Chapter 181

                 “…and I forgot to check if the toaster was plugged in. After that, I had to be in a specialized facility that could contain me, I was a bit out of control at the time, and while I was there the people found me. That pretty much catches us up; at least on the stuff I’m allowed to talk about.” Vince dumped a few more pink fake sugar packets into his coffee, trying to mask the subpar flavor. He didn’t entirely know why Eliza insisted on having their meetings here, there were certainly nicer coffee spots around town. Nonetheless, it was nice to talk with her, to see what had happened since they… parted. It was also good for him, as well. No longer the girl in his memories, Eliza was becoming real to Vince again, and that was aiding him in his efforts to move on.

                “You know, part of me wants to say how ridiculously unbelievable that all is, but knowing you, I actually don’t have much trouble believing it,” Eliza replied. “You’ve always seemed to live the most unpredictable life.”

                “Back at you,” Vince said, smiling over his steaming mug. She never showed it, but those smiles still made her stomach flutter, just a touch, when she saw them. Perhaps it was because she’d thought she would never see them again. Or perhaps it was because the first one was wedged so firmly in her mind.

*             *             *

                “Stop! Thief!”

                Vince’s breath was ragged as he pounded through the dense forest. A rogue branch scratched at his face, but he didn’t so much as break stride. He needed to keep running if he had a hope of catching the dark haired woman bounding ahead of him through the forest. A sudden slope nearly caught him off-guard, but he managed to keep his footing and add the increase of momentum to his speed. As he burst out of the brush and saw the woman scrambling to get up, he realized that she hadn’t been quite so quick at catching the slope.

                “Stop!” Vince yelled.

                The young woman turned around, eyes wild as she hurried to regain her footing. The wince that raced across her face was well-hidden, but told Vince all he needed.

                “You sprained you ankle in the fall.” His voice came out worried, kind, a far cry from the demanding hollers he’d been belting at her.

                “Here’s an idea: fuck you,” the girl spat. “Why are you running me down anyway?”

                “Because I saw you steal that man’s wallet,” Vince replied. “So I had to stop you.”

                “Oh you have got to be fucking kidding me. A park full of people, and the only one who notices my lift is the one who thinks he’s a damned Hero.” She shuffled, changing position slightly. As she did, her foot knocked over a small glass jar sitting in the grass.

                The clinking drew Vince’s attention to his surroundings for the first time, as he realized that this clearing wasn’t entirely empty. Set up near them was a large contraption of tubes and barrels that ran about. Empty milk jugs and glass jars were scattered about, as if they’d been knocked over, and footprint dotted the ground nearby. He could smell soot and recently doused flames as well. While he had no idea what the thing was, it was evident that he and the thief’s trampling had scared off whoever was using it.

                “I’m not a Hero, I’m just not letting you rob someone,” Vince said, turning his attention back on the girl. “It’s everyone’s obligation to stop bad things when they seem them happening.”

                The girl tilted back her head and let out a harsh, angry bark of laughter. “You are just too much! Did your grandma tell you that when tucking you in at night? The only obligation any of us has in this life is not to die. I stole that rich looking bastard’s wallet and tonight I’ll have a place to sleep and food to eat. Tough shit on him for not being better at keeping up with his stuff.”

                “No,” Vince said, trying to stay calm. He could still feel the fire nearby; whoever ran off hadn’t killed it entirely. Fire made him nervous; it was the energy that he seemed to draw most frequently. As long as he stayed away and kept his emotions in check, it should be alright though. “No, tonight you’re going to be in jail, after you return that man’s wallet.”

                “That a fact? You know, if you hadn’t started yelling, he wouldn’t even know the thing was gone. You screwed me real good here, Tights, and I’m not letting you cause any more trouble.”

                “My name isn’t-”

                “I don’t give two shits what your name is.” The woman pointed over her shoulder, past the barrels and still smoking fire. “I’m leaving, and you aren’t going to stop me.”

                “Yes. I am.”

                She took off like a shot, barreling forward in spite of her sprained ankle. It would be easy to catch her, but Vince still hesitated. The thief would run right by the metal container with the fire. Better to go around the far side, just to be safe.

                Vince hurried forward, weaving his away around the strange contraption. He was careful and sure-footed, but as he saw the girl make a break for a nearby section of brush, Vince decided to cut it slightly closer so he wouldn’t lose her. Unfortunately, this was one step too close to the fire, which his tired body called out to without his permission.

                The flames roared out of the oven heating the moonshine still, for that is what it was even if Vince’s didn’t know it, tearing across the pipes and barrels as it flowed into Vince. For a moment, the girl paused in shock at what she’d just seen, while Vince regained his footing after the unexpected surge of energy. As they stared at one another, a new sight caught Vince eye. Some of the other pieces of the still had caught fire, and he could already feel the rapidly building energy.

                He barely made it in time, but he slammed into the girl, knocking her low and putting his own body over her. There was no time for words, no time for anything before the whole thing blew and the fireball cascaded across the clearing. In the seconds before Vince’s body would be seared, his damned unreliable power refusing to the take the fire in when he actually wanted it, all he could do was try and comfort the girl. So he smiled. He smiled to try and show her that everything would be alright.

                Then the fire came, and Vince’s world dissolved into a world of pain.

*             *             *

                “Anyway, we’ve mostly been catching up on my stuff,” Vince said. “Tell me about things in your world. How the heck do you know Nick, for one thing?”

                “Oh, Vegas is smaller than you’d think, especially among the locals,” Eliza told him. Vince’s question had quelled the butterflies that his smile had summoned. It danced too close to the topic she had to avoid, no matter what the cost. “My life is pretty… well obviously it’s not boring, but it’s more mundane than you’d probably expect. It’s not bad, though. I always have food and a place to sleep.”

                “I’m glad,” Vince said.

                Eliza was glad too. For a long time, she’d wondered if the price had been worth it. Now, staring at Vince from across the table, knowing where his life had ended up, she had no doubts.