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55.3 - Date Night Debrief

Jason watches her as she sits on the conversation pit cushion, curled up in a corner, knees tucked up against her. He's never quite been able to figure how she finds a corner in the curved sofa, but she does. He also knows better than to sit next to her. Not yet, at least. He stays where he is, seated across from her, close enough not to raise his voice, far enough not to impinge on her space. "So, that was my evening last night," she comments. "How was yours?" He shakes his head. He's wearing his hair a lot shorter these days -- it bugs him, but he never wants to take enough time to keep the longer cut tidy for board room meetings and all that crap. "Well, the comms and social media were really busy for a while, but I eventually sent the Ponies home. The last one left about 3 -- she said she had a doctor's appointment in the morning, so wasn't planning on going to school until after lunch." She nods. "Yeah. School, just what I needed after all that." "For what it's worth," he tells her, "the mysterious Charade got out of it all with her reputation intact. The media, social and otherwise, have taken your silence as that of somebody who was trying to do a good thing in the middle of a shit show." "Probably just as well then I didn't say anything to the press to disabuse them of the notion." "Yeah. Early reports had you as either Yoko Ono or the hero of the hour." "Yoko Ono? Isn't she, like, 99 or something? And why her? Or is this some sort of Asian prejudice thing?" "I think it was meant more as the New Interloper Who Ruins the Vibe of the Group sort of thing." "Great." She glowers a bit at the floor. "But, like I said, that all seems to have worked out with not giving a statement. It made you a bit more mysterious --" "If you call me a Mysterious Oriental, I'm going to hit you." He knows that will hurt. "I wasn't! Just -- it worked out as you wanted." Alycia nods, with a sigh. "Well, Parker liked it, at least. But, then, saying nothing to the public is at the top of her play book." She looks pensive for a few moments. "And, conversely, Harry's statement worked out ... less dumpster-fire than I was afraid it was going to when I saw him moving toward the reporters. "Well, it was only a few hours ago. But I thought it hit a pretty good blend of taking responsibility and not taking anything from those media people." Jason smiles. "It was honest, and it's the kind of thing that will sell well for the people hearing it." Alycia shrugs. "But is he going to stick around with the group to see the results?" "Is that what you're worried about?" "Shouldn't I be?" "You want I should talk with him?" She shakes her head. "Not unless you want to."  Jason mirrors her shrug. "You guys will do great, whatever Harry does." She snorts. "What does that mean?" "It means that's easy to say for a guy who already quit." "I --" He stops. Tries to swallow his anger. He knows Alycia is in one of her moods. He's seen them since they've been dating. Hell, he's seen them for years before that. "I've told you why that happened. You agreed there was a greater cause at stake." "Maybe I'm tired of greater causes hurting individuals." "Meaning you." Alycia fixes her gaze on him. "I have everything at stake here, Jason. If the Menagerie goes under, I'm the one who doesn't have a backup plan, another place to go. I don't have any other place to 'socialize' me. Parker will pull the plug on the Alycia Chin project." He shakes his head. "You don't know that." "It's what I would do. It's what any sane person would do." "You said she liked how you handled the situation with the media." "Yeah, by staying invisible. That's darn close to being disappeared." Jason bites his tongue. She's being paranoid, he knows that, but he also knows that pointing it out won't solve the problem. He's had plenty of time to learn that lesson, too. "Okay," he says, trying to pivot the conversation a bit, "let's talk about Parker. The talk you had with her last night sounds like it went well." Alycia hugs her legs a little tighter. "Let's face it, Jason -- no conversation in a government-licensed black SUV in the middle of the night parked across the street from your house, doubtless being recorded and analyzed live and by a team back at the base the next day, 'goes well.'" He waves his hand. "Okay, she's a spooky secret agent. AEGIS sucks. But she seemed to be supportive of you." "She said she recognized that there might be times when I'd have to choose between my AEGIS mission and what's best for the Menagerie." "Well, yeah." "Aside from her admitting that those interests wouldn't always be in parallel -- which, of course, I already knew -- she was also letting me know that she was aware I was fudging my report to her." "Yeah." Jason rubs his chin. "Which I understand why you did." Alycia rolls her eyes. "Of course. Saying that a super-powered ghost who has swept the world of spirits in a different dimension is, in this dimension, cracking under the pressure, is not going to do Charlotte or the team any good. Saying that Harry snapped under fear and nearly destroyed the cemetery -- and, oh yeah, lobbed massive blocks of masonry out over the city, that's not going to help him, either." He likes her voice, her accent. At school, even among the Menagerie most of the time, she's got an excellent American accent. With him, she lets some of her English upbringing, with overlays of a dozen other lands, slip out.  He feels like it's a piece of her nobody else gets to see. "Well, you're okay. And Summer. And Adam. Of course Adam's okay -- he's always in the groove." She gives him a look he can't quite interpret, then she shakes her head. "My point is, she knew I wasn't reporting honestly. That I was shading things on the side of the team, not AEGIS." "And she said that was okay." "No, she said there would be times of conflict, and I should act boldly to do what I think is right." "Isn't that the same thing?" "Maybe. Or maybe it's encouraging me to jump into the trap, to act against AEGIS' interests in a way that clearly justifies throwing me back -- into the cell." Jason can't help notice that bit of hesitation. She's shared with him the experience. He's not sure she's told him everything, or that she realizes how much the experience shook her. "So she's ... tempting you to fail?" "Maybe. Or maybe not. How the hell can I tell? I'm already doing what I think is the right thing to do, and she encourages me to do that thing. Is she supportive or subversive? Is she urging me to do the right thing, even if it's not to the AEGIS playbook -- or taking me up on the mountaintop to encourage some sort of megalomaniacal prioritization of my own desires over the public's safety, to justify a view that I'm the Great Enemy?" "Get thee behind me, Parker." "Something like that." She presses her lips together. "I want to believe her. She -- she strikes me as a strong person, with a personal moral code that she protects fiercely, even within a setting like her job. The things she says to me, the encouragement, the positive words -- they mean a lot." Jason muses that Alycia always responds to positive words, that she sometimes seems desperate for them, but he muses that very quietly. "But," she continues, "she's also a highly dutiful person -- something I also appreciate. That duty could let her see me as a threat." She pauses, continues in a softer voice, "It probably should." He really wants to go over and hug her, try and comfort her. He decides it's not yet the time. He'll have to use words. "So be careful. Admire and respect the parts that are good. Tread carefully where you feel there's danger. Until you have more about her figured out. Be the good secret agent to the extent you can. Try to get her to trust you." Alycia snorts. "I thought I had a plan for that. Sound vulnerable. Tell her I need her to help me stay on the straight and narrow, to do the right thing. Admit to her I know she thinks I'm a danger. Get her on my side." He cocks his head. "That doesn't sound like you." "I know. Which is probably why it felt clumsy as hell coming out. It all sounded good when I -- well, when the idea came to me. But it's not how I usually feel, or behave, or act, to speak. Even if maybe ..." After a moment, he prompts her. "Maybe ...?" "Maybe there's something to it." Jason shakes his head. "The Alycia Chin I know doesn't need anyone to help her follow a strong moral code." "Maybe. But how much can I trust that code I have in my head?" She taps a temple with her right index finger.  "She told you they had fully scanned and examined you, and there were no hidden brain packages planted by your dad." She rolls her eyes. "As if AEGIS could find something if Father really wanted to hide it. But even if that's true, how much of me is shaped by him through more conventional pedagogy? No nano-chemical pumps or embedded brain circuits or even deep-induced mind programming, but just plain old operant conditioning?" She shudders slightly. "I haven't heard you cackling maniacally, 'Lycia." "No? Tell me, Jason, how many times in the last week have you caught your self before you did something the way your father would have done it -- in a bad way?" He opens his mouth, then closes it. Just this morning, on the phone with the London office and that really annoying researcher there, Pomeroy, he almost -- "But that's different." "Is it? Father trained me to be a killer. He trained me to be the heir to his Great Mission. He rewarded me when I complied. He punished me when I failed. He inculcated that Mission within me, that mode of behavior, that set of choices. How can I possibly know, when faced with a sudden life or death situation, whether I am acting the way Father wanted me to, trained me to, shaped me to -- or not? And how much do I need to slow down my actions to analyze that every time there might be a life at stake?" He doesn't have an answer. Except the truth. "Parker seems to have faith in you. So do I." She snorts. "You sound like Summer." He almost brightens up and says something stupid like, Well, golly, I can't imagine a higher complement. Alycia's attitude toward Summer is complex, but seems to be trending positive. Her attitude about any intersect between him and Summer tends to be ... more problematic. He shrugs. That's safer. "So ... Shishito Peppers." She blinks at him. "Yyyyes?" "I didn't know you liked them." A raised eyebrow. "You didn't ask. They're tasty." "Enough that the Glade chose them for you." Alycia makes a face. After a moment, she adds, "They were certainly prepared well." "Amir and I and Rusty used to play this Russian Roulette game with them, kind of combined with a Truth or Dare thing." "That sounds vaguely disturbing." "Except that Rusty cheated. He could bite into one of the spicy ones without showing it." Alycia gives a wan smile. "Your ex-CIA secret agent bodyguard has a great poker face. Who'd have imagined?" "Yeah, I know. That's how I ended up --" "Do I want to know this particular anecdote?" Jason considers. "Yeah. Maybe not." She nods. They sit in silence or a bit. "What would show up for you, if you weren't there at a big party like the dance night?" she finally asks. "M&Ms. God, I love those things." She makes a face. "Terribly cheap chocolate, for all it's appallingly sourced." She raises an eyebrow. "I've never seen any around here." "Man's gotta know his limiations. If I had M&Ms here, I'd be round as a bowling ball." She snorts softly. Contemplates the carpet. "Hey, do you want --?" "Not right now." "Okay." He falls quiet again. Alycia's always been moody. He notices it more now because he spends longer periods of time with her. But even back when they were kids, her emotional state could shift at the drop of a hat. (Or a monkey with a hat.) It confused him then, and even though he now recognizes it, it still confuses him. Not, he knows, that he's the most stable plate on the tectonic boundary. "Parker thinks I should take over the team." He blinks. "She does?" "That was the subtext. As soon as I started talking about the Menagerie, she was maneuvering the conversation around to offer that suggestion. I managed to cut her off -- though I doubt I fooled her." Jason bites his tongue. "Huh." Her eyes shift over to his. "'Huh'? That's your reaction?" He knows he's piloting into a mine field, but she raised the issue. "Okay. Let me change that to, 'Wow, what an honor.'" She gives him the fish eye. "Go on." Deeper and deeper into the field, and he doesn't seem to have control of the throttle. "I mean, leader of one of the preeminent super-teams in Halcyon. That's pretty cool." He knows what's coming next. He tries not to tense up in anticipation. Instead, her voice is relatively calm. "Says the man who quit the job." He grins. "Is there some sort of echo in here? I thought we talked about this a few minutes ago." "We did. You indicated that you had bigger fish to fry, larger and greater causes, than to stick with the team, or to continue leading it." He opens his mouth to argue, but, yeah, that's a fair cop. For good reasons, he knows, but still -- "Yeah." "But I don't have a greater cause, so I should consider it a worthy prize for my lesser status." "That's not what I meant --" "That's --" "-- and I've offered you a chance to participate in that 'greater cause' a dozen times, so don't feel like I'm treating you like someone who's at some weird lower socio-political plane than me. Because I'm not." "No, I'm just refusing to rise up from the slum of super-hero team stuff." "No, that's not what I meant." Mines are detonating on all sides. "Just that you could do more, but if you consider the Menagerie important, than it's amazingly cool that Parker thinks you would be a good leader!" There's a brief pause as they glare at each other. "The field of canddiates," she finally says, "is not all that large." He forces himself to shrug casually. "The job's only as small as you think it is." "Jesus, Jason, you sound like a motivational poster." He pauses, then has to nod with a self-deprecating smile. "Yeah. Maybe. But the point remains -- if you really valued the team yourself, you'd take over the leadership, take the reins, make it an even greater success." She stares at him a long moment, then asks, "Do you think I should?" He intentionally doesn't pause to consider, because he knows how that will look. "Absolutely." "Why?" He revs up his cognitive speed. The nanites shift against his skin. "You have a passion for the team. You're hyper-intelligent. You understand leadership and mission dynamics. You --" "Jason, I'm a goddamned assassin. I'm a walking weapon who's struggling to pretend to be a student and schoolgirl and a friend. Killing's the only thing I was ever good at that my father intended me for, and I sucked even at that. I'm a crappy follower -- even beyond that, I'm not a leader." He shakes his head. "I'd follow you anywhere." "Really?" She arches an eyebrow. "I've told you how I feel about this, and you question it. I've told you how I feel about the stuff Parker said, and you question that. I join the team, and you leave. I --" She stops. " You don't even listen to me. How can I expect others to follow me into battle." He gets up, crosses over to her. "Look, Lycia, you've trained for this. You're smart and dedicated and, even if you pretend not to, you care about people, care about the team. That all sounds like top job qualifications to me." "My training is all as a military leader. You've told me how the team reacted when you tried to be all formal and sitrep with them." Jason blushes. "Well, yeah -- but I wasn't good at it." "Jason, you're smart and dedicated, and you care about people, care about the team. That all sounds like --" "Yeah, I get it!" he snaps at her. She arches an eyebrow, and he sighs. "Part of it's that I'm Jason Quill. I get no respect. I'm a cartoon character." "Spare me the self-pity. I'm the daughter of a science criminal. You think I get respect?" "Jesus, Lycia, people respect the hell out of you." "No, they worry about me and fear me and double-parse everything I say looking for some underlying threat." "I don't." "You're in love with me, for some reason." That's a cue, intended or not. He sits down beside her. "Because you're lovable." "Or we share a common background and complementary pathologies." "So you're a horrible person, so the only person who could possibly love you must be also either horrible or deluded." She looks at him. "When you put it that way, it sounds like a kind of unhealthy attitude." "You think?" She pulls her legs in tighter. He decides it's the right moment to set a hand down on the cushion near her. Not touching. Just ... near. "Look, I get it, even in my small way. You feel like damaged goods. You want others to trust and respect you, and you don't trust and respect yourself, which means you think the worst. I get it." Alycia is silent a while, then turns to him. "You do, don't you." "Underneath these good looks is a guy who's terrified of what he might do wrong." "I hate the hair." "It's kind of growing on me." "Good. Let it grow to where it was. I liked it." "Things change. It makes sense for me now, for what I'm doing." "Should I cut mine?" "I kind of like it long. When you tie it back for combat, you could put one of those razor hammer things at the tip, like in those animes." "Oh, please. That's all male bondage fantasy." "What's wrong with that?" "Oh, yuck." She unbends enough to push him away, though not too hard. "Jason, I just can't do it. Lead the Menagerie." "Not to repeat myself, but, you have the training." "One, it was training to command an army that was eminently disposable to the Great Mission and Father's ultimate safety. Two, I sucked at it." "You said it was because you were so young. And, maybe a girl. They didn't respect you, so they didn't obey you." "That was -- yeah, that was a big part of it." "But ...?" She closes her eyes. "I'm too focused on what I'm doing to pay attention to others. I'm too direct and unsubtle when I give commands. I'm too worried ..." She trails off. He finishes for her, "That nobody will listen?" "That people will get hurt. I mean, if I told Summer, or Harry, or Adam, or whomever, what to do, and they were injured, or worse -- it would be my fault ." "Well, Adam would probably get out of it okay." She glowers at him with more vehemence than he was expecting. "That's not the point." "I know. I was joking. Just ... look, I understand all that, too. I was in charge, kinda-sorta for a while. And there's a difference between an army of mooks and the Menagerie." "I'm sure they'll be so relieved to hear that." "You know what I mean. The difference I'm talking about is that the Menagerie don't do anything they don't want to. If you order them to do something, they probably won't. If you advise them, or formulate a plan and coordinate them through it, they probably will, even with their own variations or spur of the moment improvements." "Which makes me responsible." "No. Which makes each of them responsible. Because they're the ones deciding to trust you, and to follow your guidance, or improve on it, or reject it. The fact you're looking out for them makes you a natural leader more than some guy who started barking orders and demanding sitreps." She smiles and snorts at that. He shakes his head -- she took that lesson from what he said, so why won't she listen to the rest? When the smile starts to fade, he adds, "I know you hate to get into situations you can't control. But I think you'd be good at this." She looks over at him. "I think you're entirely too confident in your ability to sweet talk me." He grins back. "I never make that mistake. Not any more. I still have that scar from Katmandu." She rolls her eyes. "That was totally your fault." "You were pointing the vortex blaster." "I wasn't going to shoot you with it. Just ... worry you that I might." "Yeah, well that made jumping out that window seem like a good idea." "Jumping out a window you haven't scouted is never a good idea." "I know. Ouch." "At least your tetanus implant was working." "At least Rusty saw me jump and dealt with all the resulting blood." "Oh, poor baby. I'd have jumped down -- more carefully -- to help you. But your pet goon was already on the scene." "He was going to go after you, but Dad had him take me to the Dragonfly for treatment and stitches." "I know. I had the guards with me escort me back to the Xìntiānwēng , rather than have them harry you." "Hey, I didn't know that. Thanks." She shrugs. "I really didn't want to hurt you, just -- get you out of the way. I wanted to keep you out of the way and safe until the Great Mission was a fait accompli and you'd join with us." "I know." He snorts. "I kept dreaming I'd turn you away from your dad and get you to join us , and you could come on our adventures and ..." He trails off, shrugs an embarrassed grin, feeling his face heat up. "I suppose you managed that at last." "Yeah, but --" He almost says something about not having been able to adventure with her, but catches himself in time. He doesn't want the conversation to circle around that direction a third time. "-- but, hey, you managed to lead those guards." "They were under strict orders to obey me, or face being subjects in Father's next round of experiments. You could have been leaving a trail of gold bricks and they wouldn't have disobeyed me. I don't want the Menagerie leading me out of fear." Jason shudders slightly. She talks about awful stuff like that so casually. Maybe she should be worried.  He almost misses her next words. "Summer thinks we make a cute couple." "She --" Little red warning lights go off in his head. This is even trickier ground than earlier. "-- well, she's right." Alycia gnaws her lower lip. "Yeah, you just say that because you want to get into my pants." "Uh --" Honesty is the best policy. At least in this case. "Well, duh. They're nice pants. But you don't want to do that." "No. Not -- now. Yet. Whatever." He nods. "Aren't you going to tell me it's not that big a deal, that all the kids-slash-young-adults do it, and it's not like you're asking me to marry you?" "Nope. I kind of want it because it is a big deal to me. Well, that, and you're hot and I've dreamed about it since that time and all that other hormonal stuff. But it's also something I want here." He puts his hand on his chest. "And if you don't want to do that yet, I understand." "Do you?" "Not really, but I accept it." She nods, smiles a thin-lipped smile. "And that's why I don't break your wrist when you touch me. And maybe why Summer's right, even in a way she doesn't know. I just --" A shake of the head. "I'm sorry, Jason. My life's just batshit crazy right now, and this is all I can do and be with you. That might change next week, or it might -- not change for a long time. I don't want you to think I'm leading you on." "Maybe I want to be lead. See, you're a great lead--" "It's not funny, Jason!" she shouts, legs down on the floor, hands slapping the cushions beside her, tense and ready to jump up and, in all likelihood, bolt the room. "It's not funny." "I know! I -- know." He reaches out and puts a hand, very lightly, just fingertips, atop the one closest to her. "It was stupid joke to lighten the mood. I'm sorry. I don't want to make things any harder on you than they are." And he considers, if at first you don't succeed, "And, hey, I'm not seeing anyone else right now, so I might as well wait until you've got your head screwed on right." "Again, you make a joke?" There's as much irritation as anger in her voice, but it's less explosive a complaint. "I do that when I'm nervous." "I make you nervous." "In a good way." She eyes him. "Huh. Maybe I'll tell Summer that next time we talk about you." "You and Summer ... talk about me?" "All the time." He can't help himself. "What do you --" "Well, she tells me about how you took physically advantage of her when she was first created, about how you shared with her the full experience of what it meant to be a human, including its most intimate acts, how you -" "What? Wait!" He jumps to his feet. "I didn't -- I never --" She leans back, gives him double finger pistols, then crosses her arms. "Oh, sorry. I say such strange things when my head isn't screwed on right." He stares at her for a long moment, his mouth working. "Oh, ha, ha. Very funny." He rolls his eyes to the heavens, hoping for inspiration, seeing only LED rail lamps. He looks back down at her and opens his mouth. She interrupts, "I know, I know. You would never do such a thing. That's why I don't break your other wrist when you touch me." She smiles cheerfully. "You are a gentleman, Jason Quill, in addition to being a hyper-genius, a human male, a science hero, and my oldest friend." She cocks her head. "You're also a good kisser." Jason's mental gearbox makes an almost audible grinding noise as he shifts from reverse into forward, leans down, and kisses her. She makes a small noise, and he does, too, then her hands are on his chest, pushing him, lightly, back. She gulps some air, but with a grin. "And, keep that up, perhaps you'll be something more." The grin fades slightly. " If this all works out." "I am a paragon of patience," he replies, sitting down quickly, his body telling him (and any close observer) that it, at least, is not all that patient. "Ready for the evening's entertainment?" She gives him a highly dubious look.  "I mean, the entertainment I had previously planned for the evening, not what's on my mind now, thanks to you. Ahem." He thinks she might actually be blushing, but decides it would be unwise to look too closely. He goes on, "You've mentioned wanting more assistance being steeped in American culture and media. The list you put together on Letterboxd of movies you've seen -- and a disturbingly thorough and vehement set of ratings and reviews -- shows a large gap in your American cinematic education, though if I ever need to learn about the romance and sacrifice amidst Brazilian revolutionary movements or Botswanan agricultural collectives, I'll know where to go for advice. So, I'm going to fill in some of that gap." "Now I'm worried," she says, sitting back. "Quill House," he says, invoking the house systems. "Pull up the video library on screen. Major Disney/Pixar animated films since 2000. List, sorted by my ratings." "Oh for Cao Guojiu's sake, Jason, I know of all these. I've read sociology papers about them. And Disney is a cultural appropriator that makes the British Empire look like UNESCO, and an engulfing commercial enterprise of massive proportions. Why would I want to actually watch this rubbish?" "Know thy enemy. You know of these movies, but you don't know them, or the influence they've had. Also, some of them are actually great entertainment. Amir and I spent hours on the Dragonfly watching these while doing international travel. What sorts of things did you watch on 'field trips'?" "Educational material. Father's recorded speeches. Technology breakdowns." She adds, dryly, "Classic independent romances set amidst Brazilian revolutionary movements." "Trust me, hijacking public domain fairy tales for profit results in something much more fun." "Are there magical princesses involved in any of these?" "Um ... for certain values of magical princesses." "Because that I don't need right now." "Okay, here are my top three. Pick one." She looks at the list, then back at him. She gives him both raised eyebrows, and she'd be looking over her glasses if she were wearing them. "Number 1? Really? Isn't that a bit on-the-nose for a guy dating an Asian girl who can whip his ass in combat?" "Yeah, but the dragon's cute." "Truly?" "Okay, Eddy Murphy's annoying. But the rest of it is awesome." "Fine. Prove my skepticism wrong." "Done. Quill House -- cinematic environment, play Mulan ." Jason settles down next to Alycia, and hopes she enjoys the movie. Correction: that they enjoy the movie together . #Recap #Cutscene
[Okay, so this was odd and rambling, but (a) writing a straight recap Alycia's Tale of Issue 55 was kicking my ass, and (b) I kept wanting an update on how things are going between Jason and Alycia (Summer certainly wants to know), so combining the two concepts seemed to make the most sense. Hope it was enjoyable, or at least insightful into how Jason sees Alycia these days, rather than the much more common reverse perspective.]
Bill G.
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