The young blonde cocktail waitress circled the room efficiently, moving through the ranks of Gotham City's elite with determination. Her hair was spiky, dyed blond at the tips, her attitude perky and her smile was firmly fixed on her face. She was here to do a menial job, but she wasn't going to let that stand in her way of meeting the right people, maybe making some contacts...
Six years ago, that was me, Lois Lane thought, watching her. Fresh out of Smallville, anxious and desperate to make it in the big city, willing to work any job to put the scandal and notoriety behind her. She shook her head. The memories were not pleasant, and, like the young waitress, she had people to meet tonight. Not a good time to be distracted by the past.
She smoothed her dark, shoulder-length hair back and pushed away from the wall she had been standing by. The charity ball was in full swing, the penthouse ballroom packed. It was a beautiful summer night, warm but not humid, and the rich and powerful were decked out in full show. She knew all of them by reputation, most of them by sight and more than a few of them from stories she'd written. Several pointed stares were directed at her as she circled the room, looking for one man.
Her quarry was Stephen Brigham, upstanding financier and chairman of several charities by day and money-launderer for a criminal syndicate by night. She'd almost had enough evidence to go public with an expose -- until her informant, or what was left of him, had been found in a storm sewer in five pieces, the sixth piece missing and presumed dragged off by rats or sewer alligators or whatever dark things lived in Gotham City's sewers. It was down to risky and desperate measure now, but she had had a micro-recorder hidden in her pocketbook and a copy of page from Brigham's account book that showed, in code, some of his less legal transactions. She'd have to get wildly lucky, but maybe, if confronted in a public place, he'd say something she could use.
She'd worked her way through almost half of the room when a commotion by the entrance got her attention and she turned back to see what the fuss was about. What she saw made her stand still and blink, as a part of her past walked into the room, flanked by his two mystery companion/bodyguard/whatevers. Lex Luthor, looking as tall, pale and elegant as ever, his fitted black suit emphasizing his lean grace.
Lex and his entourage were immediately surrounded by Gotham's elite and Lois smiled to watch them fawn over him. Lex was almost always the center of attention wherever he went, and he handled it as well as he handled everything else -- he was smooth, polite, almost-but-not-quite friendly, greeting the other guests by name. Probably the only thing he never did well was tan, she thought, noticing, despite her best efforts, how effective the dramatic contrast between his pale skin and the well-cut black clothing was.
He turned to speak to someone on his left, and as he turned, his eyes swept the crowd and caught hers. A true smile crept onto his face as he recognized her, despite the years between and the changes in appearance, and he moved toward her.
It was almost an animal impulse, part of the fight-or-flight subroutine housed deep in the human brain, but as Lex stepped toward her, she stepped backward -- away. She cursed herself for it, and tried to stop her retreat, but the last thing on earth she wanted to see tonight was a Luthor.
Two more panicked steps backward put her in direct collision was a large and solid mass and she spun around to find herself looking up into the massive and fleshy face of Stephen Brigham. He snarled at her and wrapped one huge hand around her shoulder, his fingers digging in as he hauled her to her feet.
His fingers tightened even more and she dropped her pocketbook and with it the evidence and the micro-recorder.
"Lois Lane," he said. "Just who I wanted to see. I was coming to visit you tomorrow. I have something for you -- a little missing piece that a mutual friend of ours happened to leave behind. It's a little messy, but I know he'd want you to have it."
She yanked herself out of his grasp and stood her ground in front of him. "You've made a lot of mistakes, Brigham, and I am going to see to it that they bring you down and you pay for everything you've done."
"You have no idea who you are dealing with, Lane." He leaned in to her, the better to threaten her. "No idea what you are up against, but I plan on--"
"Ahhh, there you are," a smooth voice from behind her said. "I brought your champagne. We can continue our conversation now."
They both turned to see Lex Luthor smiling at them, a champagne glass in each hand.
Brigham eyed him suspiciously. "Luthor. You know her?"
If she hadn't been looking directly at his face, she'd have missed the quick flick of his eyes down to her name tag and the resultant smile. "Miss... Lane and I are acquainted. In fact, we were just about to get some air and... re-acquaint ourselves." He handed her one of the champagne glasses, and she took it automatically, wondering if Lex thought he was rescuing her. "Shall we?" he asked, putting a hand around her shoulder and steering her toward the balcony doors.
She tensed and prepared to resist but gave in when she saw five of Brigham's goons appear from the shadows and flank their boss. The chance for a graceful exit was beginning to look appealing. She relaxed and gave in to the gentle pull of Lex's arm.
Brigham had one final threat to growl. "Lois Lane. It isn't over."
Before she could speak, Lex looked back at Brigham. "It is. You just don't know it yet." His voice was soft, as always, but underneath was the implacable tone of a promise.
The pressure on her shoulders increased from gentle to insistent and she heeded the message, letting Lex sweep her across the room, away from Brigham. When they reached the balcony doors, he released her shoulder and grabbed a bottle of champagne off the young blond waitress's tray, and used it to gesture out onto the balcony. "After you."
His dark-haired companion rolled her eyes and held up a hand. "Wait." The taller blond stayed behind at the doorway, watching the ballroom, while the other one quickly and efficiently swept the area. "It's too exposed out here, you're a clear target from too many vantage points."
"I'll be fine, Mercy. Please go and join Hope for now."
"Mercy." His tone was final and she nodded her head and stepped back, clearly displeased but obedient. She gave Lois a cold look that promised mayhem and pulled the heavy glass patio doors shut behind her. Lois could see the two women take up defensive positions on the other side of the closed door, insuring them privacy and relative safety.
"Chloe Sullivan. It's been a long time."
She paced in front of him, still angry at his tactics and refusing to be drawn in by his gentle smile. "It's Lois Lane now. And I didn't need rescuing, Lex, I could have handled it myself."
"Really," he said musingly, turning away from her to study the view from the balcony. "I'm sure you thought you could. But Brigham is bigger trouble than you know." The moon was full and white, the light almost bright enough to read by, and the city lights were dim in comparison. Behind them the noises of the party were muted by the closed heavy patio doors and the twin shadows of Lex's companions were barely visible through the curtained panes. The brightly-lit balcony could almost have existed without time or place, a brick and concrete terrace shipwrecked on the night.
"So we're here," she said, waving her hand to indicate the patio, "to talk about Brigham?"
"No, Chloe. We could just be two old friends, met by moonlight."
She stiffened at the name. "Or you could be digging for information."
He filled his champagne glass. "I have all the information I need. And I am not here to actively do anything. Think of me as an observer."
"Lex Luthor as a disinterested observer? A neutral party, Metropolis's own answer to the UN, here in Gotham City as an envoy? Why is it I don't believe that?"
"Oh," he said, dipping his head slightly to take a sip from his very full champagne glass, "it happens. Perhaps not as infrequently as people might think."
She lost patience with him -- she'd never been up to a fighting weight in Luthors, father or son. "Just what are you pretending to be tonight, Lex?"
"So quick to judge, Chloe. I'd think that you of all people would be willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt."
She clenched her teeth. Lex had always had the ability to reach in and grab the most vulnerable part of her, and he made it look so effortless. "Your father set me up! I used the information he gave me in that article, and then when the national journalism scholarship committee came to give me the award for the story, he denied every word of it!"
"It's possible he set you up," he conceded and raised one eyebrow. "It's even likely. I wasn't living in the country at the time, but I heard about it later."
He was so cool, so calm, talking about the thing that had nearly ruined her. She wrapped her hands into fists and felt the need to hurt him. She jerked her head toward the closed patio doors and the two women she could see outlined on the other side. "What's the story with Tweedledum and Tweedledee in there? Since when did you need 24/7 paid arm candy?"
Lex laughed at that. "I suggest you keep your voice down. I don't appreciate insults directed at Mercy and Hope and they are quite protective and somewhat possessive of me as well." The amusement faded from his face. "You can't possibly understand them, so don't try to put them into some ugly little category."
"This is Gotham City, Lex -- we've seen it all here."
He looked at her name tag again and cocked his head. "Lois Lane. It suits you now. Short, cold, hard syllables for a cold and angry woman." He moved away and leaned over, resting his arms on the balcony railing, looking out at the full moon and the city spread out below. "I've read some of your articles in the Gotham Times. You've developed quite a reputation as the crusading reporter."
She lifted her chin. "I've exposed scams and liars and crooks. I helped bring down one of the largest drug cartels on the eastern seaboard."
He turned back to look at her. "Crushing mighty and small alike." He swirled the champagne in his glass and looked at her, considering her as though she was a particularly interesting business proposal. "Are you happy here?"
The question made her blink. "Happy? I'm 25 and I have my own by-line at the Gotham Times. I do a damned good job." It wasn't an answer and she knew he knew it.
He continued to study her and she wondered what he was looking for or what he saw. "It's a strange thing, destiny. The time I spent in Europe was productive, useful, profitable. I did a damned good job," he said, lifting the corner of his lips in a self-mocking smile. "And yet, I finally realized that what I was doing was just running away from home, albeit in a very adult and business-like fashion. So I went back home."
"I can't go back to Smallville. I'm never going back," she said tightly.
"No," he agreed, his face shadowed with his own memories. "Not Smallville. But Metropolis feels like home to me."
She nodded, once.
"Part of going home was facing up to the past Acknowledging that it hurt, that it had power over me." He took a step toward her. "Like yours does over you." His voice was soft and warm, almost at whisper level.
"No one has power over me," she snapped, knowing that it was a glaring lie even as she said it.
He took another step, crossing the line between close and too close. "You don't believe that," he said, and paused.
She closed her eyes -- she'd heard that little half-hitch in his breath before, the pause while he gathered exactly the right words to devastate his opponent. She closed her eyes -- and nothing happened. Lex remained silent. She opened her eyes to see him, faintly smiling, looking directly down at her. He put the champagne glass down on the table and reached up with the thumb of his right hand, running it lightly across the nametag on her thin sweater. The paper crinkled and crackled under his smooth stroke.
"When you are ready, come back," he said softly. "Back to Metropolis. I'm sure the Daily Planet could use a fresh new writer from Gotham City."
"And you just happen to own the Daily Planet now, so you can guarantee that?"
"I don't own the Daily Planet. Yet. It hasn't been of strategic value, or enough of an annoyance to shut down." He shrugged. "Doesn't mean I don't have friends on the Board of Directors."
He was still close, so close, and she felt her heart rate start to climb. His breath was warm on her face, faintly scented with champagne and something richly, elementally male underneath it.
Panic made her go for the last jab. "Or that they don't live in fear of you?" She winced. It was an unfair thing to say and she knew it. Lex was just doing what he always did -- making the grand gesture that he hoped would set everything right. To think that he could still care enough to make that gesture to her left a hard lump in her throat.
"There is that."
A soft chime began to sound, the tone rising with each chime. He turned away and reached into his pocket and pulled out a text pager, frowning slightly as he read the message.
Behind him, there was a polite knock on the closed glass doors. "Boss?" a rich alto voice asked.
He raised his voice slightly. "In a moment, Mercy." He turned back to her and put one hand on her shoulder. "Business. But think about it, Chloe. Metropolis is your home, just the way it's mine. And it's waiting for you."
"I'll... think about it," she promised, though she was not sure why.
"Good. And, by the way, I wouldn't worry about Brigham. He's about to go down, and he won't connect his fall to you in any way. I'll see to that."
"Will it be justice or some sort of vigilante thing?"
"Do you really care?" He walked to the patio doors and opened them. He turned back to her and smiled. "Thank you for the chance to reminisce, Miss Lane," he said, in a voice loud enough to carry into the ballroom beyond. "It's been very pleasant."
The two women who had been guarding the door both gave Lex a suspicious look and then turned to stare at Lois, the threat clear in their eyes.
Lois smiled recklessly. "He's all yours, girls. Treat him right now, you hear?" She watched Lex smoothly gather up his companions and the three of them marched across the floor to the exit, ignoring the people who were trying to get Lex's attention.
She folded her arms and leaned against the wall. Lex was going to take Brigham down. Was that what he was doing in Gotham City? Why would the CEO of the wildly successful LexCorp, a multi-national corporation, care about something like that? Clearly there was more to Lex than board rooms and business deals. Something that a little investigate work could probably uncover -- but not from Gotham City, she'd have to be closer to the source of LexCorp to really dig into it, and that meant Metropolis.
Metropolis. Lex was right, Gotham City had never felt like home, like her city. But... Metropolis. Could she go back? It would be as Lois Lane, star reporter from Gotham City, not as Chloe Sullivan, disgraced high school paper editor from Smallville. She gripped the balcony railing and stared up at the moon.
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