Authors: Robert J. Crane
Tags: #Young Adult, #Powers
Zack was tall, at least six feet, which was a bit of a stretch for me. His hair was a darkish blond, and he usually wore a self-aware smile. He was impassive now, though, with a hint of hesitation. I didn’t like it when he wore that expression; it meant he had bad news. “I didn’t want to gawk.” I knew him pretty well by this point; he was my boyfriend, after all.
“You’ve got bad news?” I stepped out of the bathroom door, taking a couple steps closer to him, waiting for him to break it to me.
“I’d call it ‘disappointing’, not ‘bad’,” he said, crossing the distance between us and carefully placing his hands on my hips as he pulled me closer. He kissed me, but only for two seconds. After three, he’d stagger and get lightheaded. At five seconds, it’d start to burn. He broke away, but kept his hands where they were, avoiding any other flesh-to-flesh contact. The effect of my powers is cumulative, so if I kissed him again, it would start to drain him. “I have to cancel our date tonight.”
“Oh.” I tried not to show my disappointment, but it was definitely there. We had planned to go into Eden Prairie to eat at my favorite Greek restaurant, and after that see a movie. It was my favorite kind of date night.
“Kurt and I have to go to Michigan to track down a meta that’s causing a stir in Detroit.” He looked pained as he said it, his handsome face pinched with the regret of having to tell me. “Not sure when I’ll be back.”
“Hopefully soon?” He rested a hand on my shoulder and I wished I could pull him closer, kiss him again. And again. “Maybe tomorrow?”
He grimaced. “Maybe, but I doubt it. This one sounds complicated – a couple of assaults, a robbery. Might not be that quick.”
I rested my head on his shoulder for a second, smelling his cologne, then remembered my hair was wet and pulled away, my hand feeling the cloth of his black suit, where I’d left a damp spot. “I’m sorry.”
There was a twinkle in his eye as he laughed. “It’ll dry on the way to the airport, and if it doesn’t, I’ll probably be glad when Kurt and I have to haul our bags through the parking garage to the terminal. I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s kinda hot out there.”
I ran a hand through my hair, trying to untangle it. “I noticed. The most comfortable part of my training exercise was when I ended up having to drag Eve out of the creek.”
His brow lowered as he frowned. “Out of the creek? What happened?”
I felt my teeth click together and my jaw tighten. “I...um...kinda knocked her out of the air with a rock.”
“That must have been a helluva a rock.”
“It was a helluva throw, actually. The rock was just average.”
“It’s always a helluva throw if you’re doing it, Miss Meta.” He found his way back to a smile. “Why did you have to pull her out of the creek, though?”
I flinched at the memory of Eve, broken, lying on the rocky shore of the stream. “I kind of...broke her sternum...and ribs...and maybe fractured her skull a little.”
His right eyebrow crept up until it was an inch higher than the other. “A little? I’ve had a fractured skull before. It’s not a minor injury.”
“It was an accident. Things just got a little out of hand.” I took a deep breath.
He chewed his lip, opened his mouth and started to say something, then stopped. He blinked, then started again. “It wasn’t Wolfe?”
“Ugh.” I turned away from him, exhaling sharply. “Why does everyone keep asking me that? It’s not Wolfe, okay? He’s buried, safe and sound, way in the back. It was just me, slipping the leash a little, sick of training and thinking I was actually fighting someone. It’s kinda been a while since I felt a real threat and peril, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” I felt his hand on my shoulder and it took everything I had not to put mine on top of his. Passing out on my floor wasn’t something that would make him very happy. “Not much longer and you’ll be done with training and into the real world.” I turned to look at him over my shoulder. “Then you’ll long for the good ol’ days of training.”
I hung my head. “I doubt it. I just wish things were easier sometimes.”
His eyes watched me. “With training?”
“Like...with everything. With training, with us...everything.”
“With us?” His hand dropped to his side and he cocked his head. “What’s wrong with us?”
“Let’s see...I’d like to be able to touch my boyfriend for more than two seconds without stealing his very soul.” I spat the words out like they were some kind of foul venom. He took a step back and I closed my eyes and took a breath. “I’m sorry. That’s my issue, not yours.”
He stared at me, almost a blank look, and I caught the subtle calm of his gaze. “No, it’s an issue for both of us.”
“Yeah, but it’s my fault.” The full meaning of his last sentence made its way through my warring emotions and I felt a sharp drop in my stomach. “What do you mean by that?”
He perked up, his mouth forming an oblong “o” as he recoiled slightly. “I...nothing.”
“It meant something.” I could feel the tension in my face. “It’s because we can’t—”
“No, I told you, that doesn’t matter—”
“It matters to you like it matters to every guy—”
“—there’s more to us than just—”
” My shout ended his protest and he took another step back, as though he were afraid of me unleashing Wolfe on him. “It matters. I know it matters to you. I may have to wear heavy clothing but it doesn’t mean I can’t
anything through them—”
“I was out of line.” He held up his hands. “We knew getting into this that it was going to be different, because you’re different. That’s not bad, it’s just...” His eyes went to the side as he searched for the word. “...really inconvenient at the end of the night.”
“Yeah. Well.” I looked at the floor. “You’re not the only one it’s inconvenient for.”
“I just meant that—”
“You think I don’t want to?” I was back on his eyes again and he grimaced, balled up a fist and looked away. “You think I don’t think about it all the time? You’re not the only one that feels the effects after a date. We can’t even sleep in the same bed without worrying that I’ll roll over and press my cheek against you in the middle of the night, making you another ghost in my head.”
“I didn’t come here to fight.” He was focused on me, his eyes earnest, face oddly blank. “I came to say goodbye. I have a plane to catch in an hour and a half.”
“Well, you better get moving, because the airport’s at least a half-hour away at this time of day.” I pulled my arms tighter against me and narrowed my eyes at him.
He started toward the door and I watched him go. He stopped and started to say something, his fingers and knuckles white as they held the edge. He made it through a half-spin and halted, and I heard him breathe deep as his head dipped down. Whatever he had on his mind didn’t come out, though, and after a minute he turned back and walked out the door, closing it much gentler than I would have expected.
My hand went to my forehead and covered my eyes from the light. I hoped he’d be all right on his trip, but I didn’t have the guts to call him and tell him that. I heard my smartphone beep – the one the Directorate had given me – and felt a thrill as I ran to where I’d left it on the desk next to the computer. I turned it on and swiped the screen to find I had a text message waiting. It appeared and I sighed – it wasn’t him. My eyes played across the words and my hand went back to my forehead, blotting out the light, as if that could make the world, all my troubles, and that damned text message go away.
I’m back in town. Come over so we can talk. - Charlie
About an hour later I shifted my car into park in the driveway of my house. The tree-lined streets provided a little shade, but when I opened the car door, I felt the blast of warmth and hurried to get inside. The soles of my shoes seemed to stick on the driveway as I walked to the front door, pausing in the closed-off porch to shut the outside door before I opened the door to the house. The light was dim and mostly came in from gaps in the boards that covered all the windows, just the way Mom had set them up, screening me, the girl in the house, from the world outside every time she left.
I took a deep breath and slid my key in the lock. While Mom had been missing for the past six months, Ariadne had checked the records and told me that there wasn’t a mortgage on the place. I had used my ample earnings to keep the property taxes and homeowner’s insurance paid and a lawn and maintenance service helped keep the place up for me. I stopped by every week or so, just to make sure everything was okay, but otherwise the house was empty.
Except when Charlie came to town.
The smell of something cooking on the stove hit me as I shut the door. The air conditioner was running and I felt the effects, the cool air filtering in like a sigh of relief after holding my breath. The alarm was deactivated; no reason to keep it active since no one was living here. When last I had left, the place was clean, a little musty, but otherwise all right. I had left all Mom’s clothes in her closet, the dishes in the cupboards, but cleaned most of the food out save for the things like Ramen Noodles that didn’t have an expiration date looming.
I heard her clanging some pots in the kitchen before I saw her. She peeked a head around the wall and flashed me a smile. Her hair was dark, long, and stood out against her tanned skin and white teeth. Her lips were curled, and painted the deepest shade of red the cosmetics companies made. “Hey there.” She emerged from the kitchen and I almost blinked in surprise. I shouldn’t have; nothing about my aunt Charlene – Charlie, she liked to be called – should have surprised me by now.
She wore a white tank top that was partially sweated through, and jean shorts that were cut off way too short. Her bare feet were leaving moisture spots on the linoleum floors as she stepped, walking delicately on her toes over to me. Her midriff was bare where her shirt didn’t quite reach the waistband of her shorts, which was frayed badly and washed out, white threads where there might once have been blue, the button at the top of her fly a clash against her belly. I shook my head and she smiled wider. “Your mom didn’t like how I dress, either.”
“I don’t care how you dress.” I walked toward her, suddenly self-conscious in my heavy jeans and t-shirt that covered me to the neck.
She spread her arms wide, prompting me to give her a careful hug, avoiding the prodigious amount of skin she had exposed. “Be careful,” she said in whispered caution, “you know the stronger succubus will drain the weaker.” I pulled back and she made to muss my hair, but I pushed her away with a gloved hand, drawing a laugh from her.
“What brings you back to the Cities?” I asked, using the local slang for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I walked my way to the couch as she leaned against the pillar at the edge of the kitchen.
“Just passing though.” She said it breezily, like she did almost everything, not a care in her world. She smiled. “Figured I’d drop in on my favorite niece.”
“Your only niece, to hear you tell it.”
“That too. You know, you could do a better job of stocking this place. All I found was Ramen.”
“Want to go out to eat?”
“No plans with your boyfriend, the agent, for tonight?” Her leer was suggestive, in a way that if my mom had ever let slip onto her face, would have freaked me out. They were so different.
“No.” I didn’t look away, exactly, but neither did I look toward her.
“Uh huh.” She bored in on me and stepped back into the kitchen, peering through the tiny pass-through that looked out into the living room. “You guys break up?”
I sat down and tugged at my jeans, which felt tight, restrictive and hotter than they had any right to be considering how low the air conditioner had been set in here. I’d feel the electricity bill this month, I bet. “No. Not exactly.” She stared through the little square hole at me, not looking away. “We had a fight.”
Her face disappeared, but her voice was still loud. “Lemme guess: about touching.”
I felt my lower lip jut out, puckering. “What else would we fight about?”
“Couples fight about lots of things, sweetie.” Her voice came from the kitchen, over the clanging of a pan. “But succubi tend to argue about one, if they’re crazy enough to be part of a couple.”
“You calling me crazy?” I said it with an air of amusement.
“Little bit. You are just like me, after all.” I caught a grin through the pass-through and then I heard water pouring down the drain in the sink. A minute later Charlie emerged from the kitchen. “I mean, there’s a whole world of men out there. You don’t really have the luxury of sleeping with the ones you like and expecting them to be alive in the morning, so...”
I looked away from her. “Yeah. I know it, he knows it, but it still makes us both crazy.” She sat down on the couch next to me, splaying out and putting her bare feet on the glass coffee table I’d bought as a replacement for the one broken months ago. “How do you deal with that?”
She had her mouth open, her tongue rolling over her molars, the very picture of disinterest. “You don’t sleep with the ones you don’t want to die, and you don’t get close enough to anybody to have it matter.”
“I just...I’m sick of being the world’s greatest tease to my boyfriend. He’s a good guy, and...” I stopped as her chest jerked in a case of the giggles. “What?”
“You don’t have to be a tease. I mean, there are other ways to—”
“Well, yeah, I mean, I know but—” I stuttered as I answered her.
“Just making sure. I wouldn’t have expected your mom to teach you anything.”
I blushed. “She didn’t. But I mean, I know stuff—”
“Sure you do, sweets. Sure you do.” Charlie slapped me on the thigh and clicked her tongue against her teeth. “So are we going out to eat or what? ‘Cause I’m starving and I poured the Ramen down the sink.”
“What?” I blinked, still thinking about what we’d been talking about a sentence before. “Oh, sure.”
“Your treat, right?” She gave me a wide grin. “Not all of us have high-paying gigs with the meta cops. The rest of us have to make our money honestly, and I blew the last of my cash getting back into town. Haven’t had a chance to stop by the...ATM...yet.”