Zach walked the rest of the way into the room, somewhat stepping between me and Cassie. We formed a bit of a triangle, but it was a clear enough assertion of territoriality that Zach could be directly between us with a single step. The idea that Zach without any weapons stood a chance against Cassandra, or could do anything to protect me better than my power would, was laughable. The fact that he’d try anyway was touching.
Zach took a slow breath. “So, guess we’d better get down to business.” He pointed to Cassie. “Blah, blah, apology.” Then back at himself. “Bite me, I don’t care.” Then back to Cassie, who opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off. “Something, something, wanna join the team. Something, something, prove yourself. That about the sum of it?”
Cassie looked at me, or seemed to; it was difficult to determine what her eyes were focused on without pupils. If she wanted to tell me something through her expression, she failed at it. Perhaps she hoped I would come to her defense, like I had during the last encounter. This time, I stayed out of it.
“Close enough, I guess.” She turned her gaze back to Zach. “Well, I can see there’s nothing I can do to change your mind.” She turned and started to walk away from us. It would take her longer, but since the balcony seating looped around, she would eventually reach the set of stairs on the other side of the auditorium.
“You can join the team.”
Cassie stopped, waited a moment, then turned to face us. She seemed as stunned as I was. “I thought you didn’t want me…”
“I don’t.” Zach leaned back against one of the pillars. “If it were up to me, I’d never have to look at you again for the rest of my life. That’s what I want.”
“Then why are you saying I can join?” I was curious about his motives, as well. “If it’s because of someone else, I promise I’ll go. I’ve made things bad enough for you.”
“God damn it, reverse psychology isn’t supposed to be a real thing.” Zach brought his hand up toward his face, pausing moments before covering his eyes with his hand. “That sounded better in my head. Look, have you ever seen someone die before?”
“Yes.” Cassie tilted her head down, frowning. “Back during the fight with her.”
“Sorry. That was a stupid question.” Now Zach put his hand over his face. “I’ve tried to save lives. I even do save some, and others I fail. That’s fucks with your head if you let it. I ask myself what I could have done different that might have changed things. How I fucked up, and how people might still be alive if only I was smarter, stronger, better.”
Oh, Zach. How long has he been suffering with this, while I was busy moping about doing nothing? “It’s not your fault. Nobody’s able to save everyone. That’s not how powers work.” Much of the time, they make it so you can’t save anybody.
He turned his head toward me, he even smiled. “So I keep telling myself. And half the time, I even believe it. I have to accept that I’m not a god, and never will be. So I just keep on doing my best, hoping I’m good enough, and keeping on going when it turns out I’m not.”
My eyes flicked over to Cassie, just for a moment. The smile on her face said more than any words could. This is what she sees in him. It made sense, given the expression of his power; nothing said ‘tenacity’ quite like immunity to death.
“Right, doing the best we can,” Cassie said.
Zach’s smile faded into the dour demeanor he seemed dead set on keeping while talking to Cassie.
“Even if I’m not a god, I still have to try.” Now he faced her again. “It sucks when I have to tell myself there’s nothing I could have done better, even if I believe it. How much worse is it gonna feel when something goes wrong and I know, for a fact, that I could have done better? I look at your powers and ask myself how many more people would have lived if you were there at that apartment fire. Five? Ten? Twenty?”
“And that’s why you’re letting me on the team?”
“There’s a gang war that’s getting worse every day, people dying in the streets while the newspapers reports all read accident this and unrelated incident that. Corruption at its finest.” Zach shook his head, then looked out toward the stage. “I’m not enough. I know I’m not. Even Anima’s power has limits.” Zach stopped for a moment. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to blurt that out.”
Cassie looked over at me, no doubt wondering what those limits might be. Fortunately for me, I was the only one who knew the full extent of my weaknesses. Even Leah only had a vague concept of what I could do in full. “Like you were saying; none of us are gods. Everyone knows that all powers have limits.”
He smiled at me, out of relief, I think.
Seeing this, Cassie decided to join in. “Find me a power that doesn’t have limits, and I’ll show you a badly written fanfic.”
Like that, Zach’s smile vanished. “So as I was saying: I can’t be everywhere, and I can’t do everything, and it’s not my fault when something out of my control goes wrong.” He looked back toward the stage. “But if I go out there, and someone else dies, and you’re not there because I couldn’t get over myself? I’ll have to spend the rest of my life wondering if maybe, just maybe, that person would still be alive. I already know what it feels like to see other people hurt because I did nothing, and I can’t live with going through it again.”
He’s talking about his friend that Kitten killed. I empathized with him; I, too, had blood on my hands for my failure to act.
“I promise not to let you down.” Cassie stepped forward, took one of Zach’s hands, and tried to cup it with hers.
He pulled away like a shark had tried to take his arm. “It’s not me you gotta worry about.” Zach stepped back away from her, then rubbed the hand she touched on the side of his pants. “I did my part. From now on, if anyone dies because you fucked up, it’s on your head. Not mine.”
And by extension, on my head when I could have helped, but didn’t. Cassie and Zach are second or third tier powers, I can do so much more than either of them.
Cassie stood motionless, her hands out where she’d made contact with Zach. “Then they can rely on me.” She looked forward, her expression as hard as the ice sculpture it could be mistaken for. “Since the small stuff is done, how about we get down to business?”
Small stuff? Am I the only person in who doesn’t know how to shrug off my problems? If there was an emotional repression Olympics, Zach and Cassie would have to fight each other over who has to settle for the gold medal.
“Hurry up and wait, as my old man puts it.” Zach took another step back, his face devoid of any humor or happiness. “And no, I’m not telling you how our Oracle works, so don’t ask. Beyond top secret information.”
Geez, are you trying to drive her off? Stupid question, of course you are. Your conscience is clear as long as you’re not directly responsible for whatever she does. “Don’t take it personally,” I said in lieu of telling Zach to stop being an asshole. The look Zach gave me was almost accusatory.
I kept speaking, regardless; one of us had to be reasonable here, and it wasn’t going to be him. “Nobody has the full story on how the Oracle works, except Oracle.” And maybe not even then. Muwth’s understanding of her Interaction with Zach was better than anyone else’s, but she seemed content with what they had, and was uninterested in exploring the ability any further than its current limits. Given her experiences with being exploited for her power, I suspected she didn’t want to know if their powers could go beyond the limit of vague warnings. “We can’t explain what we don’t know ourselves.”
“I… see…” Cold began to fill the room, with whisps of fog near Cassie’s feet. “But you have more than just your precog, don’t you?”
“Ah, fuck.” Zach looked up at the ceiling. “Just so it’s clear, nobody likes superintelligence. It’s easily the most annoying superpower ever, and the only reason anyone ever has it in movies is so the audience can pretend they’re not morons by proxy.”
“Hmm.” Cassandra smiled at Zach. “You have made a compelling argument, your point is completely reasonable and logical, and you are totally right on this matter. However, I reject it on the grounds that I’m having far too much fun rubbing your face in how awesome I am. If you don’t like it, you can kiss my frosty, rock-solid posterior.”
“Duly noted.” For a moment, Zach wore a genuine smile on his face. Well, a smirk, but still an improvement over the suspicious scowl. “But for future reference, you just reminded me of my sister. That’s probably not conducive to your long term goals, whatever those goals are.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Cassie chanced her stance, mirrored Zach’s cocky smirk. She could be a world class actress, given half a chance. “As I was saying: Flux. Gadgeteer, bet he’s got boosted intelligence, or at least is tech-savvy. Most Gadgeteers are. So you do, what? Use your teleport power to steal a cell phone, lift all the contact info, find other crooks and bug their equipment? Bet it’s extra easy with one of your team being invisible.”
“Fine, I get the point. We’re trying not to let it be too obvious, thanks.”
“There’s a lot you don’t understand about Imbued culture.” Zach wouldn’t explain things to Cassie, certainly not in a nice way, so again it was up to me. “In a world of Espers and Truthsayers, we have a sort of cold war when it comes to privacy, but it’s not perfect. That’s why Flux didn’t swap names and sign up to the team. We need to be able to say he’s not one of us, and for it to be factually true, even if it’s practically irrelevant. It won’t beat all Espers, but we’re hoping it’s enough to beat any the city’s gangs have.”
“Cops’ll figure it out,” Zach said. “Bet money they already have, but they’re happy to let us. We’re doing their jobs for them, they take the credit, and don’t even have to pay us. Useless parasites, all of them.”
Cassie looked down, at the ice flakes which fell off her shoulders. For a moment, I wondered what sort of material her clothes were made of, that they could survive such temperatures. “Fits with my experience.” She looked back up at Zach. “Now that I’m part of the club, when do we get to go out and take on the real bad guys.”
Zach met her eyes. “If I have my way? Never. Let them kill each other. I wouldn’t be too upset if they wind up a mass grave with a tombstone which reads ‘And nothing of value was lost’. Our job is to pick off their income. No money, no gang. No gang, no gang war. No gang war, no actual human beings die in the crossfire. That’s what matters.”
We stood there for a while, considering Zach’s statement. I knew our game plan as well as anyone except perhaps Laura, but it was never spelled out in quite that manner before. Until now, I’d thought that sticking to the small targets was acknowledging our limits, more about avoiding fights we couldn’t win than a specific strategy in its own right. Perhaps Laura had the additional motive of avoiding Zach testing his immortality against the wrong opponent for a third time. To hear Zach say he had no intention of going after the big targets was a surprise, if one that was welcomed.
Cassie broke the silence. “You’ve changed.” She flexed her hands, causing more ice to fall to the floor beneath her feet. “We both have.”
While the straightforward interpretation was her Altered physiology, it seemed obvious to me that she was still trying to convince him that she wasn’t the same person who betrayed him. If what Laura said was accurate, however, she hadn’t changed at all. Not in any way that mattered, at least.
“Biggest understatement I’ve heard all year.”