Mornings in Edge City are intense, bright and loud. Irresistible like a rock concert - doesn't matter whether she hates the music, the enthusiasm of those around her always managed to suck her in and she was bobbing her head in no time.
Chloe crosses the safety line of the gate, out of her quiet, rundown building and into the bustling streets. Closing her eyes, she turns toward the warmth of the spring sun and takes a deep breath.
Chloe isn't sure what's more addictive: the strong scents of various incarnations of coffee; the mouthwatering displays of croissants and danishes on the street carts; or that special vibe in the air brought into reality by people rushing to work, cursing the new workday out loud, yet welcoming it like the good little workaholics that they are.
She loves every aspect of it.
Smiling at the cacophony around her, she plunges into the heart of the city that became her home in more ways than Smallville could ever be.
In Chloe's mind, Smallville has always been an equivalent of a gilded cage. She fell in love for the first time, but her feelings were treated as a nuisance, breaking her confidence and reducing her into a woman scorned. She had a best friend, with whom she could never talk openly because she believed he was in love with her. Strange, fascinating things happened almost every week, right in front of her, but she never had the freedom to write about them.
It was only a matter of time before it started to suffocate her.
Lionel's charades and Clark's duplicity only finished the job.
"You're late." Jeremy is short and thin, almost smaller than she is. But she rarely sees anyone who is so full of life. He is in constant motion, hyper as a five-year-old on a sugar frenzy, and his eyes are always sparkling with mischief behind the chic, frameless glasses.
Chloe sticks her tongue out at him and wraps the apron around her waist. "It's not like you're overworked here. The place is empty."
"That's not the point. You're three and a half minutes late and as your manager, it's my job to point out things like that to you."
She flashes him a wicked grin. "Dock my pay for three and a half minutes. And please let me watch while you try to do the math."
She finds the fact that she's working in a coffeehouse thoroughly amusing. Some people are born to drink coffee, not serve it, but she is still a hell of a lot better waitress than Lana could ever dream of being. Putting beans in the maker and pouring water is easy, but it takes a true gourmet to create ambrosia worthy enough to be called coffee. And she alone is responsible for the raise of revenue in the last year.
She had managed to escape that trap in Smallville, but living alone is different. College doesn't leave much time for a real job. She can't run to her father every time Custo has a new design she loves, and she isn't quite ready to let that obsession go yet.
She already gave up too much even before she moved away.
Jeremy crushes a receipt in his hand and throws it at her. "You're fired."
She nods and makes motion to untie the strings. "Ok, in that case I want a white chocolate frapucchino, no foam but with whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso. Don't expect any tip if it takes you more than three seconds. Oh, and don't forget, the pissy guy will be here in five."
Pissy guy is some fifty-plus hot shot who likes his coffee 'perfect' and throws a fit if anyone but Chloe makes it. Jeremy teases her that the guy simply has a crush on her, but it doesn't change the fact that on Chloe's mornings off, it takes Jeremy three tries and no charge to get the man out of the shop without a tantrum.
Jeremy looks at her with mock horror. "Congratulations, you've just been rehired."
She can't help but grin at him. "I want a raise." Without waiting for an answer, she steps out of the kitchen.
And finds herself ruthlessly thrown into the past at the sight of her first customer.
He doesn't notice her initially; his eyes are focused on some point on the wall as he speaks into his cell. At first she thinks that shock kicked out her ability to recognize human speech, but quickly grasps that the reason she can't understand what he says is because the melodious words that are rolling off his tongue aren't English. It takes another moment for her to recognize the language as Italian.
It's nothing obvious; most people wouldn't know the difference between the twenty-one year old Lex Luthor and the man standing before her.
But Chloe had front-row seats to the drama of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor for four years, and she is nothing if not observant. She watched their friendship blossom into something almost legendary and then blow up into something horrible and painful.
She was there to observe Lana and Pete pull Clark together.
She was there to see that Lex had had to put himself together completely alone.
She fakes a cough and gets a slightly annoyed glance.
There is an instant when she wonders if he even remembers her. But annoyance changes into surprise, and his face transforms with a shockingly warm smile. Closing the mouthpiece with one gloved hand, he whispers, "Ms. Sullivan?"
She smiles in response. "In the flesh." He raises one finger, with a quick apologetic roll of eyes and throws a couple more sentences into the cell before hanging up.
They stare at each other for a few moments. Chloe isn't sure what he sees, but she is certainly enjoying her view.
He is still sexier than hell. Familiar stylish black, wrapped around his lean form with deceptive looseness. Looking at him, it's easy to understand why black is considered a color of power and danger -- he most certainly makes it work. She can see slight indications of defined muscles underneath the thin material and has to force her gaze to go back to his face.
Oh, hell, maybe it's her, but he seems twice as sexy as he did in Smallville.
She was one of the very few females in the small town without some form of a crush on the young billionaire. Understanding their fascination better now, she is willing to blame her previous blindness on youthful stupidity. Today, however, she isn't in love with Clark any more, and her taste runs toward men, not boys.
More importantly, he doesn't look so close to being broken anymore. Chloe remembers going to Talon one day before graduation and watching Lex as he was walking out. He smiled at her, a polite greeting, but his eyes made her breath hitch. It wasn't directed at her -- she knew that she didn't matter enough to him -- but the cold, impersonal ice in the deepness of blue orbs seemed a little like pain and a lot like hateful indifference.
His grin is almost real, and his eyes sparkle with gracious humor. He looks confident and strong and, damn, it's a major turn on.
"You look even lovelier than I remember, Miss Sullivan."
She shrugs. "I grew up, Mr. Luthor."
His gaze is focused on her, so intense it's almost tangible, and she feels her face heat up under its caress. "You were always beautiful, Ms. Sullivan. Though I have to admit, if your radiance is anything to judge by, Edge City has been treating you much better than Smallville. And please, call me Lex. I'm Mr. Luthor only for my employees."
"Which is what? Fifty percent of US by now?"
"Forty nine and a half." He gives a tiny shrug. "But the LexCorp fiscal year is not over yet."
His smirk is infectious, and she finds herself smiling back, so widely that her cheeks hurt. "So, what would you like?"
He is quiet for a second. "Normally, I'd say that I'd like to buy you a cup of coffee."
She feints a serious expression, but she can feel her lips twitch with barely suppressed laughter. "I don't think it will earn you any points if I have to make it myself."
A tiny frown mars his brow. There should be a law that states that a grown man shouldn't look so fucking adorable when he's frowning -- even if it's fake frowning -- and Chloe is going to write her councilman a letter today. On the other hand, that would mean that she'd have to admit that she's calling Lex Luthor adorable, in writing, and she's not quite that insane yet. "That's what I figured." His voice drops a notch, and when he speaks, she can almost feel the words vibrating against her skin like a naughty purr. "In that case, I'd like for you to have dinner with me."
That's strange. She doesn't remember swallowing a live bird this morning, but it feels if there is one trying to escape from her chest. "Why?" The question rushes off her lips before she can stop it. She closes her eyes briefly and takes a deep breath before looking at him again. "I mean...I don't think..."
He places his hands on the counter-an inch away from hers and, fuck, he smells good-and leans closer, "Please."
One little word that seals the deal.
God, she's easy.
Most of the afternoon is spent in a strange daze, and it takes a nice long shower to shake her out of it. It hits her as she is brushing her hair.
She's going on a date with Lex Luthor.
She has to put the brush down because her hand is shaking.
Falling on the bed in a careless sprawl, comfortingly wrapped in her favorite bathrobe, she tries to gather her swirling thoughts.
She isn't sure why his invitation shook her up so much. Twenty-two is not sixteen. It's not like she's never been on a date before. Hell, she's even had a relationship. Once. It was short and fell apart by the end of her sophomore year of college, but still a relationship. She is plenty desirable and any man is lucky to have her.
This is Lex Luthor, and Lex Luthor has even less reason to want her than Clark Kent did. So the real question is, if he doesn't want her, what exactly does he want? She isn't quick to judge him by his last name. Luthor he may well be, but she's seen the both Luthors in action. Lex is dangerous in his own way, but he's only ruthless when something important to him is threatened; rarely just because he can be.
So what is this? A trip down the memory lane? A quick romp while in a strange city?
Does she care? What's the worst that can happen? She'll get a free dinner, seasoned by slightly bitter reminiscences. If things go well, she'll get laid by one of the most desirable men in the country. If things get really well, he might call again tomorrow and they'll do it again. Then he'll leave back to Metropolis, and she'll move on. It's not as if she's stupid enough to fall for him.
Surprisingly, the realization that she has nothing at stake calms her down.
She sits up and glances at her closet. What exactly would a girl wear to one of the most expensive restaurants in the city?
Lex is waiting for her at the table, frowning at the tiny PDA in his hands, and she takes a moment to observe before approaching him. Right now, in the shockingly modern setting of a trendy restaurant, illuminated by bright blue and soft violet lights, he looks exactly like the world sees him. Sleek, rich, untouchable and a little too controlled to appear as comfortable as he probably wants.
"You know, Miss Sullivan, they placed those chairs here for a reason." He glances up, his entire demeanor changing with a hint of a grin.
Her heart starts thumping in her chest, but she covers the sudden attack of nervousness with a shocked stare. "Is that what those things are?" She pokes at the metal contraption with mock horror. "If I sit, will it come to life and try to kill me?"
He looks at the chair, dubiously, and makes a show of moving a little farther away. "We'll never find out until you try. Be brave, Chloe."
This is the first time he used her first name, and she's surprised at the jolt she feels at the sound of it. Somehow it makes her see a gap between them that she didn't even know existed.
No, that's not true. She knew it existed; she refused to see why.
She's been trying to fool herself by thinking that the reason Lex never asked her out before was because she was under age.
The truth though is that Lex never even would've noticed her if she weren't Clark's friend. And maybe that's the answer to her question to why Lex wants her there.
It stings. Stings so badly there is a lump the size of a golf ball in her throat, and damn it, why? She's being ridiculous. What happened to not really expecting anything? Isn't she supposed to be too smart to want anything from Lex?
Except it's not Lex, per se. It's the ghost of the past and things that she's been hiding from for years.
She slides into a chair and tries to smile, but knows she's failing when Lex looks slightly more somber, his face a perfect picture of concern. "Is something wrong?"
How many times has she seen Lex look at Clark this way?
She starts shaking her head, but her mouth seems to lose connection with her brain because she's speaking when she doesn't mean to. "So, talked to Clark lately?"
His grin doesn't fade, but it changes, turning frosty. "I don't believe..." He pauses, his eyes searching her face for something. When he speaks again, his voice is... different. Nothing she's ever heard from him before. "I'm sure you're perfectly aware that Clark and I have gone our separate ways."
Simple statement that has so many hidden layers, ones she doubts she'll ever understand. But it seems her mouth didn't receive the memo telling it to wait for her brain to kick in first. "One morning I watched Clark kiss Lana in the kitchen and realized that I had lost the urge to throw a hot coffeepot at them." Bitter chuckle and god, how pathetic is she? Shut up, Chloe, just shut up. "That was usually the highlight of my day. I left the next day and haven't talked to him since."
She thinks Lex is going to get really angry now, but instead something akin to understanding flashes in his eyes. "You think I asked you out because I wanted to know how Clark was doing." He leans on the back of his chair, away from her.
Not a question, but she nods anyway, feeling incredibly uncomfortable. "I..."
He touches her hand, briefly, and says, with deceptive softness. "I own half of Smallville and most of Metropolis, Chloe. If ever I decide that I give a damn how Clark is doing, I have other ways to find out." She can hear the steely warning underneath, and she isn't sure whether it should scare her, or even if it's directed at her or something that is always there when Clark is concerned.
She meets Lex's steady, controlled gaze.
Maybe it's not Lex who isn't as over Clark as she thought.
Some things are almost impossible to outgrow. First crush would always bring a slightly stinging bolt of nostalgia. Old betrayal would always draw angry tears to her eyes. And guilt would always taste nauseatingly bitter, like spoilt milk.
She thinks this should hurt more. Realizing that she hasn't been moving on, but simply living in denial. But it's actually rather... freeing.
First step is to admit the problem.
Lex is watching her, patiently. She can't read him, doesn't know what he is thinking, but he hasn't told her that the date is over and that's something. Should it surprise her how happy the thought makes her?
Second step -- stop hiding.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ambush you like this. I'm not really sure what came over me."
He looks as if he's about to say something but he bites his lip instead. His gaze flickers to the table before meeting hers again. "Have you ever considered that the reason I asked you out is because, for once, I'd like a date with a woman I'm pretty sure won't try to kill me at the end of the night?"
It takes a few seconds for the sentence to penetrate.
And how screwed up that is that when it comes to Lex that is actually a pretty valid reason?
She gapes at him. He arches his eyebrow and looks so serious, that she starts laughing.
Can't help it, can't stop, laughs, until a heavy knot that has been in her chest since the day she left Smallville turns loose.
A tissue is pressed into her hand, and when she finally manages to suppress her laughter, she sees that he is smiling. She wipes her eyes as well as she can, trying to ignore what she knows her mascara must look like, and takes a sip of her water.
"Considering your track record, Lex, I can almost... wait." She widens her eyes. "You're not planning to propose tonight, are you?"
He freezes with his glass half an inch away from his lips. A sly, sideways look. "No." She takes a deep sigh, faking relief. "Not until the third date, at least."
This time they smile together.
Her mind is a fucking jumble and she isn't sure what is happening here.
She is pretty sure that she isn't here because of Clark.
Maybe, just maybe, she is tired of not having anything to lose.
Or maybe when it came to Lex, she always had.
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