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Eight hours later, it was 6 p.m. and it was January 16, 2009.
In some ways it seemed like we had been working for 16 days straight, and in other ways it seemed like we'd only been there for an hour or two. I had been so absorbed in the process of getting information to Kaitlyn that I had no idea it was even getting close to 6:00 until a fifteen-minute countdown started flashing in the lower-right corner of my screen.
Things hadn't gone nearly as badly as either of us had feared, although it certainly hadn't been a perfect day. I didn't know if Kaitlyn was still upset about Sunday's training disaster or if she was just too used to being an apprentice, but she had gone from being a tyrant to being too deferential. She had apologized at least twice for asking me for new information while I was looking up something else, and she'd had obvious trouble asking me to clarify anything.
We had also gotten tangled up a couple times when she slipped into the linguistic shorthand that she and Yi had developed during all their years together. At one point, she had asked for a "route update", and I hadn't had the first clue what she was talking about. She quickly pointed me to a saved search that tracked global food distribution, but that had happened two or three more times during the day.
I hadn't helped by trying to do everything at warp speed. I made a couple silly mistakes in the morning because I was trying to get her data before she had finished asking for it or trying to anticipate what she wanted. Kaitlyn had solved that problem with one sentence that had echoed something my father taught me when I was 11 years old.
"Michael, relax," she had said. "Stop trying to do everything before I ask."
My reply had only been a muttered "OK", but it had helped. I hadn't achieved my athletic success because I was the fastest player or the strongest. I couldn't make a ball do tricks like David Beckham, and most high-school players were better at heading the ball, but everyone raved about my ability to slow down a game. I could keep the ball for an extra half-second and find a better pass that someone who tried to keep everything moving at 100 miles an hour. My dad had been a point guard in college and, while I didn't inherit his jump shot, I did learn how to read a game.
Being an assistant god was about as far from a soccer game as you could get, but there were a few things that I could use. I started taking a few extra seconds to make sure that I knew exactly what Kaitlyn wanted, and that I was giving her exactly what she needed. By the end of the day, things were surprisingly smooth and I was getting vaguely into the flow of things.
When the timer reached zero, everything froze instantly. I had been sending Kaitlyn a list of South American food shortages caused by the war between Venezuela and Colombia, and the transmission stopped in the middle of a word. Apparently, when it was time to put down your pencil here, you couldn't steal a few extra seconds.
Once I realized that the system had shut down, I flipped back my hood. Just about everyone else in the room was already out of their robes, having known that the buzzer was the end of the day.
I shrugged out of my robe, and realized that I was soaked in sweat despite the unnaturally light material. I hadn't left my chair in hours, but I felt like I had just played a World Cup match. I looked at Kaitlyn and realized it hadn't just been me - she looked shattered as she slumped in her seat.
I stood up and stretched, and by the time I had done that, Ny, Zara and Talora had surrounded Kaitlyn, providing hugs and what I suspected were encouraging words. My embrace came from Chantel, along with an enthusiastic "You guys were great!"
We stayed like that until Kaitlyn tapped Chantel on the shoulder and asked if she could cut in. Chantel said "Of course, Goddess" and stepped back. I was expecting Kaitlyn to hug me, but instead she wrapped her arms around her Cajun buddy. I felt vaguely foolish, having forgotten that, while they both seemed to adore me, they had been close friends for a lot longer.
After a few seconds, Kaitlyn glanced over at me with a quizzical look on her face.
"Are you waiting for something," she asked, arm still wrapped around Chantel's shoulders.
I started to reply, but her face gave her away. She started giggling and hugged me.
"You were great," she whispered while kissing me on the cheek. "Thank you so much."
Zara's voice broke in before I could say anything.
"OK, as much as I hate to break up this lovefest, I believe that a certain Harvest Goddess owes several of us a steak dinner. Seven o'clock in the quiet lounge."
"The quiet lounge?" teased Talora, who, to my chagrin, "spoke" English with the same silly accent as Ziva on NCIS. "You guys become goddesses and you get old and dull!"
Zara grinned wickedly.
"I didn't say we were staying there. Dress to party."
Kaitlyn groaned softly.
"I do need to sleep again some time, you know."
This time, it was Ny who spoke up with the same teasing tone.
"Hey, it isn't our fault you stayed up all night bopping your new boy-toy. You knew what was going to happen tonight. Suck it up, rookie."
Kaitlyn threw up her hands in mock surrender.
"Yes, mommy. Can I at least bring a date?"
"Of course, but you know the rule. Not him," Ny said, gesturing to me.
"I know. Besides, Chan is going to slit my throat if I don't stop hogging him."
"Very true," agreed Chantel.
I raised my hand.
"Do I get any say in this at all?"
"No!" said five voices simultaneously.
"OK. I was just checking."
Zara reached over and patted my shoulder.
"Don't worry, babe. We're harmless after the first few weeks. Now go get a shower and dress nicely for the party."
With that, the group dispersed, and I quickly found myself back in my room. I mostly wanted to fall into bed, but the night was apparently still young, so I took a very hot shower and finished it with 30 seconds of ice-cold water. That woke me up, and I was able to keep from actually screaming in pain.
My inner voice told me that I should pick out an outfit that would complement my date, but I had no idea what color that would be, so I went with black. That always seemed safe.
About 20 seconds after I finished pulling on my shoes, I heard a chime and a voice.
"Are you decent?"
"Too bad," said Chantel as she came in. She was wearing a emerald dress and her hair had developed soft waves.
"Wow," I said, rather lamely.
"Not bad, eh? I had to do something to draw your attention away from Miss Ireland 1870."
I thought for a second, trying to pick my words carefully.
"Are you two always this, I don't know, competitive?"
"Oh, cheri, you haven't seen anything yet. Wait until Zara, Ny and Tala get going."
I shook my head.
"Am I actually going to be auctioned off at some point?"
She laughed again, but her face showed that she was taking things a little more seriously.
"No, Michael. No one will ever ask you to do anything you don't want to do, or, for that matter, anyone you don't want to do. But there's a couple different things going on here."
I nodded, but didn't say anything.
"First, like I told you a couple days ago, we party hard here. There's a lot of stress, and we're pretty desperate to find ways to break the tension."
"Yeah, I can see that," I said.
"After today, I'm sure you can. This is one of our harmless games - try to wow the new guy in town."
This was getting a little weird. I'd seen some crazy things during my life - I had been a professional athlete, after all - but nothing quite this blatant.
"Doesn't that lead to a lot of hard feelings?"
"It could," she acknowledged. "That's why one of us gives this speech pretty early in the process. I think it was Zara who gave Claudio the speech, and your dear Katie who did it for Alek."
"They didn't mind being the trophy in a contest?"
"Not after they realized two things."
"The important thing is that we can't afford to have serious relationships here."
"Because, even with all the rules about never taking personal issues into the Chamber, we're still human beings. We might be immortal and immune to disease and able to screw like rabbits without any risk, but we're still human inside."
"Remember, Katie picked you out of six billion people. It would be a little much to expect her not to be interested in you, but you two still have to work together. That's what Ny meant about there being a rule against her bringing you as her date tonight. The two of you falling head over heels in love wouldn't be all that helpful to anyone."
"OK, I can see that."
"Besides, you're both under a lot of stress right now. She's got a rather important new job and you are freshly dead. The last thing either of you needs to be dealing with is relationship angst."
"Makes sense, I guess. But you said there were two things that Alec and Claudio realized."
"Yeah. Isn't the second one obvious?"
Her smile lit up the room.
"Most guys don't have too much of a problem with the idea of five gorgeous, intelligent, funny women fighting over them, especially when all five are immortal."
"OK, you do have a point there."
"Glad you see it my way. Now can we go to dinner?"
That sounded good to me. I offered her my arm, and we made our way to the lounge.
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