Clinging to a rain pipe that ran up the side of the building, Jon paused to take quick stock of the situation. Amidst the overturned cars in the street below, the behemoth of a man roared his frustration at both the masked man on the ledge three stories above his head and the woman who floated just out of reach in her flashy gold leotard. A prime with the greatest raw physical power Jon had ever heard of, he showed no ability to fly and couldn’t get at the two gnats that were annoying him.
The man also was not invulnerable, as evidenced by the scratches on his muscled arms, but the incidental damage was not slowing him down enough that Jon could expect a quick resolution. As far as he could tell, the man had gotten almost falling-down drunk, but instead of actually falling down, his strength increased with his intoxication and he’d gone on a rampage. His physical activity would burn the alcohol out of his system quickly, but waiting for that to happen would only increase the chances that an innocent bystander got hurt.
Jon bit his lip. There wasn’t much he could do to subdue this bloke. He had to depend on the other prime. At the moment, Kathica floated above the man, flexing her fists as she prepared to dive down to attempt again to pummel him into submission. Jon knew that wasn’t going to work: when he’d arrived, she’d been doing exactly the same thing and had been quickly pinned. Jon had latched onto the man’s back and clawed at his ears to distract him from mashing her to a pulp. With a groan, he launched himself at him. Fast and super-agile, he could get there first, distract him, and give Kathica a chance to strike at best advantage.
The man kept a close watch on Jon as he leapt about in a zig-zag pattern, trying to keep at least his direction of attack as much of a surprise as possible. With a final leap to the right, Jon bounced off a car and dashed in, telegraphing his movements to try to draw the man in one direction, then leapt out a crazy angle in a different direction as his target lunged to grab him. The fist missed by inches, and as Jon opened his mouth to taunt him, he jerked backwards, the hand that missed him catching a sure grip on the tail of his jacket. With a startled cry, he scrambled to get away but his feet swished through the air. A crushing hand closed around his wrist and yanked.
“Argh!” screamed Jon at the fire in his shoulder as his arm was wrenched backward. A thick arm closed over his chest and he heard the man pulling his leg back to drive his knee up into his unprotected spine. Blazing, screeching noise tore through Jon’s body as his sonics flared out of his panicked control, but his captor didn’t notice a thing. Jon’s power could destroy flesh and shatter bone, but not within the brief moment of life he had left.
Suddenly free, Jon fell to the ground, crying out in agony as the big lummox collapsed on him. Through the haze of pain, he vaguely sensed Kathica standing over them, brandishing a metal signpost that had been uprooted earlier in the battle, in case the man got up again. The moment it was clear he was out for the count, she tossed it aside and pulled the unconscious man off her assister.
Trying to push himself up, Jon found that the slightest movement of his arm sent hot spikes through his shoulder, and he huddled on the ground, trying to blink back the tears in his eyes. He buzzed with the effort of stifling the keening cries that threatened to burst from him. Kathica was beside him in an instant.
“Easy there, tiger,” she cooed. “Don’t try to move. It’s dislocated.” With gentle hands, she helped him sit up, then patted him reassuringly. “I’m going to push it back in. Get ready, now. It’s going to hurt.”
As she grasped around his chest for leverage, Jon pushed the veil of his mask up with his good arm and bit down on his sleeve. “Mm-hmm,” he murmured, screwing his eyes shut against the coming pain.
Kathica’s hand closed around his upper arm. “On three. One… Two… Three!”
Jon gasped into his sleeve as Kathica’s firm push slid the shoulder back into its socket. She held him steady as he panted out the pain. “I think… I think I’m good now,” he assured her after a minute.
“Good.” She patted him before moving back. “Keep that thing still, yeah?”
“Yeah, I will. Thanks.” Jon had never before been this close to any of the major primes except Silver Falcon, and he regretted his choice to make the lenses of his mask dark. In general, he didn’t really need to see much, relying on his super-acute, radar-like hearing for most things, but in the twilight, all he could do was hear Kathica’s shape: no colors, no subtle expressions. Not that he really cared what she looked like - though many people considered her beautiful, he’d always thought she was too false and heavily made-up - but he was a tad starstruck and would have liked to have actually seen her up close.
A crowd was starting to gather around them, though they were keeping their distance until they could be sure that no more violence would erupt. “That was some good work,” he commented. “Good thought to use something harder than your fists.”
“This old thing?” Kathica quipped as she thumbed over her shoulder at the signpost. “Just needs to be harder than his head. He usually goes down easier than this.”
“You’ve fought him before?” Jon squeaked.
“Every couple of months, maybe,” she replied, waving away his shock with an airy hand. “His name’s Tom, Patton or Paxton or some such. He’s got nothing when he’s sober, but he likes to drink his troubles away.” She glanced over at the man’s prostrate form. “Things must be pretty bad at home this week.”
“Yeah,” Jon murmured. “What do we do with him now?”
Kathica shrugged. “Nothing. He’ll come back in the morning and dump a couple thousand quid for damages. He always does.” She looked around at the damage. “This is going to cost.”
“But…” His protest dying in his throat, Jon looked up and down the street, wrenching his shoulder a bit. He swallowed down the pain. “This is far more than smashing up a pub. Look at all the damage. He could have hurt or killed a lot of people.”
With a bright smile, Kathica shrugged yet again. “But he didn’t. Everyone’s fine, well, except for you. If you want to call the police on him, you go on. Not my problem.”
Jon stared in disbelief at her as she sat back on her heels. “That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Licking her lips, she looked him over. “You’re the Doctor, aren’t you?”
Her recognition of him sent Jon mentally reeling, and he stammered like a schoolboy. “Er, yeah, that’s my name. Well, not really, of course. I wouldn’t use my real name for this.” He suddenly remembered to whom he was talking. “Er, not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’ve got a good name. Which you do. Mine’s rubbish.” Kathica stared at him, her eyes dancing with silent laughter. Clearing his throat, Jon tried again. “Yeah, er, I’m the Doctor. Didn’t think you knew me.”
“Angel told me about you,” she replied as she leant over to whisper in his ear. Though he could barely see her through his dark lenses, Jon sensed the deep gorge of cleavage in front of him perfectly well. “She said you’re a looker. A bit foxy, she said.”
“She wh-what?” Jon stammered, drawing back so far that he was almost lying on the ground. His shoulder flared up with the movement, and he wondered if he’d be able to soldier through the pain of scrambling away from her.
Kathica reached below his mask and drew her finger down his jawline. “She was right on the second count. Wish I’d got to see you without your mask.”
Jon swallowed hard. “Oh, no, I’m not, I mean, you don’t, you really don’t.”
“Perhaps next time, then,” she murmured, trilling a laugh as she stood back up. “But we’d best be off or we’ll be stuck here all night.” She jerked her head in the direction of the crowd that had gathered enough courage to approach. “Next time, Doctor.” Striking a regal pose, she rose into the air, then waved magnanimously at her admirers before streaking away.
Following her lead, Jon hopped up and away to find an escape route. He couldn’t climb as usual whilst cradling his injured arm, but he knew from previous experience that few people would fail to get out of the way of an obvious prime in a mask. Steeling himself, he kept his head high and strode down the path that opened before him, holding his arm close.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
After tucking her handbag into the bottom drawer of her desk, the first thing Donna did at work every morning was skip off to the break room to get her morning fuel. Sometimes it was coffee and sometimes it was tea, but it was always hot and it always picked her up. It also gave her the opportunity to catch up with everyone on the team as they lingered there with their own cups.
Greeted this time by Veena’s loud cackle as she related some story to Tom, Donna waved at them as she crossed the room to the kettle, then smiled as she saw who had gotten there before her, his back to the room as he poured himself a coffee. She came up beside Jon and touched his arm, quite aware that he wouldn’t be startled, that he’d heard her approach.
“Morning, Ears,” she murmured. Though she would have preferred to bounce up on tiptoes and plant a kiss on his cheek, after two months of dating him, she knew he despised PDAs and the attention they garnered. Honestly, it had only taken her two days to learn that.
Jon glanced down at her, his expression placid but his eyes shining as he gazed at her. “Morning, Donna. Had a good day yesterday?”
“As much as I could spending it in the garden, spreading dirt around and hauling things for Mum. We could have used some muscle,” she winked.
Jon wrinkled his nose as he pulled down a cup for her. “There’s a reason I didn’t go in for biology. Coffee?”
“Tea, please.” She selected a tea bag as he poured her some water from the kettle. “It wasn't biology at all. It was farming -”
“Donna!” Veena shrieked with no concern for interrupting her friend’s conversation. “Did you hear?”
Rolling her eyes with a sardonic smile, Donna turned. “What about?”
“The prime battle last night, up in Stonebridge.”
Donna flashed a grateful grin at Jon with a quiet “Thanks” as she accepted the cup from him, then headed to Veena’s table. Though she was dating a prime and knew they were people just like everyone else, prime news was still her favourite. “No, I hadn’t! What happened?” she asked as she plopped down in the seat next to her officemate.
In typical Veena style, she scooted her chair over to lean in to Donna in confidence, then announced loud enough so that everyone could hear, “Kathica. Apparently some prime got drunk and rowdy, smashed up a pub and the street outside, and it took Kathica and a couple others to beat him down.”
“Some unknown,” Veena replied with an overly-theatrical shrug. “They didn’t have a name at all on the news.”
Donna was impressed. It took quite a bit of power to go toe-to-toe with a major prime like Kathica. “He must be pretty strong. Maybe he’ll turn hero.” She flashed a smile at Jon, who nodded back as he headed for the door.
Veena straightened with a high cackle. “Nah. They said he’s only strong when he’s sloshed. They only had problems with him because he’d been drinking all night.”
“What?” Donna barked. “That’s useless, that is. What’s the use of a power if it only works when you’re -”
Jon’s cry of pain cut her off and she jumped from her seat, whirling to see him crouching in the doorway, clutching his left arm. Brian, who’d bumped into him as they passed each other, stared at him, not sure what had happened or how he could help. “So sorry, mate. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Jon reassured him with a pained smile. “I hurt my arm last night. You just jostled it. It’s okay.”
Donna was beside him in a moment, along with Veena. “What happened?”
“Nothing, nothing,” he breathed, flashing her a pained smile that was obviously meant to keep her from worrying. “I just, I just tripped on the stairs in my flat. Banged my arm. But it’s okay. It just hurt for a moment.”
As Veena and Brian attempted to usher Jon to a chair, Donna shot him a suspicious squint. That didn’t make sense, as Jon never used the stairs in his warehouse flat. He preferred to leap up the pipes and walls to get upstairs and to jump straight down from the landing to get downstairs. The fact that he was avoiding her gaze told her that he’d probably gotten hurt in a prime fight - possibly the one that Veena had just mentioned - and was keeping it quiet.
“No, thanks,” Jon was saying, trying to shake off his coworkers. “I’m fine.”
“It’s okay, Brian,” Donna interceded, pushing past Veena to get to her boyfriend. “I’ve got him. Come on, love, let’s go to your office.” She took Jon’s coffee from him and escorted him out, keeping on his right side. As soon as they were out of earshot of their friends, she murmured, “So, how’d it happen?”
“That fight that Veena was talking about. That prime was powerful. I jumped in to help Kathica, mostly running interference and giving the bloke another target.” He shrugged, then jerked at the pain in his arm. “I zigged when I should have zagged.”
Slipping an arm around his slim waist, Donna squeezed him lightly in sympathy. “You poor thing. I’m proud of you, getting in there like that,” she smiled. She trotted ahead and pushed his office door open for him.
Jon bit his lip like a boy trying hard to not be too pleased with himself. Sitting down in his chair, he accepted his coffee from Donna then took a sip before murmuring, “My first real fight. I think it went pretty well.”
“Sounds like it,” she agreed, then glanced at his hurt shoulder. “How bad is it, really?”
Grasping his injury, he massaged it a bit as he moved the arm around. “Not too bad. Tender, and I should definitely go easy on it for a couple of days. Brian surprised me more than anything, really.”
Donna tapped his good arm with a light fist. “You’re just saying that so I don’t worry.”
His shrug was sheepish, and he ducked his head away. “Well, it really isn’t as bad as it looks.”
She leant forward and pecked him on the forehead. “I know. Just take of yourself, Doctor. Don’t be in such a rush to be a hero that you stick your neck out too far.”
“Shush!” he whispered in an urgent hiss. “Brian’s coming down the hall.”
With a fond grin, Donna wagged a finger at him. “You forget. The rest of us can’t hear things like you can. I guarantee he didn’t hear me call you ‘Doctor’,” she teased in a normal volume, then giggled as Jon winced. Ruffling his hair, she air-kissed at him and twirled out the door. Brian was indeed approaching and they flashed each other smiles as they passed.
As he sat down at his desk, Brian offered his officemate another apology for jostling his shoulder, which Jon dismissed. The engineers then turned to their computers and set to their work. A half an hour later, Jon flopped back in his chair with a groan.
“Problem?” Brian threw over his shoulder as he sat back from his own work.
“Nah. Email from HR. Something about one of my files has an error.” He hopped up and loped out of the office, nodding back at Brian.
Jon hadn’t been fooled for a moment. The email had come from Lance, the head of HR, and he knew that there was nothing wrong with his employment forms. Lance was summoning him in his other capacity, to discuss last night’s conflict, and as Jon rode the lift up to management, he hummed with pride, congratulating himself on doing well enough that Silver Falcon himself wanted to see him about it.
As soon as he entered the HR department, Lina, one of the staff, looked up and smiled at him. “He said you’d be by. Go on in.” She motioned at the door at the other end of the room and returned to typing at her computer as Jon strode by. He tapped on the door and opened it as soon as the answering welcome sounded from within.
“Hello, sir. You said you needed me to look over something?” Jon kept his tone businesslike while Lina might still be able to hear, and was pleased to see Lance playing along.
“Yes. I try to keep up on our information when there are changes in people’s lives.” Turning away from his computer, he grabbed the folder sitting on the side of his desk and opened it. “You know, beneficiaries, contact info, that kind of thing. And I thought I’d heard you moved, so we should update your address and anything else that’s changed recently.”
“No, I hadn’t. I’m still at the same place in Acton, but let’s look over the rest. I had some questions about my file as well,” Jon replied as he closed the door, then settled into the chair that Lance indicated with a wiggle of his fingers.
Lance closed the folder and pushed it back where it had been before. “Last night, mate.”
Jon nodded. “Right down to business. I expected that.”
Leaning across the desk, Lance speared Jon with an angry glare. “What do you think you were doing, getting involved in that fight?”
Jon jerked back, his eyes wide with surprise. This wasn’t at all what he’d expected. “I was helping subdue that bladdered prime. That’s what we do, don’t we?”
Lance jabbed a thumb at his own chest. “That’s what we do, yeah. You had no business being there.”
Jon gulped, his eyes wide. He’d never heard that the big primes - Silver Falcon, Kathica, Crimson Angel, and a few others - didn’t want others involved. He thought he’d established at least friendly relations with them, even if he wasn’t quite in their league. “What? Is the hero business members-only? Do I have to sit exams?”
Lance didn’t react at all to his quip. “No. It’s a wide-open industry for anyone who can contribute, but we already have enough problems with people getting in the way -”
“In the way?” Jon blurted. “I was helping!”
Lance shook his head. “Not the way Kathica told it. It would have taken her half as long to bring him down if she hadn’t had to keep him off of you”
“That’s not true!” Jon blurted. His injured pride made him forget his self-consciousness. “When I arrived, he had her pinned on the ground and was smacking her senseless. You know she’s not like you, Mr. Invulnerable. She can’t take that kind of punishment. She was already dazed and bruising.”
“All you did was annoy him,” Lance insisted, tossing his pen on the desk.
“What I did was distract him,” he explained. “I gave Kathica the time to recover and get back up, and then I made openings so she had the time to plan her attacks.”
“No, you gave Kathica something else to worry about. Look at your shoulder! Yes, I know about that,” he groaned at Jon’s surprise. “You’re lucky that it was only dislocated. You wouldn’t be here right now if Kathica hadn’t clobbered him with that pole.”
“You’re exaggerating,” accused Jon, though he couldn’t meet Lance’s gaze. He tried not to think about what had been happening when the prime’s head had rung like a gong.
“I’m not, mate,” Lance replied. “And that’s what I’m talking about. You’re not up for this. You’re not in our league.”
Losing confidence by the second, Jon tried to keep up his side of the discussion. “So, it is members-only. You can only fight if you’re strong enough or your powers are flashy enough, or you’ve got a major pop endorsement.”
“There’s the problem, right there.” Lance leant across the desk and tapped on the gleaming wood surface. “You made a name for yourself with Saxon, and you think it means you can fight. You’re fast and you’re clever, but that isn’t enough when things get real. You just don’t have the power.”
Crossing his arms, Jon stared off at the file cabinets. He’d been a moment from permanent paralysis, if he hadn’t been killed outright. There was no way to tell for sure, but Lance was probably right, that he’d never had found himself in that situation if he was more powerful or if his skills were more combat-oriented. However, he certainly wasn’t going to admit that out loud.
Lance favoured him with a patronising smile. “Tell me, Jon, when we battled at that rally, how were you planning to take me down?”
Jon bit his lip. He knew Silver Falcon’s weakness, but he honestly hadn’t had a plan for defeating him other than stalling long enough until his powers faded, which admittedly was going to take all day. Not the best plan, he knew, so he equivocated. “I had some ideas. I’m more resourceful than you think.”
“And that’s another thing,” Lance replied, tapping the desk. “You’re a loner. If we’re going to work with you, we need to know what your powers are, but you won’t tell us.”
“I’m quick and super-agile.” He shrugged. “That’s all I am.”
Lance rolled his eyes, snorting. “Bollocks. I saw you bring Saxon’s stage down. I don’t know how you did it, but I know you’re keeping it from us. How are we supposed to work with you if we don’t know what you can do?”
Throwing his hands up in frustration, Jon decided it would be best to just concede the point and leave. Donna had shown him he could still serve whilst staying well below the big primes’ level. “All right. I get it. I’m not welcome in the big hero business. Stick to the small fry and look the other way when a big shark comes along.”
Just as frustrated as the man across the desk from him, Lance plopped back in his chair and sighed. “I’m not saying that. I’m telling you that this business is dangerous and you got off light with that shoulder. You think it isn’t a big deal because afterwards, any knocks you take will just go away and it’ll all be good, but there might not be an afterwards. You could get killed in an instant, or get hurt badly enough that it’ll never heal.”
Jon held up a hand to stop him. “Wait, what? What are you talking about, afterwards?”
“You know, shrugging off the injuries.” Lance glanced at Jon’s shoulder. “Taking risks because you know you’ll heal up if they go wrong.”
“I’m not invulnerable like you,” Jon reminded him. “You can shrug things off. I get hurt.”
Lance stared at Jon. “You mean you don’t know?” Jon shook his head, confused. “Oh, mate, you’re barking. Primes heal fast.” At Jon’s blank frown, he smiled incredulously. “Come on, you must know that.”
Jon frowned. “First I’ve heard.”
Lance couldn’t shake his amazement. “You never noticed.”
He pointed at Jon’s shoulder. “Look at that. You’re using it, aren’t you?”
Jon grasped his shoulder and massaged it as he rolled it back and forth. “It hurts.”
“Of course it does, but nowhere near like it did last night, right?” Lance waited for a confirmation that never came. “And if I’ve read you right, you didn’t go to A&E to have it treated. If you were normal, that thing’d be swollen and if you moved it like that, you’d scream.”
Jon pursed his lips with a sceptical snort. “I didn’t hurt this that badly.”
“You dislocated it, Jon. I know you did, ‘cause Kathica said she helped you push it back in. That’s bad. It would take a normal person weeks to get to the point you’re at now.” Lance rolled his eyes at the engineer’s reluctance to consider the evidence in front of him. “Look.” He tapped on the computer monitor. “If I were to pull up your file, how many sick days would it say you’ve taken since you ascended? I’m betting not a one.”
Jon’s eyes snapped to Lance’s. “‘Ascended’?” he hissed.
“Yeah,” Lance nodded. “It’s the word for when you got your powers.”
Jon frowned. The word grated against his sensibilities. “I’ve never heard it before. Bit cocky, isn’t it?”
Shrugging, Lance sat back in his chair and shook his head. “It’s just a word. Important event, so we needed a word for it.”
“How about ‘when you got your powers’?” suggested Jon.
Throwing his hands up, Lance cried, “Why are we arguing about this? That’s the word we use, all right? It’s an event in our lives, so it’s our word.”
“Not my word.” Jon’s murmur was too soft for Lance to hear but it thundered through his own ears.
“Let’s get back to the point, shall we?” Lance jabbed a thumb at the monitor. “Should I check your file?”
With a sigh, Jon glanced at the computer. “No. You’re right. I haven’t been sick since I came to work here, but I’d not noticed. I’d no idea.”
“It’s the one thing that’s the same for every prime. Even ones with weak or useless powers, they got the benefit of health.” Lance tapped on the desk to catch Jon’s attention. “But you can’t rely on that. What we do at our level is dangerous. You shouldn’t get involved.”
Crossing his arms, Jon sat back in his seat and regarded Lance with a mature, serious air. “I’m well aware of the risks. I know I could get hurt or killed, but I’m willing to take that chance. I want to help. I want to use what I’ve been given to make a difference. And I know that I helped Kathica win that fight. This,” and he tapped his shoulder, “was a small price to pay.”
“Oh, wonderful. An idealist.” Lance pinched the bridge of his nose, then leant forward over the desk. “All right then, mate, let me ask you this. What about Donna?”
A dangerous spark flared in Jon’s eyes. “Don’t drag her into this,” he grated out through clenched teeth. A low buzzing filled his ears.
“Think about it, mate. What… about… Donna?” Lance repeated with careful emphasis. “Have you thought about how she’s going to weather this?”
“What are you implying?” he sneered. “That I bring her into dangerous situations like that? You’re daft.”
“You’ve already done so once,” Lance noted.
“That was not my fault! I told her to stay away!” protested Jon, but Lance swept away his concerns with a hand.
“All right, yes, I know you don’t if you can help it. But tell me,” he demanded, tapping on the desk, “what’s it going to do to her if you get hurt or killed? Picture her hearing that headline on the late news. ‘Earlier this evening, in a battle over central London, a local prime was killed when a thrown rebar pierced him through the chest.’ How do you think that’s going to affect her?”
“Oh, no.” Jon thrust a finger at him. “You don’t get to hold that over me. The thought of how your death might have affected her didn’t stop you either.”
“But you’re not me. You’re fragile, Doctor.” Lance glanced meaningfully at Jon’s shoulder. “Do you really want her to worry each time you step out of the door?”
“She’s the one who wants me out there!” Jon hissed, then snapped his eyes shut to calm himself down. Lance was baiting him with horrible predictions and their effect on the woman he loved, and the power that thrummed within him was aching to explode in response. He couldn’t allow himself to lose control, if only because he didn’t want to have to explain to the company how Lance’s furniture got demolished; he certainly had no concerns about harming Lance himself. Opening his eyes, he forced himself to respond with even, measured words. “She started me on this path, back on that night when you left her injured in that alley with three, no, four strange men. I wear the mask because she wants me to help people, to go out there and do something good.”
With a shake of his head, Lance breathed, “Jon, Jon. Open your eyes. She wants you to wear the mask so that you’ll be famous and glamourous like me.”
Jon gaped like a goldfish, unable to believe what he’d just heard. “That’s not true,” he insisted after gulping down his incredulity. “You really don’t know her at all, do you? There’s more to her than you ever saw.”
Lance glanced up at the ceiling, shaking his head. “Come on, mate. You know full well that she idolises us. That’s what she values in a man. She wants celebrity.” He snorted a laugh as he looked over the awkward, insecure engineer. “You really think she looked at your nerd arse even once before she found out you’re a prime?”
Jon’s heart leapt into his throat. He had no idea why Donna had ever spoken to him at all, much less why they were together now, what she saw in him. In a panic, he tried to divert the topic. “She’d no idea you were a prime either, but she stayed with you.”
Lance’s laughter mocked him. “I’m a manager, mate. I got the sharp suits and the posh flat in town, and that’s what started it all. I don’t deceive myself that I attracted her with my winning personality. The love came later.”
“You’re wrong.” It was the only thing Jon could think to say.
“I’ve known her a lot longer than you have. I know what’s really important to her. Tell me, after all that she’s seen, at that riot in Soho and with Saxon, does she still watch Kathica’s reality show?” Jon’s broody silence answered his question. “Protect her, Jon. Protect her by protecting yourself.”
Springing forward, Jon braced himself on the desk, leaning into Lance in challenge. “You don’t get to tell me that I’m doing her wrong. You had your chance with her and you blew it.”
Lance was not fazed. “Oh, yes, I can. Sure, it was my fault, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still care about her. I’m not going to let her be the victim of your naivete.”
“My naivete?” growled Jon. He could feel the sound building up around him, straining to burst, and he took a deep breath to force it to dissipate. “What about yours?” he finally hissed. “You did exactly the same thing. She didn’t even know that every night she spent with you might have been your last.”
“Yes. Yes, I did, but I shouldn’t have.” He tapped the desk. “Take your lessons from my mistakes, mate!”
“Oh, and I suppose this means you’ve stopped using that slick silver costume and that fake baritone to charm women into bed.” This time, it was Lance’s turn to glance away with an awkward twitch of his shoulders. “I thought not.” Rising from his chair, Jon towered over the HR manager. “Save your advice and regrets for someone who doesn’t know what a complete wanker you really are.”
Spinning on his heel, Jon strode away. The voice of Lina, whispering a personal call into her mobile in the outer office, gave him pause, and he collected himself before opening the door with a casual flourish. Murmuring a nervous “Thanks, sir!” over his shoulder, he nodded at Lina and glanced away quickly as he passed her desk.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
Flaring her deep blue skirt around her as she descended the stair, Donna fairly glowed at the praise from her mother. She’d spent a full hour primping, brushing out her hair and getting her make-up just right, and every minute had been worth it, just for this.
“Oh, Donna, you look magnificent!” Sylvia declared, rising from the couch to get a better look at her daughter. “Didn’t spare a thing, did you?”
“Of course she wouldn’t,” remarked Wilf, beaming at his granddaughter from his favourite armchair. “Not for Jon, bless him.”
“Too right, Gramps.” At the bottom of the stair, Donna pirouetted to Wilf’s applause.
“You should have put your hair up,” Sylvia scolded.
“And there,” Donna snorted. “Always have to find something wrong. For your information, Mother, Jon prefers my hair down. He says he likes the flowing ginger.”
“Oh, but if your hair was up, those earrings would stand out.” She reached up to finger one of the dangling pieces. “I don’t think I’ve seen these before.”
Donna lifted her chin proudly to give her mother a better view of them. “You haven’t. Present from Jon.”
Sylvia gaped at her. “Real diamonds and sapphires?”
“Yup!” Donna grinned with smug satisfaction. “Well, the sapphires are man-made, so they don’t cost thousands. He says one-tenth the price and the colour and clarity are better.”
“He has excellent taste in jewelry. Are you sure he’s an engineer?” She flashed her daughter a teasing smile as she returned to the couch. “What are the plans for tonight?”
“Dinner and a show on the West End. Don’t know which. He says it’s a surprise. And…” Donna twirled to point at her grandfather. “He said to tell you that we’ll be back in plenty of time to go up the hill afterwards.”
“Oh, no.” Wilf jiggled his hands in front of him. “You two lovebirds stay out as long as you want.”
Donna shrugged. “He’s going to insist on joining you if you’re up there when we get back.” The doorbell rang just then. “Oh, there he is.”
Donna opened the door to find Jon standing there stunned, clasping a bouquet of roses to his chest, his eyes wide as he looked her up and down. “Oh, Donna, you look lovely,” he murmured.
“Why, thank you,” she cooed. “You’re especially dashing yourself.” Jon never realised how well his tailored suit, which he only wore for special occasions, suited him.
“Oh! No, no…” he mumbled, averting his face in embarrassment.
Donna bit back a fond grin. As fun as it was to needle him, she knew she had to stop. She intended for them to have a memorable romantic night out, and that wouldn’t happen if she embarrassed him into silence. “Are those for me?” she asked, gesturing at the roses.
“Oh, yes, of course!” Startled, he thrust them into her hands. Donna breathed in the scent of the biggest bloom.
“They’re simply gorgeous!” she gushed.
“Not as lovely as you,” he replied, then coloured at his own boldness.
“Geroff!” Donna swatted his arm, though her self-conscious smile indicated her pleasure at the compliment. “Come inside for just a mo’ and say hi to Mum and Granddad.”
Jon stepped inside to exchange pleasantries with Donna’s family as she took the flowers to the kitchen and fetched her handbag. She returned to find her mother admonishing Jon for calling her “Mrs. Noble”, noting that she’d asked that he refer to her by her first name weeks before. “‘Mrs. Noble’ makes me feel like an old grandmother, and I’d rather not until I actually am one.” She glanced meaningfully at Donna.
“Oh, not that old whinge again,” Donna sighed. “You’ll have to hold that ‘til we’re back. We’ve got reservations waiting for us.”
“You two have a fine evening,” said Sylvia. “You got your keys, don’t you? Because I’ll be upstairs by the time you get back.”
“Yes, I do. Night, Mum, Granddad.”
Once out in the summer early twilight, Jon offered Donna his arm and escorted her to his tiny car, parked down the street a bit. A white Mini Metro, it was efficient and pragmatic, much like Jon himself. He used it rarely, as he preferred to walk, run, or climb whenever he could, but it served him well and Donna had no objection to it other than looking worn and out of place when they were dressed so well.
Donna might have suspected that Jon could read minds, for as soon as they’d pulled out into the road, he commented, “I’ve decided to replace this thing finally. Get something modern and clean, I think.”
“You are?” Donna squeaked. The announcement had taken her completely by surprise. “I thought you liked it.”
“I do. It was all I could afford while I was at Cambridge, and it’s served me perfectly well.” He patted the dashboard lovingly. “It’s just time to do better, don’t you think?”
Donna shrugged. “I’ve no complaints. Though, why not something sleek and sporty?”
“I never really cared about getting something like that. I want something useful and comfortable, something that could take us anywhere.” With a shy smile, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Like Paris. What do you think?”
Donna’s jaw dropped open. “Paris?” she sputtered. “What’s the occasion?”
“No occasion. Just the best for my Donna.” Keeping an eye on the road, he reached over and patted her leg.
Donna cast a sidelong glance at him. “All right, Ears,” she growled, crossing her arms. “What’s going on? What’s wrong now?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Why would you think something is wrong?” Jon tried and failed to sound puzzled and nonchalant.
Donna snorted. “First jewelry, then a dozen roses and a romantic evening out, and now you’re getting a new car because you think I don’t like this one and we’re going to Paris in it? You’re buttering me up for something.”
Jon frowned at her. “Can’t I just want to show you how much I love you?”
“Of course you can. It’s sweet and all, but…” She peered at him. “It’s like you’ve never had a girlfriend before.”
“What?” Jon warred between shooting Donna an insulted glance and keeping his eyes on the road. “Of course I have! Lots of ‘em. Well, a few. Two that lasted for a span, really.”
“If they were worth anything, you’d know you don’t need to buy love.”
“I’m not trying to buy you.” With his eyes fixed forward as if he didn’t dare look at Donna, he swallowed hard. “I just… I just… I just want to make sure you know I love you, in case, well, in case something happens to me. Because it could,” he rushed on before Donna could protest. “Blink of an eye and I could be gone forever.”
With a worried frown, Donna reached over and squeezed his hand on the steering wheel. “What happened? What’s brought this on?”
Jon fell silent for a moment. He raked a hand through his hair as he studied the road in front of him. “That fight last week. The one with Kathica. I didn’t tell you everything about it. I didn’t tell you that that prime - Tom was his name. He almost killed me.” Donna gasped, clapping a hand to her mouth. “Well, maybe I wouldn’t have died, but if Kathica hadn’t knocked him out, it would have been bad.” He couldn’t bring himself to admit out loud that the best case outcome would have left him a paraplegic. “Really bad.”
“Oh, Jon, that must’ve been terrifying!”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.” Shaking his head, he sighed heavily. “It all turned out well, and I was so proud of my first big fight that maybe I just forgot. I didn’t want to think about it. But then it was pointed out to me that if I had died, what would’ve happened to you?”
“Pointed out?” Donna turned to stare at him. “Who said that?” she demanded. “Who’ve you been talking to about this?”
Donna crossed her arms with a snort. “Don’t listen to a word that tosser says.”
“He’s not a tosser.” Jon always gave the man more credit than Donna felt he deserved. “He knows a lot more about this life than I do, and he’s right. I haven’t cared about how this all affects you. I mean, yes, you know I go out and do this, and we make sure I balance that life with this one, but we’ve never once thought about how dangerous this is. I’ve been so selfish, throwing myself into danger without even a thought for you.”
“Maybe you haven’t thought about it, jackrabbit,” Donna began, prodding him in the thigh with a finger, “but that doesn’t mean I haven’t. I can’t not have. I worry for you every time you put on that mask, you know. I know you’re powerful, but -”
“I’m not. I’m really not.”
“Zip it, slim,” she shot back. “You are. There’re some more powerful than you, yes, but you’re still up there in your own way, and you’ve got that brilliant mind to back it up. But it doesn’t matter. You’re still human. You make the wrong move and you’re gone.”
He jumped on that immediately. “That’s what I was saying. One day, I’ll walk out the door and never come home, and where will that leave you? I can’t live with that thought.”
“Yes, you can, and you know why? Because it’s not your choice.” He turned to stare at her in confusion and met her eyes shining with confidence. “Not just yours, anyway. I’ve always had a say in this. I know what you’re doing and I know the risks, and I’m good with it. If I wasn’t, I’d say so. You see, Ears, I know this is what you want to do. You want to help and make a difference. Putting on that mask gave you purpose. You’ve not changed your mind on that, have you?”
“No, I haven’t. All this, the powers and the problems,” and he pointed at himself, “it all makes some kind of twisted sense, when I use them right.”
Donna nodded. “You see? I’m not going to take that away from you. And if you get hurt, or the worst happens, yes, it’s going to hurt, it can’t not, but I can handle it and you’ll have lived your life the way you wanted. That’s what’s important.”
Jon fell silent for a moment as he considered what she’d said. “Really?” he finally whispered.
He sighed. “I don’t want you to worry for me. I hate the thought that you’re at home wondering if I’m ever coming back.”
“I’m more the optimist than you think,” she said, winking even though she knew he couldn’t see it. “I’m always sure you’ll give the bad guys what for.”
Jon laughed. “I try.”
“Good enough for me. And another thing,” she added, shaking a finger at him where he could see it. “You go tell Lance to shut his bloody gob. He never gave me the chance to worry for him, or to cheer him on. If some supervillain had locked him up or killed him, he’d have never come home and I’d have never known what happened. The nerve of him telling you what he didn’t do himself. He’s a complete tosser,” she declared.
“He’s not -”
“Shhhp!” she cut him off with a hiss. “So what else has he been telling you?”
“Donna,” Jon whinged, “it’s not like I’ve been seeking him out for advice or anything. We happened to chat about this once.”
“And he said?”
“Nothing important. Just what I already said.”
Donna glanced at him askance. “Really?”
“Yes,” Jon confirmed with an irritated sigh.
Donna sniffed. Jon was not a good liar. Something else that Lance had said still bothered him, but she knew this wasn’t the time to press him further. Jon had lived alone with his secrets for too long and suppressing his anxieties was all too natural for him now. Steady support - that was the trick. It took time, but take his hand and stand by his side, and one day, he’ll open up.
“That’s sorted, then,” she declared. “You be the best Doctor you can, and I’ll be on the ground shouting how that’s my Jon up there.”
“To who?” Jon asked, laughing at the idea. “No one’ll believe that’s me up there, ever.”
“I don’t know. Someone’ll know someday.” She eyed him with a cagey smile as she brought up a suggestion he’d nixed many times previously. “Gramps, of course. You really should tell him. He’d be so proud of you.”
It was bigger concession than he’d ever given before, and it warmed her heart. He was making progress. “Oh, and just so you know, I’ll take that Paris. Just ‘cause I said you don’t need to buy me doesn’t mean you can take that back.”
Jon grinned at her, his eyes sparkling, and he squeezed her hand. “I never would. Anything for my Donna.”