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"Why?" he asked, and Linus was afraid: it was a reasonable question. There was no proof. There were only Hailey's hunches. Edward didn't have to admit anything to anyone. He needn't have confessed what he did to Hailey and Linus. He'd wanted to, which wasn't the same thing. Linus doubted Edward would just stop. Why would he, when it was getting him what he wanted?
Even worse, would this lead to a smackdown between the superhero and the villain, an ultimate battle the likes of which the world had never seen and, also, wouldn't have much interest in? Did he want such a tired cliché to happen right in the middle of Ramouette's IT department?
What would the consequences be, especially with the company picnic coming up in less than two weeks? Would factions be further splintered? Would Hailey get fired for employing a super villain? Would the super villain bring a wrongful termination suit against Ramouette? Would the state of Minnesota's department of dislocated workers get involved, guaranteeing hundreds of lost man hours? He foresaw entire square miles of paperwork ahead, and was afraid.
"Why?" Edward asked again. "Why stop now when you're so close to accepting what you are? When you're almost ready to understand that-"
"Don't," Linus warned.
"If you say with great power comes great responsibility, I will do something terrible," Hailey warned. "More terrible than I already had in mind, I mean. And if you don't turn yourself in now, today, you will never recover from what I'll do to you."
"Why?" Edward asked, sounding curious.
"Because I'll do things to you I won't be able to take back. For starters, I'll dissemble and eat your entire server, right now. The whole thing. Every bite. I'll get it all down, Edward. You won't be able to stop me; I could break your arm with one hand while smashing up the hard drive with the other. I've never actually eaten a fan before, and the server's got a good one. You need them to keep the tech cool.
"The more I'll eat, the stronger I'll get. The stronger I'll get, the more I'll pull a Hailey smash all over this department, your car, your home. Even if you've backed it all up somewhere else, this is your baby. We all know it. It's actual, physical tech you will never get back. Tech I'll convert to energy and use to, I don't know, have sex for a week without stopping, with Linus here. That's what will happen to your Precious. I'll use it to have sex. And you won't have it anymore."
"Tons of sex!" Linus added.
"And that," she added, watching all the color fall out of Edward's face, "that's just the first thing to pop into my head. I'll spend days thinking about how to fuck you up. Weeks. Years."
It broke him. Linus saw it at once. It wasn't the threat. Not even the threat of more threats. It was her face and her tone. She had looked sorry; she had also sounded genuinely sad when she spoke of doing things she couldn't take back. Like she knew what it was like. Like she had experience with being fucked with, and was sad because she knew the march of events was inevitable.
It broke him, and he agreed to everything.
"Toldja," The Old Coot said, watching as the Savage police hauled a cuffed and raving Edward to a jail cell far, far away.
"Inevitable," Audrey the Receptionist agreed. "The second time he told me the only god I should pray to was the server god, I figured he was bound for, I dunno, prison, or the bottom of the Mississippi, or one of Hailey's sensitivity training seminars. Some wretched fate that would make him pray for death. He must have done something more evil than usual to get you up in his face like that," Audrey noted. "What, did he call you out about being It Girl?"
For a second Hailey couldn't breathe. She actually doubted her ears: Had Aud the Rec really said what she thought she had? She stole a glance at Linus, who looked remarkably serene.
"That's it, isn't it?" The Old Coot asked, observing Hailey's frozen expression. "What'd you do, threaten to eat his tech? If I was It Girl, that's what I would have done. Actually, I would have trussed him with barbed wire until he looked like an insane hedgehog, then made him watch while I ate allllll his back-ups."
"Are you kidding?" The Old Coot looked at Audrey, who was slowly shaking her head. "Is she kidding?"
"'Fraid not. That's the extent of the cloud this woman walks around in."
Hailey knew she sounded idiotic but was unable to stop. "There's not-I don't understand-You couldn't-"
"Seriously with this?" Audrey the Receptionist asked, incredulous. "For God's sake, you leap out two-story windows and are constantly seen eating things that would kill anybody else. There's a bus crash or whatever, and suddenly you remember you have to race home and feed your nonexistent cat, and then while you're feeding the cat we all know you don't have, someone mysteriously saves the lives of a dozen first graders. Then you come back looking like you've been-I dunno-shoving buses off railroad tracks? Of course you're It Girl! Or a super villain. But we thought you were in on it."
"In on what?" Linus asked. He figured he could get away with it, being new. And Hailey looked so shocked, he was worried she might pull a Linus and faint. Black out, rather. Fainting was for sissies. He took her hand and she clutched at him with panicky fingers.
"Well. We don't talk about it so much, but we all know you're It Girl. We try to look out for you. And in return we figured you've been looking out for us, getting us all those awesome paid holidays, keeping the boss happy so she's not here trying to get people to practice broomball with . . ." The Old Coot turned to Linus. "Basically Hailey here keeps the human in human resources. We thought you thought we knew that."
Astonished silence from Hailey. The Old Coot and Audrey the Receptionist traded glances, then shrugged. "Either way," Audrey said, "we've been watching out for you. We know you don't have a life except for"-she waved a hand, vaguely encompassing Ramouette's offices-"this. And now, maybe"-waving a hand at Linus-"that. So the least we can do is cover for you."
"Why?" Hailey burst out. Linus was startled-and moved-to see her eyes were brimming with tears. "I'm never-You guys always-And it's not like I-"
"Hailey, jeez." Audrey sighed, giving her a quick, one-armed hug. "We live here. Our families live here. And you're here, too-you could live anywhere in the world. You could be driving anybody else crazy. But you're here. Driving us crazy."
The Old Coot nodded. "That means a lot."
"You spend your days in Savage looking out for our families and friends while also pretending you hate looking out for our families and friends. Which is weird, by the way. But that doesn't mean we don't know what it costs. You have no life. So we back you up whenever we can. You didn't-Come on. You knew we knew, right?"
"Toldja," Linus coughed into his fist.
"Oh, sure. Yes. Of course. I-" She was smiling and dashing tears away with the back of her hand. "But I have to go home now and cry for a while. And then have sex with Linus."
"Weird," Audrey the Receptionist commented.
"And inappropriate. In my day, HR heads did not run around foiling evil and banging new accountants."
"Shut up, Coot," Hailey said, and kissed him on the cheek, and hugged Audrey so hard she groaned and clutched her ribs, and seized Linus's hand and dragged him out.
"Tell you what, Aud, they didn't do that, either," he mused, rubbing his cheek. "Hmm. Maybe we should get her something extra-nice for Dan Patch Day."
"Pass. I'm gonna take my seventy-four days of accumulated sick time and grow back my ribs. Workers' comp might hear about this!" Audrey the Receptionist shouted after the departed It Girl. "But probably not! Let that be a lesson to you! Ow, my ribs . . . How many shopping days is it until Lammas Day?"
They had every intention of making it to his apartment. No, her apartment . . . it was a shorter drive. No, the Red Roof Inn was shorter still. No, the secret park.
"Secret park?" Hailey managed between kisses. They'd gotten into her car and kissed. She'd stopped at the stop sign and they kissed. She stopped at the yield sign and they kissed. She didn't stop and they kissed. "Where do I live again?"
"No, here . . . take a left. Over here." He pointed and she drove and then she'd stopped the car and he'd gotten out so quickly the seat belt hung on and almost yanked him back inside the car. He wrestled free of it while she leaned against the hood so as to not fall down laughing, and they ran toward a bunch of trees to the left of the small road leading away from Ramouette.
She gasped in wonder at the small secret park, not perfectly trimmed and manicured like non-secret parks, but overgrown and just wild enough to be interesting but not ugly. The pond, about fifteen feet wide, looked so tranquil as to not seem quite real, reflecting the willow trees, which waved gently in the breeze.
His fingers were on her blouse and she tried to help him, then realized she didn't give a good damn about the buttons and yanked.
"Ow!" He clapped a hand to one eye.
"Oh my God!" Stupid It Girl strength; it hadn't worn off yet. "I'm so sorry, let me see."
She bent forward, intent on his face, and he snatched her to him for a sound, searching kiss. Then he pulled back with a breathless, "Psych! Just kidding. Can you fly like Superman? Can I be Lois Lane, except without that weird chiffon dress she wore in the first movie? She looked like she was wearing my mom's bathroom curtains."
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