Chloe smiled as she walked into the Atticus. The Starbucks across the street had come and gone, but this ratty old place was still around, even though she was seven years out of college and hadn't lived in Metropolis for six. She'd spent so many hours in here, working on her tenth cup of coffee while she plotted out the latest scathing critique of the Metropolis University administration for the student paper; the place even smelled nostalgic. It was good to be back. She was just placing her order when she heard a voice over her shoulder.
She turned around to see Lex Luthor standing there, head tilted, giving her a quizzical look. Boy, speaking of nostalgia..."Lex! What a surprise!"
"The feeling is mutual," he said. "Have you finally come to your senses and given up Gotham for your native habitat?"
"No, I'm just in town for a convention." She accepted her cup and went to pay for it, but he shook his head and pulled out his own wallet.
She didn't protest; she was much too busy studying Lex, automatically storing away the most telling details. It was surprising, how little he seemed to have aged. Of course, he'd never had any hair to lose, but his skin looked as good as ever--why did a man get those genes? It was so unfair--and his body was still trim under the black. It was all black now. Chloe took a moment to mourn the snazzy Smallville purple as they headed for the table he was occupying. "But what are you doing here? I would have thought a captain of industry like you would just have his coffee brought to him."
Lex smiled faintly. "I find it's a good way to keep in touch with the common man. Just like the Talon, back in the old days."
"Well, I'm crushed. All this time, I thought you spent time there just to enjoy the pleasure of our company!"
The smile grew. "That, too. Sometimes, anyway. --So tell me what it's like, editing the fastest-growing upstart paper in Gotham."
They talked for a long time, first over the coffee, then over dinner in a small, quiet, and extremely elegant restaurant overlooking the lake. Lex had always been a good listener--maybe too good of one--and now he seemed interested in everything. It made sense that he'd want to know about the Free Press, about the way Gotham was reacting to the Batman (her exclusive interviews with him had really helped launch the paper), about the image of Wayne Industries in the city. However, he also got out of her many of the everyday details of her life, the sort of things that she thought would have bored him. He didn't say much about his own life, waving off her questions with the hint that the answers were already public domain and too tedious for her to waste her time on. They reminisced a lot about Smallville (avoiding only, by mutual, unspoken agreement, that one dangerous topic); she was surprised at how clearly he remembered everything, even things about her that she'd already begun to forget herself.
It was kind of disturbing, actually, the way he seemed to absorb everything and give nothing back of himself in return. Talking to him was...almost like giving an old-school interview, really, and Chloe had never been old-school. Lex had been more forthcoming in the old days, bringing out unexpected revelations at odd times in little spasms of trust she'd always found strangely touching. But that wasn't fair, she told herself. Lex was still thoughtful, generous, and very, very funny, and if he was a little more reserved now--after ten years in the glaring spotlight at the head of LexCorp, who wouldn't be? At least he didn't pretend to be forthright and open, unlike certain captains of industry she could name. She should appreciate the lack of bullshit. Besides, LexCorp had had more than its share of difficulties over the past year. Civil lawsuits, federal investigations, and the vigilante action of Superman didn't really add up to the most pleasant topics of dinner conversation.
Still, she was a reporter in her bones, and she always had to push a little. "So, Lex," she said, emboldened by the brandy, as the waiter departed with their empty dessert plates, "off the record. Are you happy?"
He looked down into his own snifter and didn't answer for a little while. She felt ashamed, like she'd crossed a line, which wasn't exactly a common feeling for her. She was just scrambling for a way to gracefully retract the question when he said, "Come home with me, Chloe."
"Somehow, I don't think your wife would approve," she joked, trying to lighten the moment.
"My wife...lives elsewhere," he said gravely, and waited.
She looked at the napkin she'd put on the table. Lex had been the first man she'd ever slept with, though they'd never officially been a couple, and he'd always been good to her. She didn't have to hold other people's grudges. "All right."
Instead of his house, Lex took her to an apartment in the same neighborhood as the restaurant, a penthouse in a glittering high-rise. She thought she was relieved not to be spending the night in the grim, gloomy old brownstone where, she imagined, the ghost of Lionel Luthor still ruled, but the apartment was...disconcerting. It reminded her much too much of the labs in the old fertilizer plant; Lex had kept a cot in one for the first year after he bought it from Lionel. The bedroom was mostly decorated in metal--she didn't even want to think of what that reminded her of.
Lex, however, had not changed much as a lover. If anything, he was even more gentle, more considerate, than he had been--after all, back then he had been a twenty-three-year-old guy. With her eyes closed, she could believe that they were back in that drafty old castle the night after the prom that Clark had spent dancing with Lana. Lex had held her in bed then as she cried, saying nothing, even though he was the last person it was fair to expect to comfort her about it. After they were done, she opened her eyes and looked at him, and his eyes were closed tight, too. She wrapped her arms around him and didn't expect to see any tears.
In the morning, he woke her after he was dressed. "Thank you," he said, touching her hair.
"There's nothing to thank me for, Lex."
"Yes, there is. I needed a truce."
She nodded. She didn't want to make him explain. It had been a hard lesson for her, but she had finally realized that there really were some things it was better not to know.
"Give me a call the next time you're in town." He pressed his lips to her forehead and left.
She didn't have to check; she knew that when she got back to her office in Gotham, it would be filled with lilies.
Though she hadn't expected it at all, that turned out to be the start of something like a relationship, though a weird one, with Lex.
They were in the same town much more often than she'd realized; she was pretty tied down in Gotham, but LexCorp did a lot of business there. She got used to the email or the phone call out of the blue two or three times a month. She didn't break plans for him, but often enough there weren't any plans to break. She'd reached an age where many of her friends had married and started having kids, and that wasn't a lifestyle she found it easy to fit into. Her evenings were more empty now than they had been in years, and that bothered her. She just wasn't the type that liked spending so much of her time alone.
Lex had lost that restless urge to paint the town purple that she remembered from the past. That was too bad--she wouldn't have minded a little more fun, Lex-style, as long as they skipped the part where he got arrested. She didn't want to end up in her own paper unless she got a byline. But he was still good company, dryly funny and quick, maybe even quicker than her, and always knowing five times more than he had to. Sometimes it felt like her life made her brain operate only on headlines. Talking to Lex was like having to think in big old Victorian novels. Like the perspective had suddenly opened up.
They usually ate somewhere out of the way, something a little experimental and off-beat so that Chloe didn't feel like she was turning into Mrs. Pruett, the society editor. They would spend the rest of the evening in, watching an old movie or a baseball game or even just working alongside each other in companionable silence. He claimed to really like her apartment, though she thought it was much too bright and cheerful and, really, girly for him. The sex was...weirdly fitful; he was always up for it if she started it, but if she didn't, half the time he would just fall asleep on her couch instead.
So her experiment in dating the rich and famous wasn't exactly what Mrs. Pruett would call a glamorous affair. Chloe sat sometimes and watched him as he slept, wondering what, exactly, he got out of their evenings. It made her uncomfortable to be wanted for reasons she didn't understand. But, then, he probably didn't know why she liked spending time with him. They didn't talk about that sort of thing much.
She was working late one night when she heard people talking out in the newsroom. Laughing. She ignored it for a while, but eventually the words caught her attention: "...think he was cheating with a man or a woman? Or maybe a genetically-engineered cow?
More laughter. "With all that time he spent in Smallville, who knows? Cows, sheep...super-intelligent eggplant..."
Her heart in her throat, she came out of her office. "Hey, guys," she said casually, "what's up?"
One of them tossed her a printout of an AP wire report. Lex Luthor to divorce. His wife had filed the papers.
An hour later, she was on a plane to Metropolis. She wasn't even sure where to go once she got there; he'd switched off his cell, and none of the people at his places would admit he was there. She finally went back to the Atticus. He was sitting in a corner chair, a book open on his lap as he stared off into space.
"So, what does the common man think of the latest celebrity scandal?"
He looked up at her. "Chloe? What are you doing here?"
She could see in his eyes that he was sick at heart. She remembered that look from the Smallville days, and finally she understood. She put out a hand. "Come home with me, Lex."
"Julia had two stillborn children," he told her the next day, fingering the gauzy curtains in her bedroom. "She was unconscious for both deliveries, but I saw them. Beautiful children, angelic, but...wrong. Anencephalic, they said. Not able to live."
She was shocked. "Lex, I didn't know. I'm so sorry."
"It wasn't her fault. It was mine. My abnormal genes caused it. The Smallville in my bones, still, after all these years. It killed them." He took a shallow breath. "It was after the second delivery that she really started to hate me. She knew what sort of life she was entitled to, and I couldn't give it to her. I'd cheated her."
Her old sense of fair play flared up. "But it was the meteorite, Lex. It wasn't your fault."
"At a certain point, you have to be willing to recognize a pattern," he said. "I've never been able to give life to anything. The people whose love I most wanted hate me. My company is supposed to be promoting agriculture, and instead it's spreading poison through the entire world ecosystem. My children were born dead with blank smiles on their little faces. It's not the meteorite, Chloe. It's me."
The bleakness in his voice broke her heart. She remembered that tone, occasionally, from Smallville--usually after he'd seen his father. Even then, it had made her worry for him. Now she wondered whether it went to the bone, the way it sounded. "Lex..." She got up, came over, rubbed his shoulder. "There's us."
His smile was wintry. "We've never loved each other."
"That doesn't mean you've never made me happy," she said against his skin.
It wasn't even doubt in his voice--it was resignation, and it tore at her. "You did. And that may not seem like a lot, Lex, the way you're used to thinking, but it matters to me. I've glad to have known you." That, she knew, was not really enough. Could not begin to be enough. But it was all she had to offer, and if he were desperate enough to need something--
"Then you're in a very exclusive club," he whispered, turning a little and nuzzling at her hair.
She felt the tension in her throat ease. "That's okay. It just means it'll be easier for me to take it over."
He laughed softly and they went back to bed. She'd have to be very careful, she thought as she stretched out under him, about taking the Pill.
She saw the headline of the Star on the way to work and grimaced. By the time she'd gotten to the office, her voice-mail was full. Sarcastic congratulations from her colleagues, sympathies from her friends, and an extremely puzzled message from her mom. The only person who *hadn't* called was Lex himself. For a minute, she was irritated, then she realized that it made perfect sense. If he had called right away, it would have implied that there was some kind of crisis. That they'd been caught at something and needed to hide. Lex would never admit that.
Though it was a lot easier for someone in his walk of life to take that position, she thought, a little sourly, as she took a deep breath and tried to nerve herself to return the one call that she really had to.
"Daily Planet city desk," came the familiar voice, slightly breathless as always.
"Chloe! Listen, we need to talk."
"Look, Clark, I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but you've never exactly been rational on the subject of Lex. But now everyone in the entire free world knows, so you can relax."
"I'm coming to see you."
"That's really not necessary," she said, her brief embarrassment fading into impatience. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate having her life saved, but she could still do without Clark's rescuer complex. Especially when it came to her boyfriends. Just because he'd been her first didn't mean he had to approve of every one she ever had. "Believe it or not, I can look after myself."
"I know. I'm still coming."
"Clark, you're going to make me think you don't trust me."
"I trust you, Chloe--"
"--just not Lex," she finished. "God, how long are you going to keep up the adolescent feud? High school was a really long time ago."
"Yes, it was. Lex is different now."
"How do you know? The Planet's skeptical about him, but I've read their editorials. They don't actually have any evidence of serious wrongdoing."
"You know as well as I do that not everything gets printed."
"So what are we talking about, then?"
Clark sighed. "Look. I can't discuss it over the phone. But you still remember Justin, don't you?"
"Of course." How much she'd wanted to believe, how stupid she'd been. But she was a big girl now, not some starry-eyed cub reporter.
"Don't you think I've earned the benefit of the doubt here? At least listen to what I have to say."
"All right," she said reluctantly.
"Then I'll pick you up from work tonight."
"Fine." She hung up. Rattling her fingers against the phone, she considered calling Lex. But it really wasn't his business who she went to dinner with, was it?
When she returned to her apartment, tired and frustrated, that evening, it was dark. For a minute, she thought Lex had gone back to Metropolis, but then she saw that his laptop and papers were still on her coffee table. His papers. They'd always been very respectful of each other's work, careful about the potential conflicts of interest that could develop so easily. Still, Lex wouldn't leave anything...incriminating...in her apartment. Would he?
She took a step towards the table. She knew how to go through sensitive papers fast, and without leaving a trace. Her fingers were twitching. He wouldn't have to know. She could put the doubts Clark had raised to rest.
"I can probably help you find whatever you're looking for," Lex said from the bedroom door. He was wearing his black pajamas, and the shadows under his eyes stood out like bruises.
"Lex!" she gasped. A dozen defenses ran through her mind--she hadn't even touched the papers yet--but she didn't bother. They were both adults; they knew the score. It would be an insult to both of them.
"Who have you been talking to?" He came into the room. "Clark Kent?"
"Have you been having me followed?" she said, anger crackling at the edge of her mind.
His voice was dull. "I didn't have to."
"Lex." She wanted to touch him. She knew that careful flatness in his tone and eyes. It was the public face he put on grief, and it was awful to see it in her darkened living room, where he'd slept in her arms. "I didn't want to find anything."
He shrugged, mouth pulling into a bitter line. "Why not? I'm sure whatever he told you was true. Clark Kent is a very honest man."
Fear clamped her heart. Not that she thought he would hurt her, but..."You really did break all those laws? Did all those things to hurt people?"
"Yes," he said simply.
He sat down on the couch, began stacking up his papers. "I can make the world a better place, Chloe, but I need the power to do it. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
"Lex, we're talking about people here, not--not soybeans!"
He looked up at her. "I don't see the distinction. Crops, people--they're both forms of life that can be improved. Engineered. Perfected. The American people aren't far-seeing enough to accept that yet, but I am. I have to bring them around, and to do that..." He shrugged.
She was suddenly desperately grateful that they never had discussed his business. "But--Lex--how would you feel if someone did something like that to--" To your little girls. "--to me?"
He snapped his laptop shut. "I would make sure they couldn't."
"God." She knew she ought to be furious; he hadn't exactly snowed her, but he'd taken advantage of a faith she didn't put in many people, of the memories of her childhood. Instead, though, she just felt sick. "Lex, how did you end up like this?"
He put the papers and the laptop into his briefcase and stood up. "I always was like this, Chloe."
"I don't believe that, Lex." She took his arm this time, dismay now melting into anger. How could he just give up so easily? "It may be easier for you to believe that, but I know you're better than this."
He smiled, sadly, and she was relieved by the flash of realness. "Sweet Chloe," he said, extracted his arm from her grip, and kissed her on the top of his head. "Don't be foolish for me. It doesn't suit you."
"Lex," she whispered. "Don't do this."
"I knew it couldn't last," he said against her forehead. "You're a smart woman. You were bound to figure it out sooner or later. But it was good while it did. I'm glad to have known you, Chloe Sullivan."
He released her, and she sank down on the couch, blinded by tears.
The furor died down, as she'd known it would, especially since Lex went back to Metropolis and stayed there. She spent a lot of time at work and more time on the phone with Clark than she had in a couple of years. He obviously felt guilty. She wondered if it was only for her, but she didn't ask.
One day about two months later, she came in to the office and one of her reporters winked at her. Puzzled, she whacked him on the shoulder on general principles and kept going to her office. On her desk was a bunch of the old lilies and a folded copy of the Planet.
She picked up the paper. LEX LUTHOR TO RUN FOR GOVERNOR was the above-fold headline. A note in the familiar lavender stationery was clipped to it. Thanks for helping me figure this out, Chloe, it said, and was signed L.L..
She stared at the flowers. White tipped with red, the variant Lionel Luthor had bred for Lex's mom and Lex had preserved. Waxy. If she sniffed them, would the perfume damage her brain? Would they release spores that would sink into a cut and cause a life-threatening infection? Would they glow in the dark with their radioactivity?
No. Lex wouldn't do that. Not to her.
"Heyyy, flowers!" Susan from IT said behind her. "Who from?"
"Just..." She cleared her throat. "Just someone I used to know. Here." She picked them up and offered them to her. "Do you want them?"
"They're so pretty!" Susan exclaimed, reaching for them, but stopped. "Are you sure?"
Chloe nodded. "Very sure."
After Susan had gone, she opened the window and prayed for the scent to dissipate quickly.