A quiet moment in the control room, when no world-saving was going on. When – she realized much later how unusual it was – Ida the annoying robot was out of the room. The Middleman stopped what he was doing and turned to his partner with the most … neutral body language she'd ever seen. "Wendy." He almost never used her full first name. Her mind was so focused on that, she nearly missed the next words. "I've been thinking about something, lately. A lot. I wanted to bring the idea to your attention." Which wasn't at all how he talked. He was either save-the-world confident and decisive or politely at arm's length from lesser beings. He …
Bent his head, moving slow and smooth, and kissed her. Nothing extreme, no tongue-diving, but she couldn't mistake it for comrade-in-arms. Soft, warm lips that tasted like toothpaste. Gentle, with an edge of passion. Her toes curled at the other things he probably could … certainly could … do if he kissed like that. Then he ended it with the same quiet good manners and drew back to arm's length.
"Um. I. Um." Wendy had apparently forgotten the entire English language. He had an incredible mutant power, kind of a shame it wouldn't be much use fighting comic-book evil. "Wow."
"I know it's sudden," he said gravely. "There never seemed to be a right time. But now..." A wry, lopsided smile she'd never imagined. "I wanted to take a number while no-one else was in line."
Her breakup with Tyler hadn't been anything dramatic. Maybe not even enough to count as official. An important music-promotion tour he absolutely had to go on. She absolutely couldn't go too because of work. A slow dwindling of calls and text messages. It was his turn to call next, she'd resolved. Aware that Tyler probably though the same about her. "What about being a little sister to you? Emphasis on little?" Though he hadn't seen age as a barrier to falling in love with Lacey.
"There's that too. Always, if that's how you want things. But I'm noticing more than a honorary sibling ought to." She could feel his eyes on her like physical contact. Realized how carefully he'd been not looking, turning his back or getting interested in his shoelaces, when she changed in the locker room. "A vocabulary of thirty thousand words isn't doing me much good at the moment."
Wendy could identify. Five or six sentences clogged her throat. The first one to get loose was, "Do you have any idea how scary you are?"
The Middleman took it like a punch in the face. "Not you-can-hurt-me scary," Wendy said quickly. "I know you better than that. Scary because you're intense and God, beautiful and you carry the whole world every day like it's just a job. And you don't have any speeds between off and full power. You don't have limits. I can't imagine any stopping points between kissing you back and spending the rest of our lives madly in bed together. And you don't get it that other people aren't like that. Especially me."
She could see a speech about her so-incredible evil-fighting abilities building behind his expression. Talked faster. "I'm just not. Even for work, I save the world and then I go be super-ordinary for a while to decompress. I need that balance. You don't."
"I've lived an unbalanced life as long as you've known me, that's true," he said quietly. "I did it to myself, because of Raveena. You know that."
"I do know that. But I think it's become the real you, after all that time. Clarence Colton." Wendy's tone put the name in quotes. "I can't say it. Not because it's a little goofy, but because you're not him any more. You're The Middleman, lots of capital letters. And Raveena." His former mentor, partner, and lover. Wendy had met the dead Middleman (Middlewoman?) briefly in a place between life and afterlife. "I wasn't going to say anything. Old news. But if I was six inches taller, ten or fifteen years older, I'd look like her sister. I can't be superhuman for you. I sure as hell can't be her for you. So I guess that's my answer, really."
Nice rational decision. Nice of him to let her make it. All sensible, self-controlled adults around here. Wendy didn't try to add to the speech. Because if she spoke, if she thought too hard about speaking, it would come out howling like a lost baby.
He knew. He couldn't miss knowing. One step, she could be in his arms letting it all out. One touch, one fingertip on her hand, and she'd fall like an avalanche. He could own her; he could make her cry tears of joy for being owned. So tempting, so wrong. She saw every muscle stand out like bridge cables, forbidding himself to close that last distance.
An ice-hot lump closed her throat, but Wendy could make her lips work. He could read them. I'm not your equal. I'm sorry. Wendy turned, running her own body like a robot. When the door closed behind her, he still hadn't moved.