Paragon City Stories: Meanwhile at the Superbase
Hosted by UNINVENTIVEHEART
Chapter I, Scene 6
Dinner at the Brownstone
Place: The Brownstone
Fen Monique (Nyghtshade) has issued formal invitations to Devereaux, Linuial, Paige, Tahquitz, and Bubastis. Date: tonight. Time, 8:30 pm.
“You are cordially invited to a Fashionably Late Supper at my apartment in Talos Island. Dress is casual. The menu will be Cajun, with special dietary choices for those who prefer their meal rare.”
The address given is for a brownstone apartment building nearest to the Architect Entertainment building, and overlooking the far end of Spanky’s Boardwalk and the beach.
Note: For a tour through Monique’s apartment, see the Flickr album here:
Monique, dressed in pale green slacks and a darker green sweater (and a denim apron) and low slippers, is busy with last-minute cooking prep. The apartment is redolent with the spicy scents of Cajun cooking: a big pot of chicken/andouille sausage/ham gumbo simmers on the stove, along with steamed rice and a slightly smaller pot of creamy Shrimp Etouffee’. Cheddar Bay biscuits are just beginning to brown in the oven.
A spinach dip is chilling in the refrigerator, with thin-baked slices of toasted baguette bread cooling on the counter. Nearby, two deep-dish Mississippi Mud Pies rest on cooling racks, awaiting the fresh-whipped cream topping after dinner.
The jumbo coffee maker on one counter is perking away, with mugs arranged around creamer, sugar and a small pitcher of milk beside it, and several gallons of strong sweet tea chill in a large container set at the edge of the sink, with ice packed around the sides and a spigot for pouring.
The dining table is set with cloth napkins, her good china plates and bowls, crystal glasses, and silver-plated forks, spoons, knives and serving ware. Crystal salt-and-pepper shakers and two chilled silver butter dishes complete the table setting.
The Living Room fireplace is lit and the apartment is warmly lit by a number of lamps scattered around.
All she needs now is to hear the doorbell on the front stoop, so she can buzz in her guests.
Standing on the stoop of the brownstone, midnight black suit exquisitely pressed and a bottle of aged Pinot Noir in hand, Xavier Devereaux takes a moment to admire the simplicity of Nyghtshade’s living arrangements. “And here I was expecting a coffin in an old crypt.”
Chuckling at the image of the undead heroine rising out of a pine box like some bad impression of Dracula, he touches a finger to the doorbell and waits for the electronic buzz to signal that he’s clear to enter. As he waits, his eyes are drawn to a series of wires running from the small callbox until they disappear where the building’s brick exterior meets the door frame.
“Way too many for a plain doorbell,” he notes before turning his thoughts to the event that’s about to take place. Normally, he wouldn’t be making a social call like this. When Nyghtshade extended the invitation, he had been intentionally vague about whether or not he would accept.
It’s not that he dislikes the woman. They had gotten into a verbal scrap or two during the last job but that was to be expected with new talent. Rather, it’s simply that he knows there’s a lengthy docket of other things he could, and probably should, be doing instead.
“It’s not easy being greasy,” he mumbles aloud, then laughs at his own use of such archaic slang.
Nyght cheerfully trots to the foyer entrance to her apartment, and keys the buzzer. “Yes?”
“It’s me,” Devereaux responds, using the opportunity to listen for electronic interference on the line.
When he doesn’t hear the telltale warble of surveillance equipment, he goes on. “I brought a bottle of wine. Hope you like Pinot Noir.” Holding the bottle close to the speaker, he swishes it back and forth in the hopes that the sound will come through on her end.
Monique does in fact hear the sound, and grins. “Thank you foah the gift, Mr. Devereaux. Come on up, Ah’m on the top floor. Hope you don’t mind stairs. Ah’ll leave mah front door open, just come on in."
When Devereaux reaches the front door and enters, he’ll see the living room to the right, and the open kitchen the left, where Nyght is stirring the pot with the gumbo.
“Got it.” The Praetorian slips inside and starts to take the stairs two at a time.
He manages to reach the top floor only slightly winded. He knows the trip would have been both faster and less tiring if he had used one of his myriad alternate forms but it somehow seems unprofessional to employ his powers for such a basic task as climbing a few flights.
As he makes his way to Nyghtshade’s front door, he lets his eyes drift to the ceiling. “Looks like somebody’s a little paranoid.”
Wires snake down the hallway. Placed discreetly where the ceiling meets the wall and held up by nearly invisible plastic hooks. A less experienced operative, Devereaux notes with a small flush of pride, would probably miss them entirely.
Finally arriving at Nyghtshade’s door, he enters the apartment to find a home tastefully decorated in the contemporary style with a bit of Eastern flair. “Not bad, Newbie. Not bad at all.”
Monique greets him with a warm smile. “Welcome, Mr. Devereaux. Ah’m just keepin’ the main dishes warm till everyone else arrives. Let me set out some snacks.”
She grabs a bowl of spinach dip from the fridge, along with a cheese plate, and sets them on the counter by the coffee-maker and mugs. Taking boxes down from a cabinet, she swiftly arranges them on a long tray and sets it between the two snacks, along with a couple of small butter knives. A stack of small plates sit there as well, and a holder with paper napkins.
“Help yoahself. The coffee’s Kona, if yo’ah a coffee drinker. We can have the wine with dinneh, if you like.”
Having done the hostess thing with food and drink, she pauses, adding with a smile, “Ah’m glad you weah able to make it tonight.”
“I almost wasn’t,” Devereaux starts to say but thinks better of it. Instead, he opts for, “You’ll want to aerate that wine for a while before you serve it. It’s a ten year Burgundy. If you like a glass with some body, it’ll suit you.”
Then, remembering that the heroine’s particular condition renders her unable to appreciate the libation, he amends. “Linuial should like it. She always struck me as the fancy wine type.”
“Theah’s a corkscrew in the draweh there,” Monique nods, pointing. “Feel free to do the honors. And thank you foah bringin’ it, that was very thoughtful.”
Nyghtshade’s cell phone rings.
Monique fishes out her cellphone and answers, “Hello? Nyghtshade heah.”
“Ms. Nyghtshade?” Bubastis’ voice identifies the caller. “I think I’m standing outside your home, but the doors both seem to be locked, and I can’t find a way in. Did I go to the wrong building?”
“Probably yo’ah in the right place,” Monique replies, walking over to the intercom by the door, and pressing the button to buzz the first floor doors open.
“Do you heah a buzzeh ringin’? If so, it’s the right door - just push it open, it should be unlocked now - and come up the stairs. Ah’m at the top, and mah door up heah is unlocked. Just come on in.”
A couple of minutes later, there is a light knock on Nyghtshade’s door before Bubastis pushes it open and enters, looking around herself at everything she can see from the entryway.
Nyght has reached into the fridge to pull out a bowl of raw chunks of deboned rabbit. She smiles to Bubastis and beckons her to join them in the kitchen, as she sets the bowl of rabbit bits near the end of the counter, along with a fork on the side, just in case Basti uses silverware.
Then, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, she goes over to welcome Basti with a hug. “So glad you could come, Shugah. Would you like to snack on some rabbit, until we’ah ready foah dinneh?”
Bubastis’ eyes grow like saucers. She looks at Nyghtshade, then the bowl, then back and forth again several more times, then, shyly…”for me?”
“Oh yes, all foah you,” Nyght smiles, leading her over to the bowl. “:There’s a fork if you want it, but if you don’t want a fork, that’s fine. Napkins are right theah next to it.”
“Can Ah get you somethin’ to drink?”
The feline woman blinks, then, shyly, leans over the bowl, inhales deeply. “What is it?” she asks Nyghtshade.
“Rabbit meat. Is that OK? If not, Ah can thaw up some chicken real quick. Or… if you’d ratheh have somethin’ cooked?”
“Ah’ve got raw shrimp foah you, once we’ah all ready to sit down and have dinneh. This is just a befoah-dinneh snack.”
“Rabbit…” She leans over the bowl again, then opens her mouth, draws back her lips in a teeth-baring grimace, inhaling gently through her mouth. After a few moments, her face relaxes and she stands up straight again, picks up the fork in one clawed hand, and delicately spears a piece of the raw meat. She starts to bring it to her mouth, stops, then looks at Nyghtshade.
“It is all right if I eat in front of you?”
“It’s just fine. That’s what people do at a dinneh party, they all eat togetheh.” She makes an encouraging ‘go ahead’ motion with one hand.
“I was told that my eating might make some people uncomfortable, and that I should ask first. Thank you for giving me permission.” She ducks her head in Nyghtshade’s direction.
Returning her attention to the morsel, she opens her jaws and places the piece of rabbit behind her front teeth. She closes her mouth, slowly brings her jaws together, and while it is difficult for her to roll her eyes, due to her immobile face, she manages a good approximation.
After a second, she begins chewing, then swallows.
“Oh, Ms. Nyghtshade, that is the best rabbit I have ever tasted!”
Monique has a sneaking suspicion it might be the only rabbit Basti has ever tasted, but hopes perhaps the cat-woman just didn’t recognize it at first because it’s been skinned and deboned.
“Ah’m very glad you like it, Basti. Eat as much of it as you like.”
“Thank you so much, Ms. Nyghtshade. May I…may I take this bowl? Or should I leave it for the others?”
“Go ahead and take it, Basti. Ah got it special, all foah you,” Monique assures her.
She turns everything on the stove down to the lowest simmer, and the picks up the cheese & cracker plate and the spinach dip and toasted bread wafers.
“Shall we wait in the livin’ room till the others arrive?” she suggests, carrying the snacks out to the coffee table, in front of the fire.
“Hello…Linuial here…“ comes the crackle from the intercom.
Having just put the hor d’ouevres down, Nyght pops over to the door and buzzes Linuial up. “Top of the stairs, just come on in.”
Bubastis follows Nyghtshade to the living area, clutching her bowl and fork. She nods to the Praetorian: “Good evening, Mr. Deveraux. I am very happy to see you again.” Watching Nyghtshade, she stands with her bowl, then looks around the room, and finally selects a seat with a side table next to it, settles herself, and begins happily emptying the bowl.
The door opens, and the tiny blonde woman enters, smiling broadly, a couple of cloth sacks in her hands.
“Hey, Monique,” she smiles and nods. “Basti.” She stops, tilts her head to one side, blinks.
With a slightly bemused expression, she continues into the room. “Hello, Xavier…I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“Welcome, Linuial. Glad you could make it,” Monique smiles, greeting her with a hug. “Come on in, get comfortable. Theah’s coffee on the kitchen counteh, or sweet tea if you’d ratheh, and snacks heah on the coffee table. Can Ah help you with yoah bags?”
Turning her attention back to the undead Hero, Linuial hands over one bag, follows the hostess with the other. “I wasn’t sure what to bring,” she comments, “it sounded as if you already planned just about everything under the sun, but I thought I’d at least bring the makings for champagne punch, and a box of Petit Fours.” She unloads the bag onto the kitchen counter, then looks at Nyghtshade quizzically.
“I didn’t realize this was a dress-up party, Monique, I thought it was casual. I’m sorry if I’m inappropriately dressed…”
“Not dress-up at all, Shugah,” Monique assures Linuial. "Definitely ‘Casual Dress'. Trust me, Ah’m not even close to ‘dressed up’.” She grins, and sets the cloth bag on the counter.
"Petit Fors should go splendidly. Heah, let me get a plate foah them, and we can set them out in the livin’ room, foah while we wait foah Paige and Tim.”
She provides Linuial with a glass of iced sweet tea, and leads her back out to where the others are sitting.
“Just make yoahself comfortable, and if you need anythin’, just let me know.”
“I look a little different when I’m not trying to haul our asses out of the fire,” Devereaux jokes as he pulls the cork from the bottle, unleashing the heady aroma inside. Sniffing appreciatively, he sets it aside to breathe.
He begins to say something in acknowledgement of Bubastis greeting but changes his mind when he sees her in the process of inhaling what appears to be raw meat.
Pouring a cup of coffee, the Praetorian moves into the living room. Cocking an eyebrow at the framed portrait of a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Nyghtshade in a gown and veil, he sends out a telepathic message. “Never knew you were married. Bet that’s interesting.”
Another, smaller bag goes into the refrigerator. Linuial begins opening and closing cupboards until she finds a crystal punch bowl and matching cups in the back of one of the lower ones. It takes but a minute or two to assemble the champagne punch. Pausing to lean over the open wine bottle and sniff delicately as she passes, she carries the punch to the center of the coffee table in the living area, sets it down, and helps herself.
Crossing to where Devereaux is standing, she leans forward to peruse the photograph.
“Monique, you were a beautiful bride,” she smiles, before returning to the sofa with her cup.
Devereaux “hears” a familiar mental voice.
“I’m still a bit confused,” Linuial tells him. “Rearranging your hair style like that can’t be a quick job, unless I am entirely in the dark about dreadlocks. I would have thought that you couldn’t go back and forth like that as casually as you change your shoes. Am I completely wrong about that?“
“No, you’ve got it right.” He laughs without true sound, knowing it will carry over the mental channel without difficulty. “It’s actually pretty ironic. I’m a shapeshifter but when it comes to something as mundane as my hairstyle, I might as well be powerless. This took me the better part of the day.”
Another laugh gives way to a more sober tone. “I’m leaving again in a few days and I never have time to do this when I’m on the road so it was really now or never.”
Linuial puts her empty punch cup on the coffee table, walks over to the snacks, and begins placing a few on a small cocktail plate. She pauses to sample one, makes a “mmmphf!” sound, shoves the rest of it into her mouth, looks up from under her eyebrows, to give a “thumbs up” to Nyghtshade, while nodding and trying to chew and swallow all at the same time.
She covers her mouth with her hand, and mumbles, “…good!” through her fingers, before retrieving a napkin and removing the remaining crumbs from her lips and fingers.
“Xavier…I wasn’t expecting to see you here…I didn’t think this was your kind of entertainment…but since you are here…“ She pauses.
“…are you alright? With everything involving Morpheus…any residual effects? I was worried enough about dropping that battle on you, that it might leave some problems behind, but then when you took on Morpheus all by yourself…
“Xavier…you do realize that you were not alone, don’t you? I still felt everything that you felt, I was ‘with’ you all the way.
“What you did…you protected me from Morpheus, removed it from being able to harm me.“
“I only did what I had to. You told me yourself that you couldn’t face it. What was I supposed to do, trust Paige to help me? She’s good but it’ll be years before she’s ready to try something as reckless as that. And make no mistake, I knew just how crazy it was before I did it.”
Sipping at his coffee, Devereaux peruses the hors d’oeuvres. “Honestly, I shouldn’t be here. You’re right; this isn’t my scene and I’ve got plenty of work waiting for me. I came because it would’ve been bad for morale not to.”
Finally settling on a morsel, he pops it into his mouth and chews. To his surprise, Linuial’s reaction wasn’t just for show. It really is quite good. “As for me, I’m okay. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t have bothered going out of my way for this.”
Returning to the sofa with her plate, Linuial seats herself, smiles at Bubastis, who is slowly but steadily emptying her bowl. Her purring can be heard halfway across the living area.
She considers the Praetorian’s reply. The catch phrases: "…only did what I had to…”; “…I’m okay…”; say nothing, mean nothing. If anything, they might just indicate that he is not ‘okay’, is still shaky and relying on ‘small talk’ to carry the conversation.
She sighs to herself. As private as he is, there is probably little to nothing she can say or do for him.
She makes a decision. “Xavier…if something should come up…due to Morpheus, that is…know that you can always call on me, at any time, if you feel that I can be any help.“
She turns her head and listens to Nyghtshade urge Bubastis to help herself to more, if she likes.
“…besides…I think I still owe you a steak dinner.“ Her mental laugh is warm and rich.
“You certainly do. It’s a debt I intend to collect on before I go.” Devereaux laughs along with the healer, grateful to be done with her probing.
He knows she means well but he’s seen how easily that concern can turn to an almost arrogant sense of overbearing command. The rest of his sometime teammates have always seemed to tolerate Linuial’s mother hen tendencies with aplomb. The same cannot be said of him and he knows it.
“So tell me about this private club, Blondie. If their steaks are better than the ones in Talos it might be worth putting them on my radar.”
“Tell? No, I think you should see…taste…for yourself. Why spoil the fun in advance?“ She chuckles.
“If you actually want to do this…and before you leave…pick a night and time, and I’ll tell you where to meet me.“
The amused smile is turned inward rather than being addressed to the party.
“That was almost…coy. Impressive.” In contrast to Linuial’s own expression, Devereaux’s closed mouthed grin is visible for anyone who cares to look.
“So we’re waiting for Paige and Tim, right? I hear you two had quite the run in with his girlfriend the other day.” He directs the question to Linuial and Nyghtshade simultaneously. There’s a devil may care quality in his voice, as if either one could answer without making much difference.
Across town, getting off the train…
“Pai– whoa. A pantsuit? What are you? Chairman Mao? Hillary Clinton?… Gloria Steinem?” Tim says, wearing a mock turtleneck and slacks with matching suede shoes, all in earth tones.
“I told you… I don’t do dresses.” Paige said.
“They said this was casual.” Tim said. “You look like you’re about to run for president or take over China.”
“And you look like you’re about to model for American Eagle yourself. Are we going to this or what?” Paige asks.
“Alright… what’d you bring?” Tim asked, eyeing the box she was carrying.
“It’s a surprise.” Paige said slyly. “If I tell you, it stops being a surprise.”
“Fine. Let’s go.” Tim said, escorting the girl to Monique’s address. It’ll take them 7 minutes to get there by foot from the train station, so they disregard the cab.
“Yes, Ah’m married, nine yeahs now,” Monique sends back to Devereaux, but with no real elaboration.
To Linuial’s comment on the photo, she smiles. “Thank you. We weah married, oveh in Gemini Park, wheah mah Supergroup, the Dauntless Reverie, always used to gatheh foah meetin’s. We weah lucky, the moon was full that evenin’. And we had lanterns, of course.”
Monique glances at the silver-framed photo, where despite the darkness she is illuminated by the faint blue glow of her husband’s flames. The love they feel as they gaze at one another is plain, yet as Monique stares at the picture, Linuial feels a strong wash of sadness from her, although Monique hides it well enough, her smile still doggedly fixed in place.
Returning to her hostess role, she hovers nearby. “Can Ah get you all anythin’ else? Once Paige and Tim get heah, we can do a quick - real quick - turn around the apartment, and then we should be ready to sit down and eat.”
“By the way, Mr. Devereaux, if Ah didn’t mention it befoah, you do clean up real nice,” she adds, mustering up a grin.
Paige and Tahq make it to the apartment building. She presses the intercom, “Hello? Is this Moni–”
“We wanted to know if you could spare a few dollars for the United Way this hol– OW!” Tahquitz starts with until Paige elbows his ribs.
“Monique, you there?” Paige says over the intercom.
Monique moves to the intercom to greet her last guests and buzz them up. “Top floah, you two. Just come on in.”
Paige emerges from the doorway, with Tahquitz behind her. She puts the box down on the end table next to the fireplace and reaches to hug each of the guests, with the last one being Nyghtshade as she offers a box at the end of their embrace.
It’s a set of aromatherapy oils, mostly food related. On one corner of the box is a compact water humidifier for the oils to aerate from.
“Wow… Devereaux. You look like a film producer. Long time, no see, sir.” Tahq reaches in for a handshake.
Monique exclaims with delight at Paige’s gift, and gives the girl a hug. “That’s so thoughtful, Shugah! Can’t wait to try them out!”
She carefully places the gift on the end table to the other side of the fireplace, and encourages Tim and Paige to try the hor d’ouevres.
“I had to lie to the ticket booth and say it was a bath towel set. If they knew there was glass in there, we’d have to spend on a cab.” Paige laughs.
“I couldn’t find a mint julep oil, but there’s a creme de menthe. I hope it’s close.” She adds, uncertain if it’ll do the trick.
“Creme de menthe is perfect,” Monique assures her warmly.
She offers to give a quick tour of the apartment, neat as a pin with its generous dining room, a sitting nook, and a huge walk-in closet next to a surprisingly normal looking bedroom (if one discounts the heavy metal shutters which are rolled down and tightly sealed there, unlike the open windows in the living room and dining area which look out over the moonlit beach and sea).
There is no men’s clothing in the closet, though, and should one notice it, a lack of any male grooming accessories in either the guest or the master bathrooms.
The tour concluded, Monique heads back to the kitchen to give the gumbo a last stir and to decant it into a huge soup turine, before digging out an only slightly smaller bowl for the etouffee.
“Paige, Shugah, would you mind spoonin’ the rice into that bowl theah?” Nyght nods toward the pot of steamed rice on the stove.
“Sure!” Paige picks up the pot. She then fluffs the rice up with a small fork before setting the bowl back on the counter.
“Reminds me of back home,” She smiles.
Linuial stands and walks into the kitchen. “Monique, what can I do to help?”
Bubastis finishes off the last of her rabbit, picks up her bowl and fork, and walks into the kitchen after Linuial.
“Havin’ people oveh for a big meal reminds me of home, too,” Monique smiles. “Linuial, theah’s big servin’ spoons in that draweh oveh theah, if you could put one in the Etouffee bowl, and set it out on the table. And Ah’ve got a servin’ bowl of deboned raw quail foah Basti, we can set that out at her place at the table, thanks.”
“Oh, here…” Linuial says, reaching for Bubastis’ bowl. She directs the feline woman to the sink, and shows her how to wash the bowl and fork, then has the feline woman follow her as she finds the spoons and places them, then searches the fridge for the quail and has Bubastis carry it to the table.
Bubastis pauses after setting down the bowl, looks around at the women busy in the kitchen, glances back toward the man in the living area.
The tiny blonde woman follows Bubastis’ eyes, then when the cat woman’s attention returns, gives her a broad smile, and a sly wink.
Tim is staring out the window, thinking about the last part of the week.
The great Oranbegan secret unfolded this week. A clue to find the Library of Souls. It’s not what he really wants: a way to destroy the city beneath. But it’s a hell of a start.
His mission starts tomorrow. And there’s an excellent chance he might fail, or that the clue is false. But it’s worth a shot. It’s worth it for all the innocent people captured in Kings Row and The Hollows. It’s worth it to avenge his chief for his lost grandfather. Wovoka, the Ghost Dancer, who was the first of their tribe to develop super powers only to succumb to the Circle of Thorns cultists. It’s wor–
“Tim!” Paige calls out.
“Huh? What’s going on?” Tim calls back.
In any case, it’s nice to have a good dinner before a difficult day. Tim heads to the kitchen to help the ladies.
“Did you and yoah Mama like havin’ dinneh parties, Paige?” Monique asks lightly, but with an eye to her guest, should the question cause pain.
“The few times that she had them, yeah. Before he was arrested, Mom’s brother and his friends visited on Friday nights once a month for poker and seafood. We’d fry up fish they caught off the pier, cook up the vegetables, and bake pies and cakes for them to take home,” Paige smiled. “I didn’t realize how much I missed that until tonight.”
Monique nods, as she turns to pull a big pan of Cheddar Bay biscuits from the oven and set them on a counter rack to cool.
“Mah Daddy and brothehs love fishin’ too, and we had ouh share of Friday fish-fries. Good times.”
“Yo’ah always welcome to come to dinneh heah,” Monique adds, her gaze taking in everyone in the kitchen, and Devereaux as well.
Smiles, handshakes, and pleasantries exchanged, Devereaux starts to move toward the kitchen when his phone rings. Taking it from a hidden pocket he glances at the screen. “Sorry. I need to take this.”
He moves to the door without waiting for a response and steps back out into the hallway.
The blonde woman pauses long enough to follow the Praetorian out the door with her eyes…then turns back to helping set the dining table.
Tim grabs a couple of handtowels from the kitchen. “Watch this…”
He twists the towels and folds them into the shape of a puppy and puts it in Devereaux’s chair. “Alright, how much you want to bet the dog gets a bite before he does?”
Linuial grins at Tim, chuckles under her breath.
“Ah wouldn’t bet money on it,” Monique chuckles, as she pulls a plate of shelled shrimp out of the fridge, and places that on the table by Basti’s place, too.
Straightening a fork to a precise angle, Linuial looks around at the “groaning board”, finds it meets with her approval.
Looking up at the closed door again, lines of worry crease her brow. She glances around the room, then walks quietly to the door, stands there for a moment staring at it, before she returns to the dining table.
After a moment, the worried look deepens, before she finally sighs, starts to reach for a napkin…and pauses. A sly grin begins to creep across her face, becoming wider with each passing second.
She glances over her shoulder at the closed door, then catches each of the party-goers by eye, and leans forward across the table with a conspiratorial expression. She gathers them in with a circle of her finger.
Very quietly, almost a whisper, with exaggerated glances over her shoulder: “…the best, wildest, most unbelievable story about Praetorians…or one particular Praetorian…wins a prize. No truth required.”
She winks, and laughs, softly.
Monique glances at the closed door, and then back at the others, with the faintest of shrugs. “Linuial, do you have a special tale in mind?”
“Why, yes, I have heard such a tale.” She almost giggles. Lowering her voice, she continues: “…I have heard that Praetorians are so tall,” she waits for a response, which Paige provides: “…how tall are they?” “…they are so tall that they have to chop them down to size every five years to keep them from outgrowing all the doorways.”
Giggling, she turns to Tim. “You’re up, demon boy.”
“Alright, I heard Praetorians are really strong.” He waits for the obligatory “…how strong are they” which multiple women said, “They’re so strong, they can gargle peanut butter.”
“Well I heard Praetorians are really lazy…” Tim and Linuial join in, “How lazy are they?” and she continues, “They’re so lazy they stick their noses out the windows and let the wind blow it.”
It takes Monique a moment to get that one, as she runs through it several times in her head, before chuckling, and then trying one herself.
“Ah heard Praetorians are so strong….”
“How strong are they?” comes the cheerful response.
“The’ah so strong they punched a hole right out of theah world and into ours!” she exclaims with a grin.
“Okay, she wins. Because it’s true.” Tim concedes. “That is, unless our feline fighter wants to take a swing.”
Tim and Paige lean in and listen intently.
Shyly, Bubastis looks around.
“…well…” she begins, then rushes: “…I heard that Praetorians always go to Heaven.” She blinks, wondering if she will get a response.
Paige starts snickering… “Like the movie ‘All Dogs Go To Heaven’! That’s great Basti!”
“That’s right!” Tim said, remembering the children’s movie. “Nicely done!” he laughs in turn with Paige.
“Why will they go to Heaven, Basti?” Nyght prompts.
She ducks her head. “Because they are always Pray…torians.”
“Ha! That’s wondehful, Basti!” Nyght crows, applauding her approval. “Good one!”
Tim laughs at the turn of the joke… “Very good.”
Paige stopped laughing… “They are Pray-torians…? I don’t get it.” She looked at Tim to explain.
Bubastis blinks, and begins purring loudly.
“That’s what they call a pun. It’s a pun, sweetheart.” Tim said, with his best Foghorn Leghorn impression.
“I… still don’t get it.” Paige said, still smiling.
“How many Praetorians does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Ah’m afraid to ask, but… OK, how many?” Monique ventures.
“Three. One to change the light bulb, one to assassinate him and take the reward, and one to assassinate him and report it to Emperor Cole.”
As Linuial is giving the punchline, Tim’s phone rings. “Lisa Perrineau” is on the screen.
“Guys, cool it on the Praetorian jokes! Lisa’s on the line. En-say of Eumor-Hay Ero-Zay.” Tim warns in Pig Latin. He touches the screen, “Hi Sweetie!” He walks to the corner of the living room away from the conversation.
Still chuckling, Linuial turns to Nyghtshade, mouths “…shall we?” and points to the chairs.
“Ah hate to start without Mr. Devereaux, but yes, let’s go ahead.”
Paige makes eye contact with Tim, “I’ll make you a plate, gumbo or shrimp?” Paige sees him mouth “gumbo”. She grabs a bowl and a plate to serve it.
Nyght makes up a plate with the deboned quail and raw shrimp for Basti, and presents it to her, then makes sure everyone else has everything they need before setting down herself.
She pops up out of her chair almost immediately, though, and fetches the appetizer trays from the living room, to set them on the table as well, and finally settles back into her own space, with a cup of hot tea and a big smile at the meal’s success.
After giving everyone a chance to fill their plates and get started, and saying a silent grace herself for the meal, Monique looks around the table. “Ah had an ideah, if you all are inclined. Ah thought maybe we could take turns telling about a memorable moment you’ve experienced heah in Paragon? Maybe somethin’ funny, or thrillin’, or even scary, or sweet. What do you all think?”
“That sounds nice. But I can’t think of anything worth telling at the moment. Can I go last?” Paige asks.
“…alright. I love you, firecracker. Break a leg.” Tim said as he approaches the table and hangs up the phone.
“Not funny. I’m still going through rehab.” Paige looks at Tim sternly.
“Of course you can, Paige, if you like. And you don’t need to go at all, if you’d ratheh not. Tim, did you heah the story-tellin’ suggestion? Does it sound interestin’?”
“It’s a saying in Theater Arts. ‘Break a leg’ means good luck, but if you say good luck, they won’t have good luck, so you say ‘Break a leg’. For a smart girl, you’ve got a lot to learn.” Tim said. “It’s dress rehearsal week at PCCA. She’s the Stage Manager for Swan Lake, she’s getting out close to midnight. She won’t be joining us.”
He looks at Nyghtshade. “You want a story? I’ve got buckets of them.”
“Shoah, go foah it,” Nyght nods, offering him some cheddar biscuits to go with the gumbo and rice.
Tim takes a biscuit, “Thank you very much,” and chomps into it. He clears his mouth with a swig of water and starts…
“Speaking of your leg, Paige. I said I was in the Gun Shot club, too. Want to learn how? Of course you do!”
“TAHQUITZ!” Paige yells. “By the time you tell the story, your food will be cold!”
So there I was on a airplane, punching my way through Goldbrickers… I was face to face with Captain Kreuk as we were on the trail for the Heart of the Mou– No, wait, that wasn’t my first time. Let’s go back further…
Three months ago…
So there I was deep in Oranbega. A Force Mage had me pinned to the wall as Council troops were about to interrogate me on the whereabouts of Heather Diazzo. One of them spit in my face so I– Damn it. That wasn’t it either… Further back!
Eight months ago…
So there I was in the Mojave Desert. No, that wasn’t it. I just got bit by a scorpion in the foot. That hurt too.
“Give me a second… Was it last Christmas? Yes! Last Christmas! Really…? YEAH! It was! Now this train’s back on the rails!” Tim says.
Tahquitz lifted his shirt to show the wound. “Clean through my lung, exited right here.” He points at his chest below his 3rd rib. “If you’ve never been shot through the lung, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It’s not fun. Like drowning except you are the cause of it.”
So there I was, face to face with Trolls in Skyway City at dusk. They just robbed a bank on Christmas Eve. I was facing them down with Frost-Kid and Blizzard. We were making great progress getting the gang one by one as they left the building, until Blizzard saw the side door open with the vault thief, bag in tow. And Baltor. I still hate that guy. Physically adept, but dumb as nails. It’s like beating up the captain of the Football Team. You can outsmart the bastard, but once he catches you, you usually regret it.
So we were in the alleyway. I had him pinned in a dead end. Nowhere left to run, doors and windows sealed in a ghetto neighborhood. He’d have to be a supertroll to smash the bars and grills covering them. It was all set…
Then all hell broke loose! From the rooftops, it was raining supertrolls. I got what I feared as I was surrounded by the thugs. I couldn’t fire fast enough to freeze them all, when I heard the submachine gun go off with my back turned. Baltor treated me like a fish, and the supertrolls were the walls of my barrel.
He tucked his shirt back into his beltline. “Anyway, Blizzard caught Baltor, but the thief with the vault bag got away. We failed.”
“So that was my first gun shot. I was ported to the hospital when I passed out from lack of oxygen. I was in there for two weeks healing up, then I wasn’t allowed back on the streets for two months after that. I ripped stitches so often from ignoring Doctor orders, that they started threatening to admit me to a closed ward to make sure I didn’t leave bed. I buckled and rested up.” Tim said as he takes another bite of the biscuit. “And I ate food much less tastier than this. Seriously, Monique, have you considered opening a restaurant if this heroing thing doesn’t pan out? This is damn good.”
“Monique’s Midnight Munchees,” Linuial smiles. “I like that, Tim.”
“I know, right?” Tim agrees.
Monique ducks her head a bit, pleased at the compliment. “Cookin’s like ridin’ a bike, you neveh really foahget. Even if Ah can’t taste things anymoah, the smells tell me what Ah need to know, and the old family recipes don’t change.”
“Remind me to tell you sometime about the ‘Christmas Pralines’.”
“Thank you foah the story, Tim, although it sounded awfully uncomfortable,” she adds sympathetically.
Looking around, she asks, “Who’s next?”
Linuial puts her fork down against her plate with an audible “click”.
She stands abruptly, forcing her chair back, turns, face grim, and strides across the distance to the entry door.
She stares at the door for a long moment, then reaches for the door handle.
Out of the corner of her eye, while trying to distract the others and maintain a pleasant ambiance by offering second helpings, Monique watches Linuial rise and stalk to the front door.
She hopes her dinner party isn’t in for another row between Linuial and Devereaux.
Grasping the door handle a little more firmly than necessary, Devereaux shoulders his way back into the apartment. He stops when he sees Linuial and her startled expression on the other side.
“Going somewhere?” he asks, the old sly grin on his face. The answer is obvious. She had been about to come check on him.
Walking coolly past the healer, he takes his place at the table with the others. “Sorry about that. Money never sleeps, y’know?” Intoning the tag line from one of his favorite films, the Praetorian quickly assembles a plate for himself and sets to work cleaning it.
“Well, I told my story. Who’s next?” Tim asks, quietly sipping gumbo from his spoon. “Will it be…” He says, adopting a radio announcer’s voice…
“The mysterious and sultry Nyghtshade, who has yet to explain why her husband is on fire in every one of her photos? (Didn’t think I noticed that, did’ya?)”
“…or the Immortal and ageless Linuial, who is the only one who has more stories behind those azure eyes than anyone else here at the table?”
“…or how about the tawny, inquisitive Bubastis, who–”
Paige said to Tim, “Stop it. You’re being a ham.”
As the door flies open, the blonde woman snatches her hand back, surprise and a brief moment of…guilt?…flit across her face, before she smiles, her eyes lowered.
She laughs softly to herself, then turns and follows the Praetorian back to the table, and to her seat, picks up her fork, and reaches for the tureen.
“All right…you caught me.“ Her mental laugh is clear and honestly amused. “I didn’t think you’d turn down a free feed of this quality, and I wanted to make sure you hadn’t been kidnapped…or something…“
She accompanies that with a small outward laugh, as she applies herself to her plate.
“I like these stories,” Bubastis offers. “I think Mr. Devereaux would tell some good stories.” She turns to look at him in expectation.
Linuial looks at the Praetorian, smiling broadly. “I think we all would like to hear any story ‘Mr. Devereaux’ might have to offer, Basti.” She chuckles.
“…however, in the interest of courtesy, and allowing Mr. Praetorian to actually acquire some nourishment…” She pauses staring into the distance. “A story, is it? Let me see…”
“Or something would be a bit more appropriate,” Devereaux replies. “No cause for alarm. Just putting the last few pieces in place for the next job.”
Aloud, he interrupts Linuial’s attempt at a reprieve. “It’s fine,” he says, setting down his fork. Then, looking genuinely amused, he asks, “Which do you prefer? War stories or fun stories?”
"Oh, let’s keep it light,” Monique suggests.
Devereaux shrugs. “Fun it is then. Let’s see…”
He ponders for a moment, then launches into a tale. “When I was a Syndicate Initiate, maybe twelve years ago, I was assigned to a team whose job it was to rig a distraction for a robbery at TPN, the main broadcasting station back home. My team leader figured it’d be a good idea to reprogram a few Clockwork for the job. There were always plenty of them on the streets so we knew nobody would notice if we got hold of one. So we did. Stole them off a street sweeping detail in the middle of the night.”
He pauses to wet his palette, then continues. “So our tech expert goes through the motions and reprograms them to start a few fires with their plasma rays. Nothing serious, just enough to keep the cops distracted while another team did the heist. Well, he must’ve screwed something up because when we turned them loose, they started shooting plasma bursts into the air randomly.”
Chuckling audibly now, the Praetorian goes on. “Of course we start panicking because we think we just ruined the op. Lucky for us, it was Victory Day, the day we won the Hamidon Wars, and everyone was stocked up on fireworks. They all thought it was part of some show to celebrate. After a while, even the cops were clapping and cheering like idiots. Our guys walked right in the back door and cleaned the place out!”
His mild amusement blossoms into full on laughter at the memory. After a moment he composes himself and turns to Tahquitz. “I didn’t know it at the time but I met your girlfriend’s squad leader that day. Nice guy.”
Linuial smiles broadly, puts down her fork to perform a soft clapping motion in salute. Then she puts her hand to her chin, a single finger across her lips, in a thoughtful attitude.
“Should I tell you how I got into the Kama Sutra? Oh, no, underage present. How the world was born? WAY too long."
After another moment of consideration: “I know…I’ll tell you a story from ancient Egypt. Would you like that?” She looks around the table for approval, then drops her spoon, and begins to gesticulate as she recites her tale.
“…and, now…” she turns an eye on Devereaux, “telling stories is thirsty work, and I have been eying that bottle you have airing on the counter…” She gives him a wink.
Once upon a time…as all good stories go…there was a lovely young maiden. She was born a slave…but slavery in Egypt was not like slavery in other lands, it was more like being an ‘indentured servant’. People often sold themselves into slavery, took the money and paid off their debts, then went to work for their master or mistress; they were always treated like family and paid a normal wage for their service. They would save their wages, and when they had enough to buy themselves back, they would often remain in the service of that family for the rest of their lives. It was the Egyptian alternative to bankruptcy.
This beautiful young slave woman was so beloved by her master that he bought other slave girls to wait on her as servants. He showered her with gifts, and she loved him very much for his kindness.
He gave her a pair of red shoes, and she loved wearing them everywhere. One day she and her companions went to the Nile to bathe. She took her clothes and shoes off and laid them on the riverbank. While they were playing in the water, a Horus hawk swooped down from the sky and carried off one of the red shoes.
The little slave girl was beside herself with grief. She and her maidens searched long and hard, but never found the missing shoe.
The Pharaoh of that land was holding court, listening to the petitions of his people, meeting with the high officials of the land, when a Horus hawk flew through the pearlescent blue sky, right down to the Pharaoh himself, and dropped a single red shoe at his feet. Bending down, the Pharaoh picked up the shoe, and exclaimed over its elegant manufacture, and the tiny size and delicate shaping. Immediately, the Pharaoh fell in love with the wearer of the red shoe.
“Gather all my servants,” the Pharaoh declared, “and send them throughout this my land. Take this shoe, and find for me the owner of this shoe, for I must have her as my bride, and make her Queen over all of Egypt.”
The servants of the Pharaoh did as the Pharaoh had proclaimed, and searched all of Egypt, Upper and Lower, seeking the owner of the red shoe. They looked among the high-born…they looked among the low. They searched the marshes of the Nile, and the deserts near the foothills. They sent reed boats up and down the length of the Nile, from Elephantine Island to the Mediterranean Sea, and in all that land, they did not find the owner of the red shoe.
At last, the servants of the Pharaoh came to the home of the master of the little slave girl. They knocked politely on the door, and asked the manservant who answered, “Is there a woman in this house that lost this shoe?” they said, “…for the Pharaoh must have her as his bride, and make her Queen over all the land, and we bring presents, gifts from the far corners of the world, for he who could help the Pharaoh find his desire.”
The manservant bowed low, recognizing that these were men of great power within the Pharaoh’s court, and invited them into the house, presenting them with refreshments to ease the weariness of their travels. He ran to fetch the Master of the house, and bring him to the visitors.
To him, the Pharaoh’s servants again made their plea, to which the Master then clapped his hands, and said, “Yes! I know that shoe, and the wearer of it is here, and she will be very happy that you have brought her lost shoe back!” And he summonded the slave girl, who came to the Pharaoh’s men, and took the shoe, and placed it on her one foot, and it fit perfectly, for it was the foot for which it had been made. Then she showed them the other red shoe, and put it on her other foot, and the two shoes were like unto a matched pair, for that is what they were.
The Pharaoh’s servants were filled with happiness, for they had found their Pharaoh’s greatest desire. They asked permission from the Master of that house to bring the little slave girl to the Pharaoh, and he granted their wish with great rejoicing. The servants then showered many gifts on the Master, many times the worth of any slave girl, and dressed her in the finest fabrics, and put jewels on her neck.
They brought her back to the palace, bedecked and bejeweled, and wearing the red shoes, and the Pharaoh received her with great rejoicing, for she was the love of his life.
And her married her and made her Queen of Egypt.
And they lived happily ever after.
“But…” Monique protests, sorting back through the story, “Ah thought the little slave girl loved her Masteh? How could she let herself be given away to anyone else, even a Pharoah?”
Linuial laughs. “She loved her Master as if he was her father, ‘for in truth’, as the ancient storytellers would put it, that was how he treated her.” She waves a finger in Nyghtshade’s direction. “Not every love leads to sex, you know, Monique.” She laughs again at the expression on Nyghtshade’s face.
Monique isn’t able to blush, but from her expression it’s clear she would have. She shakes her head, laughing at her own foolishness.
“Well then, who’s next? Basti, do you have any happy memories of bein’ heah in Paragon?” she asks encouragingly.
“The moral of that story? Never underestimate the power of material sums to garner good will.” Devereaux laughs again.
“Help yourself, Blondie. It’s a ten year Burgundy. Got it from a vineyard in Bourdeaux a while back. Should go well with the food.”
Casting his gaze in the feline woman’s direction, he encourages her to tell a story of her own. “Yeah, Bubi. I’m sure we’d all love to hear about one of your adventures in the City of Heroes.”
Linuial gives the Praetorian a sour look, although she is also having trouble keeping a grin damped down. She stands and heads for the wine bottle, giving Devereaux a gentle swat on the back of his head as she passes him for good measure.
“Hey! If you’re gonna get handsy it’ll cost you extra.” The Praetorian fills the telepathic channel with his own amusement while he rubs his head in mock injury.
“An…adventure?” She blinks. “I don’t think…you all have such interesting adventures…” She pauses, squinting slightly.
“Well…you see…” she begins, hesitates, then continues. “When I was a cub, I lived in a cage. I didn’t have a mother or father, because I was created, not born. I don’t remember the incubator, or the nesting cage…my earliest memory is of the training cage I lived in, when I was about two months old.
“There were people who brought me food, and cleaned my cage, and people I didn’t like that stuck needles in me, or held me down. But one day, when it was dark and the overhead lights were turned on, one of the people, a man, came to my cage and just stood there, looking at me. He was writing on a…clipboard, I think it was, but his eyes were gentle, and when he looked at me, he smiled. The other people didn’t smile at me.
“I didn’t know what a smile was, but I knew I liked it. After many nights, one night, when he smiled at me over the top of his clipboard, I reached out to him. His eyes got big, and that looked funny, so I…chirped, I think you call it, at him. He laughed, and I liked that, too.
“Then one night, I reached out through the bars and chirped at him, to make him laugh, and he got down on one knee, and touched my hand. That was nice! It made me feel very happy, and I wiggled and wiggled because it felt so good. He laughed and laughed, and I wanted to make him laugh some more.
“Then there was the night that he walked to the door of the training room, and locked it, from the inside. He came to my training cage and took out a keyring…I still remember the jingling sound it made…and he unlocked my cage door. I didn’t know it was a door, and I was curious, and went to look at it, and he reached inside and patted my head, and that felt good, too, so I bumped my head against it, and purred.
“But then he stopped doing that. He would say to me, I can’t Bee-Three, I’ll get in trouble. But I would run around my cage, and jump up on the bars, and I would chirp and chirp and chirp at him, and his worried look would change to a smile, and he’d lock the hallway door, and unlock my cage, and I would purr at him because I knew that he would pick me up and hold me, and talk to me, and I liked that, too.
“And then he told me that I could ‘talk’ just like he did, and he taught me to say ‘da’. And then he told me that he was my Daddy, and said I should call him ‘dada’”, and it was hard, and I couldn’t do it at first, but then I did, and then when he held me, I called him ‘dada’.
“But then one night came, and Dada didn’t come to do his writing. Another man came, and he didn’t smile at me, he frowned instead, all the time he was writing.
“And I didn’t see Dada again…until the Heroes came to stop the lab people…and it was Dada looking in my adult cage, and I didn’t recognize him at first, until he spoke to me, and he told me he was my Dada. And then I was really angry with him, for going away, and leaving me with the people who stuck me, and never smiled at me, but frowned at me all the time. But he just smiled at me anyway, and he asked that my adult cage be unlocked, and Antonio Nash said no it was too dangerous, but Dada argued with him, and they finally unlocked my cage, and Dada came inside with me…and even though I was angry, I was so happy to see him, too, that I started purring, and let him touch me.
“And because of that, they said I could live, and I get to see my Dada now, whenever he is not busy, and it makes me happy.
“And that is my story, and I am sorry if it is not a very good one,” she finishes, ducking her head toward her plate.
Monique dabs the corner of one eye with her napkin, and favors Bubastis with a tender smile. “That was a perfect story, Basti. Ah’m so glad you shared it with us. Yoah Daddy sounds like a very good person.”
The feline woman looks up shyly at Nyghtshade, and starts purring.
Monique looks around the table. “Since Paige has asked to go last, Ah guess it’s mah turn. Since you asked about mah husband’s fiery nature, Ah should explain that mah husband’s always on fire because it’s a feature of his physiology,” Monique explains to Tim, deliberately avoiding any double entrendre’s there. “But Ah will tell a story that involves him. It’s about ouh weddin’, in fact.”
She pauses a second or two, considering where to start, then begins, “Mah husband’s name is Long, Fen Long, though he also goes by ‘Chris’. When Long’s apartment was, um, blown up a while ago, he had to look foah a new place to live, and we settled on this very brownstone. Ah liked the top floah because of the views of the sea and the beach, so he bought the whole buildin’. We had the otheh apartments fixed up to let out to new heroes who needed a place to live.” She smiles reminiscently, looking out a window into the darkness, where the sound of cold October waves rumbled on the shore below. “He proposed right down theah, on the beach.”
Collecting herself, she continues, “Which isn’t the story, just the prelude. So, we weah goin’ to get married, and we decided to have an evenin’ outdoah weddin’ in Gemini Park, with all ouh friends.” She rubs her thumb against her wedding ring, eyes distant with memories. “We spent months plannin’, got a beautiful dress, had some of his friends and mine foah weddin’ party attendants, had a friend in the Dauntless volunteeh to cater the cake and all the refreshments, picked out meaningful bible verses, wrote ouh vows. And then the night came, and the weatheh cooperated, all ouh friends weah theah. It was perfect.”
So, we started the ceremony. Hexess, she was the Dauntless leadeh at the time, she got a license to do the weddin’… because we weah still kind of wrestlin’ with the Catholic Church about extendin’ the Sacrament of Marriage to a Vampire, no matteh how regulahly Ah attended Evenin’ Mass… So Hexess was theah, all ready, and our friends weah all theah, all ready, and Loang and Ah weah theah, all ready.
And we started, and it was goin’ wondehfully. No one was flinchin’ too much at hearin’ a verse or two from the Bible. Long recited a poem by Yeats, Ah read mah vows to him, and he was just startin’ his to me… And then….”
Monique pauses, looking around the table, smiling.
“And then, the Rikti attacked!” She laughs. “So, theah we all weah, in ouh weddin’ finery, fightin’ off aliens and tryin’ to keep them from wreckin’ the refreshment tables…” Monique chuckles, “and you know, Ah got the impression some of the guests weah havin’ moah fun with the battle than the ceremony.”
“So, we beat back the first wave, and theah’s still the weddin’ to finish, so poor Loang starts his vows all oveh again, and the second wave of Rikti start teleportin’ in. And he’s tryin’ to rush his way through to the end of the vows, but we have to stop and fight again.
“And when we beat them back again, and get a breatheh, Long races through his vows, and as the alarms foah the next wave started soundin’, he and Ah are both laughin’ and shoutin’ at poor Hexess, “Cut to the chase! Man and wife, man and wife! And so she pronounces us man and wife, and adds, ‘Now kiss, and go kick some ass’!” Monique chuckles. “And Loang and Ah kiss real fast, and go back to beatin’ off Rikti.”
Monique looks around the table, still smiling fondly. “So, you know, just an average, perfect, Paragon City Weddin’.”
Linuial laughs outright…when she breaks off, her smile is still wide and open.
She raises the glass she was twirling on the tablecloth into the air in salute. “An average Paragon City wedding indeed, Monique. You two did it up right. And who did you go to to arrange for the Rikti?” She dissolves into laughter at her own joke. “…just in case I ever get married…”
She winks at Nyghtshade, chuckles, and takes another sip of her wine.
Having listened intently to Bubastis’ ad Nyghtshade’s stories, Devereaux polishes off the last of his food and pours a glass of wine.
“Interesting stuff. Remind me to use that trick if I ever decide to tie the knot. It’d make for one hell of an escape plan.”
“Eveh the Romantic, Mr. Devereaux,” Monique snorts.
“Y’know, it’s funny. I distinctly remember telling you that it’s just Devereaux. The only people who call me ‘Mister’ anything are usually trying to get something from me.”
He raises an eyebrow. “So which is it, Newbie? Do you want something or is the honorific just part of your lovely southern charm?”
“Clearhly part of mah Southern Charm,” Monique replies lightly. “Although mah friends call me Monique. Yo’ah welcome to, if you want.”
“Or not,” she adds diplomatically.
Bubastis is clearly taking an active interest in this exchange.
“Come to think of it, I’ve never called him Xavier. It’s not just you.” Tim said. “I feel much worse for your story, Nyghtshade, since the Rikti ruined your ceremony. They just ruined our lunch a couple of months ago.” Tim remembered the fight northwest of The Dirty Duck on the hill… also right here in Talos Island.
“Oh, Shugah, they didn’t ruin it,” Monique counters. “They just made it a little moah lively. And aftehwards, we had cake. Well, most of us.”
After everyone has pretty much finished their main courses, Monique rises to her feet, suggesting, “Why don’t we take coffee and dessert down in the garden?”
She moves to the fridge to pull out the Mud Pies and the fresh-whipped cream, and indicates a couple of coffee carafes sitting on a silver tray next to the mugs.
“If someone wants to fill the carafes, we can take the coffee and the wine downstairs to finish off outside.”
“Tim, could you and Xavier carry stuff for Monique? I have something I need to assemble and carry out, too.” She opens the fridge and starts rummaging around.
“Sure, Lin.” Tim gathers the carafes, then asks, “Is the dessert also cake? Tell me the cake isn’t a lie!” Tim said grinning.
No one looked at him, except Paige who was shaking her head. “It… was a… video game. It was funny if you played it. I guess this isn’t the crowd for that.”
“I can help carry, too.” She looks to Nyghtshade, holds her hands forward.
Paige helps Monique to catch doors and help take the pies downstairs to the garden.
“It’s a really gooey chocolate pie,” Monique corrects, lathering whipped cream on top and handing one pie to Bubastis and anotheh to Paige, with a smile. “If you’ll carry that down to the garden, please? Thank you, Basti, Paige.”
She pulls out paper plates and silverware, and another stack of napkins, piling them all on a separate tray.
“Ah think that does it. Shall we?” Nyght leads the way down the stairs, with her guests following behind.
The garden is lush and cool, and although the moon’s not up yet, the garden is lit by the soft glow of Japanese lanterns. Monique leads the way around the side of the house to the rear of the garden, overlooking the drop-off to the sea, where a rustic picnic table and benches sit near a filled and steaming hot-tub.
“Theah we go,” she announces, setting things out on the table, and cutting the pies. “Help yoahselves.”
Monique pours a cup of coffee and settles near the table, letting her guests serve themselves.
Bubastis places her burden on the picnic table, then stands back, watching the activity surrounding her. She looks up at the night sky, then out to the ocean, lifts her head to sniff the salt air. After a few moments, she moves back against the brownstone, leaning against it, looking a bit lost.
Linuial walks around the corner of the brownstone, carrying a tray covered with tented cloth napkins, with her wine glass resting on the side. She walks to the picnic table, and places the tray on it. She then picks up and taps a desert spoon against the side of her wine glass, and waits for the attention of all the guests. She turns and smiles at Bubastis.
“Basti, this is your very first party. Monique has been a wonderful Hostess, and her party has definitely given you a memory that will be difficult for anyone else to top.
“When humans have celebratory meals, they like to finish with something they call ‘desert’. It is almost always something ‘sweet’.”
She smiles at the cat-woman. “I know that felines cannot taste ‘sweet’. So, I thought about it, and I tried to come up with something that you might enjoy just as much as we enjoy our sweet deserts…a feline-styled desert, for you to enjoy.”
She winks at Nyghtshade, then removes the napkins from the tray.
Picking up a small round opened jar, she holds it up for everyone to see. “This, Basti, is caviar. That is a fancy, and usually expensive, name for ‘fish eggs’. I’m sure you never got any at the lab, and it is unlikely that you have had any since your rescue, so this will probably be your first taste. Humans like caviar almost as much as I hope you will.
“Humans usually eat caviar with a tiny little spoon,” here, she picks up and displays such a spoon, then sticks it into the jar, to stand tall and proud, at a jaunty angle. “We also like to spread it on toast, or crackers. But you can’t eat toast, or crackers…or at least, you probably shouldn’t. So I thought about this, and I tried to come up with something like a cracker, for you to try your caviar on.”
She begins holding up a series of flat, wafer-life disks, as she describes each one. “I made some ‘cheese crisps’ by melting cheese in an oven, until it was flat and hard. I don’t know what it would taste like as a base for fish eggs…it doesn’t sound very good to me, but then, I don’t have your sophisticated palette for proteins, so I wanted you to have the chance to try it.”
Another disk. “I also sliced some sausages of various kinds into very thin slices and baked them until they were crisp, as well. There are different colors, and each one is a different sausage. There are also pieces of jerky, and some pieces of crisp bacon, as well. You can just dip them in the jar, like chips and dip.”
She holds up a rather soft, floppy disk. “I tried to make some cracker-like shapes of egg white, but they didn’t come out very well. But if you try it and like it, we can experiment with it for the future.”
Finally, a rather oddly colored crinkly, bubbly object. “I thought the best possible match might be fish, so I tried frying fish skin until it was crisp. I also got you some dried, smoked herring.”
She picks up the tray, and presents it to Bubastis with a flourish. “Happy first party, dear Basti.”
Bubastis’ eyes open to their fullest. She looks at the tray, then into Linuial’s face, then around at all the other faces around her, with their various expressions.
“For…for me?” she says, softly, and then begins an operatic performance of purrs, chirps, and squeaks, her tail lashing behind her until her entire body looks to be “wagging”.
Linuial laughs, softly. “Yes, dear, for you. Just for you.” She turns and places the tray back on the picnic table, and beckons the feline woman to join her. “Go ahead, Basti…you earned it.”
“Oh, wait!” She fishes in a pocket. “I nearly forgot…”
She holds up a squat can, begins pulling back on a tab. “Smoked oysters. Basti gets first taste, but you can all share.”
“Oh, wondehful, Linuial,” Monique beams, enchanted by the thoughtfulness.
“Basti, I’m so happy for you!” Paige smiled at her, “Isn’t this night great?”
Monique leans back in her chair, eyes closed, savoring good times with new friends, savoring a precious, perfect moment, and smiles.
Bubastis eyes the tray, her tail still lashing. Finally, she reaches out and gingerly lifts the jar of caviar to her nose, inhaling delicately, then pulls back her lips and breathes through her mouth. She lifts the tiny spoon, a few eggs clinging to it, and drags the spoon across her lower teeth. She closes her mouth, then her eyes.
Her purrs become quite loud enough to be heard above the roar of the surf.
“Humans like the way the eggs pop between their teeth,” Linuial observes, loading Mud Pie on a plate in a large mound. She grins, then picks up her wine glass and walks over to the hot tub.
“Monique, why didn’t you say you had a hot tub? I’d have brought a swim suit.”
“Ah should have,” Monique nodded ruefully. “Sorry. But yoah welcome to soak yoah legs in it, if you like. It’s great foah soah fe….” She pauses a second, blinking swiftly, rubs the heel of one hand against the corner of her eye, then continues, “Soah feet.”
Monique busies herself suddenly, lifting the coffee cup and inhaling the aroma, head down.
Linuial shrugs, laughs, tilting her head back, lifting her face to the stars overhead.
“The swim suit was for you guys,” she laughs, softly.
She climbs over the side of the tub, balances her plate and her glass on the edge, then in one fluid motion strips her tunic over her head and slides into the water.
Monique sets down the coffee cup on the grass, rises and moves over to pick up Linuial’s dress. Shaking grass off it, she drapes it neatly over the back of a wooden choir-bench.
She slips off her shoes and rolls up her pants cuffs, then sits on the edge of the hot tub, dipping bare feet and calves into the steaming water, and sighs with pleasure.
Tim finished the last bites of his slice of Mud Pie, then grabs his fork and tinks the side of his coffee mug to get attention from everyone.
“Gentlemen… Ladies… On this particular evening, with this good company, great dinner, and amazing dessert… I have some bad news.” Tim starts, speaking bombastically from his perch standing atop the arms of the Adirondack Chair.
“We have a freeloader in our midst!”
“I know, I know, friends… this was supposed to be an evening of frequent courtesies and well met acquaintances, but this particular freeloader has got away from it for TOO LONG!” Tim shouts at the end to punctuate his point.
“This freeloader needs to come forward and pay what she owes us…” Tim points his fork judiciously waving it from face to face around the garden… His fork aimed at Nyghtshade “Not you….” Then to Linuial, “Not you, either…” Bubastis is looking at Tahq afraid, “Catgirl, you’re perfecly fine. Enjoy the caviar…” Tim smiled to reassure her. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t referring to you.”
Tim laughed, then swept the fork back to the well-dressed girl sitting between Lin and Nyght…. “YOU!… You owe us a story. Did you think I’d forget, cricket?” Tim bounds down off of the chair, collecting his plate to head for a second serving. “If you got a story, get to tellin’ it. Sure, the night’s young, cricket, but remember that time makes fools of us all.”
“But I really don’t have anything to tell…” Paige said, sinking back in her chair. “You guys have much better stories than I have. And the ones I do have are such downers. You want to hear about my Mom? My prior foster homes?”
Bubastis collects her tray, and sets it and herself on the grass, near the hot tub, which now seems to have become the center of the gathering.
She seems to have settled on the caviar-on-fried-fish-skin, and is happily applying tiny amounts of caviar to her “cracker” and nibbling with all the delicacy of a mouse.
“Oh, come on! I don’t believe that for a second.” Tim puts his plate down, fresh with another slice of Mud Pie and heads to her chair, kneeling down.
“You remember the time you told me…” he whispers into her ear… “That broken…” comes out of his whispering, followed by “Judy Blume”, and a suppressed giggle from him. “That would make a great story.”
“You know I hate public speaking…” Paige’s cheeks turn a shade of red that is close to rivaling her hero uniform.
“You don’t have to unless you want to, Paige,” Monique assures her.
“We’re not the public, Paige. We’re your friends. We’re not going to throw pie at you if the story doesn’t make us feel good. You’re in a judgement free zone, I promise.” Tim says, grinning, stepping back. “Will you tell the story?”
Linuial makes a long-arm grab for her wine glass. She swirls it, holds it up to the starlight to reassure herself of the number and thickness of the “legs”, inhales the aroma, and then takes a healthy sip.
Apropos of nothing, she asks the sky, “…any of you ever try making a red wine float?” When there is no response, she continues: “…a good dry merlot over vanilla ice cream….yummy!”
“Alright… if it’ll make you behave for once tonight.”
“I’m not really good at this… but here we go.”
It all started with a yellow notice that my dorm assignment has been changed by the Resident Advisor… again!
I guess I need to explain what happened there first. It’s not easy going to college as a minor. Campus rules are strict on any fraternization between me and college kids because the school is afraid of lawsuits. I have priority registration over regular students because of my age. And Ruben was a classmate of mine in a computer course. And because I’m underage, I get a dorm room all to myself as a freshman. All of this means most college kids hold me in contempt. I’ve got it easy where they suffer. I’m protected where they can get into big trouble. And most students in my dorm didn’t like me.
Of course, I’ve made it no secret that my techie skills leave a lot to be desired. And Ruben and I were teamed up for a class project: to make a video on a current event in the news. Naturally I went toward planning and writing over the actual work on the computer, which Ruben and Chris, another classmate took lead on the tech parts. When Ruben asked me to record audio for the video is when it went haywire.
You know my powers. In short, I read a script to be recorded. And when the end of the script came, the worst possible thing could have happened to me… I had to sneeze. Now, it doesn’t take much to guess than when I sneeze, I should NOT be in an enclosed area, let alone near anything that is easily broken. It was winter, so the windows were locked shut in his room, and I couldn’t get away fast enough… And Ruben’s father ran a car dealership, so his laptop was a Crey XSP 2380…
“A Crey XSP? You didn’t tell me that!” Tim laughs aloud… “This story just got magnitudes better… keep going!”
Paige wasn’t laughing after she told that last part. Her eyes start to redden.
See? Tahq knows why it’s a big deal. Top of the line. Geeks drool over laptops like these, and for $12,800, it’s worth drooling over except if you did, you’d break it. I didn’t understand this at the time, Chris explained it to me after it was too late. Because I sneezed, and the little pizza box of steel was blown apart right in front of our eyes.
So Ruben has had it out for me ever since. We finished the video, well, they finished the video avoiding me, so I passed the project without lifting a finger. But shortly after, there was a vacancy for a Resident Advisor, and he took the job. And that’s when his campaign began.
This is the 6th time in the school year that he’s given my dorm room to someone else in an effort to get me to leave. And I was looking forward to getting out. I’ve offered to pay part of my Financial Aid checks to him until he could get another laptop, but his dad replaced it the following week. Ruben was a computer science major, so the programs he was writing were on that hard disk that my sneeze smashed up. He had no backups. When I offered a money order, he tore it up in my face and walked off. And the bank didn’t accept the ripped up order for a refund.
Everything he could do to make me miserable, he did it, and he did it short of breaking the rules of Paragon City University. The first prank didn’t have it’s intended effect, as my bedroom was covered from the bed to the floor in a hill of little girl’s day of the week underwear that I clearly didn’t own, with a sign on my door: “AVOID! This girl’s too young for a panty raid!” Since he didn’t touch my stuff, or actually steal anything, it didn’t constitute theft. I was laughing on that one, not upset. If they weren’t mine, how did he buy them?
So that’s why I took my first assignment. With you guys. I left student housing at PCU, Ruben’s still on campus, but has no power over me anymore. And the loneliness I used to feel is gone.
But it got worse and worse. My textbooks one afternoon were stuck in the high shelf of my closet where I couldn’t reach them and replaced with Judy Blume novels and The Babysitter’s Club books. Then a week later, my mail stopped arriving, with a box of letters frozen in ice sitting on my doormat at the end of the month. I filed a complaint, and it was dismissed after the RA reported that my door was unlocked. And I had no proof he did it.
But this is where he hit too close to home… he rigged the campus network in that dorm building to set the homepage to a photo of a past newspaper article back when my Mom was incarcerated. In bold red letters, “WHY ARE THE DAUGHTERS OF CRIMINALS ATTENDING PCU?” My name… my real name, circled. Dorm dwellers up and down the building asking “Who’s Rebecca Thompson? I’ve never heard of her…” “She really shouldn’t be here…” “Is she in this dorm? I don’t feel safe.” A couple of hours later, students connected the dots and it started spreading that Rebecca is me. If I had any chance at camaraderie in that dorm left, it was shot now. I couldn’t take it anymore.
Monique is looking appalled at Paige’s treatment at the hands of this cad. “Oh, Paige… Oh, Ah’m so sorry! Is theah nothin’ that can be done about this…. this… asshole?”
“I’m fine, Monique. He’s moved on to upperclassmen work, so he’s wrapped up in the Tech Wing. I barely see him anymore now that I’m out of the dorms.”
“And I couldn’t ask for a better group of friends… so if I may, a toast. To heroes, both great and small. To rogues, with us or against us. And to friends, past, present and future.” Paige raises her glass into the night sky.
“Heah, heah!” Monique raises her cup of coffee in a salute to the toast.
Linuial raises her glass, as well. “To our noble selves, there are damned few of us left.”
She takes a sip, but her eyes are on the distance, and her expression is…somber.
“Paige…” She draws the name out, sliding a fingertip around the rim of her glass. “You said your real name was circled on the newspaper article? Are you telling me that a newspaper printed the full name of a minor?”
Her eyes are strangely cold.
“Hear, Hear!” Tim chants back.
Tim thinks to himself, “Paige, I didn’t know about that last part with the online harassment… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pushed you to tell that story after all.”
“Nope. He typed that in.” Paige replied. “The newspaper didn’t publish my name, but he certainly got a hold of my student records from the PCU database. But I can’t prove he did it exactly.”
Monique makes a mental note to track down this Ruben and have a word or 10 with him. Very soon.
“So…this was a little over six months ago?” she continues.
“I’m thankfully better versed in technology… It’s a practice done online called doxxing. He may not have hacked the database, but someone else certainly did and dumped the data for anyone to nab. He probably found your info and ran with it.”
“Schools tend to have the worst security measures. If you tried to get them to investigate, they’d drop it for fear of exposing their own negligence.” Tim added.
“Yeah, but I don’t even care anymore. With you guys, I don’t need revenge. My life’s much richer now than it was. In fact, if he didn’t push me down so often, I wouldn’t have met you.” Paige said. “He did me a favor and didn’t even realize it.” She’s smiling and blushing at their concern… “Thank you.”
Impulsively, Monique rises, wet legs dripping as she crosses to Paige’s’ side and hugs her.
“Ah’m not goin’ to thank a bully for bringin’ you into mah life, Paige, but Ah’m very glad to know you, and hope we’ll see moah of each otheh.”
She steps back, her gaze meeting the young girl’s, adding, “And if anyone messes with you again, you let me know, OK?”
Having listened to Paige’s story in silence, Devereaux retrieves his phone again. After a few taps on the screen he raises it to his ear.
“Ni hao ma? Hao, hao. Wo xuyao de dongxi ni de bangzhu.”
He ignores the looks of surprise from the others and continues in Chinese. “Ta shi yi ming xuesheng zai Paragon City University. Ta de mingzi shi Reuben. Tongchang, qing. Xiexie.”
The conversation concluded, he returns the phone to his pocket and looks directly at Paige. “You might not need revenge, kid, but in my experience it doesn’t pay to let assholes off the hook. That was a friend of mine. He’s a real genius with computers. Your buddy Reuben’s in for a treat.”
Smiling devilishly, he raises his glass and drains it in a long swallow.
Linuial blinks, listening in on the Praetorian’s conversation…then her expression softens…then a rather frightening smile begins to creep across her lips.
She laughs, makes eye contact with Devereaux, and lifts her glass in salute.
Still chuckling, she puts her glass on the side of the hot tub and reaches for a forkful of Mud Pie.
“And on that day, Paige gets the best gift of all of us. The gift of vindication.” Tim smiles and takes the last bite of the mid pie on his plate.
Monique, startled at first by Dev’s fluency in Chinese, nods as he explains what he’s done, and lifts her coffee cup in a salute to him as well.
“You have a good friend in Mr. Devereaux,” she murmurs to Paige.
“Yes, yes, I’m amazing,” Devereaux laughs, waving off the accolades. “Unfortunately, I’m also busy. I’d love to hang around but I need to be on a plane in seventy-two hours and there’s a lot to get done before then.”
Setting his empty glass aside, he cuts a mock bow in Nyghtshade’s direction. “Thanks for the hospitality, cher,” he says, using the Cajun term of affection.
Then, employing his telepathy, he sends a message to Linuial. “Day after tomorrow work for you?”
“I had a rather unimportant meeting that afternoon…I’d just as soon put it off as not, so…yes, that would be fine. 8 pm?“ she responds, addressing her mental image of the Praetorian.
She takes another bite of mud cake, leans back against the side of the hot tub, closes her eyes, a relaxed smile on her lips.
Monique dimples at Devereaux’s term of endearment. “A pleashoah havin’ you heah, Mr. Devereaux. Hope we can do it again sometime soon.”
“It’s just…nevermind.” Devereaux shakes his head ruefully, resigned to the idea that Nyghtshade will probably never drop the superfluous title.
“Works for me. Ask Paige for my number. I told her not to share it but something tells me she won’t turn you down.”
“I’ll let myself out.” Two fingers extended in a backhanded peace sign, he makes his way out of the garden.
“And as us teenagers have our 10 o’clock curfew, Paige, shall we head out of here?”, Tim says after Devereaux takes his leave. “We don’t want to turn into Pumpkins… Especially now, as they’re in season.”
“It was lovely havin’ you all,” Monique assures them. “Ah hope we can do it again sometime soon? Thanksgivin’s always open, just throwin’ that out theah.”
She grins, to take any pressure off the invite.
“Yeah, good call. I’m sorry guys, he’s right. Linuial, I need to talk to you about my World History homework next semester. Especially Egypt, your story was amazing!” Paige said.
“Basti, I still have a friend who goes deep-sea fishing every once in a while. I don’t know if you’d like boats, but if you don’t, I’ll give you a call when we’re cooking it up. We’d love to have you join us!”
“And Monique… Thanks for your warmth and hospitality. I really enjoyed myself tonight. Thanksgiving sounds amazing, I can’t wait!”
“I’m telling you Monique… If you open up a place, I’ll happily apply for busboy. A singing busboy, if I have to. Just say the word.”
“Lin… When I get old enough to drink, I’ll give that float a try! I’ve missed you!”
“And Bubastis… Got any missions in the future, here’s my number. I’d enjoy working with you. Just from the confusion from our enemies alone…” Tim takes off his sweater and grows his wings out. “A cat and a bird working together. Think how scared they’d be!”
Monique’s smile broadens as Paige accepts the invitation for Thanksgiving. “Lookin’ foahward to it mahself, Paige. And yo’ah all invited, if yo’ah free. Turkey and all the trimmin’s.”
She begins to move around the table, collecting trash to toss, and stacking up the silverware, coffee pots and mugs on the trays.
She leaves Basti’s treats on the table, along with the bottle with its remaining wine.
Bubastis runs over to Nyghtshade. “Oh, please, may I help you, Ms. Nyghtshade? Linuial just showed me how to wash dishes…can I help you by washing dishes? Just show me what to do…I want to learn how to throw….throw? …give parties, too!”
She is purring loudly, her tail lashing happily.
“Paige, a second, please. Tim, I’m giving you fair warning, turn your eyes…or don’t. Monique, can I trouble you for a bath towel?”
She stands, dripping, and climbs out of the hot tub. Walking to pick up her tunic, she drapes it over a forearm, which she holds to her chest as she walks up to Paige…not entirely covering all the niceties.
“Paige, Xavier told me to ask you for his private number, the one he gave you. I’ll need it to tell him where to go…to get his beloved steak dinner.” She laughs, tosses her head, her wet hair flying.
Nyght fetches an oversized beach towel from a locker beside the hot tub and hands it to Linuial with no sign of embarrassment, bids everyone goodnight, and cheerfully heads upstairs with Basti to handle clean-up and fill Basti’s head with party advice, thinking to herself that it’s been a really fine evening.
“I take it Dev wasn’t happy with me giving his number to Tahq before that night with Malta?” Paige frowned. “…sure. Understand it’s a burner phone, he might shut it off without warning.”
She gives the phone number to Lin on a napkin.
“…well, if he shuts it off before he gets his steak, that just saves me a very expensive check.” She laughs, wipes her hand on the towel, and accepts the napkin.
The dinner party has been a success, and the group has enjoyed a chance to unwind and get to know one another a little better, but all good things must come to an end.
As Monique heads upstairs with Basti, and the rest of Monique’s guests gather their things and depart, a tall slim ebony-skinned man in a sleek grey Armani suit silently watches from far above, on an upper balcony of the Architect Entertainment building, his attention wholly trained on Monique’s brownstone…