Owen pushed his chair back from the table carefully, making sure not to destroy either one of them and inadvertently cause a scene. “Cute trick, but I have real work I could be doing.”
“I know perfectly well that you do, just like I know that you’ve got the scent of those robots and aren’t likely to let it go. You were hardly renowned for being a man who backed down or gave up. Seeing as I’m the one who is most likely to actually run them down, and I do have a few more tidbits to share, perhaps you should at least be polite and hear me out.” If Jeremiah was at all bothered by Owen’s reaction, it didn’t show.
“You tricked me. There’s not much more I need to know.”
“Come now, of course I tricked you. For one thing, that’s my job; it would be like me getting mad at you for lifting weights. Anyway, we both know you wouldn’t have come if I’d been upfront, and for all the wrong reasons. So, new proposal: here me out on why I used subterfuge. If, at the end, you see no truth in my reasoning, then we’ll part ways and I’ll keep you in the loop on your prey. If, however, you can acknowledge that I might have been just a bit right, you stay and finish dinner.
Owen wavered for a few seconds, then slid back up to the table. Much as he disliked being kept in the dark, Jeremiah wasn’t entirely wrong about that being what Subtlety Heroes did. Sometimes they needed to move others into position without being able to share information on why. After a few years, most of them thought nothing of light trickery and manipulation. One had to look at their intentions to get a measure of them, and the only way he’d know Jeremiah’s was to listen.
“Very well.” Jeremiah plucked the wine bottle out of the ice bucket and topped himself off. “I tricked you into coming here, in this context, because we both know you’d have turned me down if I was upfront. Now my ego is quite healthy and I don’t mind rejection, but only if I’m actually the thing being rejected. Ever since you came back you’ve clearly been shutting away your personal life, trying to make all of who you are about the job. The reasons are obvious: you don’t want to give the media any fuel and you’re probably a bit gun-shy after what happened with your last tryst. I’d bet you even emotionally abstained during those years running the bar, keeping your heart locked away.”
Owen’s eyes shot across the table. He’d never given Jeremiah his real name, and even if he had, the bar, Tartarus, was run under so many fake identities and shell companies that it should have been impossible to trace back to him. Being a Subtlety Hero was one thing, but this was a step beyond.
“What? Did you really expect me not to be a bit curious? Even before I actually met you, the rumors of your return were more than enough to provoke a touch of research. I couldn’t make sense of it all, however, until that day in the bar. That was when I figured out what would motivate such curious, seemingly single-minded behavior. That was when I saw all the guilt that’s weighing you down.”
“I’m not… I feel bad for leaving others in the lurch,” Owen replied. “People probably got hurt because I wasn’t there. I should feel guilty. That’s what you feel when you fuck things up.”
“And I have no doubt your penance will be a long one,” Jeremiah said. “But it shouldn’t be the only aspect of your life. You’re allowed to be more than just the servant of the people, you know. You get to be a person, to have a life. If all you are is the job, then you lose touch with the things worth fighting for. This is a talk we usually give rookies; I shouldn’t have to remind someone like you.”
“I know the talk, and I know the points.” Owen reached over and actually took another drink of the wine. It was better than nothing. “I’m just not there.”
“Let me guess, you’re afraid if you do find romance and the media gets wind it will kick up the same shitshow as before? No, that can’t be all of it. You’re the type that always takes on a challenge from others. Hmmm.” Jeremiah drummed his fingers on the table, gaze never wavering from Owen. “You’re scared that it will break you again. You don’t even have a reason why you think it would, but the idea that you might run a second time, that you might be the one who destroys you, is probably one of the only things you still feel genuine fear over. That’s why you’re just the job. If nothing else exists, nothing can make you run.”
“Do people really go in for all your psycho-analytical bullcrap?”
“Some do, most don’t,” Jeremiah admitted. “Few people find the truth palatable. Perhaps that was why I found you worth pursuing: you do not strike me as one to shirk easily.”
“Yeah, about that pursuing. I’m flattered, but I doubt this will work out,” Owen said.
“So sure already? We have barely scratched the surface of getting to know one another. It certainly can’t be a physical rejection, I still keep a fit shape and my handsomeness is objectively undeniable. Or perhaps you simply prefer men more rough and tumble like yourself, rather than the stuffy intellectual types.” Jeremiah grinned, and Owen had to admit the young man was handsome, if a bit cockier than was warranted. Still, it didn’t change the fact that there were serious obstacles in their way.
“You forgot to add in that you’re probably ten years younger than me, and that we both work in jobs that are incredibly demanding, not to mention dangerous as hell.”
“I see, you’re afraid to get close to me because you’re afraid you’ll then lose me.” Jeremiah finished off his wine and set down the glass. “Very well, I think that’s enough offense for this meeting. Since I assume you’ll have to yield my words held some truth, and you are now obligated to stay for dinner as a man of his word, let us make a new deal. I promise to keep the dinner on friendly terms, sticking to platonic subjects and business at hand, if you’ll make me a promise in return.”
“What’s the promise?” Owen asked.
“Promise me that, should you actually find that I’m not your type, you won’t make the next man whose eye you catch jump through so many hoops to win your affection. Self-denial is all well and good, but no matter how strong you might be, you’re still human. Don’t neglect a whole part of who you are out of fear or guilt. Besides, the next fellow to fancy you likely won’t be as dauntless as I am, so your rebuffing might actually hurt.”
“I’ll do my best.” Owen kept his tone neutral, but the conversation had definitely stirred up questions he’d been avoiding. And Jeremiah was right, he was trying to do nothing but live the job. How many rookies had he watched burn themselves out like that? And what made him think he’d be any different when he’d already folded once before?
“I suppose that will have to do,” Jeremiah said, breaking Owen out of his thought spiral. “For now.”