Paragon City Stories: Meanwhile at the Superbase
Hosted by UNINVENTIVEHEART
Chapter II, Scene 2
Tea and Empathy
Place: The Brownstone
In the spirit of reciprocal hospitality, Nyghtshade has issued an invitation to Linuial for an evening tea-and-cookies hot-tub visit in the garden behind her apartment building.
She’s looking forward to sharing a relaxing evening with a new friend - once the cookies have finished cooling!
A tiny figure drifts over the top of the brownstone, drops lower to reveal itself as a small blonde-haired woman in a silver caftan, holding a small blue faux leather bag by its straps. She settles gently to the ground, waving to Nyghtshade before walking over to the picnic table to deposit her load.
“Hello, dear,” she says, giving a quick hug in greeting. “Phew! What a day, I’ve had. I can really use some down time.”
Monique smiles in welcome. “Sorry to heah about yoah day, but the hot tub is simmerin’, Ah’ve got hot wateh heah foah tea, and fresh-made Pralines if you want somethin’ sweet.”
“Sounds wonderful. Oh, here…” She dives into the bag. “I didn’t hear Paige say she got you any gardenia aromatherapy oil, so I got you some.” She hands over the bottle, pulls the caftan over her head and deposits it on the picnic table. Underneath she is wearing a simple one piece blue bathing suit.
She winks at Nyghtshade. “…came prepared this time…now I won’t shock your neighbors.” She laughs, saunters over to the hot tub, throws one leg over, and slides into the water.
Monique opens the cap on the bottle of gardenia oil and sniffs appreciatively. “It’s wondehful, remindes me of mah granmama’s garden.” She smiles gratefully, recaps it and sets it on the table.
Carrying the tray of cookies, teabags and mugs over in one hand, and the pot of hot water in the other, Monique sets them out on the broad edge of the hot-tub, and then moves to each corner, lighting clusters of candles.
That done, she shrugs off the robe, revealing a dark green swimsuit and the ever-present belt with the massive garnet. She slips into the water as well.
“Ohhh, the heat’s wondehful,” she groans with real pleasure. “Ah should do this moah often.”
She settles on the seat, legs stretched out, and leans her head back against the padding, relaxing as well. “Ah’m glad you could come, Linuial. It’s nice havin’ visitors.”
“Well, you know I’ve got a rowdy bunch at Starfire. You’re always welcome over there, or if you’d prefer, I’m sure there’s someone who would love an invitation to your place. We don’t have a hot tub at the base…I don’t know why, it seems like an obvious idea…but I’m sure anyone would appreciate a visit, as well as the company. Starfire isn’t just a business, it’s a family. Every member hand picked by me or one of the core group. We don’t mess around with people we don’t like, or don’t like us.”
She flips over, grabs a teabag and drops it into one of the cups, makes a long arm for the pot and pours water over the teabag before replacing it. Another grab and she starts nibbling on a chocolate cookie as she once again turns over in the water.
“Maybe Ah should invite all of you foah Thanksgivin’,” Nyght dimples. “Assumin’ they don’t family plans, of course. Ah’ve already invited Paige, and Tahquitz is welcome, too, if he doesn’t have otheh plans. Ah could even invite Mr. Devereaux, but Ah’m not shoah he’s all that comfortable with family-style settin’s.”
“We usually do Thanksgiving, too. We’ve got several families and a couple of orphans, and if everybody did their own thing the base would be empty. Some of them do a double dinner, one at home and then the base later on. One of the guys is certain to bring a portable TV so they can holler at whatever game is being broadcast.” She laughs. “You’d be welcome to that, too, if you would like to see real chaos in action. Controlled chaos, at least.”
Monique looks tempted, but shakes her head. “Ah invited Paige, so we’ll cook up a meal heah, but thank you.”
She turns over again, rests her forearms on the edge of the tub, her chin on her arms.
“Xavier…” She stops the thought mid sentence.
Reveling in the hot steamy soak, Monique gives Lin a moment to finish her thought, before prompting, “Yes….?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing worth talking about anyway. It’s just that…”
“…well, invite him if you want to, and don’t let Mr. Grouch put you off. The worst he can do is say ‘no’, and that’s hardly a great surprise when it happens.”
Softly, as if to herself: “…it’s just that…there’s something nagging at me…about him. Something a little…off.
“…even Jon seemed to notice it. I hope he’s not getting himself into something he’s not prepared to handle.”
“Has he said somethin’ to indicate he might be in oveh his head?” Monique asks, eyebrow raised.
She grabs a praline and flips back over. “Not a darned thing. He’s going somewhere, he has a job to do, he dressed up nice for it, he doesn’t know how long he’ll be gone, and so on.” She shrugs. “We might not hear from him again for months…we might not hear from him again ever, the mood he was in last I saw him.” She nibbles the sweet, grabs her teacup and takes a sip.
Focusing on her toes, Monique asks obliquely, “You two have anotheh fight….?”
“Monique! Sheesh, yes, we’ve been known to have some friction, but you’re making it out like we just pick fights for the pleasure of it! I bought him his steak dinner, he liked it, he was a perfect gentleman…if a bit…distant. But that’s just the way he always is. If he thinks anyone is getting close to him, he pushes them away. Don’t tread on his space, and he’s fine with you.” She drops the last bit of the praline into her cup and swirls it around before draining the tea.
Monique wouldn’t have presumed that either Lin or Deveraux could claim to get any pleasure out of their confrontations. Diplomatically, she changes the subject.
“Ah was wonderin… if it’s not impertinent to ask…. Ah had a question about yoah Empathy. Ah knew a human woman who had total Empathy, literally couldn’t block it out, and she was a total wreck. How do you survive it, do you have some kind of emotional shields?”
Linuial laughs, puts her empty cup on the edge of the hot tub.
“Nope!” she replies cheerfully. “Can’t block a thing. It all comes in one giant ear and out the other.
“Maybe it comes from not being human, Monique,” she continues, more thoughtfully. “Maybe it comes from being immortal. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve only been totally overwhelmed a handful of times in my life…and Morpheus was one of those times.” She gives a dramatic shiver. “Let’s hope no one else figures out how to build one of those things.”
Diverted, Monique regards Linuial directly, and cautiously asks, “So, as far as Morpheus is concerned, no signs of anything left behind for it? You’ve been OK, since we… well, since it was ‘removed’?”
“Morpheus was an AI, an artificial construct. Had it had more time to develop, it might have acquired virus-like characteristics, but it was never designed to be a virus, and I think we dodged a bullet there.
“When Xavier took Morpheus into himself, he got it all. The download followed the same code Hill had produced, and there would have not been any reason to download part of Morpheus anywhere. I’m still not certain why he even saw a need for a full download into a living brain…maybe that was the only way to back it up?”
At the thought, she suddenly frowns, stares into the water. “Monique…we might have missed something there. I’m sure Xavier made certain there weren’t any electronic backups…but what if there were organic ones? Human backups of the Morpheus code?”
“We should probably look into that the first chance we get. I’ll get with Hero Corps first thing in the morning…we’d need authority to dig into what’s left of the lab records.”
She sighs. “Anyway, I think you were busy worrying about me. I’m fine, Monique. Any other approach would have probably left me with some minor brain damage in order to make certain Morpheus was well and truly gone.
“Xavier certainly earned his steak…the hard way.”
Monique nods. “He did, no question theah.” She returns to the original question.
“So… you couldn’t build some kind of mental shield to block out all the otheh people’s’ emotions? Ah had to learn how to do that when Ah changed, with the sudden telepathy. It was like bein’ in an auditorium full of people shoutin’ out eveh’ry random thought that come into theah heads. It was cacophony.”
Linuial laughs. “You telepaths, you’re all the same.”
“I’m not criticizing, Monique, truly I’m not.” Her smile is warm and genuine. “Telepathy is involved with the intellect, with thoughts, with words. Empathy is vastly different, and you have no basis for understanding. Your telepathy is a thing that you think of as an independent thing, outside what you call ‘yourself’. You turn it on. You turn it off. You don’t miss it when it isn’t there.
“Empathy…how can I describe it? It’s like…being a tuning fork. Something outside you resonates, and you resonate along with it. It’s not something outside of ‘you’, it IS ‘you’. Part and parcel, end and beginning, alpha and omega. A ‘shield’? Might as well protect your hand from injury by cutting off your arm. It would work, certainly…but what are you left with in the end?”
Monique purses her lips, and sinks lower in the water, thinking about it. Finally, she concedes, “Ah thought maybe Ah could help, but yo’ah right… Ah had no idea.”
She sighs, adding, “Didn’t mean to pry, Ah was just tryin’ to undehstand.”
“Not at all, Monique, it’s sweet of you to try…to care.” She stands. “I believe you had some towels in the locker over here?” She climbs out of the tub and begins rummaging in the cupboard she saw Nyghtshade draw a towel from on her last visit.
“You’re perfectly welcome to ask what ever you like, dear. After all these years, I have few secrets left.” She starts tousling her hair…
Monique remains in the still steaming water, lazily swirling one hand below the surface. After a moment, she admits, “Ah did have one otheh question, and it may sound stupid, but… aside from, you know, waiting decades and decades to see if you eveh get old… how do you know if yo’ah…”
She hesitates, then concludes, “…immortal?”
“ ‘There’s no such thing as a stupid…’ oh, you know the drill.” She laughs, picks up the caftan, pulls it on over her head, then reaches under it and pulls off the wet bathing suit, draping it over the bench of the picnic table.
Laying out the towel on the ground, she sprawls on it.
“Immortality…” she muses, tilting her head to one side.
“Well, Monique, in order to answer that question…first you have to define which immortality you are talking about.
“The usual notion of immortality is ‘cannot die’. Period. I don’t know of a single case of immortality like that. Every living thing can die…that’s almost a definition of life. If you can’t die…you are either dead, or you never lived in the first place. Like a rock.”
Sitting up, she crosses her arms around her knees. “In my case, immortality simply means I don’t age, and don’t suffer the disabilities of old age. I can still die. Does that mean I’m not actually immortal? My people think of ourselves as immortal, and humans as mortals. So, by that definition, I am immortal.
“A lot has been written in Eastern literature about a group of people…humans…referred to as ‘The Immortals’. They were born mortal, and achieved immortality through their own efforts, often through the self-disciplines of Taoism.
“The thing is…how can you ‘prove’ that someone is immortal? Stick a sword through their heart and see if they die? Harsh. Sort of like the ‘dunking stool’ test for witches. Besides, many mortals can and have passed that test. It proves nothing.
“The only other test…is to wait. But for how long? Until eternity?
“To put it another way: everyone is immortal…until they die.” She shrugs.
She sprawls out on the towel, her arms behind her, propping her up. “I know what you want to ask me, Monique. Are you immortal? What I’m trying to explain to you, is that the question has no meaning. Do you age? I’m willing to bet not. But a few years will tell you the answer to that, and only time will tell. Can you be killed? You already know the answer to that, or you wouldn’t have so many alarms on your apartment. But like me, that doesn’t mean you are mortal.
“It’s an intellectual debate, Monique, with no meaning at all. You are what you are. Will labeling yourself ‘mortal’ or ‘immortal’ make any difference in how you live your existence? Almost certainly not.
“Assume you’re immortal, until you find out you are not. Prepare for the worst, expect the best, enjoy what you can, love, experience, and leave the rest to the philosophers. You’ll suffer less anxiety that way.”
She stands, picks up the towel, wraps her swim suit in it. “How about we adjourn to your living room…I’m thinking a good toasting by your fire sounds pleasant.”
“Of course,” Monique nods, rising from the water herself, and toweling off. Wrapping her hair in a separate towel, she shrugs her robe back on, and moves about on bare feet to collect the teapot and cup, cookies and other detritus of entertainment she’d brought down.
A press of a button on the hot-tub console shuts off the heater, another sets the retractable cover rolling across to seal it off.
As they start up the stairs, they pass a young Asian-American woman heading down, knapsack hanging from one arm. “Hi there, Nyght,” the girl greets them, with a friendly smile. “Staying in tonight?”
“Not all night, Terry,” Monique concedes, smiling in return. “You know what they say, the City neveh sleeps.”
“I hear you, always plenty of Tsoo around. So, got to run, won’t keep you!” Terry waves jauntily and heads out, and Monique and Linuial continue up the stairs.
Settling herself on the floor in front of the fireplace, the blonde woman plucks at the front of her caftan. “May I?” Without waiting for an answer, she pulls it over her head, spreads it out on the floor, and lays down across it.
“I don’t mean to belittle your concern, Monique. You have valid questions about your future. But you asked me a question that is way too broad for any answer other than a philosophical one.” She turns over to make eye contact, smiles invitingly. “Perhaps if you can break it down into smaller questions, I can be more helpful.”
Having finished dropping off things in the kitchen, Monique pads back out, pulling off her robe and draping it over the back of the computer chair, and then dropping down to sit on the carpet in front of the fireplace as well.
“Ah figured theah was no easy answeh. Smalleh questions… well… truthfully, Ah’m not shoah Ah am. Yet. Ah mean, it’s been 10 yeahs since Ah died and came back, and Ah don’t look any different, but then maybe that’s just because Ah grew up bein’ told to protect mah skin from the sun as much as possible. The sun ages… well, you know.”
“But if it turns out Ah am immortal, then eventually… people Ah know, people Ah love, they’ll age and start passin’ away. Ah don’t know how…” She looks up at Linuial. “How do you prepare for somethin’ like that….?”
“Ah don’t mean to dump big esoteric questions on you, but, you know, people don’t always stay around, and Ah thought…” She hesitates, sighs, continues, “Ah though Ah should probably ask while Ah could.”
“Monique, you never have to worry about asking me…anything. Ever. If I don’t want to answer, I won’t. But I never get angry or upset just because someone asked. Well…maybe one case: when someone asks me a question, and they are not prepared to hear the truth in reply. But when that happens, I’ll warn them…once, twice, three times…and then I just let them have it. Teaches them a lesson…” She bursts out laughing.
More sober: “How do you prepare? You don’t. You can’t.”
She turns over, stares at the flames, the bluish gas glow highlighting her blue-white porcelain skin, lending cool tones to her damp golden-blonde hair. “Monique, every relationship is different. Every love is different. Each is forged from the personalities of the parties involved. Just as each life is different, so, too, each death is different.
“The path of grief changes with every death. Each time, it’s a new experience. There is no way to prepare, other than a general awareness and acceptance of the fact that all things die.
“I wish I could give you some magic potion, some spell that would make it all better. Our people have known since the beginning of mortals all about the deaths of others, and we never did have answers.
“Some of my immortal kindred have died due to grief over the death of a mortal loved one. That woman who was the last of my kind? You saw her death at the dancing mound. She was my sister’s daughter. She bore the sadness of the loss of her mortal husband for hundreds of years, but in the end, it took her, too.
“Why am I still here?” She stares deeply into the flames, a deep frown furrowing her brow. “That, I cannot tell you. I’ve grieved, I’ve suffered, I’ve longed for death, but never to the point of taking my own life. I’ve become bitter, and pulled away from all mortal life, and I’ve come out the other side, and returned. I’ve known just about every emotion, every despair available to my kind…and nothing has brought me down. Yet…” she adds. “Morpheus very nearly did me in…it came closer than anything I’ve experienced for a long, long time.”
Monique sits there, almost unnaturally still, thoughts turned inward to the memory of the horrendous suffering she’d experienced from Morpheus’ victims. “It was a terrible Evil, Morpheus was,” she says at last, the Capital “E” evident. “It’s hard to imagine how anyone could believe doin’ that to people was acceptable.”
She shifts slightly, uncomfortable with even the memory. “But someone did. The Crey Countess apparently did, unless she weah telepathically deaf as a post. And sooneh or lateh, the higheh-ups who OK’ed this research will try again, yo’ah right. We need to be vigilant.”
Monique sighs, soft and slow. “So… Ah guess bein’ immortal gives us time to watch foah it, any time, eveh’ry time it crops up. It, or any otheh horrors like it.”
“So, then, theah’s that. Ah don’t pretend to undehstand why this happened to me, but Ah think… Ah suspect… the fact that somethin’ cleahly went wrong with the Banished Pantheon’s ritual… Ah think it was a way of Someone givin’ me a second chance. A chance to do moah, to make a difference, to protect people.”
Monique stares into the fire, voice smaller. “OK, I do know why it happened. But the rest, that’s what Ah think.”
Linuial sits up, smiling broadly.
“Exactly, Monique. Exactly. We must look at the advantages we have, those of us with no clear notion of a date of our ending. We are rare, or unique, and we must celebrate those differences. They give purpose to our lives, our existences, that others cannot have. We can do what they cannot. That is the purpose of immortality, if it has any purpose at all. Your God…and my gods…who can say that they are not the same power, moving to the same purpose?” She lets out a long, satisfied sigh, stretching out on the floor.
Nodding slowly, Monique stretches out on the carpet as well, propping herself up on her elbows and gazing into the blue flames of the gas fireplace. “Ah used to hate fire, thought it was probably one of the few things that could really kill me. But Ah learned eventually to love it again. To trust it again.”
“At least, to trust a gas fire. Much as I love the smell of a woodfire, can’t have one heah. Too much chance of a stray spark startin’ a real blaze while Ah’m sleepin’. And Ah’ve got mah tenants to keep safe. Even if they are all Heroes.”
“We always danced to starlight. Cool white light. The sun is a creature of passion and desire, but the stars are welcoming and gentle.”
She turns to the undead woman. “What say, an hour of street sweeping together? Then I promised Jon I’d meet him…well…yes, meet him.” She laughs, wriggles on the floor before standing and picking up her caftan.
“Well, shoah, Ah’d love to patroll with you,” Monique smiles. Just let me change.”
She ducks into the back bedroom, and emerges swiftly in her costume, ready to accompany Linuial. “Do you need to head back to yoah home first to change?”
“I left my bag downstairs, I have a change in it. I’ll be right back up.”
She slips on the caftan and steps through the hallway door.
Another chance for two immortals to get to know one another better, and then - the night being still young - head out to patrol.