Balancing Act
By: Harriett Jernigan

"But is that really fair, Nemmie?," asked Nike.

Nemmie ignored Nike and kept her eyes on Judith, making sure she poured the same amount of tea into each cup. Not that she had to worry about Judith. She had a flawless eye for such things. Delilah, on the other hand, was a fucking mess. Nemmie never let her serve, much less on the terrace of her Earth villa. The house on Olympus was far more pleasant, but it distanced her from her work.

Nike sat on a bench carved from one single piece of mahogany, tapping her doll-dainty foot on Holofernes' head, which still, after all these centuries, bore the look of someone who'd experienced an epic bait-and-switch. And, fair enough, he had. Nike often felt sorry for him, but she never stopped using him as a diminutive ottoman.

"Fair is as fair does." Nemmie nodded in thanks to Judith, who drifted away on a summer breeze. Inside the house, glass crashed to the floor. Delilah. Nemmie shook her head. Judith would obsess over sweeping up micro shards of Waterford crystal for weeks. It was a miracle Delilah didn't burn down the house—on a regular basis.

Nemmie looked at the porcelain teacup in her hand, lazily tracing the rim with her index finger. She pointed inside and showed it to Nike. An image of a man in a hospital, unconscious and in traction, materialized. "See for yourself. He's not in any pain."

"That's not the point."

"Let's take him off the dilaudid and ask him if he sees it the same way."

"No one should have to suffer pain."

"You've spent too much time in that damned chariot."

Nike twisted with petulance on her bench. She kneaded Holofernes' forehead with her toes. "You know what would've happened if he hadn't done it."

"What might've happened. There was a slew of possible outcomes."

"You know what would've happened."

"I don't have a dog in that fight."

"We all have a dog in that fight."

"That's where you're wrong."

"No," Nike spread her wings the tiniest bit. "Not this time."

Nemmie raised her eyebrows, sipped away the image of the man. Nike hadn't shown balls like this since the Titans since she'd become Zeus' pet. He even let her call him "Z," for gods' sake.

Sweet, petite, good enough to eat, Nike's laugh sounded like angels coming in chorus, and her smile vibrated the hum of fellatio. Everyone adored her, rolled over for her, tsked-tsked her. She could steal your lover and ask you to find a romantic getaway for the two of them, and you'd do it with aplomb, all the while singing her favorite songs. She'd turned down all the gods and goddesses, even Apollo and Athena. But she'd lift her diaphanous robes at the drop of a hat for one of those hormone packs. Glorified petri dishes. Burdened with the knowledge about humans that she needed to resolve their problems, Nemmie'd never understood the attraction. Mortals were so extreme, so emotional. It always—always—ended in tears.

"But when it's good, it's soooooo good!" Nike would exclaim whenever Nemmie gave her shit about sleeping with PDs.

"And when it's bad, it's really bad," Nemmie would counter.

"Yeah, you make sure of that."

"The scales must be balanced."

Nemesis, on the other hand, was the woman at a cocktail party who looked and felt so familiar to you that you ended up telling her about your fear of clowns and garbage disposals. The words fought their way out of your mouth to get to her. You felt foolish, but more, grounded, heard, than you had for a long time. But, for the life of you, you couldn't recall the conversation, neither its genesis nor its end, its content nor direction. You couldn't remember the woman's name, or what she even looked like. But one night, around 3:00 a.m., you'd sit straight up in bed and say, "She had a green eye and a brown one!" And that'd be all you'd ever remember.

The goddess of balance was neither pretty nor homely, neither exciting nor boring, neither naughty nor nice. She loved seeing people when they visited but didn't miss them when they left. Nemmie was just, well...Nemmie. Mortals held little purchase for her, but she did love two of their inventions: baking and swearing. Swearing was the best thing they'd ever invented. Baking came in a close second. Both were meditative.

A single pitch-black feather fell out of Nemmie's wing when she flapped away a mosquito. An exact replica took its place. Something fell over in the living room. Delilah was having a particularly shitty day. Nemmie rolled her eyes, turned her attention back to Nike. "And what makes you so sure you're right?"

"I just know, that's all."

"Really? Is that the best you can do? Wasn't Socrates your gods-be-damned tutor?"

Nike glared at Nemmie.

Nemmie sighed impatient disdain. "So, in your mind, what would be fair?"

"I wouldn't harm a hair on his head. As a matter of fact, I'd erect a statue in his honor."

"They're gonna do that anyway, no matter what happens to him. PDs get off on that."

Nike smiled. "Then why punish him?"

"It's not punishment, you know that. There must be balance."

"Where's the imbalance?"

"There's a limit to what anyone can allow themselves." Nemmie passed her opal globe back and forth between her hands, reveling in the voluptuous, silken surface.

"But this is for the good of mankind, five deaths to save billions of people."

"Correction: murders. Savage ones."

Nemmie had little difficulty striking balance. She could jerry-rig a lot of situations, add a fortune here, a misfortune there. The wrongfully convicted burglar gets paroled and wins a million on a scratcher at the first corner store he walks into. The predatory professor loses their teeth and gets an incurable yeast infection. Jilted wives left with a mountain of debt become lifestyle gurus on Instagram.

This one was different. At first glance, it'd been straightforward. Nemmie was surprised it'd even made it to her Inbox. The man in the hospital had slaughtered a family of five, true innocents who'd never said an unkind word, never judged, never squashed a bug. They'd been on vacation. He'd broken into their hotel room the night before their return home. Seasoned professionals called to the scene the next morning had never seen anything like it. Some never came back to work. One even committed suicide. And those were just the initial psychic aftershocks.

There was only so much any one person could allow themselves. In this case, death was the sole option for balancing the scales.

Then Nike came over the other day, right after Nemmie had placed the man's car in the path of a tractor-trailer and told her: The family had picked up the parasite while swimming in the electric blue waters of their beachside resort. The last of the miseries released from Pandora's pithos millennia before, it had never reached a human host until now. The picture-perfect nuclear unit was about to carry it back home, spread it at work, school, playgrounds, supermarkets, before an agonizing death consumed them a few days later. They'd had no idea they were about to consign a third of humanity to the same fate. But the man had.

Nemmie'd had to start all over again, keep the PD in limbo while she worked through the equation; it had a ton of variables. Back in the day, she'd hated Zeus for making her take lessons with Pythagoras and Archimedes. The homework alone made you want to gouge your eyes out with a hot iron rod. But she had to admit, it came in handy for cases like this one.

And now Nike was back, pleading his case. "He did it to save mankind!"

"Yeah, ‘cause they've been so awesome to each other up to now."

"They've gotten better."

Nemmie snorted. "Define ‘better.'"

"They're better off than if he hadn't done it." Nike dug her heel into Holofernes' cheek.

Judith appeared from behind a shadow and silently refilled their cups. Nemmie cast a cursory glance in her direction. Anything more would've been an insult. After Judith floated back to the house on a wisp of steam, Nemmie tucked her wings in tight against her body.

"And how, pray tell, do you know that? What hot air did the Oracle blow up your robes this time? What's her current cocktail of choice? Shrooms and poppers? Fentanyl and ecstasy?"

"There can't be anything worse than what he prevented. And Ori's not the druggie you say she is."

"You're right. She's not a druggie. She's a junkie. Whatever. You don't have any proof that this guy saved anyone from anything. As a matter of fact, it might've turned this cock-up of a species around."

"You've never liked them," Nike hissed.

"And you've always liked them too much." Nemmie's face darkened. "You're fucking him, aren't you? Since when?"

Nike winced. She hated that word. "That has nothing to do with it."

"How can you sit there and lie like that?" Nike's wings fanned out involuntarily. She took a deep breath, folded her wings back in. "It's not a lie. It's about the greater good."

Nemmie cackled scorn. "And what do you know about the greater good? When did you last spend quality time with the PDs?"

Nike wrinkled her nose and shuddered. "Z sent me to Paris last week to pick up some tea from Mariage Frères. He adores their chai. Ugh! Awful city, so smelly, so dirty. But don't you see? That's why they needed this! This will save them. He saved them from a terrible, terrible future."

"Gods, you actually sound like you believe in this crap." Nemmie's griffin Dorian hopped up to her, bumped her leg with his head. She scooped him up and stroked his neck. "How long?"

"That's not the issue."

Nemmie sat up straight, her lips curling into a slight smile. "Really? You don't think so?"

"No."

"Six months."

Nike started back at Nemmie.

"A year."

Nike's eyes started turning to granite.

"Eighteen months?"

Nike settled like stone onto her bench.

"Two years."

Nike's wing flinched, betraying her poker face.

"Sonofabitch. Two years." She put Dorian down, reached for her tea. "You knew he was going to do it, didn't you?"

Nike ran her foot from heel to toe over Holofernes' head. Nemmie squinted at her. "Oh, it's even worse than I thought. You told him!"

"Told him what?"

"Why would you even try to play stupid with me?"

Nike rested her heel on Holofernes' chin.

Nemmie sighed. "Yup, same old Nike."

"But it was for a good cause!"

Nemmie yawned. "And which one was that? I hope it's not like that last idiot. What was he into saving, toad scales?"

"Sperm whales."

"How fitting."

Nike folded her arms. "You have no heart."

Nemmie sipped her tea. "And you have no head. This one must be hung like a baboon."

"Why do you always bring it back to that?"

"Because you do, my dear."

Judith reappeared, deposited some of Nemmie's homemade scones, currants, and a dish of Devon cream, refilled the teacups, then disappeared into the ether. Samson, the cat, yowled in the house. Delilah had stepped on his tail again.

Nemmie cut a scone in perfect halves, slathered each with 2.5 tablespoons of cream and topped them with 10 currants apiece. She passed one half to Nike, who couldn't refuse. Nobody could. Nike pouted while licking the cream off the edge of the scone. "What would you have done?"

"This isn't about me."

"He's a hero!"

"Says who?"

Nike looked to the horizon. "He will be. Time will tell."

"And if he fucked it up?"

Nike met Nemmie's eyes. "You wouldn't be doing this to him."

"And you wouldn't be doing him."

"Why do you have to keep bringing that up?"

Nemmie sighed. "Because we wouldn't be having this conversation if you weren't."

"We would, too! This is no ordinary victory."

Nemmie waved off Nike's conviction like a fly. "I wish you'd stop thinking with your junk."

Nike flapped the frustration from her wings. "Why are you being so unreasonable?"

"On the contrary, sweetheart. You're being unreasonable. Rules are rules."

"Rules are made to be broken."

"And he's worth breaking them for?"

"Yes."

"So, he's worth sacrificing for."

Nike stopped nibbling on her scone. "What do you mean?"

"You know exactly what I mean."

"He's made sacrifices. He gave up his family, his home—"

"—Stop. Playing. Dumb. We're not talking about him. We're talking about you."

Nike looked down at Holofernes. He avoided her gaze.

"If he's so important to you, compromise. I'll let you balance the scales. As a matter of fact, you have to."

Nike began to pale.

"Your little PD will live, albeit with a minor injury you won't like at all, and you pay the balance."

"But I didn't do anything!"

"Uh, actually, you did just about everything."

"We're not supposed to interfere in their decisions!," Nike shouted.

"He wouldn't have had a decision to make if you'd kept your mouth shut!"

Nike kicked Holofernes' head across the terrace. "What do you want from me?," she shrieked. "I'm immortal!"

"You have plenty."

"Of what?"

"Which do you love more, your smile or your chariot?"

Nike's wings shot out, lifting her a little off her seat. "You wouldn't dare!"

"Choose."

"No."

"You'll still be able to smile. It just won't be pretty. Or the chariot becomes a planter here on the terrace."

"Z would kill me."

"You just said you're immortal. Choose."

"I can't."

Nemmie sipped her tea quietly. "You must."

"No."

"Then we'll just have to leave it to chance."

Tyche strolled in, twirling her Wheel on her finger. "Hi, Nemmie, hi, Nike. Sorry I'm late. Aphrodite was chewing my ear about some new boyfriend. Seems he likes shapeshifting."

"Nemmie set down her cup, picked up her globe. "Not at all. As a matter of fact, you're right on time."

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