“When you head out on a call,” List asks Melinda one day, “d’you know if you’re coming back?” He’s sitting in her office, his feet on her desk. He’s still waiting for her to make him take them off, but she hasn’t yet. Miracles do happen.
She shakes her head, but she does it with a smile.
“Then why go?” He’ll never get it, that casual attitude about death. It scares him.
“The cause,” she answers, without hesitation.
“This began as…” She exhales. “It began as revenge. They took someone from me, and I – well. It became… more.” She rests her hands on the desk, looking at them as if she’s afraid to meet his eye. It’s weird, that – she likes facing people down, does Melinda, probably more than she realises. Seeing her back away and get quiet scares him a little. “No-one deserves the demons. They chose innocents. And I decided – I decided, not. One. More.”
He always thought “piercing” blue eyes were a shitty romance novel cliche, but when she finally looks at him, he feels it down his spine. “One more what?” he manages, his throat a little dry.
“One more innocent killed, one more family broken… I don’t know when. Perhaps right from the beginning. But at some point, it became about more than you or me.” She gestures to the office around them. “It isn’t about this agency, either. It became purer than that.” She seems to lose her thread, or her will to continue, right about then.
List touches his fingers to his mouth, thinking. She’s a damn riddle: it takes the right words and a certain kind of mindset to figure her out. “It was the more than, not the you and me?”
Melinda nods. Phew; she’s back. “Rather.”
The question still nags at him – it makes his ears and his tongue itch, so eventually he coughs, swallows it down. Another day, maybe, when it’s not like getting blood out of a poised English stone.
“It was in my head!” he shouts, and – oh shit. Shit. No, no, no…
Melinda’s calmly standing in front of him, placid like a lake; like he didn’t just break every rule and practically yell into her face. He’s never done it before. Never will again, either – especially if she fires him. His mother would never take this shit. Mom would yell back louder, because a sweet little New Yorker can fill the whole damn room if she raised you and knows exactly what buttons to press.
No, List isn’t doing this; it’s just a bad dream. No. He’s not going to be fired, and Mom’s not going to know he’s a slacker just like Dad was, and Melinda… No, Melinda’s not going to hate his guts because he’s a coward, a goddamn coward, and there are people to save but no, he can’t. No, no, no, no…
“List.” A hand on his face, a woman’s, and what the hell, why’s his butt against the floor, he was standing just a minute ago and oh, it’s Mary. “List,” she repeats more firmly. He looks up and focuses – damn, her eyes are brown, like mud-puddle brown but better; uh, chestnut. Yeah. Chestnut-y. Why’s he on the floor again? “No,” she says.
He snorts. Took the words right out of his.. head. Yeah. He wasn’t saying them, was he?
“Why ‘no’? What don’t you want?”
He stares at her. Oh God, he was saying them, wasn’t he?
“You kept saying ‘no’. What’re you afraid of?”
He’ll be fired. He’ll be fired – he’ll have no gear fi the demons find him, and he doesn’t know enough o fight them off on his own. They’ll just slither in like it’s easy, simple, nothing…
“I don’t want this to…” He swallows. He has to force out the words somehow. “I don’t want them back in my head. I don’t want to go back out there. I’ve done it once, because you asked me to, but I don’t think I can – Jesus.”
“Are you finished with us?” Melinda asks. She’s moved to crouch beside Mary. When he stares at her, uncomprehending, she clarifies that with, “Are you tendering your resignation?”
“Are you forcing me to?” is his reply. He’s surprised at how pissed-off he sounds. Even if she wasn’t going to before, she’s definitely going to now. He’s stepped so far over the line he can’t even see the line anymore.
She seems surprised more than angry. “No. Of course not.”
He stares at her. “No?”
“No. I always expected you to falter.” Gee, thanks, Melinda. When he frowns at her, she shakes her head. “No, I meant that it’s normal for you to be afraid. We all have been, and we all are.”
“Yeah, well.” He laughs a little too bitterly. “Except you.”
She frowns at him, blinks a few times like he’s gotten it hopelessly wrong. She’s almost dazed; it reminds him of this time he ended up in a fight, and after he threw a punch – well, the guy looked just like this. The jerk was hassling a girl probably younger than List, and he just… saw red. Couldn’t help it.
Anyway, she looks a bit like that: stunned, kinda turned around. “We all are, including me,” she says firmly.
Now it’s his turn to look like a dunce. “Huh?”
“I’m always afraid,” she says, like it’s no big deal. “I never assume I’ll return from a case.” He remembers that conversation what must be months ago in her office – the smell of dusty books, and the cause. “Fear is perfectly normal, and it’s certainly not cowardice. Letting it win is.”
He sits there, stewing in his own misery, and decides he’s never been a white-feather kinda guy. “Okay,” he says, after a while that’s far too long. “Okay.” He breathes out slowly; he tries to think, to shut the noise up in his head. “Help me up?”
She holds out a hand and he takes it, heaves himself up to stand. He’s careful not to bump into Mary, who backs away a little.
“Sorry,” he says.
Melinda shakes her head. “There’s no need.”
He sighs. “It was… Is there anything I can do? To keep ’em out, I mean.”
“There are countermeasures,” Melinda says after a second, “but they’re near-impossible, and I doubted you’d stay long enough for us to begin practising them.” She sighs. “Essentially, no.”
“Right.” He thinks about that, thinks about leaving and never coming back. God knows it’d be easier. But what the hell would people do, just keep letting the demons take and take? Nah, that’s not how he works. Someone’s got to stand in the way and say, Hey, stop. Someone’s got to get everybody out alive – someone who stands half a chance of making it out themselves, who knows how to fight the demons the way it looks like no-one else can.
Why the hell shouldn’t that someone else be him?
He’s been taught to be brave, to try and help. Mom hammered that into him young enough, and then Mort and Melinda did the rest.
Fear is not cowardice. Letting it win is.
“OK,” he says, and if it comes out a little shaky no-one seems to hear it. He tries to smile. “Back to work, huh?”
It’s his birthday in a couple of months. He hopes he makes it to eighteen.