By Irene Dutch <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted April 2000
Summary: This story is a sequel to 'Firestorm', 'Starfire and Sunstorm' and 'Solar Eclipse'. A next generation story, it focuses on Vicky Kent.
I have to thank Wendy Richards for her very valuable suggestions. As always, she was a wonderful help. Thanks to Nan Smith and Julie Gibson also, for their help with medical details and with details of the fire in the opening scene. A big thank you goes to my beta-reader, Laurie and my archive editor, Emily Crawford. And of course, thanks to the readers who frequent Zoom's message boards.
Please send feedback to email@example.com
All standard disclaimers apply.
In between verses, Michael Gale took a deep breath and instantly regretted it. The tobacco smoke was already thick enough to cut with a proverbial knife, and he had barely started his first set. Somehow, all the smoke seemed to gather on the small stage. It might have had something to do with the partly open skylight above his head that acted as a chimney for the smoke. Unfortunately, before it could exit the room, the smoke had to pass right by his place on the stage, all of it stopping in his lungs first, from the feel of it.
It already looked like it would be a good night to perform in the coffeehouse. He and the audience had connected with the energy surging back and forth between them. This was the type of night he loved, the kind he lived for, when his listeners were more than responsive.
Michael let his fingers slow as he played the final chords on his twelve-string. He bowed his head in response to the enthusiastic clapping of the audience. It was a small group but a good one. Automatically, his eyes swept the room once more, verifying what he already knew. He had them in the palm of his hand tonight!
As he looked around, acknowledging his audience, he saw a latecomer enter and sit down near the back of the small room. Not just any latecomer, though. She was slightly built, probably no more than five and a half feet tall, but even so she was very shapely. A pocket Venus, he thought. He had heard that expression before but had never understood it before this moment.
Her hair was dark, glossy and long, snaking sensuously down her back. Just looking at it made him dream about wrapping the thick coil of it around his hands, or of burying his face in it. A man could drown in hair like that.
Her face was luminous in the dim light, lit from within by an inner glow. Her cheekbones were high and exotic, her lips full and slightly pouting. He caught a glimpse of a flashing, white smile as she placed an order with her waiter. Then she turned to the stage and focused all her attention on him. His eyes met hers, and an electric shock zinged between them, connecting them. He had never felt anything like that in his life.
Michael came back to himself with a jolt and fumbled through his befuddled short-term memory, trying to figure out where he was in this set. With a graceful sweep of his fingers, he was off and running, performing his next song on autopilot. He sang song after song after song, aware every second of the stranger watching from the farthest corner of the room. In the back of his mind, in that cloistered section of his brain that was independent from his performance, he brooded and planned. He had never tried to meet an audience member before, although he had had his fair share try to meet him, but he decided that he just had to meet her. His first set would be over in about five more minutes. He was going to meet her then. He had to meet her then.
Having made this decision, it was a bitter shock to Michael's system to see the exotic stranger suddenly get up and make her way to the exit. It was even more frustrating that he was in the middle of the final chorus of the final song of the set and was within seconds of a break.
The evening went flat after that. The audience was still responsive, but it didn't seem to matter. He sang his heart out in his next set, hoping that she would return, but she didn't.
Finally, it was the last song of the last set. Michael was tired and was anticipating heading for the comfort of his small apartment when it happened. It happened so quickly that no one had a chance to do anything but panic.
A loud crackling sound echoed through the small coffeehouse, and at the same time, the lights blinked out. Michael's guitar, suddenly unamplified, twanged discordantly as his fingers fumbled to a stop. In the darkness, it was possible to see sparks shooting out of an electrical panel just off-stage.
"Fire!" screamed an audience member. As one, the crowd turned and headed for the exit, pushing and shoving and screaming — above all screaming. Michael was frozen on the stage, watching in disbelief, not able to see much, but able to see enough to know that having the details blurred by darkness was a blessing in itself. He could hear people thudding against each other trying to get out, the smack of fists on flesh, as customers tried to push each other out of the way.
He turned his eyes up at the sound of breaking glass above him. He saw the dark form of a woman, all in black, arrowing down through the skylight. He saw her face, unearthly and beautiful, surrounded by the white snow of shattered glass. He saw shock and horror fill her eyes, and then he saw nothing more.
ONE MONTH LATER
Vicky hovered above his apartment building, watching anxiously as Michael Gale prepared to make his first solo excursion around his neighbourhood.
'What am I doing?' she asked herself yet again. 'I'm spying on a blind man. How low can I go?' But Vicky couldn't bring herself to stop. No, she felt an intense need to watch over him and protect him. How much of that was directly attributable to guilt, she had no idea. She just knew that this man was important to her for many, many reasons.
Thinking back, Vicky remembered how it had been one month earlier. She had been indulging herself, flying for pleasure, zipping through the night skies of Metropolis when she had heard him. His song had drifted up to her, carried on the wind, and she had been mesmerized by the honey-sweet tones of his voice. His fingers had played a lively counter-point to his words as they danced on the strings of his guitar. And his words… Vicky loved words, worked with words, played with words, and his words… his words had resonated in all the hidden, secret places in her soul. She had landed, quickly discarded her secret identity and paid the modest cover charge in order to sit and do nothing but watch him sing.
His voice matched his looks. He was beautiful, with broad shoulders narrowing to a taut waist, piercing steel-blue eyes — she had focused in on them to check the colour — and black hair sprinkled with strands turning prematurely white. His sun-kissed face was sensitive and expressive. She watched, fascinated by the play of expression across it as he sang. How frustrating it had been when she had heard the unmistakable sounds of a mugging in process just down the street! Much as she had wanted to stay and wallow in the incredible sound of his voice, she had had no choice but to leave, abandoning her pleasure for her superhero duties.
And she had had no choice when she had returned. The crowd had been frantic, screaming, clogging all the exits. There had been one way clear into the coffeehouse, and Vicky had taken it. But why, oh why, had he not moved from the stage? And why, oh why, hadn't she checked to make sure no one was standing under the glass? She shuddered as she remembered watching the light in his upturned eyes go out. There had been so many wounded that night. But his wounds were the ones that she obsessed about. His wounds wounded her in her very soul.
And that was why she was here, spying on this man, infringing on his privacy. Her guilt over his injury was all encompassing.
Nightwind had tried to see him in the hospital, but he had refused. She assumed he was bitter and blamed her for everything — as he should, she thought, harshly. The doctors did hold out hope, though. Once his eyes had finished healing, it should be possible for him to receive a transplant, replacing his thickly scarred corneas. He'd go on the transplant waiting list after his next check-up. After that, well, it could take up to two years for a transplant. There was approximately an eighteen-month wait; Vicky knew — she had checked.
It was ironic that the glass that had scarred his corneas so badly had left nary a mark on his face. He had been covered with tiny, pinhole-sized cuts on his face, but they had all healed up completely.
Since he had left the hospital three weeks ago, Vicky had frantically tried to gather as much information about him as she could. She had eavesdropped on his doctor's appointments. She had watched from far overhead as his friends had taken turns driving him about on errands or to appointments. Tuning in her hearing, she had listened to the therapist as he had helped Michael rearrange and mentally map out his furniture. She knew she should be ashamed of herself — her father would have lectured her furiously if he had caught her — but she couldn't seem to help herself. It was plain and simple. She needed to watch him.
And so, here she was, hovering high above his small apartment building, racked with guilt, obsessed with a man she didn't know, watching as he tap, tap, tapped his way down the hall and into the elevator to the main floor. She waited until he emerged into the sunshine, and then she focused in on his face. He was pale, his lips set in a tight line, with his white cane shaking a little bit in his hand. She was filled with admiration as he set off down the street, counting his steps in a low mutter as his cane swept methodically back and forth across the sidewalk. Landing silently behind him in an alley, she spun quickly into comfortable jeans and a sweater, and set off on foot to follow him.
Three hours later, her admiration had not decreased. He had set himself quite a complicated set of errands for his first solo excursion, but had, so far, pulled them off without a hitch. His library visit had gone well, and he had exchanged one healthy stack of books on tape for another. Vicky had been nonplussed to see him return one of her own books. When her agent had asked her to read 'Rainbows' aloud for posterity, she had never really thought about the user at the end of it all.
From the library, Michael had moved on to lunch. Vicky had managed to seat herself at a good vantage point across the room. She watched him surreptitiously throughout the meal. He handled his food just fine, although she noted that he ordered an easy to handle sandwich with fries.
Lunch was over fairly quickly, and then he was off to an appointment with an eye surgeon to double-check his progress. If it went well here, he would be on the transplant list. She sat, thinking quietly in the small park across from the medical building, enjoying the warm sunshine on her face. She closed her eyes for a moment. The inside of her eyelids was pink, lit up from without. Could he even see that, she wondered? Did he remember what colours looked like, or were they starting to fade in his memory? What did he miss the most? What was the greatest loss that she had caused him?
The tap, tap, tapping of his cane brought her back to herself. She set off to follow him once again, not letting herself think about what she was doing, about what in the world she hoped to accomplish by following him.
He was only a block from home when it happened. It wasn't even anything malicious. The kid on the skateboard didn't mean to knock him down, but she had obviously lost control of the board's actions. Vicky didn't know if the teenage girl didn't actually see the white cane or if she didn't understand its significance as she took off immediately with a cheery 'Sorry!' over her shoulder. Vicky watched for a second as Michael, now kneeling on the pavement, fumbled for his cane and his scattered books on tape. She glanced around only to see that the other pedestrians weren't offering to help, but were hurrying past, their eyes averted. She was curiously reluctant to approach him herself, but what choice did she have? She couldn't just leave him there.
She sighed and then ran quickly to his side. "May I help?"
Michael stretched his hands out blindly, trying not to give into the panic. He was lost without the solid feel of the cane in his hand. He was trying to methodically control the sweep of his hands, and not let them flail about searching aimlessly, when he heard a soft, melodious voice.
"May I help?"
The anonymous stranger's voice sent a rush of warmth flowing through his body. Her voice was low and sensual, her tongue caressing every syllable. It sounded strangely familiar.
"Please," he heard himself respond, fighting to keep from clutching at her in his panic.
"Here. Here's your cane," she said, the way she formed her words giving him another feeling of déjà vu. He could feel the heat radiating from her and smell the fresh, clean scent of her hair as she bent down and pressed it into his hand.
"Thanks." He slowly pushed himself to his feet, careful not to use the cane for support. It wasn't that kind of cane, and it would have never held up to his weight. He had no complaints, though. It did hold up to the responsibilities he chose to load on it.
"And here are your books." She took his hand in hers and looped the handle of his carry bag across his palm. Her hand was small, delicate and soft. He felt himself tremble at the light touch but told himself it was a delayed reaction to the shock of his fall. Even so, he felt a sense of loss when she slowly pulled her hand away.
"Are you all right now?" she asked, quietly.
He forced himself to smile, suddenly feeling an absurd desire to cry. "Yes, thanks, except…"
"Except?" she prompted.
"Except I have no idea what direction I'm facing," he confessed, his voice shaking a little, to his disconcertion.
"Where are you going?" she asked, hesitantly.
"I don't want to put you out," he protested lamely. "It would be great if you would just help me get oriented."
"It's all right." She paused for a second before continuing, "I was heading in the same direction as you. Why don't you tell me where you're going? It's probably on my way, too."
Even though she didn't seem enthusiastic about helping him, Michael acquiesced, telling her his apartment address. He was more shaken up than he cared to admit by his fall.
She politely insisted that it was no trouble to walk him home, and before he could think about it, Michael was strolling casually down the street, his hand tucked in her arm, with his bag of talking books and his cane dangling uselessly from the other arm.
She was silent. He didn't know if it was because she was truly nonchalant about his handicap, or whether she was just pretending to be. Grateful as he was for her help, she made him feel a little on edge.
She wasn't tall. He would guess that she was about five feet, six inches — a nice height in comparison to his own six feet. From the feel of the slender arm under his hand, she was slightly built.
They walked in an awkward silence for a moment.
"We're almost there," she said in a lovely musical voice.
He could swear that he had heard her voice before. He stopped dead, pulling her to a stop. "You're going to think this is a line, but have we ever met before? You sound very familiar," he said, hesitantly.
She was silent for a few seconds. "No."
He started walking again, shaking his head. "I'm sorry. I could have sworn… Would you like to get a cup of coffee?" he blurted out, shocked at his audacity.
She froze, her arm rigid under his hand but didn't say anything.
"You know," he continued awkwardly. "A small thank you for your help."
She was silent for another long moment before answering. "All right," she finally agreed, softly. "Anywhere in particular?"
"There should be a coffee shop around here somewhere," he answered, trying to strain his hearing so he could get his bearings as to where exactly they were.
"Yes. There's one just across the street."
She didn't say anything else until after they had crossed the busy street and been seated at a table for two. The waiter took their order for coffee — his, black and hers, with extra cream — and then they were alone once again.
"I should introduce myself," he said, extending his hand blindly. "I'm Michael."
He hated trying to shake someone's hand since he had had his accident, not knowing if the other person was looking. He had a horror of having his hand linger out there, unnoticed, making him look foolish, but at the same time, he knew it was expected so he forced himself to do it.
She gripped his hand lightly and gave it a tentative shake. "Victoria. Vicky for short."
The way she had said her name rang a bell. Where had he heard that name said in that way before?
"Victoria? You're Victoria El, aren't you?" he exclaimed in astonishment.
"How did you know?" she asked, sounding surprised.
"Your voice. I listened to you read your first book on tape. I just took it back to the library today," he explained, feeling very proud of having figured this minor mystery out.
"Oh," she said, sounding embarrassed.
"It was beautiful. I loved it. I must have listened to it at least three or four times over the past couple of weeks. Life has been a bit… difficult the last little while since I lost my sight, and I have to say that your book really helped me keep sane." He winced when his reference to his accident slipped out, knowing that she would pick up on it and ask him about it.
"Thank you," she replied, solemnly, "that's a wonderful compliment. I'm very touched." She surprised him by not taking the opening he had given her. He didn't know if she was being sensitive to his feelings and not asking him questions about something that he didn't want to talk about, or insensitive in totally ignoring his situation. She lapsed into silence once more. He had to admit that he found her silences very intriguing, even though he feared that they meant she was uncomfortable around him.
The waiter arrived with their coffee. Michael cupped his hands around the warm mug, waiting for it to cool down a little. He heard Vicky rip a packet of sugar open, and then another, and then another before her spoon tinkled musically in her cup as she vigorously stirred the hot brew.
"How many sugars do you take?" he blurted out.
"Usually four," she said, sounding embarrassed, "but I only took three today. I'm, uh, trying to cut back."
Michael threw his head back and laughed heartily. She joined in a moment later. Her laugh was joyous and full-throated, with nothing held back, an interesting contrast to her reserved way of speaking.
After that, their conversation became less awkward and stilted, flowing more naturally. Vicky talked about what it was like to be a writer, and he found himself telling her about being a singer and writing his own music. He found her fascinating, both for what she said and how she said it. With her, you had to listen to her silences as well as her words. She asked very insightful questions about his music, and he found himself opening up to her. He hadn't talked this much to anyone since the accident. His friends had visited, but with them, he always had the feeling that they could only see what he had been, not how he was now. With Vicky, he felt as if he were starting with a clean slate. It was a surprisingly refreshing feeling.
They talked a long time and drank innumerable cups of coffee and talked some more about music.
"I'd like to hear you sing some time," she admitted, shyly.
"I've got a CD in my apartment that you can have. That is, if you have time to come up with me and get it. It's one I did myself, not released on a label." He couldn't believe his audacity, inviting her up to his apartment. But there was something about her that gave him more confidence than he had had since his accident had happened.
"Thank you, Michael. I'd like that. And I have lots of time. That's one of the best things about being a writer. I can set my own hours and have a lot of time to do the things that are important to me."
He smiled. "It's like that when you're a musician, too — at least it is if you don't mind working until two every morning."
Vicky offered to pay for the coffee, but Michael wouldn't let her. This was a good opportunity to practise the special folds he had made with his cash so he could tell one bill from the next. He made a point of leaving a healthy tip, aware that they had monopolized the table for a long time.
Vicky tucked his hand into her arm again, and they strolled leisurely back across the street and headed for his apartment building.
As they entered Michael's apartment, Vicky wondered, yet again, exactly what she was doing. She shouldn't be here. She should never have agreed to have a coffee with him, and she shouldn't have talked to him, and she shouldn't have told him she wanted to hear him sing, and she very definitely shouldn't have come up to his apartment with him. She had no explanation for her behaviour except that she must be insane.
The chance to hear his voice once more had been enough to weaken the tattered remnants of her self-control. She hadn't wanted to admit that she had heard him sing before, because then he would have asked her when, and she would have had to tell him that she had been there that night… the night when it had all fallen apart.
She wondered what he had thought when she didn't ask him about the accident. He had almost looked expectant after he had casually mentioned it, but she had no desire to hear directly from him how much he hated her alter ego.
She waited just inside the door and watched, feeling absurdly proud of him, as Michael confidently strode into his living room and found her the CD without having to fumble around and search for it. All his practice with his therapist had really paid off.
"Here you go." He held it out in her general direction.
As she reached for it, her hand brushed his. She felt a definite electric shock rush through her system at the contact.
"Thank you, Michael," she said, formally.
"You're welcome. Uh, listen, Vicky, could I… would you consider going out for dinner with me? Tonight? Or tomorrow, if tonight's too soon?"
Vicky knew she should say no, but as she looked up into his earnest face, she couldn't. She pushed her guilt deep inside. "I'd love to, Michael," she replied, shyly.
"When? Tonight?" he asked, eagerly.
"Tonight's fine," she answered with a giggle. "What time should I come back?"
He thought for a second. "How about five?"
Vicky giggled again. "Um, Michael, did you know that it's four forty-five right now?"
"It is? Do you mean we talked for three and a half hours in that coffee shop?"
"I had no idea."
"I know. Neither did I until I checked my watch."
After a short discussion, it was decided. Michael made sandwiches, put a stack of CD's in the stereo, and then they put their feet up.
Quite a few hours later, and not coincidentally, quite a few glasses of wine later, Vicky reluctantly said goodnight.
"I'd like to see you again," Michael said as she got ready to leave. "I haven't enjoyed a night like this since… well, I've never enjoyed a night like this."
"I'd like that, Michael. I've had a wonderful time, too," Vicky admitted, ruthlessly throttling the conscience that was screaming dire warnings at her.
"Is lunch tomorrow too soon?" Michael asked with an endearing smile.
Vicky felt her heart turn over in response to it. She couldn't refuse him in the face of that smile. "That would be great," she answered, softly. "Where?"
"How about the café at the museum at noon? Sound good?"
"That sounds great, Michael. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Before you go, I want to tell you something," Michael said, earnestly. "I've had a really hard time since I lost my sight a month ago. You've really helped me just by… being you. I want to thank you."
Vicky felt tears prick at the back of her eyelids. "I'm glad I could help." She squeezed his hand gently. "Goodnight, Michael. I'll see you tomorrow."
She walked slowly home, thinking about her evening with Michael. He was wonderful, intelligent, sensitive, caring, handsome… and blind because of her. She shouldn't spend time with him. It wasn't right. She was with him under false pretences. He had no idea that she was the cause of his blindness.
But he had said that she was helping him. She was helping him feel better. That was something, wasn't it? But whatever amount of help she was providing him with now couldn't compare to the pain she had caused him. Could it? No, it couldn't. She was going to have to phone him and tell him she couldn't make it. It would be wrong to have lunch with him. No, she should just walk away and let him live his life and stop spying on him.
<But I'm so lonely,> Vicky thought in desperation. Ever since Jon had moved to Washington with Larissa, she hadn't had a friend to talk to. It wasn't the distance, but he was so in tune with Larissa, she felt as if he didn't have time for her any more
She had never had many friends. That was partly because of the need to guard the family secret but mostly because of her own inner reserve. She had joked around with her roommates in university, but they hadn't been friends. Mom and Dad were okay to talk to, but they were older with different priorities. She loved Sam and Astrid, but they didn't really have a lot in common. The same held true for Marty and Ben. It was so tempting to cultivate a friendship with Michael. He was so interesting and intelligent and sensitive and wonderful and here she was again, right back at the point where she had started.
Vicky resolutely stopped her thoughts from going around in yet another circle and made a final decision. She would call Michael in the morning and cancel their lunch date. That was final.
Nightwind restlessly paced back and forth on the roof of the Metropolis Museum of Fine Art. She angled her head down and scanned. Yes, there he was, sitting at a table for two, waiting patiently.
She hadn't planned on his having an unlisted phone number when she had decided to cancel their lunch date. This was very frustrating.
She paced and spied on him and paced some more and spied on him some more. He was starting to look really worried, checking his special watch with his fingers every minute. After a few moments, Vicky gave up her pacing and stood still, her eyes fixed on him. Around 12:15, he sighed, a deep mournful sigh, and bowed his head. He looked so defeated in that moment that Vicky knew she couldn't go through with this. She gave up completely, surrendering her free will. She had no choice but to keep seeing him. He was the flame and she was the moth that couldn't stay away, no matter that her wings would be singed by his heat.
It only took her a moment to reach the small restaurant.
"Michael! I'm so sorry I'm late!" Vicky exclaimed as she raced up to the table.
He jumped to his feet, a look of relief spreading across his face. "That's okay, Vicky. I'm just glad that you're here."
At his look of sheer happiness, Vicky felt tears come to her eyes. She pushed her feelings of guilt deep inside her once more as she lightly placed her hand on his shoulder in greeting.
As he munched his sandwich, Michael reflected that he couldn't remember ever feeling happier in his life. Just being with Vicky was enough to thrill him. It was strange. He had no idea what she looked like — he didn't know if she were black, white, or purple with green polka dots — but it didn't seem to matter. She was beautiful to him. She was so reserved, only allowing a little of her inner self to show, but that small amount she did share with him was wonderful beyond belief.
And it was such a relief that she hadn't asked him what had happened, or fussed over him, or offered to cut his food — although, the last would have been pretty redundant. Since his accident, he had made a point of ordering food that wasn't messy — no soups, salads, stir-fries, that kind of thing. He was getting pretty tired of sandwiches and burgers, but it was a small price to pay to not slop on himself.
Getting back to Vicky, he couldn't remember ever enjoying a woman's company as much as he enjoyed hers. She was warm and sensitive in a very understated way, with hidden depths. He had the sense that she was full of delightful secrets that he could have fun discovering one at a time. He wanted to know everything about her.
Even though he enjoyed being with her, he shouldn't be this happy, he thought. Here he was, newly blinded, unsure of himself, flustered and trying really hard not to be panicked by his new circumstances, and he was happy. It made no sense.
He sighed happily. Putting his sandwich down, he leaned forward to address her. "So, do you have any dinner plans?"
Later that evening, Michael sighed contentedly once more as he sat across his dining table from Vicky. He couldn't stop smiling, although, truth to tell, he didn't want to stop. They had spent the afternoon together, strolling aimlessly through Metropolis Centennial Park, his hand resting lightly on her arm, talking animatedly one minute and then walking in a comfortable silence the next.
Part of him was so completely at ease around her, but another part was not. He was extremely conscious of her every move, practically of her every breath. He was completely attuned to her physically, in a way that he had never been connected to anyone before. But he felt very shy around her. He didn't know if it was because of his accident or not, but he was lacking in self-confidence. At times, he felt very much less than a man, as if the loss of his eyes had destroyed his own sense of himself as a whole person. But he wanted to touch her, and be touched by her. His hand had burned earlier when it had rested on her slender arm as they strolled through the park, and all his remaining senses thrilled whenever she was near him.
And now, they sat at Michael's small dining table. Vicky had bustled around in his tiny kitchen and had prepared a simple but tasty meal of grilled steak, baked potatoes and steamed vegetables. He had happily set the table for two. He was sure that he had probably mismatched the colours of his linen napkins and wondered whether he had done the same with his everyday dishes and his china, but he just didn't care.
"Michael, have you written any new music recently?" Vicky asked, her voice soft, caressing each syllable. "I listened to your CD last night, and I just loved it. I'd love to hear more."
"I have been working on a song. It's a ballad. I'll sing it for you later if you want."
"That would be great," Vicky said, her own voice sounding like music.
"Only if you read me some of your next book. I loved 'Rainbows.'"
"I'd love to." Vicky sounded very pleased.
Michael paused, set down his knife and fork and leaned forward. "Vicky, I have to tell you something. You have the most beautiful voice I have ever heard."
He felt her hand grip his where it lay, palm up, resting on the table. He quickly placed his other hand over hers, trapping it within the clasp of his two larger ones.
"I could say the same about you," she answered, quietly. "When I listened to you sing I felt as if you were singing just for me. Your songs touch me. They fill a space in my heart that I didn't even know was empty."
"Oh, Vicky," he said, touched beyond words. Suddenly feeling very courageous, he lifted her hand to his lips, brushing them not across the back of her hand, but intimately against her palm.
Her hand was so soft, so delicate, her fingers so long and graceful. He traced her fingers with his, stroking the tender skin in between each one and then her perfect, oval-shaped fingernails.
"Michael, don't. Please," she said with a gasp. But she didn't try to free her hand from his grasp.
"Why not, Vicky?" he asked softly, once more caressing her palm with his lips. "What are you afraid of?" Without letting go of her hand, he slid his chair around the table to sit beside her. He wondered where his newfound bravery was coming from. Could it be that she seemed to need his reassurance rather than the other way around?
"I'm not afraid," she said, her voice shaking a bit. "But it's too soon…"
"Not soon enough for me," he muttered deep in his throat as he dared to lift his hand up to locate her face, his fingers coming to rest on her thick, glossy hair. He slowly slid down to her chin and then over to find her lips with his fingers. They were full and soft and trembled under his touch. Carefully and slowly, feeling as if she would bolt if he moved too quickly, he lowered his lips to hers, wondering exactly where he was finding the courage. He couldn't believe he had waited this long to touch her when all he had wanted to do from the moment he met her was wrap himself around her. What had he been thinking? How had he managed to resist for so long, when he had wanted to do this so much?
He had never imagined a kiss could be so magical. He wondered in passing if it was his newly enhanced sense of touch that elevated this kiss to a higher level. That and all other rational forms of thought fled as her lips heated under his, as she slid closer to him and wrapped her arms around him. He broke the kiss, breathing hard only to hear her groan in her throat as she pulled him close once more to plant gentle, tender kisses on his forehead and cheeks. He sighed happily as his hands stroked her hair back from her face. Her hair was long and silky, crackling with a little static electricity under his fingers. He pulled away from her slightly once more. She started to protest, but he quickly hushed her. "I want to feel what you look like. Please let me," he begged. He sensed more than felt her nodding her agreement.
With the sensitive pads of his fingers, he traced the outline of her face, from her forehead to her chin. She remained still, but he heard her breathing pick up in response to his light touch. "What colour is your hair?" he asked softly as he buried his hands in it, letting the strands slip out of his grasp.
"Dark brown, almost black," she answered, her voice still shaking.
He laid the palms of his hands, fingers overlapping, on the smooth skin of her forehead. Is this what they mean by an alabaster brow, he wondered? He skimmed his fingers lightly over her eyes, feeling her eyelashes quiver under them. "And your eyes?"
"Brown again," she answered, softly.
He smiled. "So you're a brown-eyed girl, are you? I always loved that song." With his index finger, he traced the lines of her nose before smoothing his thumbs across her high cheekbones. He saved her lips for last. They were a little swollen from his kisses and quivered under his fingers. "Vicky, you're beautiful," he said, reverently.
"Oh, Michael," she sighed, huskily, as she kissed each of his fingertips.
"I wish I could see you, really see you," he whispered, his throat tightening up, suddenly feeling frustrated beyond belief.
"I wish you could, too, Michael," she answered, so softly he could barely hear her. "I wish you could, too."
To his chagrin, Michael felt his eyes start to water. He tried to control it but then his shoulders started to shake. He pushed himself up hastily, needing to flee to hide his shame and embarrassment at his hot tears. Like a wounded animal seeking its den, he scurried towards his bedroom, only to cry out in chagrin as he tripped over an end table that had somehow been moved out of its proper place.
He flailed his arms helplessly, only to feel her catch him and break his fall. His weight bore her down to the floor under him. "Are you okay?" he gasped, his voice breaking.
"I'm fine," she assured him quickly. "What about you?"
"Oh, yeah, I'm… I'm…" He couldn't answer. His eyes burned with unshed tears, and his chest ached. He rolled off her and sat up, his knees folded under him, facing away from her. He squeezed his eyes shut as tight as he could, but even so felt a couple of tears escape. Sucking in air, he tried to maintain control and wrapped his arms around his own rib cage feeling as though he would fall to pieces if he let go.
Vicky moved to kneel in front of him. She silently pulled him close and encircled his shaking shoulders firmly with her arms. Michael felt the floodgates open.
Embarrassment and shame forgotten for the moment, deep, racking sobs tore at his vocal chords as he buried his face against Vicky's shoulder. He cried out his desolation and sorrow for the first time since his accident. All those feelings of loss that he hadn't allowed himself to express came out in the animal sounds he made as he reluctantly gave himself over to a maelstrom of emotion.
Vicky stayed with him through the tempest, her arms holding him firmly, and her voice crooning tunelessly and comfortingly in his ear. His tears slowed and stopped, leaving him sniffling and coughing in their aftermath. As he got back into control, he felt foolish, emasculated once again. He didn't want her to look at him. He knew his face must be blotchy and his nose running, and he was ashamed of himself for his outburst. She shifted, and he clutched at her desperately, not wanting her to pull back and see his face.
"Oh, Michael, I'm so sorry. It's been so hard for you, hasn't it?" Vicky's voice was choked with emotion. She gathered him closer and rested her cheek on his head. To his shock, he felt her begin to shiver. Forgetting his own embarrassment, he pulled himself away and shifted to pull her into his arms. It was his turn to rock and comfort her as she cried, his heavy sweater soaking up her tears. He held her close, rubbing her back, almost pathetically grateful to her for her need of his arms, feeling like a man once more.
When she was quiet, he sat back against the side of his couch and pulled her to sit beside him.
"Better?" he asked. He felt her nod.
"You?" she asked.
They sat side by side in silence for a long time. Michael felt drained but at the same time relieved, the weight he had been carrying around for the last month dissipated into nothingness.
"Well, that was different," he finally said, his sense of the absurd kicking in.
Vicky giggled weakly in response. "Oh, I don't know. I thought it was a pretty typical second date."
A great explosion of laughter burst from his throat. Vicky joined in a heartbeat later, and the two of them roared uproariously, which was just as cleansing in its own way. Michael laughed so hard that he had to hold onto his ribs again, for a different reason this time. He laughed until he had no breath left in his body. Finally, both of them gasping for air, their laughter slowed and then stopped.
Michael turned to Vicky and pulled her into a warm embrace. "Thank you," he breathed into her ear.
"For what?" she asked, quietly.
"For being here with me. You make me glad to be alive. I haven't felt that way in a long time. I haven't felt that way since… I had my accident."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Vicky asked, softly.
He laid his head back against the couch, closed his eyes, and thought about it for a minute. Finally, he nodded. "Yes, I think I do."
The words poured out of him. First, before he talked about the accident, he talked about what it was like to be blind. He told her how scared he had been to wake up in perpetual darkness and how, every morning, it didn't get any easier. He told her how he was worried he might look foolish — that his clothes might not match or he might end up with food stuck between his teeth. He told her how tired he was of eating sandwiches and that he missed Chinese food so much he had dreams about it, but that he absolutely refused to take the chance of making a fool of himself in public.
He told her about praying for a cornea transplant and his guilt over his prayers, knowing that in reality he was praying for someone to die. He talked about how scared he was of having a transplant because if it didn't work, somehow it would have been better not to know that. He told her of his frustration at the long waiting list ahead of him and how he didn't know how he was going to last waiting the year and a half to two years that would be necessary.
He talked about his hopes for the future, his hopes that he had had to shelve for the time being. He told her how he wanted to make music, maybe get a recording contract, or failing that, write songs for others to sing.
And then he talked about the accident. He talked about what it had been like to have the lights die, and his guitar fall silent — how puzzled he had been for a second until he figured out what was happening, how hard it had been to believe. He told Vicky what it had been like to hear the crowd screaming, to hear them pushing and hitting each other in their panic to escape. He talked about the crackle of the fire and the sparks erupting from the electrical panel. And then he told her about hearing the glass break above his head. "She swooped down towards me all in black like a dark angel. Her face was unearthly, almost silver in the dim light. In that moment, when my world went dark, I hated her and I loved her. I hated her for destroying my world, but I loved her too, because to hate her was to hate all that is good in the world, and I just couldn't bring myself to do that. Do you know what I mean?"
"I… I'm not sure," Vicky answered, hesitantly.
"Oh, I knew that she had no choice. Nightwind couldn't get into the coffeehouse any other way. All the exits were crowded with people fighting to get out. She would have had to claw her way through them. Super-strength couldn't help her in that situation. So, I know she had no choice. But I suffered for that choice. I lost my world in one second. I couldn't help but hate her. I didn't want to live like that. If that were her only choice, I wanted her not to make it. I wanted to die in the fire. And now I have her image imprinted in my memory. I'm starting to forget what my friends look like and my family, but I have a picture of her face burning inside me." He shrugged, striving to be nonchalant about the most significant moment in his life. "There are worse images to take into darkness. She was truly the most starkly beautiful woman I have ever seen."
"Do you feel like that now?" Vicky asked in a still, small voice. "Do you wish that you had died in the fire?"
"No." He smiled warmly in her general direction. "Not since I met you. You've helped me a lot, Vicky. You've helped me feel alive again."
"That's a big responsibility you're placing on me, Michael," Vicky said, solemnly.
"No, it's all right," he assured her. "I'm not trying to make some bizarre 'you saved my life so you're stuck with me, forever' deal. I know rotten things are going to happen to me still. I know I'm going to have a hard time because I'm blind, but I feel like myself again. I feel like I'll be able to handle my problems myself because you brought me back to life. Does that make sense?"
"I think so," Vicky said, hesitantly. "But are you saying you don't want to be with me anymore?"
Michael reached over and tugged Vicky into his lap. "No. It means I want to be with you, not I need to be with you. Do you see the distinction?"
"Yes. I'm glad, because I want to be with you, too."
He felt Vicky's hand stroke his cheek and sensed her movement towards him. He captured her mouth as it neared his, their kiss so passionate his toes curled.
"So, what now, Michael?" she whispered as the kiss ended.
He smiled. "Now, we can relax and get to know each other, really know each other, if that's okay."
She snuggled closer and sighed contentedly. "More than okay."
They moved off the floor to the comfortable couch and talked and cuddled and talked some more, occasionally kissing and lightly caressing each other, needing to remain in close contact after their emotional upheaval.
Hours later, Michael reluctantly pulled away from Vicky. "Oh, I'm stiff," he said, trying to stretch out his kinked neck and back. What time is it, anyway?"
"3:30 in the morning," Vicky announced, her voice astonished.
"Wow!" he exclaimed as he rolled his tense shoulders trying to get them to relax.
"Here, let me help," Vicky said as she turned Michael away from her. An instant later, he groaned involuntarily as her hands started to knead his sore muscles. She rubbed and stroked and kneaded his neck and shoulders until he felt like purring. It got harder and harder to keep his eyes open as she worked on his tight muscles. <I'll just close them for a minute,> he thought drowsily. <It's not like I actually need to keep them open. They don't work, after all.>
Vicky kept working on Michael's muscles until he had slumped sideways on the couch. His breathing was slow and even, and his whole body limp when she stopped. She surveyed his recumbent form. If she left him lying like that, he would be sore in the morning, she judged with a practised eye. Sighing, she stooped and scooped him up before standing up again. He mumbled sleepily but didn't wake up. She caught sight of their reflection in a hall mirror and shook her head at the incongruous sight of the lanky musician in her arms.
Vicky gently carried Michael to his room and laid him carefully on his bed, shoving his sheet and blankets down first. She slipped his shoes off his feet before propping him up against her and working his heavy sweater up and over his shoulders. She laid him back down, his head on the pillow, and looked at his jeans. No, she couldn't strip those off him, but she could get rid of his belt so it didn't dig into him, she thought as her hands deftly undid the buckle.
When she was done, she stood for a moment and studied his half-naked form. His shoulders and chest were broad and his waist narrow. His muscles weren't as defined as her father's or her brothers', she thought idly. No, Michael's muscles were wiry, giving his torso a more angular look. He had a sprinkling of black hair on his chest, further emphasizing the difference in looks between him and the masculine contingent of her family. To her eyes, long accustomed to the smooth and hairless chests of her dad and her brothers, he looked exotic and intriguing.
As she watched, he suddenly shivered in the chill air. Aghast that she had been spying on Michael once again, she quickly covered him with his sheet and blankets, smoothing them carefully around him. She bent and kissed him tenderly on the forehead and then forced herself out of his room, reluctant to leave him.
It took only a moment for Vicky to quickly speed around and put his messy kitchen and table to rights. When she was done, she paused, her hand on the doorknob, wondering what else she could do. Not able to think of anything, she sighed and reluctantly pulled the door open and left his apartment, the spring-lock clicking shut behind her.
She emerged on the street and took a deep breath before tipping her head up to survey the cloudless sky. The stars were bright tonight, she observed. Vicky quickly glanced around the deserted street. She didn't see anyone outside, and she didn't see anyone looking out of any of the windows that faced the street. Without bothering to look for the concealment of an alley, she launched herself up into the night sky, coming to rest high above the earth, cradled by the darkness. Closing her eyes, she floated there, moved hither and yon by the thin streams of air as they pushed against her. Her eyes burned and she urged her tears to flow, hoping that they would help to melt the huge block of ice in her middle. One tear started its lonely path down her face, only to be joined by the next and the next, and soon she was sobbing, her face buried in her hands. She wailed her desolation to the uncaring stars, heedless of the wisps of clouds that kissed her cheeks.
Two strong arms came around her and pulled her to a hard chest. Vicky didn't need to feel the 'S' crest against her cheek to know who held her so tenderly. "Dad," she gasped, acknowledging his presence.
"Shhh," he whispered. "It's okay, Vic. I've got you."
"Oh, Dad," she sobbed into his chest. "It's not okay. It's not."
He didn't answer, instead holding her a little closer and patting her soothingly on the back. He crooned tunelessly into her ear until her tears slowed and stopped. Vicky was content to cling to her father, but he had other ideas. He firmly grasped her shoulders and shifted so he could look her in the eyes. "Can you tell your old dad what's wrong?"
Vicky felt the tears welling up once more. "Oh, Dad, I made a mess of everything. I screwed up, big time."
"What happened? Did a rescue go bad on you?"
"It's a long story. I met a man…" She sighed and looked away, too embarrassed to look her father in the eyes.
"I thought we hadn't seen much of you in the last few days."
"I know. And it's awful. I did something I shouldn't have. This thing happened between us tonight that…"
"Maybe I should take you to your mother?" he interrupted quickly, his cheeks flushing.
"Dad, nothing like that!" Vicky exclaimed.
"Oh. Good." He sighed with relief. "But maybe I should still take you to your mother."
She nodded and buried her face against him once more. "I think you should both hear about it," she told his chest. He sighed mournfully, muttered his stock 'I'm too old for this' comment that he always said when she had a problem, and brought his arm under her to hold her the way he had when she had been a little girl and they had flown together.
"… and I can't believe you spied on him," Vicky's father finished indignantly. He paced up and down in the kitchen made small by his presence, his cape majestically billowing out behind him. "What were you thinking, Vic? I thought I taught you better than that."
"Honey," her mother admonished, softly.
He glanced at his wife quickly. Whatever message she had tried to send him must have been received, because his expression was a lot gentler when he turned back to his daughter. He crouched down in front of Vicky as she sat despondently on one of the kitchen chairs. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I should have let you talk instead of giving you a lecture, but I got kind of worked up when you told me you spied…"
"Clark!" Lois interrupted, forcefully.
Clark glanced at Lois guiltily before looking back at his daughter. "Go ahead, honey. We're listening," he said as he tenderly clasped one of her hands.
Vicky's mother pulled her chair a little closer and grasped her daughter's other hand. "Dad's right, Vic. We're here for you, sweetheart."
Vicky desperately clung to them as she tried to form the words to tell them how badly she had messed things up with Michael. She looked at them helplessly, not sure she knew what to say.
"Honey," her mom said, squeezing her hand gently, "just start at the beginning. Tell us why you felt you had to keep an eye on this man. We'll listen. We're here for you. You know that."
Vicky looked into her mom's eyes and then her dad's. Her mom was right. She could tell she had their support just from the love she saw shining in their eyes. They might tell her that she had messed up, that she had behaved badly, but they would never turn their backs on her. She knew that. It made it easier for her to start.
She took a deep breath. "Do you remember the coffeehouse that caught on fire last month? Well, earlier in the evening, I was out doing my patrol, and I heard this voice, this magnificent voice…"
Quite a few minutes later Vicky fell silent.
Her mom and dad didn't say anything right away, making her very nervous. Instead, they exchanged a couple of glances, fraught with meaning, before turning back to their errant daughter.
"How do you feel when you're with Michael?" her mom asked, gently.
Vicky stared off into space before answering. "More alive than I've ever felt in my life. Terrified. Almost sick to my stomach. Happy. I feel everything at once, all jumbled together. I want to gather him into my arms and take him with me to a deserted island. I want to look after him. I want… I want to be with him, plain and simple."
Her dad shook his head. "In other words, you think you love this man."
"Yes, but I feel so guilty, too. I'm so confused," Vicky answered solemnly, tears coming to her eyes. "But if I tell him about, you know, he'll hate me. I cost him his eyes."
"That's ridiculous," Vicky's mom replied, acerbically. "You gained him his life. You had no choice at that coffeehouse. If you had done anything differently, a lot more people would have been hurt, maybe even killed. Vic, you're obsessing again, just like your father. Clark, tell her," her mom finished, turning to her husband.
He smiled. "Your mom's right, Vic. You are obsessing. I would be, too, in your shoes. I remember what it's like. It was bad enough when your mom nearly got hurt. It was really awful when your mom did get hurt."
"I never got hurt, Clark. You were always there for me," he had pointed out to him by his wife.
"No? How about the time Nigel and Mazik wanted me to kill you or they'd kill my parents? How do you think I felt when I froze you and…?"
An open-mouthed Vicky interrupted their trip down memory lane. "You know, you guys really should tell us more stories. I have no idea what you're talking about but it sounds, it sounds really…" She stopped at a loss for words and shook her head.
"Anyway," her mom said, with a quelling glance at her husband, "if you love this man and he loves you, really loves you, you'll be able to get through this. I know. I won't pretend that it will be easy, because it won't, but you will be able to deal with everything. The first thing you need to do, though, is to make absolutely sure that you do love him. From the sounds of things, you can't figure out if you do or if you just feel guilty. And until you do, you need to play it safe. Please, promise me that you'll slow things down a bit. Telling someone our secret in the middle of a whirlwind romance while you're racked with guilt is not the best idea in the world. You should try really hard to slow things down."
"Maybe I should just walk away," Vicky said, sadly.
"Oh, sure, if you feel like retiring from the human race," Clark said, smiling slightly. "And that's an option I hope you don't take. It took a lot of genetic engineering to make you even half-human. I'd hate to see you throw it away."
"Very funny, Dad," Vicky retorted sarcastically as she smiled weakly at him. "I just don't know what to do. It's so scary."
Clark laughed. "How do you think I felt every minute of every day from the moment I met your mother until the moment when she finally married me? And to be truthful, there are times when she still scares me." He looked over at Lois with a wicked twinkle in his eye.
Lois laughed as she regarded her husband fondly. "And how do you think I felt when I knew that I loved your father but I had your Grandma and Grandpa Lane's shining example of a not-so-loving marriage in front of me all the time?"
"I never thought about it. I guess I always thought you guys were in love and never had this kind of problem," Vicky said, starting to feel a little calmer.
Lois and Clark looked at each other and then started to laugh. "Well, we never exactly had this specific type of problem, but I think we covered all the other bases," her dad said, with an amused look at her mother.
"Yeah, thoroughness has always been a Lane and Kent trademark," Lois responded, smugly.
"Feeling a bit better, sweetheart?" Clark asked, sliding his arm around his daughter's shoulders.
She looked up at him with a grateful smile. "Yeah, Dad — thanks to you two. I appreciate it."
"So, any idea as to what you're going to do now?" Lois asked, leaning forward to rest a loving hand on Vicky's arm.
Vicky shook her head. "You mean, other than eventually going home to get some sleep? No. I need to really think things through, to really know what I'm feeling. Right now I'm pretty confused. Do I just feel guilty or is there something more there? Can I trust him? I think I can, but how do I know for sure? What if I make a mistake? It won't just hurt me, but it'll hurt everyone else too."
Lois laughed. "Just don't obsess too much, honey — although I'm glad that you're at least putting some thought into whether you can trust this man or not. I mean, when I think about how your brother just blurted our secret out to Larissa…"
Clark wrapped his arms quickly around his petite wife's shoulders. "It's okay, Lois. Don't get upset again. I knew the moment I saw her that Larissa was perfect for Jon, but," he glanced up at his daughter, "honey, please promise us that you won't make a hasty decision. I don't think your mom could survive if you told this man about us faster than your brother told Larissa. I think that everything's going to work out for you, too, Vic, if you give it enough time — which means somewhat longer than forty-eight hours. We normally trust you and we trust your judgement but right now, it's very possible that you're being swayed by guilt. Make your decision logically and calmly after you've figured out your feelings. Okay?"
"Okay," Vicky agreed with a grateful smile.
Vicky told her dad to take the rest of the morning off. She found flying patrol was one of the best times to do a lot of uninterrupted thinking.
Normally, not a lot happened to disturb her whenever she flew patrol. Metropolis wasn't the crime-ridden city it used to be. After all, it had three part-time superheroes looking after it. Jon, too, was finding that the crime rates were starting to shift downwards in Washington since he had moved there.
Things had worked out quite fortuitously in his case. Shortly after Jon and Larissa had been married, various cities had started petitioning Superman and his family to spread out a bit and not concentrate all the superheroes in one place. Jon had waited for about six months and then had announced that Sunstorm would be willing to move to Washington. So far, no one had connected Sunstorm's very well publicized move with Jon Kent's previous marriage to an up and coming FBI agent.
Marty's case was a little different. Early in her crime-fighting career, she had announced that she had a special interest in the environment. Therefore, when she showed up battling the after-effects of tornados and drought in Kansas and the other mid-west states, no one wondered why. It had been pretty well accepted that Shadow was not a permanent fixture in Metropolis although she was known to show up there as well.
Starfire had announced that he had no desire to move. After all, Sam was happy in Metropolis and happy at the Daily Planet. Astrid's advertising business was well established. Her commercials were some of the most innovative in the marketplace. And Astrid was really close to her father, Dr. Klein. She and Sam really counted on his help with Lee. It was hard for them to spend the amount of time with their daughter that they wanted. Uncle Bernie really took up the slack for them.
Nightwind had then been in the hot seat, receiving a great many requests from many different communities to relocate. Vicky had felt intensely uncomfortable with the ensuing media attention and hadn't felt able to handle the increased demands on her. Thankfully, Dad had stepped in and, in his very best 'Supermanish' way, had deflected the unwelcome spotlight from Vicky and had announced that he wouldn't consider letting her move until she had completed at least another year of 'Superhero' training with him. She had been quite grateful to him.
Vicky wondered where she would go if and when she did move. Maybe New York, she thought to herself. New York was pretty much the hub of the literary world and she always enjoyed her time there. She'd have to wait and see.
And then Vicky wondered why she was avoiding thinking about Michael. She still didn't know what she was going to do. She wanted to be with him. She was pretty sure that she loved him; she didn't think that this intense feeling was just guilt, but what if he didn't love her? Or, what if he did but couldn't handle knowing about her secret identity? What if he ended up hating her?
She shook her head. She couldn't stand it if he hated her. And she couldn't stand being apart from him. So, she couldn't take the chance of telling him. She just couldn't! Or could she? she wondered, her thoughts chasing themselves in circles.
Around two in the afternoon, when her patrol was over and Sam was now on call, Vicky flew slowly home, having made no firm decision as to what to do. She was so tired after her emotionally exhausting night and busy day that she fell straight into bed, only pausing to turn the sound off on her phone.
She slept poorly for about three hours, tossing, turning and, judging from the fact that she woke herself once by banging her head on the ceiling, floating. Finally, giving up on trying to rest, she dragged herself out of bed. It was almost five o'clock in the afternoon. Vicky couldn't stop thinking about Michael. She wanted to see him. She wondered how he was feeling today after his emotional upheaval of the previous night.
She thought about phoning Michael to see how he was only to smack herself on the forehead in exasperation. <How could you forget to get his phone number again?> she asked herself, irritated beyond belief. <It's been two days and you still don't have it!> She glanced at her answering machine only to realise that, not only did she not have his phone number, he didn't have hers either.
She was just contemplating doing a quick flyby of his apartment when her phone rang.
Her publisher's assistant, Belinda, greeted her. She didn't particularly like Belinda, as the woman never let anyone else talk, but Vicky always listened politely to whatever she had to say.
"Vicky, darling, how are you? Things are going wonderfully here. Sales couldn't be better! But, sweetie, who is this Michael Gale who keeps calling us? He's driving the receptionist crazy by calling every hour on the hour. He's very polite about it, but he insists that he knows Victoria El personally and that you would want to talk to him so could we have you call him. So, would you, darling — call him, I mean? That is, if he's not some psycho nut bar, of course!"
"Oh, I'm so glad that he thought of calling the office!" Vicky exclaimed. "I forgot to give him my number and he's unlisted."
"Well, here's his." Belinda recited a string of numbers, and Vicky hastily wrote them down.
"So, I gather he's not a psycho nut bar?"
"No, he's not," Vicky said, giggling. "He's a very talented musician, and a new friend, and I can't believe I didn't tell him my real name!"
"What the heck did you do, Vicky? Introduce yourself as Victoria El?" Belinda asked, incredulously. "Somehow you don't strike me as the type to have a secret identity."
Vicky rolled her eyes before answering. "Actually, he recognised my voice from the audio version I did of 'Rainbows,' and my real name never came up."
"From your book on tape? Can't he read?"
"Of course he can," Vicky answered, angrily. "But he was blinded about a month ago, which put a bit of a crimp in his reading style," she finished sarcastically.
"Vicky, darling, I feel awful. The poor man," Belinda cooed, insincerely. "Well, sweetie, have to run. You will let me know if there's anything you need, won't you, darling?"
"Wait," Vicky said, quickly, her mind suddenly veering off on a new tangent.
"Belinda, would you mind doing a little research for me?"
"For you, Vicky, anything," Belinda gushed, fatuously.
"I'd like names of some good, reputable music agents."
"For your 'new' friend?" Belinda asked, her voice hardening a little, surprising Vicky in her vehemence. "Come on, Vicky. If he expects you to help him, then he's just out for what he can get. Dump him as fast as you can. Darling, I hate to say this, but no one can be objective about someone they're romantically involved with. I know that once you move on you'll be able to see that he's not a particularly good musician."
"Belinda, he didn't ask me for anything. He has no idea that I'm doing this. And he's a fantastic musician. But right now, he could use a little help getting his foot in the door. If I can use my name to do that, then I'll do it. It will be up to him to take it from there. Using my name will only get him a try; it won't make him a success. You know that."
It took a bit more fast talking on Vicky's part, but Belinda finally agreed to do the requested research.
"All right, darling," the other woman said, with a resigned sigh. "Does he have a CD? Good. Send it to me, and I'll see what I can do."
After Vicky hung up the phone, she paused, hand resting on the receiver before picking it up again to phone Michael. She felt as though she had no choice in the matter. It wasn't possible for her to avoid him, or to stop seeing him. To make a conscious decision not to call him? It was impossible. She sighed heavily and then quickly dialled his number. The phone didn't even finish ringing once before it was answered.
She heard him sigh in relief. "Hi. I missed you."
"I missed you, too. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, thanks to you. But you have to tell me something. How in the world did you get me to my bedroom? I don't remember getting there under my own steam."
Vicky flushed before quickly prevaricating, "Well, you did. But I'm not surprised you don't remember. You were pretty out of it. I had to, uh, steer you to make sure you didn't bounce off the walls."
He laughed. "Well, let me just say, that was very considerate of you. I'm very grateful. Thanks."
She giggled, feeling almost giddy in her new happiness. "You're welcome, Michael." Turning serious, she continued, "I'm sorry that I forgot to give you my phone number. And I feel stupid that I didn't get yours. You'd think that one of us would have remembered to do that in the last couple of days. It was very smart of you to call my publisher's office."
"It might have been smart, but I don't think they were too impressed with me. I'm glad that they humoured me and phoned you anyway. I really didn't think they were going to."
Vicky smiled. "I'm glad they did, too."
"So…" he said, after an awkward pause.
"So…" she answered.
There was silence for a long moment.
"Dinner tonight?" he asked with a nervous laugh.
"Absolutely," Vicky answered with conviction in her voice as she cheerfully strangled the pangs of conscience that arose at her decision. "I'd love it. Why don't you come here? I'd love to cook for you."
Michael accepted her invitation and asked for the address. Vicky offered to meet him at his place before they both came back to her apartment, but Michael demurred, telling her that he'd be perfectly happy taking a taxi.
"What time do you want me?" Michael asked.
<All the time,> Vicky very nearly answered. "How does 6 sound?" she said, instead.
"Great! See you then."
After she hung up the phone, Vicky glanced around her apartment. It was pretty neat and tidy, with the exception of her bedroom. She quickly showered, dressed and cleaned up before heading for the kitchen. What was she going to make, she wondered? She thought for a moment and then made a decision. Smiling, she jotted down a quick shopping list and headed for the door. She had her hand on the doorknob when she remembered one more thing she had to do. She picked up the phone and called Michael once again.
"Hi, forgot to tell you. Don't dress up. In fact, wear something washable… Yeah, you heard me, and, no, I'm not going to tell you why. See you in a bit."
Vicky hung up the phone, grinning from ear to ear. She checked her watch, shook her head at the time, and spun into her alter ego. This time, she headed for the window.
She was back less than a second later, shaking her head once more. She had forgotten to get Michael's CD ready to be couriered to Belinda.
"Mmmm, something sure smells great," Michael said as he entered her apartment.
"Thanks. Here, let me hang up your jacket."
He felt Vicky tug his coat out of his hands and heard her rustling in the closet. He stood completely still in the hallway, afraid to move in case he bumped into anything. Getting used to new environments was so hard for him. His own apartment had been difficult enough when he had to learn to map it out in his head; he was worried that he might not be able to do it here.
He wanted to kiss her but felt shy after their emotional exchanges of the night before.
"Let's go for a tour," Vicky suggested, cheerfully. "I'll show you around."
"Great," he answered, hoping he didn't look as awkward as he felt. His spirits perked up a little as she grabbed his hand and tugged him after her. Even that small amount of contact between them was enough to make him tingle all over.
"Okay, first we have the hallway. It leads directly into the open concept living room/dining room…"
Five minutes later, Michael felt much more at home although he had only had a tour of the main floor. He was comfortably ensconced on the welcoming couch with a cool drink in one hand. The only thing that would make things better would be if she were sitting beside him. Instead, she had opted to sit facing him.
Her apartment was large and, from what she had described, luxurious. He hadn't really thought about it much, but he guessed that her books had earned her a pretty piece of change. They must have, if she could afford this type of luxury.
"This is a fantastic apartment, Vicky. I really like the woodwork on the one wall. I could tell just from the feel of it how gorgeous it must be."
"It is gorgeous. My brother, Jon, installed the fireplace and designed and built the surrounding mantel and cupboards. He did a good job."
"He sure did. How in the world did you manage to snag this space? I had a hard time even finding my little 'hole in the wall' place."
"It was a gift from Jon. He moved to Washington after he got married, and he knew how much I liked his place so he offered it to me. I grabbed it with both hands, and here I am."
"Wow!" Michael couldn't believe it. Okay, he was an only child so he didn't know for sure, but somehow, he couldn't picture doing anything like that for a sister. "Your brother must be rolling in dough," he blurted out. A second later, he was blushing and stammering an apology, totally embarrassed by his slip of the tongue. He felt much better when he heard Vicky laugh.
"Yeah, you could say that," she answered, much amused. "I, uh, I never told you my real name, and I'm sorry. I didn't even realise it until the office called. My last name is Kent. Jon Kent is my brother."
"Jon Kent? THE Jon Kent?" he asked, incredulously. He had heard of Jon Kent and had seen many of his paintings in the Metropolis Museum of Fine Art.
"Uh huh," she answered, sounding a little uncomfortable.
"Wow!" Michael shook his head in amazement. "You are full of surprises tonight, aren't you?"
Vicky laughed. "I'm not done with surprises. We haven't had dinner yet. Keep me company while I cook?"
"I'd love to," he answered as he sniffed the fragrant aromas in appreciation. "But it smells like everything's already prepared." He stood up, and Vicky moved over beside him and tucked his hand into her arm.
"I precooked part of dinner but the rest will only take a minute." She led him to the kitchen.
He perched himself on a chair and listened to her bustle about.
"So, if your last name is Kent, how come you're Victoria El?"
"Well, I don't really want the attention so I decided to use a pseudonym."
"I've figured that out about you already. That you're a bit reserved, I mean. But why Victoria El? Is there some significance that I'm missing?"
Vicky laughed. "My middle name's Lucy. You can figure it out from there."
"Vicky Lucy," he said, slowly. "My God, weren't your parents thinking when they named you?"
"Obviously not," she retorted. "Have you ever heard anything so dumb in your life?"
"Well, I have a cousin named Candice Kane — Candy for short."
"I went to school with a Mary Christmas."
"My best friend in Kindergarten was Garfield Hotrum."
"Garfield Hotrum? Ouch. That's the worst." Vicky giggled. "Okay, I guess my name's not that bad. Anyway, I refuse to use my full middle name. I've always been Victoria L. Kent, so when I was looking for a pen name…"
"Victoria El was born."
Michael laughed and shook his name. "Parents don't always think about what they're doing to their kids, do they?"
"I can't complain," she said. "Most of the time, my parents are pretty good. Just once in a while, they don't think through their actions."
Michael listened to Vicky work for a moment before asking, "Can I set the table for you?"
"We're not eating at the table," she answered calmly.
"We're not? Where are we eating?" He could hear her stirring something. It sizzled and crackled in the hot pan and smelled wonderful.
"We're eating on the floor tonight. I hope that's okay."
"Huh? Yeah, it's fine, but why?" He listened as cupboard doors opened and closed.
"Well, here's the deal. We're going to spread a large plastic tablecloth on the floor and sit on that because we're going to eat with our fingers, and it could get a little messy. This is not traditional finger food."
"What is it?" Michael's curiosity was aroused. It wasn't the only thing that was aroused. He liked being here with Vicky, listening to her cook, being joined with her in a domestic intimacy that was somehow much more satisfying than anything he had ever experienced before. And much more exciting.
"Homemade Chinese," she answered, sounding a little embarrassed. "I hope it's okay… You told me how much you missed it…"
"We're going to eat it with our fingers?"
"Uh huh. Every last, slippery bean sprout."
She disappeared for a moment. He could hear the snap of the tablecloth as she shook it out. She came back, took him by the hand and tugged him up out of his chair to lead him to the living room.
"Here we are."
The plastic crackled under him as he sat down on the floor.
"I'll be right back with the food."
He shook his head in bemusement as she moved back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. His fingers tingled, still feeling the gentle pressure of her hand on his.
As she sat down beside him, she helpfully pointed out, "Your plate's right in front of you, as well as a stack of napkins."
He had to laugh as he slid his hand forward to find his meal.
The food was just as mucky and slippery as he had feared. But he almost moaned in ecstasy at his first bite. It was delicious. Vicky was a wonderful cook.
"Open your mouth," she ordered, softly.
He smiled and leaned forward to accept the crunchy vegetable tidbit that she slipped between his lips. He was quick to reciprocate with a tender and very slippery piece of meat.
Michael had no idea that that meal would turn out to be one of the most sensuous meals of his life. The food was wonderful and just as messy as he had feared it would be. But hearing Vicky exclaim out loud when she dropped food on herself and knowing that she was getting just as messy as he was made all the difference in the world. As the meal progressed, they continued taking turns feeding each other tidbits of meat and tender-crisp vegetables. Finally, when they were both replete, Vicky quickly took the ravaged platters of food back to the kitchen and returned.
"Finger bowls," she announced triumphantly as she sat back down. She took Michael's slippery hand in hers and guided it to a bowl of warm, lemon-scented water. He carefully swished it around and lifted his hand out. She gently patted his dripping fingers dry with a soft towel before giving all her attention to his other hand. He could smell the fresh, clean scent of her hair and feel the heat of her body as she sat close to him. Her hands were gentle and warm and his whole body thrilled at her touch. The second she let go of his hand he reached out and gathered her into his arms. "Thank you," he said, softly. "That was the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. It was a wonderful meal."
"You're welcome." She laid her head on his shoulder and snuggled closer.
He stroked her hair gently, his heart full of contentment. His happiness increased when she tilted her face up to him and kissed him tenderly. The heat between them flared to full life and their kiss intensified. As one, they tumbled to the floor with Vicky stretched out on top of him. He quickly rolled her over and pinned her down, frantically plastering her face and neck with kisses. They kissed desperately, trying to get as close to each other as possible.
Vicky was swept away into a maelstrom of sensation and clung to Michael as if he were her life preserver in a tempestuous sea. The sensations she felt as she pressed her body up into his were new to her, the force of them just about sweeping all conscious thought out of her head. She ached for him, she hungered for him, and every kiss and caress only served to whet her appetite for more.
Her thoughts all awhirl, it took her a moment to realise that Michael was slowly pulling himself away from her.
She looked up at him, hovering over her, his breath catching in his throat. "What's wrong?"
"Vicky," he gasped as he rested on his elbows above her, "I want you, oh, God, how I want you, but not like this, not rolling on the floor like a couple of randy teenagers. That wouldn't be fair to you." He reached up and stroked her hair so gently that the ever-ready tears sprang to her eyes. "Vicky, I think I'm falling in love with you, and it scares the heck out of me how strong my feelings are."
"You think you love me?" she asked, hardly able to believe it. He slowly lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her. Their hunger now under a rather shaky control, this kiss was warm and loving and passionate.
"Does that answer your question?" he asked with a slight smile on his face.
Vicky stared up at him in shock for a moment. "Oh, Michael, I think I love you, too," she exclaimed as she tugged his mouth back to hers.
They exchanged many soft kisses as they lay there together on the floor. Gradually, reality intruded on Vicky, though — all her fears and worries returning to plague her. How could she have let everything get so complicated? What kind of coward was she that she had to trick a blind man into loving her? If he knew that she was also Nightwind, he would hate her. She had to tell him, and yet she couldn't. She was too afraid to take that chance. She was too afraid to lose him. <But he's going to find out eventually,> she told herself. <Look at Mom and Dad. She figured it out. Look at Marty and Ben, and Jon and Larissa. Things worked out for them.>
She knew now that she had no choice in the matter. She had to tell Michael the truth before she hurt him more than she already had. But, oh, it was going to be hard to do. She wanted to be with him more than anything, and it was going to be so hard if and when his love turned to hate at her trickery.
But Mom and Dad had asked her to wait. What was she going to do? They were right; she should wait to make sure that it wasn't just her guilt that was working on her. Or should she tell him? Her thoughts kept circling around from one choice to the other.
<No more. Not tonight,> she thought to herself. <I just want to be a woman in love tonight. There's time enough to decide what to do tomorrow.> Vicky looked deep into Michael's unseeing eyes and then hooked her arm around his neck. She pulled hard and rolled at the same time, ending up stretched out on top of him. She shifted to lie by his side with her head nestled into his neck. They fit so perfectly together. He laughed a little and wrapped his arm around her, tugging her closer into his side. She sighed contentedly. At this moment in time, she knew she would give anything if she could be like this with him forever.
Vicky soared high above the taxi as it drove the love of her life home. She was euphoric, drunk on the emotions of the night. She watched, entranced by his every move as he got out of the cab, paid the driver and entered his apartment. It gave her a thrill to see the small half-smile on his face and to know that she had been responsible for putting it there.
She watched him until he closed the door of his apartment behind him. Even then, she didn't leave but focused her hearing so she could hear him moving around getting ready for bed and sleep. She found herself giggling and blushing like a giddy schoolgirl when he broke into a spontaneous chorus of 'Brown-eyed Girl.' Finally, when all she could hear was the soft susurration of his breathing as he slept peacefully in his bed, she left, gliding effortlessly higher and higher until she darted in and out of the low-hanging wisps of cloud.
She floated there, a dark silhouette against the stars, wrapped in happiness. For this one night, she refused — she positively refused - to brood about what might happen when she eventually told Michael the truth about herself. Instead, she dwelt on every word he had said to her, relived every kiss and dreamed that maybe, just maybe, they could have a future together.
Far out at sea, Vicky faced the east and watched the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. It was a glorious day, warm and cloudless. Every part of her wanted to go to him now and wake him up but she forced herself to be patient. She could wait four or five hours to phone him if she absolutely had to.
What a wonderful day! She raced a jet for a few minutes, waving cheerily at the pilots and passengers before leaving them far behind as she zipped across the continent. Now flying over the Pacific Ocean, she visited with her favourite pod of killer whales, skimming the waves, diving into the water and swimming circles around them. Some of the females seemed to recognise her, not panicking when she got close to the youngsters. From there, she did a quick tour of the California coastline, looking for forest fire signs. Thanks to the recent rains, it was not quite as dry but the drought was still officially in effect creating a real need for vigilance on everyone's part.
A couple of hours later, still too wound up to sleep, Vicky had finished some of her not so favourite chores. Her replies to her fan mail were all done and bundled up to be mailed. She had gone over the galley proofs for her next book with a fine tooth-comb, only turning up three typos. Now she sat and waited, watching the clock. She figured nine o'clock was a civilised time to call. Eight was too early and by ten he may have gone out to do errands. She didn't want to miss talking to him.
She watched anxiously, the minute hand moving incredibly slowly until it was 8:58, then 8:59, then …
Her phone rang.
"I missed you."
"Michael," Vicky exclaimed in relief. "I missed you, too."
"Is this a good time to call? I didn't want to phone too early…"
"This is perfect," Vicky reassured him quickly. "I've been thinking about you."
"I've been thinking about you, too," he said, huskily.
Vicky felt herself get weak in the knees from his tone of voice.
Vicky and Michael tried an experiment that day. Vicky brought her laptop with her to Michael's place and discovered that she had no problem concentrating on her writing while he worked on composing a new song. Her fingers tapped a merry counterpoint on her keyboard to his short strummed phrases on the guitar. They were delighted to discover that they both had similar work habits. Vicky liked to work for a solid couple of hours in the late morning before taking a lunch break. After lunch, she usually did her more routine work, like answering her fan mail, or other paperwork, before working on her writing once more. Michael followed the same kind of daily routine as she did. Their work habits meshed as if they had been planned that way.
Seeing as it was such a lovely day, Vicky made a picnic lunch for them, and they strolled to the closest park to eat it. They basked in the spring sun for an hour before heading back to Michael's to work some more.
Vicky ran out of steam sooner than Michael, her sleepless night starting to catch up with her. She took a break from her typing and listened to him work.
It was fascinating how he put a tune together. He started out with a simple phrase and then fiddled with it, improvising around it and subtly changing one note at a time until he was happy with what he had.
And it was fascinating how he composed. His keyboard was hooked up to his computer. He could modulate a tune with the flip of a switch or could print his music out without having to transcribe it by hand. He had told her that this had caused him no problems when he had started using it after his accident. He had used this program so much he knew it upside down and inside out and didn't need his eyes to run it. Vicky enjoyed watching his fingers dance over the keys as he worked. As the tune started to take shape, he put snippets of words together with various phrases, the song taking shape a little at a time.
As Vicky listened, though, she became a little worried as to where his song was going. She heard phrases such as 'the dark angel afloat on an ocean of broken glass' and 'the heavenly host hidden in plain sight.' When he sang, 'she walks among us, unbeknownst, hiding her nature from the light' she really started to worry.
"Michael, what's your song about?" she asked, nonchalantly.
"You were listening?" he asked.
"Yeah, I hope that was okay."
He nodded. "I'm just not used to working with someone else in the room." He paused. "It's about…her," he finally answered.
"Her?" Vicky asked, her heart in her mouth.
He sighed. "Yeah. Her. You know, Nightwind. I can't stop thinking about her."
He was quick to reassure her. "Don't get me wrong. I'm not obsessed with her or anything, but…"
"But you can't get her out of your head," Vicky finished glumly.
"I'm not in love with her or anything — you don't have to worry about that — okay?" he retorted, misinterpreting her mood.
"Okay. But what do you mean 'she walks among us, unbeknownst?'"
Michael sighed. "You're going to think I'm crazy, but I saw her."
"What do you mean?"
"I saw her — before my accident, I mean. She came into the coffeehouse earlier in the night, wearing ordinary, everyday clothes. She looked like a regular person — okay, not like a regular person, because she was gorgeous — but not like a superhero. I recognised her right away when she came back — at least, I think I did. It's hard to tell because of the mask. I'm not sure I would have, ordinarily. But I've had her image seared into my brain ever since, and, well, maybe my memory's failed me, but I could swear that she's the same person that came and watched me during my first set."
"Oh." Vicky was in shock. She couldn't believe that he remembered her so vividly from both her incarnations that night.
"At first, after the accident, I thought maybe there was something kind of sinister about the whole thing, but now, I'm not sure. I have a hard time thinking that she was stalking me. That's just too… out there to be believed."
But what would he think if she told him that in reality she had been stalking him? What was she going to do?
After Vicky arrived home to her comfortable apartment, she sat numbly on the couch, not noticing or appreciating her home the way she normally did. She was in a panic. What was she going to do? It looked like she wouldn't ever be able to tell Michael about herself now. How would he take the news that she, Vicky Kent, was really Nightwind who had cost him his eyes and ruined his life? How would he feel knowing that he had a near invincible superhero stalking him? What could she say to him that would even come close to convincing him that she had no sinister motives in dating him? How would he ever be able to believe that she really did love him? And how would he be able to love her in return?
No, she could never tell him the truth, now. It just wasn't possible. What was she going to do?
Over the next few days, Michael couldn't help but wonder whether there was something bothering Vicky. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was something different, subtly different about her. He asked her once, worried that she might be entertaining second thoughts about him and about their relationship, but the fervour of her response to that question had put all those doubts out of his head.
No, he was really beginning to get to know Vicky and he was sure that if there really were a problem, she wouldn't be able to hide it from him. Would she?
Vicky lethargically dragged herself out of her bed. She stumbled into her ensuite bathroom and splashed cold water on her face before regarding her drawn visage in the mirror over the sink. Blech! For a fleeting moment, Vicky was grateful that Michael couldn't see. She didn't want him looking at her when she looked so completely horrible. She pushed that unworthy thought out of her head, ashamed of her lapse in sensitivity, even in the privacy of her own thoughts.
She did look awful. Her complexion was paler than usual, and she had bags under her eyes, leaving her face looking somewhat gaunt. She looked blah.
She gripped the sink, looked herself in the eyes and asked herself, once again, what the heck she was going to do. As per usual, she had no answer.
No, she didn't know what she was going to do, but one thing she did know was that they couldn't go on like this. She couldn't go on like this. She loved Michael. She couldn't keep lying to him. It was killing her inside.
Michael strummed a few chords on his twelve-string. He modulated one of them, changing it from a major to a minor key. Yes, that was much better. His thoughts were interrupted by a very audible sniff on Vicky's part.
"Vicky, are you crying?"
There was a long pause before she replied. "No." The bleak sound of her one word answer belied her denial.
He hurried to her and crouched at her side. Lifting one hand up, he fumbled for her face to discover her cheeks were wet with tears.
"Honey, what's wrong?"
"Oh, I… I saw a bad accident on the news, and I can't stop thinking about it. It was pretty bad."
"The school bus?"
"Uh huh. Three superheroes in Metropolis and not one got there in time." She choked on the last word.
"Vicky, honey, they can't be everywhere at once — you know that. It doesn't matter if they have superpowers or not. Accidents happen. And they can happen so quickly that there is no way that anyone — superhero or not — could prevent them."
"But it was awful! I saw it… on the news. A little girl died in Nightwind's arms. It was awful seeing her so limp, like a rag doll."
He wrapped his arms around her and rocked her back and forth. She was so tender hearted. It really had been a horrendous accident, and it would have upset anyone who saw the coverage of it. But she couldn't have been more upset if she had been the one that hadn't got there in time.
Once more, Vicky was finding it difficult to drag herself out of bed. She lay on her back staring at the ceiling, her tears rolling down the sides of her face to soak her pillow. It became a little easier to get up when she had the added incentive of her phone ringing.
"Vicky, darling, it's Belinda, sweetheart," cooed her publisher's marketing assistant. "I hope I'm not calling too early, but you know what they say about the early bird."
"No, you're not calling too early. What can I do for you?"
"Actually, darling, you should be asking what I can do for you instead. I phoned around and managed to get in contact with Lukas Schmidt and Daphne Jones, only the two top music agents in the whole United States, don't you know? They've both heard your friend's CD and they both liked it. I've booked appointments for you and your boy-toy this afternoon. Lukas can see you at one and Daphne at three."
"Belinda! I just wanted the names; I didn't expect appointments. And he's not my boy-toy!"
"No need to thank me, sweetheart. Once I told the powers that be that you had called looking for this info, they pulled some strings for you. Nothing's too good for our best selling author! Anyway, darling, I've booked you two tickets on the 10:30 flight to New York - Gate 150 at Metropolis Terminal Two. Be there at least 45 minutes early. The tickets are being held in your name."
"But, Belinda, I haven't even talked to Michael about it…"
"No time like the present, darling. Better give him a call. Bye, bye, sweetheart. Got to run, and so do you. You have to be at the airport in forty-five minutes."
Vicky listened to the click of the phone as Belinda hung up in her ear. She regarded the receiver in a daze before hanging it back up. It took her a moment to catch her breath after her conversation with the rather dippy Belinda, but she managed it and then she picked up the phone and placed another call.
"Hi, Michael… I have something to tell you…"
Michael didn't quite feel awake yet. He shook his head, still trying to adjust to the speed with which everything was happening. He wasn't sure how he felt about this most recent upheaval in his life.
"So, do you turn all your friends' lives upside down, or is it just me?" Michael asked as he sat beside Vicky in first class.
"It seems to be just you," Vicky admitted, wryly. "And flying to New York on the spur of the moment was not entirely my idea. Are you sure you're okay with this? I don't want you to think that I'm buying you an agent, because I'm not."
Michael smiled. "I know, so would you please stop explaining? In the long run, Lukas Schmidt and Daphne Jones both don't care who you are. I know that."
And yet, at the same time, he couldn't help but reflect that plain old Michael Gale would never have been able to make this kind of contact. He was very grateful, but at the same time, Vicky's help smacked of charity, making him feel a little wary. Maybe it was chauvinistic on his part, but he wanted to be the one to do wonderful things for her. He wanted to look after her rather than the other way around. Why would she want to be with someone who needed her help all the time?
He shook his head again, still overwhelmed by how quickly everything had happened. He had been fresh out of the shower, hadn't even finished getting dressed, when Vicky called. It had only taken him a moment to think about all the implications. He wouldn't need luggage; they were going to return later in the day. Vicky had assured him that a suit wasn't necessary, and he had clean jeans and a decent t-shirt to wear. His hair wasn't too shaggy. He had no appointments. His only worry was what would happen if he got a call on his cell phone, but the chances of that happening were slim. He had only got on the transplant list less than a week ago, and there was approximately an 18-month wait. All the same, he had been told to rent a cell phone, not to hand the number out to anyone other than the transplant service, and keep it with him at all times, so he had.
The engines revved suddenly as the pilot got ready to take off. He was surprised to feel Vicky clutch at him, her hands cold and clammy.
"Are you okay?" he asked in concern.
"I don't like flying… on planes," she admitted, her voice shaking. "I get a little claustrophobic."
Michael tugged her closer to him, grateful to be able to do something for her, instead of the other way around. "Shhh," he murmured, soothingly. "Just hold on to me, okay?" He draped his arm around her shoulders. She huddled into him, like a frightened kitten, her head snuggling into his chest.
"You don't mind?" she asked, in a small, plaintive voice.
"Of course not," he was quick to reassure her, all the while struggling with the resurgence of his feelings of inadequacy.
Lunch turned out to be a giant disappointment for Michael. He hated airline food with a passion, but even so, he had been prepared to eat, as he knew they wouldn't have time when they landed. However, he was disappointed to learn that lunch consisted of chicken cordon bleu with spaghetti. He decided to decline his meal, not wanting to take a chance of getting a stain on his shirt. Vicky offered to help him, but he prevaricated, telling her that he wasn't hungry. He didn't want to be dependent on her all the time, and he didn't want her to feel that he couldn't look after himself.
As they came into New York on their approach pattern, Michael's thoughts turned to Vicky, sitting beside him. He was still worried about her and was worried about where their relationship was going. In light of Vicky having made arrangements for agents to review his work, he couldn't help but wonder if she would be able to be happy with him. She was a successful writer, and he was a handicapped, struggling musician. What did he have to offer her?
*** Michael was pretty quiet during the disembarkation process, Vicky observed. She wondered if he were nervous as the time for his appointments drew closer. For her part, she wasn't nervous; she knew that Michael had a superior talent. He not only had a fantastic voice, but he also wrote the most incredible lyrics and set them to wonderfully haunting tunes. She knew that neither agent would have deigned to see him if they both weren't ready to sign him to a contract immediately.
She supposed that his nerves were keeping him from eating. She sympathised. She, too, had trouble eating when she was worried.
It was such a relief to have something different to think about than her rather depressing concerns of the last few days. Travelling to a different locale helped to dissipate the gloomy cloud that had been hovering over her head. She felt a bit reckless in her temporary respite from her worries.
Much to her surprise, Vicky and Michael were met by a limousine, the driver standing and waiting, holding up her name on a card. Upon questioning, the driver informed Vicky that the limo was courtesy of her publisher.
"Would you and your friend care to follow me, Miss Kent?" he asked, with a grandiose flourish.
Vicky acquiesced, Michael took her arm and they set off following the ramrod straight back of the driver. He deftly led them through the crush of people to a shiny black limo. "Here we are." The driver opened the door and watched as Vicky led Michael over. Michael rested his one hand lightly on the shiny finish of the limo and fumbled for the opening with the other.
"Sir, you're going to have to watch your head," the driver bellowed in Michael's ear causing him to jump. "Now, make sure you duck. We don't want you to hurt yourself, do we?" He enunciated clearly and spoke loudly as if to a small child.
Michael's lips tightened into a tight, thin line and his face flushed, but he didn't say anything as he carefully got into the limo. Vicky followed him, flabbergasted by the driver's patronising attitude towards her friend and his handicap.
It only took a second before the limo started to move into traffic. Vicky looked around, located the button that ensured privacy and firmly pressed it. "Do people talk like that to you a lot?" she asked in a low voice.
"Like what?" Michael hissed in response. "Like my brains disappeared when my vision did? Like I turned into a child again, the second I couldn't see?" He paused a second, took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "Yeah, a few do. Not many, thankfully, but enough to remind me that I'm not a man in the eyes of the world anymore," he finished bitterly.
Vicky laid her hand gently against the side of his face. "That's not true, Michael. Don't judge everyone by the same standards." She dropped her voice, almost whispering. "Just because this guy is an ignorant, uneducated boor doesn't mean that other people are. Have I ever treated you that way?"
"Not exactly." He pulled away from her and folded his arms across his chest.
She recoiled from his harsh tone as if she had been struck. "What do you mean?"
"Offering to cut my food on the plane as if I were five years old. Need I go on?"
Vicky shook her head. "But, I didn't do that because you're blind. Well, okay, I guess I did, but that's only because…" She paused, at a loss for words. She had to force her words out past a lump in her throat. "I'm sorry, Michael. I didn't mean to be patronising. I'm really sorry."
Michael was ashamed of his bitter outburst. Vicky didn't deserve this. She didn't deserve to be snarled at for one thing when he was, in reality, feeling uncomfortable about something else.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it," he said, softly.
To his dismay, he heard her sniffle a bit. The unreasonably angry feelings he had been harbouring dissipated instantly at the sound.
"I'm sorry," he repeated helplessly. "I feel so ungrateful and mean-spirited, but I can't help it. I feel like some kind of… boy-toy," he blurted out.
He was surprised to hear Vicky giggle in response to his outburst.
"Okay, what did I say?" he asked, puzzled by her response.
"I'm sorry," she replied, still giggling. "It's just that Belinda, the one who made all the arrangements for us, well, she called you exactly the same thing. But Michael, she's the dippiest person I know. She's wrong about everything. There is no way that you could ever be a boy-toy!"
He smiled, his mood lightening a bit at the sound of her mirth. "Why not? Aren't I pretty enough?" He turned to face her and batted his eyelashes in her general direction.
She giggled even louder, leaning into his side. "Oh, sweetie, you are just the cutest thing. When we walk down the street, all the construction workers turn and stare," she lisped in a simpering tone of voice. "They must think you're as cute and sexy," the lisp disappeared as her voice got throaty, "as I do."
He grinned and took her hand in his, happy that they were joking around once again. But this wasn't dealing with the issue that still bothered him. He started speaking once more, picking his words with great care, trying to organize his thoughts.
"I am sorry, Vicky. It's just been really hard since my accident. I've had people helping me across the street, helping me with my banking, and helping me with my shopping. When this first happened, I even had people helping me get dressed or find the washroom. I was only in the hospital for a few days, but I was always afraid that someone might even try and help me GO to the washroom! I feel so ungrateful, but it's really hard not to resent the fact that now you're helping me, too. You set the wheels in motion. If it weren't for you, we wouldn't be going to see the best two music agents in the whole country. We wouldn't have been able to fly from Metropolis to New York, let alone first class; I wouldn't have been able to afford it. We wouldn't be in a limo. I'm sorry. You must hate me for feeling this way."
"So, what you're saying," Vicky said, in a low, soft voice, "is that my having money and being able to do things for you is a threat to you? It diminishes you in some way?"
Michael shook his head. Obviously, he hadn't been able to explain himself very well. "No, that's not it."
"So, what is it?" She laid her hand gently on his arm.
"You have to understand. It's not the money. I understand the money. And you know I think you deserve all your success — you're a fantastic writer! But I want to do things for you. Right now, our relationship is so one-sided. You're doing everything for me. I want to have a turn looking after you. I want us to be equals. I want to, oh God, I want to feel like a man, again."
"Oh, Michael," she sighed. "I don't think of you as a child. I am VERY aware of you as a man, and I love you."
"I love you, too. But sometimes I just feel so weak and powerless. Maybe it's sexist of me, but it makes me feel totally…" he searched for the right word, "emasculated."
"How do you feel when I do this?" she purred as she pulled his head down and kissed him passionately. Her hands roamed across his back and shoulders.
He wrapped his arms around her, his fingers immediately burying themselves in her hair. He protested, a small sound deep in his throat, when she slowly pulled away from him.
She laid her head against his shoulder. He turned his face to her, appreciating the clean, fresh scent of her hair.
"So, how did you feel?" she asked, again.
"Better," he admitted with a grin. "Much better."
She snuggled closer to him. "I'm glad. But I should apologise to you, too. I'm sorry. I should have asked you, Michael. I should have asked you if I could help, instead of taking over like I did. It wasn't very sensitive of me."
He brushed a kiss against the top of her head, her hair silky under his lips. "No, it was wonderful. I'm just being totally oversensitive and touchy. I should be thanking you, instead of snarling at you. I'm sorry. It was wonderful," he repeated. "You're wonderful. It's just that I don't see any reason for you to bother with me. I can't DO anything for you. I'm more trouble than I'm worth. I can't help but wonder what you get out of our relationship."
"Michael! There are loads of reasons why I should bother with you. You're the most talented musician I've heard in a long time. You're intelligent, well-educated, interesting, great company, and, well, the kicker is that you are the," her voice dropped, becoming husky, "the sexiest man I have ever seen, and you make me feel things that no one has ever made me feel before."
"Oh, Vicky!" He clasped her tightly.
"Michael, please don't ever think that we shouldn't be together," Vicky said with a catch in her voice. "I don't have a lot of friends. I've never wanted a lot of friends. I was always happy with my own company, never feeling lonely. But now, when I'm not with you, I do feel lonely. I need to be with you. You wondered what you do for me; you make me happy. You make me feel like part of the human race. You, you complete me. And," she dropped her voice to a whisper, "you excite me. More than I can say."
Michael swallowed a lump in his throat. She meant what she was saying; he could tell. Her words were heartfelt, sincere and very thought provoking. He had never thought of Vicky needing emotional support. She had a valid point.
"You excite me, too, Vicky," he whispered in response. "It's funny; I know you've described yourself, but even so, I don't really know — I can't really know what you look like. But even so, sight unseen, you excite me so much, I honestly don't know how I've managed to restrain myself from asking for more from you."
"Why haven't you asked for more?" she asked, her voice so low that he could barely hear her.
"I don't know." He thought about it for a moment. Why had he been so reticent with her? He loved her, she loved him, so what was the problem? "I guess I was afraid."
"Afraid of what, Michael?"
He turned his face away from her, closed his eyes tight and whispered, "I was afraid that I'd scare you, that I'd only end up pushing you away. I was afraid that you wouldn't want me. I don't have a lot to offer. I'm the stereotypical starving artist. And not only that, I'm disabled."
"Oh, Michael." Her voice caught in her throat. She pulled him back to face her. "I could never push you away, but I'm afraid that you…"
He had never felt so vulnerable, so naked, facing her and not being able to see any inkling of what she was thinking, of what she was feeling. Was she looking at him with pity? Or revulsion? Or anger? "That I what?"
"Michael, let's spend the night," she blurted out, not answering his question. "We can go out for a nice dinner, take a carriage ride through Central Park and then…" She took a deep breath before continuing, "… we can spend the night together." Her hands clutched his, her fingers cold in his grasp.
"Are you sure? I'm not pushing you into anything?"
"The only thing that's kept me from… seducing you was that I was afraid that you would think I was a cheap hussy. I want you, Michael."
"Michael, I am sure. I want to be with you. I want to sleep with your arms around me and wake up with your head on the same pillow. And," she paused for a second, "I want to do a whole bunch of… other things, interesting things… exciting things before we do go to sleep."
"Vicky!" He was shocked, pleased and more aroused than he could have believed possible at her brazen words. And nervous. Very, very nervous. Vicky was too important to make a mistake with. She meant too much to him.
"Am I embarrassing you, Michael?" she whispered.
He cleared his throat and coughed before finding his voice. "No. Embarrassment is not what I'm feeling right now." Unable to help himself, he self-consciously shifted in his seat.
The limo smoothly pulled to a stop, and a second later, Michael heard the passenger door open.
"Sir, ma'am, we're here."
Michael shook his head at the untimely interruption. "At least I'm not nervous anymore."
Vicky sat waiting patiently in the reception area as Michael met with Daphne Jones. His meeting with Lukas Schmidt had gone very well, with the man offering to represent him. Michael had taken Vicky's advice that she had hastily imparted to him in the elevator, and he had told the man that he would think about it. After all, Vicky assured him between appointments, he might like Daphne better.
Michael had asked Vicky to join him while he met with the two agents, but Vicky had declined, not wanting anything to detract from his moment of glory. She sensed that he needed to do this on his own.
She shook her head, thinking about their conversation in the limo. He had seemed so self confident over the last few days. She had forgotten his initial awkwardness when they had first met. This attack of low self-esteem on his part had been a huge shock to her system. She hoped that she had managed to convince him that it was who he was that mattered to her, not whether or not he could see, or look after her, or anything like that.
She sighed. Here was another problem. If she ever did manage to tell him her secret — which didn't look like it would ever be possible anyway — would it make him feel inadequate?
Ben didn't feel that way about Marty. He seemed to enjoy her super-strength. Vicky smiled. She had seen them giggling and cavorting like two kids only once, but it had been memorable.
Shortly after they were married, she had visited them on the farm. Ben had been in a particularly good mood — actually, not just a good mood but an incredibly silly mood. Ben and Marty had been standing side by side, talking and joking with Vicky, when Ben had casually reached behind his wife and, without even blinking an eye, had pinched her on a very personal part of her anatomy. Marty turned and mock glared at her husband, who promptly looked up into the cloudless sky and observed, "I think it looks like rain. Don't you, dear?"
Marty looked at him suspiciously, but then turned back to Vicky. Ben winked at his sister-in-law, a completely deadpan expression on his face, and pinched his wife again. Marty issued a warning, her words completely at odds to the twinkle in her eye, and Ben asked, oh so innocently, what he had done wrong. As soon as Marty turned back to Vicky, she jumped as her husband again pinched. "That's it!" Marty announced as she pounced on Ben. She then picked him up and tossed him about fifty feet in the air before catching him. He laughed helplessly as he flew through the air, his arms and legs all akimbo. Marty threw him up and caught him a few more times with Ben chortling through the whole thing. He had looked like an oversized kid being playfully tossed by a parent. Finally, Marty threw him up in the air and instead of letting him fall back into her arms, had flown up to meet and catch him in mid-air. They wrapped their arms around each other and promptly indulged in a kiss so passionate that Vicky had felt compelled to clear her throat and remind them that they had company.
That was the kind of acceptance that she could only hope and pray for from Michael, if and when she ever managed to tell him about herself.
Her thoughts turned to the night to come. She frowned as her conscience reminded her that this was absolutely the worst thing she could do. It wasn't right to get even more involved with Michael under these false pretences. But, mistake or not, it was going to happen. Vicky might be having second thoughts, but there was no way that she was going to reject Michael in this most personal of ways when he was feeling so completely insecure about his manhood. And she selfishly wanted this to happen. She loved Michael and she wanted to be with him. She had never felt this way about anyone before and knew that she never would about anyone else in the future. She wanted to make love at least once in her life. She wanted to know that she was loved, emotionally, physically and completely, even if it couldn't be permanent. She was a woman in love and she wanted to indulge that love even if it cost her very soul. She wanted to be selfish and reckless and abandoned. She wanted to drown her pain in the pleasures of his flesh. She wanted… she wanted Michael. Always and forever.
She had always planned on waiting for the right man and for marriage. She had seen up close and personal the damage that could be caused by making a wrong romantic decision. Well, Michael was the right man and marriage didn't look like a possibility, did it? One out of two wasn't bad, was it?
The door opened and Daphne Jones emerged, closely followed by Michael. From the pleased expression on his face, Vicky could tell that Daphne had made an excellent impression on him. She quickly moved to his side, grasped his hand and squeezed gently. "So, how did it go?" she asked as she smiled at the two of them.
Vicky desperately clutched Michael's hand as she watched the numbers rise on the elevator display. …10…11…12…14… Vicky reflected that the fourteenth floor was really the thirteenth floor. She looked down at her key card again. 1410. Did their being on the fourteenth floor really mean that they were on the thirteenth floor and this whole thing was unlucky? Not meant to be? She didn't know.
The doors slid open. Vicky took a deep breath and a tighter grip on Michael's hand before leading him from the elevator. They walked side-by-side down the corridor, the sound of their steps muffled by the thick carpet. They didn't talk but proceeded in a tense silence.
Vicky pulled Michael to a stop at the entrance to their room. She extended the key card in a shaking hand, only to drop it before she could use it. With a muffled curse, she dropped to her knees and scrabbled on the carpet for it. Retrieving it, she extended it once more to the slot at the side of the door. This time, she managed to insert it successfully. A moment later, she opened the door with an audible click.
Michael silently followed her into the large, luxurious hotel room, stopping just inside the door. Vicky took a few more steps and paused, looking around. With her peripheral vision, she noticed the ubiquitous tasteful print on the wall, the small bar fridge, the low dresser complete with TV on top, and the heavy, lined floral drapes, but her main focus was the very large bed in the middle of the room, her eyes automatically locking on it.
The sound of Michael's voice broke her reverie. She turned to see him standing awkwardly in the doorway, smiling nervously in her general direction.
"Would you mind, um, you know, describing the room to me? I'd kind of like to get out of the hallway."
"Oh, Michael, I'm so sorry." She rushed to his side and clasped his hand firmly once more. "Okay, first, here in the hallway, there's a closet on the right. On the left, there's the bathroom. Then take about three steps forward and the room opens out…" Only a moment later, Vicky was almost finished. "And there's a fridge in the far left corner, and right here," she paused, took a deep breath and licked her dry lips, "right here is the bed."
Michael bent over and extended a tentative hand, snapping it back when it made contact with the bed. "Oh. Yes. It is. A bed, I mean. Right here. Just where you said it would be." He took a deep breath and slowly straightened up. "Thanks for the nickel tour. You were very clear. I should be fine now."
Vicky nervously looked around the room once again. "I'm, uh, I'm going to put my toothbrush in the bathroom. Do you want me to put yours in there, too?"
"Yeah, thanks," Michael replied, overly quickly. "Great, thanks." He dug in his pants pocket and pulled out the new toothbrush, still in its package.
Vicky grabbed it and dashed into the bathroom. Breathing hard, she gripped the sink before raising her eyes to the mirror. It was like looking at a stranger. She didn't know this woman in front of her, who was reckless and daring and in a strange hotel room with a man. This wasn't like her. She never did crazy things. She never, ever compromised her morals. She never, ever lived on the edge. Who was this woman looking back at her from inside the mirror?
She ran the cold water and splashed it on her face before quickly brushing her teeth. When she was done, she looked herself in the eye once more. "You just be quiet," she muttered to the conscience that was looking desperately at her. "Stay out of this." Defiantly, she turned her back on her mirror image and marched out of the bathroom.
Michael sat perched on the edge of the bed, his hands clasped in his lap. She forced herself to walk over and sit down beside him. "So," she said.
"So," he replied.
They sat in silence for a long moment. Vicky looked around the room, not focusing on anything in particular, too nervous to look directly at Michael and feeling the tension mounting between them.
"I should go brush my teeth," Michael said, breaking the silence.
To her chagrin, Vicky burst into tears.
Listening to Vicky cry was an agonising experience for Michael. "Vicky, honey," he crooned as he quickly gathered her into his arms. "What is it? Is it me? Have you changed your mind about me?"
"No! No!" she protested, violently. "Michael, it's not you. It's… it's me. I'm so scared."
"Scared of me?" Michael asked, aghast at the possibility. "Vicky, sweetheart, I would never hurt you. You have to know that. Please," he begged. "I love you."
He felt her hand on his face, cupping his cheek as she twisted in his arms. "Oh, Michael," she said, tenderly. "I love you, too, and I know you would never hurt me, and I haven't changed my mind."
"So, what is it? You can tell me. You can tell me anything, you know that."
He felt her jerk a bit in his arms. She was frozen for a long, tense moment before she sighed heavily and muttered something into his shirt.
"Honey, I couldn't hear you," he prodded as he lifted her face away from his chest.
"I've never done this before," she blurted out before burrowing back into him once more.
"Never done what?" he asked as his mind came to a sudden, screeching halt. Did she mean…?
"I've never been with a man, Michael," Vicky said, slowly and solemnly. "I've never wanted to, before, and I don't know what to do, and what if I'm awful, and you end up hating me and…" She burst into tears once again.
Michael wrapped his arms even tighter around Vicky. He rocked her back and forth murmuring endearments, waiting for her to calm down. He was patient. It took quite a few minutes, but eventually her sobs slowed and stopped, leaving her sniffling a bit. He pulled away from her slightly to catch her head in his hands. Using his thumbs, he dried her tears. "Vicky, when you cry, I feel like someone is ripping my heart out."
She laughed softly.
"What?" he asked, puzzled by her inappropriate response to his words.
"That's what my dad always says when my mom cries."
"Oh." He pulled her close once again, stroking her hair, and listened to her sigh as she snuggled in closer. Her admission touched him, scared him and excited him all at once. "You know, Vicky, we don't have to do anything tonight. I'd never make you do something that you're uncomfortable with."
"I know, Michael. And I'm not uncomfortable, exactly, but…"
"But I have the feeling that you're not quite ready to take this step," he said, bluntly.
She sighed heavily. "I don't know. I thought I was, but…"
"I would be just as happy if I could hold you in my arms and feel you sleeping next to me all night."
"I could do that," she exclaimed, sounding surprised. "Are you sure?"
He smiled. "Of course I am. I love you. I do want to make love with you, but I want it to be right for you. Waiting till you're ready is a small price to pay."
As he cradled the love of his life close to his heart, he reflected that everything he had said was true. He was willing to wait. He'd wait forever and a day, as long as he had a chance to be with this wonderful, beautiful woman.
Vicky lay on her back staring up at the ceiling. She could hear Michael breathing slowly and evenly beside her. She turned her head and looked at him, a lump rising in her throat as she realised once again just how much she loved this man.
He had been so gallant and, at the same time, matter of fact about everything. They had sorted themselves out with nightwear. He wore his briefs, and she wore her panties and had borrowed his t-shirt. She had worried that sharing the bed might have been awkward, but it hadn't been in the slightest. Somehow, Michael had been a perfect gentleman while simultaneously making it quite clear that he found her more than attractive. She didn't know how he had managed it, but he had.
She was so grateful to him for his understanding and sensitivity. He had prevented her from making a big mistake — because that's what it would have been if they had made love. It would have been selfish on her part to get intimate with him under false pretences. It would have been wrong — very, very wrong.
No, she knew what she had to do. She had two choices. She could break it off with him, or tell him the truth. There was no way that she could ever choose the first option, so she was stuck with the second one. If he then chose to break it off with her, well, then, so be it, but that was not and never would be by her choice.
It was a curious feeling, this sensation of relief now that her decision was final. She had been dithering about this for too long now, asking herself whether she should or shouldn't tell him. Now that her decision was made, she wondered why it had taken so long to make this choice.
She had been fooling herself. There was no way that she could ever walk away from Michael of her own volition, and she had been indulging in a nightmarish fantasy, thinking that that was a possibility. It wasn't possible, plain and simple. It could never happen. And now, everything rested in Michael's competent hands. She had to trust him.
She twisted to face Michael completely. She watched him for a long time, and then, resigned to the future, she closed her eyes and slept.
As Michael slowly woke up, he had a nagging feeling that something was different. It took him a moment to realise that he wasn't in his own bed and that there was someone sleeping beside him. He lay quietly listening to Vicky breathing softly. It was a very comforting sound. This was nice. He liked waking up with her in his bed.
He finally, reluctantly, had to extricate himself from the bed linen to make his way to the bathroom to answer a call of nature. He moved slowly, inching his feet out, one at a time, his hands out in front of him catching fistfuls of air. Vicky had described the hotel room to him very well, but he didn't feel that confident or comfortable in here. He was quiet, striving not to make any unnecessary noise.
He was pleased when he got back to bed. From the unchanged sound of her breathing, he hadn't disturbed her at all.
He folded back the top sheet and the blanket, gingerly sat down and slowly inserted himself back under the covers. Just as his head silently hit the pillow, she stirred and mumbled. He could feel the moment when she woke up and realised where she was from the tiny little jump she made.
"Good morning," she greeted him, huskily.
"Good morning." He slid over to find her. She cuddled close, her semi-naked flesh warm on his, giving him a bit of a shock. He wasn't complaining, but he was definitely not used to having an armful of beautiful, half-clad woman first thing in the morning. She was quick to give him a kiss.
"Mmmm," she purred. "You brushed your teeth."
"I better go do the same." She kissed him quickly once more and then slid out of the bed. He rolled over onto his back and nonchalantly put his hands under his head. He could feel a sappy smile on his face that was impossible to control.
A moment later, he heard the rustle of her bare feet on the carpet; a split second after that he once again had an armful of woman.
"There. That's better," she announced as she half lay on his chest and nibbled his neck.
"You're pretty lively this morning," he said, pleased at her playfulness.
"I can't help it," Vicky said with a giggle. "It's just so wonderful to wake up with you beside me." Her voice dropped to a throaty whisper. "You're so wonderful."
With one smooth motion, he rolled her over and pinned her down, supporting his weight on his elbows. "You're pretty wonderful yourself." His head dipped down, his mouth finding hers easily. Their kiss was so passionate it left him almost gasping for air. It was such a fantastic kiss that he found himself going back to her for another and another and another.
Vicky ruthlessly strangled her conscience as she rolled crazily across the large bed, holding onto Michael for dear life. First he was on top pressing her down into the mattress, and then she was, his body moving under her, and then he was once more. As her breathing sped up, she could feel the blood rushing through her veins as every part of her physical being urged her to join with him in a primal, frantic, desperate coupling.
But as much as Vicky wanted Michael, as much as her body was driving her forward to him, as much as she loved him and wanted to please him and excite him and revere him and ravish him, with one singular act of will, she forced herself away from him, almost flinging herself off the bed in the process. "I'm sorry," she gasped. "I'm so sorry." She moved to sit on the edge of the bed, facing away from him.
She felt him shift to kneel behind her, his hands grasping and kneading her shoulders.
"What is it?" he asked as he pressed soft kisses onto the sensitive nape of her neck.
She closed her eyes as his mouth left a trail of fire down her neck. "Michael, we have to talk." She sighed and fell silent, not sure how to say that which needed to be said.
"I guess we nearly got carried away," he said, apologetically. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I know that you're not ready for this." His words were reasonable and understanding, but he sounded hurt and rejected, desolate and alone.
Vicky was quick to respond to the unspoken pain in his voice. "I am ready, but there's something I have to tell you first," she murmured, admitting to herself how much she wanted to be with him. She turned around and clasped his upper arms firmly in her small hands.
He froze, his expression startled. "You mean that? You're ready to take the next step?" he asked, utterly still as he waited for her answer.
"Yes, I am."
He didn't move for a long moment. Vicky watched the play of expression on his face as she wondered exactly how she was going to tell Michael her secret. She had to tell him before anything went any further.
But before she could get a word out, he was on her once more, kissing her frantically, his weight carrying her down to the mattress once again. Vicky tried to marshal herself to push him away, and she just couldn't do it. Her excitement rose to match his, her fingers roaming eagerly across the smooth flesh of his back and his broad, muscled shoulders. She dragged her mouth away from his to protest, "But I have to tell you something."
"Are you married?" he asked as he planted tiny kisses across her forehead."
"Engaged?" His hands buried themselves in her hair.
"Sick? Dying? Really a man?"
"No! No! No!" she retorted with a giggle at his last question.
"Once a man, now a woman?"
"Then, can it wait?" he breathed into her open mouth. "Please say it can wait."
"Yes. Oh, yes. It can wait." She moaned and pressed up into him, her lips fastening onto his even as she knew that this was wrong. She should tell him… She should stop this… But she loved him so much… Oh, God, how could she stop? He was all she wanted in life.
She felt the tip of his tongue tracing the line of her lips and opened her mouth slightly to allow it access, only to moan once more in protest when he pulled his mouth away from hers.
"Shall we get rid of this?" he asked, lightly tugging at the hem of her borrowed t-shirt.
She shifted and lifted her body up into his, all the while kissing him while his one hand fumbled under her back to lift the shirt. Suddenly, his cell phone, silent up to now, was silent no more.
Vicky gaped in astonishment as one second Michael was kissing her passionately, and the next he was falling out of bed.
As she watched, frozen in disbelief, Michael dashed towards the dresser, his hands outstretched only to come to a sudden halt as he banged his foot on the dresser leg.
He barked out a short, sharp curse, and, hopping on one foot, fumbled his hands across the top of the dresser. Unfortunately, his hand caught the edge of the cell phone with enough force to send it skittering across the polished surface and onto the floor.
"Vicky? Help me, please! Where's the blasted phone? It's the transplant service calling… They're the only ones who have this number…"
The urgency of his words roused her to action, and she quickly jumped out of the bed to retrieve the phone. She handed it to him and stood silently by his side, listening to the conversation.
"Mr. Gale, it's Carmela Brown from the Metropolis Organ Retrieval Service. We have good news for you, sir. We have a match."
"But there's an eighteen month wait. It's only been a few weeks."
"Mr. Gale, did your doctor not explain the ramifications of your rare blood type?"
"I have a rare blood type?
"Uh huh. B negative. Hard to match. In some cases, that means a longer wait than the norm, but in your case, we have a B-neg donation that has to go to a B-neg recipient, and you're next on the short list."
"Oh." Michael sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. He ran his one hand anxiously through his hair while he used his other hand to cradle the phone to his ear.
"So, Mr. Gale. We need you to report to Metropolis General within the next two hours, and we'll prep you. By any chance, did you have anything to eat or drink yet today?"
"Great! Don't. We need your stomach to be empty. Do you have a cold, the flu, or any other illness that requires you to be on antibiotics or over the counter medication?"
"Wonderful. We'll see you in a few hours."
"No, wait! I'm in New York. I can't get there that fast."
"That is a problem, Mr. Gale. I'm so sorry. I'm going to have to…"
"Wait!" Vicky interrupted.
"Just a second, Ms. Brown." Michael turned towards Vicky, a questioning expression on his face.
"I can get you there on time, Michael."
Vicky glanced at the phone still clutched in his hand. Ms. Brown, presumably waiting patiently on the other end, would hear everything that was said. She couldn't just blurt out her secret under circumstances like this. "My mom and dad know Superman really well. I know that he'll help out, and if he can't, one of his kids will."
Michael's mouth dropped open. He blinked a couple of times, swallowed hard and then turned back to the phone. "Did you hear that, Ms. Brown?"
"I did, Mr. Gale. Please call us right away if your friend cannot contact Superman or one of his family. We'll have to make other arrangements as soon as possible if this falls through."
"Good luck, Mr. Gale. I'll be praying for you."
"Thank you, Ms. Brown. I appreciate that."
Michael hung up and turned to Vicky. "Your parents know Superman?"
"Uh huh. My parents are Clark Kent and Lois Lane."
Michael smiled broadly. "You are full of surprises, aren't you?" He sat still for a moment, obviously lost in thought. Vicky studied his face, wondering what he was thinking.
She also wondered if this were the best time to tell him her secret, when he was about to go under the knife or laser or whatever they used for transplants. She didn't want anything to upset him.
"So, I guess you know his kids," Michael stated, calmly — a bit too calmly in her opinion.
"And you know Nightwind."
"Yeah. I should have told you. I'm sorry."
"Huh? Oh, that's okay," he said, shocking her at his casual acceptance. "Did you two ever talk about me?" he went on to ask nonchalantly.
"A little bit," Vicky prevaricated, her stomach in a nervous knot. "She's been really upset… She feels awful… She wanted you to know that she didn't hurt you on purpose."
"I know that," Michael said, softly. "I feel guilty. She tried to see me in the hospital and I refused. I just wasn't ready to talk to her."
"Could you talk to her now? I mean, I could arrange for her to be the one to come and take you back to Metropolis." Vicky mentally kicked herself. She felt awful postponing the inevitable, but this wasn't the right time to tell him. She had to wait until things were calmer, frustrating though that might be.
Michael was quiet for a moment. "No, not today. I'd like to wait until after, and, well, changing the subject here, would you mind calling your mom or your dad? Hopefully, Superman won't mind helping, but we need to know as soon as possible if he can."
"Oh! Yes, of course!" Vicky grabbed the phone and called home.
"Dad, no time to chat. Do you think you could contact Superman for me?" Vicky asked, focusing on making her end of the conversation fairly innocuous for Michael's ears.
"What's going on, Vic?" her dad asked, suspiciously.
"Good news, Michael. He's there with Dad right now! He just popped in to say 'hi' and have a cup of coffee!" she exclaimed.
"Vic! What's going on?"
"Superman, it's Vicky Kent. Listen. I have a friend, he has to be in Metropolis within the next two hours for a cornea transplant, and we're in New York right now. Could you please help us out?"
"In New York? Did you spend the night in New York with this man? And you didn't tell him about yourself first? I'm not sure what bothers me the most about this — the idea that my little girl was with a man or that she wasn't honest with him!" her father exclaimed in her ear.
"Thanks, Superman! Yes, we're pretty easy to find. We're at the Plaza on the fourteenth floor. Room 1410. There's a balcony. I'm just opening the curtains and the door now. You should have no trouble finding us. Thank you so much."
"All right, young lady. I'll help you out this time, but then you and I are going to have a little talk about propriety and ethical behaviour and… and… whatever else I can think of!"
"Thank you so much, Superman," Vicky said, brightly. "You're a wonderful friend. Just give us about five minutes to get dressed and…" The phone clicked in her ear. She winced. Perhaps she shouldn't have said that last thing.
She sighed and turned to Michael, handing him his pants. "I think we better get dressed. He's on his way."
Michael sat on the bed and slowly started pulling his pants on.
"Uh, Michael, you might want to hustle a bit. I should warn you. Superman is really close to my parents. He's … almost like another father to me."
Michael's jaw dropped. "Superman's like a dad to you, and I don't have any pants on?"
Vicky quickly stripped his t-shirt off and put it on the bed beside him before finding his socks and shoes for him. Then she turned her attention to her own apparel — or lack, thereof — frustrated that in such close quarters she couldn't use her superpowers to move faster. Michael would feel a suspicious blast of air if she did.
Three things happened almost simultaneously. She did up her bra, Michael zipped up his pants, and her father appeared with a great whoosh.
"Vicky, you're naked!" the shocked superhero exclaimed.
"No, I'm not," she retorted with a quelling glance at him. "I have underwear on." She glared at him defiantly as she slipped her other clothes on. "Uh, Superman? This is Michael Gale, a very good friend of mine."
Her father surveyed Michael from head to toe as the musician hastily tucked his t-shirt into his pants. "Yes, I can see clearly that he's a good friend of yours," he replied, sarcastically.
Michael flushed brick red but still managed to maintain his composure. "Um, it's very nice to meet you, sir," he said, awkwardly as he extended his hand to the superhero.
Superman gave Michael's hand a perfunctory shake, quickly releasing it. "Time to go, Mr. Gale," he said in his most authoritative superhero tones. "I'll take you first and then come back for Vicky." He strode forward and grasped Michael firmly around the waist.
Vicky winced. It didn't look like Michael was going to have a very pleasant trip back to Metropolis.
"Superman, wait, please." Michael pushed himself away from her father. "Vicky?"
"Right here, Michael." Vicky stepped forward and firmly grasped his hands in hers.
"Promise me, you'll be there for me? Please? I mean after, when I wake up? I need to know that you'll be there."
"I'll be there, Michael," Vicky said, softly. "I'll always be there for you." She tugged him towards her and leaned up to gently kiss his cheek. "I love you," she whispered into his ear.
"I love you, too," he whispered back. "You complete me." He cupped her cheek in his hand for a moment before taking a step back. "Okay, I'm done now, sir," he said over his shoulder to her father.
Superman grasped Michael around the waist once more, a softer, more quizzical expression on his face. "Are you ready, Mr. Gale?"
Michael's face was pale, but determined. "Yes, sir."
And then they were gone. Vicky followed their progress for a moment until they were hidden by the clouds. She hoped Dad wasn't going to be too hard on Michael. Today was going to be difficult enough without an overwrought, overly protective Kryptonian lecturing him.
Michael and Superman had been flying for a few silent minutes before Michael felt brave enough to say anything.
"How long will it take us to get to New York?"
"About ten minutes. I could fly there in seconds, but if I tried that with you in tow, you'd be vaporised." Superman's icy tone suggested that he thought vaporisation wouldn't altogether be that bad an idea.
Michael winced and didn't say anything else for a few more tense moments.
It was an unusual sensation, flying with the superhero. It was a little cool and breezy, but very smooth, quite unlike anything he had ever experienced. He had been in a glider once, but in the glider he had been very aware of the air currents as they moved him to and fro. With Superman, it felt more like they were slicing through the currents, instead of being affected by their vagaries.
"Nothing happened," Michael finally said.
"Nothing happened," he repeated.
"With Vicky, you mean?"
"Yes. I'm not going to deny that I wanted something to happen, but she wasn't sure, and I wasn't going to push her into something that she didn't feel comfortable with."
"You expect me to believe that you two spent the night in the same bed, and nothing happened?"
Michael's temper flared. At this moment in time, he didn't care that he was being questioned by the most powerful man on the planet. He still didn't like the tone of voice being used.
"I don't care what you believe. I'm just telling you that nothing happened. You can believe me or not — that's your choice. Anyway, it's none of your business. I know — she told me — that you treat her like another daughter, but even so, this is our business. I love Vicky, and she loves me, and no one is going to tell me that I can't be with her. Not you, not her father, not her mother. No one. The only person that could tell me that is Vicky."
Superman didn't say anything for a long moment.
Michael had enough time to cool down and start to regret being so blunt with the superhero. He meant every word he had said, but perhaps he should have been a bit more diplomatic in how he had said it.
"I respect that, Mr. Gale," Superman finally said. "You're right. This is between you and Vicky. I was out of line, questioning your word like I did."
"Thank you," Michael said, acknowledging the apology.
"I can't help but believe that you are sincere when you say you care for Vicky. Not too many people tell me off, but you did, and very eloquently, I might add."
"Uh, sorry. Maybe I should have been more tactful."
"No. Don't apologise. I found it quite refreshing for a change. And I'm glad to hear that you have feelings for my … friend's daughter. She's a lovely person, and she deserves to be happy."
"Superman, I'm going to do whatever I can to make her happy. I love her with all my heart."
"Yes, I believe you do," the superhero replied, softly.
They flew in silence for another few moments.
"We're here," Superman announced as they landed smoothly. "I'll escort you inside and help you get situated."
"Thanks," Michael replied, relaxing a bit. He hadn't been nervous flying with Superman per se, but it had been a little uncomfortable. He was glad to be on the ground.
Just before they entered the hospital, Michael pulled the superhero to a stop.
"What is it?" Superman asked.
"I want to ask you to do something for me."
"Would you please tell your daughter, Nightwind, that I don't blame her?"
"Of course," Superman answered, softly. "She'll be very pleased to hear that. She's been worried."
"She talked to you about what happened?"
"Not enough," Superman said, wryly. "But, yes, she has. She'll be very happy to know that you're getting a transplant. She's been feeling very guilty."
"Tell her she shouldn't. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what happened, and I don't see where she had any other choice than to do what she did."
"I'll tell her," Superman answered, softly.
The two men resumed walking.
A few minutes later, Michael was ensconced in Admitting, waiting for his name to be called.
"I'm going to go now," Superman told him. "You seem to be in good hands."
Michael stood up and extended his hand. "Thank you, sir. Uh, you are going back for Vicky, right?"
Superman shook his hand and clapped Michael on the shoulder. "Yes, I'll bring her to you. She'll be here in a few minutes. Good luck, Mr. Gale. I hope everything works out for you."
"Thank you, Superman. And, Superman? I know how fond of Vicky you are. I just want to tell you again that I will never do anything to hurt her. I love her and I cherish her."
"Thank you, Mr. Gale," Superman replied, his voice soft. "I do feel better knowing that. Don't worry. I'll bring her to you," he repeated.
Michael heard the swish of Superman's cape as the superhero strode away. A moment later, even muffled by the walls of the Admitting Office, he heard the unmistakable whoosh of Superman's departure.
Superman launched himself into the air and headed straight up. He looked impressive as all get-out, but anyone observing would have soon noted that his flight was cut dramatically short. In fact, an observer did notice. At the ready, the TV cameraman prepared himself for whatever might come.
Superman's daughter, Nightwind, hovered over the hospital. The older superhero swooped up and halted smoothly beside her.
"I told Michael that I'd get you here in a few minutes," he said, noncommittally.
"Thanks." Vicky couldn't bring herself to look at her dad.
"Dad, I…" she started to say, only to be interrupted.
He blurted out, "What the heck were you thinking?"
"I guess I was…" she tried to answer.
He continued, "Are you crazy? Do you know exactly how badly you nearly screwed up?" His arms were folded across his chest in his most authoritative pose.
"Do you know what your mother would have done to me if I had done this to her?" he asked, running his hands through his hair in agitation.
Vicky's head drooped. "Oh, yeah, it…"
"She would have killed me. You know your mother. Kryptonite's got nothing on her when she gets angry." He gestured wildly.
She cringed. "I know. She's…"
"Oh, I know we turned everything into a funny bedtime story — how your mother fell for Superman while ignoring Clark Kent, but, honey, you need to look beyond the cute bedtime story. You need to imagine how she would have reacted if I had seduced her as Superman."
"I know. She would have…"
"And don't think that I couldn't have done it. I could have, but it wouldn't have been ethical." He wagged his index finger practically in her face.
"I know. I…"
"And I have to tell you — I do not appreciate having my daughter's sex life flaunted in my face." Colour stained his cheeks as he folded his arms back into their characteristic 'I am Superman' position.
"I don't have a sex life!" Vicky wailed. "I'm never going to have a sex life. How am I ever going to have a sex life when the only man I have ever wanted hates me?" Vicky buried her head in her hands, sobbing whole-heartedly.
"Oh, gee, honey," her father said as he awkwardly patted her back, "Michael doesn't hate you. He told me he loved you, and I believed him."
"He loves Vicky Kent; he hates Nightwind," she blubbered.
"No, honey, he doesn't," Clark said as he pulled his daughter into his arms. "Look at me, sweetie. He doesn't hate Nightwind. He told me to tell you that he doesn't blame you — that he doesn't hate you, I mean, Nightwind."
"But he'll hate me when he finds out that I'm been tricking him." Vicky looked up at her father, her eyes sad and hopeless.
"You don't know that, Vicky. But I will say that if you had been… intimate with him, there would have been a lot more potential for damage. Nobody likes to be played for a fool, and I think he would have felt that you were just using him if things had progressed further."
Vicky nodded in agreement. "I never thought that I would have any problem restraining myself. No one ever appealed to me before. I never understood until now how powerful those feelings can be. I've been weak, and I'm ashamed of myself."
"But nothing happened, honey. Michael told me. You managed to restrain yourself when it counted."
Vicky snorted. "Hah! If Michael's cell phone hadn't rung when it did, you and I would be having a very different conversation."
"Oh." Clark looked at his daughter in shock.
"I don't understand it. When he touches me, I forget everything. I just want to be with him. He's a wonderful kisser, and his hands are so gentle and…"
"Vicky!" Clark interrupted, wincing a little. "More information than I really need!"
"Oh, sorry, Dad," Vicky stammered, blushing furiously. "I guess you'd rather I talked to Mom about this stuff."
"No, it's okay," Clark said, bravely. "You're my daughter; you should be able to talk about anything with me. Just don't… rub my nose in it, okay? Right now, plunking you into a convent for the rest of your life is looking pretty good to me."
Vicky giggled. "But we're not Catholic."
"If I thought you'd go for it, I'd convert!" He smiled mischievously at his daughter who grinned cheekily back at him. "So, what do you think? Convent?" He peered questioningly at his daughter who was shaking her head vehemently. "I didn't think so."
When Vicky finally stopped giggling, she asked, "Getting back to that part of my life that you find totally embarrassing, do you think I should wait for marriage?"
"What about after marriage? You know, I think celibacy in marriage is a perfectly valid option that's been underrated for far too long."
"Uh huh," Vicky murmured. "Good luck selling Mom on that one!"
Clark grinned sheepishly at his daughter. "Well, okay, maybe not. But, yes, I do think it's a good idea to wait for marriage. I know you saw the damage that can occur when someone makes a wrong choice." He took a deep breath. "Sex… is a pretty potent force, and like any force has its good and bad sides. Between two people who have committed themselves to each other, it's wonderful. I know. But as a casual encounter, it leaves a lot to be desired and can cause a lot of damage. I know that you love Michael, and he loves you, but right now, the two of you have a lot to work out, and adding sex into the mix is only going to complicate things. You have to tell Michael the truth before you can take that step. My advice to you is to be supportive while Michael's in the hospital — it's not like anything physical's going to be an option in there anyway — and then after he's home, you can decide to tell him when the time's right. Don't push it, and don't rush into anything too quickly. Don't hit him over the head with this information about you. Everything will be fine. You'll see. But, honey, you have to tell him before you take any more steps in your relationship."
"But, Dad, you don't understand. I can't wait until after the transplant to tell him." Vicky quickly filled her father in, informing him that Michael already knew that Nightwind had a secret identity and that he knew what she looked like when she was being herself, Vicky Kent.
Clark was silent for a long time, looking at the endless cityscape stretching out before them. "Well, you have painted yourself into a corner, haven't you?" he said, slowly. "How long until they find out whether the transplant worked or not?"
"I don't know. I'll have to find out."
"Maybe his eyes will need to heal for a while before they chance taking the bandages off."
Vicky sighed heavily. "I don't know, but I'm sure going to ask."
Clark sighed, echoing his daughter. "Vicky, you don't have a lot of choices here. You need to do some thinking and figure out what's best — first for Michael and then for you. You have to put his health needs first. Everything else is secondary to that. But, honey, you just can't NOT do anything. That isn't a choice." He laid his arm gently over her shoulder and changed the subject. "How do you feel when people praise you for being brave after a rescue?"
Puzzled by the non sequitur, Vicky answered, "That's easy. I feel totally silly. It's hard to feel brave when I do something that comes naturally to me, like stopping a mugger or going into a burning building. It's like being praised for breathing."
Clark nodded in agreement. "I know exactly how you feel. So, up till now, you've never had the opportunity to prove to yourself that you really do have courage. This is your chance. Being honest is the hardest thing in the world, but you have to do it — either now or later, but it's going to have to happen. You don't have a choice."
"You're right. I've been a coward and I've been hiding my head in the sand. I'm not sure how I'm going to tell him, but I will. I just have to figure out when. And how." She sighed. "I better go. Michael needs me." Vicky hugged her dad.
Clark kissed her cheek. "Okay, sweetheart. I hope everything goes really well for Michael. I'm not sure if my opinion really matters, but I liked him."
"Of course your opinion matters!" Vicky smiled at her dad.
"Oh, really?" He cocked an eyebrow at her. "So, what would you do if I didn't like him? Immediately dump him?" At her shocked look, he grinned. "I didn't think so."
Vicky laughed. "You know, you're right. I wouldn't dump him. But I'm still glad you liked him. Anyway, Dad, don't expect to see a lot of me over the next couple of days. Will you and Sam be able to cope okay?"
"We'll be fine, Vic. If we need help, we can always call Jon or Marty. You need to go and be with your friend. You have enough on your plate right now; you don't need to worry about your superhero duties."
"Thanks, Dad." Vicky kissed her father quickly and was gone with a whoosh.
He watched her go, his expression troubled. He waited, tracking her progress as she landed on the deserted far side of the hospital. Checking to make sure that no one was around, she quickly spun into her street clothes and darted into the building.
Clark sighed and slowly flew away. He didn't relish having to find Vicky's mother and fill her in on these most recent developments.
Michael felt as though his head were spinning. Vicky had arrived after what had seemed like an interminable wait. He had only had a minute to greet her before he had been whisked off to a hospital room. The nurse had presented him with a hospital gown and left the room. Vicky had disappeared for a couple of minutes to give him the required privacy to change and then had reappeared to fuss over him.
It hadn't taken her long to put his clothes in the assigned locker and to plump up the pillow behind his back. Now he could hear her shifting restlessly on her chair as she held his hand with cold and clammy fingers.
Michael didn't know what he was feeling. For a moment, he wondered about the donor, but his thoughts quickly shied away, knowing that whoever the donor was, he or she was now no more.
"Vicky, talk to me, please," he blurted out desperately. "I'm going crazy here."
"It's okay to be scared," Vicky murmured, kissing his knuckles.
"I'm not scared of the surgery," Michael stated, shaking his head. "I'm terrified that it won't work. Or that it will work but something will go wrong and I'll lose my sight again."
"I know," she assured him. "But everything will be fine. It has to be."
The nurse bustled back into the room, took his blood pressure and checked his pulse and his temperature. "It'll be a few minutes still, Mr. Gale," she said as she bustled back out the door.
Michael grinned, trying to hide his jitters. He patted the bed as he shifted to the side. "Hey, lots of room up here. Why don't you join me?"
Vicky giggled as she clambered onto the narrow bed that had its safety rails up. They were pressed together in close quarters, hip to hip.
"Kind of different from the bed we were in earlier, isn't it?" Michael asked, still grinning.
Vicky laughed in that whole-hearted way that he loved so much before snuggling up and laying her head on his shoulder.
"Have I mentioned to you recently that I love you?" Michael asked playfully as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
"That's good, because I happen to love you, too," she answered, solemnly.
Michael felt Vicky tip her head up and lightly kiss him. He returned the kiss with a fervour at odds with his forced joviality. Cupping her face in his hands, he said intensely, "I can't wait to see you, really see you."
"I hope you like what you see," Vicky said, an odd note to her voice as the door swung open.
"If he doesn't, I do," laughed a strange voice, startling Michael. "Mr. Gale, I'm Dr. Walsh, your anaesthetist."
Vicky started to move away from Michael only to stop as he continued, "No, it's okay. Stay where you are. Sorry to interrupt your conversation, but I just have to say that if Mr. Gale doesn't like your looks after his surgery, ma'am, then he'll be the fussiest man I've ever met!"
Michael laughed and grabbed Vicky's hand to squeeze it gently. "There you go, Vicky, an expert opinion! I wasn't particularly worried anyway. I know you're beautiful, sight unseen."
"Thanks, Michael," Vicky said, quietly. He could hear a quaver in her voice.
For her part, Vicky was very worried. Her main concern was Michael. The anaesthetist had left after questioning Michael about his health. He had explained to them the risks inherent in the surgery and had described what the procedure would consist of. Michael had scrawled his name on the surgery permission slip after Dr. Walsh had completed the disclosure procedure.
Vicky was frustrated. She didn't know how she could tell Michael in these surroundings, and even if they had privacy, she didn't know if she should tell him. She didn't want to upset him before his surgery.
Her dad had been right. She really had been a moral coward. If she hadn't been ruled by her fears, this would all be over right now, one way or the other.
But if she didn't tell him now, she ran the risk of his finding out for himself when he could see once more. And when would that be? she wondered. She had forgotten to ask.
"Michael, how soon before we know if the operation worked?" she asked.
"I'm not sure," he answered. "Soon, I hope. I don't want to wait any longer than necessary to see you for myself."
Vicky closed her eyes, a tear escaping. This was so hard. Adrenaline rushed through her system, making her want to run away as fast and as far as she could, but she couldn't do it. She couldn't give in to panic. She needed to be calm. "I hope it's soon, too," she managed to say, controlling her vocal chords with an iron grip.
As they lay there silently, Vicky heard the ululation of sirens. She focused her vision on the road leading to the hospital and was shocked to see at least five ambulances roaring up. Her dad and her brother hovered high over the procession, both of them looking quite worried.
"Michael, do you mind if I turn on the TV? We're both nervous. Maybe listening to the news would help pass the time."
He smiled wanly. "Not a bad idea. I hate waiting for anything, and waiting for this is the worst!"
Vicky quickly found the controller and pointed it at the TV mounted in brackets in the corner of the room. She channel-surfed until she found LNN.
They were just in time to hear the breaking coverage of a train jumping its tracks about twenty miles outside of Metropolis.
"… debris all over the road and the fields. Drivers left their cars to run and help; farmers abandoned their tractors in the field. Thankfully Superman and Starfire were soon on the job, speedily putting out the fires, helping to locate survivors, and flying the ambulances, one at a time, over the traffic jam so they could make good time to the hospital. The death toll is mounting as we speak. Ten bodies have been located, but it's a sure-fire bet that there will be many more. Over to you, Suzanne."
"Thank you, Jay, for that concise report. To recap — a Lextrak passenger train doing its high speed Metropolis/Washington run has jumped its tracks. We don't know yet how many are dead, but Superman and Starfire have most definitely kept the death toll lower than it otherwise would have been."
"Wow! It sounds awful," Michael said, shaking his head.
"Yeah!" Vicky agreed, stunned. "Superman and Starfire are going to be really upset."
"I never thought about that," Michael said. "I guess it is really hard on them when things go wrong." He fell silent.
Vicky realised something then. She hadn't heard the sirens until the ambulances neared the hospital. Why hadn't she heard the sirens? Was she that focused on Michael? She'd have to remember to ask her dad if that had ever happened to him.
As she continued to watch the disturbing footage, a door opened and Michael's eye surgeon walked in. Vicky recognised him from her previous reconnaissance excursions. She shifted to get off the bed, but he quickly waved her back into her position beside Michael.
"Dr. Edwards," Michael acknowledged. "I'd like you to meet Vicky Kent. She's been an absolute saviour to me, keeping me sane the last little while."
Dr. Edwards nodded and smiled at her before continuing, "I see you have the news on. Well, that's why I came to see you. We're going to have a bit of a delay. All the operating rooms are full from the accident. We won't have access to one for at least an hour. It's okay. We have a good window of time that we can perform the transplant in. I don't anticipate there being any problem other than you getting a little hungrier and thirstier while you wait. Okay?"
"Yeah, that's fine. I understand," Michael stammered nervously.
"A nurse will be in to give you a shot in a few minutes. It's just to relax you."
"Good. I need to relax. If I got any tenser, I'd break!" Michael grinned.
"I know it's nerve-wracking, Michael. And I know this delay isn't helping. But don't worry. You'll be fine. I do good work."
"How long until we find out whether Michael can see?" Vicky asked.
Dr. Edwards smiled. "As soon as he wakes up in Recovery. It might be blurry for a few days, but his vision should be restored."
"That soon!" Vicky blurted out. "That's great!" she managed to choke out, her heart sinking. Then she chastised herself for her attitude. This was Michael's future. There was a lot more at stake here than her own problematic situation.
"Anyway, Michael, I know it's hard, but try to relax. I'll 'see' you after, okay?"
Michael smiled broadly. "I sure hope so, doc. I sure hope so."
The doctor clapped Michael on the shoulder, nodded at Vicky once more and left the room.
Vicky squeezed Michael's hand and tugged it up to brush her lips over his knuckles. "Roll over and I'll rub your back. Maybe it'll relax you," she offered, her mind racing a mile a minute. She shifted off the bed to make room.
He was quick to comply, hastily pulling the sheet up as the thin gown fell open in the rear. And he was quick to let her know how much he appreciated her work. He sighed, moaned and groaned contentedly as she stroked and kneaded his tense muscles. It was nice to feel them loosening under her hands. She wondered if this would be the last time she'd be able to touch Michael like this. Forcing her fears out of her mind, she concentrated on him, and him only.
His shoulders were so broad, she thought as her hands glided over them. And his back was smooth under her fingers.
"Mmmm, that's nice," he purred as she pressed her thumbs into a particularly tight muscle.
"That's good," she murmured as she continued taking inventory of his muscles, one by one. She traced the pebbled bones of his spinal column down, almost to his rear, and then pushed her hands back up to his shoulders once more, hitching his gown up around his neck. She couldn't help but breathe a little harder when she realised that, for all intents and purposes, Michael was naked under the thin sheet. She feasted her eyes on his firm back, exposed to her gaze. He shivered suddenly, and she realised that she was doing it again. She was acting like an out-of-control sex addict. "Oh, I am one sick puppy," she muttered as she straightened his gown.
"Here we are in a hospital room. You're about to have surgery, and all I want to do is strip you naked and have my way with you. I'm sick! Absolutely sick and perverted!"
Michael laughed heartily as he rolled over onto his back, carefully keeping the sheet in place over him. "I don't think that I'd complain ordinarily, but maybe this isn't the best location. Anyway, I wanted to dive on you the moment I met you. I've never felt this way about anyone before."
"Me, either. But it's frustrating. I can't think, I can't work, I can't write. I can't do anything except think of you," Vicky said, huskily.
Michael smiled innocently. "Come here," he said, patting the bed beside him in invitation.
Vicky giggled. "Do you really think that's a good idea?"
"Probably not, but come here anyway."
Vicky quickly clambered up on the bed to lie beside Michael. He bent forward to meet her, his lips touching hers lightly. Her fingers automatically wrapped around his as she moved closer to him.
"Now, now, none of that," exclaimed the nurse with a grin as she entered the room. It was a different nurse from earlier. "You two look dangerously close to having fun. You know that's not allowed in the hospital."
Vicky and Michael laughed.
"I'm Charlene. I'll be looking after you, Mr. Gale."
"Michael, please," he murmured.
"Okay, Michael. I'm just going to give you a little shot now to help you relax. Then in about half an hour, I'll be back with an orderly to take you away from all this." She giggled as she gestured grandiosely around the room.
Despite her worry, Vicky had to laugh as she moved out of the way. She liked this nurse. If she were ever sick, which it didn't look like she ever could be, she would want someone like this to look after her.
Charlene pulled the privacy curtain. Vicky could hear the running patter of the nurse's words as she gave Michael his injection. As she waited to rejoin him, her smile faded as she realised that she had been foolish once again, cowardly. But how could she tell him here?
"Okay, Miss…" the nurse said.
"Vicky. Vicky Kent."
"Okay, Vicky, we're all done now." Charlene pulled the curtain back out of the way. "Michael, I'll be back in about thirty minutes with an orderly to prep you, okay?"
"You two need anything?" the nurse asked.
"No, we're fine. Thanks," Michael answered.
Vicky slowly moved back to the bed as Charlene left the room.
"I didn't hear any screams coming from behind the curtain so I guess she didn't hurt you," Vicky observed, trying to appear light-hearted.
"Nah," he said as he laughed.
Vicky could already see his face relaxing, the shot taking effect even as she watched.
He smiled a little crookedly, and crooked his finger at her. "Come on back up here," he asked, warmly.
Once again, Vicky moved to join him on the bed, lying on her back. Michael promptly rolled onto his side, wrapped his arms around her and laid his head on her shoulder.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"For being here with me. For keeping me company. I appreciate it." He nuzzled her neck. "I love you, Victoria 'El' Kent."
"And I love you, Michael Gale," Vicky whispered back, her heart breaking.
As Vicky lay beside Michael on the bed, her attention was caught once again by the news coverage on LNN. According to the latest reports, the death toll at the train wreck was final. Twelve people were dead. That was actually pretty low for this type of accident, but Vicky knew that her father and her brother would be desolate. The coverage changed, the pictures now showing the mopping up efforts of Superman and Starfire as they worked to clean up the mess of tangled debris and spilled fuel.
"He's had a busy morning," Michael observed sleepily.
"Superman? Yes, he has," Vicky responded absentmindedly, all her attention on the TV as she watched for a glimpse of her family.
The coverage of the train incident seeming to be over, Vicky was about to turn the TV off when the anchor desk reporter turned to Will Baxter for his celebrity gossip segment. Baxter was always entertaining and had his finger on the pulse of the most recent Hollywood gossip. She recoiled, however, when the still photo behind his head changed to become a huge blow-up of Superman and Nightwind.
"If you were a superhero, which would you rather deal with? A man-made emergency, a natural disaster, or a wayward daughter?"
Vicky's jaw dropped as she listened. Michael sat up a bit.
"It's hard to say. On the one hand, those pesky disasters and emergencies can be pretty messy…"
The picture changed, first showing a soot-covered Superman as he blew out a fire then showing a slime-covered Superman as he battled the effects of a mudslide.
"…but on the other hand, those daughters, they'll rip your hearts out if you let them…"
And the picture then changed to show a close-up of her father's angry face. Vicky's heart leapt into her mouth as she realised that it had been taken that morning.
"One of our cameramen was lucky enough to catch the following sequence on film. He spotted the unhappy duo as they floated in mid-air above Metropolis General Hospital this morning. Unfortunately, we can't tell what they were saying, but their body language speaks for itself. This has been heavily edited as it was quite a long conversation, but first, we see them confront each other. There's anger there; they can't look at each other. Then, look at this… he's lecturing her, obviously angry…oops, looks like he went too far 'cus she's crying. She's really upset. Okay, there's the good, loving dad back, comforting her. Then they talk — yadda, yadda, yadda — and laugh a bit…Things are obviously getting worked out… Big hug at the finish, and Nightwind's gone, flying quickly away from her father. Kind of makes you wonder what she did that made him so mad. Hmmm. 'Gee, Dad, sorry I was out past my curfew, but there was this big earthquake… I won't do it again, I swear.' Too bad the angle wasn't a little better, Metropolis. I know a couple of deserving lip-readers that would have made a lot of money from this. Back to you, Suzanne."
"Will, I guess it just goes to show that even superheroes have family problems."
"And now on to sports. Jordan?"
"Thanks, Suzanne. It was a crazy night on the basketball…"
Vicky clicked the TV off, in shock. She hadn't realised that they had been filmed. She was in shock; she literally couldn't believe it.
"Weird, huh?" Michael mumbled as he snuggled a little closer. "That must have happened right after he dropped me off. I wonder what that was about."
"He was angry."
"I know he was angry. That's what Will Baxter said, but I wonder why."
"He was angry at me," Vicky said, slowly, her voice low.
"Because of last night?" Michael asked, puzzled. He pushed himself up to a sitting position, suppressing a yawn as he moved. "But if he was angry about that, why was he yelling at Nightwind? Vicky, I don't understand."
"He was angry at me because I've been a coward. He told me that I was treating you poorly by getting involved with you without telling you. But, Michael, I didn't know how to tell you. I don't want you to hate me. It would kill me if you hated me."
Michael shook his head. "Vicky, I don't understand. I don't hate you."
Vicky laid her hand gently over his. "Michael, you know me as Vicky Kent, my readers know me as Victoria El, but the rest of the world knows me as Nightwind." She kept talking, desperate to make him understand, watching his mouth drop open and his expression darken. "I love you, Michael. I really do. But I knew that you hated Nightwind. I was so scared. I didn't want you to hate me. I should have told you sooner. I wanted to tell you sooner, but I was a coward. I'm sorry."
Michael pulled his hand out from under hers and ran it through his hair. "You're Nightwind?"
"That was you that I saw that night — in the audience."
"You left. Why did you leave?"
"There was a mugging…" Vicky's voice trailed off as she tried to figure out what Michael was thinking.
"When we met, were you following me?"
"Yes. I felt so guilty. I was so worried about you. I shouldn't have, I know, but I did follow you."
"So, everything that's happened between us, that's been because you feel guilty?" he asked, slowly, forming each word with care.
"No! Never! I love you. I really do. Everything I've told you was true. I just … left something out, that's all."
"That's all? Don't you think it's kind of, oh, I don't know, big? You make it sound like a little thing." He shook his head.
"Yeah, it is a big thing. You're right. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Vicky wrung her hands in desperation.
"Vicky, if you're really Nightwind, then what do you need me for? I mean, you fly around rescuing people all the time. What do you want from me? Was I just someone else that needed rescuing?" he asked, plaintively.
"Oh, no, never," Vicky exclaimed in horror. "No, that's not how it is. I only ever thought of you once like that and you know when that was."
"Yes. Never again. And yes, I do fly around rescuing people, but Michael, who rescues me?"
"I don't understand," he said, his expression confused.
"Who rescues me from the… pain and the … desperation when I don't get there in time? Who's there for me? Who is there to lift my spirits and tell me that everything's okay? Who tells me that there was nothing else I could have done even when I have children die in my arms, their blood staining my uniform?"
Michael recoiled a bit from the intensity of Vicky's questions. "That was you at that school bus crash," he said, slowly. "That must have been hard."
"Hard? That's got to be an understatement. Try painful! Or agonizing! I never had anyone to talk to about that kind of thing until I met you. You did help me after that bus crash. It was awful. That little girl died in my arms; I could feel the moment when the life leeched out of her, but just talking to you helped me deal with it. That's one of the reasons why I need you. And, you do complete me. You make me feel like I belong, which is the most wonderful feeling that I've ever had. And now, you hate me and I'll never have that again. I'll always be alone now because I can't imagine meeting anyone who affects me the way that you do. But, Michael, do you really need to know WHY I love you or is it more important to know that I DO love you? Please, you have to think about this. Don't just… shut me out."
The door opened, and Charlene came in accompanied by an orderly who pushed a gurney. "All set, Mr. Gale? Your ride's here."
Michael and Vicky both jumped at the intrusion.
"Yeah, I'm ready," Michael said, his face blank.
"Michael?" Vicky's voice shook. "I'll be waiting for you when you get out of Recovery."
"Okay," he agreed, his expression still very troubled. "But, Vicky," he whispered, "I have to tell you. I could never hate you."
"I'm glad," she whispered back.
Vicky waited as Charlene and the orderly helped Michael onto the gurney. Then, with tears streaming down her face, she watched as they manoeuvred the gurney out of the room. Charlene was back less than a minute later.
"Come on, Vicky," she said. "I'll show you where you can wait. But, honey, you have to stop crying. You don't want Michael to see you for the first time with your eyes all red, do you?"
"How did you know it's for the first time?" Vicky asked, shocked.
"Dr. Walsh told me."
"Uh huh. You know what gossips men are!"
As the tears continued to stream down her face, Vicky blindly followed the nurse.
Vicky paced up and down in the small waiting room. Time had slowed down to a crawl. Michael had only been in surgery for an hour, but it seemed like at least three.
Once again she cursed herself for having been so foolish to leave him in the dark for so long. And telling him when he was drugged and awaiting life-altering surgery probably wasn't the best idea in the whole world either. But at least he knew the truth now. And he didn't hate her, she reminded herself, clinging to every drop of comfort she could wring from that statement. But would he want her? she wondered. Could he ever feel as though he could trust her again? Did he still love her?
The door opened, revealing Dr. Edwards. "Vicky, I'm going to take you to Michael now."
"Is he awake? Did it work? Can he see?"
Dr. Edwards smiled and held his hands up against the barrage of questions. "Whoa, slow down. He's still asleep in Recovery, but everything went really well. There's no reason that his eyesight hasn't been restored. Anyway, I, uh, I hear that you two didn't meet until after Michael's accident…"
At Vicky's questioning look, Dr. Edwards hastily explained, "Dr. Walsh told me. So… he thought, okay, actually, we both thought that… it would be great if the first person he saw was you," Dr. Edwards finished in a rush.
"Oh, I don't know… I'm a bit nervous…" Vicky quickly objected, her head spinning.
"Come on, now, don't be shy. We were talking about this in surgery, all of us, the doctors and the nurses and, well, we just thought it would be kind of… romantic. If you really don't want to…" Dr. Edwards' voice trailed away awkwardly.
"No. I did promise Michael I'd be there for him so…"
"Great!" the doctor said brightly as he led Vicky from the room. "Right this way."
"… Do you know where you are? Can you tell me your name?"
Michael's head felt like it had been packed with cotton wool. He couldn't think straight. Who was this woman who was yelling in his ear? Why didn't she just leave him alone? He had been with Vicky, but this strange woman had pulled him away from her. Vicky's words still echoed in his ears. 'I love you, Michael… I need you, Michael…' He wanted to go back. He had to tell Vicky something, something important. He needed to say…
"… Can you tell me your name? Do you know where you are?"
As he came back to himself, he realised that he had been asleep, that Vicky hadn't really been there, but had only visited him in his drug-induced dreams. He tried to speak, only to hear a croak as he pushed air through his vocal chords.
"What? What did you say?"
Licking his dry lips, he swallowed and tried again. "Michael… Hospital…"
"Good," the strange woman said, cheerily. "How are you feeling?"
"I know, Mr. Gale. We'll have you back in your room soon. In the meantime…"
He felt the woman lean a little closer to his head.
"… Would you like to try opening your eyes? There's someone here we all think you'd like to see."
Michael's eyelids were curiously heavy, but he forced them open. He saw a grey haze that slowly started to form itself into shapes and colours in the dimly lit room. Turning his head in wonder, his gaze roamed around the room, aware of a couple of blurred figures around the periphery of the room. His eyes stopped automatically at the slender silhouette of a woman.
Beside her, another person — a nurse, maybe? — was almost pushing her to approach him. He could see the indistinct shape of others in the background, happily whispering to each other, but all his attention was on her, on his Vicky.
He squinted at her as she neared, her shape slowly coming into focus. His eyes travelled slowly over the planes and contours of her face, her beautiful, beautiful face, seeing the worry, despair, and outright fear, mixed with hope and love on her visage. He shook his head, trying to think clearly, knowing that there was something he had to tell her, something he needed to tell her. What was it? Oh, yes, he remembered.
"Vicky." He tried to beckon to her only to feel his hand flop down to the bed, out of his control.
"Yes, Michael." She clasped his hand gently, his fingers closing around hers automatically.
He could see the rainbow sheen of tears as they rolled down her high cheekbones. He didn't like seeing her cry any more than he had liked hearing her.
"Vicky," he whispered, urgently, needing her to understand. "I have to tell you something. You saved my life, and… " he whispered as he pulled her closer.
"And?" she whispered back, her breath warm against his face.
"And you're stuck with me forever."
With newly minted vision, he greedily watched the joy sweep over her beloved face, delighting in the knowledge that he was the one to put it there, rewarded by the wonder of her smile.
"Really?" she asked, her voice shaking.
"Really," he assured her. "I love you."
She bent down to lightly brush her lips against his. "I love you, too," she whispered into his ear.
Ignoring the happy murmur of the bystanders in the room, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep with the feel of her hand holding his tight.
TWO MONTHS LATER
The bellhop valiantly tried to hide his grin as he put down the suitcases in the Honeymoon Suite. He turned back to the open door in time to see two slender legs come through the door, wrapped in a flurry of white. The legs were followed by the rest of the laughing bride, cradled in the tuxedo-clad groom's arms.
Michael swung his giggling bride to the floor and generously tipped the bellhop. As the door closed behind the hotel employee, he picked Vicky up and twirled her in a circle.
"I was going crazy through the whole reception, waiting for this moment," he told her.
"So was I," she assured him, her brown eyes snapping with excitement. She wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned in for a kiss.
"Mmmm," he purred in the back of his throat. "I love you, Vicky Kent-Gale."
"I love you, too, my wonderful husband." She giggled. "My husband! It sounds pretty good, doesn't it?"
"Mmmm hmmm," he agreed as he nuzzled her neck. He pulled away slightly and grinned. "We've waited so long for this moment, I can't believe it's here. Thank God, your family doesn't believe in long engagements."
"I know." Her eyes twinkled as she admitted, "It was so hard to wait. I was going crazy over the last month."
He chuckled. "It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be to restrain myself. I am supremely conscious of having started on the wrong foot with my father-in-law; I wasn't going to do anything more to damage his opinion of me." He pulled back and looked at her with mischief in his eyes.
She lightly swatted him on the arm. "Oh, you… You know Dad's over that, now. Both my parents like you."
"And I will be eternally grateful for that," he said cheerfully. "Your family is definitely not one that I want to have in-law problems with! Anyway, let's stop talking about them. Much as I like your Mom and Dad, let's talk about you and me. Did you have any idea how excited you made me while we were dancing?" He shifted his hand to touch her lightly on the back and started guiding her around the room, humming in her ear as they swayed and moved.
Vicky looked up at him, her love for him shining clearly in her eyes. With a slightly wicked smile, she said, "This isn't dancing."
"No, this is."
And to Michael's delight, their feet lifted off the floor as they drifted around the room. He bent his head and captured her lips with his, happy, whole-heartedly in love and secure in the knowledge that she loved him, too.