Chapter 1: 008. Star - Daredevil
In which Dex needs a new north star.
You need a north star, Dr. Mercer had said. Someone with a good heart.
Dex listened to her voice over and over again. North star. Good job. Structure. He had to hold it together, had to cope, had to -
Running. He could go running. Burn off some energy. Not the same running route as Julie, no, but -
He ran. He ran and he ran and he ran, trying to outrun the voices in his head, the agony of rejection, the fear, the -
There, on the side of the running path. Another man in running gear. He’d stopped by a cluster of cardboard boxes. Homeless people. He was smiling and talking to the old man tucked into the box. He was handing out food.
Someone with a good heart.
Dex didn’t think. He veered toward the man. “Hey.”
The man turned, smiled. He had blue eyes, dimples. “Hey yourself.”
“You’re feeding homeless people.”
“Veterans, these guys,” the man said.
Dex looked the man up and down. He was older by a few years. Broad across the shoulders. Strong. No match for Dex, but no weak man either. Probably didn’t scare easy. “You served?”
“Air Force. You?”
The man’s smile brightened. He offered a hand. “Evan Lorne.”
“Benjamin Poindexter. People call me Dex.”
“People call me Lorne, even though I’ve been out a while. You run this route on the regular? I haven’t seen you around before.”
“Trying something new.”
“Well, I come out here pretty much every day.”
“You always bring food?” Dex asked. Someone with a good heart would bring food often, wouldn’t he?
“As much as I can carry.”
Dex said, “I’ll help you carry some.”
Lorne’s smile brightened. “You’re a good man, Dex.”
“No, but I’m trying to be.”
Chapter 2: 060. Bottle - Jessica Jones
In which Jessica gets a new assistant.
After Gabe abandoned her, Jessica wasn’t sure she’d bother with another assistant, but Trish insisted an assistant was useful (she had a PA) and it would look more professional if she had one, so Jessica posted an ad on her door that she was looking for one. She didn’t have much hope that she’d find one, but she could at least tell Trish that she tried.
And then one day a man knocked on her door. He was neatly dressed in a button-down shirt but no tie, nice jeans, neatly-polished boots. He had broad shoulders and dark hair, bright blue eyes. He was also carrying at least one knife and one gun, but he looked friendly. At a guess he was about ten years older than Jessica.
“I’m here for the assistant position,” he said.
She opened the door a little wider, showed him in. He looked the place over with a critical eye, analyzing. He was like a cop casing a joint - or a thief.
His name was Evan, and he was retired from the Air Force, looking for a fairly low-stress gig while he pursued art, which was his passion; he was a painter.
“You think this job will be low stress?” Jessica sat at her desk, feet kicked up on it, bottle of vodka in hand.
“I was in a classified military program for fifteen years and the average life expectancy for boots on the ground was two weeks,” he said.
Jessica stared at him.
He shrugged, smiled. He had dimples.
“After that you want to answer phone calls and fix my filing system?”
“All right. You’re hired. Twelve an hour. It’s all I can afford.”’
“That’s fine,” he said. “When do I start?”
Jessica took her feet off the desk, stood up. “Now.”
Evan shrugged off his jacket, hung it on the peg inside the door beside Jessica’s leather jacket. “Where do you want me to start?”
Truth was, Jessica’s office, like her life, was a mess.
Good thing she’d hired Evan, because the man was more like a spouse or parent than an assistant. He cleaned the office. He reorganized her filing system so it was alphabetical by client codename (all of the codenames he assigned were astrological and mythical, Greek and Egyptian gods and creatures and the names of zodiacs and constellations) (he made her a list of codenames and how they matched up with clients’ actual names).
He also found a mini fridge and microwave so they could have food in the office, and he bought a supply of healthy snacks. He even redecorated the office so there were comfortable chairs with actual throw pillows. While he was in the office, he wore a headset to answer calls on the landline, though somehow he’d figured out a way to transfer important calls to Jessica’s cell phone. He puttered around the office, answering calls at the touch of a button (Alias Investigations, this is Evan speaking, how may I help you today?), cleaning and dusting and organizing and also doing basic research.
Whenever Jessica was in the office, he plied her with healthy home-baked treats and lots of coffee, but he never so much as raised an eyebrow when she made her coffee Irish. In fact, half the time he made sure her collection of empty bottles was neatly recycled and replaced on the regular.
One day Jessica said, “You know I’m an alcoholic, right?” She’d happened upon Evan restocking her new little liquor cabinet.
He glanced at her. “I suspect if you weren’t trying to unsettle me, in the ordinary course of business you’d describe yourself as a functioning alcoholic.”
“True.” Jessica leaned in the doorway, watched him work. “Shouldn’t you be, I don’t know, filling my vodka bottles with water?”
“I’m not your husband or your mother,” he said. He closed the liquor cabinet and straightened up. “But I do have the numbers of several emergency detox facilities on speed dial.”
“Does Trish know what an enabler you are? She wants a clone of you.”
“She’d never be able to afford one,” Evan said, deadpan, and Jessica couldn’t help but smile at his odd, dry humor.
“So, I have an interview for that new case we picked up yesterday, Codename Amaunet. You want to come along, learn how to sleuth a bit?” Jessica reached for her jacket. Gabe always wanted to come along and sleuth and help out.
“Unless you need me to do a composite sketch of someone, I’m useless in the field for that kind of thing,” Evan said.
That’s right. Evan was a painter. An artist. “I’ll remember that. Well, gotta go. I’ll send notes later.”
Evan nodded. “Be safe, Jessica Jones.”
“Always, Evan Lorne.” And she headed out the door.
When she stumbled back to the office a couple of hours later with a bullet wound that needed stitching, Evan didn’t hesitate, opened a bottle of vodka and rinsed the wound, found a handful of paper towels and put pressure on it, and put in a call to an old friend named Carson who owed him many favors and was, conveniently a medical doctor.
Chapter 3: 064. Practice - The Emperor’s Soul
In which Shai watches Evan paint.
Shai liked to watch Evan paint. Everyone else in the village thought he was odd, steered clear of him - especially while he worked - but Shai liked to sit just behind his left shoulder and watch him paint. She liked to watch every stage of his artistic process - his concept sketches, his initial outlines, the first washes of color, and then the painting in detail. The broad strokes, the fine strokes. The way he mixed colors.
He hummed odd tunes to himself sometimes while he worked, sang snatches of songs that Shai had never heard before, that no one else had heard of either.
But the villagers didn’t mind Evan, because he was useful to them. For the young Forgers to practice their stamp-carving and Forging skills. He had a system for creating every single one of his paintings: he’d do all his concept sketches on pieces of paper that were the exact same size, multiple pieces of paper, and then the final painting on canvas. But once the painting was complete, a young Forger could stamp each of the sheets of paper and turn them into replicas of the painting, to be sold or traded away on behalf of the village. It was a simple Forging - after all, Evan’s hand had gone into what was already on the papers, he’d handled them extensively, the papers were familiar with him and his work. And it was plausible, that instead of doing the painting on canvas, he’d done it on the paper where he’d started his sketches.
The more people who knew about a Forgery, the harder it was to maintain, but everyone in the village accepted, even liked Forgeries of Evan’s work, and so the Forgeries were strong.
Shai’s were the strongest, because she was the best.
Not the best at carving soul-stamps, necessarily, or even the best artist - though she’d been tutored in painting by none other than ShuXen himself.
No, Shai was the best Forger because she watched, and she learned. Lots of people used soul-stamps to Forge copies of famous pieces to be sold as counterfeits, or maybe to replace the real item hanging in a gallery so no one would realize it was stolen while the real item was sold for a small fortune - or returned to someone who’d loved the piece and lost it as the Rose Empire stamped out yet another town or village.
Evan was different. Everything Evan painted he made up himself - even though it looked real. The people he painted looked like they would breathe, step off the canvas at any moment. Shai loved that about his work. He was telling a story, though Shai hadn’t quite figured it out yet. His story was about soldiers in strange uniforms who carried strange black, angular projectile weapons mounted with bright round lights. His story was about a palace - also tall and angular - that floated in the middle of a glittering ocean, an island unto itself. His story was about a man with short, spiky dark hair and a wry smile, who was handsome and lean, but quite possibly very dangerous. His story was about a woman with short, dark, wavy hair, who wore a red blouse and sometimes looked a little sad. She, like Evan, had blue eyes, and Shai wondered if they were related somehow. Few people had blue eyes like Evan did.
Evan painted stories about the people in the floating palace, the adventures they went on, the relationship they had with each other. He told stories about strange, round caravans that floated in the sky, without horse or ox to pull them. He told stories about gloriously blue pools of water surrounded by stone rings. And he allowed the young Forgers in training to copy them and pass them on and sell them.
Shai would sit and watch him work, practice carving soul stamps, practice the delicate art of composing a soul stamp that would allow Evan’s paintings to spread through the entire Rose Empire, cheap replicas though they were.
No one was quite sure where Evan was from, if he was a madman despite his calm.
Shai liked him. He made good food, always shared it with the young Forgers who did their practice with him. And he’d tell wild stories about the people in the paintings, stories no one else got to hear.
Shai’s favorite character of all was McKay. He was a man of unparalleled ambition and genius. Shai had ambition. Whether or not her work was genius, time would tell.
One day she asked something she was pretty sure no one else had asked before. “Why do you let us replicate your paintings and barter them away like they’re cheap prints? With all the talent you have, you could find a patron in a Grand household and live in style.”
“Because,” Evan said, “I’m looking for a way home. The more people who see these paintings, the more people know about where I’m from and where I want to go. And if my friends somehow make it here, they’ll be able to find me.”
Shai blinked at him. “Then Sheppard and McKay and Weir and Teyla and Ronon - they’re all real?”
“And they’re looking for you?”
“I hope so.”
Shai said, “I’ll help them find you.”
Evan smiled and patted her shoulder gently. “You are helping me - and yourself too. Practice makes progress.” He nodded toward her half-finished soul-stamp and carving tools. “Keep it up.”
He picked up his paintbrush and began another story.
Shai wondered if, when he finally got home, he’d tell stories about her and her people too.
Yes I reread the entirety of The Emperor’s Soul before I wrote this. Worth every moment.
Chapter 4: 042. Mean - Gilmore Girls
In which Paris survives an attempted bank robbery.
Paris knew a lot of people thought she was mean. She preferred to think of herself as strident. During tense situations, being firm and bold was usually more useful than being nice and dishonest and mollycoddling people.
“Don’t tell me to shut up,” she snapped at the man crouched in the account manager’s office with her.
“If they hear you, we’re dead. Now stay quiet.” The man peered around the side of the desk. He was tense, perfectly still.
He looked - a bit like a reprobate, honestly. Scruffy face. Military surplus jacket.
“You have some kind of plan for how we’re going to survive this?” Paris asked.
“I can make one if you shut up,” he said. A muscle twitched in his jaw. His blue eyes were narrow as he scanned the main lobby of the bank.
Paris fell silent. She eyed him some more. Finally she said, “Are you an ex-cop or something?”
The man actually clamped a hand over her mouth.
She made a muffled protest. He whipped around and glared at her.
“What’s that?” one of the gunmen asked.
The man dragged Paris back behind the desk, pressed her to the floor. She saw him reach down with one hand, and she flinched, but then he was pulling a gun out of a holster at his ankle. Maybe he was some kind of ex-cop.
So she held still and waited.
The gunmen’s chatter was a distant murmur.
The man lifted his hand away from Paris’s mouth. “Stay here. No matter what you hear or see, stay here.”
Paris said, reflexively, “You’re mean.”
“Not my job to be nice right now.” The man turned away, slithered around the side of the desk.
Gunfire was so much louder in real life than on TV.
There were screams and sobs.
“Put down your weapon!” another man shouted.
“I’m putting it down now,” the mean mad said, his voice echoing off the marble floors of the lobby. “My hands are up. I do have another sidearm in an in-waistband holster in the small of my back. My name is Evan Lorne. I’m a major with the United States Air Force. I’m on libo.”
“Stay right there!” the other man shouted.
“Staying right here,” Major Lorne said.
Paris peeked up over the desk and saw all of the black-clad gunmen dead on the floor. Other bank patrons were clinging to each other and sobbing.
Major Lorne was on his knees with his hands behind his head. One of the guards kept a gun trained on him. The other guard ran to unlock the front door, and armed police officers spilled into the building.
Paris slumped back against the desk, heart pounding in her ears.
After a few moments, she heaved herself to her feet, stumbled out into the lobby to present herself to the police officers. EMTs spilled into the building to corral the corpses of the bank robbers. The police organized the bank patrons, found them places to sit, snacks to recover their blood sugar, so they could contact their families, could be interviewed.
Three policemen were standing around Major Lorne, who just looked tired.
There were onlookers on the street, reporters and nosy civilians.
Two men managed to break past the police line, both in civilian clothing, though one flashed his badge and said, “Colonel John Sheppard, here for Major Evan Lorne. I’m his CO.”
Paris, nibbling on a cookie, watched Colonel Sheppard cross the lobby to where Major Lorne was standing.
The other man with him immediately launched into an invective. “Major! What the hell? I send you to the bank for some quarters and you get yourself embroiled in a bank robbery?”
“Yes, obviously it was my plan to deprive you of the quarters you so desperately needed,” Major Lorne said, sighing.
Colonel Sheppard leaned in. “What happened?”
“I’d rather only tell the story once if you don’t mind, sir.”
Paris stood up, slipped past the police minder assigned to her group of bank patrons, and strode over to Major Lorne. She planted herself in front of him.
“You were mean to me,” she said.
He inclined his head, expression chagrined. “Apologies, ma’am. It was a very tense situation.”
He looked older than her, and she hardly thought she warranted a ma’am, but then he was in the military.
“Well, you saved my life, so I suppose I can forgive you.”
“I appreciate it, ma’am.”
Colonel Sheppard turned to the nearest police officer. “How much longer do you think we’ll be here?”
“Can we get some quarters?” the other man asked.
“Rodney!” Colonel Sheppard hissed.
Paris looked Major Lorne up and down. Weren’t military men supposed to be clean-shaven? “I want to take you to dinner tonight.” Even if he was scruffy, he was handsome.
Major Lorne blinked. “Ma’am, that’s really not necessary.”
Paris said, “I know it’s not. But I want to.”
“Major,” Colonel Sheppard said, his tone solicitous but his expression amused, “an officer is supposed to be a gentleman.”
Major Lorne offered Paris a tired smile. “Dinner would be lovely. I need to clean up first, of course.” He scratched at his beard idly.
Paris handed him a business card and a pen. “Give me your number, and I’ll call you.”
Major Lorne said, wryly, “Yes, ma’am.”
Evan was standing in front of the mirror at one of the sinks in the men’s restroom on level twenty-two when a man in brown leathers stood beside him to wash his hands and the man spoke to him in what was total gibberish.
Which translated itself into English in Evan’s head a moment later.
“It’s strange at first, isn’t it? Your new face.”
Evan turned to him, and his mind spun with two sets of thoughts trying to process at the same time. “General Carter, sir.”
Only Thellas, the Tok’ra symbiote inside him, said, “Selmak.”
General Carter glanced at him, shook off his wet hands before he reached for a paper towel. “Sorry, Major Lorne. I’d assumed Thellas was in control.”
“Ah - she’s sort of riding shotgun right now,” Evan said.
General Carter nodded. “I forget - Selmak was in a woman’s body before he was in mine, but he’s always aligned his gender identity with his host body’s. Before you, Thellas was always female-aligned.”
“She was,” Evan said, “and I respect that.”
He really did. It was just - weird sometimes.
“You know, they tried to give me some weird version of The Talk before the blending, but like you, I was a bit pressed for time, what with my medical concerns.”
Evan finished washing his hands, dried them.
“I don’t think any amount of talking can really prepare a person for what comes next,” he said. He followed General Carter out of the men’s room, and together they drifted toward the cafeteria.
“I was always worried about feeling less than human,” General Carter said. “But I’m not less. I’m more. So much more. Selmak and I - we’re more.”
Evan nodded. He understood.
Thellas was still riding shotgun, taking in the sights and sounds of the SGC.
“You made the right choice, son,” General Carter said, patting Evan on the shoulder. “You get more time with the people who matter to you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Evan said, because without Thellas, he’d have surely died.
“Now,” General Carter said, and his eyes flashed gold, “Selmak would like a word with Thellas.”
“Of course,” Evan said, because Thellas was the Tok’ra liaison with Earth, an attache to the SGC, and she’d have to report in to Selmak, her superior with the Tok’ra High Council. It took a moment to shift gears, to slide into shotgun so Thellas could take over, but then Evan was - in his own head. Looking out his own eyes like he was looking through the viewport on a spaceship, on a world that was familiar but, for the moment, wasn’t quite his own.
He wondered how Thellas felt, when she looked at his face in the mirror. He’d drawn portraits of her former hosts for her, including the host she’d had right before she’d jumped into him, and all of them had been incredibly beautiful.
Evan wondered if he and Thellas together would ever feel right.
RIP Carmen Argenziano.
Chapter 6: 038. Welcome - Stargate Universe
In which Dr. Park makes off with the wrong body.
“Welcome,” a man said.
Evan stumbled. “What the hell? Oh, not again.” The voice that come out of his mouth was a woman’s.
The young man standing opposite him wore a red t-shirt, a zip-up hoodie, pants, and a pair of sneakers. “Not again what? Dr. Kusanagi?”
Evan peered at the man. “You think I’m Miko? No, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Evan Lorne. I was escorting Miko to the Pentagon for some debriefings at Homeworld Security. Who are you? Where am I?”
“Uh - hi. I’m Eli Wallace. And you’re on the Ancient ship Destiny.”
The young woman standing beside him slapped him on the arm. “Shush! This is super classified.”
Eli winced and recoiled. “He said he was with Homeworld Security. He’s part of Stargate Command, right?” He peered at Evan. “Right?”
“Yes, I’m the second-in-command for the City of Atlantis,” Evan said. “How am I on the Destiny? Miko was talking to a couple of her friends.”
“Um - we were expecting Miko to switch places with one of our scientists via the Ancient communication stones so Miko could help us with some Ancient tech and so our scientist could go visit her family or just - be on Earth for a bit,” Eli said. He rubbed his hands together nervously. “But - usually when people do the body-jump, it’s - you know. Straight. Woman to woman, man to man.”
“Well, Ancient tech gets kinda confused when it comes to my gender.” Evan sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Now what? Do I switch back so you can get Miko? Pretty sure your friend will be freaked out in my body.” He cast about, saw the secure case with a couple of Ancient communication stones in it.
“Give it a shot,” Eli said, and Evan reached toward the stones.
Evan closed his eyes and reached inside himself, searching for the buzz of Ancient tech, which was all around him, but the stones weren’t going to work from him. Because his body was gone.
He sighed and opened his eyes. “Apparently she took off with my body. Are there rules? About not getting drunk or high or sleeping with anyone…?”
“No official rules,” the young woman said.
Evan went to scrub a hand over his face, winced at his smaller, more delicate hands. His voice was just freaking him out. “Well, I’m no use on questions of tech. Where do you want me?”
“You should - um, Chloe?” Eli darted a look at the young woman beside him.
“You should report to Colonel Young,” she said.
Evan nodded. “All right. Where is he?” He remembered, vaguely, that Young was the commanding officer at the Icarus Base and was now the de facto commanding officer of the Destiny.
“This way,” Chloe said. She nodded at Eli and led Evan through the ship to what looked like the bridge.
Colonel Young and some scientists were standing over a bank of consoles that looked familiar, definitely Ancient design, but unlike what was on Atlantis.
“Dr. Park?” Young glanced at Evan briefly.
“Apologies, sir, but Dr. Park is on Earth in my body.”
One of the other men - in a black t-shirt, with chin-length dark hair - looked up. “Dr. Kusanagi. Excellent.”
“Sorry,” Evan said, “but I’m Lieutenant Colonel Evan Lorne. There was some kind of mix-up.”
Young frowned. “What?”
The other man, who had a Scottish accent that made Evan miss Carson, said, “That’s impossible. Unless you mean Evan as in Evan Rachel Wood?”
“Ah - no. I’ve had gender mishaps with Ancient tech before. But apparently Dr. Park took off with my body -”
“You are her type,” Young said, almost absently.
“So you’re stuck with me,” Evan said. “Sir, are there rules? About what people can and can’t do? In someone else’s bodies.”
Young’s mouth twisted into a frown.
The other man sighed. “We needed Miko’s expertise.”
“Sorry,” Evan said, helplessly.
The other flapped a dismissive hand at him. “You’re useless to me.”
He was like Rodney. Except worse.
“Sir,” Evan said to Young, “where do you need me? So I can be useful in the meantime.”
Young eyed him. “Is it true? What they say about your cooking skills.”
“I’m not sure what they say, sir.”
“That you cook well.”
“I’ve been told I cook well, sir.”’
“What can you do with limited supplies?”
“Depends on the supplies, sir.”
“To the galley with you.”
“Yes, sir.” Evan remembered, on the first year of the Expedition in Atlantis, trying to survive on the rations they had, trying to make the food palatable so they didn’t go insane from the monotony. He sighed, rolled up his sleeves, and turned to Chloe. “Which way to the galley?”
I know, canonically Evan didn't show up on Atlantis till the second year of the expedition, but this fic is a timestamp from an AU that I haven't finished and posted yet...
Chapter 7: 039. Belong - Hedwig and the Angry Inch
In which Hedwig learns she is beautiful and she belongs.
Hedwig was sitting in one of the multipurpose rooms on the piano bench but she had her guitar across her knees. The room was used for parties, religious services, and everything in between, including some musical performances that she managed to arrange with some of the other wives.
She was tinkering with a tune, humming softly under her breath, when the door opened, and a young man stepped into the room. He had a camera in hand.
He came up short. “Apologies, ma’am. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
Hedwig looked him up and down. He was younger than her husband, broad across the shoulders, had bright blue eyes. His dark hair was military-short. The way he’d called her ma’am - even if he wasn’t in uniform, he was in.
Hedwig offered him a sultry smile. “You hardly look disturbing.”
The man smiled, blushing a little, and he had dimples. “I - thank you.” He cleared his throat, and he looked her up and down, assessing but not critical. “I’m a hobby photographer, and I was looking for some interesting shots.”
Hedwig straightened up. “What makes a shot interesting?”
“Depends on the photographer, I suppose. Light and shadow, texture and color.” The man tilted his head. “You’re beautiful, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Hedwig shook out her hair and threw back her shoulders, smiled and preened. “I don’t mind.” She didn’t know if anyone on base knew the truth about her, who she’d been back in Germany, but she’d seen some of the other military personnel on base - the men - eye her sidelong.
“I’m Evan, by the way,” the man said, lifting the camera. “Evan Lorne.”
He didn’t introduce himself with a rank. Interesting. “How do you want me to pose?”
Evan fiddled with the camera, considered. “No need to pose. Continue playing. I’ll find the right shot.”
Hedwig, feeling a little coy and flirtatious, picked her guitar back up, started to play, tinkering with a gentle riff that had struck her ear earlier while she was improvising earlier.
She eyed Evan while he fiddled with his camera some more, twisting the dials around the lens, peering through the viewfinder. He seemed quite absorbed in his task, so she continued playing, testing out a melody and lyrics.
“Mythology,” Evan said. “I like it.”
Hedwig lifted her head, surprised, and the camera shutter clicked.
“You know mythology?”
“Love it,” Evan said. “For me, it was like bedtime stories where I grew up. Isis and Osiris, Rama and Sita, Venus and Adonis.”
Hedwig eyed him speculatively. “Oh? Then...are you familiar with Aristophanes?”
Evan’s smile brightened. “Yes - my mother told me his soulmate story all the time growing up. Except - she told me a little bit differently.”
“Oh?” Hedwig continued strumming her guitar. “Tell me.”
So Evan told her, about the children of the Sun (two men) and the Moon (a man and a woman) and the Earth (two women), how Zeus was jealous of them and cut them in half, and they all had to find their way back to each other.
“Have you found your soulmate?” Hedwig asked.
“No, but - then I’m not really looking. I mean, my mom told me the stories, but I don’t really believe in soulmates.” Evan clicked away with the camera. “Besides, my mom also taught me that there’s more to humans than just men and women.”
He raised his head, caught her gaze, held it.
Hedwig’s hands stilled. He knew what she was.
“Most people don’t think like that,” she said.
Evan shrugged. “I didn’t grow up like most people.” And he resumed shooting pictures.
So Hedwig resumed playing. But her hands were shaking, and she wanted to ask. So she asked. “How did you grow up?”
“Hippie commune,” he said.
She raised her eyebrows.
“I know. I fight for The Man now. But that’s where I came from.” Evan smiled again, and his dimples really were charming.
“Would someone like me belong there?” Hedwig asked.
Evan nodded. “Sure.”
“Where is it?”
“Back in California,” Evan said. “But, first and foremost, you belong in your own skin.” He shut off his camera and straightened up. “Want to see the pictures once I’ve developed them?”
Hedwig nodded. “I would like that very much.”
“Excellent. What’s your name? So I can find you again.”
“Hedwig.” She said it automatically now.
“Like the patron saint of orphans?”
“She is. I like it. There are orphans everywhere. You belong no matter what.” Evan smiled, waved. “Thank you, Hedwig, for sharing your beauty with me. Good luck with your song.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, a little helplessly, and watched him go, perhaps the kindest person she’d ever met.
She wondered if she should go after him and get his number or - something. But perhaps it was better to let him go and let the memory remain.
A few days later, a package arrived on her doorstep, an envelope with photos - and a note.
These turned out great. Thank you again for sharing your beauty with me. Stay you.
Below the note was an address and directions to place called Harmony Valley in California.
Hedwig smiled, and she looked at the first photo - and she really was beautiful.
Chapter 8: 100. Final - Madame Xanadu
In which Nimue settles on a final gift for her apprentice Charlotte.
Nimue was old. She didn’t look it, not one bit, due to her own inherent magic, the magic that flowed through every homo magi the way blood flowed through every homo sapiens. Nimue hadn’t yet died because she’d beat Death at a card game; so many other of Nimue’s kind had succumbed to the ravages of time (or been trapped by her magic, like her poor sister Morgana; poor deluded furious Morgana, still shattered over the death of her son whom she both adored and abhorred). Nimue felt old. She didn’t feel old the way most people did, feeling it in her bones every time she woke, feeling the creak and ache of her joints. Nimue just felt - tired. As much as it was her duty as a magi to serve all living, her ability to see into the future, coupled with all of the history marked in her mind, had worn her down.
Death had warned her, after that card game. That one day Nimue would seek to speak her name, summon her, so she could move on.
Nimue was ready to speak Her name.
But her apprentice, sweet Charlotte Blackwood, was not ready for her to go. Not quite yet. Before Nimue departed, she had to make sure that Charlotte had all the tools she needed so that the next time someone entered into their little shop in Greenwich Village, entered into their sacred space freely and unafraid, Charlotte could answer to the name Madame Xanadu and wear that mantle with honor and dignity.
Charlotte had mastered many forms of divination, at seeing the patterns and structure of existence, the warp and weft of reality. She could read the runes and bones, she could stir the entrails and blood, she could gaze upon the stars and sky and know what was very likely to come to pass.
Charlotte yearned to see as Nimue did, with the clarity and precision of Tarot cards. But Nimue’s cards were her own, long ago fashioned, carefully designed and painted by an artist whose name was lost to history but whose inspiration lived on in the hands of her students who were considered the world over as masters of the air. Nimue’s cards would not speak to another Madame Xanadu.
But, as a final gift, Nimue could commission cards all Charlotte’s own. Which artist was equal to the task?
Because Charlotte was more and more comfortable with her divination skills, Nimue let her see patrons by herself, supervised her less and less. She could leave the shop and walk the city streets, study the beautiful, brilliant, fallible, cruel, savage humans who filled the world around her. She could wonder if she really was ready to speak Death’s name and summon her for the first and last time.
And she could look for the right artist to make the cards Charlotte needed to carry on the work of Madame Xanadu.
She looked in galleries, she tracked down graffiti artists and street scriveners. She went to the local universities and studied the student exhibitions.
She found the artist she wanted quite by accident, when she was sitting in a crowded coffee shop, having some tea to take a respite from her wanderings.
“Mind if I sit here? It’s the only seat left.”
Nimue looked up from her teacup and the images playing on the surface of the hot liquid, Charlotte speaking to a nervous young woman, and a man stood beside her table. He was clutching a mug of coffee. He was handsome, in a wholesome, boring sort of way. He’d never have turned the heads of most magi, but he had bright blue eyes and dimples when he smiled.
“I don’t mind at all.” Nimue smiled at him.
He inclined his head gratefully and sank down opposite her with a wince.
Nimue’s power stirred, and the image on the surface of her tea dissolved, reformed. Into an image of the man opposite her, but he was younger, wearing a military uniform.
And he was fighting among the stars, fighting horrors Nimue had never imagined. He was fighting and his men were dying around him and he was holding on.
And now he was here, sitting opposite her, sipping his coffee, doodling on a napkin.
He was drawing a pool of water, a lake, bounded in a circle of unfamiliar runes.
No, not a lake.
All bodies of water made Nimue think of her dear sister Vivienne, who was waiting with Excalibur in hand to usher in a new Golden Age in the Green Land of old.
But that shimmering portal of water spoke of stars and galaxies and universes untold. The man who drew it was like Charlotte, an ordinary man turned to extraordinary circumstances, circumstances made all the more extraordinary by the gift in his blood.
Nimue studied him covertly over the rim of her teacup, drinking down the image so as to keep it to herself forever.
Then she leaned in. “That’s beautiful.”
The man looked up, startled. “Pardon? Oh - thanks. It’s nothing. I shouldn’t have -”
He went to crumple the napkin up.
Nimue stopped him with a gentle hand on his. “You’re an artist.”
“Sort of. I mean, it’s always been my passion, but - it’s not what I went to school for or ever did for money.”
“Would you like to do art for money?”
He eyed her warily. “What did you have in mind?”
“What do you know about Tarot cards?”
Yes I reread a bunch of the comics today before I wrote this.
Chapter 9: 010. Shadows - When Calls the Heart
In which Rosemary learns something new about her husband.
Rosemary knew that, however much she loved a man, she could never know everything about him. She’d been told by various women, including Abigail, that she would learn so much more about a man once she was married to him and living with him. Lee Coulter was a surprise. Rosemary shouldn’t have been surprised that he was savvy, aware of the subtleties - after all, they were what made him a successful businessman. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he was able to see through her manipulations, even get things past her, things she’d have thought of herself if he weren’t one step ahead of her. She knew that he would continue to surprise her, no matter how long they were married.
She had never known that he was capable of taking another human life.
She’d faced that reality when she was in love with Jack Thornton, was pursuing him ardently. Jack was a Mountie, charged with protecting people and upholding the law. Jack was tough, was strong - and would occasionally have to resort to physical harm and even lethal violence to do his duty. She’d seen the shadows in his eyes, sometimes, but of course she’d never asked about what caused them.
Lee, though, he was no Mountie. He was a businessman. He was a dapper dresser and socially savvy, friendly and charming, focused on keeping his business in line so as to help the community and economy of Hope Valley.
Rosemary had thought he might be capable of using a firearm. Plenty of men on the frontier were, and he owned both a rifle and a pistol, but they hung on the wall, brass gleaming, wood polished. But that he might take a life was unimaginable.
Rosemary knew Lee wasn’t fond of the theater, even though he loved to see her perform, so his willingness to take her to a show in Hamilton was very generous on his part. After the show they were walking back to the hotel he’d booked so they could stay the night, so she could do some shopping the next day, and he was hanging on to her every word while she recounted her favorite moments - highlights in performances, the wonder of the costumes and sets. He’d promised her he would build a theater for her in Hope Valley one day, and she knew he would.
“What do you think the theater’s inaugural production should be?” Rosemary pressed close to him, absorbing his warmth.
Lee hummed thoughtfully. “I don’t know. Maybe something really gory, like Titus Andronicus.”
“Lee!” Rosemary slapped him on the arm playfully.
“Or something romantic, like Romeo and Juliet?”
“I’m too old to play Juliet,” Rosemary pointed out.
Lee looked her up and down. “What about... Twelfth Night? You could play Viola, or maybe Olivia. If there were some way for you to play Viola and Sebastian both, that would be amazing.”
“I am impressed at your knowledge of Shakespeare.” Rosemary eyed him.
“I try,” Lee said dryly.
And then a man said, “Give me your money and you won’t get hurt.”
Lee tugged her behind him. “Look, we don’t have a lot.”
“Gimme the jewelry.”
“Rosemary,” Lee said, his voice careful and measured, “take off your jewelry.” He raised his hands slowly.
She nodded. Her entire body was numb, but she was shaking. She reached up, fumbled to unfasten her necklace.
“Now,” Lee said, “I’m going to reach for my billfold very slowly, okay?”
A man with a dark bandanna covering the lower half of his face stepped out of the shadows. He was holding a knife.
Rosemary’s breath hitched.
“The jewelry!” the man snarled, jabbing the knife at Lee.
She didn’t know what happened next. It was all a blur. When she came back to herself, Lee was standing in front of her.
“Rosemary, take a deep breath.”
She nodded, took a deep breath - and saw that Lee was covered in blood.
She screamed again, clung to him. “Lee! What happened? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said, his voice measured and calm.
“But - all this blood -” Rosemary’s voice caught in her throat.
“It’s not mine,” he said.
Rosemary frowned, tried to peer past him.
He caught her shoulders, held her fast. “No, don’t look.”
She looked him instead, startled by the fierceness of his tone.
And saw shadows in his eyes. Shadows she’d seen in Jack’s before.
Then he took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was calm and even. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Oh Lee, I was so scared. I -” She collapsed against him, sobbing.
And then the Mounties arrived. Rosemary clung to Lee’s side while he handled everything, explained what had happened.
“Sir,” one of the Mounties said, while a couple of others draped a cloth over the prone figure on the ground, “we’ll need to speak to you and your wife separately.”
“Rosemary, do you feel up to talking?” Lee asked.
She shook her head, face buried against his shoulder, still trembling. He smelled like blood, and she wanted to push him away, but she didn’t want to let him go.
Lee put an arm around her shoulders. “Can you give her a day? We’ve booked a hotel for the evening. Let her get a good night’s rest, and she can speak to you tomorrow.”
“If we could just get a preliminary statement. People heard a woman screaming,” the Mountie said, apologetic.
Rosemary didn’t lift her head. “He had a knife. He wanted my jewelry. Lee was going to hand over his billfold but then the man stabbed at him. I don’t remember what happened next. I - I think I closed my eyes.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” the Mountie said. To Lee, “Where are you staying?”
Rosemary began to recite Juliet’s lines in her head to drown out the men’s conversation even though Lee’s voice was a gentle, familiar tone. She came out of her desperate mental recitation when Lee patted her hair.
“Come on, Rosemary. We can go now.”
She nodded, and together they walked back to the hotel.
She undressed slowly, crawled into bed. Lee lay beside her but didn’t touch her. She listened to him fall asleep. Every time she closed her eyes, she couldn’t remember what had happened.
But she fell asleep, and she dreamed.
“The jewelry!” the man snarled, jabbing the knife at Lee.
Lee stepped slightly to one side, caught the man’s arm with both hands, yanked. Stepped in closer to the man.
Rosemary screamed again.
Lee grunted with exertion, slammed his elbow into the man’s arm. There was a sickening crunch.
The man screamed.
Lee turned smoothly, still gripping the man’s arm fiercely with both hands, and there was a violent struggle. The man screamed and screamed and then his voice faded into a wet gurgle and Lee stepped back and the man hit the ground.
Blood spread from his corpse rapidly.
Lee was breathing hard. Blood was spattered across his face and clothes. But his expression was perfectly blank, and his blue eyes were like ice.
Then he turned to her.
He said, “Rosemary, take a deep breath.”
The next day, first thing in the morning at the Mountie station, Rosemary consented to being interviewed separate from Lee. She held her head high, refused to be cowed. And she repeated what she’d told the Mountie the night before. The man, whose name she didn’t know, whose face she didn’t recognize because half of it was covered, had demanded money and her jewelry. She’d started to remove her jewelry and Lee had offered up his billfold and the man had stabbed at him. She couldn’t remember what happened after that.
The truth was, she didn’t want to remember what had happened after that.
But she could picture it in clear, stark detail.
The smooth, instinctive way Lee had moved.
The sound of attacker’s arm breaking.
The flash of the blade of Lee gripped the man’s arm and drove the man’s own blade into his body over and over again.
The way the man’s screams turned to wet gurgles as he choked on his own blood.
How perfectly calm Lee had looked after.
When she stepped out of the private interview room, Lee was standing by the door, surrounded by uniformed Mounties. Rosemary was alarmed at first, because Lee wouldn’t be able to get away, but then she realized that the young men were smiling at him, patting him on the shoulder, admiring.
Lee was nodding and smiling back, as charming as ever, but Rosemary saw those shadows in his eyes, the tightness of his jaw.
She knew what she had to do. She crossed the station floor and latched onto his arm, made her eyes wide and her voice a little tremulous, her shoulders hunched and small, her entire air timid.
“Lee,” she said, “can we go now?”
“Thank you for your assistance and understanding, gentlemen,” Lee said, nodding to the Mounties.
They tipped their hats at him, and he put an arm around Rosemary and led her out into the sunlight.
“Shopping?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Home.”
Lee nodded, and they stopped by the hotel to pick up their luggage, and they headed for the train station.
Lee was quiet on the ride home, slumped against the window and slept, though he stirred whenever she moved or stood, made sure to keep himself aware of her.
Rosemary didn’t tell anyone what had happened, and best as she could tell, neither did Lee.
Every day, Rosemary wondered what else she didn’t know about her husband, what else he was capable of.
One day, when she was in his office, tidying things up, she found a strangely delicate metal chain, and dangling from the chain was a pair of metal discs with black rubber around the edges. They were engraved with numbers and letters and words she didn’t understand, like Jedi, and a name.
Chapter 10: 090. Perfection - Leverage
In which Parker didn't steal a painting.
Nathan was looking for Hardison - he had a question about the new smartphones Hardison had issued for the crew - when he passed by Parker’s room.
Parker was sitting on the floor at the foot of her bed, gazing at a splendid painting propped up against the far wall.
At first Nathan had been surprised by Parker’s utter stillness, for she was a woman constantly in motion, casing the room around her, fingers twitching to lift a wallet or wristwatch or even a man’s tie.
But she was as still as a statue, she and her painting like two pieces of art on display in the tiny gallery that was her bedroom.
And then Nathan really took in the painting, and for one moment his breath caught in his chest, because it was like he was looking through a window into another world. Two men in strange uniforms stood on a balcony overlooking a dark, glittering ocean, above which stars twinkled in a sky gilt with not one but three moons.
Nathan gazed at the painting and could hear the distant roar of the waves, feel the cool evening breeze ruffling the one man’s hair.
“Is everything all right?” Sophie’s hand on Nathan’s arm jolted him out of his trance.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s just - that painting in Parker’s room.”
Parker twisted around, cast them a sunny smile. “Pretty, huh?”
Sophie’s eyes went wide. She walked quickly into Parker’s room, reached out as if to touch the canvas, snatched her hand back.
“Parker! That’s an Evan Lorne original!”
Nathan frowned. He’d heard about a big heist that went down at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where a lot of Lorne’s work was being displayed. “Parker, did you steal this?”
Parker’s sunny smile dissolved into a frown. “No.”
Sophie looked both shocked and awed. She reached out again but didn’t quite touch the surface of the painting. “Then it’s a forgery? It’s absolute perfection. The brush strokes, the color, and of course the details and the subject matter.”
Parker scowled and pushed herself to her feet. “It’s not a forgery either. It’s a gift.”
“A gift?” Nathan asked. “From whom?”
Footsteps sounded on the landing, Hardison and Eliot trying to talk over each other.
“ - Seriously delicious,” Eliot was saying. “I’d love a copy of the recipe -”
“ - Better than my mama’s cooking, except, you know, I was raised in foster care.”
Nathan and Sophie turned, and there was none other than Major Evan Lorne, decorated Air Force officer and acclaimed artist for the new century, if not the new millenium, the artist who’d captured other worlds.
He was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, looked ordinary, wholesomely handsome. He had a tray of little vol-au-vents.
He smiled when he saw Nathan and Sophie. “You must be the rest of the team. I’ve heard good things about you.”
“Strange, as we’ve heard little about you, only that you gifted Parker with this lovely piece of art,” Sophie said, gathering her composure first.
Major Lorne smiled, ducked his head. “It was the least I could do, after you got my sister out of that jam.”
Nate remembered the woman who’d come to them a few weeks back, begging for help recovering her sons from their father who’d kidnapped them. She’d had blue eyes like Major Lorne’s. Nathan could see the familial resemblance now.
Nathan said finally, “I see you brought treats.”
“After painting, I love cooking and baking,” Major Lorne said.
“Well then,” Nathan said, “welcome to our home.”
Chapter 11: 040. Share - Cry to Heaven
In which a delicate balance is disturbed.
Marcello was on the outside of the little cosmos that was Guido and Tonio. In some ways, he felt like Christina closer was on the border of their entwined existence than he was. On some days, Marcello was sure that Christina came before Guido for Tonio, but Marcello had never believed, not once, that he came before Tonio for Guido.
He was content with their arrangement, though, the four of them in Florence with little Paolo and Signora Bianchi for the Easter season run of Guido’s sensational opera. Marcello would never be a singer like Tonio or Bettichino, but he had a steady enough voice that he would always find work, and when he had the chance, he’d do exercises with Paolo and Tonio, work to improve his technique.
Because little Paolo was in the house, everyone had separate bedrooms and beds, though they were free to spend the nights in each other’s beds as they so chose, careful to wait till Paolo was distracted or asleep before they spirited each other away for kisses and caresses and pleasure.
During the day they practiced, educated Paolo, enjoyed the city, and during the evenings they performed the opera, and afterward they spent themselves at the various parties that awaited them after each show.
Tonio started teaching both Paolo and Marcello fencing, so sometimes Paolo and Marcello would train together while Tonio went to visit the nobles who wished to bask in his presence. Sometimes Christina accompanied Tonio and Guido as they went about the city, promoting the opera, but usually she took advantage of the daylight streaming into her apartments to draw and paint.
Marcello really was content with his place just outside the Tonio-and-Guido cosmos, he and Paolo a little separate, if only because Tonio and Guido working as one as they did was better for everyone.
And then someone disrupted the balance.
Marcello, if pressed, would have said that Christina disrupted the balance, bringing home the stranger, another Englishman, a fellow artist, because if she’d never brought him home then the delicate orbit that Tonio and Guido had established for everyone to flow around would never have been disturbed.
But one day there he was, this creature, this Evan Lorne, dressed very simply, standing in the doorway of Christina’s apartments and looking quite nervous while she flitted here and there, showing off her paints and chalks and easels.
Marcello knew at once that Evan was an intact man, could see it in the breadth of his shoulders, the solidness of his jaw even though his voice was light and his face pale golden, smooth. He wore his hair very short, more like a soldier than a gentleman. Marcello couldn’t tell if he was armed or not.
Christina was speaking in English, but as soon as she noticed Marcello, she switched to Italian, beckoned him over to meet her new friend.
Evan bowed clumsily. His Italian was slow, strangely-accented, stranger than Christina’s. “Pleased to meet you.”
Christina grasped Marcello’s hands, drew him closer. “You must come see! His work is like magic.”
“I am no master, not like Signora Grimaldi,” Evan said, lowering his gaze.
His eyes, like Christina’s, were so, so blue.
Marcello stood politely by while Christina coaxed Evan into opening his leather satchel and drawing out his sketchbook, opening it to a portrait.
That looked exactly like Christina.
Marcello’s breath caught in his throat. Any moment, the woman in the picture would surge forward, laugh as Christina did, toss her golden hair.
“It is exquisite, isn’t it?” Christina said. “He can capture anything, as if his page is a mirror.”
“Signora Grimaldi flatters me,” Evan said, blushing. “I have come to learn from her, if she’ll have me for a little while.”
“I wish to learn from you,” Christina said, eyes alight with fervour.
Evan bowed deeply to her. “I am sure there is little I can offer you, but if you will take me on as your student, I will do whatever you ask.”
Marcello was still staring so intently at the portrait that he didn’t notice the others’ return until Paolo crashed into him, chattering away at a mile a minute. Tonio was teaching him a gentleman’s manners, but Florence was a bright, exciting city, and Paolo was only a boy, and they were in the comfort of their own home, so he could be exuberant if he chose.
“Who is this?” Tonio asked.
Marcello spun to face him. Tonio and Guido stood in the doorway, Tonio tall and pale, Guido looking more like his bravo than his lover.
“He is a fellow Englishman, and also an artist,” Christina said. She crossed the room and leaned up on her toes to press a kiss to Tonio’s cheek. “Come see! I wish to learn from him, and he wishes to learn from me.”
Tonio allowed Christina to lead him over to where Paolo was now goggling at Evan’s sketchbook. Tonio studied Evan with that blank patrician stare, that Venetian politeness that could mean anything: anger, loathing, distrust, lust.
Evan bowed. His eyes were wide. He looked - shocked. Not disgusted, but - like he’d never seen anyone like Tonio before. Tonio had that effect on people. Often people thought Guido was an intact man. People mostly thought Marcello younger than he was. Tonio was something else, with his long dark hair and wide features, his spidery limbs and studied grace, part patrician, part fencer, all castrato.
“Tonio is beautiful, yes?” Christina said. “Will you draw him? You should draw him, immortalize his face.”
Evan blinked, dazed. “It is an honor to meet you -”
“Marc Antonio Treschi,” he said, offering a hand.
Evan bowed over it.
“This is Guido Maffeo.” Tonio glanced over his shoulder, and Guido drew up beside him.
It had taken Marcello a while to be able to read Guido’s expressions, for his features always made him seem angry or on the verge of violence, but Marcello could clearly read his wariness now.
Evan bowed to Guido. “Pleasure to meet you, Signore Maffeo. Signora Grimaldi is very kind in her praise of me. I do not mean to intrude upon your household -”
“Please say he can stay, for a little while,” Christina said, imploring Tonio.
Evan’s eyes widened. “I really don’t mean to impose. I’ve taken a room nearby.”
Tonio finally looked at Evan’s sketchbook, and he went perfectly still. “If my darling wishes it,” he said after a long silence, “you may stay.”
Christina was delighted. “You should draw with me all day and sit with me in our box in the evening.”
“Box?” Evan echoed.
Paolo piped up, “Don’t you know who they are? Tonio Treschi, the great singer, and Guido Maffeo, the great maestro. Their opera production is at the Maggio Musicale for the entire Easter season.”
“I had a friend who enjoyed opera but I’ve never had the chance to experience it live myself,” Evan said finally.
“Then come see,” Christina said. “You must see Tonio sing before you draw him, so you can truly understand him.”
“Thank you,” Evan said. “I am very honored.”
When Marcello finally took the stage that night, as part of the chorus, he could see Evan sitting in Christina’s box, with Paolo and some others of the Contessa’s retinue with them. Evan was indeed an Englishman, facing the stage like Christina did. Someone must have found him clothes suitable to the opera, for he wore a fine coat, but he wasn’t wearing a powdered wig. He looked both bewildered and enthralled.
Paolo looked torn between eating with the others and pressing himself close to Evan’s side to tell him all about the opera. Evan had endeared himself to Paolo by drawing a portrait of Paolo’s mother, best as young Paolo was able to describe her. He, like most castrati boys, had been taken from his family at a very young age.
After the show ended, Marcello avoided the press of admirers who always swarmed Tonio and Bettichino’s dressing rooms, instead went to find Christina and Paolo. They were waiting with Evan, who looked quite ill at ease in his evening finery, but Marcello brought news of Guido and Tonio’s evening plans, a party at a Russian noble’s house, and Evan was dragged along in Christina’s eager wake as they found a carriage to the party venue. Signora Bianchi would make sure Paolo got home safely.
Tonio and Guido were the darlings of the evening, heads turning when they entered the parlor of the grand house. Christina and Marcello applauded along with everyone else, and then Tonio made the rounds, greeting their hosts and other valued guests as Guido directed him. Christina had admirers of her own, having built a reputation for herself in Rome. Though Evan spoke serviceable Italian, he looked lost in the press of people, and often he seemed unable to understand when Tonio, Guido, and Paolo used the Napoli dialect with each other.
Eventually Evan drifted away from the main gathering, found himself a chair in a corner and sat.
Marcello went to join him. He was not above revelling - no one who worked in the theater was - but he also understood being on the outside of everything.
“What did you think? Of the opera,” Marcello said.
“It was - I’ve never seen anything like it before.” Evan took a deep breath. “I didn’t realize Tonio could sing. Like that. Or look like that in a dress.”
“Tonio’s voice is special. He was cut when he was fifteen, I think.”
Evan frowned. “Cut?” he echoed, puzzled.
Marcello raised his eyebrows. “You know, the operation. To preserve his voice.”
“I’m missing something.”
“Surely castrati have performed in England.”
Evan’s eyes went very wide, and he cast a look at Tonio, who was in the center of the room dancing with Christina to a quadrille.
“Then Tonio is -”
“Yes. As are Guido and Paolo and I.” Marcello wasn’t sure if he was amused or offended at Evan’s shock.
Evan recovered quickly. “Oh. Do you sing?”
“I was in the chorus tonight. You probably did not recognize me, beneath the makeup and the wig.”
“No, I didn’t.” Evan swallowed hard. “I - did it hurt? Sorry. That was stupid and insensitive.”
Marcello shrugged, deliberately insouciant. “I was very young. I don’t remember.”
“I’ve never met a castrati before. I -” Evan looked away.
“In many places women are still not allowed onstage,” Marcello said. “But women’s roles must be filled. A castrato like Tonio - he is woman. Women will try to look like him, dress like him. He is very talented, very popular.”
“He is very talented,” Evan agreed. “And Guido - does he sing? Or just compose.”
“He lost his voice,” Marcello said quietly.
“Oh.” Evan’s gaze darkened with sympathy. Then he sat up straighter. “Would you like me to draw you, sometime? You have a pleasant face.”
“You mean a portrait like you did for Christina, the kind that is like looking into a mirror?”
Marcello could remember the first time he’d seen himself in a mirror, had been astonished and surprised to learn what his own face was.
“I would like that very much,” Marcello said.
Evan smiled. Where Tonio was beautiful and Guido was sensual, Evan was handsome, and Marcello remembered that it had been a long time since he’d taken an intact man as a lover.
Of course, Evan knew nothing of castrati, would probably never take one as a lover.
Marcello watched Christina and Tonio dance and thought, Evan would probably take a woman.
Evan was a shadow in their household, hovering on the fringes of daily activity, trying to stay as unobtrusive as possible. Except he didn’t know how to handle the servants in the house - he tried to do the cooking himself, was always getting in the servants’ way when he tried to clean up after himself, and he’d been rendered speechless the first time he happened upon Tonio leading Marcello and Paolo in vocalises.
The only time Evan seemed comfortable was in Christina’s studio, standing beside her, guiding her hands, showing her how he worked his magic on the page, and learning from her.
Marcello thought Tonio would be jealous of the way Christina bent her head close to Evan’s while they worked, how she constantly doted on him and praised his work, how she always wondered what he thought of her work, or a technique she liked to use, or a plan for a new painting. But Tonio was still recovering from whatever had happened between Rome and Florence, from whatever he’d done before joining them in Florence, and his existence - when he wasn’t on stage - was inward.
It was Guido who was jealous - on Tonio’s behalf.
If Christina and Evan weren’t working directly on art - and Guido wasn’t about the city, promoting his opera, looking for a season after Florence - he was hovering, distracting Christina with trivial requests so Evan was left standing helplessly by, unable to understand the Napoli dialect and too English, too polite to protest the interruptions.
Even though Guido had been a castrato since a very young age, he was not a weak man, and many intact men did not realize him for what he was, feared his cruel expression, his broad shoulders, his strong hands.
Marcello was doing his best to stay out of the line of fire, to keep Paolo and Signora Bianchi clear of the conflict with him, but Guido defended Tonio diligently, and one day everything came to a head when Evan offered to draw Christina again.
He’d drawn everyone else in the household, Marcello and Tonio and Guido and Signora Bianchi, even some of the servants, but Christina hadn’t sat for a portrait like the others had.
“But the portrait you drew is my very reflection,” Christina protested. “And my face is not that interesting.”
“Your face is very interesting,” Evan insisted. “Besides, I have let you draw me many times, have I not? We will both learn from the experience.”
Christina looked like she was genuinely contemplating the request. Marcello was trying to teach Paolo how to play cards, so that when he was in the box with Christina and Evan and bored with the English way of taking in a play, he could indulge in the Italian way of taking in a play.
Paolo had no game face, his brow furrowed as he studied his hand, which was likely a poor one.
Marcello paid Christina and Evan little heed, because they had these small arguments every day, trying to outdo each other’s modesty and compliments all at once, each insisting the other was more talented and a better teacher.
But Guido intervened.
“Enough,” he said. He grabbed Evan’s arm. “She isn’t yours to seduce.”
Paolo looked up, startled.
Marcello signaled to Signora Bianchi, and she stepped forward, urged Paolo to his feet and escorted him from the room very quickly.
Evan also looked startled. “I’m sorry, I think you mistake my meaning. I don’t mean to seduce Signora Grimaldi.” He cast her a look. “You are a very beautiful woman, but - you are Signore Treschi’s wife, or as close to it as the law allows, yes?”
That brought Guido up short.
As far as Marcello was concerned it was true, but - Guido looked shocked. Guido had always been free to take lovers where he could find them. As Marcello understood it, Guido was the one who’d had to push Tonio into taking lovers besides him, including Christina.
Only Christina said, “As close to it as the law allows.”
Guido still looked shocked. Angry. Probably on the verge of violence, to anyone who didn’t know him.
Evan looked discomfited, as if he would flee from the room at any moment. But he also stepped back with one foot, angled his body.
So he was a smaller target, should Guido try to hit him.
And the wariness in Evan’s blue eyes, the alertness - that was something Marcello had never seen in him before.
Christina’s eyes were wide, and she looked frightened.
Marcello rose from the bed where he’d been playing cards with Paolo, stepped closer to Guido and Evan, perhaps to intervene should the need arise. To Evan, he said, “Why are you here?”
“I am here to learn,” Evan said quietly. “And to teach, if Signora Grimaldi wishes it. I never intended to disrupt your household.”
“I’ve seen the way you look not only at Christina but also at Tonio.” Guido’s voice came out in a surprisingly deep growl.
Evan blushed prettily, but he didn’t give up his potentially combative stance. “They are both beautiful people. You are all beautiful people. But I am well-acquainted with the art of self-restraint. I would never disturb someone else’s happiness for brief pleasure.”
“But you are interested in pleasure with Christina or Tonio?” Guido moved closer to Evan, gaze sparking with challenge.
Evan said, “I am only human, and I have been alone for a very long time.”
Guido stepped even closer, so they were almost nose-to-nose. “Christina belongs to Tonio, and Tonio belongs to me.”
Shock flared down Marcello’s spine when Evan looked past Guido and right at him.
Guido actually growled. “Marcello is mine.”
Evan closed his eyes, swallowed hard, looked away. “I should go.” He stepped back. “Thank you, Signora Grimaldi, for your time and your teaching and your hospitality.”
Christina made a wordless sound of protest.
Guido caught Evan’s wrist. “You lust after them but despise me?”
Evan looked at him, gaze steady, still blushing faintly. “You are all beautiful, but you belong to each other, and I respect that.”
It was Tonio who said, “You English are all so restrained.”
Heads turned. Tonio stood in the doorway. Christina looked uncertain, whether she should go to him or try to free Evan from Guido’s grasp.
“My Christina - she is a widow, she is fierce like a man, a painter. And here you are, an intact man, also a talented artist, and yet like a mouse.” Tonio glided across the room, towered over all of them. He caught Evan by the chin, lifted his face, studied him.
Leaned in and kissed him.
For one moment, Guido looked furious, but then Marcello realized - his expression was not fury but lust.
Tonio guided Evan toward the bed, spidery hands plucking at his clothes the entire way, and Evan was perfectly naked by the time Tonio pushed him down on the bed.
Guido started to shrug off his jacket. Christina looked at Marcello, eyes wide. Marcello had been with multiple lovers at once, had shared lovers with others he knew - he shared Guido with Tonio now - but he had the sense that they were all standing on a high precipice, and they were all about to fall.
Tonio and Guido had Evan beneath them on the bed, Guido pinning Evan’s wrists down with his too-strong hands while he plundered Evan’s mouth with his own, Tonio nuzzling between Evan’s legs, licking and sucking while Evan moaned helplessly.
“Which of us do you want to take first?” Tonio asked, starting to slide out of his own clothes.
Evan said, breathless, “Take me.”
Marcello had never heard an intact man say that before. Guido and Tonio looked startled as well.
Evan turned his face away, blushing, like he might run away, but Guido still had him pinned to the bed.
And then Tonio said, “Yes, yes. We can take turns taking him - while he takes Christina. Do you wish it, my love?” He glanced over his shoulder.
Christina didn’t hesitate, let her dress slip from her body, started toward the bed. Guido pinned Marcello with a look, and Marcello started to walk toward the bed, undressing as well. He had never had such an encounter with so many people, with an intact man and a woman, and his heart pounding. He was terrified - and thrilled.
What followed as a symphony of motion and sensation, Christina on her back while Evan drove into her, his thrusts controlled by whichever man - Tonio, Guido, Marcello - was inside him. Whoever wasn’t inside him was on the bed beside Christina, kissing her, touching her, pleasuring her so she peaked again and again. When Christina was exhausted, the men continued with Evan, one taking him from behind while another took his mouth. He closed his eyes and drank them down, moaning and needy.
They made love for hours, their strength and desire waxing and waning until finally the five of them slept, twined around each other.
Marcello woke before the others, dazed, sure it had been a dream. But then they began to stir, because they had to prepare - for the performance that night.
Marcello went through the performance as if in a daze, his training carrying his voice when his mind did not. It was one thing to share Guido as he did, another for all of them to share what they had. Surely something should shift.
Where Guido and Tonio had been the center of their universe, now it was Evan. Christina kept him close day and night so they could draw together, paint together, but anyone who wanted could interrupt, draw Evan aside for a quick tumble or a long seduction or a brief kiss. At first it was fun, the thrill of taking an intact man, of taking a new lover, sometimes while the others watched, the spontaneity of it.
But the shift had thrown everything off balance. Marcello saw the heated, angry glances exchanged between Guido and Tonio, the way Christina offered herself to Evan often. Were they jealous of Evan, for usurping time with their lovers? Or were they jealous of each other, for the time they had with Evan?
It was difficult to look at Evan when he was standing at an easel, hands smeared with charcoal, brow furrowed in concentration as he recreated Guido’s prize harpsichord, and think he was so wanton and willing to let anyone - man, woman, castrato - take him. And yet all it took was a look, a beckon, a kiss, and he was peeling out of his clothes, walking to the bed.
Marcello wondered how long he’d been alone, that he would let so many take him.
Marcello wondered how the five of them could sustain this madness.
It was Paolo, who pushed their fragile balance past its tipping point. He burst into the music room one day, after Evan and Christina had taken him on an excursion around the city to purchase art supplies.
“Marcello!” Paolo flung himself into Marcello’s arms. “It was so funny - Evan was blushing so very much!”
Marcello ruffled Paolo’s hair gently. “Slow down. What was so funny?”
“The people in the market - they thought Evan and Christina were my parents, and I their little son. Do I look like them?” Paolo tilted his head up, peered expectantly into Marcello’s face.
Tonio and Guido, who had been experimenting with new ornamentation on an aria, immediately fell silent.
“Who said that?” Guido demanded, voice tight.
“Lots of people.” Paolo beamed, oblivious to the anger in Guido’s eyes - and the patrician blankness, bleakness that descended in Tonio’s eyes.
Tonio started for the door, calling Christina’s name.
Marcello heard her voice faintly, still distant in the front parlor, couldn’t make out her reply.
And then servants’ voices rose in alarm.
Tonio scooped up his sword and dashed out the door. Marcello grabbed his sword as well, told Paolo to stay behind, and he and Guido were on Tonio’s heels.
In the parlor, Christina was standing between Evan and a group of strangers wearing traveling cloaks closed over their clothes, and servants hovered on all sides, wary. The strange men wore their hair short like Evan, like soldiers, save for the man who was taller than Tonio - he had dark hair that was thick like snakes. The woman was dark-skinned, perhaps African or Egyptian, and held herself like a queen.
Everyone was speaking English, too fast for Marcello to even hope to understand, though he knew little English. Tonio looked confused as well, brow furrowed, one hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Christina,” he said finally. “What’s going on?”
“These are Evan’s people,” she said, “and they have come to take him home.”
Marcello said, “Evan, do you want to go with them?”
Evan’s expression was sad, like a weeping angel on a tombstone, but his smile serene, like one of Christina’s painted saints. “I have been waiting for them for a long time.”
“Just like that?” Guido demanded. “You abandon us?”
Evan reached into his ever-present satchel, pressed his sketchbook into Christina’s hands. “I must go. You all love each other, and I have always loved -” He glanced at one of the strange men, and Marcello saw how the man, with his dark gold hair and bright blue eyes, might have been Christina’s brother, in another life.
Christina began to weep. She leaned up on her toes, pressed a kiss to Evan’s cheek. He embraced her gently.
“I will bid your farewells to Paolo,” Marcello said.
Guido bowed to Evan, respectful.
It was Tonio who took one last kiss.
Marcello saw surprise, shock, discomfort, disgust cross the strange men’s faces, though the woman remained unmoved.
Evan stepped back from Tonio’s embrace, and he said, “Farewell. Thank you for letting me share in your family for a while.” Then he turned to face his comrades, and for the first time he, too, looked strange. Foreign.
One of the men reached out, plucked at Evan’s sleeve, made a comment that caused the other men to laugh. Evan said something about Rome, shrugged, and he followed the strangers out the door.
Marcello, Christina, Tonio, and Guido watched him go, watched him melt into the crowd in the piazza with his friend, how he went without looking back, and Marcello wondered how they would ever regain their irregular but perfect orbits, realign their stars.
I reread the novel Cry to Heaven by Anne Rice. It was my favorite novel of hers when I was a teen. And is the reason I love opera music. This is set just after the end of the novel.
Chapter 12: 043. Teasing - Nancy Drew
In which Bess's date with a mystery man coincides with Nancy's latest mystery.
Teasing Bess was easy, because she was sensitive and also free with her emotions, animated, so her reactions were entertaining. She had been gushing about a really swell guy she’d met the other day, who’d asked her out on a date. Nancy and Ned had been going steady pretty much forever, were almost like an old married couple, so nothing they did was new and exciting. They loved each other and, for the most part, made each other happy.
George went out on dates once in a while, but most boys were too slow, too square for her taste, so she was perennially single. Bess went out on dates every weekend, was gushing about new guys all the time. They never lasted, because Bess was easily distracted by the next shiny thing - a guy with a slick haircut, a fancy car, who cut a fine figure in a suit.
This new guy, this Evan, had managed to be the subject of Bess’s focus for a week straight.
“It’s a new record,” George joked. “You’ve liked the same guy for a whole week. He must take you on some fancy dates.”
By now George could probably recite everything there was to know about Evan - about his bright blue eyes, his adorable dimpled smile, his soft dark hair, his broad shoulders, how strong and trim and fit he was.
“I’ve liked plenty of beaus for more than a week,” Bess protested.
She and George were sitting in Nancy’s kitchen, piecing together a torn-up document like it was a puzzle. Helping Nancy in her investigations was second nature to them at this point.
“Have you ever had a beau for more than a week?” George peered across the table, raised her eyebrows.
Bess blushed indignantly. “I’ll have you know that Evan and I -”
“Haven’t even gone out on a date.” Nancy bustled into the kitchen with a couple of grocery bags laden with snacks. She put a kettle on the stove for hot cocoa, then plopped down at the table with them.
She scooped up the third pair of tweezers and set to helping her friends piece together the paper puzzle.
“Really?” George asked. “You haven’t even gone on a single date?”
Nancy slid a couple of pieces of paper into place, then hopped up and fetched a box of crackers and some fruit from one of the grocery bag, set them on the table for everyone to share. “In between all her gushing about what a swell and handsome guy Evan is, she’s been talking about how excited she is to be his date to an upcoming officer’s ball. He’s an Air Force pilot.”
Bess immediately preened. “Yes. He invited me to accompany him to the annual officers’ ball. I’ve already found a lovely gown. I know he’ll look dashing in his uniform.”
Nancy glanced at George. “So that’s going to be your first date?”
“We’re going to lunch this weekend,” Bess said. “Just to get to know each other a bit beforehand.” Her expression was dreamy.
George was impressed that she was maintaining such enthusiasm. Her attention span for men was brief, as a rule. She continued to help piece together the torn-apart paper. The ink on it was smeared - it had been a photocopy of another document.
The three women fell silent, working, sharing snacks.
“What is it?” Bess asked.
They peered at the almost-finished document together.
“It looks like a classified military memo.” Nancy used her tweezers to point to the Air Force seal at the top of the page, the classified stamp in the top right corner.
Entire lines were redacted - by a marker by hand, not particularly neatly - but George could make some sense of it. The name of the program had been redacted, as had several other names, but a captain named Lorne, E. had been tested for something redacted, and been found eligible for transfer to redacted, for consideration for placement on redacted.
He had a list of commendations, looked like a very accomplished officer.
“Why would someone want to steal this?” George asked.
“The victim of the break-in is a known investigative reporter,” Nancy said.
“You think the Air Force is trying to cover its tracks?” Bess’s eyes went wide. Then they narrowed. “I could ask Evan.”
“He probably doesn’t know anything,” George said. “Of course the Air Force would try to cover its tracks if it was doing something classified and there was an information leak. This piece of paper doesn’t have anything interesting on it, but maybe it leads to something bigger.”
“I wonder what it is,” Bess said.
Nancy said, “We could ask Chloe.”
“Chloe?” Bess echoed.
Nancy nodded. “The reporter.”
And all thoughts of teasing Bess went out the window - till the day of her lunch date with Evan arrived. She was in an absolute tizzy, not sure if her outfit was cute enough, if her hair and makeup looked right. They were gathered at Bess’s house this time, Nancy poring over the notes Chloe had given her on the story about classified Air Force operations while George offered unhelpful advice to Bess about how she looked for her date.
After several iterations of Maybe not that color, try a different one, Bess realized George was pulling her leg, and she flounced back into her room to put on the very first dress she’d tried, then fix her hair and makeup one last time.
Just in time, too, because the doorbell rang.
George went to answer it, as Nancy was absorbed in her reading and Bess didn’t want to look too eager.
Evan was a handsome man, all bright blue eyes and dimpled smile, with short, neat dark hair - though George expected no less from a military officer. He was wearing pressed chinos, a button-down shirt that made his eyes look bluer, and a sports jacket, and he was carrying a bouquet of sunflowers and daisies.
“Hello,” he said. “Is Bess here?”
Bess crowded up behind George before she could answer, blushing and breathless.
“Evan,” she said. “I’m right here.”
His smile brightened. “Bess. You look amazing.” He offered the flowers. “These are for you.”
Bess blushed even more, but she accepted the flowers carefully. “Thank you. These are beautiful.”
“Not as beautiful as you,” Evan said, and blushed a little.
George narrowed her eyes. He was a smooth talker.
And then Nancy was there, smiling. “You must be Evan. Bess has told us so much about you. I’ll go put these in water.”
“All good, I hope,” Evan said.
Nancy plucked the bouquet from Bess’s hands and headed into the kitchen.
“Let me go get my wrap, and then we can head out,” Bess said, and went to fetch her wrap from the coat rack.
George eyed Evan up and down. “Got big plans for our friend?”
“I have a picnic. Thought we’d go to an art museum and then have a picnic in the park. Bess said she likes art.”
George was pretty sure Bess didn’t really like art. She was surprised that Evan would like art.
“Sounds like fun,” George said, though not without some dryness. “So...Evan. An officer in the Air Force.”
“What’s your rank?”
“Ah - captain. Just recently.”
“Congratulations. What do you do, for the Air Force?”
“Nothing glamorous. I’m a cargo pilot.” He shrugged.
“How did you and Bess meet?”
“She stumbled across me - literally - while I was painting in the park one day. My mother’s an art teacher, so in my spare time I like to paint. We got to talking, and she agreed to be my date to the officer’s ball.”
George offered a smile. “That’s nice.”
Bess found her wrap, and she returned to the door, and Evan offered her his arm.
Nancy reappeared as well.
“Have fun,” she said to Bess.
“Oh, I will.”
“And you too, Lieutenant Evan…?”
He laughed. “Captain Lorne, if you want to get technical. I promise I’ll be a gentleman.” He led Bess down the front walk to his car, a pretty light blue convertible, and held the door open for her.
As soon as Bess was in, she buckled her seatbelt and waved at her friends, and then Evan was pulling the car away from the sidewalk.
George looked at Nancy.
“Did he really just say his name was…?”
“Captain Evan Lorne,” Nancy said. “What are the chances that he’s the E. Lorne in that memo we reconstructed?”
George fished in her pocket for her keys. “Let’s tail them and find out.”
Chapter 13: 020. Discover - General Hospital
In which Neil Byrne discovers something new about himself - and an attractive blue-eyed bartender.
“You have an obsession with Russians, sir?”
Neil looked up from his book, startled.
The bartender stood opposite him, regarding him with bright blue eyes. There was something to the way he’d called Neil sir that was more than just the bartender’s respect for a patron, something almost...military in the tone.
Neil shrugged. “There was a lot of social upheaval during their revolution. I find it fascinating.”
The bartender smiled. He had blue eyes. “Fair enough. Need a top-up?” He glanced at Neil’s empty tumbler.
“Sure,” Neil said.
The bartender turned away, grabbed Neil’s preferred drink off the shelf even though he hadn’t been the bartender who’d originally served Neil his drink, refilled Neil’s tumbler. Then someone else flagged him down, and he went to respond with a smile and deft hands.
Neil liked this bar, because the drinks were good and the service was good, but he was wary about meeting anyone in the bar, because the one interesting woman he’d met last time ended up being a patient, and then an attempt at a blind date went embarrassingly awry very quickly. In this bar, no one cared that he drank and read, and he was comfortable, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go beyond that.
He wasn’t sure he was so comfortable in this bar that he’d pick up another man, not even one as attractive as the bartender, who was wearing an olive t-shirt that showed off the breadth of his shoulders and chest, hinted at the ink on his upper arm and chest. Neil was pretty sure it wasn’t his imagination, that the bartender kept looking at him, watching him, paying him special attention, but the bartender managed to be everywhere at once, attentive to all comers, ready with a bright dimpled smile and a sympathetic ear.
After the third time the bartender swung by to refill, Neil said, in a low voice, “Are you trying to get me drunk?”
The bartender paused mid-pour. “Ah - no. If you don’t want another refill, that’s fine. Or you can drink more and I can call you a cab later.” He raised his eyebrows, searched Neil’s gaze.
Neil said, “One more drink. And then I’ll just stay here and enjoy my book till closing time, shall I?”
The bartender lowered his gaze, finished pouring, then peered at Neil from beneath his lashes. “Closing is at two. Me, though - I’m off at eleven.” His voice was also low, careful.
Neil glanced at his watch. “So I only have another to enjoy this book.”
“If you like.”
Neil said, “I like.”
A slow, sweet smile spread across the bartender’s face. He said, puzzlingly, “It’s good to see you again, sir,” with a sort of knowing that had a weight to it that Neil didn’t quite understand, even though Neil was pretty much a regular in the bar at this point.
At eleven, Neil closed his book, flagged down a different bartender to pay his tab, and headed outside.
The other man was waiting, had pulled on a black leather jacket over his t-shirt.
“You want me to call a cab, or do you think you can hold on?” he asked.
Neil raised his eyebrows. “Hold on?”
The other man held up a set of keys, nodded at a motorcycle nearby.
Neil was feeling bold. “I can hold on. You got a helmet?”
“You’re a regular boy scout.”
“Preparedness is the key to air power,” the other man said with a wink, and Neil had the sense that he’d missed an inside joke.
But he climbed onto the back of the man’s bike, put on the helmet, and went home with him. Neil expected maybe another drink, some vague small talk, and a beeline for the bedroom, but instead the bartender invited him in to the kitchen, offered him a seat at the little kitchen bar, served him a bottle of Molson’s, and set about cooking.
“It’s dinner time for me,” he explained. “My schedule’s a little offset from the rest of the world’s, but then that’s par for the course for us, isn’t it?”
Neil was pretty sure he was missing something, but he nodded, sipped his beer, and watched the other man move around the kitchen with the calm competence of a professional chef. In about the space of half an hour, while they made small talk about the book Neil was reading, the other man - was there a good way to ask his name? - produced amazing herbed chicken, pasta, and mixed greens of a quality Neil would generally expect from an upscale restaurant.
The man sat beside Neil, and they ate quietly, both sipping beers.
When the meal was finished, the other man did the dishes.
“Do you need a hand?” Neil asked, feeling helpless and a bit lost.
The other man arched an eyebrow. “You? Do dishes? Since when?”
“Since I’m a grown man and a responsible adult,” Neil protested, almost reflexively, though he still had the sense that the other man thought he knew Neil better than he possibly could.
But the other man finished the dishes, and then he dried his hands on a dish towel, turned to face Neil, leaned against the counter. Looked at Neil. Let Neil look at him.
“You still insisting I make the first move? We’re not in anymore.”
In could mean any number of things. Neil suspected military, given the way the man had called him sir and joked about air power. Whoever the man thought Neil was, apparently that man had always insisted someone else make the first move. Why? Because in the military he was afraid of discovery? Laws had changed.
No. Because the other man had wanted someone else to be in control, so if questions were asked, no one had been coerced.
Neil had never outranked someone before.
He was startled to discover that he liked the notion, the implied power even if he didn’t really have it.
He lifted his chin and said, “Get over here. On the double.”
The other man raised his eyebrows, amused, but he crossed the kitchen, pressed himself against Neil, kissed him.
Pulled back a moment later, blue eyes narrowed. “You’re not John.”
“My name is Neil.”
The other man retreated another step, looked him up and down. “But -”
“I look just like this other guy, John?”
“The resemblance is - uncanny. Right down to the ears.”
Neil had had comments about his elfin ears all growing up. “I didn’t mean to deceive you.” Except he kind of had the notion that there was a case of mistaken identity going on.
“I thought you were just playing hard to get. I’d heard the rumors, that you and McKay were on the outs, but -” The other man bit his lip, turned away.
Neil stepped closer to him. “I might not be John, but I’m the one who’s here. I think you’re very attractive. What’s your name?”
The other man looked at him. “Evan.” He sighed. “I don’t want some kind of pity date, and - I don’t want to be unfair to you.”
“I’m not here out of pity.” Neil reached out, placed his hand on Evan’s warm, firm chest. “I’m pretty sure you’re pretty sure I’m not John, given how you could tell as soon as we kissed. Whatever we do tonight, I know it’ll be all me, and you’ll know too.”
Neil said, “No strings attached. Two interested guys. A good time.”
Evan’s blue eyes were full of shadows.
Neil said, “You’re going to have to make the first move, though.”
At that, Evan chuckled in self-deprecation and stepped in again, reeled Neil into another kiss.
“Yeah,” he said, breath warm on Neil’s cheek, “definitely not John. C’mon. Bedroom’s this way.”
Neil followed, heart pounding, and was glad he’d gone to the bar that night.
Why yes, I saw JFlan is in some random but recent eps of GH and had to do something about it. I know I'm not the only one.
Chapter 14: 030. Truth - The Reckoners
In which David Charleston encounters the not-really-an-Epic named Snapshot.
“I think I have a way in,” Tia said.
David looked up from where he was cleaning his rifle. Prof, Abraham, Cody, and Megan were sitting around cleaning their battle gear as well.
“A way into Sky Blue’s HQ,” Tia clarified. She plopped down beside Prof - David knew she was kind of sweet on him - and popped open one of her colas.
David continued cleaning his rifle. “What’s the plan?”
Prof was the leader of The Reckoners, mostly ordinary humans who took down evil Epics to protect regular humans, but David was the expert on Epics - and he was usually the one most eager to get a jump on things.
Like a puppy on a bouncy ball.
“There’s a lesser Epic in Sky Blue’s entourage,” Tia said. “His Epic name is Snapshot, but all the other Epics call him Lorne.”
David frowned, set his rifle aside, reached for his battered notebook, the one where he kept all his research on Epics. Sky Blue was a notorious bad guy, had the ability to convert just about any wavelength into ultraviolet and burn people alive with it. Among other horrible things. Sky Blue was looking to make headway in Newcago, had sent some of her foot soldiers ahead to scout. David and Abraham had managed to get the drop on a squadron of them a couple of weeks back, send most of them running, but they’d kept one for interrogating.
“Snapshot? Not a name I recognize.” David flipped through his notebook. “What’s his power?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” Tia admitted. “I don’t have any reports of him using it. Mostly he carries weapons and is the commander of the footsoldiers, maybe had military training before the Calamity.”
“What makes you think he’s the way in?” Prof asked. He was fixing one of the Tensors, because Cody had been using it recently to dig some more tunnels for their hideout. One could never have too much space in a hideout. Like rats in a lion’s den.
“He’s the weakest of all the Epics in Sky Blue’s entourage,” Tia said. “As a result, though, I think he’s one of the most rational, and I don’t think he’s as loyal as Sky Blue thinks he is.”
Cody, who was the best sniper, looked up from where he was cleaning his own rifle. “What makes you say that?”
“Because he didn’t tell Sky Blue we got the drop on some of the foot soldiers,” Tia said.
Prof raised his eyebrows. “How do you know that?”
Tia waggled her cell phone. “Those transmitters you put on the foot soldiers you let go - I managed to pick up some audio streams from them. I heard him instructing them not to say anything to Sky Blue or the other Epics, to let him handle it.”
“That explains Sky Blue’s radio broadcast the other day,” Abraham murmured. “When she sounded so confident that she would be able to take Newcago from us, that she’s better and stronger and more fearsome than Steelheart.”
“So...you want to turn him?” Prof asked. “If he plans on taking Sky Blue’s place, he’s just as unreliable and dangerous as Sky Blue, even if his power isn’t as strong.”
“Whatever his power is.” David flipped through his notebook some more, concerned. It was rare, that he’d never heard of an Epic at all.
Prof glanced at him. “See if you can find out.”
So David finished cleaning his rifle, and then he hit the streets. In the wake of the Reckoners defeating Steelheart, who’d had a stranglehold on Newcago, people were a bit braver, going out and about on their business, daring to lift their heads and smile, but they were still afraid of what the Reckoners were trying to prevent: another Epic taking over the city and oppressing them all once more.
David did his best to talk to other boys his age, inquire casually into what - if anything - they knew about the Epic named Snapshot. David wondered if he should have asked Megan to help him out. She was more attractive and socially savvy. People were more willing to talk to her, boys and girls alike. David was awkward with girls - as Megan frequently reminded him - and the only boys he could really talk to were the ones who’d grown up with him in the factory.
After a couple of days of pounding the pavement, David had come to the puzzling conclusion: Snapshot wasn’t really an Epic at all. By all accounts - scanty, vague - Snapshot’s super power was his photographic memory, coupled with superhuman artistic skill. He could draw anything he’d seen, reproduce it from memory in perfect detail. Like many Epics, he had enhanced physical strength and health, reflexes, was dangerous in and of himself.
But a photographic memory and artistic skill...those weren’t superpowers. If they were, they were really lame. David was pretty sure they weren’t though. They were skills that were useful but could be honed over a lifetime. Photographic memory had existed before the Calamity, before the burning star in the sky and the proliferation of Epics and the end of civilization as everyone knew it. If Tia was right, that Snapshot had had military training before the Calamity, he might be faking his enhanced physical combat prowess.
David reported back to the rest of the Reckoners.
“Do you think it’s possible?” Cody asked. “For someone ordinary to pass as an Epic?”
“If an Epic can pass as an ordinary…” Tia trailed off, deliberately didn’t look at Prof and Megan.
Megan said, “Is it worse or better, that an ordinary person wants to dethrone Sky Blue and rule over his fellow ordinary humans?”
“Perhaps this Snapshot is more dangerous than we thought,” Prof said. He considered. “Cody, Abraham, see if you can’t catch another foot soldier when they’re out on patrol on the southern borders of the city. Megan, help Tia review the audio transmissions she’s managed to get. See if we’ve missed an important detail.”
They all nodded, faithful lieutenants to their trusty captain.
“What about me?” David asked.
“Keep pounding the pavement, see what else you can learn,” Prof said.
David nodded. It made sense. Newcago was his city; he was most familiar with it out of all the team because he’d grown up here.
He was out roaming the streets the next day, looking to pick up more rumors about Snapshot, when Snapshot found him.
After an unprofitable morning, David had decided to treat himself to a hotdog. He headed down a side street so he could sit down in the shade to enjoy his treat.
A man said, “You know, it’s hard to come by these days, but even a dash of sauerkraut would counterbalance the unrelenting sweetness of the pickle relish and ketchup.”
David swallowed a bite, looked up, ready with a response about how he hadn’t liked sauerkraut as a kid anyway, and recognized the man standing beside him.
Up close, Snapshot wasn’t an imposing figure, wasn’t very tall, wasn’t nearly as big and imposing as Abraham or even Prof. Snapshot wore blue jeans, a button-down shirt, and a nice jacket that made him look like an accountant on casual Friday. He had neat dark hair, broad-ish shoulders, and bright blue eyes.
He also had a pistol holstered on one thigh, another on his left hip, and an assault rifle slung casually over his shoulder.
He looked like a soldier.
David said, “I’m such a slontze.” He’d just been caught dead to rights by a possible Epic, and if not an Epic, a man who regularly had the company of Epics and also commanded a small army.
Snapshot looked mildly amused. “I hear you’ve been asking about me.”
“Hear?” David echoed. “How?” Did Snapshot have informants in the city or electronic surveillance or what?
“Trade secret,” Snapshot said. “You’re David Charleston, the one who allegedly slew Steelheart, aren’t you?”
David said, “...No?”
“You’re one of the Reckoners, and you’re coming after Sky Blue, aren’t you?”
David swallowed hard, said nothing.
“You think I’m the weak link in her operation, your way in. You’re wrong.”
David’s blood ran cold. He wondered if he could reach for his cell phone and activate it so the others could hear - or at least know to send help to his location.
Snapshot leaned in. “I am fiercely, fiercely loyal to Sky Blue. I will never, ever betray her. Because I think I can get her back. Back to the person she once was.”
David raised his eyebrows. “Then you think Epics can - not use their powers? Be good people? Is that why you don’t use your powers?”
Snapshot actually sat down beside him. “I think you know the truth - I’m no Epic.”
“Then why does Sky Blue keep you around?”
“Because,” Snapshot said, “once upon a time her name was Elizabeth Weir, and I was her right-hand man.”
“When was that?” David eyed Snapshot. He didn’t look particularly old, but then the Calamity had only happened about twelve years ago.
Snapshot laughed softly. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Just - stay out of my way a little longer. I think I’m close to getting her back.”
“And if you can’t?” David ask.
“Then let me pull the trigger. It’s what Elizabeth would want, even if Sky Blue sees it as the ultimate betrayal.”
Elizabeth Weir. That was Sky Blue’s real name, who she’d been before the Calamity. The clue to her weakness could be in Elizabeth Weir’s history. David would have to do some digging.
David nodded. “All right. I’ll tell my team.”
“Thank you.” Snapshot stood up. He strode out of the alley, head held high, perfectly confident.
David watched him go. Then he wolfed down the rest of his hotdog, barely tasting it, and got on his cellphone. “Tia. I need everything you can find about a woman named Elizabeth Weir.”
Just in case.
Chapter 15: 012. New - Legion
In which Stephen Leeds unexpectedly gets a new aspect.
The thing about Stephen’s aspects was, well, he technically had control over him. They were extensions of his personality. By all outward appearances, he was the very definition (inaccurate, common parlance definition) of “schizophrenic”. He heard voices and saw people who weren’t there. Only they weren’t actual people so much as aspects of his own personality, more like “alters”, if one wanted to go the dissociative identity disorder route (and the jury was still out on whether that was an actual disorder). Stephen was a genius beyond comprehension, and the only way for him to compartmentalize all the information and skills in his head was to shuffle them off to his aspects. Other people, fully-realized, with distinct physical appearances and voices - and often histories of their own.
But because Stephen could function on a daily basis and live a pretty good life, he didn’t consider himself insane, and he did consider himself in control of his alters, even though bossing them around was generally ineffective, because that wasn’t how adults interacted with each other in a professional, working setting.
Granted, if one’s coworkers lived in one’s house and had the potential to be around 24/7, maybe getting bossy might be needed now and again.
Since Stephen was in control of his aspects (more or less), he wasn’t supposed to get new ones if he didn’t call them up (by doing research he needed for a case he was working).
So when a new aspect showed up one morning, while Stephen was kicking back and reading the newspaper (and ignoring Ivy and JC flirting with each other while Tobias took tea), Stephen was mildly alarmed.
JC reacted first, on his feet, pistol in hand. He was a government agent, combat-trained, rough around the edges, paranoid. “Who the hell are you?”
The man who stood in the doorway raised his hands in surrender. That he was reacting to JC meant he wasn’t a real person.
“Major Evan Lorne, United States Air Force. I’m...not entirely sure how I got here.”
Major Lorne was wearing a uniform that Stephen had never seen before, not olive-colored fatigues but gray pants, a black t-shirt, and a grey jacket with black panels on it. He had a pistol strapped to his thigh but otherwise looked unarmed. He was wholesome-looking, with neat dark hair and blue eyes. Sort of a young Ronald Reagan.
If a guy squinted.
JC said, “That’s no Air Force uniform.”
“Ah - it’s not a regular uniform, I’ll grant you that,” Major Lorne said. He was remarkably calm with a gun pointed at him. “Where am I?”
“My house.” Stephen set aside the newspaper and stood up.
“That’s...not super specific. Where is your house?” Major Lorne asked. “City, state, country, planet, galaxy?”
“California. Silver Lake,” Stephen said.
Major Lorne took a deep breath. “Okay. Something must have gone wrong. Listen, do you have a phone I can borrow? I need to call in to my command post.”
Ivy, who was wearing a neat grey pantsuit - she always dressed professionally, was a psychiatrist - unfolded herself from the armchair across the coffee table from Tobias. “You know you’re not real, right?” She’d come to terms with what she was, but not easily.
Major Lorne looked affronted. “Of course I’m real. And if I’m in California, well, people back at my posting are going to be very confused and concerned.”
Tobias, who had a deep, gentle voice rather reminiscent of Morgan Freeman, sipped his tea. “I’m sure you think you’re real, but all of us are extensions of his consciousness.”
“I’m pretty sure I can really shoot him,” JC said, because talk of being an aspect always discomfited him. Unlike Ivy, he had not come to terms with what he was.
Major Lorne’s eyes narrowed. “There’s federal charges in it for you if you do.”
JC lifted his chin. “I am the federal government.”
“Put the gun down,” Stephen said. He took a deep breath. “Okay, Major Lorne. Let’s try to solve this rationally. Do you have any special skills?” Most aspects manifested with skills Stephen needed to solve a case. He was a real-life Sherlock Holmes...with a bunch of other people in his head.
“I majored in geophysics at the Academy. I’m a trained pilot, both fixed-wing combat and cargo but not rotor, plus a couple of other classified craft. I’m pretty skilled at logistics. Ah - I paint and draw. My mother’s an art teacher at UC Berkeley.”
JC still had a gun trained on him.
“JC,” Stephen snapped.
Ivy put a hand on JC’s arm, and he finally lowered his gun, but he didn’t holster it.
Stephen wasn’t working on any active cases that required any of those skills. He already had an artist and someone combat-trained among his aspects.
“Please,” Major Lorne said. “I need to call this in.” He started forward.
JC lunged at him - and went right through him.
Ivy cried out. Tobias cried out.
Major Lorne came up short, spun around. JC fired at him.
Ivy and Tobias hit the deck.
There were shouts from other rooms in the house.
Major Lorne sighed. “I must be out of phase or something.”
That sounded like something out of science fiction.
“Who the hell are you?” JC demanded.
Major Lorne turned to Stephen. “So, you’re probably going to have to make the call for me. Just you and me. No one else. My posting is highly classified.”
“Like hell I’m leaving him alone with you,” JC said.
“He can’t touch me,” Stephen said. “It’ll be fine.” He was incredibly intrigued by this development. He’d never had an aspect with this trait before.
“We’re not real,” Ivy said, standing up. She looked shaky despite her declaration. “We can’t tell anyone what you say.”
Major Lorne eyed her. “What do you mean, you’re not real?”
Major Lorne took his explanation with rather more aplomb than Stephen expected, even if he was in the military and used to stressful situations.
“So, to clarify, the only ‘real’ people in this house are you, Stephen, and your butler, Wilson?”
“I didn’t realize butlers were an actual thing anymore.” Major Lorne sighed and rolled his shoulders; he looked tired. “But assuming you’re telling the truth, you’ll have to sign an NDA. Otherwise things should be simple.”
“So, what do you need me to do?” Stephen fished his phone out of his pocket.
“Call this number.” Major Lorne recited it slowly and clearly.
Stephen dialed the number even though it would get him nowhere. The more verisimilitude he could offer his aspects, the easier it was to manage them. He held his phone up to his ear -
“You’ve reached Cheyenne Mountain. This is Airman Heywood. How may I direct your call?”
Stephen stared at his phone in surprise.
“Hello?” Airman Heywood asked. She sounded bored.
Major Lorne said, “Can you put it on speaker?”
“Hello?” Airman Heywood asked again.
Major Lorne said, “Tell her you want to speak to Chief Master Sergeant Walter Harriman.”
Stephen did, feeling a little dazed.
“May I ask who is calling?”
Stephen cast Major Lorne a look.
“Tell her you’re calling on behalf of Major Evan Lorne, who is currently out of phase.”
“That sounds insane,” JC said.
Ivy and Tobias hushed him.
Stephen repeated the words haltingly.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Airman Heywood’s voice turned tense.
“She does know,” Ivy said. “You’ve just said something you’re not supposed to.”
JC headed for one of the windows, peered out, gun at the ready. “You think the Air Force is going to send some spec ops guys after you?”
Major Lorne said, “Tell her you can give her my access codes.”
“What are they?” Airman Heywood asked.
Major Lorne recited a seemingly random series of numbers and letters.
Airman Heywood’s voice was shaky. “Hold, please. I’ll put you through.”
The hold music was Vivaldi’s Spring. Ivy pushed her glasses up her nose, eyed Major Lorne with undisguised fascination.
“It’s not a particularly inspired performance,” Tobias said. Of course he was critiquing the hold music.
A man picked up. “This is Chief Master Sergeant Walter Harriman. To whom am I speaking?”
“My name is Stephen Leeds, from Silver Lake, California. I’m here with an out-of-phase Major Evan Lorne.”
“Major Lorne is posted overseas. How did you get his access codes?” Chief Harriman sounded rather annoyed.
Major Lorne sighed. “Tell him there was some kind of malfunction as my team was coming back through the gate. The enemy detonated some kind of unknown energy weapon, and I ended up here. And out of phase.”
Stephen dutifully repeated the explanation. None of that made sense, even if he understood the words coming out of Major Lorne’s mouth at a basic level.
Chief Harriman said, “Please hold.”
This time it was Vivaldi’s Summer.
That lasted for all of fifteen seconds before a woman said, “This is Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter. Mr. Leeds, you claim Major Lorne is with you, but out of phase?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Stephen said. He was very confused. His interactions with his aspects had never resulted in this.
“Tell me, what does Major Lorne look like?”
Stephen described him, with Tobias’s help, since Tobias could use more helpful, specific terms.
“What does Major Lorne say I look like?”
“About five-seven, blonde hair in a ponytail, blue eyes, slender build,” Major Lorne said.
Stephen relayed that. Usually when his aspects interacted with the world through him, he was still in control, but right now he felt hollow, disconnected from reality.
There was a pause, silence.
The Colonel Carter said, “Don’t let Major Lorne leave. We’ll be sending a containment team immediately.”
“Do you need my address?” Stephen asked.
“We’ve already triangulated your location. Don’t go anywhere, and don’t speak to anyone till Major Lorne has verified their identity.” And the call ended.
“Hell,” JC said. “The Air Force is sending spooks after you.”
Ivy tried to prod Major Lorne in the arm, but her hand went through him.
He ducked away. “Hey.”
“So...you’re really real?” Ivy asked.
“Yes,” Major Lorne insisted. “I am.”
Stephen expected to wait around for several hours while the bureaucracy of the armed forces heaved itself into motion, so he was very startled when the doorbell rang thirty minutes later, and then he heard Wilson answer the door.
“Good morning. How may I help you?”
“Lieutenant Colonel Paul Davis. We’re here to see Stephen Leeds.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
Stephen hurried out to the foyer. “Wilson, let them in.”
Wilson turned to look at him, startled, because Stephen usually turned petitioners away or kept them waiting for a long time to encourage them to give up and go away on their own.
“Yes, Master Leeds.” Wilson stepped back to admit the visitors.
Colonel Davis wore full dress blues, had his cover tucked under one arm and a shiny leather briefcase in hand. He was accompanied by two men in suits, both older and soft around the middle, one bespectacled. Neither looked like military personnel.
“Mr. Leeds.” Colonel Davis inclined his head politely at Stephen.
“You know these guys?” Stephen asked.
Colonel Davis blinked, confused.
Major Lorne said, “Yeah, I know Davis. He’s got with him Dr. Bill Lee and Dr. Jay Felger.”
Stephen smiled. “Colonel Davis, Dr. Lee, Dr. Felger, please come this way.”
It was satisfying, to see how spooked the two doctors looked that Stephen knew their names before they said them. Stephen was used to people being spooked by him. It gave him the upper hand. But they started up the stairs to him, and Stephen led them into the day room where he’d been enjoying the newspaper and breakfast before his world got turned upside down.
“How did you know your names?” Dr. Felger asked.
“Obviously Lorne told him.” Dr. Lee nudged him.
Colonel Davis popped open his briefcase, held up a veritable telephone book of paper. “I’ll need you to sign this NDA.”
“Of course,” Stephen said, and fished in his jacket for a pen.
Ivy, Tobias, and JC watched intently. Ivy was scanning the two doctors’ faces, looking for signs of deception.
JC was still holding his gun, eyeing Colonel Davis warily.
“Where is Major Lorne?” Lee asked.
Major Lorne was standing beside the coffee table.
Dr. Lee turned to face him and ended up looking slightly to the left of him. “Okay, Major, stay very still. We’re going to try to get you back into phase.” He and Dr. Felger had shiny metal cases with them, flipped them open and set up a couple of strange-looking instruments and a pair of laptops.
Tobias turned his attention to the instruments, curious.
Stephen hoped some of his other aspects, the more scientifically-minded ones, didn’t show up to crowd the scene. He was dealing with a lot mentally as it was.
Stephen signed and initialed and signed and initialed without reading anything, because as much as he was relieved that Major Lorne wasn’t an uninvited new aspect, that the aspects were still manageable, Stephen wanted the chaos Major Lorne brought with him gone.
Dr. Lee and Dr. Felger murmured to each other, adjusting calculations, suggesting this and that, and then a very strange humming filled the room.
Stephen was still signing.
“Major Lorne!” Dr. Lee cried.
Stephen looked up.
Major Lorne was standing beside the coffee table still. But his eyes went wide. “You can see me now?”
“Thank the stars,” Dr. Lee said. “We heard during the weekly databurst that you’d been KIA out in Atlant -”
Dr. Felger elbowed him hard, cast Stephen a pointed look.
Dr. Lee fell silent, chagrined.
“Thankfully rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” Major Lorne looked relieved. He turned to Stephen, offered a hand. “Thank you so much for your assistance. You’ve been very understanding.” Then he cast a look around, blinked. “The lady wasn’t kidding, was she? She and the others...aren’t real. Or maybe they’re just out of phase?”
“Maybe we are just out of phase,” JC said.
Stephen was stared at his aspects, alarmed.
“Mr. Leeds,” Colonel Davis said, apologetically.
Stephen finished signing on autopilot, watched Dr. Lee and Dr. Felger fuss over Major Lorne.
“Goodbye, Major Lorne,” Ivy said, as Stephen showed the entire Air Force contingent to the front door.
Stephen relayed her farewells.
Tobias added, “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
Stephen repeated it for him.
JC didn’t say anything, on alert till the black government SUV was out of sight down the driveway.
Stephen headed back to the day room to finish his now-cold breakfast and finish reading the newspaper.
He’d just settled into his chair when Arnaud, the physicist, appeared in the doorway.
“What’s this I hear about people being out of phase?”
Chapter 16: 052. Quell - American Gods
In which Bilqis tries to quell her hunger for worship with the wrong Air Force officer.
Bilqis needed something to quell her hunger. Keeping up appearances, working for Mr. World and the New Gods took more energy than she’d had in a long time. She was doing better, was receiving more power from followers and worship, but maintaining the façade with Mr. Wednesday and the rest was - exhausting.
And the hunger was always there, gnawing. The new worship felt, in many ways, hollow compared to the worship of old. But it was better than the leftovers she’d been scraping by with before. As much as the new technology allowed for more worship, sometimes she wanted something...genuine. Real. Old-fashioned. None of this swipe right, digital flirtation before she met with a worshipper. She wanted to exert her power in person, see the thrall steal over someone’s face, their eyes darken with lust.
So she went to one of her new temples, a brightly-lit bar teeming with life after a long day of work.
She wanted someone young and strong, someone handsome or beautiful, someone who could worship her for hours.
She found a man sitting at the bar, sipping slowly from a drink - good, his performance wouldn’t be overwhelmed by too much liquor - and half paying attention to the television in the corner, doodling on a napkin. He was drawing an image of old, of the other gods from the desert sands who’d fed on their subjects in a totally different way. The careful attention to detail, the fine lines - he had steady hands.
“Mind if I sit?” she asked.
He looked up, startled, smiled at her. “Not at all.” He gestured to the empty barstool beside him.
He had neat short hair, broad shoulders, bright blue eyes, a dimpled smile. She could see the slide of muscle beneath his tight shirt. She recognized the ball chain peeking just above his collar for what it was. He was a soldier of some kind, definitely strong and fit.
“What are you having?” Of course he offered to buy her a drink, because modern soldiers were supposed to be gentlemen, charming and well-spoken, not the blood-spattered savages from Bilqis’s long memories.
She named something fairly inexpensive but not that would make her look like a cheap drunk, and she smiled at him.
She saw appreciation in his eyes, the way he looked her up and down, and she held herself like the queen she was, let him fully appreciate her glory and beauty. She noticed that he flipped his napkin over, started to draw her.
She asked him his name, forgot it immediately. He asked her her name, and she told it to him, because she wanted to hear him chant it, pray it when she finally bedded him.
He paused in his drawing, raised his eyebrows at her. “Like the Queen of Sheba?”
She was surprised he knew her former earthly title. “Yes,” she said. “The Queen of Sheba.”
“Well,” he said, “your mother had quite the role model for you.”
She didn’t tell him she had no mother, had been born of smoke and fire and prayer and lust and life-creating energy and the breathless prayers of a thousand frenzied lovers.
His gaze was still admiring, so she let him ply her with drinks - though he continued to nurse just the one - and ask her questions for which the answers were inconsequential, and finally she leaned in, placed a hand on his knee.
“Would you like to go somewhere quieter?”
He leaned in, nosed along her ear, and she felt her hunger flare, felt anticipation curl like smoke through her bones, banking itself into a fire.
“I don’t mean to toy with you, ma’am, but I am supposed to be an officer and a gentleman, and if you don’t ask, I won’t tell you where I really want to go.”
Bilqis was confused, but then another man was standing beside them. He was taller than her companion, but also blue-eyed and broad-shouldered, wore the same soldier-necklace and had the same soldier-short hair.
“Lorne,” he said.
“We’d better get back to base.”
“Yes, we’d better.”
Lorne rose, pushed the lovely portrait across the bar to Bilqis, paid his tab. “Have a good evening, Your Majesty.”
And then he followed Mitchell out the door, close but not too close, and Bilqis knew the names they’d be praying tonight would be each other’s.
Hunger burned in her, hotter than the anticipated lust.
She had to feed it, quell it.
She frowned and sat back.
But then a woman sat down beside her, looked her up and down. “Hey,” she said. “What are you drinking?”
Chapter 17: 024. Waves - Thoughtcrimes
In which Brendan is clueless (and June is a bit clueless too), and Freya finds a good surf instructor.
Brendan and Freya made an awesome team. She could read his mind, he had a near photographic memory, and out in the field they moved like a highly-trained black ops unit. Even if everyone thought they were weird - or that they were dating, which...no - they closed cases like no one’s business. They closed the hard ones and the high-stakes ones, and they burned the candle at both ends to get it done.
Even if Brendan had totally failed to date Freya’s sister June, the three of them got along well, and it wasn’t weird for the three of them to go on a beach vacation together. With Brendan’s dark hair and the way he and Freya had a long run of inside jokes, most people assumed the three of them were siblings. Brendan had gone to Virginia Beach a few times, usually with other agents, and every time he was the only one who went surfing, since he’d learned when he was a teenager. He was surprised when both Freya and June wanted to learn.
So he tried to teach them.
“You’re a great partner,” Freya said, flopping down on the sand, breathing hard. “But you’re a terrible teacher. Just because I can read your mind doesn’t mean I understand how to do this thing.”
June sank down beside her more gracefully. “You’re as uncoordinated as I remember.”’
“Lies,” Freya said airily. “The federal government says I’m coordinated enough to use and carry a gun.”
“I taught you how to shoot,” Brendan pointed out.
“Yes, well, I should have known you’d be a terrible surf instructor. You’re a terrible dance partner.”
June raised her eyebrows. “Dance partner?”
“At the annual agents’ gala,” Freya said. She leaned back on her elbows and stretched her legs out in front of her, scanned the beachgoers. Then she lifted her chin. “Him. He’ll be a good surf instructor.”
“Him who?” Brendan demanded. He crouched beside her and leaned in, tried to follow her gaze. “That guy? He looks like -”
“An upstanding military officer on leave,” Freya said airily.
Brendan supposed he could see it, in the man’s neat dark hair and the dogtags gleaming on his bare chest, but the stark tattoos over his heart and on his upper right arm made him look like a criminal. Okay, plenty of servicemen had tattoos, though neither tattoo looked particularly service-related.
“Can you use your mind powers to summon him over here?” June asked, eyeing the man appreciatively.
Brendan was still rather unnerved by Freya’s openness with her sister about her gifts, but apparently Freya had inherited her gifts from their mother, who’d been driven mad by them and committed suicide, so Freya had insisted on being honest with June.
“Doesn’t work like that, unfortunately,” Freya said. She lifted her chin, smiled, waved, and called out. “Yoohoo!”
June giggled behind her hand. “No one says that anymore.”
Brendan did his best to maintain a neutral expression when the allegedly upstanding military officer paused, pointed to himself, raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, you. With the surfboard. Come on over here.”
The man trotted up the sand toward them, surfboard still tucked under his arm. “Can I help you, ma’am?” He glanced at Brendan briefly, expression polite but wary.
“Ma’am?” June echoed, arching an eyebrow.
The man ducked his head, blushing. “Apologies. Force of habit.”
“You an experienced surfer?” Freya asked.
“I am. I started surfing when I was about eight.”
“Can you teach us how to surf? Our friend’s a good surfer but not a great teacher.” Freya cast Brendan a mildly apologetic look.
Brendan couldn’t help but eye this new guy suspiciously. He’d seen the way Freya shuddered sometimes when she encountered men who had lecherous thoughts about her.
The man looked startled. “Oh! Sure. If you like.” He knelt, offered a hand. “Evan Lorne.”
“Freya McAllister. This is my sister, June. And our friend, Brendan.”
Lorne shook hands with all of them. “Pleasure to meet you. So, Freya, June, how far did you get with Brendan?” He cast Brendan another wary look.
“We can paddle on our boards and kinda catch a wave but never stand up,” Freya said. “I’ve always wanted to ride the waves.”
“It is a lot of fun,” Lorne admitted. He rose, offered Freya a hand to help her to her feet, then June. “C’mon down closer to the water, and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Brendan watched the three of them go. Something uncomfortable twisted in his chest. No. He wasn’t jealous of this strange man spending time with Freya and June, even though Freya would be the first to know if the man was a creep or dangerous. But Freya was still...fragile in a lot of ways. Vulnerable.
Because guys - Brendan well knew - were creeps.
But this Lorne character spent all afternoon with Freya and June, helping them learn how to stand up on their boards and catch waves, and by the time the sun was sliding below the horizon, they were fairly competent beginner surfers, and after a while Brendan was comfortable enough to enjoy the waves on his own.
Once the sunlight started to fade, they regrouped at the beach towels Freya and June had set up.
“Thanks for the free surf lessons, Evan,” June said, with a rather flirtatious smile.
Evan smiled back. He had dimples.
Brendan didn’t like people with dimples.
Freya cast him a knowing look.
“You ladies are more than welcome,” Evan said, and he shook hands with them again. “And remember, if you’re ever in the Bay Area, you’d be more than welcome to crash with my mom and Nan and hit the waves.”
“Thanks,” Freya said.
June cleared her throat, leaned in. “As a thank you, we should get you dinner tonight. If you’re free.”
“That’s hardly necessary. I’m always glad to pass on the skill. You three enjoy your vacation!” Evan waved, picked up his board, and headed further up the beach.
June watched him go, disappointed.
“For an Air Force officer, he’s kinda clueless,” she said.
Freya cast Brendan another look and said, “Well, maybe if Brendan had been a bit friendlier, he’d have stuck around.”
It took both Brendan and June a moment to process the implication behind her statement.
June’s eyes went wide. “What? And you knew this whole time.”
“Told you he’d be a good teacher,” Freya said. “He loves surfing and he makes real eye contact. Too bad Brendan was such a wet blanket.”
Brendan protested. “I was not.”
“You were totally jealous.” Freya swatted him on the shoulder.
“I was not.” But Brendan glanced over his shoulder in the direction Evan had gone. Evan was further up the beach, toweling himself off, pulling on a t-shirt. He caught Brendan looking and smiled.
Brendan whipped back around, feeling a hot flush creep up his neck.
Freya cackled gleefully.
June sighed. “Men. You’re all clueless. Let’s go get dinner.”
Chapter 18: 033. Raised - Numb3rs
In which Charlie Eppes comes to grip with the fact that one of his friends was raised on a hippie commune.
Charlie couldn’t quite fathom someone who’d been raised on a hippie commune. Mom wasn’t super orthodox, but she was traditional all the same, so Charlie and Don were never allowed out to hang out with friends on Fridays after the sun went down, and Charlie had just had his bar mitzvah, and most of his and Don’s other friends were - if not Jewish, well, normal. Charlie wasn’t surprised Evan was so nice, because he’d heard hippies were all about free love.
Charlie had been surprised that Evan even had been raised on a hippie commune, because he was in AFROTC and had neat short hair and was very polite and seemed very...square. But unlike a lot of other students in their Art 101 class, Evan didn’t seem to think it strange that Charlie was so young and in college, or that he was so brilliant (and occasionally so awkward).
“Why are you so good at this?” Charlie asked. He and Evan were sharing a bench in the quad, sketching a tree.
Charlie was glad to be outside. Even though the art studio was well lit, being locked in stuffy classrooms all day was boring.
“Lots of practice.” Evan’s pencil moved confidently over the thick paper of his sketchpad.
“I don’t get it.” Charlie sighed. His sketch didn’t look anything like a tree.
Evan’s sketch looked like he’d photographed the tree, redone it in pencil, and stuck it in his sketchbook.
“Well, you’re a math genius,” Evan said. “Math just...comes easily to you. Art isn’t like math, though. Part of it is spatial awareness, which I know you do need for math. But part of it is also hand-eye coordination, muscle memory in your hands, your hands obeying your brain and your eyes, and that takes practice. Like playing piano.”
“There are piano geniuses and art geniuses.” Charlie eyed Evan, who seemed very calm and content. “I think you’re an art genius.”
Evan laughed. “You would not say that if you saw my drawings from when I was a kid. Art is a technical skill, like playing music. You can get good if you practice, maybe even better than a genius who never practices.”
Charlie sighed again. “Couldn’t you just...draw it for me?”
“That’s about as bad as you doing my math homework for me. Neither of us learns anything. The point is learning, not the grade.”
“I just want to do math.” Charlie kicked his legs and immediately felt like a little kid. He darted a nervous glance around him, but he didn’t see anyone staring at him.
“Pretty sure you’ll be able to do all the math you want. Till then, you’re stuck in gen eds with the rest of us mundanes.” Evan’s expression was gentle. “You want to share lunch with me?”
Charlie lit up. “What did you make today?”
“Chicken salad sandwiches on homemade sourdough, and some sugar cookies with rainbow sprinkles,” Evan said.
“I’m in,” Charlie said, because that all sounded perfectly kosher to him.
“Right on,” Evan said.
That did make him sound a bit like a hippy.
Charlie smiled up at him. “Thanks.”
Chapter 19: 049. Swing - Captain America (MCU)
In which Sam Wilson swings on an alien planet for the first time.
A timestamp to the Avenging Stars series.
“You know, even though I’ve flown all kinds of amazing craft, some literally out of this world, I will always love being on a swing.” Evan pumped his legs, pushing himself higher and higher.
Sam pumped his legs, trying to get himself in a matching rhythm so he could keep talking to Evan. “I’ve never been on a swing on another world. It feels like Earth, but I know it’s not.” He glanced skyward, saw the shadows of Lantea’s three moons.
“I think I always wanted to fly because I thought it would be like being on a swing.”
“Flying is better, though.”
“When it comes to speed and freedom and being in the sky,” Evan said, “sure. But swinging isn’t the same as flying. It’s rhythmic, soothing. Peaceful. Once you got done with training, how peaceful was flying, really?”
“Point,” Sam admitted. “I’m pretty bummed the gene therapy didn’t take for me. The jumpers are one smooth ride. But then you’ve never had the chance to fly my wings.”
“True,” Evan said. “Those look pretty awesome. When you have them on, you kind of look like a modern cyberpunk Horus. In the good way, not the goa’uld way.”
Sam eyed Evan sidelong. Ever since he’d come to Atlantis on a diplomatic mission, serving as bodyguard for Earth’s two newest ambassadors to the Independent City-State of Atlantis, he’d worked closely with Evan, who was in charge of making sure Ambassadors Maximoff and Romanov had a comfortable stay. Sam couldn’t help but wonder if it was weird for Evan, now that Steve and Bucky were living in Atlantis, after Evan had dated Bucky and Steve had more or less broken them up.
Evan didn’t seem upset, though. And he didn’t blame the other Avengers, was very friendly to all of them. Sam remembered that Evan had been a very sweet boyfriend for Bucky, probably the best “first” boyfriend Bucky could have in the New Age.
Sam hadn’t been joking, when he’d offered to date Evan that one time, during the Central Park Jazz Festival.
“You know, there are other things that are rhythmic and fun,” he said.
Evan glanced at him. “Like dancing? I’m a terrible dancer.”
“And other things,” Sam said, deliberately casual.
“Oh?” Evan raised his eyebrows.
Sam nodded. Then he said, “Did you ever do that thing as a kid, swing as hard and fast and high as you could and then jump off once you reached the top?”
“Yeah,” Evan said. “Broke my ankle. My mom was mad. Still wanted to be a pilot.”
“For me the best part was not the jumping or the flying but the falling,” Sam said.
“The falling?” Evan echoed.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “The falling.”
Evan said, “Falling. I’ll give that a try.” And he began to pump his legs harder, swinging higher and faster.
Sam joined in, swinging himself higher and faster and till he hit the apex, and he leapt.
Landed on his feet and let his momentum carry him forward into a roll, a crouch.
He straightened up.
Evan was standing in front of him.
“So,” Evan said. “Falling.”
Evan said, “You haven’t secretly forgotten the love of your life, have you?”
Sam laughed softly, startled. “No.”
Evan stepped a little closer. “Want to fall together?”
“I was hoping to fall into bed with you and go from there,” Sam said.
Evan laughed, but then he reached out, drew Sam close, and kissed him.
Chapter 20: 069. Wallow - Harry Potter
In which Severus Snape refuses to admit he's wallowing, and then stops wallowing at the behest of a young American airman named Lorne.
“You’re wallowing,” the portrait of the old woman on the wall said.
Severus, slumped over in his armchair, glared at her. She harrumphed and turned her nose up at him but said nothing further.
Severus Snape was not a man who wallowed. Brooded, perhaps. But wallowing was beneath him. A man had no time to wallow, not a man who was playing a long game and acting as a double (triple?) agent and fighting a war -
The war was over. Voldemort was defeated. The Boy Who Lived Twice (Young Man Who Lived Twice? Insufferable Teenager Who Lived Twice? Lily’s son) was a hero. The Death Eaters and all they stood for were on the run and being routed by the Aurors.
And Severus had no place in any of it. Not with the Death Eaters, not with the Aurors. Not back at Hogwarts. Not anywhere. Except maybe the muggle world, the world he’d permanently shunned after his mother’s death, his hated father’s world. There had been few pleasures for Severus in the muggle world. Perhaps the only ones had been Lily Evans - though she’d followed him into the wizarding world - and punk rock on the wireless.
Severus wasn’t sure if it was disheartening, that his favorite songs by The Clash and The Who were considered classics on muggle wireless.
Albus had gone to great lengths to ensure Severus was provided for, should he survive the war. And Severus had survived, just barely (though if he closed his eyes, he saw Nagini poised to strike him, to tear out his throat). He needed a cane to get around, but his cottage had only one level and was sparsely furnished, easy for him to get around. He had minimal wizarding furnishings, mostly muggle appliances, a new wand to use if necessary. Albus had even provided for him to have a livelihood, an occupation, a mail-order potions brewing business under the name Aurelius York, and the kitchen was also a potions brewing facility. Severus had a little owl, Mercury, to bring requests and deliver fulfilled orders.
No orders had come in thus far, not in the two months Severus had been living in Mildenhall, but then he’d spent the first month bedridden and most of the second month wheelchair-bound and now he’d progressed to a cane.
And didn’t want to go outside. Didn’t want to send Mercury to the Daily Prophet with a pre-filled form to place an advertisement for his brewing services. Didn’t want to go on sunny walks to gather local potions ingredients.
Didn’t want to do anything. Severus had served his part in the war, and his reward was exile, or the closest thing to it.
Well, he hadn’t done what he’d done to earn a reward. He’d done what he’d done to atone for his past.
Granted, nothing could really make up for what he’d done. He had no right to wallow or brood or any of it. He had to keep going. It was what he did.
So, after staring out the window at the sunlight on the lawn, at small birds flitting past, Severus heaved himself to his feet, grabbed his cane, and crossed the kitchen. He instructed Mercury to deliver the advertising form to the Daily Prophet, and then he headed out the front door.
The lawn was small, a bit wild and long for his not trimming it, dotted with the occasional yellow dandelion blossom. He could brew some dandelion wine and set it by for - well, not guests. Maybe to sell.
The flowerbeds and vegetable patches were empty. Mildhenhall was famous for its market day, so Severus saw no need to grow his own food. But he could grow his own potions ingredients. A true potions master was also an herbologist par excellence, and Severus was a true potions master. He was more than willing to transplant wild specimens into his garden for further cultivation.
If he wanted to transplant, well, he needed some tools. A basket. A small hand spade.
So he set off toward the town.
He’d forgotten that Mildenhall was next to an RAF base, an RAF base where USAF personnel were stationed, but as he got further into town, he saw them, uniformed men and women, all with short and neat hair, talking loudly in their flat-voweled accents.
Severus dodged around the crowd of them. Some of them were younger than him, some the same age as him, but in looking at them he felt...old. None of them had truly fought in a war like he had. Muggle conflicts were petty and small these days, though the casualty count was staggering in comparison.
Severus was headed for a small shop he knew carried bits of everything, where he’d likely find the supplies he needed. He stepped up onto the pavement and went to go around a spinning wire rack of postcards outside the newsagents when his legs - still weak, from the dregs of Nagini’s poison in his blood and muscles - buckled.
He started to tip sideways. He went to utter a spell to right himself, and then there were arms around him, and he was almost nose-to-nose with a blue-eyed young man.
“Careful, Lorne, because you’re almost telling so loud no one’s gonna hafta ask,” a nearby airman said, and others laughed.
Lorne righted Severus on the pavement and stepped back. “Easy there, sir,” he said.
Severus was torn between yelling at the young man for putting hands on him uninvited and being glad that he hadn’t taken a nasty spill that could have resulted in worse injury.
He settled for a stiff and clipped Thank you, and into the shop he went.
Severus would never admit it, but the old lady in the painting - no doubt someone who reported to someone Albus had left behind to keep an eye on Severus - had been right. He’d been wallowing. But now he was doing something. He was brewing potions and working on his garden and going on rambles through the village to find more specimens to add to his garden or more supplies for his laboratory-kitchen or even just new books to read.
He kept to himself, though he was cordial enough to the locals, and they kept to themselves as well.
Not that one airman, though. Lorne.
Americans. So brash. He smiled and waved whenever he saw Severus. He was young, maybe a decade Severus’s junior, probably knew nothing of the true horrors of war. He looked a bit - dull, honestly. With his dimpled smile and bright blue eyes.
Granted, Severus had seen the fighter jets swooping overhead, seen the complicated formations and last-minute turns and knew that controlling such a craft was more difficult than it looked, probably even more difficult than flying a broom - certainly more dangerous.
But there was no guarantee that Lorne flew one of those.
Since he was seemingly everywhere in the village, all the time. In the bakery, chatting with Mary. At the church, chatting with young Father Scott while they strolled through the headstones at the churchyard. At the nursery, chatting with Michel. Lorne was so busy being everywhere and smiling at everyone that he had no time to do any actual soldiering.
So of course, one day Lorne knocked on Severus’s door.
Severus flicked his wand to cast an illusion over his brewing supplies, make the sounds and smells of potions bubbling go away, and walked slowly to the door. He no longer limped, and he didn’t need a cane around the house, but he wasn’t as swift on his feet as he’d once been.
“Yes?” he asked warily, pulling open the door.
“Hello, Mr. Snape.”
“Lorne,” Severus said. He looked the boy up and down and saw that he wasn’t in uniform.
“I was wondering if I could paint your house.”
Severus frowned. “My house doesn’t need painting. It received a fresh coat of paint before I moved in.” Or at least it looked like it had.
“Ah, I meant from the outside.” Lorne held up a sketchpad and a little wooden box of paints.
“You mean you wish to paint a picture of my house.” Severus eyed Lorne some more. “I thought you were a soldier.”
“The technical term is airman. But I’m off-duty right now, and this time of day the ivy up the left side of the house casts some interesting shadows, and I thought I’d try my hand at them.”
Severus had never been much for frivolities like painting, even if he did like listening to music. He cast a glance over his shoulder at the portrait of the old shrew woman and wondered if she had any hand in this, but that was impossible because Lorne was a muggle. Simple minds enjoyed simple pleasures.
“If you wish, you may,” he said finally.
Lorne beamed at him; he really was quite dull, wasn’t he? He’d probably been dropped on his head as a child.
“Thanks! You won’t regret it.” He waved and then turned, headed back down the garden path - to where he had further painting supplies to work with.
Severus did regret it, because seemingly every time Lorne was off duty, he was skulking about Severus’s garden, painting and sketching and smiling every time Severus poked his head out the front door or went into the garden to weed the potions patch.
A few times he offered to help Severus carry things or do chores, but Severus was no invalid. As long as Lorne wasn’t around, Severus could use his magic to make tasks easier for himself.
Severus was very surprised one evening, when he stepped out the front door to make his weekly appearance at the local pub - he had cordial working relationships with Mary at the bakery and Michel at the nursery and Gillian at the dry goods shop - and Lorne was there, smiling hopefully at him and trying to hide something behind his back.
“What do you want?” Severus wasn’t much interested in wasting time.
“I wanted to say thank you for letting me hang around your house like a creeper while I worked on my art, so I brought you dinner! Er, supper. That’s what they call it here, right? Lunch is dinner and dinner is supper.” Lorne held up what looked suspiciously like a gingham-lined basket.
It was loaded with a meat pie, some sweet pastries, some savory rolls, and also a creme brulee topped with an artful dusting of powdered sugar and raspberries.
“Those aren’t from the bakery,” Severus said, as he frequented the place often.
“Oh, no - I made it all myself.” Lorne beamed at Severus some more.
Severus raised his eyebrows. “You?”
“Yeah. My Nan was a professional chef, taught me everything she knows. It’s all stuff that’ll keep if you have other plans.”
Severus’s plans had been a pint of bitters and maybe some shepherd’s pie. Old Hamish down the pub sold good, hearty food, but what Lorne had in the basket looked far better.
Severus wasn’t oblivious to social graces - he just usually avoided them, partially because they were a waste of time, partially because in the role he’d had to adopt as first a too-young potions professor and head of house, then as a spy, he wasn’t supposed to be nice. If he wanted people to respect him and trust him, he had to be firm.
And he’d learned full well, in the Snape and Prince houses, that being nice was likely to get one hurt or killed.
But Snape was no longer a potions master scrambling to demand respect from students who remembered him as a student, and he was no longer a spy in a war.
He said, “Homemade supper would be very nice. Thank you.”
Lorne’s smile brightened, and he stepped into the house. “Do you need me to take off my shoes?”
“Why would you?”
“I was stationed in Japan for a while, and it’s tradition over there. To keep houses clean inside.”
Severus kept his house clean with a flick of his wand. “No need. Kitchen table is there.”
Lorne laid out the contents of the basket - he’d even brought plates and silverware - with deft, calm hands. His ease in the kitchen reminded Severus, for one moment, of Lily. He had only been to her house a few times, growing up, and the few times Mrs. Evans had always served supper, and it was usually Lily’s job to set the table, and she had looked like this in the kitchen.
Like she’d one day make a good wife.
He’d wished she’d be his wife.
“Do you sit at the head of the table?” Lorne asked, holding a plate.
Severus usually ate standing, at the kitchen counter, so he could keep an eye on his brews. He shook his head, and Lorne set Severus’s plate opposite his.
Lorne held Severus’s chair out for him - an absent courtesy, clearly a habit for him. Severus had been taught the courtesy but never really had occasion to use it, as he’d never formally courted a woman.
But then Lorne sat opposite him. “Do you want to say grace first, or something?”
“No,” Severus said. “Was never the religious type.”
“All right.” Lorne’s smile was tentative but still bright. He explained what all of the dishes were, was quite proud of the fact that he’d made everything from local ingredients sourced from the farmer’s market.
Perhaps he wasn’t as stupid as he looked. As a potions master, Severus knew that combining ingredients appropriately was harder than most people thought, and baking was more science than art, though everything Lorne had brought was made with a rather artistic flair, decorated prettily in addition to smelling good.
While they ate, Lorne attempted to make conversation, asking Severus about his house and his livelihood. Severus offered brief answers, didn’t ask any questions about Lorne in reply, and eventually Lorne fell silent, though he didn’t seem offended or bothered, was quite calm in the silence between them.
Once the meal was finished, Lorne packed all the dishes back into his basket - though he left the remainder of the pie for Severus to enjoy, said he’d pick up the dish later - and thanked Severus for his time, and then headed for the door.
Severus followed him. He felt the old shrew’s portrait eyes on him the entire way.
“Thank you for a lovely supper. You’re a very - talented cook,” he offered, stiffly.
Again with Lorne’s vapidly bright smile.
“You’re welcome.” Then Lorne tilted his head. “Say, have you ever sat for a portrait before?”
Severus had, when he’d briefly been Headmaster of Hogwarts. He said, “Once. It was - tedious.”
“Oh. Well - you have an interesting face. I was studying you, while we ate, and I thought - but sitting still for that long can be tedious, yes.” Lorne sounded disappointed.
It occurred to Severus that if he said yes, he’d probably be gifted with another homemade meal. He hadn’t had such a wonderful homemade meal since Lily Evans’s mother had cooked for him when he was still a teenager.
“Perhaps not a painting but a drawing?” Severus offered. “Those take less time.”
Lorne lit up once more. “That would be perfect. I’m usually off duty in the evenings, and all day Sunday. Does that work for you?”
“Yes,” Severus said, already regretting his choice, because Lorne was like an eager puppy, would probably be around all the time.
Lorne thanked him profusely, then saw himself out and vanished down the shadowed lane with his basket.
Severus watched him go and had further regrets. He glared at the portrait of the old witch as he went back to reclaim his kitchen, check on some of his overnight brews that he’d hidden from Lorne’s sight.
He finished the delicious meat pie over the weekend, and he washed the pie dish, had it ready and waiting for when Lorne decided to surprise him with a visit.
As it turned out, Lorne brought delicious little baked treats every time he came to visit. Lorne professed that he was experimenting on Severus with new recipes, but each pastry was a tiny piece of perfection, beautifully decorated and wondrous as its flavors spread across Severus’s tongue. While Severus submitted to Lorne’s experimentation, Lorne set up his art supplies.
Once Severus was finished, it was time for him to sit. Thankfully, Lorne liked the notion of a portrait of Severus while he was reading a book, so Severus could sit comfortably in his armchair and read a book of his choice while Lorne scribbled away industriously on his sketchpad. Severus enjoyed his book, the sound of charcoal on heavy paper almost soothing, and at the end of an hour or so, Lorne packed up his things, thanked Severus, arranged for his next visit, and departed.
Severus still saw Lorne around town - usually in his uniform, often accompanied by other personnel from the base, Americans and locals alike - and Lorne was always friendly to him, would smile and wave and ask after his welfare, but he wasn’t a particularly intrusive presence. Severus still mostly kept to himself, brewing orders as they came in, dispatching Mercury with deposits to Gringotts and orders to be delivered, making his weekly foray to the pub, rambling about the village - less and less with his cane as summer wore on - to find what he couldn’t grow in his garden. He also spent plenty of time in the garden, making sure he had a good stock of fresh ingredients for his potions. This life was - boring. Stagnant. But he had some measure of purpose, and some measure of peace, or at least an absence of violence and death threats and the immense pressure of being a double agent. He didn’t subscribe to the Daily Prophet, didn’t want to see Potter and his pals living the high life, didn’t want to see the demise of Draco and Millie and some of his other students, students he’d tried but failed to save. He got all his local muggle news during his weekly foray to the pub, and that was fine for him.
Lorne usually brought supper on Sunday nights, when he spent several hours with Severus, and Severus really was pleased with this arrangement, though he ought to keep on rambling about the village - and perhaps go a bit further afield than usual - if he wanted to stay fit, because Lorne was a wonderful cook and he always brought lots. Perhaps it was an American thing, the reason all of them were so obese (but not Lorne, who was fighting fit, broad of shoulder and keen of eye and not actually as stupid as Severus had initially thought). Lorne didn’t ask Severus about his personal life, and Severus didn’t ask about his.
Until one hot summer day Lorne arrived in one of those olive tank tops, the kind the soldiers wore while they did their exercise runs around the perimeter of the base sometimes, and Severus could see hints of ink on his chest, on his upper arm. Lorne hadn’t commented on Severus’s now-inert Dark Mark. Given how Lorne was always so neat and gentlemanly and rather old-fashioned, Severus was surprised the man had any tattoos, but the twining ouroboros on his right upper arm was intricate, had taken a lot of time and probably cost a lot of money.
Lorne’s metal identification tags gleamed against the dull fabric of his tank top while he worked, and Severus found himself strangely fascinated by the play of muscle in his forearms while he drew.
Finally, he lowered his book and said, “You have tattoos.”
Lorne glanced up briefly - he had such bright blue eyes - and said, “Hm? Oh, yeah. My sister’s a tattoo artist.”
“You have a sister.”
“Yep. One older sister. It was just me, her, Mom, and Nan growing up. You?”
“I have no siblings,” Severus said.
“My mom’s an art teacher. She taught me and Tally both to draw and paint.”
Severus’s mother had taught him to brew and cast, both much more useful skills.
It occurred to Severus, after several weeks of visits, that he had no idea whether Lorne was actually a decent artist or not. He cleared his throat. “How is the drawing coming along?”
Again with the way Lorne lit up like a child being offered a piece of candy. How was he at all suited for the art of war, so incapable of artifice and unkindness? “You want to see? You are one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever seen. Absolutely beautiful. Take a look.” He turned his sketchbook around.
Severus went to reach for it, faltered. No one had ever called him beautiful before; if they had, they’d have meant it in cruel jest.
But Lorne was incapable of anything but earnestness.
He was, however, a very capable artist.
Wizarding portraits seemed so lifelike because they were animate. Severus had the sense that he was seeing what a wizarding artist saw in the moments before a portrait gained life, himself comfortable in his chair, brow furrowed in concentration, lips pursed, fingers parallel to the spine of the book. Lorne had captured all the lines and shadows of Severus’s face, the texture of his hair, even the delicate creases of his shirtsleeves.
“Your mother taught you well,” he said finally, handing the sketchbook back.
Lorne looked pleased. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to tell her.”
“Has it taken you all this time? To complete the drawing?” Severus asked.
“No, I started with studies first, of your component features, to make sure I knew them well before I drew the portrait,” Lorne said.
Severus, who’d enjoyed his quiet reading time while a delicious baked treat settled in his stomach, had not been quite so aware of Lorne’s intense scrutiny.
“You have amazing hands,” Lorne added. “Do you play a musical instrument?”
“No,” Severus said. Even if he’d wanted to learn, his parents wouldn’t have been able to afford him either an instrument or lessons.
“You look like you’d be good at it.” Lorne smiled.
“Do you play?” Severus asked, since he knew the rhythm of back and forth.
Lorne laughed. “No, not even a bit. My family is entirely un-musical.”
Is, he said. So his family was still alive. He was probably in regular contact with them, too. He seemed like the type who’d be a loyal, caring son.
“As was mine,” Severus said, shortly.
Lorne seemed to catch the implication, about Severus no longer having a family. His expression sobered, and he was quiet for a moment. Then he closed his sketchbook and set it aside, started packing up his pencils even though he usually stayed around for an extra hour.
“Hey, have you ever had homemade lavender honey ice cream?”
“No,” Severus said, confused.
Lorne stood, offered a hand. “Come on. I’ve got some back in my freezer.”
Severus, who was disoriented by the sudden change of pace, nodded, accepted Lorne’s hand, rose a little unsteadily to his feet.
Lorne led him through the village without a word, his expression intent. He kept pace with Severus perfectly, seemed to know how to move with someone who was not perfectly able-bodied - but then soldiers came home from war broken, didn’t they?
As it turned out, Lorne lived in a small cottage near the base instead of on-base.
“My roommates went down to London for the weekend, so this is all ours. Especially the ice cream.” Lorne unlocked the front door with a flick of his wrist and showed Severus into the kitchen.
The entire place was neat and clean, quaintly decorated, but then given the transient nature of military service Severus suspected Lorne and his roommates had had little hand in the interior design choices.
Lorne set two bowls and spoons on the table, then poked in the icebox and came up with a container of what was clearly homemade ice cream.
“Honey lavender,” he said. “How many scoops?”
“I’ll start with one,” Severus said. None of Lorne’s culinary experiments thus far had been awful, but Severus didn’t want to be greedy.
The scoop Lorne gave him filled almost the entire bowl. Severus might have accused him of being a bit of a lawyer, only Lorne served himself a similarly-sized scoop and then put the ice cream away. He sank into the chair opposite and had a spoonful.
His eyes slid closed, and he hummed happily, his lips curving in a smile.
For all that Lorne had spent a long time looking at Severus, Severus hadn’t spent much time looking back.
Lorne was handsome. Not in the sharp, aristocratic way of Regulus or Sirius Black or Lucius Malfoy, not in the rugged, wild-haired way of James Potter. But in a rather wholesome way, the sort of lad plenty of women would want their daughters to bring home.
Severus flicked a glanced at the tattoo on Lorne’s arm, wondered what the image on his chest was, what was worth having permanently inked over his heart.
Lorne opened his eyes. “How is it?”
Right. The ice cream. Severus tasted it, considering it carefully. “Good,” he said. “Lavender and other floral flavors can overwhelm if one is not parsimonious with them, but you have achieved a satisfactory balance.”
“Satisfactory. High praise, from you.” Lorne smiled, amused.
“I am not one given to exaggeration,” Severus said.
“No, you’re not. I appreciate it.” Lorne kept eating his ice cream, and they lapsed into a companionable silence.
Severus studied the kitchen around him as he ate. It was clean, neat, organized, but also well-stocked with herbs and spices, including some specimens bundled and dried and hanging from the ceiling beams.
“So, Severus, what exactly is it that you do? Besides keep an immaculate garden. Are you some kind of botanist?” Lorne asked, setting his spoon in his empty bowl.
Severus swallowed his last mouthful of delicious ice cream. “I am something of an alchemist, I suppose. Homemade soaps and lotions and the like. Herbal remedies.”
He expected scorn from an American, but Lorne nodded.
“Right on. Grew up with a lot of those myself. It’s handy, knowing what plants can be medically useful, especially if you get shot down over enemy territory and need to patch yourself and your navigator up.”
“Shot down?” Severus echoed.
“I’m a combat pilot,” Lorne said. “Haven’t been shot down yet, but it’s best to be prepared. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, right?”
“So you fly one of those roaring beasts.”
Lorne chuckled. “Yes, I do. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, fly. Have you always wanted to be an alchemist?”
Severus wasn’t sure what he’d always wanted to be, besides - respected. Feared. Loved.
“I’m good at what I do. The best,” Severus said finally.
“Being good at something isn’t the same thing as enjoying it,” Lorne pointed out.
“Usually one becomes good at something one enjoys through sheer dint of practice,” Severus said.
Lorne conceded the point with a nod. “So, the ice cream. Worth a repeat?”
“Yes,” Severus said.
Lorne scooped up the bowls and spoons, carried them over to the sink to wash. He glanced over his shoulder. “Want anything else? Tea? Coffee? Might have some brandy kicking around for a nightcap, if that’s your thing. Or whiskey.”
“Should I trust an American to make tea?” Severus asked.
“My grandmother is English,” Lorne said. “I’ve been told I make a decent cuppa.”
“I shall reserve my judgment,” Severus said, and sat back.
Lorne finished washing the dishes, set them in the rack to dry, and then put the kettle on the stove to boil. He had real tea, actual leaves, not the muggle swill in bags, and he had a neat little tea service as well, which he set on the table between them.
“Is that why you’re here?” Severus asked. “To get in touch with your ancestors.”
“No, I don’t get that much freedom of choice. When they offered me the post, of course I accepted, but I’ve been stationed a bunch of places at this point - Germany, Korea, Japan. I go where they order me to go.”
“You don’t chafe at the restrictions?”
“I don’t. I grew up - kind of lawless, really. On a hippy commune in California. It was all free love and freeing your mind, no rules, endless creativity. That was too much for me. I like order and neatness.” Lorne gestured to the kitchen ruefully.
“A hippy commune.” Severus raised his eyebrows.
“I know. No one ever believes me. I was kind of a wild child, but that was less because I was inherently wild and more because it was what everyone did. I prefer to live this way. And I feel like I’m doing something more than just endlessly looking for myself. The universe doesn’t care about me.”
“I think of myself as a pragmatist. You strike me as a very disciplined man yourself. Methodical. Scientific.”
“Discipline and organization are survival,” Severus said.
“How very military.” Lorne looked amused.
Severus wasn’t used to personal conversation like this, rarely cared to have it, though he listened when others had them, because knowledge was power, but - he was no longer a spy.
“So your tattoos - a remnant of your hippy lifestyle?”
“Technically yes. My sister’s a good artist, though. And plenty of people who are in have them. I don’t regret them.” Lorne smoothed a hand over his chest absently. “What about your tattoo? There has to be a story behind that.”
“There is.” Severus left it at that. Lorne was socially adroit enough that he didn’t press further.
Severus and Lorne sipped their tea - Lorne took his sweeter than Severus did - and Severus realized that few people in his life had been capable of this level of mutual silence. Really the only person who had been capable was Albus, and even then he was usually offering Severus a lemon drop.
Severus glanced at Lorne, whose gaze was distant, thoughtful. “I’m surprised, that a young man such as yourself is not in the company of fine young women on a weekend. I’m given to understand that young women find men in uniform quite dashing.”
He’d heard talk but never thought much of uniforms himself, not on women or men.
Lorne turned to him, blue eyes shadowed. “Well, I’m not much for the company of fine young women.”
Severus arched an eyebrow. “You prefer the company of acerbic old men?”
“You’re not old,” Lorne said mildly, and then Severus cottoned onto Lorne’s implication.
Severus had never been wooed or courted before. He’d been witness to almost two decades of inept adolescent attempts, but as an adult he’d never -
“You don’t mind that I’m acerbic.”
“You’re not cruel,” Lorne said, “and you realize I’m in the military, don’t you? It’s not a place where warmth and fluffiness abounds in interpersonal relations. I’m pretty sure anything you could say to me has already been said by my drill sergeant in basic.”
“You expect me to insult and belittle you?”
“Not really, but - I am pretty thick-skinned. Have to be, to survive basic.” Lorne shrugged and sipped his tea some more.
Severus studied Lorne, how calm and measured he was, and wondered how he had missed the man’s careful wooing all this time. He wondered what Lorne had seen in him, that Lorne had been brave enough to woo him in the first place.
Severus cleared his throat. “If you must know, my experience in courtship and such matters is quite - limited.”
Hope lit in Lorne’s blue, blue eyes. “I’m not looking to rush anything. Just - give it a try. I have to be pretty careful myself.”
“Your offer is acceptable,” Severus said.
Lorne smiled. “More ice cream?”
Lorne rose, went to fetch the tub of ice cream from the ice box, rinse off the metal scoop.
Severus stared at him and wondered how he’d gone from wallowing to quite possibly tumbling off a cliff and into a relationship with an American airman, and then he realized he’d more or less been in a relationship with Lorne for a while now, spending evenings and weekends with him, sharing meals regularly with him. Lorne had been quite careful, never pushing for physical affection or conversational intimacy.
Lorne had also been consistent, even when Severus was tired or short with him.
The only other people in Severus’s life who’d been this consistent and persistent were - dead.
Were Lily and Albus.
So when Lorne served up two more massive scoops of ice cream each, Severus decided his wallowing days were far behind him and he was going to try some consistency and persistence for himself.
“Lorne, what is your christian name?”
“My what? Oh. Evan. My first name is Evan. Ah - because my mother is a hippy, my middle name is Bluebell.”
There was a certain poetry in that, Severus supposed. Lily, and now Bluebell.
“I’ve no middle name,” Severus said. “But the one close friend I had growing up - she called me Sev.”
Evan smiled. “Sev. I like it.”
I like you, he meant.
Severus dug into his ice cream, and he felt warm inside.
Chapter 21: 072. Space - X-Men (movie verse, mostly)
In which Logan sometimes need space - and misses a pair of blue, blue eyes.
When Logan needed space, needed to get away from the anxiety-ridden, teenage hormone-laden confinement that was Xavier’s School for the Gifted, he headed into town and had drinks and maybe played a bit of pool at a local bar.
Old Cueball disapproved of Logan’s vices - cigars, booze - because the students were impressionable. They saw Logan’s badass claws and super-healing and wanted to be just like him. Little did they know that he was incapable of getting drunk and he’d never get lung cancer, even if his liver and lungs were often unhappy with him.
What had originally been the occasional bout of cabin fever turned into something more after the whole disaster with Jean becoming The Phoenix. Jean was dead. Scott was dead. Humans and mutants had gone to war. Mutants were lining up for a cure - or to be registered. (Xavier’s students were doing neither; Rogue and Bobby seemed to have contented themselves with Rogue’s dozens of pairs of opera gloves to keep their teen romance alive.)
Logan needed space more and more often, even though there were more and more empty spaces at the dining table at meals, in the hallways.
In the bedrooms.
Logan had flirted with Jean - who wouldn’t be attracted to smokin’ hot redhead like that?
But he’d been drawn to Scott more, to the veneer of measured calm and control over a sea of roiling emotions and fierce energy - and a desperation and brittleness that Logan saw in himself, that he’d never sensed in Jean.
And now Scott was gone.
While Logan had been helping Ororo clear out Scott and Jean’s old room - she’d picked him assuming he’d be the least emotional about the task; good thing she wasn’t a telepath - he’d come across old pictures of Scott, smiling, glasses-free, young and an all-American pretty boy.
He’d had blue, blue eyes.
Even though Logan had never seen those blue eyes in person, he missed them.
He wasn’t sure what he was thinking, when he picked up the kid with the blue, blue eyes. He hadn’t meant to pick the kid up. He’d gone to a bar with a cage, considered getting into the cage and fighting, but he wasn’t into pain for pain’s sake anymore. And then he’d watched the kid in the cage, the kid with the neat short dark hair just like Scott’s, the kid with the dog tags and tattoos on his arm and chest.
The kid didn’t have Scott’s high cheekbones or fine features, but he was handsome, in a polite, boy-next-door kind of way.
He wasn’t polite in the cage, though. He was a flatscan, but he had training. Military at its base, judging by the way he moved, and his dog tags, but some other styles thrown in - Muay Thai, escrima, shotokan.
Scott had done shotokan.
Logan put a fiver down on the kid even though he was smaller than his opponent - he wasn’t tall himself, even if he was built like a tank, knew what it was like to be underestimated. He collected pretty heftily after three five-minute rounds. The kid had been quite the betting underdog.
The kid collected his money, scrubbed off with a bar rag, tugged on a t-shirt, plopped down at the bar.
Logan bought him a drink. “You got grit, soldier.” He’d been a soldier in more than one war.
“Thanks,” the kid said, raising the glass of scotch in salute. “It’s actually airman, though.”
Logan thought of Scott’s hands on the Blackbird’s controls, how the craft had been an extension of his body. “Godspeed and good hunting.”
The kid smiled, and he had dimples. He finished his drink quickly, hopped off the bar stool, and winced.
Logan automatically reached out to steady him. He’d been around students for too long.
“Thanks,” the kid - airman - said, sucking in a sharp, pained breath. He was favoring his left side.
Logan finished his drink, threw down enough cash to cover his tab, and stood. “You need a hand patching up?”
“You a medic?”
“I’ve been where you are.”
The kid raised his eyebrows. “Have you?”
“Fought in a cage once or twice,” Logan said.
“All right. Thanks,” the kid said, and led Logan to the door, to his car, which was a very neat, conservative little dark green sedan.
The kid - Lieutenant Lorne - lived in a tiny apartment off-base. It was barely more than a bed and a toilet, plus a shelf with a rice cooker and hot plate on it for a kitchen. Lorne found his first aid kit with familiar ease and stripped his shirt back off, set about scrubbing alcohol onto any abrasions.
Logan was the one who checked for broken ribs and soft tissue damage.
“What’s your CO going to say when he sees how painted up you are?” Logan asked.
The kid shrugged. “He won’t see me painted up. As long as I can fly…”
So he was a flyboy, just like Scott.
He had blue, blue eyes just like Scott.
But he was cooped up, needed space - like Logan.
It was easy to yank the kid in for a rough kiss, even easier to tumble into bed with him (be gentle with him, mindful of his injuries).
It was easy to go back to the bar and put money on Lorne’s fights, or play pool or darts against Lorne, or just share a few drinks with him and then follow him home.
They were both running away from something. Lorne didn’t ask why Logan insisted they be face to face for pretty much every encounter, that he wanted to look into Lorne’s eyes. Logan didn’t ask whose name never quite made it past Lorne’s lips when he came.
But once in a while, they helped each other find space, find orbit, find outer space, and Logan was all right.
Chapter 22: 006. Home - Moonlight
In which Josef invites a mortal home.
The rules were pretty simple: if a human found out about vampires, said human was either killed or otherwise forced to keep the secret.
Josef had dealt with all kinds of human reactions before - disgust, terror, lust, fascination, confusion, insanity, catatonia. He’d never dealt with this, though. This...aplomb.
But the human he’d brought back to his apartment, one Captain Evan Lorne, United States Air Force, seemed completely unfazed by Josef’s being a vampire.
“I don’t usually let mortals into my home,” Josef said, gesturing around at his luxurious penthouse apartment. “Not unless it’s for -”
“Feeding?” Evan stood beside the kitchen island, scanning Josef’s apartment with interest, like a homebuyer calculating what he’d be willing to offer, or maybe a critic from an interior design journal.
Or sex, Josef thought, but he wasn’t about to say that aloud. Although, would that shock Evan into something more than mild curiosity about the vampiric condition?
Evan had asked all the usual questions - how old are you? How did you become a vampire? Which legends are true? Which legends are false? How do you kill a vampire?
“That’s pretty callous to ask,” Josef had said, leading Evan to his private elevator.
Evan had shrugged. “Call it combat curiosity, I suppose. Besides, you know how to kill my kind.”
Josef had conceded that.
“Besides,” Evan had said, “what if some of your kind who are less friendly than you decide I’m some kind of tasty snack?”
Josef hadn’t been able to resist leaning in, nosing along Evan’s throat, and saying, “You do seem like you’d be tasty.”
Evan hadn’t reacted the way Josef expected, given the generally repressive sexual mores of the American armed forces. He’d just arched an eyebrow and looked amused.
So when Evan finally asked, “Where do you sleep?” Josef showed him to the upstairs bedroom.
“California King?” Evan eyed the bed.
“That’s for sex and mortal guests,” Josef said. He pointed to the giant industrial freezer. “That’s for vampire sleeping.”
Evan studied it for a long time. He said, “Looks lonely.”
“This existence really is a solo act,” Josef said.
“Vampires don’t have the market cornered on solo acts.” Evan looked at Josef, eyebrow raised, the same expression he’d worn when Josef had sniffed his throat to get a sense of his blood.
Josef sat down on the edge of the bed and extended a hand. “The bed really is comfortable, if you’d like to see for yourself.”
Evan accepted his hand and leaned in for a kiss.
Vampirism was a solo act, but it was okay to be a duo once in a while.
Also written for the frozen comment_fic prompt: "Any, any, vampires who sleep in customized freezers instead of caskets."
Chapter 23: 076. Scratch - Star Wars
In which Obi-Wan has an itch to scratch.
Obi-Wan had never liked thinking of the desire for intimacy with another person as an itch that needed scratching. He knew the rules - no attachments, no possessive relationships. That wasn’t the same thing as strict celibacy. A true Jedi understood how to maintain the harmony of body, mind, and spirit.
And sometimes a man’s body sought the comfort of another body, and his spirits needed lifting, preferably with a good drink and an enthusiastic tumble between the sheets, so his mind could have some quiet. Not to mention Obi-Wan was still unsettled by Anakin’s unsubtle crush on Padme Amidala. He had the foreboding notion that it would lead nowhere good. As Anakin’s master, it was his responsibility to teach Anakin that there was a way to maintain the balance of physical and metaphysical needs.
Obi-Wan knew what it was like in Anakin’s shoes. He’d been in love with a beautiful, noble woman before.
But it was better for everyone if his thoughts didn’t linger on Satine Kryze.
The bar Obi-Wan chose was a nicer one. Even though he was forbidden attachments and possessive relationships, there was no rule that his liaisons had to be cheap or furtive. The bar had an open floor plan, comfortable seating and round tables, was gently lit by elegant chandeliers that glittered overhead like clusters of stars. The bar was in the central city on Mandalore and known for being a place to find some of the best courtesans on the planet, if not the system.
One thing a Jedi learned was to sacrifice for future rewards. Obi-Wan had saved a lot of pay to make sure his next night out was worth the wait.
There were a pair of beautiful Twi’lek dancers on the center stage, plying their trade, but Obi-Wan was interested in pleasant, easy conversation with another human. He stood in the doorway, hoping his cloak concealed most of his Jedi robes so his companions didn’t have too many preconceived notions about him, and scanned the room for a likely prospect, and if not a likely prospect or friendly face, then at least a table with a strategic vantage point over the whole space.
He could ask the bartender for a recommendation, but -
“I’m so sorry! Didn’t see you there.”
Obi-Wan stumbled when someone jostled his shoulder.
It was another man in what looked like an olive flight jumpsuit, grease smears on his face and hands. Obi-Wan didn’t recognize the patches on this suit, but then if the man flew for a private racing team or transport company, his patches would probably be obscure.
The man reached out, caught Obi-Wan’s shoulder, steadied him with a gentleness that was starkly unfamiliar. Few people dared lay hands on a Jedi; fewer still would have done so with gentleness, trusting in a Jedi’s martial prowess.
But then the man probably didn’t know Obi-Wan was a Jedi, judging by his wide, dimpled smile.
“Apology accepted,” Obi-Wan said, smiling back.
The man inclined his head politely, then headed further into the bar.
The bartender, a blue-skinned chiss, greeted the man warmly, with familiarity. “Evan! You made it! Did you get it fixed?”
“She will fly like an eagle,” Evan said. “Open me a tab, will you? I’ll get cleaned up and come back out. Start me with the usual?”
The bartender nodded. “Sure thing.”
And Evan vanished behind a door at the far end of the bar.
Evan. Such a curious name. And what was an eagle, besides something that presumably flew well?
Obi-Wan ventured further into the establishment, took a seat at the bar that allowed him to keep an eye on all entrances and exits, which meant he was wedged into a corner with his back against the wall, but - even if he was here for pleasure, he wasn’t going to be sloppy and silly with his personal security.
“What can I get for you?” the bartender asked, drifting over to him.
Obi-Wan requested something that was sweet and mild, so he wouldn’t lose his head before he found a companion, asked to open a tab as well.
The bartender nodded and set to mixing, so Obi-Wan continued to study the room. There were people who were clearly courtesans, by far the best-dressed, holding court at several of the larger tables in the room. Obi-Wan could see who was less than the finest courtesan, who was looking for quick company, who was looking for something darker.
None of the courtesans caught his eye, not even the beautiful woman with the pale hair who reminded him of Satine.
Evan emerged from the door at the back, still wearing his flight jumpsuit but now clean. He perched on a barstool several down from Obi-Wan and smiled at the bartender, chatted with him some more, inquired after his family. He looked so out of place in his jumpsuit, like the help who’d dared emerge from belowstairs.
The bartender brought Obi-Wan his drink, and Obi-Wan thanked him, sipped it slowly.
The bartender went to bring Evan a drink, set it down on the bar.
Evan lifted a hand, and the drink slid across the bar to him.
Obi-Wan sat up straighter.
Evan had The Force. He didn’t have a padawan braid or the beard of a master. He had short hair and was clean-shaven, looked to be about the same age as Obi-Wan. He took a long pull of his drink, then set it down with a sigh of relief, with the air of someone who’d worked a long day.
Obi-Wan watched, amazed, as Evan flicked his wrist, and a bar napkin and pen floated over to him, and Evan set to scribbling something on the napkin.
Obi-Wan often used the telekinetic aspect of the Force with similar casualness, but usually only around other Force users, which for him always meant other Jedi. He reached out - and he could sense that the Force was very strong in Evan. And it didn’t feel particularly dark. Evan wasn’t a Sith.
As if a Sith would be repairing flight craft and asking after a bartender’s family.
Curiosity overrode Obi-Wan’s desire for companionship by far, and he picked up his drink, sidled closer to Evan.
Evan looked up, smiled. “Hey. You again. Enjoying your drink?”
“Absolutely.” Obi-Wan sat on the barstool beside him. “I couldn’t help but notice that you have the Force.”
Evan’s brow furrowed. “The what now?”
Obi-Wan flicked his fingers, nudged Evan’s drink.
“Oh, you mean the gene? Of course you’d have a different name for it. Yeah. It’s...stronger, in these parts. I can do more with it. You have it too. The Force, you call it?”
Obi-Wan stared at him. “You’ve never heard of The Force?”
Evan said, wryly, “I’m from a galaxy far, far away. New in these parts. Trying to repair my ship enough to get home. But you have The Force too, huh?”
Obi-Wan nodded. “I do.”
“That’s cool. I mostly use mine for doing repairs - and sometimes for my art.” Evan gestured, and Obi-Wan realized that while Evan had been talking, his pen had still been moving, scribbling on the napkin.
Not scribbling. Drawing. A tall tower of some sort, that tapered sharply and came to quite a high point.
“The Eiffel Tower,” Evan said, and of course Obi-Wan had never heard of it. “Popular tourist attraction in Paris, the City of Love, but -” He offered a hand. “Evan Lorne.”
“Obi-Wan Kenobi.” Obi-Wan shook his hand tentatively. Usually people bowed to each other.
“So, Obi-Wan, what is it you do?”
“I am a Jedi.”
Evan tilted his head. “I’ve heard the term, but I’m unfamiliar with the finer points of being a Jedi.”
A man so strong in the Force who was so naive to the ways of Jedi was fascinating. But Obi-Wan was a Jedi master, qualified to teach people in the ways of the Force and the Jedi Order, so he talked, and Evan listened.
Hours later, Evan and Obi-Wan had shared several drinks and a meal and retired to a more comfortable booth to keep on talking. Evan was a good listener, asked intelligent questions.
“I only wish my students were as attentive as you,” Obi-Wan said.
Evan raised his eyebrows. “You teach?”
“In addition to training our own padawans, we often share the duties of teaching younglings at the temples.”
“Was it scary, being taken from your family so young?”
Obi-Wan shrugged. “If it was, I don’t remember it.”
“I can’t imagine people just taking me from my mom like that. She’d have freaked out. I’d have freaked out. Of course, the gene isn’t like this, back where I come from.” Evan shook his head.
Obi-Wan studied Evan and realized he knew little to nothing about Evan. “What is it like, where you come from?”
“Mostly it’s for using special technology that only gene-carriers can activate.” Evan reached into one of the pockets of his jumpsuit and fished out a small silver globe.
Obi-Wan felt a flutter in the Force, and then the globe was glowing blue, like a lightsaber.
“This is just a distress beacon. Not that its signal will reach anyone back home.” Evan closed his hand around the globe, and the light faded. “I’ve heard of people who have the gene - whose genetics are less dilute than mine - have pretty epic capabilities, including telekinesis, telepathy, healing, shooting lightning, lighting candles, stuff like that. But it all seemed like magic and fairy tales to me. Till I came here.”
Shooting lightning was a skill the Sith often cultivated.
“Not that I’ve tried to shoot lightning or anything. I heard the ultimate goal of cultivating those gifts was Ascension - leaving your body behind, living in an enlightened state as pure energy.”
Evan had just described becoming a Force Spirit.
Obi-Wan studied Evan, his broad shoulders, his dark blue eyes. “So, you’re a pilot?”
“Yes. I always wanted to fly. Joined the Air Force as soon as I could, so I could take to the sky.”
“How old were you when you joined?”
“Eighteen. That’s about as young as I could pull it off. I know people can enlist younger, but that requires parental consent, and there was no way my mother would consent. Plus I didn’t want to enlist - only officers get to fly, so I joined up for officer training. But - all that’s so boring.” Evan shook his head, expression rueful. “So, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you wander the galaxy teaching new Jedi and bringing peace and...telling other people about Jedi? Like some kind of Force missionary?”
Obi-Wan blinked at him. “Ah, no. That was not my intention, coming into this bar. It’s just incredibly rare to find one who is so strong in the Force who isn’t a Jedi.”
“Well,” Evan said, “this conversation has been very enlightening, but don’t let me keep you from whatever your goal was.”
Obi-Wan glanced at the bar around them. It was mostly empty, courtesans and others having already selected companions. “I had planned on seeking companionship of a different nature, but - this conversation has been very enlightening, and I appreciate the time you shared with me.”
Evan raised his eyebrows. “A different nature?”
“Jedi are not required to be physically celibate, only to abstain from romantic attachments or otherwise possessive relationships,” Obi-Wan explained.
“Ah.” Evan sipped from his drink. “I know pretty much every regular in this bar, if you want me to introduce you to someone. Maybe one of the higher-class ladies.”
“I should probably go check on my padawan,” Obi-Wan said, though he sighed regretfully.
“Hey,” Evan said, “you ever tried using your telekinesis for something besides combat or casual everyday fetching?”
Obi-Wan glanced at one of the many napkins Evan had sketched on absently throughout their conversation. He was a talented artist. “Like art?”
“Or maybe something more fun.”
Obi-Wan felt a faint tug at this collar of his cloak, but Evan was still holding his drink.
“I have never tried that,” Obi-Wan admitted, because he’d never had a dalliance with someone who was Force sensitive, let alone as strong in the Force as he was.
“Interested? I’ve got quarters above the bar.”
Obi-Wan looked into Evan’s blue eyes and said, “Yes.”
Chapter 24: 091. Right - Redshirts (John Scalzi)
In which Dahl and the Redshirts discover that the Narrative is back, and it brought a new bridge officer.
“We have a problem,” Hanson said.
Dahl, who was lounging on his bunk reading a very trashy romance he’d won off of Duvall during card night last week, lifted his head. “What kind of problem?”
“I think The Narrative is back.” Hanson stood ramrod straight in Dahl’s doorway.
Dahl sat bolt upright, letting his data reader tumble to his mattress. “What?”
“There’s something fishy about that new major who’s been assigned to the bridge with Kerensky,” Hanson said.
Always with the damn majors. “The bridge?” Dahl asked. “I thought the people on away teams were the ones who were the main characters. The ones who can be put in the most peril, reasonable or otherwise.”
“His name is Major Evan Lorne. He seems pretty normal,” Hanson said, “but I don’t think he is.”
Dahl hopped to his feet, scooped up his jacket. “Let’s round up the others.”
The others were Duvall and Hester - and Kerensky, even though Dahl still didn’t really like the man. Kerensky had been part of the group who’d realized their lives were being affected by some old TV show, that once in a while perfectly reasonable space officers were hijacked into stupidity and danger for the purpose of dramatic effect on a scifi TV show on Earth that was.
A lousy TV show, to boot.
“I’m pissed off,” Hanson said, following Dahl as he headed down the corridor to Duvall’s quarters. “They promised they wouldn’t do this to us anymore. Masters of our own fate, right? Which could be even more improbably stupid than lazy writers could come up with, but -”
“You’re not the only one who’s pissed off.” Dahl curled his hands into fists.
He prodded the intercom on Duvall’s door. “Hey Maia, you and Kerensky better be wearing clothes.”
There was an irritatingly-long delay, but then the door slid open and there was Duvall, in a rumpled uniform. But she looked more like she’d been asleep than like she’d been sleeping with Major Kerensky.
“What?” she demanded, scowling.
“The Narrative is back,” Hanson said.
Immediately Duvall came more awake. “How do you know?” She stepped out into the hallway, finger-combing her hair, twisting it up into a regulation bun as the three of them headed for Hester’s quarters.
“You know that new bridge officer, Major Lorne?”
“Yeah. Anatoly says he’s a real square. Why?”
“I’m pretty sure he’s been possessed by The Narrative multiple times since he was assigned to the Intrepid,” Hanson said. He slapped the comm button on Hester’s door.
Hester answered immediately, fully dressed, hair still damp from the shower. He was about to go on duty. “What’s up?” He looked Duvall up and down. “Shouldn’t you be asleep right now?”
“The Narrative is back,” Duvall said. “Or so they say.”
Hester raised his eyebrows. “I’m not gonna have to be comatose again, am I?”
Dahl said, “Come on.”
They huddled around their usual table in the mess. Conveniently, the subject of their discussion was sitting two tables over, alone, doodling on a napkin with a pen - an actual pen - while he ate.
“He’s an artist,” Hanson said. “His mother’s an art teacher, taught him to paint and draw.”
“What makes you think he brought The Narrative with him?” Duvall asked.
“Because,” Hanson said, “I saw Officer Q’eeng cornering him the other day, having a very un-Q’eeng-like conversation about how he was sorry about how things turned out between them. It was very...crappy apology to an ex.”
Hester raised his eyebrows. “Science Officer Q’eeng? Pretty sure that guy has no feelings.”
“Yeah. It was totally out of character. And after Lorne got done being all noble and regretful and forgiving Q’eeng gracefully, Q’eeng just...turned away and was his usual self, like the whole thing hadn’t even happened.” Hanson kept his voice low.
Dahl darted another look at Major Lorne. The guy wasn’t extraordinarily handsome. Broad shoulders. Blue eyes. Neat dark hair that was regulation.
“It gets better,” Hanson said.
“Better than Q’eeng having had actual romance in his past?” Duvall asked.
Hanson nodded. “Chief Engineer West - I caught him trying to woo Lorne the other day. Hands behind his back. Shuffling feet. Awkward middle school confession.”
“Lorne should stay the hell away from West if the Narrative is involved,” Dahl said. “Everyone who goes on an away mission with West is a redshirt.”
“What did Lorne do?” Duvall asked. She studied him. “He’s kinda cute.”
“Lorne also let him down easy,” Hanson said.
“The Narrative isn’t really all that...romantic, though,” Hester said. “Scifi is about...death. And drama. And more death.”
“Tell that to Med Officer Hartnell, who got super drunk and tried to seduce Lorne by showing up to his quarters sauced and half naked.” Hanson looked terribly amused.
“Well, if the new Narrative is romance and not death, do we care? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with us,” Dahl said.
Hanson cast Hester a look.
“What?” Hester asked.
Hanson arched an eyebrow.
“What?” Dahl asked.
Duvall smacked Hester on the arm. “No way! You’re totally fucking him!”
Hester slapped a hand over her mouth. “Keep it down,” he hissed.
Dahl sat back. “Does this mean you’re going to die? Or that the rest of us are redshirts again?”
“I don’t know,” Hester admitted. “Just - he’s really nice, all right? And he makes good food.”
“We should talk to him,” Hanson said. “Tell him about the Narrative. See if he’s willing to help us make it go away.”
Dahl glared at the ceiling. “I don’t know who the hell those TV writers and producers think they are, that they have the right to fuck with our lives for their entertainment.”
Duvall prodded Hester. “You’re doing him. You have to take point on this. Like I did with Anatoly.”
Hester sighed. “Fine. Just - after my shift.”
The others nodded.
Dahl headed back to his quarters.
What the hell. The Narrative was back.
Hester got Lorne alone, and the rest of them - Kerensky included, since his involvement guaranteed everyone else’s survival, what with him being a “main character” on the TV show that ruined their lives on a regular basis - cornered him in an alcove off a side hallway near the hangar decks.
Lorne, in addition to being a bridge officer, was also a combat pilot.
“See?” Hanson hissed. “He shouldn’t be both. That makes zero sense. If he’s a bridge officer, he should stay there during combat, not be out in a fighter craft.”
“It makes dramatic sense, so he can be imperiled,” Duvall said.
Dahl was mildly disturbed to see Hester flirting with Lorne when they arrived, Lorne leaning against the wall, Hester leaning into him, braced on one forearm beside Lorne’s head. Lorne was...shorter than Dahl had realized. Lorne was smiling at whatever Hester was saying, blushing a little.
And then he saw the others over Hester’s shoulder and straightened up.
Hester turned, smirked. He looked completely unashamed.
“We need to talk,” Dahl said.
“Ah.” Lorne tossed his head. “The shovel talk? If I hurt him they’ll never find my body, or whatever?”
“It’s about The Narrative.”
Dahl explained what the Narrative was, how his universe was a parallel universe to one where TV shows like Star Trek and Chronicles of The Intrepid existed, and once in a while the TV shows would...take over their universe. Make people behave irrationally or know things they shouldn’t overwise know, all for dramatic effect.
“Ah,” Lorne said. “There’s Star Trek where I come from. And Star Wars. No Chronicles of the Intrepid, though.”
Duvall blinked at him. “What?”
“Yeah.” Lorne nodded. “My CO and the CSO make Star Trek jokes all the time.”
“Captain Abernathy and Officer Q’eeng have never made a Star Trek joke once,” Kerensky said.
“Well, no, obviously not.” Lorne shrugged. He and the others were sitting on the floor, as comfortable as they could get without obviously having some kind of strange group gathering. “My commanding officer is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, and my CSO is Dr. Rodney McKay. The universe I’m from is occasionally hijacked by a different TV show called Stargate Atlantis. Sometimes Stargate SG-1, but mostly Atlantis.”
The others stared at him.
“You know about the Narrative?” Hester asked.
“That’s not what we call it, but...yeah.”
“If you’re from a different TV show, how are you here?” Hanson demanded.
It was Lorne’s turn to smirk. “Have you ever heard of fanfiction?”
As soon as Lorne got the concept of new stories written by fans, they had to retreat to his quarters where he had an improbably large stash of high quality booze.
He told them about slash, about crossovers, about alternate universes.
“So you just...get swept from universe to universe, banging whoever because some bored girl at a computer writes about you?” Dahl asked. His head was spinning, and not just because he’d had three shots of tequila.
“And...you’re okay with that?” Kerensky looked green around the gills.
“Look, most of these fans aren’t bored girls. They’re people who care passionately about the universe I inhabit. I went from being a reusable redshirt with a couple of nephews and a painting hobby to a man with an extended family, a whole history, a boat load of other talents, and also a lot more excitement than setting off a trap so it doesn’t kill Sheppard or McKay instead. I’ve been all kinds of different things, been with so many people. It’s pretty fun.”
“And when the story is done?” Hester asked.
Lorne shrugged. “I go back to my post and do my job.”
“Do you think anyone will ever write fanfiction about us?” Duvall asked.
Lorne reached out, curled his wrist around Hester’s. “Sounds like someone already has.”
Chapter 25: 098. Laughing - A Poem a Day
In which Minho considers poetry and family.
Yoon-hee and Shi-Eun were laughing. Minho tried to tune them out. He didn’t want to think of pretty girls, or laughter, especially not after Bo-Young had thrown him over for Dr. Ye, Bo-Young who he’d comforted through her heartbreak and loss.
“Bo-Young who you tormented at school,” Namwoo pointed out.
“I’ve grown past that,” Minho said. It was true. He’d grown past a lot of things - tormenting Bo-Young because she cried so easily, because she loved poetry; the way he was never enough for his parents, never measured up to his older brother’s success as a real physician.
“That look on your face says you haven’t. That’s the look you get on your face when Bo-Young starts to cry,” Namwoo said.
Minho glanced at himself in one of the windows, caught his reflection, tried for a neutral expression.
He realized Yoon-hee and Shi-Eun weren’t laughing - they were giggling. Over a patient. No, not a patient. The only patient in there was a stooped elderly woman who was being tended to by Yoon-joo-sunbae. The elderly woman was accompanied by a foreign man - pale skin, blue eyes, dark brown hair, broad features - who was trying to help her or comfort her, only she kept shouting at him and hitting him, and he was quite cowed by her.
“Do you think he needs rescuing?” Namwoo asked.
Minho sighed. “Probably.” He was one of the only people in the Physical Therapy department who spoke any English, so he crossed the clinic floor. “Sir, would you like to step outside while Dr. Kim works with your friend? It will only be a few minutes.”
It wasn’t until the man looked confused that Minho realized - maybe he didn’t speak English either. Foreigners could speak any number of languages.
And then the man spoke in fluent Korean, so fluent Minho wouldn’t have realized he was a foreigner had they spoken on the phone.
“My grandmother is quite senile, and sometimes she forgets me and gets upset at me,” the man said. He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Maybe if I step away and she calms down she’ll remember me in a bit. Thank you. Is there somewhere I could get coffee?”
Minho nodded, gave him directions for the hospital cafeteria. “What’s your name? So we can page you when it’s time for you to return, or she calls for you.”
“My name is Evan Lorne, but I answer to Lee Jaesun, in Korean.” His expression was unreadable, kind of sheepish.
Minho wasn’t sure he’d be able to get his tongue around Evan Lorne, but Lee Jaesun he could manage. “All right. We will page you.”
The man - he was older than Minho by about a decade - sighed again. “Thanks, uh, Doctor.”
Minho was an intern, but he didn’t correct the man, merely told the man his name. The man smiled slightly - he had dimples - and then he headed out of the clinic in search of coffee.
“He spoke really good Korean,” Namwoo said, popping up behind Minho’s shoulder.
“He’s the patient’s grandson,” Minho said. He turned and went back to sterilizing tools before the next round of patients.
“Really? He doesn’t look at all Korean.” Namwoo frowned.
Minho shrugged. “We’ll page him when his grandma’s finished with her PT.”
Only halfway through the session with Yoon-joo-sunbae, the old woman became upset, demanding to know where her grandson, where her Jaesun was.
Minho got on the PA system and paged Lee Jaesun, who returned speedily, a half-empty coffee cup in hand.
The old woman cuffed him soundly round the ear, scolded him for abandoning her. He knelt beside her wheelchair and apologized, and then she smiled at him, kissed his forehead. He straightened up, spoke to Yoon-joo-sunbae, who offered to teach him the exercises his grandmother would need to do during her hospital stay.
He listened attentively, learned well, then stood aside while Yoon-joo-sunbae finished. After, he wheeled his grandmother out of the clinic, speaking softly to her, making her laugh.
Yoon-hee and Shi-eun giggled behind their hands, watching him go, complimenting his handsomeness.
“You know,” Minho said, “he speaks fluent Korean, right? If he hears you, he’ll understand you.”
Both girls jumped.
Minho smirked and walked away.
The next day, he volunteered to visit old Mrs. Park in her hospital room, see how she was getting on with her grandson helping her. Shi-eun went with him, because she won against Yoon-hee in rock-paper-scissors. Only when they got there, Mrs. Park was sitting up in bed, and her grandson was slumped in a chair beside her at a painful angle, asleep.
Mrs. Park petted his hair, and she spoke to him softly.
She was reciting a poem to him.
At times, I regret it.
What happened back then might have a gold mine
That person back then,
And that object back then
Could have been a gold mine.
I should’ve gotten closer to you
And talked to you more
I should have listened to you more
And loved you more
I wonder if I sent you off
As if I was hard of hearing
As if I was absent-minded
I should have loved those moments more.
Every moment is like a flower bud.
A flower bud that blooms when I’m eager
Minho hesitated in the doorway.
Mrs. Park said, “He’s a fighter pilot. His mother and I, we raised him to be peaceful, but he has other blood in him, and he wanted something else. We were so angry when he went, and we sent him off without affection or blessing - but he always comes back when we need him.”
Shi-eun’s eyes went wide, but she said nothing.
Minho spoke softly. “How were your exercises?”
“Fine,” said Mrs. Park. “He did fine.”
Minho nodded. “Thank you. Let us know if anything changes.”
He and Shi-eun left before any further conversation disturbed the sleeping man.
As they headed back to the clinic, Minho wondered if anyone in his family would ever feel that way about him, regret not caring more for him, spending more time with him, even if he utterly failed to meet their expectations.
He wondered if there wasn’t something to poetry after all.
Chapter 26: 092. Sanction - Are You Human Too?
In which the human Nam Shin considers the gray area between human and android: cyborg.
“What is it?” Shin stepped into the office, one hand in his pocket, looking both boyishly handsome and perfectly stylish, head-to-toe the chaebol executive he was supposed to be. “What was so urgent that you called me away from -”
He came up short when he saw his mother, Kang So-bong, and the android with his face all crowded into his office.
Yeonghoon was with them. His expression was perfectly blank and unreadable - to anyone else. Shin and Yeonghoon had been lovers for a long time - and friends and coworkers for even longer than that - and Shin could read every shift of his eyes, every twitch of his lips. He didn’t like what was going on, but he wanted Shin to hear him out.
“I have a gift for you,” Laura said.
Laura. It was so hard to think of her as his mother, even though he’d been desperate to find her years after his grandfather had driven her away (after having his father killed). He didn’t know her, and she’d made those androids to - if not replace him, then at least ease her missing of him. How was he supposed to fare against robotic perfection?
“I know you’ve been working on that smart car for a long time, and that making that project succeed has been your ticket to stability and security in PK Group,” Laura continued. “I know that project has been...difficult.”
Sabotaged by his enemies, she meant.
Shin nodded warily.
“I have the solution to your problems.” Laura smiled tentatively at him.
She was an artificial intelligence engineer, a genius in her own right. After all, she’d created an android that had impersonated him while he’d been in a coma. His own fiancee (no longer his fiancee) had been fooled by her creation.
“If you just made a car all your own, what’s the point of my project?” Shin arched his eyebrows.
Yeonghoon shot him a look.
Laura stepped aside, and a foreign man was sitting on the edge of Shin’s desk. He wore dark gray clothes that were nondescript, and his expression was - bored. Blank.
“Who is this?” Shin asked. A scientist to help with the smart car project?
“This is a Lornebot,” Laura said. “An American military model. Thanks to our work with the US Air Force, I was able to obtain a prototype.”
Another android? Shin shot Yeonghoon a look. How could he sanction such a thing?
“So we should just have...android drivers for the M-car?” Shin asked.
“His operating system is quite complex,” Laura said.
Shin eyed Android Nam Shin. “More complex than his?”
Laura nodded. “He’s completely undetectable when he’s in human-seeming mode.”
“He might have been undetectable if he weren’t trying to impersonate someone people already knew.”
“Well, this model managed to impersonate a United States Air Force officer for a couple of decades,” Laura said.
“A couple of decades? What have the Americans been up to?” Shin studied the man more intently.
The man - android - seemed completely unbothered by his scrutiny, was more amused by it than anything. “They’ve been up to letting me fly an almost billion-dollar fighter jet.” He spoke Korean fluently, with only a hint of a foreign accent.
“And they just...gave him to us?” Shin cast Yeonghoon another look.
“I’m on loan,” the man said. “You can’t disassemble me, but portions of me you can use for your experiment. The Air Force is interested in potential applications on their end - on-board AIs that can detect pilot distress in the middle of combat and whatnot.”
If Shin didn’t like the notion of androids, he liked the notions of providing military power to a foreign country even less.
“Do others know about this?” Shin asked.
“We came to you first,” Yeonghoon said. “To get your approval, before we presented it to the board.”
Android Nam Shin was smiling at the Lornebot with vapid friendliness. Kang So-bong, on the other hand, looked suspicious, and rightly so.
“How will the Air Force prevent us from taking more than they want us to see?” Shin asked.
The Lornebot said, calmly, “That’s classified.”
Shin looked at Yeonghoon. His jaw was tight, but he nodded.
Shin said, “All right. Let’s do this. Just - act more like a robot in front of the board, when we make our proposal, all right?”
All his life, Shin had been educated in the ways of appearance, of drama, of controlling the narrative he presented about himself to other people. He hadn’t always presented the narrative that people - like his grandfather - wanted, but he’d always been in control.
Lornebot complied with Shin’s request, acted a bit more robotic, a bit less human while he was paraded in front of the board of directors as the salvation for the M-car project - and also a source of additional funding. If the M-car project went well, the technology could expand beyond just people’s cars. A whole market awaited them, and PK Group would be at the forefront.
After the presentation, Shin headed down to the lab with the Lornebot, Laura, and the rest of the M-car team.
Shin felt distinctly out of control when he went to find the connection port so he could check Lornebot’s code on his computer and Lornebot said, mildly,
Shin yanked his hands back reflexively.
“Ow?” he asked.
Lornebot shrugged off his shirt. “Here, let me connect for you. I’d rather you didn’t put your hands on me.”
“But...you’re a robot. An android.”
“Actually, I’m a cyborg,” he said. He plugged the little USB cord into a dock low on his hip - he had to push the waistband of his trousers a little low to get to it.
“You mean you’re part human.” Shin stared at him.
Shin turned to Laura. “Mother, did you know?”
“Know what?” she asked.
“That he’s part human.”
“He’s a cyborg,” she said.
“You said he was an android.”
“You assumed he was an android.” Laura bent over her computer, typing rapidly.
An android designed to replicate Shin - except be placid and sentimental - was one thing. An actual human being with robot parts - that was something else.
“I don’t think I can do this.” Shin stepped back. No wonder Yeonghoon had looked so grim.
“I’ll handle everything, then,” Laura said, which was silly, because this was Shin’s project.
But standing there, looking at the wire coming out of Lornebot’s hip - that couldn’t be his name.
“What’s your name?”
“Your name. Your model or whatever is Lornebot. But you’re a person. What’s your name?”
“Evan. Evan Lorne.”
Chapter 27: 088. Here - The Dollhouse
In which Priya likes being here - until someone from her and Anthony's past shows up. There are no coincidences with The Dollhouse.
Priya liked art because it forced her to stay here. In the present. Here and now. If she was focused on capturing line and shape and color and shade and emotion, she wasn’t worried about - everything else. The storms that swirled in her head. The scribblings and finger paintings she’d done while in the doll state at the Dollhouse - those weren’t art, weren’t her. But they had kept her grounded, kept her in the present enough that somehow, against all odds, against the repeated brainwashing and programming, she’d managed to retain part of herself. The part that wanted to fight back. The part that could fall in love with Anthony and remember being in love with him between mindwipes.
After she and Anthony and Echo and Kilo and others escaped from the Dollhouse, after the Dollhouse fell, she went back to her art. It was part of her. And again it kept her here, in the little beach house she shared with Anthony, in the boardwalk booth she shared with other independent artists, in the sunny days and pleasant warmth and the present, not the past, not the Dollhouse, not the glass-topped pod in the floor that was prison cell more than bed, not the people she’d been programmed to become, the people who’d paid for her mind and her body -
“Hey, long time no see!”
Priya, who’d been hunched over her sketchbook, looked up sharply. More than once she’d been recognized by people who’d interacted with her imprints. Her pulse quickened, and she cast about for Anthony, but he was elsewhere.
And then she recognized the smiling man who was ambling up to her. Evan, with the dark hair and the blue eyes and the dimples, Evan who was a painter and sketch artist par excellence (his mother taught art at UC Berkeley). He’d been one of her fellow artists on the Boardwalk before the Dollhouse.
“Hey, Evan.” Priya smiled and rose to shake his hand - she didn’t hug like she used to. Her body was hers.
Evan was unfazed by the formality. “It’s so good to see you again. I wondered where you’d gone off to. How’s business?”
“Slow but steady,” Priya said. “I make enough for me and my family.”
Evan raised his eyebrows. “Family? That’s great!”
“Well, just me and my husband. We want children, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Evan nodded. “I feel you. What are you working on now?”
Priya beckoned him close, showed him her latest concept drawings, which were part pencil, part watercolor. Evan was a master of traditional realism; even his pencil drawings looked like they might come alive. Priya preferred the abstract.
Evan narrowed his eyes, studying the colors, before he nodded. “I like it. Any thoughts about sizes, media?”
Priya nodded and launched into a detailed description of her plans - canvas, heavy impasto oils, but with seashells and fish scales and other ocean-related objects embedded into the painting. Evan nodded along, listening intently.
“I want it to feel - to feel like when you’re standing in the breakers and the waves push away from the shore and suck the sand with them, burying your feet in wet-dark sand, and leave behind bits of sea glass and shells,” Priya said.
Evan’s smile was warm, genuine. “I like that a lot. You’ll have to let me know when it’s finished. Are you showing your work anywhere? Let me give you my number and email address so we can stay in touch.” He fished his phone out of his pocket.
Priya did the same, and then Anthony said, voice tight,
Priya and Evan turned at the same time.
Anthony, arms laden with brown grocery bags, was standing beside the booth, his eyes wide, his shoulders tense.
“Sergeant Ceccoli,” Evan said.
Priya was confused.
“Retired,” Anthony said.
Evan inclined his head. “Of course. It’s been a long time. I’m Major Lorne, these days.”
“Congratulations on the promotion, sir,” Anthony said.
Priya looked at Evan, wide-eyed. “You were in the Army with Anthony?”
“Ah, no. Air Force. But we were stationed in the same place at the same time for a while.”
“But...you’re an artist.”
“I’m both.” Evan shrugged.
Anthony glanced back and forth between Evan and Priya. “How do you know each other?”
“From before we met,” Priya said. “He’s one of my fellow beach artists.”
At that, Anthony relaxed. “Right. I remember. You and your sketchbooks and those paints you kept in your pocket.”
“Pocket watercolor set,” Evan explained to Priya. He smiled at Anthony. “Small world, seeing you both here.”
Priya said, “Anthony’s my husband.”
Evan’s eyes lit. “That’s wonderful! I’m really pleased for both of you. You should come by my place for dinner sometime, a late celebration. I’ll cook and everything.”’
Priya glanced at Anthony. Was Evan really safe? After the Dollhouse, she didn’t believe in coincidence, not one bit, and for him to know them both -
But Anthony nodded, smiled. “That sounds awesome. Give me your number?”
The three of them crowded together, and numbers were exchanged all around, and Priya felt like maybe, just maybe, she could trust the world again, trust the here and now despite all that was past.
Evan congratulated them again, bade them farewell, and then waved, continued on his way.
Anthony slung an arm around Priya’s waist and reeled her in, held her close. “Hey, I’m here. Everything’s all right.”
So Priya hadn’t been the only nervous one. She said, “As long as I’m with you.”
Chapter 28: 084. Drawing - Lynburn Legacy
In which Ash has a new boyfriend who believes in magic...and might have some of his own.
“I thought your thing was photography.” Jared was curled up beside Kami, reading some gothic romance while Kami stroked his hair idly and also nibbled on the end of her pen, considering her latest journalistic masterpiece.
“It is.” Ash carried his camera around almost compulsively. He probably slept with it like it was a teddy bear. “But I’m an art major and some drawing classes are, you know, required.”
Holly hooted. “I know that look. You’re a photography major. I somehow doubt that life drawing classes are required. But someone in the class is ‘required’, aren’t they?” She was curled up beside Angela, who was seemingly already asleep, though Holly had no doubt that she could hear every word everyone else was saying.
A high blush stained Ash’s cheeks, made him look more like a fair maiden from a fairytale than a fairytale prince, which was how he usually looked, what with his golden hair and blue eyes and aristocratic features (Jared called them inbred when he was feeling snarky; since he was Ash’s cousin or possibly half-brother, the insult didn’t carry quite as much weight as it could).
“Well, some of us take turns modeling.”
Jared hooted. “You take it all off?”
“There’s more money in being, uh, undraped, but - I kept my clothes on.” Ash’s grip on his sketchbook was white-knuckled. He was a good photographer but not actually that good at drawing.
Jared actually closed his book and sat up straighter. “Who is she?”
“Or he,” Angela said, without opening her eyes.
The way Ash’s blush deepened told Holly all she needed to know. “What’s his name?”
“Ah - he’s from San Francisco,” Ash began. “He’s a pretty good photographer himself. He’s actually an aerospace engineering major, but his mom’s an artist.”
Jared narrowed his eyes. “Wait, you mean - Evan? Surfer kid Evan? The one friend you had back in San Francisco?”
Ash nodded. “Yeah. He’s over here going to school. He was pretty surprised to see me.”
Jared and Kami looked at each other, something unspoken passing between them. She and Jared had stayed connected, source and sorcerer, after everything went to hell in a handcart when Ash’s dad (Jared’s possibly-dad but legal uncle) had tried to destroy the entire town of Sorry-in-the-Vale, but Ash had severed his connection to them, because -
Because it had always been Jared and Kami, ever since they were born. Holly remembered Kami’s “invisible friend” Jared from when they were kids. She’d never imagined that he’d grow up to be badass with a leather jacket and a motorcycle.
Or that he could do magic.
Granted, she could do magic.
People in Sorry-in-the-Vale were open about magic, now, and less frightened about it ever since Lilian Lynburn, Ash’s mother, had put a stop to blood sacrifices, had sworn to protect the town from sorcerers like her dead husband who saw non-sorcerers as little more than cattle (okay, she saw them sort of like very smart dogs, but at least she didn’t believe in killing them wholesale).
“He remembered you?” Jared asked.
“How serious is it?” Kami set her reporter notebook aside.
Ash shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “It’s - he’s cute. We talk. We get coffee or tea together sometimes.”
“Your mom was pretty pissed off when my mom ran off with an American, and a non-sorcerer at that,” Jared said.
“I’m not going to run off with him,” Ash protested. “And besides - it’s not like we could have kids.”
“Are you sure about that?” Angela asked.
Jared and Ash stared at her.
“Magic and all.” Angela opened one eye, raised one perfectly-drawn eyebrow, then closed her eye again.
“Pretty sure,” Ash said. “Our magic is based on nature.”
“I want to meet this person,” Kami said. “You should bring him by sometime. We could have dinner together. Maybe at Claire’s.” Her mother’s restaurant.
“Or he could make us dinner,” Angela said, since half the time when they had get-togethers at her place - the one place the adults wouldn’t hover - someone other than Angela (usually Kami) ended up cooking.
“I’ll think about it,” Ash offered.
Only Jared, who’d spent a summer on the streets, had picked his pocket and found his cell phone and fired off a text message. “Evan’s in. Friday night at six thirty, here.”
Ash sighed. “I hate you all.”
Kami looked mildly appalled when, Friday night at half past six, Ash and a cute boy with dark hair, blue eyes, a dimpled smile, and a wicker basket full of food, arrived on Angela’s doorstep.
“Ash! Your friend brought food.”
“Ash said I was cooking tonight,” Evan said, his expression very earnest. He had the same flat-voweled American accent as Jared. “I don’t mind at all. I love cooking. Besides, I figure it’s one of the best ways to make friends. And impress people.”
Kami, Holly knew, had been prepared to do the cooking herself.
Holly nudged Kami aside. “Come in.” This wasn’t her house, but Angela was draped over the sofa and too tired to play hostess, so Holly, as Angela’s girlfriend, figured she ought to step up. “Welcome. I’m Holly Prescott.”
Evan shifted the basket to his other hand so he could shake Holly’s. “Evan Lorne. Pleased to meet you.”
Kami introduced herself.
Jared didn’t introduce himself so much as loom and glare. He’d been learning from Kami’s dad.
Evan glanced at Ash, then smiled at Jared, unafraid. “You must be Jared. Ash talks about you all the time. The family resemblance is remarkable. You look like you could be brothers.”
“We might be half-brothers,” Ash admitted, and Evan’s smile faltered.
“Biologically we’re arguably full brothers, since our mothers were identical twins,” Jared said.
Evan’s eyes went wide. “Well - you’re both very handsome.” He squeezed Ash’s shoulder briefly. “So - dinner! I was thinking chicken pot pie and some creme brulee for dessert. Meat pie’s very English, isn’t it?” He headed for the kitchen.
Kami and Holly chipped in to help. Jared and Ash were both hopeless at cooking, though they both hovered in the kitchen as well, Jared looming and trying to be intimidating, Ash hanging on to Evan’s arm and trying to be comforting while Jared loomed.
Evan was frightfully competent in the kitchen, though he kept asking Angela where things were, and Holly tried to answer, only she didn’t actually know either, so Kami had to give real answers, and eventually everyone but Kami drifted out of the kitchen, and an hour later a delicious-smelling meal was set on the table.
Just as Holly had taken her first bite - the pie tasted delicious - Jared said,
“So, what are your intentions toward my brother? Cousin? Ash.”
Even Angela looked quite awake.
Evan swallowed his bite of food, dabbed politely at his mouth with his serviette. “Well, tonight my intention was to share a nice meal with him and get to know his family better.”
“And beyond that?” Jared pressed.
Evan’s expression was carefully calm. “Mostly to continue seeing him and getting to know him. We’re only nineteen. We have time before we make any serious decisions.”
“Kami and I are getting married,” Jared said.
Angela made a choking noise.
Kami looked alarmed as well, but she nodded, because it was true.
Holly cast a look at Ash, who was blushing fit to burst into flames, and she blurted out,
“Do you believe in magic?”
Jared shut his mouth so fast his teeth clicked.
Evan shrugged. “Well, I believe magic is just science we don’t understand yet.”
Kami perked up. “You really think so?”
“Of course. So much of our modern technology - cell phones, the Internet, or even older technology like telegraph and radio - would seem like magic to someone from several centuries ago.” Evan smiled and kept on eating his pie.
“But you think some people actually have magic?” Ash asked.
“Most people wouldn’t be so...blunt about that kind of thing,” Jared said warily.
And Holly realized. Was Evan a sorcerer?
“Well, I grew up differently than most people. My mom taught me to have an open mind. How’s the pie?”
“Delicious,” Holly hastened to assure him.
After the chicken pot pie, Holly offered to help Evan with the creme brûlée, which he whipped up with all the efficiency of a cooking show host. He let her try using his little cooking torch, which was exciting and a bit nerve-wracking.
Dessert conversation was much more pleasant and less dangerous - talk of the picturesque Cotswolds, fun things to do in California, how everyone’s school studies were going.
Evan was nice. Holly approved of him, but she knew her opinion didn’t matter as much as Jared or Kami’s did.
It was Kami who asked what Holly had been wondering. Bless her journalistic instincts.
“You say you grew up differently, and that’s why you believe in magic. How did you grow up?”
“On a hippy commune,” Evan said.
That wasn’t what Holly had expected, but she was kind of relieved. For Ash’s sake. Only anyone he was with long term should know about his magic, right?
“What was that like?” Kami asked.
Angela put a hand on her shoulder. “Easy there, Nellie Bly.”
Kami blinked, sat back. “Sorry. Journalistic reflex.”
“It’s fine,” Evan said. “How’s your dessert?”
“Delicious,” Jared said, a little grudgingly.
It was Angela who asked what no one else would probably dare to ask. “Does he pass?”
Jared and Kami had one of those wordless exchanges. Holly might have felt left out of those, only sometimes she had those with Angela, and they didn’t have a telepathic connection.
“For now,” Jared said.
Ash’s face lit up. Evan leaned over and kissed him sweetly on the mouth, and Holly thought there was hope for them after all, and she was glad.
Until it was time to bid Evan farewell for the evening, and Holly saw him weave just the tiniest bit of magic - starlight, to dance in Ash’s hair for a moment - before they shared a kiss goodnight.
Chapter 29: 080. Ghost - Supernatural
In which Josie Sands thinks she sees a ghost.
Josie was jolted out of her endless thrashing and screaming and railing against Abaddon when she saw - a ghost.
The ghost of Cuthbert Sinclair, disgraced Man of Letters who was as coldly calculating as he was genius at innovative magic.
Josie’s surprise was enough to bring Abaddon up short, if only because Abaddon might be interested in possessing such a formidable magic user.
The man looked exactly like Cuthbert Sinclair, if Cuthbert Sinclair hadn’t aged a day (magic could do that for him), only Cuthbert had always looked so dapper, neat suits and bowties, and this man wore modern trousers and a simple t-shirt. And he didn’t have the same falsely friendly expression that Cuthbert did. No, his brow was furrowed and he looked intense, alert as he stood on a street corner, arms crossed over his chest, head slightly bowed.
Listening to something only he could hear, Josie realized, when he lifted a hand to his ear. He was wearing something like one of those ear shells from Fahrenheit 451.
Abaddon studied him, considering. Most of the Men of Letters had been soft, intellectuals, bookish, like Henry Winchester, but Cuthbert was looking surprisingly fit and muscular. Maybe it was the cut of his t-shirt, but Josie had never associated his physique with any of the Men of Letters.
He narrowed his eyes, and his shoulders tensed.
“Alpha, move left. Beta, move right. Delta has your six.”
He sounded like a military officer.
This was the future, though. Maybe he had finally convinced the Men of Letters to work more closely with hunters, was directing some kind of concerted hunting effort.
“On my mark.” Cuthbert checked a bulky black wristwatch. “Go!”
Josie stared, dumbfounded, as Cuthbert drew a pistol and started forward at a stealthy crouch, as smoothly as any trained soldier. Had the Men of Letters taken over hunting duties themselves?
And then Josie realized. Now was her chance. She surged forward with all her might, ready to take control of her body back.
Abaddon swept forward, reached out, caught Cuthbert by the collar and hauled him backward like he was a disobedient kitten.
He let out an ungentlemanly string of curses - maybe he’d spent too much time around hunters after all - and grunted when Abaddon pinned him against the wall.
“Ma’am,” he began, blue eyes wide.
Abaddon leaned in and parted her lips, as if for a kiss. Josie screamed. She’d never particularly liked Cuthbert, but no one deserved this. No one deserved possession.
Black demonic smoke curled past Abaddon’s lips like poisonous smoke from a shared cigarette kiss.
Cuthbert’s eyes narrowed. “Anubis,” he hissed, and then, “No.”
The smoke came up short against some kind of invisible barrier. He couldn’t be possessed.
Abaddon tightened her grip on his throat. “What have you done to yourself, Cuthbert Sinclair?”
He curled a hand around her wrist and squeezed. Abaddon hissed in surprise. He was strong enough to hurt.
“You’re looking at Major Evan Lorne, United States Air Force,” he said. “And unlike you who only ascended halfway, I made it all the way to the top and back again.”
The sky overhead darkened, and lightning flashed.
Abaddon was reeling in confusion.
Josie rallied, tried to free herself once more.
Major Lorne wrenched himself free and spun, pinning Abaddon to the wall. He spoke rapidly to nobody at all - or maybe someone on the other end of his ear shell.
“Back-up to my coordinates immediately. Got a half-ascended snakehead.”
Abaddon snarled and thrashed, tried to throw him off with her telekinesis, but he was immovable. When that didn’t work, she dropped her demonic mien and used Josie’s voice to scream and plead for help. Some passers-by paused, concerned, but then uniformed, armed men converged on Abaddon and Major Lorne.
“Nothing to see here, folks,” Major Lorne said. “The Air Force has everything under control.” He leveled some kind of Martian-looking raygun at her.
And Josie’s world went dark.
When she awoke, she was lying on a cot in some kind of cement bunker. The air smelled like disinfectant. She was surrounded by strange beeping noises. A pretty dark-haired woman of some Asian extraction stood beside her. Her white lab coat was familiar.
She was a doctor.
“How are you feeling?”
Josie blinked. “Like I’ve been possessed by a demon.”
The doctor looked startled.
Josie was startled. She was in control of her own body again. She pushed herself up. “Where am I?”
“The infirmary of a classified military installation,” the doctor said. According to her nametag, she was Dr. C. Lam.
“Military?” Josie echoed. Then she remembered. “Of course. That man who looked like Cuthbert Sinclair - he said he was from the Air Force.” She pressed a hand to her throbbing head. “I can’t remember his name.”
“Major Evan Lorne,” Dr. Lam said, and she sounded amused.
He even sounded like Cuthbert Sinclair.
Josie turned and saw him standing a respectful distance away from her cot. He was wearing some kind of olive-colored uniform. The patches on it were unfamiliar save for the Air Force insignia, and all he had was the name Lorne written on his left breast pocket.
“Glad to see you’re awake and in control of your faculties,” Major Lorne said. He glanced at Dr. Lam. “May I speak to your patient?”
“You mean interrogate her?” Dr. Lam arched an eyebrow. “Gently.”
Major Lorne stepped closer to the bed. “Would you like anything to eat or drink, ma’am?”
“A sandwich would be nice. Maybe some orange juice?” Josie offered. Hospital food was notoriously bad.
“Of course. The infamous sandwich torture.” Major Lorne glanced over his shoulder at a younger uniformed military man. “You heard the lady, airman. One turkey sandwich and some orange juice for the lady, and whatever dessert is on hand.”
“Yes, sir.” The young man inclined his head politely but didn’t salute before he hurried out of the room.
“So,” Major Lorne said, gazing at her frankly. “We ran your prints. You’re one Josie Sands from Normal, Illinois. And you went missing in 1958. Looking exactly as you do right now. Wearing the exact outfit I found you in - only it was reported with less blood. How did you end up here with that thing inside of you?”
Josie knew plenty of the Men of Letters had underestimated her because she was a woman, but she was no fool. “I could ask the same of you, Cuthbert Sinclair. Last I saw of you, you’d been booted out of the Boys Club. It was 1956. You haven’t aged a day since then either.”
“You said you felt like you’d been possessed by a demon,” Dr. Lam said.
Josie feigned an innocent expression, shrugged. “Turn of phrase.”
Dr. Lam glanced at Major Lorne. “You said she’d been taken as a host.”
Host. What a quaint term for the victim of demonic possession. Less crass and less accurate than the terms most hunters used.
“I know what I saw, Doc.”
“She came up clean on the MRI.”
“Well, they can jump ship fast in that form.”
Dr. Lam eyed him critically. “And yet you fended it off single-handedly. Pretty sure no one is capable of that.”
“No one was before.” Major Lorne gave the word before a certain weight Josie didn’t understand.
“I thought you didn’t remember anything about being Ascended.”
“The details, no. The mechanics, yes.”
Dr. Lam pursed her lips, displeased. “Major.”
“I covered all the salient points in my after-action report.” Major Lorne looked away for a moment. Then he focused back on Josie. “The entity that was possessing you. What’s the risk it will possess you or someone else on this base again?”
“Depends,” Josie said. “How do you feel about tattoos or satanic-looking jewelry?”
Major Lorne raised his eyebrows. “My sister’s a tattoo artist. Tell me more.”
The young airman arrived with a food tray.
“Eat up,” Dr. Lam said, smiling gently.
“Airman,” Major Lorne said, “get Colonel Davis on the line. Ms. Sands will need an NDA.”
“Yes, sir.” The airman scurried away once more.
Major Lorne smiled. When he wasn’t being a serious military officer, he looked pleasant, far more pleasant than Cuthbert Sinclair. He said, “Welcome to Stargate Command.”
Chapter 30: 073. Silence - Weiss Kreuz
In which Ken respects the sound of silence.
The silence after a man died was deafening, but Ken always let it happen out of respect. He waited for the man’s final breath to gurgle past his lips, and then he waited. For the silence.
And then drew in his first post-kill breath. He straightened up, taking another deep breath, and went to remove his bagh nakh, clean its claws before stowing it in its case in his motorcycle.
A man was standing at the other end of the alley, staring at him.
Ken had been an assassin for far too long, but he’d never been caught red-handed, not like this.
Not by someone he knew.
It took Ken a moment for his eyes to adjust to the shadows, but he recognized the man. Evan, who ran the bakery down the street from the flower shop where Ken worked (always a flower shop).
What was Evan doing here, so far from his bakery? He lived above his bakery the same way Ken and his teammates lived above the flower shop. Only Evan was carrying a black garbage bag and looked like he’d been about to put it into the garbage can that was against the wall next to the door he’d stepped out of.
Ken’s mind spun. He wasn’t in the business of murder, only assassination. He killed who he was ordered to kill and no more. He’d report to his handler and Kritiker that he’d been seen. He’d report immediately, as he was speeding back to the flower shop on his motorcycle.
Only Evan met his gaze, held it, and then very deliberately looked away, finished putting out the trash, and went back inside the door he’d come out of.
Was he going to call the police? Had he recognized Ken? Ken had never bothered to wear a mask, but then the way he dressed in the flower shop and the way he dressed when he was on the job were two very different things.
No, Ken had seen knowing in Evan’s gaze. Evan had recognized him.
Ken finished cleaning his weapon, stowed it on his motorcycle, pulled on his helmet. He uttered the voice command that would fire up his cellphone and connect him to London’s Kritiker office, where his handler would be waiting for a brief report on the mission. He sent a silent apology to Evan and whatever happened to him as a result of Ken calling this in.
It would be Ken’s own fault, if Evan was eliminated because of what he’d seen. Ken was a professional. He should have remained unseen till he got back to base.
Tonight wouldn’t be the first night Ken had trouble sleeping.
He was so tired the next day that his coworkers let him sleep in. Michel was kind enough to take his shift. Free woke him gently, offered him lunch. Aya looked surly but didn’t nag at Ken for sleeping in, so Ken pulled on his apron and set to de-thorning some roses without comment.
None of the others asked how the mission last night had gone - solo missions were rare and stressful - so Ken figured no one from Kritiker HQ had come around asking about the potential witness.
Once Ken was finished with de-thorning the roses, Aya asked him to take over the counter, because they had received some ikebana orders, and the only person who was qualified to fill those was Aya. Ikebana arrangements were one of the features that made their shop stand out in the city and get regular business, so the team made a point to make sure those orders were filled by a top-quality artist.
For Aya, ikebana was just as meditative as his katana katas, and everyone knew it was best to leave him to it. In their line of work - their true line of work - staying as centered and grounded as possible was critical for maintaining productivity.
Ken was lucky that soccer was his escape. All he needed was a sturdy ball and to hang around the local park looking hopeful, and it was easy to find a game. London was good for that, far better than Tokyo and Kyoto had been.
He’d been at the counter straightening order forms and pens for five minutes when the bells over the door chimed. He lifted his head, ready with a smile.
“Welcome to the Kitten in the House Flower Shop. How may I help you?”
His smile froze.
Evan stepped into the shop.
They locked gazes for a moment. Ken grabbed for the nearest weapon instinctively - a pair of scissors under the counter.
But then Evan smiled and approached the counter.
“Hey,” he said. “My boyfriend’s birthday is in a week. I have a present for him picked out, but I wanted flowers delivered to him at work. Can you do that?”
It took Ken a moment, but then he nodded, released the scissors, and grabbed a pen and an order form. “Of course. What would you like?”
“Flowers aren’t usually my thing. Something elegant but - simple. He’s fairly - masculine, all things considered. And since it’s his workplace and I don’t know quite how out he is there, something at least a little discreet?”
Evan was here ordering flowers for his boyfriend’s birthday. Ken had only ever had two boyfriends. One had betrayed him and tried to have him killed. The other had forgotten him and was living a happy, domestic life with a woman who had the same name as his first true love. Ordering flowers for a boyfriend was totally innocuous. Maybe Evan hadn’t recognized him after all?
“One is our florists is a trained ikebana artist,” Ken offered.
Evan’s eyes lit. “That sounds perfect. Simple and elegant. What are my options?”
Ken scooped up Aya’s portfolio and slid it across the counter for Evan to look at. “Obviously no two arrangements are alike but here are some ideas. There’s also a list of flowers he works best with.”
“Thank you.” Evan perused the portfolio, brow furrowed, perfectly earnest in his search.
Ken wanted to ask what Evan had been doing the night before, but between Evan’s totally casual behavior and the lack of contact from Kritiker, Ken had to have gotten away clean.
As clean as a man could get, after gutting two strangers.
Evan shifted to one side when another customer entered the shop, still absorbed in Aya’s portfolio. Ken moved to help the frantic woman in the fancy business suit who needed a nice bouquet to apologize to her personal assistant, whom she’d upset.
Ken fixed up a bright arrangement of daisies and sunflowers, wrapped it in soft pink tissue paper, and accepted the woman’s money and profuse thanks. She was out the door and on her cellphone in a whirlwind of nervous energy.
“Please, Susan, don’t quit,” she was saying.
Ken watched her go and wondered at ever having a job that he could just...quit.
“I think I’d like something like this.” Evan turned the portfolio around and pointed to a picture.
Ken nodded and made a note on the order form. “All right. Delivery instructions?”
Evan gave Ken his boyfriend’s name - Lucas North - and the address of his workplace.
Ken was halfway through writing it down when he realized - Evan’s boyfriend worked for MI-5. Not just for them - he was one of their spooks. Ken looked up. Evan met his gaze, expression knowing.
So Evan had recognized him. But he understood discretion and not asking questions about wet work. Because of his boyfriend. No wonder Kritiker hadn’t said anything. Kritiker worked closely with local intelligence communities.
Ken finished filling out the order form, rang Evan up. The transaction ended as smoothly as it had begun, friendly and casual.
“Thanks,” Evan said, heading for the door. “Have a good day.”
“You too. Come again,” Ken said, automatically.
The door closed, and the chime faded, and Ken was left with blessed, relieved silence.
Timestamp to the Getting Back Up Again series.
Chapter 31: 066. Storm - First Monday
In which Julian avoids a genuine political storm, and aren't replicators the things from Star Trek that make food?
Julian heard about political storms all the time, enough that what the news called a political storm he considered a minor political thunder shower. The Supreme Court was supposed to be free from politics anyway, dedicated to the purity of Constitutional jurisprudence, so when there were storms - and the lightning flashes of reporters’ cameras - Julian kept his head down, stuck to the law library, wrote his memos and briefs, and stayed out of the proverbial rain.
So he was surprised, one day, when not only were there reporters near a side hall of the Capitol Building where Julian went, sometimes, on discreet errands for his Justice, cameras creating a literal lightning storm, but there was shouting and almost a stampede.
Julian reacted instinctively, ducked into the nearest open door he could find and went to slam it shut before he could be trampled by hordes of ravenous reporters.
Only someone else caught it, ducked in after him, and then eased it shut.
“That was close,” Julian said.
The stranger turned to him with a startled, “Sir!” He was wearing military Class A’s. Air Force, judging by the insignias on his collar.
Military men were so polite.
Military men looked far too tempting in uniforms.
This military man - Evan B. Lorne, Julian wasn’t well-versed in military specifics enough to know what rank below generals and their stars - had his cover tucked neatly against his side, had bright blue eyes and regulation dark hair.
“Those reporters weren’t after you, were they?” Julian drawled.
Lorne looked him up and down. “Not just me,” he said slowly, and then, “I could have sworn Mr. Woolsey told you to be in uniform.”
Julia narrowed his eyes. “Do I know you?”
Lorne narrowed his eyes right back. “You’re not Colonel Sheppard.”
Julian shook his head. “No, not even close. Julian Lodge. I’m a clerk.”
“Wow. You just - the resemblance is uncanny. Guess my suggestion to split up had merit.” Lorne took a deep breath. “Now all I have to do is wait for them to give up.”
“So those reporters were after you.” Julian looked Lorne up and down some more. “What’d you do? Leak classified info? Disagree with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell?”
“Neither,” Lorne said. “But the military project I work for was very recently declassified, and it’s causing...a political storm, to say the least.”
Julian rolled his eyes. “There’s a ‘political storm’ every week. Seems like maybe a minor drizzle at best.”
“No, not minor,” Lorne assured him. He sank down into the nearest chair - they were in some kind of small, well-appointed study. “I cannot wait to get back to Pegasus. Earth is just...exhausting.”
“Pegasus?” Julian asked.
Lorne nodded. “The Pegasus Galaxy. You haven’t heard…?”
“We in the judiciary try to keep ourselves free from political entanglement,” Julian said loftily, though his mind was spinning with curiosity. Lorne spoke like he’d been to another galaxy, like he considered this other galaxy home and visiting Earth was a nuisance.
“Like I said, the program was only very recently declassified.” Lorne did look very tired. Then he took a deep breath and sat up straighter, met Julian’s gaze. “But someone who hasn’t heard of it and doesn’t have endless questions is rare. So - you’re a clerk. For the judiciary. Supreme Court?”
Lorne smiled, and he was handsome all right, had dimples to go with his bright blue eyes. “Tell me more about that.”
Julian stared at him. “No one ever says that. Not even men who are trying to pick me up at lawyer bars.”
Lorne glanced at his watch - a fancy military chronometer with bezels and complications and more buttons than necessary. “Well, I’ve got time to kill before I have to testify in front of a Senate Committee, and apart from Richard Woolsey, I really haven’t spent a lot of time around lawyers. I’m genuinely interested.”
Julian studied him some more. His expression was earnest - he was like the poster boy for the All-American Patriot - and he was leaning toward Julian.
It had been a while since Julian had enjoyed the company of a handsome man without requiring expensive drinks or hasty cab rides back to someone’s overpriced apartment.
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure,” Lorne said. “So, you’re a clerk. For which Justice?”
Julian couldn’t help but preen a little. “The Chief Justice.”
“I’m going to admit I don’t even know who that is. How did you get the gig?”
“Well, the Lodge family has a long history of legal service, both at the bar and among the judiciary, as well as attendance at the best law schools in the country. Truth is, though, most justices only choose clerks from their own alma maters, and I happened to get lucky when Chief Justice Brankin, an alumnus of my alma mater, was appointed to serve on the Court.” Julian leaned in as well, caught Lorne’s gaze and held it.
Lorne hadn’t seemed fazed by mention of DADT or Julian’s allusion to dating men.
So Julian talked, responded to Lorne’s intelligent questions, and he was almost sure he’d have a date in the bag for this evening, if not this weekend, when the door opened.
Lorne was on his feet immediately, standing between Julian and the intruder.
Who was Julian’s doppelganger, only also in military Class A blues.
“Lorne,” the man said.
So this was who Lorne had mistaken Julian for.
“There you are. They’re almost ready for us.”
“I’ve been keeping an eye on the time, sir,” Lorne said, amused.
The other man - John Sheppard, according to his nametag - craned his neck, caught sight of Julian. Stared. “What the -?”
Lorne flashed Julian another dimpled smile. “Thanks for talking to me. I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Good luck.” He headed for the door. “C’mon, sir. Woolsey will have a fit if we’re late.”
Sheppard blinked, a bit dazedly. “Are you sure he’s not a -”
“Pretty sure he’s not a Replicator, sir,” Lorne said, and wasn’t that the thing on Star Trek that made food? That made no sense.
Julian watched them go, counted to ten, then peeked out into the hall. Reporters gone. Cameras gone. Both airmen, gone.
The eye of the storm, perhaps. It was time for Julian to go, too.
He hoped he’d see Lorne again.
Chapter 32: 065. War - Gundam Wing
In which Nanashi picks up a hobby.
Where there were soldiers, there was war. Nanashi wasn’t a regular soldier, belonged to no particular army, marched under no flag. He was a mercenary. He fought for whoever paid him. A foe one day could be a friend the next. For a price.
Nanashi didn’t fix the prices - he was one of a band of mercenaries, one of the youngest, taken on because of his natural skill in piloting a mobile suit. The members of their little nameless band - nameless like Nanashi was nameless (his name meant “no name”) - came and went the same way the conflicts came and went. Save their leader, Nanashi had been with them the longest, probably because he’d been more or less raised by them.
Nanashi was good at roaming, mechanicing, and piloting. And war.
Few mercenaries were good cooks. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of good food to be had when they were laying low on Earth or traveling on the colonies, since they needed their supplies to be long-lasting and nutritious and not much else. As a result, Nanashi had a cast-iron stomach, could eat things that were tasteless or were totally repulsive, because he needed his strength in battle. His goal, day in and day out, was to survive.
After a skirmish in the L-3 cluster, Nanashi and his nameless band of mercenaries retreated back to Earth, mostly to pick up parts to repair their damaged mobile suits. While they were there, they picked up a new mobile suit pilot. He’d been hanging around a junkyard looking for pieces to repair his own suit, and he’d mentioned needing a job, and the crew leader had made an offer - trial run, see how he did in battle - and now there was Evan.
Something about Evan was different from the other nameless, faceless mercenaries who’d drifted in and out of Nanashi’s life over the years. He rarely bothered to learn their names, and radio call signs were recycled, so as long as Nanashi had the right call signs for battle, they could operate as a team.
Evan had bright blue eyes - but then plenty of people had blue eyes. He had dimples, too, when he smiled. He smiled a lot, but he wasn’t a jokester or a storyteller. He just...smiled a lot, for a man who handled a mobile suit as well as he did, for a man who had as much battle experience as he obviously did.
It took Nanashi a while to figure out what was different about Evan.
It was that he drew. Between wars and battles and skirmishes, between rebellions and uprisings and coups, the other men repaired their mobile suits and waited for the next war. When the mobile suit repairs were done, they drank and gambled and listened to the radio, went to nearby watering holes looking for human companionship. All they seemed to know how to do was fight and wait to fight again.
Evan rarely joined them. He always carried a little sketchbook and pen with him, and whenever there was downtime, he drew. And he was a very talented artist.
“What?” Evan asked one day, while Nanashi perched on the arm of his mobile suit and watched him draw. “Don’t you have a hobby?”
Nanashi considered, then said, “No.”
“You should get one,” Evan said. “Doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Paper and pens are cheap.”
“I don’t draw well,” Nanashi said.
“Only because you haven’t practiced. Drawing’s a technical skill, just like piloting.” Evan resumed drawing.
“What would I draw?”
Evan tilted his sketchbook toward Nanashi so he could see that he was drawing, well, Nanashi, perched on his mobile suit. “Whatever you want.”
Nanashi eyed him. “How did you choose drawing as a hobby?”
“My mom was an art teacher,” Evan said. “My sister is a tattoo artist.”
“And you’re a mobile suit pilot.”
Evan shrugged. “Well, there’s a black sheep in every family. What about your parents? Did they have hobbies or skills they passed on to you?”
“I’m an orphan. Don’t remember them.”
Evan winced. “Sorry.”
Nanashi shook his head. “Don’t be.” He stretched for a moment. “What about your father? What did you learn from him?”
“He died before I was born, so my grandma helped raise us. She was an amazing cook, so I learned to cook from her.”
Nanashi snorted. “Then you probably suffer immensely with the cooking around here.”
“It’s not the greatest,” Evan admitted. “But I can do better.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I’m the new guy. No one trusts me with making the food - not yet.”
Nanashi understood that. “Do you have any other hobbies?”
Evan shook his head. “No. My family was entirely unmusical. I was once stationed with a guy who could play the guitar - that was fun. He could play just about anything, so we’d make requests and sing along. The harmonica is smaller and more portable, though. Fits neatly into just about any pocket.”
A musical instrument. Nanashi hadn’t considered that. He did enjoy music, always liked it when they were somewhere he could catch a radio station on his mobile suit’s internal radio so he could listen while he cleaned or did repairs.
Evan closed his sketchbook, pocketed it and his pen. “Say, want to sneak over to the mess tent, make ourselves a snack? I’ll make something good.”
Even if Evan couldn’t be trusted with cooking for the entire team yet, Nanashi figured he could be trusted to make something small. Nanashi nodded, hopped down off his mobile suit, and together they headed for the mess tent.
While they worked side-by-side, Nanashi turned on the radio. All they could get was some kind of classical station. Evan hummed along tunelessly. Nanashi listened in silence, considered the different instruments he could hear, and wondered which one he’d like to play, which one would be fairly portable, so he could have it with him no matter what.
He decided he liked the sound of the flute.
Chapter 33: 056. Alive - Sandman
In which Death enjoys home-baked goods and doesn't need Evan to give her change.
Evan had known the pale girl with the black hair and the kohl swirl beneath her eye and the big silver ankh necklace all his life. She’d always been there, in the background. As a very small child, his mother and grandmother thought it sweet, that he had an invisible friend. They never saw her, but he did. The first time he talked to her he was seven and running his very first lemonade stand. Unlike the other kids, who just sold lemonade, Evan used fresh-squeezed lemons with a sprig of mint and had also baked cookies to go with the beverages.
She ambled up to his stall, which he’d set up as far as he dared from the entrance to the commune, and leaned over to inspect his wares. She pushed her dark sunglasses up onto her hair, and he saw the kohl swirl under her right eye. He’d have known it was her anyway, because she always wore the giant silver ankh, always wore a black tank top and jeans.
He didn’t question that she knew his name.
She reached out and ruffled his hair, smiling. “So polite. How much for a cookie and a glass of lemonade?”
“Ten cents,” Evan said.
The girl gave him two coins that were not nickels or dimes or any type of coin he’d ever seen before. They were older, heavier, and he knew more precious.
“I’m sorry I don’t have any change,” he said, handing her a little cup and a cookie on a napkin.
The girl’s smile dimmed for a moment, and she said, “That’s all right. You’ll give those coins back one day.” Then she sipped the lemonade, expression thoughtful. “Mint! That’s a really great touch.”
Evan watched anxiously as she bit into the cookie. He’d spent a long time looking through Nan’s recipe book for just the right kind of cookie - one that was delicious but also cost-effective in baking.
The girl’s smile lit up all over again. “Delicious! Did you bake these yourself?”
Evan nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Are you going to be a baker when you grow up?”
“I’m going to be a fighter pilot, like my dad,” he said.
The girl’s smile dimmed a little again once more. Then she ruffled his hair and said, “I guess we’ll be seeing each other a lot from here on out.”
She finished off the cookie, swallowed the last of her lemonade, threw away the cup and napkin, and dusted off her hands. “’Bye, Evan.”
He didn’t learn her name till he was older.
He kept seeing her, long past the time it was age-appropriate for him to have invisible friends. He wasn’t a hundred percent sure she was invisible, because one day when he was twelve he spotted her while she was strolling along the beach and he was riding the waves with his sister, and she waved at him, and for once his sister didn’t ask who he was waving to. And then the girl stopped to talk to Old Man Ferguson, smiling. Old Man Ferguson looked surprised, but he answered her. Obviously she wasn’t invisible, if he could see her.
Old Man Ferguson died later that night, in his sleep.
It took a few more encounters like that - Evan seeing the girl, and other people seeing her too, and those other people dying, before he figured it out: the girl was Death.
She showed up when new babies were born, too, though. Evan spotted her a couple of times when women on the commune were giving birth - most of them preferred home births, supported by the other women in the community.
Then Evan joined the Air Force and headed out to the front lines of combat, and he saw her all the time. She waved to him every time she saw him. He remembered how she’d liked his cookies and lemonade when he was a kid, so he made a point to have a regular stash of gourmet baked treats, in case she wanted to linger for more than a casual wave.
She must have noticed, because she’d stop by the kitchens right when he was pulling a tray out of the oven.
“Ma’am,” he said, because fearless Airman though he was, he respected Death.
She smiled at him and ruffled his hair, just like she had when he was a kid (and he’d realized, somewhere in his teen years, that she never aged).
“What’s on the menu today?”
“Apple cinnamon turnovers.” He levered one off a tray and onto a plate with a spatula, offered it to her.
“You’re too good to me,” she said, and inhaled with a pleased smile.
Evan patted his pocket and said, “I still have those coins you gave me. Still looking for a way to make change.”
She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “I told you - one day you’ll give those coins back.” And then she bit happily into the turnover.
Evan had studied the mythology, knew what she meant, but that didn’t mean he felt bad about short-changing her when he was a kid.
“Besides,” she added, “you’ll more than make up for it with a lifetime of baked goods.”
Evan glanced at her. “A lifetime?”
“You live what anybody gets. You get a lifetime. No more. No less. You get a lifetime.”
Evan considered her, then nodded.
Death tossed her head, dusted the cinnamon and sugar off her fingers. “See you around, Evan.”
Over the years, Evan did his best to look forward to her visits, to sharing baked goods with her. He wasn’t sure why he got to see her so often and stay alive after, so he always kept those two coins with him, in case her next visit was his last visit. The people he served with assumed his endless sketches of goth rocker girls were reminiscences of an old girlfriend. He didn’t correct their assumptions.
At the end of his lifetime, he stood before Death for a final time, and handed her two coins. She leaned in, pressed a kiss to both of his eyelids, and ushered him into the light.
“Goodbye, Evan,” she said. “Thanks for all the treats.”
He cast one last smile over his shoulder and said, “You’re welcome, Death.”
He hoped his mother and grandmother were waiting for him on the other side.
Chapter 34: 053. Arrested - Equilibrium
In which Partridge starts to feel.
Partridge inspected the line of sense offenders most recently arrested - a different cleric had led the last raid into the Nether - and wondered, not for the first time, why the clerics bothered. Sense offenders stayed in the Nether and rarely bothered civilized society. They’d rejected society as much as society rejected them. They weren’t trying to convert others to their ways. Yes they had contraband, but -
Partridge came up short.
Sitting at the end of the line, hands bound behind his back, was none other than Cleric Lorne.
Evan Lorne, who’d gone missing on a raid last year.
Evan Lorne, one of the most gifted and meticulous clerics short of John Preston. Everyone assumed he’d been killed. Grammaton forces had recovered a body in the remains of a cleric uniform after the raid went wrong and several buildings were set on fire.
“Lorne,” Partridge said.
He lifted his head. “Errol.” He smiled.
Partridge was disconcerted by his smile for a moment. People on Prozium smiled, were capable of humor and social niceties, but Lorne’s smile was different. It was - Partridge had no words for it. Probably because he had no words for feelings. He’d heard of them as abstract concepts, like hate and fear, but he’d never felt them. He didn’t know what the emotion was on Lorne’s face, but it made something tighten in his chest.
“You,” Partridge said blankly. “How…?”
Lorne said, “My mother was a painter and my sister a tattoo artist.”
“Then you -”
“Never took a dose of Prozium a day in my life.”
“But you -”
“Sabotaged raids so others like us could survive? Yes.”
“We thought you were dead.”
Lorne tilted his head to one side. “It’s not like you were sad about it, were you?”
“Of course not,” Partridge said immediately. “But - you betrayed the Grammaton.”
Lorne said, “It’s not like you were hurt by that either.”
“No. Anger is destructive. Anger and fear lead to chaos.”
Lorne shrugged one shoulder. The collar of his too-large shirt slipped down, and Partridge glimpsed a hint of a tattoo curling down his collarbone and onto his shoulder or chest. “And now you’re going to send me to be executed, and you’re not going to feel sad or hurt about it, so why the fuss?”
Partridge had no words.
He had no words till, hours later, when he visited Lorne in the holding cells pending his destruction.
“Why did you do it?” he asked. “You’ve given up everything.”
“What have I given up?” Lorne asked. “Bleak uniformity, oppression, murder? I’ve traded it for something far better.”
Partridge pressed closer to the cell bars. “For what?”
Lorne smiled and spoke utter nonsense, but it was nonsense that made Partridge’s chest tighten and his pulse pound, made his hands curl into fists.
Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
“You say you’re poor, so what do you have?” Partridge asked.
Again with that smile that made Partridge’s chest ache. “My dreams.”
Partridge looked at Lorne for a long time, then stepped back from the bars.
“Tread softly,” Lorne said, and Partridge fled.
Lorne’s nonsense final words, half-remembered, swirled around and around Partridge’s mind in the days after his execution. Partridge wondered if he’d ever be able to remember them well enough to recreate them, because despite the Prozium they made him feel, and he wanted to figure out what that feeling was, and maybe the words would tell him.
And then one day he went on another raid and came across a book of poetry by W.B. Yeats, and he realized Lorne’s final words had been a poem.
Against his better judgment, he read the entire book cover to cover.
After that, it was easy to skip his Prozium.
Chapter 35: 046. Work - Warbreaker
In which Llarimar sees a man Return for the second time in his life.
“That sounds like work,” Lightsong said, when Llarimar informed him of the special event on today’s schedule.
Lightsong was notorious - among the Court of the Gods at least - for being highly irreverent of his own godhood, let alone anyone else’s. Given what Llarimar knew of Lightsong’s life before he’d died and Returned as one of the gods, it was easy to be skeptical of his godhood too. But Llarimar was high priest of Lightsong the Bold, and it was his job to inform his god of the special events of the day.
“If you wish to absent yourself from greeting the ambassadors, of course you may,” Llarimar said patiently.
Lightsong sighed. “Spill it, Scoot. What’s the catch?”
“They say they’re from another planet.”
Lightsong raised his eyebrows. “That’s one I’ve never heard before. It raises an interesting theological question. If they’re from another planet, are we gods to them too?”
Llarimar, feeling rather victorious, said, “If you come to the ambassadorial reception, you can ask them if you like.”
Lightsong got a familiar expression on his face, the shifty one that said he knew he’d been caught but he was still intrigued. “Will the God King be there?”
“If he chooses,” Llarimar said.
That was always the answer with the God King.
Llarimar said, “Select members of the public will be there, to witness this historical event.”
Lightsong considered that more carefully. On the one hand, greeting worshippers was also work to him, like hearing their petitions and viewing their offerings. On the other hand, he had a chance to influence worshippers around to his point of view if he interacted with them.
“Fine, Scoot,” he said. “I’ll be there.”
Llarimar nodded and inclined his head politely. “I’ll make arrangements.” He nodded to one of the lesser priests, and the man scurried away to tell the rest of Lightsong’s servants that he would be attending this afternoon’s festivities.
Llarimar himself was curious about these supposed otherworldly ambassadors. What was life like on other planets? Apparently similar enough to life on this planet that the ambassadors had been able to communicate with locals enough to be granted an audience with the Court of the Gods. Llarimar had never even thought about other planets before, let alone whether there was life on them. Granted, he had never thought he would be high priest to a god either. It was time to expand his worldview. Or was it worldsview now?
A god’s routine was simple. He had two major responsibilities toward his worshipers: issuing prophecies and hearing petitions. Issuing prophecies involved the god inspecting pieces of art that were commissioned and then given by wealthy donors and then interpreting them, as well as recalling their own dreams and interpreting those. Hearing petitions involved the poor who were usually begging for a miracle that a god could only give once: the granting of Breath to heal a sick loved one. Llarimar knew Lightsong despised the latter because he felt like he was unable to help. If he could only work a miracle once, what kind of god was he? For all that Lightsong was skeptical of his own godhood, he felt responsible for his worshipers, and Llarimar knew Lightsong felt guilty that he always turned down their petitions, even if he tried to help in other ways.
As for the former, Lightsong always made like he didn’t take the interpretation of art and dreams seriously, but he didn’t know what Llarimar knew about his past, and he didn’t know how terrifyingly accurate some of his prophecies had been.
Lightsong, dressed in beautiful robes that matched the color scheme of the rooms of his palace and his servants and some personal theme chosen for him, robes that would be destroyed at the end of the day, drifted toward one of the audience galleries with a sigh of longsuffering.
“All right. Bring on the art.”
Only some of the art donations would be interpreted. Unless particular pieces were added to Lightsong’s personal gallery, all of them would be destroyed.
Lightsong dismissed the first few offerings as uninspiring; minor priests - servants - took those away to be destroyed. Everything about a god’s existence was so fleeting. It boggled Llarimar’s mind sometimes, but he was part of that terribly disposable system. Granted, in the end, the gods were disposable too.
“Everything is boring today,” Lightsong said with a sigh.
Llarimar said, patiently, “You say that almost every day.”
“Only almost? Clearly I’m not trying hard enough.” Lightsong waved a dismissive hand at several more pieces of art. He came up short at the next one, which was highly atypical of most donations given to the gods. He paused, took a step back, tilted his head. “What’s this? It - it almost looks real. Like looking out a window onto...the ocean.” He reached toward the canvas, hesitated. “Have I seen the ocean in person before? I don’t remember.”
The Returned didn’t remember their previous lives. Llarimar couldn’t tell Lightsong what - if anything - he knew about Lightsong’s previous life (he knew just about everything).
Lightsong pinned Llarimar with a pointed look, but Llarimar simply asked,
“What meaning do you get from this?”
Lightsong reached toward the canvas again but didn’t quite touch it. “I - it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s a gift from our ambassadors,” Llarimar said. “Their planet apparently has very talented artists.”
“Talented indeed,” Lightsong murmured, sounding distracted and almost - thoughtful. “I see nothing, but add it to my collection.”
“Of course.” Llarimar nodded to the lesser priests, and they carried it out of the room. There seemed to be little method to the way Lightsong chose pieces for his personal gallery, and he rarely went to give pieces chosen for it a second look. This piece, Llarimar suspected, would warrant at least a second look.
Lightsong was thoughtful-distracted for the rest of the morning’s rituals - hearing petitions and denying them - and through the rest of the day till it was time to assemble in the courtyard for meeting with the foreign - alien - ambassadors.
Llarimar himself was very curious about these ambassadors, what they would look like, how they would behave. Assembling all of the gods in the Court of the Gods was a time-consuming process. They came and went as they pleased, all brightly arrayed in their own color themes, trailed by servants in color-coordinated uniforms. There was every luxury to hand: shades to protect them from the sun, fans to protect them from the heat, furniture and food and drink. The gods could sit in their own pavilions or join each other. Often Blushweaver liked to join Lightsong, but today she was in her own pavilion, arrayed to display herself at her most artful.
Regular - but still incredibly wealthy - citizens of Hallandren were granted entrance to the Court of the Gods for certain special occasions. Llarimar watched as the colors around them flared and danced. The wealthy had often purchased many Breaths with their money, giving them powers beyond the average human, but nowhere near any of the gods. They filed into the public gallery at about the same pace as the gods arrived with their entourages. Lightsong settled in quickly, asked for furniture that would allow him a comfortable but alert view of the receiving stage and a few snacks.
“Once you are settled, I will join the other high priests to greet the ambassadors,” Llarimar said. “Once the formalities have been addressed, I will return.”
Of course, the gods had the option of having smaller, private audiences with the ambassadors once the God King had his opportunity, if he so chose (he never chose; he never spoke at all, for his voice was too holy to be heard, and his priests did all his speaking for him).
Llarimar oversaw the final arrangements for Lightsong’s comfort, and then he and two slightly lesser-ranked priests headed down to the platform in the middle of the grassy courtyard that had been built especially for today’s ceremony.
When the ambassadors finally arrived, guided by a prominent and wealthy Hallendren merchant who had first made contact with them, Llarimar was...underwhelmed.
They were five ordinary men wearing drab grey uniforms with black tunics that had bulging pockets. They carried no weapons, though weapons were pointless against gods. None of them were particularly handsome.
The God King was present, which was a surprise, even on an historical occasion such as this, and the merchant faced his massive black throne. The merchant launched into a fantastic oration about the historical nature of the day’s occasion, of the grandeur of many worlds, of the opportunities Hallendren would have to trade and progress with new knowledge and technology. Llarimar was bored. He knew Lightsong would be bored. At least four of the ambassadors looked bored. There was a tension to the way they carried themselves, to the way they stood in a tight huddle, all facing outward.
They were not politicians, Llarimar realized. They were soldiers.
“And as such, it is my pleasure to present, from the City of Atlantis, far across the galaxy, Major Lorne, Lieutenant Stevens, Lieutenant Walker, Sergeant Coughlin, and Sergeant Reed.”
Soldiers indeed. Those were military ranks.
There was cheering and applause from the public gallery, and then the high priest of each god was to step forward and offer greetings.
Treledees, the God King’s high priest, went first.
Llarimar was watching the other priests and priestesses, seeing how they interacted with the ambassadors, whose traditional form of greeting was apparently briefly holding hands with strangers. Would any of the gods request private audiences? Would any of them attempt to sway the ambassadors with gifts? Apparently the ambassadors were interested in sharing knowledge, possible medical technology, and maybe also trading for food.
It was quite common for priests and priestesses to have enough Breaths for at least the First Heightening, to be able to recognize how much Breath another person was imbued with. As Llarimar had been high priest to a god before Lightsong, he had accumulated enough Breaths to reach the Second Heightening and had, in addition to recognizing another’s Breaths, perfect pitch, which sometimes made listening to subpar performers quite irritating, but only the best were allowed before the gods. He’d been so absorbed in watching the other priests and priestesses that he hadn’t paid close enough attention to the ambassadors. When he stepped forward to offer his hand to first Major Lorne, he was startled at the way the colors of his sleeve flared brighter, and he realized - Major Lorne had to have reached the Third Heightening. His companions were all at the First Heightening.
“I am Llarimar, High Priest of Lightsong the Bold,” he said, stumbling a little because he was so surprised.
Major Lorne smiled. “Major Evan Lorne, Atlantis Expedition. Pleasure to meet you.”
The others introduced themselves. Llarimar filed their names away in the back of his mind absently, still startled by the power of the man before him, a man whose expression and body language, while soldier alert, were mostly affable.
Before Major Lorne could move on, a lesser priest of Lightsong tapped Llarimar on the shoulder, whispered to him.
Llarimar nodded and said, “His Grace wishes a private audience with you later, if you are willing.”
Major Lorne glanced at his thick black bracelet, which was set with a circular gem that was inscribed with strange symbols and fine lines, then nodded. “We have several hours before we’re due to check in. We would be honored.”
Llarimar smiled tightly and then stepped aside so Mercystar’s high priest could have at the ambassadors.
The terms of the trade negotiation were quite simple, given how little their respective peoples knew about each other. Major Lorne was quite clear, however; while he was a military man, his people would not be committing military assistance toward any intra-planetary disputes. Should they need assistance in defending against outside threats - what outside threats existed, Llarimar didn’t know, though Major Lorne and his people were willing to educate them - Atlantis would send troops, but they would treat with each nation separately.
Those who believed that Idris to the north was stirring for active rebellion seemed uneasy about this, but Major Lorne explained that this same restriction applied to all nations on a given planet. Llarimar could see the sense in that; if people were used to viewing their existence on an interplanetary scale, international politics probably seemed petty in comparison.
Before any private audiences with gods could begin, the ambassadors were subject to open questioning by all of the priests and even important citizens from the public gallery. Most of the questions were idle curiosity, about the planet they came from, how they traveled from planet to planet, what things they had seen. There was more intense discussion of alien threats. The Wraith were creatures who had somehow avoided the planet of Nalthis for so long that they had faded from the history books and collective memories of all the planet’s inhabitants, but it sounded like they stole Breaths to feed on, without the need for Commands.
“Are they quite colorful?” Allmother’s high priest asked. That Allmother had cared to make an appearance said something about how other gods were intrigued by these alien ambassadors.
“No, sir,” Major Lorne said. “They have white hair and white skin and tend to wear all black or all grey. Some of their queens have red hair, and some of them have black tattoos on their faces, but they’re quite - colorless, compared to you all.”
Bebid, Brightvision’s high priest, said, “Are most of your people as plain-colored as you? For surely it offends your sense of Perfect Color.”
Perfect Color Recognition was attainable only at the Third Heightening.
Major Lorne frowned, confused. “Ah - are you talking about our physical appearance, like hair and eyes and skin? Or about our clothes? These clothes are our uniforms. We can wear what we want - including more varied colors - when we’re off-duty, though how colorful we dress is a matter of personal preference.”
“I mean your clothes, mostly,” Bebid said. “Surely someone such as yourself, who is at least at the Third Heightening, cares more about the colors you wear.”
Major Lorne looked down at his uniform. “I’ve been in the military since I was eighteen. I’m used to wearing ugly clothes. Our dress uniforms are pretty spiffy, though. Nice shade of blue. What’s this about Heightening?”
Llarimar started, surprised. The man had reached the Third Heightening and didn’t even know it?
“Maybe he means The Gene, sir,” one of Major Lorne’s men said, which made no sense at all.
Bebid opened his mouth to explain, then thought better of it.
After a few more questions, the audience was ended, and it was time for the ambassadors to have their private audiences with individual gods.
Llarimar returned to Lightsong’s pavilion and watched as the ambassadors made the rounds.
“They seem so ordinary.” Lightsong watched them with unusual focus.
“It sounds like other planets are ordinary, relatively,” Llarimar said.
Lightsong nodded. “Makes sense, I suppose. If they’re human like us they would need similar climates and whatnot to survive, right?” He glanced at Llarimar. “Was I a scholar, before?”
“I couldn’t say,” Llarimar said. They had this type of exchange at least once a day.
“Art on their planet - and other planets - must be fascinating.” Lightsong resumed his focus on the ambassadors, who were in Mercystar’s pavilion watching some acrobats with her.
The art that the gods were given to interpret was always abstract.
“I wonder what, if anything, I would see in it.”
He hadn’t seemed like he’d seen anything in the piece that had been presented to him earlier in the day. Was a god a god on every planet? Did these aliens even have gods of their own?
No matter. It wasn’t as if Llarimar would ever be leaving his planet. Unless that was something the aliens would share, the ability to move between worlds?
Lightsong was still unusually focused and alert when the ambassadors, guided by a lesser priest, approached his pavilion. Llarimar made formal introductions.
Lightsong waved a hand, but it was only a parody of his usual careless air. “Please, have a seat.”
The five men looked a bit startled when servants appeared with chairs for them, but they thanked Lightsong and sat.
“The artist who painted the piece you donated to me,” Lightsong said. “Are such artists much venerated on your world?”
“Not really,” Major Lorne said. He cleared his throat. “Ah - I painted that painting. I’d heard your planet appreciated art and I’m a painter in my spare time, so. It seemed appropriate. But I’m not particularly venerated for my painting. Or...anything, really. I just enjoy painting, and doing my job.”
Lightsong raised his eyebrows. “And yet what you paint looks so real.”
Major Lorne scratched the back of his neck, a bit of a nervous gesture. “Well, on our planet, there are easier ways to capture realistic images. Painting them is a bit old-fashioned, really.”
“Easier?” Lightsong asked. “How?”
Major Lorne opened one of the many bulging pockets on his tunic. “Do you mind?” He drew out a small, silvery box. He pressed a button on it, and a black circle opened on the front. “This is an image-capture device. We call it a camera.” He pressed the button, and there was a flash of light, and then he held the camera out to Lightsong for him to see.
Llarimar leaned in slightly, curious.
There, on the back of the camera, was a tiny rendition of Lightsong in perfect detail.
Lightsong studied it, quietly awed. “It’s so small.”
“Oh, well, there are ways to obtain a larger version, one you could hang on your wall. There’s an art to capturing beautiful images with a camera, separate from painting,” Major Lorne said. “But anyone with one of these devices can capture an almost infinite number of images.”
“Art on your world is...commonplace, has little meaning, then?” Lightsong asked.
“Depends on who you ask. Some people appreciate art more than others.” Major Lorne tucked the camera back into his pocket. “So, Lightsong the Bold, are there any special requests or anything you’d like us to convey to our leader back on Atlantis? Or any other questions?”
“Do you have any gods you worship?” Lightsong asked.
“Me specifically? Ah, no. But there are religions and deities on my planet. Sort of. I mean, none that people can interact with or talk to like we’re talking to you,” Major Lorne said.
“What about gods on other planets?” Lightsong pressed.
Major Lorne’s expression was cautious. “I’ve encountered beings who claimed to be gods or who people venerated as gods, but they died easily enough in the end.”
“Easily?” one of his men muttered, and another nudged him warningly.
“You believe gods can’t die?” Lightsong looked intrigued and amused.
Llarimar sighed. Oh no. Someone who had played right into Lightsong’s unending self-skepticism.
“Well, some religions I’ve heard of believed their gods could die, but as a general definition - at least, on my home planet - gods are omniscient and omnipotent, immortal and indestructible.”
“Sounds god-like to me,” Lightsong agreed. “But on this planet, gods can die, and we’re expected to.”
Major Lorne’s eyes went wide. “I didn’t mean to imply that you’re not -”
“Don’t worry.” Lightsong actually winked at him. “I’m with you - gods should be better than what I am, than what any of us in this court are.”
Llarimar wasn’t sure if he was pleased or relieved that Lightsong was back to his usual flippant self.
“Well, Major Lorne and company, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. I certainly hope to do so again. Send my best to your leader.”
Major Lorne looked relieved. For an ambassador, he wasn’t particularly canny about how he showed his emotions. “Thank you, Lightsong the Bold. We will tell her.” He glanced over his shoulder at his men, nodded, and as one they rose.
Major Lorne smiled at Llarimar, then headed for the entrance to the pavilion. To his men, he said,
“I’ll fire up the jumper and we can dial in, report to Chuck that we’re about done here.”
His men said, “Yes, sir.”
Someone shouted, above the courtly din of musicians and acrobats and actors and festivities,
“You are abominations, not gods!”
People began screaming.
A strange sound filled the air, a wild humming. Llarimar saw three people fall before he realized what was going on.
Arrows. Raining down from the sky. The Court of the Gods was being attacked.
Llarimar shouted for Lightsong’s palace guards. Treledees was shouting for Court security forces.
Major Lorne issued curt commands to his men, who immediately fanned out, forming a semi-circle at the pavilion entrance. Major Lorne turned to Lightsong and Llarimar.
“Stay down,” he said. Gone was the affable, slightly nervous man. In his place was a fully-trained soldier. “Walker, I need a moment to get the jumper online. Take point.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the other soldiers said, and Major Lorne stepped back, bowed his head, his gaze going blank but his expression intent. The rest of the soldiers shifted to cover his spot in the formation.
Llarimar stayed crouched on the ground, but he was itching to move, to run, to do something. His heart was racing and all around there were shouts and screams.
“We should go,” Lightsong began, starting to rise.
“Sir,” Walker said, “you need to stay down till the enemy has ceased fire.” His tone brooked no argument.
Major Lorne lifted his head. “Atlantis, this is Major Lorne. We’re under attack - locals are attacking each other. We need you to scramble a jumper with beaming ASAP.” He was speaking to no one at all, like a madman, only he had a hand pressed to the little black device at his left ear.
Some kind of long-distance communication device? If his people could travel between planets -
“Roger that. We’ll hold till ex-fil.” Major Lorne stepped back into formation.
“ETA on backup, sir?” Walker asked.
“Ten, tops,” Major Lorne said. He glanced over his shoulder at Llarimar and Lightsong. “Hang in there.” He scanned their surroundings. “Looks like the local guards have things mostly under control - incoming!”
Major Lorne flung himself on top of Llarimar and Lightsong, and there was a thundering sound and a blaze of heat and the world shook.
The screams were much closer now.
“Dammit - shrapnel caught him - I can’t stop the bleeding.”
“Atlantis, Lorne is down! Scramble a med team with that jumper!”
“Hold on, sir, everything will be all right, help is on the way -”
Llarimar’s spotty vision cleared, and he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Lightsong was beside him on the floor of the pavilion, looking similarly dazed. Major Lorne was lying on the ground beside them, his teammates clustered around him. He was bleeding sluggishly from a wound at his throat. The air around them was thick with smoke. Llarimar’s eyes watered.
“Sir, please!” One of the men sounded like he was crying.
Major Lorne made an incomprehensible sound, but Walker said, “Don’t try to talk, sir. Llarimar and Lightsong are fine. You saved them. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Llarimar knew it wasn’t. He’d seen men die right before his eyes even though he was no soldier. He’d seen his own brother die.
He was watching Major Lorne die, too, watching the light leave his eyes.
Llarimar had seen his own brother die - and then Return.
Few people ever saw a person Return twice.
Llarimar knew what was happening when he saw the strange glow suffuse Major Lorne’s body. How was this possible? He was from another planet, knew nothing of the Iridescent Tones or Breaths or Heightening or the gods of Hallendren. But he had powerful Breath himself, was an artist of amazing skill.
And he’d sacrificed his life for Llarimar and Lightsong.
“Llarimar,” Lightsong said, voice shaking. That he was using Llarimar’s real name spoke to how confused he was.
“What the hell is going on?” one of the alien soldiers asked. “Is he radioactive?”
Walker was screaming into his little black ear device. “Send Sheppard or McKay or someone right now! I think Major Lorne is ascending.”
Ascending. Was that what the aliens called Returning?
The light around Major Lorne grew and grew and grew until Llarimar could bear it no longer. He squeezed his eyes shut and looked away. Some people took hours to Return. Others took minutes.
Major Lorne was taking scant seconds.
The light behind Llarimar’s eyelids flared painfully and then went out.
“Major? Sir?” Walker asked.
Llarimar opened his eyes.
Smoke still drifted around them. Flames crackled along the grass. The occasional panicked shout pierced the air, but the din was primarily controlled chaos, the rhythmic marching of boots, Court guards issuing commands, steam hissing as priests and priestesses and servants worked together to put out the fires. Plenty of other gods were using Commands to animate lifeless objects to assist with putting out the fires, directing civilian traffic, and round up suspects.
Llarimar tugged on Lightsong’s sleeve. “Your Grace, we must assist.”
Only Lightsong was gazing fixedly at Major Lorne - who still looked precisely like himself.
When people Returned, whatever their age or physical condition, they were transformed into idealized versions of themselves, bodies strengthened and reshaped, often made taller and more youthful - Lightsong was over seven feet tall himself.
But Major Lorne looked unchanged. Except for the fact that the wound in his throat was completely healed and he looked - polished. His skin flawless. His eyes bright and clear. His hair soft and sleek.
“Major,” Walker said.
Major Lorne blinked his blue, blue eyes. “Who are you?”
The Returned lost all memories of their lives before.
“People lose their memories when they Ascend and then De-ascend,” one of the other soldiers said.
“I heard people De-ascend naked,” a third said.
The fourth elbowed him hard.
Panicked cries filled the air once more. Lightsong scrambled to his feet, dragged Llarimar behind him. Neither were soldiers, but Lightsong was bigger and stronger and faster, had superhuman healing capabilities.
“What is it?” “Shoot it down!”
Llarimar craned his neck and saw, hovering in the sky, a massive gray tube with smaller tubes sticking out of the sides.
Walker stumbled out of the pavilion. “No, don’t shoot it down! It’s our allies. It’s one of our ships.”
Ships were for sailing on the sea, but that “ship” was in the air.
Walker ducked his chin, pressed a hand to the black device at his ear. “Roger that, sir. Major Lorne - we think he rapidly Ascended and De-Ascended. He’s completely lost his memory.” He paused, then said, “Yes, sir.” Walker lifted his chin. “Clear a space!”
The palace servants and guards nearest to him scrambled backward, creating a circular perimeter.
Gasps and cries filled the air when a golden beam of light descended from the gray flying ship to the ground, and when it faded, people in gray uniforms similar to those of Major Lorne and his men - though with yellow patches instead of black tunics - appeared.
“Lieutenant, where is he?” one of the yellow-patch men asked.
Llarimar looked back at Major Lorne, who was definitely one of the Returned. The way colors were bending around him - he had reached the Fifth Heightening now.
Walker led the newcomers into the pavilion, and they clustered around Major Lorne, shining a light into his eyes and asking him questions like What day is it? and Who’s the President? and What’s your name?
Whatever his answers were, they were all the wrong ones.
“We need to get him back to Atlantis immediately,” the leader of the yellow-patch people said.
Llarimar said, “You can’t. He has Returned. He is one of our gods now.”
“What?” Walker asked.
“Major Lorne has died and Returned. He has become a god. He cannot leave. He must join the Court of the Gods and bless his followers. He must receive a new Breath each week to sustain himself, or he will die again.”
Walker’s brow furrowed. “What?”
“Sir,” one of the other soldiers said in a low voice, but not low enough. “I think - I think these gods are a type of Wraith. They think Major Lorne has turned into some kind of Wraith.”
Walker’s gaze flicked to Lightsong, and he recoiled. “Wraith-worshippers? But - their hands - they look human.”
“Remember what went down with Michael,” the other soldier said, and the lead yellow-patch man winced.
“Major Lorne would rather die than be a Wraith,” Walker snapped.
“He is no longer Major Lorne,” Llarimar said. “He has no memory of his former life. He is a god now.”
“Major?” Walker turned to him.
Major Lorne blinked. “Is that my name?”
“I need to scan him,” the lead yellow-patch man said.
Walker grabbed Major Lorne’s right wrist, turned his hand palm up. “He’s not a Wraith.”
“Michael assumed some of his more Wraith traits once the medicine stopped working,” the yellow-patch man said. “If Major Lorne had become a Wraith, even if his face seemed normal, his feeding hand -”
Major Lorne extricated himself from Walker’s grip carefully. “What’s going on?”
Llarimar said, “You died and Returned. You are now a god.”
Major Lorne frowned. “That seems...backward. Most people have to be gods - or at least demigods - before they can come back to life after death. Unless...unless they’re Daniel Jackson. What’s a Daniel Jackson?”
“He has some of his memory,” Walker said excitedly.
Llarimar shook his head. “No. He won’t remember anything of his former life. He will retain any skills he had prior to death, won’t need to relearn basic life functions or other things, but he doesn’t remember. He’s not Major Lorne anymore. He’s a god now.”
“You know,” Walker said to the yellow-patch man, who looked dismayed, “I thought getting shanghaied into an alien shotgun wedding was bad, but this is worse.”
“I need to take him back to Atlantis and scan him,” the yellow-patch man said gently to Llarimar.
“No,” Llarimar said firmly. “You can’t take him. He is one of our gods.”
“What if he chooses to leave?” Lightsong asked. “If he’s a god, he can do what he wants, right?”
“Sir,” one of the other soldiers said, “do you feel like a god?”
Major Lorne - he was no longer Major Lorne, the way Lightsong was no longer Llarimar’s brother - pressed a hand to his chest.
“No,” he said carefully. “At least, I don’t think so. But aren’t I supposed to say ‘yes’ if someone asks if I’m a god?”
Walker blinked, surprised. “What?”
Major Lorne recited, “Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say ‘yes!’ Wait, is my name Ray?”
For some reason, that made the other aliens laugh.
“Well, he remembers Ghostbusters.” Yellow-patch man looked amused. He eased an arm around Major Lorne’s shoulders. “Come on, lad. Let’s get you to the infirmary.”
Llarimar signalled for some nearby guards, pushed himself to his feet. He said, with all the firmness he could muster in the face of armed soldiers and aliens who were clearly technologically superior, “You can’t take him.”
Walker twitched into a combat stance.
“Perhaps we can compromise,” yellow-patch man said. “How about I bring some of my medical scanners here and look him over, and if it turns out he’s not actually a god, we can take him home and give him further treatment?”
Court guards surrounded the pavilion.
“Scoot.” Lightsong’s tone was warning.
Llarimar turned to him.
Lightsong had drawn himself to his full height. For perhaps the first time ever, he was carrying himself like he believed he was a god.
“It’s a good compromise,” Lightsong said. “Bring your equipment. Major Lorne will stay here with us.”
Llarimar considered, then nodded. He signaled to the guards to keep an eye on the aliens, but the yellow-patch man and his yellow-patch team vanished upward in another beam of golden light. Llarimar ordered a nearby servant to take a message to Treledees. The Court had a new god - and he wasn’t even from Hallandren.
By the time the yellow-patch team had returned, with more people in what Llarimar assumed were soldier uniforms - gray with black tunics or patches - Treledees and some of the other high priests had arrived, along with a cadre of Court guards to make sure the former Major Lorne wasn’t kidnapped in a beam of light, although how any of them thought they would stop that, Llarimar wasn’t sure.
Major Lorne was fairly placid, compared to his previous soldier self. He waved away any inquiries into his wellbeing, any offerings of new clothes or food or drink, though he did accept a chair to sit on and a cloth to wash the blood off of himself as best as he could. His teammates stayed with him, chatting to him and doing their best to try to jog his memory. He could respond to general pop culture references and some more specific references, but he had no memory of who he’d been before. HIs teammates were becoming increasingly frustrated, but Major Lorne remained quite calm.
Then the yellow-patch team and more soldiers arrived, and the lead yellow-patch man, Dr. Beckett, waved strange gray blocky devices at Major Lorne. The devices, he explained to Llarimar and Treledees, were medical scanners. They showed him Major Lorne’s vital signs, his general health.
There was one man among the soldiers who had blue patches on his uniform. He spoke fast and waved his hands a lot.
“Well? How is his health?”
“Rodney,” Beckett said patiently, “patient privacy -”
“Oh please, we’re in an alien galaxy with a bunch of aliens watching this entire medical exam.”
“Doc,” said the leader of the soldiers, one Colonel Sheppard, “how is the good Major?”
“In perfect health, given the injury that Lieutenant Walker described.” Beckett studied his medical device intently.
“How perfect?” Rodney pressed. “Suspiciously perfect? Like a certain Ascended woman?” He cast Sheppard a pointed look.
“But he De-Ascended,” Walker said. “Look at him. He’s not...glowy.”
Rodney waved a dismissive hand. “You weren’t here the first year. They don’t have to be glowy all the time.”
Walker glanced at Sheppard, who nodded, which earned him another pointed look from Rodney.
“Well, he is like Chaya, but if what Llarimar and Treledees say is true, he could also be displaying the physiology of one of these Returned.” Beckett’s expression was apologetic.
Rodney looked frustrated. Then he perked up. “When I was close to Ascending, my brain waves changed. How are his brain waves?”
Llarimar wondered why only Rodney had blue patches on his uniform. Surely he wasn’t the leader of Major Lorne’s people? Major Lorne had referred to his leader with feminine pronouns.
“I already considered that, and while his brain waves are definitely altered, they don’t match what I have on file of you being near Ascension,” Beckett said patiently.
“You’ll know he’s one of the Returned if he can Awaken things,” Treledees said.
“Awaken?” Beckett echoed. “What do you mean?”
Apparently Ascension wasn’t the same as Returning, then.
Treledees stretched out one hand, murmured a soft command to the scarf around a nearby servant’s neck. All the color leached out of it, and he murmured another command, and a scarf belonging to another servant came to life, curled around his wrist.
Rodney and the other aliens were wide-eyed with shock.
“Pretty sure that’s not something Ascended beings can do,” Sheppard said. “Lorne, can you do that?”
Major Lorne looked perplexed. He stretched out one hand toward a scarf, and immediately the colors on it turned brighter, purer. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s not an instinctive talent,” Treledees admitted. “Well, not at his Heightening. But see the way the color bends around him? He has reached the Fifth Heightening, as do all the Returned, though some may be more powerful.”
“Warping colors isn’t something the Ascended do either.” Sheppard’s expression was grim. “So...what does this mean?”
“This means that your friend is now a god and must remain here to be worshipped and to serve the people of Hallandren,” Treledees said.
Walker cast Llarimar a sharp look.
“Does he have a choice?” Sheppard asked.
“If he does not stay, he will die,” Treledees said.
“As in...right away?” Beckett asked.
Rodney’s expression went blank, but there were shadows in his eyes.
“We’ve never had a god leave the planet before,” Treledees admitted. “He could die immediately. He would last no longer than eight days unless he remained here and accepted Breaths from worshippers.”
“See?” Walker said in a low voice, but not low enough, to Sheppard. “Like Wraith. They drain the life out of you.”
Sheppard narrowed his eyes. “You mean he’d have to kill someone to survive?”
Llarimar shook his head. “No, those who give their Breath don’t die. They don’t see color as well, is all.” There were possibly other side-effects, like a shortened lifespan partially due to heightened susceptibility to illness or self-harm, but those who gave their Breaths to serve the gods were richly rewarded - entire families could be saved from starvation, among other blessings.
“So you just turn people colorblind?” Rodney looked skeptical.
“Major,” Sheppard began.
Llarimar said, as gently as he could manage, “He’s not Major Lorne anymore. He’s a god now. He will be given a new name.”
Rodney shook his head. “Look, he remembers pop culture references and even specific people like Daniel Jackson. He’s not from this planet. He isn’t the same as your gods. If he’s kept any of his memory -”
“He hasn’t,” Llarimar said firmly. He stepped away from the crowd and headed out of the pavilion, gestured for Beckett, Sheppard, and Rodney to follow him, as they seemed to be the most important people in the little alien band. Sheppard lifted his chin, and Walker broke away to join them.
Llarimar kept his voice low, kept an eye on Lightsong, who was joking with the newest god. “I know it’s difficult to accept, but whatever a Returned may seem to remember, they don’t really remember anything. General knowledge and skills, yes. But the details of their own lives - no. You’re all strangers to him.”
“How can you be sure?” Rodney demanded.
“Because,” Llarimar said, “before he Returned, Lightsong was my brother.”
Walker’s eyes went wide, and he rocked back on his heels. “Your brother? Is that why you’re his high priest?”
“I served Kindwinds the Honest as a priest before my brother Stannimar died and then Returned. I watched him die, and I watched him Return. I know what the process is like. Now I am high priest to Lightsong the Bold.”
Rodney’s gaze took on a fevered sheen. “And he doesn’t remember who you are or anything about his previous life?”
“Not a thing. I have served him for several years now,” Llarimar said.
Rodney swallowed hard. “No. It’s not possible.” He pushed past Sheppard and headed back into the pavilion.
“McKay,” Sheppard protested.
Rodney pushed past all the others, who were debating what new name should be given to the god.
“Rainbowbright is a possibility.”
“But it fits - Lightsong, Mercystar, Kindwinds -”
“Shouldn’t it be Brightrainbow then?”
“Treledees, don’t listen to them. Rainbow Brite is a girl’s name where we come from.”
Rodney planted himself in front of the nameless god, who gazed up at him earnestly.
“Rodney, right? What can I do for you?”
“You really don’t remember me?” Rodney asked.
The other man shrugged helplessly. “I’m sorry. I don’t.”
“You remember Ghostbusters and Daniel Jackson but not me.”
Rodney peered into his eyes. “Nothing about me is familiar? Nothing at all?”
Possibly-Brightrainbow shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“Are you sure?”
“I am. I have no reason to lie to you.”
Sheppard hurried toward Rodney. “McKay, hang on.”
Llarimar, Walker, and Beckett followed. Llarimar signalled Treledees and the guards in case Rodney tried to do something rash, like kidnap the new god in a beam of light.
“Rodney,” Beckett said, voice sorrowful. “I’m afraid I have no way of knowing the extent of the amnesia, let alone how to reverse it.”
“Evan,” Rodney said, and he knelt so he was eye-to-eye with the other man. “Please.”
“I’m sorry. I -”
Rodney leaned in and kissed him.
Walker came up short, expression shocked. Sheppard winced. Beckett just looked sad.
Rodney pulled back. “Don’t you remember us?”
The man who’d once been Evan reached up, curved his hand along Rodney’s jaw, searched his face. Then he pulled back. “I’m sorry, but...no. I know that you used to love whoever I was, but I don’t know who I was.”
Rodney wrenched himself away.
“McKay,” Sheppard said again, helplessly.
Walker looked at him. “You knew, sir?”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Sheppard shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “McKay’s a civilian and Canadian to boot.”
“Brightrainbow,” Treledees said. “Brightrainbow the…”
“Brave,” Lightsong said. “If anyone should be the Brave, it’s him. He gave his life for Llarimar and me, even though I’m essentially immortal.”
The man in question blinked. “I did?”
Treledees frowned. “No. Two gods cannot have the same title.”
“Well, he’s a god from another planet. Clearly the rules don’t apply,” Lightsong said.
“We’ll take the matter under advisement.” Treledees looked tired.
“So we’re just going to leave him here?” Rodney demanded of Sheppard.
Sheppard turned to possibly-Brightrainbow. “Do you want to stay here?”
“Apparently I’m not afraid of dying,” he said. “So I could go with you, but - it sounds like people here need me.”
“You’re needed on Atlantis,” Sheppard said.
“On Atlantis I was one of apparently many soldiers. I was replaceable. Here I’m...less replaceable. It sounds like they need me more.” The man cast a look at Treledees, who nodded vigorously.
Rodney laughed, the sound low and broken. “Maybe you don’t remember who you are, but you’re still you at your core, aren’t you?”
“You’re not replaceable,” Sheppard said. “You’re my right-hand man. I need you.”
“To do your paperwork, you mean,” one of the other soldiers said, and Walker stomped on his foot to silence him.
“You can probably train someone to replace me in that position, but I don’t think anyone can be trained to do what they need me to do here.”
“You’re not replaceable,” Rodney said fiercely.
“I know you are. And so am I. Do you want to stay? Now that we’ve explained about Atlantis and the Stargate Program…” Rodney’s expression turned hopeful.
“The nature of soldiering is that all of them are replaceable in the end.”
Rodney’s crooked frown deepened. “You really are you, and you just don’t know it yet.” He turned to Treledees. “Fine. He’s staying. But this isn’t over. We’ll be coming back to check on him.”
Treledees inclined his head politely. “Of course. Your people are our valued allies.”
Rodney said, “You should call him Bluebell. Bluebell the Loving.”
Treledees tested it out under his breath, nodded. “Yes. It fits. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. C’mon, Sheppard. Beckett. Let’s go report to Elizabeth.”
Sheppard nodded. “We’ll be seeing you again, Major. Lorne. Bluebell.”
“Any time, Colonel Sheppard.”
Treledees and the Court guards remained until all of the aliens had vanished in a succession of beams of golden light and their flying gray logs faded into the distant skies. Then Treledees began issuing orders for servants to prepare one of the empty palaces for the new god. Bluebell allowed a group of servants to herd him away.
Lightsong turned to Llarimar. “Did I leave someone behind like that? Someone I loved? A family?”
Llarimar said, “You know I can’t tell you that.”
“But if I did -”
“They know you loved them and you’re serving Hallandren well while you’re gone.”
“While I’m gone. You say it like I could go back.”
They both knew he could never go back.
“Your Grace,” Llarimar said, “we should get you home.”
“Sure, Scoot. Home.”
Special thanks to SherlockianSyndromes for helping me get this over the finish line.
Chapter 36: 034. Fall - My ID is Gangnam Beauty
In which Kyunghee learns the nuances of English, like autumn and fall, and misses home.
“You don’t have to go to America,” Kyungseok had said, expression deadly serious.
Their father had wanted to send Kyunghee to America to an obscure college there because her academic performance had been so poor and he wanted to avoid the shame of her going to an obscure college in Korea, which would damage his political career.
Kyunghee hadn’t wanted to go to America either, to be so far from everyone and everything she knew. But then she and Kyungseok had reunited with their mother (who hadn’t cheated on their father and abandoned them, like their father always said; she, too, had been driven away by his ego and selfishness and cruelty and kept away by his endless machinations). Eomma had spent many years abroad, and it had done her a lot of good, made her sophisticated. So Kyunghee decided to go and forge her own path.
However poorly she had done at school, she worked hard at her English studies, because she’d need those skills to survive in America. Also, she was still passionate about broadcasting, and if she wanted to reach a wider audience for her web shows, speaking English would be a huge advantage.
Still, all that studying formal English hadn’t prepared her for the reality: people talked so fast, and the slang escaped her. It wasn’t autumn term when she started school. It was fall semester. And for all that she had been sure of her place in social circles, in society back in Korea, she had no clue how to gauge her place in America. Girls looked different, talked to each other differently, and so did boys. There were no class presidents for each major, no class reps for each year. Students went to university and were on their own, like unmoored ships.
The school Kyunghee was going to was small enough that there weren’t many international students, so she didn’t have a small group of Korean compatriots she could rely on. So she posted videos to her web channel, sent a lot of text messages to Kyungseok, called her mother on the phone whenever she could, and was very lost and lonely.
Since she was majoring in broadcasting, she had to work hard on her enunciation and appearance. Appearance she had down: she’d inherited her mother’s beauty, and she knew how to take care of her skin and hair. Choosing fashionable clothes was a bit harder, but she watched and learned from other freshmen on campus, and she got feedback from her mukbang viewers (who were all very interested in her adventures with American food).
But she still felt alone. She worked hard at her studies, harder than she’d ever worked at home, although it helped that her work on her mukbang contributed to her studies - she already had good video and sound editing skills.
And she missed home.
With the fall came Chuseok, but it wasn’t a holiday in America, and she wouldn’t be able to miss classes for that long to go home and spend the holiday with her mother and brother and her future sister-in-law Mirae.
She was headed to the cafeteria to see what was new on the menu that she might want to try on her mukbang when she smelled it: kimchi.
She followed her nose, because she could always trust her nose. She had inherited that, she supposed, from her mother. Who knew what amazing olfactory powers Kyungseok and Mirae’s child would have, as Mirae also had an amazing sense of smell. Kyunghee skirted around the cafeteria to the outdoor seating section, and in addition to the smell of home, she caught the sound of home.
Someone speaking fluent Korean.
He was on the phone to his older sister, from the sound of it. His voice was a pleasant tenor, and he was laughing in protest at whatever his noona was saying to him.
This was it. Kyunghee’s chance to make a real friend. She scanned the students who were seated at the outdoor tables enjoying the early evening sunlight, but none of them looked Korean. Of course, these days not everyone kept their hair their natural color - one time even Kyungseok had done something outlandish with his hair - but none of the students looked Korean either.
Kyunghee frowned and followed her nose some more, drifting through the scattering of circular tables and orange plastic chairs till she found the source of the smell. It was a plastic container of obviously homemade kimchi in the middle of a table, along with some jajangmyeon and patbap. Kyunghee went to smile and bow at the owner of the food and came up short.
Because he wasn’t Korean. He had bright blue eyes and broad caucasian features.
But he saw her and inclined his head politely, told his noona in still perfectly fluent Korean to hold on a moment, and then said in perfectly fluent, American-accented English,
“Can I help you?”
Kyunghee bowed and said, in Korean, “I’m sorry, I smelled kimchi and I thought - I thought you might be from home.”
The boy smiled, and he had a sunny, dimpled smile. He said, in Korean, “Noona, I’ll talk to you later. Love you!” Then he pocketed his cellphone and rose, bowed. “I understand your confusion. My name is Evan Lorne. Please, sit. Have you eaten?”
Kyunghee bowed and introduced herself, then shrugged off her backpack and sat tentatively in the chair opposite him. He poked around in his backpack and came up with another plastic container and a pair of chopsticks for her to use so she could have a share.
“Evan Lorne? You speak Korean so well.”
“My family is Korean,” he said. “My biological parents - whoever they were - left me on the doorstep of the best Korean barbecue restaurant in LA. My mother kept my name in case my bio parents ever came looking for me, but - you can call me Lee Jaesun.”
Kyunghee knew her eyes were wide. “Wow. That’s so exciting. Like a drama!” Evan was very handsome, with those blue eyes and clear skin, dimpled smile and soft-looking hair.
His eyes lit up. “You watch dramas? Which ones are you watching now? No one will watch them with me.”
“Well, right now I’m watching What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim?”
“Me too! What episode are you on?”
“Of course I’m on the most recent one.”
“We should watch the newest episodes together.” Evan nudged the bowl of jajangmyeun toward her. “Please, eat well.”
Kyunghee didn’t need further invitation. “Where did you get such good Korean food? I haven’t been able to find any around here. I’ve been eating American food on my mukbang, but good Korean food would be more than welcome.”
Evan ducked his head, his cheeks pretty pink. “Ah, I cooked it myself. My mother and grandmother taught me all they know about cooking, and I worked in the family restaurant. You have a mukbang?”
Kyunghee nodded. “I’m a broadcasting major, too.”
“Well, any time you want homemade Korean food - or home-baked French pastries - you let me know. Where in Korea are you from?”
“I’ve never been to Korea. I’ve always wanted to go, but our relatives always want to come here to visit.”
Kyunghee said, a little shyly, “If you like, you could travel with me sometime.”
“Really? That’s so generous of you.”
Kyunghee smiled at him. “I don’t mind. I think I learned English pretty well, but - I miss home. Let’s be friends?”
Chapter 37: 029. Mask - Labyrinth
In which Jareth accepts a mask in exchange for a child.
Jareth, sprawled on his throne, considered the young man before him, the one with the blue eyes and the gaunt face.
“You’re not the first parent to come to my realm seeking to reclaim a child thoughtlessly wished away, but you are the first man.”
“That you know of,” the young man said. He wore an olive military uniform with blue name tags on the pockets. Lorne. Air Force.
Jareth raised his eyebrows. “I am the Goblin King. I know all.”
“You are the current Goblin King, but not the first.” Alexander Lorne’s blue eyes were piercing. The rest of him looked utterly exhausted - but then he had just fought not one but two wars.
Wars in The Labyrinth were their own kind of taxing.
That made Jareth sit up straighter. None of the goblins spoke of Jareth’s predecessor, the Owl King.
“I made it to the Center of the Labyrinth. The child is mine again.”
Jareth glanced over his shoulder, and the goblin whose name he could never remember scuttled forward, the sleeping infant in his arms. Little Evan had been a surprisingly placid child, for a kidnap victim, all smiles and soft coos till he fell asleep.
“He’s a nice baby. I might like to keep him just because.”
“You know the rules. You can’t.” Alexander’s gaze was unwavering.
Jareth narrowed his eyes. He was the Goblin King. He made the rules. Or at least some of them.
“And yet you dared to approach my throne empty-handed. I am the King. You must bring a gift.”
Alexander reached into one of the deep pockets of his uniform and drew out an exquisite masquerade mask. It was of silver filigree worked so finely it could have been lace, studded with jewels and sequins, accented with feathers.
Something in Jareth’s chest tightened. He forced himself to sit back, calm and cool and collected.
“A small mask is hardly as valuable as a child.”
“It’s not just any mask, Your Majesty,” Alexander said. “It’s for a masquerade.”
“If I were to host a masquerade, I could find my own mask, one far finer.” Jareth was only mostly sure about that last part. He did so enjoy a masquerade, though.
“If you put on the mask, you’re in the masquerade,” Alexander said, and held it out. The way the light caught in the crystals was almost hypnotizing. “Anyone you want - everyone you want - will be there. No one will know how they got there, and no one will care to leave. Except you. You will have all the control.”
That sounded eminently useful.
Jareth held out a hand. “Let me see.”
Alexander sketched a deep, theatrical bow. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
Jareth accepted the mask, tried it on.
He wasn’t surprised when he left the masquerade an indeterminate amount of time later and both Alexander and the baby were gone.
And then a girl named Sarah wished her little brother away…
Canonically we know nothing about Evan Lorne's father. In my headcanon his name is Alexander, and he was also an Air Force officer.
This is more inspired by the comic series Labyrinth: Coronation than the movie.
Chapter 38: 022. Fire - Fahrenheit 451
In which Guy is less ashamed of lighting fires and learns a new song.
“You were headed to St. Louis?” Granger asked.
Guy nodded. “He was a literature professor. He - helped me.”
Granger made a wordless sound of understanding. They were all gathered around a fire that Guy had started, rather reluctantly, to stay warm and also prepare an evening meal.
Their cook was a man, not a woman. Lorne was about Guy’s age, broad across the shoulders, with bright blue eyes and a smile that reminded Guy, for some reason, of Clarisse. Maybe it was the way he conversed so freely with everyone around him, the way he’d tip his back and look at the sky as they walked, comment on the shades of green of all the leaves on the trees they passed, the scent of the air, the stars at night.
Granger and the others were so absorbed in the books they’d memorized that they seemed, in their own way, cut off from the world too.
“I’m glad we have you,” Lorne said, plopping down beside Guy in the grass and holding out a bowl of stew. “Everyone else is lame at starting fires for me.”
“Well, I used to be a fireman.”
“Ah.” Lorne cast him a sidelong glance. “Welcome to the outside. Although with what happened...I guess there is no more inside and outside. Just who’s left.”
“What about you?” Guy asked. “What have you got memorized?”
“Me? Oh, I’m not like the other guys. I have a photographic memory, but not quite the same way. I’m an artist, not a writer. I only have a couple of poems to my name, and neither of them are long and impressive.”
“Let’s hear,” Guy said.
Lorne nodded, cleared his throat and sat up straighter. “Ah, this is by Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.
Guy had seen the way the others, sometimes even Granger, looked at him, knowing he was a former fireman, but Lorne seemed completely sanguine about fire.
These days Guys wasn’t as sanguine as he’d once been, but then he’d watched a woman let herself be burned to death with her books.
“Short but - powerful.”
“My sister taught me. My mom taught me art, and my sister taught me a couple of poems.”
Guy asked, perhaps against his better judgment, “And the other poem?”
“Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice.”
In this new era, Guy supposed his skills with fire were useful. After all, people needed to eat and stay warm and see at night.
“Let’s hear it.”
Lorne assumed his poetry recitation mien once more.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
After the final syllable faded, Lorne winced. “Frost was right, wasn’t he? It just wasn’t the fire he expected.”
Guy shrugged. “Maybe he knew something we didn’t.”
“Ice could still take us, I suppose. Not literal ice, of course. Metaphorical ice. Coldness and indifference to other people. With how few of us remain, we can’t afford to marginalize anyone, no matter who or what they were before. We’re all we have now - firemen, artists, literature professors. Fighter pilots.” Lorne dug into his own bowl of stew.
Guy looked at him sharply. “Fighter pilot?”
“My dad flew. I always wanted to fly.” Lorne shrugged, though his posture wasn’t quite casual. But then he smiled at Guy. “What about you? What have you got memorized?”
“Some of the Book of Ecclesiastes.”
Lorne’s eyes lit. “Nice!” He sang, a little hesitantly.
To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
“I mean, it’s not an exact quote, but that always helped me remember,” Lorne said.
“Ecclesiastes is a song?”
“Part of it is. Kind of.”
Guy scooted a little closer to Lorne. “Teach me?”
“Sure.” Lorne craned his neck. “Hey, Sheppard! You got your guitar? Can you play that song by The Byrds? The one based on the Bible.”
One of the other men said, “Be right there! I want to enjoy your stew as long as I can.”
Lorne laughed. “Take your time.” He glanced at Guy. “How is the stew?”
“Possibly one of the best things I’ve ever tasted,” Guy admitted.
“I’m glad. Gotta put my skills to good use.” Lorne lifted his bowl. “To not being ice or fire.”
Guy clinked his cheap plastic bowl carefully against Lorne’s. “And to being a lovely light.”
They grinned at each other and drained their bowls, and then it was time to sing.
Chapter 39: 019. Crack - Whitechapel
Joe's composure is cracking, and he finds shelter in The Mix Up.
With some stealth crossovers.
Joe could feel his composure starting to crack. It was only a minor speck of blood on his sleeve, but he knew it was there, and he had to get it off. Fast.
But finding a public loo in London wasn’t easy, and he wasn’t carrying any change, and if he wanted privacy, he needed to go into a nicer one. He scanned his surroundings, the street signs, trying to orient himself. He’d been walking on autopilot, hands clenched into fists, arms ramrod straight at his sides so his sleeve didn’t touch his wrist. He knew London pretty well, but this wasn’t his usual area, and he had no clue where the nearest place to wash his hands would be.
Of course it started to rain.
For one second, Joe considered standing still and letting the rain drench him, using the water pouring from the skies to scrub at his sleeve.
He was only just getting over a cold, and Ray would be unbearable if he became ill again.
Joe headed for the nearest door, which was into a bakery called The Mix Up.
“Good afternoon,” the pretty dark-skinned girl behind the counter said, flashing him a smile. She was boxing up several small, artfully decorated tarts for an older woman. “I’ll be with you in just a moment.”
Joe nodded. “Thank you.” He swallowed hard. “Do you have a washroom? So I can tidy up. I was -” walking a bloody murder crime scene - “caught in the sudden downpour.”
“Enjoy the tarts, Mrs. Hudson,” the girl said.
“We always do, Parvati. A pleasure, as always.” The older woman smiled and headed for the door.
Joe stepped aside for her. She flashed him a brief smile and then paused on the doorstep, fished in her market bag for an umbrella.
Another woman darted into the shop past her, a copy of the Times over her head as an ineffective shield against the rain. The woman’s hair was damp.
“Parvati, Lavender, good afternoon.” The dark-haired woman had an American accent.
“Emily,” Lavender said, appearing from behind the counter with a tray of small cakes topped with some kind of orange-colored compote. “What can we get for you today?”
“Some old friends are visiting from out of town and I wanted to bring some treats to the office for when they arrive. Any recommendations? Spencer and Penelope have notorious sweet, ah, teeth.” Emily stepped closer to the curved glass of the display case, tucking the newspaper under her arm.
A man - older than the two shop girls by at least a decade - stepped out of the back. He wore a flour-dusted chef jacket. “Which of you helped Lucas unload this morning’s delivery? I can’t find the newest bag of almond flour for the macarons.”
“We were both here,” Lavender said. “But - hang on. I’ll go look.”
The man nodded, relieved. “Thank you.” The name stitched onto the breast of his uniform jacket was Evan Lorne. He spotted Joe. “Have you been helped?” He also had an American accent.
Emily flashed him a smile, which he returned.
“Ah, I was wondering if I might use your washroom to freshen up first,” Joe said. “I was caught in the rain quite suddenly.”
Evan’s smile was bright. “Of course. This way. You good, Emily?”
“I’m fine, but thanks,” she said.
Evan beckoned Joe behind the counter and to a small private washroom in the back next to what must have been the manager’s office.
“Oh,” Joe said. “I thought - for customers -”
“It’s fine,” Evan said. “You are pretty soaked. There are towels in there and other things you might need.”
Joe swallowed hard. His composure was completely fractured and heading for shattered. “Thank you.”
Evan’s smile was polite and earnest. “No problem. Let me know if you need anything else. Hard rain can kick up mud and whatnot, and that’s usually far worse than just being wet.”
He stepped back so Joe could step into the small washroom, and as soon as the door was closed, Joe shed his coat and unbuttoned the shirt with shaking hands and tore into the cupboard under the sink for cleaning supplies and felt the pieces of his composure start to knit back together when he found some bleach.
No one asked questions when Joe emerged from the washroom. No one noticed that he wasn’t wearing his shirt, that one of his pockets was bulging and the cuffs of his shirtsleeves were no longer visible.
The pastries were delicious, though.
And no one mentioned the shirt in the rubbish bin when Joe went back for more pastries.
The Mix Up, Joe decided, might actually be a safe place.
Set in the Getting Back Up Again series.
Chapter 40: 004. Distance - Hwayi
In which Evan encourages young artist Hwayi to get a bit closer to his subjects.
Evan had seen the boy come into his little cafe multiple times, at different times of the day. Even though the boy wore a school uniform, he was obviously not attending school on the regular. Since Evan was an artist (among other things), he had an eye for detail, and Evan had never seen any other students wearing uniforms for the same school. Either the boy came to Evan’s bakery from far away - which was unlikely but flattering if true - or he didn’t go to school.
Evan had served in war-torn nations with child soldiers, knew what generally underfed and malnourished kids looked like, and the boy looked healthy, so Evan wasn’t inclined to report him to social services. While he had some notion of what social services were like in America, he didn’t know what they were like in Korea, and he didn’t want to cause the boy or his family unnecessary embarrassment. The boy was quiet, but not a trouble-maker. Maybe he was home-schooled? Evan could understand him wearing a uniform to at least look like he fit in with other kids his age. Sometimes the boy brought books with him, looked like he was doing homework. He was incredibly diligent, for a teenager who had free rein of his own days. He always had enough money for coffee and pastries, never caused scenes, was polite.
He was also, apparently, a budding artist.
Evan stopped by to top up his coffee - the kid was enough of a regular that Evan spotted him refills once in a while - and he noticed that the math books had been pushed aside in favor of a sketchbook.
Evan said, “You’re very talented.”
The boy lifted his head sharply, breathing hard. Okay. He was skittish. Not necessarily a sign of abuse or neglect. Maybe he had social anxiety.
Evan smiled gently. “Where did you learn?”
“I taught myself, Ahjusshi,” the boy said finally. He bobbed his head politely. “Thank you.”
The boy had been drawing the scene across the street, students gathered waiting for the bus. Girls and boys in uniforms, laughing and talking. Evan had seen some of those students in his cafe before.
“Drawing, like many things, is something of a technical skill, improves with practice,” Evan said, “but I think you have some natural talent. I’m Evan Lorne, by the way. I own this place.”
The boy bobbed his head again. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Lorne. I’m Hwayi.”
Evan still wasn’t an authority on Korean names, but he’d never heard the name before, and Korean names, like American names, seemed to follow trends. He’d met a handful of Hoseoks and Minhyeoks and Chaeyeongs in his time at the cafe.
“Nice to meet you, Hwayi. Would you ever want art lessons?”
Hwayi blinked at him. “Ah - my dad has no money for art lessons.”
“No charge,” Evan said. He nodded at the drawings and paintings on the walls, small ones he liked but weren’t his favorites.
Hwayi’s eyes widened. “You did those?”
“My mother was an art teacher. If you ever have questions, let me know.”
Hwayi bowed again. “Yes, thank you, Mr. Lorne.”
“Any time, Hwayi. Call if you want more coffee.” Evan smiled and stepped away.
For weeks, Hwayi took up his usual spot at the window, watching the other teenagers across the street, but he didn’t speak to Evan outside of polite greetings or ordering food and beverages. He paused in his own studies to look at Evan’s work sometimes, but he kept his sketchbook to himself.
Evan wasn’t offended, understood. Art was very personal. If Hwayi did have social anxiety, Evan had probably pushed his boundaries, and it was better to leave well enough alone.
Hwayi continued to be a very polite boy, always picked up after himself, didn’t take up too much space in case others wanted to sit at the window as well.
He also seemed very lonely.
One day Evan stopped by Hwayi’s usual spot to top up his coffee. Hwayi was drawing the students across the street again.
“You know, sometimes it helps to get a different distance, a different perspective,” Evan said.
Hwayi paused in his drawing, looked up. “What do you mean, Ahjusshi?”
“I mean,” Evan said gently, “it wouldn’t hurt you to get closer to your subjects once in a while.”
Hwayi caught his meaning, and he looked out the window at the students where they talked and laughed, his expression longing. Then he shook his head and resumed drawing, and Evan backed off.
But the next week, Evan looked out the window and saw Hwayi across the street, talking to one of the girls who was a regular at the cafe, Yookyeong, a girl who was hoping to be a photographer, liked to pick Evan’s brain about techniques and gear, and figured maybe Hwayi had listened to some of his advice after all.