|The AntiMortality Incentive
Author: The Blue Fenix PM
The Middleman made the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. He also survived, but Wendy Watson is worried about the price he had to pay. REVISED first chapter, second and third chapter added.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance - Middleman & Wendy W. - Chapters: 4 - Words: 16,093 - Reviews: 8 - Favs: 5 - Follows: 6 - Updated: 09-22-11 - Published: 08-02-11 - id: 7245133
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Wendy returned to her sublet in, for lack of better options, the dress she'd slept in last night. She was conscious of the 'walk of shame' look. Luckily, Noser wasn't playing guitar at his usual spot in the hallway. She'd left by the fire escape last night, after Tyler, to avoid that conversation.
She slipped into the sublet, hoping her luck would hold. Instead Lacey was stirring a huge pot in the kitchen. Wendy caught the scent of homemade fake blood. "Dub-Dub!" her roommate said. "I was starting to worry."
And this conversation, too. "Hi, Lacey." Wendy set her tiny dress purse on the kitchen counter. "I've been busy." The understatement of a lifetime.
Lacey looked her up and down. "Sex wrinkles in the dress, glum expression, aura lit up like a Christmas tree – what's going on, sweetie? Is it Tyler?"
She remembered Tyler, at a distance that felt like years. "He's gone."
"Well yeah, the tour … wait. Gone as in gone, out of your life gone?" Lacey's eyes went wide.
"He is if he listened to me," Wendy said. She kicked out of the dress shoes. "I need a change of clothes."
"Oh no you don't, lady." Lacey wiped her hands on her shorts, heedless of the fake-blood stains. She took Wendy by the elbow and led her to the couch. "Give. What happened?'
"Pretty much what's been happening." Wendy's memory of this universe went back a little less than a month, to Armageddon Day. But the balance between her and Tyler had been shifting even then, under the pressure of his supernaturally-sudden musical success. "Tennis Bracelet Guy."
That hadn't happened in this universe. "Suppose … suppose Tyler had a great job in an office somewhere. And the first thing he does is give me a diamond tennis bracelet. Lab created diamonds," she added, remembering Lacey's views. "But the point is, I am the last person in the world to want, to need a tennis bracelet. And he doesn't see that, because he wants to give it to me."
"He's just trying to make you happy," Lacey said.
"By giving me what I'm supposed to want, yeah." Wendy sighed. "Never mind the tennis bracelet. There is no tennis bracelet. But diamonds, on a watch. He wanted me to give the other one up."
Lacey looked down at Wendy's wrist. "You've gotta admit, it looks like you got it from a particularly butch fighter pilot."
Navy SEAL. Wendy didn't say it. "But I need it for work, and he knows that too. He … the whole thing was just closing in on me. Who I'm supposed to be, who I might be, who I actually am. I got mad, and I called it off."
Lacey put an arm around her shoulders for a half-hug. Fortunately the fake blood went on Wendy's skin rather than the much-abused dress. "Everybody has moments like that, Dub-Dub. You work it out. You use your words."
"My words turned out to be goodbye," Wendy said. "Trust me. I can't explain it all, but I'm not going back. I don't even want to." She breathed. "I know where I belong now."
"In front of a firing squad?" Lacey said.
"No. I think this is going to be good, actually. It's complicated." Though death did enter into it, sooner or later. Wendy called on the memory of the moments of orgasm like a good-luck charm. "There's another guy." She couldn't bear the magic-induced vagueness that always came over Lacey at the mention of the Middleman. "You don't know him." That, at least, had always been true.
Lacey stared. "You were cheating on Tyler?"
"No." Not quite. "Sort of a … rebound thing. But he's been a good friend for a long time. At work." That was nonspecific enough; Lacey's eyes remained keen. "He needs me, Lace."
Her friend's eyes sharpened more, this time with anger. "Wait a minute. You broke up with Tyler and the same night this other guy is handing you lines about needing you? Doesn't sound like much of a friend to me. Sounds like a doorknob."
"He didn't say he needs me. I pushed him into bed, not the other way around." Which sounded terrible. Wendy reached for the memory again. "I needed something warm. And he cares, and he's way too nice to make a 'no' stick. I admit it's selfish of me. But it's not all like that. We can be good for each other. He's …" Words failed. 'Broken' didn't do justice to the good he'd created out of his own pain. "He lost somebody too. Longer ago. She died."
"Double rebound." Lacey hugged her. "Oh, Dub-Dub. There's not going to be any talking you out of this, is there? I know that I-will-survive look. You're just going to have to work all the way through this one. Is he good to you, at least? Tommy Tam said such mean things toward the end."
"He's sweet." Wendy smiled helplessly. "He can't even bring himself to swear. But he's not weak, he's the bravest man I know."
"Does he love you?"
Wendy took another measured breath. "More than I love him, to be honest. That's just how he is. I'm trying … it's too soon to plan anything. I think we can make each other happy, if we just keep it loose. Friendly."
"Yeah, like you've ever been casual about a guy. Even those lightweights that didn't deserve you." Lacey studied her. "Is he going to take care of you, or am I going to have to get rough with him?"
That question, Wendy knew the answer to. "Better," she said. "He's not going to rest until I can take care of myself."
Wendy showered, and changed, and set a new canvas on her easel upstairs. The only painting she could think of was someone else's work, the tiny, remote astronauts her Middleman had zeroed in on in the gallery. She supposed that astronauts, especially in their golden age, were enough like Middlemen for him to identify with.
The other image in her mind was one she'd felt, not seen from outside; their two bodies fused in passion. But her classical realism wasn't good enough to capture that. She traced a line in the air that might be his back arching above her, stopped short of letting brush touch canvas. If she couldn't do it right, there was no point in doing it at all. Like so much else in life.
Wendy turned away from the canvas and occupied herself straightening up her room. She found a few of Tyler's belongings as she went, not many. Classic comics, one sock, a long t-shirt she often slept in. She'd have to wash that before returning it. When Tyler was in town at all, to return things to.
Tyler had been the perfect soulmate – for Wendy Watson, rootless and ironic temp worker. He'd never met the Wendy she was now, the Middleman's apprentice. The soldier. It's not Tyler I gave up. It's me, or the old me. Wendy wondered how long this had been building. The back of her mind answered, since before I met Tyler. Since the day she'd stabbed a multi-tentacled alien with a letter opener instead of collapsing in terror. She couldn't stop being that person, any more than she could stop breathing.
She turned back to her canvas with renewed energy. Slowly, with many pauses for thought, she blocked out a simpler image. A man's hands, at rest on a table. Vividly, lovingly detailed down to the tiny golden hairs on the backs of the fingers. She didn't need a model; he was as clear in her mind as if he was standing there.
Painting. Laundry. Lunch. She was watching "Zombie Nightmare," the robot-assisted version, when her watch borked at her. "Yeah, boss?" The semi-serious title still felt most natural to her.
"I need you to pack a bag and come back here." The Middleman seemed to realize how that sounded; his cheeks colored a little. "That is, there's a red ball. An alien was murdered in Texas."
"I take it we're not talking Latino."
The alien race that had inflicted a tyrannical extraterrestrial boy band on the Earth, and later tried to destroy it starting with Middle HQ. "My favorites." She grimaced. "I can be ready in ten minutes or so. Pick me up?'
"That'll save time. We can go straight to the airport," the Middleman said.
Wendy met him downstairs, at street level, instead of letting the Middleman come up to her apartment. Already in uniform, she set a gym bag on the back seat of the Middlemobile. Two uniforms, one set of civilian clothes, a toothbrush, little else. "Hey, Boss."
"Hello." He sat behind the wheel of the car. He didn't try to give her any lover's greeting, but a small smile lit his face. The Middleman looked … vivid. More solid and real than an ordinary human being. Larger than life, in a way only marginally connected to his physical size.
Wendy wanted to touch him. But they were working. "You mentioned the airport. Commercial flight?"
"Heavens, no. Another middle-vehicle, one that's less conspicuous than the Harrier jet." He pulled away from the curb.
I missed you. Wendy didn't say it. She couldn't decide if that feeling was a good thing or an ominous sign of over-dependence. "I just told Lacey I had a business trip," she said instead. "It's not like I could have said much more even before … you know. That, and I told her I'm seeing a new guy whose name I didn't mention. She's worried about rebound."
"Are you worried?" His tone was almost normal. He had to drive, but he spared her a second of eye contact, nothing hidden.
Wendy breathed. "I'm not, actually. We've been together in so many ways already … it's not a surprise. A change, yes, but not a deep-down change."
His smile widened. "Thank you," he said simply. "Whether this works or not, thank you."
They went to a section of airport devoted to light planes. "It's a Cessna 210, to all appearances," The Middleman said. "The reality is a little different." The six-seat plane was tidy but far from new.
He took the second seat in front, left the pilot's space for Wendy. "I'm driving?" she asked as she put her bag further back.
The Middleman looked mildly embarrassed. "I can't actually fly an aircraft."
Wendy put on headphones and got in touch with the tower. The flight plan was already laid out. She got in the air quickly. Flying aircraft was something she truly enjoyed. "ETA, five hours," she said when they were at cruising altitude. "I wish this thing had an autopilot.'
"A lot you know." Ida's voice came from the control panel. "Watch and learn, stoner. ETA, two hours." The controls took over all by themselves.
Wendy let go experimentally; the plane stayed in level flight. "Handy," she said. "So, tell me more about this case."
The Middleman flipped a control on the dash; part of the aircraft windshield became a video screen. "There's a small Clotharian enclave in the Big Bend region of Texas," he said. The view screen showed a map. "They're disguised as an Indian reservation for a Navajo-related tribe. A Middleman arranged the paperwork for them in 1873. It's really a religious retreat, mostly pacifists fleeing their series of civil wars. A few hundred Clotharians all together. One of the recent arrivals, Lesclane of Zanker, was found dead this morning. He was killed by a water gun full of vinegar; Clotharians are lethally allergic to acetic acid. The method suggests a human murderer – one who is aware of the alien nature of the reservation."
"So the Clotharians called us to straighten it out," Wendy said.
"Not exactly. The Middle-organization has a human liaison in the area. Beth Bayton Ellis." The view screen showed a vigorous, smiling woman around age seventy with long silver hair braided around her head. Another picture, several decades younger, of the same woman with dark hair and a familiar uniform. "Hired as the Middle-trainee in 1970, resigned in 1972 without reaching the position of Middleman."
"I guess we don't all make the grade," Wendy said thoughtfully.
"She had an excellent record as a trainee. She resigned to get married," the Middleman said. "In fact, she emphasized in her incident report today that her husband remains unaware of her Middle-activities. So, cover identities for both of us are mandatory. By the same token, Mrs. Ellis has a cover for her liaison work – she's the staff nurse at a medical clinic on the edge of the reservation."
"I could never do that," Wendy said.
"Do you mean, leave O2STK? Or, conceal covert activities from a life partner?" the Middleman asked.
"Both." The sense of purpose, the thrill of doing a job no one else could do, were like oxygen to her now. "Either." Wendy remembered the few brief months she'd tried to hide things from Tyler. "But … people do, don't they? Lie. Guy Goddard was married umpteen times as a Middleman, if you believe him." Her Middleman nodded.
"Lucky us we've got another choice; each other." Wendy stopped. That had sounded much less crass in her head. "Not that you settled. With her, I mean. Not that I'm settling... I mean..."
The Middleman let her off the hook. "I see the awkwardness. It's one reason I tried to convince myself, for a long time, that you were the little sister I never had." His hand brushed hers, enough to convey he meant no such thing now. "But be assured, I chose you on merit rather than by the potential for prurient interest." He shrugged. "You mentioned Guy … you faced him down, at the end, with nothing but your wits. A full-fledged Middleman. No one, man or woman, who was less than fully qualified could have done that."
"I know." Wendy looked at him. "It's all got a price, coming or going. This Beth gave up being Middleman for love. Guy gave up love – honest love, anyway – to be Middleman. We can work, we can be honest, but we might see each other die one day. It's the job."
"Not just the job," the Middleman said. Wendy waited for him to continue; instead he put a map up on the video screen. "The reservation has always been peaceful until now," he said. "Once we're oriented and briefed to local conditions, we'll have our work cut out for us. We can't eliminate the Clotharian residents as suspects. A very careful Clotharian could handle vinegar with the same precautions a human would use for sulfuric acid. It might even have been an accident, as unlikely as it sounds. "
"So we get to be Sherlock Holmes," Wendy said. "Or, you do, and I get to be Watson." She smiled. "I always wondered about those two."
He looked genuinely scandalized. "Sign of the Four, Dubbie - Doctor Watson was married at least twice. To women, I mean."
"Yeah, like that proves anything." Wendy's smile became a grin. "Speaking of getting up in your face - Mile High Club?"
He didn't look tempted. "I'd prefer a more comfortable environment, for both of us."
"Oh, come on." Wendy kept prodding, mostly to see how the Middleman reacted. "Autopilot. Nothing to do. Privacy." She reached for him.
And her hands were caught in a gentle, unbreakable grip. "Later." His lips skimmed lightly over the knuckles of one hand. Wendy made a small, uncontrolled sound. "Somewhere with no hurry." He turned her arm, laid a kiss on the soft inner side of her wrist. "No distractions." A longer kiss, with a distinct tongue-touch in the same place. "I don't think you'll be disappointed." He backed up an inch, breathed on the damp spot. Wendy shivered all over.
She got her hands back, sat dazed. "Yeah. You're probably ... that sounds like a good idea." The Middleman grinned back at her and stayed on his own side of the cockpit.