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Locked Room Mystery

Chapter Text

Clark knew that Lex didn’t talk to reporters, especially not to reporters from the Planet. If he did, though, he’d definitely be saying something like ‘I am the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world. Why am I not out of this bunker immediately?’ Even though the answer to the question was that he was the President, and the League couldn’t allow him to get himself killed during a massive storm (a lot of the reporting was calling it a ‘freak’ storm, but (a) Clark didn’t like that word very much in the first place, and (b) it was only freaky if you didn’t understand that humanity had rewired the planetary weather systems through dedicated greenhouse gas output, such that where it had touched down was unpredictable, but that it had was not; Clark had written an editorial on this very subject last month).

Lex was standing next to the door, not quite leaning against the wall, staring at the handle as if he could make it pop open with the power of his mind. Clark knew that Lex’s mutant power was accelerated healing, so he didn’t worry that anything might actually happen to the lock, at least not unless Lex was concealing some tools on his person—oh crap. He hazarded a quick X-ray, and found two knives and one very small gun, along with some pills whose composition he couldn’t determine, but nothing that was an obvious electrical kit, so he relaxed a bit.

“It should only be a few more hours,” Clark said apologetically. He should be out there helping, but he’d been so busy getting all the staff to safety that he hadn’t noticed the lockdown starting, and then it would have been dangerous to his cover to leave. According to the fifty-odd news reports being piped into the room, the others were doing fine without him, anyway, and it was a good idea not to have Superman out in front for every major fight. The others deserved respect, and they needed it, too, if they wanted people to go along when they showed up.

“Thank you, Mr. Kent,” Lex said, and it was only because Clark knew Lex so well that he could hear the annoyed condescension lurking underneath. “Remind me again what you’re doing here?”

Clark cleared his throat. “Uh, I was scheduled for an interview with your chief of staff? And then when the alarm went off, there was a lot of running around. Nobody bothered with me because I’d already been through the security screening, I guess, and I don’t think they noticed they were shoving you into a room that was already occupied.” And now they were in full watertight mode, sealed in until the President and the NSC agreed that the danger was past.

Lex’s brows lowered. People were going to lose their jobs over this, Clark had no doubt. He’d try to stand up for them, but he didn’t think that would help.

“I’m surprised you haven’t tried to upgrade your interviewee,” Lex said smoothly.

Clark folded his hands on the table—he’d figured sitting quietly was his best bet for seeming nonthreatening and unworthy of attention—and shrugged. “If you wanted to talk to a reporter about your response to the crisis, you would. And I won’t report on anything you said if you tell me it’s a matter of national security.”

Lex made a ‘hmm’ sound, calculated to indicate that Clark had gone up a notch in his estimation. In reality, of course, Lex was still classing him somewhere around ant-level, but it would be hard to know that if you didn’t know the real Lex. “So what have your observations these last few hours taught you about me?”

“That any answer I give will sound like flattery,” Clark told him. Lex had been by turns decisive, knowledgeable, level-headed, open to innovation, and reassuring. He’d spoken to generals and attorneys general and, yes, the Surgeon General, listening to problems and making connections. The League might be out there fighting the storm, but Lex was doing his best to ensure that people once saved from imminent death wouldn’t lose everything else.

“Very nice,” Lex said. Back in the days when Clark came to visit him in the mansion, he would have elaborated on how Clark’s response was likely to elicit a favorable reaction, even in people who knew better, because of the inexorable laws of psychology. Lex had even once said that the laws of physics were breakable; human behavior, though, always came through. But they weren’t friends now, so Lex didn’t explain further. “Did I miss anything?” he asked instead.

Clark gave the question some thought. “The Japanese crisis response team,” he said. “They can get to New York faster than to Tampa, and that frees up some of the National Guard to move further down the coast.” Lex’s plan was good, no question, but Clark prided himself on having learned something about organizing a big effort himself over the years.

Now Lex’s attention was on Clark. Possibly this had been a bigger mistake than Clark had realized. Even with the storm raging outside, Lex was perfectly capable of following his curiosity to places Clark didn’t want him to go. “Clark Kent,” Lex said, like he was tasting each syllable. Clark wanted to shrink down and he wanted to stand up, and so he only stared at Lex, like a kid might stare at a tiger at the zoo, except that there was no protective moat and fence between them. “Do I know you?”

Oh crap. That was not where Clark had thought Lex would go with this. Except that he was still calling Lex ‘Lex’ in the privacy of his own head, and he’d never even tried to crush the secret seed of hope curled up in his heart, that someday Lex would remember—not remember who he had been, but who he could be.

Or, Lex could remember his history and decide to paint the White House in Kryptonite paint. Clark swallowed. “I’m a reporter for The Daily Planet,” he said, bringing his hand up to tap his press pass. “I’ve had a seat at the briefings for the past two years, but you never call on me.”

“Yes,” Lex said. “You ran that story on genetic drift from LexCorp-modified seeds.”

Of all of Clark’s stories that had cost LexCorp billions of dollars and Lex millions in campaign financing to fix, he picked that one? “The science was compelling,” Clark said, refusing to look away.

Lex’s brows lowered just a fraction. “The science was frightening, you mean. You know with the growing season cut short from the storm, LexCorp seeds will be the only hope of avoiding a food price spike that would starve poor people in half the countries in the world. But that’s not what I meant. Have we … met?”

Clark’s heart stuttered in his chest. He had no doubt that Lex had a hard drive’s worth of research on him, done to neutralize his critical reporting, but Lex hadn’t once looked at him since 2011. The League’s best analysis had always been that Lex’s memories were well and truly gone—even Batman said that was the most likely outcome—but there’d always been a footnote about possible fragmentary traces. “I don’t—how could we?—press conferences!” he finished with more enthusiasm than grace.

“You’re a terrible liar, Clark,” Lex murmured, then looked faintly surprised at his own familiarity. Clark’s heart pounded like he was a human trying to raise a car off of a trapped child. Lex was across a table from him, but he felt as if they were only inches apart. Any moment the Kryptonite was going to come out.

“I always assumed,” Lex said slowly, “that if we’d crossed paths in Smallville you would have reminded me of that.”

Clark (with Chloe’s expert assistance) had spent a long few weeks erasing the records of his adventures in Smallville, digital and hard copy. He had no doubt that Lex had studied what was left after their scrubbing; they’d had to leave in plenty about meteor mutants, and God only knew what was in the secret LuthorCorp files, though there Lex’s paranoia had apparently protected Clark as well, because there’d never been any hint that the records retained any trace of Clark’s presence. Anyway, Clark was safe: there was no reason to feel faint just because Lex’s full attention was on him now.

Clark swallowed. If he said he’d assumed Lex would’ve reminded him if Lex had remembered, that would lead into some obvious questions to which Clark only had lies in response. And for all that had happened, he couldn’t quite make himself tell that last lie, that they’d never known each other.

“Very well,” Lex said after several excruciating minutes of silence, using the tone he deployed on reporters who’d asked him some question out of Fox’s talking points for the week. “How do I know you, Clark Kent?”

Clark was always stupid when it came to Lex, stupid with hope and memory and mistrust that had only been justified about half the time, and all of it was in his voice when he said--whispered nearly--“You don’t know me.”

And he didn’t know what he was feeling, other than that it was too big for his Kryptonian skin, when Lex smiled, just the way he used to smile at Clark up in the barn, and said, “That’s going to change.”

Chapter Text

Lex invited him to dinner, and Clark said yes. He’d been raised to respect the office, and when he wasn’t in uniform at least he couldn’t say no to the President. Not to mention that Lex would only become more suspicious if Clark turned him down.

He expected a state dinner, dignitaries and maybe a story or two that he could get on the side. He got a tiny room near the Oval Office, set up for just the two of them, with candles and enough silverware that Clark was at first confused why there were only two chairs.

The impressive young woman who’d escorted him in gestured for him to sit down, so he did. She left, and Clark was alone. When he gave in to temptation to scan, he found that the Oval Office as well as three other rooms on this level had been lined in lead, and he was willing to bet there were more below. Lex wasn’t in any of the places he could see.

They’d confiscated his phone (and, in Clark’s opinion, gotten unduly familiar with his chest and arms), so all he could do was examine the art on the walls—National Gallery loans, including a nice portrait of Lincoln—and eavesdrop on minor staffers debating Medicare policy.

The door to the Oval opened, and Lex emerged, straightening his cuffs and mostly ignoring the exhortations of the Secretary of Commerce as they headed towards Clark.

Clark stood just as Lex finally dismissed the Secretary, just outside the door.

“Mr. Kent. I hope you haven’t been waiting long,” Lex said smoothly.

“Only a few minutes, Mr. President.”

Lex waved his hand. “Lex, please. Believe me, I’m well aware of my status even without constant verbal reminders.”

Clark swallowed. “Lex,” he said, the word different spoken than echoing in his own head. “People call me Clark.” Lex had used his name before, back in the bunker. But it was different to give him permission.

Lex smiled and shook out his napkin as he sat. “Interesting way to put it. Is Clark not your given name?”

Trust Lex to hone in on the smallest incongruity. Clark used the business of sitting down and arranging his own napkin to give himself time. “I was adopted,” he said, even though Lex had doubtless had that looked up. “My parents, my adoptive parents, gave me the name.”

“But you don’t think it’s quite yours,” Lex said shrewdly. “Or not always.”

“I owe my parents everything I’ve accomplished,” he said, secure in the truth of it, “but I have a heritage of my own, even if I don’t know the details.”

“You owe them,” Lex said, slowing the words down. “Do they only get credit, or do they also get blame? And does that end with them, or do we look back to their parents?”

Clark didn’t want to say anything that would implicate Lionel. “We’re all made of a combination of biology and experience, and I don’t know that anyone can disentangle them, but I do believe in free will.”

“Of course,” Lex said, leaning forward as a waiter came in to pour water and wine, “we know biology matters.” Clark wasn’t consulted, just given a glass of red, along with a starting salad.

“But we can’t run controlled experiments, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that culture and individual choice matters.”

They set off on what turned into a vigorous debate over epidemiological and observational studies, Lex clearly delighted and Clark constantly wondering whether this was some magic-driven fever dream, arguing big issues with Lex like they were kids again.

Between the entrée and the dessert, Lex’s 11-year-old daughter came in to kiss him goodnight. Lex’s easy love for her was a revelation. Lex’s adult relationships had always been about possessiveness. Lex clearly adored Lena, and the feeling was mutual—as it should be; whatever grudges Clark had against Lex, there was no reason his own daughter should fear him.

Lex didn’t apologize for her interruption as he had for his lateness.

“She’s probably heading back to her room to research you right now,” Lex said casually after the door closed. “Maybe she’ll find something I didn’t.”

Clark made himself smile, a gentle Clark Kent smile. “I doubt that.”

“Hidden it that well, have you?” Lex asked, and despite his answering grin Clark highly doubted he was joking.

Lying directly to Lex had never worked out that well. “So, am I allowed to ask about how the meeting with the Russian premier went?”

Lex accepted the deflection. “You’re allowed to ask,” he said, and they were off again: Lex ended up delivering a classic rant on the role of weather in military history, and the humble louse’s victory over Napoleon.

Eventually, there was a discreet knock at the door. Lex’s lips curled in distaste, but he rose from his chair. “I’m afraid I do have to take this briefing,” he said.

Clark glanced at his watch and realized that it was after eleven. “I’m sorry!” he said. He’d monopolized Lex’s time for hours, and while perhaps that substituted for planning to take over the world, Lex had plenty of legitimate outlets for the use of his power these days too.

Lex shook his head. “It was my pleasure,” he said. “Shall we do it again next Thursday?”

Clark could’ve invented a research trip out of the country. That would’ve been only the tiniest of lies, under the circumstances. “That sounds great,” he said instead.

****

The President’s schedule wasn’t completely open to the public. Still, Lex apparently hadn’t instructed that their dinners be kept off the record. It didn’t take the news outlets long to notice that Clark was showing up at the White House two or three times a week.

He wrote about poverty in Appalachia and in the Bronx. He wrote about a startup making medical devices in Mexico, and the various troubles it was having getting its products across the border, with allegations of corruption in two nations. Inspired by one of his conversations with Lex, he wrote a passionate editorial about early childhood education.

Perry called him into the office and asked if he was going to file an interview. When Clark said no, he spent a while staring off into the distance and stroking his cheek. “You’re not going to get yourself in trouble, are you?” he asked finally. “Because our lawyers are good at defamation and copyright, but that’s about it.”

Clark shook his head. “If there is trouble,” he said, “I don’t think it’ll be trouble for the Planet.”

“Not what I was asking, son,” Perry said, but let it go.

“The Courtship of Clark Kent,” the New York Times called it, reporting on the rampant speculation about the President’s “new closeness with (former?) administration watchdog Clark Kent.” There were mentions of Lex’s multiple, public failed marriages. A snide operative, who’d worked on the sacrificial campaign of Lex’s gormless opponent, offered a quote that got a lot of play about how Clark’s new role gave “a whole new meaning to administration mouthpiece.”

Lex remained mum, and so did Clark. He kept writing his stories, letting the chips fall where they would, and traffic to his blog kept increasing, so the Planet wasn’t going to cut him off any time soon, at least not as long as Perry was reassured that Clark was staying honest.

****

“Someday,” Lex said, staring into the red mirror of his wineglass, “you’re going to tell me all about Smallville.”

Clark swallowed. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Lex looked up, smirking. “You’re lying to me, but that’s all right. Everyone lies to me.”

“Everyone?” Clark asked, helpless to stay silent.

Lex tilted his head. “It’s a lonely job. You know the saying, ‘if you want a friend in Washington—’ And Lena takes care of the dog.”

“You have Lena,” Clark reminded him.

Lex smiled, soft and almost as vulnerable as the young man Clark remembered (and Lex couldn’t). “I do at that,” he conceded. Then he met Clark’s eyes. “But, just so this is all on the table: you know something about what happened to me in Smallville, in the early two thousands. Someone, whose identity I can only assume is not unknown to you, has very carefully destroyed most records, both private and public, from that time, saving only some information that was transmitted beyond the confines of Kansas. I know a certain amount about the unusual events of those years, even though I don’t remember them. I know you grew up there, and even though you were in high school at the time, I’m guessing that your inquisitive instincts didn’t emerge full-blown when you moved to Metropolis. I can be patient, Clark. But this is my own history. I want to know it.”

None of that was a surprise. And if they were setting parameters: “Do you know why you lost your memories?”

Lex examined him, a scientist inspecting a tool whose promise was as yet unproved. “I woke up in a room with the dead body of Tess Mercer. Subsequent tests showed that a remarkably psychoactive substance in a syringe she had matched traces found in my blood. There wasn’t enough to reconstruct the drug in its entirety, but I presume she injected me and that I killed her in self-defense before the drug took full effect. Interesting theoretical question, of course, whether there’s self-defense when the self being defended has been wiped out. Did you know Tess?”

Clark had opened his mouth to answer before he realized what Lex had done, keeping his tone the same as he slipped the question into the conversation. “I was aware of her,” he said instead. “She was very high-profile. I had no idea she was going to—that she would try to—”

“Kill me?” Lex finished. “It was apparently a common pastime in Smallville, though the frequency did seem to decline in Metropolis, or wherever I was by the end of that decade.”

Clark looked at him. “I can’t help you,” he said, and though that was mostly true it was still ashes in his mouth. Lex was amoral on his best days, arrogant, interested only in his own goals—but Clark was hard pressed to say that he was worse than the average world leader, and he was probably in the top tier. He wasn’t the twisted, broken murderer Lionel had so carefully unmade. Without his memories, his intelligence and his money had been his defining characteristics, and he’d built LuthorCorp back up without ever revealing the loss to the public. Clark could barely imagine how hard that had been.

Lex’s core personality was unchanged—three ex-wives and their assassination attempts couldn’t be wrong—but the soul-deep bitterness was gone. Maybe the explicitness of his losses had even helped: whatever was wrong with him, Lex could attribute to the fact that his memories were missing and not to some inherent flaw that meant he’d never be enough.

Clark couldn’t risk bringing Lex back to the person he’d been. Even if Lex never recovered his memories, if he heard Clark’s stories he’d never forgive Clark. God knew Clark hadn’t forgiven himself for giving up on Lex.

Lex let the silence linger a while, then shrugged langorously. “There’s always next week. Tuesday?”

Clark nodded.

****

Just as he’d found himself coming back to the mansion when he was a kid, drawn by Lex’s gravitational pull despite the obvious and well-warned dangers, he kept returning to the White House. Most of the time they even stayed away from the most dangerous subjects.

That just meant that Lex carefully measured out his questions, though. He brought up specific people: various meteor mutants who’d made the news beyond Smallville; Clark told him about what they’d been like before their mutations had bubbled over into violence. One time, after Lex showed him four years of yearbooks and noted the steady decline in each class, not from dropouts but from actual mortality, Lex asked him why he thought the high school had been the source of so many of Smallville’s problems. Clark punted by asking what Lex’s theories were, and Lex exposited about the effects of chemical exposures, social pressures, and even video games on the rapidly changing, vulnerable teenaged mind. “But mostly,” he said when the lecture wound down, “I expect it was the meteor rock—the same stuff that hurts Superman.”

Clark couldn’t stop his eyebrows from flying up. He hadn’t known that Lex had figured out the connection. Before he could say anything, Lena flew in, all hugs and kisses for her father (after the frighteningly direct stare she gave him, as always). They chatted for a few minutes about Lena’s tutors, her research paper on the geopolitical importance of the South China Sea, and her upcoming gymnastics competition, which Lex assured her he remembered and would attend.

“’Night, Daddy,” she said, then flicked her gaze over to Clark. Her eyes were exactly like Lex’s. “Good night, Mr. Kent.” (She’d tried ‘Clark’ once, not twice. Clark suspected there had been a lecture after that. He hoped that nothing of Lionel’s methods had bled through to Lex; Lena certainly didn’t seem to be suffering.)

“I hear Lena’s the favorite in her age group for Nationals,” Clark said as the door closed, hoping to get Lex to a new topic.

Lex smiled, his pride coming off of him like coronas from the sun. “Lena’s a natural athlete, her coach says. Flexible, strong, never stops fighting. If she gets a bruise, it’s gone the next day.”

Clark straightened in his chair and, thoughtlessly, said the first thing that occurred to him: “Do you worry she’s inherited your mutation?”

So fast it might almost have been superspeed, he’d been yanked upright and shoved against an elegantly wallpapered wall, Lex’s arm across his throat. “What do you know about my daughter?”

“What?” The lack of previous threats had made him slow, surprisable.

Lex snarled. “I’ve been patient with you because I like you. But this is my daughter. Tell me what you know or you’ll disappear. You’ll be a risk to national security. You haven’t dreamed of the kinds of holes we can find for a danger to this country.”

Clark had let himself forget how Lex’s courtesy could sublimate straight into brutality. And he couldn’t allow himself to be taken into custody. For one thing, the first attempt at drugging him or physically coercing him would reveal far too much; even if he could manage to reprogram his Superman illusion, he doubted it could produce blood or keep needles from bending. This wasn’t Smallville, where concussions and fast talk could usually get him out of too much trouble. Disabling the security cameras would only make things worse.

And Lex was also, tragically, right: there was an innocent life at stake.

“We’ll need to do tests,” he said.

****

He changed into Superman’s costume and image before returning to the White House. The security was no less polite this time around.

“I’ve done a great deal of research into the meteor rocks,” he said, which was the absolute truth. “Clark tells me you’d like to find out if any of the changes in you have been passed on to your daughter.”

“I’d like a great deal more than that,” Lex said. His face was the stone mask he used for any Superman-related encounter. “But it’ll do for a start.”

“I can take her to my Fortress and run a scan more extensive than any your doctors can perform,” Clark offered. “I should be able to detect any meteor mutation.”

“I’m not sending Lena to some unknown hideout alone,” Lex snapped, folding his arms over his chest.

“I could sedate her—”

Lex didn’t quite roll his eyes. “Yes, and I’m sure that wouldn’t be at all traumatic if she woke up alone and in a strange place, given that she’s only had a briefing on what to do if she’s kidnapped every Monday morning for the past three and a half years.”

“I can’t—”

Lex waited, lip curled.

Clark swallowed. “I’ll take you both,” he said. He’d just have to order the Fortress not to respond to any commands other than his. And to disguise itself with something like the technology it used to disguise his face when he was Superman. And maybe to speak in Farsi, which if nothing else might distract Lex.

Or induce him to start a war with Iran. No, Farsi was probably not the way to go here. French? Lex wouldn’t bother to go to war with France.

****

In the event, the Fortress informed him that its limited power supply didn’t allow it to use the hard-light disguise method in effect for him, so Clark just had it slam some doors down so that Lex couldn’t go wandering. He didn’t know what Lex had told Lena, but she seemed more excited than scared, and Lex lectured her about what was known about the physical bases of Superman’s powers while they were on the way.

Clark had to wonder if that was for his benefit as well.

He got Lena set up quickly—the Fortress extruded something very much like a dentist’s chair, white and gleaming—and backed away so that it could do its work. Lena, after a last glance at her father for reassurance, climbed on, and the lights began to pulse.

Once she closed her eyes, Lex’s face lost all its cool confidence: raw nerves without the titanium covering. Clark had seen him like this talking about his mother, about Julian. Forgetting himself, he put a hand on Lex’s shoulder. “She’ll be fine,” Clark said.

Lex twisted away from his grip, face tight with rage. “Don’t try to comfort me! The survival statistics for meteor mutations—”

“You made it,” Clark interrupted, since he couldn’t stand to hear more. “She’s a Luthor. She’s a survivor.”

Lex’s face changed, like that twenty-one-year-old kid emerging again. “Have I been here before?” he asked.

“What? No,” Clark stammered. That was even almost technically true, since the Fortress had been so reconfigured in the intervening years that it was hardly the same place, except for coming from Krypton as the repository of Kryptonian knowledge on Earth.

“Analysis complete,” the Fortress said, blessedly, and in perfectly accented French. “The subject’s DNA is consistent with an inherited mutation, but not with the unstable mutagenic effects of direct Kryptonite exposure.”

Clark had long wondered whether some of the Kawatche legends he’d encountered could have been explained by inherited mutations—skinwalkers and the like. “Does that mean she won’t … change more, even at puberty?”

“No more than human standard,” the Fortress said.

Clark dared a glance at Lex, whose eyes were closed as he got his breathing back under control. “I’ll want a full genomic analysis identifying the relevant markers,” he said, as fluidly as a Parisian geneticist.

Maybe Lex would use his daughter’s DNA to create supersoldiers. That was certainly a risk. But it was a risk already in play. “Of course,” Clark said, switching back to English. “I’ll take you home now.”

He didn’t listen to what Lex said to Lena, but she seemed in good cheer for the journey back to Washington.

Clark returned them to the residence, where three very unhappy Secret Service officers were waiting; one of them led Lena away for her nightly routine. “Give us the room,” Lex told the others.

Clark didn’t know what to do with his hands.

“Thank you,” Lex said, with something more than his usual perfect simulacrum of sincerity.

Clark stared at a Japanese vase on a side table. “You were worried about your daughter. I understand.”

“Do you, Superman? Do you have a family of your own?”

This was more the Lex he expected. He firmed his jaw and met Lex’s eyes. “I’m an orphan.”

Lex nodded, not in sympathy. “Krypton, yes, so you’ve said in your interviews. I always assumed the meteor rocks were like fire for the Martian, or yellow for the Lantern—the Achilles’ heel seemingly designed in by a capricious God.” Clark’s stomach was plummeting; his hands felt cold. “But then your Fortress called the meteor rocks ‘Kryptonite.’

“So now,” Lex continued, “I have a better idea of what might have been hiding in Smallville. I’m sure Clark has told you everything I know—” and was that a glimmer of uncertainty in his eyes, a blip of incongruity that was going to hand him the next clue?—“and I intend to find out the rest.”

“Please,” Clark said, desperate: he couldn’t go through this with Lex, not again. “I’m not your enemy.”

“Of course not,” Lex said lightly. “But you’re not my friend either, are you?”

“I could be,” Clark said.

Lex drew in a sharp breath. “I’m not sure you know what being my friend would entail.”

He looked so lost, so convinced that he was never going to be safe. Clark had already ruined the fragile détente he’d had with Lex as Clark Kent.

Clark had never been invulnerable. And it seemed like, even without his memories, Lex had always known that. “Lex,” he said, “I know better than anyone else.”

And he dropped the illusion: Clark Kent, wearing Superman’s uniform. Standing in the White House in front of the one man who might be able to destroy him in every way.

Clark looked at Lex and waited for Lex to decide what happened next.

Chapter Text

Clark could’ve been moving at superspeed for how frozen Lex seemed.  Not just shocked, but—fundamentally unmoored from his baseline understanding of how the world worked.  He’d been chasing Clark Kent, and had caught Superman, which Clark could say without excessive pride was a bit more surprising than a dog catching the mail truck.

“Tell me,” Lex said at last, and even if it was all that he could get out and even if his eyes were as silvery and dangerous as military drones, it was enough to unstop the words that Clark had been waiting to say for years, even though he hadn’t known he’d been waiting.

“This isn’t how I would have told it then,” Clark began.  “Your father was a monster.  He hurt you because he liked it, and he told you it was love, and you didn’t want to but  you believed him because you didn’t know anything else.  Your mother had died and he forced another woman who cared for you to leave and he told you it was your fault.  He did so many things—I don’t think I know the worst of it.  We weren’t friends for long enough.  I thought he didn’t love you, and the worst thing he taught me was that he did.  But that didn’t make anything he did right.  I should have—I should have done more to stop him.  I’m sorry.”

Lex stared at him, mouth open.  Reducing Lex to stunned surprise was something most people would’ve said couldn’t be done, like unassisted flight or a boy turning into a bug.  Lex blinked a few times, which looked closer to rebooting than Clark was really comfortable with even though he knew for a fact (he paused and scanned again; yep) that Lex was organic.  “You were—you must have been—just a teenager.”  Lex paused.  “We were friends?”

Clark tried to smile.  “You said we were going to be epic.”

“Did I know?”

There was no mystery about the referent.  Clark had to duck his head, years’ worth of remembered fear and shame and anger rolling over him like rough waves at sea.  “You suspected.  A couple of times you knew, but something always happened and you—Tess wasn’t the first person who damaged your memories.”

A muscle twitched in Lex’s cheek.  “Were you?”

It was a fair question.  “No.  But I—I gave up on you too soon, and you were doing dangerous things, to find out my secret and also to get an advantage over your father. I told you that you were imagining things. After a while, you stopped trusting me.  And I don’t know whether you would’ve protected me if you’d known the truth.  You might have tried to use me instead.  Not all of the bad things that happened in Smallville were from your dad, or from meteor mutants gone bad.”

Lex nodded, not accepting Clark’s verdict, but accepting that Clark was giving his honest opinion.  With the whiplash speed that he always brought to their conversations, he changed the subject: “How do you pull off two lives entirely lived in public? Do you have a Clark Kent robot stashed somewhere to do your reporting for you?”

Clark blushed, because he still felt bad about some of the shenanigans that had proved necessary for his cover.  “The Fortress … tweets for Clark Kent, when I’m out as Superman.”

“That’s both shockingly simple and absolutely terrifying on about five different dimensions,” Lex said, looking thoughtful.  “Also, most civilian and government estimates of your top speed are off by a factor of at least three, which surely helps you maintain the pretense.”

Clark was pretty sure Lex had intended to scare him with that last statement, and entirely sure that he’d succeeded.  With the background of years of fearing Lex, and what Lex might do, it was terrifying to think what else Lex might infer from all the data he had—Clark might’ve put the entire Justice League at risk of exposure. No, he shouldn’t be stupid about it: Clark’s revelation would definitely allow Lex to unravel the identities of the rest of the League, if Lex chose to take his inquiries in that direction.  

You didn’t get to be Superman without a willingness to face scary things.  “So what happens now?”

Lex’s smooth surface—seriously, self-healing metal had nothing on Lex Luthor absorbing shocks—cracked a bit.  “What do you want?”  The question was quieter than his previous words, and it made Clark want to move closer.  Asked like that, it could’ve just been Lex assuming that no one would ever give him anything (votes, secrets, trust) if they weren’t being transactional.  But he could also hear the man he’d come to know over the past few months, the Lex who wanted to hear his opinions about the farm bill and the latest Netflix series.  Maybe the trick of it was that Lex was always both, the operator and the intellectual, even without the memories of his father’s torture.  Maybe Clark was okay with that.  He knew a lot about trying to integrate two different men into one life, after all.

He closed his eyes, gathering his courage.  (Just because he was used to being brave didn’t mean it was easy, especially when it wasn’t his body at risk.)  When he opened them, either Lex had stepped towards him or the room had gotten smaller.  Clark wouldn’t put anything off the table right now.  “I want—”  He was using Superman voice, he realized.  He stopped, cleared his throat.  “I want to do something I should’ve done thirty years ago.”

He moved at human speed, but Lex always could think fast, and Lex’s eyes—the color of the oceans seen from space—were already dilating, his face tilting up, his shoulders relaxing, all of him saying yes to the one question Clark had never asked of him back in Smallville, the one demand he’d never made.  Too late to wonder if it would’ve changed anything, all those years and all that blood behind them.

Clark gripped Lex’s upper arms, gently, so gently, because Lex had always been more fragile than he looked when it came to Clark and Clark didn’t want to make any of the old mistakes.  Here they were, two tiny beings on a small world whirling through the unimaginable vastness of the universe, and it was inconceivable that anything else could be more significant than this moment.  Clark kissed him—Lex kissed Clark—and the future cracked open like a geode, sharp and sparkling and fractal in its complexity.

When Lex pushed at his chest, not even enough pressure to move a human man, Clark stepped back immediately. Had he misread—but no, Lex was smiling, almost the way he smiled at Lena but with some very significant darker edges. 

“Epic, I said?”

Clark took a few seconds to remember the previous conversation. “You did,” he confirmed.

“Well, I wasn’t wrong.”

Clark felt himself flush, the way he’d done in the old days, bright red in his cheeks and heat all across his skin.

Lex sighed.  “I have to meet with the Joint Chiefs and then the Russian Ambassador.  Come back tomorrow?”

He nodded vigorously.  “Same time as usual?”

“Yes.  And Clark—”

Clark stopped moving, frozen on the elegant Afghan carpet. 

Lex let him wait a moment.  Then, the promise in his voice more exciting and terrifying than flight ever had been: “Don’t plan on leaving again.”

So he didn’t.