The maitre d’ tries to pull out my chair, but Jason beats him to the punch. The chair slides back. I dutifully plant myself on it. He helps push it forward as I slide my feet under the table.
He trots around to the other side of the table, sits and grins at me.
I raise an eyebrow. Then I push the chair back, get up, walk around it, sit back down, and scoot myself back in (quickly, before the staring maitre d’ can push it in on my behalf himself).
Jason’s grin is a bit strained as we’re handed menus, before the maitre d’ bows and departs. Then it fades completely. “Really?”
“I’m not a frail passion-flower, Jason. If it’s something I could do for you, fine. If it’s something simply because I’m wearing this dress, nuh-uh.”
“You could have pulled out the chair for me.”
“And then you’d have sulked because of it.”
That brings a small grin. “Mmmmaybe.” He sighs. “That makes … um … gallant romantic gestures a bit more difficult.”
“Suck it up, buttercup.” I sigh, and confess, “Also, I’m very, very tense, so I may be cranky or act erratically. You have been warned.”
“You may act erotically?” The smile is back.
"Jesus Vishnu, Jason, knock it off!" I say that a bit more vehemently than intended. Not quite enough to turn heads, but I bite my tongue anyway. “Sorry,” I mutter.
The smile is now a bit crooked, and he nods. “I get it. Believe me.” A pause, then he adds, in a casual tone. “I thought I was going to throw up when I was taking a shower this afternoon.”
“I hope that kind of comment isn’t meant to be a ‘gallant romantic gesture.’”
“Oh. Yikes. Yeah, maybe talking about vomiting isn’t good for a fancy dinner, either.”
“Maybe not.” Though it’s still kind of sweet to know.
I look at him, judging (as I always do) how he looks, what’s changed. Which is stupid, because we go to the same school, and it’s only been something measured in weeks (maybe a month?) since I’ve last seen him (that long? yikes, indeed). But it’s an automatic reflex for me, from days when our separations were of a very different nature. Besides, having seen how one future version of him turns out, I’m looking with fresh eyes.
He looks a little thinner. At least he not trying to grow a beard yet.
Jason catches me looking at him, raises an eyebrow.
I gesture at our surroundings. “Pinnacle’s. Nice.”
“Yeah, that’s a gallant, romantic gesture,” he says, looking around, too. The wrap-around window, where we’re seated, looks out on night-time Halcyon from fifty stories up, as the building-top restaurant slowly rotates around. “Jeff – ‘Pinnacle’ – he was a friend of the family. One of the few supers Dad could stand. He came to Dad asking for help with skeletal issues as he kept using his growth potion. Probably added another 10 years to his hero career. He’s a cool guy.”
Aside from cashing in on his fame to open a restaurant for the elite of the city. “I look forward to the meal. It gets good reviews, but showy places sometimes don’t live up to their hype.”
He gives me a sideways look. “That’s either a truism or a subtle dig.”
So it is. Huh. “Sometimes the two are the same.”
“Alycia, are we going to spend the evening sniping at each other? Or you sniping at me? 'Cause, much as I’ve been looking forward to this --”
“And getting nauseous.”
“-- and gettin nauseous at the tension, I have other things I could be doing.”
“Other people you could be going with?”
He stops, looks at me with an expression that’s half glare, half deer-in-headlights. “Alycia, I wouldn’t even be back in town if we weren’t doing this tonight,” he says, his voice quiet but unstrained.
I close my eyes. Open them. “Sorry,” I apologize. “Like I said, very, very tense.”
We sit there, quietly, for a few hours minute or so. “So – you look really nice.”
I bite back a comment about wishing I was in jeans, t-shirt, and my hair tied back. Or maybe in camo and tactical armor and face paint. It would be more comfortable, in its own way. Something I was more used to. I joked with Jason a few days back over text about how I invaded a diplomatic party when I was 15. Even then, though I managed to pass, I felt like a little girl in a world that wasn’t my own. I feel like that now.
At my silence, he adds, “I like your dress.”
“Good investment?” Before he can open his mouth, I hold up a hand. “Thank you, Jason,” I say, slower and more formally, making my brain control what I say, not my instincts. “I appreciate the complement, as a mature adult would.” I stop, raise an eyebrow.
“I suppose I should complement you back, though I don’t think I’ve seen a black-on-black tux, or quite that cut --” I pause. “Nanobots?”
Jason nods, grin even broader. “I’ve been working on more sophisticated clothing options than a turtleneck or t-shirt. Different textures, making it move like actual layers of fabric. It’s becoming easier, now that I’m not afraid of the things.”
“Henry Ford would approve of the color spectrum.”
“I’m actually working on that, too, but I can’t keep it up consistently.” He flushes. “The color scheme. That is.”
I smile. “I understood what you meant. And I have reason to not even consider the other entendre to be true.”
He blushes more fiercely, which is kind of fun to see.
Another young couple, dressed up in dance finery, walks past. I don’t recognize them. Maybe another school.To Jason I say, “I also wanted to thank you for the ride.”
“I would have picked you up personally, but AEGIS wouldn’t provide me with an address, and I figured if I hacked the location they might get antsy. So instead they sent me a two-time encrypted map-nav package for the Qdisc, and your carriage arrives to pick you up and takes you home again, too.”
“You are scanning that package, I assume.”
Jason chuckles. “Trust but virus-scan. Also, I kept it isolated from the network and will do a hard factory reset after the fact. I’d burn the damn Qdisc, just to be safe, but they cost about a half-mil, and the Board gets antsy about that sort of thing.”
“Fair enough.” I pause. Okay, why not? “I get out of durance vile tomorrow, I hope. That would make any hypothetical repeat visits a lot less foggy-bridge-on-the-Havel kind of a thing.”
“Really? That’s great! I’ve – um, I’ve been kind of trying to lean on AEGIS to let you out. Nothing that would provoke a counter-reaction against you, but some words in a few ears about possible contract work we might do for them.”
I stiffen slightly. “Jason, don’t compromise your organization for me.”
“Hey, if not you, then who else?”
“Dammit, Jason, I mean it.”
“Hey, hey --” He holds up his hands in surrender. “No, I didn’t, and wouldn’t. Probably.” He shifts uncomfortably. “Unless it was life or death. But this wasn’t a carte blanche deal by any means. I’ll vet any proposals they make personally, okay?” He takes a sip of ice water. “Unless you want to look them over, too. You have a healthier level of paranoia than I do.”
“True. And tempting. But – I’m a contract agent for them, Jason. Conflict of interest.”
“If it were important --”
“That would be different. But as a normal SOP? No, I couldn’t do that, and you shouldn’t want me to.”
Jason looks at her me a twinkle in his eye. “You are the most damned Lawful Good evil villain I’ve ever met.”
“Please, no Dungeons and Dweebs references tonight.”
“Hey, I can’t believe you’ve never gotten into RPGs.”
“I love Rocket-Propelled Grenades. Took out the lead personnel carrier in a Chinese convoy once with one. Role-Playing Games, though, pale a lot when you’ve spent your life in one.”
He’s silent a moment. “Yeah, I guess I see what you mean.” He bites his lower lip. “My turn to apologize.”
“We’re not keeping score,” I say. “Are we?”
Well, yeah, I’m keeping score. But for my protection, not to prove my superiority. And I’m behind, by being ahead on forced apologies.
“Not at all,” Jason says, and I can tell he’s keeping score, too. Does that count as a point?
A woman a couple of tables over cuts above the quiet hubbub with a loud burst of laughter, interrupting the moment.
“So since you’re getting out of stir before I could break you out --” And Jason gives me a look that … Wait, was he really thinking of how to break me out? Damn. “-- where are you staying?”
Subtle. Well, he teed it up. I pause a moment, then answer, “I’m moving in with Summer.”
Okay, I definitely get points for waiting a moment until he’s taking a sip of ice water. And facing a different direction. It’s not really a spit-take, but it’s about as close as I want in a nice restaurant. See? I can behave.
“Oh! Well, that sounds … fun.”
“Yeah. I figure we’ll have plenty we can talk about.”
“Like … um, robotics? That could be interesting.”
I make a face. “Yeah, not so much into robots, remember? I figure we can talk about you.”
“Welcome to Pinnacle’s, sir, madam,” says a tall, blonde woman with a pleasant alto as she steps up to the table. “I’m Margarithe, I’ll be your server tonight. Have you dined with us before?”
* * *
Margarithe runs through the specials, takes some drink orders (I go with a cucumber water concoction, Jason goes for the sweet ice tea), and wanders off while we study the menu.
Well, I study it while noting that Jason keeps glancing between the menu and me. Okay, we’re both studying both the menus and each other, but I’m being far more covert about it. Finally, he says, “So, what are you thinking of?”
I shake my head, frowning. “You know how I feel about cattle.”
“Ah, the phrases I recall involve ‘mooing methane manufacturing plants’ and ‘lowing victims of humanity’s willingness to slaughter its fellow global denizens’.”
I give him a smile. “Very good.” A point for him.
“But I did pick a place that has some good vegetarian meals, too. I researched it.”
“Gracious of you. But the research I did on this place indicated the Bolognese is to die for. And given the diet that your federal tax dollars have been providing, I’m willing to bend my moral principles --” I give him a different sort of smile. “-- for one evening.”
He looks at me for several long moments, then remembers to take a breath. He responds, “I’m having the lobster.”
“‘Bugs, Mr. Rico.’”
“‘Zillions of them.’”
We both laugh. It’s been years since we discussed Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, and discovered that we both liked it (though for different reasons).
It’s nice to remember that.
* * *
Drinks arrive. Jason holds up his glass. “To memories, past and future.”
“Memories, past and future,” I echo, and we clink glasses, and drink. After a few moments, I ask, “And how are the memories doing?”
“It’s weird. After the … procedure? Well, it was like seeing a set of movies in my head and remembering how I felt when I first saw them.” He shakes his head, a hint of a smile. “I can remember that feeling, but the memories themselves now – they feel like mine. Fully integrated.”
He looks over at me, then, after a beat, holds out is hands on the tabletop, past the small candle in the center. “How about you?”
I snort, lightly. “Kind of the same. Like I had memories, but just a picture album without anything written. After the procedure, it was like I had a narrator, a guide, giving me a really interesting, engaging story about them. Now --” I shrug, then, deliberately, reach out to take his hands with mine. “-- its like the memories, the feelings, are mine, too.”
Jason nods, squeezing my hands just the slightest bit, carefully, like he’s handling porcelain. “I can’t believe how much I didn’t remember.”
“I can’t believe how much I didn’t feel.”
He gives another squeeze and then releases my hands, pulling back. Too fast, too soon for him? I think about the conversation with Summer, where it felt like a dam breach, eroding through far faster than anyone could expect. He’s being more cautious than I was. There are raw, untested feelings there. Stuff that happened that we both, in different ways, forgot. That colored our behavior toward each other. That robbed us –
“Damn!” I slam my fists down on the table, rattling the items there. A couple of glances our direction, hastily turning back away.
I look up at Jason, expecting annoyance, condemnation at my gaffe. I see only sympathy, and agreement. Even if he hadn’t slammed his fists down.
The gaze holds a few moments, and then Margarithe returns for our orders.
* * *
“So. Summer. That’s … unexpected.”
A long silence ensues. I look out at the multicolored cityscape of my new home, watching it slowly pan past the window. In the reflection of the window against the mostly-dark, I can see people at other tables occasionally looking over toward us, talking about us.
No, not us. Jason. He’s a celebrity_. _
If they knew who I was, they’d be staring more.
“Look, Alycia --”
“Everything fixed back at the fabulous Quill Compound?” I say, changing the topic before he can even start it.
After a beat, “Yeah, yeah. The bombs Vector planted, they were really more sound and fury than destructive force. New furniture, drywall repair, paint, a chance to redo some wiring – it’s all as good as new.”
I nod, still looking out the window. I see a figure in flames streak across the sky above City Hall. Flambeaux, most likely.
“Yeah,” he continues. “I keep meaning to invite everyone back over, but the stuff I’m doing – learning the business, I mean, really learning it, visiting all the offices, manufacturing sites, seeing where things have gone to see, need updating, need getting rid of. And I spend a lot of time in the stacks – in the archive areas at the Foundation Warehouses here. There’s a freaking ton of stuff that I think could be made useful. Dad just never had – never took the time.”
I nod again, look back at him. “I think that’s great, Jason. I think that’s a brilliant way to make some immediate changes for the future.” An image passes through my mind, and I shudder slightly.
“What is it?”
Ugh. I really didn’t want to get into this story tonight. “It might not help your appetite.”
He shrugs. “If it’s something you need to tell me, I want to hear.”
And a point to him. “Okay. Vector was from the future. You knew that. Well, we traveled there …”
* * *
The meal gets brought while I’m telling the story of AltFuture!Jason. It doesn’t stop us from digging in – and, with all due honesty, the moral compromise was more than worth it.
I wrap up before we’re done with entrees. Jason’s taking it far better than I’d have thought.
“Wow. I was a total dick in the future.”
Okay, Bolognese sauce out through the nose is not recommended, and I just barely manage keep it from happening. “Well, you’d had a hard time.”
“I pithed Leo. That’s being a dick.”
I smirk. “Leo can be a pain in the ass.”
"It was wrong!"
Now it’s his turn to draw unexpected glances. I should count a point there, but his anger and pain are too real.
“I know,” I tell him. Then, after a moment, a small penny drops. “Are you just talking about what you did to AltFuture!Leo?”
He looks away from me, though I don’t think he’s looking at anything in particular. After a moment, he says, “Dad. Your father. It was the right thing to do. But it was wrong to do it.”
“I’m not sure that makes any sense.”
He raises an eyebrow.
“Okay, it makes sense. But it still doesn’t.”
“Which I guess is fitting.”
I close my eyes. When I open them again, I reach out across the table, past my bowl of pasta. After a moment, he takes my hands again. His are warm, dry. Again, it’s like an electric shock. I don’t like physical contact; I tend to shy away from it.
But not from his hands.
“Jason, I’ve done … really bad things in my life.” He nods, face grave. “I’ve told you … most of them, at least.” He nods again, not offering up any trite words. Point to him. “So I don’t know if that makes me more qualified to judge – but what you did to Father, to your dad? It was just. It was merciful. And it was necessary.”
His eyes are bright, and I squeeze his hands. He nods, jerkily, then gives a weak chuckle. “But not Alternate Future Leo.”
I let go, take another bit of the Bolognese. “No. But I’ve come to understand something important about that timeline. Something that led to what you became there.”
He pushes his lobster plate a bit to the side. “Go on.”
“You were alone. You were isolated. You didn’t have anyone you could trust around you. Anyone who could tell you no, who could question your judgment, who could make you realize the path you were going down.”
Jason nods his head, slowly. “Yeah. Yeah, I can see that.”
“And how are you now?”
He gets a crooked smile. Shrugs. “Alone.”
I nod in agreement. Take another breath. Another sip of the cucumber drink (which, honestly, doesn’t taste as good as I was hoping). “Look, Jason, I’m tackling this head-on because we never seem to have the time to even dance around it, I don’t know --” I stop. Words fail me for a moment. Then I continue, “-- what we’re doing. What we should be doing. How I really feel about you, or you about me, or what our future looks like.”
Jason nods, a not quite a jerk of the head.
“But whether we’re --” I struggle with a word I do know is right, and get it out only by rolling my eyes ironically at it. “-- ‘romantically’ involved, I do know that I am your friend. Your comrade-in-arms. I am someone you can always talk to. And you know all too well that I’m someone always willing to talk, to give my opinion.”
He nods again, more naturally. “I think maybe I’ve noticed that.”
“I’m not saying this night won’t end in a deep, passionate kiss. Or that it will. Whether it does or doesn’t, I’m here, at a minimum, as a friend. You don’t have to save the world solo.”
Jason puts his hand on his chin, covering his mouth, looking down to the side, at his plate. He nods again. then drops the hand, glances back at me. “Ditto likewise.”
I draw myself up, because this has gotten way too serious. “I hardly need outside advice and counsel, or emotional support from others,” I say in lofty voice. I hold up one finger like a lightning rod. “I am a rock! I am an island!”
“‘And a rock feels no pain.’”
“‘And an island never cries.’”
“I can’t remember whose Simon & Garfunkle CD that was.”
“CD? Has to have been your dad’s. No, Byrne’s.”
“Rusty. Yeah, that makes sense. Classic.”
I snort. “As long as you don’t break into ‘Feelin’ Groovy.’ At least not at the dinner table.”
“Aha! So tacit permission for later?”
“Yeah, not so much.”
“The 59th Street Bridge awaits.”
“Lǐngzhǔ bāngzhù wǒmen.” Lord help us.
* * *
I order the grapefruit gellato. He goes for the tiramisu.
“You’ve been ordering tiramisu your whole life.”
“It’s my go-to dessert. Always something to compare. A data point. And even a mediocre tiramisu is awesome.”
“What’s your favorite?”
He doesn’t hesitate. “The Laughing Springbok, weird little South African place in Riyadh. Popular with expats. Dad was there for some conference, 2014 I think it was.”
I nod. “We were there, too.” No need to explain which “we.”
Jason frowns. “I don’t remember any confrontation.”
I shrug. "Riyadh’s a big city. If they weren’t there for the same thing, they might have just passed in the night.
“And they had good tiramisu?”
“The chocolate and coffee were warring each other over their bitterness, but the overall creamy texture had an awesome balancing sweetness.”
“Huh. Well, glad you enjoyed it. You should go back.”
His face falls. “I actually did divert into Riyadh on a trip to Mumbai last week. The place was closed. Nobody had a contact for the former owner. I could probably research it, but I haven’t thought about it when I’ve had the time.”
“Sic transit gloria mundi.”
“I don’t think we’re supposed to say things like that while we’re in high school.”
I shrug. “We’ve seen more than most people have with four or five times our lives to date. I’m willing to be a bit pompous about it.”
I take another look arond the restaurant. It’s slightly tiered, so that any table in the place has an unobstructed view of the windows. At night, the lights at the tables reflect back, but there’s enough brilliance from Halcyon beyond to be plainly visible.
It would also make a hell of a sniper post, with sufficient scoping and compensating for slow rotation. _Better to kill that motor and remove the variable, but –
_-- yeah, no need to go into that line of thought tonight.
As I look back, Jason takes a sip of coffee – decaf smothered with cream and sugar for him, espresso for me. We’ve already caught up on most recent activities – I gave him a broader brief on the AltFuture thing, warnings about Rook (unnecessary, but you never can tell) and Doctor Infinity, as well as whatever shenanigans we’d been able to glean about the Concordance.
He’d in turn told me about the flurry of work he’d been buried underneath. Science conferences, social cause conferences, getting his companies under control, starting research on the the materials his father had locked away …
“It’s hard,” he adds. “Getting into all the social stuff, all the professional stuff. They open the door because of the name, but it’s tough to get them to pay attention to me. They either see me as a kid, or a dilettante, not serious over stuff they’ve devoted decades to.”
I shrug. “That’ll change with time.”
“I know, but time is exactly what I don’t feel like I have. There’s so much pent-up need out there, so many things that could be done if time, and money, and politics, didn’t get in the way.”
I snort. “Tell me about it.”
“I almost understand why Dad decided it was easier to try and fight your father than make a positive change. Not that he didn’t need to be fought, but at least that meant a series of tangible victories. Simple to feel good about a hidden base lying in smoking rubble than frustrated that a robotic mobile surgical lab that could save millions in poor rural areas around the globe can’t be built because of export licenses and medical associations and sovereign autonomy and crap like that.”
The espresso is very strong, just the way I like it. I haven’t been satisfied with a meal like this in long time. “So do it anyway. Add a camouflage field to the lab, maybe hire some mercs to escort it around in case of trouble. Air-to-ground weapons in case the country they’re in gets feisty.”
“It’s not that simple,” he protests.
“Actually, it is. It’s just more work to sustain.”
Jason shakes his head. “Violence isn’t an answer to everything, Alycia.”
“True,” I say, getting a disbelieving glance from him. Come on, I’m not that big a cliché in his _eyes, am I? _ “But sometimes it’s part of the answer. Dismissing it out of hand is tackling a complex problem with one arm tied behind you.”
He shakes his head again, “But if you look at the overall program of improvement, you can’t alienate --”
We both start at that. It seems improbable that a man that tall could sneak up on the both of us, but we had been pretty into the debate. (I actually understand Jason’s point, but I’m not sure he follows mine.) Jason gets to his feet. “Uncle Jeff!” he shouts, a broad smile on is face. He pumps the hand of the large African-American in front of him. People are looking, but neither of them seems to care. Well, they’re both famous.
Jeff Baldwin easily stands close to three meters tall, even without using his growth serum any more. He was a competitor in American basketball in the 1980s, already experimenting on chemical enhancements to help him increase his size a few critical centimeters. He hit on an experimental combination that let him get ten to thirty meters tall, and he’d gone on to a colorful heroing career under the name Pinnacle, mostly in New York City. That was in the 90s and 00s, before the strain on his body (so the publicity said) grew too life-threatening.
He retired and used his earnings from sports and sponsorships, as well as connections he’d made, to open this restaurant in his home town, which has (according to the menu, and the Wikipedia page, and Lonely Planet Guide to Halcyon City) become one of the top dining spots in the Southeastern United States.
Most of what I’ve read of him seems positive, despite his sports media connections. He still plows a large amount of his earnings into local charity and social development agencies. And he and Jason are chatting like best friends, which is, I confess, kind of nice to see.
“You haven’t introduced me to the lovely lady,” Baldwin says, smiling at me. His teeth are very white when he smiles, his hair short-cropped and gray. I find myself wondering about how his drugs – and Byron Quill’s – permanently affected his body chemistry.
“This is Alice Chan,” Jason says (points to him for not bobbling over the name). “We go to Gardner together. Valentines Dance tonight.”
“Welcome to Pinnacle’s,” he says, bowing slightly as he takes my hand. “Any friend of Mr. Quill here is the same sort of friend to me.”
I smile back up at him (everyone, I suspect, smiles up to him). “I wouldn’t care to have that complicated and contradictory a relationship with you, Mr. Baldwin. Let’s start off with very satisfied customer for starters.”
He laughs, deep and rumbling. “I am happy to settle for that. But call me Jeff.”
“You’re ‘Jeff,’ but he’s ‘Mr. Quill’?”
Jason rolls his eyes in embarrassment, but Baldwin only smiles. “He was thrilled at age 6 to be called something other than ‘Jason’ or ‘the kid’. He also thought ‘Mr. Quill’ was better than ‘Dr. Quill,’ because nobody liked to go to the doctor.”
I laugh as well, only in part at Jason’s discomfiture. “Hard to argue with that.”
He claps Jason on the shoulder. “I won’t keep you from your dinner. Enchanted, Ms. Chan. I hope you both have a pleasant evening. Mr. Quill, not so long next time, right?”
“You got it, Uncle Jeff.”
He nods, smiles at us again, then walks off. I keep expecting the ground to shudder when he does, but he moves with remarkable grace for someone that large.
“He seems very nice,” I observe as Jason sits back down. Then add, because I must, “Mr. Quill.”
He growls, half-joking. “Six! I was six!”
“That was before your father and Rusty adopted Amir.”
“When I was six, I was living in a country estate in England. I had a very nice set of servants who took care of my every need, a tutor who introduced me to reading and math, a cook who knew all of my favorites, and a chauffeur who, I discovered later, was former Spetsnaz, and doubled as bodyguard.”
“Sounds --” I was expecting him to say “posh,” but instead he says, “-- lonely.”
“Well, yes. Though it beat the hell out of life later, let me tell you.”
“How are things going for you now?”
He asks the question in a softer tone, meeting my eyes. He’s not asking for a mission debrief. He’s actually interested. I purse my lips a moment, then shrug slightly. “Lonely. Some by circumstance. Some by choice.”
“The team’s okay with you?”
I snort. “They think I am a semi-trustworthy security risk whose first solution to every problem is to shoot it many times in quick succession. So, yeah, I guess they’re getting to know me.”
“Not if that’s what they think of you.” He extends one hand this time across the table.
After a moment, I take it. “You see me differently?”
“Of course.” He nods gravely. “You like to stab things, too.”
Okay, he gets two points for that one, though he loses a point for not waiting a moment for me to do an espresso spit-take. “Gee, thanks.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. I do.”
We fall into silence for a long minute. Around us, a dozen conversations murmur and natter. I could probably follow all of them along. I have too much on my mind to even want to.
“It’s … weird,” Jason finally says.
“We know so much about each other.”
“And we don’t know so much about each other.”
“We … could work on that.”
We could. But how do I feel about that?
Don’t be a dolt. That’s what you want.
It just seems … terribly risky.
“You’re not the type to duck away from risky stuff,” he says, and I realize I must have said the last bit aloud, which is more than a bit embarrassing.
“I prefer calculated risks. This situation has too many variables to calculate against though.”
“Even for a second gen hypergenius?”
“Even for.” I pause. “Can we, um, put this topic aside just a bit. For a little while?”
“Going to wait and see what the subconscious processing does with it?”
“It beats flipping a mental coin.”
“Yeah, when I do that, I always cheat.”
“Of course. That’s how you know what you really want.”
He starts at that, then smiles, pulling back his hand again, taking a sip of coffee. “Speaking of which …” He trails off.
“So you’re moving in with … Summer?”
I can’t help but chuckle. “That’s the plan. Temporary, until I can make better arrangements.”
“That seems – really weird. I mean, when we’ve talked about her, and Aria, in the past, you’ve --”
“I was wrong.”
Jason raises an eyebrow at me. “I don’t disagree, but I wonder what changed your mind.”
I still owe Otto the explanation first. I shake my head. “Ask me again some day.”
“Intriguing …” he says, looking at me closely. I catch a flash of his father in him, Byron Quill the scientist. It’s not an unattractive look, in this instance.
“Anyway, I needed a place, and she offered.”
“Yeah, she’s like that.” He leans back in his chair, bites his lower lip. “Alycia – about Summer …”
He trails off. This would be a good moment for me to hold up a hand, to cut him off, to wave away any comment as unnecessary.
Like hell. “Yes?”
He takes a deep breath. “It’s … complicated.”
I lean forward and prop my chin on the back of both hands. “No. Really?”
That gets a half-smile from him. “I have to be honest with you, Alycia. Which is kinda terrifying, but it’s the right thing to do.”
My inner jocularity evaporates, to be replaced by a cold ball of something in my gut. It’s been there all day, but it makes its presence unmistakably known now. “Honesty is the best policy,” I tell him, not convincingly (at least to myself).
“Summer and I … we flirted, some. And she’s really nice. And a better friend than I could ask for. She’d give you the shirt off her back.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“No! Not that! I mean – well, she might, because – but I never! I would never take advantage – like that …”
He trails off. His fluster is cute, and a small comfort. Interesting that he’d think of it as “taking advantage” … “And, of course, you’ve never fantasized about it.”
Jason turns an even more intriguing shade of red. “Dammit, Alycia.”
I can’t help laughing just a bit, relieving some of that pent-up tension. “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. And I happen to know you are quite human in that way.”
If he continued changing color so rapidly, it would have started to get alarming. As it is, he merely sputters, makes hemming and hawing noises, and reaches for his ice water. For a drink, presumably, though maybe to dump in his lap.
Then he looks back at me with a mixture of a glare and a sly smile. “Well, I’ve fantasized about you. Too.”
Which of course I would have guessed, but it still causes a frisson down my spine. I almost meet his raise and raise again by asking if it was at the same time as he was thinking of Summer – but that might be asking for more trouble than it’s worth, or more info than I want to process right now.
Instead, I simply nod with a smile of my own. “Thank you.” Not the reaction he’d intended, perhaps, but he doesn’t seem displeased. I continue, “You were saying, then, about Summer?”
He rolls his eyes again, but his breathing rate is up. “I was saying that, yes, I’d flirted with her, even, maybe, toyed with the idea --” He wags his head back and forth in nervous uncertainty. “-- entertained some romantic thoughts. But …” The head waggles some more, then stills. “But I realized it’s you I wanted to be with. Or, at least, give that a chance to happen.”
“Between business trips.”
“And jaunts to alternative timelines.”
Offsetting penalties, no points. “Our lives don’t make that kind of thing easy.”
“Nope. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to try. And, uh, if I knew what was going on with us, I might be making a greater effort. I mean --” He scrambles to recover as he considers what he’s just said. “-- if I knew it was welcome, I’d text you more. Or vchat with you. Or something. Make the time pass.”
I nod. “That actually makes a goodly amount of sense. And would be kind of nice.”
That draws a smile. “Of course …” He trails off.
“Of course …?”
“If you were living at the Compound, that would cut down on the need for some of the chats and texts.”
Whoof. I should have realized this was coming. Oh, Jason … “I don’t think – that’s a good idea.”
“I just don’t.”
“I kinda think there’s more explanation there.”
I feel a small surge of anger, but I pinch it off. “Think what you will. It’s not going to happen. Not right now.”
He frowns at me, brow furrowed. “I – really don’t understand. And I want to.”
I look out the window. In the background is the city, the City Hall with its domes and spires in the middle of Grand Park, stands out like a beacon. In the foreground is me, reflected, looking like a stranger with this weird wave in my hair and this dress and the makeup Duskshine suggested. This was a mistake, I think. And,
I turn back. “Fine. Two reasons, then. First, I don’t think it will help our relationship for us to be under the same roof. Not right now. We need to know each other better. We need --” Be honest. “I need – I want – us to fill in some of the gaps in our, I don’t know, association. History. Be something more than these moments and adventures and life-threatening escapes.”
“I kinda thought we were doing that right now.”
“Yes! And it’s a start. But just a start right now. I want something more before I hop back into bed with you.”
I hadn’t actually intended it, but that one does end up a fairly convincing spit-take-turned-coughing-fit.
When he’s done coughing (not so much that the waitstaff run up dialing 911 on their mobiles, fortunately), he gasps out, “I – that wasn’t where I --”
I lean back. “You’re adorable, Jason. I know that’s not what you were suggesting, or even intending. At least not right away. But you know as well as I do --” And I do know. “-- that’s where it would end up, sooner rather than later. Sooner than I want.”
“It’s --” He takes the plunge. “Well, it’s not like we haven’t done it before.”
“Years ago. Under extreme circumstances. And pretty uncomfortable circumstances, for that matter – I had an amazing bruise on my left – never mind, the point is, while I don’t regret that at all, I don’t count it as – what’s the phrase judges use, ‘binding precedent’? – any more than Baikonur means I can hit you with a shovel whenever I want.”
He looks at me, looks downward again, then back up. “Well … yeah. That makes … sense.” He plays with his coffee cup. “And I won’t deny I thought that, um, something like that might happen, sooner or later. But … I mean, I wouldn’t force you.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” I say, lowering my voice. “That’s not you, and I’d kick your balls up to your tonsils if you tried. But if we were living under the same roof …” How to put this right? “I’d be just as likely jumping you and dragging you off to some cushioned surface some evening as vice-versa. And I don’t want to put myself in that sitch too soon.” That’s not clear enough. I shake my head. “This isn’t just about sex. I don’t want it to be just about sex. Which means I don’t want to set it up so that sex is predictably inevitable.” I hold up my hands. “Does that make any sense?”
He looks at me a moment, reaches out for his coffee again, and pauses before he takes a sip to raise an eyebrow to me. I nod. He takes a sip, and I open my lips as though about to speak. He stops, with a glare. I smile. He shakes his head, sips again, sets down the cup.
“Yeah. It makes sense. I – okay, yeah, and maybe the degree of disappointment I feel about it and where that’s centered tells me you’re not wrong about ‘sooner rather than later.’”
“I understand. Believe me.”
He snorts. “Well, now that we’ve established ourselves as prim, proper, moral, church-going fuddy-duddies, what’s your --”
“Religious rules and societal mores have nothing to do with it, Jason. It’s just – sex is more to me than just a nice dinner or going to a football game. So call it a personal morality. As soon as I feel ready – if I ever do – then you will, by God, be unmistakably informed about it, Mr. Quill.” I might have been a bit more vehement in that last than I intended.
His mouth opens, but no sound comes. Instead he just gives a jerky, possibly intimidated nod. Then, “You said two reasons.”
Okay, a point to him for remembering that after the subsequent conversation. “I --” I stop. “This is – difficult.”
“More difficult than putting off sex with a cool guy like me?” His tone is light, transparently so.
“Hard as it is to believe, yes. Because it’s … selfish.”
“Now I’m intrigued.”
Breathe. “You know my history.”
“From what you’ve told me. Some nasty details. Broad strokes for the rest.”
“I mentioned living at the manor. I was there until age 9. For the next several years, I was either living with Father, living someplace he warehoused me to teach me a lesson, or on a mission. I’ve never actually – really – just lived on my own. Just … normal.”
Jason frowns. “Wait. For two years after our fathers disappeared, you were on your own.”
“Not the same. Part of that time was spent at Father’s various bases and get-aways, trying to hold his empire together so I could use its resources to find him. Some of that time --” Too much. “-- was spent running for my life as that empire broke up. Even after I found some safety, I was on a mission, 24x7, to rescue Father.” I shake my head. “That’s not living. That’s tenements and cans of cold beans and microwave couscous, and shorting out apartment circuit panels and stealing equipment and pulling up stakes whenever law enforcement, Father’s former allies, or Father’s enemies got close.”
I wrap my arms around myself. “The closest I had to normal was that time I was working for the Foundation. Normal enough during the day, but still staying up until the wee hours every night trying to find a way through the dimensional barrier. And after that, there was the Sepiaverse, and then, well, a White Cell at an AEGIS site.”
Jason’s nodding at me. Margarithe comes by and fills our water and his coffee, ignorning the tension at the table. I shake my head to the suggestion of more espresso.
When she’s gone, he says, “And to think I sometimes feel sorry for myself for all the field work Dad put us through. But – that’s my point. You don’t have to do that any more. You can – the whole rushing too fast, sex, et cetera, thing aside – you can be someplace where you don’t have to worry about all that.”
He rubs his forehead, then snaps his fingers on that hand. “Hell, the Foundation has corporate apartments for long-term assignments here in Halcyon. I can get one of them assigned to you.” He smiles. “You don’t have to be on the run or living in a swamp or a cell any more.” He drops into a faux-seductive voice, waggling his eyebrows. “Or living too close to my tempting bod.”
I sigh. He doesn’t get it. “No. But I’ll be living under someone else’s control. Direction. Financing.” He starts to say something, and I cut him off. “It’s the argument about the dress all over again, I know, but this is even more so. I need to do this on my own. To know that I can. If I’m changing my life around, I need to do it myself.”
“I wouldn’t … you know I wouldn’t expect anything from you about it. No quid pro quo.”
“I know. And it’s not that I’m afraid of being a ‘kept woman.’ It’s that I need to show to myself that I don’t need charity.”
“It’s not charity!”
“It’s precisely charity. And it’s warm-hearted and compassionate and 88.3% completely pure of motive. That whole shirt-off-your-back thing? That’s you, too, Jason. That’s why --” I cut that thought off, and carry on with the original. “That’s why I like you. One reason. So don’t change that. But it’s still someone else giving me something. It’s still not showing I can stand on my own feet. I’ve been under someone’s care and feeding and focus – compassionate or not – all my fucking life. I need to … not be. Even if it’s just for a short while.”
“So,” he says, his voice grown a little sulky, “you can ask Summer for a place to crash, but you can’t ask me?”
“Summer works minimum slave-wages here in this fine country of yours, Jason. She’s not supporting me in this. I’m sharing in rent. And it’s just temporary, until I can make other arrangements. If the team gets a base, maybe there.”
“So charity from the Menagerie instead.”
“I work for the Menagerie. In effect. I put my life on the line for it, for the members of the team. It’s my job. One of them.”
"So work for me!" Jason’s tone is a challenge. He raises his left eyebrow, still pale blond against his skin. “God knows I have plenty you could do – the warehouse stuff, the research I was talking about, for example …”
I shake my head. “Firstly, AEGIS would never allow it. Secondly – Jason, do you really want to have me as a live-in employee who sleeps with you? There are a few words I know that describe that kind of arrangement.”
“No! Dammit, Alycia, you’re mixing it all up. I’d be giving you the job. I wouldn’t be your boss.”
“Then it’s charity. Again. Giving me something, ongoing, with nothing required or expected in return.”
“Fine!” He throws up his hands. “I’ll ‘give you assignments and expect a certain level of professional performance and attainment of goals.’ Just like it says in the HR manual.”
“Then you’d be a boss whose girlfriend is an employee. What does the HR manual say about that, and why?”
“Dammit, Alycia …” One fist goes down on the table, not so hard as to make a restaurant-disturbing sound, but with barely-restrained force. “Why the hell did you go out with me, then? Why let me buy you a fancy dinner? Why let me buy you a dress? If this is all charity, why put up with it?”
“Because …” I take a deep breath. "Because I care for you and want to be with you and this is a one-off nice thing you’re doing. I expect I’ll do the same back when I can. But I’m compromising this much because of how I feel for you. Don’t ask me to do more."
“Fine.” His voice is flat, and he applies the flat of both hands to the table. “I just wanted … I appreciate your being here,” he says, anger still clear in his face. “I’m sorry it was such a compromise. If you would like to head to the dance --” His gaze flickers to the side, unfocused. I realize he has some sort of contact lens HUD he’s consulting. “-- it’s about time. If that would be too much of a moral burden, I can have you driven wherever you’re staying tonight.”
For a long moment, I war with the anger and frustration bubbling up through me. I want to throw that tone, that prim sarcasm, in back his face. I want to throw something in his face. I want to make a scene. I want to scream at him, humiliate him, get up and walk out him, flee and find my own way back to AEGIS, or just head out into the night again, a fugitive. How the fuck dare he use that sort of voice on me, after all I’ve said, after all the stuff in my soul I just exposed to him.
I swallow it all, though. For now. I have a long game here. I’m smarter than that reaction. I won’t throw everything away in a fit of pique, no matter how justified.
“I’d like to go to the dance,” I say, soft but steady “With you.”
“Fine,” he says again, and motions for Margarithe. I sit there, looking out the window at the cold lights of the city, and try to keep my temper, all the points from the game scattered on the ground, and hope that I haven’t made a terrible, terrible mistake.
author: *** Dave H.