She pointedly forgets Ming’s visit, even though it seems like a stupid and dangerous thing to do. She purposefully never brings up Lucas, and Simon gets the hint after a while and does the same.
There are about a thousand things she could be doing instead of avoiding it all. Mary could be prepping for what feels like the inevitable disaster rising in the future. She could be dragging up relics from her past, reconnecting with everything she said she was done with. It would be a simple thing to start rebuilding her safety net, even if it would be a long endeavor, but Mary isn’t living off of what-ifs and mounting dread anymore. She refuses to, rejects it with all the frustration in her body.
It’s hard to do. Fear and doubt stir just beneath the surface, so planning for the grim future is what feels easiest to do. She wants to start plotting, to build up her defenses in the face of a threat. Her hands itch in a way that makes her want to brush up on old skills, and her mind buzzes with an unnamed want.
It takes the recollection of cold concrete, showerless weeks, gritty coffee made with no filter, and the surprising lack of socks to keep her from dialing the numbers that are etched into her brain.
That and the heartfelt desire to stop living in fear of the next big thing, bristling with aggression, so sure the world is out to kill her. It’s draining, emotionally, physically, and mentally, to be constantly running hypothetical scenarios, always prepping for them.
‘A positive outlook,’ she tells herself, and when she looks in the mirror her own muddy brown eyes are glaring back at her, jaw gritted and nostrils flared. She can feel the bite of her nails as they dig into her palm, and tastes ozone on her tongue.
“Positive,” she repeats to herself softly. “Stay positive.”
It’s her mantra, something she repeats as she laces her jogging shoes and runs through her stretches, the dark of night only just beginning to fade at the edges of the eastern sky. The morning star twinkles above her as she opens the door to her apartment, cold dawn air raising gooseflesh on her bared arms and legs. She says it to herself over and over again as she starts off, brisk walk speeding into a jog about three blocks away from her home.
Jogging is awful, always an endeavor. It feels like a struggle every time she starts, and she very seldom actually wants to get up and start moving this early. There’s nothing comforting about the breathlessness that dogs her as she warms up or the feeling of moisture creeping out of her pores in the form of sweat. Her feet pound uncomfortably on the pavement, sending slight shocks up to her knees and her calves always start off stiff, no matter how much she stretches. Her chest feels achy as she tries to suck in air and her empty stomach clenches painfully.
As always, though, her irritation and stubbornness see her through. Her too hot skin and puffing breaths begin to melt away as her brain gets with the program, fifteen full minutes after she starts. Endorphins begin to pump into her system and her focus hones in on that feeling. She relishes in the relief slowly working its way through her body and though she is still aware of all her problems, all her aches, all her worries, they become peripheral at best.
Runner’s high is cheap, costing only the aggravation of starting. It’s the only intoxication someone can get without judgment, the only dragon people can chase without causing societal alarm.
Well, that and consuming copious amounts of capsaicin.
She greets the dawn with a sort of begrudging, satiated pride. The sun is just beginning to rise, casting the sky in a golden, purplish hue as she rounds the street back to the apartment building, looking forward to a warm shower. The off yellow walls of the rundown building stand tall, promising a warm shower and a hot cup of something with caffeine. She still has yogurt, and a while before she goes to work. The world is hers for the taking.
However, when her apartment comes into view, there are two people waiting on her doorstep. A beautiful woman with red-wine hair, and a young boy.
The steady mantra of ‘a positive outlook’ become a rapid fire beat of ‘apositiveoutlookapositiveoutlookapositiveoutlook’, because for some reason her mind decides that if she steamrolls it all into one long syllable, it will be more effective.
“Mary,” Ming greets pointedly, grinning from ear to ear. She knew if Ming ever figured out about the name change she would be exactly like this.
The boy is just sort of staring at her scrutinizing her form like it might reveal something to him. It’s kind of a funny look for him and she can’t begin to guess what he’s looking for in her sweaty, flushed post-jog form.
She decides it doesn't matter. She’s going to have a good day. That means going inside and taking a shower, ignoring the two meddlers -who should not be together but somehow are- on her doorstep. She removes her gaze from them, taking a step around to unlock her apartment door.
“The witch said you saved the world once,” Lucas says as she inserts twists the key.
“Mage,” Mary corrects instinctually. She doesn’t have to look over to know Ming is even more delighted by that slip.
She steps inside her home and shuts the door behind her as she walks toward the single bathroom. It slams shut and she pretends not to hear it open again as she collects her work clothes. Neither does she outwardly respond when she sees Ming making herself comfortable on the couch again while Lucas looks around curiously. If she did, the only thought she would spare for them would be that perhaps the young boy should stop wandering off with strangers.
When she emerges again, fresh and ready for breakfast, they are still there. The boy is playing on his phone and Ming is flipping through a book looking like she isn’t a thorn in Mary’s side.
She continues her mantra. It seems to work better than the prime numbers, at least.
“Simon says you used to help people out a lot, too,” Lucas says.
That one stings a bit. Simon was one hundred percent supportive of her choices. He shouldn’t be talking behind her back like that. Or maybe it was Ming again, just shapeshifting to look like Simon. Then again, Simon gave him emergency contact information, so it’s not unthinkable that they have been texting.
Mary supposes she’ll just have to visit her friend and maybe call him out for texting a child. That’s weird and he could get in trouble. Did he not remember how he could have gotten in trouble for snatching the kid out of the park in the first place? Does he want to go to prison?
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Lucas demands of her, adolescent patience wearing thin. “Did you or didn’t you? Were you or weren’t you?”
Mary focuses on the state of her fridge, blatantly ignoring him. It's early empty, save for her yogurt. Well, it’s about all she has time to eat these days other than Simon’s cooking, so it’s no big loss.
“Why so quiet Mary?” Ming drawls, flipping a page apathetically. “Can’t you tell he’s curious?”
Her skin itches and she make the unconscious conclusion that this won't go away even if she ignores it.
“Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov.”
Ming closes the book and looks over, infuriating smile in place. The boy, however, continues to look confused.
“Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, Lucas. He was a member of the Soviet Navy during the Cuban missile crisis who went against orders and refused to authorize the use of nuclear torpedo missiles against his at the time enemies. Consequently, that’s probably a factor why we are living right now,” Mary says coldly, opting to grab a spoon and just eat out of the tub in her hands. She kicks the fridge door shut and refuses to meet Ming’s eyes.
“Not many people know who he is,” Mary continues. She takes a bite, swallows it, and stares out the window. She has about an hour and a half to kill, which she might usually spend goofing off online. She never did a cool down stretch either. She’s probably going to regret that.
“So? That’s one guy, and you know his name. He did the right thing-”
“No name then? Alright. Richard the first of England was a mad tyrant they called Lionheart. Anti-semitic, pagan killer, land-taker. At war with his own family, even though assassinations were coming in from several different factions-”
“Ignoring the fact that this was on par and course at the time,” Ming interjects somewhat haughtily.
“-went to suppress a revolt. His reign of terror ended at the hands of one boy with a crossbow, the son of a man he killed. History is unsure what his name actually is.”
Lucas palms his phone thoughtfully, his brow furrowed. She can see on his face that he knows it doesn’t end there.
“And then what?” he asks. Mary nods approvingly at him. That’s good. He’s listening.
“Richard's wound grew infectious, and though the king pardoned the boy on his deathbed, he was flayed alive and then hung for good measure.”
Ming flings her a judgmental look and she responds with an expression that demands the mage correct her, or tell him differently. These are truths, facts that the kid should know. The hero of the story sometimes doesn’t survive it, and even kids can meet a terrible fate.
“But he did the right thing,” Lucas says after a moment.
Mary has the idle notion that she should show him some mercy, maybe some understanding. He’s just a kid. Unfortunately, Ming is also here so she has a varied audience, and Mary wants to be left alone. She’s isn’t going to make herself soft for this.
“La Malinche, the slave of a conquered tribe given to Cortez, without whom the Spanish would have never conquered. Was she right to help him, justified by vengeance? Or was she wrong? Was Genghis Khan a bloodthirsty warlord, or a bringer of cultural enrichment? Depends on who you ask. Trying to narrow down ethics into a binary doesn’t work if separate cultures value separate ideals, and forcing one set onto others is equally bad,” Mary says, gesturing with her spoon.
Lucas looks a bit thoughtful, which is nice that he may be considering things a bit. Heck, even Ming looks like she’s reaching some sort of understanding, which is good. Great really.
Maybe the mantra worked.
Or maybe she made a preteen kid with a predilection for brooding tendencies think about things a little too hard, because looking at him now as he flips the phone around in his hands, he seems upset. His posture is slumped and tired and she would bet that he hasn’t gotten much sleep. It is still very early and she has no idea what he was doing the night before. She probably should have caught that sooner.
“Then what am I supposed to do?” he asks.
“I don’t have the authority to say,” Mary answers stonily. “What’s right for me might not be right for you.”
Lucas mulls that over in his head, and Mary finishes up her breakfast in quiet. She’s really not cut out for kids, barely even counts as friendly to most adults. There should be someone else her. Almost literally anyone else.
“Em' was right.”
Ming makes a face at the nickname, her thin brows furrowing, her painted lips going thin.
“My name is one syllable. Why does it need to be shortened?”
“You really know what you’re talking about,” the boy finishes, ignoring the mage. He glances up at Mary, an appreciative gleam to his eyes and a considering tilt to his jaw.
Mary tries not to be flattered by that statement. He’s just a stranger and a child, it really shouldn’t mean much.
“Uh,” Mary halts, a little dumbstruck. “Thanks.”
Lucas smiles at her, and her instincts stir uneasily. It’s not a bad smile, but it’s definitely not one of pure childish joy either.
“That’s why you’re going to teach me.”
Mary’s mood quite quickly turns from validated, veering sharply towards irritation again. She shoots a glare at Ming, who seems to be back on the path of cheerfully pleased. The lines of their conversation come racing back and the word ‘protege’ hangs over her like a death sentence.
“Nope,” Mary says, pivoting around to put her food back in the fridge.
“I get it,” Lucas tells her with all the conviction of somebody who is sure they have a grasp on something they don’t. “I gotta prove myself. You aren’t going to teach any random person.”
Despite herself, she feels her heart go out to him. He shouldn’t feel like he has to prove himself to anyone. His worth isn’t dependent on her choices.
“Ki- Lucas,” she corrects because he has a name and she should maybe use it sometimes. “You don’t owe anyone anything you don’t want to. I’m just not going to teach you.”
“Famous last words,” sing-songs the instigator sprawled over her furniture, smiling like the cat that got the cream, then ate the canary just because it could.
“Ming, shut up,” Mary snaps. She’ll deal with her later.
“I want this,” Lucas says. “The forums are nice, but you get things. I know you think I’m not very smart-”
Crap. Crap. She didn’t think he’d take those word to heart. Did she give the kid a complex? Oh, she hopes not.
“-But I can fix that. I’ll show you what I can do,” Lucas says, standing with a stubborn resolve in his eyes.
“That’s cool, but when I say no, maybe respect my right to make my own choices a bit,” Mary hedges carefully. She’s toeing a fine line here, wracking her brains to figure out what would make her unappealing to the child.
“Only if you respect my choice in choosing you as a teacher,” Lucas returns.
Mary opens her mouth and stares. What kind of backward, cyclical logic is that?
On the couch, Ming starts laughing. It’s a delighted, amused noise that sounds achingly familiar. It grinds on her temper like little else can, because that? That’s the noise of things working out in Ming’s favor. That’s the sound of the situation getting wildly out of hand.
Mary resists the urge to stalk over to the couch and get rid of the cliche-loving meddler once and for all. She thinks she's so smart, always toying with other people. Mary and Lucas are just amusing game pieces, actors in a play.
It occurs to her that Lucas may not understand how he’s being used.
“Ming’s manipulating you,” Mary accuses, pointing at the woman on the couch with her spoon. “For her own gain.”
“And I used her to find a teacher,” Lucas replies almost immediately.
The mage’s chuckles turn to full blown laughter. Silently, Mary agrees that the statement is absurd. Ming is a master, and Lucas is twelve. The fact that he thinks he’s even slightly in control is laughable.
‘Stay positive, stay positive,’ she tries to tell herself. She really, really does, but the feeling of static crawls along her nerves. She could make it so they never come back. She could.
“Don’t you have school?” Mary asks, grasping for something to get them to leave.
For a second Lucas looks guilty. He fumbles around with his phone for a second to check the time.
“In thirty minutes. If I run I can make it.”
If that isn’t a frustratingly familiar sentiment she doesn’t know what is.
‘I can do this,’ she tells herself, gritting her teeth. She breathes in, trying to think of the feeling she had this morning when she was jogging. She thinks of how tasty Simon’s cooking is, and how awesome it is that she has regular paychecks.
That last bit turns out to be exactly what she needs. Paychecks. Work. She has a job, and if they won’t back down because she said no, maybe they can respect a previous obligation. Sure she’ll be early, but it’s better to hang around there than have her resolve tested by these two.
“Good for you. I, however, cannot do the same. I gotta go to work, so everyone out.”
“Alright. I can come by after school,” Lucas quips.
“No,” Mary stresses, traipsing to her room to grab her things. She can still hear Lucas and Ming talking as she crams on her work shoes, their voices drifting down the hall like a series of infuriating taunts.
“After school was ambitious,” Ming drawls.
“You’re right. That’s maybe too soon. I can-”
“No. No, no, no, no-” Mary repeats, her voice now rising to drone out everyone else's. She’s not proud of resorting to such a childish method. The only consolation she has for herself is that she is using it against an actual child, and Ming, who is definitely a brat.
“Have you considered-” Ming begins.
“I don’t-” Lucas responds.
Mary darts back into the den, chanting all the way. Lucas cuts off his sentence as she grabs Ming by the back of her suit none too gently. The twelve-year old’s eyes widen as she drags the redhead off the couch, but he thankfully does not question her. In fact, he even opens the door for her so she doesn’t have to pause as she forcibly removes Ming from the residence.
Outside, Mary stops her litany of ‘no’ and lets Ming drop like the issue she is. She turns to Lucas, who straightens under her gaze.
For a brief moment, there is quiet.
“Go to school, avoid Ming, and stay away from me.”
Lucas smiles like he has a secret. He nods his head to show he understands while Ming hacks on the ground behind her, fiddling with the shirt collar around her neck.
“Peaches,” Ming rasps.
Mary flees the scene before the mage can finish the sentence.