Prisons had receptionists. A stocky, uniformed receptionist, who probably had another job title and would be horribly offended by the word “receptionist,” but still. There was a waiting room, a desk, and a person behind the desk asking about appointments and informing them, in a longsuffering voice, of inconvenient rules for people who had perfectly legitimate reasons to go inside. Nick supposed he shouldn’t really be surprised.
“We do not allow visitors at night,” the not-receptionist said. “Hours are between ten and two, and unless you are part of the prisoner’s legal representation you must arrange the visit at least one day in advance.”
“Could I set up a visit for tomorrow at ten?”
“Yes, sir, that would be perfectly all right.” Although they had only been speaking for a minute at most, the receptionist spoke with the tone of someone who had just gotten through to a simpleton.
Nick gave his name and identification, then tried to leave. He paused at the doors, feeling a restlessness tug at him. “Is it all right if I just wait here?”
“Yes. Is that against the rules?”
The receptionist frowned. “It’s… not appreciated.”
“But not forbidden.”
“I don’t know. Honestly, I’ve never heard anybody ask before.”
“So it’s all right,” Nick decided, and slung his jacket on the side of a chair, just to make it clear that unless they could show him something in a rulebook, this conversation was over.
Yessenia raised her eyebrows at him. “You really want me to just leave you here?”
“I really do.” Because she seemed to need more explanation, he added, “it will keep me from chickening out.”
“Well, all right then. I’ll be back for you in the morning.”
“You don’t have to-”
“I’ll be back. For you. In the morning.”
He shook her hand, and she gave him a kiss on the cheek before leaving.
Nick woke up on a bench, with his room keys digging into his hip and his neck sore from the inadequate pillow he had made from his folded up jacket. The inside of his mouth felt gummy. His stomach hurt. Morning stubble was scratching unpleasantly. The raw disease of waking up this way was a sharp reminder that he had somehow regained the ability to feel things, and even in his groggy daze, he could focus on that little bright side.
The clock on the wall said it was seven o’clock, and part of Nick, most of Nick, wished he could just sleep like a bum until it was time for his visit. But the light was streaming in through the windows and people were coming in and out, so he was better off resigning himself to being awake.
In the bathroom, he scrubbed his face and put his hair under the running faucet. He swished water in his mouth over and over again, until it felt like the inside of a mouth again and not the bottom of someone’s shoe. On his way back to the waiting room, he found a vending machine, and made a breakfast of a candy bar and some coffee begged from the new not-receptionist. Then he found an old newspaper stuffed under a seat, with the crossword only half done. He was terrible at crosswords, which was good, because it was the only thing he had to do for the remaining two hours and thirty-seven minutes.
Time crawled, and then suddenly he was called and it began to spin. More paperwork, lists of rules, searches of his pockets and his shoes, and a long walk through a maze of corridors, all the way to the wing where Empowereds were kept. And then he was alone in a barred room with Matteo.
The funny thing about Matteo’s pointed, elfin face was that every time he smiled, it looked like a different expression. Like his cheeks, trying to find their way around his jaw and cheekbones, never remembered whether they were supposed to dimple once or twice or just create deep lines framing his teeth. His smiles were like lazy schoolboys, interrupted just as they were nodding off in the sun, scrambling to put themselves in order.
“I was hoping it was you,” Matteo said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you again, but when they said I had a visitor, I hoped.”
Nick sat down across from him. “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner.”
“No, I mean, I really didn’t expect you to. You’d have been perfectly justified if… well… anyway, you didn’t have to come.”
“‘Cause you figure I blame you.”
“It seems to be the popular conclusion.”
“I’ve seen guys with a lot less experience make worse decisions for worse reasons. That’s not the reason I stayed away.”
“Well, what is, then?”
“Because, unlike you, I’m having trouble deciding what to be loyal to.”
Matteo was quiet. Coming from him, that seemed like a statement in and of itself. Nick let himself keep talking.
“I think loyalties make things easier, when nobody is to blame. Or when everybody is a little bit to blame. Or when nobody knows for sure. If you’re loyal, you can decide you forgive everyone on the inside of your circle, and damn everyone outside. It’s not always fair, but sometimes it’s necessary. Blame can tear a team apart. Loyalty lets you put that blame where it binds you together instead. That bond can save your life next time around.”
“I can see that,” Matteo said. He laughed a bit. “Now I see why I always preferred to be alone.”
“And why, sooner or later, everybody wants your head on their wall.”
“Yes, I really must do something about that, one of these days.”
Nick was able to smile a little bit. “Here’s my problem. I’ve lost people. Maybe I’ll tell you more about that someday. For now, let’s just say I don’t make friends anymore. I’m part of the team, but that’s not the same. More like we’re all part of the same body. There’s parts of your body you like and parts you maybe don’t so much. But ultimately, how you feel about them doesn’t matter. You’d fight to keep any part of you safe, and you’d hate to see any part lopped off. Even so, losing a piece of yourself is never gonna be as bad as losing a friend. Not for me, at least. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
“Then you come along. You’re not a part of the team. Never could have been, even if we had all gotten along. The only thing you could have been to me was a friend. And goddamn you, somehow you were.”
Matteo broke into another of those face-shifting grins. “The feeling is entirely mutual.”
“So how can I forgive you, and still be a part of my team?”
Matteo’s face fell, and it broke Nick’s heart. Nick didn’t speak. He’d already expressed more in a few minutes than he normally did in an entire day. It was Matteo’s turn. When Matteo took it, his voice was practically a whisper, but Nick caught it anyway.
“I’d never ask you to.”
Nick sighed. “Well, I’m going to anyway.”
The smile was back, making triple lines around his mouth. Nick returned the smile, smaller and softer on his own face, but without any reservations.
“So, how often do they let you have visitors?”
“I don’t know. None of us thought it would come up.”
“I’ll see if I can come back tomorrow. If not, I’ll come as often as I can.” He began to rise.
“In the interest of being open,” Matteo said. “I don’t know if you’ve heard the news. Let’s just say I might not be a problem for your team for long.”
Nick nodded. “I heard. You worried?”
“Oh, petrified. In a ‘I figured this would happen sooner or later,’ sort of way.”
“Well, you never know. There’s already a petition for your pardon.”
“Is there? That’s genuinely surprising.” He raised a finger. “You had better sign it.”
“You better not die.”
Matteo raised his arms helplessly. “The matter seems more or less out of my hands.”
“No excuses, asshole. Don’t die, or I’ll beat your ass.”