Half an hour later, it was far too late to reconsider, and Robert refused to give in to the careful, reasonable half of his brain that really very much wanted to.
"I've been looking for the dude, E-bon, where do you think I was?" Shiv spoke fast into his cell phone. For a career criminal, he wasn't nearly as good at subterfuge as certain superheroes of Robert's acquaintance.
They were still standing under the shelter of the bus stop where Superman had dropped them off. He and Gear had retreated out of sight, but they would be close enough to observe, Robert knew. Of course, given super-hearing and super-vision and probably super-other things Robert didn't know about, not to mention Gear's absolutely guaranteed undetectable bug stuck to the back of one of his shirt buttons, the observation distance could be a mile away. Which Superman could cover in a millisecond anyway--but that wasn't the plan.
Headlights pierced the light drizzle as another car passed. There wasn't much traffic in this neighborhood--too late for safety-minded citizens to be out and about; too early for those who liked the full dark's secrecy to emerge. "Yeah, I got him right here with me," Shiv assured his boss. "He was, uh, walking back to the center. --Hey, the hell do I know? Maybe he couldn't afford a cab."
Robert put his hands in his pocket, feeling for the tube there. Short on time and for lack of a better disguise they had stuck it in the thick case of a permanent marker. It was comforting to have it at his fingertips, and hopefully E-bon wouldn't question it.
Shiv's edgy gaze darted back to him and Robert took his hands out of his pocket. Shiv didn't know about the marker. Shiv didn't know about most of the plan. Just as well; he was nervous enough as it was. "Yeah, we're at the corner of Fourteenth and Abel now," Shiv said into his phone. "I'll bring him to the juvie hall--"
"No need." The shadow of the bus stop's roof thickened, deepened, the voice emerging an instant before the man himself rose from it.
"Hey, E-bon, you didn't need to come all this way," Shiv began, jittering. "I could've--"
"--You could've brought the trap right to our hideout?" E-bon snarled. Before Shiv could protest, a midnight-black fist slammed him back into the shelter's left post. His head cracked against the cement pillar, and Shiv slumped to the dirty sidewalk.
Robert ducked out of the way, making like he was going to run and not needing much effort to feign fear. "Where you going?" E-bon asked with oily amusement. "I don't know how you got to Shiv or what kind of dumb plan you running here, but I ain't got time to wait for your hero buds." Thick shadows congealed around Robert, freezing cold and impenetrable. "You coming with me," the supervillain said, and a vortex of darkness swallowed Robert for the second time that day.
At least this time was planned.
He didn't exit E-bon's portal with enough velocity to lose consciousness this time, catching himself on his hands in time before he smacked his head against the wall. He was alone, he found, when he straightened up; E-bon had left Shiv behind.
E-bon melted back into mostly humanoid form as Robert looked around. They were in a room with dirty white walls and a bank of florescent lights reflecting on a long table, reminiscent of the LexCorp lab, though with a low ceiling and no skylight or other windows. And unlike the bright, sterile order of the lab, this place was dingy, the walls streaked with graffiti and dirt and cigarette butts littered across the scuffed floor. The only door that Robert could see was not only boarded over but set some feet above the ground, out of reach. The wreckage of wooden stairs lay beneath it. Someone's basement converted to a meth lab or the like, Robert supposed, now converted to...something else. E-bon's mutagen kitchen. And E-bon's vortex was the only entrance or exit.
Lex Luthor was sitting on one of the two stools by the table, perusing a file folder, more papers spread out before him. His jaw showed only faint bruises from Robert's fist, and most of the dust had been brushed off his suit, though its neat white lines were looking a little crumpled. He stood at E-bon's reappearance, shot Robert an evaluating look. "What is he doing here?"
"This guy here was Shiv's apology," E-bon said. He ran a practiced hand over Robert, checking for guns or other weapons. "Making up for letting him get away like that."
"You really think it took your associate this long to recapture this man?"
"No way," E-bon snorted. "That idiot Shiv probably got himself caught by Static and tricked to call me. But I was there and gone before Mr. Too-cool Hero could do a thing. Static can have the son of a bitch. I got bigger things to worry about."
"Why bother springing the trap at all?" Luthor inquired. "You realize this man's probably bugged."
"Yeah, and I figure you don't want that bug-zapping a-hole following him here anymore than me. Would screw up the whole plan. So what can we do about it?"
Luthor circled around the table to approach them. "The shielding that you described to me should block most conventional devices, as well as Superman's x-ray vision. As for anything unconventional..." He withdrew something from inside his jacket, no wider or thicker than a credit card, with a jet-black finish. Holding the rectangle between the fingers of one hand, he raised it before Robert.
Robert met his eyes, willing himself not to glance down at his bugged shirt button. Willing Luthor not to react. Mercy had had no luck tracing Luthor's beacon, so Gear's wire was the only way for the heroes to find them. Even Shiv hadn't known where this hideout was located; E-bon transported him to and from. Without the button, there was no chance, especially if Luthor was telling the truth about the shielding against Superman's x-ray vision.
A green diode blinked on Luthor's rectangle as he passed it in front of Robert's chest. Luthor raised his head to look Robert in the eyes. Robert stared back into the billionaire's unreadable gray. Gear would be listening to everything they said, but Robert had no way of telling him where he was, and Richie had explained that it would take a few minutes to triangulate location. If Luthor were truly an ally...
Luthor's lips curved. The smile still didn't reach his eyes, but it sounded in his voice, vicious and mocking. "A good attempt. A plus for effort." His hand lashed out, closed on Robert's shirt button and plucked it off, holding it up to the light. "Quite a clever little thing. This would be Gear's work, I take it?"
"So he was bugged?" E-bon demanded.
"Don't worry," Luthor said. "I can fix this to emit a false signal, send our noble crusaders on a wild goose chase." He pressed the microcircuitry glued to the back of the button to his little black rectangle, ran his fingers over invisible keys, then returned both devices to his inner jacket pocket. "There. No harm done."
E-bon laughed. "Man, you are totally ace."
"Luthor." It was all Robert could do not to take another swing at the man. What kind of game was he playing? If his message to Mercy had been a set-up--if he had planned all of this, he and E-bon conniving from the start--Superman should be above such manipulation, but this was Lex Luthor.
Luthor smirked at him. "Did you think I'd be in need of rescue? That I wouldn't see the benefits of a local partnership?" He inclined his head toward E-bon. "As I told you, I'm always interested in meeting ambitious young talents. But you are prepared, if they followed him here some other way?" he asked his shadowy cohort sharply.
"Lex, my man, ain't no one following me," E-bon said, his grin a gaping black maw. "I own the darkness on all these streets. But yeah, even if that super-tool and his buds turn up, I'm all set. See this?" From his dark depths he materialized a small remote control. "The whole place is wired, floors, ceilings, walls. Anyone break in or out, it sets off this deadman's switch. Once it's on, I let it go, and the whole place fries. Me and Static could take it, but no one else. He's fast, but he ain't fast enough to stop me. And he ain't gonna let his green boy and everyone else get zapped. Gimme plenty of time to get the hell out."
Luthor raised his eyebrows. "I'm not partial to 'frying' myself."
"Hey, man." E-bon's grin was a match for Luthor's shark smirk, fang for fang. "You stick close to me, you don't feel a spark. Otherwise...hope those shiny shoes got a lot of rubber in the soles, you get me?"
Luthor didn't dignify the threat with a response. Instead he said, turning away as he did, as if he was only speaking out of courtesy and could barely be bothered with that, "What will you do with this man?"
E-bon snaked a broad, shadowy hand around Robert's upper arm. "I wanted this guy back to make sure he couldn't talk, tell somebody you and me got a deal. Maybe it's too late for that, but he'll still be good for a lab rat, I figure. I'll put him with the others."
He dragged Robert forward, around the crumbling cinderblock and mortar wall dividing the basement in half. Behind the wall, Robert saw a padlock, black iron bars--a cage. Fifteen feet square, and unlit, but the ambient glow from the other side of the wall was enough for Robert to make out the figures inside.
Some were sitting huddled; others were lying on the cement floor, wrapped in tattered rags and worn blankets. There may have been as many as twenty of them, and a few were small enough that they had to be children. A couple faces turned to their approach, the glitter of eyes catching the light; more were still, unresponsive. Someone coughed, wet and hacking. No one spoke.
Robert's stomach turned. These were the innocent lives, E-bon's guarantee that Static would not attack. His hostages, and more. The smell of body odor and sewage was not overwhelming but was pervasive. Robert's eyes were slow to adjust to the light, but he could still see irregularities in the figures' silhouettes, even under the wrappings, too long ears here, too broad and square shoulders there, a gleam that might be a second pair of eyes above the ordinary pair.
Lab rats. The gas we got now...it don't work quite like it's supposed to, Shiv had said. Robert had already known that E-bon was a monster, but this...
He looked back over his shoulder, to see Luthor taking a seat once more at the metal table. Ignoring Robert, paying no heed to the suffering behind the wall only a few feet from where he sat. With Gear's bug in his jacket pocket, deactivated, and a sheath of papers in hand that probably was the formula for the mutagen that had done this. Helping perfect E-bon's poison, for his own ends, Robert was sure. E-bon was a monster, but Luthor...
"You won't get away this!" Robert found himself shouting, bracing his feet against the floor so E-bon couldn't drag him further. Couldn't lock him away before he got a chance to make his accusations. Futile, but at least the man would have to acknowledge them. "You think you've got it all planned out, but you're wrong! Even if you don't think Static and Gear can stop you, you're not the only one from Metropolis--"
Robert realized his tactical error the second it was out of his mouth, a second too late. Luthor was standing, papers dropped on the table. "What did you say?" he hissed, and gestured imperatively to E-bon. "Bring him over here."
E-bon hauled him back, Robert stumbling, managing to draw himself upright in time for Luthor to grab him by the collar. "What did you say?" the supervillain repeated. "I'm not the only one?"
It was too late, and Robert grasped for what vindication he could, useless though it might be. "Superman's come to Dakota. He's going to find you." Whether or not in time for Robert's sake, or all these other poor souls at stake, at least when the hero realized Luthor's betrayal there would be the deserved reckoning.
"Superman is here?" Luthor's eyes were still the inscrutable, locked gray of an icebound river, but his fists around Robert's collar were white-knuckled and his lips were pressed to an utterly flat line.
"Lex, my man," E-bon said, brazenly cool, "it's nothing to worry about. I got your payment right here, enough to take care of that alien freak."
"Yes." Luthor let go of Robert, straightened his cuffs with short sharp motions as he turned to E-bon. "I think now's the time to show me exactly what you're offering."
"You won't be disappointed." E-bon slunk over to a metal crate almost lost in the shadows on the far wall. He bent to insert a key into the lock and then kicked the case. It clanged dully and the lid flipped open, revealing an array of stacked green blocks, translucent and shimmering in the refracted light from the ceiling.
"Here it is," E-bon said. The shimmering glow reflected crazily on his jet form, green streaking and rippling through the deep black and purple shades of his skin. "Fifteen bars of refined kryptonite."
Luthor stepped past Robert, toward the chest. The emerald bars reflected in his mirror eyes, cast sickly hues over his pale skin. "Fifteen? There were sixteen stolen," he snapped.
"Yeah, but there's only fifteen for sale," E-bon said. He drew aside the violet shadowed outlines of his vest to show the green bar glimmering against his chest. "This one's mine. Insurance if your buddy in the red cape makes any more pit stops in Dakota after you're gone."
Luthor licked his lip, a quick darting of his tongue like a lizard. It was the least premeditated gesture Robert had observed in him yet. Maybe just overwhelming greed. But the billionaire nodded smoothly without any further hesitation. "Fifteen, then. What about the liquidized extract used in the gas?"
"What about it?"
"I want it."
E-bon considered, then pointed to a small green vial on the end of the table, stacked with similar chemical bottles. "It's all there. Once I got enough gas cooked up, it's yours."
Robert was only peripherally paying attention to the supervillains' bargaining. His focus was on the kryptonite. One hand crept into his slacks pocket. E-bon hadn't bothered to search him, beyond the cursory pat-down for weapons; hadn't even noticed the marker in his pocket. And Luthor's little scanner hadn't picked it up.
Gear had warned him that he would only have one chance. The spray had a limited range and had to be directly applied to the surface of the kryptonite to activate. But once activated, the chemical agent would neutralize the mineral's effects for a few minutes. Long enough, hopefully.
Richie had said he had been working on the agent for some time. With Luthor's help, he had said. The irony now, if it got Luthor caught red-handed...Robert could appreciate it later. Now he had to find some way to get to the kryptonite.
The supervillains were still talking. He sidled one step closer to the wall, then another. Another five feet and he could risk going for it--better if he could be sure the heroes were coming, but he had to take the chance. Had to believe that Richie would have found a way, or Superman with all his powers, or Virgil with his own gifts--he trusted them, and they were trusting him. Virgil, counting on his un-super-powered old man, and no way was his old man going to let them down.
Another three feet--
E-bon's hand clamped around his arm, tight enough to cut off circulation. "Now where you going, Mr. Rogers-Neighborhood?"
Robert wrenched his hand out of his pocket, but not slyly or quickly enough. E-bon grabbed his wrist, huge dark fingers wrapping almost double around. "What you got there?" He reached into Robert's pocket, withdrew the black marker. "What's this?"
Luthor snatched it from E-bon, gave the cap a sharp twist and shook the pencil-thick silver tube inside out into his hand. He fingered one end, looked at Robert. "I see," he said icily, the vicious villain's smile playing on his lips.
E-bon stretched higher to look over his shoulder. "That one of those things you tied this guy up with before?" He snorted. "Sure worked great, didn't it, held one middle-aged chump for like a minute."
"It was a prototype," Luthor dismissed him. "And this one's not even that." He pressed the button at one end. E-bon jerked nervously, but it only hissed, a little dark mist spraying Luthor's hand. He rubbed the residue between his pale fingers. "See? Broken. So the fool thinks he can play the hero, and turn my own traps against me? I'm afraid it's not that easy to save the day." He tapped the tube against Robert's chest, admonishing with patronizingly scorn, then rubbed his bruised jaw thoughtfully. "And I owe you for before, don't I."
Like he hadn't asked for it. "I don't know what kind of sick game you're playing, Luthor," Robert began, his hands balling into fists, "but there's more where that came from--"
Luthor's smirk widened, as if that anger was the exact response he'd been waiting for. "Oh, I'm sure there is, Mr. Hawkins," he said, and swung his fist. He was fast, faster than Robert was expecting, and stronger, too. Robert didn't duck in time--too damn heavy, too much bulk to move quickly. Luthor's punch clipped him on the chin, knocking him over.
He went down, landed hard on his rear and only just caught himself on his hands, his wrists complaining at the impact on the cement floor. His head was ringing like a bell, green splotches pulsing before his eyes, and he could taste a metallic trickle of blood in his mouth. E-bon was crowing and Luthor laughed, a harsh bark above him. Robert shook his head to clear it, as E-bon said, "Better luck next time, Mr. Hero."
Something clinked on the floor in front of him, rolled a few inches, green glittering off it. Robert grabbed for it instinctively, his hand closing around the metal tube, as Luthor said, "So, E-bon, how much mutagenic compound are you hoping to have?"
Robert looked down at his hand, the greenish cast playing off his brown skin. He looked over his shoulder. The open crate was right behind him, the kryptonite bars gleaming softly with their strangely malevolent emerald hue. Only a foot from where Luthor had knocked him to the floor.
He looked back at Luthor, talking calmly to E-bon, not looking at him. Then the supervillain turned casually in mid-conversation, light shining off his bald head, just long enough to shoot Robert a lightning-quick glance that gleamed blue as vividly as the kryptonite's green.
"You son of a bitch," Robert swore for the first time today, raised the tube toward the kryptonite and pressed the button, spreading black over the kryptonite's hideous green like he was spray-painting a car.
He turned back in time to catch Luthor's quick, unmistakable wink, and then it was hidden behind a vicious show of temper. "What are you doing?" Luthor roared, and lunged for him, past a startled E-bon.
"Lex, man, what--" E-bon began, but Luthor plowed him aside, shoving the shadow man into the lab table hard enough to rattle the glass stacked there.
The supervillain grabbed Robert by the wrist, hauled him to his feet. "What do you think you're trying?" Luthor snarled. "You think Superman will come save you now?"
Robert had only just time to register the slightest of emphasis placed on the hero's name, and then everything happened at once.
An alarm went off, beeping wildly, just as the opposite wall crashed down in an explosion of dirt and brick mortar. The floor shook under their feet, knocking Robert into Luthor, who, conveniently enough, was knocked into the lab table. As E-bon flailed, Robert saw Luthor grab the vial of kryptonite extract and tuck it under his jacket.
Then a red-caped whirlwind and a crackling, brilliant ball of electricity filled the room, illuminating all corners. E-bon howled, the light painful to his shadows, and over him Robert could hear a few cries from the cage behind the wall.
"No!" E-bon rasped, cutting through the chaos. "Drop the light-show or I'll--!"
The heroes froze. Superman's cape settled around him as he flanked Static on the left, Gear standing on the right with a fourth-gen zapcap in hand, and Static himself in the center, his arms crossed, incandescent like a star. E-bon squinted into that brightness, his eyes barely slits.
"See this?" he said, and he held up the remote in his hand, one shadowy finger pressing down the red button. "I let go of this, and everyone but you and me fries. You can feel the wiring in the floor, can't you, Static? That's a hundred thousand volts of murder, hero."
Static's brilliance didn't waver, but his voice was too soft. "I can feel it, yeah. What do you want, E-bon?"
"For you to dial down the light bulb act. Give a brother enough dark to get me and my man Lex out of here."
Robert turned his head enough to see Luthor, but the man's face told him nothing. His eyes were narrowed in concentration but that was all.
"Is that it?" Static asked.
"That, and my goods," E-bon said, sliding a long step back to the crate of kryptonite. "Took too much work to get hold of this shit, I ain't giving it up now."
"Oh," Static said, his bright field not flickering. "Let me think. Hm. No."
"Wh--?" E-bon started to say, and then there was--not even a blur, not so much as a glimpse; the merest notion of red, and then the shadow villain was holding nothing and the remote was safe in Superman's strong hand.
"Right on!" Gear said, and threw the zapcap, which expanded to contain E-bon in bands of coruscating energy. Judging by the metahuman's instantly slack, unseeing stare, the fourth-gen caps had a trance-inducing theta-wave generator built in. Robert gave him a cautious poke. E-bon didn't blink.
"Let me see that switch," Gear said to Superman, pushing past the entranced supervillain, "I'll make sure it can't go off."
"Allow me," Luthor said, already beside Superman and prying open the side of the remote deadman switch with the innards of a ballpoint pen. "I can't imagine it's that complicated, considering who rigged it."
"Yeah, we heard. Your signal enhancer on my bug punched through all the interference from E-bon's wiring," Gear said, joining him, his own instrumentation in hand. "So what do we got, a single bridge circuit? Any pressure sensitivity? Does it have some kind of voltage divider?"
"You expect a potentiometer in a Christmas tree light-switch? We're just lucky it didn't short-circuit from the disruptive discharge."
"Man, glad to have you here, Supes," Static said.
"I'm sure you would have handled it fine on your own," Superman replied.
"Well, yeah. Maybe. I mean, I'm fast, but that fast?"
"Faster than the speed of thought, that is pretty dang fast," Gear said. "All done, by the way, you can let go now."
Superman put down the remote. Robert released a small and hopefully silent breath as they were not grilled by a lethal electrical current. Given his son's vocation, that would have been terribly embarrassing.
"What about the people here?" he asked. There were too many for the heroes to carry. "We should call the police, ambulances--"
Luthor checked his watch. "Should be here within five minutes, give or take. When did you actually arrive at this address? Mercy wouldn't have made the call to emergency services until she was sure you had located the place."
Static and Gear looked at one another. Static sighed. "Okay, which of us has the tracker on him this time?"
Luthor's smile was small, but all teeth. "Where's the fun if I tell you?"
"Later, V," Gear said, nudging his partner's shoulder. "There's people who need us. Let's go see what we can do for them before the real help arrives."
Virgil nodded and followed him around the wall. Robert almost put out a hand to stop them, but stopped himself instead. They were grown men now. Superheroes now, and they likely had seen worse than this before. Had to face this, and worse, to do their jobs. There's real evil out there, his son had said, and Robert couldn't protect his boys from all of it.
He would have followed them, but was distracted by another exchange. "Where are you going?"
"There're people in trouble, Lex--"
"This is their city; let them handle it. That hole in the wall's big enough for the EMT teams to get down here, so your job's done. Now you can explain what the hell you're doing here." Luthor's angry snarl was the most emotion Robert had heard from him yet.
"And what are you doing here?" Superman sounded relatively calmer; but considering the relativity was between supervillain and superhero, Robert would have expected a greater contrast.
"I'm here on business," Luthor said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Superman's arms were already crossed. "Same for me."
"Dakota isn't your business. That mess on Rigel XII was, last I checked."
"Green Lantern's taking care of that."
"He was supposed to be on vacation for another twenty-four hours."
"He got bored of the cruise and came back." Superman paused. "Lex. That cruise package special prize. Tell me it wasn't LexCorp funded."
"Don't go changing the subject. You knew there was kryptonite here or you wouldn't have sent Mr. Hawkins in with Gear's counteragent. How could you risk it?"
"And you knew there was a criminal with kryptonite here when you came to Dakota. Why didn't you tell me?"
"The stolen kryptonite became mine when I took control of Alva Industries. Since when are LexCorp holdings your personal concern?"
"Lex." Superman sounded, for lack of a better word, desperate. More than frustrated, definitely. If he hadn't been the invincible Man of Steel, almost scared. "You can't go haring off like this every time there's a rumor of kryptonite."
"I can't? Really, now."
"People will start to notice. They already know you'll pay through the nose for it, but if they get the idea that you'll do anything for it--you can't risk that."
"As a matter of fact, I can," Luthor said. "It doesn't hurt my reputation any, you know. Everyone knows why I'm collecting it. What supervillain worth his salt wouldn't be out to control his nemesis's greatest weakness?"
"Oh, damn your reputation anyway!"
"I like my reputation," Luthor said, smirking, though it looked different than before. Because of his eyes, Robert realized; their gray was blue now, reflecting the shades of Superman's costume. Superman had taken hold of Luthor's arms and looked like he wanted to shake the man until all his billions came out.
Luthor leaned forward, towards Superman, not at all intimidated by the superhero's hold. "And where would you be, without a nemesis to keep you on your toes?"
"On Rigel XII, handling planetquakes," Superman returned smartly. "Rather than rushing around Dakota hoping to find you before you got mutagenic-gassed into something that wouldn't look as good on the cover of Forbes."
"Never knew you had a thing for financial publications," Luthor said, then leaned forward the few inches more necessary to--
Robert blinked, realized he was staring and forced himself to look away. He turned his back to them, the better to avoid temptation. He wouldn't consider himself a prude by any means, but it was only courtesy.
He did take one peek back to verify that they were in fact only kissing. Even if Luthor somehow contrived to make that appear x-rated.
"Lex!" Superman mumbled, not much more than a whisper, "on duty--"
"You've been on Rigel XII and I've been here in Dakota for a goddamn week. Screw duty," Luthor hissed back, savagely enough to shut up even a superhero for several seconds.
Then--"Lex, in your pocket, is that a--"
Robert coughed discreetly.
Superman was supposedly possessed of super-hearing, but apparently hadn't been using it. He jerked back, breaking free of his nemesis with superhuman speed, and while he wasn't actually blushing, the impression was there. "Er, Mr. Hawkins. Robert, rather."
Luthor, on the other hand, evinced no impression of anything except total and smug awareness. "Mr. Hawkins," he said, smooth as satin, for all the world like his hands hadn't been straying to unlikely areas of the Man of Tomorrow's anatomy a moment before, "if I could impose on you, I may have to field a few questions from the police, and I'd prefer to have this taken care of as soon as possible. If you could hand it off to Mercy for me?" and he passed over a purse-sized satchel, heavier than it looked.
"Lex, that's lead-lined," Superman said.
"It's the one bar E-bon was keeping on him, plus the liquid kryptonite. Haven't seen that in a while, can't wait to see how Alva came up with it."
"All right," Robert agreed blankly, holding the clinking pouch. He wondered when exactly Luthor had gotten hold of E-bon's kryptonite bar. It must have been before the superheroes' grand entrance, probably when he had bumped into E-bon on the way to pretending to stop Robert. A damn good thing he had, too, or else Superman's final rush might have turned out unfortunately different.
Through the hole in the wall Robert heard the muted whoop of approaching sirens. "Mr. Hawkins," Luthor said, "if you want to give a statement to the police, by all means go ahead; but if you'd prefer to just go home, for which I wouldn't blame you after this day, I can tell them whatever they need to know."
And no doubt put his personal spin on the day's events, Robert thought. Though Superman would be here to keep him honest--of all the League heroes, Superman had a reputation for being one of the most cooperative with local law enforcement. Even if he might not give the whole story. Almost definitely not, in fact. He was now standing a few feet apart from Luthor, without any hint of a blush, instead assuming a regally stern, virtuous aspect in precise counterpoint to Luthor's suave amorality. Poster-boy ideals of hero and villain; if he hadn't seen them in each other's arms a minute before...
Robert wondered if Virgil or Richie knew. Recalled Virgil's hesitation at explaining Superman's secret friendship with his nemesis and suspected they probably did. No wonder they were so open around Superman. That he, an ordinary citizen, had also been trusted with this secret, was an honor in its own right.
Virgil and Richie came back around the wall--still in costume, but too close together and too quiet; not superheroes but young men for that moment, their bright idealism shaken. Virgil reached back blindly, and Richie grabbed his hand and squeezed, just an instant. Then they let go and together squared their shoulders, and were heroes again. "The ambulances are here, huh?" Static said, cocking his head toward the sirens. "I better make sure the way down's clear." He hopped on his disk and soared up through the broken wall.
"Everyone's alive, and no one's in danger," Gear reported. "There's eighteen people total, four kids. Half of them are just hungry and scared. The others..."
"It might've been used by a madman, but the mutagen compound is an Alva Industries product," Luthor said, orating like he was practicing for the press conference. "LexCorp will cover all the medical bills. In the name of good public relations, naturally," and he smirked.
Richie's smile back was no part of the game, just grateful. "I'll want to talk to their doctors. Biochemistry's not my specialty but after the research I've done on the gas, I have some ideas."
"Of course, I'll arrange that," Luthor said, and his poise might have been a practiced veneer but the hand he rested briefly on Richie's shoulder was honest.
"So, Superman," Gear said, "I didn't get to ask before we broke in. While I was tracking the bug on Mr. H, how'd you get Static out of the holding web, anyway?"
"You didn't get him out yourself?" Luthor asked.
Gear shook his head. "Static's electric field kept altering the frequency harmonics of the nano-web, I couldn't keep up. By the time I calibrated the instruments for one harmonic it had switched again."
"Same as your idea, really," Superman said, looking abashed, like a kid being praised for something his big sister had actually done. "I just could calibrate fast enough to hit the right frequency before it changed."
"So you recalled the web conventionally?" Luthor demanded. "You didn't have to heat-vision fry it or somesuch? I hope you attuned the monitors properly for the withdrawal, I'll want to go over those results."
"Er," Superman said. "We were in a hurry."
Luthor glanced to Gear. "Would Static consent to being a test subject again?"
"Uh. Maybe if you offered V a Ferrari?"
"No son of mine is going to accept flashy gifts from a supervillain," Robert said.
"Good God, it is Jonathan Kent. And you could've waited," Luthor grumbled in Superman's direction, looking more discomfited by this than he had the entire time in E-bon's nefarious clutches.
"No," Superman said, "we needed Static to face E-bon. Without his light, E-bon very well might have teleported away. With you." He brushed Luthor's sleeve. "Besides, they had to face each other. They're nemeses. You know how it is."
"Yes," Luthor said, "I suppose I do," and together they turned to meet the first rescue workers clambering through the fallen wall.
o o o
Robert Hawkins went home, slept ten solid hours, and arrived at the center the next day just in time to catch the morning news. It covered most of the previous day's events in abbreviated form, including a recounting of Lex Luthor's harrowing abduction at E-bon's hands, and clips of his press conference that morning. Robert himself was mentioned, but not by name; it was just the CEO of LexCorp and "a Dakota citizen, who managed to alert local superheroes Static and Gear, as well as a more famous visitor."
Robert allowed himself a chuckle at the "more famous," imagining his son's stung pride. Otherwise he found himself impressed by how Luthor managed to make himself out to be not only the victim but the unsung hero of the affair, while simultaneously implying uncomfortably Machiavellian maneuvering going on behind his assured smile, for anyone who watched close enough. Undeniably it took talent.
With the upset at LexCorp at the CEO's abduction, not to mention kryptonite to dispose of (and no mention of that had made it onto the news, Robert had noticed, for all the sensationalist details of E-bon's mutagenic experiments) Robert was surprised when he returned from lunch to find a forbidding blonde bodyguard outside his office, and one Lex Luthor waiting inside.
"Mr. Hawkins," Luthor said as he entered, rising from his chair. He was wearing a black suit jacket with a collarless charcoal knit underneath, not the beige he had had on at the morning's press conference. This probably counted as casual wear for a billionaire.
Robert took his hand without hesitation, shook firmly. "Mr. Luthor. Good afternoon."
"Please, call me Lex. Everyone does," Lex said. "I wanted to see how you were doing after yesterday." He looked around the office. "There doesn't appear to have been too much damage. No one here was hurt, were they?"
Robert shook his head. "No harm done." It had taken him most of the morning to put his office back in order after the havoc wreaked by E-bon's vortex, and two of the drawers of his desk weren't sliding properly, but it could've been worse. His laptop had been safe in his briefcase at the time, and he counted himself lucky that E-bon had spat back up the desk, rather than taken it with them. It would have been difficult to retrieve from the old juvenile detention hall, and he needed his files. Reassuring the staff and kids at the center would take longer, but the Bang Babies had been a part of Dakota life for long enough that everyone knew how to deal.
"If there's any repairs needed, send the bill to me personally," Lex said. "And you're all right, too?" He eyed Robert's chin critically, as if looking for bruises.
"Mr. Luthor--Lex. I'm fine." The last of his headache had faded during lunch. Truth be told his jaw was still sore, but probably no worse than Luthor's own, unless his right cross had really degraded that much. "If you're worried about your own part, I've gotten worse getting between brawling kids."
"I see." Lex nodded amused acknowledgment of the slight, but only for a moment. "Mr. Hawkins," he said seriously, meeting Robert's eyes, "I owe you an apology. You should never have been involved in yesterday's events. I was waiting for E-bon to make a play and went out to give him the opportunity, but I wasn't expecting him to move so quickly. Or for him to take both of us."
"Yes, well. It worked out all right, in the end," Robert said.
A twist in the billionaire's expression told Robert that in Lex Luthor's universe, things were supposed to either go right from the start, or not at all. After all, he must have plenty of schemes that failed. Thwarted by Superman and his fellow heroes, as they were planned to be from the start. Robert couldn't help but think it must be frustrating, even if it was intentional failure. And unintentional mistakes must grate all the more.
"Look," Robert said, "you might be the number one supervillain, but I can't see how that makes you accountable for other criminals. E-bon was a threat to this city before you ever stepped foot in Dakota, and Alva Industries helped create him long before LexCorp was in charge. As far as I'm concerned, you stand to make the city less dangerous. Even if your ways of doing so are..." He deliberated. "Somewhat suspect. Besides," and Robert couldn't help a smile, "I did get the chance to meet Superman this way."
Lex chuckled. It reached his blue eyes and made him look younger. The man had to be around forty, but he could pass for fifty, or thirty; his smoothly pale complexion and bald head made it difficult to estimate. And something about his bearing now reminded Robert more of Virgil and Richie. He was letting a little of his urbane tycoon sophistication down, and what showed beneath was the tentative self-consciousness of a much younger man.
Knowing Luthor, that slipped mask was manipulation as much as anything else, but Robert suspected what showed might be true all the same. Lex had been playing supervillain for so long that his honest side probably hadn't had much chance to mature. "I want you to know, Lex, I'm taking what I've learned about you and Superman in the strictest of confidences, the same as my knowledge of my son. Regardless of how I found them out, I understand how important these secrets are."
"Oh, I know I can trust in your discretion." Lex sounded surprised. "I wouldn't have broached them with you otherwise."
Upon consideration, Robert didn't doubt that somehow he could have managed that. "Thank you," he said quietly. Trust was too precious a gift not to appreciate.
Lex nodded. "Static and Gear--Virgil and Richie--never gave me any reason to think I shouldn't confide in you. I meant what I told you yesterday, you have every right to be proud of those boys. They're a credit to their vocation." His expression became wry. "Though I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a personal stake. If you want to know the truth, Mr. Hawkins--the hardest part of doing what I do is having to endure the entirely justified scorn and hatred of good, honorable men like you."
"Then why do you do it?" Robert asked. "Virgil told me enough to convince me that what you do is important, that they need someone like you to--keep an eye on the dark side, I suppose. But why does it have to be you? From what I've seen, you have your own talents to rival Gear's, and you have a--close relation with a superhero already. Why didn't you just become one of the heroes instead?"
Lex raised an eyebrow. "Seriously? It never crossed my mind." He chuckled, still wry. "In all honesty, could you see me as a hero? You raised your son to be a good man; when he came into his powers, it never occurred to him to become anything but a hero. Superman was the same way--it won't be violating his secret identity to tell you that I know his parents personally, and they remind me of you. Good people, down to their bones. I wasn't raised like that. I was raised to do what I do, to be what I am."
A little of Robert's discomfort must have shown on his face despite his best intentions; Lex gave him a smaller, softer version of his shark smile. "Don't get me wrong, Mr. Hawkins. I like what I do. I like being who I am. I'm glad that I can be myself and still ultimately know myself to be on the side of the angels, but the truth of the matter is--if I weren't a supervillain in appearance only, then I'd be a supervillain in fact."
Smaller; but that smile still had fangs. Robert had a momentary vision of that hypothetical fact--of Lex Luthor as the monster Robert had just yesterday taken him for--and shivered. It would not be a world he would wish on anyone.
Instead he said, "Well, if supervillains still eat like regular people--would you like to come to dinner this Friday? If you're still around Dakota, that is. Richie and Virgil will be coming, and my daughter and son-in-law. There's always room for one or two more at our table."
It only lasted an instant, but Robert had the satisfaction of seeing Lex Luthor completely off his guard, staring at him like he was another attacking metahuman. He hadn't looked so startled when being pulled into E-bon's vortex.
Then it passed and Lex was saying, slick as melting ice, "I will be around, and I'd love to, Mr. Hawkins."
"Good," Robert said. "And call me Robert."
"Robert," Lex said warmly, as they shook again. "Then I'll see you Friday."
"I'll meet you here at six o'clock," Robert said. "And please invite your--old friend in the red cape. If he's available."
Lex grinned. "I'll let him know," he said. "Good afternoon, Robert."
Robert saw Lex Luthor out, closed his office door and returned to his desk, taking out his notepad to start a shopping list. If he picked up tomato paste on the way home, he should have time to make the sauce tonight. He hoped that supervillains liked lasagna.
This story is in fact the direct sequel to my previous crossover, "Of Heroes and Villains and Partners". Being as that story is going on four years old, it has some discrepancies with current Smallville canon, but the general scenario remains the same. There might be more stories in this universe, as I am unduly fond of this particular variation of Lex Luthor.
Thanks much for the reviews, I really appreciate knowing someone enjoyed this!