His clothes weren’t quite dry when Mary arrived to collect him for the funeral.
“I can’t help you with wet clothes, but I’m sure it won’t be a problem once we’re there,” she said. “You ready?”
“I think so. Where are we going?”
“The service will be outside and the party will be at CERT.”
“Party? Isn’t it called something else for a funeral?” What the hell did he know? He’d just missed one. Not that he was formally invited. Not that they could have formally invited him if they wanted to.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s a wake. But when it’s for Zep, we call it a party.”
Colin smiled. She seemed to have forgotten all about earlier. Probably for the best. “Will it be okay if I’m there? I mean, I only met her once.”
“You’re one of us, of course you’ll be welcome. And you probably knew her better than a lot of people who’d met her a hundred times.”
“It’s a bit of a hike,” she said. “Do you have more appropriate shoes?”
He looked at his scuffed dress shoes. He’d done his best to clean them up, but after the cave it was hopeless. “I don’t have any other shoes. How do you manage to look perfect all the time? You wear white almost every day and I’ve hardly seen a smudge on any of your clothes.”
“I get dirty. I just happen to own more than one change of clothes.”
He scoffed in mock insult. “I’ll have you know, I have at least three outfits. This just happens to be the only one made out of what I like to call ‘grown-up-clothes.’”
She was right about the hike, Colin had to take a break partway up the mountain. Altogether, about twenty elementals gathered to remember Zephyra, otherwise known as Zep.
Many of them spoke, remembered her wild spirit, her sudden quiet moods, and her fighting prowess. Many of the non-air elementals held flags with her name, while the air elementals whipped up a squall, joined by the power of water elementals who added rain to the mix. Colin only stood in awe, holding a flag that bore the name of the girls he met once.
Carmel and Mary, faces wet with tears and rain, took each other’s hands.
Phoenix and another fire elemental, a woman who looked a little like Zep, let their heads and hands burns, brightening up the darkness brought on by clouds.
Carmel and Mary nodded to each other and closed their eyes. After a moment, the ground threw them up and rippled away like they were stones in a pond. Colin watched the earth move in an unsettling way, a rolling earthquake travelling into the city.
A few of the attendees seemed to be waiting for Colin to participate. He didn’t.
“Come on,” Mary said. “Let’s get back to CERT.”
“For Zep!” became the rallying cry as alcohol and tears flowed, alcohol far more heavily.
Yellow streamers and balloons decorated the place. It didn’t look so much like a police station this way. Being happily drunk probably changed the feel of the place, instead of being horribly hungover. Colin lost Mary at some point, she still had to lead, and he was an adult. He’d be fine without her.
He crashed into Kurada rounding a corner.
“Hey!” She smoothed her hair, flushed and grinning mischievously. Was she capable of any other look?
“Hi,” Colin said.
“Well, carry on,” she giggled.
He raised his plastic cup. “For Zep.”
“For Zep!” the room echoed.
Colin couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore the facility, but he found mostly locked doors.
“Colin!” Andreus waved him over. “I have something for you. From Zep, actually.”
“For Zep!” the room shouted.
“What is it?”
“Come on, there are too many ears in here.” Andreus led Colin into the room where he’d showered the first time he was there and locked the door.
“You’re creeping me out,” Colin said.
“Yeah? It’s about to get weird.” Andreus smiled before he dissolved into a puddle and spread out across the room. He reformed and pulled his pants on. “Had to make sure we’re alone.”
“Top secret stuff?”
Andreus handed Colin a plastic box from his pocket. “This is Zep’s idea. Since you’re supposed to pass for fire.”
“What is this? A tiny notebook?” Colin flipped through the pages.
“It’s flash paper. Take one out and spark it. But close the box first.”
“Flash paper?” He’d never heard of the stuff.
“It’s a magician thing. Do it.”
Colin set one of the little sheets in his palm and tried to spark it. “I can’t do it. I think I drank too much.”
“Is that a problem you have?”
“I like to think of it as a solution.”
“Just focus. What if we were under attack right now? Concentrate.” Andreus stared intently, as if his concentration could spark it.
“If we were under attacked I’d be fucked and die.”
Colin stared, even though Andreus was still focusing hard enough for both of them. It had to be just like the lightbulb, only totally different. Sparks were easy, they came without warning, so why the hall couldn’t he spark this stupid piece of paper? Maybe he wasn’t stressed enough. It would be hard to stress himself out, but maybe there was another way. Mary, in his living room, in his arms, her frantic kisses, her red and black bra, her lips on his, her fragrance of lavender and leather and fall.
The paper caught fire and burned out in an instant.
Andreus clapped. “Yes! It worked. Now just figure out how to hide it and when you need to prove yourself, just whip it out, spark it and boom! You, my friend, are a bona fide fire elemental.”
“Thanks.” Colin slipped the case into his pocket. He just had to become a magician and control himself. Then he could continue to hide his true identity. Easy peasy. It was fun, though.
“It was Zep’s idea.”
Colin raised his glass. “For Zep.”
Andreus grabbed his shirt, slung an arm over Colin’s shoulder and the pair went to rejoin the party.
Kurada’s face turned bright red when she saw them. “Oh, sorry. Oh!”
“It’s not what you think,” Colin jumped away from Andreus. He started to object further, but Andreus pushed him toward the party.
“Nobody cares, man.”
If Zep had lived, she would have been Colin’s friend, too. If a friend is someone who thinks about you when you aren’t around, then she was a good one.
“Colin!” Phoenix shouted. “My brother!”
“Yeah!” Phoenix was a little too loud. Either he was very drunk or lying. Or both. “Fire, fire. We’re like family!”
Colin nodded slowly. “Yeah, sure, okay.”
Somehow, Colin and Mary found each other again, and somehow she offered to take him to the Deep Rooms. Somehow, they went and somehow their clothes came off. Somehow, she convinced him to let his guard down and they made love down there.
He woke up alone, with a haze over the memory of why he was there.
He dressed and went up to see if Mary was still at CERT or not, but Kurada interrupted his quest.
“So, you and Andreus, huh? I’ll admit that I did not see that coming.”
“It’s not what you think.” He tried to walk away, but she followed. He should have expected that.
“Hey, I’m not judging. I just thought we had sort of a thing.”
“A thing? You mean my thing in your hand, once?” He turned, the wrong way and started for the exit.
“I thought we were past that. So was I wasting my time with you? Seriously, I assumed you were straight this whole time.”
“Wasting your time? You mean the thirty seconds you spent feeling me up in the shower before you even knew my name that one time? Yeah, let’s call that wasted.”
She lowered her voice. “I knew your name. And that’s not all the time I wasted on you. I spent a significant time thinking about you after that. At least twice.”
He hated himself for the chill that went up his spine. “Well, I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you.”
She didn’t let up. “So, you’re a fire, huh?”
“You’re very inquisitive.” He hoped she’d leave him alone when he walked out. No luck. She followed him into the bright daylight and the crowded shopping center.
“That’s something you say to little kids,” she said. “Or women if it’s the 1940’s. It’s not an answer.”
“Sorry,” Colin said sarcastically. “I wasn’t socialized properly.”
“Really? I thought you were just from out of town.”
“But you weren’t already CERTified?”
“What do you do?”
“Fire. We’ve established this.” He looked for Mary’s car in one of the parking lots. He didn’t remember which one she’d parked in.
“No, I mean what’s your job?”
“I’m in between jobs now.”
“Slow down,” she said. “You won’t outrun me. I got third place in a marathon last weekend. You shouldn’t tax yourself trying to get away. So how long have you been between jobs?”
“You’re so nosy,” Colin said. He did stop, though, to look at the map.
“You probably could have gotten away with that in the 90’s,” she said. “But now you just sound sexist. SO you have no job, no family, no connections, and I’m assuming very poor control from the way you’re sweating. What really brought you here?”
“Inheritance.” He found the most likely parking lot on the map.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Me too,” he said. “But I lost them a long time ago.”
He nodded. Why was he telling her all this?
“That explains why you came to town. Why were we sent to fetch you from a strip club in the middle of the night, covered in your own vomit?”
“Would you feel better if I told you it was someone else’s?” He took long strides to the parking lot where he hoped Mary’s car was. Not that he could get into it. But he could go back into CERT and find her. He should just go back and look. But Kurada’s stalking was throwing him off.
“No, I watched it happen.”
“You were there?”
“I washed it off with my own body. And you never even thanked me.”
“And then you threw me in a dog kennel? Thanks.”
“Why would Mary want you specifically?” she asked. “What’s your specialty?”
“Yeah. Are you really great with computers or something? Can you melt cars from three blocks away? What makes you special?” She moved closer to him. “Show me something.”
“Show you what?”
“Light something on fire. That guy looks like a jerk in his douchebag hat. Light him up. Blow up a car. Do whatever it is you do that earned you a pair of top operatives dragging your drunk ass here and babysitting you.”
He couldn’t reach the flash paper without her noticing. “I must have a lot of potential.”
She stepped in front of him and put a hand to his chest. She produced a match and a cigarette. She popped the cigarette into her mouth and held up the match. “Show me.”
He pushed past her. “I have control issues.”
She slipped the cigarette from her mouth, leaned into his chest so he had to look down into her dark blue eyes, had to watch her perfect pink lips form her words. “Don’t worry. If things get out of control, I’ll put you out.”
Sparks rolled over his skin. “Shit.”
She jumped. “I knew it!”
“Congratulations,” he said.
“My cars right here,” she said. “Mary wanted me to give you a ride when you woke up.”
“I’ll walk, thanks.”
“I’m not telling her I let you refuse, and you aren’t going to. Get in the car.”
“I will follow your stubborn ass home,” she said. “Marathon, remember? I’ve got my finishing pictures on my phone.”
She started the car and her inquiry together. “So why is she keeping you a secret?”
“Couldn’t tell you.”
“Well, I’ll find out. I’m an intelligence agent by trade. In case you can’t tell, I have a natural curiosity and a knack for getting information.”
“Oh yeah, you’re real slick about it, too,” he said.
“I can be when I need to,” she said. “But with you I don’t need to. You answered everything, didn’t you? And now that I know your secret, which is not a secret affair with Andreus, why are you really here?”
“Because I have control issues. If you’re so good at what you do, shouldn’t you know when I’m telling the truth?”
She laughed. “That’s not how intelligence works. I find out facts and figures and communications. Anything I find might be true or not. That’s not my department. But I promise I won’t tell on you.”
“And whatever you say might be true or not.”
She looked him up and down. “You really don’t know why you’re here or why you’re being kept a secret?”
“Everything I have told you is the truth.”
“Except one little detail you lied about,” she turned back to the road.
“It wasn’t my decision to pretend to be fire. Mary thought it would be better if no one knew the truth yet.”
She smirked. “I was talking about you and Andreus. Go on, go about your busy day. I’ll be seeing you soon enough, I’m sure.”
“Do you think there’s actually something going on between me and Andreus? There’s not. We’re friends.”
“Just friends who shower together at parties?”
“Well, if we’re going by that scale, what does that make us?”
Her laugh trailed after him as he got out of the car and escaped into his house.