The rest of the play required little involvement from me, and none from Zach. After all, it wasn’t written with Imbued in mind. We were a benefit, one that would give an artificial boost to the numbers, but not the main attraction. Aside the curtain trick, there was nothing we did that couldn’t be imitated by dry ice, Velcro, and basic slight of hand. As far as I was concerned, it was better that way.
I allowed myself to enjoy the show, losing myself in the art and pageantry as best I could despite the inevitable confrontation that would come after. Well, Muwth might call us up with an emergency. Maybe some supervillains who thinks they’re unstoppable will try to take over the city. Heh, fat chance, that’s the sort of thing that only happens in movies and third world nations.
The actors had to clear the stage themselves, since they only had so much money to spend on our help, and the stunts they arranged broke that budget. On the other hand, their cut of the ticket sales would make their money back with change to spare. I considered helping, but I’d done a lot for them already, and there was a fine line between ‘helping’ and ‘letting others take advantage of you’. Besides, I had problems of my own to worry about.
“I thought there was supposed to be an after-party or something,” Zach said. “Hang out a bit, then slip away?”
Of course he wouldn’t know, this is his first play here. “Not tonight. They’ve got the stage for three days, and the next two will be the money makers.” Fridays and Saturdays were when the crowds were largest, and the spectacle Zach pulled off tonight to bring a lot of repeat customers and their friends. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the house is packed full tomorrow. The party comes Saturday night, if they’re not too exhausted. Lotta times, the actors go home, pass out, and have their party the next day if at all.”
“Oh,” he looked toward the stage. “Guess I have a bit more time than I thought.”
“Yeah.” Dammit, Beth, he’s a boy, not a radioactive slime monster. Difference being, I’d know how to deal with a radioactive slime monster. “Let’s go up to my apartment. It’ll be easier to talk there.” If I’m lucky, my coworkers won’t think we’re in a relationship and assume we’re up there… doing… dammit.
Zach gave his usual lopsided grin. “Sure, it is a bit noisy down here.”
I led him up the staircase in relative silence, save for the creaking of the stairs themselves. Another on the list of things that needed repaired. The building was more stone and brick than anything, so it could be counted on to survive another hundred years assuming nothing serious happened, but the insides were less resistant to the ravages of age. It didn’t help that my loft was an afterthought, never intended in the original design of the building. A perfect metaphor for my life.
Once in the privacy of my apartment, I realized it was too clean, too immaculate, to look like a place human beings lived in. My Tuatha were inhumanly meticulous, and I’d been using them a lot lately. A pretty farce maintained by the pretty farces. Nothing to be done about it, now. I focused inward on the Gold Regalia, modified its structure on the fly, and with it the helm of my armor returned to the Everywhere and exposed my face.
“Seems like the wrong time to wear a mask, huh?” I turned toward Zach and tried to smile, but decided I had no hope of making it believable. I dropped that for whatever I looked like when I was worried and nervous. It had to be better than a forced smile. “So.”
“So.” Zach shifted some on his feet, looked up at my ceiling for a moment, then back down to me. “Guess since I was the one who brought it up, I should go first?”
Oh, good, I get to delay a little bit longer. With any luck, a world-killing asteroid will come along and save me. “If you want to.”
He folded inward, slouching and slumping his shoulders in a way that made him seem smaller, though still larger than me. “Kinda hoping you’d tell me what to think. I have no idea how women work. Like, if I had the power to read their minds, I still wouldn’t know what I was doing.”
“Oh.” We have that in common. I looked away from him, examining the almost sterile expanse of my home. In a way, it reminded me of Doctor Cantu’s office, designed to invite without being objectionable or lived in. “I think everyone feels that way.” We’re more alike than we are different. I looked back toward Zach, who didn’t seem to notice or care about my decor. “Doesn’t matter if it’s men or women, unless you’ve known them for years can you say you really know how anyone thinks?” And not even then, as my own family proved to me.
“Well, I can think of one exception,” Zach said. He muttered something further, too quiet for me to hear. “I thought about asking Laura for advice.” Thank god he didn’t, that girl is terrifying when it comes to protecting her little brother. “Then I realized that would mean taking relationship advice fr- uh, I mean, fuck. Can we pretend I said something other than ‘relationship’? Pick a word, any word at all, we’ll say I said that instead.”
I, meanwhile, was forcing my own emotions back down, practicing the breathing exercises while ignoring the sudden need to go pee. Yes, pretend he said anything else. “Umm, I’m sure she’ll support your life decisions, but I doubt she has any advice to give about competitive yodeling.”
Zach chuckled. “I’m gonna have to remember that one.”
Is he serious, or is he just being polite. I suppose it doesn’t matter. “Is that your new strategy against the villains? Instead of pissing them off until they attack you, you’re going to say weird stuff until they give up?”
“That’s an idea that’s crazy enough to work,” he said. “I mean, everyone and their grandmother’s done ‘I am the terror that flaps in the night’. It’s lost its shock value, unless you go psycho and start shooting people for jaywalking. But I bet they’d rethink their life decisions if some lunatic screaming about mind control sheep in the sewers started throwing origami cranes made from demotivational posters at them while wearing a rubber horse mask. And nothing else.”
I brought my hand to cover my mouth as I giggled. “I think there are laws against that.”
“Depends on how I wear the mask.” He turned sideways, then made a terrible imitation of the javelin-thrower pose. As stupid as his pose was, I had to admit he was in good enough shape that it showed his arms had definition to them, though his baggy shirt hid the rest of his physique. “I will call myself The Random Encounter!”
“That’s terrible!” Between the stress of the day and the mental image, I started to laugh for real, until a rather unladylike snort silenced me. “If you do, I’ll tell your sister.”
He paused in mock horror, then snapped to military attention. “I’ll be good!” A moment later, his body relaxed, but his face remained tight. “So, on a serious note, last night was… I was kinda wondering if that was a one time thing, or if you had feelings for me, or what. My money’s on ‘no’, or you wouldn’t be avoiding talking about it?”
I still couldn’t figure out the look on his face. Of all the powers I’d wished I got instead of my summons, on those rare moments I didn’t wish I’d never gotten powers at all, mind reading was high on the list. Knowing my luck, I’d find out everyone really did hate me, instead of just fearing they did. Still, I could tell that right now he was asking for an answer, even if I couldn’t figure out what answer he wanted to hear, or the answer I wanted to give, for that matter.
Guys hate girls who get clingy and start talking about feelings, and besides, nobody wants to date anyone who needs drugs to act like a normal person. “I don’t. Sorry.” The age gap, looks gap, and fact that we work together piles even more reasons it’s a terrible idea. “You’re a great guy and all, but-”
“Please don’t do the ‘great guy’ thing,” he cut me off. “First, let’s be honest, I’m pretty sure that’s right up there with ‘we can still be friends’ as worst things to say in situations like this one. I don’t know how it is for girls, but for guys it’s even worse than ‘by the way, I cheated on you with your best friend’ as far as ego crushing goes. At least that one gives you someone to be pissed at other than yourself.”
That sounds terrible on a number of levels. Is it because men and women think different, or am I the problem? No, if it were only me, the line wouldn’t be a cliché of every breakup ever shown on screen. “What should I say?”
“I dunno,” he said. “All I’m good at is pissing people off, not making them feel better. Also keep away from ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, that’s almost as bad. And I apologize in advance, but I’m about to use it on you.”
What. “Okay.” Why do I feel like I’m the one getting rejected?
“Truth is, I’m glad you’re not interested.” He looked down and away, like he was waiting for his left hip to do something amazing. “To quote a wise man. You gotta know when to fold’em. And right now, it’s foldin’ time. I’m not ready for a relationship.” He kept his eyes away, and his voice got so quiet I couldn’t hear his next few words. Later, I would wish I asked him to repeat them for me, but I didn’t.
Instead, I forced myself to remember that he’d been through hell the last few months. After having a serial killer for a stalker, girlfriend who stabbed him in the back before getting kidnapped by said serial killer, and a girl he’d crushed on for years was murdered by that aforementioned serial killer, it was something of a miracle he was willing to leave his house. He coped better than would have in his situation.
It still stung a little, but he was right: he wasn’t in a good place for a relationship. Neither was I, for that matter. “Well, that makes this pretty easy, doesn’t it?” I asked. My smile wasn’t fake or forced, but there also wasn’t any happiness to it.
“Yeup, we’re right back where we were this time yesterday.” He put his lopsided smile back on. “No regrets, right?”
I have so many regrets, I won’t let this be one of them. “None at all.” I’m glad he’s understanding, I will be, too. “We’re still friends? I know you said that was a bad thing, but it’s different when it’s mutual, right?”
“As many times as you’ve saved my ass? Of course we are. Besides, if I said no, I’d have to tell my sister what happened, and she’d take your side. She likes you better than me.” He seemed sincere, except maybe for the last part. “Besides, I get to take ‘makeout session with a celebrity’ off my bucket list.”
“It was not a makeout session!” I smiled in spite of my objection. I get to keep my friends.
“All things are possible through the power of self-delusion,” he said. He took a couple awkward steps closer. “I kinda want to hug you, but last time I got shanked by Legolas’ even more girly cousin.”
I knew he was joking, but it hurt a little to be reminded how little control I had over my summons. Most of my problems in life could be summed up by my lack of control. “I could go for a hug right now.”
His arms were around me before I finished giving permission. Behind my armor, I couldn’t feel much of it, and under the armor I was in the same night shirt I slept in, so I wasn’t about to dismiss the armor. Still, the sentiment was nice. I’m sure he found it weird that I kept the armor going, but he made no mention of it, then let go.
“And with that out of the way, I need to get home. Because unless all the stars in the sky died while we were up here, I’m still grounded.”
“Right.” I walked to the door to see him out, because it felt like the thing to do. “Muwth hasn’t called, so I guess tonight’s a quiet one.” The bitter, dry cold we’d been suffering through after New Years was keeping criminals off the streets. In fact, it was so bad that some of the worst nights had cost some lives.
Perhaps those people claiming Clear Skies is causing permanent damage to the environment have a point. Imbued powers do have a habit of creating more problems than they solve, and continental scale weather manipulation represents a lot of solved problems.
Zach followed behind me. “Either that, or my precognition duplicate decided there wasn’t anything worth what my mother’s gonna do to me if I get caught sneaking out again,” he said. “I try not to think about it, down that road lies questions, migraines, and no answers in sight.”
Even the initial flash of curiosity confirmed he probably was right; the nature of free will, predestination, and the sheer number of branching possible futures Zach might, maybe, experience at any given moment was staggering. It could take weeks to do what Zach did otherwise, and yet it happened each night.
“Speaking of, I have one bit of good news,” I said. “I was saving it for the group meeting, but Muwth’s been keeping score on that project of yours. You’re responsible for cutting street crime by almost half. And the other half is stupid stuff like public intoxication, that’s never going away.”
I left out that the weather might also play a factor, as well as the fact that most crime isn’t street crime. Much like Zach’s trick with the curtain, the numbers looked impressive on the surface but started to fall apart once you dug deeper. No, Beth, remember what Doctor Cantu told you about focusing on the good rather than the bad. Sure, Zach and Muwth may not be changing the world, but for those people who weren’t abducted, raped, or killed, it’s as good as the whole world.
Zach smiled at me. “That’s actually really good news, thanks. And I’ll see you tomorrow, in the afternoon.”
I smiled back. “You know I’ll be here.”
I watched him start down the stairs, and again wondered what the rest of our coworkers would think of us being up here alone, even if only for a few minutes. I would have trouble facing them again tomorrow, but that was always the case. I closed the door, then went straight for my bathroom. I’d skipped last night’s pill, and this morning’s. Taking one now wouldn’t undo that fuckup, but at least things wouldn’t get any worse.
Plus, I needed a bath.