Jake silently led Almighty Z, who was feeling rather drained, up staircase after familiar staircase. Eventually, Z figured out where they were going. She didn’t protest, though when they stepped out onto the small balcony garden off one of the west towers, even though she was expecting to see it, she gasped softly in surprise.
It was shaded by a lattice of stone, held up by columns. Everything was wrapped in overgrown, thorny rose bushes, which had climbed up the pillars, up the castle wall, and across the ceiling. Thanks to ZIP, who was standing guard inside, the rain stopped falling directly above the balcony and the water on it dried up, as if they were an oasis island the moment before multiple hurricanes struck from every direction.
Z broke away from Jake to walk around a little, running her fingers across the simple stone bench, the ivy, the roses, the gothic flowers in shades of black, purple, white and red, long-ignored memories flooding back to her all the while.
She stopped at one pot and picked a purple-black tulip with velvety petals. She then stood at the front of the balcony, looking out into the storm, delicately twirling the flower in between her fingers. Jake came up beside her.
“I forgot about this place,” she said, nearly inaudible over the storm. “It hasn’t changed much.” Despite being much more overgrown, it still held the same intricate, elegant beauty it’d always had.
“I found it ages ago,” Jake said, just as quietly.
She turned her head to see him looking straight forward. “Really? Why didn’t you tell me?”
He gave a half shrug. “I assumed it was yours and figured you had a reason for leaving it.”
She studied the flower. He wasn’t wrong. “Why did you bring me back then?”
“I don’t know.” This time he was the one looking when she wasn’t. “It kind of just seemed like the right place to be.”
She laughed a little.
“Something funny?” Jake asked, giving a slight smile.
“Not really,” she said. “Just...the timing is kind of ironic.”
“How?” Jake asked.
“It’s a long story...” Z said, trailing off. “Mostly ancient history.”
“I have time,” Jake said.
She studied him carefully for a second. “Are you sure?” she asked.
She sighed. “I guess I’ll start at the beginning. Once upon a time there was me. And it was just me for a long time, but eventually, over the course of a long time, other people started joining my ZORG and I until the castle and the ZORG ran much as it does now, mostly drones, but some humans for the creative stuff that drones weren’t all that good at because of their limited thinking capacity. So it was me, Malice on weapon design, Agent Z as a strategist, before she became an agent, and Josh as head of security, in the beginning.”
“Josh?” Jake asked. “Like...Creep?”
Almighty Z nodded and continued, picking at the petals on her flower. “So we were all a team and all good friends, but Josh and I were especially close. We actually grew up together on Earth and he’d always been kind of protective of me. Like a big brother, but not, if that makes sense.”
Jake nodded that it did, but she wasn’t looking. She just kept talking, staring down the dark flower in her hands.
“Eventually Josh and I ended up as more than friends. I don’t really know when the feelings started, maybe even when we were kids, but the relationship started on my birthday. He gave me this garden. It used to just be an empty balcony but he made it beautiful as a birthday gift for me and strung it all up with lights and everything and that night when he first showed it to me he kissed me right over there and just like that we were together.
“We announced it at my birthday party the next day and everyone was thrilled. We actually got in some stupid tabloid magazines that got all over the galaxy. It was a big deal and we were really happy for a long time. In that time some people in the castle changed.
“Agent Z left to join the Galactic Intelligence Agency, so we looked for replacements for her, but decided to use a new strategic program for the drones instead, so we turned down all offers, which is why Greta hates me, actually. She was a fan of the ZORG and wanted in so when we told her the robot program would work out better, she took it personally and made it her personal goal to beat me to prove I should have taken her when I had the chance or whatever, so that’s that. And some other stuff happened too, with me being annoyed with the Great Teal for one-upping me and stuff, so I was on the brink of war with her for that, but it hadn’t started yet.
“It started with Josh leaving the castle for a few days at a time here and there. He said he was visiting different places looking for new technology. He never took me with him, though, and he wouldn’t tell me where he was going, and he never came back with anything. So I got suspicious and had a drone follow him. Turns out he was cheating on me with the Great Teal and flying to her planet all the time. I didn’t know why, didn’t ask, and naturally, I was furious. I fired him, kicked him off the planet, and finally declared war on the Great Teal and her Tealians. It was a huge scandal. I’m sorry I lied to you about what started the war when you asked me in the dungeons,” Z said, looking up at Jake. “I figured that I was probably going to die and didn’t want it to be the last thing I thought about.”
Jake shrugged. “It’s okay,” he said. “I get it.”
She nodded, swallowed, and continued, “So I was crushed, obviously, and was winning a lot more battles than they were, fueled by my anger and heartbreak. But then, they got better and started winning, and I found out that this was because Josh, who was now living on Planet Teal, had started feeding her secrets about my army and their weaknesses. So that made me even angrier, and I set out to make the ZORG the strongest force I could, and fought back hard.
“I started feeling better after a while, taking out my anger by putting all my effort into the war. I helped in any and every way I could, making the ZORG better and better to destroy him in revenge for hurting me.
“I didn’t see him again until the next Valentine’s Day, when he came back to taunt me, which became this twisted sort of tradition where he would pretend to still be in love with me, I would be heartbroken, he would leave. Then, eventually, the game became this thing where I locked him up with intent to kill, then he would escape before I killed him, which he seemed to find entertaining and I did not.
“And then at some point Greta and her weapons-designer boyfriend allied with the Great Teal and Josh, who I had by then nicknamed “Creep”, and the Great Alliance became a thing and here we are,” Z finished. Jake just stared at her for a while, processing.
“Wow,” he finally said. “So earlier when you two were arguing and you said he didn’t seem to understand the term ‘boyfriend’ and he said you used to let him call you ‘Z’ and stuff...”
“Yeah, we were referring to our history,” she said.
“I thought you were going to shoot him or something,” Jake said.
She laughed a little. “I thought about it.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I didn’t have any throwing knives in my boots at the moment,” she said. Jake laughed. “No, really...I didn’t kill him because I think I’m over it. I mean, I’m furious that he tried to take over my ZORG, and I’m angry that he locked us in a dungeon, but if I killed him it would be like revenge and revenge would imply I still care and I really don’t.”
“So you don’t want to march down to the dungeon and shoot him?” Jake asked. “Because after hearing what he did to you, I do.”
She smiled and waved her hand dismissively. “Even if I did, he’s probably long gone by now. He has way too much experience escaping from this place. The only reason he let himself be locked up before was so he could corrupt as many drones as he could. Can’t believe I didn’t see it then. I highly doubt they even got him down to the dungeons.”
“Okay. I’m going to check with ZIP anyway,” Jake said. “Just in case he’s still around.”
She shrugged and studied the flower still in her hands. It had been her favorite kind since Josh had first presented the garden to her. She’d wandered around, in awe, and stopped by the patch of the dark tulips, contrasting with cream colored tulips in the same flowerbed. Seeing her admiring them, he’d picked one and handed it to her. Seconds later, they were kissing, which Z had even at the time, liked less than the buildup to it. Perhaps because, in retrospect, Josh had been a horrible kisser. Like kissing a dead fish, or maybe a snail. The flower used to remind her of the sparks when he used to brush past her, the outright (generic) compliments he’d give.
Now it just reminded her of the anticlimactic kiss and the darkness that came after it.
“You were right, he’s gone,” Jake said when he returned. She nodded. Gone indeed.
They stood in silence for a minute, both watching the flower twirl between her slender fingers, before she said, “Queen of Night.”
“The color of the flower, it’s called ‘Queen of Night’,” she said, holding it up. “It used to be my favorite.”
“Not anymore,” she said, tossing it over the edge of the balcony into the storm and leaning over the edge to watch it blow out of sight.
When it was gone, she straightened up to find Jake standing right next to her. She could see the gooey warmth behind his blue eyes, the half smile traced on his lips, just looking at her. Something inside her expanded, free.
“Let’s go somewhere happier and never come up here again for any reason, ever,” she said, looking directly into his eyes.
“Never?” he said, scanning her. “Not even a drone to take care of the flowers?”
“The flowers can rot in hell.”
Jake visibly brightened as he smiled, and she did too, and then she took his warm hand in hers and led him out, slamming the door behind them.
They made their way down the staircase to where ZIP was standing.
“ZIP,” Z said, still clinging to Jake’s hand.
“Lock the door and throw away the key,” she said, smiling up at Jake.
“Understood,” he said, bowing, but they were already gone.