51.1 - Dance the Night Away (Alycia's Tale)

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Edited 1534977376
Earlier this afternoon ... "I'm to be ready for pickup by 4:30. Got it." "Excellent." He sounds nervous over the phone. "That's excellent. Really. Excellent." In other words, he sounds like I feel. "Just one thing, Jason." "What's that?" "I'll just get in the car. You don't have to come in and say hi to parents." "Won't they be worried about your heading off for the evening with a strange man?" "Given recent history, that's probably the most mundane thing they can hope for." He laughs. * * * Now ... The Qdisc slowly settles toward a pair of parking spaces in the west lot of the Gardner Academy. It's a cool evening outside -- and it's been a cool ride there as well, as in chilly. Oh, not because of the lack of climate control -- Jason's made some clever mods to the integrity force field to act as a windscreen. No, I'm talking emotional chill. Jason's pissiness at dinner about my not moving in with him, nor taking a job under him (figuratively, so not literally, though that's a parallel interest of his) has already worn my nerves thin..  I'm not sure if the coolness has been helped or hindered by the overall silence in the vehicle, save for the electrical hiss of the ground effect engines under the disc. It is a neat peace of technology, even if parts of it are older than either of us. And except for one design flaw that Jason always complains about. "... flying boat, like he couldn't have built it just a little bit smaller, fit in a damned standard stall ..." Hashtag FirstWorldHyperTech Problems. "Well, maybe you should try to build one yourself, rather than complaining about one that doesn't fit your use case." I regret saying it as soon as I do. It's not false, but it's not useful. Was this whole thing a mistake? What made me think that Jason and I really have anything special. A bunch of disjointed past adventures and experiences, woo-hoo. That might makes us friends, or pen-pals, or people who show up at a reunion somewhere, but romance ? I'm attracted to him. And in more than just a sexual way, though that doesn't hurt, either. But that's still not enough. Especially when he's being an asshole. Dammit, Jason. Then he turns. And he grins. At what I said. The grin shuts off almost instantly, like he realized what he was doing, but ... He vaults over the side of the Qdisc, his dress shoes making a hard crunch on the asphalt when he lands. And there I sit. I'll be damned if I'm going to climb over the edge myself, or let him help me step atop the edge and then down. This dress is not designed for those kinds of moves. (And, yes, of course I know that in case we get into combat I will be flashing pretty much everyone. If that's the worst thing that happens in combat, it will be all to the good. Hell, maybe it will distract an opponent.) (And, yes, of course I've considered the possibility of combat at the dance. I consider the possibility of combat at the corner bodega, too.) He's up to the side of the disc, and, dammit, he is going to offer to help me over like some frail girl. So I mirror his move and vault over the side of the disc to land just beside him -- -- as he presses the button and the side of the disc folds out and makes a door and little ramp.  "That's ... new." He raises an eyebrow. "I built it. Myself." Well, hell.  I concede the point. "Thank you. That was ... considerate." "Yeah. I can actually do considerate. When I'm not being a baboon." Okaaaay. "Actually -- you can. And you do." Be gracious be gracious be gracious. "It helps when someone recognizes it as such, rather than get her knickers in a twist." He nods. "They're nice knickers." "I know. That's why I didn't want to flash them at you." I swallow the "Yet," lest he get the wrong idea. He sighs, and rubs his forehead. "Look, Alycia. I don't understand why you won't let me help you with the place to crash, or with the job --" I open my mouth to tell him, again goddammit, why not, but he holds up his other hand, and continues, "-- but it's your call, not mine. Right?" My vitriol comes to a skidding halt. "Um, right." "And we don't have to talk about it now." "Correct." "We can talk about it later." I raise both eyebrows. He amends himself, "We can talk about it some other night. Or day." Then he looks at me with a Did I get it right this time? puppy dog look. Man, I hate that look. Because it works. I slowly nod my head. "Yes. Some other time." He grins, and crooks his arm out into a loop. "Really?" "So I can catch you if you fall. In case the ground is slippery or wet or something." "I'm wearing very sensible but stylish pumps." "Okay, you can catch me if I fall." "Deal." I put a hand on his arm, and we walk over toward the gymnasium entrance, where a crowd of folks -- going in,  or just hanging out -- is assembled. "Oh, hey, there's Harry," Jason points out. "And Andi. What a couple." "I know. Hey, they're looking over this way. Probably jealous of our leet ride." "Yyyeah. I'm pretty sure that's exactly what it is." * * * Earlier this evening ... I stand there in the covert site parking lot, just outside the front door, and stare. A Qdisc? He sent a freaking Qdisc for me? An autonomous Qdisc at that? I consider the edge around the disc. Even grounded, it's up a good three feet, and this dress isn't quite suited for climbing over without significant exposure. I'm lucky he didn't land the whole freaking Dragonfly in the lot. Or arrive in a jet pack, with a spare for me. There's no elegant way to do this, so I take the expedient way and vault over. Then I sit down on the front glossy cushion. "Welcome to Quill Foundation Qdisc-003. I am AI Class 2 driver code designate 'James.' Discretion protocols are in effect. Please say hello to me."  Charming. "Hello to me." "Identity Match: Alice Chan."  "Well, that's more discreet than I expected." "This unit detects no humans within earshot. However, one proximate and one distance listening device are active in the area. Discretion protocols are in effect." "Anyone listening here knows who I am." "Revision: Identity Match: Alycia Chin." "Better. To the restaurant, James." Then I call out to the listeners, "Don't wait up for me," as the Qdisc pulls away. * * * Now ... My purse vibrates. Yes, of course, I have a purse -- very small. I'm not going to put my mobile down my decolletege, such as it is, and, unlike Jason, I don't have a convenient coat pocket. I fish the phone out, as it vibrates again. Daph. Of course. DAPH: Are you here yet? Moral support required! Where is my bathroom buddy? ALICE: Just landed, see you shortly. DAPH: LANDED?! ALICE: Yeah, I'll explain.  I've been hoping my support activities were completed this afternoon. It seems not. * * * Earlier this afternoon ... "He's sending text messages. About dinner." Charlotte sounds upset again. "That's a good thing, Charlotte," Summer tells her. "Is it? I don't know. Do I want to go to dinner with so I can set ground rules for the dance? Or is that just going to add hours to the amount of time I have to spend with him tonight?" For someone already dead, she does worry a lot. "Charlotte," I say to her, "listen to me. Preliminary recon before the big encounter is always a good idea. Go to dinner. Interact with him there first. See what he's about. Learn his weaknesses and strengths. Better to do that there in a controlled setting than in a gymnasium with everyone else all around." She nods. A further thought occurs to me. "Besides -- if there's nobody around he knows, that he's trying to impress, he might respond to positive reinforcement." Her face brightens. Summer smiles, and says, "That's actually a great idea." "And if he doesn't, it's a more private setting to provide negative reinforcement." Summer sighs. Charlotte looks thoughtful. I'm just trying to figure out why people keep consulting me on relationships. * * * Now ... We reach the front door. I recognize a couple of the Junior HHL -- Kid Kelvin and Stingray -- lounging about in front in their nice clothes. They look past me toward Jason, which is fine by me. I'm used to being invisible; infiltration (military or social) is all about that. Though I'm not used to being ignored in favor of the person next to me.  Except for Father. Okay, let's not go there. As we enter the gymnasium -- so festooned with white, red, and pink balloons that I almost expect the building to tear out of the ground and float away -- I look around. I start with the corners, of course, and let my gaze flicker across the ceiling ductwork, good shooting / spotting locations. That satisfied, I watch for familiar faces. It's not that difficult. I can visually and spatially process massive amounts of data, and I have a trained eye for faces. It helps that I know the dresses, makeup, and hairstyles that the women are wearing. It makes the pattern recognition that much easier. There's Charlotte and Pietro. The "Plasma Prince" looks like he's behaving himself, even though he has that weird almost satirical blurring of cool and pomposity going on. It could be a remarkabl work of ironic performance art, but I don't think he's that sophisticated.  In some odd way he -- -- he's wearing black. And his hair is pale blonde today. Just like ... Jason? And, yeah, in some odd way, Pietro acts like Jason, only Jason even more of a goof than Jason could ever dream of being. He ... ... makes Jason look good . There's no way Jason hired him to that end, right? No, some levels of conspiracy are too unthinkable even for me. My purse buzzes again. Dammit Daph ... DAPH: Where are you where are you where are you? I won't enable her by answering, but I really -- Dammit. "Um, emergency?" Jason asks, looking at me. "Social emergency. One of my ... study mates. She's having a melt-down." "Eek." He looks a little uncomfortable. "Um, I can come with? Or should I just go over and get some punch. You could meet me there, um, after you rescue your study mate." "Yes. Punch." I don't want to drag him into this, and Daph might pop a gasket if someone other than me shows up. "Sure, sure," Jason says. "I'll just -- yeah, I'll be right over --" I flash on sad-puppy Jason standing by the punch bowl. That would be mean. Also, possibly, dangerous in a number of ways. "Right over with me. Follow." Besides, I owe Daph an explanation for the "landed" comment. "Following!" he says, as I head through the crowd like I'm forging the way through the Amazon basin. Only with less machete action (which would have made things faster but would probably irritate the chaperones). (I'd had a weird dream where Parker showed up as a chaperone. She's not there, as it turns out. Though I imagine AEGIS has surveillance drones outside the gym, and probably inside, too, given the number of metas here. Plus Leo. Plus me.) My purse is vibrating steadily as I head toward where I spotted Daph during my earlier scan. She's still there, looking down texting madly. Granted, mobile phone use around me is at a remarkably high level until one gets to the dance floor (and I spot at least one couple both looking over each others' shoulders at their mobiles), but Daph seems to be particularly ... vehement. For the record, Daphne Palin is, in most things, a calm, rational, outspoken person, possessing a strong sense of humor, a sharp and stubborn mind, and a general love of humanity (based on her choice of essay and paper topics and her occasional attempts to argue some points with me). I say this because her behavior over the last few days has been highly aberrant.  Of course, as someone who has been putting up with things today that I would normally respond to with application of hands and fingers to certain pain points and dislocatable joints, but who has instead been suffering through various emotional toil and torment all because of someone with whom I have disturbingly deep emotional feels ... yeah, I have no moral high ground here. I simply want to note that Daph is acting unusually weird. I walk up to Daph, who is furiously thumbing her phone. She actually peripheral-vision shifts out of the way to let me pass. When I stop in front of her, she taps something else, then looks up at me with annoyance, goes back to her phone, then does a double-take. "Oh my God! You look amazing! All this for me!" She grabs me in a deep hug which, given her height and muscular development as a star player on the Gardner women's soccer team, is a strong hug indeed. Done, she grabs my shoulders and pushes me out to to arm's length. "He said he was getting punch, and it is all terrible."  "I --" She turns to look at Jason. "Oh, this is Jason --" "Jason Quill. Yes. Of course . Your date is Jason Quill, and you landed because he owns a flying car. You did not tell me you had a date!" "Um ... yes, I absolutely did." "But you didn't say it was Jason Quill!" "I -- well, no, I didn't." Daph is about to add something, but a voice behind her turns her face pale and her eyes wide. It's Marion. He looks ... incredibly nervous. "I brought two punches." They're in his hands. He's looking at Daph's back, and me, and Jason. "I didn't bring four." He swallows. "I'm going to go back." Marion is dressed in a tuxedo. A really, honest-to-rental tux, with vest and cummerbund and all the other accouterments of prom-level attire. I can't fault him, given my own 93rd percentile cost dress, but it's still ... noteworthy. "Love the tux, Marion," I tell him. "Yeah. Thanks. Yeah, I have clearly conceded to the capitalist system and its classist implications for formal attire, and paid well for the pseudo-privilege." "But such sacrifices are necessary," I tell him, glancing around for anyone who might overhear. At that noise level, of course, nobody could, but it's part of the act. "To get inside. To corrupt the system, you must blend into the system. Socialization ." "If I had a top hat, I could be the figure on the cover of the Monopoly game, which, of course, was a game absconded with by corporate interests ..." Marion begins to -- ramble. His heart, and his sociopolitical observations aren't wrong (if shallow), but even I know more than to launch into such a diatribe in such a setting. Not only does it create emotional tension amongst those with you, but it's ineffective as polemic. Daph is still frozen in place, her eyes wide toward me, mortified that her date is lecturing Jason and me on corporatist appropriation of entertainment media so as to minimize the education of the masses as to the ... Enough. I duck under Daph's arms, step around her, then lean foward into Marion. Close. In his face. The environment is loud, and I want to be sure I am understood -- and that the others don't hear me. "Daph looks very pretty . Hand her the punch in your left hand. Then you should dance with her." He stares at me. His eyes flick over at Daph, then back at me. And, suddenly, she doesn't seem quite so scary to him any more ... I step aside, and Marion darts forward, shoving a wax cup full of punch into Daph's hand. "Dancing now," he tells her, grabbing her other hand. "Conversion of populist folk activities to Big Media-focused vague motions to remove us from our cultural ..." They fade off into the low roar of the crowd, Daph throwing a big smile my direction. Sigh. "That was artfully done," Jason says. I shrug. "He'd either obey or throw punch on me and run screaming from the room. I tend to be ... directorial in my motivational talks." He manfully avoids a chuckle. "I am not unaware of that." I reward him with a smile. "So," he says. "Do you want punch?" He raises an eyebrow. "Socialization?" He raises the other eyebrow. "Or dancing." "Dancing, please." "You're in luck!" he says, a big smile wreathing his face. "I will have you know that I have programmed the nanobots in my suit to enable me to perform over a dozen different dance moves! No! I didn't! Don't panic!" Yes, my face had betrayed horror that he was actually serious. Because ... well, Jason. I turn into a laugh. There might be a bit of hysteria in the sound, but he can't tell over the band. "Prove it." "All right ... but I warn you, my profound lack of skill could possibly be life-threatening." "Don't worry -- I take care of you." * * * And somehow, magic happens. (No, not that kind of magic.) My dancing skills are ... limited. Yes, there was the mission regarding the Italian ambassador. For which I learned to tango. Tango. That was it. It's not like Dr. Achilles Chin made sure his daughter could waltz. Or do the froog. Or the electric slide. A mission requires it? Learn or die. Not? Useless frippery. We are not dancing the tango at the Valentines Dance. Which is a true shame, because it would be pure comedy gold. Also, I could dance it. (Jason can't? No problem. I can dance both parts. He can suck it up.) To be fair, the vast majority of the kids at the dance are dancing insofar as American culture defines dancing as "bouncing up and down and/or stepping side to side with vague arm and hand movements that loosely correlate to the beat." So it's not like the bar is high, right? I am unwilling to accept that bar. Especially since Jason apparently has no chance to meet that bar. I truly do not understand. The man received martial arts training from a pretty decent practitioner. He's a hypergenius, so he can think faster than 99.73% of the people on the dance floor (arguably slower than Summer, Aria, probably Leo ... and, of course, me). He should move better, faster, more fluidly than he does. But none of those adverbs apply to him. I attempt to make up for it. I know 237 kata s from different disciplines (to be fair, a number of these are analogues across multiple martial arts). So, lacking formal training in particular dance moves, and not seeing any around me that are truly coherent enough to imitate, I simply adapt kata s with appropriate beats ... and move around Jason ... and move him around appropriately ... and dodge his feet on mine. I believe I am reasonably successful. At the least, it is (a) a challenge, (b) fun, and (c) smile-evoking from Jason. He smiles at me. I smile at him. All right, I think I get dances. * * * The rest of the dance is a bit of blur. Vignettes that catch the eye and bubble up in later memory ... While monitoring for threats, I spot Charlotte and Pietro doing a box step in the corner, completely disregarding the rhythm of the boy band tune playing. I am amazed by how touching that is. Harry and Andi do something amazing that involves intricate moves and swinging people between legs and other remarkable movements. Granted, her dexterity is remarkable, and his speed is incredible, but together they manage do actually draw applause. I spot Leo dancing with Aria. Of course. At one point I would have been horrified; in this case I'm pleased to see it.  Later, I see him dancing with Summer, and am glad for her. And later than that, I see Aria and Summer dancing, and that's nice to see as well. The Ponies are out in force, a number of them in furry onesies, which lends an even more surreal note to the proceedings. @HeroesAreMagic is taking video on her camera, pushed in her wheelchair by @PowerPony. I'm fairly sure that I block her shots of me with Jason, but I can't be completely sure. Summer is dancing on her own, near Jason and me.  I did warn her. I spin around, take her hands, twirl her back over to Jason, and the two of them dance together for a few minutes. I keep my threats/promises. And then they get cut in on by one of Marion's friends, who nabs away Summer, smiles a lot, tries to say things she clearly can't hear and then bows out apologetically. Okay, I'll have to talk with her about that one. At one point, Nono suddenly joins Jason and me in our dance. She's grinning in a remarkably pleased fashion, even if she's only looking at Jason. I roll my eyes, but decide not to raise a fuss. Keri -- Super-Chica -- does raise a fuss when she dances into the air with Adam's little sister, Jordan (who is dressed, for unknown reasons, as a dinosaur). I'm not sure what the tyke is doing at a high school dance, except saving the Amaris some babysitter money (as both of Adam's parents are there as chaperones). But everyone applauds the aerial display, and the principles seem to be having a good time, until Ms GYRO intervenes with an admonition against using powers at the dance. The DJ starts up something called "The Macarena." Everyone seems to know of it. About half seem to know how to mostly do it. I think it's the worst kata ever, but I put up with it, since I can now add it to the dance moves I've memorized. * * * I spot various drama going on up at the DJ's table. I decide I've had enough drama for the evening, and focus on my own entertainment. And am rewarded -- perhaps -- when suddenly something ... ... slower ... ... starts.  I don't know the tune -- how would I? -- but the response from the crowd is easy to see, model, and effect. Jason and I dance in physical contact, slowly.  I can see a lot of the couples around us are sort of only shifting back and forth from one foot to another, in time with each other (if not the music). I decide on something slightly more ... complex, moving our feet as we dance, bringing Jason with me, dodging his feet with mine.  But melting together nonethless. It's not sex. (And, to be blunt, my sole sexual encounter with Jason involved nothing resembling standing up, lying down, or any sort of comforting pop ballad playing in the background.) But it's a valid, relatively safe, vague shadow of sex, which seems to be the point. And it ends in a kiss. Kissing Jason takes up some undefined latter portion of the tune. It's a moderately lengthy, reasonably intense, quite pleasant kiss, or series of kisses. They blur a bit. Enough to satisfy the impulse, prime the pump for something more down the line, but not stand out or raise alarms with the chaperones. It's equal parts clumsiness, greed, uncertainty, passion, and warm, wet lips. And it's ... ... nice. For whatever that's worth. And at the moment, it's worth a lot. * * * My purse is vibrating. I pull my phone out, even as Jason does the same from his coat. It's Harry's mother. "Afterparty is ready!" I look at Jason. "I guess we're invited to the after-party." "I guess so." "I -- we should probably go." "Definitely. Harry's a friend. A team mate." "Right." "Um ..." "The music has started again." "The beat seems ... sedate." "Would you like to --" "Yes." * * * It takes another half hour for the slow dances to wind down. I've spotted others of the Menagerie slipping out. Harry and Andi exit together. Charlotte gives Pietro a kiss on the cheek before leaving. Leo and Aria leave with Summer. I never did see Harry and Keri leave, but they're not here now. At last it's just Jason and me out on the dance floor. Well, there are a few dozen other couples, but I don't know them so they don't count. "We should probably go," he finally says. "Mmm-hmm," I reply. It's very odd, holding him this way, my face turned away against his shoulder. He's not significantly tall than me. It just feels like the right thing to do. "The other will be waiting for us." "Egad." "Harry said we really, really should be there." I lift my head and look at him. "Well, if Harry says so, let's snap to it." "Alycia, I just mean --" "I know." I smirk at him. "It's just been kind of nice here, the past few minutes-slash-months." "Yeah." "I was able to just ... relax." He grins. "Yeah." "Though," I add, "you don't seem completely relaxed." "Well ... I'm, uh, happy to see you." "Oh, that, too? How nice." I give him a quick kiss. "We might as well go see what fabulous afterparty the Gales have pulled together." "It won't be as unreal as this has been." "I have no doubt you are correct." We gather up and leave. [To be continued ...] #Recap #Cutscene 
Jason maneuvers the Qdisc deftly through traffic. In theory he could have the AI take us there, but he seems to welcome the respite from romantic evening interaction. And, honestly, so do I, now that I've climbed to the surface.  There's a lot to think about. I've gotten over any question about whether a relationship with Jason is a stupid idea -- it's definitely something I want to pursue, even if there's a high probability of disaster associated with it. And, to that end, I realize that I still don't want to move in with him, or go to work for/with him. Not yet. No rush.  I am beginning to have doubts about not having sex with him yet, though. I reluctantly file that under "Examine in the light of day, not in media res " and move on. * * * We've all assembled at a small, out-of-the-way park in the downtown area. It's about the size a building would take up, in a neighborhood of older buildings (American scale, meaning dating back to the pre-WW2 era, perhaps turn of the last century). There's nothing in particular noteworthy about it -- grass, a walkway leading to a statue, a few benches. There was a sign at the gate, at the sidewalk, but it was too dark to easily make out. Tempest and Silver Streak, Harry's parents, are there, in civies, along with his Uncle Chase. A whole family of heroes. What would that be like, growing up? From the Menagerie there's Leo and Aria. Summer. Adam. Harry, along with Andi. And, of course, Jason and me. Summer spots us and smiles. I quickly let go of Jason's hand. Then, just as deliberately, take it again. I give her a smirk. If anyone else notices anything or has a comment in mind, they don't voice it. They all seem to be chatting amongst themselves or with the Gales. There is a distinct lack of anything about that looks party-like.  Harry's father greets everyone. "Hey, kids -- great to see you here. We have something kinda special in mind to keep you out of post-party trouble." He winks at his wife, who raises her eyes to heaven and shakes her head slightly. He chuckles, and continues, "Without further ado ... Harry, if you'll do the honors?" Harry looks at the rest of us with a moment of uncertainty, followed by an anticipatory grin that looks amazingly like his dad's.  He goes up to the statue, and whispers something at it ... ... and reality changes. The park seems to waver, and then expand outward with a weird, wavering effect. Chase, over by the gate, closes it, and that side of the park likewise expands. In all directions, the city blurs, fades into darkness, while around us ... We're still in a park, but it's massive, with great trees in all directions of the clearing we're in. Those trees are festooned with lights, and under them are tables filled with food. Music is playing, somewhere, something strange and tinkling. Or maybe it's just a breeze blowing past wind chimes. I realize I'm crouched slightly, legs spread for balance, a half-step ahead of Jason, one hand still holding his and the other out to grab/bat/punch anything that needs that kind of treatment. My heart is racing. My eyes flicker all around. The others are also looking startled, except for the Gale family. I slowly I straighten out, but stay at attention. Harry clears his throat, and all eyes go to him. "Since Jason left the team --" I feel his hand twitch. I give it a light squeeze. "-- we haven't had a place to gather together.  Grandma Swift had a key ring of places from the SOS days, and she offered one to me. The Twilight Glade has lots of stuff -- information, food, music, art, some healing equipment --" "More of a field effect," Tempest -- Helen -- corrects him. "An aura." "A healing aura. So," Harry says, then grins nervously, "now we have a base." There's general cheers and huzzahs. Jason's quiet. I'm quiet, too -- We're supposed to be happy with some sort of woodland retreat? Does this place even have electricity? And, Could I possibly live here? "And, just in case you were worried," Helen adds, "we adults aren't allowed in unless Harry invites us." That draws some chuckles, then she goes on. "Whcih makes this next part kind of ... awkward." She pauses, then smiles again. "Maybe later." Harry's dad, who's been chatting with Swift, turns back to her, "Oh, hey, honey -- did you ask him if he wanted to join the HHL?" Say what? She shoots a glare at him, but addresses us. "Maybe you kids just explore your new place." "Mr and Mrs Gale," Charlotte says, stepping up to them and giving a curtsey. "Thank you so much for all of this." She gestures around, not just in general, but at the food and drink laid out.  "Our pleasure," Helen says. "Least we can do for Harry's friends. Enjoy!" * * * "Hey, the food's over there," Jason says, as I drag him off toward the trees.  "I know. I want to see what's over here." "Why?" "Because the food is the thing that's supposed to catch our attention." "Huh. Yeah, you're right. Though I don't think the Gales are a particular menace." "Neither do I." "Then --" "But just because I don't think it doesn't make it not so. I'll just be more comfortable once I've scoped it out a bit more." * * * "These trees are fantastic." "I don't recognize the species." "It's all old forest, notice? No seedlings." "And it's all grass where it's not trees. That's ... not natural." "I don't think there's much natural here." "Un-? Preter-? Super-? Maybe we should go 'Au'?" "Says the boy wearing a suit made of nanobots. Is that even sanitary?" He sniffs with disdain. "My bots actually power themselves off of organic materials my body sheds. Skin. Oil. Bacteria. Anything else. Extremely efficient. It's really kind of clever." I stop. Look at him. "So in theory, you never have to bathe?" "Nope. Though I do," he adds, maybe a little too quickly. "And if you're wearing nanobot pants, they'll recycle ... everything?" He gives a sort of weak smile. "Yes. In theory, at least. I haven't ... experimented." "Clever. Also, ew. Don't touch me with those things. I don't know where they've been." He chuckles. "Though they might come in handy sooner than you thought." "Yes?" "Have you seen any bathrooms around this place?" * * * "Light up ahead." We slow down. I'm not sure what I expect to see as we move forward ... not creeping and hiding, exactly, but with a degree of caution. Will it be the robot maintenance plant that keeps this all working? Another pavilion of kids partying? A baseball field? A Dream Park control room? A tall man in a white suit with a little person similarly dressed by his side? Galadriel on her throne? A house with three bears? The rest of our party, looking around and eating food? Because the last is what it turns out to be. "I don't think we went around in a circle." "I'm almost certain we didn't." "Sooooo ... pocket dimension?" "Illusions?" "Subsonic disorientation?" "Maybe we went in a straight line and these are alternate dimension versions of us." "They look the same, and they don't have a me or you." "Maybe their me and you went off exploring." "A pocket dimension is simpler." "How is that possibly simpler?" If we have wandered into a parallel dimension of Menagerie folk, they are indistinguishable from the real thing. I decide to work on the unconfirmed hypothesis that they are * * * We make multiple more loops back to the center by walking off in random directions. It's about a five minute-wide pocket. The place is arboreal, groves of trees punctuated with lawned clearings (or, to give the correct florid impression, "greenswards"). Some very realistic statues dot the landscape, similar in style to the one in the park where we'd first entered. "The statues are kind of weird," says Harry, appearing behind us as we look at one of them. "I ... wouldn't hang out around any of them tonight. Light of day is definitely better." He vanishes in a blur before we can ask him any questions. "Going to take his advice?" Jason asks. "For now." I shiver slightly, even though the air is pleasantly warm. Jason puts his arm around my shoulder, extends the nanobots to a cloak around me. They don't smell like they've been eating Jason excretions and sloughs of various sorts. I try not to think about it. "I'm not actually cold," I tell him. "It's just ... magic stuff. Like this." He shakes his head. "Science not yet understood," he says with a frown.  "I didn't say otherwise. But ... it's more than just that." "Emotional forebrain reaction to the unknown. That something happens means there is cause, effect, and therefore rules governing it. There's nothing behind the curtain but the mechanism making everything run." "We've had this discussion before." "Chichen Itza." "Amsterdam." "You didn't persuade me then." "You aren't persuading me now." "So, what, this is all fairy magic and toadstools and pixie dust? Is that satisfying to you?" "I don't know. But it's here, and we are ... so let's at least enjoy it tonight, and go prying at it with jackhammers and lasers tomorrow." He grins. "Fair enough. You're the one who wanted to map the place out." I let that slide. "Harry mentioned his Grandmother and the SOS. You're a Halcyon native -- do you know anything about this?" Jason shakes his head. "The SOS was before even Dad's time, but they had all sorts of goofy stuff they attributed to 'magic.' Dad hated that shit." He looks around him. "Never heard of a 'Twilight Grove,' though." "'Glade,'" I correct him, absently. As we walk along we pass various pavilions, and even treehouses or platforms, up above the ground. All are simple, spacious, beautiful ... railings and chaise lounges, beds made up of mounds of pillows. I could imagine ... camping here. Enjoying a brief escape from civilization ... ... but there are no power outlets. No infrastructure. My mobile shows zero bars. We're severed from reality here in some profound way -- call it magic, to give it a label. It makes sense as a retreat, even as a meeting place ... but not a place to live. I have a weird sense that anyone who actually tried living here would slowly become a denizen of this place. Perhaps that's where the statues come from -- people who spent so much time here, they became one with it, trapped here forever. Yeah, that's not promising. As we wander more slowly, taking in more of the location, it occurs to me that I'm here, walking through an enchanted (work with me) grove, alone with Jason. In any direction are soft lawns, or, better, resting place with pillows galore. I'm suddenly flushed with the thought of what we could do here. Do I want to? Profoundly. Do I want to? No. Not now. I already resolved this, and opportunity and proximity and hormonal shenanigans are not going to change my my mind. Not. At. All. Keep telling yourself that. "I feel like I should carve our initials on a tree," I tell Jason. My voice seems pitched higher than usual.  "Yeah," he says, his voice in turn sounding hoarse. "I mean, no. This is a weird place. It might react ... poorly, to someone carving on trees." "Afraid of angry dryads?" I tease. "Self-defense systems. Autonomous anti-infection routines. Sentinel guardians of some sort. Sure." I make a face. "Besides, if you were going to carve our initials, you'd need a knife." "You mean like this?" His eyes cross some to see the blade a few inches from his nose. "I -- where did you get --?" "As if I'm going to go someplace like that dance without a means of defending myself." "You took a weapon into the dance ?!" "So did you. It's just that nobody knew about mine." He pauses. "Where were you, um, carrying ...?" "If I told you, I'd have to find another place." I twist the knife around to the side, and make it vanish. It's flashy illusionist work, but it makes the appropriate impression. And it gives me a chance to put the knife away while he's watching the hand it was in. "We should get back to the others." "Yyyeah." He looks at my empty hands. "If -- that's what you want." I want to jump your bones right here. But I don't trust myself. Or this place. "I seems like the most ... practical course at the moment." "I bow to your superior practicality." "Hold that thought." * * * Eventually the party settles down at the pavilion where we first arrived. People are sitting on the carved wooden lawn furniture and pillows, nibbling on plates with an extraordinary array of food, from tables that never seem to run out of it. Harry's informed us that the Grove just does that. It seems to be a feature he's particularly enthusiastic about -- if you told me it was his top criterion for selecting this place, I wouldn't be very surprised.  Since it seems to have been providing food for visitors for a long time, and was previously used as a supers base by the SOS, I push aside any mythic caveats about eating food while in Faerie and dig in, sampling items at random. It's remarkable stuff -- a savory curry shrimp that's exquisite, some lovely chicken and beef satee skewers with an amazing array of dipping sauces, bowls of chips (of course) that are the perfect combination of crispness and seasoning, chocolate cupcakes that -- -- this place is very dangerous if any of us are going to fit into our costumes ever again.  Harry also mentions that, just as people will slowly (though more quickly than normal) heal while here, electrical objects will recharge over time, and that, with unspecified modifications, one can get cell reception. You can't exactly set up a machine shop, dammit, but ... Conversation is dying into lower chit-chat. The senior Gales have disappeared for the evening, which was polite of them.  "You could have kept using the Quill Compound," Jason is saying to Leo. "I feel bad you didn't. You still can, as far as that goes, as ... a backup, or someplace with fewer grass stains, or whatever. Whenever you want to." He smiles thinly, takes a sip of punch that he's holding with his nanobots like a third hand. Show-off. "Just because I'm not on the team, doesn't mean I don't want to help." "You can help," Leo says. "Just -- not all the time." "But thank you," I tell him. "I'm sure there will be opportunity to ... visit." He snorts, but grins a little bit more. "The chips at my place aren't as good, but they renew themselves almost as fast." "Hey!" Harry says from where he's leaning against Andi's legs. "That's because I keep running down to the store to keep buying them!" "Well, sure," Jason laughs. "How the hell else are you going to burn off all those chips you keep eating?" Everybody joins in the general chuckle. Adam adds, "Yyyeah, Leo's done a good job leading the team, but you did have a cool place for us to hang out." "That sounds like my cue," Leo says, standing up. Aria stands up next to him. A hush washes across the grove, as though everyone knows what's about to happen. As though we've been waiting for it, without even knowing we were waiting. Psychic phenomenon? Subconscious cataloging of tells and half-heard words? Take your pick. I just know that everything is about to change. [To be continued ...]
Jason activates the door-and-steps into the Qdisc, steps aside to let me climb in. Silently, I do so.  I've been mostly silent since the trio of announcements Leo had to make. His resignation from the Menagerie. His anticipated marriage with Aria. Their planning to be parents. Where to begin? It just keeps going around and around in my head.  I gave my congratulations (quite sincere) to the happy couple, but we bailed from the group as soon as practical and polite (especially since Leo had parting gifts for everyone. Very thoughtful ones. Of course.). Jason sets the autopilot, then turns to me. "So. Some party. And here I thought getting a mystical team base would be the most interesting part about the afterparty." "Hmm," I respond, looking at the passing streets. "Marriage. Wow." "Mmm-hmmm." "And kids. That's a huge step, emotionally, not to speak of technologically. I gotta ask him about it." He doesn't clarify which aspect he's going to ask about. "Hmmm." "And that giant floating head of Magus Everard that rose up out of the --" "I am listening, Jason. Just ... thinking." "About what?" he says, more softly. I raise an eyebrow. "Oh, gee, let me think. Was it the giant floating head of Magus Everard? No, I don't think so. Whatever else could it have been, then?" "The base. Marriage. Kids." "I suspect each of those topics has crossed my mind." "Want to talk about them? Any of them?" "It would help talking if I knew how I actually felt about them." He grins. "Sometimes talking about it with someone else can help you figure out how you feel about it." I mull that hypothesis. It has some value. But. This is all weird enough. Talking about this stuff with Jason, while everything's still up in the air, is fraught. How can I figure out my own reactions if I have to worry about his, or the feedback loop that causes. Eat the elephant one bite at a time. "I'm moving in with Summer tomorrow." He blinks at the seeming veering of subject. I watch emotions run across his face. Hurt. Anger. Guilt. Confusion. Give him credit, he simply nods. "Need any help?" I snort. "It's hardly like I have a four bedroom flat to get packed and loaded on a moving truck. I think I can manage. But ... thanks." Jason looks out at the midnight traffic, such as it is. "Thought you were looking at finding a place at the base, once one showed up. Well?" I wrinkle my nose. "Yyyeah, no. I was thinking someplace more ... barracksy." "Sounds homey." "Sounds familiar, thus safe, thus lacking in magical food supplies and healing auras and paths that take a straight line in a circle." "I thought you believed in magic." "Which is why it gives me some pause to pull up a magic deck chair and call it home." I shudder. "My believing in something beyond conventional empirical, material science doesn't mean that I trust it, or even like it. There's lots of things I believe are real that I don't trust." That last comment slips out before I can parse it for other meaning, and I hope Jason doesn't take it amiss. He doesn't seem to notice. "Well ..." He's quiet a moment. "The offer stands. If you change your mind." I nod. "Thank you. For all my --" I wave my hands about a bit. "-- your offer is both tempting and ... very much appreciated." "Then why --" He cuts off. "Right. Let's not do that again." "Learning has occurred!" I say, and give him an elbow on the bench seat. "Well, I am a hyper-genius." "I can't tell you how annoying it is that certain problem sets don't seem amenable to hyper-genius analysis and resolution." Jason barks a laugh. "I hear that." Then his face gets serious. "So ..." and for a horrible moment, out of nowhere, I'm terrified he's going to ask me to marry him and have children, right here, right now -- but that tragic twelve-car collision is averted as he veers off to "... Harry. And the HHL." I swallow, and hope my voice is normal as I say, "Not a surprise, I guess. His parents are both on the team. Were. I've not been keeping track of all the latest. But they're responsible sorts out their ears, least in that fashon, so if they're trying to revitalize the team, Harry's a natural choice." "I think he's ready. You've seen him in action more recently than me, but he's got a lot on the ball." I shrug. "He has the power. He's tapped into it even more of late. I worry about the will. He's just the kind of go-along person that got the HHL into the mess they're in now. He got that from his father, too." "Sometimes I think," he says, "we should have that as a motto for the Menagerie: 'We Have Daddy Issues.'" He chuckles at his own joke, then adds, "I  don't think you're giving Harry enough credit. I think there's a core decency to him that any team needs. He shows what a hero should be every time he jumps into action, every time he runs off for a bag of chips -- no, I'm serious -- and every time he quietly shifts the conversation to show the underlying question." I purse my lips, non-committal. "Do you think he'll jump?" "We weren't that close, even before the Menagerie. If he does, it won't be because the HHL is more famous or important or anything. It will be because he thinks he can do the most good there." The streetlights flash overhead on the expressway. We draw looks from the few vehicles, mostly trucks, out this time on a Sunday -- Monday, now -- but aside from that, it's like we're alone. "The Menagerie hasn't been around that long, and we're already looking at over half the founding members gone -- more, maybe, depending on how you count Leo's gang." He shrugs. "We didn't band together out of any great purpose. We banded together because we wanted to hang out and be able to do good at the same time. If the team goes its separate ways ... well, that's life sometimes. There are other ways to fight the good fight." "Easy for you to say." "Hey." "Dammit, Jason --" I grip the cushion under me tightly, a little reservoir of anger I hadn't even realized was there bursting forth. "It's easy enough for you. You have your big Foundation. You've got 'purpose' every direction you look, and all the resources you need to pick and choose, and everyone rooting you on and putting you on magazine covers. That's you.  Me? I've got -- I only have this team. These people here. If they all go away --" I realize, to my horror, that my eyes are wet, and I shift to look away from him so he doesn't see. "Alycia --" "It's all crashing and burning. And it all started when I joined. Correlation, meet Causation." "Hey, hey," he says scooting closer and putting his arm around me. If he can't see my face, he can hear my voice. "It's going to be okay." I shake my head with a sharp gesture. "Dammit. It was all so carefully c-crafted. Had it all figured out, an instant after I saw you there, in the Sepiaverse. A way for me to get out, to get away from what I'd been doing, my past, my father -- come in from the cold, but with you, not in some -- with strangers. Going over to AEGIS. Winning their trust. Getting on the team -- and then you left , and now everyone else is leaving and I don't know what's going to happen --" -- to me. I cut myself off before I sound completely pathetic. "Hey," he says again, gently -- very gently (clever boy) -- pulling around my shoulders, lettiing him look at me. "This is not everything. You're smart, you're strong, you're useful -- even if the Menagerie disappeared tomorrow, which it's not , you would land on your feet." "Yeah, I'm sure AEGIS would be happy to have me stashed away somewhere as a weapon for them," I retort. "Or any other agency of that sort, black or white or gray hat. That's who I am , to them -- a genius raised by a master science villain to be his weapon, to do his dirty work, to --" Kill. "-- follow orders and survive. That's not what I want to be." He pulls me into him, and I let him hug me as we hum down the expressway, my face against his shoulder. I feed his nanobots some moisture.  A few minutes later, I pull back a little, and he lets me, no restraint. His blue eyes meet mine for a long moment, and I suddenly realize he's got to be  (metaphorically, I hope) biting his tongue to not say anything about his previous offers. So many points to him for that. I snort, lightly. "Sorry. Didn't mean to -- go off like that." I rub my uncovered arm across my face. A heavier snort. "Weddings make me cry." He looks at me, puzzled for half a second at the topic shift. "Oh. Really?" "No, not really , though that whole thing didn't make me feel any more -- settled." A pause. "Do you ever think --" "No." I set a finger to his lips. "No, I don't. It's way too soon, with everything else. I'm not sure I'm ..." I trail off, then say, "I can't talk about marriage. Or, for Kali's sake, babies." There's so much there for me to unravel -- and would be, even if we were talking about two "normal" associates of ours. "Okay." He's quiet a bit, then chuckles. "What?" "Nothing. Never mind." "Really? The chuckle-then-stand-mum ploy? And here I thought you were a hyper-genius." "I don't want you to hit me." "Then you'd better talk." "You should take over." "Take -- what?" "Take over. The Menagerie." I stare at him. "I can't believe you haven't thought of this yet. Leo leaving means there's nobody in charge. Sooner or later someone's going to question my name on the official paperwork. And with Leo gone, we lose the helpful and sympathetic Agent Waters. So AEGIS, and the City, and the media, oh, not to mention the people on the team, are going to want to know who's running things." "Yes, I took that cognitive jump as soon as you said 'Take over the Menagerie.' I was waiting for the point where you demonstrate you haven't suffered a mental break." "Who else? I mean, Charlotte is a nice person, but is she leadership material? Or Adam? Summer?" "Harry." "We just talked about that. You don't think he'd make a good HHL member, why would he make a good leader of the Menagerie?" "Jason, this is insane." "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." "Doyle was a spiritualist who believed in faeries in the garden." "Whatever, it's still a good quote. And my point stands." I shake my head. "You've just added another 'impossible.'" I tick off on my fingers. "AEGIS will never agree to it. The team will never agree to it. And, not least, I will never agree to it." "You would never lead the team?" "I'd be a horrible leader. I'm better at being pointed at a problem and fired at it." "One, you exaggerate. Two, you just said that's not what you want to be in life. Three, you're the one who was worried about the group falling apart so you have the most motivation to keep it running. And, four, have you ever seen Leo hanging back and not acting in a battle?" "Well ... no. But it's all the stuff outside of battle that's just as important, and that I would suck at. Leadership stuff. Believe me, I've tried." "When?" "I couldn't keep my father's empire together --" "There's a difference between running a global science criminal empire that you don't really want to run anyway, and being a leader of a small super-hero group." "I tried leading squads in the field. I failed. Miserably." "How long ago? How old were you?" Pause. "Fourteen. Fifteen." "I think maybe you've grown a bit since then." "I --" "Just think about it. And maybe think about what sort of a leader the Menagerie needs. It's not a military chain of command. It's not even always being the tactical mastermind. Just ... think about it." I roll my eyes. "Fine. I'll think about it." He nods. I continue, "When I need a laugh, or a frisson of horror to keep me awake." He snorts again, puts his arm around me, and pulls me -- gently -- next to him. I don't object. For once I'm willing to just feel, not think. * * * As the Qdisc pulls up to the passenger drop-off for the Quill Family compound, I pull away from him and raise an eyebrow.  He holds up both hands. "No! No funny business. Since I'm not allowed to know where you are --" He continues sotto voce . "-- (I totally know where you are) --" And back to normal. "-- it made more sense to drop me off here, and let the disc take you back ho-h-h-h-however you want to refer to that place." I glare at him, and give him a light (honest!) punch in right shoulder. The nanobots probably keep him from even feeling it. "Goofball." "My middle name. Though --" he says, then slowly and carefully picks his words. "-- If you wanted to come inside, for a cup of coffee or whatever, you would be welcome. No expectations or ulterior motives or cunning plans." I smirk. "I would be gravely disappointed if there were no ulterior motives. But -- I think it best to call it here. For now." He nods, with a smile. "I'll you hold you to that 'for now.'"  "No doubt." I close my eyes, take a moment. Put aside the snark. Put aside the teasing. Put aside the anger and envy and loneliness. Just ... be ... honest. My eyes open. I reach out and take his hands. "Thank you. For tonight. For everything. It was more special ... more precious ... to me than I could ever tell you. I very much want to do it again." He grins. "Maybe not do all of it. Just the good parts." "I liked the part with the knife." "Yeah, I was hoping to skip that part." "And the dancing." "Some of the dancing." "Some of the dancing." "Not the parts where I looked like someone was shooting random electrical impulses into my spine." "Oh, so none of the dancing?" "Smartass." "Geniusass." "Cuteass." I blush, for the love of Ishtar. "C'mere, you." I pull him closer. We kiss. A while. "Are you ... sure ... I can't invite you --" "Jason." "Well, I'm happy to see you." "Clearly." "Talk tomorrow?" "Let's not set a schedule quite yet. But if it happens, that'd be nice." He nods. Gives me another quick peck. Takes a jump out of the Qdisc, though not quite as gracefully as before for some reason. "James, take the lady wherever she wants to go." Oh, that's still a temptation. "Back where you picked me up for dinner, James." "Encrypted Destination Code 'Durance Vile,' yes, ma'am." He's waving at me when we pull out. I shoot him with finger guns. The corner of the gate cuts off his smile. I close my eyes and begin the long, lonely ride to my last night in a cell. -fin-