The first one just appeared – a gold, glinting disc, seemingly plucked from thin air and perched on the corner of her desk, slightly precarious and spinning like a top.
She slapped it flat and spun herself, looking for airborne objects and a tell-tale blur in primary colors. There were no signs of her favorite small-town superhero, but the cup was there when she turned back, the disc propped on its edge between the cardboard sleeve and a crumpled receipt.
"The flagship, no less," she snorted.
Looping lines were etched in the surface, and she flipped the slip in her fingers, cracking a smile at the hastily-scrawled message on the back. Could be the best part of waking up, Chloelicious. And the coffee's not bad, either.
The wink, she guessed, was implied.
The first sip tasted like defeat, but she'd never been good at resisting temptation. It was a dark, rich roast, still steaming despite its cross-country trek, and the strong blend was almost enough to soothe her weak will. Almost.
It was just the first strike. She could lose this battle and still win the war.
Caffeinated and vaguely amused, she settled into her chair and popped the disc into her computer, prepared for a plea only the chronically impulsive could deliver. It spun in the tray with a whir, the hourglass flipping onscreen as the system cued an autorun.
When the first bars blared, Eddie Vedder's growl bouncing off the walls, she choked on more than laughter and showered her keyboard in Starbucks.
Mopping up the mess and muttering apologies to a dozen glaring faces, she shook her head. Hell of a first strike.
With a grin, she jacked in her headphones and cued it up again. Even with the soundtrack on pause, the countdown hadn't stopped – it ticked the time away, marking the moment to the millisecond in neon-green numbers that nearly swallowed her desktop.
They may have been destined to strike out, but it could never be said that they lacked creativity.
The IT intern had just left – her keyboard was destined for the dumpster – when the messenger called her name.
He wound through the desks toward her raised hand, mumbling something incomprehensible as she signed the delivery log and shoving the package into her palms.
Green tank, orange bike shorts. Not exactly the subtlest of special deliveries.
The disc was there, as expected. And with it, a tiny box of shimmering abalone – tempting, taunting, daring her to play into their hands. No note. He always had been the strong, silent type.
Reason four thousand, nine hundred and two why he and Lois had been doomed from the start.
She stole another glance at the acid-green countdown before curiosity got the better of her – and killed the cat, her brain chided, but when had it ever stopped her before – and she cracked the lid.
Nestled inside, cradled in pillows of creamy white satin, was a perfect pearl. She might've been amused by the fabric association, had she not been tallying the gem's value in her head – the thing was easily the size of her thumbnail, and could probably feed a small country. For a year.
It must've taken forever to find. Even longer considering she was sure no oysters had been harmed in the process.
"They can't really think I'm this easy," she groused, lifting the pearl from its bed. It rolled, perfectly round, to the center of her palm, hefty enough to tip the scales in a bad direction. Someone had obviously scored big points on the research front – never one to resist a good origin story, she'd always been a little fascinated by the process. They were the ocean's well-kept secrets, cocooned and hidden, almost born into the world.
And it was, after all, her birthstone.
She tucked it away with a lingering look, then slid the disc into her drive tray, both sorry and grateful that it didn't need keystrokes to execute. Her hands cupped around the foam at her ears, and Bono crooned over a hard-driving drum. Fitting, for someone hell-bent on saving the world one whaler at a time.
The band played on, the clock counted the seconds, and somewhere in there, she told herself there was no harm in humming along.
The box was waiting when she came back from lunch, dwarfing the space where her ruined keyboard used to live. Polishing off her Coke, she opened it with a chuckle that died in her throat when the contents slid out in her hands, cool and solid and beautiful.
"Okay, now you're just playing dirty."
She let her hands skim the surface, fingertips lingering on the rubber-reinforced edges, trailing over the magnesium-alloy casing with all the reverence it deserved.
If these were the perks of surrender, perhaps she should reconsider waving that white flag.
It took every ounce of restraint she had to set it aside. She upended the box, tipped it to her sight line to peer inside, and found it curiously empty. Tossing it on top of her trash can, she turned back to the newest offering, nerves thrumming with equal parts anticipation and annoyance.
She'd wished for one many a time, usually following whatever escape, explosion, or enemy attack had damaged her shamefully-abused laptop that week. Funny how often palling around with an invulnerable alien necessitated indestructible equipment.
Adding insult to injury, this one seemed to be a custom job. The best blue-blood do-gooder money could buy.
She was definitely crying foul on this play.
It opened on smooth hinges, revealing a wide screen and contoured keys backlit with a soft green glow. Swallowing, she pressed her thumb to the fingerprint scanner to start the silent boot sequence. Fingerprint scanner.
That sweeping chorus of angels was more than likely all in her mind.
A single icon sat in the center of the desktop, denoting a media file, and suddenly the lack of disc made perfect sense. Then again, her sudden hunch may have had something to do with the fact that the icon was labeled "Cyborgs Do It Digitally."
Transferring the headphones with a shake of her head and speed that might've made Clark blink, she double-clicked the file, trying not to notice how perfectly calibrated the touchpad was beneath her fingers. A duplicate version of the countdown launched onto the LCD, perfectly synchronized with the one dominating her ancient monitor before a DOS screen popped into view.
Heard you were experiencing some technical difficulties, the sys font flashed. If sarcasm could be typed, he'd probably figured out how. This baby's been retrofitted with a shock-mounted hard drive, encoded card reader, on-board GPS, fingerprint identification, low draw power supply, and a spill-proof surface. Not to mention the hardwired SOS.
With a wry smile, she touched the blaring red key in the corner. So salvation could swoop to the rescue at the touch of a button. Handy, considering how frequently she found herself on the receiving end.
The blinking cursor continued to spit out specs before her wide eyes.
Good god, it had a touchscreen.
One more thing, the message read. What, built-in X-ray capability?
When it started, grinding and layered and synthesized, she bit her lip to cover her smirk. Of course he'd picked the Hendrix – just shy of encrypted, mixed and dubbed until it barely resembled the source material. A hacker's cover if there ever was one. She shuddered to think how close they'd come to hitting this one out of the park.
This time, she sang.
The last one, she waited for. Impatiently. It was only a matter of time, as the rapidly-reducing clock kept reminding her.
It arrived via suited man, his face blandly, generically handsome – he handed her the slimline jewel case and turned, walking away without a word. The case itself would've been equally unmemorable, were it not for the massive green bow.
He always did get straight to the point.
She tried not to be disappointed, not to wonder what insight he would've had. At least she could predict his choice, already hearing the sharp harmonicas and classic arrangement of the original.
Her fingers had just broken the seal when the phone rang, shrill and startling, and she reluctantly slid the disc to her desk, grabbing at the handset.
"So I've heard." It was a bark, worn and weathered and wringing power from every syllable. "Emphatically, since your name crossed my desk."
"Sorry," she said distractedly, spinning the disc beneath her fingers, "who am I speaking with?"
"This is Devane, Sullivan. I got your little care package."
"Dev–" Sitting up straight, she cocked her head in disbelief. "Roy Devane? EIC of the Daily Star Roy Devane?"
He chuckled without mirth. "Last time I checked. Same one you addressed on your portfolio. Unsolicited, I might add." Cutting her confused protests short, he powered through. "Nevermind that now. You've got some solid bylines to your credit, Sullivan. A little out there, but we've seen stranger 'round here. I'm gonna give you a shot."
Her eyebrows shot skyward, and she floundered. She wasn't often rendered speechless, but those words, from this man, were an easy trigger.
"A… a shot at the Star?"
"There's a metro opening with your name on it," he stressed, patiently, "unless you've gotten comfy in the Planet's basement."
"It's definitely not home sweet home." It was strange to say, and even stranger to feel. But her Daily Planet dreams never had been subterranean, and a living legend beat Grant Gabriel's cockiness and Lex Luthor's ruthlessness any day of the week. "I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I have to ask… Frankly, my Planet offerings haven't exactly been plentiful, and I highly doubt my Wall-of-Weird work at The Torch merits a spot on the city beat. So what's behind the vote of confidence?"
"I'm not gonna lie to you, kid." It was careful, measured, but she could hear the barely-stifled amusement. "You've got some heavy hitters going to bat for you. You could say my curiosity is piqued."
She had a feeling his use of the plural was greatly embellished. She only knew one person with ties to Star City, and he hit harder than most.
Hence this latest punch to her gut.
"It's an amazing opportunity," she breathed, pausing to get a handle on herself. "I just… can I take a little time to think about it?"
"As you should. But don't take too long, Sullivan. The clock is ticking."
He had no idea how right he was.
He hung up without ceremony, and she slipped the phone back into its cradle, dazed. Roy-friggin-Devane.
Well, she'd wanted insight.
The disc, all but forgotten, slid into the laptop's slot-loader without a sound.
She slipped the headphones over her hair just in time to catch his distinctive chuckle, cocky and knowing and unnaturally deep. Then the music swelled, haunting, disorienting, keeping time with the slipping seconds and the frantic beat of her heart.
Not so predictable, after all. Unexpected tears pricked the backs of her eyes.
Mighty Chloe had struck out.
Shooting an email to her department head – thank you, integrated wifi – and leaving a questionably plausible message for Lois, she gathered the day's gifts in shaking hands, grabbed her purse, and shot one last look at the dwindling countdown.
She still had time.
The car was waiting outside, its curbside door held open by the same man who'd delivered the last damning disc. He gestured in her general direction as she sprang from the revolving door, clutching her spoils, and she practically vaulted inside. The ToughBook could take it.
By the time she spied her well-worn duffel on the opposite seat, its battered zipper nearly bursting, she had no surprise left in her.
The lights of the city streaked by through tinted windows, proving enough of a distraction to keep the butterflies at bay. Clark was going to have an aneurism.
Like too few things lately, this had nothing to do with Clark.
The car finally eased to a stop, and she barely had enough time to turn before the door was wrenched open.
"Come to keep me company, Chloelicious?"
"Or something." She climbed from the car on surprisingly steady legs, taking in three smug faces and one stoic expression. The Queen Industries private jet made for a dramatic backdrop, and in her stomach frenzied wings fluttered anew.
"Settle a bet," Victor called out, glaring at AC before striding forward to grab her bag. "You couldn't resist the hardware."
"Do you even know how long I was combing through sand?"
"Please, spare me the details. I don't want to know how aerodynamic your naked ass really is." Vic shot her a pointed look as he fell back. "You might want to scrub that thing down. Flipper swims in the buff, and who knows where he buried the treasure on the way back."
AC sputtered in indignation, just before Victor hit him in the face with her duffel.
"Come on, compadres, we all know what sealed the deal." Bart flashed to her side, his eyes roaming and his grin working overtime. "You like it hot and steamy in the morning, don't you, bambina?"
They all groaned, but she couldn't hide her smile. "Everything was great, guys." Her voice hitched, and she swallowed over the sudden swell of emotion. Hoping this group hadn't noticed was more optimistic than she dared. "Really. I loved it all."
A throat cleared through the smiles – even that small act rang with authority.
"Alright boys, you can continue the pissing contest in-flight. Go strap in, we're blowing this town."
The wide grin faltered as the other two retreated on command. "But you loved mine most, right?"
"Bart." The weight behind the voice became gentle warning.
"'Cause I ran back from Washington without spilling a drop," he pleaded, backing away. "Where else are you gonna get that kinda service?"
"Bart. Plane. Now."
"You're right. We'll talk later." With a wink, he was gone.
She chuckled as Oliver approached, eyeing his crossed arms and quirked eyebrow with interest. He obviously couldn't hang on to impassive for much longer – though he was putting up an admirable fight, a distinctly self-satisfied tinge was creeping through the mask.
"So here I am."
He nodded, pursing his lips. "And with…" – a quick glance at his watch – "…two minutes to spare. I'm impressed."
"At my timing?" she scoffed. "Because I had a little help there."
"At your willpower." He shrugged a shoulder in feigned nonchalance. "The guys had side bets going on when you would crack. Pretty big pool."
"When," she laughed, incredulous, "not if? Oh league of little faith. I'm fairly sure I should be insulted."
"Well the swag should soothe your wounds," he said dryly.
"Some swag. I got the distinct feeling that the first impression I gave my prospective new editor was 'stammering idiot.' A heads up might've been nice." she grumbled, trying her damndest to sound exasperated. "For someone who favors fletched firepower, you sure do play with big guns, Mr. Queen." One corner of his mouth hitched in response, and he hung there in expectant silence.
Yeah, he totally wasn't buying the annoyance.
"I'm not going to tell you."
His smile only grew, a flash of even white teeth. "Said timing speaks volumes, Miss Sullivan."
She had to admire his certainty.
"Easy there, emerald archer. This is just a trial run." Pulling in a deep breath, she caught his dark eyes. "I've given up my life before. Oddly enough, it never seems to work out in my favor." But after the days events, even she had to admit that she'd never felt this essential. Vital enough to warrant west coast coffee runs and deep sea diving expeditions. Worth a billionaire vouching for her with his good name, and god only knew what else.
She'd never been that important before. Not to anyone.
"One mission. And then… we'll see."
He shrugged again, letting the things she'd left unsaid roll off his shoulders. "Your terms." Her hand slid into his outstretched palm, and his long fingers engulfed her own. "Welcome to the team, Watchtower."
They turned toward the jet, walking slowly, her shoulder brushing his arm with each step.
"The song was a nice touch," she mumbled, begrudgingly giving credit where it was due. "Honestly expected Dylan from you, but Bear McCreary? My Battlestar weakness isn't exactly common knowledge."
"What can I say," he drawled. "Go big or go home."
She halted on the second step down, his chest connecting solidly with her back. When she turned, they were eye-to-eye.
"So are you the joker or the thief?"
He nudged her backward with a shake of his head. "If you have to ask, sidekick, I may have overestimated your abilities."
They rounded into the cabin, and she lost her breath a little, catching sight of the men who'd worked so hard to get her here.
Heavy hitters, indeed. She'd be proud to step up to the plate with any one of them. It was the reason she'd come, when all was said and done.
The swag was just a bonus.
"Gentlemen, Watchtower is on board," Ollie rumbled at her back, and she almost hoped she wasn't imagining the pride she heard. "And I believe I had the last thirty. Pay up."
She laughed, and it began.