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If on a Yuletide morn, a reader

Chapter Text

You are about to begin reading your Yuletide story. Make sure you have some time in which you won't be interrupted; you can see at the top of the page that your story is over ten thousand words long and has several chapters, and you don't want to have to stop partway through. Tell visiting family you have something important to do and musn't be disturbed. Ask your partner to entertain the kid for a while, or wait for his nap.

Or maybe you are more eager than that. Maybe you have waited up for the archive to go live and are using precious hours of sleep to read your story right away. Maybe you got up in the dark of the morning, like a small child sneaking out to shake presents before the adults are awake, and are enjoying the rare quiet of your home in the cool glow of your screen.

Are you warm enough? Do you need slippers, a sweater, or an extra throw blanket? It's important to be comfortable while you read, and it's chilly outside; make sure you're cozy. Some tea or coffee, perhaps, or maybe some hot cocoa, could set you up for warmth inside and out. You could turn up the thermostat, even though you usually try to be conscientious about keeping it low. It's a holiday, after all.

How about light? It's not good for your eyes to read just by the light of the screen. Do you have some other light source? Not just the light of the tree (if you have a tree) or a nightlight. Incandescent or full-spectrum light is best, either overhead or from a lamp. If you're using daylight from a window, be sure there's no glare on your screen. Reading shouldn't give you a headache, after all. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Have you gone to the bathroom?

All right, all right. You know how best to make yourself comfortable. And maybe too much preparation isn't such a good idea. There's no guarantee that your story will be any good, after all, or that it will fit your requests. You know that you'll get a fandom you asked for, with characters you've specified, but beyond that you've cautioned yourself to have no expectations. Someone took the time and trouble to write a story for you, and that's a gift in itself, you tell yourself.

Which is not to say you didn't spend a lot of time daydreaming about what to ask for. It's not every day you can get a story written just for you, much less in a rare fandom, after all. You put a great deal of thought into your nominations, and then into your requests after that.

Part of the fun of Yuletide, for you, is the idle daydreaming, throughout the year, about fandoms to nominate. Books and movies you love that nobody seems to have written anything for. Characters you can't get enough of. You winnow down the list: first go the Fandoms In Which You Want A Very Specific Story and the Fandoms Which Really Need Epic Word Count — that's not fair to your author — then the Fandoms Which Are Rare But You Can Sometimes Find Stories For Them Elsewhere. You want a story that would never otherwise be written. You eliminate, reluctantly, the Fandoms Where You Would Be Too Disappointed By Bad Stories and the Fandoms You Used To Love But Are No Longer As Passionate About. It's a delicate line, how invested you want to be in this, since it's simultaneously a rare treat and an unknown quantity.

But in the end, the nominations process is less difficult than actually choosing your requests from the lists of final nominations. For one thing, the list must get even shorter. For another, you are suddenly faced with a host of possibilities that, left to your own devices, you might have forgotten to consider. Fandoms You Loved In Childhood and Fandoms You Loved In College have been nominated, as well as Fandoms That Would Inevitably Yield Cool Stories. Now it's not just your original nominations, but a list of thousands.

Luckily, Yuletide compulsiveness is widespread and you are able to get a spreadsheet to help yourself narrow down the possibilities. You eliminate the Fandoms You Don't Recognize Or Enjoy easily, but are left with a list that remains three times too large. Take out the Fandoms That Rely On Tone To Succeed; those are awful when they are not done perfectly, like a piano that is ever so slightly out of tune. The Fandoms Where You Only Care About One Minor Character are next to be axed; you want something that will at least offer your author a few options. The Fandoms That Are Really Pretty Complete Unto Themselves are the last to go; you love them, but there's not a lot a new story could add to the perfection of canon.

At last, you are down to the final few:

Fandoms You Have Loved, Seemingly Alone, For Years;

Fandoms You Had Forgotten About But Now Can't Get Out Of Your Head After Seeing Them On The List;

Fandoms You Suddenly Realized You'd Forgotten to Nominate But Really Want; and

Fandoms That Don't Have A Following But You Can't Figure Out Why Not Because They're Perfect.

You review your list one more time, and double-check to make sure you have actually selected the correct characters and that your prompts are as clear and as helpful as you can make them. And with a deep breath, you hit "Submit."

After that, you try very hard to let go of any expectations. No point in staying wound up for weeks, after all, and you have other things to worry about in the interim. Still, it's a little exciting to click on the link in your email. What fandom did your author choose to write in? What characters will you get to read about? Will it be the story you've always wanted? You click through, enjoying the cleaner interface of the new archive, and begin to read.

Within a paragraph, however, you're feeling very confused.

This story is not even in one of the fandoms you requested this year, but it has your name on it, and the correct date, so it must be for you. How does that even happen? It's in a fandom you nominated, anyway, so it's not a total unknown.

And it's not bad, though it's maybe not quite what you would have liked. At first, you're thrown by the strangeness of the fandom switch, but it doesn't take you long to get involved in the narrative.

Chapter Text

An honest man is always in trouble.

Henry always implied that the converse of that statement was true as well, and we all, to some extent, believed it. He was always in so much trouble, we thought, he must be honest.

After all, what man, choosing to live a life of deception, would choose so poorly? Given the aptitude and desire to seem anything other than what you are, who would choose to be … Henry? He had to be genuine.

Even after the whole story came to light, I was unsure. It seemed incontrovertible that he had, in fact, been in Afghanistan, Paris, even Argentina as he had occasionally claimed. But the idea that he had been pursuing some sort of grand espionage agenda seemed ludicrous.

It was hard to imagine a Machiavellian genius buried under Henry's drunkenness, sexual infidelity, and pretentious self-absorption. Even when Angus and I determined that there was something too completely awful to be true about his Confessions, could we not have been mistaken? Perhaps Henry was merely a statistical simian abnormality with a pen, the hundredth-billionth monkey with a composition book to light on something that spoke to the time and place where he happened to be.

Which is not to question that there was something good in Henry. He was always compelling; charisma without follow-though, to be sure, but charisma in spades. His unshakeable self-confidence told the world that it would be honored to kiss his ass; those parts of the world that were a little shakier in their faith in their own judgment often fell for it. At least at first.

He had a sense of … not morality, but of right, perhaps, and he seemed to stumble into isolated moments of sublimity (not literary sublimity, God knows, but a more complex and mortal sort) with a helpless drunken ingenuity that, if it was not artless, must have been an act of consummate artistry.

And that is what made it so difficult to dismiss the idea — the hope, perhaps — that he was something more than what he seemed. Nobody wants their catalyst to be banal. Proust had a madeleine, but that was Proust; the rest of us hope for something a little more worthy.

Ted wants something more than an alcoholic womanizer for a father, even in absentia. I want to have done time for something other than blind loyalty to a delusional reprobate. Fulbright wants not to have had his political machinations disrupted by an idiot; nobody likes to lose to a fool.

Henry Fool. Shakespeare would have us believe there's nothing in a name, but Shakespeare gave us some of the greatest fools of all time. His fools called out kings and saw through layers of intrigue to the heart of things. They were … honest. And often in trouble. Artless in their sublime insight.

But though he shared Falstaff's vices, Henry never shared his wit, and I found myself too many nights awake, puzzling over the pieces, coming to no conclusions. It consumed me; I wrote a volume of poetry in the year after I last saw him on that boat, receding from the Turkish shore, trying to work it out for myself.

Now, of course, the critics are speculating that he was my lover as well as my mentor. Fay cuts out all the articles and reads them to me, though I've told her that I wish she wouldn't.

I find it amusing, at least, that Henry has in fact become what he had always so ineptly tried to appear; an international man of mystery, a shadowy literary figure whose life and art are shrouded in intrigue. But that comes back to the central question, doesn't it? How inept were those attempts, if they succeeded so thoroughly? How much was artifice, and how much truth?

I had almost resigned myself to never knowing.

And then I saw Henry again last month. I was in New York, accepting an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I try to show up to these ceremonies now, having felt the cold shoulder of too many important people for too long after the Nobel fiasco, but I don't enjoy them. So I'd escaped the canapés and champagne afterward as soon as I could. It was a gorgeous crisp night, the city lit up and shining in a way that made the banality of the lives inside it seem implausible, like a sick dream I had been having for too many years.

And there was Henry. It was one of those things that just don't happen; a chance passing in the street, in a city of millions, in a world of billions. But I looked up, and there he was, hunched into his coat, the tip of his cigarette glowing

Chapter Text

And the sentence just … ends.

You hit the space bar, but the page stays stubbornly still. You notice the vertical scroll bar is at the bottom; that must be all there is. But that can't be right.

You scroll back up. The top of the page still says "Chapter 1/1." Well, fuck.

There's not a period there, or you'd think maybe it was a bungled attempt at a cliffhanger. But no: it's not even really a complete sentence. Your story just cuts off, right as it seems like you might be getting some kind of insight into the author's take on Henry's character.

You refresh the page, jabbing your finger down angrily on the touchpad and scowling at the screen, but it loads to the same point and stops mid-sentence. If this were a book, you'd throw it across the room in disgust, but reading online limits the ways you can express your displeasure.

This sucks.

You're not usually a whiner when it comes to this sort of thing. One year your mother wrapped up a sweater you'd given her the year before, that she'd never worn, and gave it back to you, and you just smiled and thanked her and didn't say a word. The holidays aren't about what you get, and most years you don't even bother with a tree, you just string lights over the big statue in the corner and call it Christmas. But this is different. This is a story — the author made implicit promises to you that there would be a beginning, a middle, and an end. That it would go somewhere conclusive, or at least give you some deeper insight into a character or events.

To have it cut off like that, just when it was starting to get interesting, is a betrayal of sorts. You debate just sucking it up and shrugging it off like a good girl, but you're feeling upset all out of proportion to rationality, and you want to do something.

You open up your email and fire off a quick note to Elynross, asking her if the error is possibly an archive glitch, or if there's any chance of your author fixing it. She probably won't answer — actually, you hope she's not playing Yuletide Mod this morning, that she's taking some time to read her own story and enjoy it. But you feel better for having said something, even if there's probably nothing she can do.

Anyway, the house will be waking up soon, or your guests will come to check on you, and there is coffee to be made and company to enjoy. With no more than a little extra emphasis, you shut your laptop and put it aside. You're not going to let a little setback ruin your holiday.

And it doesn't. By the end of the day, the house is a mess, but it smells like mulling spices and baked goods, and the Christmas lights are bathing it all in a comforting glow. You feel the sort of replete exhaustion that only comes from pushing yourself to be present and aware of all the blessings around you when there are so many at every turn.

The baby is finally in bed and the last of the wrapping paper has been recycled. Your guests have gone home, the leftovers have been put away, and your partner is washing the dishes. And at last you can get back to your laptop. You settle in to your favorite chair with a warm throw and open it up.

You have a message from Elyn, saying that she was able to contact your author! Apparently, the author says they uploaded a draft of an older story by mistake. They are very sorry, and they have now uploaded the correct file. Elyn says it should be up at the same URL.

You thank her — it's amazing how much work she and Shalott do to make this challenge work each year, and you do appreciate that she took time out of her own holiday to troubleshoot for you. But as soon as you hit "send," you're scrolling back to your notification email and clicking on the link. No careful reading preparation this time; you're too eager to finish reading your story!

However, it is instantly clear to you that the story the author has uploaded has nothing to do with the story you began earlier. It's in a different fandom, for one thing, one you requested this time. You spare a moment to be a little frustrated that you will not, after all, be able to finish the story you'd started earlier, but this must indeed be the correct story, the one you were meant to receive.

Chapter Text

My Father has backups, of course.

The Hudson, foul as it is, can't eliminate the Book of Life. The newspapers are touting this moment of reprieve as a salvation, but my Father's patience is endless when it comes to his plan. And the Fifth Seal has been opened.

They're still here, the martyrs. I see them, walking unrecognized among the crowds on the street, weeping or bleeding, waiting for the Lord's judgment to fall upon those who wronged them. And perhaps they will be avenged, but I will not be the instrument of that vengeance. I will not be anyone's instrument.

Or anyone's prophet. Because that went so well last time. No, they will have to sink or swim on their own, the teeming, muddled, beloved masses of them.

I find bartending suits me well, actually. The upstairs bar at the Kitano looks just as it did the day the world nearly ended. Edie does the coffee shop there in the morning; I'm not much of a morning person, as it turns out. Starting about four p.m. she takes her one-woman soup kitchen to the street, and I tend bar for the travelers, the drifters, and, of course, the regulars. I listen to their troubles, pour their drinks, take their keys, and — when it seems called for — forgive them their trespasses.

Dave's in tonight, drinking Heineken on his infinite tab and waiting for Edie to come in from the cold. "How are you, Dave?" I ask him.

He shrugs. "Okay. Today was a good day."

"Yeah?"

"Sure. Won a packet on Blue Exeter in the first race and came home to help Edie with the soup."

Sometimes it hurts to know as much about people as I do. I know, for example, that Dave is telling the truth - he knows who I am, and he knows better than to lie to me outright. But I also know that he lost the amount he won in the first race three times over on subsequent races. I know he's almost broke again; there's no jackpot so large that a compulsive gambler can't decimate it in a year or two, and Dave's understanding of the ramifications of his actions on a cosmic scale doesn't seem to actually change those actions.

It's very human. Which is part of why I refuse to be my Father's prophet again. I don't see that it makes a difference, not in the aggregate of human behavior, only in the ways individuals choose to rationalize it. The martyrs that appear to me in visions are only Christian martyrs, but it's a revisionist selection; the countless innocents slaughtered in my Father's name cry out invisibly, silently, for their own justice, and to them He turns a deaf ear.

This is the problem with converts as disciples. My Father brings Saul to his knees on the road to Damascus and suddenly my teachings - which are not complex, not some kind of celestial rocket science - are being transmitted through the bizarre epistolary drivelings of a zealot, like a divine game of telephone. From my Father to me, from me to Paul, from Paul to the translators to the divinity schools to the pastor with the gravelly drawl on Edie's radio, preaching hellfire for imagined transgressions. It's all spin and distortion.

Dave gets another Heineken. "Can you pay for it?" I ask him. Edie thinks it's important to at least ask.

"Sure," he says. "Later, okay? I don't have any cash on me right now."

Dave never carries cash. Or rather, any cash Dave carries doesn't last long in his wallet. I don't have to be the Son of God to know that; I just have to know Dave. Edie knows it too, and still she gives him chance after chance to change, and is patient and accepting each time he fails.

Edie and I find ourselves forgiving Dave on a fairly regular basis.

It's not as though his omissions aren't transparent to us, and Lucifer makes sure to come by every few weeks and let Edie know about any transgressions she might have overlooked. Lucifer's a little obsessed with Edie, actually, much to the chagrin of his new girlfriend or PA or whatever she is. It's not often he gets his hands on a truly good soul, and even though he had to let her go, he's still puzzling over what makes her tick.

I'm not sure I understand her myself.

She's teaching me about Buddhism, and I'm finding it very helpful. I wasn't paying a lot of attention to humanity at the time, so I never met the Gautama Buddha, but he seems to have had the right idea. While I was preparing myself to be Father's emissary on Earth, he was teaching the Dharma across India. Another sign that maybe they don't need prophets the way my Father thinks they do.

I think I would have liked him. The Buddha, that is.

I find that I like more of them than I had expected. Loving them has always been an occupational given, but I've never before spent this much time among them without being constantly preoccupied with spreading my Father's words and preparing for my own sacrifice. They're … oddly endearing. Maybe it's because I'm too much like them that I find their frailty and striving so compelling, but I think not; Lucifer is a little addicted to them himself, as he'd be the first to admit.

Why else do you think we fight so hard to keep them from one another?

Now that I've thrown a wrench in the endgame plan, the fight continues. But I no longer am privy to my Father's strategy. He no longer trusts that I will be His judge, jury, and executioner, and I'm at peace with that. I've forgiven Him, just as I forgive all of them.

May He find it in Himself to forgive me my trespass — my treachery, as his lawyers would have it — in time as well.

Or maybe it's what He intended all along. Maybe we were playing good cop, bad cop to the world and only one of us had seen the script. Maybe all His anger, all His wrath, the way He cast me out and denies me now, perhaps it was all meant to engender the end (or lack thereof) that in fact ensued.

Having a Father who is both all-knowing and ineffable can give you a real complex.

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Chapter Text

The file devolves into gobbledygook. You scroll down, hopefully, but no, it's like that all the way through. How careless your author must have been, not to notice that! Clearly, they are not conversant with the use of the "Preview" function. You have told yourself not to expect anything spectacular for your Yuletide story, but this is still disappointing, like maybe the author didn't care enough about you to do a good job.

It's probably not even worth bothering Elyn again; you don't want to be disappointed by this author a third time, and she deserves to relax, too. You resolve to buck up and get over it. It was a good holiday, anyway, and you need to go to bed soon. There's a sour taste in your mouth from the whole thing, but some rest — and maybe another slice of pie — will fix that.

And it's not like this was the only story out there, anyway. You click over to the archive, hoping that maybe someone else has written something in the fandoms you requested. That way, at least you'll have something to read, even if it's not technically for you. And seeing the thousands of stories there already makes you feel a bit better. So what if none of them is for you? It's still kind of amazing, really, the outpouring of gifts for, in most cases, complete strangers, based on mutual interest and shared community.

You page through the archive and find an old 2006 I ♥ Huckabees story that is really pretty satisfying, so you read though that while having some pie — and a glass of wine — and go to bed somewhat mollified.

Over breakfast, in between spooning bites of oatmeal into your child's mouth and getting something to eat yourself, you check the Yuletide comm. Nobody else mentions troubles like yours, but you hadn't really expected it; you just had the bad luck to be assigned a sloppy author, that's all. But people are already starting to post recs lists, and there's undoubtedly something awesome there to read. You look through a few, but don't recognize any of the fandoms. About halfway down the page, though, you find one that lists a fandom you know, so you click the link.

And there on the list, what do you see but a rec for your story. The one you read last night, that devolved into gobbledegook halfway through! Curious, you look to see what the reccer said about that.

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Maybe your author re-uploaded overnight, because you sure wouldn't say the corrupted file you saw last night "provided closure." Quite the opposite! And "voices"? There was only one narrative voice in the story you read. Curious, you click on the link she provides.

And it's not the same story at all; that reccer must have gotten the title confused when she typed the link. This one appears to be a New Year's Resolution story from two years ago that someone wrote for you, but you've never seen it until now. Well, at least you'll get a real story this year. That's something! You put the spoon down and make sure your kid can't reach anything breakable. He's entertaining himself by babbling and smearing cereal in his hair, but you have to give him a bath later anyway, and he seems happy.

You start to read.

Chapter Text

Scene: A darkened bedroom, in which we can make out only the vague shapes of chairs, a bed, framed pictures on the walls. Suddenly, a door bursts open, stage left, admitting HANNAH. She is framed in the electric light from the hallway, her hair escaping from its clip, and she is clutching a yellowed piece of paper.

HANNAH: I've found it! I knew it had to be here somewhere!

VALENTINE: (Sitting up blearily and clicking on the bedside lamp) What?

HANNAH: Proof! (She waves the piece of paper triumphantly). In Lady Croom's garden books!

VALENTINE: (Still not awake) Proof? Of what?

HANNAH: Of my hermit! I knew he was the tutor, but I couldn't prove it before. Listen, it's an unfinished draft of a letter to her brother. I found it tucked in the back of the 1812 books.

Dearest brother,

Sidley Park is still draped in mourning, and we all walk the halls on tiptoe and speak in hushed voices. Augustus has left Eton for the term and come home for the funeral and to support me; even he seems subdued. The funeral was lovely — as lovely as a funeral for one so young and beloved can be — and I wished you could have been there to sit beside me and hold my hand, though I understand there was not time to make the journey.

HANNAH: Blah blah blah estate business, blah blah blah dahlias….Oh yes, here.
As for Septimus — you remember dear Thomasina's tutor, who so bravely tried to save her from the blaze — the doctors seem increasingly sure that he will recover from his burns. The poor fellow was caught beneath a burning ceiling beam as he tried to drag her from the room, and he was quite badly burnt over the lower half of his body. By the time we were able to subdue the fire, he was nearly dead, and Thomasina had already passed beyond our help.

Still, we owe him so much for his attempt. If only he had smelled the smoke earlier … but

HANNAH: And that's it. She's scratched out a few words after and there are some edits to the earlier part; she must have copied it over in a better hand before sending to it him.

VALENTINE: And this is about your hermit?

HANNAH: Yes, don't you see? We thought he had left the household after Thomasina's death, and there was nothing to connect him with the mathematical genius in the hermitage. But I knew it — I knew it!

VALENTINE: (Sitting up) But there still isn't. First, there's no proof that your hermit's so-called mathematical genius was anything more than lunatic numerology. And second, I don't see what the tutor, heroic or no, has to do with the hermit.

HANNAH: But… (Deflating) But he stayed, don't you see?

VALENTINE: Until he recovered. Or died.

HANNAH: Or moved into the hermitage.

VALENTINE: You're starting to sound like Bernard.

HANNAH: Oh, God. (Dejected) You're right, of course. I am still convinced they are the same man, but it's all intuition and association. (She sits down on the end of the bed, holding the letter in her hands.)

VALENTINE: Why do you need the hermit at all?

HANNAH: What do you mean?

VALENTINE: You saw what the computer did with Thomasina's equations yesterday. If you need a genius, you needn't dig up a mysterious hermit; there's a small but respectable paper in her, I should think.

HANNAH: (Brightening) Really?

VALENTINE: Sure. Look, I'll do the maths, you do the historical Enlightenment/Romantic bit (Waving his hand dismissively), and I'm sure we can find a journal to take it somewhere. If nothing else, it will give us a publication while we're waiting for the damn grouse and the hermit to come together. What do you say?

HANNAH: It does have a certain Gothic appeal, doesn't it?

VALENTINE: Too right.

HANNAH: And the feminists will love it. A precursor to Lovelace, the woman whose insight went unrecognized due to her sex…

VALENTINE: Or her death.

HANNAH: Right. (Slowly) I do wonder what happened to that tutor, though. Brave of him to try to save her like that.

VALENTINE: Can we speculate about it sometime when I'm not trying to sleep?

HANNAH: (Flustered) Oh, I'm so sorry. I just found this and I was so excited … I'll go.

VALENTINE: We'll talk about the article at breakfast, all right?

HANNAH: (Already headed out the door) Yes! Thank you … sleep tight!

VALENTINE clicks off the light and settles back down under the covers.


The stage gradually brightens as if the sun were flooding unseen windows with light. The room is the same; the lamp should be a modern version of a period lamp, for example, that is vaguely at home in both the modern day and 1812, and the furnishings and wall decorations should be likewise amenable to either period. The door opens once more to admit LADY CROOM. She is followed by JELLABY carrying a tray with LADY CROOM's infusion, cups, and a covered bowl. He sets the tray down on the bedside table and exits, closing the door.

LADY CROOM: (Clearing her throat) Good morning.

SEPTIMUS: (Startling, then groaning and turning over more carefully to face her) My lady. I apologize for… (His voice is raspy, damaged.)

LADY CROOM: (Brusquely) Nonsense. I have brought your tea, and I wished to discuss a small matter with you, if you are at leisure.

SEPTIMUS: (Grimacing as he sits up and smoothes his nightgown) I find myself too much at leisure, my lady. I should be happy to entertain such a charming distraction as yourself.

LADY CROOM: (Taking a seat in the high-backed chair near the bed.) Very good. Tea?

SEPTIMUS: Yes, please.

There is a small silence as she pours and amends the two cups, during which SEPTIMUS investigates the contents of the covered dish.

SEPTIMUS: Rice pudding.

LADY CROOM: Is it not to your liking?

SEPTIMUS: It is not that. It is that … never mind.

He stirs in a dollop of jam and watches, meditatively, as it creates a swirling pattern, then reverses his spoon and watches the color bleed out pink into the mush.

SEPTIMUS: You see, mathematically speaking, one should be able to reverse the stirring of the jam into the pudding. Un-stir it, as it were. But because we are limited by the uni-directional flow of time, we cannot reverse the past. It is… (He looks up and notices that she is wearing a look of polite disinterest. A less well-bred woman would be fidgeting, but LADY CROOM merely exhibits a somewhat fixed smile and abstract look.) I apologize, my lady. I am afraid my mind wanders a bit these days. What was the matter you wished to discuss?

LADY CROOM: (Straightening and setting down her teacup) Your continued employment, Mister Hodge.

SEPTIMUS: My continued employment.

LADY CROOM: Yes. I find (Her voice falters slightly) that we no longer have need of you as a tutor, Mister Hodge.

SEPTIMUS: I see. Well, you have been terribly generous to keep me on so long, at any rate. I must beg your indulgence for a few weeks more, I am afraid, as I am currently in no condition to…

LADY CROOM: You mistake my meaning.

SEPTIMUS: My lady?

LADY CROOM: I wish to offer you … an alternate position. As I was saying, we no longer have need of your services as a tutor. However, we are looking to engage a hermit.

SEPTIMUS: A hermit.

LADY CROOM: Exactly so. While I am afraid we can offer only a paltry wage, you would of course continue to receive room, board, and the hospitality of the house whenever you wished. There would be no need to begin your occupancy until you are quite well, of course, and as always, the library would remain at your disposal, should you wish to continue your studies.

SEPTIMUS: I hardly know what to say.

LADY CROOM: I ask only that you think on it. (Rising) Will you consider the possibility?

SEPTIMUS: Of course, madam.

LADY CROOM: Good. I look forward to your decision on the matter. (She sweeps out.)

SEPTIMUS leans back against the headboard and sighs. He stirs his pudding slowly, watching the spoon travel around the bowl without ever raising it to his lips.

SEPTIMUS: Me, a hermit. What do you think of it, Plautus?

The turtle is nowhere to be seen, but SEPTIMUS continues to address it.

A month or so ago I should have laughed at such an offer. But I was a whole man, then. (He places the bowl on the bedside tray, still untouched, and raises the bedsheets, looking under them mournfully.) The action of bodies in heat, indeed. Too much heat, and it's all gone cold. Even my lady's presence … well.

He sighs.

It's a better offer than any other I'm likely to get now; my keep and a little extra, and time and space to work. That equation of hers will drive me mad if I don't work it out. And who knows?

Perhaps there's something in it after all.

The light fades.


From the lost ravings of the Sidley Park hermit, ca 1812:

Goose-a goose-a gander
Where shall I wander?
Up stairs and down stairs
In my lady's chamber.
I should not have gone. I said I would not.

x 168 = 0.85* 0.07 + 0.04* 7.62 + 0 = 0.0625 + 0.3047 = 0.37
y 168 = -0.04* 0.07 + 0.85* 7.62 + 1.60 = -0.0029 + 6.4741 + 1.60 = 8.07
x 169 = 0.85* 0.37 + 0.04* 8.07 + 0 = 0.3121 + 0.3228 = 0.63
y 169 = -0.04* 0.37 + 0.85* 8.07 + 1.60 = -0.0147 + 6.8605 + 1.60 = 8.45
x 170 = 0.85* 0.63 + 0.04* 8.45 + 0 = 0.5397 + 0.3378 = 0.88
y 170 = -0.04* 0.63 + 0.85* 8.45 + 1.60 = -0.0254 + 7.1789 + 1.60 = 8.75
x 171 = 0.85* 0.88 + 0.04* 8.75 + 0 = 0.7459 + 0.3501 = 1.1
y 171 = -0.04* 0.88 + 0.85* 8.75 + 1.60 = -0.0351 + 7.4405 + 1.60 = 9.01

I told her to be careful with the candle.
I should have been more careful.

x 172 = 0.85* 1.1 + 0.04* 9.01 + 0 = 0.9316 + 0.3602 = 1.29
y 172 = -0.04* 1.1 + 0.85* 9.01 + 1.60 = -0.0438 + 7.6546 + 1.60 = 9.21
x 173 = -0.15* 1.29 + 0.28* 9.21 + 0 = -0.1938 + 2.579 = 2.39
y 173 = 0.26* 1.29 + 0.24* 9.21 + 0.44 = 0.3359 + 2.2106 + 0.44 = 2.99
x 174 = 0.85* 2.39 + 0.04* 2.99 + 0 = 2.0275 + 0.1195 = 2.15
y 174 = -0.04* 2.39 + 0.85* 2.99 + 1.60 = -0.0954 + 2.5385 + 1.60 = 4.04
x 175 = 0.85* 2.15 + 0.04* 4.04 + 0 = 1.8249 + 0.1617 = 1.99
y 175 = -0.04* 2.15 + 0.85* 4.04 + 1.60 = -0.0859 + 3.4366 + 1.60 = 4.95
x 176 = 0.85* 1.99 + 0.04* 4.95 + 0 = 1.6886 + 0.198 = 1.89
y 176 = -0.04* 1.99 + 0.85* 4.95 + 1.60 = -0.0795 + 4.2081 + 1.60 = 5.73

If the improved Newtonian universe must cease and grow cold, then to expend energy is to hasten the death of the world. To act is to bring about the end of all action.

y 286 = -0.04* -1.16 + 0.85* 5.5 + 1.60 = 0.0465 + 4.6776 + 1.60 = 6.32
x 287 = 0.85* -0.77 + 0.04* 6.32 + 0 = -0.6523 + 0.253 = -0.4
y 287 = -0.04* -0.77 + 0.85* 6.32 + 1.60 = 0.0307 + 5.3755 + 1.60 = 7.01
x 288 = 0.85* -0.4 + 0.04* 7.01 + 0 = -0.3394 + 0.2802 = -0.06
y 288 = -0.04* -0.4 + 0.85* 7.01 + 1.60 = 0.016 + 5.9553 + 1.60 = 7.57
x 289 = -0.15* -0.06 + 0.28* 7.57 + 0 = 0.0089 + 2.1199 = 2.13
y 289 = 0.26* -0.06 + 0.24* 7.57 + 0.44 = -0.0154 + 1.8171 + 0.44 = 2.24
x 290 = 0.85* 2.13 + 0.04* 2.24 + 0 = 1.8095 + 0.0897 = 1.9
y 290 = -0.04* 2.13 + 0.85* 2.24 + 1.60 = -0.0852 + 1.9055 + 1.60 = 3.42

The children came today. Plautus is sulking.

x 291 = 0.85* 1.9 + 0.04* 3.42 + 0 = 1.6143 + 0.1368 = 1.75
y 291 = -0.04* 1.9 + 0.85* 3.42 + 1.60 = -0.076 + 2.9073 + 1.60 = 4.43
x 292 = 0.85* 1.75 + 0.04* 4.43 + 0 = 1.4884 + 0.1773 = 1.67
y 292 = -0.04* 1.75 + 0.85* 4.43 + 1.60 = -0.07 + 3.7666 + 1.60 = 5.3
x 293 = 0.85* 1.67 + 0.04* 5.3 + 0 = 1.4158 + 0.2119 = 1.63
y 293 = -0.04* 1.67 + 0.85* 5.3 + 1.60 = -0.0666 + 4.5021 + 1.60 = 6.04
x 294 = 0.85* 1.63 + 0.04* 6.04 + 0 = 1.3835 + 0.2414 = 1.62
y 294 = -0.04* 1.63 + 0.85* 6.04 + 1.60 = -0.0651 + 5.1301 + 1.60 = 6.67
x 295 = 0.85* 1.62 + 0.04* 6.67 + 0 = 1.3812 + 0.2666 = 1.65
y 295 = -0.04* 1.62 + 0.85* 6.67 + 1.60 = -0.065 + 5.6653 + 1.60 = 7.2
x 296 = 0.85* 1.65 + 0.04* 7.2 + 0 = 1.4006 + 0.288 = 1.69
y 296 = -0.04* 1.65 + 0.85* 7.2 + 1.60 = -0.0659 + 6.1202 + 1.60 = 7.65
x 297 = 0.85* 1.69 + 0.04* 7.65 + 0 = 1.4354 + 0.3062 = 1.74
y 297 = -0.04* 1.69 + 0.85* 7.65 + 1.60 = -0.0675 + 6.5062 + 1.60 = 8.04
x 298 = 0.85* 1.74 + 0.04* 8.04 + 0 = 1.4803 + 0.3215 = 1.8

Chapter Text

And then it's pages of equations. Or rather, the same equation, iterated. Which, okay, is canonical, but you scroll through them, and there aren't any more words. The story, such as it is, ends there. Anticlimactic, really, but at least fairly authentic.

And hey, at least it has an ending. That's a welcome change. You leave the author a brief note, apologizing for not having seen the story before and letting them know you enjoyed it.

And then it's bath time. Oh my God, is it ever bath time. Your cereal monster is perfectly content in his congealing rind of oatmeal, but you hold him at arm's length, gingerly, as you carry him to the tub. The things you put up with for a little quiet reading time!

It's great to have more than a couple of days with everyone at home like this. After all of you are clean and dressed and more or less functional, you have time to focus on doing the things you never seem to get to do together in the rush of daily life. It's an enjoyable morning.

And then, finally, your kid has gone down for his morning nap. After yesterday's excitement, he needs it! And frankly, a nap sounds pretty good to you, too, but you decide to check your email first.

There's an email from a fannish friend of yours, squeeing about her Yuletide story. It doesn't sound like your kind of thing, but she's thrilled and you're glad for her. "What'ja get?" she asks, like you used to do with friends in grade school. "Did your recipient like the story you wrote?"

Your recipient had kindly warned you that they'd be gone for the holiday and would read your story as soon as they could, so you haven't been worrying too much about it, but you tell your friend the saga of your weird Yuletide story-that-isn't anyway.

"At this point, what I really want is just something simple," you write. "I've had all the misdirection and miscommunication and doubt and uncertainty and layers I can handle. I just want a story, you know?"

You send it off and scroll through your other emails — some nice feedback, some belated holiday greetings.

You read the feedback first, of course. Despite all the weird drama surrounding your gift story this year, the real point of Yuletide, for you, is getting to write something for someone. This year's prompt had been a real challenge and a stretch and you're proud of it, so hearing that it's pleased other people is both relief and affirmation.

There's not a lot of feedback; the fandom was pretty rare, and you hadn't really expected anyone but your recipient to read it. But there are a couple of emails, a few "nice job!" type comments and one really wonderful, thoughtful long squee from someone you know vaguely online and whose opinion you have always respected. Your fingers itch to respond, but you know you have to wait until the reveal, so you flag it for later and move on to the holiday greetings, smiling to yourself.

You're almost through reading, and really starting to consider that nap seriously, when your email chimes again.

Maybe it's more feedback, maybe even from your recipient, who surely must be due back soon? You scroll up eagerly, and … no. Your friend who you emailed earlier has sent back a reply … a single link to something in the Archive.

You can't resist. You click through.

And see your name at the top.

This is getting really bizarre. It's a story from this year's Yuletide that clearly lists you as the recipient. But once again, it's not in a fandom you requested, though you are familiar with it, and it's not a story you've seen before.

The title, though, the title grabs you. And okay, this whole thing is getting a little Twilight Zone, but it's a story, and it looks interesting, and … maybe you'll nap this afternoon instead.

Chapter Text

May, 1915

Charlie and I were taking lunch at Arbor Villa. Or rather, we'd finished lunch and Charlie and Borax had retired to the study. I went down the hill to coo at the babies. We don't visit the Villa often — mostly when Charlie is looking for financing for a new show or illusion — but Borax had contacted us this time, saying he had something he wanted to discuss with Charlie.

So they were meeting about whatever it was, and I was going down the hill to visit with the ladies and bounce their infants and generally spread what cheer I could. I had a packet of cookies the girls at Jessie's had baked up, and I was hoping I could put a smile on at least one face, even if it was a gas-induced baby smile.

There hadn't been a lot of smiling around there for a while. About half a year earlier — right before the last time we'd visited, as a matter of fact — one of the ladies had been killed horribly, and it had cast a pall over the whole place. I mean, it's usually surprisingly cheerful around there for a home for "fallen women." Most of those women didn't "fall," after all. They were pushed, by some man like the one that murdered that poor girl. It made me so mad, I wished I could go out and find all those men and knock them down a time or two, see how they like it. But at Borax's place, the women were all picking themselves up, getting a second chance at a life they could define for themselves.

Every once in a while, though, a reminder like that comes along, of why they're there, and it leaves a shadow over everything.

Well, and maybe I wasn't the best one to try to lift it, either. Because that place was hard for me in a totally different way, one I couldn't do anything about. Me and Charlie, see, we'd been trying to have a baby ourselves. Trying for years, even, and no amount of folk remedies or doctor's visits or sweet lovemaking could do the trick. So those ladies, they were jealous of me, and my good, honest, loyal man, but I was jealous as heck of them and their round bellies and squirming babies.

I wasn't even all the way down the hill, though, when Charlie pulled up next to me. "Let's go, Annabelle," he said, and he looked so upset I just got in the car without even asking why. But he didn't start back up again right away, just leaned his forehead against the steering wheel.

"What's going on?" I asked him. "What did Borax say?"

Charlie laughed, a short, mirthless bark. "He offered to finance my entire next run."

"But that's great, honey, you were hoping…" I looked at him again. "What's the catch?"

"He's got a girl on the run from the law, and he wants us to take her with us. He's been hiding her here while she recovers, and now he wants us to get her out of town."

"Recovers from what?"

"Does it matter? I told him I'm an illusionist, not a real magician. I can't make girls disappear, and I sure as hell don't need any trouble with the law."

"But Charlie…"

"And he wanted us to adopt her babe, too. Can you imagine? A babe in arms and a blind murderess on the circuit with Carter the Great! It's a headlining magic act, not a circus sideshow, for God's sake."

"Charlie."

Something about my tone of voice must have got through to him, because he stopped ranting and really looked at me.

"You know he wouldn't ask if he weren't desperate. And you know he wouldn't hide just anyone; she must be something special."

"You're not serious, Annabelle. Sarah."

He only calls me Sarah when he's angry. But why shouldn't I be serious? I wasn't saying we'd do it, I was just saying he should have heard Borax out, and I told him as much.

"That's crazy." He popped the clutch and the car roared to life, starting to chug down the hill once more. "We're leaving."

And that was a mistake, because he should know better than anyone that I hate being told what to do. I had my door open and had hopped out before he'd driven more than a yard or two.

I'd made it halfway back up the hill before he could turn around and come after me, and what a sight we must have looked, all dolled up in our Sunday best yelling at each other at the tops of our lungs through the car window.

But he wouldn't leave without me, and he couldn't drive that car into the house, so he had to get out eventually. He caught up with me, panting and red-faced, as I was about to knock on the door of Borax's study.

"Annabelle, please," he said.

"I just want the whole story, Charlie, that's all. Hear him out."

And without waiting for his reply, I rapped hard on the door.


July, 1923

An essay by Katherine Carter, age 8½, which occasioned a rather stern and uncomfortable parent conference and possibly presaged the later withdrawal of the young lady in question from Presidio Heights Elementary school.


My famly

We are sposed to write about our famlys. My famly is big so I have to write a lot which is not fair, Margret did not have to. My Daddy is a magishun and my Mama Annabelle and my Mama Pheobe help him too. My Uncle LeDuck lets me help build his invenshuns, only he is not my real uncle like Uncle James and Tom. Also there are the stage hands but they do not really count. We live in San Fransisco and have a lyon named Baby, but he is a nice lyon. Daddy lets me help walk him sometimes.

The End


March, 1925

I had to go to the Home today. I hate going there — the place stinks of sanctimonious disapproval — but they have the only Braille library in the city and I must have books.

Still, I could feel the judgment in there, crawling on my skin, so I was waiting on the steps outside when Charlie and Katie and Anabelle came to pick me up.

Chapter Text

"Mama!"

Your son runs over, demanding that you read the latest board book favorite yet again. He looks so cute you can't resist, though you want to read the rest of your story. But reading together, and sharing your love of books, is a dual pleasure and not to be denied. You set the laptop down and cuddle him up in your lap, where he sits through several repetitions of the chosen book and then begs for another — and another, and another — before getting squirmy and restless.

It's lunchtime; no wonder he's a little fussy. Thank goodness for leftovers, because you don't really feel like cooking. It's nice to sit down with your partner and your kid and do something that takes you away from the screen for a little while, and you hadn't realized how hungry you were getting until you got up. Sometimes reading is like that … you read something, and it links to something else, and you click on something off of that, and before you know it, it's hours later and you're starving.

After lunch you take a chilly walk, just long enough to let the munchkin run around in the fresh air and try out his new snow boots. Everyone's noses are reddened and fingers are chilly by the time you come back in, stamping your feet to clear them of slush and unwinding yards of scarves and layers. The kidlet immediately rushes back to his pile of toys, re-discovering them anew after an hour's absence, and your partner follows him, so you know he's safe and taken care of. Smiling to yourself, you curl up under the afghan and pick up your laptop once more.

But the screen is dark and it doesn't respond to your fingers on the keys. Too late, you notice that your son popped out the power cord when he came toddling over. The battery on your laptop is old enough that it can't hold out for too long without being connected, and it has shut itself down. Thank God you weren't working on anything that wasn't saved. You reboot it with a sigh.

The familiar chime tells you your computer is waking up fine. And as soon as the screen comes up, you navigate back over to your browser.

Firefox opens with all the tabs you had in it when your computer shut down, thank goodness, so you find the one for the Archive and start to read.

But the story has changed again. This isn't about Katherine, or Phoebe, or Annabelle, or any of them. This is a totally different fandom, one it takes you a few paragraphs to even recognize, since you hadn't thought about it since nominating it.

You're almost inured to the creepiness by now, but only almost. It seems to be fairly innocuous, but you kind of hope it will stop soon. The idea of not being able to trust the permanence of any text you pick up is disturbing to you; you like books precisely because they are static, contained worlds that you can return to again and again. If you wanted to change them, you'd write fanfiction, after all.

In a fit of paranoia, you get up and go to your bookshelf. But no, the dedications on your favorite novels are still to strangers. So at least there are limits to the phenomenon.

You pick up your computer again, a little gingerly, and start to read. If this happens again, you'll suggest an archive exorcism to the mods; but for the moment, you're too curious about this new story to worry too much about where it came from.

Chapter Text

From: Lily <lilypads35@yahoo.com>
Date: November 26, 2007 6:03:02 PM PST
To: Fatale <cybergrrrl2005@gmail.com>
Subject: How are you?

Hey, Fatale.

Just checking in to see how you're doing — I saw in the papers that you left the Champions. Let me know if there's anything I can do, okay?

Here's something that might help. I went to see Jonathan — Dr. Impossible — the other day and he gave me these; they're the build records for your cybernetic mods. There aren't a lot of other people who can handle this kind of work out there, but I know a few, so if anything goes haywire, or if you want to customize at some point, I can give you some references.

I'd like to say that he said he was sorry, or even that he remembered you, but he just gave me the codes to access them when I asked. He can be kind of a self-centered jerk sometimes, and he gets really preoccupied when he's locked up.

Anyway, hope you're okay.

Best,

Lils


From: Fatale <cybergrrrl2005@gmail.com>
Date: November 26, 2007 8:52:59 PM PST
To: Lily <lilypads35@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: How are you?

Lily!

How am I? Jesus, I don't know. How are you? Nobody's heard anything from you since you sort of singlehandedly saved the day back there and then disappeared. I mean, I don't blame you; they were pretty much assholes to you right before that and probably didn't deserve the help. But I'd been kind of worried about you, and it's good to know you haven't just vanished off the face of the earth.

And yeah, I left, but it wasn't … they didn't kick me out or anything. It just wasn't what I thought it would be. I haven't figured out what I'm going to do next, but I've got enough from my share of the reward (they didn't save you a share, since you technically quit before the capture, even though you did all the work. But I imagine you're not surprised by that) to keep me going for a few months while I decide.

What are you up to? Are you and Dr. Impossible back together? I really appreciate you getting me those records — you know you didn't have to, but I feel better just … knowing, you know?

Fatale


From: Lily <lilypads35@yahoo.com>
Date: November 27, 2007 10:32:06 AM PST
To: Fatale <cybergrrrl2005@gmail.com>
Subject: Re: How are you?

Hey, Fatale.

No, Jonathan and I are not "back together." I am so over being treated like a sidekick — evil or otherwise — I can't even tell you. Besides, he still thinks he'll be invincible someday, and it's getting a little tiresome. Persistence is admirable, but so is knowing when to quit.

Speaking of which, I see Blackwolf and Damsel are back together. Again, I'd say I'm sorry, but those two sort of deserve each other, and you deserve better.

As for me, I'm okay. Don't worry about the reward — I had reserves left over from before, and I'm actually taking some time off from the whole powered world to write a book. I had a little custom mod of my own done — it's why I went to see Jonathan — and now I've got this little gadget that bends light frequencies to let me live in my alternate identity again. It is so weird to go out on the streets without people doing a double-take; weird, but nice.

Do you think you'll go back to mercenary work? Switch sides? I've got contacts all over the powered world, whatever you decide to do, so let me know when you figure it out. And good luck.

Best,

Lils


From: Fatale <cybergrrrl2005@gmail.com>
Date: November 27, 2007 3:11:46 PM PST
To: Lily <lilypads35@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: How are you?

You're writing a book? What's it about? I wish I could write. I'm not quite sure what I can do, honestly, apart from my powers; I don't remember a lot from before my accident. So that's part of what I'm trying to figure out. I don't want to switch sides, but I don't really want to be a merc again, either. There's got to be something I can do that isn't, you know, heroic or evil and still gets some respect. I'm working on it, and thanks for the offer of your network.

I think you're right about Blackwolf and Damsel. It never would have worked out, anyway. I'm still trying to figure out this whole thing about how people live with being powered, especially when you've got physical manifestations like we do. Sure, I can take down bad guys and access electronic mainframes from this body, but I still haven't figured out how to, you know, date or anything when I'm half-metal and weigh twice as much as any non-powered guy out there. Any tips?

Your new gadget sounds awesome. I kind of wish I had something like that, but I'm getting used to who I am now. It would just be nice if everyone else could get used to it, too.

Anyway, enough about me. Tell me about this book of yours?

Fatale


From: Lily <lilypads35@yahoo.com>
Date: November 29, 2007 5:31:12 PM PST
To: Fatale <cybergrrrl2005@gmail.com>
Subject: Re: How are you?

Fatale,

I hope you find your niche, I really do. Being part of the Champions, however briefly, really brought home to me that there aren't a lot of us out there that you could really call well-adjusted. And you're too level-headed to end up as screwed up as Rainbow Triumph or Damsel.

I'm pretty sure you don't need to know who you were to figure out who you are now, or what you're good at. I hope the build records give you some insight into what you're capable of, anyway, and I know you're competent enough to figure out whatever you set your mind to. Fuck law and order; think outside of the box, right? World's first cybernetic librarian, or engineer, or chef, or whatever calls to you. Don't let what you are limit who you can be.

As for dating, you could always get a sugar daddy. That would solve all your problems at once. You know, I knew these two powered women once — I won't say who, because they were pretty well known, before they both retired — but one was a superhero and one was a supervillain, and they used to shack up together. They were arch-nemeses during the day and went home to each other every night. You could have your occupation, income, and relationship, all in a tidy, fucked-up package, et voila!.

I mention this because, if dangerous, powered, and seriously neurotic is your type, I know some evil geniuses I could introduce you to. No, not Jonathan. Want me to set you up?

Lils


From: Fatale <cybergrrrl2005@gmail.com>
Date: November 27, 2007 7:22:42 PM PST
To: Lily <lilypads35@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: How are you?

Lils,

Thanks.

And very funny. Tell me about your book, and stop trying to distract me.

Fatale


From: Lily <lilypads35@yahoo.com>
Date: November 27, 2007 11:56:55 PM PST
To: Fatale <cybergrrrl2005@gmail.com>
Subject: Re: How are you?

Fatale,

Without going too far into my backstory (which isn't my official backstory, and that's a story for another time), I used to be a writer full-time. Not books, not back then — I wrote for the newspapers, and covered the superhero beats. I actually knew both Jason and Jonathan before the accidents that made them CoreFire and Dr. Impossible. I was even there on the day Jason got his powers. So I'm thinking it's about time someone told the real story of who they were, and who they are, and how they got that way. Not a tell-all, I'm not going to out their alternates or anything, but just … set the record straight. I think people might like to know.

The first chapter is attached. I'd love to know what you think.

Lils

Chapter Text

Of course nothing is attached. Of course the story ends there. You know better than to expect closure at this point.

You hear your computer chime; you have a new email. Perhaps it is from your recipient, writing to thank you for telling the story they have always wanted. Or your friend, with another link or a reply to your original tale. Or Nigerian spam. Perhaps it is feedback from another reader, someone random, letting you know that you have written the story they did not know they wanted until they read it.

You are tempted to check, but you put it off for just a bit longer. After all, you need to finish reading your Yuletide story.