And then the meteor shower began. I knew I was going to die, as the meteors roared overhead and he begged me to help him. I was too frightened. I tried to run, but a meteor hit nearby and I was knocked unconscious.
"This part I only know from what I've been told. My father - Lionel - ran into the field, looking for me. I used to have hair almost the same color as yours -" he reached out and flipped a lock away from her shoulder - "but when he found me it was already falling out in huge clumps. He ran to the road to get help.
"Not long before, Martha and Jonathan Kent had seen another meteor strike right in front of them. Only it wasn't a meteor. It was Clark's ship, with Clark inside. It was like a fairy tale for them. The Kents had wanted a child for years, but they hadn't been able to have any. So Clark was the answer to their prayers. They bundled him up and put his ship on their truck and headed back to their small farm."
Beside him, Liza was barely breathing.
"On the way, they saw a man waving and calling out for help. And even though he was a stranger, even though they were carrying the biggest secret in Earth's history, they stopped. They got me out of the field and took us to the hospital and only then did they go home.
"Lionel came to the farm, offering his gratitude. This is the part in the story when the king asks how he can reward the brave and noble peasants who saved the life of the prince. The Kents asked for help adopting Clark and Lionel agreed.
"Inside, though, the king was filled with shame that the peasants had seen him weak, frightened and helpless. He used the knowledge that the adoption was a sham to blackmail the Kents into helping him in a scheme that hurt the people of Smallville. Jonathan and Martha loved their son, so they helped, but now they bore that burden of shame.
"A few years after that, my mother died. Lionel hadn't been able to look at me since the meteor shower left me bald and cowardly. After her death, he went from avoidance to cruelty, and I soaked it up because at least he was paying attention.
"While Clark was growing up tall and strong with Jonathan and Martha, I was behaving badly. I was a prince, and princes don't have to obey the rules. Eventually, my rebellions grew so great that Lionel decided to send me back to Smallville, to keep me out of trouble in the city.
"So I got in my fast car and drove to Smallville. I was furious at my father for what I thought was exile. I was so angry, and so careless, that I lost control of the car and hit a man as I drove off a bridge."
Liza gasped. Lex nodded in acknowledgement.
"I woke up coughing water and looking up at Clark. He was the one I hit, you see."
Liza sighed, relieved.
"But Clark was still pretending to be human, and even though I knew I'd hit him, he told me I hadn't, that he'd jumped in the river to save me, and I let myself believe him.
"Like my father, I tried to reward Clark for saving my life, but this time the Kents were wise to our tricks and refused my gift. The next time I saw Clark, it was in the same cornfield where I'd lost my hair. It turned out that the high school boys had a ritual - every year, they'd put a freshman boy up on a cross, like a sacrifice. That year's was Clark, and they'd hung a Kryptonite necklace around his throat. They thought he was human. They only meant to be cruel, not to kill him. There's a saying all Luthors should know, Liza: Boys throw stones at frogs for sport, but the frogs die in earnest.
"I heard his cries and went into the field. When I saw him, it was as if I was nine again, with another chance to overcome my fear and help the boy on the cross. But, also, I knew that this time it was Clark, my savior. My savior, mine. For a long time I told myself I fell in love with him when I opened my eyes by the river, but really it was then, when he needed my help and I gave it.
"I didn't know, then, what Clark was. I only knew that Clark was different, and beautiful, and didn't judge me by my last name or even by the mistakes I'd made before." He paused, thinking that history wasn't written by the victors. It was written by the survivors.
"We became friends. But it was always there between us - the lie that introduced us, the lies Clark had to tell to keep his secret. He didn't know that any other Kryptonians survived. He thought he was all alone and he feared that I was enough of a Luthor to hurt him if I knew. I could tell that he was lying, and he could tell that I was lying, and still we pretended that we were just friends. I thought that if I knew, I could prove to him - I don't know whether I wanted revenge, or love, or just control.
"I hired a man to find out Clark's secrets and then I fired him, but it was too late. He'd already discovered that Clark was an alien, and he was going to exploit that knowledge in the worst possible way. He was the first person I ever killed on purpose and my only regret was that I didn't learn what he knew about Clark.
"Lionel returned to Smallville to keep an eye on me and he too became fascinated with Clark, whose powers were beginning to manifest themselves in increasingly public fashions. Lionel hired your mother to work for him. I knew that he was investigating, and that gave me even more motive to discover Clark's secrets, to beat my father and possibly protect Clark from him, even as Clark and I were drifting apart.
"And then the Kryptonians came and it all changed. While you were growing up, Clark and I were trying to help humanity, but we had very different ideas how to do it. I knew right from wrong, but I didn't care. I did anything to win. Clark cared deeply, but couldn't figure out what the right thing to do was. We're actually pretty screwed up, Liza. I hope things will be easier for you."
Liza was silent for a long time. The temperature had dropped, and Lex found himself bringing his arms close to his chest for warmth.
"Were you mad at your mom for dying?"
Lex swallowed. "Yes. I loved her with all my heart, and I was furious that she abandoned me when I needed her so desperately. I knew she didn't want to, but I was mad anyway. Eventually, I realized that my feelings were natural, they didn't make me a monster, and I could let myself miss her and still go on living." He wondered whom Liza was hating: Jonathan, Lionel, or even Martha.
When he flicked his eyes over to Liza, she was shivering. He stripped off his sweater and gave it to her. "Here, put this on."
She complied and when she'd finished struggling with the overlarge garment, she leaned against him, her head pressing against his shoulder. The warmth he felt was much more valuable than the sweater.
"You said when you fell in love with Clark, but when did he fall in love with you?"
Lex's breath caught in his chest.
"Every time I hear his voice."
They both turned, so quickly that Liza's head nearly bashed Lex's chin. Clark was standing at the edge of the woods, not ten feet away. It took Lex a second to process what Clark had said, and then he had to bite his lip and blink hard, turning his head to pretend to have some privacy.
Clark came forward and nudged his hip with one knee. "Scoot over," he said, and Lex and Liza complied. Clark's arm pulled them close, Lex in between the other two, his hand under Clark's as they both hugged her.
"Kents and Luthors have to stick together, you know," Clark said at last. "We tried the other way, and the other way sucks."
Liza snorted, but rubbed her cheek against Lex's chest. He was warm now with Clark's heat and the small weight of his sister on his other side.
Gradually, Liza's breathing slowed and she fell asleep. "We should take her inside," Lex said, not really interested in moving.
"Hmm," Clark said. "Soon. There's a lot of work to do, but not tonight."
Lex thought that it would be a good ending to the fairy tale, the three of them together, silhouetted by the full moon. A reconciliation and a bright young future at the end of a long day's adventure.
Clark had reminded him that "ever after" was not an option, not for Lex. But maybe, he thought as he bent to kiss Liza's forehead, they could make a go at "happily."Feedback!