Richard still picks up coffee for five in the morning, the double-tall sugar free nonfat latte crowded in with Jimmy's usual, and Perry's, and his own and Clark's; not out of a sense of obligation or his peace-keeping nature but because he knows she won't have the time, juggling her tendency to run out the door late with the need to drop Jason off at school or daycare. Besides, anything that he did that called for a peacekeeping was in the confines of his own head and he's still smarting from the words of hers that led to the split: him to the bedroom, to pack his bags; her to the back deck and a cigarette. He's still not sure if she was surprised to return from that to find him gone but since they've more or less avoided one another since that night it must be what she ultimately intended.
After picking up her latte, he leaves it on her desk, and that's been the extent of their contact for a week.
Today Lois has been trying to get his attention, and he's been dodging her. It's petty and he knows it but he doesn't possess the molecular density that allows Clark to take a bullet or a verbal hit with equal ease.
At 9:12 she sends an e-mail asking to borrow Richard's thesaurus, citing the woeful inadequacy of her electronic equivalent. He rings Estelle in the office pool to bring a new one from Supplies to Lois's desk.
At 10:46 she tries to ring him, and he steps out and lets the call go to voicemail, making a beeline for the elevators as if on the trail of a hot story. "Very funny, Richard," the message on his machine informs him when he returns, forced cheer overlaying the refusal to play along. "Stop by my desk today, please."
At 1:29 after they've dodged one another during the lunch rush -- she before the Starr can scoop them, he to a corner deli to "talk strategy" with Clark -- she texts him in his office when he's having a sit-down with Perry. His uncle is trying to re-deploy some staff in his section and he's resisting. Would like to speak to you maybe in your office before end of day? He glances at it; ignores it. It reminds him the phone company will be auto-billing any day now and they're still on the family plan with unlimited text messaging.
Perry notices the wince and cuts off the conversation with a brusque "We'll talk more on this later, in the meantime try to prove me wrong."
Freed of that obligation, he makes a beeline for Clark's desk and wonders if it's possible to camp there for the rest of the day, though it surely won't take that long to proof a couple of set pieces. After that maybe he can rally the troops, though that's an unlikely proposition with most of them out chasing leads, stories, or plane flights halfway around the world. Prove him wrong, Perry's said, and that involves one of his uncle's favorite buzz words: strategizing. He has to rally the International section again or at least come up with some great new idea.
His new star reporter is typing busily away at his desk working on just that when Richard stops by, helping himself to the edge of Clark's desk and leaning in, his back to the other side of the bullpen. "How's it coming along?"
Clark lifts his head with the wide-eyed look that means he was deeply immersed in his story. "Oh, um...great, I was just putting on the finishing touches."
"Okay." Richard grins. As much as he likes conversing with Clark, he has learned, he loves to read the man's prose. He has a liquid, eminently readable turn of phrase that keeps the brain moving as well as the eye and his first thought upon reading one of Clark's articles was that he could see why Perry had snapped him up again. "Hey, I have something for you."
"You - you do?" Clark starts to his feet at this, looking around and checking his chair as if maybe expecting to find someone else there or perhaps Richard has stashed it somewhere for a surprise presentation.
This makes Richard laugh, part surprise and part sheer amusement. It's too perfect a facade. He leans in to grasp Clark's elbow, anchoring him in place, and reaches into his pocket. "I got you a little something."
Lois has seen them come in together most mornings, a noteworthy occurrence even without the buzzing it generates amongst the office's water cooler club. Despite the fact that she's got the most reason to know what's going on than anyone, none of the gossip hounds have approached her. The fact that rumor is more juicy than truth has occurred, more than once.
"I hear it was more than just Clark's fast typing speed that got him moved to International," says one bobbed-blonde girl who always wears her lipstick thick and red.
"It sure helps to have a connection to the White family to move up the bullpen," Amy from Lifestyle is always quick to say, eyes averted from Lois every time yet always in earshot when she says it.
"You don't think...?" the new brunette trails off speculatively, narrowing her eyes at the pair.
"My dear," says Agnes from Copy, "there's nothing like a good male...friendship...to get over some tragedy or gaping hole in your life. And you know, in Richard's case, it's easy to see..."
They break it off when Lois breezes past the water cooler on her way to the powder room, and while they don't say a word all their eyes are homing in for her ring finger. Too much estrogen in the room, Lois thinks; she's always eschewed the company of other women and pays for it in rumor's coin.
It exasperates her that she could set them straight in a heartbeat but coming out and saying it directly to one of them might imply she has some sort of problem with the situation to begin with.
After Richard has ignored her text message - she sees him turn his phone off as he leaves Perry's office in an automatic gesture he probably doesn't even realize he's done - Lois twiddles a pen between her fingers and entertains the notion of telling Jimmy. The rumors will die and save her the trouble of damage control.
Then she glances in Clark's direction because Richard is there, and she sees him lean over to latch onto the elbow of Clark's slate-gray suit, and he's smiling at Clark to that full and heartstopping extent, and his eyes are crinkling ever so slightly at the corners.
Lois drops her pen.
She's on her feet before she quite realizes and her chair has scraped out behind her by a foot's length and Jimmy is staring, and Clark's attention has drifted from whatever Richard has presented him with and she tosses her head, brushing loose hair over her shoulder. "Richard?" she says, and it's somewhere between a whisper and a shout. He finally looks over his shoulder at her, and frowns.
Because she can't just stand there, she must have stood up for a reason after all, Lois makes her way purposefully over to Clark's desk and glances up briefly at her fellow reporter, poached so recently into her ex-fiance's news section. She remembers the three of them standing in a cluster like this the day she introduced them, the thought runs ragged through her head, and now she's just seen him look at Clark and wonders if he even knows it, that it's her look and no one else's.
"Excuse me," she raises her chin at Clark, who stands there looking dumbfounded, and she turns on Richard with her arms folding under her breasts. "I need to speak with you, Richard."
He raises his eyebrows at her, and for a painful moment she thinks he's going to challenge her or reject her right here at work in the middle of the bullpen in the avid cross-stares of Agnes and Amy and the other ones which is why she's been stalling this long, but all he says is "All right," and takes off for his office, leaving it to her to follow.
She shuts the door firmly behind her and he turns, his own arms crossed, leaning against his desk instead of going around to sit in a way that clearly implies neither of them are here to stay and it hurts, it makes her take a sudden breath that this has happened to them and she's done it with words, those she can't take back because once they're out there, they're forever. She wants to apologize and starts to say something and it catches in her throat because heaping more words on to undo what she's already said is impossible.
"What do you want?" he says, raising his brows. "You can have the house. I won't even ask you to buy me out."
"No, that's not fair!" Lois says, gesturing vehemently. "That...that's not it, I mean, yes, we should talk about the house. We should probably sell it and split the money, I mean, I think I should take a place closer to the Planet anyhow."
"Jason needs a home," Richard says, freeing one hand to hold it out palm up as if weighing the lack of options. "You're going to move him from his school?"
"Jason is exactly what I wanted to talk about," she seizes on the opening gratefully. "We should, I don't know...work out a schedule. Have visitation rights." She bites her lip and wills him to understand.
He looks at her for a long moment.
She rotates her hand in a 'come on' gesture.
"Visitation rights," Richard says slowly. "For my son?"
Lois smiles with relief. "Yeah, I mean...I don't know if you have a place to stay yet, but--"
"I'm staying with Clark," Richard says, now rubbing at the back of his neck with his free hand, frowning at one of the two visitor's chairs in the office.
"My God. Oh my God." Lois remembers, and clasps her arms across her front again. "Clark. What is going on with Clark, anyway? Suddenly you're out of the house and we're broken up for a week and you're hot for Clark?"
"Lois," Richard says, giving her the twitch of his lips that means she's either being unreasonable or she's pushing too far.
"But...Clark?" Her hands inscribe circles. "He's, I don't know, Mr. Smallville. He's like a wet-behind-the-ears rookie even after all this time, he's just so unassuming, and boring...are you having sex with him?"
"Lois." He crosses the office, clearly heading for the door and she bumps into him, takes a hasty step back. He's giving her the tight smile that doesn't reach his unhappy eyes. "I love you very much, and it's none of your fucking business."
He shows her the door, not that it takes much; it's right behind her ass. She gives him an indignant sniff to imply she'll revisit the subject later when he's not quite this angry.
"We need to work out a schedule," she says by way of parting shot. "We can do it over e-mail if you like."
On the other side of the bullpen, Clark squirms. He can't help having super hearing any more than he can help the molecular density that gives him these powers. He hunches over his computer and knows even without the reflection of his monitor that his ears are tomato-red because he can feel it and every so often, seeing a physiological reaction so closely human makes him marvel because all available evidence indicates he's not.
He's from Smallville but he's hardly naive. It's out there, now, and Richard will know that he heard -- how can he not? It was better before when they could pretend it wasn't out there, that they didn't know what was happening.
The door to Richard's office bangs open and Lois skitters toward her disk, heels pattering a rapid staccato over the floor.
Clark swivels from his desk and leans over his knees to takes refuge in his shiny new credit-card sized flip phone, wondering if he can pretend to be so engrossed in deciphering its array of features that he can manage to make Richard believe he didn't hear a thing.
It's that or hit the storage room closet with a speed that implies an emergency of earthshaking proportions.