Story Title: First Against the Wall
Summary: An old foe, and a stranger with the face of a friend. Can Lois Lane save the world?
Disclaimer: I don't own: Superman, Smallville, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, or any other characters or properties, fictional or otherwise, mentioned in this fic. I am not profiting, just poking around in the toybox.
The rumours had rustled through the newsroom like the first waves of the oncoming storm when Pauline Khan resigned as Editor in Chief of the Daily Planet. But still I caught Jimmy Olsen's eye across the bullpen the day we knew who would replace her, and each knew that the other was thinking of a third.
"I wonder," he said to me, as we watched Perry enter the room for the first time our superior, "what she would say about this."
That was the first time he had opened a conversation on my wayward cousin, and I knew then that the wounds were starting to heal.
But I didn't answer him straight away. I was following Perry with my eye as he stalked through the newsroom and wondering – if I could peel back the legend – what kind of man he would turn out to be.
He stopped as he reached the door to his office, as if he heard me weighing him up in my mind, and half-turned, just glared over his shoulder at me with all the levity I could ask of our new commander. And I had a glimpse, in that moment, of all the glory he would bring us.
"She would tell you to take a better picture if you want to see it on the front page," I said, pushing myself up from the desk I was leaning against.
"No she wouldn't."
It was no reproach against me. When I looked back he had that wistful smile – and he was right: I didn't know Chloe as well as I once thought.
"Heads up," he nodded over my shoulder.
The great mass of Perry White was approaching again – not massive in a physical sense, but in the pull he exerted on all of us even now. All heads were turned his way as he walked up to Jimmy and I, and said: "Lane."
"White," I replied, and Jimmy had the sense to melt into the background.
"A word," he said, in that terse, heavy tone, indicating his office. And for a moment I believed that he might have just a single word for me – one word sated in meaning, one word to establish a fact that would take another person twelve to convey – because that was his skill.
"Hey, Lane!" someone shouted from the back of the room, "Two minutes and you already pissed him off? That's gotta be a record even for you."
Perry glowered around the newsroom, following the ripple of laughter and stifling it. I let my gaze chase his, observing each face with my own self-superior smirk. Some of the smiles were good-natured; many sat smugly on the faces of people who, I knew, would like nothing better than to twist the knife.
"Are you kidding?" I said, to the room in general, "I'm slipping."
Because that was my skill.
Perry was already halfway across the bullpen before any of us noticed that he was walking. I smiled to myself, uncrossed my arms and followed him to his office. He was leaning back against his desk in the way that I had leant back against mine, arms crossed and looking right into me the way I had looked right into him.
"How long," he said, as I closed the door, "have you been a reporter?"
I raised an eyebrow, "Two years."
He nodded. "And how much of that time have you spent working at the Daily Planet?"
Again he nodded. "That's right. You pushed Lex Luthor down to propel yourself up from basement level – and you took your photographer with you. You don't see that every day, Lane."
I nodded, and ran my tongue around my teeth. He was talking about the story which gave me my wings as a reporter earlier that year, when, after months of work, I had finally gathered the evidence to break Luthorcorp's experimentation on patients at the Belle Reve mental institute to the world.
If Perry had laughed with the others, I might have fronted my way through the whole meeting with the same kind of bravado that rival reporter and evil mastermind received alike. But he hadn't, and I felt obliged to be frank: "Anyone with a lead could have broken that story."
He looked down at his crossed arms, and then back at me, and his eyes bored right through me. "Do you really believe that most would?"
A year earlier I would have believed any reporter would have chased that lead down to its source. I never believed that journalists were all crusading for the common good, but I did believe that most break a story like that for the personal glory.
Then it came out that Chloe had known all along and never gone after the evidence, and for a while I didn't know what to believe.
Perry uncrossed his arms and pushed himself forward onto the soles of his feet. Crossing over to the window, he looked out over the Metropolitan skyline. Silhouetted there against the shining blue sky, I could believe that this was the man they had once called "the Bulldog" – maybe the only person in the building who could lead me by example.
"The Daily Planet is the oldest and most respected paper in Metropolis," he said, "people from all over the globe rely on us to bring them news in an objective and accurate fashion."
If I wasn't careful he would start quoting statistics at me – circulation figures, page hits for the Daily Planet website – and I was itching to get back into the newsroom already. "Is there a point to this?" I asked, putting my hand on my hip, "Chief?"
"Don't call me 'Chief', Lane." He was gruff, but I knew reporters, and I got the sense that Perry White's bark was worse than his bite. "The point is," he said, "we have to report the news in an objective manner – like we're expected."
I walked over to the window to join him, crossing my arms and looking sidelong at him. He caught my eye, and we shared that first moment of solidarity: a mutual understanding. "And you don't think that's happening," I said, and quietly I agreed.
"Lex Luthor's incarceration has created a power vacuum while Luthorcorp regroups," he said, "this is our chance to shake off the corruption which has been taking place behind closed doors."
Because although the Daily Planet was the oldest and most respected paper in Metropolis, there were ways in which it was no better than the Metropolis Inquisitor, or the Daily Star. We all knew it, and we knew it wasn't just Luthor: some of the more jaded reporters, those who had laughed with malice in their eyes, even embraced it. The rest of us seethed with the knowledge that our paper was just like the rest of Metropolis, and even I had days where I couldn't struggle against it.
I understood his personal vendetta, standing there with his fists balled and his arms crossed, but I didn't like the Daily Planet being answerable to a higher power any more than he did, least of all while I was marching under its flag.
"If you want me to rally the troops," I said, "you can forget it – half of those guys out there hate me for breaking that story, and the other half think I got lucky. The only one who'd follow me into battle is Jimmy Olsen, and the last fight he was in he broke his fist on the other guy's face."
"They don't need to like you," he said, "this is not a beauty pageant, Lane. They just need to respect you."
And because I couldn't help but wonder what he wanted from me, or what made him think I was suited to the job, I said: "What do you even want me to do?"
Silently I wondered what the Planet had gotten itself into, putting someone like Perry White at the top.
"Lane," he said, "I want you to lead by example."
And in his glare, there was a flickering, glimmering hope that everything would change.
The rain beat hard against my window that night.
The sleeping pills were in the top drawer of my nightstand, next to my bed, underneath the picture of Clark.
This was the thought that stopped me reaching for them night after night, knowing I would draw out that picture with them, and then I would have to wonder where he was and how he was doing. But then, I always wondered that anyway, and that was keeping me up.
Three months and three days – and I am not counting – since he left Smallville, and I had heard nothing from him.
That was when I left Smallville myself, when I realised that, with no Chloe and no Clark, there was no reason for me to stay. But when I asked Kara if she would come to Metropolis, she just said she would finish what Clark had started and wouldn't elaborate further.
I would never tell anybody, but it was a comfort to me knowing that the Kent farm would remain the Kent farm, and that it wouldn't fall empty.
And then there was the fact, one simple fact that I would only whisper to myself in the dead of night, the fact I would strike from the record when I blinked open my eyes in the morning.
I missed Clark.
But this is how it goes: the change was not immediately palpable, but when I walked around like I owned the place with no reprimand and others like me could hold their heads up higher for longer, everybody knew what was going down.
The Daily Planet started quietly and conveniently laying off staff who would have been assets in the days when the paper was put to bed with Lex Luthor. Among those who remained, there was a change in feeling: some who before were economical with the truth stopped pinching pennies, and Jimmy stopped warning me about the time when he was almost fired – rather, he wore it as a badge of honour: Jimmy Olsen, decorated in the fight for truth.
"You should be proud of yourself, Lane," Perry said to me one day, when all I could figure was that all this was down to his leadership.
And because by then I knew his bark was worse than his bite, I said: "Chief, what the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't call me 'Chief', Lois." He levelled me seriously, "This is all the result of your exposé on Luthorcorp."
"Yeah, fat lot of good that story did anyone."
The Daily Planet may have been strengthening its walls against corruption, but the rest of Metropolis was still up for sale to the highest bidder, and Lex's parole date was looming. At the trial he had feigned ignorance of Luthorcorp's most nefarious deeds, and neither I nor anyone else had been able to prove otherwise.
"Don't beat yourself up, kid," said Perry.
"Don't call me 'kid'."
But I pushed myself up and got back to work, because I was young, and I was still determined to set the world on fire, and the thought of burning out myself was unthinkable.
A week later it was five months and twelve days – still not counting. Kara had told me she had heard from him, but she was sketchy on the details and there was something evasive in the way she was on the phone.
And that night I finally grabbed the pills out of the drawer by my bed, but put them on the top of the night stand and carried the picture into the lounge with me.
Because I needed to sit in the warm, diffuse glow of my reading lamp and study his face, because I was starting to wonder what that smile had looked like: bright and warm, two lips parted and hair ruffled. He hadn't smiled like that the day he said goodbye: that had been a "sweet sorrow" smile, a "see you around" for the loss of a close friend.
"I understand the need to get away and sort your head out," I said, feeling stupid, talking out loud to the air around me, "but you don't think you're kind of pushing it?"
And then, like an answer to the call I never made, someone buzzed up to my apartment.
"Lois Lane. I need your help."
"I –" I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, "Clark?"
But there was silence at the end of the line.
I frowned and hung up. After a moment's recollection, grabbed my coat and keys from where I had slung them at the end of the couch and left the apartment. Down the stairs, two at a time: does Lois Lane know any other way?
And it was really him – not that I cared.
He was standing so close to the door that when I opened it I almost walked right into him. He grabbed me by my shoulders and righted me, and then he let his arms fall back to his side, and said, "Lois Lane."
"Clark," I pushed my hair back out of my face and pulled air into my lungs: a million particles, all colliding like my lungs were my mind, "what are you doing here?"
But he said nothing – just took me by the arm and pulled me out of the doorway.
My breath came out in a rush, falling against him again, my hand on his chest.
I shoved him back, but he kept his hand on my wrist, and that made me wary. I stared up, jaw set, into his face, into his eyes, much darker than I remembered and so cold. And there was something so alien in that stare; I felt a quick shudder of aversion run through me.
I wrenched my hand away. To my surprise, he let it go. I stepped back, knowing my face was set in a deep frown, taking all of him in now: his clothes, and the way he held himself.
"Who are you?" I said.
He fixed me again with that implacable stare, and said: "I need your help."