The bed smelled like him. Wendy knew that before she remembered who he was, before any of her other senses turned on. Faintly, masked by no-scent laundry soap, but enough to waken nerves in her spine. Must be the pillow itself. She inhaled deeper. Spread her arms to both sides, but the bed was empty and chill outside her personal pool of body heat.
Wendy opened her eyes. Closed again fast and cursed. Damn Sensei Ping hangover. Blocking the evil daylight with an arm over her eyes helped; she didn't throw up. Half a beer, that's where I quit from now on.
She steeled herself and sat up. The daylight hurting her eyes turned out to be just a crack around the edges of motel-like heavy curtains, on a window opposite the bed. The whole room was motel-like, bland to the point of featureless.
But the pillow smelled like him. Wendy pulled herself together and looked around with more attention. Hotel-plain furniture and fittings, yes. Not a stray personal item in sight. Still. She opened the bedside table drawer. It was two-thirds full of normal life debris like combs and Kleenex. An old but mint-condition Western paperback, with bookmark, rested on top of the pile. Not dead and empty clean, white glove inspection clean. This is his bedroom.
Wendy's face felt hot, as if she'd accidentally caught her partner naked. More so. Changing in the same locker room was routine, or had been. She wanted to open every drawer and cabinet in an orgy of snoopiness. The blush got worse. I said no, I drew a line. I've got to respect the line too. Wendy closed the drawer.
She'd lied to herself a little bit, yesterday. Her drunk self had called her on it. I worded that 'no' wrong. If I really wanted things back the way they were, the way I thought they were … it would be simple. "Sorry, there's just no attraction." He'd take that as no forever, however much it hurt. Yeah. I should have said that. Except it would be a complete damned lie.
He was utterly not her type. Wendy kept finding herself with with short, wiry guys, Asian and otherwise. Even Tyler's medium-tall solidity had been off pattern for her. The boss' long-boned, muscular mass was like an alien species. His face was nothing to complain about – only heavy cheekbones kept handsome from tipping over to insanely pretty – but again, nothing like Wendy's tastes. He just didn't look like a boyfriend. Because he's not a boy. Bet he wasn't one ten years ago, either. He's seen too much and done too much to be anything short of a grown man. Middleman. I can take that or leave it, he won't change. Wendy didn't see a matching strength in herself to measure up.
Still she could imagine them, in this room, on this bed. Couldn't stop herself imagining. The first time might be awkward and scary, crossing the line between partners and partners. But the image sent electricity through her, too. He'd be gentle, that was his nature. He'd go as slow as she wanted, maybe slower than she could stand. Wendy could stare into his eyes from an inch away when she let him inside. They'd glow gold with completion.
He was a contented man, day to day. But she'd only seen him that happy once. Defeating evil with Ravenna's ghost beside him, then a slow walk up a flight of metal stairs. Smiling a little, serene. Saving the world would cost his life, but only his; everyone else would be safe. That had to be some kind of ultimate apothesis for a Middleman, at least a Middleman who woke up every day ready to die.
Damn you, the best that could happen is you love me and leave me...
Wendy noticed then that he'd left two aspirin and half a glass of water on the nightstand. At the foot of the bed, her emergency sweats from the locker room lay folded in a crisp square stack.
Wendy took the aspirin and sniffled. Can't help loving the guy. Which wouldn't stop her breaking his heart. She'd made the right call. If anyone was at fault it was him, knocking down her protective layers of denial. She'd kept the friendship and the unto-death partnership and the healthy esthetic appreciation for his body in different compartments, buffered with sarcasm and irony. All the walls were cracked now, the contents cross-reacting like Diet Coke and Mentos.
He had a bathroom, again very hotel-like. One of the towels smelled like him. Wendy showered off the daquiri-sweat and dried herself on the other one.
Wendy knew she was in Middle HQ. She couldn't imagine the boss living anywhere else. The room turned out to be on the second level, three doors down from the dojo and five from the locker room. She'd walked past it every day for a year without knowing. Wendy didn't know how long he'd been a Middleman alone, living for the job, since Raveena died. Her gut said years.
She kept opening doors. Locker room, empty. Dojo, archive room, armory, empty. Wendy found the Middleman in the minimal kitchen near the control room, running the coffee maker. For her, since he thought caffeine was a drug. He heard her, turned with the same partnerly smile she'd expect any morning. "I thought you'd be up soon." Just as if she'd never turned him down and then flaked out on him.
Wendy tried to match that composure. "Thanks for the ride. Where'd you wind up sleeping last night?"
"Sleeping bag. Perfectly comfortable. There are other residential suites, but I wanted to keep an eye on you."
Wendy remembered the hard bedroom floor and drew her own conclusions about comfort. "I'm sorry I put you out. It won't happen again."
He handed her the coffee. "Dubbie … I'm not questioning your personal choice. But some of what you said yesterday overlaps with our professional duties. You said...." I'm not your equal, she'd said. "You seemed to lack confidence in yourself." An absolutely frank look. "Is that also your self-assessment as a Middleman? I'm afraid that much is my business."
"Um." She hadn't expected the question. Water is wet, the sky is blue, you're a superhero and I'm not. Wendy sipped the life-giving caffeine. Bluntly, "What did you think? You could bench-press me with one hand. I'm not going to beat up seventy-five Lucha Libre wrestlers and get out alive. Not without a machine gun." She pretended to flex a girl-bicep. "This is news?"
"There's more to our job than heavy lifting," the Middleman said earnestly. "We had an eight-year-old boy as trainee at one point."
A minor wince. "He didn't go on missions on school nights at first. But he had an impressive career both as trainee and in his own right. His Middleman found him … he'd killed a full-grown adult, for an excellent reason." His pale skin went paler. Wendy decided against requesting details. "She got the knife away and adopted him. He was very good at focusing repressed anger, later on."
"That's still a guy, though. I'm not going to get any more growth spurts." Wendy felt hollow inside in a way the coffee couldn't reach. She set it down. Stared at her feet. "I'm good backup. But I don't know if I can do the main job. I don't even know if you think so."
"Wendy Watson." The formal words as much as the tone made her look up. He never used her full name. The Middleman met her eyes with complete sincerity. "You were, and are, the best candidate for this job. I knew it when I saw you fighting a level-three incursion with a letter opener. Your achievements since have confirmed that decision. I didn't go trolling for an admiring yes-woman. Or a date." He looked upset. "That would betray every principle I believe in, and put both our lives in danger as well."
"Yeah, you wouldn't do that," she conceded. Not if you realized it.
He saw her lack of enthusiasm. "A few months ago you stopped a full-fledged, experienced Middleman alone. And saved my life in the process. He had a gun and the element of surprise; you still beat him."
"Guy Goddard? That was …" Wendy's heart sank. "That was a trick. I didn't fight him, I messed with his mind."
"All combat begins and ends in changing your enemy's mind. Force is just one possible tool. Dubbie, you were never ordinary. Now, with the first year of training under your belt, you walk the civilian world like a tiger. Even if you don't see it in yourself. Certainly ordinary human beings are no danger to you; you saw that last night."
She shrugged. "I yelled for help."
"For a ride home, at most. If I hadn't been available you'd have used another resource."
Wendy didn't answer. He sighed. "Since I have made you doubt my motives – and thereby doubt yourself – I owe amends. As your partner and especially as your mentor. Come with me."
The control room – Wendy's eyes avoided the spot they'd stood in yesterday, for that kiss – looked the same as always. Ida was plugged into HEYDAR by a bundle of cables as big around as Wendy's wrist. "Morning, boss." The robot's eyes moved. "Skank."
Wendy grinned at the comfortable, normal hostility. So what would scare you more, having me as your boss or as practically your daughter-in-law? "Ida."
The Middleman went to one of the file drawers. "I'd been meaning to give these to you anyway." A pair of stylishly narrow, dark-framed glasses a little heavier than Wendy's normal ones.
"Uh, thanks." She'd come into this job nearsighted. An hour in an alien machine, her first week, gave her better than 20/20 vision for life. Wendy only wore her old glasses at home now, with plain lenses, to avoid explanations to Lacey and friends. "What for?"
"Video input to HQ. The version we used in the Lucha Libre case was a bit conspicuous." Clunky seventies-style sunglasses, he meant. "And output, though I don't recommend that for most situations. The projected image would block your vision. With the Middlewatch's audio capacity, this will provide a complete two-way link to headquarters."
Wendy could just imagine Ida crabbing in her ear on a real mission. "You sure that's a good idea?"
"Everyone can use advice once in a while." He sat down, in a chair in front of one of the control panels. "Famuse Fashion House. They're expecting you. Roxy has acquired a magical artifact. Nothing combat-ready, she's keeping the terms of our pact, but it would be better in completely secure hands. Bring it in. Ida can show you the storage rooms when you get back."
"Me, by myself?"
"One of the main responsibilities of my job is teaching you to do my job, do it as well as I can. Otherwise I've betrayed us both. Tell Roxy hello."
Wendy was shocked at how much the idea startled her. They did everything together, easy missions and hard ones. It was what they did. Not that she couldn't courier a box across town, obviously. "What if cowboy ninjas attack and try to steal the McGuffin?"
He looked bland. "Don't let them."