Chapter 200

                No one had ever called Eliza the nurturing type. It wasn’t her style, she focused on self-reliance and survival above all else. True, if one really looked at a few of the homes where she’d been fostered, they might discover that the younger kids constantly found unexpected bits of food tucked into their possessions, food that was mysteriously never reported as missing, but no one would have thought the silent girl with the dark curls was responsible for it. She barely ever talked to anyone aside from herself, never trying to bond or connect. Eliza was passing through, getting by, and that was how she’d made it this far with just her wits and a useful ability as her tools.

                 So it was as much of a surprise to Eliza as anyone else when the days passed and she found herself still in that shack with Tights, taking care of him. Although she knew “taking care” was a generous term for what she was doing. It was more akin to fighting back the inevitable than really helping him heal. She’d made a hospital run to steal an armful of drugs, nearly getting snagged in the process, and by duplicating them she was at least able to keep Tights medicated. He never complained about the pain, which had to be insane, he’d merely wince and re-adjust on the cheap padding she’d used to make him a mattress. The guy was tough as hell, and the more time they spent together the less surprised Eliza was by that.

                With no television, books, or radio on hand, all they could do in that shed was talk. First about the situation, then eventually about themselves. They never exchanged names, however. She knew he might be gone any day, and hearing his name would make the loss harder. Tights never pushed the issue, either. He probably knew what she was doing and didn’t mind letting her keep some distance. It was the kind of man he was, she slowly learned. Hearing his story: born a Powered, unwanted by the system, found by a stranger who became his father, only to die a few years earlier… it hurt her to listen to. Mostly because there were so many moments that echoed her own life scattered in.

                Eliza wasn’t bothered by the fact that Tights had suffered, in her experience everyone suffered, it was part of the human condition. No… what bothered her was that their early lives were so similar in so many ways, and yet he’d turned out to be the kind of person who shoved a stranger, a thief, out of harm’s way at the expense of his own body. She would never have done that, and held no illusion otherwise. Even caring for the person who’d saved her was a real stretch. All of her life, she’d blamed that attitude on her circumstances, justified a cutthroat nature by reasoning that it had always been her only option. But talking with Tights made it clear that someone could come from the darkness and still be a source of light. It made her ask the honest question: was it really the fault of her circumstances she was like this, or was Eliza just a genuinely selfish person?

                She tried not to dwell on the question more than necessary; instead she kept her days filled with taking care of Tights, occasionally making runs for new types of supplies, and getting to know her injured patient. Well… that, and trying to convince him to let her call an ambulance. While she’d accepted his choice early on, with every passing day it was a little harder to swallow. She didn’t want… he didn’t deserve to die. Not like this. Not in a dirty shack with a thief as his only company. Eliza worked on him day after day, pleading, wheedling, manipulating, and conniving to try and get him to bend on his choice, but Tights was unshakable. He wouldn’t risk others for himself.

                One night, lying next to him on the stack of padding, Eliza lifted her head to catch his blue eyes awake and staring at her. “See something you like?”

                “I… um, sorry.” Tights flushed in the few facial patches where she could still see his unmarred skin and glanced away.

                “Uh oh, did I just catch you plotting to smother me in my sleep and then ditch out?”

                “No, of course not. I was just thinking I was kind of glad that if I have to go, I was thankful I got to spend my last days like this, with someone like you.” He turned away as best he could, which mostly consisted of tilting his eyes upward toward the ceiling.

                “Much as I appreciate the compliment, you’re not dead yet, Tights.” Eliza was still trying to keep the tone light, but when he looked at her again she knew the gambit had failed. Those stunning eyes had turned deadly serious. His voice wasn’t quite as strong however, words soft as he kept stopping and starting.

                “You’ve done so much for me, Thief. More than I had any right to ask for or expect. But I can feel… I’m getting weaker. Thank you so much for all the help you’ve given me. I’ll never forget it, for what that’s worth. I think maybe you should go soon, though. You don’t… I’ve had to be there for the death of someone, when that train car burned with my father inside. I can’t do that to you, not after everything you’ve already given. In the morning, you should leave. You’ve done enough; I can face this last part on my own.”

                Looking at him in that moment, Eliza knew two things for certain. The first was that he was lying through his teeth. Not about what was coming, they were both smart enough to see that all she’d been doing was buying him time. No, the lie was about wanting her to go. He was scared to be alone, to be in pain, to meet the end with no one at his side. But he didn’t want to hurt her, to make his pain hers, and that was what led to the second thing Eliza knew without question: somehow, a piece of her had gone and stupidly managed to fall in love with this idiot.

                Or maybe it wasn’t all that surprising, really. Maybe Eliza had always been drawn to selfless, caring men and had simply never met one and discovered her preference. Whatever the reason, there was no denying how she felt once she saw it in herself. She didn’t want him to die. She didn’t want to live with the knowledge that someone this decent was gone and it was because of her. Mostly though, Eliza didn’t think it was right to let one of the few good people she’d met on this world leave it so easily.

                “You make it sound like you’re ready to die, Tights.”

                To her surprise, he laughed. Nothing huge, just a small chuckle that still ended in a wince. “I think I’ve been ready since I lost my father. I’m not suicidal or anything, I’ve just never been able to imagine a life where I got by without him. I always knew that one day my power would do me in, it’s a truth I accepted as soon as I knew what I was. Now that I’m finally getting close though… I didn’t think I would be this scared.” Tears had formed at the edges of his eyes and were slowly sliding along his cheeks. “It might not have been a good life, but I think I did the best I could with it. And as much as I wish it were going on for longer, at least I didn’t hurt anyone this time. In fact, I got to save a wonderful person. That’s as good as it was ever going to get for me. For one moment, I got to play the Hero. Thank you, Thief, for giving me that.”

                Eliza’s eyes were locked on his. Part of her admired the way he was facing his mortality, and respected the fact that his dearest wish was just to not injure others with his death. But another part of her, one much bigger and stronger than she’d have suspected, raged at the idea of this man being gone from the world. Before she’d stopped to think about it, she was kissing him, and he was kissing her back with all the strength he could muster.

                They made love that night. It took some care and gentleness on both parts to work around his injuries, but the determined can always find a way. And when the sun rose, she gave Tights his medication along with an extra bit to make sure he slept soundly before she headed into town.

                It didn’t take long for Eliza to find a payphone, and in seconds she dialed the number she’d memorized that day in the diner. She’d been sure at the time that she wouldn’t call it, but Eliza was never one to get rid of a useful tool. In all the scenarios she’d imagined driving her to this point, however, never once had she considered that she’d make this deal for someone else. But Tights had come from a world as bad as hers and turned out… good. Brave. Heroic. She could do that too, she could make a sacrifice for someone other than herself.

                Eliza could be more than just a thief, even if doing so meant going deeper into the shadows.

                The man from the diner, Gerry, picked up on the third ring. “Hello Eliza, glad to hear from you. Is there something I can do?”

                Brushing past the fact that he’d known it was her, Eliza took a breath and steeled herself. “I’m willing to take you up on that employment offer, but I’m going to need something first. Consider it a signing bonus. I need a healer, a damn good one. The best you’ve got.”

                The pause was brief, and when Gerry spoke again it was with irreproachable sincerity. “Of course, Eliza. We always provide our people with the best.”