[AN UNNAMED METROPOLIS]
[A SPECIAL TIME OF NIGHT]
Life, Lacey Thornfield reflected, was pretty good.
It wasn't perfect, of course. Nothing could be perfect while millions of animals were still in bondage to their human oppressors.
But, after that one really weird day where everybody's UMasters started acting up, things had been great. Noser and Tyler were working on a double concept album, the next installment of Art Crawl was coming along nicely (including Lacey's own spoken-word piece from the point of view of a single carbon molecule on its journey from stardust to dinosaur to coal to diamond), and Pip's dad hadn't threatened the residents of the building in what seemed like ages.
Pip was still gross, though. There was always a fly in the organic flaxseed-based ointment.
And okay, Wendy's cute boss had apparently disappeared off the face of the earth. At least, he hadn't shown up at their door in a hazmat suit in a while, and Wendy was working longer hours and seemed a lot more stressed out, and she didn't mention her boss anymore either. Lacey had tried to ask about him a couple of times but it seemed like every time she pulled out the coconut-milk chocolate chip cookie dough frozen dessert, Wendy's watch started blorping away and she was out the door again.
Okay. Two flies in the ointment.
But things were good. Lacey wasn't just looking at a half a glass and declaring it half full. The glass was almost full and that was good enough for her.
Until the glass was knocked over by an army of very short men in silver jumpsuits.
They were on the way back from dinner in Little Tokyo, teasing each other and laughing till tears were coming out of their eyes, when there was a sudden flash of light. And a bunch of little guys with huge black helmets and silver jumpsuits.
"Lacey! Noser! Get back!" Wendy yelled, and put her hands up in a surprisingly martial stance. So did Tyler. And then the tiny astro-dudes were upon them, as Noser hauled Lacey back.
The fight was too fast to follow, with Wendy and Tyler shouting weird phrases and then moving into coordinated punches and thrusts and dodges and weaves.
"I thought Tyler was a pacifist," Noser commented. "Man's got a nice right hook, though."
"Shouldn't we - do something?" Lacey asked, watching and biting her lip. She couldn't call the police, not with her record. And Noser was a lover, not a fighter.
But before Noser could answer, the little dudes started chirruping and flung themselves onto Wendy and Tyler simultaneously. There was another blinding flash of light.
By the time Lacey could see again, blinking against the violet afterimages, they were all gone.
"Wendy?" she screamed, tearing herself free of Noser's grip and running into the empty street. But there was nothing there. Scraps of silver fabric, one of Wendy's bracelets that had cracked in half… and an enormous silver wristwatch with a broken band.
Lacey scooped up the watch and squinted down at it. It just looked like a watch.
"We have to get them back," she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. Noser stood beside her, looking down at the watch as well, then let out a sigh.
"That lady's gonna call us both potheads again," he observed.
[JOLLY FATS WEHAWKIN TEMP AGENCY]
[TIME FOR SOME ANSWERS]
"Well, if it isn't Princess Puffs-a-lot and the Dope Knight." The secretary looked extra-frazzled, hair sticking up every which way. "I'm a little busy, cupcakes, so --"
"We don't have time for your erroneous and offensive insults," Lacey said, slamming the watch down on the counter. "Wendy and Tyler got kidnapped by little people in space suits and this watch was left behind and I know this isn't just a temp agency!"
The cantankerous caftan-wearer stared at her, then down at the watch, then back up at Noser, then back at the watch.
Noser folded his arms and did his best to look threatening. It didn't work.
"I think it's about time you told us what Wendy's job really is," Lacey said.
[JOLLY FATS WEHAWKIN, FIVE MINUTES LATER]
"Wendy's a what?"
The cranky secretary, who had named herself as Ida, rolled her eyes. "The big cheese did that better than I did. Weird [BLEEP] happens and we clean it up."
"Is…" Lacey took a breath, trying not to let her lip tremble. "Is that what happened to Wendy's boss?"
"Wendy doesn't have a boss," Ida said flatly. "As much as I hate saying it, Wendy is the boss."
"And Tyler's her sidekick?" Noser asked, starting to grin in spite of the dire circumstances.
"The Middleboy. Bet you can guess how much he loves that nickname."
"We don't have time for this," Lacey said, elbowing in front of Noser. "Tiny men in spacesuits have kidnapped Wendy!"
"Enlarged nanobots," Ida corrected, moving back over to the large desk and pressing a button. One of the TV screens flickered to life, showing Wendy on the floor of the office, sprawled in a pile with the astro-babies.
"Nanobots. Tried to destroy the world using my robot brain. They escaped their habitat here at the base and I've been trying to track them down, but they got to the Middlewoman and her sidekick before I could warn them."
Lacey could feel herself stuttering, the words robot and how and what not quite making it out of her mouth. Luckily Noser stepped forward, chill as ever.
"So, RoboCop, what do we do about those not-so-nanobots?"
"If I'm right - and I'm always right - we should be getting a message right… about…"
And then Ida's head tilted back, her jaw dropped and eyes opened wide, and beams of light shot out of her face. The beams focused and coalesced into the figure of a man, blue and white striations running through the image and outlining a weak chin, eyes that were a little too close together, and a truly appalling hat that looked like the love child of an overenthusiastic peacock and an overstuffed ottoman.
"Who - what - what?" Lacey managed.
"SILENCE!" the image commanded, his voice a little too squeaky to be as imperious as he clearly intended. "I am no longer Max -- wait. Who are you? Where is the impudent ape known as the Middleman?"
"He's not - impudent!" Lacey protested. Because that was clearly the important part.
The image seemed to swell, like he was trying to hulk out. But Hat Guy was still just a picture. "I REFUSE TO TALK TO PEONS SUCH AS YOURSELVES!"
"I'm not a peon, I'm a confrontational spoken-word performance artist. Who are you?"
"I AM…" The image paused, lifting his chin. "SUPERLATIVE ALDWIN!" He paused again, as if waiting for a reaction. Lacey looked at Noser. Noser looked at Lacey and shrugged.
"Why are you using the robot secretary as a projector?" Noser asked. "Couldn't send us a text?"
"Your primitive technologies pale before the prowess of Clotharian communication," Aldwin sneered. "I demand to speak to the Middleman. Tell him we have the irksome apprentice and her tousle-haired companion."
"You took Wendy and Tyler?" Lacey exclaimed, taking a few hasty steps before remembering it was just an image and threatening it physically wouldn't do much good. "Why?"
"Because humanity has clearly not learned its lesson from the Voyager incident and released more photographic robots into the stars! We can no longer tolerate this invasion of our galactic privacy!" Aldwin glared down his snub nose at Lacey and Noser. "And since last time our plans were thwarted by the Middleman and his apprentice, we have taken steps to ensure they will no longer interfere."
"I don't really know what you're talking about, and I sympathize with anybody's anger with the surveillance state, but - you can't just go kidnapping my best friend!" Lacey was pretty sure that had sounded better in her head, but she was going to go with it. "Or her boyfriend!
"We can, and we just did," Aldwin said. He examined his nails. "But we may perhaps be interested in a trade. For the Middleman. We will contact you in twenty-four hours."
"And what then?" Lacey asked.
"Then we see if you can produce our opponent… and whether our hostages are still intact."
The image dissolved and Ida's head lolled onto her chest. She groaned, rolling her head back up and rubbing at her jaw. "I think I need a trip to the Jiffy Lube."
"Ew, P.M.G.O." Lacey's reaction was instinctive, but she shook away the nausea. "Okay. Right. They said they want - the Middleman?"
"Lacey." Noser gave her a curious look. "I know you got your heart trampled, but you're not seriously sending him to alien cosplay enthusiasts, are you? He's a cool dude."
"No! But he's dealt with these weirdoes before. Maybe he'll know how to get Wendy and Tyler back."
"One problem, peaches." Ida glowered at both of them. "Like I said, he's gone. Vanished. Like he never existed."
"But he did exist."
"So you can find him. You're like spies - you've got to have something in here that can track him down." Lacey gestured at the bank of old-fashioned dials and buttons and the wall of television screens.
"He's very good at hiding in plain sight. If he's still alive he's going to be completely off the grid."
"There's always a trail," Noser said, leaning against the computers. "One word: ventriloquism."
"Exactly," Lacey said. "So what do we know about him that can help us find him?"
"Would you like me to cross-reference every dairy farmer, cattle rancher and Western film enthusiast in the country?" Ida asked. "Because I don't mind running out the twenty-four hours on the Lord High Mucketymuck's countdown, but I can't name the next Middleman. And neither of you two hopheads would be up to the job."
"Seems like it interferes with Tyler's music anyway," Noser said. "But we better get them back. I know the man had great taste in country, if that helps."
"And it wasn't just Westerns," Lacey said, scribbling down a few names on a piece of paper that had been left on the desk. "Try these." Names from Ride Lonesome, the film Wendy's boss had seen the beginning of more than a dozen times but had never seen the ending.
Ida scanned them all and pulled a huge set of cables out of the ginormous silver ball that was suspended from the ceiling. "Hook me up, sweet cheeks," she said to Noser, who complied with a look on his face that didn't bear thinking about.
And then they waited. And waited.
And then, far sooner than Lacey expected, there was a weird squishy sort of buzz and a ding. "I've got a hit," Ida said with a note of surprise, and produced a piece of ticker tape.
"Idaho?" Noser asks. "That is off the grid."
"I'll take this one," Lacey said. "Noser, if anything else comes up, you and Ida can look into it. Now I have to go use the name 'Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., Ph.D.' to charter a plane." She had a feeling this was the right path, something tugging at her heart, and if there was one thing Lacey Thornfield had learned it was the importance of following her instincts. That was how all great art was made.
[ SOMEWHERE IN IDAHO]
[SEVERAL HOURS AND ONE CHARTERED PRIVATE JET RIDE LATER]
The sky was the kind of blue that would have made Wendy reach for her paints and start mixing. It made Lacey think about pollution and the creeping influence of humanity and places where it could be beaten back. But mostly she was focused on piloting her tiny rental car down the rutted dirt road without tipping it into a ditch.
In the end, though, it wasn't the ditch that got her. It was the car sputtering and dying.
Half an hour later, Lacey had exhausted the sum total of her knowledge about cars and discovered that there was absolutely no service on her cell phone. Not even when she clambered up to stand on the roof of the car. She could feel her eyes starting to sting as she climbed down and sat back on the driver's seat, legs hanging out the open door. But she was not going to cry. Lacey Thornfield was not going to be defeated by a simple piece of machinery. Or even a really complicated piece of machinery. She was going to figure out how to get out of this. Somehow.
Maybe, she realized, the super watch - Middle-watch - would still work out here. It was like something out of Star Trek anyway; why wouldn't it work better than her cell phone? She pulled it out of her pocket and poked experimentally at the biggest button.
There was a sort of bleepy noise instead of the blorp she expected, and Ida's voice blared out. "Boss?"
"No, it's Lacey. The howler monkey."
"Huh. That's strange, there must be some echo on the - no, wait, you got incoming."
Lacey jumped, hit her head on the side of the car, and sat back down cursing a blue streak. Now that she wasn't focused on the watch she could hear the distant rumble of an engine. It grew closer as she rubbed at the growing lump on her head and stood up more carefully this time.
A spot down the road rapidly resolved into a pickup truck, black and clearly vintage but closing in on her far faster than an old car should have done. As it got closer Lacey could see that it was somehow spotless and pristine where her own car was covered in dust.
The truck slowed and stopped a short distance away. Lacey squinted into the sun at the tall, broad-shouldered figure who got out, a white cowboy hat shading his features. And then a dog covered in shaggy red fur bounded out of the cab and loped over to her, barking joyously.
"Lieutenant Bolt!" the man called, and the dog stopped barking, looking up at her expectantly.
Lacey looked from the dog and up to the man in the hat, his voice stirring feelings she'd done her best to bury under a solid layer of optimism and modern-woman self-reliance.
"Wendy's boss?" she asked. He walked closer, then stopped, tipping his hat to her. He actually tipped his flipping hat.
"Miss Thornfield. I'm afraid that's no longer my job."
Lacey bit her lip. The tears in her eyes were definitely from the bump on her head. Not at all because she'd missed him or had wondered what happened to him. Or because she was freaking out a little about Wendy and Tyler disappearing just like he had and now he was standing here in front of her looking perfect and stubbled and handsome. And wearing jeans. And a cowboy hat.
She had definitely had a sex dream like this.
"Then what do I call you?" she asked. Somehow this didn't seem like the time to call him Pillow Lips.
He came close enough that she could see his eyes under the hat, filled with yearning. "I've been using the name Scott Pernell."
"You don't look like a Scott." He looked vaguely affronted as she continued. "But I guess it'll do. And you named your dog Lieutenant?"
"He earned that rank in service," Wendy's - Scott - whoever he was said, and the dog whuffed as Lacey reached down to pet his ears.
"Do I want to know what kind of service that is?"
"It's a long story," he said.
"I've got time," Lacey replied, straightening up and gesturing at her car. "Besides, I was looking for you."
His gaze sharpened, those dreamy blue eyes now cold as ice. (God, Lacey thought, she was even starting to think like a romance novel. This was ridiculous.) "How did you find me?"
"Ida was running a search on ranchers and cross-indexing with names from Ride Lonesome." Lacey gave him a wobbly little smile. "Seems like somebody's not quite as mysterious as he hoped he was."
He gave a little humph that Lacey chose to interpret as grudging approval. "I'm not actually a rancher," he said, that familiar awkwardness back in his voice. Like he was weighing each word before he said it. "It's more of a… freelance wildlife sanctuary. Not an official national park, but a little corner of the wilderness where man and beast can both range freely under the open sky."
"How poetic," she said, her smile growing. "I can see why you ended up out here." A national park would have meant being on a government payroll, with a background check and easily traceable information.
"Yes, I thought you might appreciate it," he said, giving her a flicker of a smile before his face settled back into that stoic expression better suited for a coin than a person. He cleared his throat. "But more pertinently, why did you end up out here, Miss Thornfield?"
Lacey stuck her hands in her pockets, giving him a shy and - she hoped - at least moderately alluring grin. "Would you believe I'm working on a piece about the mythopoetic narrative of the American West and the true meaning of solitude that can only be found when there are no other human souls within a hundred miles?"
Another one of those tiny smiles flashed across his face. Were those dimples? "No," he said gently. "I wouldn't."
Lacey took a deep breath, the realization of what had brought her here crashing back with a noisy metaphorical clang. "Wendy's been kidnapped. And Tyler. By some aliens called the… Clotheshorses? I have her watch."
His entire demeanor changed in an instant, shoulders tensing and eyes widening in shock. "Purple mountains majesty, Lacey! The Clotharians? Kidnapping the current Middlewoman? This is a catastrophe of global - nay, galactic proportions! And we're chit-chattering about career choices and codenames. We'd better get back to base. Tell me everything you know on the way."
Lacey grabbed her bag from the rental car, figuring either she'd be back for it later or aliens would destroy her and/or the earth and therefore it wouldn't make any difference, and hopped into the truck. It was surprisingly clean and well-maintained for the vehicle of someone working on his own private wildlife sanctuary. But then, she was pretty sure she hadn't ever seen Scott with a hair out of place or his tie anything less than perfectly straight. Maybe not so surprising.
He drove back the way he had come, Bolt riding between them. The sun was setting in a glorious riot of purples and oranges, the light hitting the gently rolling hills with a golden glow. Lacey was about to start explaining when the watch gave a muffled blorping noise from her front pocket. Digging it out, she glanced over to see an expression of mingled fondness and dismay on her companion's face.
"Boss," Ida said, her voice sounding deeply relieved even in the watch's speakers. "Boy, is it good to hear your voice again."
"I'm not your boss anymore, Ida," he said, and Lacey heard an audible snort from the watch.
"Yeah. Sure. And my brain isn't the size of a planet."
"Ida, is Noser there?" Lacey asked.
"Hey, Lacey. Hey, Wendy's boss," Noser said, still sounding impossibly calm. "Where is your prairie song?"
"Can the crappy Nineties references, kid," Ida said. "Wanna hear about how these munchie maniacs managed to eff up diplomatic relations with an unstable alien race?"
"Hey now, we didn't make them kidnap Wendy and Tyler," Lacey protested, setting the watch on the dashboard. "And we're not the ones who kept nanobots in a habitrail inside our secret headquarters."
"How did they get into headquarters, anyway?" Scott asked.
There was a lengthy pause. "They had the Middlewatch, boss. And if they didn't pawn it to get more cash for their hookah habit, I figured it had to be serious." Another long pause. "Watson's doing well. Or was."
"Let's keep that present tense, then, shall we?" Scott said. He listened intently as Ida brought him up to speed (with some helpful interjections and objections from Lacey), navigating the road far more ably in his truck than Lacey had managed, shaking his head ruefully at the new title Aldwin had earned and frowning at the countdown while glancing at his own far less complicated wristwatch.
"Well, there's no other way to say it: we're in one heck of a pickle here."
"Pretty sure I can think of some other ways to say it," Ida said dryly. "How long till you're back at HQ?"
Sexy Boss- er, Scott frowned even more intensely, which looked really stoic and rugged under his hat, and Lacey told herself sternly that this was not the time. "I'll have to call you back," he said, pushing a button on the watch and handing it back to Lacey.
"What?" she asked. "I'm pretty sure the charter jet I took will still be at the airfield, if we hurry."
"It's not that simple," he said. The truck turned, swinging up a dirt road and then stopping at a fence stretched across the road's width. Lacey had been so busy watching his face and explaining what was going on that she hadn't even seen it coming. Scott reached under the dash and hit something, and the fence unlatched and swung open. The road curved around a low hill to a small, snug house, which looked very cosy nestled against the hill as the sky faded from twilight to darkness.
"How is it not that simple?" Lacey asked, as they pulled up beside the house. He cut the engine and opened his door, getting out and looking up at Lacey from under the brim of his hat.
"Like I said. It's a long story."
"I'm not going anywhere," she said.
But he didn't say anything as she got out of the truck, as he let them into the house and turned on the lights and fed Lieutenant Bolt and then let the dog out the back door. Lacey did her best to be patient, but patience was definitely not one of the virtues Lacey Thornfield had been gifted with at birth - and honestly she preferred her persistence and faith and clarity of purpose - so it didn't take her long for her to give up, plant herself in his path and say "Okay, are you going to tell me why you can't come back or are you going to give me the silent treatment until aliens zap Wendy and Tyler?"
"They wouldn't 'zap' them," he said, running a hand through his hair, mussing it even more than his hat already had. It was weird to see Pillow Lips without the perfectly brylcreemed hairdo she was used to. It was weird to see him in a checkered shirt and jeans. This whole day was weird and this was the weird cherry on the weird sundae.
"Then what would they do? And why can't you come back?"
He sighed and all the fight seemed to go out of him with the breath, shoulders truly slumped. Lacey was almost frightened, and given that she'd already seen her best friend kidnapped and a robot project a hologram of an alien with an inexplicable British accent it was really the last straw. She drew in a shaky breath.
"Let me get you a glass of water," he said. "Please, sit down."
Lacey settled herself on the wide, comfortable sofa, and waited for Sexy - Scott - whoever to come back. He brought over two glasses, sitting down an unreasonable distance from her on the sofa and holding his own glass between his palms.
"You know what Wendy and I do," he began.
"You solve exotic problems." Lacey caught his eye and they shared a tiny smile.
"Yes, well. Some are more exotic than others. Do you remember a day last year when all of the UMasters stopped working? When Manservant Neville disappeared and Fatboy Industries collapsed?"
"Yeah, of course," Lacey said. Though she didn't, really. That whole day was like a mystery bruise on her memory; she didn't quite remember how it had gotten there, it hurt to press on it, and she chalked it up to too much punch at the Sorry You Lost Your Job Shindig they'd thrown Tyler at the end of the day when he'd walked in without his earpiece or necktie.
"You think you do," he said, pausing for a moment. "I shouldn't be telling you this. It may cause the entire fabric of reality to disintegrate."
"Telling me a story is going to destroy reality?" Lacey could feel her brow furrowing. "You already picked me up and brought me to your house. Is explaining things really going to make it that much worse?"
"It might," he said grimly.
"Well, why don't you start talking, and if you notice me starting to grow extra limbs or fade out of existence you can stop?" she suggested.
He took this in and nodded, crisply, just once. "Very well. But tell me if you notice feeling… strange."
"That day… the reason all of the UMasters stopped working is that Manservant Neville had linked them all together in a plot to make himself the master of reality itself. When the power of all those processors was linked, he gained the power to warp all of creation." He glanced at her as if checking to see that she hadn't changed, and Lacey motioned for him to continue. "He changed the world around us, reasoning that if humanity would not save itself, he would save them by force. Wendy and I had to stop him, and he… harmed our friends and loved ones. To prove how powerless we were against him." He paused, swallowing, and took a long drink of water. Lacey would have touched him to express sympathy or empathy or something, but he was so far away. And she didn't want to distract him from finishing his story.
"We used an ancient artifact to summon assistance from beyond this mortal realm," he continued, "and were able to defeat Manservant Neville and destroy him and his corrupt construction. But invoking the power of the artifact required a sacrifice."
"But - you're still alive," Lacey ventured. He glanced at her and nodded, his face shadowed with strong emotion.
"I didn't sacrifice my life, Lacey. I sacrificed what made that life worth living. My friends, my loved ones, my mission and the office that I bore - I gave that all up in a heartbeat to save the world."
"That's so…" Lacey paused. "Heroic."
He shook his head. "I'm no hero. I'm just…"
"The Middleman." She slid closer to him, close enough to touch. "That's who you were, isn't it? Who you still are, under the assumed name and the Hollywood-perfect cowboy accoutrements."
He nodded again, jaw tightening. "And now you understand why I can't go back. I made a sacrifice, Lacey. I don't get to just walk back into that life."
"But Wendy --"
"Is smart, resourceful, and creative. And she's got Mr. Ford by her side. Dubby's been in tight spots before. She's always been able to get herself out again." He almost sounded convinced of what he was saying.
"You're full of crap," Lacey said flatly.
"Lacey!" He turned to face her, surprised but clearly not disappointed at her assessment.
"You are. This isn't a Western, okay, this is real life. Even if it's about a zillion times stranger than I thought it was when I woke up this morning. You don't get to just saddle up and ride into the sunset all on your lonesome, a tragic sacrifice to the promise of an eternal edict." Lacey was warming up, like when she started to get into the groove of an exceptionally confrontational spoken-word piece. But this was more important than any mere protest. "People's lives are at stake. Wendy's life is at stake. Not just your own happiness."
"But the very fabric of reality --"
"Hasn't started to unravel yet, as far as I can tell," she said, rolling right past his objection. "And if it is undone, if Manservant Neville comes back somehow or it starts another cataclysm, then we can face it down. We can fix it. You've done it once already. We'll get Wendy and Tyler back and we'll get Noser and Ida and whoever else we can find and we'll make sure reality stays woven up just as tightly as it already is. Now are you going to sit around moping in the middle of nowhere or are you going to help me get my Dubdub back?"
He was smiling at her, astonishingly, eyes practically glowing in the dim light. "You're very convincing when your passion comes to the fore," he said. Lacey tried not to be distracted by his use of the word passion because this definitely wasn't the time.
"You should see my piece about factory farming," she said. "But that's not an answer."
He set down his glass and looked past her for a moment, at the wide windows and the dark night beyond. "We can't drive to the airfield now," he said. "Fog rolls in and makes it impossible to take off at night - in a standard aircraft, at least."
"But in the morning?" she asked, daring to hope.
He set his jaw and nodded once more. And Lacey gave up on decorum and playing it cool and all of the reasons she'd been holding between them like a wall and threw her arms around him.
He stiffened against her, but Lacey held on just a moment too long. It wasn't until she started to pull away, face growing hot, that his arms came up to hold her close. One of those big, strong hands cradled the back of her head, tender and gentle just as she'd known it would be.
Lacey was not going to cry all over him. She absolutely refused. She definitely needed a minute to just rest in his arms before she showed him her face again, though.
Eventually, he cleared his throat and she pulled away, seeing a suspicious gleam in his eyes as well. "So," she said, putting on her bravest smile. "What do we do until then?"
It didn't come out nearly as salaciously as it might have, but he cleared his throat in the way that meant he was flustered, and Lacey tried not to just grin. "I'll fix us some dinner," he said, the words sounding utterly charming. "And then - why don't you tell me about your latest exploits against the farming-industrial complex?"
In spite of his love of milk and ribeye steaks, he was able to throw together an impromptu quinoa and bean salad that was delicious. And he made an excellent listener - and, Lacey was pleased to discover, a good storyteller in his own right, when she asked question after question about the landscape he lived on and the animals he saw and how he endured the solitude alone in the middle of nowhere.
"It's like meditation, in a way. Alone with my thoughts - except for the Lieutenant, of course, but he's a very deep thinker as well. The sky and the mountains offer nothing but peace and contemplation, if one wishes to seek it."
Lacey smiled at him, exhaustion and satisfaction making her feel a little goofy. "You're a regular cowboy poet out here."
"I'm no Badger Clark," he protested, but his pleased smile seemed to say otherwise.
It felt later than it was by the time dinner was cleaned up, and Lieutenant Bolt had already curled up on an enormous pillow by the fireplace.
"I'm not really prepared for guests," Sexy Maybe-Bossman said, his face carefully impassive. "So I'll take the couch, and we'll be up bright and early."
Lacey looked up at him through her lashes and put a hand on his chest. "We're about to go save our friends and maybe avert intergalactic war," she said. "You'll need to be well rested. And I couldn't possibly turn you out of your own bed."
"I - I don't mind, really," he stammered. "I was a Navy SEAL, I've slept in far worse places. Once I slept in a --"
"Pillow Lips," she interrupted, and he actually blushed and it was incredibly gratifying. Lacey slid her hand around to the back of his neck. "Words are the enemy. Only action is real." And she drew him down into a perfect kiss.
[STILL SOMEWHERE IN IDAHO]
[THE MORNING AFTER]
As she woke up, Lacey braced herself for awkward so-did-you-regret-that-because-I-didn't chit-chat. But the other side of the wide bed was empty. She pulled on the checkered shirt he'd been wearing yesterday and walked out of the bedroom.
The Middleman was standing in the kitchen, spreading jam on toast and wearing neither the cowboy clothes nor his Eisenhower jacket but an all-black getup that looked impossibly sleek. And incredibly sexy.
"Ah. Good. You're awake," he said, looking up and offering her the jammy toast. "Eat, get dressed, and we'll be on the road as soon as you're ready."
"Uh, okay," she said, picking up a piece and crunching it between her teeth. God, he even made perfect toast. How was he real? Maybe reality actually had unravelled while she was sleeping and she hadn't realized. "So, you didn't want to -"
"Lacey," he said quickly, "we don't have time to dissect the quite frankly spectacular events of last night. We have a Middlewoman and partner to save."
Lacey would have grinned at him, but she had a mouthful of toast and jam and that would have been really gross after he called last night frankly spectacular, so she settled for an impromptu salute before going back to find her clothes and get dressed. Good thing she always carried a spare set of clothes in case whatever she was wearing got spattered in fake blood.
[JOLLY FATS WEHAWKIN, ROOF]
[A FEW HOURS LATER]
The plane they took back must have had alien tech in it too, Lacey thought, or at least something even the big corporations couldn't access, in order for the Middleman to get them back in half the time it should have taken.
And even though the Jolly Fats Wehawkin building was in the middle of the city, the Middleman somehow brought the plane in for a perfect vertical landing on the roof. Definitely alien tech.
Lacey's legs felt like particularly limp ramen noodles when she got out of the plane, but she sternly told herself that there was no time to wobble around like a helpless and adorable baby deer. Besides, she was distracted by the rest of the vehicles on the roof: a jet, a helicopter, a submarine (a submarine?) and something small and bulbous that looked kind of like an oversized olive-green persimmon.
"That's going to get us to space?" Lacey asked.
There was a long pause, tense enough to start twanging. "It's going to get me to space. Lacey, I…" The Middleman took a step towards her, hand rising to cup her cheek. He still smelled like the prairie grasses and mountain forests, somehow. Or maybe that was his aftershave. "I can't take you with me."
"Not again," Lacey whispered. "You don't get to break up with me for my own good again, not after everything that happened."
There was pain in his eyes as he leaned closer, his words swallowed up by the noise of a helicopter passing overhead. Or was that a plane? Or… no, it sounded more like a wheezing lawnmower backing into a washing machine.
A phone booth materialized in front of them, the door sliding open and spitting out --
"Wendy!" Lacey and the Middleman both shouted at the same moment. Wendy ignored them both, hauling Tyler out of the booth before it faded away with the same groaning noise.
"Boss! Lacey!" Wendy exclaimed, hauling Tyler over for a very confusing four-way hug. Since Tyler appeared to be wearing some sort of space speedo with sashes and ribbons this was a little awkward, but Lacey certainly didn't mind.
"You escaped the Clotharians?" the Middleman asked, pulling away long enough to hold Wendy's shoulders and examine her.
"Of course. Wasn't too hard once Tyler figured out how to use harmonic resonance to defeat the alien rhino that was standing guard on our cell," Wendy said, beaming proudly. "Hey, what're you doing back here?"
"Miss Thornfield felt my presence was needed. She's… very convincing." The Middleman wasn't blushing, but he looked like he wanted to. Tyler definitely was blushing, though, and shivering a little in his skimpy garb.
"Oh, yeah. Convincing." Wendy waggled her eyebrows, then pulled Lacey into another hug. "Thanks, Lace," she said quietly, arms tight around her friend.
"You saved yourself, Dubdub," Lacey said. "You didn't need me to save you."
"Yeah, but you would have in about five more minutes. And that means a lot." Wendy pulled back and looked at her intently, as if to gauge whether they could go back to wisecracks now.
"You can make it up to me by explaining to me about how this job really works." Lacey beamed, and Wendy groaned.
"Guessing the cat is not only out of the bag but out of the entire tri-state area at this point, huh?"
"Out of the universe," Lacey agreed. "So what's up with the space aliens?"
"As touching as this reunion is, do you think we could get me some pants?" Tyler interjected. Wendy turned and grimaced.
"Yes. Yes, we can get you some pants."
As they started to move towards the elevator, Wendy chattering blithely about the next steps and how the galaxy would be free of interference and how cute Tyler's legs looked in his skimpy outfit, Lacey reached out and grabbed the Middleman's wrist.
"Come on," she said, looking up at him. "You don't want to miss this."
He shifted his hand to hold hers and gave her a very small smile. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."