Earlier this afternoon …
“I’m to be ready for pickup by 4:30. Got it.”
“Excellent.” He sounds nervous over the phone. “That’s excellent. Really. Excellent.”
In other words, he sounds like I feel. “Just one thing, Jason.”
“I’ll just get in the car. You don’t have to come in and say hi to parents.”
“Won’t they be worried about your heading off for the evening with a strange man?”
“Given recent history, that’s probably the most mundane thing they can hope for.”
* * *
The Qdisc slowly settles toward a pair of parking spaces in the west lot of the Gardner Academy. It’s a cool evening outside – and it’s been a cool ride there as well, as in chilly. Oh, not because of the lack of climate control – Jason’s made some clever mods to the integrity force field to act as a windscreen. No, I’m talking emotional chill. Jason’s pissiness at dinner about my not moving in with him, nor taking a job under him (figuratively, so not literally, though that’s a parallel interest of his) has already worn my nerves thin…
I’m not sure if the coolness has been helped or hindered by the overall silence in the vehicle, save for the electrical hiss of the ground effect engines under the disc. It is a neat peace of technology, even if parts of it are older than either of us. And except for one design flaw that Jason always complains about.
“… flying boat, like he couldn’t have built it just a little bit smaller, fit in a damned standard stall …”
Hashtag FirstWorldHyperTech Problems. “Well, maybe you should try to build one yourself, rather than complaining about one that doesn’t fit your use case.”
I regret saying it as soon as I do. It’s not false, but it’s not useful.
Was this whole thing a mistake? What made me think that Jason and I really have anything special. A bunch of disjointed past adventures and experiences, woo-hoo. That might makes us friends, or pen-pals, or people who show up at a reunion somewhere, but romance_?
I’m attracted to him. And in more than just a sexual way, though that doesn’t hurt, either. But that’s still not enough. Especially when he’s being an asshole. Dammit, Jason.
Then he turns. And he grins. At what I said.
The grin shuts off almost instantly, like he realized what he was doing, but …
He vaults over the side of the Qdisc, his dress shoes making a hard crunch on the asphalt when he lands. And there I sit. I’ll be damned if I’m going to climb over the edge myself, or let him help me step atop the edge and then down. This dress is not designed for those kinds of moves. (And, yes, of course I know that in case we get into combat I will be flashing pretty much everyone. If that’s the worst thing that happens in combat, it will be all to the good. Hell, maybe it will distract an opponent.)
(And, yes, of course I’ve considered the possibility of combat at the dance. I consider the possibility of combat at the corner bodega, too.)
He’s up to the side of the disc, and, dammit, he is going to offer to help me over like some frail girl. So I mirror his move and vault over the side of the disc to land just beside him –
– as he presses the button and the side of the disc folds out and makes a door and little ramp.
“That’s … new.”
He raises an eyebrow. “I built it. Myself.”
_Well, hell. _
I concede the point. “Thank you. That was … considerate.”
“Yeah. I can actually do considerate. When I’m not being a baboon.”
Okaaaay. “Actually – you can. And you do.” Be gracious be gracious be gracious. “It helps when someone recognizes it as such, rather than get her knickers in a twist.”
He nods. “They’re nice knickers.”
“I know. That’s why I didn’t want to flash them at you.” I swallow the “Yet,” lest he get the wrong idea.
He sighs, and rubs his forehead. “Look, Alycia. I don’t understand why you won’t let me help you with the place to crash, or with the job --”
I open my mouth to tell him, again goddammit, why not, but he holds up his other hand, and continues, “-- but it’s your call, not mine. Right?”
My vitriol comes to a skidding halt. “Um, right.”
“And we don’t have to talk about it now.”
“We can talk about it later.” I raise both eyebrows. He amends himself, “We can talk about it some other night. Or day.” Then he looks at me with a Did I get it right this time? puppy dog look.
Man, I hate that look. Because it works. I slowly nod my head. “Yes. Some other time.”
He grins, and crooks his arm out into a loop.
“So I can catch you if you fall. In case the ground is slippery or wet or something.”
“I’m wearing very sensible but stylish pumps.”
“Okay, you can catch me if I fall.”
I put a hand on his arm, and we walk over toward the gymnasium entrance, where a crowd of folks – going in, or just hanging out – is assembled.
“Oh, hey, there’s Harry,” Jason points out.
“And Andi. What a couple.”
“I know. Hey, they’re looking over this way. Probably jealous of our leet ride.”
“Yyyeah. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it is.”
* * *
Earlier this evening …
I stand there in the covert site parking lot, just outside the front door, and stare.
A Qdisc? He sent a freaking Qdisc for me? An autonomous Qdisc at that?
I consider the edge around the disc. Even grounded, it’s up a good three feet, and this dress isn’t quite suited for climbing over without significant exposure.
I’m lucky he didn’t land the whole freaking Dragonfly in the lot. Or arrive in a jet pack, with a spare for me.
There’s no elegant way to do this, so I take the expedient way and vault over. Then I sit down on the front glossy cushion.
_“Welcome to Quill Foundation Qdisc-003. I am AI Class 2 driver code designate ‘James.’ Discretion protocols are in effect. Please say hello to me.” _
Charming. “Hello to me.”
“Identity Match: Alice Chan.”
“Well, that’s more discreet than I expected.”
_“This unit detects no humans within earshot. However, one proximate and one distance listening device are active in the area. Discretion protocols are in effect.”
“Anyone listening here knows who I am.”
“Revision: Identity Match: Alycia Chin.”
“Better. To the restaurant, James.” Then I call out to the listeners, “Don’t wait up for me,” as the Qdisc pulls away.
* * *
My purse vibrates.
Yes, of course, I have a purse – very small. I’m not going to put my mobile down my decolletege, such as it is, and, unlike Jason, I don’t have a convenient coat pocket.
I fish the phone out, as it vibrates again.
Daph. Of course.
DAPH: Are you here yet? Moral support required! Where is my bathroom buddy?
_ALICE: Just landed, see you shortly.
_ALICE: Yeah, I’ll explain. _
I’ve been hoping my support activities were completed this afternoon. It seems not.
* * *
Earlier this afternoon …
“He’s sending text messages. About dinner.” Charlotte sounds upset again.
“That’s a good thing, Charlotte,” Summer tells her.
“Is it? I don’t know. Do I want to go to dinner with so I can set ground rules for the dance? Or is that just going to add hours to the amount of time I have to spend with him tonight?”
For someone already dead, she does worry a lot.
“Charlotte,” I say to her, “listen to me. Preliminary recon before the big encounter is always a good idea. Go to dinner. Interact with him there first. See what he’s about. Learn his weaknesses and strengths. Better to do that there in a controlled setting than in a gymnasium with everyone else all around.”
She nods. A further thought occurs to me. “Besides – if there’s nobody around he knows, that he’s trying to impress, he might respond to positive reinforcement.”
Her face brightens. Summer smiles, and says, “That’s actually a great idea.”
“And if he doesn’t, it’s a more private setting to provide negative reinforcement.”
Summer sighs. Charlotte looks thoughtful.
I’m just trying to figure out why people keep consulting me on relationships.
* * *
We reach the front door. I recognize a couple of the Junior HHL – Kid Kelvin and Stingray – lounging about in front in their nice clothes. They look past me toward Jason, which is fine by me. I’m used to being invisible; infiltration (military or social) is all about that. Though I’m not used to being ignored in favor of the person next to me.
Except for Father. _Okay, let’s not go there.
As we enter the gymnasium – so festooned with white, red, and pink balloons that I almost expect the building to tear out of the ground and float away – I look around. I start with the corners, of course, and let my gaze flicker across the ceiling ductwork, good shooting / spotting locations. That satisfied, I watch for familiar faces. It’s not that difficult. I can visually and spatially process massive amounts of data, and I have a trained eye for faces. It helps that I know the dresses, makeup, and hairstyles that the women are wearing. It makes the pattern recognition that much easier.
There’s Charlotte and Pietro. The “Plasma Prince” looks like he’s behaving himself, even though he has that weird almost satirical blurring of cool and pomposity going on. It could be a remarkabl work of ironic performance art, but I don’t think he’s that sophisticated.
In some odd way he –
– he’s wearing black. And his hair is pale blonde today. Just like … Jason?
And, yeah, in some odd way, Pietro acts like Jason, only Jason even more of a goof than Jason could ever dream of being. He …
… makes Jason look good.
There’s no way Jason hired him to that end, right? No, some levels of conspiracy are too unthinkable even for me.
My purse buzzes again. Dammit Daph …
DAPH: Where are you where are you where are you?
I won’t enable her by answering, but I really –
“Um, emergency?” Jason asks, looking at me.
“Social emergency. One of my … study mates. She’s having a melt-down.”
“Eek.” He looks a little uncomfortable. “Um, I can come with? Or should I just go over and get some punch. You could meet me there, um, after you rescue your study mate.”
“Yes. Punch.” I don’t want to drag him into this, and Daph might pop a gasket if someone other than me shows up.
“Sure, sure,” Jason says. “I’ll just – yeah, I’ll be right over --”
I flash on sad-puppy Jason standing by the punch bowl. That would be mean. Also, possibly, dangerous in a number of ways.
“Right over with me. Follow.” Besides, I owe Daph an explanation for the “landed” comment.
“Following!” he says, as I head through the crowd like I’m forging the way through the Amazon basin. Only with less machete action (which would have made things faster but would probably irritate the chaperones).
(I’d had a weird dream where Parker showed up as a chaperone. She’s not there, as it turns out. Though I imagine AEGIS has surveillance drones outside the gym, and probably inside, too, given the number of metas here. Plus Leo. Plus me.)
My purse is vibrating steadily as I head toward where I spotted Daph during my earlier scan. She’s still there, looking down texting madly. Granted, mobile phone use around me is at a remarkably high level until one gets to the dance floor (and I spot at least one couple both looking over each others’ shoulders at their mobiles), but Daph seems to be particularly … vehement.
For the record, Daphne Palin is, in most things, a calm, rational, outspoken person, possessing a strong sense of humor, a sharp and stubborn mind, and a general love of humanity (based on her choice of essay and paper topics and her occasional attempts to argue some points with me). I say this because her behavior over the last few days has been highly aberrant.
Of course, as someone who has been putting up with things today that I would normally respond to with application of hands and fingers to certain pain points and dislocatable joints, but who has instead been suffering through various emotional toil and torment all because of someone with whom I have disturbingly deep emotional feels … yeah, I have no moral high ground here. I simply want to note that Daph is acting unusually weird.
I walk up to Daph, who is furiously thumbing her phone. She actually peripheral-vision shifts out of the way to let me pass. When I stop in front of her, she taps something else, then looks up at me with annoyance, goes back to her phone, then does a double-take.
“Oh my God! You look amazing! All this for me!” She grabs me in a deep hug which, given her height and muscular development as a star player on the Gardner women’s soccer team, is a strong hug indeed.
Done, she grabs my shoulders and pushes me out to to arm’s length. “He said he was getting punch, and it is all terrible.”
She turns to look at Jason.
“Oh, this is Jason --”
“Jason Quill. Yes. Of course. Your date is Jason Quill, and you landed because he owns a flying car. You did not tell me you had a date!”
“Um … yes, I absolutely did.”
“But you didn’t say it was _Jason Quill!”
“I – well, no, I didn’t.”
Daph is about to add something, but a voice behind her turns her face pale and her eyes wide.
It’s Marion. He looks … incredibly nervous. “I brought two punches.” They’re in his hands. He’s looking at Daph’s back, and me, and Jason. “I didn’t bring four.” He swallows. “I’m going to go back.”
Marion is dressed in a tuxedo. A really, honest-to-rental tux, with vest and cummerbund and all the other accouterments of prom-level attire. I can’t fault him, given my own 93rd percentile cost dress, but it’s still … noteworthy.
“Love the tux, Marion,” I tell him.
“Yeah. Thanks. Yeah, I have clearly conceded to the capitalist system and its classist implications for formal attire, and paid well for the pseudo-privilege.”
“But such sacrifices are necessary,” I tell him, glancing around for anyone who might overhear. At that noise level, of course, nobody could, but it’s part of the act. “To get inside. To corrupt the system, you must blend into the system. Socialization.”
“If I had a top hat, I could be the figure on the cover of the Monopoly game, which, of course, was a game absconded with by corporate interests …”
Marion begins to – ramble. His heart, and his sociopolitical observations aren’t wrong (if shallow), but even I know more than to launch into such a diatribe in such a setting. Not only does it create emotional tension amongst those with you, but it’s ineffective as polemic. Daph is still frozen in place, her eyes wide toward me, mortified that her date is lecturing Jason and me on corporatist appropriation of entertainment media so as to minimize the education of the masses as to the …
I duck under Daph’s arms, step around her, then lean foward into Marion. Close. In his face. The environment is loud, and I want to be sure I am understood – and that the others don’t hear me.
“Daph looks very pretty. Hand her the punch in your left hand. Then you should dance with her.”
He stares at me. His eyes flick over at Daph, then back at me.
And, suddenly, she doesn’t seem quite so scary to him any more …
I step aside, and Marion darts forward, shoving a wax cup full of punch into Daph’s hand. “Dancing now,” he tells her, grabbing her other hand. “Conversion of populist folk activities to Big Media-focused vague motions to remove us from our cultural …” They fade off into the low roar of the crowd, Daph throwing a big smile my direction.
“That was artfully done,” Jason says.
I shrug. “He’d either obey or throw punch on me and run screaming from the room. I tend to be … directorial in my motivational talks.”
He manfully avoids a chuckle. “I am not unaware of that.”
I reward him with a smile.
“So,” he says. “Do you want punch?” He raises an eyebrow. “Socialization?” He raises the other eyebrow. “Or dancing.”
“You’re in luck!” he says, a big smile wreathing his face. "I will have you know that I have programmed the nanobots in my suit to enable me to perform over a dozen different dance moves! No! I didn’t! Don’t panic!"
Yes, my face had betrayed horror that he was actually serious. Because … well, Jason.
I turn into a laugh. There might be a bit of hysteria in the sound, but he can’t tell over the band. “Prove it.”
“All right … but I warn you, my profound lack of skill could possibly be life-threatening.”
“Don’t worry – I take care of you.”
* * *
And somehow, magic happens.
(No, not that kind of magic.)
My dancing skills are … limited. Yes, there was the mission regarding the Italian ambassador. For which I learned to tango.
That was it. It’s not like Dr. Achilles Chin made sure his daughter could waltz. Or do the froog. Or the electric slide. A mission requires it? Learn or die. Not? Useless frippery.
We are not dancing the tango at the Valentines Dance. Which is a true shame, because it would be pure comedy gold. Also, I could dance it. (Jason can’t? No problem. I can dance both parts. He can suck it up.)
To be fair, the vast majority of the kids at the dance are dancing insofar as American culture defines dancing as “bouncing up and down and/or stepping side to side with vague arm and hand movements that loosely correlate to the beat.” So it’s not like the bar is high, right?
I am unwilling to accept that bar. Especially since Jason apparently has no chance to meet that bar.
I truly do not understand. The man received martial arts training from a pretty decent practitioner. He’s a hypergenius, so he can think faster than 99.73% of the people on the dance floor (arguably slower than Summer, Aria, probably Leo … and, of course, me). He should move better, faster, more fluidly than he does. But none of those adverbs apply to him.
I attempt to make up for it. I know 237 _kata_s from different disciplines (to be fair, a number of these are analogues across multiple martial arts). So, lacking formal training in particular dance moves, and not seeing any around me that are truly coherent enough to imitate, I simply adapt _kata_s with appropriate beats … and move around Jason … and move him around appropriately … and dodge his feet on mine.
I believe I am reasonably successful. At the least, it is (a) a challenge, (b) fun, and © smile-evoking from Jason.
He smiles at me. I smile at him.
All right, I think I get dances.
* * *
The rest of the dance is a bit of blur. Vignettes that catch the eye and bubble up in later memory …
While monitoring for threats, I spot Charlotte and Pietro doing a box step in the corner, completely disregarding the rhythm of the boy band tune playing. I am amazed by how touching that is.
Harry and Andi do something amazing that involves intricate moves and swinging people between legs and other remarkable movements. Granted, her dexterity is remarkable, and his speed is incredible, but together they manage do actually draw applause.
I spot Leo dancing with Aria. Of course. At one point I would have been horrified; in this case I’m pleased to see it. Later, I see him dancing with Summer, and am glad for her. And later than that, I see Aria and Summer dancing, and that’s nice to see as well.
The Ponies are out in force, a number of them in furry onesies, which lends an even more surreal note to the proceedings. @HeroesAreMagic is taking video on her camera, pushed in her wheelchair by @PowerPony. I’m fairly sure that I block her shots of me with Jason, but I can’t be completely sure.
Summer is dancing on her own, near Jason and me. I did warn her. I spin around, take her hands, twirl her back over to Jason, and the two of them dance together for a few minutes. I keep my threats/promises.
And then they get cut in on by one of Marion’s friends, who nabs away Summer, smiles a lot, tries to say things she clearly can’t hear and then bows out apologetically. Okay, I’ll have to talk with her about that one.
At one point, Nono suddenly joins Jason and me in our dance. She’s grinning in a remarkably pleased fashion, even if she’s only looking at Jason. I roll my eyes, but decide not to raise a fuss.
Keri – Super-Chica – does raise a fuss when she dances into the air with Adam’s little sister, Jordan (who is dressed, for unknown reasons, as a dinosaur). I’m not sure what the tyke is doing at a high school dance, except saving the Amaris some babysitter money (as both of Adam’s parents are there as chaperones). But everyone applauds the aerial display, and the principles seem to be having a good time, until Ms GYRO intervenes with an admonition against using powers at the dance.
The DJ starts up something called “The Macarena.” Everyone seems to know of it. About half seem to know how to mostly do it. I think it’s the worst kata ever, but I put up with it, since I can now add it to the dance moves I’ve memorized.
* * *
I spot various drama going on up at the DJ’s table. I decide I’ve had enough drama for the evening, and focus on my own entertainment. And am rewarded – perhaps – when suddenly something …
… slower …
I don’t know the tune – how would I? – but the response from the crowd is easy to see, model, and effect. Jason and I dance in physical contact, slowly.
I can see a lot of the couples around us are sort of only shifting back and forth from one foot to another, in time with each other (if not the music). I decide on something slightly more … complex, moving our feet as we dance, bringing Jason with me, dodging his feet with mine.
But melting together nonethless.
It’s not sex. (And, to be blunt, my sole sexual encounter with Jason involved nothing resembling standing up, lying down, or any sort of comforting pop ballad playing in the background.) But it’s a valid, relatively safe, vague shadow of sex, which seems to be the point.
And it ends in a kiss.
Kissing Jason takes up some undefined latter portion of the tune. It’s a moderately lengthy, reasonably intense, quite pleasant kiss, or series of kisses. They blur a bit. Enough to satisfy the impulse, prime the pump for something more down the line, but not stand out or raise alarms with the chaperones.
It’s equal parts clumsiness, greed, uncertainty, passion, and warm, wet lips. And it’s …
For whatever that’s worth. And at the moment, it’s worth a lot.
* * *
My purse is vibrating. I pull my phone out, even as Jason does the same from his coat. It’s Harry’s mother. “Afterparty is ready!”
I look at Jason. “I guess we’re invited to the after-party.”
“I guess so.”
“I – we should probably go.”
“Definitely. Harry’s a friend. A team mate.”
“The music has started again.”
“The beat seems … sedate.”
“Would you like to --”
* * *
It takes another half hour for the slow dances to wind down. I’ve spotted others of the Menagerie slipping out. Harry and Andi exit together. Charlotte gives Pietro a kiss on the cheek before leaving. Leo and Aria leave with Summer. I never did see Harry and Keri leave, but they’re not here now.
At last it’s just Jason and me out on the dance floor. Well, there are a few dozen other couples, but I don’t know them so they don’t count.
“We should probably go,” he finally says.
“Mmm-hmm,” I reply. It’s very odd, holding him this way, my face turned away against his shoulder. He’s not significantly tall than me. It just feels like the right thing to do.
“The other will be waiting for us.”
“Harry said we really, really should be there.”
I lift my head and look at him. “Well, if Harry says so, let’s snap to it.”
“Alycia, I just mean --”
“I know.” I smirk at him. “It’s just been kind of nice here, the past few minutes-slash-months.”
“I was able to just … relax.”
He grins. “Yeah.”
“Though,” I add, “you don’t seem completely relaxed.”
“Well … I’m, uh, happy to see you.”
“Oh, that, too? How nice.” I give him a quick kiss. “We might as well go see what fabulous afterparty the Gales have pulled together.”
“It won’t be as unreal as this has been.”
“I have no doubt you are correct.”
We gather up and leave.
[To be continued …]
author: *** Dave H.