The baldness was so striking that Clark barely noticed anything else, other than that Lex wasn’t breathing, until well after he’d learned Lex’s name. Then he didn’t get a chance to look.
But Lex’s own questions wouldn’t wait long. They were standing in the barn side by side for the sunset, and Lex gestured at Clark’s forearm. “I recognize more graphemes than the average American does, but that’s unfamiliar.”
Clark hunched his shoulders. Lex was a lot more sophisticated than the kids at school, who mostly used his weird mark as a reason to tease him and not as an anomaly in need of explanation. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
Lex half-smiled. “Just another mystery surrounding Clark Kent,” he said, and Clark shivered.
“What about you?” he asked, desperate to change the subject.
Lex unbuttoned his shirt cuff and pushed his shirt and jacket up so that Clark could see the line of scar tissue, flattened and stretched with time. “My father had it removed when I was a young child,” he said. “He believes that a man has to make his own destiny.”
“Whoa.” Clark had heard of religions that obliterated the marks, usually because a person was supposed to find their own soulmate through diligent search, or because submission to God was more important than any human relationship. Or sometimes parents who’d been through a bad experience would do it to their kids—he’d seen a movie on TV where the woman had married a George Saunders who beat her, and it turned out that it was the wrong George Saunders, and she had to flee him and even stay away from the right one to keep him safe, until the end when she’d had to kill her ex-husband to save her own life. Supposedly that kind of thing almost never happened, at least not as much as the media made it seem, but Clark could understand why someone who’d been through that would want a different choice for their kids. Without the certainty of a mark, you had to be careful. And there were always people born blank. But Clark had never personally met anyone who’d had a mark removed.
Clark had been staring for a while now, but Lex seemed unbothered. “Um. Do you ever want to know what it said?”
“I’m sure if I ever married he’d tell me I’d found the wrong person.” He pulled the cuff down and straightened his jacket, twisting his arm to make it resettle on his shoulders. “But that’s not a consideration for me right now.”
Clark refused the truck, but he seemed slightly more receptive to Lex’s attempts to help him woo the delightful Ms. Lang. Even accepting Clark’s teenaged conviction that it was only worth pursuing Lana if she was his soulmate, Lex didn’t see why Clark couldn’t be her “hometown boy.” Or why the football player might not be destined for some other “PROM QUEEN.” Just because everyone in the town assumed that Lana Lang would inevitably take the crown didn’t make it true. There was a reason that marks were traditionally interpreted by soothsayers or healers, and it wasn’t just solidification of the power of adults over children.
Even Clark, with all his convictions about absolute right and wrong, couldn’t free himself from the belief that the marks ought to control their destinies, even though the things most people were willing to do to get and keep their soulmates were by no means moral. It was the thing about him that Lex found hardest to understand. He could accept whatever it was that Clark was keeping secret; there was nothing that Lex wouldn’t be willing to protect. Yet Clark’s own fixation was just so conventional, for someone otherwise willing to ask the hard questions about when it was all right to risk others for your own good, or for theirs.
At least, now Clark knew why his mark was so different. He was still reeling from his parents’ decision to hide his origin from him. They’d always said that they didn’t know what the symbols meant, but they were sure he’d figure it out someday, when he met the right person.
He was an alien. The right person might not even be a person.
And now there was Lex to worry about. Lex, too observant and full of questions. Lex, who attracted meteor mutants like iron filings to a magnet. Lex, who said that anything was possible, but who couldn’t imagine that Clark’s mark was a signal of something far stranger than meteor mutation.
When Clark lost his powers to Eric Summers, he wondered whether his alien mark would go with them. But it stayed, suddenly as permeable as the rest of his skin. It was freeing to yell at Lex, even if Clark was cheating a little by pretending he’d always been so vulnerable. But soon enough that was over, and he was strong and fast and all alone again.
There’s no one here for you, he sometimes thought the symbols on his arm said. You don’t belong.
The only consolation was that Lex was almost as out of place, even if Lionel had been the one to make him that way. They had so much in common, and nothing that was safe to share.
Lex saw Desiree’s name on his arm. Her presence made it rise out. He knew that couldn’t happen; marks got bigger after birth, and sometimes faded near the end of life, but they didn’t appear at age twenty-two, especially not after having been removed. Nonetheless, that was her name he saw, and he knew that they were meant to be together. For a short time, he knew what it was like to be normal.
Afterwards he understood that it had all been a pheromone-induced hallucination. He wondered what name was really written on her. Or if anyone’s was. There was a kid at Princeton whose mark was “nobody,” small dot-like lower-case letters. He made it to the internet era and ended up with a guy he’d met in an anonymous chat room. They’d founded a clean energy start-up together; it came up in a lot of the class newsletters. But in another era, he might’ve just offed himself before finding out the truth (or maybe the mark would’ve been different; maybe it would’ve been the name his soulmate used to write to the agony aunts in the newspaper). It was all contingent. It was all illusion, even without a meteor freak in charge of the writing.
Sometimes, Lex entertained the idea that he was a blank, that Lionel had ordered the surgery so Lex wouldn’t be sure whether there was anyone out there who could love him wholly.
Yes, Lex knew that the old prejudice against blanks was just superstition. He also knew that there was a vigorous debate over the true meaning of the marks, whether it was just one possible best outcome or the best; as globalization expanded, more and more people were born with names not familiar to their local communities, suggesting that at least there was context-dependence. Even people born into cultures without written language were increasingly getting words instead of stylized images, both signalling and perhaps causing further integration. Lex was partial to the idea that a mark represented some sort of local maximum: this is the best that you can do. He understood why Lionel wasn’t a fan of such an externally controlled destiny.
Roughly sixty percent of people, by their own accounts, never found their soulmates. With his luck, his had died in the meteor shower. It all made for great drama—Romeo and Juliet with their twinned “enemy” marks; Scarlett scratching at her arm until it no longer belied her ambitions; Antigone’s πίστιν, her commitment to an ideal so great that her fidelity could be found only in death. But none of that sounded pleasant to live through. Sometimes, it was better not to know. What good did it do him or Lionel, after all, to have Lillian’s name on Lionel’s arm? It hadn’t made her live and it hadn’t made Lionel a better man.
Lionel of course wrapped it all in lectures and grandiosity, telling him about how the great houses of Europe had routinely obliterated the marks. Anyone destined for dynastic marriage shouldn’t have a reminder of what had been written on their skin. Lionel even argued that blanks were nature’s aristocracy: they could seek power and greatness without worrying about finding anyone in particular.
Lex didn’t think that having the wrong mark was likely to be an issue for him—whom would he marry for power? He still wondered what had been written for him, and by what mechanism. Desiree had just wanted to twist the rules in her own favor. He wasn’t convinced that the source of the marks had a better plan.
“Stop pretending,” he told Tina, who’d dropped the illusion at last. “You’re not Whitney and you can’t be a match for Lana.”
“How do you know?” she demanded, her voice loud in the cool dampness of the storm cellar. “I can be anything I want. I can be a boy, and I’m definitely from here. Not like you.”
Clark winced; she was talking about the adoption, but she was only saying what he sometimes thought about how he could never be Lana’s “hometown boy.” Everything hurt, even the pressure of the dirt against his skin. But she was dangerous now, fully unleashed, and he had to keep her from Lana. “But the marks don’t lie. Are you really a boy?”
She tossed her head. “They don’t lie, but hers doesn’t say anything about being one full-time.”
The meteor rocks were weakening him to the point of near-vomiting. He could still talk her out of this. “What about your mark?”
“I don’t know!” She was yelling, snarling, seeming even larger as the meteor rocks sapped his strength. “I was a toddler when the meteors came down and ever since then it changes. My mom would never tell me—she said I wasn’t old enough to go looking—and now I can never find out.” She looked away and wiped her mouth with her hand, turning herself back into Whitney as she went. She held out her arm, now with Whitney’s mark. “It doesn’t matter now,” she said, calm and intense as she hadn’t been in her own skin. “I took his, so I get her.”
She left, and Clark slumped to the ground. He had to get up. He had to go save Lana—
A glow penetrated his closed eyelids, white like the sun, and the thousand-ton weight of the meteor rock on his chest disappeared. He didn’t have time to investigate why the ship had decided to save him; he took off for the Talon.
Approximately one in two thousand people didn’t have the mark on an arm, but rather on another portion of the body; Helen was one of them. Hers was between her shoulderblades, a delicately calligraphed “Jay.”
Lex liked to fuck her from behind, to remind himself of what this arrangement was.
Alicia’s mark wasn’t coy. “Stephen Carter” had only limited ambiguity. But Alicia didn’t care. And neither did Clark, when she was half-naked in his lap. Lots of people dated before they found the one, if they ever did. Later, she confided that her plan was to zip around the country, using her powers to check out the options much faster than anyone else could’ve done.
Belle Reve put a stop to that idea. Clark hoped that she’d get the chance to take her road trip like a regular human someday. There was even a service that helped people arrange tours like that, when the marks were as explicit as Alicia’s. You paid extra if you found the right one, but either way you got to see some of the world. Alicia, locked up for so long as a child and locked up again for her own good, really deserved that kind of freedom, he thought.
Shannon Bell tried to murder him because he slept with her and left her with nothing but two orgasms and a pair of diamond earrings. It was another piece of evidence that people were fundamentally misguided about their own interests, and couldn’t handle the truth. Lex hadn’t been the one cheating on a future husband. Lex hadn’t been the one whose mark spelled out the birthdate of her fiancé. That she’d choose sex over a soulmate wasn’t necessarily wrong, but it hadn’t been his fault. It had been easier for her to blame him than to take responsibility for her own actions.
And still Clark treated him like he was the pariah.
Someday soon Lex was going to have to get over viewing Clark as a moral compass. Being judgmental wasn’t the same thing as being right, as all that leering TV coverage of Lex’s completely voluntary liaisons demonstrated. As far as those bloodsuckers were concerned, it was like he’d invented sleeping with someone you weren’t destined to be with. Lex knew for a fact that at least ten senators, and half again as many governors, had undergone plastic surgery to make it seem like their marks matched their mates. The country was drowning in hypocrisy, elevating the matched over the unmatched for no reason other than biology and dumb luck.
That needed to change. Lex was starting to think that he ought to be the one to do it, once he got free from the oppressive miasma Lionel had left behind.
Eventually, Clark started telling people that the name on his arm was Kawatche, which wasn’t even 100% of a lie. Lois, unfortunately, took that as permission to try to get every tribe that had ever passed through or even near Kansas to identify the name. She only stopped when Clark sat her down and begged. “Even if you’re right and she’s got Kawatche blood, half the white people in this state think they’re part Indian. Looking for registered members isn’t a good use of your time.”
Lois looked up at him, her eyes as sharp as the razored edges of her bangs. “Someone’s got to look out for your interests, Kent, ‘cause you sure aren’t.”
Clark shook his head. The pain of being the last Kryptonian was familiar to him now. He’d accepted it. “There’s more to life than soulmates, Lois.”
She whacked his arm, then winced. “I know that. I just wonder where all that hope and faith goes when it comes to your own slice of happiness.”
That was more than a little too close to home, so Clark changed the subject to LuthorCorp’s latest machinations, knowing that was too good a diversion for Lois to ignore.
Losing all your memories was, obviously, hard to compare to other traumas. In Lex’s case many of those other traumas had been documented, but reading over the records was less engaging than a Raymond Carver story; at least Carver had a distinctive prose style and a good editor. Nonetheless, Lionel’s invasive recordkeeping proved a boon, once Lex dug the physical records out of Lionel’s vault (fortunately, the man had been too paranoid to trust a computer system). Lionel was a biased reporter, dripping venom in every note, but at least Lex acquired enough of the details to be able to fake continuity with his previous life.
Having no mark was, like having no hair, something that made him different, and also something that had been done to him. He didn’t know how previous-Lex had felt about those peculiarities (though the history of juvenile delinquency offered a few clues), but Lex found it all very unpleasant. There was nowhere he could go that he’d be normal.
When he finally cracked Lionel’s earliest ciphers, he was no more satisfied. At the back of his mind, he’d been hoping for a really recognizable name. He could even have worked with “Jane”; he’d write an algorithm to screen for the most likely ones, and Homeland Security had a database with almost everyone’s marks in it that he could have used to eliminate obvious non-matches. Not that he needed to find his soulmate, of course. Just that it would be useful to know.
“Kal-El,” though, was nonsense. Lex wondered whether he’d end up having to program an AI and give it a ridiculous acronym. He knew an engineer who ended up christening his masterwork—a plane so beautiful that it even made Lex feel like flying—with the name on his arm. He died three years later of a heart attack, a happy man. One of the lucky forty percent who’d found their match or thought they had, Lex supposed. Of ironic ways to encounter one’s soulmate, it certainly wasn’t the worst.
“My soul-mate’s an extinct Kryptonian bird,” Clark said glumly. He wished Kara hadn’t been able to produce this stuff, which worked like alcohol on the Kryptonian system, but she’d spent so long on the still and she’d been so excited to try it out. And he’d been trying to find some way to connect with her; she’d been deeply suspicious of the Justice League and he wanted her to stick around and see why it was such a good idea. But now, three glasses in, he was wobbly and depressed, and even less clear on why humans drank.
At least the stars were beautiful. They were sitting shoulder to shoulder at the top of a hill overlooking Metropolis. The air was cool and Clark wasn’t letting his hearing range, so the night was quiet. “Which bird?” Kara asked, sounding a little wobbly herself.
“The allele,” Clark sighed, unsure of the pronunciation. Formal Kryptonian, like Hebrew, was often written leaving the reader to infer the vowels from context. “Since I don’t have any interest in ornithology, I guess there was some person back on Krypton with a name that’s the cultural equivalent of Robin.”
Kara’s eyebrows shot toward her hairline. She grabbed his arm and pushed at his sleeve, then glared at him until he dropped the hard-light hologram he used to change his appearance when he was Superman. The mark blurred into visibility, and she stared at it for a minute.
Then she let go of him. She picked up her drink with precise deliberation, took another swallow, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “And who told you it was an extinct bird?”
“The Fortress – I mean Jor-El’s avatar, I guess.”
Kara closed her eyes and breathed out. “Be very clear here, Clark. What exactly did you ask?”
“I asked what it meant,” Clark snapped, not liking her tone on top of having to think about how he’d be alone forever.
Kara rubbed her forehead. “I can already tell I’m going to regret this,” she said. “But there are two things you should probably consider. First of all, Jor-El programmed his avatar to be pretty condescending towards humans. I doubt it would’ve been stoked to tell you about a human soulmate, even if your being born with the mark was why your birth parents picked Earth to send you to in the first place. Second,” she sighed and continued, “that’s not just a word. It’s also two letters.”
Clark blinked. “You mean—”
“L,” Kara said deliberately. “L.”
“Excuse me,” Clark said, and disappeared.
“I have to ask,” the GMA interviewer said. “Do you regret the fact that your parents had your mark removed when you were an infant?”
Lex smiled and leaned a little further forward, keeping himself angled so that the cameras would get the appropriate, leaderly three-quarters view that tested best with likely voters. “I’ve always welcomed the chance to make my own destiny,” he said.
“So if someone gave you the name, today, you wouldn’t pursue that?” She leaned forward in instinctive response, her perfect hair and her perfect nails and her perfect lipstick all making her anticipation seem even more pure, a distillation of polite inquiry.
The studio was air-conditioned to the point of frigidity, but Lex didn’t let himself feel it. “I think a national election campaign would be a difficult circumstance to begin any romance in, even a soulmate’s,” he said. “That said, we all want to be known, to be cared for. Whether that’s by a soulmate or by another human being who chooses us, I think we should respect love however it comes to us. As a country, our strength is in accepting anyone who has something to give, regardless of race, religion, or match.”
The interviewer’s smile was neutral, but her eyes glinted with acknowledgement of his pivot back to talking points. “Of course, you must get a lot of people who think you’re their match.”
Lex shrugged, careful not to disarrange his jacket. “There’ve been a few incidents. Unfortunately, it’s a hazard of being well-known in today’s environment. To me, it’s another reason the media should focus on more realistic depictions of relationships. When our children think that nothing matters until they find their match, they make bad decisions, even if they don’t all convince themselves that they’re a celebrity’s soulmate.”
“Thank you, Senator,” the interviewer said, swiveling a little so that she faced the camera head-on. “Lex Luthor, presidential candidate. When we return: new concerns over microbeads in cosmetics. Could your beauty routine be killing fish?”
Though it would explain a lot of things, up to and including the years Clark had spent mooning after Lana from a very great distance—
Lois’s mark was “truth,” not justice and the American Way, so even if the cartoonists were right about Clark, they still weren’t a match. Lana—there was no way that he qualified as a “hometown boy,” and she’d been wearing Pete’s ring for nearly ten years. She was born in the year written on Pete’s arm. More important, they were happy together.
He couldn’t deny there’d been a pull between them. Lex had put together an entire room dedicated to him—that wasn’t any ordinary obsession. Post-amnesia Lex Luthor had taken a long time to build back up to that level of attention, but there was no question that he followed Superman’s every move. Publicly, he said it was concern over an extragovernmental actor based in the United States. Privately, LuthorCorp had more lead-lined facilities and accumulated Kryptonite than anyone else. So much for worries about extragovernmental actors. Clark was pretty sure that the ‘accident’ that had cost Luthor his hand was Kryptonite-related.
They’d reached a sort of working truce where Luthor didn’t try to kill Superman and Superman didn’t drag Luthor to jail. It meant that he hadn’t been in the same room with Luthor in years. He just couldn’t understand the way Luthor’s lip curled when he looked at Superman, a kind of condescending contempt that Clark couldn’t help but feel was unearned. It had been much easier to avoid him than to attempt to convince him of Clark’s good faith. So Clark watched, and he took down those operations that strayed too far over the legal line (always plausibly deniable, of course).
Clark had to know.
He touched down on the marble balcony of the penthouse. The glass was leaded, so he couldn’t see inside. (If he really needed to, he could’ve used a cameraphone to see inside, since his spectrum troubles didn’t transfer over to digital images, but he knew it would look ridiculous.) Given Luthor’s remarkable ability to attract assassination attempts, plus the campaign, he must have triggered some security measure; he waited.
To his surprise, Luthor came out instead of the Secret Service. He was alone, tie discarded but dove-grey jacket and snow-white shirt still pristine, and carrying a snifter in his left hand, the one that wasn’t artificial.
“Superman,” he said, the name a slur in his mouth, Clark embarrassed all over again at the presumption of the epithet. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Clark swallowed. “I—um.”
Luthor blinked. Apparently he’d expected something more articulate from the Man of Steel.
Clark hurried onwards. “I need—I mean, I would like to know—I have a personal question. I know it’s inappropriate and I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”
Luthor tilted his head, curious, and all of a sudden he was Lex again, Lex inviting Clark into the mansion, Lex offering dubious advice and asking for Clark’s trust. Lex wanting Clark’s friendship so much, even as he took actions that destroyed it.
“You have my attention,” Lex said, and it was an invitation. He moved forward, looking out over the city. The snifter was cupped in his hand, and he could’ve been posing for a fashion shoot, except that the cynical twist of his lips was nothing he would ever have allowed for public consumption.
Clark turned so that he was facing the same direction, not quite shoulder to shoulder with Lex. That was easier than looking at him, and harder because he remembered this, back when their dreams were shared over a view of the farm.
“Do you know what your mark said?” He’d asked the same question a lifetime ago, never knowing how vital it would be.
“I’ve said many times—”
“I know you’re lying,” Clark told him. Lex carefully put his glass down on the flat top of the balcony rail. “I know you have amnesia covering the first few decades of your life. I know about—” he had to stop himself from admitting that he knew about what Lionel had inflicted on Lex, because that was too much, and if Lex had forgotten it then at least there’d been some mercy for him. “I also know you must’ve learned a lot from your records, and I hoped they included something about your mark.”
Lex braced himself against the smooth metal of the balcony, his head dropping and his shoulders lifting self-protectively in a tell so obvious that Clark knew he was truly shaken.
“What do you want,” he said, the tone bleak. Clark got it: from anyone else, the accusation wouldn’t make much difference, given the rumors that already swirled around him. Conspiracy theories were so integral to American politics that amnesia would easily be classed below ‘Russian spy.’ But if Superman made the claim, it might well reinforce the narrative of Lex’s otherness—his baldness, his missing mark, his missing hand, his wealth, his razorblade intelligence—enough to defeat him. Clark had covered politics long enough to see how those perceptions could tip a campaign.
“I told you,” he said. “Just what your mark was. Nothing else.”
He could feel the weight of Lex’s calculation, balancing Superman’s vaunted honesty with his potential vulnerability. “It’s meaningless,” Lex said finally, as if he were trying to convince himself. His hand gripped the edge of the balcony, one black leather and one white-knuckled. It wasn’t heights Lex feared.
“Then you lose nothing by telling me,” Clark urged him.
“Kal-El,” Lex said at last. It had the sound of a word he’d repeated to himself a thousand times, a knife he’d used to cut himself, because as far as he knew it was something that didn’t exist. His next words had a granite calm, Lex forcing himself to rein in his anger at his own vulnerability: “Why do you want to know, Superman?”
Clark closed his eyes. Lex wasn’t above a scheme to deceive him, even about the most intimate of details. Not that Lex had any obvious way to know, but this was Lex Luthor, and obvious was never his style. “Are there pictures?”
“None that couldn’t have been faked,” Lex said, his tone sharpening. “Again, I’m curious to know the reason for this rather intrusive interview. Right now, I can only assume you’ve discovered a person worse than you believe I am, and that you’re hoping we aren’t destined to join forces.”
“It’s me,” Clark blurted, hurled back decades by the bitter self-loathing in Lex’s tone. “That’s my name.”
There was a great and terrible silence, like the whole world holding its breath.
Slowly, Lex turned. His eyes—it was like looking at Lex suffering one of Lionel’s tongue-lashings; Lex just expected to be not just hurt but humiliated.
“My parents were Lara and Jor-El,” Clark said, wanting to remove that fragility from Lex’s expression. “I’m the last survivor of the House of El.” He pulled up his sleeve, and he hadn’t turned the camouflage back on after removing it for Kara. The symbols looked very dark against his skin. They hadn’t seen daylight in years, because Clark Kent never wore short sleeves.
“LL,” Lex said, distant—Clark should’ve known that he’d have taught himself Kryptonian from the available scraps—and his hand reached out, his fingertips just brushing Clark’s forearm.
“Seems like it,” Clark said, barely restraining himself from shivering in response.
Lex turned his head jerkily, staring now at Clark’s face. “Clark Kent,” he said, not a question. His tone was conversational, with a glaze of total surprise, like maybe he was waiting to freak out just a little bit longer.
“How—?” Clark cut himself off, because Lex was a billionaire with a surveillance fetish, and Clark hadn’t been as careful to cover up in his teen years as he was now. He gulped and let the rest of the illusion drop. Now he was standing in front of Lex, all but naked; Superman’s uniform felt like a Halloween costume. “My birth parents called me Kal-El,” he said, because that seemed to be worth rubbing in.
“I always assumed you matched with Lois Lane,” Lex said, and there it was, the shock starting to mutate towards a screaming fit even if it wasn’t there yet. “I concluded that the Kryptonian was just because you were from Smallville.”
What Lionel had taken from them was so enormous Clark hadn’t had a chance to wrap his mind around it. If Dr. Swann’s translation had told him not just his name but his soulmate, how much harder would he have tried to fight for the goodness in Lex? How much more would he have revealed, trying to tie Lex to him? Clark shook his head. “Lex, I wish I’d known—”
Lex reared back, denial in every tensed muscle. “I can’t—” he said. “This can’t work.”
Clark stared at him. Their marks matched. Yes, Clark knew there’d be a lot to work out. But those were all details. “We’re soulmates,” Clark said, as if repetition would make Lex understand.
Lex’s mouth worked. His scar stood out against the pink of his lips. He was flushed, eyes dilated, clearly ready to start punching. No one who’d attended a fundraiser with him would’ve recognized him. “No,” Lex said, and it wasn’t just a denial. It was absolute negation.
Before Clark could formulate another response, Lex was through the glass doors again. Clark couldn’t see through them, but he could hear the sound of glass and wood breaking, metal crashing to the floor.
He wished, suddenly and completely, that Kara had kept her mouth shut. Soulmates didn’t reject one another. This had to be some fever dream. He was trapped in his own head by an enemy and forced to live out a bizarre nightmare. How could Lex not want him?
Lex stared at the now-empty bottle in bitter disappointment. One hundred and twenty proof, and still no match for his freakish metabolism.
He’d been obsessed with Superman for years. Long before he’d understood the Smallville connection. His obsession helped define him; it gave him something to put his back against. He’d been proving humanity’s lack of need for any superhuman intervention. He’d lost his hand in his quest for something to ensure that humans could overpower Superman if the need arose.
Now it wasn’t a mission he’d chosen. It was just his soulmate link, telling him that Superman was important, and he’d misdiagnosed the reason why.
Even if he wanted a soulmate, he couldn’t. The President of the United States couldn’t be with an alien. He especially couldn’t be with an alien who’d organized the other superhumans into a force that could take out any given five governments without breaking a sweat.
Clark Kent, his plotting mind whispered. Somehow no one had figured out that Superman used a disguise; Clark Kent wasn’t a politically destabilizing force. He’d be a bit awkward hosting White House dinners, but nothing like—
No. This wasn’t a matter for rationalization. Lex had long passed the stage of being dragged around by his dick. His arm—fine, his soul—was no different.
In soap operas, men and women always fell ill when they denied their soulmates for some ridiculously implausible plot-related reason. Eventually the truth came out and whatever objective they’d sought was replaced by the brute force of the soulbond.
Lex would be damned if he’d be one of those cliches.
Mom and Dad weren’t around to offer him advice, and anyway sometimes their recommendations hadn’t fit real superpowers. Lex wasn’t an alien invader, but Mom and Dad hadn’t ever understood him all the way, either.
In the end, Clark had to make the decisions himself, not based on what his parents would’ve done. He knew Lex. Right now, he knew Lex better than Lex knew himself, and that was the core of the problem.
He wrote Lex a message. Real paper, like Lex always preferred. Handwritten, signed by Clark Kent, and hand-delivered to LuthorCorp Tower. He had every confidence that it would reach Lex; Lex had gotten very good at putting appropriate flags in place to oversee his various operations.
“We need to talk,” it said.
Lex had an iron control over himself ninety-nine percent of the time. Clark needed access to that one percent, and he was betting that Lex’s own desire for answers would give him that.
The next day, his work phone rang. The number was unknown, which wasn’t uncommon. He picked up, and before he could speak, Lex bit out, “Fine. Five o’clock.”
Probably Clark ought to have been intimidated.
The set time came and went. Lex read a few briefings, the kind that only required fifteen percent of his attention, and watched the shadows lengthen on the balcony. He flipped through the file on Clark Kent that his father had kept—far too thin for Kent’s involvement in so many meteor-related incidents, he saw now. He should’ve noted the discrepancy; stupid. Had his father known Superman’s given name? With all the hints about Lionel Luthor’s search for what turned out to be evidence of Kryptonian visits to Earth, it seemed possible.
Lex poured himself a glass of scotch and let the fading sunlight send refractions through the crystal. He thought about the blank wall of his past, car-crash sudden, and about how he’d barely held on to LuthorCorp through the ensuing machinations. His prior self had done him no favors by allowing himself to be presumed dead.
At six thirty-seven, Superman touched down on the balcony, not even bothering to glance at the new cameras and armaments Lex had ordered installed since his previous visit. He hesitated in front of the doors—interesting, it seemed that even the human-visible spectrum was denied him with the lead in the glass—and then carefully knocked.
Making him wait, or denying him altogether, was the kind of petty power play that would cost Lex in the long run. Lex rose to let him in.
“I’m so sorry,” Superman said immediately, even before he took Lex’s implicit invitation and stepped inside the office. “There was an avalanche—”
“Of course there was,” Lex said. He made his voice easy; he wasn’t going to give Superman a chance to be the better man here.
Superman sat awkwardly on Lex’s couch. He clashed with the cream and mahogany color scheme, in Lex’s opinion. “Our conversation last time didn’t end well.”
A gift for understatement as well as superpowers, Lex thought, and raised an eyebrow. He chose a seat across from Superman and sat down, leaning back with one ankle over the opposite knee. His scotch, half-drunk, rested casually in his mechanical fingers. His body language said he was in charge and maybe Kryptonians were enough like humans to give him that edge.
Superman glanced down at his joined hands, fingers laced together like a supplicant’s. “Will you give me a chance?”
“I don’t even know you, Superman—Kal-El—Clark.” He made each name sound more dubious.
“You did,” Superman said, and Lex was unbalanced all over again. Was this knowledge of just what to say something Clark Kent had taken away from Smallville? Lex couldn’t stand it, this gap in his life, just when he thought he was reconciled to it and moving ahead. He’d been on his way to being President—he was on his way—and here he was being dragged back to being incompetent and ignorant. And now someone knew this most soft-bellied of his secrets.
Superman sighed, taking Lex’s lack of response as encouragement. “By the end we hated each other, Lex. We did terrible things to each other. Both of us. But I think, maybe—if I can give you your memories back, do you think you can give us a chance?”
Lex didn’t know he’d crushed the glass in his hand until Superman bolted half upright, reaching towards him. There were glass shards all over the floor around him, scattered like diamonds picking up the bloody light of the sunset. Liquor dripped from his black leather fingers.
Lex opened and closed his mouth.
Superman’s face firmed into the determined hero mask that graced a thousand magazine covers. “I’m taking you to the Fortress,” he said, and Lex didn’t have the wherewithal to protest, even though he was going to lose the advantage of being on his own ground.
In the event, even though the trip was a short one (Lex still needed to know how Superman extended his invulnerability to those he carried; Lex should’ve been pulped by the air resistance alone), it gave him time to regroup. As soon as Superman released him, he stepped back until there was a yard between them, enough that he barely had to look up to meet Superman’s eyes.
Superman had dropped whatever technological wonder allowed him to distinguish himself from Clark Kent. Seeing Kent in the ridiculous costume was bizarre, but that incongruity was arguably the last thing Lex should be focusing on.
“You can recover lost memories,” he said, because sometimes the stupid questions needed to be asked.
A muscle twitched in Kent’s jaw. “Sometimes,” he said. “I think so.”
“And if you can’t, am I left as-is or is my brain tapioca?”
Kent gave him a petulant frown. “I wouldn’t offer if I wasn’t sure it would be safe.” He was smart enough not to add ‘You’re my soulmate and I would never hurt you,’ though Lex was pretty sure he was thinking it.
Part of Lex rebelled, wanting to call it blackmail. But he’d seen enough of Superman over the past years to understand that Superman didn’t stoop so low. He wanted Lex, whole, to choose him. Any choice Lex made now, by contrast, would be based on incomplete information.
Lex realized that he wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all himself. “My answer is yes,” he said. “Of course it’s yes.”
Kent smiled, and it was like a sunlamp had gone on; Lex wouldn’t have been surprised if this ice palace had started to melt around them. Before Lex quite understood what was happening, he found himself in Kent’s arms again, this time with Kent’s hand cupping the back of his neck. Lex’s noise of protest wasn’t close to a word.
“Sorry,” Kent said, and the red dots high on his cheeks suggested that he wasn’t lying. “But this is the only way I know how to do this.”
Lex didn’t mean to close his eyes like some soulbond romance cliché. He didn’t intend for his world to narrow to the heat coming off of Kent’s body and the dry touch of Kent’s lips. He didn’t—
Pain. Wonder. Betrayal. So much blood. Dangled and crushed and shot, pierced and lightning-struck, lonely and curious and tired of the lies. Anger, red and cold white and sick green, climbing up his veins until it reached his heart. Hurt again and again, always turning the wrong way at the wrong time. Missing his father’s love, suffering his father’s wrath. His mother—
Lex crashed back into present consciousness with a literal crash, hitting his elbow so hard that he heard something crack. He stayed sprawled on the cold floor of the Fortress—he’d been here before, he’d attempted to kill Clark here—and then lost the battle with his roiling stomach.
When he’d spat out the last of the bile, he managed to roll himself away from the small, embarrassing puddle. The mess started to sink into the floor almost immediately, to Lex’s mingled relief and disquiet; God only knew what the Fortress would prefer to do to him. The reason Clark hadn’t come to check on him was made clear as Lex rotated towards Clark’s position: he was on his hands and knees, gagging. Lex felt a little better about his own weakness.
He could still feel Clark in his head. His own memories, layered over Clark’s, layered over twenty years of making a new life. Maybe he wasn’t quite done being sick. He concentrated on breathing, even if he couldn’t make himself close his eyes because he was too busy staring at Clark.
Clark, who was Superman.
Clark made an unhappy noise and managed to lever himself until he was sitting back against a crystal pillar. Lex didn’t want to sit up, but he did anyway, ignoring the nausea and cradling his fractured arm against his chest.
“Sorry,” Clark said. “That’s not usually—mostly I just take people’s memories away. Or maybe it’s because we went through all that together.”
Lex briefly considered the merits of yelling at Clark for presenting what was obviously an untested procedure as a solid option, then dismissed the idea as blatant hypocrisy. What did come out of his mouth, however, was a surprise. “You’re Superman,” he said, astonishment in every syllable.
Clark ducked his head. “Yeah.”
Bitter resentment lashed him, then subsided. He’d seen—not everything, but he’d seen enough of Clark’s side to feel Clark’s own entanglements and regrets. And, good God, but Lex had been a drama queen. Barely out of adolescence and thinking himself so grown up. Clark had been fifteen when they’d met. Lex had ties older than Clark had been. Still, if he’d only known that he could trust Clark—
No, that way lay sterility and defeat. Lionel couldn’t be revived, and even if he could he’d never understand the wrong he’d done.
Lex swallowed and rubbed his good hand over the back of his head, a tell years gone pushed back into his body memory. “I think I might owe you an apology or ten.”
That high-beam grin was back, more meaningful now that he knew what it was like for Clark to deny it to him. “I’ll accept yours if you accept mine.”
Lex already understood that this was an unearned grace. “I’ll take that bargain.” He smiled back, tentative, the expression awkward and unfamiliar because it wasn’t anything like the smile he used for public consumption.
Then he realized that he had no idea how much time had passed during his memory-fit. The Secret Service was probably trying to get the roads out of Metropolis closed off, or something even more disruptive. “I really need to get back,” he said, and continued before Clark could get the wrong idea, “but we should do this again, without the unfiled flight plan. You should come for dinner tomorrow.”
Clark nodded, then grew serious. “And what about making your own destiny?”
Lex very much wanted to give Clark the reassuring lie he was so plainly seeking. “I don’t know,” he said instead. “When we didn’t know about our marks, we were still monumental in each other’s lives.”
“If it helps,” Clark said, “I haven’t thought of myself as Kal-El in years.”
“And I want to hear all about that. Also about why you decided after all of these years to ask me about my mark again.” Lex forced himself to his feet. He could already feel the pain of the cracked bone regenerating; fortunately, it wouldn’t need to be reset. “Tomorrow night.”
Clark still blushed adorably, Lex noted. And he still looked weird as hell in the Superman outfit. “You should—” Lex gestured at Clark’s unaltered face while he rose. Lex didn’t see what Clark did to turn the disguise on—he was really going to have to ask for a look at the technology; the entertainment implications alone were all but infinite—but he found himself a little disappointed that it was Superman, and not Clark Kent, who swept Lex up in his arms in preparation for the journey back to Metropolis.
Superman deposited Lex back on his balcony; Superman apologized to the many upset agents for taking Lex away for a special consultation (oh, is that what they’re calling it these days, Lex didn’t say) without advance notice. Because he was Superman, he was forgiven—which was pretty much Lex’s point about the dangers of superhero worship. But that was a conversation for another day. After a quick break for two fingers of scotch to clear his palate of the lingering sourness from his stomach-turning mindmeld, Lex acknowledged to the agent in charge that as a viable presidential candidate he was no longer allowed to go out frolicking without informing his security detail, reassured his campaign manager that no immediate scandal was forthcoming, and then politely showed them all the door.
Clark had disappeared by the time the humans were sorted out. Lex felt a spike of resentment, out of habit. But this wasn’t old times. He knew where to find Clark, and more than that he knew every secret he’d ever thirsted for.
He’d always done his best thinking with a drink in his hand, something that had survived the amnesia. He refilled his tumbler and leaned back into his armchair, whose thronelike bulk was both reassuring and vaguely embarrassing in what it said about who he wanted to be. Well, there was no one watching him now; he could settle back in and look out over his kingdom.
Even in the depths of his hatred, that had never been the only thing he’d felt. His helpless obsession had made him even angrier. Should he have recognized his passion as a signal of some greater link? Late at night, alone in the mansion, of course he’d wondered, but he’d put the thought aside, not least because Clark’s mark was part of his mystery.
Back then, he’d tried not to speculate too much about his own missing mark. It was only after he’d lost his memory that he’d dug through enough of Lionel’s files to find the pictures. He wondered if he’d have linked ‘Kal-El’ with Clark’s adoption. There were all kinds of stories about adoptees winding up with the wrong names—from heartwarming tales of sixty-year marriages strengthened when one discovered that he really did have the other’s name on his arm, to tragedies where a feckless youngster leaves a true love only to discover much later that he’d abandoned his soulmate. His imagination might’ve encompassed Clark’s renaming. He’d been—yes, he’d been in love with Clark enough to have at least hoped that Clark somehow matched with him, even if he wouldn’t have identified the emotion as such. At the same time, he’d been so terrified of satisfaction that he might’ve rejected a match on general principles, as if love would make him weak.
Now he knew so much more. But he was still unsure. ‘LL’ could mean many people. Clark had written off Lana Lang and Lois Lane and settled on Lex, but Lex didn’t think it was that simple. There were people who claimed multiple soulmates, based on not implausible interpretations of their marks. Clark could just be following conventional Smallville morality. The polymarkists said that some people weren’t meant for a single match, and he thought they were probably right. That said, he didn’t share. Whatever happened, he wasn’t going to enlighten Clark about his possible options.
His glass was empty, drained while he was lost in thought.
Metropolis was a glittering, pulsing jewel around him. Late-working office drones turned lights on and off in the surrounding buildings; planes and helicopters passed by; the ads on the side of the old Daily Planet building seethed with electric life. Desire drove his city, its residents always searching for the next score, the better deal, the fuck-you money.
But it would never be enough, not for Metropolis. Nor for Lex: he’d always be seeking new triumphs too. Oddly, the thought made him feel better about Clark. Having a soulmate wouldn’t make him complacent, the way Lionel would’ve insisted it would. Lex wasn’t complacent.
Maybe, though, he could pull off ‘happy.’ The thought would’ve been alien—heh—to the Lex who’d been erased. But Clark had brought him back, at not inconsiderable personal risk. Clark couldn’t have known that Lex’s gratitude would outweigh his resentment. Clark had exposed all his vulnerabilities, from secret identity to Kryptonite to his conviction that Lex was his soulmate, in one rush; he’d all but bared his throat. Lex could have taken advantage. The very idea made him feel protective, wanting to shield Clark from his past angry self.
Lex shook his head at his own pretensions. Not that a visit from his actual past self was entirely outside the realm of possibility. These were the days of miracles and wonders, and someone surely had a time machine lying around. But he was who he was now, freshly restored memories plus twenty familiar years, and while he’d probably be feeling déjà vu for a while, he was still the Lex Luthor who was the head of an international conglomerate and who was running for president. He was so much stronger than he’d been in his brittle twenties, when Lionel could break pieces off of him with a word.
He was strong enough to work things out with Clark.
Clark was too wired to sleep. He checked with the Justice League, but there was nothing meriting his intervention, and good reason to let others handle matters if other powers could get the job done as well; he wasn’t trying to make himself a dictator. He logged into the Planet’s internal system, but didn’t find anything that called out for Clark Kent’s investigation or even editorial opinions. He wrote a note to Chloe, then deleted it. What he had with Lex was gossamer; the slightest interference might destroy it, especially if Lex decided that he was sharing Lex’s secrets with other people. He cleaned out his refrigerator (good God, the smell—Lois had a point about never eating food in his apartment she hadn’t personally seen delivered within the last half hour). He straightened up, whisking bags of trash into the dumpster six stories below. He would’ve done laundry, if he’d needed to do laundry, but his hard-light generator made that a nonissue.
At last, and only in order to prevent himself from wandering the night freaking out the good people of Metropolis, he turned on the TV. Reality show where two women were lunging at each other—music video where two women were grinding against the singer—nature documentary where a lioness was disembowelling a gazelle—talk show discussing whether it was gross or adoring to get your children’s names tattooed next to your mark—news footage of a conflict the League couldn’t stop because it was human-on-human—Stephen Colbert with a segment about a guy whose mark was an outline of a bear—
Finally, an actual movie. It was black and white and everyone was talking funny. After a minute, Clark discerned that it was a production of Twelfth Night. Viola had just discovered that her randomly chosen alias was Olivia’s mark, which as a fine lady she’d kept secret from all but her intimates. This was a problem for Viola, even though the mark she shared with her twin promised her a ‘peer of Illyria,’ because she’d already fallen for Orsino, who believed his ‘grieving’ pointed to Olivia and who’d enlisted Viola-as-Cesario to plead his own case.
Clark could really, really empathize with mistaken identities and misunderstandings. He’d always liked comedies centering around seemingly insurmountable difficulties in identifying and securing a soulmate. He tried to live his life on the side of hope, even when that hope had to be only for others’ happiness and not his own. When Viola revealed herself, and explained how she’d thought her brother dead, his heart leaped for her, and he might’ve teared up just a little when Orsino confessed his own change of heart.
Yes, it was only a story. But people lived by stories. Lex, more than most people, saw himself as the star of a great whirling melodrama. Clark had to have faith that he’d allow himself a happy ending.
Clark didn’t call ahead the next night. Lex was waiting for him anyway. He knew his campaign advisers were worried about the sudden behavior change—probably concerned that he was retreating to his office every night to shoot up, or to fuck some rival’s wife on the desk—but he found himself largely unconcerned.
“Sorry I’m so late,” Clark began, launching into an explanation about Gorilla Grodd that Lex waved off. Whatever this relationship was, it was never going to be timely.
When Clark was settled and had exchanged his Superman disguise for an appearance that didn’t raise Lex’s blood pressure, Lex went to get them drinks. Just water, for Clark. He could appreciate wine, he said (Lex resolved to lay in a good stock), but the taste of liquor didn’t do anything for him.
Lex kept up a patter of trivialities. Making a decision had been easy. Implementing it was not, when his body kept sending out incoherent reactions every time he saw Clark out of the corner of his eye. Anger, lust, shock, confusion, bone-deep desire for approbation. It was like a second puberty, without the acne and party drugs.
At last, there was nothing for it but to join Clark on the couch. Clark accepted his water and immediately put it on the coffee table. He stared at Lex with raw hope.
Lex glanced down at the spot on his arm where his mark should be. “I told you a long time ago that we had a destiny,” he said. “There’s so much we don’t get to choose. But I believe we can choose how we respond.”
When he closed his eyes, the alien he’d distrusted for years was gone, and there was only Clark before him. His feelings for Clark were far more complicated. He found he was looking forward to working them out.
He moved quickly, before he lost his conviction. Clark’s lips were warm against his, nothing like the riverbank lifetimes ago and nothing like the kiss of memory he’d given Lex before. This pull towards Clark wasn’t an external thing, a cupid’s arrow shot from on high; it felt like the core around which Lex had been cast. Clark’s arms wrapped around him, not caging but supporting. When the kiss ended, they were still leaning against one another. Clark dipped his head so their foreheads touched.
“Ordinarily,” Lex said, and his voice came out much rougher than he’d planned, “I don’t make anyone wait until the second date.”
“Is this our first date?” Clark asked wryly.
“Back in Smallville, I was courting you, but you didn’t notice,” Lex told him. “That doesn’t count.”
“Hmm.” Clark drew him back in with a big hand on the back of Lex’s neck. Lex liked this self-confident Clark a lot.
They were both breathing more heavily when Lex pulled away. “As I was saying. It’s late, and—”
“And you want to take this slow,” Clark agreed.
Lex had a flash of what taking Clark slow would be like, and he nearly groaned. “I want everything, Clark. But I need time to make sense of all these memories.”
“You like to be sure that all the variables are under your control,” Clark said.
Lex considered that for a moment. “No, this is why we need to take our time. I used to think that if I planned carefully enough, if I was really as smart as I believed, then events must necessarily follow the course I charted. I didn’t respect the world’s power to force us to react. I’m not the man you knew then, and neither are you. We need to meet each other as we are now.”
Clark huffed. “That was so mature, it made your point for you.”
“I think that was an insult,” Lex said, and shut the conversation down by kissing him again. This time he half climbed into Clark’s lap, using Clark’s bulk as an anchor. Every touch was like an electric shock, zinging through his blood. They could’ve been hovering a thousand feet above the earth, and Lex would’ve just held on and enjoyed the rush.
When Clark was as thoroughly kissed as Lex considered appropriate, he tilted his head back, and then had to strain against Clark’s iron grip for a moment to be released. He didn’t think that was conscious; getting Superman to forget his own strength deserved some smugness. “And now, we both should get some rest.”
“You’re not really making me want to go,” Clark told him, sprawling back on the couch. His presence made it look like it belonged in a home instead of an office. Lex wanted to see that every day.
“Trust me,” Lex said. “You’ll like the welcome you get when you return.”
Clark chuckled, then began to stand with a sigh that Lex felt in his own yearning bones. “Good night, Lex.”
Lex raised his left hand in farewell, and Clark was gone.
He’d wanted Clark—Clark’s attention, Clark’s respect, and yes, Clark himself—since before either of them had heard Clark’s birth name. They hadn’t needed the marks to tell them who mattered. And, he thought, even if he’d been right when he was young and the marks were more a sign of who was right there instead of who was just right—well, a man who could get a match from across the universe had to be extraordinary.
He needed to get used to being a man with a history again. Before, all his threads had been snipped; he’d had to reweave himself all on his own and while hiding his weakness from everyone. No wonder he’d had a dim regard for anything like fate. But if the mark that used to be on his arm meant anything, it was that there was always room for the unexpected. Like pieces of a dead planet falling out of the sky, carrying treasures and tragedy.
For his own part, Lex was prepared to give destiny some surprises.