By Irene Dutch <email@example.com>
Rated: PG 13
Submitted January 2000
Summary: This story, which is a sequel/prequel to the author's "Firestorm" and "Starfire and Sunstorm," is a next-generation story focusing primarily on Jon Kent as he juggles a plot by the Russian mob, his attraction to his FBI bodyguard, and the secret life of a super-family.
Author's note: This story is a sequel/prequel to 'Firestorm' and 'Starfire and Sunstorm'. I recommend that you read both of those first or this will make no sense to you. A next generation story, it focuses primarily on Jon Kent. Thank you, Cindy, for your help with some of the witty banter when Jon and Larissa meet. Thank you, Nan, for brainstorming some plot points with me.
Also, many thanks to the wonderful FoLC who frequent Zoom's message boards. You know who you are! This story would not have been written without your encouragement. Thank you to my archive editor, Carol Malo, for her dedication and attention to detail.
Please send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
All standard disclaimers apply.
The three men sat up a little straighter when Larissa Lewis entered the conference room. It would have been impossible for any one of them to ignore her. Even Henry Caruthers, the very happily married father of four, found himself sucking in his gut.
Although she seemed completely oblivious to it, Larissa was stunningly beautiful. Tall and leggy, she had a willowy grace and, to be blunt, a knockout figure. Dark-haired with a creamy complexion, she looked like nothing more than Snow White — the x-rated version. Her high cheekbones and her unusual eyes added to her exotic appearance.
It was impossible even for these highly trained professionals to classify her eye colour. A ring of golden-brown surrounded her pupil, in turn surrounded by another ring of grey. To add to the confusion, the grey tended to pick up whatever colour she was wearing and reflect it back. Today she was wearing a conservatively cut navy pantsuit with a forest green blouse. Her eyes looked like cat's eyes.
Her reputation was enough to make them sit up a little straighter, too. She didn't date, she didn't flirt, and, although she wasn't a prude and had laughed at her fair share of off-colour jokes, she didn't seem to see any one of her colleagues as men. She represented a challenge to them. She had been dubbed "Sleeping Beauty" — not by the men in this room who all respected her greatly — but by some of the other agents who had tried to date her — and hadn't succeeded at it. There was something about her that intrigued and attracted interest, even from the happily married crowd. It was something private, deep within her, a core of pain that she kept under tight control. Every red-blooded man in the Bureau wanted to be the one to offer her the comfort that she seemed to need.
There was a flip side to her reputation. At 28 years of age, she happened to be one of the more brilliant agents currently working in the field. It was rumoured that she was being groomed for bigger and better things. She was certainly driven enough. It seemed inevitable that she would succeed.
Larissa sat down beside George Henderson and absentmindedly smiled in his general direction. Her smile was so dazzling that he promptly spilled his coffee on his shirt. Allan and Henry hid their smiles, but knowing glances were passed back and forth. Poor George always turned into a klutz whenever he was around Larissa.
Allan Holton, the boss, cleared his throat getting their attention. "We've got something new to work on. There's a lot of background material, so let's get started." He passed out photos of paintings to his agents. "These are samples of Mr. Jon Kent's work. According to the Fraud and Forgery Division, the Russian mafia have been making knock-offs to sell on the black market. Recently, the Metropolis Museum of Art discovered that one of its own paintings had been replaced with a knock-off. Obviously people are screaming."
"Okay, boss. I'll bite. What does this have to do with us? This is Fraud and Forgery's baby," Larissa stated.
"True, but it's gotten complicated. Jon Kent has started embedding computer chips in all his work so they can be identified as original. Very smart. Artists have talked about doing this for years, but he's one of the first. The Russian guys, well, these guys are stupid, but also very, very dangerous. Anyway, they've been trying to extort him into stopping this practice. He said 'no', and called the cops. They arrested some of the muscle, and now, word is, the head honchos are screaming for his skin. They want to make an 'example' of him. They keep sending guys after him, and so far Kent has been lucky. He's been saved at least 5 times, by Superman, Starfire, Sunstorm, Shadow, Nightwind — the whole gang of Superheroes! The guy must have horseshoes up his shorts!"
"Who's the agent assigned to him?" Henry asked.
"What?" Larissa couldn't believe it.
"Yeah, no one. He refused our protection. Can you believe it?" Allan Holton snorted. "He's lucky, but he's not bright. These guys are scary stuff, and we haven't had any luck getting him to believe that."
"So why are you telling us this? We can't force him to accept protection," George added.
"Well, in this case, the man upstairs has decided that we can. We want these guys put away. You know how they operate. They're going to bring more and more of their resources to bear on this guy, and eventually, they're going to take out half a city block trying to get to him. It's our intention to stop this before it can happen.
So, here are your assignments. Henry, you're going to work with Fraud and Forgery — tracing stolen property, digging into financial records, everything you can think of. George, I want you to do your old computer magic and try to hack into these guys' files — their emails, their schedules, the whole nine yards. They hide their personal info at least ten layers deep, but I know you. You love a challenge and if anyone can flush them out with a computer, it'll be you."
George grinned. "But, boss, you know hacking is illegal."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll arrest you later. Larissa, you're in charge of guarding Kent. You can have Kevin as your assistant. You'll have to do it at a distance though. He hangs out at a lot of galleries, and you and Kevin will blend in pretty well with that crowd. I've got a profile of the guy here; it's not long on facts, but it's a start. You'll have to fill in the blanks as you go." He handed over a file folder to Larissa. "Any questions?"
"It'd be a lot easier to guard the guy with more than the two of us," Larissa pointed out to her boss.
"No can do. Sorry. Manpower problems again."
Larissa shrugged in response.
"Okay, let's get started."
One by one, the agents left the conference room.
Larissa sat at her desk, lost in thought. She had just finished going through the very sketchy profile of Jon Kent. He was an interesting guy. Unmarried, although he had definitely been the target of marital aspirations by many women. No hint of a scandal, although the tabloids certainly had tried hard enough to link his name to any number of models and starlets. The stories always seemed to fizzle out though.
Rich beyond belief, he donated huge amounts of money to charity — primarily to the Superman Foundation — and lived relatively frugally. His only indulgences seemed to be his large tie collection and the Swiss chocolate that he imported by the pound. He had sent his twin brother and his younger sister to good universities, and had bought his other sister a farm. A farm? Man, this was a wholesome, all-American family. And he had established healthy trust accounts for his brother's one child and his older sister's two children. She noted that his younger sister was still unmarried.
His brother, Sam Kent, was a reporter for the Daily Planet, as was his father, Clark Kent. His mother was the editor. Larissa would have suspected nepotism if she hadn't found an impressive list of awards that the three of them had accumulated attached to the report. Wow! She wasn't a big fan of the media — no one in law enforcement was — but these three were something special.
His sister-in-law, Astrid Klein-Kent, ran her own advertising agency — a very successful one at that. Larissa glanced down at a note. Astrid Klein-Kent had borrowed the money from Kent about two years before, and had almost paid it back.
His older sister, Martha Kent-Palmer, ran a very successful farm, and his younger sister, Vicky Kent, what did she do? It had to be in here somewhere… Okay, here it was. His younger sister was a writer. She used the pen name Vicky El. Vicky El? *The* Vicky El! Once again, Larissa was impressed by the resources the bureau could bring to bear. No one had ever seen a photo of Vicky El, and she was said to be one of the most reclusive authors around. The tabloids hadn't even been able to locate her. Larissa had read both her books and eagerly awaited her third. She had set records for the length of time both books had been on the New York Times Bestseller Lists.
Holy Hannah! This was one impressive family! What would it be like to have a large family like that, Larissa wondered wistfully. What would it be like to have that support? Once, she would have been able to answer that question but not anymore. For a moment, she was awash with envy and a touch of bitterness. He had money, talent, and a family — a loving family. She'd bet that he didn't appreciate any of them.
Jon Kent was said to be the most acclaimed artist of the new millennium. Yet somehow his work had seemed to escape the crass commercialism that lesser artists had been subjected to. Larissa looked at the photos of some of his paintings again. They touched her, stirring her emotions to their depths. His paintings had a raw, sensual power without being crude. They were beautiful and breathtaking.
Speaking of breathtaking… Larissa took another look at one of the 8x10's she had found in his file. It was just an average surveillance type photo, but the subject was definitely not an average guy. He looked very buff, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. He had very dark hair; it looked almost black in the photo. His eyes were hidden by his sunglasses, but she had read in his description that they were brown. His olive complexion and his sculpted features combined to give him a faintly devilish look that she didn't trust. He was dangerously good-looking. Larissa wanted no part of him. Perhaps being so good-looking, he would turn out to be arrogant and conceited, and have an unattractive personality. Larissa was hopeful. One thing though, he had refused protection which only served to prove that he wasn't too bright. That was good. Larissa didn't want to like him. But, to give the devil his due, he was pretty awesome to look at.
She rushed to tuck his photo back into his file, and called Kevin into a meeting. Time to get things coordinated. Luckily, it looked like this would be a pretty routine surveillance job.
Two days later, Larissa was forced to admit that there was nothing routine about their surveillance of Jon Kent. She had never seen anyone before who was quite this good at losing a tail. And he did it on foot! How did he do it? They had lost him after he left his parents' brownstone. They had lost him after he left his brother's place. They had lost him when he left a movie theatre. The guy just turned corners and disappeared. Maybe it would have been different if Larissa had ordered more intensive surveillance, but she hadn't. She had hoped that the two of them could cover it themselves. It wasn't like he was a suspect or anything. Larissa hated to admit it, but they were going to have to change their approach. She reached for her radio. She had an agent to talk to.
"He refused?" Larissa asked her second-in-command, Kevin Connolly, incredulously.
"Yep. Point blank."
"And you explained that eventually these guys would catch him."
"And that they would kill him."
"And he still refused our protection."
"Did he give a reason?"
"Oh." Larissa shook her head in disbelief. The arrogant, arrogant idiot. If this was a fancy way to commit suicide, more power to him, and yet… His paintings were so beautiful and so sensitive, and he had such incredible talent. No matter if he was arrogant and conceited, and incredibly stupid, he was very talented and she didn't want his talent to die. Maybe she should change her approach.
"We're going to have to tighten the surveillance. I want us to be close enough to say 'Gesundheit' if he sneezes."
Larissa spent a very frustrating day trying to get closer to Mr. Kent. They had lost him shortly after he left his loft apartment, only to pick him up again as he neared his agent's office. Then they lost track of him again when he left there, only to get back to following him as he arrived for his early evening visit with his brother and his brother's family. As Larissa waited across the street from Kevin near Sam Kent's home, she wondered if he somehow knew he was being followed. It almost seemed that way.
The door opened. He was coming out. Okay, he was down the front steps, heading down the street. As he rounded a corner, heading into a dark alley, Larissa radioed Kevin to tighten up his surveillance, too.
Jon Kent could hear the muffled sounds of the radio. He knew he was being followed, and he didn't like it. He was getting pretty tired of these Russian Mafioso turning up everywhere he went. Weren't they getting tired of losing people yet? Was he going to have to catch every single member of the gang, one by one? Tiring of this game, he turned a corner and saw the perfect place to lose these clowns; the alley was full of shadows. As soon as he entered the alley, he headed straight up to give himself time to ponder his situation.
Should he find Dad, Sam or Vicky, show himself to these clowns, and then have one of his family members catch them in the act of attempted murder, or should he deal with this one himself? He didn't want 'Sunstorm' to do more than his fair share of rescues.
These thoughts ran through his mind quickly as he perched on the edge of the building, and watched to see what transpired.
A woman turned the corner, surveyed the alley, and pulled her radio earpiece out, throwing it to the ground in frustration. Her strangled exclamation was clearly audible to Jon. "Give me a break. Doesn't he know we're the good guys?"
Good guys? Jon jumped from the edge of the building, landed behind a dumpster and assumed a nonchalant pose. "Actually, no, I didn't"
The woman spun around and gaped in astonishment. "How did you…?"
"I'm very good at not being seen." Jon moved out of the shadows to confront her face to face. "You said something about being one of the good guys? May I see some ID?"
She nodded, fumbled in her purse and stepped forward. As she did, the streetlights switched on. Flashing her badge, she introduced herself, "Agent Lewis. I'm in charge of the team that's been following you."
As the feeble light hit her face, illuminating her features for the first time, Jon felt his breath catch in his throat. "Who…" Jon paused, swallowed and tried again. "Why are you following me?"
"For your protection."
"I don't…" Jon shook his head, a little disoriented. What colour were her eyes? He'd never, ever seen eyes like hers. "I don't need protection," he finally managed to stammer out.
"Of course you need protection. The Russians keep sending out more and more people after you, and eventually you're going to get hurt."
"I've been fine so far."
"Don't be an idiot!"
Jon blinked in reaction to her vehement statement. She pointed her finger at him sternly and continued, "Yes, you have been fine. But these guys are not going to stop trying. Either they're going to kill you, or they're going to kill someone close to you. You have family. You need to think about that."
"I … I…" Jon shook his head. What the heck was wrong? He couldn't seem to focus. "I … You're right."
"And furthermore, innocent bystanders are at risk, and … I am?"
Jon couldn't even begin to formulate an argument. "Yes, I guess you are."
"Oh. Good." Agent Lewis backtracked a bit from her hostile position. "I want to ask … Would you agree to have an agent assigned to you as your bodyguard?"
She smiled briefly. "Wonderful. I'll assign my assistant Kevin Connolly to you. You already met him yesterday."
Jon folded his arms in front of his chest and smiled warmly at her. "No. I assume you want your agent to accompany me everywhere and I assume we won't announce that I'm being protected." At Agent Lewis's nod of acknowledgment, he continued, "With all due respect to Mr. Connolly, I uh, well, I just don't see how I can … I have a number of social engagements in the next couple of days, and, well, he just doesn't look like someone I'd date!" Jon grinned cheekily at Larissa. "No, I want you."
She gaped at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"To guard me."
"No can do. I'm in charge. I don't guard people."
"Then, no deal. You or nobody."
As Jon watched, Lewis clenched her fists and started to turn an alarming shade of purple. Some of her anger seemed to diminish a bit when Jon continued, "After all, you're the boss which means you're probably the most experienced. I only want to be guarded by the best." He flashed her another smile.
"No way," she snarled. "Trust me, it's not going to happen."
"Oh, yes, it is," Jon said confidently. "Like I said, you or no one."
She shook her head once again. "Uh uh. No way in the world will that happen."
"You've got to be kidding," Larissa exclaimed. "Allan, I didn't work hard just to end up looking after some spoiled, pampered, would-be playboy!" She slumped back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest and glared at her boss.
"I've already told you, Larissa. It's out of my hands. I'm being told from on high that it would not exactly be good for our image if we allowed a world-class artist like Mr. Kent to be rubbed out."
"So talk to him. Get him to agree to accept Kevin…"
"I did talk to him," Allan Holton interrupted, "and he made a very good point. Kevin is not exactly what people are expecting to see hanging off his arm and he does have a number of social events to attend in the next few days."
"So pull Richardson and assign her," Larissa suggested in desperation.
"No, Richardson's at a crucial point in her investigation. I won't do it. No, Larissa. Let's face facts. I have no reason to assign anyone other than you to him. You're already assigned to his protection; this will just be a little more up-close and personal than we counted on."
He held up his hand, silencing her. "My decision's final."
"Fine, I got it. Your decision's final. You're only pulling your best agent off the street and sticking her with babysitting some wet behind the ears civilian who can't distinguish a criminal from an art critic. You're the boss, Allan. You know best," Larissa turned to the door, opened it, and stepped through. She paused, turned back and snarled, "but you're still wrong," and closed the door behind her.
She emerged from Allan's office to see Kent leaning against the wall opposite the door. He stepped forward to meet her and smirked at her arrogantly.
"Got everything worked out with your boss?"
His smirk faded as she hissed, "Look, buddy, I gave up baby-sitting years ago when I got my promotion, but let me tell you what I told the last kids I had to sit for. Do what I tell you and we'll get along fine. Get in my way or on my nerves and I'll stuff you in the nearest closet. You'll learn a lot more watching me do my job if I don't have to trip over you while I do it. Got it?"
"Got it. You want to get me alone in a closet, and you don't watch where you walk."
"Don't get smart with me. Just stay out of my way and let me work. Three steps behind me should be just fine. Got it?"
"Got it. You want me to hang back and keep my eyes on your backside."
Larissa felt the blood rush to her face and her fists clench all on their own. Kent actually took an inadvertent step back in response to her fury. He spread his arms wide and addressed her in more placating tones. "Look, I'm sorry if you feel guarding me is beneath your dignity. And I'm sorry that we got off on the wrong foot. Could we please start over and at least try to get along? We don't know how long it's going to take to catch these guys."
He did have a point, much as Larissa didn't want to admit it. She made a heroic effort and got her irritation under control. "Okay, if you're willing to try," she said, begrudgingly, "I will too."
Kent flashed her one of his high-powered, devastating, killer smiles that further served to defuse her anger. "Great." He extended his right hand. "Hi, nice to meet you. I'm Jon Kent."
Larissa couldn't help but laugh. "Hi, Jon Kent. I'm Larissa Lewis." She took his large hand in her smaller one and shook it firmly.
As they walked the few blocks to his loft apartment, Jon used the cover of darkness as an excuse to sneak peeks at his glamorous new bodyguard. What was it about her? True, she was gorgeous but he had had an almost infinite number of pretty, beautiful and downright stunning women throwing themselves at him to no avail. He honestly didn't believe that he found her intriguing only because of her looks. True, as an artist, he had a real eye for beauty but at the same time, as an artist, he found all faces interesting and intriguing whether they were beautiful, average, or downright plain.
No, thinking about it some more, Jon knew that he would not find Agent Larissa Lewis at all intriguing despite her beauty if she didn't back up her looks with the force of her personality. Speaking of her rather forceful personality, perhaps it was time to try and mend his fences with her … again.
"I'm sorry that you're angry with me," he tentatively essayed. "It just didn't seem necessary to get a ride home when your office is so close to my apartment."
Larissa threw him a dismissive glance before replying, "I already told you. It has nothing to do with how close we are, it has to do with security." She sniffed contemptuously before continuing, "You know what your problem is, Kent?"
"No, Lewis, why don't you enlighten me?" he suggested, sarcastically.
"Fine!" Larissa turned to him and wagged her index finger in his face. "You're an arrogant, stuck-up, overeducated, full of yourself, jackass who has no consideration for others!"
Jon snorted. "Why don't you tell me how you really feel? Come on, Lewis. Don't hold back!"
"I have no time for people who think they know better than professionals," Larissa retorted. "You've had numerous attempts on your life, but you refuse to take the whole thing seriously. You're nothing but a … but a civilian," she finished, patronisingly.
Jon heard a muffled laugh coming from high above him. He looked up over the edge of his glasses before turning back to Larissa.
"You know, if you had been even willing to discuss the whole thing, I would have told you that I do have other resources available to help me from time to time." He raised his voice slightly, "Don't I?"
She looked puzzled until she watched Superman and Nightwind land lightly in front of her eyes. Her hostile demeanour vanished in a flash to be replaced by a stunned look of disbelief.
Jon tried to see his father and his sister as Larissa would. From reading her ID, he knew she was normally stationed in Washington. Chances were that she hadn't seen any of the Superheroes up close and personal before. To be confronted by two of them at once was probably quite overwhelming. Jon had to admit that Dad was a pretty imposing presence in his famous red, blue and yellow suit. He really didn't look much different from the time he had first showed up to now. Other than a touch of grey at his temples, he could have passed for Nightwind's brother, not her father.
Speaking of Nightwind, Vicky looked pretty good herself in her black and midnight blue costume. She wore a feminine version of the notorious black suit that had once been inflicted on Lord Kal-El of New Krypton. Dad had hated that suit, but even he had to admit that Vicky had really jazzed it up when she had added the black hood and mask. Her boots, belt, cape and 'S' insignia were midnight blue.
"Good evening, Mr. Kent," Jon's father said, with a questioning look at Agent Lewis.
Jon smiled warmly at his father and baby sister. "Good evening, Superman, Nightwind. I'd like you to meet Agent Lewis of the FBI. She's my new bodyguard." His eyes crinkled briefly in amusement. He noticed Larissa looking back and forth from one to the other and back again. Her eyes narrowed when she noted the very pointed looks that the two Superheroes gave him. He concentrated on looking very innocent, trying hard not to let on that there was anything more going on than a friendly conversation.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Agent Lewis." Superman extended his hand to her. She shook it tentatively.
Vicky smiled at her warmly, and also extended her hand. Larissa seemed to be a little more comfortable with her, shaking her hand firmly.
Larissa stammered out a couple of coherent words. "It's not just a pleasure but an honour to meet the two of you. I, uh, if there's ever anything I can do to help you with…" Her voice trailed off as she blushed. Jon couldn't keep himself from smiling, pleased to see her discomfiture, only to feel his smile drain away when she glared at him — hard.
His super dad caught the fringes of this byplay and his eyes crinkled in amusement. From the look on her face, Larissa seemed to also pick up on that. Jon vowed to be extra careful around this woman, no matter how intriguing he found her.
"Well, I guess we'll be leaving you now. We just stopped to check that Mr. Kent was okay. It was a pleasure to meet you, Agent Lewis," Superman repeated.
"Yes, me too. I mean, it was a pleasure to meet the two of you," the federal agent said hesitantly.
Vicky spoke for the first time. "Good night," she murmured, in a low, musical voice. Vicky had made great strides forward in the six months since she had put on her suit for the first time, but she still had a long way to go before she was as comfortable as her father or her siblings were when she was in her Nightwind persona. Jon couldn't resist winking at his sister who promptly choked back a laugh, trying to present the proper formal facade to the FBI agent.
"Good night," Larissa repeated as she and Jon watched the two of them launch themselves up into the night sky. Nightwind disappeared rapidly, but Superman hovered over them briefly for one final moment, smiled warmly at the two of them, and then, whoosh, was gone.
"Wow!" Open-mouthed, Larissa smiled up at the sky and then turned her gaze back towards Jon.
He caught the tail end of her brilliant smile before she glared at him once again. Even that brief glimpse of unrestrained feeling from her was enough to shake his concentration. "Wow!" he repeated softly to himself.
Larissa was plenty annoyed with Jon Kent. There had been something going on during the whole Superhero encounter, something that she was not privy to. When it came to new experiences, she didn't like being on the outside looking in. Plus, no matter what he had said to her on the street, he could have tried harder to let her know about Superman and Nightwind looking out for him. Instead, she felt like he had set her up to look foolish. Oh, there had probably been no malice involved on his part, but it was still a pretty irritating thing for him to do.
Had she really noticed something going on between Kent and Nightwind? There had been something there that Larissa wasn't sure how to interpret. Not that there was anything wrong if there was something going on. It just would be nice to know.
Larissa glanced at Kent quickly out of the corner of her eye. He didn't notice as he was gazing up at the floor display in the elevator and fiddling with his glasses as they waited for the elevator to arrive at the penthouse. Playing with his glasses seemed to be a nervous habit. She had noticed him doing it a fair bit.
Kent was attractive enough. There was nothing really … wrong with him. She guessed that there was no reason for Nightwind to not be interested in him. But somehow, the whole idea of a romance between them disturbed Larissa and she wasn't quite sure why.
The elevator doors opened, depositing them in the hallway in front of his penthouse apartment. She stepped out first, waving at him to hold back, intending on checking the hallway for intruders. Much to her annoyance, he got out of the elevator and moved directly to the door, fiddling with his key.
"I told you to wait while I checked things out," she hissed through tightly clenched teeth.
"Oh, uh, Superman or Nightwind probably checked my apartment for me," he said airily as he inserted the key into the lock.
Larissa's temper flared. She reached out, grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him around and slammed him back into the wall beside the door. "Kent, you asked for me to guard you so you're going to pay attention to me. From this moment on, until these guys have been caught, or until your arrogant attitude has got both of us killed, you're going to let me go first. You're going to let me take the time to check things out, and, last but most important of all, you're going to listen to me and respect my opinion. Got that?"
Jon gaped at her before closing his open mouth with a snap. "Okay, I got it. You're right. I'm sorry. There's just something about you that, well, that makes me want to get a reaction from you. I'm sorry," he repeated. "I've been making it hard for you to do your job."
Larissa held her hand out and waited until he had deposited the apartment key in her open palm, only partly mollified by his apology. She eased the door open and stepped into his apartment. "Wait here."
Kent better watch out if he ignored her warning this time, she thought as she pulled her gun. The apartment was dark. Larissa could only make out the dim silhouettes of his furniture. She listened carefully but didn't hear anything out of the ordinary. For a second, she closed her eyes to better concentrate but didn't sense anyone else's presence in the apartment. She reached out to the wall beside his front door and fumbled around until she located a light switch. Closing her eyes to protect them from the sudden flare of light, she flipped the switch.
Larissa opened her eyes and gasped in wonder.
Jon lightly tapped against the door. "Are you all right in there?"
"Yeah," she said, her voice cracking a bit. She swallowed and tried again. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said more firmly through the door. "Just … wait, okay?"
"Okay." He sounded puzzled, but at least he was doing what he was supposed to do.
She suppressed a second gasp as she looked around. She had never seen anything like Jon Kent's apartment before. It was almost too much to take in all at once — high ceilings, a full-length bank of windows, bright, rich colours, sensual plush fabrics. She wanted to look at everything, touch everything, taste everything and smell everything. His walls were loaded with paintings and photographs. He had obviously set things up for his own pleasure, ignoring all the conventional rules about arrangement. There were no formal displays of artwork here. No, his walls were a hodgepodge of abstracts mingled with black and white photographs mingled with portraits. He had small rugs on the wall and quilts too. There was no rhyme or reason as to how he had mixed things together, but it all seemed to work even so. Larissa was itching to examine every piece, one at a time.
The furniture was all overstuffed and plush and comfortable looking. The colours of the fabric were rich and sensual. Nothing matched but, somehow, it all pulled together. An emerald green couch, three easy chairs, one burgundy, one royal blue and the last, gold. All rounded edges, this was furniture meant to be used. Actually, it was furniture meant to be rolled around on and sprawled on and slept on and just plain lounged on.
The crowning glory had to be the woodwork on the one wall. Gleaming cherry wood surrounded the gas fireplace in a formal mantel. The mantel was only the centrepiece of the wall however. Using the same rich wood, display shelves and cabinets fanned out on either side on the mantel completely covering the one wall from floor to ceiling. The illuminated display shelves were loaded with objets d'art, shining crystal and books.
Without a clear barrier between them, the living room spilled into the dining room. A very large gleaming cherry wood table with a white linen runner was the main focal point of that area. There was a large formal hutch loaded with colourful china in the corner.
She heard Jon tap lightly against the door once more, jolting her out of her reverie. "Come on, Lewis. Let me in."
"In a minute." Since she was being paid to guard Kent and not take notes like an interior decorator, she forced herself to be detached and quickly toured the kitchen. She noted the neat appearance, the gleaming pots and pans hung >from the ceiling, the well-used but very clean butcher's block. From the utilitarian look of the appliances and the workspace, she realised that this was the kitchen of someone who really liked to cook for pleasure, not just from necessity.
A quick look in the bathroom and she was done surveying the main floor.
Larissa moved back to the front door and finally let Jon in. "Stay here, Kent, while I check upstairs."
As she lightly ran up the stairs to the loft, she was pleased to see Jon standing obediently in the middle of his living room. A quick glance into the luxurious master suite with its sybaritic bathroom and the equally luxurious guest suite with its equally decadent bathroom and she was done.
By the time Larissa joined Jon on the main floor once again, she was feeling somewhat less like she had been hit between the eyes. She still couldn't get over this apartment. She could tell that everything in it had been hand-selected and had some personal significance for Kent. The care he had taken, the attention to detail, it just boggled her mind. This place, it was more than a place to live; it was a home. Larissa had never thought of her own place like that. She had never realised before that it could be possible for one person to have a home instead of just a place to eat and sleep. She felt a pang of sadness at the thought. More than anything, she was glad that Jon wouldn't be seeing her own bleak and unwelcoming apartment.
"You have a … This is … I've never seen … Your apartment is really nice," she finished lamely, unable to look at him, too busy surveying the colourful, fully loaded walls once again.
Jon watched Larissa glide gracefully down the stairs and felt his heart thump in his chest. She was so achingly beautiful and yet seemed so oblivious to that fact. He was delighted by the combination of stunning good looks and barely contained power that she exuded. She was like an exotic jungle cat, he mused, a panther, all sleek lines, gleaming dark hair and mysterious, exotic eyes.
As she looked around the living room, he saw what almost looked like pain flash over her face. There was vulnerability there, a yearning expression that was completely at odds with the cockiness and the confidence she had shown him earlier.
"You have a … This is … I've never seen … Your apartment is really nice."
"Thanks." His reply did nothing to break the awkward silence that had fallen between them. "Make yourself at home," he suggested finally. "You saw where the guest bedroom is. When your assistant brings you your stuff, you'll know where to put it."
"Yes, thanks. I'll just … While I'm waiting, do you mind if I look around?" She gestured helplessly at the walls. "You have so much to see … Your place is amazing."
Jon smiled, enjoying her appreciation of his home. He loved his home. "Sure, go ahead. I'll make supper."
"Oh, I should help you," Larissa suggested as she made a visible effort to drag her eyes back to him.
"No, it's okay. It won't take me long. Do you like stir-fry?"
"Uh huh," she answered, absentmindedly.
"Hot and spicy or mild?"
"Huh? Oh, hot and spicy, please."
Jon was pleased at her choice. Before heading into the kitchen, he paused for a moment, watching as his guest drifted towards the nearest wall and started to intently study one of his own paintings.
Periodically, as he chopped the meat and vegetables for the stir-fry, Jon paused and peeked at his guest with his x-ray vision. She reminded him of a young child, eager to experience everything all at once, not willing to wait for anything. She moved from one painting to another, from one objet d'art to its neighbour, her expression avidly greedy, wanting to experience the next item.
What a contradiction in terms Larissa Lewis was. One moment, hostile and abrasive, the next, open and vulnerable. He couldn't help but wonder at that flash of longing he had seen in her eyes as she had looked around his apartment. Jon ruefully admitted to himself that he wouldn't mind seeing that same longing look when she looked at him.
What was it about her, though, that made him so careless? Back in the elevator and in the hallway, he had scanned his apartment for intruders and matter-of-factly proceeded on his way in the assumption that she would know what he was doing! It had been shocking when she had challenged that assumption. It felt right to use his powers around her and very wrong to hide those same powers from her. Very, very bizarre. And she was somebody that he obviously had to be very careful around. She was a highly trained observer. Did he want her to stumble across his secret?
As Jon started the stir-fry, he couldn't help but hear her soft delighted exhalation. In fact, with every one of his senses so completely attuned to her, it was a wonder he couldn't hear the blood rushing through her veins. He peeked at her to find that she had discovered his galley copy of Vicky's newest novel. Ah, another Victoria El fan. Good. Well, she was more than welcome to borrow his copy if she wanted to.
A faint whiff of overcooked meat brought his attention back to the wok in a hurry. The meat was on the verge of burning due to his lack of focus but luckily hadn't reached the irretrievably damaged stage yet. Jon hurriedly rescued the stir-fry, laid the fragrant, steaming mixture on a bed of Basmati rice, and quickly and deftly set the small kitchen table. Finally, he poked his head around the corner of the living room. "Dinner's served," he announced.
Dinner had been great, Jon thought to himself. The stir-fry had been pretty good — at least, judging by her appetite, Lewis had seemed to think so — and the conversation had been lively. She had obviously decided to meet him half way in the civility department. A lot of the residual tension between them had drained away quite naturally. As they sipped their coffee in front of the gas fireplace, Jon noticed that Larissa's attention was focused on the large abstract hanging above it.
He was proud of that abstract. A graceful, sinuous, rounded, somehow feminine form was cradled protectively within a teardrop-shaped swirl of red, blue and yellow against a black background. It was the closest he could come to doing a formal portrait of his mother and Superman together. It gave him a warm feeling when he looked at it. He had laboured for a long time to achieve the intimate effect. This painting had not been for sale and had not been exhibited at all. Relatively few people had seen it and those who did were always very mystified by it. For that reason, he was absolutely stunned when Larissa gestured to it and asked, "So, did you ever meet her?"
"That is what your painting is all about, isn't it? That's Superman and his wife, right?" Larissa asked, completely matter of fact about the whole thing.
"Uh, no," he managed to choke out. "I mean, yes. It is, uh, Superman and his wife, but no, I've never met her." Not a complete lie, he reflected. His mother's marriage ceremony had been with Clark Kent, not Superman. "How did you know that's what my painting's all about?"
Larissa cocked her head to one side and looked intently at the painting once more before turning back to him. "I don't really know. I just looked at it and well, I knew."
"Oh," Jon said blankly.
"You seem to know Superman and his family pretty well. I read in our file that they've all helped you out."
"Yeah, he's a good friend of my mom and dad's and I know all his kids. We, uh, played together from time to time when we were growing up."
"You did?" she asked in amazement. "That wasn't in any files."
"Uh, yeah. He and Mom and Dad didn't want to publicize it, but we all know Superman and his family really well." Jon didn't know why he was being so candid with Larissa but he just knew that he didn't want to lie any more than he had to.
"I can't believe that he would let you play with his kids but not introduce you to his wife. That doesn't make any sense to me," Larissa pointed out logically, making Jon regret his previous candour.
Jon just shrugged helplessly and tried to look anywhere but at her.
"Or, could it be that you did meet her and don't really want to talk about her?" Larissa asked curiously.
"Uh, yeah, okay, maybe," Jon answered awkwardly.
Larissa smiled. "I'm starting to figure you out, Jon Kent."
<That's what I'm afraid of,> he thought as he hesitantly smiled back. Changing the subject, Jon turned to her and said, "I just want to tell you how much I'm enjoying having you here. Dinner was a lot of fun."
The open and warm expression on Larissa's face vanished in a flash to be replaced by a cool, calm, and professional facade "Us having fun isn't important. Me doing my job is."
Jon looked at her blankly, not sure what to say in response when, fortuitously, there was a knock on the door. Jon watched Larissa move to the door and follow all security precautions before letting her assistant, Kevin, in with her suitcase. <You might be starting to figure me out, Larissa Lewis, but I haven't got a clue what makes you tick.>
Larissa sat perched on the end of the bed, brushing her hair. The guest room was large but still quite cozy. The oversized bed was piled high with fluffy pillows and soft blankets, the lighting was soft and intimate, and the walls were covered with more subdued artwork than could be found on the main floor. But as Larissa gazed at herself in the mirror above the dresser, she completely ignored the room's rosy reflection behind her image in the looking glass.
What was it about Jon Kent, she wondered, that made her let her guard down? For a split second, she had been pleased when he had told her that he enjoyed her company. What was wrong with her that she would let that happen? She just couldn't let her guard down again. She couldn't let herself break the rules with this guy. No matter how attractive or intriguing Jon Kent was, she couldn't do that to him. She couldn't do that to herself. It was too painful. It hurt too much. She knew that from bitter experience.
No, she had to gather her fragile resolve, harden her heart and keep her barriers up. <That won't be so hard, will it?> She stared blankly at her reflection in the mirror, all pretence of brushing her hair forgotten. No, it won't be so hard, she told herself, completely oblivious of the solitary tear rolling down her cheek.
For the eleventh time that evening, Jon completely rearranged the master bedroom ending up with the same configuration of furniture that he had started out with. He looked around the room that now looked no different from when he started, quickly moved to the wall, shuffled a couple of paintings around, and then nodded his satisfaction. Yes, it was much better now.
This most recent spate of activity was the topper for a couple of action-filled hours. He had already sorted and mounted the backlog of photographs that had been heaped on one corner of his desk, he had rearranged his tie collection by colour, and he had cleaned all his shoes, twice.
<Who am I kidding?> he wondered as he flopped belly first onto his bed. He had just been anxious to keep his mind off Larissa. None of those things were all that pressing. Hmm, 'pressing'. That was an interesting word. Mom, Dad and Sam were all members of the 'press' — named after the printing press, of course. You could press a shirt after washing it, you could press flowers in a book — Astrid and Marty had done that with their wedding bouquets — you could imprint paper with a press — he had done some fantastic lithographs that way — and you could press a woman in your arms and pull her close. You could press her body up against yours and then press your lips firmly against the nape of her neck and the line of her brow and the shell of her ear and …
Maybe he should try having a cold shower.
Yeah, a cold shower was a really good idea. But first, he was going to clean out the front hall cupboard. It had become really cluttered in the last little while.
Larissa woke up in the middle of the night. She glanced at the bedside clock. Three a.m. She padded to the bathroom to answer the insistent call of her bladder and then headed back to bed to quietly wait to go back to sleep. After half an hour, she was still wide-awake. Finally, sighing softly to herself, she got up to head downstairs to the kitchen to get a glass. Perhaps a drink of water for her dry throat would be all that she needed.
Larissa threw on a robe, quietly opened the bedroom door, and slipped out. Padding silently on bare feet, she ran lightly down the stairs. When she reached the bottom, she stiffened as she heard strange, muffled sounds in the dark kitchen. Looking around quickly, Larissa spotted an umbrella in the stand near the front door. Noiselessly, she glided over to it and grasped it firmly by the handle. Then, slowly and cautiously, she approached the open door of the kitchen. <Okay, Lewis, take it slow. Slower … slower … careful now …> Larissa peeked around the corner of the kitchen.
"What the heck are you doing?" she exclaimed, loudly.
Jon jumped and promptly dropped the heap of pots and pans that he had been cradling in his arms. "What? Hey, you scared me."
"Well, you scared me too. I heard a strange noise and … What are you doing?" she repeated.
"Uh, I decided to clean my cupboards out."
"It's almost four in the morning," Larissa pointed out helpfully, not able to completely ignore the humour of the situation.
"Oh, is it?" Jon asked with a surprised look plastered on his face.
"Do you always clean your cupboards out in the middle of the night in the dark?" Larissa asked, maintaining her poker face with an effort.
"Uh, no, sometimes, maybe," he answered lamely. "What are you doing up, anyway?"
"I was thirsty. I wanted a drink of water," she said sweetly as she moved past him to the sink. She filled a glass with water, took a delicate sip and then surveyed the floor with the pots and pans all over it in a mess. "I'll just get out of your way now. See you in the morning," she said as the corners of her mouth twitched.
Larissa rushed past Jon who was standing bemused, ankle deep in cookware. She fled hastily up the stairs until she reached the sanctuary of the guest bedroom. She closed the door, clambered into bed, turned out the light and in the dark, gave into the pure silliness of this encounter.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Jon stood, cheeks aflame, frowning darkly as he heard the peals of laughter emerging from Larissa's room.
Larissa surveyed herself in the mirror. Freshly showered, she was dressed in a bland, conservatively cut black pantsuit with a white blouse. She fastened the plain gold studs in her ears, put on her utilitarian wristwatch and slipped on her black loafers. After adjusting the fit of her shoulder holster for the fourth time, she sighed. There were no more reasons for her to dawdle. Larissa reluctantly reached for the doorknob, took a deep breath, slowly blew it out, and left the room.
After spending her first night in Kent's home, she felt even more awkward and vulnerable than she had the night before. She didn't know why. It wasn't the first time that she had acted as someone's bodyguard and in many instances, she had been in much closer quarters than this. Perhaps it was the fact that Jon was the first person she was guarding who wasn't a criminal turned State's Witness.
As she neared the bottom of the stairs, she could hear the murmuring sound of Jon's voice. As she quietly approached the kitchen, she realised that he was on the phone. She knew that she shouldn't do it, but an overwhelming desire filled her to know what he was saying and to whom. She tiptoed closer and was soon able to hear the odd word. "… sure it won't be … trouble for you? … feel bad that … going to … extra patrols. Maybe Marty could help … know that you did all by yourself before but… Okay, Dad. I love you, too … love to Mom … See you later. Bye"
Barely forewarned, Larissa started making a little bit more noise and boldly moved into the kitchen as Jon hung up the phone. Despite her best intentions, she still felt herself respond inside when he turned to her with a warm smile. If he were uncomfortable after their middle of the night encounter, he didn't show it.
"Good morning. What would you like for breakfast?"
"Just toast and juice," she murmured as she sat down, already feeling very ashamed of her actions. What had she been thinking? She knew better. But, even though she had only heard snippets of his conversation, those snippets had been very intriguing. What did he mean by patrols? What did Jon's father need help with, and how could his sister who lived in Kansas help him? What had his father done all by himself?
Larissa watched Jon as he bustled about the kitchen, getting her a cup of coffee as well as her toast and her juice. There was something about that half overheard conversation that she found even more disturbing, however. Did Kent's parents always tell him that they loved him? And did he always say the same thing to them? What would that be like? To be loved like that? She had been loved like that once. But she couldn't remember what it was like. What was it like?
"So," she heard herself say briskly, "tell me about this benefit that we're going to tonight."
Jon wanted to head to his studio mid-morning. He had no intention of just hanging around his apartment every day until the danger was past. He was already feeling a little stir-crazy not being able to do his regular patrol and it hadn't even been a full day yet.
Larissa didn't seem to object to his plan. He was quick to agree when she suggested that her assistant should drive them, even though his studio was only a few blocks away. He wanted to stay on her good side.
Jon wasn't sure if he would be able to paint with Larissa in the studio with him, but he was game to try. He dearly wanted to finish his portrait of Vic in her superhero uniform. Hers was the last in his series of Superhero portraits and he was eager to donate the group of them to the Metropolis Museum before the Museum fundraising in three months. The oils would need time to cure before he could frame them and then the framing itself would take time and, well, three months was cutting it a bit thin.
The person he was really eager to paint right now was Larissa. Tempting though it was, he didn't bother asking her if she would model for him. He knew that the answer would be no. Larissa seemed too much the consummate professional to play hooky while she was working. But he would love to immortalize her shapely figure and beautiful face. He wasn't sure if he would be able to do justice to her, but he was willing to try. It would be incredible if he could legitimately study her features instead of having to sneak quick peeks at her — to study the way the light hit her dark hair, filling it with rich highlights, to study the way it framed her face, how the colour of her eyes changed almost as frequently as her moods. He could study her high, exotic cheekbones, the sweep of her jaw, the delicate arch of her eyebrows. Then there was the graceful line of her neck, the elfin tilt to her ears, her fanning eyelashes. Oh, and he couldn't forget her mouth with its full, pouting lips …
Larissa's assistant, Kevin, knocked on the door, jolting Jon out of his reverie. Jon sighed. So much for the three cold showers he had already taken that morning.
"Any new info?" Larissa asked her assistant as he chauffeured them to Jon's studio.
"Yeah," Kevin answered. "George is having a lot of trouble with their emails. He says the encryption is incredible, but he has been able to find out a little bit. The head honcho running this whole attack on Kent here," he thumbed at his passenger riding in the back seat, "is only referred to as LL. The other thing he found out is a lot more useful." He raised his voice slightly to address Jon in the back seat. "It seems, Mr. Kent, that you were not a random target. From things this guy has said, it's pretty obvious that this whole plan, all the art thefts, everything, it was all an attack on you personally."
"On me?" Jon asked, incredulously. "Do you know why?"
"Yeah, and you're not going to like the answer," Kevin responded grimly. "It seems that LL, whoever that is, has an axe to grind with your mother, Lois Lane. He doesn't seem to care about your father, though. We're also picking up on some kind of grudge against Superman, too. From LL's point of view, you're the perfect target — more accessible than any of Superman's kids, and you're the son of Lois Lane and Clark Kent who just happen to be good friends with Superman. Two birds with one stone, so to speak."
Jon absorbed this new information without a word. He thought about it for a moment before speaking up, "Kevin, turn left at the next corner. We have a change of plans."
Larissa turned around in her seat to look at Jon. "What are we doing instead, Kent?"
Jon grinned. "Well, Lewis, I think it's time for you to meet my parents. I just know they're going to love you."
"… I'm sure your agent hasn't made a mistake but Clark and I can't help you, Agent Lewis."
Larissa leaned forward to address the petite woman on the other side of the desk once more. "Are you sure, Ms. Lane? It's quite possible that this LL, whoever he is, is from many years in your past."
"That's just the thing. We know a lot of people with those initials. The most dangerous one is dead, thankfully," she said, dismissively. "But you and I both have those initials for heaven's sake," Jon's mother pointed out.
Larissa ran her hands through her hair in frustration. It was obvious that Jon's mother and father were trying, but they just weren't very helpful. Clark Kent hadn't participated too much in the conversation, seemingly quite content to let his wife do the talking. He and Jon were doing great imitations of wall supports at the moment. Larissa glanced at them and idly noted how they really looked a lot alike. She guessed that that was the reason Clark Kent looked so familiar to her. "What about you, Mr. Kent? Anything coming to mind?"
"Well, there was one man …" he said, an odd, tight look in his eyes. "But, as Lois said, he's dead. He's very, very dead. Other than that," he smiled in the same devastating way that his son did, "I have a hard time believing that an old high school girlfriend of mine could do this, and, other than my sister-in-law who is also an LL, she's the only um, live person who popped into my mind."
Lois Lane laughed. "Much as Lana has always irritated the heck out of me, I have to go along with you on that one, Clark. Trying to kill someone isn't her style. Bossing them around, now, that's her trademark but not sending out hit teams." Lois Lane turned back to Larissa. "We'll go through our files but I've been a journalist for a long time now, and Superman's been around almost as long. He and I and Clark here," she smiled warmly at her husband, "have made a lot of enemies over the years. It's going to take a while. Is there anything else that you can tell us that would help us to figure this out?"
Larissa pursed her lips in thought for a moment. "Well, we know that this guy reads and writes Russian fluently. Some of the encrypted emails had to be translated for us. We don't know if he — and my saying that it's a 'he' is an assumption on my part; it might not be correct. Anyway, we don't know if he's an actual Russian or just someone from a Balkan state. A lot of members of the Russian mob are actually from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, places like that."
Lois Lane stood up, bringing the impromptu meeting to a close. "We'll let you know if we find something but, well, it'll be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
Larissa rose to her feet, murmured her thanks and extended her hand. Jon's mother gripped it firmly, gave it one quick shake and then released it.
"So," the older woman continued in more conversational tones, "I guess we'll see you again at the benefit tonight."
"Oh, Jon didn't tell me that you would be there." Larissa looked over at Kent who just shrugged.
His mother laughed. "Practically the whole family will be there. We're all big supporters of the work that the Superman foundation does. We wouldn't miss it for anything. I think even our daughter, Marty, and her husband, who live in Kansas are going to, uh, hitch a ride to get here."
<Hitch a ride?> Larissa suddenly figured that one out. It made sense that if Jon was a good friend of Superman's children, his siblings would be too. It just seemed a little … odd how matter of fact Lois Lane had been, talking indirectly about her daughter and son-in-law being flown to Metropolis for the evening.
Clark Kent and Jon pushed themselves away from the wall. Jon addressed both his parents, "Thanks for seeing us on short notice, Mom and Dad. I know how busy you both are."
His father smiled. "Like we'd ever turn you away, Jon." He reached out and pulled Jon into a loose embrace and clapped him on the back. "See you tonight, son."
Jon turned to his mother who pulled his head down to her level so they could exchange pecks on the cheek. "See you tonight. Oh, where are you two heading now?"
Jon straightened up. "I really need to go into the studio today."
Lois Lane turned to Larissa. She placed a hand on the agent's arm. "Just a word of warning. Make a stop on the way for a deli sandwich or something. When Jon starts painting, it just about takes an earthquake to budge him. He forgets about meals, everything."
Larissa smiled. "I'll consider myself forewarned."
"Oh, one final thing."
Larissa turned back to the petite Daily Planet editor. "Yes?"
"Only the copy boy calls us Mr. Kent and Ms. Lane. Right, Clark?"
"Right." Mr. Kent, Clark, smiled at her and nodded his agreement.
"Okay, thank you … Lois and Clark. I'll see you tonight."
After surveying the whole studio, Larissa curled up on a beat-up couch in the corner of the room and pulled some paperwork out of her briefcase. This was an ideal opportunity for her to bring her files up to date.
Jon bustled about, getting his paints ready and setting up his easel. He seemed to have meticulous habits in the studio. Everything was a little dingy and well used but was very clean.
Larissa couldn't help being curious as to what he was in such a hurry to work on. She put her paperwork down and leaned forward in anticipation as he moved a partially completed canvas onto his easel. She couldn't see what it was until he took a step back to contemplate it. Nightwind. Larissa's spirits sank as she saw how beautiful this portrait was going to be. He had really captured the delicate good looks that Nightwind possessed as well as her strength of character. It was an unabashedly sentimental portrayal of someone whom he obviously cared for very much. Larissa couldn't keep herself from sighing as she picked up her files once again.
Jon looked over his shoulder at her with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Paperwork," she said, deflecting the unspoken question on his face.
He grimaced in sympathy before turning eagerly back to his painting.
As the hours passed, Larissa realised the truth of what Jon's mother had said about him. He was so completely focused on what he was doing that he didn't notice her when she moved around, or when she ate her lunch. When she asked him if he wanted some of her sandwich, he mumbled an absentminded 'no'.
As the portrait neared completion, Larissa could see that there was a tenderness that came through loud and clear in his interpretation of Nightwind. He obviously felt a great deal of warmth for his subject, she mused wistfully. Just what were his feelings for the very feminine superhero? Was it affection for a friend or something more?
She knew that she shouldn't have feelings of jealousy for him, but she couldn't help herself. Jon was a very interesting and attractive man, she admitted reluctantly. He was a really nice guy without being bland. He had a, a spicy side to him that struck sparks in her, and off her, she wryly admitted to herself. It was getting harder and harder to try and maintain the proper attitude towards him. She had to be on guard constantly, and the effort required maintaining that vigilance was wearing her out.
Jon unconsciously added to Larissa's agitation. As the sun rose in the sky and shone on the large expanse of glass in the studio, the ambient temperature of the room got warmer and warmer. Larissa was sitting out of the direct rays of the sun, but Jon was not. He was working diligently and intently in the centre of the room. He must have been too hot because he stripped off his t-shirt, so immersed in his art that he had obviously completely forgotten Larissa's presence in the room.
Larissa could only stare wide-eyed at the expanse of muscled flesh that he bared to her gaze. Every movement he made accentuated the sheer beauty of his body. She swallowed, dry-mouthed and forced her eyes away only to find them creeping back to him time and time again, tracing every taut line, and lingering on every defined muscle.
The next few hours were exquisite torture for Larissa. She tried valiantly to immerse herself in her paperwork once again but was primarily unsuccessful. Finally, she gave up all pretence of working and just watched him, unabashed.
As the light waned, Jon slowly came out of his creative reverie with a deep sense of satisfaction as to what he had accomplished that day. Vicky's portrait was progressing well. As he returned to himself, he became aware of Larissa once more, a potent presence in the intimate atmosphere of the studio. He turned to her, catching her off-guard as she watched him. Her cheeks reddened under his gaze as their eyes met. They gazed at each other for a long, intense moment, frozen in place.
"I guess I should clean up, and we'll go," Jon said, valiantly trying to break the sudden tension between them.
"I guess so," Larissa murmured in reply, her eyes still locked on his, as she made no move to get up from the low couch.
Without consciously thinking about it, he found himself in front of her, crouched on his heels. His shaking hand reached out to her, almost of its own volition. He brushed his thumb tenderly along the full, warm curve of her lips before cupping her cheek in his large hand.
Larissa closed her eyes with a gasp at his touch. A moment later, she opened them again and slowly reached up to pull his hand away from her face. "No," was all that she said.
Jon looked at her disbelievingly. "No?"
"No. I'm sorry. I can't."
"You can't?" Jon repeated blankly. "Why not? Is it, is it me?"
"No. It's not you," Larissa said, her lips shaking. "It's me. I just, I just can't. I can't allow myself to be involved with anyone."
He opened his mouth to ask her more, but she held up her hand, forestalling his questions. "I can't," she repeated. "And I can't tell you why. It's personal. I'm sorry. I, it's not you."
Jon was about to snap at her when he paused and took a good look at the pain on her face. "I'm sorry, too," was all he could bring himself to say, faced with her expression of utter sadness.
Larissa slithered past him, abandoning her briefcase. "It's already 5:30," she said shakily, her back turned to him. "I better call Kevin. We're going to have to hurry if we want to get to the benefit by 8:00."
"Okay," Jon replied softly as he thrust her papers back into her briefcase. He stood up, took a deep breath and handed her case back to her. As she took it, he gently touched her hand. "You don't have to worry, Lewis. I won't bother you again."
Her eyes downcast, she nodded, then slowly pulled her hand away from his.
Larissa was very grateful to her assistant, Kevin, for his stolid presence. He escorted Jon and Larissa to Jon's apartment before leaving. Kent invited him in to wait as he was only going to have to come back later, but Kevin demurred, saying that he was going to check in at the office.
Feeling emotionally battered, Larissa disappeared up the stairs and headed for the sanctuary of the guest bedroom. She entered the luxurious bathroom and turned on the bathtub faucets with a savage twist of her wrist. Only then, under the cover of the noise of the rushing water, did she feel free to indulge her aching emotions.
She sank in a boneless heap onto the floor beside the tub and wept. Oh, how she had wanted to reciprocate when he had touched her. Her hand moved on its own to her cheek, cradling the spot where he had laid his hand. She could still feel the imprint of his touch.
Kent had said that he wouldn't bother her again and she sensed that he had meant it. It didn't remove the tension, though. She had felt his eyes resting on her during the short drive back to his apartment. It had been impossible for her to look at him deliberately, but she had done so inadvertently as they entered the apartment and she ached inside, knowing that she had put the depressed expression on his face.
She had ached to touch him, too. She swallowed, dry-mouthed as she realised exactly how much she wanted to touch him. Her fingers tingled as she thought about what it would be like to run them over that firm, sculpted chest and smooth, contoured back. What would it feel like to have his muscles ripple under her fingers?
Forcing her tears to subside through sheer force of will, she sighed and turned off the water. She better stop thinking about him. It was going to take her a while to get ready so she needed to get moving.
Jon sat glumly on his bed, head in his hands. He was trying as hard as he could, but he just couldn't block out the soft sounds of Larissa crying. This made no sense to him. Why was she crying? It hadn't been a violent, cruel rejection on her part. He didn't believe that she was so soft hearted that it would grieve her that much to say no to him. So, why was she crying? Had she not wanted to say no? But then, why had she? What was this personal issue that she had referred to that was causing her such pain?
Jon shook his head, unable to come to any kind of a conclusion. He wasn't looking forward to the benefit tonight. But, on the bright side, his family would be there. Any man with two sisters and a mother had built-in dating advice.
Jon waited patiently at the bottom of the stairs exchanging idle chitchat with Kevin who was wearing a chauffeur's uniform. The agency had supplied them with a secured limo for the evening.
Jon's nerves were coiled tighter than a spring, anticipating her appearance. <Be cool, be calm, be collected,> he chanted to himself. <Be cool, be calm, be collected. Be cool, be calm, be …> She hadn't made a sound, but something told Jon to look to the top of the stairs. He was just in time to watch Larissa glide gracefully down. Jon forgot to breath for a moment, and when he regained motor control, had to consciously check to make sure his feet were still touching the floor.
She had twisted her long hair into a sleek chignon, accentuating her exquisite neck and framing her exotic features. The softest of pinks, her gown was sleeveless and strapless, her bare arms and shoulders making her look like Aphrodite emerging from the sea. Elegant and simple, the dress looked like it had been made for her.
Jon bit his tongue, holding himself back from complimenting her. If he opened his mouth, he knew that the first thing he would do, would be to ask, no, to demand, to paint her like this. And he knew that after this afternoon, that was the worst thing he could do.
Kevin was much less restrained. "Whoa, boss. You look fantastic!"
Larissa fixed him with an icy stare. "Kevin, I know I asked for your help today as I couldn't go shopping. I know I asked you to do something you don't do on a regular basis. I trusted you. I even trusted you with my measurements. What in the name of heaven made you think that this dress would be suitable for me to wear tonight?" She surveyed her lanky assistant from head to toe. "If you were wearing this outfit, and I just might make you do that someday, where do you think you would conceal your weapon?"
"Uh, sorry, boss. I never thought of that. You asked me to pick out something nice, and I asked the saleslady for help, and … I guess I didn't think about guns. Uh, does this mean you're unarmed tonight?"
"No, Kevin, I'm not. Lucky for you I always pack my first aid kit. I've never needed it before, but, well, Kevin, I guess today was the day to inaugurate it. I've managed to tape my gun in a very unusual location using a great deal of surgical tape that pulls every time I move. Of course, when I stand still the tape doesn't pull, but the gun does pinch. I'll be thinking of you, Kevin, every time I move tonight, and every time I stand still tonight. I'm not what you would call pleased, Kevin. I'm going to give you a word of advice. Keep this in mind. Kevin, next time, your boss, whether it's me or some other REALLY cranky woman, asks you for this kind of help, don't be tempted to make them dress like your own personal Barbie doll. Okay?"
Jon congratulated himself on the magnificent amount of self-restraint he was showing by not x-raying Larissa to locate her gun. He fetched her wrap and held it for her. Then the three of them left, Kevin still apologizing profusely.
Poor Kevin. It was possible that she had been just a little too hard on him over his taste in ladies wear. She'd have to remember to apologise to him later.
She was actually grateful to him in a way. Her irritation over the dress had given her the courage to face Kent again. It had taken every ounce of her willpower to walk down the stairs at his apartment, knowing Kent's eyes were on her.
She felt horribly awkward sitting with Kent in the back seat of the limo. She eyed him surreptitiously. He was pointedly looking out the window as if the view was the most fascinating thing he had ever seen.
He really did look magnificent in the black tuxedo he was wearing, she thought idly. She had noticed that the moment she saw him. The cut of the tux emphasized the broadness of his shoulders and chest. The black cummerbund did nothing to hide his narrow waist.
Larissa pulled her eyes away and focused on the back of Kevin's head. What was she going to do? She was supposed to be guarding Kent and right now, she couldn't even talk to him. She supposed she should say something but finding the words would be difficult. She didn't know what to say. Her discomfort and embarrassment warred with her professionalism until finally her professionalism won. She couldn't effectively guard him if they didn't clear the air. Also, she wanted to clear the air with him, she admitted to herself. It didn't feel right for them to be at odds. No, she had to talk to him and she had to be as honest as possible. She respected him too much to be anything less.
"Kevin, would you mind raising the privacy shield? I have some things to discuss with Mr. Kent."
Jon looked at her in surprise as Kevin silently complied with her request.
"What things?" he asked, curiously.
"One thing is personal; the other professional. First, I want to say that I'm sorry about this afternoon. I, well, I wanted to say that," her eyes turned down to the floor as faint pink stained her cheeks, "I don't find you unattractive."
"Gee, thanks," Jon responded, sarcastically.
"No, I mean, I do find you attractive … in many ways. You're very interesting and intelligent and, well, even though I snap at you, I like you. A lot." She fell silent for a second.
"Thank you. I like you a lot, too," Jon said, quietly.
"But there's something that …" she said, struggling with her words. "It's not you, but there's something that …"
Jon took pity on her and finished her sentence for her. "There's something in your personal life that you either can't or don't want to tell me about and you don't feel able to have a personal relationship with anyone at the moment. Is that it?"
"Yes." Larissa smiled at him gratefully. "I can't tell you why, but if I ever did want to talk about it with anyone, I would want to talk about it with you. Okay?"
"Thank you. That has to be the nicest compliment I've ever received from someone. I guess what you're saying is, you would like us to be friends?"
"I can do that, Larissa. I want to be your friend and I want you to be mine. But I can't hide from you that I want more. I'll settle for less but …"
"Oh, Jon. If I could give you more, I would, but I can't."
"Then I'll just be happy being your friend."
Larissa smiled wistfully at him. "Thank you for understanding."
"It's okay. Now then," Jon said briskly, changing the subject, "you said the other thing you wanted to talk about was professional?"
"Yeah, but it's kind of connected to the personal stuff, too." She looked at Jon with a wry smile. "I'm going to have to pretend to be your new girlfriend. Is it going to bother you if I, you know, hang off you a bit — hold your hand or dance a little close — that kind of thing."
"Nah," Jon said with a grin. "I figure I'll relax and enjoy it! If I'm lucky, while we're on the dance floor, I'll be able to figure out where you hid your gun."
"You better behave yourself, Kent. If you find it, I'll have to use it on you."
By the time they had been at the benefit for half an hour, Jon didn't know if he was in heaven or hell. Larissa had been true to her word. They held hands. If others were around, they flirted with each other. She gazed at him lovingly. But none of it was real. Being with her this way had to be simultaneously the most wonderful experience of his life as well as the most frustrating. His body thrilled at every casual touch from her while his mind kept reminding him that none of this actually meant anything. This curious dichotomy between his mind and his body was slowly driving him crazy. If they ever made it to the dance floor, he figured that was it. He would be officially insane at that point.
The other thing that was driving him crazy was trying to figure out exactly how he would be able to get away from Larissa for a moment so he could make a token appearance as Sunstorm. He had had to answer a perfectly natural call of nature shortly after they had got there, and Lewis had actually arranged for Kevin to come in from the limo to accompany him. Sunstorm didn't have to show up to make an appearance, but Jon had been looking forward to it. The benefit had raised a lot of money. Dad was going to show up to 'officially' receive the profits in honour of the Superman Foundation, and like always, he and his siblings had planned on showing up, one at a time, to congratulate him.
Jon sighed. He guessed it was time to introduce Larissa to Marty and Ben. With luck, he could have a quiet word with Marty so his sister could make an excuse for him when the time came.
Sitting at the large, reserved dinner table, waiting for it to be cleared, Larissa was feeling very overwhelmed. She had been introduced to various Kents, and Klein-Kents, and Kent-Palmers, and had been thoroughly welcomed by all of them. Thankfully, it wasn't taking her long to make sense of who was who in the family.
It was interesting meeting the people she had read about in Jon's file. Marty looked exactly like Larissa had expected. She was not fat by any means but was very sturdy. Actually quite shapely, she looked oversized in comparison to her petite mother, sister and equally petite sister-in-law. Larissa sympathised with Marty. She, too, felt a bit overly tall when she stood beside these women. She was grateful that they were all sitting down now. She had been starting to feel a bit like 'the jolly green giant'.
Vicky looked exactly like the sensitive person who had written 'Rainbows' and 'Storm Clouds'. The biggest and only surprise was how young she looked. Larissa knew that she was only 22, but the child looked more like 15 or 16. She hadn't done too much of the talking before they had sat down for dinner, but she was now talking up a storm to Jon and her sister-in-law, Astrid. Larissa had felt too shy to say more than a few words to Vicky about how much she had enjoyed her books. Vicky had been quite gracious but had managed to make it clear that she preferred her alter ego of Victoria El to remain a secret. Vicky looked an awful lot like her mother, which probably explained why she looked so familiar to Larissa.
Larissa hadn't had a chance to say more than a brief 'hello' to Jon's twin, Sam, and Sam's wife, Astrid. They had breezed in a bit late, arriving just in time for dinner to be announced. She had been quite surprised to see how different Jon looked from his twin. Sam was attractive in the 'boy next door' sense but lacked Jon's stunning and exotic good looks. Sam was sitting on his mother's left side and was having an animated conversation with his sister, Marty.
Astrid was a devastatingly gorgeous auburn-haired beauty. If she were taller, she could have been a model. It was hard to believe that the very brainy and somewhat intimidating Dr. Klein was her father.
Larissa found herself sitting between two of the non-Kents at the family table. Dr. Klein on her left was happily chattering away with Ms. Lane. After having had a short conversation with him before dinner, Larissa was relieved that for the moment, he wasn't addressing her. He had been excited about an article he had read in a scientific journal, and Larissa had not had a clue as to what he had said about it.
No, Dr. Ben Palmer was much more interesting. Besides being one of the nicest men Larissa had met in a long time, he had to be the most spectacularly plain man she had ever seen. He wasn't ugly; his face had far too much character for that, but it was as if his features didn't fit his face. His ears were big, and his nose was slightly crooked. His mouth was overly large and his chin a bit too pointed. However, he had the most penetrating blue eyes that she had ever seen. And even if his mouth was a bit big, his smile was warm. His smile grew warmer, in fact, it became positively sizzling whenever he and his wife exchanged glances across the table. They did that a lot. They clearly adored each other.
Ben was very funny, keeping Larissa and Clark Kent in stitches with stories of his veterinary practice. The federal agent enjoyed herself more than she thought possible until Clark Kent asked his son-in-law one very simple question.
"Ben, do you have any new pictures on you?"
Ben smiled broadly. "Of course I do, Clark. Do I look brave enough to come to Metropolis to see the family without being well-armed?" He reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a thick package of pictures.
Clark Kent leaned around Ben to address Larissa directly. "Wait until you see these pictures. I guarantee that my little grandsons are the cutest little guys you'll ever see."
Ben laughed. "Like you're completely objective, Clark. We'll let Larissa make up her own mind," he said as he turned to her with the package. "Whoa, are you all right? You've gone white as a ghost!"
"What? No, I'm fine," Larissa forced out of her suddenly dry mouth. "I would love to see your pictures," she finished, reluctantly.
"Great!" Ben exclaimed, instantly reassured. He handed her a neat stack of photos and started his narration.
Larissa took them from him, and started flipping through them at random, not really paying any attention to him, only hearing snippets of his proud monologue.
"… and here's one of Jordan holding his baby brother on his lap … Justin having his first bath … Jordan on a pony for the first time …"
Two children, one almost four, one about a year and a half. Big blue eyes, sandy-brown hair. Larissa was grateful beyond words to see no dark, glossy hair, no flashing green eyes. She took a deep breath and then another and finally managed to distance herself from those memories. She came back to herself with a start.
"… if you would just let go, Larissa, I'll pass these over to the proud grand-pop over here …" Ben's tone was puzzled as he tried to tug the stack of photos out of her hands.
"Oh? Oh! Sorry. Ben, they're just lovely." Larissa hastily released her tight grip on the photos.
With one last quizzical look at her, Ben turned to Clark Kent and handed him the photos. Larissa looked down at her plate, breathing heavily, and prayed to whatever Deity could hear her that this meal would be over soon — really, really soon.
As Jon put his tux neatly on the hanger and puttered around, tidying up his bedroom, he couldn't help wondering what was going on inside Larissa's head. She had been more than holding her own with his family at dinner, but had gotten very quiet after. He was starting to get used to her moods, and he could tell that she was upset about something.
She hadn't shown much of a reaction when Superman had shown up. Thankfully, she hadn't even noticed Dad slipping out, or his brother or sisters as they, one at a time, discreetly 'headed to the washroom' or 'needed to go call the babysitter.' It was only now that he could relax about it, that he realised exactly how worried he had been that she would have been able to figure out the whole 'secret identity thing' as soon as she saw most of the family in tights. Perhaps the fact that they didn't all show up at once was a help. Jon snorted. Well, it had certainly been enough to fool a lot of others, so he guessed he shouldn't be surprised that it had fooled her.
Sunstorm hadn't made an appearance, being 'busy in the remote North preventing a herd of whales from being trapped in the ice.' Jon snickered. Trust Marty to come up with the best excuse. She was much better at it than Sam. Sam would have told the group that he was at an orgy or something, just to get the tabloids riled up. Jon had learned from long experience not to rely on Sam for this kind of thing. Being a 'real' journalist, Sam had no respect for tabloid reporters and was quite happy feeding them any amount of bilge. He loved sending them on the most incredible wild goose chases.
Getting back to Larissa, Jon knew that he should feel relieved that she hadn't figured out his family's secret, but instead he felt a little disappointed. In his heart of hearts, he wanted Larissa to know. He didn't want to have any secrets from her.
He knew what was happening to him. He had heard about it from his Dad and Mom, from Sam and Astrid, and from Marty and Ben. But, it was so different experiencing it for himself. He was falling in love; no, he had fallen in love with Larissa — head over heels, completely and totally. But, somehow, he had always expected it would be different from this.
Sam and Astrid had … clicked, just like that. He still remembered the day Dr. Klein had brought Astrid to their house for the first time. He still remembered how upset he had been when Sam had made such a fuss about her. And Marty and Ben had ended up together really quickly. Mom and Dad had both said that they had had a few problems getting together, but Jon had never really given credence to that since he saw every day how loving they were with each other. No, all the other romances in his family had looked so easy in his eyes, and his had already hit a major roadblock.
She had said that she liked him, though, he thought wistfully. But, what did 'like' mean, anyway? She had said that he was interesting and intelligent and 'not unattractive,' he mused, wringing every drop of comfort he could from the conversation. He threw himself down on his bed. <Let's face it, Jonnie boy; you have no idea how she feels about you!>
What could be the 'personal thing' she had referred to? He had managed to have a quick word with his sister-in-law, Astrid, and she had suggested that it might have something to do with her career. Mom had thought it might have to do with her early life, that perhaps she was a child of divorce. Jon thought these explanations were all too facile. He didn't know what to think.
<…laughing, twirling in a circle until they were dizzy … come on, Larry, toss the ball with me … look, look at the picture I drew for you … scooping the laughing child up in her arms … arms extended, hair flying in the breeze … Daddy, Larry's helping me to fly … Mommy, take our picture, please? … learned to tie my shoes — want to watch? … love you, Larry …>
Larissa moaned, and rolled over, eyes twitching but not waking.
<… dark, shining hair … flashing green eyes … chubby arms outstretched for a hug … tumbling from a swing … skinned knee … It's okay, Ronnie, Larry'll kiss it better … Love you, Ronnie … Love you, Larry …>
She moaned again, her legs thrashing, tangled in the sheets.
<… sour sick smell … retching in toilet … stroking sweat-soaked hair … no, don't want mommy. Want Larry … it's okay, Ronnie. Larry's here … You have the flu, you'll be okay … metal screeching … be okay …can't reach the cookies. They're too high. Help me, Larry … you'll be okay … help me, Larry … metal screeching … you'll be okay … okay … help me, Larry … Larry …>
"Ronnie! No, please. Ronnie! No, don't!" Larissa cried aloud.
<… Daddy screaming … My girls! My girls! … Daddy! … Don't do this, daddy! … Ronnie! … metal screeching … help me, Larry … help me, Larry … Daddy, don't! … No! … help me, Larry …>
"No! Daddy, don't! Don't do this to me!" Larissa bolted up in bed, panting hard, her heart pounding and her stomach roiling. It took a second before she registered the tapping at the door.
"Lewis, are you okay? … Larissa? … If you don't answer me, I'm coming in …" Jon sounded very worried.
"I'm okay," Larissa tried to say, but only a croaking sound emerged from her throat. She swallowed, cleared her throat and tried again. "I'm fine, Jon. I, I'm okay." Her voice was shaking.
"You don't sound okay."
Larissa sighed, reached for her robe and shakily climbed out of bed. She opened the door a crack. Jon peered through, worried, wringing his hands together.
"I had a nightmare," she muttered, looking down at her bare feet.
"I could tell. Come on, Larissa. Let me in."
Larissa reluctantly opened the door and stepped back from it, silently giving him permission to enter the room. She closed her eyes and just stood, shaking and hugging herself as she felt him approach.
"Larissa?" His hand pushed her hair back from her face. "My God, you're dripping with sweat."
It was as if his words were a catalyst. She was abruptly conscious of the clammy feel of her nightgown plastered to her body. The shakes hit with a vengeance then, a powerful aftermath of the potent nightmare. Larissa felt the gorge rise in her throat, her nausea increasing. She concentrated on breathing evenly and managed to regain some measure of control. She couldn't stop shaking however. She felt her teeth start to chatter and then, much to her horror, she felt the tears start, spurting out from under her closed eyelids. A sob rose in her throat; she tried to push it down, but then the dam burst.
She felt two strong arms scoop her up, cradling her like a baby. The sobs kept welling up, one after the other, deep wracking sobs that tore at her chest, hurting her throat as they emerged. A masculine voice crooned comfortingly to her as he wrapped her in softness.
"I'm taking you downstairs to the fire. You're frozen. You need to warm up."
A wave of delicious heat washed over her, suffusing her with warmth. Her eyes still shut tight, she felt, rather than saw that he was carrying her from the room. She couldn't stop sobbing, burying her head against his shoulder, his hand rubbing her back rhythmically.
She came back to herself slowly, reluctantly, not wanting to face him, not yet. Her sobs subsided, and she became aware of her surroundings. Jon had her bundled in a blanket and held her in a tight embrace on his lap. They were sitting in the oversized armchair in front of the gas fireplace. She could feel the waves of ruddy, glowing heat radiating from it.
"Oh, Jon," she started to say.
"Shhh," he whispered huskily. "It's all right. Just relax. We'll talk in the morning. Just lie here and let me hold you, okay?"
Larissa nodded shyly and hid her face against his shoulder once more. As he continued to gently rub her back, she felt a deep lassitude in every part of her. She couldn't have moved if she wanted to. Before she knew it, she had slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Jon woke to discover Larissa still sleeping in his embrace. He was gratified to see that she hadn't moved a muscle. Very quietly and very carefully, with her still in his arms, he floated up out of the chair until he could put his feet on the floor. Then, he very tenderly carried her back up the stairs to the guest bedroom. Before putting her down on the bed, he swept it a couple of times with his heat vision, warming it for her. He didn't bother unwrapping the blanket that was bundled around her but instead tucked a spare blanket over her.
He stood beside the bed for a long moment, watching her. His heart for her. He had heard her cries and he didn't know what to make of them. He dreaded to think what it was her father could have done to her, or this Ronnie, that could have traumatised her so badly. He had a feeling that he knew what had happened but, oh, how he wanted to be wrong.
Jon brushed her tangled hair back from her face and kissed her tenderly on her forehead. Larissa smiled in her sleep. Finally, reluctantly, his step slow and measured and with many backwards glances, Jon forced himself out of the room to head back to his own bedroom. He had no intention of sleeping, however. He wanted to be alert in case she needed him again.
Jon anxiously paced up and down outside the conference room waiting for Larissa to emerge. He didn't need super hearing to hear Larissa ranting and raving on the other side of the door.
" … I can't believe you don't have more information than this! Come on, guys. We need to know who this LL is and we need to know it now. This is pathetic! Here we are, one of the finest agencies in the world, and we know squat."
"But, boss …"
Jon recognised Kevin's voice as he tried to interrupt Larissa.
"But, nothing, Kevin! I want information and I want it yesterday! Do you understand me?"
She received a murmur of agreement from him.
"Good. I don't want this job to take up more time than it deserves!"
Jon winced. That was pretty definite, wasn't it? Larissa had just made it more than clear how she felt about her job protecting him. After her nightmare last night, and its aftermath, he had thought that maybe, just maybe, she might open up to him but now, well, it didn't look like that would happen.
He had been all prepared to be comforting and supportive, expecting to see a woman with all her barriers down, ready to talk about her problems. Instead, she had emerged from her bedroom, a veritable whirlwind of activity. In short order, she had arranged for Kevin to pick them up and called a meeting with Kevin, George and Henry to discuss the case. Jon had been ordered to tag along, Larissa not willing to leave him home alone, but other than that, she had pretty much ignored him.
On the other hand, if she had suffered the abuse that he thought she had and at the hands of her own father, no less, well, then it just might make sense that she would want to run as far away from Jon as fast as she could, especially if she was starting to equate the attention he was paying to her with the unwelcome attention she might have received >from her parent. He sighed. He didn't know what to think.
If only she would talk to him. If only she were willing to get help dealing with the trauma and the abuse. Hmmm, if she weren't willing to talk to him, maybe she might talk to his mother at Sam's place later. They were all invited to pop over after Lee's bedtime for dessert and coffee. He had originally thought of cancelling the social engagement, but perhaps that wasn't the best idea. They could go, Jon could have a quick word with his mom, and she could talk around the subject with Larissa. The more he thought about it, the more he thought it might be worth a try. It couldn't hurt, could it? He'd have to remember to tell his mom to control her temper. He'd have to tell her how important this was to him.
<I can do this,> Larissa thought in desperation. <It's only for a couple of hours, and then we can leave. I can do this. Ben's not here torturing me with his pictures, and there's not a child in sight. It's only a couple of hours.> "I'm sorry, Lois. You were saying?"
Larissa and Lois were alone in Sam and Astrid's living room. Sam had dashed out suddenly, having forgotten an appointment with a source. Only a moment before, Clark had run out to the store for frozen yoghurt and Vicky had gone along for the ride to keep him company. Jon had hurried into the kitchen to help Astrid make coffee. Larissa could hear the two of them bustling about in there, although she could only hear Astrid's voice; Jon's was inaudible.
Lois leaned forward and patted Larissa on the arm. "I was just saying that you must be very driven to achieve as much as you have with your career. Jon told me earlier how much the men on your team seem to respect you. He said that your boss had a lot of good things to say about you, too."
"Thank you, Lois. Yes, my work is very important to me," Larissa replied, stiffly.
Lois seemed very nice and everything, but after last night, she wanted to be as far away from Jon Kent and his family as she could. He was dangerous; he disturbed her equilibrium — the equilibrium that had taken her years of hard work to achieve. She really didn't think she could handle any more upheaval in the near future. Her self-control was fraying and tattering around the edges, getting shakier by the minute as she sat passively in this family home soaking up this happy family atmosphere.
"Did you ever think that having a career can be somewhat … limiting if you don't have balance in your social life?" the older woman asked, diffidently.
"I'm not sure what you mean, Lois," Larissa replied, a little worried as to where this conversation was going.
"Well," Jon's mother began as she leaned towards Larissa, as if about to impart the biggest secret in the world to her, "if a woman, any woman, gets so focused on her career that she neglects her social life, if she shuts herself off from, oh, I don't know, romance and a family, then she has shut herself off from half of what life has to offer. She's restricting herself from being all that she can be."
"Why do I get the feeling that when you say 'any woman' you actually mean me?" Larissa asked, trying to gather her strength together to deal with her irritation.
"No, actually, I was talking about me," the older woman replied. "When I was single, my life was empty of everything except my work."
"My life isn't empty. And I don't think there's anything wrong with focusing on a career."
"Look, I understand where you're coming from," Jon's mother said. "I had a horrible childhood. My career meant everything to me, too. I didn't want romance. I didn't want a family. I was just like you. But Clark taught me that there's more to life than …"
"You mean, even a bitter, angry old maid like me can be redeemed by a good man!" Larissa said, wearily, her anger not energizing her as per usual. "And I bet you know exactly which good man can do the hard work of changing me until I'm a woman in your image!"
"I'm not trying to imply …"
"You know nothing about me and nothing about my childhood and nothing about my feelings about my career. Nothing! Frankly, I'm beginning to think you and your family are all freaks, being so loving and caring and understanding with each other. Normal people aren't like that. You people should have been on … on 'The Brady Bunch'," she finished, having had to fish in her memory for the name of the saccharine show that had been perpetually on TV since just about forever.
Jon's mother turned a very interesting shade of purple before Larissa's eyes. She opened her mouth to say something, but Larissa didn't stop talking, the words pouring out of her in an endless stream. "No, you are all freaks — too good to be true. Now it's time to be nice and understanding, to show a little compassion for the poor misguided federal agent guarding your son. Well, forget about it, Lois. I don't need you to tell me you're just like me or that you know what's going on in my head. You know nothing about me," Larissa repeated. "I'm going to tell you this in the nicest way possible, please butt out. I don't want to talk about this with you." Larissa stood up and glared down at Jon's mother, still sitting on the couch.
Lois jumped to her feet and advanced on Larissa, shaking her finger in the younger woman's face. Larissa found herself backing up as she saw the expression on Lois's face. "First of all — don't you ever call me or anyone in my family a freak again. I don't like it. If it weren't for the fact my son cares for you …" She snapped her mouth shut, chopping off her words then took a deep breath and let it out slowly, almost audibly counting to ten. She did it a second, and then a third time before continuing, " Secondly — I'm sorry. You're right. I don't know anything about you. I shouldn't have said anything to you about any of this. But I do know my son likes you — a lot — and that's enough for me. I know that he's more worried about you than I've ever seen him. And I'm worried about him. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything, but he's my child. I had to try. If you're going to hurt him, I want to know about it. I'm his mother." Lois took a deep breath, was silent for a moment and then continued, her voice softening as she spoke, "Also, Larissa, I have to say this to you; I hear a lot of pain in your voice as well as anger. You're right. I don't know what's going on in your life but there is a problem. For the sake of my son, I'm going to ask — Is there anything I can do to help?"
Too tired to sustain her anger and struck by the sincerity in Lois Lane's voice, Larissa looked the older woman in the eyes for a long moment. "No," she finally said, softly. "Thank you, but no. It's not something I can share." She looked down at the floor for a moment before bringing her gaze back to Lois Lane's face. "I care for your son, too, Lois. I don't want to hurt him. But I can't give him what he wants from me. Not right now, anyway."
Larissa blinked in surprise.
"Keep him dangling. Make him work hard for every smile. That's what I did to his father. It's good for men to get frustrated. Personally, I think it builds character," Lois said, logically.
Larissa blinked again and then grinned, appreciating Lois's attempt to break the tension between them. "You know, I think you're right. Keep 'em guessing — that's my new motto!"
The two women sat down and started to giggle.
Their conflict was resolved just in time, too. Followed by his daughter, Clark came through the front door, triumphantly brandishing a container of frozen yoghurt. Only a moment later Sam arrived home and, in short order, Jon and Astrid emerged from the kitchen with the coffee.
"You know, Mom," Sam said as he added three heaping spoonfuls of sugar to his coffee, "I heard on the radio while I was on the way home that Superman and his kids put out an out-of-control fire in the Metropolis Industrial Park. It started in a derelict building and then spread from there."
"Was anyone hurt?" Lois asked, regarding Sam intently.
"No, luckily not."
Lois leaned back with a sigh of relief. "Sam, would you mind writing it up before we go. It shouldn't take you too long and then you could send it to the night desk. It'd be nice to have in the morning edition."
"Nah, no problem. It'll take me less than five minutes to write up. It's not a complicated story."
As Larissa listened to the idle conversation, she couldn't help noticing Clark Kent and Jon following Sam's lead, putting three heaping spoonfuls of sugar in their coffee. Vicky put in four. How in the world did they all keep in such good shape?
"So, what was the name of the derelict building?" Lois asked idly as she neatly stirred a packet of artificial sweetener into her own mug.
"It was Lex Labs, Lois," Clark said, with an odd intonation to his voice.
"Lex Labs? … Oh, my God, Clark! LL!" Lois exclaimed, jumping to her feet.
"No way, Lois! We talked about this before. He's dead," her husband said, moving quickly to her side and grabbing her hands in his.
"LL?" Larissa asked, intently.
"Lex Luthor," Lois informed her. "He was obsessed with me and he hated Clark … And Superman, he hated Superman. This is the type of sick thing that he would plan — striking at my son to get to me and Superman." Her eyes widened and flicked to Larissa guiltily. "I mean, of course Superman would be really upset because he's a friend of mine … of ours, I mean."
There was something strange about Lois's reaction but Larissa knew better than to try to bore in on it. It was always much more valuable in this kind of casual setting to appear to take things at face value. People were more apt to let things slip that way.
It wasn't that she thought Lois was lying to her, but it seemed obvious that the woman knew more than she was letting on. More about what, Larissa didn't know, but she knew that if she were patient, she would find out.
"But Lex Luthor is dead," Larissa pointed out reasonably. "How could he be involved?"
"Yes, he is dead," Clark said firmly, giving his wife's hands a squeeze. "He's been dead for a long time."
"The man's been dead more than once, Clark. How do we know he's still dead?" Lois asked, confusing the heck out of Larissa.
"Oh, come on, Lois …" Clark started to say when Larissa interrupted.
"I have an idea. Why don't you two start at the beginning and we'll go from there. Okay?"
The two of them looked at each other and then looked at their children who were watching avidly. He quirked an eyebrow at her, she shrugged and they both turned to Larissa. "Sure, why not?" Lois said as she sat back down.
Clark sat down beside her. He turned slightly towards her and pulled her back into him as if to lend her support. She twisted her head and looked up at him in concern. "Are you going to be all right with this, Clark?"
"Yeah," he said. "I've been all right with this ever since I saw him squashed like a bug."
Larissa blinked, shocked by the acid hate she heard in his tones.
"Wow! That's a very … interesting story, Clark," Larissa said, a little stunned at the long list of things that had been done to these two. They looked so happy together and so, so normal; she was having a very hard time reconciling that normality with this very bizarre litany of personal attacks on them made by Lex Luthor.
"Mom! You never told us about any of this stuff. I mean, I've heard stuff over the years — we all have," he looked around at his brother and sister who nodded in agreement, "but we still had no idea. Why didn't you tell us?" Sam asked accusingly from his position on the opposite couch. He was clutching Astrid's hands as if for comfort. Vicky and Jon sat together on the small love seat. She leaned into her brother as if for reassurance also.
"Oh, yeah. Like your father and I wanted to relive the worst moments of our lives for your personal entertainment!" Lois rolled her eyes, then looked at her husband. "Are you okay, honey?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he growled, sounding anything but, and looking down at their joined hands. Larissa had noticed that Lois and Clark's hands had linked as soon as they had started their grim recitation, and they hadn't let go of each other yet.
Lois pulled a hand free and stroked the side of his face. "Are you sure you're okay?" she asked, tenderly.
Clark looked up at that. "I am now, Lois. All you have to do is touch me, and I'm okay." His voice was low and husky. It was obvious that for one second the two of them had forgotten the others in the room. The connection between them seemed so tangible that Larissa wouldn't have been surprised if she had been able to see it.
<That's what he's offering you,> Larissa thought desperately to herself. <That's the kind of love Jon has to give. But I can't. I can't love anyone that intensely — not again. Never again. But oh, if I could …> She forced herself to return to the business at hand. "Lois, Clark, I'll look into this possibility, but I have to tell you in my professional opinion, this is a long shot. Seeing someone squashed like a bug usually means they're dead — completely, utterly and irredeemably dead."
Clark sprang to his feet. "On that happy note, I think it's time for us to head home. It's getting late."
Everyone started to make the obligatory 'Had a great time' type of sounds and to gather purses together when a small voice interrupted them.
"Mommy, Daddy, I woke up."
Larissa looked up as a small child came slowly down the stairs, rubbing her eyes sleepily.
"Lee, you should be asleep. What are you doing up?" Astrid hurried to her daughter and scooped her up in her arms.
"I heard everyone talking. I thought you were having a party without me." Lee looked up beseechingly at her mother.
Larissa tuned out the other adults as they started to fuss over the little girl. Instead, her eyes greedily traced the delicate features of her face. She drank in the sight of the rich, gleaming auburn hair, surprising herself by how much she thirsted to run her hands through it. The little girl noticed Larissa suddenly. Now in her Uncle Jon's arms, she looked at Larissa with her piercing green eyes — green eyes! — and said in a high, lilting voice, "I don't know you. What's your name?"
"Larissa," the federal agent heard herself say as if in a dream. "My name's Larissa."
"Lar … Larsa," the child stuttered, still half asleep.
Jon smiled down at his niece and gave her a little hug. "Maybe you could call her Larry. That's easier, isn't it?"
"Hi, Larry. I'm Lee," the little girl chirped happily.
Larissa felt the room closing in around her. She was dizzy, the world spinning faster and faster as it narrowed in on her. "Don't, please don't," she heard someone moan in a voice she didn't recognise. "Don't call me Larry." Oh, it was her own voice. Wasn't that odd? She hadn't recognised it at all. She heard a cacophony of people's voices surrounding her, adding to her panic. The room whirled faster and faster … she could feel hands tugging at her, pushing her down into a chair … she had to get out now … she felt herself hitting out and kicking … and then he was there.
"Shhh, it's okay. I'm here," he crooned as he scooped her up. Jon. It was okay now. Everything was okay now. He would look after her.
Jon carried Larissa into the small den down the hall. He looked down at her, worried. Her whole body was limp, her arms dangling down, dead weight in his arms. Her face was so pale, the faint violet smudges under her eyes emphasised by her pallor.
He gently laid her down on the leather-covered couch and then went to the liquor cabinet and splashed a little whiskey in a glass. He tugged her into a seated position; he had to help hold up her head as her neck muscles weren't up to the task, letting it flop back and forth.
"Larissa, here," he placed the glass at her lips, "take a sip, just a little sip," he coaxed.
She batted feebly at the glass but wasn't able to push it away.
"Just a little sip, Larissa. Come on, you can do it," he cajoled.
He tipped the glass a little. She gagged and coughed at the trickle of alcohol. When she managed to catch her breath again, she looked a little better, a tiny splotch of colour in each cheek.
"Better now?" he asked as he crouched in front of her.
She nodded, looking down at her hands lying limply in her lap.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked, softly.
She nodded again, a solitary tear trickling down her face.
Without looking, Jon reached back and hooked a footstool with his hand, dragging it over to sit on. He grasped her hands firmly and waited.
"My sister called me that," Larissa whispered hoarsely. "She was the only one who ever called me Larry." She fell silent for a long moment, another tear following the first.
Jon just waited, afraid to move a muscle or make a sound, afraid that she would stop.
"Veronica, Ronnie, was born when I was thirteen. My parents thought they couldn't have any more kids after me. She was a surprise. We were all so happy. She was beautiful. Green eyes, dark hair, chubby cheeks with dimples. A happy baby. A beautiful baby. She had these fat little feet. I used to kiss her toes and she would laugh and laugh." The tears started to fall in earnest now. "From the moment she was born, it was like Ronnie was my baby. Mom and Dad didn't mind. They were happy that Ronnie and I were so close. We were all happy, so happy. Even when Mom or Dad held her, she would reach her arms out for me. As soon as she could talk, she'd say my name a thousand times a day. I loved it. I loved having her follow me around. I loved doing everything for her — playing with her, listening to her. I loved looking after her when she was sick. I loved her. Oh, God, how I loved her." Larissa looked at Jon for a moment, the anguish showing on her face. "It just about killed me going away to university. I phoned home every weekend, I emailed every night. Mom or Dad helped her write back to me. She'd tell me about kindergarten and about her friends. She'd tell me that she missed me. Every night. Until the night that she didn't." She squeezed Jon's hands hard, her knuckles white.
"What happened?" he asked, his voice low and concerned.
"A tractor-trailer lost control, ploughed right into the side of them. It wasn't Dad's fault. There was nothing he could do to avoid it. Mom was killed instantly, Dad was knocked out but a passerby managed to get him out before the fire. And Ronnie, my little Ronnie, my baby, no one could get her out. The fire was too intense." Larissa looked at Jon for a moment, her eyes bleak and dead. "I read the police report. She was screaming, she was screaming my name over and over, begging me to help her. I wasn't there but I can still hear her screaming in my head — 'Help me, Larry'. I hear it over and over and over until I think I'm going to go crazy." She pulled her hands out of Jon's grasp and covered her ears. Jon moved beside her on the couch as she began to rock back and forth and keen aloud. He laid his arm lightly across her shoulders and turned his body to hers, tugging gently at her until she was firmly in his embrace.
"She was my baby, Jon. She was my baby, and I loved her, and now, she's dead."
"Shhh, I know. I know you loved her," he murmured as he rocked her back and forth. He held her for a long time, patting her back and crooning to her as she sobbed. It took a long time but she slowly became calmer. When her sobs had died away, he tipped her head up to look at her. "Better?" he asked.
"I'm so sorry, Larissa. I'm so sorry."
Larissa nodded but didn't say anything in response.
"What about your father? Was he okay?"
Larissa's eyes narrowed in anger, the change in expression so great that Jon felt himself recoil a bit from her.
"I don't want to talk about my father, Jon."
"My father can go to hell!" she exploded, her eyes flashing and fists clenching. "I hate him! I hate him!"
"But you said that you were happy when you were a child. Did your dad, did your father do something to you?" Jon asked tentatively, feeling very confused by this new outburst.
"My father, did he do anything to me? Hah, that's a good one. My father decided in his infinite wisdom that I didn't need him. He couldn't live without his girls, he said. Well, what was I, Daddy? Chopped liver? I was your girl, too. I needed you. But no, you had to go and buy a gun and … and …"
"He killed himself?" Jon asked, incredulously.
Larissa nodded. "He took a gun and put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger and never thought about the fact that I would be the one to find him. Never thought about what he would look like with his head all …" She waved her hands in the air descriptively. "He left me to deal with the mess. He left me to deal with the blood and the … You can't get blood out of a carpet. Did you know that? You have to replace it." Jon blinked in shock at her words. "He left me to deal with Mom's funeral and Ronnie's funeral and his own funeral. How could he do that to me? How could he do that to me, Jon?" Her face crumpled as the tears started up anew. He pulled her back into his arms as she started to sob once more. "Didn't he love me? I was his girl, too. Why didn't he love me? I loved him. Daddy, I loved you! Why did you do this? Why?"
"Oh, Larissa," Jon said, softly as he held her tight. He didn't know what to say. "I'm so sorry." A wave of anger rose in him. "I can't believe he did that to you. How could someone hurt you like that? I don't understand either, Larissa." He hugged her fiercely and protectively. She clung to him desperately as if he were her only lifeline in a storm-tossed sea. He held her tightly, never wanting to let her go, until her sobs once again died away, until she sighed and pushed herself free of his embrace.
"Thank you, Jon."
"I didn't do anything."
"You listened and … and you were there for me. Thank you," she repeated in a whisper.
"Have you ever talked to anyone about this?" he asked.
"You have to talk this out with someone, you know that, don't you?"
She nodded, eyes downcast. "It'll be hard. I don't know if I can do it."
He tipped her face up to his. "I'm going to be there for you, Larissa Lewis — every step of the way. You understand me?"
She nodded, shyly.
"I love you, Larissa Lewis," he said, fiercely. "You're not alone anymore." She started to protest but he just kept right on talking. "I know you're not ready for a relationship yet, but I'll wait for you. I'll wait until you've dealt with this. I'm not giving you a choice. I'm going to be there when you want to cry or scream or yell or hit something. You got that?"
Larissa made a weak attempt to grin. Her lips were shaking, her eyes watering but it was a valiant effort for all that. "I've never had anyone volunteer to be a punching bag before. I'll try to restrain myself — wouldn't want to hurt you."
Jon laughed, glad to see her fighting spirit coming to the forefront once again. "You're okay, now?" he asked as he pulled her into another quick hug.
"A little shaky but I'll live."
Jon smiled, apologetically. "Uh, do you feel up to going back to the living room? If I know my family, they're all still there, feeling very awkward but not willing to leave until they know that you're all right."
"Oh, no!" Larissa's hands flew to her flaming cheeks. "They must think I'm nuts."
"Hey, as far as my crazy family is concerned, I want you to remember one thing." At her questioning look, he continued with a grin, "I'm the only one whose opinion matters. And I think you're pretty terrific … and very brave," he finished, his voice suddenly very husky.
"Oh, Jon," she exclaimed tearfully as she threw herself into his arms. "Thank you for being such a good friend."
Jon held her tenderly in his arms, a smile fixed mask-like on his face, with his heart breaking.
Jon stood protectively at Larissa's side as she talked to his mom. Mom was waiting for Dad to bring the car around in front.
"You're sure you're feeling okay," his mom asked anxiously.
"I'm feeling much better, really. I'm, I'm just sorry I created such a fuss." Larissa looked down and toed the carpet.
"We're not worried about that. We're worried about you." His mother laid her hand gently on Larissa's arm. Jon smiled at her in appreciation for this very understanding gesture.
"Thank you, Lois. I appreciate that," Larissa said, graciously.
"And Jon, you're taking Larissa straight home, aren't you?"
Jon chuckled to himself. She sounded like he was still a teenager. "Yes, Mom. You're fussing again, Mom."
She looked taken aback. "Was I sounding like your Grandma Lane again?"
Jon laughed. "Not quite that bad, Mom, but close. Don't worry. I'll warn you if you step over the line again." He bent down and kissed her on the cheek.
As he straightened up, he heard her murmur under her breath, "You better tell me soon what that was all about, Jon. This is driving me crazy having to be this nice when I have no clue what's going on." He grinned at her, knowing exactly how frustrated she must be.
She turned to the closet to get her coat out, still muttering almost silently. "And your father, brother and sister were no help at all. They wouldn't listen and they wouldn't let me listen either. I'm not your Grandma Kent, you know. I don't do 'patient'. I'm built differently. I'm a journalist. I need to know everything. It's in my nature."
In her current emotionally distraught state, Larissa had no idea of all the undercurrents that were simultaneously occurring, as everyone got ready to go. She pulled her radio out of her purse. "I'm just going to call Kevin and have him pull the car up," she told Jon over her shoulder.
Jon turned away and moved over to Sam and Astrid. "Is Lee okay?" he asked, quietly.
"Yeah, she's fine. She went right back to bed for me," Astrid murmured with a worried glance at Larissa. "Is Larissa okay? Can you tell us what that was about?"
"She will be, and no, not right now — not till she tells me I can." Jon had no idea how grim the look on his face actually was.
"… Kevin, are you there? Come in. Kevin …"
The concern in Larissa's voice caught everyone's attention. Jon spun around and hurried back to her side. His mom had been about to open the front door, but she froze at attention.
Larissa keyed in the radio once more; only the hiss of static answered her.
"There's something wrong. Everyone, stay here," Larissa ordered as she dashed for the door, opened it and ran out, her gun at the ready.
"No, wait for me!" Larissa heard Jon shout. She ignored him, heading for the car. As she approached the street, she felt a stiff breeze blast past her, coming out of nowhere. It shook her up, jolted her out of concentrating solely on Kevin. She paused in her headlong flight, grasping at her professionalism, forcing herself to slow down. Keeping to the dark shadows, Larissa approached the dark vehicle more circumspectly. Both doors were open and there were two figures bending over, both of them busy with something in the front seat. As she cautiously approached, one of them straightened up and turned to face where she was hiding in the bushes.
To her shock and surprise, she recognised another of Metropolis's family of superheroes, although she hadn't met this one personally.
Sunstorm! And that was Superman, still busy in the front seat — busy with what?
"Kevin? Is he …?" she asked, as she pushed her way free of the shrubs.
Superman emerged from the car, Kevin's body cradled in his arms. Larissa rushed to her assistant's side. He was still breathing, his face contorted in pain. His hands clasped his stomach, blood oozing out from between his fingers.
"He's been stabbed," Superman informed her, gravely. "I'm taking him to the hospital."
"Sorry, boss," Kevin whispered, weakly. "I didn't even see a thing. I'm sorry."
Larissa kissed him quickly on the cheek and stepped back. "Don't worry, Kevin. Just get better."
She watched in shock as Superman rapidly disappeared into the sky with her assistant.
"Why didn't he call for help?" she whispered, as if to herself.
"He was gagged."
"What?" Larissa spun around, having forgotten Sunstorm's presence for a moment.
The superhero brandished a plain white piece of cloth. "He was gagged," he repeated. "They hit him on the head when he wasn't looking, gagged him, stabbed him and then took off. They're long gone."
Larissa shook her head, staring at the cloth in his hand. All of a sudden, she whirled around and stared at Sam and Astrid's house. She could see her host and hostess, and Lois, and Vicky — Clark hadn't returned with the car yet — but Jon, where was Jon?
"Oh, no!" She started to run for the house as fast as she could.
"What is it?" Sunstorm asked as he grabbed her by the arm.
She shook free and grabbed him by the hand, setting off towards the house once again, tugging him after her. "Don't you see?" she said, frantically as she led him through the open door, "It was a distraction. They stabbed Kevin, and then, when the coast was clear, when we were all fussing over him, they grabbed Jon. He's not here. He's gone." Larissa let go of Sunstorm, turned and caught sight of the horrified expression on Jon's mother's face. It was too much on top of all the other emotional upset that this evening had brought her. "I'm sorry, Lois," Larissa exclaimed as she dissolved in tears. "I failed him. He's gone."
"He's not gone," the superhero said, calmly — too calmly as far as Larissa was concerned.
"What? You're going to tell me he's gone out to return a library book? He's not here. Do you see him anywhere?" Larissa demanded angrily, through her tears. "No, I failed him, and he's gone." She buried her face in her hands, her tears flowing freely. "Oh, Jon! I'm sorry."
"Larissa, he's not gone," the superhero said again, much more softly this time. "I'm not gone."
"What?" She raised her head to look him in the face for the first time. She heard a collective gasp from the Kents standing behind the superhero, but she ignored it.
She didn't allow the bright colours of his uniform to distract her, to pull her eyes away from his face. Instead, her gaze travelled over his features, studying the high, sculpted cheekbones and tracing the line of his jaw. She looked him in the eyes, in those familiar eyes that were now unhindered by eyeglasses.
"I'm not gone," he softly repeated.
"Jon?" she asked, her voice quavering as she started to shake all over.
"Yes." He took one of her shaking hands in his and pressed it to his lips.
Larissa couldn't move for a moment. She felt the warm pressure against the back of her hand as he kissed it. It was enough to wake her from this frozen, still place inside of her.
Larissa felt herself flush hotly from head to toe. Her rage was mixed with embarrassment. How could he have tricked her like this? She pulled her hand from his, took a step back and snarled, "Now I know why you didn't need protection! Why'd you change your mind? You couldn't get a date any other way?"
Sunstorm — Jon! — stood in front of her, speechless, his mouth gaping open, but not a word emerging. He was silent for a long moment before managing to stutter, "No, it's not like that … You don't understand."
"I don't understand what, Jon? I don't understand Kevin being put in danger and getting hurt to protect someone who doesn't need protection? I don't understand that all my best efforts to guard you were totally useless and I might as well not have wasted the effort? What, Jon? Tell me what I don't understand!"
"When we met for the first time, you said to me that it wasn't just me in danger. You said my family was in danger, too. I had to think about them. You were right. They are in danger."
"Yeah, right," Larissa scoffed. "Someone's going to take out Superman or, or Nightwind to get to you." Larissa couldn't keep herself from glancing at the shocked faces of Jon's family, still standing behind him in a frozen tableau. Nightwind? Vicky was Nightwind! Sam must be Starfire and Marty — Marty was Shadow. It was all starting to seem a little more real to her. Then she blanched as she realised something else. Jon's father, Lois's husband, Clark Kent, he was the legendary Superman — the most celebrated of all the superheroes, the one who had been in the news since before she was born! He was the most highly venerated man on the whole planet. She could barely process the information that Jon and his siblings were who they were. Trying to come to terms with Clark Kent being Superman — that was going to take some doing.
"But, Larissa," Jon said, a pleading tone in his voice, "not everyone in my family is invulnerable. My mom, Astrid, Ben, the boys, Lee — they could all be hurt or … worse." His voice cracked on the last word.
Larissa was taken aback, shocked by the naked emotion in his voice. That more than anything he could possibly say convinced her that he was sincere and meant his words.
"I … You're right," she said, her anger draining away, leaving a deep fatigue behind. "Your family is vulnerable. I just, I just feel so foolish, being tricked by a pair of glasses," she blurted out.
Lois laughed. It was the first sound any of his family had made since their collective gasp at Jon's revelation of his true identity to her. "You're not the first and you won't be the last to be fooled that way," Lois pointed out to Larissa. "Actually you've set a new record for how fast you've uh, been let in on our secret. I thought Marty told Ben too soon but you — how long have you two known each other anyway?"
Larissa thought for a moment. "Uh, I think we're coming up on 72 hours."
Lois shook her head. "72 hours," she repeated to herself. "Jon, you have to know — your father won't exactly be too pleased."
"I know, Mom, but I couldn't let Larissa think that I'd been kidnapped, could I?"
Sam, Astrid and Vicky glanced at each other and then disappeared into the kitchen quickly and quietly, making it more than obvious that they didn't want to get in the middle of their mother and their brother.
Larissa watched, shocked at the incongruity, as Sunstorm, resplendent in gold, red and black, hung his head in consternation while his mother scolded him. Her eyes switched back to Lois when she started to speak again.
"Of course you couldn't, Jon, but you did have other options. You could have made an excuse. It's not like we don't have a million of them stored up for future use," the older woman said, acerbically.
"But Mom," Sunstorm said, sounding exactly like a sulky teenager, "I wanted Larissa to know. I didn't want to lie to her."
"And I'm not going to tell anyone, Lois," Larissa said with a shy glance at Jon's mother. "I'm very confused about a lot of things right now, but one thing I know is that Jon's my friend. I don't want to hurt him. And I don't want to hurt you or the rest of your family."
"Thank you, Larissa." Lois's expression softened as she looked at the very shaken up young woman. "Jon trusts you so … What else can I say except I trust you, too?"
"Thank you, Lois. I won't let you down."
"Uh, Mom, could you please explain all this to Dad when he gets back? Larissa and I have a lot to talk about." Sunstorm glanced shyly at the younger woman and then back at his mother, an imploring expression on his face.
"I just bet you do!" Lois exclaimed. Hands on her hips, she surveyed her errant son, watching as he shifted from one foot to the other and back again. He looked incredibly guilty … and utterly adorable, Larissa thought to herself. Apparently his mother agreed because she finally heaved a tremendous sigh and then said what Sunstorm was waiting to hear. "Go. Talk. And then, when you're both ready, come and find your father and me, and we can all talk."
Larissa's expression must have held a hint of the apprehension that she felt about talking to Jon's parents about this because Lois grinned at her and said, "Don't worry. We don't bite — or at least, Clark doesn't! Seriously, go and talk. When you two are okay with each other, come back. Larissa, there's a few things Clark and I didn't tell you about Lex Luthor, but that can wait."
Sunstorm grinned at his mother, bent down and scooped up Larissa, and in less time than it took her to blink, was flying her out the door and into the night sky.
"Hope you like heights!" Lois shouted after them.
Jon tried to hide the goofy grin that he could feel plastered all over his face but he wasn't too successful at it. He was so happy, soaring through the air, Larissa snugly held in his embrace. He glanced at her again to discover that the rapt expression on her face hadn't changed from a couple of minutes ago. She was totally absorbed in watching the sights passing by, so far below. For a long moment, he toyed with the idea of taking her on a grand tour — an aerial view of the Grand Canyon, surveying Niagara Falls by moonlight, visiting with the packs of killer whales off the coast, but he wistfully decided that he would be wiser to stay close to home. They needed to talk.
Regretfully, he surveyed Metropolis, looking for a quiet place to talk. There. He swooped down and landed in a showy swirl of gold, red and black and set Larissa gently on her feet again.
"Wow!" she said as she looked around the deserted park. "Where are we?"
"Metropolis Centennial Park," Jon answered as he did another visual check of the neighbourhood. Good, no one was around. He stepped away from Larissa, spun quickly in place and came to a stop in front of her, dressed as Jon Kent once more. He had the satisfaction of watching her jaw drop.
"Wow!" she repeated. "Someday you're going to have to tell me how you do that!"
"It's a deal." He grinned at her, feeling suddenly very, very shy. He was put a little bit at ease by her next question.
"Does this feel as weird to you as it does to me?" she asked.
"Me knowing that you're Sunstorm?"
"A little bit," he answered. Pointing to a park bench, he suggested, "Let's go get comfortable. I'm sure you have a lot of questions for me."
Larissa shook her head before following him over to the bench and sitting down. "A lot of questions?" she replied, wryly. "You're not kidding. I don't even know where to start."
"Okay, then, let me start. You're not mad, are you?" he asked, nervously.
"Mad about what?"
"Mad that I didn't tell you before?"
Larissa giggled. "Jon, we've known each other for a couple of days. When you say 'before', exactly how long ago do you mean? I don't think you could have told me any earlier unless you make a habit of introducing yourself as Jon Kent AKA Sunstorm."
"Valid point." He grinned at her. "So you're not angry anymore?"
"No, you had a valid point about your family being in danger and, well, now that I've calmed down I can see that I helped to force protection on you; you didn't ask for it yourself so … not much point in being angry about that anymore. I still feel a little foolish that the glasses fooled me but, well, I hadn't actually met Sunstorm until tonight so I think I can forgive myself for that."
Jon laughed in relief. "Don't ever ask Mom how long it took before she found out about Dad. If you did, you'd have a birds-eye view of someone going completely ballistic. We've teased her a lot over the years and she's kind of lost her sense of humour about the whole thing."
"Uh, how long was it? Before she found out, I mean."
"Two years. They were best friends and kind of dating for part of that time, too, so … let's just say, Mom is still a little sensitive about the whole thing even though it was a very long time ago."
"Ouch." Larissa giggled for a moment before turning serious once more. "Actually I do have a question for you."
"How do you feel about telling me? Are you angry with yourself? Are you worried that I'll tell someone?" she asked, seriously.
"No, I wanted you to know from the moment I met you. I can't even begin to explain how much I trusted you from the start. I love you, and I fell in love with you the second you told me off in that alley and called me an 'idiot'."
"Jon, I don't know what to say. You know that I've got problems that I have to deal with before I can respond properly to you. I feel like I'm … damaged goods, like I'm not good enough for you. I failed my sister and I failed my father. I couldn't save either one of them. I know logically that I wasn't even physically there for either death, but I still feel responsible."
Jon took Larissa's hand in his and squeezed it gently. "You underestimate yourself. You are very strong. You've had a horrible tragedy in your life, but you still graduated college, and you've made a name for yourself in the agency. You're not inferior in any way, shape or form. You survived something that many people would not have. Don't put yourself down for it."
She rested her head against his shoulder. "I'll try not to, Jon. Thanks."
Feeling very daring, Jon turned to her and gently tipped her face up to his. He looked her in the eyes for a long moment before tenderly kissing her. At first, she didn't respond to the kiss at all, but then to his surprise and delight, she hooked her arm around his neck and slid a little closer to him as her lips opened under his gentle pressure. He felt his heart starting to race and his breath catch in his throat. He nearly lost all of his rather tenuous self-control when he heard her moan quietly into his open mouth. He forced himself to pull away slightly, breaking the intense kiss, but still holding her close, her head resting once again on his shoulder. "Wow," he heard himself say softly.
"Wow," he heard her echo.
"If that's how you kiss when you don't feel able to respond, I'm not sure if I'll survive when you do feel like you can!"
Larissa giggled. "It was pretty spectacular, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was." Jon resisted the temptation to kiss her again. Instead he got to his feet and extended a hand to her. "It's getting late. Shall we head back to my place and talk more in the morning?"
"I think we better."
Jon effortlessly pulled Larissa to her feet. He hooked an arm around her waist. "It's a nice night. Would you rather walk or fly?" He secretly hoped that she would choose the first option. Flying would get them home quickly and he didn't want this night to end.
"It is a nice night. Let's walk," she answered to his delight. "But first …"
Larissa turned to him, her eyes mysterious in the moonlight. "Kiss me again," she requested, solemnly.
He hurried to comply, all his attention completely focused on her, blocking out all external distractions.
Jon and Larissa entered the dark apartment. The message light was blinking on his answering machine. Jon hit 'Replay' and the frantic sounds of his mother's voice filled the room.
"Jon!" Lois exclaimed, very agitated. "Your uncle Bernie was dumped on our doorstep while we were at Sam and Astrid's — he's going to be okay, but he was heavily drugged. We think it was truth serum. They got the combination to the vault from him, and they've got the Kryptonite. He even told them what we use it for! You and Larissa better get over here now!" The answering machine clicked off.
Jon looked at Larissa, worry written all over his face. "I can't believe I forgot all about the bad guys."
Larissa opened her mouth to agree when she was interrupted.
"Oh, it wouldn't do to forget about us, Mr. Kent."
Larissa spun around to see two men emerge from the shadows. The one who had spoken was of average height but he had a very big gun pointed in their direction. The other man was huge. Larissa turned to look at Jon only to stare in disbelief as he collapsed slowly to the floor with a groan.
"I gather you've never seen Kryptonite before, Ms. Lewis. Rather pretty, isn't it?" the gunman asked sarcastically as he displayed a large chunk of rock resting in the palm of his other hand. Larissa swallowed hard, mesmerized by the sickly green glow.
"And now, Ms. Lewis, my boss has requested the pleasure of your company. You and Mr. Kent are invited to join him. Any questions?"
Larissa shook her head, her worry about Jon the only thing keeping her panic in check.
The other man hoisted Jon to his shoulder with an audible grunt.
"Shall we go?" the gunman asked, gesturing at the door with his gun.
Her heart pounding and her gorge rising in her throat, Larissa blindly followed the large man out the door, watching Jon as he lay unconscious across the big man's shoulder, his arms dangling limply.
"Come in! Please! Come and join me!"
Larissa glared at the incongruously jolly elderly man as he heartily greeted them in thickly accented English. The large man carrying Jon dumped him unceremoniously onto the cement floor in front of a pair of chairs. Then he moved to flank the senior citizen who sat at a desk facing the chairs. The guard's gaze never wavered from Larissa as he pulled a gun out of his jacket pocket and pointed it at her. The second man stayed near the entrance at the other end of the small room. He still held the Kryptonite loosely in his hand.
"Sit down, Ms. Lewis. Make yourself comfortable while we wait for Mr. Kent to join us once again. I think Sergey is far enough away for him to partially recover from the Kryptonite. He should regain consciousness soon. In the meantime, would you like a grape? They're delicious — only $1.28 a pound." He proffered the fruit invitingly in front of her.
"What do you want from us?" Larissa asked, ignoring his question.
"No, no, no, Ms. Lewis. I'm going to wait for Mr. Kent before I answer that one. How about a banana? Only 99 cents a pound. They're very good for you."
"No, thank you," Larissa replied icily. Jon groaned. Larissa went to move out of her chair, only to hear the large guard tell her to stop. She could see his trigger finger start to move, and she froze in place.
"No, no, Anatoly. It's all right," his boss admonished him. "Go ahead, Ms. Lewis. See to Mr. Kent."
Larissa knelt beside Jon, ignoring the others, focusing on him alone. "Jon, can you hear me?"
His eyes fluttered open. "What happened? I feel like someone drove a steamroller over me."
"That would be the Kryptonite, Mr. Kent," the old man pointed out, helpfully. "If you would sit in the chair beside Ms. Lewis, all will be explained."
With Larissa's help, Jon managed to crawl to a chair. Larissa sat as close to him as she could get.
"Are you comfortable?" the elderly man asked.
Jon glared at him angrily, as he sat awkwardly hunched over in the chair, clutching himself, in a great deal of pain from the close proximity of the Kryptonite. Larissa laid her one arm lightly over his shoulders, also glaring at the old man.
"Good!" the boss replied, ignoring the angry looks. "Before I explain everything, would you like an orange? You know, before I left the Ukraine, I had only ever eaten one orange in my life. Can you believe it? Now I can't get enough."
"Would you mind cutting to the chase?" Jon asked, his voice raspy and strained sounding.
"Of course. I am Leon — Lucky Leon — you've probably heard of me."
Jon and Larissa looked at each other, shrugged, and then turned back to Leon and shook their heads.
"No," he sounded disappointed. "The inventor of the Desk Friend?" He picked up a nondescript desk organizer and flourished it.
At their blank looks, he continued, "The Bath Friend? The Golf Friend?" Again, he held up a rather bizarre looking contraption, then pointed to a large unusual looking unit pushed up against the wall as he named the second item.
From his hunched over position, Jon spoke up hesitantly, "I'm sorry, Mr. Leon …"
"I'm sorry, Leon, but I've never heard of you or of those 'Friend' things."
Leon turned to the guard beside him. "You see what I mean, Anatoly. You make one little mistake, you go to jail, and then, it's like no one has ever heard of you in your life. It's not right, is it?"
The guard nodded in agreement, his lips curling into a thin smile of agreement. He had the coldest eyes that Larissa had ever seen. She felt herself shiver a bit in response to the renewed surge of fear travelling through her system.
Leon turned back to Jon and Larissa, his jovial expression changing in an instant to one far more serious. "I was an inventor, but now, it is as if my inventions had never existed. I left even less of a mark in my other profession."
"And that was?" Larissa prompted, curiously.
Leon inspected his fingernails then buffed them against the material of his jacket. "Oh, I was a part-time assassin and arms dealer," he informed them casually as he leaned back comfortably in his chair.
"Oh," Jon said, blankly. "So, what does this have to do with me?"
"Ah, now we get to the more interesting part of my story. Now you will see the full genius of my plan to leave um, a lasting memorial after I am gone."
Both the guards snickered for a moment, distracting Larissa's attention momentarily from the strange old man in front of her. She had a feeling that she wasn't going to like the rest of the story.
"You see, Mr. Kent, I was captured by Superman and Lois Lane, your parents. Just because I hijacked a nuclear missile, no other reason," he finished, in mock indignation.
Jon opened his mouth to speak but Leon held up his gnarled, wrinkled hand, stopping him. "No, Mr. Kent. Do not bother to protest. Your reaction to the Kryptonite proves that Superman is your father."
Jon glanced quickly at Larissa, worry written plainly over his features. He turned back to Leon. "If you knew, why did you send your people after me? You must have known that they'd be captured."
Leon waved one hand airily in the air. "Ah, that was just part of the genius of my plan. I had some internal housekeeping that needed to be done; I needed to deal with some troublemakers in my organization who were causing me many problems. I assure you, Mr. Kent, none of those thugs were missed in the slightest."
"How did you find out — about my dad, I mean?"
Leon smiled, his jolly countenance slipping easily back into place. "I love this country, America. In the Ukraine, when I was a boy, you did something wrong … Boom, boom! You were dead. Here, it is different. You do something wrong, you get a lawyer, you go to jail. They feed you, they look after you and they give you all your civil rights. You wish to write a letter — you can. You wish to read a newspaper — you can. I wrote to many other people who your parents put in jail. I wrote to one man many letters and he wrote many to me. His name was Jason Mazik. Do you recognise the name?"
Jon shook his head slowly. "Should I?"
Leon laughed. "It looks like your parents did not talk to you enough as you were growing up, Mr. Kent. I would guess that you have never heard of Diana Stride either."
Again, Jon shook his head.
"I wrote many letters to her, too. They had much information to share with me. Both of these people knew that Clark Kent was really Superman but they were not able to prove it. It was very interesting, having this information. I had a lot of time to plan what I was going to do when I got out of jail. I thought about killing your father and mother, Mr. Kent," Leon continued, still speaking in the same casual fashion, "but I had a much better idea. I decided to punish them rather than to kill them. What better punishment but to kill one of their children and remove the hope of ever having descendants to follow after them."
"I have a brother. I have sisters. My parents are grandparents. There are others to follow after me and after them," Jon said, defiantly. But Larissa could feel him start to tremble underneath her arm.
Leon laughed once again. "You forget, Mr. Kent, I have the Kryptonite and now," he paused, obviously savouring the words, "and now, there will be no one else to follow after Lois Lane and Superman."
"I don't understand," Larissa said, softly.
"It's quite simple, my dear, and quite an elegant punishment. When we questioned Dr. Klein, we only wanted the location of the Kryptonite — the last known piece of Kryptonite in the world — and we wanted access to it. What a gift — this other information we got from him. The Kryptonite is needed for a medical treatment that makes it possible for Kryptonians to conceive a child with Humans. Blood needs to be taken from the Kryptonian to create a serum to treat the Human with — otherwise no conception can take place. Well, as you must know, Ms. Lewis, you can't take blood from a Kryptonian without Kryptonite. Therefore, no Kryptonite — no future Kryptonians."
Larissa felt her mouth drop open in horror. "But that's genocide," she heard herself say.
"No, that's a wonderful lasting memorial — a memorial to me. I will not be known as the man who killed Superman. I will be known as the man who killed Superman's dreams and his will and his hopes for successors. Enough. Enjoy your last few hours together. When the door is closed, there is enough oxygen in here for five hours. This room is soundproof, lead-lined and very well hidden. I will be kind to you, though." He paused and smiled, very self-satisfied. "I will leave you all the fruit. Make sure you try the cherries. They're very sweet."
With a smug grin, he left the room, the two guards behind backing slowly out of the room, guns trained on both Larissa and Jon. The heavy door started to close.
"Oh, dear, we nearly forgot to leave our parting gift," Leon said, mockingly. Sergey carelessly tossed the Kryptonite into Jon's lap. Jon moaned in pain as the door slammed shut with a muffled thud.
Cursing, Larissa knocked the Kryptonite from Jon's lap. She fell onto the floor, her fingers scrabbling under the desk, trying to recover it. Once she had pushed it into the corner of the small room, she turned to find Jon lying in a fetal position on the floor. She dragged him into the corner farthest from the Kryptonite, over near the solid door.
"Jon, are you okay? Jon?" She shook him, scared at his pallor. His eyes fluttered open, and he groaned as he tried to push himself up to a sitting position. Larissa was quick to help him, propping him up against the wall, sitting beside him and pulling him against her. She was shocked at how cold he was. Frantically, she started rubbing his arms and legs, desperately trying to warm him.
"I'm okay," Jon said, weakly, his voice's quavering proving his words to be a lie. He started shivering harder, his teeth chattering. Larissa didn't say anything. She couldn't; she was too afraid of crying if she did. But she did pull him even closer, opening her arms wide to enclose him in her embrace and curling her body around his. He burrowed as close to her as he could get, his arms slipping naturally around her waist, his grip fierce and tight. Larissa found herself rocking him, humming tunelessly under her breath, as she held him protectively. They stayed in their tight embrace for a long time. Finally, reluctantly, she forced herself to sit up straight and to pull him up to face her. "Better?" she asked, stroking his hair back off his face.
"A little." He didn't look any better, but Larissa took his response at face value, granting him this one small deception.
"Can you sit up okay? I want to look around — see what I can find that might help us."
"Go ahead," he said, wryly. "You'll forgive me if I sit back and let you do all the work."
"Yeah, that's what men always do," Larissa retorted softly, her heart breaking, "they just sit, twiddling their thumbs while the women lift that barge and tote that bale. I just can't bring myself to argue with tradition." She pushed herself up off the floor and headed over to the desk.
Jon greeted Larissa's weak attempt at humour with a wan smile before falling silent once more.
"Hey, this Desk Friend isn't half bad. It's got a radio," she switched it on to static and off again quickly. "Oh, too bad. No reception down here. Anyway, it has a radio, a stapler, scissors, note pad, pens, rulers, everything you can think of. Hey!" Larissa hefted the stapler in one hand. "If I smash the Kryptonite, will that change anything?"
"Not really," Jon admitted, reluctantly. "Instead of one big chunk, there'd just be lots of little chunks. Besides, even if we could, we can't destroy the Kryptonite. If we did, there would be no more kids born in my family."
"So, Leon wasn't lying," Larissa said, her eyes still searching the desk for anything that might help them. "I hoped that he was, but from your reaction, I guessed that he wasn't."
"No, he wasn't lying," Jon said, softly, losing even more colour from his face. Larissa hadn't thought that he could get any paler but he kept proving her wrong in that regard.
Larissa didn't see anything else on the desk besides the Desk Friend and the Bath Friend. Other than the scissors — and that was a long shot — she didn't see anything that might help them. She sighed, grasped the scissors and headed back to stand beside Jon.
It didn't look good when she examined the door. It was smooth with no keyhole, more like a bank vault door than anything else but at the same time not enough like a vault door to do them any good. Leon must have had it custom made, Larissa thought idly to herself. She had never seen a door like this before. If it had been a vault door, they would have had no problem. She had been trained to open those.
She turned to examine the wall. It felt like plaster. When she found a crack, she dug one blade of the scissors in and pried loose a tiny piece. It was plaster. Good. Nice and brittle. Slowly and methodically, Larissa started chipping away at the wall, opening a small hole. She glanced over at Jon. He was paying no attention but was slumped against the wall, breathing torturously.
"So, tell me what it's like having Superman as your dad," she requested, hoping to keep him distracted from his pain.
"Huh?" He looked up at her, his eyes dazed and feverish. "Oh, okay. Well, I didn't know that my dad was Superman for a long time. It was my Uncle Jimmy who let the cat out of the bag …"
Larissa peered into the four-inch deep hole in the plaster and cursed yet again. Leon hadn't lied about the lead lined room either. She had been able to dent the lead by hammering it with the stapler but then she had discovered what Leon hadn't told her. Steel. Underneath the lead. What the heck was she going to do now? She glanced down at Jon once again. He had long ago fallen silent, and was now lying limply on the floor, his breath slowly rasping in and out. She could even hear his chest gurgling, his lungs obviously filling with fluid. Time was running out in more ways than one. She figured that there was only three hours of oxygen left but she doubted Jon would still be alive when they finally ran out of air.
She looked around the room desperately, her eyes travelling over the desk and its contents until her gaze stopped at the Golf Friend. She didn't imagine that there was anything there that might help but she had no other ideas.
She was there in two quick strides, examining it minutely. Nothing. Just some golf clubs and balls, some microcircuits and a whole bunch of plastic — just a pile of junk! Wait! Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the golf clubs once again and then at the Kryptonite. It was possible, maybe, she conceded to herself — if they were very, very lucky. It was a big 'if', she knew but there was literally nothing else she could do.
She pulled a golf club out of its holder, ran back to Jon and sat down beside him, the club in her lap. She examined the rubber handgrip carefully and then reached for the scissors.
It only took about two minutes for her to strip all the rubber off the end of the club. She smiled to herself. She had been right. The golf club was hollow and the inside was made of a different metal than the stainless steel exterior. She didn't know what the inner metal was, but …
Hefting the stapler, she headed for the Kryptonite. She put it on the desk and was about to bash it as hard as she could when she was struck by a stray thought. She didn't want pieces of it shooting all over the room when it shattered. She looked around but didn't see anything that might help with that. For a moment she looked longingly at Jon's shirt. That would do, but she couldn't bring herself to strip him of one ounce of protection against the cold and damp in this little room. Sighing, she stripped her blouse off and wrapped the Kryptonite in it before pounding the heck out of it with the stapler. With bated breath, she unwrapped it to discover a multitude of tiny, sparkling rocks, all still glowing that same, sickly green colour. She smiled tightly to herself and scooped handfuls of the crushed rock carefully into the hollow end of the golf club. All the pieces fit with room to spare.
She was about to put her blouse back on when she noticed tiny little green sparkles still stuck to it. She cursed yet again and looked around for someplace to dispose of it. Finally, in desperation, she put it in the farthest corner from Jon and piled the other golf clubs on top. She didn't know what to do about the club with the Kryptonite in it. She had no more metal to jam in the hollow end. Finally, she stuffed all the bits of rubber into it, taped the whole mess securely, and pushed the opened end up against the wall — again, as far away from Jon as possible.
She slowly moved back to Jon and sat down beside his prone body. She wondered what else she could do as she rubbed his cold arms briskly with her hands. There was nothing else left that she could do, she decided. Getting colder all the time, she watched Jon for a long time, looking for any sign that his condition was improving. Nothing. Sighing, she lay down next to Jon and slid as close to him as possible, sliding his one arm underneath her and placing her head on his shoulder. She tugged his other arm over her and wrapped herself around him as best she could. She closed her eyes, too tired to cry and settled herself to wait.
"Mmm, this is a nice way to wake up!"
"Wha …?" Larissa reluctantly opened her eyes and blearily looked at Jon. His smiling face slowly came into focus.
"You're better!" she exclaimed, sitting up abruptly.
"Well, if I wasn't feeling better before, I would now with the view you're giving me," he said happily as he eyed her appreciatively.
Larissa looked down at herself then blushed. She had forgotten that her bra — thankfully, a plain cotton one — was her only garment from the waist up. "I got Kryptonite dust all over my blouse …" she started to stammer.
"What did you do to the Kryptonite? I feel better, not great but a lot better." Jon pushed himself up to a sitting position against the wall.
Larissa hastily explained, pointing to the heap of golf clubs in the far corner.
Jon grinned at her, pulled her close and kissed her heartily. "You are brilliant! Brains and beauty in one package. I knew there was more than one reason I fell for you!"
Larissa blushed again at the obvious appreciation in his voice. "Uh, I hate to break this up. Normally I'd encourage you to continue because I like hearing good things about myself, but are your powers back? We're running out of time."
Jon closed his eyes in concentration. "A little bit. I don't know if it will be enough, though." He clambered up to his feet and stood still, his hands clutching at the wall, the colour draining from his face once more.
Larissa hastily jumped up and lent him her shoulder for support.
"Oh, I'm dizzy," he moaned.
"Here, sit back down," she urged, worried.
He hastily complied and propped himself against the wall once more.
Larissa watched as the colour slowly came back into his face. "Maybe you could lie on your back and push against the door with your feet."
Jon shrugged. "It's worth a try. Right now, I sure can't take a running leap at it. I'd only end up flat on my back anyway."
He looked around the room. "You have to back up. The door should open out, but the plaster around it might fall back into the room. I don't want you to get hurt. Plus, if this works, we can't forget the Kryptonite."
Larissa nodded and hurried to comply. She watched, her heart in her mouth as Jon positioned his feet against the heavy door and took a couple of deep breaths.
Wanting to help him but knowing she couldn't, she offered, "Do you want a three-count?"
He craned his head back to see her, smiled and nodded.
"Okay, then. One, two, three …"
On the count of three, Jon pushed hard, his face turning purple from the strain. From where she stood, she could see the veins and tendons standing out on his neck.
Jon screamed hoarsely as the door slowly toppled backwards leaving a gaping hole.
"What?" Larissa ran to him and crouched beside him as he writhed in agony on the floor.
His face was contorted in pain. Tears mingled with sweat and ran down past his ears to disappear into his hairline. "I broke my leg," he grunted when he could catch his breath.
"Oh, God, yes, you did!" she exclaimed as she caught sight of the unnatural angle of his right leg.
"Go!" he exclaimed, his voice rasping in his throat. "Go for help. I'll be fine here."
"No, they might come back. I'm not leaving you."
"No, you have to go. Take the Kryptonite. Please," he begged, almost sobbing.
"Shut up, Jon and let me get to work." Larissa bent down and kissed him fiercely before getting up and gathering the supplies she needed.
Lois paced up and down in Jon's living room in the early dawn light. Four of the world's five superheroes swooped in together and lined up in front of her.
"Well? Any sign of them?" she demanded.
Her husband stepped forward out of the line and pulled his wife close to his chest. "No," he said, grimly.
"And there's no sign of the Kryptonite either, I suppose." Her voice was bleak.
"No," her husband repeated, softly.
"Oh, God, Clark! What are we going to do?" Lois looked up at her husband in despair only to see that very familiar, head cocked to one side look. She quickly glanced at her children to see the very same posture.
"What? What is it?" she asked impatiently.
"It's her. At least, I think it is," Clark said, a quizzical expression on his face.
Vicky suddenly snickered as her father turned bright red.
"What? What is it?" Lois asked again, frantic and desperate with worry.
Sam grinned. "You should hear what she just called Dad! She sounds like one very ticked off lady."
Clark quickly scooped his wife up into his arms. Without another word, he led the way out the open window, his children following behind exchanging amused glances.
"She's got a rather impressive vocabulary," Marty pointed out to her siblings.
"What? What did she say?"
"There!" Lois cried, pointing into the distance. "There they are!"
Superman and his wife, Starfire, Nightwind and Shadow all came swooping in for a landing. They were dumbfounded, staring at the two figures in front of them.
Larissa stood glaring angrily at them, Jon's unconscious body slung across her two shoulders. She was filthy dirty, half naked with her blouse missing and the skirt she had been wearing earlier at Sam and Astrid's house mysteriously shortened by a large margin. "It took you long enough," she spat out. "I must have called you at least a minute ago." Lois looked up at her husband to see his jaw slowly drop open.
Shakily, Larissa knelt down to lay Jon onto the grass. Superman started to move forward to help her with her burden. "Stop!" she commanded. "Lois, get over here. There's Kryptonite. You and I have to deal with that first. Marty, why don't you go get Dr. Klein? Take him to Jon's. Sam, go get something for us to put the Kryptonite in. Clark, once we're out of the way with the Kryptonite — you take Jon home. Be careful of his leg. It's broken. I set it as best as I could but I don't think it's quite right."
"What do you want me to do?" Vicky asked, hesitantly.
"I'm going to need a ride in a few minutes. Until then, why don't you hang around and look pretty?" Larissa snapped. She looked pointedly at Marty and Sam. "Well, what are you waiting for?"
They looked blankly at each other and then took off without a word.
Lois ran to her son. He was unconscious, covered in a fine white dust. She could see cleaner lines where tears had run down his face, cutting through the dirt. Even in repose, his face was contorted in pain. He had a golf club splinted to his leg with strips of material that Lois recognised as matching Larissa's skirt. "Where's the Kryptonite?" she asked.
Lois watched as Larissa untied the golf club from Jon's leg. Beckoning to Lois, they moved away, back from Jon, and back from Clark and Vicky.
"It's in here. I smashed it up and stuffed it in here. The club's lined with a lead alloy — graphite, I think. It's not pure lead but it did the trick. But the end's open. I couldn't do anything about that."
Lois took the club from Larissa and looked at her in wonder. "You saved my son. He would have died …"
"He nearly did die. We both did." Larissa looked at Lois, anguish written all over her face. "I had to save him. I couldn't let anyone else die, Lois. I couldn't let anyone else I care about die." And for the first time since she and Jon had been kidnapped, Larissa dissolved in tears, Jon's mother's arms wrapped tightly around her. "I couldn't let Jon die," she sobbed, over and over again. Lois held her, patting her back and crooning under her breath. She caught Clark's eye and waved him towards their son. He nodded and scooped Jon, still unconscious, up into his arms.
When they finally got back to Jon's apartment, Marty was there, waiting with Dr. Klein who had fortunately recovered completely from his ordeal of the night before. He did a quick examination of Jon to determine that, although she had done her best, Larissa hadn't set Jon's leg properly. Unfortunately, Dr. Klein had needed to re-expose Jon briefly to the Kryptonite while he and Lois set the leg correctly. For obvious reasons, Clark and the others had not helped, preferring to keep a safe distance away.
Throughout the whole procedure, Larissa had kept a tight, protective hold on Jon, refusing to leave him until it was over. Even then, Lois had to almost physically drag her away, promising that she could check on Jon after a much needed bath. Lois hadn't needed to make good on her promise; Larissa had fallen asleep in the bathtub. Marty had rescued her from drowning, dried her off with her heat vision and then carried her to bed. When Larissa woke up, she had no idea how she had ended up there.
Setting his broken leg had stripped the last bit of his energy from Jon. The healing had progressed well but he wouldn't be fully recovered for a while yet. He was still pretty grubby. His father had cleaned him up as best he could but hadn't wanted to disturb him too much.
"You're looking better."
Jon looked up to see Larissa paused shyly in the door of his bedroom. She had slept for a few hours, as had he although they both still looked pretty rough.
"Thanks." He waved her in. She perched awkwardly on the side of his bed. "I could say you're looking better, too, but I kind of prefer what you were wearing the last time I saw you." He grinned at her wickedly, intentionally trying to keep the mood light and upbeat.
Larissa blushed under his knowing gaze. "Gee, thanks. Well, even if you did like my attire from before, I must say I prefer what I'm wearing now." Her hands smoothed her nightgown and robe.
Jon's smile faded. "Larissa, you saved my life. We'd be dead right now if it weren't for you."
"I only did half the job," Larissa pointed out. "You got us out."
"But I wouldn't have been able to if you hadn't dealt with the Kryptonite. That was absolutely brilliant."
"Thanks, you said that before. You can tell me again later if you want to but for now, I thought you'd like to hear what's been going on while you and I were slacking off."
Larissa grinned at him before continuing, her expression more serious now. "Your uncle Bernie said that you should be feeling almost completely recovered by tonight although your broken leg won't be completely healed until tomorrow morning. You should be careful not to jostle your leg — he just splinted it. He said there wasn't much point to a cast. As far as your powers are concerned, well, you were pretty badly exposed to the Kryptonite. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day."
She smiled and shook her head. "I still can't believe you heal that fast but … Anyway," she continued, "he was quite happy that we got the Kryptonite back. He's actually quite pleased that it's in so many pieces. He said something about locking it up in more than one place so that there's always a backup piece available. Your dad's put it all in a couple of different safe places — well wrapped in lead, of course. He told your brother and your sisters where it is, but he wouldn't tell your uncle or your mom. He said he wanted to be careful in case someone else got the bright idea of drugging either one of them again. Your mom's a little ticked off about that. She keeps saying she understands but I don't think she does, not really. I assume he'll tell you about it later."
"Good. That's a relief. I was so worried." Jon grinned. "Mom's going to be hard for him to live with for a few days, though." He chuckled as he pondered exactly how frustrated his mother would be over the whole situation. She needed to know everything, normally. This would drive her nuts!
He ran his hands through his hair before asking his next question. "Did Mom and Dad catch Leon yet?"
"No, he and Anatoly and Sergey are long gone. I've got the Bureau looking for them too, but … so far, no sign of them."
"So, there's at least three bad guys running around who know about my family."
"There were at least three bad guys who knew about you before. Now, you at least know about the problem," Larissa pointed out, logically.
"Yeah, but still …" he shrugged, frustrated.
Larissa leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips.
"What's that for?" he asked, pleased.
"Oh, I just wanted to get your attention," she replied, mock-innocently.
"You've got it." He leaned back into his pillow, a big grin plastered on his face. He was glad to see her in a lighthearted mood. He had been worried about her, too.
"Jon?" Larissa said. "Getting back to what happened in the vault … You know, I discovered something last night — something I never really knew about myself," she said, tentatively. "I discovered that I'm actually a very strong person." She looked up nervously, meeting his eyes for a second before looking down again. "I didn't know that before," she said, seriously. "I surprised myself."
Jon shook his head in disbelief. "You didn't know? You're the strongest person I've ever met — with the possible exception of my mother. I still can't believe how you …" he paused, momentarily at a loss for words, "how you just handled everything. You were magnificent. A rough night the night before, a busy day making an, an emotional breakthrough like you did, finding out your new friend moonlights in tights, getting kidnapped, thinking you're going to die, and then, saving both our lives. Then, and I still can't believe you did this, you carried me out of there like I was a sack of potatoes. If having the Kryptonite near me hadn't hurt so much, I think I would have liked to stay awake to see it! As it is," he spread his hands wide, "I'm glad I missed it."
Jon paused, grinned slyly at her, claimed her hand with his and continued, "And then, according to Sam, Marty and Vicky, you proceeded to curse out Superman like they've never heard before. Plus, you ordered my family around like a drill sergeant. They told me ALL about it!"
Larissa groaned and buried her flaming cheeks in her hands. "I still can't believe I said what I did, Jon. I think it was the adrenaline rush. To think I was feeling so nervous, knowing your dad's also Superman. I guess this kind of broke the ice a bit." She giggled but then looked up at him, her dark eyes flashing in indignation. "I was just so, so angry. You were in so much pain and then I had to hurt you more when I tried to set your leg. And then splinting your leg with the golf club that had the Kryptonite in it … What was I thinking? But I didn't want to leave it behind in case they came back." She shook her head. "I guess I wasn't thinking very clearly at that point," she admitted ruefully.
"Actually, Uncle Bernie said that if you hadn't kept the Kryptonite near me, the bones in my leg would have started to knit together the wrong way and it would have been harder for him to reset it, so it worked out really well in the long run. I don't think I would have enjoyed having him re-break my bones."
"Really? I must have missed that this morning when he was talking to you. I was kind of uh, out of it."
"I know. You could barely stand up, but you still made sure that I was okay," Jon said, softly. "I don't know how to thank you." He pulled her into a warm embrace but then released her quickly. He didn't want her to feel as if he were pressuring her.
"You don't have to thank me, Jon. You're my friend and …" She looked at him shyly before looking down at her hands lying idly in her lap.
"And?" he asked with bated breath.
"Jon, I had a lot of time to think when we were trapped," she said, changing the subject, much to his frustration. She continued, her words halting and tentative. "What happened to my family was awful. I wanted to die, too. I missed my mom, my dad and … Ronnie," she whispered the last word and had to clear her throat before continuing, "But, Jon, they would have been the first to tell me that it wasn't my fault. They would have hated to see how much I punished myself for surviving something that they didn't. It took being kidnapped and threatened with death for me to realise that I don't want to die. Not only do I not want to die, I don't want to … to just exist, either. I want more out of life than that."
"And?" Jon asked, leaning forward and taking her hands in his.
She smiled, squeezed his hands gently and continued, "And, well, if your offer's still open, I want to take you up on it."
"Your offer to be there for me."
"You know I meant it. I mean to be a good friend to you, Larissa." He smiled, trying to hide his disappointment. For a moment there, he thought she had meant something else.
"That's not what I mean, Jon. I decided I want more from you. I want you, Jon, and I'm hoping you still want me, too."
"You mean it?" Jon asked, in dawning hope.
She nodded. "I love you, Jon," she told him, solemnly. "I fell in love with you quicker than, well, quicker than we escaped from that place last night," she said, a flash of humour asserting itself. "I kept pushing you away because I was scared."
"Scared of what?"
"Scared of what I feel when we do this." Larissa kissed him then, her lips warm, inviting and soft. Jon pulled her close and felt her hands entwine in his hair. He could hardly believe that she was in his arms and that she was there because she wanted this, too. He felt as if he were dreaming as she plastered his face with frantic kisses. "Oh, Jon, I thought I was going to lose you," he heard her say in his ear as she stretched herself out full length beside him. He gave as many kisses back to her as she gave him, clutching at her desperately as if to convince himself that she were real, that this was real. He gave in to his passion, caressing her, kissing her, holding her close, but eventually common sense prevailed. It might be a good idea to rein this in a bit, at least until his parents were no longer in his living room. He reluctantly gave her one last kiss before pulling slightly away from her. But he kept her body tucked lightly against his own, not wanting to break all physical contact.
"Are you still scared?" he whispered.
"No," she answered throatily. "I could never be scared of you. Not anymore."
"You were scared of me? Why?"
"You make me feel … alive, Jon. And, feeling alive meant I could feel the pain from … before," she finished, her voice cracking. "It hurt."
He kissed her forehead tenderly. "Does it still hurt?"
"A little, but there's a lot more joy than pain in my life now. That's thanks to you. I miss my family but talking to you about it, and letting myself think about it — that's really helped a lot. I know I still have a lot to deal with but even so, I feel like a weight's been pulled from me. I feel like I could fly," she finished triumphantly.
"Give me a day or two and I'll give you a hand with that last thing," he offered, with a lopsided grin.
She smacked him lightly on the chest, grinned back and snuggled in close. He closed his arms around her, laid his head back on his pillow and heaved a happy sigh.
"Let's not wake them," Clark said quietly to his wife. "They need their sleep." He softly closed the door.
"For two comatose people, they did look pretty happy," Lois observed with a slightly wicked grin as they proceeded down the stairs.
"I did a quick x-ray of Jon's leg; it seems to be healing okay," Clark said, ignoring his wife's mischievous expression.
"Then we can go home? Finally?" Lois asked, impatiently.
"Yeah. I just want to write them a note — let them know about the bad guys."
"That had to be the most fortuitous traffic accident I've ever heard about in all my days as a journalist. Are you sure you didn't …?" she asked, making a nondescript hand gesture.
"Lois! After all these years, I'd think you'd know me better than that!" She smiled apologetically before he continued, "No, this one was perfectly innocent and I'm glad. I feel a little better knowing that it was instant, too. None of us even had a chance to save them — which is good. It would have been too tempting to …" He shook his head, his expression grim. "No, their bad luck was our good fortune in this case." He located a pad of paper and a pen, scribbled a quick note and anchored it to the fridge with a magnet.
"Serves them right," Lois said, virtuously. "They should have known better than to go up against my family."
Clark grinned as he led her towards the open window. "Yes, dear. And it looks like we're going to have a new addition to the family soon. How do you feel about her?"
"Well, she's a bit too intense, and too focused on her career, and I'm not thrilled that she has issues about families, and she certainly seems to have a mouth on her, but I can't complain about someone who saved our son's life."
"A bit too intense, huh? Too focused on her career, you say? Hmmm, she reminds me of a certain unnamed reporter I once fell in love with. As soon as I heard her making our son miserable as they walked home together, I knew she was the one for him!" Clark did a quick spin-change and scooped his petite wife up in his arms.
"Oh, you did, did you? You'll have to tell me more as soon as we get home." Lois giggled as she planted a flurry of kisses on Clark's neck. "How fast do you think you can get us there?"
A loud whoosh was her only answer. Jon and Larissa slept on, undisturbed by the noise.
Jon woke up with a gasp and a jolt. He was sitting up in bed before he even knew he was awake, his leg muscles screaming at him.
"What is it?" Larissa asked sleepily as she scrambled up off the bed.
"My leg!" he managed to gasp. He reached down to touch it only to recoil with a moan. That hurt!
"What's wrong? Is it the broken bone?" she asked, frantically.
"I don't know. It hurts. The muscles are tight, almost like they're tied in a knot."
"Oh." Larissa visibly relaxed. "It's just a cramp."
"Just a cramp?" Jon looked at her in disbelief. "You mean this is normal?"
"Uh huh." She nodded and reached for his foot. "Okay, Jon. I want you to push your foot against my hand. Start slow but gradually increase how hard you push. At the same time, point your toes back away from your heel. You have to be careful. Dr. Klein said your bone would have started to knit by now, but don't put too much stress on it, okay?"
"Like this?" Jon asked, carefully following her instructions.
"Yeah. How's that feel?"
"Better," Jon said in amazement. "It's actually feeling better." He relaxed as the pain started to drain away leaving only a residual tenderness.
Larissa let go of his foot and sat back down on the bed facing him.
"Thanks," he said, gratefully.
"You're welcome." She smiled. "I guess muscle cramps aren't something you've ever experienced before."
"No," he said, emphatically. "And I don't want to ever again!"
Jon looked at Larissa blankly, only now realising that they had fallen asleep together. He felt newly shy and awkward and didn't know what to say. He hoped that she didn't feel uncomfortable about the unplanned intimacy of their actions.
"So," he heard himself say, lamely.
She smiled. "So," she echoed. She didn't seem to be uncomfortable.
Jon wanted desperately to pull her back into his arms and kiss her. Before he could act on his impulse, though, he realised that his mouth was gummy and foul tasting and that the rest of him wasn't much better. He had been pretty filthy by the time they had escaped and his dad had only … dusted him around the edges, so to speak.
"Uh, maybe I better go get cleaned up," he said, plucking his sweaty T-shirt away from his chest.
"Will you be all right? Can you use your leg yet? You were able to push against my hand so I guess it's starting to get better, but …"
"I don't know. You said that Uncle Bernie thought it would be mostly better by tonight?"
"No, he said it wouldn't be better until tomorrow morning." She looked around the room, her gaze pausing at his clock that displayed 9 p.m. "I guess tomorrow morning is a LOT closer than it was when we fell asleep. Do you realise that we slept for almost nine hours?"
"We were tired. I don't know about you but I still am," Jon admitted. "I wonder if Mom and Dad are still here."
Larissa smiled. "I'll go look. Be right back."
She stood, straightened her robe, hastily ran her fingers through her sleep-dishevelled hair and left. It seemed like only a moment before she was back, waving a piece of paper in her hand.
"They're gone but they left a note for us." She passed it to him, beaming happily.
He quickly scanned the short letter written in his Dad's distinctive handwriting — the bad guys were dead? A traffic accident? Fantastic! It was also good to know that Kevin would recover. Larissa must be quite relieved. His eyes were drawn to the postscript under his father's scrawled signature.
"We won't be back until tomorrow morning to check on you. Your mother and I felt that you two deserved some peace and quiet. Call if you need us." The words 'tomorrow morning' and 'you two' jumped off the page at Jon. He felt himself blush at the implications. He and Larissa were alone together? And would be until the morning? They had been alone together before but this — this was different now.
"Leon, Anatoly, Sergey, they're all dead," he stammered, hardly able to believe it.
"I know. It seems like such an anticlimax, but I'm not going to complain," Larissa said with a heartfelt sigh of relief. "That guy, Anatoly, he was the scariest guy I've ever met." She shuddered a bit as she remembered.
"Hey, it's okay." Jon carefully gathered her into his arms and gave her a gentle squeeze before quickly releasing her once again.
He found himself gazing deeply into her eyes, trapped in their depths, unwilling to look away. They froze, looking at each other. Jon could feel a wave of heat radiating through his whole body, every nerve ending thrilling at her presence.
She blinked and looked down, suddenly feeling very shy around him.
"I guess I better go get cleaned up," he repeated.
"Will you be able to manage?" she asked, looking up once again.
He pulled himself up, balancing on his one foot before carefully placing his other foot on the floor. He tried to take a step, only to shake his head.
"I can use my leg for balance even if I can't walk on it. At least it doesn't hurt. But it won't support my weight. I should be okay to take a shower. There are a ton of safety rails I can grab hold of if I need to. I had them put into both bathrooms for when my grandparents came to visit."
"If you're sure you can manage, I'll go have a shower, too. I feel pretty grubby, also. But I'll help you to the bathroom first, and then I'm going to change your bed. Where are your clean sheets?"
Jon quickly pointed out the linen closet. Larissa moved to him and pulled his arm over her shoulders. He hobbled slowly to the washroom, totally distracted by the feel of her body so close to his. For the first time, he was aware that all he was wearing was a pair of sleep shorts and a T-shirt. He could feel the heat from her body, the silky nightgown brushing against him as they moved together. He felt an embarrassing ache in his groin and was thankful that they only had a few steps more to get to the washroom, to the privacy that he so suddenly needed to preserve his dignity.
Larissa pulled away from him as he grabbed hold of the doorframe. He mumbled a brief 'thank you' over his shoulder and closed the door behind him, moving so quickly that he nearly lost his balance. Once the door was closed, he just rested, his back to it, breathing hard, trying to calm down.
Larissa quickly stripped the bed and worked on changing it. The whole time, she was very aware of Jon in the bathroom behind the closed door. She heard the tap running and imagined him brushing his teeth. Then, she imagined he was stripping his clothes off slowly. He wouldn't do it quickly — his leg would slow him down too much. No, first he would sit on the edge of the tub and stretch his long, well-muscled legs out in front of him. Then he would reach down and grasp the edge of his T-shirt with his two strong hands and with one quick motion, would whip it over his head, revealing his smooth, taut chest, all his muscles rippling as he moved and then …
Larissa came back to herself and realised that, although she had finished changing the sheets, she was hugging his pillow as hard as she could. Blushing furiously, she plumped it up again and put it at the head of his bed. She left the room and hurried to the guest bedroom, feeling barely in control of herself.
She reached the sanctuary of the bathroom and firmly closed the door behind her, breathing hard. Dimly, through the wall, she heard his shower start. It scared her how much she wanted to go and be with him. She stripped her nightgown off and coolly surveyed her body in the mirror. Would he be disappointed in her? Did he want her as much as she wanted him? She looked back at the mirror and looked herself in the eyes. The real question was, did she want to do this? Yes, she admitted to herself. She was terrified; she had no idea what to do, but she wanted to be with him in every way possible. There was no reason for her to wait. But did he feel the same way? She didn't know and she didn't know how to ask. <Maybe, I should just do what I want to do,> she thought. <Maybe I should give in to what my instincts are telling me to do.> She looked herself in the eyes for another long moment, and then, her decision made, left the room, leaving her robe and nightgown behind.
Jon stood directly under the spray of the shower to rinse off, the soap and water washing away the sweat and the grime. He wondered if Larissa had started her own shower yet. He couldn't hear the water running but until his powers were back, that didn't mean anything. He imagined her standing, naked and proud, the water splashing off her body.
The ache in his groin intensified. Oh, how he wanted her, but he didn't want to rush her into anything. What they had between them — it was too important to take chances. No, she had to want him as utterly and completely as he wanted her. But he could fantasize in the meantime, couldn't he? He smiled wryly to himself as he shampooed his hair. He decided that he had better do more than fantasize if he wanted to retain even a small modicum of self-control around her. Eyes closed, he thrust his head back under the cleansing spray of the shower to rinse out the suds. It was for this reason he didn't notice the lithe feminine figure joining him in the shower. His first inkling that anything had changed came when two arms encircled his waist.
"Careful, don't fall," she murmured as she pressed her body up against his back.
"What are you doing?" He spluttered and coughed, having inadvertently inhaled a mouthful of water.
"Do you want me to leave?" she asked, sounding hurt.
He felt her freeze in position behind him.
"God, no!" he exclaimed. "I just wondered, um, what … why …?"
"I was worried about you," she said, huskily. "I was afraid that you might, um, drop the soap and then slip and fall when you tried to pick it up."
Jon chuckled. "Oh! So you're just being a good Samaritan, are you?"
"Oh, absolutely," she confirmed, her hands splayed across his firm chest. "Just being a good neighbour, so to speak." He felt her smile, her face pressed into his shoulder.
"Oh, Larissa, I love you."
"I love you, too, Jon. And now … just hold still. Please." She stood behind him, her body pressed close to his back. Her hands roamed across his chest. A shudder ran through his body. "Do you have any idea how much I want to touch you? I've been dreaming about it since we were in your studio and you took off your shirt," she said, softly, nipping lightly at his ear with her teeth.
"I want to touch you, too," Jon said, urgently.
"But you're the one at my mercy," she whispered throatily. "So you're just going to have to hold still and take it like a man," she murmured as she reached for the soap.
Quite a few minutes later, Larissa closed her eyes and gave herself over to the warmth of his embrace, almost swooning in her excitement. It was her turn to groan as she felt his free hand run lightly up and down her back.
"Maybe we should stop," she gasped. "You've been standing on that leg for a while."
"Oh, you're probably right. But I think I can stand on it for a few minutes more." He bent his head and nuzzled her neck. She pressed herself closer, moulding her body to his. He straightened up and looked down at her, his eyes heavy-lidded. "You're beautiful, Larissa," he said breathlessly. "You have a beautiful body."
"Thank you, Jon," she answered solemnly.
He bent down to kiss her once more when his leg collapsed under him. She grabbed him quickly, preventing him from falling.
"Much as I'm enjoying this, Jon, I think that's our cue to move to a different location."
"I think you're right," he said breathlessly.
Larissa slithered past Jon to turn off the water, even that small amount of contact stoking the excitement deep within her. He hobbled out of the shower and perched on the edge of the tub. She gave him a couple of his large, soft bath sheets and took a couple for herself. As she dried herself, her eyes kept drifting to him, to his body, admiring the sheer masculine beauty in front of her. She felt the colour rising in her cheeks as she realised that he was admiring her, too. She wrapped one of the large towels around her like a sarong as he stood and wrapped another around his waist.
"Here, let me help you." Larissa moved to him to offer him her shoulder once more. He pulled her to him, kissed her deeply and then took her up on her offer.
It only took them a moment to get him back to his bed. As he slid between the clean sheets, he pulled the towel away from his body. Larissa felt her breath catch in her throat, overwhelmed by his sheer masculinity, but, without saying anything, took the towel, returned it to the bathroom to dry as well as her own. Feeling suddenly very shy, she paused for a moment and took a couple of deep breaths before heading back out of the bathroom feeling very, very naked.
He was lying on his side, propped up on one elbow, the sheet barely covering him. His eyes widened as she approached. She felt an odd mix of excitement and shyness at his regard.
"Stop," he said, softly as she got close. "Please, let me look at you." He swung his legs to the side of the bed and sat on the edge, the sheet falling away from him.
He reached up and with one finger, traced the line of her body from her shoulder, down her side past her rib cage, ending at the fullness of her hips. "Do you know how much I want to paint you like this, beautiful and powerful and sensual? I've dreamed of it. You have the most beautiful body I've ever seen, Larissa, and the most beautiful soul of anyone I've ever met." He looked up at her, his dark eyes glowing. "I want to take you to my studio. And then, I want to slowly strip all your clothes off you. I want to carry you, naked in my arms to the couch and lay you down on it. And then I want to paint you, as you lay there waiting for me to touch you. Will you let me, Larissa? Will you let me paint you like that?"
Larissa swallowed before breathing one word. "Yes." She licked her lips and cleared her throat. "Oh, Jon, I love you."
"I love you, too." He wrapped his arms around her as she stood tall and proud in front of him. His head came to rest on her chest. Resting her arms on his shoulders, she curved her upper body around him. Larissa was content to hold him, her excitement banked for a moment.
It flared to life, however, when he turned his head and lightly kissed her. She gasped at the shock that ran through her. Jon pulled his mouth away from her, kissed her gently once again then looked up at her. His eyes glittered with excitement.
"I enjoyed being at your mercy," he said softly.
She smiled, still feeling a little smug. "I'm glad."
"But now it's your turn to be at my mercy," he said, his voice suddenly husky.
"You don't have to …" she said, suddenly breathless.
"I want to. I want to make you feel things you've never felt before."
"Oh, Jon, you already have," Larissa whispered. "You don't have to …" she repeated, feeling very shy and excited and nervous all at once.
"You don't want me to?" he asked, looking up, his eyes fixed on her face.
She closed her eyes a moment against the intensity of his gaze. "Oh, Jon," she breathed. "Yes, I do."
They kissed and caressed each other for a long time. He was content to hold Larissa close to him.
The way she responded delighted him. She was so open, nothing held back. He had been afraid, so afraid that there would still be walls between them, but she had breached them fearlessly, more than meeting him halfway. His grip tightened around her protectively as he realised anew how much she had been hurt emotionally. It made her new openness that much more precious to him.
"I've never felt like that before," she said, shyly, her words like a gift.
"Neither have I," he answered, nuzzling her neck.
"It scared me a little at the end — how you made me feel."
"I know what you mean," he whispered. "I felt as if I were losing myself to you. I had to trust you."
"Yes," she breathed. "That's it, exactly."
He felt her shiver a bit, the air cold on their overheated flesh. Taking it as a cue to move, Jon tugged the blankets up over the two of them. He pulled her close, her hands tucked up under her chin, his arms around her. "Are you all right?" he asked her again as he kissed her forehead tenderly.
"Mmmm hmmm," she answered as she snuggled closer to him.
"I didn't hurt you?"
"No." She nuzzled his neck and ear, kissing and lightly licking his sensitive skin, making him shiver a bit.
"I didn't know you were a virgin …" Jon started to say.
"Does it matter?" she interrupted, her voice husky.
"No, but I would have been more …"
"More what, Jon?" Larissa interrupted once again. "More careful? More loving?" She kissed him passionately. "You were perfect."
"So were you," he whispered. "How did you know …? You were wonderful; I don't understand … How did you get to be so good?" he finally blurted out.
"In other words, you have no complaints, I gather?" she asked, with a grin.
He laughed. "Oh, none, not one. No complaints — that's right. But seriously, how…?"
"I used my imagination. I imagined what I would like to do to you and with you and then I just … did it."
He laughed again, shook his head and kissed her forehead tenderly. "You have a wonderful imagination. I'm already looking forward to, uh, stimulating your creativity once more."
"Oh, you are, are you?" She laughed. "And should I ask how you got to be so good? I'll forgive you the women who taught you if you promise to give them up for me." She fluttered her eyelashes at him with a look of innocence plastered on her face.
"I can't. I mean, I do. I mean … uh, that thing that you aren't any more …"
"A virgin," she said, helpfully.
"Yeah, well, I'm not any more, either."
"Uh huh. I guess I have a good imagination, too."
Jon eyed Larissa who eyed him right back. They started to grin and then to chuckle and then to laugh.
"Oh, Jon!" Larissa said, between giggles. "God help us when we've practiced. We'll never survive the experience!"
"Oh, I don't know. Practice does make perfect." He chuckled before kissing her passionately once again.
"Yes, it does, doesn't it?" she said, her amusement fleeing. "Care to … practice again?" she asked, delicately.
"Oh yeah," he growled into her ear as his hands moved up her body. "Oh, yeah."
Epilogue — Two Weeks Later
Lee watched, wide-eyed, as her new Aunt Lissa — not Larry! Never call her Larry! — and Uncle Jon kissed in front of the judge. She had never been to a wedding before, but this was different from what she had expected.
Aunt Lissa didn't have a veil or a long dress or anything although she was carrying flowers. And they hadn't wanted to have a flower girl either, Lee pouted to herself. They had said that there wasn't time to organize a big wedding. But they didn't have to get married this fast, did they? They could have waited, couldn't they?
Lee didn't buy it for a minute. She figured it was just like she had heard her new aunt say to her grandma on the night that Lee had first met her. She thought Lee was a freak, just like Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa Kent. She didn't want a freak in her wedding. But what about Uncle Jon? Wasn't he a freak too? And what about her Aunt Marty or her Aunt Vicky? There was a lot she couldn't figure out about this. She'd have to do more thinking about the whole thing.
She knew one thing, though. She didn't like her new aunt very much. It was bad enough that her new aunt didn't like her, but she was also making her Uncle Jon move to Washington — just because that's where her job was. Lee was pretty mad. She didn't want Uncle Jon to not visit her as much any more. Unfortunately, being the self-sufficient little girl that she was, Lee never even thought of discussing any of this with anyone. She kept it all to herself.