Maddy had a little time before dinner to make herself presentable. And if she wanted to be honest, she wanted the time alone. Dismantling Jared’s transmitters and hearing them beg to fulfill their purpose had left her feeling sick. She felt dirty and there wasn’t a soap made that could make her feel clean again.
Sandra was barely bigger than a deck of cards but Maddy was keenly aware of the AI she wore under her shirt. Thanks to Sandra’s flipping the switch, Maddy had nearly lost control in front of the Council and had come dangerously close to revealing whom she held. Rather like encountering a gentle pet suddenly turned savage, Maddy found her trust in Sandra shaken. As she turned for her cubicle, she seriously considered taking Sandra off rather than risk it again.
Where could I put her where she wouldn’t be found?
Pulling the door curtain closed, Maddy cast a critical eye around her cubby. Given the jumble sale her quarters resembled, hiding in plain sight shouldn’t be a problem. And yet, the small boxed auto parts in the plastic tub weren’t enough alike to Sandra’s case. The scavenged phone cases tumbled in their buckets were too small for the purpose of disguise. Maddy eyed her shelf of notebooks but decided they too didn’t suit. She would have to take Sandra with her to dinner … and to the date with Erik afterward.
I’ll just have to shut her out.
The irony wasn’t lost on her. Nope. Not one bit. It made her pensive as she changed out of her work clothes for something cleaner. Her leather wrappings were good enough to skip swapping out for new. A blessing, as she was running a little late, arriving at the communal table after everyone had already settled. As luck would have it, she found herself across from Erik and as the meal got underway, she gave him a nod and a little smile.
She had secrets and Erik liked that. Everyone had secrets, of course. Duh. Some secrets were juicier than others. Over the years, he had gotten very good at ferreting out who had the interesting secrets. Part and parcel of being a full time thief, he supposed. Having your own set of secrets taught you where to look for other people’s. Something about the way she held herself … about the way she’d talk at a hundred miles a minute then suddenly slow down and change direction, like she was trying to avoid the nails in the road. All instinct and no proof, of course. But his curiosity nerve at the back of his neck was tingling, that pleasant hum he loved. The three best things in the world were putting a broken machine back together, finding out what was behind a locked door, and discovering a beautiful woman’s secrets. Maddy had the potential to involve all three, he suspected.
When she sat down in front of him, Erik gave her a confident smile. “Good seeing you again, Maddy. Still up for going on a date with a near stranger?”
“Sure,” she said, taking the plate passing down the line and scooping a dollop off the top without really paying attention to what it was. “Yes.”
He finished off a spoonful of the mashed potatoes before responding. The fastest way to do anything right was to take it slow. That had been one of Larry’s favorite expressions and he smiled briefly before he remembered the plane crash. Stupid bastard had to go get himself killed, Erik thought with mixed bitterness and fondness. Larry always did work to make my life challenging.
Erik focused back in on the present and Maddy. “That’s two words. Is Refuge Point protecting their word supply or is it just me on a limit?”
“No,” she answered, startled at the question … and also wondering at that flicker behind his eyes just then. “I’m just … not used to making small talk, I guess.”
“It’s not small talk when we’re both large people,” he teased. At 5’8" and 130 pounds, Erik was never going to pass for anything close to large. But large didn’t have to mean physically large. Erik could feel the same greatness in Maddy that was in him constantly looking to burst forth. Erik had been like her when he was younger, more comfortable behind a workbench than in front of people. Until Larry had taught him that people were machines too. Predictable when you figured them out.
“I promise I won’t bite unless you ask me to,” he said playfully. Then he let his tone grow a little more serious. “You don’t have to be afraid with me, Maddy. Let’s start simple. Steady boyfriend before D-Day? Married?” Erik would have bet his entire non-existent fortune on no being the answer to both questions, but the fun part was finding it out.
That made her spoon pause midway to her mouth, which hung open a second before she shut it. Then:
“Oh, now you’re just being funny,” she said to hide her dismay as she realized that she hadn’t, really, either a boyfriend or a marriage before D-Day. More to the point, why did it bother her that she hadn’t? Was it maturity catching up with her? Or was it the way Erik looked at her when he asked that question? Aware that reciprocity was the currency used in social exchange, she offered a grin and a twitch of her nose. “But no, to both. As I recall, I was kinda busy. You?”
“Girlfriends, sure, but nothing serious. As you say, I was kinda busy.” The grin on his face reflected hers until he put another spoonful of potatoes in there. He chewed deliberately, letting his eyes take her in. He wondered if those metal chunks hurt all the time. He wondered if she ever wore a dress. And he wondered what those lovely lips of hers must taste like. But all things in time, Erik reminded himself.
He swallowed his bite and followed up with the next question. “So what it was like being busy as a hero? Adrenaline rush? It must have been thrilling being a Guardian.” Erik had a hard time imaging what it would be like to be a powered hero. Well, the hero part of it anyway.
“It was …,” Maddy paused as her native caution kicked in, prodded by Erik’s questions and her own awareness of her social ineptitude. Most of the time, her inexperience wasn’t a problem. Machines rarely asked her awkward questions or demanded she bare her feelings to them. Well … not until Sandra, anyway. Maddy quickly put that thought aside, lest she wake the AI. The last thing I need right now is a three-way conversation. Look lively, Maddy. He’s waiting for an answer. What could she say that wouldn’t sound like bragging or dodging the question? What could she say that wouldn’t set off the anti-Powered feelings still present at the table? She shrugged and chewed on her meal to give herself time to think.
“Busy,” she said. “Like a firefighter or an EMT, you just get used to the adrenaline and most days, you get to go to bed satisfied you did a good job and helped people. Fires put out. Lives saved. It’s not like I kept a score card or anything,” she added, hoping he didn’t get the wrong idea. “It’s more like … running a diagnostic in the background and always looking to tweak the performance numbers a little. You know, so you can do what you’re made to do at the best possible level. How about you? What was it like to … well, hang on. I really don’t know what you did before D-Day, except maybe repair things?”
She emphasized that last statement with a raised inflection and eyebrow to match, hoping his reply would be a long one.
“My brother and I versus the world,” Erik said simply.
“No obstacle that we couldn’t get past.”
No lock that could keep them out.
“Mostly, we did security system work.”
On other people’s security systems.
“We augmented it sometimes when people contracted us to solve mechanical problems.”
Like how to get into someone else’s safe.
“But”, he continued on, “at the core, it was as you said. We repaired things. We liked working with machines.” That was downplaying it a little. Larry liked machines. Erik LOVED machines, but considering his power, that wasn’t surprising. And from their earlier conversation, he knew that Maddy felt the same way about her missing power that he did about his.
Erik reached out and poked her arm. “So what are we doing on our date? Other than dinner, that is?”
“Against the world? Why?” Maddy asked, watching his eyes and wondering what lay behind them. They were rather nice eyes, too, blue with interesting flecks in them. “And by security work, were you troubleshooters or programmers? What sort of clients did you have? What was the most challenging problem you two had to solve?”
As for what they’d do after dinner, that answer would have to wait, because she didn’t know.
He could see her looking at his eyes. He had always thought they were one of his best attributes. They were all good, but the eyes were one of the best. He didn’t react though, just responded to her question as he pushed his plate aside.
“We were more on the troubleshooting side.” Or to be more precise, the trouble side. “As far as clients, it was a wide range, but whoever had the money, honestly. We couldn’t be picky most of the time.” That was true enough.
When he thought about her last question, Erik got a lump in his throat and found himself shedding an unexpected tear that he wiped away with the back of a hand. “The biggest challenge is the one we failed—escaping Dusk with both of us alive.”
“I’m sorry, Erik.” She was, really. She’d tried to stabilize the plane so they could get everyone out safely but the rain and the darkness had made it unexpectedly difficult. It should have worked. It hadn’t, with tragic results.
Was it really too difficult? Or were you off your game, Maddy?
Looking at the man who grieved his brother, she was ashamed that she hadn’t done better. Moreover, she was ashamed that she couldn’t answer that internal question: was it her fault that Larry had died? Did Erik blame her for his death? Is that why he asked her out? To exact some sort of revenge? With so many unknown deaths on her head, with an ocean of blood undoubtedly on her hands, she was due for punishment. If it came for her, she’d already resolved she wouldn’t dodge it. That moment she woke on the bridge, surrounded by the twisted metal and the dead, was not one she’d soon forget or become inured to. Yet for some reason, it paled in significance against how Erik reacted to what she’d say next and she found she dreaded it. Why?
No way out but through.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to save your brother. I’m … supposed to be better than anyone else at this sort of thing. Just because I’m no longer Powered doesn’t mean I’m no longer required to do my best. Or be exempt from the consequences when I fail. I’m sorry that Larry had to pay the price for my incompetence. It should have been me.”
Yeah, she really was a hero, he thought ruefully. Self sacrificing and a little crazy. “Maddy,” he said calmly, placing his hand over hers, “he was probably dead when we hit the ground. By Grabnar’s hammer, I’m not sure how I’m alive. Our plane was hit by lightning and crashed through a building. It’s a miracle I’m here on a date with a beautiful former celebrity.”
Erik then stood up, tugging on her arm softly to encourage her to stand with him. “Speaking of the date, let’s go somewhere a little more private.” He looked around the crowded dinner table. “But since I don’t know where I’m going, you’ll have to be the one to guide me.”
Beautiful. Former. Celebrity. That made Maddy glance down in a micro-fluster before she recovered. Two out of three. Not bad. She scraped the last bite off her plate and dutifully ate it: wasting food was a sin, no matter how little she actually dished up for herself. Pushing her plate aside, she rose and tipped her head toward the door. “I know a place,” she said, extricating herself from the long bench without jostling the other diners. “C’mon.”
She waited for him to round the table and join her, then led him to the main concourse to take a turn around the mall’s ground floor.
He grabbed his crutches and moved along. His leg was healing faster than he expected it to. He didn’t expect to need the crutches too much longer. But for now, best not to push it, he figured. He followed behind Maddy, who thoughtfully walked slow enough for him to keep up. He hated being immobile.
“So where are we going? Some place cool, I hope.”
“I think so, but mileages vary,” Maddy admitted. While the garden was technically off-limits, she didn’t think it would hurt anything if she and Erik took a walk in it. As long as they kept to the paths and didn’t damage anything, they should be fine and Callie wouldn’t tear into her the next time Maddy showed up for a shift. Besides, if she were lucky, the jerboa might be out and about and if there was one thing Maddy knew, animals had a way of drawing people out. As she turned in the direction of the garden entrance, she asked, “You said it was you and Larry against the world, earlier. Did that mean he was your only family? If so, for how long?”
She risked a glance at him and took another risk:
“I lost my parents when I was young,” she offered. “I was lucky. I avoided the system by getting taken in by someone they knew. He taught me just about everything I can still do today.” She looked away, then, and said very softly. “He was good to me, more than I think he knows.”
Even more they had in common, Erik thought as he kept hobbling beside her. “Larry emancipated himself at 16. We bounced around the system before that. Parents were dirtbags who left or were in jail. We never did really find out, or care if you want to go that far.” It sounded to Erik like Maddy had a Larry too, someone who had looked out for her. “Sorry about your parents though.”
“It’s okay.” Maddy glanced down to avoid his expression. She wasn’t sure if she were up to it. “The fire chief told me that they didn’t suffer. Gas main. The explosion knocked them out instantly. They wouldn’t have felt a thing. I’m sorry about your parents,” she added. “It’s hard, isn’t it? When you can’t conform to what the world expects of you. Especially when you’re young.”
Erik shrugged, a somewhat impressive feat considering the crutches. “We just decided to force the world to expect different things. And not expect much out of it.”
As he hopped alongside her, he asked, “You going to fill me in on where we’re going, or is it a surprise? I’ll warn you, I scream like a girl when I’m surprised. No offense.” He smirked.
“None taken,” Maddy assured him. She pushed the door to the garden outward and held it for him. “And I don’t know if it’s a surprise but it sure is pretty.” At least, she thought so. There was a particular serenity to the garden at night when the moon was bright enough to silver the green growing things. There was no moon tonight but there was enough ambient light leaking from the mall to keep them on the mulched paths they’d put in. “Watch your step. Stay on the path. You gonna be okay with this stuff?” she asked, belatedly realizing that perhaps mulch wasn’t the best surface for someone with crutches.
“You’ll pick me up if I fall, right?” Erik grinned at her as he made his way down the path. “I didn’t make you for a gardener. But it’s definitely pretty.”
He then paused for a minute, a sneaking suspicion growing in his head, given the talk he remembered that Santae fellow having with him. “I’m not supposed to be here, am I? The hero isn’t quite as goody-goody as I thought.” And he smiled at her, that dazzling smile, to reassure her it didn’t bother him.
“No. Don’t tell on me, okay?” She gave him a quick smile and swallowed thickly. Damn, the man had a fifty-kilowatt smile. Careful. He’s shining you on. Why? Aloud, she said, “Goody-goody? Maybe not. Most days, just good is hard enough. You said something earlier, about forcing the world to expect different things from you and Larry. What sort of things?”
Erik wandered down the path a little bit. The garden was nice, for sure. Refuge Point had a great setup. Made him all the more certain he wanted to stay, see if he could finally reach some stability. He couldn’t remember the last time everything wasn’t threatening to fall apart (or had already gotten there).
“Just meant that you can’t let others determine who you are and what you can do. That’s the fast path to Loserville, population you. You know what I mean, right?”
Maddy walked beside him without speaking for a moment. They’d reached a bench at the far end of the row, where the wall began. She motioned him to take a seat, keeping a hand ready to help him should he need it. “It sounds like you’d had your fill of people defining you. What sort of hole did they try to peg you into?”
He took a seat, answering her question as he did. “A series of foster parents telling me that Larry and I would never make anything of ourselves, doomed by who our parents were.” Mr. and Mrs. Franklin had been the worst of them, he remembered. He and Larry had never understood why they wanted to be foster parents. They had always treated the brothers like dirt. But Erik smiled, remembering how he and Larry had cleaned them out of everything one cold October evening. “Now it’s my turn. Have you always had your powers? Did they keep you company sometimes, when you were lonely and didn’t have anyone else to turn to?”
That struck a little too close to home and perversely put the wind up Maddy’s back. Had it been anyone else, she would have accepted the implicit sympathy and divulged how she felt. So why did Erik make her want to clam up instead of share? Why here and now?
“That’s a rather insightful question,” Maddy countered. “Most people wouldn’t ask it, much less frame it like that.” She leaned back, her palms flat on the bench behind her. “Did you have much to do with Powers before Destruction Day? Is that why you’re hanging out with me?”
She had no idea. But it was too early in their relationship for deep dark secret sharing. He hadn’t even been officially accepted to stay yet. That other former hero, Natalie, had said they would put him on his way after he healed up. But Erik didn’t want to wander any more.
“Well, I just remembered you saying earlier that you missed hearing the machines. If I could talk to machines and then couldn’t, I’m sure that would tear me up inside.”
Sandra took that moment to quietly chime in.
∷Thankfully, you don’t have to go without any more. I like him.∷
“You would think that, yes.” Maintaining a parallel conversation wasn’t always easy but the near constant practice was starting to pay off. “It did, it does, it probably will. But you know how some people who go deaf late in life can still talk even if they can’t hear what they’re saying? Or the way an amputee can still feel their missing limb? Sometimes I’ve done a task so many times, I don’t need my power to get the job done. It’s just body memory, you know? That ever happen to you?”
Erik nodded. “Not about the power thing, but I get where you’re coming from. There are some things that I know I could do from body memory alone.” He reached over and rubbed his hand down her arm sensually, He stopped his fingers before one of the metal shards. “Do they hurt to touch, Maddy?”
“Sometimes.” Maddy nearly jumped out of her skin at his move. “It’s the weather. When autumn hits and the air goes dry, it … well, you can see for yourself.” Nothing but the truth, really. Her arms were bare to the elbow, with leather wrapping down to her wrists, and her head was bare. She winced and tried not to pull away but it was hard to remain still. His touch tickled and sent a shiver down her spine.
“Would you prefer I didn’t touch them? Prefer that I didn’t touch you?”
“I …” Feeling as if this were a test, one that she was failing horribly, Maddy forced herself to remain still. If she could keep talking, she could keep thinking. But his fingers tracing the edge of her leathers where they met the soft skin of her inner arm made it hard. Really hard. The gauntlet was thrown. She picked it up. “I’d prefer to know why you’re trying so hard. Do you have a thing for scars or something? Or is it a Zen thing? Perfections in flaws?”
“You wound me, madam,” Erik said with a laugh. He took his hand off her arm. “Never let it be said that I forced my advances on someone uninterested.” She was definitely growing more and more intriguing. Definitely a girl with some buried secrets. “I thought I was trying just hard enough but clearly I need to re-calibrate. Is it so hard to believe I find you attractive?”
“Yes.” Now back on familiar ground, Maddy straightened on the bench and looked Erik in the eye. “Most people hate the Powers for destroying the world. They’re not shy in letting us know it. Some of the former Powers feel they deserve that hatred and it’s the way they’ve chosen to atone for what they did. Or for what they think they did. That’s them. That’s not me. I won’t deny I did some unforgivably hideous things while I was under the influence of that virus. I willingly own that. I have a crime I must pay for. I acknowledge that. I may die before I’ve paid for it. I accept that. What I don’t accept,” she added, her voice going steely as her spine, as hard as the metal embedded in her flesh, “is paying with my self-respect. That virus made me its bitch, Erik. Never again. If you want something from me, just say it. Just ask. I won’t be toyed with.”
Are you listening, Sandra? If you aren’t, you should.
“So.” Maddy leaned in, determined not to miss anything behind his eyes. “What’s it going to be? Honesty? Or deceit. Choose carefully.”
“Did I want something from you? Yes, I wanted a date, like I thought we were on.” He sounded a little snippier than he intended, but he usually wasn’t accused of running a con game. Not even on the rare occasions when he was conning someone.
Now, normally this level of cray-cray this early would be a killer for Erik, but he had to admit to some mitigating circumstances:
1) It was the apocalypse. It wasn’t like he was going to doing a lot of swiping right on Tinder anytime soon. His pool of potential candidates was much smaller these days.
2) He really was attracted to her. He understood why she might think he was messing with her. It couldn’t be easy dealing with those shards and their pain and reminder of what was. But in his mind, they were flavor, not impediment.
3) He had never met anyone with a power like his before, someone that he might be able to share the stories with. Larry had known, of course, but now Larry was gone. Maddy could understand. If he could break past that paranoia. Look, again, he understood. He wasn’t sure what the hell he had done during those missing 2 weeks (and Larry wouldn’t tell him), but at some point you had to push past it. Refuse to let the world define you. Instead, work on redefining the world.
Erik didn’t tell any of that to Maddy as it ran through his head in an instant. Instead, he just followed up his statement by picking up his crutches and hoisting himself to his feet. “Maybe, in a few weeks, if they let me stay, we can try this again. I’ll be looking forward to it.” And he smiled at her to let her know there were no hard feelings.
“Fair enough,” Maddy said, rising with him. She didn’t hover but positioned herself to offer support if needed while he got his crutches under him. “I know you might not believe it, considering what I just said, but I hope you get to stay, Erik. You’ve gone through hell. You’ve lost your best friend. Finding a refuge, even for only a little while, would be good. It is the name of the place, after all,” she added, hoping to end this date? confrontation? on a positive note.
“Oh, I still expect you’ll be my sponsor,” Erik replied with a smile. The line between confidence and arrogance was a thin one, but Erik projected the former rather than the latter. “You and I will be friends, I’m pretty confident about that. And then maybe you’ll believe then I’m not trying to get anything out of you. Then we can do this first date for the second time.”
He waved with a crutch towards the entrance to the garden. “Now, let’s head out of here. I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.” That was a bit of a lie. Erik did want to get her in trouble. Just eventually, not now. She wasn’t ready to learn how exhilarating trouble really could be with the right person at your side.