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This Could Be Us

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New York City, a couple of years ago

It could’ve been a perfect Saturday. Only the naked trees and a few patches of slush in dark places let on that it was January, as Titania stood beneath eggshell blue skies on this unseasonable day, enjoying the mild air. From her perch on Lookout Hill she could see the dark arches of the Verrazano Bridge etched against the sky in one direction and the lattice tower of Coney Island’s Parachute Jump in another.

No one had followed her up the untended paths once traversed by elegant carriages. She shared this summit with the birds and a few gray squirrels, and it was a grand day to be alive under the sun… even if she’d been stood up, so to speak.

Titania smiled as she reached for her phone and tapped out the unfamiliar sequence of Frederick’s new number.

-x-

Finn hadn’t meant for the television to lull him to sleep for the afternoon but somehow it’d happened anyway, and he was face-down on the couch with the phone just out of reach when it buzzed at him. He rolled over to grasp it, his body responding through pure reflex even though his mind wasn’t fully awake. It took a few seconds to realize it wasn’t the school trying to reach him.

The first text was nothing but an image showing a phalanx of armored men brandishing spears. Then beneath it one sentence: this could be us but you playing ;p

Finn stared at the screen, racking his sleep-fogged brain for any context that might make sense of this while the television chattered about alien visitations. Another line appeared.

sorry! wrong number

If the text had caught him under other circumstances, he might have ignored it, or perhaps just texted back something to reassure the sender that he wasn’t offended. In this moment, his impulse control must not have been working properly, because his fingers had fired off a return message before he’d even thought it over.

No, let’s talk.

-x-

Titania almost proposed they meet at the war memorial at the base of Lookout Hill, but even people who’d lived in the city all their lives didn’t often know where that was, so she suggested the carousel there in the park instead. Though closed for the season, it made an easy landmark close by the subway station. Sunday proved a trifle more brisk than Saturday but the winter sun was delightfully warm on her face and she reached the carousel in high spirits. Several people on the benches by the carousel were likewise enjoying the air, and one of them caught her eye as a likely target. She judged him to be in his mid-to-late twenties, and in between the thick bangs falling into his eyes and his pseudo-military jacket he reminded her of some of the pop musicians she’d been infatuated with back in her middle school days. A pair of spectacular white boots accompanied the jacket, and this alone made Titania certain he must be her contact. If that hadn’t done it, the look in his eyes would’ve caught her attention; the last person she’d seen looking like that was a hiker she’d helped pull out of a crevasse, the one who’d been tied to the dead body of his partner for ten hours.

“Finn, is it?”

“Yes. Titania?”

He surprised her twice over— first, that he got her name right on the first try instead of pronouncing it like “titanium,” and second because he sounded about twenty years older than he looked.

“Indeed,” she said, and he rose so they might greet one another properly. Titania had a flicker of deja vu in that moment; he was close enough to both Seth and Frederick in height and build that it made the impression she’d somehow completed a set.

That thousand-yard stare of Finn’s subsided and Titania felt the two of them made decent small talk while walking back to the subway station. They had a bit of common ground, as both of them were transplants to the city who’d settled in Brooklyn after coming back from overseas. Of course, that gave them common ground with thousands, if not millions, of others…

“This is the place,” Titania said of the nondescript converted warehouse. Among the signs announcing the occupants was a white rectangle bearing the words Askr Artspace next to a gilt logo that resembled an arrowhead made from a knot. She tapped in the code on the keypad.

Since members of the artspace had twenty-four hour access, it was possible to find any combination of members engaged in any craft activity imaginable at some point in the day. On this particular afternoon, Titania caught sight of Gaius constructing a piñata shaped like a beehive, Peri making one of her trademark canvases that resembled finger-painting in blood, and Oboro stitching away at her latest couture creation. People greeted her as they usually did, with a bright “hello” with no greater feeling behind it and no questions asked about her guest.

“This is sometimes a strange enclave but it’s a welcoming one,” she assured Finn, who was looking back over his shoulder at Peri’s disturbing painting. “This is my little corner of it all.”

Hers, and Seth’s, and Frederick’s. Seth was at his workspace; since her last visit he’d cut strips out of twenty-gauge brass to ornament the blue steel of each vambrace and he was tapping them into shape with a ball peen hammer.

“Ah. You were not exaggerating,” Finn said to Titania as he took in the half-finished suit of armor. “It is… striking.”

“Thank you,” said Seth as he pushed his safety glasses up atop his head. The pink circles they left on his fair skin made him look a little like the red panda at the Prospect Park Zoo. “The first attempt wasn’t to my liking.”

He gestured to the white armor he’d fashioned for Frederick, which admittedly evoked space pirates and mecha suits more than it did knights of old.

“So Seth is our metalworker,” said Titania. “Frederick is what we call our expert on fabrics, and I’m the Jill of all trades here.”

“My preferred term is ‘textiles specialist,’” came Frederick’s voice from the doorway.

“Oh, so you’re here.” Titania felt she wasn’t scolding him for standing her up, not exactly… but she did let a note of levity into her voice. “How was the date with Cordelia?”

“Ahhh…” Frederick swiped a curl of dark hair out of his eyes. “The air show was lovely.”

“What is a textiles specialist?” asked Finn. The two-sentence digression into Frederick’s dating life had been enough for his eyes to glaze over a little.

“He knits,” Titania supplied.

“I can knit, crochet, embroider, and I’ve begun working with a lap loom.” Frederick’s eyes turned in an instant from the warm glow of self-satisfaction to falcon-sharp, presumably because he realized Titania’d brought a perfect stranger into their workspace. “What can you bring to our team?”

Finn held up his phone. The screen displayed an exquisitely carved wooden dagger.

“That’s beautiful,” said Titania as they leaned in around the phone. Finn had several other examples, perfect little swords with ornate hilts and a “magical staff” topped with a red glass orb. “Do you sell these?”

“No. They’ve just been gifts for children. Toys, really,” Finn said as he put the phone away.

“I can think of a little girl who’d love a toy like that,” Titania said of the staff.

“If you work in wood and Seth in metal, then we can craft our own weapons,” said Frederick as though this were something momentous.

“I suppose that is the missing piece in our arsenal of skills,” agreed Seth. “Though I don’t know that my own are up to making that axe you’re dreaming of, Frederick.”

“We’re all getting better by the month at what we do,” Titania said then. Really, the improvement between Fredrick’s costume and Seth’s half-finished one was clear on every level. “Not to disturb today’s progress, Seth, but let’s get Finn signed up here and then make some plans over an early dinner.”

She should have known that would revive the burgers-or-ramen argument that Seth and Frederick had been waging for the last six months.

To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Titania always set her alarm for six-thirty in the morning, but she rarely got to sleep that long. What usually woke her was Ranulf, who would rise from his position guarding the foot of Ike’s bed and leap up onto Titania’s own bed. He’d pad across Titania’s body and start pawing lightly at her face until she came to.

“I can’t wait until Ike goes off to college and takes you along,” Titania chided Ranulf as she carried him into the kitchen for their breakfast. Ranulf melted into her arms and purred as Titania reached for the can opener.

When Titania poured her kale smoothie into Ranulf’s bowl instead of minced whitefish one dark, frosty Thursday morning it was mostly a mistake, but he did have it coming for depriving her of those extra minutes of sleep.

-x-

Seth wasn’t able to return to his work on the armor until Thursday afternoon; he’d taken the morning off for a physical therapy appointment and once that was over with he went to the artspace instead of back to his desk. No one else was in the workshop he shared with Titania, Frederick, and Titania’s new recruit, so Seth switched on the vintage radio one of their fellow “makers” abandoned in their shop and set about comparing his left gauntlet to the articulated model of cardboard he’d made as a first attempt. Something wasn’t quite right with the finished product.

The L’Arachel St. John show was almost over before Frederick showed up.

“Which airshow?” Seth asked once they’d exchanged basic greetings, since Titania wasn’t around to object to his… questioning.

“Which?” Frederick sounded defensive.

“It’s January. There are no air shows taking place anywhere.”

“There are in Florida.”

“You went to Florida for the weekend?” Seth turned to see Frederick’s reaction; when Frederick had nothing to say, Seth shrugged and resumed his work. L’Arachel St. John filled the space between them, a space that wasn’t entirely bridged by the sound of Frederick’s needle passing through cloth and Seth’s minute adjustments to his gauntlet.

-x-

Titania had never admitted she often timed her visits to Askr Artspace to not coincide with Seth’s favorite radio show. Today she was in the door at 4:03 PM, having righted her day from that shaky start of pouring green smoothie into Ranulf’s bowl. An encounter both with Askr’s resident philosophy troll and Askr’s primary dispenser of lewd comments before she could even get into the workshop brought her mood back close to where it had been that morning when grappling with Ranulf.

“I think Anna might want to go over that no-harassment policy again with Niles,” she said as she laid out her wire and tools down at her workspace. Askr’s office manager had drafted contracts that looked to be legally enforceable but so far, no one seemed to be enforcing them.

Frederick snorted; he viewed Niles as rather a lost cause when it came to appropriate behavior.

“What did he pull this time?” asked Seth in the too-mild way he often had when he was likely going to hold something against someone down the line.

“He wanted to know what I’d done with my new find from Sunday,” Titania replied.

Fortunately, the task of snipping loops of wire from a coil and pinching them into a seamless chain proved soothing; Titania had taken up maille thinking it the useful medium between Frederick’s skill with knitting needles and Seth’s dexterity in bending sheet metal. The focus it required put her almost instantly into a mental space far away from Niles and Azama and the other characters around Askr who seemed to delight in piquing, if not tormenting people. Sometimes Titania imagined, if she’d been the religious type in some other life, that counting rosary beads or performing some other small ritual that demanded pacing and patience would have been a low-key source of joy in her existence.

Today, Frederick had to ask her twice about her plans for the new member of their team.

“I’m stopping by this evening,” she said. “He wanted to show me some more of his work and we'll talk of some ideas he could execute for us.”

And she’d be there to allay Finn’s concerns that his old-fashioned hobby really wasn’t suitable for a modern maker space boasting everything from arc welding to robots, but she wasn’t going to express that in front of the others.

-x-

One of the things Titania loved about her new home was that, while she’d grown up with an idea of Brooklyn courtesy of the television shows broadcast out to the flyover country where she’d been raised, all the mosaic-fragments that composed Brooklyn proved so different and so unexpected that discovering them was a constant delight. Finn’s residence was one of these; she’d expected an apartment like Frederick’s or her own, not a Brooklyn Heights brownstone with a wrought-iron gate and a charming garden space boasting a few springs of green against the January mud. Titania assumed it must, like so many brownstones, now be divided into flats. There was only one mailbox, though.

“What a lovely home.”

And it was, though the softly polished wood of the furniture and the overall decor belonged to a previous generation’s idea of good taste. Possibly two generations back. A wing chair very much like the one by the door was in Askr Artspace at that moment, stripped of its varnish and velvet and repainted as something more joyous.

“It’s not what you think,” said Finn as he hung up her coat. “This was in the family of the man who married my mother’s elder half-sister. They’ve all passed on now, but I’m the legal guardian of their only grandson and so… I get to live here.”

“That sounds to me like your aunt and uncle left you their house and it’s yours now.” Titania said through a smile.

“It doesn’t feel that way,” Finn replied, and something in that did resonate with Titania more than she cared to admit.

“Is this the cousin you’ve been raising?” she asked then of the boy in several photos along the wall.

“Yes, that’s Leif.”

Leif had tousled brown hair and the sort of large brown eyes that brought to mind puppies and chocolate and other heart-melting things. A little girl with blonde hair and striking blue eyes was in several of the pictures with Leif— prim school photographs, mostly, with no sign of that perfectly carved magical staff or the wooden sword.

“They’re both away at school this year,” Finn said once he’d explained the blonde child was his daughter. “Everyone in the family goes to boarding school… even me.”

“How was it?”

“Terrible,” he said, and Titania caught a flicker in his eyes that let on that, for a fraction of a second, he hadn’t been entirely present. “The one they’re at is better. So I’m told. Now that they’re not here, this place is… terribly empty.”

No doubt. The atmosphere managed to be heavy and vacant at the same time… and as Titania’s gaze passed across the photographs of Leif and little Nanna again, it was far too easy to superimpose Ike and Mist over them in her mind’s eye.

Finn took her into what must once have been a grand parlor for entertaining guests. Now several of Finn’s projects overpowered the dated furnishings and oil paintings of people long dead. Titania was drawn at once to the carving of a jumbo jet with “Morning Light” in gold letters along its base.

“It’s a 747-100 known as Clipper Morning Light at the start of its career in 1970,” said Finn, and Titania made a mental note to run that by Frederick in case it meant something.

The finely-grained wood was polished so beautifully that even in the January dark under unromantic CFL bulbs it almost seemed possessed of its own gilded light. Titania then admired the smaller carving of a jet entitled “United” and an exquisite model of the southern tip of Manhattan as graced by the twin towers.

“I don’t think you need to worry about not being welcome at Askr, really,” she said.

As words were but words and deeds far more compelling, Titania then sprung upon Finn her vision of an initial project he might embark upon there at the artspace, something to pass the time while Seth worked out how to approach the task of forging swords and battle axes. He couldn’t really say no; Titania had reckoned correctly that he’d have a soft spot for little girls with wide eyes who needed some happiness and sparkle in their lives.

To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Ike and Soren got home with the take-out from Oscar’s just in time. Titania knew their dinner guest was going to be approximately five minutes early and by the time the boys returned with two brown bags loaded with Oscar’s finest, it was almost seven. Titania had just finished putting the last serving spoon on the table when the doorbell rang.

“Frederick, you shouldn’t have.”

Though of course she was rather pleased he was the sort of person who’d bring a wrapped hostess gift to a low-key family dinner. Even in the cosmos of Brooklyn those were few and far between. Titania judged the present by weight and shape to be a bottle of wine and tucked it away in the cupboard before they sat down for dinner.

Oscar’s curried chicken with Manchurian cauliflower casserole proved a success and good cheer reigned over the table as Frederick regaled the teenagers with tales of New York City’s most exciting parking infractions.

“Now you understand that the car was littered with NYPD paraphernalia— not one but two baseball caps, a patch, a novelty license plate commemorating 9/11, and a picture of the Pope… though I’m not sure why I was supposed to care about the last one,” said Frederick of one offender. “But they also had a PBA card so nobody was allowed to ticket them.”

“That means a police officer gifted them a free pass out of jail,” Soren said to Mist. “Or sold it to them.”

“Oh,” said Mist, though after a childhood on the outskirts of actual combat zones she was sadly not innocent of the nexus of law enforcement and corruption. Titania knew Mist often grasped more than she let on to the boys.

Frederick turned from that disappointment to the story of a luxury car whose owner was caught alternate-side parking for the third time without the benefit of a PBA card and had their precious vehicle hauled away to the tow yard.

“This time we were able to impound it for nine days. The owner got it back on the tenth and was promptly caught alternate-side parking again the twelfth day after their prior infraction.” Frederick’s cultivated manner of being a Serious Adult didn’t do a good job of containing his excitement over getting one up on the parking violators, especially given the way he’d used napkins and utensils to illustrate parts of the story. “Let me say he’s not getting it back this time.”

“Who’d want to get that many tickets?” asked Mist.

“That goes back to some of the things I’ve said about how for people who are rich enough, fines are more like the fees they pay to act as they please,” Titania replied. “Taking away the car for good is might be a disincentive to break the law, because the money alone isn’t going to do it.”

“Nobody should be that rich,” Ike said. He’d mostly been enjoying his chicken in silence, but Rich People Getting Away With Things had become a theme in his conversations over the past year and Frederick, intentionally or not, had given some fuel to that flame during the course of the evening.

Frederick didn’t appear to notice the hint of blue fire in Ike’s eyes over the sordid business of the Parking Authority. He then pronounced the cauliflower casserole delicious and asked for the recipe. Titania cast a discreet look at Mist, who’d taken cooking lessons from Oscar and knew several of his core dishes by heart.

“I’ll write that up for you,” Mist chirped, and Titania smiled thinking that her dinner guest would leave tonight not knowing just how much of the meal was outsourced to Oscar’s kitchen. At least she and Mist had collaborated on the fresh green salad…

-x-

After Frederick took his leave the boys disappeared. Ranulf showed up meowing for chicken scraps as Titania and Mist cleaned up the remains of dinner.

“You have a preternatural ability to know who’s an easy mark for throwing you scraps and who won’t hold to that nonsense,” Titania said to Ranulf as she rewarded him for not making a futile disruption during the meal with Frederick. Though, secretly, she suspected Frederick might be an easier target for a charming and vocal cat than he likely thought himself to be.

“So are you and Frederick, you know… dating now?” asked Mist as she stacked the dishes.

“Frederick? No, he has a girlfriend who’s a pilot.” Titania didn’t feel she had a right to be surprised by that question. After all, down at the artspace two people of roughly the same age standing next to one another for any length of time sparked up the rumor mill.

“Oh.” That sounded like disappointment. “Is she pretty?”

“I haven’t been introduced to Cordelia yet. But Frederick says she’s lovely and kind and talented and he thinks the world of her. We’ve urged him to bring her into the artspace and he says she travels too much for it right now but she might be up for it later this year. I hope to meet her then.”

And Titania felt she’d done a good job of steering the conversation away from any high value placed upon being pretty. She thought about opening the wine once the kids had all gone to bed, but really she’d imagined unwinding and enjoying it with Frederick. Well, someone like Frederick. With someone, anyway. There was such profound sadness in the idea of drinking alone.

The comment she’d made to Mist about bringing Cordelia into Askr reminded Titania that she’d left out a detail when recruiting Finn. It wasn’t so late on a Friday night that one or two texts would be inconsiderate.

still on for tomorrow?

Yes.

you know you can invite any of your friends to join the artspace

Several minutes passed before he sent a response— no words, just an image of the cover a children’s book, a picture of a forlorn dinosaur upon it. The title said enough on its own.

All My Friends Are Dead

The bottle of wine stayed in its wrapper that night but Titania did have second thoughts about it.

-x-

Finn, as usual, had nothing of value to do on a Friday night once he’d finished a FaceTime session with the kids. He spent several hours working from home, researching some interesting leads that probably wouldn’t go anywhere but at least felt productive. He’d finished off the bottle of Connemara while thinking about going into the artspace, seeing as everyone assured him that all-hours access was genuine. He discarded the idea because he probably wouldn’t enjoy a
scene composed by other people with nothing better to do on a Friday night.

In the end, he took the subway to Fulton Street.

The wind coming up from Battery Park tore at his hair as he walked bareheaded, knowing from the way everyone else passing by had bundled up in layers that his wool coat and light scarf weren’t adequate coverage and yet not feeling the January air. It was only a few blocks to cover anyway before the buildings opened up into a space planted with small trees and the sound of rushing water overlaid the foot traffic. It wasn’t a peaceful place, really; the steady intrusions of helicopters along the waterfront made it feel all too much like a combat zone, or somewhere else with a constant sense of urgency.

The sight no longer took his breath away— a void of light, a sparkling veil draped across a vast hole punched into the ground. Finn walked around the outline of the South Tower until he found their names, grouped together in death just as they’d shared one office until the world came to an end one ordinary Tuesday. As he approached their names, backlit by the waterfall, appeared fully-formed in the darkness.

Sigurd Chalphy

Finn slipped off one glove and ran his fingers over the emptiness of each letter.

Ayra Deradoorian

Levin Cohen

Arden Smith

Alec Williams

Naoise Murphy

And another, and another, and another, etched in light from the waters flowing in their endless fall. Then three more names around the side of the tower, commemorating three-quarters of a family obliterated in a Pennsylvania field. He stood there with his hand over their names, watching the waterfall as it vanished into the great black nothingness beyond the light, until harsh sounds echoing off the remaining buildings dragged his attention skyward. Just another helicopter swooping low among the towers, its ruby lights in the darkness like the eyes of an insect, pointless as an insect in its aggravation.

A single helicopter shouldn’t make him long for a rocket launcher as much as it did. Not here, not now… but maybe in the feelings that flooded him he might find a drop of something good, some diluted remembrance of the pleasure in constructing something, even if the end purpose then was fire and destruction.

“I’m going to make something tonight,” he said to the names. Finn put his glove back on and went in search of a different train from the one that’d brought him there.

To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Seth was used to being the first of their team (as he was beginning to think of their workshop subgroup) to arrive on Saturdays, as Titania had children to handle and Frederick was generally up to something in the mornings that might or might not have to do with his supposed girlfriend. He paused at the entrance to Askr Artspace to read its founding principles, as this was part of his routine there— part of his internal “mission briefing,” so to speak.

The plaque between the door to the kitchenette and the pneumatic mail tube laid out those three principles in deliberately archaic script. First, everyone under the roof of Askr Artspace was a Maker, whether they were writing a novel or building a twenty-foot-tall dragon out of old tires. Second, everyone under the artspace roof was an Equal, with rank and titles and even last names left at the door. Third, everyone at Askr was expected to play an active role in maintaining the safety and harmony in the artspace community.

Part of the reason Seth read that each time he entered was to calibrate himself to deal with some of the members of Askr whose very existence under said roof seemed to run against the third founding principle. None of them were in sight, so Seth continued to his workshop. The music leaking through the closed door wasn’t something he associated with either Titania or Frederick, as Frederick found music a distraction and Titania didn’t listen to anything laden with a thudding beat and a wash of synthesizers.

“Ah, good morning, Seth. I was hoping to ask your advice today on crafting metal fittings for one of these."

Finn appeared to be done with carving that “magical princess staff” that Titania requested for her foster-daughter. It needed only the glass orb on top and other adornments to be finished.

“You’re in early,” said Seth, though really he was fishing for confirmation that this was exactly what it looked like, and what it looked like was someone who’d made it through the night on bad coffee and whatever else could be scavenged from the artspace kitchenette.

“Only since eleven or so,” Finn replied as he shut off the music.

Apparently this was a joke. As Seth wasn’t really a man to make or take jokes (and to be perfectly honest he doubted Finn was either) they stared at one another for an awkwardly elongated moment.

“I don’t know if we’ve warned you in strong enough terms about the hazards of what we call the Night Shift here,” Seth said to break the tension.

“Well. At two in the morning I shared a box of microwaved pizza bites with the juvenile serial murderer known in the press as ‘The Killer Doll’ while several well-known grifters convened a multilateral grifter summit over bowls of cold cereal.”

Seth could picture Niles, Gaius, and Joshua communing over cereal with no difficulty at all.

“The one calling himself Niles said he’s well-acquainted with glass-blowing, or at least that he lost that eye in a glass-blowing mishap,” Finn continued. “He offered to help top off this staff.”

Getting involved with Niles was among the worst things a newcomer to Askr might do.

“He’s not interested in blowing glass and that’s not the story I’ve heard regarding his eye,” Seth said, a touch of heat to his words.

“He’s supposed to deliver the orb sometime tomorrow."

“Well then,” Seth said after letting his breath out slowly. “Let’s see what we can do about those fittings.”

-x-

“Thank you for allowing me to guide you this afternoon. The light in me humbly acknowledges the light in you. Namaste,” said Titania.

Namaste,” echoed the seven students who’d shown up that day. Three men, four women, all close to her own age, all with a particular element in their shared background. Titania’s “Basic Mindfulness” class as offered three times a week aimed to help fellow veterans ease back into civilian life. As exercise went it wasn’t that intense but Titania left the community center with a warm glow radiating out from her heart through her fingertips, one that lasted the brisk walk to the bar that Frederick and the others were at. She reached it at a little past eight o’clock and found… a scene… in progress.

“Lecturing a fool is as pointless as talking to a rock, so your very interest shows I have a valid argument.”

She knew the tall fair-haired man that Seth was staring down all too well. Xander had a furrow carved into his brow that might’ve come from Michelangelo’s own chisel, and Titania thought in a strange way it made him more handsome. He seemed a fallen angel, a tarnished hero… a dark prince. Xander knew that, and dressed the part, and that made him mildly amusing. Mildly. If one forgot to be on guard.

Right now, Xander was bristling with satisfaction, like he thought he’d cornered Seth by some inescapable bit of logic.

“He’s chosen this hill to die on. Oblige him,” said Finn aloud, urging Seth toward the brink of whatever confrontation was brewing.

“I hope I didn’t miss anything,” Titania said, more loudly than she really needed to. Frederick rewarded her with a relieved smile and Seth responded a moment later with a wan attempt at the same. Xander looked her way and bowed slightly.

“It is nothing, madam.”

And he was gone with a final flick of that tailored suit jacket in the color of dried blood.

“No, really. What did I miss?”

“Xander there was… throwing some shade?” When no one objected aloud to Frederick’s slang he cleared his throat and continued. “Throwing some shade at our benefactors.”

“You mean Alfonse and Sharena,” Titania said, meaning the youthful founders of Askr Artspace.

“Yes, of course.”

“Seth did a fine job of shutting him down,” said Finn, who’d returned to his drink as though the overall level of threat that Xander posed didn’t even register. Titania took it upon herself to fill him in.

“Xander is the eldest son of one of the most infamous oligarchs from the former Soviet bloc. He’s rumored to be here as the… I guess you could say the bodyguard… of another oligarch’s heiress.”

“The notion that crossing his path might bring the Russian mafia to one’s doorstep keeps most people in line when it comes to Xander’s activities,” Frederick added. “Seth is one of the few with the… resolve… to ever say aloud what the rest of us think.”

“Good. One should pay no deference to the mafia, Russian or otherwise,” Finn replied.

“Careful,” said Seth then, though his smile seemed a little more natural now. “It’s more sensible for someone who doesn’t have small children at home to stand up in public. I’m not entirely convinced he would cross that line but… he does have henchmen. Alleged henchmen, that is.”

Though Seth’s caution had truth to it— for certain Titania always bit her tongue around Xander lest it somehow boomerang onto, say, Mist— it seemed the experience of tangling with Xander tonight had made her three companions better friends. By the time Titania had finished her second drink, Frederick proposed an adventure. He’d read on one of the local culture blogs of a rare artifact in Lower Manhattan. Seth and Titania both agreed it was something worth seeing it if could be found. Finn said he knew the area but wasn’t familiar with the artifact’s exact location, so Seth and Frederick consulted competing maps on their phone and the hunt was on.

-x-

“It’s not in Battery Park,” Finn said. “Really, it’s not.”

Small pellets of icy precipitation, neither rain nor snow, fell around them. It beaded up on the screen of Titania’s phone as she tried to find their coordinates relative to the artifact they sought.

“But it’s supposed to be—”

“Let’s go back to Brookfield Place,” Seth interrupted Frederick.

They crossed back to the shopping mall, where Frederick insisted they check out the waterfront one more time.

“It might be in one of the ornamental beds, or by that water feature.”

“No and no,” said Seth and Finn in the same moment.

“Can I help you?”

Titania wondered how comical they looked as all four of them turned in one motion toward the security guard.

“We’re seeking out a part of the Berlin Wall,” said Frederick.

The guard just stared at them, his eyebrows forming sharp angles of surprise. Titania suspected he wasn’t much older than Ike. The styled crest of hair beneath his cap looked silver in the lamplight but his smooth cheeks and the high edge of excitement in his voice betrayed his extreme youth.

“What’s it look like?”

A moment of mildly embarrassing silence followed as they realized in the same instant that none of them actually knew what they were looking for.

“It's a slab of broken concrete covered in graffiti,” Finn supplied, and while this answer underscored the somewhat ridiculous nature of their quest it was good enough for the guard.

“So, what’s it from?”

It took a moment for each of them to realize the young man didn’t understand the significance of the Berlin Wall. As it sunk in, one of Seth’s eyebrows quirked upward while Frederick made a “Hm” sound deep in his throat.

“The nation of Germany was partitioned by the Allies at the close of World War Two,” Finn began, and they all took turns filling in the gaps for the boy, round-robin style. By the time Titania had gotten to “Ich bin ein Berliner,” the guard’s flashlight was aimed at an upright slab of concrete next to a construction site’s port-a-john. It showed a bright fragment of a cartoon, a piece of actual art instead of the more spontaneous graffiti that Titania had envisioned.

“This must be it,” she said.

She felt certain they’d passed it by earlier in the evening, mistaking it for some art installation of recent origin. It didn’t have the aura she’d expected of something so storied, but they all paid their respects to it nonetheless while Frederick brought the young guard up to speed on “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and the aftermath.

“I never knew this was so interesting!” said the guard as he took off his hat and ran a hand through that remarkable quiff of hair. “My name’s Silas! Pleasure to meet you all.”

“I think we did a public service in educating that young man,” Seth said as they walked back towards the subway station.

“I think we should do ourselves a service in getting something to eat,” said Titania, which revived the eternal argument between Seth and Frederick over burgers versus ramen. Titania cast a vote for ramen to break the stalemate and they boarded the Brooklyn-bound train.

To Be Continued

Chapter Text

As soon as they took their places on the train, Frederick and Seth began debating again, this time over which ramen place to hit. Titania smiled, shook her head as Seth made his case for the virtues of Sakura’s, and turned toward Finn in case he felt left out of the banter. He stood with one hand tight around a support strap, so still he might have been mistaken for an art installation in his long blue coat and flowing scarf.

“I noticed tonight, both at the bar and when we were out searching for the Wall, that your threat radar seems calibrated a little differently from the rest of us,” she said, as low as she could in the din of the train. By this she meant it was obvious that to Finn, encounters with alleged Russian mobsters were no big deal but the helicopters criss-crossing the skies near Battery Park were potentially hostile.

“You’re the second person to tell me that today,” he replied without looking at her.

“Well. I run a meditation class at one of the community centers that’s geared towards helping people like us recalibrate to civilian life. You’d be welcome anytime.”

“Yoga?” he asked.

“Well, yes, it’s derived from the basics of Hatha. It does include some other elements.”

“I mean no offense, but…” and now he looked at her sidelong. “I already have a faith that I practice. I don’t really need to try on another.”

“Not a problem,” she said and smiled at him in what she hoped was reassurance. “Seth and Frederick said the same thing to me, though in their case I don’t think either of them practices anything any longer…”

“Many don’t, after they come back. If not the first time, then the second, or the third…” and he was staring off in the middle distance again.

Titania kept smiling, hoping to communicate at least some substance of “I know. I’ve seen it. I understand.”

“I appreciate your consideration,” he said after a moment, and Titania by this time knew to look past the phrasing borrowed from formal thank-you letters. “Perhaps… one night, we could take the 6 train through Manhattan. There’s something by City Hall in the spirit of our… treasure hunt… tonight. I think you’d enjoy it.”

“I’d like that,” she said, and this time she didn’t have to force extra meaning into her smile.

-x-

Seth wasn’t exactly a ramen enthusiast but there was a place he favored because it was quiet and the lighting was subdued and it made a pleasant enough experience. The one they went to at Frederick’s urging wasn’t that ramen bar.

Angry Pineapple?”

“The soup is excellent here,” said Titania.

“The soft-boiled eggs have a perfect jammy texture,” added Frederick. In case that wasn’t enough he then said, “And it’s karaoke night.”

“I didn’t realize you enjoyed that,” Seth said as they went into this “edgy” specimen of a ramen bar.

“It can be entertaining,” said Frederick. Seth guessed that a mildly inebriated Frederick might find that appealing, as he couldn’t imagine a sober Frederick enjoying it.

Sure enough, Frederick and Titania agreed to split a bottle of warm sake “to take the edge off the cold” and then went up to the young man running the karaoke stand to reserve their spots. Said young man looked like he’d run straight from a dojo to his restaurant shift.

“I’ve had my two drinks for the night,” Seth said and ordered some green tea. He glanced over at Finn, hoping to find moral support there, but Finn was looking over the whiskey selection. “Have you ever done karaoke?”

“Not in years. I was talked into it a few times in my university days. It was enjoyable… with the right kind of company, anyway.”

“I don’t enjoy watching people make fools of themselves,” Seth said as he watched Titania and Frederick negotiate with the master of ceremonies or whatever that young man with the unruly tail of brown hair thought himself to be. “I’m sorry, I’m just boring that way.”

He probably could’ve sustained another drink, Seth thought, as Finn tossed back a shot of some Japanese whiskey despite having had two beers and a shot at the bar where they’d encountered Xander. Then again, that really had been hours ago. Maybe a drink would take off the edges of this Angry Pineapple so he wouldn’t be thinking of how he really had nothing in his wardrobe as sharp as Frederick’s bolo tie or Finn’s white boots. Or thinking of how he really was boring enough that he didn’t know the names of the songs being performed as they worked their way through those bowls of ramen topped with jammy eggs. He vaguely knew Titania’s first number, a pleasant soft-country song that a young lady of Seth’s acquaintance liked a great deal. He’d at least heard Frederick’s first song once or twice before. Seth was certain he’d never heard or heard of what Finn got up to sing after his second shot of Suntory— some strange tune that managed to be both jangling and sparse and got on Seth’s nerves.

“What is this?"

“I think it’s by Joy Division,” said Titania.

“That’s something bad, isn’t it?”

Titania just shrugged and smiled as the facets of Angry Pineapple’s lone disco ball threw silver sparks over her face. Seth settled back in his chair and watched as Finn plowed through the song with his bangs down over his closed eyes. It looked like an old music video. It reminded Seth that he didn’t have a bolo tie or a pair of eye-catching boots and wouldn’t be able to model either successfully if he did.

Love… love will tear us apart
Again

Seth’s scar itched. He reached for the cup of green tea to find it’d gone cold.

-x-

As drinking companions go, Seth and Frederick weren’t exactly Shinon and Gatrie. Titania was mostly grateful to them for not being her former comrades, but Seth’s refusal to enjoy the music coupled with Frederick’s inability to handle his sake brought the curtain down on karaoke night. They saw Frederick home as a trio and then bid farewell to Seth, and so at the end of the festivities Titania and Finn found themselves standing on the sidewalk outside Frederick’s apartment block.

“Shall we take the 6 train to its end?”

It was past one in the morning, but Titania had exchanged enough surreptitious texts with Mist to know everything was fine on her home front and she knew damn well Finn had taken in whiskey enough that Seth and Frederick would both have been under the table and she felt obliged to keep an eye on him.

“It’s a Saturday night. Why not?”

They caught the first available train back to Manhattan and on the journey across the river, Finn outlined their plan like a mission briefing.

Catch a 6 train and board the final car
Ride the 6 train to Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station
Hide when the train reached the terminus and everyone was asked to exit
Pop up again once the train was in motion and look out the windows on the right-hand side

“And if we get caught?”

“We read about this in a magazine and didn’t know it’s an offense not to exit the train,” Finn replied.

Though, realistically, Titania wasn’t much worried about the subway cops. People who looked like they did had little reason to be.

They executed the first step of the plan with no problems. At that hour, the three other people on the their car weren’t in the best shape and Titania did her best to tune them out before they pulled into Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall. The doors slid open and the other three riders gathered their things and made a raucous but cheerful exit. Titania and Finn remained in their seats at the front of the car for a tense moment, then Titania made a practiced dive for the floor.

“Not on the floor,” Finn whispered from his seat. He’d shrunk back against the wall as though playing invisible. “If we’re down there together, we’ll have a less plausible defense should we be caught.”

“Oh.” Titania hadn’t considered that. But she was already “down there” and any more movement seemed like unnecessary risk, so she waited out the absurdly long time it took for the doors to close again and only raised herself once the train was in motion and Finn slipped over to the window.

“There was something on the intercom just now,” she said as they both peered into the blackness to the right of the tunnel. “Do you think they noticed us?”

“No,” said Finn.

He struck her as far more comfortable than Frederick when it came to committing a low-key infraction like this— less the confidence of someone who assumed he couldn’t get caught but rather the unconcern of someone who assumed getting caught was entirely possible and simply didn’t care.

“I think I heard something about security.”

“They won’t stop the train on our account now,” Finn said, and Titania thought she saw a slight smile reflected in the dark window.

And then she saw the first glimmer in the window, a ribbon of decoration set in the tunnel wall. As the silent car slid around a curved stretch of tracks, Titania glimpsed the secret beneath City Hall— exquisite as the sugared eggs on her grandmother’s Easter table, with softly gleaming tiles and a vaulted ceiling, like some grotto submerged beneath the sea and forgotten.

-x-

Seth felt off-beam as he studied the founding principles of Askr the following morning. He didn’t have a hangover, and theoretically he’d gotten sufficient rest in the night, but Saturday had felt like at least three days in one.

He was not surprised in the least to be alone in the workshop that morning— but evidence said he wasn’t the first to enter the shop since they’d closed it up the evening before.

“I’ll be damned,” Seth muttered.

An orb of red glass, just the right dimension to top a “magic princess staff,” rested on the workspace Finn had claimed by default. The note next to it, recognizably in Niles’s hand, made Seth’s cheeks burn ever so slightly.

“He can’t possibly have made that,” said Seth aloud as he averted his eyes. “It must’ve fallen off the back of a Chinese import barge.”

A silver disk in a scratched jewel-case lay near the orb, and Seth glanced over it, wondering if this also came from Niles. Probably not; it’d been years since he’d seen anyone using a CD-R.

“HEY FINN—

Just a little something I put together so you can broaden your horizons when you’re back in your boring engineering classes. Think of me now and then when you play it… or not!

<3 L.”

The disk had to be more than a decade old. Seth might not be the most dedicated follower of fashion but he knew a virtually obsolete technology when he saw it. He decided to stop being nosy and returned to his own work station, so that he looked both innocent and industrious when Frederick came in with shadowed eyes and a voice hoarse from the awful songs Titania convinced him to sing after one cup of sake too many.

“Back to knitting today?”

Seth felt certain that Frederick could knit in his sleep and wasn’t surprised to see him shying away from needlework or anything else intricate.

“It is a comforting pursuit after an immoderate night,” Frederick admitted. He was slightly off-color but even so, his hands looked remarkably steady.

Seth sighed to himself and went back to working the small flaws out of his left gauntlet. His scar started to itch again.

To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Titania gained three more followers on Instagram after a mood board post inspired by the hidden beauty of the secret subway station. Not that she was keeping up with her follower count obsessively, but since she took such pains to put out positive content, any new followers gave her a warm feeling. Also, with the count at 797 she was closing in on the nice round number of 800.

She checked Frederick’s fitness blog before logging off and noticed he’d not posted any new content in several days.

“I wonder if that’s down to his work schedule… or to Cordelia,” she said to Ranulf, who was curled up in her lap looking smug.

-x-

After the long and odd weekend filled with Artspace people, come Sunday morning Finn had to confront that he hadn’t gone grocery shopping in days. On returning from Mass, he realized the most appealing thing in the cupboard was two frosted cherry Pop-Tarts left over from the box he’d bought for Leif the summer before. They were broken at the edges, stale, and possibly slightly rancid, and so he didn’t even bother to toast them. The milk had gone off as well so he opened a beer so he could wash them down. Finn was mostly done with the first one in the packet when his phone rang.

Titania. He just had her down as “Titania” because they weren’t supposed to know one another’s last names even though he’d figured it out.

“Good morning,” he said, because it was 11:59.

Titania didn’t sound a bit like someone who’d been running around past two AM.

“I have a good friend who runs a food truck and he’s doing a pop-up restaurant in North Williamsburg tonight. I was hoping to drum up the best turnout possible to support him.”

A glimmer of intuition said to Finn that this was both perfectly true and something Titania was telling him so he didn’t feel awkward about being invited to dinner at her friend’s place.

“Sure,” he said, with a downward glance at the crumbled, stale Pop-Tarts on his plate.

He wondered if some similar flicker of intuition on Titania’s end let her know exactly how sad a breakfast he was having at that moment.

-x-

“Miss Titania, y’ain’t lifting a finger in here tonight.”

Thus did Nephenee shoo Titania from the kitchen of the space hosting Oscar’s pop-up.

“Might I at least assist in seating your guests?”

“You wanna sit down with the kids and enjoy tonight. Y’all are guests,” said Nephenee, and Titania had to defer to Oscar’s assistant manager.

Titania made sure that Ike, Mist, and Soren were situated comfortably at a table along with Oscar’s youngest brother. Then she went outside to await Finn in case he had trouble recognizing the location. She needn’t have worried, as Titania spotted him as soon as she stepped outside. Finn held the fairy princess staff he’d crafted for Mist like it was a perfectly normal accessory for a grown man— in clothes evoking a nineteenth-century cavalry officer— on the streets of North Williamsburg.

Only in New York, Titania thought.

“Finn, you didn’t have to bring that all the way here…”

“I finished it this afternoon and felt this should be the opportunity to give it to her,” he replied.

“That’s sweet of you.”

She realized that having the staff in the hands of its recipient would be a positive for him. A mission completed, in a sense.

Finn’s introduction to the children went well enough. Mist’s eyes went saucer-wide over the princess staff, little Rolf asked if Finn was able to make a bow and arrow set (Rolf’s obsession of late), and Soren didn’t attempt to hide that he was sizing Finn up and no doubt making a mental catalogue of everything he found objectionable. Titania noted that Ike also seemed a little wary, but that too was normal when friends out of Askr came around.

Titania selected a small table at a discreet distance from the kids.

“Oscar cherished the dream of running his own food truck for all the time he was cooking for us in Iraq. He’s done well but this is his first pop-up on this scale so it’s quite the special night,” she said, as Finn studied the menu that Nephenee had pressed into his hands.

“He was your food service specialist?”

“No. While Oscar and I both came out of the Army, we actually got to know one another in a contractor group after leaving the service.”

“Base support staff?” Finn almost certainly was picturing Oscar slinging the surprisingly tasty meals served up on the large-scale mess halls. It would’ve been easy to let him believe that.

“More of a private military group supplementing the work of NGOs and working with the local leadership to settle conflicts.”

“Blackwater?”

Titania could see in his eyes the same word that escaped Seth’s lips when she’d revealed to him what she’d done in between leaving the Army and arriving in Brooklyn.

Mercenaries.

Unhindered by a proper code of conduct, serving neither the nation nor its people but the almighty Dollar, agents of disgrace and disorder. Fundamentally less than honorable. Stained forever by the civilian blood of the Nisour Square massacre.

“We were nothing like Blackwater. A lot of what we did made it possible for the NGOs to carry out their humanitarian missions. Our CEO demanded of us the highest standards of behavior and we rose to that. I’ve seen worse from the Peace Corps than ever occurred in our group.”

“I see,” Finn said. The line about the Peace Corps might’ve been a low blow but she could tell it resonated with him. “I would be honored to meet your CEO.”

“I wish you could, but he was killed two years ago. That’s how Oscar and I both found our way to the city.”

“I’m sorry.”

He didn’t have to say more; Titania saw the way the menu crumpled in his fingers before Finn caught himself, smoothed out the creases, and set it down on the table.

“Thank you. It was a gut-punch but I have had the joy and honor of raising his children… continuing his work, really.”

Finn looked over at the table where Ike and Mist sat with their friends, taking them in with a new perspective. Titania found it remarkable the way his eyes let on so much while his face stayed immobile as a mask; she could see the gears turning to assemble every sentence— including the ones he never voiced.

“There was real pressure on Ike to be the man of the family once the commander died, but he was really just a child,” she said as Finn observed the kids. “He’s still a child. I wanted him and Mist to have some semblance of a normal life and friends and hobbies and so far the city’s been good to us. Oscar’s in a similar situation now, raising his two brothers, and I’m glad Ike and Mist have someone like him in their lives, someone who can demonstrate that a good man spends time baking cookies and packing school lunches and not just working on his kill count.”

“I worry a great deal about the children not having a mother in their lives, all the more so since my aunt passed on,” he replied, still focused on the other side of the room. “There are times, especially with Nanna, where I feel my lack of… qualifications. And with Leif, there’s always that sense of being a replacement for the parents he should’ve had, the knowledge that one is a…”

“A parent with an asterisk?”

Titania wondered how long it had been since Nanna’d had a mother in her life, but if she asked that, Finn might in turn ask what transpired to leave Ike and Mist motherless, and she really didn’t want to go spiraling down that rabbit hole on what was supposed to be an evening celebrating Oscar’s talents. Right now it was enough to share a contemplative space with someone who understood the subtle shadow that lingered over Titania’s day whenever a store clerk or school volunteer said “your daughter” or fancied some resemblance between her and Mist.

“Y’all ready to order?”

“Not quite, Nephenee,” Titania said. “I’m afraid we’ve been… ruminating.”

“No y’aint. That’s what cows do and y’all have nothing to chew yet. I’m here to fix that.”

Titania then got to watch the delightfully uncomfortable way that Nephenee extracted an order from Finn, who proved as diffident about food choices as he did when they were out with Frederick and Seth. Titania had to translate when Finn and Nephenee were mutually unintelligible to one another.

“Honey, nobody doesn’t mind if there’s cilantro or not. I’d best leave it off if you don’t know if you like it.”

With the order placed, Titania steered the conversation to happier subjects.

“So we were thinking of going up to Massachusetts for a festival there in May that doesn’t frown on including fantastic elements in one’s take on medieval times. Seth’s suit of armor should be ready by then, and Frederick can get by on his armor from last year, but I don’t see that mine will have made it off the drawing board. I’ve come up with another idea…”

Plans for the Robin Hoods Faire took them through three courses of the meal— and a fine example that was of Oscar’s comfort food seasoned by his experiences in Mesopotamia. Titania was contemplating a baklava-inspired cheesecake for dessert when Finn’s phone went off.

“Kids?”

“Work.” The hollow sound in his voice matched the abrupt change in his eyes. “I must leave. I’m sorry…”

“He skipped out on you?” asked Nephenee when she came to take the dessert order.

“I wouldn’t say he skipped,” said Titania, as Finn gave her enough to cover the bill and gratuities before he left.

“That’s the new artspace guy?” asked Oscar, who’d arrived to hear Titania’s assessment of the evening’s fare.

“That was.”

“He seemed pretty intense. Nice boots, though. Is that like his cosplay thing?”

“No, he actually goes about like that on a regular basis.”

Nephenee let out a snort.

“You found yourself another fancy one, Miss Titania. Where do these people come from?”

“Where, indeed,” said Titania.

She felt eyes upon her back and wasn’t surprised to glance over and see Soren watching, hands propped under his chin, with the hooded gaze of a lizard in wait.

-x-

A tattered notebook, singed along one edge, lay open on the kitchen table next to an empty glencairn glass. Finn wasn’t thinking now about the names inscribed there, whether crossed off or untouched after ten, twelve, thirteen years. He wasn’t thinking about whether or not that evening’s work would make the morning papers, because few wanted to know anymore about what was going on in that part of the world.

He most certainly wasn’t asking himself if crossing off one more name would make a difference in the long run. Too tense to consider going to sleep, too weary to do anything useful… he was tempted to just turn on the television for some low noise and crash out on the couch.

An image materialized in his brain and after a moment he connected it with Titania’s ideas for a costume to wear to that fair in May. He hadn’t quite visualized her plan at the time, but now…

Finn tore a sheet of graphing paper from the old notebook and began to sketch out a design, simple but classic in its symmetry, evoking the sunflowers over the plains where Titania’s foremothers made their home.

to be continued

Chapter Text

A knight in shining armor. That’s what Seth saw in the mirror, at least from the waist up, now that his cuirass, gorget, and spaulders were fit to wear. He flexed both hands, now encased in the hybrid gauntlets he’d made as a concession to the imperfections of his craft, with his wrists and the backs of his hands protected by steel while only leather sheathed his fingers.

Incomplete. Bastardized. Far from accurate to any place or time. And yet, this represented an achievement so far beyond his previous attempts that Seth felt his pride in it entirely deserved. Behind him at his workspace lay both completed tassets, soon to be suspended from looped belts. He’d just have to finish everything from the knees down to be ready for the festival that Titania had committed them to in May, and right now that seemed…

“Incredible.”

Seth wheeled around to see Frederick in the doorway.

“In what sense?” Seth asked, because being something of a pedant whose friends and comrades were generally also pedants, he knew that the words “fabulous,” “fantastic,” and “incredible” did not necessarily have a positive meaning.

“It’s magnificent,” said Frederick as he circled Seth to examine him from every angle. “So we’ll complement that with bases and perhaps a mantle?”

“A short one,” Seth said, knowing and dreading Frederick’s weakness for rich fabrics and embroidery.

The fantastical suit of armor he’d helped Frederick assemble last year— a disaster in terms of actual defense, and truth be told something of an aesthetic disaster in Seth’s own eyes— proved a fair example of what would happen when Frederick let his own tastes run rampant and Seth vowed his own armor wouldn’t suffer that fate.

“And you’re planning to forego a helmet?”

“I don’t see that it’ll be ready in time and right now it seems like too much trouble,” Seth replied. “It’s not as though I plan to take part in a joust.”

“Hello?”

Askr’s office manager poked her head, adorned with a jaunty red ponytail, into their workshop.

“Hm? Is something the matter, Anna?” asked Frederick.

“That depends. How many raffle tickets are you planning to buy?”

“What’s the cause?” asked Seth as he eyed the roll of gold tickets she thrust at them.

“Paying the rent!”

Seth and Frederick, both familiar with Anna’s schemes to drum up additional funding for the artspace, did not bother to ask what the trouble was this month. There always was trouble in Askr’s bottom line.

“The grand prizes are two sets of tickets to a restful spa weekend in romantic Gatineau.” Her French pronunciation was atrocious.

“Is that in France?” asked Frederick. He sounded hopeful that it might be.

“Almost as good! French Canada.”

This was not “almost as good” as Paris or the Riviera and Frederick’s crestfallen expression made that clear.

“I’ll take ten tickets,” Seth said regardless, feeling as he reached for his wallet that he was going to regret this. He had only the faintest glimmer of an idea as to what he might do on a spa weekend, a glimmer that most likely deserved to be banished from his brain.

Frederick then bought twenty tickets. Anna, now grinning at her takings, found another target to hit up for money waiting in the doorway.

“Finn, how many tickets are you buying? Grand prize is a romantic weekend in Quebec.”

“The last time I took a holiday in Quebec, I…” Finn stopped himself and shook his head. “No, thank you.”

“Next time’s the charm,” Anna said, unfazed as ever at a customer’s lack of interest. Only when Finn purchased five tickets did she relent and move on to shake down somebody else.

“Why does a subscription here feel like involvement in a protection racket?” asked Finn as he settled into his work station.

“It’s not as though most of the artists here have anything resembling a steady income,” said Seth. “Anna knows to make the most of those of us with actual day jobs.”

Seth wanted to ask what the story was on Finn’s previous holiday in Quebec, but instead he said, “Finn, what’s your feeling on L’Arachel St. John?”

“Sorry?”

“As our accompaniment this afternoon.”

Seth was hoping for another vote in favor of his favorite radio show, but instead Finn held up a pair of headphones, indicating he planned to keep to his own soundtrack while he worked on a new project that vaguely resembled a Celtic Cross.

“Not a fan?” asked Frederick, with perhaps an excess of polite caution.

“We attended school together. Briefly. That was more than enough exposure.”

Once Finn had his back turned and his headphones blocking them out, Frederick turned to Seth with a bemused look and Seth could only shake his head. His own life progression from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to their current whereabouts in Brooklyn could hardly be termed linear, but Finn kept dropping hints to some incredibly convoluted backstory… and Seth wasn’t entirely sure which connotation of incredible was more appropriate.

“Any plans for Valentines’s Day?” Seth asked Frederick once the L’Arachel St. John show went to commercial break.

“I’ve a lovely evening with Cordelia planned to the last detail save one.”

“And what detail is that?”

“Whether I should ask her The Question or not.”

“That’s a detail on which the entire evening might turn,” Seth said after a moment to digest the import of this statement.

Seth felt his gaze drawn then to the picture he’d not managed yet to take down, the snapshot of Natasha a summer ago, before he’d asked a similar Question and she’d turned him down to follow her calling.

“Frederick, if I may… Valentine’s Day might not be the occasion for that. You may want to ask in a setting that’s less public. In a lower key. Less of an… ordeal, overall.”

“I do have some concerns on that front,” Frederick agreed. “Service is often quite spotty on Valentine’s Day and the evening might be off-kilter as a consequence.”

“Exactly,” said Seth, not because Frederick actually understood him exactly but because Frederick understood him enough.

But Frederick, being Frederick, felt the need to canvass the room in spite of the obvious red flags against his plan.

“Finn, do you think I should propose to Cordelia on Valentine’s Day itself or a later date with less fuss around it?”

Finn hit the stop button on his CD player and slowly turned around.

“I’m afraid I don’t know enough of her to have a sense that you should be proposing at all.”

“I love her.”

Seth had to suppress a wince; Frederick sounded like an actor giving a bad line reading in a college drama-troupe play. Finn, to his credit, wasn’t buying it either.

“That in itself may not be sufficient. Beyond that, given I’ve never met her it would hardly be for me to say.”

Before Frederick could form an answer to this, they heard the familiar bustle of Titania’s arrival.

“Seth, change the station to WNYC.” Before Seth could begin to lodge a protest, Titania continued, “They’re doing an interview with Alfonse.”

Seth tuned into the station just in time to catch a complete question.

“Alfonse, what role do you think an independent makerspace can play in driving cultural change?”

Alfonse gave an answer both idealistic and thoughtful and thankfully free of jargon about “disruption” and other Silicon Valley nonsense. As Askr’s co-founder discussed accessibility of new technology and the importance of connecting local artists and manufacturers to local merchants, Seth found himself nodding in approval.

“What a marvelous young man,” Titania said through a beaming smile when the interview ended.

Seth almost said what a pity it was that Askr’s revenue model right now involved selling raffle tickets to their own “makers” but he decided discretion was the better part of valor there. Instead he watched out of the corner of his eye as Titania went to Finn’s work station to engage in some close conversation regarding that Celtic Cross project Finn had in front of him. It was, apparently, for Titania herself. There’d be flowers involved.

The glimmer in the back of Seth’s brain felt like a shard of glass.

-x-

Titania proved fully in favor of Frederick asking The Question on Valentine’s Day itself.

“If that’s what’s truly in your heart, Frederick, don’t hesitate.”

With this momentous issue settled (at least for now), discussion turned to where they might go that evening to unwind after another day of diligent crafting. Titania advocated for a new club she described as a “pop-up art installation”— more jargon to Seth’s ears, but Frederick, flushed with optimism over his upcoming proposal, proved amenable to the suggestion and Finn likewise followed Titania’s lead.

So they went to a place drenched in black light with the walls papered in custom wheat-paste posters like so many grungy old pinups; Seth felt he might get a disease from touching the walls. Thankfully they took a free-standing table away from the walls and other patrons.

“They have karaoke here, even on weeknights,” Frederick said above the din, and Seth sipped his drink to avoid saying anything untoward.

Right now a sort-of DJ played selections off a laptop.

“This is New Order, isn’t it?” Titania shouted to Finn. When he nodded, she called back, “We should dance."

Titania had bothered to learn the name of one of the bands on Finn’s ancient CD-R. Seth watched them head to the dance floor and felt… strange. Passing strange.

“Do you suppose they’re becoming an item?” he asked Frederick.

“Hm.” Frederick cocked his head to consider the black-lit dancers. “He wears lilac-colored trousers and was listening to the Pet Shop Boys the other day. I think not.”

“That’s a stereotypical thing to say, Frederick,” Seth replied, though both observations were accurate. “He does have that daughter. I believe he was married at one point.”

“At one point. What was that he said about love not being reason enough to enter into a marriage?”

“There did seem to be something behind it,” Seth agreed.

And so they put aside the question of what was going on with Titania and Finn and they drank to the success of Frederick’s upcoming proposal, whether Seth’s heart fully endorsed the plan or not.

-x-

Sunday morning yoga workshops offered Titania a chance to expand her horizons, to acquire new skills that would benefit herself and her students. This weekend they focused on the practice of Yin, a style unfamiliar to Titania that promised deep effects on the fascial tissue and even down to the bone. In the flickering candlelight of an otherwise darkened room, Titania sank into Dragon pose for fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, forty-five…

“As the joints open up and release, you may feel a flood of emotions,” the instructor said through the wavering light. “If you start laughing or even crying in class, just go with it. Release. Let it out.”

Titania felt the power in stillness, felt the heat at her core, the way something in her groin opened, even blossomed, bringing with it a warm tide of feeling. Borne along on that tide, Titania laughed into the darkness.

to be continued

Chapter Text

three months later

As a girl growing up in the heartland, Titania dreamed of the beach— not the still blue lakes of family vacations with the odd trout leaping out of the water, but the ocean that girdled the world with its crashing waves and moon-governed tides, leaping dolphins and far-ranging albatrosses. The sight that met her eyes now would’ve disappointed her younger self. Brown mud flats, dingy sand, and a vast expanse of rubbish exposed by the lead-gray tide at its ebb… this was Plumb Beach, or Plum Beach. The signage didn’t agree.

At least the kiteboarder skimming the water with his red-and-white sail seemed to be having a good time. So did the juvenile seagull making a lunch by dropping clam shells from high onto the rocks. Titania smiled at its antics and turned to face her comrades.

“This is the actual place.”

Her claim met with one thoughtful frown, one skeptical half-smile, and one stare of blank resignation.

“I would not hazard to come here at night without a thorough clean-up of this beach,” said Frederick.

“I wouldn’t hazard to come here at all,” said Seth. He prodded a discarded nitrile glove with the tip of his boot. “This place needs a haz-mat crew.”

“The only horseshoe crabs in evidence now are dead ones,” Finn added.

It hadn’t helped that Titania’s coordinates for “Plumb Beach” directed them at first to the wrong side of Sheepshead Bay, where the crescent-moon curve of Manhattan Beach looked relatively inviting but offered no horseshoe crabs, living or dead. The hike from one point to the other chewed up three-quarters of an hour on this Saturday spent away from everything else they were supposed to be doing to get ready for the Faire. Still, they’d made it, and if she looked past the trash, the salt wind in her face felt refreshing. Titania walked a length of the beach to get the lay of the land in daylight, as the horseshoe crabs would indeed only be out under cover of darkness and she didn’t particularly want to face-plant into the mud at three in the morning— especially not in front of Soren.

Once she was satisfied, she found an attractive spot along the tall grasses that fringed the beach and took a seat to watch the surging water. Her body settled into a proper contemplative pose and Titania began to relish the stillness as she checked in with her body and heart. As she catalogued each sensation, taking note that her shoulders were a trifle stiff but her calves felt especially strong, Finn seated himself alongside her and they sat in what felt to her like a comfortable silence.

“One could almost imagine this to be the very edge of the continent,” Titania said once she was done checking in on her status.

“When I first moved here I’d take the train to Montauk on chilly days for that feeling of solitude,” Finn replied. “Wishing, I suppose, that there could be a way to forget some things.”

“I’m excited to be able to show the children the horseshoe crabs but I’m not altogether sorry to have stumbled on Manhattan Beach. It looked like a fine place for a family to spend the day,” Titania said after a time. “I’d somehow expected some sleek hipster spot with live music and cocktails. The name just has that sound to it.”

“Does it? To me, it summons up echoes of a nuclear winter. On the Beach, the Manhattan Project…” Finn’s eyes followed the seagull as it split another plump clam upon the rocks. “The sound of ‘Manhattan’ always had some menace to it, to me, even before…”

“You surprise me with how much you reflect on nuclear war,” she said into the void of his unfinished sentence.

“I suppose I grew up in it. Two unchanging facts of life when I was a child were that a wall ran through Berlin and that we were locked in a battle to the death against the Soviet bloc. Now there’s pieces of that wall scattered across Manhattan. As to the other…”

“Hang on. The Berlin Wall came down when I was in kindergarten. I can hardly remember it, and you have to be several years younger than I am. How would it loom that large in your childhood?”

“I’m thirty-four,” he replied. “I was nine at the time.”

“You don’t look it,” was all she could say. She’d taken note of offhand remarks over the past few months that indicated he must at least be older than Frederick but even so Titania had trouble believing that.

“It’s been advantageous at times,” he acknowledged.

“Advantageous how?” Part of Titania wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“In the ‘hello, fellow radical teenagers, please include me in your plans for blowing up the federal building’ kind of way.”

“Infiltrating radical groups isn’t the usual line of work for the Corps of Engineers.”

“I’ve done a lot of things over the years,” Finn replied, and his eyes went clouded for a moment before focusing on something beyond Titania’s shoulder. “Frederick, that is medical waste. Stop.”

Titania whipped around to see what behavior Finn might be objecting to this time. Frederick had one of the innumerable plastic bags that cluttered the shore in his hand and it now bulged with trash, including old nitrile gloves.

“Really, Frederick, we don’t have the gear for this,” she said. “Seth had a point about the haz-mat suit.”

“We can’t leave the shoreline in this condition. It’s a threat to the public!”

“Right now you’re the public and it’s a threat to your own health,” said Finn as he rose to his full height. “It’s one thing when you go through the kitchenette at Askr and throw out perfectly good food, but now you’re just being ridiculous.”

The comment about the kitchenette left Frederick open-mouthed and Titania took advantage of that to step between them.

“We’ll put in a call to the people that can deal with this safely,” she said. “Let’s find a bin to dispose of what you already have there.”

-x-

Seth stood on the shoreline at Plumb Beach until the tide came in just enough to seep around his boots. Its grimness and grime matched that bleak space in his soul that he’d not managed to fully reckon with yet. Part of him wondered if he should even keep up his artspace involvement after the Faire, as the improvements it brought to his craft weren’t being matched by a similar benefit to the self. Artspace days had taken on their own oddly suspended reality in which they met and connected and went their separate ways with no deeper development stemming from each disjointed misadventure.

Ten weeks past Valentine’s Day, Seth had no idea if Frederick had gotten a yes or no from Cordelia, or even if Frederick actually asked that fated question as planned. Ten weeks on from having joined at Titania’s urging an awkwardly platonic Valentine’s outing with her and Finn, Seth wasn’t entirely sure what was going on there.

He’d positioned himself so as not to see them sitting on the beach together. Only when he heard Titania’s voice ringing down the shoreline did Seth turn around.

“We’re headed back, Seth.”

On the way to the bus stop they passed a dead songbird on the sidewalk. Finn identified it as a black-and-white warbler and Titania and Frederick agreed it must be given a proper disposal in a flower bed instead of being left to rot on the street. Seth watched this small, sad ritual without comment yet felt moved in some strange way by the gesture. Perhaps these fleeting moments of watching the others process the world were reason enough to stay.

They arrived back at Askr to find one of the new members, a young lady named Robin (not to be confused with the young man named Robin who’d been a member far longer), out on the sidewalk with a cigarette in her hand.

“Why do the four of you always go around together like characters in some pathetic TV show?” she growled at them.

“It’s good to have friends,” Frederick said with phenomenal warmth in the face of scorn. “You should make the attempt some time.”

“Oh, more of that ‘bonding’ nonsense.” Robin raised her cigarette hand, which featured a tattoo of some occult design on the back, and blew smoke in Frederick’s direction.

Seth took Frederick by the arm and drew him away as Frederick coughed.

“I don’t know why they permit people like that—”

“Congratulations, Seth!”

Several flashes went off in his face as Seth stepped into the entrance. As he blinked through the spots in his vision, Seth realized he’d been surrounded by Askr co-founders Alfonse and his sister Sharena, Anna the manager, and many long-term members of the artspace.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand…”

“You’ve won the grand prize in the raffle,” said Sharena. She practically bounced on her toes as she said it.

“We’re so happy for you,” added Alfonse, more restrained than his sister but smiling broadly as he shook Seth’s hand.

“Four deluxe passes to the finest spa on the continent,” Anna said as she presented Seth with an oversized enveloped marked with an ornate red seal amid a blizzard of cameraphone flashes. “All you have to do is make sure you post about it on social media with the required hashtags… and arrange for your own transportation and incidentals, of course.”

“I don’t use any social media…” Seth looked at Titania and Frederick because he knew that they did. He wasn’t panicking. Of course he wasn’t. Seth didn’t panic.

He’d known he was going to regret paying into Anna’s extortion fund.

-x-

They rarely shut the door to their workshop but today Seth made an exception. After the hullabaloo of his “winnings” it felt necessary to block the world out for a while while he and Finn looked over the costumes assembled for the Faire. Seth's suit of armor, now about ninety-five percent complete, hung upon a mannequin, as did Frederick’s armor and Titania’s rustic costume.

“I like the colors, even if the style is a bit… extravagant,” Finn was saying of Frederick’s armor. Seth agreed the ice blue and white did please the eye even as its curves and angles offended.

“We haven’t seen your contribution yet,” Seth said then, for they hadn’t seen Finn working on a single item intended for his own use to date, though he’d been pressed into service for more than woodworking at this point. This afternoon he’d been working the glue gun to add flowers to Titania’s headdress.

“It didn’t need any real attention,” Finn said, which left the essence of his costume a mystery. “Perhaps taking in the Faire with you three will inspire me to something more substantial.”

“No doubt.” Seth pulled the prize from its envelope again and looked it over. “I can’t believe these landed in my lap.”

Nor could he completely believe, in the disorienting aftermath of winning, that he’d extended the prize to his three comrades… the very comrades he’d pondered leaving only a few hours before.

“We’ll take on the Faire and then onward to Quebec, I suppose,” Seth said as he stowed the certificate again.

“It should be an experience,” said Finn. “Perhaps we may even meet Frederick’s Canadian girlfriend.”

“How did you ferret out that Cordelia’s from Canada— ah, yes,” Seth corrected himself as he remembered this cliche. “The classic ruse of the girlfriend in Canada.”

“I may have employed that myself at points in my life,” Finn admitted through a faint smile. “With varying degrees of truthfulness.”

Seth took a moment to digest this confession, both in the context of Finn’s suggestion that Frederick’s never-glimpsed girlfriend might not even exist and against the backdrop of Frederick’s own past comments on lilac trousers and synth-pop bands.

“Robin may’ve had a point about us,” Seth said aloud. Maybe in a stopped-clock way, maybe in the way that a blind pig might stumble across a truffle. Something about this all felt scripted, or as a part in some grand design, and it’d been many years since Seth put his faith in any manner of Designer.

to be continued