Rum And Empathy

From the Story Arc: One Bottle of Stoli

Previous Story in the Arc: In Vodka Veritas by Seraphic Flame (Wednesday, December 27, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Bloom Where You're Planted by Social Medicine (Saturday, December 30, 2006)

(posted Thursday, December 28, 2006)

While talking with Sera at last had gotten a little clarity hadn't really made a dent in the grief. And...Sera was happy. Bella didn't want to cast a gloom over that happiness. Nor, really, did she want to be around happy people. That hurt too much, too.

She sat slumped over her too-clean desk and rubbed both temples with the heels of her hands. How did you get through this? When the light at the end of the tunnel only looked like the oncoming headlight of a train? How did you deal with the recurring certainty that if only you had been there...

She called up the "on duty" rosters across RPC. Maybe there was someone free. Of all those people who'd offered an ear, maybe there was someone...

Miranda. "On duty" and "idle."

She keyed the comm, pinging Moriyaku. "Mori? Got an hour or so?" She hoped she didn't sound as desperate as she felt.

The reply came back without hesitation, as easygoing as if Bella had just called to ask the time. "An hour or six, sure," the familiar voice answered. "Where should I meet you?" There was a quick pause, Mori most likely checking coordinates on her own comm. "You're in the Row?"

"HQ." She sighed. "I have a...proposition. YC Coffeehouse, it's dead quiet this time of day. You, me, a bottle of Stoli."

There was a quick cough. "Stoli? That's vodka, right... of course it is," Mori corrected herself aloud. "Um, anything but? I'm still recovering from an Aegis party gone wrong with that stuff. But," she added, the comm clicking a few times, "replace the Stoli with a good rum, and we're golden."

"Rum...ok." Vodka she came with hanging around the Russians. "Bacardi Gold?" she hazarded, trying to remember her misspent youth in Vegas. There was a bottle shop around the corner, and plenty of Puerto Ricans in the Row.

"Sounds perfect," Mori answered, the soft smile evident in her tone. "I'll meet you in ten."

The YC Coffeehouse was an extension of the soup kitchen, a place where Row folks could come sit, read, kids could do homework, people could gossip, without feeling the pressure of getting out after they ate. It was also a little more "upscale"--the down-and-outs really didn't come in here. It was kind of a cross between a library and a hangout. But in the early afternoon, it was deader than last year's leaves. Bella picked a quiet, comfortable nook at the back, as far away from the coffee and tea machines as possible, just in case someone did come in. The bottle and a bucket of ice and two glasses sat on the table in front of her. And one glass was already filled with ice and half empty when the door opened and Mori came in.

She breezed through the door, unwinding the scarf from around her neck and shrugging off her jacket. Without a word, she slid into the seat across from Bella and kicked both feet up on the vinyl. Miranda tilted her head to the side and offered a small smile, resting her elbow on the table.

"Y'know, if it'd make you feel better," she began, noting Bella's expression. "I can make the both of us fade into the woodwork, along with the stuff on the table. You don't seem like you want much more company than one."

"Please," Bella said. "It's bad enough, inflicting myself on you."

"You're not 'inflicting' yourself," Mori chided gently. There was a barely perceptible wave of her forefinger and thumb, a habit she could never shake no matter how many times she tried, and to the rest of the patrons who might happen upon the YC Coffeehouse, both women and their choice of drink disappeared. The slight hum around them provided the necessary reassurance, as each could still see the other.

"Now then," the young woman continued. "The hour or so I understand... but the bottle?"

"Here's the deal," Bella said. "I ask questions. You answer, for as long as the bottle lasts. What I'm going to probably going to need anesthetic, for you, for me, or both of us. When the bottle's empty, or you figure we're as done as we're going to get, you get to ask one thing of me. Favor or question you've never dared ask me." She held the cold glass to her forehead. "I'm....floundering. Trying to find hope somewhere, I guess..." Her voice trailed off. "...and I'm not seeing any right now."

Miranda opened her mouth as if to say something in reply, but closed it just as quickly. She reached for the rum and poured small yet equal amounts in the glasses, adding ice to Bella's but none to her own. "So, questions then," she said, lifting her glass and clinking it softly against the one held in a blue hand. "And rum. And perhaps we'll find something more by the end of this." Miranda swirled the liquid in her glass, all the while watching Bella.

"When did Miranda become Moriyaku?" Bella asked. "And how? And why?"

Half of the contents of the glass in Miranda's hand disappeared in the first swallow. "Don't know if there was a certain day," she finally said, her head resting against the wall. "I mean, there's the date registered on my Freedom Corps card, but..." She tapped her short fingernails against the glass, counting months and years in her head. "February 2000, I think. I know it was before Easter the year after the diner." Half of the half that remained in the glass disappeared in a moment of silence, and then Miranda turned enough to look Bella eye to eye.

"My parents died on Christmas Eve, 1999. About a month afterwards, I heard voices. Not anything terrible or malicious, just... voices. Shopping lists. Worries. Concerns about jobs. All the little things that people smooth over when you ask them how they're doing and they just sort of shrug it off with an 'it's all right' and a nod." Another swallow. "Theo found me hiding in the closet one morning with my hands over my ears... like that would make it go away," she laughed ruefully. As anyone with a shred of telepathic prowess or empathy could attest, covering one's ears never made a difference. "He took me to the hospital, and the resident on duty referred me to M.A.G.I. when all the other tests cleared out. So, you could say that Miranda became Moriyaku because the voices in her head told her to." The smile at the corner of her mouth was bittersweet, fading for a moment as the last of her first drink disappeared. "At that point, I didn't have anything else worth doing, so I took what I had and followed the example that'd been set for me. You do what you can with what you're given, that's all."

Bella refilled Mori's glass, took a long swallow of her own, and topped hers off. "The diner..." Yeah, this would need anesthetic. "Exactly what happened?" She didn't know, really, only that the diner Mori's folks owned had gone up, and both of them had been killed.

Miranda set the glass on the table and took a deep breath. In a way, she'd been lucky. The news coverage had spared her the need to explain anything for the first two years. All she'd had to say was the Christmas Eve fire and the Garrens' diner and the Skulls, and anyone on the east side of the Row knew every single detail. She'd only ever given the full explanation to one person before, and she'd been fortunate that Jason had let her show him rather than have her talk it out.

She let out the long breath and nodded once. "My mom was, for lack of a better word, probably gifted. Precog, something... she did tarot readings on slow days. Tried to teach me, but I didn't have it," she said with a shrug. "Did one for a group of guys who had ties to the Skulls, and they didn't like what she told them, especially when it came true. And in the Row, everything's got a consequence."

"We were getting ready to close up," she began, reaching for her glass but not drinking. For this, it was more security than painkiller. "I took the trash out the back, and the front of the diner just sorta..." Her fingertips went white on the glass. "Exploded. Gunshots and cheap liquor bombs. They said that Papi died pretty much instantly, since he was in the front. But mom..."

This was going to need more than anesthetic. Bella responded without a thought, extending an aura of comfort and support. She couldn't feel it herself...but at least she wasn't so lost that she couldn't supply it.

Miranda brightened at the touch, lifting her head and using her thumb to wipe at the tears. "S'okay, Bella. Really, it is." She smiled, letting the few tears out before finishing the story. "Mom, she died from the smoke. A few of the cops who'd finished their shifts that night died as well. I'd have run back in after 'em, but some ganger with a guilty conscience kept me at the back door. Wouldn't let me run back in." She finally shook her head and pressed her lips together. "To tell you the truth, though, I only remember taking out the trash and hearing the first couple of shots. Then there's a big blur until after the funeral, so I could be missing stuff."

She envied Mori that blur. Everything...was burned into her memory with crystalline clarity. The moment when Zach broke Weaponized's arm..."...I'm takin' you with me!"...the horror on Zach's face...the flash.

And she did it again. The glass shattered in her hand. "Shit, shit, shit!" she swore, grabbing for napkins and mopping up booze and blood. Good thing she was wearing black. "Did I hit you?"

Miranda shook her head as she picked up pieces of glass from the table. "Hardly. And even if you did, it's easy to fix. What about you? Do we need to find a pair of tweezers and some peroxide?"

", it's ok, spandex doesn't do a lot about shrapnel..." She put some push into her healing aura, dealing with the cuts from the inside out, pushing the glass bits out as she healed herself. The fragments fell off her hand into the napkin. "I'm going to have to stop using glassware is all." She searched the coffee counter and came up with a Styrofoam cup, depositing the mess from the cleanup into the trash and returning to Miranda.

"..dunno how I'm doing that," she muttered. Why, she knew. Snapped pencils, bent spoons, shattered glassware...a trail of minor destruction followed those too-clear moments of memory. "I keep thinking, I should have been there...if I'd grabbed Petro as soon as the news started, gotten him to reconfigure one of the 'porters..."

"It's not your fault, Bella." Miranda's soft words cut through the litany that Bella had been repeating to herself since that one fateful day in December. "And as much as I wanted to think that what happened to my parents could have been my fault for not running back in or yelling louder when I saw Rafe at the back door, I know that it's not. And that there," she offered, bowing her head once, "is the absolute most difficult thing to get past. The low that everyone's told you about? That's what it is. That's the bottom."

Bella looked into her eyes, pleading. "How can you get past that? Especially when you know damn well that if you had been there...even if you couldn't have done anything, at least you'd have been together?"

Miranda looked to her glass, knocking back half of it and setting it down between them. "Because for all the times I sat in the apartment by myself, or in the church by myself, or in the cemetery by myself, saying that I should have been inside with them, I can hear my Papi telling me that he's happier that I wasn't." She tapped her short nails against the table again and nodded firmly. "First time I went over to talk with Blue Steel, Theo watched me from the steps of the plaza. And he told me they'd have been proud of me doing all of this."

The glass remained where it was, half-full to one and half-empty to the other. "Blind faith's not something that you cultivate lightly. I've had to deal with millenia-old deities on varying levels, so maybe I have an edge there. But still, I hold on to that belief. To someone else, it might be silly, but it keeps me going. Here-" She brought two fingers to rest over the left side of her breastbone. "That's where I know it."

Bella sighed, and throttled back the tears again. Blind faith...didn't have a lot to do with it, not for her. But there was wisdom there. And yet another reminder, of duty, of responsibility. Things she hadn't done yet. Things she needed to do because Zach wasn't here to do them anymore. It would have to be enough to hold her, shattered glasses, broken dreams and all.

"I guess it's time for you to ask that question or favor," she said, quietly. "What'll it be, Mori?"

The auburn-haired woman leaned back, her eyes searching Bella's face as she rolled the possible questions around in her head. Finally, after nearly a minute, she leaned forward on her elbow and smiled gently at the good doctor. "Before he left, did he know how much you loved him? Really and truly?"

She closed her eyes, and tears leaked out from under her lids. "Every moment of every day," she said, hoarsely. "I never missed a chance to tell him or show him. Even when he made me mad as hell."

Mori moved from her seat to sit next to Bella, her arms wrapping around the Commissar's shoulders as she hugged her tightly. "Then you did everything that you could," she replied softly, her own tears wetting her cheeks. "And I'm so very glad that you did."

Bella gave in, curled into Mori's shoulder, and sobbed for all the times she would never get to say it again. "So…am I."