He broke into a jog, then a run as people kept snapping more and more shots and capturing more video. Arriving at the office was a relief; he’d have at least a few minutes before news of his newest feat reached the office. He got to his desk as quickly as possible, making eye contact with as few people as possible, and then buried his face in his hands.
If there was one difference between this incident and the original, it was that at least this time he’d had some idea of what he was doing. The baby had been a complete fluke, an accident, if a happy one. This time, there’d been at least a little bit of heroism involved, hadn’t there? Or if not heroism, at least he’d reacted to something and done the right thing? Couldn’t he be happy about that? He felt a flash of shame at his own self-serving reaction to the whole ordeal. He’d done some good in the world, possibly saved someone’s life, and his worry was over other people intruding on his personal time and space.
Another corner of his mind resisted, though. Self-serving or not, it was an unwelcome form of stress, wasn’t it? And stress wasn’t good for you. He’d known for most of his life that he wasn’t the social type, and nothing brought on anxiety like being the center of attention. Was it really too much to ask that his good deeds go unpunished?
He sighed. There were too many ways to spin the situation, both for and against his reaction. He squeezed his eyes shut and gave himself a shake. “Okay,” he said under his breath. “This time I really did make the decision to be the hero. I guess it’s only right to own it.” A part of him quailed inside at the thought.
He made an effort when people approached him to not automatically dismiss what they were saying, or try to deny what he’d done. It didn’t come naturally to him, but he tried to embrace the attention, though he certainly didn’t go out of his way to seek it.
As the day progressed, he became aware of the various levels of attention he was getting from different people. Some hardly seemed to care at all, while others were more impressed. The ones that puzzled him were the people he didn’t know who approached. But more than any of them, one individual stood out.
He was almost certain he’d seen her around before, but only in the sort of half-familiar way of someone who exists as part of the background of his life, to whom he’d certainly never paid any attention, nor she to him. On this day though, he kept seeing her hovering around, glancing at him. It was more than that though.
Most people approached wearing expressions of surprise; they were impressed with what they’d heard, or they’d seen something new about him on the internet they wanted to share. There was something that excited them about this whole novel situation. But not her. Her features were blank, expressionless.
She met his gaze each time he saw her, held it for a moment, then went about her business. At first he thought nothing of it, but then it happened again, and again, four times in all, and those before lunch time.
It was the third time that he saw her after lunch that he realized why his attention was drawn to her; there was something off about her. Something different.
She was of the People.
He couldn’t have pointed to her and said why he was suddenly so convinced of it. She looked perfectly normal at first glance, and at second. And, he reflected, at 6th. It was like looking at the baby girl; like looking at her parents, in the dream. There was something about the eyes. They’d seen things no ordinary eyes were meant to see.
There was more to it than that, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. He turned his thoughts instead to what they—she—wanted from him.
Are they keeping an eye on their investment? he wondered. Did they somehow make me save that cyclist this morning? No, he dismissed that thought. That didn’t feel right at all. Did they do something to me? Is that what that feeling of power is?
Could she know something about all this? I need to talk to her.
The thought was a piece of ice that sank through his mind and right into the depths of his stomach. It was one thing to struggle against his social anxiety and talk to a pretty woman. She would be just a person. But this pretty woman … he wasn’t sure what she was. That was socialization on a whole new level for him. But he needed answers, and he wanted them soon.
In spite of his resolve, he failed to get a chance to talk to her all that day, or the next. He was a low-ranking graphic artist; the company was a design firm. His superiors took a dim view of their employees spending too much (read: any) time away from their desks if they had projects that were due, which was understandable enough, he supposed. They also took a dim view of any appearance of being less than terribly busy even when there was nothing going on. He found that somewhat less understandable, but he didn’t make the rules, he just had to work under them.
He also avoided any further unintended major heroics, though on several occasions he found himself performing very small feats of agility that several days before would have seemed unlikely, at best, or flat out impossible.
They were just tiny little things, maybe even the type of thing that others wouldn’t think twice about. In the break room at work, a tall stack of washed dishes toppled over. There must have been at least 20 plates and half as many bowls. He caught the whole stack before it all came apart, and without breaking a single dish. He even managed not to attract any attention to himself. While not exactly heroic in itself, he had very clearly felt the flash of power and warmth he was increasingly sure he had felt with the People in his dream. No, the true hero was the unsung noble soul who had actually bothered to wash all those dishes. That was one title nobody could pin on him.
What they apparently could pin on him was a complaint for ‘disturbing the work environment.’ The incident with the baby had caused enough commotion surrounding him to disrupt what the powers-that-be within the agency considered to be a harmonious, productive work environment. He got called into his bosses’ office to answer for it.
His boss Mr. Grout was a small man, and the type who made a point of being nasty to everyone. Scuttlebutt around the office had it that it was his way of compensating for his height; if people were scared of you, they were less likely to be threatening or some such thing. Brandon usually got along well enough with him simply by working well enough on his own that he needed minimal supervision, and so had been spared most of it.
Not today though. He stood and weathered the age-old storm of “trickle-down politics.” After being dumped on by his own bosses, Brandon’s boss passed it on to him.
“… I expect more from you, Burns. And I’ll be watching. If there’s any more of this sort of spectacle, your next visit to this office won’t be so pleasant! Now go. I need the concept art for that new account by 3:30.”
He sighed under his breath as he left the office, face burning, mind whirling. It was 2pm and he’d only been given the assignment an hour before. He chose to look on the bright side; such an impossibly tight deadline would give him a very valid excuse to avoid any awkward interactions.
He put his head down and worked as hard and fast as he could on the project, and got off with only a glare when he turned it in literally at the last minute. Does that make another ‘heroic’ accomplishment? he wondered. Probably not.
When he got back to his desk, something was different.
Much like his home, he kept his work space neatly arranged, with everything in its particular place, arranged just so for efficient use and comfort. He had his novelty Aperture Science coffee mug, and his Black Mesa mug from which he always drank tea. The tea itself was an ordered stack of boxes along one wall of his cubicle. Several giant robot and starship models kept silent watch over his work space from the edges; his keyboard and artists’ trackball took up the center, in front of a smallish monitor that so far the company had been too cheap to upgrade in spite of his position.
A post-it was stuck to the monitor, right in the center. It certainly hadn’t been there minutes before, when he’d left.
Coffee next door after work. Meet me.
It was hand-written, unsigned. He frowned. On the one hand, he really would have preferred to pursue his search for the odd staring woman. On the other hand, this invitation, cryptic as it was, was also circumspect enough not to get him into further trouble. After his chewing-out earlier, he was willing to give that some additional weight in his decision-making process.
He could always resume the search next time, after all.
He got back to his remaining projects and worked hard until quitting time. He put extra care into avoiding those who looked like they might want to stop him to talk and managed to slip outside and dash next door.
The café was pretty slick and clean looking, but didn’t have much of a kitchen. It wasn’t a place he often ate at, as they really only catered to those coming in for beverages and maybe a dessert or two. Their dessert section was excellent, but the coffee was mediocre at best; still, it was close to the office and better than what they supplied, so he did stop in now and then during the day.
At this time of day it was nearly empty. He didn’t recognize anyone as being from the office, certainly not anyone that would have left him a note. He ordered an espresso and sat down at the back of the place to ensure he could see anyone who entered.
He didn’t have long to wait. About five minutes after he sat down, she arrived. His heart leaped a bit; it was the one who’d been keeping such a close eye on him. She entered without looking for him and went straight to the counter to order.
She was beautiful in an unconventional sort of way. Long, straight black hair parted in the center framed a face that was maybe just slightly too long and too narrow, with cheekbones just a touch low, but full. Her skin was pale as paper, her eyes brown and intense.
That intensity was a big part of the reason she put him in mind of the baby he’d saved, he decided, sitting there watching her order her coffee. He was far enough from the counter that he couldn’t quite make out her order, but he got the impression of a low, melodious voice.
She picked up her cup delicately and turned directly to where he was seated; she didn’t even look to verify his location. It was a little spooky. She sat opposite him and stared at him a moment, sipping from her cup.
“Hi,” he said hesitantly.
“Brandon,” she said. It startled him; she wasn’t the first to use his proper name, but it happened rarely enough that the sound of it lay odd on his ears. He’d been right about her voice; it was deep and lovely.
“Right, I’m afraid I don’t … we’ve never …”
“Sorcha. I am Sorcha Bowyer.” Her eyes stayed intently on him. He got the strongest feeling that he was being gauged, measured.
It became clear pretty quickly that nothing more was forthcoming; she stared at him intently, still sipping her coffee. “Well, it’s … it’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Bowyer. What’s this all about?”
She gave a small smile. “Call me Sorcha. And I think you know exactly what this is about already.”
“Um, you’re not going to ask for my autograph, are you,” he half-joked, “’cause I’ve already had about enough of that for a lifetime, I think.”
Her smile became a grin; it transformed her face. Where before had been impassive measurement now lay amusement, and maybe the barest hint of mischief. “Oh Brandon, no, no more autographs I think. You’ve been called; there are much better uses for your time. And I’m going to show you what they are.”