I woke up in Superman's Fortress of Solitude on the cold crystalline floor with a stitch in my side and a cramp in my leg. My artic-weather parka was damp and was making me shiver. I winced as I lowered the insulated hood, uncovering my bare head in the chill air of the Fortress. A quick glance around showed an empty room. The last thing I remembered was…blue tights.
"Did the bastard just dump me on the ground and take off?" I muttered to myself.
"Kal-el was alerted to your presence on the ice plain," a disembodied voice floated through the white cavern. "He decided the best course of action was to bring you inside to save you from freezing to death. He is now investigating the remains of your vehicle. You can send a fruit basket when you feel up to it."
Was that voice being…sarcastic?
"Is this the Fortress' security systems?" I called, hoping that Kryptonian machines weren't auto-set to kill.
"I am Ai," the voice boomed. "I am the last surviving technology of the planet called Krypton. I don't just guard the Fortress. I am the Fortress." The voice, tinny but decidedly male, paused for a moment. "You look much taller on television, Lex Luthor."
"What…" I levered myself off the ground, climbing to my feet unsteadily. Only one man could be blamed for this strange welcome. My enemy, that intolerable Superman. It had been nearly a year since Superman had appeared in Metropolis. My home. Well, I had discovered the alien had a secret home of its own, and now it wasn't so secret. "I found his precious Fortress at last."
"Nearly," Ai snorted. "You were two hundred meters from my walls before you were overcome by exhaustion. Closer than any other human has come, but no cigar." I caught movement out of the corner of my eye; a face shimmered into view on the surface of a nearby crystal column. "This is my visual representation, my avatar. Like it?"
I approached the computer-generated face slowly. It looked eerily similar to Superman's. "You've been programmed with Earth colloquialisms. That's interesting."
Ai turned a slight shade of orange. "I have not been programmed," he bristled. "I have learned. I am Ai."
"Like…?" I pointed to my eyeball.
"No, not eye. Ai, as in A.I. but I have chosen to pronounce the two letters as one word. It is the Japanese word for 'love'. Love is why I was sent to Kal-el, so I found it fitting." The computer (if that's what he was) smirked, waiting for my reaction. When nothing seemed forthcoming, he continued, "It's a pun. Get it?"
"Yes, I get it," I snapped. "I suppose you think you're clever."
"I am." Ai tilted his face back, looking smug. "My sensors felt you approaching from miles away. I caused your vehicle to fail via an electrical-magnetic pulse. And I waited until your collapse to report your presence to Kal-el."
"Why did you wait, you annoying little thing?" I questioned. This was a powerful piece of machinery that could have easily killed me at any moment during my Artic journey. That made me angry and a…little bit hot under the collar.
"So he would bring you home, of course." Ai smiled beatifically before his face disappeared from the crystal wall.
"Wait! Home? What do you mean?" I pounded his fist against the smooth surface, trying to turn the thing back on somehow. "Where is Superman?"
"I have work to do, Lex Luthor," Ai's voice boomed about the room. "And while I could complete my tasks and converse with you simultaneously, I don't wish to. Feel free to rest."
A white glacial wall swung open, revealing another cavern. I stepped into the new room cautiously, sweeping my gaze along the jagged walls and the dizzyingly high ceiling. How does a man live here, I wondered. It was so cold, so empty. I spotted a small pool in the center of the floor, filled with some sort of liquid.
"I'm supposed to get in this?" I asked, directing my question to the ceiling. For a few long moments, it seemed as if I'd get no reply. Then Ai suddenly spoke.
"It's Kryptonian sleeping gel. Warm, encompassing, built to simulate the womb." Then, in a clipped announcer's voice from television: "Much more comfort and support than the traditional metal spring mattress. Watch how the glass doesn't tip over, even when she jumps up and down!"
The voice echoed in the empty room, leaving me at a loss for words. I dipped a hand in the shallow pool, noting that it was very warm and thick. But there didn't seem to be any head or neck support, and I preferred to not drown, even in sweet-scented alien goo.
Especially in sweet-scented alien goo.
"This is just getting weirder and weirder," I murmured.
I shucked off the wet parka and balled it up into a pillow. Curling into a question mark on the hard floor, I allowed myself a small sigh. Nothing was going as planned. Sure, I'd found the Fortress. Sort of. But for what? To be insulted by pile of alien Pentiums? To be rescued from the Artic wilderness by the very thing I'd come here to discredit?
I closed my eyes, planning what I'd say to Superman when he finally showed up. That alien had some explaining to do.
When I woke up the second time, it was because of the noise.
"How could you, Ai?" Superman yelled, addressing the computer's face in the far corner of the room. "You knew he was traveling on foot. Through the tundra. He could have died from exposure."
Ai made a chirping sound of dismissal. "I was monitoring his vital signs."
"That's not the point." Superman crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Ai's face, which was turning a sickly blue. "I found the snow mobile at least twenty miles away. And its systems appeared to have shorted out. Any ideas?"
"Shoddy earthen workmanship?" Ai suggested loftily.
"He used an EMP," I spoke up from my makeshift bed. Superman whirled around at the sound of his voice, his red cape swirling with him. "The computer," I clarified. "He shorted out the snow mobile, my GPS, my SAT phone…everything."
Superman turned to the blue visage and spoke to it very slowly, like it was a child. "Ai, did you use an EMP on Lex Luthor's equipment?"
Ai's avatar changed from a face to a full-scale body, which shuffled its feet. "Gee, Kal-el, just a little one."
Superman sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Ai, why didn't you tell me?"
Ai pouted. "You didn't ask."
After being frozen in place watching the bizarre exchange, I suddenly exploded. "This is why I'm here to stop vigilantes like you, Superman! You have all this power, all this supreme danger that you have brought to the planet, and there is no way I am going to sit idly by and watch you slowly lull the human race into a false sense of security."
Superman looked down at me, still on the floor, wrapped in a damp parka and shivering slightly. I stared back levelly, wishing I could muster up the energy to look just as imposing. The Kryptonian pursed his lips and shook his head.
"You should try the gel," he said tersely before striding out of the cavern.
"God damn it," I whispered, heaving gracelessly off the floor. "You travel thousands of miles to wag your finger at someone, they should have the god-damned decency to-"
"Let him be your madraes." Ai's voice in the next room sounded almost…tender. I tucked myself in a niche in the crystalline wall, watching Superman pace the length of what looked like a control room. A bank of computer panels lined the wall, and Ai's avatar appeared on a large sheet of ice above that. Superman had switched from pacing to floating. Ai continued to wheedle. "The fact that he is here when no other human could have made the journey proves-"
"He is not a madraes. Not to me, not to anyone. Lex is just a dog with a bone." Superman rubbed his temples, and I was reminded, briefly, of the person I had known years ago. Clark. That sweet boy, gone forever. Replaced by this…filth. I felt my blood boil, and tried to breathe evenly so Superman's hearing wouldn't pick up on the increased heartbeat. Unfortunately, the deep breathing was just as noticeable. Superman picked his head up from his hands, floating higher, his back turned to me. "Mr. Luthor," he spoke louder, "if you would rather have a traditional bed, I'm sure Ai can oblige."
"What does madraes mean?" I called up to him.
Ai began eagerly. "It's a Kryptonian term meaning-"
"Nothing," Superman interrupted harshly. "It means nothing."
The tense silence was broken by a beep on one of the consoles. "Storm squall," Ai reported in a bored voice. "Three boats affected, coordinates downloaded on screen." And he obliged by moving aside for a tactical map to appear on the screen.
Superman nodded, rising steadily to the ceiling, where sunlight streamed in from a break in the crystals. "Take care of Luthor while I'm gone, Ai," he said before flying away faster than could be seen.
The alien computer stared at me for a beat. "So now what?" I asked.
The avatar changed to an image of a small boy. "Wanna play Mario Brothers?" Ai-child asked hopefully. "Kal-el is no fun. He remembers where every warp zone is. Wins every time."
"But couldn't you do the same? Being a supercomputer and all?" I approached the main screen, looking at the unfamiliar symbols on the knobs.
"Where's the fun in that?" Ai huffed, changing back to his default avatar.
"Are you going to offer me any food? Dry clothes? Transport back to Metropolis?" I asked testily. Normally, I would be jumping at the chance of playing Mario with a supercomputer. Hell, just speaking to a supercomputer was pretty amazing, but I was tired, sore, damp, cold and hungry. And Superman's Fortress was not playing a very good host.
"Food? Oh, Pratgaka," Ai cursed. I didn't recognize the Kryptonian word, but I recognized the use. "Kal-el doesn't need to eat often, so I'm afraid supplies are somewhat lacking. But I can do clothes."
A compartment in the wall slid open to reveal two choices: Clark Kent's crumpled tan suit or blue jeans and a white T-shirt that said The Place to be is Cherokee in fuchsia letters. I flipped through the pile of clothes three times looking for anything else to leap into existence before distastefully removing the jeans and T-shirt. It would fit better than the suit, at least.
"As for transport," Ai prattled on, "where exactly do you think you're going? Back to the real world?"
"Yes, why wouldn't I be?" I stripped down to his boxers, leaving my soaked clothing on the floor where it fell.
"Three words: Fortress. Solitude. Of. It's kind of a big secret," Ai drawled. I turned around slowly, the color draining out of my face as I watched the avatar smile widely. "You're not going back, Lex. Not for a long, long while."
"You can't keep me here," I laughed lightly.
The avatar changed to a huge man, looming above me with fire sparking from its eyes. "You have crossed the boundaries of the home of Kal-el, last son of Krypton. You have entered this place with no peaceful intentions and deserve no proper treatment," Ai roared back, glowering down at me. I stood my ground, even when the sparks proved real and fell on my bare skin, burning briefly.
Then Ai shrank down to normal size. "Sorry, did that hurt?" I shook my head, dressing myself in Clark's old clothes. "Good," Ai sighed thankfully. "Don't tell Kal-el about that whole 'fear of God' thing. I'm still working out the bugs." The computer regarded me thoughtfully. "What were your intentions anyway? Did you travel all this way just to scold Kal-el for being Superman? That's not very efficient; you could have done that in Metropolis."
"Not exactly," I said, sitting on the floor to slip some dry socks over my bare feet. "I was planning on destroying the Fortress and stopping Superman forever."
Ai chirped merrily. "So that's what those explosive charges I detected in your vehicle were for! Good show, Luthor. Except…"
"Except your little magnet show rendered the trip devices useless," I grumbled, rising from the cold ground and casting my gaze about the cavern. "Isn't there any furniture in this place?"
A block of crystal rose from the floor and formed itself into a sort of chair. "I was about to say," Ai continued, "that the explosives would have worked except you didn't have nearly enough. The entire Fortress is constructed of an organic crystalline compound. Leave a small piece intact with the root system, and I could grow everything back." Ai chirped thoughtfully. "And Kal-el doesn't need me or the Fortress to do what he does. He is hajaga, which is an ancient Kryptonian word for 'stubbornly helpful to the point of being reckless.'"
I sat in the chair gingerly, finding it not too uncomfortable. "You really are an amazing piece of work, I'll give Superman that. To have created you must have taken years."
Ai beeped slightly, his avatar turning pink. "Kal-el did not invent me. I was sent here, remember? Out of love." A picture appeared on the screen in place of the avatar. A man and woman, strangely dressed in shimmering robes, arms linked. "Lara and Jor-el," Ai explained. "Kal-el's parents. They sent their only son through the emptiness of space to escape their planet's destruction. I came along for the ride. My birth-program was designed to create this place for Kal-el, to provide for him."
"But you don't serve him," I commented, watching the montage of Superman's parents flit away on the screen. "Today, you outright disobeyed him in order to trap me here. You could have warned him far in advance, and he could have caught me and flew me back to civilization. Instead, you waited until he had to bring me here or risk my death, which we both know he wouldn't allow, the boy scout. Why?"
The child-avatar appeared on the screen again. "Aw, c'mon, I'm not supposed to talk to you about that. Kal-el thinks I did a bad thing."
"What do you think, Ai?" I asked.
The regular Ai swirled back into view, his face stone-serious. "I think you are the madraes of Kal-el, and I would be remiss to let you leave this place."
"That word. What does it mean?" I leaned forward in the chair.
Ai opened his avatar mouth, but quickly shut it, glancing up at the ceiling. "Kal-el is approaching," he whispered.
I looked up as well, and watched a dripping wet Superman fly down into the Fortress. His wet cape clung to his back and shoulders, and the wind created by his flight ruffled his dark hair. His mouth was set in a grim line, and he touched down to the floor slowly, with great care.
"Everything was taken care of," Superman addressed the computer. "I'll be taking Luthor back to the city now."
"No, Kal-el! Security! Secrecy! He can't return," Ai pleaded. "Can't we keep him?"
I rose from my chair, wishing I didn't look like such a fool in the borrowed clothes. But feeling like a fool seemed to be the order of the day. "I will come back here better prepared next time," I said, pointing at the primary-color clad figure. "That is a promise."
"Which is why," Superman growled, stalking towards him, "I'm doing this."
I couldn't move fast enough to get away, obviously. And I wasn't strong enough to wrest away once the Man of Steel grabbed me. I felt those familiar hands on the back of my neck, the fragile back of my skull. No, not familiar anymore. Alien.
Which was why the kiss was such a shock. I felt the warm, wet lips on mine only briefly, but the memories flooded back instantaneously. A cold night in Smallville. Clark, a friend, his breath puffing in the starry air. A walk home in the dark on a dirt road lined with oaks. Toothy smiles and so many close calls where it was almost like this. Where we were almost more.
I felt the mouth on mine back away, and I opened my eyes, not realizing they'd shut. Superman's answering gaze was deep green and almost tired. "Sorry," he whispered.
"What the fuck was that?" I breathed. "Are…are you completely committed to making this the single most bizarre day in my life?"
Superman's eyebrows shot up. "Ai?" His voice sounded strained. "Why didn't the Kiss of Lethe work?"
"Kiss of…you're trying to erase my memory? Oh, wait until I get back to Metropolis and I'll show everyone what the Alien Gestapo is really like." I struggled in Superman's grip. "And stop holding me, damn it!"
Superman released me as if burned. "Ai!" he demanded again.
"Your madraes cannot be deceived in such ways, Kal-el." Ai squirmed on the screen. "Please just let me explain to him."
"Yes, someone please explain." I threw my hands up in the air.
"Ai thinks that we're…" Superman gestured vaguely with two hands.
"I know you are. I represent the pinnacle of four thousand years of Kryptonian technology. I think I would know who Kal-el's madraes is," Ai sniped.
"Okay, wait, wait." I held up my hands again and cleared my throat. "Does madraes mean alien sex slave?"
"No!" Superman and Ai answered at the same time, seemingly horrified.
"Oh." I smoothed my rumpled T-shirt. "Good."
"The madraes is the Kryptonian word for," Ai created a hand for his avatar to gesture with, "well, the closest I can come to in your language is Fated. Bonded. Meant to be." Superman shifted from foot to foot, and even floating three feet off the floor, he still looked uncomfortable.
I sat in the crystal chair heavily. I opened my mouth, then shut it. I pointed my left index finger in the air and shook it a few times. Then I said, "Absolutely not. I refuse."
"That's what I said," Superman agreed.
Ai made a bleep sound that sounded like a sigh. "You can't refuse. It's already come to pass."
"How?" I exploded. "When? We didn't…" I looked up at Superman, who looked lost like Clark used to, sometimes. "We never…"
"He hates me!" Superman pointed out.
"I do hate him." I nodded.
"I've prepared a presentation on the subject," Ai droned on, ignoring them both. "Step one: Day of the Meteor Shower. Smallville is our setting."
"Ai!" Superman yelled.
"He knows you're Clark Kent, Kal-el," Ai scoffed. "He's your madraes. No one else can see it, but he does."
"No, that thing," I pointed at the floating hero, "is not the Clark I knew. Clark was just a boy who wanted to be normal, but helped people anyway. Superman is a flashy vigilante, a stranger who shows up from nowhere, and I'm supposed to trust him?" I laughed grimly. "I don't think so. Humanity did just fine for thousands of years before Superman, and we'll last long after he goes. You," I pointed to the Man of Steel, frozen in the air, "are a crutch that Metropolis has learned to lean on instead of solving its own problems. I don't need you!" I gulped a deep breath and said more quietly, "We…I meant we don't need you."
"Are you done?" Ai asked dryly. "Unless anyone had any other heartfelt outbursts or interruptions…" He glared at Superman, who shook his head slowly, his eyes boring into me. "Good. Okay. Smallville. Meteor shower. The day you two first met."
Flashes came on the main screen, pictures of the town after the disaster, NASA data sheets on the meteors, a dazzling montage of information that I looked up at dully.
"No, we met the day I went off that bridge," I said.
"Wrong. Little Lex met Little Clark on Day Zero, touchdown day," Ai sang. "The Kents were the ones who saved your life after the shower. Not, as previously reported, your father."
I looked over to Superman, who shrugged. "It's true. My parents told me about it a few years ago."
"And consequently, that made Lex Luthor the first person of his own age that Kal-el met on this planet. Understand?" Ai flipped back onto the screen. "It was very brief, and very harried, but that was that. Done deal. You became Fated."
"What? How? I was seven." I frowned.
Ai sighed, fading from the screen to make room for more images, this time of Krypton medical sketches. "Kryptonians are a very tactile people. Physical connection has always been important to their development. In the case of modern Kryptonian society, well, what was Kryptonian society, small children were always given another of their age to bond with after birth. These bonds were established by touch and were, well, are, lifelong. A Fated pair is the most important relationship in all of Kryptonian society." Ai ended his presentation with a crude rendering of Clark and me holding hands. "Ta da! Fated."
"Okay. Let's say I am somehow…bound." I glanced over at Superman in distaste. "So what? Doesn't change how I feel."
Superman spoke up finally, talking in a slow, methodical manner. "A Fated pair, when torn apart, can get sort of complicated."
"They go mad." Ai appeared, replacing the drawing of us. "They start feeling ill, doing strange things." A pause. "Like hiking out into the Artic tundra. Or putting on a brightly colored costume to do their job."
"I am not crazy!"
"I like my costume!"
"Let's not get defensive," Ai suggested to us both. "Let's look at this positively. We have a while to work this whole thing out, since Lex Luthor is obviously not going anywhere unless he decides to swear himself to secrecy."
"Unlikely," I snorted, crossing my arms over my chest.
"And Kal-el, as the Fated who can fly at the speed of sound, I think you should go pick up some food for our guest, don't you?" Ai looked at Superman pointedly.
"If we feed him, he'll never go away," he muttered under his breath. Then, louder, asked me, "Anything you'd like in particular?"
"A respite from insane alien biological imperatives?" I snapped back.
"Okay. I'll just get some pizza." Clark rolled his eyes and took off with a burst of speed. Clark…I shook my head. That was the first time in almost a year I'd thought of the man in the cape that way.
"This frustrates Kal-el just as much as you, Lex," Ai said softly. "I wish everything was black and white. It would be easier for him."
"Yes," I drawled, reclining in his chair. "Life is so difficult for Superman."
"You'd be surprised, if you cared to look," Ai chided. "It weighs on him." His image faded from the screen, but the voice added, "You weigh on him."
"I remember the first time he showed up in town in that ridiculous suit," I said, staring at the lines of the crystal walls in thought. "He shot into the sky and carried that plane to the ground with one hand. One. And when everyone crowded around him, asking him who he was, what he was, he looked at me. Right at me, into my eyes."
There were flashes of that horrible day seared into my memory. The smell of burning jet fuel, the feel of my own fingernails digging into my palms, the way the blacktop of the runway shimmered in the summer heat. The cold ice in Clark's eyes. I bit the bottom of my lip and rolled it between my teeth, shaking his head slowly. "It was like he didn't even recognize me. Like he was someone else. And I was supposed to go along with the charade."
Ai's voice echoed softly through the room. "Why have you never stepped forward? For all your distrust of Kal-el, you've never exposed him to the world. Pragatka knows you could."
"Why bother telling the world about Clark Kent?" I sighed, closing his eyes. "Clark doesn't exist anymore."
Ai didn't answer. I sat in silence a moment more before feeling a whoosh of cold wind behind me. A flannel covered arm held a flat pizza box in front of my face.
"Still warm," Clark said.
"Nice try." I snapped my head up, taking in a denim Clark, feet-on-the-ground Clark. Human Clark. "Think a costume change is really going to fool me?"
"The suit makes me self-conscious. I like to wear civies in my downtime." Clark shrugged. "You hungry or not?"
I grudgingly took the pizza and watched as a crystal formed a small table close at hand. Clark began to sit even as his own chair was growing behind him, motioning for me to set the food on the table.
"Better than Ikea, huh?" Clark joked lamely, taking a slice for himself. I watched him eat with narrow eyes. Clark swallowed hard under the scrutiny. "It's not poisoned or anything. God, Lex."
"I…" I lifted a piece of pizza from the box, choosing my words carefully. "I hate everything you stand for. How are we supposed to even begin this discussion?"
"I thought we'd start with pepperoni." Clark gestured to the table. "Then maybe work our way up to the bigger stuff."
Pepperoni. There was a joke in there, an old one. Something to do with the local Smallville Domino's and a two-liter of Pepsi. I took a small bite and chewed.
"Do you remember that one time…?" I asked.
"Yeah, I do." Clark grinned. "You looked up at me wildly from the phone and said, 'They're out of everything but pepperoni. What the hell is pepperoni?'"
"And you said, 'Food of the gods, you philistine.' You'd been waiting all week to use that word."
"Never thought I'd use it on you," Clark laughed, plowing through another slice.
I watched him quietly. It was a start. But I am the sort of man who could never let a sleeping dog lie.
"When did you decide to cause the Air Force One crash?" I asked crisply, letting my half-eaten slice flop back down into the open box. "Before or after you designed that ridiculous suit?"
Clark sputtered, choking on his swallowed bite of food. I wasn't concerned; it wasn't like Superman needed air.
"I didn't cause that crash!" Clark slapped his pizza back in the box as well. "Are you insane? I wouldn't put all those people in danger."
"No?" I lifted an eyebrow. "So you're telling me that Superman just happened to show up for the very first time when a plane carrying the President, half of the cabinet, and a gaggle of reporters happened to go into a tailspin?"
Clark nodded, his mouth a little bit open. "I would never put all those lives at risk. I couldn't have."
"Not even for a flashy entrance?" I sneered. "I know how you love those."
"God, no. Lex…you were on that plane too," Clark said softly.
I blinked, half-expecting Clark to have really not noticed me that day. That strange, terrible day that started off entertaining the leader of the free world with global marketing legislation proposals and ended with black smoke filling the cabin. Eerily reminiscent of another day, years ago, that was also supposed to be a happy occasion and ended up…not.
"Are you certain that your little computer didn't do the dirty work for you?" I countered, trying to cover up my slight pause.
"I did no such thing," Ai replied haughtily, not even bothering to shimmer into view with an avatar. "It would have been unnecessary."
"Well, I don't believe in coincidences." I stood up swiftly, looking around for a doorway, but Ai had closed all the hallways. "There isn't even somewhere to storm off to in this place," I muttered.
Clark stood too, holding his hands out in a placating gesture. "Do you think this is easy for me, Lex? I didn't ask for all this power and responsibility. But I have it, so there must be a reason. I have to do what I do. I can't not do it."
I glared. "Maybe you just want to belong. And you think if you try to stop, you wouldn't have a place here anymore." I called up to the ceiling where Ai's voice seemed to stem from. "Let me out of this room, Ai."
"Nothing doing," the computer answered. "You two hash this out. Now."
"Maybe you're just jealous that an alien from outer space fits in better on earth than you ever could." Clark stuck his hands on his hips, jutting his chin out defiantly.
"Stick to righteous snobbery, Clark," I shot back. "You're not so good at plain insults." Still, I ran a hand self-consciously over my bare scalp. This older Clark was really quick with the low blows.
Clark noticed the movement and deflated rapidly. "Sorry, Lex. That wasn't fair." With a sigh, he asked, "Ai, shouldn't we be not trying to kill each other if we're really Fated?"
"Normally. But with so much physical distance between you two for such a long period of time, your bonds are frayed." A diagram of Smallville appeared on the large screen. "It's unusual for a Fated pair to be raised apart from each other, as you were. After your initial meeting as small children, the Forces tried from that point onward to bring you back into contact with your Fated. You see, there really are no coincidences." A picture from my insurance records showing the blue mangled Porsche overlapped the diagram. "You may have noticed a surge in your systems when you met for the second time. For Kal-el, this meant a steady increase in the development of his powers. For Lex, this unleashed the true potential of his meteor-induced healing factor." Hospital reports from my medical chart piled on the screen, one after the other.
"Good thing," I commented dryly.
"Don't you understand?" Ai said gently. "Your bodies were sick for each other. After over a decade of being on different sides of the planet, the renewed bonding must have been an incredible experience. Surely you felt it?"
"I…" Clark looked blankly at me. "I suppose it explains a lot."
"Even now, with you both barely on speaking terms," Ai said cheerfully, "you are closer than you think." Images splashed on the screen, security camera feeds, photos from the Planet, various events I remembered attending. And there, in the background, behind a column or in another section of a restaurant at the same time, there would be Clark.
"Stalking me?" I asked wryly.
"I didn't realize…" Clark studied the images as well, picking my own face out of the crowds.
"You wouldn't realize it. It's subtle. Innate. You might get a craving for coffee and wander into a shop and lean against the counter because your body senses that your Fated was there, in that exact place, only moments ago. And your body yearns for contact." Ai blacked out the screen, apparently finished with his mountains of data. "But no one can force you to make up, you pig-headed fools. I suppose you'll be slaves to this urge your whole life."
"It's complicated," we both answered at the same time.
"Let me guess." Ai appeared on screen, his arms crossed over his chest. "A woman was involved."
Clark looked guiltily at the ground. My ears colored slightly, as they do when I'm angry.
"Lana was-" Clark began.
"I never-" I cut in.
"And where is Ms. Lang now?" Ai boomed over them both. Grudging silence met his question. "Ah. Well, that was something worth fighting over, I suppose."
"She…" Clark's bare feet left the ground slowly, arms wrapped around himself, and I wondered if the floating was just a nervous habit. "I don't think it was really ever about her. Was it, Lex?"
I chuckled humorlessly. "I suppose not."
"You felt it too, right? The way my thoughts always stray back to you," Clark looked down, realized he was in the air, and dropped back down again to look me in the eye. "Do you feel it still?"
I studied my old friend, my new enemy. Same dark hair, curled into soft shapes at the nape of his neck. Same bright eyes with strange powers sleeping just behind the black centers. Same broad shoulders, same scuffed and torn jeans. Was it possible that nothing had really changed in all these years?
I licked my lips unconsciously, remembering how Clark used to let me look. Let my eyes sweep over him. There would be a pretty blush, and a stammered joke, and everything would return to status quo. But now, it seemed as if there was an explanation for those years of empty want, of baseless need. I looked back up at Clark's face, and for the very first time, saw the same old need directed at me.
"Ai, could you give us some privacy?" I asked, embarrassed at the roughness of my voice.
"I'm the room. How am I supposed to give you privacy?" the computer snapped.
"Ai can't be switched off or shut down. He monitors all the time for security purposes," Clark explained. "But the sleeping gel is soundproof," he offered almost shyly, nudging a crack in the crystalline floor with his toe. "The pool is rigged to empty if there's an emergency, but other than that, Ai can't, um, interrupt."
"Don't mind me," Ai said lightly, opening a panel in the wall to reveal a passage back to the sleeping quarters. "I'll just sit here running data streams all night. You both should rest. It's been a long day." The avatar smiled. "What a wonderful reunion. This may be the longest that two Fated have ever been apart and brought back together again. Congratulations."
"Let's not throw confetti just yet," I warned. "I just want a few words alone with Clark."
"Hey," Clark said, grinning, "you didn't call me Superman. Or alien. Or some dirty-"
"No confetti." I smirked and led the way through the newly revealed passage.
At the edge of the pool of sleeping gel, Clark started unbuttoning his old flannel shirt. "It feels weird with clothes on. Sticky," he elaborated.
"I see." I watched Clark shrug out of the shirt. "Is this how Fated pairs are supposed to act? Do we just skip all pretenses, then?"
"I don't know, Lex." Clark began working on his fly. "This is weird for me, too. Imagine my surprise when I complained of a headache one day and Ai told me, very matter-of-factly, that I was neglecting a relationship I didn't even know I had with a man who hates my guts."
"You've gotten headaches as well?" I stood motionless as Clark stepped out of his jeans.
"Yeah. Worst pain ever. Almost as bad as kryptonite." Clark looked up suddenly, his hands frozen on the waistband of his boxers. "I mean…"
"I know what kryptonite is, Clark," I snorted. "I can add two and two."
"Right. I know." Clark dropped his gaze again and shucked off his boxers. He stepped into the pool, explaining to me how the gel wouldn't drown a sleeper through a complex system of enzyme reactions. And also filtered itself with the same process. "Ai tried to draw me a diagram once, but I honestly just like how it feels. Like you're in warm Jell-o."
"Sounds delightful," I deadpanned, watching the nude man slip under the surface, the pale gel covering his dark head. Seeing the hard floor as the only alternative, I wiggled out of my too-big shirt and pants before following suit.
Being inside the sleeping gel was uncomfortable at first, with the fluid seeping unbidden into my nose and mouth. It had no taste, but did have a sweet, light odor. Like pears. Or crushed grass. There was sound too, a rhythmic thumping that I realized was our two heartbeats.
"You can open your eyes. It won't hurt," Clark's voice echoed in my ears.
I did, and saw my own lean, pale body floating beside Clark's muscular, tanned one. I found I could move slowly if I concentrated, like being underwater, but with more support for my aching back.
"This is almost pleasant," I said, trying to get used to the feel of gel in my mouth.
"Yeah." Clark reached out tentatively, in slow-motion, to rest his hand along my flank. His dark hair floated around his pinched face. "Listen, Lex…" He ran his hand down my white skin before pulling away. "I don't want to go all crazy Kryptonian on you. This whole Fated thing, I don't really understand it either. But I've always felt…but if you don't feel…" Clark let his arms dangle in the gel, making fists with his hands.
I maneuvered through the thick gel to Clark's side and pressed against his body. "We really don't have a choice, do we?" I let Clark feel my arousal, my sleek skin, everything. "Perhaps," I swallowed. "Perhaps being Fated is the reason I always felt so…entitled. Entitled to you. Your secrets." I nudged against Clark's ear with the tip of my nose. "Everything."
"I think I'm compelled," Clark panted, "to give you everything. Anything you want."
Twenty-four hours ago, I would have had a whole list for Superman: access to Kryptonian technology, perhaps a death-ray, definitely a promise that Superman would fly into the sun and never return. And maybe it was just that I'd had a long day, but now I had only one request: "Touch me again."
Clark groaned, moving faster than I could hope to, wrapping his strong arms around me. Mashing our mouths together, another strange goo-related feeling. In the weightless environment, I couldn't tell up from down as we spun around, tasting each other's lips. Clark's hands were everywhere at once, clutching shoulders, stroking hips, running down my chest to play with the stiff nipples.
"It feels like I'm drinking it all in," Clark gasped against my throat. "Like I've been dying of thirst."
I blinked, mouthing the expanse of Clark's right shoulder. This was all so surreal. Hours ago I had hated Clark with such a passion, and now I couldn't help myself. I was a ship without a rudder, completely out of control.
"Are there any specific guidelines to this Fated bonding thing?" I asked breathlessly, my voice faltering when Clark ducked his head to swirl his tongue around my navel.
"I'm not too certain," Clark panted. "Maybe we should cover all the bases. Just in case."
"Wise." I nipped the exposed nape of Clark's neck as the other man bent even lower, trailing the pink tip of his tongue down my stomach. This low-gravity environment certainly had a lot of bending potential. Testing my theory, I did a slow flip around, enjoying the weightlessness. Though the creepy falling sensation took some getting used to. I tilted my head back to gaze into the dark depths below me.
"Don't worry," Clark, also flipped upside-down now, whispered inches away from my swollen cock. "The pool is deep, but you won't drown."
"Oh my fuck-" I gasped as Clark swallowed me down. The feel of Clark's mouth was searing. There was no other tactile sensation to compete with it, no sheets brushing against my skin, no currents of air ghosting around my muscles, nothing but the sound of ragged heartbeats and the encompassing warmth of Clark's mouth.
It felt like flying.
"Oh God." I arched my back, becoming the letter C suspended in midair. Clark held fast, grasping my hips in both hands, and sucking me with unrelenting fervor. The gel must also have had lubricating properties, because I was deep inside Clark's throat with barely any effort. Yes, definitely a lubricant of some kind, I thought as Clark dipped a finger near my hole, pressing in only a little, but with no pain.
I let my hands wander along his neck and shoulders, marveling at the feel of hot skin. Clark's mouth was exquisite, but I didn't want this to end this way.
"Let me be in you," I breathed, surprised at my boldness. Clark lifted his head, resting his cheek against my thigh. This was a creature that could crush me with one breath. And I was asking to fuck him.
But his eyes were clear and trusting, and he smiled. "Sure," he said, floating further down to kiss me soundly.
That was easy.
"I should probably tell you, I've never actually…" I trailed off.
"With a man?" Clark grinned, shaking his head. "Me either."
"Oh. Strange." I guessed it must have something to do with being Fated. Maybe Clark's society had different kinds of sexualities. Maybe more than two sexes. Maybe…
"Thinking too much?" he asked, nipping at my bottom lip.
"Sorry," I said, wondering when the last time I'd ever apologized had been. Let alone to this man. "I'm just feeling a little more confused than I'd like."
"Here." Clark laid his face along my neck, reaching between us briefly. The next thing I knew, I was slipping into his body.
"Oh. Oh, God. Oh," I chanted, the burning heat engulfing me. Inferno. I was drowning after all. Clark's eyelashes were beating against the pulse in my throat. Two sets of butterfly wings.
"Move," Clark gasped. "Christ, deeper."
Being weightless had its challenges. I was reminded of the first time I'd had sex on a water bed. It was difficult to find purchase in the gel, to find a good rhythm. The only thing I could think to do was wrap my arms around Clark, grabbing for his legs and hauling them around my hips. Again, my mind balked. This was a man who could kill me with those thighs. But being wrapped around each other, thrusting steadily, falling headfirst deeper and deeper in the endless pool…
Dying would have been worth it.
Clark was whispering into my throat, "Do you feel it? It feels like, like nothing else."
I did feel it. Unfurling in the pit of my stomach was something more than lust, more than blind passion, more than anything.
"I do," I panted. "I feel it too."
"I'm sorry," Clark said, and I heard his voice crack. "I'm sorry I never…I should have told you…we could have…could have…"
"No, no, don't be sorry." I squeezed my eyes shut, fisting my hands in his hair, trying to keep his face against my throat. But I couldn't stop him from looking up, couldn't stop myself from opening my eyes. Couldn't stop whatever was happening. "Let me love you," I pleaded in a voice that didn't sound like mine. "Just let me love you."
We were both crying. I couldn't see it in the gel, but I felt it. It seemed like I could feel every part of Clark, everything he was thinking and feeling. It was a mind-blowing onslaught of pleasure and warmth, fear and confusion.
"Lex!" Clark cried out, and I knew he felt the same from me. I could feel his own release building, so intimate that it felt like my own, and it became my own. I couldn't distinguish the shudders or the cries or the panting breaths as mine or Clark's, because it was all the same.
We floated for a long while, our thundering heartbeats mixing with our soothing words. Okay. Don't worry. Not hurt. Still with me? It was so strange, clinging to each other, reassuring each other that everything was fine when, really, everything was changed forever. We made love again and again. Clark took me, I took him. He touched me, I touched him. We really did cover all the bases.
I woke up pressed against Clark's chest. We were floating horizontally in the dark gel. I looked over Clark's shoulders and saw the wink of metal shining back.
"We reached the bottom," I said breathlessly.
"Ready to go back?" he asked, running a hand over my scalp.
I looked up at the pool's shaft, the surface a small square of light from where we were. "It will take awhile to swim up there," I said. "Would you mind speeding me back?"
Clark secured me with his arms and rose upward, slowly at first, then faster and faster until everything blurred and we were standing naked in the white room. I shivered.
"Cold," I commented lamely. Clark pulled me close to his warm body, kissing me softly on the mouth.
"Love you," he whispered.
"Yeah." I smirked. "Love you." I kissed him harder, snaking my arms around his neck and standing on tip-toe like a schoolgirl. It was silly. It was blissful.
"Did you two have sex!" Ai's forgotten voice rang out in the empty room. "No! Please tell me you didn't!"
"What?" Clark pouted, his hands on my shoulders. "Aren't you happy we're finally together?"
"What! Yes! Together, physically, together! Not, not SEXUALLY! Ugh!" Ai appeared on a pillar behind Clark, who whirled around to face him. I stood there, cold and speechless.
"But Fated pairs…" Clark began.
"Aren't sexual partners! Pragatka! Living among humans made you just as sex-crazed, Kal-el." Ai scrunched his computerized face into a mask of distaste. "Sexual relations are something quite apart from the bond that Fated pairs share."
"Why didn't you tell us that?" Clark yelled.
"You didn't ask," Ai said, frowning.
I picked up the discarded clothes from the floor, dressing haphazardly. Clark spun to look at me, his mouth open like a gaping fish.
"I'm sorry, I didn't-"
"No. Please." I held up a hand. "I'd like to go back to Metropolis." I wasn't about to stay here, frozen and mortified, until Superman decided what to do with me.
"No, Lex, this doesn't change anything." Clark snatched my hand, holding it between both of his. "I still feel you. Don't you feel it?"
I saw Ai on the icy wall behind him, shaking his head slowly. I understood. I saw clearly.
"It's all in your head," I said, drawing my hand back. "I didn't feel anything but idle curiosity."
"Bullshit, Lex! I was…" Clark dragged his hand through his damp hair. "I was in your mind. I saw what you were thinking."
"Maybe you saw what you wanted to see." I turned to stride into the control room, hurrying to beat the tears pricking at my eyes. That voice in my head, sounding remarkably like my father, was hissing: Stupid, stupid move, Luthor. Assuming things without all the information. Now there's no real reason for Clark to want you, and you're back where you started.
"I can open a portal to the Smallville caves," Ai told me softly. "But you should speak to Kal-el before you go."
"Open it," I demanded. I heard Clark behind me, yelling at another one of Ai's avatars who was trying to dissuade him from a confrontation. A cloudy void shimmered into view before me, and I could barely hear Clark calling after me above the roar. I stepped through without looking back.
That was four months ago. Now I'm sitting alone in my 60th floor penthouse, because going outside, even at this time of night, bears the chance of running into Clark. He's everywhere. Press conferences, pizzerias, the park down the street. We see each other and we turn the other way. It's disconcerting that even now, we're connected still. Even more disconcerting: I could move to Morocco if I wanted, but I feel anchored to this city. Anchored to Clark.
I take my drink outside on the balcony, breathing in the warm night air. I take another sip and let my mind wander. Did I really love him? Was it just a trick of the mind, a mental misunderstanding of my passionate hatred for Superman? I felt hollow and unsure of all my actions. LuthorCorp was suffering for it.
I was suffering for it.
An unnatural breeze told me of Superman's approach. I turned to go back inside; Clark often flew by, but never bothered me, and I didn't want another uncomfortable meeting.
Superman had other ideas. "Lex," he called from above my head, "I want to speak with you."
"Speak. Roll Over. Fetch. Anything else you want to teach humans, Superman?" I made a lunge for the glass door, but he was in my way in a flash.
"I'm being serious," he said.
"As am I, O Alien Conqueror." I downed the rest of my drink and considered throwing the empty glass at his head. But, well, it was a nice glass.
"I know you're still mad about, you know, about what happened." He plucked a loose string from his cape nervously. Interesting. This time, he chose to appear as Clark in Superman's clothing.
"I'm not falling for this," I hissed.
"I'm not trying to trick you!" He pinched the bridge of his nose, and I counted to ten as well. When he was done, he spoke more calmly. "I spoke to Ai, and while it is rare for a madraes to also be a sexual companion, it isn't unheard of. My biological grandparents were, um, actually both." He shrugged. "So maybe it's genetic or something."
"Nice little theory," I drawled, dropping into a patio chair. "But, and I'm not sure if you've noticed this, I am a human. There really isn't any reason for me to be this way, is there?"
"Maybe," and he shuffled his booted feet in a near-perfect imitation of the old Clark, "maybe you're in love with me."
"Oh, come on, Lex! You told me so when we were together." Clark moved faster than light to kneel on the ground beside me. "Is it the costume? Is it the hero thing? Is that why you won't say it again?"
I looked him straight in the eye and lied. "I won't say it again because it's not true," I said firmly.
He stood, crossing his arms over his chest, his eyes black with Clark's old puppy-dog sadness. "I came here tonight to tell you that I…" He dropped his eyes and said softly, "I'll give up being Superman, if that's what you want."
"What?" I deadpanned.
"I'll give it up. Even if you refuse, I'll still give it up." He sighed. "Ai says it will get worse and worse. The headaches will become unbearable. My judgment will get more unreliable. I'll start hearing things, seeing things that aren't there. I can't put people in danger by going around like that." Clark looked down at me and put his hand on top of mine on the armrest. "Will quitting make you happy? Will you…let me be near you then?"
"Well." I had finally found a way to stop Superman. Except I found I didn't want to. I couldn't imagine Clark tucked away in some remote place with me, like a caged animal, smelling danger and death on the wind, knowing he could stop it, but frozen immobile by a promise. It would be like killing him. And I wasn't that angry at Clark. No, I was really just angry at myself for that moment of weakness. For looking like a fool. For loving someone who loved me only because he'd touched me when he fell to earth.
"Hey, no, Lex." Clark moved his hand to my face, cupping it gently. "I love you for more than that. Much more. You…amaze me."
Was I speaking out loud without realizing?
"No. I'm just…" He softly touched the center of my forehead. "I can still hear you in there, if I listen hard enough. Maybe you can too?"
Speechless, I lifted my hand, and he bent so I could place the tips of my fingers against his brow.
Loving you is no weakness, Lex.
And I could see what he was thinking. Images, memories, things inside Clark's head. I could see it all. Lifting me out of a cold river. Me lifting him out of a vat of painful green liquid. Strength. That's what I saw.
"Oh," I said quietly.
"Yeah," he breathed, smiling for the first time that night.
"Don't stop being Superman," I said hurriedly. "I don't want that. Not anymore."
"I know," he said. "You're my madraes. I know you better than anyone."
"This connection should make arguments interesting," I laughed.
"Yeah. We could do the whole deal in under a minute, just by staring at each other." He leaned over the armrest of my chair, kissing me soundly. "Just to make sure," he breathed into my ear, "you do still want this part too, right?"
"Oh, yeah. Give me the filthy bits. The friendship-forever bits. I want everything," I said.
"Good." He smiled down at me. "Because I'm compelled to give you everything."