Oliver didn’t know how it happened. One moment, he was finishing out a crappy decade—twenty-nine. Only 365 days to 30. He’s wading through life with a drink in his hand, a pocket full of cash, and he’s up for something tall, cool, sexy, and smoking hot—English optional. He speaks five languages passably well, he’s blessed with the kind of good looks that hold up despite being drunk, sweaty, and unshaven, and he can get across ‘let’s get naked’ with a look.
Flash forward through the drama, most of which was at least a little (a lot) self-inflicted, and he’s a clean and sober guy with two jobs, living in the middle of an extensive renovation, or sleeping at the office. His business partner is the first woman he loved and let down. His grand gesture to re-kindle their relationship cost about ten billion dollars and is a work-in-progress only in that they are locked into managing their combined companies.
Since he didn’t sleep in the office the previous night, he was stuck in traffic for the seven block crawl home at the end of a day that had him feeling like he had been parachuted into someone else’s life. At Luthor Corp, end of month was something you could smell in the tension-filtered air blowing through the building. Two days ago he was celebrating a win in the Icicle take-down while Queen Industries finance team was starting a forty-eight hour lock-in with their Luthor Corp counterparts to close the month.
They were on their way back to Star City now, looking more worked over than the big bad of the week.
In the world of Queen Industries, closing the month happened every month, so it wasn’t a crisis even if the numbers were bad. At Luthor Corp it was war with divisions scrambling to protect themselves from each other because Luthor Corp valued that kind of competition.
His phone buzzed. The caller ID registered Chloe Sullivan. He had ignored three calls from her earlier in the day.
He opened with, “Why am I in a traffic jam?”
She barely missed a beat. “Are you on Broadway?”
“No, I’m coming from the office, headed to my place.”
“There is an accident on Broadway. It’s a four car pile-up. There is a construction project on Fifth that is adding to the congestion for people who are trying to bail out of the traffic jam on Broadway,” she explained.
“Huh,” he grunted. “Should have walked to work,” he sighed. “Okay . . . I missed a couple of your calls. What’s up?”
“Could you suit up tonight?”
Chloe’s patrol schedule was a work-in-progress. He didn’t need to guess what had gone wrong tonight. It was Clark’s night and he wasn’t answering, or he had plans and ‘forgot’ to tell her. It didn’t mean that Clark wasn’t patrolling, though the double coverage was probably overkill at mid-week.
How sad was his life lately that he was actually looking forward to it? “I’m in,” he agreed. “Do you want to eat before I do my thing, or wait until after?”
After the Icicle take down, he had gone out to dinner with Chloe and John Jones. After dinner, Oliver had walked her back to Watchtower only to realize that with the window smashed, Watchtower wasn’t secure, it was really too late for her to be driving to Smallville after the night she had. When he offered to put her up in a hotel until the window was replaced, she declined.
He insisted. Hotel, his guest bedroom, or he was sleeping on the couch until her window was repaired. To his surprise, she took his guest bedroom. It led to an interestingly domestic morning with a half-asleep Chloe confronting him about his kitchen’s lack of coffee while he was getting ready to leave for his morning run and a training session with Mia. He promised to bring her coffee when he came back to shower and change for work.
Sleepy, coffee deprived, cranky Chloe was cute, and kind of inevitable given the way his run cleared everything in his head but anticipating his disappointment if she got impatient and left before he returned. Which was stupid, but she looked so sad when she said, “Ollie? You don’t have coffee?”
It was as if he cancelled Christmas.
He ended up calling Mia to tell her that he was going to be late while standing in line for coffee, and bought a pound of the house blend to avert the future coffee crisis that was also inevitable.
“I’m good for now. Let’s make it after . . . and in a minute you are going to think I’m very good,” she practically purred.
Oliver found himself reacting to the suggestive tone, and shook his head at himself. His little unrequited crush with Chloe’s voice started years ago. He was pretty sure that she had no idea what she sounded like sometimes, and he didn’t think he was the only one that noticed.
“You should be coming up on the art’s center garage. On the other side of the entrance to the garage, you’ll find a narrow alley. Take a right there—“
“Got it,” he interrupted. It was a tight turn, but he made it. “Tell me that you lo-jacked my car and not me, Chloe.”
She blew out and exasperated breath. “So suspicious. I hacked your service support accounts ages ago,” she said breezily.
Of course she did. “Where am I going?”
“Enter the Civic Center parking lane on the left. This will take you under Sixth Street and then you can take the Market Street exit to get around the traffic.”
“Nice,” he complimented her. “See you in a few?”
“I’m running some errands, but yeah, if I’m not there when you arrive, I won’t be far behind you.”
Chloe Sullivan slipped her phone back in her handbag, smiling politely as a group of weary Queen Industries employees heading back to Star City began boarding the corporate jet. She finished packing a briefcase of files that Oliver mentioned needing since he was sending a group of executives home on the jet reserved for his use.
She got a few curious looks from the boarding passengers and heard the co-pilot explain that Ms. Sullivan worked for Mr. Queen and that she was upgrading the wi-fi, and had ordered an in-flight meal that would be delivered shortly, compliments of Mr. Queen.
While the passenger’s settled in, she made her way to the front of the plane to de-plane. The ground crew on the general aviation side of the airport took no notice of her as she returned to the building serving a row of hangers as a terminal for private jets and cargo planes. A few minutes later, she was in her car and back on the road to the city, ignoring the tension that had settled in her shoulders.
The on-board wi-fi connection that was used on the QI corporate jet was one of the few vulnerable points she had been able to identify in QI’s data security plans. The plane carried Oliver too often someone had decided to make sure that nothing impeded his access while he was flying.
Jimmy had left her so much. She hadn’t so much as thought about updating her beneficiaries before they were married. After he filed for divorce, and after she left Metropolis with Davis, Oliver had hired Jimmy and he had made her his beneficiary on his 401K. His life insurance was split between her and his younger brother. A salary continuation benefit paid off the Watchtower mortgage. The idea of financially benefiting in any way from his death made her feel ill when she was notified about the life insurance by Jimmy’s father.
This was better. It felt right to make Jimmy a part of her fail safe plan.
She had been waiting for weeks for Jimmy’s life insurance to pay out. If everything went according to plan, she wouldn’t need to use the back door she had created for herself to fund her project. If it didn’t, she would have access to money and a way to move it to an off-shore account and then replace it with the insurance money.
She didn’t feel great about her decision to create a back-up for financing by exploiting a vulnerability in QI’s data security. Stopping at a grocery store on the way back to stock up on bottled water, she picked up fresh produce and overpriced bread at an upscale grocery.
She was on her second trip carrying groceries up on the elevator when Oliver breezed in. He immediately offered to take the bags from her.
She handed him her keys instead. “There is a case of bottled water in my trunk,” she explained.
When he came in, he was carrying the case of water in a one handed grip that made her want to call him out for showing off, as well as a jumbo 30 roll package of toilet paper. The toilet paper evened things out. “This is for up here, too isn’t it?”
“That’s mine and Lois’,” Chloe told him, straight faced.
He gave her a good natured, “You forget. I’ve visited Girl’s Town, and if you think Lois is giving this kind of bathroom or bedroom storage space up to toilet paper . . . Yeah, right! That’s never going to happen. Where do you want this?”
She laughed because he was right. Four rolls, under the sink, was the absolute limit for Lois. “Leave one package down here and the rest goes upstairs,” she said. “The water is for the kitchen—“
“Obviously,” he finished, setting the case by the refrigerator, and looking over the tops of the bags. “Did you get anything good—wow! That looks like real food,” he said, throwing her a skeptical look. “You know you probably shouldn’t try to microwave some of this stuff.”
“I have a Panini maker,” she explained.
“We need beer.”
“I got beer.”
He forgot about the toilet paper and started getting into the bags to see what she had purchased. “The pop tart cabinet had me worried about you,” he said as he started separating things that needed to be refrigerated from things that didn’t.
“The pop tarts are for Bart.”
“Sure they are,” he said, flashing a quick smile.
Chloe shook her head. “Get out, and take the toilet paper upstairs with you,” she shoo’d him out of her kitchenette.
A few hours later Oliver was checking in with Watchtower when he heard the thud of Hawkman’s boots behind him. He had no idea what the guy’s wings were made of, but they had to weigh a ton. Oliver didn’t bother to look over his shoulder to confirm. A muscle in his shoulder was already twitching, and that was all the confirmation he needed. It was Carter. It figured that Carter had his own personal twitching nerve assigned to him.
“Still there, Arrow?” Chloe’s voice hummed in his ear.
“Yeah,” he confirmed. “Me, and my shadow.”
“Hawkman?” she managed to invest his name with sympathy and amusement at his expense.
“You got it in one,” he confirmed. Maybe if he just ignored him, Big Bird would go away.
“I’d really like to get a tracker and a comm on him,” Chloe said. “Do you think—“
“No, no, no,” Oliver overrode her. “Seriously, Tower. You are killing me here. Arrow, out.”
“Is Chloe your girlfriend or your boss?” Carter asked.
“Really?” Oliver scoffed. First, she’s his secretary, and now she’s his girlfriend? ‘Boss’ was tossed out with enough mockery that Oliver decided that Big Bird had issues with women in charge. Oliver was proud to say that he didn’t.
“Obviously, she’s the boss.”
Gravel crunched under Carter’s feet. “I wasn’t sure if you knew that or not,” he said. “Does Clark?”
“Boy Scout,” Oliver corrected automatically. “No, and he’s oblivious to the epic power struggle. For the record, I’m not asking. I’m telling you, when you are ready to join you get a nifty GPS tracker and one of these,” Oliver pointed at his Bluetooth, and then did a little finger rotation to indicate the city. “Real time police scanner, every camera in the city, the electrical grid, every kind of map of the city you can imagine plus detailed blue prints of buildings, and Tower’s brain at your disposal. A little please and thank you would not go unappreciated by those of us who do her bidding and make non-lethal use of lethal weapons.”
“Chloe is very helpful,” Carter said. “The voice in your ear, ready to provide intel and back-up, or just keep you company. Nice little set-up you’ve got, Green Bean.”
“Cryptic, huh? Whatever, man. I’m—“
“Arrow?” Chloe cut in. “I’ve got a two on one armed robbery in progress on 4th and Winkler,” Chloe said. “What’s your status?”
Oliver tapped his comm. “In route,” he said. “Damn it! I hate you,” he gritted out at Hawkman. “Give me a lift, man. I’m out of range. “I need that building,” he pointed to a 15 story high rise three blocks away. “Thirty seconds ago.”
Having been in the air with Hawkman before didn’t really help. The vertical lift was brutal, but Oliver just gritted his teeth, and tried to relax into a hard landing that sent him skidding in the wrong direction on a steep roof of broken slate shingles. Hawkman pivoted in mid-air and waited for him to get his footing while he was loading a bow.
“Busy,” he said tersely, unable to keep from sliding. He just went with it, firing off a knock-out gas arrow since that would disrupt the attack and maybe take down the assailants.
His slide came to a stop at the edge of the roof, with one foot planted against the outer lip of a box gutter of questionable age and stability. He quickly found a target for a grappling arrow and set a line to descend. Hawkman sped ahead of him to knock some heads together.
“Call Metro for the pick-up, Tower,” Oliver told Chloe a few minutes later when the baddies were out cold. He pulled a pair of zip-ties out of a compartment in his belt.
“You got ‘em! Great job!” she cheered, the muted sound of her keyboard clicking in the background. “MPD is on the way, and just in time! I need you moving to the women’s shelter on Canal. There is a guy prowling around outside and MPD has put the call on a low priority for response. Gut feeling . . . check it out?” her voice rose at the end, turning it into a plea.
“On it,” he said as he finished securing the assailants for pick up. The dazed driver of the car was bleeding pretty heavily from what looked to be a broken nose.
“The police are on the way. Just wait here for help.” Oliver guided him over to the curb.
“Am I tripping, or does that guy have wings?” he asked hoarsely.
“Costume party,” Oliver improvised. “Go figure, huh?”
“Arrow,” Hawkman growled.
“Dude! Green Arrow. I gotta get a picture. My friends are never going to believe this!” he said.
“Okay,” Oliver sang under his breath. “Really, time to go. Lives to save.”
The guy held his fist up for a fist bump. Why not? Oliver fist bumped him and set off at a jog, retrieving his line. “C’mon,” he called out to Hawkman.
“Need a lift?” Carter rasped right before he grabbed him by the hood.
“I really hate you,” Oliver said. “Go left, and—ugh!” he groaned when he was clipped by a sign sticking out over the corner.
“Canal Street. Women’s shelter,” he wheezed.
His comm was still open.
“Are you okay?” to be fair she really did sound worried. Her voice was also vibrating with suppressed laughter.
“Peachy,” Oliver told her bitterly. “You might as well just place your delivery order, because you are going to be icing some ribs tonight, Tower.”
“Tell me when to place the order. Do I need to have medical on stand-by?”
Medical was code for Emil. “Nope. Switching to silent running. Arrow, out,” he said before Hawkman dumped him on top of a dumpster. Hah. So funny. He really hated that guy.
Oliver jumped down and jogged around the corner, rubbing his side. Unfortunately, the women’s shelter was a location he was extremely familiar with given that it was like stalker’s alley. On some nights there were two or three guys down here looking for the runaway wife or girlfriend who had tired of being knocked around, forcing the entire building to go on lock down.
The last time he was here, there was a guy with a boombox on his shoulder singing a horribly off-key Roxanne. Sorting out public nuisance from actual criminal intent sometimes meant that he had a long, boring wait for something to happen.
Carter whistled to get his attention. He was in between buildings taking off his helmet and breastplate. Without it, he looked like a relatively ordinary, albeit sweaty and grizzled, guy. Oliver hung back, curious about where he was going with this. Their stalker wasn't even going for subtle. He was out front with the passenger side door open and the engine running.
Carter walked up and tapped on the driver’s side window.
The driver rolled it down. “What do you want?”
“Go away,” Carter said. “You are scaring the people in the building.”
“Screw them and screw you. I’ll leave when Denise gets her ass in the car.”
“No, that doesn’t work for me,” Carter said patiently. “Go away, and don’t come back. I’m not one of the city’s costumed heros or a cop. I’m just a guy who likes to make people who scare women and children bleed,” he said, reaching in to grab a fistful of the driver’s shirt. He followed up by punching him hard in the face.
Oliver winced at the sound of bone cracking.
“Better. Now you are bleeding from the nose.”
“Arrow?” Chloe’s voice sounded whisper soft in his ear.
“Go,” he said quietly.
“I’ve got a 911 call coming in from the shelter. There is a guy in the street beating up—“
“Yes, he is,” Oliver nodded.
“Hawkman?” she sighed.
“He’s going Conan,” Oliver confirmed, “without the mace. “He really does come from a simpler time, you know.”
“I just sent a SOS to Dan Turpin and asked for an assist,” Chloe reported.
It took Oliver a second to place the name. Turpin was MPD and he’d been involved in a little ring of cops looking for some extra-legal justice. “Right, so we better clear out,” Oliver said. “You got anything else for us?”
“Since you mention it . . .” Chloe said. “Busy night.”
Oliver turned his comm off and whistled for Hawkman’s attention. “Hey man, what do you think you are doing?” he shouted, gesturing for Hawkman to roll it up.
Carter yanked the guy’s keys out of the ignition and tossed them. “Cops are coming, princess. Have a good time down in lock up.”
“Stylish,” Oliver critiqued when they were on a rooftop five blocks away.
“Expedient,” Carter retorted. “After you go home and your girlfriend locks up for the night, who is watching out for her?”
And, Chloe was demoted to girlfriend again. Dinah was going to make Carter’s ear’s bleed if they ever teamed up.
“She’s got a tazer. I think she’s got it covered,” Oliver retorted. “Seriously, man. Say that in front of her, because you’re getting the eyebrow of doom if you do.”
Carter looked moderately amused.
Oliver was busy lining up his shot. He had time and was tempted to get off a fancy trick shot, but he didn’t want to come off like the jackass Carter accused him of being, so he waited. Chloe had sent them a silent alarm at a lingerie shop next to a dentist’s office and under an apartment. There was a light on in the apartment, so there were possibly civilians moving around.
“So, this guy is practically falling down the side of the building—no finesse, just panic with Hawkman hovering in mid-air in front of him—“Oliver winced as he pulled a black, sleeveless t-shirt over his head.
His exaggerated ‘ow’ made Chloe roll her eyes as she briskly shook out a bag of frozen peas to loosen the contents enough to shape for a cold compress.
She came out of the kitchen to find Oliver, naked to the waist and nearly rolled her eyes again. He was worse than a toddler about throwing his clothes off for any reason. She spun around to grab a couple of beers, passing one to Carter Hall.
“Ollie!” she tossed the other bottle to him.
He snagged it, effortlessly.
She gestured to his discarded gear. “There isn’t enough air freshener in the universe for sweat and leather. Get this out of my work space, take a shower, and then you get a nice, cold bag of peas for your owie.”
He grimaced. “Fine. It was a funny story, though,” he grumbled, grabbing his stuff and heading up the stairs.
“There was a naked guy with a baseball bat,” Carter jumped to the funny part. “He wanted an autograph.”
Chloe cracked a smile. It faded pretty quickly. “Sorry,” she said. “Long day.”
“Yeah . . . thanks for the help tracking down Ted and his family,” Carter put in. “If there is ever anything we can do for you—“
She shook her head. “I’m all about calling in favors,” she assured him, rubbing the back of her neck and wincing at the rattle of pipes as Oliver turned the shower on upstairs. She turned to look at Carter. “You aren’t a plumber?”
He chuckled. “No,” he shrugged, “but, Pat—Courtney’s step-father?—is a general contractor. I think we can work out something on discreet plumbers.”
Chloe manifested a degree of pleasant surprise. “Okay,” she nodded. “That was almost too easy. I’m used to having to make a case.”
Carter winced at a particularly loud groan from the pipes, and she chuckled. “Okay! The pipes are making a case for themselves,” she made another pass through the kitchenette to top off her coffee cup and plug in a Panini maker.
Carter found himself smiling at the artless way she had walked him into volunteering to help out. She was frowning over an uncut loaf of bread. “What do you have for knives?” he asked, joining her in the kitchenette.
“Mostly stuff in the ginsu family,” she said, showing a motley collection that included a paring knife, a long, thin bladed boning knife, a small clever, a meat ax, and a longer serrated knife.
“What’s the plan here?” he asked.
She went to the refrigerator, pulling out a block of cheese, a bag with two tomatoes, and vacuum-packed prosciutto, the avocado, and alpha sprouts. Carter nodded. “Good choices,” he said, peering around her shoulder. “Get the onion and the green pepper, too. We can use that,” he took the serrated knife and started making precise angled cuts to slice the bread.
“How long have you been helping Oliver and Clark?” he asked, in part to make conversation, and in part because he was curious.
“I was around Courtney’s age when I headed down this path with Clark. Ollie came into the picture later, after I started working at The Daily Planet.”
By the time Oliver came down from showering, they had two sandwiches in the press and were making more, and chatting about Carter’s work as an archeologist. “I’m thought, by my peers in the field, to be too intuitive,” Carter was confiding. “It’s not a compliment.”
Chloe sipped her coffee, smiling up at him. “So . . . flash forward a couple of hundred years and you are working on a site and you find a leather bag with a Hello Kitty keychain—“
He smiled, nodding. “Something like that, though my peers tend to err on the side of ‘it’s just a keychain’. A lot of archeology is digging through the garbage. The significance of objects beyond utility is left to the anthropologists—until they get it wrong, and then we mock.”
“So, you teach?” she said, giving him a friendly sideways look. “I might have Googled you,” she admitted.
Oliver found himself watching them. Objectively, Carter Hall had rebound boyfriend potential. He was all soulmated-up to his late wife, and just hanging out until he died so he could be reincarnated to find her again. On the other hand, the idea of Chloe settling for an old guy with a death wish who annoyed the crap out of him on a regular basis just rubbed him wrong. Really, really wrong.
It was a good thing that he was around to keep that from happening.
He justified this quickly—they worked together, and therefore he had a right to object to her hypothetical rebound boyfriend. And she could do better, though arguably that ruled him out.
He stole a ribbon of green pepper from Chloe, nudging her hip. “You knife work sucks,” he told her.
She surrendered the knife without stabbing him and he resumed where she left off, pausing to examine the slightly bent tip of the knife. “What did you pry open with this?”
“DVD player. It was a disk slippage emergency,” she patted his back. “Do you want me to wrap up your ribs?”
“Uh-huh,” he ate another piece of the green pepper. “I’m starving.”
“Carter has someone who can work on the plumbing,” Chloe told him, heels clicking on the floor as she moved to the other counter to collect the thawing bag of frozen peas.
She returned to nudge his elbow up. “That’s my sandwich you are making, so pay attention. I want thinly sliced green peppers, no skin,” she said as she lifted his t-shirt.
Frowning, she ran her fingers over his ribs. “I heard you hit something hard,” she said, puzzled by the lack of bruising.
Oliver tilted his head, and considered teasing her about feeling him up. “Other side,” he said.
She shook her head, moving around him to pull his t-shirt up again. She felt around. “How does that feel?”
“I’m not produce,” he complained. “Your hands are cold,” he added. The benefits of icing his ribs were becoming less obvious. He was clean, warm, and cuddling up to an ice cold bag of peas was not appealing. “Now that I think about it, it’s fine,” he added. “I took ibuprofen.”
Chloe ignored his protests and wrapped his ribs once in an Ace bandage so he wouldn’t get a chill before she wrapped over the bag of peas.
Carter took off while they were still eating, and Chloe brought out the stash of locally made sweet chilli potato chips and a beer.
Oliver patted the empty spot next to him on the couch. “I will chase you around here and take your chips if you don’t share,” he warned.
She joined him. “How are your ribs? Really?”
“I’ve had worse,” he said while she grasped the bag at the top, pulling it open so slowly that you’d think she was doing a potato chip strip tease. She offered him the bag first.
“Three things I like about Kansas . . . these potato chips . . . weird 60 degree days between Christmas and New Years . . . and traffic, because a traffic jam is pretty rare.”
“All good,” Chloe agreed. “This is not to be repeated around Clark, but I like pick-up trucks, tractors, and cows.”
“Cows?” Oliver repeated. “You like cows?”
“Cows are surprisingly good company. Who knew?”
“You got married in a barn, so I thought that was probably more you than Jimmy,” Oliver said, digging into the bag for more chips. “It worked. You looked like you were modeling for the best possible reason to get married, and Lois was rocking the burnt orange bridesmaid dress.”
“Aw!” he got one of those smiles she tended to bestow on Bart when he was flirting with her.
Chloe looked over at him with a smile and a hint of curiosity. “She looked great, didn’t she?”
“Yeah,” he thought about ignoring the curiosity that went with the look. “That’s when I knew that Lois knew that Clark was on her radar.”
Chloe nodded. “Yeah, they remained oblivious a lot longer than I thought they could.”
“The anniversary of the wedding came and went before Thanksgiving,” Oliver noted.
“I . . . it was another life,” she said after a moment, leaning forward to brush potato chip crumbs off her top.
He didn’t push. Looking across Watchtower, he just mulled over how that led to this. Knowing as little as he did about her life, Jimmy really had picked the perfect setting for Chloe’s next act of reinvention.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you,” he said. It didn’t come out as smoothly as he would have wished. Given his state of mind at the time, he would have been worse than useless. He stayed away for precisely that reason.
She bumped his shoulder with hers. “You’re here now,” she said, gesturing to her array of computers, “and you helped make all of this come together.”
He nodded. “I bought this couch,” he added. “It’s eggplant. I thought it was a color you’d like,” he did a fake modest shrug.
“And you got my window fixed in record time,” she noted.
She did a little back and forth head bob. “There are some things I want to do around here . . .” she gestured with her beer bottle, “to make it more comfortable.”
“Just a thought, but this is kind of the new clubhouse, so I’m happy to finance the Watchtower upgrade,” he offered, adjusting the bag of peas now that they were getting a little mushy.
“Oh, I’m going to hit you up for the plumbing and the electrical, and Victor is already working on some new security features—“
“I got that. We can’t have people getting tossed through your windows on a regular basis.”
“Or, sneaking in through the cupola,” Chloe added. She had set the bag down between them so they could both reach it more easily. “They have a new flavor coming out next month,” she told him. “Spicy Thai.”
Oliver paused with a chip on the way to his mouth. “Pure evil,” he muttered.
She picked at the label on the bottle in her hand with her thumbnail. She was tempted to tell Oliver about her fail safe plan. Since he had returned from his little walk about on the wild side, he had quietly stepped up and if he wasn’t her first phone call, for every crisis, that was mostly habit. After Icicle was hauled off to MetGen, Clark disappeared. Ollie was the one who showed up later, not only helping her get the repairs done in record time, but making sure that she had a place to stay so she wouldn’t have to drive to Smallville.
She looked over at him, and he smiled, adjusting to throw his arm across the couch behind her, rubbing her upper arm briefly before closing his eyes.
He looked tired. Maybe he hadn’t thought of all of the contingent futures that could go wrong. He seemed to share Clark’s faith that knowing what the future held gave them an edge in defeating it.
In all of her years of keeping and protecting secrets, she had learned that the best approach was to isolate the secret and maintain a strict discipline of containment.
Clark had a hard time getting past Ollie’s appropriation of Lex’s Kryptonite ring and the arrow he had used to disable Clark to keep him from interfering in their half-baked plan to take out Davis. He and Clark were just getting past their differences and finding their way to a healthier partnership than they had in the past.
Involving Oliver in her plans at this point was unacceptable.
He tugged on her hair lightly. “You’ve got a serious look on your face,” he said. “Is everything okay?” he peered at her. “By everything, I mean . . . you. Are you okay? I worry about you, sometimes.”
“Me?” her eyes widened.
“Crazy, huh?” he turned toward her, wincing a little at the reminder that his ribs had taken a hard hit. His hand fell to her neck, fingers squeezing lightly. He made a face at the muscle tension. “You let me off easy on letting you down,” he said. “I meant what I said last week. Don’t give up on us, and . . . let us help?” he tilted his head when her gaze dropped.
She frowned, feeling something hard pressing against her heart. Okay, maybe that was just heartburn from scarfing her Panini and half a bag of chips down, but still, it felt like the pressure of all of the things that she had to keep battened down was squeezed inside her chest. At times like this, she wished that she could burp like Lois could—if it was heartburn. If it wasn't, she wished that she could just box it up and kick it to the curb like Clark did.
She took a sip of her beer instead, closing her eyes while Oliver’s palm warmed her neck. Loosing Jimmy, and Clark, and Lois at the same time isolated her. She had a recurring dream that she was back at Black Creek, only everyone was gone and she couldn’t find a way out. Sometimes she dreamt that it was high school, or the basement of the Daily Planet, but no matter the venue, it was the same. She was alone and there was no escape.
She forced herself to take a deep breath. It eased the pressure in her chest. The heel of Oliver’s hand rubbed her neck in a soothing circular motion. Before she could slip back into the permanent gray that edged her thoughts, he teased her out of it.
“I hear that you are a terrible guest,” he murmured.
She cocked her head to one side. “Who do you hear that from?”
“Mangement,” there was a hint of laughter lurking in his voice. “It might surprise you to know this, but I have people—“ he shrugged.
Chloe found herself smiling. Technically, she was one of Oliver’s people, but since he had put her up in his guest bedroom the night after Hawkman tossed him through the window, she guessed that he was talking about his housekeeping service. “Yeah . . . you have people.”
“And I don’t have guests a lot, So, they were on alert for a very demanding VIP guest, and you didn’t leave your wet towels on the floor.”
She smiled. “I made the bed, too.”
“I actually heard about that,” he teased. “And you left a nice note on the counter.”
Rolling her neck, she leaned back into the comfort of his hand cradling her neck, opening her eyes to smile for him. “It was the biggest bed I’ve ever seen in my life,” she told him. “The comforter must have been five inches thick and there were . . . six pillows? All white. It was like being in the middle of a marshmallow,” she put a little whine into the complaint.
“And the coffee service was awesome,” he prompted.
“Mm-hm,” she hummed.
“Try to be a little more demanding next time,” he ordered. His fingers rubbed the base of her skull and she tilted her head forward a little, feeling it down to her knees as the tension eased.
She slumped sideways and her elbow crunched the potato chip bag left between them. He rescued it, getting to his feet to take the chips and the bag of peas back to the kitchen. Chloe stretched out into the warm space he occupied on the couch, stretching until she felt something give with a satisfying little ripple of feeling along her spine.
He came back to stand over her, shaking his head. “Are you going to sleep here?” he asked.
She patted the couch. “I might,” she nodded to herself. “It’s a good couch. Are you taking off?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yeah, it’s late. I guess I ought to . . .” he gestured to her, “since you are kicking me off the couch—“
She put her hand out. “Help a girl out,” she hinted.
He pulled her to her feet. She went to her desk to get her purse and then to the coat tree by the door to slip on a truly unfortunate plaid coat. Oliver found himself having another moment. It wasn’t a big, major, life changing thing. He just accepted that his evening was going to be extended a little longer because Chloe was going out for coffee and he was tagging along partly because it was late, but mostly because it was what he wanted to do.
It took about a year to sift through the weight of guilt and displaced anger, but he has internalized what Clark tried to tell him over a year ago. Part of what they do is about helping people find a way back from a bad decision. Chloe ran him through a virtual maze to drive that point home.
He was finding his way back from a bad decision.
It surprised him that he didn’t think he was on the verge of making another a half an hour later when he noticed that there was a smudge of whipped cream on Chloe’s upper lip. She was drinking one of her outlandishly complicated concoctions and he was teasing her about how she sounded sometimes on the phone or when she was Watchtower.
“You mean bossy?” she guessed.
And, yeah, that just went right over her head. He was thinking about how to correct that impression when he realized that they were flirting. He was flirting. He wasn’t sure what she was doing. And what he was doing wasn’t exactly new. He careened into her orbit weeks ago, and now he was hanging out with her on coffee runs in the middle of the night and not even resenting it a little that she was completely oblivious.
He stared at her long enough to make her self-conscious, and then he took the napkin she had around the bottom of her coffee cup and blotted the whipped cream off her lip, and ignored his epiphany. More or less. He draped his arm over her shoulder as they walked and let her tell him about how she was working on some new ideas about indexing data to improve retrieval speed, aware as her hands moved while she talked, that she was visualizing something that was abstract and, in some way, beautiful to her.
Chloe was finding her way back from some bad decisions too.
A few days later, he was playing golf with his other buddy, Emil, who was his personal physician. Dr Hamilton couldn’t possibly think that Oliver was hanging out with him because Oliver needed a therapist . He knew Oliver wouldn’t go to one as long as he had yoga, his second job, and golf cart therapy.
It was winter in Kansas, which meant that no one was playing golf even though the weather had been unseasonably warm. Still, Emil’s lucky golf pants were making him feel an unwanted second person embarrassment for the guy every time he rocked back and forth shaking his polyester plaid covered ass while lining up a shot.
His AA speech would probably go something like, “My name is Oliver Queen, and I’m not an alcoholic or in denial, but I am a jackass, and when I’m drunk my jackass filter is barely functional. It’s been three months since I’ve been drunk enough to not give a damn about anything, and it’s been less than three minutes since I missed not giving a damn about anything.”
He was really almost completely over that, but sometimes he regretted not letting his inner jackass out to play.
Their caddy, a business major at Met U, keeps calling him ‘sir’ and asking if he needs a drink.
“Jesus, Jerry! Enough already. Get me a beer. No,” Oliver held up a finger, wagging it back and forth. “Go to the clubhouse, and get me a Pabst Blue Ribbon 1844. Don’t come back without it.”
“Pabst Blue Ribbon?” Jerry was looking at him like he was crazy.
“1844,” Oliver reminded him. “I don’t want to see you until you’ve got an ice cold one in your hand.”
“Yes, sir!” Jerry said, hurrying to the cart.
“Don’t take the cart,” Oliver stopped him.
“Right! Your clubs . . . I’ll just . . . jog to the clubhouse.”
“Good man,” Oliver saluted him.
Emil watched him go and took his shot. It went into the trees.
“Mulligan,” Oliver called out. “Why do we play golf? And why are those pants lucky?”
“It’s relaxing, and my wife gave them to me. She said that if I was going to be an asshole doctor who cut short office hours to play golf, I should look the part.”
Oliver started to laugh, and then he remembered that Emil’s wife was dead. The late Mrs. Hamilton was pretty funny. It slipped out anyway. “That’s . . . awesome. Man, I’m so sorry I didn’t get to know her.”
Emil shrugged. “It’s okay. She wouldn’t have liked you. She had a deep distrust of men who were prettier than she was.”
“Quirky,” Oliver commented as he placed his tee.
“Pabst Blue Ribbon 1844? Isn’t that only sold in China?” Emil asked.
Oliver feigned surprise. “Is it? Really? Huh. It will be interesting to see what Jerry makes of that.”
Emil shook his head with a small, amused smile. “If this isn’t relaxing, then—“
Oliver twisted his neck to realign his spine. “I was thinking that this, along with a bunch of other crap, beats the hell out of AA, but what the hell do I know?” He paused to look over his shoulder at Emil. “That wasn’t rhetorical. Seriously, what do I know? I think I’m not a fucking mess, but then I look around, and what if I’m wrong?”
Comprehension was swiftly followed by compassion, and Oliver had to wonder how much of his messed up stuff Emil really knew about.
“A lot of people depend on you, Oliver.”
Okay . . . maybe not.
It occurred to Oliver that maybe those people needed therapy worse than he did. He swung for the end of the fairway, and launched a 300 yard drive, straight down the middle. He was an awesome putter too. Just because he didn’t like golf as a business social exercise didn’t mean that he wasn’t good at it.
“You are hating me right now, aren’t you?” Oliver guessed.
“A little bit, but since you are being an emo, moody bitch, it evens out,” Emil allowed.
“Huh,” Oliver returned his driver to his bag. He looked at the cart with a frown. “I guess one of us is going to have to drive the glorified lawn mower,” he observed.
“You got rid of our caddy, who is Josh, not Jerry,” Emil told him.
“Right. He’s Josh when he stops answering to Jerry,” Oliver shrugged, walking around the driver’s side. Emil got in while he put the thing in gear and got it moving. “What is emo?” he wondered aloud.
“Anyway, not important. You miss you wife, don’t you?”
Emil was prone to thoughtful pauses. They bounced around in companionable silence at 18 miles per hour. It was mostly companionable. Oliver was wondering if he had boundary issues as well as a strange longing for the positive side of uncomplicated alcoholism that was incompatible with his goals. Of course, it had occurred to him that the real problem was that he was incompatible with his goals, but that was more depressing and embarrassing than Emil’s golf pants, so he was ignoring that in favor of bonding over their mutual disdain for golf as a business leisure activity.
“She was sick for the last three months of her life. Ovarian cancer. The percentages are pretty good with early detection, but she kept defying the odds at every turn,” he shook his head. “Illness like that strips away everything, and she was angry. Bitter,” he looked over at Oliver, deciding that he didn’t need to explain why a young woman with everything to live for would be bitter about dying. “I started missing her before she died, and now I remember her and I feel like she’s come back to me.”
Oliver’s discomfort with the direction that the conversation took was carefully stowed away. People assumed that he knew something about grief because of his parents’ tragic deaths, but he was a child when that happened. At some point in his teens he realized that he could no longer separate what he knew about his parents first hand and what people told him because he could not have retained so much detail outside of his personal experience of his parents. They had become characters in a book to him, and he missed them as fiercely as he resented them for being dead.
“That’s . . . hard,” Oliver said. “I’m sorry.”
Emil gave him a curious look. “This is emo, in case you were still wondering.”
Oliver grunted. “I’m trying to be sensitive,” he protested.
“Don’t. It makes you look queasy.”
“I bet you practice looking like you are momentarily overwhelmed with compassion,” Oliver shot back.
“A couple of times a day,” Emil nodded. “I like to start with the head tilt,” he demonstrated.
“It feels wrong,” he shook his head.
Oliver stopped the cart near Emil’s ball and they made a token effort to find it before Emil took a drop and made a drive that caught the lip of the putting green, took an odd bounce, and rolled to within twelve feet of the hole.
Emil just shook his head. “If I tried for that? Not in a million years.”
Oliver finished with a twenty-three foot putt that came within an inch of the hole. After he tapped that in, Emil sank his twelve-foot putt.
Not a single word containing a thought about their mutual acquaintance, Chloe Sullivan ever crossed his lips.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” Mia was telling Jerry, or Josh, when Oliver made it to the parking circle. She was leaning against his Jaguar, looking like a jail bait version of his future girlfriend with her flowing hair and a leather jacket over a t-shirt that looked poured on, and jeans that didn’t quite meet the hem of her t-shirt. It was kind of late in life to find himself in the position of being someone’s disapproving older brother, and it was weird how much he relished assuming the role.
“I’m way too close to being half his age for one thing,” she said with the withering scorn Mia could produce while sounding bored beyond the telling of it.
“Yeah? Well, he’s kind of a jerk,” Josh told her, eying the strip of bare flesh about the waist of her jeans while trying to look like he wasn’t sweaty, tired, and frustrated. “He told me to go find him a beer that is only sold in China and costs, like $500 a bottle. What a dick!”
Oliver smirked. Well, yeah, Jerry or Josh or whatever you are letting people call you, that was exactly what I was going for, Oliver thought.
Mia tilted her head, looking amused. “What were you going to do if you found it?” she asked.
Josh sighed. “I don’t know,” he admitted with a goofy smile. “Ask if I could be his personal assistant slash mini-me clone? I was prepared to dye my hair blonde and hit the tanning booth. Maybe pick up some tips on how to drink beer without developing a beer gut,” he looked down at his abdomen. “Which is much needed advice,” he added.
Mia laughed at that. “Less beer, more treadmill. Oliver trains like an athlete,” Mia said, sounding proud of him.
Aw! He had his own little teen Barbie bad-ass in his corner.
“You are riding shotgun, Speedy,” he told Mia as he approached them.
He held his hand out for the keys, eyeballing Josh. “Decode it for me, Jerry. When I tell you I want a Pabst Blue Ribbon 1844, what does that mean?”
“It’s Josh,” he muttered. “I guess . . . go away?” he offered.
Oliver nodded. “I’ll ask for you if I need a caddy again.”
“Oooh! Lucky you!” Mia teased.
Emil, dressed in his normal suit and tie, passed them, palming Josh’s tip. “Next week?” he asked Oliver, smiling at Mia when she offered him a very small wave.
“Yeah,” Oliver said, moving to the driver’s side door. Mia gave him an annoyed look, but went around to the passenger side.
Training with Mia was fun and much easier than he expected it to be. She learned fast and she was far more disciplined than he expected. He had tried training with Bart, but Bart got bored too easily. He drove back to work, and diligently dug through another pile of stuff he was supposed to know about so he could make informed decisions about the pile of stuff that was waiting for his approval.
It was the part of his life that he actually knew best. Hung over and swimming in self-pity after Winslow Schott tried to off him again, Oliver knew he had more than implied that he was burdened by his role as the beneficiary of his family’s wealth. The reality was that QI was a publicly traded company, so he didn’t have to run it no matter how large his stake was. No one forced this on him. He fought for it when many of his detractors on QI’s board thought that he was too young and too inexperienced.
The playboy shtick that he hid behind to keep his real alter-ego under wraps had become a cover that he had was too tangled up in, to the point that he lost sight of the fact that it was mostly fiction. He wasn’t the CEO of Queen Industries as a happy accident of birth any more than he was Green Arrow because archery kept him alive for two years on a deserted island.
So, he had a moment. And another moment, and a few other moments where the universe (in the form of his previously underutilized shiny new conscientious) cock-blocked him. On a purely selfish personal level, he was disappointed. It occurred to him that the best possible outcome involved him scrubbing his mind out with soap. This happened when he saw Chloe Sullivan wearing something that was cute, but not provocative.
This meant it happened at least once a day. Or looking wholesomely pretty rather than sexy. That happened a lot more. But then she’d toss off some snappy comeback, or zing him with a pointed retort, or give him that sarcastic snark that he was practically addicted to—and Jesus, he was perving over a pocket sized, caffeine addicted, workaholic with a serious lack of off switch and no respect for personal boundaries.
His new attraction to Chloe Sullivan blindsided him. Finding his way back from his bad decisions, he had to wonder if he wasn’t just finding another way to shoot himself in the foot.
At first, he thought it was a delayed reaction to the new and improved Chloe with a side of displaced gratitude for saving his ass. New Chloe was efficient, with an edgy energy, and a stare that held a wealth of things that they were never going to talk about, all neatly jammed into the Chloe shaped person he had managed to take for granted in the past, and topped off with an enigmatic smile.
She was also thoughtful enough to buy good beer and stock snacks for him.
Shedding her identity as Clark’s sidekick, Chloe had moved with disconcerting swiftness into her role as Watchtower. There were some miscues, sure. She had gone overboard on keeping a watchful eye on the team, but after what she did for him, Oliver was inclined to let her run with it. The first time he had walked into Watchtower, he had been looking at what his money bought. After his encounter with Roulette, he walked into Watchtower and saw what Chloe had accomplished.
Which brought him to this: still hanging out at Watchtower when he wasn’t bringing his company back from the brink, and after he realized that he was hovering. He was sure that she thought he was there as an act of penance and to keep him too busy to backslide.
True, to a point. If you didn’t count the obscene amount of time he spent thinking about how she smelled when she was torturing him with iodine, rubbing alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide. He could tell what kind of day she was having based on her lipstick and the state of her hair. He was starting to hate days when she was all tarted up in her slim pencil skirts and professional blouses because he couldn’t stop staring at her ass and he refused to admit out-loud that he wanted to know who the hell she was dressed up for—unless it was him.
He called her to suggest that they make a regular thing of dinner on Wednesday night with whomever they could round up, and she said that she’d try to make it. Rolling up on Wednesday afternoon, she was wearing a navy blue skirt and a silk blouse with a row of tiny buttons up the back. The idea that it was at least a little bit for him was making him a little too happy.
He had a bullet point list of reasons why he a) shouldn’t be attracted to her, and b) absolutely should not act on it.
The reasons were beyond convincing. They carried his deep ambivalence and most unflattering doubts about his motivation. A few months ago, he had been trying to rekindle things with her cousin. So . . . was his sudden and unsettling attraction to his bereaved friend and employee who was also his ex-girlfriend’s closest attachment amongst her mostly detached relatives, a) mere coincidence, b) running straight at someone Lois would never be able to stand seeing him with, c) running straight at someone Clark would disapprove of him even thinking about, d) too damned convenient, and e) all of the above?
Chloe buried her ex-husband less than six months ago. Did she have a habit of expressing a deeper attachment to people than her actions would indicate was genuine? He thought that she had a tendency to get into one-sided relationships where she carried the burden of maintaining the relationship for people she was overly attached to who did not reciprocate her feelings, or were simply not emotionally available.
His reasons against pursuing anything with Chloe had the ring of truth. His reasons came in part out of his responsibility to Lois to do no harm to her cousin, his deep affection for Chloe and sheer self-preservation. Despite his playboy reputation, not even at his absolute lowest point did he ever get involved with a woman he worked with. Except, Tess, and since he bought a company for her, and they had history, that was different
He outlined his bullet points on cocktail napkins. He stacked up his reasons through hours of meditation and yoga until he built a foundation that he was at peace with. And then he’d walk through the doors to her tower and watch it crumble. Today, it was a double take at his empty hands that ended with her hands on her hips, and a moue of pale pink lips with barely a hint of gloss left.
“What’s a girl got to do to get a little coffee delivery action?” she joked.
He didn’t miss a beat before saying, “Call Bart?” but damned if he didn’t want to turn around and get her something with whipped cream just for the smile that he didn’t get instantly.
She cut her eyes at him in exasperation before she gave him a genuine smile. “Crime report digest is available and we have a working schedule for the next ten days.”
“Ten days? That’s pretty optimistic,” he opined, going to the extra desk that he used when he was at Watchtower. It put him at a right angle to her at her main console, so he could ogle to his heart’s content without getting caught.
Her over-achieving was endearing.
He had it bad. So bad, in fact, that he ought to have outed himself to Emil just to hear someone else tell him what was obvious—one of Dr. Hamilton’s special talents—and did he?
He tried to talk himself out of it by focusing on her sheer girlishness to the point where he thought she suffered from arrested development. Beyond their super-hero club, did Chloe have any close friends that didn’t attend Smallville High School? She went to college without meeting a single person that made an impression on her? She worked at the Daily Planet more or less since high school, and no one but Jimmy Olsen got into her clique?
What was the story with her clothes? She was twenty-two and gorgeous. She dressed like someone’s mother picked out her clothes. Half of her tops looks like maternity wear, yesterday’s number managed to combine maternity top with a low neckline and showed a demure glimpse of cleavage that had him wanting to run out and injure himself so he’d have an excuse to look down her blouse. And why did he have to notice that there was something about the lushness of her mouth that combined with the smart, funny, incisive, commentary to make him think that he needed to totally overhaul his tendency to dismiss all things pink as blandly safe?
“Oliver?” she had a large manila envelope, and she looked uncomfortable. He hoped that his face wasn’t doing something weird as he looked at her trying to project friendly receptivity.
“I’m having trouble with some of this,” she said, holding out the envelope. “Could you—do you know who I should talk to?”
He took the envelope from her and slid the contents out, scanning the portfolio titles. It was all QI death benefit stuff. Jimmy must have named her a beneficiary. Since he hadn’t cleared his probationary period, Oliver had to sign off on extending the benefits that were funded through the company’s self-insurance pool, and he had, but he hadn’t inquired further. He quickly set aside the benefits connected directly to employment, which were redundant in her case. “This is the extended health care package for dependents, which technically does not apply to you because you already have similar coverage through employment,” he explained.
There was a salary continuation package and a life insurance rider. He scanned the elections, and thumbed through the file looking for the transfer on death forms. Jimmy left his salary continuation to Chloe and half of his life insurance to her. The rest went to his younger brother. His life insurance was set up to be conveyed as QI stock and tied into a twenty-year payout plan on dividend. She could bypass that for a cash pay-out, but Jimmy’s younger brother was a minor, and his elections were locked in.
He tilted his head to one side. “This hasn’t paid out?” he asked.
“Jimmy’s death certificate didn’t come until three weeks ago. Between Vortigen and discovering the JSA, I’ve been busy,” she said.
He frowned. “His salary continuation benefit should have been paid within two weeks of the funeral.” It was company policy not to wait for a death certificate to get assistance to their employee’s designated beneficiary.
She shuffled through some papers. “It did,” she nodded. “I used it to satisfy the mortgage and transferred the deed to a shell corporation to dead end the paper trail.”
He started to offer to buy it from her. Jimmy bought this place for her and died here. The fact that she could stand being here and had built Watchtower here suggested that it meant a great deal to her. He decided that it was probably too soon to suggest that she transfer it to him to hold with the other assets they were accumulating to support their group.
He showed her how to track the value of the stock using an application on his phone. She had to lean over him to see what he was doing, and he wasn’t that surprised to find himself noticing how tiny she was. If he wrapped his arm around her waist, she’d fall into his lap and . . . yeah, he wasn’t going to be able to erase that appealing thought . . . ever.
That was more or less the moment when he gave up. He was twenty-nine years old going on thirty in 264 days, and this was supposed to happen. He was aware that he wasn’t nearly as willing as he ought to be. He had doubts and fears about what it meant that he was only seeing her. There were other women out there. Lots of them. Less complicated, more fun, and willing to settle for what he had to offer.
The idea of Chloe settling didn’t sit well with him. On the other hand, maybe he was supposed to be the catalyst that jump-started her back to being a gorgeous twenty-three year old girl with a dazzling smile. They’d flirt, indulge themselves, and being sensible and kind-hearted and too smart not to see through him, Chloe would let him untangle himself without resenting him too much, and life would go on.
“Someone in our HR department will be calling you in the morning to help you expedite the paperwork,” he said, texting his assistant to ask her to take care of it in the morning.
“I told Jonn that we’d meet him at the same place for dinner around eight?” she looked over at him curiously. “Victor got in on a 5:30 flight, so he’ll meet us there,” her eyes were alight with humor. “Just warning you. Jonn has this idea about starting a book club—“
“Yeah? A book club?” he shook his head.
“I invited Carter, too,” she announced as she gathered up the paperwork.
“Uh . . . why?”
Chloe laughed, looking over her shoulder at him.
He blinked and looked up hastily, clearing his throat. “I mean—you look really good today, with the,” he gestured vaguely, “and the heels and . . . no. No-no-no,” he shook his head adamantly. “You can’t be serious!” he protested as her eyes widened.
“This is ridiculous. That’s why I’m saying, no. For one thing, he’s way too old and why can’t he shave? Huh? And he talks about you like your salient characteristics are that you are helpful and cute.”
Chloe’s eyebrows shot up. “I am helpful and I’m very cute.” She continued on to her desk. “He’s getting a plumber lined up for me.”
“So?” Oliver gestured around, and then stopped when he realized that he was about to suggest that there was quid pro quo to be factored in, because that was just wrong, or she would remember that Emil was the one who helped her build Watchtower since he was busy rolling around in the gutter.
She was giving him a vague incredulous look. “Think about what you are about to say very carefully,” she cautioned. “This is starting to sound like the kind of conversation I used to have with Clark about you.”
He nodded. “Right . . .” He was pretty sure that she meant because Clark was concerned about her working with him.
“We’re spread a little thin around here,” she pointed out.
Oliver started to relax back into his chair. “Point taken,” he conceded. Hm. How to back pedal from that over-reaction, he wondered. “Eight?” he confirmed.
“Heading back to work?” she asked.
He nodded, rising. “Yeah. I’ll meet you at the restaurant,” when he reached the doors, he paused, and then turned back. Chloe had come out from behind her desk and was reading off her screens with a thoughtful expression.
When she saw him coming back, she gave him a curious look that turned wary, and she moved to return to her desk.
He wanted her. She was beautiful and smart and funny. She expected a lot from him, but she got that he was human. He made mistakes. Terrible mistakes. She didn’t let him get away with running away from that. How many people had reached out to him with the same message? Chloe was the only one who knew how to reach him, and thought it was worth it to risk everything to smack him around until he started working things out.
She was almost past him, when the demure line of buttons down her back and the sweet curve of her ass came into view, and he moved, sliding his arm around her waist and spinning her back into his chest.
“I’m not Clark,” he said as he cradled the back of her head. Her eyes widened and her hands clutched at his arms.
“And I don’t feel even a little like an over-protective friend,” he explained just before he kissed her.
He kept it soft and slow, not forcing it. When the tip of his tongue flicked her lower lip, she opened up to him with a tiny, helpless sound of her flimsy defenses being shredded. Her fingers pulled at his shirt sleeve before slipping around to his back while her other hand rose to his neck. His arm tightened around her, feeling her pressed against him from his chest to mid-thigh and wanting more.
When the kiss ended and her dazed eyes opened to meet his, he wanted to kiss her again. He didn’t. She looked too startled.
“You kissed me?”
He nodded. “I did. It was nice. If you want to do it again, it’s your move, Chloe.”