By: Allison Akers

“Do you really have to babysit me?” Ben slammed the door to his fluorescent orange sports car, watching as Lark slicked back his hair in the sun visor mirror. He had hoped the location alone would get Lark off his back. A dingy place called “Sam’s Diner” in the middle of nowhere-Oregon was beneath the corporate offices and yachts Lark was used to, not to mention they’d driven two and a half hours to meet Ben’s client. Under normal circumstances, he supposed it would be enough to send Lark packing.

No such luck today.

“I wouldn’t have to, if Their Majesties could trust you,” Lark said, finally stepping out and cracking his back. A silver briefcase swung by his side. “You haven’t had a successful deal in months.”

“So? I’ve been in a funk.”

Lark narrowed his eyes. He slammed the passenger side door, wrinkled his nose at Ben’s car, and led them inside the diner. A bell jingled overhead as they walked in, alerting a waitress nearby. She scurried over to them.

“How may I…” The waitress fumbled, seeing the silver briefcase and its infinity symbol. Lark’s grip tightened on the case and jerked his head to one side. The waitress hurried off. 

At a table towards the back of the diner, Ben noticed a stout, middle-aged woman staring at them: his client. Before Ben could take his eyes away, suggest maybe she’d cancelled their appointment, Lark noticed her and elbowed Ben, who gritted his teeth. They walked to the woman’s table and slid into the booth across from the her with Lark boxing in Ben. The cushion underneath them crumpled like rotten Styrofoam. 

“Mrs. Caroline Collins?” Lark asked, cracking a smile.

“That’s me,” she said. Caroline’s eyes flitted between the two of them, like she was watching a game of ping-pong. She pulled a mug of coffee closer. Ben noticed her right hand had a grayish tint. “I didn’t know there would be two of you. Or—is he human?” She nodded at Ben.

Ben took that question with a bit of pride. He’d worked hard to make his human disguise approachable. He certainly didn’t look like a lawyer with a stick up his ass like Lark. He tried to go with an average, college-guy approach; it helped keep attention off him and protected the people around him. One look at his or Lark’s true forms would send any mortal into cardiac arrest, and while Lark would find that funny, Ben wouldn’t.

Lark put his arm around Ben, clapping his shoulder and chuckling, “No, Ben’s all Fate. Served under The Royal Three with me before Ancient Greece, if you can believe it. I decided to tag along and keep him company. I’ll let him take over from here.” 

Ben felt needle points pressing into his skin from Lark’s nails. He forced a smile and shook Caroline’s hand. “Benjamin Porter, Fate Incorporated. Bending time and space since 2002 for your wildest dreams to come true. What can I help you with today, Mrs. Collins?”

Caroline raised her coffee mug to her lips. It clattered on the table as she set it down. “My son—he was hit by a car a week ago—” Tears welled in her eyes and she wiped them on her jacket’s sleeve. Lark expertly took a packet of tissues from his pocket and offered one to her. Ben tried to ignore the way his coworker’s eyes glittered and how the corners of his mouth twitched. Caroline didn’t notice and continued, “He’s been comatose since. Is there anything you can do?”

“Well, yes,” Ben started, “But he might recover on his own.”

“Might being the key word,” Lark said. He shared a look with Ben, one that said Ben better keep his thoughts to himself and stick with the script. Fate Inc. wasn’t a charity. The Royal Three and their subjects had a job to do, an order to keep each time humans asked them to tinker with time. Fates selected favorable individuals in their good graces, who made the most persuasive appeals—so they said. “Why don’t you take a look at her threads?” Lark set the briefcase on the table and clicked open the locks. He slid it over to Ben, who suppressed a sigh and opened it.

Inside was a mirror-like surface with strands of white, glowing tendrils writhing across it. The other diner patrons noticed the radiating light of the suitcase and stared at Ben like he had a million-dollar check. It was a desperation and hunger he’d seen around the world, wherever he or other Fates went. It broke his heart. Still, he wasn’t about to let Lark know that, so he kept his face expressionless. The human-like covering for his eyes sizzled off to reveal fiery, silver stars, and matching claws pushed through the tips of his fingers. Ben delicately lifted one of the white strands from the mirror. Lark and Caroline studied it.

“Well, what do you see?” Lark asked.

Ben shook his head. He wished he was lying. “Your son won’t make it, Mrs. Collins. Not in the current timeline.”

“But you can fix it,” Caroline pressed.

“For a price.” Lark peered over his nose at Caroline’s stiff, gray hand before taking it in his own. “Hm. This is unnatural paralysis. You’ve been a client with us before?” 

Caroline nodded, although she kept her gaze fixed on the table. “To keep my marriage together.”

“Fancy that. This looks like Lux’s work. Don’t you think, Ben?”

Ben nodded. 

Lark turned over Caroline’s hand a few times. He patted it. “I’m afraid a life is going to cost more than a bad marriage, Mrs. Collins. Let’s say—to restore your son’s health with no side effects—terminal cancer for yourself?” Caroline gasped and Ben glanced at Lark. The pupils of Lark’s eyes rippled silver. “What do you think, Ben? Fair trade?”

Caroline turned her attention to Ben. She had clasped her good hand on top of her bad one, as if praying for a second opinion. If Lark wasn’t here, Ben would have given her a stubbed toe or even a free pass in exchange.

But both their necks were on the line. And Ben wasn’t about to lose his.

He nodded.

Lark continued, “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Mrs. Collins. Do we still have a deal?” Caroline, tears streaming down her face, nodded. “Get to it, Ben.”

Ben gathered the strands of time between his claws, snipping and rewiring them. Each strand offered glimpses of strangers, births, deaths—all affected by saving Caroline’s son. Ben tried not to think about it. The problems he caused others by reworking the timeline just meant more work for Fates. More lives to toy with. To destroy.   

Ben took the cancer thread, hesitating for a moment before he fused it to another. He hoped Lark wouldn’t check the threads. He did give Caroline cancer, but not until she was ninety. They’d never specified a time frame. Ben couldn’t be faulted for that.

He hoped.

When he was done, Ben retracted his claws and his eyes changed back to their human appearance. He and Lark gave some last, consoling words to Caroline and exited the diner after Lark had passed out his business card to curious patrons. Ben had already tossed the briefcase in the backseat when Lark stepped out of the diner, letting the screen door clatter behind him.

“I see why you like the little cases, Ben. Not quite as thrilling as toppling governments and rigging elections—” Lark grinned, letting Ben see the rows of his razor-like teeth. “—but certainly more personal.”

“I guess.”

“They’re so gullible.” Lark leaned over and rested his arms on the hood of Ben’s car. “It’s like slow-boiling frogs. They don’t know they’re dead until it’s too late.”

Ben clenched the car door handle, his claws scratching the paint. He flinched and retracted them quickly.

Lark locked eyes with him. “Careful.”

“Lark—” Ben started. His throat closed and he looked towards the diner, to Caroline crying inside, and then to the forest behind him. He wondered if he could run for it. Or teleport. Be anywhere except here and on this miserable planet doing this miserable job. He stepped back from the car and Lark raised himself slightly. They gazed at each other. Lark shook his head almost imperceptibly. 

No matter that wide, worried look in Lark’s eyes, he’d catch Ben if he ran. Kill him.

Ben put his head in his hand.

“If we keep this up, there won’t be so many of them in a few years,” Lark tried. He lowered his voice, “We’ll be able to take off our disguises. Live on Earth peacefully. Alone. You’ll like that, right?”

Ben didn’t reply. He smiled and hoped that was enough.

Seemingly satisfied, Lark drummed his hands twice on the car roof and smiled back. “Let’s get to the next one. At least when I’m in your car I don’t have to look at its obnoxious color.” He hopped into the passenger’s seat and Ben climbed in the driver’s side. 

They sped off.