wonder_city: (Default)
Wow, the holidays were more exhausting than I thought they'd be, but I managed to knock this off finally.





Collateral Damage

Megan was trying to decide whether to call over to Death's place to see if Diarmid needed a hand with anything when there was a polite, very recognizable knock on her door. She opened it and looked down at her long-absent landlord, astonished.

"You're home?" she said.

"Indeed," Zoltan said with a smile that didn't quite reach the rest of his face.

Megan thought he looked paler and thinner and older than he had a few weeks ago, when he'd introduced her to his family and left her at their mansion for safekeeping. "Well, welcome back," she said as a precursor to her inquiries about his health.

He intercepted her verbally with a, "Thank you. I need your able assistance, if I may, with some entirely legal breaking and entering."

She blinked. "Legal…?

"Yes," he said, stepping back from the door and gesturing toward the stairs up. "If you wouldn't mind?"

Megan followed him up the stairs to the second floor. She glanced at Simon's door out of (old) habit (that she was still pleased to find had not been deleted), but knew he was out job-hunting today. Zoltan paused in front of the other door on that landing.

"No one has seen Lizzie for several days," Zoltan explained in a low voice. "And she lost her job last week."

"How do you know that?" Megan asked, also in a low voice.

"I have sources," he said with a dismissive wave. "While I have a key to her apartment and have attempted to use it, she appears to have barricaded the door in some way."

"And you want me to get the door open."

"S'il vous plaît," he said with a bow.

"It's unlocked now?" she said, putting a hand on the door.

"Yes," he said.

She turned the knob carefully and then pushed against the opening side of the door. There was some stubborn resistance, but she increased the pressure and the door started to move, accompanied by a scraping sound from inside. As gently as possible, she pushed the door open enough for Zoltan to slide inside.

A wave of hot sour air hit her in the face, full of stale beer and less pleasant substances. She swallowed hard against the initial sickly urge, and turned away from the door.

Muffled, inside, she heard Zoltan say, "Ah!" and then she heard him on his cell phone, giving the address and information to the 911 operator.

After a few moments, there was a small commotion on the other side of the door. He said, "I have removed the smaller items that were heaped against the door, but I cannot move the sofa myself — it is upended, and somewhat tipsy."

"All right," she said, taking a breath of the potpourri-scented air in the hallway and then reaching around the door to take hold of the sofa with one hand. The sofa was one of those older monsters made of neutron star material and prickles. She lifted it to one side and pushed the door open.

The interior of the apartment was dim, all the windows heavily curtained. Zoltan was trying light after light, but they were either unplugged or the bulbs were burnt out, until he tried one of the cheap floor lamps, which illuminated the space but also threw long shadows. A figure she guessed was Lizzie was swathed in a blanket and curled up on a loveseat that did not match the sofa she'd just moved aside. The floor was littered with bottles and cans. There was a box fan on the floor, aimed at the loveseat, but it wasn't on, and all the windows were shut. The room was sweltering in the late summer heat.

"Oh, shit," she said.

"She's alive," Zoltan said, turning back toward the loveseat. "And even responds somewhat. I am hopeful she is not as bad as this room looks."

Poor Simon came upstairs at just that moment. He started to say something to Megan, and then he turned almost visibly green as the smell hit him. He galloped back downstairs and out the front door with impressive speed.

"Simon's waiting outside for the ambulance," Megan told Zoltan.

"Ah, wise boy," Zoltan said, with a grimace. He bent over the loveseat and shook Lizzie. "Come, my girl, you need to wake up for your old landlord, whose heart is not good enough for these kinds of scares."

Lizzie moaned in response, which Megan had to admit was better than she expected.

The EMTs arrived a few minutes later, and were guided inside by Simon, who stayed downstairs on the porch, holding the door for the gurney's return. Megan helped them kick a path to the loveseat, and then retreated back to the door to set the sofa down on its legs, off to the side.

Zoltan answered their questions about Lizzie as if he were related to her, down to knowing her birthdate and wallet name. He presented them with a document that was apparently his authorization to stand as her medical proxy (in lieu of her awful next-of-kin), then moved back to the doorway to join Megan while they examined Lizzie and got her onto their gurney.

Megan frowned down at Zoltan with some confusion, and said, back to her low voice, "I thought you had enhanced strength. You should've been able to take care of this door yourself."

He avoided her gaze and shrugged. "It is daylight. And I have been… not very well lately. I probably could have handled the door, but it seemed ill-advised to burst in, not knowing where she was and how the barricade might fall."

Megan watched him for a moment, and something that had been niggling at the back of her mind since she had stayed with his family tackled her. "Oh, wait, were you the person they were talking about at the house who lost all your, uh, 'donors' to the men in black arresting them?"

Zoltan cleared his throat and looked more uncomfortable than Megan thought she'd ever seen him. "Yes, I suppose I am. Voluntarily being a… partner for a registered vampire was subject to arrest for 'perversion' under our invading overlords. My lawyer is hard at work, trying to get my friends released."

The EMTs emerged at this point with Lizzie strapped onto the gurney. She was pallid and greenish, eyes closed.

"Pardon," Zoltan said, watching them negotiate the stairs. "I need to go with them."

"Of course," Megan said.

Zoltan closed and locked Lizzie's door, and returned his keyring to the pocket of his sleek black trousers. "Perhaps you could mention to Watson that I will need a ride home in a few hours and will call her?"

"Yes, of course," Megan said again. Watson was out on some case or other, but Megan knew she'd probably be back inside of a couple hours.

"I will see you later, then," Zoltan said, trotting down the stairs. He paused and looked back at her. "Could you also perhaps call that charming elderly gentleman of whom Lizzie is so fond? She might like to have a friendly face if… when she wakes up."

"I can get Ira's number, no problem," Megan said, knowing Watson would have it.

"Thank you very much, Megan," he said solemnly, and hurried out the front door.

Megan went downstairs and stood on the porch with Simon, leaving the front door open so the stairwell could air out. They watched the EMTs carefully settling the gurney in the ambulance and finally inviting Zoltan to jump in the back, which he did as gracefully as one can. The ambulance lights came on and it rolled out of the driveway onto Marigold Lane, and away toward town.

They stood in silence in the humidity of late afternoon. A vague breeze crept onto the porch and ruffled Megan's freshly butched hair.

"Well, that sucks," Simon said finally.

"Yeah," Megan said. Her stomach tightened and she knew it was time to say something to him. "I've been really self-centered about the fallout from everything." She bit her lip to try to keep the tears out of her eyes and said, "I'm sorry about what happened. Forgetting that you were human… locking you into my apartment and asking Watson to walk you! It was horrible, I wasn't even paying attention to what was going on with you. I'm so sorry."

She saw him turn to look at her out of the corner of her suddenly wet eye. Dammit, stop being a fucking faucet, Megan. It took serious force of will, but she finally looked at him.

His expression was, she thought, a little surprised and more than a little sad. He took one of her big hands in both of his and looked up into her face over the edge of his tinted glasses. "Thank you. That means a lot to me." His yellow eyes were bright and damp around the edges. "But I know what was happening to you, Megan, and having your mind actively fucked with is not something to take lightly. I'm good, I'm okay. I had other people taking care of me through all that, and I'm really not pissed at you, I promise. You can let go of blaming yourself for that."

Megan tried to hold it together for another ten seconds, and then they ended up in a mutually bawling hug, her on her knees, him standing.

"I'm sorry…"

"No, I'm sorry…"

"I was so terrified…"

"I missed you so much…"

"Everything hurt all the time…"

"When you didn't say anything after…"

"But you were out all the time…"

"I feel so alone…"

"I can't…"

"I love you."

"I love you too."

"God, we're dorks."

"Yeah, but we're sexy dorks."

"I am SO not sexy right now."

"Well, me either."

They finally let go and looked at each other's puffy red wet faces. Megan fumbled for her handkerchief to wipe her nose and Simon used the front of his t-shirt to rub his whole face.

"I feel really bad that I didn't pay more attention to Lizzie," Simon said, sitting down on the porch swing. "I'm supposed to be her friend."

"She wasn't letting anyone in, I think," Megan said, who thumped down to sit crosslegged at his feet. "I heard you knocking on her door a couple times, and she kept sending you away. I know Watson tried too." She snorted. "I was too wrapped up in my own shit."

"You and she have always just been nodding acquaintances, though," Simon said.

"Maybe she would have talked to me because of that," Megan said with a shrug.

Megan scooted around and rested her head on Simon's leg. He ruffled her hair. "I missed you a lot," he said.

"I missed you too," she said. She had a sudden flash of memory—which gratified her, as such things did these days—and added, "And I promise I'll never make a 'Megan's best friend' crack about you again."

"I appreciate that," he said with a hiccoughing laugh. "Though you're still allowed to skritch me behind the ear occasionally."



wonder_city: (Default)
This week has been weird and surreal -- I live in central Massachusetts, and work in Cambridge -- and today has been particularly strange, with the refreshing the browser and checking Twitter and such. I have successfully distracted written the lion's share of this episode today, however, and I hope you will forgive any little gaffes as being products of my distraction.


Torschlusspanik

"Ah, Mr. Frost," Zoltan said at the door of the enormous luxury board room, his eastern European accent rolling softly over the name. "And Nereid. So pleased you could make it to our little discussion group."

Nereid stared at Zoltan. For a man who never aged, the very fine lines around his eyes and mouth seemed much more pronounced than they'd been last time she'd seen him, at least a year before. He was dressed very finely in a pale grey three-piece suit, a white shirt, and a pale blue tie. She noticed his cufflinks, though, as they shook hands -- tiny gold bats -- and it was all she could do not to giggle.

"I was pleased to be invited," Michael Frost said, staring beyond Zoltan's head at the far side of the room.

"Ah, yes, you see that Baroness Von Drachenberg has arrived before you," Zoltan said, stepping aside gracefully and gesturing them into the room. "We still await Ms. Washington, from your folk. My folk are represented, as are most of the other Mystikai."

Nereid stared around the echoing room and was gratified by the presence of Madame Destiny and X, and also the Equestrian and her steed (in tall, lean, redheaded human form) Maelstrom. She didn't know any of the many others, and noticed that a certain amount of space was left between every knot of beings as they stood around and drank coffee. Sophie would probably snark about it if she were here. Which she wasn't. And Nereid wasn't sure why she wasn't, but the absence made her anxious.

The Baroness was a short, round, cheerful woman who appeared to be middle-aged, accompanied by a couple of stocky, balding men in tweed suits. She gave Mr. Frost a little finger wave that he ignored. Nereid smiled nervously in the woman's direction.

A moment later, a ridiculously tall, willowy woman with long white hair, wearing a strangely familiar long, flowing black leather coat (with large spiky shoulder pads) and pants, strode past Zoltan into the room without a word. Under the coat, she seemed to be largely wearing straps, which accented her... prominent cleavage. She paused to regard Mr. Frost, then the Baroness with a sneer, and made her way to the center-back of the room, throwing herself into the chair at the foot of the ridiculously long table. She put her booted feet up on the table with heavy clunks.

"And with the arrival of Ms. Washington," Zoltan said, nodding to the t-shirted bar bouncer-types in the hall and shutting the door, "our numbers are complete. I am, as most of you know, Zoltan Farkas, and I speak for the Grand Matriarch of the East today, though her granddaughter --" he bowed to an African American woman who was taking a seat near the middle of the table "-- is here to correct me if I step wrongly. Speaking for the Grand Matriarch of the West is Doña Juana Salazar. Between us, we speak for the Family here in North America."

He nodded, and the Equestrian stood, looking very out of place as a young blonde teen dressed for a horse show in a velvet coat of bottle-green, breeches, and tall leather boots. "All of you know who I am," she said in her British accent. "I'm here for the Good Neighbors, specifically the one known as Lady Daphne, my sometimes-patron."

A broad-shouldered, tanned man in a black suit, surrounded by several individuals in similar suits, introduced himself as the elected speaker for the shapechanger Mystikai. Several more people introduced themselves as chosen or appointed speakers for various schools of magic. There was a fascinatingly tiny woman who was the representative of the Appalachian Gnome Queendom. A pair of thin, pale women who were clearly twins said they were there on behalf of the Wonder City vampires. A perfectly normal middle-aged middle-class woman in jeans and a sweatshirt that sported a picture of a kitten, with the glittery legend, "Hang in there!" arcing over it, introduced herself as the Outsider.

Madame stood and bowed. She was dressed elegantly in a long black dress and a black turban, a silvery-grey wrap draped around her shoulders. She was made up extravagantly, with dramatic swooshes of shadow above her eyes. "I am Madame Destiny, the current vessel for the Mystikai known as the Oracle, and I have been asked here by my friend Zoltan in case we need to consult the Oracle's wisdom." She gestured to X, who was conservatively done up in a black suit and garnet-colored cravat. "This is my apprentice, X." And she resumed her seat.

Nereid became aware, as silence fell, that Mr. Frost and the Baroness were staring at each other across the room. After a long, tense moment, Miss Washington drawled, without standing, "I'm Washington. I'm a dragon."

Both Mr. Frost and the Baroness looked at her at the same moment, a fleeting glimpse of disgust crossing both their faces. They looked at each other again, and the Baroness shrugged, and said, "I am the Baroness Von Drachenberg, and I am a Reptilian-American." She glowered in Washington's direction, then gestured grandly to Mr. Frost.

He inclined his head briefly and said, "I am Michael Frost, also Reptilian-American, and I am the patron of the superhero team, the Young Cosmics." He dropped a hand on Nereid's shoulder. "This is my team's Class 10 elemental, Nereid, who kindly agreed to accompany me."

Zoltan seated himself at the head of the table and folded his hands. "Thank you all for coming. I think we can agree that the situation in the United States, and in Wonder City in particular, is growing intolerable and is threatening everything each of us has worked for. Several of us wanted to bring the community together to discuss possible options for information-gathering and action."

One of the myriad magic-using people -- one of the few dressed in what Nereid thought of as normal clothes -- raised her hand. Zoltan nodded, and she said, "I think it would be helpful if we pooled our intelligence as to the nature of the troubles and possible sources."

"Agreed," Zoltan said, nodding cheerfully all around the table. "So let us do so. I confess that the Family has very little information on the nature or source of the troubles, only a fairly close analysis of the results. So who has more information?"

Several of the magic-using people spoke up about scrying and analytical magic and things that immediately and pedantically went over Nereid's head -- another reason to regret Brainchild's absence, she thought, was her inability to ask Sophie later what something had meant. Nereid was also distracted by Washington's openly bored posture with her head tilted back, staring ostentatiously at the ceiling.

"So what you're telling us," Zoltan said, smoothly interrupting one of the interminable lectures, "is that the main threat appears to be in orbit, and radiating something down at us that is affecting human behavior?"

"Uh," said the man in burgundy robes. "Yes. Essentially."

"Thank you," Zoltan said, and he even sounded like he meant it. "Have any other Mystikai ascertained any details?"

Nereid glanced aside at Mr. Frost's pleasantly-smiling face, expecting him to say something. Instead, Madame Destiny said, "Yes, we have."

All heads turned her way. X met Nereid's look with briefly raised eyebrows.

"Our group of... friends," Madame said with a self-deprecating air, "have determined that the ships in orbit are, in fact, of alien origin, and that the nature of the projection is a technological enhancement of a para with empathic abilities."

And then the meeting exploded into discussion, debate, and questions. Nereid watched it all, bewildered, and also watched the three drago--- Reptilian-Americans, she corrected herself. The Baroness beamed delightedly as her two tweedy companions leapt into a debate with a trio of mages and one shapeshifter. Mr. Frost watched the proceedings with a small smile. Washington continued to stare at the ceiling. The only other person who appeared so disconnected was the Equestrian, who slumped in her chair and frowned at the tabletop.

During a brief lull in the conversation, Washington burst out with, "Tell me why I should care."

Everyone froze. Nereid heard Michael Frost inhale, but whatever he was going to say was preempted by the Baroness Von Drachenberg saying, sweetly, "I would explain, but I think that you are too young to understand."

Washington leapt to her feet and glared at the Baroness. Nereid felt obscurely that she ought to have a large magical sword in one hand, then realized that as a drago-- Reptilian-American, she didn't need a weapon of any sort: she was one.

After a long moment, Washington said, in tones not nearly as sweet as the Baroness', "Try me, old woman."

Nereid noticed one of the tweed-clad men next to the Baroness discreetly scribbling notes in a battered leather-bound notebook, while the other was sliding an old pocket dictation recorder onto the table and looking around surreptitiously. Some of the mages and a few of the shapeshifters were subtly fading back from the table. Nereid herself was feeling more and more nervous sitting next to Mr. Frost.

The Baroness folded her hands on the table and, still smiling, said, "As someone without much experience in the markets of the world, you perhaps do not know how very destabilizing these sorts of events can be. You may think that such disquiet would make your particular objets du dèsir easier to obtain -- whenever you decide to obtain them -- but it is not so." She paused, reached down without looking, and clicked the tape recorder off. "At least, not in the long run."

Washington was pale with a cold rage that Nereid could feel from across the room. She leaned forward to place her hands flat onto the table, her white hair starting to blow behind her in a breeze that seemed to affect nothing else. Before she could say anything, though, Michael Frost began to laugh.

The look Washington turned on him was very little altered from what she had just been aiming elsewhere, but the gaze the Baroness turned on him was cynical, withering, and underneath it all, so sharp that Nereid had to repress the urge to run out of the room. The mages and shapeshifters took the opportunity to slide entirely back from the table toward the outer walls.

"Do forgive me, Baroness," Michael Frost said, in his suavest voice, "but it seems to me that if we are here, we have already agreed to act. There is no need for this attention-seeking posturing."

The Baroness was no longer, at all, a pleasant-looking little woman. Nereid saw the representative of the Gnome Queendom retreating behind a heavy credenza and felt an urge to join her. As if reading her mind, Michael Frost chose that moment to lay his hand over hers on the table, and action that made Nereid unbearably uncomfortable for too many reasons to list.

Nereid attempted to comfort herself with her ability to dissolve into mist at the first sign of actual violence.

At the head of the table, Zoltan looked as if he might be comforting himself similarly. He was exchanging looks with the other representatives of his Family -- whatever that was, Nereid thought, wondering if it he was a member of some kind of vampire mafia -- and both women were giving him cheerful sorts of "I wouldn't be you for a million dollars" encouraging smiles.

Washington was staring at Michael Frost, and Nereid noticed that she was becoming visibly more irritated when he refused to stare back. Her long, slender fingers gripped the edge of the table, and Nereid had an unpleasant image of her flipping it. But the moment passed, and she sat down in a kind of anticlimax.

The Baroness and Michael Frost, however, continued to match gazes, and Nereid thought that perhaps there was some sort of battle going on that she was too human to perceive except on the most uncomfortably lowest levels of her lizard brain. Like the so-called brown note, she thought.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," the Equestrian exclaimed, slamming her small hands on the table with moment-shattering slaps. "The rest of us don't have time for your--" she paused over word choice for a moment, then continued sourly "--politicking."

The two dragons snapped their heads around to look at her and the Equestrian pursed her lips and tilted her head slightly in the direction of Maelstrom, who appeared to be dozing in his chair. Mr. Frost and the Baroness each glanced back at each other, then exhaled, and the tension oozed out of the room.

Zoltan shuffled some papers. The mages and shapeshifters glided back to the table. The Gnome Queendom representative returned to her chair.

"I think," said Doña Juana Salazar, smiling thinly around the table, "that perhaps we should take advantage of the presence of the Oracle to ascertain what level of action would work best for the Mystikai as a whole."

"Yes," the Baroness said, her good humor apparently restored, though Nereid was unsure if that was true. "It is so very easy to overreact and do more harm than good."

Michael Frost said, "Yes, let's." He yawned elaborately.

Washington just waved a hand irritably.

"Perhaps it would be best to determine what the maximum level of involvement we would be willing to pursue should be," piped the tiny representative of the Gnome Queendom.

This led to another bewildering half hour of conversations, cross-conversations, and sub-conversations that Nereid could not parse at all. None of the dragons involved themselves in these discussions; they just watched.

Zoltan tapped a glass (where did he get the glass?) with a spoon (likewise?), and the sound rang out over the room, bringing conversation to a faltering halt. He said, "If we are going to make use of the Oracle, then I think we should do it quickly. We are unlikely to come to a consensus on this issue, nor do I think it is necessary. We simply need to remember to ask yes or no questions for optimal accuracy."

"And minimal cryptic ramblings," the Equestrian muttered, getting a short laugh out of Madame and X, at least.

Madame got up and moved her chair well back from the table, then resumed her seat. X moved to stand facing her, a little to the side. Everyone at the table turned to watch Madame with great interest -- even the dragons.

Nereid had seen Madame do this many times before, and all went as usual. Madame composed herself in her chair and closed her eyes for a few moments. X watched her fixedly. Then the light in the room changed to the harsh, focused, bluish tinge it always took.

Madame's face in that light startled Nereid, like she was seeing straight through the makeup. Madame looked old. Really old. And sick, and strained. Tears began leaking from the corners of her eyes. Then her eyes popped open and blue light crackled there, making everyone blink and look away for a moment.

"SPEAK, CHILDREN OF MAGIC," the Oracle said with Madame's mouth.

X turned to Zoltan and nodded.

But then the Oracle said, "STOP."

Nereid could see Madame's head and hands vibrating as if she had a palsy. The tears were coursing down her face and dripping off her chin. Her face looked grey in the blue light.

Madame gasped, in her own voice, "No!"

The light changed again -- instead of seemingly radiating from Madame's whole body, it shifted to solely from her head. And then blue lightning stabbed out from Madame into X, who echoed Madame with a more gutteral, wrenching, "No!"

Nereid ran to Madame as the older woman toppled from her chair, pulling her up from the floor and cradling her head against her shoulder. For a long moment, Nereid gazed down into her exhausted, drawn, tear-streaked face, and irrelevantly remembered the same woman, five years earlier, patiently helping her with her math homework. She remembered that Madame had been studying to be a mathematician, that she was really good at it, until the Oracle took up residence in her body.

X was suspended in mid-air in the middle of the room, blue light and lightning leaking out spasmodically. Most of the people in the room were at least standing, if not moving cautiously toward X.

Madame's eyes opened and she tried to sit up, but couldn't, then relaxed back into Nereid's arms. She croaked urgently, "Don't touch X!" into the tense silence, and everyone moving stopped.

"If you touch X," Madame said more calmly, "it could distract zir from what focus zie could gather. If that happens on the first possession, we might never get X back." She closed her eyes again.

Nereid was chilled to the bone by the idea of the Oracle being permanently "on" in X's body. She looked at the disheveled figure dangling like a marionette in mid-air.

"NOW YOU MAY SPEAK," said the Oracle with X's mouth.

"Oh, god," Madame groaned.

"It's all right," Nereid whispered to her.

"I thought I could hold on," Madame said, tears trickling out of her eyes again. "I thought I could keep going. Anything so X wouldn't have to..."

"X knew this would happen eventually," Nereid said in low tones, vaguely registering that questions were being asked and answered with a staccato precision elsewhere in the room. "X was prepared for it."

"You're never prepared for it," Madame said faintly. "Never. I knew for years, and I never expected what happened."

"Is it so bad?" Nereid said.

"It's like a seizure," Madame said opaquely. "Oh, god, I should get up, I should spot X, keep people from asking too many questions." She began to struggle to sit up, at least.

Nereid helped her sit up when it became clear that she was too agitated to rest. X was still held off the floor, but was no longer quite so high in the air. Madame took one look at X's face, which was lined with strain, and made a throat-cut motion to Zoltan, who nodded and stepped between a ponderous mage and X.

"Thank you for your generous assistance, oh, Oracle," Zoltan said with a graceful bow. "Your vessel needs rest, and we have our answers."

"VERY WELL, TRAVELLER," the Oracle said in its booming voice. "CARE FOR THE EMPTIED VESSEL AS WELL AS THE NEW VESSEL."

With that, X was released into Zoltan's waiting arms. Maelstrom took X from Zoltan and the Equestrian peremptorily gestured Zoltan back into the scrum of loudly-discussing Mystikai.

Madame reached out as Maelstrom knelt to set X next to her. She stroked X's sweat-beaded forehead maternally and whispered, over and over, "I'm so sorry."

Nereid stayed on the ground with the two of them, an arm around each, content to be a literal support. X was moving slowly, blinking dazed eyes up at the ceiling. Madame was still murmuring what sounded like apologies. As an afterthought, Nereid dried their clothes and faces and hair -- sweat and tears and whatever else would leave a bit of a crust, but at least they wouldn't feel damp.

"You have my promise," Michael Frost was saying, coming to stand near Nereid and Madame and X, "that I will match the Baroness' contributions financially, and that I will permit limited involvement of my Cosmics in a decisive para action."

Washington strode almost up to him, then past, saying, "And you have my promise that I will participate in the para action myself... if it seems fun." She kicked the door open and walked out of the board room.

"I am going to take Madame and X home," Michael Frost said, reaching down to effortlessly lift Madame in his arms. Nereid helped X to stand, and stayed under the strong arm that she remembered so vividly holding her up at one time. "The rest of you may go on discussing whatever you like. Zoltan, if anything significant comes up, I trust you will notify us via the usual channels."

"Of course," Zoltan said, catching Nereid's eye with a questioning raise of his eyebrows. Nereid smiled, she hoped, reassuringly, and turned to help X follow Mr. Frost out of the room.











wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

13.

"So, I will see you when I see you," Zoltan said cheerfully. He was dressed in black trousers, a pale lavender silk shirt, and a black vest with almost-invisible pinstripes in its silk surface.

They stood at a corner all traffic must pass to leave the convention center. Erszebet thought him rather shabbily dressed to meet the Grand Matriarch's caravan, and said so.

He laughed. "I am no longer in employ of or under any obligation to a Grand Matriarch, especially not this one, cousin. I think my own Mater Magna would be upset if I showed too much respect to her sister ruler." He sobered and eyed her more closely. "That is a lesson to take with you, Erszebet: be careful to whom you owe obligations. Make them obliged to you if at all possible, even in small, seemingly insignificant ways. They will not forget, if they are good matriarchs, and these are both good ones."

She shifted her grip on her smallest suitcase and considered. "Did you owe an obligation to Magna Mater Klotild, cousin?"

He sighed and said, "A very great one, cousin. But do not imagine that I will tell you about it."

Erszebet nodded and looked at the pavement for a moment. Then she said, "Cousin, I have a question."

Zoltan emanated amusement. "Speak, cousin."

"I met a fortuneteller," she began.

"Madame Destiny?" he said, and the amusement damped down.

"Yes, I believe that was her name."

"Go on."

Erszebet related as exactly as she could recall the message Madame had given her several days earlier, and finished with, "And I cannot tell if it was a foretelling or a curse. Can you?"

Zoltan frowned into the middle distance. Slowly, he said, "I have only heard the Oracle give a foretelling like this once before."

"You have? Then it is a foretelling?" Erszebet said anxiously. She'd honestly hoped it was a curse. Curses can be removed. Well, most of them.

"Madame does not curse people. But here is your ride," Zoltan said, and Erszebet turned to see the enormous grey and black motorhome glide to a silent halt next to them.

Juana Zalazar opened the door and two strapping young men popped out to collect Erszebet's things. "Good day, cousins!" Juana called over their heads. "I hope it will not be amiss with you, Erszebet, that my mother would like you to ride with her a while."

"Of course not!" Erszebet said promptly. "It is an honor and a pleasure to ride with the Grand Matriarch." She hoped her anxiety was only readable by Zoltan.

"Come along, then," Juana said, disappearing back inside, followed by the strapping young men.

Erszebet turned to Zoltan. He took her hands and kissed her forehead, saying in the Family language, "And here I release you to the care of one greater than I, and charge you to return to me in your own time."

"I take from you greater understanding and hope my company was some small recompense," she replied, squeezing his hands. Then, in English, she said, "Is it a foretelling?"

Zoltan handed her up the step of the recreational vehicle and smiled. "A predecessor of Madame's said it to me." He kissed his fingertips to her and walked away before she could say anything else.

Erszebet settled with the rest of Magna Mater Consuela's abbreviated court in the immensely plush rear of the vehicle. Consuela was occupied speaking with some of the older women, so Erszebet had a chance to look out the back window as they pulled away. The Grand Matriarch's caravan was made up of other similar motorhomes, with limousines and SUVs interspersed and also moving into position as outriders on the four-lane highway they struck almost immediately. At the top of the hill leaving Wonder City, Erszebet could see the long, long line of vehicles spinning out behind them, well into the hundreds. Beyond, she could see the sun striking the top of the Perisphere and Trylon at the center of the city, and someone flying over them.

It might be a while before she returned, but Zoltan had been right: the place grew on you. She would, in fact, be back.

---

Author's Note:

The end. Of this interlude. But Erszebet and the Family seem to be popular, so I'm thinking that I will likely write more about her. She may get her own spinoff bits of story, which pleases me inordinately.

Posting to you from the last day of WisCon, sitting in the con suite, watching people disassemble it. Thank you to everyone I met at WisCon and who said kind things about both Wonder City and my play, "Fandom, Fandom, Do You Read?", which had its premiere reading Sunday morning.








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

12.

The festivities went on well into the daytime hours, and Erszebet was intrigued by the shift in the type of people she saw walking the halls. Of course, the vermin had to leave before sunrise, and they were replaced by vastly more people in colorful costumes than she had seen previously.

Everyone is happy to attend a celebration. Not quite so many are so happy to attend a funeral, even for someone who was, essentially, a kind of head of state.

She retired to what she'd begun to think of as "the Garnet Parlor", a sprawling room done up in lavish Victoriana, full of comfortable chairs, gas fireplaces, cozy conversation nooks, and sound-deadening wall-hangings and rugs. There was also something that flattened out emotional noise, so that it was very peaceful and quiet in all ways. In a dimly-lit corner, in a wingback chair, she closed her eyes and sighed with relief.

"Ah, Ms. Farkas," said a vaguely familiar woman's voice. "How does the last day of the event find you?"

Erszebet opened her eyes and found a cheerful almost-elderly woman smiling at her from another wingback chair; the woman was wearing a black turban with a peacock plume attached to it, and a long black dress, set off by a metallic wine-colored wrap, and a magnificent garnet parure. When the young, beautifully-dressed Asian man appeared in a morning coat and trousers, carrying a tray with a china teapot and cup, she recognized Madame Destiny. "I am extremely tired," Erszebet admitted. "But it has been an... unforgettable experience."

"I expect so," Madame said, taking the teacup offered. "You've had quite a week. And more experiences upcoming soon."

Erszebet looked sharply at the woman. "How do you know these things?"

Madame smiled and sipped her tea. "I've been a fortuneteller for almost fifty years."

Erszebet glanced at the young man, who smiled briefly and nodded. "She's a very good fortuneteller."

"Thank you, X, dear," Madame said. "Oh, would you take this, dear?" She handed the teacup back to the young man and turned a serious look on Erszebet. "I'm sorry, this will probably be somewhat unpleasant, but..."

There was an alarming change in the room -- the light shifted, became sharp and harsh and unforgiving, laying bare not only all the age lines in Madame's face, but the imperfections in the wall hangings, the upholstery, and the hem of Erszebet's dress. Madame, for her part, sat up very straight with her eyes glowing blue.

"ERSZEBET FARKAS," Madame said in an unearthly, sepulchral voice, "YOU ARE A CHILD OF DESTINY."

Erszebet just stared.

Madame went on: "YOUR TRAVELS WILL NOT END, YOUR WORDS FENCES TO MEND, YOUR NAME MANY WILL CALL FRIEND. GO WITH PEACE FOR NOW, THOUGH CONTENTION BE YOUR ETERNAL PARTNER." And with that, Madame slumped back in her chair and the light returned to normal.

Erszebet looked from Madame to X and back, alarmed.

X bent and set a gentle hand on Madame's shoulder. Madame took a startled breath and opened her eyes. She awkwardly nudged the turban on her head and smiled, a little vacantly, at Erszebet. "Well, dear, did that help?"

Erszebet found her voice, and decided to be very polite. "No, I'm afraid it only confused me."

Madame smiled more widely and managed to focus on her at last. "I'm sorry, dear, the Oracle is sometimes like that. It's usually so cryptic that its meaning isn't obvious until much later."

Erszebet was very glad when shortly after, Juana Zalazar came to abduct her. "You look rather pale," Juana said when they were out of the parlor. "Are you well?"

"I... just had a rather remarkable experience with one of the paras, I think," Erszebet said. "I can't quite make out whether it was a prophecy or a curse."

Juana patted her shoulder kindly. "Sometimes, it is impossible to tell the difference. Speaking of that, I'm taking you to see my mother."

Erszebet gave her a wild, alarmed look at this particular segue.

"Not to worry," Juana said, smiling. "My mother has asked to speak to you privately, and Dame Geneviève would like to be introduced to you."

Erszebet's look did not diminish in alarm at all. Both Grand Matriarchs wanted to speak to her? Specially? Had she spoken out of turn? Had Isolde mentioned her embarrassing assumptions earlier in the week? Was she to be sent home now instead of taken on a grand tour of the country?

The two Grand Matriarchs were ensconced, side by side, in comfortable-looking high-backed wooden chairs that looked as much like thrones as they could without actually being thrones. There was no dais, no added jewelry, no ermine or gold, nothing that really indicated that these two ancient women were actually queens who had just peaceably split a kingdom between them. The Zalazar had gone from "plump and cheerful" to "massive and imposing", the tall Spanish comb set with brilliants in her hair only adding more height. The de León's deepset eyes and hooked nose lent a grim and forbidding aspect to her mien.

Zoltan stood quietly to one side, a bland but pleasant smile on his face, his hands clasped behind his back. The smile widened a little at the sight of her, but there was nothing either warning or excessive in the expression.

Everyone in the room -- with the certain exception of Erszebet -- was locked down, emotionally, tight as a drum.

"Erszebet Farkas," Magna Mater Consuela said with a smile.

Erszebet sank into the deepest curtsy she could manage, trying desperately to remember the little "just in case you're presented to the new Grand Matriarch" tutorial her aunt Csilla had given her while also wondering why everyone was using her full name today. Her reward for the curtsy -- and staying down -- was a tight note of approval from Zoltan.

"Rise," Magna Mater Geneviève intoned. "So you are the girl."

Erszebet tried not to show or leak panic as she drew herself back up to her feet.

"She is," Magna Mater Consuela said complacently. "We wish to thank you, Erszebet."

Erszebet tried not to show or leak confusion. She didn't succeed.

"I had planned to challenge Griselda no matter what," Magna Mater Consuela continued. "As had my counterpart here."

"The historical information you passed on to the St. Michels," Magna Mater Geneviève said, "was promptly spread far and wide throughout the American Family, which inspired all the Ancients to challenge."

"It may be an unprecedented event, even in the old country," Magna Mater Consuela said, "this great challenge. You should check with your aunt and let us know." She smiled, and Erszebet took it as reassurance.

"I am grateful to have been of service, my Mothers," Erszebet said, curtsying again.

"I look forward to your company on our travels to my realm," Magna Mater Consuela said, beaming upon her. "And perhaps more discussions of history."

Erszebet dipped to the floor again.

Magna Mater Geneviève turned a moment of crushing, laserlike focus upon her, and Erszebet narrowly managed to avoid cringing. "I understand you are acquainted with my granddaughter," she said after a moment.

"Yes, Mother," Erszebet said, locking down her embarrassment as hard as she could.

"Well, then," Magna Mater Geneviève said, "when Magna Mater Consuela releases you back into the wild, I will charge my granddaughter Isolde with bringing you to my Household for a time."

Yet another curtsy. "You honor me greatly, Mother."

"Shall I send her back to you, Zoltan?" Magna Mater Consuela inquired. "And you can facilitate her reunion with Isolde."

He bowed so that his long hair brushed the floor. "I should be glad of hosting my cousin again, Mother."

"It is settled, then," Magna Mater Geneviève said, thumping the arm of her chair. "Leave us now. We still have many people to see today."

Erszebet escaped the room gracefully, with Juana's assistance. In the hallway, she carefully mopped her forehead and face with her linen handkerchief as she said to Juana, "As if one Grand Matriarch is not terrifying enough..."

Juana laughed. "Yes, indeed. Well done. Come, we will get you a drink. You deserve one."

---

Author's Note:

Portents! Portents and omens! And terror! Yes, terror!








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

11.

Erszebet and Zoltan arrived earlier than usual, both anxious to know what was happening. As they coolly made their way into the halls of the convention center, Erszebet's gaze was almost immediately assaulted by a middle-aged man in a miniscule leopard-skin loincloth pacing the halls in a manner he clearly thought resembled a stalking big cat.

"What is wrong with his skin?" she asked Zoltan behind her hand. "Is it jaundice? Some alien disease?"

"No, my dear," he said, pat-patting her shoulder, "that is the rather orange result of a chemical suntan. And that is the finest example of an out-of-date para you will ever see: Ran-Zor the Lord of the Jungle."

Erszebet studied him, from the thinning and graying hair that straggled down his back, to the signs of a sedentary occupation in the thinness of his arms and legs, to the bunion on his foot. She glanced at Zoltan, trying to ascertain whether he was having her on. "He does not look like a lord of the jungle," she concluded dubiously.

Zoltan shrugged. "He claims to be an English lord who was left to fare for himself in the jungle by the tragic deaths of his parents, who were notable explorers, though I certainly never heard of them. I think he was raised by pangolins or something." He gestured toward the man for the benefit of one of the werewolf guards, and a half dozen werewolves closed in on the lord of the jungle. "He always claims to be Mystikai, and so crashes our events. I think he likes being manhandled, personally." He swept Erszebet past the impending fracas.

They encountered Harald soon enough. The elderly man was pink in the face with excitement. "I expect you have heard the news!" he exclaimed, shaking Zoltan's hand vigorously.

"Full-bore Cotyngham withdrawal?" Zoltan said, grinning. "Indeed we have!"

Harald bowed low over Erszebet's hand and gave her a wink. "Perhaps we have not been so boring after all," he said.

"Not at all, sir!" Erszebet said, taking his arm and squeezing it warmly. "This has all been very educational."

"Oh, dear," Harald said to Zoltan. "I am truly old, my friend, when a pretty young lady tells me that I am part of an educational experience."

"We are all educational for my dear cousin, I fear," Zoltan said.

"You are," Erszebet assured them cheerfully. "That does not make you less charming."

"Flatterer," Harald said, but he winked at her again.

"So who is here?" Zoltan asked.

"All the Ancients," Harald said. "They all arrived early and have locked themselves away to debate. I expect we shall have a long evening of waiting."

"There is no convenient smoke to turn white when they make a decision," Erszebet said.

Zoltan and Harald laughed. "No," Harald said, "but I expect we shall know almost instantly."

It was, in fact, a long evening of waiting. Erszebet left the menfolk to their own devices soon after, and went in search of her various acquaintances. After an hour of sliding through the dense crowd of Family, paras, vermin, and others, she heard her name called.

"Erszebet!" Alicia called again, bouncing up and down and waving to her over the heads of several individuals in color-coded armor.

She gratefully made her way toward her friend and found Catherine there as well. "Whatever are you doing in this little hallway?" she asked, accepting the glass of wine that Catherine snagged off a passing waiter's tray in the main hall.

"The meeting room is just down there," Alicia bellowed genteelly over the roar that filled the convention center halls.

"The meeting room!" Catherine shouted, waggling her thick black eyebrows meaningfully.

"And Jeanne-Marie is in there, acting as a messenger-clerk for her grandmother!" Alicia said directly into Erszebet's ear, guiding her away from the majority of the press. "We're hoping to get news the next time she's sent out."

"We are inveterate noseyparkers," Catherine said, fanning herself.

"How exciting!" Erszebet said, drinking her wine. "I had thought my cousin got the news first and we would be here before all else, but it seems not to be."

"Oh, I expect your cousin was the one who sent out the news to our families," Catherine said with a knowing look. "He has resources in this town."

"Were the two of you as exhausted as I was?" Erszebet asked.

"Oh, yeah," Alicia said. "I have a couple of my regular donors with me, though, so that was easy enough."

"Lucky," Catherine said. "I had to drop by one of the approved hunting grounds. Did your cousin provide for you, Erszi?"

"Yes," Erszebet said. "Though it was... um, strange."

"This whole city is a weirdness magnet," Alicia said. "I'll be glad to get home."

"To San Francisco?" Catherine said, grinning. "That haven of normalcy and WASPy Puritanical values?"

"Shh!" Erszebet said, cutting off whatever Alicia was about to say. "Here comes Jeanne-Marie!"

Jeanne-Marie was trying to combine dignity with speed, striding down the hall in a very plain grey pantsuit and practical shoes. Her face was flushed and she was perspiring lightly. She paled a bit when she saw the trio lying in wait. "I cannot say anything!" she said before they could start in on her. "It is a heated discussion, in more ways than one, and my grandmother will brook no delay. Also," she said, pausing to give them a regretful grimace, "much of what's being said is not for my ears." With a wave, she hurried away.

The trio looked at each other, and Catherine relieved the curiosity of the younger women by saying, "Telepathy. By the time you get to their age, all this empathy we wrangle has sort of... transcended."

"I didn't know that," Alicia said, rather awed.

"Neither did I," Erszebet said. She and Alicia exchanged glances, both leaking discomfort that probably reflected thoughts of what their grandmothers and great-aunts -- and possibly mothers and aunts -- were saying about them when they couldn't hear.

The trio drifted away, since they were going to get no scoop from their friend, and over the next couple of hours, they drifted apart into other conversations.

Finally, the tolling of a massive bell shook the halls into wide-eyed silence.

Just as people were beginning to ask where the bell was, a second sounding of the bell rattled everyone's ribcage and teeth and bones.

The loudspeaker system came on and Zoltan's cheerful voice rang out: "Will everyone please convene in the auditoriums? The main auditorium is reserved for Family, but the subsidiary auditoriums all have screens and live broadcasts."

Erszebet found herself jostled up against Isolde in the press to get into the main auditorium. Isolde linked arms with her. "I've gotta have someone to talk to in this mess," she told Erszebet. "The suspense is killing me."

"This is very exciting!" Erszebet said. "Do you think your grandmother...?"

"I try not to think anything about my grandmother," Isolde said. "She always surprises me, no matter what."

They settled into seats in the balcony, giving way to their elders. Erszebet spotted Alicia across the auditorium, but could not locate Catherine or Jeanne-Marie.

It took at least half an hour to settle everyone in the main auditorium. Erszebet was vibrating with the excitement that everyone was radiating.

At last, Zoltan appeared on stage, immaculate in his perfectly tailored black tuxedo and starched white shirt. There was a scattered round of applause that he waved into silence.

"My friends and Family," he said into the microphone he was holding, "it is my distinct honor to be able to present you with our Circle of Ancients."

Silently, the oldest women in North America filed onto the stage, all wearing the most beautiful black gowns Erszebet had ever seen, some remarkably anachronistic yet still gorgeous. They arrayed themselves in a semicircle around Zoltan.

After a dramatic pause, Zoltan said, "And now, the moment we have all been waiting for: the name of the new Grand Matriarch of North America." He drew an envelope from his pocket, tore open the end, and drew a folded sheet of paper from it. He looked at the paper, and Erszebet, even from her balcony seat, could see his eyes widen, though he was too polished and well-controlled to show any other response.

There was an impatient rustle through the audience. The Circle of Ancients, however, might have been carved from stone.

"I will read you what is on this paper," Zoltan said, his voice wavering just a little. He cleared his throat. "'It is the consensus of the Ancients that in light of the remarkable changes the past two centuries has brought to this land, the original territorial lines of the Dominion of North America may be over-ambitious, if we extrapolate for even simply the century to come. As a result, we have redrawn the territorial lines.'"

An explosion of noise throughout the auditorium caused Zoltan to lower the paper and wait. He glanced once over his shoulder, though Erszebet could not make out who he was looking at.

"This never happens," Erszebet muttered to Isolde. "My aunt has never said that there has been redrawing of the lines in anything like recent memory -- only wars to take existing Family territories."

"It's still a new land," Isolde said, eyes locked on the stage. "Evolving traditions and all."

A wave of impatient severity rippled over the room, silencing it almost immediately.

"Oh, Grandmother," Isolde said with a grim little smile.

Zoltan looked to the paper again. "'Be assured, beloved Family, that we have carefully negotiated these lines, agreed to the required alliance conditions, and signed the necessary contracts.'" He folded the paper and tucked it into his pocket. "It is my honor and pleasure to present to you the Grand Matriarchs of the East and the West, respectively: Dame Geneviève de León and Doña Consuela Maria Mercedes del Santiago Zalazar!"

The two women stepped forward to either side of Zoltan. Dame Geneviève gravely bowed to the applause while Doña Consuela waved and smiled enthusiastically.

Erszebet applauded till her hands hurt, and only when the applause began to die away did she notice that Isolde's applause was somewhat more restrained. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Isolde gave her a pained smile. "Well, you know what 'required alliance conditions' usually are, right?"

Erszebet frowned. "I expect those would be marriages."

Isolde nodded and gripped the seat back in front of her. "First marriages, of course, because secondary or tertiary spouses would not have nearly enough clout. And I'm the oldest unmarried woman in my family."

"Oh," Erszebet said. "Oh, Isolde." She laid her hand on Isolde's.

Isolde laced her fingers with Erszebet's and squeezed. They both looked back at the stage and over the jubilant auditorium in silence.

---

Author's Note:

No one expects the Spanish Disposition!








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

10.

Erszebet slept like the dead during the next day. Apparently, even though she wasn't close to the action of the Circle of the Ancients, the work the Ancients had gone to in order to pull on the magic also pulled something -- her energy? her own magic? -- out of her. Or maybe the tension had exhausted her. She couldn't tell. She just knew that she was so very asleep that she was relatively certain she did not dream at all.

She dragged downstairs to Zoltan's apartment sometime around 4 pm, passing without comment several of his boarders, including a very striking young black man and an enormous brown-skinned woman who were chatting in the hall. She was fairly sure they stared at her, but she couldn't summon the energy to even bid them good day.

"You look terrible," Zoltan said cheerfully upon opening his door. "Come in. You need something to eat, I think."

Erszebet moved inside just enough to fold into her favorite comfortable chair in his living room. She rested her forehead on her knees and said, "I think I need someone to eat."

"You are fortunate, then, that I have a spare," Zoltan said, leaking good-natured amusement at her. He trotted off to his kitchen and returned with a handsome, clean-cut young man with pale skin and well-formed features. "Alexander here doesn't mind the affections of ladies," her host explained with a wink, and took himself back out of the room.

Erszebet rolled her head back against the chair and examined Alexander as carefully as she could in her present condition. He smiled, just a little nervously, and sat on the ottoman next to her chair. "Zoltan says that you're rather, um, depleted."

She raised her eyebrows. "You don't mind being passed to his cousin like... like..."

"A juice bag?" he said with a little laugh. "No, no, I'm, uhm, particularly interested in... in new experiences, and he, ah, knows it. He invited me over today because he thought you might be... needing a little help."

Erszebet didn't even have the energy to roll her eyes at Zoltan's imposition of thoughtfulness, and no energy to wonder about Alexander's definition of "new experiences". "I am sorry, I usually try to make this more, ah, personal, but I'm afraid my cousin is correct about my... depletion."
"Oh, no problem," he said, with an anticipatory gleam in his eye that might have put her off another time. He moved the ottoman close to the side of her chair.

She reached over, arm feeling like lead, and drew him in close. The fangs came more easily than they had since she was a young, immature 20-something. She licked his skin to anesthetize it and then punctured it neatly -- some clans preferred to nearly maul their donors, which always appalled her, but she supposed it to serve some marking service. Then she withdrew the fangs, closed her eyes, and focused on drawing his blood to her, just as the Ancients had been drawing magic (and other things) to themselves.

When the first drops spattered deliciously into her mouth, she immediately felt better, and, within a few moments, was able to slow her draw to a thin trickle that she could savor Alexander's energies seeping into her tissues. This went on for several minutes, until a whimper from him made her recall herself. She slowed the flow and then stopped it so that it could clot itself, and then pulled away from him.

He wavered there, eyes closed, a blissful expression on his face. She studied the expression curiously. She knew that various factors provided a rather enjoyable experience for both vampire and donor, but she wasn't certain she'd ever seen someone quite so... lost in the experience before.

"Are you all right?" she asked after a few more moments.

His eyes opened and he smiled slowly at her. "Oh, yeahhhh."

She leaped to her feet, suddenly very nervous around him. "Well, ah, thank you very much. Take care," she said, and fled incontinently into the kitchen. She pressed her back against the door and gave her cousin a wild look.

Zoltan smiled sympathetically. "It's a little... strange, no?"

"Is he your... your... boyfriend?" she asked, swallowing hard.

"Oh, heavens, no," Zoltan said, strolling over to her. "Just, ah, a person who has an interest in our kind. If you'll excuse me, I'll send him on his way." She stepped aside and he went into the living room.

She found a soda in the refrigerator and drank the whole thing in a few gulps. Zoltan slid back in a few moments later and found her sitting at the kitchen table, holding the cold bottle to her forehead.

"Headache?" he inquired, placing a couple of tablets next to her elbow. "Or should I say hangover?"

"It feels like a hangover," Erszebet grumbled, "but I didn't drink anything last night."

"No," Zoltan said, sitting opposite her, leaning back, and crossing his legs. "But the Ancients were just a tad heedless in their little conflict. So heedless, we could feel it at the far end of the convention center."

Erszebet downed the tablets with the last of her soda and eyed him suspiciously. "You are far too cheerful. Klotild's fears were true, no?"

"Oh, yes," Zoltan said, smiling and humming a tune.

"There will be a great civil war, then?" Erszebet said to the tabletop, feeling obscurely guilty for sharing her historical knowledge with people.

"Oh, no," Zoltan said, his smile growing.

"What?" Erszebet said, forgetting her headache.

"The entire Cotyngham Household and every associated Household decamped first thing this morning," Zoltan said. "Charming Griselda and her many daughters are en route to Chicago as we speak."

Erszebet goggled at him, still not entirely comprehending.

Zoltan took pity on her. "Griselda, I think, took the hint of the challenge. She could stand up to, say, Consuela alone. But with both Consuela AND Geneviève against her, who were proven to be her magical equals, and who are, she knows, much more connected and popular than she is? No. Instead she retires to her stronghold and continues to be a... pain in the ass for whoever the next Grand Matriarch is."

"So Klotild did underestimate her fellow Ancients," Erszebet said, a little dazed.

"Yes, I think so," Zoltan said, and grinned. "I have always thought so."

"And you are cheerful because...?" Erszebet said, though she knew.

"Because I successfully upheld my oath to Klotild," Zoltan said complacently, "and I still don't have to put up with that hateful old bat."

She got up and kissed his cheek. "I am, I think, beginning to see why my mother sent me to you."

"I have always been such a good education for young cousins," Zoltan said, kissing her cheek in return. "Go, dress. We must get to the center to find out who the new Grand Matriarch will be."

---

Author's Note:

I wanted to remind everyone that these ARE vampires we're talking about. :)








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

8.

"I spoke my mother this morning," Erszebet said as she sat down to Zoltan's table for a brief supper before dressing for the evening's activities. "She said that as long as you felt that my trip with the Zalazars would be more valuable than her time with the Cotynghams, I could go."

"You could spend an evening with Ebb and Flo, waiting tables in their cafe, and have it be more valuable than Rosza's time with the Cotynghams," Zoltan said, putting two buttermilk biscuits on a plate and ladling gravy over them. He placed the plate before his guest and said, "I have no doubt that a visit with the Zalazars will be extremely educational."

Erszebet studied her supper gravely for a moment before taking up her fork and trying a bite. It was hot, savory, and peppery, and the biscuits beneath were delicately flaky. She turned her pleasantly surprised look on Zoltan.

"American cuisine," he said, settling to his own with a small smile, "is often both filling and comforting, I have found."

"I see," Erszebet said. She took another bite and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. Then, she swallowed and said, "No one seems to like Griselda much at all."

Zoltan pursed his lips but didn't look at her. "There is not much to like in her, I admit."

"Some of the people I have spoken to feel she will be an embarrassment to the Family," she pursued.

"Sometimes," he said, still not looking at her, "embarrassment must be endured."

"They seemed surprised when I told them that the eldest does not always automatically become Grand Matriarch in Europe," Erszebet said, watching his face.

His lips tightened into a flat line and he glanced at her. "I see," he said. His emotions were not nearly as well-controlled as usual, full of conflict and annoyance and disapproval.

"Cousin, your name is virtually synonymous in the Family with rebellion," Erszebet finally said. "Why are you so determined that this old bat become the next Grand Matriarch?"

"Because that is what is done," Zoltan said, voice strained.

She emitted a sound of exasperation. "Just like an American," she muttered.

"What?" he said, offended.

"Just like an American!" she repeated. "Americans voted an incompetent, embarrassing puppet of a man into their supposedly most important political position because of, as far as I can tell, stubbornness and stupidity. As a result, people in my part of the world think of the United States as barbaric and pathetic. A hundred years of reputation, gone in an eyeblink of two terms of office. It will take a hundred more years of intelligent leadership to reestablish that reputation."

Zoltan shifted in his chair uncomfortably. He looked furious.

"Now think, cousin," Erszebet continued, "what Griselda will do to this continent's Family reputation in whatever decades are spared her. And how long it will take to rebuild it. All Klotild's good works, useless, destroyed."

"ENOUGH," Zoltan roared, bolting upright from his chair. Erszebet rocked back from the table under the emotional force behind the word. "I know all this, cousin. Do you think me completely insensible?" He strode angrily into the kitchen.

She followed, knowing she was possibly being foolish. He was at least a hundred years her senior, possibly more, she wasn't sure, and could certainly crush her like a bug if he chose. "Then why don't you use your influence against her?"

He turned on her, hissing, "Because..."

Erszebet found herself on hands and knees, her skull splitting with pain, unable to focus on his subsequent words. Squashed like a bug after all. After an eternity of white-hot fury, the pressure vanished, and she felt his hands take hers.

"Cousin, forgive me," Zoltan said, helping her to her feet. He was under control again, neatly buttoned down as ever. "I should not be angry with you."

Erszebet wavered on her feet for a moment before relinquishing his support. Her vision was clearing and the pain was slowly receding. "Who are you angry with?" she asked, still dazed.

"Myself," he said, watching her. "And Klotild."

"You hate Griselda as much as anyone," Erszebet said, that awareness filtering through from the overload of information with which he'd just pummeled her. "More, even. Because of Klotild?"

Zoltan motioned her back into his dining room. "Klotild thought that... well, most of the great families came here during colonial times. The old girls tend to still think of this place as a pioneering adventure, where there is less politesse and more... drawn guns at high noon, you see? It seemed to her that the only way to avoid a Family civil war was to establish an American Tradition."

Erszebet sat back in her place, though her appetite was quite thoroughly gone. "She did not think highly of her fellow Ancients, did she?"

"Griselda," Zoltan said, in a tone that suggested the old woman was an adequate explanation.

"So Klotild is the source of all this... this rhetoric about what is and is not 'done' here?" Erszebet said.

"Yes," Zoltan said. "And she made me... she asked me to swear that I would do everything in my power to support the 'tradition.'" He shrugged and grimaced. "It seems my name is nearly synonymous with rebellion in the Family."

Erszebet laughed painfully.

He poked his congealing gravy and biscuits with his fork. "I may not be dependable in many ways, but I have a duty to my word." His shoulders slumped and he put the fork down.

She rose and walked to his side of the table. Hesitatingly, she put a hand on his shoulder, then kissed his cheek. "You are a good man, cousin. I am sorry for giving you trouble."

Zoltan looked up at her, surprised. She smiled.

"I am going upstairs to dress for tonight," she said. "It is later than I thought. I will see you in an hour?"

He stood and went into the kitchen for a moment. When he returned, he handed her an ice pack and a dishtowel. "In an hour, then," he said.

It only took about fifteen minutes of lying down in a dark room with the ice on her head to make her feel better, which meant she had a whole three quarters of an hour to dress.

---

Author's Note:

"I talked to Zoltan and all I got was this stupid migraine."








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

5.

"I was introduced to Doña Consuela yesterday," Erszebet said. She was folded leggily into one of the vast overstuffed chairs in Zoltan's living room, wearing black yoga pants and a tight black ballet top. She leaned her chin on her arms, which were crossed atop her knees.

Zoltan turned from dusting his bookshelves immediately and focused on her. "Were you? What did you think of her?" He had a habit of paying attention to one with such intensity one might believe oneself to be the only important being in the world. She could see it being flattering to some, but she found it mostly annoying and a little intimidating.

Erszebet tried for casual, but knew she was leaking awe around the edges. "She was a very pleasant woman," she said. "She offered to take me home with her and show me more of America."

"Did she? That is extremely kind of her," Zoltan said, leaning negligently against a table and setting down his feather duster. His hair was drawn back into a queue and concealed under a kerchief covered in tiny skulls. "Did she also offer to call your mother to obtain permission?"

"Yes, she did," Erszebet said, perplexed. "How did you know?"

"It is a logical deduction," Zoltan said. "I have made a study of logic with one of my renters, you see."

She wished urgently that he wasn't so skilled at concealing all his emotions as well as his facial expressions and body language, but she gave in almost ungrudgingly. "What do you think of the offer? Really? I want to know how to react when my mother calls."

Zoltan's eyebrows rose, and he allowed a little surprise to slip through. But he kindly forebore comment. "I think," he said after a moment, "that the Zalazars are a powerful family with connections to many families, including the Lakatos. And it is no surprise that they might attempt to form a casual alliance with the Farkas."

"Because of you?" she pursued.

"Possibly," he said vaguely, letting his attention slide away and picking up his feather duster again. "More possibly because your mother and her sisters are forces to be reckoned with in eastern Europe now."

Erszebet was silent as he moved to dust another set of bookshelves. An apron with frills around the edges protected his black turtleneck and jeans from stray puffs of dust. She watched him for another few minutes before saying, "If the Zalazars are so powerful, why is Doña Consuela not in consideration to become the next Grand Matriarch? She seems much more... connected and enthusiastic and likeable than Madame Griselda."

"Because custom dictates that the next oldest woman of the families will be the Grand Matriarch of North America," Zoltan said without looking her way.

Erszebet stewed on that for a few moments. "But custom is different from law," she said finally.

"It is custom," Zoltan said, and there was something in his tone that suggested the topic was done. He finished the next shelf and consulted his wristwatch. "I think that perhaps we should dress. Tonight is the Ceremony of Leavetaking, and we should be there early, I'm afraid, because I am part of it."

Erszebet rose immediately. "Of course, cousin. Do you need me this evening or should I find company for myself?"

Zoltan flashed a smile over his shoulder at her. "You need not be joined to me in tedium. You should meet new people and make connections, my dear. That is why you are here, after all."

---








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

3.

"Madame Griselda," Zoltan said with a graceful bow, "I am Zoltan Farkas. Will you allow me to present to you my cousin, Erszebet Farkas?"

Erszebet dropped a perfect curtsy, which had taken a great deal of practice (and drilling from her aunts) to learn, and rose from it almost as gracefully as Zoltan had bowed.

Griselda looked more ancient than the body of the Grand Matriarch had appeared, her thick coil of hair gone pure white and her little dark eyes peering out of a mass of pallid wrinkles. She was seated in a wingback chair in a parlor that had been conjured in one of the rooms in the convention center. Some corner of Erszebet, possibly the one that had listened to her mother and aunts talk about other families for decades, was strangely satisfied by this. It seemed good and appropriate that the deceased (Hungarian) Grand Matriarch had lived longer and looked finer than the (British) Grand Matriarch presumptive.

"Who are you, boy?" she demanded in a harsh voice not at all softened by her accent.

A very neatly buttoned-down woman in a dark skirt-suit bent her pale blonde head toward the old woman. "Grandmother, he is the favorite of the late Grand Matriarch."

The obsidian gaze narrowed. "Oh, you're Klotild's pet nelly, are you?"

The blonde woman winced visibly and offered Zoltan and Erszebet an apologetic look over her grandmother's head. Zoltan beamed at the ancient and said, "Yes, that would be me. I did earn my keep, as you may have heard."

"Yes," Madame Griselda said, looking him over. Then her gaze flicked to Erszebet. "You're too young to have a Household. Just larking about here in the New World then?"

"I am my family's representative to the funeral," Erszebet said, bowing -- trying desperately to look willowy as she did so. "My elders send their deepest regrets, but Budapest is somewhat... difficult at the moment."

The elderly woman waved a dismissive hand. "Budapest has been difficult since it was founded, my dear. No surprise they couldn't leave. Get out while you can." She looked back at Zoltan. "The daughters won't sell us the manor, you know."

He bowed. Erszebet suspected his bow was better than her own. "Klotild and her sisters built the manor, you understand; it holds great sentimental value for Magdolna and her sisters."

"Sentiment doesn't enter into it, you little pouf," Griselda snapped. "It's the center of the empire, and you know it."

Zoltan's smile didn't falter. The granddaughter looked ready to faint. "Ah, Madame Griselda," he said, "you have grown ever more charming as you have aged." He put a slight, barely-detectable emphasis on the last word. "Pardon me, but I see that Klotild's chief husband would like to speak to me."

Erszebet curtsied as Zoltan bowed, and then she followed her cousin. Griselda flushed brick-red, but held her tongue, glaring at Zoltan's back.

"Was that wise?" Erszebet said in an undertone. He was reckless, suicidal, and a pervert. What was her mother thinking, sending her here?

Zoltan shrugged. "Either they will use my services or they will not. Here, let me introduce you to Harald."

They caught up with the craggy, aquiline man who had caught Zoltan's eye. His hair was short, shaped carefully, and blindingly white. His bushy eyebrows rose upon Erszebet's introduction. "Delighted, my dear, absolutely delighted," he said, bowing over her hand. His homey accent was comforting after the encounter with Griselda.

"Getting used to being courted, my friend?" Zoltan said, shaking the man's hand warmly.

"No," Harald said mournfully. "Nor is anyone else, truly. So many enticing offers -- do you know, that egregiously arrogant woman, Juana Zalazar..."

"From New Mexico?" Zoltan said.

"The very one. Well, she has been most astonishingly kind about everything." Harald smiled sadly. "She even managed to head off that bi... harridan Griselda the second time she came around to 'sympathize with' the lot of us."

"Juana Zalazar must want as many of you as she can get very badly," Zoltan said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "How old is her mother again?"

"Certainly old enough to be in the running after Griselda," Harald said. The old man smiled at Erszebet. "Oh, my dear, it must all seem so very dull to you."

"Not dull at all, sir," Erszebet said. "Only, why are you being courted?"

The two men exchanged a glance and smiled. She flushed and said, "You must understand, I have been to so few funerals in my short life, and they are not spoken of at home."

Harald nodded and said, "Well, the tradition is that the Household established by Klotild and her sisters is to be broken up now they are all dead. That means that the men of her generation and her companions are free to do as they will, go where they want."

"It is considered rude in the extreme to offer to take on the companions as donors, of course," Zoltan said. "But companions of the Grand Matriarch are in great demand among politically powerful households in an advisory capacity."

"Often, the companions will have far more information than the men," Harald said, smiling thoughtfully. "Though I think that is not so true in our Household."

"Other Households will therefore offer the companions a place to come to die of old age," Zoltan said, "and the men someplace new to live where they will not be inconveniencing the daughters and their Household men."

"So they court us, mostly," Harald said. "Though Griselda seems to think that she inherits us by default."

"Griselda thinks she owns many things by default," Zoltan said. "She had the cheek to complain to me that Magdolna and her sisters were not going to sell the manor."

"Will Madame Griselda come to Wonder City then?" Erszebet said. She could not imagine that shriveled shape surviving through the hardships of moving. Then again, she could barely conceive of the woman traveling, but she must have.

Zoltan put his head to one side and glanced at Harald, one eyebrow raised. Harald shrugged. "No, I think she will not," Zoltan said after a moment. "Moving is so much worse than traveling. No, I think she will make some of her daughters move here, and try to run her 'empire' from Chicago."

"Her daughters will not love her for that, I think," Erszebet said slowly.

Zoltan smiled. "No one loves Griselda, my dear. Excuse me, both of you, Julianna is trying to catch my eye." He nodded to them and strode off into the crowd.

Erszebet turned back to Harald with a smile. "Shall I squire you in your cousin's stead, my dear?" he said, offering his arm.

She took it, murmuring polite thanks. She felt oddly secure and insecure at the same time. Without Zoltan, she felt the tension in the air more keenly, and despite Harald's age and obvious influence, she felt undefended.

"Was the trip across very difficult?" Harald asked as they began to slowly move through the crowded, noisy hallway outside the parlor.

"Oh, no," she said, astonished by the array of formalwear they met with, from staid gowns and tuxedoes to costumes more suited to Carnival. "It was quite pleasant."

"I wish I could travel more," Harald said, bowing and nodding to people as they passed. "The airplane feels so strange, and leaves me so enervated these days. I thought I could get used to it, like automobiles, but it just never happened."

"My mother Rozsa thinks it has something to do with not having your feet on the ground," Erszebet said.

"How is Rozsa?" Harald said. "I haven't seen her since she traveled here in... oh, 1935 or so. The War trapped the families over there for so long after, and we heard little news for many years."

"My mother came here?" Erszebet said. Her mother had, in fact, never mentioned it.

"Oh, yes," Harald said. "She was the family representative when Kathalin died. A much smaller affair than this, of course; just the Magyar families and some other friends."

Erszebet chewed on that for a while, as she and Harald circulated through the hall. He dutifully introduced her to the people who stopped to speak to him, and Erszebet could only concentrate on polite greetings, though she occasionally wondered, when she clasped a particularly cold hand, if the individual was vermin. She could never tell.

They ended up back in the room with the coffin. People were milling around on the floor, drinking and speaking in subdued tones. The werewolf security guards were relatively unobtrusive, but Erszebet could sense their barely-bridled tension and the general disquiet they caused among the majority of her folk in the room.

A human, on the edge of elderly, a black turban concealing most of her greying hair and her matronly form adorned in a somewhat-too-young black gown, drifted near on the arm of a young Asian man so well-dressed as to be foppish. Harald paused to bow to her. "Madame Destiny, so glad you could attend."

Madame bowed in return and extended a gloved hand. "Harald, of course, I couldn't miss a chance to pay my respects. Klotild was very encouraging when I was young; I only regret I could not repay her adequately."

He took her hand and kissed it in an extremely courtly fashion, and Erszebet was struck by how outdated the manners of her people seemed to her after spending time in college.

"This is our friend Zoltan's young cousin Erszebet," Harald said, and Madame took Erszebet's hand.

"Well," Madame said, blinking, "you certainly have a time ahead of you this week, Ms. Farkas."

"Um," Erszebet said, caught by surprise by the human. "Thank you?"

"You'll be fine," Madame said, squeezing her hand and releasing her. "Just think it all through logically."

Madame's young escort steered her away and gave Erszebet a sympathetic smile. "It won't make sense till later," he said in a surprisingly light voice.

Harald and Erszebet watched them disappear into the crowd. Erszebet said, "Huh."

---

Author's Note:

I apologize for being slow with the last two readings. I'm working on them!









wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

2.

"Klotild was trying to outlive the old bat," Zoltan said, steering the Divine Sarah skillfully -- and less harrowingly than before -- through rush hour traffic the next day. "I think she very nearly managed. But Griselda hung on like grim death, and she will be the Grand Matriarch if she can live out the week's speeches, parties, and rituals."

"Is she very old then?" Erzsebet said, staring out the window at the bright afternoon through her very dark glasses. She felt a little queasy; whether it was from the drive or the daylight or the city, she couldn't say.

"Klotild was very nearly a thousand," Zoltan said, making a turn onto a broad parkway. "Griselda is a tottery 800-and-some-change."

"Who is next in line after her, then?" Erzsebet said. "After all, if she is as weak as all that, she isn't likely to live much longer."

"We do go down quickly once age sets in, do we not?" Zoltan said. "We should be so lucky. Griselda is a vicious woman, and no matter how feeble she may appear, I believe in the endurance of meanness. She may see you and I in our graves, and will, I'm sure, find a way to put some relative of hers in as her successor."

Erzsebet was distracted by the plethora of signage for the Wonder City Convention Center. "Are we... going to the convention center?"

"Indeed," Zoltan said, sounding amused. "We do not have any useful castles here. Most of the best are either in New England or California."

"It seems... undignified," she said, swallowing the words "crass" and "vulgar" as words that would make him laugh at her.

"There are about 500 families in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean," Zoltan said. "Each must send at least one representative; most are sending three to five. Each representative is accompanied by three to five companions. So our local representatives alone will add up to something close to 10,000 people. Add in worldwide representatives such as yourself, and we are brushing 15,000. Add in the substantial population of undead of Wonder City past and present..."

"I cannot believe that..."

"We admit vermin to the sacred funeral of the Grand Matriarch?" Zoltan said in a bored tone of voice. "Yes, yes, I am certain it will outrage many people in much the way it does you. But Klotild was more than just our Grand Matriarch; she was a major voice of wisdom among the Mystikai, and a popular one. More than just the undead will come. There will be sorcerers and witches, ghosts and prophets, elves and aliens and werewolves."

The Wonder City Convention Center was a large, round edifice with Art Deco towers at intervals around it. The towers were draped in black. Flagpoles flew black strips of fabric. The guards at the gate wore black armbands.

The Divine Sarah was waved through the gate to a reserved parking spot in the front row. Erzsebet gave Zoltan a sideways glance at this, but his face was perfectly serene.

He handed her out of the van, impeccable in his dark blue greatcoat, his sleek black tailcoat and trousers, and his white tie, waistcoat, and gloves. His top hat was, however, set at a rakish angle. She thought she looked very well herself in the floor-length strapless black sheath dress her mother had given her for her college graduation. Zoltan politely helped her arrange her dark purple raw silk wrap and offered his arm.

As soon as they passed into the building, she could tell that practically everyone attending was emotionally and psionically locked down, as if waiting for attack at any moment.

Zoltan glided through the black-uniformed security guards with smiles and nods. The men and women stood casually, thumbs hooked in their thick leather belts, dark glasses obscuring the view of their eyes. Erszebet could see no weapons on their belts, and murmured as much to Zoltan when she thought they might be out of earshot.

His smile brightened. "Yes, indeed. I believe I mentioned werewolves earlier."

Her eyes grew wide before she could get control of her expression. He patted her hand kindly. "Not to be confused, I note, with the wolf-human hybrids that also live here, who are not mystical at all."

"Such a strange place," she said under her breath.

"You get used to it," he said. "Come, we will look in on the old girl, shall we?"

They slid in a side door to the room that contained the Grand Matriarch's body. The perfume of thousands of flowers nearly choked Erszebet as they entered.

A statuesque woman in what Erszebet guessed to be her 500s, judging from the faint tracery of age lines in her face, approached them. She was dressed in a silver gown covered in black lace and she embraced Zoltan warmly. "Oh, my brother, I am glad you have come," she said earnestly.

"What has happened to make you take on so, Magdolna my dear?" he said, kissing her on both cheeks. "Wait, before you tell me, this is my cousin, Erszebet Farkas. She represents our family."

The name was Erszebet's cue -- Magdolna was the eldest daughter of the Grand Matriarch's Household. Not the eldest of all her daughters, of course -- those had long since established their own Household -- but now the head of the Wonder City Household. Erszebet bowed deeply.

"Ah, my dear," Magdolna said, taking her hand and smiling kindly upon her, "a cousin of my brother Zoltan is as my own cousin here. Welcome to Wonder City."

"Thank you, my lady," Erszebet said, flustered by this great woman welcoming her so warmly.

"Now, my dear, you will tell me your trouble?" Zoltan said, offering them each an arm and steering them toward the dais at the front of the great room.

"Mother is, of course, stubborn in death as she was in life," Magdolna said. "She scowled all through the preparation of the body, and she scowls yet. You could always make her smile in life, brother..."

Zoltan saluted her jauntily. "I will see what my silvered words can do today."

Erszebet and Magdolna followed him a little way toward the dais, just far enough for Erszebet to see the terrible, forbidding frown that twisted the Grand Matriarch's face as she lay in her casket. She couldn't stop herself from asking, "Was she in great pain?"

Magdolna glanced at her with some surprise. "Oh, no. She went as silently and easily as anyone could ask for." She looked at Zoltan's well-tailored back as he bent over the coffin. "She was just... opinionated. I do not think she cares for all this ceremony."

They watched Zoltan for a few more moments, and then he turned to them with a sunny smile. "I think she will cooperate now," he said, and Erszebet saw him give the Grand Matriarch's wizened hand a gentle, but lingering, squeeze.

The Grand Matriarch's face was composed in serene splendor, benificent as a saint. Magdolna exclaimed delightedly and hugged Zoltan before hurrying off to find her sisters.

Erszebet stared at him. "Are you a wizard, then?"

Zoltan looked very tired, and gave her a crooked smile. "No. The preservation spells were cast on her body immediately after her death. It means, for us, that the brain is still able to do a few things if suitably stimulated. I played her vanity here, whispered of her hatred of Griselda there, and voila, we have a Grand Matriarch who looks like a goddess."

The door opened behind her and his shoulders went back, his smile back to full wattage. As Zoltan moved off to greet the person coming in, Erszebet realized she'd just been reaching for his hand, or his shoulder, or something. He had looked so very sad, for just a moment.

---

Author's Note:

Are folks liking Erszebet?









wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

1.

She had to attend the Grand Matriarch's funeral, that was clear. Traveling halfway around the world was not something her elders could do without great inconvenience, and she was the oldest and best educated of the members of the family who could travel. But when she had asked to whom her mother and aunts were sending her, she had not expected a man's name. She had, in fact, laughed, suspecting a joke from her Aunt Csilla.

Yet here she was, disembarking from her train in this strange city overlooked by a shining ball and spike on a hilltop, and looking around for a man who could be her cousin Zoltan.

"You must be Erzsebet Farkas," a sleek, well-dressed man about her mother's age said, in English, having appeared beside her in a manner she had not noticed in her distraction.

"I am," she said in the same language. She looked down her long patrician nose at him, despite both being much of a height. "Are you then Zoltan Farkas?"

He bowed. "I have that privilege." He wore a charcoal grey suit with nearly invisible pinstripes and a burgundy tie that had a regular dark pattern on it, but too small for her to see in the inconsistent light of the train platform. Fleur-de-lis or some such, she was sure.

She returned the bow. "I present my mother Rozsa's compliments," Erzsebet said in the family's particular dialect of Hungarian, "and the message that she commends me unto your care and guidance until such time as I depart this home of yours."

Zoltan's easy smile never failed, but it did freeze, just a bit, as she began the little ritual greeting. His eyebrows flicked upwards once and he said, in the same tongue, "I accept Rozsa's charge, and you shall be as a daughter to me until such time as you depart this home of mine."

Erzsebet bowed again. Sometimes she tired of bowing so much to her elders. "And I shall obey and respect you as if you were my mother," she said.

"That will be difficult for you," he said, in English again, "will it not? That is all right, we are casual folk here." He bent and took up her suitcases easily. "Ah, you have packed to dress properly for the old girl's funeral, haven't you? I look forward to seeing what you've brought."

She retained her carryon and followed him down the train platform. "You speak very well," she said politely, meaning, of course, their native language. "How long have you been away from home?"

"Oh, a hundred years, more or less," he said, descending the stairs with vigor. "Not always here, you know. I came here first during the Great War, but have gone and come and gone and come and gone and come again since then."

"Mother said that you had abandoned the family several times," Erzsebet said, following at the more decorous pace demanded by her Parisian high heels. "But that you had always come back. You are nearly a family proverb."

He laughed with a blast of cynicism so intense his emotional vibrations nearly rocked her back onto the steps. "I am not much given to family feeling, no," he said, still chuckling. "Oh, my dear, you are the soul of tactlessness."

She pressed her lips together and was silent for a while, unwilling to be a source of further unpleasant hilarity. Still, she couldn't quite stop an exclamation of dismay when she saw the contrivance that was to be her chariot in Wonder City.

"I introduce you to the Divine Sarah," Zoltan said, opening the back door to lift her bags inside. The exterior of the ancient Volkswagen bus was adorned with brilliant Mucha-themed psychedelic murals. "She has been with me for nigh upon forty years now. I shall only give her up when I can no longer beg, borrow, bribe, or steal parts for her."

He opened the passenger door for Erzsebet, and she saw the inside was not much better than the outside: seats upholstered in crimson and gold, with garnet shag carpeting on floor, walls, and ceiling. Reluctantly, she stepped in and settled herself in the surprisingly comfortable captain's chair. Another moment of fumbling and she was strapped in securely -- she was not sure what sort of driver her cousin might be.

Zoltan sprang into the driver's seat and threw the Divine Sarah onto the road with an energy that made her glad of her precautions. "Have you ever been to America before?" he asked, flashing her a smile.

"No, never," she said, watching the bright shopfronts flicker past as he guided his ancient beast of a vehicle down one street, then another. She was certain that she could not find her way back to the train station afoot. Or even from the air, since she had not got a good impression of the layout of the station.

"Where were you educated?" he said, stopping short at a traffic light.

"I spent two years at Cambridge," she said, and carefully relaxed the grip of both her hands on the armrests. "Then finished my degree in Budapest."

"In what?" He accelerated sharply when the light turned green.

"Business management, of course," she said, finding it more and more difficult to concentrate as they moved through the city. "What is wrong with this place?" She put her hand to her forehead, as if that could decrease the strange emotional white noise that was clogging her mind.

"Ah, sorry," he said, glancing at her and frowning. "There is a great deal of psychic activity here, being the center of the paranormal culture in this country. Additionally, there are many devices set around the city that enhance or inhibit the activity. I forget that it can be quite overwhelming to newcomers of our kind."

"I will persevere," she said, trying to even out her tone. "But how do you live here?"

"It will be better at my house," Zoltan said, turning past high walls emblazoned with a glowing corporate logo that Erzsebet recognized as belonging to the Gold Stars. "We are in town, but not near the districts where there are so many superheroes and supervillains."

"Wonder City is a very strange place," she said, looking out at humans who seemed to be perfectly normal, and yet bore the lurking menace of possibly being paranormals who could bend the laws of physics. "Do you know why the Grand Matriarch took up her residence here?"

A smile flickered over his handsome, fine-boned face. "Her younger sister Kathalin took a fancy to it, I believe," he said. "Kathalin argued long and hard with her sisters. They say she had the Sight, you know, and that she foresaw all this." He waved all around them with both hands, which made her clutch the armrests again. "In the end, they brought the Household here not long before President Wilson established his Gold Star Battalion. And the rest, as they say, is history."

"Mother said you knew the Grand Matriarch well," Erzsebet said. "Were you part of their Household?" She, like he, used the family term rather than the English word, for the English word did not convey nearly as much depth of meaning.

"Moi?" he said, startled into a laugh. "Oh, no, never. Klotild knew I was not the type for that. She was amused by my 'funny little ways'. I was not husband or lover or even adoptive son; I was the court jester."

"Oh," she said, and again, "Oh!" as she suddenly understood some of her aunts' hints about him and his odd power in this city.

"Yes," he said, reading her with an accuracy that made her skin crawl, "I was one of the few people she listened to because I mix with the paranormals. I lived with superheroes, loved supervillains, and danced with the undead. I was an outsider and an insider at the same time. She gave me great leeway, and I could speak for her in certain situations." The light of the dashboard made his features stark for a moment as they passed out of the streetlights for a time. "It will be strange without her."

Erzsebet considered his words in silence, her fingers fidgeting with the seam of the armrest.

He turned the Divine Sarah down a residential street, and she saw the sign, "Marigold Lane," in the headlights. They then turned into a driveway, and she saw the sprawling Victorian mansion and carriage house with many windows ablaze with light.

"Do you have your own Household, then?" she said, trying not to let out too much of her own horror at this possibility.

"I am but a man," Zoltan said, smiling at her beatifically. "How could I try to set up a Household without a family of women? No, I live alone, and I rent rooms to humans. If I sometimes have more regular donors than others, I prefer to call them 'boyfriends'."

"You are..." Erzsebet paused, groping for the right word.

"Gay as a window treatment," Zoltan said amiably. "So now you know. I will tell you some other things as well." He slotted the Divine Sarah into her garage expertly, put her into park, and turned her off, leaving them sitting in darkness together. "No one who lives in my house is to be a donor. On some of them, your teeth would break. On others, I would break you. They are all paranormal and off limits."

"All right," she said slowly. She had expected that she would have to pursue other avenues for feeding; she never expected her donors to be delivered to her doorstep.

"This one will be less expected," he said, and she heard his smile. "You will treat any and all comers with as much respect as you are capable of offering me, at least. This includes undead."

Her eyes went wide. "You bring vermin into your home?" she exclaimed.

His teeth snapped together and all the amiability she'd been reading from him shut off like a lamp. "Those 'vermin' are my friends. In some cases, they have been more steadfast allies than the family ever has been for me. And they are useful camouflage, since the humans assume I am one of them, and I have failed to disabuse them of this notion."

"You pretend to be vermin as well?" she said, imagining that she could not ever be more outraged in her life.

"Very few humans know much about our kind," he said, and she felt his gaze, honed by many more decades than her own, piercing the darkness to watch her. "True, our existence is registered with the government, but we are only vampires to them. There is no distinction between kinds. We feed on human blood, we fly, we have psychic abilities -- the government does not care if our hearts beat or not."

"Why did my mother send me to you?" Erzsebet said, clutching her head.

"Because she knows I can and will protect you," he said gently. "She knows that this place is dangerous as well as strange, and that you can learn things, if you will. Come, let me show you to your rooms."

She was even more offended when she saw, in better light, that the close pattern on his tie consisted of tiny bats.

---

Author's Note:

This Interlude rather got away from me, and thus became a miniseries. I will post one episode per week, and I'll post one full Madame Destiny reading per week for the next 3 weeks. After that, it may just be one Interlude ep per week until complete (looking like May now), but we'll see!

I hope you enjoy our little side story with Zoltan and his family. :)









wonder_city: (Default)
Jubilee

It was my first time running the android avatar that Larentia Canis had built me in a crowd, but I was going to by damn be AT Ruth's birthday party, not just watch it on a camera.

She was somewhat awkward to handle at first, no matter how much practice I'd had running her in my home. I called her Metro because Larentia, in a fit of whimsy, had recreated the android from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with the feminine body and helmet-shaped head and deco styling, only with a dark copper finish. I was sititng in my long distance chair, wearing the control coronet. I was also drugged to the gills. Metro also had all sorts of electronic filters that affected mental powers, but the meds brought me down to a level actually manageable by those filters. I had full physical sensation, just as if I were there, without the mental onslaught of the people around me. I was just me, walking around on the hot sand beach of the remote island where everyone had gathered.

I spent a little time enjoying the feel of the sun warming the metal of my skin and the smell of the ocean and hot sand.

Of all the (few) people who knew me, Suzanne Feldstein found me first. "Renata? Renata Scott?" she said, a brown-haired, middle-aged white woman peering into Metro's eyes inquiringly.

"That's me," I said through Metro's speakers, and offered a hand. "Glad to meet you in the flesh, Suzanne. Well, flesh and metal."

Suzanne shook my hand vigorously. She was dressed in a yellow-floral-print sundress, and the sun was already starting to redden her shoulders. "I'm so glad you could come. C'mere, let me introduce you around some."

And so I met Simon, and he was just as fine in person as he was on camera, and if possible, sweeter. "Ms. Scott!" he said, shaking my hand. He was wearing a blue muscle shirt with "TEAM SIMON" on it in block letters and loose black shorts. His hair and Van Dyke were sharply trimmed. "I'm glad to meet you! Oh, I'm glad Mom did such a good job on that android body; it's really gorgeous."

How could I blush at a compliment meant for his mother's handiwork? Don't ask me. "Your mother has been very generous and kind to me over the years. This is only one example."

"She's like that," Simon said, then he stepped back and gestured to someone. "And here's someone who's been wanting to meet you too. Ira, this is Ms. Scott."

"Please," I said, shaking the old man's hand, "both of you, please call me Renata."

Ira beamed at me. He was wearing a big straw hat, a yellow polo shirt, and khaki shorts that showed his pale knobbly knees. He was a little thin and stooped, but otherwise looked younger than his 83 years. "I'm honored to meet you, Renata. You did such a bangup job that night, though I can't imagine it was easy."

"You did a pretty good job yourself, sir," I said.

"Ira," he corrected me.

"Ira," I said, wishing Metro's smile wasn't so very... scary, and that Larentia's attempt at the overlay projection (a la Maria's duplicate) hadn't failed so spectacularly. Someday, I'd be able to smile at people too.

Suzanne, I realized from her movements and her half-empty drink, was already more than a bit tipsy. She reached out and snagged the arm of a mousy, bespectacled white woman in jeans and a t-shirt. "Watson, Watson, come meet Renata."

So there was an orgy of introductions conducted by Suzanne, who was adding every moment to her "sheets to the wind" quotient. I met Watson Holmes, Megan Amazon, Ivy and Malik Canis (each holding a squirming puppy they introduced as belonging to their sister Jasmine -- I wasn't entirely sure what they meant by "belonging", given that the puppies were exclaiming my name delightedly), Ana Hernandez, Flo and Ebb Starr, the Silver Guardian (who was an old friend of Suzanne's apparently), and Sekhmet of the Gold Stars, and... a lot of other people whose names I'd heard but who I'd never met "live" before.

I was glad to be drugged to the gills, honestly. It was the largest crowd I'd been in for over 20 years.

Simon finally, kindly, as the afternoon advanced alarmingly toward evening, led Suzanne off to the buffet tables, saying, "We'll catch you later, Renata," over his shoulder. He winked at me, the little devil.

Left to my own devices, I made my way from the beach, where I'd been trapped by the introduction nexus after arriving there via the teleport link, up toward the line of umbrellas and beach chairs where I spotted Gloria Revelle's lean, solemn face peering around periodically. I figured that wherever Gloria was, Ruth was likely to be.

I was right. Ruth was ensconced in a thronelike wooden beach chair with some colorfully umbrella'd adult beverage in an enormous glass in one hand, grinning like a fool up at me. "You did make a gorgeous thing there, Larentia," she said, glancing up at Larentia, who was standing nearby. Ruth carefully balanced the glass on the arm of the chair, and got up to hug me. I saw Sophie reach out and steady the glass behind her, just as Ruth got me in a careful bear hug.

I leaned Metro's chin on her shoulder and enjoyed the various sensations of a solid, muscular, warm human body in my arms. I loved Ruth for many reasons, not least because for her, hugging one of her friends manifested in an android body was hardly the oddest thing she'd done in the past five minutes. "You look so much better than you did last I saw you, Ruth," I said.

"I feel so much better, Rennie," she murmured, not letting me go yet. "You helped give me back my baby. I won't forget that."

"Hell, Ruth, you gave me my life," I said, not willing to let go, feeling like I'd been in the desert for 20 years and was just getting a small sip of water. It had been so long since I'd touched a human being, and I can't actually remember when I last hugged someone without immediately being inside her or his head. "I'm glad to give something back. I mean, what do you get the most powerful para on Earth for her birthday anyway?"

We laughed, and finally stepped back a little, but our arms lingered around each other's waists. Ruth gestured around, saying, "You know Gloria, of course."

I shook hands with Gloria, and was amazed to actually see the woman smile. She had a little lopsided smile, with a mostly closed mouth, and I noticed that she had a bit of an overbite -- I suspected that might be why she doesn't smile more often. "Gloria, thank you for everything you've been doing lately with the chef roster. The variety has been really wonderful."

"I thought we could use some new blood in the kitchen," she said in her deep voice and blunt MidAtlantic accents. "You're my lab rat, you know. These are all chefs I try out on you before using them for catering and events."

"Glad to be of service," I said. "Delicious service."

"Here's Olivia," Ruth said, drawing the Fat Lady into the circle. The Fat Lady was wearing a remarkable gauzy white dress that drifted dramatically on the breeze and looked just right with her complexion, and her sleek black hair was caught up under an extravagant white sun hat.

"Renata, I've heard so many good things about you," Olivia said, turning her famous dimples and dazzling smile on me.

I confess to feeling just a little overwhelmed and, well, fangirlish, so I think I managed to mutter something polite and possibly gushed about loving her work before Ruth sicced Sophie on me.

The girl had some of the most intense dark eyes I've ever seen, and even though I technically shouldn't have been able to sense a damned thing about her, I could feel the wheels of her mind turning and turning. It was almost like I could see and feel the clockwork moving through those remarkable eyes. That's what you get from the intimate connection of stuffing someone back into her head, I suppose. There we were, caught in mid-handshake, staring into each other's minds, I think, for what felt like a piece of eternity, before we both shook ourselves and she said, "I've been wanting to thank you for everything you did."

I shrugged. "There were lots of folks who did more than I did."

"Yes, well," Sophie said, flashing a grin. She reached behind her and dragged another white girl her age foward. This one was brown-haired and utterly average in terms of looks and overt charm, but I recognized her.

"Pacifica," I said, shaking her hand. "Glad to meet you outside your head."

She smiled shyly, pressed her lips together and hunched her shoulders a bit. "I'm flattered you remember me, Ms. Scott."

"Renata," I said, thinking, Girl, how could I possibly forget you? Aloud, I added, "Your arm seems to've healed up nicely."

"It's still stiff," she said, "but Sophie makes good healing accelerators. Even if I did have to spend time in tank full of blue goo. Why was it blue, anyway?" she added, turning to Sophie.

"I didn't want anyone eating it," Sophie said.

"No one would eat that, it smelled too bad," Nereid said.

Sophie grinned. "You'd be surprised..."

There was a loud crack of lightning overhead, and everyone tensed. Ruth looked up quickly, then rolled her eyes and said to Sophie, "Didn't you give that child an invitation?"

Sophie shrugged. "I did," she said, "but she always prefers to crash." I thought I picked up just a bit of mischief there, as if, perhaps, she'd had some idea in advance.

High above us was a flying stage, limned in neon and flashing lights against the twilit sky. It slowly lowered until it was hovering just above the ocean, with the spectacular painted clouds of sunset sprawling out behind it. Myriad small, hovering robots levitated from the stage and sprang into formation in the air, turning colored spotlights onto the platform. A backdrop of enormous metal struts extruded from the back of the stage, arching up into Gothic points and then blooming into weirdly delicate curlicues that suggested tentacles, or possibly fruit.

"What the hell is that?" Sister Power said, as though she knew exactly what the hell it was but was a bit afraid of the answer. She crinkled a smile at me, her dark brown face highlighted by a glorious mane of silver hair. I'd forgotten how old she was; she'd gotten her start in the 1970s, so she must be in her 60s by now.

Ruth massaged the bridge of her nose. "It's Sophie's little friend. You remember her, Imara. The one who started a band in college. Calls herself Gogo."

Sophie snorted at this description.

An enormous grinding noise silenced us all and a pillar rose up from the middle of the stage. It appeared to be girdled with a bank of steampunk consoles and quite a lot of flashing lights. The grinding noise stopped, and then, in a burst of music, it flew open, revealing a young white woman whose top was dressed in a silver jumpsuit, and whose lower half was a kickline of seven sets of robot legs. A drum line started. She leapt down to the stage with surprising agility for someone with fourteen legs, and subtle instrumentals started up. She started to declaim in a deep voice that was projected to several points around us.

People keep saying it's the end days,
Skynet's won, we've run the maze.
In the center is Room 101:
Can we boldly go when all is done?
All the things I tried to save
Are just putting flowers on a mouse's grave.
Game over, man, and everybody dies
And there's nothing to eat but lies, lies, lies.


"I do believe," Gloria said, "we are about to have a concert."

"Oh, god help me," Ruth said, taking the umbrella out of her drink so she could swallow it faster.

A robot guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, and drummer emerged from the surface of the stage, apparently fused to their instruments. I noticed the drummer had long hair so it could swing it back and forth. All of them were silver-skinned, like Gogo's jumpsuit and legs, but with gold accents. Gogo strutted down to the front of the stage (there's a lot of strut in seven sets of robot legs), seized a microphone that was dropped from above by one of her ubiquitous flying drones, and burst into song with a crash of music.

I won't be just a worker in the heart machine
I'm going to see the light of day.
I'm going to crack the world's shell is what I mean
Put on my wings and fly away.

Everyone asks me am I bad witch or good
Or one of the genetic elite
But I am telling you I'm Lilith's Brood
And we have never known defeat!

We're from Ultima Thule
And we include me and you.
She's the hero we need
Cause she makes us heroes too!


"Oh, no," Ruth groaned, and finished her drink.

Sophie looked contrite. But only a little. Nereid was watching Gogo with her mouth hanging open. An attractive androgynous Asian person appeared over Nereid's shoulder and raised inquisitive eyebrows at Sophie, who said defensively, "It's not my fault!"

Just living day to day
Learn to rise up and say
She's the hero we need
To sing Hero of Heroes today!

She's the Ultimate test!
In her Prometheus rests,
She's the hero we need
Because we give her our best!


I was pretty amazed at the dancing you could do with fourteen legs in perfect unison. At the end of the first chorus, backup dancers also melted out of the stage. I felt distinctly upstaged when I realized that they all looked just like my android body, except in silver. Talk about embarrassment for wearing the same outfit to the party.

"Hey," Larentia said faintly. She patted my shoulder apologetically.

Gogo spoke into her microphone again.

At Yoshiwara's we'll dance and fight
Always alone in the night,
But reaching out, touch hand to hand,
Galadriel or Servalan.
Is the Slayer really born this way?
Or Sleepless walk both night and day?
Or maybe we'll stand up and see:
You have no power over me.


Sister Power said, "None of this makes any sense. What the hell is a servalan?"

Sophie started laughing helplessly into her hands.

The music kicked up again.

For some reason, Gogo threw her microphone into the audience. Then, with a satisfied little smile, she leaned back and another one sprouted, or seemed to sprout, out of her chest. She grabbed that one and kept singing.

I noticed a middle-aged black woman, oddly wearing a suit on the beach, making her way through the crowd with purpose in her eyes. She didn't even flinch at the volume of the music. I nudged Ruth.

Ruth looked over. "Marilyn, heeeey, girl!" she said, waving her hand. I wondered idly how many of those giant glasses of booze Ruth had already consumed.

The woman, who I now recognized as Marilyn Henderson, lawyer to paras, arrived in front of Ruth with a grim little smile on her face. "Interesting entertainment."

"It's not what I would've chosen, true," Ruth said. "But the girl's got a good heart."

"And is showing a great deal of leg," Marilyn said with a glance upward.

"What're you doing, wearing that penguin suit here on the beach?" Ruth said. "Take that jacket off and set a while."

Marilyn straightened her shoulders in an ominous way that made both Gloria and I tense up. "Ruth Thomas, I am here to give you some important paperwork."

Ruth laced her fingers together and placed them under her chin. "At my birthday party." She didn't make it a question.

"Yes," Marilyn said. She whipped a folder out from under her arm and extended it to Ruth. "It couldn't wait."

Gloria's thin form had risen up and arched in a predatory fashion, inclining very slightly toward Marilyn.

Ruth sighed and took the folder.
We'll come down like angels on Tokyo

And we don't need roads where we're going.

At the end of the world can you tell me where

And in what way the time is flowing?


I can build my friends but I can't build you

A place for opossums to call their own.

But don't look back, don't blink I'm telling you

It's dhoom again but we are flown!


A hero right through

Like flying snow in bamboo

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!


Take my ansible call

'Cause it's for one and all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!


She won't be suppressed

Or sent into the West

She's the hero we need

Because we give her our best!


Gogo chose that moment to distract us all with another spoken piece.

We need a hero that's worth our while
Whether Wonder Woman or Trio-style
So put on your clothes, or dye your hair
And sing electric grandmother
From Alderaan to Whileaway
The winning move is not to play.
They tell us we're beyond the pale
Bionic-made or automail,
Whether you are you or me
Virtual or karakuri
Rise up and greet Red Dawn today
Like Nauscicaa we'll fly away;
To Iskandar we'll fly away;
On ships that sing we'll fly away.


And she then started singing again.

Ruth looked back down at the folder in her hands, heaved another sigh, and flipped it open.

I have never before seen Ruth stunned. I'm not sure anyone has. Her whole body jerked and her eyes went wide and she stared fixedly at the papers. Then her hands began to tremble, and Gloria snatched the folder away before those tiny muscular tremors could reduce what she was holding to paper pulp.

Sophie had moved to stand at Ruth's shoulder, and I noticed her giving Marilyn what I sensed was a conspiratorial and questioning look. Marilyn's smile widened incrementally.

The thing about Ruth is that she is the most powerful para in the world. And so the fact that none of us saw her move is just not that surprising. The look on Sophie's face changed to triumphant delight as Ruth threw her arms around her, though.

"You two!" Ruth roared, only locally drowning out Gogo's band. "You two!" she said again, apparently at a loss for other words.

"What's going on?" asked Imara, peering curiously over Gloria's shoulder.

Gloria said, mock-grumpily, "That girl finally pulled her head out of her ass is what's going on."

Sophie said, breathless with embarrassment and her mother's embrace, "My adoption papers. I signed them."
She's returned from the blue

And Zaha'dum too--

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!


Dark Lords big and small

We will spit on them all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!


Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall...


Gogo's army of tiny flying robots, which looked, I noticed, like dragonflies, chose that moment to shower us with her new album.

Larentia caught one and so did I. The cover was a brown-skinned woman's arm, reaching up as if to pluck a fruit from a tree, but the fruit was a giant oval containing a twisty, maze-like structure. To give Ruth and Sophie a moment of pseudo-privacy, Larentia began to read from the cover. "'Mitochondrial Eve,'" she said. "I like the title."

I overheard some people passing nearby. One of them said, "I liked her second album the best, 'Amazon Women and the Space-Time Continuum'."

The other said, "Oh, I haven't heard of that one."

"It was back when she was Gogo and the Gadgettes," the first said, and they drifted out of hearing.

"'My Mother's Positronic Brain,'" Larentia read from the track list bemusedly. "'Dear Mr. Heisenberg.' 'Cyborg Manifesto'?"

I skimmed down the list myself. "'Bad Chemistry,' 'Soylent Blue,' 'Love Me and Despair'."

Gloria said, with a roll of the eyes, "Anyone else get the feeling that child is trying too hard?"

Nereid, who I had forgotten, said wistfully, "She looks like she's having fun."

On stage, Gogo had swung into her well-known song, "A Robot of One's Own."

The well-tailored Asian person to whom I really needed an introduction said, "There's a dance floor over there, Pacifica. Would you care to join me?"

Later, around the time that Sophie was finishing up her guitar-playing on-stage with Gogo (oh, yes, she'd just happened to have her guitar with her), I overheard Suzanne saying to Watson, "Is this your work? Remind me never to piss you off!"

I looked over and saw Suzanne showing Watson her StarPhone. Watson frowned down at it, clearly puzzled. "No," she said after a moment, "that's not my work."

Suzanne noticed Metro looking her way, so she turned the display toward me. "'Aloysius MacCready, legally 93 years old,'" I read aloud, "'has been arrested on a charge of second-degree murder and multiple charges of armed robbery, among other offenses. MacCready was processed for a temporal displacement grant upon his return to this dimension, and had disappeared from his stated address. More in-depth analysis of historical records found that in 1932, he participated in an armed robbery of a bank for African-Americans during which he pistol-whipped a bank teller. The teller, 26-year-old Norman Jefferson, later died of the head trauma.'"

"I know the statute of limitations doesn't expire for murder," Suzanne said. "And the temporal displacement laws extend the limitation for the armed robbery charges. But the witnesses must all be dead, so how can they prosecute?"

Watson skimmed more of the article. "They had eyewitnesses who knew MacCready by name and appearance, and who gave depositions identifying him. So with that in hand, they could use the Stefanopolous Laws."

Ana had looked over from her conversation when I started to read, and now she spoke up with, "I think I've heard of the Stefanopolous Laws, but I've never been sure what they're about."

Suzanne said, breezily, "Watson'll have to explain. I'm too drunk. But they involved a vampire."

Watson quirked a smile. "Andrei Stefanopolous was a vampire who was a repeat spree killer. He was notorious in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and then he moved to New York City. They caught him after a rampage through an Italian and Greek neighborhood in the 1880s, but of course, there weren't para-ready prisons then, and he escaped to go underground again. He resurfaced in the same neighborhood 1952, and the grandchildren of the original people victimized went to the police with the photos from the 1800s and their own photos of him in the neighborhood, begging police to pick him up. They didn't -- all the original witnesses were dead and it seemed like too much trouble and besides, there weren't many people who actually believed in vampires at that point. So then he went on a much wider-spread killing spree."

"Oh, yes, the Vampire Murders," Ana said. "That's all in the college para history books."

"Yep," Watson said. "And after they caught him and the Gold Stars imprisoned him, the story broke that the police had refused to pick him up and why. So the Stefanopolous Laws were passed in a hurry to cope with immortal or temporally displaced violent offenders."

"Technically," a sleek, black-haired, white -- very white -- man said, sliding easily into the conversation and gently twirling his black parasol, "it is for the long of life, not the immortal. Because no one is truly immortal, yes?" He had an eastern European accent and what had to be a hand-tailored white linen suit. He was also the only person I'd ever seen wearing a Panama hat on whom it looked stylish.

Watson nodded and waved a hand of acknowledgement. "You're the authority there, Zoltan."

"Zoltan," Suzanne said in that floppy-headed drunk way some white women have, "it's night time. Why are you carrying that parasol?"

"Ah, dear lady," he said, "to protect against the bites of sharks."

"Oh," Suzanne said, blinking.

"Not to mention robots," he added, "and other undesirable things that fall from the sky."

"So what will happen to this MacCready anyway?" Ana pursued, having produced a StarPhone of her own and apparently searching for the article.

"He's being held in prison," Watson said. "Apparently some anonymous person provided the police with both his DNA and a single-use scanner to locate it, because he has para powers that enable him to avoid direct detection." She looked up and past the dance floor and nearest buffet table toward a line of well-occupied comfortable chairs.

I glanced in that direction and saw Sophie sitting there, with Nereid on her lap, chatting with Simon and Ivy.

"Who could've supplied a device like that?" Ana pondered, frowning at her phone.

Watson and I looked at each other, then back at Sophie. Sophie noticed our regard and gave us a smile and a little finger wave, as if she knew exactly what we were thinking.

---

Note from the Author:

Apologies if the table format didn't work well for you -- I optimized for what I thought would be a usual sort of view.

Gogo's song was written as a winter holiday present for me by my multiply-gifted, brilliant, beautiful, magnificent wife. I had been banging my head against how to do it, and then she volunteered. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many SF&F references packed into one place so effectively, and I think it also works beautifully as a pop song. (And yes, Lady Gaga DOES exist in the Wonder City universe, so Gogo IS in fact purposefully referencing her.) See this document (PDF) for most of the references.

Also, in case you're interested, the full track list for Gogo's new album, "Mitochondrial Eve", contains:
My Mother's Positronic Brain
Mitochondrial Eve
Dear Mr. Heisenberg
Cyborg Manifesto
Les Guérillères
Bad Chemistry
Soylent Blue
To Milton, Love, the Monster
Ultima
Love Me and Despair
The Doom Song
I Can't Be Having With This
Bonus Track: Schoolhouse Rock Mashup (feat. "Sufferin' for Suffrage")

---

Wonder City has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Crowdfunding Award! Thank you! Now, y'all should go check out all the nominees for fiction, webcomics, art, poetry, patron, and other projects. And VOTE!

And remember to vote for WCS at Top Webfiction!









wonder_city: (Default)
O Divine Art of Subtlety and Secrecy!

"Look, I've been talking to someone lately, and I think he may be able to give you information about your killer," Megan said. She'd been hanging around outside every evening for a week, trying to catch Meteor as she departed on her nightly patrols (or on any dates).

Meteor glowered at her from the far side of the carriage house garden. She'd modified her plain green tank suit into a sleeveless body suit with a low neckline and a decorative red line (that matched her hair) from one shoulder straight down her body to her foot. "You and that Holmes woman think you're so very clever," she said with an expression that wasn't quite a snarl. "But I know you're trying to find someone who will exorcise me. And not having much luck," she added, almost gloating.

Megan gritted her teeth. "I want to help both you and G."

"You're lying," Meteor said.

Megan ground her teeth now. It sucked that Meteor was right.

A short, urgent series of beeps sounded.

"I don't have time to hang about chatting with you," Meteor said. "I have important things to do." She tapped a small gold star set on her costume just below her left collarbone and ran out of the yard, heading toward the road. She was almost out of sight when she started growing.

Megan sank down on a tree stump and put her head in her hands.

"Bitch has got to keep her size 50s outta my damn garden," Mr. Hammer said, emerging from the carriage house, "or I will put a serious hurtin' on her." His silvered countenance was sour and angry.

"Sorry," Megan said. "She flounced off, and the flounce took her through the tulip patch."

He bent over the wounded flowers, gently plucking the ones that were crushed and encouraging the rest to stand back up. "If this keeps up and she flounces through my vegetables, I'll make sure she'll never goddamn flounce again."

"She's using G's body, you know," Megan said glumly.

"I know," he said, plucking a few weeds from around the blooms. "Zoltan's been bending my ear about it for days."

"She's going on dates," Megan said. "With men. G told me once that she knew she was a lesbian when she was 11 and came out when she was 17."

Mr. Hammer straightened up and dusted his hands off. "She's got good friends in you two," he said. "Me, I'm not the charge-to-the-rescue type. That gets you deader'n doorknobs in this town."

"I know," Megan said. "One of my friends asked me what I wanted for my epitaph."

He squinted at her through the deepening crepuscular gloom. "You don't want to be talking to me, girl. Zoltan's the one for meddling. Go ask him for suggestions. Just keep bein' on time at the site in the mornings." He went back into his house and shut the door gently.

Megan sighed, then heaved to her feet and went to knock on her landlord's door.

"Ah, my dear, you look like someone has kicked your puppy, kitten, and potbellied piglet," Zoltan said, letting her into his basement apartment.

"Potbellied piglet?" Megan said, baffled. She was bemused by his attire: an immaculate white undershirt and perfectly-creased black trousers.

"A passing fancy," he said, leading the way into his living room. "You will forgive me, I hope. My tailor is here, and I have been measured and remeasured. She cannot deny me a moment's rest."

"I can and I will, if I must," said a gravelly woman's voice from his bedroom. She had what Megan thought might be a German accent, and sounded like she'd been smoking unfiltered cigarettes for the past fifty years.

"You see what I must suffer for my wardrobe?" Zoltan said.

"Why do you have to be measured so much?" Megan said. "Does your body ever actually change much?"

"An excellent question!" Zoltan said, sprawling decoratively on a Victorian-styled fainting couch. "I asked her much the same thing."

"And I said, yes, your body changes," the woman said, emerging to stand in the doorway. She was shrunken and wizened like the apple witches Megan had made as a child, but she was dressed in an exquisite dark blue suit and rose-colored blouse, a pair of silver-rimmed half-moon glasses perched on her nose. A set of silver tools -- scissors, thimble, and other things Megan couldn't recognize -- hung from her belt. "Over my lifetime, your posture and carriage have changed radically. Your body shifts to carry its weight differently, because even you cannot defy gravity..."

"Aie, do not tell me these things!" Zoltan exclaimed, covering his ears with manicured hands. "I defy all, even gravity!"

"... and so," she continued, "I must adjust your mannequin every year so that your suits are still the envy of all Wonder City. And now I must adjust your older suits to fit. This is, as they say, what you pay me the big bucks for, yes?"

"Yes, yes," he said, defeated. "Give me a moment of peace with my tenant. She is come to tell me important tenantly things."

"Ach," she said with disgust, "as if you ever take anything seriously." But she disappeared back into his bedroom and shut the door behind her.

"Now," Zoltan said, abruptly surging forward to sit on the edge of the couch, all attention. "You were about to tell me about Meteor and my friend G."

Megan blinked. "How did you know?" she said. Then she waved a hand. "No, never mind, you're the landlord. Look, I have to get Meteor to Sator's in Staybird somehow. He says he thinks he can remove her from G."

"You have tried the most obvious method of cunning, I gather," Zoltan said, folding his hands under his chin.

"Well," Megan said dubiously, "I tried telling her that I'd been talking to someone I thought could give her information about her killer."

"Ah, very good, not entirely a lie," Zoltan said. "The problem is that she thinks you are the devil in disguise. What you need is someone who she could believe is not evil."

"Like you?" Megan said with a wry smirk.

"Oh, no, she believes I will suck her blood!" Zoltan said. "And when I tell her I will not, and why, then she believes I am the devil. No, no one in this household will do."

"But if I tell any of the Gold Stars," Megan said, "or, god forbid, her boyfriend, they probably won't believe me, and even if they do..."

"They are not exactly the souls of subterfuge," Zoltan said, nodding. "Yes, I quite see the difficulty. So you must give up."

"But!" Megan exclaimed, nearly standing.

Zoltan indicated with a "stop" hand signal that he wasn't finished, and she subsided. "You must give up the pseudo-lie," he said, "and go with out-and-out fabrication. What are the things driving this ghost?"

"Um," Megan said, "she wanted to be a superhero. And, I guess, she wanted a boyfriend."

"But most of all! She wanted to be a superhero." Zoltan smiled, running his fingers through his smooth black hair. "This is what you must play upon. There must be a superhero reason for her to go to Sator's."

"Oh!" Megan slapped her forehead with her palm. "That makes so much more sense."

Zoltan leaned over and patted her other hand. "Ghosts are shallow beings, in general. You cannot appeal to their reason, so you must appeal to their raison d'être."

---

From the Author:
The party went well! (I'm sure you all were waiting with bated breath to hear.) And now we are in an atrocious heat wave. AC is my best friend.

The comment incentive in July: if I get 50 total comments from readers in July, I will post twice weekly through August. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through September too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through October.

And add-on to the incentive: reviews count as 5 comments, a TVTropes page for WCS would count as 25 comments.









wonder_city: (Default)
Truth and Consequences

Megan leaned back on the sofa and looked at the ceiling. "That Brandon guy looked familiar."

"Of course he did," Watson said from next to her. "He looked like every wealthy blond fraternity brother at an Ivy League college ever. It's almost a costume, it's so stereotypical."

"He even had the collar on his buttondown turned up and his hair strategically mussed," G said from the other side of Watson.

"All in all," Zoltan said serenely from his favorite chair, "he is sartorially tragic."

"They're attempting to depict diversity," G said, arms crossed, frowning at the blank television set.

"By making the Indian woman some sort of... of... belly bunny?" Megan said.

"Tom isn't stereotypical," Watson pointed out. "He's not a geeky Asian man who watches fetish anime or anything."

"They'll find something," Megan said gloomily. "I bet he does martial arts."

"At least Simon is well-dressed," Zoltan said, finishing his glass of wine. "I accomplished that much."

"Was the blue tuxedo your fault?" G said.

"God, no!" Zoltan said. "That... and the shaving little lines along the side of his head... are entirely the fault of the network."

"I wonder if they tried to get his goatee," Watson said. "He's very protective of the goatee."

"He loves his goatee in a thoroughly unnatural way," Megan said. "If they tried to shave it or even trim it, they probably had to replace the stylist. 'Stylist Mauled By Wolf'!"

"Staff members must burn through fast on reality shows," G said. "It's like the networks give the people on these shows license to be the biggest assholes ever."

"I think they just show the assholery because it makes good television," Megan said. "Connnnflict makes good television after all."

"You," G said, pointing at Megan, "are a cynic."

"That's why television news broadcasts like paras," Megan said in protest, though still not looking at G. "We're all conflict all the time, in most non-para minds."

"They're not far wrong," Watson said, almost under her breath.

"Speaking of conflict, I wonder how Lizzie expects to dodge her family," Megan said, tapping her forehead with her thumb, "being on national television and all."

"Does she want to?" Watson asked.

"From what little I got from my brief conversation with her," Megan said, "yes, indeed. She made her deal with that weird... energy being thingie... in order to get away from her family."

"Then we can anticipate one of two things," Watson said. "One: her family never surfaces and hides in ignominy until one of their small-town neighbors sells the story to the tabloids. Two: the family sells the story to the tabloids. Probably in the next... oh, month, I think."

"Poor kid," G said. "Not one for considering consequences, I guess."

"No, I don't think so," Megan said, still gazing ceilingward.

"The young do not have a fully-developed sense of consequence," Zoltan said airily. "Which is why you children are so much fun to watch."

The three women glowered at the vampire as one. He smiled a thoroughly disarming smile and shrugged. "It is the truth," he said. He gestured to the television. "Same time next week, ladies?"

---

From the Author:
Winter is well and truly here, alas. I am recovering from a bout of bronchitis. My busted shoulder (we're on day 67 after the accident now) is displeased with the world, but physical therapy is good for it.

I'm posting twice weekly during January. If you like this twice-weekly thing, I'm doing it again in January: if January's posts draw 50 comments total, I'll post twice weekly through February too. As before, if you provide a comment bonanza, I'll extend appropriately.


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---

Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law

Megan waved to her mother as the rented van pulled out of Marigold Lane and up into the streetlights of the neighborhood beyond. Once the taillights vanished over the rise, she let out a long breath she hadn't been aware that she'd been holding.

"Your mom's pretty decent," G said from the front door of the house.

Megan felt her shoulders tense up immediately and couldn't quite bring herself to turn around. "Yeah," she said. "She is. But I'm glad she took off. I wanted to spend Christmas with her, not all the holidays."

"She gave you New Year's Eve," G said, sounding amused.

"A few hours of it," Megan said, and forced herself to turn around.

G hadn't changed. G was just the same. G was the same short, wiry, narrow-eyed, wind-carved butch bundle of sex she'd been two and a half weeks ago, when they'd gone out to a late lunch and were on their way home for several hours of practicing the horizontal hokey-pokey.

The only difference was in Megan's head, and that whole green leotard thing.

G cocked her head to one side and said, "You've been avoiding me."

"Sorry," Megan said, and had started out meaning it to be sarcastic and angry, but it came out heartfelt and guilty. "I... just didn't feel up to processing while also dealing with Mom. Knowing her, she'd've figured out what was going on and offered to mediate, and you don't want to know what I think of her relationship skills."

The sky began to spit ice at Wonder City again, and Megan stood in it, feeling penitential and a little like a small child waiting for her doom to be pronounced.

G stood back from the door. "What is it with you and standing out in precipitation? Get your ass in here."

Megan fought down her reflexive nervous smile at that, and heavily tramped up the steps into the house. G shut the door on the dank, frigid blast outside and turned to regard the younger woman, pursing her lips.

"Come upstairs," G said. "The cats miss you."

"I..." Megan started to say something, and forgot what it was.

"I've got hot mulled cider on the stove," G said, squeezing past her in the narrow hallway and thumping up the steps. "Come on."

The apartment did smell of the cider and spices, and baking bread, and maybe even cake. Megan hovered in the doorway and sniffed.

Evason happened to be passing by the front door on urgent cat business, merely twitched her maimed ear at Megan's intrusion. Madame Blavatsky, however, hopped down from the kitchen counter and trotted over to Megan's giant boots, loudly chastising her. Megan bent to offer a fingertip to Madame B to sniff. Madame B did so gravely, gave out an imperious, "MWAH!" and strode toward Megan's preferred chair. She hopped onto the arm and looked back at Megan expectantly.

"You thought I was kidding," G said, gesturing at Ursula and Olamina, who had both also materialized from somewhere. "You'd better sit down."

Megan did so, and was immediately colonized. She suspected that the cats liked her because she emitted a lot of heat and had a lot of cat furniture surface area.

G gave her a very large mug of hot cider and reclined onto the loveseat with her own, rather smaller, mug, leaning against one arm with feet up on the other. When Megan looked at her next, Jazz had curled into a large black and white ball on G's lap.

Megan felt the silence stretching and twisting like an irritated copperhead (what had become of him? she wondered irrelevantly), but she kept staring into her mug, trying to think of the Right Thing to say.

"Do you feel betrayed?" G asked.

Megan looked up at her, then back down into the darkness of her cider. Ursula rolled onto her back on Megan's knees, waving her paws in the air and exposing her calico belly. Megan petted the exposed belly, and Ursula contracted around her hand pointily. "I guess so."

Megan could see G nodding out of the corner of her eye. Ursula chewed on her fingers.

"I could say several different things right now," G said, scritching one of Jazz's ears. "I could point out the whole secret identity thing. I could say, 'You're not the boss of me!' I could even be a really righteous asshole and explain that I'm not the one in spandex, the ghost possessing me is. But it all comes down to the fact that I didn't tell you, even though I knew you had issues with spandex relationships, and you have to be the one to choose to deal or not deal."

Megan stared at her for a long moment, opened her mouth, shut her mouth, then shook her head. "Okay, I'll come back to the ghost in a moment. Why didn't you tell me, even though you knew, et cetera, et cetera?"

G's mouth quirked a half-smile. "Should I spin you the pathetic story about how when I was a kid, I had the hots for a straight girl and I just kept hoping that if I made her like me enough, it wouldn't matter that I was a girl in the end?"

Megan raised an eyebrow. "Is it true?"

G shrugged. "Yes, but does that really matter?"

Megan scowled into her mug for several moments, and finally took a long drink of the cider. "Maybe," she said.

Uhura arrived, later than the others -- as usual -- and appeared on Megan's knee. She stomped across Ursula and stuck her head into Megan's mug.

"So what's this about a ghost?" Megan said.

G looked down at Jazz and pretended to be examining his ear. "Back in the summer, I was working on recording some points of architectural interest in a building that was being demolished. Near the end, I was in the basement, looking over the foundation, and I, well, found her body."

"In the basement?" Megan said, leaning her head forward so Uhura could drape herself along the back of the chair.

"Yeah. Just part of a skeleton, you know, and the bits of costume." G drained her mug and set it aside. "She was from the war."

"The costume did seem kinda... vintage," Megan said. "'Part' of a skeleton?"

G nodded. "She got killed her first time out. She says a guy called the Grey Phantom dematerialized her and shoved her into a wall. She died pretty much instantly. I don't know how or why she was never found. I couldn't even find a reference to any villains using 'Phantom' in their names who were on record as having the power to demat someone."

Megan frowned. "So she's all angsty and unfulfilled now? So she asked you to help her fulfill her destiny or some junk?"

"Asked, hell," G said angrily. "She grabbed hold of the back of my lizard brain and won't fucking let go."

"She's really possessing you?" Megan said, appalled.

"Yes," G said, still avoiding her gaze. "But I guess we've come to an understanding."

"You haven't tried to get her removed?" Megan said. "In a city full of Mystikai, there's gotta be someone who can do it."

G shrugged. "She claims that any attempt to remove her will hurt me. And I'm not sure she's telling the truth, but I'm not really willing to find out that she is the hard way."

Megan watched Evason stride across the room and jump onto the back of the loveseat. "A very smart lady recently said, 'Ghosts are notoriously crazy.' And I think she's right."

"I... can't really think about getting her removed," G said slowly. "And, I admit, I'm kind of enjoying the whole saving-the-day thing most of the time."

"Really," Megan said in a flat tone.

G plucked at the edge of the cushion. "Yeah. I guess so."

"And when did you start feeling this way?" Megan said.

G shook her head. "Don't."

"Why not?"

"I can't talk about it."

"Because she won't let you."

"Yeah."

Megan caught herself before she dashed the mug against the wall, not least because it would have discomfited one, if not two, of the cats on her. She settled for growling. Ursula twitched a paw at her. Madame B, curled into a round ball, gazed at her from one mad eye.

"You realize," Megan said after counting to ten and back, "that you're crazy too."

"Probably." G stroked Evason's nose. "The cats keep me sane-ish. And it's kind of nice being really superstrong and able to do cool shit, as opposed to being sort of strong and sort of tough and not really enough of either to be worth much."

"You could've been a helluva firefighter," Megan said.

G laughed. "I suppose I could've." She leaned back over the arm of the loveseat, her spine making little crackling noises. "But I'm not. I'm a lump of mobile meat with someone else in the driver's seat. A post-existential Oldsmobile."

"You're an unbelievably hot butch architect," Megan said. "And she's not. How long before she convinces you that you'd look good in long hair, maybe in a dress?" Ursula, taking issue with Megan's violent gesticulation, hopped down to the floor and stalked off, tail switching in irritation.

"That won't happen," G said, finally meeting Megan's gaze.

"How about dating a man?" Megan said, getting louder and more sarcastic than she meant to. "Did she ever get laid? Does she have a long-lost love? I bet Ira Feldstein was contemporary..."

Olamina punched Megan in the arm with a particularly mighty pawslap and disappeared under the chair.

"Jesus, Megan," G said. "The only thing she's concerned with is heroing. That's it."

"For now," Megan said, gently removing Uhura from her full-body drape, stroking her, and setting her on the floor. "Look, you can see where this is going as well as I can." Madame B uncurled on the arm of the chair, gave Megan an offended look, and stalked off.

"Yeah," G said, sitting very still and looking at Evason. "I think I knew this was where it would end up."

Megan stood up. "Thanks for the cider, G. I..." She groped for words. "It was really fun. I like you an awful lot, G. It's spandex-girl I don't like."

"Well," G said, stroking Evason's nose with one finger, "I'll let you know if I lose the roommate."

"Yeah," Megan said. "G'night."

Megan let herself out of the apartment gently, and went down to the back garden for a stroll in the sleet. She found Watson sitting on the back steps, under the overhang, smoking a clove cigarette.

"Hey," Watson said.

"Hey," Megan said.

"Almost time for the fireworks," Watson said.

"Yeah," Megan said gloomily. She finally admitted to herself that she'd really been hoping that the talk would result in her and G making some all-night fireworks of their own.

Watson looked at her quizzically over the rim of her glasses. "Not much for celebrations?"

Megan rubbed her hand over her face. "Bad mood, sorry."

Watson watched her for a moment, took a drag on the cigarette, and said, "You know, she can't think about having the ghost removed."

Megan looked at Watson sharply. "You know way too much. You sure you're not a telepath?"

"Absolutely," Watson said.

"So you think she was hinting at me to help?"

Watson shrugged. "Well, what mystical whosit is going to take time to talk to an architect? Or a consulting detective?"

Megan sighed. "But the daughter of the Amazon is another matter. Why does it always come down to my mother?"

Watson raised her eyebrows. "Why would they listen to the daughter of a retired superhero?" she asked. "Especially when they could be talking to one of the women who just saved the city?"

Megan stared at her for a moment, then said, "Oh."

Watson crushed her cigarette out on the cement of the stairs and dropped it into one of the cigarette poles Zoltan had put around the place.

Megan said, "But why didn't she talk to Simon? He's got better connections than I do."

Watson turned to walk up the stairs. "Maybe because she wasn't sleeping with Simon."

Megan thought about that a moment, and just as Watson was going through the back door, she said, "But then how did you --"

Watson grinned over her shoulder and went inside.

Megan stood in the sleet for a while, digesting that conversation, and thinking back over the talk with G.

In the distance, she started to hear small pops and explosions, and could see multicolored lights flickering against the cloud cover.

Zoltan landed in the yard, his dark trenchcoat folding down around him like wings. "It is very pretty from up high," he said, "but not so much in this weather. Why are you standing out getting a nice frosting like this?"

"Trying to clear my head," Megan said. She ran her fingers through her hair, flicking water and ice away.

"Pah! New Year's is not for clear heads. You must become muddled and befuddled."

"I'm already that," she assured him.

Another figure dropped neatly into the yard. She was a round-hipped black woman with short dreds and an easy smile, also wearing a trenchcoat. "Hey, are you one of his tenants?" she asked, a slight Jamaican accent flavoring the sentence.

Megan smiled back at her. "Yep. I'm Megan."

"Isolde," the woman said, drawing the word out, her smile widening. They shook hands; the handshake lingered. Isolde's hand was surprisingly warm.

Zoltan gave Isolde a jaded look over his shoulder. "I'll have you know that she's not edible. You would break your teeth on her skin."

"My dear," Isolde said witheringly, "I do have more interests in this long life than just eating."

He shrugged. "Could have fooled me."

"Hah!" she said, throwing her hands in the air. "Look at who's talking here. How often does he have pretty boys in?"

"Wouldn't know," Megan said, quirking a smile. "I think he's got a separate entrance."

"Of course I do," Zoltan said. "Now can we go inside where there is no ice falling on my head? I would like something to drink, myself, that is non-nutritional."

"A lush, too," Isolde said to Megan, shaking her head. "It's so sad to see one of our elders devolve so."

Megan was having trouble not giggling. The world felt more than a little surreal to her right then -- a consequence of being para among paras, she concluded. Too much para-ness.

"Now?" Zoltan asked, raising his eyebrows dramatically. "You too, young lady. You require some sustenance after trying to freeze yourself like Lady Justice in Antarctica."

"I..." Megan started to say.

Isolde seized her hand. "Oh, yes, do come in. I want to know more about you, and I need diversion from Old Stuff here."

"If I am so old and boring, why did you come with me?" Zoltan said, opening the back door and bowing to the women.

"I was hoping to meet some of your young and beautiful tenants," Isolde said, tugging Megan after her. "Clearly, I am precognitive."

Megan allowed herself to be towed, glancing once toward the grand finale fireworks that exploded in a technicolor spray reaching up into the clouds. She turned to follow Isolde through the door and smiled vaguely at Zoltan.

"You see?" Zoltan said. "It is not so bad. Change is the only thing you can count on. Trust me, I'm old, I know these things." He patted her on the back. "Happy New Year, dear."

"Yeah," Megan said, looking after Isolde and letting her smile grow. "Happy New Year!"

---

From the author:

And so we close volume #1 of Wonder City Stories. I hope very much that you've enjoyed this first story arc at least as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

I'm going to take a week or so off now, as I pull the plot of volume #2 together and write the first several episodes. Want to influence the plot, or at least who appears in it? If you send me a tip OR write a review of WCS on your blog or on a site like Web Fiction Guide or Muse's Success, you can also give me the name of a minor character you'd like to see more of, and I'll do my best to include her/him in volume 2!

Thank you all for your continued support!

Jude



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---

Table d'hôte

"Does Zoltan always take any excuse to throw a party?" Megan asked G as they sat at the vampire's lavish table.

"Every one," G said, scooting her chair closer to the table. "And makes up others."

Watson sat across from Megan and G, and Jack Hammer sat at one end of the table, while Zoltan had reserved the other for himself. Simon, looking grey and sleepless and rumpled, arrived last and took his seat next to Watson.

Zoltan, resplendent in a black silk shirt and slacks crowned by a garnet velvet tailcoat and matching cravat, entered from the kitchen, followed by a trio of beautiful young men -- one white, one black, and one Asian -- each in waiter's black-and-white and carrying trays. Like a magician revealing his latest trick, Zoltan whisked the silver lid off the first tray and declared, "Venison!" The second was pronounced, "Goose!" and the third, with a broad and knowing smile, "Turkey!"

The trays arrived safely at table, and then more dishes materialized around them in a bustle of his hired waitstaff: pumpkin mushroom soup, sweet potato pie, asparagus and mushroom risotto, cornbread stuffing, and more. Zoltan seated himself at table as the bustle vanished back into the kitchen. "You will all forgive, I hope, if we do not say grace," he said with a sweet smile that made Megan laugh outright. He winked at her, settled his linen napkin in his lap, and said, "Will you please carve the turkey, Mr. Hammer? And you, G, would you carve the goose? The venison, alas, requires no carving, and so poor Simon must sit idle this year." He reached over and patted Simon's shoulder.

Simon appeared to awaken then, and smiled absently at Zoltan. "Oh. Thanks," he said, and returned to his distraction.

It was a merry and remarkably filling meal, and the food woke even Simon up enough to converse after a while. The desserts were copious and traditional: pumpkin pie, apple pie, and bourbon pecan pie, all warm and served with ice cream.

"If I weren't made of steel," Jack Hammer said as he leaned back from the table, "I'd bust. Zoltan, one hell of a dinner."

Zoltan managed to bow gracefully while still seated. "From you, with your family history of grand meals, Mr. Hammer, that is a great compliment."

"I'm just glad Doc Robotnik did that big overhaul of my sensory inputs last year," Hammer said. "Best tastebuds I've had since I lost the meatsack."

The group retired to Zoltan's parlor, seating themselves on the overstuffed furniture with the grace of overfed pelicans.

"Wow," Simon said, leaning back with his hands laced over his belly.

"Yeah," Megan said, flumping down in one of the chairs Zoltan kept for people like her and Jack Hammer, the ones made, apparently, of neutron star material.

Watson helped Zoltan pass around tiny cups of thick Turkish coffee and snifters of brandy. Little conversation occurred as they all settled into the mellowing influences of the dimly-lit room, comfortable furniture, and beverages, but words began to flow as freely as the brandy after the initial food coma.

Megan found herself talking to Watson and saying vehemently, "I don't know why anyone does it. I wouldn't get involved with anyone in spandex ever again. It's not worth it. Nothing's worth it."

The other conversations in the room ceased. Megan's ears began to burn.

"Helluva thing to say in Wonder City," Jack Hammer said, mildly.

"Yeah," Watson said. "I gotta wonder why you came here, feeling that way."

"There's plenty of people in Wonder City who don't wear spandex," Megan said, feeling the blush advance under the focus of the room's attention.

"I know why I don't want to date spandex," Simon said lazily (and probably drunkenly, Megan thought), "but why don't you?"

Megan glanced at him, then G, then down at her own knees. "I just... had some bad experiences."

"Everyone does," Hammer said.

"That's just it," Megan said, fiddling with the coffee cup that was very nearly too small to be a thimble for her, and suddenly couldn't stop the rush of words. "But normal bad experiences are, you know, people being alcoholics, or passive-aggressive, or just uncommunicative. The really, really bad stuff, with normal people, isn't as infrequent as we'd like, and when it's bad, it's really bad, but... you know, when things go wrong with spandex, it means supervillains in your living room or death rays through your roof or... or... being stalked by someone with fucking x-ray and telescopic vision." Her throat felt thick and her vision got blurry. "Or finding your goddamn roommate in sliced in pieces by laser vision and stuffed in the refrigerator because some spandex psycho got mad at her for dumping him and he thought it would be 'ironic.'" She savagely rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. "I'd rather deal with normal dysfunction any goddamn day."

There was a silence. She thought, Normal dysfunction can still kill people, can still be horrible, just as horrible. I know that. I know someone is going to say it, and I know it, and I'm just a... an... anti-spandex bigot... but I can't help it... She held her head in her hands and tried not to pull on her hair. She also thought, I'm sooo drunk.

When Megan dared to look up and around, the only person looking at her was Zoltan. The vampire sat with his chin propped on his folded hands, examining her thoughtfully.

She gave him a rueful smile and said, "Sorry for being a downer."

Zoltan smiled back and said, "No, I think you have reminded us all of things for which we should be thankful. That is what Americans claim this day is about, is it not?"

Watson leaned over and rubbed Megan's shoulder affectionately. "Sorry for setting it all off."

Jack Hammer stood up. "I better get home. Y'all look like you're about to start hugging." Pillows were flung by Simon and G. He fended them off and laughed. "No, really, the toy boy's due soon. I gotta get back."

"'Toy boy'?" G said, appalled.

Hammer grinned and shrugged. "Thanks, Zoltan. Dinner was great, man."

Zoltan rose gracefully. "But of course. Thank you for coming."

The rest took Jack Hammer's lead, rose, and trickled out with appropriate appreciative noises. Megan had the impression that Zoltan wanted to get on with the main event of his evening, which probably involved some or all of his hired waiters.

Megan lingered outside her own door, smiled good night to Watson and accepted a hug from Simon.

G looked at her and opened her mouth to say something.

"I," Megan said, mostly to forestall her, then rushed on, "I hate spending holidays alone. Don't you? I mean holiday evenings. Nights. Whatever." She gestured helplessly at her own door.

G regarded Megan for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. I sure do hate it too."
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---

La Soirée

"Welcome to the dungeon, my dear!" Zoltan said, embracing Megan one-armed, since his left hand was occupied with a glass full of something red. The interior of his apartment was very warm and dimly-lit and noisy, full of fabulously-dressed people and wood smoke and incense. There was some sort of background music, but Megan could only occasionally hear notes above the general hubbub. "Come in, have a drink or three."

"Thanks," Megan said, sliding through the door and adjusting her black leather necktie and the collar of her green dress shirt. "I assume you have more conventional beverages." She thought she saw someone with fairy wings run past.

The corner of Zoltan's mouth turned up. He was decked out in an electric purple silk waistcoat over a black dress shirt and slacks. There were birds of some sort -- phoenixes, perhaps -- worked into the silk brocade of the waistcoat. When he moved, the silk shimmered and changed from electric purple to iridescent green and back to purple. "If you're looking for soda pop, my dear, you will find it hidden in the cooler behind the wine and beer table. This -" he said, displaying his glass "- is a lovely Merlot from Australia."

She grinned and said, "Who's here?" She got a glimpse of a trio of identical Latino men with their arms around each others' shoulders, doing a little kick-step to the shrieks and laughter of a group who sported enough sequins and rhinestones to blind Europe.

"Everyone from the house, now that you've arrived," Zoltan said. "And some friends of mine from around town. A few from out of town. I promise that practically no one is boring." He glided off into the crowd, exclaiming, "Darling! Let me get you another drink!"

Megan looked around, coughed a little at the dense smoke in her atmospheric zone, and headed for the drinks table.

As she was examining the myriad options, a small blonde girl in jeans and a t-shirt bounced up to the table. She reached unerringly for a Guinness.

"Er," said Megan. "Should you be drinking that?"

The girl looked up at her with a sarcastic twist to her mouth and a sharp look in her eyes. "How long were you 13 years old?" she said in a slightly slurred English accent.

"Um," said Megan, already thinking that she'd got in over her head. "A year?"

The girl stood on tiptoe, grabbed Megan's necktie and hauled her down so they were face-to-face. Megan could smell the beer on her breath. The girl poked a finger at Megan's shoulder and hissed, "I've been 13 years old since nineteen forty-one, and if that doesn't entitle me to a pint now an' then, I don't know what does!"

Megan nodded, eyes wide.

"Right!" the girl said with a decided nod, and released Megan's tie.

A tall man with a long, mournful face and a mane of flaming red hair nodded at Megan as she straightened up. He reached over the girl and removed the Guinness bottlecap, then tucked the cap into an inner pocket of his dark blue suit coat.

"Thank you, Maelstrom," the 13-year-old said regally. With a sniff, she turned her back on Megan and marched away into the party. The tall man followed her.

"Who was that?" Megan said by way of greeting to Simon, loosening the knot of her tie.

Simon peered through the smoke. "Oh, her? That's the Equestrian. Old friend of Zoltan's. Comes to all his parties."

"Is she, you know...?" Megan tapped her canine tooth and made a bitey motion. She plucked a beer from the ice bucket.

"Oh, no," Simon said, refilling his wine glass with a California chardonnay. "No one's quite sure what that big guy is, other than some magical horse, but she made some sort of deal with him so she could save her parents during the Blitz or something."

"Wow," Megan said, looking after the pair again. "Poor kid. Didn't know what she was getting herself into. I hated being thirteen."

"Didn't everyone?" Simon said. "Hey, there's someone you should meet. C'mon."

Making their way through the party was less directed action and more drifting with the tides. At one point, they ended up near a large Victorian couch upholstered in scarlet brocade.

"I don't care which Elizabeth you saw crowned, dear heart," Zoltan said to the pretty young man draped over the arm of the couch, "whether it was the queen, the empress, or the other queen, you're ancient."

The young man folded his arms and scowled prettily.

Zoltan leaned closer and said in a low but carrying voice, "And if you move to town and try that trick of 'going back to high school', I will have you arrested for child endangerment, as well as for anything else you manage to pull off before I make the call. And people here know about our sort, unlike your blind and uncaring West Coasters."

"You're not the Grand Duke!" the young man snarled.

"There is no Grand Duke here," Zoltan said, spreading his hands and smiling angelically. "We're one big happy family here. Very democratic. Very happy. Very getting-along with the mortals." His smile vanished. "Very not biting up their children under false pretenses, because the mortals here have more than stakes and pitchforks."

"They're just mortals," the young man said, shoulders hunched up near his ears and chin firmly pressed to breastbone.

"This town is a favorite haunt of every Mystikai on the planet," Zoltan said, looking at the young man from under lowered lids. "They may not have children attending high school, but they have friends who do."

"What if I went to college?" the young man said after a silence, still sulky.

"If you will insist upon your usual approach to people," Zoltan said, "there are plenty of older women and men who would welcome advances by a young man with full pouting lips. Even should he choose to nibble upon them. You could become a sidekick! Or perhaps you could market your saliva as a treatment for arterial hardening."

The young man snarled and turned his back on Zoltan.

When Megan looked away from that exchange, trying not to laugh out loud, she noticed that Simon was being loomed at by a masculine figure that was dressed in snugly-fitting leather trousers and a leather motorcycle jacket. The man's smooth steel cranium shone dimly as he leaned back from whispering something in Simon's ear, and he grinned a metallic grin, eyes glowing faintly blue under his brow.

Simon lowered his eyes flirtatiously. "C'mon, Mr. Hammer, you know I'm not nearly man enough for you." Simon rapped on the man's metallic abdomen, producing a ringing sound. "I'm still not invulnerable."

"Hah!" The bigger man's voice had an electronic and echoing quality. "I can be careful, you know, pretty boy."

Simon looked up at him and grinned lopsidedly. "I've seen the guys coming out of your door too many mornings. They all need a buff and shine, or bandages."

Mr. Hammer laughed again. "Well, you know where I am if you suddenly get less chickenshit."

"Megan," Simon said, gesturing in an introductory fashion, "this is Jack Hammer, the guy who lives out in the carriage house. Mr. Hammer, this is Megan Amazon."

Jack Hammer extended a big, well-formed steel hand. "Good ta meetcha, kid."

Megan shook his hand. "Thanks."

"The bloodsucker finally got someone in the parlor rooms, huh?" he said. "Well, welcome to Zoltan's House of Crazy Queer Paras." Then someone else caught his eye, and he turned and sauntered off with a not-quite-apologetic nod.

"'Mr. Hammer'?" Megan said, raising her eyebrows.

"He's, uh, older than I am," Simon said, avoiding her gaze.

"Mmm-hmm," Megan said. "Robotic leather daddy seeks young shapeshifter for fun and games?"

"Just who I've been looking for!" Simon said feverishly, stepping through a gap in the crowd. "Megan, G; G, Megan. G is on the second floor across from me. Her apartment frequently smells of diesel fuel. Megan is on the first floor, in the grand parlor suite. Her apartment is occasionally soggy."

"Only when your friends come and weep on my furniture," Megan said, extending her hand to G. "Hiya."

G was dressed in well-faded jeans that clung to her hips and thighs and covered the tops of worn brown cowboy boots. She wore a tuxedo shirt, open at the collar, adorned with faceted onyx cufflinks. A small jade pendant hung on a braided hemp cord and rested at the hollow of her throat. She was a lean, wiry woman with sculpted cheekbones. The wind and sun had started carving lines around her eyes and mouth. Her auburn hair was about an inch long on top, shorter on the sides, starting to show just a few white hairs. G levered herself up from her chair, revealing that she was shorter than Simon, maybe 5'2", but her hand delivered a bone-straining grip. "Hey," G said, offering a lazy smile.

Simon melted away into the crowd, leaving the two of them facing each other. G pointed to a nearby chair with her beer bottle. "I hate standing around. The crowd gets to me," she said, folding herself back into her own chair.

Megan sat cautiously, still reluctant to bend at the middle even though her ribs were knitting up nicely. "How long have you lived here?" she said, casting about for conversational topics.

"About six years," G said with just a touch of a drawl. She took a long pull on her beer. "You new to the city?"

"Yeah," Megan said. "I lived out in Las Vegas with my mom. Decided to make a break for it."

"Ah, family," G said with a faint smile. "What're you doin' to keep body and soul together while you're here?"

"Loading delivery trucks," Megan said. "At any rate, I was. I'll find out Monday if I've still got a job."

"Was the place hit by the aliens?" G said.

"No," Megan said. "I... said some things to my boss and, uh, the guy he owed money to." She took a swig of beer. "How about you?"

"Architect," G said.

"Wow!" Megan said.

G waved it away. "It's not all that. I'm still small potatoes. But I came here originally to learn more about this city's architecture. It's coming back into vogue, you know, all the Deco stuff."

"It's all the fault of that TV series," Megan said. "Steam Heroes."

"You watch it?" G said.

"Mom hates it, so I never really bothered to pick it up."

"Good casting. Stupid, terminally straight romances. Enormous merchandising campaign," G said, gazing out over the party. "Reviving interest in the para first wave all over the place."

"Hunh," Megan said. "So after you learn what you can, you going to move?"

G brought her focus back to the conversation and smiled. Megan liked watching the line on the left side of her mouth deepen.

"I'll probably never leave," G said.

Megan looked at G's eyes, which were blue-gray. "You're completely in love with this city, aren't you?" Megan said thoughtfully. Then she covered her mouth with a hand, feeling the blood rush to her face. "Sorry. Inside voice on the inside, Megan."

G laughed. "Thought a big woman like you would hold your liquor better," she said, winking. "But yeah, I guess I am."

While Megan wrestled with her embarrassment, G got up. "Hey, speaking of work, I should go. I have an appointment early tomorrow." She put a hand on Megan's shoulder. "See you around the house, right?"

"Yeah, sure," Megan mumbled. "Good night." And she watched G stroll away, noticing how her jeans were faded around the rectangle of her wallet in her left hip pocket.

Megan picked up another beer and went in search of Simon, but stopped when she saw Simon sitting on the arm of a chair, leaning close to the middle-aged woman with brown hair who sat in it, looking up into his face and laughing. There was a dazzled, adoring look in Simon's eyes that rang some bells in Megan's head. Had Simon invited that woman he'd been talking about since the alien attack? What was her name, Suzanne?

Megan sighed and turned toward the door. She wasn't feeling particularly sociable after putting her foot in it with G, and didn't want to muck up Simon's chances with the current woman of his dreams.

She noticed an Armani-suited older white man leaning against the front wall of the suite, watching the party with hands in pockets. His hair was short, sleek, and executive-perfect, black with just a touch of white at the temples. His profile looked like it belonged to a catalog model or a movie star. He was so jarringly out of place that Megan felt drawn to him.

He gave her an odd Mona Lisa smile as she approached.

"Hello," Megan said.

"Hello," the man said.

"Friend of Zoltan's?" she said.

"I suppose you could say that," he said.

"I'm Megan," she said.

"Nice to meet you," he said.

Megan put her back to the wall next to him and watched the party while working on her beer.

"Since this seems to be my night for putting foot in mouth," she said, and in her peripheral vision, he looked at her, "I might as well say it: you don't look like you're comfortable here."

He nodded. "Very astute."

"So why are you staying?"

He tilted his head back to examine the ceiling. "Just because I'm an outsider doesn't mean that there's nothing for me to learn here."

Megan looked at him sharply. "In a police raid or alien invasion sort of way?"

He gave her a brief, spasmodic flash of a larger smile. "I thought you weren't in spandex."

"Congenital paranoia."

"An excellent legacy from your mother."

"You say that like you know her."

"I do." He stepped away into the party. "If you'll forgive me." He bowed slightly and vanished into the depths of the party.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom arrived seconds later. "Bloody hell, he was just fucking here!" said the girl, who was looking rather worse for the wear.

The horse gave Megan a long-suffering look.

"Which way did he go?" the girl said to Megan.

Megan pointed in the general direction of the man's departure. The girl flounced that way, and the horse sighed noisily before striding after her.

Megan sighed as deeply as Maelstrom had. Giving the evening up as a bad job, she finished her beer and departed in search of her bed.
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---

Into the Wolf's Den

"Thanks for letting us borrow The Divine Sarah, Zoltan," Simon said, twirling the keys. "I just can't ask these two to cram themselves into my tiny escape pod."

Zoltan waved languidly and smiled. "She doesn't get enough driving, really. Just be careful with her." He peered a little more closely at Megan, who stood stiffly. "You look tired, dear. Still not sleeping well?"

Megan smiled and managed to keep herself from shrugging. "Well, the painkillers the hospital sent me home with work just fine for the ribs and bruises, but the itching is another matter."

Zoltan's finely-groomed eyebrows rose.

"Her back is peeling," Tizemt said. "From the plasma bolt's radiation."

"Let me know if you need moisturizer. I have a vast selection," Zoltan said, adding plaintively, "They never write about how dry undead skin gets."

They retired to the garage, where they exposed The Divine Sarah to the thin light of a drizzly day: an ancient VW bus painted vividly with murals derived from Mucha's art, laced with psychadelic fillers. The interior seats were lushly upholstered in crimson and gold, and the walls were covered with garnet shag carpeting that dated from well before anyone getting into the van was born. The windows had neatly-restrained curtains of the same colors. There was a large futon folded in the back, draped with a comforter.

Simon turned the key and The Divine Sarah roared to life promptly. The trip out of town was uneventful and mostly silent. Megan slipped into a pleasant sort of torpor, staring out at the buildings sliding past.

"Er," said Simon eventually, "there's something I should warn you about."

Megan mustered an interrogatory noise, and Tizemt sat up with interest. "Yes?"

Simon swallowed hard. "Um, well, one of my sisters kind of... went feral for a couple years. Got it into her head that she should, you know, go to Alaska and join a wolf pack and learn to hunt and stuff."

The women stared at him curiously.

"Well, anyway," Simon went on, "she came back and she brought... you see, there are... what I mean is..."

"Cubs?" Megan supplied.

"Yes," Simon said, grimacing. "And they're, um, not very good at interacting with humans. So, if you could just, you know, not really pay attention to anything they say..."

"It'll be all right," Tizemt said. "I like kids. And puppies. This'll be interesting."

Simon made a noncommittal noise and turned down a dirt road. As The Divine Sarah ambled along slowly between tall trees, Megan heard a chorus of high-pitched howls start in the distance. She peered out. A six-pack of gangly wolf cubs were chasing alongside of the van, tongues hanging out in delighted canine grins.

"There they are," Simon said grimly.

"Awh," Tizemt said, peering out the window. "They're so adorable! How old are they?"

"They're almost a year old," Simon said, "chronologically. Mentally, I'd say they're five- or six-year-olds. Superintelligent, y'see."

"AWH!" Tizemt repeated, with more googlyness.

"Oh, god," Simon said, and brought The Divine Sarah to a jouncing halt in a large, open parking area next to a low-slung ranch house. "We're here." He held his hand back over his shoulder, palm up.

Tizemt tore herself away from the window and placed her ticket to the Fat Lady's show squarely in Simon's hand. "Thank you," she said.

Simon clutched the ticket to his chest, eyes closed, silly smile on his face. "It'll all be worth it," he said, as if reciting a mantra. He made certain that his ticket was tucked away in his wallet, and that his wallet was inaccessible in the inner pocket of his jacket.

They opened the doors carefully, since the wolf pack was capering around the bus with unflagging glee.

"Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" one cub said.

"Wow! Wow! Wow!" a second said.

"Auntie!" a third said.

A fourth bit the third sharply on the ear. "Uncle," she said.

"Uncle!" the third said, barely cowed.

"Who's this? Who's this?" a fifth said.

"Mom! Mom! Mom!" said the sixth. "Uncle Simon's here with some really big ladies!"

There was a very real possibility that Simon would disappear under the tide of enthusiastic greetings. Megan wondered if she felt well enough to fish him out before he was trampled.

A great grey wolf emerged from the house via an oversized doggie door. "Uncle Simon doesn't often bring guests," she said.

"Hi, Jasmine," Simon said, surfacing from the wolf tsunami. "These are some friends of mine, Megan and Tizemt."

Jasmine stared at Megan with disquieting intensity. "Are you sick?" she said.

"Just a little injured," Megan said, backing off a step.

"She's taking codeine for cracked ribs and bruises," Simon said, rolling his eyes. "And the other scent is the goo we put on her back for burns."

Jasmine cocked her head. "You're in spandex?"

"God, no!" said Megan.

"She got in the way of the spaceship the other day," Tizemt said. "By accident."

"Jasmine, don't keep them on the doorstep!" a voice called from inside the house.

"Right," Jasmine said.

They passed through a mud room where towels were hung over low rails, a few pairs of adult-sized boots and shoes were lined up against the wall, and large laundry machines took up half the space. The hallway beyond had windows on both sides, connecting the mud room to the house proper, entering it via a sprawling eat-in kitchen. A tall, middle-aged, black woman, hair short and natural, was just pulling off an apron that was covered with spatters of tomato sauce and curry, as well as smears of something resembling engine oil. "Simon! Your call was such a nice surprise!" She moved to hug him.

Simon shook himself and smiled as if he were facing a customer in the Great Scot. "Hi, Mom!" he said, and dutifully hugged her.

Jasmine's claws clicked on the nigh-indestructible flooring as she walked past Megan and Tizemt into the depths of the house, tail low, head high.

His mother held him at arms length. She, like Simon, wore tinted glasses to partly conceal the familial pale amber eyes. "I like the facefuzz," she said. "Your brother will be appalled that you grow better facial hair than he does."

"He's still got the chin spinach?" Simon asked.

"Oh, yes," she said. "He'll want to kill you if you're getting chest hair too."

"Hah," Simon said, then turned from his mother to the women looming behind him. "Mom, this is Megan Amazon, and this is her friend Tizemt -- I mentioned her on the phone. Megan, Tizemt, this is my mother, Larentia Canis."

Everyone shook hands all around. Professor Canis beamed at Megan. "You look just like your mother," she said.

"I do?" Megan said, glancing down at herself.

"Well, all right," the professor said, "not exactly, but you carry yourself like her, and that's as good as looking like her to me."

"Ah," Megan said.

"And, Tizemt, I understand you're looking for a job," the professor said, smiling. "Simon, why don't you get Megan a drink and have a sit-down in the rec room while I show Tizemt around lab 5?"

Simon and Megan looked after the professor and the rather dazed Tizemt. "Sorry," Simon said. "Mom's not big on social chitchat. If there's something to do, she goes right for it."

"No problem," Megan said. "My mom's like that sometimes too."

"Really?" Simon said, rubbing the back of his head. "I thought it was just because Mom wasn't brought up human."

"Oh, no," Megan said, putting an arm around his shoulders. "There are reasons she and Mom got along. Do you want to go play with the cubs? 'Cause I can..."

"Oh, god, no," Simon said. "I'm not going to abandon you in this house." He gestured at something Megan could only assume was an industrial mixer, though it had a number of attachments she couldn't figure out. "You never know when something is going to attack or malfunction or something."

"I'm sure I can defend myself against an errant vacuum cleaner," Megan said.

"You've never seen the Vac6000XL prototype," Simon intoned doomfully. "We'd have to break out Mom's dimensional conveyor for that rescue."

There was a large, sturdy, reinforced chair that looked like it had been moved into the room fairly recently, given the discombobulation of the rest of the furniture in the rec room. Megan was glad to sit down in it, sighing and closing her eyes.

Simon watched her with a certain calculation in his eyes. "You okay?"

"Tired. Achy. It's probably a good thing the docs put me on bedrest and wrote me a note to get me out of work." Megan ran a hand through her hair. "If I have a job to go back to."

Simon collapsed in a nearby chair. "It sounds like the Captain Zip thing is getting complicated. Why don't you look for something new? I'm sure Mom could point you at someone or other. Might as well get everything we can out of the visit."

"Because you won't be back for another six or ten months?" Jasmine asked from the door. She was taller than Simon in her human form, but narrower of shoulder with her weight settled comfortably into her hips and thighs. She was sleek and dark and fierce, her hair cropped close to her scalp, and she wore a knee-length brown batiked tunic.

Simon didn't look at her. "Probably," he said.

"You know, it wouldn't kill you to visit more often," Jasmine said, settling cross-legged onto a couch. "Maybe your nieces and nephews would get used to calling you 'Uncle Simon' then."

"I'm a little tired of being a family educational tool," Simon said, staring intently at the floor.

"You wouldn't be if you'd just let Mom take care of things," Jasmine said.

"I wouldn't have to be if you hadn't explained everything to your kids in excruciating detail, instead of just saying, 'That's Uncle Simon and he smells funny,'" Simon said, glaring at her finally.

"My kids deserve to know all the weirdness in this family," Jasmine said, meeting his glare with her own.

"It's just another passive-aggressive way to tell me you don't like the way I am," Simon said, pulling off his glasses. "You don't have to keep telling me. You made yourself eminently clear on the subject the first time."

"I haven't once mentioned it since then," Jasmine said, sitting up. Megan could almost see her hackles rising.

"No, you've not mentioned it to me," Simon said, back straight and chin out, "but my sources tell me you still haven't shut up about it to anyone else."

Jasmine's lip curled. "I can talk to my friends and family about whatever I want. If I think you're going down the wrong path, there's no point telling you about it, because you'll just keep going out of spite."

"But if you can get everyone on your side, maybe you can magically make me the way you want me, is that it, oh mighty alpha bitch?" Simon said. He stood up suddenly and jammed his glasses back on. "This conversation is over. I'm going to wait in the van."

"What's going on?" Professor Canis said, standing in the doorway, forced smile on her face. Tizemt stood behind her, peering inquiringly into the room.

Simon stared at the floor in silence, hands thrust into his jeans pockets. Jasmine examined her cuticles intently.

"Jaaaaasmine," the professor said.

"What?" Jasmine snarled.

"Why are you picking fights with Simon again?" the professor said, walking into the room and standing next to Simon, one hand set lightly on his shoulder.

"He started it," Jasmine said.

"Oh, that's mature," Simon muttered.

"Kindly do not lie to me," the professor said. "It is beneath you. And you know my hearing."

"Simon isn't living like our kind should," Jasmine said, lip curling. "We have a responsibility to live the natural way."

"Our kind? The natural way? What a lot of narrow-minded, hypocritical twaddle." Professor Canis stared Jasmine down in just a few seconds, without needing to remove her glasses. "I didn't raise you to romanticize intolerance. And most importantly, you can't make Ste-- Simon's choices for him." The professor squeezed Simon's shoulder and murmured an apology.

"I didn't mean to fight," Simon said miserably, "I just wanted to introduce you to Tizemt..."

Jasmine rose. "And introduce your girlfriend to the family?"

"I'm not his--" Megan began, rising to her feet.

"She's not my--" Simon said at the same moment.

Jasmine threw her hands in the air. "Humans," she roared, and became a large grey blur that swarmed out of the room. Her empty tunic crumpled to the floor.

The four stood in embarrassed silence.

"Well, that was unnecessary," the professor said, clearing her throat. "We just wanted to let you know that Tizemt and I have, I think, reached an internship agreement."

"I'm glad," Simon said, voice flat.

"Thank you, Professor," Megan said.

Tizemt bounded forward and shook Megan's hand, then Simon's. "Thank you both! A job AND a way home! This is SO awesome."

"Will you stay for dinner?" the professor said, a little tentative.

Megan glanced at Simon's stony face and said, "I'm feeling pretty lousy, actually, Professor." She put an illustrative hand to her side. "Alien plasma bolts take a lot out of a girl."

Professor Canis gave her an odd look, somewhere between anger and gratitude, then smiled. "Of course, I understand. But I hope the two of you will come to dinner soon. Even if you aren't Simon's girlfriend."

Megan wasn't sure if that was a joke. She laughed, hoping it was.

Tizemt thanked Professor Canis all the way to the door. At the door, however, Simon turned to face his mother. Tizemt hurriedly took Megan by the elbow and the two strolled out to the van, where the cubs immediately converged on them and drowned out anything being said in the doorway.

On the way back to the city, Simon broke the silence by saying, "Sorry about all that."

"No," Tizemt said, "I didn't know it was going to be so difficult for you. I'm sorry."

Simon shook his head.

"Families are hard," Megan said.

"Yeah," Simon said. "And Jasmine's always been kind of... dogmatic."

The other two groaned.

"Well, you're feeling better already," Megan said, leaning back in the seat.

"Can I buy you a drink or three, Simon?" Tizemt said.

"Let's take The Divine Sarah home first," Simon said. "Between the amount of booze I need and Megan's happy pills, I don't think any of us will be in any shape to drive."
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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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---

A Customary Incident in the Life of a Solicitor's Clerk

The ceilings of the sprawling rooms were twelve feet high, with ornate, cherub-sprouting crown mouldings in every room. In the living room, the moulding had been painted gold.

"This was the front parlor, and the bedroom is the old dining room," Zoltan Farkas said in his rolling eastern European accent. He draped himself familiarly over one of the upholstered thrones that populated the former parlor. "The kitchen is the original kitchen, huge, good enough for a gourmet. Or a hired chef."

"I doubt I'll be hiring a chef," Megan said. "And I'm not much of a cook."

"You will learn," he said, waving a pale, languid hand. "Poverty teaches cooking skills."

She raised her eyebrows. "You know this from experience?"

"Oh, no," he said, watching her from under his dark lashes. "Observation only."

She turned, staring around her. "I was told to expect ruinous rents, particularly for furnished apartments."

"I do not care for ruining my tenants," he said. "It is counterproductive."

She fixed a disbelieving stare upon him.

He shrugged in response. "What can I say? Simon is a charming fellow." He paused, apparently lost for a moment in contemplation of Simon. "He put in a good word for you. No one would rent the place for what I was asking. I would rather get something than nothing."

Megan nodded. "All right, then. When do you plan to raise the rent on me?"

Zoltan got to his feet with astonishing grace. "Perhaps there will be no need."

Megan pursed her lips and looked around again. "You live in the basement?"

"I do."

"Why didn't you move up here when you couldn't rent it?"

He leaned back toward her like a reed in the wind, flashing a beautiful smile over his shoulder. "I like the basement, Madame Noseyparker. You want this place. Why borrow trouble?"

"My mother does security work," Megan said. "She borrows trouble for a living. And would kill me if I did something stupid, like rent an apartment from a mad scientist."

The long waves of Zoltan's black hair trembled over his back as he laughed silently. Finally, he turned to face her. "I am most certainly not a mad scientist. I am, however, someone of whom most mothers do not approve."

"My mother doesn't mind the gay thing," Megan said.

"You are clearly possessed of admirable perception in some things," he said with a bow. "But I will tell you, so you do not need to speculate wildly: I am a vampire."

Megan glanced at the golden afternoon sunshine pouring in the window.

His eyelids drooped in a bored expression. "Does no one read Dracula these days?" His eyes narrowed. "Must I fetch the tube of craft glitter I save for convincing women who are mostly younger than you?"

Megan looked baffled.

"Ah, I see you are not one of them," he said. "Good. I would show you my fangs and whatnot, but it is not near enough the full moon."

"Isn't that, um, werewolves?" she asked.

He shrugged again. "All I know is how I live. Do you want the apartment or not?"

"Yes, as long as there aren't any secret passages up from the basement for use on the nights of the full moon," Megan said.

"My dear woman," Zoltan said, drawing himself up, "I never prey upon my tenants when there are so many alternatives in this lovely city. Besides," he added, "you are hardly part of my favored demographic."

Megan laughed. "All right, how shall I make out the check?"

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