A Sunny Afternoon, with tea for Two.
The breeze rustles rose bushes topped with bright pink blooms; petals curling as their heavy heads sway on angled, thorny stalks. Birds flit between them, setting entire rows bowing in motion with a sinusoidal wave.
Sat at one of two iron-wrought chairs painted brilliant, glacial white, interspersed by a spiral-framed table topped by silver serving plates and delectables, the lithe form of SCW’s World Bombshells’ Champion extends out a prosthetic hand and lifts a scalding, bare-metal teapot into the air.
That same breeze rustles the fabric of her bright yellow sundress, making it billow and twist. She purses her lips, visible via the cutout of the red-dipped mask strapped to her face. The ceramic composite skirts a wide detour around the top of her mouth and chin, leaving pale skin exposed.
“Good Afternoon, Doctor Baal.”
Gabriel approached with due care and attention - he dare not rush and seem too keen, nor did he wish to linger and appear unsure. The speed with which he approached was of utmost importance. This was, after all, a game of chess, without a board.
“Good afternoon, Doctor DeLune.” He said with a nod and a smile as he reached the table. “Thank you so much for having me.”
Bright blue eyes tip up to regard her guest, teapot still held aloft. Thick ribbons of steam, from heated plastic fashioned into facsimiles of fingers, waft up into the warm air.
She returned his smile, gesturing with her only flesh-and-blood hand, palm upward towards the chair opposite. “Thank you for finding time to accept. We are all so busy, nowadays. It is important not to spend all of it such that you forget that life exists to live. Would you not agree?”
“Quite.” said Gabriel as he unfastened the jacket of his dark grey suit. He pulled back the chair and sat down, his eyes watching the tendrils of vapor wasting into the air. He adjusted his position, before continuing. “Especially since I'm about to become a father for the first time. I do that a lot, these days. It’s like my goal is to tell people that particular fact as appually as humanly possible. ‘Hello, my name is Gabriel Baal and I'm about to become a father’. As a psychiatrist, I could read an awful lot into that. But one tends not to dwell on the mysteries of one's own psyche. Especially with so much life to live.”
He smiled on the final words, a hint of mimicry. He glanced at the setting on the table, taking in the effort and attention to detail, before lifting his eyes to look upon his host.
“The complexities of the mind were too much for me,” Masque says after a while, letting the spout of the teapot dip to begin to fill the cup in front of Gabriel. “I found the simplicity of the body much more understandable. The heart, specifically …”
She set the pot down and pushed a small decanter forward. “ … Cardiology, specifically. Milk?”
“No, thank you.” Gabriel said with a smile.
Her gaze wanders down towards the rose bushes lining either side. “I shall miss these,” Masque adds, gently cupping a nearby flowerhead with a hard, plastic hand. “This is a peaceful place. Does this say something for my desire to be secluded? By being contemplative, is this evidence of my longing for solitude and a lasting peace?”
She stirs the cup in front of her. “In your professional opinion, of course.”
“Perhaps.” Said Gabriel, musing. “Or perhaps what you yearn for is a self-imposed exile. Subconsciously you may be wishing to, as those with religious faith would put it, pay for your sins. The truth is likely something altogether different. That's the nature of my profession - so often patients look to me to set them on a particular path. The right path. They aren't looking to be fixed, so much as they're looking for someone to fix their life and tell them which road to follow. That way, should that path be wrong, they have someone else to blame but themselves. They wish for me to absolve them of whatever guilt they have for the choices they've made.”
Gabriel lifted the tea to his lips and took a sip.
“Wonderful.” he said quietly, before placing it back upon its saucer. “I suspect you're an exception that proves the rule. I don't imagine you wish for me to absolve you of anything - and if I were to play my part, I would be surprised if it was guilt that you were looking to assuage.”
“Guilt is a reflex made from one’s ingrained moral system,” She replied. “Or, perhaps, Society’s. Your reputation is well-deserved, because you are correct. I have no guilt to cool or damp down; that would imply that I am anywhere other than where I should be. None of the choices I have made could have been made any other way. There is no road to walk down, with junctions offering hypotheticals and could-have-beens. The path is not laid out for us, but the journey is always the same. The destination is fixed.”
She lifts her own cup up, and sips. “This will all end in tragedy, of course. But the certainty is comforting.”
The breeze grows in strength, whipping at the folds of her sundress such that the apex of a line of scar tissue reveals itself. It runs from just below the nape of her neck to disappear in a line so true, it bisects her upper body neatly into symmetrical halves.
“The physical reality was disproved centuries ago, but tell me, Doctor Baal – why do you think we put so much stock into the heart and its role in our emotional wellbeing?”
“Life.” Said Gabriel simply, taking another sip from his tea. “The concept of the soul is one that many find comforting, whether it be spiritually or religiously. The idea of who we are manifesting itself in the tangible rather than the unanswered question. Science has taught us the why of who we are, but not the what. The brain, the logic centre. The heart for emotion. I believe humanity separated the two because the idea that the computer which powers our logical thought could also produce emotion is too limiting for most.”
Gabriel pondered the question further as he looked out across the magnificent vista. It reminded him of his own rose bushes back in Scarsdale. It reminded him of the solitude of their home in the Maldives.
“Physiologically, our bodies have fooled us too. When we feel joy, happiness, love - those feelings aren’t in our mind. They’re from our core. We feel warm, a quickened pulse, something akin to a glow. But the truth of the matter is that those feelings are merely representations of the change in the functions of our bodies. Joy, happiness, love - they raise our temperature. They increase the rate of our heart. We feel that flush, and those flutterings and mistake them for something more than functions. We ignore the fact that those same sensations come from danger as well. Adrenaline has a lot to answer for. Every single physical reaction to emotion is felt in the centre of our bodies. Nearest the heart. It is nature’s greatest trick.” Said Gabriel as he cast a look at the scar recently revealed. “It's the greatest lie.”
He paused for a moment, taking another drink from his cup. He allowed himself a slight smirk.
Lips pursed as he talks, Masque finds herself nodding. “Emotions are simply chemical reactions occurring at the cellular level. It is our consciousness, our sentience – and the subjective reasoning therein we apply in our analysis of those chemical reactions – that lend them meaning. Even the most wonderful, the most intense of those feelings are the interaction of various neuropeptides and enzymes. Nothing more.”
She shifts in her seat, crossing one long leg over the other. “It is fascinating that we ourselves are moved to make decisions, take actions, on the prompting of or in reaction to these make-believe, so-called feelings; giving them justification to exist instead of simply existing without explanation. A positive feedback loop of cognitive reinforcement …”
“But I defer to your field of expertise,” She adds with another smile.
“Is this why you invited me, Doctor?” He asked carefully. “To muse about the complexities of the human condition? Or is there some… Other reason for this pleasant meeting?”
The tall woman offers a slight shrug. “I enjoy our musings – so few nowadays seem to be interested in talking about why, instead of when or how. In terms of our meeting? It was necessary to allow me to amend my mathematical proof.”
The plastic fingers of her prosthetic uncurled as she took another sip, lingering over the cup to let the soft curl of steam billow up against the exposed skin of her chin.
“I have spent so very long cultivating an equation to define a hurricane. Its strength, direction … All coefficients and values painstakingly categorised and understood to understand and ultimately control, to some extent, its behaviour. Its moods. Better to be able to control such a phenomenon or more usefully, dispel it.”
She cocks her head to the side. “Now, I am drinking tea with a new variable I had not encountered before. One which upsets that equation. I cannot modify my theorem until I understand how this new input will affect the overall system. I must understand why you are involved here, now, Doctor, before I can evaluate how much of an interference this presents to my objective. Like understanding a potential new vector for a virus, so that my treatment plan might be made more effective in the wake of its evolution.”
“Ahhhhh of course.” Said Gabriel with the merest hint of a chuckle. “The unknown entity. You wonder, I assume, how my unexpected and - I suspect in your opinion - unwarranted appearance in this particular equation come to pass?
Gabriel didn't wait for the answer to come.
“It is interesting, I'll admit. Those who know me best would tell you that I am never without purpose. Measured in all things, no matter how much anarchy there appears to be. Rogan would likely suggest that my goal is knowledge. Ichabod would muse that I am in search of power. Eden, well, she would no doubt assume I'm missing the opportunity to play puppet master.”
“And which is it?” She asks.
“All of them. None of them. I'm not entirely sure myself. All that is certain is that nothing is certain. The “what” here is chaos - and I have no way of knowing in which direction that particular wind will blow.” Gabriel said calmly placing one hand atop the other on his lap. “And the why? Well… That is every bit as complicated as those emotions we spoke of earlier.”
Masque glances up towards the wisp of cloud drifting across a blanket-blue sky. “How wonderfully vague. Unexpected? Yes. Unlike so many others around me, I am neither clairvoyant or prescient and I cannot predict the future, despite the obvious utility of such an ability. Unwarranted?”
“I am very used to interference,” She continued. “You would be surprised to know how many faces I have never seen interject in my affairs; to perturb my aims or, very occasionally, co-opt them.”
Absent-mindedly, Masque scratches underneath the soft rubber ring which sits between the base of her prosthetic hand and the truncated stump it bolts to. “I was visited by a Songbird, once, who tried to make me an extension of his will, because he thought all of this was a game.”
Another smile. “He found out, too late, that this is not a game. This is very, very real. I suspect you would not be quite so brazen …”
Gabriel’s lip curled.
“I’ve been called bold, but rarely brazen.” He said as he lifted his tea and drained the remainder from the cup. “The truth of the matter is that I have noticed you, much like I have noticed your hurricane. Both of you intrigue me, and intrigue is so often key to my relationships. I was intrigued by Ichabod and he became as close as a brother, but also a fierce adversary. I was intrigued by Rogan MacLean and he remains one of my most trusted friends, but was once a man with whom I shared abject disdain. I was intrigued by Eden Morgan. She and I once planned to destroy one another - now she is my wife and carries my child.”
Gabriel sat back after placing the cup back into its saucer.
“Eden has always mused that I like to keep those that can cause me most damage the closest. The question I am yet to answer, Doctor DeLune, is as to whether I should keep you or the Hurricane nearest to me.” He added as he picked a thread of cotton from the leg of his trousers. “But I look forward to finding out.”
She pushed the chair back, metal legs scraping against terracotta-shaded tiles as she stood. Stooping over at the waist, she tipped a cluster of roses up to meet her dipping chin and took a deep, sweet lungful of air – letting it run free to join the light breeze swirling around.
“I wonder, Doctor Baal, if you are not a catalyst? It sounds like you describe one with your previous interactions. A substance that accelerates a reaction which would otherwise progress much too slowly to be useful, but somehow avoids being used up in the process. Something untaintable, or at least … Not by its surrounding reactants.”
“Perhaps.” He said quietly, musing upon her analysis. “Though, I would suggest that given my immediate proximity to those whose lives I touch, I am incapable of remaining untouched. Eden is my wife. Ichabod something of a mentor. Rogan, my closest friend. I would argue that I am… Inescapably linked to those I often seek to destroy.”
“Often it is my best intentions that are the most damaging.” he added, looking away from her.
She cocks her head to the side, towards Gabriel and closes the distance until she circles back behind. Carefully, she plucks a single flower petal otherwise stuck to the fine fabric of his jacket via static with her all-too-human hand. She lets it flutter down to the tabletop.
“Unfortunately, I do not have much dexterity in my prosthetic,” She begins as the plastic fingers jerk open, almost spurred by the inference. “It seems to be capable of applying only the strongest, most crushing pressure. So I must temper it, leave myself at a disadvantage if finesse is required …”
Looking up at the sky, Masque comes back around to tableside. “If longevity factors into your choice as to who to keep close, I would suggest your decision lies with a hurricane.”
“I will not be here for very much longer,” She adds, blue eyes finding Gabriel’s gaze. He lingers, surveying her carefully. He leans forward, elbows on the edge of the table and fingers clasped. Inelegant it may have been, it served it’s purpose to bring them closer.
“Sometimes those that burn the brightest, burn out the fastest.” He said quietly. “I enjoy the abject destruction that this can bring with it. Your star is burning bright, Doctor DeLune. But then again… The most devastating Hurricanes can’t sustain their power forever. So the question is less about which will last the longest, and more about which greater power will keep my attention until their final moment.”
Gabriel tilted his head this time, his eyes focused on hers intently.
“I’ve heard rumors and stories, but I wish to know the truth from you… what is it about her?” He asked. “What is it you see?”
Perching on the edge of the table, she lets her bare feet swing freely. “So many things,” Masque begins, a smile again gracing her lips. “An opportunity for vengeance, against those who visited such cruelties on me. Such a powerful drug that we are all almost helpless to resist. Along the way, a chance to create something so incredibly powerful that none might stand in its wake – to unleash a living weapon free from the tiresome burden of morality, and ethical considerations. To strip away all the softness, eliminate those that would poison her with their warmth …”
The smile fades, something difficult to quantify ghosting across her visible features. “Love, I think.”
“I think I loved her, Doctor Baal,” She says with a nod, watching the swaying, bright-topped bushes. “I am not sure what love is, exactly – but I think I did.”
Masque looks over in his direction. “I think I am still in love with her. But then, so many are. The only difference between them, and me, is I have not lost focus. I have not folded to become just another sycophant or trusted lieutenant …”
Her blue eyes roll closed. “I have almost taken everything from her. Her title – the heart of a hurricane – and her health. I have taken years from her remaining career and have gifted her choice scars that will never heal. Almost everything. But not quite. She still holds on to her humanity. Her moral compass spins errantly, confused, but it is still attached. Still intact.”
“I believe Miss Ryan will end me,” She says with a nod. “But it will take everything she has and more. It will be a cost she can never repay. For all her champions and supporters, and there are so many for such a lone figure and independent power, it will be only myself. And her.”
“We are destined to do this forever … But perhaps forever is not such a long time.”
Gabriel mused for a moment. Chewing on his next words carefully - so often he was a man of prose and poise. Spending time to deliver monologues and fiendish word play. Today was no different. And yet…Now was the time to be succinct.
“Is your desire that Amber come for you?” He asked quietly. “For your story to end, however it is supposed to end?”
“Amber pursues me because she cannot accept having been made second-best,” Masque offered with another smile. “She has lost before; that is a matter of record. But she has never been defeated – comprehensively dismantled and left in pieces on a cold concrete floor … Until she crossed me. She has never known real loss, truthful, powerful, gut-churning emptiness, until she was bed-bound in a downtown Las Vegas hospital and sang into a medically-induced coma, by the soft electronic lullaby of the equipment clustered on trollies around her.”
She looks away, back up towards those blue skies and patchwork cloud. “Even now, she shouts my name in endless, thirsty calls for acknowledgement and opposition. Amber has returned knowing the only path to her salvation, up to and including her destruction, lies in overcoming everything I symbolise. But in her rush to make it to our anointed place of battle, my Resplendent Hurricane has not paused to ask the most important question of all …”
“What if I have outgrown her? What if I am no longer content to stand as an auxiliary? What if I do not want to be her resurrection? What if it is me who no longer needs her? My story will end all too soon … But perhaps I do not think she deserves to be the one to do it.”
“Abigayle,” She adds, almost as an afterthought. “My name is Abigayle.”
“Abigayle.” Gabriel parroted with a satisfied smile. “Well, Abigayle. I suspect I have power to guide whether or not Amber is able to return. I have no plans to forestall her reappearance. In fact, if asked, I will aid her in making her return.”
Gabriel watched Abigayle for a reaction, but none came. She was the picture of tranquil contemplation.
“I wish to see first hand just how destructive the two of you can be. Bear witness to the cataclysm. The unbridled and unyielding chaos that surrounds the both of you.” Said Gabriel calmly.
She doesn’t look away from looking up above. “Are you conducting an experiment, Doctor? A cold, calculating assessment of the damage caused by two hypergolic reactants that need no external stimuli to ignite when they come together? Will you dispassionately note the results and record them for mere scientific curiosity?”
“ … Or will you enjoy the spectacle?” Masque adds, reaching over for a cooling cup and bringing it up to her lips. “Is this less analytical, and more artful? A show to be enjoyed rather than a sterile evaluation?”
Taking a sip, she purses her lips. “There are so many people with so many games afoot. Sometimes I forget which ones I am taking part in – willingly or not so.”
Masque sets the cup down on the tabletop. “Perhaps the true difference between myself and Miss Ryan is for all her bitterness and cynicism, she still believes she is the architect of her own downfall; free to make and continue to make those bad decisions which have come to be her hallmark. I, on the other hand, understand that we are all marionettes, with the only question being how long the strings which make us dance extend upwards.”
“The question remains… Who holds the control bar?” Gabriel mused with a smile. “This has been both delightful and illuminating, Abigayle.”
He watched a prosthetic hand extend out and met it with one of his own, turning it over to look more closely at the composite phalange underneath his overlaid thumb. “Thank you for your time, Doctor DeLune.”
She smiled again and nodded as he stood. “It has been so wonderful to meet you, Doctor Baal.”
And at that moment, both of them absolutely and utterly spoke the purest truth.