Nights Torn Mad with Footsteps
Spoilers: Futurefic, with references to Covenant, Magnetic, Forsaken. You know, all the few and far between Chlex scenes. ;-) And just as a side note, this fic exists in a world where Season Four events didn't happen. Disclaimer: Smallville and its characters etc, aren't mine. I'm just borrowing them. Feedback: I cannot express how grateful I am for any and all feedback. Summary: Lex and Chloe meet again years after her summer of hiding, under dangerous circumstances. Author's note: I cannot thank June enough for the inspiration to get my butt in gear and write this fic. Encouragement made all the difference.
"What is it Sullivan?"
His tone was sharp with irritation, familiar now in its incremental escalation this past year. Chloe could remember a time when he smiled seeing her face crane around his office door, beaming at his very own local hero, there to save the day once again. But that seemed like ages ago, when her stories only just began to pick up. Still small time enough to keep her out of trouble, but important enough to seem like social triumphs to the paper's readership. He loved her then.
"Lucious, I need you to look at these notes. I'm onto something big with this."
She shoved her preliminary outline onto his desk and sat down in front of him, not waiting for an invitation. When he didn't pick it up right away she shifted her eyes to the papers meaningfully. Her editor sighed, leaning forward to take her offering with exaggerated reluctance.
"Why can't you ever come in here to tell me you're taking an extended sabbatical to write the great American novel, or even just a day to deal with the nightmare you've made of your personal life, like all my other reporters? You're exhausting, Sullivan, you know that?"
"There's you're mistake Lou, I can't write fiction for shit and I have no personal life. I live only to bring you misery."
Despite the levity, she knew the thin ice she was on. Her recent articles had created more than a little trouble with the people holding the reins on this city. Chloe could feel the blade of demotion waiting to drop and knew Lucious Cole was just bidding his time for the right excuse to knock her back down the ranks and take his own feet out of hot water.
But the thrill of chasing a compelling story remained too potent an allure to her work. Feeling the rush of engaging a potential source, of getting that first solid tip. How she struggled with the pounding adrenaline, brought on by hints of fear and delight, to stifle inappropriate giggles during critical interviews. Her dreams were leaping into reality and she felt giddy. From crooked cops, to local crime rings, to misappropriated funds on community projects, her name became a staple on the front page and her reputation in Gotham was growing. But as the praise began to roll in, her confidence increased and the aggressive bent behind the pursuit of her stories was accelerating.
People were starting to learn her name. Sources were beginning to seek her out, but suddenly they were coming from positions with access to considerable information, resulting in the subject matter of her exposs reaching into higher and higher levels of influence in the city. Before she could get a handle on the subtle shifts in her reputation, she went from the Gotham Gazette's rising star to its most serious liability. Still, she couldn't imagine compromising her work just because some crooked assholes with bank accounts and some power were squirming. Then again, she had never been very good at the diplomatic aspects of newspaper work. Some more omniscient part of herself saw the self-destruction waiting at the end of this furious path, but she refused to confront the inevitability.
But her unexamined fears were being confirmed right before her eyes as Lucious' face began dropping shades of color the further he progressed in the study of her notes. Chloe started fidgeting in her seat, watching him. Felt the unbearable need to defend the importance of her story.
"Lou, I know this guy, this Dr. Warner. But when I knew him his name was Garner. He had a neurological facility called Summerholt back then, doing the same kind of Mengele inspired mind control research on unwilling subjects. But now, somehow, he's gotten the U.S. government to fund this medical research firm in Gotham. Or maybe the government recruited him, I'm not sure about that aspect yet, but regardless...Harrow Institute is conducting illegal experiments with the full knowledge and consent of the Gotham City Council. The feds have laid down money for the construction of the facility, all the research costs, and still had enough to give Gotham a few hefty subsidies to house the Institute. Those federal grants stink of bribe money, and what better place than Gotham to count on those making the big decisions to just take the money and look the other way? I've already done ninety percent of the background in an old article of mine, I just need to get in touch with the Daily Planet and..."
"Stop." Her editor's voice boomed in the small office and Chloe felt her body jump from the force of the word. The sound of tearing paper filled the silence of her shock. He was ripping up her notes.
"What are you doing?" her voice quiet, curious and the atmosphere of the room took on a sharp seriousness she wasn't prepared for.
"I want you out of this office. Out of the building. You're fired." His voice ice cold.
"What?" She was breathless, her mind desperately trying to wrap around what was happening.
"I want you to leave a list of everyone you've gotten information from regarding this issue."
"Issue? You mean name my sources. You're crazy. This is insane. Lou..."
"Don't test me Miss Sullivan."
She stood abruptly, the familiarity of his last words pushing her into silence. Wishing righteous indignation was the reason she felt so compelled to leave the room as quickly as possible, she reached urgently for the door handle. But as Lucious moved out from behind his desk, grabbing her tightly by the arm, a strange and long buried olfactory memory flooded her. Imported hair product and top shelf cigars. It was fear. An old, deep fear that brought the sensation of a veil being pulled back for a fleeting instant to reveal something vast and complicated that she didn't even know was there, but swinging shut again before she could make any sense of what she saw.
"Oh god. You too, Lucious?" her question held a certain timber of heartache. She had trusted this man.
"Careful Chloe. This line you just stepped over isn't the last one left to cross in this. If you walk away now at least you can find comfort in the knowledge that someone will be left to mourn you."
Her heart contracted in an unanticipated rush of terror at his words. Any fire she clung to drained into despair. Threats were part of the job and she had been the recipient of quite a few. But hate mail spouting vague retributions and a handful of barely coherent phone calls were worlds apart from this venomous ultimatum given by a man she worked with for four years, who she thought of as someone to help guide her career, someone who would protect her. She wondered if this thinly veiled death threat was his own impulse toward self-preservation or if he too had a role as a cog in this machine of corruption the city ran on. The thought brought back a small swell of indignant resolve as she ripped her arm out of his grip and moved out of his office into the bullpen.
"I'll just see myself out then," spoken in a cheeky tone, loud enough for her co-workers to hear. She suddenly felt the need for witnesses. Paranoia honed from years of living with risk.
Walking quietly to her desk, she grabbed only what she needed, making an effort to preserve composure for the benefit of the curious eyes watching her retreat. As she exited the building, she half expected security to detain her, but made it to the car and out on the road without interference. She hoped that was a good sign but feared the opposite was true.
Dana, she had to talk to Dana. Reassure her, warn her, something. This woman had risked so much in contacting her. She deserved to have an idea of what was just set into motion. Most likely Dr. Patrick had no conception of how far-reaching the sins of her employer stretched when she came to Chloe, bothered by experiments being touted as studies on memory and brain activity. "Not memory at all," she had said, nervously twisting the keys in her hands, "mind control. Worse than that, mind rape. These test subjects aren't at the institute voluntarily. They were targeted for research because of their gifts."
"Gifts?" Chloe had asked, already knowing the kinds of 'gifts' Dana referred to. Mutants, geniuses...aliens. Chloe felt her body prickle uncomfortably with a rush of the past. As far as she knew, only one of the latter existed and she hoped he would never find himself anywhere near that kind of 'research'. Though with all the publicity he was getting these days, she wasn't too worried. But things had a way of changing in an instant. She laughed dryly as she searched for Dana's number on her phone. Certainly she knew that better than anyone at the moment.
"Hello?" the voice on the other end sounded strained.
"Dana? It's Chloe Sullivan. Something's happened, this story..."
"I know," the woman interrupted with false calm in her voice, "Can you meet me in twenty minutes, there's a coffee shop across from the Institute. I could use a break."
"Is everything okay?" Her voice was so controlled. It was unnatural.
"Great, I'll see you soon." Then dial tone. Shit. Bad. Very bad.
"Dr. Patrick, please. We have an appointment." Chloe saw the woman blanche at the name, but cover the slip quickly with a perfectly practiced smile of condescension.
She had driven through three stoplights to get to the coffee shop, but as the minutes ticked by-- five, ten, twenty-- Chloe realized Dana would not be meeting her. The panic that had been slowly growing around her escalated sharply, her eyes wandering to fix on the building across the way. Harrow Research Institute. The dark, imposing faade looked like armor designed to keep the world out and secrets in. Chloe found the impulse to cross the street overwhelming in that moment, but now, inside the cold, clinical lobby, she wondered what she expected to accomplish by coming here.
"I'm sorry, that name doesn't sound familiar. Do you know what department she works in?"
"Dana Patrick. She's a fellow here." The keys tapped lightly under the woman's hands, stopping short a moment later.
This was a mistake.
"The database indicates that there is no Dr. Patrick employed at this facility. But you say you have an appointment? What is your name please?"
The woman's voice remained casual, cold as she picked up the phone at her desk, pressing only one button. Obviously not an extension.
This was more than a mistake.
Backing toward the entrance hastily, Chloe barely mumbled a "I guess I was mistaken." Before bursting through the double doors, unsuccessfully fighting the urge to sprint for her car.
God Damn Lucious.
It was a miracle she wasn't pulled over on the drive home, a reckless race to her apartment, but there was no relief there either. Instant sensations of vertigo hit her as she stood in front of the slightly ajar door. A sharp, frustrated kick revealed the extent to which the news of her snooping had spread. Wall to wall disaster. They worked so fast.
One foot following the other, she stepped lightly though the carnage, almost reverently regarding the scene. A powerful rush of defeat hit her and she wondered for the first time if she could just walk away from this, whether dropping this inquiry would make her a coward or a realist. The world was not a just place after all. She never had any illusions about that. One could only fight so much before more powerful forces came to impose their will, with or without consent. Maybe this was that very moment in her life where doing the smart thing, the sane thing, was as simple as taking up no other cause than self-preservation. Really, who did she think she was anyway? A woman whose judgment had gotten her life to the point where she would sacrifice everything for a fucking newspaper article with barely a second thought. Madness.
She entered her bedroom, sheets stripped from her mattress, pages from books torn and scattered over the floor. Though she knew they hadn't found anything connected to Harrow Institute, she had no idea what personal information they had gathered on her in this little search. Numbness settled in as she leaned back on the wall for support and let herself to slide down to the floor. The momentary release from emotion allowed her to catch a glimpse of herself.
She couldn't ignore the story.
The realization was agony.
Even now, surrounded on all sides by the destruction of her worldly possessions, she understood that she was incapable of letting Harrow go. Reporting was the only constancy in her life; she had nothing else. A shutter jostled through as her selfish motivations confronted her. She chose years ago to isolate herself from everything she'd known and loved, all to avoid making a decision to change. And here she was again, willing to walk right into the mouth of the dragon, prepared to drag others with her, all in order to cling to the only thing she had left, the perception of her own identity.
She needed to talk to Lois.
She felt cold despite the temperate breeze betraying the onset of early spring. It seemed to have taken years to get here, though it had only been twelve short hours of driving back roads and small state highways from Gotham to her cousin's apartment in Metropolis. She'd swiped some poor motorist's front license plate in an impulsive moment of panic. But there was no helping having to take her own car. She wasn't ready to graduate into car theft just for the sake of caution that may or may not be warranted. Prayers that she remained undetected were less comforting travel companions than she hoped they would be, but she made it free and clear as far as she could tell.
She hadn't been back here in years and the city of her birth was completely foreign to her now. Smooth clean surfaces with blade-like metallic sheen were a sharp contrast to the rotting, rusted insides creeping outward in her adopted home. After a tumultuous freshman year at Met U she transferred and never looked back, but Metropolis brought back a familiar rush she missed during all those absent years. She turned away from Lois's apartment complex for a moment. Hesitant to face the vacuum that time has a habit of creating in relationships. Hastily scribbled postcards every few months were all that was left of their bond that in childhood had seemed so untouchable. The last postcard she sent had been over a year ago. She felt guilt sting her as she looked out at the familiar skyline taking over on every side. LexCorp Tower dominated the lesser buildings, not so subtly intimating the source of the power and influence keeping this town a shining beacon of prosperity. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine Lex standing before a wall of picture windows on some penthouse level floor, looking out over this city of his, a small smile on his lips. But even in her imagined vision, his eyes remained haunted. She turned suddenly, fleeing her thoughts and resolutely pressed the buzzer, determined to face the music of her extended absence.
By the fourth buzz, she decided against her whole plan. Panic fluttered at the edge of her mind. Where else to go? Nowhere. But she refused to let the worry in, knew that one fear would spiral into thousands. Such a weakness was not a possibility at the moment. She couldn't bring Lois into this. It wasn't a fair burden to place on her. On anyone. Noticing an approaching figure, she sidestepped, trying to let the individual pass, but their movements were mirrored and they ran *smack* into one another.
"Hey, watch..." the woman stopped mid-sentence, dropping the bag in her arm, her mouth fighting for words through shock. "Oh my g...," she managed before gathering Chloe to her, her hug a vice grip. As relief of the familiar washed over her, Chloe let herself sink into the hug and catch a bit of a giggle off Lois' tearful laughs of amazement. So she was this selfish after all, there was a time when she would have guessed herself to be stronger.
"Let's take this reunion inside."
Lois couldn't stop staring. It had been more than seven years since she laid eyes on her cousin and although there was no question as to the identity of the woman sitting before her, Lois couldn't help but be a little amazed by how time had changed Chloe. Memories of their long past childhood together seemed barely more than dreams to her now.
Once they had been so much alike.
Unsuspecting strangers asking the undividable girls if they were sisters were always treated to insanely unreasonable tales of their dramatic history.
"We were separated at birth, you know."
"Yeah, grew up on different continents, but fate brought us together."
"Our father led a double life. Two wives, two daughters, a complete scoundrel!"
"We didn't know about each other until his funeral when both of our families met. Now we're inseparable."
For years they would get good-humored laughs, condescending pats on the head. But as they'd grown, their stories became impossibly tangled webs that walked the line of plausibility so tightly, those they told would find their faces falling in confusion, unsure of whether to believe or not.
Lois could remember how Chloe would grasp her hand behind the barrier of their backs in conspiracy, in the triumph of another successful deception. It was a memory she loved, a perfect moment of a simple and true bond. When Chloe had moved to Smallville at the age of 13 the loss had been acute. Teenage politics and posturing had taken over and Lois had learned to take up the mantle of perfection to protect herself. Friendships like the one she shared with Chloe had eluded her after that. Eventually, whenever they did find chances to visit, people stopped asking if they were sisters. Lois supposed they never really looked alike, though they both resembled their mothers, sisters themselves. But Lois had inherited her father's dark thick hair which she wore long and straight down her back, while Chloe kept her ever-blonder locks short and wild in those days. Trite as it seemed, without their little game to play the depth faded.
Strange that now they looked more similar than they had in years. But even so, seeing Chloe was almost like looking at a stranger. The once bleach blond let her hair grow long and darken with age. The brilliant white was now more of a tawny gold and darker streaks lingered in her hair from a lowlight job two months past due for a touch up at the salon. They could probably take up their old game with significant success. The thought numbed her.
Still... Chloe seemed so faded. Distraction haunted her eyes to the extent that Lois could practically see her mind jumping from thought to thought with little connection. Chloe was operating on exhaustion and was having a lot of trouble hiding it. Lois fought off a smile at the thought that even after all these years she could still read the subtle physical tells that Chloe had never learned to conceal. She was running on excitement, on fear. It was so obvious she had discovered something, a big something. Definitely something she couldn't handle on her own, though she would be loathe to admit it. And maybe that was why she was here now. Of course it was. After a year and a half of no word, why else?
"What are you smiling about?" So she hadn't fought off the smile after all, it felt too good to know someone so well. She hadn't had that in a long time.
"You don't have to tell me you know. I can mind my own business." She quipped instead of answering her cousin's question.
"Ha! If only that were true. Besides, you know I'm going to tell you."
"Because you need something."
"Because I need something."
Neither party had ever been able to deny the other a serious request, not once in their lives. Even now their relationship retained that much. There was still so much loyalty there; they had always been able to rely on one another.
"So tell me."
"Tomorrow Lois. It's already late..."
"It's eight thirty, Chloe." Her voice lacked the humor she intended to put in the statement and she watched Chloe's body stiffen at the words. She looked like she wanted to jump up and run right out of there, but instead she spoke. Her voice was halting and uncomfortable.
"I'm afraid of what might happen if I tell you."
"But you want to tell someone?" Lois felt confusion scratch at her thoughts. What was this exactly? Both of their smiles dropped away, playfulness gone for the moment.
"No," Chloe's eyes found hers, sharp and bright, they held a steely warning that changed the earlier confusion into a feeble fear, "I need to tell you."
So Lois wasn't a random choice for this impromptu visit. A part of her felt she should be insulted that Chloe would need a reason greater than simple trust to come to her, but the thought passed quickly, unexamined. Chloe leaned back into the chair, sighing in discomfort at the inevitability surrounding the impending conversation. Chloe really didn't want to tell her did she? The realization made Lois shift uncomfortably in her seat. Maybe she didn't want to know.
"Do you remember that year in high school when I had a column with the Daily Planet?"
Of course she remembered; the year of ever increasing trauma. Chloe's freshman year at Met U had reunited them briefly and Lois had learned a lot about her cousin's high school days, maybe more than she wanted to know.
"I tried to get a story published, but Lionel had already... I couldn't publish the thing under my own name without the paper facing retribution from Lionel so I told my editor, Max, to print it under a pseudonym. But now I need that article."
"Why not just pull it up from the archives?"
"It never actually made it to print."
"Max Taylor was killed before there was a chance..."
"Jesus," Lois sighed. Death followed Chloe around like a virus, "So they won't just let you walk in and ask for an article submitted almost ten years ago that never was published? Fascists."
"They might, but I highly doubt it. I may have to prove that I'm the person whose name is on the piece before they give it to me. And even then there may be issues surrounding who officially owns the article, but I'm hoping they won't care. Jesus, I'm hoping they still have it."
"Chloe, whose name is on the article?" Caution in her voice, she had just caught on.
"Yours. I'm sorry. I would never ask you to do this, but if I waltz into the Daily Planet right now, I have a feeling there's going to be someone waiting there to shut me up. If you go, it will arouse less suspicion because your name is already on the article. Plus, I have a friend who works there. He doesn't have a whole lot of access, but he might be able to help you."
"Oh lord, so I'm going to be the one walking in, asking for information that may or may not tip off that certain someone waiting to put you in the river to my presence. You have to have duplicates of this." Lois watched Chloe cringe slightly at her words.
"My computer had some security issues back when I wrote the article, being property of Luthor Corp and all."
"But you backed it up, right?"
"I loaned my copy to a friend, but the disk never made it back to me." Lois saw her cousin's face darken as her last words trailed off and decided not to ask which friend that might have been. Instead she sighed lightly, trying to fend off the escalating anxiety of the conversation.
"And here I thought you were the queen of copies, upon copies, upon copies, so things like this wouldn't happen."
"How do you think I picked up that habit?"
Lois smiled at her cousin. What a mess she was. But through the chaos of her situation, here was a brilliant, driven woman, exuding a breezy confidence in her own skin that she didn't even seem aware of. An amazing mess. Chloe's gaze lingered on Lois' face for a moment, a bit of emotion emerging in her eyes.
"It's good to see you Lois."
She felt her own eyes tear up, but suppressed the impulse to give in to nostalgia.
"Alright, what was this article about and why are we now in mortal peril? I want to know what I'm getting into before I inevitable agree to help you."
Instead of smiling at her attempted humor, Chloe sighed, conflict emerging on her face just for a moment before she started in on the story of the last 48 hours.
Light footsteps rustling over the carpet, a foretaste to the knock on the door. It was morning already.
"Chloe," whisper, "you awake?"
The room was cold and half of the bed was offered, then accepted as an invitation to warmth. No comforting touch that in youth would have been given without question, just space and eyes searching the ceiling between them.
"You left because you anticipated something like this would happen. Didn't want to be a hazard to those around you."
"That's what I told myself, but as much as I wish selflessness was my primary motivation, I had other reasons."
"You were never as subtle about matters of the heart as you imagined yourself to be. Especially concerning Lex Luthor."
A small choking laugh filled with tears sprang up, parting the air around them.
"You should go see him while you're in town."
"No, there are too many years separating us now. Besides, we have a secret mission to complete."
"Oh right, right. Well, let's put on our super spy cat suits and get going, shall we?"
Humor cutting through layers of anxiety surrounding their dubious reunion, through doubts that they were nothing more than strangers now.
The sun lingered behind the haze of new the morning sky. Cold enough to bring shivers through layers of clothing. The streets silent and deserted at the early hour.
"We should get your car off the street and into the garage, less prying eyes and whatnot."
"I'll move it."
"Okay. No wait, you don't know the punch code. Give me your keys. Here, you can move mine out to the street and I'll pull yours into my spot. Phase One of Covert Operation Sullivan-Lane."
"I'm glad you're enjoying this so much." But the truth was, they were both high spirited in these first moments.
A chugging sputter, followed by light laughter, hit the air.
"I swear to god, Chlo, you should just get rid of this piece of shit. It won't even start."
"Here, let me see." Steps reversing, moving back towards the chokes of a stubborn ignition.
Then blinding light and scorching heat and blackness.
It was a lot of loneliness, a lot of thoughts she wished she didn't have time to think, a lot of secrets whispered through the unreal tendrils of twilight. It was a constant electric realization that her innocence was being chipped away piece by piece in a manner that she never expected. The most horrible summer of her life. The most beautiful, destructive lessons learned about herself.
--You wouldn't let anything happen to me, right?--
But he had never guaranteed and she never expected him to. Only spoke those words in an attempt to make them both feel better. But upon hitting the air, her words lacked any of the comfort they seemed to carry when in her head. The summer had been a disaster, but not in the manner she had foreseen. Without her father there to give her a reason to act as though everything in her life were roses, without Clark there to prove herself an expert in all things for, without Lana there to bring out the faade of `sister', without the Torch to distract her racing, jumping mind, all she had left was herself. Oh, and Lex, but that had come later. Nearly a month later, walking into her little cottage, very pale and shaky. His eyes blurry and shifting. The relief of being distracted by the arrival of another human being melted into a strange fear. Something was wrong with him. There was a reason he hadn't been to see her.
"Jesus, he got to you too," she whispered.
But Lex had shrugged off the hand she placed on his forearm and proceeded to talk strategy. Only strategy. Her role in this, his. How long she would be there. She knew he could only guess really, but he spoke with such finality. An unalterable plan firmly in his mind, mechanically conveyed to her. But he wouldn't look in her eyes, gave her nothing comforting to latch onto before he hurried away. And she hated him for it. There was so much pain in his movement, stiff and weak as he moved slowly around her cottage, surveying the accommodations. She felt bitterness rise up in her.
--Don't shut me out of this. If you walk out of here without telling me what is going on, I swear to god...,--
But she didn't speak, just watched him breeze in and out again with the promise of laptops and laser printers as he slipped his trembling hands into the pockets of his slacks. He'd noticed her staring. So she was alone again, unable to slide Lex comfortably into her mind as a constant then, she felt worse for his visit than she had at the stretch of seemingly unending solitude of the month before.
She still remembered that first day with wretched clarity. Only hours before she and her father were scheduled to be driven to the safe house, Lex had called. An efficient, hurried voice telling her about explosions rigged throughout the house, telling her that he had the whole thing under control. His instructions were to go with the feds, as planned. He didn't bother with details and she didn't bother telling her father anything was amiss. Funny how they all seemed to be keeping each other on a need to know basis. Chloe figured her father didn't need to know their danger level had skyrocketed, Lex apparently figured she didn't need to know the specifics of how he planned to keep her alive, and Chloe figured Lex didn't need to know she already knew the feds were dirty and planned for her father and her to be long gone before morning. Until Lex's phone call. She wished her instincts weren't so keen to put trust in him, she could smell the half truths in everything he said, but for some reason she listened. She always listened.
She woke up that morning plastic and silent after hours of pretending she was asleep. She even fooled herself a few times, a trick she eventually learned to perfect in a summer's worth of sleepless nights. Her father was obviously less accomplished than she at self-delusion. The purple bags under his eyes gave him away. He was twitchy and too bright from seven o'clock in the morning, filling her silence with endless babble and too enthusiastic chuckles, but his face remained tight. And as much as she wanted to ease his discomfort, she couldn't play along that morning.
The feds drove them in silence as her father cracked hideous witness protection jokes to an unreceptive audience. God, she loved him. This sweet man, hell bent on embarrassing her, willing to do anything in this world for her, trying to make light moments even at this dark time. Her heart was breaking as she watched him in the seat next to her and on impulse she slid her hand into his.
"I love you, Dad." And for a moment his chatter stopped and he looked at her with surprised, damp eyes.
"I love you too, pumpkin," barely a whisper and from those words she heard more than just anxiety, she heard naked terror. The realization made her heart sink --and he doesn't even know what I know--.
Moments later his feelings of fear seemed justified. The van stopped abruptly and they were hustled out, passing from the hands of one group of black clad cronies to another, the new vehicle driving them away almost an exact copy of the last. Friends and enemies so identical, there seemed no difference. One of the men's voices, low and serious spoke into a walkie-talkie fastened to his shoulder.
"Exchange has been made, set it off."
She turned to watch the 'safe house', less than a mile out of range, go up in flames. Her father nearly jumped out of his skin beside her, not expecting the explosion. His head whipped around, eyes wide and mouth agape seeing the column of smoke and flame rising in the receding distance. He wasn't making jokes anymore.
Chloe slumped back against the seat, not wanting to watch what should have been their fiery death any longer. Her father's fist was grabbing the sleeve of her shirt in a vice grip, an absent reaction originating from some protective instinct. They drove silently on for a long time before her father began to break out of his shock, and Chloe could see the anger bubbling up to mask his fear.
"Where are we going?" No answer, of course. These men were serious about their job. "Hello?"
"Dad," she whispered weakly, "just..."
"No, Chloe. I want to know what is going on. For all I know we're being kidnapped. We don't know who these people are working for." His voice was loud, agitated. He wanted them to hear.
"Dad," she pulled softly at his jacket, "they're with Lex." He ignored her mummer for a moment, not hearing it at first, but turned to look at her suddenly.
"Lex? How do you know that?"
"He warned me last night. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but I didn't have any details. I felt there wasn't much point," the words sounded cruel and poorly conceived as she said them.
Her father's eyes flickered confusion and hurt. As he began to speak, the car pulled to a stop and they were unceremoniously yanked from the vehicle onto a small airfield. A helicopter descended almost immediately Her father turned his head from one man to another, grasping Chloe's arm tightly*, even as they tried to lead him toward the `copter.
"I'm sorry sir, our orders are to put you on the bird."
"You're separating us?!" he pulled her around his side, blocking part of her body from their reach with his own*.
"It's okay, Dad," she kept her voice neutral.
"Okay? I'm not going to let strangers take my daughter to who knows where." His voice was taking on a tinge of hysteria.
"Please sir." *Please, Dad.*
She was starting to feel sick. She had done this. She had done this to her father.
"No," he gritted and they gave up trying to reason and simply grabbed him by the arms, leading him away by force. "Chloe!" he screamed, fighting them, trying to get to her.
She stood stock still, silently pleading for him to stop struggling. Once he was in the helicopter, shame washed over her as she turned away. Turned her back on her own father, she just couldn't watch him so helplessly desperate. The men Lex had hired returned to lead her back to the car, drove her off to what would be her summer home of confinement. For the duration of the summer, she never stopped dreaming of being trapped in that explosion*, but somehow, the penance seemed more than appropriate.
A steady pattern of sound; that was the first thing. Something she found familiar and lulling. A tone repeating again, again, again.
"She's waking up."
The brilliance of the light cut hard at her eyes. Her body felt heavy, immovable. Nothing made sense. She fought for focus, her mind struggling for any semblance of clarity with little success. Voices moved in and out of her awareness.
"You stay; I'll get the doctor."
Movement, a door closing.
"Hey," A form loomed in front of her. "You're going to be okay."
"What...?" her voice faltered, dry and graveled, "What happened?"
"You're in the hospital. There was an explosion."
A door opened, closed again. She was losing her focus quickly, the difficulty of concentration insurmountable.
"How long have I been here?" she murmured, fighting to hold consciousness.
"Three days," she heard before slipping off into the void.
When she woke again, her awareness was keener. A hospital room, of course. It seemed ludicrous she failed to identify her surroundings before. The stale, quiet air calmed her, made her feel contained and safe. She let her eyes wander slowly around the room, careful not to move her head too quickly and exacerbate the low throb residing there.
"How are you feeling?" The voice startled her and she turned her head too quickly, wincing at the pressure it brought. She found a strikingly beautiful man sitting at her bedside. She knew him, every curve and plane of his face was intimately familiar. He met her eyes and let an unsuccessful smile make a play at his mouth, but the grief darkening his face didn't seem able to allow the small gesture.
"Actually, I don't feel terrible. Whether I should thank the drugs or my own good luck, I'm not sure."
"Well, you, um, have been in and out of consciousness for the past four days. That hit to the head gave you a pretty serious concussion. Other than that, you seem to have only minor cuts and burns. As far as I know anyway. The doctors will only tell me so much, not being family. You're very lucky, the force of the blast knocked you back pretty far. Probably saved your life." His voice conveyed such kindness, but was almost hollow. She noticed his manner was painfully uncomfortable, eyes shifting around the room, fingers twisting the watch around his wrist. He wanted to tell her something, but couldn't bring himself to say it.
"What else?" she prompted, suddenly curious and tense.
"I'm sorry, I should tell you who I am. My name is Clark Kent. We met briefly several years ago, but I don't think you'd remember. I'm a friend of Chloe's. I was...," his voice choked over the correction, eyes swam briefly with the threat of tears, "I'm sorry Lois, your cousin died in that explosion. I--I wanted to be here to tell you when you woke up. It was the least I could do for her."
She opened her mouth, but words refused to come out. No. This was wrong. Some deeper instinct fought to understand why everything he was saying sounded false, but she couldn't quite capture it.
"Awake again, I see, and hopefully for good this time." A scrubs clag figure interrupting the moment and Clark stood, heading for the door.
"We'll talk again later. I have some questions to ask you when you're feeling better." And she let him go. Squelching the desire to scream after him that she was the one with questions, that he couldn't say something like that and just walk out. But medical personnel descended on her with tests to run and vital signs to record and she just let it happen, retreating into the chaos of her own jumbled thoughts.
Clark picked her up from the hospital two days later in the company of a woman who introduced herself as Lana Lang. But she had known her name already, hadn't she. Lana brought a tasteful black dress for her to wear, even assisted in getting her ready for the funeral. Carefully arranging hair, helping put on as much make-up as the cuts and bruises littering her face would allow.
"Don't worry, no one will care."
Though intended to comfort, she suppressed a scoff at the comment. She could care less about what her face looked like right now. She was more concerned with the state of her cognition. A neurologist had come down to consult yesterday when she had mentioned the spotty confusion her mind seemed trapped in.
"You're having trouble with memory?" he asked, glancing up from her chart, "That's not unusual after the severity of the blow your head sustained."
"No--I mean, yes. I can remember things, names, events. But none of it feels concrete, like I'm in the middle of some convoluted dream. Everything's murky." He told her to give it time, that the things she was experiencing were normal. She didn't really believe him, but wasn't able to express clearly the nagging sensation that something wasn't right. So they had released her just in time to attend a funeral for a cousin whose face she couldn't call up in her memory, but she somehow knew strangely well. Odd details were connected with the name in her mind, an allergy to cherries, a fondness for cappuccinos. Frustration at her foggy memory was building, but she sat silently in the back seat of Clark's car. Watching the city scenery pass, she hoped the silent drive would absorb her thoughts for the moment.
The church they pulled up in front of was beautiful. Hidden and out of place between metropolitan mammoths. The architecture revealed an antiquarian design with a surprisingly sizable courtyard preceding the entrance, a luxury that would never be allowed in the space-hungry cities of today. Walking past the carefully landscaped green, she smiled thinking the church had been able to preserve the area. The inside of the building was musky with age, but brilliantly lit with color from an obscene amount of stained glass. An odd little place, but beautiful.
Clark touched her arm, finally breaking the long-standing silence, and pointed her over to the space reserved for family.
"I'll be right over on the other side," whispered words, the difficulty of the day raw in his voice.
So she sat alone, through a rather typical memorial service, distracted to no end by how almost every face was familiar. She could even match some with names and the ability bothered her. Like her mind was grasping at ideas from the dark, fighting, working hard to answer unasked questions. The agitation grew until they opened up the service to words from friends and family. Gabe Sullivan stood up to speak.
She heard nothing that he said, only the low familiar tones of his voice and she knew.
Lois was the one who was dead.
Her own idiocy staggering because she had known, this whole time she had known. But like a name she just couldn't quite remember sitting right on the tip of her tongue, the realization had eluded her. She was Chloe. Sitting right in this church among a crowd of people gathered specifically for her and yet no one seemed to see the very woman they mourned seated among them. How had this happened? And Lois. Oh god... Killed in that blast meant for her and now everyone thought...
Chloe felt her breathing constrict and the room began to spin around her. She was going to vomit in the middle of her own memorial service. Air, she needed to get out into the air. The mustiness that had seemed so charming when she first stepped in was suffocating her now. This was a nightmare. Quietly stepping out of her pew, her father's voice still echoing in the small space, she escaped. Undetected as far as she could tell. No one came after her. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply as she burst into the fresh air. All she wanted was to breathe for awhile, disentangle from the increasing complication of events, but when she opened her eyes again the sight of an expensive charcoal suit on a lingering figure dropped her heart in her chest. So he hadn't made it passed the courtyard. But he had come.
Too much emotion in such a short period of time and she gave up on trying to handle it all. Her legs buckled and she dropped gracelessly into an awkward, seated position on the church steps.
"Are you alright?" his voice so familiar, too familiar for all the distance between their--what... friendship? Mutual fondness? Reciprocal lust? He moved closer, invading the air around her.
But those thoughts, those casual, playful interactions, had been in the beginning. And tonight he'd come to her hungry and serious, his smell mingling with hers into something all their own. Bodies matched in rhythm, hot kisses liberally places along her neck, shoulders before returning to her mouth again, capturing it greedily. A hint of possession in his kiss she had never felt before and his touch like fire as he skimmed his hands along the curves of her body. The sex had been about attraction, about companionship, but these past few days, as the trial approached, she felt urgency in the way he fucked her. No more easy banter serving as extended foreplay. The irregularity of his appearances evaporated. He walked in her door every night now, without fail; would touch her, seek contact for no reason at all. He stayed into the morning the past five nights, usually such a rarity in the previous two months. And she said nothing to stop him, though she knew she should have. But she wanted him close, wanted this --time was running out for them. Both saw the impossibility of any future, for a myriad of reasons, and neither felt the need to put up a pretense of fighting the futility. But she refused to relinquish even one thought to the approaching finality as his body moved in hers, she fought to ignore any moment but this one. Warm, sweat kissed skin pressing against her own, the sweet, torturous sensations of her building orgasm threatening to spill over, and the tremored whisper repeating in her ear like a prayer for his salvation, "Chloe, Chloe, Chloe..."
Lex. Of all people, Lex would know her.
The thought evoked a jumble of hope and fear. She cradled her face in her hands to center her thoughts for a moment, feeling the sensitive swell of bruising around her eyes and cheeks. She could only imagine what she looked like and felt slightly ashamed that she even cared. A soft touch pressed her shoulder and she felt electricity rocket through her body. Lifting her head, she started, seeing he was directly in front of her, crouched close, eyes burrowed deeply into hers, full of concern.
"Should I call someone?" Something strange flickered across his eyes, like surprise. Like a shot of pain born of a pleasant memory, but it was quickly concealed. "You're Lois. I can see the resemblance." He continued to watch her and she him. There was no recognition, not even glimmers of suspicion. Only calm concern, and it stunned her. She felt invisible.
"I'm okay, I just needed to get out of there," her voice dark and quiet.
"I didn't even make it inside." There was a restlessness in his words, so unlike him, "I'm sorry for your loss." He moved to stand, a curtain of formality descending suddenly and she felt whip-lashed from the change.
"Maybe it wasn't her in that car, she could still be alive." She blurted out her words, childish in their naked plea for his continued presence, dangerous in their ability to reveal things she hadn't yet decided were wise to reveal. But they stopped his retreat, just as she'd intended.
"I'm sorry Lois, they matched dental records. There's no question." No condescension in his voice, just the finality of a truth he too was trying to accept. And a memory from ages ago rushed forward. Nineteen years old, her last summer in Metropolis, working as a copy girl at a publishing firm.
"Please Chloe, I've got this wicked toothache and my insurance won't kick in for another month."
"Can't you wait?"
"It's killing me and you have such good dental coverage."
"This is illegal, you know, Lois."
"Oh please, like that's ever stopped us from doing anything before. Plus, you're so dentist-phobic, I bet you haven't even used your plan yet. They'll never know. Come on. I'm in serious pain here."
And just like that, instant dental records for Chloe Sullivan.
This was not happening. This could not be happening. She stood in a quick, unsteady motion and stumbled down the steps, her breathing quick and shallow again as she paced weakly around the courtyard.
"Are you sure you're okay? You don't want me go to get someone?" Finally a tone of calculated curiosity entered his words, something about her behavior piquing interest.
"No, I'm fine."
"No, no--Gabe and I don't get along at all." A dawning thought. She'd forgotten about the prickly relationship between her father and her cousin. All this and losing her father too. Sunday morning phone calls and goofy emails gone. She felt ill. This day needed to be over. She needed time and space to think.
"I've got to go. I need to get out of here, now."
"I'll give you a ride."
Cradled in the soft leather seats, she let herself sink in, too preoccupied to even attempt a conversation. Even a little worried about what he might pick up if she allowed any kind of real dialogue to occur. More than a little worried. Giving crude and distracted directions to her cousin's apartment, she let her eyes fix on the way his hands gripped the wheel. Solid, substantive hands, nails impeccably trimmed, veins just a trace more prominent than she remembered. She knew his hands. Places their texture turned from rough to soft and back again, errant freckles and long-healed scars. The oddity of the situation unsettled her, of being intimately familiar with a man's hands, yet barely knowing their owner any longer. If she could say that she ever really knew him at all. You did. You understood him once. She wanted nothing to do with the unbidden thought and turned her attention to the road.
To his credit, he didn't push the conversation, left her to herself. He only watched her discretely, collecting a foundational impression to build on later, learning her. She knew the habit well, found his tendency to study appealing once. But being his subject now brought only nervous exhaustion as she fought to display nothing but near-catatonia. She needed to think critically about her situation and knew that was close to impossible while he was seated next to her. He'd always been an indomitable distraction.
He pulled up slowly in front of the complex, letting her exit the car with nothing more than her hurried thanks. No prying questions or sly knowing statements made to stop her departure, no presumptuous attempt to follow her up to the apartment or offer of future assistance should she need it. The scenario played out exactly as she wanted, but somehow pained her all the more. Even under the mantle of Lois, the less seasoned Lex of her past acquaintance would have attempted a subtle inquiry about the series of events leading to the explosion. But this more polished version asked nothing, not one question besides "Up or Downtown?" and it tore at her. Then again, as convinced as he seemed about those dental records, she couldn't ignore the possibility that he already knew plenty. She wasn't sure which she preferred, disinterest or full insight.
A spare key was mercifully still hidden under the mat outside the apartment. Closing the door swiftly, she leaned her head against the smooth solid wood. The cloak of stoicism melted instantly and she didn't fight it. Four sharp, deep sobs broke out of her chest, their power shaking her body as her fingers grasped uselessly at the ungiving solidity of the door. She forced herself to inhale slowly, willing the devastation to pass, but it wasn't so easy. The emptiness of the apartment stretched out around her, mocking her continued existence. This felt so wrong. Just coming here made her unspeakably disgusting in her own mind, but there was nowhere else to go. She felt a headache emerging and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes gently, trying to ward it off. Instinctively, she moved toward the guest bedroom she had occupied only five days ago, discarding the dress given to her and pulling on an old tee-shirt and sweats from the bag she threw together before leaving Gotham, still sitting on the floor untouched. Like time was frozen in here, life unchanged. Rest, just a little rest to soothe her now throbbing head from the never-ending emotional assault of the day and she would figure all this out. She wished she could sleep for days.
She was left in silence, sitting at the beautifully simple country kitchen table. Drumming her fingers absently while her mind drifted, blinking in and out of thought, of awareness. Her memory found her father's face, struggling to get back to her again and again, or the flash of the safe house explosion behind her, or nothing--black seas. An unexpected yawn brought her back and she stood finally, padding her soft-soled shoes over quaint wooden floors. Left--to the bedroom, she crawled into bed completely clothed, shoes on, mind dark. She stayed in bed for two days. Not out of depression or sleep deprivation, but fear. She was afraid of having nothing to do. No deadline, no work, no research to fill her hours. No television or books to numb her brain. This whole set up had been a last minute solution. Security and survival needs had trumped leisure activities. She was safe, but alone. No distractions, nothing to save her from the black hole of time. Possibly her worst nightmare. After forty-eight hours, however, hunger got the best of her.
A hot, precious shower and rumpled clothes from her bag and she ventured downstairs into a perfect cottage cellar, filled with dry, canned and preserved foods. Nothing that might spoil, nothing fresh, enough to feed an army. The sight of the endless supply made her chest constrict with the impending pain of infinite solitude on display before her. Innocent dried goods as a glaring representation of the unknowable future. She began huffing out little snatches of laughter while her eyes misted over, blurring her vision. It was frightening, barely three days and she could feel her sense of self unraveling, like being on an acid trip without the hallucinations. She made an attempt to get a hold of herself and moved toward a shelf, reaching high with almost long-enough fingers grasping at a bag of dried apricots. Stilted jumps aided the attempt, aggressive grabs. And unexpectedly she found herself pounded to the ground. Something heavy, bulky falling, pushing her down. Hard pelts rained down on her, surrounded her everywhere. When her sense of equilibrium returned she realized it was rice. Like some twisted sadistic wedding for one, a deluge of grain had enveloped her. A sea of rice over which she lay prone. Like a giant pork chop. The thought sent her into hysterics, exhausted goofy giggles lasting an eternity before she wore herself out.
Rice in her hair, between her fingers, crawling in the collar of her shirt. Maybe this was madness. She couldn't tell. Maybe this was just her at her base, Chloe without all the distractions. She let herself swim in the mess for a few long moments, hard little grains making a pattern of imprints on her skin as she watched the ceiling, eyes wandering aimlessly around. She was going to have to learn to be alone with herself. A skill of hers not completely unexplored, but the necessary degree of perfection she would need to endure this confinement felt daunting.
On day twelve she found a way out.
She tried for several days to just be. Whatever that meant. But soon found that she needed some kind of project, so she explored. Trivial as it was, she *needed* to know every inch of this house, everyone of it's secrets. And she found a few, nothing too glamorous until she noticed a small square of plywood nailed onto a wall just below the basement ceiling, an odd patch job in an odd location. The salad fork she used to pry the wood away was painfully slow work, but when the covering finally popped off she walked numbly out of the basement and closed herself in her room. She didn't go back down for almost two weeks. She knew she couldn't let herself near that temptation again until the desperation still present in her every thought was conquered.
A window. An unguarded, unnoticed window. Freedom.
She had to reminded herself that this wasn't a prison. That this house of complete desolation, these vacuous days that held up mirrors into herself she had no desire to see, were saving her. The overwhelming desire to flee was a misguided instinct and nothing more. She had to walk away or the compulsion would consume her. She filled the busted sack of rice with enough food to keep her from needing the basement pantry for awhile and locked the door behind her, not allowing herself to think of the window. For two weeks she slept and ate and stared off into nothing for more moments that she liked to admit. She wrote and sketched and doodled away hours in her hastily packed notebook. Her writing became amazingly focused and sharp, her sketches were terrible and only seemed to get worse the harder she tried.
Throwing her pen down at one particularly disfigured drawing, she cursed herself for never taking any art courses. Then froze instantly at the thought, her mind bubbling with the memory of Lana's summer sojourn to Paris for that very reason. Realized she had yet to think of her friend once since this madness began, Chloe felt her heart skip painfully. She was descending into her own mind in this place, didn't know how much longer she could be by herself like this. Confinement and endless silence.
She would go insane.
Her mind flashed instantly to her mother and she stood abruptly from the table where she sat, chair clattering down onto the floor behind her. She paced around frantically to distract herself, but her thoughts continually strayed back to that basement window. She could get out. Just for a little while. Fresh air and new sounds, maybe an idea of where she was would help soothe the slow burn of anxiety moving around her. Two more days she prevented herself from going downstairs through sheer force of will, but on the third day she unlocked the door to the basement and escaped.
Her eyes, heavy with yesterday's effects, blinked open into bloodshot slivers. The dim, simple room, full of unfamiliar light blues and violets, swam into focus and she lay still, waiting for her mind to remember where she was and how exactly she'd gotten there. She took a quick personal inventory. Her head was throbbing painfully and various locations on her body stung from freshly healing cuts and scrapes. But what brought the full rush of events back was the sight of a forgotten black dress crumpled carelessly on the floor.
Not her dress.
Not her apartment.
Not her life.
The force with which she sat up in bed brought a crushing wave of nausea and she gasped against the pain raging through her temples. *Holy fuck*. Groping clumsily for her bag, she spilled tablets of ibuprofen everywhere in blind desperation to get the bottle open, cursing the hospital for not giving her something stronger. Like an IV drip of morphine, for example. Trembling hands shoved more pills than were probably necessary into her mouth before cradling her forehead, trying to hold it steady against the shudders running through her body.
You deserve this.
An unwelcome thought. She always considered self-loathing an indulgent exercise. But the truth was, she had gotten Lois killed. Was currently denying those who loved her the right to mourn her loss by usurping her identity. The question now became, was that a good enough reason to give up the protection her cousin's name provided? Would using Lois' identity to finish what she had started with Harrow Institute truly serve her memory or just Chloe's own version of what justice for her cousin should be? There was a certain amount of shame in even entertaining the idea of letting this appalling mistake continue, but her own practical nature had never been easily suppressed, especially when her own survival was at hand. Cold and hard as ice she could see herself, pushing mourning aside for calculation, for plans and strategies spun urgently in her mind. But self-awareness did nothing to ease the driving impulse or the flutter of horror at how easily and quickly the decision was made.
She would stay Lois. For now.
Decisions surrounding loyalty, surrounding morality, what was `right' and `good' were easier once. She hadn't always done the right thing, but somehow, even in moments of stupidity and weakness, temptation used to identify itself outright, didn't sneak around under the guise of complex ambiguities. With all she let fade from her life over the years; she clung to loyalty with the most ferocity. Her mistakes with Lionel Luthor taught her a lifetime of lessons.
This was magic.
What was she supposed to do? She hadn't seen or heard from anyone for twenty-four excruciating days. They could all be dead at Lionel's hand or scattered in all directions, fearing his retribution. What if there wasn't a living soul left who knew she hadn't perished in that explosion? Continuing to stay in that cottage would be a pointless exercise born of her own ignorance. She could be endangering herself further by remaining there. Maybe she shouldn't go back, just keep moving away from that stifling place until it was completely forgotten. Erased from her mind.
A stone, hidden by the grass, cracked painfully against her heel as she stepped down. Chloe muffled a cry, falling to the ground to vigorously rub her throbbing foot and decided to take the misstep as a sign. She couldn't walk away from this. Lex's words from months ago swam to the front of her mind.
'If anyone is strong enough to endure a hostile take down of my father, it's you, Chloe. But nothing about this will be simple. Expect to suffer.'
She had stiffened at his words, knowing he had suffered more at his father's hands than anyone should ever have to endure. Lionel Luthor was capable of horrors she could barely contemplate and the possibility of being at the receiving end of that cruelty was very real. But she was suffering now in a way she hadn't expected and wondered if Lex had been wrong about her strength. It seemed to be failing her now. But a memory... his eyes limpid and searching, searing into hers--"I can protect you." Those words sent shivers through her at every recollection. She had no illusions about Lex, and knew he had even less concerning her. They both had their reasons for wanting Lionel locked away forever. But even if he failed to keep that promise, she knew Lex would fight for her until the bitter end. At the very least she owed him the same. She let her fingers trail gently over the grass as she stood, lungs bursting with a deep breath of the night air, then let it out in a rush, let all this go. She returned to the cottage.
She shook away the memory. The pounding in her head slowly began to subside and she allowed herself to look up, surveying the small room. Her laptop. Exactly where she left it, was untouched in its case. Even upon further inspection, her disks, her notes, hard drive, everything was intact. She stood, conscious as she wandered through the apartment of nothing being out of place. Not even the slightest evidence was present that anything had been disturbed. Where were the police? Where was the investigation? The realization dawned that, even during all those days spent in the hospital, not one law enforcement official had come to ask questions. Mild outrage washed through her.
She expected a certain level of intentional ignorance of things like murder in Gotham, but always thought Metropolis was beyond such blatant miscarriages of justice. More subtle ones perhaps, but when a car bomb detonates in the heart of the city, it's hard to ignore. Fine, so she wouldn't have many resources, police records would be useless. Daunting but not impossible. Slipping into the familiar cloak of work, she let time slide by unnoticed.
When the fog of concentration lifted, a full day of absently eaten snacks and quick snatches of sleep had gone by. Messages blinked insistently on the answering machine, twelve calls ignored. They weren't for her anyway. But watching the light flash, the threat of discovery was remembered and she wondered who she should be calling to set minds at ease. Work, for one. Lois's office. Number three on the speed dial and she punched the button nervously, waiting.
"Murphy and Lockhart."
"Hi, this is C...Lois."
"Lois, oh my god. We thought you'd dropped off the face of the earth. Is everything okay?"
"Actually there's been an accident. I won't be coming back. Would you mind just spreading the word?" God, the vagueness of her explanation sounded suspect to even her own ears. Fighting her mind to come up with something more concrete, she was startled out of thought by an insistent pounding booming through the apartment. Someone was at the door.
"I've got to go," she mumbled, hearing a tinny "Lois, wait..." as she hung up the phone. A flash of apprehension hit as she approached the source of the sound. This was it. Test number one and suddenly she was terrified that she couldn't pull it off. It was impossible. An uncomfortable chuckle caught in her throat when she looked though the peephole and swung open the door, revealing an artificially calm Lex Luthor. Immediately his eyes fixed on her, searching.
"May I come in, Miss Lane?" His tone on the name lighter than the rest of his words, like a whisper of conspiracy.
She moved from the doorway, silently letting him pass, bracing against discovery.
Two days ago he thought he had been going mad, conjuring familiarity where there was none. Eyes and lips; flutters of movement burned into his memory years ago emerged impossibly before his very eyes. They couldn't be real. Simply his own illusions brought to life through grief. And there was grief. A surprisingly caustic anguish considering the rarity with which he allowed himself thoughts of her anymore. He kept his mind too occupied these days for past regrets to work their way in. Reading of her death in his own city's newspaper was beyond unexpected, had stirred in him something he thought was abandoned ages ago.
Longing. For the past. For things he couldn't have.
A small weakness allowed to fade away out of necessity. No effort was put into squelching it, the impulse had simply disappeared. But the resurrection of the feeling reminded him how integral an emotion it had been in his youth. It ruled him then.
News of Chloe's death altered his temperament sharply and he resented the change. The request she posed to him years ago -No keeping tabs, Lex, for the sake of both of our sanities.-- that he followed imperfectly but earnestly for over seven years was dismissed completely. Work was put on hold as he gathered all information available and some not quite so available in an attempt to find the series of events and connected individuals responsible for her death.
--She was fired from her job only days before. -- --She was becoming unpopular with Gotham's brass but increasing her favor in the community. -- --No record existed of any ongoing investigations that might draw attempts at retaliation. -- --The coroner's reports offered no physical evidence due to a lack of usable remains. --
Days worth of inquiry and still he came up short. The most sobering revelation, however, was the legitimacy of the dental records. The glimmer of hope in her possible survival was painfully extinguished. He struggled with the instinctual feeling that there was something more to all of this. After all, she had fooled the world with a fictitious death before. But the morning of her memorial service, arriving at the small chapel, Lex found himself unable to step through the doors and wondered if he should faithfully take up her entreaty at last. Let her go for the sake of his own sanity; was struggling to do that very thing when a battered looking woman stumbled out of the church.
And now he was standing in a small, plainly furnished apartment, staring at the woman who had stirred increasingly insistent questions within him.
"How are you feeling?"
"I feel... guilty that I'm alive."
Doubt prickled at his mind, he anticipated a more guarded response. A face, so like hers, lurking behind the bruises and long hair. He wondered if his eyes were playing tricks on him, if he was desperate enough to fool himself into believing in her survival. When he didn't speak again she became restless under his gaze.
"Would you like something to drink?"
She was fighting against her distraction. He had interrupted her work. Her eyes wandering again and again to the laptop and hurricane of papers littered over the small kitchen table less than six feet away. She was itching to get back to it; desperate to cover it from his prying eyes, knew him well enough to know he would be looking.
It was her.
"No, thank you. I just stopped by to chat." He saw her body recoil at the familiar words then try to conceal their effect on her.
"You're the first to notice. Not that I'm completely shocked by that."
He blinked at her words. Just like that, confirming his suspicions, barely a hesitation. The admission surprised him and he struggled to adjust.
"I always did have a certain reputation concerning my powers of observation."
Her smile was tired, resigned and she let herself fall into an oversized chair and take him in, unconcerned now about maintaining her earlier caution.
"But you didn't see it right away. When did you know?"
"In the courtyard, when I told you about the dental records. You immediately wrapped your left arm around your stomach. You always used to do that when something went wrong." Her eyes fixed on him, looking for more in that statement. He gave her nothing. There was still bitterness there, running all the way from her abrupt departure from Metropolis years ago, to her ability, on those church steps, to look him in the eye, see suffering there, and not say a word about who she really was. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"You know why."
And he did. His head nodded subtly in understanding. He knew a hundred reasons why she kept her mouth shut. He might have done the same. No--without question he would have done just as she had, kept his cards close to his chest. There was little comfort in that knowledge, however. There had been a level of trust between them once, lost now. It stung to feel its absence.
He, in direct contrast, had been surrounded with insistent crowds; doctors first, then board members and lawyers. All wanting and needing different things from him, each new issue claiming urgency over the last. His elevated immune system, seemingly stifled by the never-ending stressors, failed to prevent an excruciatingly slow recovery. His frustration with the length of his recuperation was significant and Lex didn't hesitate to let the various medical professionals in charge of his care know how he felt. His doctors tried to calm his displeasure by reminding him that he should be dead. That dose of nitrobenzene would have killed a man twice his size. There were moments in that hospital when he wished it had done just that. The pain was acute, nearly insurmountable. But he had healed. LuthorCorp was secured and under his control, Chloe was safely in his care. He had survived.
The first thing she asked, when he thought to question her, was for fresh food. Vegetables, meats, fruits. He brought them to her the next day and, barely saying a word, she began cooking dinner. Feeling superfluous to the situation, he turned, ready to leave her to the task, but she had asked him to stay. Not knowing how to react, he simply sat down and watched her prepare the meal, felt no desire to go back to the melange of new problems surely waiting at his return. After several minutes, he hazarded to tease her lightly about the abandonment of her feminist principles. She turned to look at him and smiled sadly. -'I guess I just miss cooking for someone'.--and he'd had to look down, found he couldn't meet her eyes. Knew what she was really saying was that she missed her life, missed Gabe, missed human contact this past month. He should have been there for her earlier, or at least sent someone to fill her in on the circumstances. But things were so chaotic then, he hadn't known whom he could trust with the task. So he had let her wait until he was well enough to come himself. Mostly well enough,anyway, but was spooked under the pressure of her gaze that first day; left without giving her one comforting word.His guilt brought him back the next day, his need for refuge from the world two days after that, and his growing concern for her well being twice more.
This was his fifth visit to her in seven days and each time he found himself more hesitant to leave the serenity of this place, found immediate comfort in the fact that Chloe had little to say at first, but was beginning to feel a little uneasy at her silence. Somehow it seemed wrong that in their exchanges, he should be the talkative one. He was trying not to worry.
But here he was, not exactly sure what to say. Pretending his concentration was occupied with reviewing documents while she sat caddy corner from him, bare-feet propped on the coffee table, toes curling and uncurling in concentration as she read through today's issue of the Daily Planet.
"No problems with the computer?"
"As with the other three times you've asked, Lex. Everything is wonderful, thank you. You don't have to worry, I have everything I need."
Somehow he doubted the truth in that proclamation. Wanting some kind of evidence that she was all right, he tried again.
"How are *you*, Chloe?" She looked up at him, surprised by the question, not sure how to take it.
"I'm fine, Lex. A little upset by recent trade developments in Argentina, but..."
"I'm being serious, you seem --evasive."
A quiet laugh full of disbelief and amazement briefly escaped her lips.
"Coyness doesn't suit you," he was annoyed with her response, frustrated with his own discomfort in even asking her.
"Alright." She put her paper down, giving him her full attention, a challenge in her tone. "I'm lonely. Even when you're in the room with me, it doesn't go away. And I feel like a basketcase because it takes everything in me not to come running when I hear you walk through the door, but I know nothing will change because you don't tell me anything."
Her statement sounded absurd to him, considering the previous week's interactions.
"Chloe, what are you talking about? It's like pulling teeth to get you to speak. I'm the *only* one talking."
"The problem is, Lex, you never *say* anything."
"I've shared everything concerning my father's trial with you."
"But never anything concerning yourself." He stared at her not knowing how to respond. She slumped back in her seat, bringing her fingers up to rub her eyes tiredly, "Not that you have any obligation to do so, I just...Why do you keep coming here, Lex?"
He thought about deflecting the question with a trite generality, but knew she was looking for something more, that the question was a kind of test to see if she would be able to rely on him for more than just deliveries of newspapers, food and electronics. His hesitation stretched, but she didn't push him. Just waited.
"This is the only place where I'm not drowning in Lionel Luthor's machinations."
She looked up at him, surprised. Relief was on her face when she smiled, tears swimming in her eyes.
"Funny, this seems to be the very place where I *am*."
And he chuckled lightly, knowing even as they sat quietly that the tension had drained, the floodgates were open. Each aware that the other was the bearer of the thing they were most in need of, hope that they could survive this.
"They're trying to cover this up, Lex... Lex? Everything okay?" He tried to focus his attention back to the present, put away that moment he always considered to be the spark that set off the chain of events between them. Leading them right here, for better or worse.
"They ruled the explosion an accident, Chloe. Age and a faulty fuel line. Regardless of whether or not they actually found any evidence of tampering, the police report has the official stamp of `no foul play' attached." He noticed he had been saying her name in excess throughout this afternoon of divulgence, his voice rusty on a name as natural as his own once.
"Who runs the police department?"
"The city of Metropolis." Spoken as a foregone conclusion. She smiled at his answer.
"But who *runs it* runs it?"
"When did you become such a paranoid cynic?"
"Exploding safe houses and poisoned brandy, Lex. You should know better than anyone."
"No, speaking as a lifelong paranoid cynic, you were always incredibly trusting. Even then." An uncomfortable silence descended from his words. He could tell she was cut by them, but he meant no offense.
"Well, in the spirit of regaining my sense of trust, I..." she paused, looked like she was going to say something difficult, but was unable to get the words out in the end, "I thought I would ask you to look into what the deal is with Garner. With LexCorp connections you might have an easier time than I would."
He didn't respond for a moment, instead watched her struggle to cover the emotion he stirred with his words. He felt stung that she wasn't comfortable enough to just let him see that he'd hurt her.
"You can't keep going like this, Chloe."
"Like what, exactly?" Her tone was not offended, more distracted. He watched her move back to her notes at the kitchen table, looking for something to give him, relating to Garner he assumed. But she was only hovering, picking up one paper then putting it down for another with little focus. He couldn't really blame her for wanting to distract herself from the turn in conversation. Their whole interaction this afternoon had been an unbelievable mind-fuck. For all the years apart, their ability to speak plainly and comfortably was as intact as it had ever been. And although the familiarity was gone, the ease of their discourse brought the illusion of closeness, of things between them being unchanged, somehow.
"Single-mindedness and unconfronted anger will only lead to a faster downfall."
"Who is that? Confucius? Roosevelt?" she continued shuffling through documents, only half of her attention on him.
"Your father. He said that to me after my father had him fired, pretending he was talking about himself, but I'm fairly certain it was parting advice." Her movements froze at the mention of her father, a tiny undercurrent of distress.
"You never told me about that."
"Well, I'm telling you now, Chloe. Don't get lost in this."
"Advice from someone who knows," she muttered to herself, sitting slowly down at the table, absorbed for a moment in thought. After a beat she looked up at him again, shaking her head softly. "Lois died because of this. My source mysteriously disappeared into the bowels of Harrow Institute. I can't walk away."
"And I don't expect that. I just see you falling into the frenzy of the chase and ignoring self-preservation. Who'll report the story if you don't stay mindful of protecting yourself?"
"You," she quipped, smiling as she ran her fingers along the edge of the table lightly. He laughed softly in response.
"If my relationship with the media and law-enforcement suddenly improves drastically, I'll consider it." Teasing in his voice and she was grinning back. A swell of camaraderie between them, stirring something old and deep. He missed this sometimes, missed her.
"...Clark." The name seemed a non sequitur at first, her voice more serious suddenly. He felt thrown by the change, hunting for context.
And then he realized this was her plan, her way of telling him. Masquerading as Lois, she was going to use Clark to get a connection at the Planet, believed he could be entrusted with the task of deciding who at the paper could be relied on. Not an unreasonable plan, but Lex disliked it immediately. She was trusting Clark's notorious snap judgment with her life. He worried Clark would step all over the delicacies of the situation. It was his number one talent these days, after all; flying around the city, stomping on daisies. Clark's rapidly expanding undertaking was making Lex more and more uncomfortable of late. Using this same reckless man for help, especially with something that had most likely killed two people already, seemed unnecessarily careless.
"He writes obituaries, Chloe. This may be a little over his head," displeasure not hidden from his voice.
"Yes, but Perry White is the one who got him that job. It's not what you know, it's who you know, right?"
"What if he recognizes you?" His manner had turned cold again and he saw her follow suit and harden herself against it.
"This is your fight, Chloe. I wish you well. Just be careful," He rose to leave then, not knowing what else to say. He knew she was alive, knew the dangerous circumstances she stumbled into, leading her here. He got what he came for. "I'll look into where Dr. Garner was hiding before popping up in Gotham and get back to you tomorrow."
He strode toward the door, uneasy with the visit. There was too much history and he hated the way it unnerved him.
"Lex..." she called out as he reached for the handle, "I'm glad you came."
"Even though I blew your cover." He didn't turn to look back at her, didn't want to know what her eyes were saying.
"Because you blew my cover." He opened the door and stepped out of the apartment without acknowledging her words. All these years and he felt himself being pulled in yet again.
Lex fought against the impulse to let his shoulders slump as he rode the elevator to the penthouse suite. Silence and steel, the air around him muffled and stark. He loved this part of the day. Three minutes to breathe, alone and unstudied. A small *ding* sounded as the doors opened into the foyer. He took his time checking the day's mail, placing his keys in the small antique tray that always held them. A 19th century Empire saltcellar, purchased from a Swiss silver dealer years ago. Originally from the Regno delle Due Sicilie region; Naples, Italy today, if he remembered correctly. It amazed him how easily information fixed itself in his mind, he rarely forgot. Anything. Most of the time the talent was a blessing, sometimes quite the opposite.
The apartment was quiet but for the distant click, click, click of a keyboard from the undersized dining area connected to the kitchen. He found it amusing that she always chose locations traditionally used for eating meals as her workspace, rejecting anything resembling an office. He walked toward the sound without hurry, stepped into the room where she sat and leaned casually against the doorframe, watching her. Her attention remained on the computer screen, fingers flying over the keys, a pencil held firmly in her teeth.
He wasn't sure how this happened.
He'd intended to keep her at more of a distance, knew she probably intended the same, but somehow the situation wasn't working out that way. There was a 60-40 chance he would find her here when he came home these days. The likelihood had been increasing steadily over the past several weeks, as she became more and more uncomfortable spending time in her dead cousin's apartment, though she refused to admit that was the reason for her presence. She glanced over at him quickly, eyes lighting up in greeting before her attention was back on the screen almost instantly.
"You want a drink?" his voice low as he continued to observe her.
"Yeah, give me a minute, I'll meet you in there," her words muffled and distorted through the pencil still in her mouth. Though she wasn't looking, he nodded, retreating into the living room.
Fifteen minutes and an entire glass of cognac disappeared before she finally made her way over. She sat across from him, tucking her legs underneath her in the chair.
"I saw Clark today."
He stood immediately, drifting across the room to pour himself another drink, a vodka tonic for her.
"Did you have a chance to ask him why he destroyed an entire mile of elevated commuter track that will cost the city millions to repair?"
"Don't be acerbic, he saved a man's life."
"He stopped a desperate man from choosing to end his existence and did minor damage to a piece of equipment that now has no rail to run on."
"His heart is in the right place."
"But where is his head?"
She sighed disapprovingly, fighting to hide her own doubts about Clark's handiwork. And he sobered; abandoning sarcasm for the question he really wanted to ask.
"Did he recognize you?" suspending the glass in front of her, catching her eye. She held his look for a moment, disappointment flickering on her face.
"No." She took the drink, let her gaze drop to study the rippling liquid.
"I'm sorry," and he was. Lex knew what this man meant to her still, though he abandoned that fondness long ago. But even so, he knew first-hand the solace in seeing his smile light up in recognition and the sting of watching his eyes narrow in distrust. Clark Kent had the ability to stir powerful emotions, always.
"No, I... it's fine, good even. I didn't expect him to. Just--standing there listening to him talk about me in the past tense was more than a little unnerving." He took his seat again, noticing she had yet to look up from studying the glass, her fingers fidgeting lightly around the rim.
"Is he willing to help you?"
"Of course. He's Clark, " her voice suddenly wistful and distant, "You know, Lex, I'm feeling a bit of a headache coming on. I think I'm going to take off. Maybe get a little of that sleep-thing people keep talking about." She set her drink down on the table, untouched. As she passed by his chair, he grabbed her wrist gently, detaining her. Lex let a smile flicker at the corner of his mouth.
"You're allowed to be affected by this, Chloe."
"No, I know. He's just--not the same as I remember him." She broke his hold on her, bringing that same hand up to rest on his shoulder. Just a fleeting touch.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
"Lunch at one," he called out at her retreating figure. Unmoving, he listened until the doors closed, then downed his drink in one swallow.
Sometimes he lived wholly confident in the conviction that his life was under his careful control. Emotions disciplined for use to his own advantage, daily schedule set weeks in advance, time spent efficiently and effectively. But sometimes events occurred to teach him that the meticulous order he maintained in his life was only an illusion. The value in those moments was incalculable. He prided himself on being able to take in the lesson of his own fundamental powerlessness. With all the time spent trying to mould the future in order to eliminate surprise from his work and life, ungovernable circumstances brought a humility he appreciated. Today, however, the reminder of his fallibility held no gratification.
Hours ago, sitting in a caf, windows open to the street, he'd glanced at his watch for the third time, impatient with her lateness. A screeching of tires and angry horn blast caught his attention and he saw her. Two blocks up the street, struggling to change a flat tire. Not a single consideration apparent for her tailored gray skirt and cream blouse in the way she got right down on the asphalt. He noticed flares placed around her as she sat in the street, warding off oncoming traffic, forcing them into the other lane. But she was lucky, cars were rare to pass. The road wasn't busy at this hour. The scene made him smile; a microcosm of her entire personality. Too stubborn to just leave the issue until after lunch to be dealt with, insistent on changing the flat herself, no triple A in sight, completely ignoring the danger she was placing herself in by being in the middle of the street.
Lex stood from his seat, quickly giving a soft word to the waiter asking him to save the table and left the restaurant. Whether to stop her or help her he wasn't sure, he supposed that depended on who won the argument. Either way, he felt relief to see Chloe's struggling figure. Under the current circumstances, her tardiness could mean worse things than a flat. He moved up the sidewalk opposite from where her car was parked, chuckling to himself as she yanked aggressively at the seemingly stuck tire.
And then time stopped.
He felt his body freeze in confusion, then shock, then fear as a truck flew around the corner. The driver was aiming for her, was going to hit her, kill her right in front of his eyes. His legs unlocked and he began to run, her name ripping from his throat in a shouted warning. But he knew he couldn't make it, his sprint stopped short as his body recoiled, waiting for the dull thud of impact. There was nothing he could do. But no sickening sound of collision came, just a flurry of blue and red, the squeal of spinning tires and the smell of burning rubber in the air as the truck took off down a side street. He whipped his head around, frantically searching for evidence that he hadn't imaged that flash of movement.
No more than twenty feet ahead she lay, cradled in Clark's--no, Superman's--arms, her head lolling from the daze of being jerked across the street onto the sidewalk at an unnatural speed. Lex felt himself darken as he watched Clark run his hand along the side of her face tenderly, his eyes softening. On impulse, Lex hung back to watch the scene unfold. Chloe regained her focus shortly, eyes widening to see Clark hovering above her, a cloud of admiration moved across her face. Lex took one stilted step forward, but the crowd had already begun to gather. Instead he turned and walked away.
So here he found himself, seated behind this immense desk on the forty-eighth floor, all calls blocked, no interruptions. His fingers pressed deeply into his closed eyes as he struggled to understand why he was reacting so strongly to this event. Chloe's life had been saved, that should be enough. He wanted it to be enough.
But the problem lay in that very matter. The preservation of her life that day was an impossibility. Lex could never have helped her in time; moreover, her survival had been out of human hands completely. Only the chance presence of a man, who could move faster than the eye could see, had saved her. What if next time he was across town, across the country, across the world? And in the end, the real issue was deeper than just one life, even Chloe's. One man could not be everywhere, even a superman. The reliance of the general public on a savior from the sky, pulling them out of danger at the last minute, had the potential to turn Metropolis into a city of victims, passively waiting for the appearance of their hero. The heroic impulse inside themselves stifled. Or worse, these dramatic saves could begin to overshadow the everyday hero. Small acts of courage ignored into extinction. The idea unnerved him. Beyond these concerns he could feel more personal grievances fueling this unrest but they remained unexplored and he left them that way.
He was waiting for her. A little surprised, frankly, that he'd been waiting this long, wondered what was detaining her--knew what was detaining her.
"Mr. Luthor, a Lois Lane to see you."
"Yes, send her in." Her small figure stepped through the door. He could see fresh scrapes, prominent against her pale skin. Shallow, but red on her cheek, her right elbow, left calf. Her clothing disheveled.
"You look a mess."
She moved to one of the chairs across the desk, sitting tenderly. "I'm sorry I missed lunch."
He gave a small nod toward her appearance. "I'd say you have a pretty good excuse."
She watched him, cautious of his mood. He wished she didn't know him so well. "Yeah, some asshole almost mowed me down while I was changing my tire." Her statement was too casual. She was testing the waters with him.
"Good thing Clark was around to clean up his mess."
"What does that mean?"
"It stinks of a set-up, Chloe. Someone slashed your tire and tried to kill you. Clark trusted the wrong people and now they think that Lois Lane has become the liability Chloe Sullivan once was."
"You don't know that."
"Just a coincidence then? You are allowed to be in denial about any number of things, but this is not one of them."
"Clark would never intentionally..."
"That's not what I'm saying and you know it. His judgment can't be trusted in the way you'd like. This hero worship has to stop."
Anger flashed briefly in her eyes, but she paused before rebutting. A look of comprehension passed by on her features, disbelief and revelation filling her voice.
He felt a shock go through his system, like ice flooding his veins. A cold and sharp demeanor descended instantly, his words became careful, measured.
"What on earth could I possibly be jealous of?" She blinked, ignoring the uncomfortable inference.
"You think everyone sees him as unerringly honorable, beyond reproach; that they see you as a scheming business tycoon who's never had a pure motive in his life. But you're wrong. Not everyone is Jonathan Kent. Life isn't that simple and you are not the only person who sees that. They see his transgressions and they see your generosity. Give the public some credit for being aware of the shades of gray."
"Gray? The man plays judge, jury and sometimes executioner to the city's population with no one to stop him. That is beyond dangerous."
"Why are you suddenly being so unreasonable? Don't you see the irony? You two are mirror images of each other. You use your resources and he uses his."
He leaned forward slightly in his chair, elbows resting on his desk as he looked her more fully in the eye, his voice dropping. "Tell me you don't see how frightening that is. One man with that much power."
"It's terrifying, Lex. Why do you think people are so unnerved by you?"
He leaned back again, eerie calm covering the maelstrom of confused emotion raging just below the surface. She was right, of course. And truly, his concerns regarding Clark were only theoretical. He knew how Clark thought, knew exactly what to expect from him and though he disliked the slap-dash methods, Lex found no fault in the sentiment. Not really. It was Chloe who scared him. Always catching him off guard, disrupting his equilibrium. Ever since he was twenty-four years old he found himself incredibly unhinged in her presence. He always liked the spark it created between them, but today's events stirred something darker he was having trouble overcoming.
"All I'm try to express, Chloe, is that he's put you at risk. You should ask yourself why you trust him so implicitly."
"Because he is one of my oldest friends. Because I know the kind of person he is. Because he is helping me." She spoke pointedly, trying to emphasize the parallel between Clark and himself. Lex imagined she and Clark had arguments identical to this one through the years, where she defended the flip position just as judiciously, but he was losing rationality now. He felt the urge to cut deep, shake her out of her own infuriatingly impartial reasoning.
"He's helping Lois Lane. He doesn't see you, Chloe. He never has."
She flinched as if he'd hit her, her body trembling slightly, trying to control the rage and pain his words caused. She stood abruptly, turning her back and striding out of his office without another word. And he let her go. Horrified for touching on a vulnerability she once shared with him in a moment of complete trust, exploiting the knowledge.
'Single-mindedness and un-confronted anger'
Lex was amazed by how much insight Gabe had carried then, how much he still needed to integrate the advice into his life now. Standing from behind his desk, he hurled his fist down onto the surface in frustration, the sting of soon-to-be bruised knuckles feeling like appropriate punishment. He placed the throbbing hand calmly on his abdomen and began to consider what to do next.
Evidence of hours worth of work was on display before him. Scribbled notes, phone calls upon phone calls recorded by hand, countless photocopied articles covered in precisely highlighted sections with hastily jotted thoughts in the margins, drafts edited and re-edited. Lex was reminded with renewed admiration of the depth to which Chloe took her research. She always did have the ability to impress him. After his cruel words earlier today, he decided not to chase her. Instead he waited for her here, in this little area she cornered off as her own in this expansive apartment. He knew she would come for her work eventually; find him here waiting. Struggling with how to express that even Lex Luthor could fall prey to such pedestrian clichs as lashing out in fear, in trying to protect against emotions moving beyond aloof assistance in her quest. That the frequency of her presence now, having her so close, was reminding him why he let her in against his better judgment all those years ago. The same thing was happening again.
He had gone to visit Martha Kent today. And now, all he wanted to do was sit quietly and cease all attempts at thought. He showed up to perform the same song and dance he always gave. --'Whatever I can do to help--specialists from Metropolis always available'-- And she ignored his presence completely. Five solid minutes where she seemed as lost as her husband to the rest of the world. And maybe it was that Chloe had gotten him into the habit, or maybe it was the assumption that Martha wasn't even listening, but honesty came out stark and cold. Not even directed at her really, just words.
"I never know what to do in the face of other people's suffering." He moved to leave when there was no response, didn't expect one, but Martha's hand shot out, grabbing his wrist forcefully and his body jumped imperceptibly in surprise.
"That you came here at all is enough. More than enough." And then let him go. He felt as though he might crack into a hundred pieces. Storming out of the hospital he tried not to show how badly the visit had shaken him. Anger at Clark flared from nowhere. --Where was he?-- His mother needed him, was drowning in that hospital room all alone and he was nowhere to be found. Lex could offer a million comforting words that would never approach the effectiveness of Clark simply stepping foot in that room. His infuriation simmered as he drove, flying down back roads at dangerous speeds until he ended up here. Already more composed being in this place, realizing he should suspend his judgment of Clark until he knew more, but still unable to shake feeling dark and raw.
He watched Chloe move around the small house, clean up from the meal she prepared for herself before he came. Storing the leftovers he indelicately refused at his arrival. The dim light seemed to make her skin glow against the delicate blue of her camisole. Meeting his gaze transiently, she scooped up the paper he had unceremoniously tossed on the couch and settled in to read; comfortable enough, despite his stoicism to share the oversized sofa, but still staying safely wedged in her corner, legs stretching out over the cushions between them. Maintaining space.
Silence surrounded them.
Her feet, small and warm, were only inches away from where he sat. Slim ankles curving up softly into smooth calves. And with barely a thought he reached his hand over, gently wrapped his fingers around her right ankle, then ran his palm flatly up her leg, stopping at her knee to glide down again. He felt her tense beneath his touch. Her voice emerged. Quiet, calm and unbelievable casual.
"What are you doing, Lex?"
He wasn't sure exactly, just knew that he needed this contact, felt an urgency to keep it intact. Without answering her question, not really know how, he only continued to smoothly run his hand along. Very slow. Savoring the friction of skin against skin, feeling a light shudder move through her body.
"Lex, stop," more resolve in her tone now, trying to hide the tinge of pleading.
And he halted his movements, but didn't break the contact with her ankle. She sat forward, hooking her arms around her bent knees. Lex took sharp notice that the move was designed to bring her gaze closer so she might study his expression, while letting him maintain his touch. Startled by the extent of her insight into his mood, he caught her eyes, breaking the study of his own hand for the first time since reaching out for her.
She knew him. Unsure of when this kind of knowledge had taken hold between them, here it was in stark clarity. Without one word of explanation, she knew something had shaken him, knew he wasn't interested in telling her about it, knew she had to get at the issue from a different angle. He saw her thought process reflected in every expression, every action, plain as day, amazed that he knew her too.
"You're pretty quiet today, Lex. Any reason you're here so early?" Her eyes burdened with concern, words striving for nonchalance.
"I just stopped by to chat," he breathed, moving through the air between them to meet her lips, his unoccupied hand sliding up to cradle her jaw as he deepened the kiss, thumb sweeping lightly over her cheek.
He was peripherally surprised at her lack of protest. Instead her knees dropped, eliminating the barrier between them as her feet hit the floor. He felt her body move toward him imperceptibly, then hesitate. He wanted her near, didn't want her fighting against the impulse, wanted no guilt from this for either of them. He ran his hand high up her leg, over the thin fabric of her shorts. Finding the destination he sought as he pushed his hand under the edge of her camisole to make contact with the small of her back, pulling her closer. Her breath hitched as he moved his mouth down the slope of her neck, the hand on her back now moving up the side of her body, gripping her upper rib cage as he ran a thumb over her nipple. Instinctually her body arched into the touch and she let out a breathless giggle of disbelief as she ran her fingers lightly across the back of his head and down his neck.
"This is going to changes things, you know," a bit of urgency coloring her voice.
"Does that worry you?" he murmured, brushing nose and lips across her collarbone.
"Yes," the word carrying hints of darkness as she pulled him down onto the expanse of couch, finding his mouth again.
Footsteps tore into his recollections, stopping short in the doorway. She froze seeing him. He spoke immediately, not waiting for her to address him.
"I was out of line."
"But not inaccurate, right?" Anger was present nowhere in her demeanor as she walked tiredly to the chair at his right and sat. Somehow, her seeming lack of fury or aversion to being near him made him feel worse.
"I had no business saying that."
"Why not? You were right. I've spent hours with him, talking about the same kinds of things we always talked about everyday at that stupid high school newspaper. And he doesn't even have the first clue. How long did it take you? Ten minutes? Five?"
"You can't compare the two, Chloe."
"How can I not?" a hint of exasperation emerging in her voice.
"He never felt the need to memorize you the way I did. He had no reason to believe you wouldn't be around forever."
"But you did?"
"I knew you too well then."
She let a single, quiet sob escape her; a large tear spilled slowly down her cheek. "I'm sorry for this, Lex." Her voice thick but steady, "This craziness, this gigantically fucked-up situation where I just show up and insert myself into your life. I didn't mean to do this to you. Or to myself. I never expected... I don't know what I expected."
"You're not entirely to blame. I came to that apartment knowing I would find you."
"I was so angry, so angry this afternoon in your office, but I didn't know why. I couldn't care less about Clark's powers of observation. It's you Lex; it's the way you look at me and I feel completely transparent. Like a child; like a fifteen year old kid trying to one up you in a Bartlett's contest."
"Funny, that's exactly how I always remember you."
She laughed, a perfect bittersweet laugh emerging through the threat of tears and suddenly Lex remembered what it had been like to love her. Bittersweet.
"It's late. I won't keep you." She stood, moving to gather her multitude of papers, seemingly satisfied that the conversation was concluded. Apologies made. But he remained ill at ease. He brought his hand up to lightly skim her fingers resting on the table and she paused, keeping her eyes averted.
"You always start with such an innocuous touch. Like it means nothing. Just a casual meandering impulse." Voice distant.
"You shouldn't leave."
"Yes. I should."
He stood now too. Moving closer to her, invading the space at her side, fingers sliding up to her elbow, holding there. He bowed his head near her own and could hear her breathing become more deliberate, saw her eyes slip closed.
"You aren't the only one shaken by this remarkable familiarity." He let her hear the vulnerability, still present seven years later, buried deep during her absence. She nodded slowly, finally turning her head to look up, eyes locking with his.
"As evidenced by what happened today."
"I forgive you," she murmured, crossing the short inches between their lips, kissing him like she'd been starving for this since first seeing him on those church steps.
Her mouth was just as he remembered, soft and lush. His fingers still well versed in the contours of her body. And he pulled her blouse off in a hasty effort to feel more skin, her own fingers making quick work of his buttons, pushing back the barrier of fabric from his shoulders, letting the dress shirt slide onto the floor. His mouth moved along her jaw, the taste of her body familiar and comfortable. She tasted like his youth.
"I lied before," he whispered onto her throat, "this is how I always remember you."
She smiled drowsily as he ran his lips along her shoulder, her collarbone, her neck, "Thank god."
Her response made him chuckle against her skin and she drew in a breath, feeling the vibration. He brought his hands to her waist, hoisting her up onto the table, papers pushed haphazardly out of the way, scattering in every direction; palms gliding up her thighs to push that same gray skirt, so abused by city asphalt earlier today, out of the way. She tilted her hips, letting him hook his thumbs on the waist of her underwear and slide them down. There was a strange urgency between them. No roughness, no lack of delicacy, only the need for momentum.
She reached for his belt, dismantling the buckle in one quick movement, pants and boxers joining his shirt, discarded on the floor. And she tucked her head into the crook between his neck and shoulder, her lips grazing the sensitive skin there, inhaling. He shuddered at the act, trying to focus on the fingers he dipped into her-- first two, then a third-- thumb brushing the sensitive bundle of nerves above. Her body jumped, a small cry of appreciation escaping as she brought her legs up to wrap around his hips, responding to the rhythm he was creating. After a moment, her hand slipped down, seeking his erection to slide along his length --once, twice--before brushing his warming fingers away and guiding him into her. His breath caught, feeling her wet and warm around him, and he felt her hands move instantly to grip his shoulders, pulling him closer; taking him in deeper. A moan growled low in his throat.
Time moved by in a senseless flux. It was overwhelming, this flurry of desire expanding within him. This frightening level of intimate memory he carried. He knew just how her body moved, where to touch, what would garner the greatest reaction; couldn't recall that he had ever known any woman so well. Her breathing became more erratic and he moved his hand between them, putting pressure on her clit and she cried out almost immediately. Waves of her orgasm contracted around him and he let go, spilling into her, holding her body tightly to his, suddenly wishing this had never happened. He could feel fear growing at how necessary to his life he could allow her to become, how easily he might grow used to this again. She held onto him, every exhale hitting the skin of his neck as her breathing began to slow.
"You are bad news." Joviality attempted in her statement, but worry leaking through her words.
"Then we're a perfect match," he replied softly, not bothering to hide the apprehension in his own.
The shrill ring of his phone woke him out of nightmares. He fumbled for only a second before pressing the cell to his ear.
"Hello?" his voice crackling with sleep.
He bolted upright in bed, glancing at the clock glowing 4:56am. "Jesus Christ. Where have you been?"
"I need you to come get me."
"Where are you?"
Tears, suppressed with effort, suddenly choked her voice and his heartbeat quickened. "I don't know. Some kind of industrial area outside of the city. I can see the skyline..." her voice faltering.
"Do you see any names on the equipment? Any signs?" He was trying to be calm for her, keep his own voice even.
"I don't know--wait, Osbourne Incorporated..."
"I know exactly where you are. I can be there in twenty minutes. I'll call from the road."
"I'm at a pay phone, Lex. No incoming calls."
"Shit." He was up now, moving around the room, gathering clothes, shoes; his phone balanced precariously between his ear and shoulder while he pulled on slacks. "I'll just stay on the line with you then."
"No, it's okay. I only have one quarter and it's going to run up. I'll just wait for you here. I'll be fine."
"Chloe..." he heard the call disconnect and threw his phone onto the bed in frustration. He finished dressing quickly, flew out of his apartment and down the highway, deserted of traffic at this hour.
Forty-eight excruciating hours of not being able to get in touch with her, of not knowing where she was, expecting the worst, was finally coming to an end, but he felt no relief. The last week between them had been so strange after rekindling their physical relationship. Afraid the delicate balance of easy camaraderie and darker desire would shatter at any moment, they desperately kept the two elements separate. And at first he wondered if she was simply taking a break from the complexity, but after thirty-six hours and two unanswered messages, he broke down and contacted Clark.
"I'm looking for Lois."
"You know Lois?" Disappointment emerging in the man's tone. Like affiliation with Lex tainted his regard for her somehow. And there was quite a bit of more than just friendly regard evident in Clark's voice. Irony of ironies.
"Have you spoken with her in the last day and a half?"
"What is this about, Lex?"
"Have you seen her or not?" A long pause followed his outburst and Lex thought for a moment that Clark hung up on him, but his voice came through the line at last.
"No, she was supposed to have a meeting with Perry and me yesterday morning, but she never showed up."
So something was wrong. Very wrong.
The last time he saw her was sneaking out of bed, two mornings ago. Beautiful, surrounded by the early light of the sun through his windows.
"Where are you going?" He'd question sleepily.
"I have a meeting," she responded with an unnecessary whisper.
"At--," he glanced at the clock, "6:30 in the morning?"
"Yes, and shouldn't you be getting up right now, anyway?"
"No, I should've been up an hour ago." And she was gone by the time he was out of the shower, not heard from again until this frightening phone call asking for his help.
His tires kicked up gravel as he pulled off the smooth asphalt into the limestone and granite extraction site, a large sign with the Osbourne Inc logo looming a few yards away. Throwing the car into park, he jumped out, striding around aimlessly, calling her name with increasing urgency. At the fifth cry, he felt a hand on his arm.
"I'm right here," her voice quiet.
He turned to face her immediately, hands moving to cradle her neck and chin as he guided her head from side to side slowly; examining for damage done. Dirt and grime smudged her face liberally, but otherwise she was seemingly unharmed.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, let's just go," she muttered, breaking his gaze and moving toward his car. He remained still for a moment, watching her withdraw; then followed.
Shivers were running through her body, difficult to suppress despite the warm night. The first blue light of dawn was filtering through the evening sky and she sat huddled in Lex's car, trying to fold in on herself. Wanted to disappear into the soft leather passenger seat as he drove them both back to the penthouse. Silent now, she could feel his worry and frustration coiling within him next to her and hoped that when they were unleashed she could hold herself together against the torrent. Let it wash past her instead of allowing it to stir her own traumatic response to the events of the last two days. She would not be intimidated or ruled by those trying to keep her from exposing them as criminals. She repeated the idea like a mantra, trying to draw strength from the words, but the attempt wasn't working as well as she would have liked. She was scared and the intensity was too fresh to fight, but she was trying.
The instant she stepped out of Lex's building two days ago hands grabbed at her; hard, bruising fingers gripping her arms, leading her forcefully into a sedan with darkened windows. Her arms and legs were bound, her mouth gagged as she struggled against her captors. No words were spoken, but she knew what was happening, knew exactly why the timing of this little kidnapping corresponded to her meeting with Perry White. What she didn't know was how far this would go; if she would survive the occasion or if those early moments with Lex would be the last she would have.
She was driven directly to a dark enclosed location, a bag placed over her head. She was seated in a chair, hands pressing down uncomfortably onto her shoulders to keep her in place. A surprisingly inconspicuous baritone materialized at her ear, warning her about curiosity and the cat; a veiled reference given to the explosion that killed her cousin. Then she was swept up again, thrown into the trunk of what she assumed was the same sedan. They drove her around for more than a day. Long stops and long drives. Sometimes she would let sleep relieve the terror ruling those hours, but mostly she would listen, trying to memorize sounds that might reveal her location, or struggle with her bonds, or succumb to her constantly threatening tears. She'd never felt so powerless in her life. After what seemed like a lifetime the trunk was opened and she was dumped onto the gravely ground. A quarter tossed at her disoriented figure, bonds cut unceremoniously and she was free. It was over. Alive and unharmed when two people had been killed because of this story. She couldn't understand why.
And here was Lex, so impassive next to her. She could practically feel him restraining a stream of questions waiting to spill out at her. She was amazed he hadn't asked her anything beyond the initial--"Are you okay?"--Intentionally for her benefit or not, she was beyond grateful. She needed his silence; needed, just for a moment, to experience the feeling of safety. She couldn't discuss the events of the past two days right now. Yearned to push past this and finish what she started with the investigation; knew a certain amount of deliberate denial would be the only way to get through to the end. He pulled the car into his garage, moving around to open her door. She noticed how he walked a step or two behind, watching. But, unlike their first meeting weeks ago, she was thankful for his gaze, drew comfort from it. The elevator doors closed, shutting them in. Muffled, sterile air surrounding them. Both so still she could hear his soft breathing.
"I need to know."
She jumped slightly, not expecting his voice. "It was just scare tactics, Lex. Nothing happened."
She could see a muscle clench in his jaw from the corner of her eye. He didn't speak again. The doors opened into the foyer and he walked out ahead, away from her. She didn't have the energy to call after him, couldn't give him what he wanted anyway. What was the point? She meandered slowly through the apartment, running fingers over the lush fabrics covering various pieces of furniture as she made her way to the bedroom, knowing he was in there waiting. An effort to distract herself from the need to be near him, realizing she could give him nothing in the way of answers yet. But she was unsuccessful in the end. Pushing open the cracked door, she found him sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes studying the floor as he smoothed a contemplative hand over his head. His palm resting momentarily on the crown before he looked up to watch her approach. She crossed the room wearily to stand in front of him and after a beat he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her close. She returned the embrace, cradling his head against her as she encircled his shoulders tightly with her arm.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm destined to have you slip away again and again." She could feel his voice vibrate through her body. And though his inflection remained devoid of emotion, she felt thrown hearing such a vulnerable statement leave his lips.
"You and your obsession with destiny," she whispered, wondering what stopped her from attempting to alleviate his fear. Her own mortality too fresh in her mind, she supposed.
*Click*, *click*, *click*, *click*. She slammed her hand down over his, ripping the offending pen away.
"Don't be nervous, Clark. He's already agreed to run the thing."
"I'm not nervous," he protested and she held the pen up in front of him, imitating his infuriating habit of clicking the tip in and out, over and over.
"Alright, maybe a little nervous," he murmured, and she smiled at his admission.
Seated precariously on the corner of his small desk as he looked up at her from his chair, she struggled with her own nerves. They, however, were originating from a different source. After their meeting with Perry she planned on telling him everything. That she wasn't really Lois Lane; that she lied to protect herself. In the mix of anger and relief she expected in his reaction, she wasn't sure which would be stronger, but she had her suspicions. It wasn't going to be instant forgive and forget.
"I, um... I got a call from Lex Luthor the other day. You two know each other?" He was trying to keep his voice casual, avoided looking her in the eye until after the question was asked.
She wondered when this would come up. The morning after Lex picked her up from the excavation site, she'd contacted Clark to apologize for missing their meeting; created a vague excuse about getting sidetracked while following a lead and having her cell phone die on her so she couldn't call to cancel. Not a very good lie. One of her most poorly conceived attempts, in fact. But she was feeling off her game after the events of the day before and, following only a brief hesitation, Clark accepted the excuse and agreed to set up another meeting, so she left it at that. But one of the many loose ends from her story seemed to be popping up.
"I was going to meet with him about his history surrounding Summerholt, thought he might have some insights. I had to say I was working with you before I could even make it past his ice queen of a secretary."
"He sounded upset."
"He was probably just angry I disrupted his airtight schedule."
The feigned annoyance escaped her throat so naturally. Her body displaying all the correct signs of outward frustration appropriate to the topic. Her words raced forth, sounding brash and irritated when she spoke. But she felt none of those things. Lie after lie; her words, her mannerisms, her aloof vexation. A performance, all of it. Getting easier and easier over these weeks with him. She felt like a monster.
He laughed, allowing her flip dismissal of the whole subject. "Geez, Lois. Spending days following leads and setting up interviews with Lex Luthor. You seem to have a knack for this journalism thing."
"Yeah, I guess I'm getting a little carried away." She let her voice fade, feeling guilt run though her at his words.
"No, I think what you are doing is incredibly brave. Chloe deserves to have her killers brought to justice and this is just the way she would want it done. You really are honoring her memory in just the way it should be honored." His voice so earnest, and she felt her stomach turn, thinking of Lois, wondering if she would approve of any of this.
"I'm really not..."
"No, you are," he said, cutting her off, "You're an amazing person."
She watched admiration shine through in his eyes, joined by a tiny glimmer of something else. A look she used to see him reserve for Lana. A level of fondness she coveted once, but seeing it now only made her feel nauseated. He still didn't know. Moments over these past weeks when she suspected he had caught on, was humoring her until she was ready to tell him the truth, evaporated. It didn't seem possible, but there it was.
She could never tell him. Ever.
In denial until this very moment, she suddenly saw who he was, clear as day. A naive idealism defined his world now, too limiting for the truth of her questionable choices born of these circumstances. And she felt incapable of destroying his perception of her; knew that decision made her unforgivably selfish. But there was a simplicity between them; a lack of angst or complication that she valued too much right now. With Lex, she always felt completely exposed. The intimacy of being laid bare before someone, unable to keep any part of herself concealed, was so foreign to her after all those years of autonomy. She would never have to worry about that with Clark, could count on the comfort of masking things she felt a need to keep hidden. The ache Lex stirred in her, so overwhelming sometimes, was absent when in Clark's presence. But he would never know her. Her life as Chloe Sullivan would be lost forever in her interactions with him. A different kind of pain.
"Clark..." a discouraging tone, trying to prevent the discomfort brought on by his praise.
"I've never known anyone like you, Lois."
Unprepared for the devistation of the remark, she felt her heart break for that sixteen year old girl she'd been. Who, once upon a time, wanted to hear nothing but those words. Never spoken until she didn't want anything to do with them. They weren't really meant for her, after all. Life had a sick sense of humor.
"Lois, Clark. I'm ready for you in here."
Perry White's booming voice ended her misery at last. She smoothed her hands over her outfit, pulling the mask of professionalism over her grief. She moved confidently toward Perry's office, Clark's broad figure in tow.
"You ready for this, Smallville?" She quipped over her shoulder, horror at her own actions lessening in the face of the familiarity of journalistic ritual. Leaving uncertainties for later.
She was going to kill Clark.
Hours of conversation endured about the many,*many* intricacies of martial arts training and innumerable ex-girlfriend stories with some guy from Clark's frat --no, sorry--`academic club' who'd taken an interest in her from afar. She agreed to go out with him, not knowing why. Was still trying to come up with a convincing excuse for sacrificing herself to the dating gods that didn't have to do with Lex. He was fifteen months forgotten by now, or should have been, and that seemed to be just the problem. Everything about him was still crystalline in her mind and she was desperate to forget.
Clark's friend, *Greg*, brought her to a swank new club, the grand opening of which his father was overseeing. An effort to impress. And though the world of highly polished glitz decor and overproduced house music was nowhere near her kind of scene, she decided to dress the part. Small top, smaller skirt, uncomfortably high heels. The instant she stepped out of her door to greet him, she regretted everything. Her clothing choice, their destination, agreeing to accompany him at all. She felt herself slip into a withdrawn unhappiness immediately. His never ending stream of conversation in the face of her silence had her reaching for complementary cocktail after complementary cocktail. Until she was drunk enough to feel justified in leaving the self-professed non-dancer in his seat as she made her way to the dance floor, just to be alone in a crowd for awhile.
The lights flashed through her closed lids. The heat of the bodies surrounding her began to mix with the drinks, making her lightheaded and she stumbled up to the bar, requesting water. Leaning her back against the chrome counter, Chloe let her eyes scan the club without purpose. The design really was beautiful; unusual. This place would make a lot of money, for its investors. Standing still, letting her breathing regulate, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise and looked up. Cool, hazel eyes met hers from the balcony above the dance floor.
She knew this moment was inevitable. Living in the same city would catch up to them sooner or later, she just hoped the meeting wouldn't happen when she was three sheets to the wind; hoped she would be wearing a bit more clothing than she currently had on. She looked away instantly, feeling claustrophobic in this place. Needing air. Walking unsteadily out a back exit, she leaned immediately against the cool brick of the building. A stunningly gorgeous amazon woman stared at her quizzically before taking a drag off a particularly wonderful smelling clove cigarette.
"Do you mind if I bum one of those off you?"
"Not at all." A cigarette passed to her without thought, a light appearing even more quickly. And she closed her eyes, inhaling the sweet smoke, already feeling more collected. She would just ignore him. Everything would be fine. Both she and Lex had done a masterful job of avoiding any interaction with each other for an entire year in Smallville. Why should this be any different? But she already *knew* this was different. Seeing him in this setting, away from all the reasons to push aside a summers worth of confidences, made her lose some of her resolve. She opened her eyes again, noticing her smoking partner was gone, replaced by a lean, familiar figure. Great.
"You're not a smoker," the rumble of his voice filling the air around her.
"Well, tonight I guess I am." He crossed the space between them, fingers brushing hers as he took her cigarette, dropping it on the concrete before smashing it out.
"You're drunk." He was standing too close to her now.
"Just trying to dull the pain of boredom."
"Tonight's date not your type?"
She could feel the heat radiating off his body. "No, but you are, aren't you?"
Though her words came out sarcastic and jaded, she couldn't hide the shock that she'd said them at all. She looked over at him, stunned, but instead of some biting remark in response, he kissed her. She could taste the alcohol on his breath. His body pressing her up against the brick, mouths dueling for dominance. She let him take her home that night, left poor Greg alone to fend for himself. Knew whatever this thing was between them just started all over again. Wondered if it would always be this way; Lex alternately emerging into and fading from her life, A frighteningly comforting thought.
She felt cold; hollow, sitting in this room she sat in so many times over these last weeks, over past existences even. She always seemed to come back here; could never truly get away. The condensation accumulating on her glass of vodka dripped lazily onto her blouse and she wiped at the spot it made, knowing the act made little difference. Her shirt would dry soon enough and her glass would only drip again. Why fight the inevitable pattern? Nothing would change unless she put down the drink and that was out of the question.
An approaching sound of expensive shoes on imported wood floors reached her ears and she waited, took a significant sip of liquor and continued to sit. She looked up with dull eyes as he walked into the living room, today's paper with him. She was struck by how right the combination seemed. He always came to her exactly that way in her youth, a window to the world in his hand. She saw a bit of worry flicker across his face at the sight of her, but the look was quickly masked as he came near, setting the publication down in front of her as he read the headline out loud.
"Military Funds Used for Illegal Psychological Experiments in Gotham Facility. Story by Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Kind of a wordy title, don't you think? `Military Mind-control' or `Uncle Sam wants your Brain" would have been more effective from a purely marketing perspective."
She didn't laugh, only picked up the paper, putting it on her lap for a closer look at the article she'd already read and re-read hundreds of times before. She heard Lex's voice materialize, serious now, at her side.
"It's all over, Chloe. A congressional hearing is already in the works. Arrests are being made. You did it."
"Not just me," her voice eerie and far away.
"Did he even write one word of that article?"
"I wasn't talking about Clark." So manysacrifices made to get here, the reward barely seemed worth the price. She never wanted to think about Harrow Institute again. "The Planet offered me a job."
"You mean they offered Lois a job," his tone subdued now, humbled by her censure.
She heard him exhale slowly, the cushion dipping beside her as he leaned back into the seat. "So what's the answer?"
"I don't know."
There was a long pause as he regarded her demeanor. "You're really considering this."
"What else do I have?"
"Your father, your friends." Their voices drifted abstractly around them. No accusations or defenses.
"And how much would it hurt them to know I allowed them to mourn unnecessarily all this time? Too much, I think." She saw him pause on the verge of words, ultimately unable to refute her statement. His own ignorance of her survival lasted only days and she knew he felt injured by the deception.
"Neither option is going to be easy," he said at last. And she looked over at him, eyes meeting his intently; searching for understanding.
"But at least as Lois I have something left."
"You made the choice to relinquish these same things years ago, you know." He was talking about himself and it occurred to her how naive she had been when she left, thinking of nothing but the theoretical moral obligation of her future career. But where was that pull toward morality now? Nothing seemed quite so balck and white anymore.
"And now I suppose I'm making a different choice, but it might be an extraordinarily unprincipled one."
"Just the type of dilemma I seem perpetually destined to encounter, problems without any true answers. We make a fine pair."
"I guess we do." She muttered, leaning against his shoulder, the slight contact a small but necessary comfort.
They remained there for a long time, not speaking, just sitting. The only noise that of ice hitting glass as Lex took her drink from her hand, brought the last of her vodka to his lips and let it slide down his throat.
"We've run our course, Chloe. There's nothing wrong with that."
"You weren't so approving two days ago."
"Don't misunderstand me. I don't think you should transfer, but I have no right to ask you to stay somewhere you no longer want to be."
"LexCorp has a finger in every pot in town. I don't ever want to have to choose between my journalistic integrity and my loyalty to you. In Gotham I won't have to."
"It looks like you already made that choice."
"Don't be cold."
"You can't have it both ways, Chloe. If you want me to let you go, I won't beg you to stay in the same breath."
"God--I don't even scratch the surface with you, do I?"
"Chloe, you are the only one who does. But I'm not so sure the reverse was ever true."
"You can be so blind sometimes.It frightens me, what I consider giving up for you. --Why can't things just be uncomplicated, for once?"
"We don't work that way. Things have never been simple between us."
"Just--no keeping tabs, Lex; for the sake of both of our sanities."
"I'll do my best, Chloe, but it won't be easy."
"Nothing is, is it?."
The morning was filtered with a murky blue when she woke, watching Lex's still figure breathe easily beside her. The dim light making his skin look like porcelain and she fought the urge to run her fingers along the precise angles of his face, neck, shoulders. Or the curve of muscle originating at his upper arm; knew the touch would wake him. Instead she rose from bed, moving quietly as she got ready, pausing before she left to give into temptation and place a gentle hand along his face. His eyes slid open slowly, blurred vision taking her in through sleep.
"Sometimes I can see so clearly why I've always been in love with you," lids drifting shut again.
She knew he wouldn't remember this when day came, but she kissed him lightly anyway. Swept at errant tears before they had a chance to fall and whispered a hasty, "I'll see you tonight." Then left him to his sleep.
'Into the unpredictable future', she thought and felt a shiver run up her spine before steeling herself for her first day as Lois Lane, reporter for the Daily Planet. Resolutely pushing away the sudden dismay at her choice. Destiny had pulled her here and she felt compelled to follow its course. Wherever it may lead.
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