I've been a longtime reader of your articles, and I have to say that I'm quite the fan. I've been happy to note from the few photographs I've seen of you that we seem to share a similar taste in fashion, and I just wanted to share a tip with you. There's a jewelry store up on 18th and 22nd called Marxhausen's, and they have just the most fantastic pieces that would perfectly complement your outfits. Their necklaces are so delicate and understated, just the thing for a woman like you. I don't know if you have a special man in your life, but if you do I'm sure he'd love to see you in it - and if you don't, I'm sure that it would help attract one!
Your loyal fan,
Lois got a number of letters from the citizens of Metropolis on any given day. Lex had arranged for this to also be a private channel of communication. The opening sentence was one she'd memorized, and if that weren't enough, the initials at the bottom were L.L., initials that she and Lex shared - his idea of a joke, she supposed.
She went down to Marxhausen's over her lunch break, not really knowing what to expect. She'd kept her distance from Lex ever since she and Clark had hit the reset button on their friendship. If Clark had asked her a direct question, she might have given up her last remaining secret to him, but so far he hadn't shown any curiosity. That made her a bit nervous. It was well possible that he'd already made his own deductions on that score, especially if he'd been watching her. He knew that she had a less than glowing opinion of him, and the book she'd written with Luthor was damn near a hagiography, with none of the complexity that she'd brought to her recent talks with Clark. But he hadn't asked, and she hadn't felt like offering it up on her own.
The jewelry store was a small slice of glamour that didn't quite fit with the rest of the block. It wasn't uncommon for the borders of the neighborhoods to shift slightly over the years, and from what Lois could tell, Marxhausen's had been the victim of one of these shifts. It was a small, narrow store, staffed by a fetching woman with obscenely blonde hair who perked up at the sound of the door opening. Lois looked around slowly. There was nothing obvious to mark this as part of some plot.
"Can I help you?" asked the blonde woman.
Lois took a breath, and dove right in. "My name is Lois Lane, and I'm a reporter for The Daily Planet. My editor keeps asking me to write a women's piece that's not about equal rights or social issues, and I decided that I'd finally indulge him. So I was thinking that I would write about jewelry. It should help pacify him, I think." Hopefully Clark wouldn't think that was too suspicious. Lex had only gotten her to the store, and she didn't have the barest outline of a script. Of course, it would mean that she would have to actually write the article, on top of her other work.
A sudden change came over the woman's face, her eyebrows falling and then rising again, and when she spoke, her voice was slightly higher than before. "Oh, oh yes, there's so much that I could tell you about. More and more women are buying their own jewelry these days, working women who want to attract a husband." She reached beneath the counter. "In fact, if you'd be willing to mention Marxhausen's in the article, there's a piece I think you might like. It comes with a matching watch, for that special man in your life." She had a nervous giggle.
She set two items down on the counter. One was a small golden locket, shaped like an oval. The other was a watch, which glowed green behind the clock face. Lois made no move to touch it.
"Is it radium?" asked Lois.
"What?" asked the woman with a puzzled look.
"Radium," Lois repeated. "It's a metal that glows green, just like that. Twenty years ago there was a group of factory workers - women - who painted the faces of watches with radium so they'd glow in the dark. They licked the tip of their paint brushes to get a fine point, and they suffered from radiation poisoning - anemia and bone fractures, and then their jaws started to fall apart, disintegrating." She had literally written the book on it.
"I've, ah, been assured that it's safe," said the blonde woman.
"So were the girls who worked in the factory," said Lois. She wondered how far she was deviating from what Lex had planned. Obviously she was intended to walk out of the store with watch and the necklace. "I'm only curious about what makes it glow, I don't mean to be so … adversarial. The locket has a similar component?"
"Oh yes," said the saleswomen, who seemed grateful to be back on familiar ground. She cracked the locket open, and showed a multi-faceted gem.
"Alright," said Lois. "I'll take them. Now for this story, I have a few questions …"
What does it do? wrote Lois.
Lex frowned at the notebook. He had thought that the next course of action would be obvious to her: give Clark Kent the watch and see what happens. He'd done his best to keep her out of the loop specifically so that if Superman asked her, she would be able to tell the truth. Superman had to know that there was someone plotting against him by now, especially given the theft of the spaceship and the death of his mother, but it was important that it appear as though Lois had been used as a pawn, rather than the more valuable bishop or knight that she really was. And then she'd had to go and ruin it by visiting him and asking for answers, which would seem unacceptably suspicious.
I don't know, Lex wrote back. I have reason to believe that it will hurt him.
Lois read the note and frowned at him. She tapped her pencil against the paper for a few moments.
I'm not sure we should.
Lex stifled a groan. He was losing Lois, that much was clear now. It was at least gratifying to know that she hadn't taken leave of her senses in coming to him; it was only a problem of a different sort. He could deal with a question of loyalties, at least in the near term.
I figured out his identity, wrote Lex. It wasn't difficult once I started looking at the people around you. He watched her face as she read that, then took the notebook from her again before she had a chance to respond. You're starting to feel sympathy towards him. You think that you understand where he's coming from.
Lois shrugged, then nodded. He's not perfect, she wrote back. But I think that I know where he's coming from now. We've been talking a lot lately.
He murdered a man in cold blood, wrote Lex, but Lois was already shaking her head.
He regrets it, she wrote back.
What else will he come to regret? asked Lex. We're talking about the fate of the world. You know that there's no stopping him if he goes rogue. Even if the chance is slim, it's a chance weighed against the total destruction of humanity. If the odds are a thousand to one that he'll kill us all, that's an average of two million dead. My own estimates are higher, but you know him better than I do.
Lois frowned. Will it depower him, or kill him?
I don't know, wrote Lex. He was halfway certain that she was testing him. He would have pivoted, and claimed that he knew what the effect was, but he'd already said that he didn't know, and couldn't take the chance of getting caught in the lie. There is some element of risk here, but I think it's low. The mineral in the watch emits a radiation that I suspect will cause some interference with his power. I need you to observe him carefully when you put the watch on him. Lex had done his own probability estimates, based on what he knew of Kryptonian engineering from taking apart the ship. He strongly believed that Superman's powers were of technological rather than biological origin, simply given their raw power, and if kryptonite had any negative effect at all, the engineering of the ship suggested to him that it would have been designed to fail safely. Telling Lois that he'd weighed the odds of catastrophe and found them acceptable would probably not endear her to the plan though.
Lois slowly read what he'd written. She considered for a moment and wrote back. You would be exposing yourself. Clark would know that someone was aware of his secret identity - someone besides me, if he believed I was an innocent victim of your machinations.
A risk I'm willing to take, wrote Lex. Superman almost certainly already knew. That ship had sailed after the Smallville operation. But there wasn't a convincing lie that he could tell Lois to explain to her how he had come by that information. If she were trustworthy, this whole conversation would have gone a lot smoother.
Lois absentmindedly bit the end of the pencil and paced around the room. Lex didn't know how she weighed the arguments, but if she refused him, everything got much more complicated.
You still don't actually trust him, wrote Lex. You would have told him about our arrangement if you did. He handed the pad of paper to her, and she stared at it mutely.
Some time passed, but eventually she nodded.
Clark wasn't at his desk when Lois came into the office. She put the necklace and the watch into the lead-lined drawer of her desk, and tried to get some work done. She'd been put in an awkward position by Lex. Simply talking to Clark about how she felt had done wonders, and melted away a good deal of her stress. He was still in love with her, and that would have to be dealt with at some point in the future, but she'd confessed her fears and frustrations and he had been understanding. They had their disagreements - deep disagreements that weren't going to go away anytime soon - but they were at least talking to each other like reasonable adults.
Clark came in, hung his coat up on a hook on the wall, and took a seat at his desk. He smiled pleasantly at her.
"I got you a gift," said Lois. Her voice nearly caught. "Not that much of one, really, since it was free, but I thought you might appreciate it." She opened the desk drawer, and heard a noise from Clark's desk. He was standing far away from her, with a serious expression on his face. She hadn't even seen him move.
"There's a small box in my briefcase," said Clark. His voice was calm. "I want you to take it out and put both the watch and the necklace in it."
"Clark," Lois began. Something had gone horribly wrong.
"Now, please," said Clark. "Be careful, the box is heavy."
Lois did as she was instructed. The box was a crude thing. It felt heavier than it should have been. She put both the pieces into it, and closed it tight. When she did, Clark strode forward and picked the box up, then sat down in his chair. No one else around them seemed to have noticed any of this.
"It seems that we were less than perfectly honest with each other," said Clark. "Old habits, I guess."
"Clark," said Lois. She folded her hands into her lap, to keep them from shaking. "Fuck, I don't know what to say."
"Language," said Clark with a mild tone. "I'm not angry, just disappointed. We'll have to talk this out later." He drummed his fingers on top of the box. "Just for my own personal confirmation before I confront him, who gave you these?"
There was no way to deny it. Clark already knew. "Lex Luthor," said Lois. Her mouth felt dry.
Clark stood up from his chair, and tucked the box under one arm as though it were weightless. "Well, I'm off to have a talk with him." He began to leave, as though nothing at all were wrong.
"Clark," said Lois. He stopped, and turned towards her. "I'm sorry."
"Well, that's a start," he replied. He gave her a heartbroken smile.
"Superman to see you, sir," said Mercy.
Lex simply stared at her. Just once he would have liked to see some trace of emotion from her, but Mercy could announce that the world was ending and still seem like she was bored.
"Did he say what it was regarding?" asked Lex.
"The fate of humanity," said Mercy, without so much as a raised eyebrow or a polite cough to acknowledge the absurdity of it all.
"Ah, well, send him in," said Lex. He looked towards the lead-lined drawer of his desk, where a pistol with specially prepared bullets lay waiting. Inside each lead bullet was a small sliver of kryptonite. It was a terrible plan, so far as they went, but at least it was there.
Superman strode into the study, looking around as he went. He was graceful, for someone so big. The bright colors of his costume clashed with the rich mahogany and leather upholstery of the room, but he didn't seem to notice or care.
"I don't believe we've had the pleasure of being introduced," said Lex. "I was an innocent bystander at a bank robbery that you stopped, though I'm sure you don't remember my face. I'm Lex Luthor. I suppose you already know that." He extended a hand, and when Superman shook it, he tried not to think about his fingers being mashed into pulp.
Superman sat down in one of the chairs, and offered Lex a pleasant smile. "Well, I'm not sure quite where to begin." He looked around the room for a moment, perhaps contemplating the fact that he was surrounded by lead. Then he turned and pointed to bound proof on Lex's desk, a copy of the book he and Lois had put together about Superman. "May I?"
"Certainly," said Lex. "If there's anything that you think needs changing, we'd be happy to-"
Superman waved him off, and opened the sheaf of papers to somewhere in the middle, finding what he wanted immediately. "Ah, here we go. 'The currently accepted explanation for Superman's so-called x-ray vision has nothing to do with x-rays. Though one can be forgiven for thinking that they have something to do with that particular form of radiation given that both are used to peer through otherwise solid objects, as well as the use of lead for shielding, the similarities end there.'" Superman looked up at Lex for a moment, then back down at the book. "And so on and so forth, and then here, this is what I wanted to point out. 'Superman's penetrative vision is thought by leading scientists to utilize some hitherto unknown aspect of particle physics. The hypothesized krypto particles permeate the universe and can pass cleanly through every known element aside from lead.' And then it goes on to talk about the difference between lead as it applies to x-rays and lead as it applies to krypto particles."
Lex stared at Superman. He tried to keep calm and slow his heart rate down. "Are you telling me that you can see through lead?"
"No," said Superman. "However, let me offer up a hypothetical. Let's say that there's a mineral that was found in the core of a meteorite. Two separate research facilities were sent samples of the meteorite - not by me, but by a third party - and they could find no form of radiation using any of the instruments at their disposal. I know for a fact that it does emit radiation, because as you seem to have guessed, that radiation has an unsettling effect on me. As an additional piece of information, the radiation from this mineral is blocked by lead, but seemingly by nothing else. What do you suppose it would look like to my x-ray vision?"
"Bright," said Lex. "Because if it emits anything, Occam's Razor would dictate that it's krypto particles rather than some distinct particle which shares many of the same properties. And if they're the same, it's a matter of degree - the mineral emits far, far more than you use to see by." He should have seen that possibility far, far sooner. The only question remaining was how many layers of deception it would allow Superman to peel back.
"It's as bright as a blazing sun, difficult to look at directly when I'm using my x-ray vision," said Superman. He shrugged. "I probably would have been able to piece it together all the same. A man walked by me with a piece of glowing green rock in his breast pocket, and I felt myself grow weaker. It got worse the closer he got. I have extensive practice at faking reactions, or faking a lack of reaction, and just when I was beginning to feel mortal, and worried that I was going to be killed in some ignoble way, he kept on moving by. So I held myself in check, and as soon as I got to a safe place, I looked through the walls and watched him. I saw a piece of rock that was so bright it nearly blinded me."
Lex kept very still. The research facilities he'd sent the kryptonite to hadn't had lead shielding, and he hadn't thought that they would need it. The story he'd given for the appearance of kryptonite had been solid, and the forged paperwork had been airtight. Experimentation and synthesis of an unknown mineral shouldn't have been suspicious - except that Superman would only have had to go to space and look down at the planet. If they shone as brightly as he claimed they did, they'd stick out like a sore thumb.
"So," said Superman. "I stole a piece of the PU-356 from one of the labs. I won't bore you with the details, but it would suffice to say that I can see through walls and move as fast as I want to, which makes me an excellent thief. I confirmed that it could hurt me, and after that it was just a matter of being careful until I could confirm your involvement to my satisfaction. I'm not in any real danger from the PU-356, though it is inconvenient. I can see it clearly from miles away without having to try all that hard, and my superior speed means that a bullet made of it could never hit me." Superman sighed. "Of course, we can drop the pretense of there ever being a meteorite. That would be too big of a coincidence to swallow, if a meteorite capable of harming me was found and put into mass synthesis just a short while after my spaceship was stolen from me."
Lex's mouth felt dry. "I was blackmailed," he began. "I was told that unless I tried -"
Superman waved his hand. "I don't believe you," he said with a half smile. "You made a good faith attempt to kill me, and you used Lois to do it."
"The military -" said Lex.
"There were a few reasons that I came here," said Superman. "Things we need to discuss. First, I want you to admit to what you've done. All of it."
Lex's face fell. "I don't know what it is you think you know," he said. "Or how you think you know it. I did arrange for Lois to deliver a piece of the mineral to you, and it was an attempt to see whether you could be disrupted in some way, but I don't know anything about a spaceship. So far as I'm aware, it burned up on re-entry. I felt it prudent to have a method of dealing with you in case the worst were to happen, and I can only hope that -"
"Towards the end of his life, William Calhoun talked a lot," said Superman. "He sat in a jail cell, and if prayer is an expression of love, then he did whatever the opposite of praying is. Some of what he said was nonsense, credit taken for crimes that he didn't commit, but I could usually tell by how he spoke. He wasn't the guiding hand behind Harry Kramer's bombing campaigns. If he had been, he would have brought it up more often, instead of just in those moments that he really wanted to twist the knife as hard as possible."
"You think that I could possibly be behind that act of terrorism?" asked Lex.
"It wasn't terrorism," said Superman. "It was a series of attempts on my life. Terror was only a byproduct. Given that I know you tried earlier today, it's not unreasonable to think that you had tried before." He held up a hand to forestall any objections. "I'm less certain about that one, and obviously I have no hard proof. Certainly nothing that would hold up in a court of law. Still, it became clear fairly early on that I was looking for someone who was intelligent and possessed an enormous amount of resources. That you have lead-lined rooms in both your home and office, speak in languages other than English for no good reason, and have a penchant for codes - well, that helped to paint a picture. I want a confession from you, one that covers everything you're guilty of."
"And then you'll kill me?" asked Lex.
"No," said Superman. "I'm willing to accept your unconditional surrender."
"Ah," said Lex. "And what does that entail?"
"Part of an unconditional surrender is that you don't get to ask that question," said Superman. "I beat you. It's over. You have exactly one thing that can give me the slightest injury, and I can see it coming from a mile away. I'm fairly certain I know how you think now. It's been a learning experience, watching all of the machinations of an enemy with nearly infinite resources and a steadfast refusal to be identified."
"Fine," said Lex. It was time to change tactics, and concede some ground in the hopes of arranging a more advantageous battlefield. "I confess. I was the one who figured out your inability to see through lead, and allowed that fact to be known around the world. I arranged for the bombs to be made and placed, knowing that innocent people would die. I figured out your identity as Clark Kent, and inserted agents into Smallville. Your mother's death was unintentional. I stole your spaceship. I found a single small chink in your armor and tried my best to use it against you. I believe that's an accurate list of my crimes." Almost all of the layers of deception had slid off now, with only a few secrets still held back in reserve, more out of a faint sense of hope than any coherent strategy. Lex felt naked.
"Why?" asked Superman. He showed no shock or surprise.
"You are too dangerous to be allowed to live," said Lex. "You cannot be stopped after the fact, which means you must be stopped prior to it."
"Do you know why I killed Calhoun?" asked Superman.
"According to Miss Lane, you were angry with him," said Lex. He tried not to be bothered by the seeming non sequitur. Superman was at an advantage in not only strength and speed, but information as well. Lois had said he had the ability to think for long moments in the space between blinks, and perhaps that accounted for the disjointed conversation. Or maybe Superman had just prepared a script for himself to follow, and was sticking to the points he wanted to hit before he brought Lex to a messy end.
"You're close," said Superman. "I was angry with him, but anger alone wasn't enough. Instead it was a chain of thought, with each step colored in anger. I convinced myself that it was the correct thing to do, and that wouldn't have been possible without the anger. I decided to kill Calhoun, and then I worked backwards to figure out all the ways that I could make that into the single best choice." He paused, and stared Lex in the eyes. "I've been looking over what I actually believe lately, and trying to figure out why I believe it. And do you know, I think more than anger, my thinking has been tainted by fear. As has your own."
"Fear is a natural response to the chance of obliteration," said Lex. "It's what saved our ancestors - my ancestors, anyway - from death. When a new predator arrives in the woods, the appropriate reaction is to run away or fight. There was no way to run away from you. So yes, I was and am afraid of you, but that fear had a grounding in reality. I would have acted the same even if I didn't feel an instinctive terror at your presence on this planet."
"I was good," said Superman. "I was a paragon of virtue. I never hurt anyone. I never acted in a way that was contrary to humanity. I never interfered with politics or warfare. You feared me all the same, and made it your mission to kill me. You got this idea in your head that I was a threat -"
"You were," said Lex softly.
"And you never stopped to reconsider whether that continued to be true as time went on," finished Superman. "I'm not a bad person. I can understand if you had misgivings when I showed up, but as the months passed, you never changed your mind, did you? Maybe you just didn't want to admit that you killed all those people for nothing. You couldn't admit you were wrong about me, because then you would be forced to think of yourself as evil. Lex, I'm not going to destroy this planet, or anyone on it. That's more true now than ever."
Lex was silent. The issue wasn't whether Superman was planning to destroy the planet, it was that he was capable of it at all. "Knowing what I know now, I would have done things differently," said Lex. "But up until an hour ago I thought it would be for the best if you were dealt with, and you haven't said anything to change my mind. Regardless, you have managed to convince me that it's not going to be possible to accomplish that goal, so if you want my unconditional surrender, you have it."
"Good," said Superman. "I said earlier that I had been ruled by my own fears. They weren't fears of death or injury, for the most part. They were fears of failing in other ways. I acted like I thought a hero should act, and tried to be a symbol for people. I read your proposals as they came out, and the proposals of others. Some of the ideas I'd already thought of myself, while others were novel, but I had convinced myself that part of being a shining symbol of hope, truth, and justice was being static. Part of it was my father, I'm sure. He had his very particular views about the world, and I was following his example. It felt like I would have been turning my back on him if I'd decided that I wanted to do things differently. And even when the evidence began to grow that I'd been wrong - or at least not completely right - I refused to change. I was afraid I would do something bad by trying to do something good. I was worried that I would ruin our society, or mar human history. I thought I would end up leading us down the same path Krypton had traveled, letting too much happen too soon. It was logic, tainted with the fear of failure. I had decided that I was going to keep the world as it was, so that my responsibilities would stay small. Then I rationalized my way towards that conclusion."
"You're speaking in the past tense," said Lex.
"How much of what you've said over the past year was true?" asked Superman. "How much do you want to make the world a better place?"
"I meant all of it," said Lex. "I could have done much less than I did, if I only wanted the appearance of philanthropy. I want to make the world a better place."
"That's what your surrender means," said Superman. "You're going to help me do the most good."
"What's the catch?" asked Lex. The important question of How? would come later.
Superman waved his hand around the room. "No more lead. No more codes. No more speaking in other languages. No more secrets from me. You'll have to return my spaceship to me, and stop all of the current research into a means of killing me. LexCorp will be turned into a machine for generating good in the world instead of pure profit. I'll be doing large scale labor, and you'll be managing the profits from that as well, channeling them towards the areas where the money can do the most good. I'll need a thorough debriefing on all of your methods of deception. It probably goes without saying that I'll be watching you like a hawk. I want your help in allowing me to keep my identity as Clark Kent secret, which will likely involve buying The Daily Planet and giving me a list of everyone who you've told, for starters. And you're never to speak with Lois again."
"And if I don't want to take that option?" asked Lex. He was already thinking of ways to get around the restrictions that Superman was talking about, but if the kryptonite was unworkable as a solution, it was almost certain that the attempts on Superman's life would have to stop for good.
"I'm going to build a prison," said Superman. "You would be the second inmate, if you refused. There would be absolutely no hope of escape."
"Then I'll help you, of course I will, but I'm afraid I still don't understand," said Lex.
"I believe there's a goodness in you, Luthor," said Superman. "I'm still a Christian, and the story of the Bible is one of redemption. I have nothing to fear from you, and you're in a unique position to effect positive change. While I admit it would feel good to lock you away forever, rehabilitation is more important than retribution. More practically, no one knows of your crimes but me, and while I can prove enough of it to my own satisfaction, I don't have any illusions that it would hold up in any court of law. Making you disappear would raise questions, and I don't know who might have the answers. I also know your methods well enough to know that you probably have a dead man's switch somewhere, and of course I worry about what might be in it. My existence as Clark Kent is important to me, and I don't want to give it up unless I have to. You're a smart man. You know I'm offering you a good deal."
"You are," said Lex. He swallowed. "It makes more sense to keep me alive and work towards our mutual goals. You hadn't struck me as being so level-headed."
"People change," said Superman. He blurred forward. The chair he'd been sitting in slid backward three feet and fell over. He stood right before the desk, towering over it. His expression was deathly serious. "I feel like it goes without saying, but I could kill you in a heartbeat. I don't like using the threat of force, but if you step out of the very clearly defined lines we're going to set, I will throw you right into a specially made cell in my jail. If you give me reason to suspect that you're still a threat to me or anyone else around me, you will simply vanish from the face of the Earth and never be heard from again."
"Understood," said Lex. He noted what Superman had said, and the very specific wording the alien had used. He had not actually said that he would commit murder, only that he could. And the threat of consequences had been vague. Superman was back to being a pacifist, it seemed, after a dalliance with murder. Lex could use that against him.
But then, perhaps it made the most sense to simply accept the reality of Superman. If kryptonite shined brightly and Superman knew to look for it, it would be nearly impossible to kill him with it. A kryptonite bomb surrounded by lead would only work if Superman could be maneuvered directly next to it, and as soon as he saw the casing of the bomb bowing outwards he would be on the move. The other clear option was to get Superman as he slept, but given what they both knew about each other, there was a decent chance that Superman would simply stop sleeping, or rotate through different anonymous locations - and that was assuming that Superman could even be snuck up on while he slept. If Superman knew about kryptonite, and was willing to work outside of or in opposition to the law, the problem seemed nearly unworkable.
"Which of the proposals did you want to pursue?" asked Lex.
Superman stood back, and brushed off his costume. "I'm looking for pure efficiency, which is your area of expertise. You're going to spend the next few days tearing the lead from these walls and complying with my demands, and then I want you to start writing a proposal for how I can do the most good. I won't kill anyone, and I want to try to keep my interference with governmental bodies to a minimum, but I am willing to reshape the world in any other way."
"I'll think on it," said Lex.
"Don't cross me," said Superman. "I'm hoping that you can see that this is good for both of us."
Lex nodded stiffly. All his preparations and all his caution had been for nothing. This wasn't the end that he wanted, but it was the best that he could have hoped for after his masks had been taken away from him.
"This will be the last time we see each other in person," said Superman. "Or rather, the last time that you see me. I'll be watching you." He turned to leave, then stopped and stared at the door. He glanced back at Lex with a frown on his face, then looked at the door again. It was lead of course, just like the walls of the room, but something had given Superman pause. "Miss Graves, please move away from the door."
Instead, the door to the study began to open, and it had shifted only the smallest fraction of an inch in the time it took for Superman to stand behind Lex's desk. He moved quickly and efficiently, being quite delicate with his power. By the time the door swung open, Superman had Lex's head in his hands, one of which was gripping his jaw. Lex felt no sensation of pain or even discomfort, only firm hands. Mercy stood at the doorway, with a solid block of kryptonite the size of a baseball held straight out in front of her.
"Mercy, was it?" asked Superman. His vice grip didn't let up for a moment.
"You have to know that this is utterly futile," said Superman. "I shouldn't have expected you to sit idly by while Lex and I had our chat, but we've come to an agreement of sorts. I want to leave here peacefully and with a minimum amount of destruction or loss of life."
Lex's jaw was held firmly in place, preventing him from speaking. He could only hope that Mercy would understand from the look in his eyes. She took a half step closer.
"Stop," said Superman. She stopped. "I'm going to let Lex speak to you, to try to convince you that you should leave. Lex, consider this your first test."
Lex's jaw was gently released. He took a breath. "Mercy, I want you to listen to me very carefully. Throw the kryptonite towar-"
The grip on Lex's head vanished just as the wall behind him shattered outwards with a rush of air. Mercy had started winding up for a throw before Lex was halfway through his sentence, and the block of kryptonite landed on the desk, where it slid across and fell to the floor at Lex's feet. Lex ignored it and opened the lead-lined drawer to pull out the pistol.
He stepped out the hole in the side of his mansion, where it was a nice and pleasant summer day. Superman was laying on the ground a hundred feet away, covered by his red cape, and Lex took off towards him at a dead sprint, trying his best to avoid the glowing green shards and bits of lead that Superman had taken with him when he went through the wall.
When Lex was five feet away, he fired three bullets into Superman's head. The sight of blood sent a wave of relief through him, and he crouched down next to the body to catch his breath.
"I studded the walls with kryptonite," Lex said to the corpse. He kept his eyes on the body, just in case it started moving. It as far from the first dead person he'd seen, but the sight of it still sent a surge of adrenaline through him. He wouldn't have been terribly surprised if he had passed out or threw up.
After a half a minute had passed, Mercy came walking across the lawn to join him. Her hair was in the same tight bun as always, and she certainly didn't look like she'd just played an instrumental part in killing a god. She carried the chunk of kryptonite in one hand.
"He had a great many options for dealing with that situation," said Mercy. "How lucky did we just get?"
"I haven't had enough time to work out the odds," said Lex. "But he didn't want to hurt either of us, even after everything I'd confessed to. Leaving through the side of the room was probably what I would have done. He must have scoped out the mansion before he came - watched me in my study whenever you opened the door, observed our patterns. I think it would be safe to say that we won because we were lucky. Putting kryptonite in with the lead was at the far edge of my most paranoid preparations, and after the brush-by I had thought that it wasn't strong enough. I was actually angry about wasting the money." He ran his hand across his bare scalp. "He was too dangerous to let live."
"I know, sir," said Mercy. She looked across the yard. They were separated from their neighbors by a massive expanse of lawn and thick shrubs, but the noise wouldn't go unnoticed. "We should figure out what sort of story is appropriate to this situation." She looked at where Superman lay. "We should also dispose of the body."
She was right, but Lex was having trouble focusing. He had won. It had been damned sloppy. He should have arranged for Mercy to do what she'd done on her own anyway. It should have been a masterstroke. If he had lured Superman into the room and sprung a trap, he would have felt more of a thrill of victory. But as his thoughts moved back towards the conversation he'd had with Superman, he could tell there was another reason that he only felt hollow. There was a small seed of doubt. Lex had made his choice, and made that choice for all of humanity. It wasn't unreasonable to wonder whether that choice had been the right one. Still, the seed of doubt couldn't be allowed to grow, not after the choice had already been made.
"I don't know how much of our conversation you overhead," said Lex. "But it didn't change anything. He was just too powerful to be allowed to exist."
Mercy only nodded.
"Any word from Clark?" asked Jimmy.
"No," said Lois. "I wouldn't expect any letters from him."
"He just left without saying goodbye though?" asked Jimmy. "I mean, he was never very dependable, but I just didn't expect it of him."
"He'd had too much of the city," said Lois. "You read his letter of resignation. He's back in Kansas, taking care of the farm. It wasn't impossible to predict. You know how much he talked about Smallville." Lex had called her to let her know that Superman had been dealt with, and the letter of resignation had come in the very next day. She'd been feeling an awful pit in her stomach ever since, even as she tried to keep Perry and Jimmy from asking too many questions. She had no idea how Lex had done it, but she was certain that Clark was dead.
Jimmy moved closer and lowered his voice. "The thing is, I was talking to Eleanor. Did I ever tell you how we met?"
"At a bar?" asked Lois.
"Right," said Jimmy. "It was just after we'd gotten back from the Whitman thing, and … she asked me some questions about Clark. I didn't think anything of it at the time, I was halfway to drunk and she was - is - pretty much a goddess. Anyway, I was talking to her about Clark's sudden retirement from the reporting business, and she broke down and told me that it wasn't an accident that we had met each other. I was part of a case she was working, to try to dig up some dirt on local reporters. She works for a detective agency, and she thought that maybe it was so that someone would be able to put pressure on him if the wrong sort of story broke, but now … now it seems a little fishy."
Luthor, thought Lois. She should have known that after she told him about Superman's secret identity he would try to find out more. Maybe it had been one of the things that had tipped Clark off and let him know that someone was on his trail. "Wait a second, you started dating after we covered the Whitman kidnapping?"
"Yeah, why?" asked Jimmy.
The timeline didn't match up. She'd come to Lex months later, which meant that either someone else was snooping into Clark's past, or Lex had known the truth far before she had. One of those options seemed far more likely than the other.
"Nothing," said Lois. "You've just given me something to think about."
Just because Superman was gone didn't mean that Lex could rest easy. There was a possibility that more aliens would arrive at some point in the future, and if they had capabilities anything like what Superman had, humanity needed to undergo a rapid technological advancement as swiftly as possible. Superman's spaceship still held a wealth of information, and there was a piece of it that Lex thought of as its brain - a central component that was connected to all of the others and likely carried signals of some sort. On top of that, there was the brewing war in Europe to consider, along with the Sino-Japanese conflict. It was unfortunate that governments were more willing to spend extreme amounts of money when there was an immediate danger to their existence, but war - or at least the threat of it - would prove useful.
"Miss Lane to see you," said Mercy. She had helped to drag Superman's body from the wreckage and hide it in the trunk of one of his cars before the police arrived, and as he might have predicted, the whole experience didn't seem to have changed her at all. He was doing his best to follow that example.
"Send her in," said Lex with a smile.
Lois looked different. She'd cut her hair aggressively short since the last time they saw each other, and if she had always been a little bit ferocious, now she seemed positively bristling.
"How much of it were you responsible for?" asked Lois.
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," said Lex.
"You killed his mother, that much I'm nearly certain of," said Lois. She sat down in what had been her customary chair, and stared at him with intense eyes. "I went out there, did you know that? I went to Smallville, trying to find out who he had been. I'm surprised you left so many loose ends. There was an autopsy report for Martha Kent that didn't look right, and the day she died, when there was that big storm, three people went missing from Smallville and never came back. They didn't find bodies either."
"Again, I have to insist that I don't know what you're talking about," said Lex. "And if you're thinking of putting any of these thoughts to print, I would suggest that you either have a substantial amount of proof or a very, very good lawyer."
"I kept thinking about the bombings," said Lois. "Clark thought that Calhoun was the man behind them, but he was wrong, wasn't he? While you were putting out a reward for Kramer's capture in public, you were sending him schematics and instructions in private. It wasn't possible for a single man to have done it all, that much was obvious, so you framed Calhoun and bombed your own properties to turn watchful eyes in another direction. You were trying to kill Clark from the start."
"Miss Lane, I generally make it a point to not bother refuting spurious rumors about myself," said Lex. "But given the gravity of what you're suggesting and the fact that we were friends, once upon a time, I will tell you completely and unequivocally that I had nothing to do with any of that. I was a steadfast supporter of Superman -"
"Because you needed a cover," said Lois.
"I was a steadfast supporter of Superman, and I was as disheartened as anyone when he became a murderer and fled the planet," said Lex.
"You killed hundreds, didn't you, without even a thought for the value of their lives?" asked Lois.
"I am curious about what evidence drove you towards such a wild and unfounded conclusion," said Lex. There was no way that she would be able to prove anything.
In the worst case scenario, she had found the laboratory where the spaceship was being kept and broken through all the layers of security, but that still wouldn't be enough to implicate him in the public eye, let alone the court of law. After the autopsy and a collection of samples, Superman's body had been reduced to pulp, mixed with a healthy amount of kryptonite, encased in lead, and lowered deep into an unmarked grave on a vast, private nature preserve in Alaska which Lex had exclusive control of. He had used hundreds of agents in the course of tracking down and positioning Superman, but only a very few knew enough to implicate an unknown master in wrongdoing, and only Mercy had the ability to implicate Lex as that mastermind. It was well possible that Lois could or would reveal to the world that Clark Kent had been Superman, but it would have raised all kinds of questions he was sure she would want to avoid, and either way wasn't something that could really be proven after the fact - nor would it substantially change his plans.
"I don't have any evidence," said Lois. "Believe me, if I did I would be shouting it from the rooftops instead of coming here. You won, Luthor. I just want to know what the hell you were thinking."
"Well, of course I can't comment on things that I haven't done," said Lex. "If, hypothetically, I had engineered a series of heinous crimes in pursuit of some foolish feud with Superman, I certainly would have nothing to gain by telling you about my reasoning, especially not when it would give more fuel to your paranoia."
"I hated Clark for lying to me," said Lois. "I hated him for living this double life and pulling the wool over my eyes. But at least at their core, Clark and Superman were the same person. There was a real goodness there, even if it was clumsy and imperfect. Is there a core to you, Lex?"
"Lois, I have a franchise of orphanages set up throughout the United States now, headed by caring, competent people," said Lex. "I am personally spearheading a number of advancements in the sciences that will revolutionize the world ten times over. If the United States goes to war in the coming years, one of the reasons we will emerge victorious is because of the vast resources that I control and the overwhelming technological superiority that we will enjoy. I have done more to end the Great Depression than any single other person on the planet. That is my core."
Lois only glared at him. She stood slowly, seeming years older than when they'd first met. "I wish I'd never met you," she said. She left without another word.
He'd waited too long.
Superman had been stopping by with food every three days like clockwork. The hole in the ground had been expanded, and he'd brought in more supplies. It was gratifying to have his pitiful existence made slightly more bearable, but at the same time every new possession in his miserable little hole meant that his captivity became more and more permanent.
The plan had been to wait for Superman to make his next visit (canned foods, refill the barrel of water, empty the waste bucket) and then make the trip up after that so that there was less of a chance of starving to death in the woods once he made it out of the hole, not to mention that he needed as much time to scurry away before the big blue warden came back to tend to his only prisoner.
It was difficult to mark time, given how close to the Arctic Circle he was. The sun dipped down to the horizon and then stayed there. But when three days had come and gone, Floyd had waited another two days after that, worried that Superman was simply late. He'd let his food get too low, and was going to have to make the climb on an empty stomach.
He was thirty feet up when he slipped. He'd been trying to lunge up to a higher handhold, and when he missed and sank back down to let his weight rest on his feet, one of them slipped. Then he was falling.
He lay on the cold, hard floor with a broken leg. There was no chance that he would be able to make the climb now, let alone hike through the wilderness. He made a quick tourniquet and a splint, and hoped that Superman would come back.
Author's Note: Thanks for reading.