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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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Knowing Is the Measure

Nereid was nearly knocked down by the wave of incense that wafted out of the door of Holy Moly when Sophie opened it. She coughed. "We're supposed to have coffee here?" Her sinuses shrieked protest.

Sophie grinned. "The back of the store doesn't smell of the incense so much. More like pot." She held the door gallantly, gesturing Nereid ahead.

The store was a long, narrow shop with closely-packed shelves that were overflowing -- albeit neatly -- onto the floor in places. A large display of incenses from a variety of sources filled a set of wooden shelves to the right of the front door. This blended into a shelf unit adorned with scarves, Tibetan prayer flags, and statues of various Asian divinities and other figures. To the left was the Egyptomania shelf, where Anubis and Bast and Osiris and Isis, among others, posed stiffly in a number of different sizes and materials, from bronze to wood to resin to wax.

Nereid lost track of the store shelves after this. She retained an impression of statues, pentacles, crystals, rain sticks, tie-dyed clothing, and a variety of divination tools, including the Superhero Tarot, which particularly caught her eye because of the prominent comic-book-style illustration of the Amazon on the cover, and the Paranormal Oracle, which had a painting of Madame Destiny -- in the full plunging-neckline mode of her costume in the 1960s -- on the cover. Sophie led her through a rainbow bead curtain into the Room of Contemplation, which smelled of flowers and roasted coffee.

Lounging on one of the soft, draped, sage-green couches was a strikingly beautiful and androgynous Asian person, dressed in black boots with many buckles, black trousers, a black dress shirt, a black Mandarin-collared jacket with buckles all down the front, and a black narrow-brimmed fedora set at a rakish angle. The person's face had the broad, smooth, high-cheekboned planes Nereid had always admired in Asian people, and the dark hair was cropped very short. Sophie sprawled in an overstuffed russet loveseat across the low wooden coffee table from this person.

"Pacifica," Sophie said, "this is X. X, Pacifica."

"Hey," X said.

"Hey," Nereid said, dropping into the seat next to Sophie.

A middle-aged woman wearing a cotton tunic with a red and blue Indian print on it over a pair of dark blue cropped pants arrived with a pad of paper in her hand. "Hi, there. What can I get you?"

Sophie smiled up at her, shifting a lens out of her line of sight. "I'll have the Kali blend, please."

Everyone was looking at Nereid. "Um, I'll, um, have that too."

A fleeting smile crossed X's face, possibly accompanied by a look of pity. Nereid wasn't sure.

The woman nodded, smiled, took notes, gave X a wave that seemed to say, Right, already got you, and went back to the tiny, narrow counter that Nereid hadn't noticed before. Her graying head was obscured behind enormous coffee machines.

"So, anything new?" Sophie said to X.

X snorted. "Madame gets all sorts of news from the Oracle all the time." Nereid thought X's voice was a very pleasant tenor. Or alto. Whichever. It was nice to listen to.

Sophie gave X an impatient look.

X sighed and relented. "Nothing about Ruth. A fuckton of crap about Mister Metropolitan and his daughter-in-law and his brain-dead son. We can't figure out most of it, even though I've started recording it instead of just transcribing."

"Mister Metro? Really?" Nereid said, forgetting herself for a moment.

"You know him?" Sophie said.

"Oh, yeah," Nereid said, trying to look bored. "My mom really likes him. I think he sponsored Mom and Dad for something or got Dad out of trouble once, or something like that. He comes into the diner sometimes."

X seemed to focus on her suddenly, and Nereid wasn't sure she liked being subject to that dark-eyed scrutiny. "Your parents own the Stars N' Garters."

Nereid nodded, not trusting her voice.

"Your mother is very kind to Madame," X said, dropping into a formal sort of diction.

Nereid waved it away helplessly. "Mom is just a nice person, y'know?"

X nodded gravely. "I think that without the diner, Madame would be... a shut-in? a hermit? Something like that. I'm glad she has a place to go."

"So you can escape sometimes," Sophie said.

X turned an unreadable look on her. "It isn't so much about escape, you know," X said after a moment. "It's about... relaxing from the expectations."

Sophie looked at Nereid. "X is supposed to inherit the Oracle from Madame. Neither of them know when."

"We assume it will be when Madame dies," X said. "Or when she's no longer comp... I mean, able to provide an outlet for the Oracle."

Nereid nodded. She'd heard something of this from her mother. "It's all about destiny, right?"

X shrugged. "I'm not sure I believe in destiny."

"But if you're going to inherit the Oracle, you have to believe in fate or something like it, right?" Nereid said.

X smiled thinly. "It's not about what I believe. It's about a cosmic being setting up housekeeping in my brain. If it's capable of looking at Time the way we can look at height, width, and depth, it's not telling me about fate, it's describing another part of the universe I can't perceive."

Sophie chuckled. "That's your explanation this week, huh?"

X glowered.

The coffee arrived at that awkward moment. The woman left a couple of creamers and a bowl heaped with sugar cubes on the table.

Sophie sipped her black coffee and sighed happily.

Nereid sipped her coffee and felt like she could see through time. She managed to prevent her cough, bit back the wheeze of surprise, blinked tears out of her eyes, and said, "Smooth," in a hoarse voice.

Sophie laughed, and that warmed Nereid down to the floor.

"Kali blend," Sophie said, reaching to hand Nereid the creamers and sugar bowl. "It takes some getting used to. 'Bold' is kind of an understatement."

Nereid added all the creamers and several sugar cubes to her coffee. In an attempt to recover the conversation, she said, "So what's up with Mister Metro?"

X waved a hand. "We can't really make it out. Danger from the skies. Old murder. Future mayhem. Hope. The usual. The funny thing is that Mister Metro's really, really retired, and his son's in no shape to do anything. We figure something must be up with Mrs. Feldstein."

"The Oracle's being more opaque than usual?" Sophie said, raising her eyebrows.

"Something like that," X said.

"I hope nothing happens to Mister Metro," Nereid said, shuddering through another sip of coffee. "He's a really nice guy."

"I think," X said, though there was an uncertain note to the lovely voice, "he'll be all right, in the end." Then X abruptly looked at Sophie. "So what's going on with you, anyway?"

Sophie launched into a condensed download of Young Cosmics gossip, and she and X got into an extended discussion of whether or not Jet would now become the token queer in Sister Power's group, despite his protests. Nereid sat the rest of the conversation out, and her eyes kept drifting back to X curiously, trying to spot any cue that would reveal masculinity or femininity under those all-encompassing black clothes. She couldn't stop doing it, not even when she imagined Simon's voice scolding her about it.

After they left, Nereid waited until they were nearly back to the Young Cosmics compound before blurting out, "Is X a... man or a woman?"

Sophie looked at her, more than a little irritated. "You don't need to know that.'

Nereid was stung. "But... why not?"

Sophie stopped and turned to her suddenly. "Are you planning to fuck X?"

Nereid reeled back a step and felt her eyes widening. "No?" she said in a tiny voice.

Sophie nodded once, briskly. "Then you don't need to know." She turned back toward their destination.

Nereid ventured, "I was only curious."

Sophie glanced at her scathingly. "Stay curious, then."

Nereid felt herself droop and hated herself for it. "Sorry."

Sophie shrugged, a violent motion that jingled all her pockets. "It doesn't matter. All that matters is that X is smart and funny and facing a helluva horrible life, and that X is just about my only friend."

Nereid opened her mouth to say, I'm your friend, aren't I? and then shut it again. There was a limit to how pathetic she would let herself be today.



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Date: 2012-05-09 09:26 pm (UTC)
the_leaky_pen: (Default)
From: [personal profile] the_leaky_pen
Gargh, poor Nereid. Although, actually poor everyone in this installment. You're really mean to your characters, you know that? <3

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