"Kryptonite," Lex said, trilling the "r", practically singing it, practically dancing down the steps.
Was there ever a more lovely word for a more wonderful substance?
He walked over to where Superman was starting to rise, clearly already the worse for wear. "You're asking yourself, 'How?' Didn't your dad ever teach you to look before you leap?"
Lex punctuated the speech with four hard kicks to the alien's torso. Superman reacted in a gratifyingly human way: grunted, gasped, and collapsed.
Lex bent down, hands on his knees. "Crystals," he said conversationally. "They're amazing, aren't they? They inherit the traits of the minerals around them... kind of like a son inheriting the traits of his father!"
Another kick, this one every bit as satisfying as the last. Except -
Superman wasn't getting it. Of course, he was being beaten - not the best conditions for deciphering subtle hints. Still, Lex had expected a swifter apprehension of the salient points, especially after the trouble he'd gone through in securing the boy. Very disappointing.
He leaned down again, pointing towards Kitty and the boy, making sure that the alien's eyes followed the gesture. Lex dropped his voice to a chummy murmur: "Your little friend is getting a bit green around the gills. It's enough to make one wonder. After all, it's not his mother who's allergic to kryptonite. Hm?"
And there it was, finally: understanding dawning across that pallid face.
Followed swiftly by fear.
Naturally, Lex knew better than to think that Superman was afraid for himself. No - Superman was just fearing for his son; but Lex was feeling charitable. He was ready to move on.
"I suppose Ms. Lane forgot to give you the memo," he said, kicking again. Somehow, this time, Superman caught his foot and almost pulled him off-balance.
Stanford, Riley and Grant, mindful of a good cue, moved in before that could happen. They dragged Superman away, kicking and punching, throwing him, slamming his head down into the rocks and the foul-smelling pools of seawater. Lex strolled after them.
This was the most satisfying day he'd had in a long time.
Signing on with Lex was starting to look like a big mistake to Kitty. She'd known he was bad from the moment she met him, of course, but she hadn't realized, until just a few hours ago, exactly how bad.
Fleecing the old lady had been one thing. That'd been a game, practically a cakewalk, the most successful con of Kitty's career. Lex had been aiming higher the whole time, for something mysterious he only revealed piecemeal. She hadn't really cared what his big scheme was, honestly. She had her money, her house, her clothes, her fluffy little dog. What did any of his crazy ranting matter?
She'd known he was bad. But this - Billions of people -
- and killing Superman -
- while the kid was right there -
Kitty hugged the kid closer to her where she stood, trying to cover his eyes and ears at the same time. He didn't need to see or hear Superman getting the shit beat out of him.
Poor kid - he was shaking and wheezing. Asthma or something. And he looked terrible.
"It's okay," she kept saying, rocking him a little, lying through her teeth. "It's okay."
"I feel sick," he wheezed.
Kitty shifted, trying to move in case he puked; her shoes were brand new, and the kid did look sick. But better than Superman, that was for sure. Kitty winced every time a blow landed. He wasn't even trying to get away - he was fighting to come back. To save the kid, she realized. And Lex and his prison buddies were going to kill him.
Stop, it's not fair, you can't, she wanted to say. It was Superman, for chrissakes. He'd saved her life... He'd saved her life and now she couldn't even say Stop.
She felt helpless and useless. Worse - she was helpless and useless.
From the cliff's edge, standing over Superman's body, Lex turned and gestured at her. "Bring the boy," he said. The words echoed off of all the weird rocks.
"Lex, no," Kitty said.
He gave her a look that scared her even from a distance.
"Come on," Kitty whispered to the kid, urging him down the steps and across the open expanse of black rocks. He didn't want to go and Kitty couldn't blame him.
But Lex wouldn't -
He couldn't be planning to -
Not a little kid -
What if he was?
Billions of people will die.
Kitty's fingers tightened on the kid's shoulders, but she kept walking.
Lex had his three prison buddies ringing Superman, and as she got closer he reached into his white coat pocket and pulled out a wicked shard of green kryptonite.
She got her hand over the kid's eyes before Lex stabbed Superman, but just barely, and the kid pushed it away anyway when Superman cried out in pain.
There were some things you shouldn't hear, some sounds that were just wrong, Kitty thought, and that was one of them.
"Stop it!" the kid shrieked. Good volume, considering all the wheezing. He pulled against Kitty's grip. She pulled back and was surprised at how strong he was.
Lex broke off the crystal with a savage twist, murmured something, then shoved Superman away. Superman climbed with great difficulty to his feet and turned to face them, putting his back to the cliff.
The kid was crying. Kitty liked it even less now.
"It's okay, Jason," Superman said to the kid, voice weak.
"Oh, don't start lying now, Superman." Lex spread his arms, palms up, relishing the moment. " 'The Last Son of Krypton.' Such a ringing epithet. Pity it's no longer accurate -"
Riley came over and, one-handed, wrenched the kid's arm from Kitty's grasp. The other hand was holding a gun.
"- but we can fix that," Lex finished, civilized tone melting away into a nasty snarl. "You took away five years of my life - consider this returning the favor."
Riley put the gun to the kid's head.
Lex, you can't, Kitty tried to say, but the words stuck in her throat. All she could do was stand there, useless, hearing but not understanding as Lex said, "Which half do you think is invulnerable?"
Kitty looked to Superman, wondering frantically - was he waiting? Was he saving his strength for a last-minute rescue?
But - no. Kitty was a con artist, good at reading people, and she saw the truth about Superman without even wanting to.
He wasn't waiting. He was beaten, mortally wounded, helpless himself. He could barely stand. He couldn't save anybody.
Superman glanced away from the kid and caught her eyes. Didn't say anything, but she could hear the Please as if he'd shouted.
But Lex would never forgive -
The kid sucked in a wheezy, hyperventilating breath.
Riley cocked the hammer back.
Kitty stopped thinking.
She shoved Riley.
Riley lurched sideways, the gun went off, Lex turned on Kitty with blazing fury -
"Run!" she cried out, but the kid was already running - half-running, mostly tripping, splashing through the stinking salty puddles. He barreled into Superman, grabbing on, sending Superman staggering back even as he grabbed for the kid in return.
Kitty watched, right before Lex threw her to the ground, as the two of them went over the cliff's edge.
Falling. Not flying.
The water was cold and churned into a foaming chaos by the tectonic uplift - so much colder and wilder with kryptonite poisoning the blood.
Superman did his best to take the impact for Jason. He hung on to his son as their momentum drove them down too deep, as the current caught them and tossed them heedlessly underwater, as wild storms of bubbles obscured the direction of the surface.
He tried to pull the kryptonite from his side and couldn't. He oriented himself, pushed upwards, towards the light and the air, not fighting the sea on his own behalf, but for the small life he was ultimately so responsible for.
He broke the surface and knew it was too little, too late - his body was shutting down - made sure Jason took a breath - he couldn't - he was going under again - and he let go of Jason so he wouldn't drag the boy with him - and he hoped.
Hoped for a miracle.
Hoped for somebody to save his son.
"Richard!" Lois exclaimed.
"Yeah, I saw them!" Richard banked the seaplane hard and brought it down as close to the - now vanished - flash of red as he could. Before he could get his headset or belt off, Lois was out of the plane and jumping into the water.
Cursing, he dove off the float just in time to see Lois surfacing with Jason. He swam through the choppy waves towards them as fast as he could.
"Take him!" she shouted as he reached them, letting go of Jason. Before Richard could protest, or even say anything at all, Lois had disappeared underwater again.
Richard grabbed his son - yes, his son, dammit! - and started back to the plane; hard going in the swirling current, with only one arm available, but he would have done it with a war raging around him.
Jason's lips were blue and his breathing was awful. He was alive, though, and Richard had him, and that was all that mattered.
"C'mon," he said, hoisting Jason onto the pontoon float and climbing up after. He picked Jason up again and deposited him inside the cabin. He pushed his son's wet hair back from his face and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "I have to help Mommy - don't move!"
Jason shook his head, eyes wide. Richard felt like the world's worst father, but he left the plane and jumped into the water again.
Lois had somehow found Superman and dragged him to the surface; she couldn't swim holding the dead weight, though, and she was struggling.
In that moment Richard would have been happy to see Superman go to the bottom of the sea with the whole damn alien island.
He stroked over to join her, took one side of Superman, and helped tow his son's father to the plane.
If the plane crashed - if the plane couldn't take off - they were all dead, and yet what Lois was most concerned about was, first, making sure Jason was buckled in and warm, and second, finding out why Superman was still unconscious.
She wrapped the emergency blanket around her son and held him tightly for a long moment as the plane jolted and bounced over the waves. "It's okay, you're safe," she said, even though that wasn't quite true yet.
"I feel sick," came the muffled reply.
"You'll feel better soon." She kissed him, feeling powerless, and went to the rear of the cabin, where Superman was laying in the same position they'd left him. Except the jostling made him tense and his eyes flicker open, she noticed, kneeling down beside him and cradling his head.
"Richard -?" she called at an especially hard bounce.
"I'm trying - it's too choppy!" he answered, audibly frustrated.
They got in the air - she could feel the difference - then slammed back down onto the water. Superman didn't quite bite down on a painful grunt.
Was he hurt? If he was, why wasn't it getting better now that he was away from the kryptonite?
Why wasn't Jason?
Suddenly they were over the edge of a waterfall and falling, falling, and it was all she could do to hold on and not tumble down the length of the plane. There was a bitter kind of symmetry there - hadn't she begun this being tossed around a falling plane?
We are not going to die, she told herself, squeezing her eyes shut. It was impossible: she was not going to die with the three people she loved most in the world. She forced her eyes open.
Richard pulled out of the dive, almost laughing with relief, and the plane leveled out.
Lois half-rose to check on Jason, who looked more or less the same. He mumbled again that he felt sick.
Maybe the kryptonite didn't affect him in-
No. Don't think about that now.
Instead she used the more stable conditions to examine Superman. There was something in his side - oh, Jesus, it was kryptonite. Lex must've stabbed him with the same shard he'd used to threaten Jason.
Maybe this is why, she thought. Regardless, it had to go.
She retrieved a pair of pliers from the tool kit under the seat. Her fingers were shaking and she felt dizzy again just from the thought of what she was going to have to do and how much it was going to hurt him.
"Okay," she said under her breath, like a prayer. "Okay, okay..."
She got a good grip on the shard with the pliers. And pulled.
It made a wet, sucking sound, and Superman cried out in pain. She kept pulling, though, and the second it was free of his body, his blue eyes snapped fully open, alert and lucid.
The green shard was razor-sharp, covered in blood, and it was longer than her hand.
It was longer than her hand.
She stared at it for a heartbeat, uncomprehending and furious. He'd held this to her baby's throat. Attempted to murder Superman.
What the hell was wrong with Lex Luthor?
Then she got up, popped the door open even though they were in flight, and threw the damn thing into the sea.
Kryptonite acted on his system with astonishing speed, poisoning and weakening him within seconds, even in small doses. The good news was that it worked just as quickly in reverse; as soon as Lois pulled the shard from Superman's side, he started to feel better.
Not nearly up to the task he knew he would have to carry out - but so be it.
She shut the door of the plane and came to kneel beside him. He tried to lift his head, and found that feeling better and being better were still two different things.
Lois was there, however, and she put one hand behind his head in support.
"Jason," he said, faintly. His voice was also weaker than he'd expected.
"He's..." She glanced over her shoulder. He followed the look and saw his son huddled in one of the seats, dull and listless, eyes glazed and far away.
Superman tried to stand and managed only to sit up. The searing pain in his side was still there, albeit on a vastly reduced scale; he suspected Lois hadn't gotten all of the kryptonite. That didn't matter nearly as much as the fact that Jason hadn't recovered.
He closed his eyes, trying to push the discomfort away and think. Sunlight was a reliable cure - for him. Who knew what Jason needed?
He would just have to try it, he decided, and opened his eyes to find Lois close enough that her curling, wet hair almost brushed against his face. She was blinking hard, trying to fight down tears.
"I didn't know," she whispered, almost too softly for even him to hear, her lips barely moving. "I..."
He wanted to kiss her. Instead he found her hand and squeezed it, gently. You don't have to apologize, he almost said, but he knew if he did, she'd cry openly and then he'd have to kiss her, have to try to make her feel better. He hoped she could see it on his face.
"Thank you for the rescue," he said - and this time, his voice worked as expected. He climbed carefully to his feet, ignoring Lois' alarmed expression. "Jason needs the sun. With your permission -"
"Yes," Lois said before he could finish.
Superman looked to the pilot's seat. Richard said, "Whatever you think is best," in the carefully neutral tones of a man who'd heard the most unwelcome news of his life.
"I'm sorry," he said to Richard, who merely shook his head, grim and thin-lipped.
Superman picked Jason up and carried his son to the door of the plane.
"Hold on," he said. Jason obligingly wrapped his arms around Superman's neck.
He opened the door and stepped out into the rain-lashed gray sky, flying upwards in a gently curving arc that was as much for his benefit as Jason's. The stormclouds were thick, but above them the sun still shone strong and warm.
Pain and fatigue washed away under the yellow light. He held Jason close and tried not to think about the precious time ticking away, making his next job geometrically harder with every lost second.
He thought, instead, about the miraculous gift that had been given to him - a gift that he hardly deserved. He was not alone in the wide empty universe; he was not the last; he had new memories waiting for him, an astonishing new life to watch unfolding.
"We're up high," Jason said, not scared, not excited; only observing. His breathing had improved, his pulse was strong, and there was a sparkle in his eyes again.
"Do you feel better now?" Superman asked.
Jason nodded, and proved it by craning over to look at the clouds below. "I see the plane," he announced.
"We'll go back," Superman said.
Jason hugged his neck more tightly on the way down. The son becomes the father, Superman thought, trying to etch the moment into his memory. And the father becomes the son.
He passed Jason to Lois as she stood in the open door of the plane, but made no move to enter the aircraft himself.
"What are you doing?" she shouted over the wind shrieking through the door.
"I have to go back," he said.
She looked at him, afraid, and in her arms, their son looked at him too.
He understood, now, why and how Jor-El had sent his only child rocketing out into the void. There was no risk not worth taking for the sake of his son.
He thought, The greatest gift I can give them is a safer world.
"You're hurt," Lois said. An accusation, and a correct one at that. It didn't matter. He knew what he had to do, and so he was bound to do it.
This time, however, he could at least leave her with what she deserved.
Superman smiled and said, "Goodbye, Lois," and, more softly, "Goodbye, Jason."
Then he flew away.
Just when Lex had thought that the shambles of his grand plan couldn't get any more depressing, he'd learned that Riley hadn't been recording.
Which meant that, after Lex had put up with a videocamera following his every move for weeks, Superman had (in all probability) gone to his demise without the beautiful moment being filmed for posterity.
Which meant that the entire process had been a waste of time - rendered pointless in a moment of overeager lynching.
Lex was going to seriously reevaluate his recruitment policies.
For example: no more women.
This wasn't the first time he'd been disappointed at a crucial moment by a woman in his employ. It would, however, certainly be the last. He gave Kitty an angry glance, but she was oblivious to it. She was curled over that damn ball of fluff that pretended to be a dog, crying quietly.
There was no reason for her to cry; he'd been very specific and Stanford - who could follow orders - hadn't left any bruises on her face.
Oh well. He'd wait a few weeks, until she was off-guard, and then have her killed.
On that reassuring note, he clipped the end of a cigar and lit it. Grant and Stanford were playing cards, Riley was editing and reediting his meaningless video, Kitty was crying her traitorous heart out, and he himself was waiting for the world to change.
Because change it would. Lex still had the crystals; more to the point, he still had his new land, and there was nothing that could take that away from him.
He had won.
No, he had indisputably won. Earth was his to alter however he desired, so long as the price was right. He had the power of a god - of God - in his hands. Now he only-
The ground beneath his feet started to shake.