I was pretty sure Grey knew I was following him, mostly because I’m not that good at it, but he wasn’t trying to lose me. He’d slipped off after we’d landed in Sydney, and he’d only ridden with us because his other choice for getting out of the middle of the Outback was InterCEPT, and I suspected he didn’t want to be any closer to Diana Zurvis’s big gun than he had to be. Soon as we’d parked the plane and opened the hatch, he was out and I was following him.
The bar he headed into looked like your pretty standard fare-- a local watering hole, not a dive or a tourist trap, so I followed him in. It was moderately busy, people talking, music playing quietly, but there weren’t so many people at the bar that I had to wait for the bartender to get to me. I ordered a couple of bottles of something called “Feral Hop Hog” and didn’t bother with the glasses. It wasn’t that fancy of a place. Crossing over to the little table in the corner, I plunked the bottles down, drawing the Coach’s attention from the beer menu he was reading.
“Rikki?” He raised an eyebrow as I took the seat across from him.
“Were you expecting to be followed by someone else?”
“Alex, maybe,” he replied, turning the bottle to inspect the label.
I shook my head. “Grinder and Fidget dragged him to the hotel. If I know Alex, he’s currently trying to burn everything off in the lap pool. Swimming’s not one of his usual sports, so it makes a nice change. Besides, Alex Mann would probably not follow you into a bar.”
That got him to look at me with actual interest. “No?”
“Alex doesn’t drink. Hasn’t since the other Acceleration Games competitors dragged him out for a bar crawl to celebrate his twenty-first and he came back about two shots away from alcohol poisoning. The three of us traded off monitoring his breathing all night, and when morning came, he groaned, told us to ‘turn off the fucking sun’ and went back to sleep for another three hours. Hasn’t even looked at a bottle since. Or used that particular swear word, for that matter.” I popped the top off my bottle and took a sip. Not bad; a bit more bitter than I usually like, is all. “Think he might be considering changing that right now.”
Grey chuckled quietly, taking a sip of his own beer. “I suppose so. How are you feeling?”
“Kind of like stir-fried roadkill, everything aches from the muscle contractions. I probably shouldn’t be drinking this, but after the day I’ve had? Screw it.”
“So why did you follow me? Looking for a good bar?”
I snorted. “I followed you because if I didn’t, you were going to disappear again, and we really, really need to talk before that happens.”
“Talk? About what?”
“About Alex, of course. I’m not sure if he’s forgiven you, or just isn’t making a big deal out of it because there’s no point. I, on the other hand, have definitely not forgiven you, and feel the need to get a few things straight.”
Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out a small cylinder. As I flipped the switch on one side, the conversation around us became muted, a bit harder to understand. Nothing dramatic, but Grey definitely noticed.
“One of Grinder’s toys,” I explained. “Good for discussing event strategy at the Waffle House at 4 AM without tipping off the other teams. Or discussing things that maybe the population of Sydney shouldn’t be hearing.”
He regarded me for a moment, fingers tapping idly against his beer bottle, then nodded. “I’m listening.”
After a second to pull my thoughts together, I started. “Okay, look. First and foremost, I haven’t forgiven you for the experiment in the first place. Alex actually has, because he’s Alex, and because it’s easier to do that than to think about the fact that you and X and whoever else was signing the permissions on this thing experimented, without consent, on a high school full of teenagers. Then when it finally starts paying off, you come into Alex’s life and expect him to just drop everything-- his job, his friends, everything-- to be your personal pet superhero. And don’t think I haven’t forgotten that veiled threat of yours that first day.” He opened his mouth to say something, but I overrode him.
“And don’t give me that, it was a threat. Maybe you didn’t intend to imply you’d do anything directly, but telling Alex that you couldn’t protect us? You damn well were implying that if he didn’t do what you wanted, we’d be in danger. Luckily, Alex wasn’t feeling that self-sacrificing. After that, you didn’t actually have to do much of anything, did you? Just call up and drop a few cryptic hints, while X’s obsession with Alex meant we’d keep being forced just by circumstance to clean up his messes. You pulled a few strings to keep us out of trouble with the restricted airspace, which I do appreciate, but I have to wonder how much of it was to keep your Judas Goat out of jail and functioning.
“And then X dropped his bombshell on Alex, and you still don’t have a damn clue why Alex was so mad at you, do you?”
Grey took a swig of his beer-- good, I was rattling him at least a bit. “I assume you’re going to tell me.”
“He trusted you. You don’t have any idea how rare that is. But then, you don’t actually know Alex. You’re running on research and maybe a few memories from high school, but you were a gym teacher. You didn’t interact with the students outside your job, and knowing how scientists think, you sure as hell didn’t want to get to know them as people. Too likely to prejudice the results.
“Alex is my best friend, even if I don’t really qualify as his anymore. I’m okay with that-- we’re still family, but I just can’t keep up with him the way Brandon or Grinder can. I know what you see; Mastervision’s Action Man, the celebrity, a guy who smiles for the cameras, talks to his fans, and always does the right thing. News flash, that’s a mask. I should know, I helped design it. Alex really is a great guy, but he’s not a plaster saint. He gives everybody the benefit of the doubt, but he doesn’t actually trust them. He trusts us. He trusted Brandon. And God knows why, but he trusted you. And you didn’t have the common decency to return that trust by telling him something he really needed to know!”
I took another sip of my beer and tried to get my voice under control. The jammer wouldn’t work if I got too loud or animated. “ You did this to him, you gave him this power and pinned this target onto his back. Alex is Alex, so he'll keep dealing with Dr. X because he doesn't want people to die. He’ll do the right thing when it crosses his path. But if you think he's going to go where you send him for the rest of his life because you say so, give up competing to be your clean-up man? You're an idiot. From the moment this started, you’ve been treating him like a gun you can fire whenever you want. That ends now.”
“Do you know why I’m on Team Extreme? Jogging is about as athletic as I get, and as for adrenaline, I get jumpy when the toaster goes off. I stick out like a sore thumb and everybody knows it.”
“You and Alex were close in high school. I assumed it was because of your friendship, and the reassurance of having a manager he knew wasn’t going to try and cheat him.”
I tipped my bottle at him in salute. “True as far as it goes, but there’s more. You probably remember what an odd couple we were in high school, Alex in designer jeans and me in off-brand stuff that came from Goodwill and was more patches than original denim. Money isn’t real to Alex. He’s always had enough and more than enough. Thanks to his maternal grandmother, who may be the only member of his family worth the lead to shoot her, he’ll always have enough. That said, he has no idea what it’s like not to have that, and he knows that. I’m his manager because I know money. How to use it, how to massage it, and exactly how much power it has and doesn’t have. He dropped a seventy-thousand dollar car out the back of the plane and didn’t even blink. But he learned early that for some people, he can give and give, and it will never be enough. I’m on the team because I’ll tell him when it’s enough. And I won’t let anyone take more from him than he can afford to give.”
I wasn’t talking about money anymore, and from the way Grey was holding very still as he watched me, he knew it.
“So. Next question. Do you remember what I did in high school instead of regular gym? You should, you were the one who got it past the administration.”
“Rifle team. As I recall, Mike Morrison thought you were one of the best he’d ever had.”
“Yep. So, making sure we understand each other-- Alex is not your gun. We’ll keep going after Dr. X; God knows he’s not going to be leaving us alone, and I want his head on a platter for what he did to Brandon, and I didn’t even like the guy. But if you try lying to us again, or manipulating Alex into carrying out whatever crusade you’re on? You will get a very brief, very final headache. Because I’m the one in charge of the team’s financial portfolio, all of it. Action figures, posters, charitable donations, public appearances, any income or outgo, I’m on top of. I crunch numbers. I analyze data trends. Maybe I can't do it in my head on a grand scale, but you give me a reasonably good internet connection and enough time? I will find you.”
He stared at me for a few moments, then slugged back the last of his beer. “Understood,” he said, putting the bottle down. I finished mine, and we sat in silence for a bit.
“... Can I buy you another?”
“Yeah, sure. The hotel’s in walking distance, but still, two’s my limit.”
Grey gave me a bit of a smile, as he flagged down the waitress. “Mine too. I do have them, you know.”
“Good to hear.”