"Let me guess," Marcone said as he stepped up beside me. "You went shopping for a new alarm clock." As if to punctuate his words, a plastic-covered radio dial the size of a saucer came flying out of the burning wreckage with a plink, hit the ground, and rolled to about thirty feet in front of us, where it fell over and began to melt into the pavement. Marcone should have been sweating from the heat, like any normal human within a hundred yards of the blaze, but instead the firelight just made him look like a prowling cat, all dark and dangerous. Life is unfair.
"It's not my fault the Deceptacons decided to return to the mothership," I said. A look of confusion and annoyance did not flash across Marcone's face. Can't win 'em all, I guess.
Thing is, it really wasn't my fault. Some amateur with a little power had tried to build himself a robot army. I could have told him it wouldn't work, but does anyone read my pamphlets? Of course not. So after they'd disposed of him, and the less said about that mess the better, they'd apparently decided to return home to liberate their enslaved brethren at Crazy Uncle Mike's Nearly-New Electronics, 2403 West Jackson Boulevard. I'd tried to take them down cleanly, but a warehouse full of dubiously-functional electronics isn't the best environment for detail work. Fortunately, for once the fire department hadn't assumed I was an arsonist and called the cops, so I was sticking around to make sure that nothing rose from the ashes. Which explained why I was there. I tried to come up with an explanation for Marcone for a minute or so before giving up and asking him.
"I have a business arrangement with the proprietors," he said.
"Like, a protection-racket-type arrangement?"
Marcone tilted his head slightly. "My organization provides certain guarantees to our associates. Over the past several years, those guarantees have been expanded to cover fires and what we shall, for the sake of argument, describe as acts of God. Mostly fires. The proprietors of Uncle Mike's will be compensated for this damage. I'm simply here to put in a showing until our insurance representatives arrive." He waited for me to say something, but as sinister as Marcone's 'arrangements' might be, I couldn't complain about a small business owner getting repaid for damage I'd just caused. If that was really what was happening. It seemed a little odd that he'd show up personally to watch the destruction of a second-hand appliance store, but hey, maybe the Outfit was trying to improve its customer service.
He waited until it was clear that I wasn't going to say anything, and then for another minute or so. Then he spoke, his voice strangely awkward, like an instrument coming in half a beat late. "I hear that you and Mr. Raith are now living together."
"Mm-hmm," I said. See, I can be mysterious and inscrutable.
"So I take it your" -- he paused for a millisecond -- "relationship is serious?" So that was why he was asking, the homophobic creep.
"Yes," I hissed. "Yes, it is. We're picking out matching china patterns. We're making wild, passionate love all night, every night, on every flat surface in my apartment. Do you have a problem with that, Marcone?"
Marcone's face was a blank mask, but his nostrils were flaring slightly and his breathing was slow and controlled. I felt a vindictive stab of pleasure.
"Do you love him?"
"Yes," I said, and almost jerked in surprise. It was the last thing I expected him to ask, and from the slight widening of his eyes, it looked like it was the last thing Marcone himself had expected to ask. Still, I realized, in my shock I'd answered honestly. Thomas was obnoxious and irresponsible and just plain tacky. He was a coward, and he was always there when I needed him. He was my brother. I loved him.
"Yeah," I said to myself. I could feel a smile spreading across my face, and I didn't even want to stop it. "Yeah, I do."
"In that case, I hope he makes you happy." Marcone's voice was a little rough -- which, from him, probably meant the words were causing him physical pain -- but he looked me right in the eyes, and against all reason I believed he was sincere.
Filled as I was with peace and good will towards men, I suddenly felt ashamed. I was hardly in a position to throw stones at Marcone. It'd taken over 25 years and Susan's determined influence before I got over my own issues. He was obviously fighting hard against forty years of ingrained prejudice, and amazingly, he seemed to be doing it because he liked me. Or, even more amazingly, just because it was the right thing to do. He was a better man than I had given him credit for. Which, to be honest, happened more often than I wanted to admit.
"What about you?" I said, scuffing my feet. "Is there a Ms. Scumbaguette you're spending your evenings with?"
"No one." Marcone said. "But perhaps it's for the best." I had no idea what to say to that, but he was giving me a clear signal: peace offering recognized and accepted. Marcone nodded to me, and walked off. It occurred to me that he hadn't talked to the insurance rep or the owners, but then, maybe he'd had his consciousness expanded enough for one night.
The real weirdness started three weeks later, even though I didn't immediately recognize it at the time. In my defense, I was running on about two hours of sleep. I'd stumbled upstairs after 36 straight hours of spellwork, and was pleasantly surprised to find the apartment empty. Empty meant that Thomas was gone before noon, and that meant that he still had a job, which meant that we could both pay rent and eat this month. Probably. Better yet, it meant that I had my apartment to myself for a whole day, which, lately, was the closest thing I could imagine to divine bliss. Kids, don't let this be your life.
I had maybe ten minutes to relax on the couch and contemplate my plans for the day -- nap, then shower? or just nap? -- before the door banged open, and Thomas shouldered through, carrying a giant bouquet of roses on one arm and a paper grocery bag in the other. He raised his head to toss the hair out of his face, saw me, and froze. We stared at each other.
"Well," I said finally, "at least you got groceries this time."
Thomas shrugged, set the bag on the table, and pulled a small cauldron from above the icebox and started filling it with water. He was wearing skintight white jeans with slashes across the thighs, and a tight white T-shirt with the neck cut into a deep V across his chest. Even Thomas wouldn't show up to work at Chick-Fil-A looking like that, which meant he'd been fired yesterday and hadn't said anything about it.
I suppressed my urge to scream at him and heaved myself off the couch and went over to dig through the grocery bag. One, two, three bottles of cheap white wine. And oh, look, this one came in a cardboard box with a plastic spigot. "Stars and stones, Thomas, what were you thinking?"
Thomas scowled. "I don't know, Harry, that I just got fired from the fourth job in as many weeks? That I needed a bit of a pick-me-up?"
"We have no food," I said. "We have no rent money, and we're still behind from last month. And you really thought that spending money on booze and flowers was a good idea?"
"What are you talking about?" Thomas said. "The flowers are for you."
"You bought me flowers?" I said, in a high-pitched voice that might, just possibly, be described as a squeak. "Have you sustained a massive head wound you didn't bother to tell me about? Me Harry, remember? Your brother? Not susceptible to your freaky mind-control mojo? That crap may have worked with J-"
Fortunately, Thomas cut me off before I could finish a sentence I would really, truly regret. "No," he said, "I didn't buy them. You did. Or I assumed you did, how the hell should I know. They were on the doorstep, I figured you needed rose petals for a spell and called Flowers Express for a delivery. And if you want to talk about the household budget, let's talk about that half-gallon of ravens' tears you made me buy for you on E-Bay last week."
"Thomas, you idiot," I said, "they were probably for Mrs. Moderatz's birthday. Get them out of the water and back out by the front door before someone notices."
"Um, I don't think so," Thomas said, the "you moron" unspoken but clearly audible. He reached into the pile of rose stems and pulled out a card attached to a long plastic stick. On it, in the sort of large, emphatic block letters you'd use to communicate with the barely literate, were the words "FOR HARRY". There was no other message, and no indication of who'd sent them.
"Huh," I said.
"You didn't order them?" Thomas asked.
"No," I said.
"Huh," he said.
Thomas' brows knit together. It made him look brooding and darkly mysterious, which was no mean feat for a guy dressed like the bass player from Whitesnake. Then his expression cleared, and he went back to just looking vaguely stoned. "It probably is Mrs. Moderatz," he said. "She thinks we're together. And she thinks we're fighting."
"What, just because I threw all your crap into the courtyard last week?" I asked. "Couldn't have been. Maybe it was the constant stream of barely-clothed aerobics instructors rotating through the apartment any time I leave for five minutes."
Thomas winced. "She may have said something to me about not being a very good boyfriend."
"No." I said. "Really?"
He glared at me again. I wondered if his eyebrows could get stuck that way. "She likes you. And she likes to poke her nose into other people's business. She was probably giving me a hint to treat you right."
I wasn't sure I bought that. Mrs. Moderatz was the type to go for long lectures punctuated by banging her cane on the floor, not for gentle manipulation. Then I looked back at the note, and the stark, unambiguous text that looked like someone was writing instructions for a not-especially-bright toddler. Suddenly, it seemed a lot more plausible.
"So my elderly neighbor is trying to play yenta for me and my vampire half-brother," I said.
Thomas frowned at the roses. "Is this normal for adult humans?" he asked. "I can't tell. This stuff never happened on Friends."