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I. Anticipation

Lex had long held the hypothesis, tested rigorously and never disconfirmed, that proximity to Smallville was inversely correlated with the chance of success of any given venture of his. Even meteor rock—"Kryptonite"—behaved better the further it was removed from that town, that cancer in the shape of a Norman Rockwell vision.

To Lex, Smallville would always smell like hypocrisy and defeat.

In any event, distance from Smallville was a desideratum of the highest order. Metropolis was too close, really, but LuthorCorp had such strong roots there that Lex hadn't quite managed to dig them up. Corporate headquarters had to stay there for PR and tax reasons. Lex had wrung so many concessions from the state and federal government not to move to a less environmentally challenged state that they were essentially subsidizing the entire agrochemical division. As the state's biggest employer, his name was finally a political asset. And he could hardly move elsewhere without first having won an election in his home state.

With Smallville firmly in his rear-view mirror, Lex had done much better in recent years. Financially, LuthorCorp was thriving. Personally, he'd made People's Most Beautiful People list three years running and no one had tried to kill him in nearly eighteen months.

There remained work to be done, however, which kept Lex sitting in the office that had been his father's. He waited for Superman to arrive.

The message had been exquisitely composed—he could afford himself the praise, since he'd been writing it for years, using the ashes of the friendship to scrawl out an invitation.

Superman would tell himself he was dealing with a threat, but he'd come.

As Lex was opening yet another prospectus on bioremediation, instinct made him look up. Through the blue-tinted windows, he saw Superman floating above the balcony like some messenger from God, angel and rough beast all at once. His arms were folded disapprovingly across his chest. His costume was exactly as ridiculous as Lex remembered. Lex truly wondered why the right-wingers aghast at a half-glimpsed nipple put up with the barrage of images of a superhero who might as well be wearing only body paint. A picture of Superman could be used to label the muscles of the (in)human body.

Lex shook his head a fraction, then nodded to Superman as he hit a button on the desk, causing the center section of the glass wall to slide open. The Metropolis air was thick and hot even dozens of stories high; there was yet another tornado on the way. The year's corn harvest had already been cut in half, Suicide Slum and half of Metropolis Central Park flattened, and this storm promised to be worse.

Sweatless, unflinching, outlined like a god descending against the bruised-purple sky, Superman floated forward as if on some invisible sliding dais.

"Thank you for coming," Lex said.

Superman frowned, like tectonic plates shifting.

"I have," Lex continued, "a proposal for you. As I'm sure you're aware, my first Senate run is going to begin in the next few months. I want Superman's noninterference and Clark Kent's endorsement." That was enough to get even Superman to gape, surprise making him look almost human. "I have something to offer in return," he said, finishing the introductory statements.

"You've got nothing that I want," Superman said, predictably.

Lex's blood thrummed with excitement. He hadn't left, and that meant he was negotiating, even if he didn't know it.

"Did you ever wonder why it never worked out for you and Lana? Or Chloe? Or Lori, or Lois, or any of the others?"

There—that expression wasn't Superman's at all. It was pure Clark Kent, fear and denial and moral outrage rolled into one self-righteous package, angry at Lex because Lex was making him lie.

Rather than see what possible nonsense Clark could produce, Lex kept talking. "Because I did wonder, and I investigated.

"Of course," he continued, leaning back in his chair, "it could just be your paranoia and justifiable sense of isolation from humanity that ruined things between you and every woman you thought you might love. But I really think you got beyond that, with Lori and Lois at least."

He had Clark now, had him by the throat, sick fascination on the alien's face as he waited to hear more.

"No, it was more than that. You wondered what all the fuss was about sex, didn't you? Oh, you could feel the attraction of a heaving bosom and a well-turned ankle, but the truth of the matter was, it all seemed fairly ridiculous once you got past the hand-holding and longing stares, didn't it?"

"Why are you doing this?" Clark gritted out.

"Because I want to be President," Lex said.

Clark shook like a man trying to wake from a dream. "Maybe that makes sense to you—"

Lex gave the smallest smile in his repertoire. "Bear with me. I've developed a very special pharmaceutical. Like Kryptonian Viagra—it allows you to respond to a human sexually as you would have responded to a Kryptonian naturally. You can think of it as being like a pheromone." He could think of it that way, but he'd be wrong; Lex didn't imagine that further explanation would be constructive.

He reached into his desk drawer, noting Clark's look of fear despite the fact that Clark must have scanned for Kryptonite, and pulled out the jar. Its sapphire contents sloshed as he put it on his desk.

"You can have a regular life with Lois, if she'll still have you, or with someone else. I will give you a lifetime supply of this substance, which I call Phosita, in return for two things: Clark Kent's endorsement and your withdrawal from monitoring my non-scientific activities in either identity. I can tolerate your obsessive scrutiny of LuthorCorp labs, but I have auditors of my own and my stockholders much prefer that I use them instead of you.

"This is a risk-free offer. You try it once, then wait a few weeks to make sure there are no side effects. If it doesn't work, you owe me nothing. If it works but you don't think the deal is worth the costs of having me represent the good people of Kansas, you stop using it and owe me nothing. If you like it and want to keep using it, you agree to my terms."

Clark stared at him, as blank as if he'd been lobotomized. Lex thought this was a small victory, to have stunned Clark with his audacity. Finally, a response that wasn't calcified by years of contempt. These days Clark rarely even seemed disappointed when Lex did something underhanded. Which was fine with Lex, because he *hated* Clark's condescension almost as much as he detested Clark's hypocrisy on the subject of truth.

He considered whether he ought to say more, as in, Don't you deserve a little happiness in your life? If you're going to be Clark Kent at all—if you do anything but run around saving people from themselves—then shouldn't that life be bearable? Or is Clark Kent just a mask you wear to punish yourself for being an alien? Because if he is—good job.

No, there was such a thing as pushing too hard. Let the offer sell itself.

"You can think about it for a few days. I'll expect an answer at the end of the week."

He turned away from Clark, still holding the jar. The liquid inside was so fluorescently blue that it wouldn't have looked out of place on a *Miami Vice* set. Lex wondered whether he ought to have put it in a nicer decanter. He liked the security of a metal screw-top, though. And the mad-scientist panache was undeniable.

Superman's cape rustled as Clark paced across the floor.

Lex had spent several months analyzing fragments of an earlier cape. The latest one hadn't been torn in some time, despite the encounter with the Wizard's enchanted version of Godzilla, so maybe Clark had improved the fabric. Lex considered possible methods of obtaining a sample. The patents on the fiber he'd developed based on the first cape had paid for the last half of the research on Phosita. (Of course, the shareholders thought the patents were responsible for a good fraction of LuthorCorp's stellar profits, but what the market didn't know couldn't hurt the stock.)

"What are you up to?" Superman's voice boomed from a few feet behind him. Lex thought he was lucky that Clark didn't think himself entitled to yell right in his ear.

Lex looked at the jar in his hand. "Do you think if you ask the question enough times you'll get a different answer?"

Clark snorted. Lex half-turned, enough to confirm that Clark was indeed standing with his feet spread and his arms folded, just as if he'd been die-cast for the Superfriends line of figurines. Lex sneered reflexively and put the jar on the slick metal surface of his desk, where it gleamed like a column of tropical ocean.

His computer screen informed him that twenty-two messages had survived Temperance's culling and awaited his attention. Temperance was a good executive assistant; she respected Lex's need for information without being paralyzed by fear she'd keep something important from him.

The first message was from Tom Rollins. He wanted approval for—

The screen was obscured by sparks and smoke, which dissipated to reveal Clark's fist through the center. Lex blinked and looked up, folding his hands together. "You know, I appreciate it when you wait to destroy my property until I've done something to deserve it."

Clark withdrew his fist, shaking it slightly to dislodge the once-expensive electronics that had adhered to his skin. "I want you to answer my question." His face was dark with anger.

Lex had to admit, he'd been deliberately provocative. But it was so much fun. His life was chronically undersupplied with fun, and one of the reasons was standing right in the room. "Look, Superman," he said, keeping his eyes on the place the screen had been, "I told you what my motives are. I want power; you can help or hinder that quest for power; I have something that might convince you to go one way rather than the other. If you don't believe me, that's certainly your prerogative—not to mention your habit—but I think I've been both forthcoming and fair about my proposed terms."

When he looked up, Clark was gone. There weren't any additional holes in the walls, which Lex decided to count as a good sign.

****

"Let me ask you something," Lex said, speaking so close to David's ear that he jumped involuntarily and ended up squirming against Mercy's grip in a manner that must have been quite humiliating. "Did you think, when I said you'd regret betraying me, that I was simply expressing a hope? An abstract faith in justice in the world to come?"

David shook his head frantically, though whether he was negating Lex's specific questions or just wishing not to be in such deep trouble was unclear.

The intruder alert went off before Lex could inquire further. He turned as Mercy threw David back against the wall, freeing her hands, but when he saw that it was only Clark, he waved her off and she quickly resecured his ex-associate. "Mercy, will you wait with David for a few minutes?"

She hustled him out of the room, and Superman allowed them to go, which was something of a relief. He wasn't planning on hurting David—well, not *badly*—and he'd feared interference. But plainly—

"I've been thinking about your proposal," Clark said.

Lex guessed that was an understatement—he'd bet LuthorCorp Tower that Clark had thought about nothing but Phosita since they'd parted last night. His face had that familiar tightness—jaw, cheekbones, eyes, as if his skin had shrunk—the only thing about Clark that wasn't larger than life. Lex used to see that look only when Clark was dealing directly with him or when he'd just come back from visiting his mother in Smallville. These days, though, it was uncommon to see Superman with a real smile, one with the bright eyes and raised brows Lex remembered. He'd taken the change as evidence that life's little indignities ground everyone down, including nominally invulnerable aliens. He'd also thought that maybe Clark was in the mood for a new path to happiness. Thus the offer.

"And what are your thoughts, Superman?" Lex turned his back on Clark and walked to his desk, sitting down. This was just another interaction with Clark Kent, Clark demanding something that Lex had the power to give.

"How do I know I can trust you?"

Lex smiled. "The eternal question. And by eternal I mean that you'll be demanding I prove my bona fides when my bones are dust. I know I could never convince you of my worthiness, so you'll just have to decide: Have I ever cheated on a deal? Aren't there easier ways for me to poison you if that's what I intend?"

"You'd want the satisfaction of getting me to volunteer to be poisoned," Clark accused.

"I'm not my father. I take no satisfaction in tricking a man into complicity with his own destruction. And in this, at least, I consider you a man."

Lex was telling the truth, because he'd learned how much easier it was. When people wanted to back out of a bargain with him, it was never because he'd failed to deliver on his promises. Oh, he never told the absolute truth—how could he or anyone, in a world sorely lacking in absolutes?—but he didn't lie. He enjoyed convincing people that their own best interests lay in doing what he wanted them to do. Lying would be cheating and was likely to make people feel justified in betraying him (though they found it easy enough to create reasons for betrayal even so). He preferred betrayers who felt guilty about their actions, because those kind were easier to control.

None of that was likely to convince Clark, but the beauty of his position was that nothing could. Clark was going to have to make up his mind for himself, and Clark had proved himself hopelessly impulsive time and again. If he didn't agree today, he'd be back later. Lex had only to wait and avoid saying something stupid. In the meantime, the research still got him a hefty tax break.

"What if it doesn't work?" Clark asked. Lex could see the terrified 15-year-old kid he'd been, sure he'd never be anything but a freak. Lex had contributed to that certainty of isolation, he knew now. He hadn't meant to do it at the time.

"As I told you, you can try it once, to make sure that it works and there are no unexpected side effects. If you don't like it or don't like it enough to maintain the deal, you can stop at any time." It's like the Columbia House mail-order club, he thought, but long practice kept him from even having to suppress a smile. "My only condition is that you don't get to duplicate the formula and use it if you don't stick with the deal. I can't sue you for patent infringement, but I do rely on your sense of fair play."

Clark's frown stayed at its default level. Lex hoped—oh, who was he trying to fool? He'd never been able to control his interactions with Clark. The best he could hope for was to hang on and take no more damage than necessary.

He should have moved to Illinois. Beating an incumbent senator as a carpetbagger couldn't be harder than this. Drug companies moved corporate headquarters; LuthorCorp could too.

"Okay," Clark said, and Lex nearly fell out of his chair. "Do you need time to set up?"

Lex remembered to shake his head. "No—it's right here." He prepared to ask whether Clark was sure he wanted to do that, then realized that there were no circumstances under which asking would benefit him in any way.

He reached for the drawer that hid the safe, not moving so fast as to seem overhasty, but not slowly. When he removed the jar, Clark looked at it like it was either snake venom or manna from Heaven. Lex let him look.

At last, Clark reached out and took it. The curved glass looked smaller in Clark's hands. Its blue clashed with the costume. But then he'd probably take it off to use Phosita. Lex couldn't imagine Clark being attracted to someone who thought Superman was sexy.

"The dose is two milliliters. Apply it topically to any portion of the skin, though it will work fastest on mucous membranes. You can use it up to three times in a twenty-four hour period if you want to impress. I'll expect to hear back from you soon." Lex was already trying to get his mind back on the day's schedule. The trouble with the paperless office was that there was very little to do with one's hands that wasn't obvious busywork.

"You think I'm just going to go off and—and find someone? Just like that?"

He smiled thinly up at Clark. "I can name at least four women who'd respond very favorably to a passionate appeal from you. And that's without trading on your hero persona."

Clark shook his head. "What if it's poison?"

Lex's hands clenched into fists on the desk. "It is not poison. It is not dangerous to anything except your precious composure. Do not waste my time, Superman—you make a worse Hamlet than Arnold Schwarzenegger."

With a tiny nod, Clark did something that Lex should have expected: He opened the jar. Lex tensed; he was confident that Phosita would work as promised, but he had to be prepared for disaster. Clark dipped two fingertips into the jar, just skimming the surface. The thick liquid coated his skin, blue and glistening. There was a sharp smell—musk with a hint of mint, something Lex had added on a whim.

Lex watched as Clark's eyes dilated and his nostrils flared. He even seemed to get bigger, taking up more space in the room. Clark stared at his hand as if it was new-grown from his arm, then shoved his fingers back into the jar as far as they'd go.

Lex swallowed.

He stood when Clark started around the desk, already tilting his head as Clark reached to smear the stuff in the hollow of his throat. The smell filled his nostrils, different somehow on his own skin than it had been in the lab.

Clark's damp fingers stroked up the line of his jaw, over his cheek, behind his ears. "Take off your clothes," Clark said.

Right, wouldn't want to waste good Phosita ripping Lex's clothes off, now that Clark's fingers were stained with it.

He stripped quickly, tie and jacket and shirt crumpling to the floor as Clark reached for more and dragged his fingers across his own cheek with a sensuality that made Lex shudder in sympathetic arousal.

Clark instructed him how to get the costume off, a matter of hidden seams and tugging at just the right places.

When he ended up on his knees in front of Clark, helping him get the boots off, it was only natural to go with the position and take as much of Clark's cock as he could. Clark ran his hands over Lex's head as Lex sucked. Clark's fingers were just tight enough to add a frisson of fear to the experience. Clark had enough control not to crush his skull in a moment of passion. He hoped Clark remembered that.

Mortal fear, it was no surprise at all to find, was an enormous turn-on. Lex jacked himself as Clark's hands blessed his skin. Clark leaned forward, his weight threatening to throw Lex off balance until he adjusted, the angle changed so that he tilted his head and saw Clark.

Clark's cheek was stained blue, like an ancient British warrior not quite washed clean of woad, and his mouth was open in a silent moan. No martyr on the cross was ever so beautiful.

He began to thrust, and Lex had to pay attention to avoid choking. One hand on Clark's silky-hot hip, the other on his own cock, he let Clark use his mouth, following Clark's rhythm through Clark's orgasm and then his own, licking and sucking until Clark pushed him away and he sprawled back on the carpet, refusing to feel any shame.

Clark's eyes were hot, gleaming golden as he looked down on Lex, and he was still hard.

Lex had to look into a dose that could produce a refractory period one of these days.

Clark dropped to his knees between Lex's bent legs and reached into the jar again, using the Phosita to slick himself. The color should have been funny, but it wasn't. Lex frowned; there was something—

Apparently that was all the prep work Clark was prepared to do. He pulled on Lex's hips until Lex was open to him, legs in the air—God, the *strength* of him, holding Lex like he weighed nothing.

He hadn't been fucked in years. The first thrust lit up every neuron in his brain.

Out on the plains where Smallville was, storms were visible for dozens of miles. Lex remembered lightning storms, watching strike after strike go jagged into the rich and yielding ground. The storms were constant nowadays, but this was something rare and strange, jolt after jolt, Clark's face glowing with amazement and pleasure. He was shaking, consumed, unable even to raise his hands to touch Clark's gleaming-idol skin.

Coming was like falling into the sun.

****

His head was caught in a vise, and the demons running it were cranking the grip tighter and tighter.

Lex opened his eyes and, true to cliché, realized how much smarter it would have been to have kept them closed. Shutting them now wasn't enough to get rid of the pain, like actual crystals shoved into his eyes.

He didn't recognize the messages the rest of his body was sending for a bit—it had been a long time since he'd been this wasted—then figured it out in enough time to lunge for his wastebasket, a few feet away on the floor.

After the first wave had passed, he realized that vomiting into a mahogany wastebasket was really no better than throwing up on the Berber carpet. Why did he have a mahogany wastebasket, anyway? Who exactly was that supposed to impress, the janitor? That question puzzled him until the next round began.

The bile was blue-tinged, which seemed a little odd—then again, he had swallowed some of the stuff. He took one hand off the edge of the wastebasket and touched his lips, remembering.

When the wastebasket stopped wavering in and out of his vision, he sat back on his haunches and stifled a pained sound, on the off chance he wasn't alone; he hadn't gotten much of a chance to look around yet.

He turned his head, stiff as the Tin Man before he'd been oiled, and saw Clark sprawled out about ten feet away, stretched out on his side, one arm thrown over his face. Just this once, Lex lacked even an aesthetic appreciation of the glorious alien form. Maybe when his stomach had settled it would return.

There was a shower in his executive washroom, but the thought of hot water threatened to make him sick again, so he just limped to the sink and splashed water on his face. Then he took a glob of toothpaste—no way he was sticking a toothbrush in his mouth right now—swished it around and spit, then rinsed. The taste of the water was so good that he filled the glass three times before he felt the need to stop. He took a piss, and that felt good too.

Extra clothes were in the cabinet by the door. Lex paused a moment to appreciate the advantages of wealth, and also to figure out how to put on pants without losing his still-shaky balance.

From the main room came the sound of a heavy body turning over and a thunk as it crashed into something else—a side table, Lex guessed, based on where Clark had been lying.

"Mrrgh," Clark said as Lex returned. He had his hands pressed to his temples as if they were the only things holding his brain in. He was balled up with his forearms around his knees, obscuring many of his best features. Lex recognized the look on his face and hurried to grab the cape from its crumpled place by his desk. He just managed to spread it out over the carpet before Clark started to retch. Clark's bile, Lex noted, was purplish and thick.

Then Lex had to make a fast retreat to the washroom, because watching Clark had retriggered his own nausea.

After Lex heard nothing but Clark's miserable ragged breathing for several minutes, he risked returning to Clark's side. Kneeling carefully, he put a glass of water a few feet from Clark's hand and folded the cape over to cover the mess and cut the smell.

His office was too big and well-ventilated to stink of sex, except in specific places. He could see blurred patches over on the glass wall where he'd been pressed against it as Clark fucked him, slow and inexorable, whispering words that usually would have choked a gently raised country boy with embarrassment. Lex had come on the glass, streaks obscuring the view of a corner of Metropolis Central Park, and Clark had laughed and told him that was what he did with the city anyway, used it like a cheap whore. Lex had managed the presence of mind to grunt out that if Metropolis wanted to be treated like an expensive whore she'd better raise her standards along with her prices—and Clark had laughed again, sounding almost free, and turned him around and pushed him to his knees.

It hardly needed to be said that the experiment was a success. So much of a success that Clark most likely wouldn't continue, which was exactly the kind of luck Lex had in this life. Of course if Clark would only wait to use Phosita until he was with his true love he wouldn't be grabbing just anyone in his desire to fuck, but Lex couldn't make that conversation go right even in his own head.

Instead, he waited for Clark to reach for the glass. When motor control was verified, Lex limped back to his desk and, as Clark took sloshing sips of water, wrote out a note explaining how to open the glass wall for easy exit. He didn't sign it—even imagining what sort of salutation he might use was enough to make him want to grin, which meant wanting to throw up again.

By the time he escaped, he could hear Clark fumbling around for his clothes.

II. Nonobviousness

The next day and a half passed in a blur of rescheduled meetings, lingering sickness, and strategizing. He'd told himself that he wasn't counting on Phosita to neutralize Clark, but the state of his contingency plans revealed that to be his standard self-delusion.

He could still be a senator. Given that the current incompetent couldn't take a bribe without help from his accountant and that the soil reclamation project announced two years ago was still unimplemented, the people of Kansas would happily vote for a man who could make the relief trains run on time. He'd just have to spend more money to do it, which meant cutting back on a few of the less likely biofuel initiatives, moving some stock around, and holding off on the excavation of the newly discovered Kansa site that he hoped might have Kryptonian relics. The Kansa had been a larger tribe than the Kawatche even before Europeans showed up, but this sacred site had been near enough to the Kawatche caves that he hoped there'd been some crossover. Since he'd managed to purchase the land without letting anyone know of the archaeological secrets that lay within, he could afford to wait on that, even though the desire to know nagged at him.

He was in the middle of a presentation from a vendor of biological soil improvement technologies when she stopped mid-spiel and gaped over his shoulder. Well, she was from out of town. Lex closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and said, "Excuse me, Ms. Vallero, but we'll need to reschedule. My assistant Temperance will take care of that for you."

Sighing, Lex moved from the conference table to the control panel by his desk and let Clark in. He hadn't broken the wall, because there was no immediate physical danger, but he was going to rant about the inherent deviousness of Luthors, and Lex was more than bored with that.

When Clark zipped in—still visible, but fast enough to make Lex blink and take an involuntary step backwards—Lex could tell that matters were more complicated. Superman's hair was mussed, the spit-curl out of place, and his color was all wrong, red and white instead of the healthy, peachy glow that graced a million teenagers' bedrooms.

Lex stepped out from behind his desk. "What symptoms are you experiencing?" It wasn't even possible to kill the researchers responsible for this screw-up, because he'd supervised every phase of the testing himself. Every computer model, every test on Clark's discarded cells had agreed: There was no risk.

"Give me more," Clark said, breathing hard.

"What?"

In a flash, he was backed up against the west wall, his heels stinging from being dragged across the floor. The reinforced glass shivered against the back of his head. He set his jaw and looked up at Clark, who showed no sign of preparing to release his shoulders. "More. I know you have it." Up close, Clark's feverishness looked even worse. He was blinking too fast and sweating like a human. Even the fingers bruising Lex's shoulders were shaking, little flexes and releases drumming like heartbeats.

Lex had been through some horrific crashes: skull-crushing headaches, blurred vision, depression, muscle spasms, hours of vomiting. Phosita had been near the top of the list, and that wasn't just because he'd been abstinent of late. Drugs were not good for people, even him and Clark, and their bodies told them so in every possible way. But the mind—the mind was more amenable to persuasion. Clark's mind was saying that just a little bit would be okay. Lex knew that song, chorus and verse.

Clark, maybe, needed to be given the hymnal.

"You're asking for a revision of the original terms of the deal," he pointed out. "We agreed to evaluate the drug's effect on you first." Clark just stared at him as if he were speaking in binary. "You want an accelerated dose, fine. I want a Monet. Haystacks, preferably. The Musee d'Orsay has enough that they won't miss one, and you're fast enough not to show up on camera."

Clark's brows furrowed. "Are you asking me to steal?"

Even for Clark, his reaction times were slow. "I'm discussing prices with a junkie," Lex said. "You want your fix, I've stated the price. Unless you're prepared to squeeze a bit harder." Lex sincerely hoped Clark wasn't—he was already going to have trouble sparring with Mercy.

As Clark processed Lex's words, he let go and stepped back, dawning horror on his face.

This was not in the plan. Was Clark's life really that bleak, that devoid of meaningful human contact, that a few hours of pleasure could disrupt his moral code? Well, that and the enormous shock to the system of overdose—flood a human with massive quantities of ecstasy and Viagra and, if he survived, he might not be making the best decisions for a few days either.

"I—I'm not a junkie," Clark said, which Lex chose to consider as an apology. "I'll wait."

Lex shook his arms slightly to resettle his jacket and make sure his hands still worked. "Then I'll see you in a week to make sure your system is clean."
Clark nodded sheepishly.

"By the way," he said, straightening his tie, "next time you shove me around, I'd better get off too. I'm not into giving without receiving."

Clark stood there like a large, dumb statue.

Lex returned to the conference table where the vendor had left her materials. The mushrooms were in a small tray. He touched a finger to the soil in which they were embedded, rich and crumbling the way good growing earth should be. Some days he thought that the world really could be saved.

"Wait!" Clark's voice was almost pleading.

Lex turned, ready to go through the whole unpleasant refusal process again.

"You mean—when we—did I—?"

If he'd misunderstood that, he was about to embarrass himself severely. But he had to have faith in his reasoning. "Phosita has no noticeable effects on a non-Kryptonian." Other physiological effects, obviously. But his physical reaction to Clark had never changed.

Clark went red all over, then disappeared.

****

After that display, he was dubious that Clark would return a third time—first overdose, then addictive behavior; it wasn't a promising beginning for drug therapy. Still, Clark was an eternal surprise, and his features in the Planet had stayed far away from LuthorCorp, so Lex kept his schedule free for the entire afternoon on the day a week after that conversation.

When Superman showed up outside his office just after six, he wondered if Clark's desire to appear normal had overshadowed all other misgivings. (And really, who didn't have to pop pills to perform as desired these days? Better living through pharmacodynamics, that was the modern condition.)

Mercy glared at him when he punched the button to open the wall, and he realized he was smiling. Since that would just piss Clark off and delay the proceedings, he stopped. Clark flew in at a regular pace, neither righteously slow nor dangerously fast. Lex felt a flash of hope that the deal would work, though it would be a better bet that Clark was coming to show that he'd fully recovered and seen the folly of his ways.

Mercy was standing there, stiff and almost vibrating with anger that Superman was on LuthorCorp territory and she wasn't being given the freedom to do something about it. "You're free to start on that assignment, Mercy." He'd assigned her to review security at the Kansa site and ensure that no one there was inclined to talk to strangers—or to spouses, for that matter.

She nodded at him sharply and left the room. Clark looked after her. "She doesn't like me very much, does she?"

Lex shook his head. "Ever since Lois called her 'Special Forces Barbie' while she was throwing you two out of Cadmus, I think Mercy's had a bit of a crush. And you work with Lois, so there's a jealousy factor."

Clark would never say, "You're shitting me," but Lex could tell he was thinking it. Lex half wanted it to be true, even as he knew how very much he owed Mercy's unstinting loyalty.

"It's been a week," Clark said, unnecessarily. "Run your tests."

"You're adhering to the agreement, then." Lex was—"surprised" was inadequate. "Gobsmacked" was more like it. "I would have thought the initial adventure—not to mention your subsequent less-than-dignified behavior—would have been enough to keep you away."

Clark looked at him as if Lex were the dumb one. "I'm here, aren't I? I want it, but—I don't need it. You showed me that yourself. Or are you trying to back out? Are you afraid of what you'll do if I'm not keeping you in check?"

Lex knew it was pure manipulation, no subtler than anything Lionel might have tried, but he felt his adrenalin rise in response to the challenge nonetheless.

"I just don't want you claiming I failed to give you chances to change your mind." Lex moved towards the side door, the one that led to his private labs. "Follow me, then, and we'll see if your system is clear."

"How'd you get baseline readings, anyway?" Clark grumbled as the crossed into the lab. His nervous glance around made Lex wonder whether Clark used his broad-spectrum vision wherever he went or whether that caution was reserved for LuthorCorp property. He ignored Clark's question. If Clark didn't know the answer, it was only because he didn't want to know.

Lex always felt better in the lab. For years it had been the place he felt most in control. Even when he'd mastered the rest of his world—mainly by cutting out everything that required the trustworthiness of another human being—the lab was a refuge. Chemicals might disappoint, but they'd never betray. Better, often disappointment was a prelude to a new investigative path.

This happy reverie kept Lex chipper, even as Clark glowered through his setup. Lex almost made a joke about Clark opening his mouth and closing his eyes when he approached with the cheek swab, but then he remembered Clark on his knees, getting Lex ready with his mouth, and the words suffocated in his throat.

Clark submitted to the swab without comment and even plucked a strand of hair from his head when Lex ordered him to do so. The sample cup got a bigger scowl, but when Lex said, "I need to see, if it's still present, whether it's been metabolized or is being excreted intact," that seemed to persuade Clark that science, not some fetish for embarrassing Clark, was behind the request.

Because Lex's supercomputers made Crays look like Palm Pilots, the analysis didn't take long. As he'd hoped, there were no traces of Phosita in Clark's urine or sloughed mucous cells. The hair sample showed that it had been present in the past few days, demonstrating that his equipment would have detected it if it had been there.

Clark was fidgeting like a premed student after twelve cups of coffee.

"It's been completely metabolized."

"That means—"

"As far as I can tell, you're clean. You can have more any time, though I recommend smaller doses in the future."

Clark had his hands behind his back. He looked almost lost. It would have been much easier, Lex realized, had Lex told him that some physical fact prevented him from getting the benefit of his bargain.

Lex began putting away his material, sterilizing the equipment, wiping away any trace of Clark's presence.

A better man would have asked Clark again whether he really wanted to keep his deal.

Lex left the lab, Clark trailing behind him like a large and threatening ghost. He opened the desk safe and pulled out the bottle, now filled with carefully measured gel-caps. "One dose at a time. Maximum of three doses in a twenty-four hour period." By the time that he decided that a joke about Cialis would be inappropriate, the opportunity was long past.

If he didn't trust Clark to keep his word, he'd have asked a pointed question about when he could expect his first editorial support. But Clark was a liar, not a cheat, so he didn't bother.

Clark still hadn't taken the bottle. Lex suppressed a sigh and sat back down at his desk, putting the bottle down in front of Clark. He could sense Clark glowering even without looking at his face. You'd think Lex had a gun to his head instead of offering a rational deal that could have been refused. The people Lex usually dealt with had far less freedom to reject Lex's proposals, and they rarely complained.

He could unlock the computer—he predicted at least a hundred emails awaiting his immediate review—but Clark was still standing there like some cigar-store Indian.

He heard the rattle of pills as Clark examined the bottle.

It would be better if he could start working, show Clark that it was time to fly along to Lois—no, he should sit calmly, indifferent and above it all—no, he ought to say something cutting, remind Clark that this was a business deal—

No, he should get the fuck over himself and calm down. He never had been able to control what Clark did or thought, and he never would be able to do so. He took a deep breath, imagining the molecular structure of Phosita, tangled like the Gordian knot but not quite as easy to unravel. It was a beautiful molecule—perhaps all things Kryptonian were supernaturally attractive to human brains.

The pills clattered into Clark's hand as he decanted them.

Lex watched as Clark rolled a capsule between his thumb and forefinger. Lex's throat was dry and his body screamed at him to stand up and start punching something. He opened his mouth but stopped, transfixed by the look of raw lust Clark was directing towards the Phosita.

Clark turned his head, slowly, as if it hurt to look away, and caught Lex's eyes. "Do you want—?" The question trailed off, but Lex knew the answer better than he understood the question.

"Yes," he said.

Clark met him halfway around the desk. Lex was faster with the costume this time around.

****

Clark left the jar. The only explanation Lex could figure out was that it was a measure to control his usage. Clark couldn't trust himself not to overdose on his own, since he'd never had to fight this kind of temptation. The humiliation of coming to Lex would be a restraint on how often he did it.

Clark came by at least once a week, sometimes twice, three times after a bad run of supervillains and superstorms. The Planet went from seething hatred to 'Maybe Lex Luthor is not the most evil man who ever plotted evil,' which was a decent result, considering the baseline. Most gratifying was that the whole editorial side followed Clark's lead. He hadn't meant to make that a condition of the deal, and he was a little surprised that Clark's colleagues trusted him enough to go along with Clark's reassessment, but he'd take it.

Lex got the nomination, as everyone (including the other candidates) predicted. He had a solid enough lead in the polls that LuthorCorp would have to melt down like Enron or he'd have to be revealed as a pedophile before he'd lose.

Late one fall morning, Temperance put a call through from the researchers at the Kansa site. "We've found something," Dr. Passmore said.

"Something" turned out to be a leather bag, flaking to pieces with age, on which could still be made out painted and beaded Kryptonian symbols. Lex recognized the words for water and sky, but couldn't parse the meaning. Dr. Passmore thought it was decorative, since it resembled standard Kansa ornamentation in style if not substance.

The bag wasn't empty. Scans had revealed layers of rotted fabric wrapped around a long, narrow object, tapered at both ends. Showing both restraint and wisdom, Dr. Passmore had sent for Lex before trying any physical investigations.

When Lex was satisfied that the markings had been recorded and modeled in their original three-dimensional configuration, he gave the researchers the go-ahead. Dr. Lee, a bright young woman who'd won a LuthorCorp scholarship a few years back, carefully cut the leather cord holding the
bag closed. Lex watched through a closed-camera circuit. He'd been present at enough unveilings of Kryptonian artifacts to know that sometimes discretion was the better part of scientific inquiry.

The bag opened with a puff of dust. Lee painstakingly pried the sides apart, wincing as the leather cracked and tore, and reached in to pull out the object. The cloth wrapped around it was a dull gray-purple, though Lex didn't know whether that bore any relation to its original color. Lee turned the lump over, looking for a place to start unraveling, then gave up and reached for her scalpel again. She peeled back layer after layer, all the same. Preliminary analysis conducted on the spot suggested it was ordinary cloth of the kind the Kansa had traded for with Europeans.

The object appeared at last. It was dull black, either from age or design. It looked as if there were two parts—a handle entering a sheath. The monitors, even the special one he'd built to detect Kryptonite radiation, showed no deviation from natural background conditions. Lee changed into new gloves and carefully pulled at one end.

Nothing happened.

Everyone in the room breathed out at once.

Lex hit the intercom. "Bring it here," he said.

Lee obviously didn't want to hand it over. Lex liked her more, seeing that. He also liked that she didn't protest or hesitate.

He didn't bother with gloves. He would be the first person to touch the object in hundreds of years—maybe the first human to touch it ever.

Lee placed it carefully across his palm. He felt a small shock, less than static electricity from walking across a carpet in a dry season, then nothing more. The artifact was not heavy, probably less than a pound, and it was neither cool nor warm, more like rock than metal. He turned it around in his hands. There were no symbols visible.

He tugged at the handle portion, increasing the force when he felt resistance. Like a snake sliding out of its secret bower, the blade emerged, dull silver. Kryptonian symbols were outlined in runnels of golden material; it was almost as if they were glowing, even though the monitors still weren't picking anything up.

It was another dagger. Apparently the rule of threes applied on Krypton as well. One for Segeth, one for Zod, and one for—whom? Prophecy, revenge, and something else. Lex laid the edge against his palm. It could cut him, if he let it, but that would require more pressure. The blade was cool against his skin, and if it wasn't his imagination, there was a slight vibration, as if something deep inside were purring.

"You look like you recognize it," Lee said.

Lex resolved to give her a raise. "I've known two daggers like this before. They were both ... fragile." He sheathed the dagger and dropped it in his pocket. "I'll call you when I need further analysis."

He left the researchers to marinate in curiousity. If they were right for the job, it would motivate them.

****

According to his experience with Segeth's dagger and Lana's account of his time as Zod, he might get useful results by stabbing someone with this knife. Given that he had no idea what the value of "useful" was, he preferred to seek further information first. And so, as ever, it was back to Smallville to look for answers. The only time he knew of that contact with an inanimate object had activated a Kryptonian device, it had been in the Kawatche caves.

Clark's misadventures over the years had altered the geography of the caves and even destroyed some of the markings on the walls, but the place still offered his best chance to learn what the dagger was meant to do.

Hope and Mercy remained outside, on guard. Lex walked in, like going back in time. Clark could almost have been there, behind his shoulder, feigning ignorance and sincerely afraid of what the caves held.

As he approached the wall with the Kryptonian Wheel of Life (or so he'd dubbed it, in the absence of other information), there was a grinding noise. He stopped, then continued towards it.

The wheel lit up. That's new, Lex thought.

"You bear Kal-El's mark," the wall said in a booming voice.

Lex didn't rear back, but he wanted very much to do so. Aside from the fact that the wall was talking, he didn't like the idea of bearing Clark's "mark." Still, he was in no position to reveal ignorance and if it got the Kryptonian technology to open up to him he couldn't begrudge the reason why. "Yes."

"What is your desire?"

Lex smiled. The answer to that wasn't something a stone wall could provide. But he had a few questions. "I want to know what this is." He opened the lead box and tilted it towards the wall, in case the sensors needed a fuller view.

"It alters climate. It was designed for colonization."

This, too, had been part of Lana's report on Zod. For all Superman's protestations, then, apparently Zod wasn't all that unusual in his attitude towards inferior planets and the beings with the bad taste to be occupying them instead of Kryptonians. "Alters climate—on what scale?"

"Planetary," the wall said. The 'of course' was only implied.

Lex had wondered whether Zod's earlier manipulations had accelerated recent climate changes. If they had, Zod might get his victory over humanity yet—unless something changed. "Will it recreate a Kryptonian environment exactly, or can it be directed to make other climatic changes?"

"It is subject to the direction of the user."

Lex swallowed. The box seemed heavier, the dagger's edges sharper. "Tell me how."

Lights blurred in a near-circle over the wall. "The colonization project was interrupted. Presently, the device lacks a sufficient power source."

"How can I get it enough power?" Nuclear was manageable—but a reactor could attract a lot of attention. Maybe he could buy an existing one, manipulate the electricity prices so no one would notice it had gone off the grid—

"The only feasible option is to connect it to the Eradicator."

"The what?" Lex had known Kryptonians were dangerous, but that sounded bad even to him.

"The Eradicator began as non-Kryptonian technology that carried cultural information across the stars as part of peaceful contact missions. When it was brought to Krypton, it fell into the hands of Kem-L, Kal-El's ancestor, who believed that Kryptonian purity required the rejection of all alien beings, though not all alien technology." Lex was mildly creeped out by the thought that the cave wall might have a sense of irony, but he was caught up in the story and didn't comment. "Kem-L therefore reprogrammed the device into a weapon capable of eradicating non-Kryptonians. When Jor-El took custody of it, it became the repository for all Krypton's culture and was resident in Kal-El's travel pod. When Kal-El matured, it became a component of his Fortress. Its transformative powers guided the conversion of the native environment into a small Kryptonian home."

"And you're saying it could continue that process on a planetary scale, with the guidance provided by this device."

"The Eradicator was damaged in the battle with Zod, but self-healing mechanisms and efficient manipulation of solar energy should have restored it sufficiently."

He could get into the Fortress, if he had to. Clark might even let him in. "Tell me what I need to do to make it work."

Another flicker of light, red-blue-yellow so fast that the colors started to merge. "Only those of the House of El can control the Eradicator."

Fuck. Even now—especially now—he had no good ideas for convincing Clark to follow any of Lex's plans.

Lex controlled his expression, since he had no real idea about the cave wall's ability to evaluate humans. With luck, it wasn't reading his mind.

"You said I bear Kal-El's mark. Is that not sufficient to make me part of the House of El?" It had been enough to make the cave react to him as never before.

There was a pause. "The Eradicator is not Kryptonian. Its programming is unusual." The cave's tone was almost apologetic, tinged with a hint of Kryptonian disdain for outsiders. "If Kal-El were to acknowledge you as his own in the presence of the Eradicator, Kryptonian law would be fully satisfied. That might well be sufficient."

Lex swallowed. "I'll have to go with that. Assuming Kal-El does acknowledge me, what would I do next?"

"Insert the device into the join between the two largest crystals." At his left, a holographic projection appeared, showing a crystal anemone, white as an angel's morningstar. Lex looked at it and flashed back to meteors tearing holes in the earth.

He stepped closer to the wall. The caves seemed to have gotten colder, and he could smell the remains of an animal that must have crawled inside to die.

"Was the Eradicator intended to be used for Kryptoforming?"

"It was intended to assist Kal-El to achieve his destiny."

Answer enough, for now. "Thank you," Lex said. "I'll be back." He turned to go; he had many plans to make.

"Human," the wall said. Lex stopped. He closed his eyes for a moment, then turned back to hear the catch. "Using the Eradicator as the power source will wipe the crystals' memories. All the knowledge of Krypton, the history and art, the many things Jor-El recorded for Kal-El's betterment, they will be lost forever."

It was like a punch to the gut. He could trade a world's past for another world's future. Lex had always loved the lessons of history, the exemplars and romances, the triumphs undimmed by the turning of the years. "Is there any human technology that could download or record the materials in the crystals?"

"No," the wall said, and it almost sounded as if it understood.

All the way back to Metropolis, he stared at the knife and thought about sealing it away in his safe. There were alternatives, if he was smart enough, careful enough, lucky enough—if he could persuade the rest of the world to help him fix it.

As if to mock his hopes, that week the Bangladeshi government in exile made an announcement. With no present prospect of reclaiming the drowned lands, it would no longer urge refugees to remain ready to return.

There were riots in twenty refugee camps.

III. Limited Times

"Our deep-space sensors have picked something up beyond the Kuiper Belt," Rohit said.

Lex leaned forward.

"It's moving fast, headed into the system. With a few course corrections, it could impact on Earth, or the moon within three months."

"Course corrections?" Lex asked.

"From our readings—" Rohit hesitated, as if he didn't expect to be believed. He wasn't local. "It's already made two."

"Is it one object or many? And do you have a size estimate?"

Rohit blinked. "Ah, we've only detected one body. It is very hard to say because of disagreements between our instruments—but the object could be big enough to cause an extinction-level event if it hit Earth, or to change the orbit of the moon."

Well, then. "Keep me informed as soon as you get any additional information, no matter how minor. I want daily updates, and I want you to send me all the conflicting readings. Is it
emitting any detectable signals?"

Rohit shook his head. "I'll send you everything, Mr. Luthor. But should we alert the Justice League?"

Lex smiled and stood, bringing Rohit to his feet in reflexive, nervous politeness. "I'll take care of that should it become necessary," he said. "You've done a fine job. Please share my compliments with your team."

Rohit nodded vigorously and fled.

****

Lex put the empty tumbler down on the glass table. He wondered, not for the first time, whether he should stop drinking. It wasn't that his judgment was impaired or his liver imperiled—both were secure against alcohol's harms—but he did worry about public perception. He wasn't macho enough to pull off "hard-drinking." So when it came out, as it inevitably would, that Lex Luthor drank like a camel after ten days in the desert, he'd have a PR problem even Lakshmi, consummate publicist that she was, would have difficulty defusing.

He'd almost made the decision to shut his liquor cabinet for good when the security panel beeped and he hit the control to open the wall. Lex meant to keep looking at his laptop on the coffee table as if it were more important, but he found himself staring up at Clark, an even greater height gap than usual between them with Lex sitting on his low-slung couch.

Clark's eyes were dark, his brows lowered, his fists clenched as he scowled down at Lex, his lips parting as his breath came fast and uneven.

He was stunning.

Lex tried to determine what he'd done—he would have asked, but he didn't want Clark to tell yell about how he should obviously know. Clark might have found out about the dagger and the visit to the cave; the wall-entity had probably told him. It was hard to think with Clark so close, so big, primary colors searing his retinas, his whole body tight and shaking with the need to reach out—

"Get it," Clark snapped.

Lex stood, trying to keep his movements smooth. He couldn't take his eyes from Clark's face. His pulse drummed in his ears. He had forgotten how Clark was when he was furious, not just stern and disapproving. Lex refused to behave like a hypnotized snake. He forced himself to walk over to his desk, open the drawer, and press his hand to the biometric scanner. He could see Clark out of the corner of his eye, an enraged statue.

The safe hissed open, revealing his stash. Oddly, Lex found himself thinking about all his security precautions. On the one hand, no one but Clark (or those who would seduce him) could have any interest in Phosita. On the other, prospective thieves didn't know that. As a Luthor, he was a target and always would be. Security was vital even if all there was in the drawer safe was a bottle of Phosita and a pair of his father's cufflinks.

While he was contemplating his vulnerabilities, Clark had come up behind him. Clark reached into the safe and extracted the bottle, simultaneously using his other hand on Lex's back to push him down over the desk. Lex's hands flew out, barely keeping himself from breaking his nose against the reinforced metal.

He heard the crack of plastic from the bottle and hoped that Clark hadn't burst all the capsules. He wasn't looking forward to another overdose. He kept his hands on the desk, turning his head so his cheek pressed against the cold surface.

His belt buckle dug cruelly into his skin as Clark ripped belt and pants off together—the tongue scored his skin and he thought he might be bleeding. He'd been hard since he'd lifted his head to see Clark. The air was cool against his newly bared skin. His fingers twitched on the desk as he felt Clark break a capsule on the back of his neck, the liquid warming instantly against Clark's fingers.

Lex closed his eyes and bit his lip so as not to moan submission. He could feel Clark's touch moving his flesh over the knobs of his spine, not a massage and not an assault. When Clark's knees shoved his legs apart, he moved with relief. That feeling intensified when he heard Clark pull open the other desk drawer in a screech of metal, grabbing Lex's hand cream. He'd been more than a little afraid that Clark was going to fuck him dry.

Clark's hand left his neck. Lex stayed put, watching his breath fog the silvery metal of the desk. He could see his left hand, trembling slightly; he could feel his legs doing the same. The small sounds of the top of the jar unscrewing and Clark slicking himself boomed in his ears.

He was missing a meeting right now, he realized. It was a good thing he'd set up a system to ensure that he was never disturbed if the glass wall was opened until he personally emerged from the office.

He groaned when Clark pushed into him, thick as a log. "Shut up," Clark snapped. "Shut up and take it." Hurriedly, Lex shoved his wrist into his mouth.

"I should be working on a story now," Clark said conversationally, though Lex was quite sure it would be a mistake to respond. His voice was steady while his hips pumped against Lex's ass. "I should be doing cleanup in Miami, or firefighting in Jakarta. I should be talking to a witness or planning with the League or anything that isn't this." Lex was grateful Clark hadn't mentioned his mother, since Lex wasn't sure even he could have dealt with that during sex.

This wasn't the plan, Lex thought. He was staring at a paperweight one of his suppliers had given him, a glass globe made to look like the Earth. From centimeters away, the exquisite detail was apparent—Lex was looking at the Great Wall of China.

Clark was still muttering, though Lex could no longer make out the words. His thrusts were sloppier, unpredictable, each one a hit of ecstasy that made Lex's whole body jolt.

One final push drove him forward, his feet leaving the ground. His forehead collided painfully with the paperweight, which rolled off the desk. The sound it made was masked by Clark's yell of orgasm.

Lex lay on the desk, panting, a little dazed, still very much aroused. Clark didn't sound any more collected than Lex, his breathing as ragged as if he really were struggling for oxygen.

Clark pulled out and Lex immediately pushed himself over, heedless of the prospectuses he was mangling, so that Clark would see that he was still waiting for his happy ending.

Clark's eyes obligingly swept over Lex's body.

He used more of the hand cream, slicking his fingers before wrapping them around Lex's cock, jerking him off with a steady rhythm that included a pulse of Clark's thumb that felt fantastic. Clark looked over at the now-devastated jar of hand cream. "I bet that's expensive," he said in the old sneering tone.

"It costs a thousand dollars a jar," Lex said, making it up just to see what would happen. He had no real theory about what was on Clark's mind, and it was liberating to just observe without speculating.

"So am I worth a thousand-dollar fuck?" Clark's tone was challenging, and his hand was viciously effective, but Lex still couldn't help it: He burst into laughter, hard enough that his cock slid free of Clark's grip. He curled into a ball on the desk, his stomach hurting, unable to stop.

"What?" Clark demanded, several times. His brows furrowed, his face darkened like a tornado sky, and Lex just kept laughing.

After at least a full minute, he managed enough control to start talking, which was good given that Clark looked ready to punch a hole in the wall. "Heh—conservatively speaking, you're a three-hundred-million-dollar fuck." That wasn't even counting the opportunity costs of labs and personnel working on Phosita instead of human pharmaceuticals.

Clark looked confused, then embarrassed.

Lex laughed again, relaxed in a way he hadn't been in years. He shook his head, indulging himself and Clark, just like the old days. "The things that matter to you never cease to amaze me."

Clark looked at him sharply, perhaps searching for some mockery. There was none. Lex looked up at Clark, still looming over him, and was struck anew by how open Clark seemed, how vulnerable to others' unkindnesses, as if his impenetrable skin were compensated for with a defenseless ego.

They were locked into a weird gaze, not quite a staring contest. Lex imagined that Clark was wondering what made him tick, and thought that 'the bomb my father planted in me' would be an unfortunate answer, not least because Clark wouldn't be crazy to take him literally.

At last, Clark looked down and laughed a little. "Okay. I guess that was bad sex. I never really... got that far with other people when I was ... myself." His expression was almost flirtatious, his eyelashes hiding all but a flash of green-blue eyes.

Lex smiled predatorily and enjoyed watching Clark's pupils dilate. "What makes you think we're done? Admittedly the ride's been bumpy, but it's not bad sex unless you leave wanting to forget it ever happened."

"So, uh," Clark said and planted his hands on either side of Lex, leaning in close, "what did you have in mind?"

Lex showed him.

****

The calculations had been performed, the simulations run again and again. He'd even gone back to the caves, though the Kryptonian machine there professed that its predictive power was no better than LuthorCorp's most sophisticated models. All agreed: the range of likely outcomes from reforming the polar ice and reseeding the major ocean currents was far better for humanity than the range of likely outcomes under nonintervention scenarios. With all that human technology could do, even assuming a political will that had yet to materialize, Lex's models showed a sustainable human population under two billion—and that was assuming that the dying accepted their fate without invading or nuking the potential survivors.

Yes, there was a chance that the best of humanity would survive if Lex restricted himself to conventional means. The escalating crises might even call forth noble and creative impulses. Those who made it through the crucible of the next decade would be strong—people his father would admire, people Lex might admire. Maybe the only people worthy of being saved were those who wouldn't need saving.

But that was just evolution in action—mindless, uncaring, unconnected to anything beyond immediate survival. Lex remembered all the people in Smallville who'd been affected by meteor rocks. They were just like people elsewhere, only they'd drawn the wild card and it usually killed them. If the higher mind was for anything, it was for defying evolution, saving what nature on her own would cast aside. Fixing the broken legs, curing the heart conditions even when a woman had passed her prime reproductive years. Survival was evidence of survival, not of any other kind of merit.

Lex wasn't about to let the natural results of other people's mistakes destroy his world. Also, the world would owe him if he pulled this off.

That meant getting Clark to help, without letting Clark know he was helping, given that Clark would never go along with any of Lex's grand plans, because they were grand and because they were Lex's. An attempt to revise their deal would only make Clark suspicious. Clark had to believe it was his idea to bring Lex to the Fortress, and he had to leave Lex alone there for a few minutes.

It was a puzzle. And every day, while Lex worked on it, new storms rose like ghosts from the waters, and new deserts took bites out of once-fertile land.

****

The object hurtled closer. Deep-space sensors were limited; when Lex was running things, the defensive perimeter was going to be a hell of a lot further out than it was at present. For now he had to make do with a few LuthorCorp probes and hacked NASA data.

The mass could roughly be described as a planetoid. It seemed to be a remnant of a larger body, one that had come from deep space. Spectrum analysis suggested an exotic composition, including a concentration of metals on one part of the surface. It hadn't made any further course corrections, but it was still on track to intersect with Earth's orbit and possibly (probably, if Lex was being serious) with Earth itself.

The League would notice it soon, which might well be a good idea, but Lex needed to know for himself, and the League would just break it apart and hide the evidence from humanity.

At four weeks out, the planetoid changed direction again. Just a few degrees, just enough to increase the likelihood that it would hit Earth by another ten percent.

How did it know what to do? Rohit and his team still couldn't detect any signals emanating from the thing.

Staring at the enhanced but still blurry images, electronic signals translated into black and white images, Lex looked for patterns on the shadings of the surface. There was a formation like the LuthorCorp L; there was a version of Superman's symbol. There was something that could have been a smiley face, or a Hebrew letter.

Or a Martian canal, for all the good that imagination did.

The object was coming to Earth, but it wasn't talking to Earth.

If the mountain won't go to Mohammed—

He was on the phone instantly. "Rohit," he said, though the voice on the other end was confused with sleep. "It's not sending any signals, but what if it's receiving them? Your team will have access to records of global signal traffic within the hour; start analyzing to see whether anything can be associated with the course corrections observed to date."

In five hours, he had an answer.

And a location.

****

Later that week, Lex went to a fundraiser with a young woman of impeccable breeding and carriage, a rising star at the DA's office. She was an ideal companion, photogenic and witty without showing any inclination to do more than sparkle by his side in public. He drove her home himself, and didn't worry when she didn't invite him up for coffee. She had a trial starting the next morning, and he respected ambition.

Clark came by the next night, glowering even more than usual. Lex figured it had something to do with the oncoming meteor-type object, until Clark folded his arms and glared at him. Pop quiz: What have I done this time? Lex wondered, and stood so that they could do this part of the dance.

"I'll kill anyone you touch," Clark said.

Lex was almost sure that a sane person would regard that as disturbing. Clark was staring at him, awaiting a response—a challenge.

"Yes," Lex said and stepped close, so near that he could feel the heat Clark's Kryptonian uniform couldn't contain, the sun's energy condensed and refined through alien skin.

Later, after they'd gotten up from the sweaty slippery pile of clothes they'd made—the cape was surprisingly comfortable to lie on—Lex wondered whether he should have told Clark it was the same with him. But then Clark might not have taken threats against potential lovers (Lois) as a confession of true emotion. He'd probably see it as Lex marking his territory, and too much like Lex's breaches of ethics in other areas.

In any event, he thought as he drank a glass of water and watched Clark get dressed, he could hardly be sure what Clark meant. Was his apparent jealousy another biological impulse spurred by extended exposure to Phosita?

Not that it mattered why Clark would assert his dominion, or how Lex felt about it.

Lex's own lab work suggested that his body was undergoing new cellular changes down to the DNA level. Lex's treacherous body was no more able to resist Clark than his unruly mind.
The less scary explanation was Phosita; the more involved exposure to Clark himself, as if Clark's physiology might be convincing Lex's body to deviate further from human standard. If so, and if Clark ever went to bed with a fertile woman—well, Lex might live long enough to see a very different world.

He hoped to do so regardless.

****

What Rohit called the BFR (big fucking rock) got closer. Even though his people hadn't cracked the communications signal yet Lex had a pretty good guess as to who was calling the thing towards Earth. It didn't seem likely that a second alien race would have started its project of world domination in Smallville. He was almost ready to make his move, but that didn't mean that he could ignore his other responsibilities.

"If I'm going to continue climate remediation on this scale, Senator, LuthorCorp needs protection from private lawsuits. Each project is bet-the-company, and I've got over one hundred and fifty going. We fend off lawsuits every day, but one day one is going to stick, and the costs will destroy our ability to continue the successful ones as well as our willingness to innovate."

"My constituents don't think much of this global warming business," Senator Macklin said, smiling as if to point out that he knew the truth even if the benighted souls who elected him didn't. "They tend to think all these storms and disasters are God's way of punishing sinners."

This was easy. "But those constituents also don't think much of trial lawyers," Lex pointed out. "Protection against lawsuits from bitter losers who hate to see a big company succeed is a good idea even if it's God who's putting these challenges in front of us and not a hundred years of overconsumption and waste. LuthorCorp is making products people want to buy and exercising dominion over the earth just as it's supposed to. Economic security is national security, so protecting LuthorCorp from lawsuits is in the national interest."

Lex wondered if anyone in the room really believed this. Maybe some of the aides; they were young. It would be so much easier when he could do this from inside the institution—there would still be votes to corral, but he'd have much more leverage. Instead, he was stuck giving this damned spiel again and again, varying only the amounts of environmentalism and populism.

"Our proposal requires new climate remediation technologies to be submitted to the appropriate federal agencies for safety evaluation. If the agency doesn't say no within thirty days, use of the technology can proceed, without fear of catastrophic liability." Lex was proud of this, not least because the submission requirements would be complicated and expensive enough that upstart companies would have trouble meeting them without partnering with a bigger player like LuthorCorp.

The Senator looked down at his notes. Reading them upside down, Lex could see that the most prominent figure was one the Senator had doodled himself, since it hadn't been mentioned in this meeting—it was the amount of money LuthorCorp had spent in Washington over the past year. There were over twenty countries who were members of the U.N. who didn't see that amount in GDP.

"I admit, you make a strong case. We'll see what we can do."

If this didn't work out, Lex's lobbyists were reasonably confident they could get the FDA to issue a rule that would amount to much the same thing, but it would only cover chemical and biological agents. They didn't and couldn't know that he needed more than that.

****

"How did you figure it out?" Clark asked him, lying back in Lex's bed easily, as if it were long-established habit.

"Accumulation of evidence over time," Lex said, "overwhelming the false leads and obfuscations you and my father put in my way."

Clark looked confused, his brows drawing together with the old aggrieved petulance Lex so despised. Then his expression cleared and he shook his head. "No, I don't mean how you figured out that—what I was. I mean how you figured out what a, a Kryptonian needed."

"Ah." Lex wondered how much Clark really wanted to know. "In part it was translating inscriptions left from various visits, which occasionally referred to the need for 'like to awaken like,' by which I understood that Kryptonians could slum with the locals, but only after some sort of same-species triggering event. In part it was analyzing biological materials, yours and those of the alien worms from the Kawatche caves, which also need exposure to each other to reach sexual maturity." The translations had also been evidence that Kryptonians had been contemplating colonization for a while—averted only by the inconvenient explosion of their planet—but Clark didn't need to know that, if he wasn't already aware.

The real trick had been creating Phosita itself, since Lex's usual tactic of adding Kryptonite to a reaction to improve it would have been counterproductive, to say the least.

Clark looked somewhat offended to be compared to an insect-analogue, but he didn't complain. Instead, he stretched his arms up and closed his eyes, turning his head from side to side as he settled more firmly into the pillow.

Years ago, Lex would have considered himself entitled to an answer for an answer. At least, he would have tried to find out Clark's present thoughts on their deal. But what was the point of asking anything, other than to hear the latest offended lie? Better to proceed as they were.

Superman would get a call sometime during the night—there was always another flood or fire, and Clark was the ultimate pinch hitter when local heroes wore out—but for now he was here, between Lex's sheets, the scent of sex and Phosita heavy in the room.

Moments like this, Lex half expected to wake up back in Belle Reve.

****

In the end, the law was given a stupid name—Climate Education and Research Success Keeping Industry Excellence Strong, or CLEAR SKIES—and passed by a voice vote. Lex's researchers submitted their technology lists to the feds, mostly the FDA, on a regular basis. He did get a call from the chair of the FCC asking about the list they'd received, and explained that, because these technologies used electrical signals, some of which might cause electromagnetic interference of the type the FCC regulated, LuthorCorp had determined that the FCC was the appropriate agency for CLEAR SKIES submission.

"Of course, Lex," Chairman Fennell said, as familiarly as if they really knew each other. "I just wanted to let you know I'm having my technical people take a look at the list, but I don't imagine there will be a problem."

Lex didn't either, since almost everything on the list was basic technology, unlikely to be dangerous or helpful in any way.

"There's just one thing," the chairman continued. "Climate moderation technology using knowledge retrieved from the Southwest Kansa Archeaological site? What is that, a computerized rain dance?"

The Kansa once had many dances, but Lex wasn't aware of a rain dance. "I try to encourage creativity in my researchers," Lex said. "We don't dismiss anything out of hand."

The chairman laughed. "Well, you're the one who's going to have some explaining to do to your shareholders if this gets out."

"I'm willing to take that chance," he said, putting as much relaxed confidence into his voice as he could. Let the chairman think it was a joke, a triviality, something like studying the medicinal uses of geese on behalf of goose-raising constituents.

They chatted for a few more minutes about media consolidation in the midwest, and then Fennell had to go to a meeting. Lex leaned back in his chair, ignoring the day's schedule printed out in front of him, and folded his hands together in thought.

No one was going to stop him from doing this, not unless he told Clark. It was all up to him.

IV. Utility

Lex was approving the final roster for a return in force to Smallville when there was a minor alarm on the first floor of the building—someone wrongly in a secure area, the kind of thing that happened about twice a day to hapless delivery people.

Less routine were the flickering lights, then the screams over the intercom.

Mercy was outside his office when the security door slammed shut. If it had worked properly, steel bolts six inches thick had extended out of it, sealing him off from the rest of the building. Metal shutters rose from the top and bottom of his floor-length windows, closing in like teeth and throwing the office into dimness.

Lex just managed to find his infrared goggles before the lights went out entirely. Darkness was part of the emergency protocol—he always hoped his assailants hadn't planned ahead, and sometimes he was right—but it was still disturbing. He took an extra gun and two clips from his desk and positioned himself near a couch, covering the door. He should think about Teflon-coating the furniture for better protection, but then again it might aid an invader just as much.

There were crunching noises outside, then a repetitive hammering that suggested that Mercy was no longer in a position to offer resistance. He hoped she was alive, if only because she'd avenge him.

The first person through the door, after it had been destroyed, was Temperance. Lex was briefly grateful he'd withheld fire, but noted that she didn't seem to have a gun to her head. Instead, she had some sort of metal device around her neck and a jerky gait.

"Lex," she said, sounding too much like the possessed little girl in the Exorcist for his taste, not to mention the fact that Temperance had never even hinted before that she knew Lex had a first name.

"I know you're in here," she said, and the coy note was, if possible, creepier than her creaky pronunciation of his name.

"To whom am I speaking?" he asked, deciding that he lost little by responding. With any luck, the Justice League would soon investigate a major disturbance at LuthorCorp, if only out of self-protection.

"Lex," she said chidingly. "I know it's been a long time. And it's true that I've changed. But don't you remember an old friend and partner?" The elocution was already improving, as if whatever had hold of her was learning how to use her better.

"As a matter of fact," he said, rising and backing away, "I truly don't."

"You knew me as Milton Fine," she—it—said. "That was before Kal-El destroyed my original form. It's taken many years to reconstitute."

Brainiac. Lex was morally certain that Clark was responsible for the name, if not the full entity. He'd expected that something Kryptonian was behind the BFR, but he had let himself believe that Brainiac was gone.

"Let me guess. You've returned to give me another Zod injection." If that were the case, he'd rather have the chance to turn the gun on himself. One megalomaniac per body, that was his rule.

"I have returned for revenge. On you, who failed Zod, and failed me." Temperance's body took a step towards Lex, who raised his gun. "On Kal-El, who thwarted Zod's renaissance." Another step—Lex fired at Temperance's shoulder, and Brainiac moved faster than a human could have, avoiding it entirely. "On this planet, which will suffer Krypton's fate."

"I seriously doubt hitting Earth with a meteor will cause it to explode," Lex said, even as he backed away and fired again. "This planet is not a Pinto." Eight more bullets, and probably none of them would be any more useful, but maybe he could buy some time.

"You know about that," Brainiac said with some surprise. "I will have to go through your records in detail."

Given the other things Brainiac might do, it didn't sound so bad.

****

"What is Phosita?" Brainiac asked, for the sixth or seventh time. Lex had lost count when he'd let the broken bones get out of sync with the iterations.

All his natural responses—'I'm going to have Mercy beat you to death with your own arm,' to take a random example—seemed inappropriate when the thing at issue was occupying a relative innocent's body. "It's a dessert topping and a floor wax," he said instead, though his elocution might not have been up to standard.

Brainiac sneered; Lex wondered if it had looked up the reference. Then it burned another hole in his thigh. "Tell me, Lex, and live to fight another day." The cliches sounded so strange in its borrowed voice, half-human and half-synthetic.

He closed his eyes. So much damage to his research already done—if Brainiac's claims were truthful, it had manipulated the computerized maintenance system in the building to destroy the two dedicated labs and had corrupted or erased his experimental data. Getting out with his head intact was the only hope of preserving years of careful exploration of Kryptonite's properties.

"Why do you care?" Lex gritted out. "You're throwing this rock at the Earth, and in ten days I'll be as dead as any other human."

Brainiac tilted its head—Temperance's head cocked like a golden retriever's, Brainiac's interface a silver collar around her neck. Oddly, Lex could almost see Milton Fine in the thing's face, as if the takeover had been so complete that it was altering the physical shape of its victim. "I care because it is based on Kryptonian knowledge, and all things Kryptonian are of interest to me."

"I'll tell you if you tell me why you're attacking Earth."

"Bargaining, Lex?" Yeah, that was Fine all right. Condescension was a mistake, Lex thought—it antagonized rather than coopting. People who didn't matter didn't need to be told they didn't matter; it was cruel, and might be wrong. Lex dearly hoped Brainiac was wrong.

He smiled, showing Brainiac his bloody teeth. "The truth is always valuable. I'll trade."

Brainiac shrugged. "It's a fragment of Krypton. Kal-El thwarted Zod's ambition to build a New Krypton. Now I am denying him the world he wishes to preserve."

"Revenge," Lex said, nodding despite the pain it caused. "I can sympathize. Phosita's a chemical agent, designed to disrupt Kryptonian biology and rewire it to be Earth-compatible."

Brainiac's face registered disgust. "You are attempting to make Kal-El human?" Then it considered, and smiled, an even worse expression. "A fitting punishment! We should have worked together."

"You guaranteed that would never happen when you hijacked my body to carry your precious Zod," Lex pointed out.

It shrugged. "True. Under other circumstances, I would simply have assimilated you, but your Kryptonite mutations make that impossible. Something in your altered cellular composition interferes with the primitive circuitry I have been able to fabricate using Earth materials."

There was an ache below his pecs, above his navel, with a spike of deeper pain in the center. Punctured lung, Lex thought. From the speed at which the blood was filling his mouth, he had maybe five minutes before he'd pass out. If that Kryptonian monstrosity was going to continue to lecture the entire time, unconsciousness would be a relief.

He let his eyes sag closed. Lex felt Brainiac bending down, emphasizing the power it held over Lex's fragile existence. Their faces were inches away—

Lex spat a mouthful of meteor mutant blood directly onto the collar-interface.

"You talk too much," he said when the body was writhing and sparking on the floor.

With Brainiac out of commission, it wasn't impossible to get out of the improvised restraints it had used on him. Painful, yes; impossible, no.

He managed to wrest the collar off of Temperance's body—he wasn't sure how dangerous that was, but he knew he didn't want it on her any longer than necessary—and throw it into his safe for later analysis. She was still breathing, though otherwise unresponsive, when the security forces arrived and he sent her off with paramedics, hoping that she wasn't another dedicated employee sacrificed to his enemies.

He sat on what was left of his couch, sticky with his blood, and tried to organize his thoughts. The collar hadn't gotten on her by itself. It had probably been connected to some larger entity. Perhaps another version was already awakening and preparing to come after him.

Clark had defeated Brainiac before. Lex believed he would again. But there was still that big rock coming at them, and it was probably time to do something about it. And it could be to his advantage, if he could distract the League long enough to work unimpeded on Earth—

When Clark answered his cellphone, Lex could barely restrain a sigh of relief.

"There's a problem," he said over Clark's somewhat surprised "Hello?"

Batman was surely monitoring this, and while he probably already knew about the fucking, Lex hated to give him any more information.

"Brainiac just invaded LuthorCorp," he explained. "It threatened my life, and it's still out there. I need protection." That was something Lex Luthor might demand from Superman, even if they despised each other.

In a heartbeat, Clark was in the office, looking around at the devastation, then staring in horror at Lex's injuries. "What happened?"

"Well, it never liked me," Lex said.

Clark didn't so much as blink. When he was in full Superman mode, Clark Kent's already limited sense of humor diminished by an order of magnitude.

"Obviously, I'm not safe here. And we have another problem." He explained briefly about detecting the rock on its way to Earth, and Brainiac's claim of responsibility. Then he sagged back onto the couch, which was only about half feigned.

Clark had improved in many ways with time. He didn't argue, didn't accuse Lex of lying or distorting the truth, just called the League and started them mobilizing.

"If Brainiac can't destroy the Earth, it will at least try to hurt the people you love," Lex said when he'd finished talking to his compatriots. "You need to make sure your mother, Lana, and Lois are safe before you head off."

Something rippled under the surface of Clark's expression. "Batman has a security detail on them," he said.

"My security wasn't much help," Lex pointed out. Batman's people were probably as good as his—at least they were unlikely to get in the way of the guards he already had on the women—but they weren't better.

Clark picked Lex up, so gently that it almost didn't hurt. "I'm taking you to my Fortress," he said. "It knows Brainiac, it can keep him out."

When Lex had thrown the control collar into the safe, he'd retrieved the dagger and the specially designed hard drive with the relevant environmental data, gambling on Clark's willingness to offer sanctuary to anyone in need. Now they rested at the small of his back, pressing against his bruises. Lex closed his eyes and hoped that the layers of leaded insulation around the dagger would suppress its reaction to proximity to other Kryptonian artifacts. The crystals had always required direct skin-on-skin contact. Clark didn't seem to notice that Lex was carrying something different than his usual gun.

They flew together, so fast that all Lex's exposed skin went numb.

****

The Fortress put Lex in mind of caverns measureless to man, as if Coleridge had been visited just like Kansas. Of course he'd seen the pictures the *Planet* had run in Lane's inane cover story, but pictures were entirely inadequate to convey the size of it, the alienness of the angles, the thousand shades of white reflecting in every crystal.

Clark touched down like a breath blown across skin, barely noticeable until Lex had to stand on his own again.

Lex ignored the pain of standing upright and looked around, trying to identify the main crystal array. Clark was watching him worriedly.

"I—" Clark began, and then the far wall caved in, spraying them with crystal fragments and stinging chunks of snow, a barrage of white that knocked Lex sprawling and made his vision grow dark.

As soon as he could move his limbs, he pushed himself up. There were at least eight, maybe ten, bodies moving through the chaos, all different—bodies under Brainiac's control. Clark was a blur, pushing one back and then another.

"Their minds are gone!" Lex yelled. He wasn't sure this was true—though it certainly had been for Dr. Walden, who'd been through a similar Kryptonian possession—but if he could decrease Clark's hesitance even a little it would be a benefit to their side.

Lex had no weapon other than the dagger, and he wasn't about to use *that* on anything connected with Brainiac, even a possessed human body. The Fortress was like a field of frozen fireworks, snow-white blades protruding in every direction, but nothing on the floor looked handy. The debris had mostly turned to powder and tiny fragments. If he had to, he'd try to break off a crystal to use as a club, but that seemed risky, especially since he needed the Eradicator on his side and it might not take kindly to being pruned first.

Clark was holding his own in any event, moving so fast that Lex only heard the grunts of Brainiac's slaves as they toppled and fell unconscious. Clark had never been chary of a little collateral brain damage.

As soon as he reappeared, he advanced on Lex. "It's not safe here. We'll go to League headquarters—"

"Your friends will love that," Lex said, which stopped Clark only briefly. Lex couldn't show too much investment in staying, but he had to give Clark some reason to leave him here—"You've wasted enough time already, and if Brainiac had more bodies to send they'd already—"

A shadow fell over him, something blocking the sun through the hole Brainiac's invasion had made. Lex turned.

This incarnation looked like a cross between a Cyberman and Swamp Thing, organics deformed around twisted metal. Its face was all gray angles, except for the greasy curl of hair that sat on its forehead like a slug, and its eyes glowed blue like a parody of Superman's, an impression enhanced by the chestplate with the sigil of what Lex presumed was the House of Zod in yellow and red.

Also, it was about eight feet tall, and as wide as two of the Sharks' linebackers.

"Kal-El," it said, and Lex dropped and rolled to get out of the way.

Immediately thereafter, the air filled with the distinctive glow of heat vision as the two Kryptonians went after each other.

Distraction was good, if Lex could only find the main crystal array. He crawled to an edge of the room that opened into a corridor.

Then Clark and Brainiac both stopped fighting, cocking their heads at eerily identical angles. Clark's face showed relief; Brainiac's, renewed anger. Lex inferred that the rest of the League had managed to divert the BFR.

"It's a piece of my planet," Clark said, presumably into his hidden communicator. "So we need to watch out for Kryptonite." He was breathing hard, which Lex now associated with sex, a distraction he didn't need.

Brainiac had taken the opportunity to regroup, and launched itself at Clark with all the fury of a revenger denied his tragedy. They traded punches and kicks for a few rounds, until Clark pulled away. "What?" he said into thin air.

Lex fucking hated listening to one-sided conversations. Especially the unrevealing ones.

Clark looked as genuinely shocked as Lex had ever seen him. He'd switched into pure defensive mode, fending off Brainiac's blows as if they were minor annoyances, like gnats. The look on his face reminded Lex of his first glimpse of 15-year-old Clark, suddenly aware that he was about to be hit by two tons of metal.

Then he disappeared.

If Lex hadn't had problems of his own, the curiousity would have given him a stroke right then. As it was, Brainiac gaped at the empty air for a moment, then straightened. The half-metal, half-organic body turned towards Lex with an insectile grace.

"I think," it said, "we have some unfinished business."

Thanks a million, Clark, he thought. That bleeding trick was only going to work once—even if he'd had sufficient blood to work with.

****

Lex felt wetness running down his sides, soaking into the remains of his shirt. He wondered whether meteor mutant blood would have a disruptive effect on the dagger.

The dagger.

If Brainiac discovered that—if it could somehow make the Eradicator work—Lex had just signed Earth's death warrant.

"Must be galling," he said, feeling more blood dribble from the corners of his mouth. "To have Superman ignore you like that. You're not even a threat, all pathetic and half-baked."

Brainiac moved its metal mouth in what might have been a sneer. "Perhaps he hopes I'll rid him at last of your pernicious influence and your incessant scheming."

He couldn't feel his hands. What Brainiac did to his shoulder, he felt.

Even after he stopped trying to scream, he couldn't draw breath enough to taunt.

"This is just a pleasant way for me to pass the time before Kal-El returns," Brainiac continued as Lex struggled to stay conscious. "Your loyalty to him puzzles me. Did you never think—what's the phrase you humans have?—'somewhere, a village is missing its idiot.'"

Lex was in no mood to explain the difference between stupidity and dangerous naivete. Hang on, he told himself. Clark's specialty was last-minute rescues. "Why'd—you bother? If you're—so sure he'll save the world again?"

Brainiac shrugged, which looked very strange coming from a giant half-robot half-monster. "It was worth a try. And it's the last piece of Krypton left."

Lex didn't quite understand the relevance of the latter piece of information, but he wasn't thinking all that well. The floor of the Fortress was really cold. He didn't think it was ice—if it had been, some would have melted underneath him—but that just made it more like being on a morgue slab, which was not at all a simile he needed.

Brainiac disappeared. Then he heard a loud crash.

It took him a few seconds to decide that he was being rescued. That's good, he thought. But he still couldn't feel his hands.

The world narrowed to his ragged breaths; if they hadn't been involuntary, he might have stopped, because he didn't have the energy. There was a distant buzzing in his ears which he profoundly hoped was Brainiac getting the alien shit kicked out of it.

Clark was kneeling above him—how long had he been there? He looked worried, and he kept saying Lex's name as if it meant something.

He groaned, or imagined that he did. Fuck, he might really be dying this time. The pain was receding now, as if he'd been pumped full of morphine, and given that instead he was still bleeding out on the floor that was a bad sign.

With effort, he raised a mannequin-stiff hand to cover Clark's where Clark was putting pressure on one of the holes Brainiac had made. "I want you to know—I have loved you from the beginning. I want—tell me I'm yours." Just this once, Lex tried to say, just do as I ask this one time.

Was Clark crying? Maybe it was only the distortion in his vision, which was starting to go white in flares and spots. "Lex, don't—you can't leave me. You're mine, you can't go."

The world went nova, shining and beautiful. It was nothing like his previous near-death visions, all so terrifying and unsatisfactory. It was just peace, softness, surcease. And so bright, the utter absence of darkness. He would have smiled, if he'd had a body.

****

He woke up cold and clammy, though it only took him a second to realize that he shouldn't have woken up at all. His wounds were healed more thoroughly than his own mutant powers could have achieved in a short time—and it was a short time; he could still hear the sounds of battle off to one side.

The Fortress must have accepted him as Kal-El's and assisted in his healing. Which meant that the Eradicator had accepted him.

"I need access to the main system," he said to the empty air. Nothing happened, or so he thought until he managed to stand, and then he saw that portions of the floor had lit up, creating a path out of the room. Staggering only a little, he hurried along it, through half-destroyed hallways and rooms full of alien artifacts that he ignored with great regret, until he found himself in a large, circular room with a centerpiece like the tackiest chandelier ever made.

Lex recognized the configuration from the cave computer's instructions. He inserted the dagger. Lights flashed expectantly.

"I need access to the Eradicator," he said.

There was a pause. "Yes?" a voice said out of the air, crystalline and sharp as the surroundings.

"I'm afraid I don't have much time," he said. "I am part of the House of El. I require your assistance to alter the planetary climate."

"Such a program would be terminal," the air said mildly. Maybe it was just his imagination, but it felt as if the temperature had dropped. Lex closed his eyes. The Eradicator was an intelligent device, and probably had an opinion about Lex's plan for its annihilation. That was just fantastic. He owed the cave wall some recompense for the failure to warn; on the other hand, he was growing to appreciate just how much trouble Clark must have had figuring out his heritage when nothing Kryptonian bothered to explain itself fully.

"I am aware of that. And—I regret the necessity. But if this planet is to survive, it is required." Noise in the distance—the battle continued. It couldn't last much longer. Lex swallowed.

"Is it required that the planet survive?" The tone was even and indifferent.

Lex breathed out slowly, fighting the chill that was burrowing into his bones. "It is Kal-El's most fervent wish."

There was a grinding noise, like a great machine slowing to a halt. "I serve Kal-El," it said.

He concentrated on getting the modified hard drive out from under his clothes. His hands shook hardly at all.

With a bone-rattling thump, Brainiac's body came crashing into the room, followed closely by Clark. Lex looked just long enough to confirm that they hadn't interfered with the main array.

"Make the following alterations in the planetary environment," he said, and put the drive on top where the Kryptonian technology could interface with it. The lights flared, making the whole room go white and overexposed, and then dimmed.

"What?" Clark turned away from Brainiac, whose body looked like a half-smashed spider on the floor, to look over at Lex.

"I'm sorry," he said.

From behind Clark, Brainiac brayed laughter, interspersed with choking breaths. "Kal-El! I told you from the beginning that Lex Luthor would be your downfall."

"What do you mean? Lex, what are you—?"

Lex looked him in the eye. "I'm using up your Fortress."

Clark didn't seem to know what to make of that.

Brainiac had managed to struggle into a near-sitting position, nodding its head in a crazed kind of triumph. "Zod is dead. I am a shadow of what I was. Destroy it, and let this be the tombstone of Krypton. Weep for your world, destroyed again by human folly, son of Jor-El."

Every light blinked off for a second, leaving them in darkness. After a moment, it returned, but dimmer now, almost blue.

A hologram of the Earth rose out of the ice floor.

"Die knowing your failure!" Brainiac screeched, raising itself for another dive at Clark. The two of them crashed through a far wall. Aside from hoping they wouldn't destroy anything vital, Lex couldn't bring himself to pay much attention.

The instructions in his program told the Kryptoforming program instead to re-terraform, rebuild the ice caps and reinstate the ocean currents that had kept the West agriculturally fertile. If it worked, the storms would die down, the world would cool.

Already, the hologram was showing changes, clouds forming over the oceans in great spirals. Lightning storms were raging within them, he knew, though at this scale all that he could see was a faint luminescence around some of the edges. "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," he murmured to himself. Resetting the climate wasn't going to be gentle. At least people knew what to do with big storms these days.

Most of the planet, land and water both, was now under cloud cover. Lex could hear the Fortress creak around him, as if even structural integrity had to be sacrificed to make this happen.

The crystals slowly faded and went out, a thousand lights guttering around him like the death of a star cluster, as the program drew on their incredible power.

He had no idea how long he stood, watching the changes. It had to have been hours; it could have been days. He couldn't feel his hands, or his feet.

At last, the clouds over the equator began to shred and dissipate. It would take longer for the ice caps to show themselves, but he believed they were there. "And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so."

He had terraformed Earth. The hologram dimmed to nothingness, leaving him in the cold, empty room. It felt different now, dead, silent in a way the caves never had been.

Lex closed his eyes and wondered whether this was why he'd survived for so long. He'd always known his fate was to change the world. If he was the new Alexander, the lesson of history was that he wouldn't last much beyond this conquest.

Probably best to get moving, then, and do as much as possible while he still could. Clark wasn't coming for him.

Every great man had an unhealing wound. It was part of the story.

Staggering a little, Lex turned towards what he thought was the exit. The groans from the Fortress were getting louder. Even with the newly restored colder temperatures at this latitude, Lex guessed that he didn't have much time before the place collapsed on him.

It was a testament to LuthorCorp's engineers that his satellite phone still worked.

****

His people were efficient; repairs were already underway when he returned to Metropolis, and his staff had set up a temporary office in a secondary LuthorCorp building.

Temperance was conscious, though still in the hospital, being treated for shock and some kind of electrical burn. She said she didn't remember. Lex didn't plan on pressing her for details.

World-shaking weather being nothing more unusual than a terrorist attack, the Justice League's mission into space was getting a lot of media play. Lex learned what had made Clark leave him to Brainiac's mercies by watching CNN, which had footage of Green Lantern and Wonder Woman extracting a small, dirt-covered figure from a chunk of non-green meteor rock.

"CNN has learned," the anchor said breathlessly, "that the survivor is another Kryptonian, like Superman. Her name, the Justice League says, is Kara Zor-El."

Over the next few days, as people started to realize that these hadn't been ordinary storms—as the satellite footage of the new ice spread, especially the time-lapse shots of it reforming—the stories started to compete with each other. As Lex prepared his public announcement, he collected further information on Kara Zor-El, mainly by bribing Cabinet officials and UN representatives.

Unfortunately, there was no way to tell how much was truth, how much lies, and how much wishful thinking. She was tall and dark, just like Superman. She was little and blonde. She was part of Superman's family. She was some sort of royalty. She was some sort of human-Kryptonian merger. She was a psychic entity that had possessed an ordinary smalltown girl.

She was from a place called Argo City—Kryptonians apparently adhering to the Simple Simon school of place names—thrust into the universe by Krypton's explosion. She'd been cloned from leftover DNA in the debris. She'd been pulled through time by a hole in the space-time continuum (Lex suspected a guy named Eddy). She was a cyborg. She'd been in some sort of suspended animation. She'd been in a parallel dimension (that one, Lex found hard to believe, since it didn't do much to explain how she showed up on the BFR).

Whatever the explanation, it seemed that Clark's biological parents hadn't been the only ones with a backup plan. Though really, who plans for the world exploding? He resolved to put that contingency on his list.

In any event, the girl's apparent age was about fifteen—the same as Clark's when they'd met, Lex couldn't help thinking. She didn't speak English and was being kept away from the press by the simple expedient of storing her on Themiscyra, where (the League promised) her emergent powers could be trained and harnessed for humanity's good, as Superman's had been.

As all celebrity worship must, especially when the celebrity had never been photographed from within 500 yards, the frenzy over Supergirl eventually faded some. It had been useful, because it gave Lex time to make private presentations to various officials, who otherwise probably would have borne grudges if he'd let them find out about the Eradicator on national television. Lakshmi got him airtime on the major networks—she had to threaten to pull LuthorCorp advertising for the next year, but she got it. They worked on his speech for days, and then it was time.

"Good evening," he said to the fly's-eye of camera lenses in front of him. The actual reporters in the room shifted uneasily, clearly wondering what a Senate candidate had to say to America as a whole, already writing the "pathetic attempt at an early presidential bid" story in their heads. "Thank you for joining me. My name is Lex Luthor, and I'm here not to campaign, but to explain some major changes we've seen in the world over the past few weeks."

Now they were murmuring, which gave Lex energy and passion. Human contact, that's what he needed, as always.

"Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it," he continued, feeling their attention, feeling it even through the cameras. He gave the basic details, except for the part where Clark hadn't known his plans. He emphasized that the cost had been the destruction of another planet's heritage. What humans did *was* enough to destroy a world. Leaning forward for emphasis: "We can't afford to make the same mistake again. There aren't any other alien civilizations left here for us to trade for ourselves."

The speech had the necessary references to God, though Lex's personal theology leaned more towards the "blind and senescent watchmaker" side than was presently acceptable in polite Kansas company. God helped those who helped themselves—that was something he could say in good faith, so to speak.

The questions afterward were dazed and half-assed. No one from the *Planet* had shown up.

****

He left town for a few days, ostensibly to let people focus on the changes taking place instead of the person who made them. He took a fifteen-hour flight to the island closest to Themiscyra. As much as Lex hated islands, it was still fascinating to see what this one looked like, all chewed and swirled at the edges, the polished bones of countless creatures scattered across the sand. The rising sea that had been eating away at the shoreline was in retreat, the drowned land resurrected as a result of Lex's planetary CPR.

There was a small, fast boat waiting for him, its controls simple enough that he could run it on his own. He ignored the frowns of the shipmaster. The idea of being alone was pleasing, even if it meant he had to be surrounded by water. He didn't remember that part of his long-ago airplane crash anyway, and found that once he was out of sight of a beach it was much easier to relax. He checked his GPS, turned his cellphone on briefly to see if any mega-emergencies had developed, and poured himself a drink.

Five hours, more or less, and he'd be in range of Themiscyra's defenses. They would notify the Amazons that a male was approaching—they were peaceful warriors, after all, and wouldn't harm him without warning him off in person first.

Why was he doing this?

He hated that question. Mostly the answer was obvious—to save the world, or to get in a better position to rule it. And of course a new Kryptonian was important to his ability to do both.

He just had to know. If he saw her and there was nothing, no fire inside her calling him to be consumed like oxygen, then he'd know. It was curiosity, and he was fortunate to have more lives than a cat.

One drink turned into two. It wouldn't impair him, and it made the world a little easier to bear. Around him, the water rose in short dark waves edged with white lace, slapping against itself like hands clapping. The spray that reached him on the deck was cold, despite the sun overhead. He wondered how many species of fish used to swim through these waters, and whether any would return now.

He fell into a light doze until the proximity alarm woke him, indicating a moving object within a mile. Under thirty seconds later, an Amazon riding something like a translucent jet scooter dropped from the sky to hover next to the boat. Whatever the power source was, it didn't kick up any water from below.

She was in a white bodysuit accented with golden greaves, helmet and belt. Her hair was dark and pulled back in a ponytail, which seemed like the most practical thing about her appearance. "Males are not welcome here," she said in something like ancient Greek.

"I'm not within your territorial waters, according to the law of nations," he replied, trusting she'd understand his prep-school accent. "Themiscyra honors the rules of the World of Man in that respect, at least."

"What are you doing here, if not invading?" she asked bluntly, in English this time. Well-educated, these Amazons. "There is nothing else for you here."

"I want to meet Kara Zor-El, if she's willing to talk to me."

She narrowed her eyes. "Why would she talk to you, of all men?"

So there were still places he was unrecognized. Someday she wouldn't need telling. "My name is Lex Luthor. I'm the man who used the Eradicator to change the climate."

After a moment, she said, "Approach no closer. I will convey your message."

****

He'd given himself ten hours to wait for a response; it only took three.

This time, the proximity alarm went off simultaneously with the arrival of three women: the original Amazon sentry, Wonder Woman, and a young blonde dressed in Amazonian clothing—a sort of Greek myths by way of Dolce & Gabbana look—who had to be Kara Zor-El. Wonder Woman and the other Amazon hung back, hovering beside the boat just out of ordinary human earshot, though what that was worth with superheroes Lex didn't know.

The girl floated through the air towards him, controlled but somehow tentative, like a puppy on wobbly legs. She was just getting used to the powers conveyed by a yellow sun. He reminded himself that she was more dangerous for being unfamiliar with her abilities.

"Hello," he said as she drifted to within an inch of the deck, then dropped the rest of the way. Her sandals slapped against the planks, but she didn't stagger and she didn't take her eyes off of him. "I'm Lex Luthor."

"I know," she said. Up close, he could see that her eyes were deep blue, the way the papers always said Superman's were. She was going to be a knockout in a few years. "Why did you ask to see me?" As he'd suspected from Superman's worldwide exploits, she'd picked up English with admirable dispatch. The fact that he was hearing an actual Kryptonian accent sent a thrill through him. It was a little like Castilian Spanish. He wanted to hear more.

But she'd asked a very good question. "I've been a victim of Brainiac's schemes myself," he said. "He brought you here for his own purposes, but I hope you can make something good out of it. I wanted to offer any help I could give you."

She stared at him, cocking her head up with the aggression of youth. "Kal-El says you are not to be trusted."

"We've had our disagreements," he admitted, shrugging as if it didn't matter. "But all I want is to protect the Earth. This can be a good place for you, Kara." He wanted to say more, about abrupt changes in one's life and the silver linings thereof, but he didn't get the sense that she was warming to him. "I wanted to meet you. Whatever Superman says—I hope you can support each other."

She glanced away, back towards the suspicious Amazons waiting for her. "We are Kryptonian. I will stand with him." Her uncertain tone suggested some bravado, though it was a loyal enough sentiment. Once again he was asking a teenager, already burdened with tremendous power and isolation, for too much. And he didn't have the excuse of being practically a child himself.

"Just remember," he said, hoping it made a difference, "I'm not your enemy. Even if I can't be your friend."

Kara Zor-El frowned and put her hands on her hips, already a superhero in training. "I do not want enemies."

Lex smiled, for what felt like the first time in years. "Neither do I. But sometimes it happens. Thank you for meeting with me."

Even a teenager could recognize the dismissal, and she nodded a little, gathering her dignity around her like an invisible forcefield. "The Princess told me I should."

He didn't look over at Wonder Woman, though he appreciated her tactical sense. "Good luck, Kara."

She hesitated, clearly trying to come up with an English phrase that wouldn't overcommit her. It was charming (though of course any young woman that good-looking was charming in most matters). "Thank you," she settled on eventually, and after an awkward moment more, she took off into the sky, overshooting her companions until they caught up with her.

He'd overreached, assuming—hoping—that they'd have something in common. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, he told himself as he turned the boat around.

****

Lakshmi strode into the room and didn't bother waiting for him to ask her. "Half of the country thinks you're the messiah, and the other half thinks you ought to be strung up for playing God. The good news is that at least ten nations are demanding your extradition for crimes against humanity, which is going to improve your standing with the half of the country that's freaked out, because they're not so keen on multilateralism either."

Lex smiled at her—the mild one, not the grin that made people uncomfortable. "Thank you, Lakshmi. In a few weeks, you should take a vacation."

She laughed, then looked uncertain. "There's still a lot of work. You've got five subpoenas for Congressional hearings—and the lawsuit count is up to eleven now, in case you were wondering. Not to mention the election."

He shrugged. "I have confidence in the process." He could afford to—he'd spent enough money on it. "You've done excellent work on this. I look forward to seeing what you'll do on a national level."

"Thanks," she said, then looked away. "Listen—are you—? No, I'm sorry."

He got up from his desk and moved towards her. "What is it? Lakshmi, you're a trusted advisor. If you have a concern or a question, you have to ask."

"You just—are you having second thoughts? I know the storms are still bad, but everyone agrees the longterm prospects are—well, you know. You seem—" she hesitated until Lex's silent waiting broke her resistance—"sad."

Lex shook his head and gave her his best reassuring look. "I haven't given up any of my great plans," he said. "There are still plenty of worlds to conquer." He smiled again, this time to let her know that he was only joking about the conquering part. "But an accomplishment like ours prompts some reflection. I know not everyone sees what was done as a sacrifice, but I do."

She nodded, her eyes shining with belief. Belief in him—something he saw more often these past few days, now that he'd proved himself to the world beyond doubt. Superman was still refusing to discuss his role in what the news was calling "the Weatherworking," but that only helped add to Lex's credit as the brains behind the scheme. He turned away from Lakshmi, towards the floor-to-ceiling windows. He wasn't as high up as he'd been in LuthorCorp Tower, and he couldn't see the Daily Planet, but there was a view of the park, and he could see the repairs on the Tower off to the left.

The skies were clear blue, interrupted only by a few clouds off to the east.

The door made a soft sound as it closed behind Lakshmi.

Lex looked down at his city, his Earth. There was rain in the skies, but not the killing rain of recent years. This was the rain that raises crops and lulls babies to sleep. Hope from loss, the future from the ashes of the past.

Lex had only the future now. He pledged himself to it.

V. Interference

"... and have I mentioned that I really hate magic?"

Lex didn't try to turn his head. "Repeatedly. And if you intend to keep on, might I suggest some synonyms?" Even moving his jaw to speak was painful. He really hated magic too.

"Hey," the girl said, surprised. "You're awake."

He stopped trying to flex his wrists and ankles against his bonds. It wasn't doing much good in any event. "Yes."

"How long have you been awake?"

"I don't know. How often have you been saying you hate magic?"

There was a pause. "Every five minutes or so, I guess." The voice was familiar. It was some minor Justice Leaguer, one who only occasionally gave interviews. Young, maybe mid-twenties—

Despite the sticky black ropes (he devoutly hoped they were ropes) holding him in the air rather like a ham in a smokehouse, he managed to wrench his head about twenty degrees in her direction, enough to see the perky blonde hair and appalling red-and-blue costume, though the effect of both was diminished by the dirt and gunk smeared liberally on her. "Then I've been conscious for about fifteen minutes, Supergirl."

It had been a long time—nearly half her life, in fact—since he'd seen her in person, but she looked much the same. Not unlike Clark, who'd looked twenty-five for roughly a quarter century, moving from surprisingly mature to surprisingly boyish. Supergirl merely looked gorgeous. Reflexively, he checked to see if he was still wearing his ring. He was, and it was still on its standard setting, twisted shut.

"You weren't at the fight, Senator Luthor."

Lex had been trying to remember how he'd been attacked since he woke up. He'd had a moment of agitation, thinking that he'd already missed at least half a day of campaign stops, two weeks before Super Tuesday. Then he realized that if he got out of this there'd be a sympathy bump in the polls, so mortal danger was his main concern. "The last thing I remember was leaving my office at around ten-thirty at night on Wednesday the fourteenth of February."

"Um, right," Supergirl said, evidently put off by all the detail. Once she'd been knocked out enough times, she'd learn better. Right now, she seemed largely unimpressed to be hanging in an unknown location like a puppet waiting for its master. "So he got me before that, when he was trashing League HQ looking for something. What does he want with you? Maybe one of your campaign proposals put a bug up his butt?"

She shared her cousin's deep-seated belief that Lex always knew what was going on. "It might help if I knew who he was," he suggested.

He saw a blue-under-black shoulder twitch in what was meant to be a shrug. "Dunno. Guy in a big red robe with white trim, big cuffs, kinda like that Santa Claus guy. Only balding, with black hair and totally ridiculous sideburns. Oh, and big gold earrings." As if the earrings would help disambiguate the man in question from all the other men like that running around doing magic.

"Doesn't ring a bell," he said, and concentrated on getting the best possible view of their circumstances. Lex couldn't see much other than more black ropes, hanging between them as if they grew from the ceiling, which was lost in darkness above them. The only source of light was behind him somewhere, yellow but nothing like sunlight. The chill air was heavy with the smell of rotting paper—it was sweet, almost like raisin bread. He knew it from the lower levels of Princeton's library, where no one else ever went. If their captor was a magician, he smelled like the theoretical kind.

"You're sure the inhibition of your powers is magical, not Kryptonite-based?" he asked.

He could see her toss her head in his peripheral vision. "I know what Kryptonite feels like. This isn't it. Plus, do you know any non-magical way of getting big black spider-leggy things—ew, just creeped myself out—big black pipe cleaners to tie people up?"

"That's classified," he said, just on general principles. "But I take your point. If he's a magic-user, that at least explains the site of the attack on me. LuthorCorp Tower is very well warded against magic, among other things." After all, once the walls were lined with lead, it was a minor additional expense to have protective sigils carved into the metal. "There are numerous powerful devices stored inside, and I wouldn't be surprised if our captor wanted access to one or more of them."

That failed to explain Supergirl's presence, but she didn't comment on the omission.

"Good, you're both awake," a man said pleasantly from behind him.

The ropes holding them swiveled, turning them like pieces of wood on a lathe, and the ones dangling from above moved out of the way like curtains lifting. The overall effect was biological and very, very disturbing.

What they revealed was arguably worse—a man just as Supergirl had described, accompanied by an assortment of minions dressed in hooded capes of varying colors. The hoods were thrown back.

They didn't have faces.

Lex couldn't help rearing back in his bonds. The uncanniness of their appearance, the space where faces should be as flat as if they'd been planed, was so great it made his stomach twist. They weren't even ovals, the way a mannequin's head might be, but had all the variations and imperfections of ordinary human heads, except for the missing features.

A magician who could do this to the people under his control, if they were even people, was frightening indeed.

"I am Effron the Sorcerer," the man announced, "mystic of Veliathan. I demand the return of my Golden Eye."

"Oh good," Supergirl said. "Another James Bond villain."

Assuming the description was not metaphorical, Lex had a pretty good idea what object Effron meant. Superman had acquired it in some battle—with Effron, it now appeared likely—and had stored it at League HQ, at least until it had been pilfered by a minor superhero who fell on hard times (or really was pushed, but that was a detail) and sold it to Lex. He'd never figured out how it worked or what exactly it did, though his researchers believed there were mind-control possibilities. If it worked by turning people into faceless puppets, he was glad they'd never gotten any further.

Lex looked him up and down—a black-haired Santa Claus was about right, except not that jolly—and nodded. He'd negotiated with worse. "What are you offering?"

Effron looked caught between anger and mere pique. "Your life, and the life of the girl. She will be my surety." The faceless minions shuffled their feet, as if frightened for Supergirl. He could see her better from this new angle, and there wasn't a molecule of fright in her.

Regardless, this wasn't a hard game to play. "What guarantee do I have that you'll release her if I bring you the Golden Eye?" Not that he would—if Effron were stupid enough to let him go, he'd let the Justice League take care of the rescue.
The sorceror smiled. "You have my word." He even sounded sincere, neither smug nor self-righteous; he sounded like any businessman who wanted to form a long-term working relationship. Lex would almost have preferred it if he'd elaborated with more standard villain-talk; despite the surface annoyance of it, bad dialogue was often useful guidance.

Lex made a show of considering the offer. "I don't appreciate blackmail," he said at last. "But I can deal with it."

"Very well," Effron said—

"Wait, wait, wait," Supergirl piped up, her angry voice carrying well through the chamber. "You're going to let Luthor go and keep me as a hostage? I don't know how it works on Velcrothon or whatever, but here enemies don't make good ransom material."

"Enemies?" Effron turned to her, his robes swinging slightly, giving him the air of a man forced to answer the door in his bathrobe.

"Yeah," Supergirl said, making it sound like 'duh.' "If he doublecrosses you and you hurt me, you're just taking care of one of his problems for him. Kind of a win-win."

Effron looked back at Lex. "Kara," he said to Supergirl, ignoring Effron, "it's not worth it." She gaped at him. "I won't take the risk of losing you."

The sorcerer glared at them in turn. Supergirl rolled her eyes. "We are not secret lovers! I don't know what Luthor's game is. But it's his word—you know, Lex Luthor, notorious bad guy and politician, which means he's a lying liar—versus mine. I'm a member of the Justice League!"

Lex saw Effron make up his mind to believe her. Lex sighed and began surreptitiously wriggling in his bonds again, in case the sorceror's recent manipulation had loosened something. "I see a stunning inability to bluff runs in the family."

Effron moved closer, examining his apparently extraneous captive. Supergirl couldn't move, but her face showed her disgust. "News flash, Luthor: I'm not on your side."

"Since we're both tied up, you should at least consider the possibility—"

At this point, Effron intervened, perhaps miffed at being nearly ignored. "The augury said quite clearly that the Kryptonian was the love of your life, the one you'd do anything to save."

Lex shrugged as best he could. "I defy augury."

Effron scowled.

"Wait a second," Supergirl said, with the tone of someone who's just had a very bright idea. "The Kryptonian?"

Lex tried very hard not to wince. Inconvenient insights must also run in the family. Effron stared at him, Supergirl stared at him, and he had the distinct impression that the faceless minions were also staring at him, at least metaphorically.

"Dude, you're telling me I was kidnapped by homophobia?"

"Technically, it's heteronormativity," Lex said, but she was already going on—

"I cannot believe this. I seriously cannot—oh, this is just the best gossip in the history of ever, and I am tied up in some sorcerer's cavern?"

"Shut up!" Effron snarled, and a black strand wrapped itself around Supergirl's mouth. Lex hoped it tasted like spider leg.

Supergirl was of course right that Lex would never trade five dollars, much less a priceless magical artifact, to rescue her. But what she hadn't seemed to think through was that Effron's understanding of that truth—which Lex's plan of walking out of there would have delayed—was likely to prove injurious to her health. Effron was presently too discombobulated to realize that keeping Supergirl around had no upsides, but he wouldn't overlook that for long.

"I don't think you'll do quite as well with a second pass through the Justice League," Lex said lightly. "So now we really do have matters to negotiate." Supergirl was making appalled protest noises from behind her gag, but Effron turned away from her to focus on Lex.

"I sincerely doubt it," Effron said. "Did you think I had no alternate plans?

"Your wards have defeated my magic thus far. But my subjects—" he waved one hand in an arc—"can physically attack your precious tower. The cost will be high, but once I regain the Eye I can replenish their ranks from your own Metropolis, and rule over a greater kingdom. Perhaps I will even use your tower as my seat."

"I know something I want to do with your seat," Supergirl said, having somehow managed to wriggle free of the gag; both Effron and Lex looked at her askance. She was still struggling against the black rope—rope, Lex kept reassuring himself, it was rope—to no avail.

"Pathetic Kryptonian," Effron said—this was good, he was getting grandiose and that usually meant sloppy—"my magic feeds on your powers." He snapped his fingers and the gag returned to its place.

Turning away from her, Effron made some complicated hand motions, and masks appeared in his minions' hands. As one, they raised the masks to their faces, where they adhered with no apparent attachments. The magic made the masks lifelike, only slightly inhuman in their fixity. Seeing them only for a moment, one might mistake them for truth. If Effron were smarter, he'd keep his peons faceless and therefore paralyzingly horrifying. Lex was willing to bet that some significant percentage of people would break down, unable to resist, from mere exposure to those terrifying absences.

The minions assembled in a group, each holding some sort of gun. Lex had been hoping that the robes portended edged rather than distance weapons, but he still had faith in LuthorCorp security. With another set of showy flourishes, Effron stamped his foot, and a hole opened in reality. Sunlight streamed through. Lex could see the entrance to Metropolis Park, and passing traffic—it was the view from the front of LuthorCorp Tower, though oddly not a view of LuthorCorp Tower. The masked minions would have to go through, then turn and walk around the portal to begin the attack. Lex felt a renewed surge of confidence, though he knew it was a bad idea to base predictions on opponents' flaws.

And in the event he hated the mis-orientation of the portal, because he had no idea what was happening in Metropolis. Havoc was being wreaked, that was clear from the occasional car or chunk of building that came flying past their line of sight, but he had no information on the overall situation. The portal showed only the visual, so he couldn't hear anything helpful either. Effron kept sending his people through. For a man who considered the cost of an attack on LuthorCorp high, he had a huge number of bodies in his army, and the line waiting to go through the portal didn't seem to be getting shorter.

After about ten minutes of fighting, Superman flashed by the opening, then returned a moment later. He started tossing minions aside as they emerged. Then he flew directly at the portal, trying to reverse the transfer, but it was evidently a one-way portal and all he accomplished was bouncing off in a way that Lex couldn't help but find humorous.

Superman, these days, acted like everything Lex touched turned to Kryptonite. He hadn't been this close to LuthorCorp Tower since—well, since everything changed. The break seemed to have worked for him; the Justice League had never been more effective or more beloved with Superman at the helm.

Demonstrating the benefits of teamwork, more superheroes arrived soon thereafter. They had a brief shouted conversation with Superman as they fought with the army streaming through the portal. It looked as if the masked folk were going to be contained. Effron cursed and spat out a quick series of incomprehensible words, coupling them with hand motions that resembled a mime cleaning an imaginary window. An invisible force buffeted the superheroes, sending them flying apart like debris from an explosion in a spandex factory. And still the disguised faceless soldiers moved through the portal, like worker ants sent out to retrieve a leaf.

As long as Effron could stand back here, wherever here was, and send his magic through, the people and superheroes in Metropolis would be fighting a losing battle. Effron's attention was fully engaged in his task, so Lex looked over at Supergirl.

"Supergirl!" he said, as low as he could manage and still be heard. After the second try, she turned to him.

Telling the truth was unpredictable—for one thing, it seemed to be disbelieved more often than his lies and omissions—but it was his only tenable option. "I have a Kryptonite ring. If this magic feeds on your powers, it might be vulnerable to Kryptonite too. I'm going to activate it, so you may feel something." Clark would have been largely unaffected at the same distance—just over ten feet, Lex estimated—but he thought that body mass might play a role, and he wanted to minimize her chances of accusing him of unprovoked attack.

She frowned, but didn't object, which was better than any response he'd imagined. By wrapping his left hand around the rope holding him and pulling up, he was able to shift his weight so that he had some room to maneuver with his right. It was hard to twist the ring open just by rubbing his thumb against it (another redesign to plan; maybe what he needed was voice activation), but after a bad start he felt the shielded compartment slide back.

"Well?" Supergirl asked after a minute. Lex tested the ropes again.

"Nothing," he said. He could see, through the portal, that one of the pillars holding up the Art Deco Metropolis Park sign had been destroyed, and the sign itself was now lodged in the gravel of the entry path. "Any ideas?"

"Can you throw me the ring? Maybe it only works against his magic if his magic is working against me."

Odd, but not out of the question for magic, and he didn't have better options. There was no way he could or would coach her through the protocol for opening the ring, so he left it as it was and worked it off his finger until he had it curled in his fist. The metal was warm from his exertions, and he could feel the refined meteor rock where it brushed against his skin. It felt almost adhesive, as if it were hungry for human contact. He shuddered and lurched against the ropes, trying to get the best angle for the throw.

"Here it comes," he said, and put everything he had into the cast.

Because everything he had was rather securely tied, the ring barely made it across the space between them. In fact, Supergirl had to twist like a pole dancer, thrusting her legs out parallel to the floor and catching the ring, improbably, on her right boot. It trembled and nearly slid, stopped only by fetching up against the knob of her ankle as she executed a painful-looking series of gymnastic twists. Lex could only watch, impressed, as she brought her heel up nearly to her waist, folding her leg in and up and simultaneously curling her body forward so that she could snag the ring in her mouth. All the while, her face was contorted in pain, and veins were pulsing greenly on the exposed flesh of her legs, hands and face.

When she had secured the ring, she sagged back into the ropes, panting. The green glow of the activated Kryptonite lit up her face like a Halloween fright effect. He would give her a minute, and then he'd encourage her—

The rope holding her left hand parted, and she swung out of his line of sight. Then she groaned—Lex looked around, but Effron was still staring at the battle in Metropolis like it was free internet porn, and none of the queuing minions seemed inclined to take any initiative here in the cave. She groaned again, and then she popped up right in front of him, the green veins that betrayed her alienness already fading as she rubbed the black smudges at her wrists. He'd thought the trick of closing the ring required some skill, but either she was smarter than she looked or his self-assessment was overly favorable.

"Come on," she said as she tore him free. "Get to the side and stay out of my way."

"You've got to shut down the portal," he said, and she frowned at him.

"Thanks for the color commentary, but do you have any ideas?"

"You could always dump a bunch of rocks from the ceiling on it."

She looked up, into what was to him a great rope-filled darkness. "Not actually a bad idea." He found himself shoved up against the cave wall, unable to see the more than flashes of the portal and Effron's army through the remaining dangling ropes. He heard a series of crunches, then a larger rumble, and smelled the distinctive ozone-tinged compounds that accompanied the use of heat vision, combined with a more organic scent like burning hair, which was probably the damned rope.

With a crack like a dam breaking, a shower of rocks and earth came rushing down into the center of the cave, burying the portal and an unfortunate number of faceless minions. Lex heard Effron roar, however, so the fight wasn't over.

Supergirl came back to his side, panting and seemingly unbothered by the dust that had replaced most of the air. "That was cool. Hey, now that we have line of sight to the outside world, maybe my communicator—this is Supergirl, lock on to my signal, I have the source of the disturbance in Metropolis and I need backup." She cocked her head and ignored Lex. In his turn, he patted himself down, looking for his own transmitters, but none of them seemed to have survived the trip. He concentrated on breathing—at least he still had a handkerchief, which he wet with spit and used as a makeshift air filter.

Supergirl didn't seem to need his participation in the conversation anyway. "I hate magic, but at least this magic was the kind you can just hit with a big rock. I'm good at that. Hey, what about those freaky faceless guys? Do they need air? Do you think they need air? I'd better go dig them out just in case they need air." With that last breathless rant, Supergirl flew off, leaving Lex to fend for himself. There was something familiar about that.

Natural light streamed in from above, but the slowly settling dust still made it difficult to see. Lex pressed himself against the wall, wanting to avoid Effron. He saw a disturbance in the thick gray air, a clearer bubble that the sorceror must have cast around himself. It was bobbing towards him, and Lex braced himself for a conversation about vengeance.

Just then, the Big Three burst through the hole in the roof, backlit into Kabuki shadow-puppets, fierce and iconic. Batman was wearing some sort of jetpowered exoskeleton-cum-cape that allowed him to fly. They split in three directions. Wonder Woman targeted Effron, her battle cry rising above all the other chaotic noises in the cave. Lex watched her carefully, marking how she used her bracelets to fend off bolts of magic as effortlessly as she could use them against bullets. Batman, Lex thought, was casing the joint, making sure that Effron didn't have backup of any kind. He cut down the remaining spider-strands as he went, increasing visibility with every step.

Superman helped Supergirl dig out the minions, who had no apparent inclination to further Effron's cause without direct orders from the sorceror himself. Both Kryptonians had identical expressions of discomfort when they had to look at the missing faces.

Batman buzzed over Effron, throwing various snares and nets at him. There was a purple flash of sorcery, blinding for a second, and then he was gone from the air. Lex didn't hear a crash, but he saw the edge of a non-flight-powered cape disappear behind one of the piles of fallen black rope—it was like a junkyard down in the cave now, what with all the rubble and other flotsam—and knew that whatever Effron's trick had been, it hadn't been fast enough to clip the bat's wings.

With Supergirl safe, it was clear that there was no need for all the heavy artillery. Wonder Woman had been joined by a few of the League's significant magic-users, and they had Effron cornered. He'd begun the ranting and threatening portion of the event, even as her lasso wrapped around him and the magicians began chanting in unison. The Kryptonians had finished rescue operations, and Lex saw Supergirl say a few words to Clark, who did not look over in Lex's direction.

In between one breath and the next, Superman was gone, as if he'd never been there.

No matter. Lex had been fine.

****

Effron was led off in handcuffs reinforced with magic, which looked a lot like purple glitter. He'd be going to Leavenworth's expanded metahuman wing, at least if the Leaguers consented to give him over to human justice. They probably would; they hadn't yet refused. It was the fact that they might refuse one day that bothered Lex.

"No, I'm telling you, the wizard did it," Supergirl was saying as Lex approached the cave exit, where various superheroes were engaging in self-congratulatory postgame analysis. She chatted unselfconsciously despite her tattered uniform and the dirt coating her; and why wouldn't she be unfazed, when she was still a standout in a group of highly toned humans and humanoids? "I'm sure it's around here somewhere—it's just tiny now, you know? And since it turns out it's designed to be invisible to X-ray vision—and don't think we won't be talking about that later—I can't help find it."

"Supergirl," he said, breaking into the conversation.

Five assorted superheroes glared angrily at him, the three men more than the two women. Supergirl looked more wary than angry. "Excuse me," she said to the others, and followed him outside. They were in a meadow, but he had no idea where; if someone didn't offer him a ride back to Metropolis, he was going to have to go through the embarrassment of asking. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the brightness. It was midday, and the sky was cloudless. In natural light, her coloring was perfect. Even the primary colors seemed more reasonable.

"So, I'm not really going to tell anyone your big secret," she said, not looking at him. "It's not like—"

"Anyone would believe you?" he suggested when she hesitated.

"Yeah, that, too."

The grass was green and soft under his feet. The air was sweet and alive. None of it would have been the same if he'd left Clark's Fortress untouched.

"You're a strange man," she said at last.

"I've never made a secret of the fact that I don't think superheroes are good for humanity. That doesn't mean I like magic any better, or want you eliminated."

Now she was scrutinizing his face. "But if you love ..."

The word made him irrationally angry. "If it helps any," he bit out, nearly snarling, "I'll use small words. It's not personal. It's never been personal." He knew the reaction contradicted the sentiment, and it only pissed him off more. "It's about," he paused and knelt, putting his hand to the damp breathing earth, drawing strength from it even as he looked up at her, "this world, what it needs, what will let it thrive."

Supergirl was silent again, her arms folded across her chest. She had her head cocked, as if she were trying to solve a puzzle. "Seems personal to me."

He looked at her, wondering whether she was very stupid or very smart. Clark had been that way, oscillating between seeming innocence and seeming knowledge, offering apples and going on about commandments.

"Don't you want to know what he thinks about you?"

That was a trap; if he let it close, he'd be lucky to get out without chewing off his own arm. "Not enough to listen to gossip."

She raised one well-shaped eyebrow. "He always says you have your own code of honor—" He turned and started walking away. "—too bad it's encrypted!"

He stopped and set his shoulders. "I may be a villain," he said. "But that doesn't give you license to humiliate me."

She said nothing. What could she say? Clark cries himself to sleep missing you—unlikely. He hadn't taken up with Lois or anyone else, that Lex knew of, but he was still the golden unblemished idol of the world. The idea that he could want for anything seemed impossible.

"I'm keeping the ring," she called out, her tone halfway apologetic. "You can keep the toy."

Lex looked at the bulge of the magic-miniaturized flight exoskeleton in his pocket. He doubted there'd be anything useful left to analyze. But he liked the gesture.

VI. Equivalents

Honestly, Lex wasn't all that surprised that the League's envoy to the President-elect was Supergirl. She'd seemed like the type to stick her cape where it wasn't wanted.

After they'd gone through the formalities, she sat down in front of his desk, crossing her legs. The ridiculous cheerleader-length skirt concealed even less that way. "So, here I am, your Justice League liason."

He let that linger in the air until she turned a little pink. "I'll be providing security on a day-to-day basis and coordinating any larger response that's required."

He folded his hands in front of him. "I don't think you will."

"What?" She gripped the arms of her chair, leaning forward. "Look, I know badmouthing the League is good politics some places—"

"According to my consultants, worth about a percentage point in the general election, net," he said. "Though it was more helpful in the primaries. The United States doesn't outsource its security, Supergirl. Not on my watch."

She scowled, unprepared to have to defend her presence. "You're a major target for metahumans, and your Secret Service can't—"

"That's the key word right there," he interrupted smoothly. 'Your.' The League isn't an American organization. If you're serious about wanting to protect the President, you should be willing to swear an oath."

"Oh, I'm willing to swear," she began, then stopped herself with obvious effort. "Excuse me, I need to make a call."

He nodded and stood while she left.

She was back in fifteen minutes, her face troubled. She didn't sit down this time, choosing instead to pace his office, her hands twisting behind her back. "You know, the whole reason we're doing this is to keep the world safer. It's not about you. Didn't you tell me it wasn't personal, the second time we met?"

"I'm not sure I understand your point."

She didn't look at him. "I don't know what's going on with you, which really sucks. But: Superman said to tell you that I would never sacrifice you for the greater good. And it's true." She continued to talk, but the pain in his chest was too great to attend to anything else. "... So is that enough of an oath for you?"

He made himself breathe. Then, because he couldn't stand to have this conversation, even by proxy, he made himself nod.

****

Lex passed a group of staffers watching one of the flat-screen panels that covered the hallways. An announcer was talking over a news crawl and footage of Clark talking earnestly to a group of children. "... emphasizing, as usual, the importance of learning about and empathizing with others' differences ..."

One of the assistants, a man who'd just started work in the West Wing, snorted. "Always the same damn speech." Lex stopped in his tracks. Dwayne Morris, Lex recalled, Howard University and Harvard Law, hot up-and-comer who'd managed a difficult reelection campaign in Texas. PR genius, he'd tell you, and from what Lex had seen he wasn't far wrong. Morris continued, caught up in making his point as only a political junkie could be, "The problem isn't the speech, the problem is that I've seen it so many times I could give it. 'Words without action are meaningless, action without words is a recipe for misunderstanding.' 'Understanding is the basis of respect.' He's really impressive in person, but you'd think he'd have learned—"

Temperance cleared her throat. Everyone froze except Morris, who turned with the air of a cat burglar who'd been caught with diamonds spilling out of his hands and thought that he'd make the best of it. Morris had an extremely charming smile, and Lex felt a stab of sympathy. Relentlessly, he smiled in return and asked, "Is there some development worth discussing here? Some policy initiative of this administration at stake?"

"No, Mr. President," Morris said, his smile fading.

"Then I suggest you move on to a topic that *is* relevant to our work."

"Yes, Mr. President," everyone chorused—which still made him feel good. He moved on, confident that the others would explain to him that the administration's no-comment policy on Superman was honored internally as well.

Morris's sigh of relief wasn't audible, but some of the people with him weren't so controlled.

****

Kara entered the Oval Office ahead of Lex and gave a cursory scan around. Lex had learned that Kara often looked cavalier in performing her duties, but she usually got the job done well—after some spectacular early fuck-ups, one of which had left him limping for a month. Now she refused to look professional, but she took it seriously enough that he could relax a bit, at least with the Secret Service as backup.

"Coffee," Kara said. He went to the machine to get it for her, because having him serve her always delighted her so.

If anyone could tolerate the weird chemicals in nondairy creamer, it would be Kara, so Lex tried not to worry about her tastes despite the offense to authentic food her coffee habits represented.

She flopped down on the gold-striped couch, throwing her head back and flinging her arms out. "That was a world of no fun," she said, limp as a scarecrow down from its cross.

Lex brought the adulterated coffee over to the low table in front of the couch and put the cup down inches from her outstretched legs. "It wasn't so bad."

She made a dismissive noise.

"We got what we wanted."

"Yay," she said, looking up at the rosettes on the ceiling. "Diplomatic concessions. I live for diplomatic concessions."

"Nobody made you come to the negotiations," Lex returned, moving to pour himself a drink.

"Beg to differ," she said, still contemplating the ceiling—or possibly the sky, if she were using her broad-spectrum vision. "You have this nasty habit of nearly getting yourself killed."

"Isn't it odd?" Lex put the stopper back on the decanter, the clink of crystal relaxing him on some deep, childish level. "I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that."

At last, Kara tilted her head down and shot him an amused look. "You want my list, or should I include other people's reasons too?"

He twitched his lip at her and sipped at his drink, watching her swallow her coffee with every appearance of caffeine-induced ecstasy, her eyes closed and her face smooth with pleasure.

"You did a good job deflecting that minister who was trying to grope you."

Kara shrugged. "He wasn't my type. Put it this way: When the zombies come, they won't go for him."

"What?" Lex asked, puzzled.

"He's got no brains," Kara explained.

Bad jokes aside, Lex liked to watch Kara while she wasn't looking back at him; she tended to become awkward and silent when aware of scrutiny. Her rosepetal skin, cream shading to pink at her cheeks, lips like peonies, eyes like a clear Kansas sky just after the sun dropped below the horizon—

Lex never claimed to be a poet. It was one of the reasons he liked to have other people's words memorized for appropriate occasions. She was lovely to look at, leave it there. Her figure had doubtless inspired thousands of adolescent sexual awakenings in the years since she'd joined the Justice League. Unlike Wonder Woman or Hawkgirl, she didn't show any cleavage, but that didn't detract from her appeal in the slightest measure. Lex rather preferred it, her body an obvious mystery. Anyway, her legs, which her costume kept uncovered, were superb.

And currently parked on the coffee table, her bright red boots a startling contrast to the antique wood. Primary colors were perfect for her; she never wanted to blend in to the background.

"Lex?"

"Yes?" His eyes traveled up to her face, which was unusually serious. Lex put his drink down on his desk and straightened.

"You're staring at my legs again."

So he'd have to reassess his ability to look without being noticed. "They're extraordinary legs."

She blushed, but continued to meet his gaze.

"Are you ever going to do more than stare? Because that would be okay."

Lex actually had to force himself not to step back. He'd never thought Kara would say anything, depending on her shyness about intimate emotions to keep the flirtation harmless and deniable.

He was silent too long.

"Lex?" Now she sounded uncertain, moving towards ashamed.

"Kara, I—it's been my privilege to know you." Lex tried to project the truth of that statement over his standard mask of sincerity. "I look forward to seeing you each day. When the Justice League assigned you to me, I was as suspicious as you were. Despite our demonstrated ability to work together, I didn't expect to enjoy it. You're headstrong, distracting, loud and otherwise impossible to ignore. I grew used to you, and then I grew fond of you, and then—"

She was beaming, as if the radiation her alien body had absorbed was being converted—

Her alien body.

She'd evidently taken his shocked pause as a signal to talk. "I've been waiting for you for, like, a year! I haven't had really good luck with men so far, but then I thought 'maybe that sorcerer guy had it right all along,' and—"

No, of course Kara wouldn't have had good luck with non-Kryptonian men. "Kara," he said, and the pain in his voice shocked her out of her ordinary babbling.

He'd believed that the Phosita would eventually trigger a self-sustaining reaction in Clark's body, but he'd never considered that it might have done the same to him.

It would explain why blunt, hyperactive Kara would be attracted to him. God knew it couldn't be his monomaniacal will to power, or the way he was likely to trash the office when he'd been thwarted in some desire.

He couldn't explain to her, couldn't abase himself before yet another woman whose approval he'd let matter to him. But he couldn't leave her like this—he'd never thought about her sex life, because he'd never let himself think about her in any but the most superficial, never-going-to-happen of ways. Once he gave it a moment's thought, however, it was obvious that she'd been suffering in the same way Clark had been.

All the while, Lex had possessed the solution, but never made the connections. Willfully ignorant.

There was no way that he could tell her he'd accidentally strung her along all this time.

He couldn't tell her, but he owed her better.

She had been staring him, unnaturally still, for however long it had taken him to realize all this. "Kara," he repeated. "You need—you have to talk to Superman."

"What?" she sputtered, sitting up straight now, vibrating with tension.

He shook his head.

Kara leapt to her feet. "No. You do not get to say his name and then shut up like I'm nothing to you." With her hands on her hips and her waist-length cape flared out, she was the image of outraged justice.

Lex winced.

"He warned you off of me, didn't he? Got you a message somehow." Her voice was loud enough to fill the room; Lex had never been more grateful for the soundproofing. "All that 'I know you know what you're doing, just be careful' bull and he went behind my back anyway. That sanctimonious jerk—"

"Kara," Lex said, firmly enough to break through, "please don't." What she was saying was impossible, of course.

Yes, it still hurt, even after all the years.

"I have to go," she said, her voice thick with anger.

She disappeared.

Clark would explain. Then she'd—well, he owed her some Phosita, after all this. The Justice League would assign some non-Kryptonian to Lex for his next term in office—at least he'd be done with them, decades after Krypton became his ruling planet—and Kara would find someone she could like without chemical compulsion.

If Lex had realized earlier what he was doing, he could have been honest—or, maybe not. How could he have explained developing Phosita for his worst enemy without revealing how he'd bribed that enemy to—well, "stay off his back" wouldn't be the right way to put it, now would it?

He could have told her something useful, anyway.

Why the hell hadn't Clark told her about her heritage? Lex began to feel a familiar, comforting anger. Clark had lived with Kryptonian descent. He ought to have known he needed to guide Kara to sexual maturity; he should have told her about the birds and the meteor rocks.

There were a lot of things, Lex realized as he slumped down into the couch Kara had vacated, that he had deliberately failed to think about for a long time, most of which came under the headings "Clark" and "sex." To be frank, those were basically the same topic as far as he was concerned.

That was because he was a coward.

He'd pretended to himself, when he'd let the fleeting thought tiptoe across his mind, that he was celibate because he didn't want to take the risk that Clark would make good on his threat. He didn't want to be responsible for his partner's death (at least not until the inevitable attempt to kill him, when it would become self-defense). The truth was more shameful: he didn't want to take the risk that Clark wouldn't make good on his threat. While he abstained, he could pretend that Clark might still care, even if it was just some Kryptonian mating instinct. If he slept with Kara and Clark did nothing, it would show how little he'd meant to Clark.

He didn't let himself wonder about whether Clark had managed to acquire an alternate supply of Phosita, or what he might have done with it if he had.

****

Lex was finishing up negotiating with the Egyptian Prime Minister on antiterror protocols when Kara landed on the terrace. Because his personal life really was less important than affairs of state—hard as it was for the popular media to believe—he put her out of his mind for the next fifty minutes. She didn't wander off, which said a lot for her emotional maturity, or at least her righteous anger.

At long last, the politicians and translators left, and he went to the door to wave her in.

"Just so you know," she said as she swept in, her cape snapping out smartly as if it wanted to snub him too, "I'm mad at you, and what's worse, I'm disappointed. I'm not old enough to be disappointed in someone, Lex."

Closing the door, he turned to face her. "I'm sorry," he said, but the bitterness rose up in his throat, all those wasted apologies to Clark choking him. He was sorry—he never wanted to hurt her—but he couldn't stand here and be judged all over again.

Whether she saw all that in the shifting of his shoulders he couldn't know. She did close her mouth and narrow her eyes, as if her super-vision could give her access to his thoughts. After an uncomfortable period of scrutiny, she sighed with the air of the hopelessly put-upon and went to sit down on her favorite couch.

"You know, I was going to yell, only you're much better at punishing yourself that I ever would be, which kind of takes the fun out of it." She crossed her arms and then her legs, one red boot dangling dangerously near a priceless Greek amphora on the table in front of her. "So when were you planning to tell me that you knew Superman's secret identity? And moreover that your thing for Clark was not—oh my God, I am actually saying this word—unrequited?"

At last, an easy question. "Never," he said, moving to sit across from her. "Even if things had—changed between us, it wasn't something I was prepared to discuss." Also, he didn't say, maybe your cousin could have disclosed some details about the past. But that was something to say in an argument, and he didn't want to argue. "I realize now that I should have made the formula available to you so that you could use it with a person of your choosing—"

Kara held up a hand. "Whoa, whoa. Are you saying—you think I need some synthetic pheromone to get me hot?"

"Kryptonian biology—"

"Did it occur to you," she said in a tone nearly as cold as her freezing breath, "that I had gone through puberty before I left Krypton?"

He looked at her. She bolted upright. "It didn't! I guess you never heard about me and Flash, either."

"No." Lex thought. "You and Flash?"

"Never underestimate a man who can vibrate at any speed you want," she said and grinned, clearly reminiscing. "Okay, that's just sad. If I have this right, you were operating under the delusion that I was hot for you because of the physiological changes caused by your use of this pheromone back in the day."

"It's not a pheromone," Lex objected, unable to tolerate the abuse of science any longer, "but, otherwise—yes."

Kara rolled her eyes. "I refuse to feel sorry for you, because you're filthy rich and as close to absolutely powerful as any man, but really, that's kind of pathetic."

"My father never loved me," Lex said. "It leaves marks."

Kara's eyes lightened in the way that showed there were fires inside her. "Right. Because it's okay to imagine me naked, but not to talk to me."

"Forgive me if I've failed to be entertaining enough for you," Lex snapped, turning away from her. "I'm thrilled you can get off with whoever takes your fancy. I'm sorry that I led you on, however that happened, but you've now given a good demonstration of why I resist emotional involvement."

"And you never learned to handle 'emotional involvement' because your father never loved you." He could almost feel the acid in Kara's voice on his skin.

Might as well finish the job. "That, and I thought you might not be entirely receptive to a man who destroyed every remnant of your history and culture." He looked at her, challenging.

She snorted derisively. "You think I don't know I'm the last of my kind? I don't even dream in Kryptonian any more. You know what I do every time I remember a song my father used to sing to me, or a cliche my mother used? I call up this anthropologist at Met U and tell her, since that's all we've got left.

"But the thing is, Lex, I forgave you. I forgave you even before I liked you, because the people of Earth are alive and you were trying desperately to keep them that way."

Lex tried to decipher what she wanted him to say. As if words could ever mean anything
against a vanished world—

"Don't look at me like that," she snapped, crossing her arms over her chest. "You didn't kill the Kryptonian race. We did a fine job of that ourselves. I've moved on. And Clark, Clark was never there."

When he didn't react, she tried again. "He's got this idea that Krypton was this perfect world full of ice cream and sparkling ponies—well, you know what I mean," she said at Lex's skeptical look. "But better than ice cream and ponies because he knows that ice cream melts and ponies crap. And I think your aphrodesiac thing is kind of mixed up in his head with that, because he said—"

"Please don't tell me," he said, almost despairing.

She cocked her head, anger and amusement mingled in her expression. "You twitch every time I say his name."

"I think we're done here," he said, not looking at her. Already, he was reviewing the rest of the day's schedule—Medicare reform, tax subsidies for organic farming, the renewed fighting in Cuba, a new virus in Washington state—and that was just before dinner. He wanted a drink but the political fallout from being caught with alcohol in his hand before 8 pm would just make him want to drink more. How he'd ended up in charge of a country half of whose citizens wanted to ban fun was an endless amazement to him.

Behind him, Kara was stomping around like she was auditioning for a role in the latest Godzilla movie. He hoped she wasn't damaging the historic floor.

"You know, I changed my mind again. You and Clark are perfect for each other. You can fight about who's responsible for more suffering. Meanwhile, I'm gonna find a good-looking, not-too-bright guy and work out some of my frustrations. If you want, you can fantasize about it."

She left. Lex put his hand to his temple for just a second, regretting, and then headed back to work.

****

There was one powerfully effective self-punishing measure he hadn't used in a while, so he scheduled a trip to Montana.

As far as Hope could tell from reviewing the security recordings, Lionel hadn't managed to subvert the staff yet—it helped that they only spoke Quechua and that Lex took awfully good care of their families, but it was a mistake to relax around Lionel no matter what. Lionel didn't look up when Lex entered his study, just kept reading his two-week-old copy of the Wall Street Journal. That was petty, and it made Lex feel better to have reduced his father to the kind of tricks he himself would have pulled, decades ago.

"I want to talk to you about Superman."

"About Clark Kent, you mean?"

Lex didn't blink, but he could feel his eyes widen. To cover, he went to the sideboard and poured himself a glass of scotch. The tumbler was plastic. He hadn't decided on that little indignity himself, but he liked the creativity of whoever had done so.

Lionel swiveled in his chair, watching Lex move. "Of course I know, what kind of fool do you take me for?"

There were so, so many ways to answer that, but as always Lex had the feeling that the situation could easily slip out of his control.

"After all these years, you finally recognize your need for your father's wisdom? I have a number of scenarios to eliminate the threat—"

He shook his head, relieved to see that some things were eternal, like his father's inability to see anything but prey and other predators in the world with him. "That's not why I asked you here. I want to talk about what happened years ago, in Smallville." He sat. The chair was leather, comfortably worn, as if his father had sat in his place many times.

"Ah," his father said, and then stopped, waiting for Lex to play the supplicant.

Lex held on to the glass as if it were the only thing between him and the abyss. "At the time, it didn't make sense—why would he believe anything you said? Now I realize that was the wrong question. He was looking for reasons to distrust me. But why did you take every chance you could to make it worse?"

"Because you were in love, Lex."

It was a struggle to control his expression. That his father would focus on that of all things—

"You still are." His father, still caught in the drama he thought he was living, crossed the room in a few quick steps and knelt to cup his hand around Lex's chin. Lex didn't pull away. "You're too sentimental to change how you feel, but I knew it was standing in your way, and I realized that changing its behavior would be enough to put you back on the right path." His thumb dug into Lex's flesh sharply enough to throb, then he let go and stood again, turning so that Lex could only see his profile.

"You found your destiny, and no matter how much you hate me for it, I know I did the right thing. You've been strong for so many years now. I know you had many opportunities to submit to it, to beg its forgiveness, but it would have stopped you from reaching the heights of which you have proved capable."

Lex looked down at his drink, the amber liquid mute and unhelpful.

Denial would have been useless; Lionel would treat it like confirmation. And what was there to deny? He could say that Clark's forgiveness, if it could have been won, would have forever been conditional, but Lionel thought that everything was conditional. Lionel had raised Lex like a greyhound, racing forever towards the mechanical rabbit of his father's approval—never attainable and not that appetizing if it had been caught. Lionel would never understand that Lex couldn't tolerate the same endless training from Clark. And why should Lionel understand it? Here Lex was, still running in circles on that well-worn track, long after the spectators had gone home to their families.

He put the tumbler down on the table, the soft clink like a distant gunshot. Then he stood and left, ignoring Lionel's calls, which were first bemused, then vicious. He should have killed Lionel a long time ago.

Now, there was no benefit in it.

****

When he returned, Wonder Woman was on duty as his assigned superhuman guardian, which was fine by him. She was the most professional of the lot—Batman thought he was, but that was different than truly ignoring emotion in favor of duty—and their mutual distaste would never interfere with her protective functions.

What was a bit surprising was the message from Kara, which Wonder Woman delivered with diplomatic indifference. From what Lex could make out from Kara's terrible scrawl, she'd decided to go off on some sort of quest to recall her Kryptonian heritage rather than just getting drunk and getting laid. As her note pointed out, the first was prohibitively difficult and the second pathetically easy, so all in all, she needed a different challenge.

It was disturbing to find out that there was another side to Kara, always Kryptonian despite the accentless English and the atrocious celebrity gossip. She hadn't shown any signs of dynastic desires—but, as it turned out, there was a lot they hadn't talked about at all.

VII. Embodiment

There was a person standing in the hallway. Lex didn't recognize him, but he knew that a stranger was just an enemy you hadn't yet met, so he yelled "Security!" while he had the chance.

Typically, despite his best precautions, he felt a jarring pain above his right ear, then nothing.

He woke in dim light, propped sitting against something jagged and gritty, cold in the way of underground hideouts.

Lex looked around and barely stifled a groan. The Kawatche caves—he knew those rock piles, those left-over drawings, those yellow-caged lights strung by the researchers decades ago, the way he knew the shape of that first mangled Porsche.

Fucking Smallville. These Kryptonians were more obsessed with Kansas than Dorothy Gale, and her little dog too.

"Why are you smiling?" the man Brainiac was wearing asked. It had to be Brainiac. How many other Kryptonian villains were left? The League had killed the last of the Zoners years ago, and only Brainiac had resurrected even once. If the third time was the charm for its world-conquering plans, Lex was going to be ticked off.

Lex turned his head so that Brainiac came into view. Behind it, in the shadows, Kara stood like a figure at Madame Tussaud's. "You wouldn't get it," he said easily. "So, what's the plan?"

Brainiac smiled and held out its stolen hands. "You tell me."

"Zod is dead, Krypton is gone, there's nothing for you to do here." Not that he thought this would make a difference, but it had to be said.

"That's what people told Job in your Bible, wasn't it? Curse God and die. But there was more to come for him." Brainiac moved closer, gliding over the rough ground like a dancer made of steel and glass.

"Kara Zor-El and Kal-El can breed true Kryptonians, to be raised in the ways of Zod. My knowledge of genetic manipulation will prevent too great a weakness from inbreeding. Krypton will rise again. Zod will be New Krypton's god. You, Luthor, will make yourself useful keeping humans in line. You know how to manipulate them, and you will do so or I will slaughter them by the millions."

Lex blinked. "A concise summary. I'm assuming you have a clever plan to convince Superman to go along."

Brainiac shrugged. "You can assume whatever you like."

Well, maybe it had been a bit much to hope to get the whole plan, as opposed to the part he couldn't presently do anything to resist. Kara was under its control—best guess, her search for remnants of Krypton had led her to some Brainiac-contaminated artifact. Kryptonians had the bad habit of leaving their tech contaminated with personalities. Which also meant that Lex had—again—triggered this attack on humanity, by sending Kara off in a huff.

Even if it hadn't been his fault, he reminded himself, it would still be his job to fix it. Leader of the free world, et cetera.

Now, all he had to do was figure out how to pull off the last-minute victory. Clark and Kara could be stopped if necessary—Batman would do it if he had to, as would Pete Ross, who was undoubtedly right now wondering whether he'd have to order some deaths to get through this. But those were unacceptable scenarios, not least because Lex could hardly expect to survive them either.

As Lex ran through possibilities, discarding dozens as insufficient, he caught a glimpse of the central mandala, fifteen feet away and largely obscured by protruding rocks. The cave-computer had recognized and helped him before. And Brainiac might not know that.

Both Brainiac and Kara were between him and the interface. Would it wake up if he got closer? He weighed the possibilities and risks, and found too many unknowns.

Suddenly Clark was in the cave with them, the wind from his arrival whipping dirt into Lex's eyes.

"I'm here," he said, directing his speech towards Brainiac. "Now let them go."

Like that ever works, Lex thought. He rushed towards the cave wall, yelling "Get out of here! It's brainwashed Kara, it's got a plan—" He gasped in pain as Kara grabbed him and thrust him against the wall by his throat. His speech and breath were cut off, and she was only barely avoiding crushing his trachea.

Clark stepped forward, then stopped as Brainiac raised its hand. "You don't need them."

"I don't need him," Brainiac said, which was far from promising. "I can't afford to lose a Kryptonian."

Lex could almost watch the gears turning in Clark's head. "Brainiac," he said in disgust.

Brainiac tilted its head, a parody of modesty.

"You died!" Clark said, sounding almost insulted. Lex was glad Clark had been the one to say it.

Brainiac arranged its features in an approximation of a smile. "There was a backup. Solar-powered, so it has taken years to regenerate, but I am here and I am ready to reclaim this world."

"Why is it always Lex?" Clark asked. "What is it about him?"

Lex made an outraged noise, the best he could do.

"He is the president of the United States and a captain of industry," Brainiac said. "And a meteor mutant. Surely you noticed."

He scrabbled for purchase on Kara's wrists, not to pry her loose but to see if he could support some of his weight with his arms and take a real breath. It didn't help much.

"You don't need to tell me who Lex is."

Even with everything else going on, that sent a little stab of ice into his chest. He wanted to say: it was easier for both of us to pretend that I was just exploiting you, just dangerous. If he was going to die here, he should—

All he got out was a garbled approximation of Clark's name before Kara's grip tightened, choking him again.

"If he helps me, I'll give you to him," Brainiac said to Clark. "I'm reasonably sure he'd find that ... incentivizing." Lex had neither the air nor the inclination to be offended.

With oxygen deprivation came clarity. He didn't need to beat Brainiac. All he needed was to keep Clark free, and Clark would do it. Clark could never betray his adopted species.

Clark was yelling something, incomprehensible to Lex's buzzing ears.

Rock grated against his back. There was nothing familiar in Kara's eyes as she continued to hold him against the wall, though he dared to hope she would resist any command to squeeze harder.

Slowly—all he could manage—he wrenched his right hand up and to the side, reaching toward the place he knew the mandala was embedded in the rock. He scraped the back of his hand and hoped that he wasn't bleeding any mutant blood that would interfere with the Kryptonian systems.

"—never—" Clark said. Lex's vision was closing in, black gnats eating away at the sides of Kara's face. Not the worst thing he could see as his last living vision, all told, but unfortunate nonetheless. His own weight was dragging him down, choking him on her unmoving grip.

Then her head turned and her grip loosened. He saw a wash of light over her left cheek, so he knew the mandala had activated. "Help Kal-El," he gasped, but the words were incomprehensible even to himself. "Help Kal-El," he said again, his hand still scrabbling against the wall.

Light and heat exploded from beside him, blinding him and throwing Kara aside. He felt his head crack against the rock, and he slumped to the ground like a discarded costume.

When his vision returned, Kara was struggling to stand, rubbing her head and blinking. Clark was pounding the shit out of Brainiac, who was splayed out on the floor with at least one limb detached. Clark's face was set and grim, pure Superman, and for once Lex didn't mind. The long-suffering electric lights were all blown out, but the light from the mandala was still whirling in a headache-inducing spiral, fading slowly. There were scorch marks on Brainiac and on Clark's cape.

At last Brainiac stopped moving, and soon after that the light failed. Lex guessed that he'd just drained yet another Kryptonian artifact, but Clark didn't get to be mad this time. He could hear them all breathing in the darkness—Kara, Clark, and himself, all ragged and upset. His body was a collection of bruises, and he could feel a burn rising on his face where the skin had been exposed to the mandala's light.

"Clark?" Kara asked, more uncertain than he'd ever heard her.

"Kara." There was a pause, then the noise of Clark moving effortlessly across the cave floor—damned multispectrum vision. "You'll be fine soon. I had—actually, this cave had a program from my father that did the same thing to me, a long time ago. Now that the control's broken, you'll be able to resist it if anything Kryptonian tries again."

Lex let out a relieved breath. Brainiac would have to find another trick if it resurrected, and that would have to be enough for now.

"How did you end up with Brainiac in your head?" Clark asked, sounding as accusatory as if they were a few miles and decades away, back in Lex's study at the mansion. But he wasn't talking to Lex, and Lex wasn't inclined to draw attention to his presence. Also, he was still feeling dizzy and numb.

Kara sighed, hesitated, and then began, "I was trying to find one of the remaining ancient Kryptonian artifacts. Lex always says there are a few still scattered around the world; I got Oracle to help me find some promising magnetic signatures—but we got the ancient thing wrong, I guess."

"But—why? Why didn't you ask me for help?"

"It's a damn good thing I didn't!" Kara snapped, which Lex thought was a good point under the circumstances. He'd bet they were glaring at each other like a couple of action figures, arms crossed and ready to break out the heat vision. "Anyway, I didn't ask you because those artifacts exist as part of a plan to colonize Earth. As in, subjugate and exterminate all these people you say you want to protect. I wanted to show you what Krypton really was—and I guess I did, even if it didn't go down like I hoped."

"It wasn't all like that," Clark said, and Lex realized that what he was hearing was only a little anger; most of it was fear. "I used to think that—I thought my father was a tyrant, but he really just wanted the best for me."

Lex was very glad they were so focused on each other; surely they weren't watching his face.

"You're right," Kara said softly. "It wasn't all like that. But some of it was. Just like here. Just like here, Clark. This is where we live. It's no better, and it's no worse, and it's what we've got."

"If we were on Krypton, we'd be normal," Clark said, sounding like a man confessing under torture.

Lex laughed.

He could hear them turn, noticing him again. His skin stung where dirt and gravel pressed into his burns, and his hand was so white-hot with pain he was surprised it wasn't generating its own glow.

"You're the son of the one man and woman who realized that their planet was going to explode and invented a technology to keep him safe across half a galaxy," he explained. If he was going to break his vow to himself not to go groveling to Clark, it would at least involve knowing something Clark didn't. "You brought together an organization of over a hundred ego-crazed and fractious superhumans, at least five of whom could take you in a fair fight—and Batman—but you're the leader because they know there's more to heroism than big punches. You could never be anything other than extraordinary."

"You don't—"

Kara gasped.

"What?" Clark and Lex asked simultaneously. Lex grimaced, and could only assume that Clark had the same sour look on his face.

"Lex," she said, and her voice shook, "your hand."

He blinked in the darkness, uncomprehending, then brought his hands together—but they didn't meet.

Kara grabbed him, not choking him this time but holding him in place, one hand on his left wrist and the other on his right bicep.

Lex's mind correlated—burns, scorch marks, where he'd been when the mandala activated. "How bad is it?" he asked, proud that his voice was as smooth as old brandy.

Kara made a small, choked sound.

"Get me out of here," he said, and closed his eyes.

****

There were a number of consequences to get through. He called various world leaders and reassured them; he called various donors and did the same. He briefed the Joint Chiefs and talked to Pete, whose hard-earned politician's smoothness couldn't stop him from staring at the bandaged stump.

He listened to Wonder Woman's strained and honorable apology, unable to derive the slightest satisfaction from it precisely because she was entirely honorable and because there was no way she could have known that Kara was compromised. "You know," he said at last, cutting her off, "people debate 'Batman or Superman?' all the time. They don't ask how you'd do. Partly it's sexism, partly it's about showmanship. But you're the one who'd win, because you're not sentimental. So learn from what happened and move on."

She stared at him for a full minute, then nodded and left. He'd never admit it, but he was hoping that one of these days she'd tell him that he would have made a good Greek. Athenian or Spartan, he wasn't picky. Though now, he supposed, he'd have to hope for Athenian, since the Spartans would have despised his new, crippled status.

Two days after he'd been returned, when the League was finally off high alert, Kara asked to see him. He approved the visit, even though it gave the Secret Service a collective myocardial infarction. In the end, they worked for him, and they had to accept that.

He waited for her in his private rooms. They probably weren't going to discuss matters of state.

When she arrived, he could tell that her stiffness was discomfort and not some new version of possession. "If this is going to be about apologies," he said as he stood to greet her, "we can skip them."

"Do I have something to apologize for?" she asked.

Had he ever even seen her for herself? She must be wondering that too. "No."

"We're pretty sure Brainiac is gone for good. We found where the backup was. It's not there
anymore." Her delivery was clipped, efficient.

He nodded, lacking the desire to point out that anyone from the League could have told
him that. By email.

"Lex," she said.

He looked at her. Krypton had taken—and given—so much that was his that he had no idea what he'd be without it. Last son, last daughter, and him, in this together. It was a little comforting.

"You could do it, if you wanted," he said. "Have children, Kryptonian children," he clarified at her blank look. "Or half-Kryptonian, if that's what you want. I could make sure they'd be healthy. I couldn't promise anything on the psychological front, obviously, but you and Clark should be able to handle that."

"Oh-kay," Kara said warily. "Did you get hit on the head again? Because, A, what the hell, and B, why would I want to carry out Brainiac's mission now that I'm not, just for example, a brainwashed puppet?"

Lex motioned her to the couch opposite him, and they both sat. Kara had her knees together, like a well-trained debutante in a seedy bar.

"You were the one looking for your Kryptonian heritage. Maybe it's not in the past but in the future. I just wanted you to know, if and when you're ready, I will do anything in my power to make it happen." He didn't need to project sincerity, not with Kara.

Kara's face moved through bemusement, uncertainty, and introspection before settling on tolerance. "I'll keep it in mind, really I will. But what I actually want from you is some sort of weapon to keep on hand to destroy Brainiac if it pops up again. Mind control is seriously creepy."

"Fair enough," Lex said, because it was. "I'll put a few of my mad scientists on it."

"Listen," she said, leaning forward, her hands clasped loosely in front of her, "I don't want to fight any more, and I really don't want to talk about my feelings or your feelings or, actually, anyone's feelings. So can we be friends again and let Diana off the hook? She's been really nice about it, but she hates it here."

"Works for me." They smiled at each other, and it was almost comfortable. He had missed having a person around who was nearly a friend, even if certain subjects were off-limits.

Naturally, that was when the Superman alert flashed on his phone. Kara looked over at the blinking light with dismay, but not surprise. "I should have known when you had a light just for him," she said. "I mean, that's not even a metaphor, is it?"

Lex was years beyond blushing, but he looked away.

He hit the button for his assistant. "Let him up." He stood, the better to prepare himself, and Kara did as well, probably because she was restless from five minutes of sitting. An aide opened the door, and Clark stepped in, cartoonish and oversized as always.

The air was too thin, or too thick.

"Kara—" Clark said. "Can we—have a moment?"

"Oh, it had better take longer than that," she said, and flashed him one of her super-grins. "But before I go—"

She turned to Lex. He had never been one for the great romantic clinch, bending a girl backwards so as to make her feel 'swept off her feet'—mostly because he always worried about dropping her. There'd be no recovering from that. So he was entirely unprepared to be grabbed and tilted back like the nurse in the famous VJ-Day photo. Kara's lips were warm and welcoming. He quickly got his hand on her shoulders, and he chose to ignore what was missing. He kissed her with all the affection and frustrated lust he'd ever had for her, dizzy with relief and the mocha sweetness of her mouth.

When she returned him to an upright position and stepped back, they stared at one another. Then she nodded briskly and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Right. Just so you know."

He reached out and caught her shoulder. "Kara. I know."

She pulled away quickly, almost tripping over a table before she found her way to the door. Lex watched her go, both because it was pleasant and because he wasn't quite ready to look at Clark.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the eye-gouging red and blue of the costume as Clark moved to stand beside him. He'd never wanted to be weaker than Clark, so he turned.

Clark was aging, not badly, not even that obviously, but his face had settled into a new configuration, a little harder, a little more confident. Lex, after he got over the initial surprise, thought he looked good.

They stared at one another. I should say something, Lex thought. He should say something.

He cleared his throat. "So," he said, then stopped.

After a minute that lasted a geologic era, Clark said, "So? That's it?"

"Were you hoping for something in particular?" Smooth, antagonistic, just like old times.

"How about, 'So, I'm sorry I destroyed your Fortress and never said a word to you again'?"

Lex backed up a step. "Do you really think an apology would help?"

"You could have tried!"

"Like all the times I tried in Smallville, when I didn't even mean to do you harm? That worked wonderfully, as I recall. And you could have come to me any time you wanted. That was always your specialty, interrupting me for any perceived injustice—"

"Perceived?!" Clark stepped forward, his face white with outrage. "Perceived?"

Lex winced. "No, what I did to you was real. That's why—that's why I couldn't apologize. It was real, it was intentional, and I—couldn't stand the thought of facing you when I had done something of that magnitude to you."

"You're not saying it was wrong," Clark said slowly, as if he were still analyzing Lex's words.

Lex couldn't respond. He wanted to say he wasn't sure. He wanted to say he still believed. He even would have said Clark was right, but his throat had seized up like an engine that had thrown a rod.

"If you had told me," Clark continued—and here was all his grief, raw in his voice and on his face—"I could have salvaged something. Even bits and pieces of Krypton. Instead it's all gone."

Lex swallowed, like drinking acid. "I didn't trust you." There it was, the truth of his heart, the worm that had burrowed inside him all these hard seasons. He'd told himself that Clark would never trust his judgment, never agree to the necessity of using the Eradicator, and that was probably true. But truer was that Lex hadn't dared to ask. He hadn't given Clark the chance to believe in him or betray him, and so he'd exorcised the ghost of a world, even though its son still needed to hear its stories.

He reached out with his remaining hand—to what, he had no idea. "Asking forgiveness for that would have been obscene. And I—needed to pay a price for what I'd done. What I'd done to you. You deserved—to not be confused about what I was."

Clark blinked rapidly. "That's—so messed up it almost makes sense. For you." There was a pause, during which Clark brought his hands up, then down, then put his fists by his hips. "Did you ever—did you love me?"

It wasn't a painful truth any more. It wasn't a secret from anyone but Clark. "Every moment of my life."

From the look on Clark's face, it would have been easier on him if Lex had lied. And Lex understood—it was one thing to be unloved, and quite another not to be loved enough. Especially by Lex, who'd never say that he loved honor more, or some other abstract and beautiful ideal.

Lex knew how to compromise, in every possible way, but Clark had never been about compromise. It only meant failure to him. If Lex waited, Clark would decide that this was just another disappointment. And then Lex could go back to work.

"You were always the one who came and apologized," Clark said.

"I often had reason to do so," Lex said, not even knowing why he was playing along.

"So I waited, and I waited, and you told everyone in the world what you'd done but you didn't talk to me. Then it was so long ago that I didn't know how to start. I couldn't think of any reason that things had changed, so I didn't change them. Sometimes I thought, maybe tomorrow, but then the next day there'd be an earthquake, or Darkseid would show up. And I guess I knew it was always going to be 'tomorrow.' But when I saw—you could have died right there, in front of me. And I thought—is that what you're waiting for?"

"What are you trying to say?" Usually Lex had a better idea where a conversation was going—with Clark, the answer had generally been 'nowhere good,' but there'd been comfort in knowing that. This didn't have the rhythm he remembered.

"We aren't those kids any more," Clark said, as if he could read Lex's mind. "At least, I'm not. I've had this picture in my head of what my life could have been like. But—it's just a picture. It's not real." Lex was unable to look away from those verdant eyes, as green as the reborn jungles of Earth.

"I don't know what it is that you want from me," he found himself saying. His hand was shaking, so he clenched it into a fist, with an answering ache from its missing counterpart.

Clark took another step forward. There was nowhere to go, so Lex stood his ground, looking up at Clark's intent face. "I've been wondering—whether maybe you think you've paid enough for what you did." He gestured at the place where Lex's hand had been. Lex felt a chill. It was just like always, Clark toting up his misdeeds and checking the bottom line—

"That's not what I meant!" Clark said, and Lex snapped his eyes back to Clark's face. "Lex—Lex, you were always the one who needed to be giving more."

Clark took a deep breath, the skin around his eyes tight with tension. "I told myself that I didn't love you, that it was just memories and the drug."

It went through Lex like a shot—or maybe like a reversal of being shot, as if the film of his life were suddenly running backwards. Lex felt he owed some equivalent confession, if he could find it. "I told myself it didn't matter that I loved you."

Clark smiled, not the old innocent Smallville grin—too much had changed for that—but something wiser, more certain. "Yeah, well, both of us told ourselves really stupid things."

"I could betray you again," Lex said, testing.

Clark leaned forward. "That would piss me off. But it wouldn't make me stop loving you. And I can tell you, I know that for a fact. I think—the choice we have is whether love is going to make us happy, or miserable. My guess is, happier's more likely together."

"I've still got the formula," Lex said when he could speak.

Clark chuckled, and his hands were suddenly on Lex's shoulders. "You don't just have the formula," he said. "You've got it mixed up and ready." At Lex's surprised look, he smiled sunnily. "Still can't see through lead," he said. "But I know you. You always have a contingency plan, and you're not the patient type."

"I'm not a type at all," Lex said. It was hard to get the words out with Clark so close, with nowhere to look except his perfect face.

Clark lowered his head so that their foreheads were almost touching. Lex could feel the heat from his body and barely stopped himself from shivering. "Neither am I," Clark whispered, his breath warm against Lex's open mouth.

Lex closed his eyes. He knew it wasn't that simple. There was a reason he dealt in archetypes and oppositions. They were natural, necessary, emergent: protagonist, antagonist; Earth, Krypton; secrets, truth. Still, origin stories were just that—not endings.

However well the years apart had shaped Clark, he tasted the same, fresh as grass and sweeter than victory.

When they kissed, Lex didn't lose himself. There were still things to say. But with Clark so close, he could believe that Clark would hear them, and that he'd listen in turn.

The logical explanation for this irreversible imperative was altered biology, his own human responses twisted out of true like the rest of him. But it would be the same if the meteors had never come—he'd be meat and bone like everyone else, like everyone else driven by chemicals and electrical impulses jumping from nerve to nerve. The only difference—the everything—was that Clark was here.

"I'll get it," he said, not trying to move away.

Clark pulled back just enough that Lex could see his smile. "You don't need to," he said. Lex could feel the truth of it against his body. He closed his eyes and leaned into the embrace. Clark had changed him, was still changing him, and the one thing he hadn't let himself believe—that he might change Clark—seemed like it might be possible after all. He hooked his arm around Clark's neck, pulling him down, trusting Clark to keep them from falling.

"Clark," he said for the first time since he'd given up hope. His face pressed against that alien skin, the smell still the same, the heat of it. "Clark."

END