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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 20

Lich-Free Ski School and House of Ruth

Flicker missed the Kjallensword. Tor's shortsword had some impressive special effects in combat, but Flicker preferred to do any necessary intimidation before things came to blows, and a Viking warrior drawing four feet of steel had a certain sobering effect it was hard to duplicate with a blade the length of your forearm. He drew it anyway. "This is my house," he said quietly, stepping between the fighters and the boy, "and you ill-use my guests over my dead body."

"I think we can oblige you there," said the one in chain mail, unslinging his halberd.

"No!" screamed Jason, burying his hands in his hair. "Leave him alone, he hasn't done anything! Alec!"

"This doesn't have to be a fight," said the ambassador coldly, his hand on the pommel of his sword. "Tell your new boyfriend to get the hell out of here, Josie, and I won't stop him. But you're leaving here with me, and if I have to leave him cooling to do it it's no more than I did for Jeannie or Cedric."

"Jeannie?" Jason looked poleaxed. "You killed Jeannie too? She... she never hurt anyone!"

"She was a witch," dismissed Alec, "and she helped you run off on me with the armsman. Maybe it's all just a game to you, Josie, but it's dead serious to me. You're coming home."

"He's not going anywhere he doesn't want to," said Flicker, not budging.

"He's not going anywhere he doesn't want to," Alec mimicked. "You don't know the first thing about your new �friend,' do you, faggot?"

Flicker was starting to get really annoyed with these people. It was bad enough that they had broken into his new house and were threatening his guest, but it was really irritating for a man who was patently Jason's ex-lover to keep calling him a homosexual. "I know he was invited here," he said, "and you were not. That's enough for me."

"He's not a he, you fucking fairy!" Alec shouted, getting in Flicker's face. "Her name is Jocelyn Lindor. I don't know what you fucked up witch faggots did to her brain, but she's my fianc�e, and I'm bringing her home and putting her back the way Tal made her!"

Flicker didn't twitch, but he did glance back at Jason. "Why would I ever want to be a girl again," Jason spat, "after what you did to me?"

"I didn't do anything to you!" There was genuine agitation under Alec's bullying facade. "You were there, I was there, there was wine, things went a little further than we'd intended, okay... but I stayed, didn't I? I was going to marry you."

"You raped me!"

"I did not!" Alec advanced on the teenager furiously; Flicker blocked his way impassively, and he drew his own sword. "This is your last chance, you elf fag," he displaced his rage at Flicker, fairly snarling. "Get out of my way. I lost everything because of this girl. I wasn't exactly planning on an extramarital tryst either, but it happened, and I did the honorable thing. No one else would have married a girl who wasn't a virgin. So I agreed to. And what did she do? Stole the dowry, ran off with a man beneath her station, and used witch magic to turn herself into a boy to be a catamite for him! I'm the laughingstock of the court of Lodwar! The ambassador to a witch's coven, do you think this was my career of choice? I'm the eldest son of the most powerful baron in Sturtevant, and she broke our engagement to run off with a sodomite?"

Flicker paused and looked at Jason, who backed away from his glance in abject terror. He'd been kind of wondering where a boy would have gotten the dowry from, actually. "Nonetheless," said Flicker, "she has found sanctuary in this city, and is a guest in my house. Leave the way you came."

"You talk big for a prickear outnumbered three to one," sneered the man with the mace.

The dramatic thing, of course, would have been for Praxis, Inez, and Luthien to blip in at precisely that second.

Unfortunately, teleports didn't work anymore.

Flicker was the prosaic sort, though, and he didn't mind holding them off the old-fashioned way.

Jason backed down the hall, gasping and casting about desperately for a weapon, as Flicker squared off in its mouth. With the walls at either side of him, only two of them could reach him at a time. The mace guy, frustrated at being blocked out of the combat, was occupying himself smashing furniture. This was annoying, but not seriously upsetting; Flicker knew plenty of people with mend spells. More of a problem were his opponents. The halberd guy was well below Flicker's caliber as a fighter, but also well out of reach of his shortsword. Alec was proving an extremely capable swordsman, and Flicker, while competent enough as a warrior, was really more skilled in archery and stealth. And his evil black blade, so devastating against mages and the enchanted, was nothing more than a shortsword against the mystophobic Sturtevanters. He parried off an expert thrust by the ambassador and ducked his head, not quickly enough to completely avoid the halberd slashing across his face. Flicker gritted his teeth, blood sheeting down his brow. Missed the eye, anyway. Alec struck while he was distracted by it, but Flicker's chainmail rendered the otherwise deadly blow a glancing one. Jason, clearly too unfamiliar with combat to realize Flicker was nowhere near done, was half in hysterics. "No!" he screamed. "Alec, no! Don't kill anyone else over me! I'll come with you!"

"Get back, Jason," said Flicker, holding his ground. "I've stood against Shadow, I'll stand against men who have to gang up to kidnap teenagers."

"Do you expect that to scare us?" sneered Alec, bleeding from his own chest. "I've slain dragons and demons; why should a Mithril Dagger Hero be any different?"

Which was, in fact, when the power word stun knocked him ass over backwards and the exceedingly pissy voice of Khyrisse Starshadow snarled "You're all under arrest!"

It was nice to know there was still a place for dramatic irony in the world.

"He drew first!" yelled the Sturtevanter with the mace, pointing at Flicker.

Khyrisse pointed her wand at his codpiece. "Give me an excuse, Flicker."

This had really been the wrong week to bother her. "That won't be necessary," Flicker said quietly. "But they'll need to pay for the damage, and we'll need a restraining order for Jason here. They were threatening to kidnap him."

"Grendel!" Khyrisse kicked the still-stunned Alec in the butt. "This is going in the police record, and if anything happens to this kid, all three of you are going down whether I have evidence it was you or not. And I don't even want to hear it about diplomatic immunity, either. You're damned lucky I don't tell Father Alatoi to recall you or lose Sturtevant's status because I caught you trying to abduct teenage boys. I'm so sure that would go over well with him!"

The guy with the halberd blanched.

"Now get out!"

They did, shepherded by the angry archmage. "You're okay?" Flicker asked Jason, wiping his blade on his ripped tabard. Jason's fingers were still locked in his croppy hair, his breathing just this side of hyperventilating. "Maybe you'd better sit down," he said, getting a towel and pressing it into his shallow face wound. "Let me see if that guy broke the teapot."

The Long View

"How irksome," said Arturian, watching the Monkey King escape in one direction and the Tarrasque in the other.

"You can say that again," said the Stone Head of Prophecy. "Just perceive this mess! I'm not even unwaveringly perpendicular, am I?"

"Don't worry about that, Head," said Arturian, waving his hand. "A few simple ninth-circle spells and the tower will be as good as new. It was just a spare anyway. I'm more annoyed at the time I wasted trying to trick the Monkey King into foreseeing the Third Coming for me. I should have known a chaotic spirit like that wouldn't remain in captivity long enough for my efforts to bear fruit."

"Did he say nothing, then?"

"There were... hints," said Arturian. "Nothing conclusive. In another week, perhaps..." The Deathless mage shook his head. "It was a longshot."

"There is still the Fourth Witch," the Head offered.

"Perhaps another time. I have many other projects, Head, as you know." Arturian stood, which was impressive considering that his study floor was practically vertical at the moment. "Right now I need to go catch that blasted Tarrasque before it lays waste to too much of the subkingdom. I certainly am glad I decided to keep the beast on Nataal rather than Ataniel."

"You're playing favorites again," accused the Head.

"I have an agenda," Arturian evaded.

"Not yet."

"Stop foreshadowing, Head." Arturian put on his war cloak. "I'll be back to straighten the Tower up once the Tarrasque is safely imprisoned in the Earth's Forge."

"I'll be waiting," said the Stone Head of Prophecy, without discernible irony.

Boys Don't Cry

Jason's hands were still shaking. The adventure against Gila almost hadn't seemed real, even when he thought Hsin had been disintegrated by the Iron Tyrant. It had been separate, distant, heroic. This was too like what had happened to Cedric, and it was simple, and brutish, and real. "Here," said Flicker, handing him a cup of tea. This man was just nearly murdered by my ex-fianc�, and his reaction is to make tea. Jason didn't know if the composure Flicker and Praxis shared was common to heroes, but he was very sure it was something he himself could never aspire to if he adventured around for fifty years. "Drink it. You've had a shock."

That's an understatement. "How can you be so calm?" Jason blurted unsteadily. "He could have killed you. How could you just face them down like that?"

"I cheated," said Flicker with a little smile, pouring himself a cup. "I used the Mindnet to call for backup, and I knew I could hold them off the ten minutes it'd take Khyrisse to get here. Think I probably kept them talking for half that." The strange-eyed elf sat down and sipped at his tea, and Jason, after a moment, did the same. It did feel soothing. "You can do that too, you know," Flicker added. "Radio Praxis, and he'll get a message to someone in your general vicinity. We're not invincible, but we do make pretty devastating reinforcements."

"It--it didn't even occur to me." Jason looked sheepishly into his tea. "I was too busy panicking, I guess." He paused. "I--I guess you want to know--the truth, now. About me, I mean."

"I'd like to know which personal pronoun to use for you," said Flicker. "Other than that, it's up to you. I have a very long backstory I haven't bored you with."

Jason marveled at this elf's unfailing ability to put him at ease. "He," he said. "I'm a boy. Or--well, I guess, a man. Though, not much of one, I guess." He laughed shakily. "But I--started as a girl." He paused. "I changed, originally--well, I thought Alec and my parents would come after me if I just ran away, but if I wasn't marriageable, they wouldn't want me back. But I also think that might have been an excuse, of sorts... I had fallen so for Cedric, and he wasn't attracted to women." Jason paused again, watching the herbal tea swirl in his cup. "I see now what a mistake it was. It must have humiliated Alec, and he's so aggressive. It was Cedric's death warrant." Jason sniffled. "I've just been making nothing but mistakes since I first tried to take control of my own life. But I can't very well take them back now... and I don't want to be a girl again."

"Not everyplace is like the upper classes of Sturtevant," Flicker pointed out. "Girls aren't necessarily fragile and helpless, and not everyone treats them that way. Khyrisse just wiped the floor with those mooks. And you've seen Inez in a fight."

"I know." Jason sighed. "It's not that, at least not--anymore. I like being a boy. I feel like a boy. I wish I always had been a boy. This is who I am. I was a terrible girl. My only positive experiences with my body have all come as a boy. And I don't want to go back."

Flicker shrugged. "Then you don't have to," he said.

"Thank you," whispered Jason.

"More tea?"


Broken Edges

"It's Schneider." Khyrisse sighed brittly. "You know he wants to be there. When the baby's born."

"If wishes were horses," said Ebreth after a beat, without looking up from his book, "then beggars would ride."

"It's--not entirely fair of us to say no, Ebreth," Khyrisse whispered.

"He can wait in the living room with your parents," said Ebreth. "Luthien can bring him a cigar or something. It won't be that scarring. Men used to do it all the time."

"I'm assuming you don't want to be waiting in the living room," said Khyrisse, her throat a little tight.

"I'm your husband," said Ebreth. "If Schneider has equal paternity rights with me, there's nothing I can do about that. He doesn't have equal rights to you and your life and he's going to have to live with it. God knows how, but I do have some pride left, and if you think I'm going to sit around like a wall fixture while Schneider the jester stares at your crotch and waits for the baby train, you've got another think coming." He picked up his drink with his left hand. "You said you wished I'd act a little more possessive," he added. "Call it possessiveness. It'd be an ill-starred day for a fist-fight."

Khyrisse sighed again, longer and more tired. "I don't really want him there either, Ebreth," she admitted. "I doubt I'm going to be in any kind of mood to appreciate his color commentary. It just seems so... well, it seems cruel to exclude him. If it is his--"

"What if it's mine?" Ebreth put his book down on the coffee-table, spine up. "What if this is our, completely normal child, and this heartache has all been for absolutely nothing, did you ever think of that? If this baby is my baby and I've spent all year arguing about it, worrying about it, letting Schneider force himself into our life together, enduring public humiliation, being unable to even claim a role in..." Ebreth turned away, towards the window, and put his drink on the sill. "We should never have told him," he said.

"You're the one who said we had to, Ebreth!..."

"It was the decent thing to do," said Ebreth. "But we should have lied. We should have hidden it from him, and when Vas told everyone about the Oyster Totem we should have said the baby was conceived three months after that. We lost five months in the Abyss anyway, and no one would ever have known the difference." He put his palms on the glass. It was raining out. "You know, I think about it sometimes," he said quietly. "What it would have been like, without Schneider. That we could have actually announced this, like it was something we wanted. That people would congratulate me and not just you. That I could say "our baby" and not always "the" baby, hold my own woman's pregnant belly in public without it being a political statement, talk about the future of my family without qualifying it. That no one would be snickering at me behind my back. That I could be lying in bed with you talking about baby names instead of fighting to keep Schneider the fucking jester out of the most personal moments of my life." Khyrisse closed her eyes. "This isn't easy for any of us," said Ebreth. "But I was the one with the most to lose, and I lost it."

"Schneider lost Roxy," Khyrisse pointed out softly, putting her hand on one of his. It looked very small there.

"Because she found out he slept around from someone else," said Ebreth. "That's the kiss of death right there. Women have tried to kill me over that." Khyrisse managed a feeble laugh. "He lost the most from the Oyster Totem," Ebreth conceded. "But the one who lost the most from this paternity suit is me. You think this is just some trivial psychodrama I'm making a big deal out of, but it's not. This is like swallowing ground glass every day. My pride is in tatters, Khyrisse. This should have been something, it should have been good. I should have been able to say damn it, whatever else I've failed at, whatever else I've lost, at least I've given the woman I love a child." He turned his face away again. "Instead I have to publicly accept the fact that somebody else fucked her behind my back, that not only isn't he sorry but this gives him rights, that everyone and his brother and sister-in-law knows I don't have the balls to tell him to get the hell out of my house. Not only have I lost my chance to take any pleasure from this pregnancy--and that hurts, because I want to--I've lost my basic dignity as a man. And there's nothing I can do about it, because it wouldn't be fair." Ebreth expelled air, took his hand back, and closed the curtains. "Well, I'm losing my patience for what's fair. I've given up enough. Tell Schneider to stop pushing me. Because one of these days I'm going to get up and push back."

Ebreth picked his drink up and walked out of the room.

A Job To Do

Rani blew her nose for about the 754th time all mission. "My word, is it good to have found you again, Monkey!" beamed Pigsy, scarfing down the last of the V.E.F.'s food rations. "I've been looking for you for months now! You just disappeared without a trace... not even the Dragon King knew where you'd gotten to!"

"That was by design, Pigsy old pal," Vickie grinned. "The Dragon King's the one who trapped me in the Obelisk of Ice in the first place, remember?"

"You might have told me," said Pigsy forlornly.

"I forgot." Vickie frowned, and banged herself on the forehead. "Hey, what do you think you're doing, rhesusboy?" she demanded. "I didn't tell you you could come out!"

"Ancestor spirits," snorted Thermador, lighting a cigarette in the cup of his hand. "Give �em an inch and they'll take a mile. How many times have you let him take over?"

"What?" said Vickie. "Ten, twenty times, I guess, counting the times Arturian called him out... why?"

"Because after the twenty-first time, they can manifest on their own any time you're not paying attention."

"Which happens quite frequently," grinned Vickie, and smacked herself in the head. "Stop that!"

"Just don't let him stay in control for twenty-one minutes at a time, or he'll be the dominant one," Thermador said.

"Ah, you big no-fun," pouted the Monkey King.

"I was possessed by the Sun Tiger once, buddy."

"There you are!" Rani yelled, as Garal slipped out of subspace into the circle of their camp. "For God's sake, get us off this fucking eyebrow before I cut my own nose off!"

"This one is glad to see you well," added Amatsu, who'd been more worried the halfling planeblazer might not have made it to safety.

Garal ignored them both. "What's he doing here?"

"Mr. Thermador returned to help us escape from the fallen tower," Amatsu tried to forestall a fight.

"Oh, terrific!" Garal threw his hands up, his long store of patience apparently at an end. "So he betrayed us to Arturian, but then he helped us, so we're taking him back now? How do we know he's not just tracking us to bring us back to Arturian again?"

"If I was," said Thermador, putting his cigarette out on a nearby cactus with a hollow hiss, "you'd already be there. Trust me, Sturoster's paying me a lot more for your return than that cheap-ass archmage ever would."

"This is supposed to comfort me?" Garal was appalled. "I'm not taking that guy on one more jaunt," he said, turning his back on Thermador to address Amatsu. "He can obviously get through the planes on his own. Let him."

Amatsu didn't know quite what to say to that. He looked to Pigsy for help; Pigsy tried to look at Monkey, but Vickie snapped her gum and wouldn't let him out. "Well," said Pigsy, cautiously, "the more the merrier, my dear mother used to say... and though she was talking about cupcakes, most of the time, I think it must apply to adventurers trying to escape from Immortals as well. Because the more of us there are, the better our chances are. Why, Monkey is even more successful in his escapades with a buffoon like me around. He tells me so quite frequently!"

"You shouldn't let him talk to you like that," Rani muttered.

"I'd rather have ten buffoons around than a man who'd sell his allies to the highest bidder!" said Garal.

"As opposed to you," Thermador said drily, "who'd sell a whole planet to the space dragons for your own freedom?"

"What?" said Garal. "I never did anything like that, you lying drunk!"

"Not." Thermador took a swig from his doctored whiskey. "Yet."

There was a long pause. "Perhaps," Amatsu suggested, "we had best return to Mr. Sturoster now, before the wu-jen finds where we have gone."

"I want to know what he means by that," said Garal, quiet now, his eyes fixed on Thermador's.

"I'm from the future," said Thermador. "I tell you I know what you're like, I ain't just whistling Dixie, kid."

"So space dragons are going to eat our world in the future," sighed Rani. "Could somebody tell me why I fucking bother?"

"We're just one future of many," said Thermador. "You're my past, but I'm not necessarily your future. You want my advice, kill all the planeblazers while you have the chance, because if you wind up in the Ansataniel Dragon Wars, they're going to deliver Warp and the Sunfighter right into their slimy claws and leave our world to rot."

"That's just an alternate universe," Garal protested weakly.

"An alternate future," said Thermador. "We proceed directly from you, buddy. No blaming evil alter egos, here, it's what you chose to become."

"There are many paths to choose from," said Amatsu.

"Yeah," said Thermador. "Well, I chose saving the world, so excuse me if I ain't doing it the Katie Silverhammer way." He took a long pull on his bottle. "You think I like the mercenary life, punk? Work my ass off for powerful forces who don't give a shit about anything, have to deal with snotty little locals like you who think they're Joe Hero for rescuing somebody from some meaningless imprisonment a week earlier than they would have gotten out anyway? Hell yeah, I would've left Danger Girl over there with Arturian if Sturoster wasn't paying me twenty years over this. You think I ain't got more important shit to worry about? Two thousand years of slumber to work off before my world even exists again, I got twelve hundred and forty-two of �em left to go. Arturian gave me one for fake betraying you all. Big spender he is. If it'd been a hundred maybe I would turn you all in again. A few weeks of inconvenience for you, who the hell cares? I got a whole world to worry about. I got a job to do."

There was silence for a few moments. Thermador, Rani was thinking dully. Even Dave Fucking Thermador is doing something meaningful. I just spent a week of my life rescuing Vickie Dare from something even Pigsy can tell would have worked out for her just fine anyway. "Is--there anything we can do to help?" she said, her voice sounding flat and awkward even to her.

"Not unless you've got powers over space and time," said Thermador, taking another shot of his planar brew. "The only beings who can do anything about this are the ones who couldn't care less. Extraplanars, villains, Arturian. Guy like Sturoster gets his goods from them the same way I do, uses �em to pay me for odd jobs." He shrugged. "I got my path already. I just want Mr. Planeblazer over there to back off and get the hell out of my way. I don't need any righteous BS out of anyone. Just get me back to Sturoster, and let me get back to work." He folded his arms. "There'll be time to angst when I'm dead."

Between The Lines

Garal was very quiet on the road back from Nataal.

They had rescued Vickie from Arturian. That was good. Yes. But Garal had made another enemy. Before he met the Rat Pack, he didn't think he'd had any. He had a reputation for professional neutrality, for not choosing sides. He'd lost that in the Abyss, when he sided with Jackie over Ailonwy. Then on Starcross, supporting the Arbiters over the Denecrites. He didn't mind supporting the Parises over the undead army. Undead things weren't real people, and none of the planar powers Garal dealt with thought of them that way. He didn't mind taking a stand against the Diarian cabal irresponsibly punching holes in the dimensional substructure. But how many of the powerful beings he'd thwarted in their quest for Tucson's soul would hold it against him? And now he'd destroyed a secret stronghold of Arturian the Sorcerer's?

And what about Thermador's prophecy? Did the interplanar mercenary mean that planeblazers in general were going to betray Ataniel to the space dragons, or that Garal was? He just couldn't see himself doing anything like that. But then again, two years ago he wouldn't have been able to see himself breaking into Arturian's fortress. Or, for that matter, revolting against Cynystra. Was the halfling heading down a path of intervention that would wind up leading him somewhere he didn't want to go?

Garal looked at Dave Thermador as they traveled in silence through the ether. Or was the big jerk just lying? Garal wouldn't put it past him. The time-travel story rang true--it certainly explained the planar drugs he kept taking. Time travel was difficult enough for true planeblazers. The bodies of those without the Talent tended to fade back to their own temporal node without something powerful to anchor them, and there were chemicals that could allay that for a time. But the part about Garal, that could be pure fiction. Thermador could just as easily dislike planeblazers because they were competition. He could be making up something that sounded vaguely heroic just to keep the heroes from giving him a hard time anymore.

Couldn't he?

Kids Will Be Kids

"Well, two folded this week," said Lora Paris. "The lingerie store and one of the hotels."

"Damn it," sighed Khyrisse, closing up her file cabinet. "I wonder if I should have subsidized it."

"Businesses go under sometimes, Khyrisse," Lora said gently. "You can't just subsidize them all."

"I know." Khyrisse locked her desk. "It's just that I really liked that lingerie store."

"It's kind of cold up here for lace teddies," admitted Lora. "And there's not a very big secondary market in lingerie."

"Which hotel?"

"The Balcony Suites." Khyrisse nodded, and Lora hesitated. "Khyrisse... I hope you won't think I'm imposing, but my brother asked me to talk to you. About Skitch." Khyrisse stiffened a little. "Implored, actually, might be a better verb," Lora said. "He worries about you, you know."

"I'm all right," Khyrisse lied. She liked Lora, but she wasn't in any kind of mood to trust someone new right now. Besides, she had enough on her mind today already. Ebreth's pain tore at her more than she knew quite how to express, much less relieve, and it left her feeling horribly guilty and inadequate. She didn't even want to think about her failures as a mother today. "Everything is under control," she lied.

"I know what it's like," said Lora. "Wanting to rescue your child and throttle her at the same time, I mean."

"He's not my child," Khyrisse said. "He was my apprentice, and he's made it clear he doesn't want to be that anymore. I have no jurisdiction over him, nor do I want any. Excuse me, I have to be getting home."

"Life is so short, Khyrisse," Lora said from behind her. "Don't waste it in ill will you'll hate yourself for. Believe me, I stayed up nights after she left planning the things I was going to say to her when I got my hands on her again. I never did. Those unspoken tirades have hung there over my bed for eleven years." Khyrisse stopped with her hand on the doorknob. "She had to go," said Lora. "It was the way her heart was. I'd been fighting it for years, but I shouldn't have. There was love in her rebelliousness. I should have enjoyed it while I could instead of fretting over all the mistakes I couldn't stop her from making. She would sneak off the estate at night and go flying with her friends from the barrio. I was furious she was disobeying me, guilty that I couldn't control her, worried sick she was going to come to a bad end. But what was it that finally killed her? Not underage drinking, not playing with angel wings off the Sarsee Cliffs, not any of the bad habits I was terrified she was picking up from the lower-class kids. It was trusting someone. Lita died of a good heart. And all my worrying she was going bad, it was the wrong tree I was barking up all along." Khyrisse turned around slowly. "Let him make his mistakes, Khyrisse," said Lora, "but don't hate him for them. Maybe it's not racism, or cruelty, or selfishness. Maybe it's just him taking the wrong road home."

It was very quiet for a few moments, and then Khyrisse came slowly back into the office and put her bag down to embrace the older woman, and the two of them stood for what felt like a long time together in the Director's Office of the New Trade Federal Building.

Reaching Rani

Rani sat in the Mithril Dagger, nursing her third vodka and lime. "You know why you piss me off, Dare?" she said suddenly, without warning.

"Because you can't control me?"

"Nah," she said, "I'm used to things I can't control. You piss me off because you're the fucking luckiest person I've ever met. I'm every bit as good at my job as you are at yours. I've been at it longer, and I bet I've been in as many tight spots. And yet I'm struggling just to keep my head above water, and you're waltzing through it. You make everything look easy, and you never look back, and you make everything I've ever done wrong and everything I've ever regretted seem like a glaring superfluity."

"That sounds like why you piss you off," said Vickie, "not why I do."

"Yeah," she agreed, stirring her drink with her gloved finger. "That's why everything pisses me off. Because some people are lucky and other people aren't." She looked at the secret agent across her vodka. "You're always right, but it's not because you're smarter than anyone else. You always succeed, but not because you're more skilled than anyone else. Whatever decision you made would work. Nothing you did would have consequences for you. You're just drawn that way." She drained her drink and set the glass on the bar. "I'm jealous of you, Vickie, that's all it is. You'll go far, a lot farther than I will, or anyone else I have a chance of knowing. And I wish you well, I really do." Rani put her hands in the pockets of her jeans. "But me, I gotta get back to the real world now. I'm sorry for messing up your surveillance thing. I don't really think you needed my help at all. You would have done just as well without me. You'd do just as well without anyone." She pushed the tavern door open with her boot. "Take care of yourself," she said, and then she pushed it quietly closed again behind her.

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