If you need to know who Maxima is, Wikipedia is your pal! (Also, if you read to the end of the entry there is a picture of her trading card, which features Superman in chains and collar and shredded costume kneeling at her feet. You know, if you like that sort of thing.)
This story could otherwise be summarized as, Lex conquers the galaxy, in STYLE, and I am glad to report I have successfully harassed mutecornett into making an accompanying Lex Paper Doll, to serve as a visual reference! *g*
It was Wally's turn on shift in the Justice League satellite that night, which usually meant he played half a dozen video games, called GL a few times (okay, ten or eleven) until John finally yelled and hung up on him, played another five or six games, called a couple of girls whose numbers had drifted into his pockets, watched some soap operas, and ended up running in circles around the watchtower to keep from shooting himself in the head out of boredom. Once he'd actually shot himself, and then zoomed away faster than the bullet could follow. Unfortunately, he'd forgotten to check what was behind him, and Batman's expression on seeing the shattered monitor had put an end to that particular form of entertainment.
However, for once it was a quiet night coming after a noisy day—Maxima had blown into the solar system for yet another shot at talking Superman into becoming her Emperor, and when that brilliant plan hadn't worked—big surprise to exactly no one but her—she'd thrown a fit that had nearly taken down a couple of skyscrapers and left a smoking crater in the middle of a field in Kansas. Superman had managed to calm her down after a few hours, but not before her starship had gotten damaged too badly to leave the system. It was now parked in the docking bay with her servants swarming over it to do repairs, and Superman and GL were hanging out to keep an eye on her.
Which meant Wally had someone to talk to, as long as he kept the conversation topics going. "I know a lot of their names are stupid, and yeah, okay, Rainbow Raider and Mirror Master are kind of lame—"
John grunted noncommittally.
"—but Abra Kadabra's got to be the hokiest name ever, and he's seriously rough, I never have any clue what that guy is going to come up with. On the other hand," Wally zipped up the stairs, following as John flew to the second level of the catwalks, "Trickster sounds cool, but he's just a nut. But maybe the worst is Zoom. Although, Grodd's a pain too. Well, and Captain Cold is tough, but he's not as evil, y'know? I mean, sometimes I'm worried I'm going to get killed, but not like he's going to go murder a bunch of little old ladies if I don't get there in time."
Superman came out of the hallway onto the landing a little cautiously, looking around. Wally privately shook his head. Not that he was out to see the big guy settling down in a star system far, far away or anything, but it was a sad day for all mankind when a babe as hot as Maxima went away from Earth without at least getting laid. He'd tried offering a little friendly advice—"Look, just sleep with her, and make it kind of fast. Trust me, she'll never call you again"—but Superman had just glared at him and stalked off. It wasn't even like Superman was dating anyone, but he apparently had "issues" or something.
Maxima was hovering over her spaceship, arms folded, still sulking. It was too bad she couldn't see past the big fish to all the others swimming around in the ocean, Wally thought regretfully. Damn, those were some fine... He jerked his eyes away and hurriedly tried to think of something else, before she picked up on it. "So, uh, what about you, GL? Who's the worst of the worst? Sinestro?"
John shrugged. "Whichever one I'm up against at the time, that's the bad guy."
Wally rolled his eyes. "Oh, please. One of them's got to have been the toughest to beat."
"It's a bad idea to think about them that way," John said. "Either you'll end up underestimating someone you think is a second-stringer or you'll psych yourself out for a tough fight. They're all the same."
No fun, as usual. "Hey, Supes, come on, what do you say? Anybody top of your list?"
"Green Lantern's right," Superman began, but Maxima gave a short, mocking laugh, and darted down to join them.
"A human?" she said. "An ordinary man, one of these fragile weaklings?"
Superman looked annoyed, and Wally couldn't blame him. "Hey, sharing the mind reading isn't buddies," Wally said. Then he looked at Superman. "So who is it?"
He looked annoyed some more, and then sighed. "Luthor."
"Huh, really?" Wally blinked. "I mean, worse than Darkseid? The immortal guy with the giant evil hell planet and the endless army?"
"Luthor's worse because he's better," Superman said, which didn't make much sense, and not to Maxima either, apparently, because she frowned and flew off again, vanishing around the far side of her ship.
After a few seconds, Wally said, "So, how about them Yankees?"
Lex heard the impact from his office: the windows of the penthouse shattering on the other side of the building. "I'll have to call you back, Jensen," he said, and hung up on his call.
He poured Scotch for himself, a glass of fresh orange juice for Clark, and leaned back against the desk to wait, trying not to look too hard at his feelings. LexCorp had smashed past Wal-Mart and become the biggest corporation in the world five months ago when the new regenerative drugs cleared FDA approval and the stealth fighter contract came through the same week, setting off a stock-buying frenzy that had made his assistant's assistant a millionaire and the executives all billionaires. He'd smiled and drunk champagne with the board, shook his father's hand and looked at the baffled spite in his eyes, and gone to bed with the amazingly uninhibited activist from Greenpeace who'd crashed the party to throw oil into the punch. Afterwards he'd lain on his back staring at the ceiling and felt nothing: no excitement, no thrill.
He'd given away two and a half billion dollars in the last week alone, and the month was going to end up in the black anyway. One of his think tank people had come up with the idea of building an artificial archipelago in the South Pacific and declaring it a new nation under LexCorp governance, inviting people to become citizens, just to have something to do with the money. They'd bought a couple of islands to get started and already had a waiting list.
He owned five governors, twelve senators, thirty congressmen, and some ridiculous number of local politicians, not to mention most of the greatest city in the world. He had no children and five divorces and one alien enemy, and only the last one of those stirred any emotion in him at all anymore.
He didn't even know what had provoked Clark this time; there wasn't much going on. Nowadays he didn't break the law so much as he told his people what he wanted and they had the laws subtly changed to allow him to do it. He hadn't had anyone killed in years; people didn't stand up to him anymore. He'd been debating whether to run for president or throw it all away and turn costumed supervillain; or possibly both in that order. For all he knew, Clark was high on red kryptonite and coming here to kill him, and all Lex could feel was a glittering, sparkling thirst for something to happen.
The doors peeled themselves back and away, the haze of smoke and debris in the hallway cleared and a woman stepped into the office: six feet tall, red hair rioting over her shoulders, with the inhuman beauty of a supermodel after image manipulation except for the thin clinging film of grey dust on her skin and a trickle of blood down her arm.
"You're not who I was expecting," Lex said, contemplating her. He felt alert, alive. He thought he could taste Clark in this, two steps removed or less; and if not, at least a challenge, something worth caring about.
"I am Maxima of Almerac," she said, "and your defenses are pathetic. They could never have kept out Kal-El."
Lex smiled. He knew who she was. "They're not meant to," he said. "Can I offer you a drink?"
Clark had just started to relax after it had been about an hour since he'd seen Maxima, when he realized it had been an hour since he'd seen Maxima. The servants—slaves—only cringed when he demanded to know where she'd gone.
"The League tracking computer has a record of a projectile leaving from the docking bay," John said, flying back into the room. "It was headed straight for Metropolis."
"Oh, for—what does she want now?" Clark said. It had been bad enough fending off Chloe's crush back in high school, not to mention the crash-and-burn of his relationships with Lana and Lois; at least none of them had taken apart a freaking city when they'd been mad at him.
"She wishes only to do you a service," one of the slaves squeaked. "A favor, to destroy your enemy—"
Clark didn't stop to grab an air mask, so his lungs were aching with the need for oxygen by the time he burned back into the atmosphere over Metropolis, midnight lights sparkling. She had an hour's lead on him, but maybe she'd have had trouble finding Lex; maybe the LexCorp defenses had slowed her down—
There was a gaping hole in the front of the LexCorp towers. He couldn't see through the leaded windows and walls, so he just dived through the opening she'd left, blowing away the smoldering cloud. Dozens of LexCorp armored drones littered the floor, smashed into pieces; bloodstains on the floor showed where she'd left bodies, though the casualties had been cleared, so someone had been in charge afterwards—The doors to the elevator shaft were smashed open and hanging askew. He flew up to the top floor and through the gaping hole on the other side, and into the study.
Maxima was reclining on a large velvety divan in the middle of the room, holding a glass of champagne and looking simultaneously irritated and perplexed. Lex was leaning against the desk, as composed as if the big metal doors hadn't been peeled open like a sardine can and there wasn't blood-streaked dust tracked in all over the oriental carpets. "What kept you?" Lex said.
Clark glared at him.
"I do not understand you," Maxima burst out, standing up. She waved a hand at Lex furiously. "How can he be your worst enemy?—there is nothing to him! I could kill him by walking across the room!"
Lex raised an eyebrow at Clark. "Your worst enemy? I'm touched."
"Maxima, I guarantee if you put a hand on him, you'd be sorry," Clark said, ignoring Lex. "There's a defense system built into the ceiling."
"Those are just the cameras, actually," Lex said blandly. "The matter destabilizer is satellite-based."
She stared at him. "You never thought about that," she said accusingly.
Lex shrugged. "I've dealt with telepaths before. It's not that hard to maintain a few superficial lines of thought to cover any contingency planning. Besides," he smiled back at her, that sly flirting twist to the corner of his mouth, "I was enjoying the conversation."
"All right, Maxima," Clark said, breaking in. "Your ship is fixed, so let's go."
"That's kind of rude, 'Kal'," Lex said, obviously following his usual playbook, which as far as Clark could tell seemed to be to get to him as much as possible. "Someone might think you were feeling a little threatened. You know," he went on to Maxima, with a confidential air, "some men can't handle a woman who's an equal."
Clark stared at Lex, speechlessly, while Maxima's eyes widened. "Is that why you have refused me?" she demanded, whirling on him. "You—you spineless, pathetic—worm!"
"No!" Clark said. "That's not—" Then he stopped, torn; if letting Maxima believe it would get her off his back, it was almost worth not punching Lex into next week for it.
"I should have known!" Maxima stormed. "What other reason could there be for a Kryptonian to enjoy living on this wretched little backwater lump of a planet? I cannot believe I offered my hand to a spiritless, cowardly weakling—"
Clark backed away as she advanced on him, wincing at the volume and the haze of fury she was broadcasting; her hair was almost crackling with it.
Lex snapped open his cigar case and took one out. "Don't be too hard on him," he said, lighting up. "It's kind of inevitable—you take someone strong and put him in with people weaker than he is, it stunts the development of his fighting instincts."
Maxima reined in and slowly turned to look at Lex, eyes narrowed. "You are an ordinary man," she said. "Yet Kal-El names you his most dangerous enemy."
Lex shrugged, blowing off a cloud of smoke. "I spent most of my childhood weaker than the people around me. It has the opposite effect."
"So why are you still on this insignificant dirtheap?" she said.
Lex tilted his head, thoughtfully. "I guess I just haven't had a better offer yet."
"Look," Clark said, in what he probably imagined was a reasonable tone, "you can't be serious. Almerac's hundreds of light years away."
"No, not wool; it's a tropical climate," Lex said, waving away the tailor's assistant holding out a bolt of fabric. "The distance only matters if I'm coming back, Clark." There were twenty people bustling through the penthouse, packing, occasionally stumbling over some of the debris from Maxima's entrance. He hadn't bothered to have it cleaned up much. Whoever the board picked to replace him could decide what to do with the place.
He picked up books from his end table to consider. The Art of War, yes; Strunck & White, no. One of Maxima's servants had brought him a machine that could shove a new language into your mind giant gulps at a time; each session felt like having major dental work without novocaine, and he'd had a steady ache at the back of his skull for the last two days, but he could already manage basic conversations in Almeracian and the galactic trade language. They'd given it to him set on a lower-middle-class accent, so someone on her ship was obviously not thrilled with the upcoming arrangement, but it had been easy enough to hack into the system and tweak it to give him something closer to Maxima's crisp vowels.
Clark hadn't said anything. Lex glanced up; Clark's mouth was set in a hard, tight line. "Just how long do you think it's going to be before you and Maxima have a fight?" Clark said. "She's not exactly the most stable person in the universe. Then you're going to be stuck on an alien planet halfway across the galaxy without a way back home."
"I'm touched by your concern," Lex said, "but I'll manage. Yes, that's fine, let's do it in dark grey and black." He took off his jacket and started taking out his cufflinks as the tailors set up the measuring platform.
"Either Maxima's going to kill you or you're going to kill her," Clark said.
"So far it's running ex-wives zero, me five, so at least I've got a winning record," Lex said. "This isn't a romance," he added, tossing his shirt onto the bed and moving on to his belt. "We have mutually compatible goals. She needs an emperor to impress her council of ministers and I need some new people to impress. You've gotten to be too tough an audience."
He stepped out of his pants and onto the platform. The tailors murmured to themselves as they laid the measuring tape out across his body. A few years back, he'd tried a 3-D scanning system with laser cutters, but it hadn't quite worked. The clothes fit perfectly, and were as soulless as off-the-rack. The laser system was making LexCorp a few hundred million a year in licensing from high-end design salons, though.
Clark was still standing there, staring at the floor, his shoulders low, looking as much like a kicked puppy as a six-foot-four hero in spandex possibly could. Lex looked at him and thought, unwillingly, I'm never going to see him again. It hollowed out a space somewhere under his breastbone, and then filled it up with fresh anger, because he was fucking going out of his mind, and there wasn't a damn thing he had here to regret leaving behind.
"I'm sorry to be taking away your favorite chew toy," he said, biting it out, "but I'd need a better reason than that to stay. Have any for me?"
Clark flinched and just stared at him.
"I didn't think so." Lex turned for the tailors and spread his arms out for the next set of measurements. "Take care of yourself. But then I don't think you'll have too much trouble once I'm gone."
It was bizarre to see Lex out of a suit. He looked good in the Almeracian outfit, though, all lean lines in the black bodysuit and handling the sweep of the dark grey cloak draped over his shoulders as if he'd been wearing it all his life. He had silvery arm bracers, probably stuffed with circuitry, and a helmet to match under one arm. He made a good foil for Maxima's gold and bright colors, both of them standing at the foot of the ramp of her ship.
The chests were being loaded onto it. John Stewart had scanned them all before they'd been beamed onto the satellite, but Clark watched them anyway, almost wishing one of them would explode, so this could all turn out to be some elaborate booby trap scheme.
"Not that it isn't wrong on about five billion levels that she's swapping you for Luthor, but isn't this a good thing?" Wally had said. "I mean, she gets off your case and takes him with her—two for the price of one." Everyone else's opinion had been pretty much in line with John's "Good riddance."
Batman came to the railing and stood next to him watching silently. Clark stood it for a few minutes and then snapped out, "Glad to be seeing the last of him?"
"Almerac has an expansionist warrior culture and a substantial fleet," Batman said.
Clark waited for him to take that somewhere, but apparently that was all Bruce had to say. He turned and disappeared back into the hallway.
The last of the chests had gone aboard, and Maxima held out her hand, imperiously. The railing under Clark's hands crumpled with a metallic scraping noise, but Lex didn't look up. He took Maxima's hand and they went up the ramp together. He never looked back.
The Almeracian ship glided out of dock smoothly. Clark didn't leave, though the vacuum tugged urgently at his cape and he had to hold his breath. The hyperdrive fired even before the docking bay doors had closed again, and the ship elongated and snapped away into the starfield like a rubber band. He stood there alone, his head bent, while the doors slid closed again and the air slowly hissed back in.
He was never going to see Lex again.
"Look, what are people supposed to say? 'Hey, big guy, how about not saving those kids from the burning building next time?'" Wally was saying. "But I'm telling you, a lot of them are getting ticked off."
Unbelievable. John finished another set of push-ups and got up to wipe his face. "That's their problem," he said. "If their ego is too big to take help, they shouldn't be doing this job."
"Nobody minds Superman showing up when there's a crisis," Wally said. "But if he saves all the cats out of trees—"
"What happens, Booster Gold doesn't get enough face time on the evening news?" John snorted.
"People lose their edge," Batman said unexpectedly, melting out of the shadows. John fucking hated that. It was always a struggle not to let on that he hadn't known the guy was there. "It's damaging to morale."
"Somebody has a problem with Superman invading their turf, they can talk to him about it," John said flatly. "I've got better things to worry about."
"Fine, then how about worrying that half the freaking League is going to quit," Flash said. "Black Canary was so mad she nearly walked last week. Superman blew in while she was shutting down a bank robbery, and he smashed up a couple of walls taking out the guys she'd already set up to walk into a net. This isn't about Booster or whoever, it's about him."
John felt his jaw tightening. He threw his towel into the laundry bin. "You want to talk about Superman behind his back, you can do it without me. This conversation's over."
He stalked out and down the hall, then stopped abruptly as he was passing the observation deck: Clark was standing at the window, looking out at the empty starfield. John cursed silently a few times and walked out to join him. Clark didn't say anything.
"Don't let it get to you," John said.
"They're not wrong," Clark said. He sounded tired. "Maybe I should leave the League."
"Fuck that," John said, flatly. "You started this. You practically are the League."
"I shouldn't be," Clark said quietly. "Bruce is right; if I'm demoralizing the rest of the team—"
"Incoming alert," interrupted the satellite computer. John had barely enough time to turn and throw up a shield before the whole observation dome shattered and the air screamed out, bolted-down furniture wobbling soundlessly in the new vacuum. The outer shield closed down almost immediately, but not before Clark had been punched through the back wall into the hallway by whatever the hell it was.
John ran out and found Clark holding Maxima off by the wrists. "You, you filthy, lying—" she panted, getting an arm free and catching him on the jaw with a right cross.
"Ow!" Clark said, and slugged her hard enough to stagger her back a few paces.
John shot a couple of restraining bands around her. "Okay, you're done," he said, while she struggled furiously against the restraints, too angry to focus her power enough to break them. "Now where the hell did that come from?"
"Hey, what was that?" Flash zipped up and stopped. "Oh, uh, hey, Superman," he said awkwardly. "That was Maxima?"
Batman, following him, didn't look in the least bit guilty at seeing Clark. "I told you people that the observation deck was a vulnerability."
"I will rip your entrails out and smother you with them!" Maxima spat at Clark. "You planned this! You conspired for my humiliation—"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Clark said.
"As if you do not know!" She finally managed to strain free of the bonds and flung herself at Clark again, beating at him too wildly to really land a blow. He got a hold on her again. "I have been deposed!"
John snorted. "Couldn't have happened to a nicer person," but Clark's grip on her arms abruptly tightened enough to make her gasp, and he slammed her up against the wall.
"If you've been deposed, where is Lex?" he demanded.
"Who do you think has usurped my throne!" she screamed into his face.
Clark stared at her blankly, his hands loosening again. She wrenched free and stood panting. "I demand you stop that black-hearted treacherous snake you foisted upon me! If you do not remove him from my throne, I will lay waste to your world! I will slaughter millions—"
She stopped there, because Clark was laughing so hard he had to lean against the wall, and she jumped on him again furiously, spitting more inarticulate insults and threats, until John had to wrap her in a stasis field and shove her half-smothered into one of the holding cells to stop her.
She kept pounding on the door from the inside. Clark had kept laughing weakly the whole time; when John shot him a dubious look, he managed, "Lex six, ex-wives zero—" and went off again.
"Now what do we do?" John said, eyeing the door. "That's not going to hold her all that long."
"Uh, you guys realize, if Luthor's really kicked her out, she's got nothing to do but hang out here and make trouble," Wally said. He winced as the wall vibrated with the force of her next slam.
"That's beside the point," Batman said. "Almerac has an expansionist warrior culture and a substantial fleet. Which Luthor now controls."
"Wait," Clark said. "Are you seriously suggesting we help her? We're not even remotely responsible for this. I did everything short of launching her out of the system in a catapult—"
"And of course that makes it all right to leave the population of Almerac and every surrounding populated system to the interstellar war Luthor's undoubtedly going to start ten minutes from now," Batman said.
Clark still was thrown by the whole being-on-another-planet thing, no matter how many years he'd had by now to get used to the idea he was an alien himself. Almerac wasn't particularly weird-looking—annoyingly beautiful, in fact, with a sunset-purple sky and two showy moons and architecture that would have put the Byzantines to shame.
He'd come with John, coasting along in a hyperspace tube generated by his ring. They hadn't figured out exactly what they were going to do, and Clark had the uncomfortable feeling that he shouldn't like the idea of hauling Lex back to Earth in a sack quite as much as he did.
"It's one thing if this was just a palace coup and everyone would be just as happy having her back," John had said. "But if the general population really want Luthor in charge, grabbing him is going to be a bad scene. The Lantern Corps have learned that the hard way."
The guards on the palace looked at them curiously, and made some quiet murmurs into their communicators; then they were being ushered through the halls of the palace and out into the gardens. Lex was stretched out on a couch in the shade, reading some kind of electronic tablet; there were a couple of servants just hovering, even a bowl of fruit at his elbow and an enormous picnic basket on the grass next to him: the perfect picture of a Roman emperor. He was even wearing something like a toga.
He put the tablet aside as they came up. "Clark, good to see you," he said, as if it hadn't been more than a year, as if Clark was just dropping by the mansion after school or landing on the balcony on patrol.
"Maxima tried to beat me to death," Clark said, folding his arms.
"Better you than me," Lex said. "Any chance you were forced to accidentally kill her?"
"Sorry, no," Clark snapped. "I can't believe you! What, being co-ruler of an entire star system wasn't good enough?"
"I didn't divorce her just because I wanted the throne, Clark," Lex said. "I had issues with her parenting style."
"Her what?" Clark said.
The picnic basket whimpered. Clark stared down at it, and the heap of blankets stirred.
"Her name is Lena," Lex informed him, sounding unbearably smug.
The drowsing baby poked out an arm and waved her tiny fist in the air.
Luthor and Maxima had apparently fought over her plans to raise the baby using traditional royal Almeracian methods: regular beatings, leaving the baby out in blizzards, throwing her to wild animals. The baby sat on Luthor's lap the whole time while he was telling the sob story, looking at them with big blue eyes and fuzzy red hair and yawning once in a while, probably calculated just to look more cute and helpless, John thought bitterly.
Moving in for the kill, Luthor handed Clark the baby, which put him completely out of commission: he just held her, looking dazed, while she batted at his S.
John folded his arms and said, "So you're just going to settle in, raise your alien princess, be a friendly neighborhood benevolent despot?"
Luthor grinned at him, looking genuinely amused. "Stewart," he said, "I'm going to conquer the galaxy and give it to her on a string."
After that friendly chat, Luthor took them on a tour of the city, full of construction and bustling marketplaces, and crowds who cheered wildly as the royal convoy went past, throwing red flowers up to their feet, calling out Luthor's name and Lena's.
"Maxima liked to confiscate property and print her way out of any money shortages, so they're new to the whole idea of a reliably functioning economy," Luthor said, just to rub it in some more. "They seem to approve, though, don't you think?"
For a grand finale, he brought them to the massive dockyard full of gleaming new warships, big as skyscrapers. One was launching; John watched grimly as it lifted off, engines glowing blue-white: like the Empire State Building taking flight, except the Empire State Building didn't have cannon the size of eighteen-wheelers mounted on its sides.
When they came back to the palace, the servants took them to a private suite and spent ten minutes offering them food and drink and what John seriously hoped weren't meant to be sexual favors before he managed to chase them. He shut the doors behind them and turned back into the room. Clark had slumped down at the central table and was resting his head on his hands.
"Well, that went great," John said.
"We can't take him back," Clark said without lifting his head.
"No kidding," John said. "Any ideas on how else to stop him?"
"No," Clark said.
"Right," John said. "In that case, seeing how we just flew two thousand light years to strike out, I'm going to sleep."
He woke up a couple of hours later in the dark, instinct rousing him. The main room was empty, and the other bed hadn't been slept in: the curtains were blowing in the window from the open balcony doors. John frowned and padded out onto the balcony. Nobody could have taken Clark without enough of a fight to wake him, so John wasn't worried, exactly, he just had a hell of a bad gut feeling—and then he spotted Clark, hovering in mid-air, just above the big jutting terrace six or seven windows down, near the center of the palace building.
Luthor stepped out onto the terrace and looked up. Clark landed, apparently so the two of them could stare at each other without saying anything. Finally Luthor said, "Are you coming in?"
Clark stood for another moment, and then he said, so quietly John could barely hear it, "Yes."
They went inside. A minute later, the lights went out.
John stared. What the fuck.
"What?" Wally said, for the third time.
"Goddamn it, you heard me!" John snapped. "For the fastest man alive, you're fucking slow on the uptake."
"Superman's gay?" Wally said.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," John said.
"Superman's gay and he's sleeping with Luthor? Are you—"
"If you ask me again whether I'm sure, I am going to punch you in the face," John said.
"Hey," Wally said, "Maybe it's, you know, one of those things like, Luthor threatened to conquer the universe unless Superman slept with him?"
"He threatened to conquer the universe anyway!" John said.
The door to the conference chamber slid open and Maxima burst in. "That faithless thought-hider fornicated with Kal-El?"
John stared and then turned to look at Wally. "You let her out?"
"Well," Wally said defensively, "you guys were gone, Diana was fighting a pack of demons in South America, and then Mongul broke out of Cadmus—"
"And that wasn't enough of a challenge, so you decided to make things worse?" John said.
"She helped!" Wally said. "Actually, she kind of took him apart. We had to pull her off the guy."
Maxima tossed her head. "That posturing weakling was no match for the might of a warrior of Almerac. Why have you not brought me back Luthor's head?"
"Speaking of your ex," John said, "you might have mentioned the baby."
"There's a baby?" Wally said.
"The suckling is not yet a year old; it has not even been named," Maxima said dismissively. "And with that coddling nursemaid of a coward raising it, it will never be worthy of naming! All my effort in bearing it will go to waste."
"Lovely," John said. "Well, your people don't seem to feel the same way about Luthor and the kid as you do."
"What does that matter?" Maxima said. "You and Kal-El together could have defeated the guards! Only your cowardice—"
John's ring abruptly throbbed: someone was broadcasting a message over the Lantern network. He held out his arm and projected the transmission, letting it drown Maxima out; it was Ajikan, the Green Lantern for the Lorian sector. He looked tired, tentacles drooping.
He said, "Almerac has invaded the Idarian Confederacy—"
"What?" Maxima shrieked. "The Idarian armies outnumber ours by half again! That lunatic will destroy my empire—"
"Three-quarters of the Idarian fleet was destroyed in a trap at the Balta mining colony in the first sortie at the third hour of the current galactic standard day," Ajikan continued.
Maxima stopped in mid-sentence.
"Almeracian casualties were nil. The Idarian council has entered into negotiations for surrender." Ajikan paused. "This represents a significant shift in the balance of power in my sector," he said wearily. "I anticipate significant movement of population, as the Almeracians typically enslave their conquests, and many Idarians will presumably attempt to flee to nearby star systems. I request assignment of two additional Lanterns to assist in monitoring the situation and protection of refugees. Ajikan out."
The transmission faded out. Maxima was standing there gawking.
"Great," John said.
A half-dozen Lanterns showed up the next day to discuss the situation; the Idarians had surrendered on terms that morning, and Luthor had immediately taken possession of their two dozen shipyards and started building more warships. Where he was planning to find people to man them, no one really knew; he already had fresh lieutenants in command on some of the newer Almeracian ships. But his neighbors weren't exactly waiting to find out: ten different nations were arming, and the Vorlon Empire, a handful of independent systems away from Almerac's new border, had begun to sluggishly move troops around.
"We are an exchange of fire away from a conflagration which could envelop the entire quadrant," Vox Ghanai said; he was the senior Lantern for the area. "Billions will die, and more than that be enslaved, either by the Almeracians or the Vorlon. Under the circumstances, extraordinary measures are warranted."
Ajikan nodded. "If Maxima will agree to render back the Idarian territories in exchange for being restored to her throne, I believe we can stabilize the situation."
They looked at her, but she didn't say anything; she still looked dazed, like she had since the news had first come through.
Vox Ghanai shrugged a little, minutely, and turned back to John. "Our observers say that Luthor's at the Idarian homeworlds right now."
John nodded. "We go in, grab him quick and clean—"
"We're not leaving the baby," Clark said, glaring at Maxima across the table.
"Fine," John said, after she still didn't react. "We'll have to make it simultaneous."
Vox Ghanai nodded. "Difficult but not impossible. Superman, you have the most experience with Luthor—I believe you would be the ideal choice to lead the operation to seize him."
John looked at Clark, who had dropped his eyes to the table. "I'll go with him," John said grimly. He looked at Diana. "Can you go get the baby?"
Diana blinked at him. "I'm certain I could take her," she said, "but I've never really handled a child, and it will be a long journey back. Don't they need special food? And to have their clothing changed somehow?"
"I'll get the baby," Clark said. "You can tell L—Luthor that I've got her. He'll probably go with you, just so he won't be separated from her."
"Very well," Vox Ghanai said. "John Stewart and Diana and I will seize Luthor, then; Ajikan, you will inform the Idarian council once Luthor has been taken, and—"
"What are you planning to do with him?" Batman said, abruptly.
Everyone stopped and looked at him.
"He just led the Almeracians to a major military victory," Batman said. "If you abduct him, they'll come looking. So will most of the systems threatened, to prevent his return. If you bring him back to Earth, they'll take the planet apart between them. So what are you planning to do with him?"
"He's right. We need to find a St. Helena," John said. "Someplace small and defensible, where one Lantern can keep an eye on him—"
"There are nearly ten thousand human-habitable asteroids in the Hlaian nebula," Vox Ghanai said. "It would be ideal; a Lantern could patrol the area, to avoid revealing the specific location—"
"What?" Clark said. "Now you're talking about imprisoning him and the baby for life on some rock?"
"If Luthor ever had a fair trial for the crimes he's committed, he'd be serving twenty life terms," John snapped.
"Then you can give him a fair trial," Clark said. "That's not the same thing as the ten of us sitting in a room deciding that we're going to use our powers to violate a nation's sovereignty and kidnap a man and child and abandon them on a deserted asteroid."
"Oh, and sovereignty is what you're worried about?" John said, folding his arms. Clark flushed. "I'm prepared to stop Luthor," he said tightly. "I'm not prepared to treat him like a wild animal—"
"Stop it," Batman said. "This argument is pointless. You can't lock him up when he's wanted by a significant portion of the entire galaxy. Someone will get through. Putting him in jail under the current circumstances is equivalent to staking him out in a field and hoping the ones who want him dead will reach him first."
"So what's your suggestion?" John said.
"Kill him yourselves," Batman said.
"What?" Clark said.
"We are not murderers," Vox Ghanai said.
Batman said, "Then stop looking for an easy way out. You're not less guilty because you choose an indirect method with a high risk of failure. You're simply less effective. If you're not willing to assassinate him, you have only one option. Defeat him."
"We want to stop a war, not fight one!" John said.
"Too bad," Batman said.
The Vorlon weren't exactly nice guys; their ships were run by enslaved Ygrathian engineers, who were chained to their posts, fed from tubes, and forced to work with electric shocks. They had a life expectancy of five years in servitude before they died of malnutrition and hopelessness. As they were led down the corridors to the command center, Clark stared miserably at their bent and dull grey-skinned forms. It didn't help any to remind himself that the Almeracians were slavers too, and Lex was probably doing the same kind of thing to the Idarians right now. It just made him feel more sick to his stomach.
He didn't know what he was doing. He could still feel Lex's mouth on his collarbone, Lex's hands on his thighs, like he'd been branded. "Stay," Lex had said in the morning; just once, softly. Maybe if he had—except he'd known, even while Lex was asking, that it wasn't an offer to play nice. Lex never had before.
"We will come out of hyperspace outside Idaria Major," the Vorlon general was saying. "We will crush their first ring of defensive ships before they have time to mount a response. Then our sting fighters will attack the orbital battle stations while we eliminate the remaining warships."
"Very well," Vox Ghanai said. "Superman, Wonder Woman, if you will join myself and the other Lanterns, we can best assist with the attack on the battle stations."
"Fine," Clark said tiredly, and went to stand at the observation post.
Diana was already there. "Are you all right?" she asked quietly. "I know this can't be easy for you."
"Lex started this," Clark said grimly. "He knew what he was getting into."
Diana looked over at the Vorlon generals, who were talking among themselves, and at Maxima, who was standing a little way off, gripping the rail. "We have strange allies."
"No kidding," Clark said. He wished Batman were there. He'd pissed off the Vorlon leadership by systematically demolishing every point of their first five plans, until they'd threatened to leave the coalition entirely unless he was kicked out of the planning. He'd shrugged and gone, refusing to comment on the subsequent plans.
"The short answer is you're going to lose," he'd said. "Luthor's not going to be beaten by committee."
"This was your idea in the first place!" John had said.
"No," Batman had said. "You wanted to stop him. I pointed out the options. I didn't suggest you take them."
The hyperspace streaks started to slow. A set of commands issued out over the shipwide intercom, in the guttural Vorlon language, and the chained engineers jerked and went sluggishly to work.
They came out with the Idarian homeworld hanging blue and gold in front of them, its white rings of frozen nitrogen sparkling. The Almeracian ships were lined up in a defensive formation, waiting for them.
"You're a little late," Lex said, his voice echoing over the intercom. A moment later, a big holographic projection of him fuzzed into view on the deck. He was seated—enthroned, really—on a command chair, heavy robes spilling off his shoulders and onto the floor.
"He knew we were coming?" Diana said, while the Vorlon generals shouted orders and their fleet pulled into a defensive knot.
"Did you miserable cowards really believe I would ever lead an army against Almerac?" Maxima said, turning around. She spat on the deck in front of the Vorlons. "I will rejoice in watching your destruction."
"Seize her!" the Vorlon general said. "Luthor can watch his queen die slowly before we destroy his fleet."
"Allow us to say a few words first," Lex said, and held his hand out to the side; a moment later, a tall Ygrathian female with healthy green skin and a gold torque-like necklace around her throat came onto the projection. One by one, the grey engineers slowly lifted their heads as she spoke, her hissing words going over the shipwide intercom, and then they looked at one another with their slit-pupilled eyes, and without a word turned back to their stations, their claws rattling against the keys.
"I have a bad feeling about this," John said.
The ship blew up.
Clark woke up naked in a bedroom the size of a small country; Lex's robes were tossed carelessly over a chair in the corner. A servant poked his? many-eyed head in and offered him a cup of something almost like coffee and a pair of pajama pants.
Lex was in the next room over, giant three-dimensional starmaps projecting in the air around him. He turned them off as Clark came in, swiveling his chair around. "Morning."
"Are John and Diana—" Clark said.
"Fine," Lex said. "She's currently being kept under sedation, and we confiscated his ring, so they're probably not as comfortable as they could be, but they're healthy."
"Sedation?" Clark said. "You've got her drugged?"
"Oddly, I didn't think she'd stay put otherwise," Lex said. "She's a prisoner of war. So are you, for that matter."
"Sorry, I missed that, what with the complimentary chocolates and the silk pants," Clark said.
"You thought those were for your benefit?" Lex said, eyeing Clark up and down.
Clark turned red. "I didn't realize I was that kind of prisoner, either."
"I've mostly abolished slavery by now," Lex said, "but I might have to make an exception just this once. I always liked the idea of The Sheik."
"What?" Clark said, staring.
"It's a classic of pulp literature," Lex said.
"No!" Clark said. "You abolished slavery?"
Lex raised his eyebrows. "Of course." When Clark kept staring at him, Lex tilted his head quizzically. "I'd be having a much harder time integrating the Idarians if I was marching half the population off in chains, Clark."
"Integrating them," Clark said, flatly.
"I'm not going to be able to do that much conquering with just the population of Almerac," Lex said. "Besides, smaller systems won't put up much resistance if they know being conquered by me basically means entry into a massive free-trade zone and protection by the most successful fleet in the galaxy. In fact, I've got a few offers of surrender from ones I haven't even invaded yet."
Clark sat down and put his head in his hands.
"I am actually good at this, you know," Lex said.
Lex wasn't so much good at it as he was spectacular, Clark realized hollowly, as he watched from the palace roof that afternoon as Lex gave a stirring speech on the joint Idarian-Almeracian victory over the Vorlon to a crowd of wildly cheering subjects. A lot of the Idarians were clutching the new imperial flag in their tentacles, waving it enthusiastically in the air. Apparently, they'd been running a vicious border dispute with the Vorlon for the last three centuries and were perfectly willing to let Lex convince them that really, they hadn't so much been conquered as they had entered into an alliance with Almerac to beat the Vorlon at last.
Afterwards, Clark went and sat in the gardens, trying to figure out what to do. The Vorlon didn't deserve to be saved, the Idarians didn't want to be saved, and the Ygrathians had been saved—by Lex. John and Diana were the only ones left to rescue, and he wasn't doing too well with that, either.
"That went reasonably well," Lex said, shedding his elaborate puffy-sleeved jacket as he came back from the post-speech ceremonies. "Any luck yet?" He sat down next to Clark and stretched his arm out along the back of the bench.
"No," Clark said bitterly. He'd criss-crossed the world twelve times so far and still had no idea where Diana and John were being kept. He was willing to bet that Lex wouldn't trust anyone but himself to keep an eye on them, no matter how good the prison, so he was reasonably sure they were still somewhere in the system, but if they were, Lex was keeping them under a few dozen layers of lead and a cloaking device.
Lex smiled. "Pity."
"Look, why won't you just let them go?" Clark said. "We can't do much against you without a fleet, and the Vorlon aren't going to be up for a rematch any time soon. We'll just go back to Earth."
Lex slid his hand up to curl around the back of Clark's neck. "What makes you think I want you to leave?"
Clark shivered; Lex's fingers were stroking gently at the side of his throat. "I can't—" he began, except his voice cracked and he had to start over. "I can't stay, Lex."
"I wasn't planning on making it an option," Lex said; he turned Clark's face gently towards him.
Clark couldn't help it; he leaned in for the kiss, his hand cupping Lex's head, except he couldn't do this either. He broke away and stood up. "I'm not going to sleep with you while you've got my friends locked up and drugged, Lex," he said.
Lex stretched out his legs. "You know, Clark, I'm willing to be reasonable if you are." He beckoned to one of the servants. "I'm happy to trade you their freedom."
Clark had the bad feeling he was watching the penny drop. "For what?"
"Yours," Lex said. The servant was bringing him a rolled-up sheet of the thin onion-skin Almeracian paper, full of tiny print and stamped with a big glittering holographic seal.
"I thought I was already a prisoner of war," Clark said, eyeing the parchment. "Not that you've been doing a great job of locking me up—"
"You're a little complicated to restrain without hauling out the kryptonite, and I feel our relationship's progressed beyond that," Lex said, earnestly.
"Glad to hear it," Clark said wryly.
Lex held out the contract. "That's why I want your parole instead."
Clark didn't take it. "My what?"
"In the old-fashioned sense," Lex said, waving a hand airily. "You promise to submit like a good little prisoner, I let your pals go."
"So you want, what, my word of honor that I'll help you conquer the galaxy in between giving you blowjobs?" Clark stumbled a little over blowjobs, and it came out sounding more uncertain than he'd intended, like he was waiting to be convinced.
"No, of course not," Lex said. "Almerac does have laws on the treatment of prisoners of war, Clark."
Lex turned the contract around and examined it. "Let's see. I can't breed you, I can't sell you, and I can't make you fight for me," he said.
"That's it?" Clark said. "What about torture?"
"No, torture is perfectly legal," Lex said. "So is using you for recreational sex, which is what you should be more worried about." He paused and added slyly, "Or not."
Clark blushed before he could help it; goddamn Lex, anyway. "You know, you could try making a pass at me like a normal guy instead of locking up my friends."
"You could try not invading me next time," Lex said pleasantly.
"You could try not conquering the galaxy next time!" Clark said.
"No, I really couldn't," Lex said. "Anyway, it's more fun this way."
"For you, maybe," Clark said.
Lex wagged the contract at him. "Sign and it'll be more fun for you too."
"You can't seriously think I'll agree to be your slave."
"Prisoner of war," Lex corrected him, reproachfully.
"I'm really not seeing the difference here," Clark said.
"I have to ransom you if offered reasonable terms," Lex said.
Clark folded his arms. "Oh, well, if I can be ransomed."
"Granted, the current market value for a Kryptonian is about four industrialized star systems, so I wouldn't rely on it," Lex admitted.
Rolling his eyes, Clark said, "Oh, great."
"You'll also be freed as soon as a peace treaty is concluded with the Vorlon, since that's who you were fighting for," Lex said. "It's a very reasonable set of provisions. "
"I'll keep looking, thanks," Clark said dryly.
Lex shrugged, smiling. "Your loss."
Clark started using his x-ray vision more aggressively and discovered to his dismay that even though the Idarians were the model of civilization in public, there was plenty of violence between them in private, everything from domestic spats to murder. But whenever he landed at the scene of a fight to break it up, both participants—they only ever fought one-on-one—immediately stopped and huddled down into horrified balls, their eyestalks retracting almost into their heads and a low keening coming out of the breathing slits in their sides.
"How did they ever have an army?" Clark demanded, coming back to the palace exasperated after having spent three hours calming down the hysterical victim and the equally hysterical would-be murderer, both of whom seemed just as upset by his intrusion.
"Please stop torturing my subjects," Lex said. "They're actually in less pain being stabbed than having someone watching them fight. It's some kind of neurological reaction. Have you found your friends yet?"
He was stretched out on the bed to read, wearing a loose white shirt and trousers made out of something that draped elegantly over his long legs. Clark glared at him, torn between hunger and resentment.
Staying chastely on one side of the bed hadn't been working very well. Lex didn't respect the invisible line Clark tried to imagine dividing the bed into separate halves; Lex would stay up late working, and reach over to run his fingers through Clark's hair, cup his cheek, touch his mouth: proprietary, and the worst part was how badly Clark wanted to be owned.
At first, Clark had tried staying away from the palace grounds, but the planet's weather control system "malfunctioned" and created a miniature hailstorm, five meters across, that followed him around the world and pelted him anytime he stopped moving. Then he'd tried sleeping in the gardens, but the palace guard dog-things—with six legs and four rows of teeth—woke him up by determinedly and uselessly gnawing on his head. After that, he moved to the bedroom floor, where one of the servants "accidentally" poured a tub of ice water on top of him, ten minutes after he'd finally gotten back to sleep.
He'd gotten up vengefully after that, dripping and cold, and climbed straight into bed, plastered himself over Lex and went to sleep, ignoring his complaints. Which had seemed like a great idea until he'd woken up warm and dry in a huddle of blankets with Lex's body under him and Lex's hands stroking his back. "Are you sure you don't want to give me your parole?" Lex murmured, and Clark had swallowed yes, anything, please, and dragged himself out of bed.
A week later, Lex moved his headquarters to the new front in the Drosian system, a desolate mining colony full of asteroids and gas giants and one dim, red dwarf star: but it produced more trinium than almost any other mine in the quadrant, and the Ygrathians' new and improved weapons system for the Idarian spaceships needed a lot of trinium.
The camp was on one of the larger asteroids, one with some shreds of atmosphere. The tiny red sun glowed through it like a distant, small coal. Clark felt weirdly sluggish. He'd thought this would be the perfect opportunity to find his friends and get out of here, since the other prisoners had to be on board one of the transferring ships, but he couldn't seem to get up the energy to search; instead he slept longer and longer hours, until one day he didn't even get out of bed, drifting in and out of a half-wakeful state.
Lex came in from a meeting halfway during the day and noticed him. Clark heard his voice, felt his hand, from a distance, but his head was too heavy to lift from the pillow.
He woke up somewhere else with an enormous yellow-white sun just rising, a humid mist clinging to his skin, feeling like he'd been sleeping for a month. "Are we there yet?" he asked drowsily, and Lex bent down and kissed him, hands cupping Clark's face tight.
"Tell me next time you're mysteriously collapsing, you idiot," Lex said savagely.
Clark was more interested in the kissing, the taste of Lex's mouth; he vaguely remembered there was a reason he hadn't been doing this, but it didn't seem all that important. It was no effort at all to pull Lex down into the bed with him. Lex said some things that Clark didn't listen to very much, because it was so—so—then the sun came pouring over the windowsill and Clark woke up the rest of the way.
"Where are we?" he said, baffled. "What—" He realized what he'd just been doing and sat up abruptly, turning red.
Lex glared up at him, furiously. He was wearing an elaborate array of interwoven shiny cords in alternating dark and light colors—or at least, he had been; it had mostly fallen apart into loose straps now, slipping off his shoulders and hanging loose around his wrists; his chest was bare. "Don't stop now," he said, dangerously.
Clark stared at Lex, the straps dark against his pale skin, and swallowed hard. "I didn't know what I was doing," he said weakly.
Lex snarled wordlessly and dragged himself out of bed. He tried to reassemble the outfit for a moment before he gave up and dumped the whole tangled mess on the floor and stepped out of it, naked. "Ryeka!" Lex shouted, and a mandibled head with twelve faceted eyes poked down from above the window frame. Clark flinched back: it was like a cross between a giant spider and a praying mantis. "The damn thing came apart again," Lex said.
The alien clattered in rapidly on twelve legs, and sat back onto half of them and busily used the rest to reweave the straps around Lex's body, chittering at him.
"It wasn't my fault," Lex snapped, glaring at Clark some more.
Clark said again, staring, "Lex, where are we?"
"The K'tlak Empire," Lex said. "They were the nearest place with a sun that provides the ideal spectrum of radiation for you, so I had to adjust the conquest schedule a little and leapfrog a couple of smaller systems."
"Oh, thanks a lot," Clark said. "How many people did you kill in the process?"
Lex shrugged. "Wars have casualties, Clark. In this case, though, they've been having a four-way war of succession amongst themselves for the last two decades, so it's reasonably safe to say that overall my involvement is a net gain." Ryeka was finished, jittering back a few steps to examine its handiwork, adjusting a strap here and there, critically. "I've got to get going, or I'll be late for my own coronation. Care to attend?"
"No!" Clark said.
He did go outside, after Lex had gone; the sunlight felt unbelievably good on his skin, and he flew lazily until he caught up to noon and then followed it around the planet. It was beautiful, a solid green belt of jungle wrapped all around the equator, but full of sad ruins and refugees. Clark stopped to help several groups of Ygrathian engineers, who were digging wells for them; the K'tlak themselves were putting together shelters at top speed out of big stacks of dried fibers that the Idarians were dropping off in hovercraft.
Big projection screens were showing the coronation ceremony at all the refugee camps. Trust Lex to make sure they got a dose of propaganda with their dinner, Clark thought bitterly, watching with folded arms while the high priest or whoever it was wove a dozen cords of silver and gold around Lex's arms. The K'tlak just clacked their mandibles approvingly.
He was feeling recovered by the time he made it once around the planet; more than recovered, actually, he realized, as he accidentally put on more speed than he'd intended, and shot himself right out of the atmosphere. The fleet was in orbit—it already looked bigger—and Clark took the chance to do another search: suddenly he could see through anything he wanted to, even the metals more dense than lead, and he felt like he could hold his breath forever.
None of it helped: Diana and John weren't on any of the ships at all. Clark darted back down to the planet and went through every Almeracian installation; then he searched the camps for good measure, and flew around the whole planet after and then burst into the coronation hall where Lex was still accepting oaths of fealty, for the second straight day. "Where did you put them?" Clark demanded.
Lex lifted an eyebrow. "You don't actually expect me to tell you, do you?"
"You know I can't just fly into hyperspace, so you might as well," Clark said. He was already trying to come up with some way to hitchhike out of the system on a trade ship—he'd seen some going back and forth from the spaceports. Lex probably had them stashed somewhere on Almerac. "Of course, if you have dumped them in some other system, they've probably escaped by now and just don't know where I am."
"Conquering the galaxy isn't exactly what you'd call quiet and unobtrusive, Clark," Lex said. "Trust me, they're safely locked up."
Clark folded his arms. "Fine. Tell me where they are, and if they aren't free already and I can't rescue them within a week, I'll give you my parole."
"Well, if you put it that way," Lex said immediately, leaving Clark with the sinking feeling he'd made a mistake, "where was it you were all planning to stick me—one of the 'ten thousand human-habitable asteroids in the Hlaian nebula'?"
Clark was pretty sure there weren't any trade ships going to the Hlaian nebula. "And you expect me to believe they haven't gotten out of that?" he said, a little weakly. "The other Lanterns would track them down."
"Oh, I understand a few of them have tried," Lex said. "But even a Green Lantern can have a tough time searching ten thousand asteroids for a cloaked base while under attack by an Almeracian warlord."
"An Almeracian—" Clark stared.
"You understand, I really had to find a way to work with Maxima," Lex said sanctimoniously. "It was my responsibility as a parent."
"So you're just going to stay and what, climb into bed with Luthor?" John said, clenching his hand around the ring Clark had just handed back to him.
Clark swallowed the impulse to tell him to go to hell. "It can't be that much worse than being in bed with the Vorlon." He turned and walked away from the open door of the prison cell.
"Goddamnit," he heard John muttering behind him.
Diana caught him halfway down the hall. "You can't really mean to enslave yourself to Luthor!"
"I'm not going to fight for him, if that's what you're asking," Clark said. "I'm not turning traitor here, whatever John thinks."
"He's worried for you, and so am I," she said, gripping his arm. "What do you think Luthor is going to do to you if you keep this devil's bargain?"
"I'm going to fuck you," Lex said.
He put one hand on the back of Clark's neck and bent him over the desk. Clark went down without resistance, already shivering with anticipation; the freshly signed parole contract crumpled underneath his chest, wet ink smearing on his skin.
"Hold still," Lex said, his voice low and smoky, and slid two fingers into him, slick and ring-heavy; the smooth cool bands brushed against Clark's skin, warming with the heat of his body.
Clark clung to the far side of the desk, gulping for breath, spreading his legs wider as Lex worked his way into him; the polished metal was squeezing slowly out between his fingers like clay. The silk pants were puddled around his ankles. Lex wasn't even taking off his clothes: the ceremonial garb of Khitanwe was a long, translucent robe that opened down the front, and the thick, jewel-encrusted edges lapped at Clark's thighs with every slow, generous thrust.
"Oh, God," Clark said, and pressed his forehead to the cool surface of the desk; Lex was moving into him more seriously now.
"See," Lex said, panting, "Tell me this isn't more fun."
"I'd—I'd be having even more fun," Clark said, struggling for breath, "if you hadn't just decapitated the previous owner of that robe," though really, the wobble in his voice made it sound a lot less authoritative.
"God-King Zherak purged more people than Stalin, and for a special twist he ate some of them," Lex said. "Stop complaining. His subjects already have."
Clark felt he ought to argue that some more, but Lex nudged him forward and got a better angle, and the ability to form complete sentences deserted him.
From there, Lex headed the fleet to the Xakanxa system: he was looking to ensure supply, and Xakanxa was an agricultural powerhouse, a dozen nations spread over eight planets with virtually every climate and soil type represented. They exported food to most of the quadrant.
But thanks to some kind of new gravity-based weapon one of the Xakanxa superpowers had been testing to use on the others, two of the small moons of the largest inhabited planet had just collided, exploding, and the Almeracian fleet came into the system to find a cloud of asteroids and dust spiraling inwards towards the forty billion inhabitants. The surface already looked like a war zone, and all the ships of the system were out in space, struggling to deflect the largest asteroids before they hit.
Clark took one look in horror and was out the nearest airlock, just in time to stop a final desperate kamikaze attempt to knock away an asteroid almost a mile across. He darted in front of the ship and caught the front edge of the tumbling rock, straining wildly as it spun him around, but finally the asteroid slowed and stopped, and he gave it a heave towards the sun.
The ship blinked its lights at him gratefully. Clark raised a hand and went after a flurry of twelve smaller ones just about to enter the atmosphere.
When he staggered back on board Lex's flagship, thirty-seven hours later, the immediate orbital space was clear and the Xakanxa had all become citizens of the Greater Almeracian Empire without a shot fired. Lex put him to bed with a glass of warm milk—actually the juice from a small green berry that was farmed on the fourth planet of the system, but the taste was almost identical—and let him sleep around the clock.
When Clark woke up, they were already on their way out of the system. The Ygrathian engineers had knocked the bugs out of the gravity weapon and were busily mounting it on all the ships of the fleet. "It's actually pretty impressive, now that it works. We cleared out the rest of the debris in a couple of hours," Lex said, handing Clark a bowl of things that looked like brussel sprouts and tasted like rocky road ice cream, complete with chewy marshmallow center. "Go ahead, they're healthy."
Clark devoured them all in about three minutes; he was starving. "Any more?" he said hopefully.
Lex rang for dinner and, bemused, watched him go through four heaping plates of food. "I haven't seen you eat like that since you were sixteen."
"I had a hard day," Clark said, and beamed at the Xakanxa cook, who had just brought him another milkshake. He polished it off in one long gulp, set the glass down, and went for Lex, who was saying, "Your metabolism is ridiculous. It practically violates the laws of—" and made an undignified yelp of surprise as Clark blurred them across the room to the bed.
"I don't remember this from when you were sixteen," Lex said, breathlessly. Clark happily tore away his clothes—buttery leather, paper thin and skin-tight, formalwear for Xakanxa—and pressed him down into the mattress with kisses.
Lex put his hands into Clark's hair, gripping tight, and murmured encouragement as Clark kissed his throat, the line of his jaw, the open wings of his collarbone. The oil was on the bedside table; Clark slicked himself up and pushed Lex's thighs apart. "God," Lex said, and lay back, breathing deeply, his legs curling around Clark's hips.
Lex had a translucent three-dimensional starmap of the Milky Way that someone had sent him as tribute, showing the Greater Almeracian Empire in brilliant green, an expanding sphere already big enough to stand out on the galactic plane. Except it wasn't quite a sphere; there was a small donut-hole shape missing out of the middle, and Clark couldn't figure out why Lex hadn't completed his perfect set until the Vorlon ambassador arrived for Lex's daily audience.
"It is most unfortunate that you have not seen fit to send an emissary in answer to our invitation," the ambassador said, eyeing the hissing Ygrathians in Lex's council room uneasily. "However, as all nations know, the Vorlon are peace-loving above all—" the Ygrathians hissed even louder—"and we have chosen to overlook this small and trivial slight, which we are sure was not intentional, and I have been sent to you to open peace talks."
"Thanks for the thought," Lex said, "but I really don't have time for peace talks right now. Next!"
"You have not even heard our suggestion of terms!" the ambassador protested loudly, as he was frog-marched out of the room by the K'tlak honor guard. The doors closed behind him.
"So when exactly are you planning to resolve things with the Vorlon?" Clark said, casually.
Lex leaned back in his throne and waved a hand idly. "I've got more important things to worry about. The Melkani are going to be tricky."
The Melkani were a rigid, militaristic society with a fixation on order as intense as the day was long—and their day lasted sixty-three hours. They wouldn't even trade with anyone who didn't follow, precisely, their ninety-eight point set of specific guidelines for the behavior of alien visitors, which probably would have left them completely isolated, except that their drone class produced a weird iridescent liquid that hardened into strands stronger than titanium and flexible enough to tie into knots, worth more than virtually any other raw material in the open galactic market.
Lex used an offer of exclusive contracts to lure in a dozen or so interstellar traders who'd managed to successfully negotiate with the Melkani and interrogated them for a week; then he took the fleet into the system.
"Put us in orbit," Lex said, "and let me know when the Melkani call."
"Exalted Lord," one of the traders said tentatively, "they will not call. The Melkani never call first. They must be approached—"
Lex said, "I don't think so."
The fleet sat in orbit. Melkani ships occasionally came out of the atmosphere and flew back and forth from their colonies on the moons. "No, don't radio them," Lex said, when his officers called in. "Don't take any action."
"So, you're basically sitting here playing a giant game of chicken?" Clark said. "Don't you think this could take a while?"
Lex tossed his tablet computer onto the bedside table and grinned at Clark. "Did you have someplace else important to be?" He reached over and slid his hand down Clark's belly.
"N—no," Clark said, urgently, and pulled Lex down.
After a week, a terse radio message from the planet demanded their identification. Lex smiled like a shark and didn't answer it. Instead, he ordered his fleet to divide up into sections and perform battle maneuvers. "I want all crews to have some experience with our new gravity weapon," Lex said, and set them to vaporizing the cloud of asteroids in orbit around the system's gas giant, a monster twelve times the size of Jupiter. In a couple of days, the giant planet had a set of beautiful rings that made it look like an oversized Saturn instead.
The Melkani radioed again and requested their identification. Lex replied, saying that their failure to follow protocol was shameful, and closed the channel. Then he had one of his new pet traders come into the system, ostensibly to pick up a shipment of the Melkani ichor. The Melkani paid the trader a very large amount of money for the fake set of "official Almeracian protocols" that Lex had drawn up. The protocols had four hundred and eleven separate points, to be performed at specific times throughout a negotiation, and one particularly important feature which could only be determined by thorough analysis of the entire document: the negotiations invariably ended either in a merger or in outright war.
"It's possible that I got a little over-enthusiastic about this," Lex said, two weeks later, when they'd just reached item one hundred and twenty-four.
Clark, who was spending his days relaxing in a Melkani hive-palace by the sea while Lex spent his in hot, crowded, underground chambers full of lawyers, put on the sunglasses some of the K'tlak had made for him. "You have to put up with these little inconveniences when you're conquering the galaxy, Lex," he said piously. "Thanks, X'ilrda," he added, taking the drink from their Xakanxa cook. "Want a daiquiri?" He held it out to Lex.
Lex glared at him and stalked back to the negotiations.
There wasn't anything in the way of crime among the Melkani at all, but the tidal effects of the massive gas giant nearby meant they got regular minor earthquakes. They rarely got hurt or killed, their hard-shelled bodies and six legs well-adapted to the regular shaking, but they were almost ridiculously ecstatic when Clark helped them clear up property damage. They loved straight lines and mathematically precise curves, and one piece of debris on a street would literally stop all of them in their tracks as they tried to move it away, even if it was made out of lead or titanium and couldn't be removed without heavy equipment.
"You could probably get them to move things along a lot faster if you just offered them some extra bulldozers," Clark said, throwing back his wet hair as he stepped out of the perfectly circular garden pond; he'd been rinsing dust off in the waterfall—mechanically controlled, with a flow of precisely 42.4 liters per second.
"Hm," Lex said, thoughtfully, and disappeared again.
Clark lay down to doze and dry off in the sun. A hand on his shoulder woke him; without opening his eyes, he said sleepily, "So how is it going? Up to one hundred and thirty-eight yet?"
"Clark," Diana said, and he sat up.
"Come on, we haven't got a lot of time," John said. He was standing a few steps away at the edge of the balcony, scanning the horizon through a pair of telescoping binoculars he'd generated with his ring.
"I'm sorry it's taken us so long," Diana said. "Luthor's security net has been almost impossible to penetrate—every time we've gotten close, he's moved to a new location and changed all his procedures again. Are you all right?" She sounded a little dubious, looking him up and down; Clark glanced down at himself and realized he wasn't wearing anything but the towel he'd wrapped around his waist when he got out of the pool. He blushed.
"I'm fine," he said hastily, "but what are you guys doing?"
"Rescuing you!" John said. "Did you think we were just going to leave you?"
"We have to go at once," Diana said. "Our window isn't more than five minutes long; then we'll be detected."
Frozen, his stomach clenching, Clark blurted, "I can't." They stared at him, and he groped desperately. "I can't," he said. "I—I gave my parole to have you guys set free, I canít just let you guys rescue me. I could fly out of here on my own any time I wanted to, if I was going to just break my word."
"You have got to be kidding me," John said. "You're going to just stay here sitting on your ass drinking mai tais and being Luthor's—"
"Enough," Diana said sharply, cutting him off. "Clark, we're not going to argue with you; we don't have time. If you're choosing to stay with Luthor—"
"I'm choosing to keep my word," Clark said. He tried to believe it wasn't just an excuse.
"Fine," John said, flatly. "We're out of here. Have a nice life." He projected a bubble around them and it rose rapidly away, up into the atmosphere, vanishing into space.
Clark sank down on the chair and covered his face with his hands.
Lex came sauntering back in fifteen minutes later, triumphant. "We're at two hundred and seventy-nine, for the price of a few thousand Idarian hydraulic lifters," he said. "Bring me that daiquiri."
Clark got up and caught Lex's face and kissed him, hard.
"Or that works," Lex said, and ran his hand along Clark's waist under the edge of the towel, letting it slip to the ground.
Clark was at the spaceport fixing some damage from another earthquake, with an audience of rapt Melkani, when a crew member from one of the alien trading ships sidled up to him nervously and said, "Forgive me for troubling you, Most Noble Lord—"
"Um, I'm not," Clark said, appalled. And he'd thought 'Superman' was bad. "I'm just—" he flailed for a label, then gave up and just went on hastily. "It's fine. What's wrong?"
The alien—he was from some species Clark had never seen, with three eyes in red, blue, and green all in a row across the front edge of his platter-shaped head—waved his three arms in an anxious sort of way and said, "I am from Trwi, a lovely system—we are a people who are peaceful, hard-working, resourceful—"
"Yes?" Clark said, a little baffled.
"Unfortunately we are under the domination of the Yldng, who are cruel, unrelenting, violent," the Trwi said. "If Most Exalted Luthor would consider to assist us—"
"I think you might want to get your government's approval before inviting Lex in to take over," Clark said.
"I was Under-Minister of Interstellar Diplomacy before we were conquered," the Trwi said sadly. "The Commander-in-Chief was killed during the defense, the Minister of Justice was put to death, and our Queen drank poison."
"Oh," Clark said.
He took the Trwi to see Lex at dinner. Lex frowned and pulled out his tablet, looking over his schedule thoughtfully. "It's a little off the beaten path," he said. "I wasn't planning to bother with the territories on the rim for a while, and there are at least ten potentially hostile systems between that and the rest of the empire."
The Trwi wrung all three of his hands together. "Lex!" Clark said, reproachfully.
Lex raised an eyebrow. "Clark, if you're going to be mad at me for not conquering people now—"
"This would be liberating," Clark said.
"Sure," Lex said dryly. "All right, Clark, I'll conquer them early, just for you."
The Yldng had been brutal occupiers, but they fled before the assembled armada of the Grand Empire—Lex had a timetable for when he could graduate it to the Galactic Empire—and Lex sailed into the capitol city to wild cheering. There was one small snag; the Trwi had three genders, and only females could rule officially. However, they proved happy to just pay that requirement lip service; Lex was crowned Queen the next day.
"Don't even start," Lex said, coming back from the coronation in the tall jeweled headdress with its long, glitter-dusted veil and the big loops on either side that looked almost exactly like earrings. *
Clark said brightly, "Of course not, Your Majesty," and tossed a long necklace of big, cottony magenta-colored poufs around Lex's neck: they were seed pods, something like dandelion fluff. He'd noticed it in the pile of tribute, sent from a small rainforest community on the northern continent, and had picked it out, grinning; it looked like next cousin to a feather boa.
The glam effect was a little undercut by Lex's murderous glare. Clark belatedly realized that it might not have been the best idea when Lex carefully lifted off the headdress, took off the necklace of fluffy poufs, and ran it slowly through his hand, smiling dangerously.
"Why don't you take off your clothes and go lie down," Lex said.
"Um, I was going to go fly a patrol," Clark said, eyeing the fluff a little worriedly.
"Allow me to make it a royal command," Lex said.
Clark kept finding pink bits of fluff in unexpected places for the next month.
While he helped the Trwi with rebuilding, Clark found out about the massive slave marketplace on Ryga Minor, one of the main centers of the galactic trade. "I'm not running a mission here," Lex said, but he conquered the planet anyway, and let Clark rip apart the whole complex.
Most of the slavers had fled and taken a handful of their best stock with them when the Almeracian Fleet had appeared on the horizon, but when Clark broke open the horrible lower pens, he found thousands and thousands of Senga children, penned up, hungry, and crying for their parents.
They had been sold off to slavers by the Hrysk Dominion, an interstellar empire slightly larger than Lex's and considerably older, with an enormous army much more unified than the polyglot Almeracian Fleet. They assimilated planets with a simple system: they sold off any young children, worked the adults to death in forced-labor camps, and resettled some of their own species' constantly increasing population on the planet instead. They didn't seem to mind that they were living in the homes of the dead.
"You're big enough to worry them," Clark said desperately. "You could at least get them to sell you the parents. Move them—"
"Resettle an entire planetary population?" Lex said. "There are at least four billion of them left even if the Hrysk have already killed off half. It's not feasible. And I can't fight them for just this one planet. Once we start, it's all in, and it would be a bad idea right now. I don't have the kind of leverage that would let us negotiate—it would just be an all-out war, and the odds aren't in our favor."
Clark didn't say anything. He couldn't ask Lex to start a war, not even for this, but he thought about the desperate, hollow faces of the Senga children, the millions more to be sold or slaughtered, and felt sick.
Lex looked at him. "On the other hand," he said, "if I win, that accelerates the rest of my schedule by five years. It might be a gamble worth taking."
The war started with one cataclysmic battle after another, where spaceships the size of football fields lobbed missiles and energy beams across the vacuum at each other in a silent, fatal lightshow. Lex lost his first two battles in a row to one Hrysk commander, a brilliant young general named Kir who radioed them as they retreated from the second battlefield. "You will serve in the lakka pits of my district until your skin sloughs away and your eyes are blinded," he taunted, "and I will sell your offspring to the Flek to use as a host for their eggs."
Lex said pleasantly, "Well, when I win, I'm going to promote you to a better position than a remote border command." The young general blinked all four of his eyes, uncertainly. Lex smiled and cut the channel.
Clark stared at him. Lex shrugged. "I prefer it when my enemies have less incentive to win than I do."
Confident of victory now, the Hrysk high command came to the front to take over. Their whole vast fleet slowly marched after Lex's retreating forces, ending in the Gunna system, an uninhabited binary star system, where two blue-white supergiants were ripping each other to shreds, spouting off immense trailers of gas and flame.
Lex watched the stars blazing away at each other as the first ships of the Hrysk advance guard began to pop into the system, setting up their lines of attack. Clark swallowed and went up to him. "Where can you use me?" he said quietly.
Lex wheeled around and stared at him.
"I got you into this," Clark said. "I'm not going to just sit by and watch—"
Lex caught him around the neck and was kissing him, on the main deck, while the crew of the flagship watched and made their various noises of amusement. He dragged Clark away back to the stateroom. "Um, shouldn't—oh—shouldn't you be getting ready for—for—for—" Clark stuttered, helplessly, as Lex pushed him down, kissing him everywhere, hands sliding up Clark's sides.
"It'll be hours before their fleet is assembled," Lex said, between kisses. "Plenty of time."
Clark felt a lot more disheveled when they got back to the command center. Lex was perfectly put together in his traditional Almeracian military commander's uniform, plain and unmarked except for the cloth-of-gold lining in his cape; he flipped it gracefully over the arm of the command chair as he sat down.
"So what do you want me to do?" Clark said, looking at the simulated viewport: the Hrysk fleet was filling the screen from one end to the other.
"Actually, you've solved my last problem," Lex said. "I thought I was going to have to ask someone to do a suicide run, and even then I wasn't sure it was going to be good enough." He tapped his communications console. "Is the gravity bomb ready?"
"Yes, sssire," answered the chief Ygrathian engineer.
"It's down in the torpedo bay," Lex said, turning to Clark. "You just need to avoid the solar flares and throw it in between the two stars. Then get back here as fast as possible—we have to get out of the system before it goes off. All the ships are ready for the jump to hyperspace."
Clark stared at him. "What exactly is this going to do?"
"Won't it be more fun to be surprised?" Lex said.
"No," Clark said. "Fine," Lex said. "You remember that show we went to at the Metropolis Planetarium, when you were fifteen?"
"Oh, God," Clark said.
Clark went down to the torpedo bay and stared at the bomb. It was deceptively small despite the massive casing that would protect it until it got to the stars; the gravity weapon worked on some bizarre extreme level of physics, the same one that vaguely explained how Clark could fly, and the bomb weighed almost as much as a small starship all by itself. He could manage it, but—if this worked, he was about to make Lex emperor of about a fifth of the entire galaxy.
"Ready?" the Ygrathian engineer said. "Yesss?"
"Yes," Clark said, and picked up the bomb.
The K'tlak had made him a new suit, almost invulnerable, but even it caught fire as he got close to the furnace of the stars. The casing of the bomb was glowing cherry-red, slowly flaking off in blackened layers, then literally evaporating; finally Clark was close enough and could lob it right between the two giants. He could hear the stars churning away violently, the massive waves of radiation like physical blows until he turned and flew away with them instead, as fast as he could.
He shot through the airlock naked; the air steamed up around him, and he couldn't land because the metal under his feet started to melt and run. He heard the hyperdrive engines start up even as the engineers pumped liquid nitrogen over his skin to cool him down, and he sped back to the command deck with nothing but a tarp snatched from the hanger to cover himself.
"You're just in time," Lex said, unhooking his cape and handing it to Clark. "We left behind some drones to monitor."
It wasn't anything like the show at the Metropolis Planetarium. The bomb was just a tiny pinprick of light at first, and then abruptly the solar flares all started to curve, bowing inwards towards that one central point. Massive plumes fired out of the stars, battering each other out of shape; the stars were beginning to almost turn teardrop-shaped, leaning towards the point of explosion.
There were little white flares on the far side of the screen as some of the Hrysk ships tried to jump out of the system; a handful made it, others were torn apart by the wildly fluctuating gravitational waves. Then it was too late even to take that chance: the smaller of the two giant stars contracted, visibly, just a little bit; then there was nothing in the screen but a wall of pure white, coming fast, and the connection to the drone died out.
After that, the Grand Empire started to grow on its own; thanks to Lex's carefully designed economic policies and tariffs, every major trading system was clamoring to join, because otherwise they would get priced out of a vast swath of the market. Meanwhile, as they did join, one by one, every other system was becoming an isolated pocket in the vast sprawl of Lex's dominion. It was enough to make even the most independent among them nervous, and they started lining up too.
Possibly the most anxious applicant was the Vorlon Empire, whose ambassador, plaintively following Lex around, had gone from offering peace talks, to offering conditional surrender, then unconditional surrender, and now was finally just begging to be allowed to throw his people on Lex's mercy.
"Sorry," Lex said. "Try again next week," and sent him away.
Clark winced, feeling guilty, and went into the garden. They were back on Almerac; Lex was taking some time off from active conquest to work on integrating his multicultural empire a little more, and to spend some time with his daughter.
Lena was a toddler now, and even though her vocabulary was limited, she was starting to learn how to use telepathy to inform those around her—forcefully—whenever she wanted a diaper change, lunch, a toy, or simply to be entertained. She was out in the garden playing in the grass with the pet rheppa Lex had brought her from Melkani—it was very well trained—being watched by a K'tlak. She looked up at Clark with Lex's blue eyes, big and solemn, and offered him the stick she was throwing for the rheppa to fetch.
"Thank you," Clark told her, and tossed the stick; someone had to teach her manners, and it wasn't going to be Lex, who had clearly decided that everything in the galaxy belonged to her by right, or Maxima, who was grudgingly reconciled to having her raised as Lex saw fit but was still trying to talk him into at least starting her on hand-to-hand combat with real weapons.
The rheppa galloped away and brought the stick back, then sat on its hind legs, clacking its pincers together eagerly for another throw. Lena gurgled with delight and flung the stick herself, with telekinesis; it sailed all the way over the far wall of the garden, and the rheppa stopped at the wall and chittered unhappily.
Lena looked at Clark and broadcast a demand. "Stick."
"No," Clark said firmly. "Say please."
Lena tilted her head at him, assessingly, so much like Lex that Clark had to stifle a laugh, and then she said, "Peas?"
"Good enough," Clark said, grinning, and flew over the wall. The stick was in the middle of the next garden over, currently empty, and Clark tossed it back over to the rheppa's loud, clacking delight. Then he turned around abruptly and found himself looking at Batman.
"What are—" Clark stopped and clenched his jaw. "I already told Diana. I can't let you rescue me either."
"I know," Batman said, raising his hand. The last thing Clark saw was a green mist spraying into his face.
He woke up dizzy and sick in a long crate with the lid taken off, lying in a heap of tarps, in chains that glowed very faintly green. He could hear the low distant rumble of a hyperdrive engine chugging away somewhere.
"Water?" Batman said, and put a bottle to his lips; Clark gulped a couple of swallows, all he could bear despite his dry mouth.
"What the hell?" he managed, whispery, and had to let his head sink back against the lumpy tarp underneath him.
"I'm kidnapping you back," Batman said. "It's recognized by Almeracian law as a valid termination of prisoner of war status, as long as you don't cooperate at all. Sorry about the kryptonite." He didn't really sound sorry.
Clark faded out again as the lid came back down, and the next time he woke up, Batman was putting the restraints into a lead box. Clark shot to his feet, shattering the crate, shedding ropes and bits of packing material. "And again, what the hell," he yelled, and then noticed he was in the Justice League satellite, with an audience: John, with his arms folded and his mouth tight; Diana and Wally and Plastic Man.
No one said anything for a moment. Then Plastic Man said, a little too heartily, "Hey, big guy! Good to have you back!"
Clark stared at him incredulously. Diana stepped forward, holding out a hand. "Clark, I know you must be feeling tired—"
"What, because I've just spent a couple of days chained in kryptonite?" Clark said, and saw her flinch. "No, really, I just bounce right back."
"Dude!" Wally burst out. "We've all been freaking out, give us a break."
Clark locked his jaw shut. It wasn't their fault, it was his; there wasn't any good reason he should feel like a bone wrenched out of its socket. They'd stayed true; if he hadn't wanted them to, that was his problem. He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said, fighting for calm. "I guess I didn't leave you a lot of options."
"Yeah, well," Plastic Man said, looking relieved, "we tried to find four industrialized star systems to trade for you, but Luthor already owns most of them."
His apartment in Metropolis was still there, thanks to his automatic bill payments. But his landlady shrieked when she saw him coming in, and followed him up all six flights of stairs to his doorstep, lecturing him about deserting "that nice girl"—she'd never quite accepted his breakup with Lois—and his friends, not telling anyone where he was going, vanishing for so long. Clark took it silently and as his deserts, going at her slow, asthmatic pace.
As he finally unlocked the door, she added, "But you finally listened!" He stared at her, blankly, and she pointed at his face. "Contact lenses!" she said. "You look so much better without those heavy glasses. It changes your whole face."
Clark stood numbly in the front room as the door swung closed behind him, looking around the apartment: it was a nice size for Metropolis, cheap because of the bad neighborhood, on the edge of Suicide Slum. There was dust on the furniture and none of the appliances were on; someone had emptied out the fridge—probably Lois—and there was nothing but silence when he picked up the phone line. There was a book half-read on the bedside table; he couldn't remember a thing about the plot.
He flew to Smallville. He'd reluctantly sold off the stock after his mother had died; his schedule was too unpredictable to have animals relying on him, even with hired help, and at least the money had meant he could keep the land for a while longer. But the property taxes and the mortgage had already eaten away at the money before he'd left, and he wasn't sure what he'd find: a foreclosure, the farmhouse razed, some robot-controlled giant plow churning up his father's orchards.
But the farm was still there, though the fields were running wild, gone past fallow and all the way to overgrown. The electricity was still on in the house; he flicked the switch and was in his mother's kitchen, counters clean and bare, the way he had left them, cleaning up after the funeral with shaking hands, washing out coffee cups at normal speed after the guests had gone: a handful of family, many friends.
The stack of mail had been weeded of junk and was neatly piled on the table. He sat down and speed-read through it all; there were three or four warnings from the bank, and then a different envelope, thicker. He opened it expecting to find the foreclosure notice and instead found the mortgage paid off, the title to the house. He looked at it a long time and then called the Smallville General Bank.
It had merged with Metropolis Savings and Loan. "Good Lord," Mr. Jepson said, when Clark finally got to him after struggling through a new automated voice system and two agents who'd never heard the name Kent. "Clark, where on earth have you been?"
"It's a long story," Clark said.
"Everyone thought you were dead," Mr. Jepson said. "Or abducted by aliens."
The mortgage check had come from a company called Valley Forge Investments. Clark sat down with his mother's old laptop and struggled to remember how to use a search engine when he couldn't just ramble at it out loud until it figured out what information he wanted and gave it to him. Valley Forge was a subsidiary of Atlantic Mutual Corporation, a subsidiary of Western Funds Unlimited.
"There are another twelve intermediaries before you get to the Wayne Foundation."
"What?" Clark jumped: he'd been so focused on the screen, he hadn't even noticed Batman coming in. Then Clark narrowed his eyes: it wasn't just a coincidence Bruce had snuck up on him twice now. "Wait, what is that?" he demanded, spotting the little box on Batman's hip that was generating the odd soundlessness.
"It's a reciprocal sound wave generator," Batman said. "It cancels out the noise I make."
"You built a device just so you could sneak up on me?" Clark said.
"It's generally useful to move quietly," Batman said.
"You already move quietly!" Clark said.
Batman didn't bother denying it a second time. "I thought you might prefer not to lose the farm."
"Thanks," Clark said, shutting the computer lid slowly. He put his hands flat on the table to either side. His great-grandfather had made this table. Knives and pens had scarred the surface; he'd broken off one of the legs as a toddler, running into it as he chased after a ball, only to poke out surprised from underneath as it toppled over, taking out several glasses and pieces of china. He vaguely remembered his dad working on the repairs in the barn, while they ate off a metal folding table hidden under a gingham cloth.
It felt like a ball and chain around his ankles, heavier than kryptonite. It was an effort to breathe.
"I don't know how to do this anymore," Clark said.
Batman sat down at the other end of the table, but didn't say anything.
"How can you handle it?" Clark demanded. "You were out there, Bruce."
"You can't save a city and a galaxy at the same time," Bruce said. "I chose Gotham a long time ago, and my work's far from done." He shrugged. "But you're virtually designed to operate on a larger scale. Your capabilities are mostly wasted on Earth."
"You're not helping," Clark said.
The real reason his secret identity had held up was the popular idea that Superman didn't have one; that he just flew around the world saving people and doing good deeds, many of them unobserved. It had never been true; Clark's parents had raised a hero, and been proud of it, but they'd also been careful, as he got older, not to raise a martyr. They'd taught him he deserved a normal life, and that he needed one, to stay human. Except now—his idea of a normal life had been rewritten.
He saw Lois and Chloe and Lana and Pete, briefly, just so they wouldn't worry; he saw Perry to apologize, and formally resign the job that had stopped sending him paychecks, reluctantly, after the first six months of his absence. He packed up his apartment and moved his scattering of possessions into storage in the barn, and then he started wandering aimlessly around the world.
He didn't intervene in any area where another superhero operated unless he was specifically invited; he mostly focused on stopping violations of environmental regulations and poaching, staying in the wild parts of the world: places where he could almost forget he was on one small planet in a remote corner of the galaxy, as long as he was tired enough to sleep at night, instead of lying awake and looking at the vast spread of the stars above him. He missed Lex like air; he missed the work like sunlight.
He knew he couldn't live like this for long. The nights when he hadn't found enough to do, he would lie sleepless and lonely in tall grass, staring at the stars, and think of ways to get a message to Lex to come pick him up. He had three pretty solid methods worked out, so far. Sooner or later, he'd break, and when Lex did come, he'd go, no conditions, no limits, not anymore. He could hear the rationalizations already in his own head: this planet they'd save from slavery; this one from internal disorder; this one from ecological disaster; this one from war. There would always be something; he could imagine a million excuses for conquering Earth, and he wasn't sure what would happen if—when—Lex finally got here.
There was a faint tickling at his mind, a telepath knocking for entrance; Clark flinched, hard, and a moment later his Justice League communicator activated instead. "I am sorry to disturb you," J'onn said. "I did not mean to intrude."
"It's fine," Clark said, swallowing, ashamed. "What's wrong?"
"Our new early warning system has detected some kind of starship approaching the system. The design is Almeracian—"
Clark was on the observation deck before J'onn finished the sentence, making the Martian jump. "Show me," Clark said; his heart was beating wildly. It wasn't the flagship, though, just a small pleasure yacht, and if Lex had gone wandering around in that, Clark was going to kill him.
"It does not appear to be arming its weapons," J'onn said, and then his eyes widened. "Look out!"
The observation deck glass shattered, and Clark went flying through the wall. "You useless piece of Gremora slime!" Maxima snapped, and punched him in the head.
"Oh, for—what did I do now!" Clark said, throwing her down to the floor.
She jumped back up and slapped him across the face, then threw a document case at his feet and spat, "As if you do not know, you calculating Pilagran sow!" She folded her arms, glaring.
"What is this?" Clark opened the case; the document was only five pages long. He'd picked up enough of the formal courtly language of Almeracian contracts to get the gist of it on the first read, and then he needed to sit down, even though there wasn't anywhere to do it but on the floor, with his head against his knees.
Diana came running into the hall and saw him crumpled. "Clark!" she said, and before he could say anything, she had leaped at Maxima; the two of them went through the floor, the awful shrieking noise of metal ripping coming up through the hole.
"Are you okay?" Wally said, dubiously, blurring to a halt at the edge of the hole; Clark struggled up to his feet and said, "Yes. Yes. I'm great," and went to stop them fighting.
"We don't negotiate with terrorists," Batman said.
"What?" Clark said.
"This is essentially a threat," Batman said, tapping the contract. "Luthor is promising to cease his wars of aggression if and only if you go back; that implies he'll continue them unless you do. That's a terrorist threat."
"He's the emperor of a quarter of the galaxy!" Clark said. "You can't call him a terrorist!"
Batman just stared at him silently.
"Good!" Maxima said, jumping up. "Then I will take him your refusal. Farewell!"
"No, wait!" Clark said.
Maxima scowled and folded her arms.
"In any case, we cannot negotiate with your liberty," Diana said.
"Um, it's my liberty," Clark said. "I think I can make that decision."
"Even if you were willing to sacrifice yourself, we would be no better than slavers for allowing it," Diana said firmly.
"Hey, I'm still trying to figure all the details of this thing out," Wally said; he was riffling through the contract over and over at high speed, with a translator device from Maxima's ship next to him. "But, uh, I don't think he's asking for Clark as a slave. Exactly. Uh."
"What does he want with Clark, then?" Plastic Man asked, stretching his head around the table to peer over Wally's shoulder.
"Uh, it's kind of a brmmrrm," Wally said, the last of it coming out so fast that none of them understood him and he had to repeat it three times before he slowed down enough and yelled, "It's a freaking betrothal contract, okay?"
"Betrothal?" Clark said; he'd missed that particular detail.
"He sent you with a betrothal contract for Clark?" John said, staring at Maxima.
"I am his nearest female relative of age on Almerac," Maxima said, eyeing him like it was the stupidest question in the world. "Do not imagine I would be here with this miserable capitulation if it were not my obligation to the family."
"Okay, so, look," Wally said, putting down the contract, "just to play devil's advocate here for a second, but haven't we all been going nuts and doing crazy stuff trying to get Luthor to stop conquering the galaxy? And now he's offering to quit on his own?"
"Betrothal?" Clark repeated.
"This makes no difference," Diana said crisply. "A slave may be called a wife, and be no more free. There is a reason my sisters withdrew to Themiscyra."
"One will get you five he'll start up again in a year, anyway," John said. "I'm with Batman. We can't make deals with the guy."
"Then you do refuse," Maxima said, with satisfaction.
Clark pushed his chair back and stood up, steeling himself to look them all in the face. "You should sign the contract," he said quietly, "because I'm going anyway."
"I am not wearing that," Clark said, folding his arms.
"It's traditional Kryptonian garb," Lex said.
"Krypton was a big planet," Clark said. "Lots of history. I think that if you look really hard, you can find something traditional for me to wear that isn't a skirt."
"Clark," Lex said patiently, "it's a kilt."
"It's a skirt you wear without underwear," Clark said. "No." His eyes narrowed suspiciously; Lex's taste in clothes didn't usually run to horrible puce-striped poodle skirts with pink splotches. "Why do you want me to wear this, anyway?"
Lex looked shifty, meaning that a muscle under his eye twitched for maybe half a second, too fast for an ordinary human being to notice. "Never mind," he said. "We'll find something else."
Clark went through the planning document (twenty-three pages, written by the Melkani chief of protocol, fortunately with a detailed alphabetized index and separate by-day summaries) and discovered that the skirt outfit was scheduled to be worn for a ceremony borrowed from Khitanwe tradition. There was oddly very little information about the ceremony in the guide, but about a thousand Khitanwe nobles had been invited, and Clark managed to track down a few of the most high-ranking ones in the guest quarters of the palace.
"I don't believe you!" he yelled at Lex, storming back into their quarters.
"Respecting the multicultural traditions of my subjects is important to demonstrate—" Lex began defensively.
"I am not having sex with you in front of an audience!" Clark said.
"Khitanwe law doesn't hold a marriage valid unless it's been consummated before witnesses," Lex said.
"Then we'll just have to live in sin," Clark said. "And you were just going to spring this on me?"
Lex looked even more shifty.
It turned out the ceremony planned immediately before that one was a Xakanxa wedding banquet. The chef was happy to give Clark samples; the rest of the day after he tried them passed in a kind of golden haze, and he woke up the next morning still entangled with Lex, sweaty and sticky, with half of the furniture in their suite broken or dented. "Ow," Lex said, yawning, and stretched gingerly.
"Serves you right," Clark said, face-down and muffled in the pillows.
By the fifteenth day of wedding, Clark was starting to regret putting his foot down about the Khitanwe ceremony: he wasn't getting any otherwise, because they were too busy performing K'tlak ribbon-dances or Idarian grigga matches, something like water polo in mid-air, and at the end of the day they were both asleep before they hit the pillows.
"Time to get up," Lex said mercilessly, pulling aside the bedcurtains; he was humming Get Me To The Church On Time.
"Aren't we married enough?" Clark moaned from under a pillow. "How many are there today?"
"Just one more," Lex said.
Clark sighed and dragged himself out of bed. "What's this one?" he called, splashing water on his face in the bathroom.
"Episcopalian," Lex said, and Clark stopped and went out, still dripping, and kissed him.
Lex had actually brought in old Father Wallace from Smallville, who was looking a little wall-eyed with astonishment. "Clark?" he said, a little feebly, when Clark poked into the guest room.
"Hi, Father Wallace," Clark said, awkwardly, coming in. "I guess this must be a little weird."
"No, no," Wallace said, dazedly, watching the handful of Melkani working outside the window: they had sneaked into the garden and were methodically replanting all the trees in even rows. "I've officiated at a dozen gay weddings since the resolution passed last year."
"Um," Clark said, blankly.
"So you're finally marrying the Luthor boy, after all these years," Wallace said eventually. "I remember you two running around town in those cars of his. I don't suppose he'd darkened the door of a church more than a dozen times his entire life before you brought him in."
Clark grinned, remembering Lex's imperfectly-concealed dismay the Sunday morning he'd stopped by to invite Clark to a baseball game in Metropolis, only to get dragged along to church instead. "I don't think he's done much better since."
"Your poor dad had a bad time of it," Wallace said reminiscently. "Made for a rough patch with your ma. But he came around quick," he added, looking back at Clark. "It just wasn't what he was used to, you know. Took him a little while to get used to the notion."
Clark stared at him. "My dad—wait, what?"
Wallace chuckled. "I suppose you boys thought no one else knew," he said. "Wasn't much of a secret, how things stood with you two."
"Oh," Clark said faintly. It would've been nice, he thought, vaguely resentful, if someone had bothered to explain it to him.
A small anteroom had been converted into a chapel; unlike all the other ceremonies, this one was almost unattended, just a few servants and Lena happily making the flower petals go whizzing around their heads like large moths, and they said their vows quietly, without microphones. Sliding the ring onto Lex's hand, the band already warm on his own, felt more real to him than all the pomp and circumstance of the weeks of festivities.
"Okay, and now, the honeymoon," Clark said firmly, having kissed Lex into breathlessness.
"Yes," Lex said, panting. Clark tossed Lena up into his arms as they headed out, making her squeal with delight; then the doors opened, and half the Justice League was standing outside.
"Dude!" Wally said, staring at the ring on Clark's hand. Then he zipped forward and hugged him. "Congrats!"
"You came for the wedding?" Clark said, pleased but wary; Wally and Diana, he could have believed, and John pretending to have come along grudgingly, but Bruce?
"We have a problem," John said.
"You people can relax," Lex said. "The weddings took fifteen days; do you have any idea how much of a pain it would be to get divorced? I'm not going to start conquering the galaxy again."
"We need you to," Batman said.
Darkseid had somehow managed to secretly build an army in the quadrillions on the fringes of the galaxy, and now they were about to start marching across the galaxy, turning every world into a clone of Apokolips.
"A Lantern just managed to get close enough to see what he was doing and beam back the information to us before—" John stopped and shook his head, grimly.
Lex sat back on the couch with the data tablet they'd brought and put his feet on the table. "Oh, and so now suddenly centralized command looks good to you."
"I wouldn't go that far," John said bitterly.
Lex looked up and raised an eyebrow. "You know, Clark and I have this honeymoon we're supposed to be leaving on right now, so if you want some more time to think about this—"
"Darkseid is going to invade in six months," Batman said.
"What?" Clark said, straightening away from the wall he'd been leaning against.
Batman ignored the queston. "Anything other than a unified defense will fail."
"A unified defense is pretty likely to fail too, if these estimates are even close to correct," Lex said, tossing the tablet aside onto the couch. "Not to mention that in the most optimistic version of my schedule, it was another five years to form the core, then ten years of mop-up. If you people want me to do this, you're going to have to help."
"There are limits—" Diana began.
"No, there aren't," Batman said.
Clark blinked at him, surprised. Diana said, "What?"
"It's him or Darkseid," Batman said. "He's better."
John eyed Lex with an expression that implied he wasn't sure about that; Diana looked like she was tasting something unpleasant.
Lex smirked at them all. "You know, this feels strangely familiar. Wasn't this a scene in Meet The Parents—"
"Don't even start, Luthor," John said.
Wally said, "Okay, I guess Clark was right."
"What?" John said.
"Well," Wally said, "he did say Luthor was more dangerous than Darkseid."
They were on the flagship, watching the Imperial Fleet cleaning up the stragglers from Darkseid's fleet. Most of the remnants were huddled into small pockets, holding very still to avoid setting off the smart mines attached to their hulls: a Melkani design that used over ten thousand minor details to distinguish between friend and foe; Luthor had saturated the entire battlefield with them before the fighting had even started, engaged just long enough to make sure all the ships had some attached, and then pulled back and started blowing up Darkseid's laboriously constructed fleet by the thousands.
Darkseid himself was floating out in space, his ship having been blown up around him. Clark, who'd spent the last week before the battle on the K'tlak homeworld soaking up rays, had beaten the crap out of him with help from Diana and Maxima, and then John and the other Lanterns had sealed him up, still unconscious, in a solid block of corundum. He was frozen in scowling and impotent rage in the translucent block, tumbling slowly head over heels through the field of debris.
"Yeah," John said.
"Yeah," Wally said.
They stood watching a while longer.
"Hey, you coming to the coronation?" Wally asked.
"No," John said flatly.
"Come on, man, it's going to be a great party," Wally said. "You wouldn't believe what Luthor's going to wear."
= End =
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