“Aaaand… that should just about do it.” Laura tugged on the towel, freeing my hair, then she handed me a mirror.
“I…” Forgot all words I might have said. The girl looking back in the mirror looked nothing like me at all. My light brown frizzy mop was replaced by a damp raven black head of hair. The fraying and split ends hadn’t changed, but the old saying that black hid a multitude of sins proved true.
Not only did the flaws in my hair seem somehow less, but that extended to the rest of the face. It had the effect of distracting from my freckles, the lines under my eyes, and no longer did my eyebrows look too dark for the face I now had a hard time recognizing. “I look like a Gothic doll.”
“Nowhere near enough mascara.” Laura stepped into my field of view, holding up a spray bottle. “Is that a yay or a nay? Because they say it’s spray-and-cleanse removal, but if you let it set more than an hour in hair like yours, cleansing’s gonna take all week.”
I was more than ready to believe she was speaking from experience. “It’s definitely a ‘yay’.” I looked back in the mirror, turning my head so I could watch the hair move in its usual uncontrollable way. While no less unruly and messy than before, I found myself enjoying the black contrast against my pale skin.
“Careful not to let it get to your head.” Laura spread the towel out on my counter and sprayed it with the bottle. A sour, peroxide-like smell filled the air along with faint wisps of white smoke. “I’ve known some people who started with dyes, then six months later they’re in my parlor demanding I give them a tramp stamp of their favorite song lyrics, while I have to explain to their mothers why I don’t do tats for fifteen year olds.”
What? “Please tell me that was a joke.”
She smirked at me. “It doesn’t happen all that often, maybe once or twice a year, but it happens. Sometimes, you get one who thinks they’re classy by going with Shakespear or Corinthians. Dumb kids being dumb kids doesn’t bother me. It’s their even dumber parents that piss me off.”
Dumb parents? “Is that why you stepped in front of Sapphire like that?” I wasn’t about to taint the sanctity of my home. She was Sapphire, unworthy of having a human name.
Laura looked at the towel, watching as the black splotches fizzed into gas and easily washed dirt. “Something like that.”
I wasn’t sure I liked the hesitation in her tone, the hints of fear which I hoped were in my imagination alone. Unwilling to ask, I shifted the topic of the conversation. “You know, Zach did pretty much the exact same thing, back…” before everything went wrong “…at the bank.”
Laura smirked in her particular way. “Sounds about right, but I bet I delivered the superior verbal beatdown. Best he got in was a bunch of sex jokes, right?”
“A couple,” I said. Laura had a certain way with words that her brother had never quite managed, but Zach had information to work with that Laura didn’t. “He never said she was older than the ice age, but he did manage to call her breasts small, so I guess that counts. But the stuff he said about police incompetence and beating minorities? I think those really pissed her off.”
“Hard edge bitch like her who dropped her family for her career?” Laura stopped for a moment to give me a pained look. “Uh, sorry.”
“Not your fault.” I didn’t like thinking about it, didn’t want to think about it, and began wondering why I was still talking about it at all. “She’s all that and worse, anyway.”
“And I’ll be sure and tell her that every chance I get,” Laura said. “Anyhow, hitting her in the career goes beyond a good roast and becomes a matter of pride.” Laura seemed set on assessing her and Zach’s respective performances like some manner of competative sport. “Guess I’ll concede a win to the runt, long as you promise not to tell him there was ever a contest.”
“Sure, I can keep that promise.” After today, I hope to go on pretending my mother died years ago, anyway. In a way, it wasn’t even an inaccurate sentiment; Pairbonds warped minds to the point that one could make a strong case they meant death in all ways save the physical.
“But I’m taking the moral victory,” Laura said, not content to give her brother full credit for whatever was going on in her mind. “On grounds that Zach only did it because he was a guy, trying to impress a cute girl.”
What. It took me a moment to recognize Laura was speaking of me, rather than anyone else. “Somehow, I don’t think so.” Zach didn’t know what I looked like, back then. Which may be a point in toward Laura’s theory now that I think about it. “Trying to impress Anima, maybe. Trust me, I get it, and I don’t blame-”
“Trust me, I know my brother, and he ain’t about that,” Laura cut me off. She took a step closer, her smirk replaced by a dead serious glare that somehow made me wonder if I’d done something wrong. “He doesn’t take help from anyone if he can avoid it. Have you ever known him to beg for anything? Ever? Don’t get me wrong, he’ll trade, buy it one way or another, but he’s got way too much stubborn pride to take, let alone manipulate people for it. He’d rather die, first.”
Oh, wow. Now that she’d said it outright, I knew she was right. He’d asked for help more than once, but it was always a negotiation rather than a request. The closest he’d come was convincing Muwth to lend her precognitive abilities to his mission, and that had been couched in helping people other than Zach.
“Not that dying is a big deal to him, these days.” The stern look faded from her face, returning to the gentle smirk she favored. “Point remains, Zach’s too proud to beg for help, but he’s still a guy. Men are genetically programmed to make fools of themselves for attractive women. Or impress their drinking buddies, but that’s an entirely different subject.”
Somehow, I doubted Laura’s assessment of the male half of the species was accurate, but I had a more pressing disagreement. “Please, we both know that, at best, I’m nothing to look at. Children don’t cry when I smile, but I’m not hot.”
Laura shrugged her shoulders. “Hot’s more in your head than in your body, but I’m pretty sure I labeled you as ‘cute’, which you totally are.”
Right. “Cute isn’t what guys are looking for, anyway. You don’t find my body type in magazines.”
“Trust me, you can’t name a thing in the world without there being at least one guy who’s looking for it. One of my exes bought me a six hundred dollar pair of boots, so I could use them to step on his…” Laura’s story came to an abrupt, and appreciated, stop. “Look, just trust me, guys like all kinds of things. In your case, you have a very expressive, rounded face, a great smile which really works with the dimples and freckles, and enough natural beauty to be attractive without being intimidating. Plus you have a personality that kinda makes other people instinctively want to trust you. Or, in simpler terms, you’re cute.”
I looked at her for a moment, analyzing her analysis. The logic was sound enough for basic consideration, though I didn’t quite buy it. “You seem to have given this a lot of thought.”
“Four years of working in a strip club while going to school to become a tattoo artist.” I was still astounded at how she showed no sign of shame or discomfort when talking about her prior profession. “You learn a lot of things about people in clubs. Sometimes, girls with your look would get a job. They never did that well on the stage.” An irrational sense of being insulted hit me, despite how I, myself, knew I wasn’t attractive. “But they were hard to keep around, total ATF bait.”
“ATF?” The only ATF I could think of off the top of my head was a Federal agency, which supported my belief I was being insulted right now.
“Oh, sorry. Stands for all-time-favorite.” Laura stepped away, moving toward the kitchen counter again. “You see it in waitressing and prostitution, too. Sometimes, a customer finds a girl who spanks his inner child just right. They’ll learn her schedule, be there whenever she is, drop more money than they can possibly afford. Lotta times, they think they’ve fallen in love and wanna rescue their girl from the biz. Sometimes, the girl even goes for it. I think those people watched Pretty Woman a few too many times growing up.”
Laura’s tone throughout the explanation was contemptuous at best. Which supported my initial suspicion that it was an insult. “And I remind you of girls like that?”
Laura chuckled. “What? You don’t like Julia Roberts?” She didn’t wait for me to answer before she continued. “And I just meant on a vague looks level, not anything specific. Point is, not every guy’s gonna be into you. But the ones who are. Well, I’ll tell you what I’d tell those girls at the club. Girls like me turn heads, but girls like you break hearts.”
I would almost have called Laura’s words profound, but I still didn’t believe her. She had the advantage of three or four years of life, and infinitely more experience with men than I had, so I was sure she knew more about the subject on a general level. However, no generality was true all of the time, and I didn’t see it applying to me on a personal level.
“Now, normally after I gave that part of the speech, I’d tell them how to exploit their special look mercilessly. All the little tricks that let them bilk their customers, usually by telling the girls to remember that these guys are basically creepy stalkers who pay them not to go to the cops like a sane woman would. The only question is about how much you can negotiate before giving them the privilege of pretending you care about them for anything other than their wallets.”
“But that…” is horrible. I stood there, trying reconcile what I thought I knew about Laura with what she was now saying.
“Makes me a horrid, unbelievably cynical bitch?” Laura put into words the things I was too polite to think. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get my panties twisted over the truth. And if I’m not already a hypocrite, I will be soon, because now that you know that about me, and about the kind of power you have over men, I’m going to make you swear to never fucking use it.”
I don’t have that kind of power over men, but even if I did. “Of course I’d never do anything like that. It’s disgusting.” Whether or not I believed Laura’s claims that she wasn’t bothered by such judgments of her character, I wasn’t feeling generous toward her feelings at that moment.
“And that’s where you differ from the girls that get anywhere stripping,” she said. “You wouldn’t last a week in a club. Which is a compliment, by the way.”
I guess I’ll take it as such. “Why are you telling me all this?” Her revelation didn’t strike me as the sort of conversation she was having for casual reasons, and it didn’t come across as some sort of tearful confession. It no longer sounded like some attempt to make me feel better about myself, the way I had initially suspected. Whatever her reason for this conversation, I couldn’t puzzle it out.
“Because I’ve also got a good nose for the type of guys who go for girls like you.” Laura’s tone became harder, dropping her usual cavalier attitude for something that bordered on threatening. “My brother just so happens to be one of them.”
Now it all makes sense. “There’s nothing going on between us, not like that. We’re friends and teammates, that’s all.” Aside the time he kissed me, and when I kissed him, and him being the first person who ever stood up to Sapphire for me, and all the other crap.
“Do you think that, or does he?” Laura didn’t seem to believe me. I wasn’t sure I believed me. “And does he know what you think?”
Dammit, are we sure Laura doesn’t have Infiltrator powers? “It’s come up in conversation, before.” It was as much as I was willing to tell her outright. “He said he’s done with relationship drama for the time being.”
“About five seconds after he got the idea that you weren’t interested, right?” Once again, Laura didn’t give me time to answer. “Guess what? He fucking lied. I love my brother, but good decision making ain’t exactly one of his virtues. If given a choice in the matter, he’s not going to be able to stay single for long. If you tell him you’re interested, he’s going to hesitate just long enough to make sure it’s not a prank or mind control.”
I would have found a nicer way to phrase it, but I had to agree with Laura’s assessment of Zach’s impulse control. I still didn’t think he was into me, but I had another angle to consider. “What if I’m not interested?”
Laura’s smirk returned. “Well, then I’d say keep doin’ what you’re doin’. Because little-miss-frozen-tits is gonna keep throwing herself at him, and I’m betting she’s got, like, two weeks before it works. Three if you’re lucky.”
She’s not wrong, but “Would that be such a bad thing? Cassandra-”
“Reminds me a lot of a younger me.” Laura’s expression softened some. “Would you let anyone you care about date someone like me?”
For a moment, I gave Laura’s question real consideration. On one hand, she was clearly doing this out of love for her brother. On the other hand, she was in her own words an unbelievably cynical bitch. “I don’t know, maybe.”
I hadn’t realized that it was possible to make laughter sound sarcastic, but Laura accomplished it. “Well, I sure as fuck wouldn’t. I’d much rather he end up with you, and he feels the same. But if I try to talk to him, he’s going to tell me to fuck right off and mind my own business. Or he’ll throw all the times he warned me about the asshole of the week I was dating back in my face. So now it’s all up to you.”
“No pressure, huh?”
“Other than the time limit before that bitch takes your man right out from under you? I can’t imagine what pressure you’re talking about.” Laura sighed, then looked toward the door. “Okay, I’m done with the heavy shit for today. I’m gonna go get some hard liquor, and you promise to think about what I said.”
As if I could think about anything else. “Yeah, I promise.”
“Oh, and make sure to wash that towel out while you’re at it. That stuff turns to glue if you let it dry.” Laura grabbed her spray bottle. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here Wednesday to help deal with Cassandra. Not peak business hours at my job, either.”
I wasn’t so sure I wanted Laura’s help, all considered. “Okay.” I left Laura to her cleanup and took the towel to the bathroom. There wasn’t much left for me to say to her, anyway.
I stopped to look in the mirror, at the dark haired stranger. I could almost imagine her breaking hearts the way Laura said. Dammit. I tossed the towel in the wash, then went for my bottle of pills. I got the feeling I was going to need them more than ever in the near future.