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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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Nothing But Bonfires

It was an average little box made of ticky-tacky. The split-level house was brick from ground to midway up the front wall, where light grey shingles took over. There were overlarge azaleas planted in a row along the front of the house, and a few maple trees in the front yard. The side door gave onto the short driveway, where two small, battered compact cars of nondescript colors huddled together, as if for warmth. The front door was bright green with a polished brass lion-headed knocker.

Ira, in an ancient, rumpled, and oversized grey suit, walked up the three concrete steps slowly. He then adjusted his dark blue necktie (adorned in a small and tasteful way with his white double-"M" logo), cleared his throat, and used the doorknocker.

There was a pause, and the green door was opened by a slender young Asian person of indeterminate gender wearing a black turtleneck and black jeans. This person stepped aside for Ira, saying (in a voice that did not help determine gender at all), "Come on in, Mr. Metropolitan. Her nibs is waiting downstairs in the Consultation Room."

"Thank you," Ira said, stepping in and sitting on the white wooden bench set to one side of the door so he could remove his street shoes before treading on the thick white carpeting. "And how are you these days, X?"

"I suppose Madame would say, 'Can't complain,'" X said, shutting and deadbolting the door, closing out the neighborhood noises, "but she also says that I can always find something to complain about."

Ira smiled up into the dour young face as his feet sought the slippers tucked under the bench. "Well, as long as you can complain, you're alive, right?"

There might have been a quirk at one corner of the beautifully-shaped mouth. "You're right there, Mr. M." X knelt, pulled the slippers out, and helped Ira put them on. "There we go. All set?"

Ira stood up and shook his trouser legs so they dropped back into place. Then he followed X down the stairs.

At the bottom of the dozen steps, the carpet changed to a textured pale blue. X knocked at the heavy wooden door, then turned the brass knob and pushed it open, letting a few strains of soft New Age music spill out.

Ira had been in Madame Destiny's Consultation Room only a couple of times before. When she'd first entered the business, she'd been quite young and lovely, and thought that for anyone to take her seriously, she had to put on "mysterious gypsy" airs. She'd worn a lot of makeup, heavy jewelry, and flowing black ankle-length dresses with plunging necklines. Likewise, her Consultation Room had been dimly lit, full of heavy, dark draperies and thick with incense. Nowadays, though, Madame was fond of bright colors and lights one could see by. As her wardrobe had grown to admit the poppy-colored, tea-length dress she currently wore, her Consultation Room had sprouted a gas log fireplace, comfortable overstuffed chairs, and soothing peach walls, as well as incandescent lighting softened by Tiffany lampshades. The tea table still sported her crystal ball on its ornate brass stand for old times' sake.

"Ira!" Madame said, rising from her dark blue chair and depositing an annoyed tortoiseshell cat onto the coffee table. As she embraced Ira to her ample bosom, he reflected that it had always been so ample, just, in recent years, the rest of her figure had caught up with it. "It's been a long time, dear."

"I saw you the other day at Ebb and Flo's," Ira protested upon being released.

"I meant that it's been a long time since you came visiting," she said. "Have a seat," she added, waving at a matching chair, complete with cat.

Ira peered down at the husky tabby cat and poked at the beast with an inquisitive finger. It opened one baleful yellow eye and growled.

"Don't pay attention to Ahasuerus," Madame said, busying herself with the makings for tea. "He won't bite or scratch. Just give him a nudge."

Contrary to Madame's disclaimer, Ahasuerus did take a desultory swipe at Ira's offending hand, but removed himself from the chair. He trotted across the room, tail high and kinked to one side to indicate his ire.

Madame hummed as she poured out tea and added sugar or milk as necessary. She brought the silver platter over to the coffee table and handed Ira his cup and saucer.

"Thank you," Ira said.

"So," Madame said, flumphing into her chair, "how can I help you, Ira?" She picked up her own cup and saucer and took an experimental sip.

He opened his mouth to protest that he was just visiting, but then he recognized the set to Madame's jaw as her "working" persona. So he shut his mouth and tried to think how to put it.

Madame let him think in peace for a minute or so, then said, "You've never come to me to ask about Josh."

He looked up at her from his contemplation of the tea, then dropped his gaze again. "I was afraid to. You know. If I asked you, I know you'd be... right. About whatever."

Madame Destiny sipped her tea.

"But I..." Ira set his tea down carefully on the table. "I think I need to hear it now."

Madame's eyebrows rose. "Is this about the Gold Stars thing?"

Ira covered his face with one hand. "Has everyone heard about that?"

Madame smiled as kindly as she could, which was considerably so. "X is friends with Brainchild of the Young Cosmics, and you know she's the ward of the Ultimate, who's currently in the Gold Stars. Besides, you know gossip spreads like wildfire in the spandex community."

Ira wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, telling himself that it really was terrible to get old and have such runny eyes. "Yes, it always has."

"You want to know if you imagined Josh talking to you," Madame said.

Ira nodded.

Madame sighed and set her own cup down. "Ira, you know that the Oracle isn't always right. You have to remember that."

Ira nodded again.

Madame watched him for a long moment, mouth pursed. Then she leaned to one side and pressed a button.

The door opened and X stepped in soundlessly. X walked over to stand just behind and to the left of Madame's chair.

Ira looked up, then shot an interrogative glance at Madame.

She smiled. "I'm not as young as I once was. Just to be safe, X is my spotter. After all, when I can't do the job any more, it becomes X's burden."

Ira gave the young person a tentative smile. X nodded and quirked a half-smile at him.

Madame stretched, cracked her knuckles, and said, "All right, Ira, three questions. Make certain they're about the things uppermost in your mind. Otherwise, answers may be garbled."

Ira nodded, frowned, and looked into his tea again.

A tiny noise drew his attention. Madame was sitting bolt upright in her chair, graying hair standing out with the static that crackled at its tips. Her eyes glowed electric blue, and her face was altered into a terrible countenance, one full of stern admonition and intense compassion. The light in the room had changed: harsher, sharper, less forgiving, showing all the smallest flaws and sags of Madame's face, the bitterness and anger in the lines of X's mouth, the aging shabbiness of the furniture and carpet.

Ira had forgotten what it was like to see without cataract blurs and halos around everything.

"SPEAK YOUR QUESTION, IRA FELDSTEIN," she said in the familiar, awful, echoing voice of the Oracle.

X nodded to him. Ira took a deep breath and plunged into the deep water.

Enjoyed What I've Read

Date: 2009-10-24 08:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jimssecondbrain.blogspot.com
I came over here from Web Fiction Guide and I'm enjoying the serial so far. It does have a little bit of an Astro City feel, but it's definitely its own thing.

Re: Enjoyed What I've Read

Date: 2009-10-26 09:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jimssecondbrain.blogspot.com
No problem. I've linked to it from my own serial's blog as well. You've written a something good, and I hope it gets as much attention as it can.

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