A/N: Huge thanks to all the people on the L&C messageboards who keep pulling me back into this wonderful fandom! Also, I cannot thank my beta-readers enough: Morgana, who's been with me since my second story; KenJ, who has the very difficult job of keeping me at least somewhat scientifically correct; and for groobie, being such a great encouragement and telling me when something works and when it doesn't! I know it's been a while, but I hope you all enjoy this story anyway!
He ran the story. Of course he did. It was news, the biggest news since Superman's debut, maybe even bigger, and he's Perry White, editor of the top newspaper in the world. It was the story of a lifetime, so there was never any question that he'd run it. Besides, Lois was adamant that it be published immediately, vehement in her ruthless pursuit of this Pulitzer prize-winning article, a consummate professional save that cold, hard anger crackled and jangled beneath her paper-thin surface. If he hadn't run the story, hadn't printed it on the front page of millions of copies of the Daily Planet, another paper would have, and Perry would have lost Lois too. So he picked his reporter, chose his side…and ran the story.
If he could do it all over again, he still doesn't know that he would make a different decision. But if he could do it again (and oh, how he wishes he could), he would warn Clark, would call him, would tell him not to come in. It still makes his blood run cold when he recalls it—how could he have not thought even once to warn the young man? Why had it never crossed his mind? But he was too busy dealing with the circling vultures, ordering extra copies printed, grilling Lois in a useless attempt to find out what exactly had happened in Smallville.
And yet, despite all that, he'd thought to pull Jimmy aside and warn him to be ready to pack up Clark's things for him—how much more effort would it have taken to pick up a phone and call Clark?
Jimmy, clueless as to the fact that history was being made right there in the bullpen, had looked at him askance when Perry told him to be ready to gather Clark's belongings, and he had asked why Clark was leaving. That simple question made Perry feel as if he were firing Clark, but he wasn't—he hadn't. He'd offer Clark a job as long as he wanted one…even if the story he ran made it impossible for Clark to do that job. So, irritated, he'd shooed Jimmy away without giving him an explanation.
When Jimmy saw the headline in the typesetter's office, when he was asked to comb through archived pictures for the double headshot they needed, he'd confronted Perry, asked him how they could do this to CK.
"It's news," Perry had said, and he wonders when that became excuse enough to destroy people's lives willy-nilly.
But by then, it was already too late.
And still he had not thought to call and warn Clark that his life was, in all but name, over.
And so Clark walked into work unsuspecting. Unknowing. Still idealistic. Still happy. Relaxed, secure in his perceived safety.
He'd been on a rescue just before, hadn't read the historic morning edition, hadn't seen Superman and Clark Kent's identical faces staring side by side out at the millions of people across the world all mobbing every newsstand. He walked into the Planet lobby (surely he'd noticed how it fell silent at his entrance, how everyone turned to stare at him). He'd taken the elevator (maybe still unaware that everyone knew he could simply fly up to his floor and in through any of the windows). He walked out into the newsroom and whether he'd figured it out on the elevator or the instant he stepped out into the midst of friends-turned-ruthless-reporters, Perry still isn't sure.
But Clark knew.
For one instant, Perry saw terror wash over Clark's expression, saw panic scribed with a bold, vicious pen over his features, saw despair change the very shape of his character—his face, his posture, his gait.
No accusations. No excuses. No explanations. No appeals.
Just that awful, condemning, tragic (endless) silence.
And Perry curses himself because, in the end, he knows exactly why he didn't call the younger man, why he didn't warn him that his secret was out for all the world to know.
It was shame, pure and simple. He hadn't wanted to face Clark, hadn't wanted to look him in the eye and tell him a news story was worth more than his life, his happiness, his job, his parents. His safety.
Not that Clark had approached Perry to hear his excuses. He hadn't even looked over to Perry, hadn't said a word. He avoided everyone's eye, slipped through the statue-still ranks as if he were a ghost come to haunt the vestiges of his past life.
And no one was more haunted than Lois. Only, she hadn't known it then. She'd been armored in righteous indignation, cloaked in professional integrity, protected and goaded on by the taunts of injured pride and betrayed pain.
Surely Clark had known that. Even without seeing the article that outed him, he'd somehow known instantly it was Lois who'd written it, so surely, surely, he must have known any attempt to speak with her was useless. But still he'd approached only one person, met only one pair of eyes—broken his silence only for her.
He walked to her desk, stood by it as he'd done so many times before, and said one word.
She watched him come, her arms crossed over her chest, the article that ensured her name in the annals of history spread out across her desk, proudly flaunted before her former partner. "How does it feel, Superman?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. "You've always claimed to stand for truth and justice—isn't it only fair that everyone knows the truth now?"
Even Perry had flinched before that strange mixture of challenge, accusation, excuse and plea (for both understanding and an explanation, Perry thinks). Clark hadn't flinched visibly, not with a physical withdrawal, but if Perry were to guess, he thinks that that's the exact, precise moment when Clark Jerome Kent died.
His ghost, pale and ashen and slow, had turned to his old desk, looked blankly at Jimmy when the young man dared to step forward, put a hand on Clark's arm, and say, "CK, is there anything I can do for you?"
Perry will never know how Clark summoned the strength necessary to smile wanly at Jimmy and ask him, so politely, to bring him a box for his belongings.
It took Superman less than a minute to calmly pack up the mementos of Clark's tenure at the Planet, to write a simple two-line letter for Perry—Due to recent circumstances, I believe it best for me to resign. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work here.—leave it unsigned on his stripped desk, and walk out of the newsroom without a backward look. He said goodbye only to Jimmy, avoided by everyone else, and despite his own part in the travesty, Perry had raged—still rages—against the fact that the world's greatest hero was forced to skulk away as if he were a criminal.
Lois watched Clark leave, and for the first time, Perry had seen uncertainty cross her face, tension crimp her mouth, shocked realization widen her eyes, some unnamed emotion that looked a lot like regret, remorse, and something deeper, move through her—had felt all those same things within himself, pierced to the core by the fact that Clark had done no more than give him one downcast glance before the elevator doors closed between them.
An hour later, Clark's landlord received a letter similar to Perry's, and Clark Kent's apartment was emptied, stripped bare of everything that pointed back to the young, idealistic reporter who'd lived there such a brief, transient amount of time. Several hours after that, a horde of reporters descended on Smallville only to find an abandoned farm and townspeople who refused to say a word about the Kents' whereabouts.
As if he'd never existed at all, Clark Kent disappeared from off the face of the planet, memorialized only in the print used in Kerth-worthy articles, sketchy adoption records, and varied employment files.
And Superman vanished too. For two long weeks after Perry ran that life-changing article, there was no sign, no trace, no hint at all of the brightly colored superhero.
And then a devastating tsunami hit Japan…and Superman reappeared. He'd shown up and saved lives and cleared rubble and helped out in all the myriad ways open to him…and spoken not one word. He answered no questions, made no statements, talked to no one in charge. Some victims even now claim he murmurs low reassurances to them, but no one has been able to verify that.
For a long week after the tsunami, Superman disappeared again, and Perry had been filled with grief for what he'd done—not just for the hundreds of crises that went without rescue, but for the empty desk he still doesn't have the heart to fill, as if that desk with its obsolete nameplate is the grave marker for Clark Kent's all-too-short life, avoided by all, glanced at by all, touched by only Jimmy, who kept it clean and dusted and protected from interlopers until he gave his own resignation notice and left only days after Clark.
Finally, though, sparking a whole new round of speculative news, Superman reappeared. And this time, he came to stay. Oh, not in a particular city or home, but if an emergency develops, he's there, all over the world, almost twenty-four hours a day. Earth's very own on-call emergency system.
And still he refuses to speak. Still there's only that terrible silence. If any reporter comes near him, he leaves, and soon enough, it became common for all reporters to be banished from the sites of emergencies, as if they're scarecrows and Superman the crow everyone courts.
The Superman Foundation releases press statements after rescues, always written in Clark's distinctive style, all avoiding more than a brief mention of Superman and drawing attention to people who need help or cities that need volunteers or situations that need addressing or charities that need money. The Foundation has remained faithfully silent on the question of how they receive those statements, and no amount of relentless investigating has brought inquisitive minds any closer to an answer in the intervening months.
And so life goes on and the world continues to turn and Perry was given a raise for his 'esteemed contributions' and Lois turns in lackluster, bread-and-butter articles that sell simply because her name's on them (and she's almost as famous as Superman these days).
It's three months to the day since Perry White helped murder Clark Kent, and he's sitting in his office drinking in memory of the reporter he took a chance on, the man who so temporarily breached Lois's walls, the son who kept a picture of his happy parents on his desk and unashamedly talked to them on the phone in front of all his co-workers. The friend who was betrayed by his colleagues.
Perry toasts in the direction of Clark's desk outside his office and gulps the fiery drink down. The bullpen is too quiet, his office even quieter; he doesn't have the heart to listen to Elvis, hasn't since he saw Clark's shattered expression (as if that mere sacrifice can act as some form of penance for his crimes).
He can just imagine his own epithet now…
Perry White: Champion of the news—he ran the story.
As bitter and condemning as it is, it's more of a memorial than Clark got, so who knows? Maybe he'll demand they leave his tombstone blank (more penance that can't alleviate his regret, can't help him sleep at night, can't turn back time).
He hates the silence worst of all, Perry thinks. The absence of everything. Sometimes, like now, he thinks of everything that happened, and still, no matter how many times he goes over it, the most painful part of the whole thing is Clark's mute refusal to speak. His utterly quiet acknowledgment that nothing he says will do any good at all. His realization that he is not needed for his words any longer, but only for what he can do.
And Perry's own silence, he hates that too, because Clark is right—it won't help. Wouldn't have helped even then. Perry had made his decision without even asking Clark for a quote. Without warning him. Without saying a word. So maybe Clark's silence is only a direct result of Perry's own mute declarations.
No good at all to speak when there's nothing he can possibly say to excuse himself.
"Bleak thoughts," Perry warns himself, and he caps the bottle and stores it in his desk. It'll sit there until the next month, the next anniversary of the tragedy that was Clark Kent's life. He knows better than to drink any more often than once a month, knows not to go down that downhill slope any faster than he already has.
"Perry?" Lois's voice in the empty newsroom startles him, even more so when she pokes her head into his office. "Perry, what are you doing here so late?"
Perry studies her a long moment, moved by the exhaustion painted across her face, the absence of that spark that once enlivened her eyes, enough so to make a superhero reporter fall in love with her at his first glimpse of her. She's been wasting away since her article (no need to specify which article; Lois Lane articles sell, but only one is remembered), has gradually but inexorably stripped herself of her personal life as surely as Clark's was taken from him, as if she echoes back his loss (her own form of private penance). Not that she'll admit to it—not to guilt, not to grief, not to anything at all except fierce, desperate satisfaction she might not even realize herself she's faking.
In a way, Perry thinks, regardless that he chose Lane over Kent, he lost her too, more slowly but just as surely.
"Maybe you want to join me," Perry offers, gesturing to his couch and moving to sit on it as well. It's excuse enough to move away from the desk he now finds stifling and the bottle in the drawer he finds entirely too tempting.
Tentatively, looking somewhat uncomfortable, Lois sits beside him. "Do you have something you want to talk to me about?" she asks hesitantly. "A lead?"
"No, no, nothin' like that." Perry waves a dismissive hand, a certain bitterness pervading his tone. He feels too old. Old and worn and decades past when he should have moved on, moved over, let someone else in who might have been wiser when their star reporter came to them with a story that should never have been printed. "No news," he says, and pretends he does not spit the word that is both his livelihood and his greatest damnation.
Lois regards him uncertainly, obviously wanting to be anywhere else, just as obviously having nowhere else to go. She has film rights, publicity contracts, unending requests for book deals, all of them offered to her on silver platters with diamond lights to blind her to what's right and wrong, but she has no friends. No family to speak of. Nothing at all but the Daily Planet and the job they can't possibly take away from her now that she has catapulted them to lasting fame. Everything she ever wanted, but she's taken none of it, accepted none of the deals, appeared on none of the talk shows, and hasn't finished even a chapter on any of the books they want her to write. Alone and haunted, he thinks again (and maybe he should have stopped a few drinks before he did).
"Have you been drinking?" Lois asks cautiously.
Perry nods unashamedly. "I have. I drink a toast every month on this day."
Lois's hands tighten to white-knuckled claws over her knees, and she looks away, shrinking in on herself. She knows, of course, what this day is. (Everyone does.)
"Do you know," Perry says casually, "that I was asked two days ago if I knew how to get in contact with Superman?"
She looks at him sharply, sudden interest igniting the memory of that spark in her eyes. Interest and betrayal, because she and Perry have an unspoken agreement to never bring up the ghost hovering between them, turning them into old soldiers alone in the foxhole, abandoned by their fellow comrades, cowering behind in the dirt and pretending they don't blame each other.
"Of course, I have no idea how to call Superman," Perry continues as if he doesn't notice. "But they said it was urgent and imperative, life-threatening even, and they had the rank, the credentials, and the authority to back that claim. Not that it mattered—no one knows how to contact Superman, apparently not even the Foundation. But these people looking for him were desperate, so I told them their best bet was to try and find Jimmy."
Perry swallows, missing the kid more than he can quite explain to himself. And yet, he's never been more proud of Jimmy than when the kid came into Perry's office and told him he couldn't, in good conscience, continue to work for the paper that had valued an article over the lives of a friend and his parents. Poor kid hadn't realized what it meant to value the newsworthy over the noble, and that would have been a liability for him if he hadn't quit. A liability, but great shades of Elvis, Perry had mentally cheered to see Jimmy walk out of the Daily Planet building with his head held high and his conscience clear.
"I just got a call today from a source of mine in the Pentagon." Perry's throat is dry and he almost gets up to fetch another drink, but he knows that won't alleviate the cause of this hoarseness. Knows it will only make him bleaker and grimmer and even more bitter. "He said they'd found Jimmy, informed him of the situation…and a day later, the crisis was over. I called in about a dozen favors, and now I know just how much of an understatement 'life-threatening' is."
Lois listens quietly, not even bothering to interrupt him. It's something she never would have done before, but as he is constantly reminded, things are different now. Still, he hates her silence almost as much as he does Clark's.
Standing and welcoming the wash of pain from his limbs straightening, Perry puts his back to her and says, neutrally, "There was an asteroid. Seventeen miles long. It would have wiped out everything on the planet. But it's gone now—and no one's seen Superman since. In fact, he's been MIA for a day and a half now, which is the longest he's been absent since he came back after that tsunami."
Alarm shoots Lois bolt-upright, her legs thumping against the couch as she leaps to her feet, and Perry feels a muted thrum of satisfaction. When he turns to look, he nods to himself. Yep, that's concern, fear, and worry on her face, not interest in a big story. "He's gone?" she asks, and there is something almost childlike about the shock and fear in her voice. "Do you…do you think he's okay?"
"I think maybe only Jimmy could tell us for sure." Perry gazes at Lois intently, conveying his unspoken message. Silence is the language of the day, it seems, and he's not so old-fangled that he can't catch on eventually. "Of course," he adds casually, "knowing how Jimmy left here, I doubt he'd let any reporters get within a mile of him."
Lois frowns. "You want me to go undercover?"
A snort escapes Perry, and he crosses the office, pretending his Elvis picture is crooked so he can busy himself righting it, using the movement to hide his disappointment at her question. "Do you really think he wouldn't see through any of your disguises?"
She stares at him, stricken, before Perry shrugs and turns back to her. "After all," he says, "Jimmy helped you come up with most of them."
A tiny shake of her head dispels the hurt look, but only for an instant. "Then…what should I do?" she asks him, and naked despair drenches her voice in hopelessness. The old Lois Lane died as surely as Clark did, Perry confirms with a sort of detached horror; maybe they even took the whole Daily Planet with them. But the miracle of resurrection isn't entirely unprecedented; maybe, just maybe, in a world where Superman can exist at all, it can happen again.
"You know, Lois, it's my fault too." He meets Lois's suddenly hesitant, shimmering gaze and does not back down. Not talking about this hasn't helped anything (silence rarely helps anything even if it is sometimes the only escape), so maybe it's time to let out the news that's worth something rather than the news that's sensational. "It's the editor's job to decide whether to run a story or to kill it. I made the wrong choice that day, and that's on me."
There's a moment of complete stillness, and then Lois raises her eyebrows, frantically retreating until she's once more ensconced in her world of make-believe. "It was the biggest news since…since ever, Perry. Of course you ran it. We didn't do anything wrong."
But Perry's always been able to tell when Lois is lying to herself, and there's not enough conviction in her voice to convince even herself let alone him.
"Didn't we?" he asks, and he looks past the open blinds to Clark's desk. So empty. So barren. Such a taunting reminder of all they've lost. All they threw away.
With a deep breath, he picks up his jacket from the back of his chair and slings it over his shoulder. "I don't know what happened a day and a half ago, but Clark may be hurt and Superman is missing. Whichever reason you choose to go after him, Jimmy's the one to find." He pauses halfway out the door and looks over his shoulder at her, left frozen and unsure and terrified in his office. "One more thing, Lois—Clark's already gone and, as far as I can tell, Superman's only hangin' on by a thread. You know a lot about Superman, wrote most of it for this paper, but there's one thing I don't think you ever realized—you're one of the only people in this world who can either sever that thread or strengthen it to something that can last."
She doesn't move, and Perry takes in a shuddering breath. "We murdered one man, Lois," he says softly, "both of us. But luckily for us, there are two of him. Let's not put Superman's death on our conscience too. I don't think I could handle it."
It's too harsh, maybe, and far too blunt, but the silence is excruciating and Perry cannot stand it any longer. Besides, he knows Lois as well as he knows himself and she needs a challenge, a threat, an obstacle to overcome to galvanize her into action. And it's no more than the truth—and isn't the truth newsworthy anymore?
He's halfway across the newsroom when he hears Lois call his name. He swivels in place to look at her, sees her with one foot out of his office, one hand hanging onto the wall, as if she's taking that first tentative step out of her fantasy world and into the weightier gravity of reality.
"Yeah, darlin'?" he asks, and holds his breath, hoping she'll make the right decision, praying she'll take the bait. (Hoping this will help, in some small way, to make up for all he's stolen from Clark.)
"I…" In the dim shadows it's hard to tell, but he thinks he catches a glimpse of her long-lost spark, resting like buried coals in her eyes. "I need the next couple of weeks off. Maybe more."
A smile of pure relief overtakes his gruff features.
She's done it.
"Take as much time as you need," he tells her. "We'll be waiting for you whenever you get back."
He turns and leaves her to her furious, purposeful packing at her desk, leaves her to her planning and her investigating and her searching. Steps into the elevator and lets the doors close between them and wonders how long it will be until he sees her again. Wonders if he'll ever see her again.
But Clark, he thinks, needs her more than the Planet does, and she needs Clark more than she needs her familiar refuge.
"Just hold on, Clark," he whispers under his breath. "Hold on, she's coming."
He only hopes it is not too little too late.