Wild World

Summary: Sometimes really caring means knowing when to let go.

Rating: G

Disclaimer: I turn no profit and own nothing. All credit to the incomparable Javi. Still, if O2STK happens to be hiring, I'm good with numbers, information, disinformation, and working with the public. Halfway decent with handguns and passable at martial arts, but have bad knees so would probably make a sucky Middle Apprentice with all that running. Plato's Symposium! Rambling much, Kat? ("Plato's Symposium" was my lame-a$$ attempt at a Middle-exclamation.) On with the ever-loving fic already.

Author's Note: The song was on the radio today and my muses wouldn't let me do anything else until it got written. It's a tad grim for a Middleman fic, but the ending is at least marginally hopeful. I wrote it as a friendship/family relationship between Wendy and the Middleman although, reading it back over, I suppose it could just as easily be taken as shippy. Read it from which ever angle you're more comfortable/happy with.

Wild World

The Middleman put down the case-file he had been reading when Wendy entered the Operations office, watching the girl warily.

"How is she?" he asked, voice shaking just a little.

"Should be out of the hospital by the weekend, Monday at the latest," she answered quietly.

"Good to hear."

Wendy sighed and shook her head. "Boss, I…"

"Dubbie, don't," he breathed, shaking his head. "You're upset, not thinking straight."

"This is the straightest I've thought in a long time," she informed him flatly. "Since before you came along, actually. Lacey nearly died! She flat-lined three times on that operating-table! Because of us. Because of this job." She shook her head. "Never again, Boss."

He rose and drew her into his arms. He had known this was coming since they received the news that Lacey would pull through. If Lacey had died on the table, it would have been one thing; Wendy would have nothing left but the job. Instead, Lacey would be fine, and it was time for her to decide.

The decision all Middlemen and Middle Apprentices had to make eventually. Him and everyone before him, and now her.

He had chosen the job. But Wendy Watson was not him, and he feared the worst.

"What have you decided?" he asked finally, not loosening his gentle hold on her.

She sighed, looking up at him with tears in her eyes. "If it had been Noser or even Tyler, it would be one thing. But it wasn't. It was Lacey!" She shook her head, not meeting his gaze when she whispered, "I'm sorry."

"I understand," he answered, doing his best to keep the pain from his voice. This was hard enough for her without him adding to her conflict.

He had chosen the job. But Wendy Watson was not him. Wendy Watson had chosen love.

"I understand."

They stood in the office, just clinging to each other for better than five minutes before Wendy pulled away.

"I should get back to the hospital."

"Give Lacey my love. I'll try to come around--"

"No," she interrupted, shaking her head. "I'll give her your love and, if you want to see her, that's your business. But I, personally, don't want to see you again. I'm sorry, but I can't face the reminder of everything I've just thrown away. Please give me my space."

The knowledge that she was quitting had been devastating, but that request was physically painful. He pushed his reaction down to be dealt with later, alone and in private where it wouldn't become a burden to anyone else. Because that was who he had chosen to become. Always strong, always comforting. No matter what.

"Of course. But you know where to find me if you need a friend."

"Thank you for not trying to talk me out of this."

"That isn't what you need, Dubbie. I still consider you my dearest friend. Naturally I want what's best for you."

"And you think this is best? Just walking away from all this?"

"For you, for now. Yes." He nodded.

"Not 'for now', Boss. It's hard, I'll be honest. I've been tearing myself up over this, over whether to go or stay, but I can't risk having Lacey in that kind of danger again and I sure as hell can't turn my back and walk away from her. Nothing's ever going to change what nearly happened to her because of the job, so I can't do the job again. Ever."

She pulled off her watch, laying it on the desk, shooting him an apologetic, ashamed look, and fleeing the Headquarters without another word.

The Middleman sat down heavily, feeling numb. For now.

The pain would come and, when it did, it would be severe. He was fairly certain that he was going to react to losing Wendy worse than he had to losing the previous Middleman. The girl was nothing like anyone he had met before. Civilians, Middlemen, Middle Apprentices: not one had ever come close to holding a candle to her. Wendy Watson was brave and intrepid and smart and funny and loyal and passionate and loving and just plain special. Unique.

"Are you okay?"

He looked up, startled. Ida without bitterness or sarcasm? He hadn't seen that from her since the day the last Middleman died.

"She's gone," he whispered. "I don't think she's coming back."

He waited for the insults against Wendy to start at that news, but Ida surprised him again.

"That's too bad. She had more raw potential than I've seen in an Apprentice since I got to this planet."

His eyes widened. She was being serious.

"I would have missed you, Kid, but I'd have been proud to serve under the Middleman formerly known as Wendy Watson."

He smiled weakly. "She was something special."

"Yes."

"Then why did you always give her such a hard time?"

"Mostly to offset your rabid and unquestioning enthusiasm over her. She needed to know her limits, needed to know that the job isn't about respect, validation, not even recognition. She needed to understand that it comes with dismissals and insults and no adulation. I'm not faulting your treatment of her, exactly, but you always had this enormous blind-spot over the kid. Someone needed to give her a hard time."

"I guess," he sighed, picking up his file again.

"Take the afternoon off," Ida directed, plucking the file from his hand. "The world doesn't need active saving today. I can hold down the fort for now."

"If I walk out that door right now, I'll be dead-drunk within an hour."

"If that's what it takes to forget her," Ida answered. "I'll start screening likelies, get together a report with recommendations on who you should tap next."

"Not yet."

"Don't pretend she's coming back. You picked the job. Wendy picked her friend. End of story."

"I know. I'm just not ready to face having to train a new apprentice yet. I'm sorry. I know that makes me all kinds of weak and pathetic…"

"You're only human," Ida answered, shrugging. "I'll compile the report but, unless there's an emergency, I won't give it to you until you ask me for it."

"Thank you." He climbed to his feet. "Now, if you'll excuse me, it's been more than ten years since I've had an alcoholic beverage, so I have a lot of lost time to make up for."

She nodded. "Keep your watch on so I can send the EMTs when you give yourself alcohol-poisoning."

He smiled weakly, grateful to her on a few levels. "Thanks, Ida."

0101010

Life without the job, life without him just hurt. Badly.

Less every day, but it was still more pain than Wendy had even been in, even after the death of her father. Not just missing the Middleman, although she missed him so badly that it felt as if she'd just been kicked in the chest. But it wasn't just him, either. She had walked away from the only life she had ever felt happy and fulfilled in. The only life she had ever felt right about leading.

She couldn't talk to Tyler about it for obvious reasons. And, while Lacey had a general idea about her work with the Middleman, she couldn't bring herself to explain to the other woman that Lacey was the only reason Wendy left in the first place. As far as Lacey was concerned, Wendy had been as spooked by her own near-death experience as by her roommate's. She didn't know about all the other times Wendy had come close to death, or how it really stopped fazing you after awhile.

She kept catching herself in the process of reaching for her phone, where the Middleman's number was still on her speed-dial because she simply could not bear to remove it, to cut that last tie to her old life.

She spent a lot of time interviewing and then rejecting job offers. Apparently her last Temp Agency had given her an absolutely glowing recommendation, so just everyone wanted to hire her. But she couldn't bear to go back to Temping when that was how she had come to life with the Middleman in the first place.

Tyler had offered to pull some strings at Fatboy to get her a job, which she shot down with enough indignation to trigger a shouting match. She did not need help getting a job, damn it! Well, excuse the hell out of me for giving a shit! He had stormed out and not been back. That was three weeks ago now. She missed him horribly but was not about to go crawling back to Tennis Bracelet Guy.

Deciding her so-called job hunt was a joke, she decided to wait until she was ready to say 'yes' to someone. She needed time to regain her equilibrium, to remember that there was more to life than comic-book evil. She needed to regain her feet and reintegrate into normal society.

After that, she spent a lot of time sitting in the hallway with Noser. He would strum his guitar, sometimes sing for her, let her cry, and not feel the need to comment on the fact that she was. Which was what she really felt she needed most of the time. Blatant sympathy would have been too much for her to bear. Noser's 'I'm here if you decide you're ready to talk' vibe struck just the right balance between needing to not have company and needing to not be alone.

When not alone with Noser, she could usually be seen to be putting on a façade to varying degrees. It was okay if Lacey knew she was a little bummed and feeling kind of directionless (even if Lacey never knew the depth of her emotions or the reasons for her actions).

But no one else in the building needed to know. So she still attended Tuesday Drunk and all the other regular events that kept life in the sublet interesting, and she put on her game-face for those gatherings. Most of the neighbors didn't even know she wasn't working any more. Which didn't stop her from coming home and crying herself to sleep more nights than not.

It wasn't that she didn't enjoy life anymore because, for the most part, she did. She just missed her previous life. Achingly. The friendship, the adventure, the good she done. The way the Middleman had helped her become a better person.

But he had also taught her to be mindful of, but not dwell in, the past. Life went on, even after him.

"Karaoke tonight!" Lacey announced cheerfully as she returned to the sublet from her recently-started internship at Greenpeace. She was still on crutches, but otherwise recovering well from the alien attack.

Wendy smiled. Everyone in the building, and several friends, relatives and residents of surrounding buildings descended on the building three times a year for a night of alcohol-fueled karaoke hijinx. Along with the occasional random cop who, sent to break up the party, found himself joining in instead.

"Sounds good. We still on for 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun'?"

"You know it," Lacey answered, dropping onto the couch next to Wendy. "Kill many zombies today?"

"No, spent the day on Monster dot com, actually."

Monster. Ironic… Comparisons to her old life were still coming up with alarming frequency in the oddest of contexts.

"Really?" Lacey asked, smiling widely. "Dub Dub, that's great!"

"Can't dwell forever." She shrugged. "He wouldn't want that for me. Time to try to make my way in the 'real' world."

"Can't be easy," Lacey noted, wrapping an arm around Wendy's shoulder.

"I'll never forget, that's for sure," she sighed, leaning into Lacey and closing her eyes. "Every time I hear anything remotely unusual in the news…"

"I know, Dub Dub," she murmured. "Every time I see a big, sexy guy in green…"

"You know, you could still see him," Wendy pointed out.

"Wouldn't be the same," Lacey answered shrugging. "Wouldn't even be right if I got to see him and you didn't."

"I can't see him. You could."

Lacey considered this. "Do you love him?"

"Of course I do, just not the way you do. Everything he's done for me, everything he's helped me become, everything I've learned and experienced because of him…" She sighed and shook her head. "I'd love to see him again, I just can't handle a reminder of that life."

"Was it really that terrible?"

"Terrible, yeah, but wonderful, too, Lace."

"Go back."

"I can't."

"But why?"

"It doesn't matter."

Because I almost lost you! Isn't that enough?

She shook her head. "How was work, Lacey?"

"Great. We're organizing this huge fundraiser to raise awareness on the problems with nuclear energy."

Wendy smiled, not at Lacey's words but at her enthusiasm. Activism had always been her passion, her special niche in the world. The way fighting comic-book evil had always been Wendy's. And, for once, Lacey had found a way to do her thing without getting arrested on nearly as routine a basis.

"Life's good, Lace," she declared.

"Or, at least, not terrible," Lacey agreed, nudging Wendy with her shoulder. "I'm sure you'll find a great job."

"Well, it won't be like my last one but, with luck, it won't be horrible." She climbed to her feet. "I'm going to go get changed. People should start showing up soon."

"Oh, you're right!" Lacey agreed, jumping to her feet and making tracks to the clothing-rack as Wendy ascended the stairs.

0101010

Karaoke night was fun. Wendy had a few beers, sang a couple of duets with Lacey, listened to others sing their song. Eventually, she switched to something stronger than beer. She wasn't entirely sure what: something in a fruit-punch base that probably could have taken the paint off her car.

After her second one, her thoughts turned back to the Middleman and it seemed like a good idea to get up on stage alone and sing a rather tearful rendition of 'Wherever You Will Go'. Which would have been just fine except, as she climbed down and handed on the mike, she noticed the man in the green Eisenhower Jacket lurking in the shadows near the back of the crowd.

She wove through the crowd, approached him in silence, made eye-contact and kept walking, aware that he was following. She didn't speak until they were alone in the alley behind the building and, even then, not right away. He waited in silence, watching her hopefully.

"At least I didn't sing 'Wind Beneath My Wings'," she said finally.

His response was a bemused smile. "Am I really that to you? The wind beneath your wings?"

"You used to have your moments," she agreed quietly.

"And the song you did sing?"

"Also true. If I could, then I would." She shook her head. "But I can't, Boss. I'm sorry."

"You've given me your reasons and, while I may not like them, I have to respect them."

She gave him a grateful smile. "Replaced me yet?"

"Twice. Neither time ended well." His expression turned pained.

"I'm sorry."

He shook his head. "You were something special. Few Middle Apprentices make it past their first few weeks. It's nothing unusual."

"What are you doing here?"

He sighed. "I know. You asked me to stay away and I've done my best to respect that and, after tonight, I absolutely will. But I left some things unsaid the day you quit and that's been gnawing at me. I've been trying long and hard to think what form those words should take and, when I heard about what you had planned here tonight, it occurred to me that I might as well take a page out of Mister Noser's book."

She frowned up at him, shifting uncomfortably. "You're going to serenade me?"

"One song to say goodbye. It's a fitting song and, I promise you, no plea to come back. It goes without saying that, should you return, you'll be welcomed with open arms, but I have no intention of pressuring you. The part of me that isn't selfish enough to miss you terrible is actually proud of your choice."

She smiled weakly at that. "Thanks. Guess one song couldn't hurt." She turned to head back inside, pausing when he grasped her shoulder.

"You left this behind," he told her, extending his hand.

She stared down at the watch and shook her head. "You said--"

"And I meant it. This doesn't constitute a job-offer or anything close. I'm offering it with my selfish motives, violating about a dozen rules, but I don't care! Take it; keep it. Bury it in the bottom of your sock-drawer and you never have to look at it if you don't want to. I'll never use it to try to contact you. But I also want you to be able to contact me should the need arise. Whether you need a friend, or a hero, or just someone to rough up the landlord so he'll finally fix the water-heater…"

She raised an eyebrow. "That was you?"

"Take the watch," he directed. "I disabled its surveillance capabilities and one or two other functions. About all it's good for now is contacting me and telling you if Tyler's telling the truth about why he's staying late at work."

She smiled weakly at that. "We got in a fight. I don't think he's coming back."

"I'm sorry to hear that. He was a fine young man."

"He still is, just different now." She shook her head. "It doesn't matter. Past year and a half, it seems like you and I are the only people who haven't changed."

He smiled. "I heard about Lacey's internship. The responsibility will be good for her."

"It already has been."

"I'm glad."

"She's upstairs."

"I know. We talked."

"And?"

"She said we should get together some time. She said it in that 'I'll have my people call your people' tone of voice."

She winced. "Sorry. Want me to talk to her for you?"

"Better not to. That way you can both move on."

"It was a wild ride, Boss, and I will always be grateful to you for taking me on it."

"You're a part of my world now, whether you rejoin the Middle Organization or not. You're welcome at the HQ any time, whether you want to talk or socialize or need help or advice or just a sympathetic ear. I care about you too much. No matter the circumstances, I won't turn my back on you if you need me. You're always welcome at the HQ, no matter what. And I do mean that. Anything, Dubbie."

"Thanks. And if you ever need someone…"

"I thought you didn't want to see me anymore."

"You won't turn your back on me. Why should I turn mine on you? Just… wear street-clothes or something so I can start looking at you as a friend and stop looking at you as the Middleman."

"I'll buy a pair of jeans," he agreed, proffering the watch again.

She took it this time, pocketing it. "We should get back inside. Party'll be breaking up soon, but you should still have time to get your song in before we tear down the equipment."

Looking relieved that she had accepted the watch from him, he followed her back towards the building.

"Should I be worried about what song you picked for me?" she asked as they entered the elevator.

"Not particularly. Just, when I say 'baby', hear 'baby sister' and you'll be fine," he promised.

"Okay," she agreed, reassured.

"Yo, Wendy's Boss," Noser greeted him as he approached the stage. "Going to do us the honor?" he asked, offering the mike.

"Just one, if you don't mind, Mister Noser."

"Play that funky music, white boy," Noser answered, handing him the microphone and vacating the stage.

Lacey sidled up to Wendy, wrapping her arms around Wendy. "Did you make up?"

"I'm not going back to work for him, but yeah. We're cool again."

"I'm glad," Lacey answered, kissing her cheek. "What's Sexy Bossman going to sing?"

"Don't know. He said it's something he's been wanting to say to me, but he couldn't find words. He thought a song might work better."

"That's sweet!"

"Depends on the song he picked," Wendy answered wryly, earning a giggle from Lacey.

The Middleman stood on the stage in silence for a few moments, shifting from foot to foot with a familiar look on his face. Wendy had seen it every time they were about to go into a particularly tough battle together. He swept his eyes around the crowded hallway in his threat-assessment mode, but smiled warmly when his eyes settled on Wendy. It was a sad smile, but still loving.

He nodded to Noser to start the music, then started to sing. In a surprisingly rich and well-pitched voice. Very real anguish made the song that much more effective, taking her breath away. Lyrics just slightly altered for context, but she doubted anyone but her and Noser even noticed.

Now that I've lost everything to you,
You say that you want to start something new
And it's breaking my heart you're leaving.

Baby, I'm grieving!

But if you want to leave, take good care.
I hope you find a lot of nice things out there,
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out here…

Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world.
It's hard to get by just upon a smile.
Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world.
I'll always remember you
Like a child, girl.

You know we've seen a lot of what the world can do
And it's breaking my heart in two,
'Cause I never wanna see you sad, girl.
Don't be a bad girl!

But if you wanna leave, take good care.
Hope you make a lot of nice friends out here.
Just remember there's a lot of bad and beware…

Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world.
It's hard to get by just upon a smile.
Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world.
And I'll always remember you
Like a child, girl.

A pause: an instrumental bridge and the Middleman clearly struggling to catch his breath and compose his emotions. Then he launched into song again.

Baby, I love you!

But if you want to leave, take good care.
Hope you make a lot of nice friends out here,
But just remember there's a lot of bad and beware…

Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world.
It's hard to get by just upon a smile.
Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world.
And I'll always remember you
Like a child, girl.

I'll always remember you
Like a child, girl…

Wendy swallowed hard as he stepped off the stage, biting back tears. He walked right up to her and pulled her into a rough hug.

"Anything at all, Wendy Watson," he told her. "Any time of the day or night. It doesn't matter. I'm always there." He kissed the top of her head and turned, making his way through the crowd without another word.

She watched his go with a lump in her throat, unable to find words.

"Oh, Dubbie," Lacey whispered, wrapping her arms around her again.

Wendy sniffed. Because her allergies were acting up, not because of any emotion. Which didn't stop her from reaching into her back pocket.

0101010

The Middleman hadn't intended to look back. Lot's wife and all that. But once he was in the elevator, he could stand there staring at the back wall or he could turn and face the proper direction.

Big surprise, properness won out. He turned to face the front of the elevator and froze, his heart in his throat at what he saw.

Wendy was standing there, being embraced by Lacey, and staring at the Middlewatch as if seeing it for the first times. He told himself not to hope for anything, to be realistic about it. Wendy would not back down. He had certainly never come here tonight intending to sway her. He honestly had only wanted to tell her "goodbye and be careful".

Then she looked up and her eyes locked with his, her expression confused: hopelessly lost. She swallowed and gave him a weak smile. Then she looked away quickly, closing her eyes and leaning into Lacey.

He hit the button for the ground-floor, suddenly, for the first time since her resignation, feeling hopeful. She might come around yet, he might have the best Apprentice possible at his side again. He might have his friend back.

He walked back to the Middlemobile with a smile on his face.

The End