Semi-spoilers through the end of S8.


Beyond the Gray

The days are quiter now, whisper is an unspoken rule they all follow, as though everyone believes anything louder will break them. It's almost laughable that after everything they've survived, this would be what snaps the tenuous control that has been holding them together. Then again, looking into the eyes of the people surrounding him, Oliver thinks that maybe they're not far off the mark.

There's a haunted look in each of their eyes, never far below the surface; further proof that no one was left unscathed from the nightmare that had been thrust upon them. They all have scars from that day, and as Oliver looks around the room, it's clear some have more than others. Eyes slowly trail across the room, instinctively drawn to the conspicuously empty spots around the coffee table; a reminder that nothing will ever be the same.

A shot of guilt, sharp and quick, spears through him at the slight sense of relief he feels with the realization, that at least for today, he won't be faced with grief stricken eyes that pierce through him. It's getting harder to evade her masterful questions, and Oliver's amazed by Lois' ability to pinpoint the right questions even when she doesn't know half of what's occurred. He wonders how to explain everything; how for a while, when she was away, the world slowly turned into shades of gray and one by one the people she loves got lost in the murky areas of right and wrong. The thought of the disappointment that's sure to fill her eyes as he tells her the details of each transgression is enough to make him cringe.

She's more insistent with each day that passes, and Oliver thinks he's too worn down to continue this battle for much longer. The thought of making something up crossed his mind, but he thinks that if anyone deserves to know the truth it's her and Jimmy. Though the younger man doesn't seem inclined to ask, and Oliver is thankful for at least this small mercy. Honestly, he doesn't think the photographer could handle the real story, and deep down, a part of him worries that neither will Lois.

They won't be answers that she wants, and she's already hanging by a string. More than ever, he worries about her. The lack of sleep, along with the little food Lois actually does bother to eat is taking it's toll on her.

What concerns him the most though is the all consuming grief she's pushed aside, refusing to acknowledge. He just hopes when that horrible day finally comes, as he knows it inevitably will, she won't be alone.

~*~

Before she decided to leave for Washington, Martha vowed that should she be needed, even for the slightest of things, that nothing in the world would stop her return. This promise to herself and those she loved had made leaving the life she knew a little easier. They would be fine and if not, then they would call, Martha had assured herself. She just didn't realize they would wait until things were too far gone.

The kids aren't alright is the little mantra that won't leave her mind as she once again steps back into her old life.

Things are not how she left them.

Grief clings to each of them like a suit of armor, but with a mother's eye, she sees the smaller signs. In the jaded eyes of a woman Martha has long since considered a daughter. How the once easy going man she met has allowed himself to be tarnished by the evils of men, who had been innocent at one time. Then there's the tangible proof that nothing is how it should be; the fresh turned soil marking the new addition into the earth.

Most of all, it's the broken body of her son lying motionless in front of her, a man that was supposed to be invincible.

~*~

Sometimes, Lois has discovered, answers only cause more conflict. The closure she was hoping to find is nowhere to be seen and she's left with new questions, ones she only now knows to ask. These ones have no one left to answer.

She doesn't want to think about how this happened, how somewhere along the way, the sweet girl she loved like a sister turned into a stranger. One that was willing to betray all she knew, for what, Lois still can't figure out. She doesn't want to think about how she hadn't noticed in time to stop this gradual descent, that no one had seemed to see what was happening in front of their eyes. Or about the life that was taken by the delicate hands. Most of all, she doesn't want to think about the palpable air of regret that surrounded the blonde in her last moments, a dawning realization that came too late.

So instead, Lois' mind wanders to the others that were caught in the chaos, unsuspecting victims of a battle they didn't even know was taking place. There's one in particular that she can't get out of her head, the feel of his sticky blood coating her hands a vivid memory she can't shake. He had always been nice to her, a friendly smile in the mornings and casual hello whenever their paths crossed. Guilt tears through her system that she doesn't know whether his name was Jeff or Jack. Even now, she only just barely remembers this guy, vaguely recalling during the freak eclipse last year that as murmurs of apocalypse drifted through the bullpen, the wellbeing of his dogs was the first thing to leave his mouth.

For some reason, the memory is one she replays often.

It's not too much of a surprise that only days later, with a little skill and some knowhow, she's tracked down an all too crowded pound. The over worked staff is happy to welcome in anyone that might want to adopt one of the many forgotten pets, and as Lois follows the harried lady to the back, she doesn't have it in her heart to correct the assumption. This is nothing more than a quick check in, a way to cast out these thoughts that plague her about the wellbeing of animals she's never met.

Flounder and Dori.

A laugh escapes her at that, and Lois wishes she could ask how two giant dogs somehow ended up with fish names of disney characters. Remorse fills her at the the realization that she'll never know the story behind it- that piece of history is now gone forever.

Lois can't help but wonder what will happen to the two beloved pets.

It seems wrong that they should be left here as if they were nothing but strays, not when at one time, they clearly meant so much to someone. Anything that garnered such devotion can't be horrible and deserves better than being tossed away like last week's leftovers.

Later, Lois will pinpoint these thoughts to how she ended up living with two mammoth sized dogs that have formed the opinion she enjoys sharing a bed with slobbery mutts.

~*~

By an unspoken agreement, they never leave him alone. The fear that Clark will awake all by himself is almost as great as one no one dares speak; that such a day will never come. Sometimes his eyelids flutter, and for a fleeting moment there's a surge of hope. It never lasts and always leaves them wondering if his mind is stuck in those final moments of that day, watching as one of their own fell.

On the third day, informal shifts begin and the friends that only planned to stay for a quick mission, find they've become extended houseguests- all united in thier silent vigil to the man that has come to mean so much.

It's nice, in a bittersweet sort of way, having everyone back in one place. The sleek penthouse has become a little world of their own, a shelter from the outside turmoil. In here, they don't have to face the questions the world is asking- the answers that they know, but will never reveal.

When Clark's eyes do flutter open, there's shock and no matter how much they want to deny it, a sense of resentment. It's not rational, because this is what they've been waiting for, praying for with every second that passes. Still, as Clark scans his surroundings with dull eyes, they know what this means. Soon, it'll be time to leave the shelter they've built around themselves. Life refuses to be ignored and the excuse they've been living by has just woken up.

~*~

The small cemetery looks the same as it always did, since his childhood, and Clark's sure, long before that. He doesn't question why Lois was the first thought to come to mind as his eyes slowly blinked open, because at this point, he's past caring and the only thing that makes any sense in this upside down world that he awoke in, is to find her. There are probably people scurrying around in a frenzy trying to find him and assure themselves he's truly back, but deep down, Clark knows the only thing that matters is right here.

Somehow, he knew this is where she would be, just like the last time he found her in this same spot. Though, unlike that day so long ago, there won't be a happy ending.

This time, there's not an empty space left beneath the layers of earth.

It's surreal that they're back in this place, acting out a scene from so long ago. He almost feels like that young boy again- almost, because after everything, Clark knows without a shadow of a doubt he will never be able to go back to who he was. Maybe Lois gets that too, because this time, there's no bravado as she turns to him. Nor are there any tears to be surreptitiously wiped away, and Clark wonders if she's stuck with the same cold numbness he can't move beyond.

Only when her hand slips into his, does Clark feel anything for the first time since waking.

~*~

James Olsen never believed in letting alcohol be the solution to his problems, no matter what. After a life of watching firsthand the destructive effects such a decision could have, he refused to go down that road. So how he ended up in a dive bar, surrounded by men he barely knows is beyond him. Maybe he just needed to get away from the only real family he has left; as much as he appreciates her, Lois' tendency to hover makes him restless, and this seemed like the best path towards some distance.

They regale him with stories he's never heard before, each making him laugh harder than the last.

It baffles Jimmy that this is the first time he's hearing of these delightful tales. Neither does he understand how he's only just meeting these men that were clearly thick as thieves with the woman he vowed to love forever. Then again, he's been learning these past few weeks that there are a lot of things he doesn't know about his wife.

He wants to hate her, the woman that so easily turned from him straight into the arms of a monster, and thinks that maybe he does a little. Then he remembers her smile and all bets are off.

He doesn't hate her, but at times he wishes he did.

It would be so much easier, Jimmy muses, joining his new friends in another shot- this time not dedicated to Chloe-licious, or Watchtower, but to Chloe Sullivan Olsen.

~*~

It's amazing how such a small apartment can fit so much. Lois marvels at the fact they were able to get even half of their stuff in here, much less all of it. Funny how it never seemed like a lot until she was trying to pack it back into boxes. The mountain of possessions is overwhelming, but even as daunting as it is, she still can't bring herself to regret declining Jimmy's offer of help.

He's not dealing well, no matter what he claims, and Lois thinks a day of being surrounded by constant reminders would be the thing that breaks him. It's become her mission to see he never reaches that point, a task she's thrown herself into full force.

It's fitting, Lois decides, that she's the one to take over the role of protector in her cousin's absence. Slipping back into the spot is seamless, after all, it wasn't that long ago she gave the job back to his wife.

Lois' eyes travel across the small apartment, the now familiar sensation of her breath being torn from her body hits hard. Somehow, while their world was being torn through with change, this place managed to escape. It seems misleading how everything still looks the same as before.

Laundry sits by the dresser, waiting to be folded, and post it notes clutter the fridge with reminders of things that must be done. It's as though this place has been patiently waiting for their return. An irrational part of her rears it's head and Lois has the insane urge to explain to the cozy rooms why that won't ever happen, why she's the only one that has come back- and that even now, it won't be for long.

She stops herself, because Lois is pretty sure if she were to go through with it, that Oliver would somehow find out and swoop in. He's always around these days, as if he thinks she's going to fall to pieces at any moment. The funny thing is, he seems even more worried by the fact that she hasn't. Sometimes she wonders if he's projecting his feelings onto her, because she's doing fine- no matter what everyone else seems to think.

Soft whimpers alert her to the fact that she's not alone, and when she turns to see her dogs on their backs begging for attention from the newcomer, Lois can't stop her eyes from rolling.

The two slobbery mutts took an instant liking to Clark, and feel no shame in showing him their complete adoration everytime he's near. Like he always does these days, his eyes scan over her in an inspection. He never did this before, Lois thinks, but she doesn't mention this to him, or anyone else for that matter.

Apparently he's satisfied with whatever he sees, since his eyes move to flick over the boxes she's gotten to already and Lois is thankful he doesn't comment. Somehow, out of everything she's come across, nothing has made it into the trash pile. There's a fear that even something as small as a bobby pin holds some meaning, and Lois can't bring herself to let it be deemed garbage.

His fingers lightly graze one of the boxes labeled Uncle Gabe, and for the first time in all of this mess, Clark wonders how the older man is doing. The question on the tip of his tongue dies the instant he sees the anguish that flashes across her face.

It's only then that Clark realizes Lois is probably the one that broke the tragic news to her Uncle, and everyone else in her family for that matter.

Without conscious thought, his arms are wrapping around her smaller frame, face pressing against her neck, his broken voice a mere whisper. "I'm sorry." He can't stop himself from repeating the words in an endless loop until he's no longer sure what exactly he's apologizing for.

Not being by her side this whole time, because he wasn't there to hold her hand as her cousin was layed to rest. Being unable to save the woman that meant so much to them both. For hurting her time and again all those weeks ago. For encouraging Shelby to roll in his bed when she was living at the farm. It's all jumbled together into one giant regret that he begs forgiveness for.

Maybe it's the wrong thing to say because suddenly sobs rack her body, loud broken ones that only come from heartwrenching grief.

She mourns the loss of the closest family she's known in years, and the unfairness of the entire situation. The fact that her cousin never had the chance to have a real honeymoon, or discover what being a wife meant and that Jimmy is left with nothing but a gold band and broken heart. The tears fall harder at the realization that she'll never have the chance to recapture the same bond they once had, and that their children will never have the opportunity to play together, and all the other things that will never happen now.

The front of his shirt is damp from the endless stream falling from her eyes. Clark doesn't notice, just as Lois isn't aware of the salty drops of his tears spilling into her hair.

They've been living in the land of limbo, stuck between denial and acceptance and Clark thinks this is what it's like to finally pick a side.

Later, an hour, maybe only minutes, Clark's unsure of how much time has passed, their sobs have quieted down into little sniffles and the occasional hiccup.

Clark doesn't remember when they slid to the ground in a tangled heap, ending with Lois cradled protectively in his lap. Their arms are curled around each other in unbreakable links that verge on painful, but it doesn't really matter. Not anymore, because he doesn't plan on letting go anytime soon and as Lois snuggles deeper against him, neither does she.