The light took a full minute to change, and in that time a female voice taunted from behind, "Well, look who's here."
Five of the six standing at the corner turned their heads. The sixth hunched his shoulders and jammed his hands into his jeans pockets.
"What's the matter, Jason?"
Jason finally looked toward Alyssa. "Nothing." His voice was perfectly atonal. "Good to see you." Alyssa's companion Rob looked nervous. Jason just shrugged easily and said hello, as if to tell him not to worry.
He took stock of his surroundings with the ease of a soldier: Mark stood at his right, with Princess and Susan on his left and Tiny and Keyop closest to the street. Overall, a good position. He shouldn't have to treat Alyssa like an enemy agent, of course, but he kept slipping back into the paradigm. It always came down to that: "her versus me."
Alyssa put her hands on her hips, standing in a way to emphasize her long legs and short skirt. She had to know what that did to him. Her black hair cascaded in ringlets past the open buttons at the neck of her white blouse. "Where are you all going? The circus?" She snickered. "You'd fit."
Mark answered before Jason could respond. "We're going to see a movie." He might have been talking to anyone, but Jason recognized the calculated unconcern: Mark, who had handled a dozen aggressive press conferences as part of commanding G-Force. Although Jason didn't unkey, he hadn't snapped at Alyssa. That was all Mark intended. "Fission Tide."
Rob looked impressed. "I've heard it's awesome! Good luck trying on opening weekend."
Alyssa turned to face Jason, silver earrings swinging with the motion of her head, but then her gaze fell on Susan. "Is this my replacement?" Susan shot her a disbelieving look even as Jason's mouth opened. She was standing there with Rob! Why the jealous act? "I'd have thought you'd get someone with some tits."
Susan, to her credit, sounded collected rather than repulsed. "He figured this time he'd try someone with intelligence, personality, and social grace."
Now Alyssa looked like a tiger. "But he settled for you--or does he have another girl on the side?"
"Alyssa, that's enough. She's with all of us." He couldn't let them keep fighting his battles for him. He said flatly, "I told you I'm not seeing anyone at all for six months."
"Oh, please!" She tossed her head and glared at Susan. "You're trying to take him. It's obvious. Once he's got nobody to turn to, you'll be there."
Susan remained silent before Alyssa's scowl, and Jason folded his arms. "Think what you want. We've got a movie to see."
Mark shot Jason a look, and they turned to cross the street, the others following.
Alyssa called at his back, "I hope you choke on the popcorn!"
He couldn't have swallowed anyway. His stomach hadn't unclenched two blocks later.
They reached the theater only to discover the first showing was sold out, but they braved the line and bought tickets to the showing on the second screen. With half an hour remaining, they crossed the street to a coffee shop and pushed two unsteady tables together. It was the kind of shop Jason refused to frequent, one that worked far too hard for a "genuine" atmosphere. New furniture designed to look old, a ramshackle assortment of crockery, grey cigarette haze at the back, and the trendiest types of pastries and coffee-esque drinks at the front. What the hell was a cinnamon chai latte?
He thought of these coffee boutiques as havens for would-be artistic types, and sure enough, half the customers fit the image. The walls bore up-close black-and-white photographs of fallen autumn leaves, de-petalled flowers, and snapped branches; just the kind of thing he wanted to spend half an hour looking at, was Jason's first thought. Had he mentioned artificial angst as part of the decor, as though the world hadn't enough hypersentiment already? The back wall of the shop consisted of bookcases and broken-spined hardcovers. The first time Jason spoke in fifteen minutes was to order a large, perfectly ordinary coffee. It was a dark roast and extremely bitter. The rest of them bought assorted snacks and beverages, then took seats. The coffee shop radio played Phil Collins' "I Wish It Would Rain Down." In keeping with the theme, Jason dominated the corner of the table with the silent menace of a funnel cloud.
Every block they had walked toward the theater, and for all the time they'd stood in line, Jason had disregarded the tumult of the city and replayed every second of that conversation. He remembered her glances, the motion of her earrings, the style of her hair. He kept thinking of the way she'd clenched Rob's hand for just an instant when she first saw him (and how it seemed she'd pass him by without a fight after all). Even now, swallowing strong coffee without tasting the cream or sugar, Jason could recall her snap at Susan, her disgusted and simultaneously uncertain regard. Alyssa had instinctively known the six-months idea came from an outsider. Somehow she had accurately guessed which one, only misjudging the motive. Hopefully.
Keyop returned last from the counter, but he only put down his soda and grabbed Tiny's arm. "Look! Pinball!"
Tiny's eyes widened. "Real pinball? I haven't played that since we were on..." He stopped abruptly. "...away that time."
"You owe me for losing then, too."
"We didn't even finish!"
They fell silent until two huge grins appeared. "Rematch!" They elbowed each other in their rush to the machine.
Jason delved his thoughts, absently stirring coffee that couldn't possibly still have needed it. If Alyssa were right, he'd never forgive Susan. Alyssa tended to have a knack for those games...witness how long he'd stayed with her. Susan probably didn't want him for herself, but to get revenge by forcing a breakup...that was understandable. If she wanted to retaliate for what had happened when she'd joined the team, this would work.
Princess and Mark, speaking quietly, drifted toward the worn hardbacks. That quickly, Susan sat alone at the table with Jason. She slipped herself from the seat.
"No, stay." Jason didn't take his eyes from his mug. "Can I ask you a question?"
The instant the team stepped into the shop, Susan fell in love with the little cafe. The owners had attended to all the details of their decor: antiqued wooden tables, scuffed hardwood floor, and framed photographs on the wall. The last were studies in autumn scenes. She checked a placard while the others placed their orders: apparently the shop showcased local artists. This exhibit read "Dis-closures. Although November seems to end in death, the new green of spring proves there has been no closure after all. Only at its most broken does nature disclose its true strength: the wonder of living wood." Susan spent a long time admiring the photos before her turn came at the counter. She decided to experiment with the unusual drinks the cafe had to offer and picked one of their "Italian sodas," vanilla-flavored.
Why they'd pushed two tables together remained a mystery, because no one so much as stopped in his seat. These were battle-hardened soldiers in full retreat. Glancing at Jason, she credited them with a good call.
There was no secret as to how Jason felt about her. Six weeks ago when Susan had accepted Chief Anderson's offer, Tiny had escorted her to ISO to officially meet the rest of the team. She'd seen them before, of course, but after they had rescued her from Spectrans in a nearbly pizza shop, she hadn't considered they'd one day invite her to stand in as their reserve member.
She had stepped off the elevator to be immediately greeted by Mark and Princess (whose names she finally learned) and simultaneously assaulted by the sound of Jason shouting at someone over the phone. "I'll hunt down your cat, and I'll kill it! I'll find your parents' car and set it on fire!" Mark and Princess laughed uneasily as they explained that Jason was in the middle of breaking up with his girlfriend yet again. He and Alyssa had been going out for years, but not consecutively: they'd parted at least twelve times. "Volatile begins to describe it," Princess said. Mark added, "He doesn't even love her. She openly dates other people, and half the time so does he."
Princess whispered, "Tomorrow she'll phone to yell something she forgot to now, and he'll get into another fight. In the middle of competing for who can say the nastiest thing about the other, she'll start to cry. They'll end up saying they're sorry just to stop the fight. It's easier just to go out with her again."
Jason stormed out of the TV room and got one look at Susan, exclaimed, "That? That's the new member?" and then marched the length of the hall to Chief Anderson's office where among other things, he let the Chief and anyone else within earshot know he wasn't going to participate in any team with a "psycho mind-stealing cockroach-worshipping witch-bitch." Breathless, Susan had unconsciously stepped backward into the wall. Apparently it was all right to keep a telepath from Spectra's clutches, but not all right to interact with one.
Mark hurried to the Chief's office while Princess and Tiny guided Susan to the kitchen to meet Keyop. Princess laid a hand on Susan's arm, saying, "He's just had enough of females for the moment. I don't know why he ever put up with her," and Tiny added, "Because she puts out, that's why."
Following them down the hall, Susan swallowed hard. She tried to reassure herself that it wasn't the worst thing ever to happen, that one of the five people saving the world was one of the last people she'd ever want to do that job. Or that she'd find it impossible to work with someone slave to both his prejudices and his sex drive, who'd screw a girl he disliked just because he could.
Four weeks hadn't changed that impression. Susan attempted to escape to the far side of the cafe along with the rest of G-Force, but Jason said, "No, stay. Can I ask you a question?"
Tension telegraphed from her stomach to her brain and back again, but instead of bolting as if she hadn't heard, Susan went to the chair opposite. "Fire away." He was the gunner--he should like that she used those words. He didn't seem to notice
Jason didn't speak at once, and Susan didn't probe. She cast a longing glance toward Mark--the only one able to restrain Jason--but Mark obliviously browsed the books. No help there.
Jason said, "Do you remember when you came to be part of the team that first day? After the pizza party--"
"Yes...?" Of course she remembered. When only Mark, Princess, Jason and she lingered in the TV room, Jason indirectly and bitterly alluded to the break-up. Princess coaxed him to talk. With a sidelong glare, Jason had said, "But now we've got a telepath to solve all our problems. Why don't you pick my mind and tell me what I ought to do?" Susan had snapped, "You'd take advice from a mind-thieving witch-bitch?" He'd at least had the decency to look embarrassed.
Impatiently, Susan watched as Jason ran his fingers along the thick white handle of the cup. He said, "When you asked me why I didn't just refuse to talk to her--"
Now Susan tried not to look worried. Why did he have to bring up that part of the conversation? He had said something about neither he nor Alyssa ever getting on with their lives, and she had said, "Why don't you refuse to talk to her?" The obvious solution, of course, but saying it so bluntly had sounded patronizing. Staring at her hands to avoid the predictable disgusted stare, Susan had groped for a way to to make it sound as though she had an actual plan and wasn't Dear Abby dispensing unfeeling rote answers. She'd only wanted to get herself off the hook--and she suspected he was about to call her to task. He should have realized it then by how fast she'd stammered, "When my parents and brother got killed back on Cassanega, I lost everyone and everything I ever knew. Nearly a year ago, I promised myself an eighteen-month hiatus from dating until I got my head back together, and it's working. Maybe you could do something like that, swear off dating six months, until August or September. Tell her you won't even speak to her until then, let alone go out with her, or any other girl either. Just so you can figure out what exactly is going on and what you really want."
Susan drank some of her soda, but it didn't take long enough because he was still watching her for a response. "You surprised me. You thought then it wasn't a bad idea."
Jason said without inflection, "It actually wasn't." He smirked. "That still doesn't mean you can go into my head."
Susan shuddered. "Who'd want to be there?"
He averted his eyes.
He'd made his decision weeks ago, and without fanfare he'd lived up to his personal promise. At the same time, Susan had begun preliminary training with the team. On weekends she socialized with them in an attempt to acquire some sort of familiarity. That task daunted her even more than the physical requirements: G-Force had surpassed "team" to become a community. True communities are very welcoming of new members, but their acceptance of her (excluding Jason, who tolerated her) didn't instill in her their fluency with one another's outlooks. They had a way of predicting what one another would do in any given situation, a knowledge of one another's strengths and weak points, and a manner of smoothly covering for one another without being asked or resented.
From February to March, she and Jason hadn't exchanged twelve words outside of necessary talk during training sessions. She had designated him a direct-eye-contact person, the kind who tested your integrity by looking you in the face and expecting you to look right back, yet he never met her eyes for any reason. It would be impossible for Susan to ever form a community under those circumstances. She had concluded she might as well leave now and save them all the anguish of having two members at one another's throats--or just avoiding each other. In the uneasiest of unspoken truces, Susan kept out of Jason's mind, and he did his best to pretend she'd never arrived.
Except for now, and he still hadn't asked whatever question he intended. Susan reached for her soda and resisted the urge to check her watch. She snaked out her thoughts and prodded Mark for the time, but Mark felt confident they didn't need to get going yet. Great.
When Jason looked up, she could see the weariness. The radio had changed to Sarah McLachlan's "Do What You Have To Do," and the words seemed to spear him. "I have the sense to recognize that I don't know how to let you go." He could run a marathon, but a two-green-light encounter at a street corner had wiped him out. Susan reflected that if Spectra had any inkling, they'd design an Alyssa-mech and wipe out all life on Earth in eight days flat.
"It's hard to break up with someone you've gone out with that long, even if you don't love the person." Susan wondered how far she could feign sympathy before he objected. "It can't help that she's dating one of your friends."
"She's gone out with Rob longer than with me. He can have her." Jason chuckled. "Sometimes I was glad he could take her off my hands. Other times...well, that's how it is."
"But you're talking about years. Everything gets all entangled. There are scores of memories piled up, and they keep getting bumped into."
Jason squinted at her.
"I haven't been in your head." Why must he always think the worst of her? "But I did just lose my parents."
Jason flinched. "My mistake. Your point."
Susan had a razor's edge to her words. "Of course, I wasn't sleeping with my parents."
Jason looked her right in the face. "I wasn't sleeping with Alyssa."
"Really?" Susan put down her soda. "I thought--"
"Mark and Tiny have no idea what they're talking about." Jason had iron in his posture but kept his voice so low Susan strained to hear him. "When the football team yells 'Virgins!' at the nerds, they're yelling at me too."
She blinked. Even without reading his mind, she'd have been able to tell if he were lying. "Not that I think you're wrong--because it's probably for the best--but then why do they say you have?"
"Because Alyssa's a slut?" Jason laughed, but he absolutely didn't meet Susan's eyes. "That's not true either. But the first month I was going out with her, she and Rob had a pregnancy scare, and I tried to imagine telling the Chief if that happened to me. You've heard of the Trail of Tears? He'd make that look like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade." Jason shook his head. "Besides, she'd see me on Friday and Rob on Saturday. I didn't need another area of my life to be second best."
Susan kept her voice level. "Understandable."
"It caused all kinds of fights." He shrugged. "That wasn't what I wanted to ask."
Susan said, "If that wasn't an issue, I don't see why you kept going back to her. Is it just that she's familiar?"
Jason rolled his eyes. "No real guy can say no to a girl in tears."
Susan laughed out loud, and instantly she let Jason see herself in his mind's eye, tears streaming down her face.
"Don't you do that to me too."
Susan made the mewling face in his mind beg, "Please don't go back to Alyssa!"
Jason laughed into his hands. "Thanks. Why didn't you do that two years ago?"
Laughing with Jason was a lot more pleasant than feeling his granite stare on the back of her neck. In the next moment, it occurred to Susan that Jason hadn't gotten livid about her putting a picture into his mind. But then again, she hadn't been taking particular thoughts out, and she suspected privacy was more the problem than invulnerability.
"Would it have helped?" Susan drank more of her soda, then said, "You'd have gone back to her anyhow, for whatever reasons you actually did."
Jason met her gaze briefly. "She-- Alyssa burns hot, and if she does something, she does it all the way. She's fearless, and she likes a challenge. She doesn't need a guy. She knows everything, and that's good and bad. She knows exactly what you want. She thinks of a thousand little things she can do for you. She'd leave cards in my locker, or she'd drop by on my night for dinner prep and cook with me. She taught me to cook Italian. I'd never realized how much I missed my Mom's cooking. When I lost a hideously important race, she showed up afterward with microwave popcorn and a deck of cards. She never said she was trying to cheer me up."
Jason hadn't even mentioned Alyssa since that night, and by that first account she'd been nothing but poison from the start. An interesting reversal. Susan said cautiously, "That doesn't sound so bad."
"It always haunted me. 'How could you do that when I did this for you?' Think about it: if she knows all the things she can do to make you happier, then she also knows how to turn every one of them around and needle you like crazy." His eyes had a hollow sheen, in conspicuous contrast to the granite-blue Susan usually saw. "The good times were really good."
"Nobody needs help to get through the good times."
Jason abruptly reached for the coffee, as if to get something in his mouth. All these thoughts had pressure-cooked. Susan looked around the coffee shop, then said abruptly, "How'd you meet?"
"School. Her dad's the Italian envoy to the UN. Princess pushed me into asking her out."
This sounded safe enough. "Did you have your own song?"
Jason rolled his eyes. "House of Love, Amy Grant."
Susan thought of the chorus and laughed out loud.
"It's not funny," Jason said softly.
"I'm sorry." She groped for less volatile topics. "Did you have a photo of her in your wallet?"
"Couldn't. If they caught me, I didn't want a trail to anyone I cared about. I had one in my room. She and five other members of the debate team had dressed like a six-pack of Pepsi for Halloween." Jason laughed suddenly. "Whenever we had a fight, I turned it face-down. I didn't think anyone noticed, but Mark said that was our barometer."
Susan chuckled. "Debate team, huh?"
"And baseball. I didn't get to see her play except important games. We always had practice right after school."
That sullen lost look reappeared. Susan fumbled for another question. "When was your anniversary?"
"April 15th. Tax day. Figures." Jason shook his head. "I couldn't take her anywhere two years ago because of a mission, and last year we'd just gotten back from one and I must have been a wreck. She always acted like I ruined things for her, and I guess I did. I just wasn't there often enough. Even when I was, my mind was on ten other things. Then she'd stop by with a box of pastries to share with everyone, and things would seem fine, only they weren't. We were just laying low until the next time I hurt her, when she'd lash out about everything I'd ever done."
There was that look again. Susan blurted, "You, of all people, felt guilty?"
Jason kept his eyes down as he nervously laughed his no. Abruptly Susan realized how her words sounded.
"I keep interrupting you." She was an idiot to keep blabbing out the stupidest things to him and then feeling like she'd flung his heart against the wall. The ISO refugee retrainers hadn't warned her how different nontelepaths were. Back home, any thought could become public discussion; everyone expected that kind of bluntness. "You had a question."
Jason drank some of his coffee. He took a while before pronouncing, "What Alyssa said about you--is it true?"
"That I don't have a bustline?" Susan snickered as Jason nearly choked. "You can figure that out for yourself."
"I never looked closely enough."
When he glanced up, Susan noticed again the strain in his throat, the fine lines around his eyes. His restless fingers kept wrapping tight around the thick ceramic of the mug, tying knots in the brown plastic stirrer, turning a napkin into tiny paper balls. Tension coursed through his arms. In that moment she realized he really had loved Alyssa.
He wasn't joking about his question. Her return volley had only bought her a minute.
The Alyssa-hiatus hadn't necessarily gotten Jason over the girl: not seeing her had only enabled him to see himself. He'd always done the dishonest work, reconciling rather than saying no when he needed to. Staying away had opened him to different pain, an honest pain. Walking away from her without any hope of a future had lanced a part of his heart Jason would otherwise deny he possessed.
"You aren't a jerk after all," Susan whispered.
Jason did a double-take. "Don't tell my fans that."
"No...I mean--" She tried to catch her breath. Did every telepath have this problem? "I've heard people say negative things about you, but that's because you're a private person and they're looking at who you appear to be, not who you are inside." Jason looked wary. She added hastily, "I've been staying out of your head--Alyssa's been in there more than I ever will. But you don't know for sure, and if I'd looked inside and seen who you really are--"
Jason said, "You wouldn't want to be in there."
--then he'd conclude she despised him knowing everything. Which would be a lot harder for him to rationalize.
Jason glanced at the back of the shop, and Susan looked to find Mark and Princess on the other end of his gaze. Mark met her eyes briefly, expectant and cautious; Princess just looked concerned, but she'd directed it toward Jason. Interesting.
As Mark and Princess made their way back to the table, Susan checked her watch. Time to head to the theater. Jason said quickly, "Stop interrupting me. The point is, is Alyssa right that you're trying to get me for yourself?"
He didn't bother finishing with, "Because if you were--" or "Because I could never--"
Susan looked him right in the eyes and opened her hands flat on the table. "Jason, I love you the way I love Mark, and the way I love Tiny, and the way I love Princess and Keyop."
He exhaled slowly. "Okay. That's all I wanted to know." Mark had drawn up next to him, and Jason stood, his confident stance returning. "We'd better get going, huh?"
"Only if we intend to make the show."
Tiny and Keyop joined them, bragging about their pinball performances, and Princess showed Susan the used book she'd bought which might possibly be a first edition--although Susan had no idea why words cost more just because they'd been there first. She tried to meet Jason's eyes once more, but Jason drifted toward Mark and Tiny. There wasn't time to say anything else, and she suspected that for the moment, he thought she had said more than enough.