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Chasing the Sun

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Gabriela sat in the sun. 

 

She felt like she was baking in it. The heat was like a heavy blanket -- comforting and penetrating. Maybe it was the bitter chill in the air or just the fact that the only coat she managed to grab before leaving the airship was some thin little thing that wasn’t at all equipped for the harsh conditions of the city, and the landscape beyond, but for whatever reason, sitting there on that long, metal bench, soaking in the direct light of the sun felt like absolute heaven. 

 

This was a colossal city. Blairville. A good place to make her escape. 

 

Golden eyes shifted upward to see the massive metal bodies that floated in the sky, far above her head. It was an airship port, and there were hundreds of those mechanical monstrosities ebbing to and fro in something akin to repose. Somewhere, up there, was her marvel of modern mechanics. The airship had been gifted to her by the High Lord Ryzerus, but had then been promptly commandeered by a vile fiend. Now it was in his control forever more, and things were complicated that much more because of it. But the theft of her birthday gift was an echo of so many of the other transgressions done against her person. Any and every pretty thing in her possession was often taken, and often broken by those who were stronger and more powerful. 

 

Even this escape was just a thinly veiled dismissal after the fiend had grown bored of her company, as he often did. Her escape was nothing more than rejection now that her ability to entertain had waned. It was as simple as waking up one day to find the door that had always been locked suddenly left unlocked, and in fact, wide open. No clearer invitation for her expulsion could be made, and she did not need any further explanation. So she grabbed what she could, which consisted of only the clothing on her body, and she took off before his tumultuous mind could change. 

 

An ill fitting pair of jeans, worn nearly bare at the knees, a white shirt, a gray, finely-knitted sweater, and a thin, long, wool jacket. It would have been warm enough for the winters in Orisia, perhaps even a little much. But it wasn’t going to be enough for the freezing nights of the North in Terrenus. And she hadn’t a cent to her name -- she didn’t even know the formal form of currency in this particular part of the continent. 

 

And yet she did not feel panic. 

 

For now the sun was shining and through the crisp and cold air, it warmed her directly. And although she was hungry and thirsty, neither was so great a need that she was anxious for drink or food. She wanted to take a moment to feel normal, as if she were strolling the streets of this gargantuan city, site-seeing perhaps, and had simply grown tired. Here, she had stopped to take a rest and so had found a seat to enjoy the sights and sounds of the airships flying in and out of the port. In many ways, it was like graceful ships with their elegant sails that floated along the turquoise waters of the Atitlan Lake, swaying just feet away from golden shores -- and in many ways it was nothing like that beautiful and peaceful world. 

 

Gabriela crossed her arms because she was cold and she crossed her legs, one knee over the other. She leaned back in her seat and curved her back along the shape of the bench until her head was tilted back and the sun was hitting her chin and her exposed throat. The heat felt familiar, but so much softer and kinder. 

 

“I could sit here forever,” she said out loud to herself, “I could die here.”

Edited by Pasion Pasiva

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Phoebe walked.

She'd been walking for what felt like forever since the sun's first thin, pink fingers had breached Dead Peak's jagged teeth, until its burning eye sat midway in its low winter drift across the horizon.  She'd been walking to wash the night from her thoughts, to clear her mind, to find some semblance of peace.

Last night had been just about enough, she thought.

It hadn't been long since she'd been wrapped in Gensaran silk, shifting pawns on a board no one knew she played, and setting in motion uninterruptable acts which would bring the Dead to rise once more on its sandy shores.  That had been easier, somehow - it was a game she knew, played with faces she didn't, but the rules never changed.  Money wanted power, power wanted control, and the circle turned ever onward, lining her pockets with every revolution.  Still, even as they rose in Genesaris, they fought in Lagrimosa - in Blairville, for instance, where the Safeguard act had a collar wrapped around her neck as surely as Antigone Isle would.  For this, she'd blinded herself - for the chance at finding Him here, unaware, she had wrapped her Want in degradation, drowned it, and crushed the life from her senses as surely as a hot poker would.  

This backward city and its backward intolerance.

It had once been a stronghold of the Dead, but now it was bastion of chaos and hatred, steeped in fear - in me vs them, when the only true war to be had was the ruled vs the rulers.  Maybe she could stoke that rebellion while she was here - start a smolder, light a fire, see what happened.  She had no explanation for the want- for the frustrated anger, for the rage the roiled behind her pleasant smile and the beautiful, charming glint of her eyes.  Phoebe didn't used to be so on edge.

It used to be easier.

Simpler.

Before Martial Town, she thought.

Absently, she found herself picturing His face- the snarl, the stale scent of whiskey on his breath as he pressed the air from her lungs, the way the scar over his eye writhed with the torment he'd endured.  How glee had underlined his pain; how excited he'd been at the prospect of watching the light fade from her eyes.

How close he'd come.

She didn't sleep that well, anymore.  Even in Aristotle's arms, the shadows made promises that they would one day keep, and it all felt real now.  Maybe the arrogance of youth faded; maybe she'd accumulated too much trauma over the years; maybe having a child had changed her in ways she didn't expect.  It didn't matter; Phoebe couldn't change now, there were no erasers tough enough to rewrite the legend she'd carved into Lagrimosa, and no world in which she could relegate herself to normalcy.

She worked at the edge of her woolen, camel-colored scarf; it was too tight around her neck, almost suffocating, and steeped with the warmth she'd built up walking, trapped by thick jeans and a heavy military-style coat.  She remembered Him then, too, as her nails tickled her neck and smothered the vision, grinding her teeth against the feel of his fingers squeezing, as she turned the corner out of a nothing alley and out into a small park at the end of one of Blairville's boulevards.  Phoebe expected no one- it was daylight, most people were at work and this section of the city was nearly abandoned at this time of day, yet her spring eyes caught a thin form seated on one of the metal benches and lingered.

Gods, she looked faintly familiar.

Taken aback, Phoebe stared for a minute- her step came to a slow halt, before she shook her dark locks and began walking once again.  It was only a short while since she'd been draped in crimson, viewing the world through a golden mask as it drank its fill from the less fortunate, and wondering why Gabriela had spurned her Lover so openly.  That Gabriela, though, did not look like this Gabriela - not in the churn of her aura or the feel of her being, which were the ways in which Phoebe marked the world real.  Faces could change; she knew this better than anyone - but an essence, an aura, that was much harder.  So, she wrote off the similarity as an eerie coincidence and walked past as the wind carried Gabriela's words to her ears.

"I could sit here forever," spoke the woman, "I could die here."

"I wouldn't.." Phoebe found herself replying before she realized it and slowed to complete the niceties of conversation, if this could be considered that.  "Blairville's morgue is often full, so they leave the bodies out to rot in the hallways."  She commented this idly, untouched by the horror.

"At least they used to."

Edited by Noko

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She heard the footsteps before the feminine voice eased her troubled mind. For a fraction of a second -- for the briefest moment -- pure panic had bloomed from the pit of her stomach, and erupted straight out the center of her chest to come back around and grip her thundering heart. She had thought it was him. She had been nearly certain that it was him -- that he had changed his mind and come looking for her. And surprisingly enough the panic that nearly choked the breath out of her was not born out of fear but out of a sudden rage. The fiend was too powerful for her to fend off and when he wanted, he could so easily trip her up in his plots and designs. So a singular thought had come crowning at the head of her near-hysteria, I can’t let him take me again. 

 

“I wouldn’t..”

 

Gabriela didn’t move a muscle save to open her eyes, and from a strained position -- her head draped over the backrest of the bench -- two golden eyes met with two green-forest pools. They were by far, the loveliest green eyes that Gabriela had ever seen. 

 

The relief would be palpable, if Phoebe was the sort to pay attention to that kind of thing, for Gabriela had been holding on to a breath which came out in a slow, and measured sigh. 

 

“Blairville’s morgue is often full, so they leave the bodies out to rot in the hallways,” the green-eyed woman stated matter-of-fact.

 

The golden-eyed woman remained still, and the moment seemed unexplainably tense though the scene around them was profoundly peaceful. Gabriela had not noticed how still and quiet the park was. She didn’t seem to miss the sound of people, at least not enough to notice its absence -- except now, in this moment, when death and decay seemed to be the topic that brought these two strangers together. 

 

At long last, Gabriela could no longer tolerate the strain in her neck. Uncurling her arms, and breaking her stare from the woman, she rightened herself on the bench and looked back out across the canal. Even the waters seemed unusually still. 

 

“At least they used to,” she heard the green-eyed woman go on to say, somewhere behind her. 

 

“I imagine I won’t much care what happens to my body once I am dead.”

 

She sat there, staring across the way at the twin park that ran across the other side of the canal. It was in an equal state of abandonment. It gave Phoebe a near perfect view of the woman’s profile -- and the similarities between her and the Blood God’s queen, Irene Gabriela DuGrace of Orisia, would surely be uncanny. Raphael was fond of painting Gabriela’s likeness, and although his greatest masterpiece had been Dollya’s transformation, it was a pale comparison to the real thing, which currently sat there, in the sunshine -- as no true vampyre ever should. 

 

“However,” she glanced over her shoulder, ensuring that she still had the woman’s attention, “if I do happen to shuffle off this mortal coil within the next few seconds, would you be so kind as to throw me over the rail? I think I’d rather feed some fishes with my remains than bloat and disintegrate into a puddle of bloody-gunk in some random hallway.”

 

Gabriela laughed, and while it may have been funny in theory the sudden sting in her eyes as tears misted her view completely undermined her attempt at humor. It only made her laugh more as she dabbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her coat.

 

“Sorry, I am ridiculously tired…”

 

He deprived her of sleep -- that was one of his favorite methods of torture.

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The moment, the very moment the first irregular speck of stone had cracked and ground under her boot's rugged soles, Phoebe had watched the panic roll off of the woman in great waves that threatened to drown them both in stress' endlessly deep ocean.  She buffeted it back, rocking on her heels as she let her weight settle as it was, and watched anxiety solidify into defiance and carve regal rebellion into the face of the woman her eyes swore was the Black Queen.  Even now, the remembrance of her dramatic, much-choreographed entrance into the Masquerade, emerging as the Queen she was from between the dramatic drape of its crimson and gold arches, was something Phoebe would not forget.  

A master class in manipulation, that was, and she'd been envious.

Her resemblance to this woman, though, was un-fucking-canny.

Relief welled from the stranger; confusion, from Phoebe.  Her glance flicked to the sun, then back to the woman's eyes, and she stood frozen, emanating indecision as her thoughts raced.  This Gabriela had that same quality as the other, a hard-to-place ethereal type of beauty that came from hundreds of years of familiarity with one's self, and the way one moved, and the quality of one's sustenance over the long span of one's life.  It was embedded in the perfection of skin forever shaded by golden roofs, and nestled, cradled in the cool comfort of silken sheets, and for all of Phoebe's expertise - and she was world-class in her personal masquerade - she would never, ever, be able to emulate the sheen of Vampyre royalty.

But the sun was out.

And this Gabriela's aura didn't even remotely fit the twisted and scheming contortions of the woman she'd seen at the Masquerade.

But her eyes were gold.

Contacts?

Arghhh.

The tension grew until it corded Phoebe's forearms and she buried her hands in her jacket's deep pockets, fiddling with the change she'd stashed there.  Silence bound the pair of women, wrapping them into thoughts which were broken only by the distant call of the ever-present, circling seagulls, as the stranger's regal posture turned her away and her words drifted out into the humid air.

"I imagine I won't much care what happens to my body once I am dead.  However,"

A glance drew Phoebe back like the tickle of an unremembered word.

"if I do happen to shuffle off this mortal coil within the next few seconds, would you be so kind as to throw me over the rail? I think I'd rather feed some fishes with my remains than bloat and disintegrate into a puddle of bloody-gunk in some random hallway.

The conversation was so ridiculous - the one she had in her head, even more so.  How in any world was this the Black Queen, sitting on a bench, in the sun, in Lagrimosa, talking about dying and having her bloated corpse thrown into the canal.  It was utterly absurd, completely irrational - maybe Phoebe had taken a fit, or a psychotic break, or maybe she never woke up this morning.  Her laugh bubbled, at first a low chuckle, until time and the farcical nature of it all drew it out like secrets from a knitting circle.  When it joined the stranger's, it was genuine, if sudden, and contrasted against the ever-present hum of airships high above as her brows came crashing together like playful waves.  Phoebe shook her head, the tension fleeing as she lifted her hands and dragged her hair back from her face, then loosed it to fly free in the intermittent, gentle breeze. 

In time, the laughter passed- falling down stairs, one by one, until the last sound was the last without even knowing it.

It was so much, and for just this moment she lived in the blessed release of a simple laugh in the afternoon sun, as the stress fled from the pair like rats to the alleys.  The weight of it all, of the First and the Dead, and the dead, had almost buried her, but the melody pulled her back.  For now, at least.

"Gods.."

What a sight they were; what a scene, this shared too-tight moment in time.

"Sorry, I am ridiculously tired…"  The stranger admitted as she delicately dabbed at the corners of her eyes.

"Yeah." Phoebe's dark hair streamed backward as she tilted her head and stared into the crowded blue sky.  Tired was easy to agree with; she was always tired.  Long days and longer nights- world-traveling journeys, new faces, and lives, until she could barely remember who she was anymore.  The undersides of passing airships shaded her face and unconsciously she scraped their metal angles for call-signs, or painted logos, searching for Him even now.

"You're right, though.  At least the sun is nice," she commented as the moment lingered, and she stood in its perfect warmth, cloaked in a mirror of the contented existence that Gabriela had first found when she settled on the bench.  "I see how you could want to stay here forever."

A cool breeze picked up, though, and with it, the shifting winds carried the distant chemical smell of the city proper, and Phoebe wrinkled her nose.

"But, I was going to go get a coffee," she said after a moment, withdrawing her hands and slapping the lint from her palms as she turned to look at Gabriela.  "Or take up day drinking," she added.  "What do you think about a nice apple danish and a half bottle of bourbon - I mean, they don't pair, but I think we could probably just agree to not care."

Edited by Noko

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It was a good thing that they weren’t facing each other. It was a good thing that Gabriela was sitting and staring across the canal because when the woman laughed, and she heard the raw exhaustion in the echo of honest delight, it struck a very tender nerve. She winced at the pain it caused her and the grimace was hard to do away with. Suddenly, she was full of the same existential anguish that had brought her to this ill-conceived state of humanity. She wanted to run away from this moment, and from this woman, and from the possibility of a lifetime longer than just a moment -- a second -- where people had to suffer. 

 

No more suffering, she wanted to say -- to beg -- no more.

 

She could not pretend to understand it. The aching notes of hurt in the green-eyed woman’s voice almost completely hidden in the cheerful splashes of breathy laughter. All that she had was an instantaneous recognition for it -- a sort of acknowledgment of their existence before they fell to the background of seagulls calling in the distance.

 

Had she imagined it?

 

No...

 

A complete stranger had brought to her altar an offering of grief -- unknowingly, to be certain, but still another measure of the same dense darkness that was slowly but surely clouding Gabriela’s sanity. It was turning the tides of her consciousness in her father’s favor, ensuring that the seeds he had sown began to sprout their invasive roots to take a more possessive hold of her mind and heart. Without seeking for it, pain found its way to her in a multitude of shapes and forms and she wasn’t strong enough to withstand it anymore. 

 

“Yeah.”

 

Her mouth had gone dry -- and it tasted bad. She tried to swallow what little moisture she could muster, and succeeded only in making herself cough as she forced down a gulp of chemical-tasting breath. It was not at all pleasant. 

 

“You’re right, though. At least the sun is nice… I see how you would want to stay here forever.”

 

Without having to look, Gabriela knew that the woman was enjoying the warmth of the sun. It was simply magic -- the comfort of it, and how it penetrated through layers of material and somehow found a way to bake their bones even through their flesh. It was the sort of feeling that could not be denied, but only if one managed to somehow be caught up within the force of its nature, and somehow it appeared that Gabriela had pulled the woman into this moment with her. They both shared the warmth -- basked in it -- until the icy wind came and cut through them both like a knife.

 

She gathered her hands between her thighs and pressed them tight and fought the urge to tremble within her coat. Once upon a time, ice had run through her veins -- quite literally -- but now the cold was the bane of her existence. And it was only going to get worse from here, without the means for an accommodation for the coming night and anything that might come beyond that if she just so happened to survive. But she hadn’t been thinking about it, or rather worrying about it, until this woman came and ruined her daydreams. Now they both lingered here looking up at the floating metal beasts above -- both of them looking for someone they may have hoped to not actually find. 

 

“But, I was going to get a coffee, or take up day drinking… what do you think about a nice apple danish and a half bottle of bourbon - I mean, they don’t pair, but I think we could probably just agree to not care.”

 

Once again Gabriela looked over her shoulder. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised to see the woman standing there -- she hadn’t heard her footsteps as she walked away, so clearly Phoebe would still be there. But even so, Gabriela’s golden eyes were pinched in contemplation of not only the woman’s offer but the entirety of how she presented. Flung to the wind was her existential angst, and brought to the forefront of her mind was the age-old suspicion that had kept her alive for the better part of three centuries. 

 

There was no such thing as a kindly offer born purely out of kindness, at least not for people like them and so Gabriela was forced to reexamine their entire encounter in the expanse of a moment or two. The woman had appeared out of nowhere, and their conversation -- while it appeared genuine and heartfelt -- was odd in nature. And now she could see it more clearly, the slight narrowing of recognition in those green eyes, and Gabriela was not sure how to handle it but she imagined that it was best to pretend in a manner most befitting of one who would be honestly placed in such a situation. 

 

A real human woman who shared the appearance of the Black Queen of Orisia. 

 

“I know I look like her,” she said as an answer to Phoebe’s offer of apple Danishes and warm bourbon. Her body turned more completely upon the bench, more fully to take in the sight of the green-eyed woman without having to twist her neck upon its shoulders. Instead, she kept her hands pinched between her thighs to keep them warm, and her knees neatly crossed as they turned to the side -- she looked small and cold, and perhaps more importantly, human. “I know -- but I am not her. I need you to know and understand that I am not the Queen of Orisia. My name is Isabella, and I’ve been having quite a rough time of it with people mistaking me for her. And if you’re asking me to day-drink with you because you think I am her,” she sighed and offered a small shrug, “-- I am afraid I’ll have to decline. But if you’re asking me to day-drink because you found me charmingly morbid, then I will happily join you.”

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Posted (edited)

Phoebe was, just a hair, taken aback-- as taken aback as a woman would be when called out on her innermost thoughts, but it didn't set her on her heels.  The level of mortal perception it took to see through one of Phoebe's painted emotions was admirable, and to be frank, it was far too long since someone had called her on a lie-- long enough that a soft chuckle pushed past her lips, then was snatched by the wind; long enough the crest of a blush formed on her cheeks like snow atop the peaks of the Great North, and she shook her head, and looked down at the cracked pavement.

"You do.. a lot, actually.  I figured you had a fetish," she shrugged; it was as good an explanation as any, still far better than 'I bumped into the Queen of Orisia wearing thin jeans, in the daylight, on a bench in Blairville watching the seagulls and talking about her corpse.'  All things told, it was better for the pair of them that Phoebe was only a ghost in Orisia, a skeletal puppeteer with no face to speak of, since 'I ran into Phoebe Marshall exiting an alley in Blairville and we went day drinking' was a far more believable story, and since she was masquerading as herself today it was even a likely one.  A rarity, Phoebe as herself; long limbs, winter-pale skin, and an unmistakable but everyday beauty she highlighted with little more than a flick of a brush through her hair that morning.  Phoebe Marshall was best described as potential- potentially beautiful, potentially athletic, potentially the best day drinking partner one had ever had.  She could be all of these things, but right now she was mostly herself - not Phoebe, not the First, just her.

Potentially.

Her hands found her pockets again.  Buried in the woven denim, she found warmth and curled her fingertips up against her palms, pressing them through the lining against the heat of her legs beneath.  She bounced once, then twice, flexing her toes and coming up off her heels to move the blood around, then looked back up and offered an embarrassed smile, her eyes lidded by a shelf of dark lashes. 

"I know," she acknowledged in regard to Gabriela's identity, "I had a debate in my head for a half-second and was utterly nonsensical," she confessed, truly.  It had been a thought-experiment in sheer lunacy, but the ease with which she accepted Gabriela's plausibly-implausible story was at least partially related to how little she wanted to deal with it.  A bit of willing ignorance, if you would, for no reason other than she was out of hands with which to juggle an ever-increasing array of bullshit.

"I try not to sound stupid, so let's just put that away.  It can't be easy to deal with, looking as much like as her as you do, but it's not why I asked.  I just..

I don't know," Phoebe admitted, half to herself and half to Gabriela.  She chuckled, an uncomfortable acknowledgement of the thin limb she stood on, out on her own, bound in a conversation with a woman whose beauty and stature put others to shame.  It was enough to make anyone self-conscious, even without the courageous leap she'd taken to invite a stranger to a socially unacceptable afternoon-breakfast and early-happy-hour, but she stood her ground as the oddity of the situation loomed between them like Orisia's castle walls.  Friendliness and assumed trust had gone the way of the ancient rites, and in a world where two of the globe's most powerful women smiled, and shivered, and feigned normalcy on a public bench in a City that would see at least one of them jailed if it had its way, it wasn't hard to see why.

"I think I'd just rather share space with someone today, maybe unwind from it all, and you seemed like you might want to do the same.  Plus, you look like you're going to freeze soon," Phoebe pointed out.  "but I get it, we're strangers," she admitted, the statement blandly obvious, "and it's a little weird, but so what?  I'm taking today for me, and if that means I spend the day drinking with someone I just met and eating stale danish because it's at least two pm, and they baked it at six this morning, then fuck it-- that's what I'm doing.

What an invitation, right?  Anyway, do you want to come along?  It's warmer inside, I promise."

If her offer drew the woman along, she'd follow-up along the well-trod dialog of the newly met.

"What do you do around here?  Besides leave your coat at home..."

Edited by Noko

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“You do.. A lot, actually. I figured you had a fetish.”

 

Even in her new-found humanity, Gabriela unintentionally maintained traits of her previous life -- stillness was one such quality. And so, save for the slightest inclination of her head, she remained near motionless as she examined the green-eyed woman and the way that embarrassment set upon her. There was a dab of color on the woman’s face, just a quick stroke of an artist’s brush across the high curve of her cheekbones. She was also more animated, with her eyes rolling like polished emeralds, down and up, and then back to recapture Gabriela’s once again, and how she rolled her weight on the thick soles of her boots, and how her rounded shoulders lifted and fell, and how her small, delicate hands disappeared in her pockets, and how her lovely hair danced around her face -- all of the movement came together to accentuate the endearing expression of sudden self-consciousness. 

 

You’re staring and you are far to still -- move.

 

Gabriela squared her shoulders and released her hands from between her thighs. They slid, her pale hands, across her thighs and to her knees, where they rested once her legs had uncrossed and her feet had settled on paved ground. 

 

You’re holding your breath -- breathe.

 

She breathed in deeply and let it out slowly, perhaps sounding like a sigh. 

 

Perhaps, sounding like a wary sigh.

 

And while she worried if she was being too methodical with her movements and her breathing, the woman spoke up again -- perhaps in response to Gabriela’s poorly timed exhalation.

 

“I know,” Phoebe offered in the midst of her soft movements, “I had a debate in my head for a half-second and was utterly nonsensical.”

 

There was simply no way of knowing if the green-eyed woman was being honest. She lacked all of those important traits. Gone was her ability to hear the heart beating within the woman’s nearby chest, or to measure the flow of her blood as it rushed through her veins. Gabriela could only see what was obvious, and when she was particularly lucky -- she might catch glimpses of what was not quite so obvious. But she had given all of that away, and now there was no telling what was real and what was a façade. The blush on her face, the charming and dance-like movements against the cold -- it could all be pretense. 

 

But what did it really matter? 

 

That golden gaze dropped for a moment.

 

She was tired and cold.

 

“I try not to sound stupid, so let’s just put that away. It can’t be easy to deal with, looking as much like her as you do, but it’s not why I asked. I just..”

 

She lifted her gaze back to Phoebe.

 

“.. I don’t know.”

 

Phoebe laughed, and it was that same sweet sound with those same sad notes interwoven through the breathy melody-- that same raw exposure that hurt like the memory of a sunburn. But this time, rather than wince or grimace at the echo of hurt that resonated in the pit of her stomach, Gabriela smiled. It was a rare sight, but surely one that Phoebe would not begin to understand the value of. How long had it been since the Black Queen of Orisia had felt pleasure enough to break the legendary severity of her pressed lips? And now, here, in the middle of nowhere, and in the company of the forgotten and the Dead, she smiled -- genuinely. 

 

“I think I’d just rather share space with someone today, maybe unwind from it all, and you seemed like you might want to do the same. Pus, you look like you’re going to freeze soon.. But I get it, we’re strangers, and it’s a little weird, but so what? I’m taking today for me, and if that means I spend the day drinking with someone I just met and eating stale danish because it’s at least two pm, and they baked it at six this morning, then fuck it-- that’s what I’m doing.”

 

Is this what you’re normally like or are you letting your broken parts show?

 

She had been traveling the continent on a pilgrimage toward something she could not name. It was an ending to a story that many had touched -- that many had even had an active part in writing -- but few had ever heard of. An ending to all of it, a figurative and literal closing of the book. And through her travels she had come to meet many wonderfully broken people, all of them cherished, and all of them loved, but not one of them capable of turning her from her course. Roen, she had imagined, would be the last. The last challenge to overcome, and the last to try and stop her, and if not stop her, to keep her from her destiny by any means necessary. 

 

The thought made her tense and so her eyes glanced up at the airships again. Maybe it would be better to get out of the open.

 

“What an invitation, right? Anyway, do you want to come along? It’s warmer inside, I promise.”

 

It seemed that fate, or nature, or God...something...had one last test for Gabriela. And how was she supposed to deny the green-eyed woman, when she was already beloved for her vulnerability? Another beautiful soul to meet, to love, and to leave behind...eventually.

 

Gabriela rose to her feet, and though she had near perfect posture, she was a woman of rather short stature -- especially in her flats. She sorely missed her heels, and the inches of height they provided her. But, she made up for it by straightening and ensuring she did not slouch in the slightest. Free at last, her thickly braided hair fell off her shoulder and down the center of her back, down well past her bottom and the hem of her long coat. The wind had pulled some strands free, and they floated around her face until she pinned them back behind her ears. She looked like a disheveled mess -- an elegant, disheveled mess.

 

Together the women walked.

 

“What do you do around here? Besides leave your coat at home…”

 

It was always a difficulty, thinking about truths and lies. But she generally stuck to a singular rule -- as much truth as possible in order to keep things as easy as possible.

 

“I am not actually from here,” she confessed, “...and this,” she glanced down and dropped her arms to her side, clearly gesturing to her outfit, “...this is literally all that I had time to grab. My airship was commandeered.”

 

She glanced, sideways, at Phoebe with a frown.

 

“I’ve had a rough morning, so I hope you’re buying.”

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"My airship was commandeered," confessed Gabriela, arms lifted and left to fall helplessly, unstructured and directionless, like a sail without wind.  Phoebe slowed to stay alongside her companion, drawing disbelief on like a new shade of eyeliner, as she turned her shoulders to break the wind against her back.  Her incredulity was not in Gabriela's telling, but in it happening of it at all.

Her gaze lifted, again to the many floating alloyed beasts above, and she searched the drifting shapes as if a pirate's familiar flag could be seen from so far away.  Idly, she wondered if the pirates that had ransacked Gabriela and abandoned her land-side had been her pirates; if somewhere above, Shikai was raiding with the Black Fleet, and Gabriela had somehow gotten entangled in his swashbuckling side-job-- now wouldn't that be a snag in Fate's tapestry, but as quick as the thought came, it was dashed with the same haste.  Her pirates would have killed Gabriela and thrown her body out over the oceans; that was the smart way to go about things, after all.

"I've had a rough morning, so I hope you're buying."

Oh, money

Right.

The surprise floated across Phoebe's pretty face-- be it due to financial stability or financial irresponsibility, it was clear that money hadn't even occurred to her.  She lifted a hand, fingers wrapped in an assortment of boho-style silver rings, and waved the concern away.

"I think I can manage a bottle and some danish, don't worry," came the answer as they drew even with the liquor store entrance and she reached forward over Gabriela's thin shoulder, taking the door by its edge and opening it for the smaller woman.  "That's terrible about your ship," she said as they entered, finally finding refuge from the fast-approaching chill.  The storefront was an antique; a bookended corner shop with a living green ivy awning and windows nearly shuttered with the stacks of unopened liquor crates pushed to the store's walls.  Inside, it was stuffed, made dusty with cardboard fibers; humid, but warm and off-scented, and as a bell jingled, a short, dark-haired, dark-skinned man, who was six-months past a well-needed haircut, looked up and offered them a crooked-toothed grin.

"Alex!" he announced, waving them forward and out of the wind.  "There's a cold snap coming tonight, I think.  Hurry inside, but let the.."

"I know." Her voice tightened, cropped and clipped with mild annoyance, like a younger sibling tired of being told to clean their room.  "..they're coming," she said, her grip on the door's wooden edge firm as a gust of wind buffeted its frame.  The weather in Blairville was as mercurial as its politicians and twice as deadly.  The unexplained cold snaps had grown worse over the years, enough that the handful of striped elephant-nosed chipmunks that stampeded inside to their den in the back room wouldn't survive without shelter in the store-- which explained the odd smell.

With his companions inside, the proprietor picked the conversation back up like a hot drink on a cold day, continuing, "..It's been months-- the job send you halfway across the world again?"

"You know it-- one day I'll get a desk job, right?" she answered, and while both of them levied a weary, synchronous chuckle, neither of them believed it.  It was a lie no matter which of Phoebe's masks you asked, her or Alex, and the shop-owner just shook his head as the conversation trailed off into a comfortable, companionable, mundaneness that was familiar as a favorite pair of socks, but twice as worn.  He flashed a smile at Gabriela as he counted the change in his calloused palm, but she had nothing in her hands to buy, so he kept his attention on his customer and rung her out.

At the door, with a newly purchased bottle of bourbon in its wrapped paper bag, Phoebe pulled her coat tight and frowned as she looked over Gabriela's thin covering-- no protection against the wind, which due to poor city planning frequently sent children tumbling down the alleys, or the cold snaps that regularly froze unsheltered citizens.

"We really need to get you a better coat," she said, apparently familiar with stating the obvious.  "You look gorgeous, of course, very stylish.." Her words followed so smoothly as to be second nature, to offer the compliment before any insult could manifest, but her charm was warm-blooded and had an embrace that was easy to slip into- even tired, even worn, even wrapped in common nothingness Phoebe was effortlessly alluring.  "..but I meant it when you said you were going to freeze to death.  We'll be fine in the cafe, but ...  " She tucked a wayward strand of dark hair behind her silver-studded ear as her words trailed, drifting like the cloudy tails the skyships left behind them as they flew.  In the gap between the end of her words and her opening the door, she handed the bottle of bourbon to Gabriela, ending, "..tell me about your ship? Where is it berthed out of?  Maybe the police can recover it.  I don't normally recommend going to law enforcement here, especially for strangers, but..  "

Well, these were unusual circumstances, weren't they.

Edited by Noko

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She saw the doubt in the woman’s eyes as the confession of her stolen airship left her lips, but it was too late to recall the words. The softness in Phoebe’s green gaze was sharpened to deadly margin as the information seemed to be digested, considered, and finally accepted. For Gabriela, it was a nerve raking moment. Perhaps it had been a pinch too much truth; after all -- who loses an airship? She either made herself out to be some absolute bumbling idiot who was utterly incapable of maintaining command over a vessel or worse, she made herself seem overly important. But there was no salvaging the confession now. The words had been spoken and they were like pollen in the wind, carried away and inhaled deeply into the consciousness of her new friend. Besides, it wasn’t like she could tell Phoebe that the ship had been commandeered by her own personal tormentor -- that she had a devil, a literal duke of hell, out to get her like some boogieman. 

 

Gabriela deflated a little.

 

“I think I can manage a bottle and some danish, don’t worry.”

 

The mention of alcohol cheered her up a little, along with the quick arrival at the liquor store. She offered a small, more tired-looking smile as a form of gratitude as they both made their way into the quaint little shop.

 

“That’s terrible about your ship.”

 

A wall of humid warmth hit her, and for the second time in less than a minute, when she was about to be overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude -- her nose scrunched up. The smell was subtle, but very much there and very much a force and of itself. It made her pause mid-step, and even caused her hand to fly from her pocket up to her face as a shield from some invisible assailant. It was her turn to blush, and a dusting of pink crossed her cheeks as she turned away from both Phoebe and the grinning, dark-skinned man behind the register. With her braid still swaying from her sudden pivot, she examined some of the stacked crates of alcohol, closest to the still open door. She was embarrassed at the face she had made, and more so at the possibility that the shopkeeper had seen it, or worse -- the green-eyed woman. 

 

“Tell me about it,” she answered, over her shoulder, as a way to quickly overcome the awkwardness of the moment, “...it was our maiden voyage.”

 

She closed her eyes and felt her jaw clench, just as she reached for a bottle and pretended to read the label. The confession kept spewing out of her mouth like vomit after one too many shots of vodka -- or perhaps, like someone who had no business being sober. 

 

“Alex! There’s a cold snap coming tonight, I think. Hurry inside, but let the..”

 

She turned enough to glance at the man and to confirm that he was indeed talking to the woman by her side. Summer-set eyes shifted back to the label, but the name rolled along the surface of her tongue -- Alex. Alexandra.

 

“I know,” she sounded annoyed, “.. they’re coming.”

 

Figuring that since Alex was going to buy her drinks and feed her a danish, and that certainly meant they had some form of a relationship starting to form, Gabriela felt it appropriate to ask -- who -- was coming, but the question never made it past her lips. She turned, preparing to rejoin her new friend, and to pretend her near-childish outburst concerning the odd smell had simply never occurred, when under her pivoting feet a collection of odd little creatures scurried in. 

 

She gasped, and they in turn, hastened to the back of the store and into the safety of their den -- all except one, who seemed greatly offended by the former Black Queen’s noisy inhalation and her nearly stepping on his head. The furry creature lifted its trunk in her direction and trumped a few sharp retorts. Alex had drifted off to make her purchase and make her pleasant exchanges with the shopkeeper, with whom she was obviously acquainted. Gabriela did not see any point in making a nuisance of herself, and so she lingered there, by the closed door, and with the little creature who seemed very much upset with her presence. 

 

Down she went, crouching low enough that she could hug one knee to her chest while the other touched the floor to keep her steady. She didn’t dare reach out for the little critter, for it appeared rather ferocious in its excitement as she drew closer. Suddenly he was backing up on his hind legs and kicking his front ones into the air, and then, after what seemed like a careful calculation, he charged at her and struck her knee with his rounded tusks.

 

“Ouch!” she hissed, as quietly as she could muster. She hurried back up, and rubbed her wounded leg, but remained bent over, still examining the creature. “That wasn't very nice.” 

 

It stuck its tongue out, and it hung like a dog’s tongue, out the side of its mouth. 

 

Gabriela arched a brow.

 

“You look ridiculous.”

 

A fluffy tail wagged. 

 

“Look, I didn’t mean to almost step on you. I am sorry.”

 

In peace, she offered her hand to the little chipmunk. He tentatively touched her fingertips with his trunk, and just when it seemed they might find a way to look past their differences -- the little rat-bastard bit her. It was just a little pinch, but enough for her to draw her hand back suddenly and enough to startle the poor creature off and send it running after the rest of its herd. Gabriela stood back up, sucking on her injured finger and watched it as it disappeared around the corner of the counter.

 

“We really need to get you a better coat.”

 

Gabriela stood there, pink-cheeked and still sucking on her hurt finger. Those big golden eyes of hers blinked slowly at Alex, as if she did not remember the woman, or as if she did not understand the nature of the statement. Getting used to the needs of her human body was one of the hardest things Gabriela had had to overcome, but it was a daily struggle. Recognition slowly returned as she recalled that it was indeed very cold outside, and that she was not properly clothed for the climate -- of course it would make her stand out like a sore thumb, or rather, finger. 

 

“You look gorgeous, of course, very stylish.. but I meant it when you said you were going to freeze to death. We’ll be fine in the café, but…”

 

They were out of the shop, they were walking again, and the cold took a bite out of her as if she were a crisp, juice apple. And she, as the apple, felt the horror of having a piece of her torn off, the flesh exposed, the cold blowing cruel and awful over the raw flesh. 

 

It was really too cold. 

 

She shivered and crossed her arms tight. And again, she was terribly grateful that their walk was not a long one, seeing as the café seemed to just be a few storefronts down from the liquor store. It struck her, in that moment of passing silence, how attentive Alex was -- she opened doors, she kept up the conversation, and she seemed rather concerned with Gabriela’s state of dress (at least from a utilitarian perspective, while also paying proper homage to style and design). Again, Gabriela couldn’t help but feel that easy, genuine smile on her lips as she took the paper-wrapped bottle of bourbon. She cradled it like a child.

 

“Tell me about your ship? Where is it berthed out of? Maybe the police can recover it. I don’t normally recommend going to law enforcement here, especially for strangers, but..”

 

They picked their way through the interior of the café. It was empty, except for the woman behind the counter and glass display, where all the baked goods were sitting under bright lights. There was also a cat, which appeared typical in appearance -- an old gray tabby -- who hardly moved a muscle, save to open a single gray-black eye, look at them, and go right back to his afternoon nap upon a sunny spot on the floor. They walked around him very carefully, Gabriela more so. Her knee and finger still ached a little. 

 

“I don’t know,” she replied, with a frown, as they found a comfortable table, in the sun -- just like the cat. “What can the police really do? The damn thing is probably halfway to Genesaris by now. And to be honest, I don’t care -- I know I should. But you know, I just… I don’t.”

 

It felt awkward to be honest, but it also felt like the easiest thing to do for now. 

 

She didn’t care that Roen took her ship, so long as it meant he left her alone -- at least long enough to make it to Biazo. 

 

“I don’t know,” she repeated herself as she set the bottle on the table between the both of them. She stared at it for a moment, at the brown paper wrapped around it, and then she moved in to pull it out and free, and once again set it on the table. The sun hit the golden-brown liquid inside, and reflected off the pretty, metallic-crimson lettering on the label. “Maybe after things settle. Things, inside of me, feel like a whirlwind right now. I think I was supposed to die up there, with the crew and the rest of the passengers. I mean, I should have…”

 

No more doom and gloom.

 

She shrugged. It was a small gesture, meant to denote the measure of her uncaring for the words she had just spoken, but she couldn’t look back up to meet Phoebe’s eyes.

 

“Alexandra... Is that your name? I am actually looking for someone named…”

 

That’s too much to say, don’t say his name…

 

“I guess, it’s not important anymore.”

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"Alexandra... Is that your name? I am actually looking for someone named…

I guess, it's not important anymore."

"..it is, yes, but it's a mouthful.  No one bothers with the full four-syllables, and I can hardly blame them," answered Phoebe, skipping over the second half of Gabriela's sentence as she settled into the chair across from her and began to shrug off her coat, draping its heavy shoulders across her chair's rounded wooden back and unwrapping her scarf.  Beneath the coat's dark folds, she wore a simple white silk button-down courier shirt she hadn't bothered to button the top three buttons of, and a handful of dangling silver necklaces inlaid with various colorful stones.  The effect was eclectic, but grounded in Phoebe's composure.

"Camryn over there.." she gestured at the woman behind the counter, who looked up from beneath a fringe of purple hair to offer a wide, gem-flecked smile.  "Shit, it would take her ten minutes to write Alexandra on my cup in the morning."

At that, the other woman laughed sharply from her place, throwing her amusement out like confetti as she shook her head and continued her business, accompanied by the clanking of glasses and the whir of machines that spun the scent of spiced chocolate up to a mosaic sky ceiling.  It was as if the cruel weather could be beaten back by the charcoal-smudged hand of art and warm hospitality, at least here, in this one eccentric cafe.

While the cold snap wound the tips of its withered claws through Blairville's streets and sent its citizens scurrying for shelter, the cafe remained cozy and warm.  Against the far wall, a faux-stone fireplace housed several black, pock-marked lava crystals piled high in a woven iron basket, each glowing an ethereal red-orange and throbbing in time with the ebb and swell of the Lagrimosan arcanosphere.  It was their radiating heat that pushed back against the intrusion of frost into the heavy front door's colored glass panes, lining its edges with white-blue fractal lace, and banishing its forced stillness.  Within its yellow-wood walls, the cafe's energy was welcoming and genuine, no small amount due to its fae-like owner.

"It wouldn't take me quite that long, but Alex is definitely easier on the hand," teased Camryn as she came out from behind the counter, her thin hips swinging cheerfully as she carried two painted cups, each steaming hot and teetering on a playful gold-flecked saucer, over to the women.  "It's on the house," she explained, then laughed and winked at Gabriela as the cups were set down in front of them, "New supplier - let me know if it's good or not, yeah?"  The request came with little room to refuse, wrapped in a comfortable, almost familial expectation that embraced the three women in an unwritten sorority; as if by entering with Alex, she had inherited the warmth Alex earned and skipped all the awkward getting-to-know-yous.

"Are you eating?  I got bad news, the patisserie from Aspyn brought the hot chocolate but no danish."  Camryn delivered the news with faux mourning, tossed over her tattooed shoulder as she turned and strode back to the counter. 

"I'll bring you both something good."

Phoebe nodded, floated a smile, and shed Camryn's effusive cheer like so much rain on her waterproof coat.  Idly, she hooked her cup's curved handle with the edge of her forefinger and dragged it and its saucer over, then wrapped her hands around the warm ceramic in an attempt to absorb its humid heat into her entire body via the flesh of her palms.  The look she flicked toward Gabriela was ringed with embarrassment, almost apologetic, and a bit overcome with the sudden influx of Camryn's personality.

"Sorry," she began, as warm notes of ginger and chocolate floated up from her cup.  Bent over its warmth, Phoebe inhaled a long, chest-filling breath, then blew her tension out in a thin stream across the steaming drink.  Next to the fire stones radiating warmth, with a cup of hot chocolate in her hands and a bottle of bourbon between them, she could almost be normal - actually normal, not just painting on a normal face.

"..she has a lot of energy, but she's good people," Phoebe went on to explain as she lifted one hand from her cup and gripped the bourbon bottle, thumbing its brass cap off, then catching it in her palm as it spun free.  "Anyway, fuck 'should have'," she declared, harkening back to Gabriela's assertion that she should have died on her ship, with the rest of its passengers and crew.  "I can't count the number of things that should have happened to me.  Frankly, there's no such thing - no 'should have'.  We all make our own way, the best we can, and you survived a pirate attack on your airship - which I'm pretty sure entitles you to some bragging rights - and now you're looking for someone named... Alex, yes?"  

Like it was a stab in the dark.

"Alexander?"  

A brow curled toward Gabriela, painted with loose, idle wonder, as Phoebe watched the emotions that skated across the other woman's expression as she prompted the name.  It didn't take much to make the leap to the name Alex, or Alexander, but Phoebe was wary of normalcy's crumbling edge and loathe to contribute to its collapse; still, she thought - she wondered - she searched.  She was Phoebe, and Phoebe ran an information network that stretched its skeletal fingers across the world.  Her curiosity couldn't be helped; you can paint a tiger, but its black stripes would always linger below the facade.

She waited a moment, let the initial inquiry - that name - settle before lifting the honey-brown bottle of bourbon, pouring a finger into her hot chocolate, and then setting the bottle down for Gabriela.

"I don't know any Alexanders around here," Phoebe continued with casual indifference, echoing Gabriela's projected lack of care, and checking her expression as she went on to signal nonchalance with shrug and shift of her thin shoulders, "It's a big city, though, and.."  Her eyes flicked up, green to match Gabriela's gold as she sketched a hopeful grin.  "..if it's important to you, it can be important to me.  I don't really feel like heading to work today, it's a shit show in there, so.. I guess I've got the rest of the day free."

She laughed with the ease of someone who didn't know what they were getting into, lifted her cup, and offered a toast. 

"To a better afternoon than our morning," she said, a smile curling her full lips as her cup hovered, waiting for Gabriela's to join the blessing.  "..and you can tell me all about Alexander, and we'll drink bourbon and make up wild stories about how you escaped your pirates and found yourself unharmed, but in Blairville.  Your truth," she added, teasingly conspiratorial as she offered Gabriela the chance to write her own history on the wings of a shared story, "..whatever you want that to be."

Edited by Noko

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Alexandra… Is that your name? I am actually looking for someone named… I guess, it’s not important anymore.”

 

“..it is, yes, but it’s a mouthful. No one bothers with the full four-syllables, and I can hardly blame them.”

 

Golden eyes watched, intently but with the good-grace not to openly stare, the way that Phoebe settled into her chair and began the processes of peeling away the layers of material that had been protecting her from the exterior elements. The woman’s beauty had been easily overlooked. Gabriela had been like someone walking through a garden and brushing by a hedge of roses -- and never even realizing she’d come so close to the intricate perfection of a crimson, hundred-petal blossom. 

 

She smiled inwardly, but wore the pleasure she felt at this discovery -- Phoebe’s rather fetching appearance -- as a mild amusement for the woman’s statement. As someone who shared a rather long name, Isabella was a mouthful after all, she figured that she could pretend to commiserate. But she didn’t really care, not really, not at all. On some level, to some degree, and for some inexplicable reason, she knew Alexandra was not Alexandra. And it didn’t matter one bit. Her smile, however, became somewhat more internalized, more secretive, and by far more alluring than anyone had any right after having, supposedly, barely escaped from an airship high-jacking. 

 

The jingle of jewelry brought her back.

 

“Camryn over there.. Shit, it would take her ten minutes to write Alexandra on my cup in the morning.” 

 

Gabriela shot her gaze across the empty café to the counter, but although her eyes were blessed with the gift of light they did not travel fast enough to beat the explosion of Camryn’s laughter. It startled her, but in a good way, and took away some of the sharpness from her previous smile -- softening her expression once again. She watched, captivated by the sounds and sights of the woman as she moved about in her laboratory, producing a concoction of such a sweet and dark aroma that her hunger was almost instantly awakened. A hand upon her stomach, an attempt to flatten the ache that suddenly reminded her how empty and sore she felt was the only indication she gave. 

 

“It wouldn’t take me quite that long, but Alex is definitely easier on the hand,” Camryn went on to say as she came around the counter carrying two cups balanced on saucers. The warmth of the room followed her and became so much more -- for lack of better words, radiant -- when the woman stopped at their tableside. The fae were not unfamiliar to Gabriela, in fact -- their blood was a delicacy among her people, a temptation that even she, the one vampyre to have denied her nature, found a true challenge to deny. But she had denied it, on the few occasions when it was presented to her, she had denied it. However, the hot, dense, chocolate drink that was set before her now? This she would not deny. “It’s on the house,” she winked at Gabriela, and she smiled her thanks before reaching out to take the cup, so very grateful for the warmth. She hadn’t even realized how much her fingers were aching from the cold. “New supplier - let me know if it’s good or not, yeah?”

 

Gabriela nodded her head, though she doubted anyone actually would care about her opinion on the matter. 

 

“Are you eating? I got bad news, the patisserie from Aspyn brought the hot chocolate but no danish,” she began to depart -- and Gabriela felt her heart sink, she had been looking forward to the danish more than she realized, “I’ll bring you both something good.”

 

She might have wept -- thrown a tantrum right there and then, but she was too tired and too glad for the warmth of both people, place, and the warm drink in her hands. 

 

“Sorry,” said Alex, perhaps having guessed at Gabriela’s disappointment. She immediately felt ashamed of herself, and frowned down at her mug, which she was still clinging to, and breathing over, much like Phoebe was doing. “...She has a lot of energy, but she’s good people.”

 

Gabriela was about to say something about not apologizing for her people, especially not if they are good people, but she never got the opportunity. Phoebe was reaching across the table, catching the bottle of bourbon round the neck before thumbing the cap off, rather expertly. 

 

“Anyway, fuck ‘should have’, I can’t count the number of things that should have happened to me. Frankly, there’s no such thing - no ‘should have’. We all make our own way, the best we can, and you survived a pirate attack on your airship - which I’m pretty sure entitles you to some bragging rights - and now you’re looking for someone named… Alex, yes?”

 

“Yes.”

 

She picked up the cup and drank -- immediately she burned her tongue and winced, but did not pull the cup away. Instead she drank more deeply. She drank because having heard Phoebe reiterate her own story made her feel like she had made a grave mistake. The story was unbelievable. It was bizarre. The fact that she didn’t want to go to the police, the fact that she was sitting around in a park, like a lunatic in an outfit so poorly designed for the climate of her current location. She lied and she lied badly, but it wasn’t a lie, although she could not remember if it was the truth. So while Phoebe racked her brain in an attempt to make a connection to that name, Alexander -- Gabriela sat across from her, melting into the pain of a burnt tongue, the richness of chocolate along the inside of her cheeks, and the sheer density of an event she could not remember.

 

There had been an airship, but she could not remember being on it. 

 

Phoebe poured some bourbon into her hot chocolate and then set the bottle down.

 

Gabriela was distant now, in her memories… She had been in Martial Town with every intention of traveling to Blairville, and then she had suddenly appeared in the marshlands of Coconino, beaten and nearly drowned -- utterly uncertain of how she had arrived there. 

 

“I don’t know any Alexander around here. It’s a big city, though, and.. If it’s important to you, it can be important to me. I don’t really feel like heading to work today, it’s a shit show in there, so.. I guess I’ve got the rest of the day free.”

 

The green-eyed woman laughed, and Gabriela felt her cheeks grow warm because the offer felt genuine and she could not grapple as to why the woman would want to help her. She wasn’t her best now -- she wasn’t the ethereal beauty, she didn’t have the moonlight skin, nor did she boast an immortal life or immortal youth and beauty, her name was gone along with her claims to her throne, and all the wealth that came with it. It seemed to her preposterous then, that anyone would offer her genuine kindness -- and if it was genuine kindness, then it was a far more tragic thing for she was every bit the monster that she had always pretended not to be. She was rabid with pain and utterly mad with anger. She felt it all, swimming under the surface of her consciousness -- like another person lived and breathed under her skin, a true person, her real self, just waiting to come out. 

 

But she couldn’t remember it all.

 

The airship…

 

“To a better afternoon than our morning,” Phoebe was waiting, smiling graciously and lovely.

 

Gabriela reached out with her right hand for the bottle of bourbon, and then she noticed that it was badly bruised around the wrist. She saw it just then, caught just a glimpse of the dark and ugly purple and blue along the inside of her wrist, which made her retract her arm almost immediately and pull her hand down under the table. It would seem so rude, and she was in despair over it. 

 

“..and you can tell me about Alexander, and we’ll drink bourbon and make up wild stories about how you escaped your pirates and found yourself unharmed, but in Blairville. Your truth, whatever you want that to be.”

 

Did she know? Gabriela wondered as she stared, nearly tempted by soft and seductive words of the green-eyed enchantress. A chance to make up her own truth. It was necessary, now more than ever -- now that there was no truth. But did the truth even matter when there was no one interested in it? She felt panic prickle the back of her skull. 

 

“I shouldn’t drink...I am still, a little fuzzy. To be honest,” she began, a little more cautiously now, and a little more honestly, “...I don’t remember very much of what happened. I remember that I am looking for Alexander, but he’s not here. He’s in Biazo. I am far ways from where I am supposed to be.”

 

Thoughtfully, she toyed with the handle of her cup, but only after making sure her sleeves were fully covering her wrist, and did everything she could to avoid making eye contact. 

 

“I mean, to be perfectly honest…”

 

Was this a mistake? Gabriela laughed, it was a nervous sound -- gone was the poise, the regal elegance that Phoebe had espied when she found her sitting on the bench, contemplating the warmth of the sun and death. Now that was nothing but a child, useless and frightened -- and worse of all, utterly uncertain. 

 

“...I can’t seem to recall the majority of the last twenty-four hours. I am assuming a lot of what happened, there are bits and pieces...my ship, the captain, and someone who wasn’t supposed to be there.” 

 

And then it was all too much. She reached out again and this time she did not care if the bruises were seen when her coat did not fully cover her wrist, she didn’t mind it enough to stop herself from gaining the sweet comfort that came with alcohol sloshing down her throat. And she was quite rude, and inconsiderate, but she would think to apologize for it later, but she drank straight from the bottle, she drank deeply as if it were water and she was starved for it. She drank the bourbon like it was sweet and flavored with caramel and sugar, rather than harsh and burning. And when the bite of alcohol crossed the torn and damaged parts of her badly hurt esophagus, and when she could not stand the burning of it, she finally stopped, but not before having guzzled down nearly a third of the bottle. 

 

She sat there with her hands on her knees and her eyes closed, breathing deeply and quietly.

 

“I am sorry…”

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"Begone." 

"T̸̨e̵͠-́̕͜t̨͠e̛͟ll̶ m͢y͘ m̴m͝-̀͡m͏҉̕ḿ̧-̵̧͢ḿ͟͡o̢͘t҉h̕͜͡e̕͡r҉̡,̷͠ ̢púh҉͝-̡͢͟l͞e̛͞a̧a̴͜as̸͠e.̵̕.͘͜͡" 

"I said, begone." 

The corpse wailed the last of it's entreaty, then sagged back onto the medical gurney as the last of the magic that reanimated it, faded. Dead, calcified eyes stared up unseeing at the flickering lumen globes above, and with it's last breath, gurgled out a sodden, anguished sob before it grew silent and still. Roen looked away, raising his hands to his face and rubbing comfort into his tired, heavy eyes. The second corpse, much like the first beside it, was just as useless as it's predecessor. Low-ranking adventurers assigned as bodyguards to a foreign dignitary, they had both both slain in mortal combat by an armoured aggressor. The armoured aggressor had been him - he had slain them, and he was nowhere closer to unraveling the mystery of why than when he had moved their bodies from the desiccated airship and onto the Everlinde for thorough autopsies and analysis. The senseless murder sickened him just as much as the necromancy used to reanimate the cadavers. Lowering his hands and dismissing the two corpses, the Everlinde's medical bay and the whole fiasco itself, Roen turned to his servant. A tall, dark-skinned male in his early thirties, he had broad shoulders, a shaved, bullet-shaped head and an immaculate goatee. His name was Bertuccio Bonaparte, and he was a quiet, stoic man of many talents and incredible discretion, and it was both his honor and privilege to serve at the Outsider's pleasure. Sensing orders, Bertuccio inclined his head and crossed an arm over his sternum, bowing before the Lord of the Black City. "Lord?" He asks, vibrating the very air with his rich, resonate baritone. 

"These two were useless. I have a favour to ask of you, my friend." 

Bertuccio rose, tightening the supple black leather gloves of his hands before straightening the tie at his throat. He was a well-dressed man, all sharp lines and pressed fabrics. He was also very tall, standing head and shoulders above the Outsider. But though he looked down his nose at the modest stature of his lord, there was nothing less than the utmost respect for the fiend in his reply. "Anything, Lord." Roen looked away, stroking his beard and pinching his chin between thumb and forefinger, tugging at the rough and thick strands there. "I cannot go out into the city..," he began, before stopping and looking shrewdly at Bertuccio. "What I mean to say is, I shouldn't. We may have forged the Everlinde's transponder codes, but she's an old design and an expensive one, too, and while she and I haven't been seen together in a long time..," he trailed off, leaving the rest unsaid. The fiend shook his head. He looked back over his shoulder, regarding the corpses on the gurneys. The hoarfrost in the room was just starting to recede, the ambient temperature rising, now that the Outsider's will wasn't so oppressive. "The truth is, necromany is a foul sorcery, and I --" Bertuccio cleared his throat, interrupting him. They had known eachother for a long time, Roen and his manservant. The nuances of the Outsider's needs, the unspoken wants and indelible desires, Bertuccio knew the fiend as well as a man could, and perhaps better than most. 

"I will bring her to you." He said.

"Thank you." Roen replied. "Do you know wh--" 

Bertuccio raised his thin, trimmed brows, pushing Roen to silence. No, exposition and explanation was never required, not of Bertuccio. A tenacious, resourceful man, he did not need a lead as others did. He had his own devices, his own methods of procurement and delivery. She had been tracked to this city. Scryed, tagged, observed and marked, the Outsider's staff, rarely deployed and eager for work, had gone above and beyond their assigned duties of information gathering and infiltration. Of course they had made her their foremost priority. She was his priority, after all..

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"I am sorry…"

"For...?"

A wave of concern crashed across Phoebe's brow as she watched Gabriela crumble, her maudlin ennui growing with every bounce the conversation had taken, until, in the end it had all been too much and she had cracked into this shell of a woman struggling for control.  The other woman's aura was a discordant jumble of emotion and state; it betrayed her rarely, made opaque by the gloomy pall which had over taken it, watering grey the typically vibrant sparks and sullen voids that marked innocence and deceit- weakening, but not obscuring.

Gabriela was beside herself, that was honest, but the rest was a crafty mix of falsehoods and truth that Phoebe admired.

Oh, Phoebe had seen the bruises - those were real, purple on white was very eye-catching - and she knew the signs like she written them herself.  The heavy, ducking dip of Gabriela's head, the round of her shoulders against a frame of what had once been a self-assured and driven woman.  She had watched fear race its way like lightning across Gabriela's elegant and regal visage (it was visage when one was rich, you know) and then watched that same fear be shielded by a shifting, golden eye that wouldn't settle and couldn't hide its falsehoods behind a watery lid and luxuriously thick lashes.

To be honest, Gabriela couldn't remember.

I mean, to be perfectly honest, Gabriela couldn't recall.

Phoebe did; she remembered smiling as Gabriela made assurances, the expression a slow blooming acceptance of the other woman's difficulty, that perked a feather-light brush of lines to frame her lips and lift of her eyes in an innocent, sororal welcome, even as her wicked mind sorted through the details and marked Gabriela as the liar she was.

If Phoebe were honest with herself - entirely, frankly, absolutely honest - she had long ago determined that the people who prefaced their words with protestations of their sincerity were typically the ones being the least so-- and Gabriela did it badly, like a schoolboy with his dick out, stammering about an itch as a nun walked in.  She was beautiful, while failing so miserably, with a velvet tongue and an appealing, enticing vulnerability the First would love to christen black, but..

It's just that Phoebe didn't care.

I mean, not really- not out of concern, though she wore the mask expertly, and certainly not enough to ruin her afternoon.

Gabriela was a liar, but so what?  So was she; so were they all.

The odds on the other woman being the silently deposed and suddenly mortal Black Queen of Orisia were still trailing the odds of her being a runaway fetish whore by a good nine points, so..  

..what?

Her goal for the afternoon was simplicity, everyday normalcy, and the sort of ho-hum freedom and nothingness that people across the world took for granted.  She wanted to drink and play hookey, to laugh, and tease Camryn, and find a gorgeous, rough-edged and wildly unimportant man or woman to take home, and fuck, until one of them woke and squinted at a rudely rising sun, its shaft cast through a flag, or a sheet, or some other scrap of fabric that becomes a curtain when one has 'life', but no job, or money.

She wanted to exist only as herself, for today, and if she had to stack the odds and tempt Gabriela along the path with her, well, what the point of being the First for the other three-hundred-sixty-four-and-a-half days of the year if she couldn't make her own reality for just a few hours.

A door slammed in the back - a clumsy stock person, a stack of badly balanced boxes, a lazy hand not holding the exit, or something equally mundane, she was sure, but Phoebe flinched a tremor that ran up her thin back to the flex of her shoulders and instinctively reached for the safety of her skeletal network.  She could feel them here, as she could everywhere-- Blairville was no more immune to their insidious death than any other creature, and in the darkness, she found comfort in its claws and the familiar spice of a Ginger wildfire as he wrought her rage through Blairville's underground.  She was safe here- not home, not yet, but in His echo she was close enough.

She smiled, leaned forward, and splayed her fingertips across the lacquered tabletop; she raised each squared-off nail, forefinger to pinky in a mirror motion that clacked silver against polish and thrummed a many-ringed, arching rhythm.

Badabum.

"...hey," she spoke, gentle words sought to bring Gabriela back, to throw a ladder and help her climb from the void, out from the silent oblivion she'd found and stood at the edge of; to be the hand that lead her back.  She eyed the amber bottle, just a flick of an emerald lit glance to note its loss and a spark of amusement to commemorate the folly as she whistled low, and offered a soft, conciliatory laugh.

"You're going to wear that pretty hard in an hour or so, you know- unless you've got a spare liver in there or something, which...  I'm just going to assume you don't, but.."  I mean, who the fuck knew these days.  On top of the table, Phoebe flipped her hands over, her palms up as she wiggled her fingers like she expected Gabriela to take her hands.

"Look, I don't know how shit your day has been, or your year, or your life.." she shrugged as if it was unimportant, and it was, at least to her.  Dwelling in the past was only useful when reminding people of why they needed to move, but staying there too long...  

Well, that wasn't good for anyone.

"It's always true that the only way forward is forward," she continued, "For instance, I have a gentleman who's giving been me a bit of heartburn lately." Her eyes flashed upward, spying Gabriela through the slats of her dark lashes, and affected a poorly feigned attempt at nonchalance- it hurt, Caden hurt, but mostly it was the reminder of her mistakes.  "We're in a bad way, he and I-- mistakes were made, and now he's gone and done something that I just can't let go.."

Failed assassinations were brutal like that.

"..but am I going to sit around and mope over it?" This road was a well-trod one for Phoebe- it was the lure of dreams on a line of desire and promises, a way out, a look ahead, all woven with a pull of temptation that she had honed over a decade, such that she could tempt Gaia herself, given the time.  Her grin split until its edges were white and pointed, and she squeezed Gabriela's fingertips, if she had them, and leaned in as she shook her head.

"No.  I'm going to reconcile my books, find equity, and balance, again.. all of which require that I act.  

You've got to act, Isabela, balance your scales - take back what's yours.  What do you want

If you could have anything, what would you have?  It's all possible, you know - every bit of it - so let's figure it out."

From the hollows of the back room, where towering ovens and an army of painted cups ruled the roost, the scent of apple carried promises as it wafted out into the air.

Edited by Noko

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Had Gabriela even the slightest inclination that Phoebe was even remotely impressed with the performance that was being played it may have comforted her, and soothed her badly beaten ego. But she could not fathom such a thought crossing the green-eyed woman’s mind -- in the first place, because she had no inclination that she was being read so closely. Of course she had her suspicions at the onset of this strange interaction, but the sheer impossibility of being recognized or targeted here, in the middle of nowhere simply prevented her from following that particular thread. It was foolish, of course, given all that she had gone through during her short time as a human, when her true identity was supposedly all but eradicated. However, her mind was cloudy and even with her best attempts, she could not focus and could not connect even the most obvious of points. And in the second place, it was difficult for Gabriela to imagine her own words as falsehoods when she herself could not remember the truth. 

 

More than anguish or hurt, her sudden outburst seemed to stem from a nervous frustration. 

 

It was impossibly hard to not be in control. 

 

But there was one thing she could control, one thing that at least within her perception of the world, was immediate and all consuming. She could not abide by being the source of such worry and concern, not from this woman, not from a complete stranger who had come been out enjoying a nice stroll, minding her own business, and having a perfectly perfect life. It was not her right and not her place to put other people out. And so it was that she felt pangs of guilt and torture when she dared to glance up at Phoebe’s face and when she saw the delicate cut of apprehension on the bohemian beauty’s face. 

 

Immediately she wanted to take it back, she wanted to beg to take it all back and to apologize again. True enough that she wanted the end of the world, and to silence Phoebe and see her eyes close forevermore, just like every other living being that inhabited Valucre, and even beyond -- but it was not for lack of love. Rather, her distress at the state of the world was due to an overabundance of love. And she loathed herself for putting the woman in any position that would cause distress. 

 

Golden eyes lifted the regard for Phoebe, and she saw the expression -- a troubling thoughtfulness that she mistook for deep sympathy and concern. Her brows pinched and she swallowed back a fist-sized lump in her throat. Gabriela lied badly, but Phoebe -- she was a masterpiece, and so the former queen became more and more entangled in her own feelings for the woman. 

 

It just wasn’t fair to do that to other people. It wasn’t fair or right, or just...to come into people’s lives and do this, whatever this was. As a vampyre, her appearance had been so carefully crafted through generations of breeding to be the most devastating predatory force to humans. She was beautiful, she appeared delicate -- childlike, with her big eyes, her small frame, her very aura. Everything about her was meant to disarm and attract. It was a blessing when it came to hunting humans, a trade in which she had never participated, and a curse in a land like this where she was far from top predator, and all of her strengths turned her into a target. But what did any of that mean now that she was just a human. A ridiculously lovely human, small and pathetically built to survive against basic elements, much less the malice of the world. She had lost her strength and her speed, and most importantly -- the authority her very presence once commanded. And every person whom she had crossed, every poor soul who saw her and saw a damsel in need of rescue -- they all ended up dead. 

 

So it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair now to appear weak, or out of sorts -- even if she was, and to turn her parasitic eyes on this particular creature. It wasn’t right, not when she didn’t know what happened, or why, or how. 

 

A door slammed shut but Gabriela did not move a muscle. It would seem, perhaps, an uncanny reaction -- to lack a reaction -- when, but a moment ago, she had been so worked up. She was too inwardly turned to have noticed. 

 

“...hey.”

 

Phoebe’s voice did what the slamming door failed to do. It brought her back. 

 

“You’re going to wear that pretty hard in an hour or so, you know- unless you’ve got a spare liver in there or something, which… I’m just going to assume you don’t, but…”

 

“Liver?” Gabriela tilted her head, like a bird. It took her half a second to realize what the woman was implying, yet another of those things she had never had to worry about in her previous life. But for the sake of not appearing completely dense, she cracked a weak smile and tried to salvage herself from deeper suspicions, “...oh, yeah.”

 

A sprinkle of color crossed her face when Phoebe’s hands settled, palm up, on the table between them, and her long fingers wiggled and the rings on those fingers glinted as they caught the light. Gabriela couldn’t be certain it was an invitation, but it sure felt like one and for some reason it caused her to warm and grow somewhat bashful. She wanted to extend her own hands and place them there, in the safety of those lovely pianist fingers and to be encased within those silver rings. But she couldn’t move.

 

“Look, I don’t know how shit your day has been, or your year, or your life…”

 

Gabriela sat and listened. She didn’t sink into her own mind, and refused to let the rising tides of anxiety pull her away. This moment was important. These words were valuable. She listened, and inclined closer. 

 

“...but am I going to sit around and mope over it.”

 

Somehow, someway, while Phoebe spoke of her woes and troubles with a gentleman, Gabriela had leaned so far forward that her elbow had come to rest on the table, and from there, somehow and someway, her small hand had landed in the green-eyed woman’s clasp. Now she felt the squeeze, and it was a thrill because Phoebe was so warm, and so soft, and the metal of her rings felt cool and hard in comparison, and Gabriela could not stop focusing on it, or on the words, or on the shape that the woman’s lips made as she spoke the words. 

 

She saw everything and felt everything.

 

“No. I’m going to reconcile my books, find equity, and balance, again.. All of which require that I act. You’ve got to act, Isabella, balance your scales - take back what’s yours. What do you want? If you could have anything, what would you have? It’s all possible, you know - every bit of it - so let’s figure it out.”

 

Has temptation ever been this soft? Had it ever come this gentle and this delicate? No -- it was always rough and demanding, it was insisted on complete surrender. Temptation, at the devil’s behest, was a hard and ugly thing. 

 

The smell of apples caused her eyes to flutter and close for a moment. Her mouth, which moments ago had been bone-dry, was suddenly overflowing with anticipation. And that’s when she realized that the Serpent in the garden had never been a male -- no, that surely was a mistake in translation, or perhaps a purposeful misinterpretation. But the truth of it was here before her now. She thought of devils and angels alike, and how they were without gender, but had always been presented as male -- at least him, the father of lies. But no, that was all wrong. Here was the true Serpent, and here was true temptation, and it came in the shape of a beautiful woman with green eyes. 

 

“You don’t want me to get what I want, believe me… No one does.”

 

And it was more than she had ever said on the matter, more than she had uttered to Roen, more than she had admitted to those who swore fidelity to her, more than she perhaps had ever admitted aloud. Moreover, the power that these spoken words had given her caused her to recoil from the touch, and to thus, pull her hands away and set them once more on her lap under the table. 

 

“I mean to say, I want to go home…” there, that wasn’t so much a lie as not a specification of the truth. Home, her true home, was the cool darkness of his realm. And she wanted that not just for herself, but for everyone. 

 

Peace. 

 

Quiet.

 

Rest. 

 

“I don’t think anyone would be happy if I went back home, besides it just being impossible…”

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"You don't want me to get what I want, believe me… No one does."

"Why?" 

Phoebe wondered aloud, soft and honest in her curiosity as a concerned frown glanced over her pretty face.  She looked over Gabriela's expression, traced her wide golden eyes as she broke contact, closing off, and searched for a hint of what had turned her so sharply from their shared warmth.  Turning her eyes downward, she looked down at her fingertips expectantly, as if they had suddenly turned deformed or ugly, and that wrongness was what had sent Gabriela fleeing from her touch.

"I mean to say, I want to go home…I don't think anyone would be happy if I went back home, besides it just being impossible…"

"I'm su--"  Looking back up, Phoebe sought to meet Gabriela's eyes- to re-offer the hand, to bring her back into the familiar bonds of sorority she wove so expertly, but was cut short as the kitchen door banged and Camryn shouldered her way through the port and into the cafe proper, two plates balanced along the length of her forearm and a bundle of silverware clasped in her hand. 

The purple haired fae-like woman entered unaware into the awkward, noiseless gap, with effusive cheer that drove Phoebe to lean back in her seat and separate from Gabriela to make room for the small, porcelain, flower-edged plates to be set between them.  On each hand-painted, off-white circle was a warm puffed pastry-- an apple tart, with cinnamon glaze drizzled across its top in a messy zig-zag that sent the sweet garnish dripping down its sides into delectable little pools that puddled at the edge of its flaky crust.

A friendly smile and easy words checked if they needed anything: Phoebe requested a pitcher of water (likely for the benefit of Gabriela's liver), returned Camryn's companionable banter, and unfurled her silverware from its napkin as the server sashayed her way back toward the counter.

"..what I meant to say is, why go home when all the adventure is here?"  Phoebe began again, as Camryn retreated, refinding her humor as she took up her fork, set it sideways in her palm, and used its edge to cut a bite-sized piece off the corner of the tart as she studied the curve of the other woman's lips.  A curl lifted the edge of her own, perking it up into a rakish grin that made promises she would keep if given the chance.  "You don't know what I want.  Maybe I'm open-minded enough to want what you want," she countered, ever the temptress, laughing softly as she speared the flaky square of apple and lifted it up, considering its golden, buttery crust.

"..or maybe I'm easily lead astray into new and interesting friendships with people who tease me with supposed impossibilities on days when I'm playing hooky," she teased to break the tension, hardly able to help herself as Gabriela's breeding ran true.  In front of her lips, the pasty hovered, tormenting, waiting to be devoured until Phoebe slipped the warm dessert between her lips, inhaling its scent as the sweet fruit melted on her tongue, then sunk back against her chair to savor its flavor.

It was true that Phoebe was a snake, emerald-scaled and shining, beautifully wanton, and with a capacity to charm that was as legendary as the original Serpent's, but it was equally true that tempting required someone to be tempted and that the faux-innocence which Gabriela's blood and story lent her crafted the perfect angel to Phoebe's devil- golden-eyed and lush, petite, seemingly easily lead along a wild and unbound path.

The truth of it was ensnaring-- one may as well have asked Phoebe not to breathe, or smile, or fuck, for as abnormal as it would have been for her to not want, but the things she wanted from Gabriela were not the domination and subservience of the boorish or the thuggish, but the finer boons in appeal and provocation - she wanted want - and would pave a road for Gabriela with it; she would build it just for her with those things she most desired, and then travel with her, make a day, a year, or a life of it.  For Phoebe, each hunt ended not in a solitary conqueror but a pair hand-in-hand; there were no fallen, no defeated to be dragged behind her, just success, satiety, and a little bit of sin. 

And sometimes danish.

Or apple tarts.

Edited by Noko

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