Ch. 8.1 – Alex

“You okay, boss?” Lucy asked.

Alex glanced over to his co-worker. “Hm?” he said, then froze.

It was the first time Alex had really looked at her since his Empowerment. Lucy was still a short redhead with a handful of freckles and bright amber eyes, but he could see energy flowing out of her now, as if her exuberance was more than simple emotion, and slivers of vibrant blue and purple played around her. “Don’t call me ‘boss,’ I work for a living,” he said perfunctorily.

“Had us worried for a minute there,” Tony added, his relief palpable. When Alex turned, Tony’s tall, lanky body was framed in arcs of deep red and pale yellow, and his curly black hair seemed to crackle with something very like lightning. “I’ll get the next customer if you want.” Alex nodded gratefully, while Tony walked up to the counter, smiling at the couple that walked up. “Harpooners Coffee and Chocolate, with a name like this, the coffee has to be good,” he said with an enthusiasm that never stopped impressing Alex.

Lucy walked up to Alex as the Majestic worked the machinery, prepping for the next order.

“Seriously, Alex, are you all right? You’ve been jumpy and distracted all day.”

“The last couple of days were weird, that’s all,” Alex insisted. “I’m fine.” Tony called out the order, and years of practice went to work. Alex’s training, now augmented by the ability to sense every part of the process, had two cups ready in moments.

“Well, it’s sure not affecting your work,” Lucy admitted. “I never thought I’d enjoy the smell of mocha again, even here, but man I want a cup of that when we’re off shift.”

“Chocolate is its own reward,” Alex quipped. Lucy sighed and took the cups, handing them to Tony while Alex set up for the next order. It’s almost soothing, he thought, a touch amazed. The rhythm, the familiarity of –

For a moment, Alex froze again. I’m enjoying normal. He felt slightly nauseous for a second. “Okay,” Lucy insisted suddenly, putting a hand on his shoulder, “you need a break.”

“Shift’s almost over,” Alex replied, turning back to the equipment.

“Yeah, and the place is almost empty.” She pointed at the door to the back room with one thumb. “Take a breather. We’ve got this.”

When Alex tried to argue with her, but no words came, he gave up, nodded to Lucy, and went in back. He threw off his apron and sat down, sagging in the chair. This is crazy. Everything’s crazy. Memories flashed by: fighting the Skeptic, being suffocated by an alien monster, bringing down black-suited thugs, hearing the song of the universe, going to heaven, the gratitude in Sara’s eyes. I can’t believe she really insisted on taking the futon.

Tony poked his head in. “Next shift’s here!” he said merrily. “We can bail.”

Alex looked up, blinking. “Already?”

“Yeah,” Lucy added from behind Tony, “there were only a few minutes left anyway.”

Alex listened to his co-workers chatter while they packed up and headed for their cars. “What are you up to tonight, Alex?” Lucy asked.

“Not sure. That depends on Sara, I guess-” Alex stopped cold. Damn!

Lucy and Tony looked at each other in surprise, then smiled. “About time, boss!” Lucy blurted.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Alex demanded, and their smiles vanished. “She’s in trouble. I’m looking out for her.”

“Not the law?” Tony asked, stunned.

Alex shook his head. “Just the opposite. These people think they’re above the law. So not a word, okay?” They both nodded, much to Alex’s relief.

“So that’s why your weekend was weird,” Lucy whispered. Alex nodded back. Let’s keep this simple.

* * *

“Hey!” Sara called, throwing her arms around Alex the moment he was through the door.

“Whoa.” Alex stopped, smiled shyly, and returned the hug. “Um, hi.”

She released him suddenly, loping toward the kitchen. “I made food, want some?”

Unable to hold in a chuckle, he sat down at his art table. “That depends, Sara. ‘Food’ is kind of a broad category.” Alex’s smile vanished. “Wait, you don’t have to cook.”

“Hey, I have to do something around here, and there’s nothing to pick up,” she called from the kitchen. “Molly’s on ghost patrol, and if I watch too much television I break out in hives.”

She’s joking, Alex decided, I think. He pulled out the piece he’d been working on before he left for the Red Rock Room. “I have Internet access,” he noted.

“And I used it,” Sara retorted, a heaping plate of spaghetti floating beside her, “but there’s only so many silly cat pictures I can look at before it gets old.” Alex took the food gratefully, noting the generous helping of Parmesan, then stood and moved to the other table. “Oh, yeah, you might not want that sauce on your drawing.”

“I don’t want any sauce on my art,” Alex chuckled. He spun some pasta onto the fork and took a bite. “Mmm! This is really good! Where did you learn to cook?”

Sara looked at her plate, picking idly at the noodles. “My dad. My mom died when I was young, so it was just the two of us. He was really supportive, taught me to take care of myself.” She looked up again, forced a smile. “So! I was thinking, you can probably write dialogue better than you give yourself credit for.” Alex sighed and shook his head. “You just need some confidence.” She waggled her fingers in the air, the smile quickly looking much less forced. “And maybe a little luck. I could deal with being a part-time muse.”

“If Molly says it’s safe,” Alex replied. Sara grimaced, then stuck her tongue out at him. “She’s just worried about you. That reminds me, though.” He put the fork down and leaned forward. Sara sat up straighter. “We’re finally alone, at least for a little bit, so you don’t have to hold back. Do you really think I shouldn’t join the Alliance?”

Sara sighed and sagged back into her chair. “My own feelings about them aside, you’re a round peg, and they’ll try to pound you into a square hole. I’ll probably have to join the Council Majestic to get them to fight West, but you? Most natural Blaze wielders, the decent ones at least, end up with Division One, where they can blast Vortex things all day.” She swirled a large batch of spaghetti onto her fork and chewed thoughtfully. When she was done, Sara mock-glared at Alex. “By the way, you suck at flirting.”

“I wasn’t – I mean – that’s not – oh, come on!” Alex blurted, as Sara collapsed into helpless laughter. “Look, can we at least try dating a little before we get serious?” Sara took a few deep breaths, getting her laughter under control. “I like you, a lot, but we’ve known each other for less than a week.”

Sara leaned forward again, and Alex suddenly felt hunted. “I know you like Italian,” she said, pointing at the pasta with her fork. “And I like your gaming collection,” she added, pointing the fork at one of his book shelves.

“Wait, dinner and a dungeon crawl?” Alex joked.

“I was thinking less ‘kill monsters and take their stuff,’ and more ‘painfully cool creatures of the night,'” Sara replied, taking another bite.

Maybe I am in love, Alex mused.

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Written by Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan was born in the Bronx, New York, giving him the right to root for the Yankees while making less than six figures. After a long, largely pleasant interregnum in suburban Connecticut, he moved to the Inland Empire, California to be with his wonderful wife and muse, a stepson, and a crazed feline. An occasionally too-avid player of and writer for tabletop roleplaying games, his other passion is metaphysics, which informs most of his fiction.

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