It wasn't much like Lex—security cameras and a dozen witnesses, even the man's own signature in the front desk logbook with no sign-out time: heaps of evidence all showing that Lex's office was the last place Dr. Raymond Sangevin had visited before his final stop in a dumpster at Midway and 118th Street, deep in Suicide Slum. Not that there was anything to prove that he'd taken a direct trip there, of course, but it was still clumsy. Lex didn't even do a particularly strong job of denying involvement. Polls showed that people suspected him, and the politicians who were normally his fawning sycophants went running for cover.
"This is our best shot at Luthor in years," Lois said, intensely, and promptly dragged Clark all over the city hunting clues. Which didn't exist, or at least not the right ones. What they did turn up was plenty on Sangevin, whose research files were full of horrible euphemisms and whose secret townhouse—owned through three dummy corporations, between two half-abandoned slum tenements—had a human abbatoir in the sub-sub-basement, hidden carefully behind walls lined with lead. Lois, not Clark, found it; by noticing the building was smaller than its blueprints.
"Jesus," Lois said, when they'd gotten the door open, and she smoked ten cigarettes in a row while they waited—outside, in the sunlight—for the cops to come.
Afterwards, no one was all that interested in bringing Dr. Sangevin's killer to justice anymore. To add insult to injury, after Lois and Clark's front-page story ran, Lex's poll numbers bounced back and added another ten points on top—not, as far as Clark could tell, because people didn't think he'd had Sangevin killed, but because they thought he had.
Clark managed to corner Lex at a press junket a couple of weeks later, despite a glaring Mercy hovering at arm's length. "I guess you're pretty happy with yourself," he said tightly. "Lois and I found that place in a few days—you could have gotten all the evidence you wanted against him, but why waste time with justice when you can play judge, jury, and executioner all by yourself."
"Clark, Clark," Lex said, shaking his head. "Come on, you know better. Make it hypothetical."
"Fine," Clark said. "Assuming you had a serial killer killed and stuffed in a dumpster, why the hell did you?"
Lex shrugged. "People like decisive leadership. Now I can run for governor this year instead of waiting for the next term, and that coordinates better with the run for President after that." He smiled, sharklike. "What do you think about the D.C. beat, Clark? I'd really hate to miss out on these fun conversations."
The explosion at S.T.A.R. Labs scattered kryptonite radiation over twelve subterranean floors and destroyed the coolant system running to the experimental fusion reactor on the bottom one. The failsafes shut the reactor down, except somehow it kept going, straight for a major meltdown: Clark could hear the frantic engineers screaming at each other as they tried to disrupt the reaction. He was more than a little frantic himself, welding together sheets of lead he'd grabbed from a (LexCorp) construction site into enough of a suit of armor that he could make it through the contaminated sections and into the reactor chamber.
The LexCorp containment team went right past him at top speed, ten armored men carrying a giant vat of what looked like liquid gold. Clark managed to get into the reactor in time to see them dump the whole thing right onto the overheating inner coils and stop the reaction cold.
A lot of projects were missing data and equipment by the time the S.T.A.R. personnel got to come back in and survey the wreckage—an unusual amount, and the LexCorp people had vanished from the scene almost as fast as they'd shown up. Clark x-rayed every inch of LexCorp property he could find, but most of the labs were lead-lined where they weren't lead-lined, underground, two counties over, and disguised as soup kitchens.
The gilded leftover lump of the reactor, radiation-free and inert now, was installed in Munro Park as an abstract sculpture to be climbed on by kids and small animals. Lex spoke at the dedication ceremony and got in a few digs about the lax oversight at S.T.A.R. and mentioned how proud he was of LexCorp's safety record.
"Hasn't Superman shut down three LexCorp reactors in the past five years?" Clark asked, loudly, even though they'd been told no questions.
Lex waved away the security guards that were ready to evict Clark and Lois together. "We're very grateful for those occasions when Superman's abilities allow him to spot a problem early, before our internal safeguards pick it up," Lex said, never losing his smile. "Saves us a lot of time and effort and risk to our personnel. Of course, it helps that our insurance policy covers the extensive property damage he causes."
Later, at the Mayor's reception, Lex sauntered over to where Clark was morosely picking at an hors d'oeuvres platter. "I've had a whole bunch of Superman sightings reported by the labs the last two weeks. See anything you like?" Lex said blandly, holding out his hand just in time for a glass of champagne to be put into it by a waiter.
Clark lost control of his heat vision long enough to warm up the champagne glass as Lex walked away again. Petty but satisfying. Like all his small victories against Lex, he thought, depressingly.
Even after ten years now fighting the worst of the worst, Clark still wasn't used to pain. The momentary flash of something wrong always surprised him, and it usually took him a second to flinch back: he had to think about it. But right now he wasn't thinking at all; the soreness went down to the bone, and his skin hurt with a bright scraped-raw feeling, everywhere the scraps left of his uniform didn't cover. The one news helicopter still crazy enough to be hanging around—LexTV, predictably—was probably getting some footage that would embarrass him later.
But finally Argonox was wobbling in mid-air, staying up only on fumes and malice. Clark doubled up his hands and whipped himself around for momentum, slammed the joined fist into the front panel of the armor; sparks flew, and then the whole thing went: the blast wave threw Clark back at a hundred miles per hour, tumbling head over heels so fast he thought he might even be sick. It took him a lot longer to pull out of the tailspin than it normally did, and longer than that to fly back to where Argonox's giant body had gone crashing down to earth. He wasn't moving, lying in a big crater in the middle of the intersection of George and Devon, one giant fist indenting the trailer of a Mack truck to the side of the road.
A team of LexCorp goons was already scrambling all over him, peeling away the armor from his green skin and getting some kind of thick metal restraints on him. The Special Crimes Unit pulled up a minute later and a jurisdictional squabble started. Maggie Sawyer was putting up a good fight, but a LexCorp crawler was picking its way over the rubble, and here came another twenty troopers flying in by jet-pack. Clark thought about going down, but he was almost too tired to move, feeling more and more nauseous for some weird reason, and then he looked down and noticed the green, glowing splinter embedded in his arm before he went tumbling down into black.
He woke up by slow stages, reluctantly: he felt almost like he was being bathed in warmth, and he finally opened his eyes to find himself lying in a large bed in front of a slanted wall of clear glass, late afternoon sun pouring through, orange and gold. The bed was tilted up a little towards the windows, so his whole body was soaking up the sunlight, and also he was completely naked, which made him hurriedly look around for anyone, and grab for some of the sheets. They were silk, white silk, ridiculously impractical, and Clark knew where he was before he even looked out at the spectacular view, the one that majestically surveyed all Metropolis.
He wrapped a sheet around his waist and climbed out of the bed warily: he wouldn't have put motion-tracking kryptonite lasers beyond Lex for a second—in fact, that sounded a lot more plausible than Lex picking him up after a fight, tucking him into bed and just leaving him there alone to get better. But nothing happened as he got up. The room was big but not cavernous, and almost ascetic: one long painting on the wall behind the bed, something abstract in blues and greens, a handful of books on the end table—one in Spanish, one in Japanese—a small breakfast table with a computer and a stack of newspapers.
The soundproofing wasn't as thorough inside the building; he could hear Lex's voice coming from a room nearby, crisp and all business, speaking Russian. Clark could think of about a million things he'd rather do than march down the hall wearing a sheet to face Lex in his own citadel, but his other alternative was to smash out through the windows and fly home naked without finding out what the hell was going on.
Lex hung up when Clark came into the room and gave him the full eyebrow-and-smirk treatment. "Feeling better?" managed to sound simultaneously casual and leering out of his curving mouth.
"Where's Argonox?" Clark said bluntly, refusing to get sidetracked; getting into a verbal battle with Lex was always a losing proposition.
"In Federal custody by now, I'm pretty sure," Lex said. He got up and came around to lean against the desk, arms folded: suit jacket off, crisp shirt and vest and tie, small subtle cufflinks and pants with a crease sharp enough to cut yourself on; Lex had always had the gift of looking good in a way that not only made him the best-dressed guy in the room but made everyone else in his vicinity seem pathetically underdressed, even if you weren't stuck wearing a sheet you'd yanked off his bed. Clark reminded himself not to hunch. "He was out for the count," Lex added. "We put him in the new tachyon restraint modules."
He stopped there and waited, eyes bright, and Clark gave up. "Fine. How did I end up here?"
Lex said earnestly, "Well, Superman, my people had the only transport available, and obviously we weren't going to leave the hero who had just risked his life to save us all just lying there on the ground—"
"Especially not when you could play rescuing angels in front of your own news cameras," Clark finished, and glared at Lex, who managed to maintain a look of wounded dignity a little longer.
"It's a little sad when someone's always looking for ulterior motives," Lex said, then dropped the pose and let his voice sharpen. "I've got work to do. The balcony doors are open; you can let yourself out. Feel free to keep the sheet if that's working for you."
He walked around the desk and picked up the phone, as effective a dismissal as anyone ever managed against Clark these days, and maybe that was where the impulse came from. Clark dropped the sheet. Lex glanced up from the phone and then gave him a wildly satisfying double-take, ignoring the voice coming from the other end; Clark let it go on a couple of beats, not enough time for Lex to recover, and then he said coolly, "Thanks, I'm good," and zipped out through the living room and the balcony doors at super-speed. He tore across the city to his own apartment and through the window and came to a gentle bounce landing on his own bed before he let himself grin at his own chutzpah: that and the look on Lex's face.
Then the grin faded as he stared up at the ceiling and noticed that his bed really was kind of lumpy, and also his apartment got no sun.
"I can't believe Sawyer let that rat bastard grab Superman," Lois was saying heatedly, waving her coffee cup around in a way that made Clark anxious for his shirt: he was a week behind on the laundry. "Luthor probably implanted some kind of mind control device—or maybe a Kryptonite time bomb in his stomach or something, and it's going to rip its way out of his gut in the middle of his next fight, like one of those things in Alien—"
Clark cringed. "Can we please not talk about this?" He'd scanned himself six ways from Sunday with everything the Fortress had; he'd even flown to Gotham and gotten Batman to scan him again, just in case. But still, he could really do without Lois's imagery. "Hey, how about lunch?"
She thwacked him with the morning edition. "It's not even eleven yet, Smallville. I have a phone interview with the Mayor in fifteen; go do some legwork at the site. I want to know what happened to that guy's armor."
"Yes, ma'am," Clark said, dodging another swipe of the paper.
The armor had disappeared under a convenient veil of "national security" and top secret classification, and so had Argonox; a week's worth of chasing leads didn't turn up a thing, even when Clark finally tracked down the LexCorp crawler from the battlefield site. It was parked quietly in its hangar at Lionel Luthor Memorial Airport, with no sign where Argonox had been taken. Clark was standing in the hangar glaring into the interior of the crawler when his cell phone rang.
Bruce wasn't much for small talk. "I'm in Utah. Meet me at the Marriott on 100 in Provo, one hour." He hung up and didn't answer his own cell phone when Clark tried to call back; Alfred made polite apologies and said he couldn't reach him.
The really annoying thing about Batman was that Clark couldn't just ignore him. He got to the hotel lobby a couple of minutes late, rebelliously, but his phone rang again only when he had just stepped inside. "Come up to room 943."
Bruce was in a rumpled suit, a half-day's growth of beard and pouchy cheeks, the perfect portrait of an ordinary business traveler on the road, tired and irritated and ready to be home, except for his eyes, which didn't match. "I've got news."
"Good news or bad news?" Clark swiped a Coke out of the minibar and sat down.
"You tell me," Bruce said, and tossed him a photograph. "Argonox's armor came through here two days ago on a truck and went into the desert. That operative was on the truck managing the operation."
Clark looked up from the photo; it was an unsmiling, hard-faced woman in sunglasses and a suit, with a smooth cap of dark black hair. "Why didn't you—"
"Too much kryptonite radiation to involve you, too much security to take them myself without planning," Bruce said. "I put a tracker on them; we can go after them when they've gone to ground. That's not the point."
"So what is—" Clark stopped himself and looked down at the woman. "Am I supposed to recognize her?"
"No," Bruce said. "Not her." He started a video file playing on the open laptop. Clark frowned at the grainy video, his eyes refocusing; the audio was so low he had to think about it to hear.
It looked like a Gotham dockside warehouse—warehouse because it was cavernous and full of crates, dockside because of the shipping containers, Gotham because the Joker was in it. The camera was shooting from a good long distance, but Clark could mostly recognize the woman from the photograph: she was standing opposite the Joker, backed up by several men heavily armed. Between them was an accordion file, sitting in the middle of a wide ring of liquid with a trail leading back to her; she was holding a cigarette lighter and a gasoline can. "I guarantee it's bona fide," she said, "but you're not going to get a taste until the transfer is verified and my men and I are out of the building. You move for the file before then, I light it up. No offense, but people who deal with you have a habit of ending up dead in messy ways before they get paid."
—"She works for the Joker?" Clark said.
—"Wait for it," Bruce said.
"My dear, you wound me!" the Joker said, putting his hand to his breast. "I assure you—"
"We're running a signal scrambler to block your remote-control trigger," the operative interrupted.
The Joker stopped and frowned, and poked his buttonhole flower a couple of times. Nothing happened.
"Also, tell that assistant of yours in the clown costume to get down here where I can see her, or I'll shoot you right now and we'll take our chances with her," the woman added.
"Oh, fine," the Joker said petulantly, dropping his arm. "Some people are just no fun. Harley, my delight—" he called.
"Aww, Mr. J," Harley said, from behind the camera, and left it behind while she went scampering over and swung down from the rafters to drop down next to the Joker.
"There, satisfied?" the Joker said, and sniffed.
"Soon as I get my ten million dollars," the operative said equably. "You've got my Swiss account number, go ahead."
"But how do I know that your material is worth the price?" the Joker said. "After all, dear lady, anyone can say they're handing me Superman on a silver platter—"
"It's not full of Kryptonite bullets, if that's what you're asking," she said. "Fine; I'll give you a hint—"
"I wouldn't if I were you," another voice said, low and pleasant and mechanically altered, from someone standing in the dark. Abruptly a floodlight came on, and there were thirty men and women in black suits and machine guns pouring out between the shipping containers.
The Joker, Harley, the woman and her team were all thrown flat to the ground, cuffed at ankles, wrists, and elbows with perfect efficiency; there was a gun pointing to each head and three for the Joker. "Bring him," said the voice in the dark, and two men hauled the Joker up and carried him over. "It's really not a good idea to go hunting for Superman information," the pleasant voice continued. "All sorts of things could happen."
"So are you going to shoot me for your good pal, the Man of Steel?" the Joker said, sneering it. "Not quite his modus operandi, is this? And I know you're not Batman—"
"I don't think I'm making myself clear enough," the pleasant voice said regretfully. "Maybe you need some time to think it over. I know this great little place up in the Himalayas—great views, vegetarian food, Buddhist meditation five times a day, highly trained and caring mental health professionals—you're going to love it. I think you and Harley should spend a week up there, get the feel of the place. And then you can think about whether you'd like to spend the rest of a very long, very comfortable life up there."
Harley made a small squeaking noise of horror. The Joker swallowed.
"Wait, that's Lex?" Clark said, blankly.
Bruce slanted a sharp look at him. "Possibly. He's never captured clearly enough on the tape; Oracle couldn't make a positive identification."
The Joker and Harley were being dragged away, gagged and blindfolded now; meanwhile the man in the shadows had stepped forward and was crouching down in front of the woman, his face still washed out by the pouring white floodlight. "I'm going to assume your men haven't seen what's in that file," he said.
"They haven't," she said, not trying to raise her head. "I collected it all myself, I just brought them in for the drop. I'd have been stupid to let anyone else see."
"Good." The man stood up and nodded to his people. "Take them to—oh, let's say Rio. Leave them some cash. Gentlemen, it would be a extremely good idea if I didn't see you in the States for a few years," and there was no question; it was Lex, the tilt of his head against the floodlight, the easy, casual menace in his voice; Clark was even pretty sure that the figure in the shadows behind him, holding a gun, was Mercy. The three supporting men were dragged off in turn, and then the woman was pulled up onto her feet. She didn't cringe or beg, just stood with pressed-thin lips, waiting; there were a lot of guns pointing at her.
Lex had her lighter in his hands. It sparked and lit, and he tossed it down on the ground: the gasoline went up with a rush, the whole file turning into a torch. He turned back to face her. "We have a couple of options," he said. "I keep a pretty close eye on the people who know what's in that file. I could put you away somewhere, but that was good work you did collecting the information, and I hate to waste good people."
She took a slow but visible breath, let it out of her mouth. "Well, my last job didn't pan out, so it looks like I'm in the market," she said dryly—
—and Bruce stopped the playback. "She left with him. After I spotted her here, Oracle tracked her back to that area of Gotham, and Robin found the camera there with a sweep for electronic equipment."
"How old is this?" Clark said, slowly, still baffled, trying to figure it out.
"About a month, judging by the timestamp," Batman said. "How sure are you it was Luthor himself in the video?"
"It was him," Clark said. "But I don't get it. Why is Lex protecting my secrets? What does he care if the Joker comes after me—"
"The Joker occasionally displays proprietary behavior towards me," Batman said. "He's interfered with other criminals on more than one occasion if he felt they were usurping his territory."
"Yeah, well, Lex isn't completely nuts," Clark snapped; he felt off-kilter, he wasn't even sure it was true. How many times had Lex tried to kill him, to destroy him—"He throws other criminals at me all the time."
Batman shrugged. "Then you'd have to ask him."
Clark left Bruce tracking the armor and flew back home; he'd meant to stop at the farm and make sure his mom was okay—just a gut reaction; he didn't like the idea that the Joker had been that close to finding out who he was, who his family and friends were—but instead he picked up speed over the plains, accelerating straight towards Metropolis, boiling up clouds in his wake.
He blew straight through the penthouse balcony doors and charged into Lex's office. The cordless phone got knocked out of Lex's hand as Clark hauled him out of the chair and pinned him against the wall. Clark fired a short burst of heat at the receiver to stop the squawking questions spilling out of it. "Thanks, I was just thinking what this place needed was that aroma of burning plastic," Lex said, not struggling. "You do realize that even as we speak about twenty of my lawyers are drawing up assault charges?"
"Shut up," Clark said. "What is your problem?" He was so mad he was almost shaking. "You break every law in the book, you try to get me killed every chance you get, but now you're protecting me from the Joker—"
Lex stiffened, just for a moment, then the perfect mask was back in place. "That's your problem, Clark," he said. "Everything's always about you."
"So tell me why!" Clark said. "Give me a reason—"
The door slammed open, and Mercy and Hope were there. "Let go of him and back away, now," Mercy said. Clark could feel the kryptonite radiation from their guns even across the room. His hands tightened in the lapels of Lex's jacket; it was starting to tear.
"It's all right," Lex said over his shoulder.
"Sir—" Mercy said.
"I said it's all right," Lex said. "You're not going to stop him if he wants to kill me, and he's not getting away with it if he does. Go back outside. Go!" he snapped, and they went, unhappily, and shut the door behind them.
Clark had torn through the jacket and the shirt, and his knuckles were pressing against bare skin, muscle and bone beneath; he could just—"Tell me," he said, through clenched teeth.
"You think I want the Joker operating in Metropolis?" Lex said. "It's bad enough that we're the metahuman center of the world because of you, we don't need the dregs of Gotham crawling up from the sewers—"
Clark shoved him into the wall, harder, knocked the breath out of him. "Try again," he said. "You didn't warn the Joker to keep out of Metropolis, you warned him off of me."
Lex's eyes were glittering, but his voice stayed level. "If the Joker got your identity, it wouldn't be you he'd go after," he said. "Your mother's always been kind to me. Maybe I didn't feel like seeing what the headlines would be after he got through with her—"
Clark shook him like a rag doll. Lex bit down on his lip hard enough that a few drops of blood welled up. "Go to hell," Clark said. "I can protect my own family, my own friends—"
"Of course you can," Lex said. He didn't bother to wipe away the smear of red from his mouth. "You don't take even the most basic precautions, but of course nobody in the world is going to put two and two together. Your ludicrous optimism is only matched by your unbelievable stupidity." Lex leaned in. "You remember Dr. Sangevin?"
"I remember you had him killed," Clark said, trying to hold on to the anger; but his hands were loosening. "We couldn't prove it—"
"You want to know what happened the night before he died?" Lex said softly. "He was in this room, Clark; you want to know what he told me? You want to know what he was planning to do to Lana? To Chloe? He wanted me to help. He thought I'd be thrilled. We'd flay you alive from the inside out—"
"So why didn't you?" Clark yelled, to make it stop, to make it turn into something that resembled sense. "You want to—"
"I'm not the one who hates you," Lex said, venomously, and Clark's hands fell away as if Lex had backhanded him with a fistful of kryptonite.
Lex walked straight past him to the bar and poured a glass of Scotch. He sipped it with one hand in his pocket, looking out the window. "That's another lie, obviously," he tossed over his shoulder, casual again.
All Cretans are liars, Clark thought wildly, and fled.
"Uh huh, sure," Chloe said.
She'd put him on speakerphone. Clark took a quick look across town: she had gone back to fixing her pedicure, frowning as she concentrated on keeping the polish inside the lines. "Come on, this is serious."
"Oh yeah," Chloe said. "Lex Luthor gets to Clark again, news at eleven. You have got to know better by now."
He flopped backwards on the bed and sighed. It was his own fault; he couldn't expect Chloe to give him a real opinion if all he gave her was Lex claiming not to hate him, but he couldn't bear to tell her about Sangevin, about the Joker—about how close those monsters had gotten to her, to everyone he loved.
A few years back Chloe had done a supervillains column for the Inquisitor, tongue-in-cheek yearbook style. She'd included Lex under the caption Most Likely To Succeed, which he'd had to pretend to find hilarious in public. The Joker's column had been the least funny. "I was trying too hard," she'd said afterwards. "The guy's just too—I don't know. I mean, at least Lex is human. Hell, by comparison Brainiac is human." How she would have felt about being on the Joker's hit list—
"Okay, I can just hear the little wheels grinding over there," Chloe said, breaking into his train of thought. "Clark, you seriously need to stop this. I know you're not giving me the whole story here, but I don't need the whole story to tell you this is exactly what Lex wanted, to get you going around in circles doubting yourself. Quit playing into his hands and stop thinking about him."
He thought he was doing a reasonably good job of following Chloe's advice for the next few weeks, until he was through the bullpen, up to the roof, into his costume and halfway across town without even thinking about it, accelerating towards the bullet he hadn't consciously heard fired. Mercy was already reacting: slow-motion to Clark's speeded-up vision, her foot kicking out towards Lex's knee: he'd be down in a moment, and the first bullet would hit the plate-glass window behind him instead. The second one would take him high in the shoulder instead of in the gut.
Clark detoured to scoop both bullets out of the air in one hand and then went for the gunman, a sniper sitting in a ninth-floor apartment with a clear view of the Rivoli Art Gallery entrance. A terrified maid was tied up in the kitchen with duct tape over her mouth; the gunman himself clammed up almost as thoroughly, only a gasp as Clark none-too-gently ripped the rifle out of his hands.
Lex was sitting in his limo brushed clean and drinking mineral water by the time Clark got back down to the street with the gunman dangling from one hand and the maid cradled in the other, to be handed off to the police and the waiting ambulance respectively. "Is this where I'm supposed to resentfully say I don't need your help?" Lex said. "Because actually, I'd just like to suggest that if you're going to bother, next time you could show up before Mercy's drop-kicked me to the pavement."
Mercy waited until Lex was off giving his statement to the police and then stepped up to Clark and poked him in the chest. "I don't need your help," she hissed, full of passionate hatred. "Stay away from him, you freak."
"Mercy called you a freak?" Chloe said dubiously, on the phone. "I mean, you are, but that's beyond pot and kettle. But how did you end up there, anyway?"
Clark fell guiltily silent; he wasn't thinking about that.
"Are you stalking Lex?" Chloe said suspiciously.
"No!" Clark said.
The problem was, it wasn't entirely voluntary. Most of Clark's sensory perceptions stayed well below the conscious level; he'd asked the Fortress computer once, and it had suggested something like 95% of everything that came in was filtered out completely. What was left got unconsciously graded by importance, so only the top 0.01% actually broke through into his conscious mind if he wasn't actively listening for it.
His subconscious had apparently promoted Lex in importance without checking in with the central station, because he kept getting regular bulletins: a brief crackle of Lex's voice annoyed and sharp on the phone to some businessman as he went from shielded building to shielded limo; an involuntary sharpening of sight across eight city blocks, where the side mirror of a parked car had just been hit by another car and was now tilted crazily skyward, picking up a distorted reflection of Lex moving around behind the tinted windows of the tenth-floor executive offices of Metropolis City Bank; the whiff of smoke and brandy escaping as the housekeeper opened the balcony doors on Lex's penthouse to come out and water the plants.
And now this—
He'd gotten used to some degree of embarrassment; criminals didn't tend to keep themselves ready for arrest every minute of the day. He'd caught up with people in showers, on the toilet, having sex—but usually he could back out before they knew he was there, go save a few cats-in-trees, and let them finish up before he came back and nabbed them.
Lex's current partner, however, was probably not going to wait until the sex was over before she scratched Lex with the poison needle embedded in her fingernail. Clark's x-ray vision had picked it out through the windows of the Mandarin Oriental ballroom ten minutes ago, while Lex had still been glad-handing a bunch of businessmen and politicians and society hounds who had just paid $10,000 a plate to come and support his shiny new gubernatorial campaign. The polls had him at 42% against the incumbent's 39% without spending a dime, but Lex wasn't likely to settle for anything less than a crushing victory.
She was just Lex's type: tall, with spectacular legs, glossy dark hair, and homicidal tendencies. Clark hadn't even seen them introduced, but Lex had somehow managed to collect her up during his graceful exit from the ballroom without ever speaking to her directly. Now Clark was hovering outside the window of the hotel's Presidential suite, hearing them go at it—with what seemed like way too much enthusiasm on her part for an assassin—trying to decide whether it was worse to keep checking in with x-ray vision in case she started to jab Lex, or to just break in now and end it.
"Oh, sweet mother of god," she said, drunken-sounding, and Clark sliced a neat hole out of the window with his heat vision and darted inside. Lex had her wrists pinned against the mattress and was moving against her. Clark put his hand over the wrist with the poison needle in it.
She gave a little shriek. Lex stopped and held perfectly still, lips pressed tight. "Superman," he said, glacially calm.
"She's got a poison needle in her right index finger," Clark said, hoping against hope that his face wasn't bright red.
"Yes," Lex said, through his teeth. "And when she tried to use it ten minutes from now, while I was pretending to be asleep, we'd have her sewn up on attempted murder."
She stared. Clark stared too. "You're assuming you wouldn't have ended up dead in the process," he said sinkingly.
"Mercy's in the hall with ten guards and I took the antidote beforehand in case she got lucky," Lex said. "All she's guilty of right now is carrying concealed and being kind of easy."
"Son of a bitch," the woman said, bitterly, and jerked her hips as Clark let go. "Get off me!"
"Sorry," Lex said to her, sliding off. "If it's any consolation, this turned out to be more fun for you than it was for me."
"Fuck you," she said, getting out of the bed. The slinky black dress went back on in one practiced slide; she picked up the handbag and shoes and stalked out of the bedroom.
Lex picked up the phone. "I'm fine, she's coming out. Take her to the precinct and tell them I'll make a statement tomorrow. I've got primary-colored company." He hung up on Mercy's squawked reply. "Not to sound ungrateful," he said, "but you're not helping."
"This is not my fault," Clark said. "You're the only person alive who'd deliberately have sex with someone who was trying to kill him."
Lex shrugged. "At least it's an honest reason." He got out of the bed and went for the bathrobe flung over a chair, unselfconscious even though his dick was jutting out still hard and flushed. Clark jerked his eyes away a little too late. His senses helpfully filled in extra details: the temperature of Lex's skin; the faint chemical smell of lubricant, latex; the slick gleam of sweat over the curve of his skull.
The brandy gurgled. "Besides," Lex added, "she's just another professional. If you hadn't interfered, I'd have enough leverage on her to get a lead on who's trying to have me killed. I prefer not to rely on your being around every time somebody jumps out of the woodwork to take potshots at me."
"You know, most people say thank you when I save them from gunshot wounds or poisoning," Clark said, trying to sound normal.
"The only thing you saved me from tonight was an orgasm," Lex said. "Thanks a lot." He turned around and smirked at Clark, leaning back against the marble console, hips tilted forward in deliberate invitation. "Feel like taking care of that, or were you sticking around for the scintillating conversation?"
Clark had his hand fisted in the bathrobe almost at once: he didn't mean it, obviously, this was just another round, although it would almost have been worth all the inevitable self-recriminations just to throw Lex off-balance for once—
Except Lex really did look shocked when Clark tossed him onto the bed: probably the first time in years anything had left him at a total loss. The surprise took ten years off his face; it almost made him that boy again, the one who'd grinned at Clark across a table at the Talon, the one who'd taught him how to drive a sportscar and wear a tux, the one Clark had long ago decided had been a lie all along. And maybe it was that, or maybe it was just the hunger to make Lex stare some more, or maybe his brain had just taken a hike for the duration; Clark stripped the top of the suit off over his head.
Lex grated out, "If you're fucking with me, I swear to god I'll—" but he shut up when Clark climbed onto the bed and pushed him flat, and from then on he didn't say a word, but his harsh ragged breathing was like an engine in Clark's ears, Lex's hands going everywhere, touching everywhere, taking everything. Clark felt ridiculously, painfully clumsy; he wanted it to be over, he wanted it to never have happened; he wanted it to last forever; he wanted to be moving at the speed of light and infinitely slow at the same time, so instead he was just blindly humping against the thigh Lex was pressing up hard between his legs. Lex kept on kissing him, biting at him roughly, fingers tugging into Clark's hair.
Lex suddenly went rigid, shuddered all over, and came. Clark hadn't even imagined that far, the hot spurts hitting his hip and his thigh and his belly. He came too, watched himself spill over Lex's belly, and nearly crushed Lex into the bed afterwards.
After a minute, Clark rolled off onto his back, gasping, and stared at the ceiling. He was sticky and wet, and there were small clumps of feathers sticking to his stomach and his hands. His heart was racing. "I think we burst the duvet," he said.
"Give me half an hour and we'll make sure," Lex said, low and hungry, and Clark felt the hot glow of it deep in the pit of his stomach, fighting for space with terror.
Afterwards, back in his apartment, leaning against the sink with his face pale and shocked in the mirror, it was hard to believe that he'd actually—even back in the early days when he'd let himself think of Lex as anything but an enemy, even when he'd let himself imagine something like this in a quiet ashamed corner of the night, his fantasies had put the reins firmly in Lex's hands from the start to the finish of an irresistible seduction. Except Clark knew he'd never really have given in, if Lex had ever tried; he had a habit a decade old and a mile wide of rejecting any and all of Lex's offers. He'd had to be the one to make the first move, except now that he'd done it, now that he'd put his hands on Lex, now that he'd let himself stop hating him, it had become as impossible to say no as it had been to say yes.
"I'll be done tomorrow at nine," Lex had said in the hotel room, putting his suit back on; it hadn't been a question or even a lure. He'd just said it, and Clark already knew he was going to be there.
He went through the next day in something like a haze, answering randomly when Lois asked him questions, typing the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog over and over to look busy. He bought dinner from a pushcart and ate it between stopping a couple of robberies, lifting a skidding minivan out of a potential accident, breaking up a fight that had spilled out of a bar into the street.
By seven he was just flying around Metropolis in circles because he had to be moving; ten minutes later the lights came on in the penthouse, and Lex was waiting in the balcony entrance, silhouetted, until Clark swept him up and back into the bedroom, tumbling together against the pillows, already tearing at each other's clothes.
Clark didn't bother with self-recriminations. After all, they both knew exactly what was going to happen, details aside: Lex would do something unforgiveable; Clark wouldn't forgive him. Or Clark would demand; Lex wouldn't give in. There was a clock ticking every second they were together, the distant sound of the oncoming train. Clark didn't even feel guilty about keeping it a secret. There was no point in having a dozen arguments; he could put himself through the wringer just fine without help.
They were careful with each other, stretching out their narrow window of opportunity. The first couple of weeks, they barely even talked at all. Lex worked late, left the lights off and the balcony doors open; Clark flew patrol after patrol, and barely rustled the curtains before he slipped into the bed. Their hands talked for them: urgent, full of hurry and desperation, while they only gasped, said god and yes and now, staying on the safe neutral ground of lust.
Then there was a massive earthquake in India, and Clark staggered back to Metropolis three days later at oh dark hundred in the morning, covered in clay and the blood of the dead. He blinked stupidly at the carpet he was dripping on before he realized he'd come to Lex's place instead of his own.
"Come here," Lex said, from the bedroom door, and put him in the shower, stripped the ruined costume off his skin in pieces and fucked him slowly, Clark's hands braced against the tile wall. He put Clark to bed with still-damp hair, opened the curtains and left him to sleep in the sun.
Clark woke up groggily in the afternoon and followed Lex's voice to another office, the BBC muted on one screen and CNN on the other, death toll numbers still rising. He stood in the doorway and watched: he'd stayed, getting people out, until the last thready voices had failed; until there was nothing left to do but dig out the corpses.
Lex looked up from his computer and waved Clark to the coffeepot and lunch tray already waiting. Clark ate four sandwiches and drank the pot dry, and then he rubbed his face and tried to make himself get up and go to work: he had a story to write, though it was going to land on the op-ed page when he finished, if he knew Perry. It wasn't going to come out objective right now, not after he'd spent hours pulling dead kids out of the wreckage of the slums on the fringes of the bright, shiny city.
"Did you work with anyone there?" Lex asked abruptly.
"Uh, Diana?" Clark said. "I think I saw GL—"
"Not the caped crusaders," Lex said, waving a hand dismissively. "People you met on the ground, aid workers, local officials. The competent ones."
"Yeah," Clark said, low, and bowed his head a moment. "I carried a Red Cross team to an area of the slums that was unreachable by road," he said finally. "We got there and this guy named Ganeshwaran had already organized the healthy survivors—they were boiling water to purify it, setting up shelters, digging out people they could get to easily and marking the places they could hear people but not reach them. We saved a lot more people there because of him. Amani Bhanjee was one of the Red Cross coordinators there," he added suddenly—he met so many people so hurriedly that their names and their faces blurred; but Lex's question made them pop back into clarity. "Balar Sarasvan, Nayan Vasi, they were with the Red Cross too—"
Lex nodded and picked up the phone, repeated the names for his secretary. "Find those people, find out what they need, get it to them," he said, into the phone. "No, forget about going through the bureaucrats, just pay off any local officials who make a fuss and do it direct—"
Clark thought about maybe saying something about that. It seemed like what he ought to do. Instead he waited until Lex had finished snapping out instructions and said, "Thanks."
Lex put down the phone, shrugged easily. "It'll be great PR for the campaign."
A couple of weeks later, Clark tentatively told Lex about the Suicide Slum high school where the toilets had all broken, one after another, and been left to stew. An intern had brought in the story, but it wasn't big enough to even make it to the Metro section. A couple of weeks after that, the school had new plumbing and a new janitorial staff.
Then there were the two gangs who kept smuggling in guns through the sewer tunnels, shooting each other, going to prison or the morgue. LexCorp bought an entire city block worth of rotten abandoned tenements right across the dividing line of the gang territories. The tenements came down and a clean, empty warehouse came up, complete with lights bright enough to make up for all the broken streetlamps and a pair of LexCorp armored troopers on every corner, who occasionally took it on themselves to wander an unofficial patrol for several blocks in each direction.
"Isn't it a little odd for a corporation to be deploying its security guards on the public streets of Metropolis?" Lois demanded, at the next campaign Q&A. Clark slumped low in his seat next to her and pretended not to be there. She'd gotten a tip from a friend who volunteered at the local soup kitchen, after some of the troopers had stopped by to shake hands and display major artillery. "Some might suggest you're building a private police force, Mr. Luthor."
"All we're building is good community relations, Ms. Lane," Lex said.
"Community relations, my ass," Lois said, storming out afterwards. "It's all about Lex Luthor, feudal overlord."
"The people in the neighborhood seem pretty happy about the new setup," Clark said, defensively.
Lois wheeled on him. "Of course they're happy about it now, Clark! This is when they're getting the silk glove. When Luthor wants to fill that warehouse with radioactive waste or military weapons experiments, they might not be so thrilled to have heavily armed guards walking around to 'keep the peace,'" she airquoted. "Why do I even have to explain this to you? You know Luthor! You can't tell me you think it's a good idea to have him running his own private army."
And—intellectually, yes, he got it; he knew Lex hadn't changed, wasn't going to change. But so many of the people Clark met needed the kind of help he couldn't provide: long-term, regular, structural. Lex could do that kind of thing as easily as breathing—it wasn't just that he had the money or even the organization; he had the eye for what needed to be done, how to fix the underlying problems. He didn't even seem to think it was particularly impressive, the way he could look at three pieces of paper and immediately know who to hire, who to fire, who to have run out of town on a rail.
It was like bringing home stray kittens, knowing that they'd be magically fed, cleaned up, and left contented and purring. Clark couldn't not use him, even if some of the gifts turned out to have price tags attached. At least he was pretty sure for now that the only one who was going to be paying in the end was him, and he'd gotten reckless.
Four months now. He'd been fucked on the white silk sheets; he'd fucked Lex; he'd spent what felt like hours just dreamily sprawled out in the sunlight, touching Lex slowly and gently, fingers trailing over pale skin, while Lex's glittering eyes rested on him and never looked away. The scariest part was that Lex didn't seem to know what the hell they were doing either; Clark caught him staring sometimes, and for once he could read Lex's expression, equal parts fear and bafflement, because he saw the same look on his own face every time he caught his reflection.
He knew he wasn't going to get to keep this, but he didn't know how he was going to give it up. It had already gone on too long, it was going to hurt like hell when it all fell apart no matter what. There didn't seem to be much point in trying to protect small pieces of himself anymore. He'd take what he could get for as long as it lasted. Something would give soon enough.
"The armor was disassembled and split up," Bruce said.
"Hi, Bruce, good to hear from you," Clark said, holding the phone in the crook of his shoulder as he took the milk out of the fridge. He sniffed it dubiously and winced. "How have things been going? Everything's good over here—"
"Oracle's routine monthly satellite scan picked up the frequency emissions from the power source this morning," Bruce said. "It's at a LexCorp-subsidiary-owned power plant thirty-two miles north of Metropolis, on the river. Robin got into their unencrypted e-mail: they're planning some kind of test in a week. Check into it."
Bruce hung up. Clark put down the receiver slowly. He poured out the milk, and then he went to LexCorp.
Lex listened to him, hard-faced and silent, and said, "No."
"That power source—"
"—could power this entire city well into the next century," Lex said. "No, I am not going to hand it over to the Justice League to be locked up in outer space or wherever you keep all the advanced technology you've decided in your collective and infinite wisdom that humanity isn't mature enough to be allowed to play with."
"The League doesn't keep any material away from scientists!" Clark said. "Anyone can submit a request—"
"To study the devices under highly restrictive conditions in an underequipped lab without any actual testing allowed," Lex said. "Really, it's amazing that virtually no progress has been made."
"So instead your idea is to risk contaminating the entire city?" Clark snapped.
"Progress requires risk," Lex said. "I have the best people in the country working on this—"
"—for less than six months—"
"—they know what they're doing—"
They both looked abruptly out the windows: a pillar of smoke was streaming up from the far side of the city. "That's not the plant," Lex said.
"It's Memorial Bridge," Clark said, trying to see through the smoke. "There's been some kind of explosion, I have to—"
The intercom beeped. "Sir, the mayor's office called, they need you at the anti-terrorism command center—" the secretary said.
"We'll finish this later," Lex said.
The bomb had cracked the road surface, damaged one of the bridge supports and set fires going on the surrounding buildings: warehouses, offices, a school, a YMCA. The bridge wasn't coming down right away, so first Clark methodically starved the dozen fires of oxygen, one after another. He did this so often he had it pretty much by rote, though these fires were more intense, hotter; it had to be something like jet fuel, he thought dully.
The worst thing was, he couldn't even say Lex was completely wrong this time around. The League regulations were more about keeping weapons and alien technology from being misused than about learning from them. Clark was pretty sure that LexCorp scientists wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt if they wanted to borrow a piece to build a power plant out of it. But given that most of the stuff the League picked up had just been used by some megalomaniac to try and kill lots of people, it was still the only approach to take.
So he was going to have to go back and continue the same damn argument, and Lex was going to go right ahead with his secret rush testing, and then Clark was going to have to go and rip the fucking piece of junk out of the plant and probably wreck a multi-million-dollar project in a stunt that would end up on the front pages of the newspaper, right in the middle of the campaign. He didn't need three guesses to figure out Lex's reaction to that.
He'd known what was going to happen. It didn't make it any easier.
He had to move on: the fires were mostly under control, and now the bridge support was gently starting to bend. Clark flew across to it, got his hands on the hot metal and started pressing it back into shape, cooling it with his breath as he went slowly up the column. Cars were hanging askew from the bridge railing; some had gone into the water. Clark didn't look, tried not to listen: the bridge had to stay up, first, and there were limits on how fast he could work. Clark usually only had a passing acquaintance with the laws of physics, but every so often he ran into them hard: cool the metal too fast, and it would shatter.
There were dozens of emergency vehicles on the scene already, fire fighters pouring into the smouldering buildings and onto the bridge, harbor patrol coming up the river. There were divers going in after the submerged vehicles. The upper parts of the column kept trying to settle down, but Clark thought maybe he could let it go in another minute or two. He was going to be too late anyway: the last few heartbeats were fading gradually away under the water.
Then they were gone. There was something like a hollow roaring in his ears, an absence of sound. He swallowed and kept working on the column. In the buzzing silence, one thing suddenly broke through: a soft, serrated noise; a knife going into flesh.
He let go of the bridge and flung himself across the city, windows shattering along his trail. Lex was putting his hand up to the red slash welling open in his throat; blood spurting, frozen in mid-air. Clark's eyes burned two holes straight through the window to cauterize the vein; he smashed through a second later, swept Lex into his arms and went through the far wall without stopping, shuddering debris away from his shoulders as he went for Metropolis General.
He left Lex on an operating table with three baffled surgeons snatched from different floors around him. Back in the conference room, the assassin, an Asian man with a straight knife as long as his forearm, was still finishing his stroke. Mercy had three bullets already heading for his brain. Clark turned away and went back to the bridge.
Six hours later he was sitting in the hallway outside the private hospital room, in jeans and an old work shirt, elbows leaning on his knees, head bowed over his hands. The column he'd abandoned had crumpled a little. A few more cars had slid off into the water, thankfully empty by that point. Some kids trapped in the school had died of smoke inhalation. He'd been gone from the scene for less than two minutes all told—probably they had already been dead. Probably.
The bridge still needed work, the streets were cracked open, the remnants of the fires were still smoldering. Maggie Sawyer had asked him for some help with the cleanup and investigation. He'd told her he'd come back tomorrow.
It wasn't even as if he was doing any good here—Lex was asleep and not allowed to talk even if he hadn't been. But Mercy was still downtown being questioned, and Clark couldn't leave Lex alone.
A pair of heavy steel boots stopped in front of him. Clark looked up. "Sorry, sir, but only authorized hospital personnel are allowed in this hallway," the LexCorp trooper said. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"I'm not going anywhere," Clark said tiredly.
"Sir, I am authorized to use force if necessary—"
Clark almost laughed. "Call Mercy and ask her if that's a good idea."
The trooper hesitated, and then went away. Clark heard him talking quietly to Mercy over the radio, down at the other end of the hallway, but it wasn't important enough to pay attention to the words. The slow, steady heartbeat in the room behind him was drowning them out.
Mercy showed up a few hours later and glared at him, but she contented herself with putting ten more guards in the hallway and scaring the nurses by prowling up and down. Clark tipped back in the chair and let himself doze off.
He woke up a few hours later. Mercy was on Lex's cell phone, telling someone Lex couldn't talk. "Look, Mercy, I have to speak to him, this last-minute change is just unreasonable," the woman on the other end was saying. "My whole team is ready, we've all signed off—I guarantee the project is safe to move ahead. Waiting now is just asking for the EPA to get a line on this, and then the shit is really going to hit the fan. We can't delay the test—"
"If Lex says you delay the test," Mercy said, cutting her off, "you delay the test. And if you have problems with that, Sloane, I suggest you stop worrying about the EPA and start worrying about me."
"What project was that?" Clark said, when she walked back down the hallway.
"None of your business," she snapped, viciously, but Clark was pretty sure he knew, anyway.
"I'm sleeping with—I'm involved with—I'm dating—no, involved—with Lex," Clark said.
In the mirror, his own face stared back at him with enormous skepticism.
"Yeah, that's going to go over great," Clark agreed, and sat down on the toilet lid and banged his head—gently—against the wall. Some plaster dust and white paint chips drifted down onto his face.
It was the campaign, maybe. Lex had a pretty big incentive not to start anything questionable right now, and plenty of reason for doing good works. That made as much sense as anything else. It still wasn't going to last, but at this point, Clark was starting to feel guilty after all. He had to lie to so many people, it hurt to have a secret from the handful he could be honest with—his mom, Chloe, Lana. Not that he'd figured out how to tell any of them about this particular secret without getting his head taken off.
The phone rang. "Where the hell are you, Smallville?" Lois demanded. "You want a cushy columnist job, talk to Perry; you want to be a fucking reporter, get your ass down here."
"What have you been doing, anyway?" Lois said, snagging a Krispy Kreme on her way out the door. "You've been missing four days out of five, you've barely had a byline in weeks—"
He fumbled through some excuse about a long feature until they were outside and the usual traffic jam at Seventh and 23rd made enough noise to drown him out. Telling her the truth wasn't exactly an option.
The quake recovery efforts had been wrapping up: the people who could be saved had been saved, the dead had been buried, the debris had been cleared away. Clark had flown over and seen the shantytowns already going back up. "It's just going to happen all over again," he'd said at dinner that night.
Lex, reading his PDA, had shrugged. "The population of the slums would make a small city all its own. You can't just make that go away."
"There's got to be something—"
Lex had sighed, but three days later, the recovery quietly started mutating into a covert slum revitalization project.
"Nobody's going to care about us hiring a bunch of individual slum dwellers," Lex had said, "but if we start bringing in heavy equipment and hiring construction companies, somebody's going to notice and start asking questions, and this whole thing will be derailed before it even gets moving."
So Clark had been going over there to lay sewer pipes at night, carrying flatbeds full of the huge clay tubes, each packed tight with bundles of copper wire and fiberoptic cables. The laborers buried them as fast as he could lay them down, and spent the day digging ditches for the new ones: in two weeks they'd already laid out a grid that would have made thirty city blocks.
It would make a great feature once it was done, which would hopefully be before Perry fired him. But working nights in India meant missing days in Metropolis, and by the time he got back, there wasn't much point in going in to the Planet—and Lex was usually wrapping up his workday anyway.
But now LexCorp needed a few days to cast more pipes, so at least for today he could stay in town and play catch up. Lois was already ahead of him crossing the street, still muttering about real reporting and people who actually came to work. Clark trailed meekly after her, down into the subway and then onto the northbound commuter rail. He didn't recognize the town name until he got off and saw the the triple-smokestack power plant jutting up into the sky, behind the train station. "Lois—" he said, staring at the LexCorp logo branded across the roof.
"Luthor's got something going on in here," Lois said, poking around in her bag. "I got a tip from an employee who was fired a couple weeks ago, and I've checked satellite photo records. Starting four months ago, the number of cars in the parking lot tripled. There's a story, and we're going to break it before that son of a bitch can get himself elected."
Thankfully, Lois hadn't managed to worm her way into the building or anyone else's confidence, despite her best efforts at charming the guards; but she'd had Clark taking down license plate numbers, and sooner or later she'd find someone who'd talk. Not to mention it was even odds one of the guards had recognized her and was right now calling up the chain of command to let someone know that Lois Lane, girl reporter, had shown up on their doorstep.
Clark was still trying to figure out what the hell to do on his way home; then he came in through the balcony doors and found Lex sitting on the big couch with a glass of Scotch on the coffee table and his hand pressed to the bridge of his nose. He said, "We have a problem."
"Uh, yeah?" Clark said, feeling a little sick, wondering how the news had traveled quite that fast.
Then Lex sat up and tossed something on the table: it was the size of a small beetle and translucent, tiny and complicated. "It's been in the bedroom since yesterday morning."
Clark stared at it. "Is that a bug? You think somebody heard us—"
"Heard us?" Lex said. "This thing's a high-resolution video camera with a broadband satellite uplink."
Clark turned red.
"Right," Lex said. He got up to refill his glass. "So either I'm about to get hit with the biggest blackmail attempt in recorded history, or we're on track to replace Paris Hilton as the most popular sex tape stars ever. And considering the technology level on this thing, I'm betting whoever is behind this isn't going to be stupid enough to try to blackmail me."
Clark sat down and let his head fall back against the couch. Lex had come home last night with a five-point bump in the polls, and he'd flown straight in from India after seeing five thousand kids go to their first day of school. They'd gotten pretty enthusiastic. "Okay, this is bad," he said, staring at the ceiling.
"Don't worry about it too much," Lex said, tipping his head back for the Scotch. "I'll have one of my staff members leak a story that I've got a kink for Superman impersonators, metahuman ones when I can get them. The press will love that one even more."
"What?" Clark stood up.
"Kansas isn't going to elect a queer governor anyway, Clark," Lex said. "No reason you have to go down with me." He poured another glass, a little sloppily, three fingers full. "Every reporter in the world is going to be camped out around the penthouse with high-speed video cameras, so we'll have to stop, but you'll be out of it—"
"Go to hell!" Clark knocked the glass out of Lex's hand, let the Scotch spill over the floor. "You think I'm going to just walk out—"
"Why not?" Lex said, calmly bitter. "After all, it's not like this was ever going to last. Admittedly, under the circumstances you won't get to dump me in a glow of righteousness, but you can't have everything."
Clark went out and flew patrol around the city for a couple of hours of distraction, but it wasn't helping; instead of just being preoccupied, now he was preoccupied and tired. Part of him wanted badly to go home to Smallville, but his mom would know something was going on the minute she saw him. Clark didn't think he could take her gentle disappointment right now, even less than Chloe's likely reaction. He'd have to tell them somehow, before the story broke, but—
He went back to his own apartment instead, except it wasn't empty.
"What are you doing?" Batman said.
Clark suppressed his first reaction, which was to punch Bruce in the face. "That was your bug?"
"No," Bruce said. "Oracle got a tip that someone had bugged Luthor's apartment and intercepted the satellite signal. Otherwise you'd be on CNN by now, which is about what you deserve for being this stupid."
"Oh, go to hell," Clark said, wavering between relief and irritation. "Seen Selina lately? At least there isn't actually a warrant out on Lex."
"I slept with Selina once," Bruce said. "You've been paying your bills uncharacteristically late for the last six months."
"So now you're spying on me?" Clark said. "My personal life is none of your—"
"Your personal life stopped being personal when you decided to get into bed with the most dangerous man alive."
"Don't be ridiculous," Clark said. " 'The most dangerous man alive?' Lex would have to start an assembly-line murder operation to catch up to any of the lunatics you've locked up in Arkham."
"Any idiot with an axe can kill a man," Batman said. "Someone like the Joker can kill a thousand in a day. But he's never going to take over the world. Luthor has the same degree of obsession and the same lack of restraint, with the self-control, the money, and the power to get what he wants while staying superficially legitimate."
"Obsession, money, and power," Clark said. "What does that make you?"
"Equally dangerous, if my motivations were different," Bruce said. "Yes. But if I decided to throw off all limits and eradicate crime by any means necessary, you would stop me."
"And if Lex tries to conquer the world, I'll stop him."
"Will you?" Bruce said coldly. "You deliberately left that armor in Luthor's hands. What else have you done for him?"
Clark flushed. "I left the armor because Lex called off the test and slowed the project down. It isn't weapons research, they're looking at creating a brand-new power source that could provide cheap energy for half the state—"
"That's nowhere near the point," Bruce said. "You violated a League directive and probably aided and abetted him in breaking several federal laws—"
"And now you're going to lecture me about sticking to the letter of the law?"
Bruce stopped and took a deep breath. After a minute, he said, more controlled and quiet, "I didn't come here to get into an argument with you about relative morality. You've been fighting Luthor for years. You know him. You know what he's done, what he's capable of, what his ambitions are. Do you sincerely believe he's reformed? That one day he woke up and decided he was a changed man?"
Clark knew what the right answer was, the one Batman was waiting for, the only one that made sense; except he couldn't make himself say it. They stood facing each other, and Batman's shoulders slowly stiffened, and then he slipped silently past Clark and out the window.
"This is where I'm supposed to express my gratitude, I assume," Lex said. He was still in the same clothes, tie gone and collar open, slumped in a chair in his study with a glass in his hand. He might have been drinking the whole night, Clark couldn't tell; Lex was scarily good at holding his liquor. He took another drink now. "Still, I'm pretty sure if it was me with somebody else, that tape would be heading for the networks now, so I'll skip it."
Clark sighed. "Batman wouldn't do that."
Clark wasn't sure enough to argue. He sat down heavily on the couch and stared down at his folded hands. He wondered if Lex was going to tell him to go. He wasn't sure if they'd broken up or not. All he knew was he still didn't want to leave.
Lex closed his eyes. After a few minutes, he said, "Well, that was a red-letter day."
"Yeah." Clark took a deep breath. "Come to bed?"
Lex put down his glass and stood up. "Let's go."
His cell phone woke him up the next morning, still in bed; Lex groaned and put the heels of his hands to his eyes while Clark fumbled through the heap of clothes next to the bed. "Rise and shine, Smallville," Lois said, while Lex curled up against his back drowsily and bit him on the shoulderblade, hand sliding over his hip.
"Isn't it a little ear—early," Clark said, going up half an octave at the end.
"Never too early for a front-page item," Lois said. "I got a line on an engineer at the plant: his wife is Vince in accounting's first cousin, and she says they've got some big test happening at 8 am this morning that he's been worried about all week. Go put some cold water on your face and meet me at the train station in ten. You can bet if something goes wrong, the evidence will be wiped up by the time the police get there, so we'd better be there before it happens."
Clark listened to the dead air after she hung up and slowly closed the phone. Lex was stroking his thigh, not with a lot of intent, just sleepy petting. He'd said the testing was off. He'd promised to show Clark the plans and get an independent review from S.T.A.R. labs. He'd sworn—
"I should get up," Lex said. "I blew off five meetings yesterday." He nuzzled the back of Clark's neck instead.
If he told Lex—if he asked—he might get an explanation, but he wouldn't get a story. They wouldn't get within a mile of the plant, and if they did, it would be clean top to bottom. And if he didn't ask, and something happened—He rolled over and kissed Lex, hard.
Lex was frowning when Clark pulled back, and he sat up. "Okay, what am I missing?"
"The plant," Clark said, flat with desperation. "Lois found out about the plant. She said they're testing today."
"They can't be," Lex said.
Clark blinked. "Why not?"
Lex was silent for a moment, fingers tapping on his leg through the sheets. "I sent the project back to design," he said finally.
"Huh?" Clark said. "I thought it was almost ready."
Lex sighed. "Fine, all right. You and your goddamned League were right. The internal review I put on the project found safety flaws. Someone screwed up on the power estimation curve. The test could have caused an overload. We might not be able to use the damn thing safely at all, and we're going to have to go back to board. I gave the order to shut the project down last week."
Clark said, "Lois's informant said they've been working on the test for a week."
Lex stared at him for a moment, then he threw back the covers and got out of bed to hit the intercom. "Jill, get Sloane on the phone now. I want to know what the fuck is going on in Northhampton."
He started dressing without a shower; Clark got up and zipped through the bathroom and into his clothes. Lex was slipping in his cufflinks when the intercom buzzed. "Sloane?" he said.
"Sir, I can't get her," the secretary said. "There's some kind of problem with the phones down there, I can't reach anyone but the operator at the main switchboard."
"I want my helicopter ready to go in five minutes, and make sure Dr. Stern and Dr. Liffey are on it." He flipped off the intercom. "How long do we have?"
Clark swung the cape over his shoulders. "Less than an hour, Lois said the test is going to be at eight. Lex, why would someone be trying to run it against your orders?"
"Two options." Lex was shrugging into his jacket. "Either it's just a smear attempt and they're setting it up to look like a near miss, or they really want to blow up half of the Metropolis morning rush hour."
"Half the—I have to go stop it now," Clark said.
"You can't," Lex said. "The damn thing's built out of kryptonite fragments. Wait—" He hit the intercom again. "I need an XL trooper suit on the roof, one of the shielded ones."
It was weird being in the suit: the helmet kept trying to feed him extra visual information he could see for himself, amplifying weird sounds, and it was like being underground: his skin missed the UV radiation; everything felt muffled. He couldn't move as fast; somehow the suit kept getting in the way. "Just remember, it isn't invulnerable, even if you are," Lex said in his ear over the radio. "A couple of punctures and you might as well not be wearing it. All you need to do is hold them back for fifteen minutes and my security team will be there, so don't do anything stupid. And don't let Sloane get away. If she's not dead, she's got some explanations to make."
"What does she look like?" Clark said, and jumped in mid-air when a picture window suddenly popped open in front of his left eye. "Hey, isn't she the woman who tried to sell the Joker—"
"Yes," Lex said slowly. "Yes, she is." He fell silent. Clark could see the smokestacks, the cars in the parking lot, and even Lois picking her way over the empty fields out back of the plant, heedless of the damage she was doing to her Manolos. He'd be there in a second. "This isn't a coincidence," Lex said abruptly. "Be careful. Assume they're expecting—"
And then Clark was smashing through the roof, and the radio dissolved into static.
Most of the staff spilled out of his way frantically: there was a LexCorp manual for how to react to Superman breaking into a facility; it told people to not offer resistance, just fall flat, and document any damage he did or any property he took away with him. Lex had let him read it. But when Clark smashed down into the lower level, the lights went out, and suddenly there were people firing at him: men and women in black clothing, moving with easy assurance in the dark.
Some of the bullets were kryptonite, but the armor deflected them into the walls. He sped up and went right past the shooters, some of the faces illuminated in the gunpowder flashes wearing calm and fixed expressions. He couldn't see through the walls, everything lined with lead, but he could hear a slow accelerating whine like an engine revving up, somewhere behind the poured concrete. He punched through another wall, moving towards the center of the building, and broke through into the main generator room; it was washed with lurid green light that made his stomach clench up instinctively.
He could feel the kryptonite radiation beating on the suit, trying to get in, a little of the malevolent energy seeping in around the visor; but it wasn't enough to hurt. Sloane and two men dressed in black were moving around the room, hurrying, operating machinery; another five people in lab coats were lying on the floor dead, blood pooling under them. "Hold it," Clark said: the helmet took his voice and amplified it, made it deeper and more threatening.
Sloane yelled something at the other two men, in some other language—maybe Japanese?—and kept working while they lunged at Clark. They didn't try to attack him, instead they just grabbed on to his arms and clung; he knocked the first one across the room, just gently enough not to kill him, and then realized belatedly the second one had a grenade in his hand. Clark grabbed for it too late: the explosion blew the man's torso apart, and tore a gaping hole into the arm of the suit.
He dropped to his knees, waves of vertigo swamping him, the veins churning and popping all along his arm. It wasn't nearly as bad as full exposure—his hands were shaking, but he could move, at least. He staggered and crawled over to the wreckage of the wall he'd come through—sheets of lead curled away from the concrete, and he managed to grab a long strip and wrap it around the arm over the torn hole.
Sloane had kept working feverishly the whole time—five minutes, maybe, but the engine was already roaring by the time Clark got up again and threw her away from the console, and the panel with the controls had been smashed into pieces. "Oh, great," Clark said, and looked at the generator: the pulsing green core was flaring, and all the coils were glowing white-hot, rings of sparking electrical energy bubbling up along the walls one after another—he didn't know what would happen if he just yanked the core out.
"Superman!" Lex was yelling into the radio, static crackling. "Superman, goddamn you, answer me!"
"I'm down in the generator!" he yelled back. "She wrecked the controls, can I just pull the thing—"
"No! You have to stop the overload first or it's still going to blow, now if I can just get these morons to figure out how you—" Lex's voice went muffled for a second—it sounded like he was talking to someone else next to him. "He doesn't need a conductor, you idiots, he's invulnerable—" His voice came back full force. "Superman, just get to ground, somehow—rip up the floor until you get to bare dirt, concrete, anything, then grab hold of one of the poles and channel the electricity until the reaction fails—"
Clark was already tearing up the thick insulated tiles, the layer of rubber under that, and then he caught one of the bare metal poles and held on while electricity poured over him like rain.
Sloane was sitting calmly in the metal chair, back straight, hands folded in her lap. She hadn't said a word to any of the five interrogators. Behind the one-way glass, Maggie Sawyer sighed and drained the rest of her coffee. "She won't even take her one goddamn phone call." She turned around. "Superman, I'm not looking to argue with you," she said, "but there aren't that many people out there who can make people keep their mouths shut like this, and Luthor's top of the list in this town. You sure he didn't know about this?"
"Captain Sawyer, if he wanted to blow up half of Metropolis, do you really think he wouldn't be out of town for the occasion?" Clark said.
"Yeah, all right. Fuck." She tossed the coffee cup into the trash. "That's it for leads, then. Her fingerprints aren't even on file."
Clark came out of the precinct house to a storm of flashbulbs and news camera lights and questions—"How did you find out about the sabotage?"—"Is it true that Lex Luthor called you in personally?"—"Witnesses say you were wearing a LexCorp suit during the incident, are you working for LexCorp now?"—
He dodged all of them by taking off into the air. He circled around to approach the penthouse from the opposite direction and darted in through the balcony doors faster than human eyes could follow. Lex was on the phones in the office, running his own investigation, the main point of which was how she'd gotten away with it. He was making more progress than Maggie, at least if you counted by the number of heads rolling.
Clark looked at his cell phone, which was doing a weird kind of tap-dance on the end table, vibrating with eleven missed calls and five voicemail messages: Lois, Lois, Lois, a couple from Chloe just to mix things up, and one, oh god, from his mom. Clark stripped off the costume and went for the shower first instead.
Lois's messages went from where the hell are you to I'm going to kick your ass to a final, grimly simple, we need to talk.
"Clark, what the fuck!" was all Chloe 's first message said. The second one was calmer and longer. "I should have figured something was up when you stopped calling me. Jesus Christ, Clark, do I even want to know what's going on? Call me, or I swear to god I'm going to break into your apartment and camp out until I see you."
His mom said, "Clark, please call me. I'm sure everything's all right, but I'm just feeling a little worried."
He deleted all of them and flipped the phone onto the table, and let himself fall back against the pillows. A little while later, Lex came out of the office and lay down next to him. "We've got a problem."
"Another one?" Clark said. He was feeling kind of fatalistic about it at this point.
"Mercenaries don't take jobs that involve deliberately blowing themselves up," Lex said, "and there's no chance Sloane didn't know what she was doing. That means she didn't try to sell you to the Joker for money. She did it to get my attention. The whole thing was a setup to plant her on me."
Clark rolled onto his side to face him. "Why? I mean, if they wanted to blow up Metropolis—"
"It wasn't just about blowing up Metropolis," Lex said. "For that matter, she could have pulled this particular piece of sabotage sooner, she was just trying to get me to sign off on the test first. Whoever is behind this wanted to make it look like I was responsible."
"So someone's out to get you?" Clark said.
"There are hundreds of people out to get me," Lex said. "This one has organization, money, fanatical followers, and complete disregard for collateral damage. That narrows the field considerably."
"Zero," Lex said. "No one I know about. And believe me, I know every enemy I've ever made."
Clark lay back and thought about it. "Actually," he said slowly, "maybe it's not about you. Or—it's not just about you. If you'd blown up half of Metropolis, even if you stayed out of jail, no one would let you help rebuild—"
Lex sat up. "Call your mom," he said, leaning over for the phone.
"What?" Clark said, blankly.
"Call your mother, tell her to get into town, go to the mansion, anywhere there are people—" Lex was pushing the intercom. "Jill, I want a security team on Martha Kent, in Smallville, also Lois Lane, Chloe Sullivan, Lana Lang—who else?" he demanded, looking at Clark. "Who else knows?"
Clark stared at him. "Pete," he said, "Pete Ross, but I haven't talked to him in years—Lois doesn't know—"
"Don't be an idiot, of course Lane knows," Lex said impatiently. "She's probably just been trying to let you tell her. Your clock's run out, though. Put a team on Pete Ross, and one on Perry White while you're at it," he added to the secretary, and hung up on her.
"Lex, what the hell—"
"Someone looking to destroy Metropolis can't just blow up a chunk of the city," Lex said. "They need to take me out, and they need to take you out. This overload—they could have done all three. You'd have gone in there and gotten killed by the kryptonite, I'd be a pariah, and there would be half a million people dead and a quarter of the city's water supply contaminated. They might as well have dropped a hundred-megaton bomb. Except they crapped out, so they're going to have to fall back on plan B."
"How do you know they've got a plan B?" Clark said, but he was already heading for the balcony, sweeping the city with x-ray vision. Lois was in the bathtub with her eyes closed, and the LexCorp team were already running up the stairs to her apartment; he was going to get hell for that. Perry was still at the Planet offices, having a yelling argument over the phone—
"Because their first step was going after you," Lex said. "They must have run surveillance on you for a couple of months, around the time they were hiring a bunch of assassins to go after me. The sabotage scenario was just more elegant—"
"I can't see Chloe," Clark said, his throat clenching around the words. "I can't see her anywhere."
"This is Chloe Sullivan, you know what to do," her voice said, cheerfully, after six rings. Again.
Lex reached out and took the phone out of Clark's hand. "If she was visible or audible you'd have found her by now. Stop wasting the energy."
"So what the hell do we do instead?" Clark said. "I can't just wait while they're—"
"If they wanted to kill her, she's already dead," Lex said brutally. "If they're going to use her as a hostage, she's fine for the moment. Until my people find a trail or they call us with demands, the best we can do is keep working on identification. If we don't know who these people are, we'll be walking in blind, and that's got more chance of getting her killed than anything else."
Clark let Lex push him down on the couch and even took the glass of brandy. "If I'd just called her back—" he said.
"Do you think these people are amateurs?" Lex said. "I guarantee you she was seized and secured in thirty seconds. Stop it."
Clark put his head down. "Let me have the phone," he said. "There's somebody I have to call."
"Now you're asking me to help him?"
"I'm asking you to help me," Clark said, tightly. "These people have Chloe. They just tried to blow up half of Metropolis—"
"You're assuming Luthor hasn't orchestrated this entire thing from the beginning," Batman said. "Sloane could be working for him. You could have been meant to stop the explosion. A few stagy assassination attempts— "
"His throat was slit!" Clark hissed into the phone. "If I'd been thirty seconds later he'd have been dead."
"You weren't," Batman said.
"And next week he's going to go back in time and shoot JFK, too," Clark said. "Why would he?"
"To convince you," Batman said.
"To convince you, obviously," Lex said, coming in. "Put pointy-ears on speakerphone, I've got something. Sloane matches the description of a former police officer who quit her job in Los Angeles and disappeared six years ago. Her last known movement was a trip to Nepal. She never came back, and the government claims not to know a thing about her."
"Luthor, if you're under the impression that a few random facts are going to convince me—" Batman said.
"Stop fucking around," Lex said, cuttingly. "If I am behind this, Metropolis isn't in immediate danger, and you've got a better chance of proving it if you're involved in the investigation. If I'm not, you're wasting time we don't have. Who do you have based in Nepal?"
There was a wealth of silence on the other end of the line. Finally, Batman said, "There's an ongoing Maoist insurgency, but there's no motive. There isn't enough of a Muslim population to make it a likely site for a major Al Qaeda operation—"
"Hang on a second," Clark said. "I don't think we should be focusing on terrorists. Terrorists want credit. These guys couldn't make much of a political statement if they were blaming the whole thing on you. Even someone like the Joker—he might blow up a city for the hell of it, but he'd want his name on it."
"So who the hell hates Metropolis enough that they just want to burn the city to the ground and salt the earth?" Lex shook his head. "It's got to be some kind of cause. You can't get two dozen highly trained operatives to throw themselves on grenades for your own personal vendetta. Not to mention the technology level—" He stopped abruptly. "Batman. How did you find out about the bug?"
Batman said, "Oracle got tipped off by an anonymous contact."
"They wanted you involved in this too," Lex said. "Whoever's behind this—"
"They're not from Nepal," Batman said suddenly. "They're from Bhutan."
"The League of Shadows," Lex said. "Nice name."
"They nearly destroyed Gotham nine years ago," Bruce said. In costume, he looked luridly out of place in the brilliantly-lit white-and-silver spareness of the LexCorp loading dock, like a gargoyle in a modern art museum. "Their leader was killed in the attempt. Apparently they've regrouped since then."
The LexCorp team was filing silently into the back of a converted Mack truck, thirty troopers with tasers and stun guns and canisters of gas. Lex pulled Clark into a storage room off the side and gave him a heap of black, weirdly shimmering material, like the uniforms some of the troopers were wearing. "It absorbs light once it's on," he said. "We're going to want to go in quiet."
Clark stripped and put it on; Lex was changing too. "You're not going out there," Clark said, catching his arm. "Lex, I'm not—I can't—" He didn't know how to finish the sentence; he wasn't sure Lex was his to lose.
Lex put a hand around the back of his head and pulled him in for a swift, hard kiss, rubbed his thumb along the side of Clark's neck, along the line of the soft black turtleneck, rasping a little against the start of his stubble. "I'm not the one who goes in for heroics, remember?" he said, smiling a little.
"Funny, that's not exactly what I remember," Clark said dryly.
Mercy knocked and put her head inside. "We're ready to move out."
Bruce disappeared while they were staking out the tenement. Clark didn't have time to track him down, too busy filtering out Chloe's heartbeat from all the rest: sluggish and hiccuping; they had her drugged or worse. "She's in the basement," he said. "God, Lex—"
"Unless they're stupid, they'll have kryptonite all over her," Lex said. "Just hang on. The team's almost in position. You take Mercy in with you, let her neutralize the kryptonite, then you grab Chloe and get the hell out. My people can take it from there."
"I don't like leaving you here," Mercy said, mulishly, arms folded across her chest.
"Relax, I'm not leaving the truck until the place is secure," Lex said. Mercy looked skeptical. "Hey—" He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder; she straightened to military attention like he'd flipped a switch. "You're the only person I'd trust with Clark's life," he said gently.
She flushed a hot, blotchy red along her cheekbones. "I've got to go finish suiting up," she said abruptly, and dashed away.
Clark muttered, "How come nobody asked me if I trust her with my life?"
"Who cares what you think?" Lex said. "You'd throw your life away to save a kitten out of a tree. I can't put you in a lead suit for this, but at least Mercy's going to bring you back to me in one piece."
"Everyone's in position, sir," one of the coordinators said, looking up from her computer station.
Mercy came up to Clark, two metal canisters slung on her back and a spray harness with them. "I'm ready."
Clark nodded. Lex said, "Hey," and when Clark turned to look at him, Lex kissed him, in front of the troopers and staff and God.
Clark smashed through the basement ceiling and then fell straight down to the floor, unceremoniously dropping Mercy on her ass. Apparently they weren't stupid. Small chunks of kryptonite had been scattered evenly all across the ground. Chloe was lying on a thin folding cot, head lolling limply, her wrists bruised and scraped by the handcuffs keeping her attached to the frame. Her mouth was crusted with dried blood.
Clark crawled towards her; behind him he could hear Mercy kicking the shit out of the two guards. He didn't bother caring when she snapped their necks, one after another.
"Stop moving, you idiot," Mercy said, hauling him up onto his feet and brushing the chunks off his skin. "Stand still."
She sprayed the floor all around him with the liquefied lead, until he was strong enough to snap the cuffs off and lift Chloe up. "Are you going to—"
"I'll be fine," she snapped. "Get out there and keep Lex from doing anything stupid!"
The hallways were already full of tear gas and gunfire; Clark went as fast as he could, shouldering his way through the debris and keeping Chloe's face tucked against his chest. He broke out into the street and shot across to the waiting medical van, the stretchers just coming out. "Is she—"
"No concussion. Looks like some kind of sedative," the doctor said, shining a light into Chloe's pupils. She flailed a little, batting at his hands weakly. "Dehydration. No signs of internal bleeding. Let's get an IV into her," he told one of the nurses, and nudged Clark off to one side as they rolled her away and up into the van. "You're done here, get out of the way."
Clark was a little taken aback; he'd gotten used to people acting a lot more—not exactly respectful, but impressed, maybe, when he was in the costume. He didn't mind: it was kind of nice not to be stammered and gawked at; Lex was going to smirk at him about it, though. He went around the corner, back to the truck command center, and froze: the coordinators were lying dead on the floor, throats slashed, blood on the keyboards; a man dressed in black was sprawled face down with an exit wound gaping in his back.
He threw himself back out blindly, flying on instinct: Lex was still breathing, somewhere close, raggedly but breathing—talking, now, to someone—
"So do you have something personal against major American cities? Because, Gotham, okay, I see your point, but Metropolis—"
"Gotham will drown in the cesspool of its own making sooner or later, when those who prop her up have fallen," a man answered. "But you will make of this city a monument to decadence that will stand a thousand years, spreading corruption throughout the world. No further, if you please, Mr. Kent," he added, as Clark shot around the corner. The man was tall, gaunt, with the brilliant eyes of a fanatic set deep in the hollows of his craggy face; and he was holding something like a syringe to Lex's throat, full of glowing, virulent green. "If I release the trigger, he will be injected instantly; you likely know better than I what effect that would have upon him."
"Don't do anything he says," Lex said sharply. "Clark, don't—"
Clark tried not to let his voice crack. "If you hurt him—"
"I fear neither death nor pain," the man said. "Not of the body, in any case; and my spirit is not vulnerable even to your remarkable powers. Khandu, if you please—Mr. Kent, you will not move," he added, as another man dressed and masked in black slipped out of the shadows, a lead box in his hands.
"Goddamnit, Clark, go," Lex snarled. "They'll just kill both of us—"
"The choice is yours, Mr. Kent," the man said calmly. "I will certainly kill Mr. Luthor if you move."
He was barely holding down the trigger; Clark could see the mechanism ready to spring. Even if he grabbed it, moving as fast as he could—The man with the lead box was in front of him, opening it wide.
The box was empty. Clark stared, jerked his head up and looked through the mask, and then he went down to his knees. "Clark," Lex said, sounding like someone had put a knife into his gut.
"Now, Mr. Luthor," the man said, taking out a cell phone, "you will call your broker and transfer your entire holdings of LexCorp stocks to the following account in the Cayman Islands." He rattled off a number.
"Close the box," Lex said. "Close the box and tell Clark to leave, or I don't make the call."
The man smiled, faintly. "I will order Khandu to do so," he said, "or I can remove the syringe. The choice is yours."
"The syringe," Clark said. "Lex, the syringe, please—"
"The box," Lex said.
"No—" Clark said. In front of him, Bruce's eyes went narrow with surprise.
"Ah," the man said, and released the trigger.
The world was suddenly measured in the contraction and release of muscle cells, the uncoiling of a spring. Dust specks hovering in the weak streetlamp glare slowed and stilled entirely. Clark felt like his arms and legs were weighted down, impossibly heavy; his chest struggled to stay expanded enough for his lungs. The edges of the light started to bend. The solution was traveling down the needle. The veins on his hand started to pulse and glow green as he reached for it.
He ripped it out of Lex's throat: blood and green kryptonite droplets spattered his hand, and time started moving again. "Clark," Lex said, catching him, staggering under his weight. They sank down together as the syringe smashed on the ground.
The man had turned and fled down the alleyway; Batman went after him. "You idiot," Clark managed, coughing, while Lex wiped away solution from his skin.
"Shut up, like you can talk," Lex said. He heaved Clark back up after another minute. The rest of the kryptonite solution was running away into the spiderweb-cracked street, green radiance fading.
"I'm okay," Clark said, shaking his head to throw off the dizziness. "I need to—"
"Go after him," Lex said impatiently, picking up his gun where it had skittered away into a corner. "Go! I'm fine."
Clark shot up into the air, following the sound of Bruce's quick breathing, an athlete's efficiency to it. He was fighting the other man hand-to-hand; they'd already wound up on the rooftops, traveling from one to the next. They paused, breaking apart for a moment.
"You know I can stop you, Ra's," Batman said.
"You would do better to help my escape," Al Ghul said. "Have you learned nothing tonight?"
"I learned you're still alive," Bruce said.
Ra's Al Ghul's mouth twitched. "Do you regret that?"
"I regret that you came back to harm more innocent people," Bruce said.
"Far more innocents will continue to suffer, so long as those with the power to end corruption hesitate to do what must be done," Al Ghul said. "Nine years ago, your cowardice preserved a city rotten to the core. Your work tonight has been more grievous still."
"You think Superman's going to let Luthor use him?" Bruce said. "He's not as stupid or weak-willed as you seem to think."
"Once again, you allow sentiment to blind you to the truth," Ra's said. "You imagine you see a hero in danger of corruption, a villain with a scheme for power. You fear the wrong things."
They feinted at each other; a flurry of blows back and forth.
"As I once told you, criminals are not complicated," Ra's said. "Alone, Luthor might be a second Alexander, and conquer the world only to despair at the end of his ambitions. But your friend will make of him an Augustus, and together they will raise an empire to outlast Rome and Babylon."
"You almost make it sound—appealing," Bruce said, lunging. Al Ghul ducked under the blow and whirled away.
"Ten years from now, you may not find it so," Al Ghul said.
Clark landed behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. Al Ghul stopped fighting and straightened, letting his arms drop to his sides, dignified. He inclined his head to Batman. "Remember what I have said, when the time comes. We may yet fight together some day, you and I."
"Don't let that happen," Bruce said quietly.
Clark turned and looked over his shoulder at him. Al Ghul and his remaining lackeys, in handcuffs and leg-irons, were being herded into prison trucks under the watchful eye of the LexCorp troopers and camera floodlights; the press had shown up ten minutes ago, almost beating the police to the scene; after all, Chloe was one of their own, which made it even more of a story.
"Ra's has a skewed viewpoint," Bruce added, "but he's not wrong to be concerned. Any reasonable person would be worried about you and Luthor teaming up permanently."
"If you're still stuck on the idea that Lex is just setting me up—"
"No, I'm not," Bruce said. "Not anymore. That's what concerns me." He drew back into the shadows at the end of the alleyway, vanishing away quickly into the maze of streets and human life.
CNN was on the television and a half-dozen newspapers were scattered across the bedspread. Lois was sitting next to Chloe's bed. Their heads both swiveled to look at Clark together as he came hesitantly into the doorway. "Hey," he said quietly. "Can I come in?"
Chloe rolled her eyes. "Fortunately, the sanity test for admission hasn't been implemented yet."
He fumbled the flowers into a vase and settled into the hard plastic chair, conscious of their eyes on him. Chloe looked okay—a little washed-out under the bruises, still, but that awful greyness was gone, and her eyes were bright. "So," he said. The uncomfortable silence lingered. "Are you—how are you feeling?" he asked, desperately.
Lois abruptly grabbed her bag and got up. "I'll see you later, Chloe." She walked out.
Clark dropped his eyes and stared at his hands while the click-click-click of her heels faded away down the hall. "I'm sorry," he said.
"That's kind of general," Chloe said. "What for? The part where you've apparently decided to be BFF with Lex again—"
"Chloe," Clark said, interrupting. "Chloe, I'm not—I'm not friends with Lex."
"Right, you've just coincidentally started helping LexCorp out with—" She stopped. "That's not what you meant."
"No," Clark said.
Chloe was quiet for so long Clark wondered if he should take it as a signal to go. "Okay," she said finally, "and you've completely ruled out the possibility of mind control, mood-altering drugs, red kryptonite—"
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner," he said. "I didn't... I didn't think it was going to last."
"Wow, a brief shining moment of rationality!" Chloe said. Clark flinched. She ran her hands through her hair. "God. Clark, after everything he's done—have you just wiped the last ten years out of your memory or something?"
"It's—complicated," he said, lamely. "And kind of a long story."
Chloe deliberately plumped up her pillows, leaned back, and raised her eyebrows. "I'm listening. And it had better be the Odyssey."
He caught Lois again that afternoon at the Planet offices. She shrugged and got up without a word when he asked her to go have coffee, and stalked ahead of him the whole way to the Starbucks on the corner.
"I'm sorry," Clark said, after they'd sat down at the table furthest in the back. He felt like a broken record, but he wasn't sure what else to say. He'd seen Lois pissed off before; he'd been the target a few times himself; but not like this—so quiet and tense. "I should've told you a long time ago."
"Oh, Clark, for—" She shook her head. "Look, I'm not going to pretend I wasn't pissed at you for lying to me about—" she waved a hand. "But I got over that a long time ago. I figured you didn't owe me your secret. You had a right to your privacy, you wanted a normal life, blah blah—"
"I did," he said quietly. "But I should have figured out you already knew, I just—I convinced myself that no one could figure it out, that it really was a secret. Something I could forget about when I wasn't wearing the costume." He looked down at his coffee.
She blew out a long slow breath and slumped back in her chair.
"I've never told anyone," Clark added. "People have found out parts of it, and I've told them—some of the rest, but I've never—" He stopped.
"You don't need to give me excuses, not for that," Lois said. "I wasn't lying when I said I'm over it. Not that I object to some good hearty groveling," she added, with a hint of her usual snap, "but goddamnit, you know that's not—" She stopped and looked away, fingers tight on the cup. He braced himself.
"I've gone to jail to protect a source, Clark," she said. "I've kept secrets on my knees with a gun in my mouth. And you—you gave Lex information from my source. You told the fucking target about the investigation. You weren't being a hero, you didn't know there were people about to blow up the freaking city, you weren't even drunk. You just—told him."
He hunched his shoulders. It hurt because it was true, and because there were no excuses to give her. "I know. I'm sorry." He swallowed. "I'm in love with him," he said, helplessly, turning his hand up.
"Right now I'm mad enough I don't care how you fuck up your own life, so I'm not even going to get into how screwed up that is," she said. "Because you know what, Clark, you did owe me that. You owed me that information, and you owed it to me six months ago, or whenever it was you started fucking him, not yesterday."
There wasn't anything to say to that. She was right.
"I don't know where we go from here," she said eventually. "I don't know how soon I'm going to be able to forgive you for this, and even if that were tomorrow, I still don't know how we handle this. He owns half the city, and unless you make out with him in the middle of Herald Square sometime in the next six weeks, he's going to be the fucking governor. Even international news is going to be iffy if it affects the state, and forget about anything on the Metro beat."
"I know," Clark said. He bent his head over his coffee cup and twitched the stirrer. "I already talked to Perry."
Lois stilled. "You did."
"Yeah," Clark said.
She was silent. "Christ, and already I'm a liar; obviously I do care," she said. "What the hell are you going to do?"
He had dinner in Smallville with his mom, full of questions: more anxious, even if they were softer, and no easier to answer. He did the chores in the setting sun, though for once there wasn't much to do; the LexCorp team that his mother had refused to let into the house had apparently been using their high-tech security training to sneak around fixing tractors and milking cows.
The team was still camped out right across the boundary line of the farm, on the neighboring land owned by LexCorp. Now that they weren't on alert, they weren't wearing their helmets, and all of them were young, twenty-something boys and girls with spit-polish manners and earnest faces, most of them working to save up for college. They were staying in tents.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart, I'm just not comfortable accepting this," Martha said firmly, with just a hint of reproach that he'd even asked her to.
Clark gave her a week before she broke down and had them in for a cup of coffee.
He flew back to the penthouse late, the city lights beckoning him on. The balcony doors were open; Lex was lying sprawled on the couch, cuffs loose and eyes closed, bottle of Scotch on the table again.
"You shouldn't be drinking this much," Clark said, coming in. He picked up the bottle to inspect the level. "Are you okay?"
"I'm not too drunk to break up with, if that's what you're wondering," Lex said.
"What?" Clark jerked his head up.
Lex didn't open his eyes. "If Batman somehow forgot to give you the lecture, I'm sure your friends didn't, much less your mom."
Clark slowly sat down. "They didn't tell me anything I didn't already know."
"So that would cover megalomania, corruption, ruthless disregard for other human beings, avarice, lust, pride, et cetera," Lex said. "Actually, I'm feeling pretty impressed with myself. It's not every criminal mastermind who can inspire other criminal masterminds to try and kill him to save the world."
He reached out blind but unerring for the glass. Clark put his hand over Lex's and held him still. "Lex—" Clark stopped. "You know there are things I can't do," he said. "I can't—I can't look the other way if you're hurting people. I can't—"
Now Lex did open his eyes, and drew his hand back as he propped himself on an elbow. "Maybe I am too drunk for this conversation. What are you trying to do, set boundaries?" He laughed, shortly. "What's the point? I'm not who you want me to be. It's only a matter of time. You've spent most of the last ten years sabotaging the projects I've spent the last ten years building. What happens the next time I start something you don't like?"
"We managed okay with this one," Clark said.
"If you don't count nearly getting Metropolis blown up and both of us killed," Lex said. "For that matter, doing LexCorp exposés is pretty much your day job."
"It's not. Not anymore," Clark said. Lex frowned. Clark shrugged. "I'm switching to an op-ed column, three days a week. It's okay," he added. "I can use it to talk about things I've seen, issues that aren't being addressed." Clark trailed off. Lex was staring at him; there was something familiar in the expression, and abruptly Clark's memory gave it back to him: a moment on a riverbank in Smallville, a long, long time ago.
"And I suppose in your plan, I'm going to be addressing those issues," Lex said, cutting, sarcastic, even though his voice was cracking around the edges. "We'll clean up slums and cure cancer and put a man on Mars—"
"So what do you want to do?" Clark yelled, standing up, hands clenching. "You're the genius, you tell me how we make this work—"
But Lex was standing up too, reaching for him, and then he cupped Clark's face in both his hands and was kissing him, hard desperate kisses, all over his lips, his face, thirstily, until Clark had to put his hands on Lex's waist to steady himself, to hold them both up. "We can't," Lex said savagely, still kissing him. "We can't, you know we can't—"
"Yes, we can," Clark said, full of terror and elation. Below them, their city spread out into the night, glittering tendrils sprawling away in every direction, curved with the surface of the earth. "We can, Lex. We can do anything."
= End =
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