Quick timeline note: This story is set some time after The Manicoid Teleportation Conundrum, but before The Ectoplasmic Panhellenic Investigation.
Wendy slumped into the passenger seat of the Middlemobile, a reluctant passenger. Sure, her car was lost in a transdimensional current that even the HEYDAR was having trouble navigating. And sure, the nasty little burns covering her left hand would probably make driving difficult for a while even after they found it. And sure, she'd gotten said burns while rushing to the Middleman's rescue, which had probably temporarily rendered her a little unstable. That was still no reason for him to insist on driving her home, especially after she'd made it clear that she was going to have trouble sharing a continent with him for the next few days.
"Don't be silly, Dubby. What kind of teacher would I be if I left you to face this city's clean but inefficient public transit system alone after the kind of day you've had?"
The entire sky is on fire, and he's still looking for her. Delighted and relieved to see her running towards him. The smile dies when he sees what she's running from.
"I'm fine," she insisted, in the grand tradition of the not-fine everywhere. "Just a little…" Battered. Shell-shocked. Embarrassed out of my mind. "…sore." She pressed a hand against her neck and looked sideways at him. Even though she'd been trying not to look at him for the past hour or so, she could see that he was still moving with his usual strength and confidence. "Why aren't you? They already had you in a corner by the time I got there."
He pulls her around a corner and under cover without a word, probably swallowing several he'd never say. He doesn't look seriously hurt, and takes a minute to make sure she isn't either, nodding when he realizes she's just a bit burned. "How many of them?"
"Dreaming Rabbit," the Middleman explained. "A very old and difficult technique that, when used correctly, can delay the body's response to pain and other external pressures for several hours, until the mind is ready to deal with them. I'll teach you when we have a spare moment."
"Could have come in handy today."
Her heart is going so fast she can hear it. She's gesturing too much. Panting. Trying not to panic. "At least eight. We're cornered."
Even he can only hold out for so long. "Damn it." It sounds so harsh, coming from him. "I might have been able to deal with five."
"Don't dwell on today," he said. "It's over, we got the job done, and there's nothing more we could have done about the incident." He shifted in his seat, took his eyes off the road to glance at her for a brief moment. "And as for the…rest, well, as you said. It didn't mean anything."
"Right," Wendy said quickly. But not too quickly, she hoped. "It was nothing. Just a high-stress situation. I thought we were going to die. It was an inevitable physiological response."
He sounded skeptical. "An inev—"
She cut him off with a sharp gesture. "You get to use it for crying, I get to use it for kissing you."
Well. There was that said out loud, finally. It completely failed to make things less awkward.
"There are two of us," she reminds him.
"And half the game is about escaping detection. There's no safety in numbers here." A pained look. "For the first time since I met you, I wish you weren't fighting beside me."
"Fair enough," the Middleman said carefully. He cleared his throat. "Although I'm sure you've deduced that making sure you got home safely was only part of my motivation in offering you a ride. If there's going to be any awkwardness between us, I want to deal with it quickly, before another mission comes up. And while we have some amount of one-on-one time."
Wendy wasn't about to call him on his poor choice of words. "Really, it's no big deal, right?"
"You haven't made more than four seconds of eye contact with me in the last hour, and if you were any further over in that seat you'd be in danger of falling out the car door."
He doesn't have time to try and send her away, or anywhere to send her if he did. Anyway, she'd fight him all the way. "There's gotta be some way to take these things down."
"Only a handheld Mark Seven double-barreled plasma dart launcher, or a precision strike with something heavy and metallic between the third and fourth armored ventral plates."
"Don't you carry a handheld Mark Seven double-barreled plasma dart launcher?"
"It made a very effective something heavy and metallic when the darts ran dry."
Wendy tried to shift her weight back to the center of her seat without the movement being noticeable. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Somehow, the Middleman managed to give her the look that said she was being obstinate without actually looking at her. "Denial is a poor defense, especially against the self. In order for our professional relationship to stay solid, we need to confront and deal with these feelings."
"There are no feelings!" Wendy practically shouted, her voice jumping in pitch. "It was an adrenaline-fueled panic response, not some…explosion of previously-buried romantic tension!"
He held up a hand to quiet her. "Feelings of embarrassment and discomfort, and possibly confusion," he clarified.
"Oh." Those she had plenty of, not that she wanted to talk to him about them. She snorted. "The guy promising to teach me Dreaming Rabbit is talking about confronting things?"
"No weapons, no way out, and no plan. What's our next move?"
His silence can't last more than a second, but it seems to stretch on for hours. She looks at him and wants to step away. There's not a hair out of place or an imperfect crease to his uniform, like always, but his eyes are showing every battle he's ever fought. His voice is quiet. "We stand up and face whatever comes next."
"The pain will get the attention it deserves when the more pressing matters I have to attend to have been taken care of." The patience in the Middleman's voice went a little thin. "And the problems of a few injuries and the inherent risk that deferring them carries are insignificant compared to the danger of damage to one of the most important professional and personal relationships I have."
The small smile that touched Wendy's lips took her by surprise. "I'm an important personal relationship?" Sure, not the best thing to focus on under the circumstances, but still nice to hear.
His look suggested that it had been silly of her to even ask. "Of course you are."
They're shoulder to shoulder, facing out against the onslaught, and she's not ready to believe that he's telling her they're out of options. She can't even force out a sound of protest before his unexpected touch stuns her into stillness. His arm is around her, pressing her close against his side, his grip on her shoulder almost possessively tight. It's warm, and strong, and completely fails to be reassuring. "Wendy." It's all she needs to convince her that this really is the end of the line. "You've been everything I could hope for in an apprentice."
He's not looking at her when he says it, too determined to look death in the eye to the last. But she raises her head to study his face, taking in the tightness in his jaw that undercuts his stoic expression. Both his hands, the free one and the one on her shoulder that's starting to hurt, are clenched. Like he's trying to keep them from shaking. Like he's just as scared as she is, or maybe even more scared, since it still hasn't really sunk in for her yet. And might never have time to.
"Hunh. I mean, I knew the whole sidekick thing was a big deal to you, but…"
"A bigger deal than the Louisiana Purchase! The bond between Middleman and apprentice extends well beyond the job. I thought I'd made that clear."
"No, I get that. On-call around the clock for each other, working together in all things, it is vitally important for you to have complete access to my medical and psychological history, I totally get the whole 'united we stand' thing. But you're making it sound like some kind of…" Wendy fumbled for an appropriate word.
"Kinship?" the Middleman offered.
It wasn't a word Wendy would have picked, but it fit. "Yeah."
"There's a reason for that." A smile from him, one of those crooked, boyish ones that would have been obnoxious coming from someone with any self-awareness at all. "I hope this doesn't sound out of place, given our current circumstances, but I've grown quite fond of you on a personal level. I enjoy your company, and I look forward to your art-related insights and anecdotes. I'll admit that I could do without the overuse of biting sarcasm, but even that is starting to grow on me."
Wendy forced back another piece of biting sarcasm – 'fond'? Who says that? – in the face of the unexpected compliment. "Well, I guess you're pretty okay yourself," she said, not quite sure how else to respond. "Does that…make this even more awkward?"
She reaches for him without knowing exactly why she's doing it, only that he's being brave in that noble kind of way that's about facing the darkness without flinching even though you're terrified, and she's pretty sure he's doing it partly for her sake, to keep her from freaking out. She twists against his side to take hold of the front of his jacket with both hands, ignoring the sting of the fabric scraping against her burned hand. The last example he ever sets for her will be one of honor and quiet strength and she wants him to know that she understands that, understands that throughout her apprenticeship he's been striving to teach by example. And it works, because it's him. He's a good boss, a good teacher, and a good man, and even if it's going to end here on some shouldn't-even-exist battleground it's been a hell of a ride. So much to say. So few words for it. No time to paint it.
All of that runs through her head in a blur that can barely be called thought as she kisses him. It's rough and abrupt, nothing sweet or even dignified about it. She doesn't have the spare mental energy necessary to be shocked at herself, or at the way he doesn't immediately move to push her away.
"I can't imagine why it would. At this point, I think we can only benefit from being open and honest about our opinions of each other." The Middleman was careful to avoid the word 'feelings' this time, Wendy noted. He paused. "That is, unless you're uncomfortable with me expressing affection for you. Because if you are, please don't hesitate to say so."
"It doesn't bother me," she assured him. Jeez, this whole thing was her fault, and suddenly he was bracing for a sexual harassment suit? "I just worry that we're risking some kind of…miscommunication."
His brow furrowed. "I'm not sure what you mean by that."
"Neither am I. Look, all I know is I already made an idiot of myself once today, and I'd rather not do it again."
"You had a strong but not unusual reaction to your first time being that close to death. You didn't make an idiot of yourself." He coughed sheepishly. "And if you did, you weren't alone. I also let the stress and intensity of the situation get the better of me. And I have no excuse."
As usual, being stunned doesn't slow him down for long. The arm around her back shifts until both his hands rest lightly on her shoulders. He returns the kiss gently, reserved – almost chaste – and just a little bit awkward. About what she would have expected, had she ever given the matter any thought. She can definitely think of worse ways to spend the last few moments of her life.
Wendy's eyebrow went up. "And what does that mean?"
"Well, we were in the same boat back there, and you were hardly the only one feeling awkward."
"No, not that part. If you say you have no excuse, then that implies that I do. Care to explain just what it is?"
"In this situation you're allowed a certain amount of leeway in your reactions. As I said, unless there's something missing in your profile – which is highly unlikely – this is the closest you've ever been to certain doom."
"Oh, and you've been closer?"
"No," the Middleman said hesitantly. Wendy snorted. "But I have been exactly that close on more than one occasion. You eventually begin to adjust."
She sighed, leaning back in the seat and raising a hand to her head. "So that was a rookie mistake?"
"I wouldn't put it quite so pejoratively…"
"And here I was, starting to think I might be able to live this down someday."
The Middleman tsked at her. "I sympathize with your embarrassment regarding the fallout of this particular situation – and I have to admit, I share some of it – but don't focus on the mistake itself like that. Inexperience is nothing to be ashamed of, Dubby. We all have to start somewhere, and part of the journey is in making mistakes. You and I both know that you've made your share, and there's nothing wrong with that as long as you learn from it. One of the reasons you have so much potential is that I've never seen you make the same mistake twice."
"I'm definitely not making that one again. No offense."
"None taken. And rest assured, I share the sentiment behind that statement. Despite your many appealing qualities, I have no romantic interest in you whatsoever." A pause. "And I apologize for kissing you."
"Same here. To all of it." Wendy risked a real, dead-on look at him. "So, we're okay, then? Or at least going to be?"
A stop sign gave him a moment to turn and meet that look. "Eye contact," he observed, a small smile breaking out when she didn't flinch. "We're going to be fine."
The blast of white light is searing even with her eyes closed. There's a rush like the wind past her face, and a sudden feeling of motion leaves her head spinning. This kiss isn't that amazing, but the only other sensation she's expecting is death. And if this is death, the afterlife is much less cut and dried than she was led to believe. If this was Hell, he wouldn't be here with her. And if this was Heaven, she definitely wouldn't be hearing that voice.
"Manicoid teleportation technology. I bullied a blueprint off one of the little Kewpie dolls last time you had them in here. Still not sure if the remote location feature is going to work every time, but assuming you both still have all your limbs…"
Wendy's never seen Ida stunned into silence before. Not that she's able to enjoy it, as focused as she is on the horror and embarrassment crawling up her spine. She catches a glimpse of the Middleman's face out of the corner of her eye as she turns her head. He looks more startled than anything. They realize at the same time that they're still holding on to each other, the mutual pushing away sending them both several steps back.
Ida just shakes her head. "This explains so much." A parting shot as she pointedly turns her attention elsewhere: "I told you this would happen if you hired a girl."
The little insulted noises they both make in response are almost enough to turn them into a united front. Wendy starts to look to him for confirmation that that was out of line, but she catches sight of the bright flush coloring his neck and can't raise her focus any higher. If he's actually full-on blushing, she may never be able to leave home again. Dropping her eyes just calls her attention to the front of his jacket, its usually impeccable surface wrinkled where she grabbed it. She holds back the desire to straighten it. "You all right?"
"I'm all right." His voice is just a little higher than usual. He stabilizes it quickly. "You?"
"Yeah." It's only half a lie, she decides. Sure, she wants to crawl under her bed and hide, but she's capable of getting there under her own power.
"Which means we never have to have this conversation again, right?"
"I sincerely hope so."
"Good." Wendy breathed a sigh of relief and then, to her own surprise, laughed. "Sorry," she said, sensing the Middleman's confusion. "I just actually had the thought, 'things are back to normal.'" The confusion didn't lessen. "You know, like any part of this situation is…." She gave up. This explanation was never going to make any sense to him. "You know what? Never mind. It's not important."
"Well, it looks like we've done all we can for today." His voice is artificially bright, all the more disturbing considering that natural brightness is its default state.
"Right. I should probably head home." Her cell phone rings as if on cue. She fishes it out, smiling at the caller ID. "Apparently Lacey thinks so too."
That's when it really hits her, the entire day crashing down on her like a wave. She almost died. Subtract one last-minute android rescue, and she never would have seen Lacey again. She nearly drops the phone as the shaking starts. No more late-night arguments about postmodern theory. No more zombie movie marathons. No more Art Crawl. No more—
He's right there, taking the phone from her and dropping it on the banister as he pushes her down to sit on the steps. "It's all right. Just take a moment." She barely hears him as the wave washes over her, practically blinding her with terror and nausea. When the worst of it passes and she can see again, he's gone, leaving her alone with the phone – which stopped ringing some time ago – and her delayed panic response. His absence is a relief; she's embarrassed enough without having him around to watch her collect herself.
It's only temporary. He returns shortly afterward to press a teacup wrapped in a dishcloth into her hands. He backs away and leans on the desk, keeping her in sight but giving her a little space. "Old Russian folk remedy. It helps alleviate some of the symptoms of an adrenaline crash."
As comforting as that doesn't sound, she can't really protest. Having something warm to wrap her hands around is comforting on its own – the dishcloth keeping the warmth from being too cruel to her injured hand – and it doesn't smell as horrific as the phrase 'old Russian folk remedy' implies. A sideways look shows that he's holding a cup of his own, and she realizes she has to trust anything offered to her by a guy who won't even touch coffee. He gives her a nod when he catches her eye, whether just encouraging her to drink or pointing out that he's a little rattled himself, she doesn't know.
Whatever they're drinking, she has to admit it works. The pounding in her heart and head slows, some of her tension easing. She stands up slowly but with steady confidence, intent on making her way to the changing room for her street clothes and a first-aid kit, and from there, a hasty retreat home. "I'm okay."
"I almost believe you." He's obviously recovered, too; his voice is back to normal, and he's using the 'don't argue with your mentor' tone. "Come find me when you're ready to leave. I'll drive you home."
The blocky, unaesthetic shape of home had never looked so appealing. Wendy would have jumped out of the car as it was still rolling to a stop, were it not for the memory of the lecture she'd gotten the last time she'd done that. Besides, it seemed a little tacky to make a dramatic escape when they'd just had some kind of…was 'reconciliation' really the right word? When they'd just cleared the air about something. "Guess this is my stop."
"Home sweet home." Wendy suspected that the Middleman's hand had been aimed at her arm before he redirected the movement to adjust the rearview mirror. So they were still in a weird place about touching, it seemed. "Get some rest, Dubby. I'll pick you up in the morning, and from there we'll discuss transportation options until we can locate your car or a suitable alternative."
The thought of what his idea of 'a suitable alternative' might be had Wendy blocking out disturbing mental images of a Middle-bicycle. "Bright and early and ready to survive another day," she sighed as she opened the car door and eased herself out. Bright and early in the morning, when she'd definitely still be feeling this. She started to leave, but then thought the better of it and leaned back in. "Hey. You get some rest, too, okay?" If he could worry about his partner's health and well-being, then so could she.
"I'll promise if you promise."
"Fine. I promise."
"Then so do I. Goodnight, and sleep well."
"'Night, boss man. Drive safe."
His only answer was the purr of the Middlemobile's engine as he put it into gear and, giving her a final nod, pulled out onto the street. Wendy watched him go, then turned her attention to her building with a slow, resigned exhale. This was going to be the fun part: deflecting everyone's questions, coming up with a good explanation for why she was injured and her car was missing, and adding one more thing to the ever-expanding list of "Things I can never tell Lacey," which had been such a short list just a few months ago. "This is all going to turn into one seriously weird painting."