I heard the garage door open well before Nanna spoke. “Domenic, do you know where your sister ran off to? She’n your friend ain’t here.”
It was always ‘your sister’ when Beatrice was in trouble, and it seemed Chloe would get a similar treatment. “Sorry, Nanna, you know Beatrice how she is.”
“I thought your friend would be more responsible.” Nanna started walking away, grumpling something about taking a switch to Bea’s hide.
“She didn’t know!” I tried to say more, explain that I didn’t tell Chloe about our family’s troubles, but a sharp pain in my ribs reminded me that even talking too loud hurt. Besides, I was sure Nanna already understood; she just liked to complain when she was worried.
Wait, how come I ain’t worried? Yesterday, I would have been panicking for fear that today was the day Heritage would strike. I decided it was because Chloe was with her. She’d keep Bea from doing anything too stupid, and god help any criminals that Chloe went after. Besides, her parents would make certain their goons didn’t go after their little girl.
That girl is a ticking bomb of pent up frustrations; she might kill the first person who gives her an excuse. Oh, good, I was starting to wonder what I’d do without the dreading that every phone call might be from the cops.
I waited until I was sure Nanna had left before going back to working on my truck. I wasn’t what one would call a grease monkey, and the fractured ribs weren’t helping matters, but I picked up a few things over the years. I didn’t have much choice given my vehicle was older than I was; a detail not lost on the kids at school.
It took roughly thirty seconds of concentration before my power was ‘touching’ every bit of steel in the frame and engine. My perception of the truck’s inner workings was now a labyrinth of wires and tubes connected to nothing.
Once again, I wondered at my power’s arbitrary rules. I could see inside the pistons as if they were transparent as glass; by all logic, I should see only blackness in there. Of course, having no idea what the inside of a piston was supposed to look like, I couldn’t do much with the knowledge. I assumed since they all looked identical inside, that it meant they were all in good condition.
I looked where I could, and considered fusing the various nuts and bolts of the truck into solid pieces of metal, but I wasn’t confident it was a good idea. I took a similar caution with the welding in the frame; I just didn’t know enough about my power to justify the risk. It was possible the metal I altered would have inferior tensile strength or faults that would break in certain conditions.
Satisfied that the truck’s metal was in working order, I sat down with my notebook. The first thing I needed to do was test my powers, but all the real facilities for that were government owned; a government that touted a covert neo-nazi as one of the state’s most illustrious heroes.
I was beginning to see why there wasn’t much demand for powers like mine in the civilian sector. I could see it helping my career as a doctor to be able to reshape tools as needed or perform less invasive surgeries, but I didn’t have the sort of power that let me skip earning a medical license. Not for the first time, I wished I had a healing power; I would have been set for life.
I didn’t hear the door to the garage open the second time. “Domenic? Your grandma said you were in here.”
I stood and turned to see Chloe in the doorway; she was wearing a tanktop and shorts that were probably a size too small. It made the already gorgeous girl look that much better. “Uh, aren’t you cold?” I was just glad I still had my glasses on, because I couldn’t help but stare.
“I think my power protects me from temperatures. I should probably test that out.” Chloe walked in, for the first time since I met her she seemed unsure of herself. “So, uh, what are you doing?”
“Just trying to figure out how to make a lot of money fast without committing a crime, is all.” No point in denying it. “Turns out, it’s exactly as hard as it sounds. It’s like my power was selected specifically to f-mess with me. There’s nothing I can do that a cast mold can’t do ten times cheaper and better. Probably faster, too.” I started to feel like I was just whining, so I decided to change the subject. “So, I take it Bea took you shopping?”
Chloe decided she was interested in studying the oil stains on the floor. Turns out, when she blushed it extended as far down as her shoulders. “Yeah, some.”
I’ll bet. “Good, Bea could use friends that aren’t complete wastes of human flesh. I worry about her.”
“That’s funny, she says the same about you.” She looked at me, and even managed a half smile. “Though she thinks you need a girlfriend more than anything. Spent the whole time telling me what a great guy you were and, uh, ways to thank you.”
It was my turn to blush; fortunately, my skin was dark enough that no one could see it. “I take it the outfit was part of that?” I didn’t wait for confirmation. “Don’t listen to her she just likes to poke her nose where it doesn’t belong.” I could imagine her in a decade or two as the worst gossip in the neighborhood. “You don’t have to do anything for me.”
“I know, but I can’t figure it out. Why? Anyone else would be insisting I-”
“Because it’s just sick.” What kind of world did this girl live in where that kind of behavior was acceptable? “Besides, even if I was a scumbag, I like my arms attached where they are. As such, it’s probably not a good idea to pressure a girl who could rip me in half like tissue paper to sleep with me.”
“Oh!” She looked away again. “I was talking about money, actually.”
Now I had to look away. “Sorry, I was just, umm…” thinking with the wrong part of my anatomy.
“No, I should have made the question more clear. Beatrice was talking about blackmailing my family, and it got me thinking. You need the money, you know I have money, and after what I did you could sue my pants- uh, I mean, you could sue me and any judge would take your side.”
Big black guy sues cute little white girl with rich parents for beating him up? Evidently, Chloe’s opinion of the legal system was a whole lot kinder than mine. “I’m fine.” A total lie, and I’m sure we both knew it. “Besides, you’ve got problems of your own. It didn’t seem right to take advantage of you.”
That much, at least, was true.
She pursed her lips. “Can I ask you a couple things? You don’t have to answer.”
I never got the point of asking someone if you could ask them a question. “Sure, go ahead.”
“First, why do you need the money so badly? I know, rich girl privilege so I don’t know how important money really is, but you seem to be doing okay. What is there that can’t wait a little longer?”
I considered taking up her offer of not answering, but she’d been nothing but gracious. Aside the part where she beat the proverbial crap out of me. “Beatrice’s medical expenses. Insurance decided it was her fault, so they won’t cover her. The extra bills are enough that Nanna won’t be able to afford to keep the house.”
Chloe frowned, more in confusion than concern. “That doesn’t make sense. Insurance usually prefers to settle than risk court battles, then raise the premiums to compensate. And hospitals have entire business models built around dealing with deferred debts. Uncle Allen says it’s one of the safest tax shelters, because no one wants to be known for a bill that hurts medical charities.” She looked at me like I’d grown a second head. “No one told you that?”
It was no surprise to learn I was out of my element, here. “No. I mean, I knew there were charities, but if anyone told Nanna about ways to get costs reduced, I think she’d take them.” The woman loved coupons almost as much as she hated charity.
“They should have. Unless…” Chloe’s eyes flashed a dazzling shade of teal, almost blinding even through my sunglasses. “Those bastards!”
It didn’t take a genius to realize the conclusion she came to. “Hold on!” It was tempting to believe her, but I didn’t see how it would be helpful. Besides, Chloe had a tendency to break things when she was upset. “Do you really think some crazy conspiracy makes more sense than just assuming a couple people suck at their jobs?”
She looked at me, the crackle of static and tang of ozone still hung in the atmosphere, but the light faded. “It wouldn’t need to be a conspiracy. A couple small requests to open the cracks for you to fall through. God, I owe you even more than I thought.” Streaks of teal started running down her cheeks. “I don’t have a lot of money, but you can have it. I’ll-”
She went quiet when I put my hands on her shoulders. I was beginning to wonder if she might be bipolar. “Listen to me. Even if you’re right, and I suspect you’re jumping at shadows here, it’s not your fault. You are not your family, you owe us nothing. Besides, my family does not accept charity. Well except my sister. How much did she talk you into spending?”
Chloe shrugged, reminding me that I hadn’t taken my hands off her yet. I knew I should, but I couldn’t bring myself to. “I dunno, maybe three or four hundred.” I wondered in awe how she could be so cavalier about that kind of cash. “But it was with my card, so Mom and Dad are paying.”
Huh, somehow that makes me feel better about it. “Just don’t let Nanna know, and from now on talk to me before letting my sister talk you into things.”
She managed a genuine, if concerned, smile. “She’s good at getting people to do things against their better judgment, isn’t she?”
I rolled my eyes. “Good god, it’s like she has powers for it. Even works on me sometimes. The only person that seems to be immune is Nanna.” And you’re especially vulnerable, for several reasons. “So, if you’re not okay with what she wants to do, put your foot down. Like her trying to get us together. I’d tell her to stop, but then she’d try that much harder.”
“I can see that. Would it bother you so much if she succeeded?” I could not read the look on her face, some blend of emotions that may have included fear. I had never in my life wanted to kiss anyone as much as I wanted to kiss her then.
Instead, I took my hands off her shoulders. “I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like it. But, well, I saw how you looked at Bea.”
Her eyes widened, now only fear remained on her face. “Is it really that obvious?”
“A little less obvious as all the guys perving on her.” So, yes, extremely obvious. “Well, I don’t think Nanna noticed.”
“Do you think Beatrice knows?”
“I think Bea goes through life assuming everyone between puberty and menopause wants in her pants, myself being the lone exception.” I smiled, though there was no humor in it. “Problem is, she’s right far more often than she’s wrong.”
“Do… do you think she’d, well…”
I could guess what she was asking. “Not really.” Sorry, Chloe. “If you could sell it to her as a way to act out for attention, or a sugar-momma thing, I wouldn’t put it past her.” Maybe not the nicest things to say about my sister, but regrettably true. “But somehow I don’t think that’s what you want.”
“No.” At least she sounded disappointed rather than heartbroken.
“Sorry. If it makes you feel any better, I wish it could work out.” Yet another reason it will never happen. “She needs someone like you in her life. Who knows, maybe she’ll decide she’s sick of men some day?”
Another smile that fell somewhere between genuine and forced, which seemed to be her default state. “Thanks.” She leaned against me, a clear invite for a hug. I put my hands around her, trying not to think about how much I liked it. It was gentle, to spare my ribs any more suffering.
She stepped away, a sad smile on her face. “Well, if we’re wishing for the impossible, I think maybe I’d be happier if I got sick of women.”
“That would be nice, too.” I meet a great girl who appreciates me, who all but says she’d love to go out with me, but she’s gay. This is indisputable proof of God. Not only does He exist, He’s a sadistic bastard who laughs at my suffering.
“Oh, by the way, what did you tell them about why I had to stay here?” She seemed as eager as I was to change the subject. “That’s been bothering me all day.”
One of these days, I’ll have a conversation with Chloe that doesn’t get awkward. Not today. “Uh, before we start I just want to say I was desperate and backed into a corner. It was that or you having to find somewhere else to stay.” Or, as it turns out, I could have done it by standing up to Nanna. “I didn’t actually say anything, but, umm… I may have implied that you were being abused, well, sexually.”
“Oh.” Chloe stood there for a good minute. “I guess I can work with that. It can even make a good cover for why we’re not, well, together.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “So, any other questions.”
“One more, I guess.” Her expression changed to her second default state: cold determination. “You know I still want to be a hero. I’d like your help.”
Oh, god damn it! “You know I don’t want-”
“You don’t have to go out or anything.” I wondered if that bossy attitude was natural, or something she picked up. Either way, she was a hard person to say no to. “But I intend to. I’m going to need a costume and specialized equipment. Sure, I could buy it, but that might reveal my identity if anyone looks too hard. Do you think you can make handcuffs with your powers?”
Well, there’s something I never expected to be asked. “Maybe? If the mechanisms are simple enough, then yes. It’ll be easier if I have a pair to copy.”
“I’ll also need to test my powers, but not at a PREP facility; my mother might be able to get the records.” Same reason I had. “I know some places we can use, and your power could help create tools to test with.”
That didn’t sound too outrageous. “Is that all?”
“Well,” she smiled. “It wouldn’t hurt to have someone who can cover for me. Say I’m with them when I’m out patrolling. Doing things in private?”
“So, what, you want me to pretend we’re dating?” There is no way this can go over well. “That’s like begging for your parents to figure out I have powers.”
“I’d be surprised if they haven’t already. They won’t touch you as long as I’m here, too much risk that I’d go public out of spite.” I hoped she was wrong about the first half and right about the second. “And I can help you with your powers, too. I thought of something earlier. Just how good is your metal sensing anyway? What limits do you have for range?”
“I… don’t know if there is a hard limit.” At some point, I decided to trust Chloe. “It’s like normal sight, the further away it is the harder it is to see. And I can only see iron alloys with it, no other sort of metal.”
“Then you wouldn’t have too much problem seeing a house sized structure from a mile or two away in an open field?” Her smile told me she already had a plan.
“Umm, maybe, why?”
“How do you feel about boats?”