Because it was Galatoire's, they'd waited. An iron-gated pearl on the slum side of Bourbon Street, its glass doors opened to endless, sculpted white walls rising up to high ceilings, only occasionally interrupted by columns and mirrors. Lex barely noticed the tuxedoed waiters sweeping past as he held Liz's chair for her. She thanked him, and after a half an hour in line outside, they exchanged amused glances when their waiter appeared before Lex had finished spreading the linen napkin in his lap.
"Escargots bordelaise," she said, her voice softly melodic with a Caribbean accent she hadn't always had. She cast a quick look at Lex, molasses-dark eyes dancing as she ordered an appetizer for him, too. "Shrimp remoulade for sir, thank you."
When the waiter disappeared, Lex graced her with a smile. He felt at home in the Parisian deco surroundings, warmed by the slight golden tinge to the walls. No matter which way he looked, he could catch a glimpse of them in the mirrors. She seemed exotic in tangerine silk, he fit the jacket and tie dress code, but broke with a faintly bluesilver shirt. "And if I don't like shrimp?"
"Then you'll suffer." She laughed, reaching across the table to smooth her fingers over the back of his hand, coffee contrast to pale cream. "With a smile, because you want to do business with me, and you'd hate to offend me."
Lex registered her teasing touch with a flicker of brow, and nothing more. That was her way, a little gift of intimacy that turned cold if the affection was returned; Elizabeth Stride was his favorite lover he'd never had, and she had a point. She'd inherited control over Barrington and Stride Ltd., and while the father had never cared much for Lex, the daughter had a fondness for old school friends. "You're right, I would. You're doing me a favor."
With a quick squeeze, more pinch than caress, Liz drew back with a laugh. "So pretty when you play at modesty."
"I was going for humility," he said, sinking comfortably into his chair. He swept his gaze over the crowded, noisy first floor, Creole food painting flashes of color on white linen. "This is a long way from London."
Liz nodded. "As long a way as possible. Are you bored yet?"
"I think I can make it through dinner," Lex said, sitting back to allow the waiter to fill their wine glasses. He looked around again, old money, old establishment, quiet conversation and an emphasis on how things ought to be done, he slowly fixed Liz in his gaze and asked, with a wry crook on the edge of his lips, "A little slow for you, isn't it?"
Tracing her finger along the edge of her plate, Liz smiled. "Missing the old days?"
All night parties, bars and mansions; dancing and passing clove cigarettes mouth to mouth; Lex let the past ebb away before answering. "Reminiscing."
"Don't yet." Liz lifted her glass, tipping it toward him. "The night's still young."
After dinner, they passed Old John's Absinthe House on the Vieux Carre; Liz moved so purposefully, Lex didn't have a chance to hesitate, though he glanced back more than once.
Illegal since prohibition, absinthe had proved to be an elusive chemical compound to replicate. Lex had toyed with it in college: wormwood oil stirred into Chartreuse had tasted like licorice antifreeze, and the "absinthe" from Rumania had foamed when he'd opened it- never a promising sign for an uncarbonated beverage.
Turning down an alley, Liz looked back with a laugh. "It's only Pernod, Lex. We could have had that at Galatoire's."
"I wasn't aware that extrasensory perception came with the accent."
"A girl does what she can to fit in," she said, ushering him to a distressed, chipped-paint door. Gesturing with raised eyebrows, she instructed, "Shave and a haircut."
With a curious smile, Lex hesitated, his gaze flashing across her features before he raised his hand. Tapping out the rhythm, he managed sarcasm with his deliberation.
The door opened on a scene from another century. Two steps opened into a gallery of sofas and tables populated by well-dressed women with cigarette holders and lazy, bedroom-eyed boys. Nearly blue with smoke, the air swirled with low laughter and the buzz of whispered conversation.
Lex felt a hand press against his back, and he glanced over his shoulder. A burly man, olive dark with a glistening bush mustache, smiled.
"Welcome to my home, Mr. Luthor," he said, his hand falling as he pushed past. With a crooked finger, he invited them to follow. Down into the gallery, the man presented a crimson brocade couch with a flourish. "Best seat in the house."
"Thank you, Sully." Liz flashed him a brilliant smile, waiting for Lex to offer his hand to help her sit. Her keen, dark eyes followed Lex's expression as he settled next to her. "Happy birthday."
"My birthday's in August."
"Then happy Sunday." Leaning her head back, Liz traced the design pressed into sofa, a cat smile twitching on her lips. Some incomprehensible system in place, a young woman in a cheongsam slid up to the couch, sliding a tray onto the table in front of them. She half-bowed, and melted back into the smoky room, leaving two glasses full of bright leaf-green liqueur behind.
Laying a slotted spoon on top of one glass, Liz watched Lex from the corner of her eye as she placed a sugar cube on top and soaked it with water. "I think you'll like this better than your experiments."
Lex followed her lead, the rituals of absinthe learned from books coming back clearly as he stirred his drink from bright green to a soft mint. "Is there anything you can't find in New Orleans?"
"They still have quadroon balls, so my guess would be no." Raising her glass to him, she offered a smile. "To old friends."
"To new alliances," Lex replied, crystal singing against crystal with their toast. When he brought the glass to his lips, he caught a hint of pepper, then rosemary. Another breath, and the scent of anise wafted up. Taking a careful sip, the liqueur bit on his tongue, sticky sweet with fire beneath it.
Liz took her taste, then sank down against the arm of the couch with a lazy wave. "What do you think?"
He wasn't sure. It burned all the way down, but the second swallow soothed with a smoother flavor of sugared grass. It tasted nothing like he expected, changing with each judicious sip. The heat remained constant, spreading from his belly and into his veins, down to numb the tips of his fingers and drawing a flushed warmth across his face. He swallowed on an empty mouth, catching the barest touch of peppermint in the aftertaste. "It has its moments."
Rolling the glass against her lower lip, Liz hummed a soft sound of pleasure and laughter. Dark lashes fanned on her cheek when she closed her eyes, swaying to some internal rhythm. Another sip washed the voodoo accent off her tongue, and she murmured all upper-crust London again, "Are you disappointed?"
He meant to say no, but a wave of fire poured over him, stealing his voice. When he blinked, the haze of smoke crept by in lazy dragon curls; they spread their talons and pushed Liz away- almost across the room, too far to whisper to her. Swimming in his skin, hot all over, Lex didn't feel the heat as he swallowed this time; just a sticky, creeping sweetness dripping into his gut. Pulling out his handkerchief, he ground it in his hand, trying surreptitiously to scrub the sweat from his palms.
Smoke dragons drifted past his nose, and he could hear Liz whispering through a long tunnel. "Lex, are you all right?"
When he nodded, his whole body swayed with the lie. He blinked, and speakeasy's muted colors turned carnivalgarish and gaudy, overpainted and crass. Grasping the arm of the couch, he cut through the dragons and forced himself to his feet. "Would you excuse me?"
Blood beat in his ears, fast and thin, reminding him of the tiny starling he'd found on his mother's balcony, once. Nearly naked, so warm, its frenetic whisper-pulse had radiated from every part of it into Lex's skin. Searching out the door knob, Lex leaned against the door to balance himself. He felt the starling in his hand, hot- so hot, so small, beating away furiously... then stillness. Then cold. Lex's stomach turned, and he forced his way outside.
Sucking in hard breaths, he scoured his hands with the handkerchief. He couldn't get the memories off- bird dying, Cassandra dying, his mother dead- all waxy, heavy dead in his hand. His hand- he flattened it against the building for balance, squeezing his eyes closed and heaving.
Just pain, claws curled and wrenched uselessly through his belly- he'd never been good at vomiting. There was something undignified about it, but more than that, it seemed weak. Absinthe devouring him from the inside, Lex was willing to concede to both to get rid of it.
Another unproductive heave yanked through him, and he took a deep, steeling breath. He didn't taste smoke on the air anymore, but something rich and ferric. Opening his eyes slowly, he decided that he must have thrown up, because he felt warmth and wet on his fingers. His head clearing, he scraped the offended hand against the building, and something hard bit his palm.
Something metal, Lex straightened up to examine it. Warmth drained out of him, and his stomach lurched again when he saw a straight razor, sharp and stained newly red. With little ambient light, the blade didn't gleam, it just lay there, crossing his palm with more dead weight. Instinct told him to move, but when he took a step, he nearly tripped.
Through rain, and he couldn't remember when it started raining, he made out a dark, crepe lump curled on the ground. He made out the shape of a shoulder, an arm trailing back at an awkward angle from it. Stumbling again, Lex reeled back, stepping on a booted foot, feeling bones compress beneath leather and flesh.
"Hallucinations," he said, trying to smooth himself back to control and clear thought. In the distance, he heard a man shouting nonsense words Lipski!; nearby, someone sang in Russian. From all scientific standards, the secondary affects of absinthe should have just made the world seem a little gauzy, a little odd- but it had always been the apocrypha that interested him. A drink so forbidden that it had to be banned, an alchemical potion that would part the hazy veil of one world onto another... he'd had his theories that the poets and madmen were crazy long before they stared into the paling louche of sugared absinthe, but now he wasn't so sure.
Lex scanned his surroundings, squinting through dark and rain to make out the door to the speakeasy. Turning slowly, the alley wasn't so much an alley anymore, as a wide, open yard. Narrow buildings climbed straight up in every direction. One end of the yard had been closed off with a wicker gate, and he could see the dull flicker of light beyond it. Starting toward it, he stopped when he heard hoofbeats.
The body (not real) behind him loomed with its own presence, and a cold waver swept through, a deeper chill than the rain soaking into his shirt. He had blood on his hands, a knife in his hands, and a man with a cart had stopped at the gate to let himself in. Creeping back, Lex searched for an alcove or a recess, some puddle of shadow to step into while he figured out what was going on.
Too late, the driver hopped down from his cart and squinted in Lex's direction. He seemed surprised to see someone standing there, but started to raise his hand in greeting. Even at this distance, Lex could see his gaze skimmed past him, and down. An electric moment of silence crackled, then the driver dropped his reins and lunged forward. "Oy, you!"
Lex ran. Shaking the knife out of his hand, he ducked into an empty stable at the back of the yard, coughing on the hay dust his escape stirred. Tack rattled, metallic chatter to reveal his escape, but he didn't stop, and he didn't look back.
The cry rose up, echoing off the high buildings, and Lex squeezed himself through a poorly locked door in the back. He found himself in another alley, dingy and dark, but straightforward. His shoes slid on the wet, cobbled pavement, and every breath he took burned hot and cold in his lungs. A sliver of his mind worked on the problem: obviously, he was hallucinating, obviously it was unpleasant.
Figuring the amount of absinthe he'd drunk against how much he'd had to eat, factoring his weight and throwing in the variable possibility that the wine from dinner might prolong the effects, Lex burst out onto a curved road and looked both ways before heading toward the sound of a train. It was entirely possible, he decided, that he was actually passed out on a cheap brocade couch. Perhaps Liz had put an arm around him; he doubted she'd let anything happen to him.
Thick, accented voices cut through his thoughts, and Lex didn't bother to look back. He could hear boots on flagstones, more than two, maybe a small mob. Sliding across the street, Lex ducked down another alley between narrow buildings. No time to catch his breath, he bounced off rough walls, running through a labyrinth of back passages. It didn't really matter where he ended up, his plan was to keep moving, keep the nightmare from blossoming, until he sobered up. As he scrambled onto another lane, he realized he never had finished his calculations.
The footsteps seemed distant now, the voices had died, and new faces watched him as he slowed to a purposeful walk. Gaslight illuminated his wet path, spreading out shadows on the tightly packed houses that crowded the street. Even through rain, he could smell a low, pervading odor of garbage and decay, and he crossed the street when two men in breeches and suspenders threatened to beat each other to a pulp right in front of him. A long-gowned woman hissed from a doorway, curling her fingers to catch him and draw him closer. "You there, are you lonely?"
He ignored her, and the curse she threw after him when he walked past without meeting her gaze. The stinging rush of adrenaline still coursed through him, making him edgy as he ducked around another horse and cart to cross the street. He trailed his gaze up the side of a corner building, and swallowed empty laughter at the sign whitewashed onto brick. "Whitechapel - Ellen Street, Backchurch Lane."
Degas and Rimabud had been lucky, pouring paintings and poems from a little glass of green; apparently they weren't diseased with a deeply disturbed sense of humor. That would be something to consider later, Lex decided. Maybe he'd give Clark a copy of "The Lotus Eaters" and share "theories" on otherworldly intoxication, just to watch his sunshine face set.
A thick voice crashed through Lex's amusement, and he spun around just in time to see a meaty fist fly at him. He jerked his head away, feeling the blow glance off his cheek, and he tried to put up his hands to block another. A swarm of sour-smelling men surrounded him, angry voices buzzing as they surrounded him. Someone from behind pushed, someone at the side grabbed his wrist and yanked his hand up hard enough to make his shoulder snap.
Another shout rose on rancid breath. "He's the one! He's the one what cut up Long Liz, I seen him!"
Offering a tight smile, Lex leaned his head back and stared down into dark, beady eyes. "I think if you let me explain..." Swinging an elbow hard into someone's chest, Lex jerked his hand away and lunged against the wall of flesh in front of him. He managed to knock one of the men down, and for a moment, he could see the path of his next escape. A long street, wide and twisting, prostitutes and pub dwellers peered at him curiously, then turned back to their business when he was dragged back down into the throng.
It took a second to realize he wasn't standing anymore, and by the time he did, there was no chance to deflect the blackjack hurtling toward him. Through a quick spangle of pain, he saw red, then black, then nothing.
Head pounding, Lex rubbed a heavy hand across his eyes. He felt like he had bees under his skin, stinging and buzzing as he slowly pushed himself up. The soft scent of perfume made his stomach turn, but it jolted him the rest of the way awake. He was in bed, soft sheets and pillows sliding against his bare skin, and he could see himself in the bureau mirror on the opposite wall. Long and pale in the dark, he wasn't bruised or bloodied, and he wasn't alone.
Glancing over to confirm reflection with flesh, Lex pursed his lips. Curled on her side, Liz lay next to him, so peaceful she didn't stir when he reached out to touch one of the delicate beads woven into her hair. A sickly-sour taste rose in the back of his throat, in time to the aching roar in his head, and he exhaled a thin breath. Bad enough that his body had satisfied its curiosity without sharing the memory, but LexCorp needed Barrington and Stride's unvarnished goodwill.
Lex rolled out of bed to get a glass of water, already crafting the right words to simplify the situation. Padding into the bathroom, he flipping the switch and squinted when sudden brightness burned his eyes. She wasn't a naive and neither was he, so direct was probably best. I think we can agree this was a mutually enjoyable diversion, he composed and reached blindly for one of the paper-lidded glasses at the side of the sink.
He felt a prick, and jerked his hand back- close to his face to examine the thin, sheer line of blood welling across his finger. Shielding his eyes, he leaned down to identify the offending object. Something metal- a straight razor, sharp and newly stained with red. In this light, it did gleam.
Lex closed the bathroom door before he could look at the body on the bed.
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