by Chris J. Ueberall
Characters: Chloe Sullivan (SV) and Ezra Standish (M7-AU)
Summary: A stranger is interested in Chloe's research .
Notes: Written for the "SV Swing Challenge"
Chloe watched the man as he studied her Wall of Weird. He was compactly built and not much taller than Pete. He had brown hair with a touch of auburn and moved with a fluent grace that Chloe would never have expected possible in a suit - before she met Lex Luthor - but that was neither here nor there.
Ezra Standish, as the man had introduced himself earlier, had approached her because of her work at the Torch, or - to be more precise - because of her latest article about the hostage drama at the Luthor plant. She had been very proud of her article, but with all the 'real' media covering the events, too, she hadn't expected anyone to take notice. But this guy had, and so she had invited him to meet her in the Torch's office after school.
"If you need a little more respite to study me, Miss Sullivan, I will pretend to not have noticed you for a while longer," her visitor said in a smooth, Southern voice, not turning around.
Chloe grinned despite feeling caught. "I didn't want to disturb you."
"You didn't. And even if you did, this is your place of work, your territory; I'm only a trespasser; it is your right." He looked at her, smiling, and she felt her heart beat faster. The man had a beautiful smile and even more compelling eyes. They were of a lively green and seemed to sparkle with mischief.
Chloe swallowed, wishing for the first time in her life that she had dressed for appearance and not for comfort. The colorful sleeveless shirt was at least three years old and her jeans weren't stonewashed but truly faded. Then she chided herself for being an idiot. The guy had come to her because of her writing. This wasn't a date, this was a chance for her future.
"So, what do you want to know, Mr. Standish?" she asked, sitting down on the desk that Clark usually used, ever so grateful that her friend tended to put everything away before leaving the Torch's office.
"Everything you can tell me about the hostage situation at the LuthorCorp plant, including incidents before and after which might be related." He left the Wall and sat down in a chair in front of her. "But please, call me Ezra."
"Ezra," she echoed, praying to every deity around that she wasn't blushing, while the name played like a broken record in her head. 'Ezra.'
If anyone had asked her before what she thought of Biblical names she'd have mentioned they made her think of old stuffy guys in old-fashioned outfits. But with this guy the name fit, and while he was definitely not a boy, he was no stuffy guy, either. She decided that he had to be around Lex's age, probably a little older, but still on this side of 30.
"Miss Sullivan?" gently he interrupted her musings.
"Sorry." She shrugged. Shrugging was okay, better than blushing or babbling.
He smiled and looked at her expectantly.
Right. He had asked her something.
"Where do you want me to start?" She really had no idea.
"Did you ever meet Mr. Earl Jenkins before he appeared at the plant?"
"I saw him, yes. He was on the Kent farm when we had the party." She grimaced in remembrance. "Actually he more or less ended the party. Which wasn't too bad, really, because Clark was having a hard time getting rid of everyone."
"Mr. Jenkins had a seizure. It was strange. He was shivering, but faster than I've ever seen anybody move. Clark tried to hold on to him and was thrown half way through the barn. I think he got hurt, but he said he was okay. And then the Sheriff and the ambulance came. Don't really know who called them."
"I heard the Sheriff reacted to the fireworks," Ezra injected lightly.
Chloe laughed. "Oh yes, the fireworks, they were cool. Lex arranged those. But I assumed he'd talked with the Sheriff beforehand, so that Clark wouldn't get in trouble?"
"You are absolutely correct here, but it seems your Sheriff wasn't entirely trusting in Mr. Luthor's assurance that the fireworks would be handled by professionals and therefore would be no danger to the local wildlife. So he took it upon himself to check."
"Aha." That made sense. "Anyway, I didn't see Mr. Jenkins again up to the moment he waved a gun in my father's face."
"Indeed." Ezra nodded sympathetically. "Certainly a terrifying situation. From what I heard your father was very brave, as were you and your friends."
"I didn't really do anything." She shrugged. "Whitney tried to get the gun and wanted Clark to help him, but ... Clark hesitated, and then everything went crazy for a moment. I think Mr. Jenkins had a seizure again, but it really seemed as if the whole building rattled." It had definitely been an incident for her Wall of Weird.
"That would be Clark Kent, wouldn't it? The young man who stayed behind to help Mr. Luthor?"
For a moment Chloe was perplexed. She had expected Ezra to ask about the seizure-thing, but he seemed to be only interested in Clark ... or maybe he was just trying to confuse her for some reason. She decided to be careful with her answers.
"Yeah. He's Lex's friend. But I think he also stayed because he wanted to help Mr. Jenkins. He liked him and didn't want him to get hurt or to hurt someone else. Clark's like that." Hopefully she hadn't sounded as though she thought Clark was a hero, though he was, in a way.
"That doesn't sound like a coward."
"No. Clark's not a coward. He's a little strange sometimes, but he's always there to help, no matter whom or with what." And, damn, she hadn't meant to say the 'strange' part.
"So why did he hesitate to help with the gun then?"
Chloe had wondered about that herself. "I'm not sure. I think he felt sick. He looked kinda green, really. Maybe he was in shock because someone he liked and thought he knew threatened to kill him? And maybe he felt a little responsible, because he knew the man and liked him? I don't know."
"It's possible." Ezra nodded. "Please go on, Miss Sullivan."
"There's not much more to say, really. We were waiting for something to happen. Mr. Jenkins talked on the phone with Mr. Luthor, the old one I mean, and said something about a 'Level 3' which I didn't quite get at that time. And then Lex appeared and exchanged himself as a hostage for us. That was really cool. I don't think his father would have done it. We all ran out and they were closing the doors behind us, and suddenly Clark wasn't with us anymore. I don't think he was too slow, I think he stayed behind on purpose to help."
She searched in her memory for something else that could have been important. "Some security guys led us away then. My father said they were expecting an explosion that never came. I don't really know how Clark and Lex got out. I only know what Lex told the media." Which hadn't been much.
"That's the whole story," she finished; not very impressive if she thought about it. "Did that help? I wrote all of this in my article."
"I know." He stood and walked towards her desk. "You also added some theories and information, which would have LuthorCorp in an uncomfortable situation, if your article had appeared in anything else but a school paper." Standing before her computer, he tapped on the space button once and slowly her screen lightened from the black of the screen saver to show one of her private files.
"What?!" Chloe ran over, hardly believing what her mind was telling her was going on. "What are you doing? And how did you get this? It's password secured."
"Only a small hurdle." Her visitor looked at her disapprovingly. "For someone with your computer skills, Miss Sullivan, the safety measures were shamefully easy to overcome. You should know better than to have important and dangerous information on a computer as accessible as this one."
"Dangerous?" she echoed, then put that aside. "Who are you? Are you working for LuthorCorp?"
"To answer your questions backward. I don't work for LuthorCorp. My name is Ezra Standish, as I told you. And harboring information about other people, especially incriminating details, are always dangerous."
"But you're not a freelance reporter," Chloe clarified, ignoring the last statement.
"I never said I was. I told you I have contacts with some of the most reputable newspapers and magazines, and that is true. I never told you the nature of my contact, and you never asked, you just assumed. A mistake that a good reporter would avoid."
Ashamed, and feeling even more angry because of that, Chloe stared at the computer screen which showed her file of Lex Luthor. She swallowed.
"What do you want?" she asked despite the lump in her throat.
"To talk about security and secrets and loyalty, Miss Sullivan. And about your future."
Chloe felt her heart beat faster, and this time it had nothing to do with her visitor's good looks, which suddenly didn't seem as good any longer. "Are you threatening me?" she asked, trying to sound angry rather than frightened.
Green eyes caught her gaze - measuring her, she thought.
"It is not in my nature to threaten beautiful young women, Miss Sullivan. But that you expect me to do so, informs me that you're well aware of the dangers of the world, a fact that eases my mind at the same time as it depresses me."
He sounded honest enough and somehow seemed to tower over her less than he had before. And had he called her beautiful? She mentally slapped herself for the last thought.
"Why would it depress you?" she heard herself ask, glad that at least some part of her sounded like a reporter.
"Because I don't like it when the ugliness of the world breaks into innocent lives."
"I'm not a child!" she protested in what was probably the easiest way to prove that she was.
He looked at her again, scrutinized her, really, and why did he remind her of Lex all of a sudden? How could one look cool and controlled one second and the next understanding and sorrowful - or was that soulful?
"No, you're not a child. But I spoke about innocent lives, Miss Sullivan. That is not a description fitting only children, though it seems like that more and more."
"So that's the 'depressing' part, what about the 'easing your mind' part?" she brought herself and him back to the actual conversation.
"It eases my mind because it means you're not a naive or overly trusting person, but someone who will understand my concerns once I have explained them, and so this conversation might not take as long or become as complicated as I expected and feared."
He pulled her chair closer and looked at her expectantly. "Maybe we should sit down, Miss Sullivan. Let's talk like grown-ups do." His smile this time was teasing, and she felt herself respond to it despite her growing unease and confusion.
"Okay, Mr. Standish." She sat down and indicated the chair he had sat on before. "Sit down yourself then, please."
He nodded and did so. He didn't remind her to call him Ezra, which she found disappointing on some level although she was grateful for it, too. He probably understood that she was putting a distance between them by using his surname, and accepted it.
Chloe's gaze fell on her computer screen again. The file she had on Lex Luthor. It was relatively new, and some of the latest entries were no more than a day old. Rescuing her and the others had put Lex up a notch on her interest-scale. And once she was interested in a guy she wanted to know everything about him. Starting with his birthday, including his favorite food, his habits, his lovelife and - yeah - his medical records. It was just the reporter in her, really. She wasn't a stalker. Just interested.
"There's a lot of private information in these files, Miss Sullivan. You shouldn't have them to begin with, but storing them on school property accessible to the general public is very unprofessional to say the least. Some might call it unethical even."
She was about to say that the Torch wasn't for the general public, but restrained herself, knowing full well that Principal Kwang would disagree. And she had to admit that just because no one but Pete, Clark and her usually came here, it didn't mean others couldn't.
"It's just research, I'm not doing any harm." She knew she sounded defensive, but - damn- she felt cornered. If this were Clark attacking her, she'd have some good excuses and reasons ready, but somehow nothing reasonable came to mind right now.
He nodded. "I believe you. But that knowledge in the wrong hands could do a lot of harm, and I think you know that."
"In what way?" What was he talking about?
"What if I were someone who wanted to get at Lex Luthor, Miss Sullivan?"
'So what?' she wondered. "What could you do, Mr. Standish? There's nothing incriminating here."
"There isn't?" He looked at her in mock surprise. "Probably not, if you just read it without malicious intent. But let me extract just some points, a little out of context maybe, but who would know?"
He seemed to think for a moment, probably sorting through the file in his head. "Several hospital stays in his childhood years, and even more hospital stays as a teenager. Injuries typical of rape victims. A mental breakdown at sixteen. Several close calls. Attempts at suicide? Lex Luthor, spoiled brat or victim?" He stopped then, his gaze on her unblinking.
He had spoken in an almost detached voice, the questions barely distinguishable from the facts. But nevertheless, or maybe because of it, Chloe felt a chill run down her back. She never had thought to interpret the medical records like that, but that had been his point, hadn't it?
She wanted to ask if Lex had been raped as a child, wanted to ask if he'd tried to kill himself - maybe even on that day when Clark and he met. But she fought the urge. It was all bullshit, wasn't it? Yeah, it was. The medical records didn't actually say that Lex was raped, definitely not that it had happened during his childhood. She had read them after all.
She breathed deeply. But if she wanted to ask, even now, even knowing it was just a test, then there was no question that other reporters would follow up on such speculations, if anyone ever divulged them. The press would haunt the Luthors then, would turn up everywhere Lex went.
She swallowed. "I hadn't thought of something like that," she admitted.
"I know. But it's not only about Lex. A lot of your research could be used to turn other people's lives upside down." His eyes became piercing lasers - figuratively speaking - intense, sharp and seemingly burning into her soul.
"Mutants, Miss Sullivan? People with special abilities which give them an edge over the general public? Do you think anyone breaking into your files will just ignore that or be satisfied with just watching? What do you think will happen if someone, who feels unhappy with his own life and needs someone to blame for his problems, stumbles over your files?"
For all that she had never really thought about that before, the answer sprang to her mind quickly, so maybe she hadn't been as unconcerned about it as she'd believed. "A witchhunt," she whispered.
He nodded, his gaze neutral once more, which she didn't like at all. Neutral was cold. She wanted the mischievious look back, or even the disappointed one. Anything but cold.
"I couldn't have put it better myself. I know you don't want that any more than I do."
"What do you think I should do?" she asked, knowing full well what she should do. "You want me to delete the files, right?"
He looked at her, then shook his head. "It was my first thought, I admit. But I can understand that you don't want to let go of something that certainly took you awhile to gather and therefore without a doubt is important to you. And anyway, information doesn't just disappear. If you could learn all of this, others can and probably will, too. Knowledge is a powerful weapon, Miss Sullivan. It can destroy, but it can also be used to protect." Ezra stood and walked to the Wall of Weird once more.
"You have the knowledge, Miss Sullivan, and I have the means to protect. Maybe we could work together?" He looked at the newspaper and magazine pages she had pinned to the wall, then back at her. "A joint venture, Miss Sullivan?"
She was about to ask what she would gain from it, when suddenly memory kicked in and she knew who he was. "You work for Lex, don't you? You're from that security firm he hired. What's it called ..." 'Standish something?'
"It's called Stand-By. Very good, Miss Sullivan. You're correct."
"Then you do work for Lionel Luthor!" After all, Lex worked for his father, too, so every security firm Lex hired for the plant or even for the mansion would basically work for LuthorCorp - meaning Lionel Luthor.
"You're making assumptions again, but I grant you that you can't know better. So let me tell you a not-so-secret secret: I would never work for Lionel Luthor. He's one person I feel I have to protect Lex from."
Even the densest of idiots would have realized that there was a story here, but Chloe knew better than to pursue it just now.
"So this is all about Lex's protection, isn't it? You don't care about the others in my files." So much for her own ability to judge people. He had sounded so sincere when talking about the dangers to other people's - namely the mutants - lives.
"I do care for those people, Miss Sullivan. But you're right, it's mainly about Lex. He's my responsibility." He paused for a moment, then added: "And a close friend. I'll do anything to protect him from harm, no matter the kind. I'm sure you can understand the feeling, can't you?"
She was trying to decide if she believed him, when his next question caught her off guard.
"I'm surprised that your friend Clark Kent isn't up here on the wall. Also I did only find a file about his adoption, nothing more. Surely he has earned himself a special place among these ... interesting persons. Or is that the reason he's not up here? Because he is very special?"
Okay, Ezra seemed to know something about Clark. Probably more than she did. Then again, maybe he was just fishing, just trying to get her to spill some secrets.
"I don't know what you're talking about. Clark's nothing special. Aside from being attractive and not realizing it, but there's nothing more." She hoped the attractive part would throw him off the track.
"He's also a close friend of Lex." He said it as if that would explain something.
"So? You don't like that or what?"
He walked back and perched on the edge of her desk, somehow managing to avoid knocking off her stack of papers.
"Lex is someone who would do anything for a friend. Like exchange himself as a hostage, or buy people off who threaten his friends. It is my job to protect Lex, so I've got to protect his friends as well. And to do that, I have to know their weaknesses."
He didn't elaborate, but he didn't need to, for Chloe understood too well that an enemy would attack those weaknesses first, just like any good reporter. But then again she hadn't yet decided if Ezra was a friend, so he wouldn't get anything from her.
Chloe's heart was skipping a beat, as she tried for an unworried smile. "Clark's only weakness is wanting to help people. And chocolate, anything sweet, really."
He looked at her for an eternity, then smiled. No evil smile, or sarcastic. If she'd dared to do so she'd have called it approving.
"Very good, Miss Sullivan. Very good for one so young and untrained as you. One day you'll be an exceptional reporter or detective or spy, whatever you will choose. I hope you consider coming to work for me when you've reached that time in your life."
He offered her his hand, and somehow dazed she shook it. He swiftly lifted it to his lips for a light kiss. She was too surprised to even blush.
He was almost out of the door, when she found her voice again. "What ... what about the files, Mr. Standish?"
He turned back with an amused smile. "You're an exceptional young woman, Miss Sullivan, I'm sure you will do the right thing, as they say. Oh, and that laptop over there has your name on it. A gesture of appreciation from Lex Luthor, for an article well done."
A last devastating smile and Ezra was gone.
Chloe stared after him in what she decided had to be shock. Finally her brain came back online. She walked to the laptop which she hadn't noticed earlier and powered it up. Wow! If Lex gave a person a gift then it was perfect. And there was no way that she'd give this baby back, her father would better not try to pull a Mr. Kent here. Not that it was likely, after all Gabe actually liked Lex.
With a last look at her gift Chloe went back to her computer and started to download all of her files. She only left what she'd already used for articles, so that no one would wonder where she stored her research. No one needed to know or suspect that she had a brand new super laptop at home instead of just her pitiful long outdated one.
She looked longingly at the laptop. She knew exactly what she'd do once the data had been transfered and she was home. Finding out everything about Stand-By and Ezra and his connection to Lex Luthor.
She could hardly wait.
© 9. August 2004