Misadventures of a Neopian Times Reporter XX
I sat down, looking at my calendar as I did so. I frowned as I realized that Saturday was Valentines Day. I went to the top of the stairs and shouted, "If any of my special friends come calling, I'm dead until next week. Got that?"
"Thank Fyora!" screamed back several voices.
Last year's Valentines Day would live on in infamy for the rest of our lives, I suspected. I hoped one day I would be able to laugh about it, but I suspected the only laughter would be the awkward kind at my own expense as I tried to change the subject. I walked back into my room and leaned back in my chair at my desk.
I wondered what I should do this year for Valentines Day; maybe getting out of the country. I couldn't go to Meridell, that was too obvious. Anyone who wanted to torture me would suspect that. I could go to Brightvale, show Hagan how much I cared with some blechies in his pants. That would also require fleeing to Meridell where I would be easily found.
Of course, I was being paranoid. Sloth would be going to the Villains Valentines Dance with Jhudora that year, I was certain of that, so I was safe on that count. No one else could reasonably claim a reason to have me as their partner, except Garoo, and he apparently always went with his arch-nemesis Ylana Skyfire. Really, I had nothing to fear.
Of course, last year I hadn't expected to have anything to fear either, and yet I had somehow gotten roped into going to a political party with the world's most notorious villains. It had stunk on so many levels, not the least of which was Sloth's party attire. I shuddered so hard at the memory that I nearly knocked myself out of my chair.
My thoughts were thankfully drawn from that unpleasant memory by my Xweetok walking into my room holding a Neomail, trailed by her Barlow. I handed her a stick of gum as I took the letter.
"Not that I do not appreciate the gum, Mama, but I'm not Yanli. You don't need to ransom your mail from me," Molly told me as she accepted the stick of gum.
"And that's why the gum I give you has sugar in it. Don't tell your sister," I said as I ruffled her brown curls.
She giggled and I reached down to give Orion a scritch behind the ears. He whined happily, but was happier still when his mistress reached down and scooped him up. "It's from your boss. Not from anyone special. Chloe told me to withhold all letters for you from them until after she got home."
"She's a good girl," I said with a sigh, sorry that Chloe felt the need to have to protect me from my better self. "I can't help it, Molly, really I can't. I'm a sap and they know it."
"I love you, Mama," Molly said simply.
"And I love you, Mollykins. You should go play; Mama probably has to go into work or something."
Molly walked out of the room, her Barlow panting at me over her shoulder as they left. We were pretty sure we were never going to break him of his dependence on Molly, but he was getting better about going longer stretches of time without her. That, and toys designated for chewing helped. At least he hadn't gotten the shoes Slorgie had given me; I wasn't sure how I'd explain that one to the Meepit.
I opened the letter from Buzz Johnson and took out the sheet inside. On it were instructions to come to the office that evening dressed in practical clothes in dark colors. I expected that meant we had some kind of mission that didn't directly relate to either of our usual jobs, both professional or behind the scenes. I tossed the letter into the grate of my fireplace; I had long ago learned to leave as little of a paper trail, no matter how innocuous seeming, as possible. I went into my closet to select my clothes for the evening, knowing I would not want to be even a minute late.
"Well, this is fun," I said, sitting down to wait. "Why are we staking out this location?"
The Grey Lupe who was my boss at the Weekly World was sitting a few feet away monitoring something on a Virtupets computer which was hooked up to a recording device down in the alley. I twirled the end of my braid around my gloved finger, annoyed at being there when it really seemed to me I wasn't needed. Surely, he hadn't brought me for the company. Sure, I'd go as far as to call us friends, but I didn't know if he actually would go as far as to call me a friend.
"Because something is going down here that might relate to Iniquitous and I don't trust anyone else to properly record whatever happens here tonight," Buzz replied.
"And I'm here why?" I asked.
"Because if we need to track anyone, that'll be my job. You're here to record what goes on down there should that happen," Buzz explained.
"You trust me to get it right?" I asked with a sarcastic smile.
"I trust you know what happens if you don't," he said, his smile was sadistic.
"We have such a great relationship, Buzz. Built on so much trust," I said.
"You think you're so witty sometimes," Buzz said with a shake of his head.
"Only sometimes, when I know that throwing me out a window would only inconvenience you," I replied.
"Just remember that I forget nothing, Kimmy. I can delay gratification," Buzz warned.
"And just remember that I could be in traction when you need me for something like this."
"Touche," he chuckled.
"So, did you ever have to do stakeouts when you worked for Dr. Sloth?" I asked.
"All the time. That is where I learned most of my undercover skills; the ones I've taught you. Lynette and I found ourselves in the exact same situations as this quite often," Buzz told me. "She always got the last word when it came to the witty banter, though."
"Probably because she didn't work for you," I said.
"Are you saying you could one up me if you didn't hold back?" he asked.
I thought for a moment before admitting, "No."
"Good answer. It's always best to accept the truth, Kimmy," he laughed.
"Someday. Someday I'll come up with the ultimate comeback," I swore.
"When that day comes, you can have my job, because I will clearly be too old and enfeebled of mind to do it."
"Ouch, that was low," I complained even as I laughed.
I smiled at him and he actually smiled in return. He turned his eyes back to the equipment and I asked how long it would be before our targets would show up. He guessed about half an hour. I leaned back onto the roof and laid there looking up at the sky. It was clear out, but there were no stars visible. The light pollution of Neopia Central drowned them out. From Mystery Island, where I had been born, and Meridell where I lived half the year, the stars were amazing. They were the one thing I could say Neopia Central truly lacked. I looked over at Buzz. He once lived out among the stars.
"Do you miss the stars, Buzz?" I asked.
"No," he replied shortly.
"Got bored of them?" I asked.
"No, I simply learned to prefer the sunrise and set," he said, a look of sadness creeping into his eyes.
I found myself at a loss for words. I never knew how to respond to Buzz during the rare moments he let me in, or even if I should. I rolled back over and looked up at the where the stars should be, if they weren't being drowned out by a hundred thousand different lights from the sprawling metropolis we lived in. The person who had taught him to prefer the light of the sun had died out among those stars. No wonder he preferred the sunlight to the starshine.
I thought about my petty problems, about dreading Valentines Day, and wondered about Buzz. Was a day when you were supposed to be celebrating the people you loved a source of pain to him? Did he even care? It seemed likely to me that he didn't care. He was not sentimental; he probably didn't acknowledge the holiday in anything more than that we had to run the usual sappy stories through the paper to please the people who did.
I looked over at him again, and he frowned at me.
"You're making that face I hate again," he told me.
"I'm sorry for liking you," I shot back. "You're unfortunately a little too crusty to fully dislike."
"I could throw you off the building," he offered.
"I could be in traction when you need me next," I pointed out again.
"Ah, there is always that. It won't save you one of these days," he told me.
"I'll make sure to have my two weeks notice ready long before that day," I replied.
He snorted in amusement. "The day you get out is the day Virtupets falls out of the sky."
"I hate you," I replied, knowing that there would be a part of me that would be too afraid to try quitting now, even if I somehow saw a way out.
"That's better," he chuckled, grinned wickedly. "There are decided downsides to being a bleeding heart, aren't there, Kimmy?"
"Yeah, like not being able to dislike you," I replied.
"Ah, none of us are perfect. Some of us less so than others."
"Do you ever shut up, Buzz?" I asked with a frown.
"Once I'm done torturing you, usually," he replied with a dark grin.
I just sighed and started to laugh softly. It was rather funny, and really, I wouldn't trade Buzz for anyone else. Not after moments like the one that had happened before he'd caught me looking at him while feeling sympathy for his loss. He didn't like pity, which I never had. I had sympathy for him, but never pity. Pity was condescending, and I wouldn't do that to him. He still didn't understand that, and I didn't try to explain.
I looked back up at the sky. "You doing anything Saturday, Buzz?"
"No, why?" he asked.
"I dunno, I thought it would be fun to hang out. Maybe go up to the shooting range at the weapons shop up on the Virtupets Space Station. I want to get out of Neopia Central for the day, just in case," I told him. "If you've got nothing to do, it would almost be like old times."
"I don't know, from what I heard of last Valentines Day, it was rather hilarious. I hear Scarblade made you do a jig in four inch heels," he laughed cruelly. "Garoo could hardly tell me about it through his laughter. It takes a lot to amuse my cousin; he's more stoic than I am."
"Do not go there," I told him through gritted teeth. "I've spent enough money on therapy over that."
Buzz just snickered at me. I let the question hang for a moment, waiting to see if he'd actually answer it, and then pointed out that he'd never actually answered me.
"Shouldn't you be with your family on Saturday?" he asked.
"I will be. Chloe drew the short straw and has to work all day, so we'll do our usual thing of eating pink and red colored sweets that we baked the day before while we swap cards and gifts in the evening after she gets home. Honestly, I think the day will be less stressful for everyone if I get out of the house for the day. Bluejay and Yanli stalked me last year, so everyone knows all about my date. It was not a fun week, believe me."
"We should hire them," Buzz said.
"Don't you dare corrupt my children," I snapped.
"Says the woman who admits to being stalked by them," Buzz pointed out.
"I see your point and ignore it blatantly. My point stands; you can make them worse. I don't need that," I replied. "You're also still dodging my question. Yes or no, Buzz, it's that simple. Since when do you beat about the bush?"
"Yes. I suppose I've nothing better to do with my day, after all," he said. He paused and look intently at the monitor. "Well, it looks like our friends are here. Time for silence."
I walked to the shuttle that would take me to the Virtupets Space Station from my house in Neopia Central, looking about at the shops all tricked out for Valentines Day. I decided I had made the right choice to get out Neopia Central for the day. I never knew when something unpleasant would sneak up on me, it was the story of my life, but they would totally think twice about it if Buzz Johnson was around.
I got to the shuttle and looked around the crowd, looking for him. I doubted he was going to stand me up; Buzz was rigidly true to his word. He hadn't canceled on me before now, so I didn't think he wouldn't show. There was quite a crowd for a Saturday morning on Valentines Day. I wondered if the other passengers were going to see loved ones on the Station.
I felt someone step up next to me and turned to look. Buzz was there, wearing casual clothes. A bomber style jacket, jeans, a scarf and gloves, and large sunglasses. It was a sunny day, so that could explain the sunglasses, but I wondered if they were also to obscure his face since we were going to the Space Station, a place he used to work when he had a far less savory reputation. He took off the sunglasses and put them into a pocket on his jacket, which quickly disabused me of that idea.
"Good morning, Kimmy," he said simply as we entered the shuttle.
I replied in kind as we took our seats. I buckled in and we sat in silence until the shuttle began preparations to take off. I watched out the window as the shuttle blasted into the atmosphere. Once we were on our way, I turned to look at Buzz again. He had his Virtupets personal computer out and was doing something on it. I wasn't rude enough to read over someone's shoulder, and I wouldn't have dared try that with him of all people even if I were, so I asked him what he was doing.
"Just logging away the data from our excursion the other night in the proper places in our files," he replied. "I'd have done this sooner, but my day job has been a little too fulfilling of late."
"Which one?" I asked.
"The one where I pretend I am a morally upright member of society," he said with a smirk.
"Considering that everyone there lives in fear of being defenestrated, I think you need to work on that image of yours," I replied.
"Well, closer to being a morally upright member of society than I've been in the past. There was a time when I didn't even make the pretense, if you remember," he said.
"I'm so glad I started working with you during this new phase. My odds of surviving you are maybe twelve percent higher than they otherwise would have been," I said with a shake of my head.
"Are you renting, buying something new, or did you bring your blaster with you?" Buzz asked, changing the topic.
"I was thinking about buying something for Chloe, so I'll be shopping today too, but I brought my blaster from my less savory days," I said with a sarcastic grin.
Buzz smirked back and then we were silent for the rest of the trip to the Space Station. When it docked at the Station, Buzz stored away his computer and we got off. We walked from the hangar to the supply deck where the Space Weaponry shop was, despite the fact that we could have taken one of the trams that ran through the place.
The place always looked different to me after my stay there while working undercover among the ranks of Dr. Sloth's soldiers. The upper levels, the business and tourist side seemed ominous, a lie to hide the darker places beneath the surface. I didn't bother to share my observations with Buzz; he had known this truth for far longer than I had.
We reached Space Weaponry and were greeted by the shopkeeper. He saw Buzz and gave a him a grin and reached out to clasp his hand. To my surprise, Buzz took his hand and gave a smirk in return.
We walked back into the target range, which was empty, which I had sort of expected which is why I had thought it would be a good place to spend the day. We programmed our targets and and I looked over at Buzz.
"You know the shopkeeper well?"
"Yeah, believe it or not, he was one of Sloth's top double agents twenty years ago. As Parlax has proved, not all Grundos are squarely anti-Sloth. Some of them are very willing to serve the good doctor out of ambition and not out of fear of winding up a pile of sludge on the floor of his office. That little rat who happens to be his top aide plays it up, but he's where he is because he wants to be. Sloth would never get rid of him; he's too conniving and useful," Buzz told me.
"605?" I asked, unable to believe what I was hearing.
"Yes, that's his number," Buzz said. "I'm guessing you know him."
"That little pile of slorg slime!" I shouted. "I'm going to kill him next time I see him."
Buzz started snickering cruelly and I threw him a glare. "You couldn't have mentioned this years ago?"
"The topic never came up," he said with a shrug.
"That little creep has been playing me for a fool for years! I honestly believed- oh, there will be a reckoning, I swear," I said through gritted teeth.
Buzz's grin was so smug it was infuriating. I took my newfound angst out on the target. After I minute I stopped and looked at the results of my shots. I was glad to see I had not gotten rusty. Buzz was still far better than I, but I knew to expect that. After a few hours of that, and making small talk between waiting for new targets to be set up, we decided to go for lunch. After that, we'd come back to do my shopping, and then go back to Neopia Central. By that point it would be late afternoon, and the day would effectively be over.
We walked to Grundo's Cafe. The cafe was decorated for Valentines Day; it was very overwhelming as it was trying way too hard. We walked up to the counter and Buzz raised an eyebrow and asked Gargarox, "Really?"
"Don't give me that, Buzz," Gargarox muttered. "Upper management says to decorate for all of the holidays, and we do. It's sickening, but I don't need flack from you too. Order your food and go sit in the corner where it isn't so bad. Who is the human?"
"A business associate," Buzz replied nonchalantly.
Gargarox muttered something about not wanting to know anything more, so we ordered and then took a seat at a table near the window.
"Anyone here you don't know well?" I asked.
"I lived here for twenty something years," Buzz replied with a shrug. "If they were here prior to my leaving, they know me."
Our food came and we ate in silence. The food from Grundo's Cafe was much more edible than from other places on the station, which I was grateful for. Living on the station was a nightmare if you had standards when it came to food. We ate in silence for a while. I caught Buzz staring out a window into the vastness of space.
"Do you really never miss it?" I asked.
"No. Space is simply a place. Places are transitory; they aren't important. I miss what I had when this was the place I was in. Still, my life isn't one long tragedy. What I lost helped me to gain things I didn't know I was missing," he said.
It always marveled me how calmly Buzz could talk about such things. How easily such a cold man could open up and show a side of him I could never have expected to find when I had first met him years ago. I didn't ask him what he had found. If he wanted to tell me, he would.
He smirked over at me and I asked what he was thinking.
"Did you ask me here because you were afraid I was going to spend Valentines Day wallowing in misery?"
"Of course not," I snorted. "You're the least sentimental person on the planet or outside of it. Even if you were going to be wallowing in misery, it wouldn't be prompted by a holiday designed to sell chocolate. Like it or not, I like you. Is that really so hard to understand?"
"It is. I've gone well out of my way to make your life miserable because of a prejudice against everyone in general, and because I believed you were the most ridiculously unsuitable person for the job you were assigned. In spite of that, you've always turned around and done whatever I've asked of you, for no personal gain."
I tried to cut him off with random observations about the cafe goers. I hated it when he did this; I'd heard it once, and that had been enough. I hadn't done it to humble him, and I didn't want him to bring it up ever again.
He snickered, his smile still sarcastic. "I know you know this well, but you're in the wrong line of work, Kristy."
"Life is hilarious in its irony," I replied, sipping my drink.
"It is," he agreed. "It threw me two people I absolutely misjudged on first acquaintance to have to partner with. One who was the other half of my soul, and the other to be my best friend. I'm not a good person, and I didn't deserve either of them, but they were sent anyway and they made me a better person than I like against my will."
I felt something like an electric shock go through me at hearing him say that. I kept my eyes straight ahead and took another sip of my drink, no emotions betrayed in my demeanor.
"There really is nothing wrong with a house in the suburbs and open doors," I said simply. "And, it might be one of life's ironies that you've been trying to be worse than you are and it simply won't let you be."
He snorted and his smirk became slightly more sarcastic. "I see your point and ignore it blatantly."
I chuckled and shook my head, turnabout was fair play. I did not banish the smile completely, but I did not look over at him again until it we both finished our meals. It was enough, the one open door. He might never say it again, but once was enough. It was the best Valentines Day I had ever had.