Chapter 91

                It has been established previously that, while a fun exercise in thought, there is no such thing as an unstoppable force or an immovable object. However, had one been in attendance at a bar called Dashabout located near Lander campus on Halloween of a particular year in question, one might be tempted to disagree. While there might not have actually existed such a thing as an unstoppable force, merely forces that were difficult to stop, the difference was purely academic to the people standing between Vince Reynolds and Eliza Tracey.       

                He surged forward like the tide, neither conscious nor concerned with anything that might lie in his path. Vince was at her side in seconds, staring into her twinkling eyes as though they contained the secrets of the universe. For him, perhaps, they did.

                “Thief… is that… you’re alive?”

                Eliza reached up carefully, as if he were a bubble that the sharpest movement might pop, and tenderly brushed aside his red and yellow-striped knit cap. It fell away, instantly forgotten as the spiky silver hair she knew so well, in her brightest memories and most painful dreams, was exposed. Her breath caught in her throat at that sight, and only years of training kept her from dissolving completely. She pulled her hand down slightly and ran her fingers across his left cheek.

                “Tights,” she whispered. In such a loud bar, her words were barely audible, yet Vince clung to every word. “Tights, I… I’m so sorry.”

*             *             *

                “Promise me you’ll be here when I wake up.” Vince’s voice was still weak; the smoke’s damage to his vocal cords would likely have left him with a permanent rasp in other circumstances. His eyes, in contrast, were unyielding, staring up at her with absolute need.

                She smiled and leaned down, giving him a careful kiss. It was strange that he never saw her apply anything to her lips, yet they still always tasted like cherries and root beer. He never would have imagined that combination before; now Vince couldn’t picture a world without it. Her dark curls tumbled against one of the burns on his face and he winced involuntarily, breaking their embrace.

                “I’ll be here. You think I’m not going to stick around to make sure you’re okay? Give me a little credit here, Tights.”

                Vince squeezed her hand with as much strength as he had, which was very little. “Thank you. For everything.”

                “None of that. You’ll be fine, and you can thank me by taking me out on proper date when you wake up. I’m not letting you get off with just words.” Thief brushed his left cheek, one of the few spots on his face unburned by the explosion. It was the place where she could touch him casually, affectionately, without causing him pain. She stood up carefully, and motioned to the other person in the room.

                Unlike these two, he did not have stars or love in his eyes. He was a squat man with a round figure and haughty expression. He gazed down at the burned boy in front in him, trying not to focus too much on the scent of cooked flesh that lingered in the room. How this girl could have spent so much time around her crispy companion baffled him. Thankfully, he was not paid to comprehend such matters; his money came from a far easier task. Well, easier for him.

                The man reached down, touching an exposed patch of skin on the young man, Tights, she kept calling him. Tights winced slightly but soon he felt the power flowing into him and the pain abated. It wouldn’t be long now. The man stood back up and walked toward the doorway. He loathed this smell and yearned for fresh air. Sadly, that was still to be denied to him for some time yet.

                “I think I’m feeling it,” Tights said, voice still raspy, but now heavier, like he was pulling up his words from the depths of a well.

                “Good. Let it take you,” Thief said. “When you wake up, you’ll be whole again.”

                “And then I’ll thank you with a proper date.”

                “You damn well better.” She leaned over him one last time, kissing him so softly he might have thought he was already dreaming, if not for the lingering taste of cherries and root beer.

                Tights fell away from the conscious world, swimming in a sea of dreams that were half-memory and half-hallucination. He saw lots of times with his father, and those made him happy. He also saw the explosion that had taken his father, his only family, away from him. That played countless times, when even once would have served as a living hell. He also saw the explosion that had gotten him into this mess: the fire surrounding the propane tanks, the inevitability of death, pushing Thief out of the shack just in time. Then… the pain. He’d thought that when he slept there would finally be relief, but it wasn’t so. The pain followed him into his dreams, fresh and sharp while lingering and stale at the same time. It was impossible to say how long he lay in that state; he’d been told it would take a day, yet it seemed to last millennia. But, like all things, good or bad, it eventually came to an end.

                The first thing he noticed upon waking wasn’t a thing at all, it was the lack of a thing. Pain. The pain that had haunted him for days, had driven him half-mad, was gone. His skin was pale and uncharred; even the scars he’d accumulated through childhood had vanished. He was whole again: amazingly, impossibly, whole.

                The second thing he noticed was also a lack of a thing, but this one was far less joyous. Thief was gone, as was the man who’d healed him. Tights got up slowly, unsure of this body that was familiar and foreign simultaneously. He poked his head out of the small shed, taking in the brisk morning air that permeated the forest. The sounds of nature filled the woods, and he walked around the perimeter slowly, amazed at how good it felt to touch cold ground with his own feet. He ran a hand through his silver hair, always spiking in whatever direction it felt like, and continued searching.

                After an hour, he came back to the shed. Looking around, he found a fresh set of clothes, boots in his size, and a backpack filled with packaged food. There was nothing of Thief though. Not a brush, not a note, not even her scent remained behind. For the first time, he truly let it sink in that she was gone.

                The silver-haired young man set his face in his hands and began to weep. His body was whole, but the pain wasn’t gone. It had only been traded. This pain, he feared, would take far more than a healer than remove.

*             *             *

                “Tights, I… I’m so sorry.” She’d imagined this meeting hundred upon thousands of times. Of seeing him, of knowing he was safe and alive and happy. In all of her fantasies, even the most hopeful ones, they ended in his hatred. Eliza did not have Vince’s optimism or determined naivety. She’d seen too much of human nature. What she’d done to him, it was impossible to forgive; even in her own fantasies.

                “You’re alive.”

                Eliza braced for whatever came next: cursing, yelling, even violence; she would take whatever he deemed fit. The time had finally come for her penance.

                Vince wrapped his arms around her and lifted her up, so that for a slim moment she could see almost the entirety of the club. He stared up at her wordlessly, and she realized he was crying. She wondered if he even noticed it yet.

                “Thank God… I was so scared. You’re alive.” Then they were kissing, though who started it would impossible to say. It was inevitable, it was gravity. They kissed, both crying freely now, as a very confused crowd that had just been trying to get some beers watched on.

                “Halloween, you son of a bitch,” Mary muttered under her breath. The telepath knew, more so than even the lovers themselves, that things had just gotten a lot more complicated.