Shifting down to second, Lex gave the steering wheel an apologetic stroke. The engine hummed its dissatisfaction, capable of crawling along at thirty miles an hour, but made by loving, Italian god-hands to idle at seventy. On good days, the roads to Smallville were asphalt heaven- long, flat expanses ideal for needle-burying, and lazy serpentine curves centrifugally perfect for pulling a few Gs. After dark, the roads were a little trickier, and when the skies opened up with sheets of white rain, the automotive wonderland of rural routes fell from grace and straight into hell.
The storm had added an extra hour to the trip from Metropolis to Smallville, and the last four miles seemed intent on taking up an hour of their own. Lex had snapped off the radio while lacing back and forth to avoid mysteriously deep lakes on the pavement near the river- no point in listening to music driving faster than he could- and had taken to bobbing his head against the leather rest in regular, steady beats when he got stuck waiting for a flatbed to straighten itself out on Route 9.
There would be a fire waiting when he got home, a bottle of Armagnac to soothe the knots out of his shoulders, and blessed quiet. Thank god for quiet, because he could still hear voices gabbling in his ears, 'I rather like this one, all the red reminds me of Guernica,' 'Oh, do you think, really? It has more of a Bosch-Pollack feel to me,' on and on until Lex decided he must have missed the tray of champagne with the hallucinogens in it. The gallery opening had been the artistic equivalent of a wine tasting- a choir of wellheeled idiots making up metaphors by the dozen in the hopes they sounded accomplished. They didn't.
Through clean paths cut by the windshield wipers, Lex saw a flash of light in the distance- several flashes, actually, spinning in a kaleidoscope swirl of illumination before going dark. Lex slowed down a little more, taking advantage of the dramatic warning, and when he finally got around the curve, his headlights fell on a woman all in white struggling out of the cornfield. She didn't bother to wave for help, instead stiffening and stepping back to the far edge of the shoulder to keep from being splashed.
Stopping instead of speeding by, Lex rolled down the passenger side window and leaned across the console to peer out. "I saw you go off the road, are you all right?"
"Oh god, Lex." Bracing her hands on the window frame, Chloe leaned down to look into the car. She'd only been in the rain for a minute or two at the most, but her hair had already gone limp and dark with it, and her mascara drifted in ever-widening streaks beneath her eyes. "Please tell me you're not just some hysteria-induced hallucination, because if you're not real, then I really have had a nervous breakdown, and I can't afford a nice spa in the south of France to recover."
Reaching across to open the door, Lex tried not to smile. She looked miserable: soaked through and shivering, her lower lip quavering with the cold. "No spa necessary," he said, watching her struggle with yards of pale organza and satin to slip into the low seat next to him. Reaching behind her, he smoothed the folded coat hanging over the back of her seat to drape it around her shoulders, and asked again. "Are you all right?"
"I..." She trailed the sound off, rolling her eyes up to look at nothing as she yanked the seat belt across her chest. "Could be a lot better. You know how senior prom is supposed to be a fairytale? It absolutely is, as long as you're referring to the original Brothers Grimm version and not Perrault's."
Edging back onto the road, Lex turned on the heater, and adjusted the vents for her. "Your eyes haven't been pecked out by ravens, and..." He cast a glance downward, "The shoes don't seem to be red hot iron. Did the prince turn into a frog?"
Chloe groaned and snapped open her purse, fishing out a handful of damp tissues. "That would be an insult to princes and frogs everywhere." Sinking back into the seat, she folded and unfolded the tissues before swabbing at her face with them. "Don't get me wrong, I realize that accepting a date with a virtual stranger two weeks before the big day has an air of desperation to it, but he rented a hotel room, Lex. And actually expected to use it."
With a surreptitious glance, he skimmed over her profile. From her description, it didn't sound like the guy had gotten a chance to press the issue, but Lex still frowned. "Oh, did he?"
Pushing ruined curls off her cheek, Chloe shook her head. "No need to call down the angel of vengeance on my account. I told him where he could shove his key card and left." She shifted down, picking at the tissue a little more and craning to look over her shoulder. There was nothing to be seen in the back window but endless sheets of rain, but her gaze never wavered. "My poor baby."
"I'll have Hans take a look at it in the morning," Lex said. Leaning forward to squint a the road, he had a vague idea where he was going- Pleasant Meadows, narrow, carboncopy houses populating graceful, man-made hills just outside town, but he asked before he turned just to make sure. He knew most of the short cuts, and all of the scenic routes, between Smallville and Metropolis, but he made a habit of avoiding suburban hamlets with -Slow! Children Playing!- signs whenever possible.
She gave directions with a combination of monologue and gesticulation, confident but occasionally spreading both hands with a quick flash, eyes flicking over them before continuing. She had short fingers, round with blunt nails that bore just a hint of pink polish. Working hands, they moved and curled, wrapping around vowel sounds, and flashing on consonants. It took four turns before Lex figured out the spread gesture- she rubbed her thumb along the side of her index finger and told him to turn left. Left hand makes an L, he remembered Matty Simons repeating that as an obsessive mantra in first grade. Lex had never had that problem himself, though to be fair, he doubted Chloe had ever had a problem with notebooks being bound backwards.
With her doorstep in sight, Chloe exhaled in relief and smiled over at him. "In case it got lost in all of the incessant editorializing, thank you. I really appreciate this."
"I'm happy to help," Lex said, then watched her unintentionally steal his coat as she spilled out of the car and hurried up to the door. Turning the radio back on, he leaned into the passenger seat, waiting to make sure she got inside. Leather stained dark with rainwater, he traced the half-imprint of her hand there. Her perfume lingered, and it made his nose itch. Borrowed perfume, he decided; a touch behind each ear, no doubt, a quick dab on the wrists- the scent was pleasant enough, but too floral, too unassuming. It complemented her ivory dress, both light, airy things made of spun sugar, and both wasted trying to tamp down Chloe's spark. She needed mauve and Shalimar, and... he frowned, rolling the window down to confirm what he thought he'd seen through rain and fog... a boost up, because she was trying to take the screen out of the front window.
Covering his head with a limp copy of the Wall Street Journal, Lex made it to the top of the porch just in time to hear her insult the window's parentage. Her voice had gone thick and low, and she rolled her eyes in a wide gesture of embarrassed defeat when he approached. Swiping at tears hidden among the raindrops on her cheeks, she forced a laugh into her voice. "There's no way I can convince you this is how I usually get inside, is there?"
Lex shook his head. "Probably not, no."
"I left a message for your father," Lex said, leading Chloe past darkened stained-glass, and up shadow stairs to the second floor. "He's probably in meetings right now, but he seems like the kind of man who'd brave the fourteen-hour time difference to see how your date went."
Carrying her shoes in her hands, Chloe trailed a few feet behind Lex, leaning her head back to look up into the high, dark ceilings. Only when Lex disappeared from the landing above did she hurry to catch up. "He was really upset he was going to miss it. I told him that it was no big deal, but he has dad issues. He used to change my diapers and now I'm riding in cars with boys. Or, driving myself to places where the boys are, as the case may be."
"You don't have much luck with formal dances, do you?" He fell into step beside her.
"Now that you mention it," she said, counting off on her fingers, her shoes danging and dancing with each enumeration. "Tornado, mutant sociopath with a serious case of misanthropy, arson, and now the presumptuous jerk playset, complete with Mountain Dew bottle hip flask- as if no one would notice the difference between refreshingly citrusy and fermented-it-on-my-own-radiator acrid."
Lex smirked. "Vodka's really the way to go for schoolsanctioned events."
"I'm sorry, there is no such thing as a completely undetectable liquor."
"There is when you make sure the chaperones have it first." He glanced back to see if she'd smiled, then changed the subject. "You'll have to use the master bath, the guest bath is occupied."
Chloe stopped in the middle of the hall, ready to turn back for the stairs. "I didn't know you had company..."
Waving a hand at the door, Lex gestured toward it with a nod. "Would you like to see?"
Gaze fixed on the door, Chloe crossed her arms over her chest. "Is this the part where Stanley Kubrick fails to yell cut, and I find out that the eccentric man on the hill is part of a strange and deviant secret society?"
Lex shrugged and stepped inside, flipping on the lights as he moved through the room. It only took a moment of quiet before he could hear Chloe moving warily behind him, and when he opened the bathroom door, he stepped out of the way so she could get a good look. Two feet long, pearlysilver but for a crimson splotch on its forehead, a fish swam up and down the length of the tub.
Blinking wide green eyes, Chloe leaned forward and stared. "Is that...?"
"Sole survivor of Smallville's Ick Plague of 2005, I may name him Lazarus." Lex poured a scoop of greyish pellets into the water, and the fish darted and splashed getting to them. "He'll be back in the pond where he belongs by Monday."
Her laughter filled the room, and she put a hand on his shoulder to lean in a little more. Dark fishy-whiskers flicked through the water as the koi devoured its meal, and for a brief moment, it looked like she might reach out to pet it. When she straightened up again, she raised her brows. "Did he actually die? Because Lazarus isn't accurate if he wasn't resurrected by a wandering piscine messiah."
Leading her back into the hall, Lex shook his head. "Hard to say. They were all walking on water when I got home, except for that one."
"Handbasket for one, paging Lex Luthor." Her voice filled up the dark, echoing warmly on the dark wood. She didn't hesitate when he opened the next door, but she did make a little, confused sound. "This is your room?"
Already pulling open dresser drawers, Lex didn't look up. It had seemed like a good idea to bring her in here at the timehis bathroom maintained a remarkably fish-free existence, and this is where he kept the sweats he planned to loan her, but he could see her in his peripheral vision, examining him in all the personal artifacts that surrounded them. She stopped in front of the entertainment hutch to peer at the silver-framed photos, reaching up to turn one, but letting her hand fall back before she touched it.
She was too quiet now, and he remembered that she was a reporter. Today, for a high school newspaper in the middle of nowhere, but that hadn't stopped her from asking questions as if she were reporting back to the news desk at the Planet, before. She could be making up headlines in her mind, leaning forward to memorize the details of the ivoryhandled katana and wakizashi set gracing his desk, scribbling mental notes about which books he kept close to the bed for late-night reading. The women he usually brought to his room weren't interested in the furnishings. They didn't look at the pictures, or tilt their heads to take in the watercolor comic book covers with soft, thoughtful "hmms." Interrupting the quiet, he smoothed his features except for a faint furrow in his brow. "They're going to be too big, but they're dry."
Taking the bundle of clothes, she turned them over, then looked up at him. "Wow. Not something I'd expect you to have just laying around."
Lex leaned in a little, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Don't let it get around, but I own tube socks and tennis shoes, too." When a blush rose to her face, he considered it a victory. Pointing her toward the bathroom door, he slipped his hands into his pockets and started for the hall. "Cold on the left, hot on the right."
Walking down the stairs, he tried not to think about her stripped to the skin, and caressing her own hand figuring out which was which.
A faint breeze across his face woke him up. Slumped in a fireside chair, his feet propped up and a glass of halffinished brandy in one hand, Lex brushed a sleepy hand across his brow and looked up. A shadow passed in front of the fire again, and it took a moment to focus and recognize Chloe as she stirred the dying embers with a poker.
The sweats he'd given her were too big, by a magnitude. She'd folded up the legs into fat rolls around her ankles, and the sleeves kept slipping over her hands as she played with the fire. When she leaned over, though, the excess hung down, pulling the rest taut against her waist and back, outlining her figure in soft, fuzzy grey. Mostly silhouetted, her cameo shape drawn with sensual lines and whimsy, he caught her attention with a low voice that would hopefully prevent her from winging around to take his head off with the poker. "You'll put it out that way."
She still jumped. Dropping the poker in its rack, she turned around, stuffing her hands in the front pockets of the hoodie, and smiled sheepishly. The high lines of her face caught the warm glow from the fire, the light behind her tracing a halo along the brushed-back fall of her hair. She looked older. More Metropolis. "So much for being a latent pyromaniac."
"Fortunately, you'll always have invasion of privacy to fall back on." Straightening in his chair, Lex enjoyed the flash of guilty conscience that rounded her lips, a little disappointed when she recovered from it to start to make a denial. Raising his glass, and his brows, he cut her off, pointing out, "Your hair's dry, I don't have a dryer. Find anything interesting?"
Pulling the hoodie's pockets out of shape, she shifted and didn't quite meet his eyes. "Not really."
"You didn't look very hard, then." He hesitated before he smiled, then invited her to sit with a subtle nod.
"I'm not scared of you, by the way." Ignoring the empty chair nearby, she sat on the arm of his chair, pulling her knees up into the hoodie and looking over her shoulder. "Especially since you were just guessing and could have been completely wrong. For example, I could have taken my shower, begged directions from a kindly, if somewhat frightening, butleresque man who seemed especially surprised that you had company, and spent the last hour playing with the fire until you happened to wake up."
Taking a sip of his brandy, Lex smiled. "It works better if you come up with the alibi before the accusation."
"And you're an expert in alibis, right?" Narrowing her eyes, she didn't look away. All expectation of an answer, she just waited silently, little twitches notching her brows up higher and higher until he finally responded.
"I don't grant interviews, Miss Sullivan."
Chloe sprawled back on the wide arm, propping her chin up in her hand. "Tell that to somebody who hasn't interviewed you every other week for the last four years for the Torch, Lex." Looking around the cavernous room, she seemed to survey every item in it before pursing her lips and turning back to him. "You know, at first I thought you were just humoring Clark, letting me get to you. But after the interviews, and the Talon, then buying out the plant, the Ledger actually started to write about you instead of Lionel Luthor's son... if you convince the kids, you convince the community, right?"
"Are you convinced?" It came out sharper than he meant it, and he hid the grinding of his teeth behind the glass. He had plenty of motives for doing the things he did, some of them business, some of them personal, but only the bloodless ones mattered.
Curling her arms beneath her head, Chloe sank down in a comfortable sprawl, watching his profile, probably noting that he stared into the fire rather than look at her. "Sometimes. Sometimes, I think you just want people to like you. I mean, you were what, twenty-one when you got here? And your best friend was a sixteen year old kid?"
"He saved my life."
"That doesn't mean he's interesting." She slid up again, pressing her elbow into the arm of the chair. The leather creaked under her, some of its scent worn off by motion, and the heat of her skin. She propped her chin in her hand. "I'm not saying he isn't. God knows interesting is the baseline description for Clark Kent, but you didn't know that."
Lex put his glass aside, slowly rolling his head to look over at her. "The longer you know Clark, the more interesting he is. I think you agree, you're the one who pulled Rachel Dunlevy out of the ether."
Guilt again, her lashes fell and she bit her lower lip. "I'm sorry. Whatever organ it is that other people have to tell them to stop talking before they go too far, mine is vestigial."
"A good quality to have as a reporter." He slipped down to catch her gaze, his nose almost brushing hers. She didn't pull back, the way most people would when he got too close to make a point, but when he unfurled his fingers to touch her cheek, she wavered, just a little. "One that doesn't help when it comes to making friends. They always see the ulterior motives and never the truth."
She murmured a sound, perhaps his name, closed the space between them with a subtle shift. Her lips brushed against his; trying to be brave, courage undercut by tension that warmed her mouth, but didn't soften it. He smoothed his thumb against her temple, brushing his mouth against hers, lazy, easy. Breathing her in, he smelled his soap on her skin, burnished warmth and spice, a minor, possessive pleasure. He resisted the temptation to sink in and taste her; this was hers, she'd started it. Stolen his coat, worked out directions on her fingers, examined every inch of his room, didn't think far ahead enough to lie about it, sat closer when she didn't have to, asked questions she shouldn't have, and expected the answers- she'd pull back when she wanted to, and when she did, he'd turn to murmur warm breath and whispers against her ear, "Would you like to know what you would have found if you'd looked harder?"
The kliegs whined when Lex snapped them on. He led Chloe into the garage, where kerosene and oil perfumed the air, and the bloodish taste of rusted metal lingered with pervasive aggression. She held up a hand over her eyes, blinking past the blinding lights to stare at the broken body of a Porsche that had once been Meridian metallic, now splotched grey and red over time. Approaching the car, Chloe wrinkled her nose. "Kind of a morbid souvenir, Lex."
"Not as morbid as it could have been." He waited while she examined it, following her every move. She'd unearthed Metropolis United Charities on her own, connected him to Hamilton and the jesuit's diary- Chloe didn't just ask questions, she answered them, and Lex had been asking this one for years.
Chloe rubbed her fingers across the hood, tracing the dent there, gingerly outlining the broken headlight before continuing up. Catching the edge of the windshield, she frowned at the accordion roof, then peered inside- reaching in to touch something before circling the rest of the way around. When she'd made three passes, she finally turned her attention back to him. "I thought you hit the guardrail."
Lex nodded. "I did."
Frowning, she turned back, her fingers dropping to redraw the dent that led all the way up to the driver's side door. "Was there a pylon under the bridge or something?"
"No." Slipping his hands into his pockets, Lex tipped his head back, still waiting, still watching.
With another frown, Chloe ran her hand along the inside of the roof, measured Lex with a glance, then looked inside again. "How tall are you?"
That made him smile. "Six feet, even."
Chloe considered the roof, then stood up, brushing her hands off and shaking her head. Skeptical, her eyes flashed, one more look at the car before fixing him in a narrow gaze. She waved at the crumpled roof. "The guardrail isn't tall enough to do that, and whatever would have been, would have taken your head right off. Since you seem to be cranially intact, I guess the first question I have to ask is... what aren't you telling me?"
Their prom night conversation went unnoted in Chloe's final edition of The Torch, and Clark never asked about her staying the night at the mansion, so, two weeks later, Lex sent her a gift when she graduated, a floppy disk and a bottle of Shalimar. He signed the card simply, "Veritas vincit- the truth conquers. Lex."
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