Paragon City Stories: Meanwhile at the Superbase
Hosted by UNINVENTIVEHEART
Chapter I, Scene 7
Dinner and Dances
Place: Atlas Park
You receive a text on one of your burner phones, the same one Paige Pirillo has used to contact you in the past. It gives a street address in Atlas Park, in Paragon City, Rhode Island. A quick check tells you that it is a skyscraper, set squarely between Chiron Medical Center, and the Hotel Geneva. There are additional instructions: “Don’t bother entering at the ground level. The Lounge is on the top floor, and they have a ‘Heroes Only’ entrance from the roof. You’ll find one flight of stairs that end inside the bar. I’ll be waiting for you there.” It’s signed “Evensong”.
You step out of the stairwell; the door closes behind you. If you had bothered to count the floors from the ground, you would realize that you are now on the 58th floor. You look around the bar but don’t see anyone you recognize.
Just then, a man who is leaning over a table turns and walks to the bar. In the chair behind where he was standing is a woman with blonde hair piled on top of her head, wearing a sleeveless evening gown, covered with crystals from neck to hem. Another man walks over to her, apparently speaks to her, although you can’t hear his words…at first she gives a brief nod, then shakes her head, and the man walks back to his table.
At that moment, she turns her head, surveying the room, and sees you. She smiles, waves, and stands, beginning to walk toward you.
The crystals cover the fabric of the dress all the way to the floor; the bodice is tightly fitted and structured, the fabric drapes her body and moves around her feet as if almost weightless. Her hair is a mass of curls and waves, some of which cover the tops of her ears, hiding the fact that she is not entirely human. She is wearing a very large, pale blue jewel pendent in a yellow gold setting, hung from a delicate yellow gold chain necklace. Tiny jewels are pinned in the curls of her hair, catching the low light of the bar and flashing ice and fire.
Devereaux, dressed in a crisply tailored black Armani three piece suit, powder blue silk shirt, and polished leather boots, cuts an expensive figure as he makes his way across the room.
“Impressive, Blondie. Very Old Hollywood.” He punctuates the compliment with a smile. “Bonus points for the venue.”
Linuial laughs softly. “You’ve only just seen the bar, Xavier. Don’t be impressed too easily.” She cocks her head to one side. “Would you like to spend some time in the bar, or shall we adjourn to the dining room?”
“I was talking about the dress,” he says with a laugh of his own.
“I prefer dinner before drinks. Less chance of overdoing it that way.”
She laughs softly. “I believe the correct reply is ‘Oh, this old thing? I found it in the back of the closet…’
“Actually…I’m afraid it is rather an old thing…I picked it up decades ago at a Hollywood auction…”
“Well, if I were the type of person who gave more consideration to how old a woman’s dress is instead of how she looks in it…I’d probably have a more wholesome reputation,” he chuckles.
“Thankfully, I’m not so let’s not worry about paltry details like where it came from. Now, did I hear you say something about a dining room?”
Linuial slips a hand through Devereaux’s arm and leads the Praetorian to the Maitre d’ pedestal…just then a middle-aged man dressed in after-five, complete with cumberbun but without a jacket, rushes forward from a door behind the bar. He approaches Linuial, offers a slight but formal bow, and reaches forward to take one of her hands in his own.
“Milady,” he says, quietly. “I had no idea you were coming tonight. You should have called ahead, I would have prepared a private room for you.”
Linuial laughs, softly. “Jacob, what have I told you…I hate fuss. And besides, I enjoy sitting in the dining room, I can watch the other diners enjoying your house, as much as I do.”
“As you desire, Milady,” he replies, looking as happy as if it was his own idea. “Would you and your honorable gentleman please come with me, and we’ll get you settled.”
Jacob leads the blonde woman by the hand through the wide-open doorway behind the Maitre d’ stand. The room beyond is rectangular, and fills one end of the floor; there are windows looking out into the evening on three sides. All along the windowed walls there are tables set, pushed up against those windows. There is a wide isle, perhaps 8 feet in width, just inside the semi-circle of window tables, and two couples have taken advantage of it to dance next to their tables. On the other side of the aisle there is another u-shaped row of tables, and within that, a 3-inch-high wooden stage, where a string quartet is playing softly. Between the stage and the entryway, there is a long, narrow planter with assorted greenery that acts as a backdrop to the musicians…tiny lights bob and weave randomly among the leaves, and tiny plumes of water spray a few inches into the air and fall back into the planter, the sound of falling rain combining with the soft sounds of the strings.
Jacob walks around the planter, stage, and the inner half-ring of tables, down the left-hand aisle, almost all the way to the back windowed wall. He pulls a chair out from the last table on the left, guides Linuial into it, and pushes it in for her, her back facing the entryway, so that she is looking out the windowed back wall, with more windows on her left. Jacob then pulls the second chair opposite, back to the back wall, facing the entryway, for the Praetorian to seat himself.
Turning, Jacob jerks an imperative finger toward the entry, and a young woman, perhaps in her mid-20s, dressed in formal black with a stiff crinoline under the circle skirt, walks quickly forward. He leans close to her, whispering to her, her eyes go wide, and she audibly says, “Yes, Sir!” Jacob turns to the seated couple: “Amanda will be taking care of you tonight. We will endeavour to show you our very best. I hope it will be to your satisfaction!”
“I’m sure it will be,” Linuial responds. He smiles broadly, bows, turns and strides away.
“Milady…how can I begin your evening with us?” Amanda says, looking from one diner to the other.
“The gentleman will be ordering for us, tonight,” the tiny woman replies, “…except for the entree, I’ll be making that selection off menu.”
“Of course, Milady!” Amanda turns to Devereaux, expectation in her eyes.
Linuial smiles as the Praetorian seats himself, then uses a finger to direct his attention to the view outside.
Looking out the windows, a diner can see the Atlas Park tram station, the lights in the windows of City Hall…even the curve of the Atlas globe is a shadow in the night.
Turning his head, Devereaux takes a moment to admire the view. It’s truly worthy of a six figure price tag, even managing to rival the one from his favorite penthouse in Cap Au Diable.
Pulling himself away from the dazzling scenery, he delivers a brief order to the Maitre’d. “A bottle of red to start. Preferably a Grand Cru if you have it.”
He pauses for a moment, thinking. “Y’know, I realize now that I’ve only ever seen you eat twice. I don’t have a clue what you prefer when it comes to appetizers,” he admits, a soft laugh escaping his lips.
She waves a hand, grinning. “Surprise me. If I haven’t already tried it at least twice, you win a prize.” She laughs, her eyes sparkling.
“As for what I prefer, after 5,000 years, it’s something ‘new’. Always something new.”
Looking bemused, he replies. “How did I know you’d say something like that?”
Returning his attention to the small man waiting patiently, he completes his order. “Seared Bluefin with a side of ponzu, black caviar, and water crackers, if you would please.”
As the Maitre’d nods and hurries off, Devereaux asks sarcastically, “Was the caviar too cliche? I can never tell.”
“I can’t imagine you doing anything ‘cliche’, Xavier.” She laughs.
“So…tell me. You were talking about Akita…do you have your heart set on it, or would you possibly like to try a different type of wagyu? Perhaps something you haven’t tried yet?”
“Seems you’re the authority here, m’lady.” Devereaux inclines his head in mock supplication. “I submit myself to your will.”
She smiles at the mock title, but does not comment on it.
“Have you tried Kochi? or Kumamoto? 90% of all wagyu in Japan are Japanese Black, it’s a lot harder to find Japanese Brown.”
“Kochi I’m familiar with, yes. Kumamoto? I’ve tried the Praetorian version but I wouldn’t be surprised if it tasted differently here. Land was at a premium after the Devouring Earth tried to murder everyone and so much of what makes beef is in what the cows eat.”
For a moment, he considers letting the healer off the hook. The reprieve is short lived, however. “Explain something to me, if you’d be so kind. Just what was your standing in El society? I gather your parents were renowned but I didn’t see much of you in that one scene from your memory.”
The blonde woman blinks at the sudden change in topic. Her face sobers, she leans back in her chair, then turns her face to the windows, looking out to some place…some time…far, far away.
When she speaks, her voice is soft, distant. “When you talked about the Legacy of El, I didn’t correct you then…I saw no reason to at that time. What you referred to as the Legacy of El could not have been an artifact of my people…we have never worshipped masks in any form.
“Another misapprehension that I did not correct…in our language, ‘el’ means ‘star’, and it also means one of our people. But only one. ‘El’ is singular. I would speak of myself as ‘el’, but two of us would be ‘eldar’, and all of us would be ‘eldrim’.
“What was I to the Eldrim? I was a child of my mother, who was worshipped as nearly a Goddess, because she was born and grew up among the Gods of our people.
“What was I? I was a servant to the others of my family, who were known and loved and worshiped far and wide among my people. It was a role I was suited for, and took great joy in.”
She looks Devereaux directly in the eyes. “There are other roles than ‘leader’, although you may find that hard to believe. I have been a leader in my own way, but among my own people, I was happy merely to be among them.”
“And yet you came to lead a Supergroup.” Devereaux matches his own demeanor to Linuial’s more serious tone. “Interesting career change.”
He’s about to press on when the waitress arrives with a bottle of wine in an ice bath. Taking hold of it, he pours a healthy dose into waiting glasses and passes one to Linuial.
“I never wanted to lead this team,” he admits, swirling the libation to awaken the rich flavors. “I only agreed to do it so we could get on with the job and collect the reward. That you proposed the idea makes more sense now.”
She accepts the glass, swirls it without thought, then seems to return to herself, looking at the glass as if it held all the answers to all the questions in the world. Holding the glass a bit higher, where she could get one of the low ceiling lights behind it, she counted the legs, their width, their thickness, nodded first to herself, then raised the glass in the Praetorian’s direction, nodded her approval, and took a sip, after testing the aroma briefly.
“I lead Starfire as much by default as for any other reason. I need friends, Xavier. I can’t survive without human contact, people to care about and who are willing to care about me. Can you understand that, Xavier? That being cut off from emotional contact is literally deadly to us? To me?”
“Yeah, you mentioned that.” He returns the salute and gingerly sips at the wine, savoring the earthy depth and hint of sweetness.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging you. I just always thought it was curious, you offering me that deal. You have your Empathy so you knew I didn’t like the idea. And you saw the way I operate so you could deduce I wouldn’t be…traditional in my style. But you threw it out there anyway. I always wondered why.”
“Oh, I knew you didn’t like the idea, but I was pretty certain you wouldn’t like the idea of taking orders from me, either. You really weren’t convinced that I had any idea what I was doing, and we would have wound up in a power struggle over and over again. I’ve played second fiddle many times, and often to people who were far less capable…never mind less experienced, than I was. I’ve suffered vast numbers of Pyrrhic victories, and been the only one to walk out alive, leaving all my comrades, often innocents, to die.” She shugs. “You’d call it the ‘fortunes of war’. I call it ‘stupidity’. It’s all the same.”
She looks sad, takes an extra-large swig from her glass.
“Lives are the currency with which victories are purchased,” Devereaux quotes. Try as he might, the original speaker’s name escapes him.
“Some of us are just more frugal than others. As for that power struggle…” He takes another sip of the Pinot Noir. “I’d say we got around to that just fine.”
She suddenly laughs, throwing her head back. “Xavier, my love, you have no idea what I’m capable of when I put my mind to it…”
She turns her head. “I believe that’s our appetizers coming now…”
Having seen the waitress approaching in his peripheral vision, he nods. “Looks that way. Temporary truce while we stuff our faces?”
“I didn’t think we were at war,” she laughs. “But if me saying ‘truce’ will put you at ease, then ‘truce’ it is.”
She leans back for the positioning of the plates, picks up a tiny fork, and tests the flakiness of the tuna, finds it to her liking, and picks up a cracker and some of the caviar.
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The lights in the dining room begin to darken. Dancers return to their seats. As the quartet finishes one selection, they begin to play The Blue Danube.
Linuial holds up a finger, then points over her left shoulder, turning to her left in her seat to peer out the left-most windows.
At first, there seems to be nothing different…the three skyscrapers huddled together in a group all look the same, unless one counted a few window lights on or off. But after a moment, as the eye adapts to the lower light level outside, a pale curve of…something…becomes noticeable between the right-most and center buildings. The curve moves forward at an incredibly slow rate of speed, before revealing itself to be the nose of the Atlas Park blimp: the dirigible “Spirit of Freedom”. On the same level as the dining room, silent, graceful, it floats, turns, then sails directly in front of the right-hand windowed wall of the dining room, looking as if one might open a window, lean out, and touch it.
The Spirit of Freedom passes the building, then turns back to its right, sailing in front of the back wall of windows, before it turns again to its left, and floats serenely past the next skyscraper over, disappearing into the night.
Turning back to her companion, Linuial smiles. “…and that…is why this is named ‘The Airship Lounge’,” she tells him, as the interior lights return to their previous level. “It was Marcus Cole who brought me here, so many years ago. Not many people know about it; you sort of have to ‘know someone’ to even find out it exists.”
Almost as an afterthought, she turns back to the window, places a hand against it. “Xavier…I love this city. In a way I’ve never loved any city before. I would do anything…anything…to protect it, to keep it safe.” She drops the hand, touches the corner of one eye, as she turns back to her companion.
Taking a spoonful of the chilled sturgeon row and depositing it on one of the thin wafers, he takes a bite and chews appreciatively. Thus far, the cuisine has indeed been as good as Linuial promised. The conversation…well, that remains to be seen.
“You and a few thousand other metahumans. Who would’ve thought the real life Metropolis would be in Rhode Island of all places? The irony’s almost too much to be believable.” He chuckles at the thought.
“I can’t help wondering if this isn’t what Praetoria would’ve been without Hamidon, without Cole…our Cole…to serve as it’s lord and master.” Looking out toward the window, his face crinkles with disdain. “All the power of a god and the best he managed to do with it was punish and enslave. Wish I could say I was surprised.”
She looks out the window, sighs. “We were lucky, Xavier. Our Marcus Cole was a child, who didn’t live long enough to grow to adulthood…a dangerous child, but for the most part, an innocent one as well. He was wrong…but he wasn’t as wrong. And if there is any argument to be made for innocence and a belief in ‘good’, then powerful men like Marcus Cole are that argument.” She shrugs, turns her vision back inside the room.
“How is it? If there is anything that isn’t up to your standards, we can ask Jacob to correct it.”
“No, it’s quite good,” he says, lazily dragging a piece of fish through the citrus laden ponzu sauce.
“So, I got the answer I was looking for. I think that means it’s your turn. Anything you’re just dying to know? What’s my deepest, darkest secret? My shoe size, maybe?”
The Praetorian laughs and pops the morsel into his mouth, pleased to find that it’s been perfectly prepared.
“I suspect you’d refuse to answer most any question I’d really want to ask…” she chuckles.
“I tell you what…I’ll think about it, and I think it’s about time we ordered our entree. You never did tell me exactly what you wanted…do you want to order for yourself? If it’s wagyu and they don’t have it, I’ll be very surprised, and will have something I can tease Jacob about for the rest of his life.”
“This is your show, Blondie. I’m just playing the part. Order whatever you think is appropriate.” He returns the wink.
“As for the questions you really wanna ask, try me. I’m not outright opposed to anything that doesn’t have to do with business.”
Linuial turns her head toward the entry, and starts to raise her hand, but Amanda speed-walks to their table before she can complete the gesture.
“Yes, ma’am, I mean….Milady!” She sounds slightly out of breath, even though the distance is quite short.
“We’ll be ready for our entree soon, so I’d like to get our order in.” She turns to the Praetorian. “How do you prefer yours prepared?”
“Mid-rare. Only way to eat a good steak.” He gives Amanda a friendly nod.
“…he’ll have the Omi mid-rare, and I’ll have the mishima carpaccio. The baby vegetables. Oh, and some of that house-made shoyu, the ginger sauce, and a bit of the green peppercorn as well.” She turns to Devereaux. “Anything else you would like?”
“Not just yet. I’ll sort the rest out once I know how the steak is.”
Lowering his chin to rest on one fist, he adds, “Don’t think you’re getting away so easily. If there’s really something you wanna know about me, now’s the time to ask.”
She picks at her tuna, then puts the fork by the side of her plate, turns her gaze up to meet his eyes, and hold them. Her expression is quiet, sober, and a bit sad.
“Xavier, those scars you showed us…I’m almost afraid to ask you anything about your personal past, as I have no way to be certain it won’t bring up painful memories for you.”
“I don’t know anything about the history of your world, how close or distant it might be from the one I know. I suppose I should really do some studying on the subject. In my world, I read about the phenomenon of the South Vietnamese war babies…the children with local mothers, fathered by American soldiers. Some of those fathers brought their families back to the US with them, some did not. I know that those half Vietnamese children were very badly treated, as their problem with racial prejudice is even greater than ours in the US.
“The first time you took off your sunglasses, I found myself wondering if your story might be similar. For Primal Earth, you have skin and hair from one part of our world, and eyes from another, very widely separated. It made me curious what your story might be.
“Of course, for all I know, maybe all Praetorians have your features and coloration. You might be the most common archetype of all.”
She smiles softly, hoping that she hasn’t crossed some line that can’t be crossed back.
Devereaux’s half smile is not unkind. “All the things you could’ve asked and you decide to go with that?” He laughs. “Well, I did say I’d answer but to really get it you’ll need a quick lesson in Praetorian history.”
Taking a gulp of wine, he begins. “What you have to understand is that Praetoria was at war long before you Primals showed up. Actually, the two worlds followed a pretty similar track right up until it all went to shit. I’ll spare you the gritty details but basically the powers that be got to fighting and did so much damage to the planet that our version of Hamidon Pasilima did pretty much what yours did, turned himself into a giant monster determined to commit genocide in order to save the Earth. That’s what brought Cole to power in the first place. He managed to force the Devouring Earth to retreat somehow.”
Another sip of wine, then, “Just like in this dimension, Cole was an American. Combine that with the fact that the rest of the planet had taken a few hundred nukes and it only made sense to build his shining city on a hill in the good old US of A.”
“So to answer your question, no, I’m not any part Vietnamese. The eyes? I’m not sure why they look the way they do but they’re mine.” He smiles, this time without cunning. “And don’t worry, you didn’t offend me. I used to get that all the time.”
She smiles with relief. “Good, I didn’t want…”
She stops…her brows furrow while her eyes widen. She looks up at him, into his eyes, searching for something there.
“Xavier,” she says softly, “to make this…offer…even to almost demand that I make use of it…”
“…there is something you want me to ask of you. Something you want to tell me…and yet for some reason you feel you can’t…or you’re too afraid to just say it outright.
“Like about your scars. You couldn’t just tell me about them, you had to make it a question for me to ask you.”
She tilts her head to one side, reaches across the table to lay her hand softly on his.
“Ask me to dance.”
“Guilty as charged,” he says without a hint of embarrassment. “There’s a lot we need to talk about.”
Turning his hand palm up to cradle Linuial’s, he returns her gaze. Confidently, with all the polished ease that comes with practice, he asks, “Care to dance?”
Her hand fits into his as if they were made for each other. She allows him to draw her to her feet, reaches up to put her hand on his shoulder. As he slides his arm around her waist, she trembles, closes her eyes.
His emotions flood her senses, blocking out all the other emotions in the room.
“Xavier…you know I am only an Empath…I can feel your emotions, but there are so many of them, so chaotic, and I can’t pick any facts from your mind.“ As the tempo of the string quartet picks up, his grip around her waist tightens, and he swings her in a circle around him.
She opens her eyes, peers deeply into his, and discovers that he has left his glasses on the table. “So many emotions…and…trust? Only a tiny echo, so hard to feel but….I’m not wrong about that, am I?“ It is a statement, not a question.
His touch is firm and steady, and within a couple of steps it becomes obvious that he is quite adept. She relaxes into his arms, and allows him to guide her, surrendering to his lead.
“Help me to understand…“
Following the rhythm of the band, he guides the dance as if it were as simple as walking. Reflex, rather than conscious thought, carries him through the steps.
“There’s a saying I like. ‘I don’t respect anyone I don’t trust and I don’t trust anyone I don’t respect.’ Blondie, our worldviews are diametrically opposed. There’s no getting around that.”
The violin strikes a crescendo and he responds, twirling them both into a graceful rotation. “But you’ve proven that you’re more than capable and you stick to your guns. Doesn’t leave me much choice in the matter. I think you’re wrong about a lot of things, and you’re arrogant enough to fight about it. Then again, you’d say the same about me, wouldn’t you?” This time it’s his turn to couch fact as a query.
“Let’s be honest. We’ve both got secrets the other one can’t figure out, powers or no powers. Before, I was content to let that be but after Morpheus and what happened at the hospital…I’m not so sure anymore.”
Almost imperceptibly, he lets his hand fall a fraction of an inch further down the small of her back. It’s just enough to give him the leverage he needs to pull her a little closer. “Something happened to us inside your head. Whether it’s good, bad, or something else entirely, I don’t know yet. What I do know is that the way we’ve been working is no longer an option.”
As she matches herself to his movements, she is reminded of another night, another lounge.
It was on the cruise ship, American Independence. The Independence sailed between the islands of Hawaii, never leaving those astonishingly sapphire waters. It was well past midnight, and she was there enjoying the company of a man who was also on the cruise, and unpartnered as she was.
Because it was the “off season”, there were only three who had taken single cabins, and the other girl had gone to bed early.
Henry…Hank…was suffering from unrequited love, as was she. It was too easy for them to find comfort in each other’s arms.
The lounge was modern, with a lighted dance floor, and disco-styled music. The “after midnight buffet” was open, but they both wanted activity, not food.
She was wearing a dancer’s outfit…a sleeveless blue “swimsuit”, for want of a better word, actually a “leotard” in dancer’s parlance. Around her waist she had a matching wrap-and-tie skirt. As a result, with no danger of revealing anything the other passengers didn’t see earlier in the day around the swimming pool, he had swung her around ever more athletically, and she was laughing from the sheer joy of it. He pulled her close, and whispered, “…hang on…” and that was all the warning she had.
He put both hands around her waist, and lifted her high into the air in front of him. Twisting at the waist, he then threw her, in a pendulum swing, beside his body and behind him, still clutching her waist tightly. Without thought, she stiffened her legs, swinging past his legs horizontally to the floor, touching nothing, then found herself behind him, nearly upside down…then he allowed her body’s weight to bring her back down, past his legs again, and up in front of him, setting her gently on her feet.
She looked up into his eyes, and laughed with delight, from the bottom of her heart.
“Xavier,” she whispers softly, choosing to use her voice rather than his telepathy, “…I often find that in trying to figure me out, people make everything far more difficult than it needs to be.
“Usually, I just allow them to get to know me at their own pace, in their own way. I may try to give them guidance, a hint here, a prod there, but if that fails, then I simply accept that they are not…yet…ready to understand or accept me.”
Her eyes stare past him, looking somewhere far away. If he looks at her, he can see that she looks very sad, almost…lost.
“You would think that a woman who is many thousands of years old would be very complex, and there is a certain truth to that. But one of the things that mortals never guess, is that it also makes you…very simple.
“Over the millennia, I have had many, many things ‘sweated out of’ me. I have made so many mistakes, so many times, that they no longer are a part of who I am.
“What I find…fascinating…about you, is that you have come to many of the same conclusions that I have, despite your short time in this world.”
She looks up at him, locks eyes with him, peering deeply. “My greatest fear is the death of mortals, especially those I care about, although I am almost as determined to save the lives of the dull, ignorant, even stupid and cruel. As I told you, I will not waste my time on them, but if I can keep one alive, I will do so.
“However, that does not change the fact that there are literally billions alive today that I will never know, can never help. My failures are only highlighted by my few successes.
“This world doesn’t need me. I need it. For what, I cannot say. But for some reason, the Star Queen has seen fit to keep me here, and She must have some purpose for me.”
“When I…chastised you…for endangering Tahquitz and Paige, there was another thought uppermost in my mind. Had you pushed a little further, I would have shared it with you, without fear of the possible cost.”
She stares past his shoulder, into the night, toward the blue glowing war walls. “What I never said, is that I have seen hundreds of thousands of teenagers die. And children. And babies. I will fight to keep them alive…but when the time comes…I can let go…or even do the deed myself, if that is what it takes.
“Sometimes, the coup de grace is the only sane alternative. And I have done it, many, many times.”
Looking back into his eyes: “I simply can’t stand by and watch preventable death. If that is contrary to your world view…then I guess I don’t understand you.”
“Clearly, not,” Devereaux replies in his own voice. The smile he shows borders on apologetic. “I was hoping not to ruin a perfectly good dance but it wouldn’t be one of our conversations if we didn’t mention Tahq and Paige.”
“You know I’m not a butcher. I kill, yes, but I don’t enjoy it. All the same, sometimes it’s the right tool…the only tool…for the job.”
The music begins to slow, prompting him to speak quickly lest the moment die like fading notes on the air. “I never really explained why I treat those kids the way I do.” He hesitates, then adds with some reluctance, “Maybe I should’ve but there was always something else that needed to get done. You seem to think I do it to force them into being a certain way or believing in my particular ideology but that’s not true.”
Looking down into her eyes, there’s something unreadable in his expression. “They need to know, Linuial. They need to know exactly what kind of power is in their hands. More importantly than that, they need to understand what it could do to them. If they don’t…well, you said yourself Statesman was just a child.”
As the final notes play themselves out, he lowers his voice to just above a whisper and leans close, speaking softly next to her ear. “To hand a child a loaded gun and tell them they’ll be safe…That’s cruelty on an entirely different scale.”
As he leans back, she looks into his eyes with a new expression.
“Yes….far more mature than your years justify,” she says softly. “Marcus could have learned a lot from you.”
As the quartet ends its selection, she continues to hold his hand, her arm across his shoulder, pressing herself closer to him.
After a few seconds, they begin to play again, a softer, slower melody.
She drops her eyes, thinking. “Arrogant? No, I wouldn’t call you that. Certainly, you have a lot of self-confidence, and that can look like arrogance to those who lack it. And, certainly, you are not the first person to call me that, either, but it doesn’t bother me in the least. I know things that other people do not. And they don’t know what it is that they don’t know, nor can they imagine it. I, on the other hand, can imagine what it is like to ‘not know’. I can forgive them for the so-called crime of having too little experience, too few years.”
“And that’s exactly why we’re always fighting,” he sighs. “Listen, I can appreciate that you’ve seen and done more than just about anyone else you could come across. That doesn’t mean you know all the answers. If anything, it should make you more willing to wait and watch and adapt. Not less.”
He shakes his head, suddenly having lost his place within the music along with any desire to find it again. “What are we doing? This was supposed to be a simple transaction. Looks like that’s too much to handle even for us.”
His laughter is unbidden and without humor.
She smiles, gently. “And you haven’t seen me do exactly that?”
“Oh, you’ll do it but not without making sure to give me an earful later,” he retorts.
She laughs, but softly, with fondness. “You really do hate to have someone challenge your decisions, don’t you, even if they have a really good idea that you eventually adopt.”
She turns her head to the side, rests her cheek against his chest, listening to his heart. “Do you want an obedient servant, someone who will never point out anything you haven’t thought of already? Of course not…even you know that about yourself. You chastised me for giving you a mere ‘servant’ in Evensong. Challenge may irritate you, in the moment, but over the long term, you couldn’t trust someone who didn’t challenge you at times, even fight with you. You’d never trust a dishrag.”
She sighs. “When you declared your reasons for running this last mission, even without a certainty of being paid, I, too, spoke plainly and honestly to you. Have you forgotten so quickly? I told you that I, and Starfire, were at your disposal, would do whatever you asked of us, until that mission was over. No questions, no argument. And believe I kept my side of that bargain, Xavier. I don’t remember arguing with you once, nor ‘chewing you out’ afterward. Is my memory that bad? Is that something I 'lost' due to Morpheus?”
A hint of the usual mischief returns to his voice. “I’m not sure. Was this before or after you thought I was some other shapeshifter who’d killed and replaced the real me?”
“Just think what they’d say if they saw us now. Nyghtshade would already have your wedding dress picked out. I don’t even wanna imagine the cheesy wisecracks Tahq would come up with.” He shudders in faux disgust. “Paige though…she’s the real enigma in our little band of merry men, isn’t she? No telling where she’d land if she saw us dancing instead of battling for supremacy.”
She laughs, relief in her voice. “Xavier, you have no idea what I was prepared to do to that shapeshifter who murdered you.” She winks at him. “But he would have regretted it with every last breath of his very short miserable life.” She giggles. “Time has taught me some very nasty tricks, that might even surprise you. Your revenge would have been very sweet, even if it was from beyond the grave.”
She sobers. “Xavier, please try to understand this. At no time have I ever had anything but the highest regard for you, right from the very beginning. I told you that I don’t ‘waste my time’ on the unsalvageable, and I don’t. I didn’t ‘chew you out’ because I thought you were ‘wrong’, or stupid, or uncaring….I did it solely because I was disappointed. I wouldn’t have ‘chewed out’…say…Von Trier, the man was a nobody and not worth bothering about. If my disappointment was ill-placed, well, then, that just goes to show that I am not perfect, not infallable…and if you are to work with me, you need to be as clear on that fact as I am…and also that I know this to be true.
“I can apologize to a child, if need be, and feel no embarrassment about it. And if you want an apology from me, it is yours.”
Waving a hand dismissively, he listens as the second song begins to go the way of the first. “At least you managed to admit it for once.”
“Apologies are overrated, Blondie. I’ll settle for another drink.” He laughs, hearty and full throated but without mockery or scorn.
She allows him to lead her back to their table, pull out her chair for her, slide it in “just so”. She turns her head to the entryway, and as before, Amanda comes rushing over before she can complete a beckoning gesture.
As they wait for their drinks to appear, she tents her fingers in front of her, elbows inelegantly on the table. “Xavier, I have failed so many times, so spectacularly, that I can never be free of the awareness of my own flawed nature. There was more than one reason I showed you Tiankong. I killed the one man I loved most in the world at that time, and I can never be free of that memory, that feeling. And the knowledge that, had I not been so weak, so frightened, for my own life, my own welfare, my own comfort, as to lend my power to a monster, I would not have been forced to murder him to set things right.
“Some things can’t be forgotten, Xavier. Ever. He is the reason for many of the rules I have for myself, now…Not helping the cruel, as you mentioned, is only one of them. Never am I unaware of the reasons for those rules, nor my own culpability.
“Would that I could remember the wisdom I learned…and forget the man.”
“Can’t say I’ve got anything to match that,” Devereaux admits, reaching across the table to lay a hand on her arm. “But thanks to you I’ve got an idea of how it must’ve felt.”
Though the statement seems woefully inadequate, he presses on. “I won’t pretend to understand you, Linuial. That’s a little too cocky, even for me. But if my life has taught me anything, it’s that the only choice is to keep moving. I tried to make that point when I was inside your head, though circumstances didn’t let me be very articulate at the time. I couldn’t run the risk of you trying to stop me. I did what I did back there because it was the way forward. The past was dead and gone, there was no point in trying to correct it. The best I could do, best anyone can do, is raise the flag and carry on.”
She drops her hands, allows his hand to slide down her forearm until their fingers meet, cups them under his hand, open, allowing him to continue the contact or withdraw, as suits his mood.
Her smile is sad, but she tries to signal him that the contact is welcome and comforting.
She drops her eyes. “Morpheus. Yes. What we really need to talk about. And I do have a question….or two…for you on that sub…ject…I believe our steak is here.”
She leans back, allowing the appetizer plate to be taken away and replaced with her entree.
She smiles at the Praetorian. “How does yours look?”
He doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he takes the time to admire the piece of prized flesh on his plate. Still sizzling from the few minutes it spent in a hot pan, it smells almost as good as it looks.
“Do you know the story behind Omi?” he asks suddenly. Then, remembering who he’s talking to, he chuckles. “Why bother asking? Let me guess. You were there when the first calf was born.”
She laughs. “No, I wasn’t there at that time…I was there much earlier.” She winks at him. “Besides…I think I would love to hear your version of the story. You can tell a mean tale when you put your mind to it…”
“Well, if you insist,” he says with a wink.
“The legend goes that it was originally served to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the daimyo who succeeded Oda Nobunaga after he was betrayed at Hono-ji temple. Toyotomi went on to unify Japan after the Battle of Sekigahara brought an end to the Warring States Period. Later on, after his grandson was usurped by the Tokugawa Shogunate, it became a dish fit only for the Shogun himself. Wasn’t until the Meji Restoration that anyone who’s family name wasn’t Tokugawa could get their hands on it.”
Taking up his fork and knife, he carefully slices into the tender steak. Rivulets of savory juices run onto the plate. It’s a truly mouthwatering sight. “With this, you get four hundred years of history in just one bite.”
Linuial smiles, raises her hands briefly to offer a clap-clap of applause, no sarcasm in either the action or her expression. She picks up the chopsticks, gathers a nearly paper-thin portion of the raw beef into a wad, and dips just the tiniest corner into the brown shoyu before bringing it to her nose, then leisurely placing it in her mouth. She closes her eyes, savoring the aroma, flavor, and texture.
Looking back at her companion, she begins her own tale. “I was ruined centuries ago. I made a pass through Japan, stayed for a few years. This was well before the late 19th century, when the first European cattle were imported into the country, and virtually all of the local beefstock were hybridized.
“As a result, I developed a taste for the native stock. Today’s wagyu is far superior, in every way…but it’s the nostalgia factor, I guess. I am always comparing to what I remember…before.”
She creates another wad, lifts it for the Praetorian’s inspection. “I didn’t order this for you for a reason. It’s mishima, and mishima and Kuchinoshima cattle are the last two remaining breeds that have never been hybridized. It’s almost certainly not as good'…the prices in the market reflect that, even though mishima is very rare indeed. But…even though not as buttery, melt-in-your mouth…it is the taste I remember. Fondly.”
She dips the wad in the ginger sauce before placing it in her mouth.
Jacob makes his way to their table, bows to Linuial. “And how is it tonight, Milady?” he asks.
“Wonderful, as always, Jacob,” she tells him. “However do you do it? Keeping such a stock in store must cost you a fortune…and I admit, it would be kinder of me if I let you know I was coming, but you never let me down.”
“Ah, Milady, that is the house secret,” he remonstrates her, smiling, obviously pleased at her approval.
“Your secret, you mean, Jacob.” She laughs. “Well, keep your secrets then….as long as I can come to your house and get this, you know I will be coming back over and over again.”
Jacob turns to Devereaux. “And you, sir, how is your meal tonight?”
“The lady spoke very highly of you,” Devereaux says by way of response. “It seems my faith in her wasn’t misplaced.”
Raising his fork, he sinks his teeth into the tender, exquisitely marbled beef. True to its reputation, the flavor explodes onto his tastebuds like a clusterbomb.
“Not misplaced at all,” he says, chewing thoughtully as the succulent morsel dissolves on his tongue.
“Thank you, sir,” the formally-attired man nods his head in acknowledgement, before turning to bow to Linuial again, and returning to the entryway and his office.
“So, we’ve danced, we’re enjoying an excellently prepared meal, we even managed to clear the air a little in what can only be described as a small miracle.” Devereaux laughs genuinely. “What’s left to do?”
She returns his laugh, as warm and real as his.
Then she sobers. “Xavier, please don’t take this as a challenge, or criticism, but for my own peace of mind, I do want to know…” She hesitates.
“I want to know why you took on Morpheus…alone. It certainly wasn’t what I intended to happen, and if I somehow led you to believe that I wanted you to sacrifice yourself to save me…”
Her eyes are wide, and sad.
“I thought I told you. Granted, I was a little busy having a seizure at the time so maybe I wasn’t clear.”
Despite the black humor, his expression is serious. “Gotta pay your debts, Blondie.” He continues before she can interrupt. “I told you I’ve led teams before. The longer I stuck with the Syndicate, the more responsibility they saddled me with. Covert ops squads, infiltration and sabotage teams, that sort of thing. I wasn’t always happy about it. In fact I rarely was but no matter how much I hated it, I knew that part of the job was getting as many people home in one piece as I could. It wasn’t always easy and I failed more than I care to remember but, as far as I was concerned, if I didn’t at least try to keep everyone alive and whole I wasn’t doing my job.”
“Simple as that,” he finishes and fills his mouth with another bite.
She watches him for a while, several different expressions crossing her face.
“I see…” she finally replies.
“Xavier…may I try to explain my worldview in your terms? You’ve heard me say that I am a ‘healer’, that that is what I am, who I am. It’s how I come to terms with my own sins. Nobody put me up to it, I have no authority saying I must do this…not even our Gods. Like you, it isn’t always easy, and I, too, have failed many, many times…but as far as I am concerned, if I don’t try to keep everyone…everyone…alive and whole I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
She ponders for a moment before continuing. “Perhaps the only difference between us, is that my ‘team’ is just larger than yours…and I don’t get paid for it. Well, I do, by Paragon City and Hero Corps, but that’s not why I do it, I hardly need the INF stipends I receive.”
“Can you understand it from that perspective?”
“You missed one thing,” Devereaux counters. “Unfortunately, it’s the most important thing.”
He takes a deep, steadying breath and leans forward to rest his elbows on the table, heedless of breaching etiquette. “Your priority is the team. Mine is the job. Yes, I try to bring everyone back in one piece but not at the cost of the objective. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me but when you get right down to it, I’ll carry a coffin if that’s the only way to get something done.”
He sets his fork aside, the meal suddenly forgotten. “I told you lives are spent to buy victories. I’m as miserly as I can be but I’ll spend them if it comes to that.”
She stares down at her plate, fiddles with her chopsticks, looking forlorn. “That is true…” she admits, in a defeated tone of voice.
“Is Milady ready to make a desert selection?” Amanda asks, as she fills water glasses and empties all but the dregs from the wine bottle.
Her eyes somber, the light gone from them, Linuial paints a smile on her face that she doesn’t feel. “Xavier, they have a desert cart they will bring around, if you would like something.”
He considers a moment, then, “Doesn’t seem so apropos at the moment, don’t you think?”
Though his expression is resolute, there’s a tinge of something akin to disappointment in his tone.
She places her hands in her lap, stares down at them.
Her voice is oddly hoarse when she speaks.
“…and yet…when the mission was to rid the world of a monster, and my ‘team’ was a team of one, and that monster, AND my love…I made the choice of the mission over the team.”
She doesn’t wait for a reply. “Once I realized what Morpheus truly was, I knew that it had to be destroyed, at any cost. My own life? Of course. But you, and Paige, and Nyghtshade, were all in my mind, and it was no small risk that you would die along with me. Or that I might have to sacrifice the three of you to destroy Morpheus, and yet I might live on afterward, as I am immortal, and you three are not.
“I wasn’t certain it could even be done. But, Xavier, at no time did I argue with you about your decisions, not even about including Paige. I could have thrown her out of my mind at any time…I did it twice, you saw me. But I knew that we might need her power to defeat Morpheus. I made that decision, not you. I decided that Paige, Nyghtshade, and you, were all ‘acceptable losses’, regardless of whether I survived or not.
“I chose the mission over the team…and I would do it again, a thousand times over. Because it was necessary.”
She balls one hand into a fist and slams it down on the table, while in the same motion she stands so abruptly that her chair topples over. Her 5’1” frame appears to rise…and rise…until her head is brushing the ceiling, and yet nothing changes. She turns and strides in impossibly long steps toward, and through, the entryway, while the very startled Amanda runs after her, calling, “Milady? Milady? Lady Clerik?”
There is the faintest echo of her mind in his: “Perhaps the only difference between us, you and I, is the depth of my regret.“ Then the contact is sheered off as with a knife.
“Sounds about right,” he mumbles to himself as Linuial’s psychic message echoes in his mind.
Ignoring the startled looks of the other patrons, he makes his way to the front of the restaurant and apologizes to Jacob for the inconvenience. The man seems skeptical at first, clearly sizing up just what Devereaux must’ve done to upset her. Paying for the meal in cash, along with a sizable tip for the man and the waitress, seems to soothe his suspicions. Then it’s on to the search for the erstwhile healer.
Telepathy would, of course, be the easiest method. There’s simply no way she could have cleared his effective range in the few minutes it took to smooth over the situation at the restaurant. But he feels, as he’s come to realize most psychics do, that there’s something more impactful about using one’s own voice to discuss serious matters. Where telepathy is like whispering in a person’s ear, speaking is like shouting to a crowd. It requires a certain courage and gravitas that mental communications simply don’t. So he carries on looking, moving purposefully back through the stairwell before finally realizing where he needs to be.
“Rooftop. Definitely rooftop.” Reversing his direction, he takes the stairs two at a time until he reaches a doorway that leads to the roof. Pushing through it, he exits onto a bare concrete slab. Though sparse, it offers a commanding view of the skyline that includes the ubiquitous glow of the city’s War Walls.
The roof is lit from one angle by the nearby War Wall, from another by the three skyscrapers, and from above by the stars.
She is barefoot, her eyes closed, her cheeks wet. Her crystalline dress shimmers in the dim light. She moves in time to a music only she can hear, a song played only by the stars. Delicate, elegant steps, sinuous postures that would seem to be unachievable by a human form, her arms lift and fall, embracing the sky overhead and the earth below. Shrouded in memory, she dances a dance almost as old as the earth itself.
He approaches but says nothing, knowing that an upset woman, immortal or otherwise, can be a very unpredictable thing. Instead he simply watches as she glides from one step to the next. Without music the precise timing is hard to follow but the movements are intriguing.
Transported to another time, another place, she shows no sign of noticing his presence.
“Blondie,” he calls, his voice reverberating in the crisp atmosphere. “Care to fill me in on the rhythm? I’m starting to figure out the pattern but I won’t be much of a partner if I don’t know the steps.”
Her steps, slow, falter…she opens her eyes, turns to look at him.
“No one understands,” she says softly. “I’m so alone…”
“Touch my mind, and I’ll help you hear the music…“
“If you’re talking about sacrifice, you couldn’t be more wrong. If you’re talking about the pain that comes with it…well, we’re all alone on that account.”
He expands his awareness just enough to brush her mind. Not wanting to reach too far lest he make contact with something she’d prefer him not to see. In his estimation, the self-imposed prohibition on reading others minds without permission is a case study in holier than thou philosophy but there’s still much to be said for respecting privacy.
She makes a comfortable spot for him in her mind…the barriers are for his protection, not hers.
“You…everyone…believe that I am some sort of Goody Two-Shoes, that my rules for myself are because I am rigidly moral. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“You believe that I put life above all else, and a lot of the time, that is a valid assumption. But there are things more important than life itself. It is high on my list of priorities, yes. But there are overriding concerns.
“And…how can I explain that, to anyone? Who will understand that life…especially when it goes wrong…is not the be-all-and-end-all of everything? They don’t have my millennia of experience…in all the ways that life can go wrong, that it can become a burden, a travesty, a monstrosity.
“Immortality not only educates one in all the various forms of life…it also educates in all the various forms of death. One must become inured to death in order to live for as long as I have, without going mad. As much as I love life, and wish to preserve it, death is my constant companion.
“That is why I am alone…“
She raises her arms in invitation.
“Xavier, even as we stand here, I know that you will die. I see your death written in your mortal eyes. Even as I get to know you, learn to love you, I am already grieving your eventual death…“
The thought cuts off.
“Welcome to being mortal,” he says, keeping sarcasm from his voice. “We, every one of us, lives with that knowledge everyday. When we go to sleep at night, we know there’s no guarantee that we’ll wake up in the morning.”
Sighing, he moves to ruffle his hair. Only to be reminded that his recent style change makes the expression impossible.
“You probably think that makes us ignorant or just plain stupid. How could we possibly live our lives so callously when we know they’re going to end? The truth is, that’s exactly why we do it. Death stalks us, sure. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be so determined to run.”
“I’ll die. Paige and Tim too, hopefully sometime long after me. It’ll probably just be you and Nyghtshade at the end, reminiscing and looking sad.” He chuckles at the thought, then wonders if that should make him question his own sanity.
“But you won’t be the first. Maybe the last but definitely not the first. Don’t get me wrong, Linuial, I’m not trying to downplay your suffering. I just want you to understand that you don’t hold the patent on grief.”
Carefully, he adds, “Maybe if you spoke plainly, kind of like you’re doing now, you wouldn’t have to feel this way so often. I know that’s hypocritical coming from someone who makes his living off people’s secrets but you never know. It could help.”
“I learned long ago that many, if not most, people, can’t tolerate true honesty. I’m sure you’ve run into that phenomenon yourself. Unlike you, they run away from the self-knowledge that death awaits them. I’ve had that awareness forced on me. So have you.“
“…and if I thought I were the only one suffering, my empathy alone would cure me of that notion…“
She drops her eyes. “I should probably see Jacob, he must be frantic by now.”
“I think he’ll be okay. I gave him enough money to avoid an international incident.” He smirks, remembering the man’s sudden transition from angry father figure to an eager to please purveyor of fine cuisine.
“Besides, we’re talking and you’re still not quite grasping my point.”
“A Rogue and a gentleman, too.” She smiles. “What a paragon of virtues. It was supposed to be my treat…don’t embarrass me by refusing to allow me to pay you back. Or to be more accurate…I just put it on my tab.”
She tilts her head to one side. Her expression has relaxed, and a soft smile touches her lips. “I can be a little obtuse, at times. Something about being stuck in a rut for a thousand years.” She laughs. “Please…do enlighten me, and don’t spare the two-by-four between the eyeballs…it sometimes helps.”
“Just remember you asked for it,” he chides, laughing in kind.
“It sounds to me like what you need is a good old fashioned dose of the present. You know as well as I do that the past is immutable. Feeling bad about it accomplishes all of jack shit. You weren’t always perfect and you had to do some ugly things.”
He shrugs. “Welcome to the club.”
“You wanna make amends for past sins? I can understand that. I can also understand that it’s much easier said than done but all you’re doing right now is wallowing in your own depression. That helps no one, yourself included.”
Taking a step closer, he looks her directly in the eye. There’s a challenge in his gaze. “Have you ever heard ‘The Gambler’ by Kenny Rogers?” He whistles a bit of the tune before singing the chorus line.
“And that’s the thing. For you, there’s always another hand to play. Barring a bullet to the head, you’re in this game for the long haul. The instinct for self-reflection is great and all, but you’d be badly mistaken not to recognize the chance you’ve got to change everything on the next card.”
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table|
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s done.
A smile makes its way to his lips. “Problem is, you’re too busy counting your chips. The game’s still going. Time to pay attention.”
She nods, smiling. “Excellent advice, my young friend. Something tells me you have something in mind to suggest.
“My attention is all yours.”
“I suggest we go back in there and finish the food I just paid for.”
Now smiling himself, he takes her by the hand. Making a sweeping gesture toward the door that leads back inside, he cuts a shallow bow. “Come, milady, there’s miles to go before we sleep.”
Resting her hand in his, she allows him to guide her back to the stairwell door, tugging on his hand briefly to pick up the heels she abandoned when she started her dance.
Slipping them on while standing on one foot at a time, she cocks her head at him. “You know, I really should introduce you to Jacob, it would be the polite thing to do, after making such a scene. One thing…To Jacob, I’m Deirdre, Lady Clarik. He has never met Linuial.”
She slips both hands around his upper arm as he holds the door open for her to enter.
“Oh, and one more thing; you might want to start treating me like I was English aristocracy…because I am. I don’t want Jacob to question it…it would make things awkward.” At his puzzled look, she explains. “I purchased an English title back in the 1920s, when I started playing around with the stock market. I looked into all sorts of holding companies, but eventually decided that, because English titles are hereditary, it would save me an awful lot of paperwork to put all my assets into the title’s estate.
“If a young woman appears somewhere, claiming to be “Lady Clarik”, and her signature as same matches the bank records…no one questions it…even if another very young lady does the same 40 years later…everyone just assumes without checking that I am my own daughter or granddaughter. Nobody ever checks to see if the signature has changed in the last…hundred years.”
She laughs, steps through the doorway.
“Makes sense. Devereaux’s not my real name either.” He says it off-handed but when she turns to stare at him, there’s more than a little mischief written on his face.
The stare breaks into a delighted grin. “You are a never-ending fount of surprises, Mr…whatever-your-name is.” She laughs, delightedly.
“Maybe I should just stick with ‘Boopsie’”, she giggles.
Formal introductions made, instructions given, Jacob, the owner of The Airship Lounge, promises to return Devereaux’s payment to him, while Linuial signs a voucher: “Deirdre, Lady Clarik” with a decided flourish to the capitals. “I insist,” she told Jacob, “…and if you need to add anything to the bill, just do so. Old friends don’t need to stand on ceremony.”
Devereaux and Linuial return to their table, a fresh portion of Devereaux’s steak appears mysteriously in front of his chair, hot and sizzling, while Linuial daintily finishes her portion, pointing out the various aspects of the meal.
“So here we are again,” Devereaux says, slicing another morsel of the Omi on his plate. “The replacement steak wasn’t really necessary. Neither was using your tab.”
He takes a bite, washing it down with a sip of the Grand Cru Pinot. “As a proper gentleman Rogue and a scoundrel of no small renown, I would’ve gladly made do with what was offered.”
A quick wink and he sobers. “Seriously, I appreciate the hospitality but we could’ve just called it good. Wouldn’t be the first time I had to cut an evening short.”
“…and let you get away from me so easily? Not on your life…” She laughs, dips a wad of mishima into the green peppercorn sauce.
“Xavier…” she grows more serious, “…haven’t you figured out by now that when I turned down that half million, saying I didn’t need it…I really didn’t need it?” She slips the steak between her lips, pauses for appreciation, before continuing.
“Because of my situation, when I was playing the stock market, I made it my business to invest…in very small amounts…in what today would be considered ‘technology’ companies, or what would have passed for it back then. I wanted to look forward…not back. …as you quite rightly encouraged me to do just a few minutes ago.”
She pauses, peruses his face for his reaction. “I lost half of it in the stock market crash, of course, but that was better than what happened to most people, and I wasn’t dependent on the income, or anything. About half of the surviving stocks never went anywhere…luck of the draw…but the ones that did? IBM, Consolidated Edison…I never invested in any of the auto manufacturers, I had no interest, but what I did have? I have to be careful to keep my assets down, lest I draw attention to myself. That half-million would have put me over one of those self-imposed caps. I couldn’t afford to accept it.
“Sometimes, I have to spend money just to keep my total wealth from bankrupting me…” She laughs, softly, but from irony, not humor. “There are certain advantages to long life…”
“…and I would never ask you to eat a cold steak…”
His face is impassive. “So you’re rich, immortal, and you’re a living polygraph. Ever consider going into politics?” He laughs at the sheer ridiculousness of the idea.
“I don’t deal much in old money. Too many agendas. Besides, they’re all looking people who’ll be loyal to the house and the family name.” He pauses to savor another bite. “The nouveau riche are simpler. They couldn’t care less about you or your allegiances. As long as you can deliver, they’ll sign the checks. It’s not as lucrative but how do you put a price on freedom?”
A teasing smile crosses her lips. “I take it, then, that you have no interest in being named in my will…?”
“As if I’d ever care to live that long,” he grumbles. The complaint in his voice contrasts sharply with the grin on his face.
She laughs, then turns her head to look over each shoulder, ducks her head between her shoulders. “On second thought….probably a bad idea…I’d hate to wake up dead one morning because you had an overdue gambling debt you had to pay off…” She giggles.
“I’ll have you know I’m not a gambler,” he says, putting on his best affectation of old Northeast aristocracy. “Terrible affliction, gambling. Just terrible.”
Returning to his own voice, he adds, “Besides, no one ever stayed rich by betting against the house.”
“No one ever got rich by betting against the house…unless they had the self-discipline to walk away from the table.” She grins.
Only a bit more sober: “…so…I take it I interrupted something you wanted to talk to me about. An offer? Or did you want to talk about whatever it was that ‘changed’ while we were fighting Morpheus, first? Oh, and don’t forget the dessert cart, there might be something there that would appeal to even your sophisticated tastes…”
“Neither one, actually. And I’ll pass on dessert. No sweet tooth.”
He refills the wine glasses before coming to the crux of the conversation. “It’s about what happened after we dealt with what was left of Morpheus. I was…talking to Jon and he said something strange.”
He quotes the cyborg. “‘She got to you, didn’t she? Welcome to the human race. Keep it up and one day I might call you brother.’ It goes without saying but he and I aren’t related and I’ve got no interest in getting all chummy with the guy. Never mind the irony of a half-machine acting all sanctimonious about humanity. I’d just like to know what the hell he was talking about.”
She blinks, surprise flitting across her face, before she frowns. “Jon? Said that…?”
After a few moments: “Xavier…I have absolutely no idea what he might have meant. He never said anything like that to…me…”
“…or…well…it was rather odd…I’m afraid that he’s had rather a bad opinion of you, ever since he saw you the first time on Peregrine Island. I haven’t made any attempts to change his mind…just let him know how I felt about the situation. He’s not exactly an extension of me, he’s quite intelligent, and perfectly capable of making up his own mind.
“However…now that you mention it…he has seemed to mellow, just a bit, about you. It hadn’t really caught my attention before now…but I’m afraid I have no idea what might have brought that about. It’s not like you’ve had any contact…since…well, since I was in the hospital.”
The frown deepens. “Just when did he say this to you?”
His brow furrows. “Just after you woke up. I had just handed Nyghtshade off to Blood Nut.”
He shakes his head involuntarily at the Hero’s unusual moniker. “I was on my way to check on Paige when he chased me down in the hall outside your room. Made zero sense to me but I figured since he referenced you it couldn’t just be a short circuit. Thought you might know what he meant but I guess not.”
Taking a healthy dose of Grand Cru, he holds up his hands in a non-committal gesture. “Maybe he was just talking out of his ass.”
“Unlikely, Jon can still be a bit shy around people he doesn’t know well, which would certainly include you…there must have been a reason he said it…do you want me to ask him about it?”
“No. Whatever his notions about me are, I’m not interested in ruffling them.”
Swiping the last bite of steak through the shallow pool of juices that have collected on his plate, he contemplates the next time he’ll be able to enjoy a meal of this quality. “Well, this has been an experience but it’s about time I got going. My flight leaves early.”
She toys with a tiny carrot, looks up at him, from under her long eyelashes.
“I suppose it wouldn’t do me any good to ask how long you’ll be gone…just out of curiosity.” It’s a statement more than a question.
“I’m not sure,” he says plainly. “This isn’t your run of the mill, stop an amoral corporation from building a psychic monstrosity kind of job.”
The sly grin returns. “Why? Don’t tell me you’re gonna miss me while I’m gone. There isn’t a cut of aged Japanese beef in the world that could convince me you were serious if you did.”
All traces of humor vanish from her face in an instant.
She turns her head to look out the window at City Hall, and beyond, the Atlas statue.
A pale pink flush begins to color her cheek.
“No,” she says softly, “…I’ll try not to miss you.”
“You’ll try?” he asks, startled by her frankness.
He sighs, finally exasperated. “Listen, Blondie. You’ve been hinting at something for a while now. Calling me your love, all the sad looks, and now this. I’m not the kinda guy to play games with this sort of thing so I’ll just come out and ask. Is there something going on that I should know about? Because if this is more than just a dinner between colleagues, I’d rather not be caught flat footed.”
She looks back at him. The pink glows brighter.
“Did I say I’ll try? I meant, ‘no, of course, I won’t…miss…you’…”
She looks back out the window. “No…just dinner. Between colleagues. As you say…”
She takes a sudden breath. “While we were fighting Morpheus…it took a while for me to understand what was happening to me. But I quickly realized that something was terribly wrong. I might have died. It was much more likely that I might have been in a coma for a very long time, possibly longer than any of my friends’ lifetimes.
“I did something…terrible…to you, because by that point I knew that I was going to have to rely on you to help me out of that mess…and I needed you to understand what it was we’ve talked about before, and I could tell you never believed. I had to show you, allow you, to experience, however briefly, what my experience of life is like, and what it truely means to be an Empath…and I didn’t think that anything short of experiencing it would convince you. So I took to you where some of my greatest suffering took place…and yet, it did not injure me the way Morpheus did…and I forced you…forced you…to feel it, all of it.”
She turns to him, her expression sober. “It was too much to ask, and I didn’t ask, I simply did it. Somehow, I knew that you would survive it, that you would roll with it, that you wouldn’t hate me for it…not for long, anyway.” She smiles to herself. “For all I knew, I might never have the chance to say ‘goodbye’ to my friends…my family in truth. Such an empty feeling. And so, in gratitude, I reached out to you. I called you ‘my love.’
“Each time thereafter, when there was a break, when there was time…I said ‘goodbye’ to you, in the stead of those whom I might never speak to again. You might have heard me say ‘my love’, but in my heart, it was ‘goodbye’.
She drops her eyes. “But I am not going to excuse everything away. You talk about our world view being different, and it is. You talk about being unable to understand mine, as well as me not being able to understand yours. All very true. You have heard Nyghtshade…almost everything she says is something about ‘love’…God’s love, Linuial’s friends’ love, love for support, love for healing…
“But in my world view, I love a lot of people. Each one differently. The relationships I have with Chris, with Blood, with Anya…with Jon…go well beyond mere friendship. And they know that. And it’s mutual.
“Perhaps it is not in your world view for you to love someone, or for them to love you…in any sense but the passionate one, or the possessive one. But it is possible….and maybe someday you will learn more about that.”
She turns back to him. “….so…yes, Xavier…I love you…as a friend, as a companion…as a colleague. As someone I could turn to in dire need, and trust. As someone that I owe far more than a steak dinner.”
She turns back to the window. “If you ever want more than that…” She leaves the rest unsaid…
“I won’t.” The statement is simple and loaded with finality.
“But I will give you some free advice. Next time you wanna show some non-romantic affection, pick a different term of endearment.” He finishes the last bite of steak and says no more.
Still staring into the window, she starts to smile.
Turning back to her empty plate, a sly grin on her face, she responds: “Yes, Dear.”
Then breaks into laughter at his expression.
Linuial brushes a damp strand of hair back from Jon Smith’s face.
“When I took Xavier to dinner…”
“Yeah? You got my attention, go on.”
“Well…He said something to me…asked me, actually…”
“Go on.” He sits up, interested.
“It was about you.”
“Yes, isn’t it? He was asking about something you said to him…something about ‘she got to you’, and ‘joining humanity’, and something about…being his brother?”
The blonde cyborg laughs, softly.
Linuial looks up at him, surveying his expression, always difficult to read due to his enhancements.
“You know what he was talking about.” It is a statement, not a question.
She twists, resting her weight on one elbow. “Want to let me in on the secret?”
He chuckles again, then turns serious. “I was trying to get under his skin…”
“Wait, let me finish. He’d mentioned getting some Praetorian tech for Kip, in exchange for money. Surprised Hell outa me, but I was certainly going to take him up on it, if he actually will deliver. I walked up to him, was trying to determine if he was serious, or just yanking my chain…I think he was…’serious’, that is…but then…”
She frowns. “Go on.”
The cyborg sucks in a large breath, lets it out again. “I don’t know, Lin. There was something…different about him. Something in his eyes. Not the Devereaux I’ve seen before. Somthing almost…haunted. But…softer, too, at the same time. Not so hard-shelled, nobody-can-touch-me. A bit…I’d almost say ‘vulnerable’.
“So, yeah, I teased him about turning ‘human’,” he continues. “Not so robotic, not so ‘professional’. It was a guess on my part, to suggest that you had something to do with it…but the way he reacted, I think I might have hit a nerve.”
“And the ‘brother’ remark?”
He chuckles under his breath. “That, my lovely lady, is something you are going to have to figure out for yourself.”