She obviously didn’t hear his response for she was already off picturing herself kicking down the Rewriter’s stupid red door and kicking his ass. She hated people like him. People who used other people. People who controlled and manipulated other people. She found them so pathetic and weak. Not strong enough to get what they needed themselves. Using others kindness, they were the shit on her shoes. And she couldn’t wait to use this newly acquired charge of power to teach him a lesson. They’d march in there and make him stop. She’d be wearing an amazing leather catsuit, and be looking totally badass. She could see herself doing roundhouse kicks and totally kicking ass. She’d shut him down—with flare. Her imagination made her smile.
“I thought you’d object, Stella, but it’s great to see you smile. I’m glad we agree on this.”
That brought her back. “Agree on what?”
“Not doing anything.”
“Wha? We didn’t agree on that.” She could hear her voice rising and she didn’t care. “We need to do something. What this guy is doing is wrong. He shouldn’t be allowed to use people the way he is. He has to be stopped. We have to stop him. To just walk away would be… selfish, horrible, and I refuse. What was the point of me saving you if you’re not going to help me?” The imaginary her had stopped doing her roundhouse kicks.
“I don’t know.” It bothered her, like really bothered her, this was all he had to say in response.
“Did you know that they took my underwear? They undressed me without my consent. That is not okay. That is really not fucking okay.” Her voice came out angrier and more pinched than she thought it would. “I’m going to do something about this whether you join me or not.” Imaginary her started doing roundhouse kicks again.
Noam surveyed her calmly, “What is your job exactly, Stella?”
Was this a rhetorical question? She wanted to respond and say something smart. She prided herself on her quick mind and her ability to verbally best whomever she was conversing with. But she got a sense that if she did this time, she might not win. So she stayed quiet and waited for him to continue, as she figured he would.
“So you don’t know either. I don’t know why you are here either. I’ve been trying to figure out why you are here and now I can understand my confusion. You have no idea why you’re purposeful here, so how am I to? I’ve been doing fine for years without any help and I’ve been more than welcoming to you. But you seem focused on needing to disagree with me, which is really annoying. So, until you figure out how you are of value, just keep quiet and observe. There’s lots I can teach you.”
Her imaginary badass self went POOF in her mind. How dare he tell her what to do! This is what her mind screamed, or was it her ego? Her level of pissed-offness sky-rocketed and she couldn’t help the mess of words that tumbled out as a result. “So, you care about nothing and no one outside of your adventures? It makes no difference to you that you have been manipulated and used against your will? You don’t care about all the people he’s brainwashing and controlling the lives of? That’s all just cool with you? And it is suppose to be cool with me too, because you say so? Is that right? Is that what I am to understand? That I just need to fall in line with whatever you say? If you are so smart, why did the Academy send me here? I doubt it’s because you’ve been doing a flawless job, and they’re so happy with you work. Have you considered perhaps that you have something to learn from me? I’m sure your giant ego has never considered that fact — that perhaps you are the one that has something to learn.” She crossed her arms across her body, widening her stance, preparing herself for his reaction.
Noam didn’t speak. He just stood there with that stupid, smug smirk upon his face. She could feel her anger simmering the longer he stood looking at her, not speaking. She didn’t even want to be here! She didn’t want to do what the Academy said, and now the thought of having to do what Noam said was too much for her. She squinted her eyes into her best contemptuous glare and with a simple “Fuck you,” walked into the bathroom and out of the conversation.
Did she mean to escalate the situation? Perhaps. Did she mean to end the conflict? Absolutely not. She hated this guy, and the last thing she cared about was harmony. All that she wanted was for him to know that he didn’t have any power over her. Stella could feel him behind her now. She was facing the wall of the bathroom (which probably looked kinda weird) because she didn’t want to catch sight of him out of any parts of her eye. And here he was, annoyingly standing behind her, not leaving her alone. He didn’t speak or move until she turned around to face him.
“Yes?” She meant to say it coolly but it came out as more of a hiss. She couldn’t look at him.
“We can’t fix this, Stellah.” He said it matter-of-factly. It felt like challenge.
“Excuse me,” she replied, pushing past him, focused on not making eye contact. She headed back into the bedroom of her hotel room.
“Stella. Leigh. I will say it again,” his voice rang from the bathroom. “We can not fix this.” The monotone of it made her want to scratch his eyes out. She hated how emotionlessly he told her not to help. “You may not fix this, Stella. That’s an order.”
She started to laugh, a mocking laugh. She made eye contact with him again and defiantly stared at him in the bathroom. Her laughter continued.
It wasn’t long before he broke eye contact with her, dropping his head. Cockily, she took this to mean she had won the battle, and dropping her guard for a moment, she was damn surprised when Noam lifted his head, a strange strained smile on his face and his eyes burning with rage. She had got what she wanted. She had finally pissed him off.
He walked quickly towards her and she was almost intimidated by the focus he held while he did so. He stopped right in front of her face, and she felt the need to take a big step backwards, away from him. Forgetting the bed behind her, she lost her balance and fell clumsily onto it.
Noam was now standing over her, filling the space she had tried to claim for herself unsuccessfully. Stella stayed where she was, on her back staring up at him. She felt unwilling to challenge the space despite how vulnerable she felt lying there on the bed with him towering over her.
Noam moved so that his knees were pressing into her knees that were hanging off the bed. He was smiling now, for her had made it harder for her to get up, and easier for him to dominate her. He spoke, his eyes sparkling with fire, “You will not try to fix this, Stella. That is not what we do. And until you understand what we do, I suggest you stop deciding that you know what’s best. You don’t.” He said nothing more but continued to stare sown at her, daring her to challenge him or the space in between them.
Holding his gaze, she took a breath. She knew she was too angry for her own good right now. But this guy was driving her crazy. A million emotions were ripping through her, some she quickly discounted while others she attached to. She would not let him win.
She kept breathing. And glaring. Her nose flaring with each exhale she took. She did this until she felt like she could speak again, without her emotions tricking her up too much. She found a productive response and used it, “Why?” It wasn’t a huge improvement in her communication but it was something not entirely hostile.
Noam didn’t respond. He continued to stare down at her, unmoving and now, unblinking. Stella wondered if he had heard her, but before she could repeat herself (in a louder voice, no doubt), he responded. “It’s not my job to save people, Stella. That’s why.”
“What is your job exactly, Noam?” She challenged him back. She was starting to get tired of how he always talked about himself only. It was like he was allergic to the word ‘we’. “These people need our help. The Rewriter is taking advantage of them, and we seem to be the only people who were able to escape his clutches. So, as I see it, it’s our responsibility to help. And there’s not much you can say that will change my mind.”
Noam shrugged his shoulders, shrugging off her words. He seemed less than interested in her point of view. And, predictably, that made her more angry.
“Fine, Noam.” Defiantly, Stella thrust herself upwards towards Noam, wanting to get off the bed, but really she found herself thrusting towards his stomach. She threw her right hand out towards Noam at the last moment when she realized he wasn’t going to move, or help her to get up. She used a flat palm, intending to shove him away from her. Imagine her surprise when her ill-fated shove found her bouncing off his stomach (which felt ridiculously elastic) and falling back on the bed, bouncing a bit with her first land. Despite her anger, she began to laugh. It was seriously funny what had just happened. And if there was anything true about Stella, once you saw past the sass and the toughness, was a person who loved to laugh. It was something she treasured most about herself.
And so she laughed. At herself for being back flat on her back, at how solid Noam was, at the fact that she thought she could shove him so easily, and at how she wasn’t so angry any more. So she kept laughing, covering her face with her hands and perhaps snorting a tad. As her laughs subsided, she noticed that she wasn’t the only one in on the joke. Noam was laughing too. She smiled at him and laughed harder, feeling the contagiousness laugher can create. She kept picturing herself, like a capital T, bouncing back and forth off Noam’s stomach and the bed.
Noam sat down on the bed sometime during her laughing fit, and realizing her legs were now free, she sat up. They were basically sitting side by side each other, and they looked at each other, realizing this, and slowly their shared laughter came to an awkward end. Unsure of what to do if they weren’t arguing or laughing, they sat there silently. He was really looking into her eyes, and it was kinda making her uncomfortable, so she blurt out something, anything really, to end the intimate, wordless exchange that was charging the air.
“I like your poster,” was what came out, and it gave her reason to look away from him and towards his room, and the poster.
When she looked back he was still looking at her, and with the faintest of smiles, he replied, “Thanks.”
She stood up, needing to get further away from him. She started to walk away from the bed and felt Noam gently grab her arm, signaling silently for her to stop. So she did. But she didn’t turn to face him again until he spoke a moment later.
“Stella, I’m sorry. I’m not very good at this. I’ve never shared my adventures with anyone else before. I’m not used to making decisions with another person, or acknowledging their opinions. Usually I just do what I want. I really don’t know what to say to you…” He trailed off… lost in his thoughts.
For the first time since she’d met him, she felt a genuine connection to him. She could feel that he was a better person than she had been letting herself see. She removed her arm from Noam’s warm grip and sat back down on the bed, being careful to leave a healthy space between him and her.
“It’s okay. I don’t know how to do this either.” She felt her guard drop slightly with this honest revelation. She’d never been outside America before, she’d never had an assignment from the Academy before, and she’d never worked in a partnership before… So she knew what he meant. This was new for her too.
“Can I admit something to you?”
For a moment Stella felt afraid of what she might hear, but she encouraged him despite this. “Sure.”
“I’m pretty sure I never know or have known what I’m doing. Even after four years of adventuring, I still feel like I don’t have a grip on things. I’m starting to think that knowing what to do isn’t actually real. I mean how can I know what to do in a situation I’ve never been in before? How can I know for sure that my perspective is right? I don’t know if I can. I think the best I can do is trust what feels right, without a reason why. I just trust my instincts and hope for the best. Am I making sense?”
He did. What he said made perfect sense. She’d never thought about it like that before but she knew she believed in her intuition. It was the best tool she had in making any decision. And so for the first time, Stella found herself agreeing with Noam.
“Can I ask you then, Stella, what does your instincts say about the Rewriter?”
She considered that. What did her instincts say? She was and had been so angry at Noam and at everything that had happened to her since she’d met him that she hadn’t been able to check in with herself. And as she sat there, trying to connect with that part of herself, she was filled with thoughts of everything that had happened to her recently, and how shitty it had been. And so she quickly concluded aloud that her intuition told her to “Stop this fucking bastard.”
A look of disappointment crossed instantly over Noam’s hopeful face, and his briefly appearing smile disappeared. He recovered quickly from his disappointment, replacing his hope with a cool exterior. With an exaggerated sigh, he replied, “I’m not going to do that, Stella.”
That stung. She got up off the bed and headed away from him. She needed distance. She felt overwhelmed with their relationship, with how badly it wasn’t working. The way she knew to improve relationships was to withdraw from them. Her face felt hot. She had nowhere to go. They were in her room. She wanted to him to leave. She turned her back to him and silently wished for his exit.
“I have an idea, Stella. A compromise, perhaps. What if we tell people what and who the Rewriter is? What if what we do is share the truth? Would that work for you?”
She could hear him smiling, and while the idea didn’t suck, she didn’t like hearing his smugness over it. So she replied, “Fine.” And then, without turning around to face him, asked him to leave.
Without a beat, she could hear him rise, and out of the room. “We can talk more about this tomorrow. In the meantime, I think we both need some rest.” He didn’t wait for her to respond. The shared door closed between them. She snorted to herself. What a fucking bossy asshole.