It's such a bleak night, the streets below valleys of rain. The perfect time for watching the boy fail once again.
The impulse to do so is purely masochistic, except for that grim sadistic pleasure of knowing that Lex isn't the only one who fails. Seeing his own futile efforts reflected in the boy's desperate quest to bring back his dead friend assuages Lex's frustration.
He should fight Bruce for the boy. Successful cloning of a human-kryptonian hybrid as a college freshman - Lex hasn't seen anything this impressive since meeting a teenage alien, oh so many years ago.
But of course, Lex isn't cut to play father to anyone, even less so than Bruce is.
He had a son, but his son is dead.
The lab is in a cave. There are no bats, but the shadows take their shape. Seeing the boy hover, just at the edge of the aureole the cloning tank casts into the darkness, Lex knows that all attempts to turn him into an ally would be futile, as futile as trying to turn Bruce himself.
The liquid in the tank is green. The colour of sickness for Kryptonians, the colour of eternal health for Lex. No colour at all for the mindless body inside.
The boy is checking the readouts on his consoles. Will he give up attempt number eight, too? Eight looks healthy, very much like the original did, back when Lex stood before his floating body, touching the glass between them like the boy is touching it now.
Lex does of course know the boy's name, and pretty much everything else about him. He has met him, and even had long conversations with him on the internet before the boy found out who he was talking to. For some time, the boy was Lex's window into his son's life, and his preferred way of getting information to his son - like the fact that half of Kon's DNA came from Lex. You could count on the fact that everything you told this boy would eventually find its way to Kon.
The boy is Tim Drake, who took on the identity of Batman's partner Robin, when the last Robin died. Lex will never understand how it is perfectly acceptable for Bruce Wayne to send children into war when Lex was once condemned for much lesser crimes. But then, Lex has suspected for a long time that Clark's morals are anything but consistent.
"Damn it," the boy says between clenched teeth. Lex toasts the screen with his glass of scotch.
"You're alive. Why don't you wake up?"
The boy doesn't know how lucky he is. Lex has seen bizarros. He has made bizarros.
"It doesn't have a soul."
His first, irrational thought is that the speaker must be Bruce. Batman is certainly capable of entering the penthouse unnoticed and he would probably be furious if he knew that Lex was watching his youthful charge. But the voice is wrong. Bruce speaks from the shadows, but this voice is made of shadows.
Lex turns in his office chair. He has gun in his desk, loaded with bullets made of kryptonite and Nth-metal and silver, but the windows are the better bet. They're not soundproof. All Lex has to do is to yell.
His visitor stands in front of the windows that take up one wall of the study, hands clasped behind his back, gazing down at the city. He wears black, or what looks like black in the pale light of the laptop screen, and has a mane of grizzled hair.
Lex breathes in and out very slowly. One look and he is certain. His visitor is not human. His visitor is not even fully there. A blink, a false move, and he will be gone. The entity takes up the whole room, bending space like a black hole.
Lex won't see his face and he can't stop picturing it. It's a familiar one.
"A soul?" Lex inquires calmly.
"There is a multitude of names I might give, but this is the most common one. It lacks a soul. Without it, it will never be the one you are trying to bring back."
The voice is sharp nails and hot breath down the back of Lex's neck.
"Who are you?"
"A business partner."
In any other situation, Lex would not accept that answer, but he has a pretty good idea who he is talking to.
It doesn't mean that he's terribly impressed. In the last twenty years he has faced more than one hell god and heavenly creature. "We'll see about that if you make an offer that interests me."
"It is a simple trade and as old as mankind," the visitor replies with a smile in his voice, still not turning away from the window. "Your soul for his."
He speaks in absolute, unquestionable truths. Lex knows the stories. This one doesn't lie and he always keeps his word.
"It's been said I sold my soul a long time ago."
"Was there a buyer?" the visitor asks, as simply as that. It doesn't require an answer, so Lex replies with a question.
"What are your conditions?"
The morning is bright, the skies blank and clean. Lex sits on the Eastern balcony, facing the sunrise. He has sat here since the morning star faded and gave way to dawn. It stopped raining right around then and now the world is fresh and damp like a newborn.
Lex doesn't see where Clark comes from, but there's a moment when he hovers, still as a distant mirage, over the city. The divine apparition is framed by sunlight so radiant that it almost fills the hollow inside Lex.
He notes that he has not lost his capacity for awe, or his appreciation for beauty.
Then Clark is above him, red-booted feet not quite touching the railing of the balcony and crosses his arms. The cape flaps as if on cue.
"Probably," Lex says to annoy him. He feels that he has earned some indulgence.
Clark glowers. Lex wonders when he will take time to be happy. "Conner is back. They brought him back! Did you know what they were trying to do? Did you help them?"
'They' are named Tim Drake, but Clark either can't accept that a teenager could achieve something like that, or thinks he has to hide it from Lex, which is downright silly considering that he has just accused Lex of being an accomplice.
"You might say I supplied the last, crucial ingredient," Lex concedes.
For a long time, Clark looks down on him, stony and disapproving. "How could you let them do that? What if they had created a monster that looked like Kon?"
"Have you seen him?" Lex asks. He's interested. He hasn't had the energy to go and get a look at his son yet.
It's all it takes to soften Clark, to make him look down. The unearthly glow subsides to a slight blush. "Yeah. He's alright, just a bit shaken. He's been gone for more than a year." Clark doesn't say 'You know how it is', but it's implicit in his tone. They've both been gone a couple of times each. "But it's really him, we had people confirm it."
"Who?" Clark knows a lot of people Lex thinks very little of.
Lex nods. Dr Fate is a competent man, even though he is a wizard and affiliated with the Justice League. He gave Lex a quiet room and a whiteboard when Lex returned from the Source, when his mind was still afire and just recently deprived of omniscience. That was more than twelve years ago, but he and Dr Fate still meet sometimes for a game of chess.
"It's Conner's soul," Clark adds, as if he knows what that means. "It's really him."
"Then why aren't you with him?" Lex asks, because he is getting tired of this conversation. Or maybe just tired in general. It's been a hard night's work. Soul-selling is a demanding business.
Clark frowns, but it's that uncomfortable, vaguely guilty frown that Lex knows so well. Predictably, it makes him reply with an accusation of his own. "I thought Kon might need some time with his friends. You still shouldn't have helped Robin to bring him back. It could have gone horribly wrong."
It went horribly wrong a couple of times, but Robin destroyed all failed attempts before they could gain consciousness. Lex doesn't think Clark needs to know that. "I didn't," he says, and gets up. The conversation is over. They haven't bothered with politeness in more than twenty-five years, so Lex just goes inside and Clark flies away. Off into the sunrise, Lex imagines.
Twenty-five years, that's roughly how long they have been enemies. It's hard to say. They weren't friends since Clark's senior year of highschool, and what they are now is hardly what most people would call enemies. The only clear date is the day Clark put on the costume and went public and that was twenty-five summers ago, when Clark was twenty-one.
Outside observers might think that their enmity started there because Lex hated Superman on sight, but really it is quite the opposite. Lex felt glad the night he first saw Clark in the suit. The suit was a message that Lex had been waiting for. It said, "I'm strong. I'm ready to play this game. I'm a man now."
It was like a written invitation for Lex to stop holding back. And what was more: Clark's first act as Superman was an interview, broadcast by all TV stations within minutes of taking place.
"My name is Kal-El. I'm the last survivor of the planet Krypton. I'm here to save you." Just three sentences, but they were all Lex needed. They were the truth.
He was still watching the interview in an endless loop, the ghostly reflections of the screen fluttering over his face when Clark came to him. The media had already dubbed him Superman, mistaking the Kryptonian symbol on his chest for an "S", but Lex knew better. Clark was wearing the cape, a glorious red even in the moonlight as it fluttered behind him. He flew outside Lex's opened windows, just like he had been hovering right now, arms crossed over his chest, expression stern and confident.
Lex got up from his desk, turned off the TV and walked over to the window, taking it all in.
"Join me," he offered. "Together we can do anything."
It was a strange moment. They both knew that he would make that offer, and they both knew that Clark would refuse. And still Lex felt chilled to the bone by Clark's grim, "I will never join you."
Chilled, and then a moment later, burning with anger. The slow simmering rage that he had felt for years finally turned into a full-out flame. He hated Superman with a passion. The first passion he had felt in a long time, a passion that carried him all through the following years, forward, forward, always powerful.
These days the old passion is long gone. Things have become a lot more complex.
It's getting time for work, but Lex cancels all his appointments. He undresses, lies down in his bed and remains in dreamless sleep until evening.
In the first moments after waking, Lex feels groggy and confused. The light's not right, it's low and rich with colour, an early evening light, and there was no alarm rousing him.
Lex isn't used to sleeping through the day. He lived a very ordered life the last year. The year before that, when the world almost went to hell again, he was on the run and never knew if he'd get sleep at all, but this last year has been so regular that he has fallen into a rigid rhythm of work and sleep. He has no social life to speak of - except that which is part of his work - and he cut all the ties he made in his political career. Considering that he was one of the most infamous presidents the US ever had, Lex is now surprisingly low profile, back in his old role as LexCorp's CEO.
It's almost a bit like that first year in Smallville, when Lex sometimes felt like he was nobody, living right in the middle of nowhere, except that now, it doesn't bother him in the least. He has had his taste of fame and power and it'll be a while until he craves it again.
However, sleeping through the day has thrown him off his rhythm. That must be why he has such a hard time waking. On most days he probably wouldn't have gone to bed in the first place, working through the exhaustion instead. But this morning when he lay down, it somehow didn't feel necessary.
Lex can't remember the last time he had to force himself to get out of bed.
But as he stands in the shower, Lex's reason kicks in and he realizes what is so wrong. Sleep was pitch black with oblivion.
Oblivion. That word sticks to the back of his eyelids, unwilling to let go. He goes over it again and again and then there's a moment when the walls creep closer, and the water runs cold down his back, stifling him with trepidation.
He has forgotten something.
He recalls this morning, his conversation with Clark, and he recalls the night before. He recalls the strange visitor and his offer.
Lex clenches his teeth and gets out of the shower. He puts on his stiffest white shirt and one of the suits that make his slight frame look bulky and muscular. Lex hasn't aged since he turned thirty, but he puts all his fashion skill into creating an illusion of age. He chooses a severe charcoal tie, and then, finally, makes his way down.
All the way down LexCorp tower, into the basement. This tower was built five years ago, when Lex returned from his stint as president. It's the fourth iteration of the LexCorp building. All earlier ones have been destroyed in the never-ending titanic battle that is Metropolis.
The room where Lex is heading isn't on any of the plans. Only he has the key for it. It isn't lead-lined, or in any other way fortified, and Lex keeps no kryptonite there, because he isn't guarding the room from Superman. There's very little in the room that Clark doesn't know about, in fact, much of what is in there concerns Clark - incidentally, because the room is about Lex, and anything that is about Lex will in some way be shaped by Clark.
The room is small. Information doesn't take up a lot of space. This isn't a museum, it's an ark, so there are no pictures and artefacts on display, just empty white walls. An ark for Lex's memory, for he has learned to guard himself against the tides of oblivion. People keep messing with his mind and his memory, and Lex saves back-up copies of his life more religiously than his employees save copies of their hard-drives. There are dead man switches that activate if he doesn't update regularly, to remind him of the existence of this room. Automatic mail is sent whenever he returns after being kidnapped, arrested or checked into a hospital.
The latest file has been added two days ago, and it denotes that there was nothing of interest to add. Lex closes it and opens the big checklist instead. In there are the turning-points, the traumata, the pivotal moments of Lex Luthor.
He goes through it item by item. Meteor shower 1989. Mom killed Julian. I killed Duncan.
It goes on like this, until there's the first entry for Clark, followed by many others. Lex stares at it for a moment, the words right there, so plain.
I hit Clark with my car. He saved my life. Clark is an alien, and he can't be hurt by anything but kryptonite and magic.
Lex has written and rewritten this entry, until it became as sparse as it is now. He suddenly can't remember why he bothered at all.
There's the little and the big tragedies of his Smallville years on the list. Helen, the island, Belle Reve, Zod, Lana... followed by the impersonal conquests and defeats of his Metropolis years. Superman, the Justice League, the secret identities and weaknesses of almost any notable superhero and villain, each have their own entries. Lex skims every item and calls up the appropriate memory. Nothing is missing in his inventory.
Except the hours in which he made the deal. Dimly he remembers agreeing, but everything before or after blurs the more he tries to recall it. He can't remember the conditions he must have negotiated. He can't remember what happened after he agreed.
Lex closes down the room and goes back to the elevator, ascending once more into the lofty heights of the penthouse. He numbly goes through the routine motions of checking that LexCorp still stands and has survived the day without him, and then forces himself to drink a coffee and eat an apple.
Lex sold his soul, but he doesn't remember it.
Beyond the arrival of his visitor, there are only fragments, intangible as fog, turning to nothing whenever he tries to touch them. Echoes of conversation, of a familiar voice, like the memory of a dream. The after-taste of firm resolve, sweet and bitter like sugared coffee. Lex doesn't doubt that he has made this decision. He has sold his soul.
Lex forces himself to stop staring into space and moves into his study. He hasn't had to deal with this sort of aimlessness since his early twenties. Probably it's best to draw a line, to have a look at Kon and finally get over this strange obsession and move on to more productive things.
There are a couple of places Kon is most likely to be found - the Teen Titans tower in San Francisco, the farm in Smallville, where he lived with Mrs Kent the two years before he died, or if he is in a sulk, Hawaii, where the boy spent the first months of his life after escaping from Cadmus Labs where he was created.
Lex has surveillance equipment in all these places. The farm is the trickiest, because Clark is very careful in places where his secret identity might be discovered. But Lex has access to the most modern of equipment. The cameras are fully organic, and to Clark's x-ray vision, they will look like ordinary flies and spiders.
But except for Martha Kent, who looks more cheerful and sprightly than she has in a while, the farm is deserted. Mrs Kent has become a frail old woman. She's one of the few tangible reminders of how old Clark and Lex have gotten, because it sure as hell doesn't show on their own, ageless faces. Lionel, if he still lived, would look positively ancient by now and it's a never-ending source of joy for Lex to imagine him weak and senile in some nursing home.
The Titans tower looks like a bomb hit the common room, which is usually a sign of either an epic battle or a party having taken place, but there's no sign of Kon, Tim Drake or any of their other teenage friends except for the psychic and the green shape-shifter, who, as far as Lex knows, aren't very close to his son.
It's night in Hawaii and people are partying on the beaches, but Kon isn't visible in any of his usual hiding places.
There's Clark's apartment in Metropolis, but Kon never goes there. He and Clark have a strange relationship. It took Clark years to trust his clone and those were Kon's formative years. By the time he accepted Kon into his family and gave him his name it was too late for Kon to ever consider Clark a real parent.
But Lex cannot blame Clark. It isn't as if he offered Kon a family, or a name, for that matter. All Lex did was create him, eleven years ago, when Clark was dead for the second time.
Lex leans back in his chair, gazing thoughtfully at the laptop, fingers steepled. Calls up the list of bugs and cameras in his Kon file. An older one catches his eye, and he accesses it.
It shows a cave in the inanely named little town of Happy Harbour.
The cave is still full of the traces of inhabitation by a group of teenagers. Graffiti on the walls, discarded toys, fast food wrappers and all the other debris children leave behind when not forced to tidy up behind them. Before watching Kon, Lex never realised how messy kids are. Compared to these children, Lex was never a child at all.
His intuition has served him well. There they are: Kon, in his well-worn old T-shirt with the crest of the House of El and a newer looking pair of jeans, sits on the floor with his back leant against the wall. With him are Cassie Sandsmark, Bart Allen and Tim Drake.
Lex fixes his eyes on Kon. His son looks a lot like Clark. He has the same dark, tousled hair, even though he cuts it shorter than Clark ever has. His face is strong, angular, handsome, but he has Lex's lips, his chin, his blue eyes. Physically, he looks like a teenager, sixteen maybe, not much older than Clark when Lex first met him. Actually Kon is only eleven, ten if you don't count the year he was dead, but mentally, he is far more... well, not mature than Clark, because Clark was always so terribly earnest, but he's more experienced than either Clark or Lex were when they were eleven. He has none of that wide-eyed, fresh faced innocence that seemed to coat Clark like a suit of armour, making it impossible for Lex to get as close as he wanted to. Kon had to take care of himself ever since he fled Cadmus Labs - or at least, he must have felt that he took care of himself, even though Lex has been subtly influencing his life all these years. Kon is far from virginal, and has probably seen more crime and violence than Lex had when he was twenty-one.
But unlike either Lex or Clark, Kon is full of careless, youthful spirit. Secrets and subterfuge are alien to him. And Lex might not have given him a sheltered childhood, but he didn't make him a Luthor, either.
It's one of the few things of which Lex has ever been truly proud.
Lex switches on the sound to hear what they're saying.
" - sucked. All funerals suck," says Bart Allen, who seems unable to stay in one place, flitting about the room as furtive as an electron. Named after the first Flash, he's another scrawny, red-headed speedster and one of Kon's closest associates. Friends, Lex amends. Kon doesn't have associates.
Kon grins at them. It's almost believably nonchalant. "So, who cried?"
Cassie's pretty face goes stony. "That's not funny," she says in a tight voice. Wonder Girl was Kon's girlfriend before he died, but now she sits at a curious distance on an old couch, stiff and tense with her hands in her lap and her blond hair in a tight ponytail, staring at him like he'll vanish any second.
Lex knows why she looks guilty. He wonders if she's happy that her boyfriend's back or if she's only thinking about how to keep her misadventures a secret from him. Most people prefer romance to be easy and straightforward and let it drop as soon as it becomes tainted with complication.
Lex, who has never loved without complication, sometimes wonder if other people love at all, or if they just chase some ideal, always missing the real thing. And it's the same with Kon. He's back, and they should be so glad, but people seem more shocked than happy to have Kon back. Clark certainly considered it a problem.
Lex isn't sure about Robin. Drake's face is inscrutable behind the black domino mask. He's the only of the four who's in costume, leaning against the wall at Kon's side, shrouded in his cape and subtly standing guard. But Lex believes that the boy must be as satisfied as he is by the outcome of this project, otherwise he wouldn't have pursued it so doggedly, wouldn't have thrown away all pretence of morals to get what he wanted.
"Sorry," Kon says, more embarrassed than contrite. "I'm back now. So where's the point in moping, guys?"
"It's not that easy. A lot happened while you were gone," Cassie explains.
"Hey!" Bart cocks his head to the side. "Maybe lots of stuff happened to Superboy, too. You haven't told us anything yet. What's it like, being dead? Wally said that the Green Arrow said that when he died he went to heaven and - "
"I don't remember anything," Kon shrugs, interrupting the staccato stream of chatter. "I guess it's like sleeping? Without, you know, weird dreams."
Bart looks immensely relieved. "So it's not like in season six of Wendy the Werewolf Stalker? Tim didn't rip you out of heaven and you're going to be all broody and angry at us?"
Kon stares at him, then bursts into laughter. "So you did finally watch those episodes?"
Bart nods, a blur of motion.
"So, what did happen while I was gone?" Kon asks them. "I can't believe it's been more than a year!"
Bart shrugs, then waves his hands about. "We recruited some new Titans because you were gone and I couldn't use my powers for a while. And Cassie tried to bring you back with this weird cult, but it didn't work."
Everyone stills, and Bart realizes his blunder. "Oh."
Cassie jumps up. "Do you ever think at all before you speak, Bart? Sometimes I really hate you!" She flies off so fast it rattles the old couch. Bart looks unhappy, vibrating with agitation. Kon frowns, then looks up at Tim, who still stands next to him.
"What was that about, Rob?"
"Some fanatics started a cult to bring you back with Kryptonian rituals," Tim reports calmly. "Cassie joined them for a while. She left them when it became clear that it was a hoax."
And just time in not to get in trouble when Lex eradicated the so-called Cult of Conner. Now that he has sold his soul to bring Kon back, the pseudo-Kryptonian magic seems uncomfortably less like nonsense.
Kon grimaces, then gets up to pace. "That sucks. Is she okay? I mean, she's not... ?"
"Crazy?" Tim asks, raising his brows under the mask.
Kon looks awkward. "Yeah."
"Cassie's not crazy!" Bart opines. "Everyone was just really sad. Tim cloned you. Even Luthor put up that giant statue of you in Metropolis!"
It's not a giant statue. It's a tasteful and dignified monument. And it was great PR when Lex put it up.
Clark's respectful article in the Planet was a real surprise, though.
Kon, however, looks appalled. "Luthor did what?"
"C'mon I'll show you!" Bart zips out of the cave, and Kon grabs Tim to follow him flying. A second later, the window on Lex's screen shows on a quiet, deserted cave. He leans back in his chair thoughtfully.
It's no surprise that Kon doesn't like the idea of Lex putting up that statue. He doesn't like anything that implies a connection between him and his criminal father. Still, Lex likes to believe that Kon hates him less than he hated Lionel.
So far, Kon seems to be alright. He's his old self. Being dead doesn't seem to have damaged him.
And that, in Lex eyes, makes the bargain he made a good one.
About five minutes later, there's an intruder alert on the roof of the tower. For years that roof was lead-lined and armed with a defence system chock full with laser beams and kryptonite bullets, but these days there is a large pool, a gurgling fountain, some greenery and some very comfortable lounge chairs. The heavy fortifications are far less visible than they used to be. It is quite certainly the nicest roof of Metropolis, especially around this time of year, when the evenings are long and the air is balmy.
Lex gives Grace and Deliverance a call to keep them from storming the roof and goes up himself. Either it's Clark, or it's someone from whom Clark is going to save him. Lex's own security is mostly for show these days, to the point where he picks them by looks and by name. Mercy, god bless her, would be appalled, but Mercy is in well-deserved retirement.
It's Clark. Superman stands, with his arms crossed over the S-shield of the suit, on the other side of the pool. He's framed entirely by sky that is blushing in an aching sunset above, mirrored by the calm water below. All things have long shadows, but Clark has only his reflection.
Lex ambles over to the pool. He has never taken a swim there, but he might just do so one of these days.
"Batman examined the cloning technology Robin used," Clark begins without preamble. "None of it is LexCorp technology. What were you talking about when you said you supplied him with something?"
Lex smiles. "Did you consider that it was something less material I provided?"
It's entirely expected when Clark suddenly stands in front of him, vibrant with anger. "Quit lying to me, Lex! Tim swears that he hasn't been in contact with you!"
"What is the problem, Clark?" Lex asks. "Doesn't the result satisfy you?" He reaches up to straighten his collar and Clark seizes his wrist in a crushing grip. These little displays of violence have become habit for them, which must be the reason why Lex isn't thrilled even the tiniest bit. It's boring, he guesses, since he knows very well that the violence is merely symbolic, that Clark walks on tip-toes and speaks in whispers whatever he does.
"Tell me," Clark demands.
Lex tries to shrug him off, but Clark doesn't let him go. His face is stormy with worry.
Lex is tired of this dance. "It appears I made a deal with the devil. My soul for Kon's."
Clark's expression freezes, then hardens in anger. Lex feels the bones in his wrist grind.
"Stop bullshitting me, Lex!"
Lex leans closer and looks Clark in the eyes. It's been some time since they were this close to each other. But Clark's untouchable face tells him nothing new. "I sold my soul to get him back. He's healthy. The rest of it doesn't concern you."
Bit by bit, Clark's self-righteous anger crumbles to worry and confusion. He lets go of Lex's hand. "You're... you're speaking metaphorically, right? What did you do, Lex?"
Lex raises his brows at Clark's inability to just accept the facts. Clark has no less, rather more experience with the supernatural than Lex, so why has he such a hard time suspending his disbelief? "Metaphorically, I sold my soul a long time ago, wouldn't you agree? I'm being perfectly literal."
Clark backs away, but paradoxically straightens into Superman's resolved posture. "You can't have sold your soul to the devil."
There's the tiniest pause in which Lex waits for Clark's words to hurt because of their implicit meaning, but they don't. "Well, I was as surprised as you that my soul was still up for grabs," Lex replies coldly.
"Selling your soul is a myth, Lex." Now Clark sounds exasperated. "You had a dream. Probably you were drunk."
Again, nothing but the tiniest spark of indignation. "Personally, I stopped believing in myths some time between women made from clay and modern-day Christ figures rising from the dead, Clark. There's no such thing as myths in our world anymore. I can't confirm whether the being that visited me yesterday was a devil or not, but I did make a very clear deal with him."
Clark's disbelief is entirely irrational, but it is persistent. Now he starts to look desperate and not a small bit afraid.
Why doesn't he accept Lex's words? It must be because the deals Lex makes are so rarely to his benefit. He must be holding some record in betrayals...
"Lex? Did something happen to you? Do you feel alright?"
Lex has never figured out why, even in the times of their fiercest enmity, it took only the slightest sign of vulnerability, the smallest injury, for Clark immediately forget everything but his concern for Lex's safety. He would spend his every waking hour to bring Lex down, to ruin him, expose him, but as soon as Lex got hurt, all he did was protect him.
Even two decades later, Lex hasn't forgotten his abject humiliation that first time he broke down from the pain of his kryptonite-induced cancer and Superman carried him to the hospital, hovering anxiously around the doctors and nurses as if Lex hadn't moments before threatened his life.
"Apparently a man can do fine without a soul."
"Lex, you haven't sold your soul! I think you should see a doctor - "
Lex hates being called insane. He hates it.
"I don't think I care to go on with this conversation." A simple codeword, and the peaceful roof transforms into a living hell for Kryptonians. Tiny meteor rocks are released from their lead encasements everywhere, in the sculptures and the fountain, even in the ground they stand on. It's the first time Lex has tested the new system with Clark, and the result is rather satisfactory.
Clark blanches and collapses, slowly like a mighty tree felled at the base. He falls onto the cape and rolls to his side, groaning in agony. On of his hands hits the pool, splashing water over the warm marble tiles. Lex steps aside, evading Clark's thrashing feet and turns back to the staircase. "I'm going to turn the defence mechanism off in five minutes. I'd appreciate not to see you for some while."
Lex doesn't expect Clark to call reinforcements. Clark is notoriously self-reliant. It's almost as if he doesn't trust his fellow heroes not to get hurt - and besides, he's Superman. He can take it. He's the one who always gets up again.
But this time, Clark activates the Justice League communicator and says in his raspy, pain-filled whisper, "I need back-up."
The response is damn near immediate. Lex hasn't made it to the door before three more members of the Justice League transport onto his roof. Wonder Woman is at Clark's side immediately, checking for injuries, and Green Lantern uses his power ring to shield him from the effects of the kryptonite.
Hawkgirl corners Lex with her mighty mace raised threateningly. She gives him an exasperated scowl. "Again, Luthor?"
Lex raises his brows at her. He doesn't really mind having the Justice League on his roof from time to time. Wonder Woman is very much his type, although ambassador Diana of Themyscira usually gives Lex a cold shoulder at charity galas, even if he just tries to make polite conversation about ancient Greek culture. The new Green Lantern is a bit young, but he's got shiny dark hair and cheekbones.
Hawkgirl, though, is a bit of a brute. And she has wings and flaming red hair, which isn't very high on Lex lists of attractive traits, either.
"It's Superman who insists on breaking and entering," Lex replies.
Clark has recovered from the kryptonite inside the green force-field of Green Lantern's ring and is getting to his feet with Wonder Woman's help. "He's suffering from some sort of trauma," Clark warns them, all earnest concern for Lex. "Luthor isn't thinking straight. I think we should take him to the watchtower for his own safety."
Lex glares at Hawkgirl. "For your own safety I strongly advise you not to - "
But it's not Hawkgirl who attacks him. Instead it's Green Lantern who wraps a second force-field bubble around Lex, lifting him off the ground. Hawkgirl smirks up at Lex and puts the mace back on her belt, then flaps her wings and jumps into the air as well.
"Five back to the watchtower," Green Lantern commands, and the transporter turns their atoms into energy patterns.
The last time Lex visited the watchtower, it was in his role as President, with camera's running while he politely let himself be led through the monitor room, pretending he didn't know its specifications better than his guide.
It was first built twenty years ago, but even so it is impressive, larger than any other space station ever built by mankind. It orbits the Earth at a majestic distance, a silver gleaming ivory tower, a Camelot in the sky with its masked knights convening at a round table.
As soon as Green Lantern removes the power ring's force-field, Lex puts up a token struggle. After years of training, he's not bad at martial arts himself, and he manages to surprise Hawkgirl with a vicious punch to the chin, but he regrets it a moment later, because Wonder Woman throws her golden lasso of truth around him. It pulls tight around Lex's middle, pressing his arms to his side and stealing his balance, and he stumbles back onto one of the benches of the holding cell they're in. The magic of the lasso is a rush of warm honey, coaxing, softening, even as Wonder Woman gives it a harsh pull.
"No more nonsense, Luthor," she warns. "What is going on?"
The lasso takes the truth from him with nimble fingers. "I sold my soul," Lex hisses furiously.
She looks taken aback and then Clark is there with a big hand on her shoulder. "Diana. Let him go."
She tugs softly at the golden rope and it slips from Lex like a snake to coil at her hips. Lex clenches his teeth, wanting to spit out the sweetish after-taste of magic, and pulls himself up to his feet.
"Are you satisfied now, Superman? I'm not lying."
Clark looks so terribly sorry. "I didn't think you were, Lex. We'll take care of this, I promise."
He and Wonder Woman step out of the cell and the force-field goes up behind them, locking Lex inside. "I want J'onn to have a look at him," Clark says.
"J'onn is on sabbatical," Hawkgirl objects.
"He still has his communicator," is all Clark replies as he walks off.
Not much later, Clark returns alone. He doesn't enter the cell, just stands behind the electric blue of the force-field.
"I'm not mad," Lex says.
"I know you aren't." Clark looks at him sadly. "But you've got bad luck when it comes to your mind."
"And other things." With a tired sigh, Lex sits down on the hard bench that serves as a cot. This reminds him entirely too much of his first stint in prison. It had been a phase of particularly bad luck for Lex: he'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer and at the same time the Justice League finally been able to prove his crimes. But the worst had been Clark's pity, his constant visits, when he would use his privilege as Superman and come directly into Lex's cell, his large frame looming in the tiny room, the bright colours of the suit bursting the grey confinements of Lex's narrowing life. There'd been no escape for Lex and he had to listen to Clark's endless, selfish attempts at reconcilement with a dying man.
And no matter how hard Lex tried to resist, they did in the end reconcile, at least a little. His luck changed, and he survived, got out of prison, cleansed his reputation, was on top of his game again, but his hatred for Clark had been subverted, complicated.
Lex prefers his hatred to be simple and straightforward. Hatred is as powerful an idea as a faith when it is pure, and it is a formidable tool when unrestrained.
"Why can't you accept that I'd do this for Kon?" Lex asks.
Clark looks away. His eyes burn blue with intensity, but maybe it is just the blue of the energy field separating them. "I know you'd do something like that, Lex. But a man can't live without a soul. It's just not possible."
Lex frowns. He hates it when people presume things they don't know anything about. Everyone thinks they're able to judge, even though they're fools. "You have no idea what a soul even is," he throws at Clark's receding back. "You just believe what you want to believe!"
But Clark leaves, and Lex finds that he doesn't care very much anymore.
Unfounded presumptions, after all, are an old habit between them.
Hours later, Clark comes back to the cell with the Martian. J'onn J'onnz has nearly as many ridiculous powers as Clark, and one of them makes Lex profoundly uncomfortable.
"This violates my rights," Lex says as they enter the cell. He faces them upright, arms crossed, defiance in every line.
The Martian turns to Clark. "Luthor doesn't sound confused, Superman."
"He believes he sold his soul," Clark answers. "Please, J'onn, just find out what's wrong with him."
The Martian doesn't need to touch him, but he advances a step towards Lex and Lex knows that he will lose this struggle. But it is a matter of principle that he calls up all his mental discipline. He wipes his mind blank, builds sky-high walls around his self. Lex's mantras are mathematical equations that he can lose himself in entirely if he needs to - but the Martian is faster, his shadowy thoughts weaving through Lex's like a wispy veil of fog. Then he redraws and Lex is alone in his body once more and feels a sheen of sweat cooling on his skin. Clark is staring at Lex like a martyr, like it was his mind that was violated.
"I am not a mystic," the Martian says in his deep, even rumble. "I cannot tell whether he has a soul or not. He is sane, but there have been... changes."
"It's been a while since you invaded my mind," Lex spits out acidly.
"What kinds of changes?" Clark demands.
The Martian remains quiet for a moment. "They do not concern the Justice League. It's not my place to reveal them to you, Superman."
Now it's Lex who is puzzled and worried. He doesn't feel any different, but suddenly paranoia creeps like a chill up his back. What if Clark is right? What if someone has messed with Lex?
They leave him alone with his doubts and his traitorous, changed mind. Everything becomes questionable in the cool quiet of the cell. The confusion after Lex woke this evening - was it more than just sleep making him groggy? The strange indecisiveness, the numbness - is he lacking something?
And he can feel it now, the questions circumscribing it, a hole a mile wide inside his chest, a muddy swamp of idleness where there used to be iron constructions of will, a thick feeling of overabundance where there used to be ravenous hunger, and where he was always alert, driven, he's now numb and hollow and tired...
Lex wakes with a jolt at the gentle voice. Clark is standing over him. That, more than anything, is proof that something is wrong with Lex. He shouldn't be able to sleep like a stone through Clark's presence.
Behind Clark, there's Dr Fate in his sky blue cloak and golden helmet. He gives Lex a nod. Politeness is anchoring, so Lex returns the gesture as he sits up.
"I brought Dr Fate," Clark says unnecessarily. "He can at least confirm that you still have a soul."
Lex gives Fate a look, then waves his hand. "Do it."
Fate makes Superman step aside, then lays his hands on Lex's temples. Only his fingertips touch skin, and they're so cool and vibrant with energy that Lex has to force himself not to lean into the touch. The lasso's magic was slick like old oil, the Martian's telepathy furtive and chilling, but Fate's mind is the firm, calming grasp of destiny taking Lex by the hand. For the blink of an eye, everything is wonderfully clear, just long enough for Lex to understand, to think, oh, that's what I am missing - and then he is gone.
The helmet obscures Fate's face as he gives Lex a long look. "You of all people should have known how dangerous a deal you made."
This is something Lex can counter easily. "It was worth it," he replies with the full arrogance of conviction.
Clark looks from one of them to the other, horror dawning on his face. Fate turns to him. "He has signed over his soul to a third party. It is a common mystical contract, but such beings usually don't take the whole of one's soul - they trick the contractor with semantics, and the effects are often unpredictable."
Lex rises, brushing off his pants. "I got what I bargained for, Fate. We're done here. Take me back to Metropolis."
Clark looks shaken as he stares off into space, but then he steels himself and steps forward. Fate defers to him.
"I'll take you there," Clark says.
Clark leads him to the transporter pads. The watchtower is busy with vigilantes and ordinary human staff, probably because it is early morning and they're having a change of shift. There isn't a single person crossing their path who doesn't recognize them, Superman and former President Lex Luthor, and yet Lex is sure that he is the only one here who knows Clark and he knows for a fact that Clark is the only one who knows him. People give them a wide berth and curious looks, but no one is particularly alarmed to see them walking side by side, quiet and peaceable as they seem now, but maybe they're a bit awestruck.
They have to wait in line for a free transport, but Lex doesn't do lines. He ambles over to the big panoramic windows to watch the stars passing by, a multitude of them as is only visible from space. Clark trails him, quiet and yet oddly intrusive. The satellite revolves slowly around its own axis, and soon Earth comes into view, large and darkly blotting out the sun. Only her atmosphere is a halo of burning sunlight all over the rounded horizon. The watchtower orbits Earth, forever chasing sunrise, forever a step behind. Lex has been like that for years, racing forward so gravity couldn't pull him down, but now he feels cut loose, floating weightlessly away from the centre.
It feels nice. Lex feels free and more relaxed than he can ever recall feeling while he wasn't medicated or under the influence.
Clark's voice startles him out of his musings. "Why did you do it?" It's the first thing he has managed to say since the realization that Lex really did sell his soul settled in.
The emergent sunrise warms Lex face. He doesn't look away, lets it sear into his retinas. He knows what Clark is asking, knows that Clark will keep asking, now that he has found his question.
He has asked himself the same on occasion, so it's there, ready, just below the surface of his thoughts.
"Everything I touch withers and turns to dust. Everything I make is rotten. Everything I shape brings destruction," Lex explains. The images are more than metaphors - they're memories, nightmares. "But not him. I made him as a weapon, but he turned out so... right, Clark. He's everything that we aren't. So good that I'm afraid to come close to him."
Clark needs a long time to say anything. When he does, his voice sounds ragged. "You love Kon."
Love. On most days Lex can hardly bring himself to feel that other people are real, anything other than dress-up dolls and robots, little figures to move on large boards. Even the women he used to think he loved with all his life eventually became nothing to him, meaningless names, turned smooth and faceless like pebbles on the bed of a river.
Lex turns around. He has to blink for a moment, because compared to the sun, Clark is colourless. But when Clark's features become clear, he looks shocked and guilty, shame rising high on his cheeks.
Whether Lex loves Kon or not, Clark believes that he does. He believes that the bargain Lex made proves it, and since Clark doesn't love his clone, mistrusted him even, for a long time, Clark feels shamed. It amuses Lex how Clark always needs to be the better man.
Amuses him, especially because he felt that need himself for the longest time.
When they transport onto the roof of LexCorp, Lex notices Clark fidgeting and hovering. He ignores him and goes back to work. His company has been without him for two days now, it's time that he takes back the helm.
But in the afternoon, when Lex is winding down from a day that could have been busier, the doors slide open and Clark strides in like a force of nature. Clark has this way of barging into Lex's office and home that always reminds Lex of his late father. And like his Dad, he usually comes to make demands or express his disappointment with Lex.
Today, it's demands.
"My Mom is making dinner tonight to celebrate Conner's return. It's just us, family - I think you should come."
It's Clark's not wearing his Superman attire, but he isn't wearing his glasses, either, and he sounds exactly like Superman giving advice - you really shouldn't set loose those killer robots, Luthor, I'd be very disappointed in you if you did.
And Lex might be willing to concede that killer robots aren't the answer to everything, but Clark's suggestion seems like a spectacularly bad idea. "I hardly think your mother would want me at her dinner table, Clark. As you might recall I have on occasion tried to kill her son."
Lex trying to kill Clark was really just a short period in their overall relationship as enemies. But in those first five years with Superman, Lex really wanted to kill the alien at all costs. All that rage must have been cathartic. Lex didn't notice it, but the hatred is long gone, it seems, along with the pain.
"You did." Clark has stopped in the middle of the room, not advancing quite until Lex's desk. It's a matter of respect, not fear, because Clark's eyes telegraph confidence and conviction. In the few hours that Lex hasn't seen him, Clark has come to a decision. "But you also brought back her grandson. I think that matters more to her."
That Martha Kent thinks of Kon as her grandson is perhaps Lex's greatest achievement as a father. He did it by staying away from Kon.
"You're not going to tell him about the deal," Lex warns. "I won't let you undermine my efforts to keep him as far from becoming me as possible."
Clark looks heavenward. "Seriously, Lex. Have you ever even looked at the boy? There's no chance in hell that Conner's ever going to be you."
It's unlikely, yes, but this is an unexpected opinion coming from Clark. As far as Lex could tell, Clark was always wary of his clone, especially since he learned about his origin. Reminding him of that is probably the easiest way to make Clark go away.
"He was programmed at his creation to be my tool. I chose every bit of knowledge that the scientists planted into his head. I made him, more thoroughly than my father could ever have dreamed of making me."
Clark's takes a step back, and he looks sickened, but then he narrows his eyes at Lex. It's a pity Clark isn't as nave anymore as he once was. He gives Lex a dark glare.
"He's still nothing like you, Lex."
Lex has lost this round. But he doesn't need to play by the rules. "I haven't got time for this now, Clark. You know your way out."
He expects the affair to be done with when Clark doesn't show up for two days. It's hard to get back into the usual rhythm of work. Lex still feels adrift, with his feet not quite on the ground, and the world muted around him.
But on the afternoon of the third, a hot, dusty summer day, there's a call from an unidentified number on his private phone line. The noise is like a rip of reality through the shimmering heat.
"Got your company back under control?"
"You," Lex says flatly, angling for a sign whether he is talking to Clark or Superman. Lex can't quite tell, and there's no video feed. Clark usually hides from Lex, never approaching him unless it is in Lane's shadow, and Superman has no need for phones, considering that he can be anywhere within seconds.
It sounds like Clark is talking from a cell phone or one of the few old phone boxes that still operate in Metropolis. There's city noise wafting in, traffic and construction sites, but distant, like maybe Clark is in a quiet back alley. Lex doesn't know why he even bothers with secret-keeping, but the line isn't safe and he isn't going to be the one who reveals Clark's secret identity through a blunder.
If he does it, it's going to be entirely intentional.
"Yeah, me, Clark," Clark confirms, knowing exactly what Lex wants to know. "How's it going?"
Like they do this everyday. Like Clark's calling from a parallel world where Superman hangs out with Lex Luthor after hours. It's a distinct possibility. But Lex thinks he can hear the slight bemusement in Clark's voice, like Clark finds it a bit strange, too.
"Good," Lex answers absentmindedly.
"Great." He can hear Clark's stupid grin. "Then you're free tonight?"
Lex didn't factor this into his cost profit balance when he made the deal. "Clark. Are you checking on me?"
"No." Filthy liar. "I just thought it would be nice to...chat. Hang out. We haven't done that in a long time."
It feels redundant to remind Clark of the reasons.
"You are checking on me," Lex guesses instead.
"Maybe," Clark relents. "But I also thought that since Conner's back... we could make a bit more of an effort to... you know. Get along."
Lex eyes his desk and the work he isn't really doing. Lately he thinks maybe he should take some time off. Live a little. Change some things in his life. And that part that insists on being the stronger, meaner, tougher guy - because he can't afford to be weak in this world, can never afford it - is strangely silent today.
Clark wasn't part of these plans, but Clark with a mission is like Lex with a riddle. He's highly unlikely to let go.
Lex sighs. "I'm free tonight." His social graces are rusty, but he manages, "I suppose we could have dinner."
Lex has the long table decked in silverware and crystal glasses, regal and old-fashioned, Luthor intimidation techniques 101. It's all habit and when the help is done with it and Lex stands by the table in his stiff white suit and silk tie, he has a strange out-of-body moment where it all seems ridiculous. Why go to such lengths just to impress Clark Kent? Clark has seen him all-powerful and defeated, naked and dressed in the finest garments money can buy, Clark has seen him bound and helpless and armed to the teeth, his hands covered in blood both literal and metaphorical.
Clark takes the decision out of Lex's hands by coming to the penthouse dressed in jeans and a faded blue shirt - long sleeved, so Lex bets that he's wearing the suit underneath. He's got two big rustling biodegradable plastic bags in his hands and spares the decked table only a glance before aiming straight for Lex's favourite couch - genuine leather, completely politically incorrect today and just as much of an antiquity as Clark's jeans - to flop down on it and unpack pizza cartons and soda.
Clark looks good, the pizza looks good, and Lex thinks, what the hell, and takes off his pearly white suit jacket and his immaculate tie to join him at the coffee table. He sinks onto the sofa across from Clark. The last time they sat together was in the White House and their smiles were grim lies.
Clark seems young in that shirt, although it does a bad job of hiding the strength in those shoulders and arms, the width of the chest that bears the Superman crest. And it isn't some weird blast from the past sitting across from Lex sipping soda. It's very much present Clark, the man Clark has become, who's calm and comfortable in front of and behind a camera, a man resting in his power and his achievements.
A lonely man, and always a little bit awkward in social situations where he can't hide behind his dual roles. Right now he's gazing at Lex expectantly.
Pizza. It's been a while. "Artichokes?" Lex inquires.
Clark's grin widens slowly around his soda. He hands Lex one of the boxes.
You'd think it was last week that they last did this.
The pizza is good, good enough to take the expensive wine from the table and open it. Clearly, Clark's tastes have improved, but then, after being friends with Lex, Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne, it's only damn well to be expected that something rubbed off. He accepts a glass and actually looks appreciative after a sip from it.
"What is the League going to say to this?" Lex asks.
"They're not my parents, Lex." They'll damn well deal with it, Clark means but doesn't say. He's Superman, they can't do without him. "Batman is probably going to develop some paranoia."
"Well, we do have a history of proposing world domination to each other," Lex muses.
"I was going to propose something else, actually," Clark says, but doesn't clarify what. It might just be carelessness, from the innocent way he looks down at his pizza, but Lex suspects teasing when he sees a sly smile grace those full lips.
"And what would that be?"
Clark glances up, a flash of green beneath dark lashes, and bares his teeth in a small grin. He shakes his head. "I don't think I should tell you yet, Lex. We both have a tendency to rush into things, don't we? Let's take it slow this time."
Lex doesn't learn more that night about Clark's intentions. They circle around each other like in old times, only without the constant subtext of lies and deception. Lex is willing to let the reins slide a little, and give in to Clark's new game. Lets him select a movie, and then another. Clark is delighted at Lex's collection of old classics from their youth and so Lex ends up sprawled in front of the screen with Superman until the wee hours of the morning, when Lex feels mellow and drowsy and Clark's giggles have become a bit hoarse from so much talking.
When Clark leaves, Lex decides to take the day off.
There's a couple of days where Clark's only life-signs are a by-line in the Planet and Superman's appearances in the news - these days superheroes have their own segment in the news, like economy or the weather - but then there's another phone call, and Clark asks him if he's free on Saturday.
Lex admits that he's free on most evenings, really. Clark tells him to get a parka and wait on the roof. Lex asks him why he thinks he can just tell Lex what to do. Clark laughs and says, "Don't forget some gloves."
Flying isn't much of a thrill, even though Superman can naturally fly much higher than Lex's battle suits ever managed. Antarctica is the only continent Lex has never been to. Of course, Lex has been in space, light-years from Earth, and in places that technically aren't even part of this universe, so the South Pole isn't terribly exotic.
It turns out that Clark wants to watch polar lights.
It's dark, windy and ice-cold, surreal after the Metropolis heat, but Clark finds them a sheltered place between two out-crops of rock and does something Lex has only ever seen in old Star Trek episodes: he heats stones with his heat vision until they glow red and emit warmth like a comfy fire.
"So," Lex asks, still not very impressed, after a cursory glance at the wispy green and purple curtains of light, "this is Superman's stamp collection?"
Clark, sprawled on his back like a kid making snow angels, shakes his head. "Nope. You only get to see my stamp collection when we go steady."
"Then what's this? You can't tell me you really find northern lights terribly interesting."
"They're pretty," Clark shrugs. "I've always wanted to do this with someone. But Chloe hates the cold, and Lois hates the wilderness and Batman's always busy."
"You tried to date Bruce? I'm appalled."
Clark cuffs him with the back of his hand. Lex can barely feel it through his thick parka. "You're not supposed to know people's secret identities! And I wasn't talking about dating."
"If you say so. I'd hate to think of you as a gold-digger."
"I swear it's not the money, Lex," Clark says in a falsely heart-felt tone, grinning and batting his eyelashes at him. Lex smiles back, but the smile is only a front. He believes Clark about the dating, because Lex has always watched him very closely, and he'd know if Clark had dated anyone. But aside from a long flirtation with Lois that never came to fruition, and a few one night stands, Clark has stayed solitary all these years.
However, Clark is teasing him now, and Lex was never entirely sure how seriously to take Clark's teasing. Testing the waters by teasing back always seemed like too big a risk, too much of a variable, but now, Lex actually can't tell why it should be.
"Funny. I'd never have thought that Superman would be attracted to power."
Clark falls silent, and Lex thinks that he has maybe shocked him, but then he answers, quietly, "Maybe it's more that I'm afraid of weakness. It's so easy for people to get hurt."
Lex hasn't let anyone get too close to him for a long time, but he remembers why he initially walled himself off. "It is."
He gets a sad and gentle look from Clark for that, and then Clark reaches for the bag he brought along and makes Lex drink hot tea and eat cookies.
The arctic night isn't silent, but the wind howls and hisses over the ice like a song of desolation. It's a harsh, hollow noise that resonates deep within Lex, and fills him to the brim, fighting the warmth of the tea and winning. Clark is right. This place is beautiful. Lex would like to stay here for hours, until the cold steals all life from him and he falls asleep.
"We could have done this years ago," Clark says wistfully.
Lex doesn't regret anything.
So far this evening, twelve people have told him that he looks splendid - "What is your secret, Mr Luthor? In all the time I've known you, you only seem to get younger!" - and three have called him charming. A lot of them only seem to wait for their chance to tell him other, wilder things.
Lex has only drunk champagne tonight, but he thinks that he might be thirsty for wilder things.
This charity event is the first time Lex has thrown himself among the masses of Metropolis' upper crust since the deal. He's gratified to know that no one seems to see any difference. But then, these jackals and hyenas only know the smell of money and flesh.
Well, there aren't many constants in the world besides money and flesh. Lex finds this evening surprisingly enjoyable, with its insipid conversation and glittering, unreal socialites. He crashed down once, on an island in the deep blue sea, and part of him has been lost in the wilderness ever since, the blood and claws and survival of the fittest ruling his mind, the blend of madness and desperation like one continuous adrenaline rush from then to now. But it's over now, and he's coming down from it.
Now, he has opened his eyes and found himself on a tropical paradise.
Lex feels experimental, so the debutante he's set his eyes on is blonde and a little star-struck to be led around by a former president. Soon enough, he'll have her charmed out of that shyness.
Lex is jostled by someone almost bumping into him.
"Uh, sorry! Oh, hello, Mr Luthor! It's been a while since I've seen you!" Clark blinks owlishly from behind tousled hair and awkward glasses, balancing his champagne precariously. The debutante giggles, a sound so young and unaffected that it chills Lex to realize that he wanted to take this girl home tonight.
"Clark Kent," he drawls. "Isn't that a surprise. Darling, Mr Kent and I are old acquaintances."
Clark smiles, with a sly edge to it just for Lex. "Yeah, we go way back."
"Probably since before you were born," Lex goes on, suppressing a shudder. "Give us a moment, will you?"
She looks a bit disappointed, and in a sudden burst of confidence dares to kiss Lex on the cheek, only to disappear in a flustered hurry.
Clark frowns after her. "I'll give you the benefit of the doubt because she wasn't your type," Clark says. "But she could have been your daughter."
"Did you assault me to save her honour, Clark?"
"No. I needed to save myself, for once." Clark takes Lex by the shoulder and steers him into a quieter corner, whispering close by his ear, "I was caught between my editor and my employer. Don't look back, they're probably looking for you, too."
"And you decided to ruin my enjoyment of the evening as well."
"Lex, you have no idea how Lois and Bruce get when they're in a room together." Clark winks at Lex. He leans even closer, so the tips of his hair brush Lex's temple, "It's worse than being caught between Darkseid and Brainiac."
"So you chose the arch-enemy behind door number three?"
Clark ducks his head with a grin, but the abashment is part of his persona. He's making fun of Lex. "I'd always choose you over those two. Even though you're worse."
Lex finds himself being led away from the crowd and towards the exit. Clark's going to sweep him away to another evening of easy companionship and teasing, everything chaste and tame, unspoken, unconsumed.
Lex stops when they're in front of the coat room. The hallway is quiet so early in the evening, aside from then, no one thinks of leaving yet. On the red carpet their steps are soft as the muted sounds of the party. Clark seems taller now, away from the looks of the crowd. All it takes is a bit of straightening up, and even the ugly suit looks good on him. Lex takes a step closer, well into Clark's personal space, until he has to look up at him.
"I had plans for tonight."
"What, to corrupt the innocent?" Clark is amused, but right under the surface, Lex can detect uncertainty, the tiniest shimmer of awkwardness.
"And you've come between me and my plans."
"Well, if you're that desperate - "
Lex lays a hand on the side of Clark's hair, silky hair and the hot shell of an ear under his palm and nips at Clark's lips. The first impression is fleeting, a warm, full softness, and Lex licks delicately at them to complete the picture. The taste is sour at first, the lingering aroma of champagne, and then salty. Clark smells the faintest bit of rain, pure and clear, like he has bathed in clouds. He takes a sudden breath, stealing it almost from Lex's lips, but it isn't shocked, just surprised. Lex twists his fingers in Clark's hair and lets go.
Clark's eyes are big. He's blinking rapidly, then touches his lips. "Lex?"
"Did you like that?" It's a command, as forceful as Lex can be. Suddenly he knows that this is what he wants. This is what he came looking for. He got lost in the undergrowth, but this is the path.
Clark is looking him up and down. His eyes jump from Lex's lips to his eyes to the hand that was in his hair a moment ago, and although he's nervous, he's also scrutinizing. Then he frowns. "I... didn't hate it."
"Good enough." Lex doesn't really care. He knows he can persuade Clark to go along. He retreats and Clark follows him like they're tied at the wrist.
"Good enough for what?" Clark asks as they step into the night air. Lex needs to reorient himself before he remembers his chauffeur and has his limousine brought to the curb.
"Good enough for what?" Clark asks again as he sinks into the cushions of the seat next to Lex.
"You want to know what I want?"
"I'd like you to clarify, yeah."
Lex seizes Clark's tie, curls his fist against Clark's firm chest and feels the fabric of Clark's shirt slide over some other, smoother fabric beneath. He pushes, and Clark, eyes still surprised, yields to the touch until he's pressed against the door and Lex is leaning onto him with almost all his weight. He undoes the tie with quick motions, and the buttons of Clark's shirt come next. Lex pulls it apart to reveal Superman's crest, red and yellow surrounded by blue.
Yes, this. This is what he was looking for.
"You know what I would think about when we kept fighting, Clark? Aside from putting a round of kryptonite bullets through Superman's head? I'd imagine you on your knees, finally shutting up because you were sucking me. But that's not all. Every time you threw me against a wall, were this close to putting your fingers a little too tightly around my throat, I'd picture you holding me down and fucking me with all that - "
"So this is about Superman?" Clark has tensed all of a sudden, and is frowning angrily at Lex. "This is all about your power games, Lex?"
Is it about power games? Lex is just reciting from memory the fantasies that have always worked for him. "I don't see a difference. You are Superman. I wanted you before Superman."
Clark exhales and softens again. "I thought... that maybe you did. You were sending mixed signals, you know." Clark reaches up tentatively and runs a hand down Lex's flank. The gesture is half comforting, half exploring. "You can be kinda confusing, Lex. In the end I didn't even know what I wanted anymore."
"You're easily confused."
"I, uh, haven't got a lot of experience -"
Lex keeps unbuttoning Clark's shirt, exposing bit for bit the blue that spans tightly over taut muscles. Clark keeps babbling.
"You aren't half as innocent as you pretend to be. I've watched. I know your little lapses and experiments." Lex looks up to see Clark flush and look away, and undoes his belt while he watches.
"It's a lot easier to have one-night-stands off-world," Clark mutters.
What's more interesting, though, is that Lex can feel Clark's erection through his pants, curving up to his belly and pushing against the fabric. He slips a glance at his watch, estimates that there's still time enough before they reach LexCorp and slides down between Clark's legs. Clark looks large from this perspective, and his powerful thighs are trembling a little as Lex runs his hands along the insides.
"I trust you can control yourself?"
The rest is easy. Lex sucks Clark in the limousine, more expertly than Clark requires, and makes him come before the limousine reaches LexCorp tower. It's been a very long time since Lex has done this, but his body remembers, even if his mind is still stumbling in the dark without direction. For a moment, when he rests his head against Clark's belly and exhales, he feels heavy and solid.
Clark looks beautifully ruffled when Lex buttons him up again, far from presentable and by the time they step out of the elevator, he has recovered enough to look at Lex with light and desire in his eyes and take the initiative from him.
Clark chooses the bedroom over all the other interesting places to continue. As Clark undresses him, Lex finds that he can't remember ever having imagined them doing this here, in this private and ordinary place, like two lovers instead of everything else that they are. And Clark's expression fits the theme, gentle and happy, is if he can look straight into Lex's soul as he kisses his lips, his forehead, spreads him out before him and claims him with his hands.
But Lex doesn't have a soul. That thing that Clark is seeing - it isn't there anymore. And that thing that Lex saw in Clark has become invisible to him. And still Lex keeps going through the motions, makes all the appropriate noises as Clark prepares him and slides into him.
Clark is beautiful above him, flushed and radiant, nothing between Lex and all this power. His hair falls down and he pants and bites his lips, and Lex yells as his body shakes with arousal.
He reaches up and claws at Clark's neck. He snarls, more in confusion than in fury, and urges him to become less gentle. Orders him to fuck him, then begs him, until Clark does it, long, hard thrusts that Lex should feel everywhere. And he does feel them. It hurts, in the end, and Clark looks worried and stills as he comes.
It doesn't matter. Lex feels it, but he doesn't care. Can't care. He isn't even sure if he ever cared at all, if he has forgotten how or just imagined it. The dizziness dwindles as Clark pulls out of him and curls around him, happily nuzzling Lex's shoulder.
It is replaced by cold hard clarity.
Lex stares at the ceiling. He feels like he's up there himself, looking down on them. He's not part of this. He's going to close his eyes and forget, and tomorrow he will lift his lids and leave it all behind. And bit by bit, the world will loose all colour, all rhythm, all force and all meaning. Lex will be one of the many people, sleepwalking through a life that knows only money and flesh.
He stares at Clark and feels nothing. The thing he has sold for his heart's desire was his heart's capacity for desire. And now he doesn't even desire it back.
"I don't love you anymore," he says.
It feels peaceful.
Clark isn't good at casting his feelings aside in favour of a mission. Right now he wants to stomp his feet and cry at the overcast night sky in rage.
Instead he merely sets down on the ground and takes a deep breath. He's somewhere on the coast outside Salem, Massachusetts. The sea is murmuring to his right. Here and there a wave palely reflects the moonlight. He hasn't flown straight here from Metropolis, but after a few times blindly circling the Earth, he has ended up here.
After the shattering confession, Lex closed his eyes and turned around, curling with his back to Clark and falling instantly asleep. The words themselves felt like a bucket of ice chips dumped over Clark's heart, but as soon as they settled in, he couldn't bear to be so close to this soulless husk that was all that was left of Lex any longer.
God, Clark should have seen this. Reconciling with Lex blinded him with joy, and he didn't question all the convenient changes, the mellowing, the meekness that is so unlike Lex. But then, Lex has a way of blinding him, with love, with admiration, with fear, with rage. Clark hates to admit it, but he is no more able to think straight and objectively when it comes to Lex than when it comes to himself.
He just ignored the issue of Lex's soul, because he didn't really understand it anyway. Clark still has only the vaguest idea what a soul even does, or what it is, or how it can be sold. He thought the concept was just an old-fashioned way to explain the human mind, a metaphor, not something real and tangible. His parents very rarely took him to church, so how is he supposed to know?
All he knew was that Lex had done something terrible and selfless out of love. And that was enough - that was exactly the kind of thing for which Clark had been waiting for years. Not that he really admitted it to himself, but... ever since Lex died saving the Earth from Darkseid and then came back and then Clark died, and came back... it opened Clark's eyes to something he can no longer ignore: he and Lex are going to be around for a very long time.
That Lex was a hero back then wasn't actually much of a surprise or an eye-opener to Clark. Deep down what bothers him most about Lex is how very great Lex could be, despite how compromised he was from the very start. Lex is tainted, yes, but so are others Clark had learned to live and work with. And Clark has learned to tolerate a lot more shades of grey. Ollie's radical methods and Bruce's constant paranoia and distrust are some of them, but even more effective were looks at himself in other, parallel worlds: he isn't a hero in most of them.
And he isn't always a hero in this one, either. And Lex isn't always a villain. They made it far too easy for themselves by dividing the world this way - or maybe they made it far too hard. Seeing things in blacks and whites is great for quick decisions in the heat of a battle, but in the long run Clark isn't living the kind of life that allows him easy outs. Unlike his Dad, he has to work with people all the time. He can't just reject them at every turn for not living the way he wants them to.
Of course Clark can't just tolerate Lex doing evil stuff. But morally, Lex is a problem child. If he does good things, it's probably a good idea to encourage them. Kon, for example. Apart from his creation, there's nothing villainous about the way Lex has treated his son - well, except maybe the constant surveillance, but Clark is so used to that these days from people like Batman and the Oracle that it hardly even bothers him anymore. Lex also was a pretty good President. Clark was furious throughout Lex's campaign, unwilling to accept it but with his hands tied against the will of the American people. Superman kept quiet, even as Clark Kent wrote fervent warnings against Lex in the Daily Planet. But once Lex was inaugurated and sat down to work... it wasn't so bad. Lex doesn't like doing a bad job, so he did it well. Clark recognized the young man he'd talked to years and years ago, in every reform, in every new law, in press statements and proposed contracts. It was good to have a daring President in times like these, one who knew well how to deal with everything from the economy to threats from outer space to metahuman politics. Lex even managed to forge relations with Atlantis, despite all the bad blood between him and Aquaman.
It may have taken Clark a good two decades, but he has finally realised that maybe all Lex needs is some incentive to be good. He shouldn't need incentive, but that's how it is. Bruce has Gotham and his mission. Clark hates to think of the man Bruce might be if he didn't have those. Clark has had a wonderful family and a sheltered childhood. Diana has the firm morals and traditions of her people to rely on. Every good person Clark knows has some foundation, some base to build their character on. But Lex has none of this. All Lex has is a brilliant mind, a lot of ambition and a plethora of traumata.
Maybe having a son has made it better. Lex always craved family like nothing else.
Maybe being sort of at peace with Clark has made it better. Even though they never officially stopped being enemies, they have been civil - for their standards - for some time. And everything is out in the open now, nothing hidden between them. They know each other for what they are.
Except that Clark apparently doesn't. How did he not notice the change in Lex? How could he have missed it?
Doesn't matter. There's a problem, and Clark is going to solve it.
This is why Clark is here, looking for the one man who can explain this to him. Instead of diving head-first into his fling with Lex, Clark should have done this before, but he isn't used to having to prepare his battles. He's a man of action, as others have so often remarked, some admiring, some critical.
Fate's tower isn't visible. It has to be here somewhere, Clark can almost feel the magic, as if the night air is somehow thicker and sweeter, like a scent of lilacs mixed with the salt of the sea, luring him in. Clark doesn't like magic, its subtle and invisible workings that he can't control.
"Fate!" he yells, sick of standing around stupidly. "I need to talk to you!"
Nothing. Clark balls his hands to fists.
The air ripples and like a pillar of smoke, the tower forms before him. Clark squares his jaw and walks towards it. In the door stands a silent woman with her hair wrapped in a scarf, who steps aside to let him in. Clark has to stoop a little as he enters and follows her up the narrow and badly-lit stone staircase.
In the upper level, the dusty wooden planks of the floor are covered with oriental rugs. In some places, the wood is charred, as if a candle was left to burn for too long and in others, there's spilled wax. Fate sits cross-legged and meditating in the centre, the golden helmet cradled in his lap. Clark hesitates, suddenly awkward. Fate is part of the League, but his relations with the League have never been easy, he's a mercurial man, and he is hostile as often as he is helpful.
"Twice we've talked and you have not asked the right questions," Fate says with his eyes still closed. "What did he say to send you here again?"
This is why Clark hates magic. It makes people pompous and arrogant. Probably real wizards only talk like that because they've seen wizards in the movies do it. He wonders where Fate has hidden his TV. "I need to know -"
"What did he say, Superman?"
Clark looks down at himself and realises for the first time that he is not wearing the suit and cape, just his pants and shoes and the shirt he wore this evening. His hair is damp from the clouds he flew through. Fate still has his eyes closed, so maybe he didn't notice.
The words he needs to say won't come out. "He... Lex doesn't feel... he isn't the same person."
"What did he say?"
"He..." Clark's voice becomes ever quieter, a mumble that has nothing to do with Superman. He clears his throat. "He doesn't love me anymore." He hopes Fate is happy now, knowing what no one else knows.
"And you're here to make him love you again? I don't sell that kind of spell." Fate doesn't sell anything, so he is most likely mocking Clark.
Clark grinds his teeth. "You know Lex. He wouldn't even have admitted this when he still had his soul. But now he just doesn't care. I need to help him. I need to get his soul back."
Fate spreads his fingers over the gleaming helmet and tilts his head. "Why you?"
"Because I love him." Clark blinks. Sure, he loves Lex, he would never have let him get so close again otherwise, but he didn't think he could say it so loudly and clearly.
Of course, he has lived knowing that he loves Lex for a long time. He is used to admitting this to himself. He has tried to deny it since Lex was dying of cancer, and grudgingly accepted it when he realised how glad he was when Lex recovered, and felt it strongly and clearly when Lex died and came back.
Fate smiles and puts on the helmet. He rises, motioning Clark to sit on a high-backed wooden chair that is cushioned with purple velvet. On the stone windowsill next to Clark sits a chessboard, the pieces spread all over the board, frozen in the middle of a game.
"He isn't an easy man to love, is he?" Fate says thoughtfully, walking around the room seemingly aimlessly. "Or an easy man to be friends with. Brilliant but self-absorbed, overreaching himself all the time. Never willing to compromise. It's all or nothing for him."
Clark's stomach clenches at the memory of the Lex that used to be. But he isn't here to reminisce. "How can I get his soul back?"
Fate stops. "You could trade your soul for his."
Trade his soul for Lex's. Everyone Clark knows would be shocked that he's even contemplating this. Lex, if he were in his right mind, would probably be furious. A soulless Superman... would Clark wind-up like Lex? Or would he turn into that which everyone fears, a Superman who doesn't care, a Superman without lines in the sand?
"There is another option," Fate says. "One that is more dangerous to you, but safer for the rest of us." So Fate has the same fears about Superman as everyone else, but he doesn't say it. Clark grits his teeth and listens.
"Is there some way you may lay claim to Luthor's soul? Has he ever made a promise to you that may be interpreted that way?"
A promise? Lex doesn't promise anyone anything. He demands. He makes deals, at best. But... "When we were young he often promised me... he said that everything that was his was also mine."
Fate makes a thoughtful noise. "That's good, but vague. They know how to twist words. Have you ever saved his life from certain death?"
"Yes," Clark says without hesitation. Many times.
"Has he saved yours?"
"A few times..."
"Often enough to consider the debt paid back?"
"I've saved his more often, but it's not like I'm counting." Clark shakes his head. Saving each other... doesn't work that way. Maybe it's about debts for Lex, but not for Clark. "Why is that so important?"
"If you find a way to get to the beings that now own Lex's soul, and if you stand before them, they will want reasons for why you lay claim to this soul. You can't force them, but they are defined by rules. Rules, whether the rules make sense or not, is what these beings are all about. Rules and faith."
"All deities. You have met some of them. The gods of New Genesis. Darkseid. The Endless. Demons and devils, like Trigon and Lucifer. Gods are like stories. They need rules, natural laws for the little universes that they represent, and they need us to believe in them in order to work. If they make deals, they must keep them. They have a hard time lying, but they can be very unreliable narrators. Codes of honour have more meaning to them than gravity or the speed of light, because they're made real by the laws inside our heads, and not the laws that govern matter and energy."
Clark frowns. "So you're saying that by saving Lex's life, I somehow own his soul? And that makes his deal invalid? Would Kon lose his soul if Lex got his back?"
"That depends on the deal. But I trust Lex to have negotiated a permanent solution with whatever devil he has dealt with. He is... well-versed in the kind of rules these beings adhere to. I think he believes in stories almost as much as they do."
"So there's no risk for Kon?" Clark insists.
"You must make sure of this yourself when you negotiate with them."
"So how do I do that? Can you... conjure them up, or something?"
Fate laughs. "You put a lot of trust into my magic, Superman. No, the best I can do is call up one of your dead."
"My dead?" Clark feels a chill run down his spine. "You mean people I -"
"Lost. People who were in some way related to you, whether by blood or other ties. It could be a dead ancestor, or a friend or lover. You can ask for their help and guidance and if they are sympathetic to your plight, they will answer. They can lead you to the underworld, where you will have to search for the particular entity that now owns Lex's soul. This is a very dangerous journey, Superman. Many heroes in many ages have attempted it and few have come back, and fewer even have found what they were looking for and managed to hold on to it. You will not have your powers in this strange and confusing place."
Clark isn't all that impressed. Fate might not leave his tower much, but Clark got around. "I've been to strange places."
"This one is different."
"I've been dead."
"And where have you been?"
"I... don't remember anything," Clark admits. The year he was dead after Doomsday killed him is a void to him, like a leaf cut out of a calendar.
Fate nods, satisfied to have won the argument. "Most of all, you must keep in mind that these beings will try to make it as hard for you as possible. Your chances are slim, to be truthful."
"But you want me to do it?"
"I'm just here to give guidance."
Right. Clark stares down at the chessboard. He isn't a good player. He can't even tell which side is winning in this game. A daring opening, a few cautious moves, checking the other out, a few quick strategic blows, never quite loosing the balance. Losses, but just a few pawns and a rook here and a bishop there. And at some point one of the players became distracted, and the game was broken off to be resumed another day.
But Lex won't return to their game. He's put himself into checkmate. Clark is going to win their game and rule the board from now on and -
"When can we do it?"
"I need some preparation. I'm sure you do as well. Come back tonight at sundown," Fate replies.
Clark doesn't linger, he leaves quickly, flying off just as the sun rises over the sea.
He never says his goodbyes when he goes on dangerous missions. His Mom knows that he might not come back one day, and she has buried him twice already, but she says she doesn't want it. What is there to say? Clark loves her and she knows it. She loves him and he knows it. It would just be painful.
But there are other people who need to be assured.
The League is first. Diana is the one he talks to, glad that she's there and not Bruce. He explains to her and she doesn't even look at him oddly, as if descending to the underworld and bringing back a lost soul is an everyday occurrence. She only wishes him good luck and blesses him in the names of her gods.
Then there's Kon. Clark finds him in downtown Metropolis, patrolling the city. They fly side by side, Clark in his primary colours and his son in a simple black T-shirt. Kon tried to replace Superman, back when he had just fled from Lex's lab and Clark was dead. He used to wear the Superman suit and Clark took it back when he returned, never offering to him to continue to wear it. Back then it seemed the right thing to do, but now it bothers Clark to see Kon wearing the Superman crest on a T-shirt, as if it doesn't really belong to him, as if it's just a joke, a costume... instead of something more.
He explains as much as he can without telling Kon that this is about Lex's soul. He doesn't want Kon to feel in any way responsible if Clark doesn't come back.
"Take care of Mom while I'm gone," Clark says.
Superboy nods mutely. He looks shocked.
"And there's another thing... could you have an eye on Lex Luthor?"
"Sure," Kon says. "I'll keep him in line."
"Keep him alive."
Kon stares at him. "What?"
"Superman protects everyone, regardless of who they are," Clark reminds him sternly.
They float upright now, and Clark can watch Kon look down and away. He used to be such a bold, confident boy, but the older he gets, the more often he becomes awkward and self-conscious. "I'm not Superman."
"You can wear the cape while I'm gone," Clark offers. He doesn't want him to, because Superman's job is too dangerous for a child, and when Clark was this age, he didn't even know he was an alien yet, but then, Kon has already died once to save the world. There's not a lot Clark can protect him from anymore. "And if I don't come back, you'd be the one I'd want to keep wearing it. If you still want it, that is."
Kon's face wavers between joy and shock. "I - I'm - I'll do it. I mean, it'd totally be an honour! Except that I won't, because you'll come back. This is temporary. No one in this family ever stays dead, right?"
Clark hopes he is. And he puts a hand on Kon's shoulder in a distanced, fatherly gesture, but then hugs him in flight. It's a short, tight hug, and it feels a lot like hugging Lex did, the surprise, the stiffness, the awkwardness, as if this isn't what's supposed to happen, and then in the last second, a sigh of relief as the tension fades out of Kon's body.
Clark is an idiot. He should do this all the time. Why did he forget how important touch is for a child? How much he needed the reassurance when he was young and felt like a freak, like a monster, like he was utterly alone in the world? He's going to hug Kon all the time when he comes back, and Lex, too, if Lex lets him.
He wants the Lex back who needs Clark to hug him, but might not let him.
At sundown, Clark returns to Fate's tower. Fate awaits him outside, standing by what looks like a cheery campfire at the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea. Clark has come in civilian clothes since this isn't a Superman mission. Fate says he will have no powers in the underworld, so Clark is going as a man, not a hero.
Fate beckons him closer. The gleaming golden helmet reflects the fire and the sunset, making it look as if his head is ablaze. He doesn't speak to Clark, just murmurs in a low chant. As he rounds the fire, strange symbols start to glow where his feet fall on the ground. Finally, when the sun is but a flat crimson sliver on the horizon, fate raises a silver chalice over the fire and pours its contents into the flames.
The flames crackle and hiss, and the smoke smells acrid, like burnt flesh and incense. Clark's eyes start to run, and he blinks, but the blurry shadows that are drawing closer around them don't recede. Fate steps away but never turns his back to Clark, watching intently. Some of the shadows almost take form, but like wisps of fog they lose it again. A few are almost solid, and Clark turns to them, opens his mouth to speak, but there's one that pushes the others away, grows darker and firmer until it is almost a human figure. A strong wind picks up from the sea, pressing the flickering flames to the ground. Clark looks over his shoulder at Fate, who beckons him to speak.
"I need a guide - to bring me to the underworld," Clark explains haltingly.
The shadowy shape has no face, no mouth, barely even a head. And still it speaks, with the voice of the wind whispering in the dead of the night. "Why do you want to go there?"
"I need bring back someone's soul!" Clark feels stupid yelling at a bunch of smoke, but the voice sounds so far away, so thin.
Clark wishes he knew who he's talking to. This has to be someone dead. It could be an ancestor from Krypton, or his Dad, or Lana, or someone who died in Smallville, like Ryan or Alicia, or someone who worked with Superman. Do they know Lex? And if they know him, will they understand?
There is a long silence. The ghostly figure grows dimmer against the darkening night sky. Clark almost fears that his request has repelled whoever it was, but then the voice comes again.
"I will take you there."
The shadow moves and it looks like it's extending a hand towards Clark. Clark steps forward and reaches out, and when the smoky hand passes through his, it solidifies, cold and firm as frozen earth, and darkness spreads like ink stains over Clark's vision, obscuring the world from his view. The last thing he sees, are the stars, tiny specks of light above him, zooming closer like in a telescope and then they, too, are gone.
Clark feels very solid when he wakes with his face burrowed into a pile of cold, wet, smelly pebbles. After some disorientation he understands that he's lying spread-eagled and face-down on these pebbles, he can feel them with his fingers and gritty sand and slick mud, too. This place smells rotten.
He sits up and shakes himself like a dog, only to discover that he's wearing the cape. But the cape is burned and frayed, like he has worn it a hundred years, like it has been in each and every one of his battles. He's kneeling on a shore, not unlike the one beneath the cliff at Fate's tower. The sky is dark, or rather there is no sky, just fog receding into darkness. The waves that lap tiredly at the shore have the colour of quicksilver and despair.
"A very traditional idea of the entry to the underworld," someone says.
Clark jumps to his feet and turns around to find himself face to face with another very solid figure. It's shrouded from head to toe in grey rags, and the face that is barely visible beneath the hood of its cloak is concealed by a white, featureless mask. Clark takes a step back, ready to fight.
"Who are you?"
"Your guide," the figure says, sounding a bit annoyed at Clark's question. The voice is louder here, but still muffled and thin. It's impossible to tell whether it's an old or a young voice, a male or a female one, a low or a deep one. Still, Clark imagines that it sounds familiar.
"I'm sorry," Clark says, still tense, "I don't recognize you."
"You're not supposed to," the guide replies, sounding a little sad to Clark's ears. "The ones who sent me made it a condition for your entry to this realm."
"But we know each other?"
"I'm not allowed to play twenty-questions either."
A human, Clark guesses. Someone from Krypton wouldn't talk like that. At least Jor-El and Lara didn't. He doesn't like this arrangement, not knowing who he is talking to when he is supposed to rely on this person. The guide turns around, gazing up and down the shore. "We're waiting for the ferryman, aren't we?"
"It's a hell of your own making. If you expect a river and a ferryman, that's what you'll find. I've been here for a while and that's how I think it works. The only real things in this place are the dead."
"Where are the dead?" Clark asks.
"Across the river, if you continue with the Greek theme."
The guide is right. There's a slap of wood on water, and a boat melts out of the fog, a long black bark with a tall figure standing in it. It hits the shore, but the ferryman remains standing silently until Clark approaches, wading into the water. It's ice-cold and soaking his boots, and since Clark can feel the cold without his powers, it doesn't feel imaginary at all.
"We need to get on the other side of the river," Clark explains to the ferryman.
The ferryman remains mute, so Clark takes a chance and climbs into the boat. He feels heavy and clumsy. The guide follows with smooth and silent moves, more like a shadow than a human being. "He should be asking for a coin," the guide says in a hushed voice. "I guess you didn't pay attention to your mythology."
Clark remembers, suddenly, where he first heard about this. The ferryman's name is Charon and the river is called Acheron. Lex once showed him a coin of the kind the Greeks and Romans put into the mouths of their dead so they could pay the fee to get over the river and into Hades.
"I always thought it was unfair to the poor," Clark replies, same as he did then.
Lex said that it was just a story, a superstition of a dead culture. The guide and the ferryman, though, don't answer, taking Clark's objection as it stands.
For a while they're all silent as they glide through the endless fog. It's chilly and the guide, who sits next to Clark like a statue, doesn't give off any warmth, so Clark is thankful for the cape. It provides solace and colour in a place where there's none of it.
"Nothing is ever fair," the guide suddenly says. "You aren't, either. Trying to bring back one soul, and ignoring the endless number of others you could be looking for."
Clark looks at the guide's featureless mask. "There are always others I could be saving," he answers. It's a hard-learned lesson, but one that he has learned to accept. "As long as you're saving someone, it's the best you can do."
"Why Lex Luthor?" the guide asks. It doesn't sound like 'Why not me?' so at least Clark won't have to deal with accusations.
"He sold his soul. It's - " Clark's voice fails him. God, he can't explain this to someone who could be his Dad, or Lana -
"You didn't think he could get any worse, did you? How bad is it?" That pitch of voice sounds a bit like Lana when she was pissed-off. Still, it seems to lack somewhat in sincerity, as if the guide is mocking him, but maybe that's just because the voice is so strangely distorted.
And if it's Lana, she might help him save Lex. Their marriage wasn't a happy one, but Clark doesn't think she died hating Lex. He hated Lex back then, blamed him for Lana's death, but he hopes for her sake that the last months of her life weren't quite that horrible.
"No, it's not like that." Clark wishes the journey was over already. "I thought it was okay, at first. He told me what he had done for Kon - " Clark hesitates. "You probably don't even know what's happened since you died, don't you?"
"I'm not allowed to tell you when that was, though," the guide points out. "Just assume I'm ignorant."
"Why don't they want me to know who you are?" Clark demands. He's sick of this.
"They like games," the guide says disinterestedly. "And they've figured out that you have trust issues."
Trust issues. Right. Clark gets it, he's supposed to fill the guide in, but not knowing who the guide is, it's impossible to tell which secrets Clark needs to guard. Does the guide know he has powers? Does the guide know he's Superman? Does the guide know he's Clark?
Fate warned him that they were going to make it hard for him.
"Okay... Lex sold his soul in exchange for his son's soul. Kon, um, he died saving the world, long story, but people managed to bring his body back to life and Lex made sure that he got his soul back."
"What does it have to do with you?" the guide asks. "Trying to save his own son doesn't make Lex a good man all of a sudden. Any half-way human person would try to save their own child, wouldn't they? And he might have done it for selfish reasons." Clark gets the feeling that whoever this is knows Lex and doesn't like him very much.
"He didn't. And Kon is my son, too."
A tilt of the guide's head under the hood. He doesn't say anything for a moment. Clark feels himself flush. "Clone," he adds on. Please, don't let it be his Dad. "He's a good boy."
"So you're doing this because you can't let it sit on you that Lex saved your son while you did nothing. I'm beginning to understand."
Clark opens his mouth to object, but then closes it again. If the guide accepts that as the truth and it saves him further explanation, then so be it. Even if it isn't the truth.
The fog and the dark water continue endlessly. This place is as formless and silent as sleep. Clark tries to be patient, but the longer he does nothing, the more he starts to doubt everything. Can he even trust this guide? Or he is being led in circles over this river for what seems like hours now? Fate said the beings that have Lex's soul can't lie - what if that's the reason why the guide may not talk about himself?
"Can't this go any faster?" Clark demands.
"It's up to you. Make it go faster."
"You need to have a goal in mind in order to get there," the guide says, staring straight ahead, as if said goal is right there. "Or else you'll just keep on stumbling in the dark. Of course maybe it's better you're not thinking too hard of what lies ahead. If this is how you picture the underworld, I imagine your version of hell is none too pleasant."
"You're supposed to be my guide, aren't you? Just tell me where we're going." Clark is trusting this guide less and less. None of this is helpful. It's more like the guide wants to confuse and discourage Clark.
"Down," the guide says softly.
Clark stares. "What?"
"We're not going to a place," the guide says, once again loud and forceful. "This isn't the reality you're used to. There's no time and space. It's just your mind that's used to four dimensions. We're looking for things. Entities. Think of them instead."
Right. Clark tries hard not to think of a guy with horns and a pitchfork. Lex wouldn't make deals with a guy like that. No, the kind of devil Lex would sell his soul to would be all smooth and civilized. Polite, pragmatic. Clark sighs. He's not thinking of Lex's devil, he's thinking of Lex himself. This is getting him nowhere. Just as he wants to give it up and jump the boat to try his luck swimming, there's a sudden jerk and the boat runs on ground. At first sight the shore looks similar to the one they came from, but the pebbles aren't grey and round here, instead they look chalk-white, like ground bones. Beneath them Clark glimpses steel and glass instead of sand. The fog recedes, and as it does so Clark is seized by sudden vertigo. They're not on a shore. The boat has run onto a building. A tall sky-scraper, out of all proportion, a mile high or longer, and it's lying here in the middle of nothing like a ship on the ground of the ocean, dirty and broken, the fog spilling over it like shrouds and running down the sides, as if what lurks there must be an endless abyss.
Clark swallows. His fear of heights is back with full force now that he can't fly anymore. The guide, however, jumps out of the boat. Clark follows with shaky limbs. He turns around in a circle, and when he looks back to where the boat was, it is gliding away into the fog already. A moment later, they're alone again.
There's a signpost a few metres ahead. An arrow points in each direction. Down, the one that goes to the right says. Down, says the left one. Down, each of them. The last one points up. Away, it says.
Clark is just about to ask what that means when there's a low creak in the distance, then another. The creaking turns into a horrible scratching and screeching, like fingernails on a blackboard. It's coming closer. The guide turns towards the sound, seemingly as surprised as Clark. Something emerges from the fog with huge jumps. It's large. It's walking on four legs. It's a three-headed dog.
A three-headed robot dog. It looks like one of Lex's more eccentric creations. The dog's eyes are glowing green, all six of them, but the pointy teeth are red as rage and passion. The tongues, square and immobile between the robot jaws, are silver, like splinters of fear.
"Someone must have really impressed you with all these Greek stories," the guide comments and takes a controlled step back. The robot dog advances and makes a sound. It's the sound the caves used to make to call Clark to them, a frequency only audible to Kryptonians, but the guide seems to hear it as well. Clark gives the monster another look, then comes to a decision. He grabs his guide by one rag-covered arm and runs. His legs feel leaden, impossibly slow, as if chained to the ground, but the arm Clark clings to is tangible under the stiff and sticky rags, the only firm thing right now. Bone pebbles and glass are like marbles to walk on, they slither and stumble more than they run, but somehow they manage to keep their balance and stay upright.
It's like running in a dream. Clark knows that as long as he doesn't fall and as long as he doesn't let go of the guide, the monster won't get them. And then there are steps ahead, just like in a dream, and Clark is out of breath, the cold air burning in his lungs, but finally his feet are on solid ground. The steps are made of stone, old stone, and the higher up they go, the nicer the stones look, turning from concrete to sandstones, to real marble, pink then black then finally white as driven snow.
The last step is wooden and creaky, like the veranda on the farm, trodden with age.
And then Clark skids to a halt in front of a large pair of wooden doors. The guide stops a bit more gracefully. They look up and Clark sucks in a surprised breath.
They're standing in front of building that doesn't even exist anymore. Lex had it razed when he left Smallville for good. But down here in hell, the mansion looks splendid. Richer and more imposing than it ever did in real life. Clark is sure his fantasy has added a few little towers and turrets as well. There's even a banner hanging down from a window on the first floor, purple and green, proudly sporting a crest.
The crest has five corners. It's Superman's shield but in place of the curling S, there's the L of the LexCorp logo.
"Interesting," the guide says.
Clark gives the guide an annoyed glance and knocks on the door as firmly as he can.
For a long time, there's no response, then the doors slowly open. The hallway behind them resembles the interior of the castle, but it is lit by torches and candles and the air that rushes against their faces from the inside is hot and stuffy. The door has been opened by a man in a servant's uniform, more formal than any of Lex's servants ever looked, more like a butler in a movie. He's holding a three-armed chandelier, and the red wax of the candles has run all over his hand and sleeve like a glove of frozen blood.
The man raises the chandelier, and as the candles illuminate his features, Clark remembers the face with a jolt of memory. The servant is Morgan Edge, his face horribly disfigured by bleeding cuts. He smiles, greedy and salacious.
His human enemies always scared Clark the most.
"Just in time, Kal," Edge says. "Just in time."
"What are you doing here?" Well, maybe that's a stupid question. This is hell, after all, or some place like it. Edge deserves to be here.
"I serve," Edge says, without a trace of resentment.
Edge leads them through a long and winding succession of hallways that could never fit into the real mansion, until Clark has completely lost all sense of direction. Then the light grows a few shades brighter and they pass through a doorway into a great hall - it's Lex's study, with the wood-panelled walls and the high ceiling that Clark remembers. Even the stained glass windows are there, but all the glass is red, ruby and crimson and deep burgundy, as if waterfalls of wine are running down the windows. In the centre of the room is a large table, a heavy monster laden with dishes and food and chandeliers. At it head stands a throne, there's no other word for it, and at it's sides, two more, one quite as luxurious, the other smaller and narrower.
Clark recognizes all three occupants instantly.
In the middle resides Lionel Luthor, or some diabolic parody of him, his mane of hair fuller and wilder than in life, his eyes burning with something unearthly, a fire Clark has seen in the mirror a dozen times. In one hand he holds golden chalice, with the other one he is lazily feeding a fruit to the woman to his left: Lana, clothed in gauzy black shrouds, her face paler and softer than in life, her eyes pools of darkness, her hair falling down nearly to her knees. Her lips are glistening red from the juice of pomegranates.
To Lionel's right, though, sits someone who makes Clark forget even Lana. Broad and large, a giant's body, with a face like cracked granite and eyes like dying red suns -
"Darkseid!" Clark exclaims, starting forward. "You're dead!"
Lionel chuckles. His voice isn't quite right, just like his eyes, hoarse and growling, more like a large cat's than a man's. "Quite astute, young man."
"No! Lex destroyed you. The Anti-Life equation - you're gone."
"I will never return to your universe, Kal-El," Darkseid says. He's the same, he's real, Clark knows it with utter certainty. "I will never be the Lord of Apokolips again. But I have always been a welcome guest in hell."
"Most welcome," Lionel agrees amiably.
"You're behind this," Clark accuses. "You stole Lex soul!"
"He sold it, fair and square," counters the Lionel-shaped devil. "A cheap thing to a cheap price."
"I'm not interested in that fool's soul," Darkseid booms. "But I had to get my revenge on him and your puny adopted planet."
"This was all just a trick to lure me here?"
Darkseid stays impassive since his stony face doesn't allow very many expressions. But the devil cocks his head and rubs his beard. It's a perfect expression of Lionel Luthor as Clark remembers him. He wonders why the devil has chosen this form. Is it Clark's own imagination giving it to him? He wasn't that scared of Lionel, nor that impressed by him.
"I must admit we didn't expect you to come here once we had the soul. Our most renowned guest here assured us that Luthor's absence from your equation would plunge your world into imbalance, causing much despair and destruction. As it turns out, we have eliminated not one, but both of you. But you are here. It has been a long time since one of the living has found their way into our realm. Tradition demands that we listen to your request." The devil smiles invitingly. "What may we offer to one such as you? You have power, everlasting life, beauty, fame - is it love? Knowledge? Your people, maybe, Last Son of Krypton? We can raise the dead for you. Give life to the dying. We can bring back what is lost and undo what is done..."
Clark looks from Darkseid to the devil, and to the woman at his side who looks like Lana. There is no recognition on her face, just a numb smile, and he hopes with all his heart that it isn't her, that none of this is what it looks like, that it is all just some very twisted trick of his imagination, some dark corner of his subconscious.
"I'm here to claim Lex Luthor's soul," he says loudly and firmly. It sounds good. Confident.
"Ridiculous," Darkseid thunders.
"How entertaining," drawls the devil. "What makes you think it is yours to claim?"
"I saved his life," Clark replies, remembering what Fate explained to him.
The devil hums appreciatively, examining his finger-nails. They're too long, almost claw-like. "A noble and respected reason. Save a man's life and he becomes yours forever to protect. Have you?"
"Protected him? You must take good care of your possessions after all."
Clark has faced many enemies. He knows not to show his self-doubts and uncertainty at times like this. And he remembers all the many times that he has saved Lex and protected him, all the time he has spared his life when, maybe, he shouldn't have.
He hopes that it weighs more than the times when he has failed Lex.
The devil studies him, and although it is clammy and cold in the hall, Clark feels sweat breaking out on his back and his forehead. He knows that this creature is looking right through him and seeing everything. Judging him. This is how it should feel to stand in front of a god, not a devil, but Clark can't think of anything but the lies he has told, the people he has hurt. He is guilty, a coward, a liar, a failure.
"He is yours," the devil replies.
Clark raises his head in disbelief and blinks. This can't be that easy.
"If you can find him," the devil amends. "And take him back to your world."
He laughs, scratchy and hoarse, and Darkseid joins him, laughter like breaking bones. A shiver runs down Clark's spine, and he clenches his hands to fists and takes a deep breath.
They're not listening. They just go on laughing, louder and louder, until the bowls and cutlery on the table are shaking with it, and the stained glass is rattling in the windows. Clark covers his ears and stumbles backward, bumping into Edge, who is laughing, too, and flees the horrible place.
The guide slips out of the doors and they fall shut, abruptly silencing the infernal laughter. Clark shudders. "That was easier than I thought," he says to calm himself down. He misses the others, Bart, Wally, Arthur, who'd make joke at times like this.
"You haven't found him yet," the guide says, not at all optimistic.
Clark looks around. They're not the in the hall with the torches as Clark expected, but still in the mansion, on top of the staircase. It's quiet here, and outside it isn't dark anymore, but a grey slant of light, like in November, dreary but peaceful. He takes a deep breath, glad to have the scent of pomegranates out of his nose.
"I can find him."
Clark has the choice between the staircase and the door to his left. Since the guide is offering no advice, preferring to stand there telegraphing what seems to Clark an unbearably cocky and dubious expression with every line of the shrouded body, Clark finally turns towards the stairs, heading down. The guide follows without protest.
It's pitch black there at the bottom, like wading into an ink well, but the further Clark descends, the more it seems to him that he's walking into a completely different room, with the air cool and dry instead of the stifling stench in the mansion, and a smell like a hospital room, fear and pain and antiseptic stinging in his nose. The darkness dissolves, and the light that follows is harsh and cold, in hues of blue and green, like the sea under the Arctic ice.
Clark closes his eyes, knowing what he will find at the bottom of the stairs. Behind him, the guide's voice sounds suspicious, "Where are we going?"
Clark opens his eyes and the stairs are gone, together with the blessed dark. They're standing in an empty corridor where every surface seems to be glass or plastic or steel. There's no silence, because the room is filled with a constant hum of electricity.
"Belle Reve," Clark answers darkly to the guide's question. He doesn't want to revisit this place, and even less does he want to see Lex's memory of it. But now that he's here, it doesn't seem unlikely that this would be Lex's version of hell, and not some mythological purgatory. Unlike Clark, who has only stories to draw from, Lex has been through actual hell, through pain and fear and damnation. "It's a psychiatric facility. His father drugged him and put Lex in here when he was a young man. I'm... not really surprised if this is his version of hell."
"Why?" the guide asks after a pause and Clark isn't quite sure what the question's referring to. He heads towards the right, following his instinct. The corridor is deserted, and there are no doors anywhere.
"It's a bad place," Clark says. "They did horrible things to him here."
"And you knew about it?"
Clark wants to tell the guide to leave him alone. This is no one's business but his and Lex's and Clark wants it to stay buried in the depth of his memory. It's the past and he can't change it. Still, the guide is persistent, and Clark might yet need the help. "Yes. I tried to get him out, but it was too late."
Clark feels accused, and it annoys him. The guide wasn't there, doesn't know how frightened and confused Clark was, how it hurt in every fibre of Clark's body to wait and how wonderful it felt to rush in and save Lex and how terrible to fail. "They'd already erased his memory."
And other things. It startles him now how much Lex without a soul resembled Lex right after he was released from Belle Reve. Like they erased more than just Lex's memory. Overlooking the whole of their past, Clark begins to understand how long it really took for those parts of Lex to grow again, like tentative shoots of a crippled tree.
They round a corner, and suddenly, they're no longer alone. They've entered a large room full of people walking around dazedly and ranting to themselves, some of them sitting on plastic chairs or standing like hollow corpses, no life in their sunken eyes, some of them with fear stark on their nervous faces, some of them smiling in empty bliss. Not all of them wear prison scrubs, there are people in bright orange prison overalls, and even more modern grey ones, in handcuffs and straight jackets.
If anyone sees them, they're being ignored. Clark carefully steps further into the room. "Are they real?" he asks his guide in hushed tones.
The guide turns in this and that direction. "They hardly look real to me."
There's a spot of colour that catches Clark's attention. A counter, painted in gold and cheery colours, a faux Egyptian theme. A beautiful dark-haired woman with a ponytail is behind it, handing out steaming cups of tea to the patients with a false smile and soothing words. At first Clark thinks it's Helen Bryce, but then her features shift, like an optical illusion, and she becomes Victoria, Desiree, and for a small moment even Lana. Others follow, women Clark can hardly keep apart, women that Lex picked up and discarded like expensive dress-up dolls.
Another patient shuffles away with a steaming cup, and Clark sees the next person in the queue stepping forward.
He starts forward and breaks into a run. "Lex!" he calls out, but the bald figure turns away and walks off, vanishing in the crowd at a slow but steady pace. Clark dodges mental patients and prisoners, the guide hot at his heel, and he's panting by the time he reaches the counter. There's no sign of Lex.
"Tea?" a sweet voice asks. "It's good for your nerves."
Clark turns around. Lana stands there, smiling, wearing a pink headband. She's holding out a cup of tea. He takes it, too shocked to refuse. It's not her, he reminds himself. She's not real, he can do nothing for her.
But maybe she can help him. "Did you see where Lex went?"
She frowns, wrinkling her nose. "Lex?"
Clark raises the cup to his lips, but before he can drink, the guide grabs his wrist and pulls away the cup, throwing it furiously at the wall. It shatters, and the tea hisses like acid as it spills on the floor.
"Don't accept anything here! No food, no drink, no favours," the guide orders. "Everything comes at a price - don't take it if you don't know what the price is."
When Clark turns away, the woman behind the counter is Helen once more. He backs away, glad that he didn't drink. He spots another door and weaves through crowd towards it, still looking for Lex. "That was him. You see, it won't be that hard finding him," he tells the guide. "I can feel that we're close to him now."
Behind the door is another endlessly long hallway, and far, far ahead of them, Clark can see a tiny figure walking slowly away. He calls out, but there's no response, so he breaks into a run once more. There's a strange clicking noise as they come closer and finally Clark can see that the figure is walking with a stick, feeling his way like a blind man.
There's a dead end ahead. It's a room, the dirty concrete walls clashing with the sterile steel and glass of the asylum. There's a barred window, and in the window, a sliver of a moon, waning. Clark remembers this place, it's Lex's cell in prison at Stryker's Island, where he nearly died of cancer years ago.
The figure ahead turns. It's Lex, wearing dark shades and an untied straight jacket. He settles down slowly on the bench in the cell, like an old and hurting man, waiting for someone to come and pick him up for the very last time.
Before Clark reaches him, the corridor seals with a mirrored wall of glass. "No!" He shouts angrily. His own face stares back at him, sweaty and dishevelled. He has red blotches on his cheeks from running.
Clark pounds his fist against the glass. Damn it, he's powerless, he can't even break glass here. The red cape on his shoulders seems to mock him in the mirror. The guide stands a few steps behind him, head cocked critically to the side.
In a bout of frustrated anger, Clark rips the cape from his shoulders and wraps it around his fist. He throws himself against the glass wall as hard as he can, once twice, only the red in his eyes.
The wall cracks, then it shatters. Panting, Clark straightens up and shakes the shards out of the cape before wrapping it around himself again. It feels better now that he's earned it.
Behind the glass wall, the cell is still there, and Lex is still sitting on the bench. Clark feels joy well up in him and he climbs over the jagged edge of glass and hurries over to Lex, crouching before him.
"Who's there?" Lex asks. His voice sounds raw.
"Lex, it's me." The guide is still there, but Clark doesn't care any longer if his name is heard. "Clark. You're safe now."
"Safe?" Lex asks. His tone is brittle and bitter. "I'm blind. The rocks... the cancer took away my eyesight. No, it was the rocks. The rocks and the ring. I was shot..."
Clark seizes Lex's hands, and jerks back when he feels cold metal under his fingers. It's not a real hand.
"They're drugging me," Lex whispers, suddenly urgent. "They're making me rot inside."
He pulls away his hands from Clark and picks at his skin, right there at his wrist were metal becomes flesh and peels it away. There's no blood, just a dark liquid, like oil, but somehow shimmering silvery, and moving circuits underneath, growing like the crystals of the Fortress.
"You infected me," Lex hisses.
"Lex. You're confused. This isn't real. Your soul is in the underworld. I've come to take you back home." Clark reaches up to pull Lex's shades away, because he doesn't believe that Lex is really blind.
Lex freezes, but he let's Clark take them. "I'm not mad," he whispers. "I'm the only sane one in here."
His eyes are normal, just a bit feverish and too shiny. He stares past Clark. "They're mad!" he yells, and launches forward so quickly that he knocks Clark over. Clark hits the ground and grunts in surprise and then in pain as Lex jumps on him, kneeing his stomach then straddling his chest. He shakes Clark's shoulders. "They won't shut up," he snarls.
Above them, Clark can see people crowding in. Brainiac, in his Milton Fine guise. Zod, wearing Lex's body. Another Lex, grinning maniacally, showing off the kryptonite ring on his finger and the machine gun in his hand. Lionel, looking incredibly young to Clark's eyes, with his hair shorter and far less grizzled. A wild man with dreadlocks. More, legions of mad strangers, closing in on them. Lex's hands close around Clark's throat. If he's trying to strangle him then it's a clumsy, half-hearted attempt.
"I'm here to save you," Clark gasps, trying to pry the hands away without hurting Lex.
"I can help you, Lex," Brainiac says. "You have potential. You can be the smartest human in the world. No one and nothing will ever confuse you again."
"You're nothing. You're scum," Zod growls.
"Don't go with him, Lex," demands Lionel. "You don't need anyone but yourself."
"Just give in to it," the Lex with the gun grins. "It's a whole lot better on the other side of madness."
"Hey, man," the dread-locked guy says. "It's eat or be eaten."
"Stop confusing me!" Lex yells, and jumps off Clark. The crowd parts, and like smoke they dissipate as Lex tears through them, bolting from Clark. A door that wasn't there a moment before falls shut behind him, and Clark can't hear the sound of steps from the other side.
"Lex!" he shouts. Too late. Always too late. Why can't he be fast enough, soon enough, just once in his life when it comes to Lex? Clark gets to his feet, rubbing his neck.
The guide steps away from the wall. "Do you still think he's worth all the trouble?"
Climbing to his feet, Clark sends a glare into the guide's direction. "I'm not giving Lex up now when he needs my help the most."
"It didn't look like he wanted your help."
"Lex was confused. He doesn't know what's best for him sometimes."
"He seemed to have no lack of people telling him what's best," the guide remarks.
Clark heads for the door Lex passed through. He's worried, it won't be easy to convince Lex to come with him if he's like this, frantic and paranoid. The door doesn't belong into this cell. It's a dark wooden, gothic-looking one, with carvings of leaves and fruit in the wood. It looks expensive, but worn, like time has scratched at it with a hundred tiny hands. It opens with a creak and Clark enters another hallway, this one broad and dim, with wood panelling and a carpet running along the middle of the floor. It's very quiet and the windows somewhat further down show that it's the middle of the night outside.
Clark lets go of the door, but the guide follows before it can fall shut.
"Have you ever been to this place?" the guide asks apropos of nothing after a second.
Clark shakes his head. "No. Doesn't look like something out of my imagination, either. What's that smell?"
"Bergamot," the guide says, as if bergamot is somehow offensive, then amends in an exasperated tone, "or it could just be the dust."
Yeah, this place is dusty, and sort of musty. Like a school library where no one ever goes. But that other smell is there, too. Clark starts walking down the hallway. It's deserted. There are paintings on the wall, and once a case with pinned butterflies. If it's a museum, it's a boring one.
The guide's footsteps behind him are the only sound, and even they seem hesitant. Clark turns around to ask where they should go next and that's when he sees a pale little figure, ducking behind some curtains. The guide has stilled a few feet behind Clark, looking there as well. Carefully, Clark moves closer. "Who's there?"
No answer. There's a pair of small, polished shoes peeking out from under the curtain. A child. Clark gently tugs at the curtain, lifting it away. It's heavy and soft, like velvet or brocade. Behind it stands a little boy, thin and short, pressed to the wall, not breathing.
It's Lex, but only the bald head gives it away. He's barely ten, Clark thinks, and his eyes are so wide and colourless, and he looks like the frailest, most frightened child Clark has ever seen. Clark can't comprehend that this is Lex. Lex was never scared of anything. Confused, yes, and worried, but never scared. It's weird that Lex's soul takes the shape of a scared little boy - it didn't seem like it was fear that he was missing without a soul.
Clark crouches down. "Hey. It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you."
"You're wearing a cape," Lex whispers. "Are you a superhero?"
Clark doesn't think he's being recognized. It hurts, but not as much as it would if this were the grown-up version. "Yes. I'm Superman."
"You're a liar," little Lex informs him. He's getting bolder. "Or you're an idiot."
"Lex?" Clark asks.
"Are you a reporter?"
Clark almost says yes, but catches Lex's meaning in the last second. "No. I'm a friend."
"I don't know you."
Lex frowns. He could always be distracted with a good mystery. "You mean we're going to be friends? I don't think so."
"Lex, how old do you think you are?"
"You're fifty-two. This place isn't real. You've forgotten some things, I think."
"I know this place isn't real." Lex is starting to look scared again. "But there's no one here. I can't find the way out. I can't even find the light-switch."
"Do you remember how you got here?"
"I think I ran from someone... the others maybe."
"The other boys. Ollie Queen's friends. He has lots. You're from the future? And you're my friend there?"
Friend. How in the world is Clark going to explain to an eleven-year-old that he and Lex have been to each other just about everything two people can be to each other? That Clark loves him, but that he isn't sure if Lex loves him back?
"I've known you for a long time, Lex. I met you when you were twenty-one." Oh, forget this. "Yes, we're friends."
"What if you're still lying to me?" Lex asks sadly. "You said you're a superhero."
"Well, I save people. That's what heroes do, don't they?"
Lex is as stubborn a child as he is a man, and petulant on top. "But you don't have any powers."
"You don't need powers to be a hero. The best hero I know is just a man. He doesn't have any powers at all. Hey, and, uh, Alexander the Great didn't have any superpowers, either!"
"Yeah, but he had an army," Lex says. "And a kingdom. And lots of resources. If I had an army, I wouldn't be lost in the dark. I wouldn't need anybody. My Dad would have to let me wear a wig."
"I think you look good without hair."
"But you're a liar," Lex says, and slips out from behind the curtain, past Clark, walking towards the next door. "And I can't trust you." He doesn't even seem to see the guide as he hurries past him. "If I had superpowers, no one would be allowed to tell stupid lies like that!"
He slams the door shut behind him so hard it shakes in the frame. The guide gives a low laugh. "Sweet kid, wasn't he?"
"Oh, shut up," Clark grouses and rips the door open, only to stare blankly.
It's a place that looks not unlike the League's watchtower, although someone seems to have taken great care to make it look sinister and imposing, without giving much regard to functionality. That, in Clark's experience, makes it a villain's lair, but he can't for his life remember any place that looked like this.
Cautiously he steps into the winding corridor.
"Horrible interior design," the guide says, and Clark silently agrees. This doesn't look like one of Lex's places. The first door to the left is locked, but there's a tiny window that shows a barren cell. There's a steel table with restraints in the centre, and strapped to the table, a huge ape with a bleeding shot wound in the shoulder. Blood is dripping on the tiled floor. Clark has always had a hard time telling gorillas apart, even walking, talking ones, but he thinks that it's Gorilla Grodd, whom Lex shot when he took over the Legion of Doom.
He swallows and walks on, trying not to hard to think of the gruesome sight. Grodd was still breathing.
The next door lies straight ahead if them and it looks a lot like an elevator door. It opens with a hiss as they approach, revealing a huge hall behind. They're on an upper level, with a gangway spanning the whole of the room ahead of them, and below there are cages and cubicles wall to wall, steaming vats of liquid and people hurrying everywhere. It's as noisy as a factory, and in between machine sounds and human voices, Clark hears screams that don't sound human at all.
In one cubicle, a secretary sits calmly at a desk, and right in front of her, three men in white lab-coats are dissecting what looks like the body of a child. In the next room, workers are putting together a huge, gleaming weapon, and now and then, one of them breaks down, writhing on the floor in agony as if poisoned as the others step over his body to continue their work, compassionless as drones. On the opposite wall, above everything else, a woman is shackled to wall ceiling as if crucified. She's pale and beautiful and her dark, almost purplish hair seems to melt with her flowing black gown. Light seems to fall from her eyes like tears, the only clear light source in this hellish place.
On the other end of the walkway, beneath the crucified woman, Clark spots Lex, grown-up once more, with Mercy Graves at his back, trailing him like Clark is followed by the guide. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a tight pony-tail and she's wearing the old driver's uniform that she used to wear before she exchanged it for an executive's smart clothing.
Ignoring the fact that she's pulling a gun on them, Clark makes his way across the walkway. It creaks dangerously under his feet, swaying a little, so Clark looks straight ahead instead of down. As he comes closer, he recognizes the crucified woman, or at least for a moment he does: it's Tala, the witch Lex seduced and then sacrificed to bring Brainiac back to life in the fiasco that ended in raising Darkseid from the dead.
Mercy steps in front of Lex, her gun pointing straight at Clark's chest. "Not a step closer, Superman," she yells.
"If you get killed here, you stay dead," the guide murmurs close behind him.
Clark raises his hands a little in a pacifying gesture. "Lex, I'm here to talk!"
"Too bad," Lex replies. "I'm here to act." He's wearing a white silk suit that shimmers like pearl in the light that spills from Tala's eyes, and a white tie, even white shoes. Only his gloves are black as coal.
"This isn't real!" Clark shouts back. "This is hell! You've sold your soul to the devil, Lex."
Lex runs a hand over the railing of the walkway, looking down on the infernal scene below with an eerie, satisfied smile. "I made a good deal."
"You remember?" Clark takes a step closer and Mercy's face hardens.
"Every single lesson," Lex snarls, suddenly not calm any longer. He stares at Clark with a hatred that is only mitigated by disdain. There's colour in his face, it looks almost sunburnt, and his eyes seem to glow with manic fever. "Life's a jungle. There's predators and prey. But I'm going to be the fire that burns it down and turns it into fertile soil!"
Clark stares. "This isn't him."
"You preferred the scared little boy, didn't you?" the guide mocks softly. "I think this looks a lot more like the real Lex Luthor. He's an angry man. And he can take care of himself."
Clark is getting angry, too. Maybe that's a sign that this is the real Lex after all, for some reason stuck in his manic villain stage, just as he was stuck as a child a moment ago. In that phase Lex was always the easiest to deal with when they had a common enemy to fight.
"This is a trick," Clark says. "The devil is working with Darkseid. They're trying to destroy you."
Lex sneers at him. "Mercy, please."
She mirrors his sneer, all teeth. "It's a pleasure, Sir."
The shot rings in Clark's ears as he's knocked down by the guide. His head hits the railing and he yelps in pain, then confusion takes over and it feels as if the walkway is swaying and someone is kicking him in the stomach, punching him in the face - no, someone is, that's Lex on top of him, his face distorted in rage and suddenly Clark believes that he can die in this place.
Another punch, and Clark tastes blood as his lip is split, and his vision is blurry with tears. He tries to escape, to shield himself with his arm, when suddenly something under him gives and the world tilts. Lex stumbles and plunges down with a furious yell and Clark follows him helpless until he finds purchase in the last second, one hand gripping the twisted railing, the other holding on tightly to Lex's hand.
All he can do for a moment is squeeze his eyes shut and ride out the pain and vertigo. Then he opens them slowly and dares to look down.
The hand he's holding on to isn't Lex's. It's the guide's hand, and Lex is down on the floor, scrambling back to his feet as nimbly as a cat. The guide's white mask is as blank as ever, but Clark can feel the terror in the body he's holding, and even though the guide must be dead and can't die in this place, Clark can't bring himself to let go.
"The cape," Clark presses through clenched teeth. The guide reaches up, stretching and twisting, and finally gets a hold of the red fabric, but it's too late. The red fabric slips from Clark's shoulders just as his fingers slip on the rail and they both lose their purchase and fall.
Clark comes down awkwardly, twisting his ankle, while the guide catches the momentum in a roll and stands again a moment later. Clark grips his hurting ankle and grits his teeth in pain. How can a few tendons and bones hurt that damn much? Clark has been beaten to death and it didn't hurt like this!
The cape flutters after them, slow and elegant and as a tumbling flag, and sticks to a glass tube filled with a greenish liquid, covering it almost completely.
Lex bares his teeth at them and lunges for Mercy gun that lies on the floor a few feet away from them. He's faster than the guide, and presses the trigger before he can properly take aim. So instead of Clark, the bullet hits the cape, going through it like only kryptonite can, and cracks the glass of the tube. Liquid spills out, and the cape slips to the ground, baring the contents.
A body floats in the tube, that of a child. It's a little boy, no older than eight, with a shock of dark hair drifting in the green water. The guide staggers backwards as if struck by a bullet as well. Clark gasps a moment later.
"Kon," he whispers, although he isn't sure. So young. The little face so round, soft as in sleep. No sign of life.
"I will own you," Lex's voice rings loudly through the room, echoing off the glass cases that suddenly surround them like a forest. Some of them are like a museum exhibition, pictures and artefacts, like the creepy room Lex had kept so many years ago, but far more extensive, from plaid shirts to scraps of blue fabric, from a lock of dark hair, to a big photo of Clark in glasses, bent over his laptop at the Planet. Over there, Lana lies in a glass coffin like Snow White, a tiny baby in her arms, and one is filled to the brim with meteor rocks, another with Kryptonian technology. And writing, writing, everywhere Clark looks, every question Lex has ever asked, every lie he has ever been told scribbled on paper.
"This is hell?" Lex exclaims. "Then I'll own you here rather than serve you in heaven, Clark!"
He's waving the gun around madly, and Clark stills, suddenly suspicious. This Lex is wrong. Lex never admitted things this easily. Driven to his limits, yes, Lex would slip into sudden destructive rage, but normally, he'd either be cold or falsely sincere, pretending not to care or to want the best for anyone.
And Lex never spouted clichs like that with such conviction, either. This Lex is as flat as the soulless Lex Clark left behind.
Clark needs to test his suspicions. But how can he do that? How do you prove the absence of a soul?
The way he did it the first time.
He struggles to his feet, raising his hands to placate. He limps a step towards Lex, watching the motion of the gun careful, but paying even closer attention to Lex's face.
"I'm not your enemy," Clark says.
"But I'm yours," Lex hisses.
"I love you, Lex. I wish I had realized sooner how much I love you." And he's sincere, because even if this isn't Lex, the words are true. If it is Lex, then Clark wants him to know this.
Lex's face stays blank. "I don't care."
It's not that Lex would never do this. But Clark has listened to him pretend too many times not to know when it's all just a big fat lie. The truth is always in the gestures, the action, the looks, rather than Lex's cold words.
But Lex remains utterly impassive until suddenly, he unfreezes and bolts, running away through his forest of secrets.
Clark starts after him and yelps when he treads too hard on his injured ankle. He goes on nonetheless, sweat breaking all over his body, his throat tight with pain. Suddenly, the guide is at his side and seizes his right arm, steadying him. Together they're more awkward, stumbling as if tied at the waist, but much faster.
The room narrows around him and the walls that draw closer are painted in black and white, symbols and images, alien and human. Before them, the wall parts in a shimmer of light, and Clark thinks he sees Lex step through it, a dark silhouette with a blinding halo. He pushes onward, harder than he thought possible, and suddenly his steps become lighter and the light wraps around him with soothing tendrils, embracing them whole.
It feels like flying, right before they drop to the ground on the other side. They're still in the caves, although the paintings on the wall are now exclusively Kryptonian letters and numbers, something that looks like a computer code to Clark, drawn in swirls and spirals on the rough brown walls.
"That was a clever ruse," the guide says as they gingerly pick themselves off the ground. Clark's foot is throbbing, but the hot sharp burn of pain is receding. Clark is pretty sure twisted ankles don't normally work that way. "He didn't see that coming."
"Didn't see what?"
"Your little act just now. I almost believed you."
Clark straightens and draws away from the guide. He's ready to yell at this point, but forces himself to stay calm. 'Choose your battles' is one of the things his Dad always said that still hold true, even for Superman.
"It was the truth," he replies, his anger tightly controlled. It's his Superman voice, the one that intimidates anyone with half a brain or less than godlike powers. "I'm here because I love Lex. That's your answer. I'm saving him and not thousands of others because I love him. If you can't handle that, I'll go manage on my own."
He crosses his arms and stands straight even though his foot hurts. It's strange, but he was always surest of his feelings for Lex, be they good or bad ones, when confronted about them by others. The guide stares at him through the chalk-white mask.
"Love him," the wispy, far-away voice repeats. Then it laughs, a hard bark. "After thirty years you suddenly decide you love him."
"Yes," Clark snaps and limps around the guide, further into the caves, following the writing on the wall. There's only one was to go now, forward. Behind them is a solid wall. "It took me years to figure it out, but the feeling was always there. And I know he loved me too, in the beginning, even if he doesn't anymore."
"Oh, you know it, do you?"
Clark doesn't deign that with an answer. The guide seems determined to follow him, so there is no point in arguing. A few steps further the air gets warmer, and seems to vibrate and hum, a golden sound, like bees, like a huge bell constantly ringing.
"This is the end," Lex's voice sounds from ahead. Clark perks up and walks faster, rounding the next corner. The caves stop abruptly there, widening into a boundless room, a giant chasm behind a small cliff. The chasm is filled with light, radiant living light that's full of stars, from here to eternity.
At the edge of the cliff stands Lex with his back to the abyss. Clark has to shield his eyes to look at him.
"This is the end, Clark," Lex repeats. "And the beginning. This is the source."
"No," Clark cries. "This isn't the source, Lex. This is the underworld!"
"You don't understand. I was there once, so I am there forever. I've seen the truth, Clark. I've been the truth. There's no point in bringing me back."
Approaching Lex feels like flying close to the sun, like sinking into a furnace. Clark squints against the blaze and advances, step for step. "I've come farther than any human ever has, Clark. All the sacrifices I've made, all the things I did, they all brought me here. I'm right where I want to be."
Clark decides to try a different approach. "You came back the last time." He reaches out and finds Lex's shoulder, clad in the silky white suit.
"I wanted nothing more than to go back," Lex says, softly and intimately. "I would have taken my life to go back if you hadn't chosen that year to get yourself killed. I only stayed because I had to take care of things. But I'm here now. You don't need me. Go back, Clark."
Lex starts to draw back, towards the abyss, and Clark lunges forward, wrapping his arms around him. They're still strong, even without his powers, strong enough to capture Lex and hold on.
"I need you."
"You don't need anyone," Lex says. "You're just afraid of letting go."
And he takes another step back, pulling Clark with him, and Lex is right, Clark is more afraid of letting go than he is of holding on. Lex falls, into the core of the furnace, and Clark clings to him, falling with him.
In his arms, Lex dissolves to light, intangible, ephemeral, gone.
Clark falls, and it's a good thing that Clark's falls always end with waking. No fall can kill him, and neither can this. Clark simply can't believe it will.
It takes the breath from his lungs, though, and for some time, he lies dazed and confused on a dusty wooden floor. It smells a bit like an old attic and fresh paint. When he opens his eyes, the room he's in is bathed in bright, friendly light that falls in through a small square window high on the wall and a half-open door. The walls are painted white, but almost every inch is covered in scraggly black handwriting. In one place someone started to paint it over with white, and the brush still lies dripping with paint on a pile of newspapers. The one on the top is the Daily Planet, a headline Clark will never forget, even if he has never seen it fresh out of print - only in class cases and pinned to cubicle walls at the Planet.
"Death of Superman," it proclaims. Under the brush will be a picture of Clark, or what is left of him, spread out on a pile of rubble that's still dark with blood. He turns away, studies the scribbled walls. A jumble of letters and numbers, not all of them human numbers, equations and formulae and proofs. Clark can't follow them.
"Are you done playing Janet yet?" someone inquires from behind him. Clark turns around. The guide seems to have walked in through the half open door. The ragged cloak looks a little singed.
"Janet?" he asks the guide.
"The tale of Thomas the Rhymer. Janet wants her man back, but she has to hold on to him as the faeries make him change into vicious animals."
"Never heard of it," Clark shrugged. "How did it end?"
"It turns out the thing she's holding on to was a beast all along that the faeries had enchanted. The real Thomas remained hidden from her in the faerie realm."
"Aren't fairy-tales supposed to end happily?"
"I guess Janet liked playing the hero more than she liked using her brains. She'd have realized that if the faeries can turn her man into a beast, then they can also turn something else into him."
"You're saying this isn't Lex?"
"I'm just telling you the story. You asked for it."
Clark frowns and goes over to the door to open it further. Beyond it is an oval room with white walls and parquet floor, a fire-place and a grandfather clock. Three French windows overlook a green lawn and one of them is ajar, letting in a breeze that moves the white curtains and the two flags by the window.
Behind the massive desk of the President of the United States sits Lex, reading a thick folder. He puts it down as Clark and the guide slowly enter, with exactly the same patient, welcoming expression he used to have for Clark at the mansion when they were still friends.
He's no longer wearing the white suit, but a more conservative charcoal one together with a blue tie. Everything about him radiates calm and competence. Even Clark's impressed.
"Clark," Lex says, his enunciation clear and meaningful as ever. There's emotion in his voice, but distanced, buried under respect. "Have a seat."
"You know me, Lex, I prefer standing," Clark replies, not unfriendly. His audiences with Lex as President were hostile staring contests, each of them clad in their full regalia, flaunting their worldly power, wary of the balance they had found. But in the end, the balance held and they behaved like professionals. Clark doesn't quite know how he managed to stay so impersonal then. Maybe it was the fact that Lex was acting in an office, which gave him a similar kind of emotional armour as the cape gave Clark.
Lex's nod is polite. He ignores the guide entirely, as if unable to see him, even when the guide takes a seat in one of the chairs along the oval wall. Instead Lex glances around the office, running his hands over the desk in a theatrical gesture. "What does it say about a man, Clark, when this is his consolation prize? I think it makes him a very successful man, don't you?"
"Consolation prize?" Clark asks. He's decided to take this conversation slower than the others, let Lex lead the way. Maybe then Lex will be more approachable.
"Frankly, Clark, you and I know that this isn't what I want. Not anymore. I had better things. For a while I was, for all intents and purposes, a god. I still am one of the smartest people on the planet. I don't have to limit myself to Earth. This is what I am supposed to want, what every rich kid is supposed to want, but I always wanted other things more. I wanted knowledge. I wanted you. I wanted to be a father. But can never keep the things I want."
"For someone who didn't want this you did - do a pretty good job." Clark gives him an encouraging smile.
Lex returns the smile without much feeling. "I've never liked people doing their jobs badly. You always do your job picture perfect, don't you? Always there at the right moment, always saving the day. You never slip. You never fail."
Clark sighs. "I do, Lex. All the time. I'm doing it right now, I think."
Lex raises his brows. "You're Clark Kent. You can do anything."
"I'm trying to save you," Clark admits. "But it doesn't work."
Leaning back in his chair, Lex looks sceptical. "Why would I need saving? Haven't I proved at least, if nothing else, that I don't need you?"
"But you do, right now. You've done something very selfless, and it got you into a tight spot. I'm trying to help you out, but your enemies are confusing you. This is an illusion, Lex."
With a frown, Lex studies the fireplace, the moving curtains, the flag. He curls his fingers around the glass on the desk before him and drinks. It's red wine instead of golden liquor. "You're saying I'm not President."
"You were. Until two years ago. Can't you remember anything? There was a crisis. You had to go underground. A lot of people died. Kon died. He saved the world. Don't you remember?"
Lex's lips twist into a bitter smirk. "You know me, Clark. I have a spotty memory. Maybe I don't want to remember."
"Kon is alive again," Clark says gently. "You made it possible. But it cost you a lot. It's what brought you here."
"And you?" Lex gives him a tired look, then sighs in exasperation. "Don't tell me. You're here to save me. I have my pride, Clark. If it was anyone but you I'd tell you to go to hell."
Clark lowers his eyes and smiles at Lex's choice of words. "It's kind of where we are already."
Lex laughs. "Not bad for hell. I always knew evil would pay off one day."
"But it's the good intentions that brought him here. Aren't you going to remind him of that?" the guide asks. "He seems to have forgotten."
Lex gets up as if no one has said anything and straightens his suit. "You know the way back, I presume?"
The guide gets up as well and turns to Clark. "Well, Janet? What road leads back from faerie?"
Clark glances from one to the other. Something's going on here and he doesn't get it. The guide seemed a little hostile towards Lex from the start, but never left Clark's side. But now the muffled voice is vibrant with hostility. Maybe it's because Clark and Lex will return to the world of the living and the guide will be left behind. Clark rises and goes to stand close by the guide. He wishes he could just take off that featureless mask and see who's behind it. He has a feeling the answer is so close, so obvious, but still completely out of reach.
"You helped me a lot. I wish I could do something for you as well."
"Unlike him, I have no compunctions to tell you to go to hell," the guide retorts and turns away. "The faster you're gone, the faster I can go back to getting myself out of this."
Lex pays no attention to the conversation. He walks over to one of the doors purposefully and presses the handle. Beyond it is not another room, but open countryside - brown, harvested fields, a clear sky, corn like a dark green sea in the distance. A narrow road winds before them.
They stepped out and when Clark turns, the door is gone as well as the room they were in a moment before. He takes a deep breath of crisp autumn air, revelling in the sun on his face. It feels warm, utterly real. Soon he'll be back under the sun.
"When we're back, I'd like things to change," Clark tells Lex as they walk side by side.
"I'm willing to compromise," Lex answers placidly enough for Clark to gather up the rest of his courage.
"I want something more than just peaceful coexistence," he ventures. "I'd like us to be friends again. I'd like to take you to Smallville and have a family dinner. You, me, Mom, Kon. I think it would do him good to see that we're not enemies anymore."
"If your mother wants me in her house, I'm more than open to your suggestion," Lex agrees.
The road has reached a small copse of trees that hides what lies beyond. The sun's just descending behind the tops of the trees, the golden light filtering through the yellowing leaves.
Clark gets even more optimistic. "We could work together, Lex. Together we could tackle problems that I can't resolve with my powers."
"I always thought so."
It almost seems too easy, but then Clark pushes his suspicion away. It hasn't been easy. It has been a long and hard and painful road, not just in hell, but in the thirty years before. He and Lex deserve this.
They round the copse, yellow leaves tumbling through the air around them. A small smile plays on Lex's lips. "I know where we are," he says, just as the last bit of road comes into view.
The trees have hidden a river that dried out years ago, but is still running strongly here. The murky water gleams cheerfully in the sunlight, and the bridge seems broad and welcoming. Clark glances down at the muddy stripe of sand down by the river and smiles. The place where Clark brought Lex to life once will be the place where he brings him back a second time. For once the symmetry of their lives will be beautiful rather than frightening.
As they step onto the bridge, the other side of the river starts to blur and recede. Mist rises from the green water, shrouding the other shore, climbing high as a wall, crawling up Clark's legs like icy vines of ivy. He shivers.
There's something like a footfall behind them, a multitude of whispers.
"Don't turn around," Lex commands. "Don't look behind you."
"Clark," the guide calls.
Clark stops. Too easy. This is the bridge where Lex died. This is where Clark's human life ended. This is a river of pain, of secrets, of death.
"You can only cross this bridge by dying," the guide's voice rings from behind them, echoing Clark's thoughts.
Lex turns around and grips Clark's shoulder. "Don't hesitate now, Clark. We're almost there."
"You said not to look back," Clark breathes as Lex's eyes wander over Clark's shoulder to what lies behind him.
"Yes. Now walk. It's only a few more steps."
Clark remains rooted to the spot. Lex sighs impatiently. "I wish you'd trust me, just once in your life."
"You drank wine. In the office. Isn't it dangerous to accept food or drink in this place?"
"It doesn't seem to have harmed me."
"And I thought this place was shaped by my memory and expectations. Then why did I see places that I have never been to?"
"Finally you're thinking like a reporter. Go on, ask the questions," the guide demands.
Lex's face twists in anger. "You're overstepping your boundaries!" he shouts over Clark's shoulder.
Clark's head shoots up in surprise. "I thought you couldn't see him!"
"Oh, I won't be seeing him much longer," Lex snarls. He charges past Clark, throwing himself at the guide. Clark jumps around as well, the warning forgotten. The other side of the river has become invisible as well. No light dances on the river now, the water is dark and deep. Lex evades a punch by the guide, and grabs the rag-clad arm with inhuman swiftness. He twists, throwing the guide at the railing and grabs the hooded head, banging it against the metal violently. The mask cracks but doesn't break. Blood oozes through the fractures and the guide slumps in apparent defeat, only to kick viciously at Lex's shin a second later. Lex doesn't yell. He only growls like an angered beast, and seizes the cloak of rags, throwing the guide over the railing in one big heave. There's a splash and for a moment, bubbles rise to the surface, but then the water smoothes as if nothing has ever disturbed it. Clark runs over to the railing and stares down. The guide doesn't come up again.
"What did you do that for?" he whispers.
"He overstepped his boundaries," Lex replies cryptically, brushing off his hands. He moves closer to Clark, touching his shoulder gently. "Now come."
Clark takes a shaky breath. He looks into Lex's clear blue eyes as Lex's hand moves to his cheek.
"Are you Lex Luthor?" he asks.
Lex frowns. "Don't you trust me?"
They cannot lie, Clark remembers. And the guide was forbidden to tell the truth. They hid him in plain sight -
Clark shies away from the warm hand on his cheek and twists around. The railing when he gripped it burns like hot irons, and he feels his palms blister. With a yell, Clark jumps over the railing and hits the water. It wells up and closes over his head, heavy and cold, and fills his nose, his throat, his lungs, dragging him down. He lets it, pushing further down even as life seeps out of his body, thrashing with his arms and legs. There is no ground, no muddy river bed, no wreck of a car. A mask floats past Clark, bone-white and cracked. His vision dances with bright spots as the last bit of breath presses out of his lungs and escapes him.
There's silence and the river tugging at him with gentle, insistent hands. Clark lets himself be twisted and turned around and closes his eyes as the river embraces him, clinging to him like a dying man.
It feels a lot like flying.
"Oh my god! Oh damn, I'm so sorry! I fucked up! I didn't know he would jump!"
Clark blinks and brushes the water out of his face. It doesn't stop, though and he realizes that it's pouring, the sky raining ever new water down on him. He pushes up on his elbow and stares with the panicked, wide-eyed face of a boy with dark hair plastered to his forehead, drenched from head to toe.
"Kon," Clark croaks and twists around to cough up more water. Next to him on the muddy shore lies Lex, pale and unconscious and just as wet. Clark crawls over to him anxiously, cradling the bald head in his hands and gasping with relief when he realizes that he can hear Lex's heart-beat, faint but getting stronger. He has his powers back. He's back in the world of the living.
A faint trickle of blood runs down Lex's nose. It looks like he received a vicious punch not long ago.
"He was behaving totally inconspicuous for days after you left," Kon babbled. "But then this freak weather started - rain in Smallville! And you didn't even blow clouds over here! It's like hell froze over or something - sorry, didn't mean to swear! Anyways, as soon as the rain started he hopped into his car and drove here. I was worried, you know, thought he might go after Aunt Martha, but he just stopped at the bridge. I really didn't think he'd jump! Since when is Lex Luthor suicidal?"
"Calm down," Clark say. "You did okay. You pulled us out, right?"
"Yeah, of course! Where did you come from anyways?"
"I jumped in after him," Clark says, not caring that it sounds mad. Colour is returning to Lex's cheeks. His eyes crack open and he blinks in confusion up at Clark. Then he tries to lift his head. "Where - ?"
"The river. Smallville," Clark supplies. Lex groans and slumps back onto the sand.
"You were the guide, right?"
"Sure took you long enough."
"Sorry. Why did they let you do that?"
"They didn't let me. They forced me to do it so they could play that sick game of theirs. I wasn't allowed to tell the truth, but I was allowed to lie. The tale of Thomas the Rhymer doesn't end that way at all. And if you'd paid attention you'd have realized that all of these places came from my imagination, not yours."
Clark beams at Lex's annoyed expression. "Darkseid is going to be pissed. I saved your soul, Lex!"
"Don't remind me," Lex mutters darkly. Then he opens his eyes again and turns his head to look at Kon. "You didn't involve him in this, did you?" he asks with a hint of threat in his voice. Clark's beam grows a few shades brighter in spite of it. This is his Lex.
"No. I just told him to look after Metropolis and your soulless self."
"Soulless?" Kon gawks, staring at Lex. "What's up with you two? This is absolutely freaky, you know? You're being civil with each other or something!"
Lex sits up with a remarkable amount of dignity for man soaked in muddy water and shivering from the cold. "The appearances are deceiving."
Kon narrows his blue eyes at them, looking from Clark to Lex and back. "Wait a moment. Didn't you to the underworld to save someone? It was him, wasn't it?"
Clark nods. He knew Lex didn't want Kon to know, but the last thing they need is more lies in this family. "He made a deal with some devil to bring you back. You don't have to worry about it now, everything's okay."
Lex stands, his legs shaky but his face hard as steel. "I'm no longer President, Clark. Public opinion doesn't matter much to me."
Clark rolls his eyes at the prelude to another threat, even though he knows how dangerous Lex can be. "Lex. So he knows you love him enough to do this for him. That isn't a bad thing, you know?"
Lex crosses his arms, probably against the cold, and turns away. Clark gets to his feet and grimaces at his muddy jeans, then shuffles after Lex. "You're wet and freezing. Let's go home. My Mom would never turn you away in that condition."
"I don't like your bizarro versions," Kon complains from behind them. "I'm seriously thinking about calling in the Titans. Robin is going to figure out what's messing with your heads."
Clark laughs, free and happy. "You can invite him for dinner tomorrow, kid. Tonight I want it to be just family."
Lex sits on the couch, dry and in too big clothes. He's defiantly put away the blanket Martha forced him to wear around his shoulders while he ate his soup and is cradling a steaming cup of coffee now. The rain is still pattering against the windowpanes. It's almost dark outside. Kon is helping Clark's Mom with the dishes. Clark can hear the low murmur of their voices drift into the living room. She's telling him about the past.
Clark sits down next to Lex at a distance that's closer than polite but further than intimate. Lex glances up at him.
"I meant all the things I said, even if it wasn't really you I talked to down there," Clark begins. "I want us to be friends again."
"That's a dangerous idea."
"We can handle dangerous."
"Oh, I'm not afraid of it," Lex says, smirking into his coffee. "I just thought your other friends might object."
"You said the same while you were without a soul," Clark remembers fondly. "There's something I need to tell you, though, and you might not want to be friends anymore afterwards."
"You supply of secrets is apparently endless."
"You were... gentler without a soul. Much more open to affection," Clark explains hesitantly. "Jesus. It feels like I used you. We had sex."
Lex stares at him. He doesn't look particularly enraged, so Clark starts to worry.
"I'm waiting for you to blush," Lex informs him.
Clark leans back on the couch and glowers at Lex, even though he's tentatively starting to feel relief. The longing for the intimacy they shared will always be there, but he can keep it at bay for their friendship's sake.
"I'm not a teenager anymore. I can talk about sex. We had sex. It's something people do -"
"I'm going to crush that bastard. I'm going to find a way to buy up hell or something and make him regret this," Lex hisses. Clark's eyes widen in alarm.
"Darkseid. He's responsible for this. I can't remember!"
"Us having - ?"
Clark's question is muffled by Lex's lips, pressing against his with the full force of the rage he apparently felt. Clark opens up in surprise, more than happy to take the brunt of Lex's anger. A second later, Lex is straddling him, pushing Clark's shoulders down on the backrest of the couch. His eyes gleam. "I think I have a new arch-enemy."
"Huh?" Clark says intelligently, trying to push up and regain Lex's lips, but coming up short. So he has to lick under Lex's chin and his throat. Lex grimaces oddly, as if he might be ticklish there.
"Darkseid. He's going down!"
There are a number of things Clark might point out, such as the fact that Darkseid is already pretty much down, or that he is already Clark's enemy. Instead he slips his hands under Lex's too big borrowed shirt and runs them possessively over his warm sides, up to the firm shoulders and down to Lex's hipbones, pulling him closer.
"I could bring him back just to destroy him again," Lex muses, then gasps as he makes contact with Clark's crotch.
"Bad idea," Clark mumbles against his collarbone.
"Good idea," Lex growls and grinds down.
There's a yelp. Both of them wince as the living room door slams shut.
"Oh dear," Clark can hear his mother say in the kitchen. Lex buries his head in the crook of Clark's neck.
"I'm calling the Titans!" Kon yells.