Strength

By Beth Summerson <bethsummeron@yahoo.ca>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: November 2008

Summary: Continuing with the author's series that began with "Honesty" and continued with "Fidelity," this story takes the perspective of different characters within the same universe. And a whole new set of challenges.

This is a continuation of my series that starts with Honesty, and continues with Fidelity. I would really recommend reading those stories first before you get to this one, in order to make sense of the characters. They are both available on the archive.

Thanks very much to my two excellent betas, Nancy and Carol, for giving me great ideas, tons of laughs, indulging my anal tendencies and neuroses, and for catching all my silly typos.

Thanks also to everyone on the Lois and Clark Fic boards [http://www.lcficmbs.com/ubb/ultimatebb.php] for the great feedback and support, and for answering my questions and giving me inspiration.

Lastly, thanks to the team at the archive website for working so hard to get this uploaded. You guys are the greatest.

In order to make things easy, please remember that flashbacks in this story are marked off with

***

I hope you enjoy the story! All types of feedback are much appreciated. Positive or negative, public or private.

***

Chapter One

*~Jay~*

We tumbled onto the sofa together. Probably a good thing as I wasn't sure my legs would've held out much longer. Our tongues danced together as we teased each other with our touches. Her fingers played up my back, her touch light and delicate, yet each point of contact joined together to create a fiery trail. I was no stranger to kissing girls, but somehow with her ... it was different. Breaking our kiss for a moment, I pulled back to look at her. Soft hair tumbled around her face in disarray, and her sharp brown eyes flashed up at me.

"Get back down here," she commanded breathlessly. "I'm not done with you yet." She grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back down toward her. I didn't really have any reason to object.

When I first felt it, I pushed it aside, hoping that it would pass. But then her hard fingers bit into my shoulder once again, and I couldn't restrain the grunt of pain that squeezed past my lips. There was a blur of motion beneath me, and she was gone. Confused, I sat up and looked around the room, wondering where she had disappeared to. I found her standing at the opposite end of the room, as far away from me as possible.

"It happened again, didn't it?" she asked frantically, twisting her hands together in knots. "Jay, I am so--"

"Ellie, don't--"

"I knew we shouldn't have done this," she interrupted with frustration. "What did I ..." She was afraid to form the words. "Where is ... How bad is it this time?"

"I'm fine," I told her comfortingly. "Maybe I'll have a bit of a bruise tomorrow, but I've gone through worse before, trust me." I rotated my shoulder experimentally. Despite it being a little sore, I was telling the truth when I said it wasn't too bad. Ellie was watching me with a frozen expression on her face. "Ellie, it's okay," I told her, taking a step toward her. "It's not your fault."

"Yes," she snapped, flinching away from me, "it is!"

***

*~Ellie~*

Jay's living room seemed to be twice the size it normally was as I stood awkwardly against the wall.

"I am so sorry," I spoke quietly, finally daring to break the oppressive silence. But I still wasn't ready to look at him.

"I'm fine Ellie," he told me again. "It's nothing serious."

I took a step toward him. "Do you mind if I take a look at it?" I asked tentatively.

"Go ahead." He angled his body so I had a better line of vision, and I moved to sit beside him. Concentrating, I let my eyes slide past his skin and focus on the flesh underneath. I gulped as I saw the mangled blood vessels and damaged muscles.

"I just don't understand why any of this is happening!" I told him in frustration. "I've never had this problem before."

"Well, we have been pushing things further lately," he suggested.

"You're hardly the first guy I've made out with, Jay."

"Are you telling me that I have competition?" he teased. But I wasn't in the mood for it tonight.

"I'm going to figure this out," I promised him. "I should've started running tests the first time it happened, but I thought it was just a fluke."

Jay reached up to stroke my hair. "There's no rush, Ellie," he said. "In the meantime, we can just be careful. I can live with that until we have things figured out."

"But I can't!" I objected, pushing away his hand. "How are we supposed to be dating if I can't even touch you without hurting you?"

"There's more to a relationship than physical contact."

"But how can you have one without it?"

"C'mon, it's not like you're going to crush me every time you lay a finger on me. Like I said before, we'll just be careful. Not get too carried away." He reached him hand forward, inviting me to take it. I smiled, and extended my own. But then a brief spasm of pain crossed over his face has he worked his injured arm. He hid it well, but I had seen it immediately.

I stood abruptly. "You know, it's getting late. I should get going."

"Wait, Ellie, you don't have to--"

"I'll see you later, Jay," I told him, nearly tripping over my own feet as I made a quick exit. I raced to remove myself as far as possible from the situation. That was twice now that I had accidentally hurt him. Normally, I was perfectly in control of all my abilities. Yet I hadn't even noticed that I was gripping too hard until he protested. Was this supposed to be normal for me?

Unlikely, I told myself. Dad would have mentioned something about it before.

And how was Jay taking this? It isn't everyday that you get a girlfriend who physically damages you during every make-out session.

What a lucky guy.

***

*~Jay~*

It had been a rookie mistake. But then again, that's what we were that one night when we were so young and green and inexperienced when the treacherous moon shone down and betrayed us with the rustling of a branch and the huff of a breath that slid through the air into enemy ears that were close so close too close to miss it when it crept out to our despair and we tried to cover it up but we were too late to protect ourselves and before we knew it I was caught and was faced with the wildness in those dangerous eyes that clawed at my face and tore at my skin and ripped me apart to cold exposure that was filled up with mud in my eyes and mouth and nose and ears as I gasped, choked, wheezed, and felt the pull and stretch of my muscles being pushed to their limit and beyond and of course those soulless hands and feet didn't care but just kept pushing until I finally was able to breathe in the room with the chair and the door that wasn't a door but a wicked taunting taste of freedom that I never was to be given but always teased with, tortured with alongside the pain oh the pain that started a gentle massage then grew and grew and grew grew grew until it was all I could see besides that twisted mouth and those evil eyes and that snarling face and I screamed and I screamed and I screamed and then she woke me up.

***

*~Ellie~*

I didn't dare go into the bedroom. There was an invisible barrier marked by the doorway that I couldn't bring myself to cross. So instead I clung to the frame and watched him toss around in the dark, trying to get his bearings. I saw him squint, attempting to see in what was undoubtedly difficult conditions for him.

"Ellie?" he finally asked, with confusion.

I was suddenly embarrassed at my presence. I had broken into his apartment in the middle of the night and was now standing outside his bedroom. "Yeah, it's me," I confirmed. "Sorry. I was just... flying around and I... I heard you and I just wanted to come check and see if you were okay."

"Oh," he replied flatly. "Sure, I'm okay. Why wouldn't I be?"

"You were screaming... " I whispered, puncturing his false bravado.

"It was just a dream," he told me, his eyes shuttered. "Sorry I made you worry."

"Jay... " I began, not really sure how to help him. Something was obviously disturbing him. He shifted again in bed, and his covers slid down and exposed his chest. A lump grew in my throat as I saw the large purple mark that had blossomed on his shoulder.

I had done that.

"What?" he asked me, and I realized that I had stopped speaking.

"Nothing," I said hastily, averting my eyes from the bruise. "I'll um... let you get back to sleep."

"Okay. Good night, Ellie."

"Good night, Jay," I managed to choke out before I flew from the room as fast as I could.

***

Chapter Two

*~Jay~*

The phone rang five times before she finally picked it up. "M'lo," she muttered, her voice still thick with sleep. I grinned happily. This was going to be fun.

"Good morning, Kaylie! Happy birthday!"

The line was silent for a minute, and then she groaned loudly. "Jay, I'm going to kill you. It's five am!"

"Five thirteen to be exact. The very minute that you were born. What could be a better birthday present than this?"

"How about an extra hour and a half of sleep?"

"Well that's too bad, because that's definitely not what you're getting."

The phone clicked in my ear as she hung up, and I smiled happily. Kaylie had never been much of a morning person and that had been a source of endless entertainment for me when we were growing up. And no matter what I did to her, she never stayed mad for long. It was nice to be able to do things like this again. And sure enough, at five twenty-six exactly, my phone rang.

"Hello!" I answered cheerfully.

"Happy birthday," came the grudging greeting.

"Why thank you!" I exclaimed. "How thoughtful! See? *That* is how you properly receive birthday greetings. You don't hang up on the person."

"Yeah, whatever. Because you woke me up so early, I'm making you entertain me until I have to go into work."

"I'll meet up with you for a run," I volunteered.

"Jay," she said in exasperation, "you're *seriously* overestimating my capability to function this early. You're lucky we're even having this conversation."

"Fine. Tell me what you and Jon have planned for today once you both get off."

"Wedding invitations," she sighed.

"This early?"

"Well, we're not actually sending them out yet," she told me. "We just have to pick out the design of them and stuff."

"Sounds like fun," I commented dubiously.

"It's not," she admitted. "But it does need to be done. What kind of wedding would it be if no one showed up?"

"An intimate one?" I suggested.

"Ha ha. Not happening. Oh, hey, is today the day you've got that interview?"

"Yeah."

"Well, good luck."

"Thanks. It's not going to be as exciting as what I did before, but I have to do something, you know?"

"Yeah," she replied quietly, "I know what you mean." I was glad that she didn't elaborate any further. My discharge from the NIA had been a difficult subject between us, especially because Kaylie was still working with them. I understood her need to continue, yet it still did nothing to stop the jealousy and anger I felt whenever I remembered my time at the agency.

***

I had never felt more awful than when I woke up that day. I blinked blearily, trying to clear my vision, but refrained from moving my head, which felt like it had been drilled to the bed. I swallowed dryly, yearning for a glass of water; yet not ready to put the effort toward getting one. I was busy weighing the pros and cons when I was interrupted by a voice.

"You're awake."

"I guess so," I croaked. I felt a plastic straw tickle the corner of my mouth and I took a grateful sip.

"Are you lucid?"

"Would I be the best judge of that if I wasn't?" I remembered flashes of images, horrific things I had imagined returning in a ghostly form.

"When you showed up on our doorstep you were muttering something about an evil woman who was trying to suck your brain out." The image made me shiver. "It took you hours to calm down and almost two days for the fever to go away."

"Sounds like some trip. Too bad I can't remember any of it."

"I wouldn't really call this a laughing matter," the voice reprimanded me sternly. I was familiar with that tone.

"Is that you, Porter?"

"Yes. You were dumped outside the Metropolis NIA headquarters. I recognized you and got you this room."

"Metropolis?" How had I gotten here? I was supposed to be in L.A. Or at least I thought I was... Did I go somewhere after that? I was having a hard time thinking straight.

"Jason, I know this is a bad time for you, but we really need to find out all you can remember. Your mission's already been compromised and we need to be able to do some damage control fast."

It had been severely compromised, I realized. If they dumped me at the NIA, then they knew what I was up to. "Is Kaylie okay?" I asked urgently.

"She's fine," Porter replied. I could hear the frown in his voice. "She has no connection to this case."

"No, of course she does," I insisted. "You know this. She's working... " Why was it so hard to remember this? "She's working at a... night club or something." I started to push myself up from the bed, ignoring my protesting body.

"Jay, do you know the date?" Porter suddenly asked me, his voice heavy with concern.

"It's May... something. I dunno. I've been unconscious for two days. I've kind of lost track.

"No. It's not May. It's August," he corrected me.

"What? No. It's not. I've been a little out of it, but not that far."

"That case that Kaylie was working on is over. You've been working on something different for some time now." I finally got a good look at him, and I could see that he was peering intently at me through his glasses.

I chased the teasing scraps of memory around my brain, but came up empty. "What was I working on?" I finally asked helplessly.

"A device that can target and remove specific memories from a subject's brain. We were unsure of its actual existence, but now I guess we've finally gotten some proof," he told me dryly.

"What? You think I... "

"You can't remember the last four months. You tell me what must've happened."

"I want to see the reports I sent in," I told Porter. That would help trigger my memory. I was sure it was just the drugs that had me muddled.

"You're not going to see anything," Porter said sharply. "We're taking you off this case."

"No, you don't have to do that. I'll be fine."

"You have no way of knowing that," Porter snapped. "Who knows what happened to you or what you gave away under the influence?"

I had to admit that he was right. "Fine. I'll pass this case over to someone else."

"Not only this case," Porter told me, shaking his head. "We've got no choice, Jason. You're being let go."

***

I tugged on my tie for about the tenth time since I had sat down. Who designed these things anyway? And why did they have to be so uncomfortable? I glanced up at the receptionist again, and she smiled sympathetically from behind the large front desk.

"Sorry about the wait."

"Not your fault," I replied in a clipped tone, not really wanting to make conversation.

"Usually Mr. Carter is very punctual, but today there was an important meeting that went over time."

"It's okay," I told her.

"Are you sure I can't get you a cup of coffee?"

"I'm fine," I replied firmly.

"Or if you want I could run and grab some juice or water something. I should've thought of that before, you look like a pretty healthy guy." Her eyes slid appreciatively over me.

I pulled on my tie again. "No thanks. I'm fine just sitting here."

The phone rang at last, and I had to sigh with relief when she answered it. "He's ready for you now," she told me. "Just go on through the door."

"Thanks," I muttered. Anxious to get out of her sight, I opened the door and slipped into the office. The man behind the desk was as disheveled as the desk itself. His shirt buttons strained against poundage he was obviously trying to ignore, and his remaining hair stuck up at odd angles.

"Jason Stewart!" he shouted jovially at my entrance. He stood up and I walked over to him to give a handshake. I had never been to a job interview before, but I'm told that's something you do in the business world.

"Mr. Carter," I replied.

"Please, please! Call me Trent!" He invited me to sit down with a gesture, and I complied, reminding myself once again to leave my tie alone. "Okay, let's see... let's see... " he picked up a piece of paper from his desk that I assumed to be my resume. "Hmm... you don't have much experience, do you?"

"Well, not really," I admitted.

"So, what have you been doing these past few years then? You're what? Twenty-five?"

"Yes," I replied cautiously.

"Just turned twenty-five today!" he noted, glancing over the page. "Happy birthday."

"Thanks."

"So what's up with that? Parents finally cutting you off?" his small eyes twinkled stupidly, and I had to remind myself that punching an interviewer would be considered improper behavior in the business world.

"Not exactly," I spoke around my clenched jaw. "I've just been pursuing other interests up until now."

"You haven't been doing anything illegal, have you?" 'Trent' frowned disapprovingly.

"Of course not!" I exclaimed.

"Sorry, Jace," he threw his hands up in the air defensively. "Just had to ask."

"Right," I growled. I had always hated 'Jace'.

"So why do you want to work here?"

"Well, I want to work at a place where I can make a difference," I told Carter, happy to finally stick to a sane topic. "And I know this company has had an active role in contributing positively to both local and international causes."

"Right," he said distractedly. "I guess we do. I don't really pay attention to that stuff."

"Oh."

Carter paused for a moment, thinking. "But you know, even though you don't really have any experience, I think you might do well in sales. You're a good looking guy. You've got a clean appearance. We could send you to some female clients and you would get a good response."

I blinked, my hand frozen on the knot of my tie. "I'm sorry... Are you suggesting I flirt with clients to get sales?"

"Maybe," he shrugged. "And with a guy like you... Well, who knows where things might go?" He gave a sickening grin.

"I have a girlfriend," I told him distractedly, still trying to wrap my mind around what this guy was proposing.

"Too bad. But then again, what she doesn't know... " he trailed off suggestively. "Anyway, we'd have to pair you up with someone for the first bit. Just until you learn the ropes. But with time... You could start to crank out a fairly decent salary."

"Uh huh." I tried to ignore the sick feeling in my stomach.

"But you don't have to give me an answer right away. Take the rest of the day to think it over."

"Right. Um... okay," I muttered distractedly. "I already know now that this isn't going to work."

"Really? You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure." I stood quickly, anxious to get out of the room.

"Well, your loss," he shrugged. "Just know that you can't live in your parents' basement forever, okay?"

"I'll... keep that in mind." I gave him a tight smile, and took great pleasure in refusing to shake his hand on the way out.

I threw my tie into the garbage outside the building.

***

*~Ellie~*

He looked so peaceful lying there in his lounge chair; I didn't really want to disturb him. Yet I had flown down here for the very purpose of talking to him, and I didn't really want to wait until his long nap was done.

"Psst! Doc!" I whispered softly close to his ear. Of course, his snores were louder than my whispers, so they did no good. Really, for a world renowned scientist, you'd think he'd at least know to get tested for sleep apnea. "Dr. Klein!" I whispered a little louder, shaking him gently. He started, and opened his eye, blinking myopically in my direction.

"Ellie?" he asked blearily.

"Is this a bad time?" I asked guiltily.

"No, not at all!" He blinked the last traces of drowsiness from his eyes and sat up in the chair. "I've been hoping you would come visit sometime soon. I've just gotten a very interesting development on my research with the jellyfish. Come to the lab and I'll show you."

I was tempted. Some of the stuff he's done is really cool. But I had come here for a purpose and it wouldn't do to get distracted. "Actually, Dr. Klein, I came here for some help," I told him.

"Oh? What is it?"

"Well... " I was hesitant to speak now that I was seeing him in person. "I know you talk to Uncle Brad a lot and everything... But if I were to tell you something, we'd still have... doctor-patient confidentiality, right?"

"Well, Ellie, I see no reason why you'd have any difficulty conceiving. Your genetic makeup is nearly identical to that of a human with the exception of--"

"That's not what I was talking about!" I interrupted, my face flushed.

"Oh! Sorry," he apologized. "That's what your father wanted to know when he asked me that."

"Well, that... concern is far from what I need right now. I mean, it would be almost a relief if we had to worry about that," I added to myself. Right now, it was impossible for us to even get that far.

"You're not pregnant, are you?" he asked sharply.

"No!"

"Just wondering."

"No, I'm not. I haven't even... That wasn't what I was going to ask." And now he had me all flustered.

"So what is it?" he asked patiently.

"Well, you know that I've been seeing Jay," I began.

He nodded. "You know, you still haven't brought him to meet me yet," he told me reproachfully.

"Sometime," I promised. "Anyway, things are going pretty good between us and everything. But lately... I've been kind of having this problem." I fixed my eyes on my lap. "I'm having problems keeping control."

"Ellie, you and Jay will have to learn to set boundaries," he told me sternly. "And he shouldn't push you any further than what you're comfortable with. I can't believe that he's--"

"No! Doc, that's not it!" I corrected him hastily. "I meant that I'm not in control of my powers. I've... I've hurt him. Accidentally, of course, but I didn't even know that it was happening at the time."

"Really?" His eyebrows pinched together as he though over the problem. "Have you had any problems controlling your powers any other time?"

"No. Never."

"Hmm... I think I'd like you to come into the lab for a moment," he told me. "I'll run some tests." He strained to get up, and I reached to help him. Nodding gratefully, he toddled off to the lab with me following behind. "You know, I'm surprised you didn't talk to your uncle about this," he told me. "Although I still dabble a bit here and there, he's far more up to date on the latest research."

"I know," I replied as we entered the lab space. It was actually a room in his house that he had renovated with all the necessary equipment. Although he had been officially retired ever since he moved out to Florida, Dr. Klein still actively researched everything under the sun. "But I really didn't want everyone to get worried about this," I continued. "And if I tell Uncle Brad, he'll tell Aunt Lucy, and then she'll tell the whole family."

"Don't touch that glass tank," he warned me. "You'll interfere with the test results."

"Is this for that phytoplankton thing?" I asked as I bent down to take a closer look.

"Yes. It's actually quite fascinating. You see, I've managed to isolate the specific gene that impacts the pigmentation of this species."

"Isn't that due to chlorophyll?"

"Not in this case. Noctiluca scintillans doesn't get its energy from the sun. Instead, it feeds off other species of plankton. Anyway, I've managed to breed this species in various different colors. As you can see here."

"That's so cool," I told him as I stared in fascination at the gelatinous blob floating in the tank. Although Mom and Dad had often complained of his habit of spiraling off into strange tangents, I always found any time I spent with the doctor to be extremely valuable.

"So let's test out your powers," he told me. "We'll see how you're managing so far."

He ran me through a battery of tests designed to determine the degree of control I had. They were all very familiar, and I performed them with ease, noticing no real difference in my performance.

"Everything looks fine," Dr. Klein finally told me. I was a little frustrated by the findings. Obviously, the effects were sporadic, but I wasn't about to invite Dr. Klein over the next time I was lying down on Jay's couch.

"Can you think of anything that might explain this?" I asked him in desperation.

"The only thing I can think of is when your dad was exposed to Red Kryptonite years ago and his powers went into overdrive," he suggested. "But then it was as if everything was out of control all the time. Nothing like this."

"But Red Kryptonite could be causing this."

"It's possible," he shrugged. "Red K has been pretty temperamental over the years. We still don't really know the effects for sure."

"At least it's a starting place."

"You should ask your father about this," he suggested. "He might know something."

"Oh, I don't think so," I shook my head. "At least, not yet. I'd rather just see if I can figure this out by myself first."

"It's your decision. But I really think you should--"

"Hey, didn't you say something about jellyfish earlier?" The distraction worked perfectly. His eyes lit up, and he immediately launched into a lecture on his latest findings.

It wasn't as if I planned on lying to my family about this whole situation. It's just that they didn't really need to know about it now. Something was holding me back from telling them. Embarrassment, maybe? Probably. After all, I was supposed to be in control of these powers. I had been dealing with them for over ten years. And yet I was still bruising my boyfriend on a regular basis? It was best to just solve this on my own and not get anyone involved. How hard would that be, anyway?

***

Chapter Three

*~Ellie~*

I couldn't hear them talking anymore, but I still wasn't ready to venture out of my room, where I had been cocooned for almost half an hour. Jon had barely been able to explain what he had stumbled across in Mom and Dad's closet. And when they finally got home... Well, that was one parental lecture I listened to attentively. I still couldn't quite believe it. I'm the daughter of a superhero. Whoa. And Dad is Superman. When he first told me, I didn't even believe it. He had to float in the air to prove it to Jon and me. And even that didn't do it, so he took off his glasses and smoothed back his hair to show that he looked like Superman. But he didn't actually change into Superman, which I was kinda glad about. It was weird enough seeing him without glasses, but at least he was still my dad like that.

Jon was really upset about the whole thing, though. He ran into his room and wouldn't come out even with Mom and Dad trying to convince him to open the door. It had been quiet for a while now, but I didn't really know what was going on until Dad knocked and came into my room.

"How's Jon?" I asked quietly, putting my book aside.

"He's still upset," Dad replied. "How are you taking this, Ellie?"

"I'm okay, I guess," I told him, picking at a stray thread on my jeans. "I'm just still trying to understand everything, you know?"

"I know what you mean. If you have any questions, don't be afraid to ask, okay?"

The image of Dad floating at the kitchen table came back to me again. "Can you show me that... floaty thing again?" I felt unusually shy in asking that, but Dad just smiled and went ahead and did it. "Wow," I gaped, as I stared at the spectacle. "So... do you think that because I'm your daughter I might... you know... be able to do stuff like that?"

"Mom and I weren't sure about that for a long time," he told me, dropping down to the floor again. "But just a few minutes ago, your brother accidentally tore his door off the hinges."

"Oh," I gulped. "So that's going to happen to me too?" That really scared me. How was I supposed to go through life if I wrecked everything that I touched?

"Well, it might be difficult to control any powers you get at first," Dad told me. "But you'll get the hang of it. When I was growing up it was sometimes difficult to learn how to use a new ability, but Grandma and Grandpa helped me out. Just like Mom and I will with you."

"Okay." Although it would be really neat to have powers and everything, I wasn't crazy about learning to control them. I hadn't really thought about it before, but I guess that it would be kind of hard at first to get used to it.

"Ellie, I know that must scare you," Dad comforted me. "And right now you're probably thinking through a lot of things. And it's okay to be angry at me for not telling you sooner. We shouldn't have kept this from you for so long, and I'm sorry we did. But we're going to be here helping you every step of the way. Or at least however much you want us to."

"I'm not mad at you," I shook my head. "I actually think it's pretty cool."

"You do?"

"Well, yeah. C'mon, Dad! You're famous! And you do all these cool things. Like catch bullets and fry things with your eyes and... Hey, how fast can you actually fly?"

"Well, I've never really timed myself... "

"You haven't? Dad!"

"Sorry, Sweetie," he shrugged. "I guess I just never had your curiosity. And I don't know what kind of instruments can actually measure my speed. Most would just be overwhelmed, I think."

"Well, I'm going to figure that out," I decided.

"Okay," he smiled.

"Hey, Dad... " I began, shy once again.

"Yeah?"

"You know how you sometimes fly people out of danger and stuff if they need it?"

"Sure. Most of the time, it's the fastest and easiest way to do it."

"Well, do you ever give rides to people just for fun?" I asked, trying to be casual.

"Maybe," he teased me in a singsong voice. "But there's one thing you should know about my pleasure flights."

"What's that?" I tried to keep my mounting enthusiasm at bay, but I couldn't really help myself.

"When I fly with people who are injured I have to go slow so I don't hurt them any more than they already are. But when I fly just for fun... I like to go pretty fast."

"How fast?" I asked, my heart pounding excitedly.

"Let's just say we might break a few stop watches if we tried to time it," he told me jokingly. "So do you think you can handle it?"

"You bet!"

***

*~Jay~*

Knocking seemed to be a foreign concept to Ellie, whether she came in through the door or the window, but I had quickly gotten used to it. At least someone was coming to visit me.

"Hey there, birthday boy!" she greeted me when she entered. She was loaded down with several boxes and bags.

"What's with all the packages?"

"You'll find out later. What's going on with you?"

"Nothing much," I replied innocently. "Just catching up on some reading." I lifted the cover of my book to make sure that she got a good look at it, but I still snuck a peek to see her reaction.

"Is that... ?" she trailed off, her eyes narrowing. "You wouldn't."

"Well, I figure we're still in the 'Getting to Know You' phase. And what better way is there to get to know someone--"

"*Please* tell me you didn't... "

"--than to read her official biography?" I finished, holding the book up on display. "I've learned some really interesting stuff."

"Oh, I'm sure you have," she told me dryly. "Give me the book."

"But I've just gotten to a really interesting part!" I protested. "It says here that Nebula is by far the most reserved member of the family." I glanced up from the pages to see the twitching, fidgety woman before me. "I think this author needs to check her sources."

"It's a secret identity, Jay! You of all people should understand that."

"And what's the whole story behind your first press conference?" I continued, flipping to the page in question. "It says you made a sudden and dramatic exit halfway through answering a question."

She groaned loudly "I had just remembered at that moment that I had forgotten to hand in a paper," she confessed ashamedly. "It was worth 40% of my grade. Did they actually put that in there? Let me see the book."

"No way," I shook my head. "I bought it for myself as a birthday present. If I give it to you, you'll just fry it with your heat vision."

"You bet I will! Now give it over." She leapt toward me, reaching for the book. I rolled out from under her, cradling the book close to my chest to protect it from her frantic hands.

We tumbled together on the floor, and she tried to reach her arms around to get at the book. I'm not really sure how it happened, but somehow in all the activity, we ended up with her on top of me, her lips hovering over mine. The remaining distance was closed by a magnetic force, and I relished the feeling of her lips on mine. Then all too soon, she pulled away.

"We need to stop," she announced suddenly, tucking her hair into place. I nodded in agreement. The position we were now in felt uncomfortably close, given the limits we had put on ourselves. I helped her pick herself up off me, but we both remained sitting on the floor. I absently flipped through the pages of the book, but all enthusiasm I had toward it had disappeared.

"So... Did you talk to Dr. Klein today?" I finally asked.

"Yeah. We didn't find anything obviously wrong, but I have an idea of where to start now."

"That's good." I kind of wanted to ask her more, but she didn't seem to be open to talking about it.

"Yeah." Silence. "So! Um... how did your interview go?"

I grimaced. "The secretary wouldn't stop ogling me long enough to answer her phone."

"Well, can you blame her?" she asked flirtatiously, nudging me with her shoulder. I was glad she was able to joke about this so soon after our previous awkwardness.

"No, I couldn't blame her," I told Ellie. "Which is why I invited her over this evening. She should be here in a few minutes."

Ellie's mouth popped open in shock, and hung there for a fraction of a second before she realized that I had been joking. "You're so bad," she told me, grinning happily.

"You don't believe me?" I asked innocently.

"I've learned never to trust anything that comes out of your mouth," she smiled. "How did the rest of it go?"

How would I even begin? "The guy's a first rate jerk," I finally told her. "There's no way I could work for him."

"I'm sorry," she said sympathetically.

"Whatever. It's no big deal," I brushed it off. It's not like I needed the money or anything. The compensation I got from the NIA was more than enough to provide for me. I didn't need to work. I just wanted to.

"Well, I have something that might cheer you up," she told me brightly.

"What is it?" I asked, feeling a smile stretch across my face. When I had first met Ellie, I found her cheerful disposition to be an irritant to my own gloomy one. Now, I found I was becoming increasingly addicted to it.

"Sit right there," she commanded. "Don't move a muscle." I watched with interest as she blurred around the room, and came to a stop in the same place that she started from. "Ta-da!" she threw her arms up in the air with a flourish.

"Wow. It's... "

"A birthday party! I was thinking the other day that it's probably been ages since you had a proper party."

Nineteen years, I filled in silently. The last year my mom was alive.

"So I decided to make you one!" Ellie finished.

She had certainly gone all out. I glanced around my apartment, which now looked like a streamer factory had exploded nearby. She had even blown up balloons and hung them from the ceiling. I looked back at her, and I saw her dancing apprehensively on the spot.

"You don't think it's dumb or anything, do you?" she asked.

"I think it's great," I told her reassuringly.

"Good! Cause I brought you everything. I even made party punch!" She handed me a glass and took one for herself. "On my nineteenth birthday, a friend of mine spiked the punch," she told me. "Now that we're old enough, it's not nearly as fun, but I did it anyway."

"Wow. I can tell." I nearly choked at the unexpected taste of vodka.

"Too strong?"

"No, it's fine," I told her valiantly. "It just took me by surprise." I took another sip and succeeded in keeping my face straight.

"Good," she said with satisfaction. "Cause next is the cake and we sure don't want to spoil that." Sure enough, she had brought a small cake that was smothered in chocolate icing. Although I couldn't be sure, I guessed that the actual cake was chocolate as well. Ellie began zapping candles with her heat vision as she spoke to me. "Normally, you wouldn't be called upon to sing at your own birthday, but I'm the only one here and I know an Ellie Kent solo is the last thing you'd want on your birthday, so you're going to have to join me."

Although Ellie has many talents, I quickly learned that singing wasn't one of them. I gave her all the support that I could, and then dutifully blew out the candles.

"Now, I don't care how much of a health nut you are, Jay," she warned me. "There's no excuse for not having at least a small piece of your own birthday cake." I dutifully agreed, and watched her flit about my kitchen, finding everything she needed to serve the cake she had brought. Old instincts told me to stop her from digging around my belongings, but I reminded myself that I didn't have anything important anymore anyway. Plus, Ellie knew that I was a former agent, so it didn't matter even if she did find something. Finally, she returned to the table and served us both a piece of cake. "Do you want more punch?" she asked, reaching for my empty cup. Before I could protest, she filled it up again and plunked it in front of me.

"I see you got chocolate cake," I commented as I took a small bite on my fork.

"Please," she rolled her eyes. "Is there any other kind?"

"Well, I've always been partial to carrot cake... "

"If it's got vegetables in it, it doesn't count as cake," she told me authoritatively.

"Well, I guess you're the expert."

"You bet I am! And don't you forget it."

"All right, you're the cake expert," I agreed. "But out of the two of us, I think I have to proclaim myself the expert on Nebula. It appears you haven't even read your own biography."

"I read it!" she protested hotly. "I mean, I skimmed it," she corrected reluctantly. "At superspeed. I was really busy around the time the publishing company needed an answer, so I just let our publicist at the Superman Foundation deal with it. He said it was okay, so I signed off on it. I still can't believe that you bought a copy."

"It said on the cover that the proceeds would go to charity. I'm just a generous guy," I grinned innocently, choking back more punch.

"Yeah, I'm sure you are. Well, at least some good can come out of the whole thing," she grumbled. "It's just kind of ridiculous that the book even exists. I've only been Nebula for a few years. That's hardly enough to write a book about."

"If you don't like the idea, why did you agree to do it in the first place?"

"I was hoping it would help make the media lose interest. They can't seem to get enough of me for some reason," she frowned.

"Did it work?" I asked.

"Maybe a little," she shrugged. "The book's only been out for a couple months so we'll have to see. Are you done with your cake?"

"Oh! Yeah."

"Good, cause we're coming up to the best part of the party."

"You got me a present?" I guessed.

"Yes. It kind of doubles as a housewarming present and a birthday present." She handed me a large, flat package. I tore the paper off it to reveal a framed movie poster. I had to laugh when I saw the title of the movie.

"James Bond in 'A View to Kill'?"

"I loved those movies when I was younger."

"You realize that they're about as far from realistic as you can get."

"Don't spoil my fun," she scolded. "Anyway, I figured you needed something to add color to your place, and this seemed perfect." She was right. I had only moved into this apartment a couple weeks ago, and I was still filling it up with all the usual items. I was starting from scratch, so it was taking a while.

"Thanks. It's got just the right amount of irony. Now all we need is a poster of Wonder Woman to go with it."

Here eyes narrowed. "You wouldn't dare."

"Just watch me."

"I'll be sleeping with one eye open from now on," she said sarcastically. "Are you ready for the next part of the party?"

"What's that?"

"You have a choice between Scrabble, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit. When I was a kid we always played the games first and did the other stuff later, but because it's our own party I figure we can make up our own rules."

"Well, normally I would say Scrabble," I told her. "But then you might get upset when I beat you."

"We'll have to see about that," she announced evilly. "Here, we'll get some more punch and then go play on the coffee table, okay?"

It was a close game, but ultimately I won, just as I had predicted. I decided to reserve my gloating to a few subtle smirks as I stood to start cleaning up some of mess we had created. But I placed a hand quickly back onto the coffee table when I realized I was swaying unsteadily.

"Are you okay?" Ellie asked quickly, looking up from her task of picking up all the tiles.

"Yeah. I'm fine," I told her with embarrassment, realizing my predicament. "I'm just... "

"I got you drunk," Ellie realized. "I knew I made that punch too strong. Jay, I'm so sorry." Her apology seemed sincere, yet her eyes glimmered with amusement.

"I'm not really drunk," I protested. "Well, not drunk in the sense that I can't... " I stopped when I realized that I was slurring slightly.

"Here, let's go sit on the couch." She steered me toward the sofa and we flopped down on it together.

"Sorry," I apologized, as I watched the room tilt around us. "I don't normally make a habit of this."

"Yeah, well it's my fault for making our drinks so strong. I was hardly paying attention. And then you went and drank it anyway." She chuckled with amusement, and I pouted a little.

"I was trying to be polite, Ellie."

"And look where that got you."

"Sitting next to you on my sofa," I replied happily. "Pretty decent position, if you ask me." Although it was a little embarrassing to get drunk while Ellie was throwing me a birthday party, I hardly regretted the turn of events that had led to the closeness we were now sharing.

"Clever," she conceded. Then she snuggled in closer to me. I put my arms around her cautiously, not wanting to jinx it. "Jay... how does it feel?" she asked.

"Incredible," I whispered.

"What?"

"Huh? Sorry, what were you asking?" I blinked several times, trying to retain my waning focus.

"How does it feel to be drunk? Alcohol doesn't affect me, so I don't really know how it feels. I went to enough parties as an undergrad to see the negative consequences, but I never felt it first hand."

"Well... it's like your sense of touch is duller, yet sharper at the same time." Did that even make sense? Did it even matter? "And... um... everything's kind of fuzzy all around you." I stretched out my hand illustratively. "And you feel like you can do things you wouldn't be able to do normally. But that doesn't mean you should try them, because you only feel that way because you're drunk," I admonished, bopping her clumsily on the nose in my exuberance. "Whoops. Sorry."

She giggled. "You know, you're kinda cute like this."

"Don't be getting any ideas," I warned her.

"I won't," she promised. "Actually... I was just thinking that I should probably go. It's getting late."

"You don't have to go, Ellie." Her name rolled easily off my tongue and hung in the air between us like a Christmas ornament. "Ellie, you can just stay the night. C'mon, Ellie." I squeezed her tight to my chest.

"No, I should go," she said reluctantly. I obediently relaxed my hold and she stood up. "You'll be okay by yourself, right?" She smoothed my hair with a gentle touch.

"I'll be fine, Ellie," I told her. "I'll put myself to bed as soon as you're gone."

"Maybe I should clean some of this up before I go," she glanced around at all her party decorations.

"No, leave them up," I told her. "It feels less lonely this way." Damn. I hadn't meant to say that.

"Okay. I'll leave them up," she agreed, stroking my hair once again. "Good night, Jay."

"Night, Ellie. Thanks for the party."

"My pleasure."

"Wait, Ellie?" I called before she could get to the window.

"Yeah?"

"Take the cake with you."

"Thanks."

***

Chapter Four

*~Jay~*

I had lost track of the number of laps I had done a long time ago. Not that it really mattered with my dad. I just kept running until he told me to stop. Every step jarred me, and I struggled to keep breathing. Finally, he spoke the words that I had been waiting for.

"That's enough for now. Take five and catch your breath."

I wheezed gratefully, but refrained from collapsing on the ground like I really wanted to. There was no way I would show my dad that he had managed to make me that tired. Instead, I lowered myself as gracefully as I could, and wiped the sweat from my face.

"You're not improving at the rate that I had hoped," Dad told me.

"I've gotten... " I panted. "Thirty percent faster since--"

"That's still not good enough if you want to be an agent," he snapped. "We only have room for the very best. And you're not there yet."

"I will be," I promised him. "You'll see. I've got almost a year before I have to take the entrance test. And I'll be ready by then."

"You only have a few months. And if you want to be ready, you'll work harder," Dad told me. He shook his head, glancing over the stats he had meticulously recorded. "We're done for today. Come back to the car when you're ready."

Damn it, I cursed myself. I had thought I was almost there. I stayed sitting for a moment. There was nothing I wanted more than to be an NIA agent. And Dad was just preparing me for that. Like he said, you have to be the very best to even be considered. And if that's what I needed to be, then that's what I would become. I hauled myself up to my feet, ignoring my protesting muscles. Twisting side to side, I relieved my aching back. Then, pushing off with more force than I knew I had, I started a fresh lap.

***

I took my time lacing up my shoes before I stepped onto the basketball court to join Clark and Jon. Why had I agreed to do this again?

Right. Ellie. Every Saturday, Clark, Jon, Ellie and Jim Olsen met together for a game of basketball. When a shopping trip with Kaylie kept Ellie from making this week's game, she volunteered me to go in her place. Wonderful.

Although the Kents were much too nice to be openly hostile toward me, I knew they were far from comfortable with the fact that I was privy to the family secret. And dating Ellie didn't really help me to portray myself as a non-threat, especially to her father. Ellie insisted that Clark just needed to get to know me better, and that this would be a perfect opportunity to do that. But somehow, I wasn't too keen at competing against my girlfriend's father, especially when he happened to be a part-time superhero.

I was triple checking my shoes as a stalling tactic when Jon and Clark came off the court toward me. "Jim called and said he's going to be a little late," Jon informed me. "He got tied up at work."

"Oh. Okay." That meant that I had to sit here with these two for an indeterminate amount of time. What on earth was I supposed to talk to them about?

"So, Jay," Clark began. "Ellie mentioned that you had a job interview a few days ago. How was it?"

Oh, yes. In addition to barging in on biggest secret ever, I was also unemployed. Yeah, I was a real catch. I could see why Clark would be thrilled to have me dating his daughter.

"Not very well," I replied reluctantly. "I don't think I would've been happy there in the long run." I didn't really feel like dwelling on that awful interview any more than I had to.

"Hmm," Clark murmured sternly.

"But I'm still looking," I assured him. "I'm just waiting for the right opportunity. And until then, I do have compensation, so I'm not about to be kicked out on the streets or anything." But it wasn't enough money to provide for a family, I added to myself. And I'm sure Clark had thought the same thing; he didn't take his eyes off me.

Thankfully, Jon stepped in. "Hey, Dad, how's the campus paper doing?"

"It's doing well, Jon. We started running a series about... " Thankfully, I was able to duck out of the rest of the conversation until Jim showed up. Although I had never really met the guy before, there was a definite likeness between him and his father, Jack. But he had an easy-going manner that Jack didn't, and he smiled readily.

"So how do we want to split teams up this time?" Jim asked. "I'm thinking Clark and I can give the younger ones a run for their money."

"Sure," I shrugged.

"Don't let him get away with that," Jon admonished. "The only reason he's doing it is because I'm the worst player out of everyone."

"Really?" I asked in surprise. "I would've thought you could skate by pretty easily."

"Ground rules," Jim explained. "Nothing beyond the limits of the average man."

"Although Supernova would be able beat out any competition, it's another thing entirely to be good at a sport while observing the proper rules and playing within human limitations," Clark elaborated. "And Jon was never really that into sports."

"That was more Ellie's thing," Jon admitted. "I was in Chess Club and stuff. I only started playing basketball when these guys needed someone else to round out the numbers."

"I was the same way in school," Jim added, dribbling the ball experimentally. "But I did start getting into sports later in life. How about you, Jay?" He passed the ball to me.

"High-school jock," I told them, spinning the ball absently in my hands. "I was actually on the basketball team for most of high school." Until senior year, when I was preparing for other things.

To my surprise, Clark nodded his approval. "I played football in high school and college. I made some lifelong friends that way."

"We moved around a lot, especially in high school," I shared. "It was nice to be able to join a team and find some people with common interests. Hey, Jon, you should get Kaylie to tutor you in basketball sometime. She even played a bit when she was in college."

"You know, now I'm tempted to change up our teams," Jim told us. "You seem to have a good background, Jay."

I shrugged. "I haven't played in years. I never really got much chance to."

"Well, I guess now is your opportunity," Jon told me. "But we're sticking with the original teams. I think I'm going to need all the help I can get."

I quickly learned that Jon had not been underestimating his ability. And although Jim wasn't bad, I could've easily taken him one on one. But Clark was a very good player, probably as a result of his early interest in sports. He gave me enough of a challenge to make me work hard for every shot, but I found I was able to get a few baskets past him. I was glad to find out that although Clark put a great deal of effort into the game, he wasn't overly competitive, and didn't begrudge my extra points. Jim was the first one to request a break.

"I was hoping that if you came to play with us today that I wouldn't be the only one left panting for breath," he told me ruefully. "But I guess I shouldn't have expected anything different from you with what I know about my dad." Although I was breathing heavily, I didn't feel nearly as worked up as Jim looked. Jon and Clark, of course, hadn't even broken a sweat.

"Exercise is therapeutic for me," I explained, taking a sip of water. "And of course, physical fitness was kind of a life or death kind of thing for me before."

"Not to mention you've got a few years on him, Jimmy," Clark teased his friend gently. "But you're not doing so bad for a guy your age."

"Thanks, CK," Jim said sarcastically.

I heard my phone ring from the benches, so I excused myself, and jogged over to answer it. It was Ellie, of course.

"How's it going?" she whispered.

"Not too bad," I replied. "Why are you whispering?"

"Kaylie's changing into a different dress right now. I don't want her to hear me and think that I was so bored with shopping that I had to resort to calling you."

"So why did you call?"

"I... was so bored with shopping that I had to resort to calling you," she confessed.

"I see." I was glad that she wasn't able to see the involuntary grin that I was wearing.

"I mean, it's not like I don't want to spend time with her," Ellie hastened to clarify. "It's just that after the twentieth dress or so, I tend to loose focus."

"Well, they say that the dress is the most important thing for a bride. And to be fair, you did sign up for the responsibility when you agreed to be maid of honor."

"Yeah, I know," she grumbled. "All in all, I guess it's not too bad. So things are really going okay over there?"

"Well, so far your dad has refrained from hauling me up into the sky and demanding to know my intentions with his daughter," I replied, dropping my own voice somewhat.

"He's not going to do that, Jay. He doesn't hate you."

"Well, he doesn't really seem to like me either."

"That's because he hasn't- Wait, Kaylie's coming. I have to go now." She hung up abruptly, leaving me with my phone pressed to my ear. Having nothing else to keep me away, I had no choice but to return to the basketball game waiting for me.

***

*~Ellie~*

Shopping. Although some women seemed to view it as a type of independent therapy, I had never really taken much pleasure in it. I just bought what I needed and got out of there. But I couldn't really blame Kaylie for taking her time. I imagine even I would take some time in picking out my wedding dress, whenever that might be. I was waiting on the bench when she stepped out with her newest choice. Although the dress didn't really look any different from all the other ones when it was on the hanger, Kaylie gave it the grace and elegance it needed to look like a real wedding dress.

"That's the one," I told her. And I really meant it, too. It wasn't just a clever ploy to get out of the store.

"Do you think so?" she asked. She wrinkled her nose in the mirror, and twisted to get a better view of her back in the mirror.

"Definitely. I really like the neckline on you. And the pattern on the fabric is terrific."

"But it laces up in the back, and I can't get it done by myself," she complained. Her hand was clutching the back of the dress, holding the bodice together. But despite her lukewarm response, I could tell she liked the dress too. She stood taller in front of the mirror and lifted her chin confidently.

"Here," I offered, checking to make sure the saleswoman wasn't looking our way. I quickly laced the gown for her, faster than anyone else could've done it.

"Thanks," she said. "You better be prepared to do that on the day of the wedding, too."

"That's what I'm there for," I replied, pulling the front of the dress tight. It was just a sample model, so, of course, it was too big for her.

"How are we doing with this one?" the saleswoman asked, coming over to see us. "I see you managed to get it laced up pretty quickly. That's one maid of honor you want to hold onto."

"She's got a few special talents that I'm planning on making the most of," Kaylie replied, winking in my direction. I managed a weak smile. Sure I could use my abilities to lace up Kaylie's dress, but somehow I was still incapable of controlling myself around my boyfriend. Lately, I had made an extra effort to make sure things didn't escalate between us to the point where Jay could be in danger, but that only seemed to put added strain on the time we spent together.

"I think I need more time to think this over," Kaylie was telling the saleswoman.

"If you give us your contact information, we can put it aside for you for up to a week," she replied.

"How about I give it to her while you're getting changed?" I volunteered, anxious to get out of the store. I unlaced Kaylie at a normal speed this time, and then followed the woman to the front counter where I rattled off her necessary information. Kaylie was quick to join us there.

"I was just thinking that we can look at some dresses for you here if you want," she said. One look from me was enough for her to amend her offer. "Or how about I take you out for coffee instead?"

"That sounds good," I told her gratefully.

"Thanks for putting up with all that," she said as we crossed the street on the way to the coffee shop down the block.

"Just part of the job. But maybe it might be best if we spread out the shopping as much as possible."

"I can live with that," Kaylie agreed. "I'm still just so happy that this is happening. And only nine months away!" Her obvious joy buoyed my spirits. I was happy for her and Jon. They seemed to work so well together.

I caught myself giving Kaylie a sideways glance. I had never really dwelled on certain aspects of their relationship before. After all, the thought of my brother doing... you know, wasn't exactly stuff that occupied my mind. But they were engaged, so it would be safe to assume that they had at least done something.

Kaylie seemed fine to me. Her gait was relaxed, and she moved with effortless grace. It was unlikely that she had any injuries that were causing her pain. So did that mean that whatever was going on with me wasn't a problem with them? Or did they just learn to deal with it? I forced myself to stop thinking about the subject. Honestly, things had gotten pretty bad if I was starting to imagine my brother's sex life.

"Ellie, are you okay?" Kaylie asked. "You seem kind of distracted."

"Yeah, I'm fine," I replied, and absently gave my order to the girl behind the counter at the coffee shop. "I'm just... thinking about a research project I have going on at the lab."

"You know, I kind of wanted to ask you about that," Kaylie said. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to, but I hoping you could come and talk to some of my older students sometime this year. They would really benefit from what you have to say."

"Really? As... you know, me?" I knew Jon had come to Kaylie's school as Supernova before, but that had celebrity appeal. I had yet to make any kind of mark in the general scientific community.

"Yeah, as you," she replied. "You're a female in a field that has been largely dominated by males in the past, and still struggles with gender equality. You could be a real inspiration to some of the girls I teach."

"I have had a few obstacles," I admitted. "Why is it always like that? I'm no different than any other scientist. Why does there always have to be a gender division?"

"It's the way society's built," she shrugged. "I don't notice it as much as a teacher, but when I'm doing um, *other* things, being female makes a difference. Do you know how many nightclubs I've worked in over the years?" She rolled her eyes illustratively. We had managed to get a table that was tucked away from the rest of the patrons, so I decided it wouldn't be too risky to discuss this kind of thing.

"I've noticed some of that when I'm... you know." I made the well-known swoop with my hand.

"Really? I always thought the public respected you as well as Jon and Clark."

"Well, they respect me, but they still don't really know how to treat me," I said. "I don't look nearly as powerful as Jon and Dad do, and that can be kind of misleading. I've ran into a couple guys who seem to almost resent having to accept my help. But no one's really come out and said anything to me." I stirred my drink absently. "And I guess I adapt what I do in order to make things go smoothly. For instance, I don't carry people in my arms unless they're really hurt. Usually, I just wrap my arm around their waist and go from there. I can imagine a few people who wouldn't enjoy being carried the traditional way."

"I can't believe someone would resent you for helping out!" Kaylie exclaimed. "You have an ability that they don't, so why shouldn't you?"

"Male ego?" I suggested. "I guess they feel a little put out that I can do something that they can't even though I'm half their size." Did Jay resent me for that? I couldn't help wondering about it. He was in excellent shape, yet there was no way he could ever come close to what I was able to do naturally. I had never really noticed if he did, but then again, was he likely to say anything about it? And of course it wouldn't really help if my differences were the reason why we couldn't have a normal relationship. Well, that just meant that I had to put more effort into finding a solution. Realizing I had dropped out of the conversation, I returned my focus to Kaylie.

"But I'd love to talk with some of your students," I told her. "You should bring them by the lab if you get a chance. We've got some really cool stuff gong on there." Including, I hoped, an answer to my problem.

***

Chapter Five

*~Ellie~*

I was sitting across from the chess game Dad had abandoned when Mom came home from work.

"Hi, Ellie," she greeted me. "Where's Dad?"

"Forest fire in California," I grumbled. "He left an hour ago and still hasn't come back."

"What are you still doing here anyway?" she asked, checking her watch. "I thought you were supposed to be going over to Sarah's to get ready for the dance."

"I was," I said shortly. "But then I realized that it was a stupid idea." I was acting like a typical moody teenager, I realized, but somehow I didn't really care at that moment. Mom dumped her bag on the floor and came to sit beside me.

"Why didn't you go?" she probed softly.

"Because we were supposed to be getting ready for the dance," I snapped. "That means we'd be doing our hair and nails and makeup and stuff. And I can't let anyone do anything to me. What if they wanted to file my nails, and then the file broke? Or if they tried to use a curling iron? It doesn't work on my hair anymore. And the worst of all would be if someone wanted to cut my hair. The scissors would break, and how would I explain that?"

"You cut each other's hair?" Mom frowned disapprovingly.

"Mom!"

"Sorry, sweetie," she apologized. "I know this must be hard for you to have to give up some of those things."

"I guess," I shrugged. Couldn't she tell that I wanted to be left alone in my misery?

"But you can still spend time with your friends," she told me. "I'm sure you can come up with a good excuse for not getting you hair cut or anything else like that."

"You mean I should lie to them."

"Well... " she hedged.

"Is that all we ever do in this family? Lie to people?" I asked bitterly.

"Oh, Ellie. I know this is hard on you." She stroked my hair. "But I know you're old enough to understand why this is so important to keep a secret."

"Yeah. I know," I admitted.

"Look, it's just after 6:30 right now," she said. "I'll drive you over to Sarah's in about half an hour, which will give you enough time to go to the dance together. You can get ready here so you don't have to deal with anything else yet, okay?"

"Okay," I found myself agreeing.

"And I bet that we would even have time to finish this poor little chess game here. I can already see what Dad was planning on doing, and I bet I can turn this game around in a few moves. What do you say?"

***

I grimaced as I sank the needle into my skin once again. Although Uncle Brad said the Kryptonite alloy worked the same way that a regular needle did for an average human, I still didn't really enjoy the pinching sensation, or the slight tenderness the puncture spot had after I removed the needle.

I was alone in the lab today. Aunt Lucy and Uncle Brad had gone to a conference together, which gave me the perfect opportunity to really dig deep to find out what could be causing my problem. Although they usually didn't hover over me in our shared lab space, there's no way I would be able to keep the nature of my tests hidden from them. And I still wasn't quite ready to explain why I was testing myself for red Kryptonite poisoning. I had drawn several vials of blood within the last hour or so, but I didn't seem to be any closer to finding an answer. My blood looked and reacted the way it always did.

I heard Jay knock and enter the lab, but I didn't turn away from my microscope yet. By use of a camera and a lead shielded box, I was able to expose a blood sample to a chunk of Kryptonite, and I was now watching the reaction. Turning around at this point might mean missing something important.

"I didn't know you planned on stopping by today," I commented. I watched as the cells on the slide started to disintegrate under the presence of the Kryptonite like they always did. Nothing to explain what was happening to me.

"Surprise visit," he replied. I smelled coffee, and I turned around and reached for the cup he was offering me.

"Did you put--"

"I think about a third of the cup is sugar."

"Thanks." I gave him a quick peck.

"My pleasure. So what's the latest science project, Dr. Frankenstein?"

"Oh, I'm just trying to work on finding out what's going on with... um, you know." I took a mouthful of hot coffee to cover up the discomfort I felt. It was one thing to have the issue brought up any time we were in danger getting carried away physically, but now it was starting to overtake our daily conversation.

"So any breakthroughs yet?"

"No," I confessed reluctantly. He waited expectantly for me to expand, so I continued. "Dr. Klein had thought it might have something to do with red Kryptonite. One of the times my dad was exposed to it, his powers behaved erratically." I took another sip of coffee, gathering my thoughts. "But the problem is that we don't really have a definitive test for red K. Green K is pretty easy to tell, but the red stuff can be a lot more hidden. The only thing that we've really found over the years is that green Kryptonite can act as a sort of antidote for red Kryptonite in certain circumstances."

"Well, you obviously can't just expose yourself to a chunk just to see if it happens to make a difference," Jay told me.

I chewed my lip guiltily. "Well... I sort of already did. The very first time it happened, I popped open the sample we have here for a few seconds."

"Ellie!"

"I had to, Jay! I hate this situation that we're in right now. I had to try something to stop it." Although I thought my feelings were a lot more severe than that, I wasn't anxious to tell him too much. It would only put more stress on us.

"But that doesn't mean you should put yourself at risk," he told me. "Look, I know this isn't exactly an ideal situation, and of course I want to find a solution too, but there's no rush for one. We can take our time."

I shook my head. "Jay, you keep saying that, but I know this isn't exactly what you expected when we started dating."

"I expected to be dating you," he countered. "And that's what really counts in this whole thing."

"Smooth line, mister." I couldn't help but smile.

"I do what I can," he shrugged, stepping closer and pulling me toward him.

"See, you seem to have gotten this thing down pat. But whenever I do something I end up screwing it up," I told him, backing away from his embrace.

"Then maybe... " he pulled me close to him again, taking my coffee cup from my hand, "you shouldn't do anything." He came in closer still, and his breath tickled my lips, and my breath caught in anticipation. "You should let someone else do something for you for a change. Just relax... And let me take care of everything."

Finally, he kissed me. And just like he suggested, I let him take care of everything. This time I wasn't going to even touch him. I would do nothing to jeopardize what was... Wow, that was good. Jay had a special knack for this thing that all former boyfriends had lacked. Dimly, I realized that I had subconsciously wrapped my arms around him. That wouldn't do, I told myself firmly. I released him from my hold.

He fell four feet, smacking the back of his head on the countertop as he crashed to the ground. It was only then that I realized that we had been floating. Jay's neck snapped forward as a result of the blow, and he swore loudly. I dropped down to the ground and rushed over to him.

"Jay, are you okay? How badly are you hurt? Can you move?" He pushed himself into a sitting position, answering my last question. We both saw the steady trickle of blood run down his head and drip onto the floor.

"I need a compress," he told me, his forehead pinched in pain.

"What?" I was hardly thinking clearly, and his words were nothing more than garble to me.

"A compress," he repeated impatiently. "Something to press against my head to stop the bleeding."

"Oh. Um, here," I snatched a clean towel from the cupboard and held it out for him. He grabbed it and pressed it against his head. I watched in horror as it quickly became saturated. "There's so much blood," I whispered in shock. That my fault. How could I have done that to him?

"Head wounds bleed heavily," he informed me tersely. "I know it looks serious, but I'm not about to die of blood loss or anything."

Right. I knew that. I am a scientist, after all. Scientists know things like basic human anatomy and physiology and--

"I need another towel, Ellie."

"Right." I grabbed another, and offered it to him. I wanted to be able to help him out more than this, but I hardly had the courage to look at him, let alone touch him. Jay placed the new towel on top of the old one and held it in place firmly. We didn't talk. Jay just sat there trying to stop the bleeding and I just stood there helplessly watching him. He seemed to be so focused on his task that I was afraid to speak. What must he think of me? Finally, he lifted his head to look at me.

"So that was interesting," he said.

"Jay-" I choked on his name.

"I think I'll be okay, Ellie. I've got a splitting headache, but I don't think I'm concussed. You might want to check that out to be sure."

I swallowed nervously. How could I use my powers on him after what had just happened? "Jay, I... I dropped you."

"Yeah, I know that, Ellie," he replied shortly. "It was an accident, I realize that. But right now what I really care about is taking care of this head wound. Can you help me or not?"

"Yes. I... I can."

"Good. I think this might've stopped bleeding, so you need to take a look at the cut and see if it needs stitches or not."

"Okay." I took a few tentative steps toward him and he lifted the bloody towels away from his wound. I sucked air through my teeth when I saw the gaping cut on his scalp.

"How bad is it?"

"It's pretty bad."

"Okay." He exhaled heavily, thinking. "I'm pretty decent with this kind of thing and I think it'd be easier to deal with it ourselves than run off to the ER. Personally, I'm not really feeling up to a trip, no matter how short you can make it. If you can get me a mirror and a--"

"No! Jay... You don't have to do that. I've done it before too."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I'll just collect what I need." I tried to project confidence, but inside I wanted to curl up in a corner and never come out. Right now, the last thing I wanted to be doing was sewing up the injury I had caused. What I really wanted was to find out how much Jay hated me at this point and whether or not he could ever trust me again. But he seemed determined to take care of his wound right now and there was no way I was going to let him stitch it up himself.

Although I didn't really do any medical stuff in my research, this was the unofficial hospital for my family, so we had plenty of medical supplies on hand. I returned shortly with the needle and thread, gloves, Tylenol, antiseptic fluid, and an ice pack. From the way Jay was talking, I guessed that he had done this before, probably in much cruder circumstances. Although he had probably gone without it, some kind of anesthesia wouldn't hurt to num the wound. I guess he agreed because when he saw the small syringe he grinned.

"I see you brought the good stuff," he told me. "The next time I crack my head open, I'll make sure that you're around."

And that was all I needed to push me over the edge.

"Are you trying to be funny?" I snapped. "Because personally, I don't really find that amusing."

"Ellie, I'm just trying to lighten the mood--"

"Oh, so making jokes in bad taste is going to cover up the fact that I *dropped* you in the middle of kissing you? Is it going to make us forget what just happened, or how that made either of us feel?"

"Ellie, what is there to discuss? It was an accident. End of story."

"No! Not end of story! This is important, okay? It's not something we can just brush off. And I can't just ignore it while we play doctor together!"

"How can you even think about sitting around discussing our feelings while I have a giant gash in my head?" Jay asked angrily.

"How can *you* think about anything else when we obviously need to discuss what happened?"

We glared at each other, having obviously reached a stalemate. Jay was the first to cave.

"Fine! Do you think you can talk and stitch at the same time?" he asked condescendingly.

"I think I can manage," I told him stiffly.

"Okay."

"Good."

"Great."

"Yeah. Really excellent." Wanting to put our inane conversation to an end, I shoved the bottle of Tylenol into his hand and snapped on the latex gloves. Jay's breath caught as I swabbed the wound, but he didn't protest. I guess that wouldn't be manly enough or something. I carefully inserted the syringe into his skin, and administered the anesthetic. "Is that okay?" I asked, gently prodding the cut.

"It's good. I can't feel anything."

"I'll start putting the stitches in, then."

"Okay." Then, to my pleasure, he took the initiative in our talk. "Look, Ellie, I meant what I said earlier. There's no way you should blame yourself for this. It was an accident."

"Jay, I've never dropped anyone before. Ever. That kind of thing doesn't just happen."

"Of course it doesn't. It was an accident. Just like what happened before with us."

"No, it's different," I explained. "The other stuff was different. It was a matter of not having control. This... is just downright clumsiness." This time scared me much more than the lack of control. Maybe it was the clumsiness thing. Or maybe it was the large wound that I was now stitching up that acted as physical evidence.

"Ellie, I didn't know we were that high up, and I'm guessing you didn't either. There's no way you would've let go if you had known."

"No, I wouldn't have."

"Exactly. It wasn't clumsiness, it just was just not being fully aware. So I guess I can take pride in being such a good kisser that I can distract you that much."

"You like that idea, don't you?" I shoved the remaining guilt I still felt into the back of my mind.

"You bet I would. Are you saying you'll give me the bragging rights?"

"In your dreams," I replied, snipping the last thread. I gave the wound one more swipe of antiseptic for good measure, and then placed gauze over it. "But I don't know what to do about this, Jay," I confessed. "It seems that any time we spend alone ends up going in this direction. But the last thing I want to do is stop spending time with you."

"Then we won't spend as much time alone, for the time being," he suggested. "We'll go on double dates and stuff. At least until you can put that amazing head of yours to use to find out the solution to this whole thing."

I placed the ice pack on his head, and he groaned gratefully. I realized that he must've been in a lot more pain than he let on.

"Jay, I have no idea how you've stuck with this," I told him. "Any other guy I know would've run for the hills at this point."

"You can't get rid of me this easily, Ellie. Nice try, though."

"I need to clean this up," I told him, swallowing when I saw the amount of blood staining the floor. "But it'll only take a minute, and then I want to take you home, okay?"

"That'd be great, actually. I took a cab over and I'm not really keen on going through that ride with the headache I have right now."

He was still comfortable with flying, even though it had only been a few minutes since I had dropped him while in the air. How did he manage to put this much trust in me? And why was it that I kept breaking it? They were questions that kept running through my mind as I scrubbed the blood from the floor. And with every single scrub, I came up empty.

***

Chapter Six

*~Ellie~*

I leaned close to Jay's ear, but unlike the couple sitting across from us, it wasn't to murmur sweet endearments and nuzzle his neck.

"I'm blaming you for this," I whispered furiously.

"Me?" he asked in bewilderment. "Why?"

"'Oh, let's double date, Ellie!'" I mimicked. "'It'll be fun!' Just between you and me, Jay, I'm not having too much fun."

"That doesn't mean you should blame me! You're the one who set us up with a couple who has decided to take their honeymoon a few months early!" He gestured illustratively across the coffee table to indicate Jon and Kaylie, who were so absorbed in each other that they failed to notice the tiff happening a few feet away from them.

"It was a choice between them and my parents," I told Jay. "And I'm pretty sure that double dating with your parents is considered to be a pretty lame move."

"Like they would be much better anyway," he scoffed. "They've must've gotten better at hiding it over the years, but they're just as bad as these two."

"Maybe my aunt and uncle then?"

Jay goggled at me. "Have you completely blocked out that whole stethoscope incident we walked in on the other day? If you have, please tell me how you managed it so I can, too."

"Okay, fine! My entire family consists of sex addicts! Is that what you wanted to hear? We can't keep our hands off each other!" I hissed, mindful of the couple across from us. Then I paused, and caught sight of Jay's befuddled expression. "No, wait. That came out wrong. What I meant to say was--"

"I know what you meant," Jay cut in. "Look, I think it's safe to say that this evening isn't exactly going as planned so how about we just make a quick excuse and get out of here?"

"An excuse? What on earth would we say?"

"I don't know! But you should be good at that kind of thing. Isn't it in the superhero handbook or something?"

"Cute, Jay, but you're out of luck there. What about you? What happened to all that 'thinking on your feet' stuff you're always talking about?"

"That doesn't involve lying to my sister. She can smell a fib on me before I've even thought of it."

Unfortunately, my response was cut short when Jon and Kaylie finally became aware of their guests again. Kaylie at least had the decency to look embarrassed, but Jon just grinned stupidly.

"Sorry," Kaylie apologized bashfully. "What were talking about?"

"Windows," Jay reminded her flatly.

"Oh, right. So Jon and I still have to decide whose place we're going to move into. And there are pros and cons either way."

"The windows have never really been convenient in this apartment," Jon continued. "But on the other hand, the location actually works better for both of us."

"Not that's ever really been a problem for you," Kaylie said as she nudged Jon affectionately.

"But what about you?" he asked sensitively. "You said that this place makes the drive to Riverview easier."

"Well, you can just fly me to work every day."

"Now that's what I call a good start to my day. Having you in my arms as we fly through the clouds."

"I suppose I could get used to that," Kaylie murmured.

I had had enough of this. I shot up from my seat.

"Sorry to just leave," I apologized, "but we've got to--"

"--pick up something from the store," Jay cut in.

"--get to bed early," I finished on top of him.

Whoops.

We were literally saved by the bell when the phone rang, and Kaylie snatched it up, saving us from having to explain ourselves.

"Hello? Yes, that's me... What?!" Kaylie's whole demeanor tightened as she gripped the phone harder. "No, of course we won't consider a different date. We booked that one! ... Well, I don't care! We paid our- Yes, we did! I have the receipt if you don't believe me! What good is a deposit if it doesn't guarantee us the date we want?" She stood, flashed an apologetic, yet frustrated, glance in our direction, and walked into Jon's room for some privacy. I hadn't listened in on the conversation to begin with, but now I was curious. I shot a questioning glance at Jon.

"It seems that the hall we booked for our reception has been double booked," he explained. "They want us to switch the date."

"But you already booked the church for that day," I pointed out.

"I know. I guess we have to hope that whoever else booked the place is willing to be flexible or we'll have to find a different place to have the reception. Look, I should probably go help Kaylie with this, so... "

"We'll leave," Jay offered, trying hard to cover up his relief, but not quite succeeding. "I hope you can get things straightened out."

"Me too," I told him.

We saw ourselves out as Jon went to go help Kaylie deal with the wedding crisis. Although it was too bad they had too deal with the problem, it did give us a good excuse to escape.

"Want to walk for a bit?" Jay asked me after we had gone outside.

"Sure." I saw that Jay had his hand held out. I took it, and we headed down the street together, our hands swinging between us. "I guess you must walk around town a lot, huh?"

He shrugged. "A fair amount. I'm still looking for a car and walking makes more sense than paying for cab fair."

"You said you were looking for a car a month ago. How come it's taken you so long to get one?"

"Just waiting for the right opportunity, I guess." He had that look on his face again. I could tell when he was trying to cover up something deeper with superficial conversation.

"A car is a pretty big commitment," I commented offhandedly. He shrugged wordlessly. "I guess it would be difficult to be able to commit to something that big," I tried again. "I mean, who knows what's going to happen." I saw his shoulders tighten, and I knew I had gotten a reaction from him. "Putting down roots has been hard for you, hasn't it?"

"Maybe. Hey, I was thinking earlier... Would you mind checking my stitches for me tonight? I think they're probably ready to come out."

"Sure," I told him, trying to maintain my positive demeanor. We hadn't talked much about the incident that had lead to those stitches. I think we both wanted to avoid bringing it up again. I was a little disappointed that he had brought it up when he knew it would lead to a stilted conversation, but he did have a point. His stitches needed to come out soon. "Why don't we-" I stopped talking as I heard a couple gun shots go off, and shouts following. Instantly, I was alert. "I think I need to go help out with this, Jay," I apologized. He couldn't have heard the noises, but he had become pretty good at deducing when I had heard something that needed attending to.

"Sure. Go," he told me blankly.

I hesitated, not wanting to run off on him. But the escalating emergency was calling to me, and I had no other choice but to go help.

"I'll meet you back at your place," I said, as I flew off.

***

*~Jay~*

It was stupid to be jealous of some random rescue, yet that's what I felt myself thinking as I sat in my apartment, waiting for Ellie to show up.

She had a certain way of announcing trouble that seemed so important. That quiet, intense strength that she only revealed when she became Nebula. I hadn't really seen much of the superhero before I had met Ellie, and even though I knew they were the same person, I could see how the rest of the world could be fooled.

But every time she flew off to go deal with some new emergency, I was always reminded of how I didn't need to go anywhere anymore. I was used to always being on the trail of something important, but now I was stuck waiting for other people to finish the important stuff. I hated it. And I hated how that translated to being irritated at people, rather than the situation. Of course it wasn't Ellie's fault that she had go help out. Put in her situation, I would do the exact same thing. But every time she ran off, I always felt an irrational streak of jealousy that I just barely managed to contain.

But so far, I had managed to shove my dark feelings aside when dealing with people. And that's exactly what I did when Ellie came into my apartment after dealing with whatever it was she was doing.

"So what was the emergency?" I asked her.

"A couple teenagers got their hands on some weapons," she said, frowning sadly. "I confiscated them and everything, but that still doesn't really solve the problem in the long run. Anyway, I don't really want to talk about it right now. Let's see your stitches," she said, stepping around behind me to get a better look at the wound. I hadn't worn bandages on it since the first day, and thanks to my dark hair, I had been able to keep its existence hidden from anyone else. "Yeah, they look good," she informed me. "We can probably take them out now."

"Okay," I agreed.

"So, um... I guess that whole double dating thing didn't really work well, did it?" she asked ruefully as she got to work.

"They weren't bad at all at the restaurant. It was only when we got to Jon's apartment that things started to get awkward."

"You know, I still can't believe that Jon's acting like that. He was dating this one girl a while back and they got pretty serious and everything, but they never acted like that."

"Well, I guess it depends on who you're with. Not matter how serious Jon got with that other girl, they were never going to get married, were they?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Well, that's probably it. No matter how close you get to someone, I imagine it would still make a big difference once you got engaged and were planning a life together and all that."

Ellie finished with my stitches and sat down across from me, a serious expression on her face.

"Jay... I think I might have a general idea of how much experience you've had based on a few things you've said, but we've never really discussed this in detail, so I don't really know for sure." She was twisting her hands in her lap, and I could see that she was nervous. "And I think that it's important for us to discuss this, and so why not now?"

Damn. I could see where this was going. And while I figured we both had a pretty good idea of the other's experience, I had avoided getting into specifics. I just knew that it couldn't lead to anything good given the delicate balance we were already struggling with.

"Well, I'm not necessarily uncomfortable with it. It's just that--"

"It's hard to talk about. I get that. But I do think we should really talk about it so, um, why don't I go first?" Rather than giving me any time to respond, she just continued talking, almost oblivious to me. "Well, I was pretty young when I got the whole birds and bees thing, and my parents had always stressed that sex wasn't something to be taken casually. And then not too long after I found out the whole Superman thing, my parents explained to me that having this secret made... that kind of intimacy so much more important to be careful with. There's the obvious risk of me giving something away during... um, in the heat of the moment. And of course after inventing Nebula it's been even stickier. How could I sleep with a guy if I was keeping such a big secret from him?

"So anyway, I always knew that I would have to wait for just the right guy before I did anything, and... well, I guess you can say that the right, um, circumstances haven't come about yet." She was looking at me apprehensively.

I nodded. "I understand that, Ellie. And I respect you for making that decision."

She nodded stiffly. "Thanks. Um, you know, I've had boyfriends and stuff before, but it was never serious enough to ever consider telling him about my... extras."

I nodded again. She nodded in response. We were in danger of looking like a pair of bobble heads when Ellie spoke again.

"So that's me. How... how about you?"

"Well, I never really had parents who were willing to sit down with me and talk about that kind of thing," I told Ellie, trying to phrase it as gently as possible. I could see her hands twisting on her lap, but I made an effort to look into her eyes regardless of the distraction. This was important. "My sex education basically consisted of my dad threatening me to never, ever get a girl pregnant or else I would risk screwing up my life forever. All that stuff about commitment and love and everything wasn't really covered." I took a breath, knowing what I would have to confess. "So for me, there were times when the opportunity presented itself and... I took it."

"Oh." Ellie's voice was quiet and she remained frozen in her chair. Her hands were completely quiet now.

"Damn it." I pushed my hand through my hair in frustration. "This is why I kept putting this conversation off. I knew you would be upset."

"I'm not upset." She spoke in that same quiet voice.

"Yes, you are. I can tell."

"No, I'm not!" Her voice climbed upwards in volume and pitch. "It's perfectly reasonable that someone your age has slept with someone before. You had a life before we met and you obviously met lots of other girls before me. And to get upset about something like that would just be childish and selfish and silly and--"

"Ellie, please--"

"--irrational and petty and... and... Just for the sake of thoroughness, how many were there?" She had jumped out of her seat and was pacing the floor. She crowded my personal space and pelted questions at me, stifling me with her presence. "And who were they? Are we talking about a high-school girlfriend, or some woman you had been dating for years, or some random person you met at a bar one time, or maybe it was--"

"Ellie, calm down!" I shouted, needing her to back off.

Immediately, she stopped, and took a step back. "Sorry," she whispered, her face flushed.

"No, I'm sorry," I apologized guiltily. "I shouldn't have snapped at you like that. You were just starting to get a little intense for a moment. Reminded me of some police interrogation techniques." I tried to put a humorous spin on the comment, but there was a gritty truth behind it.

"Oh, Jay. I'm so sorry."

"No, don't... It's fine," I brushed it off. "Look, Ellie, I've had experience in the past. And I can't lie to you and say that it didn't mean anything to me at the time. But I will tell you that what we have going right now is so much more important than any past relationship. And the way that those relationships are impacting our relationship right now is killing me."

"Who said they were impacting our relationship?" she asked with attempted casualness.

"C'mon, Ellie. You can't pretend you're not upset by this."

"Okay, well maybe I am. A little. But I know that it's stupid to think that way. And I believe what you said about our relationship meaning more to you right now. It's just... "

"Would it make you feel better if I told you about them?" I asked gently.

She gave a small shrug. "Maybe."

"Then I will. How about you sit down? You're making me nervous hovering over me like that."

"Okay." She lowered herself into a seat across from me.

"Okay. The first time... was with a girlfriend I had in high school. We were seventeen, had been dating for two months, and thought that we were crazy in love. We were also idiots. We broke up three weeks after our first time together. And then I moved away, so I never got to see her again, even if I wanted to."

"Oh."

"And then the second time... It was on assignment for the NIA. Kaylie wasn't with me because she was taking a bit of time off for college. And it was kind of an interdepartmental thing, so I was paired up with a girl from the DEA. We were both living under our dads' shadows, and that put us on common ground. And being undercover with someone means you're always together, often with nothing to do for long periods of time. So I guess we just kind of ended up together."

"What was her name?"

"Stephanie Scardino," I told her. Although I was surprised by the question, there was no reason to hide it from Ellie.

"What happened to her?"

"Well, having a relationship with someone during an investigation is typically frowned upon. I think her dad got suspicious that something was happening. Or maybe it was my dad. Whatever, it doesn't really matter. Long story short, once our assignment was done, we were transferred to opposite ends of the country."

"So you just... broke up?"

"It was never a really serious thing," I explained. "It was just the circumstances that brought us together. Like I said, undercover work tends to lead to that kind of thing happening if you're not careful. We went into it knowing that it would probably only be a temporary thing in the first place."

Ellie nodded. "So who else?"

"That's it," I told her.

"What?"

"That's all."

"Really? I would've thought... "

"Ellie, the majority of my adult life has been spent undercover, either alone or with my sister. Not a lot of opportunity for a guy to get any action."

"I guess not." She still wasn't meeting my eyes.

"So, does that... help?"

Ellie mumbled indecipherably.

"Ellie, I'll say it again. Yes, I've had experience in the past, but this is what really matters to me right now. What you've chosen to do is admirable, but don't hold my past against me."

She shook her head. "I don't."

"Okay. But there's still something bothering you."

"No! Well, not really. It's just... " She shook her head. "Never mind, forget it."

"Ellie... "

"No, really. Just forget it." She flashed me a tight smile. "It's not important."

I didn't believe her, of course, but I didn't really have any choice but to accept her answer. Whatever it was, it was clear she wasn't going to talk about it.

***

Chapter Seven

*~Ellie~*

Dad and I had flown out to a deserted area for this training session. Well, technically Dad had flown, and I had been a passenger. I still couldn't fly yet, but Dad told me that I just had to be patient. I would be able to fly soon. But I still thought that it was unfair that Jon, who didn't even want to fly anyway, could already do it while I couldn't even float yet.

I wasn't sure exactly where we were, but it looked pretty deserted. There were only a few scraggly trees poking through the earth, but the ground was covered with rocks of all different sizes. Dad changed out of his Superman suit, but I hardly reacted to that anymore. I was starting to get used to the idea.

"Lot of rocks," I remarked as I bent down to pick one up. I chucked it as far as I could, and smiled as I saw it go sailing through the air, finally landing much further than it would've a few weeks ago.

"I figure we might need a large supply," Dad said. He threw a rock of his own, and we both watched it disappear over the horizon. Show-off.

"Isn't that kinda dangerous?" I asked suddenly. "How do you know it won't hit someone?"

"I'm still watching it," Dad explained. His eyes were still glued to the horizon, but he took time to give me a small wink. "But it's good that you thought of that," he said. "You're getting some pretty powerful abilities and although you might soon be completely invulnerable, other people aren't. You have to be careful with how you use your powers."

I nodded dutifully. Dad said something like that to me nearly every day now. Although it was getting a little old, I did realize that it was important. Getting all these new powers was really cool, but sometimes it was scary to think about how they could go wrong.

Like today, for instance. I had been trying to unlock the front door, and something wasn't working right. At first, I thought I was using the wrong key or something, but then I saw the finger impressions on the door knob and I realized that I had accidentally squished it. That's why Dad flew me out here when he got home and found out what happened. Although I was worried about what I had done, he made me feel better about it and promised me that he would help me get my grip under control.

I guess Dad's rock finally landed because he stopped staring off into the distance and bent down to pick up a new one, about the size of a cantaloupe.

"Let's see if we can get this under control," he said as he handed the rock to me.

The rock seemed a lot bigger in my hands than in his, but it wasn't as heavy as I had expected. Probably because I was getting stronger. Dad's hands settled over mine, and I instantly felt safer. It was like I was a little kid again, and Dad was teaching me to hold a baseball bat. I listened carefully as his voice gently instructed me, showing me the way to make sense of my new reality.

***

The university had been trying to years to get Dad to take a post there, but it wasn't until Jon was comfortable being Supernova that he finally did it. Jon agreed to look after all calls for help in the city while Dad had to teach a class, which made it a lot easier for Dad to juggle. That arrangement expanded when I became Nebula. We all took turns covering for each other so we were able to keep important plans without having to worry about people needing help. And although Dad still ran out a few times while he was working on the school paper, he didn't have to worry about anything while he was supposed to be lecturing.

When Dad first came to the UMet he shared an office with another professor, and I'm sure she thought that he had some kind of chronic bladder condition or something with all the times Dad inexplicably left the office. But Dad worked really hard to get the campus paper up to a credible standard, and the increased popularity meant that he needed his own space, so the university grudgingly provided him one. I was rarely on campus anymore, with most of my work being carried out at STAR Labs, but every time I was there, I usually stopped by for a visit, with coffee and donuts. Dad said it reminded him of the newsroom.

"Come on in, Ellie," he told me as I came up to his office door. Another perk about having his own space was that Dad could now talk to his daughter through a door and no one would witness it.

"Got time for coffee?" I asked once I entered.

"Of course I do." He accepted a cup and took a donut as well. "So I was just thinking about something. What do you think about the paper running a science feature every month or so? It could be really interesting. We could have interviews and news on important breakthroughs in research and--"

"I'm not writing it, Dad," I told him, rolling my eyes. He had been trying to get me on board the paper ever since he came here.

"I thought it might be worth a try," he shrugged sheepishly.

"Dad, you've seen my writing. I think we both know that the school paper would be better off without it."

"I think you could be a great writer, Ellie."

"You also once told me that I would make a great singer. Granted, I was six at the time, but you have to admit that even that showed serious delusions."

"I still think you were a fantastic Hilary Duff. The other girls in the talent show had nothing on you."

I sipped my coffee, smiling at the memory. Sure, Dad still teased me about joining the paper, but it was hardly a serious offer nowadays. He realized that I had my own dreams to chase, and he was always supportive of them.

"So how's Jay doing?" Dad asked.

"Good, I think. I... uh, haven't seen him much in the last few days." I had talked to him on the phone a couple times, but I hadn't really seen him in person since our last big conversation.

Dad nodded neutrally.

"Dad... Do you not like Jay or something?"

"Huh? No, of course not." Dad shook his head emphatically. "I mean, he's obviously in a difficult place right now, and it's hard for that not to have an effect. The fact that he doesn't have a job--"

"How is that a problem?" I found that I had become unconsciously defensive. "It's not like he's a slacker or anything. He's just waiting for the right opportunity."

"I didn't say he was a slacker, Ellie," Dad explained patiently. "But I imagine that Jay is the type of person who needs to be doing something constructive. And not having a job could be very difficult for him."

"Oh." Jay hadn't really shared anything like that with me, but what Dad said made a lot of sense. It seemed that Dad understood a lot about Jay that I didn't get. "You know, Jay thinks you hate him," I told Dad.

"Really?" Dad asked in surprise. "Have I done anything to make it seem that way?"

I shrugged. "I told him that he's probably overreacting, but it's like he's already decided that you can't possibly like him. I honestly don't understand it," I said in irritation. I hadn't planned on venting my frustration, but now I couldn't stop myself. "No offense, Dad, but you're not exactly an intimidating guy."

"Maybe not Clark Kent," Dad suggested, "but I imagine meeting Superman is pretty intimidating. And you have to remember that Jay knew I was Superman when he first met me."

"Yeah, but that was over two months ago," I pointed out, still not convinced. "By now he's had a chance to realize that you're not really like the Superman that's portrayed in the media."

Dad shrugged. "I don't know, sweetie. But I promise I'll lay off the protective dad role a bit, okay?"

"Thanks, Dad."

"Jay's one of my favorite of your boyfriends, so I don't really want to see him go anywhere yet," Dad teased. "I like him a lot better than that Arthur kid you dated a while back."

"I don't understand what you guys had against him," I bristled at the long suffered jab. "Arty was really nice."

"I remember how upset you were when he got you a set of test tubes for Valentines Day," Dad chuckled.

"It wasn't the fact that he gave me test tubes," I grumbled. "It's that he gave me the wrong ones. And then he ditched our plans that night because he learned he could fit in some extra lab time with Dr. Everett."

"Well, I don't think Jay is likely to do either of those things."

"He better not."

"Ellie, Jay's a good guy," Dad told me sincerely. "Of course, I'd like to get to know him a little better, especially considering what he knows, but you two seem to get along fine, and that's what really matters."

We talked for a while after that before I left, but that one phrase stuck in my head.

Yeah, sure, we were getting along just fine. Not a problem in sight.

If only Dad knew what was really going on between us. What would he say if he knew what was happening? I remembered Dr. Klein talking about when Dad's powers had gone haywire as a result of red Kryptonite. Did he end up accidentally hurting Mom? I remembered Dad had told me a little of the story, but he hadn't really gone into a lot of the specifics. I imagined if he did end up hurting Mom, he would've felt awful. Maybe about as awful as I felt when it happened to Jay.

When Mom and Dad were together, it seemed like they were always touching. Usually it was as simple as a hand here or an arm there. Jay and I didn't do that as much, mostly because I didn't want to take any chances that a simple touch would move into something deeper. If I didn't have to worry about hurting him, would we touch more? Did Jay touch more with his previous girlfriends? Did he regret not being able to do that with me? Those were questions I frequently asked myself, but recently they had taken on a whole new urgency.

I wasn't jealous of his previous relationships. I believed Jay when he said that I was more important to him right now. But there was still the fact that I couldn't possibly give him the kind of relationship he had with previous girlfriends. How much did that interfere with us becoming closer? And did Jay ever wish that things were different so that we didn't have the problem?

I did, sometimes.

And I didn't even know what we were missing out on. It would be different for Jay, who knew exactly what we could be doing, if only it wasn't for me.

In the past, I had often asked Dad for advice with boyfriends. He was always good at putting things in perspective for me. But for some reason, I hadn't been able to talk to him about this. Sure, I wanted to know what Jay was thinking, but somehow I couldn't screw up the courage to broach the subject with Dad. Maybe it was because that although Dad was always supportive of me dating a good guy, deep down, he was still a stereotypical overprotective father. And having a conversation about my boyfriend's sexual history just seemed to be too uncomfortable.

Sure, he had told me about the choices he made when he sat me down for his whole chastity talk shortly after I learned that he was Superman. But knowing that he had saved himself for marriage didn't exactly make that conversation any easier for me to discuss with him. Although Dad said he liked Jay, I wasn't sure if knowing Jay's past experience would help their relationship.

So where did that leave me? On my own, I guess. And more determined than ever to find a solution.

***

*~Jay~*

It was beyond bizarre to open my door and see Ellie standing there. She *never* knocked politely on my door, waiting for me to come answer it. But her patience didn't last much beyond that. She had barely enough time for a brief "hi" before attacking me with a downpour of kisses that started on my face but soon migrated south.

"What are you doing?" I asked, cursing myself at the same time. Why was I protesting this?

"Testing something," she murmured into my ear. So this was all some type of lab experiment? I found that I didn't really care. She could even make a science experiment sound sexy. However, she couldn't entirely quench my curiosity with a few kisses.

"So you found out the problem then? What was it?"

"Haven't found the problem yet," she replied, slamming the door behind her. "I just decided to treat the symptom and worry about the cause later. Now let's see if this will really work." She pulled us down onto my sofa.

I wanted to give her new idea a test drive, I really did. But something about the way she was acting seemed a little off. And she seemed unnaturally pale. Reluctantly, I pulled her off me.

"Ellie, why are you doing this?"

"Why am I kissing you? Jay, I don't know where you've been in the last two months, but--"

"You know that's not what I meant. I meant taking shortcuts. I may not be much of a scientist, but I'm pretty sure that's not the way to go about getting the right solution."

"I thought you would want to try this," she spoke quietly, her eyes downcast.

I was baffled. Although Ellie wasn't really a stickler for rules, she had always shown incredible dedication to meticulously researching and double checking facts as she conducted her research projects. Yet here she was throwing everything out the window for the sake of a make-out session. The only guess I had was that it had something to do with our recent talk, and the way she had clammed up near the end.

"Ellie, would you just quit being coy and tell me what's bothering you?" I asked her in irritation. Possibly not the best sensitive boyfriend move ever, but I had been worrying about the problem for a few days now... plus the way the chain of her necklace disappeared into the V of her sweater was distracting me. I winced a little at my tone, so I added a gentle "Please?"

Ellie shifted in her seat, until she was sitting upright, leaning against the arm of the sofa. She twisted her fingers together. "I don't really know how to phrase this... " She spoke in a low, hesitant tone.

"Just tell me," I encouraged. "You know me, I can handle blunt."

"Okay. Um... " She squeezed her hands together, stopping their fluttery movement, and she finally raised her head to look me in the eye. "How much do you resent me for not being able to offer you a physical relationship?"

"What?!" I had imagined a lot of things, but this wasn't one of them.

"Look, you told me that you've already hit a home run on more than one occasion, and even if you have dated other people and it hasn't progressed to that stage, at least the opportunity was there. But with me, it's like you're just standing on home plate striking out." She spat out the last part bitterly, and swiped under her eyes with her sleeve. She was crying. Crap.

I watched her helplessly. What on earth was I supposed to do? I scooched closer to her on the sofa, and, after a moment's hesitation, placed an arm around her, pulling her into an awkward, one-armed hug. She rested her head on my shoulder.

"I don't resent you in the slightest, Ellie," I finally managed to speak. "I love every second we spend together, no matter what it is we're doing."

"Me too," she told me, her voice muffled by my shirt.

"Ellie, what have I done to give you the idea that I wasn't happy?"

She shrugged. "I know what dating means, Jay. And I know what it's supposed to include."

"Okay, stop right there," I told her. "Since when do you follow whatever everyone else says you should do? You're a mature, confident, bright woman. You shouldn't give a crap about any of that stuff. And you're certainly not supposed to jump through hoops in order to cater to my supposed physical needs. I'm not asking you to do that, and I certainly hope you'd give me a good slap across the face if I ever did."

She laughed softly, and moved closer to me. "I know that. Intellectually, anyway. I guess it's just because... " She took a steadying breath. "This means a lot to me, Jay. And... I just don't want to see it slip through my fingers."

"It means a lot to me, too," I replied. "But you have to understand that I don't want you doing something rash for my sake that you'll come to regret. That's not going to do us any good in the long run."

"Okay," she agreed.

"And I realize that asking you not to do something rash is probably a pointless request," I continued. "But at least put in a solid effort for me, okay?"

"I can be cautious," she grumbled.

I merely laughed, and squeezed her tighter into my one-armed hug.

"I'm still waiting to see the day. And about the whole intimacy thing," I continued before she could get in a comeback. "You realize that even if we didn't run into any problems, it's completely possible that we wouldn't have gotten to that stage yet. And that's perfectly okay. I want to do this right with you, Ellie. I don't want to take any shortcuts here. To beat your little baseball metaphor to death, I don't care if I miss every pitch at this point. I'm just glad to be up to bat."

"That's sweet, Jay," she drawled drowsily.

"I know. I'm pretty good at this stuff, if you haven't noticed."

"And that just knocked a few points off your score." She smacked me playfully, but gave a small grunt as her hand hit my chest.

"What's wrong?" I asked. It was only then that I remembered her telling me that she had tried something to fix her control issues. What exactly was it that she had done?

"Nothing," she replied slowly. "I think I just need some water." She stood up, but then reached out to me for support.

"Ellie, are you okay?" I hadn't noticed before how sickly she looked. She swayed slightly on her feet, and the pale skin I noticed before had transitioned into gray.

"I'll be fine," she mumbled. "It's just a... little blip or something. I just need to get through this and I'll feel better in a bit."

I thought back to the glossed over explanation she had given me earlier. Treating the symptom, she had said.

There was only one thing she could've done.

I ran through what little I knew about the deadly mineral she must have used. If she had exposed herself in the lab, there was little I could do for her. A combination of sunlight and personal energy reserves would heal her.

But she wasn't getting better. It seemed she had gotten worse since she came here.

"Ellie, what did you do?" I demanded.

Her eyelids fluttered as she struggled to keep them open.

"Jay?"

Great, now she was disoriented.

Fighting the escalating panic I was feeling, I stood up and grabbed her arms to give her the support she needed to stay upright. "C'mon, Ellie, you've got to answer me. Just tell me what you did. Otherwise I don't know how to help you!"

"I... used... " She pinched her forehead in concentration. "Jay... You're gonna have to catch m... " I managed to catch her and lower her to the sofa.

I struggled to focus. I had to figure out what was wrong with her fast. Although she hadn't looked well when she first came over here, she was still fine, and walking under her own power.

But then she had gotten worse. Some kind of injection? God, I hoped not. I wasn't sure if there was anything for anyone to do if it was that.

But Ellie had obviously done this in a hurry, so it was most likely simpler than that. I dumped her purse out, and sifted through the contents hurriedly. Nothing. Although her tight jeans didn't provide an ideal hiding place, I checked the pockets anyway, trying to do so as chastely as possible.

Where else to look? Where else did girls hide things? I could think of a few possibilities, but I wasn't about to look in any of them unless I absolutely had to.

I was about to call and wait for reinforcements when I had one last idea. Ellie hardly ever wore jewelry, and that chain she had on seemed chunkier than her usual taste. I pulled it out from its place tucked inside her sweater. At the end of the chain, there was a rectangular pendant, similar in shape to a military dog tag. Embedded within the metal, winking evilly out at me, was a tiny chip of glowing green.

***

Chapter Eight

*~Ellie~*

The worst thing about Kryptonite is that after an exposure, every single joint in my body is sore. I guess it feels kind of like it would if I twisted an ankle or something, but instead of the pain just being in one spot, it's all over.

I had woken up when I heard someone come in the door, but had been too tired to follow the conversation. I was soon asleep again, but I didn't sleep very long before Jay's lamp snapped on and flooded my face with light. Even though I scrunched my eyes shut, the light still managed to filter through my eyelids and cause my head to pound harder than it already was. Although most of his apartment still looked like an empty room, a lamp was one of the few purchases Jay had actually made. Figures.

"Turnnit off," I mumbled incoherently.

"In a minute," came the reply. "I need to see what I'm doing."

It was Aunt Lucy. She spoke softly, something I was grateful for at the moment. I kept my eyes screwed shut, but was able to feel the light pressure on my wrist.

"How am I doing?" I asked her, after pausing to allow her to concentrate.

"Pulse is a little rapid, but within normal range," she replied. "How are you feeling?"

"Crummy."

"Well, I don't know why you would've expected anything different." The hand moved to my forehead. "I think you're a little warm. But you'll be okay." The light finally snapped off, and I decided it was safe to open my eyes. "No powers?" she asked me quietly.

I shook my head slightly.

"About how long do you think you were wearing that thing?" she asked me.

She knew about the necklace.

"I'm not sure." I mentally tallied up the time in the lab, the time it took me to get to Jay's place by cab, the time we spent here... "Half an hour? Maybe forty-five minutes."

Aunt Lucy wasn't one to get upset, but she did frown, and exhale heavily when she heard this news.

"The amount was small, but considering the length of time and the proximity of the Kryptonite... " She was trying to say that it had been a pretty severe exposure. I had miscalculated how much it would affect me.

"How much did Jay tell you?" My voice was small and timid as I asked the question.

"Just the basics," she said. "He said that any more would be a violation of your privacy. But he did need to explain why on earth you would think that exposing yourself to Kryptonite would be a good thing." There was a harder edge to her voice, and I swallowed guiltily.

"So you know all about the... issues we've been having?"

Aunt Lucy nodded. "Ellie, why didn't you tell us that something was wrong?" She spoke in a soft tone, gently probing for answers. Somehow, that upset me more than if she had just gotten mad at me.

I shrugged, feeling a prickle of tears build up. "It was just so... embarrassing. And I thought I could handle it myself. I knew that the only time it was happening was with Jay, and I didn't want Dad or anyone else to try to stop me from being Nebula." And what would happen now that Aunt Lucy knew? "Are you going to tell Mom and Dad?' I asked her.

"*I* won't, but you should," she told me. "And we'll have to explain to Brad what happened as well. I'm not keeping him in the dark about this"

I nodded. "Is there any way we can hold off on telling my parents?" I wanted to put off that conversation as long as possible. "Maybe wait until tomorrow or something?"

She shrugged. "It's up to you, but I think you might have a hard time explaining to them why you need someone else to take care of all the calls for help tonight. It was your night tonight, wasn't it?"

Darn, it was. "I guess I didn't really plan this out," I admitted.

"Why did you even try it in the first place?"

"You know why. I was trying to find a way to kiss Jay without crushing him."

"That's not what I meant. You know how little we know about Kryptonite exposure. There's no way you could've gotten a good result with this stunt. But you went ahead and tried it anyway."

"I guess... I just got a little crazy," I confessed. "We've been trying to deal with this problem for so long. And it just... It really scared me!" I felt an incredible release in finally admitting that. "I shouldn't have that kind of problem anymore. I've been dealing with these powers for over ten years now. I should be able to handle them. And of course the only time it ever happens is when I'm with Jay. So something that's supposed to be normal for two people dating has become all screwed up and painful... And I hurt him, Aunt Lucy! I wouldn't want that to happen with anyone, but when it's with him... " I wiped away at the flow of tears trailing down my face. "He doesn't deserve that. And I couldn't keep doing it to him anymore."

Aunt Lucy softly shushed me as she rubbed my arm, the closest she could really get to me given our position.

"You've been keeping that in for a while, haven't you?"

I nodded wordlessly.

"Have you talked to Jay about any of this?"

"Not really," I replied. "I don't think he would really understand a lot of it. Dad always told me how important it was to be in control of my powers because being careless leads to people getting hurt. And here I've gone ahead and hurt someone close to me without even realizing it at first."

"But this isn't your fault, Ellie," Lucy told me. "And now that we know, we'll help you find out what's causing it."

I nodded wordlessly in agreement and thanks. She shifted in her seat until she was sitting cross-legged beside me.

"So Jay doesn't know about any of the stuff that's been bothering you?" she probed.

"Well, we've talked about other stuff having to do with this," I explained. "But I don't think he knows how much the lack of control means to me. He doesn't need to know, anyway. It would just put too much strain on us."

"Ellie... " She sighed. "Look, I don't know how much your mom ever told you about my divorce... "

"Not much," I replied. "I was pretty young at the time."

Aunt Lucy nodded as if that was the answer she had expected. "There were a lot of problems with that marriage, but there was one issue that was really difficult for us to work through. Again, you may not know this, but I struggled with issues of self-esteem for many years. And one of the things that really helped me to pull out of that cycle was working as a scientist. But I never really explained that to Tim. So after I gave birth to Alex, Tim didn't see why I was having such a hard time staying home while he was out at work. We never really talked about the impact that was having on me, and we ended up having a lot of fights about related issues as a result, but never really making any progress because we never managed to attack the core issue.

"I'm not saying this as some sort of cautionary tale in order to scare you, Ellie," she told me. "But I do want to stress how important it is for you to know where the other is coming from in a relationship. You have more reason than most people to feel in control, and it's completely understandable how this situation would scare you. You've got higher stakes than anyone else."

"Sometimes I just wonder if life would be easier if I could just get rid of my powers," I grumbled.

"You don't really think that, do you?" Aunt Lucy asked sharply.

"No, not really," I relented. "But I wonder if Jay might feel that way sometimes."

"See, that's another Relationship 101 thing," she said, smiling wryly. "You've got to love people just the way they are. Wanting to change something fundamental about the other person never leads to good things. And the same goes for pretending to be something that you're not. Even if it is for the sake of the other person. There's only so long you can keep up the charade. And as for Jay, I think his reaction to this latest stunt is enough to tell if he really wants you to change."

"What do you mean?" He had seemed calm enough when we talked earlier.

"He's really upset, Ellie," Aunt Lucy told me. "He didn't really talk to me about it much, but I could tell."

"Where is he?"

"On the balcony." The words were accompanied with a nod in that direction. "I told him that I needed some space, but I was just trying to make him get some air."

"I should go talk to him," I said. I pushed myself up off the sofa, moving delicately as I tested the extent of my physical ability.

"If you're going to be okay, then I'll leave you two. But Ellie... "

"Yeah?"

"We'll figure this out. I promise."

I nodded. "Thanks."

***

*~Jay~*

You always know when things are serious because that's when grownups tell you to be quiet. Me and Kaylie were playing on the chairs in the waiting room, and Dad kept saying things like "Stop making that noise!" and "Sit still!"

But I didn't want to sit still. I wanted to see Mom. Dad told us that we were gonna see her today, but all we had done so far was sit still in chairs for forever.

A lady had come over to talk to us, and Dad had called her the nurse, even though she wasn't wearing a white hat with a red cross like nurses are supposed to. I didn't really like her because she talked to me and Kaylie like we were babies. She gave us some books to read, but they were little kid books with Elmo and stuff in the pictures. I wanted to tell her that I was reading bigger kid books now, and the last book I was reading with Mom even had chapters in it! Well, they were small chapters, but Kaylie hadn't gotten that good yet, so I think that meant I was a pretty good reader. But I didn't tell the nurse that because Dad was looking at me really hard and I knew that meant I should just say thank you and nothing else. Besides, we didn't get to read any more of that book with the chapters since Mom came to the hospital, and that was a while ago.

The nurse was talking to Dad with some other people, and finally Dad came over to me and Kaylie.

"It's time to see Mom," he told us.

"Your Mommy is very sick right now," the nurse said. "So that means you have to be gentle with her, okay? And she's going to have some tubes in her, but they're only helping her feel better so there's no reason to be scared."

I nodded, and Kaylie did too. We didn't want to do anything that would make the grownups decide that we couldn't see Mom.

The nurse hadn't been lying when she said there were a lot of tubes in Mom. She had a bunch stuck in her arm, and there were some funny wires attached to her too. But I don't know if they were really helping her because she still didn't look very good. She looked sick like Kaylie did that one time when she was throwing up. And then I got sick right after, which wasn't very fun at all.

But when Mom saw us, she opened her arms in a big hug, just like I knew she would. She wasn't too tired to see us like the nurse said she might be.

"Mom, I just made a new picture in school! Do you wanna see it?" I put the picture right in front of her face so she could see it.

"Wow, Jason. This is really good!" She held the picture in her hands and traced along the lines.

"It's for you," I told her. I was happy that she liked the picture. "I made it to put in your room."

"Well, I'm sure we can find a good place for it."

"I used a lot of red because that's my favorite color," I explained.

"I made my picture for you with blue!" Kaylie said. She gave Mom her picture. "Because that's *my* favorite color."

"It's lovely, Kaylie," Mom said. "I'm sure we can find a good place for both of these."

"What's your favorite color, Mom?" I hoped that she would say red.

"Hmm... " she thought for a bit. "I think I would have to say... Purple!"

"How come?" Kaylie asked. She probably thought Mom would say blue.

"Well, what do you get when you add red and blue together?" Mom asked both of us.

"Purple!" We said together.

"That's right. And my favorite part of the day was having my favorite people in the whole world come to visit me. Thank you so much for coming." Mom gave both Kaylie and me a hug at the same time. But this hug wasn't as strong as the one she gave us when we first came.

"The nurse will take you back to the waiting room, okay, kids?" Dad told us. "I need to talk to Mom and the doctors for a bit longer."

"Okay," we agreed.

Even though I didn't want to go with the nurse who thought I would still like baby books, I went anyway because I promised Dad that I would be on my best behavior today. So I gave Mom a goodbye kiss and left with Kaylie and the nurse.

We didn't make a fuss when we were leaving, but I think if we knew what was going to happen next, we might have. See, that's the last time I ever got to see Mom. By the next morning, she was already gone.

***

It was cold out on my balcony, but I didn't really care. The image of Ellie collapsing played over and over in my head. How she had just dropped like a discarded marionette. And then the way she was so still, even after I got rid of the necklace. Waiting for Lucy to show up had been hell. There was nothing I could've done for Ellie, which left me to sit and alternate between watching the clock and Ellie's frozen face... It was the stuff nightmares were made of.

I don't think I had ever been more scared in my life. In the NIA, they teach you all sorts of fear-management techniques. Deep breathing and stuff like that. They say that fear is crippling, and causes agents to make mistakes where they normally wouldn't. I had been a good soldier and applied those techniques while out on the field, yet this caught me completely off guard. I was capable of dealing with the kind of danger that gets your heart pumping and your stomach churning, yet this... Reminded me of things I'd rather not think about. There was a reason why I never went to hospitals.

Why had she even tried this in the first place? Did I really seem that anxious to jump in the sack with her?

Okay, obviously I had thought about it. And not just a few times, either. I don't know how anyone could date her and *not* think about it at least occasionally. But clearly we couldn't do that right now, and I was more than willing to wait until we could.

Yet she had acted as if I resented her for that. Hopefully, our talk earlier had helped to clear away her fear, yet the consequences of her experiment had removed any comfort I had gained from our conversation.

I heard the latch click, and I turned to see Ellie step onto the balcony. She was pale, yet was still able to stand on her own. I closed the distance between us, and wrapped my arms around her, squeezing tightly as if that would reassure me of her health.

"Don't you *ever* do anything like that again, okay?" I got a mouthful of her hair in my mouth as I spoke, but I hardly noticed.

"Oof," she replied.

"And now I'm crushing you. God, Ellie, I'm so sorry." I stepped back to give her some air, but I couldn't take my eyes off her. I had to be able to see for myself that she was okay.

"A bit of a role reversal, huh?" she remarked dryly.

"Are you... okay?" I asked hesitantly. She looked better, yet I could tell she still wasn't back to her regular self.

"I'm fine," she assured me. "I don't have any powers right now or anything, but other than that I feel fine."

"Good," I sighed in relief. "I found the necklace you were wearing, but I wasn't sure if that was it or if there was more that you had... " I drew in a shaky breath, disliking the memory. I had felt so desperate then. "And... And what were you even thinking?" I exploded. "How could you pull a crazy stunt like that and just leave me to puzzle out what the hell you had done to yourself? You were damn lucky I found that necklace! What do you think would've happened if I hadn't been able to find it, huh? And what if you had done something besides just a necklace? That would've meant... Ellie, you could've... " I gulped, unable to continue along that topic. I was gripping the railing so hard that my fingers were getting numb.

"Jay, I'm so sorry," she told me, her voice catching as she spoke. "I never meant to... I-I wasn't thinking about... I'm just really sorry, okay? And I promise I'll never do something like that again."

"Okay. Thank you," I said, calming down. "And I'm sorry I yelled at you. That's probably the last thing you want to hear right now."

She didn't speak. Instead she leaned her head against my shoulder as we both looked out over the balcony. On a clear day, you could see all the way to the river. But today, the clouds made everything dim and foggy.

"I have to tell my family," she finally said.

"I thought so," I replied. "Well, I already had to tell Lucy some of it, and I figured that everyone else would just kind of follow. Are you okay with that?" Although I didn't have much choice at the time, it had been me who told Lucy in the first place.

"Yeah," she shrugged. "I probably should have told them sooner, but I just couldn't work up the guts. Or maybe the humility. Or maybe... I don't know. Anyway, I was supposed to watch the city tonight, but I obviously can't now so I'll have to let either my dad or Jon know anyway... " She shivered against me, and she hunched her shoulders against the sudden breeze.

"You're cold. Here, come inside. You're hardly dressed for the weather." Although I had been stubbornly ignoring the chill, it must've been very uncomfortable for someone who was unused to feeling the cold. She still looked a little chilly once we had come inside, so I dug up an old sweatshirt of mine for her to wear. Lucy was nowhere to be seen, and I guessed that she had slipped out quietly once Ellie came to see me on the balcony. "So... do you want me to come when we tell your family?" I asked her. "For moral support?"

"Well, you don't have to go," she hedged. She slipped the sweatshirt over her head. It was hopelessly big on her, but she ignored that and simply pushed the sleeves up past her elbows.

"I think I should."

"Okay," she nodded, burying her nose into the collar of the sweatshirt. Although she hadn't voiced it, I could tell she was grateful of my offer. "Thank you," she whispered into the folds of the fabric.

I merely nodded.

***

Chapter Nine

*~Ellie~*

I tugged on my costume and checked myself in the mirror. It looked pretty decent, I thought. The last couple weeks had been difficult, dealing with the aftermath of my little experiment, and telling my family what had been going on. I was looking forward to just relaxing this evening and introducing Jay to some of my university friends.

I was readjusting my costume once again when Jay knocked on my door.

"Come in!" I shouted, not wanting to bother with getting the door myself.

"I still can't believe you don't keep your door locked," he lectured as he entered, making sure to lock the door behind him. "Anyone can come in."

"I'll hear them if they do," I shrugged. "Besides, it's not like I'll really be in any danger. And I always lock the door when I leave." I gave my costume a final tweak and turned to face him. "What do you think?"

"What are you supposed to be?"

I glanced down at my all-black ensemble. I had a little tail stuck to my back acting as flagellum, and there were letters spelling DNA stuck all over me with masking tape.

"Well, it doesn't really make sense until I go like this," I explained, ripping one of the 'DNA's off me and sticking it onto Jay. He still looked confused. "I'm prokaryotic horizontal gene transfer," I told him.

"Oh. Of course," he said sarcastically. "Why didn't I think of that before?"

"Well, a lot of people at the Halloween party will recognize it," I grumbled.

"I bet they will," he consoled. "After all, it is your faculty party. Bound to be plenty of geeky costumes in the mix."

"Hey!" I protested. But not too vehemently. He was probably right. "Anyway, what are you dressed up as? Is it a mobster, or is there a different costume under the trench coat?"

"Guess," he commanded with that awful grin he gets when he's about to do something really annoying. And that's when I caught sight of the red boots sticking out underneath the hem of his coat.

"Jay, those better not be what I think they are," I told him dangerously.

"Ellie, I wanted to have the best costume at the party," he boasted. "And what could possible be better than... " he unbuttoned his coat dramatically, finally opening it with a flourish. "The Man of Steel?"

"Oh, I can think of a lot of things that would be better," I said furiously. "Anything, actually. You could wear a white sheet over your head and that would still be a better costume than this."

"What's wrong with it?" he frowned innocently. Like he didn't know. "It doesn't look good?"

The truth was, seeing Jay in a skin-tight suit wasn't really a bad thing at all. I mean, of all the people to see in such a suit, he would be the one I would pick. It emphasized all the right parts, and the smooth material showcased his impressive musculature.

"Well, yeah, it looks good. I mean, really good," I replied. But then my eyes slid over the familiar crest, and the rest of the costume jumped out at me in its entirety. "But, Jay, you're dressed up as my dad!" I exclaimed. "Do you have any idea how disturbing that is?"

He grinned, and rocked back on the heels of those stupid boots.

"At least tell me that the costume's not authentic," I begged.

"Clark's would be too long for me," he replied. "But the boots are actually Jon's. Apparently, they use the same color of dye. Who knew?"

"I did," I snapped. "I know because I'm related to both of them! Do you have any idea of the kind of comments we're going to get tonight? Little giggles and asides about how great it must be to date Superman?"

"Yep," Jay replied happily. "And your face is going to turn *so* red. I think it's gonna be a fun night."

I looked the costume over from head to toe. Although it wasn't authentic, it was a very good replica. And the boots were indistinguishable, of course. Even his hair looked very realistic with it plastered close to his head in a very similar style to the way that Dad wore it. All in all, it was extremely close to the original. And it was weird. Very weird.

I sighed.

"I don't suppose there's any way I can convince you to borrow one of my bedsheets for the night, is there?"

"Now, what kind of Man of Steel would I be if I allowed myself to give over to such a suggestion?"

Grunting in defeat, I grabbed my coat and slipped it on. "Let's go," I sighed, heading down the hall to the door.

Jay jumped in front of me just as I was about to reach for the knob. "Superman is always a gentleman," he told me, holding the door open. "Especially when he's on a date."

"Oh, shut up," I snapped.

***

We were just about to enter the hall where the party was being held when I grabbed onto Jay's arm to pull him back.

"Before we go in, there's something you should know," I told him.

"What is it?"

"Well, a couple years ago, I dated one of the guys who was a student here."

"Really?"

"Yeah. And we broke up and everything, but people still tend to talk about it. And not that it was a bad break-up or anything. Just because... Well, because people talk."

"Okay," he nodded. "Thanks for telling me. I'll be sure to fry him with my heat vision when I get a good shot. Care to give me some aiming tips?"

"Would you cut it out? I'm trying to be serious here!" I demanded.

"Sorry," he apologized.

"Anyway, he's not here anymore, he's at some university out west I think, but just know that it might come up in conversation."

"Okay. Thanks for telling me. That would help to avoid an awkward moment."

"Good." I was glad he seemed okay with this. And there really wasn't anything for him to worry about. I didn't even want to talk to Arty anymore, let alone anything else. "His name's Arty, by the way," I told Jay. "Just so you know."

"Thanks. Shall we go in now?"

I took the arm that Jay offered, and we went into the party together. It was nice to be able to introduce Jay to some of my friends from school. I had mentioned him before, but I had never really gotten around to getting him to meet them. I didn't see this crowd as often as I used to anyway now that I was spending the majority of my time at STAR Labs.

"It's great to meet you," my old roommate Hannah told Jay as she shook his hand. "I've heard about you, of course."

"You have?" Jay asked.

"Oh, sure," my friend Roy cut in. "Ever since Ellie mentioned that she was seeing someone, we've been going crazy with curiosity. We've been trying to decide if you'd be another dork like her last boyfriend, or if you'd actually have some social capabilities."

"I don't understand what you guys had against Arty! He was really nice!" I defended, my face turning red. The most annoying thing about the whole situation was that I couldn't help defending Arty whenever his name came up, even though he didn't deserve it.

"And that's about all he was, at best," Hannah told Jay. "Seriously, the guy couldn't have a conversation with someone without bringing up protein synthesis."

"We may be scientists, but we try to lead normal lives," Roy explained to Jay.

"Speaking of which," Hannah said, "I love your costume, Ellie. Very creative."

"Thanks." I gave her one of my 'DNA's as a gift. "See, Jay? I told you that some people would appreciate my efforts."

"Oh, but I love Superman, too," Hannah told us. "And how great must that be for you, Ellie? Dating Superman for the evening?"

"Oh, it's great," I said through a fake smile. Seriously, I was going to kill Jay for putting me through this.

"Did I hear something about Superman?" Another girl I had befriended as an undergrad pushed herself into our group. "Oh, hey! Great costume! I'm Samantha."

"Jay. I'm with Ellie."

"This is the boyfriend?" she asked in exaggerated surprise. "Well, I guess that means I loose the pool. You're definitely not a nerd. I can tell just by looking at you."

"Sam... " I groaned. Why had I thought that introducing Jay to my friends was a good idea?

"Um... thanks, I guess," Jay replied awkwardly.

"I bet ten to one that outfit gets some more action tonight after the party, right?" Samantha nudged Jay with her elbow.

I was sure my face had started glowing with embarrassment. "Sam, seriously, cut it out," I begged. "You're embarrassing Jay."

"Oh, just ignore me," she told Jay. "I only say things like that because it's fun to watch Ellie blush."

"Oh, I completely agree," Jay said. "It's something I strive to do on a daily basis."

"Great," I complained, "two seconds with my boyfriend and you've already managed to turn him against me."

"Relax, Ellie," Sam told me. "I haven't done anything."

"I was against you from the very beginning," Jay chimed in.

Our banter was stopped by sudden panic from the opposite end of the room. There were a few shouts, and it seemed as if everyone was trying to get away from something.

"What's going on?" Jay whispered in my ear.

"Some genius decided it'd be a good idea to put real jack-o-lanterns in here as decorations and leave them unattended," I replied, using my X-ray vision to look through people and see what was going on. "I'll be right back."

Making use of the confusion, I was able to slip away from the group and return as Nebula easily. It was a piece of cake to put out the small fire, and I turned to address my colleagues.

"It's never a good idea to leave an open flame unattended at a party," I cautioned them. "It's best to stick with electric lights." It was a bit of a sanctimonious speech, I thought. But it was expected of me, so I had to deliver it.

"Thanks, Nebula!"

I turned to see Samantha push through the crowd toward me. She was obsessed with my super-persona, and although this wasn't the first time she had met Nebula, she still looked excited. "How did you manage to get here so fast?" she asked.

"I was in the area," I replied vaguely, getting ready to leave. Unfortunately, my eyes landed square on Jay just as I was about to make an exit. Everyone saw that I could see him, as he was standing on the fringe of the crowd. As Nebula, there was no way I could get away without commenting on his costume choice, yet what could I really say? Finally, I settled on something conservative. "Nice costume," I told him.

"Thank you," he replied. "I wasn't too keen on the idea myself, but my girlfriend convinced me it was a good idea. I'll be sure to let her know that you approve."

"I... uh... " What could Nebula say to that? Nothing, I realized. So instead, I gave a deep, serious nod, and exited the room.

I was going to kill him when I got back.

***

I returned to the party as quickly as I could, but obviously it wasn't soon enough. Jay was talking to Samantha again, and I dreaded to think of what they were talking about.

Enough was enough, I decided as I approached. I wasn't going to spend the entire party hiding under the refreshment table in embarrassment. I was going to fight back if it killed me.

"Ellie! You missed it!" Sam cried as I approached them. "Nebula was here! Some of the decorations caught fire, and she came to put them out."

"She liked my costume," Jay winked. "But I already knew it was good to begin with."

"Of course it's great!" Sam enthused. "Isn't it, Ellie?"

"Well, I dunno," I replied impishly. "I always thought Jay's a little... vertically challenged to pull off Superman."

To my pleasure, Jay choked in his punch.

"Aw, he's not *that* short," Sam replied nicely.

"Well, maybe we can ask his sister," I said. "She's how much taller than you, Jay?"

"A few inches," Jay replied neutrally. "But you're one to talk, Miss DNA Transfer." He flipped up one of my stuck on 'DNA' tags. "I would've thought you'd be glad to finally meet a guy who didn't accidentally trip over you."

"Well, unlike you, I have certain... tools to overcome my height," I said coyly. When I was home, I constantly floated up to get things from high shelves.

"You mean stilettos?" he asked obtusely.

I rolled my eyes.

"Ooo, Ellie, I just thought of a good costume idea for next year!" Sam cut in. "You'd make a great Nebula. You have the right coloring and everything. You two could be like a pair of superheroes."

"Well, I don't know about that," Jay replied. "I don't think Ellie's really the Nebula type. But I've told her before, she would make a great Wonder Woman."

"And I've told you, Jay," I replied sweetly, "that if you dress up as James Bond, I'm all for a Wonder Woman costume."

"James Bond?" Sam asked.

"He's sort of an idol of Jay's," I told her. "He just loves how James Bond gets out of all those tricky situations with those clever gadgets--"

"You mean those illogically created needless pieces of so-called equipment?" Jay asked, aghast. "Ellie, they're ridiculous, and you know it! Those stupid 'gadgets' would probably malfunction at the worst time possible and leave you in an even worse bind than before!" He paused mid-lecture, and glanced at Samantha. "Um... At least that's what I would think if I had any experience with that. Which I don't. Nothing at all that's even remotely close to... "

Yes! I finally had him flustered. But of course it wasn't long before he was able to collect himself again.

"But if I was going to be James Bond," he was telling Sam, "Ellie would have to be a Bond girl. That's just the way it is."

"Fine," I agreed. "But not one of the ones who die or get their heart broken at the end of the movie. One of the cool ones. With one of those nifty gadgets you hate so much."

"Ellie, you barely know how to work a toaster," Jay laughed. "How are you going to work a gadget?"

"Well, there's a very good reason why I never use a toaster, now isn't there? And I won't have to actually *use* the gadget. I'll just have it tucked inside my ball gown or something."

"Why do I get the feeling that I'm missing something?" Sam asked. "I have no idea what you two are talking about." Then she shrugged. "Oh, well. You guys are cute together, even though you make no sense at all."

We watched guiltily as Sam walked off to find a group of people more understandable. We had probably gotten a little carried away in our banter and had forgotten to include her in the conversation.

"Your fault," Jay whispered in my ear.

"Hardly!" I scoffed. "You were the one who started with all those stupid Superman comments."

"You mentioned James Bond, Ellie!" he protested. "That's the one thing guaranteed to drive me crazy."

"I know," I grinned.

"I take that back," he said, leaning in even closer to me. His nose grazed across mine. "You're the one that drives me crazy."

"Hey, watch it!" Roy interrupted. "Or we'll send you guys up to the fourth-floor supply closet."

I jumped back, blushing. Since when did Jay and I need PDA reminders? Roy had completely snuck up on us though, and I could see that Hannah had tagged along with him.

"I'm guessing the supply closet has a reputation?" Jay asked.

"Most popular make-out spot in the building," Roy said.

"Did you and Arty ever take any trips to pick up latex gloves, Ellie?" Jay teased.

"Like I would tell you when you ask like that," I mumbled, feeling my face heat up for the millionth time this night.

"If they did, it was only to pick up latex gloves," Hannah told him. "Arty was totally focused, and a complete suck up. He would never dare do something like that on school property while they were supposed to be working."

"We just came to tell you guys that the costume contest is supposed to start in a few minutes, if you're interested, Jay," Roy informed us.

"You're not participating, Ellie?" Jay asked.

"Ellie won last year," Hannah explained. "So she has to sit out this year. But you should definitely enter. I've seen a few Supermans before, but never one this good."

"I think I'll have to," Jay said. "I've been told that I'm too short to pull it off, so we'll have to see if I can prove my girlfriend wrong."

Hannah and Jay went off to enter the contest, but Roy stayed back with me, saying he was going to sit out the contest this year, just like he did every year. Roy didn't really enjoy the spotlight.

We found a table together, and sat down with some punch as the participants were getting organized.

"So how's work at STAR Labs?" Roy asked me.

"Challenging," I said, thinking of the recent things I had been working on. "But it's great, really. You're still liking it here on campus?"

"Yeah. I'm going to be teaching some more classes in the winter term, so that should be good."

"That's great, Roy."

"Hey, Ellie... " he shifted closer to me.

"Yeah?"

"We're still keeping it pretty quiet and everything, but we did want to let you know that Hannah and I have started dating."

"Finally!" I cried. "I've only been trying to get you two together for about five years."

"I know," he grinned sheepishly. "Maybe all we needed was for people to stop pushing us. Without the pressure, we're getting along just fine."

"Maybe," I agreed, feeling a little sheepish myself. "So now I have to ask just how good the fourth-floor supply closet is. You two even have keys now, so you can get in whenever you want."

"I'm not answering that," Roy replied evasively. "Hannah and I are professionals. We're not going to go sneaking around the building after hours."

"Who said anything about after hours?" I asked.

Lucky for Roy, the contest started right then, so he didn't have to be grilled any longer. We both clapped and cheered for Hannah and Jay, although I cheered Jay a little more grudgingly than Hannah. The costumes were judged on a simple applause meter, and Jay had just made the final five with Hannah when the smoke alarm went off, and sprinklers showered down on everyone.

I could see the problem instantly. Some of the smokers had left the door propped open, and the cigarette smoke had wafted back into the room, and set off the detector. Although my colleagues were supposed to be intelligent, it appeared that they lacked any sort of common sense. Two fire-related incidents in one night? And of course, the detector had remained dormant through the pumpkin fire, but was set off because of a small amount of cigarette smoke.

I didn't want to come back as Nebula. For one thing, it might seem too coincidental. And for another, it seemed like a lot of work to go through for a simple matter such as this. I wasn't sure if I wanted to deal with more teasing from Jay.

Luckily, my decision was taken away from me when the genuine Superman swooped in, deactivated the alarm, and calmed everyone down.

"It was just a false alarm, everyone," he told the crowd. "It's safe to remain in the building. But for future reference, it's good to ensure that the door is closed to prevent cigarette smoke from entering the building." He caught my eye, and I gave him a discreet salute in thanks.

Then, as Dad turned to leave, he saw Jay standing at the front wearing a duplicate of his own costume. I smothered a grin as I saw Jay squirm. I had guessed that Jay didn't tell Dad what he was planning on doing, and judging by Jay's expression, my guess was correct.

Dad looked Jay up and down, and I could see a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

"Nice costume," he finally said.

"Thanks," Jay replied in a strangled voice. He looked as embarrassed as I had felt earlier.

I smiled. Revenge was a good thing.

***

*~Jay~*

The police officer stared at me with narrow, puzzled eyes.

"So let me try to get this straight," he said, paging through his notebook carefully.

"It's not that difficult," I tried to tell him.

"You saw a mugging in the works," he started, oblivious to my comment. "You ran to save the guy, got his weapon away, and then you were assisted by... *another* man wearing a Superman costume?"

"No," I said impatiently. "*I'm* wearing a Superman costume. That man over there is the real thing."

Ellie was standing with her dad, shaking silently in laughter. Like this was just hilarious.

"I restrained the suspect while this man helped the victim," Clark stepped in. "The young lady called for the police, and we waited for you to show up."

"So... You're the real Superman." The police officer pointed at Clark. "And you... " he turned to look at me, "just decided to dress like Superman?"

"Tell you what," I offered. "If you can't tell the difference, get him to throw you up in the air, and get me to catch you. We'll see which one of us fails."

"If it helps, the short one's the fake," Ellie piped up.

Great, like that was going to make me feel better.

"And I didn't just decide to dress up like Superman," I snapped irritably. "It was a Halloween costume." And it seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, it just felt ridiculous.

The cop squinted myopically at my costume, and I shifted uncomfortably. I wished I hadn't given my coat away to the girl who had been in trouble. I could've used it right now.

"Why Superman?" the cop finally asked.

"Oh, you know," I shrugged. "I got the idea from her brother. It turns out, he's dressed like a superhero a time or two in the past, and we're about the same shoe size. The boots are half the costume, as you probably know."

"No," another cop replied dryly as he came up to us. "I didn't." Two police officers, and two superheroes, one in disguise, were too much for me to bear together.

"But I guess that being a superhero was kind of a stupid idea, wasn't it?" I continued, letting my mouth run away from me completely. "Maybe I should've been procatatonic transfer like Ellie here."

"Prokaryotic," she corrected quietly.

"Right," I nodded. "Hey, Ellie! You know what you should do? Slap one of your DNA tags onto Superman here. Then you can say that you share DNA!"

She snorted, but quickly covered it up.

"That's not funny," she said.

"So you were able to subdue the suspect quickly then?" the second officer asked. He seemed much more adept at this kind of thing than his partner.

"Yeah," I replied. "Honestly, he didn't put up much of a fight at all."

"That's because I thought you were him!" the voice from the back of the cruiser shouted.

"Well, it serves you right," I shot at him.

We were guided out of earshot, and then the same officer resumed his questioning.

"So where were you throughout this, miss?"

"She was standing on the sidelines, out of danger," I replied seriously. "It was best to let me take care of everything. She could've gotten hurt."

"Yeah, right!" Ellie protested loudly.

"I'm sorry, Ellie, but how many superheroes do you count on this street?" I asked patronizingly.

"I count one," the officer commented, missing the irony if his statement. "You were darn lucky nothing bad happened to you because of what you did. You had no way of knowing what this suspect was capable of."

"I knew what I was doing," I muttered.

"Regardless for what you think you could do," he continued, "it was a good thing that Superman showed up when he did. Thanks again, Superman." He took Clark's hand and shook it firmly. Then he turned to Ellie. "Would you feel better if Superman saw you home?"

"Oh, yes," she replied, sneaking wicked glanced in my direction. "I would feel so much safer that way."

"Would you be willing to do that, Superman?" the cop asked.

"I could, yes," Clark replied.

The old officer walked off, his junior following close behind. They soon drove away leaving us alone in the street.

"Thanks for stopping by, Dad," Ellie spoke quietly, avoiding any eavesdroppers.

"I have to admit I was a little confused when I looked down and saw another Superman," Clark replied. "I do like the costume, Jay. The boots are spot-on, of course."

"Thanks," I mumbled. I felt absolutely ridiculous wearing it, especially without a coat.

"I'm sure you guys can get home by yourselves," Clark said. "Goodnight. And try to not get into trouble again, okay?" And he flew off to leave us alone.

"So are you going to give me a lift home?" I asked Ellie.

"No way," Ellie replied. "I've had to endure an entire night of your teasing. You deserve to walk down the street like this for a few blocks."

"Fine," I sighed. "But that means you have to stand close to me. It's cold out."

"Aw... " she sighed in fake sympathy. "I should feel sorry for you... But I don't. You brought this one yourself." But although she gave no comfort with her words, she did wrap an arm around me, and tuck her body close to mine, giving me the extra warmth I needed.

"So, although the real Superman swooped in and clean everything up, you do have to admit something," I told Ellie as we strolled down the street, ignoring the strange looks we were getting.

"What?"

"Well, I do make a pretty good Superman, don't I?"

"Shut up, Jay."

***

Chapter Ten

*~Jay~*

Dark, seedy streets made me feel comfortable. Strange, I know, but I couldn't help it. It had become a habit of mine to take nighttime strolls in Metropolis' slightly less attractive areas to help me relax and unwind. Having a little bit of nighttime activity often helped me sleep better.

Tonight was no different. It had been over a month since Ellie had exposed herself to Kryptonite in that misguided attempt to solve the problems we had been having. Although Brad and Lucy had been trying to find the root of the problem, they hadn't managed to get much further than Ellie. The reality was that they were both very busy with all their official work at STAR Labs, and although it wasn't exactly a huge secret that Superman and his children came to Brad, and Lucy by extension, for medical advice, they didn't want to make it public that Nebula was having any issues that were out of the ordinary. So that meant that any research had to be conducted under the table, in whatever spare time Ellie, Brad, and Lucy could nab.

Ellie and I spent about as much time together as usual, although now that her family knew what was going on between us, they made more effort to make plans that included us. Probably a delicate way of making sure we weren't tempted to spend too much time alone together, which could lead to frustration given our current troubles. But although Ellie's family rallied in support, I could sense that Ellie was getting frustrated with the lack of progress. It had gotten to the point where she avoided talking about it with me, shutting down any attempts on my part to ask her how things were going. Ellie was the type of person who needed results immediately, and didn't like to wait for things to reveal themselves in the proper time. While this was not always a complementary trait for a scientist, that was just how Ellie operated.

But no matter her frustrations, I did wish she would talk to me about them instead of shutting me out.

I took a turn off the main road and onto a smaller one that was even darker and seedier than the last one. If I remembered correctly, there was a pub down this block that would still be open. I rarely drank, and had no plans of doing so tonight, but it might make for an interesting change in scenery, and watching some of the regulars might be a good distraction. I was meandering down the block at a leisurely pace when a woman knocked into me, nearly pushing me into the pavement.

Despite the grungy blonde wig, trashy tube top, and gaudy jewelry, I still recognized the wide eyes and insanely impractical shoes. I was pretty sure I could recognize my sister in any disguise she could throw together.

"Oof! Jeez!" she cried as she bashed into me. Then she got a good look at me. "What are you- Oh, never mind, I'll ask you later, just run!"

I followed Kaylie away from the pub, which she had undoubtedly come from. Although I didn't hear anyone coming after us, I trusted her judgment that there was. It just meant that we were fortunate enough to have a decent head start.

It had been months since I had had a real reason to run. It was one thing to go for a run for exercise, and another thing entirely to run because someone is chasing you. I soon found a quick rhythm to fall into. The added incentive caused me to go much faster than I would normally run, and I relished the happy strain in my thighs.

But as much as I loved it, running for a long period of time is never smart. If a showdown is inevitable, it's best to do it when you're not gasping for breath with trembling legs. As soon as I spotted one, I pushed Kaylie in the direction of a dark alcove, and we ducked into the shadows. Holding our breath, it wasn't long before we heard the gentle purr of a car as it crawled down the street, just a hair too slow to be considered causal. Thankfully, it passed by us without stopping.

Finally, we were able to relax.

"Help me get these off, will you?" Kaylie asked, bending down to undo the straps of the shoes that she wore. Like all of Kaylie's shoe choices, they were the most ridiculous things I'd ever seen. The heels were at least three inches, if not more, and they were those weird strappy things with the laces that cross around and tie near the ankle.

"What possessed you to get these things?" I demanded as I struggled to undo the tight knot. "Didn't you grow out of you ballerina obsession when you were six like all the other girls?"

"They're espadrilles," she snapped. As if a fancy name was supposed to justify her choice or something. One of her blood red press-on nails snapped off as she picked at her other shoe.

There was a cool breeze in our dark corner that made my heart stop for a moment until I realized that it was Jon, arriving from the sky and dressed as Supernova. Although the red in his costume made it brighter than Ellie's, it was still much darker than Clark's electric blue suit.

"Jay? What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Apparently, I'm saving my sister from becoming a fashion victim. Literally," I grumbled sarcastically.

He turned to Kaylie. "Did you get it?" he asked.

"You bet," Kaylie grinned. "All on tape, with pictures to match. There's no way he's going to worm out of this."

"Who?" I demanded.

"Senator Irving," Kaylie replied happily, despite losing another nail in the war with her shoes. "He's been accepting bribes from the CEO of GlenTech to push through those new radio transmission laws." Giving up on the shoes for the time being, she pulled off the scraggly wig and shoved it in a bag that Jon was holding. "But I think he saw me looking at him a little too intently in the pub, so now I've got to make myself scarce." Jon was helping her remove the copious amounts of jewelry that she had draped around her neck, leaving me to battle with those stupid espi-things by myself.

"The NIA put you onto this?" I guessed.

"Yeah," she replied. "Jon and I have been looking into it together for a few weeks now, and we finally got the break we needed tonight."

"Well, I don't know about looking into it together," Jon commented. "You've been doing most of the legwork and I've been hanging around in the air in case you need me."

"Plus helping me hack into a few less-than-legal places and making sense of the information," she pointed out.

"Well, that too," he agreed with a grin.

"How about helping me with these shoes?" I asked plaintively. I hadn't been able to make a dent in the super-tight knots.

"Here, I'll just... " he trailed off as his head shot up. "I've got to go," he told us quickly, and then blew off quickly.

"Drat," Kaylie muttered, glancing down at her now bare feet. "These shoes cost me eighty bucks!" It appeared that rather than mess with the hopelessly tangled laces, Jon had chosen just to break the strings and unravel them that way.

"Serves you right for wearing such crazy things in the first place," I told her.

She chose not to pay attention to me and instead rifled around in the bag Jon had left behind. She produced a pair of jeans, socks, and runners, and proceeded to pull the jeans on underneath her skirt.

"So you've still been taking cases for the NIA?" I asked her.

"Not too many," she replied. "But if something comes along that I think is particularly important, then I agree to do it. And Jon helps me out too, which makes it less stressful."

"About that: Why didn't Jon just fly you out of here instead of letting you run away from the pub and then end up having to change here?"

"How pathetic would that be?" she rolled her eyes. Her jeans were done up, so she unzipped her skirt and slid it off over her jeans. I have no idea where she learned to do things like that. I know for a fact they don't teach them at the NIA. "I can't let Jon do everything for me," she continued, "so we made a deal. He hangs around and watches over me, but he lets me do my thing unless for some reason things get really ugly." She grabbed the socks and shoes, putting them on with care as she avoided stepping in the street with her sock feet.

"Sounds fair." That's definitely something that Kaylie would do. She was always stubbornly independent.

"You know, it'd be so easy to just get in the habit of letting him do everything. He's way faster than me and stronger and... " She looked up from tying her shoe. "But I guess you don't need me to remind you about that," she winced. "Sorry, Jay."

"No problem," I shrugged. "It's not like it's a taboo subject or anything. You almost ready to go?"

"Um, I think so... " She dug around in her bag, yet didn't seem to find what she was looking for. "Shoot. I forgot to bring a jacket. Do you mind if I... " She was eying my sweater pointedly.

I didn't really have a choice in the matter. Although the change in clothing and hair color should be enough to put any scouts off the trail, no one wore just a tube top in mid-November. It would draw too much attention to her. Recognizing defeat, I removed my sweater and handed it to her ungraciously.

"Next time be sure to pack for the weather," I grumbled. "Unlike your fiance, I actually feel the cold."

"So how is it going with you and Ellie?" Kaylie asked as we started down the street together.

"Pretty good," I shrugged. "As you know, we've hit a bit of a stumbling block, but I think we're still doing well."

"Any progress in figuring it out?"

"I don't think so," I replied. "But they're working on it as hard as they can."

"I imagine they would be. I can't even imagine what Jon would be doing if something like that happened to us. Probably run off to Antarctica in guilt or something."

"Why guilt?" I asked. "It's not like it'd be his fault."

"I dunno. Some superhero complex or something," Kaylie shrugged. "I guess there's only so long you can save the world before you start to take responsibility for everything." She kicked a rock out of her path. "And of course, even having all those powers is scary enough. When I had Jon's powers I was--"

"Wait, you had Jon's powers?!"

"Oh, yeah. You know that whole Sproxton thing a while back? Well, he had honed in on Jon and was targeting him. Brad and Ellie used this red Kryptonite laser and it transferred his powers onto me."

"Wow. How was it?"

"Well, it was amazing. But it was also terrifying. To have all that power, and to know what could happen if you make a mistake... Anyway, I can understand where Ellie is coming from with this."

"You know, she never really told me any of that," I reflected. Was that another motivation behind her failed attempt with Kryptonite?

"Maybe you should try talking to her about it," Kaylie suggested.

"Yeah, maybe I will," I replied. "If I can grab her at a spare moment where we can have that kind of conversation. Between trying to find a solution to this problem, her grad studies, and being Nebula, spare time has been a scarce commodity."

"I know how that feels," Kaylie sympathized.

"I guess you would. You're working two jobs right now, and if you count Jon's help with the NIA, he's working three."

"Plus, we have to decide by Friday which band we're going to hire for the reception."

"I liked those guys with the matching Mohawks," I suggested jokingly. "Why don't you hire them?"

"Not happening," she replied, rolling her eyes. "I'm not having screaming at my reception."

I shrugged. "Your loss."

We continued down the street, and although we didn't talk, it was nice to just be together. We hadn't really had the chance to spend time together causally in a long time.

"Look, Jay," Kaylie spoke, breaking the silence, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you anything about this. You know, the whole investigating thing."

"No big deal," I shrugged. "I guess I should've assumed that you'd still be doing this kind of thing. And it makes sense that you've been working with Jon. I'm not in the NIA anymore, so you would have no reason to tell me." I wished she hadn't brought it up. In all honesty, it did bother me a little, but her talking about it only aggravated my annoyance.

"But you're my brother. And we've worked together for years. You deserve some kind of loyalty."

"It's not about family loyalty, Kaylie," I told her with defeat. "It's about national security. You shouldn't tell me what you're doing. That would be breaking your agreement with the government, and could put both of us in danger. It's probably best if you keep me out of it as much as possible."

"Okay," she agreed quietly.

"Look, why don't you tell me some more about the wedding plans?" I asked her in order to change the subject.

She groaned loudly. "Anything but that. This whole wedding is taking over my life. If Jon and I knew how much effort this would take beforehand, we probably would've just eloped."

"Well, I'm probably going to regret this, but if you need any help, you can always ask me, okay?"

"Really?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Because, there's something that I could really use your help with and I wanted to talk to you about." She chewed on her bottom lip anxiously.

"What is it?"

"I got a call from Dad today. And... he's coming to Metropolis. For a visit."

"What?" I nearly tripped over my own feet in shock. "Since when does he come to see you?"

"Since never," she told me. "But he's somehow got it into his head that he needs to meet the Kents and make sure that they're acceptable or something. But Jay, I don't know if I can handle that right now!" she admitted in panic. "The last time he came he drove me completely crazy not to mention that he got far too suspicious of one of Jon's hasty exits. And that was only after a couple hours. Now he'll be here for a whole weekend!"

"So you want me to keep him out of your hair? What makes you think that I can do that?" I didn't want to see Dad anymore than Kaylie did. The last time I saw him was for a brief period before I was kicked out the NIA office in Metropolis.

"But Dad always liked you more than me," Kaylie argued.

"Kaylie, I think if Dad's going to go picking favorites, he's going to go with the one he didn't fire," I scoffed. "Trust me, he isn't about to give me any warm fuzzies at the moment. And I'm not the one he called. Clearly, he has no interest in seeing me."

"Please, Jay," she begged me. "I'll still meet up with him and everything, I promise. All I'm asking is that you meet him at the airport and make sure he's got everything he needs while he's here."

"He's not using NIA resources?"

"No," she shook her head. "This is a purely personal trip, so of course Dad wouldn't dare make use of some executive perks."

"Of course not," I sighed. "Okay, fine. I'll do it. See, I told you I would regret offering to help."

"Thank you." She hugged me tightly. "If we can get through the weekend without Dad finding out the Kent family secret, Jon and I will name our first baby after you, I promise."

"I'll try, Kaylie," I told her. "But I'm not a miracle worker. If Dad's spending any amount of time with the Kents, we better come up with a good story or he's bound to get suspicious of something."

"Yeah," she agreed morosely. "I know."

***

I fell out of the nightmare and landed on my pillow, heart pounding and sheets tangled. The echoes of my dream world still bounced around in my head.

Screams. Pain. Terror. Helplessness.

I staggered out of bed and into the bathroom. Choosing to leave the light off, I made my way to the sink, and chugged a glass of water. The cool liquid calmed me as it slid down my throat. The noise of the sink running helped to fill the empty silence, and banished those horrible echoes back to the dark corners of my mind. I gripped the edges of my sink tightly to quiet my shaking hands, and I caught sight of my face in the mirror.

My skin seemed chalky, and the dark color of my hair made a harsh juxtaposition. I was twenty-five years old, and I could already see indications of wrinkles. Signs of a life of stress.

A violent shudder passed through me, and I gripped the counter harder. Dammit, this shouldn't affect me! My days with the NIA were over. Why couldn't I just put them behind me?

I forced deep, even breaths through my lungs. Slowly, I calmed down enough to look at the mirror once again.

I could see softer colored roots peeking out beneath my near-black hair. Time to dye it again, I told myself. Briefly, I contemplated just letting it grow in as its natural color. But dyed hair made me feel safer somehow, even though logically I knew that there was no real reason for it now that I was no longer with the NIA. Besides, it had been so long since I had seen my natural hair color. I wasn't even sure if I remembered what it looked like. I would have to do it early tomorrow if I wanted to get it done anytime soon, I decided. I was supposed to be picking Dad up at the airport at ten. And I didn't dare be late.

***

Chapter Eleven

*~Ellie~*

I landed in the alley by the restaurant, taking a little extra time after my spin to make sure everything was in place and that I looked presentable. From what little I knew about Jay's father, I guessed that he was a very particular person and would likely appreciate a clean appearance.

I had to admit I was a little nervous about this visit. Sure, it didn't seem like Jay and his dad were very close, but he was still Jay's dad. That had to count for something, and I wanted to make a good impression.

The restaurant was crowded, and it took me a while to pick out Jay's head. The last time I had seen him, his hair was a very dark, almost black. But even though he styled it in the same messy spikes, his hair now had rich, red tones mixed in. Along the same lines as Kaylie's hair, but a lot darker. The man sitting with him wore a stern expression, and a sterner suit. Big, strong hands that reminded me of Jay's wrapped around a cup of coffee. They also shared the same broad, muscular build, but I saw that Jay was shorter when they both stood up as I came over to their table. Jay gave me a brief kiss in greeting, and then turned to face his dad.

"Dad, this is Ellie," he introduced. "She's Jon's sister, as you know. And also... We're dating."

I turned to look at Jay in surprise. He hadn't told his dad that we were dating?! We had been seeing each other for over three months now! But Jay just shot me an apologetic look, and turned to look nervously at his father, no doubt looking to see how his dad reacted to this news. So I pulled on a friendly smile, and stuck out a hand in greeting.

"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Stewart," I told him bravely. Although I knew his name wasn't Stewart, I wasn't supposed to know about any of that, so I was willing to play along. Besides, I wasn't really sure what his legal name actually was.

"It's a pleasure to meet you as well, Miss Kent."

"Oh, jeez. Please call me Ellie, Mr. Stewart."

"Very well, Ellie." The nickname didn't seem to come naturally to him, however no one ever called me by my legal name, so it seemed ridiculous to introduce myself with it. "I can't say I've heard much about you," Jay's dad said as we all sat down.

"Apparently, Jay's been keeping me a secret," I commented lightly, still a little upset that Jay had forced this all on us last minute.

"What is it that you do?" Mr. Stewart asked me, taking a sip of water.

"Well, I'm currently at STAR Labs with my aunt and uncle as I work toward my Master's," I told him.

"Family connection," he nodded. "Must be useful."

"They've mentored me for a number of years, that's true," I replied carefully. "But I had to work hard to get my position and I still work hard today." Two minutes into this conversation and I was already becoming uncomfortable.

"How old are you?" he asked suddenly.

"Almost twenty-four," I replied, wincing a little as I rounded up the number. If anything, that would just make me appear more juvenile.

"So you're the youngest of two."

"That's right."

"I admire your dedication to progress so far at such a young age," he told me. "What school are you attending?"

"University of Metropolis."

"Never lived outside the city then?"

"No," I replied with discomfort. "I've just always loved Metropolis. I've never really had a strong desire to leave." I squirmed a little in my seat to try to avoid the intense scrutiny.

"Dad, Ellie didn't come here to be interrogated," Jay jumped in to defend me. "How about you drop the cop routine for now? You're on vacation."

I saw Mr. Stewart tighten almost imperceptibly. That comment had come dangerously close to revealing his NIA connection.

"Unlike you, Ellie," Mr. Stewart began, "Jason has lived all over the country. He never seemed to be able to settle down in one place. One of the things he needs to work on if you two are ever to get along."

My jaw literally dropped. Why would he make such a negative comment about his son? Especially since the reason why Jay had moved around so much was because of his selfless commitment to the NIA? But what could I say in Jay's defense? I wasn't supposed to know anything about the NIA.

Thankfully, our waitress came over to our table and took our orders. It was a welcome distraction, but after she left there was an awkward silence. I searched for a safe way to break the tension.

"I like what you've done with your hair," I told Jay, reaching up to run my fingers through it.

"Thanks," he replied. "I kind of felt like a change. But you don't think it makes me look too much like an anime character?"

"It's nice," I said. "Makes you seem brighter somehow."

"It draws attention," Jay's dad commented shortly. "And people will know it's fake. No one has that color of hair naturally."

Again, I was completely taken aback by this blatant criticism. And I was equally surprised when Jay didn't do anything to defend himself. The Jay I knew would have some kind of smart reply readily on hand. But instead, he just drew patterns on the tabletop with his fork.

"But that's hardly an issue," I tried to defend Jay. "Lots of people dye their hair, there's nothing special about it."

"That's always been one of your biggest flaws, Jason," his father continued. "You're enamored with flashy gestures and always heedless to the consequences."

"So! Kaylie says you're going to be here for the wedding," Jay said loudly, making no effort to disguise the change in topic. "I'm surprised you were willing take time off."

"I don't shirk from my responsibilities," Mr. Stewart told Jay sternly. "I think it's important to be here for my daughter's wedding. Even if that means taking time off work."

"Oh, right. Responsibility," Jay replied sarcastically. "We certainly can't forget about that, can we?"

"Say what you want, Jason," Mr. Stewart replied blandly. "But I take my responsibility seriously. Unlike some people."

"Mr. Stewart, I think Jay said you were a structural engineer?" I asked desperately.

Jay shot me a dirty look for bringing up his father's cover story, yet I didn't really see anything wrong with it. Wouldn't it seem strange if I didn't bring it up? Besides, I was desperate to change the topic to something safe. Was it always like this between them?

"That's right," Mr. Stewart told me. "I don't think you would've heard of the firm I work for. It's relatively small, although we're always growing." He smiled insincerely. Then he turned to face Jay again. "I don't suppose you've found any work yet?"

"Not yet," Jay replied tightly. "It's hard to find something satisfying after I dedicated so much to... the firm."

"Well, if you had really dedicated yourself, then you wouldn't be in the position you find yourself in today," Mr. Stewart replied lightly.

"What?!" I exploded. Although I had been willing to stomach most of what this... this jerk had said beforehand, this comment made me blow my top. I had been with Jay as he worked through the aftereffects of his capture, memory removal, and subsequent firing from the NIA. The responsibility of what had happened fell heavily on his shoulders, and I knew that no one was more dedicated than he was. Being let go from the NIA had nearly crushed him, and I still wasn't sure if he had managed to work past that.

But what would I say to defend Jay? I wasn't supposed to be privy to any of the interplay that had happened between Jay and the NIA. And judging by the look on Jay's face, he didn't want me to jump to his defense.

"I'm sorry, Ellie, did you want to say something?" Mr. Stewart asked coolly. His intense stare made me shrink back against my seat.

"No," I replied quietly. "I'm fine."

Our waitress returned with our orders, and I dug in with no real appetite. It was just a way to distract myself from the dismal atmosphere at the table. Jay absently pushed food around his plate, and his father ate with scientific diligence.

"Kaylie wanted me to tell you that Clark and Lois would like to meet you for dinner tomorrow," Jay informed his father with detachment.

"Good," he nodded. "What time?"

"Six," Jay replied. "At their place. I have the address written down." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "Kaylie and Jon will be there as well."

"And you two?"

"Yes," I replied after a glance in Jay's direction. "Although we might not be able to stay long." I wanted Jay to have a way out if he wanted to. I wasn't sure how he would be able to put up with an entire evening of this.

"There's no reason why we can't stay the whole evening," Jay told us, shooting a loaded glance in my direction.

"Oh. Okay." I guess he didn't want an out.

"I'll look forward to it," Mr. Stewart replied.

Jay nodded bleakly.

The rest of lunch was just more of the same. It alternated between uncomfortable silences and Jay's dad criticizing Jay for everything imaginable. Finally, it ended, and we exited the restaurant together.

"I think I'll just take a cab back to my hotel," Mr. Stewart said. "No need for you to come with me. I'll see you both tomorrow." Although before I met him I would've been surprised to hear that he wasn't staying with Jay or Kaylie, after spending some time with the man I decided that a hotel would probably be best for all concerned.

"Sorry about that," Jay apologized to me as we started walking in the opposite direction his father had gone. "I should've told him we were dating before, but I hadn't talked to him since before we met, and I just couldn't seem to find the right opportunity today. And the way that he drilled you was just completely unacceptable."

"Hey, forget about it," I told him. "Sure, I was a little surprised, but I guess it's understandable given your rocky relationship. But are you okay?"

"Sure I am," Jay shrugged. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well, he was just so... so critical! About everything. Even things that were completely unfair and beyond your control."

"What, you expected him to say a whole bunch of nice things to me? He just tells me what he thinks."

"That's what he thinks of you?" I demanded, upset by the thought. "He's your dad. He should be proud of you!"

"My dad's not someone who hands out praise just for the sake of it," Jay replied flatly. "You have to earn it."

"And you have! You gave your whole life for your... job." I didn't want to go into details in such a public area. "And you excelled at it, even though you were probably a lot younger than a lot of people of your caliber."

"And then I screwed it all up and have wasted my life ever since," Jay replied. "Not much to be proud of there."

"Is that what you really think?" I asked, pulling him aside and stopping. "That you've wasted your life?"

"Well, no. Not really, I guess," he hedged. "I mean, the time I've spent with you has hardly been a waste. All I'm saying is that my dad's not about to start showering me with compliments. After all, he's the one who signed off on my dismissal."

"Jay... " I started to say something, but then trailed off when my super hearing picked something up. "I've got to go," I said instead, frustrated that this was cutting our conversation short.

Jay sighed. "Of course you do."

I stopped. "What does that mean?"

"Nothing," he covered quickly. "It means nothing. I was just hoping that we could spend some more time together this afternoon. It's been, what, ten days since we've really seen each other?"

"I'm sorry," I apologized. "I'll try to stop by later today, okay?"

"Okay," he agreed. "Be careful out there, all right?"

"Of course," I replied. Then I ran off to find the nearest alley. Someone needed my help.

***

I opened cupboards and drawers, banging them shut loudly as I grabbed what I needed out of them. Sure, I had volunteered for this job, but that didn't mean I had to be happy about the guy I was now going to be spending a ton of time with. This was a favor to Jon and Kaylie, and had nothing to do with Mr. Hot Shot NIA sitting on the stool over there. Even if he did have his memory wiped, that didn't mean I had to show him any sympathy. I was sure he was arrogant enough to provide his own.

"Those cupboards can take a lot of abuse," he commented blandly. "Are you always that hard on them?"

"I'll be as hard on them as I want," I snapped, closing the next one with extra force. A crack started at the bottom hinge and spread across the panel. Oops.

Jay's eyes widened, and I couldn't help but smirk. He probably wasn't used to seeing someone with powers like this. I wasn't sure, but from what I gathered he hadn't spent a lot of time in Metropolis, so he probably hadn't seen a lot of super-heroics in his lifetime.

"That scare you a bit?" I taunted.

"Are you superheroes always this nasty in person?" he asked me. "Or do you just not like me?"

I shot him a dirty look. "What do you think?"

I tried to focus on my task. I needed to figure out how to get inside this guy's head and pull what he had forgotten. I had mentioned something about VR simulations at first, but I wasn't sure that would work. *thump-thump* Shaking my head, I tried to block the sound out. What about hypnosis? No, probably not. *thump-thump* Besides, I doubted Jay would agree to something like that, especially if it was my idea. So what about...

*thump-thump*

*thump-thump*

I turned to glare at Jay. "Would you quit it?" I demanded.

"Quit what?" He looked confused. "I wasn't doing anything."

"Yeah, you were. You were... " Oh. Wait. "Never mind," I mumbled.

"What?"

"Never mind," I repeated.

"You can't just let it drop now," he cajoled.

"It was... your heartbeat." I ducked my head in embarrassment. "I didn't realize that... Anyway, just forget it."

"You can seriously hear it?" he asked in surprise.

"Well, yeah. I don't normally hear that kind of thing without trying, but you must just have--"

"What? An obnoxious heart?"

"Something like that," I shrugged sheepishly.

"You said before that there was something wrong with it," he remembered. "Is that why you picked up on it right away?"

"Well, maybe at first," I told him. "But now it's back to normal. It was probably just a reaction to whatever drugs and stuff were put into you."

He nodded. "I should apologize for snapping at you then. You were just trying to help."

"Thank you." I was surprised to get the apology. Were we actually getting along?

"And you?"

"What?"

"I'm waiting for my apology." The corner of his mouth twitched, and I was instantly back to being mad at him.

"*Your* apology?! Who said you were getting one?"

"Well, you haven't been very nice to me either," he shrugged. "I just thought it might be the heroic thing to do. Maybe even... *super*heroic."

"Maybe I would if you weren't such an arrogant jerk," I snapped. "What makes you think you deserve anything like that? I can't *believe* you would just-" Sirens. A police radio. "I've got to go," I informed him tersely.

"Where?" he asked in surprise.

"You know... " I flapped my hand in the trademark family symbol. Oh wait... he didn't recognize that. "I have to go help out with something," I explained.

"Oh!" he exclaimed as the light switched on. "Then go! Go save a life or whatever it is that you heroes do." To my surprise, there wasn't a hint of sarcasm in his voice. He seemed to genuinely support my leaving.

I nodded brusquely, and spun into my Nebula suit, then blasted out the door at superspeed. As I went, I picked up on the startled exclamation of the former NIA agent sitting in the lab.

"Holy-" The last part was drowned out as I took to the sky and the wind roared in my ears.

***

*~Jay~*

Despite our best efforts, Kaylie and I hadn't been able to come up with a reasonable excuse for any strange behavior from the Kents. Lying to my dad was extremely difficult in the first place, and lying about something like this would be impossible. Of course, we quickly regretted the lack of cover story.

Lois answered the door when Ellie and I came up the walk.

"Everyone's here already," she told us. "Except Dad. He went across the street to go help the Jeffersons with a plumbing problem." Classic Kent excuse.

We entered the living room to see Kaylie and Jon sitting on the sofa across from my dad. Judging by the way Jon was bouncing his leg and the way Kaylie was gripping his hand, I guessed that he was anxious to go help, yet felt he had to stay here in order to keep my dad from getting suspicious.

"Maybe I should go over and see if there's anything I could do to help," Ellie offered. "Just so Dad can get done sooner."

"That sounds like a great idea, Ellie," Jon commented in relief.

"Yeah, that would be good," I agreed. I could see the stress this was already causing Kaylie, and having Ellie leave would be less of a problem than Jon.

"Come back soon," Lois told her she pulled Ellie into a hug, no doubt whispering to her where exactly Clark was.

Ellie left, and the rest of us settled into our seats.

"So as I was just saying, Ms. Lane, it's an honor to meet you," my dad said. "You really bring some credibility to the media." My dad hated journalists on principle, but here I couldn't tell if he was lying or if he really did think that Lois was different from other journalists. Probably the former. Although Dad wasn't going to hold back in front of myself or Kaylie, tonight he would be playing the role of the perfect guest, and wouldn't say anything critical. I was actually surprised with how dangerously close he had gotten to revealing too much with Ellie present at our lunch the other day. But that was probably just a reaction to being told last minute that Ellie and I were dating.

"Please, call me Lois," she replied. "And thank you for the compliment. Speaking of which, I hope you won't think that I'm being rude if I turn on the TV. I'm not sure if you heard, but there's been a breakout in the prison upstate. Several inmates have escaped and the police are searching for them as we speak."

So that's where they had gone. My dad nodded, and we turned to see the news coverage of the fugitive search.

"Any enemies in that bunch, Lois?" Kaylie asked teasingly.

"I don't think so," she replied with a smile. "But I can't understand how ten of them managed to escape all at once. I'll have to talk to Jim about doing an article on it."

We watched some footage of police sweeping the ground for fugitives. I caught sight of Ellie flying beside the police chopper wearing her navy blue suit with the gold cape flapping behind her. I was sure Clark was there as well, just maybe not on camera at the moment. As we watched, I saw Jon grow more and more uncomfortable with just sitting here doing nothing. Finally, he sprang from his seat.

"You know, I think I'm going to run... into the kitchen for a second and... check on the chicken."

Kaylie reached up and grabbed his hand before he could bolt out of the room.

"Jon, I think... the *chicken* can take care of itself just this one time, don't you?" she begged.

"Kaylie... "

"And I know you feel responsible for it, but I really think it can manage on its own for now," she said. "And are you just going to leave me *here* while you go take care of it? Isn't this more important than chicken?" I wasn't sure if her code was as affective as she thought it was, yet butting in at this point wasn't really going to help.

"But, Kaylie... I'm afraid the chicken might... burn." He gave her a meaningful stare.

"But it's not like it doesn't already have help... Okay, fine," she surrendered. "Go do it."

"Thank you," he kissed her cheek. "And remember, I *promise*. No 'chicken' at the wedding."

He left the room in the direction of the kitchen, but Dad's eyes remained glued on Kaylie. She blushed when she realized the attention their exchange had created, and how indiscreet they had been.

"We're, um... We're going to be serving beef instead," she offered lamely.

***

Chapter Twelve

*~Jay~*

I had chosen Smythson Gym on the east side of town to be my regular haunt because it gave me exactly what I needed, and nothing else. There were no polo-shirted staff members wandering around offering unsolicited fitness tips, there were no over-priced machines taking up floor space, and the clients minded their own business. Although I didn't have much in my apartment, there still wasn't enough floor space to really practice a lot of the drills that I was used to. Plus, Smythson's had a punching bag.

I usually spent a couple hours there a day running through the various combinations I knew. Kicks, punches, rolls, you name it, all in a variety of disciplines. That day, I had been at the gym for about an hour before I was interrupted for the first time ever.

"Hey," the girl said, standing several feet away from me. The tips of her shoes were just touching the edge of the mat I was on. Her arms were crossed in front of her in the traditional 'defiant teen' posture. She had a tiny stud in her nose, and judging by the redness around it, it was fairly new. Her hair was streaked with that fake bleach-blonde, and I could see hints of clumsily applied makeup around her eyes. Despite all her efforts, I didn't think she was any older than thirteen. Fourteen tops.

"Hey," I returned, a little out of breath.

"So, um... you come here often?"

I stifled a chuckle. She was far too young to be going to bars, and I guessed it would be a few years before she would be fluent in bad pick-up lines.

"I'm here pretty often," I told her, not wanting to mock her. She interested me, and I didn't want to alienate her. Why exactly had she approached me?

"Yeah, I... I knew that, actually," she stammered, dropping her gaze to the floor.

"You did?"

"Uh huh," she nodded. "See, I sometimes... watch you. From the window," she tilted her head in the direction of the smudged front window. I guess the downside of no polo-shirted staff is that there's no one to clean the windows. But apparently, they were still clean enough to see through.

"You watch me, huh?"

"But not like a stalker!" she blurted out. "I just saw you maybe a month ago when I was walking by and I just... I-I thought... Oh, god, I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she repeated. She turned away to leave, but I lunged after her, placing my hand lightly on her shoulder. She turned around to face me.

"Hey, it's okay," I told her. "I don't mind, honest."

"You don't?"

"No, of course not." I glanced around at the other patrons in the gym. No one seemed to be giving us a second look, yet I didn't like having a conversation out in the open like this. "How about we go sit down?" I suggested. "On those benches over there."

She nodded mutely, and allowed me to lead her over to the benches. I took a grateful swig of water, and then turned to face her.

"So why were you watching me?"

"Um, well, I was kinda noticing some of the stuff you do here."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," she agreed. "Like all the punching and kicking and stuff. And you... you're pretty good." She blushed a little, and dropped her gaze again.

"Thanks. I work hard at it."

She nodded, and bit her bottom lip. "You're probably, like, really busy... "

"Not too busy," I told her. "What is it you want?"

"Um... Well... I-I... Nothing," she finally muttered, getting ready to stand. "I was just... never mind."

"Hey," I reached out and caught her again. "It took you a month to come talk to me. Are you going to make me wait another just to hear what you have to say?" I kept my tone light, and tried to avoid pressuring her. There was a delicate balance in this conversation, and I felt that if I made one wrong move, I would scare her away forever.

She gulped, but then came back and sat beside me. She was silent for a while, and I wondered if she would ever speak. But then finally, she broke the silence.

"If someone... was coming after you. Of if they wanted to... to hurt you... " She bit her lip again. "You could stop them, right?"

"Yeah, I guess I could. Most of the time, anyway." Her question worried me. What exactly was she getting at? "Look, if someone is hurting you, you need to--"

"I don't want to call the cops or anyone like that," she cut me off violently. "They wouldn't believe me," she added softly.

Her words chilled me. So she was in trouble.

"I don't want to call the police," she repeated slowly. "But I was hoping if you... if you would... "

"If I would what?"

"Teach me?" For the first time since I had started talking to her, she looked me straight in the eyes. "How to defend myself? I mean, I know I probably wouldn't be very good, but I think I could at least learn *something*. I-if you would... Well, I dunno. Do *you* think I could learn?"

I hadn't expected this. I thought maybe she was looking for someone to go beat up whoever it was that was bothering her, but to want to take things into her own hands... I couldn't help but admire that. Even though she really should go to the proper authorities.

"What's your name?" I asked her.

Her face darkened, and I saw a stubborn attitude emerge that overruled her meekness for a moment.

"If I tell you my name, then you'll just tell someone about me," she told me. "I'm not stupid."

"No, you're not," I agreed. "But are you sure that you don't--"

"I can't do that!" she told me urgently. "And you can't either! Promise me you won't do that!"

"Okay, okay. I promise," I told her, trying to calm her down. "I promise I won't tell the police or anyone."

"Okay," she nodded. "It's just that... nothing's actually happened yet. I just know it will. And I want to be prepared."

"That's your decision," I told her. "But I have to have a name for you. If I'm going to teach you like you want, then I have to have something to call you." She shrugged. "It can be anything," I said. "A nickname or something... You can even make up a completely different name if you want."

"What, like a secret identity?" She seemed intrigued at the idea. If only she knew.

"Yeah, sure," I said.

"I'll have to think about it," she finally told me.

"Okay." No sense pressuring her. "Look, I'll even tell you my name if that helps."

"Yeah?"

"Well, yeah, of course I will. I'm Jay." I reached out my hand in greeting, and she took it shyly. I wasn't usually one for handshakes, but the situation seemed to call for one.

"Jay, like the bird?" She raised her eyebrows in disbelief.

"No, Jay, like short for Jason," I corrected.

"Oh." She wrinkled her nose.

"What, you don't like it?" I was glad to see some of her personality peak out beneath the layers of fear and defensiveness.

"It's okay," she shrugged. "It just seems kind of weird to shorten a name like Jason. It's not that long of a name in the first place."

"Well, weird or not, you're going to have to put up with it," I told her teasingly as I got up from the bench. "Now, how about you stand up and we'll get started?"

"Wait!" she told me, hesitating for some reason. "I, um... I can't pay you," she mumbled in embarrassment. "But can I maybe do something else for you instead? Like shovel your walk, or... anything else? I can do a lot of things, honest!"

Obviously, I didn't need snow removal at my apartment, but that was beside the point. "I don't want you to pay me," I told her. "You don't have to worry about that at all, okay? Now how about you stand up?"

She obeyed.

"Always stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and with your knees slightly bent," I instructed. "That will keep you grounded in case someone wants to knock you over. Keep your hands up, and in front of your face. That protects your jaw and face from being hit. Now, there are a few basic blocks that everyone should know..."

She wasn't a natural. Her body didn't pick things up quickly, and I often had to repeat instructions and remind her of things she had forgotten. But she tried hard, and her focus was incredible. And although I doubted she would ever get to the skill level of people I was used to dealing with, I found that I was genuinely enjoying the time I spent with her, and she did make a lot of progress.

It was a surprise to both of us when I glanced at the time and realized that almost an hour had passed.

"Time to wind down for the day," I announced.

"What?" she asked in dismay. Her cheeks were flushed with exertion, but also excitement. "I can keep going."

"Maybe you can, but you're already going to be sore," I told her. "You did a lot of things today that you're not used to doing, and you should take it easy for the rest of the night. Have a hot bath or shower or something, and be sure to stretch before you go to bed."

"Okay," she agreed. "So, um... when can I come back?"

"Well, I'll be here at the same time the day after tomorrow if you want to stop by then."

"All right," she agreed, walking over to pick up her purse.

"So are you going to tell me a name or not?" I asked gently.

"Um... Well, my friends call me Chris," she stammered hesitantly.

"It was nice meeting you, Chris," I said. "I'll see you back here in a couple days, okay?"

"Okay," she replied. She turned to leave, and had taken a couple steps toward the exit before she turned back around. "Um, Jay?"

"Yeah?"

"Thank you."

***

*~Ellie~*

Although I was thoroughly a city girl, there was always something special about flying over the farm as snow gently fell from the sky. Although all the surrounding land had been rented out after Grandpa had his first heart attack, the house itself had never really lost that farmhouse quality. Grandma didn't want to sell the property, and with the Ross girls visiting frequently to help her out with the housework and keep her company, she did just fine on her own.

I hovered over the house for a moment with Jay clenched firmly in my arms. The disastrous incident where I had dropped him had made me extremely cautious. Maybe I was squeezing a bit too hard, but Jay was being nice about it and hadn't said anything throughout the flight.

"What do you think?" I asked him.

"Looks homey," he replied. "So you come here every Christmas?"

"Yep," I nodded. "Dad helped Grandma and Grandpa do some renovations to make enough bedrooms for all of us to have some room. And when we were younger, we used to fly out here. You know, on a plane. But once we knew the whole thing with Dad, we flew Superman Express."

"Until you could fly on your own," Jay continued.

"Of course," I agreed.

"How old were you? You know, when you started flying."

"I was fifteen by the time I got going," I replied.

"I can imagine you at fifteen," he told me, blinking to clear the snowflakes out of his eyes. "And thinking about you learning to fly is a scary thought. How many buildings did you take out in the process?"

"None!" I huffed. "We never practiced in the city, for one thing."

"Okay, how many trees did you take out?"

"A few," I relented.

"I knew it," he laughed. "And I'm guessing there was no unsure wobbling around or running out of steam and falling back to the ground. I'm guessing that the first time you did it, you just blasted off, probably leaving scorch marks that are still marking the spot today.

"Well, I don't know if they're still there," I muttered, feeling red creep up my face. How unfair was it that invulnerable people can still blush? And since when did he know me so well? "I haven't been by the spot in years."

"You should take a look sometime," he told me. "Maybe it can be included in your next biography."

"Oh! Here's an idea!" I said with false excitement. "How about we go to the spot together? I'll put you down to check it out, and then I'll just... fly away."

"You wouldn't do it," he told me confidently. "There's that superhero code of ethics you're supposed to follow."

"Doesn't apply to boyfriends."

He raised an eyebrow. "I'll be sure to remember that."

At that moment, Jon flew past us with Kaylie in his arms.

"Are you two coming down any time soon?" he called. "Anyone watching would think that you'd stalled or something, Ellie."

"Do I have to remind you which one of us won a certain race last Christmas?" I shot back.

"You can win anything if you cheat," he replied, dropping out of conversation range before I could reply.

I sighed, drinking in the feeling of the fresh air for just a little longer.

"We should probably go inside," I told Jay.

"Yeah," he agreed absently.

"You're thinking about her again, aren't you?" I asked.

"Yeah. Sorry."

"No, it's okay. But you know she'll be fine, right?"

"Well, I hope so," he replied. "You know, I've watched her every time she's come into the gym the last few weeks. Just a little glance to see if there are any visible injuries."

"Nothing?" I guessed.

"Nothing," he replied. "And she's never moved as if she has an injury. But her fear is real, I can tell. And it's only a matter of time before something does happen."

"And she's determined to avoid the authorities?"

Jay shook his head. "I've tried, but she's adamant. And even if I was willing to break her trust, it would be nearly impossible to find her. She's too young to have a driver's license or anything that would put her face on a government computer. 'Chris' is the only thing I have to go on. And that can mean a million different things. Christine, Christina--"

"Christa, Christie, Chrystal, Kristen," I continued. "Not to mention all the spelling variations. Who knows, maybe her name is just Chris?"

"Or none of the above," Jay added. "She could've just made up any name she wanted to." He sighed. "Anyway, I'm sure she'll be okay for the next few days. And I know I can't take responsibility for her. That's up to other people. I just worry, that's all."

"I know. And it's understandable. But for now, I can smell Grandma's ginger snaps from here, and they're driving me crazy. Let's go down."

We landed in front of the door, and I took Jay's hand reassuringly. I knew Grandma would love Jay, but Jay seemed to get kind of funny about meeting members of my family. Judging by his father, I guess I could see why he would be wary. Especially because we would be staying in Smallville for several days. Grandma usually came to Metropolis for Thanksgiving, but she didn't make it this year because a friend of hers was having surgery around the same time. She had stayed at their place for the holiday to help out.

We entered the house, which was as full of activity as I had expected. Dad, Jon, Kaylie, and Grandma were all crammed into the kitchen, working on a new batch of cookies. As soon as we were spotted, Grandma came over to greet us.

"Grandma," I told her after giving her a hug, "this is Jay."

"It's so nice to meet you, Jay," she told him. "I'm Martha."

"Hi, Martha."

"Ellie's already brought your bags, as you know, so why don't I show you where your room is? And then a little tour of the farm?"

"It's a little icy out," Dad warned.

"Nonsense," Grandma waved aside. "I'll be fine, Clark, as you well know. Now come follow me, Jay, and we'll get you settled."

Jay didn't look anxious to be left alone, yet I knew Grandma wanted to talk to him a bit without me around, and if it wasn't now, it was bound to be later, so I let them go.

"Hey, Dad, where's Mom?" I asked instead.

"Upstairs," he replied. "Unpacking."

"I think I'm going to go talk to her," I told him.

"Okay," he replied distractedly. He was trying to prevent Jon and Kaylie from ruining the cookies. Not an easy task.

I found Mom upstairs, unpacking her suitcase just like Dad had said. I had been meaning to talk to Mom alone for some time, and I wasn't going to allow myself to put it off any longer.

"Hey, Mom? Can I ask you a question?" I began nervously.

"Sure. What did you want to know?" Mom asked me. She turned from her task and invited me to sit with her on the bed.

"Well, it kind of has to do with the stuff I've been working on at the lab," I explained. "When I was talking to Dr. Klein, he mentioned that one time that Dad was exposed to red Kryptonite, he couldn't control his powers."

"Yes," she nodded. "It wasn't easy for either of us. And I can understand some of what you and Jay are going through. You know your dad would never knowingly hurt me, and it really bothered him when he couldn't control his abilities."

"So something did... happen?"

"Nothing serious, sweetie," she told me. "Just a bruise on my arm. I've certainly had worse."

"That's what Jay said," I mumbled.

"I guess it doesn't really help, does it?"

"No," I agreed. "Jay doesn't hold any of that against me. I know that. But I still can't quite let it go."

"I know this has been hard on you," Mom sympathized.

"Yeah, it has been," I agreed, bringing my knees up to my chest and hugging my legs for security. "But there's one incident that I just can't seem to forget."

"And that is?"

"Well, it has to do with my question. Dad's been exposed to Kryptonite countless times and has had a ton of different reactions, but... has he ever dropped you?"

"No," Mom frowned. "That's never happened."

"Okay," I nodded.

"Ellie, did you want to talk about it? I'm guessing that has happened to you, right?"

"Yeah," I confirmed. "It was... a while ago. But we already knew that something was wrong. Anyway, Jay convinced me to try letting him do, you know, everything. We both figured that there wasn't much I could do with just my lips, so we should be safe as long as I kept my hands off."

"But you weren't?"

"No. I guess I got a little distracted and didn't realize that I had brought us up several feet in the air. I let go of him when I realized that I was holding on to him, but then of course he fell down to the ground... " It was still disturbing to think about the incident.

"Was Jay okay?" Mom asked gently.

"Luckily, he didn't get a concussion," I told her. "But I did end up stitching him up. He was really great about it, of course but.... But I shouldn't have dropped him. We were just kissing, and then... He just... " I couldn't go on. Mom pulled me into a hug, and I just cried on her shoulder for a long while. Although the whole family knew about our problems in general, I had never shared anything this specific before. It felt good to have that release.

Eventually, I was able to calm down enough to continue with my questions.

"So you and Dad have never had any problems with... ?"

"As far as I know, Dad's never dropped someone," Mom told me gently. "But what you said does make me wonder. Dad doesn't always have to hold me in order to keep me flying beside him. Often, it's just if we're touching somewhere."

"The aura effect," I filled in. "Dad's aura keeps you with him, even when he's not really holding you. I hadn't even thought about that before. You know, I don't really remember, but I was pretty sure that Jay was touching me at the time. Plus, we were kissing."

"So what do you think that means?" Mom asked.

"I think," I spoke slowly, "that means I have a new focus for my research."

***

Chapter Thirteen

*~Jay~*

I woke up with an unshakable sense of cabin fever. Not wanting to wait until anyone else was up, I pulled on my coat and boots to go for a bit of a walk, trusting in my sense of direction to help me should I get lost. Anyway, I felt I had a pretty good idea of the layout of the Kent farm.

But I hadn't gone very far when I heard noises coming from the barn. Apparently, I had been mistaken when I assumed that no one else was up yet. I peeked my head in, wondering who it was that would be up this early, and was greeted by the harsh smell of hot metal and the roar of a blowtorch.

Surprisingly, the sight of an octogenarian wielding a blowtorch was not as terrifying as I expected it to be. As soon as Martha saw me, she turned it off, put it down, and pushed the protective mask up off her face.

"I didn't expect you to be up this early, Jay" she told me. "Otherwise, I would've had breakfast ready for you."

"Oh, please don't feel like you have to do that," I told her politely. "I'm an early riser, that's all." Absently, I picked up a coil of wire from her workspace and began playing with it to keep my hands busy.

"Me too," she said. "Living on a farm will do that to you, even though there isn't much I need to take care of anymore. But it seems that even Clark's gotten used to sleeping in. I don't mind, though. It gives me some time to work on things before everyone's up and running around." She turned to examine the large metal sculpture that she had been working on. I also looked at it with interest.

"You didn't show me this last night," I remarked.

"You're right, I didn't," she acknowledged. "There's more room to work out here in the barn, but it makes it much less convenient for visitors to see what I'm working on. What do you think?"

"I like it," I replied honestly. "The way that the angles work against the curves is really interesting. And you can see that theme repeated throughout the piece. Light verses heavy, thin verses thick, smooth verses rough, delicate verses harsh." My eyes roamed over the sculpture, taking in every crevice and plane. Her sculpture was stunning, evoking emotions buried deep within me. "It's a battle," I finally concluded.

"That's right!" she exclaimed.

"Can I ask what it's for?" I asked.

"The town has commissioned a new war memorial to be built," Martha replied. "This piece will be a landmark for it."

"It's suiting." I wanted to be able to run my hands along the surface, yet I knew I would have to wait until the hot metal cooled. So I contented myself with looking at it, trying to absorb every shadow and every reflection while continuing to work the wire between my fingers as a distraction.

"So when did you get to be such an art critic, Jay?" Martha asked, interrupting my thoughts.

"It was always an interest of mine," I shrugged. "I took some classes in high school and I've read a lot of books on the subject. But I've been busy doing other things, and haven't really focused on it."

"And what about this?" She pointed to the wire I was bending in my hands. I had hardly noticed what I was doing, but now I realized that I had bent it into a series of intricate whorls and spikes, mirroring the conflict seen in Martha's piece.

"It's just... something I picked up," I replied, setting the wire down. "I had a lot of down time in my previous job, and this helped pass the time. Sorry I bent it. You weren't going to use it for anything, were you?"

"I have lots of wire," she waved aside. "But this... " She picked my wire up off the counter. "This is lovely."

"It's nothing," I dismissed. "I was just playing around with it. That's all I've ever done."

"It's not nothing!" There was a serious expression on her face that surprised me. "You can't fool me with this, Jay, even though you may be able to with other people. I know how much practice you must've had in order to do this easily. And although you may not think so, this is an accomplishment."

"Okay," I replied warily. She had surprised me with this reaction, and I wasn't exactly sure what to make of it yet.

"Now," she began, drawing up a stool to the counter and sitting down, inviting me to do the same. "You're dating my granddaughter."

"Yes," I agreed cautiously. Was I finally receiving the proverbial 'What are your intentions' speech? If so, it was from an unexpected source.

"Now, don't look so scared," Martha told me. "I'm not going to drill you for information or anything. I'm a good judge of character, and more importantly, Ellie is as well. You're a good man, Jay."

"And you can tell that just by the few minutes we've spent together?" I asked doubtfully.

"That, and what I've heard about you from others. Ellie won't stop talking about you, for one thing. And you've shown a lot of dedication to Ellie through everything you've gone through. And you've been faultlessly supportive of her as well. Like I said, you're a good man."

Although I appreciated Martha's compliment, I didn't think I was really deserving of the praise.

"Ellie means a lot to me," I told her. "She's the only good thing I have going for me right now."

"What does that mean, exactly?" she asked me.

"Well, how much do you know about me?" I asked her. I guessed she knew at least something about my past.

"I know that you and your sister worked for a government agency," she replied carefully. "And that you no longer work there, not necessarily by choice."

"I was fired," I said bitterly. "I made a stupid mistake, jeopardized the entire mission, and was booted out." Months after the event, I had very little residual anger about the circumstance. All I felt was bleak numbness. "But whatever, that's in my past. That's not important now. But like I was saying before, dating Ellie brings meaning to my life that's been pretty much cleared out of meaning. I'm not about to let that slip through my fingers."

"That's good," Martha nodded. "I'm glad you can realize that. But there are some other things you need to consider."

"Like what?"

"My granddaughter is a strong woman, Jay," Martha leaned in to tell me. "If you want to be with her, you need to be strong as well."

And what exactly did that mean?

"If Ellie needs to find someone who's as strong as her to be with, then it's going to be pretty slim pickings for her," I joked.

Martha shook her head. "Don't hide behind that mask, Jay," she told me. "A good sense of humor is an excellent quality, but you have a habit of using yours as a disguise."

And I used to pride myself on being hard to read.

"So what do you mean when you said I had to be strong?" I asked seriously.

"Being with the person you love is strengthening, that's true," Martha said. "But you can never fully be with another person unless you're whole yourself."

"And I'm not," I realized. "Ever since... Ever since I left, I've just been drifting along, not knowing what to do with myself." Wasting my life. I had said that to Ellie once in passing. And I didn't realize how much I meant it until now. Although I didn't expect to find myself confiding in someone this deeply, it didn't really surprise me. Martha Kent struck me as a very wise woman, and she had seen right through me from the very beginning.

"You've had your foundation knocked from under you, Jay, and you need to build a new one," Martha said gently. "But Ellie can't be the only thing in it. It's too much for one person."

"So... what do I build it with?"

"Take some time and reflect. What do you want to build it with? What would make you whole? And don't ever disregard an answer," she cautioned me. "You may be surprised by what turns out to be right."

***

The piece of paper was folded carefully in half and stowed in the front pocket of my backpack. I clutched the straps tightly as if the backpack would fly away if I wasn't careful with it. I had already read it over five times, and I kept replaying phrases that Mr. C had written.

"Jason shows great interest and ability in the subject of..."

"I am impressed by Jason's enthusiasm toward... "

"... would like to recommend him for the advanced class..."

Although I had been unsure about how I would do in my first year of high school, this letter seemed to give me my answer. I was sure that this was something Dad would be proud of. For once I was actually anxious to get home and show him something.

But when I got there, the whole place had been thrown into chaos. Half our stuff was packed up in boxes, and there were a few men standing in the kitchen wearing suits and with ear pieces glued to their heads. Dad was sifting through a pile of photo albums, putting some in a box and leaving others on the kitchen counter.

"Where's Kaylie?" I asked him.

He turned around to look down at me. He looked almost surprised to see me there, as if he had forgotten about me.

"She's already been taken to a safe place," he replied, returning to his sorting. "Things have gotten out of hand at work. We have to leave. You're going to be going as Bryan Phelps from now until further notice, and we'll be moving out of state."

I didn't really know all that much about what Dad did for work, only that it was a bunch of top-secret stuff for the government and that I was supposed to tell anyone who asked that he was an engineer that worked on government contracts. Whatever it was that he did, it must be pretty dangerous because we had already had to move once before, which lead us here. But this time felt different from before. Maybe it was because I was supposed to change my full name this time, or because I had a lot of friends here. But I think the biggest reason had to do with the letter tucked inside my backpack.

"Is there any way we can be back for the fall?" I asked him, knowing already what the answer would be.

"Of course not," he replied sternly. "What is it about this situation that you don't understand?"

"It's just that... " I took off my backpack and pulled the letter out for him to see. "I got accepted into the advanced class for next year."

He snatched the letter from me, and skimmed it over quickly.

"An art class? Well, I guess this explains your poor math grade this term." He refolded the letter sloppily, causing crooked creases to form across the paper. "You have other things you need to be doing with your time," he lectured me. "Now, I want you to go with Mr. Brooks over there. He'll take you to the same place Kaylie is. Don't worry about packing anything, we'll make sure that everything that can and should be taken will be brought to our new place."

"You guys are going to go through my stuff?!"

Dad thumped the albums down on the table and whirled around to look straight at me.

"This is much more important than whatever junk you've collected over the last three years, Jason! Now go with Mr. Brooks."

I didn't dare argue. It was one of the few times I had actually seen Dad lose his temper. Something had obviously happened to really shake him up.

So I went with Mr. Brooks. Like I suspected, we never returned to that house. The agents sorting through my stuff saved a few things that were important to me. Pictures and stuff. But I never saw that letter again. And it wasn't long before I had trained myself to stop thinking about it.

***

*~Ellie~*

The corner of Jay's mouth twitched. Then it slowly crawled upwards, stretching his face into one of his trademark lopsided grins.

"What?" I asked irritably.

"Nothing," he replied quickly, smoothing his mouth back into a straight line. But it wasn't long before the corner of his mouth jumped again.

"Oh, come on," I protested. "They're not that bad, are they?" I glanced at Kaylie for confirmation, only to see that her lips were pressed tightly together, trying to hold back laughter. Jon wasn't any better. "Well, fine. If they look that bad, I guess I'll just take them off." I reached up to take the glasses off my face, but Jon jumped up to stop me.

"No way," he told me firmly. "We need insurance to make sure you won't cheat."

"How exactly do glasses keep you from cheating?" Jay questioned.

"They keep a certain someone from peeking at cards that they shouldn't," Jon grumbled.

"Something tells me there's a story behind this," Kaylie remarked, still looking at my glasses curiously.

"Well, it's not that much of a story," Jon shrugged. "Just what you'd expect to happen when you take a teenager with newly minted X-ray vision who hasn't learned proper restraint--"

"And add another teenager in a permanent sulk who refuses to use his own newly minted powers," I added.

"Combined with a Christmas tradition of playing card games for hours on end... "

"Basically, Dad stormed in here, shoved a pair of his old glasses at me, and told us both to smarten up," I concluded.

"Since then, Ellie's always worn them whenever we're playing card games. I always wear glasses anyways, and this way we're on an even playing ground. Ellie would have to remove the glasses to see through anything, and we would be able to tell if she's cheating."

"Even though I end up looking like a huge dork in the process," I complained, pushing the glasses higher up on my nose. Being my dad's, they were far too big for me, but it was hardly worth getting my own pair to wear for the few occasions that I 'needed' them.

"I think they look kind of cute," Jay told me. He was grinning like an idiot, too. Seriously, he hadn't looked this happy to see me in something even on the few occasions we had gone out on a nice, dress-up type date. Apparently, he liked it when I looked ridiculous.

"Let's start playing," I told them, taking the cards and shuffling them in my hands. Then I dealt out the cards at super speed. "Whose turn is it first?"

"Hey, wait a second!" Jay called out as the rest of us started shuffling through our cards. "Since when are you allowed to deal that fast?"

"It gets the game going faster," I shrugged.

"I don't know about that. You went too fast, and now I can't tell if you stacked the deck or not."

"I didn't," I protested, rolling my eyes. Jay knew how much I hated doing monotonous tasks at a normal speed.

"If you can't be trusted not to look through cards, I don't think you can be trusted to deal without supervision," Jay teased. "I think you're going to have to deal them again, but slowly this time."

"Well, Jon can back me up," I offered. "Can't you, Jon?"

"I don't think so," Jon shrugged. "I can see why Jay wouldn't trust me. After all, I am related to you. I might have an ulterior motive."

"Fine," I sighed dramatically. "I'll do it the slow, painful, boring way. You win." I collected the cards and started to deal them again.

"Well, that's a relief," Jay told us. "You never know with these cheaters. You have to stay on top of them."

"Jay, have you ever heard of a game called fifty-two pick-up?" I asked sweetly. "It's a fun game that we can play sometime."

"See, there's another game you would probably cheat at," Jay replied. "You'd just zoom around and grab them all in less than a second. Or turn yourself into some kind of human vacuum cleaner, or--"

"Yeah, we get it," Kaylie cut in. "Can we play now?"

"You have good cards, don't you?" Jay guessed.

"Maybe," she admitted coyly.

But before we started, Grandma came in the house from the barn.

"Are you four playing cards already?" she asked. "Got room for another?"

"Sure," Jon replied happily. "Ellie will just deal again won't you?"

"Arg! Fine," I gave in. Grumpily, I collected the cards and prepared to deal them for the third time.

"How's the sculpture going?" Jay asked.

"Very well, thank you," Grandma replied. "But I needed to take a break from it. I was getting too locked in, and I need to have some time away from it before I can come at it from a fresh angle. I'm sure you know what I mean, Jay. What with your experience and all."

"What experience?" I asked, looking up from my dealing.

Jay squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.

"Oh, yeah!" Kaylie chimed in. "Those wire sculptures you used to do when we were on assignment. They were really good. Have you done any of that lately?"

"Not really," Jay replied with a certain amount of discomfort.

"I didn't know you were into any of that," I commented, resuming my dealing. There were some things about Jay that I didn't know, but I thought I at least knew what his hobbies were.

"It's nothing," Jay told me. "Just a little something I picked up to pass the time while I was busy doing stakeouts or something."

"It's not nothing," Grandma told him sternly, and I got the feeling they had talked about this before.

I could see Jay visibly relax when Mom and Dad came into the house back from their walk and the attention was shifted away from them.

"You still haven't managed to start a game?" Mom asked us, stomping her feet to get rid of the snow. "Well, I guess that's a good thing because now we can join in."

"Why has it taken you this long to get started? Have you grown tired of the card-playing tradition?" Dad asked. "Is it time to start a new one?"

"Nah, we're not tired of it," Jon told them. "But I have thought of a good extension to this one." He started collecting all our cards and piling them in front of me. "Before we start the game, we'll get Ellie to deal the cards over and over again about five times."

"And go slowly," Jay added solemnly. "So she doesn't cheat."

***

"Dad?" I peeked my head into the room that he and Mom were staying in. I was glad he was alone.

"You two finished playing for now?"

"Um, yeah." I twisted Dad's old glasses in my hands. "Dad, I'm really sorry that Jon and I started fighting like that. It was stupid, and we shouldn't have done it."

"Hey, it's okay, Ellie. I never had a sibling growing up, but I know enough just from raising you two that fights are bound to come up. But what matters is how you solve them. Did you apologize to Jon?"

"Yeah," I said grudgingly. "I wasn't even cheating when we were actually playing cards, you know. I was just... kind of fooling around and stuff. And then he just--"

"I know, Ellie. But you have to understand that Jon's pretty sensitive about stuff like that now. I know you love having all your powers, but he's still not comfortable with them yet."

"I know that," I replied. "Well, maybe I wasn't really thinking of that right then. But I really wish I had. I just wanted everything to go well this week," I explained sadly. "Especially when things are so hard right now for everyone. Jon's living with Grandma and Grandpa instead of at home with us, and I thought that if we could just have a holiday where no one fought and everyone just got along then maybe... Maybe Jon would come home." I finished in a small voice, a little scared to finally voice this hidden hope of mine.

"Oh, Ellie." He pulled me into a hug, and we sat down on the bed together. "I'm sorry this has been so hard on you. But I promise you that we'll make it through this. It may not be as soon as you would like, but it will happen."

"I brought your glasses back," I offered in a watery tone.

"Keep them," he said. "Have them as a reminder that five, ten, fifteen years from now we'll still be together as a family, no matter where we are. And although we'll still have problems that we need to work on, we'll get through them together in time."

"Thanks, Dad."

"Plus," he whispered in my ear. "This way I won't have to hear you two fighting about the whole X-ray vision thing ever again. Have I mentioned how much it drives me crazy when you two bicker like that?"

I giggled gratefully. "Yeah, I know."

***

***

Chapter Fourteen

*~Jay~*

I had returned from Christmas in Smallville to find out that my little lessons with Chris had been expanded to include a couple of her friends. They wanted to find out what she was learning, Chris explained. They seemed like decent enough girls, so I had no problem including them. But soon enough I was getting between five to eight girls each day who were eager to learn. Although many of the girls only came once a week or so, Chris was there every day with no exceptions. I always made sure to plan on meeting them in the late afternoon or early evening to make sure none of them were missing out in any classes. I wasn't sure about the others, but I suspected Chris would have no problem skipping school if that meant she could spend more time here.

It was three weeks into my post-Christmas sessions when I first noticed something wrong with Chris. Before she could sneak out with the other girls, I pulled her aside to have a talk.

"You were favoring your left side," I told her.

"It's nothing," she replied. "I'm just tired today, that's all."

"Don't do that, Chris," I said sternly. "What happened to you?"

"Nothing!" she insisted. "I just need to practice those blocks you showed us the other week a little more." She tried to push past me, but I stopped her.

"Chris, who did this to you?" I demanded. "You *need* to get some help."

"I don't want any help. I'm fine, okay? And you promised you wouldn't pry." She pushed me aside and went to collect her bag. "I can take care of myself, Jay. Just drop it."

I watched her leave, then whirled around to slam my fist into the punching bag. It felt good enough for me to repeat it a few times. Sure, I had promised not to involve myself in her personal life, but this was starting to be harder than I thought. Someone was abusing her and every instinct within me yearned to protect her. But she needed to at least take the first step on her own.

I was so busy thinking about this, that I didn't realize the man who was behind me until I left the punching bag abruptly and almost plowed right through him.

"Derek!" I exclaimed in surprise. "What's going on?" Derek was the manager of the gym, and although I wouldn't really call us friends, I didn't mind talking to the guy every once in a while.

"We need to talk," he informed me seriously.

"Okay," I agreed.

He led me into his dinky little office off the main desk. It smelled even more like sweat than the actual gym, and was crammed with broken equipment and battered furniture.

"Coffee?" he offered me.

"No thanks. What is this all about?"

"Look, Jason." The chair squealed in protest as he wheeled it closer to me. "I've kind of turned a bit of a blind eye to the girl who's been hanging around here for the last while. But it's gotten to the point where I can't ignore it anymore. There were nearly ten girls in here today, and none of them have memberships to the gym. That's ten people taking up space that could be taken by people who actually pay. As much as I like what you're doing, I have to keep this business afloat."

"Most of those girls can't afford memberships." I didn't know all that much about them, but given the state of their clothing and the area of town we were in, it was a fair guess.

"I realize that," he nodded. "But I have a solution you might like." He stuck the end of his pen in his mouth and leaned back in the chair. "If you agree to teach a few of those self-defense classes to some of the paying clients, then I'll let you use the space to teach a free class as part of your employee contract."

"Wait a minute. You want to hire me?"

"I can't pay you much at first," He told me frankly. "But if you get more paying customers enrolled in your class then your wage would reflect that, of course."

"You want to hire me," I repeated as it slowly sank in.

"Yeah. I do." He grinned around the pen. "Are you going to give me a response, or just keep me hanging?"

"I think... " I replied slowly. "I would have to say... Yes. It's a deal."

***

*~Ellie~*

"I'm still not sure I understand," Mom frowned.

"The machine gives us a reading of Clark's aura," Uncle Brad explained patiently.

"We want to measure how his aura transfers onto you," Aunt Lucy continued. "You're going to be used as a sort of control variable as we analyze what's going on with Ellie."

"I still don't understand how it could be her aura that's causing all these problems," Dad said. He turned toward me. "When you perform rescues, you fly with people at speeds and heights that should be way too extreme to be comfortable. Unless you've had problems with that as well?"

"Nothing like that," I told him. "But when I'm flying with someone it's like I'm consciously protecting them. So in that situation it's not a big deal. But it's when I don't put in any conscious thought that it's a problem. In theory, anyway."

"So, in order to test that theory, you want us to... "

"Kiss?" Lois finished. "With you guys watching?"

"Like that'll be any different from normal," Aunt Lucy rolled her eyes. "Just don't get too carried away, okay?"

Mom gave her a dirty look as she stepped in front of the camera with Dad. I focused on the monitor that would give us our results. Already, I could see Dad's aura glowing brightly on the screen like a neon sign. Although Mom had some color in her, it wasn't nearly as bright as Dad's, enabling us to tell the difference.

Dad reached for Mom's hand, and as he took it, I could see color flood into her, bringing her hand into light. The colors swirled around gently, highlighting the point of contact between the two of them. As their lips touched, the fireworks began, but lighting up Mom's silhouette instead of the night sky. The vibrant tones flooded into her body, they harmonized with her natural, dimmer colors that were barely visible on the monitor beforehand. And although Dad's colors were so much stronger than hers, she was not overwhelmed by the brightness. Instead, it seemed to strengthen her and bring her into completion. And Dad, too seemed to be stronger, more whole as a result of the connection. His aura pulsed excitedly as it travelled through him and into Mom. It was a symphony of color brought about by a thirty-year relationship built on a foundation of deep love. And it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

I turned off the program, and turned my chair away from the monitor. In theory, I should run a similar test on Jay and myself. But I didn't have to, I knew.

We didn't have that.

***

I landed on Jay's balcony quietly, but he must've been waiting for me because he was at the door letting me inside in a flash.

"I thought you might be stopping by," he told me. "You'll never guess what happened today. The manager at the gym offered me a job. Just completely out of the blue. Amazing, huh?"

"Yeah, sure," I replied vaguely. "Sounds great."

"Ellie, are you okay? You seem upset about something."

"Yeah. Uh... " I couldn't find the words to continue.

"Did something go wrong with the tests at the lab today?" He placed a hand on my shoulder, and I stiffened involuntarily.

"Nothing went wrong, really," I told him. "It's just that... It seems like...." I took a breath, and started over. "Do you ever get the feeling that we're not supposed to be together?"

"What?"

"I was doing those tests I was talking about today, right? And so I stuck my parents in front of the cameras to see how Dad's aura interacts with my mom. And it was... I mean, you should've seen it, Jay, it was... magical. And I realized that there's no way we have that kind of connection. Our whole relationship has been tainted by this huge obstacle between us that doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

"And... and what's the reason for that anyway? My parents didn't have a problem, and Jon and Kaylie certainly don't. So I can't help wondering why we have such a hard time. There has to be a reason, right? There's always a reason. And what if our reason is that we're not supposed to be together?"

I don't know what I expected him to do. Sweep me up into his arms, whisper a heartfelt reassurance and kiss me senseless? Instead, he just looked at me with bleak eyes.

"So what are you saying, Ellie? What is it that you want to do?"

"I don't... I don't know," I whispered quietly. His stare seemed to sap all the strength from me.

"Because it sounds like you want to break up. Is that what you want?"

"I... " No, of course not! It wasn't, was it? I wanted to... I was here because... I couldn't think straight anymore. I had come here with no clear idea of what I wanted exactly, and things were quickly getting further and further out of control.

"Okay," he nodded.

Okay? Okay, what? I hadn't said anything!

"Just... Close the door after you when you leave, okay?"

"Jay--"

"Dammit, Ellie, I don't want to hear any more! Just leave, okay?"

"Okay," I whispered. I nearly stumbled as I backed out of the room. Thankfully, it wasn't long before I took to open air. Maybe if I flew fast enough I could burn the tears off my face.

***

*~Jay~*

The small room we had been allotted in the lab was eerily quiet. There was no trace of the previous atmosphere that had included angry taunts, disgusted mutters, and the occasional flying scientific contraption. Although I wanted to inject a little of that back in the room, the circumstances muted me. As far as we could tell, Jon had been subjected to the exact same procedure I had been. Although I had only known the guy a few days, it still affected me. I couldn't imagine what his family was going through.

Ellie was sitting at her computer, eyes glued to the screen and typing furiously. Normally, I would've attributed the redness around her eyes to fatigue, but under the circumstances I guessed it was something different.

"Are you okay?" I asked her.

"Yes," she replied shortly.

Not exactly the answer I wanted.

"Ellie, look," I tried again. "I'm sorry about what happened to Jon."

"Me, too."

"No, really. And I know how you must be feeling."

"How can you know?" she demanded angrily.

"Um, Ellie, I'm not sure if you remember the reason why I'm here in the first place but--"

"Oh, right. Duh. I'm sorry." She rubbed her hand across her face tiredly. "I just... really want to get to the bottom of this. And not to sound callous or anything, but it was one thing when it was just you. But now it's *Jon*. And it's just... "

"It's different. I know. I have a sister, remember?"

"Jon looked so lost," she whispered. "To think what must've been done to him... And to you, too. Jay, I'm sorry I was so curt with you. I didn't really understand before what you were going through."

I swallowed my smug retort. Now wasn't the time.

"Well, the good news is that you have my whole brain to play with in order to find an answer," I said instead. "Got any bright ideas?"

"Well... "

"Yeah?"

"I've never actually tried this before... But I've always wondered what I would be able to see if I were to just... you know, take a peek."

"You want to look at my brain?"

"Yeah. Given my enhanced vision, I've always wondered if there would be things that I could see that wouldn't show up on any scans we could get off a machine."

"Sounds like a reasonable idea to me," I shrugged.

"I just... I'll need to get closer to you," she explained awkwardly, standing up and taking a step toward me.

"Okay." I shifted around in my seat, trying to sit in a way that would be comfortable for both of us.

It took her four steps until she was close enough to touch me. She reached out, and her hands hovered just above my head. Then finally, contact.

Her hands were small, but sure and strong. Gaining confidence, she leaned toward me to get even closer to my head. But then she pulled back hesitantly. Looking up, I realized that her position gave me a very excellent view if she was practicing to be an exotic dancer. But it probably wasn't the best position for someone who wanted to be seen as a woman of science. Finally, she balanced a knee on the edge of my chair, which pulled her up higher and left me staring at her stomach rather than her chest.

It was an incredibly close position. Her knee was grazing the inside of my thigh, and I could feel her breath ruffling through my hair. My leg twitched involuntarily, and her knee tensed as a result.

"Sorry," I apologized, drawing my leg back.

"No, it's okay. You just--"

"It was a--"

"--startled me."

"--twitch."

"Right," she nodded. "Um, I'll just... " She concentrated on my head again. I let her move it around in her hands as I relaxed completely.

It took me a moment to realize that our breathing had become synchronized.

"Do you... " The croakiness in my voice surprised me. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Do you see anything?"

"Yes... " Her voice came from some far away place tucked within her mind. "Um, I'm not sure what it is exactly, I'll have to look some stuff up. It's not like I have anything to go off of."

"Of course you wouldn't."

"Yeah." Her hands dropped from my head and landed on the back of my chair, just inches from my shoulders. Our eyes locked for a fractioned moment.

Then she pulled away. "I uh... need to go--"

"Look up the--"

"Right. The... The stuff." She climbed off the chair, and scurried to the opposite end of the lab and started typing on her computer.

But I didn't forget the way it felt to have her that close to me. And I found myself sneaking glances at her from then on.

My only saving grace is that I caught her doing the same thing to me a couple times throughout the day as well.

***

So.

We had broken up.

Huh.

Almost five months after we first met.

Dating Ellie was probably the one thing that kept me sane throughout those months. I always knew I had to keep myself respectable, if only for her. I don't even know what she saw in me in the first place, but I did know that if I were to slip any further, then there would be no reason for her to have any interest in me. Bright, young, gorgeous women with a world of opportunity ahead of them do not date depressed ex-spies with nothing going for them. It was one of those laws of nature or something.

Not like any of that mattered any more. Ellie had obviously decided that it was time for us to stop deluding ourselves and get on with our lives. Or for her to get on with her life, seeing how I didn't really have much of one.

I guess I should've been happy that after months of painful self-searching I finally had something that could turn into a career. But I just couldn't manage any real excitement about the prospect any more.

Maybe I should consider moving or something. Get a fresh start in a new city and all that. Of course that's what the whole idea of moving to Metropolis was, and that didn't really turn out too well.

The buzzer buzzed. And it buzzed again. Then it buzzed again, continuously. I pulled myself up off the chair, and made my way to the intercom.

"What?" I asked dejectedly.

"Open up," came the command. I followed the order with trepidation. This was one visit I did not need right now.

A couple minutes later, my doorway was filled with a tense, glaring, angry sister.

"What," she growled menacingly, "did you do?"

***

Chapter Fifteen

*~Jay~*

I stood there staring blankly at Kaylie as she shoved past me and walked into my apartment. She was asking what *I* had done?

"What are you talking about?" I asked grumpily.

"Ellie showed up at our place crying so hard she could barely speak because of some horrible thing that had happened between you two. And I want to know what it is that you did to make her so upset. Not that she's not welcome at our place or anything, but having a weepy future sister-in-law over is not exactly my idea of good company. And then to find out it was *you* who caused the problem in the first place--"

"She's upset?" I asked hopefully, zoning in on the only relevant thing I could pick out from her rant. Could there possibly be some hope for us after all?

"Jay, what is wrong with you?! How can you be happy about that?" Kaylie demanded.

"No, I'm not happy that she's upset," I clarified. "And I'm not really happy. It's just that... Well, she broke up with me, okay? But if she's upset, then maybe she's regretting it or something."

"Wait. You're saying *Ellie* broke up with *you*?"

"Yeah. She came over here and was going on and on about whether or not we were even meant to be together." Rehashing this hurt, but at the same time it felt good to talk about it. "Anyway, I asked her what she was talking about and whether that meant she wanted to break up."

"And she said yes?!"

"Not exactly," I shrugged. "But I knew what she was getting at. Look, I just thought it'd be best to let her go and not make a scene."

"Jay," she groaned. "You're an idiot."

"What? How?"

"Ellie does not want to break up with you, trust me."

"And you know this... because?"

"Because I know you two," she declared confidently. "And neither one of you are going to break up with the other. But at this point, I wouldn't really blame her if she did."

"You wouldn't?!"

"Well, not really," she confessed. "But seriously, Jay! You're telling me you didn't fight for her at all? It sounds like you practically pushed her out of the window."

"I didn't *exactly*--"

"Do you think it was always easy for me with Jon? Of course it wasn't. And sometimes it still isn't! But we've both decided that what we have together is worth all of our effort to maintain. And that's the same way it has to be for you two. Now get out of here, take my car because it'll be faster than trying to find a cab, and get over to Ellie's. I'm sure that's where she's going to end up. And tell her that you're not giving up."

"What are you going to do?"

"I am going to wait until you leave, then call Jon, who is hopefully done slapping some sense into his sister by now. He'll come pick me up and take me back to our now blissfully empty apartment. Now go get your girl, Jay." She plopped onto my sofa, and stared at me expectantly. So I grabbed my coat, and exited my apartment, pulling on the sleeves as I ran down the stairs.

***

*~Ellie~*

"Do you... want some tea maybe?"

I paused long enough to shoot a dirty look at Jon before taking another Kleenex from the box and blowing my nose again. Although I never got colds, my nose still ran just like everyone else's did when I cried.

"Okay, I guess no tea then," Jon carefully stated.

"I'm sorry," I apologized. "I'm being moody."

"No, it's okay. Just... Ellie, what exactly happened?"

I balled the Kleenex up and tossed it roughly in the direction of the kitchen garbage. Then I turned to speak to my brother.

"You know that aura thing I was doing today with Mom and Dad?"

"Yeah."

"Well, it worked just like I thought it would. I saw Dad's aura and how it flows into Mom to protect her. And it was just so completely effortless. Like it was natural for them. When I saw the kind of bond that they have, I realized that there's no way that Jay and I have that. And it just got me thinking about whether or not Jay and I are supposed to be together at all."

"But Ellie, Mom and Dad have been together for years. Obviously you can't expect the same thing from what you and Jay have."

"Maybe," I shrugged. "But you and Kaylie don't seem to have any problems either, so clearly things are working out fine for you. It's just me that has the problem." I paused. "And it's only with Jay," I added.

"Huh?"

"Well, you know that Jay's not my first boyfriend. And... Not that you really need to know details... But it's not like it's a completely new experience with Jay."

"Please tell me you didn't make out with Archie," Jon winced.

"*Arty*. And why does everyone think he's so terrible? Arty was really--"

"Nice, I know. I guess that means you did, huh?"

"So?" I asked defensively. "He was a pretty good kisser."

"Even with the retainer?"

"Well, he took it out when... You know, never mind. The point is, I *never* had a problem with him as far as control. And don't you think that's a little odd? That it's only with Jay? Maybe that's some kind of sign that we're somehow... incompatible."

"Or maybe that's the reason why you should be together."

"What?"

"Well, not that *you* need to know details, Ellie, but when I'm with Kaylie, I don't have to think about any of that control stuff we were taught when we were breaking in our powers. Everything just goes away and it's only me and her. And that's something I never experienced with anyone else. Not even with Amanda, no matter how close we had gotten."

"So, what? The fact that I can't control myself is proof that we're meant to be together?"

"Well, I'm not an expert, Ellie, but maybe it means that there's something going on between you two that you never had with anyone else before."

He was right. I couldn't exactly put it into words, but there was some sort of intrinsic feel of belonging when I was with Jay. A sort of comfort that I felt. Partially, I think I had attributed it to the fact that he was the first person I had dated who knew who I was. But was there more to it than that?

"So you're saying that Jay and I *are* meant to be together. But just that something else isn't cooperating? What would that be?"

"Hey, I'm not the scientist, Ellie. You tell me. But think about it seriously. Why would *Arty* be better for you than Jay?"

"Yeah, that's true," I admitted.

"Ha! So you admit it!" he proclaimed triumphantly. "Arty *was* a dweeb!"

"What?" I sputtered. "That wasn't what I... Arty was.... Whatever. Never mind. When are you going to stop teasing me about him, anyway?"

"Not anytime soon," Jon replied. "So are you feeling better about you and Jay?"

Just when I thought I had stopped crying, a fresh flood appeared.

"Hey, what's wrong? What was it I said?"

"I think I blew it, Jon," I whispered.

"What did you do?"

"I went over to his place," I began quietly. "And I told him the whole thing about the aura and what I was thinking and then... I think he misunderstood or something because then he was asking me if that meant I wanted to break up. And I didn't know what to say! It was just happening too fast and it was out of control and I just didn't know and the next thing I knew I was out of his apartment and coming over here."

"Go home," Jon told me.

"What?"

"Go home. He'll be there willing to do whatever it takes to win you back."

"How do you know?" I asked timidly.

"I don't know if you noticed Kaylie slip out, but I know that she was going to smack some sense into him and I know that she's going to be successful. So go home and wait and he'll be there. Trust me."

***

I had successfully repaired Jon's memory. Feeling very proud of my accomplishments, I shooed him off with Kaylie to do some fiance-type bonding. Mom and Dad and Aunt Lucy and Uncle Brad also left, but for some reason Jay still stuck around. I shied away from starting a conversation with him. I wasn't really sure how we stood anymore now that the whole mess was over with. We weren't just going to walk away, were we? I didn't want to, but we had never really discussed what our plans were. Did he want to walk away? Finally, I mustered up enough courage to speak.

"Are you sure you don't want some ice for your eye? It's going to bruise, I can tell." Maybe not the most courageous move, but it was a start.

"Oh, I bet you can, Ms. Know-It-All," he replied. "But I'll be fine."

"Okay," I nodded. I had wiped down all the counters and put everything away, even at a slow speed as a stalling tactic. The lab was completely spotless, and I didn't have anything else to do here. But I couldn't leave yet. I wasn't sure if this was going to be the last time I saw Jay.

"Look, Ellie," Jay spoke, shifting uncomfortably on his feet.

"Yeah?" I stood up a little straighter.

"Now that we don't *have* to spend time together, I was wondering if... If you wanted to go on a date sometime."

I let out a grateful exhalation. "Oh, I would love to. Where should we go? You know, I can fly us anywhere in the world. We can go to China or Italy or Japan or -- Ooo! I know this really great Indian place. Trust me, you'll love it."

"Ellie," he interrupted me. "I think I was the one who asked you on a date. Not the other way around."

"Oh." I guess he wasn't interested in being impressed that way.

"Kind of strikes me as a cheesy move to expect my date to provide the transportation. Tell you what: I'll take care of everything this first time, and then next time you can take me wherever you want, okay?"

"You're just scared to fly with me, aren't you?" I teased.

"Not a chance," he replied. "I'm fearless, Ellie, didn't you know?"

"Yeah, sure," I rolled my eyes. "So when are we going on this date?"

"Tomorrow good for you?"

"Yeah, it is. I'll see you tomorrow."

"So, I guess this is bye. For now."

"Yeah. For now."

***

*~Jay~*

I slammed Kaylie's car door behind me as I strode up the walk to Ellie's house. I felt like I hadn't slowed down at all since I had left my apartment. I had been carried by the momentum of Kaylie's lecture, and ended up here faster than I ever thought possible.

I pushed the doorbell, and the door flew open a second later. Ellie stood there.

"Ellie," I spoke with more confidence than I felt, "I'm not giving up on us yet."

"Oh, thank god." Her arms flew around me and I gladly absorbed the feeling of having her in my arms again. Sure, it hadn't really been that long since I had last hugged her, but the emotional journey we had been on was huge.

"I wasn't sure if you were going to come," she mumbled into my coat. "Jon told me to wait for you here, but then you didn't come right away. And I thought maybe I should go to your place and see you there but that wasn't right. I wanted you to come here. But Jay, it seemed like forever."

"Ellie, I came by car," I explained with a mix of amusement and exasperation. "And you know how the traffic is on 112th. There's no way I could've broken the sound barrier."

She hugged me tighter and we stood there on her stoop for a while before she pulled away. "Will you come in?"

We stepped inside and she closed the door as I got rid of my heavy coat. I reached over to flip the bolt on her door when she didn't, and her mouth tugged into a smile. But she quickly sobered.

"Jay, I'm so sorry," she said. "About what I did today. It seems that everything I do in the lab has led to discouraging results. And today was just kind of the last straw for me." She sat down on the stairs heading up and placed her head on her hands. "I just want this to be solved, but everything just seems to lead to more problems."

"So you started wondering if it was us that was the core problem?"

"I guess I did," she admitted. "But I talked to Jon about it some. And he helped me see that it's not us that's the problem. And I feel so much better about it now, I really do. I was just letting my frustration get the better of me. There's no way I think that we shouldn't be together."

"So you just got over all your doubts? Just like that?" I didn't think it would've been that easy.

"I think what I needed," Ellie told me, "was just for someone to say that we were doing okay. That was it."

"I wish I could've done that for you," I told her. "You know, what Jon did. Made you feel better and put your doubts at ease." I sat beside her on the stairs. "I *should've* been able to do that. But instead I basically kicked you out without really letting you talk. And I'm sorry for that."

"That's okay, Jay."

"I believe in us, Ellie, I really do. But I guess part of me has just been waiting for the day when you realize that you want something more. And who am I to hold you back from that? You deserve the very best, and if I can't give that to you, then I'm not going to stand in your way."

"Oh, Jay," she groaned. "You idiot."

"What?" That had been the second time I had been called that today, and I wasn't really enjoying it any more this time.

"*You're* the very best, you moron." She nudged me with her shoulder. "Nothing better could possibly come along."

"You're serious?"

"Yes! Of course I am," she insisted. "For starters, you're the most irritating guy I've ever met, and that includes my brother."

"And that's a good thing?"

"Yeah, of course it is! It means that I care about you. More than I ever did with anyone else. If you didn't matter to me, then I would be able to brush off whatever you do or say easily."

"I guess that makes sense," I said cautiously.

"Do you remember when we first met? How much we hated each other?"

"Yeah."

"I wanted so badly to see you just walk out of my lab and never come back," she confessed. "But no matter how much I tried, I couldn't ignore you. Something about you always kept me coming back. I don't really know how to explain it. A kind of magnetism, I guess. But now it goes beyond that. The very thought of separation just... I don't even want to think about it. It's... it's like a remora!" she said in a burst of inspiration.

"What?"

"You know, those sucking fish? They attach themselves to sharks or whales or turtles or whatever by suction. The shape of their dorsal fin allows them to cling to the body of a host and they hitch a ride to the site of a kill and... and this isn't sounding one bit romantic, is it?" she asked ruefully. "More like disgusting. See, this is why I would never make a good writer."

"I think it's cute," I told her with a smile. "And I'll certainly give you points for *trying* to come up with a romantic metaphor."

"Thanks. Anyway, the point is, I've attached myself to you, Jay, and I'm not about to come loose anytime soon."

"Ellie, have I ever told you that you're absolutely amazing?"

"Maybe once or twice," she shrugged cheekily.

"Well, let me say it again. You're truly amazing. I have no idea what I would've done without you. Have I ever told you that? You've kept me from completely falling apart, despite the rut I've been in. I mean, now things are finally looking up for me," I told her, remembering the job offer I had received earlier today. "But you're still my anchor."

"I never congratulated you about the job," she remembered. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, well we were both too busy messing up our relationship to think about that."

"Well, congratulations," she said, hugging me. "I'm so happy for you, Jay. You have no idea."

"Thank you."

We were silent together for a moment before Ellie spoke again.

"So we both agree that we mean a lot to each other and we're not about to go anywhere."

"I guess we just can't communicate that," I finished wryly. "Looking at our history, we don't have a very good track record of that kind of thing. Like that whole fiasco with the necklace? It probably could've been avoided if we had just talked before you decided to try your hand at jewelry design."

"Jay, no wonder we can't share an aura," she groaned. "Considering how bad we are at sharing our own feelings, it's not really a surprise."

"Do you really think that's the problem?" I asked her.

"I'm not sure," she shrugged. "But it can't be helping. Can we make a promise, Jay? That we'll be completely honest and open with each other from this point on? No more keeping our fears and worries to ourselves?"

"Okay," I agreed, trying not to let on how much that scared me.

"Even though it'll be hard," she added. I guess I had been more obvious than I thought.

"Okay," I repeated.

"We're in this together," she said, taking my hand and intertwining her fingers with mine. "And it's time we started acting like it."

***

Chapter Sixteen

*~Jay~*

I woke up panting for breath once again. Although my nightmares were a common occurrence, it didn't make them any less terrifying. Tonight's had been a familiar one, and I could still feel the presence of those dream demons clinging to the walls of my room. Would I ever be free of them?

My heart lurched when I caught movement in the dark corner by my dresser. I was out of bed, and halfway across the room when Ellie spoke.

"It's me, Jay," she called out quickly. "Don't worry, it's just me."

"Ellie?" I squinted, but couldn't make out enough of her to recognize. But that didn't really matter because I had heard her voice and knew it was her. I walked backwards and sat back down on my bed, letting myself calm down a bit. "What are you doing here?"

She stepped out of the shadows, but refused to look at me. She was dressed as Nebula, but her body language betrayed guilt and apprehension that was out of character for the superhero. Her fingers played with the corner of her cape, pulling and twisting the fabric.

"Never mind. I guess you heard me, huh?" I guessed.

"Yeah."

"Do you always listen to me when I'm sleeping?" I pulled the covers over my legs again. The room had gotten cold since I had gone to bed.

"No, of course not! But sometimes I do tend to hone in on you," she confessed. "Unintentionally. And tonight I was out flying and I heard you... I just couldn't turn away, Jay. I'm sorry, but I had to come see you."

"Well, thanks. But I'm fine Ellie," I told her. "It was a nightmare, sure, but I'm okay."

"You're shutting me out, Jay," she said sternly.

I sighed. "Yeah, I am."

She blinked. "Well... Why?"

"Because you don't need to know every gritty detail of my past."

"It's upsetting you, Jay! Of course I need to know about what's bothering you. And remember? We made that pact to be completely open with each other."

"Ah, yes. Things are starting to make sense." I grinned wryly. "Convenient that we made that pact just hours before you showed up here demanding to know the secrets of my past that are haunting me." I wasn't really upset, just trying to stall.

"Wait, are you saying I came up with that whole thing just to get you to tell me the truth about your nightmares?"

"Well, admit it Ellie, the timing's pretty convenient," I pointed out. "So did you?"

"No! Well, not entirely. Maybe. I don't know," she sputtered. "No, that wasn't my primary reason, but I guess I have to confess that it was sort of... lingering there as something you haven't been completely upfront about with me yet."

"Ellie, it's okay. I can understand why you'd be curious." I didn't really mind that she had already planned on prying into this part of my life. Deep down inside, I knew that I wouldn't be keeping it from her forever.

"I can see how this is tearing you apart," she said softly, moving to sit on the edge of my bed. "And I don't really know if I can do anything to help, but I want to at least try."

The room was dark, but I could still see the shape of her face lit softly by the light coming from the moon outside. She looked so innocent, almost bordering on na´ve. Her chin was stuck upwards in a determined angle, and her eyes flashed proudly.

"How can I tell you, Ellie?" I asked with defeat. "You're so..."

"Innocent?" she asked sardonically.

How had she known?

"Jay, I am anything but innocent," she told me furiously. "You want to know what I was doing before I came over here? I was pulling a knife from the hand of some poor drug addict teen just before he stabbed his best friend over a plastic baggy. And you want to know how I know they were best friends? The whole time I was taking the kid to the police station, he wouldn't stop sobbing the whole story to me. I'll say it again, Jay, I'm anything but innocent."

Her outburst surprised me. She usually never went into graphic detail with the stuff she dealt with. Normally it was just a general summary, if anything.

"Ellie, that's awful," I told her. "Do you want to talk--"

"Not while you still have to talk to me."

She had me there. I had no way to back out of this, and although it seemed as if every instinct within me screamed against telling her, I knew I had to.

"My back four molars are false," I finally said.

"What?"

"They're false. Here, take a look." I opened my mouth and pointed.

She craned her neck to examine them. "I never noticed that before," she told me.

"Well, they're *good* false teeth. I don't think any untrained observer would be able to tell the difference. Which is kind of the point."

"Right."

I could tell that she didn't really understand why I was telling her this.

"I got them just before I turned twenty," I told her.

"You had your original teeth pulled?" she asked in confusion.

"Well, they were pulled, but let's just say it wasn't exactly my choice," I said shakily, hoping she would understand where I was heading with this.

"So... "

"God, Ellie, do I have to spell it out?" I asked exasperatedly. "I got caught being in a place I shouldn't have been in. And the people who caught me weren't exactly the type who were going to politely ask me questions."

"Oh. So they... "

"Yeah." I brought my hand up to feel along my jaw.

"And you were nineteen?" she asked sadly.

"It was our first field assignment," I told Ellie. "Kaylie and I both did well in training, but all the training in the world can't prepare you for the real thing. I spent two days in captivity before Kaylie managed to help bust me out."

"She wasn't with you?"

"That was one of the things they were questioning me about. Where my partner was."

"And you didn't tell them?"

"No, of course not," I replied. I shook my head as I remembered the aftermath of our actions. "That whole mission was a disaster," I told Ellie. "It's a miracle we weren't let go after it. We did nothing right and everything wrong."

"Not everything," Ellie said. "You did one thing right. You didn't tell them where Kaylie was."

"Well, of course I didn't do that," I told her. "But that's not really anything to get a medal over. I was just doing what I had to."

"Jay, admittedly I'm not exactly an expert on pain," she began. "But I have been exposed to Kryptonite a few times."

"You can say that again," I muttered.

"Anyway," she continued, shooting a warning glance in my direction, "I can't really sympathize with how you must've felt, but I do know how being in pain clouds your judgment. You have a hard time thinking straight, and soon all you can think about is making the pain stop. And the fact that you stood firm through all of that isn't something you should just brush aside. That was a good thing you did," she said insistently. "And I'm sure that Kaylie remembers it to this day. And now I'll remember it as well," she decided firmly. "And I'll be proud of you because of it."

"Thank you," I said, surprised by her reaction. I had expected sympathy. I had expected a good listening ear. But I hadn't expected pride.

"Jay, I'm so sorry you had to go through that," Ellie said, bringing me back to the present.

"Well, that was what I was dreaming about tonight," I told her. "But I have other nightmares, Ellie. And more physical evidence to go with them. But that's all... I mean, I can't just unload it all in one sitting."

"Okay." She reached out and took my hand. "I understand. Thank you sharing that with me. I don't even know if I can really make you feel any better, but knowing about it makes me feel better."

"What you're doing, Ellie," I told her, running my thumb along her knuckles, "makes me feel better."

"Jay, can I ask you a question?" Ellie said after a brief silence.

"Sure."

"What exactly did you do for the NIA? I know you went undercover and stuff, but what was the point of most of your missions?"

"To get information, mostly," I shrugged. "Faces, names, places, dates, and whatever else the NIA wanted. Most of the time, I would set myself up in a place that would give me that kind of information without having to dig around too much to find it. But usually I would end up having to take more risks to get it."

"And that's when things went wrong."

"Yeah. We were always told not to take any more risks than what was in our orders, but it was an unwritten rule that we were to do anything to complete our mission, regardless of the danger."

"That's unfair," Ellie said after a pause. "How can they expect so much of you?"

"They just do," I shrugged. "That's the way it's always been. Now can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"You said heard me tonight."

"Unintentionally."

"Does that happen very often?" It was kind of strange to think that she would just randomly tune into me.

"Not very," she shrugged. "And if it does happen, I don't usually listen any further. It'd be like spying."

"When was the last time it happened?"

"I don't remember."

"Don't you have an eidetic memory or something?" I probed. "And you're telling me you don't remember?"

"Unlike my dad and my brother, I'm not completely anal," she rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I can remember something easily if I put an effort into it, but it's not like I have TiVo in my head."

"Just take a stab then," I urged. I was extremely curious to see what it was she might've heard.

"Well, one I do remember was about a month ago," she told me. "You remember when you took me out to dinner at that fancy restaurant? The Ivory House?"

"Yeah."

"Well, I knew that you were taking me out somewhere nice," she said. "But you wouldn't tell me where, so earlier that day I was thinking about what you were planning, and trying to guess what you would do. And all of a sudden, I heard you yelling at someone to stop."

"Really?" I didn't remember the incident at all.

"Well, maybe yelling is a strong word," she relented. "I was worried at first, but it only took me a second to realize that you were talking to a cab driver. He had missed your stop or something."

"Oh." It sounded kind of familiar, but I didn't really have any direct memory of the incident. It obviously hadn't been a big deal for me.

"I don't intentionally listen in on you, Jay," she rushed to explain. "It's only when I'm thinking of you. Or something really loud would also get through to me, I think. And if I do tune in, I tune right back out as soon as I realize that it's happened. And even then it's only been a handful of times. Mostly when you're asleep. I would never intentionally invade your privacy like that."

"I know. I trust you, Ellie."

"Thank you."

Then a huge yawn cracked my jaw in half. Ellie stood up.

"You're tired," she said.

"Well, it is just after three a.m.," I told her.

"Do you think you can get to sleep?" she asked. "I know if I've had a nightmare, sometimes I have a hard time sleeping after."

"I'll be fine," I told her. "I know I've avoided talking about this, but it has helped. Thank you, Ellie."

"Goodnight, Jay."

***

*~Ellie~*

"And that's pretty much what we do here at STAR Labs," I concluded. "Any questions?" It had taken us a while, but we had finally been able to coordinate a time for Kaylie's class to come visit the lab. Throughout the tour, the class had been great. They paid attention to my lecture, and seemed genuinely interested. A few of them had asked some really intelligent questioned during the tour, but I wanted to give a chance to open the floor as well.

Several hands flew into the air.

"Yes?" I selected a boy wearing ripped jeans belted so low that half his boxers were visible.

"Is it true that Superman and Supernova and Nebula come here sometimes?" he asked.

"Yep," I replied, catching Kaylie's eye in amusement. "Superman comes here the most often, but you will see the others occasionally as well."

"Oh my god, can you imagine if Supernova came in here right now?" one girl asked the group. "I think I would *die*. He's by far the hottest," she swooned.

"Well, that would be interesting for sure," I said, glancing at Kaylie again. She rolled her eyes with a mixture of exasperation and embarrassment.

"Hey, what about Nebula for us guys?" one of the students interjected.

"Now that would be really interesting," Kaylie said wickedly.

"Well, I think a visit from anyone is unlikely," I told the group, trying to get back on topic. "They usually don't stop by if we're busy doing something. Such as this tour."

This response got a groan from the whole class, and Kaylie moved forward to reestablish control.

"Does anyone have any more questions for Ellie about working at this lab?"

One shy girl in a baggy sweater raised her hand.

"Yes?" I asked.

"So, you said you don't have your doctorate?"

"Not yet," I replied. "But I'm well on my way. It just takes a bit of time."

"Did you always want to be a scientist?" she asked timidly.

"Well, I always liked science," I told her. "And my aunt and uncle also work here, so I was supported through them as well. Do you think you might be interested in something like this?"

"Maybe," she replied, ducking a little.

"Why would you?" an obnoxious girl interrupted. She wore lipstick in a garish color and her top was pushing the bounds of a school dress code.

"Karen, don't interrupt," Kaylie reminded the student.

"Sorry, Miss S," she apologized, flicking her hair back. "But everyone knows that guys don't go for girls who are super smart or anything. Same as how they don't go for any girl who's as good at sports as them. They don't want a girl to be better than them at anything."

"Well, that's just... That's not... " I couldn't even pull myself together enough to object. I was shocked by what she had just said.

"That's definitely not true," Kaylie stepped in. "Just this weekend I completely slaughtered my fiance in one on one basketball. He didn't have a problem with it at all. And if you look at where our individual knowledge and interests lie, you can definitely see some differences. I'm more knowledgeable than him in certain areas, just like he's more knowledgeable than me in others. No one should feel that they have to be less than what they actually are in order to attract someone." Kaylie glanced at me and saw that I was still upset. "It's time we were leaving, everyone" she told the class. "Go and grab your things and we'll head out to the bus together, okay?"

The students wandered off to the area where they had stowed all their stuff, but Kaylie hung back to talk to me.

"Ellie, I'm so sorry about that," she spoke quietly.

"It's no problem," I tried to dismiss.

"Karen's had a hard time," she elaborated. "And despite a lot of improvements, she still has a difficult home environment. Her outlook on life is a little skewed as a result. Look, I have to get going, but you do realize that Jay's not like the guys Karen's experienced, right?"

"Yeah, of course," I replied.

Kaylie left to go take care of her class, but I couldn't stop thinking about what Karen had said. Yeah, it was ridiculous to take career advice from a high school student, but she did bring up issues that I had been struggling with for a long time.

Even if Jay and I didn't have any issues, the physical differences between us would still impact our relationship. I had seen enough of traditional boy-girl relationships to know without a doubt that the male was always considered to be the physically dominant one in the partnership. But with us, that wasn't even an option. I was faster, stronger, had better senses, and was on a completely different level than he was. There was no conceivable way that he could compete with what I could do.

Did that ever bother him? Did he wish it was the other way around?

These were questions I had avoided asking him. What if he said yes? What would we do? A small part of me really worried about what he would say. There was no way I could change who I was, yet the thought of losing him over that was too painful to even think about. I had seen the look he got on his face a few times when I had to run off and be Nebula. What if that meant that he resented my ability to do that?

Up until this point, I had simply avoided the issue. True, I used my powers in his presence, but I had always been careful to never allow our physical capabilities to be compared directly. I would have no qualms about cooking with heat vision, for instance, but a small part of me was terrified that one day he might have a hard time opening a jar while in my presence. It was ridiculous, and I knew it, but somehow I couldn't stop thinking that way.

But I knew it wouldn't be long before I would have to ask him those difficult questions, and I would have to face up to the difficult answers. With our new honesty policy in effect, I couldn't hide for long.

***

Chapter Seventeen

*~Jay~*

I was leading the class through some cool-down exercises when it happened. The frantic honking horn made all our heads whip around to the window, and the following crash made all of us cringe as we saw the delivery truck plow straight into the building across the street from us.

Instantly, I was out of the gym and running across the street yelling behind me for someone to call 911. I nearly slipped on the ice in my gym shoes as I crossed the street. It was no surprise the truck had skidded.

The truck was completely totaled, judging by the way the front had been squished accordion style. The driver was unconscious, but that was no surprise. He had hit the side of a travel agency, and had come partially through the large front window of the office, stopping when he had reached the brick wall. Although the damage to the building looked pretty serious, I guessed that it was still safe enough for the time being. It was only the window that was broken; the supporting wall was mostly intact. People had run out of the building as soon as the crash happened, and were clustering around the carcass of the truck, although no one had stepped forward to actually check on the driver.

"Did someone call 911?" I asked them.

"She's on the phone with them right now," one man spoke, pointing to the woman beside him with a cellphone pressed to her ear.

I looked up to where the trucker was sitting. The door had buckled around him, and I didn't think there was any way to get him out of there without the fire department's help. But there was no telling how badly he was injured. And waiting wasn't going to do him any good.

Then, out of the sky, dropped Superman. The crowd gasped in awe. I sighed in relief.

"Everyone's okay, Superman, except for the driver. He's trapped in the vehicle," I told Clark as I shivered involuntarily. I was still dressed in my shorts and T-shirt from the gym, and it was hardly enough protection against the winter air. "Can you get him out?"

Clark nodded, and walked up to the truck door. He ripped it off its hinges, and threw it to the ground. Carrying the driver gently in his arms, he lifted up off the ground.

"He needs to get to a hospital," Clark explained. Then he turned to me. "Will you explain to the police what happened when they get here?"

"Sure," I nodded.

The crowd clapped and cheered as Superman flew away with the driver. I just hugged myself against the cold.

The police thankfully showed up soon. I was able to give a brief statement to them, and head back to the gym. My class had left along with the rest of the crowd, but I had expected something like that. Taking my time, I changed into my street clothes, and exited the gym, slinging my gym bag over my shoulder as I went.

But as soon as I hit the street, I stopped. Clark was standing there. He was dressed as himself again, and judging by the snow collecting in his hair, he had been waiting for a while.

"Hi," he greeted me.

"Hi," I replied. "How's the driver?"

"Awake, actually." He waited until I had reached him, and then we started walking down the street together. "He has some injuries, but he'll be fine. Apparently, he skidded on the ice, and couldn't stop."

I nodded. It was what I had expected.

"I wanted to thank you for helping out, Jay," Clark said, surprising me.

"I didn't do much," I shrugged.

"You stepped forward and took charge," Clark said. "That's something. You have no idea how many rescues I go to where everyone just stands on the sidelines and watches, doing nothing to help."

His praise confused me, and had me on edge. I wasn't used to getting that.

"So... that's the gym you're working at?" Clark asked, glancing back at the building we had left.

"Yep."

"You're enjoying it?"

"Yeah, it's great." I was reluctant to go into any more detail with him about it.

We walked on in silence for a while longer. The snow made it seem even more quiet than usual, and I was starting to get more and more anxious. What was his plan? Was he testing me somehow?

"Jay, I'm glad we sort of ran into each other today," Clark began. "I've been meaning to talk to you for a while."

Great. This did not sound good.

"Okay," I said warily.

"Look, I know a great restaurant just a block away. You haven't had lunch yet, have you? Care to get some?"

"Uh, sure." Truthfully, I wasn't sure how much I would be able to eat with him sitting across from me, but it would probably be worse to decline.

We entered the restaurant, some sort of seafood place, and Clark was greeted warmly. Apparently, he was a regular here. We were seated quickly, and gave our orders. Then we were left alone.

"So... what did you want to talk to me about?" I asked, wanting to get whatever it was over with quickly.

"Well, you've been dating Ellie for almost six months now. Plus, you know the family secret. It stands to reason that I get to know you a bit as well."

"Not much to know," I shrugged.

"Well, how about you tell me how the classes are going? Do you like teaching them?"

"Yeah. I do." I liked it enough to be wary of telling him about it. As if somehow, he would find a way to ruin it. In my experience, that's what dads do.

"I love teaching, myself," Clark told me. "When the university offered me a post, I hardly had to think about it. And although I still partner with Lois on a freelance basis, I've never looked back. But Lois, on the other hand... " he chuckled softly. "Well, she's never had enough patience to be a good teacher. She was great with our kids, of course. But the maternal instinct only goes so far, apparently."

"Huh," I replied neutrally. What was I supposed to say to that? If I agreed, wouldn't that be a sort of insult to his wife? Yet I could hardly disagree, could I?

"But you're liking it?" he prodded.

"Yeah. It feels good to be able to pass on the skills I have to other people. Well, now that I'm not using them myself." I watched him anxiously. It had taken me so long to find something that satisfied me. I felt that he was going to take it away at any moment. And I didn't think I could handle it if he did.

"I feel the same way," Clark said. "It's a very rewarding profession."

"Yeah, it is," I agreed, feeling a little excitement creeping in despite my anxiousness. I had never expected to be able to relate to a man like Clark.

"You know, we've got a lot in common, Jay," Clark told me. "There's the teaching, for one thing. And then we both share the innate need to help."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. That's how the whole... " he leaned closer to me and dropped his voice, "Superman thing came about."

"Really?"

"Yeah. No matter how dangerous it was, I couldn't resist helping out whenever I could. Having a colorful costume as a disguise was the best thing that ever happened."

Our conversation continued from there. Surprisingly enough, Clark was actually easy to talk to. He was non-judgmental, and although he wasn't afraid of expressing his own opinions, he was willing to consider mine as well. We spent an enjoyable lunch talking and getting to know each other better, and by the end of the meal, I was even feeling brave enough to tell him how surprised I was to see that he didn't seem to hate me.

"Jay, I'm not trying to pry," Clark said after a heavy pause. "And trust me, I haven't been snooping into your personal life on any level. But... "

"But?"

"Well, I've met your father," he finally said. "I think it must've been hard for you growing up. And I'm guessing that you haven't heard any kind of approval from him much, and that makes it all the more important that I tell this to you. I'm very glad that you're dating my daughter, Jay. I think you're a fine man. And I'm proud of what you've done with your life."

We had some excellent food at that restaurant, just as Clark had predicted. But none of it was as satisfying as those words he had spoken to me.

***

*~Ellie~*

There was no car in the drive, and I allowed myself to relax a little. Mom wasn't home for sure, and maybe Dad was with her or out doing Superman stuff or maybe something else. This whole thing would be a lot easier if no one was home.

I inserted my key in the lock with difficulty. It was three hours after the exposure and I still couldn't stop my hands from shaking. I dumped my purse by the front entrance and pushed my hair back off my sticky forehead. It had been so long since I felt the heat, and I wasn't sure if this was entirely natural, or if I was a bit feverish on top of it. Anyway, I didn't want Mom or Dad to find out what I had done. But so far, I was safe. Now all I had to do was make it up to my--

"Hi, Ellie."

"Ahh!" I screamed. "Dad!" I hadn't heard him, but with my hearing as it was right now, that wasn't a surprise. After five years, I had grown very used to my extra senses, and it felt so weird to go without them.

"Are you okay, Ellie?" Dad asked in concern.

"I'm fine, Dad," I said as calmly as I could manage.

"El-lie?" This time, he said my name sternly, as if he knew I was hiding something from him.

"Dad... "

"You're sweating," he observed.

I wiped my forehead again. "Yeah, I know." There was no choice. I would have to tell him. "Look, Dad, I was in the lab alone today for a bit and I... "

Dad reached up and felt my forehead. "And you're burning up! You must have a fever."

"Yeah, I... I thought that. See, Dad... Well, I've always been curious," I sidetracked, "you know that. And I was only planning a really short exposure, honest!"

"Exposure?! Ellie did you--"

"But I wasn't expecting it to hit me *that* hard--"

"You exposed yourself to Kryptonite?! On purpose?!!"

"Yeah," I admitted quietly.

"Ellie, what were you thinking?" he demanded. "Haven't we told you that Kryptonite is dangerous?"

"I know, Dad." I went to go sit down on the sofa. Something told me that this talk would take a while.

"And I can't believe your aunt and uncle would be so careless as to let you have access to that kind of thing. Don't they know you can seriously get hurt?"

"I don't think they knew that I--"

But Dad wasn't listening by this point.

"And how could you be so reckless and try this? And *alone*? What would've happened if you passed out? Did you even think about the possible conse-" He stopped, and took a breath. "I'm sorry, Ellie," he said, switching gear suddenly. "You must be feeling pretty rotten right now."

"Yeah," I agreed. "And before you say it: No, I don't want any tea."

"Okay," he said with a grin. He sat down in a chair, and regarded me thoughtfully. "Have I ever told you how much you're like your mom?"

"A few times," I told him wryly. "But I don't see why Kryptonite exposure makes me like Mom."

"It's the risk taking that makes you like Mom," he told me. "And the insatiable curiosity. Tell me; was it worth it just for the experience?"

"I'll let you know in a few hours," I replied. "When I'm hopefully feeling better."

"You'll get more sun upstairs," Dad decided. He reached out a hand to help me up. "Get some sleep, but leave the window open, okay?"

"Okay," I agreed. I was already halfway up the stairs before he was even done talking.

"And don't think for a second you're going to get away without talking about this," Dad called after me. "We're going to discuss it thoroughly when Mom gets home, you hear?"

***

*~Jay~*

I was exhausted when I got home later that day. My head was still buzzing from my conversation with Clark. Apparently, he didn't hate me, which was something I was still getting used to. And he actually thought I was making good use of my life, which, in all honesty, was something I had never been told before. And it meant more coming from Clark than it ever would from someone like Kaylie or Ellie. Clark wasn't going to say something just for the sake of being nice to me. When he said something, he meant it.

I snapped the overhead light on, and the figure of my father hunched at the kitchen table became visible.

"Dad? What are you doing here?"

He turned in his seat slowly, and then stood up, facing me. His wide shoulders seemed to take up the whole room.

"I made a special trip," he replied. "I need to talk to you, Jason." He stared at me intensely, and I found myself unconsciously shrinking back. But I kept my ground, and instead risked a more careful look at him. A man like him would never appear harried, but he sure came close.

"What do you want?" I dumped my bag on the floor, but I didn't step any closer to him.

"I need to know what the hell the Kent family is hiding," he told me. "And don't even try to deny it, Jason. Any idiot who spends less than a minute with them would know instantly that they have a secret."

Damn. I knew Dad must've suspected something after that family dinner.

"I don't know what you're talking about," I declared bravely.

"Don't even try that with me, Jason," he spoke furiously. "I've been over every government database in existence. NIA, FBI, Secret Service, Homeland Security, you name it. They're not there. And if they're not registered, that means they can't be on our side. Is that what you really want?"

I bit back a laugh. Sure, Dad knew that the Kents were up to something, but he didn't have the creativity to imagine any scenario that wasn't orchestrated by some government agency. It was almost tragic.

I saw the way he looked right now. His face was flushed, and his chest was heaving in anger. He was gripping the kitchen chair tightly, and his jaw was clenched together with equal force. And at that moment, I realized something.

I didn't have to put with this.

"What the hell," I began more calmly than I thought possible, "makes you think you can just break into my place and demand that I spill all the secrets of the people closest to me? The people who have shown me more love and acceptance and have treated me better than you ever have? I want you to go." I opened the door of my apartment with a flourish. "I don't know how you got in here, and I don't really care," I told him. "But you better leave right now. I'm done with you."

Dad stood there, completely still, for a beat. His mouth actually hung open. For one second, I thought he was going to say something, but then he changed his mind. Instead, he picked up his coat and briefcase, and left without a word.

I slammed the door, flipped the bolt, and collapsed against the wood in one smooth motion. I couldn't believe what I had just done.

I had swore at my *father*. I had told him to get out. I had refused to give in to him. I had actually stood up to him.

But even through all that, I still wasn't satisfied. I wasn't happy, I was mad. That one defiance wasn't enough to pay back for years of torture. I needed more.

I had a small, office type space tucked behind a door in my apartment. I didn't really need a desk or anything, so for a long time, it had been completely bare. But one day, with Martha's voice still echoing in my ear, I had gone out and bought a bunch of tools, and a few coils of wire. They had sat under a pile of blankets ever since, never seeing the light of day.

But today was a day of risks.

I started small, cutting a length of wire and bending it in my fingers. But that quickly built, until I had a mass of intricately tangled wire sitting on the floor in front of me. But that wasn't enough. My fingers itched for more. I dashed to the kitchen and snatched up the first thing I saw. My toaster. The stupid thing had never worked properly anyway.

In minutes, it was demolished, and I sifted through the goodies hidden within. Buying a blowtorch for my small apartment was beyond even my stupidity, but I did purchase a small soldering iron, and made use of it now. Slowly, a shape was beginning to form in my mind. But I needed more material.

I could hardly dismantle every appliance in my possession, so I furiously thought of alternatives.

Then I remembered. I often came up the back entrance of my building, and for some reason, I remembered the dumpster today. I had a vague recollection of a shape, and as for material... it was something metal, I thought.

Before I knew it, I was out the door, running down the stairwell, and approaching the dumpster. It was insane! I was actually dumpster diving.

And not after top secret information either. I was after metal. That was it. And any other interesting stuff I found along the way, of course. Thankfully, the object I was searching for was placed innocently beside the actual dumpster. A bicycle with a bent frame, hopelessly damaged. But a thing of beauty to me. Soon, I was running back up the stairwell, only slightly hindered by my cargo.

Three hours after I had started, I was finally able to step back. A couple pots, plus about half of my silverware had been sacrificed as well.

The finished product was tall, imposing, and twisted. It carried the weight of years of emotional pain and struggle. I was almost afraid to look at it, yet at the same time it sucked me in with a force I couldn't fight.

Finally, worn, dirty, and sweaty, I dragged myself away from that small room, and into the rest of the apartment. I took in the stark, impersonal surroundings like a surveyor checking out the land.

Maybe it was about time that I got some more furniture for this place.

***

Chapter Eighteen

*~Ellie~*

"Pretty Woman?"

"Well... yeah."

"*You* rented Pretty Woman?"

"Well, the girl at the store said--"

"You rented *Pretty Woman*."

"I don't see why that's so hard for you to believe, Ellie," Jay finally said in exasperation.

"It's practically the biggest chick flick in existence."

"It is?"

"Yep. There's even a makeover," I grinned.

"I asked the girl at the store for a good movie to watch tonight, and she suggested this one," Jay explained, flipping the case over to read the back.

"If that girl makes a habit of watching movies like this on date nights, then she's probably going to be alone tonight," I mused.

"Ouch!" Jay winced. "Someone's not feeling very charitable."

"Well, it's not like there's anything inherently wrong with being alone on Valentine's Day," I shrugged. "But I've been there before, and I know it's not very much fun."

"Yeah, I agree. But it's not like either of us has had to do that today."

"True," I agreed with a smile. We had kept it pretty low key tonight. Although Jay had taken me out for supper, we had just planned on spending the rest of the evening at my place watching movies.

"So are you saying that you don't want to watch this one?" Jay asked me, returning to our current discussion.

"Well, I like the movie, but I won't make you sit through it," I told him. "What else did you bring?"

"Well, I also got... " he held the case up for me to see, wearing that stupid grin again.

"No," I shook my head emphatically. "Absolutely not."

"Why not? It says here it's an accurate retelling of the events of the Prometheus launch."

"Clearly you've never been to school in Metropolis," I said, rolling my eyes. "We've watched it every year on the anniversary of the launch. And do you know how annoying it is to go home and be told exactly where the movie deviated from what actually happened?"

"I've never seen it," Jay pouted.

"Watch it by yourself then. You had to have brought something else."

"There's Lethal Weapon," he offered.

"Which one?" I asked in interest.

"Just the first one," he replied. "That way, you'll be sure to let me come back here."

"Oh, very clever."

"I told you I was a smart guy."

I let Jay set up the movie while I prepared some popcorn in the kitchen. He was already sitting down when I came back, and I moved to sit on the opposite end of the couch, like I always did. It wasn't like I wanted to be distant from him, but it was just something we had tacitly agreed on to keep any temptations to a minimum.

But today, he fixed his eyes steadily upon me as I got myself settled. I tried to ignore it as I watched the opening credits of the movie. Maybe he was just staring into space or something. But his eyes didn't leave me, and it wasn't long before curiosity overcame me.

"What?" I asked through a mouthful of popcorn.

"Come over here," he said, beckoning with a flick of his head.

"Jay... "

"Ellie, nothing terrible is going to happen if we sit together as we watch a movie, trust me. We've set some strict boundaries, most of them unconsciously, but I'm getting tired of them. I know that we can't take things much further than that, but at least give me this much? Please?"

I hesitated. I didn't want things to escalate to the point where I would regret it, but at the same time, Jay did have a point. I trusted our ability to stay in control. And it was Valentine's Day, after all.

I crawled across the sofa toward him, holding the popcorn bowl in one hand. Once I had reached him, I placed the bowl on top of my coffee table. I was sitting right beside him, yet we weren't really touching. When was the last time we had been this close? I couldn't really remember. Sure, we touched occasionally, and shared some brief kisses, but that was nothing compared to this. For the most part, our relationship had been kept alive through words, and although it wasn't starving from the meager diet, this type of contact was a much heartier meal.

Jay put his arm around me, and pulled me closer, until my head was resting on his chest. I could feel the heat he gave off, and I could also feel his heart gently thumping beneath his chest, a new accompaniment to the rhythm I always heard while around him.

"Much better," Jay murmured in satisfaction.

"Yeah," I whispered. "Now shut up. The movie's starting."

***

I stretched, and settled back into the cozy spot on Jay's chest.

"Good movie," I muttered sleepily into his T-shirt.

"You ate all the popcorn," he complained, setting the bowl down.

"Deal with it," I shrugged.

We watched the credits roll in silence, until I finally decided to break it.

"Did you tell Kaylie about your dad?"

"No," he replied quietly. "She's been so stressed out about this wedding thing, I didn't want to add anything else to the burden."

"You don't think he'll approach her about it?"

"No, he won't. He's a trained spy. A frontal assault is the last thing he'll try in order to get information. Even asking me was a long shot, I think. Dad's just going to go back to sifting through records and stuff. And I doubt he'll find anything because he's looking in the wrong place."

"Okay," I replied uneasily.

"Does it bother you to know that he's looking?" Jay asked perceptively. "If you want, we can tell your family. That won't stop him, but it will prepare them."

"I don't know," I said. "It's not like anyone in my family really likes him in the first place, and telling them something like that will only make them hate him."

"My dad can take it," Jay shrugged. "Trust me, he's not out to be liked."

"Jay, are you okay with all this?" Although Jay didn't seem to be outwardly hurting from what happened, he had to feel something, didn't he? This was his dad we were talking about.

"I'm fine, I think," he replied, rubbing his brow with his thumb. "It's just... an adjustment, I guess. I've never refused my dad anything. And then I just flat out defied him. You should've seen his expression, Ellie. I don't think he even knew what to do. He's not good with putting up with defiance. I've been under his thumb for years, and to suddenly be free just feels so much lighter, you know?"

"No, I don't really know," I smiled sadly. "But I am happy that you stood up to him, Jay."

"Me, too."

"So what's going to happen between you two now?" I asked. Although I agreed that it was an unhealthy relationship, I didn't really want to see their relationship severed. There had to be some kind of bond there, right?

"I don't really know," Jay replied. "It's been a week, and I haven't heard anything from him, although I wasn't really expecting to. I doubt he'll want to see me or speak to me again. At least not in the near future." He sighed. "But I guess Kaylie is still in the family fold, so I may see him through her or something. But if I don't, it won't be a big loss."

"Oh."

He sighed again. "I know you don't like that idea, Ellie, but you have to understand that my relationship with my dad has been a lot different than yours. Your dad loves you for you. My dad only loves me only as long as I do exactly as I'm told."

"It shouldn't be that way," I said futilely.

"Yeah, I know." Jay kissed the top of my head. "But unfortunately, that's the way it is."

***

*~Jay~*

Classes at the gym were going well. After a month of teaching them officially, Derek and I added a couple more classes to the roster, and I shuffled my schedule around so it worked better with Ellie's. It was common practice for her to come and sit in on the last few minutes of whatever class I was teaching, and for us to spend some time together afterward. I still taught free classes to Chris and her friends every day, and although she still came regularly, I noticed the circles that grew under her eyes, and occasionally I would notice her trying to cover up an injury of some kind.

I tried to keep myself from talking to her about it. Clearly, she just wasn't ready for that yet. But there were times when I couldn't hold myself back. One day, after class, I approached her once again.

"Chris, please just let me help you," I said, nearly begging.

"I'm fine," she insisted.

"No, you're not. I can tell."

"Look, just leave me alone, okay? I'm doing fine by myself!" She brushed past me, and practically ran out of the gym. I didn't bother to try to catch her.

Instead, I wandered over to where Ellie was sitting and waiting. She had been watching my interaction with Chris.

"Was that... ?"

"Yeah," I replied bitterly. "She still won't let me help."

"Can't you just tell Child Services? Even if you don't have any of her contact information, just get them to show up at the gym one day or something."

"Without Chris' cooperation, they wouldn't get anywhere," I shook my head. "Her friends would probably try to protect her by not saying anything, and Chris would completely clam up. And then she would lose all her faith in me. What little trust she's given me is all I've got."

"I was watching her for a little bit," Ellie said sadly as I began packing up my things. "She's hurting. And not just physically."

"I know," I replied. "But all I can do about it at the moment is support her as much as possible, and maybe one day she'll trust me enough to tell me the truth."

Ellie looked sad still, and I couldn't really blame her. It was a difficult situation. But she soon brightened, and moved on to happier thoughts.

"So have I mentioned how much I love watching you teach?" she said. "You're really helping those girls."

"I don't see why you don't want to join in," I told her.

"You just want to see me embarrass myself in trying," Ellie shot at me. "I would be awful, and you know it."

"You said it, not me," I shrugged.

"Well, if you really want to get someone in on this, you should talk to my mom. She's got her brown belt in Tae Kwando."

"Really?" I asked in interest. "I never would have guessed."

"Well, she needed something to help protect herself from bad guys," Ellie told me. "So anyway, where exactly are we going today? You were a little cryptic on the phone."

"We're shopping for a car," I announced, feeling ridiculously proud in saying that.

"Really?!" she squealed. "What kind of car? Do you know yet? Where are we going to look? Well, I don't really know that much about cars, but what color do you want?"

I flushed at the attention. "Yeesh, you'd think I said I was going to go win the lottery or something. It's just a car."

"But it's more than that for you," she spoke softly.

"You're right," I agreed, equally soft. "It is."

"So, where are we going to-" Ellie broke off, frowning slightly. It was like she was concentrating on something far away. I recognized that expression.

"Ellie?"

"It's fine," she said, shaking her head briskly to clear it. "Where are we going to go first?"

But she still looked troubled.

"What did you hear?" I pushed further.

"It doesn't matter," she replied quickly. "I'm with you right now, and we're going to go shopping for a car for you."

"Are you on duty right now?" I wasn't really sure about their schedule; Ellie never talked about it much. Looking back, I realized it had been a long time since we had been interrupted while together.

"Well, yeah," she said hesitantly.

"Then go!" I commanded. "What's keeping you here?"

"But I know you don't like it when I do this," she told me, dancing on the spot.

Huh? Where did she get that idea?

"Ellie, what are you talking about? No, never mind," I said as she opened her mouth. "Go take care of whatever it is you have to do, and I'll meet you back at my place when you're done, okay? Clearly, we need to have a talk."

***

Throughout the entire trip home, I stewed. Ellie and I had been dating for about six months now, and during that time, I had learned quite a few things about her character. One of those things was her tendency to jump to conclusions.

The last time something like this had happened, it had ended with her collapsing in my apartment. All because of something that she thought I was feeling. That was another thing about Ellie. She tended to do things in extremes. I hoped that talking it out with her now would prevent something similar from happening this time.

Obviously, I had done or said something to make her think that I had a problem with Nebula. But for the life of me, I couldn't think of what that might be. Sure, I teased her about it a lot, but I didn't think that was enough to really bother her. And I think I would have noticed if it had made her genuinely upset.

And it's not like Ellie had a problem with using her powers in front of me. She hated doing mundane tasks like dishes or cleaning or making coffee or anything else at a normal speed, and was constantly rushing through them. I teased her a lot about that too, I realized. Was she bothered by that after all?

Thinking about it even more, I realized that although she had no problem with using her speed, there were other abilities she had that I rarely, if ever, saw. When was the last time I had seen her use her strength? Or fly? We had flown to Smallville for Christmas, but that was almost two months ago now. Whenever we were together, we usually walked to get around. Ellie had no use for a car, and I had yet to get one, so walking was basically our only option besides a cab. I had never really questioned that behavior. I liked to walk, so it wasn't a problem for me, but did Ellie maybe think that I wouldn't like to fly with her?

All this speculation wasn't really helping, I decided. If anything, it would just bring me to a set of false conclusions, which was the last thing I needed going into this talk with Ellie.

I walked a few more blocks, trying to think of something else, but not really succeeding. Thankfully, my phone rang, giving me an easy distraction. I didn't recognize the number on the caller ID, but I picked up anyway.

"Hello?"

"Is this Jay?" the voice on the other end asked.

"Uncle Jack?" I asked in disbelief. I hadn't talked to Jack Olsen in months, since before I left the NIA. Although officially retired now, he still kept a significant presence at the NIA, and had even put me through some of my training. He was one of the few positive memories I had of the organization.

"Good to hear from you, kid."

"Yeah. Likewise. I haven't heard from you in a while."

"I know," he said apologetically. "But it looks like I will see you in person in a few months."

"You're coming to the wedding?" I guessed.

"Yep. Wouldn't miss it for the world. I have family in Metropolis too, so it works out great."

"Sounds good."

"How's the gym going?" he asked.

Of course he knew about that.

"Fine," I replied.

"You should consider opening your own facility," he suggested. "You would get the customers, I guarantee it."

"I'll think about it," I told him, getting tired with the small talk. He had obviously called me for a reason, and I wanted to know what it was.

"I guess you want to know why I called, eh?" Jack asked after a beat of silence.

"Yeah."

"It's about your dad."

"Yeah?" I gripped the phone tighter in my hand, and slowed down my walking pace. I didn't want to miss anything Jack might say.

"I don't know if you're aware, but he's been poking into the Kent family."

"Yeah, I know," I replied. "How did you hear about it?"

"He came to see me," Jack answered. "I met Lois and Clark years ago with that whole Trevanian case. You know about that one. And I've had some other dealings with them throughout the years as well. Anyway, he had found their names on some old records, and came to see me about them."

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him that Lois and Clark are a very nice couple, with nothing sinister about them. There was some suspicion cast on them when we first met, but that was only Trevanian trying to mislead me. They're both straight arrows, and although I've never met their children, I can assume the same thing. I don't know whether or not the Kents do have some big secret, but as far as I'm concerned, it's none of mine or his business."

"Thank you," I said in relief. Jack would be the only person that my dad would even consider listening to. He had been Dad's mentor during his earlier years out in the field.

"You know, he didn't say much, but I got the impression that you two had a falling out."

"Yeah," I confirmed grimly. "He came to me asking the same thing as you, and I refused. Unlike you, he doesn't seem to have any toleration for me unless I'm slavishly obedient, so that's that."

Jack was silent for a moment. "Your father's just worried about you, Jay," he finally said. "I know he doesn't always go about it the right way, but he does want the best for you."

"I'm not sure about that," I replied shortly. I had arrived at my building, and was gearing up for my much needed conversation with Ellie. "Can you just do me a favor, Jack, and try to convince him to leave the Kents alone? They don't need this kind of harassment."

"I'll try," Jack replied.

"Thanks. I'll see you at the wedding, okay?"

"Goodbye, Jay."

"Bye, Uncle Jack."

I shut the phone, and let myself into my building. I took the stairs two at a time to get to my third-floor apartment. The key turned easily in the lock, and I swung my door open. Ellie was already there, sitting on my sofa with her hands folded in her lap. She must have heard me coming, as she was looking unwaveringly at me as soon as I had opened the door.

"Hey," I said.

"Hey," she replied quietly.

It was time for our talk.

***

Chapter Nineteen

*~Ellie~*

I threw my backpack on the floor as I slammed the door to my room shut. The signed poster from that one concert we had gone to was stuck to the back of the door. I tore it down and started ripping it up into little tiny pieces. It was garbage just like this whole stupid garbage day and the stupid garbage relationship.

All I wanted to do was fly up in space and kick twelve billion asteroids around until nothing stood in my way any more. But it was still *six months* until Dad would let me come out officially, and I knew that kicking around a bunch of space junk would draw too much attention. Dad would find out find out and want to know what was going on, and I just didn't want to deal with any of that right now.

So instead I stalked around my room searching for something else to destroy. The picture of us I kept on my desk. It was from some faculty function, and Arty was holding my hand as we sat at the table. Stupid picture. Stupid Arty. Why did he have to make me feel so happy only to completely ruin everything?

The picture disappeared in my hands with a satisfying crunch.

"Ellie?"

I quickly spun around, hiding the mangled picture frame behind my back. Hannah stood in the doorway with a concerned expression on her face.

"What happened?" she asked, taking in the scraps of paper from the poster that were sprinkled all over the floor. I had been so upset I didn't even notice her come in.

"Arty... " I could hardly for the words around the huge tears that were now pouring down my face. "He... He broke up with me!" I finally sobbed.

"Oh, Ellie." She moved into my bedroom and came to give me a hug. I barely had enough presence of mind to dump the broken frame in the garbage behind me before I accepted her hug.

"He came to see me after I was finished work for the day," I told her in a shaking voice. "And then... And then he said... That he was really busy with summer classes and work and that things were going to pick up next year... And he didn't even come out and say it, but I knew all along that he just doesn't want to see me anymore!"

"Shhh..." she soothed. "He's a jerk, you know that, right? Always has been."

"Well, yeah," I hiccupped. "But I thought he was my jerk."

"I'm so sorry, Ellie," Hannah told me sympathetically. "Look, how about we cancel on Sam and all the rest tonight? They'll understand. We'll eat some ice cream and watch really cheesy old movies all night. Sound good to you?"

"You're a really great friend, Hannah," I said, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. "You know that, right?"

"Thanks. You're still sure you want to move out of the apartment at the end of the summer?"

"Yeah, I'm sure." Although having Hannah as a roommate had been fun, I needed to live on my own if I was to help out around Metropolis as Nebula. I would need the privacy. "But you and Sam will have fun together, won't you?"

"It's impossible to not have fun around Sam," Hannah replied. "How about I call her now and explain why we're not going to meet them, and you come on down when you're ready for those movies, okay?"

"Okay," I replied. Hannah had also realized that I still wanted some alone time.

She was right, really, I reflected after she had left. Arty was a huge jerk. He was always cancelling dates, or cutting them short. And he was *so* competitive! He would always check his mark against mine, and he'd get so upset if I had gotten better. He had almost no sense of humor, and he didn't get along well with any of my friends, or even my family. There was a million things about him that I didn't like.

But the thing I hated the most about him was how even though he was a stupid *stupid* jerk of a boyfriend, I was still crying in the middle of my trashed room because he had broken up with me.

***

It was a mugging that I had ran off to. I finished up as quickly as possible, and made my way over to Jay's. I was dreading this talk, although I knew it was long overdue. I just wasn't sure what he would say.

Jay had made quite a few improvements to his apartment over the last few weeks. Before, there had been just a sofa, lamp, and TV in the living room, but now there were several other pieces of furniture, and he had even hung up a few pictures as well. The James Bond poster I had given him for his birthday was prominently displayed, and I smiled at the sight as I settled down on the sofa. This was a guy who didn't mind someone having a little fun at his own expense. Surely someone like this wouldn't mind having a girlfriend who stopped trucks in her spare time, right?

But everyone had limits, and maybe truck-stopping was his.

I heard Jay coming up the hall, and my heart rate picked up. This was it. His key rattled in the lock, and I saw the bolt being drawn back. Coming in the door, he stopped briefly, as if surprised to see me here. Well, maybe I shouldn't have let myself into his place, but he did leave the balcony unlocked, after all.

"Hey," he said, his breathing a little heavy.

"Hey," I replied in a subdued tone.

"Okay, Ellie," he began before I could work up the courage to say anything else. "Let me go first." He threw off his gym bag and dumped his keys. "I don't know how you got this idea or why you thought that it was true, but I don't resent your role as Nebula, and the last thing I want you to do is stop or anything. I completely support you in that."

"Really?" I asked in relief.

"Yeah, really. I don't know why you thought any different."

"I was just... " I frowned, thinking back to how I had picked up that assumption. "Jay, I've seen the way you've looked at me sometimes when I've had to run off. It's like... " I searched for the right way to put it. "It's like you don't want me to go or you resent me for having to leave you."

"Like... I dislike the fact you have to run off and leave me alone," Jay completed.

"Exactly," I whispered. If he finished my thought pattern, did that mean there was some truth to it?

Jay gave a huge sigh, and scrubbed his hands through his hair. He sank into an armchair across from me, and hung his head down. Finally, he looked up at me again.

"Ellie, I'm so sorry," he said sincerely. "I had no intention of making you feel like that. Up until recently... Well, let's just say that I've been in kind of a bad place. I was so used to doing all these big important things for the NIA, and to see other people run off while I was stuck at home doing nothing was just... Well, it was really hard for me. And I guess I did kind of resent you for having what I didn't.

"But I'm in a much better frame of mind, Ellie, I swear. I have a job that I love, and that I think is extremely important. And I've learned that I don't need to always be running off somewhere to make a difference. Does that help at all?"

"Yeah, I think so," I replied.

"And all this time, I thought I was doing a good job hiding my feelings," he said ruefully.

"Well, maybe that means you shouldn't try to," I suggested gently.

"Smart aleck," he shot back, although he smiled, so I knew he wasn't offended. "Look, Ellie, I can't promise to always respond in the most gracious manner if you get called away when we're in the middle of something. But I do promise you that I recognize the importance of what you do, and I don't want you to ignore your responsibilities."

"Okay." That was something I was comfortable with. It would be unrealistic for me to expect him to always be happy that I had to leave unexpectedly. I even got frustrated sometimes.

"Now, is there anything else along those lines you wanted to talk about?"

My silence probably spoke louder than anything I could've said.

"Hey, remember our pact?" Jay prodded. "We're going to be honest and open with each other. If something's bothering you, I want to hear it."

"You can be a real pain, Jay," I grumbled.

"Yeah, I know. So let's hear it."

"Okay. It's just... You always seem to tease me about being Nebula. You rented that stupid movie last week, and you bought my biography, and who can forget that stupid Halloween costume." I rolled my eyes at the memory.

"Does that really bother you?" Jay asked, seeming a little surprised. "I had no idea."

"Well, no, it doesn't," I replied. "But I know you tend to make jokes about things if you get uncomfortable with the situation. And I can't help wondering if this is one of those situations that make you uncomfortable."

"No, of course not, Ellie," he said fervently. "It's about as far from that as possible." He paused to think. "I guess the reason why I tease you about it so much is because... well, I get a kick out of it. Thinking of you doing that kind of thing. Flying around and saving people and... I don't know, whatever else you do as a superhero. And your whole family's in on it, too. It's a pretty cool thing, Ellie."

"Oh," I said, not really knowing how else to respond. His response had been the exact opposite of what I was expecting.

"And plus, it's fun to get a rise out of you, and that's a guaranteed hot button," he grinned.

"Gee, thanks," I replied sarcastically.

"But I am serious, though," he told me. "There's no way I think that what you're doing as Nebula is bad or irritating or anything like that."

"Even though it is a little weird?" I asked timidly.

"What do you mean by weird?" he asked me.

"Jay, I know you're not a chauvinist or anything," I began stumblingly. "But you have to admit that I'm... less than conventional. In a few areas, I guess. I mean, there's the whole secret identity thing, and the costume and everything, but as far as physical differences... Well, it makes a difference, I know. And you haven't said anything about it, but then again maybe you've just been keeping any feelings trapped inside because you're uncomfortable--"

"Or maybe," Jay interrupted. "I haven't said anything because I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Jay, I'm stronger than you," I finally said. "A lot stronger. And I can do a bunch of things that you can't do. I mean the flying is an obvious one but there's all the hearing and the seeing stuff. Plus a few other things."

"I know all that," he replied. "I read your biography, remember?"

"Jay... "

"I know, I know. You want a serious answer. Ellie, I know all that stuff. I'm well aware. But as for thinking that it bothers me... Well, that's crazy. Why on earth would it bother me? Those are amazing talents that you've been given, and you should never feel ashamed of them."

"It's just that usually, the guy's the one who--"

"Ellie, have I ever pulled any of that alpha-male crap on you?"

"No," I replied.

"And I'm not about to. Look, I've worked with Kaylie on a lot of missions, right?"

"Yeah... "

"We were always taught to work as a team," he said. "Now granted, I am physically stronger than she is, but there's a ton of things that Kaylie is better at than me. And I knew when to let her take charge of something."

But I still wasn't convinced. "So you're saying it wouldn't bother you at all to have to let me do something that you can't?"

"No, it wouldn't."

"But Jay, I know that you're an independent kind of guy. Sure, you may be used to working with Kaylie, but that's completely different than living with someone and letting them do some things day in and day out. I know it would bother you to have to sit back and let me take control."

He was silent for a moment.

"Well, I could maybe see it bothering me in some circumstances," he finally admitted.

"Oh," I replied, my heart feeling heavy.

"But just let me finish, okay? It would bother me if you were always doing things that I could do myself. Let's say we were... I don't know, moving around furniture." He gestured to the new furniture that was in his apartment. "Now, this sofa that you're sitting on is a little big and awkward for me to move around by myself. Having you help with it, or even if you wanted to move the whole thing yourself, I wouldn't have a problem with that. But take this coffee table." He lightly kicked the leg of the table in question. "I could lift this thing by myself easily and move it wherever I wanted to. If you were to jump in and insist on moving it, then I could see myself resenting that."

"So how do I tell the difference between a sofa and a coffee table?"

"We'll figure it out as we go," Jay shrugged. "We haven't had a problem yet. And yeah, some of that might be because you've been consciously holding back, but as long as we try to communicate, we'll work it out."

"Okay," I agreed cautiously. "So you'll be sure to tell me if I'm stepping on your toes or anything? Because I can always hold back."

"Ellie, I don't want you to be any less than what you are," he told me.

"Okay," I said with more confidence.

"But Elle, you have to do something for me, okay?"

"What?"

"You need to stop jumping to conclusions about what I'm thinking or feeling. If something is bothering you, then just talk to me about it rather than keeping it inside. I don't like that you always seem to think the worst of me, and I wish you'd give me a chance to explain instead of just assuming what I feel."

"Oh, Jay, I'm sorry," I apologized guiltily. "I didn't even think about something like that. I guess part of it is sort of a habit to think of guys in that way, and I wasn't thinking about you."

"Well, I guess we'll just have to work on breaking that, won't we?" he suggested playfully.

"Yeah. And I know you're different, Jay. I'm just not quite used to it yet."

"Ellie, what did you mean by a habit?" he asked suddenly. "I wouldn't think you'd be used to thinking of people like that. I know your dad and your brother, and neither of them have that kind of attitude."

That question caught me off guard. I was silent for a moment, trying to draw my thoughts together. This was something I had never told anyone before. "I told you about Arty, right?" I finally asked.

"Yeah."

"We met during our first year of college," I explained. "In our undergrad program. A lot of people just thought he was a big dork, but the truth is, he was just really driven. Which I found kind of attractive. I mean, I had known what I wanted to do since I was thirteen and first found out that my dad was Superman. And a lot of the people there had no clue where they were going or what they were doing. Which is fine, and they've changed a lot over the years, but Arty was the only one who felt the same way as me. We both had a goal and we were going to do anything to get it."

I looked up, and saw that Jay was still listening attentively.

"Anyway, it took about a year for us to even start dating. Again, Arty was so focused on what he was going to do with his life that he didn't have time for a girlfriend. We finally started dating, and we went out for a while, but it never really went anywhere. Basically, we had a little more than a casual relationship and that was it. But I still got stupidly attached to him," I explained, blushing in embarrassment. "I don't know why; it was just one of those dumb things, you know?"

Jay nodded, still listening.

"So the summer before third year, there was this scholarship that we both applied for. There was some money attached to it, but the biggest thing was that it included a research opportunity with Dr. Lisa Caldwin." I got a blank stare in response. "She's very well known within the Molecular Genetics community, and to have a name like hers on your resume would be pretty impressive," I supplied.

"Okay," Jay nodded.

"Well," I sighed, "long story short, we both applied and I was awarded the scholarship."

"That's great, Ellie."

"Well, Arty didn't seem to think so," I told him. "We broke up shortly after. I've never actually told anyone about this, Jay, but I know the reason why we broke up was because I won the scholarship and he didn't."

"Ellie, that's awful."

"At first, I thought he would be okay with it. But then he kept bringing it up over and over. And trying to make excuses for why he didn't win it. He even said that the only reason why I was awarded the scholarship was because I was female, just like Dr. Caldwin."

"That little twerp!" Jay spat. "Tell me you didn't believe him."

"No, I didn't. But it still hurt that he would say something like that. After that, I told him that I wanted him to stop talking about it. We broke up by the end of the week."

"Ellie, I'm so sorry. Arty was an over competitive jerk."

"I know that," I replied sadly. "But it hurt a lot at the time, even though I knew he was being a jerk. I guess part of me has always thought that I lost my boyfriend because I was better at something than he was."

"Ellie--"

"You're not like that, I realize," I cut in. "It's just hard to remember that sometimes. Do you know that after four years of being Nebula, people still look at me strangely? And it's not just because of what I can do. My dad and Jon don't get that at all. It's because I'm female. Nobody expects someone who looks like me to be able to do all the things that someone as tall and big as Jon or my dad can do. Most of the time, I get a positive reaction, but occasionally... "

"I'm sorry you have to put up with that, Ellie."

"For the most part, I can take it. But over time... "

"It gets to you."

"Yeah."

"Come here," he commanded, opening his arms wide.

I obeyed without hesitation. He pulled me onto his lap and drew me in for a sweet, tender kiss.

"You're beautiful," he breathed gently. "And Nebula-" He paused for another kiss. "Is incredibly sexy. And I'm going to tell you that as frequently and as fervently as you want."

***

Chapter Twenty

*~Jay~*

Kaylie and I sat on the plane in absolute silence, both of us afraid to say anything. Finally, we were going on our first official NIA mission.

I was prepared for this. We both were. The training had been physically and mentally exhausting, and I felt as if my head was crammed full of information. I kept running scenarios over in my head, and reviewing what it was we were supposed to do. Sure, it was a pretty simple mission, but it was out of the country, so that had to count for something, right?

There was nothing I wanted more than to talk to Kaylie about all of this. She had to be just as excited as I was. But we were on a public plane, so talking about anything like that was completely out of the question. We were actually undercover at this moment, having boarded the plane with false passports. But it didn't feel like we had really started yet. It didn't take much to sit on a plane and look inconspicuous.

Finally giving into temptation, I glanced over at Kaylie. She looked outwardly calm, but I could see the way that her fingers tapped on the armrest excitedly.

"Excited?" I asked her.

"You are, too," she replied.

"Yeah, I am."

"Do you think we'll be okay?" she asked me, suddenly biting her bottom lip nervously.

"Yeah, of course," I replied. "Why wouldn't we?"

"Well, it's one thing to learn all those things, and another to actually use them," she said. "What if we screw up/"

"We'll be fine," I reassured. "We know what we're doing." I didn't want to go into any more detail on the plane, but I was sure Kaylie got my meaning. "Once we get going it'll be great," I told her.

The flight attendant who had been making her way down the aisle finally reached us, and offered us drinks. "You two must be related," she said as she poured our drinks.

"Yes," I replied. The resemblance between us was strong enough that it would make sense to tell the truth in that aspect.

"We're siblings," Kaylie filled in.

"Well, that's great that you're traveling together," she told us. "What made you decide to take this trip?"

"We have an uncle who offered to bring us out for a visit," I told the flight attendant. "We had some time off for spring break, so we decided to go."

"We're both students," Kaylie supplied quietly.

The flight attendant moved on to the next passengers, and Kaylie and I shared a smile between the two of us. We were off to a good start.

***

*~Ellie~*

The little gold plaque beneath the drawing bore the title 'Lilies by the Pond'.

"I don't see any lilies or a pond," I complained to Jay.

I could feel his eyes rolling behind me.

"No, I'm serious!" I turned around to talk to him. "You ask me, it looks like he got his fancy charcoals out and just scribbled all over the paper."

Jay grabbed my shoulders and spun me around to face the picture again. "You have to use your imagination when you look at modern art," he instructed. "Open your mind to the artist's inner feelings."

I stared at the picture. "Hey wait a minute," I said after a pause. "If you squint your eyes and tilt your head to the left, you can make out the outline of a eukaryotic chromosome!"

Jay's head tilted as he tried my suggestion, but he caught himself before he looked too closely.

"Now you're sucking me in too," he grumbled. "Why do I even try? Great art to you is a framed copy of the Periodic Table of Elements."

"Hey, I love those! Have you ever seen one of those 3-D representations? Talk about a conversation piece." I wasn't really this ignorant when it came to art, but it was fun to tease Jay.

Jay groaned. "If you need me, I'll be over in that corner pretending I don't know you."

But he didn't leave my side, and instead guided me to the next piece. I had been dubious when Jay had first told me about the art show, but when I thought about all the hours he had sat patiently in STAR Labs while I gave him impromptu lectures, I decided that I probably owed it to him.

"What on earth is this one?" I asked, trying not to be too loud, yet unable to completely contain myself.

"It's untitled," Jay commented, looking at the little plaque in front of the so-called piece.

"It's a juice box with holes punched in it," I retorted.

"The sign says the artist was heavily influenced by Dada."

"Huh?"

"Dada," Jay repeated patiently. "It was an art movement originating from Europe in the early twentieth century. The Dadaists were upset with what they perceived to be the falsity of society, of culture, of even art. Dada was a kind of anti-art that they created in rebellion. It was supposed to shock people out of the norm, and to stir up change. There was this one guy, Tristan Tzara. He created poetry by writing random words down on strips of paper and then drawing them from a hat."

"Really?" I had no idea that Jay knew this kind of stuff.

"They saw themselves as heroes," he continued. "And they were, in a way. Modernist art has stretched the minds of even uneducated people, but back then, things weren't considered to be good art unless they showed a strong likeness of something concrete. This kind of thing was unheard of."

"You like them, don't you?"

"They had a lot of courage," he shrugged. "To be able to do something like that in the midst of a world war is pretty admirable, I think. They weren't afraid to be passionate for what they thought was right, even if it was an unpopular choice."

"I just don't understand what it's supposed to mean," I said, staring at the juice box again.

"Nothing," Jay replied. "Dada was all about destructing the accepted norms, and that included even the idea of meaning. According to the Dadaists, there was no meaning in the world, so they found meaning in meaninglessness. And I guess that's where we differ," he told me. "Although getting angry at the world can be a good thing, it's impossible to live a life that's completely focused on destruction. When you find your life is lacking in meaning, it's your job to build a new one that's full of it."

I turned to look up at him. It wasn't hard to recognize the parallels in his own life.

He acknowledged my discovery with half a smile. "That's been something I've been learning throughout the last few months," he told me.

"Jay--"

"There's something I wanted to show you, Ellie," he said quickly, before I could speak.

"Okay."

"It was kind of the whole reason why I suggested this in the first place." He led me past a few other pieces that people were clustered around, and over to back of the room. We slipped past the bodies of fellow art appreciators until I could see the large sculpture standing slightly away from the wall.

I recognized individual pieces within the jumble. There was a bent bicycle wheel, sans tire, near the center, and the handlebars were close to the bottom. Pots, cutlery, and a few random bits of metal that I couldn't identify also shaped the piece. But I found that the actual materials didn't really matter in the big picture.

What mattered was the way that the old, rusted pieces contrasted against the shiny forks and knives in a way that made those points seem even more cold and deadly. And how the caved in wheel gave the piece a rotten core, and the smooth sides of the pots harshly reflected a flawed version of myself back at me. Roughly the shape and size of a man, the piece seemed huge; its empty eyes and hard shoulders making it even more intimidating. Unlike all the other things we had seen tonight, I didn't have to work hard to understand this one. I didn't even have to look at the little gold plaque, although I read it out of habit.

"My father," the plaque read. "With fresh eyes. By Jason Stewart."

"So that one day when I asked about the smell... "

"No, I didn't have a kitchen accident," Jay filled in. "Maybe I should've told you about it right away, but I wanted to do it this way for some reason."

"This way is good," I replied.

"So what do you think of it?" His voice seemed confident, but I could tell that he was nervous to be showing me this.

"I think," I said, choosing my words carefully. "That this is a piece that's built of meaning."

***

I flew in the upstairs window of my parent's place and, after changing quickly, started down the stairs. Jay wasn't going to be getting off from the gym for a while longer, but I decided to come over now, and just have him meet me here later.

Ever since Jon and I had moved out, it had become a kind of tradition to meet once a week for supper at Mom and Dad's. It didn't take much effort to travel, so it was a pretty easy habit to keep. Uncle Brad and Aunt Lucy would come pretty often too, as well as some of Mom and Dad's friends. Of course Jay and Kaylie had been included in the tradition as well. I could hear Jim Olsen's voice talking as I came down the stairs. Sometimes we would have to be careful if someone was over and didn't know the family secret, but Jim had known about Dad before I did, so I wasn't worried about explaining where I had come from. The strange thing was that Jim stopped talking as I came into the living room.

"What's going on?" I asked the group.

Dad's face was grim, and Mom had her hand clenched tight onto his.

"Jimmy was us telling what Jay and Kaylie's father has been up to," Dad told me quietly.

"Oh," I replied.

"Ellie, did you know about this?" Mom asked.

I nodded. "Jay told me. Apparently his dad broke into his place and demanded that Jay tell him what we're hiding. Jay refused, of course."

"Well, according to my dad, he's still looking," Jim told me.

"Your dad?" I asked.

"Jack Olsen works for the NIA, Ellie," Mom filled me in.

"Oh."

"He gave me a call today," Jim continued. "Said he put him as far off track as possible for now and is trying to convince him to give up altogether."

"Does your dad know about us?" I asked.

"Well... I don't really know," Jim explained apologetically.

"Jack keeps things pretty close," Dad explained. "We've had a few dealings with him over the years, and it's possible that he would suspect something. But he's not about to come out and say anything."

"And we can hardly ask him if he knows that Clark Kent is Superman," Mom added.

"I guess not," I agreed with a smile.

"Even if he does know, there are far worse people than him who could find out," Dad said with a frown, and I knew who he was talking about.

"Jay's dad is looking in completely the wrong place," I told them. "He thinks we're foreign spies or something. If we had thought it would be a problem, we would've told you right away."

"I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens," Mom said. "There's nothing we can do that will help take suspicion off us."

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you," I apologized.

"We understand why you might've chosen not to," Dad told me. "But for next time, we'd rather know what was going on."

A noise upstairs distracted us from discussing the issue any further. It was Jon landing with Kaylie. They were discussing something loudly, and their voices got clearer as they came down the stairs.

"Because it's dated!" Kaylie exclaimed. "That's why. This isn't the Dark Age anymore, Jon. We're far past the suspicion that unbalanced blood is what causes illness."

"You know that's not why they're doing this, Kaylie," Jon told her exhaustedly. "There are very good medical reasons--"

"None of which apply to us, Jon! We don't have to worry about any of that with your... you-ness."

"And you're going to tell them that?"

"Well, no, but there has to be a way around it." They entered the room, and Kaylie plopped down on the sofa beside me, and Jon sat beside her. "Hey, everyone," she greeted glumly.

"What's going on?" Lois asked in concern.

"Blood tests," Kaylie spat moodily.

"In order to get our marriage license, we need to submit to a routine blood test," Jon explained.

Dad frowned. "We didn't need a blood test for our marriage license."

"Apparently, the laws have changed," Jon sighed. "So if we want to get married in New Troy, we have to have the test."

This was pretty serious news. It impacted not only Jon, but also me. And any other future generations who happened to have powers. Sometimes, invulnerability was an annoyance more than anything else. Jon's blood would look the same as a normal person's in a simple test such as this, but there was no way any clinic nurse would be able to get at it.

"Ellie, is there any way you could sort of... knock me back enough to take that test?" Jon asked.

"Jon!" The vehement response came collectively from everyone sitting in the room.

"I guess not," he replied.

"We're not there yet, Jon," I replied. "Trust me, we're far from completely understanding the effect Kryptonite has on us."

"And it's dangerous to play around with it," Dad added. "I know we've taken some risks in the past, but that's only been when we've absolutely needed to."

"Do you need to have anyone specific do the test?" I asked.

"I don't think so," Jon replied.

"Then why don't you get Aunt Lucy to sign off on it for you?" Mom asked. "Although she's not practicing, she does have her MD, so there's no reason why she can't do it for you."

"I guess that could work," Jon agreed cautiously.

"Although it's not as fun as getting knocked out with Kryptonite," I said sarcastically, "it's probably safer in the long run, smarty."

Jon rolled his eyes at me, but didn't bother responding.

We talked for a while longer about wedding plans, but I could tell that Kaylie was looking for a bit of a break tonight. Event planning didn't seem to be an interest of Kaylie's and weddings weren't exactly low stress. As maid of honor, I had helped out when I could, along with Jon and the rest of the family, but the pressure ultimately rested on the bride.

I was trying to steer the conversation away from centerpieces when we heard a car pull up in front, and someone get out. Curious, I peered through the wall of the house to see who it was.

"It's Jay," I announced, getting up and rushing to the door. I flung it open as he came up the walk. "It came?" I asked excitedly.

"The dealership called today and said it was in early," he replied. "I decided to pick it up on my way here."

"It's nice," I admired, taking in the sleek frame of Jay's new car. "You're right, it looks great in the red."

Dad whistled his approval from the doorway as he came out to see. "Nice ride," he complemented.

"It's not the most practical," Jay shrugged sheepishly.

"Convertibles never are," Jim said. "But they make up for it big time." It seemed that everyone had to come out to examine Jay's new car.

"I thought you were supposed to wait until you turned forty to buy the sports car," Kaylie teased playfully.

"You're just jealous that your little sedan looks a pretty boring next to this gorgeous piece of machinery," Jay replied.

"Hey, Jay!" Jim called. "Mind if I pop the hood on this?"

"Go ahead," Jay shrugged. The male half of our group congregated in front of the engine.

Kaylie grabbed onto Jay's jacket before he could join them. "Jay, whatever you do, don't let Jon anywhere near the ignition," she warned.

"What is it about guys and cars?" I mused. Kaylie, Mom, and I stood on the sidewalk as we watched everyone else study the engine. "Look at Jon. He can't drive to save his life, and he's still interested."

"I really hope this doesn't make him want to buy his own," Kaylie said, paling at the thought.

"I don't think so," Mom replied. "It's just the rush of the moment. Everyone's interested. You know, there's still a few more minutes until dinner's ready. Jay would have some time to take you for a spin, Ellie."

"I definitely would," Jay replied. He had left the engine gawkers, and had come to rejoin us. "What do you say, Ellie?"

"Who says I'm even interested?" I replied, even though I kind of was. It was a pretty nice car.

"Just wait until you get inside," Jay told me. "You won't believe how fast this thing is. And with the top down, the wind is flying against your face and it feels even faster."

"Hmm," I nodded. "Yeah, that sounds a lot like... I don't know, flying or something. Nothing like anything that I get to experience," I said with innocence.

"But in this setting, I'll be the one in control, which makes it completely different," Jay replied. "Unless that's a problem for you or something."

I narrowed my eyes. "Mom, we'll be back in fifteen minutes."

"Better make it twenty," Jay told her, winking down at me.

I didn't say anything in response. Who knows? Maybe if I played my cards right, he might let me drive for a bit.

***

Chapter Twenty-one

*~Jay~*

I hadn't talked to Ellie all day. Although I had tried calling her on her cell, she didn't pick up, so that probably meant she was busy as Nebula. But by the time five o'clock rolled around, I was starting to wonder. How likely would it be that she would be busy all day? I had considered calling Kaylie and asking if she knew of anything, but I decided against it. If Ellie was busy doing something, my knowing wouldn't really make any difference. As I drove home from the gym, I decided to turn on the TV once I got there and see if there was any news coverage that would explain her absence.

But as soon as I opened the door to my apartment, I felt her presence. What was strange was that she didn't appear with a merry greeting and a cheery smile. As I dumped my stuff by the entrance, I heard a muffled sniffle coming from my kitchen. Concerned, I headed toward the sound.

"Ellie?" I called out. There was no answer. I rounded the corner, and was finally able to see her.

She was dressed as Nebula, although her hair, which was normally scraped back into a tight French braid, had loose strands falling down over her face. The golden cape that usually swished and snapped assertively as she walked was pooled around her as she huddled in the corner by my cupboards. Her eyes were rimmed with red, and her face looked tired. Exhausted, even. The tears came in a slow, steady trickle. She held a ratty piece of Kleenex in her hand, which she brought up to swipe across her nose halfheartedly.

"Hi, Jay." She spoke in a thin voice, as if it would snap at any time.

"Ellie... " So much about her appearance shocked me that I wasn't even sure how I would start to help her. I finally settled on crouching down beside her, putting us at eye level, although she didn't look at me. "What are you doing on the floor?" I asked.

"I was going to make tea," she spoke in that same thin voice "That's what my mom always makes for my dad when he's... " She stopped, then switched tactics. "So I got the mug out." She lifted her chin in the general direction of the empty mug sitting on the counter. "But the thing is, Jay... The thing is... I don't even like tea!" She finally burst out with more fervor than what I expected. "It's just dead leaves boiled in water and no matter how much s-sugar you put in it...." She was trembling now. "No matter how much sugar you put in it, it s-still tastes like dirty dishwater."

"Shh, Ellie," I soothed. "It's okay." I reached over and brushed the strings of hair away from her face. She caught my hand and held it tight with her shaking hands. The scrap of Kleenex she had held fell to the floor. I inched closer to her, and she caught onto the hint, shifting in her corner to allow me to sit beside her. I stretched my arm around her, and she huddled in close to me. Her wet eyes soaked into my shirt as she drew in gasping breaths, and pushed them out with shaking sobs. I didn't know what was specifically bothering her, but I was willing to give her support until she was ready to talk.

It wasn't too long until she had calmed down enough to speak.

"There was a mudslide in Peru," she told me quietly. "I was there for twelve hours straight."

"That must've been hard," I said neutrally, not yet sure where she was heading with this.

"Yeah," she nodded. "It was. A lot of people died, Jay. Ones that I couldn't save. And even the ones that I did save have their homes completely wiped out. What kind of gift is that to give them?" she asked bitterly. "What are they supposed to do now? What am I supposed to say to them? Yeah, sure I saved their lives, but a lot of them will die anyway from starvation or exposure because they don't have anywhere to live. And I'm supposed to think that I did a good thing? You know, my dad and Jon were with me for most of the time," she told me. "And when we were leaving, you know what my dad said to me? He said I had done a good job. And that's just so... It's not right, Jay. I didn't do a good job! How can it be good if people suffer?"

"Ellie--"

"You know, I get that I can only do so much," Ellie cut it. "My parents have told me that from the very beginning, ever since I started being Nebula. 'Whatever you can do is enough.' That's what they say. All the time! That there's no way I can do everything, and just being a symbol of hope is sometimes enough for people. But I can't... " She drew in a shaking breath. "I mean, that doesn't mean it still doesn't hurt sometimes! I *know* I can't do everything, and most of the time, I'm okay with that. But sometimes... It just hits me, you know?" she said quietly. "And I don't *want* to be told that there's only so much I can do. I want to be upset! Is it wrong to just want to cry sometimes?"

"Of course not, Ellie! Here, come closer, would you?"

"I'm already close," she muttered.

"Not close enough. Come here." I pulled her tighter until she ended up sitting on my lap. I cocooned her in my arms, and held her tight for a long while. Finally, I felt her begin to relax.

She didn't want to feel better about what happened. I couldn't really blame her. What could I offer her to make her feel better anyway? Some kind of overused platitude that wouldn't mean anything to her anyway? Right now, she just wanted to mourn for the people who had lost something in the tragedy. But there had to be something I could say to her that would give her some comfort.

"People in the NIA see a lot," I finally began quietly. "Stuff that no one should ever have to see. And there's never any time to recover. You're just expected to move on to the next mission, and to forget what you lived through. There were these old, battle-scarred veterans that I would meet, and they would be... just numb. They'd seen so much and been through all this crap. And they just shoved it down inside so they didn't have to feel it anymore. It worked, I guess. They didn't hurt anymore. But if you met them, you would see that they're just empty shells for the most part. Somewhere along the road, they lost a part of their soul.

"And you should never let that happen to you, Ellie. You should never stop feeling the tragedies that you come across. Because even though it hurts like hell at the time... it's what ultimately keeps you whole."

Her breathing had slowed down and evened out. She seemed completely at ease in my arms. A large yawn cracked her jaw open, and she let out a small hum as it came to a close.

"Thank you, Jay," she whispered sleepily.

My speech had brought memories back to me. Bad things that I had experienced myself, and had never had the chance to heal from. How much longer would it have been before I turned into one of those soulless people I was talking about? Not much, I guessed. Even after leaving the NIA months ago, I knew that my comparatively short time there had given me a sense of cynicism that colored my worldview.

Now that there was some distance between myself and the NIA, I realized how awful it had been for me. I had been so focused on my work that I didn't have the chance to live a life of my own. I had abandoned everything else for the sake of my career.

I looked down to see that Ellie had fallen asleep in my arms. Although it was still very early evening, I couldn't really blame her for falling asleep. Was it twelve hours she said she had been working for? That was enough to tax even her vast store of energy.

Even though I didn't enjoy the memories I had of my very worst NIA experiences, I was glad that I was able to help Ellie tonight in working through her feelings. And I was touched that she had chosen me to confide in. It was the first time she had done something like this, although I had a feeling this wasn't the first time she had felt this way. Nor would it be the last. And I would be willing to be here for her any time she needed me.

We had been so in sync for the last month or so. Our honesty policy had been difficult to adjust to. It didn't come naturally to either of us to really trust the other with all of our little fears and insecurities. But I felt that the events of tonight marked a kind of milestone for us. We didn't even have to bring up the honesty policy. Things just happened by themselves.

I glanced over at the microwave clock. She had been asleep for only a few minutes, but it didn't seem like she was going to wake up any time soon. Should I try moving her? She looked pretty comfortable here, but I wasn't sure how long I could survive sitting cross-legged on the linoleum floor. So far I felt fine, though. I glanced at the clock again.

Was it my imagination, or did it seem a little lower than last time? I reached a hand down to the floor in order to push myself up for a better look. But no matter how much I stretched, I felt nothing but air with my fingers. I twisted around as much as I could to get a better look, but hastily had to correct myself before I toppled over in midair. Righting myself, I got a better look at our position.

We were floating, I realized. Together.

***

*~Ellie~*

***

I had thought I got over Arty pretty quickly. After all, it was Arty. But I was still moody when I met with Dad later that week for more superhero training. We spent a difficult half hour working together before Dad stopped us and asked what was wrong.

I shrugged wordlessly.

"Are you still upset about Arty?" he asked.

"Yeah," I finally relented. "But I don't really want to talk about it, okay?"

"Okay."

"It's just that I've thought about it a lot this week, and I don't really want to do any more of that right now," I continued.

"Right."

I tried to focus, but something pulled me back to talking with Dad.

"Do *you* think it was stupid of Arty to break up with me?"

"Ellie, any guy that breaks up with you is obviously not thinking clearly."

"Dad, I want a serious answer, not a Dad answer."

"Okay," he relented. "You really want to hear what I think?"

"Yeah."

"Did I ever tell you about Lana?" Dad asked.

"Isn't she married to your friend in Smallville?" I wasn't sure what this had to do with Arty, but I was willing to play along for now.

"Yeah, she is now," Dad said. "But when we were in high school, Lana and I dated."

"Okay... "

"I was on the football team, Lana was a cheerleader, it was just the natural thing, you know? Anyway, I thought she was great. We were together nearly all of high school. But then she broke up with me right before senior prom."

"Ouch," I sympathized. "Why did she?"

"Some college guy that was her friend's cousin." Dad shrugged. "He was visiting in town and swept her off her feet. Lana's changed a lot over the years, and she'll be the first to admit that she was pretty shallow in high school.

"Anyway, the point of this story is that even though it hurt at the time to have Lana dump me like that, look what happened to me later on. I met your mom and fell in love, and we'll be together for the rest of our lives. If Lana had never broken up with me, none of that could've happened.

"I think that Arty was throwing away something special when he decided to break up with you, Ellie," Dad said. "But I want you to think about this long and hard. Did you ever see yourself having a future with Arty in the long term?"

"No," I confessed, subdued. What Dad was saying was difficult to hear, but it was also true.

Dad pulled me into a tight hug, and kissed the top of my head like he had always done.

"I know this hurts right now, Ellie," he spoke softly. "But I promise you that you will find someone that you can have a future with. And if he knows what's good for him, he'll hang onto you for the rest of your life."

***

I don't know what it was that made me jerk awake suddenly, but Jay was quick to soothe me.

"Ellie, just relax for one second, and don't move," he said softly. "There's something I want you to see first."

"Okay." I didn't move at all. What was his point?

"Look down," he commanded. "What do you see?"

I twisted my neck around to look down. "We're floating," I observed in fascination.

"Yeah."

"But Jay, I'm on *top* of you."

"I know."

"Are you holding onto me tight enough to hold yourself up?" I asked with mounting excitement.

"No," he replied. "Feel for yourself, I'm barely holding onto you."

I didn't speak, almost afraid of saying what I was thinking.

"I need to stretch," I finally announced. I brought us down until we were touching the ground, and then I got up off the floor. There was an obvious conclusion to this, but I wasn't ready to reach it yet. "Okay, let's think this through," I said, pacing as Jay got up as well. "We'll start from the beginning. Why do people float?"

"Ellie--"

"Just let me do this, okay?" I asked, trying not to snap at him. I was excited and nervous and scared and a whole bunch of other things, and I could hardly contain myself. Jay nodded his acceptance. "Okay," I began again. "All complicated scientific stuff aside, and yes by the way, I can do that, Jay."

"I never said you couldn't," Jay said, throwing his hands up in defense.

I narrowed my eyes, not quite believing him. "Okay. If we simply everything to the extreme, people float because they can somehow repel the force of gravity. People who can't float, can't repel gravity and have to spend their lives earthbound."

"I'm with you so far," Jay told me patiently.

"But you weren't. You were floating, too, just now."

"I wouldn't say I was floating *too*, Ellie. More like I was floating *with* you," he corrected.

"So you were... with me when I was repelling gravity." I still wasn't ready to say it. "And you shared in the experience. Like you got caught in the... energy field that I was--"

"Ellie, can we just say it already?" Jay burst out in exasperation. "We were sharing in your aura. That's why I was floating with you."

"We don't know that for sure yet," I objected.

"Ellie--"

"We would have to go to the lab and run tests and see what--"

"Ellie, I was floating two feet off the floor with you while you slept! How much more proof do you need?"

"How long was I sleeping?" I asked suddenly.

"Maybe half an hour," he shrugged.

I nodded. Not like the information helped or anything.

"You still don't know?" he asked gently.

"I need to be sure," I whispered quietly. I didn't want to push for something only to have our hopes deflated again. We had been so good about setting physical boundaries, but I wasn't sure what would happen if we moved forwards, only to end up having to backtrack. Yet even with that in my mind, my heart was racing with the possibility that this whole problem might finally be solved.

"I understand, Ellie," Jay told me. "I get where you're coming from, I really do. We want to be careful not to take things too far. I think that was a mistake we made months ago when this whole thing started. We were pushing things before we were emotionally ready. But things are completely different between us now, I can feel it. I've felt it for a while, but now we have actual proof. Can't you feel it?"

"Well... " I didn't get a chance to finish.

"Am I pushing you too hard?" he suddenly asked. "Ellie, even if this whole aura thing is resolved, that doesn't mean I'm going to demand anything physical from you. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, of course I do. And that's not it, Jay. Trust me. I know exactly what we're going to be doing as soon as we make sure that you're going to be safe. But we can't just rashly decide--"

"Whoa, Ellie Kent is saying we can't do anything rash?" Jay interrupted, the corner of his mouth twitching. "Since when does something like that happen?"

"Since I could lose more than just myself," I told him.

Our eyes met, and I saw that he understood.

Then he seized me and pulled me in for a hungry, demanding kiss. Unconsciously, I returned that energy back to him, getting lost in the magnetism. It was -undoubtedly- the best kiss we'd ever had. Better even than that first time hiding from Aunt Lucy and Uncle Brad behind the counters at the lab. It was better because this time we both shared in something special that we had never really experienced before. Finally, he pulled away.

"You can't tell me you didn't feel that," he told me.

"Oh, yeah. I definitely felt that." I pulled him back toward me. For the first time in a long time, I didn't worry about how rough I was being. I just knew there was no way I could hurt him.

But at that moment, a knock came from the door. Actually, it was more of a frantic pounding.

But Jay paid no attention, and instead brought us together once again.

"Aren't you going to get that?" I asked, only breaking apart for a fraction of a second.

"Not a chance," he replied fervently.

The knock came again, this time more insistent. I couldn't resist taking a peek, no matter how interesting things in here were starting to get. What I saw caused me to drop completely out of our embrace, and take a step back.

"Ellie? What's wrong?"

"Uh, Jay?"

"Yeah?"

"I think... I think you'll want to open the door," I said, hardly believing who it was on the opposite side.

***

Chapter Twenty-two

*~Ellie~*

Jay shot me a puzzled look before going to the door and yanking it open.

"Chris?!" he asked in shock. "What are you doing here?"

"I ran away," came the reply. "Can I come in?"

Jay stepped aside, clearly shocked by her sudden appearance. Chris entered the apartment cautiously. Her hair was wet through, and the bottoms of her ratty jeans were soaked nearly up to her knees. She hugged herself tightly, but it wasn't enough to stop her from shaking with cold. A thin T-shirt wasn't enough to keep someone warm during an early-spring rain. She scanned the apartment with haunted eyes, and her gaze landed on me. Her mouth fell open in shock.

"You're friends with Nebula?" she asked Jay in awe.

Uh oh. I had forgotten that I was wearing the well-known suit, and although I looked a little worse for wear at the moment, there was no way Chris wouldn't have recognized me.

"Uh... " I said blankly.

"She sometimes stops in," Jay told Chris neutrally.

"When I'm checking up on the neighborhood," I added, trying to get control of myself and start acting more like a superhero.

"Wow." Chris was staring at me in the way that young teenage girls are likely to do. Okay, I probably wouldn't have acted much different if I met Miley Cyrus or whoever when I was that young, but it still made me a little uncomfortable.

"What are you doing here, Chris?" Jay asked, bringing her back to reality.

"I ran away, Jay," she said. "You always said to come see you if I needed help, and after tonight... " he face paled, but she went on. "I really need some help." Her bottom lip was trembling from the cold, and a big shiver travelled through her body.

"I'm going to find you a blanket," Jay announced, and went off to his room.

Chris nodded blankly, and sank down onto the couch. She was still taking in the apartment, and I noticed how scared she looked. The smudged eye makeup made her seem so much smaller, and I was sure it wasn't all because of the rain.

I took an unthreatening step toward her. "Do you trust me?" I asked gently.

Chris nodded.

"Hold still," I said. Then I bathed her in a gentle wash of heat vision, paying particular attention to her hair.

"Whoa, are you doing that?" she asked in amazement.

"Yes, I am." I loved the way her face lit up in delight, but I forced myself to be calm and distant with her. This could potentially be a very compromising situation, and I had to be sure to act like Nebula and not like myself.

She felt her dry hair. "That's so cool."

Jay returned with a fuzzy blanket and draped it over her shoulders. He noticed her dry hair and caught my eye as Chris snuggled into the blanket. I started to smile, but quickly smoothed my expression out. I had to be distant, I reminded myself again. Nebula wasn't the one who was hopelessly in love with this caring and compassionate man.

"How did you even know where I lived?" Jay asked her.

"I followed you home one time after class," she shrugged.

"Of course," Jay muttered under his breath, but I don't think it was audible for Chris.

"I walked here tonight after I left," Chris continued. "I could see what number you lived in from the sign, but I wasn't sure if you would answer, so I waited outside until someone else came who lived here. I said that we were cousins and that I forgot the code to get in."

"Jeez," Jay muttered. "How long were you waiting out there, Chris?"

"An hour maybe?" she guessed.

"Damn," Jay whispered. I could tell that he was upset that she had been out there that long, but Chris interpreted it differently.

"Are you mad that I came here?" she asked timidly.

"What? No, of course not," Jay told her. "I'm glad that you made the decision to get help."

"We both are," I added. I reached to put a hand on Jay's shoulder, but stopped myself. That would look too suspicious for Nebula.

"Who did you run away from, Chris?" Jay asked gently.

Immediately, any sense of comfort or security disappeared as her face hardened.

"It doesn't matter," she told us flatly.

"Yes, it does," Jay said patiently. "We need to tell the authorities about this."

Her chin jutted out and I could see the stubborn teenager emerging from within the frightened shell.

"I don't want to tell anyone about this. Can't I just stay here for a few days until I can find somewhere else or something?"

"Chris... " Jay sighed. "No, of course you can't."

"Why not?"

"You need to face what's happened," I spoke softly. "I'm proud of you for making this first step, but you're not done yet."

She still looked stubbornly committed, so I was forced to try again.

"Chris, if your... parents or whoever come looking for you, it won't look good for you to be living here with Jay. It could actually get him in a bunch of trouble."

I could see that that comment hit home. She blinked, and then settled her face into a nervous scowl.

"They won't come looking for me," she insisted, shaking her head emphatically.

"Do you really think that, Chris? Or do you just not *want* them to come looking?" Jay asked gently.

"I... " she glanced nervously between the two of us.

Jay reached over and placed a hand on her knee. "Just tell us who it is that you ran away from, Chris."

"My stepdad," she finally confessed, barely above a whisper. "Mom got married to him like a few months ago even though I *knew* before that that he was a creep. But Mom wouldn't listen to me. He's got money and we've always had a hard time... You know, Mom doesn't make very much money and she always... Well, there are some things she spends a lot of money on."

Judging by Chris' nervous glance in my direction, I guessed her mom was involved in something she didn't want me knowing about. Drugs, maybe? It didn't really matter, though. I think I had gotten a pretty clear idea of how things were at home for Chris.

"Tonight was really bad, though," Chris continued. "Craig drinks a lot sometimes, and he missed work today for the third time this week. Mom was getting mad because he's going to lose his job, and then we'll all have to live off what Mom makes. And then Craig got mad right back at her and said that *we* had been living off *his* money for a long time and he never complained." Tears were starting to leak out, and I felt my own eyes clouding up. How long had she been listening to stuff like this? "And then he turned to me and was just saying everything he always says. How I'm stupid at school and useless around the house. He didn't hit me, though," she said with pride. "You taught me a lot of good stuff, Jay."

Jay looked like he was trying to say something, but all he could get through was a weak nod.

"But anyway, I knew things would only get worse," Chris continued. "I'm pretty good against him when he's drunk, but he's really strong when he sobers up."

"Chris, you need to go to the police with this," I urged, unable to hear any more at the moment. "They can get help for you. But none of that will happen if you don't tell someone."

Chris bit her lip, and glanced over at Jay.

"El- uh, Nebula's right, Chris," Jay told her. "You need to tell the police what's happening. They'll look after you in a way that I can't."

She still hesitated.

"If we tell the police, they can get help for your mom, too," Jay told her.

"What kind of help?" she asked warily.

"Probably counseling to start," Jay replied. "They'll get her the help she needs to conquer anything that may be keeping her from taking care of you like she should."

"Would I have to be in a trial like with a judge and everything?"

"Not like a big trial you would see on TV," I stepped in. "You would have to tell a few different people all the things that happened. And it would depend on the circumstance, but there might be a judge present."

Chris balked at that idea. "I don't want to get my mom in trouble," she said.

"You wouldn't," Jay told her with confidence. "As long as you tell them the truth, everything will be fine, I promise."

"Okay," she finally surrendered. "I'll tell the police about it."

Jay and I both breathed a sigh of relief.

"How about I fly you over to the nearest station?" I offered. "Have you ever flown with someone in my family before?"

"No," she told me, shaking her head shyly.

"Well, it's something to experience for sure," I said with confidence. I glanced over at Jay, and he smiled in approval.

"Keep the blanket for now," Jay told Chris. "It'll get cold flying out there."

"You're coming with me, right, Jay?' Chris asked suddenly.

"Well... "

"I'll drop you off at the station, and then come back to get Jay. Does that sound okay, Chris?"

She nodded in agreement.

After some brief planning, Chris and I were in the air, heading toward the police station.

"I know an officer at this precinct," I told Chris. "She's very good, and she'll help you in every way possible."

"Thanks."

"Chris, before we go in there, I need to ask you a favor," I started hesitantly.

"What?" she asked with curiosity.

"Not a lot of people know that I sometimes visit Jay," I said carefully. "And if people were to know, then that could put Jay in danger."

"Oh."

"Now, I'm not asking you to lie," I told her. "But I am asking you to not go around telling everyone that Jay sometimes helps me out with some of the neighborhood watch things going around in the area."

"So you two really are friends, then?"

"We're more like acquaintances," I corrected. "Who sometimes collaborate together on certain projects." More or less. Anyway, Chris seemed to buy it, because she didn't ask for any more detail. She probably had enough to think about tonight as it was.

It didn't take us long to reach the police station, and I placed Chris in the care of Officer Ramirez before I left to go get Jay.

I had hardly landed in his apartment before Jay lifted me off my feet, and spun me around, kissing me all the while.

"Well, someone's happy to see me," I smiled once I had pried my lips off his.

"You have no idea," He replied. "But do you realize that the first night we've ever had with the opportunity to explore a... certain aspect of our relationship is going to be spent in a police station? If that isn't cosmic cruelty, I don't know what is."

"You wouldn't want it to be any different," I told him softly.

His face sobered. "I'm so proud of her, Ellie," he said. "She's lived for months with that monster, and knowing that she's finally broken free has just made this night so much better."

I felt better, too. Although the day had been filled with awful images of that mudslide, the time I had spent with Jay had rejuvenated me, and being able to help Chris had strengthened me.

"Let's get you to the police station." I was ready to tackle this one last hurdle before the night could truly be over.

I stepped toward Jay, and stretched my arms around him. My head rested on his chest, and I happily felt the warmth of his skin through the shirt he wore. I could stand like this forever, I decided.

"Um... Ellie?"

"Yeah?" I asked, jerking my head away.

"Aren't we supposed to be flying to the police station?"

"Right. Sorry," I mumbled with embarrassment.

"I was doing the same thing," Jay told me with a smile. "But then I realized that the sooner we leave for the station... "

"The sooner we get done, and the sooner we can get back to this," I finished.

"Exactly."

***

*~Jay~*

Never had police procedure seemed so onerous. Chris had refused to speak to Officer Ramirez until I got there, and after that I was asked to give an official statement of all the injuries I had noticed Chris suffer during the time I knew her, along with anything else I had observed. Then we had to wait for Child Services to come and do everything all over again.

Ellie was there as much as she could be, but a police station isn't exactly the best place for a superhero to go if she wants to be left alone. She was in and out several times as she was constantly called on for assistance.

Needless to say, it was quite late before we were able to say goodbye to Chris. She was being taken to an emergency shelter for the night, but they were actively looking for a better placement for her. With Nebula taking a personal interest in Chris' welfare, I trusted that she would end up in a good situation. More importantly, the police were going to pay a visit on Chris' mom and stepdad and try to get her mom some help. Maybe they could even reach the stepdad somehow.

Ellie didn't speak as we took off, and she continued the silence throughout the flight. I didn't break it either. Her eyes remained focused on her task, and her arms tightly circled my torso as we flew. I couldn't be sure, but it seemed like she flew a lot faster than she had on the way to the police station. She seemed to be under a lot of tension for some reason, but I wasn't sure why.

Was she nervous about what was going to happen once we got back? Sure, she seemed confident enough earlier, but now she had had hours to work herself up. I was pretty sure I had been clear about my not expecting anything, but she still might not entirely get it. I had to remember that I was technically the experienced person here, although I didn't really feel it right now.

To my surprise, Ellie took us to her little house on the edge of town, and not back to my apartment. I guess it didn't really matter where we were, but I did wonder at her decision. Was she just trying to feel more comfortable? If so, did that mean she didn't feel comfortable now?

We landed in her kitchen like always, and just when I was about to open my mouth and have a good talk with her about expectations, she launched herself at me.

Out of impulse, I caught her in my arms as she nearly sucked the soul out of me in one mind-blowing kiss.

"That," she finally said, "was the hardest night of my life. Do you know how much effort it took to keep from jumping you in the middle of the station?"

"Well, that would've made quite a scene," I chuckled. "Ellie, I just want to say again that there's no pressure for tonight." Despite her kiss just now, I still wanted to stick to my plan. "I only want to go as far as you're comfortable with."

"Jay," she said evenly, "you're an idiot."

"Uh, okay."

"A loveable idiot, sure, but still an idiot."

She seemed completely at ease now, which I was glad for, yet there was something I still needed to ask her.

"Ellie, why did we come to your place?" I asked. "Not that I mind or anything, but I'm just curious."

To my surprise, she flushed tomato red, and dropped her gaze to the floor, taking a step back. She mumbled something I couldn't hear.

"What was that?" I asked.

"I have... " she paused to look meaningfully at me. "You know... "

"You have... what?"

"I have condoms here, okay?" she finally burst out. "I wasn't sure if you would have any at your place, and I figured this might be a good way to cut down on time. Of course I didn't count on having to explain that to you," she added, rolling her eyes a little.

"You have condoms?" I was still trying to process that.

She turned even redder. "I bought them a while ago," she muttered. "Some kind of positive-thinking strategy, I guess. Like if I had them in my house, we would eventually be able to use them."

"Well, I guess it worked," I grinned. I didn't know she had even thought that far in advance.

"So... how about we pick up from where we left off?" she suggested huskily.

We were lost in a blur of new sensation. Touches that we had never felt in quite that way before exploded over all parts of our bodies. Was it just my imagination, or did everything seem so much better than the few encounters we had had very early in our relationship? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact we were now sharing in Ellie's aura. I had shut out practically every other sense, and left everything to exploring Ellie. Things were starting to get a little intense to be standing in the middle of the kitchen, so we wordlessly began making our way blindly to another location.

That's when we tripped, and Ellie fell backwards into the fridge. I landed half on top of her, and half on the floor beside her. It was a cruel way to be yanked out of bliss, and I struggled to bring myself back to reality.

"Ellie, are you okay?" I asked frantically as I sat up.

"Duh, of course I am, Jay," she replied sitting up. Her head had dented the fridge slightly, but the damage didn't seem too bad.

"Right," I replied sheepishly. "Sorry, I forgot."

"I think the real question," she said, "is whether or not you're okay."

"Never better," I replied, grinning like an idiot. I couldn't even feel where my knees should be bruised from the hard fall. If anything, this minor accident was proof of what we had accomplished.

Ellie grinned in reply, and moved in to kiss me again.

"Wait, Ellie," I demanded before she could wipe all sense out of me again. "I was just... thinking."

"Bad idea, Jay."

"No, I was wondering if... Well, this isn't my first time, but it is yours, and I was wondering if you wanted to make it more special somehow. Like if we waited maybe? Like until engagement or something? Or even just until a really special day?"

"Jay, here is what's going to happen," Ellie explained patiently. "Either you are going to pick me up and drag me into my bedroom right now so we can find out exactly what we've been missing out on all these months, or I'll be the one doing the dragging. Now, I don't know about you, but I would really prefer the first option."

"Okay," I replied meekly.

I guess that showed me.

***

Chapter Twenty-three

*~Jay~*

Ellie was a genuine sleeping beauty. Her hair had been loosened from the tight Nebula style, and it now fell around her face in loose curls. Her mouth hung open slightly as her face was pressed against my chest. In the still of the room, I could hear her gentle breaths, and feel the surge of warmth against my skin with each exhalation.

I drank in her essence, just lying in bed beside her. It was rare that I was able to just lie in bed and relax, so I was going to make the most of this.

An hour passed peacefully as I shared the bed with Ellie.

Truth be told, I could use the extra rest. I hadn't really had much sleep last night. We had been... busy with other things. I think we had both felt a little anxious about our first time together. And no matter my previous experience, it was still different when it came to Ellie. Everything was different when it came to Ellie. Of course, our little anxieties were completely unfounded, just like I had expected. Last night had been perfect in every way imaginable.

Another hour began to crawl by. Okay, not everyone was a morning person like me, but she didn't really *need* this much sleep, did she?

Despite my impatience, I didn't want to wake her. She had had a tough day yesterday, and she probably did need the rest. I traced my finger around the frame of her face, keeping my touch feather-light. She looked so relaxed right now. There was no way I could disturb her.

The clock continued to crawl.

I jiggled my leg impatiently. There was only so much inactivity I could take, and I yearned to get up and do something. Yet I didn't want to ruin the atmosphere. I was kind of hoping that we could wake up together. Thinking back to my previous 'morning after's, it would be nice to have one that didn't include running to check the security camera to see if there were any breaks in the case, or crawling out the window so her dad wouldn't know I had been there.

But I *couldn't* stay here any more. My body was crying for some kind of activity. Was there some other kind of alternative?

Then, it came to me.

Making breakfast would be perfect. And while I didn't think caffeine actually effected Ellie, she always seemed to enjoy coffee at all times of the day. And maybe the smell of cooking would bring her out of her sleep without jarring her. Making my decision, I tried to gently roll Ellie over so I could get out of bed.

It didn't work. Once again, I pushed against her.

Nothing.

I sighed in exasperation. In any other circumstance, this would be pretty embarrassing. As it was, I found it mildly entertaining.

Ellie had mentioned before that she had a dense molecular structure, but I hadn't noticed any extra weight before. But I supposed that Ellie would be considerably heavier as a dead weight. And maybe she had been helping me out in the past, and not telling me. Putting in some extra effort, I finally shoved her over and managed to crawl out of bed.

She slept on, of course. Only pausing to throw on some shorts and a T-shirt, I made my way to the kitchen.

***

*~Ellie~*

I woke to the heartwarming sound of banging cupboards and muttered swear words. It sounded like Jay was having some problems in the kitchen. The space beside me was empty, but I could still smell Jay's scent on them, and feel a bit of the warmth left over.

I rolled over and checked my alarm clock. The time was 9:07. Poor Jay. He always said he never slept in much past seven or so. He must've been awake for a while.

As for me, I had happily slept all this time. And, sure, some of that was probably from the mudslide yesterday, but most of my fatigue had come from what happened later in the night. It was unbelievable the experience we had shared. That sense of unity was unlike anything I had ever felt before. And maybe my inexperience had shown a little the first time, but it had been a pretty busy night, and I think I was well on my way to becoming a pro.

Another bang and another curse word came from the kitchen. I stifled a giggle. I should probably go help him out with whatever he was trying to do. I pulled myself up, and realized that I wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing.

No, scratch that. I was wearing one sock.

Weird.

An image flashed in my head of me going into that kitchen wrapped in my bed sheet. Or maybe with just the sock. That would certainly get Jay's mind off his frustration. But I didn't quite have the courage to do that. Yet. Instead, I quickly pulled on some pajamas as I left the room.

I fought sudden nerves as I padded to the kitchen. I wasn't really sure how things would be between us now. It would be foolish to assume that nothing would change, but at the same time, the core of our relationship shouldn't be any different, right? Would we act any differently?

Any doubts I had were forgotten as soon as I rounded the corner.

Jay was in the kitchen, looking seriously flustered. His hair was mussed, both from sleep and from running his hands through it in frustration. He slammed the door of the oven shut as I came into the room.

"Someone looks harassed," I grinned, although my mouth soon distorted into a yawn. I was still a little groggy.

"What is wrong with your kitchen?" he demanded.

"Nothing's wrong with it," I replied defensively.

"Nothing works!" he exclaimed. "The stove is completely nonfunctional, the toaster only toasts one side, and then it doesn't even pop up after that, I can't find a kettle for the life of me, and I don't know how us mere mortals are supposed to heat things up because you don't even own a microwave."

"The stove does work," I told him, although I wasn't ready to comment on the state of the rest of my appliances. "Well, sort of. The back left burner is good, and the front right one will go up to about the medium setting before shutting off completely. And the oven works too but you usually have to push the buttons really hard to make it go."

"Well, I guess this dinosaur just gave up under all that complication," Jay replied. "Because right now it's not doing anything. The time's not even on it."

I walked over to investigate. He hadn't been lying. "Oh, right!" I remembered. "I unplugged it last week when I pulled it out to clean behind it."

"And of course you haven't used it since," Jay finished, rolling his eye a little.

"Well, why would I?" I asked. "Sure, I cook and everything, but I always take shortcuts whenever I can. Appliances take too long. Here, I'll lift the stove up and move it while you get in behind to plug it in again, okay?" I crouched down and grabbed hold of the stove, smothering a yawn.

"This thing is ancient," Jay complained as he reached around behind to get at the plug.

"One of the reasons why rent's pretty cheap here," I replied. "It doesn't make much difference to me, and I definitely make use of the cut in my expenses."

"Okay, I've got it," Jay told me, moving out of the way.

I placed the stove back in its spot, and stood up, stretching. I caught Jay's eyes following my movement, and I flushed slightly. His look brought back a lot of memories from last night.

"Good morning," I greeted shyly.

"Morning," he replied.

We shared a sweet kiss together, which ended in a tender embrace. More of a familiar comfort than anything like last night. Obviously, there was no awkwardness between us for me to be worried about. We had only gotten closer. I took in his familiar smell, once again thankful for the heightened senses I had that allowed me to experience things more fully.

But I didn't need heightened senses to detect one change from last night.

"You put a shirt on," I complained.

"Habit, I guess," he shrugged.

"Is it because of... ?" I traced my hand across his shoulders, remembering the fine network of lines I had discovered there last night. They wouldn't have been noticeable to anyone else in the dark, but I had seen them, although I didn't comment on them at the time.

Jay stiffened a little at my touch, although he softened quickly. "You saw those, did you?" he asked.

I nodded.

"They're not very noticeable. To the average person, that is," he amended. "But I usually wear a shirt just as a precaution. Scars are pretty solid markers for identity."

"How did you get them?" I asked softly.

"Car accident," he said shortly. "I was turned around in my seat, and the windshield shattered."

"Is that the real story or the fake one?" I probed.

"It's both," he told me. "But in the fake story, I don't tell people about the high-speed chase that occurred just beforehand."

"That might give the game away," I conceded jokingly. But I sobered quickly, not yet willing to drop the topic. "I'm sorry you had to go through that, Jay."

"It's not the worst experience I've lived through," he shrugged. "I came out on top that time."

"From what I saw last night, that's how you like it," I said wickedly.

Jay's mouth fell open, and I had to fight to keep the shock out of my face. Had I really just said that?

"What on earth has happened to you, Ellie Kent?" Jay asked with a grin, recovered from my comment.

"I've been corrupted," I replied happily. "Some smooth talking martial arts sculptor guy has taken away my last bit of innocence." I moved in to kiss him, but he pushed me back.

"I was going to make you breakfast," he told me. But I suspected his heart wasn't really into it anymore.

"Are you hungry?" I asked him.

"No, not really."

"I can live without food, Jay," I told him. "But do you know what I can't live without?"

"What?"

"You."

***

Aunt Lucy found me hunched over in the lab pouring over test results.

"Ellie, you have to stop obsessing about this," she said gently. "You're not going to help the situation any."

"The situation is solved, actually," I replied absently, still concentrating.

"It is? Ellie, that's fantastic!"

I turned around to face her obvious excitement.

"It is, isn't it?" I spoke. A happy grin stretched across my face.

"And you didn't even tell me," she chided, drawing up a stool.

"We only figured it out a couple days ago," I defended.

"So that means you were able to... " she trailed off suggestively.

"What?" I asked blankly.

"Uh, never mind," she said, backing off. "Obviously it wasn't a problem."

"No, seriously, what is it, Aunt Lucy?"

"Well, you know we had talked about it once before... It being your first time and all and whether or not it would be possible for you two to be... "

"Oh. That."

"Yes. That."

"It wasn't a problem at all," I replied with a shrug. "Truth be told, I wasn't even thinking of it at the time."

"So I guess my theory was right, then," she said confidently. "Jay was inside your aura, and so while you retained your outward invulnerability, you were still sensitive to anything within your field."

"Yeah, that does sound right," I agreed. "And I'm glad to hear it. The only other option would have been an intentional exposure to Kryptonite."

"And I'm so glad we don't have to go that route. Could you imagine me having to explain that to your dad?"

"I don't want to," I replied, wincing at the idea. I loved my dad and all, but there were some things he didn't have to know.

"So when you called in yesterday and asked for another day off to recover from that mud slide... " Aunt Lucy winked secretively at me.

"Well, I did need some rest," I mumbled embarrassedly.

"Uh-huh. I bet."

"Aunt Lucy!" I protested, my face flaming.

"Sorry. I really am happy for you, Ellie," she spoke, reaching over to hug me tightly.

"Thanks," I replied grudgingly.

"So what are you doing still looking at all this?" she asked.

"Well, we know that the problem has been solved," I told her. "But I'm not completely satisfied with the data I have. I don't know if there was something specific that triggered the change, or when it occurred. And for that matter, what even caused it in the first place."

"Ellie, it's solved now, whatever the problem. Why worry about it any longer?"

"Because what if there's someone in the future who has the same problem? It would be nice to have a solution for them."

"I don't think there would be one flat solution for this," Aunt Lucy said softly. "It would vary from case to case."

"But why was it me that it happened to?" I demanded. "Why not Dad or Jon?"

"Well, I suppose you could speculate about genetics or gender or any number of things," Aunt Lucy told me. "But personally, I think it has to do with the situation."

"How so?"

"Well, take your parents, for example. They knew each other for nearly two years before they started dating. That had given them lots of opportunity to grow close to each other before they attempted anything like what you and Jay were having trouble with."

"Mom always said that things never really got that serious until she knew about Dad's identity," I remembered.

"Right. So they had already been close to each other, and built up that bond before things got too physically involved."

"Well, Jon and Kaylie didn't wait that long," I protested. "They've only known each other for just over a year."

"Well, I can't speak for them," Aunt Lucy shrugged. "But you can speak for yourself. When you first started encountering those problems with physical contact all those months ago, did you think you were maybe pushing things beyond what you were ready for?"

I paused for a moment, considering. "Maybe," I confessed. "So you think that's it? Just a matter of no sex until you know the person well enough?"

"Well, I think that's certainly part of it," Aunt Lucy said. "But there's also your unique situation to consider."

"Which is?"

"Well, there's your personality, for one. Jon can be as methodical as Clark, but you're quite impulsive at times. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, Ellie," she rushed to assure. "But it's just something to consider. You're more likely to push for something even if you're not ready."

"Yeah, I suppose."

Jon did have a tendency to be a stick-in-the-mud.

"And also there's the whole concept of the secret identity to take into consideration," Aunt Lucy continued. "Clark and Jon had to make a conscious choice to trust Lois and Kaylie. You never had that choice."

"Jay knew about me before we even met," I completed. "You know, I'm kind of glad it worked out so I didn't have to deal with the big confession. That whole business seems to come with way too much angst. Of course," I continued after a pause, "it's not like Jay and I didn't have any problems."

"That's for sure," Aunt Lucy agreed.

Then Uncle Brad came into the lab, hardly looking up from his clipboard. "Ellie, can I get that data from those field tests from you? I need them to update the reports."

"Brad, Ellie's got something to tell you," Aunt Lucy intercepted.

"What's that?" Uncle Brad finally looked up at us.

"Well, let's just say you won't have to worry about me using up time to work on the power-control thing. Jay and I finally managed to work through it." Talking with Aunt Lucy was one thing, but announcing that I was no longer a virgin to Uncle Brad required a little more tact.

"Hey, that's great, Ellie," he congratulated me. "Do you know what specifically--"

"She's not worrying about that right now," Aunt Lucy interjected. "She's just going to concentrate on spending time with her boyfriend."

"Right," Uncle Brad agreed under the pressure of Aunt Lucy's intense stare. "That, uh... Sounds like a good idea."

"You guys and your data," Aunt Lucy admonished. "For one thing, one person isn't enough to draw any conclusive evidence. And for another, what's so wrong about just living life every now and then and not worrying about lab results?"

"I couldn't agree more," came a voice from the main entrance.

"Jay!" I exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"I had a break between classes and decided to pay you a visit," he replied happily. "Got time for coffee?"

"Well, I was supposed to go over some research with--"

"Go," Uncle Brad told me. "We can go over it later."

"Thanks Uncle Brad." I gave him a quick hug.

"Just so you know, there's an empty office on the third floor," Aunt Lucy whispered in my ear. "Room 307. In case you don't want to go all the way home."

"Uh, thanks, Aunt Lucy," I replied, cheeks burning.

I didn't know which was more embarrassing. The fact that she was recommending spots for us, or the fact that she even knew about them in the first place. But I wasn't about to dwell on that now. I was going to go spend some more quality time with my boyfriend.

***

Chapter Twenty-four

*~Jay~*

I didn't need super hearing to detect Kaylie's approach as she stomped down the hall to my door. I just had time to flip the lock and swing the door open before she stormed through, throwing a package in the general direction of the sofa. She entered my kitchen and began helping herself to the coffee I had prepared. She hadn't said a word.

"What's wrong?" I asked her sensitively.

"Read it for yourself," she grouched, snatching a mug from the cupboard.

I reached down, and opened the package, finding a stack of wedding invitations inside. I hadn't even read past the first line before my lips began to twitch.

"Jonathan Kent and *Kyle* Stewart?"

"It's *not* funny," she snapped sourly.

"Yeah, it is," I countered.

The look she gave me was enough to make me back off, although just a little. "So they made a typo," I shrugged.

"It's more than just a typo!" she exploded. "They screwed up nearly a hundred invitations! Do you realize how difficult it's going to be to get these printed off in time so they can be sent out? The company has a waiting list a mile long. At this rate, Jon and I won't be getting married until 2050!"

"The company should reprint them for free," I told her. "And even if they can't get them reprinted in time for some reason, you could just send them electronically," I shrugged.

A look of desperate hope came over her face. "Are you allowed to do that for a wedding?" she asked. "Isn't that supposed to be really tacky or something?"

"Kaylie, since when do you care about societal conventions?" I asked. "It's your wedding. Who cares whether or not people think it's tacky."

She sank into a chair, groaning loudly and exhaustively. Her head hung down and rested on her hands. I finished getting her coffee ready for her, and set it before her silently. Then I settled myself in the chair beside her at the table. It wasn't long before she sat up and took a woeful sip of her drink.

"Sorry for freaking out," she apologized. She was much calmer than she had been when she first came in, although she still looked a little frazzled.

"I imagine it's pretty stressful for you right now," I replied.

"Ugh, you have no idea. It's enough work just doing everything once, but it seems that everything I do gets undone somehow. Like the whole world is conspiring against my marriage."

"You know, I was kind of surprised that you two decided to have a more traditional wedding," I mentioned. "I didn't think that was your kind of thing."

"I figured I could be normal for once in my life," Kaylie shrugged. "And you only get married once, so you might as well make it count."

"Well, even though it's a lot of work, I imagine it'll be worth it in the end."

"I'm starting to have doubts," Kaylie remarked dryly. "Sometimes I think the whole thing would be better if we just ran off and got married on some Caribbean island or something."

"Really?"

"Yeah. But then I remember everyone here in Metropolis. You know, the wedding isn't just for us. It's for friends and family, too. And eloping would cut a lot of people out of the experience."

"Hey, I wouldn't mind if you guys flew off to the tropics," I told her. "I say go right ahead. Anything to make it easier for you, right?"

"You would do anything to make it easier, wouldn't you?" she asked, suddenly sly.

"Um, yeah," I replied warily.

"Including hiding what Dad's plans are with the Kent family?"

I winced. "You found out about that, did you?"

"Yeah, I did, Jay. No thanks to you," she pointed out, becoming more upset.

"Look, I just thought that you wouldn't want to deal with it on top of all the wedding stuff."

"Well, you thought wrong," she replied snappily. "This is important, and it really hurts me that you shut me out of it, Jay."

It was at times like this that I really noticed how Kaylie had changed since she met Jon. In the past, she had a tendency to keep her personal hurts and disappointments to herself. Now, she wasn't afraid to let me know when I had let her down. Although it sometimes made life more difficult for me, I was glad that Kaylie didn't hide her feelings anymore.

"I'm sorry," I apologized sincerely. "Honestly, Kaylie, I didn't mean to shut you out. Ellie was the only person I told. Lois and Clark found out from Uncle Jack, and I assume they're the ones who told you?"

She nodded.

"I think I've been maybe putting off telling anyone," I confided in her. "I have no idea how to deal with this. Dad definitely knows that something's not as it appears. And you know him. There's no way we can convince him otherwise, especially since he happens to be right."

"So what's Uncle Jack doing?" Kaylie asked.

"He's trying to lead Dad off on the wrong path," I replied. "The Kents aren't sure if Jack actually knows the truth or not, but I think he probably knows enough to distract Dad. As far as I know, Dad still thinks the Kents are spies of some kind."

"The only thing that would convince Dad otherwise would be if he decided against his conclusion after observing the Kents more," Kaylie hypothesized. "And more observation is only going to lead him closer to the right answer. Dad's impossible to fool, especially when you're dealing with people as straight as the Kents."

"All of this stuff with Jack is only temporary," I told Kaylie. "Uncle Jack can't distract Dad forever."

"Well, maybe Dad will lose interest if he doesn't uncover anything," Kaylie spoke wishfully. Our eyes met across the table, both of us thinking the same thing. "Yeah, okay, a snowball's chance in hell," she grumbled. "So what do we do for long term?"

"Well, your wedding is really the only time Dad's going to be seeing the Kents in the foreseeable future," I shrugged. "Dad's never shown much interest in our personal lives before, and I doubt he's going to be talking to me at all since I threw him out of my apartment a few months ago. Maybe once the wedding is over, we won't have to worry about it as much. I don't think Dad will be able to find much new information given what he knows and what he suspects. We can just leave him to his obsession."

"Great," Kaylie groaned. "More stress to add to that day."

"I'll try to help as much as I can," I offered apologetically. "I'm not sure how much use I'll be if Dad refuses to talk to me, but I'll run all the interference I can."

"Thanks."

"Well, I have to be good for something, don't I? I'm not in the wedding party, so I guess I'll have to be useful elsewhere."

Kaylie rolled her eyes. "Stop whining about that, would you? Apparently, Jon and Alex made a best man pact in college, and that's one area of the wedding that we are keeping simple. Having a huge wedding party only adds extra complications and expense."

"Yeah, but I'm the future brother-in-law. You'd think I'd get priority over a silly cousin who's off living in Brazil anyway."

Kaylie groaned. "I'm getting more coffee," she announced. "And then you can prove your usefulness by helping me with the seating chart for the reception."

***

Mom's voice was always nice to listen to when we were reading stories. Dad only read to us sometimes, and even when he did, it was really boring. He went really slow and I couldn't see the pictures very well.

But Mom was a really good reader, and I liked it when she read to us, even though I was getting to be pretty good, too.

"I want to read this one next!" Kaylie said when Mom finished the book. I couldn't read the whole title, but I saw the word 'princess' on the cover.

"You got to pick the last one," I complained. "I don't want to read *another* princess story."

"Well, I don't want to read another dinosaur story," Kaylie whined.

"It's Jason's turn to pick the story now, Kaylie," Mom said. "Remember, that's how it works. But let's see if he can find a story that we'd all like to read."

"Mom, are you going to keep reading to us all day?" Kaylie asked. She was really happy, and I was, too. Mom wasn't spending as much time with us as she usually did because she was taking a lot of naps. But today, she looked a lot better. Maybe she was done being sick.

"I'll read to you for as long as you want," Mom told us. "But I have some other things planned that we can do today, too."

"Like what?" I asked.

"It's a surprise," she told us. "You'll find out soon enough. But for now, how about you pick out another book?"

I went to go pick out the book. Today looked like it was going to be a fun day. Things were always a lot better when Mom was healthy.

***

Leigh Watson's headstone was not the most memorable one in the cemetery. It almost got lost amid the rows and rows of markers that blended together. It made me upset, almost, to see how well it settled into the background.

This one mattered so much more than any of the others. This one carried more weight, more emotion, more tragedy than any other death in this field.

Of course, reason told me my feelings were irrational. Yes, her death mattered to me, but to everyone else she was just another name. Even I felt a little disconnected from the grave. The name I used now wasn't even connected to this woman. The person who was her son was so completely different from the person I'd become.

Ellie squeezed my hand tightly, and I tore my eyes away from the stone to look at her.

"This is her?" she asked quietly.

"Yeah."

She nodded, and relapsed into silence, letting me sink back into the realm of childhood memories. It had been so long since I had let myself think about them.

"For the longest time, I didn't believe that she was gone for forever," I confided.

"Really?"

"Yeah. Well, maybe it was that I didn't understand. Can a six year-old really understand what forever means?" I asked rhetorically. "You know, she used to make cookies with us. That's one of those mom things to do, right? But of course we made it hard for her. I wanted to make peanut butter, and Kaylie would insist on chocolate chip. We were little terrors, most of the time," I shared. "Always competing for attention and approval. But somehow, she managed to balance the two of us. We each felt equal with her.

"I think I spent nearly all day in the kitchen the day after the funeral. I don't really know why. She had been in the hospital for weeks before that. It wasn't like she was just going to pop out of the cabinet or something."

"But you felt her there, didn't you?" Ellie asked. "Her presence, somehow."

"Yeah, I think I did," I realized. "Maybe I was too confused to think along those lines, but think that's what I was doing."

"She sounds amazing," Ellie told me softly.

"Yeah," I agreed. "She was. She would've liked you, you know. Well, maybe I can't really know that for certain. I was so young when she died, I didn't think of her much beyond her role as my mom. But I think she would've seen how happy you make me, and that's all she ever wanted for me."

Ellie smiled up at me.

"Oh, and there's another thing she would've liked about you," I added.

"What?" Ellie asked.

"Our house was always in chaos when she was there. She said she hated when people's houses were meticulously kept. My dad didn't like it, but every home had to have a little clutter, according to her."

"Now I know for sure that she's amazing," Ellie grinned.

I remembered the way our house was all those years ago. Something was always going on. Every day, there was a new idea, a different activity, an incredible adventure. But once she was gone, the house was empty. Dad had always been gone for long stretches of time due to work, and those stretches only grew after Mom died. We had nannies to take care of us, of course, but they never measured up to the love Mom had shown us.

"You know, we're just a few miles from where I grew up," I told Ellie. "Well, for the most part, anyway. We moved around a lot, especially when we got older, but we stayed in D.C. until Kaylie and I were thirteen."

"Is there anyone you want to visit?" Ellie asked me.

"No," I shook my head. "It's been too long. And besides, 'Jason Watson' doesn't even exist anymore."

Ellie nodded.

A lot had probably changed since I had been here. And I wasn't sure how much of it I would even remember. It had been a long time.

Even the memory of my mom had grown dim with time. If she were walking down the street today, would I even recognize her?

I remembered her soft brown hair, and her lightly freckled skin. She always wore rings on her delicately manicured fingers. Those hands were the only hint of vanity anyone would find in her. The rest was all kindness and generosity. Kaylie had one of those rings now, as far as I recalled.

The rest of her was blurred. Blank, even, in some parts. And no matter how hard I tried to focus in on her, there was nothing for me to see.

I didn't have any pictures of her. Dad still managed to keep a couple throughout our constant moves, but I hadn't had any personal belongings during the time I worked for the NIA, and any pictures I had owned went to him.

And there was no way I was going to ask him for anything.

Ellie squeezed my hand again, and I focused my attention back on her.

"I'm going to go for a bit of a walk, okay?" she said. "I'll meet up with you when you're ready."

"Thanks," I told her. I was glad for Ellie's support, but having some quiet time alone would be nice too.

She walked down toward the line of trees, and left me alone to my thoughts. I knelt in front of the grave, and placed the bouquet of flowers I had brought. I hadn't purchased them at the florist's. Ellie and I had flown out to pick them together. Mom really would have like Ellie, I decided. They had the same generous, compassionate nature.

Although Ellie had gone, I was not left alone for long. It was only a few minutes later before I heard footsteps muffled by grass come up behind me. I only saw the figure out of the corner of my eye, but that was enough for me to recognize him.

Had Ellie known that he was coming? She seemed to understand my feelings toward my father, but I think she was still hoping for some form of reconciliation. Which, of course, was not going to happen.

"What are you doing here?" I asked stonily.

"I could ask you the same thing," he replied mildly. "I didn't know you were in D.C."

"Yeah, well I sure as hell didn't come to see you."

He sighed. "Yes," he replied. "I know."

His defeated tone surprised me, and I turned to look at him.

He looked tired. And for the first time I could remember, he looked old. A small bouquet was clutched in his left hand. After twenty years, he still wore his wedding ring.

My father knelt in front of the grave, and tenderly placed the flowers in front of it. Then he straightened, and resumed his perfect posture, hands clasped rigidly behind his back.

"I miss her every day," he spoke into the silence. "I come out here as often as I can."

I ignored him. Why should I care what he did?

"How long are you in town for?" he asked.

"I drove up with Ellie," I fudged. It was close enough to the truth. "We're not staying any longer, though."

Dad adjusted his stance. "Would you have time to let me take you for lunch?"

My eyebrows shot up as I crossed my arms in front of me defensively. "Are you kidding, Dad? Of course we're not going to go for lunch with you. You're investigating Ellie's family!"

"I'm doing it for your safety," he told me roughly. "And for Kaylie's."

"No, you're not. You're doing it because you can't stand the fact that Kaylie and I could actually be happy without you breathing down our necks and controlling everything little thing that we do." It felt so good to finally call him out on his behavior.

Of course, he was far from impressed. He squared his shoulders, and crossed his arms in front of his chest, mimicking my earlier gesture.

"Everything I've done for you has been for your own good," he insisted. "You may not have realized it at the time, but everything I did was for you."

"Right, so the constant moves were just to keep us safe and away from danger, then?"

"Yes!"

"Well, that danger wouldn't have even existed if you weren't so completely absorbed in work to the point where it spilled into our family," I snapped back.

Dad's face boiled, and his hands tightened. "Jason," he growled menacingly. But he was too angry to even complete his sentence.

"I don't even want to go into this anymore," I told him. "Let's just sum it up and say that everything you've ever done to me has been negative. You've pulled me down one criticism at a time, but I've moved past all that. And so has Kaylie, even if she's still technically working for you. I've come here to pay my respects to the one parent who actually loved me for who I was, and not to deal with you," I told him with finality. "Oh, and another thing: Leave the Kents alone," I commanded. "They don't deserve your crap."

I turned my back to him, and faced the grave again. He stood there for a moment, but then finally turned to leave. I resisted the temptation to look, but I followed his every step until he was far away.

***

*~Ellie~*

I hadn't seen Jay's father coming until I had already walked away. By then, I figured it might be better for them to just meet up rather than me running over to tell Jay. I watched the exchange from afar, but didn't listen in. When Jay's dad started heading in my direction, I was tempted to leave so I wouldn't have to deal with him, but something stopped me.

He looked so shaken. More fragile than I could ever imagine. He headed directly to his car, and placed his hands on the trunk, hanging his head down. I stood there, watching him silently from the trees, until my shifting foot cracked a branch. His head snapped up immediately and my feet froze to the ground.

"Hi," I breathed afraid to do anything else.

He straightened up, and squared his shoulders. The effort it cost him to do that seemed monumental, and the mask he slipped on had cracks in it I hadn't seen the last time I met him.

"It's you," he said blankly. "Ellie." The nickname still formed in his mouth awkwardly, but surprisingly, there was a bare hint of a smile in the corner of his mouth. As if he realized his discomfort, but was still willing to address me as I requested.

"Mr. Stewart," I nodded.

He barked a hoarse laugh. "You must know that's not my real name. You're here, with Jason, and you have to know the reason why you're here."

"Stewart is the only name I know for you, sir," I shrugged. "If I were to call you something else, that would raise all kinds of questions about Jay and Kaylie. And besides, I haven't told you my legal name, so maybe we're even." I felt courageous, making that cheeky comment, but he didn't seem upset by it.

"You're a smart woman, Ellie," he told me.

"Thank you," I replied.

His eyes still looked so bleak.

"Are you okay, Mr. Stewart?" I asked, not able to resist any more. I dared to take a step closer.

"My wife is dead," he replied coldly. "There is nothing to be 'okay' about."

I gulped. I could feel the rawness of his emotion, regardless of the chill he projected. I just wasn't sure how to respond to it.

"I'm sorry," I finally settled on saying.

He scrutinized me, his eyes roaming over the details of my face.

"You must know what I'm doing to your family, Ellie," he told me.

"I do," I nodded. There was no way I could deny it.

"Well? Do you have anything you want to say about it?"

"I want to say... " I paused. "I want to say that I love your son, sir. And I think that's all that should matter."

He stood there, not saying a word. Finally, he nodded definitively.

He clicked the remote on his keys, and opened the door of his car.

"I'll see you at the wedding, Ellie," he told me.

"Goodbye, Mr. Stewart," I replied.

He climbed into the car, and drove off. I waited until he was out of sight before I allowed myself to lean again a tree, sighing with relief. I had no idea what his motivation was behind half of the things he said, but at least I hadn't said anything indiscreet.

At least, I didn't think so. But he had obviously gotten something out of our conversation, right? The only problem was that I had no idea what it was.

***

Chapter Twenty-five

*~Ellie~*

I lazily flicked a page over in my book as I waited for Jay to come home. How long does it take to go for a run, anyway?

Finally, I heard his steps come down the hall. His heart was still beating strongly from the exercise he had done, and his breathing was heavy. The key scraped in the lock, and Jay entered his apartment. Immediately, his eyes landed on me lounging on the sofa.

"Surprise," I grinned.

"Achoo!" he sneezed loudly.

"You're sick?" I asked with concern, putting down my book.

"Just a cold," he brushed it off. "Nothing to worry about. I didn't know you were coming by." He began to pry off his beat-up running shoes.

"I saw you running in the neighborhood as I was flying over and I decided to give you something to come home to," I replied.

"You could've joined me," he said, finally loosing one foot from its cage. He had said the cold was minor, but I couldn't help noticing how congested his voice was.

"Yeah right," I replied dryly.

"No, seriously." He began working on the other shoe. "You would've gotten some fresh air and exercise."

"I had to go rescue a capsized fishing boat this morning. That's plenty of fresh air and exercise for me."

"Okay, fine, Miss Smug. Go ahead and be lazy."

"I'd probably just annoy you if I was there, anyway," I said. "You'd be puffing along, working hard, and I wouldn't even break a sweat."

"You'd keep me motivated," he amended. Finally, his foot popped out of the shoe, and he came over to me. He leaned down over the sofa as his lips met mine. His scent was heightened thanks to his recent exercise, and I felt his damp hair as I reached up to pull his head closer.

"You're sweaty," I commented.

"Uh huh," he agreed. He moved in closer to me, but suddenly yanked away. His sneeze barely missed me.

"Are you sure you're okay?" I asked with concern.

"I'm fine, Ellie," he rolled his eyes. "I just have a nasty cold. You know how it is," he shrugged, dropping down next to me.

"Well, no," I couldn't resist saying. "I don't."

"Oh, come on. You must've gotten sick some time before your powers kicked in."

"Well, I might've had a runny nose a couple times, but that's it," I shrugged.

"You're kidding."

"Nope," I grinned smugly.

"You *never* got sick in all of thirteen years, and you still had no idea that your dad was Superman?"

"Hey, I'm not a stupid as you think," I said defensively, not liking where this was going. What happened to my gloating about my good health?

"You're not?" he asked disbelievingly.

"No. If you could never remember being seriously sick, the first thing to pop into your mind wouldn't be: 'Oh my god, my father must be Superman'," I told him. "You'd think that you have a really strong immune system or something. Or maybe you'd think that you must've been sick at one point, and you were probably just too young to remember."

"I guess that makes sense," Jay conceded.

"Of course once I found out the truth, everything sort of clicked together," I told him. "And I realized that being sick is something that I've never actually experienced. You know, I've always wondered something," I remembered suddenly. "Is it really impossible for you to sneeze with your eyes open? Cause that's what I've heard, but seems kind of weird to me. Can't you just try to keep them open and then they'll stay that way?"

"I... don't know," Jay said, a bit thrown by the question.

"Oh."

"I'll give it a try the next time I feel one coming on," he told me.

"Would you really?"

"Yeah, sure," he rolled his eyes in amusement.

"See, I knew there was a reason why I loved you!" I exclaimed, reaching over to hug him.

Jay gave me one in return, humoring my excitement. "But you didn't get your powers until you were thirteen," he remembered after a pause. "So does that mean you're immune to disease even without your powers just because of your genetic makeup?"

"That's actually been one of my pet projects for a while," I shared. "Of course, I haven't been able to put much work into it lately, but now I may go back to it. It's a difficult thing to test." I traced the lines on his hand as I spoke. "But I think the reason behind it is that my powers were actually working to protect me even before I knew they were there. I experienced the same thing growing up with injuries as I did with illness. I've had a few scratches before, but never anything that even required a band-aid."

"Hmm," Jay mumbled in reply. I could tell that he was listening, but I could see the impact his cold was having on his energy.

We made an interesting contrast, I decided. There was Jay, with a body marked with scars, and sitting here with a terrible cold. And there was me. Having never been sick, and being practically indestructible.

"But the good thing about all that," I told him, "is that I don't have to worry about catching your cold." And I kissed him in order to demonstrate just how useful that trait was.

I didn't feel I would ever get over how wonderful it was to do things like that without any worry of controlling my powers. While initially I might've worried about having a relapse, my confidence had become completely cemented over the last few weeks. We didn't have a thing to worry about.

Unfortunately, Jay wasn't as enthusiastic as he normally was. He broke off early, and rested his head against the back of the sofa, breathing heavily through his mouth.

"Why did you go for a run if you were feeling this sick?" I asked him, running my fingers through his hair.

"You don't get sick days in the NIA," he informed me.

"Well, you're not in the NIA anymore, are you?" I asked critically.

"No, I'm not," he admitted with a small grin.

"So that means you get to have a sick day," I announced. "Here, I'm calling the gym for you and letting them know that you won't be in." I reached for my phone, and found the number on my contact list.

"Ellie... " he protested weakly. But before he could finish, his face crumpled up and he let out a sneeze. Miserably, he reached for a Kleenex, and blew his nose.

"Did it work?" I asked, once he was done.

"What?"

"The eyes open thing. Did it work?"

"Oh. No, I forgot," he confessed.

"I'll remind you next time," I told him.

He rolled his eyes. "Here, give me the phone," he said, reaching to grab it from my hand. "I'll call the gym myself. At least now I'll have some time to work on that new piece I'm trying to put together."

"Don't you have any idea of what a sick day is?" I demanded. "It means you take the day off. No teaching at the gym, no metal sculptures, no nothing. Now, I'm going to go into the kitchen and make you some soup. I know a good family recipe."

"I guess this is part of that 'in sickness and in health' thing, huh?"

"Yep," I agreed. "Except I haven't actually taken any of those vows," I reminded him, "so I'm off the hook whenever I want to be."

"Well, I think that's a mistake I'm going to have to correct," Jay remarked. "I can't have you running off to save the world while I'm sitting here all sick and everything."

"Not so fast, buster. You have to give me a proposal before I'll even consider doing anything like that." My words were casual, yet my heart started thumping at the idea. Were we ready for something like that yet? The reply I got was a resounding yes.

"A proposal, huh?" Jay mused.

"Yep. And just so you know, it better be *crazy* romantic or else I'm going to be saying no." With that comment, I sauntered off to the kitchen.

"Oh, don't worry," Jay called after me. "I've got that all taken care of."

I stopped mid-saunter. "You do?"

"Yep," he grinned.

"What do you have planned?" I demanded. "When is it? How long have you been planning it for?"

"I know you don't have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, Ellie," Jay told me. "But these things are actually supposed to be a surprise."

"You seriously have a proposal planned?" I asked.

"I do," he told me. "Do you... have an answer planned?"

"Well, that would depend on how romantic the proposal is, wouldn't it?" I said cheekily.

"Oh, right," he remembered. "Well, in that case, I'm pretty confident."

"You're not even going to give me a hint?" I wheedled.

"Of course not." He shook his head emphatically. "You're... going to have to... " His nose crinkled up in a way that was quickly becoming familiar.

"Remember to--"

"Achoo!" he cut me off.

"Did it work?" I asked intently.

He paused. "No," he finally decided. "I closed my eyes anyway."

"Oh."

"I'll try again next time," he offered.

"Okay," I agreed. "But in the meantime..."

"You're going to make me some original Kent soup while I call the gym," he filled in. "It is Kent soup, right? Not Lane soup?"

"Definitely Kent," I reassured him. "Trust me, you'll love it."

"I have no doubts about that," he replied. "None at all."

***

*~Jay~*

Jon stood up from the table, clearing his throat. Conversation died as everyone turned to look at him.

"Since our best man is still MIA--"

"I'm *trying* to get a hold of Alex now," Lucy spoke up desperately, her phone pressed to her ear. She had that desperate mom tone in her voice, but Brad had arm slung around her, keeping her from panicking.

"Well, since it doesn't look like he'll be making it here tonight, I'd thought I'd start off with a speech instead," Jon replied.

I tried to pay close attention to what he was saying, but I was quickly distracted by a gentle touch in the side of my calf. The sensation traveled up the rest of my leg like an electric shock. I snapped my head around to meet Ellie's gaze. She had an expression that radiated pious innocence. Which, of course, was a total lie.

I guess being good for the entire rehearsal dinner was just too much for Ellie. But I wasn't about to give in that easily. I turned my head away from her pointedly, and concentrated on what Jon was saying. Something about when he first met my dad. I could imagine the creativity Jon would've needed to come up with something nice about that.

Like the lightest of touches, I felt a spot of warmth hit my face. Again, I shot my head around to pierce Ellie with a stern gaze. Of course, by this time, I didn't really mean it. Had she really just zapped me to get my attention? Her sparkling eyes told me yes.

Then her foot came back, tracing a gentle, tantalizing ellipse on the side of my leg.

Jon finished his speech, and sat back down, drawing my, and Ellie's, attention back to the main action. Kaylie stood up in his place, and I forced myself to pay attention. I should really listen to what my own sister was going to say. There was always the chance she would share something embarrassing about me.

But then Ellie's foot came back with a vengeance.

"Behave yourself," I whispered, hardly even making a sound. I knew she would hear me.

She raised an eyebrow.

"For now, anyway," I added in that same impossibly quiet whisper. "And then we'll get out of here as soon as it's decently possible."

Clark turned his head around to glance back at us, and I ducked my head, mortified. I had forgotten that Ellie wasn't the only person who could hear my soft whispers. Luckily, he didn't look too stern, and instead seemed a little amused.

Clark returned his focus back to Kaylie, but it still caused Ellie to calm down, and we both focused enough to catch the tail end of Kaylie's speech.

The formal part being out of the way, the table broke into smaller clumps as we all carried on casual conversations. Sometime during the speeches, Lucy had left the table, presumably to talk to Alex. I had hoped to snag Martha sometime during the night and talk to her about that sculpture I had started work on, but I was prevented from doing that by a tap on my shoulder.

"Do you have a minute?" Dad asked.

We took a few steps away from the main table in order to have some privacy. I had wanted to refuse his request, but the last thing I wanted to do was cause a scene. It was difficult enough with him here as is.

"What do you want, Dad?" I asked.

He was silent for a while, just gazing at the floor.

"I've been thinking," he finally told me in a subdued tone. "About the Kent family."

"Dad, I'm not going to talk about this."

"Will you just listen to what I have to say, Jason?" he asked.

I stayed put. Mostly because he had actually phrased that as a question, and not a command.

"Your girlfriend... "

"Ellie."

"Yes, Ellie," he nodded. "I talked with her that day in the cemetery."

"She told me you two met up," I replied. If he was trying to drive a wedge by surprising me, he had the wrong idea.

"We talked for a bit," Dad continued. "And she told me that she loves you."

"I know she does."

Dad's gaze drifted off, and I could see that he had gone somewhere far away.

"I remember what that kind of love feels like," he told me. "And I know that it can be taken away from you all too easily. Above everything else I may think is important, Jason, I feel that allowing you and your sister that happiness had a higher priority."

"So... does that mean you're dropping your investigation?" I asked, afraid to be putting it so boldly in case I was wrong.

"I've trained you to have good judgment, Jason," Dad told me. "I've respected it in the field, so there is no logical reason for me not to respect it in your personal life."

"Dad... " I couldn't even begin to say how much that meant to me. But I also didn't think he wanted me to. "Thanks," I finally said.

"I know Kaylie will find happiness," he mused. "I don't have any doubts surrounding that. I do doubt if she's going in the right direction to gain that happiness, but I realize that's not for me to say at this point."

With that remark, he returned to the table, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Ellie was quick to join me, though. "What happened?" she asked. "It looked like a pretty intense conversation."

"He's dropping the investigation," I shared.

"Really? That's fantastic!"

"Yeah. But he also said something weird. About how Kaylie isn't going in the right direction for happiness."

"What, you think he wants to break off the wedding?" Ellie demanded. "Now?!"

"No, I don't think that's it," I replied. "I'm not sure what he was getting at. Anyway, he sounded like he was going to stay out of it, so whatever he's thinking won't impact the wedding."

We didn't get a chance to discuss it any further. At that moment, Lucy reappeared with a grim expression on her face.

"Did you get a chance to talk to Alex, Aunt Lucy?" Ellie asked.

Lucy shook her head tersely. "I want to tell everyone at once."

We returned to the table, and everyone looked up expectantly.

"Well, I got a hold of Alex," Lucy began, placing a hand on Brad's shoulder to brace herself. "But unfortunately, he won't be able to make it to the wedding. He's in prison."

"Again?!" Clark asked incredulously.

Kaylie and I shared a wince as we saw the effect that statement had on Dad.

"What happened to him?" Martha asked.

"One of those rainforest protests he's involved in got out of hand," Lucy shared. "He didn't do anything, of course. But it'll be a while before the police can get everything sorted out. There's no way he can make it in time for the ceremony tomorrow."

"Must be a genetic trait," Lois smirked.

Lucy blushed in response, but before we could hear the story behind that, Kaylie cracked under the pressure.

"So what if he's in prison? Someone just go bust him out!" she exclaimed.

An awkward silence descended. In a group that included three superheroes and a high-ranking NIA director, it was difficult to know who was being addressed in that outburst. And of course, it wasn't as if anyone would say anything about it in this environment.

But Kaylie caught hold of herself before things got really uncomfortable.

"Sorry," she apologized moodily. "I'm sorry, okay? It's just this whole stupid wedding... "

Martha stretched out a comforting hand, and Kaylie calmed down some more.

I turned to Ellie. "Is Alex going to be okay?" I wondered. I didn't know much about Brazil, but there were many countries where being a foreigner in prison was a bad situation.

"He'll be fine," Ellie said. "He's gotten himself into this type of situation before. They'll just cart him back here once everything is sorted out. Having Nebula or anyone else drop in and fly him out would only be more trouble in the long run. Besides," she continued, "the poor guy is starting law school in the fall, and this could honestly be the last chance for fun he's got. He'd be pretty upset with me if I went and spoiled it for him."

"I think I might like Alex, if I ever get a chance to meet him," I decided.

"You probably would," Jon jumped in.

I hadn't noticed, but he had made his way over to where we were standing while we were talking.

"Jay, I just wanted to run something by you," he told me. "Since Alex isn't going to be here anymore, I was thinking it would be great if you agreed to be my best man."

"Sure," I replied.

"I know it's a lot to take on last minute," he apologized. "And I really don't want you to stress about any of it, honest. But I was thinking you two might appreciate being paired together for the night, anyway."

"That sounds great, Jon," I told him. "Really, I'd be more than willing to step up."

"Thanks," he replied. "Alex's tux *might* fit you, but if it doesn't then just show up in a suit and that'll be good enough. The tux is at our apartment. The window's unlocked." He glanced at Ellie.

"We'll go pick it up," she told him.

"Thanks," he replied quickly, then left to join Kaylie, who was now sitting with Martha and Lois, still looking to be at the end of her rope.

"Well, I guess there's one good thing that came out of all of this," Ellie said optimistically.

"We get to spend a lot more time together tomorrow than we thought?" I asked her.

"Okay, I guess two good things," she amended. "We also have a really good excuse for running out of this dinner early. What do you say we make a break for it?"

I looked over to see what my dad was doing. Unfortunately, he appeared to be making his way over to Kaylie. But although Clark was talking to Brad and Lucy, Kaylie was still surrounded by Martha, Lois, and Jon. They would be more than able to take care of my dad.

"Sure," I told Ellie. "Let's get out of here."

***

Chapter Twenty-six

*~Jay~*

I drummed my fingers on the countertop as the clerk painfully clicked through the computer.

"What were the names again?" he asked.

"Jonathan Kent and Kaylie Stewart," I reminded him tersely. I glanced at my watch. I was supposed to be at the church already. But to be fair, it wasn't this guy's fault that I was running behind. And it wasn't mine, either. When Kaylie asked me to go pick up the marriage license, though, I didn't dare tell her that maybe she should have done it earlier this week.

"We don't have any record here for those names," the man announced.

My fingers stilled abruptly. "What?"

"They're not coming up on the computer. Are you sure you have the names right?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," I snapped. "Look, you're making a mistake. They came in and applied for this *weeks* ago. It's got to be there somewhere."

"I don't see... Oh, wait. Here's something!"

"Thank God!"

"They came in with all the appropriate paperwork, everything was filled out properly. But then... "

"Yeah?" I asked with trepidation.

"The application was frozen," the clerk replied.

"Why would it be frozen?" I demanded dangerously.

"It can happen for a number of reasons," he informed me. "If someone is still married to someone else, for example. Or if there's any conflicting information between the form and what the computer says. But this is a really strange case," he continued. "Normally, the system will tell me the reason behind the application being rejected, but here it just appears to stop. No reason given or anything. I'd say it wasn't us, but there's no sign at all of any outside agency interfering."

His words made my neck prickle with familiarity.

"You know what, it's probably a good thing it didn't go through," I announced. "Just between you and me, I hate the guy she's going to marry."

The clerk looked up with wide eyes, successfully distracted from his task.

"Maybe there's some kind of sister-saving agency that did this for me, eh?" I winked at the guy. "Kaylie needs to find a guy who isn't afraid to take charge every now and then. Nothing like this sensitive crap her fiance keeps pulling. You know what I mean, right?"

"Uh... " If his eyes had been any wider, they would've popped out of their sockets.

I resisted the urge to laugh, and instead kept in character. "Well, thank God for computer glitches, anyway. Now, don't you worry about this one more minute, okay? I'll take care of everything with the ex-bride-to-be."

With that, I strode out of the office, head held high and an obnoxious grin on my face. That quickly faded, though, as soon as I shut the door of my car.

That whole 'computer glitch' had reeked of the NIA, and I was all too glad to keep the clerk from poking into it any further. By why on earth was Kaylie's marriage license frozen by the agency? And most important of all, what was I going to tell Kaylie?

***

It was our second week stuck in that dingy apartment. In comparison to the excitement, and terror, of our first assignment, this one was the epitome of monotony. Babysitting surveillance equipment wasn't exactly how I had imagined spending my time in the NIA.

I entered the apartment balancing take-out cartons in one hand. The smell of moldy carpet greeted me, along with the soft murmur of the TV. Thank god for that thing otherwise we would have died of boredom.

"Brought Thai," I told Kaylie, dumping a carton in front of her.

"Thanks," she replied absently.

"Anything happen?"

"What do you think?" she asked bitterly.

I fiddled with the computer, and checked the history. Just like Kaylie had said, nothing had happened. I was really getting tired of this whole mission.

"Hey, Jay! Come take a look at this!"

I turned to face the TV. Kaylie was watching some news program, which was showing footage from another Superman rescue. I could see Superman and Supernova in the picture, but was that also... ?

"Is there a new one?" I asked in disbelief.

"Yep. And it's a girl," Kaylie replied smugly.

"Nice," I approved. The camera zoomed in on a close-up of her face.

"Stop drooling," Kaylie reprimanded.

"I wasn't doing anything!" I defended.

"Sure." She prodded the food I brought, and took a tentative taste. "Ugh, this is cold," she declared. "And it has too much... Well, I don't know. Too much of some kind of seasoning. You know, I bet *they* can get the best food on the planet." She jabbed at the screen, making clear who she was talking about.

"Kaylie, they're superheroes. They don't need to eat," I told her.

"Doesn't mean they don't like to," she shrugged. Even though she complained about the food, she still ate with gusto. "Wouldn't you like to if you could fly all over the world to get the best stuff?"

"I guess," I conceded.

"If I ever met one of them, I would ask them that," Kaylie declared.

"You'd ask them where to get good takeout?" I asked in disbelief.

"Sure," she shrugged. "What would you ask?"

"I don't know," I replied.

"Oh, c'mon! Take that new superhero woman there. If could ask her any question in the world, what would it be?"

I shrugged. "I don't know," I said again. "But who knows? Maybe if I met her, the right question would come to me.

***

*~Ellie~*

"That doesn't even make sense," I whispered to Jay, trying to keep out of earshot of Kaylie, who was on the other side of the thin door. Of course, she seemed too distressed to even bother paying attention to us. I had come late into the scene, and Jay was explaining it all to me.

"Well, that's the NIA for you," he shrugged. "Hyper-security conscious to the point where it kills you. Or stops your wedding."

"But I thought Kaylie used her pseudonym for college and her job applications. Why would a marriage license application set off internal alarms that those didn't?"

"Well, those other ones technically do," he replied. "But the NIA knew about those in advance, so they freed up Kaylie's information accordingly. But Kaylie's data wasn't unfrozen for this application, so the process was automatically shut down by the NIA computer."

"So Kaylie was supposed to tell the NIA that she was sending in the application?" I winced. This would be even harder for her if she realized it was her fault.

"No, she did that," Jay told me. "It was the NIA that got it wrong, apparently."

"I don't care if you fixed it now!" Kaylie shouted from the next room. "That's not going to help me get married *today*, now is it?"

Jay and I both winced. Things had to be pretty bad if Kaylie was yelling at her superior in the NIA. The calm voice of Jon interjected, and their conversation receded back to gentle murmurs.

"The application process has recently changed," Jay continued. "You remember how they're requiring blood tests and everything now? Well, Agent Porter wasn't aware how much those changes would affect Kaylie, and other agents like her."

"So there's no way Kaylie and Jon can get married today," I summarized, my heart sinking. After all of their hard work to put this together, I could understand Kaylie's feelings.

"Not with New Troy's waiting period," Jay shook his head.

At that comment, I heard footsteps come from down the hall. Mr. Stewart stepped out around the corner, and came up to us.

"Are they still meeting with Agent Porter?" he asked us.

"Yeah," Jay replied. "Kaylie and Jon are in there, and I think Clark is too. Lois is out making sure everything else is running smoothly."

Although her efforts might be wasted, I added silently. It looked like the wedding may never take place.

Mr. Stewart sighed. "If only I had known... Anyway, I could possibly push the office to run the license through today, but that would reveal Kaylie's connection to the NIA, and we can't afford to do that."

"They came close enough to suspecting something this morning," Jay told his father. "I just hope I gave them enough of a show to keep them from poking into it any more."

"If you gave the show, Jason, I'm sure they were sufficiently distracted," Mr. Stewart commented absently, still thinking about the problem at hand. Funnily enough, it came very close to almost sounding like a complement within the context. "I do have one more idea," he mused. "As a last resort, if anything... " Then his head snapped up. "I'll need you two to keep everyone occupied until I can talk it over with Kaylie and Jon. The ceremony is supposed to start soon, and people will be getting anxious."

Jay and I exchanged glances. What exactly was his plan? And did we want to leave him with Jon and Kaylie during such an emotional time?

But my dad was with them, and I knew he would be good at handling any tension Mr. Stewart stirred up. And Mr. Stewart was right. The ceremony was going to start late, even by wedding standards.

Jay appeared to be reading my mind. "Okay," he said. "We'll go keep the masses entertained."

***

"How exactly are we supposed to keep these people entertained?" I asked Jay desperately. We were standing by the altar in front of a very agitated group of people, in the positions we had practiced the night before. The minister stood between us, blissfully unaware of the discontent before us. I guess there can be a benefit to hearing aids after all.

There was no sign of Mr. Stewart, or Jon and Kaylie. I had seen Mom about to come in to sit down, but then Dad came out and beckoned her over to the room where they were talking. Agent Porter had come out, though, and was sitting on the bride's side of the pews.

"How about I borrow Porter's gun and give everyone a display of my marksmanship while you catch all the bullets?" Jay suggested.

"Ha ha," I laughed dryly. "Not a chance. Besides, I doubt Agent Porter would bring a gun to a wedding."

"Well, maybe not the really dangerous one," Jay amended.

"Excuse me," the minister interrupted. "Do you have any idea how much longer the wedding will be delayed?"

In unison, we both turned to look at him. He backed off a little from our united glare.

"It's just that... I would like to go home at the end of this, and we've already been delayed over fifteen--"

"I'm sure it'll be any minute now," I told the man desperately. "There's just some last-minute... " I glanced over at the crowd again. People were really starting to get restless. I turned to Jay desperately.

"You're right, Ellie, we have to do something," he nodded. He strode over to where a microphone had been set up, and stepped in front of it. "Excuse me everyone," he spoke into the mic. The crowd fell silent. "I would like to thank you all for coming this afternoon," he continued. "I know your support means a lot to my sister and my soon to be brother-in-law. Now, I know it's tradition for the best man to give a speech at the wedding reception, but seeing how the ceremony has been held up due to a slight difficulty... "

I waited expectantly. I had to admire his guts in speaking like this in front of everyone with no clear plan. I certainly wouldn't be able to do it. Of course, I guess being in the NIA meant he would be able to think stuff up like this right away.

"But you know, I'm sure you'll hear enough from me later on," Jay continued. "For now, I would like to invite Ellie up to the microphone as I'm *sure* she'll want to say a few words."

I was going to kill him.

He grinned irritatingly back at me as I took the two steps it took to get over to him.

"Thank you, Jay," I spoke, trying not to flinch at the sound of my amplified voice. "I just wanted to say... That, um... " That my boyfriend was going to die. A slow, painful death. "I would like to say... " Thankfully, a movement at the back of the church caught my eye. Mom and Dad were there, nodding at me that things were okay, and I could see Mr. Stewart as well. They had solved it! "I just wanted to say that it looks like we'll be starting now," I told everyone.

Before I had a chance to speak any more, the music cued up, so Jay and I went back to take our places. "That was not funny," I whispered ferociously in his ear. "Aren't you supposed to be good at that kind of thing after being in the NIA?"

"One of the tricks of the trade," he replied smugly. "If you can't think of anything, defer the responsibility to someone else."

"Gee, thanks."

We arranged ourselves as before, and I finally turned to look attentively to see Kaylie coming down the aisle.

But she wasn't there.

Come to think of it, where was Jon?

The only person coming down the aisle was Mr. Stewart in the same strong, even stride he always used. He was halfway down the aisle before the music stopped, and the congregation began to sit uncertainly.

Mr. Stewart came up to the same microphone we had used before, and cleared his throat to get attention.

"Thank you," he spoke once everyone had calmed down. "For those of you who don't know, my name is Rodney Stewart, and I am the father of the bride. I'm sorry to say, but due to a clerical mix-up at the registry office, Jon and Kaylie's marriage license application did not get processed correctly. Although the mistake has been cleared up, the mandatory waiting period makes a wedding today in New Troy impossible."

The crowd broke out into a surge of murmurs, each person discussing the latest turn of events with their neighbor.

"Ahem!" Mr. Stewart called, gaining their attention again. "I said a wedding in *New Troy* would be impossible. As you know, there are other places in the world that are more... lenient about such things. I've arranged for the happy couple to take a trip to Jamaica so they can be married as planned. Although they are unable to say goodbye in person, they do have a message for us all." Mr. Stewart nodded at the sound guy in the back, and an image came up on the projection screen. It was Jon and Kaylie, sitting together in the back of their wedding limo, no doubt on their way to the airport. As the video played, Mr. Stewart stepped away from the mic, and sat down at his reserved seat.

"Hi everyone," Kaylie spoke. "We're sorry we can't be there for the ceremony. We did want to get married in front of all of you, but it seems that the fates have conspired against us."

Although they looked sad that they weren't going to be here, they also look more relaxed about the wedding than they had ever been.

"But even though we'll be gone, the reception is already paid for," Jon spoke up.

"So we invite you to celebrate anyway," Kaylie said.

"They look happy," I whispered to Jay.

"Yeah," he agreed.

"Of course, Jon's not going to be too happy he has to fly in a plane," I said wickedly. "But I do feel kind of bad, though. A lot of people here came a long way to see a wedding."

"Not a lot from my family, but plenty from yours," Jay agreed.

"I hope all my Riverview students have a safe summer," Kaylie was saying.

I glanced over at the row of grinning teenagers. They looked happy for their teacher too, and even a bit entertained at her crazy antics.

"Hey, Jay! Check out the second girl from the end in the fourth row," I pointed out.

"That's Chris!" He exclaimed softly. "She looks so much more peaceful now, doesn't she?"

Chris looked over at our gaze, and waved happily at Jay. Jay gave a small wave back.

"She does," I agreed.

"And Jay, this is just an idea," Jon spoke from the screen. "But if you want to give everyone out there another reason to celebrate, how about you move up a certain event you had planned for later tonight?"

Jay smiled, and nodded minutely.

"What's he talking about, Jay?" I asked.

"On that note, we need to get going," Kaylie said. "We're going to be at the airport soon, and we need to hustle."

"Goodbye, everyone!" Jon called, and the video cut out.

"Jay, what was he talking about?" I demanded.

"He was talking about this," Jay said, stepping over to the mic once again. He pulled it out of the stand and walked back toward me. "If I can just get everyone's attention again," he spoke. Obediently, everyone hushed.

"Ellie, when I first met you, I thought you were the most annoying person on the planet," he said. "But it only took a few days for me realize what a truly wonderful and amazing person you are."

I was frozen in place. My ears roared. This sounded almost like...

"And now," Jay continued, "I can't imagine ever having a life apart from you. A few months ago, I don't think I would've been able to keep living if it wasn't for you. You were my strength, that whole time, and for all the times I've known you. And there is nothing I want more than to be with you for the rest of my life."

He sank down onto one knee. A gasp swelled up from the crowd. I pressed my hand to my mouth to choke back my exclamation.

"So, Ellie, I'm asking you humbly and honestly: Will you marry me?"

I couldn't speak. I had tears pouring down my face, and the noise of everyone else seemed to dull around me and Jay's pounding heart flooded my senses.

"I didn't get you a ring," he whispered. "Because I figured you'd want to pick out your own."

"You bet I do," I finally blurted through the tears. "You'd probably pick out one of those cheap plastic ones with the fake hunk of Kryptonite as the center."

"Well, I can't help it if you have better taste than I do," he shrugged. "So, uh... I think everyone here's waiting for an answer."

"Give me the mic," I commanded, getting control of myself. The congregation hushed once again as I lifted it to my lips. Really, they were getting a quality show today. "Jay, when I first met you, I thought you were the most arrogant and obnoxious man on the planet," I told him, echoing his opener. "But in only a few days, I realized you were actually the most sensitive and loving man on the planet instead. You've made me feel special in a way no one else has ever done. And because of you, I'm not afraid to be strong. I'm not afraid to be myself."

I reached over and clasped Jay's hand in mine.

"So, yes, Jay," I spoke softly. "I will marry you."

His face broke into the hugest grin I had even seen. "I promise I'll always keep chocolate in the house for you," he told me, standing up and taking my other hand in his.

"Well, in that case, I promise to always make you chicken soup when you're sick," I replied.

"Then I guess I'll be able to put up with the charcoal your toaster produces."

"How about I just promise to do all the cooking at your place?" I offered.

"I've got no complaints," Jay grinned. "Tell you what: I'll also promise to always try to keep my eyes open when I sneeze. Just in case I manage break the habit."

"Well, if you're going to do that, then I guess I can promise to run all my future experiments by you first," I told him.

"Really?"

"Well, most of them," I backtracked. "But I do promise to refer to James Bond only when absolutely necessary."

He let out a bark of laughter. "Ellie, I promise to love you, no matter what outfit you're wearing," he told me, more seriously this time.

"And I promise to love you no matter what you're doing for a living," I replied.

"Ahem," came a voice between us, interrupting the flow of our speech.

We turned to face the elderly minister standing between us.

"I don't want to interrupt," he told us. "But you are aware that this isn't a legal ceremony, right? As I'm sure you know after today's events, you need a legal marriage license. There's a waiting period for that. And the laws have recently changed. Did you know you need a blood test now?"

"Yeah, we know that," Jay rolled his eyes. "And we know that this isn't legal. Can't you recognize a romantic gesture when you see one? Trust me, we'll be back here no later than... " he deferred to me.

"A month?" I suggested. The last thing I wanted to do was drag it out like Jon and Kaylie had.

"A month," Jay agreed. "Now, if you'll be so kind, could you say the magic words, please?"

"Uh... Yes... I could... " The minister flipped through his book frantically.

"We want the kiss," I prodded him.

"Oh! Right. You may kiss the Bri-... uh... the maid of honor."

"Bet you that's the first time you heard that at a wedding," Jay told me.

"Just kiss me already, would you?" I rolled my eyes.

And he did just that.

THE END