It's late (it's always late nowadays, far too late to change anything) and Perry is alone in the newsroom (and he's always that, too, even when surrounded by the hustle and bustle that used to define him). He stares at the bottle in front of him, the amber liquid gleaming in the shadowed light.
Thirteen months to the day. Another anniversary, and Clark is back, and here Perry still sits, alone in his office as if he doesn't have a wife waiting at home, contemplating drinking another toast. After all, he's lost so much already, why should he lose this single surviving tradition, this one drink on this one infamous anniversary day? This right here, shining in a bottle, encased so that it cannot be spilt out into nothing, is something he can contain and keep and hold (and not lose, or throw away, or destroy).
It seems stupid, ungrateful even, to be unhappy after the way everything's turned out. Clark Kent is back in the newsroom, Lois is gone but she has a job and seems happier lately during their weekly dinners, and the Daily Planet is still running, still the top newspaper in the world, despite the battering its reputation has taken over the Superman/Clark Kent debacle. Everything, it seems, is looking up.
But Perry looks up from the bottle sitting on his desk, and he studies the darkened office that encapsulates his life, the bullpen beyond, quiet and dead, and the elevator. Silent and empty. No one coming up to see him. No little happy family of workaholics staying late to tease him. No idealistic country boy following behind a fast-talking city reporter, both of them fighting smiles and trading banter. No young copyboy barging into Perry's office every few minutes to call him 'Chief' and bring him cold coffee and stale donuts. Just an old man, alone with his regrets.
"Telling the news doesn't make you any friends," a fellow reporter had told Perry once, slouched against a dingy wall in Beirut. "But it has its own rewards."
"Sure," Perry snorts to himself, and wonders where that man is now. Maybe he's alone too (maybe loneliness and guilt were the rewards he was talking about and Perry had just been too young and stupid to realize it).
He's been staring at the half-empty bottle too long. With a shake of his head and a low grumble, Perry snatches it up and stuffs it into the drawer. Slams it shut with a thump he wishes sounded more satisfying.
A chuckle sounds from the doorway to his office, and Perry jerks up. At first, he is merely surprised (perhaps embarrassed, because maybe he is old and left behind, but that doesn't mean he wants everyone to know it), then he is shocked (perhaps a bit betrayed, because maybe the door to the stairs is standing ajar, but he always expects the ding of the elevator to warn him), and then, finally, he is suddenly perilously, tremulously hopeful (and perhaps a lot afraid, because he did not expect this, or even dream of it, and he has learned to resent and fear the unexpected).
"Jimmy!" he blurts, hastily standing and taking a step away from the hidden bottle of Scotch. "I mean…James. I heard you're going by James now."
"Yeah." James stands in the doorway, peering at Perry, and he sounds a bit hoarse. A bit uncomfortable. Too grown up and different, standing too self-contained and self-aware, for Perry to make the mistake of confusing this man in front of him with the young man who'd come in here so wide-eyed and brightened up the place through sheer force of innocence.
"I…I didn't expect to see you here," Perry says. Ever, he thinks. He blinks, hard, two, three, four times, but James does not disappear in a wash of amber and drunkenness.
James gives a slight nod, as if collecting himself. He reaches up and loosens his tie; he's not wearing a suitcoat, but if he were, Perry thinks he would have shrugged it off. "Clark," he says, slowly, "told me that…well, that forgiveness doesn't just happen. He said it's a conscious choice—one you have to work at constantly."
Perry swallows. It's hard to talk, or respond, or even just stand there and look unaffected, when James talks so easily of things Clark has said. Clark Kent is back at the Daily Planet, but he is a polite, aloof, quiet man in Perry's presence, courteous but not friendly, present but not familiar—and it has been thirteen months to the day since Perry has actually really heard anything of real heart and substance from Clark Kent.
But he cannot stand here in James's presence and quibble over small things. So he tries on a smile. "That sounds like something Clark would say."
"And something he'd do," James says, his eyes meeting Perry's with a noticeable jolt. The lights all come from the bullpen, but they shaft through the window blinds to leave James in barred shadow—all save his face, which is lit with something Perry cannot quite define (and doesn't dare look at too closely in case it is not what he so desperately hopes it is).
"Yeah, well." Perry shifts uncomfortably. "There aren't too many people like Clark."
"But I wish there were," James says forcefully. He takes a clear step into the office, all boyish bravado and manly courage mixed together to make him at once familiar and alien. "Because I know, in my life, I'm going to make mistakes. Big ones. Bad ones. Mistakes I'm going to regret. And I know that most people will turn their backs on me, spend the rest of their lives bad-mouthing me, judging me, condemning me. Blaming me."
Perry looks away (his hope dies an ashen death and is buried in ancient guilt). He deserves to hear these things, he knows he does, and yet, he wishes that James had not felt the need to come here and spell it all out so clearly for him. Superman and his new policy of honesty, all spearheaded by James Olsen, paraded here for the Editor-in-Chief of the biggest metropolitan newspaper to see. It's a newsworthy moment. He should be paying attention (he couldn't not pay attention; every instant is seared onto his every cell, branding him with shame).
"But I don't want to be one of those people," James says, and he walks forward as Perry gapes, uncomprehending, and stands right in front of him. (He's tall, taller than Perry remembers, and he has to look up to meet the younger man's dark eyes.) "I want to be like Clark. I want to walk in his footsteps—I have a feeling they lead to something so much better than bitterness and old grudges and anger that never goes away. I want to be able to forgive, Perry."
Perry cannot speak. He is choking on his tears and his pride (in a boy become as much and more than Perry had ever known he could be). All he can manage, garbled and almost unclear, is one word: "Jimmy—"
The strong man's face crumples into a boy's. "I miss you," Jimmy admits.
And Perry takes that last step forward. Pulls him into the hug he's regretted not giving him for over a year. Crushes him to himself and marvels that this is actually happening.
They stand like that, knitting back together, until Jimmy lets out a watery laugh and loosens his grip (Perry has to do likewise, another regret to add to the pile). "Well, I guess this forgiveness thing isn't nearly as much work as I thought it would be. Come on, Chief, you don't want to spend all night in this musty old office, do you?"
"No," Perry says (and finally, he is allowed to speak the truth; another newsworthy moment). "No, I certainly don't."
"Well then, come with me. Lois and Clark are waiting outside, arguing about some story Lois has been chasing down for the Foundation. If it's anything like their other investigations these past few weeks, they're going to need a late dinner to keep up their strength. You look like you could use one too."
Perry laughs (a strange, new, fragile kind of laugh). "Dinner sounds great. I'll pay."
James laughs and makes some comment about how he can buy as he's got a well-paying job now, but Perry lets the words swirl above him in the dreamlike shimmer. I'll pay, he said, and never had truer words been spoken. He has paid (in the transient death of Clark), and paid (in the loss of Jimmy), and paid again (in Lois's daily absence and his own continued isolation). But sometimes instead of being called due, debts are forgiven.
Sometimes, in a world where a man can fly, miracles can happen.
It's enough for Perry. If he were younger and more foolish, he might dig in his heels and hide his face and slink away in the shadows. But he is too old and too desperate for such foolish heroics; he is wise enough to take any second chance that's offered him.
So when James takes Perry's coat from the rack by the door, Perry takes it. When James puts his hand on Perry's shoulder, Perry lets the young man lead him out of the bullpen, down the elevator, out the lobby, and into the night air. When he sees Clark and Lois standing on the corner, turning to him (Lois with a happy, whole smile, and Clark with a softened gleam in his eye and a hand outstretched to shake), Perry smiles and laughs and cries and pulls them both into a hug (altogether foolish and undignified and mawkishly sentimental, and he doesn't care at all).
Turns out, he hasn't lost any of his reporters (any of his kids) after all.
It's a momentous realization, a tiny meeting no passerby would take a second look at, but so ground-breaking, so breath-taking, that Perry wonders why there are not reporters and photographers and news cameras there to record the moment for posterity. And then, of course, he knows the reason why.
Because this small moment, this one meeting between former (and future) friends, is the most newsworthy thing that has ever happened in Perry's entire life. And if there is one thing he has learned, it is how to treasure the truly newsworthy.
Thank you to everyone who's followed this story and favorited and especially left feedback! I'm so grateful for every bit of encouragement - hope you all enjoyed this story for the what-might-have-been (even if now we need to go watch some happier bits of what-really-is for this couple)! Also thanks to the great show that inspired me to fall in love with every incarnation of Superman - as always, no copyright infringement is intended.