Friday, March 25, 2016

Book 5, 26: Embarrassing as Hell

Not the dress. But, you know what? Forget that and admire. Source.

Book 5, 26: Embarrassing as Hell

Amy dropped to the edge of the top stair on the second floor of the Yurt, her bare toes, pale manila with winter’s darkness, gripped the nap of the gray-background carpet with its black zebra-stripes.

“So?” May asked.

Standing behind May, who was wearing pants, and could therefore get away with crouching to peek, unsuccessfully, around the corner, Charlotte waited for Amy’s response. She couldn’t help taken a finger-grip’s full of bang for the millionth time, in case her hair had, you know, turned into snakes in the last millisecond. 

Without even looking at her cousin, May’s hand was somehow there, taking Charlotte’s, and lifting it away with a gentle squeeze. A little embarrassed at herself, Charlotte focussed on not letting her other hand start fondling her dress. 

“They’re embarrassing him, of course. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but you could see him squirm.” Somehow, knowing that Scout was nervous too, was. Actually, Charlotte had no idea how it made her feel. Her brain didn’t seem to be capable of doing anything more than cycling around nightmare scenarios of dinner and questions, questions, questions.

“Anything else?” May asked. It was a significant question.

“He brought his guitar.”

May pursed her lips. “Hmm. Could be good, could be very, very bad. But that’s now what I meant, and you know it.” 

Amy shook her head. “Stupid psi dampers.”

So, also, her cousin couldn’t read Scout’s mind. So there was an answer to a question.

The Yurt had dampers, of course. They just weren’t turned on, usually. That was dangerous. But David had them under surveillance tonight, meditating in the well decorated and incredibly neat apartment in Cincinnati that his sisters called “the Fortress of Solitude,” even though Doctor Wong finally had a boyfriend. 

It also had sound dampers, also not usually turned on. Otherwise, Charlotte wouldn’t have to be relying on her cousin’s psi-ninja powers to eavesdrop on the conversation down in the living room, where the senior Wongs were sitting and making “small talk” with Scout. Uncle Henry had told Charlotte that he wanted to find out what Scout’s “intentions towards his neice” were. But he’d said it with the widest, cheekiest Dad grin that Charlotte could ever have imagined.

And certainly not anything she’d ever seen from her actual Dad. 

Also, her cousin Jason was down there, acting like this was actually just a thing that was happening. Boys. Because it wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be happening.

“Breathe, Char Char. You have to remember to breathe. Bad things happen when you stop.” May said. 

“So what’s he wearing?” Charlotte, finally, asked.

Amy passed over her phone. The picture of Scout on the split screen was mainly his white hat, but Amy knew that, and had image searched it. The other side showed some guys in old-timey cavalry uniforms were dancing with women in beautiful Gold-Rush times ball gowns. Was that John Wayne? Having recognised the Duke, Charlotte noticed some other familiar Gunsmoke­re-reunion-type faces. “Like these guys,” Amy said. “Plus his mask. No gold braid, though.”

Charlotte sighed in relief. She’d just known that was how he was going to go. A frock coat, blue, wool, blue, white buttons, blue trousers, not creased. Real old-time stuff, but familiar from her summer on Landing. Her dress was perfect. For approximately the eleventy-millionth time, Charlotte regretted not being able to bring the mustard yellow frock she’d worn in the beauty pageant at Geithner’s Strike home with her. She hadn’t matched the look, gone for something a little fuller below the waist, Gold Rush-style. 

She’d spent an awfully long time imagining bringing Scout to something formal. Imagined that he’d be dressed exactly like he was, and that she would be the belle of the ball. A thought she was embarrassed to think again, admittedly. But at least she had the dress for it! And she had been able to pack the shoes from the pageant. (With their heels replaced, of course.)

Still. “You think my dress will work with his outfit?” She asked.

May took her by the shoulders. “It’s perfect, Char Char. Now breathe, please.”

Charlotte breathed, was pleasantly surprised that, after a moment in which she suspected that she was going to faint, it actually helped. 

May turned to her sister. “Wasn’t the Old West more about bandannas over the mouth?” May asked.

“He did that look first time I met him,” Charlotte admitted. “It’s not exactly practical on a date though.”

“Snot rag kisses?” Amy asked. “I don’t think so!”

“Why is it always making out, with you, Amy-My?” May asked. “Maybe they’ll go out to the library and read poetry to each other, instead.”

“Char-Char?” Amy said, arching her eyebrow and obviously reading Charlotte’s expression. “Yeah, no. Didn’t think so.”

“So if you’ve seen him in mask and bandanna, you’ve seen both halves of his face.”

Charlotte nodded. “Still don’t have a clue what he looks like, though. I figure that’s because I’ve never met him in his secret identity.”

“Then why would he wear the mask?” May asked.

“May!” Amy said, her voice scolding. “If Charlotte can’t figure out who Scout is, maybe it’s her unconscious or something. You just have to trust in true love.”

May put her fingers over her eyes. “This is my eyes rolling. I’m helping with my fingers in case you two dumb-dumbs don’t notice.” She paused. “No, I’m sorry, Char Char. I’m just being jealous because I’ve had bad luck with romance.”

Jason poked his head around the bottom of the stair. “You know we can hear you gossiping up there.”

Amy wrung her hands in front of her in the universal sign of I’m-going-to-strangle-you-the-moment-I-get-you-alone,-twin-of-mine. Meanwhile, May stood up. “Girls?”

But Charlotte was already following her cousin’s lead. Though she was mildly surprised not to faint when she reached full height. They were eating in the dining room tonight, actually using it for that, instead of an around-the-corner annex to the living room where you couldn’t see the big screen TV.

When she stepped below the wall, so that they could be seen from the living room, Scout stood up from the couch like he’d been hit by an electric shock. “Oh, gosh,” he said.

Dimples, a smile, and a flush of embarrassment tried to break out on Charlotte’s face at the same time. Part of her was amazed that this was just like TV. The other part was getting mad at the rest of her for blowing her cool. 

Scout came to the foot of the stairs. “You’re beautiful, Miss Wong.” He took her hands and looked into her face, for a long moment, and then stepped back to let her step down on the living room floor. 

“Ahem,” May said, in way of throat clearing.

“Miss May, Miss Amy, you’re as fetching as your cousin said you was,” Scout added.

“’Were,’ not ‘was,’” May said, a cheeky grin on her face.

“May!” Her mother stood up. “Dinner will be served momentarily.”

Auntie Ma was as good as her word. Dinner was American-style formal tonight, with a green salad and then a cucumber soup before the meal, with the beef stroganoff served over long, hand-made soba noodles. With the wedding coming up, Auntie Ma had compromised and mixed the sour cream from her own mares with milk she bought from an old Kazakh family in New Jersey. 

It was good. Not as good as being at the table with Scout, looking into his eyes, and feeling him, looking back. Though there was a temptation to talk. When she imagined this scenario, Charlotte pictured herself being as effortlessly witty as Elizabeth Bennett, but when she anticipated it (if there was a difference), she expected to babble. She was no Jane Austen character. Charlotte knew that. Heck, she wasn’t even an Archie character. 

So it was a relief that her Uncle took the lead, when dinner was well done, down to lichee fritters with tea for sweets after, the way it was done in the family restaurant. “I understand you were brought up as a cowboy in the ranch country east of Long Lake, Scout?”

Scout nodded. “You know that Landing got its start when that hombre, Teleios, took over a town somewhere in northern Canada and shipped all the people in it to the planet, so’s he could replace them with loyal clones?” He paused. “Well, that’s what we tell ourselves. Chances are, the people he sent were clones, too, and the actual people were disintegrated. Anyway, that was forty-two years ago. My parents were just kids, but they took to the wild like anything, going east with the frontier. Eventually, they settled in the ranch country. No doctors, and ma Mom died when I was little. Set my Pop off a little, and after that he rode the cattle drives to Landing, and I was brought up by the cookhouse staff, mostly.”

Charlotte felt a wild rush of empathy, and . . something more. Who would those people have been, out on the scarce-populated far frontier of that empty planet. Who? Given what she knew about Scout. Oh. “They were elves, weren’t they, Scout? You were raised by elves.”

Scout nodded his head, a little flush. “You’re a pretty sharp girl, Miss Wong. Yeah. They were. Are.”

“She should be. You know she hangs around with a junior detective all the time, right, Scout?” May said. “I think he’s rubbing off on her.”

Charlotte’s kinetic, tactical Eight Spirit Dragon senses detected the flurry of motion as Amy kicked her sister under the table. She ignored the sibling dynamics. There were more important things to think about right now. She put her hand out, let the track lighting play on her bracelet. “So you knew what this was for when you put it on me.”

Scout shook his head. “Ah knew it was Elven work of old. Its purposes are a mystery to me. Only, Ah heard its music in my head when I touched it first, and Ah knew it was for you.”

“Music is important to elves,” Charlotte said, and was amazed at the stupid words coming out of her mouth.

But Scout smiled, like someone remembering something so important and good that it made you sad that you were remembering it instead of being there. “Yeah, yeah, it is.”

“Would you care to play something for us, Scout?” Auntie Ma said.

“Well, Ah. . I mean . . .”

“You brought it, you play it,” May said, firmly.

“Now she can’t make fun of you,” Amy said. “So you’re clear.”

“Ah . . .”

“Please,” Charlotte said, and put all her little-girl pleading into it.

They got up from the table and went to the living room. (Well, except for Jason, who was meeting up with John Roy, Rafaella and Emily on Steam for some PvP.) Scout sat in the lone love seat by the window, and put his guitar in his lap, and fretted with it for a long moment, the way that musicians do. Charlotte sat at the piano, idly wondering if she could pick up his lead and accompany him. 

At last. “Little Joe the Wrangler, will wrangle never more/ His days with the remuda, they are through. . . It was a long song, and she had the melody by the time that he was done. When he followed it with “Red River Valley,” Charlotte was able to play along from the beginning. 

Though she wasn’t entirely sure why she did. He was good.

Finally, Scout plucked the last note of the plaintive song about the cowboy leaving his girl in one or another of the Red Rivers of the west. 

Auntie Ma sighed. “That was good, Scout.”

Scout didn’t seem to take the compliment well. Hunh.

“No, better than good,” she continued. “I’m reminded of Stevie Nix’s version. You’re pretty ambitious for a fifteen year-old musician.”

Charlotte could have picked her chin off the floor to hear her Auntie reference Stevie Nix. A glance around the room showed that her cousins were just as surprised. And now Scout flushed. “Thanks. Ah’m just trying to be my best. That’s all Ah do. Shootin’, and, for something constructive, music.”

He paused, and a fake guile came over him. “But Ah’m getting a little flushed. Ah think a walk after dinner would settle me up a spell. Miss Wong, would you be so kind as to show me this here neighbourhood of yours?” As he said it, he shrugged on his trade blanket jacket, and put the big, fur overcoat he’d worn to the Yurt over his arm.

“Have her back by 9,” Uncle Henry said. He did such an awful job of hiding his grin that Charlotte almost went over and puched him. Didn’t though. It would have ruined the mood. Instead, she looked up, nodded, and was out the back door and off the porch and almost in the back alley before she realised that she’d been so flustered that she’d walked out of the house without a jacket.

She had a moment to wonder why everyone had let her do that before, even without mentioning how cold she was, Scout put his big, fur jacket over her shoulder. “Buffalo girl, won’t you come out tonight,” he crooned. 

Charlotte laughed, because it was an actual buffalo robe jacket, and leaned into Scout. “Won’t you be cold?”

“Ah wasn’t lying when Ah said Ah was flushed. But Ah was lying when Ah suggested Ah didn’t know this neighbourhood.”

Charlotte looked at him quizzically. This night had been so magical up to now. And she had no idea why the word “magic” came to her head so forebodingly.

“What Ah mean is, there’s sign around here Ah’ve seen before. Come on.” At the end of the alley, on the opposite side from the tree where Charlotte had too often waited to be picked up by drivers that didn’t want to go up the alley or down the street in front of the Yurt, was a little patch of grass. Stranded, like those patches often were, between sidewalk and street. Scout crouched down and tugged on it. It folded back, revealing an unexpected hole. 

Well, holes and tunnels were expected. The one that linked the Yurt to the underground base couldn’t be more than a half block from here. What was unexpected was that, instead of giving off high tech, underground-base type light, the hole was lit from within by the wet sunlight of spring. 

Scout hopped down into it and disappeared. Charlotte followed.

It wasn’t a teleportation gate. The space inside the hole was a tunnel. Charlotte’s senses told her that, even though it was green and sunny and full of life –well, not actually made of sun and grass and life. It was still a tunnel in the ground. But it was a tunnel in the ground that was the next best thing to a meadow in spring. Somehow. A short tunnel, though, one that ended with a gray wall.

“Did you know that you lived next to an elf mound?” Scout asked. “Old and hidden, but an elf mound.”

“No,” Charlotte said, “I didn’t. Wait. Aren’t these stasis traps? Fail your save and be stuck down here for a hundred years?”

“Unless you’re the King of Elfland’s daughter, and you’ve been holdin’ out on me, Ah wouldn’t worry ‘bout that.”

Charlotte squinted at him. “And you’re not?”

Scout shook his head, sadly. “Sometimes Ah wish. You’re lucky, Miss Wong. When your Ma and Pop couldn’t keep on, yer aunt and uncle were there. Me? Ah can never be the King of Elfland’s son. Ah still have a Pop. Now come with me, a little further.” And he walked through the wall.

Oh. Again. Charlotte followed Scout, stepping, cautiously, through the wall, and the weird, gray space-that-wasn’t space beyond. Because this was familiar. This was like the Drindrish starship, the one that hovered in place in its cave above Geithner’s Strike for fifty thousand years until Charlotte, her friends, and her enemies, had come to mess it up. 

“And now I know how those stories about elf mounds got started,” Charlotte said. “They’re in hyperspace.” Though this wasn’t the hyperspace she remembered. Just like the tunnel beyond had been green and sunlight instead of cold and mechanical, so, inside, it was dark, burnished wood, and the warm, flickering light of lamps and candles in a room hung with characters on bamboo mats. Harmony, Charlotte recognised right away. And Tranquility, Serenity. All what she would have expected. Love was a little too female and warm for classic calligraphy, and . . Intrigue? Well, Scout was wearing a mask.

“You say hyperspace, the elves say the afterlife. This is where they keep themselves away, to live out the ages of the world.”

“Doesn’t seem so bad, for a Hell,” Charlotte said.

“You should see it when they’re throwin’ parties.”

On the mat in the centre sat a tea service. A kettle boiled away merrily over a lamp set beside it. 

“Hunh,” Scout said. “Seems it’s been decorated for you.”

Charlotte was already settling herself in a full lotus in front of the service. A porcelain jar of tea leaves was to her left. She lifted a few in the stirring tong, crushing them as she did so. The scent, although obviously tea, was like nothing she’d ever smelled before. She put a good measure into both cups, and poured a hot water wash over them. As she carefully poured it off into the empty pot beside, a wonderful smell of grass and flowers filled the room. 

Scout sat down opposite her, managing a full lotus surprisingly easily. “Is this, like, a tea ceremony?”

“Do I look like Japanese?”

“Why are you blushin’, then?”

“Well, there is a Chinese tea ceremony, but. . .” Charlotte was not going to go there, give in to the crazy impulse to imitate the wedding offering. It was true what people said about teenage girls in their crushes, Scout would think, as he found some excuse to back out.

“Oh.” He said. “Ah get it. Ah think Ah’ll just enjoy some tea. Right?”

On the third infusion, the leaves were fully uncurled, and Charlotte handed Scout his cup without a word.

He sipped. His eyes went wide. Another white boy who’d never tasted real tea, properly done, she thought. Not that people on Landing had ever tasted much of anything done properly. Just the thought of that brought the memory of Landing coffee back.

“What?” He said.

“Better than Landing coffee?” She asked.

“Seriously? Have you tried it?”

Charlotte sipped. And realised that Scout’s reaction had nothing to do with a first experience of good tea. Her head spun. Her Eight Spirit Dragon senses expanded. She could have sworn she could hear the blood in Scout’s veins as it susurrated down the passages, and whatever magic his neck clasp held glowed with light-of-power. Babylonian, though, and not Elven. Hmm. A mystery for another day.

“I’m. . . “ She paused. “Is this drugged?”

“Ah don’t think so,” Scout said. “It’s just Elven tea. Be glad it’s not Elven wine, or you’d really be flyin’.” 

“Ah’m not entirely responsible for mah self right now, you know, Miss Wong.” He leaned over, kissed her. Quickly, because it was hard to have a long and passionate clench across a mat when you were sitting in the full lotus position. 

Charlotte rolled over on her side, kicked her feet out, ended with her head in Scout’s lap, looking up, way up, at his face. “You have to be responsible enough to have me home in half an hour.”

“Works for me,” Scout said, his head coming down to kiss her again.

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