Hell wasn't what Clark expected.
He crouched at the tunnel's edge, his hands black with earth and demon guts, and peered down into the enormous hall. Superman wouldn't panic, he thought. Superman wouldn't nearly barf up french fries and a hotdog with relish because of a simple rescue mission. He'd study the place, learn its weaknesses, and kick some butt, a strategy he'd learned years ago from Lex, back before Lex accepted defeat and became his dad's disciple.
As the bars crumbled into iron flakes under Clark's fingers, he thought, ‘Focus, Superman. You don't get off easy just because you left the costume at home.'
In the movies Hell was all fire and brimstone, chaos and rage. This looked like a giant slaughterhouse without the slaughter, organized, ugly and bloodless. A series of open metal-framed elevators zipped up and down the flat side of a mountain, transporting the wicked from the surface and the devils back to it. Very orderly and economical-- Henry Ford would have approved.
Another twist? The devils didn't look like devils, not at first. Riding in the elevators with the human herds, they were businessmen in suits, soccer moms in sweat pants, vertebrates with the usual collection of knobby or squishy parts. But the second their feet touched the stone floor they transformed, and like snowflakes no two looked alike.
Some slithered across the ground, a man's face at each end, teeth snapping at anything that passed, including a loping ape-toad hybrid that used its long tongue to herd a new batch of sinners through one of the seven archways lining the room. Others flew, wings hairy as spider legs, crocodile faces, feathers spiked like they'd been dipped in shoe polish of every color, and if a human wandered too far from the line a flock of them would dive-bomb him, gnashing yellow teeth until the line ran smoothly again.
No one screamed, at least not here in Hell's lobby. The humans, their clothes flayed off, seemed dazed, lurching like winos, not even struggling against the collar or the chain that joined them. At first Clark thought it was shell- shock, their brains fried by the reality of an eternity in Hell, until he saw a demon with a bird's head pushing a cart full of collars, spikes jutting from the underside of each, the tips glistening with some kind of drug. Talk about a brave new world.
Clark's stomach skipped again, stone on water, and he looked back over his shoulder. An hour, and he could be back on the surface, pretending this was a hotdog-inspired nightmare, not confirmation that reality, like ice cream, came in thirty-one flavors. He'd climb into bed, click on the news, and fall asleep with the tv talking to him. Hibernating, Lois called it when after an interrogation he confessed how he spent his free nights. Even under the blast of her questions, though, he'd kept quiet about the tv's habit of sending him secret love letters, the occasional piece on Lex focusing on the good stuff, so he could drift off to fantasies of a different future, be fifteen again with an unacknowledged crush on the coolest, strongest, smartest, most generous guy ever.
Nostalgia was for old farts (Lois again) with Swiss-cheese memories, a dangerous indulgence for anyone younger since people were like rocks: smooth and shiny on the surface, all maggoty underneath, a little slice of hell under your skin. If Clark forged ahead, chances were he'd confirm that monsters with crocodile faces lurked under Lex's surface, all goodness evaporated like old milk. If it ever existed more of a myth than Hell itself.
Clark shivered, missing the sun down here with the walls grey and oily like the stingrays at the Metropolis aquarium, the light fluorescent as an office. A drop fell on his hand, splattering red, and a swipe at his itchy nose showed blood. Not a flood, no reason to freak out except that he hadn't bled in ten years, not since the lightning body-switch with Eric Summers. No lightning this time, but this place was infecting him, the air poisoned by a lack of sun, maybe something else and even when the trickle stopped, fear kept slamming into him, knocking his eyes shut, his feet back one step, then another.
Phosphorescent creatures, like slugs that had swallowed light bulbs, clung to the cavern walls and lit the passage, showing him where the last dead demon lay, a lizard big as a man, green crest on his head, scales black and red like a chessboard. Crawling over to it, Clark peeled the bony armor from the wet mess underneath, breaking off the lower jaw before a cauterizing blast of heat vision, which also helped with the smell.
After kicking off his running shoes, he pulled the plated skin over him the way the native guys did to hunt bison. Not a great disguise over a black t-shirt and jeans, but better than waltzing in there as Superman, and the hard shell might work as added protection if his powers failed. Although without his powers he was like the remains of the lizard and--
Back at the corridor's mouth he pried apart the remaining bars, glad that Hell's architect had devised at least one escape route, and took a deep breath. Suddenly, outwitting a gang of Uzi-wielding terrorists with a death wish seemed as complicated as Go Fish. What if he couldn't get out? What if that was Lex's plan, to unleash a devil on Metropolis that would lead him back here like a scaly homing pigeon? What if he'd spend eternity on an operating table with Lex's masked face staring down at him, Lionel smirking in the background?
Back when they were friends, Clark once asked Lex to explain his version of destiny, and Lex had said, "Destiny is the one thing stronger than you are." While this generated a big "Huh?" from his sixteen-year-old self still buzzing over his ability to lift tractors over his head, here in Hell with his feet on the ledge and memories of the good Lex pushed aside by questions, he got it, could almost see his own fear, huge and scary as the monster from his old nightmares, the one with the Kryptonite bones.
"Look before you leap," his dad used to say, but sometimes leaping worked better with your eyes closed, and this was how Clark did it: a blind dive off the cavern lip straight down into Hell.
He landed on spongy earth that vibrated under his feet like he really did stand on the backs of densely-packed stingrays. With the bird-demon heading toward him Clark jumped in front of his cart. Thrown off some ancient rhythm, the thing did nothing at first, just stared at him with eyes huge as fists, black liquid congealed in perfect circles. Green feathers covered its face and body, ruffled by tiny black bugs darting over the surface.
"I need to see Lex," Clark said, hoping there wasn't a secret handshake. "Where is he?"
The yellow bill opened wide, revealing rows of teeth curvy as thorns. Its scream was a horse dying, the first nail through a crucifix, and no one noticed, not even the people who kept walking like slaughterhouse cows through the doorways.
"You don't belong," it shrieked on the tail-end of the scream. "You don't belong. You don't belong."
At that moment, looking around to avoid staring down the demon's throat, Clark noticed two things. First, that the wall with the tunnel, the one directly opposite the elevators and therefore visible from the first moment of descent, was painted with an enormous, smirking face: Old Scratch himself, the Lord of the Flies, the prince of darkness, known on earth to the millions who loved to hate him as Lionel Luthor.
In a fit of vanity, his human alter ego had the same leonine mane, although Lionel's true face was more feline, more bestial, with gold skin and a lion's flat triangular nose. And far up in the center of one giant yellow eye, visible only to someone who knew it was there, was the tunnel entrance, probably a convenient exit in case an army of angels came calling. Another much smaller figure sat on Lionel's shoulder, looking mortal except for his wings.
Second, between Clark and a line of chained men whose hands dripped blood, almost as scary as Lionel's giant billboard, the stingray earth had begun to split open, freeing the dense smell of rotting flesh and seven death's-head moths.
As the fissure's lips smacked shut, the moths aligned a few feet from Clark, skulls winking from each furred thorax, then froze. The spindly legs began to lengthen and thicken, the wings transforming into arms, while each thorax shifted and lengthened until the creatures had a skull where the face should be, their bodies still covered with dense brown and black hair long as a finger. Each held a scythe in clawed hands, the Grim Reaper meets Kafka times seven.
"You don't belong here," screeched the bird-demon. "You don't belong here. You don't--"
Clark dodged the first blow while the plated skin on his back saved him from the second. The third scythe struck his forearm, and a red line erupted on his skin, bringing a rush of pain. When he punched one mothman in the shoulder, a blow that should've knocked him across the room, the thing only chittered and fell back before charging again. In seconds they'd surrounded Clark, scythes whirring, and more red lines exploded on his hands and forearms.
The flares of pain turned him fifteen and mortal again, flailing in the mud behind his dad's stalled pickup truck. He blocked the memory, tried to move from defense to offense, but the mothmen wouldn't let him, advancing no matter how hard he hit, arching their scythes between blows above his head to keep him grounded. One of them ripped off the lizard armor protecting him, tossing it away, and all seven joined in the rustling laugh, their skull-heads thrown back.
It was his only chance, and Clark ducked low, then burst up, breaking through the cage of weapons. He ignored the tunnel entrance overhead and instead sprinted for the nearest of archways, knocking men and women aside as he leapt through.
An electric flash, a shock of white light, and Clark opened his eyes, expecting the worst: an army of devils ready to cut him to pieces, a fiery lake able to burn through his skin. Instead, he found himself at Luthor Manor. In Lex's bedroom.
Too real for a memory or a dream, the carpet soft under his feet, the
room exact in every detail, the black and white photo of Lex's mother on
the bureau, the one taken not long before she died where her skin was so
white and thin that she looked like a ghost; the well-thumbed copies of
Machiavelli and Whitman on the night stand; even the glass paperweight
with its swirly the color-of-Lex's-eyes center that Clark had given him
one Christmas (strong and fragile just like Lex, although Clark never told
him that, saying only, "It reminded me of you.") The air was
sweet from the tulips that Clark would've delivered earlier that day.
Lex stood at a window overlooking Kansas farmland before turning to him with a rare, wide smile, looking young and happier than he had in years, the old Lex before he turned Presidential and scary. "I've missed you."
"Lex," Clark said, reaching out. "I've been looking for you. I want--" After years of exchanging only insults, he and Lex had lost the rhythm of easy speech, so how to explain that being enemies was slowly killing him? "Remember how it used to be? Before things got so screwed up?"
"Just like that? After all this time you expect me to just..." Clark's hands shook, actually shook like his heart had snapped in two and each piece had slid down veins to rest inside his wrists. But before he could move or not move, punch, kiss or run, a form brushed past him trailing a mist of perfume, and Helen, Lex's second wife, walked into Lex's arms.
"Show me how much you've missed me," she told him, clearly expecting obedience, like Lex was her dog, like Lex always did what a person told him.
And Lex didn't push her away, just smiled even wider, like she was all he saw, all he wanted to see. "You're so beautiful, Helen." Lifting her long hair in one hand Lex kissed the side of her neck. The softest kiss ever, it made no sound. "So good."
A case of mistaken identity, and Clark stepped from what must be shadows hiding him, telling himself not to be angry or hurt. "Lex. Sorry to interrupt, but we need to talk. Don't get mad. I know everything's been so crazy--"
Helen's blouse fell to the floor, then her bra, exposing small breasts that fit perfectly into Lex's hands, like they were made just for this. Cupping them, Lex rubbed his thumbs over her nipples, and Helen arched when he bent to lick one.
Whenever he imagined Lex with someone else, he always pictured him as somehow calculating, inflicting pleasure and accepting it only as a byproduct of his own actions. Pure defense mechanism, his adult self understood, and the truth was that Lex could be like this, open and warm, not bent on world destruction; over the years Clark had seen it in other circumstances, Lex relaxed, sharing secrets, erasing the rest of the world by creating this charged, two-way connection. Lex was either the most honest person ever or the best actor since De Niro.
Clark's thoughts started to tumble, spin way too fast, then his blood did. "Lex."
No reaction, and he watched as Lex tossed his shirt over the back of a chair, his skin flushed and clear as the light from the window. There was a thick pressure between Clark's legs as more clothes fell, Lex so natural without them, strong as ever, even when Helen's stroking hands left temporary red stains on his white skin.
"I'm leaving," he said as Lex eased Helen back onto the bed.
Only the portal had vanished, and neither the bedroom door or the window opened no matter how hard Clark tried. And he tried hard as Helen spread her legs wide for Lex's fingers. The sound of it hurt, the slick, wet glide, then twisted into want as Lex took himself in his hand for a few quick strokes, thick and swollen. Clark couldn't blame Helen for crawling down between Lex's thighs, opening her mouth for him, and he watched, licking his lips.
Lex kept one hand on her head, never forcing, just guiding her up and down, the muscles knotted under his skin. Clark tried to stay away, paced, stared at paintings, books on shelves, and seeing nothing but Lex's face as Helen sucked his cock. He punched the wall, punched it again, and nothing happened, like hitting the universe's most durable plastic. For all he knew, maybe it was.
"Yes," Lex said, and moved up on his elbows, watching Helen's tongue. "Do you know how much I love you?"
"You don't," Clark told him, kneeling beside the bed. "You did, sure. You were crazy about her. I'd watch the two of you together and pretend that I didn't like her because she wasn't good enough for you when I wanted to be her." He reached out, brushed his hand over Lex's thigh to see if Lex was real, and he was: hot, slick, vibrant. No reaction, though, so he did it again. "But she betrayed you. You loved her and she betrayed you and you wanted to kill her. I wanted you to."
Her full lips redder than usual, Helen pulled off Lex's cock and straddled his hips. "I can't wait anymore. I need to feel you in me."
As she lowered herself onto him, Clark climbed onto the bed, lying on his side to face Lex, who stared up at Helen. Too close to avoid Lex's soft gasp as Helen sank down, to miss the penetration's oily sound, he rested his head against Lex's shoulder, and realized he was bleeding again only when Lex's skin darkened.
"Come for me," Lex said. "I love watching you come when I'm inside you."
When he rubbed her clit, Helen began to pant, her nipples stiff, her hair wild. "Love you, love you, Lex."
"Don't say it back." Clark closed his fingers over Lex's thigh. "Don't say it, Lex. Please."
"Tell me you love me, Lex. Tell me and I'll come for you."
"Don't say it. Please, Lex." Shame and jealousy, the two psychic vampires, latched onto him, and Clark squeezed hard enough to make bruises flower. And still Lex never looked Clark's way, not even when Clark pressed the full length of his body against Lex's. "Don't say it."
The bed was shaking, the headboard thumping into the wall as Lex rocked up into her. Not a word, then Lex pulled Helen down to him until they were face to face. "I love you, Helen."
That's when Clark knew that Lex was only pretending, that this wasn't just some demented play in Lionel's hell: Lex had found a new method of torturing him, more elemental than a bomb, and that nothing would ever change between them.
"I hate you," Clark said, as Lex came, shaking hard against him. "I hate you so much."
Then the air closed like a fist around him, and the castle evaporated as he whirled through another portal.
It was like being in a human heart.
Not the Valentine's Day kind, simple paper shape, but burning red pulp closing in on him, drowning him. Lex's fault, all Lex's fault for caring more about what was under Clark's skin than the skin itself. Rolling in bloody waves, liquid sun, hating Lex for all the lies, the pretense, for never taking what Clark had to give, for fucking her, for fucking that bitch, served Lex right that she nearly killed him.
Lex could rot here, bastard, let him rot and suffer and die for all the evil he did, hurting everyone the way he expected everyone to hurt him.
The tiniest hesitation in the rush, the briefest pause in the raging swirl of thick red nothing, like a heart attack.
His father's fault for warping Lex's brain, Lionel's fault for whispering lies into Lex's ear until Lex forgot how to believe. Lex was a monster, didn't deserve saving, didn't love anyone, couldn't.
But there were times back in Smallville when Clark would catch Lex watching him, and if you could measure honesty in a look, real feeling beyond sicko curiosity about alien physiology it was there behind Lex's blue irises.
With the memory, his rage refused to swell so high again, and--
Icy blue spikes, glaciers breaking through arctic waters, cold even for Superman. Somewhere, a wolf howled.
Clark huddled at the foot of a snowy mountain, no one around for miles, just white and blue, not even a tree for variety. His skin now matched the water, but he'd survive. If he walked far enough, there'd be a village, someone to save, someone who needed him. He didn't need anyone, not Lana, his girlfriend from the dark ages, who never learned the truth even though she asked for it, not Pete or Chloe, the friends he hadn't spoken to since forever, not Lois, who cared more about Superman than his four-eyed counterpart.
The snow creaked as Clark trekked across it, his bare feet sinking down, his breath forming clouds. Icicles clung to his eyelashes, and when his nose began to bleed again, the drops froze in midair, hitting the snow like rubies.
If Lex really needed him, he would've asked. Lex was older, sophisticated, smarter than a roomful of geniuses, and he spoke his mind. He talked about being bald like it didn't matter, confessed past sins like they'd been committed by someone else, whipped out the irony whenever his father pulled a fast one. He even shrugged off his girlfriends' betrayals until Helen jammed him up. Pretty hard to believe, then, that Lex Luthor needed someone.
What was Clark supposed to do? Offer himself? And have Lex laugh at him?
Because eventually Lex did laugh, called Superman a freak, a mutant, a soulless Puritan. Clark had to hit back because what gave Lex the right to judge him? Yes, Clark had lied about his origins, but who wouldn't? 'Hi, I'm Clark Kent, and those are my cousins in Area 51' didn't make good dinner conversation.
The wind picked up, a lonely whistle that stung Clark's ears and made his eyes water. His footsteps slowed, and he wished for a cave, somewhere warm and dry where he could curl up and sleep. It seemed like he'd been a long time in this frozen place, walking without getting anywhere, like a dream except for the bite of cold. He almost missed the mothmen with their scythes, almost wished that one of them would sneak up behind him and swing his weapon in a nice clean sweep.
When the ground suddenly gave way, Clark didn't bother to fly, just fell, the blue of the water hurtling closer. He screamed when they collided, the bash of cold as he submerged, the river closing like a door over his head. Dying wasn't as easy as it looked in the movies.
As he sank to the bottom, pale curious fish drifting past, a polar bear on his back, Clark thought, æI wish Lex would save me--'
Lust. Anger. Pride. You didn't have to be Catholic to figure out that trilogy. But this latest whirl through the portals of Hell felt different, less sin than origin, like he'd finally bungled into the underworld's center. And if this was Hell's headquarters, then Lex would be around somewhere.
A field stretched ahead, the scorched ground littered with bleached bones and rusted weapons, the odd trumpet and gold crown. Behind it, a black castle shot up into the starless sky, covered with skinny jagged towers flecked with arched windows, like God had grabbed Luthor Manor in one giant fist and squeezed tight, then dropped it in a puddle of mud. A fiery moat with drawbridge surrounded the castle, while stone gargoyles armed with spears leaned from its turrets.
As Clark forged ahead, a series of firecracker snaps corrected him: with kicks of their clawed feet, the gargoyles detached from their posts and, with flaps of their craggy wings, began to circle overhead, and with their mottled grey skin looked like storm clouds with teeth. Then the spears flashed like lightning, and he ran, darting around them in a game of mortal dodge ball.
With his lungs bellowing, he tried to fly, but his feet refused to follow so Clark gathered broken bits of armor and rock, hurling them up. A squawk marked every hit, and at the halfway point one of the gargoyles pitched from the sky, a eye dangling free, blood oozing black as oil where it crashed to earth. Clark leapfrogged over the body.
About fifty feet from the castle he found a banged up shield with a lamb emblazoned on it, and holding it over his head, aimed straight for the drawbridge, willing it down. Another ten feet and the moat's blazing water began to churn, snaky heads and humped bodies now visible through the smoke like ghosts of sci-fi movie monsters past. Also visible: a winged skeleton nailed to the castle door.
Could he use a spear to vault onto the crenelated walkway above the door? If not, did he have enough strength left to fight the creatures in the moat? Maybe he could build a wooden horse? He shook his head to clear it, wiping away the sweat and grime dripping into his eyes while spears rained down on the shield.
The truth was, unless he could split in two and send the Superman portion of himself to the rescue, this wasn't going to work. His shoulder and arm ached from carrying the shield, tiny cuts covered his feet, while the bones in his legs were melting. Only a miracle could get him into the castle, and he'd depleted his alien miracle mojo to get this far--
With a groan, the drawbridge began to lower, while at the other end the wooden door opened. The bones rattled a wake-up call as Clark, who'd inherited his dad's suspicion of universal goodness, gaped in shock. The second the bridge touched the ground, he was on it, grasping the wooden guardrail to steady himself.
The gargoyle's spear went straight through his hand.
Blood spurted, and the pain exploded inside him, something so new and sickening that at first he did nothing. The gargoyles' shrieks finally roused him, and, with his teeth gritted he dropped the shield and pulled out the spear. More blood, so much he nearly puked, but with the drawbridge rising and the gargoyles still circling, he ran forward, tearing off his shirt to bandage the wound.
As he crossed the threshold, the door slammed shut behind him.
"The illustrious Mr. Kent. Or should I say Superman? You've come a long way to rescue my son. Only I'm afraid you'll find he doesn't want to be rescued."
Even after the mosaic, Lionel's appearance startled Clark through the agony of his wounded hand. Even seated Lionel was clearly a giant at least seven feet tall, with stars in place of eyes, and thick yellow fur in place of hair, falling nearly to his waist. Instead of hands he had paws, and rapped the arms of his seat with nails like scimitars. Naturally, the seat itself was a throne, but crafted of bone, not gold or precious jewels.
"Angel bone," Lionel said when he noticed Clark's gaze. "Like diamonds, they last forever, but make a stronger statement. Wouldn't you agree, Lex?" He turned his gold head toward his son, who stood beside him on the dais.
Lex said nothing, and Clark couldn't speak. Like the other demons, Lex metamorphosed above ground, returning here to his original form. If Lex in mortal guise was fair-skinned, Lex in demon form was whiter than the moon, so pale his skin seemed sheer, especially against the black cloth draped around his hips, a black belt to hold his sword, the high black boots--like his father, all he wore. Still no hair except for the faint line of his eyebrows, but he compensated for that in Hell with a pair of massive wings outspread behind him.
Whether from shock, pain or some Hell-induced vitamin deficiency, Clark sank to the floor and stayed there, his cheek resting against old symbols carved into the marble. Idly, he wondered what Lionel would do with his bones. Another throne? Maybe some postmodern art?
Then the pain was gone, not just in his hand but everywhere, and he got to his feet. Not even a scar remained. He glanced at Lex, who remained impassive, then back at Lionel, who smiled with too many teeth. What did Lionel eat that he needed so many?
"Feeling better? Good. Because I have a proposition for you, Mr. Kent."
"I'm not here to cut deals with you, Lionel," Clark said. "I've heard the stories. You don't exactly have a good reputation. Remember Faust? Because I do. I'm just here--"
A frown changed the structure of Lionel's face, and he looked less like a lion than a handful of constellations irregularly placed. "Faust, that dilettante. Every day a swarm of maggots crawls from a pope's anus to chew off his tongue." He snickered like someone had told a wonderful joke, and the pieces of his face reorganized. "Oh, yes. You're here to rescue my son. I nearly forgot. Lex, set him straight about this nonsense so we can move ahead."
"I'm not going anywhere, Clark." Flat words, no inflection, the only life in his wings, which rustled as Lex breathed. "You shouldn't have come."
"You see? Lex has accepted his destiny. At last." Lionel stepped off his throne and approached Clark, benign as only the lion-faced Tempter could be. "Now I'm going to offer you the chance to change yours."
"You should've been a game show host, Lionel. You've got the lines for it. Why don't you go talk to Pat Sajak while I talk to Lex?"
"You can speak to him soon, although I assure you that my presence isn't influencing my son's decision. Why would Lex give up all this?" Lionel gestured, and a canopied bed appeared before him, crawling with naked women and men, all beautiful, all calling for Lex, begging him to take them. "And, as you discovered firsthand, fantasies, even upsetting ones, are very real down here. Well fleshed out, you could say."
"Lex could have anyone he wants on earth, too," Clark said. "He's rich and powerful and handsome. He doesn't need you or your X-rated cast."
The bed disappeared. "Here, he can be himself. Never underestimate the value of complete acceptance. In fact, I imagine that you might like some of that yourself. Clark Kent must be such a disappointment after Superman."
Clark refused to flinch, to let Lionel see that he'd scored. "I don't need complete acceptance. I'm not part of a superhero popularity contest."
Lex, who'd been prowling around the room, stopped suddenly beside a bronze statue of a woman with long hair and angry eyes, and laughed, sounding as amused as death. "Clark doesn't need anyone or anything but himself."
"Even my son doesn't believe you. Careful, Mr. Kent. Too many lies and you'll have your own suite here. After all, if you're not worried about acceptance, then why the secrecy? The 'secret identity'? Like us, you hide who you really are because people aren't ready for the truth."
"I'm nothing like you."
"Don't be naive. People might find that charming in the world, but down here it's rather dull. Of course you're like us: you perform a public service, just as we do. You punish the guilty, just as we do. We all make the world a better place. Any fool can see that. And this is why I want you to join us."
"You want me to join Team Hell?" Clark's own dad once said that the most dangerous people in the world were those who believed that anything was possible. Lionel confirmed this.
"You could do a lot of good down here, Clark. I know you think that you're helping up there, but the fate of those men and women were determined long before you ever crashed to Earth. Whether you're there or not won't change anything; the fact that you think you're necessary to the scheme of things is another of those lies you like to tell yourself. And before you offer me any more of your amateur theology, let me assure you that there are impressive benefits. My son, for one."
"What do you mean?"
"That faux naiveté again. You forget that I had the dubious pleasure of seeing your darkest desires today. Stay here, and he's all yours. Lex, give him a taste of his future."
The world shifted.
Clark could see Paris through the window. He'd once saved a priest who'd tried to jump from the roof of Notre Dame, and the view was the same: the Eiffel Tower breaking the horizon, the curve of the Seine, the uncolored buildings.
What would happen if he jumped?
One of Hell's best qualities was its lack of clocks. No ticking to mark the long minutes he and Lex stood face to face, saying nothing as they stood together in a bedroom high in a tower. So far he'd managed to avoid Lex's eyes, but was running low on alternatives, with the window his last resort after each museum quality piece in the room. The stone carving of the four horsemen displayed on a waist-high column deserved special mention for its detail, especially the figure representing Plague, with his tiny halo of flies and leprous face.
Unfortunately, Lex's wings kept distracting him, not black, as he'd first thought, but a very deep purple, and looked soft as clouds. Clark kept his hands flat against his thighs. "Nice view," he finally said, jerking his chin toward the window.
"My father likes his illusions."
"How do I know it's you, then, and not one of your dad's blow-up dolls?"
"Because I still hate you." Purple streaks ran through Lex's blue irises as though his bruises refused to stay hidden.
"I don't think that's the pep talk your dad had in mind."
"He doesn't want me to talk to you, Clark. He wants me to do this." And Lex reached out, unzipped Clark's jeans, and slid his hand inside before dropping to his knees.
"Lex, don't." He tried to back away, but found himself against a wall. "Not like this."
"Why not? This is what you want, isn't it? My father told me--"
"Your dad's not exactly an expert on human relations," Clark said, and pulled him up, although on his feet Lex shook off his hand. "Why do you stay here, Lex? Why do you still listen to him?"
"I'm not playing that game. I'm here because I have everything I've ever wanted: power, money, sex."
"But you're not happy."
Lex snorted. "Happy? Happy like you are, Clark, living alone, never talking to your friends, helping people you don't even like because of some perverse sense of guilt? Look, you don't owe me anything. You didn't fail me. It wasn't my destiny to be good. And don't look at me like that."
"Like I'm hurting you."
"Like you care?"
"You're right. I don't. I stopped caring about you a long time ago."
"I meant, 'stopped pretending that I cared about you.'"
"That's not what you said."
"Clark, you know what your problem is? You won't accept reality. The reality is that I don't secretly regret that we're enemies. This isn't a costume I'm wearing. I'm the prince of Hell, and I always have been. I always will be. Deal with it."
"All it takes to change reality is butterfly wings, so, no, I'm not pinning my hopes on it. And don't you think it's ironic that you, the winged son of Lucifer, are telling me, an alien superhero, to face reality? It's like Santa Claus telling the Tooth Fairy to wise up." Clark shook his head. "Nothing ever makes sense about us."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"Why do you hate me, Lex?"
"Because you're a lying hypocrite. A freak. Because you use people to get what you want. Because you're a selfish asshole who lives his life by some archaic code he doesn't even understand--"
"No, Lex," Clark said quietly. "I asked why you hated me."
"You fucking bastard." And Lex hit him in the face.
Clark smashed into the wall and felt it, every point of contact between marble and skin, the burn along his jaw. "You're not going to like this either, but I think I'm in love with you."
"Shut up." Lex punched him again, other side this time, and Clark's head snapped back.
"Hitting me won't make it any less true."
"How many people do I have to hurt before you'll stop believing in me?"
"I don't know. I used to think there was a limit, and for awhile I even thought I hated you, but--"
"I don't love you." There was a scrape of metal, and Lex's sword was in his hand, the tip resting against Clark's throat. "I've never loved you. I will never love you. Do you hear me, Clark?"
"Where's your scar?"
"It's gone. I never told you this, not even back in Smallville, but I like your scar. I like knowing you could get hurt, even when I hated your dad for hurting you."
"Why won't you shut up, Clark?" The sword pressed harder. "Why do you always have to go too far?"
Clark tensed, waiting for the pain, ready to ride it out, but it never came. There was only the clang of a sword thrown to the floor, the light touch of Lex's fingers over Clark's bruised jaw gently angling his face, and a kiss that had no place in Hell.
"I hate you," Lex said against Clark's throat, his tongue where the sword had been, and soon they were naked on the bed, like this had happened a thousand times before, and would never happen again.
The sheets felt liquid under him, and he barely moved, afraid that Lex would stop, afraid that he wouldn't, afraid that the whole delicate balance would upset and he'd drown. He anchored himself with Lex, who was warm and solid under Clark's hands as he wrapped his arms around Lex's waist, the feathered edges of the wings tickling his fingers.
Even like this they didn't follow normal rules, the stages of foreplay abandoned for hours of kissing, days, every type of kiss, until Lex could make him come with just the tip of his tongue vibrating against Clark's, and Clark could make Lex writhe from the tiniest pointed lick right where his scar should be.
"I'm scared," Clark whispered once.
"Shut up," Lex whispered back, and started a new kiss, longer than the others, deeper, breaking through Clark like a spear.
And while Clark held on, his legs spread wide, damp with sweat and come, Lex pushed his cock inside him, a hard, smooth glide.
Clark wasn't sure how many times he came, when it started, if it ever stopped, and knew when Lex did only because his wings stretched so wide they blocked the light, and it looked like the world was ending.
"This meant nothing." Still panting, his skin slick with sweat and come, Lex climbed from the bed, tying the cloth around his waist, attaching the belt and the scabbard. "You understand that, don't you?" When he picked up the sword, though, Lex didn't sheathe it, just studied that blade. "My father maintains that this sword belonged to the archangel Michael, that it's his skeleton nailed to the door."
"Are you going to kill me? Is that the plan? Take me to bed, then do it when my defenses are down?"
"Yes, Lex," Lionel said, materializing behind him. "What exactly is your plan?"
Lex spun around, facing his father, sword drawn just as his father's was. "Get out of here, Clark. Now. Just step exactly where my father did when he appeared. You can't see it, but there's a portal, and if you stand there, facing east, you'll end up in his office at Luthor Corp. Your strength will return, too. He knew you were coming and fed crushed green meteor rocks to all the demons, so any contact would weaken you, and he healed you by tossing on you a powder made from the red ones. My father's a world-class magician. David Copperfield has nothing on him."
Clark jumped to his feet, pulling on his jeans. "What about you, Lex?"
"I'm afraid that my son has decided to prove yet again that he's a failure." Lionel tapped the floor with the end of his sword. "He seems to think he's back in medieval France. You forget, Lex, that the troubadours, when they weren't being excruciating poets, were violent sodomites. Or is that simply an added attraction?"
"Clark, leave or I swear I'll use the sword on you." Lex lunged toward his father who sidestepped him with a laugh, although his hip struck the pedestal and knocked the horsemen to the floor.
When Clark's heat vision stalled, he threw himself at Lionel, who sent Clark crashing to the floor with one sweep of his arm. From that position, he couldn't see Lex, but saw Lionel's star eyes flicker before he whirled around, exposing a wound on his flank. Liquid oozed out, the color and consistency of honey.
"I'll eat your lover's heart," Lionel snarled at Lex. "I'll grind his alien bones and feed them to my dogs." As though on cue, the gargoyles, still invisible behind the specter of Paris, began to howl outside. "And when I'm done with him....You remember the myth of the Titan Uranus, don't you, Lex?"
"I remember that Cronus cut his balls off," Lex snapped, and the blade flashed. "Even old devils can die, Father."
"Lionel, wait!" Clark grabbed the bed post and dragged himself up. "Don't hurt him. I'll stay here if you promise not to hurt him."
A pause as Lionel touched the cut before bringing a dripping claw to his mouth. He sucked it dry, then said, "Apparently there's an epidemic of chivalry. I really must find a cure. Still, I accept your offer and--"
"He's retracting that offer," Lex said calmly. "I told you to get out, Clark, and I meant it. You don't belong here."
"Neither do you, Lex--"
Clark's words snapped in two as Lionel lunged this time, and there was a blur of action near the window, fast and formless as a hurricane, just colors and noise. Then it ended, and Lionel held Lex before him, one arm around his son's waist, the sword held low, the tip resting just under Lex's chin.
"His mother was mortal," Lionel told Clark. "A mistake, I freely admit. Lilith had such potential, so angry when I first met her. The angels had just threatened to drown her if she didn't return to Adam, and she came willingly to me. Bad stock, though. She couldn't handle the responsibilities of being my consort."
"My mother killed herself after my father forced her to bear her hundredth demon offspring." Rather than struggling, Lex stood very still, his fist locked around his down-pointing sword, his arm locked in place by his father's. "Right before she threw herself from this tower, she told him that she'd rather die than be a monster. Do you understand, Clark? Rather die than spend eternity with my father."
"She always was a bit theatrical." Blithely ironic, Lionel shook out his long mane. "Lex gets that from her side--"
Clark charged, gathering his strength as he did, pushing harder than he ever had. Lex twisted at the last second, and Clark barreled into Lionel's wounded side. The force slammed Lionel back through the window, and the fantasy scene jumbled like a kaleidoscope then shattered into a thousand pieces. As he fell with a roar, Lionel's arm snaked out and he grabbed Lex's wrist with both hands, locking in those scimitar claws, dragging Lex right to the edge.
"If I'm going, you're coming with me! I'll never let go!" All human traces had left Lionel's face: the stars had grown until their jagged gold points met his vampire teeth.
"Lex, don't do it. That's what he wants."
"You'd die without me." Even Lionel's voice had lost its human disguise, a howl now as rough as a gargoyle's. "You're nothing. Dirt, just like your mother. And Clark doesn't love you. How could he? You're my son. You're a monster."
When Clark tried to help Lex, free him from Lionel's grip, Lex pointed the sword at his chest. "Stay back, Clark. This is something I've got to do." His muscles looked ready to burst through the skin, and only the leverage of his foot against the wall beneath the window and the heavy weight of his wings kept him from tumbling out.
"Lex, just let him go. Please. I'm begging you. I'll do anything you want."
"He's my father."
"He's a disease."
"I can't argue with that," Lex said, and swung the sword.
With an animal's scream, Lionel plunged from the tower, Lex's severed right hand clutched in his own.
As honey blood sprayed everywhere, Clark half-carried, half-dragged Lex to the bed, tearing the sheet into strips and binding Lex's arm just above the cut to stem the flood, wrapping the rest around his wrist. Lex's eyes were already shutting when Clark threw him over his shoulder, glad at least that Lex had folded his wings.
"Stay with me, Lex," Clark said as he headed for the portal, wondering if prayer was allowed in Hell.
"Where am I going to go? I just didn't give up my life for you, Clark." Lex's laugh turned into a cough and he went limp, like a bird whose neck had been wrung.
Clark swore then and there that if Lex didn't make it, he'd find a way to Heaven just like he'd found a way to Hell, and have a little talk with the Man Upstairs.
Lex was the shade of the hospital sheets but opened his eyes when Clark dragged a chair over to the bed. "Shouldn't you be off rescuing wounded puppies?"
"If I said, 'I am,' would you hit me?" And Clark ducked just to be safe. He needed to see Lex smile, especially after the nurse told him that Lex had woken the floor screaming in his sleep. And, after everything, he needed to smile a little, too. Going to Hell sucked the life right out of you.
"You're just lucky that I'm temporarily incapacitated. That incompetent nurse didn't say anything to you, by the way, did she?"
"What nurse? And what's going to happen when you're up and about?"
"I don't know. Not running the country. Not running Hell. Not doing a lot of things."
"I hear that not doing things is very tiring. Maybe you could use some help."
"Why are you always trying to help me?"
"You know why, Lex."
"By the way, Clark, has anyone told you that you look awful? Like you haven't been sleeping?"
"Not everyone is as considerate as you."
"And here I was just about to perform a public service and allow Superman to get some sleep in my bed. But if you don't want to..."
"Move over," Clark said, kicking off his shoes. "Because now that you mention it, I'm exhausted."
Easier to hold Lex without the wings; now they fit together like Lego, and he celebrated by licking Lex's scar until they both fell asleep, sticky under the covers.
Epilogue: One Year Later
They blamed Lex's amputated hand on cancer, which seemed a fair description of Lionel Luthor. Not that they'd heard from Lionel since that day at the castle; while Lex still woke shouting and reaching for the sword beneath the bed, Lionel never appeared, at least not in physical form.
The papers all carried stories about his disappearance. According to The London Times, Lionel was in Latin America engineering a military coup, while The Daily Planet hinted that he'd fled to Peru to avoid a mob hit. One tabloid ran a piece that claimed Satan, who'd hired a new PR firm, was also shopping for a new heir to rule Gehenna, and that several world leaders had sent in resumes.
The papers were also full of stories about Lex.
"Look at this one." Lex picked up The Star from the pile on the bedside table, nearly knocking over the breakfast tray, still a little awkward with his cloned hand. "'Lex Luthor Kidnaped by Aliens.' Although, now that I think about it, that one's almost true."
"'Kidnapped' implies that you're here against your will," Clark said, "and last night's chorus of 'Harder!' and 'More!' suggests you're pretty happy where you are."
"Don't be so smug. You don't even know half the things you were saying last night--I'm that good."
Hiding his grin behind his coffee cup, Clark leafed through some papers. According to the latest rumor, Lex had given up politics to devote his life to non-profit medical research, although no one seemed to believe it. The truth was always a little hard to swallow.
"I hope you don't believe any of this crap about penance or altruism," Lex said darkly, resting his chin on Clark's shoulder. "Especially that ridiculous story about the little girl I met in the convalescent hospital, the one who lost her leg. She was and continues to be a brat, not unlike you, in fact. I'm only doing the research gig because I'm sick of my wrist aching when it rains. Don't look at me like that, Clark," he added with a heavy sigh. Theatrical, just like his mother. "I'm telling the truth."
Clark, who believed in Lex even when he didn't believe him, just nodded. "Don't worry," he said. "I know that you're pure evil." He held up a blackened piece of toast. "I mean, look what you did to breakfast."
"You'd like my toast no matter what I did with it." Lex smiled like he was teasing, but stroked Clark's cheek with his new hand.
Some things were worth a trip to Hell.
The Hands of Orpheus. (c) Thamiris, November 2003
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