Biochemistry conferences were not, Lex knew, the sort of thing that CEOs were supposed to get excited about. But when he'd discovered that the American Association for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology would be holding its annual meeting in Metropolis, he'd cleared his schedule for two days of the three and set to catching up on advances in the field and looking for interesting researchers to recruit for LexCorp.
Immersing himself in science made him nostalgic for the boy he'd once been, the one who loved the chemistry lab but had been careful not to spend enough time there to be labeled a nerd. Wandering the corridors of the Kane Science Center between sessions, half listening to the hallway gossip and half lost in memories, he might have thought that a too-familiar face was a nostalgia-induced hallucination until she put her hand on his shoulder and spoke his name with a smile.
"Alicia Sutherland? What on earth are you doing here?" He leaned down to her and they exchanged quick formal kisses hello.
"I might ask you the same thing," she said, tapping him playfully on the shoulder with her program.
"Some of my researchers are doing papers and posters. I'm just showing the colors. And you?"
She beamed at him, and he thought she stood a bit taller as she replied. "You happen to be speaking to the Independent's new senior science correspondent."
"Good for you." At the English boarding school where they'd been lab partners half a lifetime ago, she'd had stacks of Berton Roueche books and an ancient copy of The Microbe Hunters on the shelves in her room. He smiled back at her, genuinely pleased, and they said nothing more for a long moment. Finally, he noticed that the crowds of people around them were starting to thin out. "I have to go to this protease panel, but would you join me for dinner tonight? My chief of research had to cancel, and I hate to let a good reservation go to waste."
"That would be lovely."
"Brilliant. I'll meet you at your hotel at, say, seven-thirty?"
"'Brilliant'? We'll make an Englishman of you yet, Lex." She brushed a stray piece of dust off his jacket's breast pocket and smiled again. "Seven-thirty. At the Hilton. See you then."
When she turned to go, Lex flipped open his phone and told his senior vice-president for research that he'd have to reschedule their dinner for later in the week.
Lex didn't change for dinner, but when Alicia came down to the Hilton's lobby, she was wearing a sleeveless black dress that set off the pale of her skin and made her glow. The neckline fell low in a complex ruck of fabric that draped over her breasts and the skirt slinked around her thighs as she walked towards him.
"Alicia. You're prettier now than you were at fifteen."
She crinkled her nose at that, and she was the girl he'd known again. "I don't know if I should take that as a compliment or the gravest of insults." Her slender arm wrapped around his elbow. "Shall we? I'm starved."
Patois was the sort of restaurant Metropolis had been decidedly lacking just a few years before -- thoughtful, elegant meals made from fresh local ingredients. The place had never been the huge success Lex thought it should be, but the owners also had a bar that offered a limited menu and live jazz in an adjoining space, and that, apparently, was profitable enough to keep the restaurant afloat.
"Trust me?" Lex asked, stopping the waiter from placing menus on the table with a raised hand.
"Except with the ether," she said, and winked.
He grimaced a bit at the memory, and sent the waiter off with his order. "We'll have the tasting menu for two, and a bottle of the Laurent-Perrier to begin with. And make sure to give Charlie my regards."
"Champagne?" Alicia asked.
"We haven't seen each other in over a decade. I think that makes tonight cause for celebration." When their glasses were filled, he raised his to hers in a toast. "To you. On your new position."
She blushed a bit, and her cast her large brown eyes down for a moment before meeting his gaze again. "Thank you." They clinked glasses. "So," she said, "what will LexCorp's next biochemical breakthrough be?"
He gave her his most persuasive smile. "Lecia. Talking business on a night like this? Let me tell you about those protease presentations..."
There was, he thought, a flicker of disappointment in her eyes, but just a brief one.
The evening stretched on, a comfortable blur of wine and chemistry talk and small, elaborately plated dishes. Alicia had grown into not only her angular good looks but an easy confidence. In school, she'd had a hard time talking in class; now she charmed Charlie when he came out of the kitchen to say hello, charmed the busboy who brought them more water, charmed Lex himself. Charlie sent a dish of pears and Stilton to the table in her honor, and the busboy replaced their water bottle the moment it was emptied, and Lex just sat back and enjoyed it.
When the waiter came by to take coffee orders, Lex said, "Why don't we do that next door?" The waiter escorted Alicia through the shared kitchen while Lex took care of the bill; by the time he joined her, she'd settled in at a table with two glasses of port.
"I thought this would be more suitable to the evening," she said, handing him one.
They clinked glasses again and listened to the band make its way through "My Funny Valentine." There were a few couples on the dance floor, and Lex watched them moving together, looking over to Alicia once or twice with a half-lidded gaze. "Would you like to dance?" he asked her when the song changed.
"I'd love to," she said, and held out her hand to him.
They moved together, dancing close and drunk, more expertly and more messily than they had in dance class. Lex touched his nose to her fine dark hair and inhaled deeply. It smelled of synthetic apple scented shampoo, with a hint of her dark floral perfume. The clarinet slowly wondered how deep the ocean was, and how high the sky. Alicia's arms moved more tightly around his waist and her hands caressed his back. His body shifted against hers, sharp angles and long curves; he remembered holding her like this when they were young, and study sessions on protein bonding ended with the two of them on her single bed, trying not to make the ancient springs squeak too loudly. She rested her head lightly on his shoulder, and it sent a small wave of pleasure down his spine. He rubbed a cheek against her temple, and it reminded him distantly of how she'd let him stay with her, never asking what was wrong, on the second anniversary of his mother's death.
If you've never been tempted, Lex, I'm sure one day you will be.
And he didn't know why he still heard his father's voice in his head; some days it felt like the old man was being simulcast across every frequency even though he'd been dead for two years now himself.
If you've never been --
He remembered his mother, her ethereal beauty turned to something strange and fiery as she methodically tore a stack of party invitations into small engraved pieces. His father not at home for days at a time and his mother and Pamela having conversations that stopped abruptly when he walked into the room.
And it was easy to fall, he saw that now. Falling was as simple and uncomplicated as the warm press of Alicia's body and the soft silk of her dress. The feel of her breath against his collar. It would be so simple, so right, to see this evening to its logical conclusion.
"Lecia," he said. "I have to go home now."
She looked up at him, startled. "Why?"
"Because if I don't, we'll do something foolish here."
Her expression turned knowing and playful. "Would that be so bad?"
He wanted to pull her closer, show her precisely how good it would be, but he pulled away a step instead. "I'm... involved. I should have mentioned that sooner."
Her hands dropped and rested lightly on his hips. "And that's a problem, is it?"
"Yes. I'm sorry." He pulled back further, taking her hands in his own. "I'll have the bartender call a cab."
The green and white taxi was idling outside by the time they settled the tab. Lex put out an arm for her as they climbed the three steps to street level, but she shook her head gently and took hold of the banister instead. On the sidewalk, she gave him a diplomatic smile. "Well. Thank you for a delicious meal, Lex."
"Thank you," he said. "Alicia -- "
"Don't," she said. "It's perfectly all right."
"Have a safe flight home," he said, and closed the space between them. He'd meant it as a chaste farewell buss on the cheek, but when it happened it was a kiss on the mouth, gentle but determined, dizzy with heat and the taste of port. He closed his eyes and fell into it.
When he pulled away fractionally for breath, she put a hand flat against his chest and pushed him back. "Lex," she said. "Go home."
He could feel himself flush slightly as he stepped away. "Right. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Her smile was almost a smirk, and if there was something else behind her eyes, it was too dark on the street to tell. "I'll see you around."
He watched until the cab turned the corner. When he got in his car, he checked his mouth for signs of Alicia's lipstick, and scrubbed at his face till they were mostly gone. He'd have to shower before going to bed, and decide if any of this was worth mentioning in the morning. He heard his father again: the knowing purr in his voice. Tempted, Lex.
As he pulled out into traffic, he found himself thinking that gravity keeps even the most determined apple from falling very far from the tree.
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