The Limmerance - Succession Adaptation

Friday, Wendy made her boss an offer he had no desire to refuse.

Saturday, two men were decapitated. A not-exactly-human ally came into town to work the case with them. She slept with her boss again, which was even better with actual sleeping.

Sunday, the Middleman got beaten up twice, with broken ribs and internal bleeding. Ida was dead for about ten minutes; the out-of-towner for a little less. A woman named Claire, who seemed nice, was dead forever. So was a man called Parker, because Wendy killed him with her own hands and a sword in the heart.

Monday, Wendy slept in. It seemed like about time. She made the Middleman stay in bed almost all day, bringing him glasses of milk and paperback novels by guys like Zane Gray and Frank Cannon. When he wasn't looking she worked on sketches of his hands, with the idea of a small canvas in muted tans and grays. The dizzying mixture of blunt strength and grace. She could paint them a thousand times and always find something new, if the model would sit still for it.

Monday night, he slept in his own bed. Apparently sharing with her while too sore to do anything wasn't a good combination for rest. Wendy slept badly. No matter how she concentrated on her hand study an abstract painting kept pushing into her mind, a jagged scarlet slash.

Tuesday the Middleman woke her up, shaved and neatly uniformed and bearing coffee. "Good morning, Dubbie."

She nearly blurted I love you just for the coffee. "Hi there." She gulped the hot caffeine. "You look better. If nobody breaks you for a week or so, we'll have something." Not all good, though. In spite of the sharp-edged neatness and the color in his cheeks he looked worried. Wendy thought he'd slept worse than she had. "Is there a mission?"

"Not that I know of. Think of it as another training day; history and traditions of the Middle organization."

"Sounds okay."

He didn't return her smile. "I'll be downstairs when you're dressed."

--

He wasn't in the main control room; neither was Ida. Wendy found the Middleman in the wood-paneled room that she supposed was some kind of chapel. She hadn't been there since Guy Goddard's retirement ceremony, and his funeral. Wendy set her coffee on a ledge near the door. It wasn't a place for slurping casual beverages. She was glad she'd gone for her uniform this morning instead of regular sloppies.

He was near the back wall, behind all the forward-facing seats. The Middleman smiled but his expression was restrained, his eyes serious. This is how a guy feels when he hears the words 'where is our relationship going?' Wendy thought. It wasn't funny. She remembered her momentary impression, the first time they'd been together, that he was going to propose marriage on the spot. And what the hell would I answer? She joined him at the back of the room.

"I don't know if you noticed these." The Middleman indicated a series of bronze plaques set into the wooden wall. "Look at them now."

Middle-homework. "Will this be on the test? You had me worried, I thought this was a relationship thing."

"I can't separate the two, remember?" His eyes stayed grave. "Look."

She looked. Seven metal panels evenly spaced across the back of the room. No title or other hint what they were lists of. If you were here, you were already supposed to know. Six were full top to bottom with two columns of text, the seventh had one full column and a third of another. The list was dates, month and day and year in row on row. She thought at first that every single line was a date. Looking closer Wendy saw here and there a few sets of three lines, like:

Justin Taylor Burke
Retired
April 16, 1863

Memory whispered, You entered this room a Middleman; you leave it a civilian. State your name for the record. "The ones with names are retirement dates," she said. "The ones that don't, because a working Middleman is just the Middleman ... death dates."

"The names aren't forgotten. They're in the archives," hers said. "But here ... the tradition is that a Middleman who dies in rank is a Middleman forever. His successor is promoted automatically. There's a separate list for those who died as apprentices." His eyes softened, saddened. "Look at the number of them, Dubbie."

Thirteen-and-a-bit columns, ten names each ... close to a hundred and fifty. Plus any lists in storage because they ran out of wall space. The longest gap Wendy could find between dates was twenty-five years. In another place, the same date was entered six times in a row. August 10, 1949 (1). August 10, 1949 (2). August... She laid her finger on the spot. "Bad day."

"There was enough warning, that mission, to call in all potential apprentices and give them elementary training. All but one died, and the Middleman, and too many allies. But the chain of succession didn't break."

Wendy touched his hand lightly. "You're telling me you're going to die someday. I knew that."

He flinched back. "I'm telling you that you are going to die, Wendy Watson. Probably violently. Because of me, because I brought you into this life." Now she recognized the shamed look in his eyes. From her mirror, these past few days, when she thought about their last mission and felt like a murderer.

She stopped trying to get his hand back. "I never thought about it that way."

"You wouldn't. You're young, you're brave, we all feel indestructible at first. I chose a successor the way Middlemen always have. The best and the brightest, tough enough to last a long time. I wouldn't let myself think of you any other way. I was proud of how fast you learned, how hard you fought, because together we do a good job ... and because it made the odds better that you'd bury me one day instead of the other way around. I couldn't face that, even when I was trying to think of you as a little sister.

His hands hung loose, empty. "I should have sent you away when I realized. I should have said no when you offered... although it's beyond me how any man has ever said no to you. Even after seeing it happen." He met her eyes. Wendy knew his body had a breaking point; she'd never guessed his heart did. "I can't make you leave, but you should go. Make a life for yourself that's more rewarding, more normal ... longer."

Screw normal. And this is rewarding. "Screw that," Wendy said harshly. Her anger gave her the strength to stay on her feet. She could see it bracing him too, breaking into the endless loop of his guilt. "Okay, I didn't do the math as such. But I've seen death coming. Not just mine, but yours. It did scare me. I do hate it. I hate it so much that be damned if I'm going to leave you facing it alone."

"There would have to be a replacement trainee," he said diffidently.

"What, as good as me? Because you said I was the best." The Middleman didn't have an answer to that.

"Shit." Wendy broke his rules on purpose to shake him. "Bring in some loser, he's all 'what does this button do? Ohmigod aliens!' Chances are he screws up badly enough to get you killed, which would mean some monster destroys the world. You wouldn't be there to save it, and I wouldn't be...

She swallowed. "I'd be sitting in some stupid office, when the zombies swarm or the moon melts. I'd have time to know it had happened over your dead body. Because otherwise you'd have stopped it. I'd wonder if I could have saved you if I'd been there, saved the world... and then I'd die anyway. Because I'm in the world. I'd rather look comic-book evil in the eye if it's going to come."

He was thinking about her words, but if they were going to comfort him they hadn't yet. "When."

"Everybody gets when. I could spend the next seventy years in a bomb shelter and there'd still be when. I'm staying with you. Not just for the wild hot monkey sex, either -- for the saving the world. I understand that part of you better now."

The Middleman watched her with that deep, focused look that seemed to go clear through her. He took her hands. "Thank you, Dubbie. If I haven't said it, you're more than I could have ever hoped for. I'll do all I can to live up to that."

Wendy didn't try to close in for a full embrace. She needed a little distance to cope with an emotion this big. "Now stop being noble; it makes me jumpy. You were so intense coming in here, and you're old-fashioned, to tell you the truth I wondered if you wanted to ask me something."

He didn't laugh. Wendy almost wished he had. "Whatever our predecessors have done in the past ... I can't ask you to share a name I don't have. There isn't anything of me except the Middleman."

She would have agreed a few days ago. She could see that changing, now. Which was beside the point; the man who had needs outside his job was even more fervently hers. "I see you. All of you."

"And it would be almost redundant to ask," he said slowly. As if realizing it himself for the first time. "Everything I am, everything I own, has been yours since the minute you put on this uniform. The good and bad parts of the calling alike; there's no way to separate them."

For better, for worse ... A lump rose in Wendy's throat. "For battle and murder, for computer searches and boring stakeouts, for bullet wounds and victory parties." She looked at the death-date lists, then unflinching into his eyes. "In the presence of these witnesses. Until death... Death's going to get his own scythe where it hurts if he comes after one of us."

Wendy had never expected to see the Middleman cry. He was laughing at the same time. "Nutjob, party of two," she finished. "What OTS2K has joined together, you're stuck with." He silenced her with a kiss.