Clark has prepared himself for any one of a number of scenarios by the time he walks into the Daily Planet bullpen but as usual is confronted with Lois Lane, woman of mystery as he walks up to her desk intending to say he knows not what. She is focused on the monitor before her, unmanicured and bitten fingernails moving ceaselessly over the ergonomic keyboard, a small crease in her flawless brow as she peers through her reading glasses at whatever is fascinating enough to have her full absorption. He should have known, he thinks, and it's no surprise that Richard knew when it's been five years and the password to all her beloved source material is still 'Superman.' He was gone a long time but some things are still the same the more they change.
Her eyes are clear and intent but he can see the circles under careful make-up; Clark waits until he's sure he won't be noticed and makes the first of several gruff throat-clearing noises.
"Oh, Clark," she says, barely looking up, giving him a cursory smile. "Perry wants to see you."
"Thank you." He stands there a moment longer, unsure of his own objective. Maybe he wants her to look up, to notice him. Perhaps he wants to tell her about Richard, to see what she'll say. Or it could be that he just wants to ask if she's all right, to provoke a reaction and know if she holds more than relief at the parting she's caused so painfully. He doesn't know, so he stands there with his hands in his pockets and looks at her and if anyone caught him watching, they'd call the expression on his face tender.
He wants to protect her but he's seen how unthinkingly cruel she can be.
"Clark," she says with some asperity, looking up over the rims of her narrow glasses. "You'd better go, he's waiting for you."
"Er, yes, of course." He drops his briefcase at his desk and untangles himself from his coat, hangs it over the back of his chair and returns Jimmy's wave from across the room before glancing at a nearby glass-walled office. If you need anything, I'm right over there. He reflects on the quick ease of Richard's smile. Nice to finally meet you. He wonders, briefly, when he stopped thinking of Richard as a rival and remembers that he's already told him, last night. It was the moment he ripped off the door of what could have been a family tomb and told Richard to take his hand. The fact that only he could have gotten them out of there didn't lessen the importance of what Richard would have done for them, the fact that he'd gotten there first.
Richard's priorities were his family. Superman belonged to the world.
"Clark. Come in, come in. Have a seat," Perry White says, barely glancing up from his monitor as Clark enters the office.
"Thanks, Mr. White," Clark replies. He folds himself awkwardly into the chair opposite the desk.
Perry kicks back and steeples his fingers. "We haven't had much time to talk since you've been back, between one story and the next. How is it going, Clark? Settling in?"
"Oh. Er, fine," Clark says, giving his glasses a perfunctory adjustment, tossing a hesitant smile his way. Perry always makes him feel uneasy because his dark-eyed gaze is quite keen, and he seems to have given over some of the bluster and bark of five years ago for a more reflective management style. "About what I could expect, I guess." The question has the sound of a test, a prelude.
"Good. Good. Let's talk strategy, Clark."
"You get along pretty well with Richard?" Perry prompts.
Clark's eyes widen and his heart speeds up to what could almost be considered a "normal" human pace. "Uh, gee...well, you know, Mr. White, I, uh...Richard and I, you know--" He cuts himself off in the middle of trying to figure how not to explain as he realizes he's making it sound even worse than what he's trying to cover for.
"Relax, Clark." Perry holds up a long-fingered hand and seems utterly unconcerned. "I'm not going to ask why you were calling him in sick instead of Lois. He'll tell me later, if he wants to. I'm asking because I'm thinking about transferring you to the international section."
"You want me to work under Richard?" Clark says, starts a little, closes his mouth hastily.
Now Perry raises an eyebrow and Clark is quite sure he's blushing for the third time in three months but he thinks about it, sure it won't involve moving his desk and may not mean travel so much as coordinating a lot of Associated Press material and getting first crack at phone interviews and so forth and also, less work with Lois. That's a bit of a jolt to realize and the first thought that follows is whose idea it was, Lois's...or if it really is Perry, strategizing. One might say two award-winning reporters in one division is two eggs too many in the basket.
Perry's next words let him know which. "It's your turn to win the Pulitzer next, I think," Perry says softly, lifting one finger from his clasped hands and waggling it in Clark's direction. "I think you could do good things. Under Richard." His lips twitch upward.
"Okay, Mr. White," Clark says. What else can he say? He smiles, glances in the direction of Richard's empty office, tries not to think about things that were said last night. You get along pretty well with Richard? Yes, the question was whether they still would, going forward.
"Great. You start tomorrow when he gets back. Wrap up whatever Lifestyle projects you have on your plate."
Clark doesn't correct Perry on the assumption that his nephew will be back to work the next day.
"I want cupcakes," Jason says, tugging at a handful of his pantleg, and Clark looks down.
"Hello to you, too," Clark says, hunkering down to get closer to the boy's level. "Are you allowed to have cupcakes?" He looks around for Lois; she's right where he left her.
Jason sighs heavily. "Well, they have flour."
Clark tries to suppress a smile. "I guess that's a no."
"But, but I think I can try it now and I'll be fine!" Jason says earnestly, giving him a firm nod. "I haven't needed my inhaler in...for a while now." His face scrunches, and Clark's lips thin, and he knows they're both thinking of what happened three months ago.
He stands and Jason follows him like a baby chick over to Lois's desk. "Um, Lois? I thought I'd, uh, take Jason with me while I go and get coffee..."
Her hand waves, shooing away interruption or granting royal concession, hard to say. "Fine, okay," she says absently, narrowing her eyes at the monitor. "Need money?"
"No," he says, shaking his head and holding a hand out for the little boy beside him. "We're fine." He turns from her. "He was Superman. Everybody loved him." "But did you?" Lois, turning, eyes straightforward and lips compressed. "No."
Even if it had been a lie of convenience, he felt the sting then and it was with him now. Lois had never really seen him. He'd thought he had come to terms with that.
A small, sturdy hand slips into his. Clark gives him a smile. "Let's get cupcakes, kiddo." Jason's whole face lights up and he adds, "I promise I won't tell your mom."