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in search of mythical kings

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"Yes, Mr. President, I promise not to antagonize the Russians again," Alex said, rubbing his forehead and mostly just feeling grateful that Reagan had chosen to do this over the phone, where only his voice needed to be formal, instead of summoning him to Washington to be reprimanded in person. Not that the President did much in person at all anymore. He should probably be flattered by the attention.

Mostly he was just…uncomfortable. The USSR was coming apart. The cracks were showing everywhere. The Warsaw Pact wasn't going to hold. But there was no way to be sure what came out of that collapse wasn't going to be a broken remnant of empire that thrust the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal into the hands of some ideologue who felt he had nothing left to lose, until that managed to not happen.

He respected that the President and his administration and Gorbachev's on the other side were doing everything possible to wind down forty years of mutually assured destruction and he certainly didn't want to undermine the treaty currently being nudged into being. But Ultraman was only slightly less dangerous than nuclear warheads, and he was already under the control of a destructive maniac! (Himself.)

Alex had donated a brilliant invention to help with recovery at Chernobyl, hadn't he? Couldn't the Russians cut him some slack when he chased a deadly alien into Siberia and yes, possibly did some damage to the landscape?

Nobody had been hurt! No economic assets had been harmed! There were lots of craters in Siberia already.

"Just keep that in mind in the future," said the President. He sounded terribly old, not in the way people burned out by too much work or sorrow did but in the way persons over seventy-five were expected to, but his speaking skills had gotten him into office and they were very much still with him. "Your country is proud of you, Mr. Luthor. You're a testament to American ingenuity and the American Dream."

"…thank you, Mr. President."

"Only saying what everybody knows. You just be sure not to let us down."

"Yes, Mr. President."

"I'll look forward to seeing you again, son," said Reagan, who most definitely knew Alex had supported President Carter eight years ago and donated to Mondale, though without much hope of victory. "Maybe at Christmas? Nancy's planning to send you an invite, I've been made aware."

"Thank her for me, Mr. President," said Alex. Four months was a lot of time to plot escape routes. He straightened out of his somewhat crumpled posture. "And thank you for taking the time to contact me personally."

"Oh, my pleasure. Bye now."


The President hung up. Alex couldn't pretend he wasn't relieved that was over. He snorted. The person he'd been twenty years ago would have been a lot more excited about getting a personal call from the President, even if it was because he'd caused a potential diplomatic crisis. But a lot had happened since then.

Alex let himself out of the soundproofed control center where he handled all his most secure calls—as it turned out this hadn't been an issue that needed such measures, but he was just as glad he'd used them, even if Ultraman was safely locked away, and not lurking somewhere in Metropolis listening to him get scolded like a misbehaving child for saving Russia wrong.

The control center was in the middle of the fortieth floor, and Alex tugged his suit straight and headed back toward his office. He undoubtedly had many, many things to do. And of course this would happen while Mercy was away.

He rounded the corner to where the executive secretary Tess Billings commanded a truly massive desk confronting the bank of elevators.

"All taken care of, Mr. Luthor?" she asked, looking up from her computer screen. She was the one who had sent him to the control center, telling him the system was logging a call to his top-secret emergency phone. He'd been afraid the world was ending, so really he should be relieved about the actual content of the call. The worst that had happened really was that he'd been threatened with Christmas invitations.

"Yes. What's on my schedule now, Tess?"

He could have memorized it for himself. He should memorize it for himself. Mercy usually made him keep track of what he needed to do for the next few hours, at least. If he'd thought it were constructive, it would only take a little effort and time to memorize his schedule for every day, and only a little more to keep it updated when it had to be adjusted around things like being called by the President of the United States to be scolded for causing a potential international incident.

But the fact was, holding the whole absurd edifice that was his schedule in his head just made him more likely to engage in vicious editing, to the inconvenience of everybody (including himself, really, since almost all the things on the schedule still had to be done eventually) and the long-term detriment of the company.

He did block out time for himself. Hours and days and occasionally whole weeks of work time where he didn't have to be interrupted by anything but emergencies. Even if he hadn't been determined to do so for his own sake, he was still the chief creative mind behind Luthorcorp's success, and he worked better in his own lab on his own terms than cooperating with R&D. But other days, especially at times like this when Ultraman had only been back in custody for a week and he still had a backlog of business responsibilities he'd been putting off in favor of alien-wrangling, were consigned wholesale to obligation, and he tolerated it better when someone else was responsible for counting the escaping minutes on his behalf.

"Another meeting," she replied. "A…Mr. Joseph K. Stir. He's waiting for you."

Alex squinted. His upper-level employees not infrequently got themselves on his schedule without warning as need arose, but he didn't recognize the name, and he did try to keep track, which meant it was most likely outside business. "What's that about? I don't remember agreeing to that."

A moment's tapping and then, "I don't know, sir. Just says 'resource allocation.' It was only added this morning—it's marked urgent. That's why I blocked him into the time left from the cancelled meeting with the Denver office, once you finished your call."

Added this morning, without the knowledge or input of his secretary and temporary assistant. Awfully unsubtle, for a trap. A decent assassin would have had a cover and a perfectly good reason to meet with him before striking. Maybe it was just a meeting. Maybe it was another enterprising young hacker staging an unofficial employment interview. The first time had turned out fairly well.

"How long a meeting?"

"Just a quick fifteen minutes. You have the board at eleven and then you're free until you're supposed to talk airfoils with Mr. Hughes at one."

Which, realistically, meant he was going to get about twenty minutes for lunch, but development with Hughes wasn't a hardship. "Right. Better see what Mr. Stir wants, then." He headed past Tess' desk and through the door to his own office.

Alex had redesigned this office a few years ago during the tower's major remodeling (which was to say, after that time Ultraman broke everything) so that the office door opened in the wall to the right of his desk, at the furthest end of it, and the bank of windows facing the entrance lay to his left as he worked. Even with all the automated defenses he had built into and around the skyscraper, working with his back to the sky had ceased to be relaxing ages ago, and he concentrated better when he could scan the skyline just by turning his head.

His suspiciously-scheduled guest was standing just in front of the desk with his back to the door, gazing out eastward. Metropolis was lovely from up here, the sunlight catching on the mirrored rooftops and the distant sea. His silver city. It was a beautiful day.

"Mr. Stir, I presume?"

The stranger gave a huff of laughter. "Yeah. You can call me Joe." There was something in the way he said it—intonation that made it obvious the name was a pseudonym, that calling him Joe was in some way a joke, something just short of a sing-song cadence that raised Luthor's guard, even as the identity of his uninvited guest became plain to a 93% certainty. Joe K. Stir. He should have known before he even came in.

Joseph K Stir turned, and if he'd disguised himself as someone normal on his way into the building he'd stripped it off once he got this far in, because the face that appeared was chalk-white and split by a fixed cherry-syrup grin. In some pictures it looked kind, and in others so bright and bleak and mad it was almost painful to look at, but right now Alex found it—curiously unreadable.

The Jokester spread his hands wide, palms out. Reached with slow deliberation behind his back, and pulled out a gleaming steely-blue mallet, a meter and a half in length. Not, most likely, a threat. A final confirmation, however unnecessary.

Because Alex knew that weapon. He had doodled the original blueprints during a board meeting, and spent the successive few months improving on them in his head whenever he found himself bored to death, until finally he'd had to see his improbable creation brought to life. He'd used the best of materials and fitted the parts together with the same loving care he used on his spaceships, that meditative focus he couldn't usually bring to weapons, because thoughts of what they were intended for and what they were intended to combat were always hanging close by.

(Not that that nearly feverish frenzy of warforged invention wasn't satisfying and effective in its own right, but it left him feeling scorched and fierce and slightly hollow when it was done, not more whole. Exhilaration without well-being; like lack of sleep, like some powerful drug. It cost, in a way making other things didn't. In a way this hadn't.)

"It's come in useful, then?" he asked, as though he hadn't kept an eye on any and all media coverage of the Jokester, watching to see what he did with the gift. It had been disappointingly sparse, besides a lovely shot of the hammer punching two armed robbers in the faces while Jokester's left fist nailed a third. He had a print of that one in his secret files.

The clown twinkled. "Absolutely! Also I love it, it's beautiful. Like an exquisite, very silly poem."

"…I thought it suited you," Alex replied.

The Jokester laughed—but quietly, as if he was worried about being overheard. "Wow, that was diplomatic. Yow. Anyway, I've been meaning to say thank you since somebody helped me figure out who it had to be from," the vigilante shrugged. "But then! A little while ago that got more urgent when I used your hammer to save the world." He beamed and patted the handle like a favorite pet.

Short of hitting Ultraman over the head with it in a moment of crisis—a possibility for which the hammer had been specifically prepared, since he thought the Jokester was one of the few people likely to attempt such a thing—Alex couldn't imagine how his awesomely impractical bludgeoning weapon could have managed such a feat. Maybe he'd crushed a doomsday device? "What, really?" he asked, momentarily forgetting his reserve. Neither dignity or paranoia could entirely bridle his curiosity. "How?"

"Well, there was this evil mind-controlling helmet," the Jokester explained airily. "It took over Gotham and was working its way outward. This extradimensional fellow came to lend a hand, but he needed backup. This is Nth metal, right?" he asked, running his gloved fingertips over the gleaming rim.

It was, of course. Which was as good as a signature, really, to people who knew what to look for, which explained how the clown had identified him, though not who had identified the alloy. Alex nodded, trying to decide whether he believed a word of this.

"I don't know if this has come up in lab tests, but the stuff cuts through magic like it isn't even there, it's great. So I was able to step in and KO a manifestation of pure Order long enough to give his ancient enemy an edge, and then we won!"

That was clearly a highly condensed version of the story, as told by someone who found the whole concept of efficiency a sort of joke. It was surprisingly information-dense, considering. "When was this?"

Jokester squinted thoughtfully, but showed none of the obvious tells of someone trying to make up a previously unplanned detail in a story. "Uh, second week of June? Last year?"

Which would make it line up with the period when Luthorcorp's one remaining Gotham location had abruptly surged in productivity and vanished from the company gossip network like it had been pulled into another dimension. Mercy had actually wound up sending one of her minions to investigate, but he hadn't found anything concrete, and things had returned to normal the next day.

"I see," said Alex. "Well, I'm glad I could help. We actually haven't done any magic-related tests."

The Jokester laughed. "Not surprised! It doesn't test well. Wait, do you even believe in magic?"

Alex shrugged. "The way Superwoman defies natural laws is distinctly different from the way Ultraman does, and I've made much less headway with it. I prefer to keep an open mind."

Also he had met an extradimensional entity with reality-warping powers that called itself a wizard, but he was sworn to secrecy about that. Mzpxl was hard to trust, but silly to disbelieve in. Alex wasn't in the habit of simply believing the idea that took the least effort, anyway. He preferred to bypass silly questions like 'does magic exist?' for more useful ones like 'which things are magic,' 'is there more than one kind,' and 'how does it work?'

That too-wide grin went wider. The Jokester's teeth weren't quite straight, but they looked very clean. "I like you," the man announced, his tone suggesting this was a pleasant surprise.

Alex arched one eyebrow. "My relief is beyond words."

"Pfffahaha! Yeah, sure thing. Like there was any doubt after you launched your Harbor Initiative, but I guess I could still dislike a guy with his heart in the right place. Or you could have been playing some kind of deep game."

"You don't think I am anymore?"

"Nah." The Jokester beamed at him, and Alex struggled not to feel flattered. He did admire the Jokester's work, just as he'd said in the note he'd sent with the hammer; didn't think he'd have been able to stomach the kind of restriction and marginalization this vigilante had committed himself to, at least not without growing bitter. Indeed, he had fought first to free himself, to climb out of the gutter and into the stars, and only then turned around to help others. This was who he was, and he wasn't ashamed of it enough to need to condemn other approaches that came at more personal cost.

But at the same time, the compliment was a judgment that wealth was not the same as insincerity, coming from a nameless violent lunatic with the face of a clown. He had his own standards, and those were what counted. Not anyone else's opinion, whether they were street-level vigilantes or President Reagan.

"Well, thank you I suppose," he said wryly.

Jokester laughed. "No, no, thank you, man! This is the best thing I ever got in the mail, and I love that you sent it care of the USPS. And if I ever decide to get out of the business and settle down, I can sell the pieces and buy myself a nice house!"

"Please don't," Alex protested. So he had been told what people outside Luthorcorp would pay for that much Nth metal. He was aware of the insane luxury of using it to build what was essentially a toy, but the work had been a valuable learning experience in its applications. And he had a good feeling about it. "Bring it back to me if you don't want it anymore, I promise I'll buy you a house."

"Aww, sentimental value? Don't worry, I wouldn't really. And except my one friend who figured it out, I didn't tell anybody about your secret identity." The Jokester winked hugely; presumably he meant the fact that Alex was The Insider.

Alex wondered if this really was a funding interview, and started lining up questions and projections for what kind of support he might be willing to offer this one-man mad anti-Owl crusade, but then the Jokester was already talking again. "Anyway, I'll stop taking up your time. Just dropped by to say thanks and leave a present. Catch you later!"

A huge purple smoke bomb went off then, smothering the whole half of the office furthest from the door, and when the smoke had finished being shredded away by the hyper-efficient air filtration system Alex had installed years ago so that he could treat his office as an impromptu lab space without interrupting half the building with false fire alarms, the clown was gone. In his place was a lizard, in a sweater, on a sweater. The latter was human-sized and in the same green and purple diamond pattern as the one the lizard was wearing.

A note handwritten in purple ink pinned to the larger sweater announced Knitted them myself! (Not the iguana.)

Alex passed a hand over his face and realized that he'd started to laugh.

Mercy had come to relieve Tess of the three-fourths of her current workload that were properly Mercy's own, and learned that he'd spent the last quarter-hour alone in a meeting that had mysteriously turned up on his schedule with someone neither of them had ever heard of. Because of course he had. She may have walked a little faster than usual to the office and entered without knocking, hand near her concealed weapon, only find her boss sitting on his desk with a sweater-wearing iguana in his lap.

"Mr. Luthor?"

"Mercy." The tight lines in his face were more relaxed than she usually saw them outside his lab. "Trip went well?"

She nodded briskly. "You have an iguana."

He nodded much more absently, scratching the iguana gently under the chin. It bore this with tolerance verging on indifference. "I think I'll call him Ignatius."

"I'll have a terrarium sent up to your apartment." A large one.

"Yes, thanks," Alex agreed. He was no doubt already planning the wiring for the ultraviolent lamps. Mercy didn't know what else an iguana required, but assumed that if Alex didn't, he'd have researched it thoroughly by this evening.

Mercy glanced at the surface of the desk. "And the sweater?"

"Have someone stick it in the back of my closet or something," Alex directed airily. It was one of the great luxuries of wealth—he could afford to keep (out of politeness) a gift he had no intention of ever using. Twenty years ago, he would probably still have kept the sweater out of manners for at least a year, but if he'd kept it he'd also have worn it, because he couldn't waste storage space on clothes he wasn't going to wear, and it did look warm, in addition to ugly. "What's next on today's agenda?"

(Four months later, in a fit of contrariness, having already suffered through a Christmas trip to DC when a crisis failed to materialize, Alex wore the sweater to the company Holiday Party. He put Ignatius in his matching lizard-cardigan and carried him draped across his shoulders for a whole hour of the kind of mingling he'd never felt himself obligated to perform back when he'd been a nobody, and thereby guaranteed that sixty percent of the small talk in his vicinity was about pets, reptile care, biology, or knitting, all of which were an improvement over the default topics at these events.

He permitted himself to feel smug at the tactical victory.)