The noise Lex made upon seeing the lab was essentially a squeal of glee, though Superman had enough sense not to point it out. Instead, he watched Lex explore, smiling every time the human came across something new. Lex's happiness was infectious in a way, and Superman liked being able to give him something. It assuaged his guilt over nearly killing him for something that wasn't his fault. Happiness aside, though, he was slightly concerned about the manic look in Lex's eye when he came across the nitroglycerin vials. He reassured himself that it would take a lot more than nitroglycerin to punch through any of the walls in the Palace.
"Well?" Superman asked, floating down from where he'd been perched on one of the light fixtures. "Will this work?"
"It's satisfactory," Lex said, like he hadn't just spent the last hour and a half in a state of scientific euphoria. "But I want all of Brainiac's technology out of the lab before I start."
Superman rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You're deliberately making my life harder."
Lex's smile was not very friendly.
"Absolutely not," Brainiac hissed, when Superman told him about Lex's demand. "It is bad enough that he is being allowed access to the lab at all. It is insanity to even contemplate letting him work unmonitored."
"As if I'd give you the chance to sabotage my work," Lex snapped.
Lex and Brainiac went back and forth like that for a while, tossing insults in the form of arguments. Superman felt more and more like a harangued parent the longer they fought. Finally, after fifteen minutes of listening to 'robotic alien despot' and 'primitive, pathetic ape with delusions of grandeur', Superman reached his breaking point.
"Enough!" he said, physically stepping between them. "Brainiac, get your technology out of Lex's lab. Lex, Brainiac is allowed to scan everything you take in and out of the lab, and remove anything that might be a weapon."
"That's final. Brainiac, go monitor the Nazca plate, it's been producing a lot of seismic activity. Lex, go to your lab and start doing something."
Both of them stalked to their respective corners of the Palace. For his part, Superman flew laps around the Earth until he felt less like smacking them both. When he was calmer, he patrolled, but aside from a few minor car crashes and a small housefire in Rio de Janeiro, there was very little going on. When he confirmed that there were no situations that needed his direct intervention, Superman flew into space. He stood atop one of Brainiac's geosynchronous satellites and stared down at the planet, feeling a sudden, intense happiness. It was peaceful at last. No wars, no chaos, no cries for help. He'd done it. He'd saved the world.
Superman closed his eyes and tipped off the satellite, letting himself float back towards Earth as gravity pulled him in. He smiled as he hit the atmosphere, the heat of re-entry sizzling across his skin and his uniform harmlessly. The wind roared past his ears, temporarily blotting out all sounds. He stopped his freefall gradually, coming to a halt somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, near Fiji. The sun was blazing, and Superman laughed and tilted his head back.
When he returned to the Palace, Lex had a holographic map of Africa projected in the center of the room. He was circling it, occasionally pausing to write something down on one of the clipboards he'd scattered throughout the place.
"What's this?" Superman asked, hovering to look at the Sahara, where Lex had been marking down locations, leaving red dots all over the top half of the continent.
"I'm going to create plants that can grow in the desert and turn the Sahara into farmland," Lex said. "And then maybe terraform the moon, too, for good measure. It's just hanging up there in the sky, not doing anything."
"Why exactly would we need a forest on the moon?" Superman asked, running his hand through the holographic Equator.
Lex rolled his eyes and didn't respond.
The first time he and Lex kissed, they were in Sudan, standing at the edge of the Sahel and arguing about crops of all things. Lex's plans had eventually merited a trip out the Sahara, and he'd thrown a mild tantrum until Superman agreed to let him come.
They were right on the edge of the Sahel, were only the toughest weeds and grasses survived. A few meters ahead of them, the plants faded into sands of the desert, and behind them, a veritable sea of grass stretched out as far as the eye could see. It was blisteringly hot, the heat beating down like a hammer and making the air shimmer. Superman was enjoying himself. Lex was grumbling nonstop; he was dressed in one of LexCorp's all-environment suits, which Superman had agreed to let him have after scanning it for weapons, traps, and other dangers. The suit regulated the temperature of the wearer very efficiently, and looked like a bulky wetsuit. It left Lex's head unprotected, and apparently he had a sort of intense phobia regarding sunburns, so he was also wearing a turban. The suit and the turban clashed hilariously, but Superman had wisely not told Lex that. If he felt the urge to giggle when looking at Lex, he instead stared at a herd of camels resting a few miles away until the impulse passed. It also helped that Lex was being obnoxious.
"Lex, you cannot just start growing random plants here." The farmer in Superman was deeply offended.
"Did I say that was what I was planning?" Lex leaned down to take a soil sample.
"No, but it is what you're planning. You need to consider which crops can actually survive here, regardless of-"
"Don't patronize me like I'm in some Intro to Bio class," Lex snapped. "I'll pick plants that can survive the environment."
"The crops surviving isn't my biggest concern," Superman said, scowling. "I don't want the new farmlands to upset the ecosystem any more than necessary. We need to try and get plants that are native to this region, or at least have already been introduced."
Lex put the vial of soil in the small bag he was carrying with him and turned to face Superman, arms crossed. "Your first concern would be the damn environment."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Superman said, stepping closer to loom over Lex.
"I mean that it makes sense you'd be some nature-loving hippie." Lex suddenly grinned up at him. "You are a filthy commie, after all."
To his surprise Superman found himself grinning back. "Of course you'd say that, capitalist swine."
It was very strange, the moment that should have been the start of an argument, but…wasn't.
They both started laughing then, and it was possibly the most tension free instant they'd ever had. So of course it was then that Superman noticed how close they were standing and that Lex was just inches away from his lips. He froze, not sure where that realization had come from and equally unsure of what to do with it. Lex seemed to realize it too, and his expression faded from amusement to consideration.
He stepped closer.
Superman didn't step back.
Lex closed the distance between them and their lips met. His skin was as hot, sweat-slicked from the heat, and Superman instinctively wrapped his arm around Lex's waist, pulling him closer.
It had been roughly ten years since Superman had touched anybody for reasons other than shaking hands and rescuing. Lex's lips were like a spark on oil, like a flame on dry grass. Superman could feel his body lighting up instantaneously, heart pounding, nerves racing. He deepened the kiss, tongue tangling with Lex's, and his perception of the world was reduced down to one patch of land, to one human in his arms. But shock and more than a little bit of lust could only keep his mind blank for so long, and eventually one thought emerged loud and clear: What in the hell am I doing?
Stunned, Superman let go of Lex and took a step back. The human was panting, cheeks flushed and lips already looking a little bruised. Superman had a feeling he looked equally disheveled. He wasn't sure what the polite thing to do in this situation was, exactly, but he knew that he needed to get away and start figuring things out immediately.
"I have to go do something. Stay here, I'll be back," Superman said, so quickly that Lex might not have even caught it. He took off into the sky. In retrospect, it may well have been the most idiotic thing he'd ever said out loud.
The atmosphere, he decided, was not far enough away. With that in mind, he soared towards the moon. He could hold his breath for roughly three hours, so that gave him a decent time limit to figure out what in the world had just happened. His cape floated up around him as he touched down gently on the Sea of Tranquility. He always got a small rush of pure glee when he was on the moon, no matter how many times he came here. Superman had teared up the first time he set foot on the barren, rocky surface and down looked at Earth, stretched out before him like the most beautiful canvas ever painted. It was one of the very few things that made him feel small, and he adored it. He adored it all, his beautiful, beautiful adopted home, and the people on it that he'd protect with his life. He'd even given serious thought towards letting humans come up here, since he certainly had the technology to make it feasible. The idea had eventually been discarded, since Superman preferred to make sure everything on Earth was running smoothly before humanity moved on to space. But he still regretted that no one besides him had ever seen this view in person.
He laid back on the dusty surface of the moon, finally feeling calm enough to start analyzing what had happened. Unconsciously, he raised his hand to his lips. Lex had kissed him, that much was obvious. Equally obvious was that he'd been very enthusiastic about kissing Lex back.
Finding Lex physically attractive wasn't something new or startling. The first time he'd ever seen the man, Superman had noted that he was beautiful. But it had been irrelevant then, and had stayed irrelevant through the intervening years. He and Lex had been rivals at best, enemies at worse. He assumed Lex had felt the same way, though the thought that Lex might be attracted to him hadn't ever crossed his mind.
The fact that they weren't currently enemies, or at least weren't actively trying to throw each other out of power, didn't really make the situation much better. Superman let his head thunk back against the lunar surface, frustration building.
Lex could be playing him, that was something worth considering. If Lex had been half as diligent spying on him as he had been spying on Lex, he'd know that Superman didn't have much in the way of a personal life. He could be trying to use Superman's lack of companionship to gain extra insurance for himself, to try and make sure Superman was bound to him emotionally. Superman wouldn't be surprised, considering how strangely the implant had been-
Superman closed his eyes, heart sinking at realization. The reason he'd never suspected Lex was attracted to him was because the human hadn't been. Not until the implant. He swore silently and banged his head back against the rock, feeling it crack and crater beneath him.
He was an idiot, clearly. If course Lex's actions were due to the implant. It had been stupid to think otherwise. Granted, none of the people implanted with Brainiac's technology had ever developed a sudden attraction to Superman, but Lex wasn't reacting normally to begin with. Superman rubbed his temples, feeling a headache forming. His hair was floating around him like a halo, the moon's gravity too weak to hold it down, and he ran a hand through it angrily. He got to his feet.
Nothing could happen with Lex, that much was obvious. He wasn't…wasn't willing, not really. It would be incredibly wrong, and Lex would doubtlessly agree when Superman explained it. Resisting the urge to sigh, he kicked upwards, allowing himself to cruise slowly back to Earth.
Lex wasn't where Superman had left him. Instead, he was several meters southwest, lying in the long, yellow savanna grass with his hands tucked behind his head. He was staring up at the sky, his expression contemplative. He raised an eyebrow when Superman flew into view and was enough to hover over him, casting a long shadow over him.
"You're lucky I wasn't eaten by lions," Lex drawled, voice calm.
"There are no lions anywhere near here," Superman said automatically. He floated there awkwardly, having no idea how to start the conversation.
"Just take us back to the Palace," Lex said, climbing to his feet and picking up the bag of soil samples. "I have what I came for."
The flight back was a unique kind of torture, with Superman painfully aware of every place he and Lex were touching. For his part, Lex lounged in his arms like a cat, eyes tightly closed the entire time but otherwise completely relaxed. Superman envied him, since he still felt panicky and unsure.
When they arrived at the Palace, Superman followed Lex to his lab, still trying to decide what he was going to say. Several times he started to speak, only to think better of it and fall silent. Instead, he watched Lex work. It was oddly peaceful, with only the scratching of Lex's pencil and the gentle humming of the machines to disturb the silence. He'd been perched on one of the lab tables, watching Lex scribble notes, when the human finally spoke.
"Are you trying to kill me?"
"What?!" Superman asked, startled.
"Well, you've been staring at me for approximately fifteen minutes without looking away," Lex said, putting his clipboard down. "It occurred to me that you might be trying to slow cook me with your heat vision."
"No," Superman said, sighing. "I'm just thinking."
"You know, my main concern when I kissed you was that you'd be disgusted and take my head off with one punch," Lex said. He stepped around the lab table he was working at to stand directly in front of Superman. "I wasn't expecting you to panic and run away to space."
"It was just to the moon," Superman said, feeling slightly offended.
"I'm sorry, panic and run away to the moon," Lex said, rolling his eyes. "If I'd known making a pass at would cause you to flee the planet, I'd have tried it years ago."
He supposed he wasn't going to get any better opening than that.
"Lex, ah, about you…" Superman looked away, licking his lips nervously. He uncrossed his legs and stood up, so that he and Lex were more or less eye to eye. Lex's implant glinted softly under the fluorescent lights of the lab. "About any…feelings you have towards me, I don't think they're you. Yours. I don't think they're yours. It's because of the implant."
Whatever reaction Superman was expecting out of Lex, laughter wasn't it at all.
"Is that what has you so flustered?" Lex asked between laughs, grinning. "It figures. You're so strange."
"It's not the implant," Lex said, still chuckling. "It was never the implant."
"Yes, it is," Superman said, frustrated. "Lex, think. You never wanted anything like this before."
"Superman," Lex said, putting his hands on Superman's shoulders. Superman started, not expecting it. "I've wanted to kiss you since the first time I saw you."
That rendered Superman silent, dumbstruck.
"Well, all right," Lex said, mouth twisting a little, "the first time I saw you, I wanted to run tests on you. But when we got the first close-up pictures of you, then I wanted to kiss you. Possibly while running tests on you. And now there's no reason why I shouldn't."
"Lex, that doesn't-" Superman narrowed his eyes. As per his deal with Lex, he'd never programmed the implant to keep Lex from being dishonest. He could very easily see Lex lying to get what he wanted, which in this case, oddly enough, was Superman. "You're lying."
"I am not," Lex said irritably, his hands still on Superman's shoulders. "Christ, and I thought I was paranoid. I'm not lying."
"And even if you aren't," Superman said, stepping back out of Lex's reach, "you still wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for the implant. I'm sorry, Lex. This is wrong. You'd never want this normally."
"There you go again, making decisions for people without listening to a word they're saying," Lex said, glaring. He stepped back as well. "I should have expected it."
"Don't turn this into some fight about ideology," Superman snapped. "This is about doing the right thing, and I'm not going to take advantage of you."
"So you'd much rather-" Lex paused mid-sentence, blinking in confusion. "Huh. That's strange. Must be the implant."
"I don't think the damn implant is working at all!" Superman snapped.
"Oh, it's working," Lex said with a laugh. Unlike before, there was very little humor in it. "Believe me, it's working. But it's not what made me kiss you."
"Drop it, Lex," Superman ordered. "Whether it's the implant or not, I don't care. Nothing else is going to happen between us."
"As you wish," Lex said, giving a sarcastic little bow. He was smiling in a way that Superman didn't like at all.
What Superman did not expect out of Lex was obedience. And yet, a month passed, and Lex never brought up the kiss once. He spent long hours in the lab, he snarled at Brainiac, he was pleasant with Superman. By all appearances, he'd listened to what Superman said and had taken it to heart.
Superman should have known Luthor was just lulling him into a false sense of security.
He'd stopped by the lab, only to have Lex greet him with the good news that the test batch of seeds had taken root and were growing perfectly. They had been discussing when the best time to plant a trial group in the Sahara itself would be, when Lex had casually mentioned that he missed playing chess. Superman had stepped right into his trap and offered to play.
"I think we should make this game more interesting," Lex said, holding up a pawn and examining it. He and Superman were in Superman's room, seated at the small crystal table. The chess set was similarly crystalline; Superman had created it one day when he was bored.
"Interesting?" Superman asked, immediately suspicious.
"You mentioned earlier that you thought we should bring in farmers to plant and maintain the crops, instead of calling on the local population," Lex said, rolling the pawn between his fingers. "I disagree. The locals are mostly subsistence farmers to begin with. We should use them."
"We're using genetically modified crops that are completely experimental," Superman said, not sure where Lex was going with this. "I'd prefer we use farmers with more experience dealing with plants that are so far from organic. I know several, including some who have the implants so Brainiac can monitor things more closely. It'll insure a better crop yield."
"It might," Lex agreed. "But the crops aren't the point of my argument. You've brought peace to the world, sure. You can put down any uprising, break apart any militias, stop any wars before they happen, and you can do it all without spilling a drop of blood. But that doesn't mean peace is guaranteed. Let the locals handle the crops, and our plan will have a familiar face to everyone in the region. It'll put people at ease."
Superman raised an eyebrow.
"No one likes feeling like they're your pets, Superman," Lex said. "You tell them that they're going to eat this strange food that looks normal but grows in the desert and that they've got no choice in that matter, and it will chafe. They'll resent it, and they'll resent you. But let them grow and care for the food themselves and it'll seem like a gift you're giving them. You'll come off less like a dictator and more like a benefactor."
"You're giving me advice on how to better rule the world now?" Superman said, tilting his head. This was certainly new.
"Well, I'm going to save the world, so that means working with the people in charge." Lex smiled amicably. "You've narrowed that down to you and only you."
"It's an interesting idea, and I can see your point," Superman said, "but why are we having this conversation now?"
"Because I'd like to take the choice out of your hands," Lex said, still smiling. "You need to stop micro-managing every aspect of humanity. It's bad for you and bad for us. And stressful. I think I see a grey hair right at your temple."
Before he could stop himself, Superman brought a hand up to his hair, as if he'd be able to feel any greys. He glared at Lex.
"Don't get your cape ruffled, I'm teasing."
"You're rude, that's what you are." But Superman wasn't actually that bothered. There was something nice about seeing Lex making jokes. Actually, that was one of the most noticeable things about Lex, post-implant. When he teased, it lacked the malicious edge that Superman was so familiar with. When Lex laughed, it no longer seemed like it was at everyone else's expense.
"Anyway, I think we should play for it," Lex said, putting the pawn down and leaning in towards the chess set. "If you win, we handle things your way. If I win, we handle things my way."
Superman was torn. On one hand, it was grossly irresponsible to let important decisions be made based on a game, even if that game was chess. On the other, Lex's idea was a good one, and Superman might have ended up choosing it regardless. Smiling a little, Superman settled his hands near the edges of the board.
"All right, Lex. Deal."
An hour later, Superman watched in bemusement as Lex captured his queen.
"That'll be checkmate," Lex said cheerfully, picking up the queen with relish. "You were off your game."
"Maybe I let you win," Superman suggested, crossing his arms and sitting back. Normally, he was excellent at chess, but he had been off his game, badly so. He'd made foolish mistakes left and right. It was almost embarrassing.
"I doubt it," Lex said. His grin changed, became something almost like a smirk. "I think I deserve a reward for beating you so completely."
"A reward?" Superman laughed. "Besides getting your way, you mean?"
"Yes, besides that." Lex stood up, leaning forward over the table. "I think I deserve a kiss."
"A kiss," Superman said flatly. Why on earth had he thought Lex would just accept something and move on? It had been wishful thinking on his part, obviously.
"It's traditional in chess," Lex said, smiling. "You just don't know about it since you're hiding up here in Siberia all the time."
"The fact that you can tell such ridiculous lies with a completely straight face is amazing."
"I am very amazing, yes." An edge of seriousness crept into Lex's expression. "Kiss me."
"Lex, no," Superman said, getting up from the table. "This isn't-"
"This isn't the implant talking," Lex said. "You really think anything of Brainiac's could produce affection? Attraction? Anything resembling something soft or human? No, Brainiac's very good at obedience and blind terror, but he's not causing this."
"But you still aren't-"
"What, in my right mind?" Lex laughed harshly. "If you have your way, I'm never going to get this implant out. I'll die with it welded to my skull. Am I supposed to spend the rest of my life here, watching you and never getting to have you? I won't accept it." He rounded the table, and Superman found himself stepping back without meaning to. "Kiss me."
"Lex, you're married!" It was the first thing that sprang to mind. Superman felt incredibly off-balance, not sure how to handle the idea that Lex might actually want him, and equally unsure about how badly he wanted to step forward and close the distance between them.
"Lois and I haven't had sex for twelve years," Lex said, not letting Superman put any distance between them. "I put our marriage on hold the first time you beat me, all those years ago. I don't know why she stayed with me, because the only thing I've given a damn about for decades now has been you."
"That doesn't make this right!" Superman felt his back hit the wall, and he wondered vaguely why he was letting Lex cage him in like this when he could leave anytime he wanted.
"You conquered my country." Lex placed his hands on either side of Superman's head carefully, deliberately. He leaned up, their faces inches apart. "You conquered my world. You kidnapped me, you tried to brainwash me, and you've been keeping me here against my will. You owe me this, you son of a bitch."
"I can't." Superman shook his head rapidly. "I—Lex, I can't."
"You're alone," Lex said, his tone gentler. He smoothed his fingers through Superman's hair, the movement soft and slow despite how animated Lex was. Superman shivered, feeling Lex's touch like it was across every inch of him. "You think it's not a problem, you think you don't care, but I can see it. You haven't been anything but a ruler for so long that you're starting to forget there's more to you. If you stay like this, anything good inside of you is going to atrophy and die. If you remove yourself from humanity, you're going to lose yours. We need this. We both need this." He stroked Superman's hair again. "Now kiss me, goddamn it."
I can't, Superman thought, even as he started to move forward. I can't do this.
Superman kissed Lex, and very quickly stopped thinking entirely.