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The Presence of Fire

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December 2024

 

"Social call, Kal?" Lex didn't turn around. He probably knew that if Clark ever got the balls to kill him, Clark wouldn't need to do it face to face.

"Kal," ignoring Clark's human identity, either meant that there were recording devices active in the Oval Office, or that Lex wasn't in any mood to chat. Possibly both.

"I hear they're going to make you Secretary General," Clark offered by way of introduction.

Lex turned at last and walked over to the brandy snifter sitting on a table by the brocade couch Clark had seen in so many news photographs and videos. He moved with the old liquid grace, but Clark could see an extra tightness around his eyes betraying the pain.

Clark had been in Baltimore that day nine years past, had seen what was left of Lex's hip and upper thigh. It had looked like a hunk of meat savaged by hungry dogs, the stretch of exposed thighbone showing white-yellow only in the few places it wasn't covered with bright blood. Clark had seen a lot of meat that used to be people that month. He'd later noticed that the published menus for Lex's state dinners always featured chicken or fish.

Lex had been standing the next day, giving an interview on his feet to dispel the (truthful) rumors that had rippled through the public. Now, Clark thought that the leg must never have healed right, despite all that the meteors had done for Lex. He hadn't known. He hadn't stuck around after seeing that Lex would live, and he hadn't been close enough in the intervening years to tell that Lex's recovery had been less than complete - he'd received Lex's "suggestions" during the war by phone, and he'd refused all honors that would have required a smiling handshake for the public. A quick X-ray revealed a prosthetic hip joint and some odd protuberances on the surrounding bones.

He would have bet the Fortress that Lex didn't even know how to limp, only how to walk so that every step felt like razors and each footstep fell smoothly in front of the last. Nine years like that, striding and smiling and shaking hands and smiling.

The lump in his chest wasn't helping. Pity wasn't going to get him anywhere with Lex.

Lex poured himself a glass of brandy and swirled the alcohol in the glass, watching the slow liquid slide. "I know you're not going to warn me off from the U.N. - you like me where you can see me. Brandy?" he offered with the mocking edge that was not for public ears.

"Yes, thank you." If he'd hoped to surprise Lex with his acceptance, that was no more rewarding than attempting to sneak up on him. Lex turned, and his eyes were like the Antarctic ice shelf before the big melt, gray and cold and a thousand meters thick.

Clark couldn't help his indrawn breath. Except for the worry lines around his eyes, Lex could have been twenty-six again, swearing in the most even of tones that he'd kill Clark. Or twenty-one, coming back to life under Clark's hands. His skin was still as smooth as fused glass, as pale as quartz. He still seemed to glow as Clark neared, like some variant meteor rock whose effects Clark had never been able to define.

His hand trembled as he took the brandy.

Even though Lex had been holding the glass with his gloved hand, it was warm as if from human touch. Lex smirked at Clark's surprised downwards glance. "Nothing but the best, most lifelike technology for the War Wound in Chief." The hand hadn't been lost because of the war, of course, but Clark supposed Lex was entitled to display it as a mark of honor in trade for pretending that he was still otherwise whole. How long had the meteor ring been missing? Before Baltimore, even, but the damage had obviously been done by the time Lex gave the ring up.

"So what are you doing here? As charming as I find your spandexed brooding presence -"

"It's been eighteen years, Lex. I want us to be - friends again. I want you to forgive me." Clark was tired of being a god. He needed to be reminded that he'd made mistakes, and would again. He needed someone who remembered what it had been like to think he was human, even if he knew better now.

It felt silly even to think it, but he missed being adored, which was not the same thing as being loved or worshiped at all. Lex had adored him. He couldn't let himself believe that Lex had forgotten how.

Lex busied himself pouring more brandy. "As a politician, I'm a connoisseur of non-apologies, and I'm noticing that you haven't admitted that you did anything requiring forgiveness."

"I don't - I still don't know if it was wrong," Clark admitted.

Lex sat on the couch and motioned Clark into one of the wing chairs. "Want to know a secret, Clark? Neither do I." His grin, the old mischievous one, flashed on and off his face almost subliminally. "No, that's not quite it. You were wrong, dead wrong. Immoral," he clarified, knowing that would hurt Clark most. He leaned back against the cushions, looking presidential. "But you just might have saved the planet."


Lex Agonistes, 2006-2017

1.

[2014]

When he thinks about Clark, which is not as often as one might suppose, he can only remember flashes, moments, scenes. Lex considers this a blessing, a natural defense mechanism that keeps him from despair or, conversely, from a retreat away from reality into a time when he thought he was happy.

It's too easy to find himself drifting through time when things are quiet. Past and present mix together like paint on an easel, thin blood-red threads of now contaminating the primary-colored purity of then.

One night, after news that what used to be South Korea has fallen, he and his staff are sitting around a fire getting quietly drunk. They could be using a generator, but Lex allocates electricity to the hospital tents and the scientists first, and there's not much juice left over. Bullshitting around a fire promotes unit cohesion, in any event, and Lex is careful to maintain the image of that comradely bond.

Lex knows that some connection that holds other people to the commonweal is missing in him, or severed. He's a better liar now, though, having learned from the inhumanly perfect.

The staff are talking about what they're going to do when the war is over. Some have, or hope they have, people to return to. Johnson had a girl in Atlanta, before the Bugs overran it, and he hopes for the best. It's possible to survive in the work camps, and it may even be possible to recover from them. As usual, Hope and Mercy remain silent. They are exquisitely able to live in the now. They're useless as strategists, but superb raid leaders.

"What about you, Boss? You have someone waiting for you?"

(The ones who have been with him from the beginning call him "Boss" still, an affectation they began early on, when he'd organized the citizens of Metropolis. The career military personnel don't like it, any more than they like saluting a man who is not one of them, but by salting the command structure with those who've been with him since McConnell Air Force Base he's able to keep relations smooth. He's also asked his people to save "Boss" for private times like this, and that's helped too. Fordman, on the other hand, will only call him "Luthor," though he can choke out a "sir" in the presence of other military men. Lex allows this little rebellion because he wouldn't dream of calling Fordman anything other than "Quarterback," and fair's fair.)

The question triggers memories of Clark. They rush up in his throat and he opens his mouth to speak. Even as the words form, he crushes them. "Anywhere But Here" is for other people. Lex is a realist; he knows how unlikely it is that they'll survive, and even if they did, the Johnson who loved his girl died, unburied, on the bombed-out streets of Metropolis. The Johnson who survived the siege is unlikely to have an easy time with peace, quiet and romance.

Lex is a realist, and he knows that he has to do his part for morale.

"Of course I do," he says and waves his hand grandly at the sky, where the Bugs' orbiting warships blink like satellites. "Waiting right up there for me to kick their asses." There is general laughter, curses for the Bugs, and he refuses the rotgut passed around the circle again.

Later, he realizes that perhaps he was talking about Clark anyway.

2.

[2006]

If Clark had been a true innocent, Lex never would have dared touch him. He was not a nice guy, but he wasn't a bad guy. But it had been obvious from the first days, and even during the period when Lex tried to lie to himself on Clark's behalf, that his beautiful boy had a secret. Clark's eggshell purity was already cracked before Lex arrived in a flood of desire and carelessness, so he didn't need to worry about getting his nasty fingerprints all over an untouched soul. No, Clark came pre-tainted for Lex's protection. He thought that's also what drew Clark to him. If Clark could resuscitate Lex's oxygen-starved conscience, maybe it didn't matter so much that his own was now smudged, like a white glove drawn along an undusted shelf.

Comparisons to Yin and Yang would have seemed pretentious in other men, but Lex thought the scale was about right. Then again, Yin and Yang was too static for the story he wanted to tell; Gilgamesh and Enkidu, perhaps. When Clark had leaned over and kissed him, that deep starry night after homecoming his senior year, Lex had begun to put his hopes in happily ever after.

Five years after they met, he still felt the same surge of wonderment and tenderness when he saw Clark. A glimpse of the back of his neck, brushed by hair as thick and glossy as sable, could almost inspire sonnets. At least, it could delay the quarterly reports, which was nearly as terrible. When Clark turned and smiled back, he felt as if his body wasn't built to contain its happiness, that it might all leak out and leave him alone again.

The insecurity was improving now that Clark was in Metropolis for school. Lex had worried that college would show Clark a new and different world, a normal world. Clark's desire to be normal was a deeper threat to their relationship than Lana Lang and Jonathan Kent combined. Still, Clark had chosen Lex over coeds and basketball players and everyone else who desired him, and Lex was getting more comfortable being grateful.

Lex in love was sickeningly sweet, though he usually hid it well. Every man in love, he supposed, experienced the Copernican flash of insight that all beautiful things would be doubly beautiful when shared with the beloved. Not every man, though, could afford to buy beautiful things, and Lex had to fight his conditioning hard to avoid that trap. He'd figured out early on that sightseeing in Metropolis didn't count as a gift, for some reason, and by the time Clark started college museum curators the world round had earned to swoon at the sound of Lex's name. Even when LexCorp was tight on cash, he could always be persuaded to send his mother's excellent collection (Impressionists, Fauvists and Pop Art - no Luthor, whether by blood or marriage, ever gave a tinker's dam for stylistic consistency as long as the desired effect was achieved) in return for some treasure for the Metropolis Art Museum. And theater proved ridiculously easy to bankroll, especially when all his business partners could be coaxed into matching donations. The Daily Planet called it the "Metropolis Renaissance," but it was his little secret that the Grecian marbles, Italian baritones and unicorn tapestries were everyday valentines to Clark.

Being a patron of the arts (or at least of Gilbert and Sullivan) took up a fair amount of time and energy. He finally killed the work on the meteor rocks right before the end of Clark's freshman year. The potential applications seemed so dangerous, in contrast to the more standard work he was doing in the labs the investors were allowed to see, and he'd grown tired of the disappointed look in Clark's eyes whenever he talked about matters meteoric. Clark's constant refrain that he should "choose the future over the past" was beginning to make sense. The new pesticide-resistant hybrids showed great promise, he hadn't been hit on the head in nearly a year, and Martha's guerrilla campaign to make him welcome in the Kent household showed signs of progress. Who wouldn't want to embrace the future?

That summer, when Clark gave up his secrets and his hatred for his father seemed to fall away like a snake's outgrown skin, Lex believed that he saw his destiny, orderly and bright like the view from Clark's barn.

[2013]

He had Clark for five years. At least, he had five years of the illusion of Clark, when he could believe that moral ambiguity was just a ploy made up by men like Lionel to excuse their own selfishness. It's enough, he tells himself, even if the first three years were spent mooning and being mooned over. He could - and did - get sex anywhere, so he counts those three Clark-chaste years as part of the relationship. The eventual sex was good, not spectacular, as one might expect from an inexperienced teenager who found gay sex itself exotic enough for his tastes. Lex thinks, though, that he's downgraded the sex in memory as part of his survival strategy. He's pretty sure that, at the time, it was the most fulfilling experience he'd ever had.

[2006]

If Lex had known what was coming, he would have had Professor Cohen struck down on the street in a senseless hit-and-run.

In a mix of tragic irony and poetic justice, Lex encouraged Clark to take the Psych class. Clark was still nattering on about becoming a journalist, even though it was clear to Lex that Clark was going to be a kept superhero, with little need and less time for a day job. Clark's weakness was always human motivations, and Lex had his suspicions about why that was even though he let Clark alone about it.

So Clark took abnormal psychology and quickly progressed to being Professor Cohen's favorite student, running experiments for her and recruiting subjects for more of those tiresome tests. Professor Cohen's specialty was morality, and she tested reactions to variants of the Prisoner's Dilemma, situations in which there was a choice between truth and lying, betrayal and loyalty to the stranger on the other side of the box.

Clark wouldn't even go on their ill-fated ski vacation until he finished his project with Professor Cohen, something about monitoring the brainwaves of criminals to see exactly how the mind decided to cheat and hurt. Lex wasted three extra days in Metropolis waiting for Clark to be satisfied with his work for her, taking unplanned meetings and disrupting employees who'd planned to enjoy a spring break of their own while the boss was gone. Lex joked about being jealous and had the professor discreetly followed. She turned out to be a battle-ax devoted to her husband, dying of Alzheimer's, which reassured Lex somewhat.

It was the field that occupied Clark's mind, not the teacher.

[2015]

Lex gathers that Clark never followed up on his talk of switching majors.

He thinks of Professor Cohen as he confers with other former Met U professors, those with more practical skills than psychology. Work on the neo-napalm is coming well. The biologists are having more trouble with the Bugs' Earth-cognate physiology, but they're confident that a contact poison is just around the corner. He tells them that he only has the resources to turn a few more corners, and they joke about a giant can of Raid. He smiles politely and remembers how the Bugs look after they're dead, forest green chitin plating over black flesh marbled with white veins. The last one he killed with his own gun had a seventeen-year-old girl splashed across its larger foreclaw, and its right shoulder had five notches. Nobody has even half a clue what the notches mean.

He wants to tell the biologists that nothing will ever be funny again, but that's maudlin self-indulgence and a lie to boot. His world blew apart like confetti nine years ago, and he's laughed a thousand times since then.

When he asks about Arlene Cohen, no one there can say what happened to her.

3.

[2016]

Lex wonders sometimes what would be different if he and Clark had still been together when the Bugs came. Very little, most likely. The Bugs were here for Earth's resources, and there were plenty of resources to protect in the Amazon, where the defense forces were disorganized. Clark wouldn't have been around to save Fordman, or Chloe.

He misses Chloe the way he misses long hot showers and thirty-year-old brandy: things to which he assumed he was entitled. Of course, long hot showers never denounced him in the pages of the Inquisitor, and brandy never shouted embarrassing questions at him as he attempted to have a quiet meal with the Japanese Ambassador, but that's trivial.

[2015]

Lex tries to talk Chloe out of her very public change of opinion as they prepare for a raid on a Bug supply dump outside Des Moines. He isn't actually going out on this one; he walks a fine line between exposing himself to unnecessary danger and losing the respect of the grunts. He really is more important than the average grunt, but everyone forgets that at times, even him.

"I wasn't misunderstood, Chloe," he says patiently as he field-strips another gun. Chloe is counting ammunition, already wearing the bottom half of her combat suit. She looks very Lieutenant Ripley in the black heat-shielded pants and tank top. The suit, coated with a plastic Lex had designed to foil the Bugs' infrared scanners, is as hot as a pig roast when on all the way, and no one ever seals one up before the last possible moment. He'd incorporated a liquid coolant and a water reservoir, but the suits are still known as "Portable Saunas." Chloe always complains that they make her look like the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, and he always replies that she ought to be ashamed of being geeky enough to refer to a movie released before she was born.

Chloe keeps sorting ammo into bins with no sign that she's paying attention.

He keeps trying. "When you write this - this hagiography, it becomes part of the historical record, and you're simply distorting reality. Just because you like what I'm doing now doesn't mean that I wasn't everything you said I was back then."

Chloe looks up then, and he's struck again by how war suits her. Her privation-thinned face is radiant, her eyes a blue as clear as the water in St. Lucia. Chloe was never indifferent to the horrors of war, but she was born to report on it. And, apparently, to die during a raid in Iowa.

"For such a smart guy, you can be surprisingly blind to some basics about human behavior," she says, smiling. While no one's teeth are as white as they once were, Chloe has somehow managed to stay close. A few days later, going through her effects, Lex finds and saves a bottle of Pearl Drops. It seems essentially Chloe: incongruous, slightly self-mocking, and hopeful beneath a veneer of cynicism.

"Enlighten me, O journalistic one." He smiles at her in return, holding nothing back. He's very glad of this, after. It's a good memory, cradled in his heart like a secret.

"The historical record isn't my concern," she says to his undisguised shock. "Right now, people need a reason to excuse you for what you used to be so they can follow you wholeheartedly now. They know I'm not really telling the truth, but together we can all pretend. Don't worry, I'm sure your unauthorized biographers will be able to untangle the threads of truth from the web of lies."

"You're going to be my only unauthorized biographer," he says, leaving it to be understood that he'll have the others silenced somehow, and they smile at each other over the guns and the smell of machine oil.

[2017]

During the euphoria that follows peace, Lex is asked about his relationship with Chloe, and says nothing. As a result, everyone believes they were lovers. It increases his human appeal and explains his unmarried status.

The political benefit is not why he refuses to answer. He just doesn't know what response Chloe would find funnier.

[2006]

At the time, Chloe still thought Lex was an ordinarily shady businessman and not "the bastard stepchild of Saddam Hussein, Napoleon and Bill Gates," as she later so pithily put it, so they tolerated each other for Clark's sake. She appeared at his office one afternoon, brandishing a handful of file folders. He'd been scheduling so many fewer business appointments at the time that she only waited the time that it took from him to wash up and get from the lab up to the office.

"To what do I owe the singular pleasure of this visit?"

Chloe mock-frowned, their not-quite-serious rudeness an established feature of the relationship. "I'm just dropping off the files you left at what was nominally supposed to be Clark and my apartment for the summer."

"Files?" Lex didn't remember leaving anything at the apartment; he'd barely allowed Clark to entice him across the threshold.

"Yeah, since Clark isn't ever there I've decided to rent out the other bedroom to someone who needs it. I need someone to talk to when I get home from the Inquisitor."

"Aren't you enjoying your internship?" Lex smirked, imagining Chloe trapped among the beer-swilling louts from the so-called newsroom.

"I'm having a great time," she said, no trace of sarcasm in her voice.

"We'll have to have you over for dinner next week."

"Yeah, we'll make plans when Clark comes over to pick up the rest of his stuff, which had better be by Saturday, or it's going in the dumpster. I just didn't know if these files were confidential." She thrust the accordion file across the desk.

"I'm sure that didn't keep you from taking a peek."

"I don't think your medical condition is exactly breaking news, Lex," Chloe drawled, and skipped out without further goodbyes.

The documents were excerpted from his medical file which, conservatively, took up a full file cabinet by that point. Lionel was not one to spare any expense in his flight from freakishness. Lex flicked through. The meteor strike; one of his worse clubbing injuries; his first car crash; what he thought of as The Car Crash Where I Died, when he'd met Clark; the encounter with the eoraptor in 2004; and dozens of interim MRIs, PET and CAT scans. Interspersed with these were a few printed pages that seemed to be notes of other injuries: "thrown out of car by Ryan's kidnappers," "slammed into wall to calm Pete down," "knocked unconscious by Golem," and the like. Injuries known to Clark but not to his doctors.

It was not a complete catalogue of Lex's major traumas. But all the head injuries, or possible head injuries, were present, as well as the drug-related seizure that ought to have killed a real boy.

It was disturbing, and he was at a very delicate point in the sequencing process on the new multirice, so he let the incident slide. He was adept at that when Clark was involved.

4.

[2014]

Clark had eventually told him about the Fortress of Solitude, its name taken from Clark's childhood barn hideout, but never explained how big it was. Lex always believed it was small - for some reason he imagined it like a one-bedroom house on large mechanical legs, a cross between Baba Yaga and one of the scout walkers from The Empire Strikes Back - until he sees satellite imagery of the Fortress retreating behind Venus to escape the Bugs. The Bugs guard their supply of meteor rocks like they're the keys to some alien Heaven, and he half-hopes Clark is grateful now that LexCorp had all but monopolized the Earthly supply. As it is, the Bugs mine Mars for its own cache of meteor rocks and Clark is not quite the superweapon he probably assumed he'd be in the early days of the invasion.

The digital video shows that the Fortress is a giant's glittering castle, lacking only a beanstalk, white and spiky. He wonders if Clark's heart is like that, anthracite hardened into razor-edged diamond, and dismisses the thought as fantasy. Clark himself is still on Earth, fighting in the Amazon. Lex hears that he sent the Fortress away to prevent the Bugs from capturing its technology. Not even Superman can be everywhere at once, and it turns out that his powers have a limit. And the Bugs just keep on coming.

Lex wishes that, just once, he'd been in the Fortress and been allowed to remember it.

[2006]

That summer, Clark surrendered his last secrets to Lex. The spaceship was gone, following Clark's instructions, to create the Fortress in the wilds of Antarctica, shielded from human technologies. Lex had made his peace with Clark's secrets three years before, and he was thrilled to be, at last, in the inner circle of Clark's trust. He would have nagged Clark for a trip to the Fortress and some "borrowing" of the technology for LexCorp's benefit, but he was focusing on biologics at the time and he didn't desperately want the distraction from his own gene-splicing work. Anyway, he was inclined to agree with Clark that humanity wasn't ready for the more advanced technologies.

Chloe came over for dinner the week after she visited his office. It was a pleasant night, full of half-gentle banter and long pauses to look out at the glory that was Metropolis, a field of stars that put the true sky to shame. Chloe said that she liked the new Lex. Lex hadn't been aware that there was an old Lex, but Chloe said, unusually inarticulate, that he was "just more relaxed." She said that he wasn't tensing up as if readying for attack when anyone entered a room or made a sound. Lex, humoring her, attributed it to Clark and clean living.

She didn't mention the files until she was getting ready to leave. "So, tell me," she said, searching for her purse in the hall closet, "was there anything newsworthy in your medical records?"

Lex turned at the sudden noise to see Clark sheepishly holding a doorknob. "Why don't you ask Clark? He's the one who had the records pulled."

As usual when attention was focused on him, Clark reddened like a lobster dumped in boiling water. "I was just trying to figure out a few things."

"Like why Lex is some sort of bald Buffy, never bruising, never scarring? Oh, come on," she said off Clark's look. "The meteor rocks must have left you with more than an ability to dispense with styling products. Otherwise you'd look like Scarface, or Michael Jackson if you had a plastic surgeon fix everything. What is it, some sort of research paper?"

"Yeah," Clark said, just eagerly enough that Lex had known he was lying.

Later that night, while Clark was sleeping, Lex tossed Clark's desk.

He knew he'd found what he was looking for when he opened the file drawer and found an unlabeled file, neatly organized, in the back. Neat organization from Clark was either a sign of the impending apocalypse, or an indication that he didn't want the materials casually strewn around where anyone - Lex - could see.

There was a stack of articles from various psychiatric and neurological journals. The first article was titled "Traumatic brain injury (TBI) may cause psychiatric illness," which set the theme. So, Clark had not only researched his brain, but might have concluded that he had brain damage and might be a danger to himself or others. Lex didn't doubt that the medical records and the articles were connected; it was the most logical reason that Clark would have felt the need to hide the latter.

It could have been a research project for Professor Cohen, using Lex as an unnamed subject, as part of a greater project on brain injuries and moral reasoning. If Lex was going to give orders that Clark's access to LexCorp and Lex's life was to be complete, he thought, he couldn't be much surprised when Clark used that access to find out sensitive information. He'd long ceased to wonder at what Clark thought was appropriate to share with others and what ought to be kept to oneself.

It didn't matter. Clark believed in him, was proud of what he'd overcome. If Clark had thought Lex was a criminal, he'd have done something about it. And anyway, Lex hadn't broken the law, even technically, in months. He'd cast off the bad habits of the past and embraced the delays and frustrations of doing things the slow, careful way because that was safer, and far less likely to get Clark mad at him. Greater love hath no man than to attend five city council meetings in a row, lobbying for a permit that could have been his for a four-figure campaign donation.

He wasn't complaining, particularly given Clark's rather warm reception the night he finally got the damned permit. Ultimately, doing things aboveboard felt better, just like Clark said. It was a bit like a deliberate handicap - if he could succeed when everyone but him (Lionel, say) was cheating, then he was truly worthy.

There was a pleasant thought - Lionel Luthor, just another brain injury inflicted on the helpless young Lex.

The bottom line was simple: As long as his name didn't show up in the next New England Journal of Medicine, Lex really didn't care what Clark thought had happened to his brain.

Lex put the folder back (it wasn't even guarded by a carefully placed thread that would have shown if it had been disturbed, or any of the other safeguards he used to use on his own secret files) and went to bed.

5.

[2016]

"I don't care what the symbolic value would be," Lex says into the phone, a hideous large thing he would never have tolerated in his prior life. His leg is a solid ingot of pain, burning like the unquenchable Olympic torch. "I'm telling you that we don't have the resources for it, not and go into New Orleans as well, and we need New Orleans. You want an assault on DC, you can fire me and get some other fool to do it."

This is not, perhaps, true. It's questionable whether Lex's volunteer troops would follow another commander, especially if Lex let it be known that he found a plan inadvisable. The First Metropolitan (and he knows that the war has been going on far too long when this term conjures up an image of a division and not a bank) has the lowest casualty rate per battle of any division for which statistics are available - the caveat is required because there are large sections of China of which little is known but that fighting continues, and Lex is nothing if not precise.

The politician at the other end of the line whines for a bit longer, and Lex agrees amiably to a further set of reports, just to allow the government in exile to pretend that it is still in charge.

Lex is looking forward to the day when he no longer has to get approval for his strategies, only advice. It's a bit like being part of LuthorCorp again, only Lionel was better at wielding the whip.

[2017]

He misses Lionel most the day of the final victory celebration, when he comes inside from the cheering crowds. The insulated glass can't block the sound of people still screaming for him, for America. The floors vibrate with their cries.

Lex pictures his father by his side, raising his son's arm in the air in a joint gesture of triumph, presenting Lex with his birthright. Lex can almost imagine Lionel arranging for the invasion just to give Lex his shot at power, though he's pretty sure that Lionel's writ never ran into outer space.

[2006]

Lionel called one hot September day and asked flat-out why Lex wasn't trying any more takeover attempts, even on LuthorCorp rivals. "It's getting boring without you, son," he said, and Lex thought he believed it.

"What can I say, Dad? I just haven't been in the mood."

Lionel harrumphed. "You're losing your drive without me around to spur you on."

Lex suppressed the temptation to explain that the new biotech he'd been working on in place of corporate shenanigans was going to drive rival companies out of the market, obviating the need for takeovers of soon-to-be-worthless patents and seed stocks. He might be neglecting the business end of things, he might even be brain-damaged, but he wasn't a total moron. "I think the shareholders are satisfied, and they're really all I need to answer to, aren't they?"

But Lionel's call left a lingering disquiet. Shouldn't it have felt more important to beat his father? Or, failing that, shouldn't it have felt more important, like a triumph in its own right, that he didn't desire desperately to beat his father? He'd been this passive since returning from that ill-fated ski trip five months ago, for Clark's spring break. That was when he'd cancelled the long-term takeover plan and the meteor rock research, and reinvested so much capital in R&D.

When he tried to remember the ski trip, which ought to have been memorable as his first real vacation with Clark, it was muddled in his mind with other times. Instead of Clark and hot tubs and hot chocolate, he got flashes of a beautiful blonde in a red ski jacket and the burn of cocaine in his sinuses. But that had been in Europe, and Clark hadn't been there. There were no pictures, of course; Lex was not about to leave records. Nonetheless, there should have been memories of being with Clark, even if he had smashed into a tree on the first full day and spent the rest of the time woozy on pain meds.

Odd, too, that his abrupt disinterest in swallowing his father's empire so neatly preceded Clark's revelations about his true origins and abilities, and so quickly followed Clark's interest in the etiology of behavior changes. Of course Clark had studied how criminals were made, not unmade. Today's scientists could only dream of being able to reverse --

He knew, then, what Clark had done. What Clark had done to him, or to the person he had been, before. He didn't know how, but then Smallville ate inexplicable for breakfast. Something came unmoored inside him, fluttering like trash in a gust of wind down a dirty Metropolis street. His hands felt like blocks of lead. But lead would have had some defense against Clark, whereas Lex was transparent. He sat at his desk, cold, shivering uncontrollably, unable even to move to tell his assistant to hold his calls. When she at last stepped hesitantly into the office, he was barely able to dissuade her from calling the paramedics.

Here he'd thought Clark had believed in him, and that he'd been able to change because he wanted to be different. Wrong on both counts. Wrong about a very large number of things, actually.

He was so cold. He could have set himself on fire and not been warmed.

Shock was easier to self-diagnose than to stop. He crouched in a corner and went a few rounds with the wall. The back of his head lost. The repetitive banging was comforting, though this wasn't a kind of self-harm with which he'd been familiar. In retrospect, it seemed quite suited to the circumstance. He couldn't have replicated all the prior concussions with a few half-hearted thuds, of course, but it symbolized a commitment to return to what he'd been.

6.

[2014]

Humanity is lucky that it takes the Bugs nearly a year to implement the concept of collaborators and spies. By that time, Lex has a security system in place, and there are only a few breaches. They test the Bugs' code-breaking ability with carefully chosen messages and see which raiding parties are wiped out. He tells himself that soldiers die in war and that being responsible for their deaths is not the same as killing them.

Reports filter in from the camps. The working hypothesis is that the Bugs are here to set themselves up as permanent overlords. When Earth turns out not to be quite the softy they apparently expected, they don't give up. No one knows whether they don't have the resources to get home, don't have any resources left at home, or are just plain stubborn. No one even knows whether these varied explanations are mere anthropomorphism. Still, that the Bugs can lie and subvert suggests some points of commonality; near to human, in that way, as Clark.

[2006]

It doesn't take long to confirm what he knows, what has been revealed to him in the wake of Lionel's call.

Dr. Barkow is a small, attractive brunette with her hair pulled back in a ponytail that makes her look more like a graduate student than a professor. He greets her politely and she launches into her explanation.

"Now, remember this is just coming from the scans. I have no other information about the subject or the dates these were made."

"That's the way I want it." Lacking any information other than the scans themselves, with dates and times removed, she won't have any preconceptions about what might have happened.

"These," she indicates the recent set, "appear to be a normally functioning brain. You can see that various areas of the brain light up in response to different stimuli." She shuffles through several pictures, then opens the other folder. "These are taken from the same subject, after substantial and apparently longstanding traumatic brain injury. You can see the diminished functioning in certain portions of the frontal lobes." She taps at the slick plastic with an unmanicured finger.

"It couldn't be the other way around?" She looks at him blankly. "The second set coming first and the first set later, after the brain had time to heal?"

Dr. Barkow rather obviously reassesses his scientific competence. "Well, although there is some evidence now that the brain is capable of generating new neurons in adulthood, and the brain definitely can reconfigure itself in response to certain types of injuries, neither of those would produce the distinctive patterns you see here. In fact, the injuries you see are not the type that affect language processing or other sensory inputs and that the brain attempts to work around; they're concentrated on the parts of the brain that we believe guide moral reasoning, impulse control, aggression and the like. In short, the first set we looked at shows a brain that has not been injured, rather than a brain that has, if you were, jury-rigged a solution to various incapacities."

Lex nods and compares the two sets of pictures again. Funny how a blob of color can make such a big difference, from sober citizen to serial killer, but it's difficult to argue with science (at least until science changed its mind).

Dr. Barkow isn't finished. "What I'm most curious about is how you obtained such detailed scans before whatever event befell the subject. Was he a normal study subject before the accident? And I'd be interested to see similar scans taken closer to the time of the damage. Are they available by any chance?"

"Thank you, Dr. Barkow. I don't think it will be necessary for you to look at anything else at this time, but I will call you if further questions arise."

The good doctor is savvy enough not to protest, even though he's blatantly ignored her questions.

"If I might have my materials back?" That gives her further pause, and she opens her mouth, then shuts it. "Thank you. Please be sure to send a copy of your study results to me. My research is mainly plant-related, but I'm very interested in your work as well."

Her expression says that she finds it hard to believe that he's interested enough to fund it to the tune of two million dollars a year. But she's no longer being paid to analyze his brain and she doesn't volunteer.

[2015]

Lex also wonders what happened to Dr. Barkow. He decides that he doesn't care, though it would still give him some satisfaction to see Professor Cohen flayed, drawn and quartered.

7.

[2016]

When cut off from resupply, the Bugs eat their way down the food chain. Humans are kept vegetarian because it cuts down on the biomass required to support them, but they're still second to go. (Sheep, for some reason, are delicacies and are eaten first.) The population problem isn't quite so problematic any more. He marches through cities drained of people. Houston, Tempe, Vancouver. Lex dreams of fields of bone, overgrown with dandelions. He slits his arms, long vertical cuts to do it right, and when his blood rains down the skeletons learn to dance.

He walks the corridors of HQ, letting his bad leg take his weight. The pain reminds him of all the pain he's causing by not having won yet.

Working with the neo-napalm, Lex burns all the hair from the right side of his face. The plastic surgeons who implanted the brows and specially shaped eyelashes are long gone, along with the rest of LA, so Hope carefully trims the beaded, burnt plastic away from his right eye, then cuts off the intact lashes on the left to match. Lex spends the rest of the war carrying artificial tears to wash away the grit that gets in his eyes and attaching a well-made fake eyebrow with spirit gum. After the first time, not even Hope and Mercy are allowed to see his asymmetrical face. He can't show weakness. He can't be seen as a grotesque.

He misses Chloe with the same physical tearing inside his chest that he associates with losing his mother.

Gabe Sullivan is behind the lines, second-in-command to the woman handling food distribution in the Midwest, and Lex reminisces with him regularly. Lex doesn't hate twelve-year-old Clark, discovered frantically lighting incense to disguise the smell of the pot - "the pot that Chloe burnt trying to make soup," goes the punchline, and it makes him smile. Sometimes Gabe starts to talk about what the other Smallville survivors are doing now, but Lex usually manages to cut him off without learning anything substantive. He can't help hearing that Martha is also working on the relief effort, but through herculean effort he doesn't know where she is.

[2006]

They have lunch scheduled with Martha, and he has preparations to make in any event, so Lex lets another week pass before he confronts Clark. He's proud that Clark doesn't notice any differences, not even in the sex, which by all cliches ought to be particularly angry and hot, or especially slow and emotional. They had a pattern, and Lex finds that he can imitate the pattern without believing in it.

The sky is so black that night, cloud cover giving the illusion of an empty universe. Metropolis spreads out beneath them like a glitter-dusted whore, tarted up in green and red for the Christmas season. Lex takes his after-dinner drink to the study, and Clark follows obediently.

"What happened eight months ago, on our ski trip?"

Clark's head jerks towards Lex. "What do you mean?" His tone reminds Lex of all the other lies: "I know you know I'm lying," it says, "and shouldn't that be good enough?" It has been enough for so long. Clark can be excused for thinking that nothing had to change. But when Clark built himself a better Lex, he forgot to program all the settings himself, and Lex has reconfigured his Clark tolerances.

"We didn't go to Vail. Or we didn't stay there. Where did you take me?"

"Lex." Clark raises a placating hand. "You fell on your first trip down the mountain and we spent the rest of the weekend in the hotel."

Clark's mistake is not to go immediately on the defensive. When he doesn't ask why Lex would ask such crazy questions, he essentially surrenders.

"You can tell me, you know. When was the last time that I couldn't handle one of your secrets?"

"There's nothing to tell, Lex."

"There were no reservations for us at the ski lodge."

"You said that you were using a fake name so we wouldn't be tracked. I don't know what name."

Now that's just plain insulting. "I checked my false identities that have credit cards. I even checked for two men staying together. There are no records of anyone like that at the lodge for those three days."

Clark closes his eyes, obviously weighing whether to try a backup lie or to go for the truth. Lex spares a moment to contemplate Clark's beautiful lashes. They'd felt like brushed cotton against Lex's skin.

"Let me make it easy for you, Clark. You reviewed my medical records and concluded that I suffered from brain damage affecting my ethical decisionmaking skills. Then you took me to your Fortress" - and it finally makes sense why Clark would reveal his last secrets after five years of careful lies - "and you did something to change my brain and make me forget. I'm quite curious as to the details. The mind-wiping technology alone would be worth millions."

"Lex -"

"I'd really rather not hear your reasons, if it's all the same to you. I've got a pretty good idea. Congratulations, Clark. Twenty years old and you've do-gooded yourself straight into Brave New World."

"All I want is for you to be the best person you can be. It's still you, but you the way you should be."

He looks at Clark then, stares into his face as if he could bore into it with a power drill. Clark flinches. "I was the way I should be. I was the man who loved you." I thought I was the man you loved, the self-pitying thought continues.

Lex walks around his desk, to the new drawer he's had installed for this confrontation. Clark's glance follows him, and Lex enjoys the look on Clark's face when he realizes that he can't see through the new lead lining. Clark blurs as he leaves the room, but Lex has already seen the fear, and he's satisfied for the moment.

[2007]

He has to give Clark credit: he never falls for the Evil Overlord traps, like waiting around for an explanation. (He tries to emulate this himself, after that first confrontation. He's learned a lot from Clark, like that trust really is just a word for something the Justice Department wants to bust.) So the meteor rocks - which he will never be comfortable calling "Kryptonite" - didn't get deployed that day in 2006.

It's all right. He knows, and time verifies, that there will be other chances.

[2015]

Lex also knows that the world isn't out to get you, and that it gets you anyway. Being on the battlefield, dodging indifferent mortars, just converts metaphor to iron fact. Expectations kill, and aimlessness kills, and his skin still tightens and crawls whenever he hears someone scream in pain. So he points and yells and leads, waiting for Fortinbras to show up and do it better. If Fortinbras never comes, he'll keep on fighting until the lights go down. There is no God; there is no plot. But Chloe was beautiful and Smallville apples tasted like concentrated fall, and if that isn't reason to go on, then Lex doesn't know what is.

8.

[2016]

Lex gets the credit for what becomes known as "bugicide," though he probably shouldn't. He understands the concept, and orders others to fill in the details, and so it's his victory.

"Chirality," he says in the meeting and half a dozen faces light up, while the others remain blank.

He launches into his prepared explanation. "Some molecules exist in two different forms: each has the same molecular formula, but different configurations, called stereoisomers. They're not symmetrical. We call that asymmetry chirality. Think of it as being right-handed or left-handed. This is important because living organisms on Earth use only left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. A left-handed sugar behaves like a right-handed sugar in many ways, but a human body simply won't process it. Before the war, I had a company that was using this for weight control - producing sugar that couldn't make you fat.

"These autopsy results show that Bugs process both right- and left-handed isomers of various molecules."

"So we can find a poison that we don't process, but they do," one of the military advisors says. He's not a bioweapons person, but he's grasped the basic point.

"It's not as easy as that," Lex says, which explains why the scientists in the know aren't smiling victoriously yet. "When we manufacture isomers, we usually don't care about chirality. It can be very difficult to produce only one isomer, or to separate two kinds. We could end up poisoning ourselves.

"We've been unable to use poisons like DDT on a wide scale for obvious reasons, even though they do kill Bugs. I'm authorizing an all-out effort to manufacture the proper stereoisomers so that we can blanket all Bug-infested areas without fouling our own nest."

[2017]

In retrospect, this looks like a crucial meeting. In fact, it's only one of dozens of projects Lex authorizes, ranging from laser research to genetics. It simply happens to be the one that pays off. Lex was secretly hoping that the death ray would work - he'd been heartbreakingly close before the war, though the loss of Dr. Shii in 2014 had been a major setback - but he'll take what he can get. "Chirality" becomes to the public of the long wet spring of 2017 what "chad" was in November 2000, a magic word that encapsulates all the craziness of the times.

[2013]

Lex never bothers with a cliche like "I'll kill you if I see you again." He's going to kill Clark regardless. Clark, who's really quite bright, never tries to explain again.

Every time some act of corporate espionage seems boring, every time he's tempted to go the long, easy, legal way, he thinks of Clark and his alien machines, moving neurons around in his head until they did what Clark thought they should. Trying to make him conform to Clark's vision of a well-ordered universe, where there is always a right answer (and, therefore, a wrong answer as well). The rage that fills his head like a pillar of fire makes ordering the seduction and blackmail of a closeted Japanese CEO seem perfectly justified, and he attends the man's funeral with a clear heart and a business plan for the new board.

When the Bugs invade, it takes him almost an hour to give up on the idea of topping the Fortune 500 and concentrate on saving Metropolis. He's not bitter; the Bugs fucked up his plans, but they were under no obligation to go along with him in the first place. And war allows him to unify his people, who glorify his ruthlessness when they'd feared him in peace. War is the ultimate takeover opportunity.

If he thought about it rationally, he'd have to admit that he'd allowed Clark to control him as surely as if he'd acceded to the retooling of his brain. Deciding to be everything Clark hated was still defining himself by Clark's dictionary. But there's a pleasure in spurning Clark's unasked-for gift that could never have been found in accepting it. Clark had wanted to create a nice, normal fellow. There were no heights to conquer in that job description. At least this way, Lex would have said (if anyone had known enough to ask), there's plenty of excitement.

[2017]

Lex never hates the Bugs the way he hates Clark, irrationally and infinitely. When the fury does rise he's able to channel it much more effectively than he'd ever done with Clark. For example, when he levels their Midwest base, he stops seeing Chloe in his peripheral vision, and that's something of a relief. When the Bugs sue for peace and ask for Australia, he gives them their parole and lets their ships depart, though in private life he would have crushed them for their audacity in defeat.

He'd do anything to feel again the way he felt when he finally sent the Bugs packing. The world's gratitude had been a living thing, filling him to bursting and seeping out of every pore like sunlight. It had been perfect, and it had lasted approximately thirty seconds.

He's pretty sure that this is what it feels like to want to die.

Lex sees to it that the faces on the Metropolis War Memorial are Fordman and Chloe's. At the unveiling, he poses with Lana's brat, who does not have the quarterback's eyes, no matter how many people tell Lana that comforting lie. Fordman's eyes have rotted in his skull, somewhere in Idaho or points west. His kid's still cute, regardless, and Pete will do right by Lana, whose dreams of escaping Smallville have come true, in a careful-what-you-wish-for way.

Superman comes to the memorial after the formal dedication. Lex clips the picture of Clark kneeling to place the sunflower below Chloe's bronze smile, then crumples it and throws it into the fire. He considers testing the death ray on Clark, but he's got to serve mankind first.


December 2024

"What do you mean, saved the planet?" Clark asked. Lex, as always, was twisting through logic as if it were his own personal ball of string.

Lex sipped his brandy. "Eighteen years," he mused, entranced by his own thoughts. "It was seventeen years between the meteor strike and what you did. Seventeen years as Lex Luthor, version 2.0, and eighteen as 3.0. You changed my body and my mind, so what's left? The soul? How long do I get to keep it - or don't you think I have one left?"

"What do you mean, saved the planet?" Clark repeated, willing to wait. No, that wasn't right. He'd always loved to hear Lex talk, letting his mind wander where it would. If Lex was unguarded enough to ramble, he was halfway to being forgiven.

Lex relaxed further, unbuttoning the top button of his shirt and tugging his tie loose. The shirt was lavender, naturally. By the time things had calmed down enough for him to wear suits, he'd already been elected, and he hadn't toned down for re-election. Publicly, he'd said that there was no point being President if he couldn't wear purple, but the fact that his opponents were a single-term Representative from Idaho and a Tennessee state senator probably had something to do with it, as did the eighty-five percent popularity he enjoyed.

"I wasn't a sociopath, whatever you may have thought coming out of Psych 101. I was well aware of the humanity of other people, which you should have known given all the things I did for my people at LexCorp. I was just sometimes willing to ignore that humanity for the larger plan. There's a difference.

"If we'd stayed - the way we were, you could have stopped me from doing anything all that bad. You wouldn't have needed your powers, just strongly-worded references to my father. I would have been a powerful businessman, and I would have thought I was doing great things. But you really pissed me off, Clark."

Clark couldn't suppress a snort of laughter at the understatement. Lex smiled in acknowledgment. "If I hadn't spent seven years asking 'What Would Lionel Do?' with dead seriousness, I wouldn't have had the resources to do what needed to be done when the Bugs showed up. More important, I wouldn't have had the drive, the fire burning in my belly. If anyone or anything was going to conquer the planet, it was going to be me."

"Not to mention that you probably wouldn't have been elected if anyone found out you were sleeping with me."

Lex shrugged, obviously still confident in his ability to control publicity. "Not to mention that seven years of trying to kill a nearly invulnerable being turned out to be very good practice."

It was pretty clear now that no recording of their conversation was being made. Lex was incapable of forgetting himself to that extent, even if he was now calling Clark by his real name.

"Yeah, and your apology for that is graciously accepted."

"Like I said, Clark, being immoral may have saved the planet."

"So everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds?"

"I wouldn't go that far, Candide." Lex's smile was now of the "I'm only smiling because your grin is so goofy it doesn't deserve the humiliation of being on its own" variety - the one Lex only gave when he couldn't help it. He tried to keep triumph from creeping into his own expression.

Now came the hard part.

"I thought I could change you," Clark said. "And, boy does that sound stupid. I thought I could change you and I just happened to have the power to do it then and there, without behavior modification or any other long, hard way of doing it."

"And here I thought you had the long, hard way well in hand," Lex murmured. Thirty-eight was far, far too old to blush the way he did, but he consoled himself with the thought that he was probably still a teenager, Krypton-wise.

"I thought I had special responsibilities because it was my fault, and somehow that turned into a special right to control you. I would never have considered taking anyone else's free will away like that. I lost all my self-righteousness about that years ago."

Lex nodded, waiting for the rest of it. He was no longer sprawled on the couch, as if he'd pulled into himself to wait for Clark's assault on his morals.

It had seemed so simple when he didn't have to look at Lex. He continued, "But I think you don't know where you were headed. Corruption is just as harmful if it creeps up on you, maybe more so. Even when it backfired - I think being focused on being Evil with a capital 'E' kept you from doing a lot of accidental collateral damage. When you bribed someone, it was to aid one of your schemes to kill me, it wasn't to ignore safety violations at one of your plants. And I think it would have been that way, otherwise."

Lex's face grew blank and stony as Clark spoke. "But because I was evil on a grand scale, you think you can redeem me? I'm not Darth Vader."

"No, your father-son issues are completely different," Clark volleyed back. The re-hardening frost in Lex's eyes retreated a bit.

Lex's hands, artificial and real, clenched on his thighs and relaxed before he spoke again. "I figured out, eventually, that the universe doesn't respect free will. You were right that the meteor and the other head injuries changed me from what I would have been without them. But so did my father, and so did everything else. 'Men make their own history but they do not make it under conditions of their own choosing; they make it under circumstances directly transmitted from the past.' But people are supposed to respect others' free will."

"It's a good thing you couldn't have stood for re-election again," Clark said. "If you were heard quoting Karl Marx in the Oval Office, even winning the First War of the Worlds wouldn't save you."

"I hate it when they call it the First," Lex complained, running his true hand along the back of the sofa and cradling his head with the prosthesis. "We don't know there's going to be a second."

"Optimist," Clark accused fondly. "Seriously, though, you can't tell me that respecting free will is always moral. Even if we skip people whose free will is to rape and murder other people, what you were choosing to do - lying, cheating, blackmailing - those things were all wrong. If you'd been caught, you would have been stopped and punished. All I did was try to stop you before things got out of hand. I thought it would be more effective than a lecture - though, obviously, there were a few implementation issues. And even if it made you a different person, like you said, so does everything."

"But no one gave you the right, Clark. That's what's missing. Democracy." Lex waved his hand to indicate the trappings of his office. "The social contract."

"You didn't mind so much when I didn't leave it to the police to save your life a dozen times or so," Clark pointed out.

"You were assisting in law enforcement then. But you didn't turn me in to the police for bribery or blackmail. You strapped me in a box and altered my neural pathways."

"I loved you! I didn't want you to go to jail. I had an alternative and I used it."

"Because nothing says 'I love you' like involuntary brain surgery," Lex said dryly and raised his hand to stop Clark's protest. "Yes, you had an alternative, you out of all the people in the world. You did it because you could do it. Just like my father. It's good to be certain of your power and your righteousness, isn't it? Makes disagreements seem pretty trivial."

"That would be a lot more convincing if you weren't arguing that you should have been left alone to abuse your own power." He hadn't meant to get upset. He should have known - he hadn't controlled an interaction with Lex since very soon after they'd met.

"It would, wouldn't it?" Lex's twisted smile was genuine. He'd almost forgotten how Lex's moods could be like his driving. Many sharp turns, well over the speed limit, with the occasional spin-out and crash. But the ride was always exhilarating.

"I love you, Lex. I love Lex version 2.0 and 3.0 and I'll love all the others. Can that be enough, or do we have to resolve the great philosophical questions of all time first?"

Lex couldn't have looked more stunned if he'd had another concussion (which was a very bad thought). He leaned forward, eyes wide. Clark had once spent a month on the coast of Maine because the sky at dusk, right where it met the sea, was the color of Lex's eyes.

"I spent seven years trying to kill you!" he protested.

"I noticed." Try as he might, Clark couldn't stop smiling, so wide it hurt. "I also noticed you never harmed anyone I loved, never even used an innocent as bait."

"I wanted to kill you, not make you cry. And I knew you'd never kill me for trying as long as I left other people out of it." Lex retreated into dumbstruck silence for all of a minute, which had to be a world record, his eyes unfocused as he reviewed the past. "You love me, you loved me through that? Are you crazy?"

"Hey, for all I know attempted murder is some kind of Kryptonian courtship ritual."

Lex was shaking his head, entranced. "You - I -"

He reached out and captured Lex's head between his hands. He could hold so much, from Lex's chin up to the bumps on his skull. Lex's skin was hot and soft, and he trembled against Clark's hands, which looked dark and coarse next to the fine porcelain that was Lex.

"I love you," he said again. So maybe he had a bit of a messiah complex. There were worse things. (One was sitting in front of him.)

"Clark - a president, he has to - I've ordered assassinations, I'd do it again -"

"And you love me," he said, understanding what Lex's desperate babbling must mean.

"I'm still mad!" Lex said helplessly.

"Keep me around to yell at me," Clark suggested.

"Are things always so simple on your planet?"

Clark had considered Earth his planet for decades, but he didn't think Lex meant it that way. "Are things always so complicated on yours?"

"Yes," Lex said in a tone that suggested that Clark might be a bit slow. When Clark just kept looking at him, Lex shook his head, not enough to dislodge Clark's hands. "I'm so tired," he said, and his voice scraped across Clark's skin like graphite.

Yes, exactly. Neither of them had ever let anyone else in as far as they'd gone in each other, and the world was so loud and cold.

"You're the leader of the free world, you're rich beyond your wildest dreams of avarice, five billion people think you're a saint, and Superman wants to suck your cock. You think you could relax and enjoy it?" Somehow, still holding on to Lex, he'd gotten on his knees in front of the sofa, tilting Lex's head down a bit so they could continue gazing into each other's eyes. Lex would never admit to anything as mushy as "gazing," but Clark could admit it for the both of them.

Lex shuddered and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the wrinkles seemed to retreat. "For valid historical reasons, the Oval Office is not the place for this. And to be clear, my wildest dreams are a great deal more avaricious than you think."

Clark felt a great rush of relief. Even catching Lex when he was at the end of his second term, having fulfilled the greatest of his ambitions and a little bit at loose ends, Clark hadn't been sure. He'd known Lex still loved him - it was Lex's nature to love what hurt him most, and never to stop loving. But he hadn't been sure Lex would allow himself to know that as well.

He leaned toward Lex, intending to claim a kiss, but was stopped by Lex's prosthetic against his chest. "I have a meeting with the French Ambassador in ten minutes. You and I both know that if we start now, tomorrow morning the American people are going to get a whole new perspective on why the two of us have never appeared in public together."

Clark snorted, then released Lex. "You should control leaks better."

"Clark, Nelson Mandela would gossip if he saw Superman and the president making out."

"I've waited eighteen years," Clark said softly. "I guess I can wait a little while longer."

Lex groaned. "The look on your face - God." Clark could feel waves of heat coming off of Lex and it was all he could do not to seize Lex and take him away. He could easily outfly the Marine planes protecting the White House. The United States didn't actually need a full-time president right now, did it? They could bring the other guy in early if necessary.

"I was always yours," Lex whispered, lashes lowered so he didn't have to see Clark. "Anytime after I'd left, you could have told me to come back and I would have."

"I think I knew that," Clark whispered back. "But you'd have hated me for it and it would have destroyed you. And then you were, well, kinda busy winning a war and rebuilding a country."

Lex smiled down at Clark. Looking up was an unusual position for him, but he thought it made Lex feel better. "I'm so glad you've decided to save me now that things are calmer," Lex said with only the thinnest edge of irony. "We're still going to disagree on how to do things."

"Maybe that's the only answer. Being prepared to justify your actions, and never giving up on changing your mind."

"Complete and total submission to my every whim could also be the answer."

"Don't confuse your sex life with life in general, Lex." Clark's blood throbbed in his veins. He wanted to laugh and fly, wanted to draw pointing fingers from the tourists with his showy Immelman loops, rocketing across the sky. If he could save Lex, nothing was unredeemable, nothing unforgivable. Not even meteor showers.

Lex ground his teeth. "Meet me at ten o'clock in the residence."

Clark nodded and rose to go. Lex's eyes followed his face, but Lex himself stayed seated. Clark made a private vow that, if the Fortress couldn't fix Lex's leg, he'd prevent Lex from standing or walking somehow, even if he had to sit on him. Which could be quite pleasant for all concerned, come to think of it.

"I'm not a good man," Lex called out as Clark put his hand on the doorknob.

"No," he said without turning. "You're a great man. And so am I."

-End-

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