Date: March 23, 2004
Disclaimer: Like I actually own anyone or anything mentioned herein. Pffft.
The cream colored invitation to Bruce Wayne's charity polo match had arrived three weeks before, sitting on her desk for the entire newsroom to gawk at. By the time she arrived back from lunch that day, gossip had become gospel and everyone was laying bets on how long it would be before she went after the biggest fish in the Gotham fish tank.
The funny thing was that Chloe Sullivan, for all her ambition and drive, didn't seem to be interested in rooting out the deep, dark secrets that lived within Bruce Wayne. In fact, she was all set to politely decline the invite when a little voice told her to make nice.
Three weeks later she was desperately trying to keep her partner-in-crime, Bob Croteau, from drinking himself into oblivion at said charity event. Yes, she thought to herself, this is exactly what the little voice had in mind.
The day's polo match had morphed into a swanky, well-catered and utterly boring party on the lawn of the Wayne estate. Chloe and Bob had staked out a table at the outer edges of a large canvas tent, well away from the bar. Bob was sober, annoyed and taking his frustrations out on the unsuspecting silverware.
"I didn't even want to come to this thing," she snapped, responding to his pitiful glare. "You've been nagging me to make contacts since I got here. I'm doing it."
"No you're not. Wayne's over there," he flung his arm wide, in the general direction of the city's leading man. "He must know your work already, otherwise there wouldn't have been an invitation. Now flounce over there and make sure your name winds up in his Rolodex with a star by it."
"I'm not going to flirt with him!" she hissed. "He can find another spunky girl reporter to snuggle up with for all I care. Besides, our story has nothing to do with him."
"Maybe not, but it'll make your job a hell of a lot easier in the long run."
Croteau was the local news hound. He was the type of person most people disregarded on the first or second glance; at least until he handed them their political careers in a prettily wrapped box that said Thanks for Playing. Croteau had made his whole career on pissing off the wrong (and sometimes the right) people. And while Chloe wasn't exactly a greenhorn, Croteau had set out to teach her a few things about Gotham's political scene in all of its rich history. Wayne was part of that history.
Chloe finally acquiesced to the obvious. "I get it."
"Christ, Sullivan. Haven't you ever schmoozed before?"
"As I remember, she used to be quite good at it. The Sullivan charm must be waning," said a voice behind her.
Oh hell, she thought, few people were so practiced in their double-edged compliments - and she'd spent entirely too much time with one of them in particular. Her suspicions were confirmed as Lex Luthor moved around the table, pulling up a chair so he could sit with them. Chloe narrowed her eyes at Lex as he extended his hand to Bob in introduction.
"I've read your work, Mr. Croteau. You have a unique way of looking at things. I'm sure that's why you and Miss Sullivan get along so well."
Bob was more than a little flustered, and confused. "Thank you," he stammered. "But how do you know Chloe?"
"I know her early work from the Daily Planet."
It felt like an incomplete answer but only two-thirds of the table knew how incomplete it really was.
Inwardly, Chloe seethed, this performance broke all the established rules. She tried to change the subject as best she could, with a little bite for good measure.
"I'm surprised to see you outside of Metropolis, Lex. It is your little domain after all; you practically own the whole city."
"Just like the Japanese used to own almost all of California."
Chloe swung her head around and tried not to laugh as she saw Bob sitting next to her looking equally smug, innocent, and confused. She favored him with a glowing smile before turning back to Lex.
"I hardly own the whole city, Chloe." Lex took a carefully timed sip of his drink. "Merely most of it," he smirked.
"And plenty of other things too," she shot back.
Lex just smiled at her coolly before proceeding. "I'm just here to check on a few ventures, visit a few old friends."
"A business vacation in Gotham? That's a new one," Bob laughed. "Is Mr. Wayne considered a friend?"
"I should hope so." Lex leaned in closer to Bob. "I'll tell you a secret, Mr. Croteau. Bruce got me through English Lit in prep school. I've been trying to out-volume his library ever since; I'm here to check on his progress."
Bob and Lex laughed over the little joke as she watched in dismay.
"Well, I should be going now." Lex stood and shook Bob's hand. "It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Maybe we can set up an interview before you leave?"
"Perhaps." Then Lex turned his attention to Chloe. "Take care of yourself, Miss Sullivan."
"I always do."
She let her shoulders relax and her hands unclench as Lex walked across the lawn, searching for Bruce Wayne.
"What was that all about?" Bob asked, looking at her pointedly.
There was no way he couldn't have picked up on the tension, she realized. Bob was just smart enough to play along.
"History," she answered shortly. "Ancient history."
The dumpling landed with a soft thud on the green linoleum of the newsroom floor, right next to the snow pea she had dropped earlier. Chloe looked at her casualties, gave up and rooted through her desk drawer for a fork. Some people were just not meant to use chopsticks.
As the paper had already gone to press, most of the staff had gone home for the night, but Chloe and Bob weren't normal. Instead, they regularly used this time for late night bitch sessions or discussed stories in progress. Usually they worked separately, with Bob covering City Hall while Chloe worked the corporate angle, spending much of her time trying to get into the posh offices on Gadsden Avenue.
While their individual turf had intersected more than once, they had never worked together before. That was until Bob got a tip and decided to pull Chloe in as his partner. They had been working on the story for weeks and Bob had started referring to it as "The Great City Hall Bamboozlement." Most of the offices currently occupying space in City Hall were to be moved to a depressed section of the city, near the warehouse district, in an effort to revitalize the area. The plan itself seemed simple enough, even beneficial to the affected area - but both Chloe and Bob knew that few things were ever that simple, especially in Gotham.
"The jokers thought they could do all of this and nobody would even notice," he said. "Pass the dumplings."
Chloe handed over the specified container and propped her legs up on her desk. "Or they were counting on the fact that nobody would care."
"And they don't." Bob speared a snow pea with one of his chopsticks and waved it about like a flag. "Someone's been watching one too many Disney movies. It's like Song of the South for the urban poor, with Mr. Bluebird raising property values all by his lonesome while Br'er Bear looks on in praise."
Chloe was nearly in hysterics but Bob just continued on with his vision. "It's the new wave of urban revitalization, Sullivan! They can stick people down there from nine-to-five, but come quitting time everyone leaves again. Nobody actually wants to live next to a fish warehouse!"
"I checked today, there are no signs that the zoning will be changed to residential either -- it's still mixed-use." She had regained some of normal composure and tried switching to a more practical gear. "The whole thing is bass-ackwards -- the developers and Council will get their profits and Gotham's poor will be left holding the bag."
"Sullivan, why don't you come over and work City Hall?" Bob leaned closer and whispered to her in conspiratorial tones. "You'd have so much more fun hanging out with me full time, busting up corruption down there, harping on The Magnificent Seven, catching officials with their pants down."
"Because, Croteau," she said, stealing the snow pea off his chopstick and eating it happily. "In the end, your guys and mine are always one and the same. Find one and you'll find the other." Chloe smiled wickedly. "I just get to go to better parties."
"Speaking of which --"
Chloe mentally kicked herself for just handing Bob that segue. He had pestered her about the confrontation on the drive into the city the night before. Chloe had managed to shut him down at the time but she knew that the conversation wasn't officially over.
"I told you, I knew Lex Luthor when I lived in Smallville. Dad worked for LuthorCorp, my friend Clark was attached to Lex at the hip, and Lex was just there, bigger than life in a town that still lived by the daily ag report. And he regularly invaded my coffee place, which he owned, but still -- it's the principle of the thing."
"Fine, but that still doesn't explain why you looked like you were about to attack him with your shoe. And you said it yourself, it was about history, so spill."
"It's just," she stammered, "I got to see the effects of Luthor power up close and personal. That kind of thing tends to leave its mark."
Bob read between the lines, or at least the ones that Chloe was willing to let him to see. He smiled and leaned in closer, "So we've got Luthor to thank for making you into a little muckraker, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Chloe blushed and moved to grab her coat and bag, wanting to end the conversation before it really got started. This topic wasn't even remotely in the neighborhood of Good. "It's getting late. We should get going."
"You go ahead. I'll stay and clean up."
Chloe walked to the elevators with her usual sense of purpose, but when she got in and turned around to see Bob watching, her inner resolve cracked.
Hell, and she'd been doing so well keeping things buried.
Once upon a time her career had been in the palm of Lionel Luthor's hand. It wasn't the happiest relationship that Chloe had entered into, but it had taught her a few valuable lessons, foremost among them: Know Your Enemy.
It had seemed simple at the time, even clever -- she'd research the hell out of Lionel and buy back her soul in the process. Long hours and a few not-so minor "setbacks" had made that impossible; but then Lex had arrived like some possibly psychotic, cashmere-wearing hero and she had been saved. There were worse ways to end up, like in the morgue or ferreting out giant yam hoaxes like Perry White. Chloe wasn't really fond of vegetables.
And just as she'd learned things from her time under Lionel's thumb, Chloe learned a few new things by hanging around Lex and his library. One of the first was that the man never met a printing of The Art of War that he didn't like; but there were great works of literature there too, copies of books that would never make it to the Smallville High library. Chloe found both inclination and opportunity to make Lex's library her own, and there she read and learned to her heart's content.
But her education didn't stop with books -- Lex taught her a few other things as well, lessons that stayed with her much longer than the theories of Sun-Tzu or Alfred Thayer Mahan. She already knew that everyone had a price -- Lionel had found hers after all -- but Lex taught her the art of that form of "negotiation".
He taught her how to guard against all conceivable attacks, and a few inconceivable ones for good measure. He taught her to have a taste for fine wines and food, to tell the difference between sfumato and chiaroscuro, and to appreciate the hum of an excellent engine. He taught her how to care and ultimately how to not -- that had turned out to be the best lesson of them all.
And along the way, Lex gave away some of his secrets, some on purpose, but some because she found them first. Long after their partnership ended, she had kept his secrets safe and sound, had managed to live in relative peace in spite of them. That delicate balance was now lost.
Not for the first time, Chloe was grateful that the walk between her apartment and the office wasn't a long one. Safety was one factor (if possible Gotham's streets were even less safe after dark), but the short walk didn't allow her to dwell on things. Time to think was something that Chloe didn't want any part of unless it had something to do with a story.
Chloe rattled off her list of things-to-do as a way to keep her mind occupied until she reached her apartment. It was in an old building, somewhere between brownstone and boarding house and wholly covered with years of soot and grime just like the rest of Gotham. Chloe particularly enjoyed that fact. While Metropolis might be big and shiny, she told people, at least Gotham had history. History meant stories, and that's what Chloe had come there to find, leaving the glitter and gleam of Metropolis in her wake.
Except for those rare occasions when Metropolis came by for a visit.
There was a time when finding Lex Luthor in her apartment would just be another fact of life. Those days had long since passed.
Chloe stopped dead in the doorway. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you, of course," Lex answered simply.
Chloe hung up her coat and deposited her bag and keys on the small table by the door. Lex continued to root around in the kitchen of her small studio apartment as if nothing about this scene was out of the ordinary.
"I certainly didn't come for the gourmet dining." He emerged with a bag of take-out that she had gotten a few days previously. "Captain Jack's Gyros?" Lex looked faintly disappointed. "I thought I taught you better."
Chloe snatched the brown bag out of his raised hand and stalked into the kitchen. "You did. Then I grew up and learned some things of my own."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Lex. Can we just get on with this and cut out the charming banter?"
Lex raised his hands in truce. "Ceasing hostilities, Sullivan."
"Good," Chloe nodded firmly. "Now go, sit down; I'll get the wine."
She returned a few minutes later with two glasses and a bottle of red wine that showed while everything else in her life was haphazard, there were still a few things that Chloe cared about.
"It was a gift," she said shortly, noting Lex's bemusement.
"I'm just surprised that the wine wasn't coming out of a box."
"Ha ha, stop it. I'm dying from your comedic talents," she shot back, her voice full of sarcasm. Chloe handed Lex's glass to him and took a sip from her own. "Now really, why are you here?"
"As I told you before, I came to see you."
Chloe nodded distractedly. "We agreed a long time ago that there wasn't to be any further contact -- "
"Those were your rules."
"Yes, but I seem to remember that you were just as concerned with my long-term welfare as I was with staying alive."
"Chloe," he started to plead, but Chloe dismissed whatever protest might have followed with a flick of her hand.
"Save it. It's my life you might be jeopardizing right now, so tell me what's so vitally fucking important that you'd come all the way to Gotham -- a city I know for a fact you loathe -- just so you can talk to me."
"I want to offer your old job," Lex smiled ruefully.
She couldn't help laughing. "Been there, done that, and I have the commemorative terror filled nightmares to prove it. Sorry Lex, no deal."
Apparently Lex didn't think this qualified as rejection.
"No matter," he answered, countering with a dismissive gesture of his own. "I've been following your work since you left Metropolis."
"I would be surprised if you hadn't." She had no idea where this was going, but Chloe wasn't about to let it show.
"You've been treading that fine line for the past five years, Chloe. Almost like you wanted someone to notice, to do some digging of their own." Lex leaned forward in his chair, trying to get as much into her personal space as possible before he spoke again. "Five years of flirting with danger; aren't you tired?"
Chloe had spent years around Lex, through high school, college and her first jobs around Metropolis. They had struck up a formal partnership then -- Chloe would gain access to knowledge she wouldn't otherwise be privy to; in return, she'd target certain individuals and corporations with that knowledge, thus advancing her own career and Lex's portfolio. The system worked out quite well for both of them, until one day when it didn't. She left Metropolis that day and had never looked back.
"I'm fucking exhausted, Lex. But what's your point? If I went to work for you again, I would be sleeping with danger instead of just flirting with it." Chloe closed her eyes, and for a minute neither person spoke. Then she opened her eyes and starred unflinchingly at the man across from her; summoning her strength, she finally spoke. "We had a deal, and maybe I was deluded, but I thought you would honor that. I've always kept my mouth shut, been a good girl, so please, leave me the hell alone."
She got up and crossed to the door on the other side of the apartment. It was an unspoken sign that it was time for Lex to leave. He didn't argue. She held the door open as he put down his glass and gathered his coat.
"Good evening, Miss Sullivan," he whispered as he passed by her, quickly kissing her on the cheek.
Chloe shut the door behind him and leaned against it. Looking down, Chloe noticed she was still holding the glass of wine and downed the rest in one pull.
"That was just the beginning," she mumbled to herself. Chloe kicked off her heels and walked to the bank of windows on the other side of the apartment. When she looked at the street below Lex was there, looking back up at her.
"This isn't Pretty Woman, Lex," she whispered against the glass. "And no matter what you think, you aren't my knight in shining armor."
It was almost as if Lex had heard her words. With a final, tiny smile in her direction, he got into his car and sped away.
Knowing Lex Luthor comes with its own lifetime supply of bad clichs, she thought. Chloe wanted to laugh, but she couldn't. Instead, she re-corked the bottle of wine and started getting ready for bed.
Across the street, Bob Croteau watched as Lex Luthor and Chloe Sullivan played a twisted version of Romeo and Juliet. He stayed in the shadows of a storefront until Lex had driven away and Chloe's light had gone off, then he made his own way home.
After the encounter with Luthor at Wayne's the previous day, Bob had a nagging feeling that wouldn't go away. He was an investigative reporter, he was curious by nature, and the way Chloe had reacted to one of Fortune's best and brightest had set off alarm bells from Gotham to Edge City.
So Croteau had started to dig. He wasn't getting far, or to be more accurate, there were little things about Chloe's professional history that didn't quite add up. And now Bob had witnessed Luthor hanging around his friend's apartment, and not being immediately brushed off. Those bells were getting louder and louder.
He had some vague ideas about what might be going on, but nothing firm yet. Besides, this wasn't simply about a story. This was about finding the truth.
Chloe woke up the next morning bright and early, the weak sunlight streaming in the windows and onto her bed. She cursed the sun with all the strength and awareness that she could muster, which amounted to shaking a fist and then diving under the covers. It wasn't one of her finer moments.
Thirty minutes and a strong cup of coffee later she was on her way to work. Like the night before, Chloe was trying desperately not to think about Lex and all the memories that came with him. She had to admit that it hadn't been all bad; there was enlightenment, power, inspiration and secrets to be had at the side of a man like Lex Luthor. But in the end the secrets destroyed everything else.
"They always do," Chloe muttered to herself. The pity party was cut short by the chirp of her cell phone. It took Chloe a second to fish the phone out of her bag before she could answer it.
On the other end Bob started laughing. "Oh kid, I'm in pure heaven!"
"There's a disturbing tone in your voice, Croteau. Dare I say it's gleeful?"
"It's more than gleeful, babe. Ecstatic. Now get your cute ass down to the Hall of Records so you can see for yourself."
Chloe made a quick check of her location. "I'm on Gadsden and Hanover right now." She could be there in ten minutes if she didn't happen to drop through an open manhole. "I'll put a move on, Croteau, but this had better be worth it. I'm risking my neck just for you."
"Now that's my girl!"
Chloe sighed heavily and flipped her phone closed. This was probably the break they had been waiting for, but Chloe didn't feel excitement, only a faint sense of dread. She dismissed it as a left over effect of her late night visitor and crossed to Gadsden Avenue. Dodging a rabid looking Chihuahua and the harried looking dog walker that it was attached to, Chloe hurried down the street cursing the very existence of heeled boots all the way.
Gotham was an old city, especially when compared to the turn-of-the-century boomtowns of the Midwest, and the sprawling megalopolises that dominated California. It was a city built on small trade, larger shipping interests, and the early rail links that provided food, goods and coal from nearby fields to a growing nation.
The last century had only provided more and more growth, but at the same time a shell had hardened around the city. It was still an industrial town, living with the grime, the hopelessness, and the despair that had become the trademarks of industrialism. But then a revitalization effort had progressed over much of the last generation, and slowly but surely Gotham was getting a much needed face-lift. The crime lords, the old money and the politicians still ruled the city at large, but times, they were a-changing.
Chloe turned the last corner and started up the steps of City Hall two at a time. The Hall of Records was located in the west wing of the building along with many of the lower-level administrative offices. When the urban renewal came to pass, they would be the offices to move, and while the planned relocation made sense to her on some level, it also smacked of hubris. She could only hope that Bob had found something that would bring all the well-known double-dealing and corruption to the forefront, but at the same time Chloe was already mentally bitching about being dragged into the very den of the Dust Monster just for some building plans.
She got her answer soon after knocking on the door. Croteau opened it with a grand smile and waved her inside. Chloe looked around the dusty room crammed to the ceiling with filing cabinets and plat drawers and instantly regretted her decision.
"This had better be good, Bob," she said, coughing a bit for effect. "If you dragged me all the way to Mordor for something stupid, I'll take all the toy dinosaurs off your desk."
Bob wasn't listening. Instead, he grabbed her hand the second she came in the room and led her to the back, to a long, flat plat drawer and a thick file that lay on top of the metal cabinet.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing.
"My dear," he beamed. "That is the ticket to our story. Go ahead, take a look." He opened the plat drawer and pointed to the mylar on top.
Now he had caught her attention. She looked at the opaque sheet that showed the building and landscaping plans for the new city offices, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The zoning was still classified as mixed-use, which meant that The Powers That Be never intended a residential part to their all-important renewal project. Chloe wrinkled her nose in disgust, but that kind of thing wasn't really out of the ordinary, especially in Gotham. "So? We need more than this to make any sort of case."
"We've got it." Bob was still smiling, almost bouncing around, as he handed her the file from the top of the cabinet. "Check out the dates and the name of the development company."
Chloe scanned the thick file carefully. At first everything seemed fairly normal but then she noticed that certain high ranking elected officials had been keeping very close tabs on the project from its early stages. Again, it wasn't anything particularly out of the ordinary, but Chloe's instincts started to rankle.
"How did you get access to this?"
"It's all public information," he answered, sweeping his arm around grandly to indicate all of the records. "But Reiko called last night and let me know that this particular file had suddenly reappeared. Keep looking." Bob poked at the pages impatiently.
Okay, Chloe thought, the project had a lot of concerned oversight -- not a problem on its own. Then she started looking at the progress dates on the memos and letters between the development company and the City planning office.
"The development process isn't supposed to go this fast, is it?"
"I've never seen the planning department so efficient. That should say something in itself. Go on, keep looking."
It was your basic influence and political manipulation, big deal. Why was Croteau so over the moon? And then she finally took notice of just which development company was in charge.
"You've got to be kidding. Like absolutely fucking joking."
"Babe, we might have a chance to nail Lex Luthor and tie up this story with one shot! How much do you love me?!"
"A lot," Chloe answered distractedly. "But do you really have the evidence?"
"More than enough; it turns out that Luthor has been buying up the west side piece by piece for months. This city might turn a blind eye to these back room deals, but we absolutely hate it when outsiders try to get in on the fun. Bet Luthor never thought of that."
She started to feel faint; reaching out a hand to steady herself, Chloe took a deep breath and looked Bob square in the face. "And everyone has been quiet about this so far because money talks." And because Lex Luthor was very good at burying the bodies.
"It's a long paper trail, and we already have most of it -- but we can find the rest, Sullivan. Trust in that."
Chloe closed her eyes tightly; all the pieces were starting to fall into place. She really didn't care for the picture they were forming.
"Hey babe, what's wrong? You can finally do some damage to Luthor, payback and all. I thought you'd be happy."
Chloe's face twitched, then it settled into a look of firm resolve. "Just give me thirty-six hours, okay? After that we can start digging into this as much as you want -- but give me time to check some things out on my own."
"Thirty-six hours? No way, not even for you. This story is ready to start rolling now."
"Fine, fine. Twenty-four then, eighteen, twelve - just give me some time!" she cried, impatiently.
Bob looked at her quizzically and she felt instantly transported back to a time when lies like these were as common as Seventeen and trolling through the Wall of Weird database.
Feeling sick to her stomach, Chloe quickly left the room, calling out a thank you to Croteau as she left. She hit the stairs instead of taking the elevator, running up two flights before she started to lose momentum. "The bodies never stay buried," she muttered. "Nothing ever fucking stays where it's supposed to."
She had spent years schooling herself to remain calm and rational in the face of fear or doubt. They were skills she had acquired at an early age -- never let them see you flinch might as well have been branded on her brain -- but when Chloe saw the name of Lex's development company on that document, she started to lose control. Now she had to fight to get it back.
Almost ten years of her life had been spent under the watchful eye of one Luthor or another. Her partnership with Lex had been infinitely superior to Lionel's heavy-handed style. Lex allowed her to grow, let her flourish. She wasn't a student, a reporter, or a press secretary -- she was something more.
She was his kingmaker.
Chloe Sullivan once held quite a lot of power for one so young and inexperienced. It was all right though, because no one really knew just how she was connected to the Luthor dynasty -- or even if she was connected. That was one of the most closely guarded secrets off all. Lex had made sure of that.
Then one day the Law of Entropy and Bullshit (as Chloe thought of it) kicked in. It seemed that the more secrets Chloe knew, the more likely it was for the whole elaborate system to fail Then one of Lex's numerous enemies had pulled the lynchpin and that was that - her world came tumbling down. Chloe was on the next flight to her new overseas assignment while Lex covered up the mess. It was the last body Chloe ever thought she would need to know about.
Apparently she had been wrong.
She exited City Hall as angry as she had ever been, got out her cell and punched in the number to Lex's office in Metropolis from memory. She didn't know where he was staying, and while there was a chance that he might still have the same cell number, Chloe didn't want to give him the satisfaction of remembering it right off.
Damn Lex Luthor and the Porsche he rode in on.
Bright mid-morning sunlight invaded the elevator as the doors opened on the spacious penthouse. Chloe had calmed down a little on the cab ride to Lex's hotel, but now she felt some of the irritation coming back. Being blinded by the eternally happy sun twice in one morning was more than she could deal with, especially at the moment.
"Lex!" she yelled, cupping her hands around her mouth just to make sure he could hear her. All the marble in the penthouse helped carry her voice, and as it echoed off the walls, Chloe couldn't help but grin with self-satisfaction. If she was going to make an entrance, it might as well be as obnoxious as possible.
Chloe stepped down into the living area and threw her things on the arm of the leather couch before she sat down.
"Why do you look so smug?" Lex asked as he entered the room.
"Because I just found out about your rather thinly veiled plan."
Lex seemed interested, and slightly amused. "I don't have any plan." He sat down on the opposite end of the couch, shifting so that he could face Chloe. "I do have to say that it's nice to see you in a better humor this morning."
"What can I say, wanting to kick your weasely ass brings out the best in me. But really Lex, tell me why are you buying up all the property around the new City offices -- I just want to hear your reasoning."
"Off the record?"
"Sure. We can call it my charitable act of the day."
"As I said before, there is no plan. The land is a good investment, and my firm won the bid. It's all perfectly legal."
"Oh, I'm sure it's legal now, after you've lobbied everyone from here to the statehouse. But it still stinks like the fish from yesterday's catch."
Lex starred at her for a moment, then smiled. "Is there another question? I just ask because it seemed like something else was on your mind."
Rolling her eyes, Chloe slid closer to Lex. "Of course there's something else on my mind," she said, her voice low. "Somehow this is all tied in to your insane job offer. I just want you to tell me how."
Lex leaned forward as well so that his face was only a few inches from Chloe's. "I bought the land as leverage."
"Leverage to get me to accept?" She leaned back and considered what he had just said. "How is that leverage? It just helps Bob and me to nail your ass to the wall."
"But --" Lex queried, trying to lead Chloe to the right answer like a schoolteacher.
It didn't take long for her to put all the pieces together. "You're holding it over our heads, you bastard. That's just stupid, I know enough to ruin you."
"But Bob Croteau doesn't."
Chloe wanted to smack herself in the head. Her train of thought always got muddled when she was emotional. The whole thing was so clear and she hadn't seen it -- Lex had virtually led her to it with breadcrumbs. Some investigative reporter she turned out to be.
"You little shit, we're going to print that story and there's nothing you can do about it. I know too much about you - if you try to silence us, I just need to make a few calls and then," she snapped her fingers to illustrate just how fast she could take him down. "And that's a risk even you wouldn't take."
"I could always find another way to silence you."
Chloe eyes narrowed and she leaned forward again. "But somehow I don't think you'd go through with it," she hissed.
Lex just smiled. "So I guess this means you're officially turning down my offer?"
Chloe stood up so that she could have a little height on him. "I've never seen you give up so easily. It's sad, really."
Lex didn't say anything, so Chloe closed her eyes and sighed in frustration.
"Fine." She grabbed her things and made for the door. "This is the end, Lex," she called over her shoulder, not bothering to turn around.
"The offer is always open," he said.
She turned around in the elevator just before the doors closed. Lex was standing now, staring at her from across the room. For a split second Chloe felt like smiling, but then the door closed and he was gone.
More than a little stunned, Chloe stepped out of the hotel not even sure if she was in the same dimension. Lex had just given up after all, and that certainly wasn't like him. Then again, nothing had seemed right since he arrived in town. He had thrown the world off kilter.
She didn't feel comfortable going back to the paper in her current state. Rejecting Lex in such a way should have made her feel empowered, but all Chloe felt was a rawness that she didn't have the faintest idea how to deal with. And there was no way she could face Croteau's questioning gaze feeling this way, so she decided to play hooky for the day.
Chloe called into the office to let her editor know that she'd been spending the day on the west side of town, gathering more interviews for her story from the people in the area. It was something that probably needed to be done anyway, and it would keep her occupied.
She put the time to good use, collecting more than several interviews and eventually she was able to push all personal thoughts of Lex out of her head. Chloe returned to the paper after dark, with two new blisters and a stomach loudly protesting the fact that she had skipped lunch.
As she walked off the elevator, Chloe saw that perhaps she did have some luck left, because there was a large brown paper bag from Real Good Eating sitting on her desk. Bob was sitting there too, calmly drinking a cup of coffee as she walked over.
"Is that what I think it is?" she asked, pointing to the bag.
"I knew you'd be hungry." Bob handed the bag over.
She snorted and tore the bag open. There would be time for pleasantries later, like after the devoured her corned-beef on rye.
"Claudia told me you were out pounding the beat, and I know how you forget to eat when you get like that, so I stopped by the deli."
Smiling around a mouthful of sandwich, Chloe felt a weight lift off. Things might be all right after all. She swallowed, then dabbed a bit of mustard off the side of her mouth.
"No problem, but next time we're getting Dief's. Real Good is just scary, Chloe. They only have three kinds of bread." Bob shook his head in disgust. "And I still suspect they they've got a jar of pig's feet hidden under the counter."
"They do not!" Chloe said, defending her favorite deli. "Just because they haven't been in the city since the Cambrian doesn't mean that they're backwards yokels, Croteau." She fell without grace into the chair next to her desk, the one that was traditionally Bob's. "At least they're not some over-priced chain."
"You've got a point there. But you could still do better."
The heavy moment of silence that followed told Chloe that Bob was talking about more than just lunchmeat and pickles.
"Yeah, well, it's what I'm used to." She watched her friend for a moment before speaking again. "Besides, I wouldn't know what to do with all those fancy mustards - let alone know how to pronounce half of them."
Chloe was happy when Bob started laughing. Thank God, she didn't need to go through this weird shit twice in the same day.
Bob let her finish the rest of her sandwich before inquiring after her day. Chloe, with her renewed energy, told him in specific (and sarcastic) detail just what people were saying on the west side. It wasn't pretty.
"Several of the building owners told me how they were interested in converting their spaces into studio apartments but the Council wouldn't change the zoning. Bob, they wanted to revitalize their own area but the Council wouldn't let them."
"The Magnificent Seven wouldn't know a good idea if it bit them on their collective asses. They're too busy posturing for some unknown audience. Did you see Imre wearing the yellow rain slicker and galoshes at the last Council meeting?"
"But at least he had a point with that stunt. His district was flooding and the City wasn't doing anything to help his people just because they're at the bottom of the tax base."
The two sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, each one mulling over the situation at hand. Then Bob started laughing for no apparent reason, at least none that Chloe could derive.
"Just thinking again about how everyone will react when they find out Luthor's bought all the property. We might have a mob on our hands, complete with pitchforks."
Bob lifted his head and looked straight at Chloe, all traces of humor gone from his face. "And you'd be able to tell them exactly where to find him, wouldn't you, Chloe?"
Chloe felt like she had been gut-punched. "What are you talking about?"
"I know he was at your apartment last night. I know that you went to see him this morning after you left City Hall," he said softly, but with a definite edge to his voice. Croteau stood up and leaned over Chloe's chair, his arms on the sides effectively trapping her. "I know that you know him a lot better than you let on." He smiled then, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I want to know why you had to lie to me about all this."
"Because that's what I do. Where Lex is concerned, it's all lies, it's all secrets."
Her tone was sharper than she had expected it to be, but it was like a switch was thrown in her heart. Chloe felt as though she were a cat backed into a corner, and even though she had envisioned a scene like this for years, she had never thought it would be quite like this - she wasn't going to defend her actions. Not this time.
"Secrets," Bob said bluntly. He was still standing over her chair, though his posture had relaxed slightly.
"Yes, secrets. I could shock you into next week with the things I know about."
"I'm here. Gimme your best shot."
Now it was Chloe's turn to laugh. "No way."
"Why not?" Bob leaned back so Chloe could stand as well.
"Because I don't want you dead," she answered simply.
"Do you really think so? You're a reporter through-and-through, Croteau - don't tell me you haven't been digging around my past. Death follows me around like a damned puppy."
"So this thing with Lex Luthor -"
"Goes back a long time. And it was a mutual arrangement," she said, defiant.
Bob Croteau took two steps back from his partner, his friend. Chloe could tell by the look on his face that he wasn't handling all of this very well.
"Are you going to tell me that we have to drop the story?"
"Actually, I want to nail him to the wall. Print the story. There's no way he can touch us."
He leaned against the edge of Chloe's desk and rubbed his temples. "We'll print the story."
"But I don't want to see you ever again."
It was time for that gut-punched feeling again. "What?"
"You were complicit with him, Chloe! I don't know how or why, and I really don't want to know. You said that the Luthor power leaves a mark; I can see it on you. Sorry, Chloe, maybe you can deal with that burning into your soul, but I can't. I won't be a part of your fucking penance or whatever it is you're doing here."
Chloe had caught a cab to Lex's hotel after making a quick call. Her feet had been punished enough for one day. On the way she said her metaphorical good-byes to Gotham City. Chloe had a feeling that she was finally going home after a long exile.
When she arrived, Lex was standing almost exactly where she had seen him last; only this time he had a glass of wine, red, in his hand. Another was on the coffee table next to him.
"What a nice surprise."
"A surprise? Really, Lex, I highly doubt that."
"I admit, I had a feeling that you might be calling tonight."
With a measured smile, Chloe went forward to stand in right in front of Lex. She leaned over to take her glass of wine, and then tapped it against his in a toast.
"I'll take the job."
"What changed your mind?" His voice was unusually tender.
"Lots of things," she answered, her tone matching his. "Maybe I'll tell you about it one day."
"I can wait."
Standing on her toes, Chloe kissed Lex for the first time in many years. It wasn't a kiss of lovers, or even friends in a strict sense. It was kiss of promise, of fealty. For better or worse, she was tying herself to Lex Luthor, for she was his kingmaker.
When Chloe pulled back, she was grinning. "Dealing with you is like long division. You're a pain in the ass and no matter how hard I try, I never know if I've gotten the right answer."
"Maybe there isn't a right answer."
"Maybe not," Chloe groaned with frustration. She set her glass down on the table, then made a beeline to the refrigerator in the small kitchen. Chloe raised her voice to make sure that it carried back to the other room. "This is why I always hated math."
"You liked logic problems, at least after I explained them to you."
Through the open doorway Chloe saw Lex relax on the couch, patiently awaiting her return. It was so strange how quickly they could settle back into their time-honored traditions.
"Yeah, and how twisted is that?" She pause to survey the fridge's contents. "Jesus, Lex, don't you have anything normal to eat around here?"
They had a lot of planning to do. She needed to move her whole life back to Metropolis - new job, new apartment, old life. Then there was the question of Croteau's article. Chloe had made a bargain with Bob, now she had to convince Lex to stick to it.
Obviously, it was going to be a long night -- one that called for more than a bottle of red wine and box of stale Le Petite Pain Grille crackers. Wickedly, Chloe thought it was time to order massive amounts of take out. She idly wondered if Captain Jack's did late night delivery.
Twenty-four hours later she was in Metropolis for the first time in five years. Luthor power was still power, and a new position was created at the Daily Planet just as she was in need of legitimate employment. Her desk at the Planet was woefully uncluttered for the time being except for three marble apples. Chloe had swiped them from a bowl of the stone fruit that sat in Lex's office. She smiled at the three apples, all lined up in a row.
Chloe Sullivan's entire professional life was built on other people's secrets, ones she had learned to keep. She'd been handed the Apple of Knowledge more than once in her life and now they were on her desk, red and shiny; a constant reminder of all things good, evil, and annoyingly neutral.
Bob Croteau's piece would go to press within the next week. Lex wasn't worried, and neither was Chloe. They had knocked out a press release that first night as starting point.
Everything wasn't picture perfect, but Chloe knew that this was her place, and she was ready to stand in it...new boots and all.
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